Monday, 3 October 2011

2 Lectures, BCO, Draconid outburst + Armagh, Weird EKBO, Cork trip great success

Hi all,
"Extraterrestrials - where are they?" Your humble scribe (that's me) will be giving a public lecture, hosted by the Galway Astronomy Club, at the Westwood House Hotel, Newcastle, Galway, at 7.30 p.m. on 3 October. Entitled "Is there Intelligent Life out there??" it will look at the latest findings on extrasolar planets, extraterrestrial biochemistry, and the implications for the existence of alien life. And if they are there, will we ever meet them (and if so, at 'your place or mine'?), or will we even be able to communicate with them?
2. IAA LECTURE, 5 October:  The next public lecture in the new season by the Irish Astronomical Association will be given by Dr Geert Barentsen of Armagh Observatory. 
   His talk is entitled "Amateur Meteor Observing and a Possible Draconid Outburst on 8 October". Geert is a very keen meteor observer, and very active in the International Meteor Organisation. His talk will be aimed at the amateur astronomer, covering all aspects of meteors and meteor observing, and the outlining the prospects for a possible outburst of the Draconid meteors on the evening of 8 October - see below for more on this. The lecture will be set at a very simple and accessible level.
  The lecture is on WEDNESDAY 5 October, at 7.30 p.m., in the Bell Lecture Theatre, Physics Building, Queen's University, Belfast. ADMISSION IS FREE, as always, and includes light refreshments. Everyone is welcome! Full details of the rest of the programme are on the website:  
3. EVENTS AT BCO: October has another packed programme of events at Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork:
Free Events
There is a fairly reliable forecast for a significant outburst of the Draconid Meteors on the evening of 8 October, just as the sky gets dark.

   They are not normally a major shower, but experts forecast a significant brief outburst on 8 October, centred on a time of 19h 57m (20h 57m BST). Estimates of the rate vary from about 200 per hour to almost 1,000 per hour, with the best guess about 400 per hour, or about 6 or 7 per minute.

   Unfortunately there will still be a trace of evening twilight, and a bright gibbous Moon will lie about 20 degrees above the SE horizon, and the meteors are predicted to be fairly faint, so we may not see most of them. However the radiant will be almost overhead at the time of the predicted maximum, so try to find a spot where the Moon is hidden behind some object, and get out a lounger so that you can look up almost overhead.

   The radiant will lie just below and left of the head of Draco as you look high in the NW sky. If you don't know Draco, the radiant will be about ¼ of the way from Vega towards the handle of the 'Plough' or tail of the Great Bear, if you prefer. The meteors can of course appear anywhere in the sky, but any Draconids will appear to have come from the area of the radiant: if you trace their paths backwards they should pass close to that part of the sky.

The outburst may last only for ¼ to ½ an hour, but if it's clear I suggest you observe from as soon as the sky gets dark enough to see Vega, until about 20.30 (21.30 BST), just in case! Let me know what you see, if anything.

5. Armagh Observatory Draconids Watch:

 Astronomers are predicting a sharp maximum of shooting stars to occur during the period from dusk until late evening on Saturday 8th October in the normally weak annual Draconid meteor shower. Between 20 and 100 meteors per hour are expected, with some experts predicting a peak ranging upwards of 500 to 1,000 meteors per hour. Countries of Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East are best placed to see the event. With this in mind the Armagh Observatory is opening for a public meteor watch between 6.30pm and 9.30pm that night.  The night of the meteor shower coincides with "International Observe the Moon Night", and assuming the skies are clear there will be an opportunity to see both the planet Jupiter and the Moon.

   There will be an introduction to the sky, meteors and the Moon, given by the students of astronomy at the Observatory, and an opportunity, if it's clear, to observe meteors and see telescopic views of the Moon and Jupiter. 

  The source of the meteors is dust shed by the periodic comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, discovered in December 1900 by Michel Giacobini of Nice, France, and in 1913 by Ernst Zinner of Bamberg, Germany.  The meteors are called "Draconids" because they radiate from the constellation Draco the dragon.  

