Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's a Big Universe

Today's post is a little bit of a cope out. I saw this video on another blog that I follow and just had to share it, if you haven't seen it already. It's the Known Universe, as mapped so far. Amazing, props to Leviuqse.

In some sadder news, the Space Shuttle Discovery's last flight is scheduled to take place on February 24 at 16:50 (4:50PM) Eastern time. It's been plagued with delays because of external tank problems. We don't need the tank blowing up on lift off. Hopefully all will go smoothly with this somber occasion and NASA can continue to look forward with new technology and new missions.

Now for the lighter side, CATURDAY!

Friday, February 18, 2011

A 'Family Portrait'

NASA's MESSENGER probe is on a mission to study Mercury, the closest planet to our Sun. A month from now, on March 17th, it will enter orbit around Mercury. This will be the first mission to orbit Mercury, and will be the first time that we get some Hi-Res maps of the entire globe. We will be learning about a brand new planetary surface. MESSENGER has already done a few fly-bys of Mercury, with some stunning and revealing results.

On its long and epic journey their though, MESSENGER would look back out into space, taking images. What it came up with was a family portrait of our solar system.
Click to Enlarge. Credit: NASA

Friday Gizmo 2/18/11

So last week I mentioned the NoteSlate as being a totally awesome object that one day I hope to own. I also said I would try to find an awesome gizmo every Friday, if I can, and just bring attention to it. Mostly just noting stuff that I want.

This week, we have the U-Socket. Another awesome piece of technology that I am wondering what took so long to develop. Look at this thing, it is an outlet WITH USB SOCKETS! Talk about fricken convenience. I know everyone has wall outlets, and not enough USB ports on their computers. No longer are you constrained to a computer to charge your phones, cameras, and MP3 players and whatever other gadget. One day I hope to have at least one of these outlets in every room of my house.

Another use is for all those wacky USB toys that exist, like the ones from You can put silly Christmas USB things near your tree rather then on your desk, and whatever else fills your fancy. And I guess its compatible with USB 3.0, so it won't go out of style anytime soon. Downside, I guess it's still patent pending, which doesn't mean much, but its still waiting on the final safety approval. I'll probably wait until I'm sure its safe to buy any. And you have to install it yourself, or get someone to do it. Not hard, just a pain, at least it comes with a manual for installation.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Swedish Model

Sweden_Solar_System. That is just plain awesome. I wish the U.S. would do something like this. It would almost be worthy of an epic road trip.

In other news, today is a pretty nice day. I've been enjoying it, since we will be hit by coronal mass ejection (CME) late today (the 17th). A geomagnetic bomb that will destroy everything in a blast of subatomic particles... or not really. It should make for some awesome aurora for the northern brothers though. And probably people near the south pole too, the researchers in Antarctica. More on it at and Bad Astronomy.

And actually, consulting the NOAA Auroral Activity site, auroras could be visible just on the northern horizon from my location. I'll have to go take a look. I suggest looking at the site to see where you are in relation to the activity.

*UPDATE* It was cloudy when I went out tonight, so no aurora here. I would love to hear if anyone does get to see it. I have never seen them myself that I can remember. But I did get an award and a pin from the astronomical society and the Night Sky Network for all my outreach help, recognition is always good. Since the NSN is a part of NASA, its like a thank you from NASA.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

So You Want To Buy A Telescope.

Maybe you have been reading astronomy blogs and visiting various astronomy sites and checking out the latest Hubble pictures and have thought to yourself, 'Man, astronomy is awesome, space is awesome! I want a telescope, I want to see and learn more about the Universe I live in.' Great, and congratulations, the Universe is a very wonderful and beautiful place. A telescope is a wonderful tool for looking at the wonders of space.

That said, the best initial advice is: Do NOT Buy A Telescope!

