December 2011

Re-thinking an Alien World: The Strange Case of 55 Cancri e

Original article appears in GuideStar December, 2011.

55 Cancri eForty light years from Earth, a rocky world named “55 Cancri e” circles perilously close to a stellar inferno. Completing one orbit in only 18 hours, the alien planet is 26 times closer to its parent star than Mercury is to the Sun. If Earth were in the same position, the soil beneath our feet would heat up to about 3200 F. Researchers have long thought that 55 Cancri e must be a wasteland of parched rock.

Now they’re thinking again. New observations by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that 55 Cancri e may be wetter and weirder than anyone imagined.

Spitzer recently measured the extraordinarily small amount of light 55 Cancri e blocks when it crosses in front of its star. These transits occur every 18 hours, giving researchers repeated opportunities to gather the data they need to estimate the width, volume and density of the planet.

Shallow Sky Object of the Month: Double Cluster—NGC 884 / 869

Original article appears in GuideStar December, 2011.

Double ClusterThese two clusters are a magnificent site in binoculars or a wide-field telescope. The picture to the right is from TheSky X software, and the light blue circle is one degree on the sky. So, you need optics that will provide a visual field of at least one degree to get both clusters in the field.

A small refractor on a dark night would be a good instrument to use on this pair of clusters. It turns out that the new moon this December is on the 24th, Christmas eve. If you’re with your friends and family on that night, this would be a great object to show them in your telescope. On that night the Double Cluster will be about 62 degrees above the horizon, and it will transit at 8:35 p.m.

Chris Westall and Lennie Brown: A GuideStar Interview

Original article appears in GuideStar December, 2011.

Clayton JeterI first met Chris Westall two years ago at the dedication of the Blinn College Schaefer Observatory” and star party in Schulenburg, Texas. I had recently restored the college’s ‘70s-era Celestron C-14 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. While operating the refurbished SCT that evening under the dome, I was introduced to Chris.

Some months later, I discovered that Chris had formed a new astronomy club in the La Grange area (halfway between Houston and Austin). He invited me to a star party at Lennie Brown’s Bed and Breakfast near La Grange and I have since joined their group, the “Colorado Valley Dark-Sky Explorers”. These two folks are the heartbeat of the astronomy community in their area.

This is a very informal group that loves the night skies. They have several observing sites and always seem to have a star party pending. Let’s see how a new local club came to be and what makes it tick…

Professor Comet Report - December 2011

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