    Normally, a maximum of between five and twenty Draconids per hour are seen, but occasionally several thousand per hour may occur, as in 1933 and 1946. The meteor storm that occurred in 1933 was observed from the roof of the Observatory by the Revd W.F.A. Ellison, then Director of the Observatory, who described the meteors as "becoming as thick as the flakes of a snowstorm. The sky was thick with them, wherever one looked" over a period of an hour or so during the evening of 9th October.

     Some enhanced displays also occurred in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s, when the parent comet passed close to the Earth's orbit.  This year, on 8th October, there is again the possibility of a significant shower when the Earth passes through a complex of dust trails emitted from the comet in the early and late nineteenth century and in 1900 and 1913. The peaks of any enhanced activity are predicted to occur between approximately 6.00pm and 10.00pm that evening.  Unfortunately, it will be daylight when the brightest meteors are expected, and the Moon is in a waxing gibbous phase about three days before Full.  Moonlight significantly reduces the number of meteors that might otherwise be seen.

    Observations of this rare meteoric phenomenon are keenly sought, and are being encouraged world-wide to determine their numbers versus brightness and time.  This will enable astronomers to determine the orbit and activity of the parent comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner during the nineteenth century, before it was discovered.  Mark Bailey, Director of the Observatory, said: "A meteor outburst is an extremely rare phenomenon, and the chance to see one should not be missed — even if moonlight seems likely to reduce the number of visible meteors to a drizzle rather than a sharp shower."

    For the best chance to see these relatively slow-moving meteors, face towards the north-west away from the Moon and look about 40 degrees away from the meteor radiant, which lies fairly high in the sky to the west of the North Star, Polaris.

    The Observatory will be open to the public from 6.30pm to 9.30pm to view this event. Members of the Irish Astronomical Association will also be in attendance. As with all astronomy observing events it will be necessary to have clear skies. In the event of rain or thick cloud the event will be cancelled.  Those who may wish to attend the event should telephone or send an e-mail to Mrs Aileen McKee at the Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh; Tel: 028-3752-2928; E-mail:, and meet outside the main Observatory building at 6.30pm.  It will be interesting to see if there will be an exceptional display of shooting stars this year, or just an average number.  Other observers should find a dark site, as far as possible from light pollution or the interfering light of the Moon, and should wrap up warm against the cold, and as comfortable as possible, ready to catch the meteors when they appear.

   FOR FURTHER INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT: John McFarland at the Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG.  Tel. 028-3752-2928; FAX: 028-3752-7174;; URL:

 6. Weird Object Beyond Neptune: (Edited from an RAS Press Release):
A spinning hourglass object may be the first of many to be discovered in the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt. [NASA & USA astronomers generally refer to the 'Kuiper Belt', but as it was first proposed by Irish astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth, we prefer 'Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt'! T.M.]

The bizarre, hourglass-shaped Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt Object (EKBO) 2001QG298 spins round like a propeller as it orbits the Sun, according to Dr Pedro Lacerdo from Queens University Belfast.  [Pedro has given excellent lectures to the IAA] The discovery that the spinning object is tilted at nearly 90 degrees to the ecliptic plane is surprising, and suggests that this type of object could be very common in the Kuiper Belt. The finding will be presented by Pedro at the Joint Meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the Division for Planetary Sciences (EPSC-DPS 2011) in Nantes, France, on 3 October.

EKBOs orbit the Sun beyond Neptune and are the best preserved leftovers of the formation of the planets. 2001QG298 is a remarkable EKBO made up from two components that orbit each other very closely, possibly touching.  "Imagine that you glue two eggs together tip to tip – that's approximately the shape of 2001QG298.  It looks a bit like an hourglass," says Pedro.

U.S. astronomers Sheppard and Jewitt saw that 2001QG298's apparent brightness periodically tripled every 7 hours or so. "The object is so distant that we cannot resolve its shape. But this brightness oscillation, called a lightcurve, reveals the strange shape of 2001QG298 as it spins round. The object appears faint at times because one lobe is hidden behind the other, so less area is reflecting sunlight. As the hidden component rotates back into view, we can see the full hourglass shape.  The reflecting area increases and the whole thing looks brighter," explains Pedro.

However, his new study shows that 2001QG298's rotation is almost perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. He re-measured the object's lightcurve in late 2010 and noticed that it had changed from Sheppard and Jewitt's observations. The lightcurve variation has become visibly shallower.

