Monthly Archives: March 2012
I've been supporting the Earth Hour movement since it was introduced to me by a friend in 2009. I even attended the events held in SM Megamall last 2011 and 2010, where the shopping center dim its lights in support for the cause.
You may ask, What Is Earth Hour? Earth Hour is a global event organized by WWF (
The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, everyone’s favorite planet (right??), will make it’s closest flyby of Saturn’s tiny, icy moon Enceladus since 2008 at 2:30 EDT today. The probe will fly over Enceladus’ south polar region at an altitude of 46 miles (74 kilometers) near an area famous for its ice-spewing mega-geysers. Cassini discovered active cyrovolcanism on Encledadus during its first flyby of the moon in 2005. It astonished astronomers that a moon so cold and icy could have volcanic activity at all. Further investigation lead to the discovery of a region in the southern hemisphere known as “the Tiger Stripes” where there are four large rifts in the icy surface. Below the surface it is believed that there is a local or planetwide ocean of water that is heated far above what is expected of a small icy world so far from the Sun. Enceladus must must have a hot core just like our own planet that is heated by the friction caused by the gravitational pull of Saturn and orbital resonances from other moons. Since Enceladus orbits within Saturn’s rings very close to the planet it feels the strong gravitational pull of not only Saturn but of the ring system and the other moons that orbit Saturn. The south polar region of Enceladus is particularly interesting to astronomers because it shows clear evidence of ongoing geological activity. The southern terrain is largely free from impact craters which leads us to believe that the surface is being reshaped by the geological forces at work beneath the surface. Enceladus is one of only three moons where we have seen eruptions; the other two being Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton.
The intrigue of the geysers has prompted Cassini’s mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to carry out a flyby of the south pole region to “taste” the icy vapor with a device called an ion and neutral mass spectrometer. The data collected from the spectrometer will allow scientists to better understand the composition of the jets of ice and its subterranean source. Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer will also be taking pictures of the Tiger Stripes looking for hot spots under the surface similar to the ones recently found detailed in the picture below.
The geological activity and presence of water on Enceladus is extremely exciting for NASA because if there’s water and heat there could also be micro-bacterial life. A discovery of life on Enceladus would be a massive breakthrough in understanding the picture of the universe and the early stages of life on our own planet as well. So far it’s the moons, not the planets that are leading the race of potential for life, so I vote to study more moons!
Last night NASA decided to delay their Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX) launch yet again. I’m personally beginning to get sick of hearing this over and over again. The rocket experiment which is going to eventually launch from NASA’s Wallops Island, VA facility has been delayed due to poor weather three times now. The plan is for five sounding rockets to launch in rapid succession to just shy of 65 miles which is the recognized edge of space to study the mysterious ultra high altitude winds that can reach 200-300 miles per hour. Each rocket will release a tracer chemical that can be observed by ground-based observers and cameras. The chemical, trimethylaluminum, for lack of better word, will glow in the atmosphere and the cameras can observe how the winds swirl it around. The only trick is that the launch must happen on a clear night. Not just a clear night in Wallops Island, but a clear night at the observation sites in North Carolina and New Jersey as well. This has proved complicated as you could expect. The original launch date was March 14th but bad weather at Wallops delayed the launch by a couple days. The second launch was also delayed due to poor conditions and NASA set a third window for last night from 12am – 3am EDT. The skies were clear at Wallops but New Jersey was cloudy.
I was originally excited by the launch because NASA widely publicized the visibility of the tracer chemical from Massachusetts to North Carolina. But after three unsuccessful launch windows I’ve pretty much given up on this mission and my hopes of seeing it. I stayed up last night watching Apollo 13 and listening to the webcast stream from the launch pad and after they said they were “red” for at least an hour and a half around 1:30 I shut the computer and went to bed frustrated. I understand that this method of experimentation is probably the lowest cost option but the launch window only extends until April 3rd, which is only another ten days. They’re ten days into the window and they’ve had rotten luck so far. If I’m frustrated with the experiment I’m sure the folks at NASA are too, if not more so. The next attempt at a launch will be no sooner than Sunday night 3/25, and if that doesn’t work out then they’ve only got a week to launch these birds. If you still want to follow this mission, visit the NASA/ATREX website. Happy Friday and clear skies!
