EAS Newsletter for October 2021

Well time keeps flying by, so another newsletter.

Next meeting will be on October 7th at 7pm when Simon Ebo (UCLAN) will speak to us on ‘The Search for Exoplanets’. The meeting will again be a hybrid one with some people in Kendal Museum, including the speaker, and others on Zoom. Connection details will be distributed shortly. Hopefully, we’ll see a few people in person.

Over the past 18 months or so, when we couldn’t meet at the Museum, the Society has been kept alive and active thanks to the enthusiasm of the members and the work of the committee. We really need to keep the momentum and help the Society to grow. For this, we really need some more people on the committee. At the moment we are operating without either a Secretary or a Treasurer and this has put extra load on each of us. We could also do with a new Chair. Would you be prepared to take on a committee role? No experience is necessary for co-opted committee members, but if you can keep notes and write letters you would be great for Secretary. If you can write cheques and keep accounts you would be great for Treasurer. And anyone who can be the focus for the Society and lead it into the future would make an excellent Chair. Please think seriously about this, and let us know at a meeting or by email if you can help.

Also, don’t forget, contributions to the newsletter from any member are most welcome. They could be stories, historical snippets or photographs.

Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.

Joint Societies Christmas Dinner

The Society has been contacted about a possible joint north-west societies Christmas dinner. This usually includes the societies from Lancaster & Morecambe, Blackpool and Preston and can be good opportunity to socialise with others interested in astronomy from outside our area. The provisional date is Thursday 16th December. There will be the usual after-dinner talk from Prof. Allan Chapman with the meal costing £30. At this early stage, this is rather provisional as we all have no idea what the situation will be by December.

Further details will be circulated as soon as we know more.

Astronomy News – David Glass


SpaceX sent four inspirational civilians on an orbital flight (Inspiration4) in a Crew Dragon capsule, launched by a Falcon 9 rocket. This is all proven technology, which has got people to the International Space Station and back. The flight was funded by one of the crew and was to generate support for the paediatric cancer centre at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee.

The Dragon capsule was launched on 16,th September at just after 8pm EDT to an altitude of about 350 miles, above the orbit of the International Space Station, and splashed down on the 19th. A large window replaced the usual docking hatch to give amazing views. The flight went smoothly, except for issues with the toilet. No such flight is complete without a zero-gee indicator, and this time it was Jude, a small puppy in a spacesuit (replicas are for sale via the hospital).

For a detailed briefing on the flight and the crew, take a look here.

Meanwhile, it’s been construction, construction and more construction at the Boca Chica complex in Texas. Most notably, the massive launch support tower has been finished and a “quick disconnect” arm has been fitted. This will connect to rockets for transfer of utilities such as fuel. Note the stabilisation “claws” at the end.

The Quick Disconnect arm on the launch tower at Boca Chica, with claw attachments. The top of a booster rocket is also shown. (Twitter/Starship Gazer

Later (possibly soon), two enormous “catch arms” will be fitted. The purpose of these catch arms is the stuff of science fiction – it’s intended to catch a descending booster (chopstick style), place it on a launch support and then plant a Starship on it ready for a quick re-launch. For an animation of how it is intended to work, take a look here.

The whole assembly has been nicknamed “Mechazilla”, from a (fictional) giant mechanised dinosaur that went head- to-head with Godzilla (also fictional, for the avoidance of any doubt).

At the time of writing, one of the boosters (BN4) is sitting on a launch support ring on site and is awaiting testing, and Starship SN20 is also sitting in the launch area after having thermal insulation tiles replaced. This is all adding up to a possible launch of a starship into orbit in the not-too-distant future. Keep an eye on the webcams looking at the site (see previous newsletters)!

NASA Space Launch System (SLS)

NASA’s SLS is intended to get people back to the Moon at some point. It is currently in a Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) on a mobile launcher (ML-1), and is being prepared and tested for its eventual first test flight which could be as early as December this year. One recent milestone is an umbilical release and retract test (URRT), which simulates the detachment of umbilicals and their rigid arm from the rocket prior to launch.

The test covered numerous sub-systems to ensure that they worked, and will help to ensure a smooth launch. The video shows that the solid rocket boosters are in place. The mobile launcher allows the rocket assembly to be moved to the launch pad, provides all necessary connections for utilities, communications prior to launch and allows access for personnel and crew. For more details of the test, the rocket and the mobile launcher, have a look here.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on Mobile Launcher 1 (ML-1) inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). (credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

Blue Origin

Credit: Blue Origin.

The next flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard is likely to be in October (on or around the 12th), and will carry more civilian paying passengers on a sub-orbital flight into space. The whole flight, from lift-off to capsule landing, lasts about 12 minutes so it’s worth trying to watch it live or recorded. There are rumours going round that one of these passengers is no stranger to space travel across our galaxy neighbourhood, and would become the oldest human ever to go into space. We watch and wait!


Jupiter struck by an object

The possible contribution of amateur astronomers to the field should never be underestimated. One amateur astronomer (José Luis Pereira, Brazil) was filming Jupiter through a telescope looking for potential impact flashes when this happened

The DeTeCt software package was used to examine the footage for impacts, and this one appeared on September 13th. There’s a nice article about the discovery here.

Substantial earthquakes on Mars

The InSight lander on Mars is equipped with extremely sensitive seismometers, and is intended to detect and record marsquakes which can be used to infer the interior structure of the planet (prospectors for oil and gas do this routinely here on Earth). And not just the thud of the next failed ESA lander (as Simon White pointed out!). On the 18th September (Sol 1000 for the lander), a magnitude 4.2 marsquake occurred which lasted for 90 minutes. Two previous events in August hit magnitudes 4.1 and 4.2. The measurements allow the locations of the tremors to be estimated, and will be of use in studying the internal structure of the planet. For further details, including a description of some of the challenges faced by landers such as this, have a look here.

JWST launch date

The James Webb Space telescope (JWST) is a highly-anticipated mission to put a seriously big (6.5m mirror) near- to mid-infrared telescope at the L2 Lagrange point (behind the Moon). It can observe beyond the capabilities of Hubble and ground-based telescopes, and allow new science to be explored (e.g. formation of the earliest galaxies and exoplanet composition to name a couple). Numerous papers are being released on ArXiV discussing how JWST observations can be used for science, presumably as a warm-up for actual proposals for observation time. However, JWST has been subject to many delays, and no launch date was forthcoming – until very recently. A date of 18th December is now proposed, and astronomers all over the planet will be delighted to see it happen. But, it’s better to delay and get it right than see it blow up, so let’s hope it goes soon but safely!

More news from – Ian Bradley

Searching for Ice on the Moon

After many years of little NASA involvement in lunar exploration, NASA has announced the proposed landing site for its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission due for launch in 2023. The mission is designed to search for possible water ice deposits in parts of craters that are permanently in shadow. Finding usable water on the Moon would provide a valuable in-situ resource for future astronauts and colonies.

Artist’s impression of VIPER on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

The selected landing site had to satisfy four main criteria: Visible from Earth for direct line-of-sight communication; sunlight access for solar power generation; terrain that the rover should be able cross; and for the scientific value, a site expected to contain water ice.

Four sites were considered aworth Crater, Nobile Crater, a ridge that runs between Shackleton and de Gerlache craters, and Shoemaker Crater. The site finally chosen was Nobile crater (85.2°S 53.5°E). A nice video showing this here.

Naturally, something this close to the lunar pole is very hard to see from Earth.

It is hoped that the rover will travel around 20km over 100 days or so investigating the area popping into shadowed areas to investigate before returning to sunlit areas to recharge its batteries. The rover will be automated to some extent in a similar way to the rovers which have been deployed on Mars but the direct line-of-sight communication potential means it could be driven in almost real-time from the Earth!

The rover isn’t large, the usual analogy is that it is the size of a golf cart – about 1.5 x 1.5 x 2.5m. Each wheel can be independently pointed so that it can crab sideways, diagonally, spin on its axis and move in any direction without changing the way it is pointing. It even has headlights! On board will be instruments to find the ice, and also drill down (up to 1m) into the regolith to bring samples to the surface for further analysis. The three spectrometers measure volatiles, like water, and the mineral composition. There will also be a range of cameras to both navigate and image samples.

This could be a really exciting mission.

How to see the same supernova twice!

Well, that is impossible, isn’t it? Once a massive star has exploded, in the process destroying itself and leaving behind a neutron star or black hole, surely it can’t do it again. Well, that is correct, but general relativity has given us the chance to watch one explode again – maybe.

The 2016 and 2019 images of the cluster with and without the supernova (white circles). The predicted position of the reoccurrence is the yellow circle (Credit Rodney et al, Nature Astronomy (2021))

What the scientists have now done is calculate the light paths from the supernova to Earth and realised that a there is a good chance that there is a longer, and therefore later arriving at Earth, fourth path. They predict that this will become visible in 2037 give or take 2 years and appear within the yellow circle. For a simple animation of the light path, see here.

Such measurements as these may be useful as they can be used to constrain the cosmic expansion rate and dark energy models. No doubt, Hubble’s successor will be periodically imaging this cluster to see if the ‘supernova’ reappears.

The Cygnus Loop

For the past year or so I’ve been trying to image the Cygnus Loop supernova remnant. So what is this?

It is situated near one of the wings of Cygnus, the Swan. The large loop is the result of the death of a large star, 12 to 15 times the mass of the Sun, that came to the end of its life some 21,000 years ago. Recent measurements have put the distance of the ‘loop’ and therefore the original precursor star at 2,400 light years, which means that the object is about 130 light years in diameter. The estimated mass of the precursor star suggests that there would be a neutron star produced, but no trace has been detected.

The Cygnus Loop in ultraviolet light (Credit: NASA Galex satellite.

What you see here is the result of the expanding debris from the supernova explosion encountering the material in the interstellar medium, causing this to emit light – obviously UV but also hydrogen emission in the visible and some other elements, predominantly oxygen and sulphur. The whole structure also goes by the name The Veil Nebula with various components names as in the figure. The Western Veil also goes by the name The Witches Broom Nebula.

I said it was large… The angular size on the sky is nearly 3° across. That is 6 times the angular diameter of the full moon, or about the width of your hand held at arms length!

Last year, I attempted detailed images of the Eastern and Western components with my 10” Newtonian telescope and astro-camera, although the seeing was rather poor when I imaged the Western Veil. I also photographed the whole nebula in one image using a telephoto lens and my Canon DSLR camera. The resulting image was in the January 2021 newsletter and it showed the characteristic issue with imaging with a standard DSLR – light from the brightest spectral component, the red line from hydrogen (H alpha at 656nm), is blocked by the filters inside the camera required to get facial colours looking right. To avoid this, this time I used my cooled astronomical camera which is very sensitive at that wavelength. I also reimaged the Western Veil component with my 10” Newtonian telescope to complete my set of the brightest two bits. I should add that each of these more detailed images are mosaiced from three separate images as the field of view of the telescope is too small to get everything in one shot

So the results…

The Cynus Loop, Veil Nebula, imaged using a 150mm telephoto lens in front of my QHY163C cooled astronomical camera, all mounted on my EQ6 equatorial driven mount. The final image consists of sixteen 5 minutes exposures combined and processed in Pixinsight. Intermittent cloud was an issue whilst imaging unfortunately. Good to see that the faint Pickering’s Triangle nebula is visible. Taken in Kendal on 1st September 2021.

The Eastern Veil, imaged 20th September 2020, and the Western Veil imaged 7th September 2021. Each of these images is a mosaic made by overlapping three images with each of these exposures composing of typically twelve 10 minutes exposures – six hours per image! Taken from my backyard using my 10” Newtonian telescope and QHY163C cooled astronomical camera mounted on an EQ6 mount.


Some recent photographs

M106 in Canes Venatici. Lots of other neraby galaxies visible, the most obvious being NGC 4248 just left of and at a similardistance to M106. The obvious galactic doublet NGC4231/4232 are about 10 further away than M106. A total of 3.3 hours exposure on 22nd April 2021. Taken from my backyard using my 10” Newtonian telescope and QHY163C cooled astronomical camera mounted on an EQ6 mount.

The great globular cluster M13 in Hercules. North is up. Image produced from the best 29 of the 15 second exposures collected during the night of May 30th. Many of the 100 or so taken were lost to cloud and the rather early dawn! Taken from my backyard using my 10” Newtonian telescope and QHY163C cooled astronomical camera mounted on an EQ6 mount.

M3 in Canes Venatici. North is about 40° to the left due to poor setup! Image produced from the best 77 of the 1 minute exposures collected during the night of April 15th. Taken from my backyard using my 10” Newtonian telescope and QHY163C cooled astronomical camera mounted on an EQ6 mount. Remarkably similar to M13 with that bright orange star!

EAS Newsletter for September 2021

Welcome to the September newsletter. I’d like to take this opportunity to those new members who have recently joined us. We all hope you will enjoy the Society.

As discussed last month, we are holding our meeting tomorrow (as I write this) in a hybrid manner – with a live audience in the museum and ‘Zoomed’ in members. We will see how this goes regarding future meetings. As we are having a live meeting, with David presenting space news and recent astronomical information, I decided partly due to time constraints just to focus this newsletter on “what’s in the sky” this month.

Now that the nights are drawing in, I hope you can get out and see the stars when Cumbrian weather permits. It’s always hit and miss. The forecasts aren’t always correct [do I hear a few titters?] but they do give a general idea. Clear Outside (https://clearoutside.com/forecast/54.34/-2.75?view=midday) often shows 100% cloud when in reality, it is just a thin high haze. Whilst that is not great for imaging or viewing faint galaxies, it hardly affects the brighter objects, double stars, the Moon or planets. So you have to look carefully at the details in these forecasts.

Don’t forget, contributions to the newsletter from any member are most welcome. They could be stories, historical snippets or photographs. Just get in contact with an email.

So, to conclude, enjoy the last of the summer and keep safe. Clear skies. Clear Skies.

Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.

Astronomy weather forecast sites

They are customizable to your location – the links below are set to Kendal.

This satellite view I find quite useful as it shows the cloud cover for the previous 212 hours or so. This lets you have an idea as to what cloud is coming … switch to infra-red to view the clouds at night.

EAS Space News – David Glass

The images from David’s presentation at the September meeting are reproduced below

Plus an extra that time and broadband connection did not allow:

EAS Newsletter for August 2021

Welcome to the August newsletter. I hope you are keeping well.

