Oct 01

October 2008

What’s Up in the Sky October, 2008
By Peter Burkey

My Night Sky class was recently able to see an image of M16, the Eagle nebula, using the 12-inch telescope of the Harry F. Frissel Observatory at Hope College. This nebula was made famous in the “Pillars of Creation” picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It reminded me that one of the single greatest scientific instruments ever made was about to receive a new lease on life. In fact, soon the Hubble will be better than ever.

Launched in 1990, Hubble is one of NASA’s longest and most successful space science missions. It has sent hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth, helping astronomers understand many of the great mysteries of the universe. Since it orbits the earth, the light it receives is not distorted or blocked by our atmosphere and the images are crystal clear and reveal great detail. With it, astronomers have now confirmed the existence of black holes, sharpened their understanding of the size and age of the universe, peered back in time to distant, young galaxies, and, most recently, studied the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet! It has literally changed the way we view the universe.

The telescope is named after Edwin Hubble, who made some of the most important discoveries in the history of science. Working at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena in the 1920’s, he determined the true nature of distant galaxies. Perhaps his greatest contribution was the discovery that the farther these objects are from us, the faster they are moving away from us. This discovery led to the theories of the expanding universe and the Big Bang.

So it is with great pleasure that I report that next month astronauts from the Space Shuttle Atlantis will perform a long overdue refurbishing. During five spacewalks, they will give the telescope new power and guidance systems, install new instruments and repair old ones. Hubble’s life should be extended five years. We can look forward to even more discoveries about what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:

Oct. 1: Yerkes Observatory dedicates 40 inch refractor – 1897
Oct. 4: Space Age begins when Sputnik 1, first artificial satellite, is launched – 1957
Oct. 9: Johannes Kepler observes supernova – 1604
Oct. 15: Yang Liwei becomes first Chinese astronaut when Shenzhou 5 is launched – 2005
Oct. 19: Subramanyan Chandrasekhar born – 1910
Oct. 31: Fifth and final servicing mission to Hubble announced by NASA – 2006

Planets this month: Jupiter, in the south, and Venus, low in the west, dominate the evening sky. Watch their separation shrink through November. Saturn can be spotted in the eastern predawn sky. Mercury makes its best appearance of the year during last two weeks.

Oct. 7: First quarter Moon.
Oct. 14: Full Moon.
Oct. 21: Last quarter Moon.
Oct. 17-30: Look for Mercury just above the eastern horizon 45 minutes before dawn.
Oct. 21-22: Peak of Orionid meteors.
Oct. 28: New Moon
Oct. 31: Look for thin crescent Moon below Venus right after sunset. Use binoculars.