The RASNZ Email newsletter is distributed by email on or near the 20th of each month. If you would like to be on the circulation list This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for a copy.

Affiliated Societies are welcome to reproduce any item in this email newsletter or on the RASNZ website in their own newsletters provided an acknowledgement of the source is also included.


1. Siding Spring Observatory Damaged by Bush Fire
2. Stardate South Island Feb. 8-11
3. Murray Geddes Prize Nominations
4. The Solar System in February
5. RASNZ Conference 2013
6. SMC Chart Available
7. Asteroid Apophis Takes a Pass in 2036
8. Near-miss by 2012 DA14 on February 16
9. Comet PANSTARSS (C/2011 L4)
10. Kepler Problems
11. How to Join the RASNZ
12. Gifford-Eiby Lecture Fund
13. A Month for Sundays? (cont.)

1. Siding Spring Observatory Damaged by Bush Fire


On Sunday evening, January 13, a fierce bush fire roared through the Warrumbungle National Park to the West of Coonabarabran (the Wambelong Fire). The brave men and women of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, local Police and other volunteers did an amazing job to ensure that no lives were lost and that the damage to properties was kept to a minimum.

Unfortunately there was damage to the Siding Spring Observatory and the Mopra Telescope. 40 properties and over 110 out-buildings have been confirmed lost as well as a large number of livestock and farm machinery.

All staff and visiting astronomers were evacuated from the Siding Spring Observatory before the fire came through. The 4-metre AAT and the UK Schmidt appear to have escaped major damage, however the Australian National University (ANU) Lodge was destroyed.

ANU and Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) websites continue to provide updates on fire damage to the Siding Spring Observatory: and

Updates are available on the NSW Rural Fire Service webpage, under Wambelong WNP, AAO staff member Amanda Bauer (@astropixie) is also giving updates on Twitter and on her blog (

Damage confirmed at Siding Spring Observatory: - 3 buildings have been destroyed (The Lodge, a cottage and a storage building) - 3 buildings have been badly damaged (The Visitors Centre and two sheds) - 4 telescopes appear to have some smoke damage to their buildings

A new update on fire damage at the Mopra Telescope is available on the ATNF website:

Aerial footage of the Mopra Telescope and a brief first site visit from an SSO staff member on Monday indicated that there was significant fire damage to the onsite control building. This building contained an accommodation area, a control room and an equipment room containing the VLBI data correlator and the MOPS spectrometre equipment. From the aerial photo it was clear that the accommodation area was burnt to the ground and yet the concrete roof above the control and equipment rooms appeared relatively intact.

Late yesterday afternoon two CASS staff with an RFS Inspector were able to visit the site and give a brief visual report on the inside of the equipment room. There is smoke damage but the equipment is currently intact with no obvious heat or fire damage. This is very good news. Before the equipment can be tested to see if it is still operational, the structural safety of the building must be assessed and the equipment must be made physically safe.

Warrumbungle Shire Council has set up a Warrumbungle Shire Mayor´s Bushfire Appeal and will be taking donations from members of the public who wish to assist residents who have suffered, and in many cases lost everything as a result of the fire. Further information is available at:

To get a feeling for the speed and intensity of the fire, the following is a post from Rob McNaught just hours after escaping the fire:

"Just a note to let folks know that I and all the other staff at Siding Spring Observatory are safe and well, following the major bushfire that went through it this afternoon. I was unaware of the threat and only became aware when I heard helicopters flying over my house on the Timor Road some 10km from the observatory. Very quickly after, the smoke plume became obvious and was massive within minutes. Much of our view is obscured by trees! Tanya and I evacuated with our dogs within minutes and are currently staying in Coonabarabran.

We are aware of damage to the Observatory. Apparently the Visitor's Center has been damaged (some reports say lost) and other buildings (specifically the Lodge as Dave said) have also been damaged. I have no news about telescopes, but note that I can log-in to computers in the Uppsala office and the 2.3m building. The AAT should be unaffected as it is a very secure and well defended building. It is in fact the evacuation area on the mountain.

