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Meetings of European Planetary and Cometary Observers
and other pan-European planetary amateur activities


CFHT also saw the expanding ejecta cloud

But no other really convincing observations (of anything) in hand yet

[Sep. 5, 2006] Two days after SMART-1's demise, the only clearcut and detailled observations of the impact remain those from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope where the special website has been updated in the last day or so. By clever image processing, a faint asymmetric expanding ejecta cloud has been made visible as revealed in this 10-image movie covering the first 130 seconds after the impact (courtesy Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope / 2006). It looks like the cloud - seen here illuminated by earthshine only - spreads too quickly for anything to reach direct sunlight later, and if it did, the CFHT would certainly have detected it. The IR flash of the actual impact at 5:42:22.394 UTC (according to Australian radio telescopes tracking SMART-1's radio carrier) was brighter than most had anticipated, P. Ehrenfreund had reported at an ESOC news conference yesterday, but the CFHT astronomers are not ready yet to discuss actual magnitude values in public: The heavy saturation of the one image makes photometry quite challenging.

The neighboring IRTF also recorded fine data of the impact, Ehrenfreund said, both imaging and spectrocopy, though she had nothing concrete to show yet. But she stressed that observations at several observatories were continuing, looking for possible effects from the impact on the Moon's exosphere and also to search for the ejecta blanket in sunlight (from Sep. 6). And then there is one amateur movie from Peter Lipscomb in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, who writes: "The maps I found online were hard to for me to interpret and because I am unfamiliar with the area near the crash site, I almost missed it! I used a ToUcam Pro on an 8" LX-90 at f/10. I had the webcam at 5 FPS with a pretty high gain and saturation. Clouds threatened to spoil the show." In a first reaction chief amateur data collector Detlef Koschny called this movie "quite convincing" but as there were so many negative reports (and also now the CFHT movie with its implications), "we need to critically check the observation" before determining whether Lipscomb's detection is real and if so what was actually seen there.


Impact on time, bright IR flare seen!

[Sep. 3, 2006] So far only an impressive image series from the CFHT on Hawaii is in hand, but more data from professional observatories may come while amateur astronomers have apparently looked in vain for effects: The impact of SMART-1 which worked until the end, has happened exactly as planned, an end of mission in style. ESOC's guests in the wee hours today could actually follow events inside the main control room, normally off limits during crucial mission phases - but SMART-1 was doomed anyhow. Tomorrow more insights from the final hours will be revealed in a news conference at 11:00 CEST.


The latest (detailled) paper on the SMART-1 impact!

[Aug. 31, 2006] A 10-page document dated August 29 is now available (PDF); it still gives 5:41 UTC as the nominal impact time (5:41:51 UTC to be exact) and 00:36 UTC for an impact one orbit earlier which is still a possibility. (Impacts another orbiter earlier or later cannot be excluded completely; those would take place around 19:31 UTC on Sep. 2 or 10:46 UTC on Sep. 3.) Plus ESA Releases on SMARTs final images and its mapping of the impact site and the latest media plan (PDF) for the night Sep. 2/3.


SMART-1 impact: last call for ground based observations

[Aug. 23, 2006] If you are a professional or amateur astronomer and want to contribute to the final phase of the SMART-1 mission, join ESA on the impact ground observation campaign. "We call for ground-based observations mostly to study impact physics, the release of spacecraft volatiles, and the lofted soil mineralogy," says Bernard Foing, SMART-1 Project Scientist at ESA: "We look for fast imaging of the impact and of the associated ejected material, and for spectroscopic analysis, for example to find hints about the mineralogy of the impact area. Even if the impact at 2 kilometres per second is of modest energy, the plume might be observable if it reaches sunlight, with an amateur telescope or binoculars. For sites not covering the time of impact, we ask for context observations before and after impact to look for the ejecta blanket." A trim manoeuvre at the end of July has determined that the impact will most likely occur on 3 September 2006 at 07:41 CEST (05:41 UTC), or at 02:36 CEST (00:36 UTC) on the previous orbit due to uncertainties in the detailed knowledge of the lunar topography: ESA Release. Also how Europe rediscovers the Moon with SMART-1 - and an invitation to teachers to a hands on workshop with Venus Express data on 20 September at the European Planetary Science Congress 2006 in Berlin!


SMART-1 towards final impact

[Aug. 4, 2006] SMART-1, the successful first European spacecraft to the Moon, is now about to end its exploration adventure, after almost sixteen months of lunar science investigations: ESA Release with more details about the end of the mission - the nominal impact times remains at 7:41 CEST, but there is still a possibility of hitting a hill during the previous orbit, at 2:37 CEST. This detailled Primer is thus outdated, at least w.r.t. the impact time. And there is a thread on the impact on Unmanned Spaceflight.


