November 29, 2008 at 19:30 pm | 1 Comment
Or Something Closer?
Now this is an intriguing image. It looks like a distant cosmic explosion, perhaps a long-ago galaxy collision or star tearin itself to bits and sending material across light-years of space. There’s interesting structure here, including that mysterious string that seems to be flailing around the lower left-quadrant of the central light cluster. What do you think it is?
Think about it and then check out the answer below. (Click and drag between the ( ) signs to see the answer.
(It’s the city of London, as seen at night in an image taken on orbit by one of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Courtesy NASA/ISS (see the Gateway to Astronaut Photography, http://earth.jsc.nasa.gov/))
November 28, 2008 at 18:24 pm | 3 Comments
Let Me Show You Them
Maybe if enough of us write about this on our blogs and magazine websites and online newspapers, the woo-woos of the world will think twice before they start calling all the observatories and planetariums in a dead panic over the appearance of bright lights shining in the western sky and assuming that this “mysterious apparition” means that aliens are coming.
Well, I can only hope.
Truth is, you can step out tonight, tomorrow and for the next few nights and see the planets Venus and Jupiter appearing very close to each other in the west-southwestern sky after sunset. This is perfectly normal and nothing to get wiggy about. It happens because planets orbit the Sun and we can see them from the surface of Earth.
And, the Moon gets in on the action, too. On December 1, 2008, folks in the Americas should be able to see a thin crescent Moon just above the horizon, making this an amazingly beautiful triple-play in the sunset skies.
This will be a gorgeous sight, provided the weather doesn’t get in the way. I note that there’s a storm front moving into my area just in time to cover up this blazing celestial display, but that’s not true everywhere. And, it turns out that Venus and the crescent Moon will reprise their act (without Jupiter) on December 31, New Year’s Eve!
So, make a note of this (the finder chart should help you identify what you’re seeing — remember, if you have clear skies and a good view to the west, you should have NO trouble spotting two planets for the next few nights. They’ll be joined on December 1 by the crescent Moon. (As far as I know, there will be NO words in the sky…)
Plan to step outside after sunset on Sunday and Monday and check out the view. It’s worth bundling up for because it will be pretty! If it’s clear I plan to take a look.
November 28, 2008 at 10:05 am | Leave a Comment
Thankful for Many Things
Sad About the News
I spent yesterday doing the Thanksgiving Holiday thing here. For most of the world it was just another Thursday; here in the U.S. it was a day to cook a big meal, eat it, and then feel thankful about things. It’s something of a personal holiday for me — I spend time thinking about what I’ve accomplished in my work and career and in my life as a whole. It’s a time of reflection about many things, including the astronomy and space science topics that I get to write about.
I’m not going to get all space-girl gushy here and say that I’m thankful for our orbiting space station or missions to Mars or all the wonderful things we do in astronomy, not just in the U.S. but around the world. Those are wonderful things and they show just how inventive and achievement-oriented people can be when we bend our considerable talent and expertise toward good accomplishments in all realms of science. I’m glad we do them. And, what I AM grateful for is that so many people do them so well! And, through their efforts we have an incredibly advanced level of technology on this planet that lets us do a lot of things that our forefathers and foremothers would never have dreamed of.
I also spent yesterday tracking the awful events in India, using my computer and Twitter and various online news agencies for the task. I am something of a news junkie, so it’s not uncommon for me to have a few different screens open to various news stories throughout any day I’m at work.
It’s at once striking and saddening that the same technologies that let us watch as distant space robots explore moons or follow along as scientists circling overhead in the ISS do their work, also let us have first-hand front-row seats on some of the worst things that humans can do to each other in the name of ideology. Will this “instant access” give us (as a species on this planet) a chance to bring an end to such violent acts and find ways to make peace on this planet?
November 26, 2008 at 16:10 pm | 1 Comment
Are They Out There?
What’s with all the interest in aliens lately? CNN’s Miles O’Brien is “looking into” alien life, and over at Discovery Channel Space DISCO, our own favorite BadAstronomer, Phil Plait got interviewed about his view of aliens, UFOs and other such topics. Sure, aliens are a perennially interesting topic, as are UFOs. People LOVE to talk about them because — well, let’s face it — they’re mysterious and somehow related to space and the cosmos.
Any of us who write and/or talk about astronomy and space in public run into the inevitable questions from people who really ARE intrigued with the idea of life elsewhere in the cosmos. Usually they’re thoughtful and interesting questions from thoughtful people. But, sometimes you get the woo-woo contingent — the folks who have gone a little off the deep end for all things alien and UFO-ey.