I’d like to take this opportunity to those new members who have joined us over the summer. We all hope you enjoy the Society.

We hope you have been making the best of the unusual dry summer weather and have managed to see some of the noctilucent cloud displays. The one on July 7th was very good and I believe there was another great display a few days later, one I managed to miss. Whilst they are ‘only clouds’ they are quite spectacular with their eerie blue colour and strand-like structures. Sadly, the displays are probably now finished for this year.

Don’t forget to look out for the Perseid meteor shower which peaks around dawn on August 13th. Take a look as this is probably the best meteor shower of the year, and there is no Moon getting in the way There is lots of activity a day or so either side of the peak so if it is clear, get out somewhere dark, take a comfy chair/recliner and just look up! Meteors should be visible nearly anywhere in the sky but the trails will point back to the radiant in the constellation Perseus. At 23:00 on the 11th, Perseus will be in the NE, moving further east and higher as time goes by.

The committee took the decision for a meeting holiday over the summer, so our next meeting will be at 7pm on September 2nd, when we have Pete Williamson FRAS speaking on “Herschel to Hawkwind, Astronomy & Music: How each influence each other”. That brings us to the venue. We hope to be able to hold the meeting as ‘normal’ at Kendal Museum, but of course that is dependent on the state of the pandemic. It is also unclear at this stage if Pete will be with us in person. Obviously, that is a personal decision for him. The bottom line is that the meeting is likely to be a ‘hybrid’ with some people present in person and others connected via Zoom.

David Glass and Phil Morris have visited the Museum to talk to the management, whilst Clive was on Zoom and acted as a remote member. Two critical items were discussed:

Firstly, ventilation. As we all now know, good airflow is critical in reducing the potential of infection. We have agreed with the Museum that we could run meetings with two fire doors open. In addition, we were assured that the windows that have been painted shut would be fixed in time for our meeting. However, note that it is likely to be colder than normal, so if you attend, wrap up well.

Secondly, we realise that there may still be people who are unwilling to attend in any enclosed space, so David has tested live streaming the meeting via Zoom. This appears to work quite well. On the test, questions could be asked in the room and heard by the remote audience, and vice versa. If our speaker can’t make it, they will still be able to give their presentation via Zoom, as now, but at least we will have the added benefit of seeing each other again.

Of course, this is all provisional as we have no idea what the virus will do.

Don’t forget, contributions to the newsletter from any member are most welcome. They could be stories, historical snippets or photographs. Just get in contact with an email.

So, to conclude, enjoy the last of the summer and keep safe. Clear skies. Clear Skies.

Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.

Dark Skies Cumbria Project – Ian Bradley

Many of you will have heard or read about the Dark Skies Cumbria Project organised by The Friends of the Lake District run by Jack Ellerby – see here.

We hope Jack will give the Society an update on progress with the project at our November meeting.

The Society, through your committee, has been supporting the project and have had over the past few years several discussions with Jack, and previously Johanna Korndorfer [who gave us a talk in 2018]. Amongst other things, I have been looking at local planning applications and commenting on proposals if they appeared likely to increase light pollution – a recent case in point being the proposal to increase the size of the Carus Green golf driving range which we circulated information about in an email. Whilst I have nothing against their expansion per se, their current lighting is appalling and hopefully the criticism received from several sources will spur the Club to think more carefully about their lighting and bring it into the 21st Century

However, that it not the point of this article. I want to report that the Project has employed professional consultants to survey the excessive lighting in Kendal. The report identifies most of the prominent ‘culprits’, around 100 with very few surprises, and Jack is expecting to approach those businesses and diplomatically talk to the about reducing the problem, and in the long term possibly save them money! In addition, the Project, working with Cumbria County Councils lighting team, has successfully delivered new downward pointing warmer LED light arrays on Low Fellside in Kendal, replacing lights that illuminated walls on buildings and the sky rather than the intended paths. Whilst a very small step in the greater scheme of things, it is a first step in the right direction.

As part of a dark sky festival, we [EAS] will be running, subject to any Covid restrictions, a Moonwatch open to the general public. The date is likely to be Friday November 12th. The venue is still being discussed as our initial first choice venue will be problematic due to flood defence works. A likely candidate is Gooseholme in Kendal but that has yet to be confirmed. The committee would appreciate support, and a few telescopes, from the membership if it is clear.

Astronomy News – David Glass

It’s been a busy few months since the last newsletter! I’ve included some detailed items below, but we’ve also seen the Hubble Space Telescope come to a halt thanks to a glitch (but is now working again), the ISS perturbed by a misfiring thruster and astronaut Gus Grissom possibly exonerated for losing his nerve, blowing the hatch and sinking the Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7.

Two Sub-Orbital Flights

During July, two key sub-orbital flights carrying civilian passengers took place after years of testing and validation of the spaceships. On 11/7/21, Virgin Galactic launched its SpaceShip Two spaceplane Unity from underneath the wing of its WhiteKnight Two carrier aircraft, from an altitude of 50,000 ft. Unity was then propelled by its own rocket motor whose 70 second burn kicked Unity to an altitude of about 86 km, a point at which space is said to start. Unity then descended under gravity and glided safely to land at Spaceport America, New Mexico where is journey started. The passengers, including Sir Richard Branson, experienced microgravity for a few minutes and got to see the curvature of the Earth from space.

To learn more about the hardware, here.

And for a 3-minute video that captures the flight well, see here.

Unity detaching from WhiteNight 2 on 11/7/21, just prior to ignition of its rocket (credit: Virgin Galactic). Click toenlarge.

For a more conventional rocket launch experience for sub-orbital passengers, there’s Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, which took its first passengers on a sub-orbital flight to about 100 km on 20/7/21 from its launch site in Texas. The passengers included Geoff Bezos, and Wally Funk (age 82) who was trained as female astronaut in the 1960s but never got to fly at the time. The passengers travelled in a comfortable capsule with big windows mounted on a booster rocket, so they got to experience a traditional countdown, lift-off, capsule separation and a parachute/rocket assisted landing with great views – all of which went smoothly. For the full webcast of the flight (over 2 hours!), see here  (LONG video!!) and zoom forward to about 1 hour 40 min to see the flight. And here’s the landing:

New Shepard capsule landing (credit: Blue Origin)] . Click to enlarge.

I haven’t dared to look at the price tag for tickets!

All the passengers on board might have thought they would come back as astronauts from this trip because they technically went into space. However, the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority, USA) saw what was on the horizon and changed the definition. Not only do the people on board need to be crew, not passengers (i.e. employees or contractors of Blue Origin) to be classed as astronauts, but they need to carry out “activities during the flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” The change came into force on the same day that New Shepard launched with passengers. Whether that dampens the experience for paying passengers remains to be seen. The passengers on board Unity might still have a case though – all of them were tagged “mission specialists”!

Space X

We got to see the test launch and successful landing of Starship SN15 just before our last Zoom meeting in May. Since then, there haven’t been any more flights, but there was a test fire of Raptor engines on the other part of the eventual rocket on 19/7/21 – the booster, which is even taller than the Starship. This booster is still in place near the launch site. There has also been a lot of construction work going on, to provide a massive launch tower, new fuel storage tanks and a giant ring to stand the rocket on prior to launch. There’s a nice summary here of what’s been happening and what is planned.

National Astronomy Meeting, Bath, UK

Bath University was scheduled to hold the annual National Astronomy Meeting in July 2020, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society. This didn’t happen because of lockdown, but it did take place this year – online. I “attended” to present a research poster. The parallel sessions and plenary talks were all very well run online, and the poster session was run via gather.town which was fun! In this, participants choose an avatar for themselves and end up in a plan view of a foyer and poster halls to navigate through using the arrow keys. If participants get close enough, their camera and mic feeds spring into action and they can chat. There were also “easter eggs” hidden throughout the space, with facts about Bath, the university and astronomy. People could also meet in breakout areas for discussions. The plenary talks were all very good, and are available here (click on the youtube link after the summary of each talk).

Although it would have been great to visit Bath, this was an excellent alternative which in my opinion worked very well. The next NAM is in Warwick in 2022, and there is talk of making this a “hybrid” meeting with people both there in person and attending online.

Recent Images – Ian Bradley

Noctilucent clouds on July 7th photographed from Meathop Moss (upper) at 00:04 BST and the Lyth Valley at 00:23. Click to enlarge.

M81, bottom, and M81, top, in Ursa Major. M81 is also known as Bode’s Galaxy whilst M82 is often called the CigarGalaxy. Imaged in RGB and Halpha from Kendal. Images taken April 12th, 24th and 25th 2021, and comprises 10.5 hours ofimaging time. Click to enlarge.

M16, The Eagle Nebula. Image taken May 12th 2021. Click to enlarge.

Barred spiral NGC2903 in Leo, April 01, 2021. Click to enlarge.

M57, The Ring Nebula, always looks nice. I had a few minutes before dawn on May 19th and grabbed this using luminance,Halpha and Oxygen III filters. Lum – 8 minutes, Ha – 16 mins, O III – 11 mins. It just hangs there in the field. Clickto enlarge.

EAS Newsletter for May 2021

Welcome to the May newsletter. We hope you are keeping well and also have been using the unusual clear weather to good effect and have been enjoying the fantastic skies. I’ve certainly been busy.

It’s looking like some time yet before we can start holding meetings in the Museum. We are not planning meetings in June, July and August at this stage, a slightly longer summer break than normal. I hope that we can be back in the Museum in September but that raises some questions for everyone – not least, for example, is our speaker willing to travel to Kendal!

The committee realises that some members may feel unable or unwilling for personal reasons to attend meetings in person for some time beyond the Government’s hoped for end of restrictions. Therefore, we would be interested to know if people would be willing to go to the museum assuming that the current situation progresses as hoped with an end to lockdown measures mid-June. Please let us know by email using easkendal@gmail.com. One possibility, which we would need to investigate to see if possible, would be to live-stream the meeting on Zoom. This would require the agreement of the Museum and Kendal College for us to use their network. While not ideal, at least it would allow those members ‘shielding’ to participate.

We’ll look toward producing another newsletter probably early July, depending on what the circumstances are then. We can always alert you to interesting events by email.

Summer is fast approaching. From May 11th, the sky is not fully dark – defined as the sun being at least 18° below the horizon. Astronomical darkness doesn’t occur again until August 3rd. You can still see things in the twilight but with less contrast, so if clear go out and look. Look out for the Perseid meteor shower, visible a day or so either side of August 12th.

As we said previously, we’d welcome contributions to the newsletter from any member. Just get in contact with an email to easkendal@gmail.com.

So, to conclude, enjoy the summer and keep safe.

Clear Skies.

Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.

Hare Hill Barn, Cartmel Fell – an observing venue?

Not long ago the Society got an email from the owners of Hare Hill, a farm on Cartmel Fell (about 1.5 miles North of High Newton) with amazing dark skies. They have a converted barn which they use for courses and events, and were interested in finding someone who could lead stargazing courses for them. We couldn’t think of anyone immediately (unless you know someone!), but we did enquire about holding observing evenings for the Society at the barn. The answer was Yes! So, Clive Rowland and David Glass went over there to meet the owner and take a look at the facilities. Both concluded that this would be an excellent venue for stargazing, with fantastic views and access to the barn for hot drinks (at cost), power and shelter. We will contact the owners again later this year to set up a session along the same lines as previous ones (covid permitting).

The observing area Hare Hill Barn – photo Clive Rowland.
(Click any image to enlarge).

Astronomy News – David Glass


While finishing the last newsletter, we just caught the flight and dramatic end to Starship SN11 in a mid-air explosion. Official word from SpaceX is that the explosion was due to a methane leak around one of the engines. Undeterred, Starship SN15 was moved from the construction area to one of the launch pads on 8/4/21. Here’s how to move a starship (~22 min long, not a lot happens for the first 3 minutes – zoom to 9 minutes for the move). The video also shows new Ground Support Equipment (GSE) tanks for the bulk storage of cryogenic liquids, built on site using the same design principles employed for Starships. These are now in service.

A keen eye can spot differences between SN11 and SN15 – a few obvious ones are heat shielding and a different shape to the inboard leading edges of the flaps (flings, flamps, flaperons or whatever they are actually called, there are lots of names being used!). One commentator points out differences to external vent positions and external pipework, hinting at changes to internal configurations. Perhaps this includes a permanent means of pressurising the methane storage tank instead of padding it with helium (see previous newsletters).

At the time of writing (25/4/21), SN15 has undergone pressure testing at ambient temperature and filling/emptying with cryogenic liquids. There is no indication of when test fires might occur, but they could happen w/c 26/4/21.

SpaceX had a major success on 23/4/21. Dragon Crew-2 was launched smoothly and successfully, and four astronauts boarded the International Space Station on 24/4/21. This launch was significant because both the first stage booster and the Dragon capsule had been used previously, so this was a test of the principle of re-use. Also, the wife of one of the first astronauts to be sent up by SpaceX was on board this flight (and sat in the seat used by her husband). The Falcon-9 first stage booster landed successfully on a drone ship, I think – the live satellite feed kept dropping out.

The whole build up to launch and the launch itself can be watched here (LONG video >4 hours, but zoom to 4h20 to catch the launch):  But all that pales into insignificance compared to the main issue that everyone wants to know about. What was the zero-gee indicator?? This time it was Jellycat’s My First Penguin, named GuinGuin by the children of one of the astronauts:

GuinGuin inspecting the Dragon capsule after a successful launch. Credit: NASA TV

Zoom forward to 4h55m to see GuinGuin put in its first appearance.

Blue Origin

Another smooth launch was achieved by Blue Origin’s New Shepard NS-15 on 14/4/21. The capsule got to 348,753 feet altitude, above the Karman line so anyone on board would technically be an astronaut. This time it was only Mannequin Skywalker – however, a dry run was carried out for the boarding of astronauts prior to flight, so perhaps the next flight will have people on board. Both the capsule and booster landed safely. You can watch the astronaut dry run, the launch and landings here.


In an achievement to rival the first powered flight by humans on Earth, a small, light drone helicopter named Ingenuity has flown on Mars. Three times to date (19th April, 22nd April and 25th April). Check out Stuart Atkinson’s excellent Facebook page Postcards from Perseverance to see some amazing images of these historic events.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover image, a still frame from a sequence, of Ingenuity flying on April 22nd. Credit: NASA

Making Oxygen on Mars

Perseverance is currently at work on the surface of Mars, and although the pioneering flight of the Ingenuity helicopter has captured the limelight of this mission recently (rightly so!!) there is other amazing science going on as well.

