January 2009 Archives

Australia Day Eclipse

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Next Monday (26 January) is Australia Day, and nature will help in the celebrations with a partial solar eclipse visible from the whole country (except Tasmania) — even if barely, from some places.

This is actually going to be an annular eclipse in some parts of the world, most of them covered by water. The path of the eclipse starts over the South Atlantic, southwest of South Africa, and follows east from there over the Indic Ocean ending over Indonesia, which is the most significant land mass from where the annular eclipse will be visible.

In Australia, the places with the best view will be (not surprisingly) those closest to Indonesia. Darwin will see the Moon covering a bit less than half of the Sun (41.3%, to be precise), with the maximum occultation happening just before sunset, at 7.03pm local time (the sun will set during the eclipse). From Melbourne, we'll see the Moon covering just about 0.4% of the Sun at 7.54pm local time — just a barely visible "nick" on the Sun's disk, but it should still be visible (the sun sets at 8.38pm on that day). Sydney sees 1% of the Sun being covered at 7.59pm, which is just about at sunset.

The weather forecast for next Monday in Melbourne is for a sunny, cool day, so going out to look at the sunset and to try to spot the eclipse might be a good program for the end of the holiday (just remember to be very careful when looking straight at the Sun).

Methane on Mars

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NASA has announced yesterday the discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere, and that has become huge news quite rapidly; I've even seen it mentioned on TV earlier today.

Why is that an important discovery? Well, methane is a very fragile substance; not only UV rays destroy it quickly (by breaking the atomic bonds), but so do exposure to oxygen or hydrogen peroxide. Mars lacks an ozone layer, so UV rays are very abundant there, and oxygen and hydrogen peroxide are not that hard to find either. Taking all that into account, the fact that there is any methane at all in the atmosphere means that it is being created and released by some process.

On Earth, most processes that release methane are biological. Bacteria release large amounts of it while processing organic matter, and so does cattle (technically, the bacteria in their guts). We know there is no cattle in Mars, but we can't rule out underground bacteria.

There are geological processes that can release methane as well; however, it is (was?) thought that Mars is pretty much dead, geologically speaking. So, this discovery means that either there are some previously unknown geological processes going own in the red planet, or there are biological processes. Both possibilities are very exciting, but it will take a while before this can be settled.

Mars keeps surprising us, and I don't think it will stop any time soon!

IYA2009 goes for gold

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2009-01-07-onedollar.jpgThe Royal Australian Mint is taking part in the celebrations of the International Year of Astronomy with two commemorative coins issued in 2009: the one dollar coin (pictured) features the Parkes radio telescope (about which I wrote here) and the twenty cent coin is themed around community involvement with astronomy, showing stargazers looking at the starry sky.

I don't think the coins are in circulation yet, but some commemorative sets (such as this) are for sale at the Mint's online store (and in the physical store in Canberra as well, I assume).

(thanks to arthwollipot, who mentioned this in the JREF forums)

The International Year of Astronomy is here!

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iya_logo.jpg2009 has started, and this means that the International Year of Astronomy is finally here! One of the "new media" initiatives related to this year, the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, is already going strong, and the first two episodes are already available. The first one is a "call to action": if you want to be part of the podcast, act quickly before all days are taken! The second one, by Jeff Setzer, has useful tips for anyone who received their first telescope as a Christmas gift.

What can you do to participate?

We have a long and exciting year ahead of us; let's make it a good one!

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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