February 25, 2014 at 8:30 am | Leave a Comment
Water’s awfully important to life here on Earth. Without it, we wouldn’t be here. So, we take a great interest in finding water at other planets. Mars, for example, is a huge focus of attention. It’s clear that there’s water in its polar caps and water vapor in its atmosphere (not much though, compared to Earth). And, there are flow features on the surface, plus evidence that something has flowed very recently. It’s likely water, but there are no seas or lakes like there here on Earth.
When it comes to finding water on planets around other stars, it’s a tough search. We can just barely make out those planets, and seeing their surfaces is probably impossible from Earth-based instruments. So, how can you tell if a planet has any water? Researchers at the California Institute of Technology, along with scientists at Pennsylvania State University, the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Arizona, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have figured out a way to analyze the gaseous atmospheres of exoplanets. They did it by using a method called the radial velocity technique. That’s where you measure the motion of a star due to the gravitational pull of a companion planet. As the planet orbits the star, it affects the stellar motion. You can find this motion by studying the spectrum of the star—that is, analyze the wavelengths of light it radiates. A big planet provides a large shift in the spectrum; a small one provides a small shift.
The light coming from the star system they studied, call Tau Boötis, included infrared light radiated by the hot Jupiter called Tau Boötis b. It glows in infrared because it’s a warm body, a hot one, in fact. But, it’s still cooler than its star. So, its light can be separated out.
In the spectrum of the planet, researchers saw the fingerprints of many compounds (gases) that make up the planet’s atmosphere. Among those fingerprints were those of water vapor.
Now, this technique worked pretty well with a super-Jupiter, and with further refinement, it can and will be applied to the search for water at super-Earth planets. And, when the James Webb Space Telescope comes on line (in a few years), the chances for those detections will go up quite a bit. Finding cooler planets with water will tell us that Earth-like planets with water are not as rare in the galaxy as once thought.
If you want to read the paper this work is based on, check out Near-IR Detection of Water Vapor in Tau Boo b.
February 23, 2014 at 9:30 am | Leave a Comment
A Starbirth Filament in Submillimeter Wavelengths
Our most basic view of the sky comes via our visible-light-sensitive eyes. Yes, we can see gorgeous stars, particularly this time of year when Orion and Taurus and the other constellations are riding high in the sky. But, we see only the wavelengths of light from stars and planets and nebulae and galaxies that our eyes can detect.
All things radiate in more than one set of wavelengths of light. The Sun, for example, is visible in optical (visible) light, but also in radio frequencies, ultraviolet, infrared, and so on. To see the “other” light that things emit or reflect, we need other detectors to enhance our own senses.
The European Southern Observatory has a telescope called APEX outfitted with an instrument called the LABOCA camera. It is sensitive to submillimeter wavelengths of light. In the electromagnetic spectrum, these are wavelengths that lie between infrared and radio waves. They emanate from slightly warm objects, such as clouds of gas and dust in star-forming regions. “Warm” is a relative term. The clouds are heated by nearby stars and are hotter than surrounding space, but they’re actually cold enough that only infrared and submillimeter detectors can “see” them. These wavelengths are what allows us to “peek inside” starbirth créches because those wavelengths of light can pass through the gas and dust clouds.
In this image, we see a sinuous filament of gas and dust in the constellation Taurus. It’s part of a larger nebula called the Taurus Molecular Cloud. This segment you see here is about 10 light-years long. It contains dense clouds of gas that are going to collapse in on themselves to make new stars. There are also newborn stars in the cloud, visible as a faint glow in LABOCA’s view.
Our skies are filled with places like this, where the constant cycle of star birth takes place, using hydrogen gas and clouds of material formed in previous stellar explosions to create newborn stars. Fortunately, we have incredibly great detectors to show us what’s really happening among the stars!
February 20, 2014 at 7:00 am | Leave a Comment
A Cosmic Field Trip
Last entry I talked about the upcoming Cosmos series,which begins airing on March 9th on Fox and affiliated networks. There’s a lot of excitement about it, and rightly so. It has been decades since the original came out, and those of us who remember it have been anxiously awaiting this next-generation version to see how it shapes up. But, it’s not just that. It’s also because a generation of us were “raised” in the tradition that Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan and Stephen Soter began, and were inspired to go out to share our love of the cosmos in their footsteps. We took it as our mantra to “pay it forward” and share the cosmos as these three did for us. Certainly that’s what led me to become a producer of astronomy and space shows. Again, thanks to those three.
So far, based on the special sneak preview copy that FOX sent to me, I like it (with the few caveats I mentioned earlier). I think it’s SO important to keep our awareness of the cosmos front and center, to remind ourselves that we have so many cool things to learn and explore through astronomy and science. I’ve been doing that through my writing and planetarium shows and documentaries and other astronomy outreach, and I’m happy to see that at least one part of the “mainstream media” interested in doing that, too. And, part of me is a kid excited about astronomy that says, “Come on folks — it’s COSMOS!!!”
