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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. MOA Finds Interstellar Planets
2. The RASNZ Conference
3. The Solar System in July
4. Hosts Sought for 2013 and 2014 Conferences
5. Women in the Sciences Conference
6. Last Solar Maximum?
7. Dawn Images Vesta
8. Cause of Amino Acid Variation in Asteroids Found
9. Apollo 50 years On
10. Gifford-Eiby Lecture Fund
11. Kingdon-Tomlinson Fund
12. How to Join the RASNZ
13. Quote

1. MOA Finds Interstellar Planets

"Free-floating" planets roaming interstellar space have been discovered by New Zealand and Japanese scientists, through a project co-established by Auckland University physicist Associate Professor Phil Yock. The Jupiter- mass objects are likely to be planets wandering around the Galaxy's core instead of orbiting host stars. Indications are that they might be nearly twice as numerous as the most common stars.

To find the wanderers, scientists turned their telescopes towards the Galactic Bulge surrounding the centre of the Milky Way. Using a technique called gravitational microlensing, they detected 10 Jupiter-mass planets wandering far from light-giving stars. Then they estimated the total number of such rogue planets, based on detection efficiency, microlensing- event probability and the relative rate of lensing caused by stars or planets. They concluded that there could be as many as 400 billion of these wandering planets, far outnumbering main-sequence stars such as our Sun. Their work is published in Nature on May 18.

The existence of free-floating planets has been predicted by planetary formation theory, but nobody knew how many there were. And because current theories of planet formation hold that lower-mass planets are more readily flung from developing planetary systems than are higher-mass planets, there could be a huge number of lighter planets on the loose.

Scientists from the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) and Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) collaborations used gravitational microlensing to detect the planets. Microlensing involves measuring changes in the brightness of distant, background stars as a passing planet's gravity bends and magnifies the starlight. As a result, the star brightens and fades in a pattern distinct from random twinkling, and the duration of brightening indicates the mass of the magnifying object.

Gregory Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says the authors have done a good job of ruling out other possible explanations for the light-distorting objects. But he adds that it's difficult to speculate about the number of unbound, lower-mass planets on the basis of the wandering Jupiters, because that assumes that they were formed by a similar mechanism to planets in our neighbourhood. "I think we might be seeing a different formation mechanism here, something more similar to that of a tiny star than a giant planet," he says. "But that's just a hypothesis."

The next steps in the search include confirming the absence of host stars and looking through new data for the footprints of smaller, Saturn- or Neptune-mass planets.

In the future, drifting Earth-mass planets could be detected using NASA's planned Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a space-based telescope capable of resolving the more rapid bright blips associated with lower-mass objects.

Phil Yock noted that "The work capitalises on New Zealand´s southern location. The centre of the galaxy is in the southern sky, and the dense stellar fields there provide frequent examples of the gravitational lensing effect. Since 1994 a number of observations of stars and planets have been made using the effect that could not have been made using conventional astronomical techniques, including detailed measurements of the shapes of distant stars and the discovery of a number of planets orbiting stars beyond their snowlines, where water freezes."

"The discovery of free-floating planets was made primarily by the MOA group but important supporting data were supplied by Polish scientists. The planets were discovered as gravitational lenses of weaker power than normal stellar lenses."

Dr Yock co-founded MOA with Professor Yasushi Muraki of Japan but says that it wouldn´t have been possible without Professor John Hearnshaw from Canterbury University lending a telescope at Mt John Observatory for the first 10 years. New Zealand´s largest telescope was later installed at the observatory for use by MOA, funded mainly by a grant to Professor Muraki. Many of the New Zealanders involved are Phil Yock's former students including Dr Ian Bond who now leads the New Zealand contribution from Massey University.

For more see

-- from press releases by 'Nature' and Auckland University.

2. The RASNZ Conference

The RASNZ wound up five days of stimulating meetings in Napier on Monday May 30th. The meeting was honoured by guest appearances of astro- photographer David Malin and Australian Astronomical Observatory director Fred Watson.

