Astro News Briefs: July 5–11

Mount Graham Fire Stabilizes

July 9, 2004 | The wildfire threatening the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) at Mount Graham, Arizona came within 650 meters of the observatory on July 6th, but firefighters halted its progress by carrying out a controlled burn ahead of the fire's path. Now, the worst seems to be over, and site manager John Ratje says observatory staffers are "very comfortable, in a guarded sense — it's not anything like it was a couple days ago." The fire's closest approach was captured in a dramatic video compiled from webcam images.

Lightning triggered two fires in the area late last month, and Mount Graham's three observatories were first seriously threatened on July 3rd. With the help of higher humidity and light rain, firefighters have now established a perimeter line about 30 kilometers long in the vicinity of the observatory, which the fire has yet to cross. Observatory staff are now waiting for the fire to burn itself out, which will likely take another couple of weeks. "There's just no way that the team can put the fire out," said Ratje. "All they can do is keep a defensible line and keep the fire in a box."

To view pictures of the firefighting effort atop Mount Graham, visit http://medusa.as.arizona.edu/graham/nuttall/.


Finland Joins ESO

July 7, 2004 | The European Southern Observatory grew this month with the addition of its 11th member, Finland. The move gives Finland access to all ESO facilities including the Very Large Telescope suite of four instruments in Chile, and gives Europe an even stronger presence in the field of astronomy.

More information is available from the ESO Web site: http://www.eso.org/outreach/press-rel/pr-2004/pr-18-04.html


Sir Patrick Moore on the Mend

July 7, 2004 | Famed British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore wasn't seen on BBC TV this month for the first time since his Sky at Night program debuted in 1957. According to reports from BBC News, the 81-year-old astronomer fell ill from food poisoning. He will miss next month's Sky at Night as well as he recovers and is expected to be released from the hospital later this week.


Mercury's Mysterious Orbit

July 6, 2004 | Mercury spins on its axis three times for every two of its orbits around the Sun. How the tiny, baked world got locked in such a spin-orbit resonance has remained somewhat mysterious; accepted models gave the planet a seven percent chance of orbiting the Sun the way it does. Now a paper by Alexandre C. M. Correia (University of Aveiro, Portugal) and Jacques Laskar (Paris Observatory) published in the June 24th issue of Nature makes the resonance seem more plausible.

Their research focused on long-term changes in the shape of Mercury’s orbit. New models demonstrate that over millions of years the planet's eccentricity ranges chaotically between nearly zero (a circular orbit) and 0.45 (very distinctly elliptical). When the eccentricity of Mercury's orbit increases, the probability of landing into a 3/2 spin-orbit resonance increases. Assuming that the planet’s eccentricity has changed this way during the last 4 billion years, their models suggest that Mercury has better than even odds — 55 percent — of locking into a 3/2 state.


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