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Pulsars are big, nasty, radio-noisy beasts in the cosmic zoo. They are what's left over after a massive star (say one that is at least eight times more massive than the Sun) explodes as a supernova. Some of the star's body (what hasn't been blasted out to space) falls back in on itself in a seething mass of crushed neutrons. They're superdense and they spin. As they whip around many times per second, they send out beams of radio waves that sweep across our field of view like the light from a lighthouse. We catch their beams as pulses of radio waves; hence the name "pulsar."
A group of astronomers who study these strange stellar animals has put together a project for high school students and their teachers to participate in searching out pulsars in our galaxy. The students and educators will join astronomers on the cutting edge of science under a program to be operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and West Virginia University (WVU), and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program, called the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, will engage West Virginia students and teachers in a massive search for new pulsars using data from the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT).The GBT has discovered more than 60 pulsars over the past five years, including the fastest-rotating pulsar ever found, a speedster spinning 716 times per second.
Student teams will receive parcels of data from the GBT and analyze the data to discover pulsars. To do this, they'll learn to use analysis software and recognize radio interference from Earth-based technologies that can contaminate the data. Each portion of the data will be analyzed by multiple teams. Of the 1,500 hours of GBT observing data in the project, all taken during the summer of 2007, some 300 hours is reserved for analysis by the student teams. This reserved data set is expected to include tens of new pulsars and about 100 known pulsars. It's highly possible that each student in the project could discover one of these cosmic beasts for themselves. Think of how THAT will look on a college application form!
We're Made of Stuff...Really COOL Stuff from Stars
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "Home Soil," the crew of the starship Enterprise run into a life form that, when they finally figure out a way to communicate with it, calls the humans "ugly bags of mostly water." It's a great line, but it's also true: we ARE mostly water.
In fact, if you break down the elements in our bodies by how much there is of each one, you get this list:
A mix of copper, selenium, fluorine, chlorine, molybdenum, iodine, cobalt, manganese, and iron that comes to about 0.70%
Another mix of lithium, strontium, aluminum, silicon, lead, vanadium, arsenic, bromine that are in very small trace amounts
So, we ARE mostly water, when you combine the oxygen and hydrogen to make H20. Our skin, organs, muscles, bones, and nerves basically give the water a place to hang out. Now, the interesting thing is that, aside from the hydrogen, the rest of the stuff all comes from stars. Some of those elements are cooked up inside stars like the Sun. Others come from stars that exploded as supernovae. Each of those kinds of stars spent a long time converting fuel to heat, and in their old age, they blew off clouds of material that included these elements.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan coined the phrase "We are star stuff" to explain how we came from the stars, albeit in a very long, long birth process. A bunch of stars had to live and die in order to make the "stuff" that is in our bodies, that makes up our planet, and even our Sun. It's great stuff, this starstuff!
Sometimes we find things in space with names that sound like they're straight of out the realm of science fiction. Like magnetars. Just the word alone invokes visions of some alien empress on a faraway planet: Magnetar, the Magnificent, of Planet Epsilon Indii III. Legions of her loyal subjects gather in a jewel-studded room to pay homage to her intelligence, her beauty, her awesome power: Magnetar, the Magnificent!!!
Well, I have no doubt that Edgar Rice Burroughs could have made a real tale out of Magnetar and her many adventures. But, in truth, there's no such beautiful empress ruling over a faraway realm.
There is, however, the real magnetar, which is an object so strange that astronomers are still figuring out how they can exist. Magnetars are what remain after a star many, many times more massive than the Sun explodes. What's left of the star collapses down to an extremely dense object called a neutron star (a star made entirely of neutrons, oddly enough). One of these babies is not much larger than an Earth mountain, but it has the mass of the Sun. A magnetar is a neutron star with a magnetic field hundreds of trillions of times more powerful than Earth's. As the magnetar's magnetic field decays over time, it spurs emissions of x-rays and gamma-rays, the most energetic radiation in the universe.