"It was impossible to tell from the original observations if the rotation and the orbital plane of 2001QG298 were aligned or perpendicular i.e. whether the object spun round horizontally like the blades on a helicopter or rotated vertically like the propeller of an aeroplane.  The changes to the lightcurve variation show that it must be approximately vertical.  As 2001QG298 moves round in its orbit of the Sun, our viewing geometry of the 'propeller' is gradually opening out from edge-on to seeing the whirling 'blades' full-face.  This means that more of the reflecting surface is becoming visible at all times so the variation in the object's brightness gradually disappears," says Pedro.

The most important consequence of this finding is that it suggests that this type of double EKBO could be very common. When in 2004 Sheppard and Jewitt found 2001QG298 in a sample of 34 EKBOs they realised that they were fortunate to spot its binary nature – if it had not happened to be edge-on at the time of their observations, they would not have seen the extreme lightcurve variation. They estimated that approximately 10% of all EKBOs are contact binaries, assuming that their tilts are random.

However, Pedro believes that the tilts of contact binaries may not actually be random and that objects similar to 2001QG298 could be even more common. "It was a surprise to find that 2001QG298 is inclined by 90 degrees, but that's not the first time we've seen this in a contact binary," he speculates.  "There is another famous doublet object, a large Trojan asteroid called 624 Hektor. That object is also tilted almost 90 degrees."

If contact binaries tend to be highly tilted then the chance of spotting their characteristic variable lightcurve is even smaller – only about twice per orbit. The identification of one in a small sample implies that contact binaries may be even more abundant than Sheppard and Jewitt first thought. Lacerda estimates that as many as 25% of EKBOs are contact binaries.
"If contact binaries do tend to be very inclined that may be telling us something about how these objects formed," he concludes.
   Images can be found at:
[Well done to Pedro for this interesting finding. T.M.]
6. IAA TRIP TO CORK A GREAT SUCCESS: The trip to Cork last W/E was very successful and enjoyable, in spite of the weather!
   After an initial meeting with some members of Cork Astronomy Club (CAC) on the Friday evening after we checked in, we met with them on Saturday morning to see their original self-built Club Observatory near the airport (largely the work of Austin Hastings), featuring an impressive and beautifully crafted classical 13-inch diameter Newtonian in a rotating dome.…
   On Saturday afternoon Dr Paul Callanan from UCC gave us a fascinating tour of the historic Crawford Observatory on the UCC campus. This features an interesting siderostat telescope, a beautiful brass transit telescope, and the very impressive 13-inch and 8-inch refractors by Grubb of Dublin, co-mounted on a massive equatorial and pier. This instrument was built for the 'Carte du Ciel' project in the late 19th century. All the instruments have been beautifully restored by Belfast man Bertie McClure.
  We then met up with a good selection of members of CAC for a great dinner at the restaurant at Blackrock Castle Observatory (BCO), in the Castle grounds.
  On Sunday morning we visited the 32-metre dish (with several other smaller satellite dishes) at Elfordstown near Midleton. Formerly operated by Eircom for satellite communications, it is now being converted by the National Space Centre (NSC), in co-operation with Dr Niall Smith of CIT, for radio astronomy research. Rory Fitzpatrick's conducted tour was extremely entertaining and informative.
  Then back to BCO on Sunday afternoon for a full conducted tour of the observatory and science centre by Dr Niall Smith. It's amazing to see an observatory dome containing a 14" Ritchey Chretien research telescope on top of one of the 'Disney-like' castle turrets! And there's a great interactive science centre in the main part of the castle. Well worth a visit.
  Thanks to all concerned, but specially Clair McSweeney of BCO, Linda & Rory Fitzpatrick of NSC, Paul Callanan of UCC, Niall Smith of CIT/BCO, and all at CAC and Lynda O'Mahony in particular. We'll be back!
7. TWITTER: the IAA now has a twitter account. twitter@IaaAstro
8. JOINING the IRISH ASTRONOMICAL ASSOCIATION is now even easier: This link downloads a Word document to join the IAA.  See also
Clear skies,
Terry Moseley
Mob: (+44) (0) 7979300842


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