Earth--Day and Night Regions

Earth--Day and Night Regions

Planetary Positions

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dwarf Planet Eris' Claim to Fame Is Unshaken By Lingering mysteries


Dwarf Planet's Claim to Fame Is Unshaken by Lingering Mysteries

By JR Minkel Contributor

posted: 27 October 2010

11:20 pm ET

Astronomers revealed this month that the dwarf planet Eris, near the edge of our solar system, has a surface similar to Pluto's — the latest revelation about an icy world that, even five years after its discovery, holds a pivotal place in the planetary debate.

Eris is larger than Pluto and three times farther from the sun. Astronomers discovered the small world in January 2005 (and later spotted its moon Dysnomia), setting in motion events that would ultimately lead to the demotion of Pluto from full-blown planet and to the rise of the "dwarf planet" category.

Five years later, researchers agree it was an epoch-making find — even if some of them still don't see eye to eye about Pluto. [Artist's rendition of Eris]

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www.Telescopes.comNasa satellite imagesFree Nasa satellite images All The Time With The Maps Toolbar"In some ways, what it did was really open up the entire outer solar system," Eris' discoverer, astronomer Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology, has told

Dwarf planet debate

Eris changed planetary science by creating room for a third category of planets, distinct from the four terrestrial planets and the four gas giants. They are called trans-Neptunian dwarf planets, or plutoids, and researchers expect to find many more of them in coming years.

"It's becoming common wisdom that dwarf planets are the most common type in the solar system," said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Stern recalls writing a paper in 1991 suggesting hundreds of Pluto-scale worlds inhabited the outer reaches of the solar system. "It's completely panned out, and I'm very happy about that," he said.

The corroborating evidence would take nearly 15 years to obtain, however.

Starting in 2000, Brown, working with Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz, began a detailed survey of the northern sky, searching for moving objects that would qualify as new planets.

Five years into the search, the researchers had turned up nothing.

"You condition yourself to knowing what to expect," Brown said. "When it showed up on my computer screen, it took me about 30 seconds to know it was larger than Pluto. I almost fell out of my chair."

Planet or not?

After NASA's official announcement of the discovery of a "10th planet," the name that caught on for it was "Xena." That proved to be a placeholder until the International Astronomical Union accepted Eris as the official name in September of 2006.

In the five years since the discovery, Brown said, researchers trained nearly every terrestrial and orbiting telescope on Eris to flesh out a basic picture of the dwarf planet. Images from the Keck telescopes in Hawaii revealed it had a moon.

The Hubble Space Telescope pegged the dwarf planet's size at approximately 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) across, while measurements made at the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii indicated the presence of methane ice on its surface.

But the most intense scrutiny may have centered around Eris' effect on the classification of Pluto. The possibility of discovering an 11th planet — and a 12th and a 13th and so on — made Pluto's status a pressing matter for astronomers.

On Aug. 24, 2006, the IAU resolved the conundrum by designating Eris and Pluto dwarf planets, based on the fact they hadn't cleared their orbital zones of other rocky objects. The number of full planets in the solar system was thus reduced to eight.

As an astronomer, Brown agreed with the decision.

"It's the right thing to have happened," he said. "I'm happy the solar system is finally organized correctly."

Pluto planet brouhaha

But although the reclassification was faithful to the idea that Eris and Pluto represented a distinct type of planet, it frustrated researchers who had dedicated their careers to studying Pluto.

The IAU's decision was "laughable," said Stern, principal investigator for the mission of the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto.

"I think most people know a planet when they see one, and I guarantee when people see the images from the Pluto system, they're going to recognize it as a planet."

Stern and Brown can both agree that New Horizons will add a new level of understanding to the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune. The probe, due to reach Pluto in the summer of 2015, is expected to shed light on Pluto's surface, interior and atmosphere.

Further direct studies of Eris will have to wait until the next generation of telescopes comes online, Brown said.

Better telescopes, better views

Between the planned 30-meter telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope and the ALMA radio telescope in South America, astronomers will be able to better map the surface of Eris and gauge its temperature, and new infrared telescopes will allow more-precise measurements of Eris's surface composition.

Brown said he would love to be able to stick around for 290 more years, for the time when Eris will approach as close to the sun as Pluto is now.

"Two hundred ninety years is probably a pretty long time to wait," he said, "but hopefully it'll be a pretty spectacular sight when it comes."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hubble Telescope Captures Dazzling Infant Star In Orion Nebula


Hubble Captures Dazzling Infant Star in Orion Nebula

By Staff

posted: 26 October 2010

06:54 pm ET

The Hubble Space Telescope has peered into a vast stellar nursery and snapped a photo of a newly born star.

The image shows part of the Orion Nebula, a bright and massive star-forming region just 1,500 light-years or so from Earth. The rich, colorful glow of the nebula fills the entire picture. Just left of center sits a star embedded in a pinkish cloud — the leftover gas and dust from which it formed. [New Hubble photo of Orion Nebula.]

This leftover material may accrete to form planets and eventually solar systems as intricate as our own. A similar gaseous cloud likely cocooned our own sun about five billion years ago, before Earth and our neighboring planets formed.

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wallpapers.smileycentral.comPhotos Of Largest ShipFind Images of Oasis of the Seas, The Largest Cruise Ship Afloat. narrow pink jet extending away to the upper right of the young star is part of an object called Herbig-Haro 502. Herbig-Haro objects are glowing gaseous areas close to recently formed stars. They are created when very young stars eject gas at breakneck speeds — up to hundreds of kilometers per second — which heats the surrounding gas and causes it to glow.

These ephemeral shockwaves are thought to dissipate after a few thousand years, the blink of an eye in the cosmic scheme of things. Herbig-Haro objects vary in size but are often much larger than our own solar system.

The Orion Nebula is one of the closest areas of star formation to us. Hubble has spent a lot of time looking at Orion, as researchers have often used the space telescope to study how stars form and evolve. Images such as this can help astronomers understand more about how the universe developed and how it is changing, researchers have said.

