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Piggyback camera

Through the scope

Camera and tripod



From the National Science Foundation, Division of Astronomical Sciences


Submit stunning images of Comet ISON for impressive cash prizes!

Astronomers predict ISON may become one of the best comets in decades. To commemorate this grand sky event, head out this fall to capture your fnest images of Comet ISON, and you could win cash prizes and have your photo featured in Astronomy magazine.


Register and submit your Comet ISON images to www.nsf.gov/comet.

The photo contest runs October 15, 2013, through January 15, 2014.

National Science Foundation

Division of Astronomical





See www.Astronomy.com/ISONphotos for imaging guidelines and offcial contest rules.

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Online Content Code: ASY1312 Enter this code at: www.astronomy.com/code to gain access to web-exclusive content




Speaking the language of the cosmos

Let’s take the scare factor out of equations and ask scientists a fundamental question: How much of astronomy is math?



Torrid Mercury’s

icy poles

Te MESSENGER spacecraf re- veals water ice lurking in deeply shadowed craters. JAMES OBERG


The Sky this Month

ISON continues to shine.


visit Astronomy.com/toc for bonus material — it’s exclusive to Astronomy magazine subscribers.

Astronomy (ISSN 0091-6358, USPS 531-350) is pub- lished monthly by Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, P. O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187–1612. Periodicals postage paid at Waukesha, WI, and additional offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to Astronomy, 21027 Crossroads Circle, P. O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187–1612. Canada Publication Mail Agreement #40010760.


StarDome and Path of the Planets



Spacecraft: Where are they now?

What happens afer planetary missions end? YVETTE CENDES


Ask Astro

Auroral zones.


Behind the scenes at Celestron

For more than 50 years, this innovative company has helped amateur astronomers observe the




Go to www.Astronomy.com for info on the biggest news and observing events, stunning photos, informative videos, and more.

December 2013

vOL. 41, NO. 12


Math describes how matter, energy, and the mysterious components of the universe interact. Learn to embrace the equations.



Comet ISON’s dazzling all-night show

Tis cosmic interloper should remain a grand sight throughout these long December nights.



11 top winter binocular gems

One supernova remnant, two double stars, and eight clusters beckon cold-weather skygazers.



Grab a Cometron scope to view Comet ISON

Celestron has made a pair of low-cost telescopes for beginners watching the great sky show.


Strange Universe 12


Secret Sky 16


Observing Basics 20


Cosmic Imaging



Astro Sketching




Snapshot 9 Astro News 10

iN EvEry iSSUE

From the Editor 6 Letters 12, 16, 66 Web Talk 23 New Products 67 Advertiser Index 69 Reader Gallery 72 Final Frontier 74



Reader Photo





Star Atlas

The inside


Share your

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targets for all


through the

the editor



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OPT Telescopes – 800.483.6287 – www.opttelescopes.com B&H Photo – 800.947.9970 – www.bhphotovideo.com Hands On Optics – 866.726.7371 – www.handsonoptics.com Astronomics – 800.422.7876 – www.astronomics.com Adorama – 800.223.2500 – www.adorama.com

High Point Scientific – 800.266.9590 – www.highpointscientific.com Optics Planet – 800.504.5897 – www.opticsplanet.com Telescopes.com – 888.988.9876 – www.telescopes.com Focus Camera – 800.221.0828 – www.focuscamera.com Woodland Hills – 888.427.8766 – www.telescopes.net


b y

D aviD

J .


Astronomy ’s new website

O ver the past year or

so, a team of editors,

designers, and pro-

grammers has been

working on a new

We also have improved the

content. The site now fea- tures a new visual layout with more information organized

in a dramatically better way.

Take some time to explore the site. You will find the greatest collection of astron- omy materials on the Web related to science discoveries as well as to sky events you can observe and other hobby activities. As always, we encourage you to register on the site. Doing so will afford you greater access to stories and features. Subscribers who log in will obtain access to every- thing on the site, including substantial stories, articles, and bonus content not avail- able to non-subscribers. But those who simply register, even without subscribing to the print magazine, will receive added benefits and access. We also hope you currently subscribe to our weekly email newsletter, which contains a summary of the week’s big stories in astronomy. You can sign up on the website. I want to thank the Kalm- bach team that worked so diligently on this process

over the past months: Jeff

website for Astronomy, found

A sliding graphics bar near

Felbab, Karri Ferron, Alex

Yours truly,

at www.Astronomy.com. Te improved site went “live” Sep- tember 18, and you may well have seen it recently. Te new site, modeled afer the archi- tecture used by our sister pub- lication, Discover, not only modernizes Astronomy’s Web content, but expands and improves it dramatically.

the top of the home page highlights important stories, and we feature alerts on breaking news and develop- ing stories that you’ll want to keep an eye on. Programmers also signifi- cantly improved the site’s search feature. Users will be able to find related content

Gaudynski, Craig Kuhlow, Ken Meisinger, Rob Ober- heide, Sarah Scoles, Craig Schneider, and Jeanne Wieland. Please let me know if you have comments about the new site, and we all hope you will enjoy it.

First, the site is optimized across multiple platforms. It will work smoothly on com- puters, tablets, and smart- phones in an elegant, sophisticated way.

easily by tags that exist on stories, videos, podcasts, and other elements. We inte- grated multimedia elements far more effectively into the stories they accompany.

David J. Eicher Editor

Editor David J. Eicher Art Director LuAnn Williams Belter

editorial staff

Managing Editor Ronald Kovach Senior Editors Michael E. Bakich, Richard Talcott Associate Editors Liz Kruesi, Sarah Scoles Assistant Editor Karri Ferron Editorial Associate Valerie Penton

art staff

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editorial advisory board

Buzz Aldrin, Marcia Bartusiak, Timothy Ferris, Alex Filippenko, Adam Frank, John S. Gallagher lll, Daniel W. E. Green, William K. Hartmann, Paul Hodge, Anne L. Kinney, Edward Kolb, Stephen P. Maran, Brian May, S. Alan Stern, James Trefil

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©2013 Sky-Watcher USA. Specifications subject to change without notice. 20-13022. Fall colors are beautiful and all, but what we really like about Autumn is Thanksgiving. And turkey. And pumpkin pie. And stuffiing. And cranberry sauce. And

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10 issues




SCIENCE for curious minds.

Secret origin of the UniverSe revealed? p.36



science for the curious


latest research

September 2013


on the


Flexible electronics that could change the shape of medicine forever p.30

Doorway to a cure

Grassroots eforts are beating cystic fbrosis p.42

inside the mind oF a hero p.26



Try THIS in your own backyard p.52


hollywood goes

transhuman p.64

coming one day to a brain near you:


sensor arrays

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Newton’s apple. Edison’s lightbulb. Hawking’s astrophysics. Look where curiosity can lead you.

Every issue of Discover expands your mind with:

The latest news, theories, and developments in science and space

Compelling stories and breakthroughs in health, medicine, and the mind

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Thought-provoking contributions by award-winning editors, opinion makers, Nobel laureates, and renegade scientists

Amazing photography and stunning graphics that capture the awe and wonder of science

Subscribe to Discover magazine and see where your curiosity takes you.

Go to DiscoverMagazine.com or call 1-800-829-9132

Available in print or digital format.





EvErything you nEEd to know about thE univErsE this month

HOT byTes>>


PulSAr AS A TOOl Scientists studied a pulsar some 0.5 light-year from our galaxy’s supermassive black hole to learn that the black hole’s magnetic field is stronger than expected.

TOuGH TiTAN Researchers say Saturn’s moon Titan may have a rigid ice shell some 25 miles (40km) thick with large“roots”of ice extend- ing into the ocean below.

GASSy cOlliSiON A 23,000-light-year-wide cloud of 10-million-degree Fahrenheit gas arose from an impact between NGC 1232 and a dwarf galaxy, astronomers suggest.


Comets and the Oort Cloud

where comets live tells us about their behavior.

In 1950, Dutch-American astronomer Jan H. Oort recog- nized that long-period comets must originate from a huge spherical cloud at 10,000 or more astronomical units from the Sun. The concept of the Oort Cloud was born. Oort turned to the number of new comets seen each year, about one, and suggested a population figure for the Oort Cloud of 200 billion comets. More recent simulations have increased the proposed num- ber of Oort Cloud comets to 2 trillion. The size and shape of the Oort Cloud are not precisely known, of course. But plan- etary scientists believe the cloud is an oblate spheroid with the long axis pointed toward the center of the Milky Way. The cloud extends as far away as 1.5 light-years, or about 40 percent of the way to the nearest star, the Alpha Cen- tauri system. That is a stagger-

ingly long way. — David J. Eicher

Noted for its spectacularly long tail, Comet Hyakutake (C/1996 B2) put on an incredible show for observers in 1996, just as Comet Hale-Bopp was steadily brightening. This image was shot with a 130mm f/6 refractor, ISO 800 film, and a 30-minute exposure in April 1996.



Monster Magnet. The magnetar SGR 0418+5729 has a magnetic field between 200 and 1,000 trillion gauss — one of the most powerful known in the universe, according to recent measurements reported in the August 15 issue of Nature.

source secured. Astronomers have confirmed that the material within the “Magellanic Stream,” seen here as the pink arc of gas in the lower half of the image, was stripped from the Small Magellanic Cloud about 2 billion years ago; a lesser amount came more recently from the Large Magellanic

Cloud. DAvID L. NIDEvEr, ET AL.,






sourcE of magEllanic strEam solvEd

N early 40 years ago, radio astronomers saw a long rib- bon of gas stretching nearly halfway around our galaxy.

They named it the Magellanic Stream because it appeared to come from material stripped out of either the Small or Large Magellanic Cloud, dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way. However, scientists weren’t positive where the gas originated. They are now. In two papers published in the August 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, astronomers reported that most of the material was stripped from the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) about 2 billion years ago and a

second smaller region of gas emerged more recently from the Large Magellanic Cloud. The international team of scien- tists used four distant, extremely bright active galaxies called qua- sars as searchlights to measure the composition of the Magellanic Stream. By mapping the ultraviolet light that made it through the gas- eous material, the astronomers determined what elements com- pose the stream — oxygen, carbon, silicon, sulfur, iron, aluminum, and others. They then measured the abundances of elements at six dif- ferent locations in the stream and compared those to abundance

measurements within the two Magellanic Clouds. The measured low amounts of oxygen and sulfur match the abun- dances within the SMC about 2 billion years ago, which implies that’s when the Milky Way’s gravity first stripped the small galaxy of its gas. Closer to the Magellanic Clouds, however, the sulfur abun- dance is much higher. “This inner region is very similar in composi- tion to the Large Magellanic Cloud, suggesting it was ripped out of that galaxy more recently,” says team co-leader Andrew Fox of the Space Telescope Science Insti- tute in Baltimore. Liz Kruesi



The Arecibo telescope covers some 20 acres — more area than 15 football fields. Its dish is made of mesh with holes smaller than radio waves.




EARly BloomERS

Large ancient galaxies began to resemble today’s massive gal- axies — like the Milky Way — much earlier than previously thought. Hubble Space Tele- scope images show “mature” galaxies emerging just 2.5 bil- lion years after the Big Bang, according to an announcement in the September 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. At that time in cosmic history, large galaxies already were elliptical, spiral, lenticular, or irregular — the four modern categories.

FAIRESt oF thEm All?

Students at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen dis- covered a quasar — an active supermassive black hole — the organization announced August 7. What’s even more remarkable is that they found it six times. As the quasar’s light traveled, it encountered a galaxy cluster. The massive cluster warps space-time, and this curvature bent the qua- sar’s light like a lens would, projecting six fun-house images of the same object.

lunAR lEAkAgE

The Moon has water under- neath its surface, scientists announced online August 25 in Nature Geoscience. This is the first water scientists have found that is native to the Moon. While other studies have shown that outside sources like aster- oids leave water on the lunar landscape, this new water is internal. The impact that cre- ated Bullialdus Crater exposed deeper geological layers, allow- ing scientists to see this “mag- matic water.” — Sarah Scoles



(Sub) mm





Arecibo radio

Atacama Large



Array (ALMA)




Observatory For












Chandra X-ray



Space Telescope

Gamma ray




Space Telescope

telescope population. Astronomers are interested in the whole electromagnetic spectrum because objects in space emit photons with a wide range of wavelengths. Ener- getic events like supernovae and extremely hot regions like the centers of active galaxies emit photons with shorter wavelengths. Longer wavelengths, on the other hand, often come from cool objects and magnetic interactions. In the middle of the spectrum — the more familiar regime — astronomers often investigate starlight of both distant and nearby origin. Engineers design each telescope for a specific set of wavelengths. The scopes shown above are some of the largest and most sensitive for each type of wave.



In memorIam. Bruce C. Murray, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory between 1976 and 1982, died August 29 at the age of 81.

i’m full. The black hole at the center of our galaxy, seen here in infrared light (main image) and X-rays (inset), ejects most of the hot material that approaches

its event horizon. X-RAy: NASA/UMASS/D. WANG, ET AL.; INFRARED: NASA/STS c I

Black holes reject hot gas

The black hole at the center of the Milky Way, called Sagittarius A * , emits suspiciously few X-rays. This object, with 4 million times the mass of the Sun, should be devouring gas, heating the mate- rial and causing it to radiate high- energy photons as it swirls inward. Astronomers have long been puzzled by how little such radiation they see. The Chandra X-ray Observatory, though, has provided clues about the black hole’s quiescence. The results appeared in the August 30 issue of Science. Chandra’s images of the galac- tic center show that more than 99 percent of the gas that could fall into the black hole avoids that fate. Sagittarius A * ejects this vast

majority of approaching material away from the galactic core, the meal too hot and spread-out for it to digest. Cooler material, though, has less energy and is easier for Sagittarius A * to grab. By reject- ing most of what comes its way, the black hole causes what’s left to lose momentum, cool down, and stop resisting. “This new Chandra image is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen,” says study co-author Sera Markoff of the University of Amsterdam. “We’re watching Sagittarius A* capture hot gas ejected by nearby stars and funnel it in toward its event horizon.” More precisely, they are able to watch the unlucky 1 percent take this irreversible journey. — S. S.



NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) launched September 6 from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to study the Moon.

FIvE morE yEArS

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope celebrated five years of observations August 26 after entering a five-year extended mission phase August 11.


Physicists with the National Institute of Standards and Tech- nology in Boulder, Colorado, describe in the August 22 Sci- ence Express their creation of two optical lattice clocks capable of a precision of 1 part in 10 18 after seven hours of operation.

mIrror mADE

Scientists and engineers with the Giant Magellan Telescope cast the third of seven 8.4- meter mirrors August 24 at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab.