This is probably old news to many informed astro and space nerds (and Martians) but it still blows my mind every time I think about it. As we know, NASA launched its massive Martian science laboratory named “Curiosity” late last year. The one-ton rover will make the 570 million kilometer journey to Mars and enter the atmosphere on August 5, 2012. Apart from the never before attempted method of landing using sky crane to lower the huge rover onto the surface, this landing is exciting for another reason. Once the heat shield on the capsule is jettisoned, the small camera on the rover’s body will begin recording the last mile or two of the descent to the Martian surface shooting 1.3 millisecond exposures at 5 frames per second for approximately 2 mintues. I’m imagining myself five months from now sitting in front of my computer with my face just inches away from the screen completely enamored with the live video coming in from another world! It’s going to be a total geek out moment for me! I’m not sure where the video will be viewed from, but my guess would be the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website.
Also exciting about the video is that if it’s live NASA won’t be able to false color anything so it’ll be 100% authentic footage of the surface of Mars! If that doesn’t excite you, I’m sorry. I’m basically cursing the fact that it’s only March! On the other hand, today is the first day of spring and the Vernal equinox so that’s pretty cool. Get your eggs out today and try to stand them on edge.
More Mars-related news keeps coming in! On Friday last week a potential supernova was discovered in Messier 95, a beautiful barred spiral galaxy in the constellation Leo and a part of the nearby Leo I group of galaxies. M95 is easy to find right now because it is a mere 1/2° away from Mars. That makes it visible in the same field of view as Mars in most telescopes at lower power. The only trouble is that Mars is so bright this time of year that it floods the M95 area with light making it more difficult to spot. The bright speck believed to be a supernova is located in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy so once located it is an easy find. While unconfirmed as of yet, the supernova is believed to be a Type II which are common in spiral arms. The nova is currently about magnitude 12 so it is invisible to the naked eye but should be easily discerned with a 6″ or bigger scope under dark skies. There’s currently no moon so that should definitely aid your quest. Happy hunting!
After watching the 60 Minutes segment on SpaceX last night I’m convinced that 2012 truly is the year of the “Dragon”. As SpaceX founder and Chief Development Officer Elon Musk says, “We are at the dawn of a new age”. That new age is the beginning of private spaceflight taking over what only governments could do for fifty years, launching astronauts into space. In the 60 Minutes segment CBS anchor Scott Pelley interviewed Musk and toured the SpaceX facility in Los Angeles. Musk is a daring young entrepreneur who isn’t a stranger to uncharted territory. Musk founded PayPal back in 1999, which at the time was revolutionary. He is also the CEO of Tesla Motors which produces all-electric luxury cars. At age 40 he is a naturalized U.S. citizen and one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs. In 2002, Musk’s ambitions shifted to the aerospace industry and he founded SpaceX with the vision of lowering the cost of building rockets and spaceships to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit and beyond.
Now in its tenth year, SpaceX is competing for a NASA contract to build America’s next fleet of spaceship. Musk considers himself a little kid battling against sumo wrestlers to win the contract but he believes that his company will emerge victorious. Having already invested $100 million of his own money into SpaceX, Musk is determined to see the honors given to his spaceship. Back in 2010 SpaceX officially became the first private company to launch an unmanned ship into orbit and return it safely to Earth. After two near-misses involving timing glitches and software bugs, the unmanned capsule sat aboard a Falcon 9 rocket designed by SpaceX and orbited the Earth two times before successfully splashing down in the Pacific. The Falcon 9 rocket is a multi-stage rocket much like the Saturn class rockets used by NASA in the Gemini and Apollo programs. But unlike the Saturns, the Falcon series rockets are fully reusable. This was a part of Musk’s early goal of lowering the cost of spaceflight as each component can be recovered and reused multiple times.
SpaceX is primed to make history again on April 30th when they send their unmanned capsule named “Dragon” to the International Space Station to dock and deliver supplies. This will be the first private docking with the ISS and will surely usher in a long line of firsts in private spaceflight. The Dragon capsule is currently being used for unmanned missions, but as Pelley inquired on his visit to SpaceX’s facility, it has windows. ”Why put windows on a cargo capsule?” he asks. Why? Because it’s not a cargo capsule, Musk responds. Dragon’s ultimate design is to carry astronauts. SpaceX is currently exploring the possibility of seating for seven, as many as the Space Shuttle.