A workshop on occultations filled the Thursday and Friday before the conference proper. It attracted 30 participants, several from Australia with two more giving presentations via Skype or pre-recorded. Timing when the moon hides (occults) a star used to be important for longitude calculations. Later it provided a check on the moon's position and, still later, on its shape. With high-speed recording now available to backyard observers interest has moved to detecting and measuring close double stars. Timing how long an asteroid occults a star gives a measure of the asteroid's size to an accuracy of a few km. A new gadget to imprint GPS time onto video frames was unveiled at the workshop. Improvements to observation analysis software, already extensive and sophisticated, were also demonstrated.

Napier city councillor and Art Deco Ambassador John Cocking, aka 'Bertie', officially opened the Conference. Napier's now famous Art Deco buildings were the result of a directive from the rebuilding authorities -- a lawyer and an engineer -- after the 1931 earthquake. They banned stone (see Christchurch) and timber after the fire that followed the shake. Only reinforced concrete was allowed. A total of 167 buildings were built in two years. Napier's 2011 Art Deco festival sold $350,000 worth of tickets and ran for five days.

Graham Blow gave the Fellows Lecture "Reflections of an Astronomer". In it he recounted his astronomical progress from a 15-year-old with a 2.5- inch telescope, though joining the Auckland Astronomical Society and its scientific observing team, to the present. Memories of previously unpublished activities at Auckland Observatory enlivened the history. Later Graham formed the National Committee for Student Astronomy which attracted many youngsters, some of whom are RASNZ members today. In 1977 Graham started the Occultation Section. Its development and current strength was shown in the two-day workshop that preceded the Conference.

The Conference continued over the weekend. Presentations ranged from a tour of West Australian meteor craters to studies of the causes of curved relativistic jets in distant galaxies. Delightful reviews were provided by David Malin and Fred Watson. David's was a history of the Southern Cross from references in Dante through its incorporation in many flags -- with varying accuracy! -- to the current astrophysics of its stars and the surrounding space. Fred considered the chances of finding life elsewhere in the universe. After the Conference closed on Sunday afternoon Fred gave a lively public lecture, 'Timewarp', in which he included a history of gravity from Aristotle to Einstein.

An astro-photography workshop ('Aspro-photography' on the direction signs) was run by David Malin on Monday. This was mostly of interest to people attempting colour imaging of stars, either with CCDs or digital cameras but, as is usually the case, there was much useful information for those of us doing boring monochrome as well.

Thanks to the Hawkes Bay Astronomical Society members, most prominently Gary Sparkes and Graham Palmer, for smooth organisation at the superb War Memorial Conference Centre venue.

3. The Solar System in July

The usual notes on the visibility of the Planets for July 2011 are on the RASNZ web site: Notes for August 2011 will be on line in a few days.

The planets in july

Mercury moves a little further up into the evening sky during July to become an easy visual target soon after sunset. Saturn also remains an evening object, setting about 11pm by the end of July.

Mars and Jupiter remain as morning objects but Venus is too close to the Sun for observation.

A partial eclipse of the Sun on July 1 is visible from only a small area of ocean well south of South Africa, the area of visibility almost touching part of the coast of Antarctica at its southern edge. Even from within this area only a very small part of the Sun will be covered by the Moon, less than 10% at maximum. The central axis of the eclipse misses the Earth by over 3000 km.

This slight eclipse marks the start of a new Saros, or series of eclipses which will continue until the year 3237. This Saros is numbered number 156. Saros number 1 started in 2872 BC.

There will be 69 eclipses in the Saros starting on July 1. The first 8 will be partial, the next 52 annular and then the final 9 partial again. This particular Saros will have no total eclipses.

During July, Neptune has an anniversary, the planet will have completed its first complete orbit of the Sun since its discovery on 23 September 1846 by J G Galle and H L d'Arrest at the Berlin Observatory. As seen from the Sun, Neptune will be at the same position as at discovery on July 12. The period of Neptune is 164.8 years.

Evening sky

Mercury, is in the early evening sky during July. It will become readily visible especially later in the month. On the 1st it will set nearly 100 minutes after the Sun. 40 minutes after sunset the planet will be visible low to the northwest. Although low, at magnitude -0.4 it should be easily visible. On the 3rd a very thin crescent moon will be 5° above and slightly to the left of Mercury.

