nebula notes number two

Things were a bit uncertain last Friday with rain and clouds in the afternoon. The Discovery Planetarium Show doesn’t care about the clouds so was full steam ahead, much to the delight of families and guests.

Luckily the sky cleared just after 5pm,  so the telescopes were set up by the Astronomical Society members and visitors started dropping by at around 5.30pm.

As the sky darkened, stars began appearing and the moon shone brightly (in the waxing gibbous phase, which is more than a quarter moon and heading towards full moon on May 23rd).

Our little smart telescopes were on duty looking at the constellation Orion (the Hunter or you might know him as the saucepan).

Here is our image of Orion taken last Friday next to Discovery:

A Stellar Nursery

The cloudy area you can see near Orion’s belt of three stars, is Orion’s Nebula (M42). This is the closest star nursery to Earth and is home to about 3000 stars. New stars are born in this huge cloud of dust and gas which formed when several stars went supernova around 2 million years ago. About 1,350 light years away from us,  it is a spectacular sight.

Ruby Red Star

There was a lot of excitement when one of the small telescope star gazers spotted a red star very close to the Southern Cross. Called Ruby Crucis, this star is known as a carbon star because it has carbon atoms in its atmosphere. Once a star finishes burning all its hydrogen and has turned the hydrogen into helium,  the star’s core heats up and starts burning the helium. When helium burns, carbon is left behind – much like ash really. Eventually this carbon is dredged up from the core to the surface causing us to see the light from the star as red.

We didn’t get a photo of this beautiful star with the optical scope on Friday night but here is a photo we found on the web. Ruby Crucis is the little red star you can see above the much brighter star, Beta Crucis.

Source: astrobin.com

Come join us on Friday June 14 for another night of magical stargazing and Planetarium wonder.

nebula notes number one

Do you think humans will ever travel into space? Colonise another planet? Travel to another galaxy?

Maybe! The more we can learn about space, stars and planets, the more likely it is that we will find ways to explore the universe.

In this blog, we will lift the lid on the most recent astronomical discoveries.  We will join astronomers as they find out more about the big mysteries and wonders out there – like are we alone in the Universe, what is a black hole, can we survive on other worlds, what will happen to our Sun and how can the Universe be expanding?

Let’s start by looking at some recent news from our nearest neighbour in space: Mars –the red planet.

The hunt for water on Mars

Have you seen any of the pictures taken by the Curiosity helicopter on Mars? In the picture below, taken last year,  you can see that the planet is dry and dusty like a desert.  It is also very cold, with an average temperature of around -60o Celcius.

Doesn’t look too hospitable does it!

Castell Henllys region of Jezero Crater, Mars, taken by Curiosity on March 21, 2023. Credit: NASA

If people are very going to live on the red planet, they will need water – not just to drink, but to produce the oxygen, hydrogen they will need for fuel and energy. And, of course, if we want to grow our own food on Mars, the plants will need water too.

We could take some with us – but we would have to build a gigantic spaceship to carry it. Elon Musk is working to build such a ship and he reckons that we will be able to land people on Mars in about 4 years time – well, time will tell!

We have known for a while that there is frozen water at the Martian polar caps  — indeed some research last year suggested that there might even be liquid water under the polar ice (Arnold et al 2022). But building a colony in the polar regions might be a bit uncomfortable with temperatures going as low as -153oC.

So, we are on the look out for water closer to the warmer regions around the equator.

This week, there has been a lot of excitement about the detection of large deposits of ice below the surface at the Medusae Fossae Formation – which is near the equator on Mars. New radar data from Mars Express’s MARSIS suggests that there is a thick layer of dust and ice buried under hundreds of metres of dust and ash.

In the graphic below, you can see the possible ice deposits below the surface near the equator.

Source:  Thomas Watters et al, Evidence of Ice-Rich Layered Deposits in the Medusae Fossae Formation of Mars, Geophysical Research Letters (2024).

The lead author of the research team, Thomas Watters of the Smithsonian Institute, believes there could be enough water in the Medusae Fussae Formation to form a shallow ocean over the whole planet if it was melted. That’s about as much water as there is in the Red Sea on Earth. Trouble is, it is so far under the dust and rocks that we would have a lot of trouble trying to get at it with our current technology..

The search for water is intensifying as NASA, SpaceX and others work to make a Mars colony a reality. Plans are afoot for an aerial water hunter which could search for precious H2O from high in the planet’s atmosphere. Here is an artist’s depiction of what this NASA project might look like:

Artist’s depiction of the Mars Aerial and Ground Global Intelligent Explorer (MAGGIE). Image credit: Ge-Cheng Zhai.

We don’t have the technology to get at any of the ice we have found just yet, but it is looking more and more likely that Mars has plenty of water, hiding near the polar caps, near the equator and maybe elsewhere on the planet. Now we just have to figure out how to harvest it.

What do you think? Is a colony on Mars likely? Would you like to make the trip?

Stay tuned.

References

Arnold, N.S., Butcher, F.E.G., Conway, S.J. et al., 2022,  Nat Astron 6, 1256–1262

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-022-01782-0

Watters, T. et al., 2024, Geophysical Research Letters Jan 18 2024