When asked about American space heroes Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan’s disapproval of the government’s transitioning of space exploration to private enterprise, Musk says he’s saddened to hear men who he regards as personal heroes disapproval of his work. He believes that if they were to visit SpaceX’s facility and see the over 1,000 employees and how hard they work they would change their minds. Regardless of what critics say, Musk remains focused on fulfilling his goal of landing that NASA contract to build the next fleet of spacecraft for human exploration. Extending human presence in space is a fundamental belief of Musk’s. His vision for eventually making humans a multi-planet race would allow us to greatly increase our knowledge of the universe and survive a potential extinction scenario on Earth.
Musk, along with everyone at SpaceX is striving towards the goal set ten years ago by the daring entrepreneur to make 2012 the year of the Dragon Capsule. Americans need to get back into space and SpaceX is certainly on the brink.
The Hubble Space Telescope really is an amazing piece of machinery! We are approaching the 22nd anniversary of Hubble next month so I believe a little tribute is in order. For the last 22 years Hubble has been constantly blowing our minds with stunning images of our solar system, our galaxy, and the universe. Named after the great 20th century astronomer Edwin Hubble, the HST was charged with unlocking the mystery of Edwin Hubble’s greatest project: the expansion of the universe. The observatory has since succeeded with remarkably accurate precision.
Without a doubt, Hubble is the great triumph of the Shuttle era. From its infamously defective mirror correction mission and several repair and upgrade missions over the years, all made possible by the Space Shuttle; Hubble has proven to be tougher and more effective than anyone could have imagined in 1990 when it was launched. With Hubble we have peered into the furthest visible depths of the universe and seen what we could have previously only imagined. We owe so much of our knowledge of the universe to the images and data Hubble has sent back to us. We’ve more accurately determined the rate of expansion of the universe, estimated the age of the universe, discovered ancient supernovae, and discovering that galaxies may have black holes at their centers. Some of the most stunning images of our universe have come from Hubble. The HST is known for its incredibly sharp visible light images.
The most recent image to be released by Hubble is one of Messier 9, a globular cluster about 5,500 light years from the galactic center in the constellation Ophiuchus. The recently captured image is the most detailed ever taken of M9. The photo shows a myriad of differently colored stars, which number in the thousands. One can clearly observe several different types of stars in the cluster. The hotter bluish stars crowd the center of the cluster while the cooler red/orange stars are scattered mostly around the edges. M9 has a total luminosity of roughly 120,000 times that of our Sun while only occupying the space of a pin point at arm’s length in the sky. At 25,800 light years from Earth M9 is one of the closer globular clusters to Earth. Globulars are interesting to astronomers because they contain some of the oldest stars in the galaxy and are a remnant of the galaxy’s infancy and formation.
There are countless other images sent back from Hubble and I’m sure you’ve seen many of them. Needless to say, Hubble surely ranks up near the top of NASA’s greatest hits. The telescope is expected to remain in orbit and functional until at least 2014. Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope is expected to be launched by 2018 but delays and budget concerns have plagued the project for several years now. Whenever Hubble de-orbits it will surely be remembered as one of mankind’s greatest scientific instruments. Long live Hubble!
If there’s any such thing as a global holiday it should be Earth Hour. Earth Hour is one day each year where governments, businesses, and individuals turn off their lights for one hour. The day is the last Saturday of March and this year it’s March 31st, 2012. The date is picked so that it is close to the equinox so that as much of the Earth is in darkness as possible as the planet turns. The aim of Earth Hour is to raise awareness about global climate change and to send a message to governments of cities and countries across the world. Earth Hour began back in 2008 in Sydney, Australia when over 200,000 people turned off their lights for one hour. The entire city was behind the project and it was a great success. The following year all of Australia participated and Toronto, Canada also joined. Since then, Earth Hour has spread to over 52,000 towns and cities in 135 countries! This year we hope to have the largest participation yet! The date is 3/31/12 and the time is 8:30pm.
