Mercury Transits and Titan Occultations (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 08 Nov 2006

Mercury Transits and Titan Occultations

Mercury transited the sun today. The weather forecast predicted rain, and indeed, I awoke this morning to a thick overcast which soon turned to drizzle. But miraculously, ten minutes before the start of the transit the sky cleared, and we were able to see the whole thing, all five hours of it (well, we weren't watching for the whole five hours -- the most interesting parts are the beginning and end).

I had plenty of practice with solar observing yesterday, showing the sun to a group of middle school girls as part of an astronomy workshop. This is organized by the AAUW, the same group that runs the annual Tech Trek summer science girls' camps. (The Stanford Tech Trek has a star party, which is how I got involved with this group.) It's the second year I've done the astronomy workshop for them; this year went pretty smoothly and everybody seemed to have a good time observing the sun, simulating moon phases, learning about the Doppler effect and plotting relative distances of the planets on a road map.

But what I really wanted to write about was the amazing video shown by last weekend's SJAA speaker, Dr. Ivan Linscott of Stanford. As one of the team members on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, he was telling us about Pluto's tenuous atmosphere. There isn't a lot of information on Pluto's atmosphere yet, but one of the goals of New Horizons is to take readings as Pluto occults the sun to see how sunlight is refracted through Pluto's atmosphere.

But that's no problem: it turns out we've already done more challenging occultation studies than that. Back in December 2001, Titan occulted a binary star, and researchers using Palomar's Adaptive Optics setup got a spectacular video of the stars being refracted through Titan's atmosphere as the occultation progresses.

This is old news, of course, but most of us hadn't seen it before and everyone was blown away. Remember, this is a video from Earth, of the atmosphere of a moon of Saturn, something most Earth-based telescopes would have trouble even resolving as a disk. Watch the Titan occultation video here.

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[ 22:38 Nov 08, 2006    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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