April 5, 2020

Astro-Vid of the Week: The First Airborne Observatory

Keck revisits the rings of Uranus.

Credit: NASA/JPL

I still remember the announcement, 40 years ago today.

Of course, news flowed lots slower in those days, so my eight year old self caught it days later, on one of those news shorts they would run between Saturday morning cartoons. Uranus, it turned out, has a ring system, the first planet other than Saturn known to possess such as feature. I dutifully went to the solar system chart I’d drawn in third grade, and spent the rest of the morning updating a lop-sided Uranus with a ring system all its own. [Read more...]

Week 6: Into the Wilds of Wisconsin

Grand Yerkes!

Ahhh, cooler weather at last… and while the sixth week of our North American adventure has yet to see us encounter a run on clear skies, we have gotten  back out camping once again for the first time in six years. This week has seen us explore the great state of Wisconsin, from its southern Illinois hinterland across to its farmland heart. [Read more...]

2010: The Year in Science


2010 has been a tumultuous year in space and astronomical science. We’ve seen the beginning of a huge transition for manned space flight, as well as a look ahead at what astronomers would wish for if they had their say. What follows are a baker’s dozen of the biggest, weirdest, and most controversial science articles that made our astro-radar in 2010;

[Read more...]

24.06.10: SOFIA takes flight.

A unique airborne telescope is now open for business after what has seemed like endless delays. On May 26th, NASA’s SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy took flight to perform its first nighttime observations of the far infrared sky. And what a long road to flight it’s been… SOFIA was first proposed in the mid-90’s as a joint German DLR/NASA venture. The primary instrument consists of a 2.5 meter telescope (similar in size to Hubble) positioned perpendicular to the fuselage of a 747SP peering out a retractable cut away opening. SOFIA operates at a wavelength of 0.3 to 1600 microns, and at a cruising altitude of 41,000 feet should give diffraction limited views at wavelengths exceeding 15 microns. SOFIA needs this lofty perch to put it above 99% of the Earth’s water vapor absorbing atmosphere; at these altitudes, seeing is typically in the 2″ to 4″ arc second range. The entire project was brought back from the brink several times; in 2006, the plug was nearly pulled by Congress as the package had just neared completion! Even with cost overruns, flying telescopes aboard planes or balloons is still many times cheaper and easier than placing them into space… SOFIA is the logical predecessor of the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a 0.9 meter IR telescope that flew aboard a modified C-141 cargo transport from 1974-95. Already, SOFIA is showing its stuff on its first observing runs, and is expected to reach a goal of 150 flights a year by 2014. Service life of SOFIA is expected to be 20 years, again far longer than that of any IR-dedicated space based telescope. SOFIA will operate out of NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility near Palmdale, California. The 747 is a special performance (designated by SP) edition, capable of long duration flights and a range of 6,600 miles, ideally suited for the SOFIA mission. Of the 45 747SPs built, only 14 remain flying, from those flown by several Middle Eastern VIPs to the one owned by televangelist Ernest Angley (!) These are marked by the distinctive “stubby” or shortened fuselage design built to cut down weight. Doubtless, SOFIA has been the noblest use of this unique airframe yet…but hey, we are biased towards all things astronomical. You’ve come a long way, baby!


30.05.10: The Faces of Gum 19.

Take a look at the Nebula pictured above. This is the current visual state of affairs of the nebula known as Gum 19, 22,000 light-years distant in the southern constellation Vela. This rich star forming region is pictured in the Digitized Sky Survey above, and the seemingly non-descript Gum 19 Nebula is perched towards center. Using a an infra-red spectrograph known as Sofia coupled to ESO’s New Technology Telescope, astronomers were able to capture Gum 19 as never before. The nebula itself seems to be canted about 90 degrees to our line of sight, hence its two-faced, dark/light appearance. Gum 19 also houses a monster; a supergiant blue star known as V391 Velorum. This tempestuous star illuminates its nebulous surroundings, and has a surface temperature of 50,000°F. Such a beast is not destined to last for long; blue giants typically go supernova within a 10 million year time span. Will V391 be the next visual supernova in our galaxy to pop? Whatever is the case, enjoy the above ESO provided view while you can!