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First Light at the Saint Vincent College Observatory, the Perseid Meteor Shower 2014, and a Close Encounter with a Comet

By: Dr. John Smetanka
Posted Mon., August 11, 2014

 M13This has been an exciting summer at Saint Vincent. In addition to the 49th Steelers training camp and a number of other large groups visiting campus, the College’s observatory housing our 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope saw its first light. Dr. Vanden Berk, Brother Lawrence and I with students Stephen Castine and Logan Tautkus-berry have been improving the observatory, enhancing the telescope’s tracking and pointing, and testing CCD camera over the past two months. Several clear nights have allowed the work to move forward. The image to the right is of the Great Cluster in Hercules, M13, taken on August 4th. This globular star cluster contains approximately 300,000 stars and is one of the oldest structures in the Milky Way galaxy, forming about 11.5 billion years ago. This cluster orbits the center of the Milky Way and is 22,000 light years from the Sun.


M57 Halpha M57 colorThe images to the left are of M57, the Ring Nebula. This is a shell of gas around a star at the end of its life cycle. As the star’s core reaches a point it can no longer generate the energy needed to support itself against gravity, the core collapses inward causing a brief but intense brightening that ejects the outer atmosphere of the star outward. This stage in the star’s life is called the planetary nebula. Our sun will one day go through this stage before becoming a white dwarf star. The first of the two images above is a black and white image taken through a filter that is sensitive to emission from Hydrogen gas. The second was created by taking three images through different filters and combining them to produce a color image. Andromeda Galaxy - colorThe final image to the right is the nucleus of the Andromeda Galaxy in color. The light captured in this image traveled for the last 2.2 million years to cover the distance between the Milky Way, our galaxy, and Andromeda. Longer exposures would capture a disk of stars around the bright nucleus similar to the Milky Way. We expect to be taking more images on clear nights over the upcoming months.  


Each August, between the 10th and 13th, the Perseid meteor shower graces the summer night sky. As earth passes through the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which is littered with dust particles, trails of the vaporizing debris streak out of the eastern sky at a rate of 30 to 60 per hour. This year, a nearly full moon will mask most of the trails. However, in the early evening, before the moon rises toward the end of the week, you may be able to catch some of the “shooting stars”. Each streak is a small piece of a comet.


Last week, after ten years of traveling through the solar system, the European space craft Rosetta rendezvoused with the nucleus of another comet Churyumov-Gerasimeniko between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Nicknamed the Rubber Duck comet because lower-resolution images resemble the bathtub toy, the nucleus shape may be caused by asymmetric melting, the merger of two smaller comets, or it may imply that the nucleus is a loosely-bound debris pile. The image below is the highest resolution image ever taken of a comet (APOD: ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team; MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA). Later this year scientists hope to land a probe from Rosetta on the surface to help unlock the mystery of its shape and better understand comets. 
 Comet 

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Dr. John Smetanka,
Academic Affairs

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.