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All posts for the month November, 2012

The November 14 total solar eclipse, shot by Carolyn Collins Petersen using a Sony G point and shoot camera. Copyright 2012 Loch Ness Productions.

I’ve been out gallivanting around the planet the past few weeks, with little or very slow Internet access. That’s made it hard to keep the blog up, so I took a short break. I’m back now, with some cool pix of the November 13/14 total solar eclipse. We saw it from the deck of a ship in the South Pacific and it was great! A good example of what I like to call “extreme stargazing”. That is, you gaze at an extremely cool-looking thing in the sky and appreciate it for what it is — an amazingly fantastic and natural gift made possible by time, solar system objects, and orbital mechanics.

We got a grand total of three and a half minutes of totality, and were very lucky to have clear weather. Right after the eclipse it clouded up, and the next day (at sea) we were drenched in rain.

There were numerous expeditions to the south seas and the northern points of Australia. Some folks I know were completely clouded out, others had partially clear skies.  Those of us onboard the cruise ships (there were several hauling several thousand people around) probably had the best luck with clear skies to see the eclipse.

If you’ve never seen a total solar eclipse, there are some occurring in the next few years.  A few require travel to exotic places, but at least one will rush across the center of the United States in 2017.   They’re amazing spectacles to witness!

The Holidays are Upon Us

Speaking of gifts and time, it’s that time of year again when I review some cool things that you might want to give to the folks on your gift list (or to yourself!) who appreciate space and astronomy. I’ll start out today with a couple of items I got just before I left, and over the next few days make some other astro-worthy recommendations.

The front cover of Smithsonian Universe, DK Books. Courtesy DK Books. Click to enlarge.

Smithsonian Universe is one of the coolest and most beautiful astronomy books I’ve ever seen. It’s stuffed with cool color images of cosmic objects and clear language describing them. Each page seems like a decorative triumph and you can spend quite a while just looking at the color-coded graphics on the outer edges of many of the pages.

This book was originally published in 2005 by DK Books and was one of the many, many references I used when I was working on the Griffith Observatory exhibits that year. When I got the first edition, I was immediately struck by how nicely laid it was and the quality of the writing and graphics. It has remained on my shelf at close hand to this day. So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to see a new edition of this tremendously gorgeous book being released. I immediately got a copy and fell in love all over again with it. The writing is accessible, and the images and graphics are just as useful as they were in the first copy I got. Each page conveys the essence of its topic — whether its planetary formation or the birth of the cosmos.

Sample pages from Universe: a two-page spread on galaxy evolution. Click to embiggen. Courtesy DK Books.

This edition of Universe comes with an introduction by Dr. Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal (and a very nice guy — I’ve chatted with him at a few meetings and he is really fun to talk with). He manages to tuck in a “short tour of the universe” in a few hundred words, which really alerts the reader that cool and astonishing things are about to come your way throughout the rest of the book. Smithsonian Universe tells the story of the cosmos in bite-size chunks of text that explain events and processes and objects in the universe in a way that nearly anybody can grasp. So, if you’re looking for a great book to give (or get), check this one out. List price is $50.00, but I’ve seen it for around $30.00 on most online outlets. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

(Disclaimer: I am an enrichment speaker for Smithsonian Travels, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. They put me aboard cruise ships to share the news about astronomy several times a year. However, I am not affiliated with this book in any way other than as a very impressed reader!)

 

The Calendar That Tells You Everything

The Year in Time and Space, a 2013 space and astronomy calendar. Used by permission.

There are a lot of calendars clamoring for your attention this time of year — everything from cute cats to wild places on Earth. And of course, there are the space calendars.  I usually end up with several of them each year, either as gifts or purchases when I saw a calendar I just wanted to have. One of the most useful and nicely done that I’ve seen so far is The Year in Space calendar, created in cooperation with the fine folks at The Planetary Society.

The February pages from “The Year in Space: 2013″ calendar. Used by permission.

