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Mercury Magazine Winter 2018

Mercury Winter 2018 coverContents and Select Excerpts
Vol. 47 No. 1
Winter 2018

In this issue of Mercury: After Hurricane Maria, the famous Arecibo Observatory is weathering a different kind of storm; with the help of a telescope as wide as our planet, we’re about to see what a supermassive black hole really looks like; our solar system just welcomed an interstellar visitor, but what was it?

This page contains the table of contents and select excerpts only and is not a complete reproduction of this issue. Complete content for online Mercury is available to ASP members and institutional subscribers. Already a member? You can retrieve the latest issue of Mercury by logging into the ASP membership portal.


Table of Contents

[26] Arecibo Endures, Steve Murray
After surviving Hurricane Maria, the observatory is weathering a different kind of storm.

[33] Into the Abyss, Mika McKinnon
We’ll soon see what a supermassive black hole really looks like. PLUS: “Inside the Event Horizon Telescope,” Jeff Mangum

[43] The Interstellar Visitor, Ian O’Neill
Oumuamua came from another star system to deliver a message.

[24] Cosmic Views: The Heart of the Great Red Spot, Jason Major
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is one of the most well-known planetary features in the solar system. Find out what Juno has learned since arriving there last summer.

[47] Astronomy in the News
A recent study has found that Tabby’s star’s bizarre behavior is most likely due to dust and not some extraterrestrial intelligence building a Dyson sphere-like stellar energy collector.


Departments

[3] Editorial, Ian O’Neill
Hello Mercury

[4] First Word, Linda Shore
A New Era for Mercury

[6] ASP News, Theresa Summer
The ASP’s 129th Annual Meeting

[9] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford Cunningham
Sunspots: A Surprisingly Controversial History

[11] Research Focus, M. Katy Rodriguez Wimberly
Tiny Galaxies Predict the Milky Way’s Doom

[14] Astronomer’s Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
What (Spectral) Line is That Anyway?

[16] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Neutron Star Merger Forms a Cosmic Cocoon

[18] Education Matters, Brian Kruse
The Centrality of Phenomena

[20] A Little Learning, C. Renee James
An Astronomical Wager

[51] Reflections, Ian O’Neill
A Hollywood Launch


Arecibo Endures

By Steve Murray

The Arecibo Observatory

This photograph shows damage to the observatory’s main antenna post-Hurricane Maria. It’s estimated that repair costs for the facility could be up to $8 million. Credit: The NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

 

The last few months have been filled with drama for Arecibo Observatory. Even as its staff cleaned up after Hurricane Maria, they knew that another threat was on the horizon. For years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) had been anxious to reduce its funding support for the facility and a November 2017 board meeting was set to discuss the observatory’s future with a decision soon to follow. Arecibo may have weathered a major storm, but would it weather governmental money debates?

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Into the Abyss

By Mika McKinnon

Artist’s impression of spinning supermassive black hole with an accretion disk and jet.

This artist’s impression shows a spinning supermassive black hole with an accretion disk and jet — the EHT will zoom in these extreme objects to test our theories. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What does a black hole look like? An international collaboration of astronomers is transforming the planet into an enormous virtual telescope to find out. While researchers have a good handle on what a black hole looks like from theory and indirect observations, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is the first dedicated effort to directly image the event horizon—the final photon orbit and gravitational point of no return—of a black hole. Includes analysis by NRAO’s Jeff Mangum.

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The Interstellar Visitor

By Ian O’Neill

The artist’s concept shows the interstellar asteroid, 1I/2017 U1.

This artist’s concept shows the interstellar asteroid, 1I/2017 U1. From its light-curve observations, this object is thought to be highly elongated. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

We look to the stars and ponder the alien worlds that orbit those distant points of light. As telescopes have become more powerful, our eyes have been opened to a stunning menagerie of worlds that orbit other stars, known as extra-solar planets—or, simply, exoplanets. Astronomers have even detected the tell-tale signs of comets and asteroids colliding in young and old star systems many light-years away, revealing an incredible diversity of how planetary systems evolve around other suns. But to get a detailed look at these worlds and their building blocks, scientists say, we’ll have to wait until we physically go there to observe these extra-solar locales up-close. That was, at least, until Oct. 19 when astronomers surveying the skies for errant space rocks serendipitously spied something different, something alien. Rather than waiting for humanity to build a starship, the universe did us a favor and delivered an object from another star. And this object is like nothing we’ve seen before.

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The Heart of the Great Red Spot

By Jason Major

A color-composite edit of an observation by NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter.

A color-composite edit of an observation by NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt/Jason Major

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot—a giant rust-colored hurricane that could engulf Earth with plenty of room to spare—is one of the most well-known planetary features in the solar system. It has been observed by astronomers for over 150 years and was likely around for hundreds of years before that.

 

 

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The Megastructure That Never Was

By Ian O’Neill

This artist’s impression shows Tabby’s Star sporting a complex dust ring that may be responsible for the star’s unprecedented transit signal.

This artist’s impression shows Tabby’s Star sporting a complex dust ring that may be responsible for the star’s unprecedented transit signal. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tabby’s Star, you may have heard of it. Otherwise known as KIC 8462852, the infamous star has spent a lot of time in the news for one key reason: aliens. But a recent study has found that the infamous star’s bizarre behavior is most likely down to dust and not some extraterrestrial intelligence building a Dyson sphere-like stellar energy collector.

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