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FEATURED STORIES - November 2020

This news service is emailed out each week to all requesting radio stations across Australia.  David Reneke ('Astro Dave') is one of Australia's most well known and respected astronomers and lecturers with links to some of the world's leading astronomical institutions. 

David is radio savvy, well experienced talking to the media and presents information in an easy to understand, up to date and informative manner. Enquiries for interviews or info Ph: (02) 6585 2260 Mobile: 0400 636 363 Email:

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Penumbral lunar eclipse November 30 for Australia

This month we have two full moons with one coinciding with a lunar eclipse. On November 30 the full moon will pass through the outer part of Earth's shadow, the penumbra.

A penumbral lunar eclipse is one of the three kinds of lunar eclipses - total, partial, and penumbral.

Less impressive than a total lunar eclipse when the moon dives completely into the Earth's inner shadow or umbra, this partial lunar eclipse will still be an interesting sight to enjoy.

Melbourne and central Victoria will miss the 6:32pm start of the eclipse with the moon below the eastern horizon but it will rise at 8:17pm, reach its maximum at 8:42pm and end at 10:53pm, after which the night's full moon resumes.

Eclipses can only ever happen at full moon when the moon is on the side of Earth opposite the Sun and its Earth-facing hemisphere is fully illuminated. Occasionally, however, a full moon's path will briefly bring it into our planet's shadow and we can marvel at one of several kinds of eclipses.

*This month's lunar eclipse will last 2hrs 35min with 82% of the moon in shadow at its maximum. 

Amateur astronomer Alberto Caballero finds possible source of Wow! signal

The Gaia database has been assembled by a team working at the Gaia observatory
The Gaia database has been assembled by a team working at the Gaia observatory

Amateur astronomer and YouTuber Alberto Caballero, one of the founders of The Exoplanets Channel, has found a small amount of evidence for a source of the notorious Wow! signal. In his paper uploaded to the arXiv preprint server, Caballero describes searching the Gaia database for possible sun-like stars that might host an exoplanet capable of supporting intelligent life.

Back in 1977, astronomers working with the Big Ear Radio Telescope-at the time, situated in Delaware, Ohio-recorded a unique signal from somewhere in space. It was so strong and unusual that one of the workers on the team, Jerry Ehman, famously scrawled the word Wow! on the printout. 

Despite years of work and many man hours, no one has ever been able to trace the source of the signal or explain the strong, unique signal, which lasted for all of 72 seconds. Since that time, many people have suggested the only explanation for such a strong and unique signal is extraterrestrial intelligent life.

The Wow! signal represented as "6EQUJ5". Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory
The Wow! signal represented as "6EQUJ5". Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory

In this new effort, Caballero reasoned that if the source was some other life form, it would likely be living on an exoplanet-and if that were the case, it would stand to reason that such a life form might be living on a planet similar to Earth-one circling its own sun-like star. Pursuing this logic, Caballero began searching the publicly available Gaia database for just such a star. 

The Gaia database has been assembled by a team working at the Gaia observatory run by the European Space Agency. Launched back in 2013, the project has worked steadily on assembling the best map of the night sky ever created. To date, the team has mapped approximately 1.3 billion stars.

In studying his search results, Caballero found what appears to fit the bill-a star (2MASS 19281982-2640123) that is very nearly a mirror image of the sun-and is located in the part of the sky where the Wow! signal originated. He notes that there are other possible candidates in the area but suggests his candidate might provide the best launching point for a new research effort by astronomers who have the tools to look for exoplanets.

Solar power stations in space could be the answer to our energy needs

Artist's conceptions of a solar power satellite, dubbed the Integrated Symmetrical Concentrator SPS concept. (Image: © NASA)
Artist's conceptions of a solar power satellite, dubbed the Integrated Symmetrical Concentrator SPS concept. (Image: © NASA)

It sounds like science fiction: giant solar power stations floating in space that beam down enormous amounts of energy to Earth. And for a long time, the concept - first developed by the Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in the 1920s - was mainly an inspiration for writers.

A century later, however, scientists are making huge strides in turning the concept into reality. The European Space Agency has realised the potential of these efforts and is now looking to fund such projects, predicting that the first industrial resource we will get from space is "beamed power".

Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time, so there's a lot at stake. From rising global temperatures to shifting weather patterns, the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the globe. Overcoming this challenge will require radical changes to how we generate and consume energy.