As July progresses, Mercury will gradually set a little later until by July 20 it sets about 2 hours and 40 minutes after the sun when it will be at its greatest angular distance from the Sun, as seen from the Earth. It will then be some 15° above the horizon 40 minutes after sunset, making it more readily visible, although a magnitude fainter. The planet will remain well placed for evening viewing for the rest of July.

Towards the end of July, Mercury will be within 3 or 4° of the 1.4 magnitude star Regulus, alpha Leo. The planet will be to the left of the star, starting below it, but climbing past it on the 25th and 26th.

Saturn remains in the evening sky during July, setting near 1am at the beginning of the month and about 11pm at the end. On July 1, Saturn will be highest and due north an hour or so after sunset, by the end of the month it will be highest before the sky darkens. Hence early evening viewing is going to give the best views.

During July, Saturn is in Virgo and will move slowly away from Porrima, the star it was close to during June. By the end of July, Saturn will be 2° above the star, with Spica 12.5° away almost directly above the planet. The small constellation, Corvus, with 4 second magnitude stars forming a distinctive kite shape group, will be about 18° to the upper left of Saturn.

The moon is closest to Saturn on the nights of July 7 and 8. On the 7th the 39% lit moon will be 11.5° to the left of Saturn, the following night the moon, now at first quarter, will be slightly closer, 9° above the planet.

Morning sky

Mars will get to rise just a few minutes earlier as July progresses, as will the Sun. As a result, Mars will not be noticeably higher in the morning sky. It will also remain at magnitude 1.4, so look for the planet at least 45 minutes before sunrise. The planet will then be about 12° up to the northeast.

Mars is in Taurus the Bull during July. In the first part of the month it will be within 5 or 6° of the star Aldebaran. At magnitude 1.0, Aldebaran will be a little brighter than Mars. It is a "red" star having a lower surface temperature than the Sun. To the eye it looks slightly orange, a similar colour to Mars itself. On July 1 Mars will be to the left of Aldebaran just below the line joining the star to the Pleiades cluster. Over the following mornings, Mars will get lower than the star, until by the 10th it will be almost directly below Aldebaran.

During the rest of July, Mars will move across Taurus and away from Aldebaran. On the 26th it will be between El Nath, beta Tau, magnitude 1.7 and the second star of the constellation, and zeta Tau at magnitude 3.0 the 4th brightest star in Taurus. The planet will be just over 5° from El Nath and half that distance from zeta.

On July 28, the crescent moon will be 1.5° from Mars. Before the moon rises in New Zealand it will occult Mars. The occultation is visible from some southern parts of the Pacific Ocean including Rarotonga and Tahiti.

Jupiter will rise shortly after 1am by the end of July, so it will be at a moderate altitude and readily visible in the early morning twilight. By the end of July Jupiter will be at its highest, due north, at about 6.30am. The planet is some way north of the equator at present, so when highest will be at a moderate altitude, ranging from 40° in the north to 30° in the south of NZ.

Jupiter is currently in Aries, during July it will be just over 10° from the two brightest stars of the constellation, Hamal, alpha Ari magnitude 2.0, and Sharatan, beta Ari magnitude 2.6. To the other side of Jupiter, Menkar, at magnitude 2.5 the brightest star in Cetus will be about 2 degrees further away from the planet.

On the morning of July 24, the 44% lit waning moon will be 6° to the lower left of Jupiter, between the planet and the two bright stars in Aries.

Venus is nominally a morning object rising less than an hour before the Sun at the beginning of July. So it will be a very low object to the northeast in the morning sky just before sunrise. During the rest of the month it gets even lower and become lost to view. By the end of July the planet will rise less than 10 minutes before the Sun.

*********** URANUS is essentially a morning object during July, although it will rise soon after 10 pm by the end of the month. The planet is in Pisces with its distance from Jupiter increasing to almost 35° by the 31st. Uranus remains at magnitude 5.8.

Neptune is in Aquarius during July. It will rise soon after 7pm by the end of Jul, so will be observable in the later evening sky. By the end of July it will be at magnitude 7.8

On July 12 Neptune will complete its first orbit of the Sun since its discovery in September 1846.