The series officially begins airing on March 9th, but there is a really cool multi-city live premiere screening on March 4th featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson, producers Ann Druyan, Seth MacFarlane, Mitchell Cannold, Brannon Braga, and Jason Clark. Wow, would I LOVE to be at the Los Angeles premiere (right in the shadow of Griffith Observatory, where I did so much work on their exhibits a few years back). That would be impressive, no?
Live in L.A.? Then YOU can go there for me!
In fact, there’s a special contest for two lucky folks to win a trip to L.A. to do just that. Enter that here!
The main event is in Los Angeles at the Cosmos Pavilion at the Greek Theatre. You can also watch it from selected venues in any of the following cities: Detroit at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, in Miami at the Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science, in New York at the American Museum of Natural History, in Orlando at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, in Washington, D.C. at the National Geographic Headquarters, in Chicago at the Adler Planetarium, in Dallas at the Planetarium of the University of Texas at Arlington, in St. Louis at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium at the St. Louis Science Center, and in San Francisco at the California Academy of Sciences.
To attend at any of the venues, click HERE for RSVP details.
You can also watch the whole thing as a streaming experience if you can’t get to one of the cities. Just point your browser to http://new.livestream.com/ and/or www.cosmosontv.com for the whole experience from your computer.
Whatever you do, don’t miss seeing Cosmos. It’s the astronomy field trip of a lifetime!
February 18, 2014 at 8:30 am | 2 Comments
Taking a New Generation of
Audiences Through the Universe
In 1980, the first Cosmos series aired on PBS and I was mesmerized by it. Each Sunday night we would settle down in front of the TV and travel through space and time, on a journey led by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. He co-wrote Cosmos with Ann Druyan and Stephen Soter.
It is NO exaggeration to say that between this program and Dr. Sagan’s other writings, I was inspired to go back and study astronomy and space science. It changed my life and truly broadened my universe in the best sense of the word. I would not be the writer and science video producer I am today if it hadn’t been for the inspiration I got from the original series. Cosmos became (for me) a personal journey in more ways than Dr. Sagan and the producers might have intended. Fortunately, I was able to tell Dr. Sagan that and thank him for the inspiration, later on in my career, when we met at a science meeting and had a chance to talk.
On March 9th, 2014, the “next generation” of Cosmos will begin airing simultaneously on FOX Network, National Geographic Channel, FX, FXX, FXM, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo Mundo, and FOX Life. It’s called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I’ve had a chance to see a sneak preview of episode 1 (of 13) and wow, did it provoke a lot of thought! My first impression is that it’s highly worth watching. I enjoyed the program and it brought back fond memories.
Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson is our personable host this time around. He’s a good storyteller and he knows his way around astronomy. He is our guide in a show that is tightly scripted, well visualized, and covers a LOT of material in its first episode. Star birth, planetary formation, the population of galaxies in the cosmos, the human history in relation to astronomy — all part of the overall story. The first segment is also provocative, at one point zeroing in on the conflict between science and faith in the 16th century to make a larger point about how science is not bound by dogma or prescribed thought. I particularly liked Neil’s description of meeting with Carl Sagan when he was a young man; it reminded me of experiences I’ve had with astronomers who took the time to share the wonder of the universe. That sort of “pay it forward” is an incredibly powerful educational tool at a time when the need for science literacy is greatest.
If I have any quibbles with this new Cosmos (and this is me speaking with my producer hat on now), it’s that it tries to do a little too much in the first episode. It really seems rushed in places, not giving the audience time to even ponder for a few seconds what they’ve just seen or heard. Astronomy is a fascinating and complex subject. I know what it’s like to want to tell everybody all the cool stuff, but a presentation needs to give viewers some time to let it all sink in. I suppose the producers could make an argument that audiences are now all tuned to instant news via the Internet and social media. But, even so, we still need time to think about what we’ve learned. That “thinking” is what leads to understanding. Piling it all on, as parts of episode 1 seem to do in a few places, could lead to viewer overload (or, as one producer friend of mine says, the “MEGO” syndrome (my eyes glaze over)). Perhaps this tendency to rush is only in the first episode, where the producers really want to let us know what’s coming in later episodes.
One of the beauties of the first Cosmos was the absolutely lovely thematic music by Vangelis that threaded through each episode. You knew right away that something special was about to happen, and throughout each episode, the music played an important emotional role. It set the stage for beautiful discoveries. I don’t find the music in this new reboot to be as memorable. In some places it is very pretty, but in others it’s verging on bombastic. Music is a producer’s decision, of course, but the music in this show was just not as special as it could have been.
