December 30, 2009 at 21:23 pm | 1 Comment
Sunspots Are on the Rise?
My dad is an inveterate sunspot watcher. He once spent 11 years charting sunspots, drawing a solar chart with its sunspots for each day — he’s that into the phenomenon. Of course, he noticed right away that the motions of sunspots follow a path as the Sun rotates, and he charted the solar max and min for that time. He’s not a trained astronomer — he’s an acute observer and his fascination with the Sun and its activity is a marvelous thing.
Some years ago he had the chance to chat with then-director of AAVSO, the late Dr. Janet Mattei. He told her about his 11 years of hand-drawn charts and she was astounded at what he’d done — and remarked at how detailed his drawings were. Daddy and Janet had a long chat about sunspots and observing them and how the Sun is a variable star. I think that visit with Janet remains one of Daddy’s most treasured memories. Well, that, and being able to visit Harvard Observatory for the Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin centenary that year.
We just spent a few days in Arizona for the holidays, and to celebrate Daddy’s 80th birthday. Even though he’s hospitalized right now, Daddy’s still going strong for sunspots — so much so that now I always think of them as “Dadspots”.
He’s not dragging the sunscope out so much, but nowadays does his sunspot-spotting via the World Wide Web. He mentioned to me the other day that he’d noticed more sunspots and we talked awhile about the coming rise in solar activity that always accompanies a solar maximum (in the 11-year cycle of solar activity). He’d already noticed the sunspot group 1039, which is part of the new solar cycle 24 that will let us see a steady rise in activity over the next few years. And, I expect Daddy’ll keep his attention focused on sunspots (Dadspots) — as long as he can.
How much activity can we expect? Even though December 2009 sunspot numbers were up, the new solar cycle is predicted to be below average in intensity compared to solar maxima of other years. Even so, the current rise in sunspots and solar activity (if it continues) will be a relief to solar researchers after the long sunspot drought we’ve had over the past couple of years. Everybody’s keeping an eye on the Sun (well, not literally — NEVER look at the Sun directly without proper protection) to see if the rise in spots will continue.
For my part, to honor my dad’s life-long interest in sunspots, I’m renaming this new cycle the “John H. Collins, Sr. Solar Cycle.” Of course, it’s completely unofficial, but if you’d like to use that name in blog posts and tweets, I’m sure he would be honored. Let’s hope for more Dadspots!
December 23, 2009 at 11:00 am | Leave a Comment
Get Acquainted with the Night Sky
One of our yearly traditions at TheSpacewriter’s place is to send out holiday letters bringing our family and friends up to date on our lives. In keeping with our love of astronomy, we always include a little star chart on the back of the letter so that our BFFs can participate in what we always think of as the “Great Annual Family (and Friends) Star Party.” This year is no different — the letters went out last week and we’re hoping that sometime in the next week or so, all our buds can go out and check out the sky. I thought that I’d share it with all of my blog readers, too. Whether you’re a grizzled stargazing veteran or a first-timer, there’s something here for you to look at.
First, here’s the chart. Feel free to download it and look at it on your computer. I made it using TheSky, by Software Bisque.
Next, the tour. To see this scene, go out around 9:30 p.m. (2130 hours) and face south. (Be sure and dress warmly even if you live somewhere warm — nights can get chilly anywhere!) You should be able to see the stars of the constellation Orion, the Hunter. The star Betelgeuse makes his upper left shoulder, and the bright star Rigel is his lower right knee. There are three bright stars slanting through the middle of the constellation. These are the Belt Stars. If you draw an imaginary line down through the Belt Stars in a southeasterly direction, you’ll come to the bright star Sirius. It’s the brightest star in our night-time sky.
Just below the Belt Stars you can — if you have a fairly dark skygazing site — be able to make out a fuzzy patch. That’s the Orion Nebula — a starbirth region that lies about 1,500 light-years away from us. The light you see left that region around 1,500 years ago!
Now, next to Orion (the constellation) is another one called Taurus, the Bull. His face (or horns, depending on how you look at it) are traced out by V-shaped cluster of stars called the Hyades. The bright star called Aldebaran is not really part of the Hyades — it just happens to be in our line of sight between Earth and the cluster.
Not far from the Hyades, look for a smaller cluster called the Pleiades. This little cluster really has several hundred stars, plus some x-ray and radio sources, and a few brown dwarfs! Think about all that as you gaze on this little glittery cluster.