Brighter asteroids:

(1) Ceres is in Cetus and will before 10pm by the end of July. The asteroid will brighten from magnitude 8.9 to 8.4 during the month. It will be within a few degrees of beta Cet, magnitude 2.0 and the brightest star in Cetus. The two will be about 10° apart on the 1at and 7° apart on the 31st.

(4) Vesta also brightens by half a magnitude during July, from 6.3 to 5.7. By the end of the month it will rise close to the time of sunset and so be observable during the evening. The asteroid is in Capricornus,

More details and charts for these minor planets can be found on the RASNZ web site. Follow the link to asteroids 2011

-- Brian Loader

4. Hosts Sought for 2013 and 2014 Conferences

The RASNZ Standing Conference Committee (SCC) is now calling for applications to host either the 2013 or 2014 RASNZ Conferences.

RASNZ conferences are normally over a weekend. The Conference generally opens on a Friday evening and continues over the weekend to late Sunday afternoon. The RASNZ rules require the conference and AGM to be held during May unless the RASNZ Council approves an earlier or later date.

Under special circumstances Council may approve that a conference be held outside of May (e.g. second half of April or first half of June) if there are special reasons for doing so. However, because of the requirements of the Charities Commission, the AGM MUST be held prior to the end of June.

Proposals to host either the 2013 or 2014 conference should be in writing (electronic format in Ms Word, or PDF format is acceptable) and addressed to the RASNZ Standing Conference Committee. Proposals for hosting either conference should be submitted not later than 20 July 2011 and can either be emailed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or posted to:...

Pauline Loader RASNZ SCC 14 Craigieburn Street Darfield 7520

When submitting an application, please include a likely location (town/city) and venue. Please make sure you clearly state the name of your Society (or group) and who is the contact person for communications. If you have a special reason for wishing to host the RASNZ conference in a particular year (e.g. special events in your area or for your society) please include a note of this in your submission.

In general, the Local Organising Committee (LOC) looks after the arranging of the venue, catering, registrations, opening and after dinner speakers etc., as well as preparing the budget in conjunction with the RASNZ Standing Conference Committee. The Standing Conference Committee (SCC) is responsible for the programme, speakers etc., and ensuring the overall smooth operation of the Conference. The SCC will provide full support to the LOC and gives guidance in planning and budgeting if needed.

A full set of guidelines and conference requirements can be obtained from the RASNZ SCC by email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Any queries or questions may be sent to me (Pauline) by email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

-- Pauline Loader on behalf of the RASNZ Standing Conference Committee

5. Women in the Sciences Conference

The sixth triennial Association for Women in the Sciences (AWIS) conference is taking place on 28-29 July at SkyCity Auckland, and if you´re a women working in the science field then you need to be there!

The Developing Women - Advancing Science conference is designed to provide a forum for women working in research, business and education or studying science to learn from other women working in the New Zealand science industry. The conference programme will include keynotes and panel discussions with women who are leaders in their fields, workshops for career and personal development, as well as sessions to discuss some of the key scientific issues facing us in the 21st Century and opportunities to network with other women working in the New Zealand science industry.

More information, including the full programme, registration and abstract submission, can be found on the website at

-- from Belinda Bray, University of Auckland

6. Last Solar Maximum?

A missing jet stream, fading spots, and slower activity near the poles say that our Sun is heading for a rest period even as it is acting up for the first time in years, according to scientists at the U.S. National Solar Observatory (NSO) and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

As the current sunspot cycle, Cycle 24, begins to ramp up toward maximum, independent studies of the solar interior, visible surface, and the corona indicate that the next 11-year solar sunspot cycle, Cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all. The results were announced at the annual meeting of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society.

"This is highly unusual and unexpected," Dr. Frank Hill, associate director of the NSO´s Solar Synoptic Network, said of the results. "But the fact that three completely different views of the Sun point in the same direction is a powerful indicator that the sunspot cycle may be going into hibernation."

Spot numbers and other solar activity rise and fall about every 11 years, which is half of the Sun´s 22-year magnetic interval since the Sun´s magnetic poles reverse with each cycle. An immediate question is whether this slowdown presages a second Maunder Minimum, a 70-year period with virtually no sunspots during 1645-1715.

