March 3, 2024

By Nick Strobel | 02/26/24
Early March at 5 AM looking southeast and Inset: mid-March at 7 PM looking west-southwest

March is named after the Roman god of war, Mars, and the William M Thomas Planetarium is celebrating the month of Mars with our two Mars future missions shows “Mars 1001” and “Destination Mars” being shown on March 7 and 14, respectively. See the Planetarium’s website for more details about the shows.

Congratulations to the Intuitive Machines for making the first successful U.S. landing on the moon since the Apollo missions over 50 years ago. The Odysseus lander arrived at the Malapert A Crater in the lunar south pole region after having to make another orbit around the moon to switch over to an alternate navigation instrument. Odysseus is the first commercially-developed lander to successfully land on the moon and at 85 degrees south latitude, Odysseus is the closest landing to the moon’s south pole yet.

There are still some bugs to be worked out as it appears that Odysseus might have broken one of its legs on landing or one of its legs landed on a large rock, so Odysseus is tipped over on its side. A small lander hitching a ride on Odysseus called the EagleCAM cubesat did not get released prior to landing as planned, so the extra mass still onboard while landing might have contributed to the current pitched over condition. Odysseus is still functioning and sending us data and will do so until the sun sets for a long two-week (or so) night. Intuitive Machines will send a follow-up mission (IM-2) sometime in the second half of the year that will feature a one-meter long drill to test whether it can find and reach water ice below the surface.

Thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, we’re now 99% certain that the nearest stellar death supernova in recent memory did, indeed produce a neutron star core remnant, when the massive star’s core collapsed in early 1987. It occurred in one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud, 168,000 light years away, so 1987 is when the supernova’s burst of light finally reached us after traveling for 168,000 years.

Webb’s infrared detectors have detected the emission lines of highly-ionized argon and sulfur from the center of the SN1987A remnant—emission lines that would be produced by X-rays from a super-hot, young neutron star zapping the dust and gas immediately surrounding the neutron star. To close the remaining 1% uncertainty, we’ll have to wait for the central dust to clear up enough for us to detect radio or X-ray pulsations from the neutron star or directly imaging the bright X-ray point of the neutron star.

A couple of astronomy research news making the headlines in the general media were the super-duper massive black hole (17 billion times the mass of the sun) at the center of the most luminous quasar found yet and the detection of another “ultra-large-scale structure” that is an arc about 4.1 billion light years long.  Both are extremely far away: the most luminous quasar’s light has been traveling for about 12.3 billion years and the huge arc is about 9.2 billion light years away. Both objects also challenge the prevailing explanations of how things form.

We’ve had a difficult time trying explain how smaller supermassive black holes get so big so quickly. Supermassive black holes at the centers of most galaxies have become large by swallowing up stars and gas clouds that get too close. The speed of growth by this method seems implausibly large and the latest find only makes matters worse.

The universe is thought to be uniform on very large scales (the “cosmological principle”). Smaller scales like stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters, and superclusters can be lumpy but on large enough scales, one part of the universe should look basically like another part of the universe if our understanding of the universe’s structure and development is correct. Well, the ultra-large-scale arc is much larger than we thought was possible. Now, the arc is not easy to see at all. It was only after looking at the absorption of light from distant quasars and a lot of statistical analysis could the feature be detected. We don’t need to scrap the standard cosmology explanations yet. It is possible that the arc is an artifact of finding structure in pure noise or that it is an unbound structure like what we occasionally see arising in our computer cosmology simulations. The solution: a lot more observations and finding independent methods of detecting the arc’s presence.

Much closer to home, night owls might have seen the third (last) quarter moon rise right next to the bright star, Antares, at the heart of Scorpius this morning at about 1:30 a.m. Those in the southeastern U.S. and Mexico, Central America and northern part of South America would have seen the moon cover up Antares. Two nights later (March 5) the waning crescent moon will be right in the middle of the Teapot part of Sagittarius. A week later on Wednesday, March 13 a waxing crescent moon, lit up on the other side, will be right next to brilliant Jupiter, high in the southwest at sunset. The following night, a fatter crescent moon will be next to the gorgeous star cluster the Pleiades in Taurus.

Next Sunday morning, March 10, is the start of daylight saving when our clocks spring forward an hour!

Nick Strobel

Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College

Author of the award-winning website