This image was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys. The picture was created from images taken through filters that isolate the light from glowing hydrogen (colored red in the picture), ionized oxygen (green) and yellow light (blue). The exposure times were 1,000 seconds, 2,000 seconds and 1,000 seconds, respectively.

The field of view is about 3.3 arcminutes across as seen by Hubble. The moon, in comparison, is about 30 arcminutes (half a degree) across when viewed from Earth. An arcminute is a unit of angular distance equal to a 60th of a degree.

The nearly 20-year-old Hubble observatory has been snapping iconic photos of the universe since it was launched in April 1990. Over the years it has been visited by astronauts multiple times for repairs and upgrades, including during a space shuttle mission in May 2009. That trip left the telescope in good enough shape to keep running for at least five more years

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stunning Spacecraft Photos Show Moon Eclipsing The Sun


Stunning Spacecraft Photos Show Moon Eclipsing the Sun

By Tariq Malik Managing Editor

posted: 21 October 2010

01:14 pm ET

A spacecraft gazing at the sun has caught some stunning views of the moon eclipsing the sun as seen from space.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory snapped the eye-catching photos of the moon passing in front of the sun on Oct. 7. [Photo of the moon and sun from space]

This was not a natural partial solar eclipse like those that can be seen from Earth when the moon passes directly between the Earth and the sun. Rather, the eclipse was only visible from the vantage point of the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, which is currently in orbit above Earth.

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In the new photos, the rough terrain of the moon can clearly be seen in silhouette against the bright backdrop of the sun. The sun appears as it would in the ultraviolet range of the light spectrum.

NASA launched the sun-watching observatory in February on a five-year mission to continually watch the sun. It is the first mission to launch under NASA's Living With a Star program.

The $850 million spacecraft is equipped with three cameras to monitor the sun and take high-definition photos of our nearest star.

Moon Crater Has More Water Than Parts Of Earth


Moon Crater Has More Water Than Parts of Earth

By Mike Wall Staff

posted: 21 October 2010

02:02 pm ET

A frigid crater at the moon's south pole is jam-packed with water ice, with some spots wetter than Earth's Sahara desert, boosting hopes for future lunar bases.

That's the picture painted by six new studies that analyzed the intentional moon crash of a NASA spacecraft on Oct. 9, 2009. The agency's LCROSS probe was looking for signs of water when it smashed into Cabeus crater at the moon's south pole last year, and the spacecraft found plenty of it, as scientists announced last year.

The new results expand on those original findings, revealing that Cabeus harbors many other compounds, too — stuff like carbon monoxide, ammonia, methane, mercury and silver.

And the new studies — reported as six separate papers in the Oct. 22 issue of the journal Science — put a solid number on the amount of frozen water at the moon's south pole. [10 Coolest New Moon Discoveries]

Water ice makes up about 5.6 percent of the total mass on the floor of Cabeus — making the crater about twice as wet as Sahara Desert soil, according to LCROSS mission principal investigator Tony Colaprete.

"That is a surprise," said Colaprete, who works at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "And it has a lot of ramifications in terms of our understanding of water and other volatiles on the moon."

Moon water surprises

The high concentration of water ice came as a bit of a shock to mission scientists.

"I still can't really wrap my brain around it," said Colaprete, who led one of the studies reported in the journal Science and is a co-author on several others. "There are places on the moon that are wetter than parts of Earth — that's kind of neat."

This moon water ice is also relatively pure, the researchers found.

The LCROSS spacecraft picked up ice signatures for four full minutes. If the ice crystals had been impregnated with lots of lunar dirt grains, that signal would have faded within 20 seconds or so, according to Colaprete, since grains heat up fast in sunlight.

"For ice crystals to last more than a minute, they need to be 80 or 90 percent water ice," Colaprete told "Otherwise they will sublime, evaporate in the sunlight."

Another intriguing result was the variety and amount of other substances inside Cabeus.

LCROSS and a sister probe, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), found evidence of all kinds of compounds, including elemental hydrogen, carbon monoxide, ammonia, methane, mercury, calcium, magnesium and silver. And these materials made up a surprisingly large chunk of the crater floor.

"Where we impacted, up to 20 percent was something other than dirt," Colaprete said. "It was ices, volatiles, light metals. That was a surprise, that you had so much of this material in there."

Smashing a probe into the moon

The LCROSS spacecraft, short for Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, was built to live fast and die young. It launched, along with LRO, in June 2009 aboard a Centaur rocket.

On Oct. 9 of that year, the Centaur hurtled solo toward Cabeus, a 60-mile-wide (97-km-wide) crater near the moon's south pole. When the rocket hit, it raised a huge debris plume up into the sunlight, where the two probes could scan it with their instruments, which included cameras and various spectrometers.

LCROSS plummeted just four minutes behind the Centaur, getting an up-close look at the ejecta cloud before smashing into the lunar surface itself. The LRO spacecraft watched all this action from above, peering at the two impacts' debris plumes. It remains in lunar orbit today, mapping the moon's surface.

Last November, scientists announced that those plumes contained "significant amounts" of water.

Now, after analyzing more of the data gathered by both LCROSS and LRO, they have a much better idea of just what's in Cabeus crater — and they're gaining a better understanding of how it may have gotten there.

Where did all of this stuff come from?

The researchers are still trying to work out exactly how all of these compounds — the water and everything else — made their way to the bottom of Cabeus crater.

The original source of much of the material is likely asteroid or comet impacts, scientists said. Once they arrived, the compounds could have moved all over the lunar surface — liberated from the dirt by micrometeorite strikes or solar heating — until they hit a cold trap like Cabeus.

The permanently shadowed inside of Cabeus is among the coldest places in the solar system, with average temperatures around minus 387 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius). Many compounds would sink into these frigid depths and never surface again. So water, ammonia and everything else could keep accumulating in the crater for billions of years.

