July 23, 2014

Astro-Challenge: Haunting the “Ghost Double.”

The “Ghost of Gamma…” (Created by the Author in Starry Night).

Sometimes, the new and the unexpected lies just inside the field of view of the familiar. This week, we’d like to turn your attention to a hidden double star in the field of a star party favorite.  Halloween means sidewalk astronomy season, as we show off the delights of the universe to high-fructose corn syrup-filled suburbanites. Hey, it’s wonderful that a pagan Cross Quarter tie-in holiday (as in a celebration approximately midway between the equinox and the solstice) gets some play in this day and age. [Read more...]

Review: The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper.

On sale in November!

Just last week, some amazing news in the fast-paced world of exoplanet discoveries was announced… Alpha Centauri, the nearest stellar system to ours at 4.4 light years distant, harbors a planet. Our neighbor has long been a setting for science fiction drama, from the recently reviewed novel Alpha Centauri by the same name, to the goal of the Robinson Family in Lost in Space, to the office where the Vogons had the plans for the Earth’s destruction on file in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. [Read more...]

AstroEvent(s): Hunting the Lunar V & More.

An uber-thin crescent from September 2011.

Take heart, residents of the northern hemisphere; Fall and hopefully cooler climes and darker nights are almost upon us. Growing up in northern Maine, autumn was always our favorite season of the year. It’s the season without the aggravations of all the others; lacking the chill of winter, the mud of spring and the bugs of summer, Fall is the best. If we ever find an exoplanet with a climate that resembles a perpetual New England Fall, I propose that a multi-generational ark be constructed immediately… [Read more...]

Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.

On sale now!

How do you spark a revolution? Often, the greatest figures in history are the most reluctant.  Such is the case of Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games series. We have to admit, we’re a late comer to the series, though we’d heard rumblings from avid fan-dom as early as last year’s NecronomiCon. Once we saw the film, we were hooked. I love it when something new and original breaks through. Fans of this space will remember our review of the first Hunger Games book, and we’re actively burning through (pun intended) the final (?) book in the series, Mockingjay. [Read more...]

Review: Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald.

On sale in September from Pyr Books!

Ya gotta be careful with that whole multiverses and/or parallel universes thing… just ask Homer Simpson; playing with a time-travelling toaster can have dire consequences.  Which brings us to this week’s review, Be My Enemy: Everness Book Two by Ian McDonald. Out in early September from Pyr Books, Be My Enemy traces the further dimension-splitting adventures of Everett Singh.  Fans of this space will remember our action-packed review of Everness Book One entitled Planesrunner as well as Mr. McDonald’s Turkish dystopian future world of The Dervish House. Mr. McDonald has a knack of taking a dimension-spanning adventure and putting it down in a realm as familiar as your own backyard.

[Read more...]

Astro-Event: The Craters of Apollo 11.

The region of the Apollo 11 craters (see below).

Photo by Author.

Recently, we wrote about the “Stars of Apollo 1” and how those astronauts who perished in the fire on Pad 34 were memorialized in the sky by their own hand. This week, we thought we’d draw your attention moonward and bring you next week’s astro-event a few days early to honor the passing of a hero. We’ve wanted to write on the craters named after the Apollo 11 astronauts for some time. Located in the southwestern corner of the Mare Tranquillitatis (The Sea of Tranquility), these three craters named Aldrin, Collins, & Armstrong sit in the general area that Neil Armstrong took his footsteps on the Moon, the first human being to do so on July 20th, 1969. [Read more...]

Astro-Event(s): Lunar/Planetary Action & Hunting Triton.

Mars, Saturn & Spica the night of MSL’s Landing. (Photo by Author).

We’re swiftly losing the evening planetary action this month, as Jupiter, Mercury and Venus occupy the dawn skies and Saturn and Mars slide ever lower into the dusk. It’s interesting to watch as Mars appears to “pass” the Spica & Saturn pairing in the constellation Virgo as its orbital motion struggles to keep up with Earth. [Read more...]

Review: The City Dark.

Our own increasingly light polluted backyard…

(Photo by Author)

This week, we wanted to give a shout-out to a crucial film. Amidst our burgeoning suburban development, our night skies are slowly disappearing. We’ve written about this many times before, and perhaps many people see this as a singular niche interest. The recent independent film The City Dark by Ian Cheney takes issue with that, exploring the reality and consequences of the loss of our night sky. Like me, the director grew up in Maine, and had the now almost-unheard-of luxury of having pristine dark skies right on his door step. Now, may backyard observers must drive ever increasing distances to simply have the Milky Way visible overhead. Few people have ever witnessed a true dark sky site, where clouds look like shadows and you can’t see your hand in front of you.

