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Earth-sized Exoplanet is in Nearby Star’s Habitable Zone! September 29, 2010

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Gliese 581d

(From Universe Today) An enticing new extrasolar planet found using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii is just three times the mass of Earth and it orbits the parent star squarely in the middle of the star’s “Goldilocks zone,” a potential habitable region where liquid water could exist on the planet‘s surface. If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one. The discoverers also say this finding could mean our galaxy may be teeming with prospective habitable planets.

“Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet,” said Steven Vogt from UC Santa Cruz. “The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common.”

Vogt and his team from the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey actually found two new planets around the heavily studied red dwarf star Gliese 581, where planets have been found previously. Now with six known planets, Gliese 581 hosts a planetary system most similar to our own. It is located 20 light years away from Earth in the constellation Libra.

The most interesting of the two new planets is Gliese 581g, with a mass three to four times that of the Earth and an orbital period of just under 37 days. Its mass indicates that it is probably a rocky planet with likely enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere.

For more go to the rest of the article at Universe Today.

OPEN HOUSE SUCCESS! September 26, 2010

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Friday’s open house at the EIU Observatory was a success. We had 254 visitors from 8:30PM until we closed up the dome at 11:00.

Special thanks to three people.  Maggie who manned the main 16″  telescope and was explaining the wonders of Jupiter to all 254 people, I hope she is able to speak today! Tyler was in the control room and had  set up the computers to show the recent observations of asteroid rotation. Finally Hannah was outside with the 8″ scope entertaining the people waiting in line.

Open House at the Observatory Tonight! September 24, 2010

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EIU Observatory

It’s the last Friday of the month and the first Friday of Autumn! Time for the open house. Weather cooperating the target for tonight is Jupiter. It’s in opposition to the sun (in the sky ~180 degrees from the Sun), which mean it is also closest to the Earth. So Jupiter will not look any better until next year. So come on out, viewing begins at 8:30.

Attendees will be able to look through the observatory’s state-of-the-art, 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Even if it’s cloudy, the observatory will be open for tours.

Eastern’s observatory is located southwest of the Campus Pond. A map is available online at http://www.eiu.edu/~physics/campusmap.pdf.

Happy Autumnal Equinox! September 23, 2010

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Even though the temperature was in the 90’s, today is the beginning of astronomical autumn. The autumnal equinox occurred at 3:09 am UTC today. An equinox occurs twice a year, when the Earth’s axis is perpendicular to the Sun.  The name “equinox” is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because around the equinox, the night and day are approximately equally long.

The exact time is determined when the Sun passes through a special point in the sky, as shown below.

Relative to the distance stars the Sun follows a path in the sky, due to the orbit of the Earth called the ecliptic. There is also a line in the sky called the celestial equator, which is the projection of the Earth’s equator into the sky.  These two paths that circles in the sky intersect at two points, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. When the sun travels through these points we have the official beginning of spring and autumn.

Tomorrow: Jupiter and the Observatory Open House

The Secrets of Star Birth: A New Podcast Sponsored by EIU Physics September 19, 2010

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Description: Everyone knows where babies come from — but what about baby stars? NASA science writer and blogger Daniel Pendick talks to astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman about the hidden process of star formation and what we will learn from new observatories and instruments now coming online. The Herschel Space Observatory, for example, recently confirmed that stars form along ragged filaments of collapsing gas cloud, “like beads on a string.” And a massive radio telescope under construction in the Atacama Desert of Chile will give us our first close long at the planet-forming zone of young solar systems.

Bio: Daniel Pendick is a science writer and blogger at Goddard Space Flight Center. His “Geeked On Goddard” blog takes an irreverent insider’s look at science and engineering at Goddard. [If you want more…] His writing has appeared in Astronomy, New Scientist, Earth, Scientific American Presents, and many other science and medical publications and websites.

Jennifer Wiseman, a NASA astrophysicist, currently heads the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where she is the incoming senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. From 2003 to 2006, she served as the program scientist for the Hubble at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. She received her bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT and her Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard University in 1995. Wiseman discovered periodic comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff while working as an undergraduate research assistant in 1987.

WE ARE NOW OBSERVATORY H20! September 16, 2010

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EIU Observatory

Good news! Due to the wonderful work of Tyler Linder and the other students at Eastern  we now have our own registered observatory code (H20) for the EIU observatory. Observatory codes are assigned by the Minor Planet Center (a service of the International Astronomical Union) for use in cataloguing astrometric observations of solar-system objects.

Astronomy Club Meeting Tonight (but at U of I) September 15, 2010

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The astronomy club is meeting …but we are taking a road trip, 50 miles north to the U of I campus, to listen to the annual Icko Iben Jr. Distinguished Lecture in Astronomy.

The 2010 Icko Iben Jr. Distinguished Lecture in Astronomy will be delivered by Dr. Tony Tyson, Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of California, Davis. In his lecture, “Exploring the Dark Side of the Universe,” Prof. Tyson will discuss one of the most intriging mysteries in astronomy today. The talk will be at 7:00pm on September 15th in Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois. This event is free and open to the public.

First Science from the 30″ Robo-scope! September 14, 2010

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On September 5th,  you saw first light.  This week we’ll talk about the first science measurements. The main research carried out at ARI and EIU with the 32″ scope and the 24″ scope are the search and measurement of  Near Earth Objects (NEO).  Just finding these objects are not enough, you must also precisely measure the changes of the position (astrometry) as the asteroid moves. These measurements determine the orbit, and allows astronomers to trace the future path of any asteroid. Below is a typical set of stacked photos from a CCD camera. The streaks are stars, caused by the rotation of the Earth, and the dot in the center is the asteroid (not moving with the stars).

