Pluto or bust? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
As Pluto grows ever-sharper in the view of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, so does humankind’s longing to explore the ‘other Red Planet.’
The Sky is Waiting.
Pluto or bust? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
As Pluto grows ever-sharper in the view of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, so does humankind’s longing to explore the ‘other Red Planet.’
Gazing upon astronomy’s astrological past…
(Photo by author).
I was first bitten by the astrology bug in the 6th grade.
This was in the late 1970s, when Weekly Reader (remember Weekly Reader?) offered students mail order books to purchase. Astrology and new age mania was also at a fevered pitch.
I eagerly absorbed a book on astrology, like I did with every new subject I came across. (UFOs and Bigfoot were big then too). How simple and clear cut it all seemed! All of humanity could be divvied up into 12 trouble-free houses, all dictated by birth date. All triumphs and tribulations could be attributed to the heavens. After all, as the book stated, “If plants grown in different seasons are dissimilar, then why not people?” [Read more...]
The ever-controversial star Sirius. (Photo by Author).
Every beginning astronomy student learns that Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. This brightness is apparent, as Sirius is a spectral type A1V star located relatively close to our solar system at about 8.6 light years away. Much myth and lore surrounds this star, but none is stranger that the mythology of the Dogon people. Incorporated into the mythos of these people that inhabit the plains of Mali is a bizarre tale of Sirius, which they call Sigi Tolo. They claim that the star has a small unseen companion in a 50 year orbit that they call Po Tolo. This companion star is tiny but dense, so dense that all the men in the world could not lift it. The mystery deepens as they also go on to claim that Jupiter has four large moons, and that Saturn has a ring “like that seen sometimes around the Moon, but different…” All of these claims are basically true. Sirius has a companion star, a white dwarf known as Sirius B discovered in 1862 by Alvan Graham Clark. This star is made up of degenerate matter, making it extremely dense, about 1×109 per kg/m^3. And the knowledge of Jupiter and Saturn has been around since Galileo first turned his crude telescope to the heavens…
The Dogon People…
(Credit: Martha de Jong Lantink’s Flickr photostream on a Creative Commons 2.0 License).
So, what’s going on here? Why would an isolated tribe have knowledge that technology only revealed to western eyes in the past few centuries? A quick search around the Internet of the Dogon and Sirius reveals no shortage of theories involving ancient alien contact. The modern pedigree of this tale can be traced back to a 1976 book by Robert Temple entitled The Sirius Mystery. Remember, the 1970’s was a time when Eric von Daniken and his Chariots of the Gods was in vogue, and archeologists were seeing space-helmeted aliens everywhere. Temple based much of his book on the writings of anthropologist Marcel Griaule, who spent time with the Dogon off and on from 1931 to 1956. And much of that particular legend comes from an interview with local Dogon wise man Ogotemmeli. You get the picture. Further research with the Dogon has revealed either no trace of the legend or discrepancies with the tale. For example, they also state that there is a third star in the Sirius system they call Emme ya Tolo, which is the opposite of Po Tolo in that it is both “big and light” but no other star has yet to have been found. Also, as with any sole source, it’s tough to say how much bias there may have been on the part of the recorder… it’s easy to lead a subject, even subconsciously, to the data that we might want to hear. In addition, some confusion exists on whether Ogotemmeli was referring to Sirius or the bright planet Venus in reciting the tale.
The orbit of Sirius B. (Adapted from Burnham’s Celestial Handbook).
In 1979, Carl Sagan proposed that the information might have been given to the Dogon by an external source, albeit a terrestrial one. Keep in mind, the legend coming to light in the 20th century wasn’t really giving us any new information about Sirius; psychics perform this feat all the time when they claim to have predicted events that have already happened. When we look at ancient myths and lore, we need to be mindful of the creativity of the human mind; after all, what would archaeologists thousands of years from now make of a Star Trek episode? That we somehow had warp drive and phaser technology? A true myth having some sort of predictive power would be far more compelling. Does this mean that the discovery of a red dwarf star around Sirius, as was spuriously reported in the 1990’s, would lend some credence to the tale? While interesting, I don’t necessarily believe so, as red/brown dwarf stars are quite common in the cosmos; for example, it’s not totally ruled out that our own sun may have a dim unseen companion!
Like white dwarfs, red dwarfs are common throughout the cosmos. (Credit: NASA/H. Bond).
