April 20, 2014

A Weekend of Sun & Science in Sarasota.

Clowning around at the Ringling Museum… (All photos by Author).

Science is where you find it. This past weekend we set off for a weekend of adventure in Sarasota, Florida. Just a leisurely drive south of the Tampa Bay area (and Astroguyz HQ), Sarasota offers quick passport to “Old Florida”. [Read more...]

Astro-Event: The Dog Days of Summer 2012.

Can you feel the heat? The first half of 2012 was a hot one for the record books. And the bad news is, we haven’t even reached the month of August! Here at Astroguyz HQ in central Florida, having any chance of clear skies in the summertime means rising early in the AM. And the first week of August sees an ancient observation that is fun to try and replicate; the heliacal rising of the star Sirius. At magnitude -1.46, Sirius is the brightest star in the sky as seen from our Earthly vantage point of 8.6 light years distant. [Read more...]

Review: Rare Earth by Peter Ward & David Brownlee.

A controversial classic!

It is perhaps one of the greatest scientific questions of our time. How common are we? Is our existence here in time and space a widespread occurrence in the cosmos, or are we so unique that we are effectively alone? The topic of this week’s review represents a landmark paradigm shift and is an often quoted book that I’ve always wanted to get around to reading and reviewing. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by David Ward & Peter Brownlee posits that animal life in general and intelligence such as our own in particular is a rare, perhaps a singular event in our corner of the galaxy. Published in 2000, its interesting to see how the science of the day stacks up to current thinking. For example, in 2000 a handful of exoplanets were known; almost all were “hot Jupiters,” and the prospects for terrestrial planets looked slim. To date, 779 extra-solar planets have been discovered using a variety of methods, providing researchers with enough data to classify and characterize various types of planetary systems.

It should be noted that the authors do point out that while animal life may be a tough hurdle, simple bacterial life may be common in the cosmos. Our own story lends some credence to this supposition; once conditions in the early history of life on Earth stabilized about 3.5 billion years ago, simple life arose readily. For almost 90% of the span of life on Earth, however, life remained at the simple one-celled stage. It seems that at least in our own case, going to complex multi-celled life was the hard part; but yet in less than a billion years, the explosion of plant and animal life led to dogs, cats, humans, Ipads, etc. How common this tale is remains to be seen. Certainly, the discovery of bacterial life past or present within our own solar system may lend weight to the first half of the Rare Earth hypothesis.
Among the factors that the authors site as conducive to life as we know it;

-An orbit around a single relatively stable star that maintains a steady output for many billions of years, long enough for life to develop;

-A stable orbit within the habitable zone of said star, a place where water can exist in liquid state;

-Condensation from a proto-solar nebula with a high “metallicity” (remember, to an astronomer, the universe is hydrogen, helium, & metal!) full of lots of great but scarce raw materials such as carbon, silicon, nitrogen, etc.

-A single large Moon that acts to stabilize the tilt of the Earth;

-A large “goal tending” planet like Jupiter that deflects a good portion of the life extinguishing comets that come our way.

-A stable position in the galactic habitable zone, not too close to the radiation-riddled core and not in the outer metal poor ‘burbs. A good distance from any life extinguishing supernovae or gamma-ray bursters helps too, a sort of “may you live in mediocre times” curse/blessing.

-Active tectonic plates allowing for subduction and sequestration via a rock and carbon cycle.

To this end, the authors add some interesting twists to the famous Drake Equation, allowing for the events that brought us here in the mix. Certainly, if some of the scenarios such as the formation of our Moon are mandatory, chances for life are slim. One only has to look at the caveats offered by our neighboring worlds of Venus and Mars to see how different the Earth could be.

Still, a nagging hunch pulls at the back of our brain as we read Rare Earth… just how viable is a statistic of one? Are all of these happy accidents mandatory, or can life, once it’s started, make due even under drastically different conditions? One could also point out that these conditions aren’t exactly stable or permanent; the tilt of the Earth’s axis does vary, the output of the Sun is increasing and fluctuates with time, etc. It would be great to have a better understanding of the minimum and maximum criterion for life as it relates to these events. Carbon is probably crucial; no other element forms such long complex chains, although silicon is sometimes also cited as a possible alternative. Water also makes a great ‘universal solvent…” but might oxygen be poisonous to some forms of life? Would we recognize life drastically different from us if we saw it? I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s Report on Planet Three, where a Martian scientist gives a long and convincing discussion on why life on a hostile planet such as Earth couldn’t be possible.

