SOCIETY for POPULAR ASTRONOMY Electronic News Bulletin No. 455 2017 October 22

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    The SOCIETY for POPULAR ASTRONOMY Electronic News Bulletin No. 455 2017 October 22
    Here is the latest round-up of news from the Society for Popular Astronomy. The SPA is arguably Britain's liveliest astronomical society, with members all over the world. We accept subscription
    payments online at our secure site and can take credit and debit cards. You can join or renew via a secure server or just see how much we have to offer by visiting

    Lunar and Planetary Institute

    A new study shows that an atmosphere was produced around the ancient
    Moon, 3 to 4 billion years ago, when intense volcanic eruptions
    spewed gases above the surface faster than they could escape to space.
    When one looks at the Moon, dark surfaces of volcanic basalt can easily
    be seen to fill large impact basins. Those seas of basalt, known as
    maria, erupted while the interior of the Moon was still hot and
    generating magmatic plumes that sometimes breached the surface and
    flowed for hundreds of kilometres. Analyses of Apollo samples indicate
    that those magmas carried gas components, such as carbon monoxide, the
    ingredients for water, sulphur, and other volatile species. In new
    work, astronomers have calculated the amounts of gases that rose from
    the erupting lavas as they flowed over the surface and showed that those
    gases accumulated around the Moon to form a transient atmosphere. The
    atmosphere was thickest during the peak in volcanic activity about 3.5
    billion years ago and, when created, would have persisted for about 70
    million years before being lost to space.
    The two largest pulses of gases were produced when lava seas filled the
    Serenitatis and Imbrium basins about 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago,
    respectively. The margins of those lava seas were explored by astro-
    nauts on the Apollo 15 and 17 missions, who collected samples that not
    only provided the ages of the eruptions, but also contained evidence of
    the gases produced from the erupting lavas. This new picture of the
    Moon has important implications for future exploration. The analysis of
    Needham and Kring quantifies a source of volatiles that may have been
    trapped from the atmosphere into cold, permanently shadowed regions near
    the lunar poles and, thus, may provide a source of ice suitable for a
    sustained lunar exploration program. Volatiles trapped in icy deposits
    could provide air and fuel for astronauts conducting lunar-surface
    operations and, potentially, for missions beyond the Moon.


    The discovery of evidence for ancient sea-floor hydrothermal deposits
    on Mars identifies an area on the planet that may offer clues about
    the origin of life on Earth. A recent report examines observations by
    NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of massive deposits in a basin
    in the southern hemisphere of Mars. The authors interpret the data as
    evidence that those deposits were formed by heated water from a volcan-
    ically active part of the planet's crust entering the bottom of a large
    sea long ago. Mars today has neither standing water nor volcanic
    activity. Researchers estimate an age of about 3.7 billion years for
    the Martian deposits attributed to sea-floor hydrothermal activity.
    Undersea hydrothermal conditions on Earth at about that same time are a
    strong candidate for where and when life on Earth began. The Earth
    still has such conditions, where many forms of life thrive on chemical
    energy extracted from rocks, without sunlight. But owing to the
    activity of the Earth's crust, our planet retains little direct evidence
    from the time when life began. The possibility of undersea hydrothermal
    activity inside icy moons such as Europa at Jupiter and Enceladus at
    Saturn feeds interest in them as destinations in the quest to find
    extra-terrestrial life.
    Observations by MRO's Compact Reconnaissance Spectrometer for Mars
    (CRISM) provided the data for identifying minerals in massive deposits
    within Mars' Eridania basin, which lies in a region which has some of
    Mars's most ancient exposed crust. That site gives us a compelling
    story for a deep, long-lived sea and a deep-sea hydrothermal environ-
    ment. It is evocative of the deep-sea hydrothermal environments on
    Earth, similar to environments where life might be found on other worlds
    — life that doesn't need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but
    just rocks, heat and water. The researchers estimate that the ancient
    Eridania sea held about 210,000 cubic kilometres of water. That is as
    much as all other lakes and seas on ancient Mars combined and about nine
    times more than the combined volume of all of North America's Great
    Lakes. The mix of minerals identified from the spectrometer data,
    including serpentine, talc and carbonate, and the shape and texture of
    the thick bedrock layers, led to the identification of possible seafloor
    hydrothermal deposits. The area has lava flows that post-date the
    disappearance of the sea. The researchers cite those as evidence that
    that is an area of Mars' crust with a volcanic susceptibility that also
    could have produced effects earlier, when the sea was present. The new
    work adds to the diversity of types of wet environments for which
    evidence exists on Mars, including rivers, lakes, deltas, seas, hot
    springs, groundwater, and volcanic eruptions beneath ice. The earliest
    evidence of life on Earth comes from seafloor deposits of similar origin
    and age, but the geological record of those early-Earth environments is
    poorly preserved.