This large format (16″ × 22″) work features a year’s worth of space and astronomy events, plus sky guides for and moon phases. Each month’s set of pages has a behind-the-scenes look at a selected scientist — for example, January features Isaac Newton, February introduces us to Cindy Lee Van Dover,who studies hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, March gives us astronaut Robert Curbeam, and so on. Each page has little surprise facts about space and astronomy, things to look out for in the sky, and much, much more.  Each day has historical facts listed, as well as information on what’s up in the sky that night. I always like these kinds of compilations of facts — they often inspire me to go research a little more when I see something commemorating the launch of a spacecraft or the birth of a famous astronomer. To me, those little facts are clues to enormously interesting stories that show us just how much space exploration and astronomy are bound up in our cultures.

You can learn more about this fabulous calendar here at The Year In Space main page.  The calendar is created by Steve Cariddi, who operates Starry Messenger press. He tells me the calendar is normally available for $16.95, but if you order from the Web page, you can get a discounted price of $12.95, with bigger discounts if you buy more than one.

I’m going to be using this calendar a lot this next year as I work on various space-related writing projects because it really does have a LOT of useful information I can use and share with others. So, check it out!

I’ll be back soon with  more cool gift ideas and reviews, so keep checking back! Oh, and it’s good to be home!

 

Some Puzzling Stellar Plastic Surgery

his colourful view of the globular star cluster NGC 6362 was captured by the Wide Field Imager attached to the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. This new picture, along with a new image of the central region from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, provide the best view of this little-known cluster ever obtained. Globular clusters are mainly composed of tens of thousands of very ancient stars, but they also contain some stars that look suspiciously young.

Want to see some of the oldest stars in the cosmos?  Follow European Southern Observatory’s gaze out to the globular star cluster NGC 6362.  It belongs to the Milky Way, and contains tens of thousands of very ancient stars. This cluster has many stars that have aged to become red giants. But, there are some stars here that look–well — almost young. Blue. Hot.

Those blueish hotties are called “blue stragglers” and they’re passing as younger stars.

How could this be?

Astronomers know that all of the stars in a globular cluster formed from the same material at roughly the same time. For most globulars, that means about  10 billion years ago. They have earned the right to look old and red. Yet, blue stragglers are bluer and more luminous — and hence more massive — than they should be after ten billion years of stellar evolution. Blue stars are hot and consume their fuel quickly, so if these stars had formed about ten billion years ago, then they should have fizzled out long ago. How did they survive?

Currently, there are two main theories that might describe how blue stragglers came about. The first suggests that stars collide and mergel which would transform them into hotter more massive objects.

The other describes a transfer of material between two companion stars.  Neither theory has been proved, but that’s why astronomers want to observe more about these young-looking stellar oldsters.

The basic idea behind both of these options is that the stars were not born as big as we see them today, but that they received an injection of extra material at some point during their lifetimes and this then gave them a new lease of life.

This brilliant ball of stars lies in the southern constellation of Ara (The Altar). It can be easily seen in a small telescope. It was first spotted in 1826 by the Scottish astronomer James Dunlop using a 22-centimeter telescope in Australia. The image shows this cluster in all its starry glory, complete with oldsters passing as young beauties.

 

November is a Prelude to Winter Astronomy

I like winter skies.  They always seem more glittery and lovely. Maybe it’s because the constellation Orion is giving us a show. Or, maybe it’s because it gets dark earlier and we have longer to look at the skies (from here in the northern hemisphere).  One of my favorite things is go out and find the Orion Nebula. Another is to look for the Hyades and the Pleiades. Actually, you can see those now (in early November) if you go out and look late in the evening. By the end of the month, they’ll be higher in the sky earlier in the evening. So, it’s worth sneaking a preview look at the pretties of the winter sky.

In my current episode of “Our Night Sky” at Astrocast.TV, we take a little tour of those last two objects — a couple of star clusters that you can see pretty easily.  And, for southern hemisphere viewers (who are heading into the warm spring and summer months) we take a little look at some neighboring galaxies to the Milky Way.

So, head over there and check it out!