Two houses on the Timor Road are known to be lost. I understand the fire went through our property so we can only hope. A high proportion of the Observatory staff have houses along this road and I met many of them in the evacuation centre this afternoon or heard reports that they were safe. Once again, many hold fears that their houses are lost. We heard a lot of hair raising stories from the last few to drive down the Timor Road as it became engulfed in flames."

As if this wasn't tragedy enough for Australian astronomers, they are recalling with sadness that it was 10 years ago that a fire destroyed Mount Stromlo Observatory, located just outside Canberra.

--- -- From messages by Kate Brooks, President of the Astronomical Society of Australia, and from a post by Kelly Beatty on Sky & Telescope's webpage at

Rob McNaught's message was passed along by Robert Brand. A recent note from Rob, whose house was destroyed, is on Sky & Telescope's website at

2. Stardate South Island Feb. 8-11

Stardate SI will be held at Staveley, 1.25 hours from Christchurch, between February 8th and 11th. This celebration of astronomy includes talks by experts on various aspects of astronomy, a formal dinner, fabulous viewing through an array of telescopes (weather permitting), and an opportunity to catch up with fellow astronomers in a relaxing, natural setting in the Canterbury foothills.

The site has excellent sleeping and bathroom facilities, a great auditorium, space for tents, power for caravans, and a good view of the sky in all directions. You can bring your own observing gear or enjoy looking through the large array of gear that we attendees generally establish in a long line down the main viewing area. This is your chance to get away from things for a few days, with your family if you wish, and enjoy astronomy with like minded enthusiasts. Whether you are a beginner or you publish papers in astronomical journals, this is for you. Registrations are building rapidly. For more information and on-line registration see

3. Murray Geddes Prize Nominations

Nominations are called for the Murray Geddes Memorial Prize 2013. The prize is awarded for contributions to astronomy in New Zealand. Normally the recipient is a resident of New Zealand. Nominations should be sent to the RASNZ Executive Secretary at the address below by 28 February. R O´Keeffe, 662 Onewhero-Tuakau Bridge Rd, RD 2, TUAKAU 2697; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

4. The Solar System in February

PHASES OF THE MOON (times as shown by GUIDE)

Last quarter: Feb 4 at 2.56 am NZDT (Feb 3, 13:56 UT)

New moon: Feb 10 at 8.20 pm NZDT (07:20 UT)
First quarter: Feb 18 at 9.31 am NZDT (Feb 17, 20:31 UT)
Full moon: Feb 26 at 9.26 am NZDT (Feb 25, 20:26 UT).

The planets in february

Only Jupiter and Saturn will be readily visible during February. By the end of the month Jupiter will set about midnight so will be low late evening. Saturn will still be best seen as a morning object, but will rise a little 11 pm at the end of the month.

Mercury and Mars will be very low in the sky immediately after sunset, while Venus will be low in the morning sky at sunrise.

Comet Panstarrs may be reasonably bright by the end of February, visible both in the morning and evening, rising before the Sun and setting after it.

The evening sky.

Jupiter will be the dominant object of the evening sky, although not very high. The planet remains in Taurus between Aldebaran and the Pleiades, about 6° lower than the star.

The moon, just past first quarter, will close in on Jupiter on the 18th. By late evening the two will be about half a degree apart as seen from New Zealand. After they set, an occultation of Jupiter will take place as seen from southwest and south Australia. The northern limb of the moon will graze Jupiter along a line from Carnarvon and swinging across southern Australia close to Port Augustus and then a little to the south of Canberra.

Mars and MERCURY form a pair during much of February, with Neptune joining them in the first part of the month.

Neptune and Mars are in conjunction early in February being just over half a degree apart on the 4th and 5th. Mercury passes Neptune on the 7th and Mars on the 9th. A week later Mercury is at its greatest elongation 18° of the Sun and is stationary on the 23rd. It then moves back towards the Sun and passes Mars for a second time on the 26th.