Read Rare Earth as a very timely and still largely pertinent discussion on one of the biggest questions of our time. I would also recommend James Kasting’s How to Build a Habitable Planet as a great look at how the Earth came to be. Either conclusion has stunning implications; of course, most of us root for sentience and a cosmos teeming with diverse life with Klingons and Vulcans bickering about treaties in a Galactic Federation… but if we are truly  ”it” in our tiny niche of time and space, doesn’t that make us and the Earth all that much more precious and unique, a jewel worth safeguarding and preserving?

Astro-Challenge: Scouting Out the Lunar Straight Wall.

The waxing gibbous Moon with the Mare Nubium/Rupes Recta region circled. (Photo by Author)

An interesting lunar feature comes into view this week, right around 1st Quarter phase. Located in the Mare Nubium just before the start of the Lunar Highlands sits a feature known as the Lunar Straight Wall. 120 kilometers long and about 400 meters high, this scarp is hard to miss as a long shadow slice along the surface of the Moon. Visible in even small telescopes at moderate magnification, the Lunar Straight Wall is generally visible within 24 hours of 1st Quarter, which occurs this week at 04:56 AM EDT/ 08:56 AM GMT. [Read more...]

Astro-Event: The First Lunar Eclipse of 2012.

The partial phase of the December, 2010 total lunar eclipse. (Photo by Author).

(Note: I know, we promised a post on Xi Ursae Majoris this week; upcoming events prompted a last minute scheduling change. Trust me, it’s in the pipeline for July!)

A little over 24 hours prior to the big ticket transit of the planet Venus on June 5th-6th is another interesting astronomical event, perhaps less sexy, but worth noting. [Read more...]

Astro-Challenge: The Stars of Apollo 1.

Apollo 1 & the mission patch that never flew. (Credit: NASA).

What’s in a name? When it comes to stars in astronomy, a curious and often confusing system has arisen over the years; many stars are known by multiple designations from numerous surveys and catalogs done over the centuries, while many of the brighter stars have familiar designations handed down from Arab astronomers that remain fixed in our cultural lexicon. Say the name “Alpha Virginis” and you many get quizzical stares at the next star party, but everyone knows good ‘ole Spica as the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, even if few of us recall its obscure translation as the “ear of wheat”. Interestingly, even murkier stellar names seem to be making a comeback as various GOTO telescopes know exhort us to slew to “Cursa” or center “Thuban”…

This week, I’d like to draw your attention to three stellar names honoring a crew of brave pioneers that have made their way into the modern lexicon and even publication on some star maps. 45 years ago this week on January 27th, 1967, astronauts Roger Chaffee, Edward White, and Virgil “Gus” Grissom perished in a fire that engulfed the cabin of their Apollo 1 spacecraft during a training simulation. The tragedy was the worst that NASA had experienced up until that time. In fact, the argument has been made that the resolve and safety overhaul that resulted from the fire was what allowed NASA to step back, reassess, and make that ultimate drive towards the Moon. The final week of January into early February has also marks two other tragedies in the history of NASA, with the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew during launch on January 28th, 1986 and the destruction of Columbia and her gallant crew upon re-entry on February 1st, 2003. Space travel is a hazardous business, and the very fact that we as a nation and a species were able to pick up and press on marks the resolve embodied by these brave men and women.

Over the years, these astronauts have been memorialized by the naming of schools, landmarks, and more. In the case of the Apollo 1 astronauts, craters on the Moon and hills on Mars are named in their honor, as well as a plaque entitled the “Fallen Astronaut” containing their names along with those of Russian cosmonauts that perished in Soyuz 1, 11, and training accidents that was placed at Hadley Rille by Apollo 15 astronauts. But another quiet tribute rests in the springtime sky, one with a fascinating tale…

The Fallen Astronaut Memorial on the Moon (Credit: NASA/Apollo 15).

Astronauts used stellar targets to find their way during their missions to the Moon, much like ancient seafaring mariners. This enabled them to get an accurate fix on their position in time and space. This method also gave astronauts the autonomy to navigate without the help of ground control and  would have been crucial in an emergency situation if communications had been damaged. Much of this celestial training was conducted at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1966. The story goes that Command Pilot Gus Grissom conspired to have the crew of Apollo 1′s names inserted for 3 of the more obscure 36 target stars in the flight navigation manual. A November 1966 checklist later surfaced depicting the ‘revisions’ and backing up the story!

