Looking Down the Old Coronal Hole

March 30, 2008 at 19:51 pm | Leave a Comment

Feel the Breeze?

The Solar and Heliospheric Observer sent along a picture of a huge coronal hole that’s opened up on the Sun recently (it’s that dark area to the upper right of the three sunspots and their associated magnetic fields.

There’s a brisk solar wind breeze blowing out from this hole, which will buffet Earth’s upper atmosphere for a while. This image shows the Sun in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths. The Earth is right smack in the center of the breeze, which is causing some nice auroral displays at high latitudes. What’s happening is that high-speed plasmas in the solar wind are colliding with the upper part of our atmosphere and our magnetic field. This heats the gas molecules up there and causes them to glow.

Here’s a nice image on Spaceweather.com, taken by Sylvain Serre in Nunavik, Quebec that shows what happens when the solar wind smacks our upper atmosphere around. Serre and some friends were out viewing the sky when the auroral display started up and basked in the glow for while. There’s a good chance that there’ll be more auroral displays the next couple of nights, so if you live in an area where such things light up your sky, check ‘em out!

How Dark was YOUR Earth Hour?

March 30, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Leave a Comment

Dark Enough to See Stars?

We spent our Earth Hour last night in front of a nice fire in the fireplace, all of our lights turned off (but not, alas the rendering computer). It was nice. Outside, the sky was quite clear, and Sirius was hugely bright in the southwestern sky. A bit too cold to stay out the entire hour, but still a nice way to spend a Saturday night. In Sydney, Australia (where Earth Hour originated, and a place I thoroughly loved visiting a couple of years ag0), some 2 million people hit the “off” switch on their lights, and as the globe turned, millions more did the same. (You can find out where else they did it by doing a search on “Earth Hour” in Google, which itself went black to celebrate this relaxing practice that saved energy across the world. Cities around the world took place, making an event out of it.) I liked the story from Denmark, detailing how crowds of people gathered in Copenhagen to do a little stargazing through telescopes set up by the Copenhagen Astronomy Society.

I had this idea (and I’m sure others have, too) that an Earth Hour every week or so wouldn’t be a bad thing. A time to stargaze, or sit and visit with loved ones, or simply meditate on life’s mysteries while in the dark. A little slowdown in life’s headlong rush. Not such a bad thing.

Let Darkness Fall Softly

March 28, 2008 at 13:35 pm | Leave a Comment

If Only for an Hour

Earth Hour is tomorrow night, Saturday, March 29. Starting at 8 p.m. local time, cities around the world will turn off their lights for an hour. Join them. Turn off your lights and make a difference. Read more about it at the Earth Hour website.

What do you get out of it? A chance to see the stars. To reduce your impact on the air, water, and oceans for an hour. It’s true that every little bit helps. So, turn off your lights at 8 p.m. YOUR time! And enjoy the darkness. Who knows what you might see?

Orion’s Slipping Away

March 26, 2008 at 10:44 am | 2 Comments

Check it Out Tonight

A quick perusal of my favorite blogs this morning took me to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, where he’s posted pictures he took last night of the constellation Orion as a sort of backdrop to the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. That reminded me (as if I needed it, really) that the onset of northern hemisphere spring (southern hemisphere autumn) signals a long farewell to the starshow that is the constellation Orion. In another few weeks, my favorite winter star pattern will be gone for a few months, to be replaced at night with the stars of spring and summer.

Why do I like this constellation? Well, for one, after the asterism of the Big Dipper, it’s one of the most recognizable star patterns in the nighttime sky. I also like to think that it’s kind of a gateway constellation into other great things, like starforming regions. And, once you get a taste of seeing those, you might want to wander around other parts of the sky, getting acquainted with the sights that so excite both amateur and professional astronomers.

Who knows? If more people got interested in astronomy because of Orion, they’d understand why we spend money to pay astronomers to study the cosmos and report back on what they find. It’s not just because it looks pretty and we get great pictures. We also learn something about how the universe works, and since we’re part of the universe, it means we learn more about our own planet and how it formed back a few billion years ago.

The Orion Star Nursery

So, getting back to this star nursery… it’s called the Orion Nebula, and if you go out tonight (or whenever it’s clear) and look below the three belt stars (or above them or next to them, if you’re in the southern hemisphere) you will see a faint fuzzy patch that looks kinda greenish-gray. That’s it. The place where stars are being born. The center of the cloud is dominated by a quartet of bright young stars called the Trapezium. They’re blasting out light and ultraviolet radiation. That UV is eating away at the clouds of gas and dust that were once the birthplace of these stars. What’s left is glowing from the energy being pumped out by these stars.

Hubble Space Telescope took a closeup look at the Trapezium. It found many more hot young stars, some brown dwarfs, and some stars with protoplanetary disks (which could turn into planets in a few millions of years if they aren’t already) around them.

So, for the next couple of weeks, while there’s still time, go out not too long after sunset and check out the constellation Orion, and see if you can find the Nebula. There aren’t too many places like it that we can see with the naked eye from the comfort and privacy of our backyards. If you’d like to read more about the Orion Nebula, start here, and then go here for some Hubble views of it. Check out Spitzer Space Telescope’s look at it, and then round out your multi-wavelength tour of the nebula by visiting the Chandra X-Ray Observatory view.

The Name’s Bond…

March 25, 2008 at 15:09 pm | Leave a Comment

I’m Tracking My Quarry at Cerro Paranal

Wow, cool news for James Bond fans! The next movie, called “Quantum of Solace” is shooting in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where Cerro Paranal and the Very Large Telescope are located. The movie crew is using the building called the Residencia (where the astronomers stay) at the VLT because it looks like the perfect hide-out for Bond’s next nemesis, the villain Dominic Greene.

The movie is due out in October (in the UK) and November (in the U.S.). So, if you’re a fan of 007 AND know a little about the VLT, here’s your chance to visit without getting altitude sickness!

Here’s an outdoor view of the Residencia, settled mostly underground with a domed roof.

Below is an interior image of this beautiful building, a great home away from home for visiting astronomers and staff.


And, what observatory would be without a nice pool for some after-viewing relaxation? You can take a more extensive tour of the Residencia here. All in all, this looks like a very cool place to shoot a movie, or observe the universe!


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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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