Unfortunately, all this activity will be lost to view. At best Mercury will set only 40 minutes after the Sun, along with Mars on the 10th. By the end of the month Mercury sets more or less at the same time as the Sun, while Mars sets just over 25 minutes later. So all three planets are likely to be too low to see in the twilight bright sky.

The morning sky: venus and saturn

Saturn rises shortly after midnight (NZDT) at the beginning of February and a little before 11 pm at the end of the month. The planet will then transit and be highest some 90 minutes before sunrise. Unlike Jupiter, Saturn is some way south of the celestial equator so will be much higher in NZ skies.

The planet is in Libra, a few from the wide double alpha Lib. Binoculars should easily show the double nature of the star. Saturn is stationary on the 19th, so its position will not change much throughout February.

On the morning of February 4, an hour before sunrise, the moon at last quarter will be about 5° from Saturn and just beyond alpha Lib. Earlier that morning the moon will occult the brighter star of alpha Lib as seen from the South Island and the southern part of the North Island.

A grazing occultation will take place along a line running close to Hawera, Whanganui and Feilding, and a little north of Palmerston North. The graze will occur just with the northern lit cusp, making it difficult to observe. The fainter star of the pair will graze the moon along a parallel path passing just south of Kekerengu on the east coast of the South Island.

Venus remains in the morning sky in February. It rises just over an hour before the Sun on the 1st and about 40 minutes earlier on the 28th. Thus it will be very low in the dawn sky, although visible for those who have a low horizon to the east.

On the morning of February 9, a very thin crescent moon will be 6.5° to the upper left of Venus. The moon will rise about 90 minutes before the Sun with Venus coming up about 30 minutes after the Moon. The two will be a little to the south of east.

Uranus will set more than two hours after the Sun at the beginning of February, reducing to just over an hour later by the end of the month. At magnitude 5.9 it should be a binocular object in Pisces early in the month, but is likely to be too low in the sunset lit sky by the end of February.

Neptune is in conjunction with the Sun on February 21 so will not be visible during the month.

BRIGHTER ASTEROIDS: Both (1) Ceres and (4) Vesta are in Taurus during February, not far from Jupiter. Ceres´ magnitude varies from 7.9 to 8.3, Vesta´s 7.6 to 8.0.

More details and charts for these minor planets can be found on the RASNZ web site. Follow the link to asteroids 2012.

BRIGHT COMET: Comet PANSTARSS (C/2011 L4) is expected to brighten during February. It is likely to be visible in binoculars early in the month and may brighten to become a naked eye object by the end.

The comet is well south of the equator in February, and will be circumpolar for the south of the South Island. At Christchurch it is below the horizon for less than an hour near midnight. For the first 9 days of February it will be moving to the east more or less along the border between the constellation Telescopium and Sagittarius. It will be better placed for viewing in the pre-dawn sky to the south east than in the evening sky, especially in the North Island.

By late February the comet will have moved further north, but still be visible both in the evening and the morning skies (but not near mid night), with the evening now more favoured. It will be rather low to the southwest an hour after sunset. Towards the end of February the comet will pass within a few degrees of Fomalhaut.

-- Brian Loader

An ephemeris for Comet PANSTARSS (C/2011 L4) is in Item 9. - Ed.

5. RASNZ Conference 2013

Registrations for the 2013 RASNZ conference and TTSO7 are now coming in steadily. Don't miss out! The venue for the conference is the Ascot Park Hotel, Invercargill, the dates Friday 24 to Sunday 26 May, with the TTSO7 Trans Tasman Occultation Symposium following on Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 May. The conference host in the Southland Astronomical Society. They have made a name for themselves in the past for organising an excellent conference and the 2013 conference looks like being at least as good as previous ones.

The Ascot Park Hotel offers on site accommodation, both hotel and motel. There is other accommodation available nearby. When booking accommodation at the Ascot make sure you mention that you are booking for the conference. The hotel is holding accommodation for us and special rates will apply. With the Bluff Oyster festival coinciding with the conference it is sensible to reserve your accommodation early before it is booked out.

