What’s It Like?

November 30, 2004 at 11:17 am | Leave a Comment

A couple of entries ago I talked about observing on Mauna Kea in 1996. I suppose I went into it with only a little bit of a romantic view of Big Astronomy Observing, knowing that it wouldn’t quite be like the days of old with the lonely astronomer sitting in the cage while the selfless night assistant monitored the proceedings and moved the telescope at my command. For one thing, I knew that modern observatories use computers to position their telescopes precisely, and that most observers sit in nice, comfy control rooms and not in drafty chairs on the telescope, peering through eyepieces.

Our own observations on Mauna Kea made heavy use of computers to quickly capture images and do some quick processing to make sure we got what we wanted, before moving on to the next target. Our observing runs were chock full of targets: Comet Hale-Bopp, Comet Machholz, an assortment of asteroids, and just for grins toward the end of the night, we targeted a few deep-sky objects before we shut the systems down. If we’d had to go out on the observatory floor and manually position the scope for all those objects? Well, it wouldn’t have happened.

Control room at the UH 2.2-meter telescope in 1996

Control room at the UH 2.2-meter telescope in 1996

Computers revolutionized astronomy and nowadays you see amateurs routinely hooking up their Dells and IBMs and other systems up to guide their telescopes. Many amateur scopes have their own onboard guiding systems, complete with star ephemeris information and more. Heck, you see them being run from laptops and Personal Digital Assistants! It’s a far cry from the early days when the computers at observatories were pretty much limited to guiding the telescope for precision pointing. Today they also monitor the instruments attached to the telescopes, record data, and in some cases do what is called “pipeline” processing to get it ready for the observer who got the telescope time in the first place. It’s safe to say that most of modern astronomy would be impossible to do without computers.
There are those who bemoan the loss of the “old days” when the observer had complete control of the process, sort of like a king on a throne, but I think those folks are few and far between. Far from computerization being a tool to remove power from lofty astronomers, it has democratized the process for more observers and made a great deal more science possible. Without it, the wonderful images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Gemini Observatories, Spitzer Space Telescope, the myriad amateur astronomers who turn out breathtaking work, and so many others would not exist.

Been There, Done That; It’s Still Cool!

November 28, 2004 at 13:33 pm | Leave a Comment

Way back in the Dark Ages, before I got out of graduate school, I took a planetary science course or two at the university. Our field trips were great! We went to places on Earth that had similar characteristics to Mars. That would be deserts, volcanoes, and meteor craters. The West has these in various places, and so over the course of several trips we went to Arizona Meteor Crater, Sunset Crater (a volcano in northern Arizona), the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado, and the Big Island of Hawaii, where we studied volcanoes and sapping valleys.

On one of the trips to Meteor Crater we actually had permission to go into the crater to study the layered rocks and the ejecta hurled out when the incoming space asteroid chunk impacted the desert some 50,000 years ago. We were led down by the world’s foremost authority on the crater, the late Dr. Gene Shoemaker. Descending to the bottom of the crater we examined each layer of rock and gleaned its depositional story. Fascinating stuff and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us.

Over the crater rim; Mars Exploration Rover

Over the crater rim; Mars Exploration Rover

When I saw the latest “rim country” image from the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity (currently finishing up its exploration of Endurance Crater) I felt transported back more than a dozen years to that hot, dusty day when we explored the layers of Earth’s history in the Arizona desert. The scene here is so familiar that I had a strong memory of Gene’s voice calling out to us across the rock faces and crumbling layers to “come see this!”

This is Mars exploration today, limited by the speed of a couple of slow-moving rovers serving as our eyes and geological tools on the Red Planet. It’s providing tantalizing glimpses of an alien planet that looks so familiar, yet lies so far away. In a funny way, however, looking at pictures like this make me homesick for the wide open spaces we once explored as we readied ourselves to study Mars. I think Gene would say the same thing, but like me, he’d be champing at the bit to go there and see it for himself.

What’s a BlogShare?

