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Mercury magazine

Spring 2013 - Volume 42, Number 2

Spring 2013 - Volume 42, Number 2

Table of Contents



[20] The James Webb Space Telescope, Jonathan P. Gardner and Heidi B. Hammel
After many years the James Webb Space Telescope is well on its way to becoming a worthy successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

[27] The Digital Planetarium: A Modern Astronomical Wonder, Shawn Laatsch
Today's digital dome has dramatically altered the role of a planetarium in its community.

[35] Pinning Down the Universe, ESA and NASA; Edited by Paul Deans
While confirming previous observations made by WMAP, Planck has revealed some interesting cosmic anomalies.

[40] Astronomy in the News
Opening a window into Europa's ocean, Kepler's smallest habitable zone planets, and new insights on how spiral galaxies get their arms -- these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Perspectives, Paul Deans
So Long, and Thanks for All the Columns

[5] First Word, Jim Manning

[7] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
30 Years Ago: Thirty Years of Echoes of the Past

[10] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
To the Moon in 1638

[11] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Progenitors of Short Gamma-Ray Bursts

[13] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
The Chelyabinsk Affair

[15] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Do Black Holes Spin?

[16] Education Matters, David Bruning
Is Constructivism Dead?

[18] Reaching Out, James Lochner
Saying the Best Things

[45] ASP Tidings
Thank You to our Supporters

[52] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Planets in the West in late May

[55] Reflections, ALMA
Dishes in the Desert

The James Webb Space Telescope

by Jonathan P. Gardner and Heidi B. Hammel

Jonathan: I started working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in 1996. I was excited about the upcoming installation of an infrared camera on the Hubble Space Telescope. Not long after, I ran into one of my new colleagues, who told me about a new telescope that was going to be the successor to the Hubble -- larger and optimized for the infrared. I realized right away that if NASA was going to build a space telescope designed for my research interests, then I needed to get involved! Fast-forward 16 years. The mission is the James Webb Space Telescope currently under construction, and I am the Deputy Senior Project Scientist for the mission at Goddard.

Heidi: My experience with space telescopes literally started with a bang, when the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plowed into Jupiter in 1994. I was head of the Hubble Team that imaged Jupiter in response to the impacts. Some years later, I was asked to participate in an ad hoc science working group to study a new type of space telescope. I jumped at the chance to work on building a telescope for the next generation of young scientists, and a few years later I was officially selected to be one of the six Interdisciplinary Scientists for the program.

The Digital Planetarium: A Modern Wonder

by Shawn Laatsch

The word planetarium conjures up visions of a huge, insect-like machine in the center of a circular room that projects stars on a dome overhead. During the last century, planetarium presentations wove together cultural stories of the constellations with their locations in the night sky, and showed generations of visitors how to find their way around the heavens. These magnificent machines could speed up time to reveal the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets during the passage of days, months, or even years.

All this is changing. Modern planetariums (sometimes no longer called planetariums) are going digital. Why? Because in a digital dome audiences can be transported to the surface of Mars, to an orbit around the potentially habitable exoplanets Kepler 62e and 62f, to a neighboring galaxy for a look back at our Milky Way, or to the first galaxies formed nearly 13 billion years ago. Best of all, today's digital domes can illustrate the complex spatial relationships between astronomical objects near and far, and aid in revealing how these relationships influence the phenomena we observe. And yet, upon demand, these same theaters can still portray the stars and constellations of tonight's sky.

Pinning Down the Universe

by ESA and NASA; edited by Paul Deans

In March 2013, scientists with the Planck space mission released the most accurate and detailed map ever made of the oldest light in the universe, revealing new information about its age, contents, and origins.

The map is based on the mission's first 15.5 months of all-sky observations and reveals tiny temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), ancient light that has traveled for billions of years from the very early universe to reach us. The patterns of light represent the seeds of galaxies and clusters of galaxies we see around us today.

The Closest Star System Found in a Century

Penn State University

A pair of newly discovered stars is the third-closest star system to the Sun, according to a paper recently published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The duo is the closest star system discovered since 1916. The discovery was made by Kevin Luhman, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University and a researcher in Penn State's Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds.

Both stars in the new binary system are brown dwarfs, which are stars that are too small in mass to ever become hot enough to ignite hydrogen fusion. As a result, they are very cool and dim, resembling a giant planet like Jupiter more than a bright star like the Sun.

The distance to this brown dwarf pair is 6.5 light-years -- so close that Earth's television transmissions from 2006 are now arriving there, Luhman said. It will be an excellent hunting ground for planets because it is very close to Earth, which makes it a lot easier to see any planets orbiting either of the brown dwarfs. Since it is the third-closest star system, in the distant future it might be one of the first destinations for manned expeditions outside our solar system, Luhman said.