Spooky Space, Part 7: Ghoulish Gas Clouds

Happy Halloween everyone! I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts.We finish up with some holiday appropriate nebulae, clouds of gas and dust in space that are usually associated with either the birth or death of a star.

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NGC 3242, The Ghost of Jupiter Nebula

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Sharpless 2-136, The Ghost Nebula

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NGC 2080, The Ghost Head Nebula

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Sharpless 2-68, The Death Eater Nebula

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NGC 246, The Skull Nebula

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IC 2118, The Witch Head Nebula

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Free astronomy talk at the Minor Library in Roxbury

On Thursday, November 1, CCSU astronomy professor Dr. Kristine Larsen is giving a free public talk on observing the night sky at the Minor Library in Roxbury. The talk begins at 5:30 PM. More information can be found here: https://www.minormemoriallibrary.org/?tribe_events=learn-about-the-night-sky

Spooky Space, Part 4: Zombie Stars

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In the outskirts of the spiral galaxy NGC 1309 lurks an undead star worthy of The Walking Dead. Called SN 2012Z, this system was the first example of what astronomers call a mini supernova, or, more colorfully, a zombie star.

Middle range stars like our sun die as a white dwarf, a dense, compact corpse made mainly of helium, carbon, and oxygen. If one star in a binary star couple dies as a white dwarf before its mate, it can go through a cannibalistic stage and literally suck the life (the gas) out of its poor companion.

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If the white dwarf eats too much, it explodes, causing what astronomers call a Type Ia supernova. No white dwarf had ever been seen to survive such a violent outburst, until the discovery of zombie stars (now technically called Type Iax supernovae).

The record for rebirths might just be held by the supernova iPTF14hls (located in a more distant galaxy). Archived images show that this white dwarf has survived at least six “deaths” since 1954, including 5 explosions between 2014-2016.

Eat your heart out, George Romero. Not literally, of course.

 

Spooky Space, Part 1: The Death Comet

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[Asteroid 2015 TB145 aka the Death Comet]

Editor’s note: Each day between now and Halloween we will explore a different example of “spooky space.” Today we feature the so-called Death Comet.

You might have heard something in the news lately about a “Death Comet” that is scheduled to pass by our planet in November. Meet Asteroid 2015 TB145. Yes, that’s right, when this  skull-shaped object was first discovered on October 10, 2015 it was thought to be an asteroid, a hunk of rock about 1300 feet wide. When it passed closest to Earth on Halloween 2015 at about 310,000 miles (a bit farther than our Moon), the above radio telescope image was taken, as well as information on its composition. It was discovered that this trick-or-treating object was actually a trickster – it wasn’t an asteroid at all, but a comet that had spent its supply of what we call volatiles,  frozen materials such as water ice, frozen carbon dioxide (so-called “dry ice”), ammonia and methane, and could no longer create the fuzzy halo (or coma) and tails that are the signature of what most people think of as a comet. Asteroid 2015 TB145  is therefore more correctly a “dead comet.”

Whatever it is, this object will be passing by to say “boo” again this year, approaching 39 million miles away on November 11.

Outreach on Breezy Hill, Vermont

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Sara Poppa and Angelia Colella working the registration gate

On the weekend of August 10-12 CCSU faculty and students brought astronomy down to earth for families attending the annual Stellafane Amateur Telescope Makers Convention on Breezy Hill in Springfield, VT. Geological Sciences majors and astronomy minors Sara Poppa and Angelia Colella took families on a tour of the solar system both days, using a mile long scale model of the solar system to demonstrate the layout of the planets.

Top left: identifying meteorites; Top right: filters; Bottom: simple telescopes

In two children’s workshops on Friday, Dr. Kristine Larsen gave hands-on explanations on how to tell a meteorite from a “meteor-wrong”, and children explored how simple telescopes work and the use of filters in astronomy.

Far left: using glitter to make the nucleus of a comet; middle left: completed comet model; middle right: Saturn model; Far right: Harry Potter starfinders

On Saturday, children made models of comets and Saturn, as well as Harry Potter starfinders.

Outreach is Central to all that we do at CCSU. It was an honor to spark an interest in science in these young people and their families.

Got Binoculars? Channel Your Inner Galileo

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Have you ever wanted to be Galileo for a day? If you own a pair of binoculars (or a small backyard telescope), now is the time to channel your inner Galileo! Galileo’s 17th century telescopes were very small by today’s standards, with a similar magnification to a pair of common binoculars today. So why not dust off those birdwatching binocs and turn them skyward over the next few weeks?

Our first stop is the planet Venus, now hard to miss in the western sky after sunset. Galileo noticed that Venus shows phases like the moon. The phases won’t be as obvious as shown in the above diagram, so you need to be patient, and hold your binoculars very steady. Use a camera tripod, or try steadying your arms by resting your elbows on a hard surface like a picnic table. Another trick is to hold the binoculars near the far end, where the light enters, rather than putting your hands close to your eyes. This will hold them steadier, because most of the binoculars’ weight is on the far end where the main lenses are.

 

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Our second stop is more towards the south, a “star” that is a little dimmer than Venus, but still rather obvious to the unaided eye. This is Jupiter. Galileo discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter (as shown in a page of his observations reproduced above), which we now collectively call the Galilean moons in his honor. Again, holding the binoculars steady is key here. Watch the moons appear to move relative Jupiter from night to night!

Finally, if the moon is out, don’t forget to train your binoculars in its direction. Galileo studied the craters on the moon, and so can you!

Put on Bohemian Rhapsody, grab your binoculars, and before long you’ll be singing “Galileo, Galileo” as you reproduce the groundbreaking observations of more than 400 years ago. It’s an experience not to be missed!

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[Students at East Hartford High School try to sort out meteorites and tektites from “meteor-wrongs’]

Most years at least one member of the public will come to my office with what they believe to be a meteorite they’ve found. In all but one case, they were wrong. Last night, it was my pleasure to help students at East Hartford High School try their hand at identifying meteorites and tektites. About 30 students attended the workshop, sponsored by the Connecticut Science Center Teen Science Café program. After a short introduction to the three main types of meteorites and how tektites form, the students got hands-on experience with actual meteorites and tektites, as well as common rocks that can be confused with meteorites by the general public. The students were then given ten unknowns and they had to pick out the three meteorites and two tektites from the “meteor-wrongs.” Two young ladies successfully picked out 2 of the 3 meteorites and both tektites. I hope they continue to hone their science skills in the future!

— K. Larsen