Nobody's actually SEEN a magnetar so much as we've seen the emissions they give off. From those emissions we can figure out the strength and extent of the magnetic field that powers them. The XMM-Newton satellite, which is run by the European Space Agency, has detected powerful explosions emanating from just beneath the surface of the magnetar (shown in the artist's conception up top). For several years astronomers followed the explosive history of one magnetar, called XTE J1810-197, and recorded changes in the energetic x-rays being emitted by this object. The astronomers made some computer models and have figured out that the outbursts are coming from a tiny island of magnetic activity just below the surface of the star. This island's own magnetic field is six hundred million million times that of Earth's. With all due respect to our fictional Empress Magnetar, this little magnetic spot in a distant neutron star is 'way more powerful than the mightiest ruler (real or fictional). You can read more details about the magnetar at ESA.
More First Steps to Space By Offering Prizes to Meet a Challenge
So, will the next steps on the Moon be taken in order to win a $30 million X-prize? If Google has its way, it will. They're offering that much money to whoever gets the first privately funded robotic rover on the Moon by the year 2012. It's a great prize, although it probably won't cover the actual costs of the rover. It almost really doesn't matter if it does, though. It's the spirit of the thing that really counts. That a foundation and a company would be willing to put their money with their mouth is speaks volumes about their commitment to moving humans ahead to explore the near-Earth environment. And, to do that, some radical moves need to be taken, both in funding and incentives as well as in the actual technology to do the job. In the history of technology, sometimes really good solutions have come about because of competition and pressure to do a job well. And, as we know from the history of space travel so far, the spinoffs benefit education, medicine, and many technologies we take for granted in our daily lives.
The X-Prize foundation doesn't just fund competitions for space travel, although their first big one, the Ansari Prize to prove that personal, affordable space flight is achievable. It went to Spaceship One and Mojave Aerospace Ventures, led by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen. It was a private team and they achieved a major breakthrough in space travel. If you go to the X-Prize Foundation's web site you'll find X-Prizes for a variety of other challenges: genomics and automotive breakthroughs, to name a couple. You can even suggest an X-Prize challenge, something breaktaking, audacious, and visionary. That's what it takes: an idea and a chance to push it through. Sort of like going to the Moon with a lunar buggy. There it is—let's go!
Arrr!!! Avast ye lads and lasses, 'tis Talk Like a Pirate Day! All in good fun and silliness, because as the old chumbuckets over at Talk Like a Pirate Day say, we all know that real pirates are scurvy bilge rats and no fun at all. We're not here to celebrate the evil ways of real pirates. We just want to be a little silly, sling around some piratey lingo and exhibit some swashbuckling pirattitude. And, so today we're Stargazin' like a Pirate here at Ye Olde Spacewriter's Blogge.
In days of old, honest sailors and pirates alike used the stars for navigatin' the briney deeps. Today, us modern travelers at sea AND on land depend on things like computers and cell phones and GPS units to do our navigatin' for us. So we can just go out and enjoy the night sky for the sheer beauty of it all and celebrate a cosmic version of Talk Like a Pirate Day!
To get started, dress fer the weather! If it's cold in yer part of the world, put on yer warmest piratey britches and overcoats. While yer still inside, get yerself some star charts here. They'll come in handy when yer sailin' the starry seas!
Aside from that, ye won't need anything else but yer own two eyes and a safe place to stargaze from! If yer really in the piratey mood, however, take along some grog! This can be a spiritous beverage (if yer of legal age) or a hot chocolate or warm chai or whatever shivers yer piratey timbers!
Next, get yerself outside as soon as the Sun has set in old Davey Jones's locker in the sky. (When it's dark.) Lay down on a nice chaise longue chair, or a blanket or sleepin' bag, anything to keep yer piratey stargazin' hiney warm and dry. Then, ye just look up!
There, stretched above ye will be the glory o' the cosmos. Stars, planets, our galaxy, plus a few others, clouds o' gas and dust, and much, much more. If ye have a piratey spyglass (or binoculars or a telescope) drag it out and focus on the lovelies above ye!
