• Hubble’s 24th Anniversary

    Bringing Us the Cosmos, One Observation at a Time

    Hubble Space Telescope
    Hubble Space Telescope

    On Thursday, April 24th, it will be 24 years since Hubble Space Telescope was sent skyward aboard space shuttle Disc0very. It was a heady day for folks who had spent much of their careers designing and building the observatory. The subsequent discovery of spherical aberration in the mirror seemed like the end of the world at the time, but that got fixed relatively quickly and Hubble has gone on to do remarkable things.

    I was about to enter graduate school when Hubble was launched. At the university, I had a job coordinating comet observations for the Ulysses Comet Watch, and my boss was one of the instrument leads for Hubble. Eventually I joined the instrument team as a very junior member, and watched as Hubble went through its difficult first years. Somewhere in that first year, I noticed that Hubble was doing science, despite its problems. That inspired me to start taking notes about those observations, and a couple of years later, I published (along with my boss, Jack Brandt, who was second author) a book called Hubble Vision (that went to two editions). I also wrote a planetarium show, which we turned into a broadcast video that went on to win a major award for science outreach in 1992.

    For me, Hubble Space Telescope has been a huge part of my life, even though I wasn’t a major science user. I was part of the team, and it afforded me a seat at the table to see how Big Science was done with a Big Telescope.

    Today, Hubble is iconic. Five servicing missions have made it a useful and productive observatory. It regularly cranks out gorgeous images, high-resolution data sets, and much more. A few years ago the Space Telescope Science Institute celebrated the observatory’s millionth observation.

    The sum total of those observations has been a new look at the universe. They have opened up areas of study that people didn’t expect. That serendipity isn’t something you can predict, but with any new technological advancement, you can certainly expect it.

    What blows me away is that a whole generation of astronomers now entering the field have grown up knowing about Hubble, expecting to use it (or its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, or its sister observatories Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope, and others) and knowing that they’ll make great discoveries with it.

    With Hubble, astronomers have peered into starbirth creches to spot baby stars, just starting to shine. They’ve watched as old stars die, found distant galaxies existing at a time not long after the Big Bang, and detected evidence for the mysterious dark matter that seems to permeate the universe. Oh yes, the telescope has found black holes. Lots of them. There was a time when the Institute would announce a black hole discovery, and some of us would laugh and say, “Yet another Damn Black Hole.”

    That’s actually kind of staggering, that something so theoretical when I first went to college because something commonplace, due to many of the Hubble observations. So many of the discoveries made by astronomers using it have been that kind of staggering. And, the telescope’s existence has pushed astronomers to create even more sensitive instruments here on the ground, through the use of adaptive optics. So, Hubble has pushed the envelope in many ways.

    Want to learn  more about this observatory? Take some time to visit its Web site this week and celebrate a little by gazing at the wonderful images. They’re a small part of the huge work this telescope has done to allow astronomers to peer deeper at fainter objects to help tell the story of the cosmos.

  • Dark Skies Awareness

    Learn to Light Safely to Preserve Dark Skies

    Most of us have heard of light pollution. Many people live with it each night. Astronauts from the International Space Station often remark on how widespread light pollution is, how lit-up our planet looks. Even where I live, which is close to being a wilderness, we get light pollution. Sure our dark skies are better than what many people experience, but they’re not perfect.

    A still frame from “Losing the Dark”, a video about light pollution, produced by Loch Ness Productions (lochnessproductions.com). City image courtesy of Dome3D.com. Used by permission.

    I know a lot of folks will say, “So what?” And, that’s understandable, unless they don’t want to live in a world with the consequences of light pollution. Those consequences aren’t just that astronomers can’t see the dark, starry skies—although, that IS important. Dark skies ARE our common heritage, and we’re wasting them away by lighting up the sky. You’ve seen the car dealerships shining light UP, instead of focusing all their light ON the cars. Why light up the sky? You’ve probably been blinded at least once by one of those brilliant electronic billboards as you drove along. At least you recovered your night vision quickly and didn’t have an accident after being blinded by the glare. Not everyone is so lucky. People HAVE been blinded by those things and have been in tragic accidents.

    Recent medical studies show that light pollution, or even worse, working under bright lights at night, can increase a person’s risk of diseases such as prostate cancer and breast cancer. Too much light at night interferes with our circadian rhythms, and the melatonin production that regulates them. This results in sleep disorders and other health problems.

    Humans aren’t the only ones affected by light pollution. Migrating birds, insects, fish, sea life, plants, trees — many species of wildlife — are affected in some way by light pollution.

    The interesting thing about light pollution is that it doesn’t have to be this bad. Yes, we need lighting for safety and security and no one is suggesting that we turn off all the lights. That would be ludicrous. But, there ARE ways to safely and securely light your home, your business, our streets, our cities, without lighting up the sky.  Without burning fossil fuels to do so. I mean, think of the fuels we burn to send light to the sky. Doesn’t that seem a little silly when the objective is to light things ON the ground?

    So, Miss Smartypants, I hear you asking, what do we do?  The first thing is to investigate using full cut-off lighting on your buildings. You may also see such light listed as “fully shielded”. That means that the light fixture sends light to the place you want it, usually DOWN, not up. I’ve seen a lot of parking lots switch to these, and I’ve heard that they are also saving the users money on their electrical bills. That’s not a bad thing. And, it helps keep the glare from the skies and in our eyes.

    The International Dark-Sky Association is spearheading dark skies awareness. They have an incredibly interesting site jam-packed with information for builders, architects, designers, homeowners — pretty much anybody who uses light and wants to use it wisely.  Check them out and while you’re at it, check out how you can reduce light pollution around your neck of the woods. It might be easier than you think!  Your fellow humans and other life forms on the planet will thank you!

    Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Education Committee of the International Dark-Sky Association and the co-producer of a fine video my company (Loch Ness Productions) made for them called Losing the Dark. Check it out!

  • Earth-size World Around Kepler-186

    A World in the Habitable Zone

    A planet around Kepler-186
    The artistic concept of Kepler-186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to help imagine the appearance of these distant worlds. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech.

    As Etta James once sang in the old standard, “At Last!”  And, now planet-searchers are singing the same tune. Kepler mission scientists have just announced the detection of one of the Holy Grails of exoplanet searches: the first Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of its star. This is a momentous discovery in a long string of amazing exoplanet detections for the Kepler team and the teams of followup observers at the W.M. Keck and Gemini Observatories in Hawai’i. It means, among other things, that worlds similar in many ways to our Earth exist out there.

    Earth orbits in the Sun’s habitable zone, which means that it is in a “safe zone” where liquid water can exist on our planet’s surface. Finding a world in the habitable zone of Kepler-186, which is an M-class red dwarf star about 490 light-years away from us, means that this planet could also support liquid water on its surface. And, where there’s water, there’s likely to be life. That doesn’t mean that there IS life on this planet. It’s too early to tell for that. But, it’s an exciting discovery because it means there’s another world out there that could (in some ways) be very like Earth.

    Continue reading  Post ID 6633