"This place looks like it's a treasure chest of elements, of compounds that have been released all over the moon," said Peter Schultz of Brown University, lead author of one of the Science papers and co-author of another one. "And they've been put in this bucket in the permanent shadows."

But Colaprete thinks there's more to the story at Cabeus.

The new research details, in part, how the crater was chosen for the LCROSS kamikaze mission: LRO instruments picked up a strong hydrogen signal in the crater, indicating the likely presence of lots of water ice.

But there are many freezing-cold craters at the moon's south pole, and most of them didn't show such a strong hydrogen signature. And some of the places with lots of hydrogen aren't even in permanent shadow.

Cabeus stands out, indicating that there's likely more to accumulating large quantities of water — and other materials — than just frigid temperatures.

"I think the best model right now, given the compounds we see, is that the Cabeus site is actually a comet impact site," Colaprete said.

That's not to suggest that volatiles don't migrate around the moon and get trapped in the bottom of permanently shadowed craters. That's likely happening, too, Colaprete said. But that background process likely can't fully explain Cabeus.

"It seems to suggest that our old thinking about this kind of uniform emplacement of water over a billion years is only a part — and maybe a minor part — of the story when it comes to these pockets of high concentrations," Colaprete said.

Going to the moon?

The high concentration of water ice at the bottom of Cabeus is good news for anyone pushing for bases at the moon's poles.

Future moon-dwellers could conceivably mine such large quantities of ice efficiently. They could it process it into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, prime ingredients of rocket fuel. And they could melt the ice down and drink it — provided they remove some of the nasty stuff, like mercury.

Some of the other compounds found in the crater — such as elemental hydrogen, methane and ammonia— could be useful, too, according to Colaprete.

"These places are definitely resource-rich and suggest that they would be advantageous to use for producing resources, if it ever came to that," Colaprete said.

There's no reason to think Cabeus is an anomaly, Colaprete said. There could be other super-enriched sites like it at both the north and south poles.

And the poles more generally could harbor a lot of water ice, according to the new research. Modeling results support the possibility that there may be large regions of lunar "permafrost," where relatively accessible ice could be trapped below the surface, even in warmer spots that see the sun occasionally.

And that's a good thing, because Cabeus itself may not be the ideal site for a lunar base.

For one thing, the floor of the crater is in permanent shadow and incredibly cold. It's tough to design equipment that can operate at temperatures of minus 387 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius)--and that equipment likely can't be solar-powered.

Also, the findings suggest that all those volatile compounds form a soft, frosty layer on the Cabeus floor that could bog down rovers or landers. When the Centaur hit, LCROSS measured a 0.3 second delay until a big heat flash resulted.

That's a very long lag, especially considering that the rocket was moving at 5,580 mph (9,000 kph). The result suggests that the soil is very porous, perhaps almost fluffy.

"If we had hit rock, that flash would have happened almost instantaneously," Colaprete said.

Sacrificing itself for science

The $79 million LCROSS mission wasn't the first to find water on the moon — three other spacecraft had previously detected evidence of water ice on the lunar surface, a finding announced just a few weeks before LCROSS' kamikaze plunge.

But the LCROSS mission is yielding new insights that should change how researchers think about the moon, according to Colaprete. That means the spacecraft's sacrifice was worth it.

"We went out with a bang," Colaprete said, "and the return has just been phenomenal."

Last Year's Moonshot Splashed Up Lots Of Water

From the AP:

Last year's moonshot splashed up lots of water

This 2009 image provided by NASA shows the area of the lunar South Pole where the LCROSS experiment, Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, h
.. AP – This 2009 image provided by NASA shows the area of the lunar South Pole where the LCROSS experiment, …

By ALICIA CHANG, AP Science Writer Alicia Chang, Ap Science Writer – 2 hrs 6 mins ago

LOS ANGELES – When NASA blasted a hole in the moon last year in search of water, scientists figured there would be a splash. They just didn't know how big. Now new results from the Hollywood-esque moonshot reveal lots of water in a crater where the sun never shines — 41 gallons of ice and vapor.

That may not sound like much — it's what a typical washing machine uses for a load — but it's almost twice as much as researchers had initially measured and more than they ever expected to find.

The estimate represents only what scientists can see from the debris plume that was kicked up from the high-speed crash near the south pole by a NASA spacecraft on Oct. 9, 2009.

Mission chief scientist Anthony Colaprete of the NASA Ames Research Center calculates there could be 1 billion gallons of water in the crater that was hit — enough to fill 1,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

"Where we impacted was quite wet," Colaprete said, adding there could be more such craters at both the moon's poles.

Proof that the moon is dynamic and not a dry, desolate world offers hope for a possible future astronaut outpost where water on site could be used for drinking or making rocket fuel.

Click image to see photos of the lunar surface

An image of debris, ejected from Cabeus crater

This 2009 image provided by NASA shows the area ...


But the scientists' excitement is tempered by the political reality that there's no plan to land on the moon anytime soon.

The $79 million moon mission known as the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, was launched to determine whether water exists at the moon's poles. Previous spacecraft spied hints of possible ice in polar craters.

The mission involved slamming a spent rocket into Cabeus crater. The crash carved a hole about one quarter the size of a football field.

A trailing spacecraft then flew through the cloud of debris and dust thrown up by the impact and used its instruments to analyze what was inside before it also struck the moon.

Besides water, the plume also contained carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, sodium, mercury and silver. The findings were published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

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How the soup of compounds became trapped in Cabeus crater, among the coldest places in the solar system, is unclear. One theory is that they came from comets and asteroids, which pounded the lunar surface billions of years ago, and later drifted to the poles.

Mission scientist Kurt Retherford of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, thinks the discovery of mercury could pose a challenge for any human settlers because of its toxicity.

But Colaprete, the mission chief scientist, said there are ways around the mercury dilemma.