RASNZ members will have received registration forms and conference brochures with their copy of the December 2012 Southern Stars. Registration can also be carried out on line, go to the RASNZ web site, <> and follow the link to the registration form on the conference page. A printable, pdf, version of the registration form is also available on line. Click on the link to "registration" on the RASNZ Wiki.

On the web site conference page you will also find a link to information about presenting papers and to the on-line paper submission form. All active observers and anyone involved in astronomical activities are invited to present papers on their observations and work. The invitation extends to all sections and astronomical societies. Section directors should endeavour to ensure that at least one paper detailing some aspect of the work of their section is presented. Societies should take the opportunity to publicise their activities in the astronomical field.

Brochures about the conference and other activities have also been distributed and are available as a pdf file at the RASNZ web site. Further details of the plans for the TTSO7 meeting are available on the Occultation Section web page <>.

-- Brian Loader, Chair, RASNZ SCC. 15 January 2013

6. SMC Chart Available

Ian Cooper has completed an extended object chart of the Small Magellanic Cloud. The chart is a large Jpeg file. Also available is an excel spreadsheet listing all of the individual objects and their most common names and coordinates. It is for free use to all those interested. The chart can be seen at

The chart was originally started about 12 years ago and is now up to Version 5. Ian plans to continue updates but not more often than once a month. Check the date stamp.

-- from a detailed note by Ian to the nzastronomers Yahoo group.

7. Asteroid Apophis Takes a Pass in 2036

After tracking asteroid 99942 Apophis with NASA's giant Goldstone radar dish, astronomers are now certain that the threatening asteroid has essentially no chance of striking Earth in 2036.

Right now Apophis is in the midst of a rather distant yet much-awaited pass in Earth's vicinity, coming within 14½ million km on January 9. It was tracked for about 2½ weeks before that by NASA's 230-foot (70-m) Goldstone radio/radar dish in California. Those observations have given astronomers the confidence to issue an "all clear" for the foreseeable future.

"Goldstone single-pixel observations of Apophis have ruled out the potential 2036 Earth impact," says Jon Giorgini, a dynamicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Based on revised orbit calculations, he says Apophis will then come no closer than about 22 million km - and more likely miss us by something closer to 56 million km. Moreover, the radar data have improved the asteroid's positional uncertainty so much that dynamicists can now accurately predict its trajectory decades into the future.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004 orbital computations suggested that it had a 3% chance of striking our planet in 2029. About a year later, it was named Apophis, for the Egyptian god of evil and destruction. Fortunately, by then pre-discovery observations had led to a revised orbit, which ruled out an impact in 2029.

But we weren't out of danger yet. A collision remained possible in 2036, and the chance of that hinged on the near-miss flyby in 2029, when Apophis will zip by just 32,000 km away. Were that to occur at a particular spot in space, what dynamicists call a keyhole, an impact would become very likely on the return visit in 2036. The problem is that the orbital specs of Apophis weren't known accurately enough to predict exactly where it would fly past in 2029.

Adding to the uncertainty is the extent to which a subtle force, known as the Yarkovsky effect, might be altering the asteroid's orbit. This effect is caused by the uneven way that a spinning body absorbs sunlight and then reradiates it back to space. Ground-based observers determined that Apophis rotates in 30½ hours, but it likely has more than one period involving multiple spin axes.

Conceivably, gentle but persistent nudging from the Yarkovsky effect might have pushed Apophis straight through the 2029 keyhole. However, the Goldstone observations have shrunk the orbital uncertainties so much that, regardless of what the still-unknown physical parameters of Apophis might be, radiation pressure can't be enough to move the measurement uncertainty region enough to encounter the Earth in 2036.

Were this asteroid to hit us, very bad things would happen. Apophis is an estimated 270 metres across, and it would strike with the kinetic-energy equivalent of roughly 500 million tons of TNT.

Just-released infrared observations from the European Space Agency's Herschel spacecraft suggest that the diameter of Apophis might be some 20% larger. The 20% increase in diameter, from 270 to 325 m, translates into a 75% increase in our estimates of the asteroid´s volume or mass. However, this modelling assumes that Apophis is spherical where the actual shape is thought to be elongated.

