October 29, 2009 at 14:37 pm | Leave a Comment
As the Stars in the Night Sky
That’s all I can say about one of the latest images from the European Southern Observatory in Chile. This is the “Jewel Box” cluster, one of the loveliest open clusters in the sky. It’s not one of the brightest things to see — you can just barely make it out with the naked eye. But, if you look at it through binoculars or a smal telescope, you can start to see the jewel-like stars that give this cluster its name. There are some amazing color contrasts between the brightest stars in the cluster — ranging from pale blue to golden orange stars.
Open clusters like this one can have anywhere from a few stars to thousands of them. They travel together through space, held together by their mutual gravitational attraction. They form together and stay together for a long time as they move through space. Because the stars all formed together from the same cloud of gas and dust their ages and chemical makeup are similar, which makes them ideal laboratories for studying how stars evolve.
Okay, this is gorgeous to look at in a wide field of view, but what if you looked at the heart of the Jewel Box? You’d use a telescope such as the FORS1 instrument on the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, and you’d get a very sharp closeup view of the heart of the cluster. You can start to distinguish stars from each other and their colors are really quite strikingly different, glittering like diamonds on a fancy brooch.
You start to notice how the brightnesses of the different stars contrast with each other. That huge variety in brightness is because the brighter stars are 15 to 20 times the mass of the Sun, while the dimmest stars are less than half the mass of the Sun. More massive stars shine much more brilliantly. They also age faster and make the transition to giant stars much more quickly than their faint, less-massive siblings. This is another reason why astronomers like to study stars in clusters — their masses, ages, and sizes give them a range of stellar evolution to study.
Okay, so what if you wanted to really zero in on the stars in the Jewel Box? You’d aim the Hubble Space Telescope at the cluster and use the multi-wavelength capability of the telescope to give you optical, infrared, and ultraviolet views of those stars. And the view would be just as exhilirating as the images from Chile.
This new Hubble image of the core of the Jewel Box cluster is the first comprehensive far ultraviolet to near-infrared image of an open galactic cluster. HST imaged it using seven filters, which permit details of the stars at different wavelengths to shine through.
The image was taken near the end of the long life of the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 — Hubble’s workhorse camera. You can see several very bright, pale blue supergiant stars, a solitary ruby-red supergiant and a variety of other brilliantly colored stars in HST’s view. There are also many very faint stars, showing just how populous this cluster and its environment are. The intriguing colors of many of the stars result from their differing intensities at different ultraviolet wavelengths, which tell astronomers a great deal about the temperatures and chemical compositions of those stars and their gaseous atmospheres. So, as you can see, there’s value in the wide-field view and the zoom-in — and each view tells astronomers a great deal about this starry jewel box. Enjoy!
October 26, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Leave a Comment
The Factor That Keeps Us Looking Up
The N44 superbubble complex as seen by the Gemini Telescope (courtesy Gemini Observatory and T.A. Rector).
Use slider to zoom in on the image. (Courtesy John Williams at Terrazoom.)
Astronomy and space science have this serious “Wow!” factor that really engage people’s attention. If nothing else, the “pretty pictures” grab your attention and keep it riveted for quite some time. Take this image of a star-forming nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud (a neighboring galaxy to the Milky Way Galaxy). It was taken using the Gemini Observatory and the image just draws your eye. Before you know it, you’re taking in the shape of the cloud and the stars in the field.
The evidence before your eyes speaks to the incredible processes that take place in the universe. Of course, the first time you look at an image like this, you probably aren’t sure what you’re seeing beyond some fluffy stuff and a bunch of gorgeous stars. Don’t feel bad about not knowing what you’re seeing. Astronomers have that experience, too. But, once they get over their awe at what they see, they get right down to work, using all the tools and knowledge they have at their disposal to figure out the what, when, where, why, and how of the processes that form what they see.
If you know an astronomer or an astronomy buff, this may give you some insight into what makes them tick — what makes them keep looking up, night after night. It’s the beauty, the awe-inspiring views, the “Wow!” factor that keeps them (and all of us who love the night skies) coming back for more!
October 25, 2009 at 23:25 pm | 3 Comments
What WILL we Think and Do About Other Worlds?
