Note: The ads you see below and at the bottom of this page are screened for content and many fine companies do appear here. Occasionally ads I don't want DO slip through, particularly for pseudo-science, st*r-naming, ID, and other questionable sites. Please understand that I cannot be held responsible for their content. Do visit them if you wish, but as with all advertising, be logical and use common sense.
I've moved this blog to a new WordPress platform and invite you to visit in my flashy new digs at: TheSpacewriter. For those of you who subscribe using a feed, I've changed the feed, too, so please adjust your reader to using the link below.
It's always nice to get good news from one's alma mater (instead of the usual begging letters from the development foundation). Where I went to school (University of Colorado), astronomy, planetary science, and space sciences research have always been Big Things. I did my graduate studies while serving on a team that worked with an HST instrument (the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph), and also did some work on comet images under a Halley Watch grant. One of the folks who I overlapped with at CU is Alan Stern, now Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and an old friend. At CU he worked with the Center for Space and Geoscience Policy, before leaving to work at Southwest Research Institute. A number of other missions had CU relationships, including some involving other members of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (where I worked), Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (I worked there as an undergraduate), and a variety of other research institutes at CU.
Artist concepts of a Naval Observatory Proposal involving CU-Boulder to place a carpet-like radio telescope on the moon to probe the earliest structures in the universe. Image courtesy CU-Boulder, NRL
Suffice to say, I was pleased to see a press release today outlining a pair of projects that NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory has selected for further funding and development that both involve people and institutions at CU. The first is for a space observatory to find Earth-like planets in distant solar systems. The other is for a unique type of low-frequency radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. Astronomers would use it to look for some of the earliest structures in the universe. Both are very worthy projects and I'm pleased to see my home university continue its winning streak in astronomy and space science. (Read more details here.)
Both projects should give undergraduate and graduate students first-hand experience in designing instruments AND doing science, something that attracted me back to graduate school in the first place (lo these many years ago). While CU isn't the only university that gets these grants and makes opportunities available, it has been a leader for many years in this area. I can't think of Duane Physics tower or the LASP building or the JILA towers without remembering all the really smart, really great scientists who came out of those labs and who are making solid scientific contributions today. There are whole new generations of instruments and projects waiting for new generations of student scientists. And that's good news for science and for old alums like me.
So Easy Even a Writer with a 5 Megapixel Camera Could Do It
Okay, so it's freezing cold here, but the sky has been remarkably clear tonight. So we went out to look at the eclipse. It's beautiful, and as I write this, the Moon is moving out of totality. It's still a pretty brick-red color and as it moves out of the shadow, that color will fade over the next hour. Now, I'm sure that there are lots of really decent astrophotographers out there who will be posting their stunning images of the event.
I am not one of those astrophotographers, but I was still bitten by the camera bug and decided to see what my little HP Photosmart could do. So, I attached it to a little $9.00 hiker's tripod I bought on ThinkGeek.com a while back, and set the camera for no flash, biggest zoom, and high resolution. This is the result.
Not stunning, but hey, it does show that if I can come up with an image of the Moon that isn't TOO blurry (given the long exposure, etc.), then anybody with a little camera and a little tripod can do it, too. Just the same, be sure and do some searching on the Web over the next few days for "lunar eclipse photos" to see what the folks with the big cameras can do!
In case you haven't been near a computer or newspaper for a while, there's a total lunar eclipse occurring tonight in the Western Hemisphere (early morning for Europe and Africa). This "moon darkening" event occurs because the Moon temporarily moves through Earth's shadow. The Moon won't go completely dark, but turn smoky grey to reddish in color; it's still lit up by indirect sunlight, which is why we can see it.
This is one of those celestial events that you can watch from your house (or backyard), but if you're craving a social experience, call your local planetarium and/or public observatory and see if they're planning an eclipse-watching party. There's more information about the eclipse at Sky and Telescope's page. You can also check out Astronomy Magazine's page and for the ultimate in eclipse-o-phile info, go visit MrEclipse.com.
