These pages chronicle the work and ruminations of Carolyn Collins Petersen, also known as TheSpacewriter.
I am CEO of Loch Ness Productions. I am also a producer for Astrocast.TV, an online magazine about astronomy and space science.
For the past few years, I've also been a voice actor, appearing in a variety of productions. You can see and hear samples of my work by clicking on the "Voice-Overs, Videos and 'Casts tab.
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January 30, 2005 at 14:23 pm | 5 Comments
Back when I used to lecture in the planetarium I would solicit questions from the audience at the end of each presentation. Every once in a while somebody would ask me what it’s like inside a black hole.
Trick question, right?
Well, probably for some of the more smart-aleck audience members it was. But, I always had an answer. I’d go into a little discussion about how we don’t know exactly, and based on a number of factors (including the laws of physics, some Einsteinian laws, etc.), we’ll probably never have a chance to explore the inside of one (and, if the gravity is so strong that light can’t even escape, is the inside of a black hole REALLY a place we want to be?). Following that there’d be a silence as people digested the idea of “being there”. Then we’d get into a discussion about what it be like to be right next to a black hole, which is a lot easier to describe, even if it IS a shrieking maestrom of radiation and searing temperatures.
At the time I was first in school, back in the dark ages of the early 60s, black holes were sort of a mathematical curiosity, a physics problem for which we didn’t have any good examples. That all changed with the advent of telescopes and detectors able to “see” the effects of black holes, including the jets that spray out from the vicinity of one as matter (stars, gas, dust) spiral into the hole. Moreover, black holes have gravitational effects on nearby stars and gas and dust that we CAN track with spectroscopic observations of the light emanating from the nearby region.
Which brings us to the center of our own galaxy, where a supermassive black hole about a million times the mass of our Sun lies hidden by gas and dust clouds and star clusters. This SMBH (for short), also known as Sagittarius A* (or SgrA*), radiates tremendous amounts of energy which we can detect in gamma rays. As luck would have it, we have a spacecraft called INTEGRAL that “sees” that radiation. In the image above, INTEGRAL shows us a gamma-ray view of the region near the center of the Milky Way.
Now, SgrA* is a pretty quiet and harmless black hole, and isn’t quite the powerhouse of radiation that others are—like, say, the black hole at the center of galaxy M87, which sports a very active jet. Yet, in the past, the Milky Way’s resident black hole has been restless, and whenever it acts up, the surrounding clouds light up with the evidence.
Right near SgrA* is a cloud of gas called SgrB2, and the two are about approximately 350 light-years apart. Sgr B2 is being exposed to a blast of gamma rays emitted by Sgr A* that went off about 350 years ago. The cloud absorbed the radiation and has been emitting it. Interestingly enough, the astronomers studying the data think that the whole outburst took at least ten years, possibly longer. And they’re using their studies to figure out how often and how strongly “our” black hole turns on, radiates, and then turns off again.
I have to admit, it’s pretty heady growing up knowing that these weird things that scientists once thought were probably rare are now found all over the place (in many galaxies and at the death scenes of supermassive stars). And, I find it very cool indeed that we can study the near-black-hole environment and learn so much about them.
January 27, 2005 at 22:15 pm | Leave a Comment
The passage of Comet Machholz near the Pleiades a couple of weeks ago reminded me of a project I spent a number of years working on in the late 1980s and early 1990s—the International Halley Watch Atlas of Large-Scale Phenomena— a compendium of Comet Halley images. The whole thing began when applied for a job as a research assistant on an IHW team at the university. I spent the next several years measuring and studying many, many images of Comet Halley, teasing out details about its plasma tail structures. Our interest was to chart the changes in the plasma tail as the comet sampled various “regimes” of the solar wind, and use those changes to understand how the solar wind affected the charged particles in the plasma tail. It got to the point that I could look at an image of Comet Halley and tell you exactly when it was taken (date and time) and tell you something about whether or not its plasma tail was about to disconnect or was rebuilding itself after a disconnection event (when the plasma tail would break off and then re-form in response to changes in polarity in the solar wind stream).
So, it was with a great sense of memory and history that I looked at this image (and many others) of Machholz as it passed near the Pleiades star cluster in the January sky. For one thing, it was clear that the comet had just undergone a disconnection event. The new tail was sprouting out from the coma and the remnants of the old tail were streaming out in a clump highlighted against the Pleiades. (The dust tail, by contrast, is the yellowish streak that seems to point roughly downward in this image.)
Even cooler, I ran across this image from Gerald Rhemann, one of Austria’s best-known comet chasers and astrophotographers. I became quite familiar with Gerald’s work (along with his collaborator Michael Jaeger) during my Halley years, and in my subsequent role as coordinator for observations for the Ulysses Comet Watch network in the early 90s. It’s a double blast from the past—comet plasma tails and the fantastic work of a photographer whose work I’ve long admired. The scene is stunning, combining my old research interest with one of my favorite star clusters in the winter sky. Sometimes astronomy doesn’t get any better than this!
January 26, 2005 at 14:34 pm | Leave a Comment
Observatories are our windows to the universe. Through their gates, we can move out to distant realms and explore the lives and deaths of stars, the evolution of galaxies, and the origins of the cosmos. Astronomers used to travel to observatories quite regularly to do their work, which made them appreciative of the distant, lovely places where these facilities are built.
Now you don’t have to go to an observatory to get your data as much as in the olden days (or nights, actually), because many facilities are automated and can deliver your data across the Internet (or in digital format on tape or disk) very quickly. We are in the age of remote observing, and it seems to me to be a natural evolutionary step for astronomers to take. Yet, something is lost, something described in Patrick McCray’s book Giant Telescopes as a romantic link to a past time of astronomical discovery when lonely men (they were almost always men) wrestled with great astronomical beasts atop cold mountaintops. Many important discoveries were made by those men and their machines, and their hard work has led directly from the ways of the “old days” to the methods of today’s astronomers.
Still, that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating the beauty of the mountaintops, even as we revel in the rest of the cosmos that is revealed from their observatories. I think every astronomer should go up a mountain at least once in his or her career, and not just for the heady experience of trying to take data at high altitude (although that’s a hoot, too). You gain a new perspective on the world when you go up the mountain. You get to feel as if you could fall up to the stars when you step outside from the control room during an observing run. And, then there’s the rush you get from knowing that the night you’re up there, you’re one of a handful of human beings across the world who are doing what you’re doing.
In that sense, then, observatories are truly gateways to discovery. It’s just that what you discover isn’t always up in the sky!
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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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