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Cosmic Space

It’s prime time for the sky show in your backyard

Ready for a star party?

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on summer star parties and other public gatherings, and skywatching isn’t exactly the kind of thing best done via a Zoom session. But you can still experience the wonders of the universe, just by looking up into dark, clear skies.

“The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” a newly published handbook by science writer David Dickinson, can help you do it.

“I pitch it as a star party in a book,” Dickinson explained.

This week is the summer’s big week for skywatchers:

  • The Globe at Night campaign is asking citizen scientists to report what they see in evening skies, to assess the effects of light pollution.
  • The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the nights of Aug. 10-13.
  • Four planets are on view: Jupiter and Saturn after sunset, and Mars and Venus before sunrise.
  • Although now is not the best time for Americans to spot the International Space Station, you just might be able to track the latest batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites as the stream across the sky. (Plug in your coordinates on Heavens-Above.com to check viewing times.)

Dickinson’s guide is designed to cover the more established targets of the night sky, ranging from the constellations to star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.

Forty-four sky charts, organized by month, point out wonders that can be found with the naked eye, with binoculars or with a telescope like the one that Dickinson sets up in his backyard or on the top floor of a nearby parking garage.

“Your observatory is wherever you’re observing,” he said.

Backyard Astronomer's Field Guide
“The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide” is spiral-bound for convenient use in the field. (Page Street Publishing / Laura Benton)

Dickinson also provides context that goes beyond latitude and longitude: Which naked-eye stars have planets orbiting them? What are the myths behind the constellation’s names, and what did other cultures see in them? What makes a planetary nebula “planetary”?

The guide includes a list of online tools, websites and publications to help you plot out your observing strategy — including Stellarium, a free planetarium program that’s priceless.

So what are the best deep-sky objects to turn your telescope toward while you’re waiting for the Perseids? Dickinson recommends M13, a globular star cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the variable star Algol (a.k.a. the Demon Star) in Perseus … and Epsilon Lyrae, the “double-double” star in the constellation Lyra.

The double-double is famous, but somehow it was left out of the deep-sky catalog created by French astronomer Charles Messier in the 1700s. “I was always amazed that he missed things like the double-double,” Dickinson said.

You’re unlikely to repeat Messier’s mistake, as long as you have Dickinson’s field guide sitting next to your lounge chair (preferably consulted by the light of a red flashlight to preserve your night vision).

To celebrate the summer’s big week for skywatching — and reward you for reading down this far — I’m giving away a copy of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide.” Just be the first to answer this Cosmic Log quiz question in the comment section below:

What is the name of the closest planetary nebula to Earth?

The first person to answer correctly, based on my assessment of the time stamp, will be eligible to receive the book by mail (U.S. postal addresses only). If I can’t get in touch with that person via email in a timely fashion, I’ll move on to the next person on the list.

Back in the old days, Cosmic Log was known for its community of commenters, and I’m hoping we can revive that spirit. If you have a favorite night-sky object to observe, or a favorite resource for skywatching, pass it along in a comment. Your recommendation may end up in a future Cosmic Log roundup.

Update for 11:25 a.m. PT Aug. 9: We have a winner! Boris Zuchner was the first to answer the quiz question correctly, with an assist by Professor Google. As revealed on page 160 of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” the closest planetary nebula to Earth is the Helix Nebula, a.k.a. NGC 7293. Assuming that Boris’ mailing address is in the United States, he’ll be able to look that fact up himself in the future, thanks to the book I’ll be sending him.

As I wrote in the comments, don’t be a stranger! It took me a while to approve the comments this time around, but I’ll try to be faster on the draw for the next book giveaway.

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Space telescope named after ‘Mother of Hubble’

The telescope formerly known as WFIRST has a new name that honors Nancy Grace Roman, who served as NASA’s first chief astronomer and came to be known as the “Mother of Hubble.”

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Xplore works with gravity-lens telescope team

Solar sail
An artist’s conception shows Xplore’s advanced solar sail for NASA’s Solar Gravity Lens Focus mission. (Visualization by Bryan Versteeg, SpaceHabs.com / via Xplore)

NASA has awarded a $2 million grant to the Jet Propulsion LaboratoryThe Aerospace Corp. — and Xplore, a Seattle-based space venture — to develop the design architecture for a far-out telescope array that would use the sun’s gravitational field as a lens to focus on alien planets.

The Phase III award from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, would cover two years of development work and could lead to the launch of a technology demonstration mission in the 2023-2024 time frame.

Xplore’s team will play a key role in designing the demonstration mission’s spacecraft, which would be launched as a rideshare payload and propelled by a deployable solar sail.

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Telescope project honors astronomer and billionaire

LSST
Artwork shows the Vera Rubin Observatory’s Simonyi Survey Telescope scanning the sky. (LSST Illustration)

The next great ground-based astronomical observatory, previously known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, has been named after the late astronomer Vera Rubin — with a nod to Seattle software billionaire Charles Simonyi as well.

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Mega-constellations spark fears about space traffic

Starlink streaks
An image of the NGC 5353/4 galaxy group, made with a telescope at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory on May 25, shows the trails of reflected light left by SpaceX’s freshly launched Starlink satellites as they pass through the telescope’s field of view. The brightness diminishes once the satellites reach their intended altitude. (Lowell Observatory Photo via IAU / Victoria Girgis)

The retired commander of the U.S. Strategic Command says the tens of thousands of satellites that SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon are planning to put into orbit over the next few years will require a new automated system for space traffic management — and perhaps new satellite hardware requirements as well.