We haven't heard the last word on this little interplanetary demon. Goldstone radar observations of Apophis will continue through January 17th, and additional tracking is planned next month with the giant Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico. All that pinging should yield super-accurate positional data and, perhaps, reveal the asteroid's shape and spin state.

But the worry about Apophis has only been postponed, not eliminated. Its orbit is not all that different from Earth's, and some day in the distant future the two bodies will either have a catastrophic collision - or an encounter so close that Earth's gravity will yank Apophis onto a new and significantly different interplanetary path.

-- From a Sky & Telescope posting by Kelly Beatty on 9 January. See the original at

8. Near-miss by 2012 DA14 on February 16

The asteroid 2012 DA14 makes the closest approach ever predicted far in advance on the morning of February 16 NZDT. 2012 DA14 is 40-50 metres across and passes 28,500 km from us. It is closest after sunrise in NZ but will be a telescopic object before dawn.

Ephemeris for 2012 DA14 on Feb. 16 NZDT, seen from Wellington. R.A. (2000) Dec. R.A. (2000) Dec. NZDT h m s o ' Mag. NZDT h m s o ' Mag.

  1. 05 14 05 -85 36 12.4 0500 08 27 40 -82 52 11.6
  2. 05 32 16 -85 34 12.3 0505 08 38 39 -82 24 11.5
  3. 05 50 43 -85 29 12.2 0510 08 48 48 -81 54 11.5
  4. 06 09 12 -85 23 12.2 0515 08 58 11 -81 22 11.4
  5. 06 27 28 -85 15 12.1 0520 09 06 51 -80 47 11.3
  6. 06 45 19 -85 05 12.1 0525 09 14 53 -80 10 11.2
  7. 07 02 33 -84 53 12.0 0530 09 22 19 -79 30 11.1
  8. 07 19 02 -84 38 11.9 0535 09 29 12 -78 48 11.1
  9. 07 34 38 -84 21 11.9 0540 09 35 36 -78 03 11.0
  10. 07 49 19 -84 02 11.8 0545 09 41 33 -77 15 10.9
  11. 08 03 02 -83 41 11.8 0550 09 47 05 -76 23 10.8
  12. 08 15 49 -83 18 11.7 0555 09 52 15 -75 29 10.7
  13. 08 27 40 -82 52 11.6 0600 09 57 05 -74 31 10.6

At 0400 NZST the asteroid is 109,500 km away, moving at 4' per minute. At 0600 NZST the asteroid is 64,500 km away, moving at 13' per min. It passes 28,500 km from Earth's surface around 0825 NZST = February 15 19:25 UT.

Because the object is close, it will be increasingly far from the above ephemeris the further you are from Wellington. To get a prediction for your location go to There enter the object's designation 2012 DA14 . The UT date format is 2013 02 15 1500 for 2013 Feb. 15 15:00 UT = Feb. 16 0400 NZDT. You can enter your latitude and longitude, or make a shortcut using a nearby Observatory Code: Auckland 467; Rotorua E89; Gisborne E94; Wellington 485; Mt John 474. Make a chart of the telescope view for a particular time. Find that place in the sky ahead of time and watch for the asteroid to cross.

9. Comet PANSTARSS (C/2011 L4)

The ephemeris below is from the Minor Planet Center and is based on elements from Minor Planet Electronic Circular 2013-A29. The comet's positions are given for 5 a.m. NZDT.

