Final HPSP Star Party of the Season Saturday July 22nd

Weather permitting, our final star party of the 2017 season will take place at Halibut Point State Park on Saturday July 22, from dusk to 10:30 or so.

The public is encouraged to come out and see Jupiter and its moons, Saturn, and an array of distant deep-sky objects like galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. Of course there is no cost.

If you have a telescope, please bring it. These events are always well-attended, and we can use every scope we can get. Turn left off of Gott Ave, drive up the gravel road and turn right -- we'll be set up next to the white building. The 22nd is new moon weekend, and there will be observing opportunities after the star party in what may be the darkest site this close to Boston.

As always, unless you are unloading a telescope, please park in the paved lot to the right of Gott Ave and walk the short distance up the hill to the Visitor Center. Please keep white lights to a minimum, so everyone’s eyes get a chance to adapt to the dark.

Check the club Facebook page for announcements regarding the weather.

Saturday June 17 Halibut Point Star Party

Weather permitting, Halibut Point State Park and the Gloucester Area Astronomy Club will be hosting a star party Saturday evening, June 17, next to the HPSP Visitor Center, where GAAC will have telescopes set up from dusk to 10:00 pm for public viewing.Everyone is invited! Come look through the club’s telescopes at Jupiter and its moons, and an array of distant deep-sky objects like galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. Of course there is no cost.

If skies are cloudy we'll try again at the next scheduled event on July 22.

Please park in the paved lot off of Gott Ave and walk the short distance up the hill to the Visitor Center, and please keep white lights to a minimum, so everyone’s eyes get a chance to adapt to the dark.

The Gloucester Area Astronomy Club meets at 8:00 pm on the second Friday of the month at the Lanesville Community Center, 8 Vulcan St. in Lanesville. There is no cost, and the public is welcome.

GAAC May 12 Program Note

Ed Los of the Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard (DASCH) project will be with us at our May meeting, 8:00pm on Friday May 12, at the Lanesville Community Center, 8 Vulcan St..

Ed will bring us up to date on the project to digitize over 500,000 images of the night sky collected on glass photographic plates between 1885 and 1993.

These images offer far more than mere historic value. They have greatly advanced what we know of the composition of stars, their inherent luminosities and distances, and, as a 100-year record, they are sure to continue to inform our understanding. Already as part of this ongoing project more than 162,000 plates, along with data from a card catalog and 1200 associated log books, have been scanned into digital files, to preserve them and make them more readily available to researchers.

Ed will explain the ongoing project and its importance to our knowledge of the night sky, and will tell us some of the many ways that these data are even now helping us understand the universe around us. We're very pleased to have Ed as this month's presenter, for what is sure to be an entertaining and informative evening at GAAC. We hope to see you there!

The Gloucester Area Astronomy Club is open to all, with plenty of free parking; there is never any cost.

Image: Portion of Plate b41215 of Halley's comet taken on April 21, 1910 from Arequipa, Peru with the 8-inch Bache Doublet, Voigtlander.

NASA Spaceplace Newsletter, January 2017

Comet Campaign: Amateurs Wanted

By Marcus Woo

In a cosmic coincidence, three comets will soon be approaching Earth—and astronomers want you to help study them. This global campaign, which will begin at the end of January when the first comet is bright enough, will enlist amateur astronomers to help researchers continuously monitor how the comets change over time and, ultimately, learn what these ancient ice chunks reveal about the origins of the solar system.

Over the last few years, spacecraft like NASA's Deep Impact/EPOXI or ESA's Rosetta (of which NASA played a part) discovered that comets are more dynamic than anyone realized. The missions found that dust and gas burst from a comet's nucleus every few days or weeks—fleeting phenomena that would have gone unnoticed if it weren't for the constant and nearby observations. But space missions are expensive, so for three upcoming cometary visits, researchers are instead recruiting the combined efforts of telescopes from around the world.

"This is a way that we hope can get the same sorts of observations: by harnessing the power of the masses from various amateurs," says Matthew Knight, an astronomer at the University of Maryland.

By observing the gas and dust in the coma (the comet's atmosphere of gas and dust), and tracking outbursts, amateurs will help professional researchers measure the properties of the comet's nucleus, such as its composition, rotation speed, and how well it holds together.

The observations may also help NASA scout out future destinations. The three targets are so-called Jupiter family comets, with relatively short periods just over five years—and orbits that are accessible to spacecraft. "The better understood a comet is," Knight says, "the better NASA can plan for a mission and figure out what the environment is going to be like, and what specifications the spacecraft will need to ensure that it will be successful."

The first comet to arrive is 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, whose prime window runs from the end of January to the end of July. Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova will be most visible between mid-February and mid-March. The third target, comet 46P/Wirtanen won't arrive until 2018.