A common mis-conception is that these three stars were named in honor of the Apollo astronauts, but in fact, they themselves placed their reversed monikers among the stars, which then came into common use after the Apollo 1 fire. Astronauts can even be heard on later mission tapes referring to the Apollo 1 “stars” by their names, and they have also found their way into various star charts. The good news is that late northern hemisphere winter into early spring is a fine time to find these three modern wonders of astronomical lore; all three shine at easy naked eye visiblibility threshold in the evening skies;

Navi, a finder chart. (Graphics created by the Author using Starry Night).

Right Ascension: 00 Hours 56’ 43”

Declination: +60° 43’ 00”

The northernmost Apollo star is “Navi,” backwards for “Ivan” as in Virgil “Ivan” Grissom. Located in the central “pivot” of the “W” asterism in the constellation Cassiopeia, this star is also referred to as Gamma Cassiopeia or “Tish” in Chinese, meaning “The Whip”. Navi is an eruptive variable star with a close spectroscopic white dwarf or neutron star companion. Earlier in the 20th century Navi attained a peak brightness of magnitude +1.6 in 1936, outshining the other stars of Cassiopeia. Navi rides high in February skies immediately after sunset.

Dnoces rising!

Right Ascension: 08 Hours 59’ 12”

Declination: +48° 02’ 30”

Dnoces” as in “Second” backwards for Edward White “The Second,” is located in the constellation Ursa Major and is also referred to as Iota Ursa Majoris or Talitha, meaning “The third leap” in Arabic. Dnoces is an interesting close multiple star system first noticed by John Herschel in 1820. The  magnitude +3.12 A component has a 9th magnitude B component that was at 10” arc seconds of separation on discovery that closed down to 4.4” and closing as of 1969. The B component in turn has a faint 10 magnitude companion on a 39.7 year orbit that will reach a maximum separation from the primary of 0.9” (tiny but perhaps just spilt-able with a large scope under excellent seeing!) in 2020. The entire system is about 48 light years distant. Dnoces rises around 10 PM for middle northern latitudes in February and earlier during the following months.

Suhail… or do you say Regor?

Right Ascension: 08 Hours 09’ 32”

Declination: -47° 20’ 12”

Regor” The southernmost of the three Apollo 1 stars, is also known as Gamma Velorum in the constellation Vela. This star also has the obscure name of Suhail and is one of the brighter stars in the southern sky shining at +1.7th magnitude. Regor is a Wolf-Rayet variable star and one of the most massive known at 10 times the mass of our own Sun. The system is also a complex one comprising no less than 6 stars, tying Castor for the title of most stars in one system. Gamma Velorum is a binocular double, with a blue-white +4.2 magnitude sub-giant companion about 41” arc seconds distant. A telescope will tease out further companions C (+8 magnitude, sep 62”) and D and E (magnitudes +9 & +13 respectively) 2” apart and 94” from the primary. The entire complex system is about 800 light years distant along the galactic plane.  From our 28° degree north latitude vantage point here at Astroguyz HQ in Hudson, Florida, Regor has a maximum elevation of about 16° degrees on the meridian at midnite local on February 1st, then progressively earlier in the evening as spring arrives.

Apollo 1 astronauts during a test checkout of the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).

What I really love about the Apollo 1 stars is the wry thought put into naming them that the astronauts obviously gave; “Regor, Dnoces, and Navi” all sound suitably cryptic and simply sound “stellar”… one could image a pedantic astronomy professor utilizing them, or a sci-fi flick entitled “Invaders from Regor!!!” As we mark the anniversary of the fire that marred the Apollo program and shaped NASA, make a point to get out and spot these stars that pay tribute to these fine brave men and the legacy that they gave us!

 

A Weekend of Sun, Fun & Astronomy at Delray Beach, Florida!

Delray Beach sunrise. (All photos in post by Author).

Stargazing and traveling are literally a “match made in heaven”; as long as there’s a sky to be seen overhead, your observatory can be said to be where ever you make it. Such was the case this past weekend, when we bundled up the ‘scopes and made the pilgrimage to the Atlantic side of the Florida peninsula to Delray Beach for three days of sun, fun and a little surreptitious stargazing while based out of the Marriott Spa and Resort. [Read more...]

