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. RASNZ 2009 Conference
2. Colloquium on Studying Southern Variables
3. Third Trans-Tasman Symposium on Occultations
4. The Solar System in February
5. Two Southland Astronomical Society Members Honoured
6. New Director for the Variable Star Section
7. Biographies, please
8. Bringing the World Back Into the Black
9. Notes from Variable Star South Director
10. MoRST Cool On SKA
11. Internet Talks by Leading Astronomers
12. Methane Shows Mars Is Not a Dead Planet
13. Faintest Brown Dwarfs So Far
14. More on Our Galaxy's Central Black Hole
15. Most Distant Water in the Universe Found
16. The Cosmic Boogie-box
17. Kingdon-Tomlinson Fund
18. Gifford-Eiby Lecture Fund
19. How to Join the RASNZ
20. Your Stars for February

1. RASNZ 2009 Conference

Just a further update on Conference. As you know, the 2009 Conference is being held at the Quality Inn Wellington, which is in Upper Cuba Street, Wellington. The dates of Conference itself are 22-24 May 2009.

Our guest at the conference is Profesor Fulvio Melia. Fulvio authored the book "Black Hole at the Center of the Galaxy", and has also authored a book (to be published shortly) about New Zealander Roy Kerr. Fulvio Melia's current position is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is no stranger to New Zealand, having recently been a visiting Professor at the University of Canterbury. We look forward to having Fulvio as our guest at the Conference.

We now issue a further call for papers and poster papers. Papers will be of 20 minutes duration, including question time. If you would like to give a paper, please complete the appropriate form on the RASNZ Webpage ( and forward it accordingly. Orlon Petterson and Warwick Kissling have the responsibility for bringing the programme together. Abstracts need to be available by 1 April 2009, and the final version of the paper suitable for publication in Southern Stars needs to be available by 1 May 2009.

We also advise registrations are now open. Forms were distributed with the December issue of 'Southern Stars'. Registrations can also be made on line, by going to the RASNZ Webpage. We encourage intending attendees to register early. Also, there are plenty of discounted airfares available at the moment around the dates of Conference. (Council members - please note the Council meeting may be on the Thursday pm).

Accommodation is available at the Quality Inn, and the adjacent Comfort Hotel. The Comfort is the budget arm of Quality, but the writer of this update has stayed there, and it is perfectly comfortable. Twin/double rates at the Quality Inn are $160 a night, and $95 at the Comfort - when booking please make sure you advise them that you are with the RASNZ Conference so you get these discounted rates. There are links from the webpage to the Quality Inn and the Comfort.

There are two other activities associated with conference which you may also be interested in. On Friday 22 May there is a full day Colloquium "Studying Southern Variables" and on Monday and Tuesday 25-26 May there is the "Third Trans-Tasman Symposium on Occultations".

Full details of Conference, the Colloquium and the Symposium can be found on the RASNZ Webpage. Look forward to seeing everyone there.

Dennis Goodman, Chair, RASNZ Standing Conference Committee.

Further details of the conference and the symposia will be placed on the RASNZ web site as they become available.

2. Colloquium on Studying Southern Variables

A colloquium on "Studying Southern Variables" will be held prior to the 2009 RASNZ Annual Conference in Wellington on Friday the 22nd May 2009 commencing at 10:30am and concluding at 5:30pm. The colloquium will consider the science of observing variable stars visually, photoelectrically and with CCD cameras.

The colloquium will be organised by Dr Tom Richards, Woodridge Observatory, Melbourne; Bill Allen, Vintage Lane Observatory, Blenheim; and Stan Walker, Wharemaru Observatory, Awanui; who are experienced variable star observers.

While we expect many very interesting presentations from the CCD and PEP fields, one of our objectives is to encourage visual observations, a field which is very important over the long term.

The colloquium will consist of 20 minute papers and posters on any topic concerning variable stars and their observation including observing projects, equipment and techniques. Proposals for presentations should be submitted to any of the organisers.

The venue for the colloquium and the RASNZ conference is the Quality Inn, Cuba Street, Central Wellington - see for more information and future announcements. We look forward to seeing you there.

