March 27, 2003 at 11:43 am | Leave a Comment
I was up early this morning (about 5:30 a.m.) and while I was making some tea, I glanced out the window and saw a lovely waning crescent Moon. It was somewhat low in the southeast sky and just glowed like a fractured jewel.
Have you ever noticed the Moon during the day? Most people think of the Moon only gracing the evening sky. Oftentimes movies or book illustrations show either a Full Moon or some variation of crescent Moon against a starry or dark backdrop. But, during a part of its monthly cycle, the Moon is visible during the day. If you don’t believe me, start looking for the Moon each night or day and make a note of where and when you see it in the sky. Do this for a couple of months and you’ll see a pattern to its appearances.
When I was in high school the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon. Of course we couldn’t see the action from our backyards, but many of us did gather around the television and watch as those first steps were taken onto the lunar surface. In these days of instantaneous coverage of distant events, this doesn’t seem very spectacular. But back then, it was pretty amazing technology. We all grew up thinking we’d be living on the Moon in our adulthood. Although that hasn’t happened yet, we can still gaze at the Moon and wonder about what it would be like to live there. Science fiction readers already know: we’d be living underground in carefully constructed and protected air-tight cities. Oh, we might have a few observation screens to look out on the surface, but the safer way to exist on the Moon is underground.
A few entries back I mentioned Hermann Oberth, the great German rocket scientist, and his idea for an orbiting space telescope. He also came up with an idea to put observatories on the Moon — away from Earth’s atmosphere and in near-perfect vacuum. That idea hasn’t exactly died out, and I have no doubt that someday astronomers will live and work on the Moon. Or, if that idea doesn’t suit an observer, he or she will be able to simply “log in” to the lunar observatory for their given observing run from the comfort of an Earth-based location. That’s how a lot of them do it now — using HST or an observatory halfway around the world (or around the block) but watching the action from outside the observatory.
Still, there’s some romantic adventure in going off to do your observing in some distant land, so I imagine there will be folks who will want to go to the Moon for their work. Now all we have to do is get back there!
March 24, 2003 at 11:00 am | Leave a Comment
While war rages in Iraq under a campaign of “shock” and “awe” the universe has handed us its own version with the death of a massive star and the formation of a spinning black hole in its place. The nature of the birth announcement was a tremendous explosion of energy called a gamma ray burst. This picture is merely the first “frame” of the event — showing what the star might have looked like as its first death cry echoed out across the light years.
Astronomers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, and NASA released details of the huge gamma ray burst that they witnessed using the High-Energy Transient Explorer (HETE) satellite. The burst took place on October 4, 2002, at 8:06 AM EDT.
This is shock and awe on a scale grander than anything we can possibly imagine, and if it is what scientists think, then the gamma ray burst was the birth cry of a black hole. According to Dr. Derek Fox of the California Institute of Technology, “then HETE has just allowed us into the delivery room.”
Gamma ray bursts shine hundreds of times brighter than a supernova, or as bright as a million trillion suns. The mysterious bursts are common, yet random and fleeting. The gamma ray portion of a burst typically lasts from a few milliseconds to 100 seconds. An afterglow, caused by shock waves from the explosion sweeping up matter and ramming this into the region around the burst, can linger for days or weeks in lower-energy forms of light, such as X-rays or visible light.
This gamma ray burst has been dubbed GRB021004 and was quickly observed not only by HETE but by the Automated Response Telescope (ART) in Wako, Japan, observing the region just 193 seconds after the burst.
Dr. Fox pinpointed the afterglow from images captured by a telescope on Mt. Palomar, near San Diego and alerted other observatories. Ultimately more than 50 telescopes around the world zoomed in on the dying afterglow of this tremendous explosion.
Gamma ray bursts have been under intense study for years because of their powerful, but mysterious nature. This latest burst, caught from the beginning is bringing scientists much closer to understanding what they are and what causes them. Stay tuned!
Portions of this note were taken from a press release. It can be found here.
March 17, 2003 at 18:10 pm | Leave a Comment
Not so very long ago, this orbiting observatory was a twinkle in a science fiction writer’s eye. In the 1920s, German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth wrote a book called Die Rakete zu den Planetraümen, in which he described a telescope attached to a station in geosynchronous orbit. While the Hubble Space Telescope isn’t in geosynchronous orbit, it certainly fits Oberth’s dream of off-planet astronomy observing.
