Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Curiosity Detects Methane Spike on Mars

Last week the following was posted by NASA....
Dec. 16, 2014: NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory’s drill.
"This temporary increase in methane -- sharply up and then back down -- tells us there must be some relatively localized source," said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team. "There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock."
Traces of Methane have been seen on Mars in the past. While it is possible that this Methane and the other organic molecules are indications of the presence of bacteria on or near the surface of Mars, there are non-biological explanations as well. Scientists are continually analyzing data in an attempt to determine the source of this Methane. For the full NASA post go to....

Also see this post from the University of Michigan....

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Analysis of Higg's Boson Decay Now Shows no Suggestion of Additional Particles (Still no particles that explain dark matter).

Update on the blog post of Friday, January 11, 2013

Shortly after the discovery of the Higgs Boson two years ago, physicists suspected that a new particle lurked in the data (new particles such as this could lead to an explanation for dark matter).

The Higgs Boson is unstable and rapidly decays into other particles. It does so through several different "channels", one  is the gamma gamma channel where the Higgs Boson decays into two gamma particles. This decay cannot occur in one step, it must occur through intermediate particles. The percentage of decays that goes through each decay is called the yield. The yield in turn is based on the available particles. If there are unknown particles available, this will affect the yield.

There was an anomoly in the yield of the gamma gamma channel (the yield was higher than expected) which suggested the existance of a previously undiscovered particle or particles. Such particles might be the components of dark matter.

However based on more careful analysis, this anomoly has disappeared and now there is no suggestion of additional particles.

That doesn't rule out future experiments finding new particles. The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) where the Higgs Boson was discovered is currently undergoing renovations. It will restart at higher energy in 2015. When it restarts, it will be looking for new particles as well as exploring the properties of existing particles, especially the Higgs Boson.

For more information see: (to read the entire article requires a subscription to Science News).

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gravitational Wave Discovery Looks Doubtful In New Analysis

Update on the blog post of Wednesday, March 19, 2014 (

In March gravitational waves were discovered from the early universe (moments after the big bang). This discovery is now in doubt. New analysis suggests that dust within our own galaxy is responsible for much if not all of the signal. While it doesn't completely rule out the presence of gravitational waves, it is a significant setback.

For more information see:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rosetta spacecraft expected to land on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

This Wednesday Morning (November 12) at 10:30AM Eastern Standard Time the Rosetta spacecraft is expected to land on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. If successful, this will be the first time any spacecraft has landed on a comet.

See these links for more information...

To watch the landing on streaming video, go to either of these sites (note there is a 30 minute delay, if the landing occurs at 10:30AM, we will see the landing at 11:00AM).,2817,2471982,00.asp

Sunday, November 9, 2014

November Meteor Showers

On the night of November 17-18, you can observe the annual Leonid Meteor Shower.

While in previous years, the Leonids have produced outbursts of thousands of meteors per hour, that is highly unlikely this year. We expect a modest meteor shower. However the Leonids do have a tendency to produce more bright meteors (fireballs) than some other showers.

Usually the best advice for observing meteor showers is to look after midnight. If you live in North America, that isn't the best approach for this year's Leonids. Instead it is best to start looking after it gets dark Monday night (on the 17th).

The number of meteors you will see is difficult to predict. It partly depends on the Leonids themselves, but also on the amount of light pollution and the latitude/longitude of your observing location. Also if it is cloudy that will reduce what you see. As an educated guess, an observer located at a dark site in Europe might see about 15 an hour. An observer at a dark site in North America, might see 10 an hour.

Note that the Leonid Meteor Shower overlaps two weak meteor showers, the Southern Taurids and the Northern Taurids. While both are weak, they are each active over a period of about 15 days.

Most the activity of the Leonids occurs on a single day (but weaker activity will occur for a period of about 3 weeks). Basically the entire month is covered by one or more of these showers and all three frequently produce fireballs. Unfortunately predicting when the fireballs will occur is impossible.