Tom Richards This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Bill Allen This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Stan Walker This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

3. Third Trans-Tasman Symposium on Occultations

The Third Trans-Tasman Symposium on Occultations will be held in Wellington over May 25 and 26, 2009, immediately following the 2009 RASNZ Conference. The meeting will follow in the footsteps of the first two very successful Symposia held in July 2007 in Auckland, and Easter 2008 in Penrith, New South Wales.

The Symposium will bring together occultation observers and others from Australia and New Zealand to share results and experiences, and to build on the increasing interest being shown in these events (as evidenced by the 45 minor planet occultations successfully observed so far this year).

Speakers at the Symposium will include David Herald, author of the definitive occultation prediction and reduction software OCCULT, Hristo Pavlov whose OccultWatcher software is being widely used to alert observers to updated predictions for forthcoming events, Dave Gault who is a recognised pioneer in the use of video techniques in this work, and Steve Russell, one of the driving forces behind Australia´s "Team Occultation".

The Symposium is also seeking papers and presentations from others who would like to share their experiences in the field. To book a presentation please send your details, a short abstract, and the amount of time you are requesting to co-convenor Murray Forbes at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A feature of the two previous Symposia was the emphasis given to the "hands-on" aspects of occultation work. The Third Symposium will build on that with expanded workshops in which participants can individually follow through the whole process of preparing for, observing, and then reducing data from occultation events. Participants will be encouraged to bring their own laptops, and all necessary software will be provided. The various equipment options for occultation work will also be extensively discussed.

The Third Trans-Tasman Symposium on Occultations will be an important meeting and all those with an interest in the field are urged to register without delay.

Graham Blow, RASNZ Occultation Section

4. The Solar System in February

The usual notes on the visibility of the Planets for February 2009 have been placed on the RASNZ web site: Notes for March 2009 will be in place in a few days.

COMET C/2007 N3 LULIN is expected to brighten to magnitude 6 during February, so being a binocular object. At the beginning of the month it should be a 7th magnitude object and will be in Libra rising half an hour or so after midnight.

By the morning of February 12 it will be in Virgo close to lambda Vir, magnitude 4.5. The two will be less than half a degree apart as they rise. On the evenings of February 16 and 17 Lulin will be about 2.5 degrees from Spica and rise soon after 10.30 pm NZDT.

The comet will move rapidly across Virgo and on into Leo on February 23 when it should be at its brightest with an expected magnitude 6.0. That night and the next it will be about 3 degrees from Saturn and rising close to 9 pm. At the end of the month Lulin will pass Regulus being about 2.5 degrees from the star on February 27 and 28. It will then rise just before the time of sunset and have started to fade.

Some charts showing the comet's path are on the RASNZ web site.

THE DAWN SKY - Mercury, Mars and Jupiter During February the dawn sky will host a series of groupings of three of the major planets. Sunrise ranges from about 6.30 am NZDT at the beginning of the month to about 7 am at the end.

Mercury will be quite well paced for viewing throughout February, rising about 90 minutes earlier than the Sun on the 1st. From about the 10th on, it will rise at least 2 hours before the Sun. During the month its magnitude will brighten from 0.6 to -0.1.

Mars will rise about the same time throughout February, a little after 5 a.m. This is some 75 minutes before sunrise on February 1, increasing to 2 hours before at the month's end.

Throughout February, Mercury will be a few degrees above and to the left of Mars. At first Mercury will move away from Mars, but later in the month the two will get closer again, being less than 2° apart on the last morning of the month. Mars will be much the fainter, at magnitude 1.3 to 1.2.

Jupiter will emerge from the morning twilight during the first part of the month, climbing towards Mars which it will pass on the morning of February 18 and 19 when the two will be less than a degree apart. Jupiter will be to the left of Mars.

Jupiter will carry on to pass Mercury on the mornings of 24 and 25 when
again they will be less than a degree apart with Jupiter to the left of
Mercury.  The two will then be a little less than 4 degrees above Mars.