If you have a pair of binoculars, take them along with you to enhance your gazing. They may help you see a few more stars and details in the nebula and clusters. If you have a telescope — well, you can have a great time seeing these objects in greater detail for the first time — or through a revisit if you’re an old fan. Whatever you do — enjoy your stargazing and have a wonderful holiday season!
December 22, 2009 at 13:14 pm | Leave a Comment
Since 365 Days of Astronomy Began?
Hard to believe that this wonderful “podcast-a-day” about astronomy-related topics is nearly a year old. It’s been interesting to listen to so many different viewpoints on astronomy, space science, planetary science, scientists, astronomers, and so on. It’s also been fun producing 11 of the segments for the project.
The good news is that 365 Days of Astronomy will continue into 2010 and from what I hear, the year is filling up fast. I’ll be back, and I hope that a lot of other contributors will be back, too. And, of course it will be good to welcome first-timers to the group, too.
My last podcast for 2009 is “airing” today — it’s a tribute to Carl Sagan. I think that Dr. Sagan would be pleased to see so many people sharing their personal visions of the cosmos through 365 Days, just as he shared his personal voyage through the landmark series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. I also think he’d also be amazed at what the Web and Internet have become — in a good way — as places to share the latest and greatest about astronomy and space physics.
That’s the beauty of the 365 Days project — it disseminates people’s personal visions about a science that touches us all. If you haven’t listened to 365 Days, you have a whole year of podcasts to catch up on. And, there’s another year to look forward to, so check it out! And, if you’re so inclined, think about producing a podcast for it. The contact information is on the main page and I know that they’d love to hear from you.
December 21, 2009 at 10:59 am | Leave a Comment
Titan Has a Liquid Lake: is this News? Yeah!!
I know this hit the news a few days ago, but it’s such an historical image that I wanted to show it here.
If you’ve been buried hip-deep in holiday preparations and celebrations, you might not have known that the Cassini Equinox Mission returned an image of Titan that shows a lake of liquid something on the surface of the cloud-shrouded moon of Saturn. That lake is called Kraken Mare.
That little flash of light you see is a specular reflection off the surface of the liquid. Specular reflections are commonly seen on Earth when the sunlight flashes off bodies of water here. But, this is not likely to be water on Titan. Kraken is a hydrocarbon lake (hydrocarbons are things like methane and ethane). It stretches across about 400,000 square kilometers (150,000 square miles) across the northern surface.
Now, the cool thing about this image (along with the flash) is that we can actually even detect that glint. Most of the time Titan is covered in clouds. Optically it makes it very difficult to see anything on the surface, but wavelengths of infrared light get through. As Saturn and Titan approach their spring equinox, the viewing angle is just right, and scientists using an infrared-sensitive instrument onboard the Cassini spacecraft were able to detect the glint in infrared wavelengths. This is pretty exciting news. It’s cool because it’s there, first of all, and second because we’ve been able to see it with special instruments. Third, the existence of that lake will help planetary scientists understand more about the interactions between the surface and the atmosphere of Titan and the conditions that help make the existence of that lake possible. Stay tuned!
December 17, 2009 at 13:08 pm | 3 Comments
That 2012 Stuff
This is, as the old song says, “the most wonderful time of the year.” If you celebrate any sort of holiday in December — from Hanukkah to Christmas to Festivus to Yuletide to Kwanzaa to many, many others, you’re familiar with wonderful traditions that celebrate something at this time of year.
There’s an astronomy component to celebrations at this time of year and it has to do with the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year and the point at which the Sun appears at its lowest point in the sky (for the northern hemisphere, anyway). Historically, the earliest humans likely noted the position of the Sun in the sky throughout the year and devised rituals and celebrations around the solstice times (the summer solstice marks the point when the Sun is at its highest point in the sky). Over time, as other cultures, religions, and rituals evolved, people began ascribing more mystical and ritual significance to this otherwise purely physical lineup of the Sun and Earth as Earth orbits the Sun.
I think it’s only natural that people at any age of our history would devise such rituals — although they have nothing to do with our scientific understanding of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the Earth’s tilt on its axis, and so forth. They’re rituals that began as ways to help people deal with what seemed to be supernatural — i.e, the Sun’s yearly and daily path across the sky, the changing sets of star patterns we see at night throughout the year, and so forth. Charting those constellations and the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets across the backdrop of the sky was the basis for the ancient practice of astrology. Astronomical charts came to us through those early sky mappers who were, nonetheless, adherents to mysticism, which is not a scientific way of thinking.