We managed to catch the film in its abbreviated 60 minute form on its recent run on the PBS series POV. (Only a month, guys?) The film has been making the indie rounds in the US, and we’re patiently awaiting its online/Netflix release on an as-yet-to-be determined date.

The director of The City Dark crisscrosses the county and documents the vanishing night skies. Does brighter = safer? What is the true cost of illuminating the underbellies of night time clouds and aircraft? What is the cost to nature and us? Far from just pure aesthetics, it’s noted in the film (& recently on this site) that the American Medical Association has stated that light pollution is a major health concern.

We’ve documented light pollution in our own neighborhood and urge others to do the same. We’ve even made limiting magnitude estimations from the most light polluted site in the world, the Strip in Las Vegas. We could just make out the belt of Orion at +2 magnitude, though we were the only glazed-eyed tourist looking skyward to even notice.

Perhaps many non-astros roll their eyes when they hear of light pollution; here, they think, is yet one more thing to worry about in the modern world, along with global warming, terrorism, and “how big is too big” for the latest flat screen TV. I always find that folks do pay attention, however, when it hits their wallet. In fact, with the recent economic downturn, many municipalities are “turning off” to excessive nighttime lighting.

I see the loss as something insidious to the poetic nature of our culture; perhaps the biggest crime is that few actually miss the beauty of the night sky. We’ve become less familiar with nature than ever before, with sightings of such pedestrian objects as Venus or Jupiter being mistaken for UFO’s. (Search YouTube; playing “debunk the homemade UFO vid” can be a fun game!)

Do make an effort to check out A City Dark, and get involved with Dark Sky activism starting viewing the film and a visit to the International Dark Sky Association. This is one you definitely shouldn’t miss, but like many indie gems, you have to seek it out. We’ll let you know when/if it comes back up for watching via PBS/YouTube/Netflix etc in the coming weeks, just follow us on (shameless plug for) @Astroguyz on Twitter!

Astro-Event-Perseid Weekend: “It’s Raining Meteors!”

How ‘bout that sky-crane landing Curiosity made on Mars, huh? Over a ton of the finest in human science engineering all moving from 3.6 miles per second to stationary on the surface of Mars in seven minutes flat. It must’ve truly lit up the Martian atmosphere for any would-be Martians on the ground… [Read more...]

Review: The Sky in Early Modern English Literature.

A classic of astronomical history…

Sometimes, astronomical references pop up in places we least expect them. This week, we journey back to 16th-17th century England for a look at The Sky in Early Modern English Literature: A Study of Allusions to Celestial Events in Elizabethan and Jacobean Writing, 1572-1620 by David Levy.  Mr. Levy is the discoverer of 22 comets in counting, including the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9 that crashed into Jupiter on July 1994. [Read more...]

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...]

Review: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow.

A ‘Random’ Classic!

True randomness is just plain hard to replicate. Recently, an interesting discussion came up on George Hrab’s Geologic Podcast about whether it was possible to have levels of randomness. Few folks realize that what most people perceive as random is actually more ordered than one would think. Throw the dice long enough, and biases due to tiny imperfections will present themselves in the stats. [Read more...]

Astro-Event: An Early Morning Planetary Ballet.

The month of July features something worth waking up early for. Remember those great pairings of Venus and Jupiter in the evening skies earlier this year? Well, they’re about to be replicated, with a few other objects to boot in the early morning skies. [Read more...]

Review: Many Skies by Arthur Upgreen.

On Sale Now!

It’s a question we all find ourselves asking on occasion. What would our skies look like if things were a little bit different? It’s a fun thought experiment to play; add a Moon here or a Sun there and see what happens. While the night sky may be beautiful, it’s somewhat of a cruel joke that we live out our earthbound existence from but a single vantage point. Perhaps this mediocre position in time and space is why we’re here at all; having lots of active and exotic objects nearby such as supernovae and black holes may not bode well for life. [Read more...]

The 2012 Rhysling Awards.

On sale now!

Ahhhh, summer. School’s out, hurricane and monsoon season is in, and the Earth approaches yet another aphelion in its annual trek around the Sun. And with the Academy Awards still over half an orbit away, Hollywood can once again return to its summertime box office passion of simply “blowing things up”. But perhaps your cerebellum thirsts for something more of an intellectual bent; well, OK, with maybe just a FEW zombies, vampires, and explosions… [Read more...]