September 21, 2017

Astro Event: A Very Close Dawn Conjunction.


Jupiter & Uranus at Appulse! (Created in Starry Night & Paint).

Jupiter & Uranus at Appulse! (Created in Starry Night & Paint).



    Tomorrow morning has something worth getting up for; one of the closest planetary conjunctions of the year. Specifically, the planets Jupiter and Uranus sit about 26’ arc minutes apart, as seen through binoculars. Both will also fit nicely in a low power telescopic field for the next week or so. Jupiter has been very much in the news as of late, as it first became suddenly “one striped” a few weeks ago and was recently smacked again by an impactor. When we first caught wind of this, our first instinct was hoax, such as the “Mars is the closest this August in 50,000 years!” email that circulates every summer. But it does indeed appear that another impactor has struck the giant world, on the same calendar date and discovered by the same observer! We’ve definitely received a lesson in Jupiters’ role as a cosmic vacuum cleaner as of late, although no true impact scar has yet to reveal itself. It’s also worth noting that the impact longitude will be on the planet’s central meridian at 4:21 EDT tomorrow the 8th as well, another reason to check out Jupiter. The impact video that circulated revealed the hit to be right at the longitude of the missing Southern Equatorial Belt. Uranus will be slightly fainter than a typical Galilean moon and display a grayish green disk. The pair rises around 3AM local and a waning crescent Moon will be nearby. Fun fact: did you know that Galileo missed the opportunity to discover another outer world, Neptune, during a close conjunction? He even drew its position change next to Jupiter in his notebook! Probably the reason that he didn’t make the intuitive leap was because no one at the time supposed that there should be any undiscovered planets!

The Astro-Word for this week is Appulse. This is another term that points back to astronomy’s hoary roots with astrology. We say an object (usually two planets or a planet and the Moon) are at appulse on their closest apparent approach. Of course, this is only line of sight from our vantage point; in reality, objects such as Jupiter and Uranus are millions of miles apart. The term appulse has sort of fallen to the wayside in favor of its synonym, conjunction, but it certainly doesn’t raise the eyebrows like another related mystical sounding term, occultation. I’m just glad that professional astronomers no longer have to subsidize their income by casting horoscopes for kings, as they did in times of yore!

17.10.09: Pondering the Possible Fate of the Earth.

Colossus-The Forbin Project: a Sci-Fi classic that kicked off the talks!

What’s the future of humanity and life on Earth? Will we have a good multi-billion year run until our Sun swells into a red giant boiling away our atmosphere, or will we first do the job of snuffing ourselves out? Earlier this year, some of the leading thinkers of our time gathered near Harvard University at the Arrow Theater to discuss just these weighty concepts. Dubbed Crossroads: The Future of Human Life in the Universe, each talk in the series was 30 minutes long and solicited an avalanche of enthusiastic questions. Some of the highlights:

-Gerrit Verschuur discussed the Drake equation and just how prevalent any interstellar neighbors might be; at a guesstimated 2,500 light years, we may be pretty, well, spaced out!

-Maira Zuber discussed the future of space travel in the solar system and the difficulties of overcoming probably the biggest engineering problem; prolonged radiation exposure.

-Astronomers Dimitar Sasselov, David Charbonneau, and paleontologist Peter Ward of Rare Earth fame discussed the slew of recent exoplanet findings and the quest for the true coin of the realm; Earth-like worlds around other stars. Most interestingly, the idea was proposed that a “super-Earth” may be more conducive to the development of life, and our own planet may represent the bottom rung of habitability; indeed, as Ward notes, “Rare does not mean unique!” Another interesting proposal by Ward is what he termed the Medea Hypothesis, a sort of anti-Gaia Hypothesis, were the Earthly biosphere may actually occasionally become detrimental to life, and thus fuel mass extinctions. The name comes from perhaps the worst Mom in mythological history!

-Finally, big time elder thinker Freeman Dyson of Princeton urges that our very search methods for life might be flawed, and that we should be looking for “what is detectable, rather than only whats probable.” he also proposed missions targeting such possible abodes for life such as Europa, the icy large moon of Jupiter.

Whatever the future of humanity is, one gets the impression from the visionary speakers presented that it is NOT endless consumerism. The message in the history of life on Earth is clear; evolve or die. No one will save us but ourselves, and the future is collectively ours to choose!

The Contributions of Amateur Astronomers to Modern Science

(Author’s note; the essay below was a paper submitted recently by yours truly as part of my quest for a bachelors degree in science teaching. I’ve posted it here pretty much intact. Some explanations on the graphs have been expanded; I thought it was a shame for all of my research on the subject to go to waste. The bibliography is also included.)

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The Vagabond Astronomer

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