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The Cassini spacecraft at Saturn has been busy sending back a collection of beautiful scenes from that distant planet and its moons and rings. The folks at the NASA Cassini mission center have posted the collection to celebrate the end of the year.
Peeking at Saturn through Titan's atmosphere.
I love this view of Saturn through Titan's atmosphere. It's just not something we see from Earth every day. I'm also particularly fond of the Rhea/Enceladus occultation movie they have posted. It shows a 20-minute sequence of 40 images through the Cassini spacecraft's narrow-angle camera pointed at Enceladus. The larger moon slips right past icy Rhea in the foreground. That is definitely NOT something you're going to see from Earth too often!
(Click on the still and the movie will open in a new window.)
Take a few minutes to visit the Cassini site at the link above and browse through the other images they've posted and enjoy the New Years' eve celebration at Saturn.
Okay, I KNOW that some of you out there got new telescopes or binoculars as holiday gifts. Or, you got a new astronomy book. Or a picture book about space. Great! We need to keep the fires of interest in the sky alive.
No time like the present to use all that loot to study the sky. So, let's get started. Back when I used to work at the university, I got to answer questions about the sky, asked of us by members of the public who called our department since they figured we were astronomers. We got some great questions, some kind of silly questions, and some that were misguided or the result of miscommunication in the media. But, we hardly ever got "dumb" ones. I don't there's any such thing as a "dumb" question, unless you count the folks who ask really silly things just to be cute. But, chances were that I'd pick up the phone (after being warned by the departmental secretary that it was a member of the public with a quesion), and I'd hear something like, "Hi, My name is XXXX and I have a really dumb question..."
Then they'd ask something perfectly reasonable like, "How can I tell the difference between a star and a planet?" Not a dumb question at all, really. Most people assume that if you look up in the sky, you're gonna see stars and planets. And that's usually true.
Right now (late December), the naked-eye planets are largely out of sight in the evening sky—except for Venus, which you can spot pretty low in the west after sunset, and Saturn, which rises in the east with Leo around 8 or 9 p.m. To see Jupiter and Mars, you have to get up really early in the morning and watch for them right around dawn in the southeast.
So, if you do go planet-hunting, how to tell them from the nearby stars? The best rule of thumb is to take a good star chart outside with you, one that has the planets clearly marked. You can find them in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines, or online at their sites. Those maps should show you where the planets should be in the sky at the time you want to view them. I've included a small chart below that should be useful after about 8 or 9 p.m. local time for a week or so into the new year.
Night sky chart by TheSpacewriter. (Click on the image to get a larger version.)
Sunset viewing chart by Sky & Telescope.
Dawn sky chart by Sky & Telescope.
Next, once you're outside (and remember to dress warmly if you live in a chilly climate), look in the area where your map tells you a planet should be. If the planet you want is Venus, you probably won't be able to miss it unless it has set or the sky is cloudy. It'll be the bright object that is often mistaken for a star (and is often called the evening star (or morning star when it's up in the morning)). Venus should look disk-like, and shouldn't be twinkling (although, if it's close to the horizon, it might seem to shimmer due to atmospheric turbulence in the air near the ground).
If you're looking for Mars or Jupiter, they're only an early-morning sight low in the southeast right now, but the same rules of thumb holds true: planets don't usually twinkle, but stars do. In addition, planets look disk-like, while stars look like sharp points of light.
Now, I should point out that in the S&T charts, they draw Venus and Jupiter with rays of light (starlike) coming out of them. I don't particularly care for that, but recognize that at least you'll get the position of the planet from the chart. Mars, on the other hand, is shown disk-like. I suppose the guys down in Cambridge are trying to show that Venus and Jupiter are bright, which they are.
