Friday, April 22, 2011

Fantastic Planet

So you may have noticed I didn't write anything yesterday. I just wasn't feeling it. When I write, I want it to feel like something I want to do, to have if flow from me. I believe it should be an enjoyable experience. And yesterday it just wasn't on, so I didn't post. In the mean time, I've been thinking of some future posts I might want to make. Getting an idea for future content has been pretty important for this blog so far, as you might tell from a lot of my posts, I tend to do my homework.

Anyways, today is Earth Day! Hurray for the Earth! If you haven't figured it out after spending your entire life here, the Earth is a pretty awesome place. It's got liquid water, oxygen, an atmosphere, complex carbons, and various forms of protection including the ozone layer and magnetosphere. All of these make Earth a pretty comfortable place for life! In fact it is the only place in the whole Universe where we know for a fact life exists! And it is some pretty amazing and complex life all on its own.

The Earth is a fantastic planet and we should all be so lucky to owe our existence to it's being in the right place with the right stuff. So please take care of your Earth, where ever human's may go in the Universe, it will always be home.


This next part is dedicated to my friend Leroy. I've known him for years and he is a bit of a musician and a street performer. If you've ever been to D.C. you might have seen him too, he tends to dress in a folky style and plays his guitar just about everywhere. You can check out a couple of his tracks on SoundCloud.

I made a promise to Leroy to watch the movie Fantastic Planet and write about it, now this was a good month and half to two months ago. I've been putting it off a bit, but the version he wanted me to watch is on Google videos and re-scored in 2003 with industrial/experimental music like Aphex Twin. Anyways, with Google videos being shut down on April 29, he reminded me to watch it before it got taken off.

If you haven't heard of Fantastic Planet before, it is a French animated science fiction film from 1973, and is a bit trippy. The French name is La Plan├Ęte Sauvage, or The Savage Planet. It follows the story of a human named Terr on the planet of the Traags. The Traags are a hundred times larger then humans, and blue, and well, look like the thing in the picture above. Humans are also known as "Oms," a play on the French word for men, hommes. Now, I may spoil some of the story for you, but I don't expect many of you to actually go watch the movie.

The Traags apparently picked up the Oms from Terra (Earth) after some sort of apocalyptic event, images show destroyed structures and technology. Being that this movie was made during the Cold War, it is a good bet this was an influence on this imagery. Oms seemed to have originally been gathered for labor, but quickly grew into being domesticated pets for some, while wild ones were seen as pests. In fact, the treatment of Oms seemed to contrast with their high level of technology and spiritual development.

The planet of the Traags is pretty funky. The lifeforms there are all the kind of trippy things you would expect on an alien planet. A week on the planet roughly equates to a human year, and one of their 3 seasons is about 15 human years. The Traags also spend a large amount of meditating. In the end the meditating turns out to sort of 'astral project' themselves on to their moon, called the Amazing Planet, were the meet with other meditating travelers from across the galaxy and dance, which some how allows them to breed.

While the Oms seem like pests, its mostly because, well, most people I know can actually be pests, ha. But they end up living a rat like existence in abandoned parks, stealing food from Traag homes, and generally unintelligent. Until Terr comes along with a knowledge headphone that he stole from his former master. The Oms are seen to breed much faster then the Traags too, the Traags tend to 'de-om' every 3 cycles (?) which is more then enough for a whole Om generation to grow. After the Oms kill a Traag who tries to crush them with his feet, the Traags go over time, de-oming twice a cycle with new technology.

Terr and the other Oms hide out in an abandoned rocket dump, where they learn from Traag technology and build their own rockets, in the hope of escaping to the Amazing Planet. They escape in the nick of time and discover the Traag's secret of the moon and start blasting their vulnerable astral projections with lasers. This threatens to destroy Traag society, so the leader of the Traags offers to make peace and stop killing the Oms. An artificial satellite is made about the Fantastic Planet, named Terr.

Typically, this kind of trippy movie isn't my sort of thing. The animation was a bit humorous though, some of it reminded me of that Monty Python style. The soundtrack was pretty excellent though, I guess that has to do more with it being re-scored with more modern music. The story was a pretty good one too, a fairly solid science fiction story, and I am one who enjoys some science fiction.