Not yet at least. First, like all good purchases, you need to do some homework. You shouldn't just walk into your local department store and throw down less then $100 on a crappy refractor. You can, but it will probably just break after a couple uses and have poor visual quality and ultimately leave you with a disappointed experience. You probably want to get the best experience that you can out of your telescope, so you have to determine what you are going to use it for and learn a bit about the night sky. (More after my first attempt at using a jump break.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Science and The News Media

Yesterday I had one of those ever so nerve racking events where new media took a science story and ran up the walls with it. This was in relation to the possibility of a large planet in the Oort cloud region of the solar system, tentatively named Tyche (a good name if it does exist BTW). But that's the problem, the evidence is weak for the claims the articles make. Even worse, the articles on news sites take the researchers words to far and claim the planet all but exists, it just needs the images found from a database. I won't really go much more into it, as Phil Plait already did an excellent job. Also, the most recent paper from the two researchers this is focused around is HERE. There is no way to really either confirm or deny the existence of such a planet at this point.

So, what I do want to talk about is how utterly ridiculous news media is, and by proxy making scientists look bad. The amount of damage control people like Phil do shouldn't have to happen. I know I was up late last night arguing on the internet (an ever futile event) to try to educate people about what was really going on. I quit by the time I got to HuffPo. It is a bit annoying, but I guess it keeps me busy.

My guess is that the reasons why the news likes to latch on the most ridiculous versions of science news is because it causes controversy. They want to shake things up and get some readers interested. However, often times it just provides people with inaccurate information and disbelief in science. I'm not sure if this is just because the science... well tech writers for news just have a poor understanding of science or not. That was another thing I just thought of. There are no more 'Science' sections in the news, it's all under Tech. However there is a big difference between the two. Tech is your gadgets and gizmos, your iWhats and 3DHD1080PTV. Science is that actual work that goes into making that stuff possible. Example: 'Biologists may have discovered a new protein that effects depression, if so this could lead to technical advances in treatment of depression.' TADA, not that hard to see the difference.

Anyways, through some poor understanding and need for sensationalism, science is often distorted in the news. Hypothesizes often become made into facts with distorted applications. Example: 'You will never be sad again! Scientists have discovered proteins that eliminate depression!' And unfortunately, this sort of reporting goes on way more often then I am comfortable with. Especially when it comes to things like vaccines and the future of space science. Misinforming people can cost lives and our future.

It's also a disservice to scientists. They aren't some elite cabal of white lab coat wearing guys in labs all the time. They are people just like everyone else, and most of them are actually pretty cool, and a lot of them are girls too. And if you actually represent the science and the scientists, the story might actually be more interesting then the shake up that the news is trying to create. It might actually get people excited and intrigued. If represented correctly, the story of Tyche could have spurred and entire group of kids to become astronomers searching for the next big thing in the outer solar system. The story as told just suggests that Tyche would prove astronomers jerks for taking away Pluto or something like that.

Plus the original story in the Independent ends with the line "So if it is real, Tyche may not only be disrupting the orbits of comets, it may also overturn an established scientific theory." As far as I know, there is no established scientific theory being overturned. It has long been thought possible that planets could be slung out from their parent star and picked up by another. If anything, it would just add detail to our understanding of the working of the Oort cloud, for which the only evidence that exists right now is that that is where most long period comets seem to be the furthest out at. The Oort cloud probably exists, there is strong evidence for it, but we have yet to observe it ourselves.

Anyways, I am going to wrap this up. Final words being: Wouldn't it better to actually educate and inspire people with scientific discoveries that are accurately reported, humanized the scientists, and gives people the hope that if they were dedicated enough, they could help out too? Rather then portraying things as a big mess were scientists are always trying to one up one another and there is no room for outsides and inaccuracies that will confuse people and make them distrustful of science.

December's Lunar Eclipse

Back in December, just before Christmas, there was a Lunar Eclipse that happened to occur on the winter solstice. The HCAS went out and did some observing, it was pretty awesome, although cold. Even though it is a bit old, I just wanted to share the picture, keeping a short post after the two long ones I just did. Click to enlarge, you can see some background stars too, which are pretty cool.