Multi-Nation Moon collaboration backed

[Aug. 2, 2006] A string of robot spacecraft will shoot for the Moon within the next two years, departing from Japan, China, India, as well as the United States. [...] The data churned out from the flotilla will be significant, helping to shape a planned International Lunar Decade. Steps are now being taken to better coordinate and exchange data gleaned by the upcoming volley of lunar orbiters: Space.com. 8th ILEWG International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon - Lunar Beijing Declaration: ESA. Crash Landing on the Moon - in 1959, a spaceship fell out of the lunar sky and hit the ground near the Sea of Serenity. The ship itself was shattered, but its mission was a success. Luna 2 from the Soviet Union had became the first manmade object to "land" on the Moon: Science@NASA.


New - later - impact time for SMART-1 now official

[July 26, 2006] It is 5:41 UTC (still ±7 hours) on the morning of Sep. 3, as mentioned in passing in an ESA Release on plans for radio observations of the impact, while Spaceflight Now stresses that further tweaking of SMART's orbit could change the time again. The 5:40-45 range for the impact time after the huge orbital correction had been known in the impact community since July 5 but we had been asked not to talk about it yet - apparently the outcome is now official.


International Lunar Decade proposed by the Planetary Society

[July 20, 2006] In a paper at the COSPAR conference representatives of the Society are proposing an International Lunar Decade, inspired by the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), the International Space Year (1992) and the International Polar Year (2007-08). "An International Lunar Decade might spur a similar reinvigoration of lunar exploration and lead to an international effort to send humans on to other worlds," believes its exec. director: "An International Lunar Decade also can bolster lunar research and analysis by scientists from developing countries and non-spacefaring nations. That, we hope, would enlarge the world community exploring the solar system." And he promises that the "Society will work with all those going to the Moon. We'll follow the national missions and bring an international perspective to the combination of missions. Another reason for our trip this week is to build relations with the Chinese and other space agencies and scientists involved in lunar missions." Meanwhile in today's Nature (p. 234) VMC PI H.U. Keller talks about damage to the Venus Monitoring Camera which was "pointing at the Sun for about 50 hours", which burned its image into the CCD! But "we have been able to compensate for the damage by re-measuring the sensitivity of each pixel." (Still one wonders how that could have happened ...) And John Sussenbach in the Netherlands keeps posting stunning UV views of Venus taken in recent days with a C 11 and the Schüler filter.


More (somewhat 'rawer') VEX images released!

[July 13, 2006] A report on the Mission Commissioning Results Review of Venus Express as well as another ESA Press Release contain many previously unpublished VMC, VIRTIS and ASPERA images, movies(!) and maps - clearly the sharpest hi-contrast views of Venus' clouds since Galileo's! The German chapter of the Mars Society has also gotten hold of some data from the VeRa experiment (radio sounding). And in Nature of July 6 a full page (page 7) has been devoted to the VEX pictures released in late June. The lengthy caption explains that "scientists are busy planning craft's future observations, so they have had little chance to look at the data flooding in." First thoughts on what those may mean will be presented at the COSPAR meeting in Beijing which convenes on July 16. Meanwhile on the ALPO Japan site stunning new amateur Venus views in the UV have appeared, e.g. taken yesterday in the Netherlands!


Will there be another sodium tail of the Moon caused by the SMART-1 crash?

[July 12, 2006] At the workshop the topic of sodium release from the lunar soil as a consequence of the impact - as was observed after the 1998 Leonids; see here for papers & pictures - came up. I have contacted the lead theoretician of the team that discovered the transient lunar sodium tail - and within an hour, the reply was here:

"My short answer is that I don't expect a big effect in sodium, but people should look anyways because you never know for sure!

The 1998 Leonid meteor shower resulted in about 10 kg of extra sodium escaping from the Moon over a period of about 12 hours. The amount of sodium that escaped into the tail was only a fraction of the total sodium that was vaporized by the Leonid meteor impacts. Also keep in mind that the lunar soil is less than 1% sodium. That means that much more than 1000 kg of lunar soil in total had to be vaporized by the Leonids to give us 10 kg of sodium escaping to space.