    When it lands on Mars in 2018 November, NASA's InSight lander will be
    carrying several science instruments — along with hundreds of thousands
    of names of members of the public. In 2015, nearly 827,000 people
    signed up to add their names to a silicon microchip onboard the robotic
    spacecraft. NASA is now adding a second microchip, giving the public
    another chance to send their names to Mars. New submissions will be
    accepted until Nov. 1, 2017, at the following link: This fly-your-name opportunity
    comes with “frequent flier” points reflecting an individual's personal
    participation in NASA's exploration of Mars. The points span multiple
    missions and multiple decades. Participants who sent their names on
    the previous InSight opportunity in 2015 can download a “boarding pass”
    and see their “frequent flier” miles. As part of this 'frequent flier'
    programme, a chip carrying the names of 1.38 million people also flew
    aboard the first flight of NASA's Orion spacecraft in 2014. NASA is
    building Orion to carry astronauts to deep-space destinations that will
    enable future missions to Mars.

    Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia (IAA-CSIC)

    Beyond the orbit of Neptune, there is a belt of objects composed of
    ice and rocks, among which four dwarf planets stand out: Pluto, Eris,
    Makemake and Haumea. The latter is the least-well-known of the four and
    was recently the object of an international observation campaign which
    was able to establish its main physical characteristics. The study
    reveals the presence of a ring around the planet. Trans-neptunian
    objects are difficult to study because of their small size, their low
    brightness, and the enormous distances that separate us from them.
    A very efficient but complex method lies in the study of stellar
    occultations, or the passing of these objects in front of a star (like
    a small eclipse). It allows astronomers to determine the main physical
    characteristics of an object (size, shape, and density) and has been
    successfully applied to dwarf planets Pluto, Eris and Makemake.
    Astronomers predicted that Haumea would pass in front of a star on
    2017 January 21. Twelve telescopes from ten different European observ-
    atories observed the phenomenon, and allowed the astronomers to
    reconstruct the shape and size of Haumea, and discover that it is
    considerably bigger and less reflecting than was previously believed.
    It is also much less dense than was previously thought, which answered
    questions that had been pending about the object.
    Haumea is an interesting object: it revolves around the Sun in an
    elliptical orbit which takes it 284 years to complete (it presently lies
    fifty times further than the Earth from the Sun), and it takes 3.9 hours
    to rotate on its axis, much less than any other body measuring more than
    a hundred kilometres in the entire Solar System. The rapid rotation
    causes it to flatten out. The recently published data reveal that
    Haumea measures 2,320 kilometres on its largest axis — almost the same
    as Pluto — but lacks the global atmosphere that Pluto has. One of the
    most interesting and unexpected findings was the discovery of a ring
    around it. Until a few years ago we knew of the existence of rings only
    around the giant planets; then, recently, our team discovered that two
    small bodies situated between Jupiter and Neptune, belonging to a group
    called centaurs, have dense rings around them, which came as a big
    surprise. Now it has been discovered that bodies even farther away than
    the centaurs, bigger and with very different general characteristics,
    can also have rings. According to the data obtained from the stellar
    occultation, Haumea's ring lies in its equatorial plane, just like its
    biggest satellite, Hi'iaka, and it displays a 3:1 resonance with respect
    to the rotation of Haumea, which means that the frozen particles which
    compose the ring revolve three times slower around the planet than it
    rotates around its own axis. There are different possible explanations
    for the formation of the ring; it may have originated in a collision
    with another object, or in the dispersal of surface material by the
    planet's rapid rotation. It is the first time a ring has been discover-
    ed around a trans-Neptunian object, and it suggests that rings could be
    much more common than was previously thought, in our Solar System as
    well as in other planetary systems.

    Carnegie Institution for Science

    In 2015, a star called KIC 8462852 caused quite a stir in and beyond the
    astronomy community owing to a series of rapid, unexplained dimming
    events seen while it was being monitored by the Kepler Space Telescope.
    The star has continued to foil scientists' efforts to understand it ever
    since. Astronomers have now taken a longer look at the star, going back
    to 2006 — before its strange behaviour was detected by Kepler.
    Astronomers had thought that the star was only getting fainter with
    time, but the new study shows that it also brightened significantly in
    2007 and 2014. Those unexpected episodes complicate or rule out nearly
    all the proposed ideas to explain the star's observed strangeness.
    Speculation to account for KIC 8462852's dips in brightness has ranged
    from it having swallowed a nearby planet, or an unusually large group of
    comets orbiting the star, to an alien megastructure. In general, stars
    can appear to dim because a solid object like a planet or a cloud of
    dust and gas passes between them and the observer, eclipsing and
    effectively dimming their brightness for a time. But even before there
    was evidence of two periods of increased brightness in the star's past,
    the erratic dimming periods seen in KIC 8462852 were unlike anything
    astronomers had previously observed.
    Last year, it was found that from 2009 to 2012, KIC 8462852 dimmed by
    almost 1 per cent. Its brightness then dropped by an extraordinary 2
    per cent over just six months, remaining at about that level for the
    final six months of Kepler observations. But the research team wanted
    to look at KIC 8462852 over a longer period of time. They went back and
    examined about 11 years of data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS)
    and about two years of more-recent data from the high-precision All-Sky
    Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN). They found that the star has
    continued to dim since 2015 and is now 1.5 per cent fainter than it was
    in February of that year. They also found that, in addition to the
    dimming that the star has experienced from 2009 to 2013 and 2015 to now,
    it underwent two periods of brightening. The realization that the star
    sometimes gets brighter in addition to periods of dimming is incompat-
    ible with most hypotheses to explain its weird behaviour. An important
    next step will be to determine how the colour of the star changes with
    time, especially during its brief dips in brightness. That information
    would help to narrow down the possible explanations for why this star is
    doing such strange things. For example, if the dimming were caused by
    dust obscuring the star from us, then it would appear to get redder as
    it dimmed. But if large objects were blocking the star's light, then no
    colour change would be seen. Astronomers have not solved the mystery
    yet, but understanding the star's long-term changes is a key piece of
    the puzzle.

