Astronomy for All

May 31, 2006 at 20:02 pm | Leave a Comment

I’d really like to see a lot more activity in astronomy for everybody in our society. Heck, I know it’s idealistic, but I wonder why we can’t get more grants for star parties, or get stargazing leagues together? While it’s great that Scouts get telescopes (and maybe share them with other non-Scouts once in a while), what else can we do for the folks who don’t belong to Scouts or other such youth groups? It’s a challenge, no doubt about it.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of media exposure for stargazing activities. Watching the stars isn’t a story that bleeds or leads, and when you see something the papers at all about astronomy, it’s rare. Yet, news about astronomy DOES get written, judging by the press releases I get in my email box each day. So, how do we translate that stuff into public recognition of the oldest science? Any ideas?

Youth and the Stars: This is More Like It

May 26, 2006 at 10:10 am | Leave a Comment

My last entry notwithstanding, there are a number of outreach efforts to bring astronomy to a wide cross-section of people of all ages, genders, and financial levels. Of course there’s the local planetarium, a place I always recommend as a good first step to the stars. But, not everybody has one. Same for astronomy clubs, but again, they’re not everywhere. The Sidewalk Astronomers bring telescopes to the sidewalks of Los Angeles and San Francisco quite regularly, offering peeks at the heavens for nothing more than the price of a few minutes of standing in line.

In Massachusetts, the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston do the same. I’m sure there are groups in every major city that set up telescopes and let people take a peek. Heck, even my friend Wendy sets her scope up occasionally in her city to show the stars and planets to anybody walking by. I’d love to hear about more such efforts to bring the stars to everybody, because they DO belong to everybody.

Here are a couple of cool stories about people sharing the stars with others. Check out this one and this one. And feel free to send me links to others. I’ll post ‘em!

Youth and the Stars

May 24, 2006 at 21:41 pm | Leave a Comment

Males Only?

I saw a note today about how Celestron and the Boy Scouts have teamed up to encourage interest in astronomy among America’s youth. Apparently the company is donating products to the Boy Scouts so that the organization’s members can learn more about astronomy at their camps. This is a great start on getting kids more interested in astronomy, and I’m all for it.

Let’s see though. The last time I looked, the Boy Scouts were all boys. I wonder what the girls are going to get? I didn’t see anything about the other half of “America’s Youth” who seem to be forgotten and hidden in the gender-neutral story (here). I hope that perhaps Celestron hasn’t forgotten the girls, but simply is making other arrangements to help them out, too. I hope they will make a similar story available about how they want to help more girls get into the sciences. Otherwise, this will be yet another in a long line of slights against females, who are routinely shortchanged when it comes to science education and interest. The company and the Boy Scouts are patting themselves on the back for this wonderful gift. I wonder how many girls see this and wonder “Why don’t we get this cool stuff?”

To quote president of Celestron Joseph A. Lupica, Jr., “Teaming up with the BSA is a perfect fit for us, in that we both share the desire to grow the budding curiosity of today’s young people who will launch the space and science developments of tomorrow.”

Will girls also be part of that fine future as seen by Celestron? Only time and action will tell.

Dust in the Wind

May 12, 2006 at 18:31 pm | Leave a Comment
Comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3

Comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3

Comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3 is really putting on quite a show as it heads into perihelion passage by late this month. Its nucleus, which broke apart into three big chunks in 1995, has now crumbled into more than 50 pieces. Everybody seems to be tracking this thing. Spitzer Space Telescope’s image is nicely reminiscent of Shoemaker-Levy 9.

Subaru Observatory (on the Big Island of Hawai’i), has released this image of just one of the pieces, called Fragment B. It’s not the brightest of the chunks of the nucleus (that would be Fragment C), but it is showing some unusual activity.

Fragment B is itself a series of little comet nucleus shards, numbering more than 13. What does this tell us about the comet? That it most likely has a pretty delicately structured nucleus. It may also be rotating very quickly, or its ices could be vaporizing rapidly. These actions, combined with its approach to the Sun (which warms the ices even more), could be applying just the stress needed to shatter this cometary nucleus once and for all.

Fragments as seen by Subaru Observatory

Fragments as seen by Subaru Observatory

Of course that won’t be the end of this comet. It has been long associated with the Tau Herculid meteor shower, but this year’s recurrence of that shower probably won’t benefit from the breakup.

All of the pieces of the comet will continue to orbit the Sun in a trail of debris that is the source of the Tau Herculids. It’s a sort of diaphanous ring of dust and ice particles that have been sloughed off the comet in the past. In time, Earth could experience some heightened meteor shower activity from this breakup, but there’s good news and bad news there. The good news is that even if the shower is stronger in the future, the particles will simply collide with our atmosphere, enter it, and most likely burn up as they plow through the air.

The bad news isn’t so bad, really, just sort of disappointing: the pumped-up amount of debris in the trail of the comet won’t encounter Earth until 2022. So, it’s possible that the meteor shower probably could become quite spectacular in the future. Or not. So stay tuned.

A Great Gift

May 5, 2006 at 10:05 am | Leave a Comment
Jupiter cloud details as seen by HST

Jupiter cloud details as seen by HST

Well, yesterday was my birthday, and so the planet Jupiter (along with the Hubble Space Telescope) obligingly delivered a cool gift (not just to me, of course): a picture of a new “Great Red Spot” forming on the planet Jupiter. It turns out that, just like there’s climate change going on here on our planet, Jupiter’s giant and stormy atmosphere is undergoing change, too. Global warming on the King of the Planets, however, will raise temps there about 10 degrees F. Heat will get transferred from the equator to the south pole, although that movement of heat lessens as it reaches the latitude of the new spot. So, there’s a clue in there somewhere about the dynamics of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Stay tuned!

For more information on this story, go to the Hubble Space Telescope Jupiter Red Spot page.

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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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