NASA announced August 6 that it had chosen United Launch Services LLC to launch its OSIRIS-Rex mission in Septem- ber 2016 to explore near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu.


The High-Altitude Water Čerenkov Gamma-Ray Observa- tory began searching for the highest-energy light in the cos- mos August 1 in Pueblo, Mexico.

SoLAr TwIn

Astronomers reported in the September 10 issue of The Astro- physical Journal Letters that the star HIP 102152 is more like our Sun than any other star found so far — even though it’s almost 4 billion years older. — L. K.

Chelyabinsk meteor plume travels the world

Drifting Dust. On February 15, a 59-foot (18 meters) meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, releasing energy equivalent to 30 atomic bombs. All of that blown-up material didn’t just disappear. The NASA- NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satel- lite detected the dust some 25 miles (40 kilometers) above sea level, drifting east at a cool 190 mph (305 km/h). Four days after the explosion, the fastest part of the plume — shown as combined model and satellite data in red — had zipped all the way around Earth and returned to the skies over Chelyabinsk, according to a statement NASA released August 14. — S. S.

Strange Universe

b y




Astronomical assistance

On July 9, Marc Stowbridge of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society delivered a beautiful telescope that was provided by funds granted from Astronomy magazine through its Out-of-this-world Award. This is the first donation of a telescope to our community, which is rural and quite economically depressed. Overnight, I had

a waiting list of 25 patrons. As a community, we are planning to

organize viewing parties. I can’t stress how much joy you’ve been able to spread with your donation. On behalf of our very lucky patrons and trustees,

I thank you! — Elizabeth Thompson, Gorham, New Hampshire

Radiation in space

While future trips beyond low earth orbit wouldn’t be automatically fatal, the data are not comforting.

T he universe is filled with radiation. It’s everywhere. By radiation, I mean subatomic par-

ticles that penetrate your body, or short electromagnetic waves doing the same mischief. Long waves like visible light or micro- waves cannot damage genes or cause cancer. But gamma rays and X-rays can break atoms apart; so can speedy subatomic particles, especially heavy ones. All this stuff flies through space continuously. Supernovae in our galaxy and others create galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), which provide a steady flux of radiation. The Sun’s particles are usually gentler than GCRs, but this totally changes during large solar storms. Fortunately, Earth’s atmosphere blocks most space radiation, but the higher up you live, the more you get. Radiation is confusingly expressed using a carnival of disparate units like roentgens, grays, Sieverts, rads, and rems — but let’s use millirems (mrem) for this article. The average per- son receives 360 mrem a year, of which more than 80 percent comes from natural sources. (People who get periodic CT scans receive far more, and such medical tests are so common in the U.S. that the population’s annual radiation exposure is higher — 620 mrem.) Some sources create significant hazards, like radon gas oozing into base- ments. Others are measurable but truly minor, like that from smoke alarms. “Radiation” creates much misunderstanding and unneces- sary fear: Who would guess that you get more from eating one banana (0.01 mrem) than by

living within 50 miles (80 kilo- meters) of a nuclear power plant for an entire year (0.009 mrem)? While background radiation is responsible for some of the spontaneous tumors that have always plagued the human race, scientists debate whether low doses pose any risk. Tibetans and Peruvians who live at extreme altitudes and thus receive more radiation do not have higher rates of leukemia. On the other hand, professional pilots and flight attendants suffer a 1 per- cent greater cancer occurrence rate than the rest of us. You can achieve major radia- tion reductions by getting your basement checked for radon or asking your doctor whether you really need a CT scan instead of an X-ray. A whole-body CT scan can give you the same

their nine excursions beyond Earth’s magnetosphere. Scientists didn’t even know about the fierc- est solar storms when Armstrong and Aldrin walked Tranquillity Base, since these coronal mass ejections (CMEs) weren’t identi- fied until 1971, two years later. If a one-week Moon excur- sion is risky, what about the one- year round-trip travel time to Mars? Even discounting the con- siderable radiation exposure while on the Red Planet, which has neither a magnetosphere nor appreciable atmosphere, how dangerous is a long trip in a flimsy spacecraft? We finally have the answer, sort of.

once every five or six days,” said the Southwest Research Insti- tute’s Cary Zeitlin, a principal scientist involved with the mea- surements. It would be like a Hiroshima survivor experiencing that event two dozen times over. GCRs are mostly highly pen- etrating particles that are not stopped by a spacecraft’s modest shielding. “A vehicle carrying humans into deep space would likely have a ‘storm shelter’ to protect against solar particles. But the GCRs are harder to stop, and even an aluminum hull a foot thick wouldn’t change the dose very much,” said Zeitlin. The RAD data showed an average dose equivalent of about 66,240 mrem for a future mar- tian round-trip mission — what the average person gets in 184 years (107 years even for those radiation junkies in the U.S.). It would increase one’s fatal cancer risk by 3 or 4 percent. This did not include major solar radiation or what would be received on the martian surface. “This issue will have to be addressed … before humans can go into deep space for months or years at a time,” said Zeitlin. On a more upbeat note, recent stud- ies show lightweight plastic is a more effective shielding than heavier metal. Bottom line: Such trips would be worrisome but not automati- cally lethal. Bananas, anyone?

Contact me about my strange universe by visiting



radiation that Hiroshima survi- vors more than a mile from ground zero received. Only 24 humans ventured beyond our atmosphere and our magnetosphere, which protects humans on Earth’s surface from much harmful space radiation. That was during the Apollo pro- gram from 1969 to 1972. They all saw spurious streaks or flashes of light, like meteors, cross their visual fields once a minute. Turns out GCRs — mostly protons traveling a healthy fraction of light-speed — continually ripped through their brains. Yet the Apollo guys were lucky. Not a single major solar storm erupted during any of

Two years ago, the Mars Sci- ence Laboratory began its 253- day journey to Mars to deliver the Curiosity rover. En route, the first-ever onboard radiation detector, an instrument acro- nymically called RAD, measured the radiation environment inside the spacecraft. During RAD’s martian odyssey, not a single major solar storm went off, so the instruments mostly sampled the GCR flux rather than the human hazard during brutal CMEs or solar flares. The results were not encour- aging. “In terms of accumulated dose, [traveling to Mars] is like getting a whole-body CT scan

Browse the “strange Universe” archive at www.astronomy.com/berman.


Kepler, rIp. Scientists couldn’t revive either of the two dead gyroscope-like reaction wheels on the Kepler spacecraft, thus ending its planet-finding career, NASA announced August 15.

Where are the Women?



Women have received just two Nobel Prizes in physics and four in chemistry.






Astronomy Physics Chemistry



BachelorÕs degree




Astronomy Physics






MasterÕs degree

Gender ratios. Women earn more than half of biol- ogy and psychology undergraduate degrees, but astron- omy and physics lag far behind. Some argue that fewer female professors results in less women studying college astronomy and physics and continuing on to advanced degrees. However, biology and psychology departments also have fewer women as faculty, and — at least on the surface — it doesn’t seem to affect the gender ratios. The percentages shown in this diagram coincide with the sym-

bols’heights, not areas. Astronomy: Liz KrueSi and JaY SMiTH





Astronomy Physics Chemistry Biology

Doctoral degree





Astronomy Physics





Biology Psychology

Faculty at top 50 programs *

† 2010 data tabulated by the nSF/national Center for Science and engineering Statistics (nSF/nCSeS); data from the department of education/national Center for education Statistics: integrated Postsecondary education data System Completions Survey, and nSF/nCSeS:

Survey of earned doctorates *data from nelson diversity Surveys 2007; astronomy data for top 40 programs only

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The University of Arizona begins its 27 th year of Astronomy Camps for students, adults, Girl Scout leaders, and educators at Mt. Lemmon and Kitt Peak National Observatories


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25 years

ago in

Dark Preserve. The International Dark-Sky Association named the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico its newest dark-sky park August 19.

Chilean workers at ALMA site go

on strike

The Atacama Large Millimeter/sub- millimeter Array (ALMA), a 66-antenna radio interferometer located 16,500 feet (5 kilometers) above sea level in Chile, cost $1.4 billion to build and began operations just over six months ago. On August 22, though, the nascent scientific work stopped when 195 of the observatory’s Chil- ean workers went on strike. While the telescope is in Chile, it is an international project, funded by the National Astronomical Observa- tory of Japan, the European Southern Observatory, and the United States’ National Radio Astronomy Observa- tory (NRAO). The Washington, D.C., organization Associated Universities Incorporated (AUI), which governs NRAO, is the official employer of the Chilean staff, who provide engineer-

ing, data, and administrative support for the high-altitude telescope. In anticipation of their three-year contract’s expi- ration August 13, unionized Chilean employees negotiated with AUI starting July 1 for a new con- tract featuring raises, bonuses, and shorter shifts. The negotiations failed, and the world’s largest and most expensive radio array did not observe cool gas, star birth, planet formation, or any of its other scientific specialties for more than two weeks. The groups reached a compromise September 7, though, when AUI agreed to a shorter work sched- ule, bonuses, and some permanent raises. In a state- ment released at the conflict’s conclusion, Pierre Cox, the ALMA director, said, “We are relieved that both sides were able to reach an agreement that enables restarting the operations of the largest radio tele- scope in the world to continue delivering spectacular scientific results.” — S. S.

ter Array (ALMA) ceased science opera- tions due to a union-led strike involving 195 employees.


Picket line. From August 22 to Septem- ber 7, the newly inaugu- rated Atacama Large Millime-


In the December

1988 issue of

Astronomy, Gerrit Verschuur’s article “Exotic Pulsars” graced the cover. Astronomers knew pulsars were the spinning, highly magnetized remnants of massive stars that exploded as supernovae and did not become black holes. But the race to find the fastest-rotating ones was on after scientists first found millisecond pulsars, which spin hundreds of times per sec- ond, in 1982. Verschuur interviewed Don Backer, a pulsar scientist, writing, “Backer summed up the moral of the story this way: ‘Science is cruel this way; you have to turn over every rock.’ ” In 1988, scientists knew of just four millisecond pulsars. They now have found 206.

10 years

ago in


In the December

2003 issue of

Astronomy, Senior Editor Richard Tal- cott showcased the Hubble Space Telescope’s top 25 images. That month was the 10th anniversary of the first Hubble servicing mission, in which seven astronauts installed corrective optics for the scope’s mirror, allowing it to produce clear, stunning images. Talcott encouraged readers to “sit back and recall some of the highlights from the past decade, and imagine what treats [the camera] still has in store.”Ten years later after this state- ment, Hubble is still going strong. — S. S.

AverAge number of cleAr dAys in december

Less than 3.5

3.5 to 6.4

6.5 to 9.4

9.5 to 11.4

11.5 to 13.4

13.5 to 15.4


The number of pulsars scientists discovered with the help of the volunteer comput- ing project einstein@Home, as described in the september 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.


Chile’s Atacama Desert, where ALMA is located, is the driest place on Earth.



Give Give your your loved loved

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O ’ mear a

Six naked-eye wonders in Orion

Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations, but it still contains gems you might not know about.

T he December night sky is famous for its wash of bright stars, including those form- ing the Celestial G

— namely, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Castor, Capella, and Aldebaran (going clockwise). It also hosts a cache of naked-eye deep-sky objects, many of which are in Orion, as are two of the most famous asterisms in the celestial sphere:

Orion’s Belt and Sword. Both are parts of the southern extension of the Orion Molecular Cloud (OMC), which is a vast complex of bright nebulae, obscuring dust clouds, and young star- forming regions all some 1,500 light-years distant and several hundred light-years across. The most popular of all the OMC’s structures is M42, the great Orion Nebula — the mid- dle “star” in Orion’s Sword. This enormous cloud of dust and gas

glows because of the ultraviolet radiation streaming from its cen- tral Trapezium star cluster (Theta [θ] Orionis). We see this struc- ture without optical aid as a swollen knot of starlight at the nebula’s core. The second object of interest is 3rd-magnitude Iota (ι) Orionis — the southernmost star in Ori- on’s Sword. Some 2½ million years ago, gravitation slung it out of the Trapezium star cluster to where we see it today, 2,000 light-years distant from that cen- tral region. Iota also is the bright- est member of a small open star cluster called NGC 1980, which is immersed in veils of nebulosity visible through telescopes. Shouldering M42 to the north is what we commonly consider the faintest of the three naked- eye stars in Orion’s Sword. Look closely, though, and you’ll see that it is two stars — the two brightest in the loose open star



In “40 years of amateur astronomy,” the image of the Leonid meteor on p. 55 (bottom right) in the August 2013 issue was taken by Barry Burgess and not Stephen Pitt as stated. In the same issue, we mistakenly stated the May 19, 2011, space shuttle flight was the final one on p. 13. That launch was the second to last. The final mission for the space shuttle was STS-135, which occurred July 8, 2011. In “David Levy’s lifetime of observations” (September 2013), the people who helped the author archive his observing logs were incorrectly named; they are Randall Rosenfeld and Walter MacDonald. Also, the author’s visual telescope Miranda is 16 inches in aperture, not 26 as stated in the caption on p. 54. We regret any confusion. Astronomy Editors

cluster NGC 1977, which is also surrounded by several swatches of bright and dark nebulosity. Under dark skies, some observers have seen its brightest clouds without optical aid, meaning M42 is not the only bright, naked-eye nebula to be found in Orion’s Sword. But the most secreted of all Orion’s naked-eye wonders is the magnitude 4.6 open star cluster NGC 1981. It holds the distinc- tion of being the northernmost, and faintest, “star” in Orion’s Sword. The cluster has roughly the same apparent size as the Full Moon and shines with a pale light. But it is a wonder through binoculars and telescopes. The Sword dangles from Ori- on’s Belt, which itself is more than meets the eye. Its three brightest stars belong to the open star cluster Collinder 70, which contains 100 members that coil around the Belt stars like a celes- tial python. You can glimpse some of the brighter objects without optical aid, and binocu- lars will reveal at least 70 of them with a single glance. Our last Orion naked-eye wonder is an isosceles triangle made of three stars grouped mid- way between and a little north of the Hunter’s shoulders. They make up his head. The brightest, 3rd-magnitude Meissa (Lambda [λ] Orionis), shines as the pri- mary star in the Lambda Orionis Association (Collinder 69) — a

Browse the “secret sky” archive at www.astronomy.com/Omeara .

sparse conglomerate of some 20 binocular/telescopic stars spread across 70' of sky. A huge supernova explosion 1–2 mil- lion years ago triggered star formation in the region and affected the structure of the vast 4°-wide cloud of gas and dust known as Sharpless 2–264, in which Collinder 69 resides. If you get under dark skies, see if you can detect the area around Lambda Orionis with- out optical aid. Whether you see the nebulosity itself or just an optical fuzziness due to the closeness of the stars will be debatable. Either way they took this fuzziness, early stargazers did not overlook the region’s cloudy appearance. Its original Arabic name is Al-Hak’ah or Al-Haq’ah, which refers to Ori- on’s head as “a white spot.” The Greek astronomer Ptolemy (ca. a.d. 100–170) described it in his work Almagest as “The Neb- ulous One” or “The Mistiness in Orion’s Head.” One way to test whether you believe you see nebulosity is to block Lambda and its atten- dants with a distant rooftop or similar sharp-edged structure. That should remove any artifi- cial fuzziness, enabling you to investigate the visibility of the nebula itself. If you were able to detect the Great Hunter’s jewels, send your observations to me at


Photos by: Paul Beduhn

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DecaDal Dance. The Spitzer Space Telescope celebrated 10 years of operations August 25. It launched in 2003 to investigate the infrared universe.


