These pages chronicle the work and ruminations of Carolyn Collins Petersen, also known as TheSpacewriter.
I am CEO of Loch Ness Productions. I am also a producer for Astrocast.TV, an online magazine about astronomy and space science.
For the past few years, I've also been a voice actor, appearing in a variety of productions. You can see and hear samples of my work by clicking on the "Voice-Overs, Videos and 'Casts tab.
My blog, TheSpacewriter's Ramblings, is about astronomy, space science, and other sciences.
Ideas and opinions expressed here do not represent those of my employer or of any other organization to which I am affiliated. They're mine.
Visit my main site at: TheSpacewriter.com.
**I encourage comments and discussion; please keep it polite and respectful. I do moderate them to weed out spam, but I also refuse to post any messages that contain harassing, demeaning, rude, or profane language. I run a respectable establishment here.
Contact me for writing and voice-over projects at: cc(dot)petersen(at)gmail(dot)com
I Twitter as Spacewriter
Blog entry posting times are U.S. Mountain Time (GMT-6:00) All postings Copyright 2003-2011 C.C. Petersen
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March 31, 2011 at 11:22 am | 2 Comments
Exploring a Hot/Cold Little World
Yesterday was a banner day for the folks who run the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. The first images that the spacecraft has taken since it achieved orbit around the planet began streaming back to Earth. Now, there have been a good many flyby images of Mercury, not all of them high-res, since we began exploring the solar system in the mid-1960s with spacecraft. But, these are the first taken from a spacecraft orbiting the planet. This means that we’re going to (finally) get to see every bit of this world’s ancient, cracked and cratered surface.
The first images (which you can browse at the MESSENGER Web Site) are pretty detailed. For example, this Wide Angle Camera view shows an area near the north pole of the planet. It was taken as the spacecraft made its closest approach to the sunlit side of the surface. The long shadows are caused because the Sun is at an oblique angle to the spacecraft, which was just about to cross over into darkness.
The polar region of the planet is of great interest to astronomers because some radar studies of the area taken from Earth seem to imply that there might be ice on the walls of those craters. Sunlight never penetrates into the craters, so that would be an exciting cache to study someday. The water could be from impacts of comets, and studying THAT ice would tell us about the compositions of the comets that left their water behind.
The full imaging mission, which is planned to last for at least a year, begins on April 4; currently scientists and engineers are testing the spacecrafts systems and instruments to see how it is responding to its permanent home in orbit around Mercury — and enduring the harsh environment so close to the Sun.
Mercury might seem the last place you’d want to visit — and it probably won’t be the subject of human exploration for a long time. It’s a pretty extreme place, experiencing the widest surface temperature swings of any place in the solar system. It has little to no atmosphere, and its surface takes a radiation pounding from the Sun. Still, if you’re going to completely understand the solar system you inhabit, it pays to study the extreme places as well as the temperate (relatively) ones. In Mercury’s case, astronomers have a very specific set of questions to ask to help understand this place:
Why is Mercury so dense? What is its geologic history? What is the nature of its magnetic field? What is the structure of the planet’s core? What are the unusual materials seen at the poles? What volatiles (gases) are important at Mercury?
Some of these questions are those you’d ask at any planet to help you understand its composition and history. So, with Mercury, we’ll finally get some closure on the last of the major planets of the solar system. The only remaining world to visit (and there’s a spacecraft on the way) is dwarf planet Pluto. New Horizons will give it a swing-by in 2015, on its way out to explore the outer solar system. Another extreme, to be sure, but now we’ve got precedent with Mercury.
March 30, 2011 at 18:08 pm | 1 Comment
The Deaths of Stars
Stardeath produces some of the most intricate-looking objects in astronomy. If you have ever gone to the Hubble Space Telescope’s Web site and searched for planetary nebulae, you know what I mean. Giant stars produce giant explosions, like the long-known Crab Nebula.
This Hubble Space Telescope image shows us what the supernova remnant is made of (hydrogen gas, particles of heavier elements), and also shows us the structure of the nebula and how it’s influenced by the neutron star at the center. That neutron star is what’s left of the original star — a dense object spinning more than 30 times per second.