Hill is the lead author on one of three papers on these results being presented this week. Using data from the Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG) of six observing stations around the world, the team translates surface pulsations caused by sound reverberating through the Sun into models of the internal structure. One of their discoveries is an east-west zonal wind flow inside the Sun, called the torsional oscillation, which starts at mid-latitudes and migrates towards the equator. The latitude of this wind stream matches the new spot formation in each cycle, and successfully predicted the late onset of the current Cycle 24.

"We expected to see the start of the zonal flow for Cycle 25 by now," Hill explained, "but we see no sign of it. This indicates that the start of Cycle 25 may be delayed to 2021 or 2022, or may not happen at all."

In the second paper, Matt Penn and William Livingston see a long-term weakening trend in the strength of sunspots, and predict that by Cycle 25 magnetic fields erupting on the Sun will be so weak that few if any sunspots will be formed. Spots are formed when intense magnetic flux tubes erupt from the interior and keep cooled gas from circulating back to the interior. For typical sunspots this magnetism has a strength of 2,500 to 3,500 gauss (Earth´s magnetic field is less than 1 gauss at the surface); the field must reach at least 1,500 gauss to form a dark spot.

Average magnetic field strength in sunspot umbras has been steadily declining for over a decade. The trend includes sunspots from Cycles 22, 23, and (the current cycle) 24.

Using more than 13 years of sunspot data collected at the McMath-Pierce Telescope at Kitt Peak in Arizona, Penn and Livingston observed that the average field strength declined about 50 gauss per year during Cycle 23 and now in Cycle 24. They also observed that spot temperatures have risen exactly as expected for such changes in the magnetic field. If the trend continues, the field strength will drop below the 1,500 gauss threshold and spots will largely disappear as the magnetic field is no longer strong enough to overcome convective forces on the solar surface.

Moving outward, Richard Altrock, manager of the Air Force´s coronal research program at NSO´s Sunspot, New Mexico, facilities has observed a slowing of the "rush to the poles," the rapid poleward march of magnetic activity observed in the Sun´s faint corona. Altrock used four decades of observations with NSO´s 40-cm (16-inch) coronagraphic telescope at Sunspot.

"A key thing to understand is that those wonderful, delicate coronal features are actually powerful, robust magnetic structures rooted in the interior of the Sun," Altrock explained. "Changes we see in the corona reflect changes deep inside the Sun."

Altrock used a photometer to map iron heated to 2 million degrees C. Stripped of half of its electrons, it is easily concentrated by magnetism rising from the Sun. In a well-known pattern, new solar activity emerges first at about 70 degrees latitude at the start of a cycle, then towards the equator as the cycle ages. At the same time, the new magnetic fields push remnants of the older cycle as far as 85 degrees poleward.

"In cycles 21 through 23, solar maximum occurred when this rush appeared at an average latitude of 76 degrees," Altrock said. "Cycle 24 started out late and slow and may not be strong enough to create a rush to the poles, indicating we´ll see a very weak solar maximum in 2013, if at all. If the rush to the poles fails to complete, this creates a tremendous dilemma for the theorists, as it would mean that Cycle 23´s magnetic field will not completely disappear from the polar regions (the rush to the poles accomplishes this feat). No one knows what the Sun will do in that case."

All three of these lines of research to point to the familiar sunspot cycle shutting down for a while. "If we are right," Hill concluded, "this could be the last solar maximum we´ll see for a few decades. That would affect everything from space exploration to Earth´s climate."

Copied from suns-fading-spots-signal-big-drop-in-solar-activity/

See also solar-minimums-affect-earth/ and the March Newsletter, Item 12.

Thanks to Kerry Rodgers for pointing out these commentaries.

7. Dawn Images Vesta

Scientists working with NASA's Dawn spacecraft have made a video showing the giant asteroid Vesta as the spacecraft approaches. The loop of 20 images obtained on June 1 shows a dark feature near Vesta¹s equator moving from left to right across the field of view as Vesta rotates. Images also show Vesta's jagged, irregular shape, hinting at the enormous crater known to exist at Vesta's south pole. Dawn was about 480,000 km from Vesta.