Just prior to this, on the morning of February 23, the three planets will be joined by a thin crescent Moon, only 5% lit, 1.5 degrees to the left of Mercury, with Jupiter and then Mars below them. An hour before sunrise Mercury will have an altitude of about 11° and be in a direction 15° to the south of east. Jupiter will be some 1.8° from Mercury with Mars 2.8° from Jupiter. The grouping is illustrated by a diagram on the RASNZ web site.

Venus will meanwhile remain in the evening sky. On the 1st it will set about 100 minutes after the Sun, but by the end of February only 45 minutes later. So by then it will be a low object only visible briefly after sunset. On February 28 the planet is joined by the crescent Moon, only 11% lit. The Moon will be 3.6° to the right of Venus and slightly higher.

Saturn will be visible from late evening at the beginning of February and from mid evening by the end of the month. The ring system will appear nearly edge on early in the month, so being very narrow. During February the rings will open slightly as seen from the Earth which will be overtaking Saturn so making it appear to move backwards, that is to the west, through the stars.

Saturn is in the constellation Leo during February nearly 20 degrees from Regulus and slowly moving towards the 4th magnitude star s Leo. The two are closest at the end of February and beginning of March, when they will be just over half a degree apart. The Moon, just a little past full and 95% lit, will be 5° above the planet on the night of February 11/12. They are closest in the early morning about 3am NZDT.

OUTER PLANETS Neptune is at conjunction with the Sun on February 12 so will be too close to it for observations through the month.

Uranus, in Aquarius, sets about 90 minutes after the Sun on February 1 and only some 30 minutes after on February 28. As a result it will become lost in the evening twilight.

BRIGHTER ASTEROIDS: (1) Ceres is in Leo during February, staring the month just over a degree from delta Leo, magnitude 2.5. Its distance from the star increases to a little over 5 degrees during the month. Ceres rises a little before midnight at the beginning of February and about 2 hours earlier by the end.

(2) Pallas moves from Eridanus into Lepus on February 16. It magnitude is 8.3 to 8.4 throughout the month. It is an evening object, with a transit time about 9 pm NZDT on February 28.

(4) Vesta starts the month in Cetus between the two 4th magnitude stars xi1 and xi2 Cet. Vesta itself will have a magnitude 8.1 and will set shortly after midnight, NZDT. It crosses into Aries on February 16, where it will set at about 11 pm NZDT at the end of the month. Its magnitude drops from 8.1 to 8.3 during the month.

(27) Euterpe is at opposition on February 4 with a magnitude 8.8. It is brighter than 9th magnitude for about a week either side of opposition. The asteroid is in Cancer, but the nearest bright star is Regulus some 15 degrees distant.

-- Brian Loader

5. Two Southland Astronomical Society Members Honoured

Congratulations to Lloyd Esler who received the Queen's Service Medal for services to the community in the New Year Honours. Lloyd has long been associated with the Southland Museum and is current Secretary of the Southland Astronomical Society. On the lighter side he was the delightfully witty after-dinner speaker at the 2002 RASNZ Conference in Invercargill. There he introduced us to Madam X's prognostications, occasionally reprinted at the end of this newsletter. (See below.)

Also honoured was Christine Henderson of Lumsden who was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to conservation. Christine's son Christopher is webmaster of the NZ IYA2009 website.

6. New Director for the Variable Star Section

I am pleased to be able to announce that the RASNZ Council has recently approved the appointment of Dr Tom Richards as director of the RASNZ Variable Star Section.

In his proposal to Council Tom indicated far reaching plans for the revitalisation of the section. Some of these are outlined in a separate bulletin (copied below) which gives some initial information on his plans for the future of the Section. In keeping with the change of outlook the Section has changed its name to Variable Stars South.

I hope many of you will give your support to Tom, either by offering your assistance as he builds up his teams of co-ordinators or by joining observing programs as they are set up.

I look forward to working with Tom and seeing the section grow in the future.

-- Pauline Loader [See Tom notes in Item 9.]

7. Biographies, please

Marilyn Head writes: This is another call for listings for NZ astronomers on our IYA site . There are so many prominent people missing and many who are named but have nothing written about them. We envisage it being a 'who's who' of NZ astronomy and an historical record of people who have been (and are) active and held positions in local astronomical societies and, for those who want, contacts.