To observe a meteor shower, you only need your eyes. No binoculars or telescopes are needed. Make sure you have comfortable clothing, a comfortable chair and be patient. As explained above, the best bet is to observe on the evening of November 17-18, but other nights in November can be expected to produce perhaps 5 an hour and if you are lucky the occasional fireball.

For more information see:

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Water in Your Bottle Might Be Older Than the Sun

"Up to half of the water on Earth is likely older than the solar system itself, University of Michigan astronomers theorize."

The age of the water is counted from the time that oxygen and hydrogen atoms combined to form a water molecule. You might naively think that this combination occurred after formation of our solar system. But Ilse Cleeves (doctoral student in astronomy) and Ted Bergin (professor of astronomy) estimate that between 30 and 50% of the water formed a million years before the solar system formed, when there was only a molecular cloud of gas, but no sun or planets.

This estimate was obtained by looking at the ratio of hydrogen isotopes within water. The hydrogen atoms in water come in three forms, hydrogen-1, hydrogen-2 (known as deuterium) and hydrogen-3 (known as tritium). Tritium is radioactive and decays into helium-3; it is virtually non-existent in the solar system except on the surface of the earth. But hydrogen-1 and hydrogen-2 are common. Comparing the ratio of hydrogen-1 and hydrogen-2 within samples of water, hydrogen gas or other compounds tells scientists about how these materials were formed. For example we find the ratio within comets and water in the Earth's ocean is higher than the ratio found in hydrogen atoms in the sun.

For more details see....

New Lowbrow Facebook Page

The University Lowbrow Astronomers have a new Facebook page.....

Follow us on Facebook: Get information about the club, events, photos, and more.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Partial Solar Eclipse

Later today there will be a partial Solar Eclipse. This will be visible from extreme eastern part of Russia and most of North America.

Depending on where you live you might see the whole eclipse or just part of it. For details on timing go to....

As added bonus there is currently a very large sunspot visible on the sun.

Warning: Always use proper protection when looking at the sun (both to protect your eyes and to prevent damage to equipment like cameras, telescopes, binoculars).

Looking at the sun near sunrise and sunset, when the sun is red is safe. It is not safe at other times, especially when using optical devices like telescopes.


To see photos of this Solar Eclipse see:

Addendum 2:

The Sunspot mentioned above was responsible for Solar Flares. See this Article from the Wall Street Journal: "Solar Flares From Sunspot Hamper Pilots, Satellites: AR 12192 Has Launched Six Major Solar Flares Toward Earth, Disrupting Navigation Systems and Radio Communications." See:

Monday, October 6, 2014

Lunar Eclipse of October 8, 2014.

There will be a lunar eclipse in a couple days. Observing lunar eclipses are easy, you need to know roughly what time to look and go outside at the right time. If you have a window facing the correct direction you might not need to go outside.

  • If you live in North or South America it will be visible during the morning of October 8.
  • If you live in Asia or Australia it will be visible during the evening of October 8.
  • If you live in Europe or Africa, it will not be visible at all.

The above information is approximate (the location of visibility is somewhat smaller than indicated above), for more detailed information see this web site:


To see photos of this lunar eclipse see

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Future of Peach Mountain

Since the late 1970's, the University Lowbrow Astronomers have operated a 24" Cassegrain telescope located on "Peach Mountain." Peach Mountain in turn is located within "Stinchfield Woods," property owned by the University of Michigan (UM for short).

It is unclear where the name came from. With an elevation of 315 meters (1033 feet), Peach Mountain can't compare with mountains in other parts of the country. You would be forgiven if you called it a big hill. The connection with peaches or someone named Peach is unclear.

From 1960 to 2010, the Astronomy Department at UM operated a 26 meter (85 feet) radio telescope at Peach Mountain. After 2010, the Astronomy Department ceased operations at Peach Mountain (they still have access to telescopes in Arizona and other parts of the world).