That's all there is to it. While yer at it, spice up yer language and talk like a piratey astronomer! Use such swashbuckling lingo as:
"Aye, that's a lovely treasure chest o' stars up there, matey!"
"Shiver me timbers, I've never seen such a bright planet as that one!"
"Arrr Matey, check out that Lagoon Nebula afore she sets!!!"
"Well, blow me down, matey! We'll be sailing Carina over the horizon tonight!!
"Avast ye, the Moon is over the yardarm!"
"Look smartly, me lovelies! There went a meteor!"
'Tis a new way to get yer starrrrry fix, and a great way to celebrate the Piratey Silliness. So, have fun and don't forget—talk like a pirate!
The first step you take to space is the one you take when you go outside and look up at the stars. A lot of questions crowd your mind. How far away are those stars? is a good one. Another one that you eventually get to is: How did they form?
Astronomy, the science that studies the stars and planets and galaxies, is a rigorous way of looking at the stars and explaining how they came to be. It applies physics, which is another science that we all learn at some point in our lives. The laws of physics describe motions, actions, and reactions. Pretty simple, really. Something happens, a law of physics describes that happening. If you can observe it, you can describe it. If it happens often enough in the same or similar ways, the laws of physics describe it. That's the essence of science, and the application of physical laws. Clear thinking is required and it's not hard to do once you get the hang of it.
So, the stars are out there, and over centuries of study, we've figured out how they work, where they came from, and what they're going to do throughout their lives. Same with planets and galaxies and nebulae.
But, the first step is to go out there and gaze.
There's a project going on in the first two weeks of October called the Great World Wide Star Count. It's aimed at anybody who wants to go outside, look up at the stars, and then share what they see with others. It's a science project, and as such things go, it's pretty easy. You go outside, look for specific constellations and then come inside and write up what you see in a form on the World Wide Web. Visit the link to find out more. It's time to step outside to the stars! Start practicing for the Star Count tonight!
All my life I've been interested in going to space. It feels like the right place to be, considering that the origins of life and the elements that make up our bodies all come from space. It only makes sense that we take ourselves back out and show space what we've become out of those raw materials, right?
Of course, everybody knows that the U.S. and Russia were the first ones to go to space in any meaningful kind of way. That all began in the late 1950s and has continued to this day. A fair number of other countries have joined in a sort of slow diaspora to the regions beyond our planet. That list includes France (most recently as part of the European Space Agency, which includes 15 member nations and their national agencies), Japan (through Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), Canada (through ESA and NASA), China (through the China National Space Administration),and India (Indian Space Research Organisation). And for a couple of years now, the government of Dubai has been talking about getting into the space tourism business, along with others such as Virgin (of Virgin Atlantic) fame.
So, there's this interest in space. And it costs a lot of money, time, and technology to get us back to where we came from—safely and in one piece. I often wonder why we waste time and money on wars and internecine political struggles that have mostly to do with greed or the unnecessary imposition of one people's viewpoint on another (often unwilling) people. We could be be bettering people's lives with our technology and science, and also getting on with the business of exploring space. It's not an idle question and the answer requires us to be anything but petty, greedy, intolerant, and warlike. Living and working in space will be difficult enough. But, many of us continue to look to space as the place to go... someday.
So, just to finish off the thoughts I started in the previous entry... writing for the dome requires that I conceive of my story in more than the square or rectangular dimensions that most of us are used to in movies and TV. But, there was also another constraint. For the longest time, we could only see the stars on the dome as a "flat" backdrop, much as we do when we step outside and stargaze. This isn't such a bad thing, especially if you want to teach people how to find various stars, constellations, planets, and so forth. But, with the advent of fulldome digital video, suddenly all the databases of stars that scientists work with could be plugged into a computer program and used to take people out through the stars. Add in more databases and suddenly you can travel through galaxy clusters and the large-scale structure of the cosmos. This is 'way more than we used to get in the old days of planetariums, when we were limited to slides of galaxy clusters, for example.
