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Monthly Archives: December 2014

From an article by Kelly Beatty in Sky & Telescope, November 30, 2014:

A year ago, the situation looked bleak for historic Lick Observatory, the venerable 125-year-old mountaintop facility that overlooks California’s Silicon Valley. Faced with huge commitments to support its investment in Hawaii’s Keck Telescopes and to help fund the billion-dollar Thirty Meter Telescope, officials at the University of California (which owns and operates Lick) decided there just wasn’t enough money to go around. So they decreed that Lick should be divested from the university and find its own funding, with a “glide path” toward self-sufficiency to begin within two years and be completed by 2018.

Credit: Debra and Peter Ceravolo

Credit: Debra and Peter Ceravolo

Needless to say, the September 2013 announcement rocked the astronomical community in a way that few of the area’s earthquakes ever could. Although “closure” was never actually stipulated, it loomed as the most likely outcome for a venerable institution that held a premier role in U.S. astronomy a century ago. Prominent members of the astronomical community cried out in protest. Cosmologist (and author of The Cosmos) Alex Filippenko (UC Berkeley) led a “Save Lick Observatory” campaign. California congressmen petitioned the university’s president to reconsider the decision. The area’s amateur astronomers mobilized for a fight. Apparently, all that high-profile resistance – coupled with some belt-tightening – has spared Lick from being cast adrift.

While the observatory’s short-term prospects are now relatively secure, proponents are taking steps to ensure its long-term survival. A Lick Observatory Council, involving Filippenko, other scientists, and private citizens, has started private fundraising efforts and to expand the observatory’s outreach and education programs.

Links: the full article in Sky & Telescope; Lick Observatory public information.

From an article in Physics World by Ken Croswell, August 29, 2014:

Physicists working on the Borexino experiment in Italy have successfully detected neutrinos from the main nuclear reaction that powers the Sun. The number of neutrinos observed by the international team agrees with theoretical predictions, suggesting that scientists do understand what is going on inside our star. (See Section 12.7, p. 322.)

Credit: Borexino Collaboration

Credit: Borexino Collaboration

Each second, the Sun converts 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium, and 99% of the energy generated arises from the so-called proton–proton chain. And 99.76% of the time, this chain starts when two protons form deuterium (hydrogen-2) by coming close enough together that one becomes a neutron, emitting a positron and a low-energy neutrino. It is this low-energy neutrino that physicists have now detected. Once this reaction occurs, two more quickly follow: a proton converts the newly minted deuterium into helium-3, which in most cases joins another helium-3 nucleus to yield helium-4 and two protons.

Neutrinos normally pass through matter unimpeded and are therefore very difficult to detect. However, the neutrinos from this reaction in the Sun are especially elusive because of their low energy. The measurement therefore took scientists by surprise.

The Borexino detector is a large sphere containing a benzene-like liquid that is located deep beneath a mountain at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory to shield the experiment from cosmic rays. Occasionally, a neutrino will collide with an electron in the liquid and the recoiling electron will create a flash of ultraviolet light that can then be detected.

Links: the full Physics World article; Borexino website.

From a JAXA press release, December 3, 2014:

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched the H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 26 with the Asteroid Explorer “Hayabusa2” on board at 1:22 p.m. on December 3, 2014 (Japan Standard Time) from the Tanegashima Space Center. The launch vehicle flew as planned, and at approximately one hour, 47 minutes and 21 seconds after liftoff, the separation of the Hayabusa2 to Earth-escape trajectory was confirmed.


Credit: JAXA

The asteroid explorer “Hayabusa2” is a successor to the “Hayabusa”, which verified various new exploration technologies and returned to Earth in June 2010. “Hayabusa2” is setting out on a journey to clarify the origin and evolution of the Solar System as well as search for organic matter.

Links: JAXA press release, including detailed flight sequence.

Abridged from a New Scientist article by Rebecca Boyle, September 30, 2014:

A newly discovered asteroid called 2014 OL339 is the latest quasi-satellite of Earth – a space rock that orbits the Sun but is close enough to Earth to look like a companion. The asteroid has been hanging out near Earth for about 775 years, but its orbit is unstable – it will probably move on about 165 years from now.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Quasi-satellites orbit in resonance with Earth, allowing our planet’s gravity to shift the rock’s position. The asteroid orbits the Sun every 365 days, as Earth does, but Earth’s gravity guides it into an eccentric wobble, which causes the rock to appear to circle backward around the planet.

The asteroid, which is between 90 and 200 metres in diameter, is among several different categories of space rock in Earth’s retinue besides our one satellite, the Moon. Rocks that hang out at a gravitational middle ground known as a Lagrange point, where they follow or lead Earth in its orbit, are called Trojans.

Links: The full New Scientist article; NASA’s Near-Earth Object program.