NASA reActivAteS WiSe SpAcecrAft

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) operated from January 2010 to Feb- ruary 2011. During that time, it discovered 135 near-Earth objects (NEOs) and charac- terized the sizes and thermal properties of about 2,000 others. It also found 34,000 asteroids in orbits between Mars and Jupiter (within the main asteroid belt) and 21 com- ets. Now, NASA has decided to reactivate the spacecraft to find more NEOs orbiting within 28 million miles (45 million kilome- ters) of Earth’s path around the Sun. This decision is part of the space agency’s asteroid initiative to better understand these space rocks and to protect Earth from devas- tating impacts. The WISE three-year extended mission will characterize any potentially haz- ardous objects and identify possibilities for future asteroid exploration missions. Reactivating the spacecraft is not as sim- ple as flipping a switch. “It will take about three months for the telescope to cool down to operating temperatures, and after a short check-out period, we will be ready to begin surveying again,” says Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of WISE’s near-Earth

Blast from merging objects imaged

June 13, 2013

Mission extended. NASA has decided to reactivate the Wide-field infrared Survey Explorer to search for near- Earth objects.


object survey, called NEOWISE, which ran during the primary mission. WISE sees the universe with infrared- sensitive eyes. This radiation is less ener- getic, and thus corresponds to colder temperatures, than visible light. Asteroids and comets glow in infrared light, as does dust in the cosmos. The spacecraft mapped the entire sky and compiled an immense amount of data. During its 13-month mission, WISE col- lected more than 2.7 million images that scientists used to produce a catalog listing the infrared properties of more than 560 million objects. To view infrared radiation, the craft needs to remain cold. Luckily, the emptiness of space helps cool WISE (like anything in a cold environment, it radiates heat). Scientists will turn the spacecraft so that it points away from Earth. “Once we do that, we’ll be look- ing at the cold background of space, and the telescope will begin to cool down,” says Mainzer. “Once we reach operating tempera- tures after a few months, we will recalibrate the instrument and begin surveying.” L. K.

July 3, 2013

Kilonova caught? On June 12–13, astronomers trained the Hubble Space Telescope on a spot in the sky where they had detected a brief blast of gamma rays June 3. They then re-imaged the same region — associated with a galaxy about 4 billion light-years from Earth — July 3. Hubble spied a faint red object at the location of the gamma rays during its June observation, but in the subsequent images the object had disappeared. Astronomers reported August 29 in Nature that the red glow was the heat signature (in infrared radiation) after two objects col- lided, merged, and exploded. They say the subsequent blast was likely a kilonova — an explosion 1/10 to 1/100 the

brightness of an average supernova. — L. K. NASA/ESA/N. TANvir (UNivErSiTy Of LEicESTEr)/A. frUcHTEr (STS c i)/A. LEvAN (UNivErSiTy Of WArWick)


NoN-NewtoNiaN. Dim dwarf galaxies like NGC 5477 contain few stars and, according to standard physics, a huge amount of dark matter that gives the group enough gravity to hold itself together. However, an idea called Modified Newtonian Dynamics explains the stars’ motions without invoking dark matter.

Alternative theory of gravity predicts dwarf galaxy features

For traditional gravitational theories to make correct predictions, scientists must assume that the cosmos is filled with huge amounts of dark matter. But some astronomers believe it is our conception of those theories, rather than our conception of the universe’s contents, that requires alteration. A paper accepted for publi- cation in The Astrophysical Journal reports that an alternative theory of gravity called Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MoND) predicts stars’ motions — without invoking dark matter. MoND suggests that a small tweak to the equations, which makes imperceptible changes at smaller scales, modifies the way the universe behaves at low accelerations — on large scales like galaxies and galaxy clusters — in a way similar to dark matter. This recent study shows that MoND describes the way stars in 10 dwarf galaxies around the Andromeda Galaxy move relative to each other. Most scientists think dwarf galaxies have a higher dark-to-normal-matter ratio than any other kind of stellar grouping, but MoND explains their behaviors and the galaxies’ grav- ity fields without the mysterious mass. “Most scientists are more comfortable with the dark matter interpretation,” says co-author Stacy McGaugh of Case Western Reserve in Cleve- land. “But we need to understand why MoND succeeds with these predictions.” Either the universe is filled with an as-yet-undetected substance or the fundamental law of gravity needs adjustment, and astronomers are work- ing to distinguish between those two possibili- ties and understand what controls motion within the universe. — S. S.

8.0 ± 0.1

miles per second (12.9 ± 0.2 km/s)

The expansion velocity of the shock wave from the W44 supernova remnant, according to a September 1 article in The Astrophysical Journal.

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BoB Fera

Observing Basics

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Fun facts for star party standouts

Having go-to sky objects and fascinating anecdotes about them can help attract any astronomy newcomer.

A year ago, I intro-

duced a “Prime 9” list of the best objects to show at public star parties.

The “Prime 9” idea was inspired by a show of the same name that airs on the MLB Network. Each episode features the nine greatest in a particular baseball category — pitchers, home runs, teams, etc. As stated at the end of each episode, Prime 9 is “guaranteed to start arguments, not end them.” While mine didn’t generate any serious arguments, a few readers proposed some tweaks. Gil Wright of Boise, Idaho, didn’t disagree with my decision to place the Moon at the top of the list. He simply recommended that I remind readers about the need for a Moon filter, especially around the time of Full phase. A “Prime 9” star party target isn’t “prime” if the viewer is blinded by lunar glare! Bert Probst of Ellicottville, New York, liked my choices but suggested expanding it to a bak- er’s dozen (that’s 13 for you non- bakers). He tacked on Almach (Gamma [γ] Andromedae) (“beautiful double star with obvi- ous color differences”), the Dou- ble Cluster (NGC 869/884) (“great in a wide field view”), the Lagoon Nebula (M8) (“featuring both a nebula and an open clus- ter”), and Ptolemy’s Cluster (M7) (“beautiful field of diamonds on a black velvet cloth”). Todd Sanders of Tallahassee, Florida, would put the Milky Way at No. 4: “Whenever I’ve handed over binoculars to some- one unfamiliar with the stars and

planets and suggested they look up at that ‘cloud up there,’ they are awestruck.” I got a Southern Hemisphere viewpoint from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, amateur astronomer Mar- cos Contrucci. He replaced No. 7 (the double star Albireo) with Alpha (α) Centauri, No. 6 (the Pleiades) with the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, No. 4 (the Hercules Cluster) with Omega Centauri (NGC 5139), and suggested I add Eta (η) Cari- nae, the “wonderful jewel of the southern skies.” Jack Gross of Bedford, Vir- ginia, emailed: “Love your ‘Prime 9’ article. I do a lot of outreach and agree with your list. However, it’s only half the story — how about a follow-up ‘Fascinating Facts’ to go with it? Folks love a little information about what they are seeing.” Sounds like a plan, Jack, and it also gives me the opportunity to recap my “Prime 9” star party targets for anyone who missed last December’s issue. 9) The Andromeda Galaxy (M31). The Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31)

is about 2.5 million light-years away, which means that the light entering your eye from the eye- piece left the galaxy 2.5 million years ago — around the time our early ancestors were beginning to make stone tools.

Cold as



A look at the best and the worst that astronomy and space science have to offer. by Sarah Scoles



Snow day



Flashy science


your world

“the sight of a snowfall can thrill children,” says the harvard- Smithsonian cen- ter for astrophys- ics, “but the first-ever snow line seen around a distant star gives astrono- mers an even greater thrill.” Because devalu- ing kids’ experi- ences is fun.

the Forbes gal- leries in new york hosts an exhibit called “out of this world! Jew- elry in the Space age,” featuring items such as a gold lunar land- ing Module by cartier. rudely, no artist acknowledged that neutron stars made their work possible.

hubble observes the true color of an exoplanet for the first time. this exoworld is blue not because of oceans but because it’s rain- ing glass. crayola execs are scram- bling to change the name of their cobalt crayon to the catchy and enduring “hd


Scientists show that when two neutron stars col- lide, they produce 10 Moon masses of gold. lead researcher edo Berger says that’s “quite a lot of bling!” later this year, he plans to produce a hip- hop album about his career at harvard Uni- versity.

8) The Ring Nebula (M57). A shell of gas ejected by a dying star, the Ring is wider than 1,000 solar systems (orbit of Neptune) laid end to end. 7) Albireo (Beta [β] Cygni).

3) Jupiter. The largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter is so big that, if hollowed out, it could hold over1,300 planet Earths. 2) Saturn. The least dense planet in our solar system, Saturn


double star isn’t as uncommon

would float in a huge bathtub.


you might think. About half of

1) The Moon. Take a good

the stars visible in our nighttime sky are actually double, triple, or multiple star systems. 6) The Pleiades (M45). These delicate-looking stars may resem- ble glistening dewdrops, but they’re actually white-hot infer- nos. Alcyone (Eta Tauri), the brightest Pleiad, is nearly 10 times the diameter of the Sun and some 2,400 times as luminous. If placed where our Sun is, it would incin- erate Earth in a matter of minutes. 5) The Orion Nebula (M42). The bright star Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris), below and left of the Orion Nebula, is about 8.6 light-years away. If the Orion Nebula were that close, it would cover 90 percent of the sky. 4) The Hercules Cluster (M13). The Hercules Cluster is a spherical swarm containing sev- eral hundred thousand stars. If the Sun were inside it, our nighttime sky would be filled with thou- sands of stars brighter than Sirius.

look. You may be walking around up there some day as a colonist at the first Moon Base. Study your math and science! (I use this one with my young star party guests.) For more examples of cosmic “wows!” look into the books The Cosmic Mind-Boggling Book by science writer Neil McAleer (Warner Books, 1989) and Extreme Cosmos by Bryan Gaensler (Perigee Trade, 2012). Want even more? Try a Web search for “amazing space facts” (or something similar). There are dozens of websites that offer mind-bending astro-facts. One of my favorites is “The Year in (Bad) Astronomy Facts” (http://tinyurl. com/AstroFacts), compiled by “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait. Don’t be misled by the title. Plait’s work is anything but “bad”! Questions, comments, or sug- gestions? Email me at gchaple@ hotmail.com. Next month: astro- nomical freebies. Clear skies!

Browse the “oBserving Basics” archive at www.astronomy.com/Chaple.

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What are large surveys teaching us about galaxy evolution?

Over the past few years, observations of distant galaxies have presented a puzzle. When the universe was only about a fourth of its present age, it already contained many mas- sive galaxies. With similar stellar masses to those we see around us today, many of these are not apparently forming stars at a significant rate — they are by then already “dead.” They are a factor of about three smaller in radius, however, and correspondingly have an average density of stars higher by a factor of about 30 than their counterparts today. So, it seems that these dead galaxies keep growing in size despite not forming stars. But how? The Cosmological Evolution Survey (COSMOS), which covers a huge volume of the distant universe, has enabled us to discover that the number of these dead galaxies has in fact increased greatly over time, with new galaxies being continuously added to the graveyard population. These new arrivals are systematically larger than the galaxies that “died” earlier, and this simple effect explains a large frac- tion of the apparent evolution of the average size of dead galaxies that scientists had previously claimed. The reason why later death means larger size is rela- tively simple: We know that star-forming galaxies are

Marcella Carollo

Professor of astrophysics at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland

systematically larger at later times, even when compared at the same stellar mass, and we understand this as a conse- quence of the assembly of dark matter halos in the uni- verse. This is because the average density of the dark matter within halos should always be a constant mul- tiple (about 200) of the average density of the uni- verse, so halos at a given mass will always be much larger at later times. If these star-forming galaxies then “die,” it is not surprising that the resulting remnants are also larger than the remnants formed at earlier times. Nature has given us a fantastic way to look back in time with our most powerful telescopes. But we only see individual galaxies at a single snapshot in their lives, and we must piece together how they evolve by comparing the snapshots of different galaxies. Our work is a strong reminder that a population can evolve by adding new members, even if the indi- viduals themselves are not changing at all.


Search the dark. On September 3, the Dark Energy Survey began its five-year mission to map 300 million galaxies and 100,000 galaxy clusters in the southern sky from the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile.

Trojan Found. Scientists discovered an asteroid (2011 QF 99 ) that shares uranus’ orbit around the Sun and leads by about 60°.

Uranus has a trojan asteroid

A 40-mile-wide (60 kilome- ters) asteroid shares Uranus’ path around the Sun, lead- ing the planet by 60°, say researchers in the August 30 issue of Science. This “Trojan” oscillates around one of Ura- nus’ five Lagrangian points — stable locations where the gravity of the planet and the Sun balance Uranus’ motion. While scientists have known for more than a century that Jupiter’s orbit holds Trojans, they thought Uranus’ Lagrangian points would be too unstable. Mike Alexandersen of the University of British Colum- bia and colleagues surveyed

20 square degrees of the sky using the Canada-France- Hawaii Telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, looking for objects beyond Nep- tune. They discovered 2011 QF 99 about 20.3 astronomi- cal units (AU, the average Sun-Earth distance) from our star October 24, 2011, and tracked its motion peri- odically over the next year. The team then compared its observations to com- puter models to determine 2011 QF 99 ’s orbit and con- clude that it oscillates around Uranus’ L4 point and should do so for at least 59,000 more years. — L. K.