November 26, 2004 at 11:10 am | Leave a Comment

And What’s It Doing on An Astronomy Blog?

One of the things that fascinates me about blogs and blogging is the huge diversity of subjects that people write about in their daily entries. Just as I know I’m one of many folks who write about topics related to astronomy and space science, there are millions of people out there writing about everything you can possibly imagine. Some are fun to read, others are less so, but each one offers a window into some reality we might not otherwise get to experience.

About a year ago I ran across a virtual “stock exchange” in blogs called Blogshares.com. You might have noticed an icon for it over in my ever-growing list of links on the left. It’s actually a game site where you can register your own blog and “play investor” by buying shares in other blogs. The stock market is not just limited to blog shares, however. Traders also seek out and purchase ideas (which are linked to blog subjects), and artefacts (which are also linked to ideas industries). It’s a fascinating game to play, and I might add, a way to learn about the inexorable laws of supply and demand!

When I first joined I thought I might the only space blog registered, but it turns out there are lots of people who think “space is the place” and they blog about it! So, I got to looking around for other blog writers who chronicle a couple of my other interests—space music and planetariums.

Space music comes naturally for me, considering I’m married to and run a business with Mark Petersen—one of the world’s foremost space music composers. Now, space music is a pretty “niche” genre. In most record stores it doesn’t even have its own bin anymore (although it used to), so you have to look for it in the Ambient and New Age bins. Despite this unfortunate placement, space music IS thriving, particularly on the Web, where people like Mark sell their CDs and music to a dedicated following.

Space music is evocative of the wide-open spaces beyond the stars, going beyond the confines of traditional orchestral or electronic genres. Yet, it has roots in other genres: electronic music, ambient music, and I’d even say it might owe some of its existence to composers like Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Alan Hovhaness. Certainly it has come to be best known in the planetarium, where it is used to help paint aural images for cosmic scenes like starbirth areas, distant galaxy clusters, and the longed-for dream of travel between the stars. Mark takes scenes like these and fuses them with music that fits the vast spacescapes made possible in the planetarium.

Some of the blogs about space music that I’ve run across are quite interesting indeed, and give us a peek into this very rarefied world. There are many, many blogs to visit about some aspect of ambient, space, and electronic music. Here are three that I visited lately:

Astreaux World Blog about ambient, space, and new age music.

Voyager Radio.

Dr. Tom’s music blog.
Now, Blogshares does have a music industry under which all kinds of ideas are swapped, so I think it would be neat to have a sub-industry called “space and ambient” music, and another called “new age” music. If that’s too specialized, then perhaps these could become sub sub-industries under “Indie and Alternative Music.” And, if the powers that be who run the game want a new artefact, then how about “synthesizer” since much of space music is created using these unique and facile instruments?

Of course, talking about space music brings me to planetariums, which also come easy for me, since I’ve been working in, with, or for them in one form or another since the early 1980s. They’re fascinating facilities—capable of taking us anywhere in the universe we want to go, in a quest for an understanding of the cosmos. Now, when I talk about planetariums, I’m thinking of the round rooms with the star projector in the center. There are also planetarium software programs, which also make stars for you, but only on your computer screen. However, there are few smart folks (like Sky-Skan, Inc., of Nashua, NH), who have harnessed the computer-generated starfield programs and are using computer systems and projectors to blast them up to the dome, but those aren’t in people’s homes— yet. Chances are when you’ve been to a planetarium, you’ve heard space music. It was probably what made you feel right at home in space!

So, are there blogs and blog entries about planetarium space theaters? Well, yes there are. In a cursory Google search I found hundreds of entries about experiences in the planetarium, ranging from that first visit to one as a grade-school child to the absolute awe and wonder these places spark in our minds. Here are a couple of examples:

Fancy Robot

Gone to Carolina, with an entry about going to the planetarium.

Planetarium visits seem to be a recurring theme across these blogs. While planetaria aren’t things you visit every day (unless you happen to be IN the biz), they ARE a part of our landscape, and I hope they continue this way for a long time!