But there is another problem. Leonid meteors move at 71 km/s. A spacecraft impacting at (say) 2 km/s has less than 0.1% of the energy per unit mass than a Leonid meteor. And energy is what you need to vaporize lunar soil to make atomic sodium gas. I'm not an expert in impact physics - will a 2 km/s impact even produce a shock wave? I'm not sure. It doesn't help that the spacecraft is 'hollow' - one part will hit the surface before another, and some of the energy will be used up crumpling the metal in-between.

As for the hydrazine on the spacecraft: it may be possible to detect lines of N and H from the expanding gas cloud, but these gases will not form a tail behind the Moon. Sodium and potassium form tails behind the Moon because they scatter sunlight very efficiently, and the process of scattering photons results in a net force that pushes the atoms away from the Sun. Sodium and potassium are much more efficient at this than other species relative to their atomic weights.

Unfortunately the lunar phase on Sept. 3 makes it impossible to detect the lunar sodium tail. We can't detect it at all on nights that are only 3 days away from New Moon, so 9 days away is probably out of the question. [...]

Regards-

-Jody Wilson"


Blog for Smart-1 impact launched (and other news)

[July 7, 2006] Here a Brazilian blog (somewhat overloaded with inlined images) can be followed; the impact times mentioned presently are already outdated, though, after the final orbital correction. The impact will still happen in the night Sep. 2/3, 2006; new timing information will be released soon by ESA through official channels (where since June only reports on further lunar observations by SMART-1 have appeared). The impending impact is already making occasional news among German space buffs and at the Planetary Society, but there has been little so far in the general press wherever.Finally, the minutes and a summary of the Graz workshop as well as D. Koschny's SMART-1 talk (with the old times) are now on this server in PDF format.


Call for Smart-1 impact point observations

Open letter to the observers' community from Detlef Koschny, ESTEC

[July 3, 2006] Dear all,

to get our amateur observations for Smart-1 going, I'd invite you all to observe the Smart-1 impact site on the Moon in the next few days. Remember that Smart-1 will impact according to the current estimates on 03 Sep 2006 02h UT +/- 7 h. The impact location for a 02 h UT impact is 34 deg S, 44.1 deg W, 80" from the terminator. The phase of the Moon will be two days after half moon. Thus, the lunar phase will be the same on 05 July, two days from now!

Thus, this time is the perfect test to take some images and see how the Moon looks like, what the straylight level in your telescope is, etc. Submit your images and they may make it on an ESA web site.

I would propose the following imaging projects:

(1) image the complete Moon at the same phase as during the impact;
(2) perform some video imaging of the impact site (which is in the dark...) to check the straylight level. For PR purposes, do some tests with the illuminated part in the field of view (if your field of view is large enough);
(3) perform some long-exposure images to see the unilluminated side of the Moon in earthshine - this we would use during the actual impact to search for ejecta clouds;
(4) same as (3), but using filters - preferably some standard filters (U, B, V, R or R, G, B - whatever you have);
(5) The impact area will be at the terminator 06 - 07 June. Image the impact area when illuminated (we may be able to combine it with Smart-1 images for stereo views);
(6) same as (5), but using filters, as in (4).

If you get some results - videos, still images - send them to me and to Joerg Weingrill [...] who offered to volunteer for collecting the data [...]. There is a possibility that we produce a web story about the Smart-1 impact where some of your images may be posted (of course giving credit to you), I will coordinate with our web people.

Obviously in the future we'll collect the data via a web site with standard information etc. as discussed in the EuroPlanet workshop, but to get some quick feedback I propose the email solution for now.

So, please get out and do some observing!

Enjoy, Detlef.


Amateur astronomers attend first EuroPlaNet conference at much reduced rate!

[July 3, 2006] I have just been informed by one of the organizers of the European Planetary Science Congress 2006 in Berlin, Germany, 18 - 22 September 2006 that there will be "a registration fee for astronomers and teachers for 30.- pre-registration and 45 EUR on-site registration. The table on the web will be updated soon."


Important Meeting rejuvenates Pro-Am Connection in European Planetary Science

EuroPlaNet fosters amateur role in coordinated observations of the SMART-1 crash and in concert with Venus Express

[June 28, 2006] A unique workshop took place on June 25/26, 2006, at the Institut für Weltraumforschung der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Graz, Austria: More than a dozen amateur astronomers from Austria, Germany, Italy and the U.K. met with representatives from ESA (one of which being said U.K. amateur at the same time!) and other space science organizations for lively discussions about future amateur support for specific ESA space missions. The meeting - called »Joint N3/N4 Workshop on Amateur Astronomer Coordinated Observations in Support of Venus Express and SMART-1« - was convened by the N3 Networking Activity of the European Planetology Network, which itself is part of the 6th Framework Programme of the European Council. In a nutshell, 2 million Euros are available for a period of 48 months (that started on Jan. 1, 2005), to be spent for promotion and support for the networking and coordination of research and innovation activites, i.e. they are not to be spent on actual research or even hardware but for meetings like the one we are talking about. Everyone who gave a presentation at the workshop thus had all travel expenses being paid vor, excellent catering included.