While I’m all for saving energy and the environment and all that I’m also intrigued by the other effects of Earth Hour: the skies. Imagine if you will, if everyone in your city turned off their lights and all the buildings went dark for one hour; how dark would the sky be and how much more of the night sky you would be able to see? Especially in a heavily light polluted state like Maryland, the difference could be dramatic if a large number of people and businesses participate! If you’re an astronomer, or if you support Earth Hour in general, PLEASE, PLEASE spread the word! Use Facebook, Twitter, your blog, your friend’s blogs, whatever outlet you have to spread the word please do so! Together we can unite the world for one hour to preserve what has been given to us and to appreciate the beauty of the heavens. For more information on Earth Hour please check out their website at www.earthhour.org.
Redneck Astrophotography: I’m not sure how this term came to be but somehow it seems a bit contradictory. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Anyways, I don’t own any fancy equipment for taking long-exposure shots of the night sky on an expensive EQ mount. I do however have an iPhone which has an app for taking long-er exposure pics but with no tracking system I’m not sure how it will turn out. It’ll probably have star trails if anything shows up at all. I did also just download an app called “Snapseed” which is an image editing app for the iPhone. I managed to get it for free which is huge because it’s usually $9.99. I took several shots of the moon the other day when it was just before full. I have to use both my 25% and 13% transmission filters to get the image dim enough for the camera to take in. The result is 7% light transmission which is a perfect amount for my phone’s camera to handle. After using Snapseed to sharpen it up and play with the contrast I managed to produce a pretty striking image of the moon with good contrast between the mare and the higher elevations.
The second image is one of M42, the Great Orion Nebula, that a member of the Harford County Astronomical Society took. I just recently joined HCAS and they sent this picture out in an email. After sprucing it up a bit I got much more detail out of the nebula than is at first visible (it looks a bit grainy but still not bad). I’m quite pleased with Snapseed so far and if you’re like me and can’t afford fancy equipment to do real astrophotography then this is a great option! Especially if you purchase an eyepiece mount for your phone like this one from Orion.
I hope you enjoy the pictures!
The sky is always stunning to look at no matter what day it is, but this week promises some pretty cool activity for stargazers. The emphasis this week is on the solar system. To begin with, the pairing of Jupiter and Venus in the west has been stunning for several days now and is approaching the two planets are approaching their closest distance. Tonight (Monday) they will be 3.1° apart (roughly two finger widths at arm’s length, your clenched fist is about 10°). The two planets will be just 3.0° apart on Tuesday night as Venus and Jupiter begin to switch orientations. This conjunction promises a stellar view for binocular viewers and some telescope viewers at lower power.
Next up is Saturn which rises just before 10pm (EDT). Always a stunning sight no matter what time of year, but Saturn’s rings are tilted just about at the optimal angle for viewing from Earth. Over the next couple months the rings will start to flatten out until they will be seen edge-on. Also, Saturn, the moon, and the star Spica will dazzle in the sky around midnight tonight and Tuesday.
Mars is currently trekking its way through the constellation Leo this month. Each day it is getting closer to Regulus, the brightest star in Leo and the foot of the lion. Mars is just past its closest distance from Earth and is quite a pleasing sight in a larger telescope at its highest point from 11pm to 1am.
Since the moon is rising late this week we have another chance to view comet Garradd as it zooms through the inner solar system. Garradd is still at magnitude 6.0-7.0 so you likely still need to drive away from the city lights a bit to see it with a telescope. The comet is currently hanging out near the bowl of Ursa Minor and λ Draconis on Friday night.
Mankind has always asked “Why?”. Why indeed? Through one simple three-letter word we have asked questions of the stars, unearthed secrets of our planet, harnessed the power of nature, developed technology, and explored the deepest depths of the oceans. The word “WHY” has fueled the engine of human exploration, discovery, and advancement for thousands of years. We know almost all there is to know about our planet and are well-versed in the workings of the universe (though our knowledge be vastly incomplete), but one “why” has eluded us since the dawn of time. Why does the universe exist?