The pace of planetary discovery outside our solar system is picking up. New discoveries are being announced all the time, and it’s just a matter of time before we find a seriously “Earthlike” planet with some evidence that life exists on it. What will we do when that happens?
The “finding other planets with life” scenario is a staple of science fiction. In fact, in most SF, it’s a given that there are planets out there with life on them and that we (the human folk) will be interacting with that life in a few generations (if not sooner). Many games for the various computer and entertainment system platforms take place on alien worlds. Of course, movies also show them, as well as TV. All those media explore (in sometimes good, sometimes violent and (in the case of TV and movies) often overdramatic terms) the possibilities of what life we’ll find on those other worlds.
But, given today’s state of affairs on good ol’ Terra, I often wonder what our reactions will be like when we do find those places and start the search for the life that exists on them? In my most skeptical frame of mind, I figure that there will be all kinds of people who won’t believe it, or who will preach loudly against the idea of even researching life on the other planets because it threatens their religious or cultural practices). Oddly enough, the most strenuous objections to the news that life (and possibly intelligent life) has been found may come from the same crowd of people who fervently believe in faces on red planets and alien abductions and Meso-American calendar predictions, and magical crystals and all sorts of other nonsense. Why? It’s one thing to postulate weirdness from manipulating images and data and truth to fit a pseudo-scientific agenda (and make gobs of money from unwary folks), but quite another to actually be confronted with the real thing like actual aliens from other worlds. Suddenly the truth would seem much more fantastic and cool than the fever dreams of alien-led cavity inspections that these folks seem to be fixated on. And, it would seriously cut into their income.
But, the psychoceramics crowd aside, I think that most people would react with a little fear and a lot of excitement. Why the fear? Human nature leads us to fear the unknown. We eventually get past it if we allow ourselves to accept things a little outside our previous experience. That’s how we learn, right? If we didn’t, all humans would be permanently at the level of uneducated boors who never set foot in a classroom or library.
The excitement would be there for the same reasons — interest in the unknown. Awe and wonder at the fact that finally, finally we found life elsewhere. And, I think if we found life that could communicate with us (and us with it), humans might mature just a little bit as we learned that we aren’t the only ones in the universe who can think and reason and explore.
But, putting my skeptical hat back on, I think humans will have to go through a period of adjustment to the idea, which will give the less-stable among us a chance to whinge in fear and prey on others to spread that fear. I expect that will occur among the leadership of each country, among the religious leaders of most sects, among the hucksters (of all stripes) and among the uneducated. For the rest, and in particular the scientific community, it’s going to be an exciting and interesting time.
What do YOU think?
October 20, 2009 at 13:58 pm | 1 Comment
A Tribute to Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking
When Carl Sagan’s Cosmos first hit public TV beginning in 1980, I was immediately touched and entranced by Carl’s personal vision of the cosmos. He put his finger on a lot of things that I’d thought and wondered about when it came to astronomy and space science. It was like he (and the other creators of the series — Ann Druyan and Steven Soter among them) had a pipeline into my brain. It’s probably an understatement to say that the series inspired me. It wasn’t long before I went back to school to study astronomy. I’ve heard others — astronomers, science writers, various scientists, teachers — say that they, too, were inspired by the Cosmos series.
Today, nearly 30 years after the first broadcast of the series, and close to 13 years after Carl’s death, the series still inspires. And, through tributes such as the one below, created by John Boswell, it’s finding new ways to open people’s minds to the wonder and beauty of the cosmos.
This piece of video is also a salute to another visionary mind — Dr. Stephen Hawking. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Hawking some years ago and was immediately also touched by his work, his perseverence, and his unique insights into physics and astronomy. Both men have shared their personal insights with the world and inspired millions of people with their work. I’m glad to see that new generations are finding them relevant and inspiring. Enjoy!
October 19, 2009 at 10:37 am | 2 Comments
The President Attends a Star Party
I blogged a couple of weeks ago about a star party being held at the White House in honor of International Year of Astronomy. A long-time friend of ours named Martin Ratcliffe was asked to bring a fulldome system to do some astronomy demonstrations to the many attendees at the party. By all accounts, it was a great success and we were thrilled for Martin’s great opportunity. Well, last week Martin wrote a wonderful account of his experience and posted it to a couple of listservs I read. I recognized it as a wonderful way to show that astronomy can reach everyone — up to the most powerful leaders and their families. So, I asked Martin’s permission to reproduce his comments as a sort of “guest entry” in my blog and he graciously agreed. Here is the story of the White House star party, in Martin’s own words.