Astro-Challenge: The Colorful Hues of Struve 3053.

Finding Struve 3053. (Created by Author Using Starry Night).

Didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas? Neither did we, at least in terms of an automated backyard observatory and a private mountain top to perch it on… but such is the game of astronomy. [Read more...]

2011: The Year in Science Fiction.

The Emerald Crusader finally makes it big.

(Credit/Copyright: Warner Bros/DC Comics).

The tumultuous year that was 2011 is about to come to a close… perhaps you’re rightfully wondering why you’re not commuting by jet pack by now, or glad that the post-apocalyptic vision of Road Warriors has yet to occur. [Read more...]

Astro-Events: An Opposition and an Occultation!

Looking west from Astroguyz HQ Oct 27th at sunset. (Created by the Author using Starry Night & Paint).

This week marks the return of the King of the Planets to evening skies, as well as a close lunar-planetary grouping for well placed observers and a chance to spy an unusual asteroid. [Read more...]

06.10.11: A Carl Sagan Day Marathon!

Carl with a Viking mock-up on the set of Cosmos. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

The recent passing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs reminded us of another luminary of our age who passed way too soon; planetary scientist and science visionary Carl Sagan died December 20, 1996 at the age of 62 after a long fight with the rare form of cancer known as myelodysplasia. Cancer sucks, and by all rights, Carl should be with us today. Hardly a day goes by as we explore the universe or get another postcard snapshot from some distant corner of our own solar system that we don’t stop and think; “I wonder what Carl would have thought about this?”

To this end, the Saturday nearest his birthday on November 9th has become the official sort of Carl Sagan Day as it will be this year on November 12th. To this end, we here at Astroguyz thought to ourselves; wouldn’t it be great to celebrate all things Carl with a Cosmos marathon? The entire series is up for viewing both on Hulu and YouTube:

In addition, we’ll be using the hashtags #CSDTweetup and #CarlSaganDay to provide running Twitter commentary throughout… the episodes run about an hour in length, and we’ll start an episode on the hour every hour starting 8:00 AM EST/1:00 PM UTC November 12th to get optimal time zone coverage. So join in, wear your best tweed jacket and turtle neck, take a drink every time Carl says “billions…” and/or celebrate the mind of a man that inspired so many in the wonder and skepticism of science!

29.05.11: Hubble: New Views of a Historic Star.

Thar be (a) Var! (Credit: NASA/Space Telescope Inst).

It’s hard to imagine that less than a century ago, our home galaxy was thought to be the extent of the universe. That all changed the moment that Edwin Hubble wrote his famous “Var!” remark across an image of the Andromeda Nebula, M31. The intrinsic brightness of the star dubbed V1 enabled astronomers to get the first fix on the distant smudge, and they were floored by what they had found; clearly, M31 was an island universe onto its own.

Fast forward to today. Researchers at the Hubble Space telescope institute have recently partnered with the American Association of Variable Star Observers to compile new images and a new light curve of this famous Cepheid variable star. The results were unveiled at the recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in Boston, Massachusetts this past week. The project was part of the Space Telescope Institute’s Hubble Heritage project.

Why study old variables? This project represents a refinement of one of the most crucial cosmic standard candles at cosmological distances. It’s also interesting to note that backyard observers have the capabilities that only a few years ago were the realm of professionals. Seriously, I’ve seen some mind-blowing backyard images of M51 and its ilk that scant years ago that even professional technology couldn’t touch. The capability is out there, man… why not put that backyard light bucket to scientific use; join the AAVSO and the quest for cosmological knowledge!

AstroEvent: The Return of Saturn 2011.

Saturn as imaged March 19th, 2004 by the author.

 Two of unique planetary events are on our astro-radar this week. The first is an extremely close conjunction between brilliant Venus and faint Neptune on the morning of March 27th. At a mere 9’ minutes separation at 0100 UT, this will be one of the closest planetary conjunctions of the year. [Read more...]

02.03.11: Rise of the Robonauts.

The launch of STS-133; one small step for Robot kind… (Credit NASA/JSC).

The International Space Station (ISS) has a new permanent resident, one that will assist astronauts and become a valued member of the space station team. Robonaut 2 (R2) arrived at the ISS this week, delivered by STS-133 on the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Initially, Robonaut 2 will be a stationary resident, to be installed in the Unity Node until it can perform more complex mobile tasks. [Read more...]