Time machine. New theoretical work examines the universe’s expansion in its early years, a period researchers hope can explain the expansion’s current acceleration. They based their calcula- tions on the Planck telescope’s new map of the cosmic microwave background. ESA/PlANck

Physicists find wild neutrinos, dark energy in early universe

Theoretical physicists have investigated the universe’s earliest era to look for clues to how the cosmos expanded in its first few hundred thousand years. Its behavior back then has implications for its expansion now, more than 13 billion years later. The new results, published July 26 in Physical Review Letters, show that the balance of radiation and matter — part of what determines how fast the universe becomes larger — tipped in favor of radiation for longer than researchers had thought. The team says two things could explain the anomaly: fast-moving particles called “wild” neutrinos — an early version of the nearly massless and abundant particles in the universe today — or “early” dark energy — a phenomenon that could have been 1–10 times more powerful than today’s dark energy. — S. S.


what’s new at Astronomy.com.

by Karri Ferron

The new Astronomy.com

our website gets a face-lift

If you haven’t been to the magazine’s website in the past month, check out www.Astronomy.com today. Over the past year, our talented team of designers, programmers, and editors has been working diligently to provide users with a better Astronomy.com experience through a complete visual redesign of the site and added navigation functions. Then, on September 18, we debuted the fruits of our labor. First and foremost, Astronomy.com is now what those in the tech world call a “responsive site.” No, it doesn’t talk to you. But the design does respond to whatever device you’re using to connect to the Internet. Specifically, this means no more stripped-down version of the website that only offers news and blog content when you’re on your smartphone. Instead, the “responsive” graphics move to better fit your screen — while the type remains readable — so you still can access







mobile updates »

scan the code to access the latest news and observing info from your mobile device.

anything you’d find on the “full” version of the website. No more compromises for being on the go (or out under the stars)! Beyond the new clean look and respon- sive design, we’ve added some features to make getting where you want on Astronomy. com even easier: an expanded search func- tion, “related topics” tags to connect you with stories that fit your interests, more articles highlighted on the homepage, an area on every page that features the latest news and what’s popular on the website that week, photos and videos highlighted right in the menu bar, and much more. So put down this magazine (but be sure to come back to it later!) and do some browsing. Then let us know what you think by emailing us at letters@astronomy.com. We’re really excited about the redesign, and we can’t wait to hear your feedback.

RegisteR todAy! Go to www.Astronomy.com/register for access to bonus articles, photos, videos, and more.

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In the film A Serious Man, character Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a junior professor of physics. Although he teaches his students about the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, which mathematically makes the universe a mysterious place, he believes that equations can make the world make sense. focus features;

Nasa/esa/J. Blakeslee (Nrc HerzBerg astropHysics program, DomiNioN astropHysical oBservatory)/ k. alamo-martiNez (NatioNal autoNomous uNiversity of mexico)

rofessional astronomers use math all the time. Their journals brim with equations, data, and tables that to many backyard amateurs resem- ble the markings on Incan tablets. And while some hobby astronomers love math, it’s not really in their bones. Some even go way beyond arithmeti- cal apathy. They hate the subject. Perhaps it reminds them of school. Square roots and standard deviations bog down articles for them, and science writers usually oblige by omitting math- ematical equations altogether. But can you get a true sense of the universe and scientists’ dis- coveries without the dreaded variables and equals signs? Debra

Math class

Speaking the of the cosmos

Elmegreen, who recently retired as president of the American Astronomical Society, represents the nation’s professionals, who cannot shy away from calculations. “It is true,” she says, “that enjoying astronomy requires no numbers (and really, no words to appreciate the beauty). But an investigation into the nature of astronomical objects requires understanding the underlying phys- ics, which therefore involves math.” Daniel Kelson, a Carnegie Institution researcher whose team recently discovered one of the most distant galaxies known, is even more adamant: “As an astronomer, math is all I do. All the time. All of it. Not 37 percent, not 83 percent, not even 99.99 per- cent. It’s 100 percent.”

Let’s take the scare factor out of equations and ask scientists a fundamental question: How much of astronomy is math?

by Bob Berman


No matter. My own pathological need to be loved usually makes me leave out even simple favorite equations like the amazing Lorentz transformation in my monthly column. But let’s tackle that very formula just once — right this moment — and observe what happens. Because, as we will see, math can bring out the greatest splendors and curiosities of astronomy. Ready? It’s t√1–v²/c². Doesn’t that seem impossibly arcane? Despite its seeming opaqueness, this is a fairly simple equation. Its purpose is

Bob Berman is the author of the column “Strange Universe.”

Special relativity

Time dilation



1– v²/c²

Velocity Speed of light

Astronaut in rocket

The equations for time dila- tion and length contraction — which describe how time stretches and space shrinks when an object moves at a high velocity — are versions of the Lorentz transforma- tion. In time dilation, the faster an object moves, the slower time passes. Astronomy:

Roen kelly


Rocket travels the speed of light for a year.

Start time

End time

Rocket travels 1 mile per second for a year.



If an astronaut were able to travel at the speed of light, she could cruise around forever and no time would pass compared to a resting observer.

However, if the astronaut traveled 1 mile per second for one year, the difference in time for the astronaut and the observer would be minuscule.

Length contraction

d√ 1– v²/c²


Velocity Speed of light

The faster a rocket moves, the smaller it becomes. This shrinkage is an effect of special relativity called “length contraction,” and it means that if a rocket is traveling 99.995 percent of the speed of light, it will be just 3 percent of its

standstill size. Astronomy: Roen kelly

4.37 light-years

Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri

The distance the rocket travels will shorten, too. If a ship travels to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star, at 99.995 percent the speed of light, the distance contracts to 0.0437 light-years, 100 times shorter than the proper distance between Earth and the star.

Isaac Newton believed that math- ematical laws govern interactions between objects, and he proved it by “discovering” such equations as the universal law of gravitation, which accurately predicts how the masses and separations of things like planets and stars cause them to

behave. thinkstock

Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion mathematically describe how planets move within a solar system, though they do not say why. Physical laws describe what hap- pens and predict what will happen; theories explain why the laws work.


to describe a consequence of special relativity — Albert Einstein’s theory describing how the universe behaves when an object is mov- ing — called “time dilation,” which Einstein discovered forces time to go more slowly for you (relative to stationary people) the faster you travel. The Lorentz transformation reveals exactly how time grows when you move at a particular speed. Einstein loved this formula so much that he adopted it like a kitten. Let’s give this equation a try. Say you’re going on a trip. First, we have to account for t , which simply stands for the amount of time that passed for the folks who stayed home and did not go on your trip. We’ll make the calculations easy and say the trip was a single year, making t simply 1. Then, we have to multiply t with the meat and potatoes of Hen- drik Lorentz’s brilliant equation: √1–v²/c². Here, v represents the traveler’s (your) velocity, and c is the speed of light. It all sits under the “square root” symbol. This is a button on even $1 calculators bought at Target. With those three numbers accounted for, we’re now ready to see what it means. You can insert any velocity as v, and this equation will work. But first, let’s watch what would happen if you zoomed at light- speed. In that case, v and c are the same number: 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second). So the expression v²/c² , in this case, becomes c²/c². And dividing any number by itself always results in 1. The formula then tells us to subtract this 1 from 1, which yields a 0. And that’s all that remains beneath the square root sign. The square root of 0 is 0 — we’re done. The equation leads us to a numerical answer that we can put into words: If you are traveling at light-speed, zero time elapses. Time is frozen. Now let’s try some other speed. Say you go twice as fast as a rifle bullet, or 1 mile per second (1.6 km/s), and you go that fast for a year. Now, insert “1 mile/s” for v. Go through the same steps we followed above using this new velocity, and you’ll be amazed. When you travel at that speed, your time passage is one year (well,

As an astronomer,

All the time. — Daniel kelson

The Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz discovered the mathematical trans- formation that Albert Einstein then used to describe his special theory of relativity. Because of Lorentz’s equation contributions, what we now know as “Einstein’s theory” was originally called the “Lorentz- Einstein theory.” mUseUm BoeRhaave

Debra Elmegreen is the Maria Mitchell Chair of the astronomy department at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the former president of the American Astronomical Society. She re- searches star formation, spiral and interacting galaxy structure, and galaxy evolution. nRao/aUI/nsF

Daniel Kelson is a staff associate at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California. He primarily studies the compositions of, and dark matter distributions in, the most distant and massive galaxy

clusters. caRnegIe InstItUtIon FoR scIence

James Johnson is the author of the book For Gods and For Men (Delizon, 2012) and a math enthusiast. He is aware that correlations between physical aspects of the universe do not always imply that they have a physical relationship to each other.

james johnson

a year minus a few microseconds), while your stay-at-home friends also experience one year.

Merely going as fast as a bullet is too slow to alter the passage of time in any meaningful way. By contrast, time grinds to a total halt, so far as outside observ- ers would perceive it, when you move at the speed of light. Somewhere between those two extremes are various degrees of time slow-down. The beauty of this simple formula, which Lorentz created in 1904, is that you can insert any speed as v to find out how time would pass. If you play around with various velocities — speeds both com- parable to the speed of light and much slower — a pattern emerges:

Time is reluctant to change except at high speeds. If you plug in 184,420 miles per second (296,795 km/s) as v, which is 99 percent of

light-speed, time advances by just 0.14 times the rate experienced by couch potatoes. In other words, a day passes for you while a week simultaneously elapses back home. Another version of this very same formula shows how distance shrinks as you move faster. Just substitute d (for length) in place of t. If you travel very fast toward Alpha Centauri, the distance between Earth and that nearest

star shrinks. The Lorentz transformation tells us that the cosmos doesn’t have a single inviolable size. Travel at 99.9999999 percent of light-speed, and the equation will say the observable universe is now 22,198 times smaller. The galaxy’s cen- ter then lies just a little over 1 light-year away. If you could go at light-speed to see what a photon experiences, there would be no distance at all between you and the farthest edges of the cosmos. You’d find yourself everywhere at once. And not because of some alteration in your perception. The cosmos really would be that size. The Lorentz transformation tells us that reality actually changes when you vary your speed. All of this is undeniably juicy. And it all derives from the rela- tivity embodied in that single equation.

Math mechanics

Of course, humans’ obsession with numbers and the universe began thousands of years before Lorentz. Early on, a debate arose: Was math “built into” the universe? Or, instead, did our minds impose a system that lets us make sense of objects and their interactions? Many say that Isaac Newton “discovered” calculus. By using that verb, they are implying that the cosmos operates by inherent math- ematical principles that we humans can uncover. In the same way, when Pythagoras discovered a proof that was factual for any right

triangle — that when you square the lengths of the two legs and add them together, the resulting number is the length of the longer side squared — he was convinced that he had lifted a curtain from a cosmic truth. He was so overcome with gratitude that he reportedly slaughtered 100 oxen to thank the gods. This was before PETA had

an office on Samos. Many others of Pythagoras’ time shared his subdisciplinary interest: geometry, the investiga- tion of the shapes of things and the paths they take. The circle got most of the early math attention. After all, the Moon and the Sun both look perfectly round. Plus, stars move in precise circles around the North Celestial Pole. It was not until the early 17th

century that Johannes Kepler showed that the true paths of planets and moons are not circles but ellipses. To draw a perfect ellipse, push two tacks partway into a piece of wood. Create a loop of string that fits loosely over them. Put a pen- cil within the loop. Pull it outward, and move it all the way around — you’ll create an elliptical shape. Each of the tacks is called a “focus.” If you bring the tacks closer together and re-loop the string, the ellipse gets more circular. If you spread them apart, the shape becomes less like a circle and more eccentric. And here, “eccentric” is a technical term. “Eccentricity” is the result of dividing the distance between the ellipse’s center and one focus by the semimajor axis. Venus has the roundest orbit in our solar system with an eccentricity of 0.007. If

an investigation into

requires understanding the underlying physics, which therefore involves math.

— Debra elmegreen

Minor axis

Kepler’s first law


Major axis




e=0 circle


c c





Planets orbit in ellipses with the Sun at one focus and empty space at the other. Although many planetary orbits look circular, they usually have at least slight “eccentricity,” a measurement of how far they deviate from perfect roundness. An eccentricity of zero means the orbit actu- ally is a circle, and the higher the eccentricity, the more elongated the planet’s path around the star. Astronomy: Roen Kelly






Axis of


Minor axis







Kepler discovered that planets sweep out equal areas in equal amounts of time. In a circular

orbit, like the first example, a planet travels equal dis- tances and sweeps out equal areas in

a given amount of

time. The second illustrates a false scenario in which the planet goes faster farther from the Sun. In truth,

the closer a planet

is to the Sun, the

faster it moves, allowing a line from the planet to the star to pass over the same amount of space, shaded yellow, no matter where it is in its orbit. Astronomy:

Roen Kelly

this thing had tacks, they would be virtually touching. On the other hand, the most squashed orbit — Mercury’s — has an eccen-

tricity of 0.20. Its orbit’s diameter is five times larger than the dis- tance between its foci. Kepler discovered that all planets have elliptical orbits, with the Sun occupying one focus. The other tack is just an empty point in space. Cool or what? He also found that if you tied a gigantic piece of string between a planet and the Sun, it would sweep across equal areas of space in equal amounts of time. So when a planet is nearest the Sun (as

Earth is in early January), the string is shortest, and our planet must travel faster in order to cover the same area in one week as it does during a week in July, when the string is longest. Bot- tom line: Planets slow down and speed up to keep this “equal area”

business always precisely true. Finally, Kepler noted that if you square any planet’s “year,” that time is proportional to the orbit’s semimajor axis (half the major axis) cubed. If you measure the year in Earth years and the axis in Earth-Sun spans, or astro- nomical units (AU), the ratio works out exactly. This is astonishing. Consider Jupiter. It chugs through the zodiac and completes one orbit around our sky (and hence around the Sun) in 11.86 Earth years. 11.86 squared is 140.6. According to Kepler, its semimajor

axis must be a length that, when multiplied by itself thrice over, also equals 140.6. That number is 5.2. (5.2 × 5.2 × 5.2 = 140.6). Thus, Kepler’s “law” reveals that Jupiter must lie 5.2 AU from the Sun. It is like magic. Simple math — done in our minds alone — reveals distances in the solar system.

