Carnival of Space 88: Welcome to the Big Top

January 30, 2009 at 15:00 pm | 26 Comments

Number 88!

Welcome to TheSpacewriter’s Ramblings. It’s my pleasure to host this week’s Carnival of Space. There are lots of entries this week, so grab some cotton candy, popcorn, coffee, herbal tea, hot chocolate, ice cream or whatever you like to nosh on at a carnival — and let’s get started!


Wanna be an amateur astronomer and fall in love with the sky each night?  Your first step, as Sean Welton over at Visual Astronomy points out, is to find a dark sky site.  Check out his handy tips and suggestions for finding that perfect place to stargaze.

What amateur astronomer hasn’t fallen prey to the peculiar affliction called “aperture fever”? Devoted stargazer Mike Simonsen gives us a light-hearted look at the progression of this condition on his Simostronomy blog, complete with pictures of what the “cure” looks like at each stage.

If your stargazing dreams include piloting a space telescope, hop on over to Mang’s Bat Page for a look at learning how to plan an observation on Canada’s MOST (Microvariability and Oscillations of Stars) observatory.


The last week of January and first of February is a solemn time in the history of U.S. spaceflight, marking the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in 1967, the Challenger and its crew in 1986, and the Columbia shuttle and her crew in 2003. In Remembering Past Tragedies… and Shaping the Future, Stu over at Cumbrian Sky puts it into perspective, along with a look at NASA’s future under the new administration and juxtaposed against a discussion of what could have been if NASA had gone a slightly different direction in the past.

In Remembering Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, Mark Whittington at Associated Content tells the tale of America’s space tragedies from his perspective at the ages of 9, 29, and 46 and what he thinks it means for our future in space.

At Space Video of the Day, you can view a replay of then-President Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation following the Challenger disaster.

Humanity’s Future in Space and a Nod to Our Past Efforts

The folks at Morehead State University in Kentucky have posted an interesting podcast on their Kentucky Space blog about the development of an S-band communications system for KySat-1. Go take a listen and amaze yourself at what’s happening in space sciences in the Bluegrass State!

Over at 21st Century Waves, Dr. Bruce Cordell has a fascinating article called Long Waves and the Future of Human Space Flight. It’s a detailed look (via an abstract for a paper on the future of space exploration) at the policy implications for the Vision for Space Exploration. He looks at possible trends beginning under President Obama’s administration,and extending his view of the causes and effects of an upcoming international space race in the decade beginning in 2015. He also talks about some fascinating historical trends that may bear on what humans do next about space exploration.

Ion drives for space exploration are the subject of a nice article called Electric Rockets 101 by Flying Singer over at Music of the Spheres. There’s also a link to an ion drive simulator you can play with to help you understand these systems.

In the market for a mammoth starship?  One aspect of star ship design that gets people talking is what we’ll be powering our future long-haul spacecraft with. Starship fusion gets a closer look — specifically Friedhardt Winterberg’s work on inertial confinement fusion — in a piece by Adam Crowl over at Centauri Dreams. This one has implications for fast interplanetary travel and eventually interstellar trips.

Launching things into space is a big-technology venture and several approaches keep coming up for discussion. Over at The Next Big Future, an entry called Laser Array Space Launch is an insightful look at a roadmap to creating one way to loft things into space.

In the mood for a clandestine blast-off? Head on over to and let Ian O’Neill give you a behind-the-scenes peek at secret launches and tell you why they’re so sexy.

Writer David S. F. Portree writes about the moon and the future of NASA over at Altair VI. He suggests some possible directions for lunar exploration technology that could have major benefits for international cooperation. He also shares a look at past lunar exploration plans in an entry about a proposed lunar landing mission suggested not long after the fatal Apollo 1 fire.

The exploration theme continues over at Out of the Cradle with Ken Murphy’s review of The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration by Philip Stooke. It’s an extensive tome that begins with our earliest plans to explore the Moon and ends at the most recent missions.

Oh Moon, Lovely Moon

The Moon was in the news this week as millions of eclipse gazers turned their attention to an annular eclipse on the 26th. Blogger Ian Musgrave wrote about seeing the Sun partially eclipsed by the Moon from his back yard in Australia at Astroblog, complete with a series of images of the Sun with a bite taken out of its side. He also included some shots taken with his mobile phone.

The eclipse wasn’t the only attention lunar explorers gave to our neighbor in space. The C1XS X-ray Camera aboard the Chandrayaan lunar orbiter successfully detected the Moon’s x-ray signature. Read about it in Alexander Declama’s report over at Potentia Tenebras Repellendi.

Megan Watzke over at the Chandra Blog muses about the Chandra X-ray Satellite and Chandrayaan spacecraft orbiting the Moon (similar-sounding names, but different missions) and how they’ve both studied the Moon.

If past lunar missions are your bag, there’s a new documentary about the Apollo Missions called “Live from the Moon.”  The folks at CollectSpace have blogged about it, featuring insights from astronaut Joe Allen and the documentary’s director Mark Gray.