Now, chances are that some parts of North America (at least) will have cloudy conditions for all or part of the eclipse. But, check it out anyway. Your local weather may clear just in time!
I woke up this morning thinking about the latest discoveries of planets around other stars. Astronomers are using a variety of techniques to find them, and totals are racking up quickly. Most of the planets that have been found are "Jupiter-like," meaning they are gas giants with huge atmospheres. They're relatively easy to find because of their size. Worlds like Earth (the terrestrial worlds) are smaller, and tougher to spot. But because astronomers have been able to spot the environments in which planets form around stars (that is,in clouds of gas and dust), it's pretty likely that there are many terrestrial planets out there, too. We just have to dig into those clouds and come up with the planets. Which will take time and some sophisticated astronomy search methods.
Yesterday, the Spitzer Space Telescope folks released news that Earth-like planets might form around many of the closest Sun-like stars.This orbiting telescope, which is sensitive to infrared light (think "warmth") was used to study dust envelopes around nearby stars. These are warm places. Dust closer to the star is hotter than dust farther away from the star, the warm dust is a fair indicator of the types of materials that form rocky planets—that is, Earth-like worlds.
Such discoveries always lead to the old question, "Is there life out there?" It's a fair one to ask. For now, the definitive answer is "No." But, that's because we haven't seen the evidence for any other life out there. Yet. We don't have communications from that life, or pictures of it, or any other manifestations of it that we recognize as a definite "signal." But, if it's out there, there's some chance that we'll detect it. Some day.
So, what I woke up thinking about was what life on OUR planet will be like once we discover life somewhere else. Will it change us in some non-physical way? Will our thinking change about life? About politics? Religion? Education? Science? The way we treat our own planet?
Life from "Out There"—Threat or Learning Experience?
The concept of life elsewhere is a major staple of science fiction stories. Depending on the story being told, the life from "out there" can be threatening, friendly, super-intelligent, simple, primitive, or depicted as being far beyond what we can comprehend. In reality, the life we find beyond Earth will likely be some combination of these factors, and perhaps look nothing at all like what we expect. How that life will act? Well... like we do with our deities, humans have painted aliens with a palette of characteristics that we most admire and/or fear in ourselves. When we DO get to meet other forms of life, the experience may teach us a bit more about respecting the life forms we share Earth with.
Wonder about why I say that? Consider for a moment what humans and human activity (such as whaling) looks like to the cetaceans that inhabit our planet. Or, think about what our planet might look like to alien visitors who come in search of us and they find how we've treated our environment.
These may be extreme examples, but the point I'm trying to make here is that the search for intelligent life (and other planets) isn't one-sided. If there's somebody out there looking for life elsewhere, and they find US, will we inhabit their worst nightmare or exemplify their fondest wishes? Either way, the possibilities are thought-provoking.
So, all this astronomy I write about costs money to do. That isn't a surprise to anybody, I hope. Everything in life has some cost to it, whether in money, karma, time, personal involvement, or ethical reward. While it is true that you can walk outside, look up, and do astronomy at the very basic level, to do anything beyond that requires equipment and person-hours. And those cost money.
Amateur astronomy equipment can cost as little as the price of a book of star maps and a pair of 10x50 binoculars or run to many thousands of dollars or Euros or whatever units of money you use for a top-of-the-line home observatory. I always tell people to start small and let the love of astronomy guide them to whatever seems appropriate to spend.
Professional astronomy is a whole different ball game. No one person "owns" a big observatory like Yerkes or Anglo-Australian or Mt. Wilson or Gemini or Hubble Space Telescope or the Very Large Array. They're operated by consortiums of institutions based in a number of countries. It's about the only way that the enormous costs of running state-of-the-art astrophysical research facilities can be afforded. And the costs can be ... well... astronomical, running into multiple millions of dollars/Euros/etc. each year. The consortiums (and their countries) help pay the bills, and in return, each member of the consortium gets time on the instrument(s).
Recently the Gemini partnership was shaken when the United Kingdom announced it was pulling out to save money. I don't know all the politics that led to this decision, but it took UK astronomers by surprise. The result of that pullout would have denied UK astronomers access to a major Northern Hemisphere observatory, starting nearly immediately.