Perseverance is carrying a package named MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), which is intended to test a means of making breathable oxygen (>98% purity) from the Martian atmosphere which is mostly carbon dioxide. The process is relatively simple, but uses some clever electrochemistry. The feed gas from the atmosphere is first pressurised. it is then passed to a solid oxide electrolysis (SOXE) stack operating at about 800°C, which is effectively solid cathodes and anodes supported on a ceramic structure. The cathode is a catalyst, where a reaction producing oxygen and carbon monoxide from carbon dioxide occurs if an electrical potential is applied across the anode and cathode. The oxygen migrates to the anode where it is collected. The stack has no moving parts, and needs no additional chemicals or solvents apart from the feed carbon dioxide to make oxygen.

Some links with more information and some useful diagrams: here and here.

MOXIE has so far managed to produce 5 grams of oxygen at a flow rate of about 10 g/hour. The power requirement for this is 300W.

Thinking back to the talk, at our last Zoom meeting, by Dr Hannah Sargent on the importance of using on-planet resources for long-term missions, this result is an important milestone.

Stellar Flares on Red Dwarf Stars

Red dwarf stars have been found with Earth-like planets in close orbits in the “habitable zone”, where liquid water could exist on the surface and life could get a foothold. However, red dwarf stars are known to have exceptionally violent stellar flares which eclipse anything our own Sun has produced to date. A planet in a close orbit in the path of one of these would not necessarily be a friendly place for life. The reasons for these enormous flares on such small stars are the subject of ongoing research.

This month, it was announced that a record-breaking stellar flare was observed on our nearest-neighbour star, Proxima Centauri, and because of patient observing with multiple telescopes it was captured at multiple wavelengths, from far-ultraviolet to millimetre. The star increased in brightness by a factor of 14,000 at ultra-violet wavelengths, and the flare was about 100 times more powerful than similar flares from the Sun. The results will help understand the nature of these flares and improve understanding of how they are produced.

Further information can be found here.

An open-source version of the paper describing the observations can be found here (with a nice introduction).

V1405Cas update – Ian Bradley

Nova V1405 Cas in the constellation of Cassiopeia, is still about magnitude 8. Since first being measured [AAVSO data] on 20th March at around magnitude 7.8, it has faded a little so that currently it is about 8.1. Details on how to find it are in the April Newsletter. It isn’t well placed for me at the moment as it is behind my house until early morning.

SN2021gmj update – Ian Bradley

In the last newsletter I included a photo of a supernova in a faint spiral galaxy NGC3320. I have been following it ever since grabbing an image every few days to see how it behaves…

Supernova SN2021gmj in NGC3310 in Ursa Major. The star was discovered on 20 March 2021 at magnitude 16. My
photograph was taken on March 21st @ 20:45.

I have refined my analysis technique, as my initial estimate was as suspected overoptimistically bright. The above image is taken with my 10” Newtonian reflector using a cooled monochromatic camera. An Astronomix luminance L2 filter is used to remove both infra-red and UV light. I took 15 images each of 30 seconds and after calibration and alignment, I averaged then to produce my final image with reduced noise. The images are short exposures to avoid any possibility of oversaturating the supernova or any stars that are of interest for calculating the supernova magnitude. Using the programme AIP4WinV2 – originally distributed as part of Richard Berry’s excellent book “The Handbook of Astronomical Image Processing”, but is now free.

This supernova is believed to be a Type II supernova, identified by the presence of spectral lines of hydrogen, where the stellar core has collapsed following the exhaustion of all elements that can undergo fusion. The infalling material compresses the core, forming a neutron star (or a black hole if the mass if greater than about 40 solar masses), and some of the infalling material bounces back forming a shock wave which blasts off the outer stellar atmosphere, resulting in the ‘explosion’ we see.

In the most common type II supernovae, Type II-P, a plateau appears 30 to 80 days after the peak luminosity. This comes from the shock wave ionising the hydrogen-rich envelope which then slowly recombines over a few months. Whether 2021gmj is of this type, is certainly not yet clear from my data – the reason I intend to keep measuring it as long as possible.

Light curves averaged over many supernovae for the two types of Type II supernova. Type II-P is ten times more common than Type II-L

SN2021hiz – Ian Bradley

Stuart Atkinson posted on Facebook on April 15th about a bright supernova SN2021hiz in the faint galaxy IC3322A in Virgo – round about magnitude 13. It was clear that night… so… You can see the supernova clearly outshines the whole galaxy.

The ‘bright’ elliptical galaxy at the left is NGC 4365 and the other edge on spiral at the centre-bottom of the image is IC3322. I’ve counted over 20 other galaxies in this image, presumably all part of the Virgo cluster. My measurement on April 15th gave a magnitude of 12.95 in the visible band using the same technique as for SN2021gmj. I tried to measure again on April 24th but the Moon was too bright and close for useful images.

Thanks to Stuart for the heads up on this supernova.

Moral: I must look more often at the Rochester Astronomy page which lists recently detected supernovae by dedicated research instruments and satellites.

Recent Images – Ian Bradley

The Leo Triplet of spiral galaxies. The edge on spiral galaxy NGC3628, the Hamburger Galaxy, top with M66 and M55 beneath. Image taken over two nights, April 10th and 11th, 2021, and comprises 7.8 hours of imaging time for this two-panel mosaic.

The Sombrero Galaxy, M104, and The Jaws asterism imaged whilst low in the south over central Kendal. Image taken April 15th and 11th, 2021, and comprises 3 hours of imaging time.

The spiral galaxy M64 in Coma Berenices. It also goes by the names Black-Eye Galaxy and Sleeping Beauty Galaxy. The upper portion in the image is tilted towards the Earth by 60° so we are looking under the disk. The obscuring dust in the disk gives rise to the nicknames. Image taken April 6th 2021, and comprises 6.7 hours of imaging time.

NGC3718 and NGC3729 group of galaxies. The edge on spiral galaxy NGC3718 has a tidally warped dust lane and its spiral arms have been pulled out of the plane of the disk by nearby NGC3729, only 150,000 light years away. Image taken April 3rd 2021, and comprises 4.7 hours of imaging time.

EAS Newsletter for April 2021

Welcome to the April 2021 newsletter. Not a lot to say this month. Our virtual Zoom programme continues and the weather continues to not play fair. I guess that is one downside of living in Cumbria.

There has been auroral activity recently although for the best nights we were clouded out. As I write this, the reduction in restrictions due to coronavirus are imminent, so you should be able to travel a little bit further to get some darker skies. If the auroral alerts go off [e.g. Glendale Skye auroral alert phone app, or the aurora-service.eu website is predicting in its 3-day forecast that activity is going to be 5 or above, then get out and have a look if the Solar wind gauges Bz [left gauge] is negative [in the amber or red].

Other news, there is a binocular nova visible in Cassiopea, more on this later.

Our next meeting is this coming Thursday, April 1st, with Hannah Sargeant from the OU talking on ‘The Hunt for Lunar Water’. Our May meeting is Dr Dimitris Stamatellos from UCLAN speaking on Faraway worlds: Exoplanets and planet formation. I hope to see you these.

Finally, we hope everyone is keeping well.

Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.

Astronomy News – David Glass


Just after the last newsletter was published, SpaceX managed to launch its Starship SN10 to an altitude of about 10km, and managed to land it – for a short while anyway. For a very good replay of events on 3/3/21, see here (LONG VIDEO!) And zoom forward to about 10h 20m. Don’t stop watching after the landing, there’s a surprise coming at 10h 34m! The commentary will keep you engaged until then.

If you’ve seen the video, you will have seen the recently landed (but not quite vertical) starship suffer an internal explosion and jump back into the air again for another (and more destructive) landing. You may also have seen a fire in progress in the engine area just before landing, which seemed to continue after landing. Is this connected with the explosion? The outside of the lower part of the rocket looks like it’s still frosted up after landing, which means that there is still cryogenic liquid methane (flammable!) on board. Although the storage tank is made of stainless steel, it is very thin-walled and it is possible that the fire might have weakened it. Or, the tank may have been damaged on impact. Or, the non-upright landing may have damaged pipework around the engines leading to a methane leak which then built up a flammable gas cloud around the engines. Whatever the explanation, the result was an unscheduled re-launch.

In spite of the dramatic turn of events, the flight was successful in many ways including the first upright landing of a starship. Next, SN11 was wheeled out for positioning on a launch platform on 7/3/21. After two static firings of the engines (the latter requiring an engine change), SN11 was awaiting a final static fire test before launch. As I’m writing I have the live feeds running from LabPadre and NASASpaceflight running – the final static firing has just happened (13:09 GMT 26/3/21), and there is a lot of anticipation for a launch today. Almost everything is in place – the road is closed, the launchpad is clear, Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) and Notices to Mariners are in place. And so we wait…Nope, it’s been scrubbed for today! Monday 29/3 is a possibility, so tune in and see.

If you want to drop in on the Boca Chica facility at any time and see what’s going on, try: LabPadre’s Nerdle Cam which also has a microphone so you can listen in as well (currently I hear something like a wailing seagull nearby and the sound of sporadic high-pressure gas venting from the launch area). Occasional running commentary only. On a windy day at the site the sound feed can be very relaxing! Check out LabPadre’s other cameras as well.

Well, SN11 didn’t launch on Monday 29th – but it did launch at 08:00 local time (13:00 BST) on the 30th. An excellent replay of events is here (scroll through to 2 hours 14, and back out when you’ve seen/heard enough!).

It was very foggy at Boca Chica, so ground-based cameras couldn’t see much. However, the NasaSpaceflight feed cut over to SpaceX’s cameras on board. All seemed to be going well, with the starship transitioning to horizontal and controlling its freefall very well. Then came engine re-ignition at an altitude of about 1km just before 08:06…the cameras showing the engines then cut out, and the feed from a ground-based camera showed large pieces of debris raining down on the site, with some impressive clunking noises as they landed. Smaller pieces of debris may have hit some of the cameras in use – this is why it’s a good idea to clear the area when conducting test flights!

The reason for the breakup of the starship remains a mystery at this point, but hopefully the information gained will be of use. The official quote for the flights was that it was an “exciting test”! Nobody at ground level could see what happened fully, so we need to wait for an official word on this.

[Editors comment: Musk also tweeted “At least the crater is in the right place! Apparently, debris found on a bench 5 miles from the launch site – did it explode in mid-air rather than a ground impact?]


You may recall that NASA managed a partial test (“Green Run”) of its Space Launch System (SLS) at the Stennis test facility in Mississippi, on 19/1/21. This was scheduled to last 8 minutes (the full duration of a launch), but it only lasted just over a minute because of an automated shutdown. On 18/3/21, they tried again – and the engines burned for the full duration. Here’s a video showing the whole event (>1 hour long, but zoom forward to about 47 minutes to pick up the start of the action unless you want the background info).

The amount of water needed to quench the exhaust and deaden the sound of the engines is impressive – the huge clouds of water vapour generated are obvious. The gimballing of the engines during the test is intentional, and is how the rocket is steered in flight. Next, SLS will be refurbished where needed and shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, ready for an actual launch sometime. The plan is for a crewed flight to the Moon in 2024.

Another Fireball

Parts of the UK were treated to a decent fireball on 28/2/21, visible across parts of the South West of England. A chunk of it ended up on someone’s driveway in Gloucestershire and is now known as the Winchcombe Meteorite…

Meteorite fragment recovered from Gloucestershire after fireball on 28/2/21 (credit: The Trustees of the NaturalHistory Museum, London)

The meteorite is a very rare carbonaceous chondrite, which apparently feels like soft coal. Its composition will inform studies of the formation of the early Solar system, alongside the pristine asteroid samples recovered by the Osiris-Rex and Hyabsa-2 spacecraft. The fireball was caught on several doorbell and other security cameras, and it should be possible to use this information to estimate where the meteor came from.

Then, a sonic boom was heard across the South West of England, Wales and France on 20/3/21. This was not RAF Typhoons on their way to intercept incoming aircraft, but another fireball

Some folk report a sighting of it during the day, which means that it must have been comparatively large to be that visible. And, if the incoming meteor makes a sonic boom like that, some believe that it’s an indicator that fragments could well have landed. No reports of meteorite findings yet!

Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)

The EHT is a planet-wide network of telescopes operating at mm wavelengths, capable of micro-arcsecond resolution. You may recall the amazing image of the material around the active galaxy M87’s central supermassive black hole, from April 2019. During the observations the telescopes also recorded the polarity of the incoming radiation, and further analysis has been done of this polarisation. The result is striking…..

The black hole region at the centre of M87. The lines show the direction of polarisation of the mm-wavelengthemission captured by the EHT (credit: EHT Collaboration)

Polarisation such as this is associated with a powerful magnetic field close in to the black hole. The results can contribute to the understanding of how these black holes “feed”, i.e. draw matter in toward them, which is influenced by the presence of a magnetic field. The creation of the spectacular jets from the centre of active galaxies, like the one from M87, is also associated with magnetism, so the results could help here too. If you want to see the very recent science papers on this, go to here and here The number of people involved in these papers is very impressive.

For a short explainer on the significance of this work, take a look at this video from Prof. Derek Ward-Thompson of the University of Central Lancashire…

Meanwhile on Mars – Ian Bradley

It seems wrong not to report the current goings on with the rovers on Mars as there is plenty of activity. Curiosity continues to do great science and Perseverance is working up to it.

Perseverance after a few short survey trips is gearing up to release the 1.8 kg Ingenuity helicopter. As I write this, the transport cover has been released and the first of many steps in lowering the helicopter to the surface have been taken. The survey identified a ‘flight zone’ and an ‘airfield’, a 10 x 10m square of flat area free from rocks and obstructions.

NASA is billing this as a ‘Wright Brothers’ moment – the first flight on another planet. They even went so far on this linkage as to place on Ingenuity a small piece of the material used to create the Wright brothers’ plane, the Flyer. Don’t worry they didn’t purloin a piece from the actual plane, this was a bit left over from its construction! Apparently, Apollo 11 flew a different piece of material and a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer to the Moon.

