July 27 Star Party at Muleshoe

A fun afternoon and night out at the refuge with friends at a public star party and photo expedition. The clouds didn’t cooperate, but we stayed late and had a blast anyway

I arrived in late afternoon and caught this shot of windmills dotting the plains:

We had a nice group of people go on a nature walk with Tishia, a Texas Master Naturalist:

The lakes were full, providing gorgeous views and lots of birds to watch:

Despite the weather reports, clouds moved in giving us a pretty sunset, but poor observing:

For the first few hours, we chased sucker holes to view bright objects or waited for another hole to open.  Some packed up as the sky became overcast, but others waited for moonrise to do some night landscapes.  Its first appearance through the clouds was spooky:

A little later, the Moon lit up the landscape and clouds while reflecting off the lake:

A number of us then went on a night walk along the road seeking critters and found a black widow spider and several other interesting insects

And we found a walking stick in the parking lot:

As we walked down the road, I took some night landscapes over the prairie dog town.  The first caught a pretty corona (a colorful ring around a bright object caused by ice in the upper atmosphere) around the Moon:

This shot looks over prairie dog town and shows the extent of the  cloud cover:

Another shot of the moonlit landscape with a small bush:

Late in the night, we wrapped up as we watched a distant thunderstorm light up the clouds:

Magnetic waves may heat the corona

Growing evidence suggests that magnetic waves are the reason our star’s corona is so hot. 

Coronal hole

A close-up, false-color look at the Sun shows the large, dark polar coronal hole astronomers studied in order to determine what heats our star’s corona. White lines show the position of the Hinode spacecraft’s spectrometer slits, used to observe gas motions in the corona.
Courtesy Michael Hahn

Last week, while many of us were suffering from sweltering temperatures, solar physicists meeting in Bozeman, Montana, were discussing their own heat problem: the enduring mystery of why the Sun’s corona is roughly 100 times hotter than the layers below it.

A new analysis by Michael Hahn and Daniel Savin (Columbia University) suggests that astronomers might have the culprit in hand. This culprit, the so-called Alfvénic waves, has been a suspect for more than seven decades. The oscillations move along solar magnetic field lines like the vibrations in a plucked guitar string, and it’s thought that somehow they transfer their energy to the Sun’s hot, ionized gas. In 2011 the waves were detected permeating the upper solar atmosphere.

The Weakest Solar Cycle in 100 Years

Scientists are struggling to explain the Sun’s bizarre recent behavior. Is it a fluke, or a sign of a deeper trend?

Sunspot cycle

The Sun is currently at the peak of Cycle 24, the weakest cycle in 100 years.
D. Hathaway / NASA / MSFC

The Sun is acting weird. It typically puts on a pageant of magnetic activity every 11 years for aurora watchers and sungazers alike, but this time it overslept. When it finally woke up (a year late), it gave the weakest performance in 100 years.

What’s even weirder is that scientists, who aren’t usually shy about tossing hypotheses about, are at a loss for a good explanation. Three scientists, David Hathaway (NASA / Marshall Space Flight Center), Giuliana de Toma (High Altitude Observatory), and Matthew Penn (National Solar Observatory) presented possible explanations at this month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division, but their results sparked a lively debate rather than a scientific consensus.

New Supernova in M74

Supernova Erupts in M74

An exploding star in the spiral galaxy Messier 74 in Pisces, discovered last Thursday, had brightened to about magnitude 12.6 as of Tuesday morning. And it may not have reached its peak yet.Chalk up another one for the astronomers of the Lick Observatory Supernova Search. Using a robotic telescope atop Mount Hamilton in California, the LOSS team announced that the system spotted a new 13.5-magnitude star about 2.7 arcminutes from the galaxy’s core on the morning of July 25th.

Supernova 2013ej in M74

Supernova 2013ej is marked in this red-light image taken on July 28.7 using a robotic 20-inch telescope in Australia. It’s a stack of three 120-second-long exposures. The field is 12 arcminutes wide, with north up and east to the left.
Ernesto Guido & Nick Howes

Since its initial detection, the eruption (now designated Supernova 2013ej) has brightened to roughly magnitude 12.6 as of July 30th. Here’s an up-to-date light curve from the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

For more info, see http://www.skyandtelescope.com/news/home/Supernova-Erupts-in-Messier-74-217327171.html

Society of Physics Students

The SPS group asked us to host a star party during their annual picnic and we had a great time despite the clouds.

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Recent X-class Solar Flares

Over the last two days, the Sun has popped off two X-class solar flares from a sunspot that’s 6-8 Earth’s in size!

Earth and Moon as seen from Mercury

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The view of Earth and the Moon as seen from Mercury, one of the most beautiful and inspiring images take by NASA’s Messenger Probe, after a 12 year journey, when it finally arrived at Mercury and was inserted into orbit.