Astro News Briefs: January 13–19

Planet-Hunting Auction Opens for Bids

January 14, 2003 | Ever wanted to spend a night at the controls of one of the world's largest telescopes, searching for planets orbiting distant stars? Now you can join University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoffrey Marcy and his team for a night at the controls of the Keck I telescope sometime this year — provided yours is the winning bid in an online auction to benefit the nonprofit Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Announced last fall, the fundraising auction began yesterday. The first bid, a generous $12,500, stood alone as the auction entered its second day.

Contemplating your own offer? Keep in mind that the winner (and a companion) will enjoy not only a night at the Keck Observatory control room; the package also includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the telescopes atop 14,000-foot Mauna Kea, and a five-day/four-night hotel stay, with airfare, meals, and a rental car included. Furthermore, you can take your pick of the many nights Marcy will spend chasing planets at Keck this year; dates are available in February, May, June, and July, with more to be scheduled later in the year.


X-Ray Astronomy Pioneer Dies

January 14, 2003 | "There are now very few precise measurements in X-ray astronomy — a situation to be expected in a field in which each major experimental group is limited to about 10 min[utes] of observation a year." So things stood in 1968, when commentators Leon van Speybroeck and his colleagues (including recent Nobel Prize winner Riccardo Giacconi) were building the first X-ray telescopes and hurling them into the upper atmosphere aboard rockets that quickly came crashing back to Earth. Only a few dozen cosmic sources of X-rays were known, and only a handful of those could be identified with known objects like the Crab Nebula. Now, though, in large part because of Van Speybroeck’s optical innovations, the Chandra X-ray Observatory works around the clock, beaming down detailed images of dark-matter-dominated galaxy clusters, star-swapping globular clusters, black-hole-bearing binary stars, and myriad other objects — much as it has done since its July 1999 launch.

Van Speybroeck, a native of Wichita, Kansas, died last December 25th in Newton, Massachusetts; he was 67 years old. He spent most of his career at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which has detailed van Speybroeck’s contributions to Chandra in a recent press release.


Neptune Moon Count Hits 11

January 15, 2003 | Amid the recent glut of new satellite discoveries, Neptune has been conspicuously absent. However, this week the International Astronomical Union announced that three moonlets have been found orbiting the planet, bringing its total to 11. Observers led by Matthew Holman (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and J. J. Kavelaars (National Research Council of Canada) spotted them last August using large telescopes in Chile and Hawaii. The discovery team includes graduate student Tommy Grav (University of Oslo and Center for Astrophysics) and undergraduate students Wesley Fraser and Dan Milisavljevic (McMaster University, Canada). With estimated diameters of 30 to 40 kilometers, the small bodies are no brighter than 25th magnitude and will carry the temporary designations S/2002 N1, S/2002 N2, and S/2002 N3. They are the first Neptunian moons discovered since a half dozen of them were seen when Voyager 2 visited the planet in 1989. Unlike Voyager's finds, however, these travel in wide "irregular" (very inclined and elongated) orbits that suggest they are the survivors of a collision between a former moon and an intruding object.

A press release with more information about Neptune's new moonlets is at http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/press/pr0303.html.