Astro News Briefs: March 8–21

UK Students Get Twin Robotic Telescopes

March 18, 2004 | The Faulkes Telescope Project, a unique educational resource for schoolchildren in the United Kingdom, got under way on March 16th after a ceremonial launch by British entrepreneur Dill Faulkes and Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal. Faulkes funded the construction of two state-of-the-art robotic telescopes for use by schools. Because the telescopes are located in Hawaii and Australia, students in the UK will be able to use them during daytime classroom hours. Each telescope has a primary mirror 2 meters (6½ feet) in diameter, a 2,048-by-2,048-pixel CCD camera, and a field of view 4.5 arcminutes across. Tracking and imaging are controlled by computers linked via the Internet to an operations center at Cardiff University.

See http://faulkes1.astro.cf.ac.uk/ for details.


Record-Breaking Flare: Bigger Than Thought

March 16, 2004 | Last November 4th, the most powerful solar flare ever recorded erupted from the Sun's surface. The result was an intense burst of radiation that overloaded detectors on the very satellite placed in orbit to measure solar flares' strength. Now a team of physicists at the University of Otago in New Zealand has used the event's effect on very-low-frequency (VLF) radio transmissions to determine that it was even bigger than first suspected. They've revised its level upward from the previous estimate of X28 to a whopping X45. (X-class flares, the strongest type, can trigger widespread radio blackouts and damage satellites; the previous record-holders, both rated X20, occurred in 1989 and 2001.) According to team leader Neil Thomson, November's flare irradiated Earth's atmosphere with the X-ray equivalent of 5,000 Sun's — though fortunately none of that energy reached the ground. Details appear in the March 17th issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Images of the November 4th flare, recorded by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory satellite, are available at
http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots/2003_11_04.


Rosetta To Fly Past Asteroids

March 12, 2004 | Now that the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft is on its way to periodic comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, mission planners have selected a pair of asteroids that the craft will visit during its 10-year cruise through interplanetary space. On September 5, 2008, Rosetta is to fly past 2867 Steins, an object just a few kilometers across. Nearly two years later, on July 10, 2010, the craft reaches much larger 21 Lutetia, nearly 100 km across. Both flybys will be close enough (1,700 and 3,000 km, respectively) to allow both detailed imaging and determination of the asteroids mass and density. ESA managers expect Rosetta to orbit Churyumov-Gerasimenko for 17 months beginning in August 2014. During that time it will dispatch a small instrumented craft to land on the comet's nucleus.

For more information about the asteroid selection, see the ESA press release. Details about Rosetta's mission are at http://www.esa.int/export/SPECIALS/Rosetta/index.html.