Saturn, on the other hand, doesn't appear nearly as bright. Look for it just a bit off from the star Regulus, the heart of the Leo the Lion. This is where your telescope (or a really high-powered binocular) comes in handy: aim it at Saturn and see if you can spot the rings! Depending on the magnification you're using, the rings could just look like a couple of lumps sticking out from either side of the planet (in 3-inch telescope or 10 × 50 binoculars, for example). If so, you're seeing it as Galileo saw it, only he called those lumps "ears" and never did figure them out. If you have stronger magnification (say a 4-inch or larger telescope), you might be able to see that they are actually rings. (Of course HOW good your view is also depends on viewing conditions (high, thin clouds? haze? a little fog? bright moonlight?) at your site.
Now, this last week of the year the evening sky is dominated by the Moon, so of course you'll want to check that out, too. It looks way cool through binoculars, and with a small telescope trained on it you can explore lunar craters, mountains, and plains. If you were lucky enough to get a BIG telescope? Well, the Moon is yours to command.
Now, of course, there's a LOT more out there to see. Stars, nebulae, and even a galaxy (or three) to check out. I'll post some more charts in the coming days to help you find those, too.
For now, what's the message here? There's good stuff out there to look at with your astronomy loot. The sky's waiting! As they like to say on the cruise line commercials here in the U.S., "Get out there!"
Every year we do a holiday card and letter that we create ourselves. The front is usually a pretty picture of some kind, the inside is our annual letter, and the back is a star chart so folks can go stargazing for a week around Christmas Day and see some lovely sights.
This year we found our "pretty picture" artwork on the Hubble Space Telescope holiday card web pages. They have designed a series of printable pieces suitable for greeting cards, sort of like this one.
I think the designs they came up with are very clever and show artful use of space images as design elements. What are design elements, you might wonder. They are what they seem to be: elements of design, whether colors, image portions, graphics, sculpted text, and shapes that breathe life into a piece of artwork (and that's really what each of these designer cards is).
I've used space images as elements throughhout my website and blog, and if you visit enough astronomy and space science-related blogs, you'll see bits and pieces of space scattered through those pages, too. Look at the logo in Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site. There's an actual astro-image mapped over his title letters. Or, check out The Nine8 Planets page uses images of the planets as a sort of logo in the upper left corner. Or, one of our blogrollees, Observing the Sky, is using two astro images in the banner to achieve an appropriately "spacey" look.
Pay attention as you rove the Web and see what other design elements from space have made their way into people's blogs and online spaces. You'd be surprised at how popular space images are in the blogging world, even if the sites aren't about space.
I'm in a Carl Sagan state of mind tonight. No, I'm not channeling for Carl. Nobody could do that. But, I was thinking about some of his most famous phrases (and no, NOT "billions and billions"—that was a Johnny Carson schtick). The one that always seemed most evocative to me was "We are, as I like to say, starstuff."
It seems like a strange thing, to think about coming from a star. But everything on Earth has atoms that were made inside a star. Look at your hand. It has flesh on its bones. Hard to imagine that flesh coming from the hot interior of a star. No, the flesh and bones didn't. But the stuff that made them up did.
Your hand has atoms of carbon in it. Carbon exists in molecules that bond with other elements to make proteins, nucleic acids, enzymes, carbohydrates, and fats—all things we KNOW make up biological life. Carbon is made in the interiors of stars. Your hand also has calcium in its bones. That, too, came from a star. Heck, our own Sun has calcium in its atmosphere. And, there's iron in the blood coursing through your veins. The iron atoms came from an ancient supernova explosion that occurred long before the Sun formed.
How do we know all this? The lives of stars are fairly well-understood in general (although many details are still being figured out). But, we do know that stars contain nuclear furnaces deep in their cores. Those nuclear "engines" fuse atoms together. Let's take the Sun, since it's the closest star we know of. It started its life fusing hydrogen into helium at its core. Now, the hydrogen was created in the Big Bang, so you'd expect to see plenty of that in the Sun. It gets fused into helium. And it goes from there, atoms getting smacked together to make heavier and heavier elements: carbon, oxygen, silicon and so on. As the Sun (like many stars) lives its live, it makes elements and it sends them out into space through the solar wind.
