December 16, 2017

The Early Astronomers: A Brief History of Astronomy.

Ye ‘ole telescope…(Photo by Author).

(Editor’s note: The following is an essay wrote by yours truly in the quest for a science teaching degree. Now that said degree has come to fruition, our writing can be immortalized forever in a re-vamped blog format).

Astronomy is one of man’s earliest pursuits for knowledge. Once we began living in organized communities and brute survival and safety wasn’t a constant and overriding concern, we began to look up and ponder our place in the cosmos and contemplate the workings of the heavens above us. [Read more...]

Review: Discoverers of the Universe by Michael Hoskin.

Out from Princeton Press.

Few realize that we owe much of our knowledge to an astronomical dynasty of the 18th-19th century. This week, we review Discoverers of the Universe by Michael Hoskin. This fascinating book covers the life and times of astronomers William and Caroline Herschel and the eventual hand off of the mantle of British astronomy to William’s son John. Much has been written about the pursuits of the Herschels, but Discoverers gives it to you in the kind of detail that we observational astronomers love. [Read more...]

Review: Voyager by Stephen J. Pyne.

Out July 23rd from Viking Press!

Out July 23rd from Viking Press!

 

   Ours may be an age of discovery like no other. This week, we look at Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery, by Stephen J. Pyne, out July 26th, 2010 from Viking Press. This fascinating work delves into the Voyager series of spacecraft missions from a unique perspective, juxtaposing it as a symbol of the third great age of exploration and drawing historical parallels and contrasts with past great expeditions of discovery. [Read more...]

Astro Event: A Very Close Dawn Conjunction.

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!

Astro-Challenge: See the Galilean Moons in 1,2,3,4 Order.

Astronomy is chock full of alignments, synchronizations, and oddities that happen on variable cycles. This week, I’d like to point you towards one of those gee-whiz occurrences that happens early Friday morning. On May 28th, 2010, you’ll have the opportunity to view Jupiter’s classical four Galilean Moons in one-through-four order, all positioned on one side of the planet. This would also make for an interesting “family portrait” of the set. Jupiter is in dawn skies, currently rising about 4 hours prior to the Sun. The window of time is short; the moons are only in this arrangement from 06:33 UT until 07:50 UT, and “Jupiter-rise” for folks in the US Eastern time zone only occurs at about 0:700 UT (about 3 AM EDT local). Hence, only folks positioned in the Eastern and Atlantic time zones will have a shot at catching this alignment under dark skies.

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18.04.10- Zeroing in on Nearby Exoplanets.

It’s hard to believe that a little less than two decades ago, no extra-solar planets were known. Now, the count climbs daily, and platforms like the Kepler Space Telescope threaten to launch the tally into the thousands. Recently, an international team of astronomers made six new discoveries in two nearby star systems that may eventually lead towards the cosmic Holy Grail; an exoplanet resembling Earth. The team was led by prolific planet hunter Paul Butler and Steve Vogt, who discovered the super-Earths by combining radial velocity data gathered from the Anglo-Australian telescope and the Keck observatory. First up is 61 Virginis, a Sun-like star 28 light years away. This system has always been of interest to astronomers because it is a near twin to our own Sun and is on the short list for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder. The team discovered three worlds ranging in mass from 5 Earths to 25. In addition, follow-up studies with the Spitzer Space telescope find evidence for a dust ring around 61 Virginis about twice Pluto’s distance from our own Sun. The second discovery is one 7.5 Earth mass planet and a possible two more found around the star HD 1461 in the constellation Cetus about 76 light years distant. Again, HD 1461 could pass for our Sun in terms of age, size, and mass. Both stars would be visible to the naked eye under reasonably dark skies. It remains to be seen if these worlds are rocky terrestrial planets or Uranus-like slush balls. Evidence is mounting, however, that planets may be common around nearby Sun-like stars. The innermost planetary detection for 61 Virginis also represents the smallest amplitude discovery ever made by astronomers. These discoveries were backed up by brightness measurements made by robotic telescopes based in Arizona and operated by Tennessee University’s George Henry. This ruled out the possibility that the amplitude variations seen were due to variability or “starspots”. The Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey Team will also soon have a new weapon in its arsenal; the recently completed Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope atop Mount Hamilton. All that’s needed now is for the Discovery Channel to fund a new hit series; The Exoplanet Hunters!

Review: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

Every once in a while, a book crosses our nightstand that just makes us say “Wow…” We then have to ration out this discovered gem, lest we burn the midnight oil and consume it in one lost weekend…

Such a discovery came to us in the form of recent book The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. Out by Pantheon Books, this huge opus does nothing short of charting the course of science through the early 1800’s. From Joseph Banks to William Herschel to Humphrey Davies, many a fascinating untold tale is contained in this book. I explicitly saved this book for reading during our Ecuador trek late last year, as adventure travel deserves good reading to go along with it. Each of these tales are an engaging read, and cover such diverse fields as astronomy, chemistry, anthropology, and botany. Of course, since this is an astronomically based blog, the chapters on William Herschel came first. [Read more...]

In Search of Planet Vulcan:The Ghost in Newton’s Clockwork Universe by Richard Baum and William Sheehan

   There aren’t many good books on the history of observational astronomy out there.  The public perception of the lone astronomer standing vigil at the eyepiece is rapidly vanishing into the past.

   In Search of Planet Vulcan reads like a good mystery novel.  [Read more...]