Marilyn's email address is on

8. Bringing the World Back Into the Black

This article by Rebecca Greatrex was in the New Zealand Herald on Jan 9. ---- The article on light pollution ("Las Vegas steals the stars") in last week's Weekend Herald highlights a strange anomaly in today's energy- and environmentally-conscious society.

It's quite simple - why is the developed world continuing to waste so much money and energy on beaming light into outer space? Sure, all the glittering lights make the planet look pretty if you happen to be in orbit or on a commercial flight. But, alas, not many of us get the chance to visit the International Space Station. In reality, light pollution is a total waste of energy and money and creates unnecessary carbon emissions.

I'd much rather conserve the energy by directing light down on to the streets where it's needed and reduce carbon emissions and my ratepayer bills at the same time. And, as the article so clearly pointed out, if we reduce light pollution there's a massive free bonus - the stars come out again and give us genuine sparkly lights in our velvety night skies. The design of traditional street lights means they tend to waste energy by scattering light generously in all directions. They enable light to escape upwards (creating an orange glow in the sky) and sideways (generating glare - which is particularly annoying if it is shining through your bedroom window all night).

In contrast, modern, environmentally friendly street lights tend to use full cut-off fixtures that target the light only where it's needed - downwards - meaning they use smaller wattage bulbs, therefore consuming less power and costing less to run.

About four out of five New Zealanders live in an urban environment so it's a bit ironic that we have the Southern Cross on our national flag when most of us are hard-pressed to see it from our backyards. The orange haze of light pollution that hangs over our cities obscures all but a handful of the brightest stars. Viewing the night sky isn't an option any more, even if you're interested.

The UN estimates over 3.3 billion people (half of the world's population) already live in cities and this could become as many as 5 billion by 2030. All these city-dwellers who never get out of town, either through choice or circumstances, are missing out on one of nature's free treats - a truly spectacular starry night sky. Even worse, we're paying good money to generate and waste the energy that obliterates this visual treasure with light pollution. Most people want to do their bit to save the environment but it has to be made simple and convenient - and preferably cheap - to get everyone behind it. A good example was the call a few years ago to boycott aerosol cans containing CFCs that were destroying the ozone hole - they were gone before lunchtime.

But enforced legislation that directly affects our lifestyle can produce the opposite effect, as demonstrated by the recent proposals around energy-saving household light bulbs and low-pressure shower heads which probably cost the previous Government the election.

So rather than trying to use something as difficult and remote as the Emissions Trading Scheme to set an environmental world precedent, maybe we should look at something a bit less complex in 2009. Something as simple as smartening up our country's street lighting systems over the next decade or so could reduce the cost and amount of our national energy consumption and save on our carbon emissions as well. Now that would be an environmental world precedent. One that could be understood and literally seen by everyone.

This year is a particularly appropriate year for action because Unesco and the International Astronomical Union have declared 2009 to be the International Year of Astronomy and 135 countries around the world are participating - including New Zealand. There will be a huge global focus on dark night skies and light pollution because one of the specific global projects is Dark Skies Awareness. More people around the world are becoming aware of light pollution and its destructive effect on the environment, with organisations such as the International Dark-Sky Association working to raise awareness and protect our natural night skies.

Here in New Zealand, the Waitakere City Council and Modus Lighting recently hosted a forum entitled Advancing New Zealand's Street Lighting Technologies, which was funded by the Electricity Commission. More than 120 people attended from the Electricity Commission, Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority, several local authorities, tertiary institutions and the NZ Standards Association as well as the lighting industry, consultants and installers.

Valiant efforts are also being made to have the MacKenzie Basin declared a starlight reserve, one that Unesco will recognise as a World Heritage Dark Sky Park. The Queenstown Lakes District Council recently won an award from the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand for its "Wanaka Waterfront" lighting system. The Ports of Auckland has already changed its lighting system, resulting in an estimated 15 per cent reduction in energy consumption and a huge reduction in glare.

