Astro News Briefs: March 3–9

Final "Great Observatory" Readies for Launch

March 7, 2003 | The Space Infrared Telescope Facility has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center to be readied for its April 15th launch. Astronomers have been awaiting SIRTF's debut for nearly 25 years. It is the fourth and last of NASA's Great Observatories, which includes the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Once settled in its unique Earth-trailing orbit, SIRTF will survey the coldest, oldest, and most dust-obscured objects and processes in the universe. Its detectors and 0.85-meter-wide telescope will be chilled to 5.5° Kelvin, thanks to a supply of liquid helium. The project overcame a number of instrument technical problems last year, and its ride into space aboard a Delta II rocket had been expected in January. But fate struck an unexpected blow during the assembly of another Delta rocket in November, when a miscommunication between two workers triggered an expensive mishap.

Details about the SIRTF spacecraft and its mission can be found at

Jupiter’s Family Grows Again

March 6, 2003 | It’s time to update the textbooks again: Scott Sheppard (University of Hawaii), David Jewitt (University of Hawaii), and Jan Kleyna (Cambridge University) recently discovered eight more moons orbiting Jupiter, upping the planet’s total to 48. The observers spied the new moonlets from Mauna Kea with the 8.3-m Subaru telescope, the 3.6-m Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, and the 2.2-m University of Hawaii telescope. Two of the new finds are in prograde orbits (traveling in the same direction as Jupiter’s rotation), and six follow retrograde orbits; their revolution periods range from 237 to 983 days. The faintest one had a magnitude of 23.4, and all have estimated diameters of just a few kilometers. Sheppard reported his discoveries to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which announced them on Circular numbers 8087 and 8088. For now they carry the temporary designations S/2003 J1 through S/2003 J8. But eventually they will be named after “lovers of the Roman god Jupiter, or, in some cases, children and grandchildren of Jupiter’s lovers,” says Brian Marsden, director of the IAU’s Minor Planet Center.

To view specifications of all known satellites, including Jupiter's seven newest moonlets, see's Guide to Planetary Satellites.

News from the Telescope War Front

March 4, 2003 | In the ongoing legal wrangling over Go To telescope technology between archrivals Meade Instruments Corp. and Celestron, one
skirmish has ended with Celestron emerging the victor. On February 28th a federal court in California ruled in favor of Celestron's motion for partial summary judgment, stating that Celestron's products do not literally infringe on Meade's patents. This gives Celestron the right to continue manufacturing and selling its line of NexStar telescopes, including those with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. The court order also denied Meade's motion for a summary judgment against Celestron involving patent infringement.

Both companies had recently requested summary judgments — rulings made without a trial on points of law based on undisputed facts.

The court's ruling does not end the legal battles between the world's two leading manufacturers of Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, and multiple lawsuits are still pending that can impact the future manufacture and sale of Go To telescopes.

Quake Rattles Big Bear's Solar Scopes

March 3, 2003 | When a 5.4-magnitude earthquake rippled through Southern California before dawn on February 22nd, the telescopes at Big Bear Solar Observatory, just a few miles from the temblor's epicenter, got a serious jostling. According to William Marquette, BBSO's site director and chief observer, the quake damaged portions of the dome shutter and sheared bolts off guider mechanisms for the facility's 6- and 10-inch refractors. These refractors take white-light images of the Sun that are posted daily on the observatory's Internet site, but operations have been suspended until repairs can be completed, likely by March 6th. "We've had 5.4s before that haven't done a thing," he notes, "but this one was only 0.7 mile deep, so we had a lot of horizontal shaking." The quake racked up $2,000 in damage — in stark contrast to a 6.7-magnitude event in 1992 that cost the observatory $180,000.

The observatory's web site is,
and the daily white-light images are posted at

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