"Just like we use filters on Earth to make sure our drinking water is clean, we will do the same on the moon. We can distill or purify it," he said.

Apollo astronauts previously found traces of silver and gold in lunar samples facing the Earth. Specks of silver in the frigid polar crater are "not going to start the next `silver rush' to the moon," said planetary geologist Peter Schultz of Brown University, who analyzed the plume.

While scientists celebrated the copious data returned to Earth, the highly hyped mission last year was a public relations bomb. Scores of space fans who stayed up all night to glimpse NASA's promised debris plume through webcast or telescopes saw little more than a fuzzy white flash.

LCROSS was originally hatched as a robotic mission before a future human trip. That was before Congress approved a blueprint last month for NASA that shifts the focus from a manned moon landing — as outlined under President George W. Bush — in favor of sending astronauts to near-Earth asteroids and eventually Mars. A return to the moon could potentially be a way station — something still to be decided — but the moon won't be an overall goal.

Given the recent water find, "it's disappointing that we're not going to forge ahead" with a moon return next decade, said space scientist Greg Delory of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the project.

But he believes that "when the time is right, we're going to send people there again."



LCROSS mission:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Astronomers Say they've Found The Oldest Galaxy So Far


Astronomers say they've found oldest galaxy so far

In the center of this Jan. 5, 2010 NASA handout image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is a hard-to-see galaxy that European astronomers say is t

. AP – In the center of this Jan. 5, 2010 NASA handout image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is a hard-to-see …

By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein, Ap Science Writer – Wed Oct 20, 5:17 pm ET

WASHINGTON – Astronomers believe they've found the oldest thing they've ever seen in the universe: It's a galaxy far, far away from a time long, long ago.

Hidden in a Hubble Space Telescope photo released earlier this year is a small smudge of light that European astronomers now calculate is a galaxy from 13.1 billion years ago. That's a time when the universe was very young, just shy of 600 million years old. That would make it the earliest and most distant galaxy seen so far.

By now the galaxy is so ancient it probably doesn't exist in its earlier form and has already merged into bigger neighbors, said Matthew Lehnert of the Paris Observatory, lead author of the study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"We're looking at the universe when it was a 20th of its current age," said California Institute of Technology astronomy professor Richard Ellis, who wasn't part of the discovery team. "In human terms, we're looking at a 4-year-old boy in the life span of an adult."

While Ellis finds the basis for the study "pretty good," there have been other claims about the age of distant space objects that have not held up to scrutiny. And some experts have questions about this one. But even the skeptics praised the study as important and interesting.

The European astronomers calculated the age after 16 hours of observations from a telescope in Chile that looked at light signatures of cooling hydrogen gas.

Earlier this year, astronomers had made a general estimate of 600 to 800 million years after the Big Bang for the most distant fuzzy points of light in the Hubble photograph, which was presented at an astronomy meeting back in January.

In the new study, researchers focused on a single galaxy in their analysis of hydrogen's light signature, further pinpointing the age. Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was the scientist behind the Hubble image, said it provides confirmation for the age using a different method, something he called amazing "for such faint objects."

The new galaxy doesn't have a name — just a series of letters and numbers. So Lehnert said he and colleagues have called it "the high red-shift blob. "Because it takes so long for the light to travel such a vast time and distance, astronomers are seeing what the galaxy looked like 13.1 billion years ago at a time when it was quite young — maybe even as young as 100 million years old — Lehnert said. It has very little of the carbon or metal that we see in more mature stars and is full of young, blue massive stars, he said.

What's most interesting to astronomers is that this finding fits with theories about when the first stars and galaxies were born. This galaxy would have formed not too soon after them.

"We're looking almost to the edge, almost within 100 million years of seeing the very first objects," Ellis said. "One hundred million years to a human seems an awful long time, but in astronomical time periods, that's nothing compared to the life of the stars."

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Moonlight Meteor Shower Spawned By Halley's Comet

From and Yahoo News:

Moonlight Meteor Shower Spawned By Halley's Comet joe Rao Skywatching Columnist – Sat Oct 16, 8:15 am ET

A junior version of the famous Perseid meteor shower thought to have originated from the remains of Halley's Comet will hit its peak over the next week, but the light of the moon may intrude on the sky show.

This upcoming meteor display is known as the Orionids because the meteors seem to fan out from a region to the north of the Orion constellation's second brightest star, ruddy Betelgeuse.

The annual event peaks before sunrise on Thursday (Oct. 21) but several viewing opportunities arise before then for skywatchers in North America. [Where to look to see the Orionids]

The shooting stars are created by small bits of space dust — most no larger than sand grains — thought to be left over from the famed Halley's Comet, which orbits the sun once every 76 years.

Currently, Orion appears ahead of us in our journey around the sun, and has not completely risen above the eastern horizon until after 11 p.m. local daylight time.

The constellation is at its best several hours later. At around 5 a.m. – Orion will be highest in the sky toward the south – Orionids typically produce around 20 to 30 meteors per hour under a clear, dark sky.

But skywatchers beware: You will be facing a major obstacle in your attempt to observe this year’s Orionid performance. As bad luck would have it, the moon will turn full on Oct. 23. Bright moonlight outshines fainter meteors, seriously reducing the number anyone can see.

The gradual build up to the full moon will hamper – if not outright prevent – dark-sky observing during the Orionid meteor shower's peak on Oct. 21.

The Orionids are actually already underway, having been active only in a very weak and scattered form since about Oct. 2. But a noticeable upswing in activity is expected to begin around Oct. 17, leading up to their peak night.

"Orionid meteors are normally dim and not well seen from urban locations," notes meteor expert, Robert Lunsford, adding that "it is highly suggested that you find a safe rural location to see the best Orionid activity."

Damage control for 2010

With all this as a background, perhaps the best times to look this year will be during the predawn hours several mornings before the night of full moon. That’s when the constellation Orion (from where the meteors get their name) will stand high in the northeast sky.

