What Does the Moon Mean to You?

September 23, 2011 at 6:30 am | 1 Comment

Check out Our Lunar Neighbor

Our Moon. Courtesy NASA.

So, what DOES the Moon mean to you?  That’s the question a group of folks interested in lunar exploration are asking as they prepare for International Observe the Moon Night, which is October 8th.  The idea is to get folks interested in the Moon, either by observing it or by learning more about the science that astronomers are doing to learn about the Moon. Preferably both!  The organizing team consists of scientists, educators, and Moon enthusiasts from all walks of life, the business community, and governments around the world.

So, what’s it take to get involved? Have a moon-gazing event.  It can be as simple as  gathering in your neighborhood, a gazing session at your planetarium or science center or through your astronomy club. There are already some cool events planned, like moongazing at the Casper Planetarium in Casper, Wyoming, and observing at the South African Astronomical Observatory.  You can peruse the current list of activities here.

To get folks in interested in some of the science done on the Moon past, present and future, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific has posted a special episode of their podcast series, Astronomy Behind the Headlines, called “Science From the Moon.” It’s an interview with Dr. Jack Burns of the University of Colorado’s Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR)—written, conducted and produced by yours truly for ASP (with music from Geodesium)!  The podcast was made possible by NASA’s Lunar Science Institute. So, listen in on a great conversation about lunar science, and then get out there and enjoy the Moon!

Talk Like a (Starry) Pirate: 2011 Edition

September 19, 2011 at 6:00 am | Leave a Comment

Yarrr!!!!! We be Starrrrrgazin’!

Talk Like a Starry Pirate!

Ahoy, mateys, ’tis September 19th, and that means one thing—’tis Talk Like a Pirate Day!  As usual, I participate in the piratey goings-on by putting a distinctly starrrrrrrry cast on my blog entry, since astronomy is what I talk about (usually), and ’tis all about sailin’ the starrrrrrry deeps o’ space!

Now, I don’t approve of the nasty side ‘o piratin’ — you know what I mean, the ugly folks who take to the seas and really hurt people, or those folks who steal other people’s hard work (piratin’ music, etc.) … that’s not what TLAPD is all about (which ye’ll learn, if ye go to the Piratey Link above). As they say on the TLAPD page, ” So when we urge you to TALK like a pirate, we don’t mean you should ACT like a pirate. The Pirate Guys are solidly against pillaging, plundering and slaughtering like pirates.”

So, the idea here for TLAPD and the starry side o’ things is to think about what pirates and starrrrrrs have in common.

Aye, ye chumbuckets, they DO have things in common. Fer one thing, no pirate would be complete without a sextant. That’s an instrument the piratey ship’s navigator would use to help the captain and his/her crew find their way around the ocean blue by usin’ celestial objects’ (like starrrrs and planets) positions. (Ye can learn more about sextants here.)  For another thing, there’s a space pirate’s treasure chest full of celestial sights up there in the starry deeps that just beg for piratey exploration, like the Lagoon Nebula.  Pirates and lagoons go together like walkin’ and plankin’.  And, when yer out starrrrrgazin’ on Talk Like a Starry Pirate day (well, night, actually), ye should look smartly!  Ye WILL see the planet Jupiterrrrrr, and ye may also see a meteor or the Moon, risin’ up over the yardarm. If ye stay up all night into the wee hours of the mornin’, ye’ll see Marrrrrs risin’ in the east.

So, swing yer eyeballs and telescopes and binoculars around smartly, me lads and lasses, and check out the starrrrrs tonight!  Celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day (and night) with the starrrrrs!

Two Suns

September 15, 2011 at 14:29 pm | Leave a Comment

and the Planet that Orbits Them

This artist's concept illustrates Kepler-16b, the first planet known to definitively orbit two stars -- what's called a circumbinary planet. The planet, which can be seen in the foreground, was discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.

It’s all over the news today—the Kepler Mission has found a planet called Kepler-16b that has two suns its sky. It is, in essence, orbiting two stars.  And, of course, the Star Wars comparisons to Tatooine are ricocheting around the blog-o-sphere and news media sites faster than you can say “Kessel Run.”

It’s completely appropriate to think back to that place in a galaxy far far away that has captivated so many fans of the Star Wars universe. I remember being completely awed by the view of the two suns setting in that alien sky, and yet it felt organic and real to me.  Maybe that’s a tribute to the artists at LucasFilm and the care they took to make it seem real.  But, as one of those artists—John Knoll, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic—said about the story released today, “Working in film, we often are tasked with creating something never before seen. However, more often than not, scientific discoveries prove to be more spectacular than anything we dare imagine. There is no doubt these discoveries influence and inspire storytellers. Their very existence serves as cause to dream bigger and open our minds to new possibilities beyond what we think we ‘know.’”

That’s what’s so cool about today’s planetary discovery announcement.  It takes us to alien worlds that we now KNOW exist.  This exploration has moved from science fiction to science fact.  That world is there and those stars are there, and NASA-funded scientists and missions help us look at them. In fact, exoplanet discovery is a world-wide science industry. Earlier this week, scientists at the European Southern Observatory announced that they’d found more than 50 new exoplanets, using a specialized instrument attached to the La Silla Observatory in Chile. Among their finding are 16 super-Earths, worlds that are more massive than Earth but much less massive than the gas giant planets.  At least one of those planets exists on the edge of its system’s habitable zone, which is the distance from its star where an Earth-like planet could have liquid water on its surface.