The reason for founding EuroPlaNet (which will hopefully grow in scope and funding after the initial 4 years) was the lack of support for Europe's planetary scientists after their successful space missions: ESA pays for the spacecraft, individual nations pay for the instruments, but the data analysis afterwards was not up to e.g. the American standard (where NASA pays for this crucial phase of the science process, too). EuroPlaNet offers support here in various areas, including the coordination of Earth-based and space observations (N3) and the development of effective outreach to the public at large (N4) - and for the first time amateur astronomers were involved at the Graz meeting. It had been convened on very short notice, and so many important communities (esp. France, Spain and Eastern Europe) were not represented, but to my knowledge what we who came presented was about typical for the state of the art in the whole continent. The first big thing where amateur observers - though probably not European ones - can play a role is the crash of the SMART-1 spacecraft onto the Moon on September 3rd around 2:00 UTC (the actual time depends on the outcome of a final trajectory correction in progress right now and won't be known before mid-July). Numerous possibilities for useful observations (as well as the involvement of public observatories in outreach activites) were discussed: It will be tough and the chances for success are unclear, but it is worth the effort (details will follow).

The other topic of the meeting involved observations of Venus at specific wavelengths where either cloud structure can be seen in reflection (UV) or in absorption against IR emission from below (near-IR): As reviewed by several speakers, esp. J. Hatton, a handful of amateurs has reached an amazing stage of observational capabilities, and there are even movies (!) of clouds moving over time. Such imagery can be a great help to put the observations by the VMC and VIRTIS instruments onboard Venus Express or VEX into context, and few professional observatories have the time and resources to do this job on a regular basis. Plus the quality some »amateurs« are reaching in planetary imaging in the modern webcam/image stacking/processing era can easily be called professional, as outlined e.g. by myself in a review of German planetary observing. A lot of stunning material is produced, but the archiving is happening all over the world and in a confusing manner (the WWW is just too easy to use ...): A lot of discussion centered around the wiseness of more stringent archiving which on the other hand must not deter people from submitting their data in the first place. The mask used by the WAA for observing reports could be a template.

Even more debate - beyond the scope of such an amateur-heavy meeting - is necessary regarding the data flow in the opposite direction, i.e. from the spacecraft instrument teams to the amateurs participating in the joint projects as well as to the public at large. VEX in the early months has actually been an example how not to proceed: The amateur data gathered under the VAOP are presently disappearing largely into an invisible archive (with only tantalizing glimpses in the open so far) and only those being submitted in parallel to visible depositories such as the one run by ALPO in Japan are directly and fully accessible (and can thus serve as controls as well as inspirations) to others. None of the material collected by professional ground-based observatories in support of VEX is visible at all, to my knowledge. And the images from the spacecraft - which were amazing by all standards already in late April! - were held back for months under policies vastly different from those currently in play at NASA. A few glimpses of those hidden gems were revealed at the Graz meeting - and two days afterwards some new images were finally released by ESA (not that our meeting had anything to do with it :-).

For the short-term problem of coordinating observations in support of SMART-1's end of mission, an experimental communications and data storage structure will probably be put in place at the IWF - given the uncertainties of what will happen when the lunar orbiter turns into an artificial comet impacting at 2 km/s, it's hard to even guess what kind of data could come in. Before-and-after (false) color high-resolution imaging of the impact site - also to be known with greater precision after mid-July - will be one task open to everyone around the world with a modest-sized telescope, and instructions will be distributed. Observations of the impact itself will - assuming a crash at the nominal time - be possible only from (esp. South) America, where an Italian robotic amateur telescope may actually see it (together with tons of really big professional scopes). Should there be a mountain in the way, leading to an impact one orbit = 5 hours earlier, the crash would happen with the Moon some 5° high in Central European skies - a tough challenge for everyone, but whoever can contribute, should do so. Many action items were defined at the Graz workshop, with further details to be discussed via a mailing list and websites: A truly coordinated effort should be running just in time, perhaps even contributing unique results (and be they negative) to the outreach as well as the science effort.


Earlier messages - there was a 7-year hiatus which is now over! - regarding
Europe-wide amateur planetary activities can be found here!