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All Eyes on the Data

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.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eric M. Bram January 4, 2011, 19:24

    A “certain romance” in chasing eclipses physically? Let me tell you something, buddy. There is absolutely nothing like the experience of seeing a total solar eclipse in person. NOTHING. There is no way seeing it electronically can even remotely compare. The closest analogy I can come up with is to say that it’s like the difference between actually making love to a woman, and reading “*** *** ***” in a romance novel you picked up at the grocery store.

  • Paul Gilster January 4, 2011, 21:54

    I’m sure you’re right, Eric, but for many of us, the electronic view is the closest we’ll get, depending on where the eclipse can be seen and what our travel schedules look like. I still hope to be there, in person, for a total eclipse one day.

  • ljk January 4, 2011, 23:14

    Eric, if you will pay my way to view in person any and all future total solar eclipses, I will happily accept!

    Meanwhile, here is a photo of the International Space Station crossing the Sun during the latest solar eclipse taken by Thierry Legault:


  • Mark January 5, 2011, 1:18

    Eric is right, the experience of totality is something you must experience to believe. I have had the experience once. I was fortunate to be on a business trip to Noyon France in August of 1999. Unfortunately there was such overcast that the eclipse itself could not be seen. But the totality was still something to experience. The shadow of the eclipse could be seen whipping across the cloud tops at a thousand miles per hour, and the entire town was plunged into utter darkness. It became night at lunchtime. Cars had to turn on their headlights, and it got cold, really cold. Surreal. Then after a time the shadow whipped back across the cloud cover at high speed and it became daytime again. You know scientifically what is causing the effect, but still it is a somewhat spooky experience. It is easy to see why ancient man would have been frightened by the eclipse. You just can’t get that from looking at a photo online. I would encourage everyone to at least make the effort to see an eclipse in person once in your life. I’ve got to try it again because I want to actually see the eclipse next time.

  • NS January 5, 2011, 15:13

    Agreed. I was lucky enough to see the total solar eclipse in Washington state in 1979, and hope to see the one which will take place in 2017. It is indeed an amazing experience.

  • Ron S January 5, 2011, 17:06

    I don’t know that I’d ever travel to see a solar eclipse, so I was very fortunate to have one travel to me. I didn’t experience much of the group reaction since I was on top of a building with only about a dozen others. There were other small groups scattered across the tops of other buildings, but too far away to hear. It was also brutally cold with perfectly clear skies.

    Apart from the usual things common to solar eclipses, there were two aspects that I still vividly recall after all these many years. One was the hole in the sky effect of a black circle surrounded by the corona and an eerily deep blue glow in the rest of the sky, except for the lighter shade near the horizon (towards where the eclipse isn’t total).

    The second and more haunting experience was the naked-eye view of two large solar prominences. That was something special. Add in the coincidence of a solar cycle maximum to those of my fortuitous location and perfect skies.

    After totality passed there was a mad exit by everyone towards the nearest roof-access door to thaw out our frozen limbs. The interesting part of the show was over.

  • Eniac January 5, 2011, 19:26

    I was not so lucky to experience it myself, but I believe the eerieness is due to the similarity of the light pattern to that directly under a thundercloud. Darkness above, but light all around in the distance. Thunderclouds being a common and fairly dangerous phenomenon, it makes sense to react with fear.

  • andy January 7, 2011, 19:46

    Talking of going over the exoplanet data, I came across a couple of papers on the arXiv over the last month or so which address the question of the claimed fifth and sixth planets orbiting Gliese 581. The first, by Andrae, Schulze-Hartung and Melchior is a look into the limitations of the reduced chi-squared statistic. One of the examples they use is Gliese 581, and by using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test on the normalised residuals, they conclude that the 4-planet model is most likely.

    The second, by Philip C Gregory uses Bayesian analysis techniques on the individual datasets (HARPS, HIRES) individually and the combined dataset. In the HARPS-only data he finds all 4 previously-detected planets plus a 400-day planet similar to the claimed planet f. The HIRES-only data only yielded planets b and c, which is consistent with what I found when using Systemic. Interestingly the combination of the two also only reliably yielded planets b and c, though by assuming the HIRES errors were systematically underestimated he managed to retrieve d and e. He finds no clear evidence of a fifth planet in the combined datasets.