Observatory Logbook: The Return of Leesann

Episode 197. Monday the 26th of May 2014.
Hosts: Jesse, Lianne, Shah
Title: Observatory Logbook: The Return of Leesann
Leesann having left York University after graduating, has returned to volunteer at the Observatory in her spare time. We welcome her back with open arms! We chatted about the shrinking (not so) Great Red Spot on Jupiter, and the dud of a meteor shower Camelopardalids, which Lianne was able to say without fumbling. Thanks for listening all; podcast and show notes below.

This week in space/astronomy history:
1. May 26th 1973: America’s first space station, Skylab, was launched on May 14th 1973 (as discussed by Jen on the last show). The first manned mission to Skylab, called Skylab 2, was launched on this date in history. This is also notable for being the first crew to return safely to Earth from a space station. A total of 3 manned missions to the space station, each with a three-astronaut crew, were performed up until it was ultimately abandoned in February 1974. Many experiments were performed on the shuttle but the most notable discovery is the presence of coronal holes (colder and less dense regions) in the Sun. Skylab re-entered Earth and disintegrated upon entry in 1979.
2. May 28th 1971: Mars 3, USSR Mars Orbiter/Soft Lander, launched. This is exactly 9 days after its twin Mars 2, which ultimately crash landed. Mars 3 arrived at Mars on December 2nd 1971 and became the first spacecraft to ever achieve a soft landing on Mars. The purpose of the mission was to study surface topography, analyze soil composition, and to measure properties of the Martian atmosphere.
3. May 30th 1971: Mariner 9, USA Mars Orbiter, launched. It arrived at Mars on  November 14, 1971. This, of course, was part of the Mariner space program which a program designed to investigate Mars, Venus and Mercury. Mariner 9, was set to Mars, and upon arrival,  Scientists were surprised to find  that the atmosphere thick with “a planet-wide robe of dust, the largest storm ever observed.” This was the first US spacecraft to enter an orbit around a planet other than the Moon — the previous Mariner missions were flybys or malfunctions/errors. After 349 days in orbit, Mariner 9 had transmitted 7,329 images, the orbiter had covered 100% of Mars’ surface. The first high resolution images of the moons Deimos and Phobos were taken. River and channel like features were discovered. It orbits Mars to this day.
4. May 29th, 1919 – Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is tested for the first time using a Solar Eclipse, as observed from the Sahara Desert, Africa.
5. May 25th, 1961 – JFK commits the nation to landing on the Moon before the end of the decade. Play clip.

The Observatory Logbook: The York University Astronomical Observatory is a hub of public outreach and undergraduate research. The Logbook is a semi-regular segment covering the latest and greatest happenings from under the two dome; it is hosted by a different observatory team member each week. This week on the Logbook: Leesann Sutherland, former undergraduate of York University and returning team member.

1. Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution hosted two special workshops at this years Genomes To/Aux Biomes conference in Montreal. One of the workshop was co-organized by York Universe’s very own Lianne Manzer and Jesse Rogerson. The workshop was called ‘Science Communication Workshop: Blogging, Social Media, and Podcasting.’ Jesse and Lianne lead the podcasting focus group, teaching the attendees their tips and tricks from years as hosts of York Universe. (Suggested Reading: CSEE, Genomes 2 Biomes, #G2BSciComm, Dropbox for Podcasting Workshop).
2. Hubble Shows that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Is Smaller than Ever Seen Before. One of the greatest storms in our Solar System, known as the Great Red Spot (GRS) on the surface of Jupiter, seems to be slowing down after all. Astronomical observations dating as far back as the 1800s (making it one of the longest storms known to humankind) established a value of 41,000 kilometers as its diameter at the widest point. This is equivalent to three Earths placed side by side. The Voyager flybys in 1979 not only determined the counterclockwise motion of the storm, they also measured a diameter of 23,335 kilometer which shows considerable shrinking.
A comparison of recent Hubble observations, specifically images from 1995, 2009, and 2014, show that the widest point of the Great Red Spot now has a diameter of 16,500 kilometers; now only spanning slightly more than one Earth. Amy Simon and her team from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland are studying how the storm is losing momentum. Although the exact reason is unknown and it has been observed that the waistline of the storm is shrinking by just under 1,000 kilometers a year, it is hypothesized that eddy currents feeding into the storm are altering its dynamics and causing the observed changes. (Suggested Reading: Science Daily, Hubble Space Telescope at ESA)
3. Camelopardalids Meteor Shower. Last week there was a lot of noise surrounding this so-called “new meteor shower” called the Camelopardalids (said — Camelo-par-dal-ids) which were to occur on Saturday, May 24, 2014 (700 UT or 2-4am ET). This new shower was broadcasting around the media as “A shower that could generate up to 100 or 1000 meteors per hour!” Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the media’s (or the public’s) hopes of a beautiful show, but that didn’t make this new shower any less awesome.
This new meteor shower appeared to come from the constellation Camelopardalis (a very small constellation near the north star) which is where it got it’s name. Meteor showers are usually produced by us (the Earth) travelling through the dust left behind by a comet orbiting our star.  As we travel through this dust, fragments of the discarded comet hit our atmosphere and burn up. This is what causes the bright streaks of light across our sky. Comets are constantly travelling through our solar system leaving behind dust trails, but it’s only the really dense clumps that we see.
This shower is a result of a comet called Comet 209P/Linear which was discovered in 2004. This comet is about 1-3 miles across, and rotates less than once a day. This comet orbits the Sun approximately once every 5 years, and everytime it orbits it leaves some comet bits in it’s wake.
You may ask, why haven’t we seen this shower before? Well, this is for a few reasons. First, scientists think that this is a fairly old comet — it’s been around for quite a long time.  This means that the comet is less active and likely close to becoming a “dead comet” (much like an asteroid). Dead comets don’t leave behind as much dust. It was so dim that we didn’t even know that this comet existed until 2004! Secondly, as It’s a fairly faint comet it leaves behind small dust trails. In a normal year, we may skim the outside of these dust trails and not see many meteors. Due to this, it’s very hard to pick up that we are traveling through any trail. But, in the past few months, a number of papers had been released  by different groups regarding potential meteors that had been produced from this comet. These groups went back through their video meteor data and found evidence of meteors from this comet during April, May, and June, which suggested that this meteor shower has been around for a long time.
What we saw this week was due to us passing through a number of dust lanes head on! This is similar to what occurs when there is a particularly good regular meteor shower (such as the Perseids). But, as this is a smaller, more inactive comet, what we saw was much more like a normal, light meteor shower.  The debris that created the lovely show was likely from orbits over the last century!
So, why the big let down? This because we don’t know a lot about this comet — some thought that there’d be a lot, and some thought that it would be the next big thing since sliced bread. Scientists are actually going to try to determine how active the comet was in the past by looking at the frequency of asteroids we see.  From this, scientists found out that the comet was much more active in the past than they had thought.
So, it wasn’t as spectacular as some had made it out to be, but according to some reports it produced some unusually slow meteors and at least one nice large fireball! Some estimates had suggested that there had been about 20 to 50 meteors per hour, with more brighter meteors than had originally been predicted.
Fun fact: it’s come closer to Earth than any othe comet since IRAS-Araki-Alcot in 1983! On Thursday, this comet will pass within 8 million kilometers of the Earth (approximately 20 times the distance to the moon!). More Reading:Space.comCBCUniverseToda
4. Newly Discovered Exoplanet Takes 80,000 Years to Orbit its Star. (Suggested Reading: The Astrophysical Journal, Sci-News, Keck Observatory Press Release,)
A newly discovered exoplanet, GU Psc b, takes 80,000 years to perform one orbit around its parent star GU Psc. This planet, said to be roughly 9-13 times larger than our very own Jupiter, was discovered by a group of astronomers led by Dr. Marie-Eve Naud from the University of Montreal. The parent star, GU Psc, is located 155 light years from Earth in the constellation of Pisces and is 3 times less massive than our Sun. The team observed more than 90 young stars and discovered GU PSc b as the only planet amongst all the stars. This is bizarre as they were hoping for many discoveries, considering that a young systems’ planets are still cooling and easy to detect via imaging as they are brighter.
The Gemini North Observatory in Hawaii was used to obtain the light spectrum of GU Psc b. Using theoretical models of planetary evolution and comparing it to the observations, it was shown to have a temperature of 800 degrees celsius. The multinational team hopes to find similar planets in the coming years, although not necessarily at a whopping distance of 2,000 AU from its star.
5. Introducing the Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer (formerly ngCFHT, formerly CFHT). Suggested Reading: CFHT homepage, CFHT Press Release, CASCA Press Release,

Thanks for listening!
-YorkUniverse Team
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