’Rithmetic relationships

An entirely different kingdom — statistics — provides astronomers with perhaps their greatest tool. It’s a perilous and often nonintui- tive realm. For example, who

could guess that when 24 or more people are in a room, sta- tistics says that two of them likely share a birthday? Simi- larly, astronomers often see tricky correlations that convince them of a new discovery in their data. A deeper analysis, though, can make those initial break-

throughs vanish. The search for celestial meaning demands that we separate out seeming correlations from mere coincidences. As author and math-lover James R. Johnson notes: “Consider the following three ratios: The density of a neu- tron star divided by the density of water is 10 15 , and the maximum magnetic field of a neutron star divided by the Earth’s magnetic field is 10 15 . Do these similar magnitudes have meaning? Are there other numbers or ratios that might show hidden relationships?”

Are there other

that might show

— James Johnson




















eq s




Radius (solar radii)











Linked satellites









Three of Jupiter’s moons are locked into different resonances with the gas giant. This plot shows that each time Ganymede orbits Jupiter, Europa orbits twice, and Io orbits four times. Their motions are harmonic variations of each other. Astronomy: Roen Kelly

Matchups like those magnitudes happen all the time if you mul- tiply and divide enough numbers, but which relationships are coin- cidence, and which reveal genuine cosmic secrets? In the “true” category, star colors, which come in every hue except green, do indeed correlate with basic stellar traits. Blue stars are younger, hot- ter, and more massive and spin faster than orange ones. Such celes- tial realities were only revealed through math. Certain traits cause a star to burn blue, so when you see blue, you know the star has those traits. It’s all about relationships. Take Earth’s interactions with the Moon, which spins on its axis in the time required for it to orbit around our planet. Its rotation and revo- lution have a 1:1 ratio. This could be coincidence, except that virtu- ally all of the solar system’s nearly 200 satellites exhibit resonance with their planets. That’s how scientists knew that some interaction — gravitational influence — must cause this “tidal lock.” Astronomers used to think Mercury had that same 1:1 resonance as a satellite of the Sun. But radar proved that it rotates exactly three times during two of its trips around our star. It has achieved stabil- ity in a different way, with a resonance of 2:3. Still, tidal forces have locked it into a neat mathematical relationship. These variations of immaculate ratios are fascinating wherever they occur. Jupiter’s moons Ganymede, Europa, and Io have a 1:2:4 resonance with each other. Ganymede makes one orbit around the

Newton’s law of gravitation

F=G(m 1 m 2

)/r 2

Newton’s universal law of gravitation describes why orbiting objects obey Kepler’s laws: The force of gravity (F) depends on the mass of the planet (m 1 ), the mass of the Sun (m 2 ), and how far they are apart (r). As the distance between the parent body and the satellite increases, the effects of gravity decrease. For each doubling of the distance, the force decreases by a factor of four. G is the universal gravitational constant, a number that is the same everywhere. Astronomy: Roen Kelly

Stellar groupings





The Sun

Spectral class





Correlation doesn’t imply causation. As children’s feet become larger, they become better at math. Their ability to solve for x, though, does not depend on shoe size but on age, and feet grow with time. However, in the case of stars, the hotter the temperature, the bluer the color will be because the peak wave- length changes, as the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram shows. Astronomy: roen Kelly

planet while Europa makes two and Io makes four. Or consider Pluto and Neptune, which together are locked into a 2:3 resonance. Neptune orbits the Sun three times just as Pluto revolves twice. Yet Pluto never comes closer than 17 AU to Neptune, even though it ventures nearly twice as close to Uranus! Astronomers use the simple value for gravity’s force (and how it diminishes with distance) in their calculations every day. It works every time because objects interact and relate to each other accord- ing to physical mathematical laws.

The language of the universe

To do astronomy, scientists not only must know about the laws but also must use them. As Elmegreen points out, “For astronomical research, math is necessary to describe a process such as a collapse of a gas cloud to form a star or to develop a computer simulation that shows the step-by-step evolution of two galaxies as they collide and draw out long tidal arms and create starbursts.” Kelson, using one of the world’s largest telescopes in Chile, takes it even further: “Being asked how I use math implies that math is a tool. But math is the language itself and not a tool.” The language of the universe? “Yes!” Kelson affirms. And by now, dear reader, you’ve had more than enough. But the point is clear. Even if we must downplay it in writing, math is what actually gives us discoveries to write about. The importance of math in astronomy is infinite.






what are the top 10 equations in astronomy? find out at www.Astronomy.com/toc.

Fire and ice

Torrid Mercury’s

T he saga of water ice hiding in the shadows on Mercury ranks among the most fascinating chapters in the history of plan- etary exploration. And the story didn’t end a year ago when scientists using NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft con-

firmed the existence of ice in craters near

the planet’s poles. MESSENGER — short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment,

GEochemistry, and Ranging — started orbiting Mercury in March 2011 and has been returning reams of data ever since. The discovery of ice contains its own sur- prises and new mysteries. Scientists had suspected for decades that water ice might survive in corners of the solar system’s innermost world. Theorists realized that cold regions could exist in certain areas, and observers seemingly backed up these theoretical computations.

Planetary scientist David Paige of the University of California, Los Angeles, a participating scientist on the MESSENGER project, stresses the wider significance of the ice story. “The Mercury discoveries demonstrate the power of theory and imagination in astronomy and planetary science,” he says. “However, just because something might be there doesn’t necessar- ily mean that it is. Careful observations and analysis are required as proof. Science

icy poles

The MESSENGER spacecraft reveals water ice lurking in deeply shadowed craters near the innermost planet’s

poles. by James Oberg

works best when good observations are guided by theory.” During the past several decades, scien- tists have come to realize that a conspiracy of freak accidents involving Mercury’s motion and orientation had created small regions on the planet’s surface where it ought to be cold enough for ice to form and survive for billions of years. Unfortunately, instruments on NASA’s Mariner 10 space- craft, which made the only previous visits

Color explodes from Mercury’s surface in this enhanced-color mosaic. The yellow and orange hues signify relatively young volcanic plains, while blue represents older terrain. The planet’s equator runs horizon- tally through the center of this image; the poles lie at top and bottom. NASA/JHUAPL/CIW

to the planet nearly 40 years ago, could not make the observations necessary to prove the case. Still, radar observations from Earth did detect unusually reflective regions in Mercury’s polar regions that seemed to overlap the supercold regions theorists had calculated. This match pro- vided a tentative hint of what might be.

Untangling Mercury’s web

It took centuries for astronomers to deci- pher Mercury’s physical and dynamic characteristics and to understand their implications. Although the planet lies rea- sonably close to Earth, it is a difficult world to observe in detail. As the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury never strays far from our

NatioNal astroNomy aNd ioNosphere CeNter/areCibo observatory


Deep craters near Mercury’s north pole harbor water ice. The first evidence for these deposits came from Earth-based radar observations in the early 1990s, which revealed bright patches that reflected most of the incoming signal.

A mosaic of MESSENGER images of Mercury’s north polar region appears beneath radar data of the same area seen at left. All of the large deposits sit on the floors or walls of impact craters, including Kandinsky and Prokofiev.

star’s glare. The best observing conditions occur when it lies near one of its greatest elongations, which create brief periods when the planet climbs well above our earthly horizon and appears approximately half-lit. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that astronomers, most notably Giovanni Schiaparelli in Italy and Greek-born Eugène Antoniadi in France, consistently observed the same markings on the planet’s illuminated side. These fea- tures did not move over short periods and reappeared in the same locations at succes- sive greatest elongations. These observations implied that Mer- cury likely is tidally locked with the Sun and always keeps the same face pointed toward our star. The Moon suffers a similar fate, in which Earth’s gravity locks the Moon so that it rotates in the same period it takes to revolve around our planet. The observations of Mercury also suggested that its rotation axis lines up nearly per- pendicular to its orbital plane. In Mercury’s case, being tidally locked would create a scorchingly hot Sun-facing hemisphere, a perpetually dark and frigid region on the opposite side, and a fairly broad twilight zone where the Sun would rise and set periodically in response to the planet’s varying orbital speed as it follows

James Oberg, a former NASA “rocket scientist,” now works as a space consultant for NBC News.

an elliptical orbit. (For the same reason, we see slightly more than half of the Moon’s surface during a lunar month.) Astrono-

mers accepted Mercury as another example of rotational lock well into the 20th century. But further Earth-based observations suggested that Mercury’s “dark side” was far warmer than it should be. Theorists proposed various ideas to explain the apparent contradiction, including one in which the planet possesses a massive atmosphere that spawns hurricanes to carry super- heated air into the perma- nently shad- owed regions.

But none of the

theories seemed to fit the observations. Then, in 1965, researchers bounced powerful radar beams off Mercury. A sub- tle shift in the wavelengths of the signals returned from the planet’s edges didn’t match an object rotating at the same rate as it revolved around the Sun — Mercury spins faster than anyone had suspected. Even so, the planet is tidally locked, just not in a 1-to-1 ratio. Mercury rotates three times on its axis for every two revolutions it makes around the Sun. Although this so-called 3:2 resonance is stable over long periods, it has some bizarre implications.



First, each Mercury day, from one sun- rise to the next, lasts two Mercury years. Long phases of heating and cooling are the rule across the planet’s surface. Second, despite these long cycles, not all longitudes experience the same share of heating. Because the planet has a fairly eccentric orbit, it travels much faster when it lies closer to the Sun. Noontime heating in one longitudinal zone can be twice that in another 90° away. The 3:2 resonance also means that the same regions experience extra heating day after day after day. The two hottest zones lie along the equator on opposite sides of the planet. Tem- peratures there soar as high as 845° Fahrenheit (725 kelvins). Third, Mercury’s true rotation period relative to the stars (58.8 days) coincidentally turns out to be approximately half of Mer- cury’s 116-day synodic period, the time it takes the planet to return to the same orbital configuration as seen from our planet. This means that successive observation periods from Earth occur when the same side of Mercury faces the Sun. This dynam- ical accident is just bad luck for earthbound astronomers, who noticed — and misinter- preted — the repeated appearances of the same surface features.

A chill at the poles

But not all coincidences are bad news. With better observations in following years, sci- entists realized that Mercury’s axis tilts 89.99° to its orbital plane — almost pre- cisely perpendicular. Theory suggests that this near-perfect match of axis and orbit is

a long-term effect of the planet’s gravita-

tional coupling with the Sun, which would mean that Mercury’s rotation axis adjusts to changes in its orbital inclination over time. As a consequence, deep craters near the planet’s poles can remain in permanent shadow and serve as ice traps for a billion years or more. In 1991, researchers beamed radar sig- nals at Mercury. Using the Goldstone radio telescope in California and the Very Large Array in New Mexico, they detected unusu- ally strong radar returns from the planet’s polar regions. These areas come into view because Mercury’s orbit tilts 7° to Earth’s, which allows astronomers to peek over the inner world’s poles. The giant 1,000-foot (305 meters) radio dish at Arecibo Obser- vatory in Puerto Rico later observed these same regions with similar results. Photographs taken during the three Mariner 10 flybys in the mid-1970s showed that, in some cases, the high-return regions seemed to coincide with deep polar craters. Although water ice seemed the most likely cause, theorists developed several even more exotic explanations, including sulfur snow, sodium ions, or an unknown feature of the supercold surface. (After all, this was the coldest surface radar scientists had ever explored.)

MESSENGER to the rescue

Into this uncertainty and mystery, NASA launched the MESSENGER probe in 2004.

It was a challenge to get a spacecraft to

Mercury with a speed slow enough that the biggest propulsion module possible could

decelerate the craft into a stable orbit. After

a seven-year voyage that included three

flybys of the inner world, the probe arrived in its planned orbit March 17, 2011. After a year of observations and anal- ysis, NASA announced the results in November 2012. The ice is real, but it isn’t what scientists expected. If anything, it proved even more interesting. MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, director of Columbia Uni- versity’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Obser- vatory, described how the science team painstakingly developed its case for ice at the poles. First, the researchers tested the hypothesis that the areas where scientists

This oblique view of the inner world’s north polar region shows the surface temperature averaged over two Mercury years. Blue and purple represent the coldest areas, where ice can persist. NASA/UCLA/JHUAPL/CIW


Maximum temperature (kelvins) 100 150 200 250 300 350 400 450 500 550

The highest temperature observed over two Mercury years gives a better idea of where ice can survive. The coldest spots in permanently shadowed craters only reached –370° Fahrenheit (50 kelvins). NASA/UCLA/JHUAPL/CIW


Ice depth (centimeters)






This map of “permafrost” shows the same area as above and indicates the depths below Mercury’s surface where water ice should be stable. Gray denotes regions that are too warm for any ice, color reveals areas where subsurface ice can exist, and white shows spots cold enough for surface ice. NASA/UCLA/JHUAPL/CIW

Relative fux

How neutrons point to ice


Cosmic rays


Ice layer

Low-hydrogen layer (4–8 inches [10–20cm] thick)

Pure ice

When high-energy cosmic rays strike Mer- cury’s surface, they liberate neutrons from subsurface atoms. Although these particles normally escape into space after traveling through the surface, hydrogen atoms in water ice block their route. An insulating layer low in hydrogen protects the ice. Astronomy : Rick Johnson

Neutrons tell the tale

Medium-speed neutrons








Pure ice





North latitude


No ice



MESSENGER’s neutron spectrometer surveys the entire planet looking for neutrons. If no ice existed on Mercury, the number of neu- trons would remain constant with latitude. If the radar-bright deposits were pure ice, the plot would follow the yellow curve. The MESSENGER data closely match the pure-ice

scenario. Astronomy : Rick Johnson, afteR nasa/JhUaPL/ciW

had observed bright radar returns were positioned inside craters having the right shape and in locations where ice could sur- vive. “Imaging of both poles over multiple solar days on Mercury confirmed that all polar deposits are located in areas of per- manent shadow,” says Solomon. And the craters are big enough so that light reflect- ing from the Sun-facing rims does not flood the shadows with too much heat. Second, the scientists used the craft’s neutron spectrometer, an instrument that already had proved its worth during ice searches on the Moon, to seek evidence of hydrogen, two-thirds of the building blocks for water molecules. “Neutron spectrometer measurements [in the northern hemisphere] showed that the polar deposits have a hydro- gen abundance consistent with a composi- tion dominated by water ice,” says Solomon, “but only if most ice deposits are buried beneath several tens of centimeters [at least several inches] of a low-hydrogen material.” The spacecraft’s laser altimeter provided the third line of evidence. This instrument, developed to measure the precise shape and elevation of the planet’s surface, also paid dividends in the hunt for ice. “Reflectance measurements showed that most polar deposits are dark at near-infrared wave- lengths [1,064 nanometers in this case], but some of the polar deposits at the highest latitudes are much brighter than average for Mercury,” says Solomon. Finally, the team matched the newly imaged candidate regions to actual cold areas. “Thermal models derived with topo- graphic maps constructed from altimeter profiles showed that water ice is thermally stable at the surface in those areas with bright reflectance, but is stable only if bur- ied by several tens of centimeters of another still-volatile material for most [other] polar deposit areas,” says Solomon. This uniden- tified material appears to be less volatile than water ice, which means it remains stable at higher temperatures.