Now after you take several of these photos and use a computer program like Astrometrica to analyze the data, you file a report at the Minor Planet Center at Harvard, the world clearinghouse for this data. So the data what’s it look like….(The first data from the new scope)

CON R. Holmes, 7168 NCR 2750E, Ashmore, IL 61912 USA
CON [ari@astro-research.org]
OBS R. Holmes
MEA R. Holmes
TEL 0.76-m f/6.8 Cassegrain + CCD
ACK Batch 001
AC2 ari@astro-research.orgK10R82M  C2010 09 13.15907423 39 23.63 +00 19 10.0          18.3 V      H21
K10R82M  C2010 09 13.16194523 39 22.39 +00 18 07.2          17.9 V      H21
K10R82M  C2010 09 13.16486023 39 21.12 +00 17 03.6          18.0 V      H21
K10R82M  C2010 09 13.16792823 39 19.78 +00 15 56.8          18.1 V      H21
K10R82M  C2010 09 13.17080923 39 18.51 +00 14 54.1          17.6 V      H21
K10R82M  C2010 09 13.17502023 39 16.67 +00 13 23.3          18.3 V      H21

The first lines tell the observatory code (H21) fro the Astronomical Research Institute. A few line down you see the telescope; a 0.76-meter in diameter f/6.8 RC Cassegrain + CCD Camera. You see that Bob Holmes was both the observer( who took the picture ) and the person who measured the data. Then comes the data:

K10R82M  C2010 09 13.15907423 39 23.63 +00 19 10.0          18.3 V      H21

K10R82M is the name of the asteroid,  2010 09 13.15907423 is the time of the measurement, and the position of the asteroid in Declination and Right Ascension are 39 23.63  and +00 19 10.0, followed by the apparent magnitude of 18.3. You need at LEAST 3 of these measurements to get an orbit.

So the telescope is all set? Not quite.

I’ll show you three more pictures,  and in Bob Holmes (Director of Astronomical Research Institute)  words show what to look for when you install a new telescope:


From Bob Holmes:

“Attached are three images taken with the 30” HOU telescope.

M57_2 (Ring Nebula)

This is an image from the 30″ telescope last night, a 1 minute exposure on M57_2. There were some thin clouds moving in during this exposure.  Images have not been flat fielded, but the camera is very clean and we have no vignetting of the image field so this is not a significant factor.

Note the primary mirror is not sitting correctly in the cell or the plungers are not tightened equally around the Cassegrain hole causing the malformed star images.  This may be a little worse in this image due to a warm mirror relative to the outside air temp.  There may also be some collimation errors adding to this distortion.  I will be working on these issues in the next day or so.Correcting this will increase the limiting magnitude better than the 20.8 in M57.

There is also a misalignment in the OTA to DEC axis (does not affect image quality) causing error in pointing by several arc minutes from one part of the sky to another.  This will require re-shimming the tower that holds the secondary to perpendicularity.


Image 2 is M13_1 with a one minute exposure reaching about a unfiltered magnitude 20.0.  Due to the size of the target in the image, the scale was reduced to show the entire object.  This was taken on 2010 09 13.  As you can see the star shapes are a little better due to the mirror cooling nearer the outside ambient air temp.

M27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

Image 3 is M27_1 with a one minute exposure reaching about unfiltered magnitude 20.2.  Due to the size of the target in the image the scale was reduced to show the entire object.  This was taken on 2010 09 13. ”
Bob Holmes


So we still need to tweak the alignment, then we install the cooling fans, to cool down and keep the primary mirror at ambient temperature, (otherwise the mirror expands and changes focus).  Then more photos to see if anything needs to be done but by October everything should be fine…..weather permitting.

Two asteroids to pass by Earth Today (Wednesday) September 8, 2010

Posted by jcconwell in Asteroid, Asteroids.
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(PhysOrg and Universe Today): The Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Ariz., discovered both objects on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 5, during a routine monitoring of the skies. The Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., first received the observations Sunday morning, determined preliminary orbits and concluded that both objects would pass within the distance of the  about three days after their discovery.

Two asteroids orbital path

Asteroids 2010 RX 30 and 2010 RF12 will make their closest approach to Earth this Wed. At time of closest approach for 2010 RX 30 (2:51 a.m. PDT), it will be approximately 154,000 miles (about 248,000 kilometers) above the North Pacific, south of Japan. At time of closest approach for 2010 RF12 30 (2:12 p.m. PDT ), the asteroid will be approximately 49,088 miles (about 79,000 kilometers) above Antarctica.

Near-Earth  2010 RX30 is estimated to be 32 to 65 feet (10 to 20 meters) in size and will pass within 0.6 lunar distances of Earth (about 154,000 miles, or 248,000 kilometers) at 2:51 a.m. PDT (5:51 a.m. EDT) Wednesday. The second object, 2010 RF12, estimated to be 20 to 46 feet (6 to 14 meters) in size, will pass within 0.2 lunar distances (about 49,088 miles or 79,000 kilometers) a few hours later at 2:12 p.m. PDT (5:12 pm EDT).


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First light images on the 30″ Scope taken August 28.These were both about 20 second exposures. To give you an idea of brightness, the center white dwarf star in the ring nebula is about 15th magnitude.

M57 the Ring Nebula

M57 the Ring Nebula

Great Globular Cluster in Hercule, M13

Now the work begins to calibrate the telescope, but we have a starting point now.  The RC optics are a bit picky to get  aligned after reassembly. We now also can do a full polar alignment of the mount. These