What Sagan proposed is that the knowledge was passed on by a visiting explorer in the late 19th century, and incorporated into the Dogon mythos by the time Griaule did her interview. The image is compelling; an explorer eager to tell the “primitives” about the triumph of western science, imparting new information to the Dogon about their honored star. Keep in mind, another ancient African people, the Egyptians, based their calendar on the Sothic cycle and the helical rising of the star Sirius. Perhaps, said explorer had a telescope on hand to show them Jupiter and Saturn for good measure.
The original Dogon Sirius diagram. (Credit: Bad Archaeology).
But do any historical expeditions fit the bill? Well, there was in fact a total solar eclipse that passed over the region of modern day Mali on April 16th, 1893, and several expeditions were indeed in the area; these expeditions would have been well-equipped with astronomical gear and astronomy and curiosity about the heavens would have been on the forefront of everyone’s minds. And yes, Saturn had just passed opposition and Jupiter would have been an early evening target in the months leading up to that date.
Jupiter at dusk in April 1893. (Created by the Author in Starry Night).
And the diagram purported to be centuries old? Well, keep in mind that it only bears a passing resemblance to an elliptical orbit; it looks a lot like an egg, which symbolizes re-birth and is prevalent in the mythos of many cultures (witness the “Easter eggs” of western culture; a throwback to pure paganism!) The original diagram sketched out by Ogotemmeli shows several other curious objects within the egg; later commentators have edited them out making the case for Sirius B to seem more conclusive than it really is. And keep in mind that we see the orbit of a binary star system generally tipped to our line of sight between either edge-on and face on; it would relatively easy to find several “matches” to the Dogon diagram in the sky.
The total solar eclipse of 1893. (Credit: Fred Espenak, NASA/GSFC).
While I think the Dogon case is more interesting than most, I don’t find it compelling as a sign of ancient extra-terrestrial contact. Keep in mind, this is still giving us knowledge that we already knew; exacting knowledge, such as a chant that encoded how to build a functioning hyper-drive, for instance, would be much more inexplicable and compelling. The final fact often cited is that the Dogon believe in a heliocentric, or Sun-centered solar system, a fact that took us centuries of denial to realize. In this case, I believe that the Dogon should be recognized as astute observers of the sky; anyone can arrive at this conclusion as the Greeks initially did by merely studying the naked eye motions of the heavens and not allowing pre-conceived notions of how the world should be to cloud their judgment. All too often, we fail to give credit to the ingenuity of ancient cultures where credit is due. These people knew the sky far better than the average citizen does today and relied on it as a natural clock. Perhaps such intimate knowledge of peoples like the Dogon should be viewed for what it really is, rather than attributed as merely given to them from afar.
Many folks flock to what they presume is the Earth’s equator just north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city at Mitad del Mundo. They are greeted by egg-balancers, mariachi bands, and all manner of methods to separate the credulous from their money, but alas, not science. There seems to be something about latitude 0 degrees that makes people just throw common sense to the wind. [Read more...]
Okay, we asked for it. As promised, we managed to see the flick 2012 on opening day and are, well, read on. We decided to attempt to judge this disaster flick against other disaster flicks, which granted, may be a strike in and of itself. [Read more...]
I was recently at a waiting room the other day, when the secretary noticed that I had brought a copy of Death From the Skies! to “kill” time. “Is that stuff true?” she asked. I mentioned that yes, sooner or later, a killer space rock may well have our species collective name on it. I knew what was coming next. “I mean, I like saw this documentary on the Discovery channel about how the world is supposed to end in 2012…”
Every generation enjoys its own Apocalypse, and for better or worse, 2012 is ours. [Read more...]
(Editor’s note: Some may think that this week’s big post and book review are redundant, because they both cover the same famed scientist. Faithful followers of this site will however recall that we’ve done the same for such similar greats in the past, most recently Robert Burnham Jr. We’d like to think that the book review out this Friday covers the life and accomplishments as told in the biography of the man, while this piece relates Carl’s influences, both universal and personal. Let Carl Sagan week at Astroguyz begin!)
Some of my greatest heroes are scientists. Frequently maligned by the public and the media, few before or since have been able to convey the awe and wonder in science as Carl Sagan. A planetary scientist by trade, he might also be properly remembered as the first true exo-biologist. Like so many others, I was first introduced to the true modus operandi of science not in school, but by his ground-breaking series Cosmos. Its still worth digging up, and free for viewing on Hulu.com! Over the years, I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed over and over again by countless scientists; Carl got me into science. I first learned what the idea of evolution by natural selection was from Cosmos; how easy it all seemed! In a time that the world was posed on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, Carl showed us another way; a future in a universe that could be just the beginning for mankind, if only we chose it to be so. [Read more...]