It made little sense, but in times of tightening budgets, I suppose that the science and technology committee in the UK that made this decision didn't see astronomy as being as important as other physics expenditures it wanted to make, or perhaps much less important than life sciences, for example. Nonetheless, it was a surprise to the partnership and a shock to the world's astronomy community.
Today the Royal Astronomical Society announced that the UK is in "constructive discussions" to continue UK involvement in the Gemini Partnership. President of the RAS, Dr. Michael Rowan-Robinson commented, "The UK has invested about 35 million pounds in the capital phase of the Gemini Observatories, in which we have a 23% stake. To pull out precipitately, as seemed to be happening, would have written this off to make a saving of 4 million pounds a year, at the expense of inflicting great damage to the UK's international reputation."
That is a lot of money to invest, and UK astronomers had every right to feel betrayed by their government's actions in the attempted pullout. Astronomy IS worth the money and the effort, and I suspect that UK scientists will need to make sure their collective voice is heard the next time somebody suggests "cost-saving" measures such as this one.
The progress of evolution from the Big Bang to the present...
A hydrogen atom with probable locations of its electron.
I've got a project coming up in a few weeks that involves learning more about the conditions under which life might form throughout the universe. So, I'm busily studying various papers and articles so that when I get to one of the meetings involved with the project, I'll be able to ask some intelligent questions.
There are so many factors that can play a role in the formation of life that I could spend dozens of blog entries talking about them. One of the most important sciences we can study to suss out the role elements play in the cycle of life is chemistry. Which is, of course, the study of the elements that make everything the universe, and how they work together to do so.
The typical study of chemistry starts with a student learning the chemical elements, starting with hydrogen. Why hydrogen? Because it was the first element created in the Big Bang, the creation event that started the universe on its evolutionary journey some 13.7 billion years ago. The second element was helium, followed by lithium. All the rest of the elements depend on some sort of action that takes place inside stars, or at the end of a star's life. And, those elements, along with hydrogen— a star's first "food"— play a huge role in shaping how new generations of stars—and planets (and us) — are formed.
Hydrogen, however, is ubiquitous, which is a fancy word meaning that it's everywhere. And, it was all there was in the early universe to feed the first rounds of starbirth, and thereafter nourish the formation of more stars. Those stars consumed hydrogen in their nuclear furnaces for much of their lives, but also created new elements as they went along, using their fuel to do so. When they died, they spit back into space all the elements they've made, along whatever hydrogen they have left. All that stuff becomes the seed material for MORE stars, and whatever planets those stars form. It's going on today, this chain of starbirth and stardeath, using hydrogen as the formative "star food" and then churning out heavier elements at the other end of the stellar life cycle. So, like babies that survive on mother's milk early in life, but turn to other foods later to grow and thrive, the universe continues its reliance on hydrogen for the early phases of star life, creating the heavy elements needed for later phases where more metal-enriched stars, planets... and life... are formed.
So, hydrogen is everywhere, even in you! How so? To paraphrase a life form that once spoke in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we are "bags of mostly water." Water molecules are made of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen.
So, think about THAT the next time you're out under the stars. You have hydrogen to thank for your existence... the mother's milk of the cosmos.
On March 31, 2008, Global Earth Hour is going to happen. It's a time when people in major cities around the world can turn off the lights to demonstrate their concern for the environment.
So far, Chicago, Copenhagen, Sydney, Tel Aviv, and Toronto are among the cities that have adopted resolutions to switch off the lights for Earth Hour. Thousands of individuals are signing up, as are businesses. The whole thing is to promote awareness of how our behavior can affect the environment.
As a stargazer, I also like to think that Earth Hour will have the great consequence of bringing people out to see the night sky (weather permitting, of course) free of light pollution. That's a great reason to participate, no matter what your position is on global warming. So, go check out the EarthHour website for the history of this great idea and ways you can get involved.