The plan is to position Perseverance on a bluff, Van Zyl Overlook, on the right of the image to video the first flight. This flight will be a sequence of pre-programmed instructions to rise a few meters, hover maybe do a left-right rotation and then return back to the surface lasting only 20 to 30 seconds. It will be an amazing achievement if it is successful. Ingenuity is a flight technology demonstrator and will never go far. It is limited to 90 seconds flight and will probably only travel 300 meters or so. But the Wright Brothers’ flight was only 12 seconds!

Perseverance’s main task is to explore the region, in particularly the remains of an ancient river delta. It has already returned some images of a 10 metre high rock exposure not too far away. Stratification is some exposures is clear.

Meanwhile, over at Gale Crater, Curiosity has taken a nice selfie at the Norton drilling site and Mont Mercou. You can see the drill hole and the surrounding grey dust on the slabs in front of the rover. This image is a mosaic of 60 individual pictures taken with MAHLI camera at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm on sol 3070 (26 March 2021). Mont Mercou is a stratified butte 7m high and 15m long. This image was assembled by Thomas Appéré using the NASA raw images.

The Blind Philosopher of Kendal – by Eddie Dealtry

John Gough (1757 – 1825)

(and the Shuttle Challenger disaster)

To my complete surprise, a busy pair of tree surgeons enlightened me to the age of a felled tree in Fowling Lane: ‘Probably, planted by the Blind Philosopher’. News to me. On enquiry, the ‘Blind Philosopher’ is news to a number of us.

Arthur Eddington is not our only influential, local physicist, apparently. We can also brag about John Gough (1757 – 1825) ‘The Blind Philosopher’ from ‘Fowl Ing Lane’. Contemp­orary John Dalton (he from Cocker­mouth of Atomic theory fame) described Gough as a ‘prodigy in scientific attainments’. Other contemporaries described him as a self-taught mathematician, physicist, botanist and meteorologist.

An autobiography held by Kendal Archive makes references to his scientific work – dealing with his youth ‘before leaving the world’, continued his by son Thomas (a surgeon of Kendal 1804 – 1880).

John Gough’s journal taken at Kendal Archive

Gough was left blind after suffering smallpox at two years old. His mother spent a great deal of time and energy on his ‘Learning when blind’. Early on Gough is demonstrating a prodigious memory for abstract ideas, augmented by a ‘lively idea of appearance’ using the sense of feeling, touch. He could differentiate soils from parts of the garden as well as from different seasons. Thomas records that his father even handled ‘venomous … [and] carnivorous animals with no fear’.

In lines 498-514 of the Prelude – Book Seven of “The Excursion” (1813) – William Words­worth’s writes of Gough:

‘none whose figure did not live/ Upon his touch’

Gough also drew a number of Cambridge students, travel­ling to Kendal for tutoring. Some of their number went on to become ‘wranglers’ and masters of colleges, including the mathematician William Whewell – of the Whewell equation.

John Dalton also visited for tutorials. Notwithstanding, after Dalton’s published his Atomic theory, Gough mounts a vigorous criticism of his (inaccurate) atomic weights.

Gough’s own researches led to a discovery in the thermodynamics of rubber-like materials leading to publication of three experiments, the second and third ‘with a thermometer’! (Reference #2, below). When rubber is under tension, counter-intuitively, it contracts on heating (rather than expanding). The experimental physi­cist James Joule (he of the SI unit of energy) a student of John Dalton (himself a one-time student of Gough) investigated and developed his discovery to become the eponymous Gough–Joule effect.

Space Shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after take-off. Credit NASA

Credit: NASA

More than a century after Gough and Joule’s investigations, a low ambient temperature is attributed to the cause of O-ring sealing failures during the tragic launch of Shuttle Challenger .

Previously, the record low temp­erature for a launch was 12°C. At ‑2°C, Engineers refused to sign-off such a low-temperature launch. Neverthe­less, it went ahead. A subsequent con­sensus cites external O-rings failing to seal fuel under pressure as a factor. A ‘primary’ O-ring dropped below the glass transition temperature and the secondary O-ring was not in its seated position – which has been attributed to bending metal. A launch temperature that is far lower than the construction environment, points to the polymer O-rings expanding away from the seal joints for the good folk up Fowling Lane, the Gough–Joule effect.

See also: ‘Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester’ are behind a paywall, the society’s Welcome page is here.

New Bright Nova in Cassiopeia – Ian Bradley

In the constellation of Cassiopeia, a new star has been discovered by Yuji Nakamura of Japan. He discovered the object at magnitude 9.6 in four images he took with a 135-mm lens on March 18th where four days earlier nothing was visible brighter than magnitude 13. It has the name V1405Cas if you want to find more details on it from either the AAVSO or the British Astronomy Society.

At the time of writing, March 29th, it is currently at magnitude 7.9, well within the range of a pair of binoculars. It is quite easy to find as it is very close to M52. It is best seen either early evening or before dawn in the northern sky as Cassiopeia dips beneath the Pole Star around midnight so the nova is then quite low, 25°.

There is a useful article in Sky and Telescope on it here.

Star hopping should get you there quite easily by star hopping from Caph, β Cassiopeia magnitude 2.3. A typical binocular field of view is around 6° and for reference, Caph is 5° away from Schedar. Follow the two brightish stars, both magnitude 4.9, and hang a left to the ‘triangle’ of magnitude 6 & 7 stars. The nova is between there and M52, the upper right of the two obvious bright stars below M52 around 10pm at night. The lower star is HIP 115691, magnitude 6.6.

I measured it on March 21st and found it to be magnitude 7.9. It looked reddish in a colour image, albeit one synthesized from narrowband Ha [red] and OIII [blue/green] filter images. My image is over the page together with the AAVSO finder chart with comparison stars if you are interested in trying to determine the nova’ magnitude. Typically, classical novae brighten by 10 – 12 magnitudes over a few days, and then fades by 2 magnitudes over either a few weeks or over 100 days depending on whether it is a ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ type nova. If the weather clears, over the next couple of months, get out and try and repeatedly measure it and plot your own light curve.

So what is a nova? This is a classical nova system consisting of two stars very close together. One is a main sequence or red giant star and the other is a dead star, a white dwarf. A white dwarf is a star that at the end of its life, blew off all its outer layers leaving only the naked core. No fusion is ongoing there and it will steadily cool and dim over time as energy is radiated away.

The two stars are so close together that material from the ‘live’ star streams across the Roche Lobe onto the surface of the white dwarf, accretion. Over time, sufficient material builds up to satisfy the temperature and density criteria for fusion to occur, and some of the surface material ‘ignites’ blasting off the majority of the accumulated material. It is this hot expanding envelope that we see. As a large fraction will be hydrogen, I’m not surprised that I detected lots of hydrogen in my colour image.

Artist’s impression of accretion onto a white dwarf

Credit: NASA

Recent Photos – Ian Bradley

The California Nebula in Pegasus. This large nebula is excited by the star on the right – Menkib, Xi Persei, a very hot and bright type O7 star. I had difficulties with haze and low altitude for the lower half of the two-panel mosaic. A project for next year…

Two-panel mosaic imaged from Kendal over the nights of February 28th and March 2nd using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with Hα and OIII filters. Hα mapped to red and OIII to both green and blue. Total exposure time over 8 hours.

Who can resist the Horsehead and Flame nebulae. Taken March 1st with a very strong Moon using using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with narrowband Hα and OIII filters with Hα mapped to red and OIII to both green and blue.

Supernova SN2021gmj in NGC3310 in Ursa Major. The star was discovered on 20 March 2021 at magnitude 16. My photograph was taken on March 21st @ 20:45 when I estimated it [with difficulty] to be 14.5. I was probably generous due to contamination from the spiral arm in my estimation as others see it as just over 15.

EAS Newsletter for March 2021

Welcome to the March newsletter.

Little did we think that when we decided to produce a newsletter for last April, that we’d still be doing it a year later. Given the Prime Ministers aspirations published yesterday [Monday 22nd February], it looks unlikely that we’ll be back in the Museum before May at the earliest. Even then, I suspect some members may not be willing to attend Kendal Museum for meetings. I also suspect that speakers before the summer will either be unable or unwilling to travel. For example, universities currently have their hands full trying to deliver courses and they will probably not quickly remove the current staff travel ban. Obviously, the Committee will just follow the guidance and we’ll inform you about what is happening through either this august publication or by email.

The recent astronomical news, quite rightly, has been dominated by Mars and the successful Perseverance landing. The landing video, do I need to say more, is extraordinary and well worth watching if you haven’t already seen it. But Perseverance wasn’t the only arrival at Mars as there were orbiters from both the Chinese and UAE too. The Chinese probe has a small rover too. The reason all three arrived at a similar time is simply due to orbital mechanics. More from David on these later.

I guess this is time for my frequent moan at the lack of clear skies in Cumbria… it certainly hasn’t been great this past month with only the odd short break. It was even cloudy at full moon! Mind you, the forecasts haven’t been accurate either as I found two clear nights mid-month [10th & 11th] which weren’t forecast to be – that makes planning and preparation difficult.

Last spring/summer we were rewarded with the first decent naked eye comet for quite some while – Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3. For some stunning images, including something called the sodium tail, which I admit I’d never heard of, have a look at this link.

Sadly, no more naked eye comets are due for a bit although one, COMET LEONARD C/2021 A1, is possible low in the northern sky during early December. We’ll just have to see.

Don’t forget that at the end of the month, Sunday 28th March, the clocks change as we revert to summer time.

So, keep safe and don’t forget our upcoming meeting on March 4th – with Megan Argo from UCLAN on the Square Kilometre Array.

Clear skies.

SpaceX launch site – Ian Bradley

You’ve probably seen the iconic photographs of the two SpaceX spaceships SN9 and SN10 both sat together on the launchpad prior to the launch of SN9. I thought it might be useful to see the launch site to give a bit more context to David’s excellent reports. The assembly and control centre is a around 3km away from the launch site.

SN9 and SN10 with Starhopper on the right Credit: SpaceX.

They looked quite close together, and although they are quite large at 50m tall and 9m diameter, they do seem quite close to one another and the landing zone. Having seen SN8 have a RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly or in English, a destructive crash landing) on the failed landing attempt, I wondered at the possibility of the crash debris damaging the other rocket… so I looked for some aerial photos…

The launch complex. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

To give an idea of scale in the first photograph, the distance from the left-hand edge of the construction site to the wall on the right of the tank farm is approximately 500m so the centre of the landing pad is about 200m from the launch test stands. They really are surprisingly close together. I guess that shows the confidence of SpaceX in their engineering and design. The second image, which must be a slightly earlier image, shows SN9 and SN10 on their launch test stands and the landing pad behind with what I presume is the remaining debris on the pad from SN8. Clearly the pad was damaged by the crash landing and was then undergoing repair

SN9 and SN10 with debris from SN8 on the damaged landing pad behind. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

Astronomy News – David Glass & Richard Rae


On 9/2/21, the Hope probe from the United Arab Emirates successfully completed its braking manoeuvre and entered the orbit of Mars. The probe will study the upper Martian atmosphere, with the aim of discovering why Mars lost its water around 3 billion years ago and is now so cold and dry. It will look at how particles are being lost from the planet and escape into space and how the upper atmosphere interacts with the atmospheric layers below. The Martian atmosphere is tenuous and much thinner than the atmosphere that we enjoy here on Earth. Initially the UAE programme is destined to last 2 years and we should get some excellent photographs from its advanced Hi-Res camera. The probe was launched by Japan, is managed by the UAE and has collaborations with United States Universities – a truly international effort.

Here is a video (just over a minute long) revealing the rationale behind the mission.

The image below contains more on the probe…

Schematic of the Hope probe (credit: https://www.planetary.org/space-missions/uae-hope)

And here’s one of the first images to be returned from Hope…

full-disc image of Mars from the Hope spacecraft (altitude 24,700km). (Credit: UAESA/MBRSC/LASP/EMM-EXI)

Hope’s research aims build upon NASA`s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) mission, which was dedicated to researching the upper atmosphere of Mars and determining the importance of the role a planet’s magnetic field plays in the retention of an atmosphere. Hope, however, will be at a much higher orbit (22,000 – 44,000km) instead of MAVEN`s 4,500 to 150km. MAVEN has been in orbit since 2014, and has painstakingly created a map of electric current systems (interaction of charged particles in the atmosphere and the solar wind). For more details, MAVEN’s home page is here. Some very interesting information on mapping electric currents, and the importance of the planet’s magnetic field in regulating climate and retaining water can be found here (~4 minutes)


Impression of Tianwen-1’s rover after deployment. (credit: CCTV/China National Space Administration)

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully entered the orbit of Mars on 18/2/21. Richard Rae mentioned this ambitious Chinese mission in a talk to EAS last year and you may remember it comprises 3-parts – an orbiter, a lander and a rover. If successfully deployed, this will be an engineering first for remote planetary exploration, whereby the three components are contained within one payload at launch.

Tianwen-1 means “questions to heaven” and China will become the second nation to operate a rover on the planet’s surface. The craft is currently able to collect information on potential landing sites in the Utopia Planitia region. Here is an inspiring video of Tianwen-1 during February`s orbital capture from space.com. The landing containing the rover is expected to occur in May or June of this year. The rover carries scientific payloads to investigate the minerals on the Martian surface as well as a ground penetrating radar to detect ice deposits.

Here is a (1 minute video) representation of how everything should go from space.com. This is a pathfinder mission for the Chinese exploration of Mars as there are plans for future mission to retrieve Martian samples and bring them back to Earth by 2030.


Few of us can have missed the spectacular landing of the new Perseverance rover on Mars on 18/2/21 – or the equally spectacular coverage of the event, and the initial images and videos released afterwards which really highlighted the technology at work. So, I won’t dwell on it here. If you want to watch it again, highlights and video footage released post-landing are here.  Raw images from the rover are coming in, and can be found at here.

A typical shot from the right Mastcam-Z on the Perseverance rover on Mars (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Stuart Atkinson does an excellent job of processing these images to bring out the best in them – check out his Facebook page “Postcards from Perseverance”. 


After the successful test firings of the engines on Starship SN9, we just had to wait until it was launched up to an altitude of a few kilometres and brought safely back. They got part of it right.