I first found out about this book when I was interviewing another scientist — the late Lyman Spitzer of Princeton University. Dr. Spitzer was also a science fiction fan, and in the course of several pleasant conversations with him, we both shared our favorite book titles. My love for science fiction (which, along with my dad’s habit of taking me out to the see the stars), kindled my interest in astronomy and space science. In high school I read things like Clarke’s Childhood’s End and many of Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles as if they were treasures. Today I have hundreds of back issues of science fiction magazines in my library and a fair collection of SF books. Periodically I take some old favorite down from the shelf, cuddle up on the sofa, and lose myself in some distant planetary system, exploring with beings that only a writer could imagine.
Yet, there’s a reality that springs from science fiction that we cannot deny. Many of today’s missions — from orbiting shuttle and space station endeavors to flybys of distant planets — once existed as ideas in the realm of science fiction. It took humans a few decades to catch up to some of the SF dreams outlined in this body of literature, but there is much more to accomplish. I would love it if science fiction were a sort of self-fulfilling blueprint for the future of the human race, although I realize that many SF dreams will never come true. But, that body of literature sits there — beckoning us to our future. If we’re on our toes, it’ll keep us moving ever onward and outward.
March 13, 2003 at 16:14 pm | Leave a Comment
It has been a month and a half since the space shuttle Columbia plunged to Earth in a fireball. It was a painful reminder that we can’t control everything about human spaceflight. It may turn out that no company or person is to blame for this terrible accident, but that hasn’t stopped the fingerpointing among contractors and posturing among members of Congress and the Senate. I hope that we figure out what happened and I hope that we retain our understanding that these things happen and that space is not a benign environment.
In 1986 we watched as the second big tragedy of American spaceflight occurred — the loss of the Challenger. I was at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, watching the launch in Von Karman auditorium along with dozens of Voyager mission scientists and science writers who had gathered for the final press conference of the Voyager 2/Uranus encounter.
It was a searing tragedy, perhaps all the more spectacular because our space program hadn’t been touched by death since the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967.
There have been other losses throughout the decades of our exploration of space. Of course the Russians have lost cosmonauts — learning along with us the price we pay to rise above our planet and look to the stars. What comforts me is that we continue to strive outward from our planet. Indeed, sometimes I think that space exploration is our best and brightest hope for the future of the human race. The tragedies of the past set the bar higher for us in the future — but there’s no doubt we learn from them and keep on going.
So, with that, I salute the space heroes who have fallen during our first tentative steps outward. Sure there’s danger out there. But it’s inherent in any new endeavor. I believe that every one of our lost astronauts and cosmonauts would want us to keep the faith in space exploration as a lasting monument to the price they paid to give humanity a chance to leap for the stars.
March 8, 2003 at 13:11 pm | Leave a Comment
Over the years we have been privileged to share our lives with a collection of cats. Our first was Calicat, dropped on our doorstep in Denver at the height of a blizzard. She was pregnant, which was probably the reason for her being abandoned. A month or so later she gave birth to three kittens, of which our long-beloved cat Larry was one. Larry and Calicat are both gone now, and have been succeeded by Pixel and Miranda.
What all these cats have in common is that they became involved in supervising my writing. Pixel is quite interested in my latest planetarium show script (about Hubble Space Telescope science), and shows her support by sprawling across my desk, holding books open (by laying on them), and bringing toys for me to play with when she’s sure that I’ve been in front of the computer too long.
Not long ago I was looking at some HST Jupiter images and began messing around them in PhotoShop. Inspiration struck and I came up with this picture of a Jovian-eyed Pixel.
Well, if you’re Jovian-minded these days and the weather is cooperating in your neck of the woods, you can catch a glimpse of the real thing shining between the constellations Leo and Gemini. Where I live (New England) it’s nearly straight overhead at 10 p.m.
For a chart to help you find Jupiter, go to SkyAndTelescope.com and click on their interactive star chart. It will ask you a few questions to help determine your location on Earth and then display your personalized chart.
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This blog a wholly pwnd subsidiary of Carolyn Collins Petersen, a.k.a. TheSpacewriter.
Copyright 2013, Carolyn Collins Petersen
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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