In fact, three "windows" of dark skies will be available between moonset and the first light of dawn on the mornings of Oct. 18, 19 and 20.

Generally speaking, there will be about 150 minutes of completely dark skies available on the morning of the 18th.This shrinks to about 100 minutes on the 19th, and to about 50 minutes by the morning of the 20th.

This skywatching table shows prime Orionid meteor shower viewing times for some select U.S. cities.

In the table, all times are a.m. and are local daylight times. "Dawn" is the time when morning (astronomical) twilight begins. A "Window" is the number of minutes between the time of moonset and the start of twilight.

For example: When will the sky be dark and moonless for Orionid viewing on the morning of Oct. 20 from Houston?

Answer: There will be a 50-minute period of dark skies beginning at moonset (5:16 a.m.) and continuing until dawn breaks (6:06 a.m.).

Perhaps up to a dozen forerunners of the main Orionid display might appear to steak by within an hour’s watch on these mornings, particularly on the 20th, the morning before the peak. It might even be worthwhile to try on Thursday morning, Oct. 21, although for most places, the moon will not set until just after the first light of dawn.

Halley's legacy

In studying the orbits of many meteor swarms, astronomers have found that they correspond closely to the orbits of known comets.

The Orionids are thought to result from the orbit of Halley's Comet, as some of the dust that has been shed by this famous object intersect earth’s orbit around the sun during October.

There are actually two points along Halley’s path, where it comes relatively near to our orbit. Another one of these points occurs in early May causing a meteor display from the constellation Aquarius, the Water Carrier.

The tiny particles that are responsible for the Orionid and Aquarid meteors are – like Halley itself – moving through space in a direction opposite to that the earth. This results in meteors that ram through our atmosphere very swiftly at 41 miles (66 km) per second. Of all the meteor displays, only the November Leonids move faster.

Orionid postmortem

After the peak, activity will begin to slowly descend, although most of the meteors will be squelched by the light of the moon. Rates drop back to around five per hour around Oct. 26. The last stragglers usually appear sometime around Nov. 7.

It is indeed unfortunate that the Moon will likely obliterate most of the Orionids in the nights following the peak, but the viewing odds will be much better before the break of dawn on those mornings leading up to the peak. Almost certainly, you should sight at least a few of these offspring of Halley's Comet as they streak across the sky.

In the absence of moonlight a single observer might see at least a couple of dozen meteors per hour on the morning of the peak, a number that sadly can not be hoped to be approached in 2010. In fact, it appears that this year, fans of the Orionids will be uttering the same lament that the old Dodger fans in Brooklyn used to: "Wait till next year!"

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is Obama Trying To De-Colonize Space?

From The Christian Science Monitor and Floyd Reports:


Is Obama trying to 'decolonize' space?

Observers were puzzled when President Obama apparently gave the space agency NASA a new mission to reach out to the world’s Muslims. But his action makes sense when you consider the influence of anticolonial ideology.



By Dinesh D'Souza / October 13, 2010

New York

Soon after becoming president, Barack Obama evidently gave the space agency NASA a new mission of reaching out to the world’s Muslims. Observers were puzzled. Why should rocket scientists focused on outer space now worry about hearts and minds on Earth?

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Newt Gingrich dissertation on Congo sheds light on his jab that Obama is 'anticolonial'

.I believe I have solved the mystery. The reason is that President Obama has adopted his father’s ideology; the son is, as his father was, an anticolonialist. And according to this worldview, NASA is a symbol of America’s effort to colonize outer space. It follows that Obama wants to “decolonize” NASA, and that means converting it from its traditional mission of American exploration into a kind of international project to recognize what Muslims and others have contributed to the development of science.

FOR ANOTHER VIEW, READ Newt Gingrich is right: Obama shares anticolonial values -- American values

A strange new mission

Several months ago, NASA chief Charles Bolden announced that Mr. Obama had given him three priorities: “He wanted me to help reinspire children to want to get into science and math. He wanted me to expand our international relationships. And third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contributions to science and math and engineering.”

Mr. Bolden added that the International Space Station was a kind of model for NASA’s future, since it was not just a US operation but included the Russians and the Japanese.

For former astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, Bolden’s remarks – which the White House later tried to correct – surely added insult to the injury they felt Obama has caused with his new budget and vision for NASA, which includes shelving the ambitious Constellation program and relying on foreign and commercial spacecraft.

Even some Obama supporters expressed puzzlement. Sure, we are all for Islamic self-esteem, and 800 years ago the Muslims did make some important discoveries, but what on earth was Obama up to here?

What motivates Obama?

To answer this question, we must figure out what motivates Obama; we must know what is Obama’s dream. Fortunately we don’t have to speculate, because Obama tells us in his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.”

The title alone is telling, but as Obama writes in the book: “It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela.”

Though Obama also candidly admits to feeling mugged by reality when he learned more about his father, several figures who know him well say the ideological fire of the father still burns within the son. As his grandmother Sarah Obama told Newsweek, “I look at him and I see all the same things, he has taken everything from his father. The family is still intact, this son is realizing everything the father wanted – fighting for people, the dreams of the father are still alive in the son.”

So there it is: Obama’s dream is his father’s dream.

Anticolonial ideology

So who was Barack Obama Sr. and what was his dream? First and foremost, he was an anticolonialist. He came of age during Kenya’s struggle for independence from British rule. I know about anti-colonialism because I grew up in India in the aftermath of British rule there. Anticolonialism was the ideology of my parents and grandparents, and it shaped a whole generation of third world people during the second half of the 20th century.

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Opinion: Newt Gingrich is right: Obama shares anticolonial values -- American values

Newt Gingrich dissertation on Congo sheds light on his jab that Obama is 'anticolonial'

.The basic principle of anticolonialism is that the world is divided into two parts: the colonizers and the colonized. The colonizers are the evil Americans and Europeans, and they got rich by invading and looting the nations of Asia, Africa, and South America.

