A fast-moving needle in a deadly haystack: U of R sensor to spot asteroids before they hit us.

Stars are easy to see. They emit light. Planets – in our own Solar System, anyway – are easy to see, because they move slowly and are reflected by our own Sun’s light. But what about all that other debris hurtling through space? The stuff that created craters on the moon and the Earth alike? They don’t emit their own light and passing at incredible speeds, may not be noticed until it is too late.

Fortunately, however, they do emit infrared light. And they do so at a wavelength that is uncommon enough in interstellar space that a properly-trained camera sensor might just be able to spot them from considerably farther away, where they might still have their courses altered to less devastating trajectories. That is the aim of University of Rochester boffins William J. Forrest, Judith Pipher and Craig McMurtry. And their sensor has just passed a critical test to move on to the next phase of development:

Craig McMurtry, the paper’s lead author, is also a member of the Rochester team. “We were delighted to see in this generation of detectors a factor of 1000 improvement in sensitivity compared with previous generations, while simultaneously raising the operating temperature to one readily attainable in space,” he says.


Round-up of Russian meteor news

Just because there’s so much news and information coming out about what is probably going to go down as one of the world’s worst meteor disasters in terms of human toll, I thought I’d get right out in front with a quick round-up of news and resources.

First, the most amazing video, ever. A dash cam shot of the meteor going right overhead. This had to be alarming, yet the cool Russian driver never even had to turn off his slamin’ beats:

[youtube][/youtube] has lots more videos, which they’re updating as they go. does a great job rounding up a lot of facts and figures about the nature of meteorite impacts:

When was the last comparable meteorite strike?

In 2008, astronomers spotted a meteor heading toward Earth about 20 hours before it entered the atmosphere. It exploded over the vast African nation of Sudan, causing no known injuries. The largest known meteorite strike in recent times was the “Tunguska event” that hit Russia in 1908. Even that strike, which was far bigger than the one that happened over Russia on Friday, didn’t injure anyone. Scientists believe that an even larger meteorite strike may have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. According to that theory, the impact would have thrown up vast amounts of dust that blanketed the sky for decades and altered the climate on Earth.

They also detail that Tunguska Event, which happened in an area so remote, no one is even entirely sure that it was a meteor.

And of course, lots of information is coming in from the Twitters. First and formost, @AstroKatie and @Summer_Ash set us all straight on the differences between meteorids, meteors, meteorites:

Physicist Matthew R. Frances ( @DrMRFrances ) tells us to chill a little:

And for those interested in why this whole event is unrelated to Asteroid DA14:

What is even more important: fragments of 2012 DA14 could never enter the atmosphere as far north as latitude 55 N (Chelyabinsk). Fragments in orbits similar to that of the asteroid, have a theoretical radiant at declination -81 degrees, i.e. almost at the southern celestial pole. They hence approach earth from due south. This means that the northern hemisphere is out of reach of these fragments: the northern hemisphere represents (as seen from these approaching fragments) the “back side” of the earth. They can’t reach it: they would have to pass earth and then turn back in order to do so.

Basically, the asteroid DA14 is coming at us from due south, so fragments of that asteroid, were they even potentially hitting the Earth, would hit the southern hemisphere.

One of my favourites, Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait, is also covering the event, and adds that, sadly, hoax videos are coming in as fast and furious as anything:

[Let me be clear: This is breaking news, and reports are coming in so fast I can’t keep up. I’ll update this post as I can, but treat everything here as tentative until I can get more information! Note also lots of hoaxes are turning up, like a video of a flaming crater that’s actually a flaming pit in Turlmenistan that’s been burning for decades (called “The Door to Hell”). Be cautious and be skeptical.]

Update 11:11: Matt Frances ( @DrMRFrances ) updates his blog with some thoughts on the wider meaning of the meteor:

For me, the takeaway message from the Russian meteor—and asteroid 2012 DA14—is that we need to do better at looking for dangerous meteors and asteroids. Astronomers (both professional and amateur) have identified nearly all of the biggest near-Earth objects (NEOs): the ones that, in the unlikely event they impact Earth, could cause mass extinctions like the one that probably wiped out the dinosaurs. However, the smaller rocks—called either asteroids or meteoroids—are harder to spot and to track.

Update 11:19: Russian officials are reporting that 950 people have sought out medical attention after the meteor, including 159 children. Three meteorites have been recovered, including one that left a six foot wide crater

Update 12:43: Sigh. Sloppy Reporting Watch issued for the New York Times.

  • Not a single credible report backs up this tweeted claim. Not. One. All of the damage and injuries reported there have come from the sonic boom.
  • The title of the article, “Debris and a Boom, Likely From a Meteor, Hit Siberia” is just crap. Of course, it is a meteor. And the debris backs up the idea that people got hurt by meteorites.
  • “Russian experts believe the blast was caused by a 10-ton meteor known as a bolide..” Sloppy. A bolide is any meteor that explodes on contact with the Earth’s atmosphere. It isn’t a special type of meteor.
  • Regarding asteroid DA14, soon to pass by Earth, ““What we witnessed today may have been the precursor of that asteroid,” said Mr. Dudorov in a telephone interview.” Call this “Citation Needed,” as every credible source says there’s no way these two events are related. Should never have been included.