Curbing light pollution is a win-win-win situation as it improves the environment, conserves energy and reduces costs. Will New Zealand seize the opportunity to set a new kind of environmental world precedent in 2009 and lead the world back to the black?

For the original see: /article.cfm?c_id=39&objectid=10551035

9. Notes from Variable Star South Director

The following is abridged from a posting on Avson by Tom Richards This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. on January 15, forwarded by Pauline Loader.

I said last week, in response to the announcement that the RASNZ has appointed me Director of their Variable Star Section (and renamed Variable Stars South), that I'd keep information flowing on AVSON about the development of VSS.

It will take a while to develop an organisational base for VSS. he organisational base of the VSS as was, being a private company owned by the late Frank Bateson, is defunct. So we're effectively starting again. We plan to launch VSS at the Variable Star Colloquium being held in conjunction with the RASNZ Conference in Wellington on May 22nd. Be there! See for details.

First I'd like to thank very sincerely Pauline Loader of the RASNZ for acting as coordinator of the Section, keeping it alive for the four years since Frank resigned. There was much going on in the background in that time, and we have a lot to be grateful to Pauline for. I'd also like to thank Ranald McIntosh and Mati Morel for their continuing behind-the- scenes work, respectively maintaining the observations database and producing all those vital comparison star sequences.

Role of VSS. The VSS-RASNZ has had responsibility for the best part of a century for southern hemisphere variable star work. However the nature of this role will be changing sharply, reflecting the nature of modern astronomical research and communications.

In years past, all southern hemisphere observations were sent to VSS-RASNZ and electronically recorded by Ranald McIntosh. This has tailed off to almost nothing in the last few years as most observers submitted data to the AAVSO International Variable Star Database. VSS will no longer be maintaining a separate observations database. All VSS's electronic observational records have already been transferred to the AAVSO, and we are considering ways of entering the older paper records.

Instead of the archival collection of data, VSS will be concentrating on developing and hosting research projects. Modern communications make this feasible as never before. Both globally and in terms of expertise, collaboration is the name of the game. We will be dividing VSS into a number of "Programme" areas for the running of research projects, and already are beginning to set these up.

VSS willcontinue to be inclusive across the entire Southern Hemisphere, and of course with Northerners who wish to involve themselves with southern stars. It will take time to set up these relationships, and I hope as many people as possible from all over will contact me about involvement in VSS. (Membership in a formal sense will come soon.)

In addition to appointing Coordinators to run the various Programmes, of which two are effectively under way, we will be setting up a small advisory panel of experts, and inviting professionals and leading amateurs to join this panel.

Membership. Financial aspects of the Section are, as required by the Rules of Incorporation of the RASNZ, totally separate from RASNZ finances. We will be setting up a bank account for online transactions, then we can think about membership. There will be dues, of course - we will need to pay for the Internet domain, web hosting, etc, at the very least.

Members will be the people who organise and take part in the VSS projects and other VSS activities. Our approach is to create exciting projects and activities at all levels, eyeball to advanced robotic CCD.

Projects will have clear aims, clearly stated methods (so you can decide if they are for you), and clearly stated goals including publication. Project members will work closely together, supporting each other. Members will always receive training and mentoring in their projects. Members will receive the quarterly electronic Newsletter (see below) though for now we'll distribute to everyone on our email list. Members will have read- write access to online resources as we develop them. And only members will be able to partake in our research programmes (though non-members may propose and lead them).

Officers I'm very pleased to announce that Stan Walker of Waitarara has kindly agreed to edit the quarterly online Newsletter (email me your email address if you don't already receive this) and also to act as Coordinator of the Long Period Variables Programme. You can contact Stan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I believe the core of at least amateur variable star work is visual observing. I expect to be able to announce very shortly a Coordinator for the VSS Visual Research Programme.

We urgently need a webmaster, web designers, and communications coordinators to develop and maintain our website and all other online resources. It's more than I can handle , and beyond my skills anyway if it is to be well done. We probably need a team approach to this - not all on one pair of shoulders. Please, if you're interested and capable, get in touch with me - even if it's only for a particular role in a team.

