Helping in Times of Disaster



December 29, 2004 at 16:18 pm | Leave a Comment

Like everyone else, I’m just stunned at the suddenness and magnitude of the disaster in East Africa and South Asia as a result of the earthquake and resulting tsunamis. This is a time when all of us in the human family need to help each other. To that end, I’ve assembled a set of links here for you (if you’re so inclined) to send aid, donations, etc. I’ll be back with more astronomy in a few days.
CNN has a listing of relief agencies geared to help the people in those regions.
Direct Relief International has set up a news center on their pages, along with donation links.
The Tsunami Help Blog has links to a number of relief efforts and missing-relatives pages.
And finally, Amazon.com has set up a direct-donation link that is funneling 100 percent of money donated to the American Red Cross for relief efforts.





I Found It!



December 28, 2004 at 10:11 am | Leave a Comment

We went out on Christmas night and found Comet Machholz just about where the star chart says it’s supposed to be. With a pair of binoculars we could make out a nice fuzzy glob of light. If you could take a picture of it over several minutes’ time, it would look about like this image from two of Europe’s better-known comet photographers. Notice in their view that Machholz seems to have a couple of tails. The one sweeping out from the comet to the upper left is the dust tail and the one sweeping out to the lower left is the plasma tail.
For several years while I was in graduate school I studied comets, including one named Machholz! Our team’s interest was in tracking the evolution of a comet’s plasma tail, which is formed in an interaction between cometary gases and the solar wind. The dust tail, by contrast, is made up of microscopic dust particles streaming off the comet. When I joined the team I began working on analyzing images of Comet Halley and its nicely active plasma tail. We wanted to track it throughout its tour around the Sun, and later on we did the same with others. The biggest result was a book published as part of the International Halley Watch project called the International Halley Watch Atlas of Large-Scale Phenomena. It was published through the University of Colorado in a limited edition run, and I was astonished to find it the other day on Amazon.com (although I did know it was selling at various times on Ebay). In fact, I have eight copies of it here at my office.
For the project I and other team members (Jack Brandt, Yu Yi, Marty Snow, Marlon Caputo) went through about 2,500 images of Comet Halley submitted by astronomers from around the world. We measured the size and angular orientation of the plasma tail and correlated it with the comet’s location in the solar wind. Then we arranged the images in a time sequence starting from late 1985 to about June 1986. If you flip through the book, you can see the tail change drastically as Halley neared the Sun and visited various latitudes of the solar wind.
My job was mostly to analyze the images, and then lay them out in the book for publication. So, while I’m not listed as one of the book’s authors, I am acknowledged for my contributions, and it was a most satisfying and interesting project with which to be associated. And, I learned a lot about comets and the solar wind in the process.
We went on to study other comets: Machholz, Schwassman-Wachman, DeVico, Mueller, Hyakutake, and Hale-Bopp. We gathered up images for each comet, and correlated their positions in the solar wind with their appearances, and also with data from the Ulysses spacecraft, which was in the same “regime” of the solar wind as each of the comets for various periods during their respective orbits. For Hale-Bopp, we took observations at the University of Hawai’i 88-inch telescope on Mauna Kea during November 1996 to see if we could catch the “turn on” of the plasma tail. That was a personal thrill for me, even though our data showed that at the time the plasma tail hadn’t yet started to grow.
Nowadays I’m out of the plasma-tail research business, although some of my colleagues, most notably Jack Brandt (team leader, close friend and co-author, currently at the University of New Mexico), continue to pursue the study of correlations between cometary plasma tails and the solar wind. He continues to publish papers based on data we took during my tenure at CU, as well as on data he’s gathered since that time on other comets. We made some good contributions to the comet research literature. Plasma tails are a fascinating way to see the Sun’s influence on things even as small and evanescent as a comet!





Southern Sky Comfort



December 26, 2004 at 15:01 pm | Leave a Comment

Each season of the year has its distinctive “sky look.” For stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere, December brings Orion up front and center high in the southern sky. For Southern Hemisphere sky watchers, Orion’s still one of the main attractions, but he’s apt to be on his side, or even close to upside-down. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to appreciate Orion during the holidays from, say, a dark-sky site in Australia or South Africa. December heralds early summer for the folks in those areas, a time of warmth and relaxation. Whereas, in the north, many of us are doing our best to stay warm and only duck outside for a little while to take in the sky sights.

