Derby and District Astronomical Society

The Journal of the Derby and District Astronomical Society
Winter 2007-2008



Aries Winter 2007/8 Welcome to this edition of Aries!

First of all I feel that I must apologise to you all for the length of time between the last edition of Aries and this edition. It is well over a year since the last Aries, suffice it to say that personal circumstances influenced Aries enforced holiday. At the time Aries was put into hibernation I was well on the way to getting another edition ready, but when my personal crisis began Aries was the first thing to suffer. By the time I came back to Aries, the news items I had collected had become woefully out of date, so I resolved to collect some more contemporary news items for a winter 2007 Aries. I decided to publish a seasonal Aries rather than a quarterly edition [at the suggestion of the Chairman], to avoid any future production difficulties. I intend to keep this publishing regime for future editions of Aries.

A lot has happened since the last appearance of Aries. On the Society front, there have been two Flamsteed Lectures at the University of Derby (a brief report on the 2007 Flamsteed Lecture appears in the Society News section of this issue of Aries), a new committee has been elected, a number of new space probes have been launched, and dramatic results from current unmanned missions have been returned. Also a number of anniversaries have been observed, the first being the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory, and the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, on 4th October 1957. In fact, much to the author’s dismay, the Sputnik anniversary almost passed by unnoticed, the real surprise was Russia, where it was hardly celebrated at all! It really makes you think what modern-day Russia thinks of space exploration and research. To my mind the general lack of attention to this anniversary is a terrible insult to the memory of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the Chief Designer of the Soviet Space Programme.

A number of comets have made their appearance in the sky in 2007, the most brilliant of all was the magnificent Comet Holmes which brightened up dramatically and proved a perfect target for astrophotographers. Several members of the Society have produced striking images of this comet and examples of their work can be seen in the gallery section of the website.

As for the current fleet of unmanned spacecraft dotted around the solar system, things are going well. Spirit and Opportunity are still going strong on Mars. At present Opportunity is starting its exploration of Victoria crater, and Spirit is heading for its ‘parking’ spot for the winter. Cassini is still sending back great scientific data and even more stunning images of the Saturnian system. The Pluto-bound New Horizons probe made a fly-by of Jupiter on 28th February 2007 at 05:43:40 GMT. It returned a number of staggering pictures of Jupiter and three of the Galilean moons, Io, Europa and Ganymede. New Horizons imaged Io when three active volcanic vents were spewing huge amounts of sulphur ‘lava’ out into space. At the time of writing (December 27th 2007) the New Horizons spacecraft is approaching the orbit of Saturn. New Horizons is 8.4 AU from the Sun, 9.4 AU from the Earth and 3.3 AU from Jupiter (New Horizons has covered just over 3 AU in ten months, this is one fast little spacecraft). But Pluto is still a ‘little’ way off, at 23 AU. New Horizons should arrive at Pluto in July 2015.

In August 2007 the latest spacecraft bound for Mars left the Earth. The Phoenix lander should make a landing in the Martian Arctic on 25th May 2008, with the Society’s name on board, as well as hundreds of thousands of others. Click here to see our certificate submitted via the Planetary Society's Messages from Earth project. Phoenix will carry scientific instruments to help determine if life ever managed to develop on Mars. Let’s hope Phoenix find traces of existing or past life. We know that Mars once had liquid water on its surface, so if water was present, was life also present?

Following hot on the heels of Phoenix’s launch, the Dawn spacecraft took off on September 27th 2007. The primary objective of the Dawn spacecraft is to rendezvous and orbit the two largest asteroids within the main asteroid belt, Ceres and Vesta. This is the first mission specifically designed to investigate, in great detail, the physical properties of a main belt asteroid at close quarters. Before I get letters telling me off for making a mistake, I am well aware of Ceres’ new status as a dwarf planet, Ceres was awarded the title of dwarf planet at the same time as Pluto lost its status to full planethood and became a dwarf planet as well. Incidentally, Ceres is proving to be a very curious body. Recent observations have suggested that Ceres is spherical in shape and may have a very thin, permanent atmosphere . This atmosphere may be composed of methane, it could be that, thanks to this atmosphere, that Ceres may have ice caps at its polar regions. Dawn is powered by an ion engine, so it will take a while for Dawn to reach its target destinations. Dawn is scheduled to make a gravitational assist flyby of Mars in March 2009. It will reach Vesta in September 2011, and after a short stay, will be sent on to its final destination, Ceres, in February 2015.

Finally Japan and China have sent probes to the Moon, with India intending to follow in their wake in the very near future. The Chinese are talking about a manned lunar landing by 2015. Also good ol’ Blighty may be sending a spacecraft to the Moon under a project entitled Moonlight. NASA seems to be an interested partner in this venture, watch this space (pardon the pun) for further developments as they happen.

So, what’s in this issue of Aries then? As well as all the usual Society and Astro News items, we have four very good articles in this edition. First off we have an article by Maurice Batchelor looking at the nature of light and what makes the sky blue, we have an article by first-time Aries contributor Tony Hubbard, who recounts his first observing experiences at the Flamsteed Observatory, next we have a short biography of the life and work of American rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard by Malcolm Neal. Finally we have a report on the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory by Chris Newsome.

Anthony Southwell Thanks to all those who have submitted articles, and thank you all for your patience while Aries has been absent.


December 2007