SpaceX never seem to announce when tests and launches are going to happen (please put me right if they do!), so the only way to find out is to check with online resources frequently. SpaceX’s Twitter feed can be of use, but it can also be very informative to use Labpadre’s or NASASpaceflight’s live streams on YouTube. I check the LabPadre feeds daily. On 2/2/21 I found that the SN9 launch was imminent, so throughout the afternoon I kept checking, but not a lot seemed to be happening so I parked it. Then by chance I checked the SpaceX twitter feed that evening, and found a live feed with a countdown – 1 minute 30 seconds to go! Here are some of the live images from LabPadre’s Nerdle Cam that I screen grabbed after a panic rush to grab the laptop. The test didn’t quite go to plan…

Launch – looking good!

Five minutes later. Er…should it be coming in on its back?? Nope.

(all images credit: LabPadre)

Fireball from the liquid methane tank, oxygen tank detached and failed separately (right of image). Jet- propelled debris from the non-burning release is apparent – look closely in both images! Something is skating along the ground in the right-hand image.

During the flight, the Twitter live feed showed a large stream of cryogenic vapour coming out of the back of the rocket, which might have been unignited fuel/oxygen/both. Without sufficient engine power and the ability to steer properly, a crash was inevitable.

The only thing to do after an event like that is to try again. SN10 is in position, and is now getting ready to fly. The first test firing of its engines was on 23/2/21, after which one of the engines was replaced. The second test firing was on 25/2/21…  (sound available!).

So, we now wait for readiness to launch of SN10, which hopefully will be soon (but we’ve said that before and it’s taken ages!).

Shortly after the SN9 flight, SN7.2 (a lightweight cryogenic liquid storage tank for use in future Starships was pressure tested on 4/2/21. It did fail (see image), but at least the test will have helped to establish the limits for operation.

SN7.2 under test – large leak is apparent to the right (credit: LabPadre).

Golf on the Moon…

I tried pitch-and-putt once. I declared myself dangerous, and consequently I’ve never developed an interest in golf. However, this is a moment where golf was out of this world. Alan Shepard was commander of the Apollo 14 mission in early February 1971 (50 years ago!), and took with him a specially-designed golf club head that would fit on a lunar sampling tool. On 6/2/71 he took two one-handed shots from the Moon’s surface. The second one apparently went “miles and miles and miles”…

Andy Saunders, an image specialist who specialises in re-mastering Apollo images, has analysed photos and images of the event from the astronauts’ cameras, a camera on the Lunar Module and images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Features are apparent on the Lunar surface from this classic experiment…

Traces of the golf shots taken on the lunar surface – divots and balls. (credit: NASA/JSC/ASU/Andy Saunders)


Scaled image showing the features and distances for the golf shots. (credit: NASA/JSC/ASU/Andy Saunders).

The maximum distance travelled for the second ball was about 40 yards – and there’s no blaming a gopher that picked up the ball and ran back with it. The challenge for future visitors is to do better!

Celestial Selfies – James Robertson

How many images of the night skies have been taken? Millions probably, adding up everything from backyard astronomers to professional observatories. This article turns this on its head.

The one object we don’t think of imaging at night is Planet Earth, not least because we can’t beyond our terrestrial horizons. Yet humans have launched satellites and probes into the solar system and beyond, bearing cameras. They are our selfie sticks. They photograph us and our world.

This article presents a selection of visually great and also significant images together with their history. It follows on from the February Newsletter where Graham Fell recollected the 2013 photo of Earth taken by Voyager with at least members of EAS waving back at it.

It all started with this, Photo 1, the first image of Earth taken from space, in October 1946. The camera was on board a V2 rocket captured by the Americans from the Germans at the end of WW2. The warhead was replaced with scientific instruments and a 35mm cine camera taking one frame every few seconds.

The photo here was taken from a height of 105km, considerably beating the previous altitude record of 22km in a balloon flight. The camera was destroyed in the crash landing on return but the film survived in a sturdy steel case.

Photo 1: V2 rocket view of Earth from 105km

All image credits are NASA.

At the time the V2 image must have seemed remarkable. Today it looks pretty tame through eyes accustomed to the Hubble Space Telescope images. A more modern equivalent of the V2 cloudscape nevertheless does pack a punch. This shot (Photo 2) from May 2011 of clouds from orbit was the first picture taken of a Space Shuttle attached to the International Space Station and gives a good indication of its scale. It was taken from the Soyuz capsule being used to bring astronauts home. The thin blue envelope of the atmosphere shows clearly at the edge of the planet and the floating structure of the ISS is still novel. We see a lot of images shot from the ISS but not many of the outside detail.

The image was not released for some weeks after being taken. The camera’s SD card was left on board the Soyuz craft. At least they got it back, which is more than they did with the V2s. Sixty-four V2s were launched between 1946 and 1952 taking photos of the Earth. A lot of cameras got trashed.

Photo 2: ISS in orbit over clouds

For something iconic featuring the Earth, we have to go back some decades to the Apollo lunar missions. This image (Photo 3) was taken from the Apollo 8 Moon orbit on Christmas Eve 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders. For many at the time, and even now, the pure beauty of the planet and the contrasting desolation of the lunar surface was a haunting sight. Phases of the Earth are still an unexpected sight too.

Photo 3: Apollo 8 view of Earth

The patterns of clouds on these Apollo images have been compared to those taken on the same date from Earth orbit satellites, identical, in an effort to debunk the claim that the Moon landings were faked in a Hollywood studio. But you can’t convince some people. No doubt the satellite images were all faked as well in Photoshop.

Kennedy said in his 1962 speech that the goal was to land a man on the Moon and return him safely. A lot was riding on this as well as on accomplishing it within the decade as promised.

Photo 4 shows the ascent of the Lunar Module (LM) about to reunite with the Command and Service Module (CSM). It is a photograph that very nearly didn’t get taken. Things had not gone to plan. The connection between the CSM and LM was not fully depressurised and the LM got an extra impetus from escaping air when disconnected. Armstrong reckoned it would send the LM past the planned landing point by 3 miles. Then two alarms registered computer processing overload, the second being a Master Alarm that set off a klaxon. Aldrin later described it as what you got in a Dive, dive, dive scene in a submarine movie (this sort of thing ).

Armstrong switched to manual control at about 500 feet. Although Aldrin was designated Pilot for the LM his role was not to fly it as such but be Chief Engineer. Much of the descent was computer controlled and any human intervention was Armstrong’s job as Commander. The manual controls were on the left side of the LM looking outwards where Armstrong stood, and the LM was too small in any case for the two astronauts to swap places quickly. Armstrong got the LM down with just 18 seconds of fuel to spare, four miles past target, and with the LM sliding several feet sideways on the lunar surface on contact. Renowned for his ultra-coolness in actual emergencies, Armstrong’s heart rate nevertheless doubled to hit 156 per minute by the time the Eagle had landed.

The photo illustrates a key accomplishment of the Apollo 11 astronauts, at a finalising point in the mission – getting there, completing the exploration, getting off the Moon in one piece and preparing to dock with the CSM, with home in sight. It was taken by Michael Collins on the CSM on 21 July 1969. Though not the mission Commander, it was his job to fly the CSM for real rather than Armstrong. Soberingly, he was the pilot trained to be able to return home solo if the other two astronauts were killed outright or stranded on the Moon

Photo 4: Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle returns from lunar surface, destination Earth

HG Wells began War of the Worlds with these words: ‘No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.’[end Quote]

What might the Martians have seen? With the help of an increasingly long selfie stick we now know (Photo 5). This is a milestone image of the Earth, the first taken from the surface of another planet. Curiosity sent it back on 31 January 2014. It provokes the question: Will there ever be a moment when a human born on Mars looks up at a bright star that is Earth, and wonders what it’s like, never having been there?

Photo 5: Earth from the surface of Mars]

The next two selfies were taken on the same day, 29 July 2013, but from different directions. The first image (Photo 6) shows Earth and Moon viewed from Mercury, captured by a Messenger probe looking for moons of Mercury. Pluto is said to be in the field of view, but is far too small to show up. The distorted shapes are due to overexposure. It’s arguably not packing the visual punch of some of the other selfies. But taken from a distance of 98 million km by a robotic spacecraft that got there safely, achieved orbit, took images and successfully transmitted the data back home, it sums up how much a species of tree dwelling primates had evolved to aspire to and then achieve.

Photo 6: Earth and Moon from Mercury Messenger

From the other side of Earth orbit, the Cassini probe imaged us as described in the February ’21 Newsletter. This (Photo 7) is another from the sequence of images, with a close up of the rings and with the Moon recorded as well but not visible here. It was taken from the impressive distance of 1.5 billion km. Carl Sagan, the planetary scientist, populariser of astronomy, cosmologist, pondered on these images and our true significance. He saw them as transcending all our earthly preoccupations, the Earth floating as a speck in an infinite Cosmos. He called it a very small stage in a vast arena.

Photo 7: Earth from Saturn’s rings

Carl Sagan was also involved with the final selfie for this article. Voyager 1 was by this time heading to the fringes of the Solar System. He strongly advocated capturing a view of Earth, from what was a record distance away, at approximately 6.4 billion kilometres. NASA was unsure, concerned that sunlight even at that range might burn out the camera (as had happened on the Apollo 12 mission).

In the end, a wide-angle image of the sun was taken using the darkest on-board camera filter with the shortest possible exposure. The results have been presented by NASA first as a mosaic of the wide angle shot and two narrow angle colour frames (Photo 8), containing Earth and Venus. They are in the correct place in the image and taken using three coloured filters (at less than 1 second exposure each). There doesn’t seem to be a version actually showing the planets. The alternative highly processed version (Photo 9) does show Earth, coincidentally in a shaft of sunlight scattered off the Voyager camera shading.

Photos 8 & 9: Earth from the greatest distance ever.

Carl Sagan made a renowned poetic speech about the blue dot of Earth, so easily masked by a mote of dust on a computer screen. Sagan died in December 1996 but left a recording of his 4-minute speech available here.

This is the concluding line, fitting at a time of pandemic and growing urgency about global warming:

“[This distant image of our tiny world] … to me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”

Carl Sagan 1994

Recent Photos

NGC2264, the Cone Nebula and Christmas Tree cluster in the constellation of Monocerous. The Fox Fur Nebula just right of the bright star at the top.

Two-panel mosaic imaged from Kendal over the nights of February 10th & 11th using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with Hα and OIII filters. Total exposure time over 7 hours.

M42 and M43 in Orion with NGC1977, The Running Man Nebula, above..

Two-panel mosaic imaged from Kendal over the nights of January 30th and February 10th using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with Ha and OIII filters. Even with 30 second exposures, the core of M42 is blown out!.

EAS Newsletter for February 2021

Welcome to the February newsletter.

Cumbrian clouds and rain have lived up to their reputation the past month with very few clear evenings. Just glimpses every now and again. I guess the forecast for the next month is more of the same! My fault as I’ve acquired some narrowband filters and a mono-astrocamera!

Last month, we had an excellent talk by Prof. Lionel Wilson on Venusian vulcanology continuing the series on volcanos of the Solar System. Hopefully, we’ll get Lionel back for another talk in the next year or so, as he himself said, there are other volcanic systems out there… Thinking of the programme, David Glass has done an excellent job on the programme for our 1st Thursday of the month meetings for the rest of the year.

So hopefully we’ll have some good meetings and with luck and a vaccine, maybe even back in Kendal Museum.

Don’t forgot that the Cumbria Dark Skies Festival starts shortly (Feb 5th to 21st) with many interesting online talks (many only £3.50). Further information can be found here.

A lot of this is being driven by Friends of the Lake District (FoLD) as part of their dark sky initiative. EAS is involved with FoLD, mainly Clive and I, in their Dark Skies project as are many other Cumbrian astronomy societies. There are things we as individuals can do to reduce light pollution (LP) and protect our darkish skies – see here for a few tips. If you see any excessive light source in the Kendal area, for example through bad positioning, angling or just on all the time, let me know and I will pass that information on to the FoLD team. They are currently employing consultants to do an LP survey before they tackle individuals or companies to try and get some changes. The ‘Environmental Act 1990; law on statutory nuisance’ covers LP nuisance, so things can change.

One final note on LP. There is a lady in Penrith (which has no astro society) trying to get light glare reduced. LP is surprisingly bad round Penrith with some big industrial sites by the M6, several brightly lit quarries and nearby Center Parcs. She was unsure how to go about getting LP reduced and various local societies (Cockermouth, Carlisle, EAS) had a Zoom discussion with her. The bottom line was that ultimately, locals have to drive change. Since then, I’ve had a few email exchanges with her. She has written to the local paper (The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald). This produced supportive replies from locals and I contacted the paper and sent them an image of light pollution over Penrith taken from Orton Fell. However, being a realist, it is difficult for us as a society to do much, being Kendal based, but if you happen to live in that direction, are affected by LP and willing to talk to her, I’m happy to put you in touch.

Clear Skies

Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee

Perseverance Mars rover landing – Ian Bradley

Click images to ‘enbiggen’.

Don’t forget that NASA’s ‘Perseverance’ Mars rover is due to land on Mars on Thursday, February 18th at about 20:55 GMT in Jezero Crater after another ‘7-minutes of terror’; entry, parachute descent followed by the final sky crane lower onto the surface. NASA TV is live from 19:15 GMT. There’s a nice animation here. Here’s hoping for another successful landing. As John McNamee, project manager for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission puts it, “Don’t let anybody tell you different – landing on Mars is hard to do.” With luck, we’ll soon get an image like this on the right which I believe was the first mastcam image taken by Curiosity inside Gale Crater.

Why Jezero Crater? On ancient Mars, water carved channels and transported sediments to form fans and deltas within lake basins. Images suggest that the 750km diameter Jezero Crater in the Isidia Planitia region was at one time filled with water forming a shallow lake. It is believed that such a wet region could have been environmentally favourable to life. A river flowed into this lake off nearby highlands, dumping eroded material to form a delta. The landing site in Jezero Crater was chosen to be near this delta because orbital spectral data show that some of the sediments here have minerals that indicate chemical alteration by water – clays and carbonates. A great place to fulfil the Mars 2020 mission’s science goal of studying a potentially habitable environment that may still preserve signs of past life.

Here’s hoping.

