Thursday, March 30, 2006

Mu Boo

This is what happens sometimes instead of working. You're pretending to be designing a newsletter and suddenly you get an idea for a T-shirt and have to drop everything to explore your Creative Vision. I don't know why I never get these Uncontrollable Creative Urges for client work. Oh well.

Seriously, did you ever think about the fact that there's a star called "µ Boo"? Which got me thinking about the various versions of the "boo" story, which I think originated with Lou Gehrig ("They're not yelling 'boo,' they're yelling, 'Lou!' "). There was also a comedian who had a riff about Little League in which his father told him, "They're not yelling "boo," they're yelling "Jew!" And of course, the one everyone knows these days, Hans Moleman: "I was saying Boo-urns."

My personal favorite was from an interview with Tom Petty on, I believe, the "History of Rock 'n' Roll" series, in which he described opening up for Bruce Springsteen way back when. He thought everyone was yelling "boo," and was so disgusted when they finished their set, he mentioned it to a roadie. "They weren't yelling "boo," they were yelling "Bruce," said the roadie. Tom Petty shrugged, "What's the difference?"

Which is all a long preamble to my latest oeuvre, the "Bootes" t-shirt:


Try saying "Schwassmann-Wachmann" five times fast.

Or, better yet, my favorite tongue-twister:

Many an anemone has an enemy anemone

The pre-Copernicans

It's easy to read too much into these surveys that expose scientific/math/geography illiteracy among the U.S. population. You know, the ones that show how a large percentage of students can't find the U.S. on a globe or name the current President. But there's plenty of ignorance to go around: after being pressured to join my office basketball pool, for example, I realized that I didn't have any idea how many periods they play -- something that I'm sure a lot of people would find to be an incomprehensible gap in knowledge. (Ask me about bicycle racing, MotoGP, or rally and I might have a little more to offer.)

Sure, I think it's important to understand that the earth revolves around the sun. To me, this seems like a basic fact about the world that everyone ought to know. But I can also accept the idea that not everyone views this as relevant information. In particular the sun thing. After all, personal experience and language itself tell us that the sun "rises" in the east and "sets" in the west. And it doesn't really hamper your day-to-day life to believe otherwise.

When it comes to believing things that aren't true, I'd much rather see a reduction in the number of people who believe in miracles, new-age "medicine", psychics, and so on -- beliefs that, if acted upon, could actually harm you or your children.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Today's eclipse


Clear skies over the Sahara made for excellent satellite images of today's eclipse.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The littlest Messier object: M40


I love those posters of the Messier objects—especially the ones in color where you can see the lovely nebulas and galaxies in all their glory. [cue soaring classical music[

And then there's M40. [screech of needle skipping off phonograph]

If you're contemplating the Messier marathon this weekend, it pays to know what you're looking for. In this case, an unremarkable double star. It's not hard to find, but M40 does seem like a plastic mug among Ming vases.

The SEDS database points out that this is an optical (line-of-sight) double, not a binary system. In 1863 the angular separation was 49.2" and in 1991 it had increased to 52.8". So assuming they keep moving apart at this rate (3.6" every 128 years), it will only take another 1,880 years to double their current angular separation, which will hardly count as a double star at all.

So I guess the moral of the story is, check out M40 now while it still looks like something.

Mag 3 skies—or not?

So, last night I took my light pollution reading for the Globe project. Turns out my neighborhood has closer to magnitude 4 skies than mag 3! Well, I don't think I'll change the name of the blog, even if it is a bit pessimistic.

I took my reading across the street in a neighbor's yard since I couldn't actually see Orion from my backyard -- a giant tulip poplar is in the way. There were two bright streetlights in my view; I used my hand to shield my face from the closest one. A bit of thin cloud or contrails made the transparency a bit worse even than it could have been.

It's true that when you get a good clear, dry night, you really can see a few stars around my house. It's mostly the streetlights, power lines, trees, and buildings that make actual stargazing virtually impossible. And if there's moisture in the air, forget about it. The whole sky looks like the inside of a giant, orange zeppelin.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

We've come a long way, baby

Checking out some of the recent images from the Astronomy Picture of the Day website, I was struck by this plot of known objects in the inner solar system. First of all, I love a graph with a ton of data in it (thank you, Edward Tufte). But second, I'm gobsmacked by the sheer amount of knowledge that this graph summarizes. Especially when you compare it to the state of knowledge in Copernicus's drawing below.

Credit & Copyright: MPC,CBAT,Harvard CfA,IAU

ca. 1530

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Pan-tastically small

Cassini took this picture of Saturn's rings, the moon Rhea, and also: "A couple of bright pixels at the center of the image mark the location of the tiny moon Pan (26 kilometers, or 16 miles across)."