Even today, this ideology holds, America continues to occupy two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and to use its power to dominate and subjugate the rest of the world. The solution, of course, is decolonization, and this means that America must get out and stay out and in the future play a much more modest and humble role in the world.

We know that Barack Obama Sr. was an anticolonialist because he says as much in a 1965 article he wrote in the East Africa Journal. And it seems that his son Barack Obama Jr. is following in his father’s footsteps because he is trying to get America out of both Iraq and Afghanistan and he has informed many international audiences that he seeks a more modest global role for America.

The theory's explanatory power

Just as telling, the anticolonial assumption explains, as no other theory can, why President Obama would apparently undertake the strange task of changing the mission of NASA. Plug in our anti-colonial model and what at first seems inexplicable – converting NASA into a community outreach program for Muslims – suddenly makes complete sense. Remove the theory and it is almost impossibly difficult to account for what Obama is doing.

Recall the Moon Landing of Apollo 11 in 1969. “One small step for man,” Mr. Armstrong said. “One giant leap for mankind.” But that’s not how the rest of the world saw it. I was eight years old at the time and still living in my native India.

I remember my grandfather telling me about the great race between America and Russia to put a man on the moon. America won that race, and everybody knew it because Armstrong placed the American flag on the moon.

So it wasn’t one giant leap for mankind, but one giant leap for the United States. It was as if that flag signified, “We Americans did this. We Americans now own the moon.” I can understand how many in the third world might see the moon landing that way, because I’m from the third world and that’s the way I saw it.

If Obama shares this view, no wonder that he wants to change NASA’s focus. Even when the Muslims aren’t involved, Obama wants to make sure the Russians and the Japanese share the credit. As Bolden put it in his Al Jazeera interview: “We’re not going to go anywhere beyond low Earth orbit as a single entity. The United States can’t do it.”

Space, you see, is for human and not merely American exploration. Obama seems determined to divert NASA from being a symbol of American greatness into a more modest public relations operation that builds ties with Muslims and other peoples. For those who cherish America’s leadership role in space, it is chilling to realize that America’s own president seeks to bring that role to an end.

Dinesh D’Souza is the president of the King’s College in New York City. His new book is “The Roots of Obama’s Rage.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hubble Telescope Captures First Images Of Suspected Asteroid Collision

From the AP:

Hubble captures first images of suspected asteroid collision

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Hubble captures first images of suspected asteroid collision
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WASHINGTON (AFP) – NASA's Hubble space telescope has captured what scientists believe are the first images of a collision between two asteroids, the US space agency said Wednesday.

The images, taken from January to May with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, show a bizarre X-shaped object, the likes of which astronomers have never seen before, at the head of a comet-like trail of material.

Scientists have dubbed the object in the Hubble images P/2010 A2. It was found cruising around the asteroid belt, a reservoir of millions of rocky bodies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

The 400-foot-wide (122 meters) object in the image is thought to be a remnant of a larger body that collided at about 11,000 miles per hour (17,700 kilometers per hour) with a smaller rock that the scientists think measured 10 to 15 feet across.

The crash released an explosion with the force of a small atomic bomb and is believed by astronomer David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, to have happened in February or March 2009.

Until now, astronomers have relied on models to make predictions about the frequency of collisions in space and the amount of dust they produced.

"These observations are important because we need to know where the dust in the solar system comes from and how much of it comes from colliding asteroids as opposed to 'outgassing' comets," Jewitt said.

Asteroid crashes are relatively common -- Jewitt estimates that modest-sized asteroids smash into each other roughly once a year.

But Hubble has achieved yet another feat in its storied space-gazing life by catching this particular collision, which astronomers believe involved two asteroids that were so faint they were unknown before the crash.

The Lincoln Near-Earth Research (LINEAR) Program Sky Survey spotted the comet-like tail of P/2010 A2 in January 2010, before Hubble captured it.

But only Hubble's images discerned the X pattern, which astronomers say offers "unequivocal evidence that something stranger than a comet outgassing had occurred" but are at pains to explain.

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It might suggest that the colliding asteroids were not symmetrical, meaning material that was ejected after the impact did not make an even pattern, NASA said.

Astronomers plan to observe P/2010 A2 next year using Hubble, to see how far the dust has been swept back by the Sun's radiation and how the mysterious X-shaped structure has evolved.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Small Asteroid Zips Close By Earth As Astronomers Watch


Small Asteroid Zips Close By Earth as Astronomers Watch

By Tariq Malik Managing Editor

posted: 12 October 2010

12:27 pm ET

A small asteroid passed close by Earth today (Oct. 12), flying within the orbit of the moon while astronomers watched to see if the encounter caused any quakes on the space rock.

The asteroid 2010 TD54 made its closest approach to Earth at 6:51 a.m. EDT (1051 GMT), when it passed within about 28,000 miles (45,000 km) of the planet. It was flying over Southeast Asia, near Singapore, at the time. [Photo of Asteroid 2010 TD54 Flyby.]

Astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston used a remote link with a NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii to observe the small asteroid, which was up to 33 feet (10 meters) across.

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www.Telescopes.comAsteroid 2010 TD54 zips by

There was no risk of the asteroid entering Earth's atmosphere or exploding, and it was too small to survive the fiery entry even if it did. But that did not keep astronomers from taking a close look as the space rock sailed by.

"For 2010 TD54, we want to learn its basic composition and to watch whether its close encounter with the Earth causes any changes," astronomer Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary science at MIT, told

Past studies have shown that close encounters with Earth can cause quakes on nearby asteroids that move surface material around, altering space rocks' appearances.

Asteroid 2010 TD54 was discovered Oct. 9 by astronomers with the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson, Ariz.

Asteroid flybys common

Small asteroids that are previously unknown, like 2010 TD54, often pass by Earth.