Astronomy News – David Glass


The much-anticipated test flight of Starship SN9 mentioned in the December newsletter looked like it would go ahead early in January. It didn’t, but it is now likely on 1st – 3rd February. Anyone checking in on the webcam sites around Boca Chica would have seen lots of activity in the run-up to this, and several reasons are behind the delays including technical issues, poor weather and bureaucracy.

SN9’s Raptor engines were test-fired initially on 6/1/21, followed by an astounding three static fires with no intervention on 13/1/21 (18:28, 20:22, 21:36 GMT). There’s a great compilation video of this event.

SN9’s three static firings on 13/1/21 (credit: NASASpaceflight.com/bocachicagal)

After all this testing, two of the Raptor engines needed to be replaced because of minor damage. There was another static firing on 21/1/21 and 22/1/21 GMT, and a “wet dress rehearsal” for launch 28/1/21, with delays to launch due to adverse weather and other issues. Since then, SN9 has been sitting on the pad awaiting FAA approval for launch after a regulatory hold-up prevented a launch on the 28th.

The issue which caused Starship SN8 to crash is believed to be low fuel tank pressure during the latter stages of the flight. The solution to this for SN9 is to pad the tank with helium, which will help to maintain the tank pressure as it is emptied during flight. However, this is only a temporary fix while other permanent solutions which add less mass are explored. Another item of interest was pressure-tested at the site on 26/1/21. A new fuel storage vessel, named Starship 7.2, has been built out of thinner (and therefore much lighter) stainless steel plate. This was filled and pressurised with liquid nitrogen, and held at pressure for 3.5 minutes. The test was judged to be a success, and the vessel didn’t burst dramatically like its predecessors. The new design represents a significant saving in mass, which means more payload can be carried.

Starship SN7.2 under test (credit: LabPadre)

And within the last few days, Starship SN10 was moved into position for testing and launch…

Through the fog, SN10 (right) in position for testing etc at Boca Chica, with SN9 on the left (credit:LabPadre)

Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle is intended to transport payloads to sub-orbital altitudes (i.e. into space and straight back down again) – including scientific instruments and paying passengers. An impressive test (no 14) of the vehicle and a new 6-seat passenger capsule was conducted on 14/1/21, from their West Texas launch site. The capsule includes large windows to allow great views for the passengers (referred to as astronauts – well technically they are!), and a new feature which allows the whole assembly to rotate slowly to give everyone the best views was demonstrated during the flight.

The test was successful, with the capsule separating from the launch vehicle and reaching an altitude of just over 66 miles (351,000 ft approx.). The launch vehicle then did a successful powered landing, and the capsule landed later on its parachutes with impact cushioned by retro-rockets. There was one passenger on board, “Mannequin Skywalker” who is a veteran of these test flights, and additional cargo of 50,000 postcards from students around the world. Highlights of the flight are here.

If that has inspired you to buy a ticket for this 11-minute flight with forces of up to 3g and a few minutes in microgravity with stunning views, take a look here.

New Shepard flight test no. 14 (credit: Blue Origin)


NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) was put in place on its test facility at Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi towards the end of 2020. After a “wet” dress rehearsal in December, the time came for a static fire test of its four RS-25 engines (last used on the space shuttles) on 16/1/21. This was due to last for around 8 minutes, which is the full duration of a launch. However, certain safety parameters were set conservatively and the test was aborted after about a minute. In spite of this, a huge amount of data was gathered on the performance of the system which will guide future tests. SLS will eventually be used for the Artemis 1 mission which is heading for the Moon.

The test itself was particularly impressive, with high-resolution cameras giving views from many different perspectives. The whole live stream is available here (2h 20 min!), but I recommend that you skip to 2h 00min to get the build-up before the test and the test itself. Note the dramatic use of water (>300,000 US gallons/min) to quench the exhaust, which really gives a feel for the power involved. funniest live comment: “Shut up about SpaceX!

NASA SLS hot test fire (credit: NASA Stennis Space Center)

Virgin Orbit

At the other end of the scale for rockets, Virgin Orbit successfully put 10 small satellites into low-Earth orbit using its LauncherOne system on 17/1/21. This is a converted Boeing 747 (in Virgin livery) which took the rocket up to 35,000ft altitude before releasing it to fly into space. This system has the advantage that it can be deployed from anywhere that has the right runway length and facilities. I won’t discuss the ethics of small satellites in orbit, especially involving an aforementioned operator.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne deploying a rocket to orbit (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Photosynthesis on Exoplanets?

We all know that photosynthesis, where complex molecules are built up from simple ones using sunlight and chlorophyll, is essential for life on this planet. With the discovery of exoplanets around red dwarf stars in the right orbits for liquid water to exist, a logical question is whether the spectrum from these stars could sustain photosynthesis as we understand it. A paper released on ArXiv in January suggests that it can.

The figure below shows the spectra of the Sun and different types of red dwarf star. It’s clear that the spectra of the red dwarfs all peak at longer wavelengths, i.e. would appear redder to the human eye. The research team reproduced this spectrum and the intensity of light expected on exoplanets that could potentially support life, and subjected different types of extremophile cyanobacteria to it. One (Chlorogloeopsis fritschii PCC 6912) can survive in hyper-salty lakes and very hot thermal springs. Another (Chroococcidiopsis thermalis PCC 7203) is found in a wide range of hot/cold and wet/dry environments. A third (Synechococcus sp. PCC 7335) was originally isolated from a snail shell found in an inter-tidal zone, and can withstand changes in light levels as well as wet and dry conditions. A fourth (Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803) was not expected to photosynthesise under these conditions and was used as a control.

Spectra of the Sun and red dwarf stars, from yellow to near infra-red (Claudi et al. 2021)

The results? PCC6803 and 7203 were able to photosynthesise. PCC6912 and 7335 (the control) were just about able to photosynthesise, using the low levels of light that they required at wavelengths away from the spectral peaks. This is because the more capable bacteria use particular types of chlorophyll that can make use of the light wavelengths available.

This does offer the potential for biological process that we understand to be present on habitable exoplanets around red dwarf stars. If chlorophyll (or something like it) is involved in these processes, then perhaps ways of detecting such activity could be devised. For example, deficiency at the right wavelengths in the reflected spectra from these exoplanets could be due to absorption of light by chlorophyll. This is a challenge for the extremely large telescopes being built or planned – watch this space! The ArXiv paper is here.

Waving at Saturn in 2013 – Graham Fell

The image is an early one of Saturn taken by Hubble. A few years ago, NASA sent a probe to Saturn called Cassini and it sent back some fantastic images over a period of several years. Google Saturn Cassini images and you will find images that are truly wonderful and are Art in their own way.

The greatest picture taken by Cassini was taken from the other side of Saturn looking back towards the Sun, with Saturn blocking out the Sun, and Earth as a single blue pixel in between the rings. Here it is, a genuine untouched real photo.

Now NASA told us exactly when this would happen and so it was that many people waved at Saturn at the moment the picture was taken. So, I (and many others) are in that pixel! Google “Waving at Saturn”, click on images and the third image is taken from Kendal Castle and the idiot at the back in shorts and a silly hat is me!

If any of you use the Helme Chase Surgery on Burton Road, then you may know Carol in the pinkish red sweater at the front. She is a nurse there.

Bearing in mind that (obviously) there was no-one aboard Cassini, I find it amazing that the NASA scientists could work out that picture and then get Cassini to be in the right place at the right time! Kendal was one of the few places in the UK that decided to “Wave at Saturn” and there were about 400 locals that went up to the Castle to witness it. I am immortalised forever in that picture and my naked legs will still be visible long after I disappear off this planet. It was July 19th 2013.

This was a moment for the Society to be proud of and was one of many outdoor events organised by Stuart Atkinson in the earlier days of the Society.

Recent Photos

The Andromeda Nebula M31 from Kendal. Taken with a tracked 200mm telephoto lens – 36 x 3 minutes exposures.

The Pleiades M45 from Kendal. Taken with a tracked 200mm telephoto lens – 25 x 3 minutes exposures.

A rather serendipitous observation whilst checking the focus on a camera. Uranus was well placed and… to my surprise I could see three ‘star-like’ objects round the planet and yes, some of them were the moons. Oberon, Titania and Ariel were visible plus a star. Ariel is almost lost in the glare, just a slight blip partially separated, from Uranus. There are another two brightish moons completely lost in that glare.


A quick telephoto shot of the Moon – January 22nd – before the clouds rolled in again.


EAS Newsletter for January 2021

Welcome to the January newsletter.

Unfortunately, covid regulations are still in force so our meetings have to continue by Zoom. The newsletters will continue and it would be nice to get some contributions from you. David and Richard have worked hard to provide news updates. Moira has been providing regular ‘Constellations of the Month’. So many thanks to all of you.

Our next meeting, the Annual General Meeting will be later this week, so please join in and let us hear your views. That, hopefully short, discussion and votes, will be followed by the concluding talk from Lionel Wilson on the geology of our Solar System; having covered both the Moon and Mars in previous talks, Lionel will this time concentrate on Venus, what when I was nowt but a lad, was referred to as Earth’s twin. We’ve come a long way since then with multiple spacecraft visits.

The skies in December didn’t play fair again giving only fleeting glimpses of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The best night round here was possibly the 12th but there was a later chance at the end of the month. I spent a rather cold early evening dodging hail and heavy rain at Helsington on the 20th but I probably left home just a few minutes too late – story of my life? I hope some of you got better views.

Clear skies.

Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee

Astronomy Links

Astronomy Links We’ve circulated this by email before

  • Gresham College free Astronomy lecture series by Professors Katherine Blundell and Roberto Trotta. See the Gresham College site and have a look for these and other events. Not all of these are on astronomy.

Astronomy News – David Glass


There was a notable success for Starship SN8 early in December. It was scheduled for a flight to about 15km altitude, a controlled descent in a horizontal position, a flip to vertical and a safe landing. Well, most of it happened on 9/12/20, after a previous attempt that was aborted 1 second before launch.

SN8 was fitted with three raptor engines for this exercise. Preparations for launch suffered one pause at about 2 minutes before launch, but after that all went to plan and the launch went ahead! Here are two different views of SN8 shortly before launch:

SN8 just prior to launch on 9/12/20. Left: A view of the three Raptor engines during cryogenic cooldown, just before
launch (credit: SpaceX). Right: Venting place towards the end of fuel tank filling. (Credit: Labpadre).

The flight itself was spectacular, and you can see it here (~8 min long)

All was going very well, and it was particularly impressive to see the Raptor engines being adjusted to control orientation. Also impressive was the gradual transition to horizontal, the “glide” down and the final flip to vertical using two of the engines. At this point there is no impression of speed towards the ground, until the ground came into view – then, it was apparent that the craft wasn’t vertical and was coming in too fast. The result was a classic boiling liquid expanding vapour explosion (BLEVE, pronounced “blevy”) as the pressurised fuel was released suddenly, ignited and formed the classic fireball.

In spite of the dramatic end, the flight was a success and many important principles for these starships were tested. The cause of the crash has been discussed as low fuel tank pressures, which can be corrected in future starships (maybe by vaporising a bit more stored fuel to keep the pressure up).

Next up is SN9, which suffered a bit of a mishap during construction when it collapsed in the assembly bay a day or so after the SN8 launch….

SN9 taking a rest. (Credit: Twitter/Bocachicagal)

However, a quick look at a live camera today shows SN9 in place on a launch pad at Boca Chica:

Starship SN9 in place on Test Stand 2 (TS2), 1/1/21. Credit: Labpadre

There will be the usual pressure testing of the fuel tanks (warm and cold) and test firing of the Raptor engines, before another flight hopefully in a few weeks. Looking forward to it!


Back in November 2018 we had a talk about the Hyabusa-2 spacecraft, which subsequently managed a successful rendezvous with an asteroid (Ryugu) and grabbed samples of material from its surface and below for return to Earth. During December there was some excellent news about this mission – the samples were successfully returned to Earth as planned and have been retrieved! The sample return module created a nice fireball effect in the sky and then landed with a parachute near Woomera in South Australia…

The Hyabusa-2 sample return container, back safe on 5/12/20. (Credit: JAXA/EPA)

Anyone who has seen the excellent 1971 film The Andromeda Strain might have been a bit worried at this point, but all went very well. Later, the capsule was found to contain material from the asteroid and a gas sample:

Material from Ryugu sampled by Hyabusa-2. (Credit: JAXA)

Analysis of this material will provide information on the material around during the earliest days of the Solar system, and will help to improve understanding of how our system formed. Watch out for the science papers!

Chang’e 5

Another successful sample grab from offworld was achieved by the Chinese Lunar spacecraft Chang’e 5, which deployed a lander to the Moon’s surface, grabbed about 1.7 kg of moon material, sent a return vehicle (ascender) back to the main spacecraft, and on 16/12/20 got the sample safely back to Earth with a landing in Inner Mongolia.

Recovery team by the Chang’e 5 return vehicle. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Chang’e 5 planting a Chinese flag on the moon. (Credit: CNSA/CLEP). P.S. Awesome logo!

This makes China the third country to return material from the Moon after the USA (Apollo) and Russia (Luna 24, 1976). Robotic missions may lack some of the glamour of crewed space missions, but they certainly get the job done!

NASA Space Launch System (SLS)

While SpaceX are forging ahead with flight testing of their starships, NASA are busy developing their own new Space Launch System (SLS), intended to get people back to the Moon in the relatively near future. During December, a newly-built core stage of the rocket was filled with cryogenic liquid, maintained under operational conditions for a time and then successfully drained. This sets up an engine firing test involving all four of the rocket’s RS25 engines which sit at the base of this core. All this is taking place at NASA’s Stennis Space Centre, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

The plan is for a proper launch in late 2021 to send NASA’s Orion capsule (uncrewed at this stage) around the Moon and back, in preparation for a full crewed mission in 2024. When in operation, SLS will be capable of delivering about 27 tonnes of payload to Lunar orbit, which for comparison is not far off a 40ft shipping container filled to maximum weight (30.48 tonnes).

NASA’s SLS core stage on the B2 test stand at Stennis Space Centre, previously used to test the engines for Saturn 5

SLS core stage with four RS-25 engines, prior to delivery to Stennis for testing.

A Signal from Proxima Centauri?

Back in April – May 2019, the 64-metre Parkes radio observatory in Australia was being used to observe the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbour. One of the two known exoplanets around this star probably has a mass similar to Earth’s, and happens to orbit within the “habitable zone” around the star where liquid water could exist on its surface.