In case you weren't aware of it, the U.S. is in the middle of an election year. That means that those of us who live here (and those who are U.S. citizens but living elsewhere) get to choose our Fearless Leader for the next 4+ years.
For those of us who are scientifically literate, interested in science, or are just plain down with the coolness of science, the past 8 years have seen a major assault on science and reason, particularly from the more fundamentalist religious folk. This has been aided and abetted by the politicians (mostly on the Republican, conservative side of the aisle) who see more money and power in suppressing reason and science and catering to fundamentalist viewpoints. This is, of course, counterproductive to a technological society that depends on science ...and technology... for much of its jobs, power, product.
Well, it's about time to change that paradigm. It's about time to start asking our future leaders just what their views on and support of science are. So, with that in mind, a huge cross-section of Americans who are concerned about the scientific literacy of the U.S. is sponsoring a Science Debate for the presidential candidates. It's about time that sane scientific though is given respect in this country and the place to start is by having people who want to be president show us what they've got when it comes to REALLY understanding science and making policy about it (and not just quoting scripture or mouthing pre-digested tidbits from cre*tionist thinktanks).
So, if you'd like to know what the candidates thinkor know about science, head over to ScienceDebate2008 and help ring the clarion call for a sane and honest debate about science in the presidential campaigns.
Thanks to Phil Plait over at BadAstronomy.com for bringing this to our attention.
Could you live on Mars? Would you want to? Would anybody want to? Why?
Forget about the political issues that always get raised when somebody brings up Mars exploration for now; they're a subject of another discussion. I want to focus people's thoughts on what it would be like if one could get to Mars and visit or live there. Would you want to?
It's not, as I've written in one of my planetarium shows, a quick jaunt. Anybody going to Mars has to be prepared for a lengthy Earth-Mars trajectory. You'd spend about 18 months getting there; that's a year and a half of low gravity conditions, living in close quarters with a bunch of other people and no chance to get outside for a stroll along the way. There's no way to stretch your legs, visit a waystation, check out some interesting side-trails. It's a straight shot.
And, when you get there, it's a whole new ecology to get used to. Probably you'd live underground or in heavily shielded quarters. You, along with everybody else, will have had extensive training in order to survive Mars; that training would include learning how to live in surface suits that feed you breathable air and protect you from the extreme ultraviolet radiation that cuts through Mars's thin atmosphere. You'd have a job to do; what it is will depend on what your skills are. Mars colonies (if that's what we intended to build) will need everything that any frontier "town" would need: people to build things, people to study things, people to suss out the dangerous conditions and help everybody else avoid them (or learn to live with them).
Even if you were part of a solely scientific expedition, everybody would have multiple jobs that span the science studies and survival goals. You can't send an infinite number of people to Mars, so the ones who DO go will have to be cross-trained.
I've been swapping a lot of email with a colleague lately about the future of space exploration. He and his minions are working on a project that explores humanity's future, not just in space, but in science research in general. One of the core "nubs" of our conversations have been about what it takes today to get people excited about the ideas and technologies needed for space exploration.
The political environment today is very mixed and muddled about space exploration. For example, at least one candidate for U.S. president, Barack Obama, has called for a postponement of some NASA programs (notably the Constellation program) and the money saved to be put into education. Of course, the obvious fact is that we (as a country) are pouring a lot of money into education already. So, I have to ask, how will the little dab (comparatively) of money that is taken from NASA benefit the behemoth that is U.S. education, especially if ALL that other money didn't do the job? If we really want to pour some money into education, well, there's a whole big military budget that could use a little trimming...
Now, I'm NOT anti-education, so don't go there. But, if we're going to go to space in the future (and this is something that the U.S. as a country HAS pursued for these many years, then we need to have educated workers. No doubt about it. But, it's not smart to take away the projects that will provide the jobs that we're educating the kids for... I think that is pretty obvious.
Well, we CAN do what Senator Obama wants to do, although I doubt we will. Reality will set in for the senator, pretty fast. But, the bigger issue here is, how do we excite people about the future in space? Particularly when things here on the ground are SO unsettled?
