Comet Crazy!

People all over the world have been trying to catch a of glimpse of Comet NEOWISE since news of its viewability hit the media early in the month. We avid sky watchers at New Mexico Tech’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory caught our first peek in the early morning hours of July 8 and have been looking out for it since.

The image below was taken at 4:40 AM MDT on July 9 by MROI staff members Dylan Etscorn and Colleen Gino in San Antonio, New Mexico. They were using a Nikon D850 on MROI’s Bachman-Challener Outreach Telescope, a 100mm Takahashi Refractor purchased with funds donated to the MRO Outreach Department in 2017.

On the morning of July 10, they traveled to San Marcial. New Mexico, in the wee hours of the morning to photograph Comet NEOWISE from a trestle bridge, seen below.

With several successful comet encounters under their belts, Dylan and Colleen took the trek up to the Magdalena Ridge Observatory on July 11th with hopes of photographing the comet over the city of Socorro 6,000 feet below. Although the skies were pristinely clear that evening, by the early morning when the comet would be visible monsoon clouds had rolled in and almost totally obscured the comet from view. The view you see in the image below was to be the last morning view of Comet NEOWISE for our enthusiastic observers.

Their next observation of the comet was made almost a week later on July 18, this time in the evening at about 10 PM MDT from a neighborhood with many street lights. While not photographically impressive, this view, seen below, gave our astrophotographers the information they needed to know when and where to look for Comet NEOWISE on future observing expeditions.

Now knowing where to look, they immediately packed up their gear and drove to darker site, excited to photograph the first evening apparition of the comet, especially since the ion tail was finally visible. But once again the cloudy monsoon skies prevailed, and by the time they got to their dark sky site a mere 10 minutes after their first sighting under the street lights, Comet NEOWISE was mostly obscured by clouds.

At this point we’re keeping our fingers crossed for some clear moments in our seasonally cloudy skies!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

LGM Phone Home!

Today we honor Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astronomer who, as a postgrad student, co-discovered an exotic type of celestial object, the pulsar.

At the time of her discovery in 1967, Bell Burnell was working on her Ph.D. in Physics at the University of Cambridge under the guidance of Anthony Hewish. She helped to construct and then operate a radio telescope that was used to study quasars, extremely luminous objects powered by supermassive black holes found in the center of some galaxies. At that time, the data that was gathered from their radio observations was not digitally written to a storage medium as it is today, but was printed out on chart paper – literally miles and miles of chart paper.

One of Bell Burnell’s duties was to check the 100 or so feet of chart paper produced daily to locate potential quasars. With her sharp mind and keen eye, she picked a needle out of a haystack – the needle being about an inch-worth of an unusual signal buried within all that chart paper. This signal revealed a radio source that was pulsing too fast and too regular to be a quasar. Never having seen such a signal before, Burnell Bell and Hewish jocularly labeled it LGM, for Little Green Men. After determining that the signal was not from aliens, nor from orbiting satellites or TV signals, Bell Burnell and Hewish determined that the radiation was being emitted from rapidly spinning, super-dense collapsed stars, dubbed pulsars by the media that published the news of the discovery at the time.

Anthony Hewish received the Nobel Prize in 1974 for the discovery of pulsars; the credit was not shared with Jocelyn Bell Burnell. However, over her long career she has received numerous other awards and acknowledgements for her professional work, which includes serving as the President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002—2004, and as President of the Institute of Physics from 2008–2010. She is currently the Chancellor of the University of Dundee.

So on this day, July 15, 2020, we would like to wish Dame Bell Burnell a very happy 77th birthday and sincerely thank her for her outstanding contributions to astronomy.

Time to Look Up!

Would you like to see a pulsar for yourself? Unfortunately, pulsars are not bright enough in the visible spectrum to be seen with naked eye nor with the aid of most amateur optical equipment. If you could see one, however, there’s a fine example in the outer region of the constellation of Aquila, currently visible most of the night from our location here at New Mexico Tech’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory near Socorro, New Mexico.

Pulsar Kesteven 79 is the compact central object of a supernova remnant. News of its discovery from data acquired with the Newton X-Ray Multi-Mirror Mission was published in early 2005. Its behavior is consistent with that of rotation-powered pulsars; in this case a neutron star with such powerful magnetic fields that charged particles are accelerated and emit radiation centered around the pulsar’s magnetic poles. As the pulsar rotates the regions of the star emitting the radiation sweep through the sky much like a beam of light from a lighthouse, producing the pulses of electromagnetic radiation. Kesteven 79 is a 105 millisecond X-ray pulsar, with a spin rate of about 10.5 revolutions per second.

To locate Kesteven 79, refer to the sky chart above depicting tonight’s sky created with Software Bisque’s TheSky software.

Check in with us tomorrow as we continue to talk about the constellation Aquila, the Eagle, and its place in the Summer Triangle.

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Tonight the International Space Station Takes Center Stage

If you go outside tonight and look up into the sky, you can see the International Space Station (ISS) passing nearly overhead around 9:35 PM. At that time it will be at the highest point in its pass, and will appear very bright at an apparent magnitude of -3.9. That’s more than two-and-a-half times brighter than the brightest object in the sky at this time, which is the planet Jupiter in the constellation Sagittarius, and nearly 40 times brighter than the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra, which the ISS will pass close by at around 9:36 PM.

The complete pass will last over 10 minutes. The ISS will rise above the horizon in the southwest (azimuth 222°) at 9:30 PM, and reach an altitude of 10° by 9:32 PM, after which point it most commonly begins to be visible. The ISS will reach the highest point in its pass of 74° at 9:35 PM, then drop below 10° in the northeast (azimuth 50°) around 9:39 PM.

How much of the pass you can see is dependent upon many factors including the altitude of your local horizon, the amount of haze in the sky near the horizon, and of course, the amount and location of cloud cover. From our location at New Mexico Tech’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory near Socorro, NM, we should be able to see nearly the complete pass if weather permits.

For more information about this and other ISS visible passes, we suggest you visit the website Heavens Above at After entering your geographical location, you can retrieve information regarding ISS and other satellite passes, which include visibility tables and sky charts like the one at right. You can also find information on a variety of other astronomy subjects as well.

Check in with us tomorrow when we wish happy birthday to one of our favorite astronomers who co-discovered a previously unknown type of celestial object in the mid-1960s.

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications