News from the Universe: 02/01/05

Posted by barb on Feb 1, 2005 in Science Musings |

January was a busy month for astronomy!

  • The biggest news, of course, is the Huygens probe. For those of you living in a bubble, Huygens is the probe that was carried to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, on the Cassini spacecraft. It was released on January 14 and decended through Titan’s atmosphere to land with a splat in Titan “mud”.

    The reason scientists are so interested in Titan is that next to the Earth, it is the only other body with a significant atmosphere in our solar system. Huygens has already shown that there is a significant amount of methane in the atomosphere, which is a surprise because methane gets destroyed by ultraviolet radiation. Since our sun emits an abundance of UV radiation, this methane on Titan must be renewed somehow, or it would all be gone by now. The main source of methane on Earth is life; however the methane on Titan is not from life. This leaves the scientists with a puzzle to work on.

    You can keep up with the latest news on the Cassini-Huygens mission at

  • On January 17, Swift detected and imaged it’s first gamma-ray burst. Swift has been going through it’s testing phase, and has observed other gamma-ray bursts, but this is the first one that Swift detected and autonomously slewed to observe. It is the first time that a burst has been observed in X-rays while the burst was still going on.
  • Deep Impact successfully launched on January 12. This is a mission that will rendezvous with comet Temple I and send an impactor to the comet. This will give astronomers a first look at what’s beneath a comet’s surface. The rendezvous should occur on July 4th.
  • Hipparchus’ star chart found in plain site. Hipparchus was the greatest astronomer of antiquity and produced the first star chart around 129 B.C., which has been lost. Only a few bits of his work remain. The Farnese Atlas sculpture, dating from the late Roman period, sports a globe with constellations etched into it. Bradley E. Schaefer of Louisiana State University was able to deduce, from precession calculations, that the positions of the constellations coincide with the time of Hipparchus, and are likely based on his star catalog.
  • SOHO is having a contest to see who can predict when it will discover it’s 1000th comet. SOHO was not built as a comet detector — it’s a mission to monitor the Sun. However, it has now detected over 900 comets, and is the most prolific comet-finder in history. You can enter here, and the prizes for guessing correctly include SolarMax DVD, a SOHO T-shirt, and solar viewing glasses.
  • Just for fun, Mr. Potatohead hss turned to the dark side.

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