March 2008

M104 No, it’s not a new sitcom on Fox. It’s the Sombrero Galaxy known technically as M104. It is a bright, circular galaxy in the constellation Virgo, with a very bright center that features a distinct bulge. With a magnitude of 9.0, it can be easily seen with amateur telescopes.  The bulge in the center is a supermassive black hole.

The galaxy was discovered by Pierre Mechain in May, 1783. A prominent feature of this galaxy is a dust lane that crosses in front of the galaxy’s bulge. Based on infrared spectroscopy, this ring is believed to be the primary site of star formation in M104. M104 3.6 4.5 8.0 microns spitzer.pngAn infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope is below right.

Sombrero means “hat” in Spanish and is often in used in Mexico to keep out the very hot sun. The hat’s wide brim seems similar enough to be able to describe M104 as the “Sombrero” galaxy. The dust lane adds depth to the illusion of a brim when looking at pictures of M104.

In the 1990’s, using spectroscopy data, it was shown that the speed of rotation of the stars in the center of M104 could not be sustained unless a mass of 1 billion times more than our Sun was present in the center. This is one of the most massive black holes measured in any nearby region of space.

The Sombrero Galaxy has a large number of globular clusters, estimated at between 1,200 to 2,000, The distance of M104 is approximately 29.3 million light years away. The galaxy is visible with 7×35 power binoculars or a 4 inch telescope. An 8 inch scope will help define the bulge within the center of the galaxy.

I like the picture of M104 taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It has nice symmetry, a well defined ring, bright center and a slight incline that makes it very interesting to look at. Also, it makes for a really good desktop wallpaper for my computer.

Photos: Hubble, left and Spitzer, right


The Raising Sand collaboration of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant was released in October of 2007. I may be a few months late to the party, but it is surely a party worth attending. Krauss, born in Decatur, Illinois and raised in ChampaignRaising Sand cd cover, Illinois, is a performer of bluegrass music with the band Union Station. Plant, of course, was with Led Zeppelin. Krauss is 36 and Plant is 59. The cd went platinum a little over three weeks ago on March 4.

The cd is unique, even eclectic, yet very welcoming. The style is different in a good way. Plant uses his vocals in good harmony with Krauss, which admittedly surprised me. T-Bone Burnett produced the cd. He is usually associated with class acts who have much underlying, often hidden talent. He brings that talent to the fore. These performers have shown talent in the past, but this cd brings out a different set of skills for them I think.

The All Music Guide gave the cd 4 stars; Billboard 4 stars; Blender 4 stars; Entertainment Weekly A-; MOJO 5 stars; Rolling Stone 3.5 stars (hey it’s not Bob Dylan after all); Uncut 5 stars; and Barnes and Noble 4 stars (based on 28 reader reviews). As of today, March 29, Barnes and Noble rates it’s sales rank as #8.

Gene Clark, formerly of the Byrds, wrote two of the songs, “Polly Come Home” and “Through the Morning, Through the Night.” Clark died in 1991 from a bleeding ulcer at the age of 46.

Phil and Don Everly wrote the song “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On).” Plant, along with Jimmy Page, Charlie Jones and Michael Lee wrote “Please Read the Letter.” Mel Tillis wrote the song, “Stick With Me, Baby.” There are also songs written by Tom Waits with Kathleen Breenan and by Townes Van Zandt.

Here’s a link to the Raising Sand website: .

This link is to the wikipedia entry for the cd: Krauss has a couple of her performances on the “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” film soundtrack. Her wikipedia entry has some samples of her music: and her website is here: Plant’s wikipedia entry: and his homepage: .

It’s nice to find a cd that’s not pretentious, where the performer’s talent shines through, and the music has a lot of repeatability where one doesn’t get tired of hearing it after just a few plays. I used to take chances on many recordings that I knew nothing about when I was younger and found many great performances. This was a chance similar to those of old and was well rewarded.

Although it seems like it may never arrive, the Pennsylvania primary is April 22. With 187 delegates at stake, Senator Clinton needs to get most of them to get close to Senator Obama in the Democratic race.

Recent polls say voters favor her over him 49% to 39% in the Keystone State. Since this only adds to 88%, let’s tack on another 12% to her to give her 61% to his 39%. This would mean 114 delegates for her and 73 for him. I know it could well be different due to the proportional voting setup but this is about as predictive as I can make it and it’s only for illustration. The spread then is 41 (114 – 73)  that she gains on Senator Obama.

CNN has the delegate count at 1,625 for Senator Obama to 1,486 for Senator Clinton as of March 28, including those super delegates who have committed to one or the other candidate. Take my assumption for Pennsylvania and add it in and it’s 1,698 to 1,600.

So we have a conundrum here. Neither candidate has enough to clinch the nomination. Senator Clinton wants badly to wait until after Pennsylvania to see if the tide might be turning in her favor. However, the pressure on her to cede is increasing.

Sen Obama - Sen Casey

Today, Senator Bob Casey, Jr. of Pennsylvania, endorsed Senator Obama. This will likely give Obama a boost if only slight, that will make it very difficult for Senator Clinton to get that 61% in my illustration above. These slight boosts though are coming in daily for Senator Obama. If she doesn’t get close to 60% on April 22, she should concede to Senator Obama so that the Democrats can coalesce around a unified campaign to defend against attacks from Senator McCain and to actually go on the offensive.

