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NOAO: A Sharp Eye On Southern Binary Stars


Unlike our sun, with its retinue of orbiting planets, many stars in the sky orbit around a second star. These binary stars, with orbital periods ranging from days to centuries, have long been the primary tool for measuring basic quantities like the star’s mass. While masses of normal stars are now well determined, some binaries present special interest because their stars are unusual (e.g. very young) or because they may contain planets, gas clouds, or other stars.

Now, astronomers at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) and at the US Naval Observatory (USNO) are making use of the latest technology, speckle imaging, to measure the separation of close binary stars. By observing them over a period of years, their obits have been determined with exquisite precision.

Using the new speckle camera at the 4.1-m Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope (SOAR) in Chile with its novel electron-multiplication CCD detector, the team is able to measure the angular separation of stars down to 25 milli arcseconds: this is equivalent to measuring the size of a quarter atop the Empire State building in New York – from Washington, DC. This is over 2000 times better than the human eye can resolve. As Dr. Andrei Tokovinin, the lead author on the paper, said: “This camera surpasses adaptive-optics instruments at the 8-m telescopes, which work in the infrared and can only resolve binaries wider than 50 milli arcseconds.“

Link To Full Story

Student’s Work Helps to Detect Near Earth Asteroids

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment

An asteroid impact with the earth can really ruin your day: just consider the dinosaurs. Most asteroids, also known as minor planets, orbit the sun beyond the planet Mars and present no danger, but there is a class of asteroids whose orbits cross the orbit of the earth. If one of these asteroids and the earth are at the same point in their orbits at the same time, a collision could occur. Called Near Earth Objects (NEOs), astronomers are interested in discovering as many of these as possible, and then tracking them in order to compute more accurate orbits. In this way, if a potential future collision were to be identified many years in advance, space probes could carry out steps to tweak the path of the NEO and deflect the collision. A program to track NEOs is being carried out at NOAO by Mark Trueblood with Robert Crawford (Rincon Ranch Observatory) and Larry Lebofsky (Planetary Science Institute). And last summer, a Beloit College student, Morgan Rehnberg, has developed a computer program (PhAst), available via the web, to help with this effort.

Asteroids move quickly across the sky, so in order to recover and track them, fast and accurate data reduction and analysis is essential. Unlike most of the data that astronomers work with, tracking a fast moving asteroid requires that the observer view multiple digital images obtained at the telescope by blinking between them, almost like a movie. In addition, accurate coordinates locating the NEO in the sky need to be computed. (Termed right ascension and declination, these are similar in concept to the latitude and longitude of a position on earth.) While there are many software packages that amateur and professional astronomers use (Maxim DL, Astrometrica) none did exactly what the group required. Seeing the need for better software but not having the time to devote to the task of writing it, Trueblood saw this as an ideal project for a summer student.

Full Story: http://www.noao.edu/news/2011/pr1107.php