Space and astronomy digest: December 2011
The December digest of space and astronomy events, from the Royal Astronomical Society. This month sees conferences on why the Earth is special and the prospects for science from a proposed X-ray observatory, a free public lecture on the impact of the space age, a total eclipse of the Moon and the launch of three astronauts to the International Space Station.
9 December: Is the Earth special?
Astronomers, cosmologists, planetary scientists and exobiologists will gather at the Geological Society on 9 December for a specialist discussion meeting on why the Earth is a habitat that allowed the emergence of intelligent life. Delegates will hear and discuss why the wider universe is habitable, why the Earth but not Mars and Venus saw the development of advanced life and what the prospects are for life on other planets, both in our Solar System and in orbit around other stars.
Bona fide members of the media who wish to attend this meeting should present their credentials at the registration desk in the Geological Society for free admission.
9 December: LOFT and the variable X-ray sky
The Large Observatory For X-ray Timing (LOFT) is a proposed European Space Agency (ESA) satellite that if approved will launch around 2020. On 9 December, scientists will gather at the Royal Astronomical Society for a specialist discussion meeting on the prospects for scientific discovery from this mission.
LOFT is intended to provide instantaneous coverage of a quarter of the sky at a time to monitor the varying output from a variety of X-ray sources. These data will give an insight into the structure of neutron stars; allow tests of general relativity, the effect of very strong gravitational fields and the behaviour of ultra-dense matter.
Robert Massey (details above)
Bona fide members of the media who wish to attend this meeting should present their credentials at the registration desk in the Royal Astronomical Society for free admission.
10 December: Total lunar eclipse (visible during partial phase in UK)
A total eclipse of the Moon will take place on 10 December. These events happen when the Earth, Moon and Sun are almost exactly in line with the Moon on the opposite side of the Earth to the Sun. During the eclipse the Moon moves through the Earth's shadow and becomes significantly dimmer, but usually remains lit by sunlight that passes through the terrestrial atmosphere. Stronger atmospheric scattering of blue light means that the light that reaches the lunar surface is red in colour, so observers on Earth see a Moon that appears anything from brick red to dark grey in hue.
This eclipse is best viewed from China, Japan, Korea, eastern Russia, southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the western Pacific, where skywatchers with clear skies will see the whole eclipse. The eclipse begins at 1132 GMT, when the Moon enters the lightest part of the Earth's shadow or penumbra. The Moon moves into the darkest part of the Earth's shadow (the umbra) at 1245 GMT. The total eclipse begins at 1406 GMT and ends at 1458 GMT and the Moon emerges from the umbra completely at 1618 GMT. The eclipse comes to an end when the Moon leaves the penumbral shadow at 1732 GMT.
From most of the United Kingdom the Moon will rise towards the end of the eclipse when it will be emerging from the umbra. Residents of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands see moonrise at 1454 GMT, so may just be able to glimpse the totally eclipsed Moon very low on the horizon. Further south and west the Moon rises later in the afternoon and so none of the total phase and only some of the partial phase will be visible. The approximate GMT moonrise times are 1512 for Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, 1524 for Aberdeen, 1542 for Glasgow, 1549 for Manchester, 1551 for London and 1601 for Bristol. Observers in these locations will see a partially eclipsed Moon low on the horizon after the respective moonrise times.
13 December: RAS public lecture: How the Space Age has changed our view of the universe
Professor David Southwood, former Director of Science and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency, will give the latest lunchtime public lecture at 1 pm on 13 December at the Royal Astronomical Society.
In his talk Professor Southwood will describe the numerous ways in which spacecraft have transformed our understanding of the wider cosmos, from the discovery of X-ray sources and direct evidence for black holes to the exploration of planets and moons across the Solar System.
Robert Massey (details above)
21 December: Launch of crew to International Space Station
Three astronauts are set to travel to the International Space Station (ISS), launching in a Soyuz spacecraft (designated Soyuz TMA-03M) from Baikonur Spaceport in Kazakhstan on 21 December. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers and American astronaut Donald Pettit will join three colleagues already on board the ISS to make up the full complement of Expedition 30. The six-strong crew will then stay on board the Station until March 2012.
The Night sky in December
Information on stars, planets, comets, meteor showers and other celestial phenomena is available from the British Astronomical Association (BAA), the Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA) and the Jodrell Bank night sky guide.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS, www.ras.org.uk), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.
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