Astronomy News and Exploration Technology

Although we’ve been exploring Mars since as long as we’ve been able to point telescopesa at it, our way of looking at it changed dramatically when the Mars Global Surveyor assumed a “standard parking orbit” around the Red Planet. The first big publication of data and images from that mission, called the MOC Book is the subject of an insightful discussion over at The Martian Chronicles.

Farther out in the solar system, things are happening at Saturn — particularly on Titan. Paul Scott Anderson at the Meridiani Journal gives us a look at the evidence from Cassini spacecraft data for seasonal rain on that frigid moon.

Planets around other stars likely face interesting times, especially when their orbits are highly eccentric and bring them almost TOO close to their stars every so often.  So, what’s it like on a planet that gets sizzled by its star during part of its orbit? The energetic Phil Plait (of BadAstronomy fame) tells us in an entry titled Weather Sizzles on a Planet that Kisses its Star.

Before we can figure out what’s happening to other planets around other stars, we have to find them! Over at the Orbital Hub, DJ gives us an up-close and personal look at the Kepler mission in Kepler: the Exo-planet Hunter. This spacecraft is designed to survey a number of stars and search out possible planetary systems.

The universe is populated with more than just planets. We have stars and galaxies, all moving along as the universe expands.  Lately, astrophysicists have figured out that the expansion rate is changing due to something called “dark energy.” What is this?  Well…it’s mysterious and… ummm… dark.  But, how do we know it’s there?  Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel gives us a peek inside the dark-energy measuring business over at Starts with a Bang!

Woo-woo “Science”

No Carnival of Science would be complete without a dip over to the Woo-woo Continuum. This week’s contenders feature that perennial favorite — astrology — mixed up with all kinds of malarkey about black holes, Mayan calendars, planetary lineups and galactic alignments. The continual stir about the so-called 2012 global catastrophe that uneducated fearmongers are using to sell books and movies is the subject of a nice three-part debunking by Dr. Rosa Williams over at  Astronomy at the CCSSC.

And, as if weird interpretations of natural events weren’t enough, we still have astrology loonies to contend with. Robert Simpson over at Orbiting Frog points out the fundamental stupidity of astrology and reminds us what it’s really about in his 21 Signs of the Zodiac” entry.

Well, that’s it for this week’s Carnival, folks.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the explorations!

Yes, That’s Venus

January 30, 2009 at 8:29 am | 5 Comments

Now Appearing in the Western Sky After Sunset

Back in the days when I worked at a planetarium, we got a spate of phone calls from people worried about that “bright thing in the west that doesn’t seem to be moving”. Invariably, there’d be a caller who thought it was a UFO and that NASA was hiding something… (you’d be amazed at how those two do NOT correlate with each other).

Well, most of the time it turned out to be a planet, and usually it was Venus. It’s pretty bright and starlike and in the evening twilight, it stands out really well.

Venus and the Moon, by Theo Wellington courtesy

Venus and the Moon, by Theo Wellington courtesy

I suppose my friends at the planetariums and observatories are getting that question again this week (and probably have been for the past few weeks).  And, what people are seeing IS Venus.  Last night I went out for a brief bit and looked because it was appearing not far from the crescent Moon.  If you step out tonight (and it’s clear), you should see Venus and the Moon not too far from each other.

This image shows about how it looked from my place, although it’s really the view that Theo Wellington of Goodlettsville, TN saw from HIS place.  There’s a whole slew of images over at — go see what everybody else is seeing!  And if you can,  check it out for yourself!

Citizen Astronomy

January 29, 2009 at 10:10 am | 1 Comment

It’s a Tradition to Carry Forward

Suddenly citizen journalism is a big thing on news sites. They want YOU to go out and film events happening and then “share” them with other viewers/readers. I think it’s kind of an interesting twist on the traditional journalistic practice of having reporters actually covering events and interviewing people on the scene.

In astronomy, we’ve had “citizen observers” since the dawn of time.  These days it’s called “amateur astronomy” and there are hundreds of thousands of people who devote some part of their time each week watching the sky, looking at the stars, and in some cases, discovering new things along with the “professionals.”

Amateur astronomy has a star-studded history (so to speak).  Back before Big Astronomy got Big Budgets to build Big Instruments (say, prior to the late 1800s and early 1900s), there was little practical difference between amateur and professional stargazers.  For a time, it was a rich man’s profession because wealthy folks had the shiny gold rocks to trade for building big telescopes.  But, things have changed since then, and while we have two divisions of astronomers these days — the ones who love what they do and get paid for it (and work with equipment paid for with taxpayer dollars/yen/yuan/Euros, etc.) vs. the ones who love what they do and do it for free — in some places, amateurs and professionals work together to make discoveries.  In fact, in many studies, professionals depend on amateurs to gather data. Some that come to mind are the American Association of Variable Star Observers (which is actually an international group) Center for Backyard Astrophysics, the International Occultation Timing Association, and others you can read about here.

For folks who aren’t interested in going the research route, even as an amateur, the International Year of Astronomy has a number of “citizen-oriented” activities planned, including a massive observation of the star Epsilon Aurigae in summer 2009, Globe at Night, Astronomy 2009 in Second Life, 365 Days of Astronomy, the Galileoscope and the Galileo Teacher Training Program, and many, many others. And, after you do all these things, you can get online and blog about your experiences or even publish videos of you and your friends and family doing stargazing and space science activities. That combines the best of both worlds: citizen journalism and citizen astronomy!