The Department of Aerospace Engineering (also at UM) is in the process of upgrading the radio telescope. When the upgrades are complete, it will be used to communicate with artificial satellites.

For information about the upgrade, see this PDF document (a handout given during a tour of the facility on September 18, 2014):

For more information about the history of Peach Mountain see:

Friday, September 12, 2014

University Lowbrow Astronomers mentioned in Sky & Telescope

Many club members are regular readers of "Sky & Telescope," a magazine with articles aimed at amateur astronomers. Look at the October issue, the club is mentioned in two places....

Page 10: Club member Jim Abshier sent an e-mail which described his radio telescope observations of quasars.

Page 69: The University Lowbrow Astronomers contributed 30 loaner telescopes to the Ann Arbor District Library. For more information on the Library's telescope loaner program, see

Correction: What was reported in Sky & Telescope wasn't correct. The Lowbrows made adjustments to a set of telescopes purchased by the Library. After the adjustments, the telescopes were made available through the telescope loaner program.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

60 foot asteroid to pass close to earth

An asteroid estimated to be about 60 foot in size is expected to pass close to the earth on Sunday.

The asteroid named 2014 RC will not hit the earth, is not bright enough to see naked eye, but should be visible in a telescope.

This is about the same size as the meteor that exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia over a year ago.

For more details...

Monday, August 18, 2014

The First Planetary Nebula Spectrum

Sky and Telescope has an article "The First Planetary Nebula Spectrum." 150 years ago this month was the first time anyone had take spectrum of a planetary nebula.

At the time the word "nebula" covered a variety of objects that were visible in telescopes, but whose composition was not understood. The observed spectrum gave important clues about one type of nebula, namely the planetary nebula.

See this link....

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Calendar of Astronomy Events in Southeast Michigan

The University Lowbrow Astronomers (Lowbrows for short) maintains an astronomy calendar. This calendar is focused on events in the Southeast Michigan area and includes:

  1. Open Houses at Peach Mountain Observatory (located near Dexter Michigan).
  2. Club Meetings of the Lowbrows (held on the central campus of the University of Michigan).
  3. Other astronomy events that may be of interest in the Southeast Michigan Area.

You don't need to be a club member or affiliated with the University of Michigan to attend these events. There are four different ways to view the calendar:

1. Go to the web page:

2. If you have an Android tablet or smartphone, you can download the Lowbrow App at

This app is free. You can view the calendar directly from the app.

3. If you use a calendar program that supports the ICAL format (such as Google Calendar), you can subscribe to the Lowbrow Calendar by using the subscribe function within your calendar program. This will allow you to view Lowbrow events along with the events in your personal calendar and/or other calendars. When subscribing to the calendar, you will be asked for a URL. This is the URL:

4. If you use a calendar program that supports the ICAL format (such as Google Calendar), you can take a snapshot by downloading this file:

and importing it into your program. The events in the Lowbrow calendar will be added to events already in your calendar, but if there are changes to the Lowbrow calendar they will not be automatically incorporated into your calendar without a subsequent import.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Ceres, Vesta and Pluto

Ceres and Vesta will be very close to each other over the next few days. (That is they appear to be close to each other when observed through a telescope).

What are Ceres and Vesta? Ceres is the largest asteroid and the first to be discovered, Vesta is the second largest asteroid and the fourth to be discovered. They are too dim to be seen naked eye, but bright enough to be easily seen in a small telescope (provided you know where to look). There is more information on this Sky and Telescope article....

Pluto reaches best visibility on July 4th, though it is possible to observe it for some time. Pluto is not visible naked eye, but if you know exactly where to look, it is possible to see it in many amateur telescopes (provided it is large enough or if the sky is dark enough). The trick is to know which of the many dots of light in the field are stars and which is Pluto. More information on this page....

When Ceres was discovered, it was considered to be a new planet. There was something called the "Titius-Bode Law", which predicted how far each planet should be from the sun. This relationship was reasonably accurate in describing the planets from Mercury to Uranus if you assumed there was a missing planet between Mars and Jupiter. (Neptune and Pluto had yet to be discovered). Ceres seemed to be that missing planet.