Science and mysticism moved apart pretty quickly when people began ascribing some powerful (but immeasurable and unprovable) influences to the constellations (which are, after all, simply random patterns of stars that we somehow recognize from our point of view on Earth as shapes of animals, people, and things), or some magical power that a planet that lies billions of miles away has on a child at birth. Such ideas are more in the realm of human mysticism and spirituality and the forces and processes they invoke have never been detected or measured scientifically. And, in science, if it can’t be observed and measured, it’s tough to prove it exists or does what people claim it does. That’s why scientific investigations of things like ESP and astrology and crop circles and UFO “apparitions” always turn up empty — there’s nothing to measure or prove. And, just because someone says something’s mystical and wonderful and THEY can see it, doesn’t mean it exists in the reality-based world of science.
That doesn’t mean that people aren’t attracted to the mysticism that early skygazers imagined existed within the stars and planets. Humans are born with this ability to suspend disbelief in order to believe that something exists or happened, even if it never did. Look at it this way — we read fantasy and science fiction and watch anime movies and follow Star Trek (for example) and we know that those events and people don’t exist, but we can overlook that for the sake of a good story. Cultural star legends are built around the constellations and planets, but they’re often couched in terms of gods and goddesses, kings and queens, and mythical animals like centaurs. Those legends teach lessons and transmit cultural information. But, they have little to do with the science that explains those stars and planets.
When mysticism claims to have proofs that pretend to be science or even supplant or ignore scientific research (such as is done with modern-day astrology), then it goes too far, even for a “good story.” One of the “good stories” I’ve been reading about lately (and it’s not even all that good since it doesn’t hang together logically as a fairy tale, let alone as good science), is about the so-called 2012 Prophecies. They conflate a somehow-apocalyptic line-up of planets, combined with some kind of galactic beam that’s headed straight for us, along with a mysterious planet (that nobody’s observed yet, but some folks claim it exists) that’s going to shift out of its orbit and collide with Earth, into a world-bashing scenario that boggles the mind. Some Web sites that “discuss” this set of predictions also include some peripheral claims that we’ll be experiencing pole shifts, increased volcanic eruptions, psychic disruptions (well, they may be right there, but not in the way they think) and — oh my gawd — human evolution!!!
Can you stand it??
All this is being touted by a mind-boggling collection of astrologers, mystics, out-of-body proponents, crop-circle believers, amateur archaeologists, and others with little to no scientific training or understanding. Oh, and people who have books and other products to sell about this nonsense.
Apparently all this apocalyptic oogah-boogah is going to happen on the winter solstice in the year 2012. And, at the root of the thing is a claim that the whole thing was predicted by the Maya civilization that largely died out in the 1500s. There’s even been a movie made exploiting the pseudo-scientific claims that the 2012 Apocalypse pushers are splashing all over the Web. I heard the movie did boffo biz at the box office, and that it has great special effects.
Well, the 2012 predictions and associated pseudo-science don’t reflect reality any more than a fairy tale does. But, interestingly, the whole thing does reflect our very human propensity to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. It essentially combines end-of-the-world predictions (which are pretty common) with ancient religions and misunderstandings about science to create a nonsense mashup of epic proportions that sounds vaguely scientific and “woooooo” all at the same time. What’s not to like about that?
Of course, all of us who talk and write about astronomy are getting questions about this 2012 stuff. It’s inevitable — and it’s also a good chance to do a little proactive astronomy teaching and help people build up their Nonsense Detectors. I did this with two of my cruise lectures and people seemed to appreciate the “heads-up” on the phenomenon. Of course, I think a lot of people don’t really buy into the 2012 “predictions” — but there are enough of them out there that do.
So, I and people like my friend Dr. Ed Krupp at Griffith Observatory, and many others are giving talks and writing articles and blog entries to give people the “straight skinny” on what it’s all about. I highly recommend Dr. Krupp’s article and a recorded talk he gave for the National Academies of Science on the subject. Dr. Krupp is an engaging speaker and, as one of the world’s experts on the astronomy of the Maya, is the man to talk to when it comes to what the Maya calendar says as it relates to astronomy and any s0-called “predictions” the Maya are claimed to have made. He’s also an astronomer and all-around good guy. Check it out!
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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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