Stars like the Sun go a bit less violently, huffing off their atmospheres for millions of years before collapsing to make white dwarfs. The radiation from the central star continues to light up the remains of the former star, creating complicated visions of stellar death. The Eskimo Nebula (right), is a fine example of such a sun-like star’s death. The remains are called a planetary nebula, one of those odd misnomers in astronomy that has nothing to do with a planet, but is a nebula. This sunlike star began to die some 10,000 years ago, blowing bubbles of gas out away from itself and flinging its outer atmosphere to space. Our own Sun might look like this some billions of years from now.
Well, I’ve been long fascinated with the images of star death, ever since I wrote my first book (with Jack Brandt), about Hubble Space Telescope science (called Hubble Vision). A few years ago when I did an update of one of my more-popular planetarium shows, called Hubble Vision 2, I had a great selection of star death images to choose from to tell the story of stellar demise. I wrote about sun-like stars, “Hubble’s images of these stars in their death throes comprise a haunting gallery of destruction.”
As is always the case with my shows, I knew that the soundtrack artist (who also happens to be my husband and co-producer) would find a way to make the scene memorable with his trademark space music and video choreography. The scene in the show is a solemn, beautiful procession of planetary nebula images that bring home to audiences the majesty of a star’s passing.
Fast-forward a few years to this month, and Mark has now released the music from that show soundtrack in an album called Geodesium Stella Novus (where you can preview and buy the album if you’re interested). And, he created a music video based on that planetary nebula scene that really does bring home the majesty of that haunting gallery of destruction we first introduced in the show. We created a fulldome version of the music video, which you might get to see someday at your local digital planetarium.
But, we’ve also got a “flat-screen” version available on our Youtube channel for people to watch and I’ve embedded it below. The piece of music is called “Light Echoes”, and it accompanies these gorgeous views of star death, ranging from supernova remnants to planetary nebula, as cosmic art. It’s not a new concept — the universe as art. But, you have to admit, when you see the way nature has arranged the aftermath of stardeath, it can look evocative, haunting… and artistic!
March 29, 2011 at 10:47 am | Leave a Comment
Some Spacey Places to Surf
The Web presents some great places to see and learn about astronomy and space science. I have favorite places I go to, many of which are listed in my blogroll at the left. Here are a few of my current favorites.
First off is the Carnival of Space. It’s a wonderful melange of information and opinion about all things “spacey”. This week’s is hosted by the ever-erudite Paul Glister over at Centauri Dreams. As he says, the Carnival is a place “in which people wiht their eyes on the stars go to work to explain the latest findings.” Check it out!
Another daily stop is Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog. Phil’s writing ranges from astronomy and space science to filtering out the “woo-woo” science that passes for “critical thinking” among practitioners of such arcane arts as astrology and mystical pseudo-medical practices. He also takes on fuzzy thinking among those who don’t quite understand science (like some of our less-learned politicians and media practitioners), as a professional skeptic. Reading Phil’s work is like giving your brain a ‘wash and brush’ — clearing out the cobwebs.
Media-wise, there are some good informational sites out there purveying science news. Of course, Science News comes to mind. We’re long-time subscribers to the print version. Sky & Telescope Magazine and online site are good “go to” places for astronomy information. So is Astronomy Magazine and web site. In the past couple of years, I’ve been doing some work for a unique online video magazine and news source called Astrocast.TV. We do night-sky tutorials, explorations of deep-space astronomy, cover newsworthy events in the burgeoning private space industry, and offer insights about Earth science. Universe Today offers daily insights into all kinds of science, written by journalists and scientists.
There are number of really good mission-based sites out there that I check out as often as I can. Hubblesite is one, featuring the latest and greatest from the Hubble Space Telescope. The European Southern Observatory is another — those guys are working scientific wonders in the mountains of Chile. Gemini Observatory regularly releases cool images from its telescopes in Hawai’i and Chile. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory gives us the radio view of the cosmos, while the Spitzer space Telescope folk share the infrared universe. Over at the x-ray end of the electromagnetic spectrum is the Chandra X-ray Observatory. If planets are your thing, then the Mars Mission Web page is a good start for all things Red Planet. The Cassini Solstice Mission pages offer frequent looks at the planet Saturn, where planetary scientists are continuing a years-long exploration via long distance. Close to the Sun, the Mercury MESSENGER mission is ramping up to give us a long-term closeup look at Mercury. The pictures should be coming later today (Tuesday, March 29) The Kepler page keeps us up to date on the latest planetary discoveries around other stars.
This is just a small taste of what’s out there if you want to explore the wealth of information we know about the cosmos. Happy surfing!
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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)
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