    University of Leicester

    Astronomers using the Swift satellite observatory have announced that
    they have discovered possibly the most luminous 'new star' ever — a
    nova discovered in the direction of the Small Magellanic Cloud. A nova
    happens when an old star erupts dramatically back to life. In a close-
    binary star system consisting of a white dwarf and a Sun-like companion
    star, material is transferred from the companion to the white dwarf,
    gradually building up until it reaches a critical pressure. Then
    uncontrolled nuclear burning occurs, leading to a sudden and huge
    increase in brightness. Such objects are called novae because they
    appeared to be 'new stars' to the ancients. Novae are usually found
    in visible light, but often go on to emit higher-energy X-rays as well.
    Together, the different data sets provide information on the white
    dwarf, such as its temperature and chemical composition. Using
    telescopes from South Africa, Australia and South America, as well as
    the orbiting Swift observatory, the team has found that the nova SMCN
    2016-10a, which was discovered on 2016 October 14, is the most luminous
    nova ever discovered in the SMC, and one of the brightest ever seen in
    any galaxy. The SMC, 200,000 light-years away, is one of our closest
    companion galaxies; it is a dwarf galaxy, very much less massive than
    our own. Novae occur frequently in our Galaxy, with a rate of around 35
    each year, but SMCN 2016-10a is the first nova to have been detected in
    the SMC since 2012.
    Swift was able to observe the nova throughout its eruption, starting to
    collect very useful X-ray and UV data within a day of the outburst first
    being reported. The X-ray data were essential in showing that the mass
    of the white dwarf is close to the theoretical maximum; continued
    accretion might cause it eventually to be totally destroyed in a
    supernova explosion. The present observations provide the kind of
    coverage in time and spectral colour that is needed to make progress in
    understanding a nova in a neighbouring galaxy. Observing the nova in
    different wavelength regions helps astronomers to reveal the condition
    of matter in nova ejecta as if it were nearby. Although it is difficult
    to measure the distance to novae directly, the position of this one in
    the SMC on the sky, and everything else we know about it, point to its
    being in that dwarf galaxy. That makes the nova as intrinsically bright
    as the most luminous ones ever seen.

    University of Tokyo

    Some stars end their 'lives' with a huge explosion called a supernova.
    The most famous supernovae are the result of a massive star exploding,
    but a white dwarf, the remnant of an intermediate-mass star like our
    Sun, can also explode. That can occur if the white dwarf is part of a
    binary-star system. The white dwarf accretes material from the
    companion star; then at some point it might explode as a type-Ia
    supernova. Because of the uniform and extremely high brightness (about
    5 billion times brighter than the Sun) of type-Ia supernovae, they are
    often used for distance measurements in astronomy. However, astronomers
    are still puzzled by how such explosions are ignited. Moreover, they
    occur only about once every 100 years in any given galaxy, making them
    difficult to catch. To maximize the chances of finding a type-Ia
    supernova in the very early stages, the team used Hyper Suprime-Cam
    mounted on the Subaru Telescope, a combination which can capture a
    large area of the sky at once. Also, they developed a system to detect
    supernovae automatically in the flood of data from the survey, which
    enabled real-time discoveries and timely follow-up observations.
    They discovered over 100 supernova candidates in one night with Subaru/
    Hyper Suprime-Cam, including several supernovae that had exploded only
    a few days earlier. In particular, they captured a peculiar type-Ia
    supernova within a day of it exploding. Its brightness and colour
    variation over time are different from any previously-discovered type-Ia
    supernova. They hypothesized that the object could be the result of a
    white dwarf with a helium layer on its surface. Igniting the helium
    layer would lead to a violent chain reaction and cause the entire star
    to explode. That peculiar behaviour was totally explained by numerical
    simulations calculated by the supercomputer ATERUI. This result is a
    step towards understanding the origin of type-Ia supernovae. The team
    will continue to test their theory against other supernovae, by
    detecting others just after their explosions.

    Bulletin compiled by Clive Down
    (c) 2017 The Society for Popular Astronomy

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