10. MoRST Cool On SKA

The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST) write in their Briefing to the Incoming Minister of Research, Science and Technology:

"Other projects A group of senior officials is considering how New Zealand can best participate in the design and establishment of a radio telescope - the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) - a major international science project Australia is seeking to host. There may be economic advantages to New Zealand participating in the project given the high level of technology, spillover opportunities and bilateral relations with Australia. However, we see relatively little merit for New Zealand in the project from a research perspective."

See it at on page 12.

-- Thanks to Roland Idaczyk for passing this along.

11. Internet Talks by Leading Astronomers

International Year of Astronomy Speaker Series at Penn State Broadcast on the Web. "Our Universe: From the Big Bang to Life" is the theme of the 2009 Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science, an event that will be broadcast on the web during the 2009 International Year of Astronomy. The series of six free public lectures on consecutive Saturday mornings begins on 24 January. Each lecture begins at 11:00 a.m., U.S. Eastern time.

The lectures are designed as a free minicourse for the enjoyment of the general public and will be viewable on the web at

The recommended browser is Internet Explorer, plus Windows Media Player must be installed on the computer prior to viewing the live presentation. Windows Media Player is a free media player available for download to both Windows and Mac users at:

The events in the 2009 Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science include: 24 January: "Exploring the Dark Side of the Universe". Speaker: Tony Tyson, University of California-Davis. 31 January: "Extasolar Planets and the Search for Habitable Worlds" Speaker: Sara Seager, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7 February: "Telescope Adventures in the Antarctic Icecap". Speaker: Fancis Halzen, University of Wisconsin-Madison 14 February: "Galaxies and Their Supermassive Black Holes". Speaker: Michael Eacleous, Penn State 21 February: "Chaos in Our Solar System". Speaker: Peter Goldreich, Institute for Advanced Study 28 February: "The Search for Life on Other Planets". Speaker: James Kasting, Penn State

-- abridged from a note forwarded by Karen Pollard.

12. Methane Shows Mars Is Not a Dead Planet

Methane has been found in Mars's atmosphere indicating that the planet is either biologically or geologically active.

It was found by observing the planet throughout several Mars years with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility and the W.M. Keck telescope, both at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Spectrometers on the telescopes showed three absorption lines of methane.

Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicated that some ongoing process is releasing the gas.

Methane, four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom, is the main component of natural gas on Earth. Astrobiologists are interested in this data because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane. If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface where it is warm enough for liquid water to exist. Liquid water is necessary for all known forms of life, as are energy sources and a supply of carbon.

On Earth, microorganisms thrive about 1.9 to 3.0 km beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen and oxygen. The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. Possibly similar organisms survived for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon. Gases, like methane, accumulated in such underground zones might be released into the atmosphere if pores or fissures open during the warm seasons, connecting the deep zones to the atmosphere at crater walls or canyons.

It is possible that a geologic process produced the Martian methane, either now or eons ago. On Earth, the conversion of iron oxide into the serpentine group of minerals creates methane. On Mars this process could proceed using water, carbon dioxide and the planet's internal heat. Although there is no evidence of active volcanism on Mars today, ancient methane trapped in ice cages called clathrates might be released now.

The plumes were seen over areas that show evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water. Plumes appeared over the Martian northern hemisphere regions such as east of Arabia Terra, the Nili Fossae region, and the south-east quadrant of Syrtis Major, an ancient volcano about 1200 km across. The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons, spring and summer, perhaps because ice blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air. One released about 19,000 metric tons of methane.

One method of testing whether life produced the methane is by measuring isotope ratios: life prefers to use the lighter isotopes. Methane and water released on Mars should show distinctive ratios for isotopes of hydrogen and carbon if life was responsible for methane production. It will take future missions, like NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, to discover the origin of the Martian methane.

For images related to this finding visit:

-- condensed from a NASA press release, forwarded by Karen Pollard.

13. Faintest Brown Dwarfs So Far

The two faintest star-like objects ever found are a pair of brown dwarfs each just a millionth as bright as the sun.

