Monthly Archives: March 2013

Voyager 1 Has Left the Solar System

Voyager 1 has officially left the building!  Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 1 has officially left the building! Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new space milestone has just occurred, or occurred around August 2012.  The Voyager 1 space probe that was launched on September 5, 1977 has finally left the solar system.  Thirty five years after its launch the audacious probe enters a new stage in its mission, exploring the region of space outside of the Sun’s influence.

The Sun’s influence in space extends way beyond the orbit of Neptune.  We know that beyond the inner planets lies the Kuiper Belt which is home to Pluto and many, many other dwarf planets.  Finally at about 18 billion kilometers from the Sun and four times the distance between the Sun and Neptune, is a region known as the heliopause.  The heliopause is the region where the solar wind from the Sun collides with the interstellar medium, a collection of particles which is the collection of gas, dust, and cosmic rays.  The solar particles are so dilute once it reaches the interstellar medium that the heliopause is considered the end of the Sun’s influence (although its gravity extends well beyond the heliopause to the Oort Cloud).

A new paper that has been published confirms the conclusions that were drawn about the solar wind particles back in December.  Data from the probe showed that the number of subatomic particles coming from the Sun dropped dramatically sometime around August 2012 while the number of cosmic rays from the interstellar medium spiked.  While it’s not exactly new news, it still is exciting to think about.  There is now a man-made object outside of the solar system and is still able to communicate with us 18 billion kilometers away.

Eventually the plutonium inside of Voyager will stop producing electricity and communications will cease.  At that point, the probe will continue to sail in the direction of the galactic center.  There is an estimated 10-15 years of power left on the probe so we need to enjoy it while it lasts.  It will be a long time before human travelers can journey this far from our home, but we’ll do it one day.

PANSTARRS’ Long Awaited Debut

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Comet PANSTARRS taken by Argentinian photographer Ignacio Diaz Bobillo

With the mid-Atlantic region being covered by winter storm ‘Saturn’ (not a fan of naming winter storms), comet C2011/L4 PANSTARRS is about to make its debut in the northern hemisphere.  Observers in the southern hemisphere have been enjoying PANSTARRS for about a month already and it finally brightened enough to be a naked-eye object in the last week or so.  While the usual naked-eye threshold is between magnitude +5 and +6 depending on your eyesight and sky conditions, comets aren’t point sources of light like stars and planets and their light is spread out over a larger surface are with respect to the entire sky so their brightness in magnitude can be a little deceiving.  Right now PANSTARRS is hovering right around magnitude +2 which puts it theoretically as bright as the brightest stars in Ursa Major, the Big Dipper.  For us in the northern hemisphere though, it likely won’t appear as brilliant as it is in the southern hemisphere because of it’s proximity to the sun.  The comet is expected to make its northern debut tomorrow, March 7th after sunset.  The problem for us is that it is approaching its perihelion, its closest distance to the sun, so it will only be visible during twilight.  Picking PANSTARRS out might be difficult and it might only appear to the naked-eye as a small fuzzy ball barely creeping over the western horizon.

That being said, binoculars will be a great aide to those looking to spot PANSTARRS early on.  The comet won’t get much higher than 10° above the western horizon.  Ten degrees is approximately the size of your clenched fist held at arms length.  In order to spot PANSTARRS in its first couple of days in the north you’ll have to find a viewing location that has an unobstructed view of the western horizon that is reasonably dark.  Getting away from street lights and house lights is key as they both create a glare that makes it difficult to see and limits your eyes’ ability to adapt to the growing darkness.  A rooftop that can be safely accessed might provide a good vantage point to spot the comet.

How to spot PANSTARRS in March.  A thin crescent moon will co-star with the comet on the night of March 12th.  Credit:  NASA.gov

How to spot PANSTARRS in March. A thin crescent moon will co-star with the comet on the night of March 12th. Credit: NASA.gov

In a simple pair of 10’x50′ binoculars you should be able to see the dust tail that stretches several degrees beyond the comet’s nucleus.  Whether or not an ion tail produced by the solar wind will be visible remains to be seen.  As March wears on the comet will steadily rise in the western sky each night as it moves further away from the sun.  Again it won’t get very high in the sky but at least towards mid-March you should be able to view it in reasonable darkness until about 7 pm.  I’ll be away on a retreat this weekend in a semi-dark region at the top of the Chesapeake Bay so I hope to be able to snap a few pictures of PANSTARRS.  I will certainly post anything that is decent.

For now, as winter storm ‘Saturn’ dumps mostly rain on me, I had to settle for this amazing timelapse video of comets Lemmon and PANSTARRS in the sky together.  This was taken by Australian astrophotographer and videographer Alex Cheney.  It is quite a rare sight to be able to see two comets in the same sky together!  I swear those southern hemisphere dwellers get to have all the fun!

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