Although the main objective of the observations was to study the powerful stellar flares associated with red dwarf stars, the “Breakthrough Listen” project also used the data to look for signals that might indicate intelligent life. And in October 2020, a signal was detected at a frequency of 982 MHz (that’s 0.305 m wavelength) apparently coming from the region around Proxima Centauri (16 arcminute circle on the sky, or about 1⁄2 the diameter of the full Moon).

There’s work going on at the moment to try to establish whether the signal has a human origin, and hopefully some papers will get published on this. If nothing else, it will help to refine the search criteria for signals of interest to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) projects and prevent false positive detections. On the other hand, if the signal is really from an extraterrestrial intelligence, we might get the chance to watch their re-runs of soap operas instead of ours (as well as being a transformative moment for our species of course).

The Parkes radio observatory, Australia (Credit: Robert Naeye)

A Walk in the Dark – Moira Greenhalgh

We have all at some time looked up after dusk as the stars popped into view in turn, magnitude one first of all, followed by the less bright stars. It is interesting to see this in reverse.

I take my exercise early in the morning so as to avoid the children gathering to await the school buses. Alarm goes off at 6.25 am and I am out of the house by 6.45 with torch in hand and trustee umbrella. It is still pitch dark. However there have been mornings when it wasn’t actually raining, when the sky was clear.

I step from my gate, and up to my right (NNW-ish) is my favourite star, Capella, not particularly spectacular but reliably always present. I say “good morning” to Capella. Was talking to a friend on the phone last evening and she starts her day with a “good morning Jesus”. Each to our own, if it makes us happy. Walking along the front at Arnside, I see to the west two bright-ish stars lying almost horizontal over the hills towards Grange. They are Castor and Pollux, the twins in Gemini. They form a gentle curve made of Capella, Castor, Pollux and Procyon.

My walk bears round to the left, now facing south-ish, and in front are some fainter stars. I study for a while and can then make out a backward question mark. This is the head and front paws of Leo, and yes now I can see the whole of his body. Further round the circular walk (maybe just east of south) is a bright redish star all on its own. How do I identify it? I hunt around and above it are just discernible 3 stars in an arc, the handle of the Plough. I draw an imaginary line round this arc, and continuing the arc through space I get to my bright star. It is Arcturus in the constellation of Boӧtes. From Arcturus I continue an imaginary straight line (or spike) to a just visible Spica, low in the sky. Something in me says this is all wrong as Boӧtes and Leo are “summer” constellations, I should not be seeing them now.

Actually, I am not seeing them now, time has gone on and the sky is getting lighter though I still need my torch. The stars of Leo have faded out of view as has the handle of the Plough.

However, continuing the walk, facing NE I get to the highlight, the beautiful Venus, shining brightly through the now colouring sky. I stand still, and turn a complete circle. Arcturus is still there, and so is Capella, but the rest have all faded. On the home leg, both these stars gradually reduce to pinpricks and by 7.45 have gone.

Sky Notes this month

See our Sky Notes for January 2021 by Ian Bradley

Recent photos by Ian Bradley and Ted Woodburn

Pictures of the Jupiter -Saturn conjunction

Looks like Ted and I were a few hundred metres apart at Helsington!

Dec 12th, 16:23. Helsington. Credit: Ted Woodburn

Dec 12th, 16:38. Jupiter and Saturn at top left. Credit: Ian Bradley

Dec 12th, 16:51. Jupiter and Saturn.
Credit: Ian Bradley

Dec 12th, 16:56. Jupiter and Saturn. Credit: Ted Woodburn

Dec 12th, 16:56. Jupiter and Saturn. Credit: Ted Woodburn

e Cygnus Loop, a supernova remnant in Cygnus. The right-hand obvious part goes by the names The Veil Nebula and the
Witches Broom Nebula. Taken with a Canon EOS750D and a Sigma 150-600mm telephoto lens @ 200mm. Still a work in progress.
Credit: Ian Bradley

The famous Horsehead Nebula, Barnard 33, in Orion imaged in narrowband Hα at near full moon. Nice to see the streaming
caused by radiation pressure from the exciting star out of shot above. Credit: Ian Bradley

2020 Diary

EAS Meetings and Events in 2020

Due to the coronovirus pandemic, our public meetings have been replaced by internet meetings for member’s.

January 2020

February 2020

March 2020

April 2020

  • Meeting Thursday 2nd in Kendal Museum at 7:00pm event CANCELLED

May 2020

June 2020

July 2020

September 2020

  • Member’s Internet Meeting Wednesday 9th at 7:00pm
    • Intro and set up
    • Speaker: Richard Rae EAS speaking on Mars
    • Speaker: Graham Cornford EAS speaking on A tour of an amateur observatory
    • EAS Newsletter for September 2020

October 2020

November 2020

  • Member’s Internet Meeting Thursday 5th at 7:00pm

December 2020

EAS Newsletter for December 2020

A pdf version of this member’s newsletter which includes an additional section on EAS business and developments is issued to all current members.

See also our monthly Sky Notes for objects observable in the sky from Kendal during this month.

Welcome to the December newsletter. Sadly, on many fronts, the Covid crisis continues, so I hope you all managing to keep well and keep occupied. The weather clearly hasn’t cooperated at all this month. I’ve managed to successfully capture the Orion Nebula, M42, rather close to full Moon using narrow band Hα filter as a test sequence and some views of Mars early in the month. I tried several times later on, got on target only to have to rapidly dismantle as it started raining! It’s so frustrating, I sometimes wonder why I bother! I hope some of you have had better luck.

You will have received from Clive, formal notification of our Annual General Meeting in early January. Obviously, this will have to be by Zoom. The technology is sophisticated enough for you to be able to contribute so I have no doubt that this will be successful. The [short!] AGM will be followed by Prof. Lionel Wilson speaking on “Volcanism on Venus – not quite our twin planet”. What I wish to add here, is that we are losing two officers this year; both Clive and Phil are stepping down after several years of service. I want you to remember that this is your society and that it can’t function without input and, yes, some effort from the membership. Please consider if you could step up and contribute to one of these, or any other, roles

On a positive note, in August, we were approached to contribute to a consultation by a group of MP’s, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dark Skies, asking for input. I responded on behalf of the Society and heard today that they will publish a policy document on December 9th. Of course, such things have little impact on Government policy, but at least it flags up in Parliament that there are concerned MP’s and voters, so we will see if there is any long-term effect. If you are interested in what you can do to reduce light pollution, have a look at The Institution of Lighting Professionals website, in particular.

Clear skies.

Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.

Astronomy Links

We’ve circulated this by email before :

  • Gresham College free Astronomy lecture series by Professors Katherine Blundell and Roberto Trotta. See the Gresham College site and have a look for these and other events. Not all of these are on astronomy.

Astronomy News – David Glass


SpaceX are building Starships as a cheap and re-useable way of getting people and equipment into Earth orbit and beyond. Starship SN8 (design surely not inspired by Fireball XL5?) was looking to be close to a “hop” to an altitude of 15km and a soft landing at the beginning of November. They did a static test fire of the three giant Raptor engines beforehand on 12/11/20 – and something melted. The images below show the very brief test fire in progress, and the situation just after shutdown with something molten dripping to the ground…

Top: Starship SN8 static test fire, 12/11/20. Bottom: Just after shutdown, with molten material dripping from the
underside. Credit: BocaChicaGal, NASASpaceflight.com

You can see the whole thing captured this video.

Starship SN8 is currently in position for launch, and a new Raptor engine is in place.

tarship SN8 in position for “hop” possibly on 30/11/20 (credit: LabPadre, from Nerdle Cam)

A successful test firing took place on Tuesday 24/11/20

A scheduled date is visible in the image above of 30/11/20 sometime between 13:00 and 00:00 UK time for the “hop”, so watch out for it!

World news in November also featured the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew 1 capsule on a Falcon-9 rocket (also powered by Raptor engines), which went very well. The capsule docked successfully with the ISS, and the first stage booster landed successfully on the drone ship in the Atlantic. This marks the transition to

Baby Yoda asserting command authority aboard SpaceX Crew 1 (credit: NASA TV)

full commercial operation for the capsule, which can ferry people and equipment to the International Space Station. On the way to the ISS, a “zero-gee indicator” was deployed within the capsule by the crew…

Apparently, the use of zero-gee indicators goes right back to the first crewed spaceflight, when Yuri Gagarin released a small doll in the Vostok 1 capsule to prove microgravity conditions while in flight. Bearing in mind that humans have been propelled into space for nearly 60 years now (Vostok 1 was launched in 1961), it does seem right to call it a tradition! The whole Crew 1 launch is available on a 4 hour long Youtube to watch if you missed it – it really is amazing.

Chang’e 5

Chang’e 5 on a Long March 5 rocket, at the point of launch on 23/11/20 (credit: China News Agency)

A mission to retrieve around 2kg of Moon rock was launched from China on 23/11/20. The Chang’e 5 mission intends to deploy a robotic lander which will drill down to a depth of about 2m to retrieve pristine material, and scoop material from the surface. The lander also has instruments for analysing the surface. The landing zone is on the near side of the moon, where the surface is predicted to be around 1.2 billion years old (compared to the Apollo samples which go back to around 3 – 4 bllion years). The lander will be deployed from an orbiter, and an ascent vehicle with the lander will carry the rock back to the orbiter which will then head back to Earth. The rocks will be transferred to a sample return capsule for return to Earth’s surface in mid-December. All this is being done robotically, which will be an impressive feat.

For a neat animation of how the sampling and return to Earth is intended to happen, see here.


Tragedy at Arecibo

The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico has been at the forefront of radio astronomy and atmospheric studies since 1963, and as well as contributing to the SETI programme it has featured in notable film and TV appearances such as Goldeneye (1995) and a very creepy episode intro for the X files: see here.

The 305m dish, needed to achieve the required angular resolution and sensitivity at the radio frequencies of interest, has suffered damage in the past but had been repaired. However, the breakage of two cables holding up the receivers within a short space of time left the dish beyond economic repair. Two such failures in close succession could mean that all the cables are weaker than they should be. The decision has now

The Arecibo radio telescope, with a 305m dish and receivers mounted on cables.
Credit: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz

The damage suffered after the second cable failure on 6/11/20 (source: CNN)

been made to decommission the telescope.

Fortunately, radio astronomers are not left without observing tools of this power. The FAST telescope in China, based on similar design principles to Arecibo, became fully operational this year and has a 500m dish. There is also the multiple-dish Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, USA, which uses interferometry to achieve high angular resolution. Other smaller telescopes are also available including the Lovell Observatory in Cheshire, which can work together to form a giant interferometric telescope.

Phosphine in the Atmosphere of Venus

On 14/9/20, a team of astronomers led by Prof. Jane Greaves of Cardiff University announced the detection of phosphine (PH3), an organic molecule associated with biological processes, in the atmosphere of Venus ( see here for a version of the paper). They used observations from the ALMA interferometric telescope in Chile and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii for this. A dip in brightness in the spectrum of Venus at a wavelength near 1mm was seen with both telescopes

This is exciting, as it could indicate microbial activity in Venus’ atmosphere. Another study, looking at data from the Pioneer satellite, also indicates that phosphine could be present: see here.

However, nobody expected the response from groups within the astronomy community. During October, three papers were released on ArXiv claiming that the detection is false:

One paper stated that the spectral line detected is from sulphur dioxide (SO2), while the others could not extract the phosphine spectral line in the data. Another paper put an upper limit on the concentration of phosphine that is below what was measured, see here.

The original team did not take this lying down. In a subsequent paper, the team re-analysed the data taking into account the methods and findings in the October papers – and still found evidence of phosphine (although it was at lower concentrations than previously thought): see here.

The papers also stress that better observations are needed to really confirm the result. It would also be great to send a spacecraft to actually sample the atmosphere.

All of the above shows a useful process at work, where findings in papers are challenged (hopefully in a constructive way!) and results are updated to reflect new knowledge and approaches. Studies like these are out to get at the truth, and sometimes that can be frustrating!

The Blue Ringed Nebula – Ian Bradley

I typed the title and it immediately brought to mind a humorous Australian song – I’ll say no more other than suggest you Google ‘blue-ringed octopus song’. To paraphrase another comedy act, and now for something completely different and serious.

Just over a week ago, an article in the journal Nature caught my eye; a discussion on observations of the Blue Ringed Nebula – with the exciting star having the formal name of TYC 2597-735-1. This rather delicate and pretty object, which is what caught my eye, resembles a planetary nebula but is actually the result of a recent (a few thousand years ago) stellar merger.

The [complicated] 15’ x 15’ false-colour image is a mixture of far-UV, near UV and Hα images from the GALEX spacecraft. The image shows two clear rings radiating at the Hα wavelength (red) – in other words excited hydrogen atoms plus a far-UV emission (blue) and a shock front visible in near-UV. The small insets labelled b, c & d show the object in the three wavelengths bands studied. The Hα emission, radial-velocity variations, enhanced ultraviolet radiation and excess infrared emission suggest the existence of a dusty circumstellar disk. The blue ring comes from fluorescing hydrogen H2 and only appears where the ejected two cones overlap in our line of sight as can be seen at bottom right. The speed of the outflow is 400km s 1 – 0.1% of the speed of light!

What their modelling suggested is that matter flowed from the larger star onto the companion resulting in the companion star spiralling inwards, and eventually merging. Most of the ejected matter ended up gravitationally bound and formed a circumstellar disk which eventually cooled and formed dust. The merger ejects more material but this is shaped by the circumstellar disk leading to the two cone structures. This ejected material sweeps up interstellar material and the resulting shock front causes the Hα emission.

This object provides a unique opportunity to study post-merger behaviour. See the original paper and for a clearer picture of what is going on.

Neutrinos from the CNO fusion cycle in the Sun detected – Ian Bradley

Our Sun is a natural fusion reactor, and fusion releases neutrinos. There are millions per second of solar neutrinos passing through your fingernail but they don’t interact. In the late 60’s Ray Davis used a tank of perchloroethylene, dry cleaning fluid, deep underground to detect neutrinos – and there were too few compared to what was expected – the solar neutrino problem. That mystery was solved in the 90’s. So now what is new?