Retired Gen. Kevin Chilton laid out his ideas for dealing with potentially catastrophic orbital traffic jams at the University of Washington on Friday, during the inaugural symposium presented by UW’s Space Policy and Research Center.

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ZTF team shares sky scanner’s greatest hits

Andromeda galaxy
This composite image of the Andromeda galaxy was made by combining images from the Zwicky Transient Facility in three bands of visible light. The image covers 2.9 square degrees, which is one-sixteenth of ZTF’s full field of view. (ZTF Photo / D. Goldstein / R. Hurt / Caltech)

A state-of-the-art astronomical camera system in California known as the Zwicky Transient Facility is rolling out an early batch of greatest hits with an assist from the University of Washington.

The wide-angle camera makes use of the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at Southern California’s Palomar Observatory, with Caltech playing the principal role in the $24 million project. But UW is one of the partners in the ZTF consortium, and UW’s DIRAC Institute plays a key role in the automated alert system that lets astronomers know when the instrument has picked up a hot one.

Technical details and early results from the ZTF are laid out in a flurry of six papers accepted by the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The discoveries include more than 1,100 supernovae and 50 near-Earth asteroids. One of the finds is a strange space rock known as 2019 AQ3. It makes an orbit around the sun every 165 days, which gives it the shortest “year” of any known asteroid.

“It’s a cornucopia of results,” Caltech astronomer Shri Kulkarni, the ZTF project’s principal investigator, said in a news release. “We are up and running and delivering data to the astronomical community. Astronomers are energized.”

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Could Barnard’s Star harbor an icy home for life?

Red dwarf and planets
An artist’s conception shows three planets around a red dwarf star. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

Where’s the nearest exoplanet with conditions that are right for life? Over the past couple of years, astrobiologists have talked up Proxima Centauri b, which is sitting just 4.2 light-years away.

But Villanova University astrophysicist Edward Guinan favors a world that’s just a bit farther out, at least in astronomical terms. It’s Barnard’s Star b, a super-Earth that orbits Barnard’s Star, 6 light-years from our solar system.

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Supernova leftovers point to a messy blowup

White dwarf and red giant
This artist’s view shows a white dwarf star accumulating material from a nearby red giant star. Ultimately, the white dwarf erupts into a supernova. (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canaria Illustration / Romano Corradi)

In what sounds like a cosmic episode of “CSI,” sleuthing astronomers have figured out what touched off a stellar explosion 545 million light-years away, based on evidence left behind at the scene of the crime.

An international team of astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories to sift through the chemical fingerprints left behind in the remnants of a Type Ia supernova known as SN 2015cp. The astronomers knew the type of star that blew up: It was a carbon-oxygen white dwarf. But they wanted to find out whether a different kind of star had a hand in the blast.

Today the astronomers reported the detection of hydrogen-rich debris in the vicinity of the supernova site — which cracks the case wide open.

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Scientists seek new ways to track technosignatures

Image: Alien megastructure
An artist’s conception shows a crumbling megastructure known as a Dyson sphere orbiting a distant star. Could such structures produce detectable technosignatures? (Danielle Futselaar Illustration)

Could extraterrestrial civilizations leave their fingerprints as chlorofluorocarbons in planetary atmospheres, or the waste heat generated by industrial processes, or artificial bursts of neutrinos or gravitational waves?

That’s what a vanguard of astronomers would like to find out, and they’re hoping to win more support for an approach that widens the nearly 60-year-old search for alien radio signals to include other alien indicators.

Those indicators — which could include anomalous chemicals in exoplanet atmospheres or readings that hint at the presence of alien megastructures — have come to be known collectively as technosignatures. It’s a term that originated with Jill Tarter, one of the pioneers in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

“When the astrobiology people started talking about ‘biosignatures,’ it just seemed obvious,” Tarter told GeekWire this week at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

Tarter said the term crystallizes the idea that scientists should look for a variety of technological traces potentially pointing to intelligent life beyond Earth.

“We’re really talking about more than just searching for radio signals or optical signals,” she said. “What is it that technology does to modify its environment in a way that we can detect over interstellar distances, and distinguish from what life does?”

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Search for fast radio bursts enters a new era

CHIME antenna
One of the radio antennas of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, spreads out beneath the night sky near Penticton, B.C. (CHIME Photo)

A new radio telescope in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley has detected 13 new sources of mysterious extragalactic phenomena known as fast radio bursts, including the second known source of repeated bursts.

And the experiment is just barely getting started.

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, picked up the radio signatures of the bursts over the course of three weeks in July and August, while the telescope was in its pre-commissioning phase and running at only a fraction of its design capacity.

Fast radio bursts, also known as FRBs, are powerful spikes of radio emissions that emanate from galaxies beyond our own Milky Way and last for mere milliseconds. Only 60 FRB sources have been detected, including the 13 announced today.

“Their origin is still unknown,” said the University of British Columbia astronomer Deborah Good, one of the co-authors of two papers about the detections published today by the journal Nature.

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