Now, Kepler16-b isn’t the hot, desert world of Tatooine. It’s not a super-Earth. It’s actually about the size of Saturn, made of of half rock and half gas, and is cold. Really cold.  The stars it orbits are smaller than our Sun. One of them is only about 20 percent the size of our warm, yellow star. This means they’re dwarf stars. Kepler-16b takes 229 days to orbit its suns, and it is just far enough away that liquid water would not exist on its surface. So, there’s likely not life there.  (If you want more details on the discovery and the orbital information, check out the Kepler announcement here.)

But, let’s say there were intelligent life forms on that planet.  They would be different from us simply because the evolution of life on any planet is going to depend on the materials and elements available in that particular star-and-planet-system’s birth cloud. And, that raises a lot of very interesting conjectures about what life would evolve to be like on a planet with two suns, where the temps are low and the magnetic field environments would be different from ours.  Imagine two “solar wind” streams.  Imagine trying to tell time!  Early civilizations wouldn’t be able to use simple sundials.  What would they use?  How would they live?  What would they look like? And what would the weather be like on such a world?  These may be questions that science fiction writers can and will answer in stories about this place.  Perhaps they already have.   Time to go read some more SF and learn about the cosmos!

9/11 and a Rational Universe

September 11, 2011 at 6:46 am | Leave a Comment


In a rational universe, there is no room for the kind of misguided hatred that led to the events of September 11, 2001. But, irrational people decided to take actions that, in retrospect, seem inhuman and insane. That’s the nature of fanaticism, and unfortunately, it isn’t limited to one religion or one country.

Today is a day to remember those events and take some meaning from them.  Please do.

Interplanetary Memorial to Victims of Sept. 11, 2001. The piece of metal with the American flag on it in this image of a NASA rover on Mars is made of aluminum recovered from the site of the World Trade Center towers in the weeks after their destruction. The piece serves as a cable guard for the rock abrasion tool on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit as well as a memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. An identical piece is on the twin rover, Opportunity. The rock abrasion tools were built by Honeybee Robotics in lower Manhattan, less than a mile from the site. This image comes from the panoramic camera on Spirit and was taken on Feb. 2, 2004, the 30th Martian day, or sol, of Spirit's work on Mars. Both Spirit and Opportunity completed their prime missions in April 2004 and began years of additional work in extended missions. Both rovers have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life. Spirit ended communications in March 2010. Opportunity is still active, and researchers plan to use its rock abrasion tool on selected targets around a large crater that the rover reached last month. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Measuring the Universe

September 8, 2011 at 11:37 am | 1 Comment

At T+1 Second to 300,000 Years Old

The beginning of the cosmos intrigues people. It’s sometimes tough to wrap our minds around the concept of how this universe we inhabit came to into existence and how it has continued to expand space and time for 13.7 billion years. Recently, at the end of one of my shipboard presentations, an audience member asked me how big the universe was when it was one second old.

The birth and expansion of the universe is a fascinating story.  I’m not sure why my audience member focused on the T+1 second point—but, it was an interesting time. Just as the earliest life on Earth formed when conditions were right, more than 3.8 billion years ago, from a soupy mix of nucleic acids and other strings of organic material that combined in just the right chemical way, so the cosmos at T+1 second was an important way point in the evolution of the universe we know today. It was a time when things were cool enough to begin the next stage of evolution in the cosmos.

The guy’s question was a good one.  The simple answer is that the universe had expanded to be about a thousand times the size of the solar system by the time it was a second old. It was a hot place—about 10 billion degrees hot—and consisted of a soupy mix of neutrons and protons. Only a few seconds later, that mix began to hatch the first atomic nuclei: deuterium (a form of hydrogen) and helium. (For a more detailed timeline of the Big Bang and the early universe, go here.)

As this baby universe continued to expand, its “stuff”—while cooling down—was still hot enough that electrons were wandering about, trapping photons of light. Trapped light means darkness, and thus the earliest epochs were dark. Cosmologists call them the “cosmic dark ages”.  Eventually, things cooled enough that the rapidly expanding cosmos turned transparent (as opposed to the opaque darkness).  Still no stars, no galaxies, but the cool transparent universe gave off a glow that we detect today as the Cosmic Background Radiation.  The stage was set for the first stars, and their radiation lit up the still-young universe.  At that point the cosmos was about a thousand times smaller than it is today.

I admit, I’m fascinated by the period from the Big Bang to the formation of the first stars.  When I was first studying astronomy, that 300,000-year period of time was just beginning to be understood. For example, we didn’t know much about the first stars and exactly when they formed.  Also at that time (in the late 1970s) The satellites that studied the first hints of light from the early universe (COBE, WMAP and others) were on the drawing boards. Today, we have the capability of detecting minute variations in the microwave background that is the remnant radiation from the Big Bang.  Those tiny slivers of temperature changes tell an amazing story of the earliest cosmic times and how the matter that existed then was already clumping together and would become the first stars and galaxies. Future missions (such as the James Webb Space Telescope, if it isn’t killed by its own budgetary woes and the “hate science because we don’t understand it” crowd) will help scientists delve more deeply into those primordial moments in time. There are many more fascinating moments to be explored before and beyond the T+1 second mark in our cosmic history.

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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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