I was at a party a couple of weeks ago and talking to a colleague from Australia. He mentioned the incredibly active amateur astronomy groups that meet and view the sky. So, on a day when it has been not much warmer than 20 degrees (F) (-6 Celsius) I decided to do a little web surfing for southern hemisphere sky gazing web sites. One of the first I ran across was Rogers Website of Southern Amateur Astronomy. Even if you’re not living in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s fun to see his writeups about what SoHemi observers are seeing these nights.

Another one I enjoyed reading was Southern Sky Watch. It gave me a great perspective to read, “Summer is here once more, and the beautiful constellations of Orion, Taurus and the magnificent rambling constellations of Carina, Puppis, and Vela grace our skies again.”

The Southern Sky Watch had a link to Steve Voss’s Aurora pages and a selection of gorgeous auroral images taken from New Zealand.

I also ran across the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa. It’s a venerable group, formed in 1912 and is quite active. It has a lot of really good resources for Southern Hemisphere observers, including star charts and observing hints.

Sometimes those of us in the Northern Hemisphere forget there is another half of the sky to explore, and equally avid fans of stargazing under that sky. I know that sky came alive for me when I spent several weeks under it, teaching others how to find their way among unfamiliar star patterns. It’s an experience I think everybody should have—but until you can go for yourself, do some browsing around and see how the other half lives!





Christmas Week Star Party



December 24, 2004 at 11:38 am | Leave a Comment
Christmas week star chart 2004

Christmas week star chart 2004

(NOTE: This is for Christmas 2004)

Every year we send out a Christmas newsletter to family and friends, and each year since the mid-1990s, we’ve included a star chart and a little description of stargazing activities to do in our annual “Christmas Star Party.” I thought it would be fun to share it with the blog readers, too!

This year we’re exploring celestial favorites, starting with Orion in the south-southeast. Look for the Orion Nebula below the three belt stars of Orion. On Dec. 24 the Moon is in Taurus, and is full on December 26. The planet Saturn almost lines up with Castor and Pollux, the two brightest stars in Gemini. The week after Christmas, look for Comet Machholz making its way through Eridanus (to the west of Orion) toward Taurus. Actually, Machholz has been and will be visible for quite a while, but for a couple of nights the Moon will interfere with seeing it in all its glory, so wait a few days after Christmas to see if you can spot it.

A special planetary exploration note: on Christmas Day, the Cassini mission to Saturn will send its Huygens planetary probe to Titan. On January 14, Huygens will be the first craft ever to land on an outer solar system moon and send data about what it finds.

Happy stargazing everybody!





You Never Know….



December 23, 2004 at 15:55 pm | Leave a Comment
President of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, at the controls of one of ESOs instruments  Courtesy European Southern Observatory

President of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, at the controls of one of ESO's instruments Courtesy European Southern Observatory

There are astronomers all around us. Carl Sagan once said that we are descended of astronomers. So, it makes sense that the guy standing behind you in the bank line, or the woman ahead of you when you get on the plane MIGHT be an astronomer. Whether or not they’re professional astronomers (meaning they get paid to do it as a living) or amateurs (meaning they do astronomy AND hold down an unrelated job or go to school or something)—that’s another question.

Recently the president of Chile visited the European Southern Observatory. It turns out he’s an avid amateur astronomer and took the opportunity of a private visit to ask a lot of good questions about the technology astronomers were using to scan the skies. (If you want to read more about his visit, click on the European Southern Observatory link above.)

That story reminded me of a favorite pastime of amateurs: finding out which other famous people are into amateur astronomy. It turns out there are a fair number of them in the U.S., and I’m sure many more around the world. There’s Johnny Carson (former king of late-night talk shows in the U.S.), who stargazes from his home in California. Anthony Williams, mayor of Washington, D.C., is reported to be a night skygazer. I’ve also heard that movie stars Steve Martin and Tim Russ (a Star Trek: Voyager actor) do their fair share of stargazing, and rumor has it more than one rock musician is also turned on by the stars! A friend once reported he saw actor James Earl Jones at a star party on the East Coast, and astronaut John Grunsfeld once held a star party on orbit in the space shuttle!

Kinda neat when you think about it—no matter who we are are or how famous we are, stargazing is one of those things that nearly everybody can enjoy and share!





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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

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