That wraps up my little review of this movie. You can watch the film here for yourself before it gets taken down on April 29. And don't forget to keep voting for this Tuesday's Astro-Lesson in the sidebar! Happy Earth Day, and for those who celebrate it, have a good Good Friday and Hoppy Easter.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Astronomy News Update 4/20/11

There are a couple of astronomy news things this week that I wanted to share. It's all pretty exciting stuff.

But first, let me remind you to vote on the poll in the sidebar. Every Tuesday I give a little lesson in astronomy and I let you, the readers, decide on what I'm gonna write about. There is always room for suggestions, so please make them in any comment thread. A history of previous Astro-Lessons can be found under the Astronomy Topics heading. (Still working on getting that all updated.)

On to the News:

  • Endeavour's last flight scheduled for April 29 
NASA announced today that the Space Shuttle Endeavour's last flight will be on Friday, April 29, at 15:47 EST. A number of notable things will happen this flight: the Shuttle will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 to the International Space Station; there will also be the last set of Shuttle astronaut spacewalks (4 in total); and the Commander is Mark Kelly, husband of Congresswoman Giffords, who got shot earlier this year but plans to attend the launch. More at NASA's Shuttle page and watch it live on NASA TV
  • Titan might be hiding a liquid water ocean
I already told you that Titan was one of the Top Moons of the Solar System, and that it had an entire hydrological cycle based on methane with a thick atmosphere, but now the moon is getting even more complex! According to the math, the motions of Titan's orbit and rotation indicate that their is a HUGE subsurface ocean.

There is speculation that this ocean could be yet more methane, but the recent modeling supports a water (H2O) ocean, making it the best fitting hypothesis so far. It isn't a final blow yet though, the only way to know for sure is to get there and start digging. Another explanation could be an interaction with a large comet or asteroid.
  • Pluto has a large poisonous atmosphere 
Ah, Pluto, even though not a planet anymore, the dwarf is still a favorite for astronomers to study, being the most accessible Kuiper Belt Object. Using the 15-meter James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, a British-based team found a strong signal of poisonous carbon monoxide gas in Pluto's atmosphere. They also discovered that rather than the thought height of 60 miles (~1,000 km), Pluto's atmosphere extends at least 1,860 miles (3,000 km), or a quarter of the way to it's largest moon Charon.

The gas would be extremely cold at about -364 F (-220 C), and the atmosphere is likely generated by solar heating. When Pluto is closer to the Sun, parts of the surface would evaporate into a gaseous atmosphere and freeze again as Pluto moved away. Pluto's last closest pass was in 1989 and it takes 248 years to complete an orbit. More on this discovery can be read on
  • Hubble is turning 21!
If the Hubble Space Telescope was a human in the U.S., he'd be getting excited about celebrating with a couple cold ones on April 24. Unfortunately, it can't, so I propose having a beer in honor of its long and wonderful service, and wishing it many more great years. A large part of astronomy in today's popular culture is due to this scope, and the name Hubble is known around the world. On April 24, 1990, the Space Shuttle Discovery roared the HST into orbit and astronomy hasn't been the same since. In honor of this, NASA has released a new image of interacting galaxies called Arp 273, taken on 17 December 2010, with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). You can read more about the image (and find a higher resolution) at the Hubble website or Bad Astronomy.

Of course there are lots of other good stories out there, these are just a couple of the great ones. Other stories to check out: Sunspots spawn gigantic solar flare (with a cool video); Black forests could exist on a world with two suns; and Electromagnetic currents link Enceladus and Saturn.

Astro-Lesson: Gamma Ray Bursts.

First: Good to see that I got some votes out of you all and looks like Gamma-Ray Bursts just barely won. I'll have a new poll up tomorrow I suppose for next weeks Astro-Lesson.

Second: I decided to start calling these things Astro-Lessons because they are little lessons in astronomy that are just supposed to help build a pretty basic understanding of the Universe we live in.

