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All posts for the month April, 2009

An Introduction to Large-Scale Structure

Markarians Chain, part of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, as seen in The Big Picture. Courtesy of the Palomar-Quest Team, California Institute of Technology. (Click to embiggen.)

Markarian's Chain, part of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, as seen in The Big Picture. Courtesy of the Palomar-Quest Team, California Institute of Technology. (Click to embiggen.)

One of the coolest exhibits I’ve ever seen is taking up a wall at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. It’s called The Big Picture, and is a deep view of a very small region in the constellation Virgo. It was taken using the Samuel Oschin Telescope on Palomar Mountain in California.

What makes this picture amazing is that it is a single continuous digital sky image, portrayed in porcelain tiles. It has at least a million galaxies and thousands of quasars depicted in it, plus asteroids, and a comet.  The galaxies are part of the Virgo Cluster, the nearest big cluster to our own Local Group of Galaxies. Beyond them are the other galaxies, all part of the large-scale structure of the universe.

The Big Picture is the focus of today’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast — which Mark and I produced. So, go over and check it out. I’ve also got a related page about it and the large-scale structure of the cosmos, here.

You can also see a video I’ve produced about The Big Picture as part of Astrocast.TV starting on May 1. I’ve joined the crew of Astrocast.tv to produce a monthly segment called The Astronomer’s Universe. Either way, be sure and check out this amazing image–it’ll take your breath away.

What’s it Like?

A bunch of years ago I was gifted (by Mr. SpaceWriter) with an all-expenses-paid trip to Space Camp for adults held in Huntsville, Alabama. The object was a week’s worth of training in shuttle operations, and it was one of the coolest things I had done in my life to that point.  It wasn’t all kids’ play — we actually spent our days in classes learning about propulsion systems, life support systems, launch systems, etc.  Some of our lecturers were actual NASA engineers, one of whom had come to NASA from Germany in the 50s.  We spent hours in simulators and, no surprise to any of my readers, I suppose, I ended up as shuttle commander for my flight.  I had a pilot, two mission specialists and two payload specialists.  We trained together each day, and then at the end of the week, we “flew” a simulated 2-hour mission.  We had been warned in advance that there would be some anomalies thrown at us, so we had to be prepared.

Our launch was great, we cast off our SRBs on the nominal, and the main tank went just fine. Shortly thereafter, we had a fuel cell failure, which my pilot and I diagnosed in about 30 seconds and managed to fix.  Everything went fine until we got to orbit, and then one of our payload bay doors jammed.  We figured that one out, but lost about two minutes in our timeline doing so.  After that, things went fine until late in the mission, when we had a couple of electrical problems.  Fixed those, deployed our payload, had some time for some tomfoolery, and then we deorbited and landed.  Despite our problems, our crew won top ratings that week and we all went home with huge grins on our faces.

I hadn’t thought about that week in Huntsville much until today when I was reading a Twitter message from an engineer in Houston who works in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas.  She goes by the monicker @absolutspacegirl.  Today, apparently, she and her team are working their way through some simulations of similar problems (fuel cell issues, payload bay door issues) thrown at the team and she’s twittering about it. Very, very cool.

A full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope. (Click to embiggen.)

A full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope. (Click to embiggen.)

Speaking of teaching and learning, the NASA James Webb Space Telescope folks have launched an online game to teach about the telescope (and telescopes in general) and how such things work. James Webb Telescope will launch sometime after 2013 and will be an infrared-sensitive telescope.

This telescope is a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. It will be able to peer through dusty clouds surrounding newborn stars, for example, and possibly see planetary systems forming around them. Wanna learn more? check out the Webb Telescope game site.

Skynights, Discovery Days, SkyCamps and

the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter

The Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter (Courtesy Adam Block/University of Arizona). (Click to embiggen.)

The Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter (Courtesy Adam Block/University of Arizona). (Click to embiggen.)

This is cool — for those of you who live in Arizona or may be vacationing there sometime soon, check out the University of Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter — a science learning project aimed at the general public. It’s located up at 9,157 feet atop Mt. Lemmon, near Tucson. It looks like a great place to go get some hands-on experience with stargazing, professional-grade telescopes, and much more.

Moreover, the center is hosting workshops and programs for amateur astronomers, teaching about astrophotography.

M101, as seen through the 24-inch telescope at the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter near Tucson, AZ.  Courtesy Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona (Board of Regents). (Click to embiggen.)

M101, as seen through the 24-inch telescope at the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter near Tucson, AZ. Courtesy Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona (Board of Regents). (Click to embiggen.)

Participants and users of the SkyCenter’s 24-inch telescope are already turning out some magnificent images, like this one, of the galaxy M101.

The center’s mission statement says that they want to engage people of all ages in the process of scientific exploration in their “sky island” — and I think that’s a really great way to get people interested in the sky AND science all at once. It is very much needed now that the University has closed down Flandrau Planetarium, largely due to economics, but also because a “new” planetarium is supposed to anchor a planned development project in Tucson. Unfortunately, that won’t be opening for a while, which leaves Tucsonians without the venerable Flandrau facility.  It looks like the center will be doing some outreach with a portable planetarium, however, so the community is not without a planetarium. And, with the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter not far away, the chance to do some actual hands-on astronomy is one that shouldn’t be missed.