A Darker View

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W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Dots show locations of stars in the Keck Observatory spectroscopic survey superimposed on an image of Andromeda. Credit: Claire Dorman/ESA

Dots show locations of stars in the Keck Observatory spectroscopic survey superimposed on an image of Andromeda. Credit: Claire Dorman/ESA

A detailed study of the motions of different stellar populations in Andromeda galaxy by UC Santa Cruz scientists using W. M. Keck Observatory data has found striking differences from our own Milky Way, suggesting a more violent history of mergers with smaller galaxies in Andromeda’s recent past. The findings are being presented on Thursday, January 8, at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

The structure and internal motions of the stellar disk of a spiral galaxy hold important keys to understanding the galaxy’s formation history. The Andromeda galaxy, also called M31, is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way and the largest in the local group of galaxies.

“In the Andromeda galaxy we have the unique combination of a global yet detailed view of a galaxy similar to our own. We have lots of detail in our own Milky Way, but not the global, external perspective,” said Puragra Guhathakurta, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The new study, led by UC Santa Cruz graduate student Claire Dorman and Guhathakurta, combined data from two large surveys of stars in Andromeda conducted at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii as well as data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Continue reading Comprehensive Andromeda Study Hints of Violent History…

Taking star trails is one of the easiest forms of nighttime photography. it requires less equipment than full out astrophotography, only a camera that can take a long exposure and a tripod. In a pinch you can do without the tripod.

Three Lasers

Three lasers in operation, Subaru, Keck 1 and Keck 2, 23 x 4min with a Canon 60D

In star trail photography a long exposure is used to reveal the scene. With illumination provided by starlight the needed exposure will be minutes long, during which time the rotation of the Earth will cause the stars to trail. Each star will trace a short streak on the camera detector as it moves through the field of view.

For a number of reasons taking one very long exposure is a problem with digital cameras. Without getting into a technical discussion of noise, dark current and hot pixels we will simply advise taking short exposures. You can always try a twenty minute or half hour exposure and see for yourself. Thus the technique is to take a series of short exposures, usually one to five minutes long, and add these together in processing. By taking a series of short exposures, the final exposure length is limited only by the camera battery or the arrival of dawn.

If the camera is sensitive enough, and you have a fast lens, you might try starscape photography, where the stars are not trailed by the motion of the Earth. In contrast, star trail photography can be done by almost any camera that can take a long exposure. The difference is in the length of the exposures, long versus short, star trail or starscape.

Continue reading Star Trail Photography…

Stellar Illumination

Stellar decorations illuminate a Keck Observatory evening lecture

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Astronomers have found the shattered remains of an asteroid that contained huge amounts of water orbiting an exhausted star, or white dwarf. This suggests that the star GD 61 and its planetary system – located about 150 light years away and at the end of its life – had the potential to contain Earth-like exoplanets.

The new research findings used data collected from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, both of W. M. Keck Observatory’s Keck I and Keck II telescopes, as well NASA’s FUSE telescope, and are reported today in the journal Science.

Watery Asteroid

Artist impression of a rocky and water-rich asteroid being torn apart by the strong gravity of the white dwarf star GD 61. Credit: Copyright Mark A. Garlick, space-art.co.uk, University of Warwick and University of Cambridge.

This is the first time both water and a rocky surface – two key ingredients for habitable planets – have been found together beyond our solar system.

Earth is essentially a “dry” planet, with only 0.02% of its mass as surface water, meaning oceans came long after it had formed; most likely when water-rich asteroids in the solar system crashed into our planet.

The asteroid analyzed is composed of 26% water mass, very similar to Ceres, the largest asteroid in the main belt of our solar system. Both are vastly more water-rich compared with Earth.

The new discovery shows the same water delivery system could have occurred in this distant, dying star’s solar system – as latest evidence points to it containing a similar type of water-rich asteroid that would have first brought water to Earth.

Astronomers at the Universities of Cambridge and Warwick say this is the first “reliable evidence” for water-rich, rocky planetary material in any extrasolar planetary system.

Continue reading Watery Asteroid Discovered in Dying Star Points to Habitable Exoplanets…

Throughout the astronomical descriptions and event posts here on Darker View I use the term magnitude to describe the brightness of an object in the sky. Magnitude is a simple scale, but somewhat confusing without a quick introduction.

The origins of our current magnitude scale are as old as the science of astronomy itself. One of the first stellar catalogs, the Almagest, was compiled by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century. To denote the brightness of stars the catalog assigned the brightest as being “stars of the first rank”, with a corresponding second rand, third rank, etc. The dimmest of stars, the faintest visible to the unaided eye, were assigned to the sixth rank. This system was used with little alteration for the next two millennium. Subsequent catalogs and observers used their own versions of the scale, perhaps adding a decimal place to denote finer differences in brightness. As there was no instrumental method of measuring the brightness, magnitude estimates varied widely from source to source.

With the dawn of modern photographic methods and later electronic methods, it became possible to systematize the scale. It was desirable to create a scale that approximated the old system and time honored traditions. Thus the current magnitude scale was developed, understanding the origins allows understanding of the modern system.

Continue reading Magnitude…