In a star like our Sun, it was expected that the dominant fusion process is what is called the p-p chain, where a pair of protons fuse to create deuterium, which then fuses with a third proton to create helium-3. Finally, two helium-3 nuclei fuse to create a helium-4. This process, and two other slight variations, produce 99% of fusion energy in the Sun. However, it was believed that a rare alternate process, called the CNO cycle, should produce the remaining 1%, but there was no evidence for this process. It is important to understand this process too because in higher mass stars, stars over 1.3 times the mass of the Sun, it was expected to be the dominant process.

Schematic of the Borexino Experiment

The scale is impressive

Just a few of the 1800 photomultiplier tube detectors to detect the faint flash as neutrinos interact.

The CNO cycle is a fusion of protons with carbon, nitrogen and oxygen nuclei in a six-step process that creates one helium-4 nucleus before repeating itself. It produces a different and distinct neutrino spectrum compared to that from the pp chain. And that it what the Borexino collaboration has now measured.

This experiment has a 280 tonne scintillator target, and detects solar neutrinos when they collide with electrons in the scintillator. As the electron recoils it produces light, which is captured by an array of photomultiplier tubes. Despite the enormous neutrino flux, only tens of neutrino are detected daily. The experiment is deep below the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy to shield it from the vastly larger cosmic ray signal. After a difficult and technical analysis, the Borexino team have now confirmed the tiny signal and is consistent with the expected 1% of the Sun’s energy production by this route. It also opens a door to answer the questions about the ‘metallicity’ (elements other than hydrogen and helium) of the Sun – but needs more data and probably a new improved detector.

See here.

Constellation of the month – Moira Greenhalgh

This month I have chosen Perseus. It is circumpolar and can be seen most of the year, but it is particularly good now. So, what does it look like, and how do you find it?

The W of Cassiopeia is clearly visible in the NE just after dark, moving to E by about 8.00 pm. The constellation of Perseus is just below.

Perseus was the Greek hero who slew the gorgon Medusa. She had snakes for hair and anyone looking at her turned to stone. [Digression – jellyfish are called Medusa after her]. Perseus got around this by not looking directly but using his shield as a mirror. He is always shown in pictures carrying her head and usually holding a mirror. The star Algol is her evil eye. He then rescued Andromeda from the sea monster, Cetus, a story

Ancient Corinthian vase depicting Perseus, Andromeda and Ketos (Cetus), photo: BishkekRocks

with a long history, as shown on the vase.

Most of the Perseus family of constellations are part of this myth, Cassiopeia and Cepheus were Andromeda’s parents, and Pegasus, the winged horse, was supposed to have sprung from the body of Medusa.

Back to the constellation. It was one of the 48 ancient constellations listed by Ptolemy in the 2nd century, and is 24th in size of the 88 modern constellations.

The brightest star is Mirfak (α Persei), a yellow-white supergiant, magnitude 1.79, located around 590 light years from Earth. It and many surrounding stars are members of an open cluster, the Alpha Persei Cluster.

The most well-known star is Algol (β Persei), Medusa’s evil eye. Algol means “the Demons’ head” in Arabic. In Hebrew tradition it is known as “Satan’s Head”. Very ominous. Around 92.9 light-years from Earth, its magnitude appears to vary from 3.5 to 2.3 over a period of days, and this is visible to the naked eye. It was thought to be an eclipsing binary system but a third star makes it a triple star system. The two main stars are very close together, 0.05 AU, and the main dip in brightness is when the larger, fainter passes in front of the hotter, brighter primary star. It gives its name to a group of eclipsing binary stars known as Algol variables. Around 7.3 million years ago Algol passed within 9.8 light years of the solar system, when its apparent magnitude would have been around -2.5, very much brighter than Sirius is today.

At least 7 stars in Perseus are known to have exoplanets

The Perseus Arm is a spiral arm of the Milky Way, towards the rim of the galaxy, which stretches across the sky from Cassiopeia through Perseus and Auriga to Gemini and Monoceros. Within this arm are two open clusters known as the Double Cluster, NGCs 869 and 884. They lie in the sky between Cassiopeia and Perseus and are easy to find.

Clearly visible in binoculars, they make a wonderful sight through an amateur scope, with both clusters in view.

Finding the Double Cluster

The Double Cluster in Perseus. Photo: Fred Espenak


Other Deep sky objects include open cluster M34, which is best viewed through a telescope. The Little Dumbbell Nebula, M76, is a planetary nebula and emission nebula NGC 1499, which is known as the California Nebula. There are also a host of galaxies.

Little Dumbbell Nebula (M76)

Little Dumbbell Nebula (M76) Image: Adam Block, Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, University of Arizona

California Nebula, NGC 1499, an emission nebula close to the star Menkib
Credit: Rosa remote.com, photographer Martin Rusterhotz

The Perseids are an annual meteor shower in mid-August which were always a highlight of my childhood holidays in W Wales. They are associated with comet Swift-Tuttle.

Cepheid variables and distance – Ian Bradley

At our November Zoom meeting, there was a brief discussion following Richard Rae’s talk about how Cepheid variable stars were used to determine the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. Given some confusion, I thought it might be worthwhile to write something on the topic…

Cepheid’s are one of over a dozen different types of variable star types and are particularly useful as a so-called ‘standard candle’. They are a particular class of [short period] regularly pulsating stars where the varying light output is determined by something internal to the star.

Leavitt’s plot from the 1912 paper. The horizontal axis is the logarithm of the period (in days) and the vertical axis vertical axis is the apparent magnitude (brightness). The lines drawn connect points corresponding to the stars’ minimum and maximum brightness, respectively

Henrietta Swann Leavitt was looking at Cepheid variable stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a tiny close galaxy that orbits our galaxy, and noticed that there was a relationship between each star’s pulsation period and its brightness (apparent magnitude). She then assumed that all these stars were roughly the same distance away, with meant that this same simple relationship between the pulsation period and the luminosity (or absolute magnitude) of the star must also be true.

This is a stunning result as it implied from a measurement of the period you knew the absolute magnitude, so that a measurement of the apparent magnitude allows you to calculate the distance using the Inverse Square Law.

The problem was, no one knew the distance to the Small Magellanic Cloud so Leavitt couldn’t convert her apparent magnitudes to absolute magnitudes.


Apparent and Absolute Magnitudes

In ancient times, someone classified stars by their brightness to the eye. The brightest visible stars were given magnitude 1 and the faintest magnitude 6. Our eyes are logarithmic in sensitivity, so this ancient scale also is logarithmic, with each magnitude corresponding to about 2.5 times less light. This means there is 100 times less light from a mag 6 star as from a mag 1 star.

This brightness as seen from Earth is the apparent magnitude. To allow intercomparison between different stars at different distances, it is useful to compare their properties as though they were all at the same distance (10 parsec, ~3.3 light years). If the distance to the star is known, it is easy using the Inverse Square Law, to calculate how bright the star would be if it was at 10pc. This is known as the absolute magnitude.


The Inverse Square Law

The inverse square law is simply a geometric effect and describes the dimming as distance increases away from the light source. If the distance increases by some factor, the brightness dims by 1/factor2, hence the name inverse square law. For example, on doubling the distance of a star, the brightness drops by a factor of 4 but its magnitude increases by 1.5. Double distance again, and the magnitude increases by another 1.5

The solution was to find a Cepheid variable that is relatively nearby where measurement of the distance using parallax was possible. Once that was done, the apparent magnitude of that star and its distance allowed the calculation of its absolute magnitude. As this period and absolute magnitude of one Cepheid was now known, every other Cepheid period could be converted to an absolute magnitude and using the observed apparent magnitude, the distance could be calculated.

The Parallax Method

As the Earth goes round its orbit, nearby stars apparently move against the background of very distant stars. Measuring these tiny angular changes (for the nearest star Proxima Centauri, this is less than 1 second of arc) and using simple geometry, the distant can be calculated. This relies on knowing the distance from the Earth to the Sun (and that’s another story – the 1st step in the Cosmic Distance Ladder).

The great thing is that if you can now find Cepheids and measure their periods in other galaxies, we can deduce the distance of these stars and therefore that of their galaxies. It was this process that allowed the first reliable estimate of the distance to M31.

Winter Coloured Double Stars – Ian Bradley

Double stars can be very pretty, especially if the two stars have contrasting colours. Double stars have the advantage that they are little affected by light pollution or the phase of the Moon, unlike for example the faint fuzzy blobs of galaxies.

Splitting very close doubles can be an interesting challenge but you may be limited by the resolution of your optics. A very rough rule of thumb is that on an ideal night [do we get those in Cumbria?] your binoculars/telescope can resolve objects that have an angular separation of 140/aperture in mm [5.5/aperture in inches], so for a pair of 10×50 binoculars, you could separate stars if they are 140/50 ~ 3 arc seconds. I suspect 5 arc seconds might be a more likely possibility in this case.

Generally double stars with a colour difference are more interesting and beautiful to observe, especially if they are not too different in brightness. Having said that Castor, α Geminorum, is a pretty double with both stars being white and having a similar brightness.

One classic and the rather lovely double star is Albireo in β Cygni – the head of the swan.


The picture above is one I took in September using my 8” Meade SCT and a Canon DSLR. The primary star is a lovely golden yellow at magnitude 3.4 whilst the companion at magnitude 4.7 is a lovely blue colour. They are just splitable using a x20 magnification.

The annotated right-hand picture defines a few of the numbers in the table below. North is up as seen in binoculars, but be careful here as different styles of telescope with give different orientations (never mind the effect of a star diagonal!). For example, a Newtonian, Dobsonian or refractor will give west to the left and north down, whilst a Schmitt-Cassegrain or a Maksutov will give North up and East to the right [as will a refractor and a diagonal).

So what do the labels mean? The separation is just the angular separation in arc seconds of the two stars, whilst the position angle is the angle of the line joining the two stars measured going in a direction through east – so can vary from 0° to 350°.

In the table below;

  • are the positional coordinates RA (Right Ascension) and DEC (declination), the equivalent of latitude and longitude;
  • the magnitudes of the two stars;
  • the colour difference where the bigger the number, the more distinct the difference, determined from the spectral class [colour] of the stars;
  • Finally, the optimum magnification based on the opinion of Alan Adler. He found that doubles look their best at a magnification that is approximately 750 divided by the separation in arcseconds. So, for Alberio, where the separation is 35”, 750/35= 21, so 21x magnification looks best. This is a rather subjective measure and don’t worry if you can’t get this ‘optimum’. For example, with my Meade, my minimum magnification is 77x and Alberio looks great!

Sometimes, the human brain plays tricks on you. Despite the temperature of a star, which fixes the colour and the spectral class, if the brighter star has a strong colour, you perceive the fainter star to have the complementary colour [for red that is cyan] rather than its true colour! You’ve probably seen this with an afterimage after looking at a bright coloured object. This is a nice website on this point. And different people see slightly different colours just to confuse things even more.

The following is a list of winter coloured double star systems worth looking at for their colours, based on a 2016 article in Sky and Telescope by Bob King1 – who based his article on an earlier one by Alan Adler2. You might need some planetarium software to find some of these pairs.

Star R.A.         Dec.      Mags. Sep. P.A. Colour difference Spec. Class Optimum magnification
η Cas 00h 49m +57° 49′ 3.5 7.2 13″ 317° 1.7 G0, K7 58x
1 Ari 01h 50m +22° 16′ 5.9 7.2 2.9″ 164° 3.5 K1, A6 268x
γ And 02h 04m +42° 20′ 2.1 4.8 9.8″ 64° 3.5 K3, B8 77x
ι Tri = 6 Tri 02h 12m +30° 18′ 5.3 6.7 4″ 69° 1 G5, F5 188x
η Per 02h 51m +55° 54′ 3.8 8.5 28″ 301° 3 K3, A3 27x
32 Eri 03h 54m –02° 57′ 4.8 5.9 7″ 254° 2.6 G8, A2 107x
ρ Ori 05h 13m +02° 52′ 4.6 8.5 7″ 64° 1.7 K3, F7 107x
14 Aur 05h 15m +32° 41′ 5.0 7.4 15″ 226° 0.4 A9, F3 50x
ι Ori 05h 35m +05° 57′ 2.9 7.0 10.9″ 142° 0.2 O9, B1 69x
ι Cnc 08h 47m +28° 46′ 4.0 6.6 30.6″ 307° 2.6 G8, A2 25x
ζ Lyr 18h 45m +37° 36′ 4.3 5.6 44″ 150° 1.1 B7, A8 17x
Albireo 19h 31m +27° 57′ 3.4 4.7 35″ 54° 3.5 K3, B8 21x
31 Cyg 20h 14m +46° 44′ 3.8 4.8 107″ 325° 2.9 K2, B3 7x
β Cap 20h 21m –14° 47′ 3.2 6.1 207″ 267° 3.2 K0, B8 4x
γ Del 20h 47m +16° 07′ 4.4 5.0 9″ 267° 1.4 K1, F7 83x
δ Cep 22h 29m +58° 25′  4.1 6.3 40.9″ 191° 2.5 G2, B7 18x

Some recommended highlights:

  • Eta (η) Cas:  Exquisite at 64× with a pale-yellow primary and purple-red secondary.
  • Alberio β Cas: Lovely yellow primary and blue secondary but some people see yellow and white!
  • 1 Ari: A close pair. Orange and blue – a good example of complementary colour.
  • 14 Aur: Yellow and pale orange; subtle.
  • η Per: Reddish-orange and blue-green. Another example of complementary colour.
  • 32 Eri: Yellow-orange and blue. A close pair, so use 100× or higher to see the colours more clearly. Could be a challenge to find.
  • Iota (ι) Ori: Two pure white suns. No colour difference, so no false contrast here!
  • Gamma (γ) Lep: Striking gold and green! Of course, since there are no green stars, the complementary perception effect is at play here. Sadly, this is quite low, below Orion, but worth a try

I’ve only seen a few of these but I hope to see some more. I hope you can see some too.

Recent Photos

Mars, November 3rd 2020. The dark triangular feature is the Syrtis Major. The south polar ice cap is also visible. 8” Meade LX200R, x5 Barlow, Can 750D DSLR. Credit: Ian Bradley

The Orion Nebula M42 imaged in Hα, the light from hydrogen using an EOS clip filter. Given it was nearly full Moon, a standard colour image would have been washed out. This is only 10 minutes exposure in total so it has plenty of potential to capture subtle . Credit: Ian Bradley