A dark cover-up

MESSENGER scientists didn’t anticipate discovering such a dark overcoat: “Finding unusually dark material in association with the ice deposits was definitely unexpected,” says Paige. “We hypothesized that these may be dark organic-rich deposits like we find in comets and primitive outer solar system bodies. If this stuff really exists on Mercury, that would be pretty amazing.” Solomon agrees: “The surprise was that the material covering most of those [ice] deposits is not typical soil from Mercury’s

regolith [the layer of loose rock and soil found on the surfaces of most solar system bodies] but is instead material with a reflec- tance half that of Mercury’s average. The specific reflectance and limiting tempera- ture are best matched by organic-rich mate- rial found in comets and volatile-rich meteorites, and on the surfaces of outer solar system objects.” Solomon adds that these properties strongly suggest that the water ice and the organic material found their way to Mercury’s polar craters by a common process. The researchers found the dark protec- tive layer over ice in craters at some distance from both poles. Its distribution clearly avoids the longitudes of the “hot spots” cre- ated by Mercury’s peculiar 3:2 resonance. The volatile deposits extend farther from both poles along the coldest longitudes — those 90° off the hot spot locations — pro- viding further proof of their icy nature. But closer to both the north and south poles, the temperatures drop even lower. In these regions, ice can remain stable without any protection. The water ice is pure, and it is naked to space. “We had expected to find evidence of ice, but bright ice on the surface and right where the thermal models pre- dicted it was a surprise,” says Paige. “Bright surface ice requires ongoing processes to deliver water to the polar regions faster than it can be buried by impact debris and [ultraviolet] radiation.”

Taking a bath

Considering NASA’s exobiology imperative to “follow the water” in search of extrater- restrial life, the question arises whether water ice on Mercury opens a potential new habitat for biology. The answer, so far at least, appears to be no. “The likelihood of persistent liquid water is remote,” says Solomon. Water in Mercury’s polar craters either will be a sta- ble solid or in vapor form. “There may be brief intervals where water ice may be melted by sunlight or subsurface heat,” he continues, “but there is no evidence that water has modified the surface or near- surface in ways detectable from orbit.” “We don’t think there’s any possibility for liquid water in association with these deposits,” adds Paige. “They are way too cold. While surface and subsurface temperatures in the soil surrounding the ice deposits can be in the habitable zone [where conditions allow liquid water to exist], Mercury has no atmosphere, so any liquid water in these warmer regions would quickly boil away into space.”

Astronomy : Rick johnson

This enhanced-color mosaic reveals Mercury’s south polar region. MESSENGER’s most detailed observa- tions show the planet’s northern half because the probe flies closer to that hemisphere. But images of the south pole show craters that lie in permanent shadow, just like those in the north. nAsA/jhUAPL/ciW

But where it is cold, water ice is stable for a long time. “There could definitely be billion-year-old ice on Mercury because the cold traps [have remained frigid for a major fraction of the solar system’s history],” says Paige. Still, he remains cautious: “We don’t know enough about the sources and destruction rates of the ice to say how old any given piece of ice might be.” Could the ice exist in successive layers, with the oldest at the bottom? If so, it could provide future explorers with a time-lapse history of Mercury and, perhaps, solar activity. In much the same way, terrestrial geologists use ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland to study Earth’s climate history. “This is one possibility, but, unfortu- nately, we just don’t know the answer,” Paige admits. He does speculate that the apparently well-organized nature of Mer- cury’s deposits suggests that they might have migrated, mixed, and reformed as the planet’s orbit evolved over millions of years. This could jumble any time history.

To the next stage

The MESSENGER spacecraft continues to orbit Mercury, dipping closer to the surface to gather more precise measurements of particularly interesting regions. During the probe’s final year of operation, mission

planners intend to have it descend within 15 miles (25 kilometers) of the surface at specific points, where it will be able to make the most detailed observations yet. Until then, scientists will have to be con- tent with what the orbiter already has deliv- ered. For Solomon, the water ice detection ranks high for two reasons. “First, the required measurements were difficult, given that our spacecraft was far from the planet’s polar regions and the polar depos- its filled only a small fraction of the field of view of key remote sensing instruments,” he says. “Second, the confirmation of water ice required that multiple lines of evidence all pointed in the same direction. The results came in one at a time, like plot developments in a mystery novel, and the solution came only on the final page.” Paige echoes those sentiments: “Scien- tists have been studying polar ice on the Moon and Mercury since the 1960s. The MESSENGER observations are like a satis- fying end to a good story — or at least one chapter in a longer story.” David Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who led the design team for the neutron spec- trometer that detected the hydrogen, stresses that polar ice on the Moon and Mercury reflect different phenomena. Mercury’s

How ice forms and survives




550K 350K





80K Shadow

Sunlight hits an impact crater near Mercury’s north pole at a shallow angle. Although the sunlit rim grows hot, the opposite side remains in shadow (1). When comets strike the planet (2), they spread water and organic com- pounds over a wide area, and some migrate to the poles and get trapped in craters (3). Water ice in the warmer areas vaporizes over time (4) but stays stable in the coldest spots, protected by a layer of organic material (5).

poles are warmer than the lunar poles, he points out, but the planet has a lot more water in much purer form. “It’s a continuing mystery, the differences in the ice between the Moon and Mercury,” he says. “We’ll need to go down and sample the surface.” Actually reaching and analyzing Mer- cury’s polar ice is a challenge at the current limits of technological speculation. Perhaps a lander could do the job, or an impactor paired with an orbiting collector made of aerogel that captures the collision’s debris. In other words, it’s an ideal goal for young planetary scientists to consider. After all, the next chapter on Mercury’s polar ice remains to be written.

Read moRe about the meSSeNGeR SpacecRaft’S diScoveRieS at meRcuRy at www.Astronomy.com/toc.



Martin ratcliffe and alister ling describe the

solar system’s changing landscape as it appears in earth’s sky.

Visible to the naked eye Visible with binoculars Visible with a telescope

December 2013: ISON continues to shine

With 7x50 binoculars, place Iota at the bottom of your field of view; Theta will appear at the top right. Then locate 5th-magnitude 38 Aqr, the brightest star on the line joining these two. Neptune lies about 2° northeast of 38 but appears 10 times fainter, at magnitude 7.9. The handful of 7th- and 8th-magnitude stars that dot this area will complicate your search. To confirm a sighting, target the object with a tele- scope at high power and look for a blue-gray disk measur- ing 2.3" across. Uranus stands more than halfway to the zenith in the southern sky after darkness settles in. It’s easier to locate than Neptune because it shines at magnitude 5.8, more than two magnitudes brighter than its planetary sibling. Uranus rests on the Pisces- Cetus border, so use 4th- magnitude Delta (δ) Piscium as a guide star. The planet lies 6° southwest of Delta, or slightly less than the field of view in 7x50 binoculars.

The Moon joined Venus in the morning sky over Australia on March 6, 2008 (with dimmer Mercury above the pair). The first two objects have a similar close conjunction December 5. Mike Salway

I t’s a busy month in Earth’s sky. At the top of every- one’s mind is Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), which could be magnificent both after

dusk and before dawn. But don’t pass on the many bright planets visible these long nights. Venus outshines every object except the Sun and Moon, making it impossible to miss on December eve- nings. Jupiter gleams almost all night as it approaches its peak in early January. And mornings favorably show off Mercury, Mars, and Saturn. Venus commands your attention as darkness falls. It shines at magnitude –4.9 — the brightest it ever gets — throughout December’s first half. (Greatest brilliancy

Martin Ratcliffe provides plane- tarium development for Sky-Skan, Inc., from his home in Wichita, Kansas. Meteorologist Alister Ling works for Environment Canada in Edmonton, Alberta.

occurs officially on the 6th, but you won’t notice any brightness change until after midmonth.) If you have a car- pet of fresh snow, wave your hand a foot or so above the ground under a dark sky, and you should see the planet cast- ing a shadow. Venus fades to a still impressive magnitude –4.5 by month’s end. This world also lies highest in the southwestern sky in early December. It stands 15° above the horizon an hour after the Sun goes down and doesn’t set until nearly two hours later. A waxing crescent Moon passes 8° north of Venus on December 5. By the 31st, the planet lies just 4° high an hour after sunset. Any telescope shows the remarkable changes Venus undergoes. On December 1, the planet appears 37" across and 31 percent lit. New Year’s Eve reveals a 59"-diameter disk, but the Sun illuminates only 5 percent of it.

You’ll have to wait for twi- light to fade completely before hunting for Uranus and Nep- tune through binoculars. Look for Neptune around 7 p.m. local time, when it lies 30° high in the southwest. First find Theta (θ) and Iota (ι) Aquarii, a pair of 4th- magnitude stars near Aquar- ius’ border with Capricornus.

Venus shines brighter and climbs higher in the evening sky during early December than at any other time during this apparition. Astronomy : Jay SMith

Rising Moon

A cacophony of craters and cliffs

The evening of December 13 features a waxing gibbous Moon. While meteor observers wait for the bright light to set and clear the stage for Geminid viewing, Moon watchers will break out their telescopes and target the lunar southwest. Tucked along the western shores of Mare Humorum (Sea of Moisture) lies a curving scarp (or cliff) named Rupes Liebig. Centered on the impact that cre- ated the basin, the cliff appears as a white arc that changes by the hour as it catches the rising Sun. The scarp formed when Humorum sank under the weight of lava, cracking the floor and causing it to fall. A smaller impactor later punctuated the scarp with a diminutive crater. Notice a few line segments on Rupes Liebig’s western side. They belong to a family of rilles

on the lunar nearside that appear radial to a huge but now buried basin. The ancient impact that excavated this basin also created deep cracks. Later on, the walls slumped and impacts splashed material into them. On the 14th, sunlight fully illuminates the modestly bat- tered crater Mersenius. This 52-mile-wide crater should have a central peak, just like the simi- larly sized Tycho. It’s there, but it’s buried under lava that oozed through cracks in the floor. Sci- entists don’t know why the lava pushed upward in a broad dome instead of forming a flat pool. This bulge shows up best on the 13th when the Sun hangs low. Can you see a dragon’s mouth tucked south of the pair of Henry craters? The play of light and shadows on peaks and crater rims there led observer

The gentle arc of Rupes Liebig stands out on the waxing gibbous Moon

the night of December 13/14. ConsolidAted lunAr AtlAs/Ua/LPL; inSet: naSa/GSFC/aSU

Dave Gamble to imagine “a mouthful of very bright teeth.” Similar conditions return between midnight and 3 a . m . EST December 15. They are

nothing more than tricks of the terrain and the mind’s fancy, but it’s fun to observe them, espe- cially when the illusion may come and go in a half-hour.

As with Neptune, a tele- scope provides proof that you’re viewing a planet. At medium magnification, you’ll quickly recognize Uranus’ distinctive blue-green hue and see its 3.6"-diameter disk. Giant Jupiter rises shortly after 7 p.m. local time Decem- ber 1 and around sunset on the 31st, when it remains vis- ible all night. With opposition and peak visibility arriving during January’s first week, the gas giant appears stun- ning this month. It shines at magnitude –2.7 New Year’s Eve, when it dominates the sky after Venus sets. Jupiter lies against the backdrop of Gemini, approxi- mately 10° southwest of that constellation’s brightest stars, Castor and Pollux. It resides much closer to magnitude 3.5 Delta Geminorum, however.

Continued on page 42



Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) should glow brightly and sport a long tail as it climbs into view before dawn in early December.

Continued from page 37

WheN tO vIeW the plaNetS

EvEning sky

Venus (southwest)


Jupiter (southeast)

Morning sky

Mercury (southeast)

Callisto casts a large shadow

Callisto’s shadow






Uranus (southeast)

Uranus (west)

Mars (south)


Neptune (south)

Jupiter (west)

On December 10, the planet skims just 15' — half the Full Moon’s diameter — north of the star. You’ll want to spend a lot of time at the telescope view­ ing details in Jupiter’s atmos­ phere. The planet is almost perfectly placed for late­ evening and after­midnight viewing during December. It climbs higher than 60° for more than three hours every night. The great altitude means you don’t have to look through as much of Earth’s image­distorting atmosphere. The planet’s feature­laden disk grows from 45" to 47" across this month. At first glance, you’ll see two dark stripes, one on either side of


Saturn (southeast)

the planet’s brighter equator. These two belts initially may appear featureless, but close inspection reveals subtle dark spots and turbulent edges. These features move quickly in response to Jupiter’s rapid spin — it completes a rotation once every 10 hours or so. The four Galilean moons of Jupiter — Io, Europa, Gan­ ymede, and Callisto — orbit the planet in 1.8, 3.6, 7.2, and 16.7 days, respectively. They change relative positions from night to night and often from hour to hour. Observers particularly enjoy watching when a moon passes in front of, or transits, the planet’s disk shortly after its shadow transits the jovian cloud tops.

ISON makes a beeline to the north

Greatness is fleeting. Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) will max out for just a week or so in late Novem- ber and early December. Before and after this peak, most astron- omers expect ISON to look like Comet PANSTARRS (C/2011 L4) did in March and April Ñ a nice object for experienced observ- ers but not as much for the general public. YouÕll need to be up by the crack of dawn to catch ISONÕs tail above the eastern horizon before the rest of the comet climbs into view, followed too quickly by the Sun itself. Use binoculars and a telescope at a range of magnifications to see the most cometary detail.

As ISON retreats from the SunÕs radiation, its brightness and activity level will diminish, but its contrast against the darker background sky will surge. To naked eyes or through binoculars, the prettiest views may come a week or more into December. No matter how much the comet flares or fizzles, it always will look better from under a dark sky. Search for an observ- ing site east of your city or town to put the veil of light pollution behind you. But even if you must remain in town, observe at every opportunity Ñ any night could provide the observation of a lifetime.