Before orbiting Vesta on July 16, Dawn will gently slow down to about 120 km/h. NASA is expecting to release more images on a weekly basis, with more frequent images available once the spacecraft begins collecting science at Vesta. See them on

-- from a NASA JPL press release forwarded by Karen Pollard.

8. Cause of Amino Acid Variation in Asteroids Found

Some asteroids may have been like 'molecular factories' cranking out Life's ingredients and shipping them to Earth via meteorite impacts, according to scientists who've made discoveries of molecules essential for life in material from certain kinds of asteroids and comets. Now it appears that at least one may have been less like a rigid assembly line and more like a flexible diner that doesn't mind making changes to the menu.

In January, 2000, a large meteoroid exploded in the atmosphere over northern British Columbia, Canada, and rained fragments across the frozen surface of Tagish Lake. Because many people witnessed the fireball, pieces were collected within days and kept preserved in their frozen state. This ensured that there was very little contamination from terrestrial life. Researchers considered the first Tagish Lake samples -- the ones collected within days of the fall -- as the closest we have to an asteroid sample return mission in terms of cleanliness.

The Tagish Lake meteorites are rich in carbon and, like other meteorites of this type, contained an assortment of organic matter including amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. What was new is that different pieces had greatly differing amounts of amino acids. Some pieces have 10 to 100 times the amount of specific amino acids than other pieces, a variability not seen from a single parent asteroid before. Only one other meteorite fall, called Almahata Sitta, matches Tagish Lake in terms of diversity, but it came from an asteroid that appears to be a mash-up of many different asteroids.

By identifying the different minerals present in each fragment, the researchers were able to see how much each had been altered by water. They found that various fragments had been exposed to different amounts of water, and suggest that water alteration may account for the diversity in amino acid production. This gives new insights into the role that water plays in the modification of pre-biotic molecules on asteroids.

It is the first clear evidence that water percolating through the asteroid parent body caused some molecules to be formed and others destroyed. The Tagish Lake meteorite gives a unique window into what was happening to organic molecules on asteroids four-and-a-half billion years ago, and the pre-biotic chemistry involved.

If the variability in Tagish Lake turns out to be common, it shows researchers have to be careful in deciding whether meteorites delivered enough bio-molecules to help jump-start life. Biochemical reactions are concentration dependent. Below a certain limit nothing happens. One meteorite might have levels below the limit, but the diversity in Tagish Lake shows that collecting just one fragment might not be enough to get the whole story.

Although the meteorites were the most pristine ever recovered, there is still some chance of contamination though contact with the air and surface. However, in one fragment, the amino acid abundances were high enough to show they were made in space by analyzing their isotopes.

Isotopes are versions of an element with different masses; for example, carbon 13 is a heavier, and less common, variety of carbon. Since the chemistry of life prefers lighter isotopes, amino acids enriched in the heavier carbon 13 were likely created in space. The amino acids in a fragment of Tagish Lake were enriched in carbon 13, indicating they were probably created by non-biological processes in the parent asteroid.

The Tagish Lake research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, and NASA. The team consulted researchers at the Goddard Astrobiology Analytical Lab for their expertise with the difficult analysis. The Goddard Lab plans to refine its techniques with additional such work so it can apply them to the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission. OSIRIS- REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security - - Regolith Explorer) will be launched toward asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2016 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.

For more see

-- from a NASA Goddard press release forwarded by Karen Pollard.

9. Apollo 50 years On

Fifty years ago, on May 25th 1961, President John Kennedy summoned a joint session of Congress and asked America to commit itself to the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. If it succeeded, he said, it would not be one man going to the moon-"it will be an entire nation". A little over eight years later, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on to the lunar surface, the snowy images beamed down to Houston stamped an indelible memory on a generation of earthlings.