Over time when other objects were discovered between Mars and Jupiter, such as Pallas (an asteroid somewhat smaller than Vesta) and Vesta, they too were considered planets. However as more and more objects were found eventually it no longer made sense to consider any of them as planets; we now call them asteroids.

Since that time Neptune and Pluto were discovered and added to the list of planets. Eventually most scientists came to the conclusion that the Titius-Bode law was mere coincidence, and not a useful tool for predicting the existence of new planets. It did not correctly predict Neptune's distance from the sun, and it only predicted one object between Mars and Jupiter, not the multitude of objects now known.

Beginning twenty years or so ago, there was reason to question the status of Pluto. Objects beyond Pluto were discovered. Some are known as Kuiper-Belt objects after one of the astronomers who predicted their existence. Others are in a region called the "Scattered Disk." One of the later is bigger than Pluto. All these objects (along with Pluto and the so far unobserved Oort Cloud objects) are collectively called TNOs (trans-Neptunian objects). So it is still reasonable to consider Pluto as the ninth planet, or is it merely one of many TNOs?

Now some argued that objects in the solar system should be divided based on size. If so we have "large" objects that are in "hydrostatic equilibrium" (that is they are large enough that gravity forces them to be round). And we have smaller objects (which are generally lumpy-not round). All the traditional planets (including Pluto) would be "large". Also in this group would be Ceres, the largest moons of the solar system (including the Earth's Moon), and the largest TNOs. This list includes between 30 and 40 known objects and almost certainly includes dozens of objects yet to be discovered. This does not include the smaller asteroids (that is all asteroids except Ceres and Vesta), comets, the smaller moons and the smaller TNOs. Vesta is generally considered too small to be in hydrostatic equilibrium; however whether it is or is not is debatable.

It seemed that a clear definition of the word planet was needed. The word has always been poorly defined. With the discovery of a TNO bigger than Pluto, the issue could no longer be avoided. A definition of planet was constructed that included all of the traditional planets, with the notable exception of Pluto, and did not include any other object in hydrostatic equilibrium (moons, Ceres, the handful of large TNOs).

The definition essentially says a planet must be in hydrostatic equilibrium, and it must be the dominant gravitational object in its vicinity. This cuts off Pluto (which is under the influence of Neptune) and the other TNOs (which are under the gravitational influence of other TNOs). It cuts off Ceres (which is under the influence of Jupiter and other asteroids), and it cuts off moons (as each is under the influence of its parent body). Objects that are not planets would be called a moon if they were in a clear orbit around another object, or a dwarf-planet if they are large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium, not a moon, and didn't dominate their environment gravitationally. Both Pluto and Ceres are considered dwarf-planets. Vesta is probably not a dwarf-planet. This definition was adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006.

An alternate argument for excluding Pluto goes as follows: Pluto is very different than rocky planets (such as Earth and Venus) and it is very different than the gas planets (such as Jupiter and Saturn). Pluto is best described as a "dirty snowball" and as such is very similar to Kuiper-Belt objects. In fact it makes sense to say that Pluto is a Kuiper-Belt object.

Note, not everyone is happy with the IAU definition...

For more reading, here are some Wikipedia articles on the topics in this post....

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Explosion of Monocrotis V838

Here is a video made from Hubble images of the star Monocrotis V838.

This star was discovered about 12 years ago. It was immediately recognized as a "variable star", a star whose brightness changes over time. The Hubble telescope made regular observations of Monocrotis V838 over the next 4 years. It has brightened, then dimmed, then brightened again. The pattern of brightening and dimming is unlike any other variable star observed to date. At its brightest, it was one of the brightest stars in our galaxy (in absolute terms). Read this Wikipedia article for more details....



