It’s an interactive morning here in the eastern US, one in which partial solar eclipses can be viewed from more or less anywhere on the planet, asteroids can be chased by school children using data from automatic telescopes in Hawaii, and exoplanet discoveries can be made by gas workers in South Yorkshire. Let’s start with the eclipse, as seen in the image at left that was fed into the Twitterstream by space journalist extraordinaire Daniel Fischer. The accompanying tweet tells us that Fischer was in Aachen with a German TV crew when the photo was made.
Those with unlimited cash can chase eclipses physically, and there is a certain romance in the act, but the real world is made up mostly of those of us who can’t be in the right place at the right time, which is why webcasts from Barcelona to Lahore were worth watching as they covered the event, or tried to. This eclipse was visible to those in Europe, northern Africa and western Asia whose local skies cleared in time to make it viewable, doubly entertaining for those in western Europe for being a sunrise eclipse.
Unfortunately, clouds were widespread over much of northern Europe (though check here for some spectacular shots, including a beauty from Britain’s south coast). But if the average British citizen had little chance to see the eclipse, he or she can still take a certain astronomical satisfaction in the tale of gas worker Peter Jalowiczor, who was recently named as the co-discoverer of four planets: HD31253b, HD218566b, HD177830c and HD99492c. Jalowiczor, an astronomy buff with no telescope of his own, was able to use data supplied by the Lick-Carnegie team, two home computers and plenty of late-night time to make the finds.
You can see the results here, in “The Lick-Carnegie Survey: Four New Exoplanet Candidates,” accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal (preprint). It turns out that one of these planets, HD177830c, is usefully located within a binary star system. From the paper:
The RV data we collected for HD 177830 support the existence of an additional inner planet, presenting an interesting case. The planets in this system are within a binary with a separation of approximately 97 AU… Simulations of the formation and stability of planets in binary star systems imply that the perturbative eﬀect of the secondary star will be negligible in binaries with separation larger than 100 AU. The binary system of HD 177830 is slightly below this limit. This system is also the ﬁrst binary with a moderate separation in which multiple planets have been discovered. Although it is unlikely that the low-mass secondary star of this system has had signiﬁcant eﬀects on the formation of planets around the primary, it would still be interesting to study how planets in this system formed and migrated to their current stable orbits.
And in the thick of all this is Jalowiczor, whose name now appears among a distinguished list of planet hunters in a prestigious journal. No wonder he’s overwhelmed, quoted by the Daily Mail as saying: “I’ve always been interested in astronomy and I have two science degrees but to be one of the officially recognised finders of these planets is just… I get lost for words.”
Concurrently, the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii has been the enabler for an eight week asteroid search conducted by school children from the US and Germany that has culminated in the confirmation of four Near-Earth objects and the discovery of more than 170 main belt asteroid candidates. The 60-inch Pan-STARRS 1 uses a 1400 megapixel camera to make more than 500 exposures nightly. Participating schools received Pan-STARRS data over the Internet and examined the imagery for signs of position change among the numerous celestial objects recorded. Four of the NEOs were being observed for the second time, necessary for a confirmation, while 64 more were being studied for the third or fourth time.
Patrick Miller (Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene) is director of the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, which coordinated the recent project:
“Pan-STARRS images contain an amazing amount of data, providing students with opportunities for literally hundreds of new discoveries. With this amount of data, we could expand our campaign to a thousand schools a year, and tens of thousands of students, which is very exciting, and is an unbelievable opportunity for high schools and colleges!”
The 170 main belt asteroid candidates will need to be observed again to be confirmed and some are likely to be previously known objects. But the principle seems clear enough, even beyond the obvious educational value of a search like this. As with the recently discussed Planet Hunters project, the more eyes we get on data, the better.