December 17, 11:30 P.M. EST


Jupiter’s outermost major moon, Callisto, casts a shadow onto the jovian cloud tops the night of December 17/18. Astronomy : Jay Smith

With the long December nights and Jupiter’s near­ optimal position, plenty of satellite events take place this month. But perhaps the most interesting sequence occurs December 17/18 and involves Callisto and Io. The pitch­ black shadow of Callisto, which shows up easily through even small telescopes, starts to transit Jupiter’s disk at 10:04 p.m. EST. The dark dot takes more than three hours to cross the planet’s southern hemisphere. As the shadow exits the disk at 1:17 a.m. EST, the

Comet ISON (C/2012 S1)

moon itself appears 8" off Jupiter’s southeastern limb. The gap closes quickly, how­ ever, and by 2:20 a.m. EST the moon begins its own transit. This journey doesn’t conclude until 5:46 a.m. EST. Some 20 minutes before Callisto reaches the planet’s southwestern limb, Io’s shadow begins a transit on the opposite side, at 5:27 a.m. EST. Nearly 30 minutes later, Io commences its own transit. Although observers on North America’s East Coast will have to watch the moon and its shadow march in lock step

Comet ISON glowed dimly in early September, when it returned to view before dawn after months lost in the Sun’s glare. Damian Peach

The Moon meets Mercury, Saturn, and ISON



Locating Asteroids

Lowly Davida runs with the Bull

What’s the highest numbered asteroid you’ve ever seen? You could achieve a personal best this month with 511 Davida, whose elliptical orbit brings it about as close to Earth as it can get. This favorable alignment occurs only every 45 years. Astronomers estimate that Davida spans a respectable 200 miles and ranks among the 10 most massive members of the main asteroid belt. American astronomer Raymond Dugan discovered the object photo- graphically in 1903. Despite the object’s high number, Davida peaks at 10th magnitude this month and shouldn’t be difficult to hunt down. Wait until mid-evening for Taurus to climb high. The

asteroid lies in the southern part of this constellation, roughly 10° south of Aldebaran. The background sky has a nice range of star brightnesses to provide you with a recogniz- able pattern at the eyepiece. Magnitude 4.3 Mu (μ) Tauri serves as an anchor point near the end of Davida’s track. If you want to see a solar system object move in just two or three hours, the evening of December 7 will work well. Davida then slides past two 9th-magnitude stars. The three form a triangle whose shape changes noticeably in a couple of hours. You need to draw only three dots on a sheet of paper and return to identify the one that shifted position.


Path of Davida












Comet ISON



December 1, 45 minutes before sunrise Looking east-southeast

December’s first morning showcases a grand conjunction among four bright solar system objects. Astronomy : Jay Smith

across the cloud tops during twilight, West Coast viewers will see it in a dark sky. Although Mars hasn’t offered amateur astronomers much all year, that’s starting to change. The Red Planet rises around 1 a.m. local time in early December and an hour earlier by month’s end. During this period, Mars brightens from magnitude 1.2 to 0.9, the brightest it has been since 2012. Earth’s neighbor passes several modest stars in the constellation Virgo during December. On the 2nd, Mars treks just 1.2° north of mag­ nitude 3.6 Beta (β) Virginis. On the 17th, the planet slides 0.7° north of magnitude 3.9 Eta (η) Vir, and it stands a similar distance south of mag­ nitude 2.7 Gamma (γ) Vir on the 29th. Although the ruddy world looks nice with naked eyes and binoculars, the telescopic view still leaves something to be desired. Even by month’s end, Mars spans only 7" and shows few details beyond its white north polar cap. The planet grows significantly larger in early 2014, however, and should show many dusky surface markings. December’s first morning promises a fine sight. A slen­ der crescent Moon rises around the beginning of

twilight and climbs nearly 10° high in the southeast by 45 minutes before sunrise. Mercury, which shines at magnitude –0.6, lies 5° east of the Moon while saturn (magnitude 0.6) appears 2° above our satellite. Binoculars will provide the best views of this scene and should reveal a bonus object:

Comet ison. Assuming that this long­awaited visitor sur­ vived its brush with the Sun in late November, ISON will quickly improve before dawn. Although the comet’s nucleus lies on the horizon 45 minutes before sunup on the 1st, the tail angles above the horizon and ought to be easier to see. If predictions hold, ISON should shine at 1st magnitude this morning. Of the four morning objects on display December 1, the Moon disappears first. It succumbs to the Sun’s glow the next day when it reaches its New phase. Mercury exits from the stage next. Just a week into December, the innermost planet sits only 4° high 30 minutes before sun­ rise. It becomes lost in the dawn glow a few days later. Saturn fares much better. By the end of the year, it rises four hours before the Sun and appears 20° high in the

Taurus gives sanctuary to a massive asteroid







Dec 1

Asteroid 511 Davida wanders through the southern part of Taurus the Bull during December, not far from 4th-magnitude Mu (μ) Tauri. Astronomy : Jay Smith

southeast as twilight begins. Any telescope shows the plan­ et’s 16"­diameter disk and beautiful ring system, which spans 36" and tilts 22° to our line of sight. But Comet ISON likely will draw the lion’s share of attention. The comet tracks northward rapidly and climbs

higher into a darker morning sky. Still, astronomers expect it to dim by five magnitudes this month, so the best views should come during Decem­ ber’s first two weeks. For more details on viewing this cosmic visitor, see “Comet ISON’s dazzling all­night show” on p. 56.

Get daily updates on your niGht sky at www.Astronomy.com/skythisweek.


Where are they now?

What happens after planetary missions end? We show you the fates of 20 spacecraft.

by Yvette cendes; illustrations by roen Kelly

Inner solar system


Sputnik 1

The Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957, giving the USSR a leg up in the space race with the United States. The craft orbited Earth while sending out radio pulses for three weeks until its transmitter batteries ran out. It burned up as it reentered our atmosphere January 4, 1958.


Vanguard 1

The United States Naval Research Laboratory launched Vanguard 1 on March 17, 1958. (NASA wasn’t established until late 1958.) This craft is the fourth-oldest artificial satellite and also the oldest man-made satellite still in orbit. Vanguard 1 pro-

vided researchers with extensive information about satellite drag and atmospheric density, and confirmed that Earth is wider across the equa- tor than across its poles. Vanguard 1’s transmitter stopped working in 1964, but scientists expect it will last in orbit for roughly 185 more years.




Mariner 2

On December 14, 1962, Mariner 2 became the first spacecraft to successfully encounter a planet when it flew by Venus. It returned data about the venusian atmosphere, magnetic field, and mass from its 42-minute survey. The last contact with Mariner 2 occurred January 3, 1963, and it remains in orbit around the Sun, although its exact location is unknown.

Venera 9

4 Venera 9 was the first probe to return images from the surface of another planet. This USSR mission landed on Venus on October 22, 1975; it transmitted data for 53 minutes until radio





1994 1975



1963 1962

contact was lost when the orbiter relaying signals went out of range. The lander compiled data about the thickness of Venus’ clouds, the composition of its atmosphere, and the planet’s surface temperature and pressure. Venera 9 is still on the surface of Venus and likely corroded due to the atmosphere’s extreme conditions.


From 1990 to 1994, the Magellan spacecraft mapped the surface of Venus via radar imaging, giving scientists the most detailed maps of the planet that exist today. Eventually, faced with fading power, the spacecraft was placed into a decaying or- bit that caused it to travel through the thick atmosphere October 13 and 14, 1994. Although most of the spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere, a Magellan Status Report from October 1994 suggests that some of its debris hit the venusian surface.


a lthough space missions get a lot of attention when they first leave Earth and when they complete

their primary mission goals, after the proj- ects are done, we hear little about them. But just because a spacecraft leaves the headlines doesn’t mean it really has dis- appeared: missions can be extended for years, and the flotsam is usually des- troyed or abandoned in space. What ever happened to your favorite space missions? Here is a survey of some of the most famous and where they are now (with two yet to reach their primary targets). Unless otherwise noted, the mis-

sions shown here are American.

Yvette cendes is a doctoral student in astronomy at the University of Amsterdam. Her Twitter handle is @whereisyvette.











Viking 1


On July 20, 1976, Viking 1 became the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. Its mission lasted until November 13, 1982, when a faulty command from Earth overwrote the lander’s antenna-pointing software. The lander is still in its original posi- tion — the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged it in 2006. The Viking 1 orbiter, which was in use until 1980, is still in martian orbit.

Mars CliMate Orbiter

Launched in 1998 with a planned orbital insertion in September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter was supposed to monitor atmospheric conditions on the Red Planet. Instead, it became a costly lesson about the importance of unit con- version. NASA lost contact with the spacecraft when it first went into orbit around the planet in September 1999. The space agency later determined the orbiter went too close to Mars and burned up in the atmosphere due to a mistake in its software between American and metric units. NASA

7 now has safeguards in place to ensure that such a “metric mix-up” doesn’t occur in the future.


Mariner 10

Launched November 3, 1973, Mariner 10 was the first to successfully fly by

Mercury. It imaged much of the planet during three flybys:



11 11

1975 1974

in March 1974, September 1974, and March 1975. Its altitude-control gas ran out in March 1975, and team members then switched off the craft’s transmitter. Researchers believe

11 Mariner 10 is still orbiting the Sun.


2008 6












Spirit was the first of two Mars Exploration Rovers that landed on the Red Planet in January 2004. Its explorations in the Gusev Crater area led to new discoveries about martian geology. The mission lasted much longer than planned, but after driving 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers) on Mars, the rover got stuck in soft soil May 6, 2009. Scientists briefly used Spirit as a stationary research platform, but due to the angle between its solar panels and the Sun, many critical components failed during the extremely cold martian winter. The last communication from Spirit was March 22, 2010.


Opportunity is Spirit’s twin rover, and it landed just three weeks later; it is still active and has driven the second-farthest distance on a world other than Earth of any vehicle. As of September 20, 2013, it had traveled 23.82 miles (38.34km). (The Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 lunar rover traversed some 26 miles [42km].)


The Phoenix lander touched down May 25, 2008, in Mars’ north polar region to learn more about this extreme environment. The mission lasted two months longer than its planned three; in October, a lack of power from its solar panels due to the start of martian winter forced the craft into safe mode. Phoenix made its last transmission

November 2, 2008. The Mars Reconnais-

sance Orbiter imaged the lander in 2012 and found that it was coated in carbon-dioxide ice some 12 inches (30 centimeters) thick during the winter; the ice’s weight caused Phoenix’s solar panels to crack and fall off.







Primary mission (location and year)

Spacecraft that burned up or crashed

Last contact (location and year)

Planetary fyby

NASA (SputNik 1; VANguArd 1; VeNerA 9; MArS; MAriNer 10); NASA/JpL (MAriNer 2; NeptuNe); MichAeL cArbAJAL/NASA heAdquArterS (VikiNg 1; VoyAger 1; VoyAger 2); eSA (giotto; huygeNS); NASA/JpL-cALtech (MAgeLLAN; NeAr ShoeMAker; dAwN; pioNeer 10; pioNeer 11; gALiLeo; roSettA); corby J. wASte/NASA (MArS cLiMAte orbiter); NASA AMeS reSeArch ceNter (Spirit; opportuNity); NASA/JpL/uA/Lockheed MArtiN (phoeNix); JhuApL/S w ri (New horizoNS); hALLey MuLticoLor cAMerA teAM/giotto proJect/eSA (coMet 1p/hALLey); NeAr proJect/NLr/JhuApL/goddArd SVS/NASA (433 eroS); NASA/JpL-cALtech/ ucLA/MpS/dLr/idA (4 VeStA); NASA/eSA/S w ri/corNeLL uNiVerSity/uNiVerSity of MAryLANd/StS c i (1 cereS); eSA/AoeS MediALAb (coMet 67p/churyuMoV-gerASiMeNko); NASA/eSA/erich kArkoSchkA, uNiVerSity of ArizoNA (urANuS); NASA/eSA/M. buie (S w ri) (pLuto); NASA/JpL/SpAce ScieNce iNStitute (titAN)

Spacecraft: Where are they now?

Comets and asteroids




The European Giotto mission photo- graphed a comet’s nucleus for the first time when it flew by Comet 1P/Halley in March 1986. Although scientists didn’t expect the instruments to survive the encounter due to dust from the comet’s jets, eight of Giotto’s 10 did.



433 Eros

neaR shoemakeR



On February 14, 2000, Near Earth As-

12 teroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker




became the first spacecraft in history to orbit an asteroid — the near-Earth ob-

ject 433 Eros. The mission was wildly successful: The craft spotted more than 100,000 craters on the surface. After NEAR Shoemaker fulfilled all its science goals, engineers had the craft land on Eros’ surface February 12, 2001. Despite being an orbiter and not designed to land, NEAR Shoemaker con-

13 tinued to transmit from the surface before researchers shut it down February 28.

Scientists then placed the spacecraft in hibernation mode for a future cometary 12 encounter. In July 1992, Giotto visited Comet 26P/ Grigg-Skjellerup, after which researchers switched it off again. They haven’t attempted further contact.


4 Vesta

1 Ceres




The Dawn spacecraft was the first in history to visit the asteroid 4 Vesta, which it orbited from July 16, 2011, to September 5, 2012. Using Dawn data, scientists determined that Vesta has a crust, mantle, and core. The mission hasn’t ended, however: Dawn is en route to the dwarf planet 1 Ceres, and, if all goes well, it will be



the first mission

to orbit a dwarf planet when it arrives in 2015.









The European

Space Agency launched the Rosetta space- craft in 2004 to visit Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It will begin or- biting the comet in May 2014, and a small lander, Philae, will attempt to land on the comet’s surface in November.











Outer solar system


PioNeer 10

After NASA launched the spacecraft in March 1972, Pioneer 10 conducted the first Jupiter flyby in 1973. In January 2003, the space agency detected the craft’s last signal. Scientists

believe it is 109.1 astronomical units (AU, the average Sun-Earth distance) from Earth and moving at a speed of 2.5 AU per year. During much of Pioneer 10’s and its twin’s (Pioneer 11) voyages through the outer solar system, they were subject to what was called the“Pioneer anomaly”: According to calculations, the spacecraft were moving slower than expected. Some scientists suggested this was evidence of new physics, but in 2012, researchers published the reason for the slowdown: Heat from the craft’s electronics and power source is creates a force that acts as a brake.






43.4 AU


(88.7 AU current)

Voyager 2

Voyager 2, like its twin, visited Jupiter and Saturn. It also is the only man-made probe to fly by Ura- nus and Neptune, capturing the best photographs we have of those outer worlds. On September 20,

2013, Voyager 2 was 102.6 AU from Earth.