24.02.11: Hefty Anti-particle Found.

Staring into STAR. (Credit: From the Brookhaven National Laboratories’ Flickr stream).

The menagerie of bizarre sub-atomic particles just got stranger, as scientists at Long Islands Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider recently unveiled the discovery of the heaviest anti-particle yet discovered. Dubbed the antihypertriton, this strange beast sits at 200 milli-electron volts (for comparison, an electron volt about 1.602 x 10-19 joules), beating out old fashioned anti-helium. [Read more...]

AstroEvent: A 2xJovian Moon Transit.

The view from the US East Coast around 8:30PM EST 24 Jan. (Created by Author in Starry Night).

One of the first things that Galileo noticed with his primitive telescope was the moons of Jupiter. This ‘solar system in miniature’ fascinated him, as he watched and recorded the changes in position presented by these four moons night to night. Even today, watching these changes can be a fun endeavor, and is a view available to even the smallest telescopes. This week, I challenge you to try and view a double transit of the Galilean moons. [Read more...]

Book Review: Chasing the Dragon by Justina Robson

Chasing the Dragon by Justina Robson is book 4 in the Quantum Gravity series. The heroine, Lila Black, is back with her entourage, and is fifty years in her own future, but only 15 minutes later than the ending of Going Under (Book 3). The dimensions have melded into one. Demons, elves, faeries and humans are crossing back and forth with abandon.  Her rock star, elf husband is mostly dead. Her demon husband Teazle is caught up in a conflict in Demonia.

Lila is still figuring out who she is; is still contending with her cyborg self.  She is still both a victim of humman emotion and a machine that reacts appropriately to threats. She is still an endearing character.  The character development is ongoing and circumstances and learning progresses for Lila.

There is a plethora of characters of all races, living and not-so-living. The many changes between dimensions are not as confusing as they could be. It’s clear when the reader is on Otopia, in Demonia, or elsewhere.  My favorite things, however, are Lila’s morphing clothing – which dresses her as it wills, frequently inappropriately and often funny, and mostly not as Lila would prefer – and her sword, which is currently hiding as a pen.

It takes a little reading to get into the rhythm of this book and the real action begins roughly half way through, but it’s still an interesting read.

I still say these books would make marvelous graphic novels.

 

13.05.10: Finding Martian Lava Tubes.

(Credit: Jim Secosky NASA/JPL/ASU).

(Credit: Jim Secosky NASA/JPL/ASU).

Martian lava tubes as seen by THEMIS. 

   A key hunt on the Martian surface is underway. Since the Pathfinder series of landers in the mid-90’s, NASA’s mantra has been to Follow the Water. Scouring the surface of Mars, we see signs of ancient water erosion, as evinced by complex braidings, channels and scarps…

Or is it? Up until recently, it’s been thought that only water could produce such complex features. Now, researcher Jacob Bleacher of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland has analyzed grooved channels on the flank of Ascraeus Mons, one of the three famous mountains in the Tharsis Montes chain of volcanoes, of which Olympus Mons is a member. Some of the highest peaks in the solar system, these extinct volcanoes are of the shield variety. Earlier photographic analysis suggested that the channels on the ramparts of Ascraeus were the result of water erosion on ancient Mars. But analysis by Bleacher utilizing a battery of instruments aboard Mars Odyssey, including the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) revealed an interesting puzzle; although the initial origin point of the channel looked like it was formed by water, action further down the chain was highly suggestive of collapsed lava tubes (above). A hybrid water-lava eroded channel is highly unlikely…a single cause of formation by lava is simpler and much more plausible. Colleague Andy de Wet has spied even more curious features; “the channel is actually roofed over as if it were a lava tube, and lined up along this are several rootless vents.” Evidence throughout the solar system is mounting that lava flows may mimic water erosion; on our bone dry (for the purposes of this discussion!) airless Moon, evidence of ancient lava flows is seen around the Mare Imbrium, and on Earth, complex slow moving flows have carved intricate structures seen and studied around Mauna Loa, Hawaii. These findings may serve as a caveat that all that looks like evidence of water on Mars, perhaps isn’t… areas such as the Ascraeus Plateau beg for further exploration. So, just when will we be able to take a day-hike down these ancient lava tubes, and ponder (and blog about) their origins in person?