Still, the opportunity to observe three relatively bright comets within roughly 18 months is rare. "We're talking 20 or more years since we've had anything remotely resembling this," Knight says. "Telescope technology and our knowledge of comets are just totally different now than the last time any of these were good for observing."

For more information about how to participate in the campaign, visit

This article is provided by NASA Space Place. With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit to explore space and Earth science!

Want to teach kids about the anatomy of a comet? Go to the NASA Space Place and use Comet on a Stick activity!

Image Caption: An orbit diagram of comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak on February 8, 2017—a day that falls during the comet’s prime visibility window. The planets orbits are white curves and the comet’s orbit is a blue curve. The brighter lines indicate the portion of the orbit that is above the ecliptic plane defined by Earth’s orbital plane and the darker portions are below the ecliptic plane. This image was created with the Orbit Viewer applet, provided by the Osamu Ajiki (AstroArts) and modified by Ron Baalke (Solar System Dynamics group, JPL).;sstr=41P

NASA Spaceplace Newsletter, September 2016

One Incredible Galaxy Cluster Yields Two Types of Gravitational Lenses

By Ethan Siegel

There is this great idea that if you look hard enough and long enough at any region of space, your line of sight will eventually run into a luminous object: a star, a galaxy or a cluster of galaxies. In reality, the universe is finite in age, so this isn't quite the case. There are objects that emit light from the past 13.7 billion years—99 percent of the age of the universe—but none before that. Even in theory, there are no stars or galaxies to see beyond that time, as light is limited by the amount of time it has to travel.

But with the advent of large, powerful space telescopes that can collect data for the equivalent of millions of seconds of observing time, in both visible light and infrared wavelengths, we can see nearly to the edge of all that's accessible to us.

The most massive compact, bound structures in the universe are galaxy clusters that are hundreds or even thousands of times the mass of the Milky Way. One of them, Abell S1063, was the target of a recent set of Hubble Space Telescope observations as part of the Frontier Fields program. While the Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument imaged the cluster, another instrument, the Wide Field Camera 3, used an optical trick to image a parallel field, offset by just a few arc minutes. Then the technique was reversed, giving us an unprecedentedly deep view of two closely aligned fields simultaneously, with wavelengths ranging from 435 to 1600 nanometers.

With a huge, towering galaxy cluster in one field and no comparably massive objects in the other, the effects of both weak and strong gravitational lensing are readily apparent. The galaxy cluster—over 100 trillion times the mass of our sun—warps the fabric of space. This causes background light to bend around it, converging on our eyes another four billion light years away. From behind the cluster, the light from distant galaxies is stretched, magnified, distorted, and bent into arcs and multiple images: a classic example of strong gravitational lensing. But in a subtler fashion, the less optimally aligned galaxies are distorted as well; they are stretched into elliptical shapes along concentric circles surrounding the cluster.

A visual inspection yields more of these tangential alignments than radial ones in the cluster field, while the parallel field exhibits no such shape distortion. This effect, known as weak gravitational lensing, is a very powerful technique for obtaining galaxy cluster masses independent of any other conditions. In this serendipitous image, both types of lensing can be discerned by the naked eye. When the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018, gravitational lensing may well empower us to see all the way back to the very first stars and galaxies.

If you’re interested in teaching kids about how these large telescopes “see,” be sure to see our article on this topic at the NASA Space Place:

Image credit: NASA, ESA and Jennifer Lotz (STScI) Galaxy cluster Abell S1063 (left) as imaged with the Hubble Space Telescope as part of the Frontier Fields program. The distorted images of the background galaxies are a consequence of the warped space dues to Einstein's general relativity; the parallel field (right) shows no such effects.

NASA Spaceplace Newsletter, August 2016

Is there a super-Earth in the Solar System out beyond Neptune?

By Ethan Siegel

When the advent of large telescopes brought us the discoveries of Uranus and then Neptune, they also brought the great hope of a Solar System even richer in terms of large, massive worlds. While the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt were each found to possess a large number of substantial icy-and-rocky worlds, none of them approached even Earth in size or mass, much less the true giant worlds. Meanwhile, all-sky infrared surveys, sensitive to red dwarfs, brown dwarfs and Jupiter-mass gas giants, were unable to detect anything new that was closer than Proxima Centauri. At the same time, Kepler taught us that super-Earths, planets between Earth and Neptune in size, were the galaxy's most common, despite our Solar System having none.