There is some ferment in the planetarium industry about the "old ways" going the way of the dinosaur. It's true. Slide projectors aren't being made by Kodak anymore; nor is much of the film we used to make our slides available. It's a digital video age, and as expensive as the changeover is for those places who are contemplating the leap to fulldome, it's also a leap into methods of doing our jobs that are much different from the "old days."
Today, a planetarian using fulldome video will find him or herself running shows from a variety of producers (such as myself), and likely also wanting to create some of his or her own presentations. All of us planetarium folk who create shows are finding ourselves learning new tricks of the trade: video editing and compositing software, graphics creation packages, and so on. Instead of slaving away over a hot copystand and photographing artwork to make panoramas and all-skies, we're all slaving away in front of computers and learning the true meaning of "babysitting a render" just like the big boys at Pixar and other studios.
So, what does this mean for me as a science writer? Basically, when I set out to write a show these days, I'm finally getting to see my shows on the dome the way I've always pictured them in my mind as I write them, thanks to advances in digital video technology and computerized visual editing and compositing.
As long-time readers know, I write about astronomy and space science in a variety of formats. Of course there are the books and magazine articles, this blog, and the Griffith Observatory exhibits, which I wrote during 2005 and well into 2006. And, in the very near future, I'll be debuting some short video documentaries online for a group of scientists at an observatory near my office.
I also do documentary scripts, mostly for planetariums. That is what I'm best known for among the world's several thousand planetarium professionals. Sometimes in the course of my work, I find myself telling somebody about the planetarium shows I've written. Yep, there have been several dozen of them over the years, and they're something of a unique art form. Mostly this is because the show's action takes place projected on the domed ceiling of a round room. It's a different kind of medium than the big squares/rectangles you see at your local movie houses or in your living room. For one thing, stuff can't go "off screen" or "exit stage left" as you would see in a movie, TV show or in a live play. There's no "off" or "left" in a hemisphere. Oh, you can have stuff go "down" (that is, below the level of the dome") and that's legitimate. Another difference lies in the immersiveness of the dome. You can literally put your audience into a scene, which immediately affects the types and speeds of motion you can use on the dome. There's a lot of experimentation going on these days with just what you can get away with on the dome before you make your audience sick or lose their interest or just simply overwhelm them with the show. And that experimentation has been brought on largely by the advent of fulldome video systems.
Planetarium shows are a hybrid of documentary and immersive entertainment. In the planetarium community, there's always some ferment over how much something is educational versus entertaining, but that debate lacks the teeth it used to have. For one thing, educational programs can be entertaining, given the right mixture of talent and skill among the creators. In the beginning, back before there were slide projectors and video projectors, planetarium folk had a round room with a star projector. They used this space to give lectures, pointing out the various stars and constellations. Before long, somebody thought of adding some music to enhance the mood of the lecture. Then somebody else thought of sticking some slide projectors in the room to show pictures from telescopes, spacecraft, space artists, and other sources. Eventually, planetarium shows divided into "live" vs "taped" presentations, and there were great fermenting hullabaloos over which was better. Turns out that each kind of presentation had/has its strengths, and the wise planetarium person uses them both as appropriate.
Today, the fulldome video presentation is the digital child of the old slide-tape format show. Technology has progressed well enough that you can stretch several hundred to several thousand pixels across a dome. Naturally, all of us who produce shows are embracing this as a way to do ever-better and more exciting shows.
This hasn't changed my scriptwriting goals too much, other than now I can add "documentary fulldome video writer" to my list of marketable skills. And, like everybody else in the planetarium community who is going or has gone to fulldome video (either with or without the accompanying opto-mechanical star projector), I'm having to learn some new skills (video editing and compositing, for one). Planetarium shows have come a long way since the first one I did, which was a slide-tape show about the speed of light. I wonder where they'll go in the future?