An asteroid about 16.5 feet (5 meters) across can be expected to pass Earth inside the orbit of the moon about once a day, NASA scientists said. They typically enter Earth's atmosphere once every two years or so, they added. There are an estimated 30 million unknown asteroids in our solar system.

Bigger asteroids about 460 feet (140 meters) wide can cause widespread damage around their impact sites, but for global devastation much larger space rocks would have to strike Earth.

Binzel said he and his colleagues study asteroids by observing them in visible and near-infrared wavelengths of light, which allows them to determine which minerals are present.

"The presence and strength of mineral absorption bands over these wavelengths allow us to interpret their compositions Ð and directly relate these compositions to known meteorite samples, whenever possible," he said.

NASA regularly tracks asteroids and comets that fly near Earth as part of its Near-Earth Object Observations program, which uses a network of ground and space telescopes. The program has tracked 85 percent of the largest asteroids that fly near Earth and 15 percent of asteroids in the 460-foot class, according to the latest report.

NASA also plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 under new space plan ordered by President Obama. The mission could help scientists better understand the composition of asteroids, as well as develop better methods of deflecting them before they pose a threat to Earth, space agency officials have said.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Venus' Atmosphere Proves A Real Drag, Leading To A Discovery


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Venus' Atmosphere Proves a Real Drag, Leading to a Discovery

By Mike Wall Senior Writer

posted: 07 October 2010

07:47 pm ET

A spacecraft using a bold new method to study Venus — flying directly through the planet's atmosphere — has found that the atmosphere at Venus' poles is thinner than expected.

The European Space Agency's Venus Express probe made the discovery during a series of dives through the atmosphere of Venus over the past two years. Scientists measured the drag on the spacecraft during these atmospheric dips to determine Venusian air density.

"It's really a very accurate and precise method," Venus Express project scientist Hakan Svedhem said at a news briefing Wednesday (Oct. 6). Svedhem and his colleagues presented their findings at the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Pasadena, Calif.

The observations will help prepare Venus Express for one final, deep dive that will alter its orbit and extend its operational life, the researchers said.

Thinner than they thought

Venus Express' atmospheric dives revealed that the planet's polar atmosphere is about 60 percent thinner than predicted, researchers said. The team is trying to figure out what accounts for this surprising result.

The spacecraft's twisting motion during its dives also registered a sharp density change from Venus' day side to its night side, scientists said.

The Venus Express team is gearing up for another dive next week, when the probe will make its deepest foray yet into Venus' atmosphere — down to about 102 miles (165 kilometers) above the planet's surface.

This is getting closer to the aerobraking altitude that would adjust the probe's orbit, which Svedhem estimated to be about 87 miles (140 km) above the surface. But the team isn't ready to make this move yet.

"The timetable is still open because a number of studies have yet to be completed," Svedhem said. "If our experiments show we can carry out these maneuvers safely, then we may be able to lower the orbit in early 2012."

Changing course

Venus Express arrived at Venus in April 2006 and has been studying the planet's atmosphere ever since. The probe currently has a highly elliptical polar orbit that loops from 155 to 41,000 miles (250 to 66,000 km) above the Venusian surface.

When Venus Express is far away from the planet, the sun's gravity pulls it slightly off course. As a result, the spacecraft's engines must be fired every 40-50 days to compensate. The fuel to do this will run out in 2015.

Mission planners want to give the probe a chance to keep operating beyond 2015. So they're considering shaking things up and bringing Venus Express much closer to the planet, reducing its orbital period from 24 hours to 12.

To do this, scientists would dip Venus Express deep into the planet's atmosphere. The resulting drag would slow the spacecraft down and change its orbit. This maneuver is delicate and potentially risky, according to researchers.

"It would be dangerous to send the spacecraft deep into the atmosphere before we understand the density," team member Pascal Rosenblatt of the Royal Observatory of Belgium said in a statement.

However, Venus Express has no instruments capable of measuring this density directly, researchers said. So mission planners have improvised. They sent the probe skimming down into the alien atmosphere on exploratory dives — at altitudes of about 110 miles (180 km) — in July-August 2008, October 2009, February 2010 and April 2010.

During these jaunts, radio tracking stations on Earth watched for the drag exerted on the spacecraft. In addition, operators turned one of Venus Express' solar wings edge-on and the other face-on so that air resistance twisted the spacecraft, researchers said.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Comet Hartley 2 To Have Close Encounter With Earth This Month


Comet and Earth to Have Rare Close Encounter

By Joe Rao Skywatching Columnist

posted: 01 October 2010

08:41 am ET

Typically during the course of a year about a dozen comets will come within the range of amateur telescopes. Most quietly come and go with little fanfare, but during the upcoming weeks one rather small comet will be making an unusually close approach to the Earth.

On Oct. 20, Comet Hartley 2 will pass just over 11 million miles (18 million km) from Earth. During October it should be easily visible in small telescopes, binoculars and — from sites with dark enough skies — even with the naked eye.

This video sky map shows how to spot the comet.

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Because of their low mass, comet nuclei do not become spherical under their own gravity as larger bodies in space do, and thus have irregular shapes. They are often popularly described as "dirty snowballs," though recent observations have revealed dry dusty or rocky surfaces, suggesting that the ices are hidden beneath the crust.

In addition to its close pass of Earth, Comet Hartley 2 will be visited in early November by the Deep Impact spacecraft, which already had a previous encounter with Comet Tempel 1 in 2005.

Hartley's discovery

Back on March 15, 1986, astronomer Malcolm Hartley discovered a new comet on photographic images taken at the U.K. Schmidt Telescope Unit at Siding Spring, Australia.

At the time Hartley discovered it, the newfound comet was an exceedingly faint object, with just a hint of a tail; it was about 25,000 times dimmer than the faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye. After further images were obtained over the next several days, Hartley announced his discovery to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Mass.