The discovery of Sedna in 2003 turned out to be even more groundbreaking than astronomers realized. Although many Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) were discovered beginning in the 1990s, Sedna had properties all the others didn't. With an extremely eccentric orbit and an aphelion taking it farther from the Sun than any other world known at the time, it represented our first glimpse of the hypothetical Oort cloud: a spherical distribution of bodies ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of A.U. from the Sun. Since the discovery of Sedna, five other long-period, very eccentric TNOs were found prior to 2016 as well. While you'd expect their orbital parameters to be randomly distributed if they occurred by chance, their orbital orientations with respect to the Sun are clustered extremely narrowly: with less than a 1-in-10,000 chance of such an effect appearing randomly.

Whenever we see a new phenomenon with a surprisingly non-random appearance, our scientific intuition calls out for a physical explanation. Astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown provided a compelling possibility earlier this year: perhaps a massive perturbing body very distant from the Sun provided the gravitational "kick" to hurl these objects towards the Sun. A single addition to the Solar System would explain the orbits of all of these long-period TNOs, a planet about 10 times the mass of Earth approximately 200 A.U. from the Sun, referred to as Planet Nine. More Sedna-like TNOs with similarly aligned orbits are predicted, and since January of 2016, another was found, with its orbit aligning perfectly with these predictions.

Ten meter class telescopes like Keck and Subaru, plus NASA's NEOWISE mission, are currently searching for this hypothetical, massive world. If it exists, it invites the question of its origin: did it form along with our Solar System, or was it captured from another star's vicinity much more recently? Regardless, if Batygin and Brown are right and this object is real, our Solar System may contain a super-Earth after all.

Image: A possible super-Earth/mini-Neptune world hundreds of times more distant than Earth is from the Sun. Image credit: R. Hurt / Caltech (IPAC)

HPSP Star Party Saturday Night June 4

Weather permitting, the first GAAC star party of the year is set for Saturday night, June 4, from sunset to 10 pm. All are invited, and of course there is no cost. We'll have telescopes set up next to the Vistor Center to view Mars, Jupiter, galaxies, nebulae, colorful double stars, and more! 

Please park in the paved lot off of Gott Ave and walk up the hill to the Visitor Center. We'll see you there!

NASA Spaceplace Newsletter, March 2016

Gravitational Wave Astronomy Will Be The Next Great Scientific Frontier

By Ethan Siegel

Imagine a world very different from our own: permanently shrouded in clouds, where the sky was never seen. Never had anyone see the Sun, the Moon, the stars or planets, until one night, a single bright object shone through. Imagine that you saw not only a bright point of light against a dark backdrop of sky, but that you could see a banded structure, a ringed system around it and perhaps even a bright satellite: a moon. That's the magnitude of what LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) saw, when it directly detected gravitational waves for the first time.

An unavoidable prediction of Einstein's General Relativity, gravitational waves emerge whenever a mass gets accelerated. For most systems -- like Earth orbiting the Sun -- the waves are so weak that it would take many times the age of the Universe to notice. But when very massive objects orbit at very short distances, the orbits decay noticeably and rapidly, producing potentially observable gravitational waves. Systems such as the binary pulsar PSR B1913+16 [the subtlety here is that binary pulsars may contain a single neutron star, so it’s best to be specific], where two neutron stars orbit one another at very short distances, had previously shown this phenomenon of orbital decay, but gravitational waves had never been directly detected until now.

When a gravitational wave passes through an objects, it simultaneously stretches and compresses space along mutually perpendicular directions: first horizontally, then vertically, in an oscillating fashion. The LIGO detectors work by splitting a laser beam into perpendicular “arms,” letting the beams reflect back and forth in each arm hundreds of times (for an effective path lengths of hundreds of km), and then recombining them at a photodetector. The interference pattern seen there will shift, predictably, if gravitational waves pass through and change the effective path lengths of the arms. Over a span of 20 milliseconds on September 14, 2015, both LIGO detectors (in Louisiana and Washington) saw identical stretching-and-compressing patterns. From that tiny amount of data, scientists were able to conclude that two black holes, of 36 and 29 solar masses apiece, merged together, emitting 5% of their total mass into gravitational wave energy, via Einstein's E = mc2.

During that event, more energy was emitted in gravitational waves than by all the stars in the observable Universe combined. The entire Earth was compressed by less than the width of a proton during this event, yet thanks to LIGO's incredible precision, we were able to detect it. At least a handful of these events are expected every year. In the future, different observatories, such as NANOGrav (which uses radiotelescopes to the delay caused by gravitational waves on pulsar radiation) and the space mission LISA will detect gravitational waves from supermassive black holes and many other sources. We've just seen our first event using a new type of astronomy, and can now test black holes and gravity like never before.

Image credit: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger B. P. Abbott et al., (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration), Physical Review Letters 116, 061102 (2016). This figure shows the data (top panels) at the Washington and Louisiana LIGO stations, the predicted signal from Einstein's theory (middle panels), and the inferred signals (bottom panels). The signals matched perfectly in both detectors.