May 01

May 2010

What’s Up in the Sky May, 2010
By Peter Burkey

Rocket scientist Wernher von Braun once replied to a question regarding problems with U.S. space launches by saying that we needed more data. Collecting data is one of the most important tasks performed by scientists. Analyzing the data is what allows us to understand the world and make predictions about it.

The amazing thing is that we have more data than we are able to study. For example, all of the information sent back from the Voyager spacecraft has yet to be analyzed! Now consider this: in the basement of the Harvard College Observatory archives is the world’s largest collection of astronomical glass plates, numbering over half a million! (Before CCD cameras, most astronomical images were recorded on glass photographic plates). For over a century, from 1885 to 1989, these photographs were part of a survey of stellar luminosities and positions. Now a group of observatory staff and amateur astronomers is in the process of scanning the plates to digitize the images and make them available to modern computer analysis.

The scanner being used is a marvel of technology and was built by members of the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston. Resting on a cement basement floor five feet thick, the base is a polished granite table weighing 2,200 pounds. The plates are loaded two at a time on a platform that glides on air bearings. A 16 megapixel CCD camera photographs the plates at the rate of about two plates every 80 seconds.

Software has been developed to determine the brightness and position of each star in each image. Volunteers from the American Museum of Natural History are transcribing the logbooks kept for the original plates which document important facts about each photograph such as the location in the sky and the exposure time.

Once the project is completed virtually every field of astronomy will be affected. New research on a century of data may reveal insights into the masses of black holes in distant quasars and the orbits of nearby asteroids. Not bad for old photos of what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
May 5: Alan Shepard becomes first American in space – 1961
May 11: Launch of first geostationary weather satellite – 1974
May 15: Sputnik 3 is launched – 1958
May 25: President Kennedy gives speech challenging nation to land astronaut on Moon before the end of the decade – 1961
May 30: Mariner 9 launched – 1971

Here are this month’s viewing highlights:
Planets this month: Venus continues to dominate the western horizon 1 – 2 hrs. after sunset. Jupiter is low in the east before sunrise. Mars and Saturn are below and right and left, respectively, of Leo in south at nightfall.

May 6: Last quarter Moon.
May 13: New Moon.
May 15-16: Crescent Moon is lower right of Venus on the 15th and upper left of Venus on the 16th.
May 20: First quarter Moon.
May 19 – 22: Moon is below the constellation Leo. Use it as a guide to see (l to r) Saturn, Regulus, and Mars.
May 27: Full Moon.