Perhaps Lowbrows remember an email that was received from “The Gallery Project” a few months ago. They were looking for images for the upcoming “Unseen” show.  Brian Ottum responded and they have selected a few of his shots to include in the show.  Their explanation of the theme:

“The quest to see lies at the heart of human urgency. To breach the barrier between the visible and the invisible is compelling, emotional, informative and even magical. This process of discovery has always driven thinkers and image makers: artists, scientists and philosophers, from astronomers to nanotechnologists, from documentarians and data analysts to planners and prognosticators. As the unseen becomes seeable and seen, a pivot occurs, revealing and demanding irreversible change. No one who has seen is ever the same.”

The show will be in Detroit’s Eastern Market for the month of August, then move to the Ann Arbor Art Gallery September 12 to October 12.

See The Gallery Project’s website for more information:

Here are Brian’s subjects and why they fit with the theme:  Rosette Nebula has Bok Globules where stars form within an opaque cocoon.   Bryce Canyon rock spire points to the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where a supermassive black hole is invisible behind stars, gas and dust.  Rho Ophiuchus region has large dark rivers of dust clouds that hide objects behind.  Finally, the Orion Nebula is both a stellar nursery and also contains three mysterious straight lines – geosynchronous satellites.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Camelopardalids Meteor Shower

There is a new meteor shower (called the Camelopardalids), that is expected to peak the evening of May 23 and the morning of May 24. Because it is new, no one is 100% certain how it will be behave. Or even if it exists at all.

If the predictions are correct, observers in southern Canada and the continental United States are best positioned to see the shower. The predictions may be wrong; even if you live somewhere else it is worth taking a look. Meteor showers are easy to observe, all you need is clear skies, a little patience and of course meteors.

For more information see

Earth from the International Space Station

You can watch the earth from cameras recently installed on the ISS (International Space Station).

Please note, you may see a grey screen or a black screen. When the ISS is on the night side of the earth, you get a black screen. A grey screen indicates they are switching cameras or there is a technical difficulty.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

First Light of the 17 inch

The following message came from our club president...
As you noted from the images Mike Radwick (thank you Mike) sent to us, "official" first light for our club's new telescope has occurred! (See yesterday's post for more about the telescope, see below for the images). It was pretty much a complete success. We need to add a little weight to the mirror end and digital setting circles remain to be installed. Setup and collimation went fine and the mirror seemed to cool down quickly. The images were very good. Excellent detail and resolution of Jupiter and Mars. Porrima was a very clean split. Not that big a deal at about 2.2 arc seconds, but we used low power. M35 showed pinpoint stars to the edge of the field of a 26mm Nagler. The supernovae in M82 was easier to detect than it was in the McMath. Everyone that touched this scope, from the re-figuring of the mirror to the finished product should be thanked thoroughly  for their excellent work! This is going to be a great club resource.

Our new scope has already done great service as we had a turnout of at least a dozen Lowbrows and a public turnout of 60 to 75. It may have started a little later than we hoped, but the season has started in grand style. We should be proud.
And the photos from Saturday night...

The telescope with one pair of truss tubes.

Some of the components...

Setting it up...

Carly takes a look...

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Club's new telescope

A long time ago (no one seems willing to admit, or remember, how long) there was a proposal to allow the ATM group  (amateur telescope making group) group to rebuild the club’s Coulter telescope. This telescope was a large Dob sitting in the observatory building, unused.

The idea: rebuild the telescope so it would be more usable. The mirrors would be used in a newly constructed telescope. The proposal passed, but progress was slow. That is until the autumn months of 2013, when a Telekit was ordered. The ATM group started meeting once a week, to assemble the kit. There were many tasks that needed to be coordinated among the group, such as sending the mirror to be recoated. It took time, but there was steady progress.

The most recent of the ATM meetings was last Saturday. While there were some mirror issues that remain (not to mention the possible addition of electronics, which would be yet another project), the end result was a usable telescope.

The telescope was brought to the Saturday open house. It was performing well, and Lowbrows as well as club visitors had the chance to look through it. There were some photographs taken at the open house and I plan to post some of them later this week.