Is it going to take another space race? The U.S. isn't the only player in town when it comes to off-Earth research and development (and future plans for such). Plenty of other countries are interested in and working toward some sort of space-based presence for humans. Is this the future? Will seeing a group of Chinese/Japanese/Russian/French/you name the country entrepreneurs building a hotel on the Moon be enough to spark the planet's will to put differences aside and go to space?? What is it about space that will excite the next generation to want to live there, travel there, study the other planets?
Well, so the Patriots didn't win the Super Bowl. I didn't have a dog in the hunt, although since I live in New England, the game was on everybody's radar screens. Maybe I should have taken them all hot-tubbing and stargazing.
So, back to astronomy blogging. I was surprised to see a story about a timeline of astronomy blogs, with this humble blog you're reading listed among the earliest ones the author could find. That started a (predictable) discussion over at Bad Astronomy about who was really first and how you define "blog" and so forth. Frankly, I think it's an interesting dip back in history, and a bit jarring to see how quickly things have changed in the few years since I started blogging.
Of course, my blog is relatively new, compared to my web page, which began in the early 1990s as a way for me to blow off steam writing during graduate school. It was first hosted at the University of Colorado. Then, when I graduated and got a job, bought my official domain name (http://www.thespacewriter.com) and moved it to a server at Voicenet. A couple of years, I migrated the whole thing over to Hostgator. Recently I started revamping my site design (in the background), and I'm rethinking my whole approach to talking and writing about astronomy. So, things change. Which is good, since that's what the universe is about: change.
Speaking of changing, I've been working with Haystack Observatory on a vodcast series about spaceweather. The first episode went up a few weeks ago here and we posted it on Youtube as well. As it turns out, we had to update the video, so it's been reposted on Youtube; please go over and check it out and help us build up our visitor count again! And please feel free to write to me with your comments about it, particularly if you are a teacher and use it in your classroom!
For U.S. football fans, today is the holy of holies; the biggest day of the year; the day when all the football hopes and dreams come together in a giant explosion of talent, energy, ritualized violence, and cheerleaders. And food. And drink. And television. It's Super Bowl Sunday.
I like football. As a long-suffering Denver Broncos fan, I've watched my share of Super Bowls, and shared the agony of defeat followed AT LONG LAST by a victory or two or three. And, I'll be on the sofa tonight, watching the Patriots and the Giants knock each other around the field.
I'm sure that there must be at least a few other sports fans among astronomers, just as I'm willing to wager that there must be at least one football player somewhere who took an astronomy class. (I know there has to be one, because I've heard tell of "E-Z" astronomy classes for folks who didn't want to major in science, but wanted to learn a little about astronomy ("Stars for Poets") or geology ("Rocks for Jocks"), etc.)
But, one time I did hang out with some football players in a most unexpected place, and we managed to connect over the stars—teaching a much-younger me that jocks can love the stars and teaching jocks that a bunch of astronomers can help them realize starry dreams.
So, how did this happen?
Okay, there we were, a group of astronomy folk: two researchers, a teacher and a writer, hanging out at the hot tub at the San Diego Marriott in Mission Valley. We were there for an Astronomical Society of the Pacific meeting being held at San Diego State University. We'd spent the day attending talks, giving talks, meeting astronauts, watching astronomy education demonstrations, and, of course, buying stuff in the exhibit room. After a jam-packed day, it was time for dinner at a local seafood joint, and then... off to the hotel pool and some after-hours chat in the hot tub.
As luck would have it, the skies were pretty clear that night, so we got to do a little stargazing from the tub. About halfway through our first tour of the sky, four huge (but well-muscled) guys came lumbering up to the tub and eased themselves in. The water level rose appreciably as we all greeted each other politely. We'd seen them around, usually working out near the pool area, along with some other athletes.