Whenever somebody asks me about aliens, I always say what I think — that there’s no reason why life shouldn’t exist elsewhere in the universe. Of course, we haven’t found it yet. We will, eventually. Our methods are getting better all the time, as is our understanding of what it takes to create life and where it can flourish.
If somebody asks me about alien visitations of Earth, I usually say that there’s not a shred of reliable evidence to prove that aliens have been visiting us. Bring me some evidence and I (and, more importantly, scientists who want to find evidence of alien life just as badly as the rest of us do) will take it seriously.
But, the kicker here is that it has to be real evidence. Blurry pictures of flying saucers aren’t going to be taken seriously. Nor are garbled memories of body probes by big-eyed monsters, or strange archaeological finds that somehow are supposed to “prove” that aliens walked among, impressed, or even impregnated ancient humans.Those all represent a lot of wishful thinking more than they do solid evidence. And, evidence is what science needs in order to establish the existence of life, aliens, and even flying saucers (if they really exist).
Go read Phil’s interview — he pretty much says the same thing and also brings up the fact that there are thousands and thousands of amateur astronomers watching the skies each night, and they’re not seeing aliens landing. You’d think that if a self-respecting spaceship was going to come screaming for a landing, its ion trail would be completely obvious to a HUGE number of people who spend nearly every night studying the sky (and believe me, these folks KNOW their skies).
Well, evidence aside, let’s get to the question I asked at the top of this article: are THEY out there? That’s an excellent question. I don’t know if they are or not. We haven’t received any signals that we can recognize as alien communications to us from other star systems.
Nobody’s landed here that we know of.
If they’re out there, and I hope there are aliens out there exploring the skies (same as us), they’ll eventually get around to saying hi. If we were “out there” exploring the galaxy, wouldn’t we do the neighborly thing and drop in for a visit? Why, of course we would. Space is big. It’s lonely. And, just like people who live in isolated parts of our own planet get together with their own neighbors for some socializing, I would like to think that beings who inhabit other planets out there in the vast stretches of the galaxy would also feel the need to greet the neighbors when they go exploring.
If they’re out there, eventually we’ll meet them. What we do next — well, that depends on the situation when it happens. And, if you’re into science fiction, there are many, many excellent stories written about First Contact that represent our human condition and what might be like. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to go find some and read them.
November 25, 2008 at 12:24 pm | Leave a Comment
Follow the Pointer
My friend Phil Plait has a thing about instances of pareidolia — the tendency of humans to see interesting patterns in things. It’s a peculiar psychological thing that our primate brains do to us when we see things we don’t immediately understand or can’t place in context. So, for example, you look up at clouds in the sky and see spaceships or dogs playing or sheep sleeping or whatever it is that the cloud seems to resemble. And, of course, there are tendencies among some folks to see things like faces of deities in toast and tortillas, or peeling paint, or the bark on trees. It’s all very amusing and shows you how complex our brains are.
Astronomy images provide hours of merriment for pareidoliacs. Take this picture, for example. It’s a Hubble Space Telescope view of a gas and dust cloud where star formation is taking place. Notice in the very top of the picture that there’s a thick cloud of dust in the shape of a pointing finger. At least, that’s what it looks like to me. And, it might appear that way to you, too.
Well, you might ask — what’s it pointing to? Good question, and the answer is what the subject of the image really is: a pair of massive bright stars down in the lower third of the image that are shining out like a pair of headlights. (Or, if you’re a fan of LOLcats, they look like “cat lazors” charging up.)
This scene is smack in the middle of the Carina Nebula, a huge region where clouds of gas and dust are combining to form new stars. It is about 7,500 light-years away from us, and also contains the luminous blue variable Eta Carinae, which is expected to pop off as a supernova pretty much any time now (in cosmic terms).
It turns out those two bright stars have an interesting connection to the pointy-finger cloud. The bright star in the lower center is called WR-25, and its quite massive — more than 50 times the mass of our Sun. In fact, it’s really two stars orbiting a common center of mass. They hot, bright, and interacting with each other.
The star to the left of WR-25 is called Tr16-244, and it’s actually three stars orbiting a common center of gravity — a triple-star system. Together, these two star systems are eating away at the clouds of gas and dust. That “cannibalization by radiation” is actually what sculpted the finger-shaped cloud. It’s amost as if the cloud is pointing the finger of blame back to the stars that shaped it — a nice case of cosmic pareidolia.
Older entries »
This blog a wholly pwnd subsidiary of Carolyn Collins Petersen, a.k.a. TheSpacewriter.
Copyright 2013, Carolyn Collins Petersen
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
“It is by Coffee alone I set my day in motion. It is by the juice of bean that coffee acquires depth, the tongue acquires taste, the taste awakens the body. It is by Coffee alone I set my day in motion.”