This was Hartley's second discovery of a comet and so was designated as Comet Hartley 2. Orbital calculations by Brian Marsden of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., indicated that Hartley 2 had already made its closest approach to the sun nine months earlier and that at that time it was too close to the sun's glare to have been detected.

Marsden also calculated that the comet made a close approach to Jupiter during 1982. The comet takes roughly 6 1/2 years to circle the sun and it has since been observed again in 1991, 1997 and 2004.

Rare close encounter

This fall, Comet Hartley 2 will again be passing through the inner solar system, reaching its closest point to the sun (called perihelion) on Oct. 28 at a distance of 98.4 million miles (158.4 million km).

And while en route to the sun, it will also make a very close approach to the Earth. In fact, at 3 p.m. ET on Oct. 20, the comet will be at its closest point to our planet at a distance of 11.2 million miles (18 million km).

It's quite unusual for any comet to approach this close to Earth. Such an event only happens on average perhaps three or four times a century.

If this comet were reasonably large, it would likely put on a very spectacular show around the time of its closest approach.

Halley's Comet passed a similar distance from Earth in the year 1066 and was described in ancient records as appearing "like a moon" as well as being depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, a long embroidered piece of cloth that depicts the Norman conquest of England.

A small, faint comet

Unfortunately, Hartley 2 is a very small and intrinsically faint comet. Observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope in August 2008 showed that the comet's nucleus has a diameter of just 0.7 miles (1.1 km). Its nucleus is only about one tenth the size of Halley's Comet and perhaps only one thirtieth that of Comet Hale-Bopp.

Nonetheless, Hartley 2 will come close enough to us to become dimly visible to the unaided eye during early to mid October.

Astronomers use magnitude to define the brightness of sky objects; the lower the magnitude, the brighter the object. The brightest stars are zero or first magnitude, while the faintest stars are sixth magnitude.

Current expectation is that the comet will reach a peak magnitude of perhaps 4.4 at the time of its closest approach. However, around that time the comet will probably appear very large in overall apparent size, perhaps similar to the apparent size of the full moon.

As a result, much of the comet's brightness will be "spread out" over that area of the sky. So visually to the eye under a dark sky it will appear not as a sharp star-like image, but more like a dim, circular patch of light.

Binoculars or a small low-power telescope will provide a somewhat more pleasing view: a dim, circular, grayish-blue ball of light with a star-like condensation (the nucleus) at the center.

If the comet develops a tail of any kind, it likely will be of the gaseous variety — very thin, faint and narrow, giving the comet the appearance of what comet expert John Bortle likens to "an apple on a stick."

Where to find it

As October begins, Comet Hartley 2 will be in the constellation of Cassiopeia, which at dusk will be positioned halfway up in the northeast sky; through Oct. 5 it will be passing below and to the right of the famous "W"-shaped formation composed of five bright stars.

The comet then moves into the constellation of Perseus on Oct. 6 and before dawn on the morning of Oct. 8, it will be situated only 0.7 degrees below and to the right of the famous Double Star Cluster. The cluster supposedly marks the sword handle of Perseus and is often touted as one of the most impressive star clusters in the entire sky.

On the morning of Oct. 10, the comet will appear to almost touch the 4th-magnitude star, Eta Persei. On Oct. 17, it will enter the boundaries of the constellation Auriga, and on the morning of Oct. 18, Hartley 2 will be about 1.2 degrees above and to the right of the star Epsilon Aurigae and 3 degrees below and to the right of the brilliant zero-magnitude star Capella.

Between Oct. 15 and 20, within about a half hour of 4:00 a.m. local time, the comet will be passing almost directly overhead.

Moon muscles In

But one problem that will become an increasing factor during the middle of October is the waxing moon that will light up the sky during the first part of the night and will seriously interfere with observations of the comet.

The moon will set later in the night leaving the sky dark during the predawn hours, but as it approaches its full phase on Oct. 22, the amount of time between moonset and the first light of dawn will get noticeably shorter.

For example: From mid-northern latitudes on Oct. 16, moonset is at 12:56 a.m. local time and dawn breaks at 5:37 a.m., which means the sky will be dark and moonless for 4 hours and 41 minutes.

Just four mornings later, however, the nearly full moon will set at 4:51 a.m. with morning twilight beginning at 5:41 a.m., leaving just a scant 50 minutes of dark sky for comet viewing. On Oct. 21, the moon will not set until 5:51 a.m. or 9 minutes after dawn.

Coming Attractions

Even after Hartley 2 makes its closest approach to Earth, it will become part of another close approach of a different kind. On Sept. 5, more than five years after its July 4, 2005, rendezvous with Comet Tempel 1, NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft will begin beaming down the first of more than 64,000 images it's expected to take of Comet Hartley 2.

The spacecraft will continue imaging Hartley 2 during and after its closest approach on Nov. 4, when it will pass to within 430 miles (692 km) of the comet's nucleus, providing an extended look at the comet.

The flyby of Comet Hartley 2 is the second leg of the Deep Impact spacecraft's two-part extended mission known as EPOXI. During the flyby a science team from the University of Maryland will study the comet using all three of the spacecraft's instruments — two telescopes with digital color cameras and an infrared spectrometer.

Gallery: The Great Comet McNaught: Part 1, Part 2

The Best Comets of All Time

Astrophotography Telescopes for Beginners

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

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posted 01 October 2010, 11:00 am ETgordon_flash wrote:

Unfortunately the map doesn't help much. There's no cross, or dot, or anything to show the position of the comet relative to the label or to the dashed curve which, I assume, is the track of the comet in the sky (moving from right to left, according to the article).

Still, I'll doggedly have a look and see if I can spot it. Maybe it will surprise us!

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Expand to View Replies (1). posted 01 October 2010, 1:16 pm ETernestborg9 wrote:

This does suck balls to be certain...such a huge failure on the part of the author. Try this sky and telescope's sky map:

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