Those production differences of opinion, however, are balanced out by the absolutely beautiful space travel sequences that take us from Earth to the limits of the observable universe (and even a little beyond). As a science video producer myself, I really appreciate the care the producers took to make the episode visually appealing. One of the memorable bits of the first Cosmos was the spaceship of the imagination that Dr. Sagan used to explore the universe. That spaceship is back, now in the form of a gleaming metallic, cigar-shaped construct that traverses the stars and galaxies with ease. I like the concept and the continuation of a great idea. Neil inhabits it nicely, and the visuals and science bring a 21st century sensibility to the trip.
In the final analysis, I found episode 1 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey an entertaining and thought-provoking beginning to what I hope is a memorable series. As I watched, I realized that I wasn’t the same woman who sat mesmerized by Cosmos in 1980. This Cosmos covers ground I have studied and written about and lectured about and shared with many people. And, now, I know it will do for someone else what Carl and the original series did for me: light a fire in their minds, and guide them to learn more about this wonderful cosmos we live in.
I think every generation deserves a Cosmos to do that for them.
February 16, 2014 at 18:01 pm | Leave a Comment
Astronomy and Astrology
Okay, so some Americans (and others in the world) apparently think that astronomy and astrology are the same, or that astrology is somehow “scientific”. In actual fact, it’s astronomy that is the science. Astrology is… something else.
Let’s talk about that, shall we? (I’m putting on my lead-lined armor now.)
Astrology (as “practiced” today) is a pseudo-scientific “method” for predicting people’s lives based on some magical and heretof0re-unmeasured properties of the Sun and planets that somehow affect people at the moment of their births. It’s based on the position of the Sun in various constellations as seen by ancient stargazers millennia ago.
The problem for astrologers is that time has moved on and due to the precession of Earth on its axis, the constellations the Sun and planets THEY use to predict who you’ll date next week have shifted by a month. So, if you’re a Libra, the Sun was probably actually in Virgo when you’re born, or if you’re a Taurus, the Sun was really in Aries. That’s just one of the problems with astrology as a method for predicting your love life or your work life or whatever it is people turn to it for. (I remember a president’s wife who consulted astrologers…)
Astrologers do not actually physically study the stars to understand how they work. I’m not sure what they study because descriptions of their methods are full of mumbo-jumbo that boggles the mind. I spent quite a bit of time looking around at “real” astrology sites and of course, no two of them agree on methods. That’s not science. It’s obfuscation. And, in many cases, astrologers somehow imply that their mysterious methods are scientific. They’ve hijacked a word that doesn’t belong to their practice and use it to lend what they do a false air of legitimacy.
More to the point, the claims of astrology — such as that the Sun or a given planet somehow had an effect on you on the day of your birth — can’t be checked on. You can’t measure the things astrologers claim are there. That’s because there’s NO unearthly, ethereal connection between the Sun and you on your birth day. Oh, people have argued that the Sun has some sort of mystical force, but it lies a long ways away from Earth. So do most of the planets. Their distance would actually attenuate any such force because forces fall off as a function of distance. It could be argued that the person delivering you had MUCH more of an influence on you, since he or she was much closer to you. But, that doesn’t fly with astrologers, apparently. Suffice to say, astrology’s claims can’t be tested. It can’t be the science it claims to be. It CAN be a belief system, and people are welcome to believe in it all they want. It’s their time and money. But, as it’s practiced today, it’s not a science and never will be.
Ancient astronomers WERE astrologers, claiming all kinds of mystical things from their divination of the stars. From them we got our star and planetary motion charts. They were pretty good observers. But they weren’t scientists and their interest in the cosmos was as a tool to power and glory, not an explanation of the physical characteristics of the stars and planets. That came much later, when people who really DID want to know how things worked began studying the sky as scientists.
Look, I GET how our minds and spirits are lured by the pull of the mystical. Every child goes through a fairytale phase, a magical phase, a unicorn phase, whatever you want to call it. Our subconscious WANTS to have ghosts and spirits and fairies and wizards for some reason. But, that part of the brain shouldn’t rule the intellect. Eventually, most of us grow up to learn more about the wonders of the cosmos through astronomy. Believe me, it’s more amazing than any sparklepony vampire-glitter fairy-powder tales can explain. The information is there for anyone to study, science can be tested and improved. Astrology’s claims are stuck in the past, and astrologers don’t want them to be tested. There’s power in them thar readings! (Just not the power you expected.)
The job of explaining how the universe works has never been the job of astrologers. That important job belongs to astronomers — scientists who focus in on the physical characteristics of stars, galaxies, planets, and the cosmos. They have a pretty good idea of what forces are at work in the universe, such as gravity. They know how stars work, at least in general. They have figured out, using observations and measurements, how stars form, how planets are both, what the first stars were like, how galaxies formed. And, they know that there are no magical, mystical forces emanating from stars and planets.
So, there really should be no confusion about what an astronomer does and what an astrologer attempts to do. The first is based on science and observation. The second is based on mysticism and misunderstanding. The world has moved on, literally, beyond our need for mystical, magical beings and soothsayers. The universe is more amazing than any sparklepony an astrologer can gin up for you. You just have to want to see that for yourself.
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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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