Space Weather

How Coronal Mass Ejections affect life here on Earth

As meteorologists continue their fight against Mother Nature in hopes to produce the ”perfect” forecast, they may encounter some unusual problems outside of our atmosphere. Although outer space does not have an immediate or direct impact on the weather on Earth, space phenomena do have the ability to influence or disrupt the way meteorologists or the general public goes about their daily lives.

According to Earthsky blog writer, Christopher Crockett, Coronal Mass Ejections or CME’s are essentially “sun burps with the power of 20 million nuclear bombs”. Although these burps or hiccups are not totally understood, astronomers believe they are caused by twists or “kinks” in the Sun’s magnetic field, much like a phone cord or toy slinky. “These kinks snap the magnetic field and can potentially drive vast amounts of plasma into space” (Crockett). When the plasma is ejected into space it travels at a million miles per hour, that speed could get you from Boston to London in less than 30 minutes!

Since these explosions are angled at all different directions, they don’t always reach the Earth. However when they do come into contact with the Earth, a geomagnetic storm occurs. This means that the Earth’s magnetic field is temporarily altered as the day side of the magnetic field is compressed and the night side is stretched out. When this happens, the aurora lights can drift towards the mid-latitudes and display a magnificent natural light show.

The effects of CME’s are not always positive though; they can cause widespread power outages and sometimes even become deadly. Cosmic rays, which are very-high energy particles, can infiltrate the earth’s atmosphere and expose people to these deadly levels of radiation. This risk is elevated for those further away from the Earth’s surface such as astronauts or people in planes. For example, during a solar storm in 1989, astronauts aboard the Mir space station received their yearly radiation dose in just a few hours.

Lastly, the flurry of magnetic activity and induced electric currents can disrupt radio transmissions and cause damage to satellites and electrical transmission line facilities. This can severely disrupt power grids and communication networks, leaving millions of people without power.

Just like the weather on Earth, there is nothing we can do to prevent CME’s other than forecast and prepare for these events. In fact, NASA is predicting that we could see a very large CME this year, however they are urging people not to freak out and go on with their daily lives.


Orionid Meteor Shower coming from Halley’s Comet tail to Rochester on October 21st

There are two major meteor showers that visit our Earth every year: the Leonid in the spring, and on Sunday, October 21st our fall skies will be slashed through by the bright lights of the Orionid Meteor Shower.

The Orionids are so named because the primary direction of the shower appears from Earth to be coming from the shoulder of the constellation Orion. Observers are predicting a pretty sizable shower this year, including what they estimate will be about 25 meteors per hour:

(thanks to Facebook fan Rebecca Rafferty for noticing that I’d referred to the wrong #%^$& meteor shower)

Space Porn

VIDEO: Rochester will get to see a partial solar annular eclipse this month

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab released a video today summarizing the month’s events in what is a regular series, anachronistically entitled “What’s Up?”

This month, an annular solar eclipse will create a ring-like effect on the sun, as the moon will only cover up about 94% of the sun’s visible area. Rochester will be one of the few places on the Eastern Seaboard that will get to view at least part of this phenomenon and for you telescope enthusiasts, this is a great time to get out there and photograph some sun spots!

Also some great star-gazing tips at the end, showing the relative position of stars that will be visible in the night sky:



U of R boffins say: the Upper Scorpius looks young for its age.

Agatha Christie once said that an archeologist is the best husband, because the older a woman gets, the more interesting she is. But Mrs. Christie might have said the same about astronomers from the University of Rochester ( @UofR ), who at the moment are all kinds of excited to discover that a group of stars – considered one of the best-studied of such groupings – is actually much older than previously thought:

Some Nearby Young Stars May Be Much Older : Rochester News.

While those stars have been thought to be just five million years old, the team concludes that those stars are actually more than twice as old, at 11 million years of age. The findings are surprising given Upper Scorpius’s status as one of the best-studied samples of young stars in the sky.

The findings by graduate student Mark Pecaut and Assistant Professor Eric Mamajek of Rochester, and Assistant Professor Eric Bubar of Marymount University, were accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

The key, according to the researchers, happens to be a lot of updated information about stars in general. Science has gotten better at determining the actual distance a star is from Earth, which of course makes a big difference to determining its size. Also, new computer models helped the scientists by factoring in the fuel consumption of stars as well.

Science Space Porn

[VIDEO] Huge sun spot three times the size of Earth causes solar flare

News from @NASA that the largest sun spot seen in years, dubbed AR1339 by scientists there, is actually three times larger than the Earth itself. And last night, that same sun spot caused two different solar events: a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection (CME). The solar flare actually winged the planet Earth and disrupted radio transmissions starting around 4:45PM EST. The CME headed in the direction of Venus.

You can see the brief video of the CME here.

Scientists will continue to monitor the sun spot and more radio or other communications disruptions are possible. Basically, the thing spins and wherever its pointed when the flare goes off is where it goes.

via NASA – A 360 Degree View of an X-class Flare and A CME.