Renewable energy technologies have developed drastically in recent years, with improved efficiency and lower cost. But one major barrier to their uptake is the fact that they don't provide a constant supply of energy. Wind and solar farms only produce energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining - but we need electricity around the clock, every day. Ultimately, we need a way to store energy on a large scale before we can make the switch to renewable sources.

As astronomers search for exoplanets, those planets could have Earth in sight, study says

We identified the thousand closest stars within 300 light-years, roughly, that could have spotted us already
We identified the thousand closest stars within 300 light-years, roughly, that could have spotted us already

While the search for exoplanets has revealed more than 4,000 planets beyond our solar system over the last couple of decades, it begs the question of what may be looking back.

That's the question posed by two astronomers in a study published Wednesday in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

"In our search for life in the universe, we ask a little bit of a different question in this research," said Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy in Cornell University's College of Arts and Sciences and director of Cornell's Carl Sagan Institute, in a video shared by the institution.

"We ask, who could have actually spotted us? Who could have found out that Earth is teeming with life from their vantage point?"

Kaltenegger and Joshua Pepper, an associate professor of physics at Lehigh University, have identified more than a thousand stars similar to our sun that may have Earth-like planets orbiting at a distance from those stars where they could support liquid water on their surfaces. This distance is referred to by astronomers as the habitable zone.

To be clear, such planets have not yet been detected or confirmed around these stars. And those potential planets, all within 300 light-years from Earth, could have a direct view of Earth and the life that thrives on it.

"It takes a specific location to be able to see the Earth go in front of its star, the sun. And then once a year, if you see the Earth go in front of the sun from your point of view, the sun would be just a little bit less bright," Kaltenegger said.

"And so you would know a planet orbits it. And you would also know it's at the right distance so it could have liquid water, one of the key ingredients for life.

"So we identified the thousand closest stars within 300 light-years, roughly, that could have spotted us already. Maybe there's life out there in the universe. Maybe they already spotted us. What would they think?"

If life exists outside of Earth and has us in sight, they could use the light of the sun as Earth passes in front of it to look through our atmosphere and understand more about our planet.

"If observers were out there searching, they would be able to see signs of a biosphere in the atmosphere of our Pale Blue Dot," she said, "And we can even see some of the brightest of these stars in our night sky without binoculars or telescopes."

"Pale Blue Dot" is the name of an iconic image that Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that NASA's Voyager 1 probe take of Earth from 3.7 billion miles away as the probe moved to the edge of the solar system. The image was taken on February 14, 1990.

The search for life

The observation of a passing of a planet in front of its host star is called a transit, and it's one of the main methods used by astronomers to detect exoplanets using ground and space-based telescopes.

When NASA's James Webb Space Telescope launches next year, it will be used to peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets using this method, and astronomers can use that data to help characterize the atmospheres of exoplanets.

And NASA's planet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, which has been observing the brightest nearby stars since launching in 2018, will begin a new phase of its mission in 2021. The mission will search for exoplanets in the ecliptic, which is the plane of Earth's orbit around the sun. The TESS spacecraft will essentially turn on its side to observe more of the sky.

The list of stars compiled by the researchers, which was created from TESS' star catalog, could be used as targets to search for transiting exoplanets.

The ecliptic is also essentially the location where exoplanets that have Earth in sight could be found because from their vantage point, they could see Earth as it crosses in front of the sun.

"Only a very small fraction of exoplanets will just happen to be randomly aligned with our line of sight so we can see them transit," Pepper said.

The star systems that could have seen Earth when life first began on our planet are different from the ones that can see the signs of life on our planet now -- as well as the star systems that could see Earth in the future, the researchers wrote in their paper.

"If we found a planet with a vibrant biosphere, we would get curious about whether or not someone is there looking at us too," Kaltenegger said. "If we're looking for intelligent life in the universe, that could find us and might want to get in touch, we've just created the star map of where we should look first."

Was The Christmas Star Real?

Was it purely a divine sign, or was it an astronomical event in its own right?
Was it purely a divine sign, or was it an astronomical event in its own right?

'Tis the season and every year around this time people notice the brilliant 'star' to the east just before sunrise. For astronomers, we know it's the appearance of the planet Venus, but for a lot of folk it conjures up thoughts of the Christmas Star. Well, it is big, and bright, and its getting close to the big day so - was the Christmas Star real? Let's take a closer look.

The 'Star of Bethlehem' is one of the most powerful, and enigmatic symbols of Christianity. For centuries historians have debated the nature of this biblical light that heralded the birth of Jesus. Was it purely a divine sign, or was it an astronomical event in its own right?