But, the good stuff happens when stars die. They exhale their outer layers, which contain healthy amounts of the elements they've made, into surrounding space. A star like the Sun will swell to become a red giant star, eventually sending much of its mass out to space. That includes oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, and carbon.
If a star is really huge, it will explode in a supernova. The debris of the star, its atmosphere and the elements it has been making—including iron—rushes out to space. A supernova explosion is also the cauldron of creation for elements such as cobalt, uranium, copper, mercury, gold, iodine, and lead.
Where star stuff comes from— stars like the Cat's Eye Nebula (the death of a Sun-like star) and explosions like the Crab Nebula supernova, which created the remnant (at bottom). Courtesy Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute
All stars enrich their immediate neighorhoods with the elements they make. Then, it's only a matter of time before those elements find their way into new generations of stars. Our own Sun was made from elements that were, themselves, created in far older stars that died and sent their elements into space. Some 5 billion years ago, a cloud of gas and dust enriched by elements from other stars coalesced to form our Sun. And, our planets formed in that cloud, from elements that—you guessed it—came from other stars. And, the elements needed for life (the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and iron, just happened to be along for the ride. And voila, after millions and billions of years of planetary formation and evolution, chemical reactions, and biological evolution, here we are—the end products of processes that used star stuff to create planets and favorable conditions for life to form.
So, in a sense, it's really no surprise that we look to the stars to understand our place in the universe. Somehow we know from where we came, and I think that's pretty elegant, indeed.
Happy Day after Solstice! I missed posting yesterday because I was out reveling in the glow of the shortest day/longest night of the year. It's now officially winter in the northern hemisphere, although it hardly looks wintry here in New England. If you're in Colorado or any of the other states hit by the big blizzard, you have my condolences about the hardships and my envy that at least you have snow.
Last week I introduced you to a few of my blogrollees. These are folks whose blogs and sites I've read and enjoyed, and figured you would, too. Obviously my link to Loch Ness Productions takes you to the place where my husband and I do our main business.
We started out years ago just selling his space music (which he produces under the stage name GEODESIUM). Then we branched out into planetarium show productions, and we've been involved in some 40-odd productions over the years. Now we're branching out again into other productions, such as soundtracks for short astronomy animations and, in a project starting in 2007, we'll be producing astronomy vodcasts for an observatory.
In addition to that work, I also work out my writing jones by doing writing and editing for a variety of places under my own company (which you can read more about here.) Under those auspices I worked on the Griffith Observatory exhibits as the main writer (see samples at my online Griffith Tour).
Okay, enough about me. Let's get to some other blogrollees listed on the left. During the recent Weblog Awards competition, I made a note of Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy Blog and asked you to vote for him. The main contender—and eventual winner was Pharyngula. This is a cool blog for those of you who palpitate over cephalopods. Even if you don't, you should go check this page out. It's witty, interesting, often very sharp, and written by PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at University of Minnesota, Morris.
A pic from PZ's site of one of the window displays at Macy's this year.
Next, give a look to our friends over at Hubble Space Telescope. All the cosmos is laid out there for you to inspect, and they've got image libraries, games for the kids (in all of us), and much more.
A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, as seen by HST.
Finally, there's Adot's NotBlog, a commentary site written by Asa Dotzler. His views on life, the universe, and everything are all over the map!
As you can see, science—and writing about it—can be a lot of fun. Thought-provoking, even. I'll be adding some more pages to the blogroll over the next few weeks, so keep your eye on the left column during your visits here.
I think it's safe to say that if Carl Sagan hadn't put together the "Cosmos" series for Public Television, I might not have become a science writer when I did. He burst on the scene at a time when public fascination with space and astronomer was in need of a jump-start. When "Cosmos" first came out, I had just written my first planetarium documentary script and was working part-time at a newspaper. I screwed up the courage to ask my editor if I could go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to cover the upcoming Voyager 2 flyby of Saturn (this was in 1981, about a year after PBS first aired the 13-part series).
Fortunately, my editor said "yes" and I found myself out at JPL, surrounded by scientists and writers, all focused on the excitement of discoveries at Saturn.