Brown dwarfs are compact balls of gas floating freely in space, too cool and lightweight to be stars -- no thermo-nuclear processes heating their cores -- but too warm and massive to be planets. The name brown dwarf comes from the fact that these small star-like bodies change colour over time as they cool, and thus have no definitive colour. In reality, most brown dwarfs would appear reddish if they could be seen with the naked eye.

The Spitzer infra-red space telescope revealed a warm atmospheric temperature of 565 to 635 Kelvin (290 to 360 degrees Celsius). While this is hundreds of degrees hotter than Jupiter, it's still very cold for stars. In fact, the brown dwarfs, called 2MASS J09393548-2448279, or 2M 0939 for short, are among the coldest brown dwarfs measured so far.

Spitzer's measures also showed that the brown dwarfs, initially taken as one star, were a pair in binary orbit. Each has a mass of 30 to 40 times that of Jupiter. Both bodies are one million times fainter than the sun in total light, and at least one billion times fainter in visible light.

Three years of precise measurements at the Anglo-Australian Observatory showed that the pair are 17 light-years away. That makes 2M 0939 the fifth closest brown dwarf so far found.

The discovery team was led by Adam Burgasser and the results published the Astrophysical Journal Letters on 2008 Dec. 10.

-- condensed from a MIT and JPL press release forwarded by Karen Pollard.

14. More on Our Galaxy's Central Black Hole

A 16-year study team of German astronomers has provided more information about the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. Using telescopes at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile, the team watched 28 stars orbiting the black hole. One of the stars has now completed a full orbit.

The interstellar dust that fills the Galaxy blocks our direct view of the Milky Way's central region in visible light. So astronomers used infrared wavelengths that can penetrate the dust to probe the region. Work started in 1992 with a camera attached to ESO's 3.5-metre New Technology Telescope. Since 2002 one of the 8.2 metre Very Large Telescopes (VLT) has been used. Adaptive optics removed the blurring by our atmosphere allowing a precision of 300 microarcseconds in the star positions. This is the width of a one euro coin seen from 10 000 km. (A euro is the same size as a NZ one dollar or an Aussy two dollar coin.)

The orbiting stars show that the central object is four million times the mass of the sun. Thus it must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt. The observations also put the distance to the galactic centre at 27 000 light-years. The new study also showed that at least 95% of the mass sensed by the stars has to be in the black hole. There is thus little room left for other dark matter.

The number of star orbits is now large enough to look for common properties among them. It was found that the stars in the innermost region -- the central light-month -- are in random orbits, like a swarm of bees. Further out, six of the 28 stars orbit the black hole in a disc. It remains a mystery how these young stars came to be in these orbits. They are much too young to have migrated far, but it seems even more improbable that they formed in their current orbits where the tidal forces of the black hole act. Future observations are already being planned to test several theoretical models that try to solve this riddle.

The next major advance will be to combine the light from the four 8.2- metre VLT telescopes - a technique known as interferometry. This will improve the accuracy of the observations by a factor 10 to 100 over what is currently possible. This combination has the potential to directly test Einstein's general relativity in the presently unexplored region close to a black hole.

For more see

-- condensed from an ESO press release forwarded by Karen Pollard.

15. Most Distant Water in the Universe Found

Water has been detected in a galaxy more than 11 billion light-years from Earth. Previously, the most distant water had been seen in a galaxy less than 7 billion light-years from Earth.

The radio telescope in Effelsberg, Germany, and the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico detected a telltale radio "fingerprint" of water molecules in the distant galaxy. The radio frequency emitted by the water molecules was Doppler shifted by the expansion of the Universe from 22.2 GHz to 6.1 GHz.

The soggy galaxy, dubbed MG J0414+0534, harbours a quasar -- a super- massive black hole powering bright emission -- at its core. In the region near the core, the water molecules are acting as masers, the radio equivalent of lasers, to amplify radio waves at a specific frequency. The discovery indicates that such giant water masers were more common in the early Universe than they are today. MG J0414+0534 is seen as it was when the Universe was roughly one-sixth of its current age.

