Astro News Briefs: May 6–12

Interstellar Antifreeze

May 9, 2002 | Astronomers using the National Science Foundation's 12-Meter Radio Telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona, have discovered ethylene glycol in molecular clouds in Sagittarius. The molecule, according to team members Jan M. Hollis (NASA/Goddard), Frank J. Lovas (University of Illinois), Phillip R. Jewell (National Radio Astronomy Observatory), and Laurent H. Coudert (University of Paris), is one of the five largest molecules ever discovered in space (it has 10 atoms) and is a reduced form of glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar. In a prepared statement, Hollis said, "These detections suggest that the production of more complex sugars, like ribose [the backbone of RNA], may be occurring in interstellar clouds."

Their paper will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Win the SOHO-500

May 6, 2002 | The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has been a valuable tool for solar astronomers and comet discoverers alike. As of May 2nd, SOHO's observations of the Sun and its surroundings had serendipitously uncovered some 435 new comets. Many of these were identified by amateurs who pored over the daily solar images to locate any moving objects. Now the SOHO team wants more people to get involved, and to sweeten the pot, they have begun the SOHO-500. The SOHO team is looking to the public to guess the discovery date and time of the SOHO's 500th comet. The closest guess will win a DVD or VHS copy of Solar Max. Entries are due by May 31, 2002, and must include the date and time of the discovery in Universal Time. E-mail entries to Doug Biesecker: Only one entry per person will be accepted.

More information on the SOHO-500 can be found at the SOHO contest Website:

New Mexico Astronomers Narrowly Escape Firestorm

May 6, 2002 | Mindful of the potential for forest fires in southeastern New Mexico, Mike and Lynn Rice chose the summit of Mount Joy near the small town of Mayhill for their inn and guest observatory (S&T: August 1999, page 86) because they thought it offered good protection from these devastating events. But their worst fears were realized on May 2nd when a wind-whipped firestorm exploded from 800 to 9,500 acres in one day and raced toward their New Mexico Skies observatory compound. "It was terrifying," says Lynn. Fortunately, an eight-member team of "hotshots" and a truck full of fire-retardant foam arrived just in time, fighting the advancing flames all night and saving all the summit's buildings from incineration. When the Rices returned the next day, they found that the flames had come within inches of one structure and had left a layer of ash on everything — including their seven large telescopes. Nothing was damaged, Lynn reports, "but we've been vacuuming like mad!"

More information about New Mexico Skies is found at Also see CNN's online article describing the firestorm.

Prototype Amateur Space Telescope Up and Running

May 6, 2002 | Members of the Astronomical League have moved one step closer to realizing their dream of having an amateur-controlled telescope in space. The League's "Telescope Alpha," a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain equipped with dual CCD detectors, has begun regular observations from its site in the Arizona desert. "We are now processing observing requests as weather allows," reports project manager Orville Brettman. "We are reaching magnitude 17.5 in 30 seconds." Since the telescope's "first light" tests in mid-March, Brettman's team has stabilized the telescope's power source and fine-tuned its pointing. Operation of the testbed facility is controlled from Dyer Observatory in Nashville, Tennessee — a proof-of-concept arrangement that, the League hopes, will pave the way for having a telescope on the International Space Station by the end of this decade.

Details of Telescope Alpha, including a gallery of its images, can be found at See also the SkyandTelescope news item on the ISS-AT project.

Neptune's Ring Arcs Explained

May 6, 2002 | When Voyager 2 flew by Neptune in 1989, it found that the planet's outermost ring, called Adams, contains five distinct concentrations of matter, each 1° to 10° long, confined within 40° of longitude. But it wasn't clear how these ring "arcs" could endure, since jostling among their particles should cause them to disperse quickly. Initially dynamicists thought that the arcs were confined by the cyclic up-and-down motion of the nearby moon Galatea, whose orbit is inclined slightly with respect to the ring plane. But later observations proved that theory false. Now a new analysis, published in last week's Nature by Fathi Namouni and Carolyn Porco (Southwest Research Institute, Boulder) argues that it's Galatea's tiny orbital eccentricity (about one part in a million), not inclination, that confines the ring arcs. Furthermore, the gravitational linkage works both ways. The particles in the Adams ring are also perturbing Galatea's orbit, so measurements of how Galatea's eccentricity changes with time should yield a mass for the matter confined in the arcs.