As the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing rolls around this month, its time to address the inevitable. Every so often at a star party, someone asks me if you can see the flag(s) we left on the Moon. When I explain that even the largest pieces of hardware, the base of the lunar landers, were only a scant seven meters across, far below the resolution power of my 8″ reflector, someone inevitably pipes up in the dark; “because we never did go there, that’s really why!”
Of course, I already know that no amount of reasoning will dissuade some people; the outlook is “the government hides everything,” and that tends to be the ultimate answer for any conspiracy. [Read more...]
Ben Stein does his Angus Young impersonation!
This one will be a tough one for us here at Astroguyz to review; faithful followers of our blog already know our stance on this issue. We’ll make every attempt to be as even-handed as possible and not hurt too many feelings. Recent court rulings threw Intelligent Design (ID) out of the classroom. And yet the debate persists and continues to pop up world wide; should ID be taught along side of Evolution? [Read more...]
We have a pet peeve here at Astroguyz. Every great once in a while, most astronomers get asked by a well meaning member of the public to locate a particular star. This is not a problem, even without the benefit of a “Goto” mount; right ascension, declination, and maybe a crude star map is all that is required. [Read more...]
(Note: As of yesterday, Astroguyz has been live for a year! Let it never be said that we’ll join the legions of “also ran” blogs!)
Next clear night, go outside, away from the street lights, and look up.
On virtually any evening, the casual observer will notice a bewildering menagerie of phenomena. Meteors. Aurora. Even the usual, such as Venus low in the twilight sky, can look unusual at first glance. Venus, in of itself, has been mistaken by air traffic controllers for an approaching aircraft. Imagine their frustration as it refused to answer repeated hails! [Read more...]
Who is that amid the rocks? (All photos except noted credited to NASA/JPL).
Something strange is happening on the surface of Mars. The above image has circulated around the Internet the past few weeks. Taken from the Spirit rover, the panorama shows a vast, Martian landscape. The close up inset above appears to show a vague figure. What gives? Are there, perhaps, a tiny civilization of Bigfoots (Or is it Bigmen?) mocking our rovers? [Read more...]
Evolution, like capital punishment or gun control, is one of those dirty issues that tends to polarize people. The very word “evolution” conjures up images of apes turning into men and atheists with hidden agendas. Creationism, like wise, brings up ideas of book burnings and backwoods fundamentalists. Both lead toward opposite ends of the perceived spectrum; you’re either totally in one camp or the other. No middle ground exists. Any consenting towards the other side is seen as “giving in” and letting them get their collective “foot in the door”. Soon, it is reasoned, we’ll all be godless pagans or a theocratic dictatorship.
Reality, I’ve always found, lies somewhere in the gray middle. Not all scientific theories are comforting, but then again science never promises such. Perhaps life on Earth really is a random fluctuation of an infinite norm and there is no frame of reference in which we can ask the really big questions such as “why are we here?” though I doubt science in of itself can ever prove or disprove that. It is also true that there is a definite spiritual component to mankind that we can never truly deny. A universe of simple hydrogen atoms didn’t have to become this complex. Perhaps there is an afterlife; I would prefer not knowing. Kind of like the American Indian belief in the “great unknown”. I haven’t seen any secular reason to believe that any particular religious franchise has a corner market on things.
This polarization can also have disastrous consequences. Denying knowledge accumulated by scientists is causing America to lose its competitive edge. Its as if there are gaps in our knowledge, areas posted “do not enter” in our intellects. In the early 20th century, the Soviet Union sought to sensor Mendelian genetics because it did not fall in line with communist credo of material dialecticism. The result; the Soviet Union severely began to lag behind the world in crop production. America now faces the same challenge; if we don’t come to grips with the issues posed by evolution and stem cell research, other countries will (or will have had?) passed us by. The future may not belong to he who has the bullets and bombs, but the information and knowledge.
So, what does all this have to do with astronomy? Evolution dovetails with the topic of the big bang and cosmology, which in turn fall at odds with biblical literalism; some do not find comfort in a universe more than 6,000 years old. Evolution and astronomy also tie in to exo(or astro) biology, itself an emergent science. It we do discover aliens, be they microbes or demi-gods, it will surely trigger an instant re-write of both evolution and creation. Thus far, we have a biosphere of exactly one to draw conclusions from.