Now onto the lesson:
NASA concept art of a gamma-ray burst

Gamma-Ray Bursts, also known as GRBs, are short-lived bursts of gamma ray photons associated with immense explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies. These are the most luminous electromagnetic events known. They typically last only seconds, but can be milliseconds quick, or even as slow as several minutes. After the burst, there is typically an "afterglow" in longer wavelength (X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio).

Gamma rays, if you're unfamiliar with them, are a form of electromagnetic radiation at high frequency (very short wavelength) produced by subatomic interactions, such as radioactive decay, fusion, and fission. Gamma rays are a health hazard since they are a form of ionizing radiation, which is what makes GRBs scary.


Imagine, if you will, a microwave so powerful that it would cleanse the entire galaxy of life. It would literally fry everything. That would be the power of a gamma-ray burst in our galaxy.

GRBs are caused by a special type of supernovae, hundred of times brighter then typical ones (astronomers can pick out supernovae in distant galaxies) and a million trillion times brighter then the Sun. There aren't a very common event though, GRBs are detected roughly ONCE PER DAY in any random direction of the sky.

Until recently, astronomers knew very little about GRBs. In fact, their discovery was a bit accidental. During the Cold War in the 1960s, U.S. military satellites were watching for Soviet nuclear weapons testing in violation of the test ban treaty. The satellites carried gamma ray detectors since a nuclear explosion produces gamma rays. But they began noticing these huge gamma ray bursts coming from deep space. These bursts remained a mystery up into the early 90s. There were no indications as to how far away the GRBs were, if they originated at the edge of our solar system, or in the Milky Way, or further away.

Hubble catches a GRB in action.

A combination of satellite observations with ground-based follow-up observations and theoretical work began to unveil one of the biggest mysteries in modern astronomy. It turns out that GRBs occur incredibly far away, near the edge of the observable Universe in distant galaxies. (Though one of my favorite explanations was that GRBs were massive nuclear weapons being used in a galactic war.)

As astronomers began to learn more about GRBs, they began to notice differences in individual events. These differences were in the length of the event, in which there were two classifications: long-duration (longer than 2 seconds) and short-duration (less than 2 seconds). The short-duration ones can last for a few milliseconds though, and average about 0.3 seconds (300 milliseconds). Long-duration bursts can last up to several minutes and average around 30 seconds.

Infographic describing theories on both long and short GRBs.

It is believed that entirely different physical properties cause long and short duration GRBs. The long ones are the ones that astronomers feel confident in their knowledge of. The short GRBs are only theoretically described and remain a mystery. So there isn't much else to say about short-duration GRBs, they exist and their are missions to study them, but the data is so fleeting, it is hard to pinpoint how far away they are or what causes them.

For the long-duration GRBs there is a good amount known. In the 1990s is when astronomer's discovered the "afterglow" which allowed the origin of the GRB to be pinpointed. This "afterglow" pointed to galaxies at immense distances, Billions of light years away. Some of these GRBs first occurred before the Earth, being only 4 billion years old, even existed! The most recent likely happened when the Earth was young, perhaps before the first microbes formed.

The faint smudge of a galaxy in the center of this Hubble image is where a GRB exploded in 1997.

In tracing GRBs back to their origin, astronomers began to study the galaxies that were the source of these explosions. Unfortunately there is no definite answer for what causes a GRB, but they are associated with a special sort of supernova seen in these distant galaxies, dubbed hypernova for their immense size and magnitude. The "smoking gun" that linked the two happened in March 2003 when the afterglow from a GRB perfectly matched the optical spectrum of a supernova in that galaxy.

What causes the supernova and the GRB is the mystery though. It would require an incredibly massive amount of energy, either from a incredibly massive star or a black hole or neutron star. Some of the theories suggest neutron star collisions while others suggest the collapse of massive stars.

But even though gamma-ray bursts seem like scary unpredictable events, we got two things going for us. One, these things have all happened very, very far away where they cannot hurt us, although the closest ones have been known to cause satellite interference. And two, there is no indication that these burst are happening in closer, more modern galaxies.