As images go, it's not very exciting. But, it's what it means that makes a difference to the scientists commanding the Phoenix Mars lander. The image above is a picture taken by the lander's robotic arm camera looking into the robotic arm's scoop. The spacecraft is still on its way to Mars, so this picture is equivalent of taking a picture of yourself onboard a jet while you're traveling and sending it back home via email to let your loved ones know you're still alive.
Why do this? The scientists routinely test instruments onboard spacecraft to make sure they'll be working when they arrive at their destinations. Cruise mode is a great time to make such tests and to work on any fixes (if they're needed). In Phoenix's case, these are the only pictures to be taken and returned to Earth while the spacecraft is en route. The next images we see from these instruments won't arrive until the spacecraft gets to Mars in May 2008.
Phoenix's work on Mars will be the sort of geology that humans would love to do when WE get to Mars. It will dig trenches, scoop up soil and water-ice samples, and then test them onboard the lander in a series of chemical and geological analyses. The imagers will give us full-color images of the nearby surface in great detail
Of course, the big questions this mission is designed to answer have to do with life; whether it existed on Mars and what remains would be detectable in the Martian soil. It's one of the main drivers for all our Mars missions as we seek to understand this bleak, cold, alien yet Earth-reminiscent planet. So, it's good that our planetary scout mission has sent us back some pictures. We know the camera works. And sometime next year, we'll use the other instruments to further our understanding of Mars's intricate geological history.
The other night we were driving back from a family party and had the privilege of watching the late rise of a waning gibbous Moon. It was gorgeous, luminous and looked mysterious and awe-inspiring hovering over the spans of the Tappan Zee bridge in New York State. As is my usual practice, I stared at it for awhile, just taking in the "Moon"-ness of it all; the three-dimensionality of the world next door to Earth. It's a wonderful thing to watch the Moon and think about all the people who have studied it, the handful of men who have visited it, and the many who will visit it in the future.
We see beautiful moonrises and full moons and appreciate moonlight because the Moon is bathed in sunlight, same as Earth is. The sunlight is made up of photons, packets of energy that are given off by the Sun as a result of nuclear reactions deep inside. It's a process that has been going on since the Sun and planets formed more than 4.5 billion years ago. Granted, the reflected light isn't as intense as the light straight from the Sun. But, even though a full moon is 500,000 times fainter than the Sun, moonlight is still reflected sunlight.
I was amused to read today that some guy in Arizona is channeling moonlight and reflecting it onto people, who then claim to have been healed of asthma and cancer, and had their depression lifted. He claims that the different colors in the light will activate parts of the body and help them heal. There's no scientific evidence for this claim, but I do suspect that there's a psychological connection that this guy is deliberately claiming as a real, physical effect. I'd like to see some scientific proof.
Because us human folk have active imaginations, we often see things in the Moon that really aren't there, such as the patterns of light and dark on the surface that we often call "the Man in the Moon" or "the rabbit in the Moon." There are lots of old folk tales about how moonlight affects people, usually as a calming influence or, paradoxically, as a cause of mental illness or derangement.
It's much more likely that the folks who are "bathing in moonlight" are confusing the feelings of awe and inspiration and other emotional reactions that the Moon elicits with actual physical reactions. Entirely understandable. But, it's not medicine and it's not science. It's metaphysical. And, it's not the Moon's fault that humans have a psychological capacity for things mysterious and magical. The Moon will sit there and cheerfully reflect sunlight from now until the end of the solar system and it'll still be sunlight (reflected). It only becomes magical, metaphysical, or mysterious when humans (and their imaginations and emotions) get into the act.
What's loony about this idea of moonlight curing diseases? The fact that people are paying money to stand in the way of some moonlight when most of us can do it for free on any moonlit night.
So, here's a challenge for you: look at StarDate's Calendar of the Moon's phases and figure out a time when you can go stand in some moonlight. Then, go out and do it! Take along a pair of binoculars (or a telescope, if you have one) and check out the lunar craters. You'll enjoy the moonlight and get to do a little lunar exploration, all in one go. And, the feeling of accomplishment you'll have will be all your own, not caused by the supposed "mysterious" qualities of reflected sunlight.
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