    R.A.(2000) Dec.                  R.A.(2000) Dec.
Jan. h  m  s   °  '   m1         Feb. h  m  s   °  '   m1
21  18 22 14 -43 27   7.8         9  20 15 44 -45 27   5.6
22  18 26 36 -43 40   7.7        10  20 23 54 -45 19   5.5
23  18 31 06 -43 52   7.7        11  20 32 18 -45 08   5.3
24  18 35 44 -44 03   7.5        12  20 40 56 -44 54   5.2
25  18 40 32 -44 15   7.4        13  20 49 47 -44 37   5.0
26  18 45 30 -44 26   7.3        14  20 58 51 -44 15   4.9
27  18 50 37 -44 37   7.2        15  21 08 07 -43 50   4.7
28  18 55 55 -44 47   7.1        16  21 17 33 -43 21   4.5
29  19 01 24 -44 56   7.0        17  21 27 09 -42 46   4.3
30  19 07 04 -45 05   6.9        18  21 36 52 -42 07   4.2
31  19 12 56 -45 13   6.8        19  21 46 42 -41 23   4.0
Feb.                             20  21 56 35 -40 32   3.8
 1  19 19 01 -45 20   6.7        21  22 06 31 -39 36   3.6
 2  19 25 18 -45 26   6.5        22  22 16 26 -38 33   3.4
 3  19 31 48 -45 31   6.4        23  22 26 19 -37 24   3.2
 4  19 38 32 -45 35   6.3        24  22 36 07 -36 08   3.0
 5  19 45 30 -45 37   6.2        25  22 45 48 -34 44   2.8
 6  19 52 42 -45 38   6.0        26  22 55 19 -33 14   2.6
 7  20 00 08 -45 36   5.9        27  23 04 38 -31 36   2.4
 8  20 07 49 -45 33   5.8        28  23 13 41 -29 50   2.2

After Feb. 23 the comet rises after 5 a.m. The comet's total magnitude m1 is the brightness of a star defocused to the size of the comet's head. The m1 needs to be brighter than 3 for a comet to be obvious to the naked eye.

10. Kepler Problems

NASA's Kepler spacecraft has been discovering planets by imaging thousands of stars in a Milky Way region. Some of the stars have planets that by chance pass in front of the star, seen from our direction. This causes a tiny dip in the star's brightness at regular intervals as the planet, or planets, cross.

This method of detecting planets requires very accurate photometry, so the spacecraft's pointing has to be finely controlled. Pointing is done by reaction wheels on the craft. Kepler is equipped with four reaction wheels which are used to accurately point the telescope. One failed in July 2012. On January 17 the team announced that they detected issues with a second one. Kepler needs three reaction wheels to be used properly, if this one fails the mission is most likely over.

The team detected an increase of friction on reaction wheel #4 on January 11 2013 just after the completion of Quarter 15 flight operation. This friction persisted after the spacecraft roll, which could lead to the complete failure of the wheel.

To solve this issue, the team reported to have placed the Kepler spacecraft in a "wheel rest" safe mode. Science operation has been interrupted and the spacecraft is now in a position which does not require the use of the reaction wheels. They hope that by resting the wheel for 10 days, the internal lubricant will be redistributed and the wheel will work again in an optimal manner.

Last week the French space agency, CNES, announced that COROT, another planet hunter spacecraft was also malfunctioning, and most likely will end the mission officially soon.

-- Mostly from a blog by Franck Marchis pointed out by Karen Pollard. See the original note with images at

11. How to Join the RASNZ

A membership application form and details can be found on the RASNZ website Please note that the weblink to membership forms is case sensitive. Alternatively please send an email to the membership secretary This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for further information.

The annual subscription rate is $75, not including the Yearbook. For overseas rates please check with the membership secretary, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

12. Gifford-Eiby Lecture Fund

The RASNZ administers the Gifford-Eiby Memorial Lectureship Fund to assist Affiliated Societies with travel costs of getting a lecturer or instructor to their meetings. Details are in RASNZ By-Laws Section H.

For an application form contact the Executive Secretary This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., R O'Keeffe, 662 Onewhero-Tuakau Bridge Rd, RD 2, TUAKAU 2697

13. A Month for Sundays? (cont.)

In the November Newsletter we published the anonymous assertion that "In 2012, December has 5 Saturdays, 5 Sundays and 5 Mondays. This apparently happens once every 823 years!" Not so, writes Alan Tunnicliffe. There were similar months in 1956 and 1984. It happens every 28 years in fact so the next time will be 2040.

Newsletter editor:

Alan Gilmore   Phone: 03 680 6000
P.O. Box 57   Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Lake Tekapo 7945
New Zealand