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Mercury magazine

Summer 2015 - Volume 44, Number 3

Summer 2015 - Volume 44, Number 3

Table of Contents



[17] Run a 2017 Eclipse Event for Friends, Neighbors, and Profit, Douglas Duncan
Today is not too early to start planning outreach for the August 2017 solar eclipse.

[24] A Top Ten List From Mercury, Created by Sean Solomon
From ice at the poles to hollows and volcanism, Mercury was full of surprises for the scientists of the MESSENGER mission.

[31] Harvesting ALFALFA, Mary Crone Odekon
The Arecibo radio telescope’s ALFALFA survey is seeking cool hydrogen gas in tens of thousands of galaxies.

[37] Astronomy in the News
Some of the latest results from New Horizons at Pluto, sinkholes in a comet, and dark galaxies in the Coma Cluster. These are a few of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Perspectives, Paul Deans
Science on the Fly

[5] First Word, Linda Shore
The Lure of Totality

[7] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
Edward King's Astronomy

[8] Astronomer’s Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Fermi's Paradox: New Insights

[10] Planetary Perspectives, Emily Joseph
Hither and Yon in the Solar System

[11] Strange New Worlds, NASA/Ames
Kepler Finds a Large Version of Earth

[13] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Special Neutron Stars Could Map Galaxy's Spiral Arms

[14] Education Matters, Brian Kruse
Fostering Deep Understanding of Eclipses through Modeling

[16] Reaching Out, Paul Deans
The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017

[46] ASP Tidings
ASP Award recipients for 2015

[52] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Three planets dance at dawn, and a lunar eclipse in September

[55] Reflections, NASA/JPL
New Worlds, 50 Years Apart

Run a 2017 Eclipse Event for Friends, Neighbors, and Profit

by Douglas Duncan

I can remember my first time as if it were yesterday: March 7, 1970, at a small village near Miahuatlán, in the vicinity of Oaxaca, Mexico. Two friends and I had driven for five days from Pasadena, California — in a Volkswagen Beetle not much larger than I am — in order to see a total eclipse of the Sun. We carried food, a 40-gallon metal water container, a 6-inch f/6 reflecting telescope, cameras, and sleeping bags. The total eclipse lasted 3 minutes and 20 seconds. Was it worth 10 days in a cramped car? Absolutely!

This article is to help you prepare yourself, friends, and neighbors for the Great American Total Eclipse of August 20, 2017, so that more people can enjoy one of nature’s most amazing spectacles. While doing so you can also make thousands of dollars profit, as hundreds of people give you money for providing safe eclipse-watching glasses that they did not know to order in advance, and thank you profusely for information and guidance about how to safely watch an eclipse and what to look for.

A Top Ten List from Mercury

Created by Sean Solomon

A NASA planetary exploration mission came to a planned, but nonetheless dramatic, end Thursday April 30, 2015, when it slammed into Mercury’s surface at about 8,750 mph and created a new crater on the planet’s surface. Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, confirmed NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft impacted the surface of Mercury, as anticipated, at 3:26 p.m. EDT on Thursday.

At a press briefing two weeks prior to impact, Solomon detailed MESSENGER’s “top 10 scientific findings.”

Harvesting ALFALFA

by Mary Crone Odekon

Radio astronomers who detect neutral hydrogen atoms like to call their work cool. Their excuse is that the hydrogen itself must be literally cool — if it were hot, it would become an ionized plasma and glow in visible light instead of radio. But while seeing things that are invisible may feel satisfyingly countercultural, it does pose a challenge for radio astronomy: How to compete with images from the Hubble Space Telescope? Is it possible to use radio astronomy to excite the next generation of potential scientists, not to mention the general public?

One answer is to show people the largest radio dish in the world, ideally in person. It’s not easy to feel bored about radio astronomy when you’re climbing across a swinging jungle walkway to a 900-ton platform suspended 450 feet over a telescope dish that covers 20 acres. As the student behind me said when I took a tour of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 2008, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

By itself, touring Arecibo is hardly a practical way to reach the masses. But it can play a key role as one component of a program to promote undergraduate research and, through the students and faculty in the program, promote excitement about astronomy in society at large. The UAT, or Undergraduate ALFALFA Team, is a consortium of 19 primarily undergraduate-focused institutions, designed to broaden participation in astronomy research by a diverse group of students and faculty across the country.

New Horizons Discovers Flowing Ices on Pluto


NASA’s New Horizons mission found, in images from its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto’s surface and revealing signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn’t expect.

The new images show fascinating details within the Texas-sized plain, informally named Sputnik Planum, which lies within the western half of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio. There, a sheet of ice clearly appears to have flowed — and may still be flowing — in a manner similar to glaciers on Earth.

“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” said mission co-investigator John Spencer of SwRI. “I’m really smiling.” Additionally, new compositional data from New Horizons’ Ralph instrument indicate the center of Sputnik Planum is rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices.

“At Pluto’s temperatures of -390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team. “In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits.”