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Mercury magazine

Winter 2011 - Volume 40, Number 1

Winter 2011 - Volume 40, Number 1

Table of Contents



[14] Galaxies Outside the Atlas, Trevor Quirk
There are uncounted billions of galaxies in the universe. As Indiana University astronomer John Salzer well knows, not all of them are easy to classify, and a few even appear to be relics from a bygone age.

[19] Kepler and Galileo: Messengers From the Stars, Erik Stengler
Thanks to his telescopic observations of the sky in 1609, Galileo gets all the glory. But at the same time, Johannes Kepler made a fundamental contribution to astronomy.

[24] A Messenger to Mercury, Paul Deans
On March 18, a spacecraft named MESSENGER will attempt to swing into orbit around Mercury. Planetary scientists can hardly wait.

[27] Astronomy in the News
ESA makes the Sun available to all, red dwarf stars are plentiful (and pack a punch), and a standard cosmological candle isn’t so standard after all -- these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Editorial, Paul Deans
'Twas Brillig

[5] First Word, James G. Manning
Living with Extremes

[6] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
80 Years Ago: The Mass of Pluto

[7] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
The Toledo Letter

[8] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Teaching Astrobiology Without a Textbook

[10] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
The End of an Era

[11] Education Matters, David Bruning
Creating the New Age of Education

[12] Reaching Out, Bethany Cobb
Risk and Reward

[32] Society Scope/ASP Supporters
Thank You to our Supporters

[36] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Saturn Comes into View

[39] Reflections, Robert Gendler
Celestial Furnace

Galaxies Outside the Atlas

by Trevor Quirk

Soft clouds of grey pitch silently thicken the sky, still lit from below by the sinking sun. The upward veins and creases of the clouds are illuminated by an apricot fire, as a young, eager John Salzer buries his eyes and mind in an atlas under the mellow electric light of a library.

He's lost — surrounded by towering cases and shelves of hardcover books printed on manila, edge-stained pages. There's that
distinct smell of library dust, the floating accumulation of disintegrated paper, ancient ink, and binding glue through static air. It's The Hubble Atlas of Galaxies he's lost in. He turns the pages slowly, in pensive movement, taking note of the fact that every galaxy is different. Salzer knows that the initial ensemble of hydrogen and helium is essentially the same for each galaxy, yet somehow — and this is what allures him — this endless catalog of images contains no congruencies. Not a single repetition or suspected duplicate. Shape, color, stellar distribution, and size — all different.

That was the childhood scene John Salzer, an astronomer at Indiana University, described to me when I had the opportunity to speak with him about his recent work.

Kepler & Galileo: Messengers from the Stars

by Erik Stengler

The 2009 International Year of Astronomy celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo's pioneering use of the telescope for astronomical observations. But in the same year, 1609, Johannes Kepler made another fundamental contribution to astronomy and modern science. He published his work Astronomia Nova, in which he described planetary orbits as ellipses for the first time. The departure from the circle as a perfect and natural shape in the universe was a giant leap that has been undervalued.

Following the success of the format used in previous occasions, José Montesinos, from the Fundación Canaria Orotava para la Historia de la Ciencia (Canarian Foundation "Orotava" for the History of Science), and I staged a debate on this issue and tried to bring an underrated Kepler into the picture.

José likes to be seen as an old mathematics teacher who has grown weary of what he considers the blind faith scientists put into numbers and mathematical science, and one who advocates alternative views related to philosophy and history of science. He enjoys debating with me, a younger astrophysicist, who speaks out for the success and achievements of the mathematical approach, based on the equations and geometry that have shaped modern science since the early seventeenth century.

When we get together in front of an audience we play these roles, but our show is especially believable because the roles actually correspond to our real-life attitudes! We previously held debates, with great success, on the foundations of relativity theory and on the consideration of the circle and the straight line in science history. Now we focused our lively discussions on the two great pillars of astronomy -- Galileo and Kepler.

A Messenger to Mercury

by Paul Deans

Scientists involved in the spacecraft exploration of the solar system are patient bunch. They have to be. For instance, after liftoff in August 1977, it took Voyager 2 two years to reach Jupiter; three to get to Saturn; seven to reach Uranus; and more than 10 years to arrive at Neptune.Add on the pre-launch years required for mission concept and development, plus time for spacecraft construction, and it's no surprise that some astronomers devoted most of their career to the Voyager missions. Equally daunting is the New Horizons journey to Pluto. Launched in January 2006, the spacecraft will not fly past this dwarf planet until July 2015 -- a wait of nearly a decade.

By comparison, the MESSENGER mission to Mercury has been a whirlwind of activity. Launched in August 2004, the spacecraft is now on its final approach to an orbital rendezvous with the closest planet to the Sun. But along the way, it flew past Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury three times.

Those three Mercury flybys helped settle MESSENGER (an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) into a solar orbit that is conducive to an orbital-insertion maneuver when it approaches the tiny planet for the fourth time.

Astronomy in the News
ESA Makes the Sun Available to Everyone

European Space Agency

New software developed by ESA makes available online to everyone, everywhere, at anytime, the entire library of images from the SOHO solar and heliospheric observatory. Just download the viewer and begin exploring the Sun.

JHelioviewer is new visualisation software that enables everyone to explore the Sun. Developed as part of the ESA/NASA Helioviewer Project, it provides a desktop program that enables users to call up images of the Sun from the past 15 years. More than a million images from SOHO can already be accessed, and new images from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory are being added every day.

Using this new software, users can create their own movies of the Sun, color the images as they wish, and image-process the movies in real time. They can export their finished movies in various formats, and track features on the Sun by compensating for solar rotation.

"We wanted to make it easy to view solar images from different observatories and instruments, and to make it easy to make movies," says Daniel Müller, ESA SOHO Deputy Project Scientist. "Before, it took hours to combine images from different telescopes to make a movie of the Sun for a given period. With JHelioviewer, everyone can do this in minutes. This is an interactive visual archive of the entire SOHO mission."