Show Us Your Lobes!

January 28, 2009 at 12:20 pm | 3 Comments

Looking at Centaurus A

Along the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Centaurus A, courtesy European Southern Observatory. Click to embiggen

There’s an active galaxy out there called Centaurus A.  It’s the fifth brightest one out there, and if you look at it in various wavelengths, you find out that it’s fairly buzzing with activity – everything from starbirth to stardeath as well as big jets emanating from a radio-loud core.

We see Centaurus A “edge on” and it seems to be a lenticular or elliptical galaxy with a dust lane. That right there tells astronomers that something’s going on with this thing — most particularly that it merged with a spiral galaxy that was once its companion about 100  million years ago.  Mergers do things to galaxies — like warp their shapes and set off waves of star formation.

The core of Centaurus A is bright with thousands and thousands of massive stars, and if you look closely you can see blue regions where starburst activity has been creating batches of bright, massive blue stars.

The galactic heartland has been flaunting its pretty jets at us in x-ray and radio wavelengths for a long time. If you look at Centaurus A in infrared wavelengths (below, right), as the Spitzer Space Telescope did, this thing looks even weirder than it does in the ESO image (above).  First,t here’s this warped shape (often referred to as its “morphology”),  Plus, there’s this  bright spot at the center.  That tells us there’s something going on at the heart of this ginormous stellar city.

Centaurus A as seen by Spitzer Space Telescope. Click to embiggen.

Centaurus A as seen by Spitzer Space Telescope. Click to embiggen.

As astronomers get new instruments that are ever more sensitive to different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, they turn that equipment toward Centaurus A.

Recently, a group used the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile to look at the heart of Centaurus A in submillimeter wavelengths. What they found is pretty remarkable — details in the jets that have never been seen before, particularly in the submillimeter range.

The new data have been combined with visible and x-ray wavelengths to produce a striking new image (below) that really shows the extent of the jets and lobes emanating out from the center of Centaurus A.  That region — which is bright across the spectrum — is home to a supermassive black hole that has about 10 MILLION times the mass of the Sun.  (For comparison, the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy “only” has around 4 million solar masses.) The jets and lobes emanating from the core of Centaurus A are the “smoking gun” evidence pointing right back toward the black hole!

Centaurus A in x-ray, submillimeter and visible light. Courtesy ESO and Chandra. Click to embiggen.

Centaurus A in x-ray, submillimeter and visible light. Courtesy ESO and Chandra. Click to embiggen.

In the new image, which is a composite of data from three instruments, you can make out a dust ring that circles the entire galaxy. In submillimeter wavelengths, we see not only the heat glow from the central dust disk, but also the emission from the central radio source. What’s really cool about this image is that this is the first time that a pair of inner lobes are seen in submillimeter wavelengths of light.

In the x-ray emission you can trace the jets as they emerge from the center of the galaxy. If you look to the lower right part of the image, you can also see a sort of bluish shock front. This is where the expanding lobe of fast-moving material is colliding with the surrounding gas.

Astronomers measured the emissions from the region of the black hole and calculated that the material in the jets is moving at ab0ut half the speed of light. That implies a LOT of energy being generated by activity around the black hole.

I am goggling at all this because it’s a GALAXY that we’re looking at here and for the first time we can see minute details of the magnetically charged chaos around the central black hole as well as details in the jets and lobes. And we can calculate the speed at which jet material is moving. And, we’re seeing this all from a distance of 13 million light-years!

Musings on Miranda

January 27, 2009 at 11:41 am | Leave a Comment

Cat Moon

Miranda Katt

Miranda Katt

We have a cat named Miranda. As you can see, she’s got a mottled coat, with no two areas exactly the same shape and with an underlying “white” coat overlain by other regions of different-colored hair.

When we got her, we were casting about for a name and I happened to be looking at pictures of the moon Miranda. It occurred to me that, like that moon, our cat had white “surface units” overlaid by other mottled, oddly shaped surface units.

Miranda (the cat) came by her mottled “surface” through a combination of genetic factors inherited from both her parents.

She’s a calico cat, in much the same way that you can think of Miranda the moon as a calico moon, marked with oddly shaped regions and different colors for each of the regions.

The Uranian moon Miranda

The Uranian moon Miranda

The “genetic” components that shaped the surface of Miranda (the moon) have more to do with physical processes like gravitation and the melting point of water ice.

The scientific consensus is that this moon, with its icy grooves and cliffs, has been deformed by a process called tidal heating.  What this means is that Miranda, which is largely water ice, was affected by tidal forces from Uranus early in this moon’s history. The gravitational tugs from Uranus deformed the moon slightly, causing some interior heating.  That heat melted the ice inside of Miranda, and chunks of it likely “floated” to the surface and then froze. That process (which is complex) caused the wrinkles and ridges, troughs and gullies we see today.  No cat fur, but still a mottled, calico surface on a distant moon!

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