During that time, I met (or rather, re-met) Carl Sagan. (It turned out the first time I met him, at a meeting during my second year at the University of Colorado in 1974, he wasn't nearly as well-known as in later years, and I was pretty much wet behind the ears.)
While at JPL for the Voyager 2-Saturn encounter, I remember feeling pretty fan-girl-ish about Sagan. I also remember screwing up the courage to tell him how much his work meant to me. But, he put up with it and pushed me to continue my work as a science writer. "We need more good science writers," I remember him telling me.
Fast-forward to 1992, when I was in graduate school, working as a graduate researcher in an astrophysics research lab. My mentor and advisor was a fellow who'd gone to graduate school with Carl. It felt like a pretty small world to me. He told me a few stories about Carl from those grad school days, and (as Carl did) also encouraged me to continue my science writing.
More than three decades have passed since I first met Carl Sagan for the first time. We met several more times in the intervening years, the last time just a year before he died. He remained, even at his most ill, an encourager, a mentor, and a visionary who knew to his core that humanity's eyes turn to the stars for more than inspiration and knowledge. We look to the sky because, as he put it in "Cosmos," we are all star stuff. And thus, we are looking at the place from where we came.
It has been ten years since Carl died, but his ideas and visions of the cosmos have not. A whole legion of us are traveling along the same way he did, bringing a love of the stars, planets, galaxies, and cosmos to anyone who cares to read our books, see our shows, listen to us talk. Thanks for the push, Carl. I haven't forgotten you and the encouragement you gave me on the several occasions we had a chance to talk.
If you don't have a copy of "Cosmos" (either the book or the DVD), or his wonderful book on science and superstition, called The Demon-Haunted World, please consider them for a spot on your reading/viewing list. It would be the best tribute to one of the world's best-known science popularizers, a man who, like Patrick Moore and many others, have brought their love of the stars to billions of people.
A couple of days ago the Sun let loose with a huge electrified cloud of charged particles that was aimed pretty directly at Earth. Disaster scenario? Well, not this time, although spaceweather experts were warning there could be some effects on telecommunications. The most obvious effect that we expected to see here on Earth would be aurora borealis displays.
So, we were all set to go out and see aurorae last night. We kept bopping out to the yard and looking north because the auroral grid from the POES satellite was showing some activity visible just north of us. But, no luck. Wouldn't you know it—the cloud program kicked in. Thus, hiding any auroral displays from our computer-weary eyes.
Turns out there may be another storm headed our way. Another solar flare belched out a cloud on the 14th, and we could be in for more auroral displays on the 16th.
Keep an eye on Spaceweather.com for forecasts and warnings. Another good site is at NOAA. Here's a SOHO image of the offending solar region.
The Sun never disappoints if you're looking for action. Still, it would be nice if Earth weather would cooperate. I rarely get to see aurora borealis, although I've seen aurora australis (the aurorae over the south pole of our planet). I know, I know... it takes patience and opportunity... and sometimes a little bit of weather luck.
Program Note: I'm switching hosting companies for my website and blog, so if you have problems logging in and reading my pages over the next 24-48 hours, that's why
In other news, if you haven't been over to the Mars exploration pages in a while, head on over and check out the pictures of layered Mars terrain turned in by the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter. They're huge files, so I'm not going to post them here, but they're worth checking out.
Look down the left side of this blog and you'll see my Blogroll. Like every other blogger, I can't resist posting links to places that I like to visit so that you can visit them, too. I thought I'd introduce you to a few of them today, and I'll work my way through the list over the next few weeks.
Friends of the Observatory is a non-profit group that supports Griffith Observatory. I've been under contract to them to work on the Griffith exhibits, and they are a fine group of people to get to know. Membership (at various levels) in the group gets you various goodies, including the chance to spend as much time as you can spare in one of the world's most beautiful public observatories. You don't have to live in LA to be a member; the membership hails from far and wide, and each month you get a copy of the world-famous "Griffith Observer" magazine.