The very weak radio signal was amplified by gravitational lensing. A galaxy nearly 8 billion light-years away, on the line of sight from MG J0414+0534, focused the radio noise making it detectable.

For more see

-- condensed from a U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory press release forwarded by Karen Pollard.

16. The Cosmic Boogie-box

Whisper it not, but doing science can sometimes be a bit tedious. Traditionally, a researcher postulates an idea, devises an experiment to test it and then reports the results. Sometimes those results confirm the postulate; sometimes they confound it. Occasionally, though, something unexpected happens, and that is when the tedious gets exciting.

One such shock was the discovery in 1964 of the cosmic microwave background, by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, a pair of radio astronomers who were testing a receiver they planned to use to search the sky for localised sources of microwaves. The hiss they found at one particular frequency turned out to be evidence for the then-controversial idea that the universe had been born in a Big Bang. A similarly strange result was reported this week by stargazers gathered at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, California. Some of them reckon that, besides microwaves, the sky reverberates with the din of radio waves as well. If they are right, something very odd indeed is going on in the universe.

The astronomers in question work for NASA, America´s space agency. Michael Seiffert is based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Alan Kogut at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland. The postulate they had planned to test was that the first stars to form after the Big Bang would have left some signs of themselves in the form of radio waves. Their experiment was designed to find these signs. Their search used radio telescopes launched to the edge of the atmosphere on special balloons from a site in Palestine, Texas. The result they got was not, however, what they were looking for.

The microwave background is the earliest snapshot of the universe, taken a mere 300,000 years after the Big Bang and almost 700,000 years before the first stars are thought to have coalesced. It reveals the newborn universe to have been a remarkably uniform fireball. Dr Seiffert and Dr Kogut wanted to identify the point at which things stopped being so smooth and the universe started to develop the structures-galaxies, stars, planets and dust-that fill it today. It was for this reason that they were searching for signs of stars.

What they found, however, was a background hiss of radio noise, reminiscent of the hiss noticed by Dr Penzias and Dr Wilson. After ruling out nearby sources of radio waves, they concluded that their own hiss also comes from beyond the Milky Way and thus constitutes a cosmic radio background. Four papers describing the telescopes, the observations and their possible interpretation have been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal.

Why a cosmic radio background should be there remains a mystery. It does not appear to be coming from the primordial stars sought by the astronomers - indeed, it completely drowns out any signs of the early stars that were the object of the original quest. Nor are there enough radio galaxies around to account for it. It looks, therefore, like the sign of a previously unknown phenomenon.

Of course, some as-yet unidentified error could have been made. In that case, it will be back to the tedium. But Dr Seiffert, Dr Kogut and their colleagues are hoping that will not be the case, and that their discovery really will turn out to be worth making a noise about.

-- From The Economist 8 January 2009

17. Kingdon-Tomlinson Fund

The RASNZ is responsible for recommending to the trustees of the Kingdon Tomlinson Fund that grants be made for astronomical projects. The grants may be to any person or persons, or organisations, requiring funding for any projects or ventures that promote the progress of astronomy in New Zealand. Full details are set down in the RASNZ By-Laws, Section J.

For an application form contact the RASNZ Executive Secretary, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 14 Craigieburn Street, Darfield 7510.

18. 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., 14 Craigieburn Street, Darfield 7510.

19. 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. For overseas rates please check with the membership secretary, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

20. Your Stars for February

More of Madam X's horrorscopes relayed by Lloyd Esler: You get put on a pedestal by your peers - and a warning plaque attached. Your dream of being lionised come true - during your next visit to the zoo. You confuse the recipe book and the receipt book and issue your customers with rice puddings by mistake. You buy a clock guaranteed to last your lifetime. This means that when you go to rewind it, it explodes. You get a tough nut to crack. It´s off one of those bolts they use to hold pylons together. The dental bill is enormous. You answer the telephone while ironing and get a burnt ear. Norman Bates the plumber comes to fix the shower. `Should be OK,´ he says, `but can you give it a test?´ Two men in suits will call and persuade you to become a Frisbyterian. Frisbyterians believe that when you die your soul goes up onto the roof and nobody can get it down.

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

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