As far as Blogshares goes, I think that the game could use a new entry under “Media” called “Planetariums”, with an artefact called “Planetarium show” and another called “Planetarium Instrument.” Sure, they’re esoteric, but life isn’t always about the everyday things. It’s also about the experiences we share in places like planetariums, where science, music, art, and the human voice all combine in new kinds of media vehicles that can take us to the stars.

Cycles of Life

November 24, 2004 at 17:54 pm | Leave a Comment
Mauna Kea from Space (Courtesy NASA and GoHawaii)

Mauna Kea from Space (Courtesy NASA and GoHawaii)

Eight years ago this month I had the happy privilege of doing an observation run at the University of Hawai’i 88-inch telescope on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai’i. For eight nights I explored comets and asteroids with a small team of UH astronomers. It was a giddy experience, partly because it was my first “Big Astro” esperience, but also because we were working at 13,792 feet above sea level—a rarefied environment indeed! The image above is a great view of Mauna Kea from the space shuttle, and a wonderful reminder that no matter how high up we go to use our observatories, there’s always a higher vantage point.

At the time I did my observations, the Gemini North telescope was still under construction, so we could go out on the catwalk on our telescope and look down on the site as the workers were knocking off for the day. In fact, two of us (James Bauer and I) managed to get our picture taken by a web cam that snapped images of Gemini as it was being constructed. If you look closely at the image below, you can see two dark dots on the far right limb of the catwalk girdling the 88-inch facility (the horn-shaped building up the hill from the Gemini site). That’s us, waving at the camera about 30 minutes before sunset and the beginning of our “work day” on the mountain.

View of Gemini Observatory, November 1996

View of Gemini Observatory, November 1996

Well, life moves in interesting cycles. Today, the Gemini North Observatory is a complete, functioning facility, cranking out good science every day, along with its twin observatory in Chile. And, I’ve moved on from my comet research days. Nowadays I’m working as an astronomy writer, bringing the wonders of the cosmos to my audiences (whether they’re reading my books and articles or attending planetarium shows that I’ve written). In a most wonderful development, I’ve also been working closely with the Gemini Observatory public relations office, helping them get the word out about all their achievements. Sometimes the cycles of the cosmos are logical, indeed!

Exploring Mars

November 24, 2004 at 15:49 pm | Leave a Comment
Crater Hale in the Argyre Basin on Mars Courtesy European Space Agency and the Mars Express mission

Crater Hale in the Argyre Basin on Mars Courtesy European Space Agency and the Mars Express mission

The planet Mars gives us such a panoply of different terrains to explore with our spacecraft and rovers. The European Space Agency mission Mars Express has been returning a number of fascinating images based on mapping data from the spacecraft’s instruments. Some of these are so detailed you can see features like sand dunes rippling across the floor of the impact crater Hale in the Argyre Basin of the Martian southern hemisphere. In other places we can spot flow features that look for all the world like the aftermath of a flood or a region cut by a fast-moving river of water sometime in Mars’ distant past.

So, why explore Mars? The most common answer is “because it’s there” is a good one, although it’s tough to convince skeptics of the value of serendipitous exploration. In truth there are dozens of answers. We explore so we can learn. What do we learn from Mars? Its dry and dusty surface holds the keys to a fascinating past that included dramatic planetary reversals of fortune from wet to dry. Can we extrapolate anything we learn at Mars to our future on Earth? Possibly, but it’s not clear that what happened to Mars is waiting in store for Earth. We can, however, take what we know at Earth and apply it to Mars. We know how flowing water changes surface characteristics here on the home planet, and when we see it on Mars, we know how it happened. Same with volcanic flows and impact cratering and wind-driven erosion. All those things happen here on Earth, and we know what they look like here. Find the same kinds of structures on Mars and you have a good lead as to what happened ON Mars.

That’s the beauty of exploration—you learn and then you take what you know and apply it elsewhere to understand how things work in the cosmos. Mars is giving us a lot of mysteries, but it’s also allowing us to do some practical planetary science, all for the price of some useful missions!

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