BadAstronomy.com is the page of Phil Plait, the infamous Bad Astronomer. He got started writing his site back in grad school, debunking the silliness of pseudo-science and science poseurs (like the folks who believe in gods on Mars and Planet X and all that other stuff that makes for fascinating reading on Usenet). He also makes legitimate sport of all the bad science we see in movies and on TV. You know the kind: spaceships making sounds in space, Arnold Schwarzenegger breathing CO2 on Mars, that sort of thing. Phil's in the running for a Weblog Award, so go vote for him here. He's a great guy, and his head probably won't swell too much with all this praise I'm heaping on him. Besides, he has a link to me, so that counts for something. And, he's offering a bribe, er... incentive. If you vote for him, write about it on your blog, and send him the link, he'll let you post the cool image below on your site.
The third one I'll write about today is Olduvai George. George is the Indiana Jones-esque pen name for illustrator Carl Buell, whose page I first ran across from a link on another site (isn't that how we find our best ones?). This guy does the most fantastic natural history illustrations you've ever seen. If you (or someone you love) is into ancient animals and enjoys delving back into time to see how animals have evolved throughout history, this blog is the place for you. I've learned things there I never learned in geology class (probably because geology focused on rocks and not on animal evolution). This guy is amazing.
I was browsing through a document the other day that describes a new shopping mall in Boulder, Colorado called "Twenty Ninth Street." It's a new concept for a mall, a sort of "retail district" that features many of the same stores you'd see at upscale shopping malls (and some unique ones), but set in a village-like setting with streets and (gasp) on-street parking. It's very nice and we DID do some shopping while there.
But, that's not why I was reading about it. I wanted to know more about another part of the mall that really caught my imagination: the science exhibits. Now that I've done a few science exhibits (she said dryly), I tend to notice these things.
This set of outdoor exhibits is scattered throughout the grounds of the mall in a series of science pavilions. Each pavilion has exhibits and artefacts from some of the science research labs located in Boulder. The labs include the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (my old stomping grounds), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA, another of my old stomping grounds), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Space Science Institute (with whom we worked to create a planetarium show about Mars a few years ago).
The whole "Wonder of Science" exhibition is a permanent, on-site installation that gives the people of Boulder a feel for the science being done in their home town. I found it kind of interesting that in one of the mall's press releases, the senior property manager, Lain Adams explained that the idea behind the exhibition is that most shopping centers have visitor traffic levels that exceed most museums. That idea led to the development of museum-quality exhibits interspersed throughout the shops.
I guess that makes sense in a cool kind of way. Many science museums now feature gift shops, so it's great that a shopping mall can feature a science museum. I wonder how many other malls will do the same thing?
Speaking of shopping, about this time of year I get requests from family and friends (and more than a few readers) to recommend cool astronomy-related holiday gifts to give. I've built The Spacewriter's Gift Shop to help point you to some good gift ideas. It's on Amazon.com and if you buy anything from the site, Amazon sends a little money my way, which I use to help maintain my website and pay for hosting. If you know of any other products I should be recommending (and I DO try them out before I recommend them), drop me a line.
Woohoo!! Something's flowing down a gully in an impact crater and Mars and it might be water! NASA and Malin Space Science Systems today announced that their scientists may have found evidence of flowing liquid water, possibly in the form of an icy, slushy, muddy flow that spread about 5-10 swimming pools worth of water across the surface at the mid-latitudes of Mars!
The scientists are not yet sure what the mechanism is behind the flowing material, but one possible scenario has flowing liquid squirting out from broken layers of rock in impact craters. As it does, it forms gullies and deposits sand, silt, and minerals in the flow path. The water itself forms fog, mist, and water droplets that freeze into crystals.
How do we know this is a liquid flow and not a landslide? Scientist Ken Edgett pointed out the differences between how a landslide looks on Mars and how a feature created by flowing water looks. The liquid that flowed across the surface most likely had sediments in it, sort of like a mudflow. The way it moved down the 20- to 30-degree slope in the crater in the image indicates that it had to be water. The brightness of the flow feature is very unusual. In landslides and impact craters, material that is turned up from below the surface is usually dark.