Many of you know by now that Sky-Skan was one of the honored attendees at the White House Star Party last week. You might also have heard that the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his family, Michelle, and two girls, Sasha and Melia, visited the Sky-Skan dome during the event a week ago, October 7. I’ve been meaning to send more details of what happened, and after some pressing things I find myself a week later still wanting to post to my friends and colleagues on Dome-L. So here goes.
Sky-Skan was invited to be at the White House Star party with our portable Definiti PD II system about two weeks ahead of the event. One dome was already planned, the GeoDome owned by NASA’s GSFC. With over 120 school children at the event, and less than two hours for them to experience all the activities NASA had planned, two domes were needed to get them all through in time. Carter Emmart from AMNH presented in the GeoDome, and I and an AMNH educator, Suzanne, presented in the Sky-Skan dome. I was using DigitalSky 2 and Carter was using Uniview. The overlap between these two applications is, of course, Digital Universe, so that became the focus of the show for both domes, with the individual strengths of each system being used for other interactive parts of the presentations. (CCP NOTE: the Digital Sky Definiti PD system is exactly what we have in our production dome at Loch Ness Productions!)
It was planned to have the inflatable Starlab dome under a NASA tent of there were strong winds. The day turned out to be perfect, except for strong gusts, which caused set up problems for the dome. After an interesting afternoon on the South Lawn of the White House manhandling a wayward Starlab dome, I finally got what I needed, and set up under one of the NASA tents. You all know the struggle of climbing inside one of these domes, so I had little expectation of the First Family crawling inside.
I began the first show following President Obama’s remarks, with 25 middle school kids gathered around the perimeter of the dome. After a few minutes into the show, I heard activity at the entrance, turned around in my seated position, and there is President Barack Obama entering the tent, meeting me at eye level, and saying “Don’t worry about us”. Now I’ve done a lot of planetarium shows in my time, but I have to say this is the most interesting turn of events ever to happen! “Thanks for coming, Sir”, I said, and Suzanne and I continue with the show. The only space to sit was was right next to the Definiti PD II.
Imagine me seated in a semi-crouched position next to a small laptop and the Definiti PD II projector, with some grassy space next to it. The President and youngest daughter sat 3 feet in front of me next to the projector, Melia sat next to me at the console, and Michelle Obama was just behind me.
So what did the first family experience in the dome?
We had already taken off from Earth and were orbiting, when the President asked a question that had come up during their dinner that evening about the cause of seasons. Suzanne gave a great explanation, and I’m flying DigitalSky 2 in real-time. I added a short demo on DigitalSky where I showed the changing Sun illumination at the north pole of the Earth over a six-month period.
Happy with that, I backed away from the Solar System, showed recent images from the previous week’s flyby of Mercury by the Messenger spacecraft, discussed light travel time from the Earth to the Moon, across the solar system, and in the sky was hanging Orion, which slowly distorted its shape. I told a personal story of teaching my own youngest daughter (a little older than Sasha) about Orion, by using glow stars on her ceiling for a month before taking her outside to see if she recognized anything. Immediately seeing a familiar pattern, she now calls it “my Orion”. Perhaps there will be glow stars on the ceiling of the White House bedroom before long!
After 10 minutes, the family quietly got up to leave, The President thanked me as they quietly departed, and I returned to continue the show for the kids. Normal White House events have the President staying no more than 30 minutes – the Obamas had requested 45 minutes for this event, and ended up staying over an hour, and everyone recognized their real interest in astronomy.
Of course no cameras are allowed in a planetarium , so no pictures were taken inside the dome, but I have a strong visual memory of that scene of two young girls and their parents starring up at a starry sky, the Earth hanging there as a beautiful jewel, and a planetarium projector giving its performance.
I’ve represented the planetarium community at a lot of events, particularly during my tenure with IPS, and never imagined being in that place, at that time, on October 7, on the White House lawn. I can tell you how honored and privileged I feel to have been able to do so. Both Carter and I were also inspired, invigorated, by the experience at the White House. Thanks for reading!
Director, Professional Development
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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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