Much to astronomers’ surprise, a faint comet — Comet McNaught — discovered a few months ago is rapidly brightening, and I’m now told that it is easily visible with binoculars and possibly even to the naked eye in early evening and pre-dawn skies if your observing conditions are favorable. The observing is best from father north, so Canadians and Europeans (who generally live at higher latitudes than the U.S.) have a better shot at it than most of us in the U.S. Still, I plan to look for it over the next few days, and I encourage you to do so also. If you find it, please send me an e-mail reply to let me know what you saw.
To find the comet, look:
- 15 to 30 minutes after sunset: near the horizon, west-southwest
- 15 to 30 minutes before sunrise: near the horizon, east-southeast
More details and pictures of Comet McNaught:
- Astronomy Picture of the Day for Tuesday, January 9: http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap070109.html
- Space.com article at: http://www.space.com/spacewatch/070104_comet_mcnaught.html
- Sky and Telescope article at: http://skytonight.com/observing/home/5118926.html
Now, since it’s been so long since I’ve sent out one of these news e-mails, three more items too exciting to wait on any longer:
- Evidence of a recent water flow on Mars. Although the low atmospheric pressure makes liquid water unstable on the surface of Mars — meaning any liquid water would rapidly freeze or evaporate — it is possible that liquid water might occasionally be released from beneath the surface or might form as surface ice melts and then flow for a few minutes before it freezes or evaporates. A few years ago, orbital images of Mars revealed the presence of gullies on many crater walls, presumably formed by this type of flowing water. Because blowing sand should erase gullies in thousands to millions of years, their existence indicated “recent” water flows — but “recent” still might have meant millions of years ago. Now, however, comparisons of the same craters show new gullies in just the past couple years, indicating that the water flows are an ongoing process. Because water is considered so important to life, the ongoing existence of water flows at least marginally increases the likelihood that we will someday discover life on Mars. You can see the comparison images at http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap061212.html.
- Methane lakes on Titan. Saturn’s moon Titan is far too cold for liquid water, but temperatures are just about right for liquid methane. Last summer, new images from the Cassini spacecraft (which is orbiting Saturn and often passing close to Titan) appeared to show lake-like features. Further analysis of the images makes a very strong case that at least 75 lakes exist in just one relatively small region near Titan’s north pole. For more details, see the article from January 4 New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/04/science/space/04titan.html.
- New Horizons approaching Jupiter. Just about a year ago (Jan. 19), I had the good fortune to see the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft, bound for Pluto. The fastest spacecraft ever launched, it is already approaching Jupiter, where it will get a further boost in speed next month as it uses Jupiter’s gravity to “sling-shot” it toward Pluto. Its cameras should also capture some great images of Jupiter as it goes by. Keep up with New Horizons at its web site: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu.
See below if you are wondering why I’ve been too busy to send out many of these e-mails, and otherwise that’s all for now. Also, please see my revamped web site: http://www.jeffreybennett.com.
Best wishes for the new year!
JEFF’S LATEST BOOKS UPDATE
- New for Spring 2007 classes:
- The Essential Cosmic Perspective, Fourth Edition: Fully updated (including the latest on Pluto’s planetary status), with more than a dozen spectacular new 2-page spreads, and now accompanied by access to our Mastering Astronomy web site.
- The Cosmic Perspective, Fourth Edition Media Update: The fourth edition first came out a year ago, but we have updated the book to discuss Pluto’s planetary status, and also updated the Mastering Astronomy web site.
- Life in the Universe, Second Edition: Fully updated, this text is designed to make it easy for you to teach an introductory astrobiology class at either the college or senior high school levels.
- Using and Understanding Mathematics, Fourth Edition: Fully updated, with new units on personal finance and congressional redistricting. It is now at the printer, and will be available in February.
- Max Goes to the Ice Age: Third grader Logan Weinman wrote and illustrated this story, which won a writing contest in Summit County Colorado. I thought it was so good that I added some science content and we are putting it out as a new Big Kid Science book. Available in July.
- Statistical Reasoning for Everyday Life, Third Edition: We’re hard at work on it right now, and it will publish in the fall.
- Max Goes to Jupiter: We’re just getting started on it, and hope to have it out for Spring 2008.