Credit: HCAS Members

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saturn & Storm

Credit: HCAS Members
So there he is (Saturn is a male god). Click to enlarge for a little bit more detail. It isn't the highest quality, especially given the conditions. And I don't have the exact specs on the number of exposures and length of exposure. What I can tell is that we used the observatory's 14-inch Celestron C-14 Schmidt-Cassegrain (the telescope). The mount is an Astro-Physics 1200 GOTO computerized system. The camera used was the Orion Planetary Imager and Autoguider. And it was a lot of fun to stay out there until 2 in the morning hangout and messing with settings and such.

The reason why the picture isn't something you might see in a magazine or from NASA is because we are not NASA or highly funded. But given what we do have, this is a great photo. I do believe I linked to the Cassini image of the storm on Saturn a couple post ago. Here it is again, in case you don't feel like scrolling around looking (I don't blame you). A couple of other issues we had to deal with were a high seeing (the amount of disruption by the atmosphere) and Saturn is still pretty far away. Saturn is about two months from opposition (A.K.A. when it is closest to Earth), so this was about as large as could blow it up without distorting the image.

OK, I got some of the more technical details out of the way, now for the fun stuff. Saturn looks its usual pretty self, fitting for Valentine's Day. There is some good detail in the rings, if you look at the top and bottom of the rings, you can see a black split between them. This is the Cassini Division, a gap between the A and B rings, you can read more on Wiki about it and it's discoverer.

I also keep mentioning this storm, and it may not necessarily be obvious what it is looking at that image. The storm is the white streak near the north pole of Saturn. There is a dark band just below it, and the darker polar cap above it. Unlike storms on earth and some other planets, storms on Saturn tend to streak. This is because Saturn has really strong winds that can reach 1,800 km/h. It also has a radius about 9 times larger then the Earth's but it's day is only 10 and half hours long. So you have this huge thing rotating around really fast. Storms tend to bloom up from the lower atmosphere and when they hit the upper atmosphere they start creating the streaking seen in this image.

All in all, I think it is a beautiful and amazing process. Something lovely to see on Valentine's Day. Unfortunately none of the moon's showed up in the image, I know when we were looking at Saturn through the scope's eyepiece, we could see 5 or 6 of them. The great part about this is also that this is a tease for April, when Saturn is at opposition. Then we will be closer, hopefully Saturn will be higher in the sky and we will have less atmospheric issues (it started clouding up for us around 1 AM and was totally overcast by 2 AM) ending up with an over all better and brighter picture, and hopefully a couple moons.

Not The Ring I Was Expecting to Post

I was hoping to have an image from last night's observing session of Saturn ready for posting, and have a write up to go along with it. Larry (the guy from the club who does most of the image processing) is still working on it, but it sounds like our goal was at least partially achieved, the processing has just been difficult. Hopefully I'll have an image tonight or tomorrow, and then can share that.

In addition to that, The HCAS open house last night went pretty well. We a couple of scout troops that came out, and they seemed really enthusiastic and everyone had a good time despite the cold weather. I know I always enjoy it when the kids are enthusiastic and have more questions to ask.

And in lieu of not having Saturn, with its beautiful rings and chaotic storm, I bring you another story of a beautiful ring and chaos. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory (one of NASA's wonderful satellites and the flagship for X-ray astronomy) has captured an image of a giant ring of black holes.

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/S.Rappaport et al, Optical: NASA/STScI 

Above is a composite image of Arp 147, a pair of galaxies that collided. It is a composite of optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope and X-ray data from Chandra (the pink blobs). On the right are the remains of a spiral galaxy that collided with the elliptical galaxy on the left. When they collided, a whole bunch of dust would have been compressed, starting a wave of star formation throughout the spiral galaxy, creating massive young stars, seen as the blue ring in the image. These stars have relatively short life spans of a few million years, eventually blowing up into supernovas that leave behind neutron stars and blacks holes.

In the blue ring, you can see the nine pink blobs. Those are X-ray sources observed by Chandra that are so bright, they must be black holes, each about ten to twenty times more massive then our Sun. All in all, it is a beautiful sight, and an amazing formation to discover in our universe. Other elements in the picture include a foreground star in the lower left, and a quasar up and to the left of the elliptical galaxy. There is more info in the Chandra press release linked above.