They weren't kidding about "a couple of pixels"! Even with a red arrow pointing straight at it, it's hard to see.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Time, time, time is not on my side

Duriscoe et al./NPS

Extending from the city in all directions, the light from Las Vegas, for example, reaches 8 of 38 parks that Moore has surveyed. About 150 km away from Las Vegas, the city's lights are the dominant cause of light pollution in Death Valley National Park, where Moore's collaborator Dan Duriscoe works. On the other hand, "we can barely detect Las Vegas from Bryce Canyon," about 300 km away, says Moore, who's based in Utah at that national park. Science News Online

I already feel bad when I don't get out stargazing on a clear weekend, for whatever reason. And now I find out that time's a-running out. According to the National Park Service:

Two–thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their backyard, and 99% of the population live in an area that scientists consider light polluted. The rate at which light pollution is increasing will leave almost no dark skies in the contiguous US by 2025.

So get yer ground-based astronomy in now, while the gettin's good.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Observing report 3/18/06

We had a great public event last night at Crockett Park. I was obviously not the only one feeling photon deprived, as we had quite a good turnout of scopes -- at least 15 or 20. Not bad for a relatively cold, breezy evening. I made the limiting magitude out at about 5.2. I don't think the seeing was that great -- I took a stab at Saturn later in the evening and it didn't look too crisp. The public participation was low, which suited me just fine since I was hoping to do a practice run at the Messier Marathon.

It's not that I have anything against public nights exactly -- and when you get talking to someone who's really keen but not very knowledgable you certainly can feel like a hero --but overall I prefer club-only events. Mainly because I get out so infrequently that I feel like my time under the stars is precious and I want to jealously guard it. But also because public nights are noisy (kids) and bright (headlights, flashlights). Probably I'm just a crabby misanthrope. Most of the club member seem to love showing Saturn to newbies over and over and explaining what a planetary nebula is.

Anyway, I arrived shortly after sundown. Luckily the wind had died down almost completely, and it was probably about 40 degrees. Perfectly clear, dry, and good transparency. My equipment for the night consisted of binoculars and the Meade 2080 equipped with a 40mm Plossl and Telrad finder. It turns out binoculars are absolutely crucial for Messier Marathoning, because you can knock off a bunch of objects very quickly with them. I was able to locate galaxies M81 and M82 with them. Boom! Crossed off the list.

I had done my homework and came equipped with a list downloaded from Richard Bell's website and my Astrocards, reordered to match the list. The Astrocards were crucial. I've discovered that if I can't find something with the Astrocards, it's because I started from the wrong locater star. They always work if you use them correctly. And of course, a clip board, pencil, and my handy-dandy Ultra Darklight (a your truly product).

The other crucial piece of equipment I was trying out for the first time were my Carhartt insulated bibs. That's the first time I've ever actually been warm in cold-weather observing. Actually, I was HOT. Those things are the bomb. Nuff said. I just wish I'd bought them years ago.

Sadly, I was unable to find the very first object on the list, M74. I don't think it got dark enough. I was definitely in the right spot. I was able to detect M77, which was very faint and low on the horizon. My only other mysterious failure was M110 -- yes, the one right next to the Andromeda Galaxy. I dunno. I just couldn't find it. I've seen it lots of other times.

Anyway, I worked steadily through the list until someone near me said, "The moon's coming up." I had completely forgotten that this wasn't a new moon weekend. Even coming up through the trees, the waxing gibbous was so bright it looked like a beacon that lit up the whole field. I was really pleased with myself for staying out late and not feeling tired or hungry or cold for a change. I thought, it's really late, I wonder what time it is? So I went to check my cell phone clock and I was so shocked, I thought, that can't be the right time. It was only 10:40. Ha.

So, from about 6:30 to 10:40 I bagged 38 Messiers, not too bad. I think getting close to the 110 is possible, I just don't know if I have the will/stamina to stay out all night. Hopefully we'll get another good night next weekend when the actual club Messier event is happening, so I'll be able to have another go.

I'll say this about the Messier Marathon. I always felt secretly that it seemed a bit of a waste to just try and rocket through the list and not spend any time appreciating each object. Usually, I like to sketch and take my time trying to eke out as much detail as I can. But there is some value in finding an object and moving on: you really start to learn where things are. I was able to hit M35 in the scope for some tourists last night in about 3 second. That's got to be faster than slewing.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Astronomy in Ireland

In recognition of St. Patrick's Day, check out a story I wrote a couple of years ago about visiting Birr Castle in County Offaly, Ireland. Birr Castle is the site of the famous "Leviathan," which at one time was the largest telescope in the world. The Earl of Rosse who built the telescope used it to first discern the spiral structure of the Whirlpool Galaxy. They have a really nice, recently redesigned web site, if you want to read more.

More fun Irish facts:

The Washington Post notes today that over 34 million Americans describe themselves as having Irish ancestry, which is more than 9 times the current population of Ireland. Of course, before the Famine, there were something like 10 million people in Ireland, which is hard to believe if you've been there. It must have been terribly crowded.

