For once, clouds are a good thing
March 24, 2012 8:13 PM   Subscribe

One of the neater aspects of astronomy is that amateurs often make significant contributions to the field. A few nights ago Wayne Jaeschke found a strange cloud feature in his Mars images. He posted his findings to the site Cloudy Nights. It created a bit of a buzz there, as well as the wider media, (even MSNBC!). It has also piqued the interest of the pros. Researchers working with the Mars Thermal Emission Imaging System onboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Color Imager onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Observer are looking over their data to try to figure out exactly what it is they're seeing.
posted by dirigibleman (18 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Little late for the viral marketing, Disney, don't you think?
posted by jabberjaw at 8:21 PM on March 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

OK, to respind to Jabberjaw -

The movie is 1) Lots of fun and 2) Two movies worth of story crammed into one and a half movies. Your butt will go numb. Godammit so much, Andrew Stanton, you know, you fucking know movies like this should come in three stanzas, with, maybe, one framing device. You made the blunder of trying to cram ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag, when the audience was ready for only three. Also, how the hell could you waste so much money on a movie filmed in the desert with cartoons layered on top? It wasn't even good, sort of like "Space Jam" with nearly-naked people.

To respond to the OP - I am so going to build a radio telescope for solar observation when we move into our new house. I love, love, love that amateur scientists still get a seat at the table of Big Astronomy.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:32 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's Wayne Jaeschke's website. He has lots of images of things besides Mars.
posted by dirigibleman at 8:36 PM on March 24, 2012

Officials in Grover's Mill, NJ could not be reached for comment.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:04 PM on March 24, 2012 [8 favorites]

The Coming of the Martians — The Eve of the War:
...a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2. I am inclined to think that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun, in the vast pit sunk into their planet, from which their shots were fired at us. Peculiar markings, as yet unexplained, were seen near the site of that outbreak during the next two oppositions.

...As Mars approached opposition, Lavelle of Java set the wires of the astronomical exchange palpitating with the amazing intelligence of a huge outbreak of incandescent gas upon the planet. It had occurred towards midnight of the twelfth; and the spectroscope, to which he had at once resorted, indicated a mass of flaming gas, chiefly hydrogen, moving with an enormous velocity towards this earth. This jet of fire had become invisible about a quarter past twelve. He compared it to a colossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, "as flaming gases rushed out of a gun."
Where there's fire, there's smoke. Slowly and surely...
posted by cenoxo at 9:19 PM on March 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

i wouldn't characterize this as "exciting", but to each his own.
posted by camdan at 10:03 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would characterize it as freaking astonishing - it makes Mars look like it has some kind of cancerous growth. Whatever that is, nobody's seen that before. Great post!
posted by newdaddy at 10:25 PM on March 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's amazing what kind of equipment is available for amateur astronomers now. Using almost entirely off-the-shelf parts, it's entirely possible to build a computerized, robotic observatory equipped with an advanced CCD, a spectroscope, and a photometer (although you'll probably have to switch between the three by hand, or build a part to do it). It's not even that expensive; I'd estimate about $50,000, which isn't cheap, but it's not as expensive as a good sports car or a second home. A lot of the expert-level amateurs I've met are retired professionals, who can often spend that kind of money.

Since there are far more amateurs than professionals, and they have surprisingly sophisticated techniques (the amateur images produced by lucky imaging are often astonishing), they are frequently the first to notice changes to the planets. So this isn't as surprising as it sounds, but it's always neat to see it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:32 PM on March 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have no idea how they got that cat wedged up there, or why.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 11:13 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

it makes Mars look like it has some kind of cancerous growth. Whatever that is, nobody's seen that before. Great post!

Really? All i see is a cloud type object coming out of shadow. Planets aren't flat, and lighting can make things look different. I don't get how this is exciting, but people get excited about slight differences in shades of red rocks. :\

...and now the obligatory...

It's the time portal activating so past Obama can travel there and get his orders from present Obama. ;) That was what the mars missions he did right? ;)
posted by usagizero at 11:25 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

People have been looking at this object every single night for ten thousand years. Every single night, thousands of people. Many millions of hours spent looking at one object, describing it, writing records about it, first in stone, now in computers using robot spaceships.

And it still does unexpected shit.

That is why this is exciting.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 12:05 AM on March 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

To be fair, the equipment necessary to see this is probably no more than 100-150 years old. It's probably only about 20-30 years since it became available to amateur astronomers, so lots of people could be watching Mars all of the time. It might be less than ten years since improvements in CCD imaging and computerized image processing allowed amateurs to take pictures like this. So we're probably just seeing it now because tons of people are taking tons of great pictures of the planets constantly, making it easy to catch transient phenomena.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:29 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Granted, no one's going to win a Nobel prize from this work. I thought it was a neat semi-real-time look at the amateur-professional relationship in the field of astronomy. Also, in addition to the pretty amazing equipment available to amateur astronomers these days, there's the nifty feature that OH, YEAH WE'LL JUST LOOK THROUGH OUR HIGH-RESOLUTION DATA FROM ONE OF SEVERAL SATELLITES WE HAVE ORBITING THIS TOTALLY DIFFERENT PLANET MILLIONS OF MILES AWAY, NO BIGGIE.

Or to put it another way, our mundane is pretty amazing, right now.
posted by dirigibleman at 12:51 AM on March 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

My fellow humans, there is nothing gained by analysing this simple gaseous anomaly Please now return your attention to your screens and resume enjoyment of pornography and Desperate Housewives. I believe Regina goes on a date with another man!
posted by mattoxic at 4:32 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised amateur astronomers discover anything at all when organizations with a little money can automatically scan gazillions of photos for changes that might indicate things like this and send an alert to the team when something looks interesting. But I suppose dozens of enthusiastic amateurs working for nothing in all time zones can beat a team of professionals working on a tight budget and not necessarily for the love of the game.

Still, I don't see much in this cloud story. The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.
posted by pracowity at 5:41 AM on March 25, 2012

We are looking at a temperature related atmospheric disturbance; what makes it exciting is that it challenges the conventional wisdom that the Martian atmosphere is wispy, thin, and incapable of "weather". Too bad that is nowhere near Spirit or Opportunity. A ground's eye correlation would have been icing on the cake.
posted by Renoroc at 7:27 AM on March 25, 2012

But I suppose dozens of enthusiastic amateurs working for nothing in all time zones can beat a team of professionals working on a tight budget and not necessarily for the love of the game.

I grew up next door to an astronomer and spent time looking at the skies through Clyde Tombaugh's backyard telescope when I was young. I've met plenty of people in that field. I can truly say that not a one of them I have met was doing it for anything OTHER than the love of the game, were they professional or not.
posted by hippybear at 7:38 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

"No one would have believed, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their affairs they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water."
posted by Splunge at 11:22 AM on March 25, 2012

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