If this feature was a landslide, it would be darker. The material we see is lighter, which indicates that it could be water that flows out from underground, hits the cold air and low-pressure atmosphere and turns into a frothy stream. Or, it could also be water with salts and other minerals entrained in it. Either way, it's quite likely that the flow has water in it.
If this is a water flow, how is the liquid getting out? What's causing the flow? The scientists are still debating the sources: subsurface aquifers, melting snow, or ground ice (which does require something to melt it). It's still unclear why the water is flowing; now we need to figure out why.
The interesting thing is that these water flows are coming out of the walls of impact craters. The force of a collision weakens rock, and any aquifers would then find a ready outlet for flowing water through the broken, cracked rock.
There's still a lot to learn, but the cool story is that we now have proof of flowing water on Mars.
The other find announced today was the discovery of at least 20 very recent impact craters on Mars. The collisions occurred sometime between May 1999 and March 2006. This is an interesting juxaposition of finds; both may help scientists understand the story of water on Mars and the very real, daily events that continually change the Martian surface. Stay tuned!
I'm pretty proud of the work I did for the Griffith folks, and the experience is already getting me some work with other exhibits and documentary scripts. One of the coolest ones so far is an exploration of the electromagnetic spectrum exhibit that I'm working on with the folks at Haystack Observatory. More on that as it develops.
It would appear that the controversy over the NSTA story rejecting the distribution of DVDs of "An Inconvenient Truth" has been heating up lately. NSTA, not surprisingly, in a Nov. 28, 2006 press release has defended their actions as part of their policy of not distributing unasked-for goods to teachers via mail. The producer of the documentary, Laurie David, did not mention that policy in her critical Washington Post editorial of a week or so back. NSTA still cannot explain why it rejected the DVDs by saying first that they didn't want to take risks with their current sponsors (including ExxonMobil). If they had a policy, they should have made THAT their excuse, not raising the fear of angering sponsors.
There seems to be a lot of finger-pointing going on, and nobody seems to be wearing the white hats in this saga.
Still, things are not as cut-and-dried as they seemed when I posted about this last week. In reading over the NSTA's press release, I wonder what the difference is between the activities they tout which were paid for by sponsor money and the action of sending out (or making available) a DVD. It's a sponsorship, just in a different form. In both cases, a message is being sent (taught), paid for by somebody with a reason to want that message out there. It's all information, and in a subject as sensitive and important as global warming and environmental science, more information is good.
I mentioned in my last posting about the fascination with "how things work" that made me a nerd, of sorts. Over the weekend I was visiting with friends and we got to talking about our respective college days and the subjects we studied. That music history background of mine came up again. One of the classes I took was a music analysis survey. That's where you learn about how musical compositions are put together—the "nuts and bolts" of a symphony, for example. One of the pieces we "disassembled" was Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. We studied its harmonies (the chord structures), the rhythmic structures, the instruments needed, the themes and variations in the melodies, and so on. It was fascinating stuff, although sometimes it could be a little tedious, especially in a piece with many variations on the same theme, or many sequences that run through a set of key changes (such as in some Bach works).
Experiences like that class fed into how I look at the universe and the many "variations on a theme" we see throughout the cosmos. For example, take this image of Saturn, posted today by the Cassini mission folks.
At first glance it reminds me of clouds in Jupiter's atmosphere. And also of clouds in our own planet's atmosphere. And of atmospheric features that come and go in Neptune's atmosphere. Although I've studied some atmospheric physics, I don't completely understand all the mechanics behind their formation and evolution. Certainly some of the mechanics are the same from world to world: coriolis effects, atmospheric heating and cooling, hadley cells, adiabatic lapse rates, and so forth. But, at each world, these same processes provide beautiful variations on an atmospheric theme. Who can look at them and NOT wonder how they work?
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