In 1981 I went to see the Rolling Stones at Slane Castle in Ireland and there were reportedly a million people there. Which at the time, was 1/3 of entire population of the Republic. At one rock show.

And for those of you with XM Radio, you can listen to great Irish music all day on channel 15.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Almost Heaven Star Party

There's nothing like leaving work late last night and then getting up at six so you can come in early and work some more! Actually, I just about had a panic attack last night thanks to a job that came in with 40% more pages than it's supposed to have and I'm already just about out of budget. Wheee! What fun.

So instead of blogging, I'm going to refer you to our club's upcoming star party (logo & site designed by your truly, natch), the Almost Heaven Star Party. We're still getting a few things sorted out, but it's really going to be a great event.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Stardust surprises

NASA's Stardust Findings May Alter View of Comet Formation

"We have found very high-temperature minerals, which supports a particular model where strong bipolar jets coming out of the early sun propelled material formed near to the sun outward to the outer reaches of the solar system," said Michael Zolensky, Stardust curator and co-investigator at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston. "It seems that comets are not composed entirely of volatile rich materials but rather are a mixture of materials formed at all temperature ranges, at places very near the early sun and at places very remote from it."

Of course, I'm all signed up for the "Stardust at Home" research project. I don't think there's any other science where amateurs at home can actually make meaningful contributions -- whether it's analysing data, discovering comets, measuring variable stars, or monitoring gamma ray bursts. Astronomy is so cool.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Messier Marathon 2006

Our club is gearing up for Messier Marathon season. I'm just hoping the weather cooperates and that I actually have the time to get out. Every year I swear I'm going to spend more time stargazing and it never happens.

Part of the problem is that I have a new interest that seems to conflict with stargazing: cycling. You wouldn't think it, since cycling happens during the day, but of course, the nicer the weather, the more likely I am to go for a long ride on the weekends. And after a long ride, I'm usually too pooped to contemplate getting up off the couch, never mind loading up all my gear into the car, driving for over an hour to the wilds of Virginia, and standing around in the cold for hours, then driving back in the middle of the night. You kinda want to be well-rested and fresh for that sort of thing.

Anyway, my only previous recorded attempt at the Messier Marathon was several years ago, when I just got started in the hobby -- a grand total of 29 objects. I think I can probably do better than that this time, since now I know you can use binoculars to find some of the easy objects, which ought to speed things up. I know the Virgo cluster is going to kill me, though. I made it through this mess one night many years ago, but it took me 4 hours to find 16 galaxies. The main problem is knowing which ones you're looking at. Some of them are NGC objects and not Messiers at all.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Downtown Silver Spring

Here's the light pollution bane of my existence, the Courtyard Marriott:

How does it offend me? Let me count the ways.
1. Lights pointing into sky, illuminating top-level bedrooms (!) and architectural nightmare concrete "Stonehenge" thing on top of building.
2. Visible from my bedroom window, while I'm in bed.
3. Disgusting waste of electricity that serves no purpose, not even an aesthetic one.
4. They installed upward-facing lights in the SIDEWALK around the building, so as to blind you as you walk past. I think they've realized these are incredibly obnoxious and have ceased turning them on.

The only creatures who seem to enjoy the light pollution are swallows, who swarm over the hotel in the summer, eating bugs who are attracted to the light.

Exhibit B, downtown Silver Spring:

To be fair, this is a vast improvement in terms of enjoying the neighborhood over what was here before (empty lots, parking lots, an armory, more parking lots).

Major offenses:
1. Brighter than daylight at night.
2. Noise pollution bonus: Outdoor PA playing music 24 hours a day. Even at 4 am, when no-one's around. The worst thing is about this is that two building across the street from each will play DIFFERENT music, at competing volume. And the Baja Fresh on the corner plays it's own, different music. Whoever thought of this should be hamstrung.
3. Macaroni Grill.

The creatures who seem to get the most benefit out of the new downtown are kids on skateboards.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Star-hunting party

If you live in a severely light-polluted area like me, here's something we can do to help quantify it:

Join thousands of other students, families, and educators by participating in GLOBE at Night—an international event designed to observe and record the visible stars as a means of measuring light pollution in a given location. Participation is open to anyone—anywhere in the world—who can get outside and look skyward during the week of March 22-29, 2006! There is no cost to participate in GLOBE at Night. Help us reach our goal of 5000 observations from around the world!

I reckon it would take me about a minute to count all the stars I can see in Orion from my backyard—all ten of them. Sigh.

Fish on Enceladus?

NASA's supposed to make an Exciting Announcement today at 2pm, but there's already news going around that's it's about warm water on Enceladus, which is a prerequisite for life as we know it! Looks like I might have to update my "Fish on Europa" shirt...