All posts for the month January, 2006

We live in amazing times. Every day you can download new images from space onto your computer and marvel at what’s out there. I like to turn them into wallpapers for my computer monitor. Usually I use space art, particularly from Digital Blasphemy. But, I also like to put up a really good astrophoto or artist’s conception of something from any of the many mission and space agency websites out there.

The image above is from the European Southern Observatory. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics used it to illustrate a press release story about the numbers of red dwarf stars in our galaxy. You can read the full release here.

The best thing about all this? What you learn about astronomy and space when you browse the press releases that come with these great images!

Williams College Observatory, Williamstown, MA

Williams College Hopkins Observatory, Williamstown, MA

I just finished a four-week stint teaching a course at Williams College called “Communicating Astronomy: Adventures Under the Dome.” It was a lot of fun and the students were a sharp group. It has been a while since I did any “formal” teaching in an academic setting. Sure, I’ve done seminars and workshops at meetings, and have taught a similar mini-workshop over at UMASS-Lowell a couple of times. It’s not the same when you plan four weeks of activities. However, I enjoyed it a lot. The students were quite inventive and wide-ranging in their interests. Their final projects were all very good and reflected today’s tools for content creation (like short animations, whiz-bang Power Points, etc.) as well as the more traditional live presentations done well.

I taught the class in Hopkins Observatory at Williams College, in the Milham Planetarium. We met three days a week, saw shows nearly every day using the systems in place there. One of the days we drove over for a visit to Sky-Skan’s dome in Nashua, NH so the students could see more show and meet other production professionals (like SS president Steve Savage, staffers Dave Miller and Jennie Zeiher, and of course, Mark Petersen, my production partner and president of Loch Ness Productions, who came up for the afternoon to talk about show production).

Class picture

Class picture

While astronomy was one central theme that ran through the class, so was the communicating of it. I tried to give the students some background on various ways that astronomy stories can come to light. We discussed press practices, newsgathering, stories in the media, and of course how to find stories in legitimate sources in real life and on the Web. A lot to teach in four weeks, but it was all do-able. And this group of bright, inventive folks you see above did it.

Now I’m back home, still working on the Griffith Observatory exhibits, and a couple of other projects for various folks. Next up for big projects? Well, there is a new planetarium show project and who knows what else will walk in the door for a writer/editor/communicator in astronomy and space science?

Stardust arrives at the cleanroom after its interplanetary journey.

Stardust arrives at the cleanroom after its interplanetary journey.

Dust from interplanetary space is a treasure trove of information about the “stuff” between planets. Those little particles, many of them shed by comets as they regularly round the Sun, give us some tantalizing hints about what things were like early in the history of the solar system.

That’s why a group of scientists sent a mission out to sweep a little bit of cosmic dust into an aerogel “dust collector” and bring it back to Earth for study. They hope to get some insights into the materials that existed some 4.5 billion years ago, when the planets and comets formed. Comets themselves are bigger treasure troves, carrying ices and gases left over from the chaotic conditions in the early solar system. They also have dust particles embedded in between the ice crystals. That dust might have been shed by a long-dead star as it was blowing itself to smithereens as a supernova.

I always find these missions interesting. We can’t go out for ourselves and scoop up interplanetary dust, but we can send out these amazing pieces of technology to do it for us. And, each time we reach out, we touch a piece of cosmic history. Very cool!

For more cool thoughts about the Stardust mission, visit their web page.

Finally, if you’ve tuned in for more cosmic headlines from the AAS, here you go! Happy reading!

Public to look for dust grains in Stardust detectors.

There is More to Starlight than Meets the Eye/Milky Way Churns out Seven New Stars a Year.

Scientists Find Black Hole’s Point of No Return

Astronomers Use Spitzer Space Telescope to Challenge Brown Dwarf Models.

And just in time for this week’s launch of the New Horizons Mission:

The Discovery of Two New Satellites of Pluto.