Some say that Kennedy conceived of the race to the moon principally to recover from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs. John Logsdon, the doyen of American space studies, takes a more generous view in his new book ("John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon", Palgrave Macmillan). Kennedy was not especially interested in space, and said as much in private. But after the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit he believed it to be vital for America to take on and beat the Soviets at something very hard. The moon fitted this need like a glove. Planting a man on its surface required no big technological innovations, says Mr Logsdon, "just very expensive mastery over nature using the scientific and technological knowledge available in 1961".

As to whether it is was worthwhile, there is no accountant´s answer even 50 years on. The Apollo project cost about $150 billion in 2010 dollars, five times as much as the Manhattan Project and 18 times the cost of digging the Panama Canal. It is not easy today to remember how imperative it seemed back then for the free world to show that it could outperform its totalitarian rival. But the moon landing was more than a win in the cold war. It also changed the way people of all nations thought about themselves and the planet they share. It showed that it really was possible for man to step out of this world into another. Apollo 8´s photographs of a little Earth, shining vulnerably in a great black emptiness, made people aware of the planet´s fragility and helped to spur the green movement.

And yet the jubilee of the Kennedy speech comes at a difficult time for American space policy. The launch this week of the space shuttle Endeavour received special attention because it was commanded by Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of the wounded Arizona congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, who has recovered well enough from January´s shooting to see him off. More significant, it is Endeavour´s last flight. When Atlantis makes its own final voyage in mid-July, the whole 30-year programme of shuttle flights will come to an end.

The shuttles never captured the public imagination in the manner of the moon programme. How could they? These were workhorses, hurled aloft by rockets but landing like aeroplanes so they could be used time and time again. They were confined to low-earth orbit, where they did the unglamorous job of launching satellites or ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. Public opinion was shocked by the tragedies, such as the losses of Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), but unmoved by the workaday successes. And there was, in fact, less success than advertised. They were too cantankerous to fly as often or as inexpensively as planned, so the hope of doing things more cheaply in space evaporated. Nothing came of the dream that men would build factories in space to grow exotic crystals or spin fabulous metals that could not be made on the gravity-polluted Earth.

What the shuttles did provide, however, was a way for America to carry people into low-earth orbit. Once the fleet is grounded, America will for a while have no means of its own to deliver men and women to any part of space. After the usual energetic lobbying by aerospace companies and other vested interests, Congress has ordered the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to build a mighty new rocket, bigger than Apollo´s Saturn V, capable of lifting a manned vehicle into deep space. But Mr Obama has cancelled plans to revisit the moon, no other destination has been specified, and this "rocket to nowhere" will not be ready until 2016 at the very earliest. In the meantime, American spacefarers bound even for low-earth orbit will have to hitch a ride on a Russian craft or one of the as yet unproven vehicles under development by the private sector.

To many Americans, neglecting human space flight this way looks like a sorry end to the glorious chapter Kennedy opened half a century ago. He set out to make America´s achievements in space an emblem of national greatness, and the project succeeded. Yet it did not escape the notice of critics even at the time that this entailed an irony. The Apollo programme, which was summoned into being in order to demonstrate the superiority of the free-market system, succeeded by mobilising vast public resources within a centralised bureaucracy under government direction. In other words, it mimicked aspects of the very command economy it was designed to repudiate.

That may be why subsequent efforts to transfer the same fixity of purpose to broader spheres of peacetime endeavour have fallen short. If we can send a man to the moon, people ask, why can´t we [fill in the blank]? Lyndon Johnson tried to build a "great society", but America is better at aeronautical engineering than social engineering. Mr Obama, pointing to competition from China, invokes a new "Sputnik moment" to justify bigger public investment in technology and infrastructure. It should not be a surprise that his appeals have gone unheeded. Putting a man on the moon was a brilliant achievement. But in some ways it was peculiarly un- American-almost, you might say, an aberration born out of the unique circumstances of the cold war. It is a reason to look back with pride, but not a pointer to the future.

-- "The Economist", Lexington, 25 May 2011, p. 46.

10. 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

11. 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. R O'Keeffe, 662 Onewhero-Tuakau Bridge Rd, RD 2, TUAKAU 2697

12. 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..

13. Quote

"Pluto Dumped by the Uber-Nerds of Prague" -- A newspaper headline seen by Fred Watson in August 2006 after the IAU General Assembly in Prague voted to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status.

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