125.8 AU



17 17

102.6 AU











18 16




Galileo catapulted to fame in 1995 when it became the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter (in addition to making the first asteroid flybys on the way to the giant planet).

During its nearly eight years at Jupiter, Galileo completed 34 orbits of the planet. The spacecraft released an atmospheric probe, which entered the jovian atmosphere December 7, 1995. The probe sent back 58 minutes of data before succumbing to immense pressures and temperatures. Eventually, radiation took its toll on the orbiter’s instruments. Worries about low fuel and potential contamination of Jupiter’s moons with Earth bacteria led scientists to crash Galileo into the planet September 21, 2003.



New HorizoNs

New Horizons launched January 19, 2006, as the first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. It flew by Jupiter in February 2007 and took data of the giant planet. It is currently between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune and about 6 AU from Pluto; scientists expect it to arrive July 14, 2015.

17, 20–22




2015 81.8 AU


(109.1 AU current)








Voyager 1

Known for its dazzling photographs of Jupiter in March 1979 and Saturn in November 1980, Voyager 1 also had a close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan — an encounter that sent the spacecraft out of the plane of the

solar system. The imaging did not end there, however: In

1990, Voyager 1 took a “family portrait” of the solar system from a distance approximately 40.1 AU away from Earth, which includes the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of our planet. The spacecraft is now the farthest man-made object from us and is 125.8 AU from Earth. In August 2012, Voyager

1 passed out of the solar system and into inter-

17 stellar space. Scientists expect its instruments to


1981 work through 2020.



PioNeer 11

Pioneer 11 was the first probe to explore Saturn as it passed about one-third of the ringed world’s radius from the planet’s cloud tops in September 1979. Science operations ended in September 1995, when the power output couldn’t support the spacecraft’s experiments.


Carried to Saturn as part of the still ongoing Cassini mission, the Huygens lander separated from Cassini on December 25, 2004, and land- ed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, on January 14, 2005. Huygens continued to transmit data for 90 minutes from the moon’s surface before its batteries ran out. It remains where it landed, on what is similar to a flood plain on Earth and frozen at –292° Fahrenheit (–180° Celsius).



www.Astronomy.com 47

Ask Astr0

Astronomy’s experts from around the globe answer your cosmic questions.




Q: Why do AurorAe AppeAr strongest Within rings centered on eArth’s poles insteAd of filled-in circles?

Stephen Smith, Charlotte, North Carolina


A: The visible aurorae result from electrons that move along magnetic field lines from space into the upper atmosphere. There, the electrons lose their energy in collisions with atoms and molecules, which, in turn, radiate this energy as light. To generate an aurora, we need enough electrons of sufficient energy, a magnetic field to guide them, and an atmosphere to produce the light. Earth meets these conditions: The atmo- sphere is everywhere, and the

space to the other pole; these are “closed” lines. The open field lines connect to the solar wind and also to the outer layers of the interaction region between this solar wind and the magne- tosphere. The electrons in that region usually have energies in the range of 10 to a few hundred eV. Only on rare occasions do these particles cause a faint red glow above the polar cap. Between the regions of open and closed field lines lies a tran- sitional boundary, where pro-

types (for example, during nuclear fusion when hydrogen nuclei can convert into helium nuclei and release energy). Black holes do not violate the law of conservation of energy. When gas or other material falls past the point of no return (called the event horizon) and into a black hole, the exact amount of energy (including mass) con- tained in the material as it falls in is added to the black hole. So the total amount of energy in the system doesn’t change.

magnetic field reaches into space

cesses can accelerate enough

Black holes feeding on gas


high latitudes. The question is,

electrons to the energy necessary

and stars is an example of an

then, where do the energetic electrons come from? To produce good aurorae on Earth, electrons need to have energies in the range of 1,000 to more than 10,000 electron volts (1 eV is the energy an electron would pick up by going through

to cause aurorae. This boundary forms a ring-shaped region around Earth called the auroral zone, where aurora can occur. At latitudes lower than the auroral zone, Earth’s magnetic field connects to regions of space that are closer to the center sec-

extremely important process for adding mass, called “accretion,” that is widespread throughout the universe. For example, we see black holes weighing up to 10 billion times the Sun’s mass in the centers of galaxies. These supermassive black holes must


1-volt electric field). Electrons

tion of our planet’s magneto-

Dirk Lummerzheim

have grown by feeding on enor-

with less energy will create faint red aurorae at high altitudes; electrons with much more energy penetrate too deep into the atmo- sphere and make X-ray aurorae. Earth’s magnetic field creates

sphere. These field lines don’t reach far enough into space to energize auroral electrons.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks

mous quantities of gas, in some cases in a short amount of time. Young, heavy black holes provide clues about both the accretion process and the size a black hole must have been at birth.


protective “bubble” called the

Black hole accretion also

magnetosphere. The magnetic field can be separated into two distinct regions: high and low latitudes. At high latitudes, the field lines reach into the solar wind of radiation and particles

Q: Don’t black holes Dis- obey the conservation of mass because black holes essentially “eat” matter, thus Destroying the material?

powers some of the most spec- tacular phenomena in the uni- verse: quasars (the brightest persistent objects in the sky) and radio galaxies (where jets of energy shot out of the black

and never connect to Earth’s

Jacob Grant

hole’s vicinity at nearly the speed

other hemisphere; these are

Potomac, Maryland

of light interact with their sur-

called “open” field lines. At low latitudes, the field lines are like bar magnets, curving through

A: Mass is a type of energy and can be converted into other

roundings to emit radio waves). Currently, astronomers are attempting to make the first

pictures of black holes feeding in real time by combining data from radio telescopes across the world. Using this Event Horizon Telescope project, scientists will study the immediate surround- ings of black holes for several years to try to understand the accretion process and prove that black hole event horizons exist.

Jason Dexter University of California, Berkeley

Q: What can astrono- mers tell us about the Different colors on the surface of Jupiter’s moon europa?

Harold Manuel Ville Platte, Louisiana

A: We can use the colors of Europa’s surface to tell us about

Water ice covers most of europa’s surface. scientists think the brown, yellow, and red colors represent salt-water mixtures that have been brought up through the surface from an ocean below. radiation and high-energy particles from Jupiter’s magnetic field have processed the compounds on europa and altered

their colors. NASA/JPL/UNiv. of ArizoNA



Earth’s magnetic field creates a protective magnetosphere around the planet. Occasionally, if the Sun ejects a powerful coronal mass ejection toward Earth (1), our planet’s magnetic field lines can capture some of that energy. If they’re stressed enough, they can snap (2) and send some of those electrons back to Earth (3), which can collide with particles in our atmosphere at certain latitudes to produce aurorae (4). NASA/GSFC-CoNCeptuAl ImAGe lAb/WAlt FeImer (HtSI)

the chemical compounds that make up the surface — and sub- surface — of the jovian moon. Even before the first spacecraft made a close visit to Europa, astronomers on Earth used tele- scopes to study the moon and were able to use a technique called spectroscopy to determine that Europa’s surface is com- posed mostly of water ice. Spectroscopy is the scientific measurement of the brightness of the surface of an object at many different wavelengths of light. The brightness at visible wavelengths gives an object its color as seen by human eyes — just by looking at the colors of Earth rocks, for example, we can easily distinguish between a black volcanic rock, like basalt, and a light tan rock, like sand- stone. The colors come from the different chemical elements that make up each rock. Scientists can extend this technique to wavelengths the human eye can’t see, like infrared and ultraviolet. By looking at the detailed pat- terns of brightness at a wide range of wavelengths, they can determine a unique pattern, or “spectrum,” associated with dif- ferent materials. Using the technique of spec- troscopy, scientists study Euro- pa’s surface with images taken by robotic spacecraft. They have found that bright white water ice or frost covers most of the moon’s surface, and regions of yellowish, brownish, or reddish colors also exist. These areas

have spectra that are consistent with salts with added water (called hydrated salts), such as magnesium sulfate or sulfuric acid. These non-ice materials are largely associated with regions of Europa’s surface that appear geologically young, such as ridges, large impact structures, and disrupted terrain called “chaos.” Formation models for these features suggest that they could bring up materials from under the surface. In addition, the non-ice materials are remarkably consistent in com- position all over Europa’s sur- face, suggesting that they all came from a single, well-mixed subsurface layer. The colors of Europa’s surface also vary with longitude. The moon is tidally locked, meaning that the same side always faces Jupiter. The hemisphere that leads Europa in its orbit experi- ences the most dust, including yellow sulfur from the jovian moon Io, while the hemisphere that always trails endures more radiation from high-energy charged particles accelerated by Jupiter’s strong magnetic field. This radiation changes the chem- istry, and therefore the color, of Europa’s surface. Scientists have found that the concentration of salts on the moon’s surface is higher on the trailing hemi- sphere. Although salts are gener- ally colorless, radiation also can process sulfur-containing salts to produce long chains of sulfur atoms that are reddish in color.

These observations, plus other evidence from gravity and magnetic field measurements, have helped lead scientists to conclude that Europa likely has a huge ocean of liquid water underneath its icy surface. The salts from this ocean water could eventually reach the surface dur- ing the formation of geologically active features, staining it yellow, red, or brown as the salts inter- act with radiation and with sul- fur from Io, depending on their location on the surface.

Cynthia B. Phillips SETI Institute, Mountain View, California

Q: How big are tHe Lagrangian points? i Hear of teLescopes orbiting at a certain Lagrangian point, but for tHese crafts to not interfere witH one anotHer, aren’t tHese points more Like “Lagrangian areas”?

that requires little fuel to main- tain. When you hear about a spacecraft orbiting at a certain Lagrangian point, it really means the probe is traveling within or near one of these extended, three- dimensional islands of orbits. The size of these islands varies. Each planet in the solar system has its own Lagrangian points. The islands of stability get bigger farther from the Sun and also for more massive plan- ets. The ones associated with Earth are roughly 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) wide. The biggest zones (at least in the solar system) are Neptune’s; they are about 2 billion miles (3.2 billion km) across. Not just man-made space- craft park themselves near Lagrangian points. Sometimes asteroids do, too. Jupiter’s L4 and L5 Lagrangian points are full of these “Trojan” asteroids.

Marc Kuchner NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

Dave Aiken

Ada, Michigan

send us your questions

A: The Lagrangian points are indeed points, infinitesimal in size, where the gravitational forces from a planet and another body (generally the Sun or a moon) exactly balance the cen- trifugal force. But, as you guessed, surrounding each actual La- grangian point is an extended zone where a spacecraft can con- veniently park itself in an orbit

Send your astronomy questions via email to askastro@astronomy.com, or write to Ask Astro, P. O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187. Be sure to tell us your full name and where you live. Unfortunately, we cannot answer all questions submitted.



Behind the scenes at


The first issue of Astronomy (August 1973) featured a full-page ad for Celestron Pacific on the back cover, one of only three pages of ads in that issue. Astronomy

C elestron of Torrance, California, is the world’s leading manufacturer of telescopes for amateur astrono- mers. Most readers of Astronomy who observe the sky have either

owned or viewed some far-flung wonder through Celestron equipment. But where did this astronomy colossus come from? And, more importantly, where is it headed?

The beginning

The company that astronomy aficionados today know as Celestron began in 1955 as Valor Electronics in Gardena, California. American electronic engineer Tom Johnson founded the firm to produce components for various industries and the military.

A few years later, while searching for — and not finding — a telescope for his two young sons, Johnson built a 6-inch reflector from scratch. The project piqued his inter- est, and he progressed to building larger and more sophisticated designs. Sensing that his hobby could grow into a full-time business, he created an astro-optical divi- sion within Valor Electronics in 1960. On July 28, 1962, Johnson publicly unveiled a portable 18¾-inch Cassegrain reflector. The venue he chose was a star party hosted by the Los Angeles Astronom- ical Society on the summit of Mount Pinos, a mountain in the Los Padres National For- est. He had built the scope in six months of spare time. By using surplus and junkyard

For more than 50 years, this innovative company has helped amateur astronomers observe the sky — selling them more telescopes than anyone.

by Michael E. Bakich

Tom Johnson founded Valor Electronics in 1955. In December 1964, he rechristened it Celestron Pacific.

materials, he kept the cost to $1,000. The telescope was a sensation, and he received numerous requests to build others. Instead of duplicating his design, John- son created a method to produce and market a large Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (SCT), which is a hybrid of reflector and refractor designs. His immediate challenge was to find a way to efficiently produce the correc- tor plate, which is an SCT’s front optic. Because this thin piece of glass contains a subtle curve, it “corrects” the errors intro- duced by the spherical mirror the scope uses.

Michael E. Bakich is a senior editor of Astronomy and author of 1,001 Celestial Wonders to See Before You Die (Springer, 2010).




Electronics engineer Tom Johnson, presi- dent and owner of Valor Electronics, starts an astro-optical division to build tele- scopes.


Celestron begins printing and supply- ing product catalogs and brochures, revolu- tionizes the amateur telescope market by introducing the orange tube Celestron

8 (C8) for less than

Johnson takes his

Celestron’s corporate headquarters occupies a modest building in Torrance, California. DaviD J. EichEr

$1,000, and introduces


first 18¾-inch Casseg- rain telescope to the Los Angeles Astro-

the first commercially available observatory- class telescopes in 16-

nomical Society star party, where it receives rave reviews.

and 22-inch apertures.

The company maintains a storage room that contains examples of most of its former products so that its technical support staff can refer to them directly. cElEstron

Once that was done, his Celestronic 20 (C20) was ready for sale. In May 1964, the new company, Celestron Pacific (still a division of Valor Electronics), advertised C20s for sale. Seven months later, Johnson perma- nently changed Valor Electronics’ name to Celestron Pacific. Later, he dropped “Pacific,” and Celestron was born. By 1970, Celestron designers and engi- neers had discovered a new method of pro- ducing SCTs in volume and, what was more important, at reasonable cost. They incor- porated this optical breakthrough in the first 8-inch Celestron, an f/10 SCT with an orange tube. Amateur astronomers imme- diately christened the scope the C8.

That year, the company also offered larger apertures for observatories. The Celestron 10, Celestron 12, Celestron 16, and Celestron 22 came with piers rather than with tripods. The C8’s popularity among observers and photographers led to the production of a 5-inch version in 1971:

the C5. The following year, the amateur line saw the addition of a 14-inch SCT, which reigned for several decades as the world’s largest-production catadioptric telescope. After more than a decade running Celestron, Johnson began to turn over many of his responsibilities to staff. He had transformed the electronics firm into the world’s leading telescope-making company,