If GRB's were still common in modern galaxies as we know them, they would occur a lot closer and more often. So there is some sort of point where these events must die off. The idea is kind of that star formation hit a certain limit, perhaps the right mixture of elements and the right temperatures are just not available anymore to create the stars responsible for GRBs. So, we are likely safe from any threat of annihilation by these incredibly violent events.

Further Reading: 
UC Berkeley's website on gamma-ray bursts 

Addendum: I did some more research (actually I watched the 3rd episode of Phil Plait's Bad Universe on Discovery Channel, which coincidentally happened to premiere yesterday [I watched it after I wrote this post]) and it turns out the safe distance things is a bit iffy. We seem pretty safe from gamma-ray bursts, but there is a very extremely small chance that we might get hit, there is no real good way to know. But there is evidence that an extinction event that happened in the past may have been caused by a GRB. I don't know that it's a definitive theory, but it is a plausible one with reactions of the atmosphere and massive extinction.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Three Way Tie.

The poll for this week ended in a three way tie between Asteroids, Star Life Cycle, and Gamma Ray Bursts. All with 2 votes, out of the 8 voters (the Sun and Pluto/ Kuiper Belt each got one.) I feel that the poll is under performing. I liked the idea of having people express an interest in topics that I could tackle. But with such a low turnout, I wonder if it is even worth it anymore. I might just go ahead and do an article on some astronomy topic every Tuesday on whatever I fancy for the week, or try to address any question posed in the comments.

For now, I am trying to think of what to do about this tie... Thanks guys, you would.

I'll try to put an actual article up tonight, for now, I have voting open again on the three topics. I'll see how it does while I go eat. If that doesn't work, I'll just pick something. The poll is just slightly to the right, at the top of the sidebar, so go vote on the ASTRONOMICAL SUDDEN DEATH ROUND!!!

Monday, April 18, 2011

My First Real Moon Pictures!

I finally got a clear night last night, and it couldn't have happened at a better time. I got some pretty good shots of a great full moon, and even a short video. I still have some kinks to figure out, but it's a learning process.

I've learned a good bit though, mostly what I still don't know and need to do. Number one is that the focusing is just a hair off, unfortunately the focal length is outside the range I can adjust to. Fixing that requires a $20 adapter piece, for a little ring of plastic.

Next, I am pretty bad at setting up my scope for tracking, so these pics are just quick still shots. When you have good tracking it is possible to stack images for more clarity and detail. I can also mess with contrast, exposure, brightness, gamma and all that other great stuff.

The Moon also happened to pass in front of a tree earlier in the night, making all sorts of fun trying to focus around.

The actual camera software has some neat (and kinda unnecessary but still cool) features. Messing around with it I really liked the TV mode (above) and inverted (below).

And now the actual footage of the moon that I shot. I had the telescope standing still and just let the Moon pass in front of the lens. I think it came out pretty well:

Sorry, there is no sound. Maybe in the future!
I tried to also get some shots of Saturn, it was near the Moon and easy to find in the night sky. I could visually see it with my eye piece, but the camera wasn't sensitive enough with all the light from the full moon and suburban life. So hopefully one day, if it's nice out on the new moon, it would be worth a shot.

BTW, this months full moon is known as the Full Pink Moon. It gets its name from moss pink, one of the first spring flowers to bloom. I think lately though, cherry blossoms have stolen the thunder, especially around here, the Cherry Blossom Festival is a big deal in DC and I definitely recommend it if you ever get the chance. Anyways, above is a hastily edited photo with Paint.Net, a great free photo editing software.

And in case you are wondering, I used my Meade ETX-80AC telescope, 
a moon filter, and the Orion StarShoot Solar System Color Imaging Camera IV.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Extremophile Pt. 2 (Life in the Extreme)

Welcome to part two of the extremophile post, Life in the Extreme. Last time we covered all sorts of weird forms of life that lived in extreme environments, from deep below the ocean, to volcanoes, to sulfur caves, to the Antarctica, and I made fun of my cat. Today, more of the same, with some of the most extreme extremophiles yet, record-setting and award-winning even. These things push the boundaries for what is accepted as the "habitable zone". So, lets get to it!