Indeed the pressure on her will increase daily if more super delegates declare for Senator Obama. It makes it more unlikely for her to be able to petition the convention delegates to award her the nomination even though Senator Obama may have more total delegates. She has and is running a good campaign with some mea culpa’s here and there, but considering the intensity of this campaign season, it’s a wonder more candidates haven’t committed more error’s of a more significant nature.

Can she hold on for 22 plus days until Pennsylvania? I’m reminded of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie where King Arthur comes to a clearing to fight the Black Knight. The Black Knight, loses his one arm, then the other, then a leg, then the other leg, yet he keeps yelling at King Arthur not to leave but to stay and fight.

the Black Knight continues to threaten Arthur despite getting both his arms and one of his legs cut off]
Black Knight: Right, I’ll do you for that!
King Arthur: You’ll what?
Black Knight: Come here!
King Arthur: What are you gonna do, bleed on me?

At some point, you have to realize it’s a lost cause.

Photo: Associated Press

The Cassini flyby of Enceladus on March 12 show tracks of heat running along giant fissures in the south polar region. As depicted in the graphic below, heat is radiating the length of the 150 km (95 mi) fractures. The chemistry of Enceladus heat radiationEnceladus resembles that of a comet, although it is definitely a moon, evidenced by the internally generated heat measured by the recent flyby.

The material encountered by Cassini coming up from the surface of Enceladus was much denser than expected, 20 times more so. Volatile gases, water vapor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide were components of the plumes Cassini flew through.

Temperatures measured along the fissures were at least minus 135 degrees Fahrenheit. This seems very cold to me but when one realizes how far from the Sun Enceladus is, its actually considered relatively warm. It’s 200 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than other places on Enceladus. Scientists believe these temperatures make it more likely there is water flowing beneath the surface of this moon of Saturn.

Observations indicate that four sources of heat send plumes jumping up from the surface. These individual plumes meet and come together, blending to form one large plume.  Future investigations will look at the sources of the individual plumes and the differences among the fissures.

Cassini was 30 miles from Enceladus at its closest approach during this flyby and 120 miles out when it flew through the plumes. The next flyby is planned for August.

As spacecraft probe the solar system for life, such as Cassini, in and around Saturn and its moon, Titan; and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Mars; it’s good to have a reference of just what exactly life is.

A nice, succinct, readable website that contemplates the properties of life is Top 10 Properties of Life. The author appears to be a fellow named John Kyrk. He also has an evolution page that has a slider which can be moved from 13.7 billion years ago to the present, which is really quite interesting. The site is well organized with many embedded hyperlinks that lead to more detailed information. Below is a table from his site with time scales of key moments in the development of life on Earth.

Earth and the formation of life:

 Formation of Earth  4.5 billion yr ago
        Earth coalesced from space dust 
 bombarded by interplanetary dust & comets  4.5 to 4.0 bya
        water source for oceans 
 Heavy comet bombardment stops > life begins   3.9 bya
 Oldest fossil rocks  3.8 bya 
 Life (anaerobes)   3.5 bya 
 advent of oxygen* (evolution of aerobes)  2.0 bya
 eucaryotes  1.0 bya 
 multi-cellularity   0.7 bya 
 early animals   0.6 bya 

There is a lot of information to study on this site. One item I read I didn’t know had a name attached to it is Panspermia; the idea that living microbes colonized Earth from space driven by radiation emitted by stars. This idea, although dating from as far back as the 5th century B.C., was developed in 1908 by Svante August Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903 for his electrolytic theory of dissociation.

NASA says today that there are no plans to turn off or hibernate either of the two Mars Rovers because of budget cuts. I reported these cuts yesterday when I first heard of them.

NASA has apparently rescinded a letter recommending cuts in the Mars Rover program in order to offset $4 million in proposed budget reductions. The budget reductions were to offset cost overruns in the program developing the next Mars rover mission.

Yesterday, scientists in the Rover program said they would have to hibernate one, probably the Spirit rover, and reduce the operation of the second rover, Opportunity, to limited duty.

Today however, NASA’s statement says that neither rover will be shut down. I think this is a good reconsideration on their part. These rovers still have much exploring and scientific investigation to accomplish. And the price is relatively cheap. Hurray!

Either Spirit or Opportunity, two rovers now conducting missions on Mars may have to be put to sleep due to NASA budget cuts.Rover arm NASA has ordered $4 million to be trimmed from the program’s budget.

Part of the budget woes stem from cost overruns of the next rover mission planned for 2009, which entails a rover the size of a hummer – and we know how much a Hummer costs.

The rovers currently cost $20 million per year to operate. Spirit likely will be put into hibernation sometime in the next few weeks. Let’s hope they’re not using the Windows operating system for the rovers. Whenever I put my computer into standby, I can’t get it to wake up about 10% of the time and have to do a full reboot. You might notice from my tone, I don’t like this news.

I would suggest delaying the mission scheduled for 2009 by slowing it down, stretching it out, or; here’s an idea that came out of the blue; put it into hibernation for a while. These current rovers are still successfully exploring Mars, gathering valuable data, and testing how long they can survive in the harsh Martian environment.

The funds could be reinstated, so this isn’t a death knell yet. However, it doesn’t look good. The rovers have gone way beyond their estimated life of 3 months, but like a good car, it’s no reason to scrap one of them yet.

Photo: Associated Press via NASA

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