I became curious and did some investigating and think we've found an answer, or at least something that fits all the known facts. With modern astronomy software programs astronomers can reproduce the night sky exactly as it was, thousands of years ago. Wouldn't it be good if we could go back and have a look at the night sky of Christ's time to see if we could spot the Xmas star?

Dave pondering that 'Star'
Dave pondering that 'Star'

Well, we did. Get ready for a surprise, because it looks like the 'Xmas Star' really did exist! Armed with an approximate date for the birth of Jesus from Matthew's version of the Bible, the only version with everyone in roughly the same place, my astronomy group and I began our search for the star of Bethlehem.

Now, historical records and our own computer simulations indicate that there was a rare series of planetary groupings, known as conjunctions, during the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. As we watched the screen, the two brightest planets Venus and Jupiter started moving closer together. Wow! Like the final pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, our fabled biblical beacon started to reveal itself.

The crowning touch came ten months later, on 17 June 2BC, as Venus and Jupiter appeared to actually join up in the constellation Leo! This time the two planets were so close that, without binoculars, they would have looked like one single brilliant white beacon of light.

Jupiter was known as the 'planet of Kings' and it all took place in the constellation of Leo, denoting royalty and power. The whole sequence of events could have been enough for the fabled three wise men to see this as sign in the heavens that the Messiah had been, or was about to be, born.

Was this the fabled Christmas star? It could be, but this doesn't mean that astrology works, or that Jesus was a Gemini, not a Capricorn as previously believed. It does however make our search more rewarding to find a truly interesting and real astronomical event that happened during the most likely time for the Nativity.

You know, when people think of stargazing, they usually picture going outside at night, after dusk finally ends. They tend to forget that the night lasts until dawn and that early morning viewing also offers a time for looking into the starry realm.

December presents a good opportunity for pre-dawn stargazing because the sun rises so late in the southeast. The Christmas Star is there as we've seen with brilliant Jupiter and reddish Mars at Sunset. The Geminids meteor shower starts over that weekend with a few dozen good meteors per hour in the dark sky.

Look Up- All Seven Planets Will Be Visible In The Night Sky This Week

This week, the solar system will present a show to the sky watchers, with all seven planets beyond the Earth visible in the night sky at some point in the next seven days. Venus will be the brightest of the planets, but Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn will be visible to the naked eye, and Uranus and Neptune will be visible through binoculars. 

Mars, Saturn and Jupiter will be better visible in the evenings and, assuming the clouds don't cover the sky, Venus will be absolutely spectacular in the morning sky.

Without the need for a telescope or a binocular, all planets except Neptune and Uranus, will appear as stars, or points of light against the dark night or the early morning sky. Neptune will barely be apparent with binoculars or a small telescope around 9 hours after sunset, and Uranus will 'only' be visible with an unaided eye on a very dark night.

Venus and Mercury will be best seen in the morning sky, well before dawn, and Venus will be the third brightest astronomical body after the sun and moon.

Top 10 astronomy events of 2021: From Quadrantids Meteor Shower to wolf moon, these are dates to watch

There is always something interesting happening in the sky and 2021 is no exception. Check out the dates for some of the most noteworthy sky events next year. 

Quadrantids Meteor Shower
Expected date: January 3/4
The Quadrantids, which peak during early-January each year, are considered to be one of the best annual meteor showers. Most meteor showers have a two-day peak, which makes catching sight of these other meteors much more possible. The Quadrantids peak, on the other hand, is much shorter - only a few hours. In 2021, the Quadrantids is expected to peak on the night between January 3-4. During its peak, 60 to as many as 200 Quadrantid meteors can be seen every hour under perfect conditions. They are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere during the night and predawn hours. Unlike most meteor showers which originate from comets, the Quadrantids originate from an asteroid: asteroid 2003 EH1, which takes 5.52 years to orbit the sun once.

Wolf Moon
Expected date: January 28
The first full moon of the year is also referred to as the Wolf Moon, the Ice Moon and the Moon after Yule. The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be fully illuminated. "The Maine Farmer's Almanac first published Indian names for the full Moons in the 1930s. According to this almanac, the Algonquin tribes of what is now the northern and eastern US named the full Moon in January or the first full Moon of winter the Wolf Moon, from the packs of wolves that howled hungrily outside the villages amid the cold and deep snows of winter," explains NASA.
Lyrids Meteor Shower
Expected date: April 22, 23
The Lyrids, which peak during late April, is one of the oldest known meteor showers. They have been observed for 2,700 years. The pieces of space debris that interact with the Earth's atmosphere to create the Lyrids originate from comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which was discovered in April 1861 by A E Thatcher. The Lyrids are known for their fast and bright meteors, and 10-20 Lyrid meteors can be seen per hour during their peak. Lyrids frequently leave glowing dust trains behind them as they streak through the Earth's atmosphere, which can be seen for several seconds. In 2021, they are expected to peak on the night between April 22-23.

Pink Moon, Super Moon

Expected date: April 27
A supermoon occurs when the Moon's orbit is closest (perigee) to Earth at the same time it is full. The Moon orbits Earth in an ellipse, an oval that brings it closer to and farther from Earth as it goes around. Its closest point is the perigee, which is an average distance of about 226,000 miles (363,300 kilometers) from Earth. When a full moon appears at perigee it is slightly brighter and larger than a regular full moon - and that is why it is referred to as a supermoon. 2021 will see two Super Full Moons - on April 26/27 and May 26. The Full Moon in April is traditionally known as Pink Moon and the Full Moon in May is called the Flower Moon in many Northern Hemisphere cultures.
Eta Aquarid Meteors
Expected date: May 5/6
The Eta Aquarids peak during early-May each year. Eta Aquarid meteors are known for their speed. These meteors are fast - traveling at about 148,000 mph (66 km/s) into Earth's atmosphere. The Eta Aquarids are viewable in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres during the pre-dawn hours. In 2021, the Eta Aquarids will peak on the night between May 5-6. In general, 30 Eta Aquarid meteors can be seen per hour during their peak. The pieces of space debris that interact with our atmosphere to create the Eta Aquarids originate from comet 1P/Halley. Comet Halley, discovered in 1705 by Edmund Halley, takes about 76 years to orbit the sun once. The last time comet Halley was seen by casual observers was in 1986. Comet Halley will not enter the inner solar system again until 2061.
Total Lunar Eclipse
Expected date: May 26
A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon and Sun are on opposite sides of Earth. Although the moon is in Earth's shadow, some sunlight reaches the moon. The sunlight passes through Earth's atmosphere, which causes Earth's atmosphere to filter out most of the blue light. This makes the moon appear red to people on Earth. This total lunar eclipse of the super flower Moon will be visible from Australia, parts of the western US, western South America, and South-East Asia. During a total lunar eclipse, the sunlight passes through Earth's atmosphere, which causes Earth's atmosphere to filter out most of the blue light. This makes the moon appear red to people on Earth 

Annual Solar Eclipse
Expected date: June 10
Sometimes when the moon orbits Earth, it moves between the sun and Earth. When this happens, the moon blocks the light of the sun from reaching Earth. This causes an eclipse of the Sun or solar eclipse. During a solar eclipse, the moon casts a shadow onto Earth. People in northern Canada, parts of Greenland and northeastern parts of Russia will be treated to the "ring of fire" that annular solar eclipses are famous for as the New Moon covers only the center of the Sun. If weather permits, a partial eclipse will be visible in Northern Asia, Europe and the US.

Perseid meteors
Expected date: August 12, 13
Caused by debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, they are often considered to be one of the best meteor showers of the year due to its high rates and pleasant late-summer temperatures. With very fast and bright meteors, Perseids frequently leave long 'wakes' of light and color behind them as they streak through Earth's atmosphere. About 50-100 meteors seen per hour. They occur every year between July 17 and August 24 and tend to peak around August 9-13. In 2021, they are expected to peak on the night of August 12 and the morning of August 13. Discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, it is a large comet and its nucleus is 16 miles (26 kilometers) across.
October meteor showers
Expected date: October 8/9 for Draconid Meteor Shower and October 20/21 for Orionid shower
Every 6.6 years Comet Giacobini-Zinner swings through the inner solar system. With each visit, it lays down a narrow filament of dust, over time forming a network of filaments that Earth encounters every year in early October. This is known as the Draconid meteors. The Orionids is the second meteor shower in October and it usually peaks around October 21. Orionid meteors appear every year around this time when Earth travels through an area of space littered with debris from Halley's Comet.
Geminids Meteor Shower
Expected date: December 13, 14
The second week of December is the beginning of the strongest meteor shower of the year. According to NASA, the Geminids first began appearing in the mid-1800s. "However, the first showers were not noteworthy with only 10 - 20 meteors seen per hour. Since that time, the Geminids have grown to become one of the most major showers of the year. During its peak, 120 Geminid meteors can be seen per hour under perfect conditions. The Geminids are bright and fast meteors and tend to be yellow," it explains. The Geminids originate from an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon, which was discovered on October 11, 1983, by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite.


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