But who is to say that evolution isn’t just a tool that a creator uses and operates by? Who is to say the conflicts in time-lines aren’t metaphorical? As science gains ever more knowledge, a “God of the gaps” emerges. Granted, the circular logic used in most religious dogmas guarantee that they’ll never be conclusively proven or disproven. “Proof denies faith,” becomes the battle cry, and causes many a scientist to turn from public discourse on the topic. Carl Sagan noted that it’s hard to verify the “dragon in the garage” hypothesis if every time you devise a test to detect him, a reason it will fail is discovered.
A “proof” of creationism reared its head recently that I’d like to illustrate. The rare Parrot Orchid of Thailand has the uncanny appearance of, well, a miniature parrot! How one might ask, could such a thing occur if no creator was evoked?
First, remember that evolution is basically the function of two forces; death and time. Lets say that millions of years ago (flowering plants appeared right after the Jurassic Era), an orchid emerged via random mutation that vaguely had the markings of a parrot. Now most mutations are detrimental, and only very occasionally does one emerge that is beneficial. But in this case, the markings prove attractive to a key pollinator; the jungle parrot. The genetic message is clear; the more you look like a parrot, the more likely you are to pollinate and spread your own genes. Orchids that do not attract pollinators leave no offspring. Eventually, a genetic arms race ensues; orchids are slowly shaped via occasional beneficial mutations to look more attractive to parrots.
Of course, flowers are not men; the issue of apes evolving into modern man is a bit more sensitive. To be sure, modern day chimps are not our ancestors; species that gave way to homo sapiens are long gone. In any event, most people confuse Darwin’s Origin of Species with a later work, the Ascent of Man. Darwin, far from having an “Atheist’s agenda” was actually an Anglican minister. Sometimes the truth hurts, although I fail to see that evolution, understood properly, cheapens life or makes reality any more bleak. If anything, I see only the sweet preciousness of the small sliver of time and space we now occupy.
Astronomy may well be man’s oldest scientific endeavour. When we weren’t busy eking out an existence, we were looking to the stars. The sky to our ancestors must have seemed enigmatic and mysterious. Removed from terrestrial affairs, the heavens seemed aloof. [Read more...]
The Current Number of Exoplanets Discovered is: 3476
Pictured is a Delta IV rocket launch from Cape Canaveral on November 21st, 2010. The image is a 20 second exposure taken at dusk, shot from about 100 miles west of the launch site. The launch placed a classified payload in orbit for the United States Air Force.
Difficult but not impossible to catch against the dawn or dusk sky, spotting an extreme crescent moon can be a challenge. The slender crescent pictured was shot 30 minutes before sunrise when the Moon was less than 20 hours away from New. A true feat of visual athletics to catch, a good pair of binoculars or a well aimed wide field telescopic view can help with the hunt.
The Sun is our nearest star, and goes through an 11-year cycle of activity. This image was taken via a properly filtered telescope, and shows the Sun as it appeared during its last maximum peak in 2003. This was during solar cycle #23, a period during which the Sun hurled several large flares Earthward. The next solar cycle is due to peak around 2013-14.
Located in the belt of the constellation Orion, Messier 42, also known as the Orion Nebula is one of the finest deep sky objects in the northern hemisphere sky. Just visible as a faint smudge to the naked eye on a clear dark night, the Orion Nebula is a sure star party favorite, as it shows tendrils of gas contrasted with bright stars. M42 is a large stellar nursery, a star forming region about 1,000 light years distant.
Orbiting the planet in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) every 90 minutes, many people fail to realize that you can see the International Space Station (ISS) from most of the planet on a near-weekly basis. In fact, the ISS has been known to make up to four visible passes over the same location in one night. The image pictured is from the Fourth of July, 2011 and is a 20 second exposure of a bright ISS pass.
Next to the Sun, the two brightest objects in the sky are the Moon and the planet Venus. In fact, when Venus is favorably placed next to the Moon, it might just be possible to spot the two in the daytime. Another intriguing effect known as earthshine or ashen light is also seen in the image on the night side of the Moon; this is caused by sunlight reflected back off of the Earth towards our only satellite.
A mosaic of three images taken during the total lunar eclipse of December 21st, 2010. The eclipse occurred the same day as the winter solstice. The curve and size of the Earth’s shadow is apparent in the image.