I’m sure you’ve heard a story of someone in college who, when asked on their biology final the simple question, “Why” wrote “Because” and received full marks. Whilst that answer might have sufficed for the purposes of the freshman Biology course it is a supremely inadequate answer. It is an extremely disappointing answer to say the least. We learn of this answer’s disappointment from a very early age. When a child asks why he can’t have ice cream for dinner the parent responds, “Because.” ”Why?” asks the child. ”Because I’m your father and I said so” in order to avoid having to embark upon a futile dissertation on why ice cream is not healthy and dinner is. However, the child is always disappointed because their question was not adequately answered (in their mind).
As humans we are driven and we feel compelled to understand the nature of things around us. Why does the sun move across the sky? Why does the moon go through phases? Why does everything stick to the surface of the Earth instead of floating away into space? Why does it get cold in the winter and hot in the summer? Through the simple word “why” we have developed science which is nothing more than the art of asking “why?” We are curious beings and a cop-out answer of “because” simply won’t suffice. We seek the truth and nothing less.
The science of seeking the answer to why the universe exists is known as Cosmology. The popular belief among today’s cosmologists seems to be that the universe exists because of a cosmic dice game. Conditions for the universe existing are just right because the dice fell the correct way. On a traditional die there are six outcomes so the die is a cube. In the case of the universe, the dice used would have so many sides that it would almost be spherical with the probability of the current outcome being rolled is almost infinitely small. This has led to the exploration of a theory of the multiverse. Are there more than one universes? Are there an infinite amount of universes existing simultaneously? If so then that would greatly increase the chances of our universe being the way it is more realistic. Are we really just the result of chance? Is the complexity of our bodies, the planet, the stars, and galaxies really just by accident and random? If so, then the universe is a dreadfully bleak and meaningless object. My life has no purpose and neither does yours. The Milky Way galaxy is here, but it could not have been here, or there, or anywhere at all. If the power to exist is derived from the sums of all its parts probabilities of existing then it would seem that we’re just multiplying by 1/∞.
We all know you can’t divide by infinity. It could be true that the probability of anything existing is the sum of all it’s parts existing, but for this to be possible you would need a finite probability for each component. One way of rationalizing this would be to assume that the universe was created on purpose. There are simply way to many components that influence the existence of any one object that to quantify them would always create a denominator so large, the resulting probability is infinitely small. So for me, chance is out right. There has to be some purpose and order to it all.
I am neither a cosmologist nor a scientist. I am simply a layman who is taking what he sees and using it to make sense of the world. As John Milton says in Paradise Lost, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” It is impossible for us to make truly objective conclusions about anything because we always see things and approach things based on personal opinion, experiences, and perceptions. The trouble with the cosmic dice game explanation of the universe is that those scientists have always had a perception of the universe being random and chaotic and harsh and will see only the evidence that supports their perceptions. If only there was a source of knowledge that came from outside a human mind not subjected to false perception or bias then we could accept that as pure truth. Could this be the same external force that exists outside of human knowledge and mathematics that created the universe on purpose? Could there be a designer who’s knowledge and power caused all things to be? My belief tells me that there indeed is. There is a Creator who exists outside of human existence in whom all creation finds its source.
Apart from my personal beliefs, the notion of a creator is not as completely crazy as it sounds. If you think about how marvelously fine-tuned the universe is and how everything works together in complete harmony it seems almost ridiculous to think that the order of the universe evolved from chaos by chance. If say, the gravitational constant was less than it is stars would not be able to hold their elements inside where more complex and heavier elements are created there would be nothing in the universe except hydrogen and helium and nothing worth note could have formed from those lightest of elements. Similarly, if the gravitational constant were larger then even the smallest of stars would explode into supernovae and black holes would ravage much of the known universe. Planets would almost never form and galaxies would look very different. Just in the case of gravity alone there seems to be evidence that a creator fine-tuned the knobs and locked them in place to the perfect setting.
This could easily turn into a 5,000 word essay but I will conclude here. I believe there is simply too much detail and evidence of fine-tuning to believe that it all happened as a result of chance. There has to be some kind of intelligence behind it. The mathematical laws of the universe suggest this. Math is beautiful and it binds the universe together. Could we even have math to explain something that is infinitely random? We study probability but balk at the thought of infinity. So what if infinite probability is not even a part of the equation? What if the probability was 1? That certainly seems possible if there is a creator.