We continued our stargazing, pointing things we could see in the sky. The big guys listened for a while and finally one of them asked, "So, are you guys into astronomy?" Well, that started up a whole conversation about stargazing, which rambled into astrophysics and astronomy education. One of the guys told us he never had been able to find the Big Dipper. So, we showed it to him, and then took him on a little tour of some of the other constellations. The discussion then got into planet-gazing and the history of space exploration. Before we knew it, we'd spent an hour or so talking "shop" with these guys before finally climbing out and heading off to sleep. We all said our goodbyes and they thanked us for showing them the constellations.
I never did find out their names, but when I was checking out the next morning on my way to catch my flight home, I asked at the front desk about the athletes who seemed to be hanging around a lot, the woman laughed a little and pointed over at the stadium (Jack Murphy). "They're the San Diego Chargers." The hotel was hosting their training table and giving them a place to lift weights, etc.
Later that night, when Mark picked me up at the airport, he asked me if anything exciting had happened at the meeting. "Well, yeah. I got to hot-tub with the front four of the San Diego Chargers," I said. And, not for the first time (I'm sure) did he wonder how it was that I could go off to an astronomy meeting and end up doing something as fascinating as that. The stars will do that to you, jock or not.
Sad to say, the San Diego Chargers didn't go on to win the Super Bowl, but I'd like to think that at least four of them back in 1993 learned a little about the stars on their way to the training table.
No, it's not the name of a punk-rock band, although I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising and musically inclined astrophysics grad students didn't form a band in their "spare time" and name themselves that. There's a great tradition of geeky names for scientist-led bands, such as the Eigenfunctions, the Algo-Rhythms, and one of my favorites, the Titan Equatorial Band, an impromptu group that featured such folks as one of my former colleagues Kelly Beatty (Sky & Telescope Magazine), Cassini Mission scientist Carolyn Porco,the late great science journalist Jonathan Eberhart, and many others. They gathered and played during Voyager spacecraft flybys.
But, that's not the kind of band I'm talking about in this entry. The 21-centimeter Band is a wavelength of light that is more attuned to a single note: the radio frequency (1420 MHz) emitted by changes in atoms of neutral hydrogen. It's right smack in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, and so radio astronomers have been using it for years to probe a variety of conditions in the universe.
Yesterday, I went over to Haystack Observatory to hear a talk about using 21-cm band emissions to study clouds of material being emitted from Asymptotic Giant Branch stars. These may sound like weird, far-out, geeky stars. And they are. But they're also part of the final act in the lives of stars that are less than eight times the mass of the Sun... including the Sun. As they slip into old age, these stars cool down, they expand, they get brighter, and through all this, they spend their nuclear fuel (which is running low) faster and faster. As they cool, their atmospheres get just chilly enough that dust grains can "freeze out" and create a dusty shell around the star. Think of this phase as a last burst of lively activity before settling into very old age (not unlike the antics of some elderly rockers doing successive world tours (not that there's anything wrong with that)).
Well, some of the larger AGB stars also start to pulsate, and these heavings send a stellar wind blowing away from the star, shoving the dusty shell out away from the star, along with a cloud of neutral hydrogen. Now, we can study the dust by looking for its signature in the infrared (where astronomers commonly detect warm (but not too hot) glowing things. And, voila, we can study the progression of the mass loss (that is, how quickly the stellar wind is shoving mass away from the star) by examining the 21-centimeter emissions from the neutral hydrogen in the shell.
Four scenes from an animation showing Mira and its 13 light-year-long tail. Courtesy Galex Mission.
It's still a work in progress, but we did see some fine examples of 21-centimeter emissions from the stellar tail trailing out along the line of travel of the star Mira A which looks like it's got a comet tail. That tail is glowing in ultraviolet light, but 21-centimeter band studies show more detail in the neutral hydrogen that is also being carried along. If the work (which is still in progress) plays out as the astronomers expect, they should be able to figure out a pretty accurate timetable for when this material started streaming off the star (and hence, how old the tail is), and give us some new insights into the rockin' activity in these geriatric stars.
The sites below belong to space and astronomy enthusiasts. I make every effort to check them and make sure they are still appropriate. However, I am not responsible for their content, nor do I endorse any of it by simply linking to them. As with all Web surfing, please exercise caution.