For information about open houses at Peach Mountain (located a few miles from Dexter, Michigan) see

For a schedule of astronomy events in Southeast Michigan (including open houses at Peach Mountain) see

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lunar Eclipse Photos

It was overcast in Southeast Michigan (in fact it snowed, two inches in Ann Arbor, possibly enough to make 2013/2014 the snowiest season in Ann Arbor history). So we couldn't see the lunar eclipse here.

However it wasn't overcast everywhere. Brian Ottum was able to get some photos from a telescope located in New Mexico that he controlled remotely from Michigan. He posted his photos on flickr...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lunar Eclipse

There will be a lunar eclipse visible the night of April 14-15. The best place to view the eclipse is North/South America and the eastern Pacific. For more details see this article...

Friday, April 11, 2014

What is a black hole?

This post comes from NASA's Space Place. NASA's Space Place is a NASA educational website about space, Earth science, and technology.

NASA's Space Place in a SNAP! is a series of quick, narrated tours of animated infographics that illustrate key science concepts. Not only are they fun and entertaining on their own, they also come with a downloadable poster and a transcript of the video, making for a cross-disciplinary learning experience. The latest topic—black holes!

What is a black hole? A black hole is an area of such immense gravity that nothing—not even light—can escape from it. Find out what they are today at This post explains black holes in simple non-mathematical language.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mars Opposition is April 8th.

Approximately once every two years Earth and Mars are relatively close together. The time when the Sun and Mars are directly opposite each other is called opposition. The opposition of Mars will occur on April 8th. On April 14th Earth and Mars will be the closest they will be for this two year cycle.

For these reasons, the month of April will be a particularly good time to observe Mars through a telescope. Normally all you will see is a blurry red disk, but for a few weeks before and a few weeks after opposition, it is possible to see surface detail with a ground based amateur telescope. While Mars can be easily seen with the naked eye at other times, it is brighter and easier to find near opposition.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Confirmation of Cosmic Inflation

In the late 1970's Alan Guth made a proposal: early in the history of the universe, shortly after the big bang, the universe went through a rapid and dramatic expansion. This expansion was so rapid it might be described as an "explosion" or a second big bang, though neither term is quite right. Instead this expansion was given the understated name "inflation."

Inflation caused the universe to expand faster than the speed of light. You might think this violates special relativity. But special relativity does not say that "nothing can travel faster than light" only that ordinary material objects cannot do so. It does not prevent space itself from expanding faster than the speed of light.

Up until recently inflation was purely a theoretical concept, there was no direct experiment evidence to support it. There was indirect evidence. There are observations which were not explained by the standard big bang theory. And these observations are neatly explained by inflation, but do not prove that inflation is true.

Observations made from telescopes near the south pole recently provided more direct evidence for inflation. By detecting gravitational waves from the early universe, scientists have direct evidence for the first time. See this article by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times...

Friday, March 7, 2014

The size of the solar system.

Many people don't realize how spread out the solar system is. There is a lot of distance between the Earth and other objects like Venus and Mars. Here are two pages which demonstrate this in two different ways...

1) you'll need to scroll to the right to explore. You'll need a lot of scrolling to the right...

2) this should be more or less self explanatory...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

John Dobson

John Dobson popularized what is now called the "Dobsonian" telescope in the 1950's. He passed away earlier today....

From the Sidewalk astronomer's web site (

It is with great sadness and heavy hearts that we have to report the passing of Mr John L. Dobson. He died peacefully this morning, January 15th, 2014, in Burbank, California. He was 98. John leaves behind a son, many close friends, and legions of friends, fans, and admirers around the globe.

ISAN 7 (International Sidewalk Astronomy Night) will be held in honor of John on March 8th. Amateur astronomers worldwide can join in and celebrate his life by carrying the torch that John lit back in 1968 when he co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.

John was a friend and mentor to all who met him. He will be dearly missed.

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