Blog Archives

Historic Comet Landing!

Hi Everyone!

As I’m sure you probably know, this is the very day that NASA’s Rosetta spacecraft has landed on a comet to peer into an object that has fascinated and terrified humanity for thousands of years! If you click on the link below, you can see the official NASA page of the mission, with pictures, a timeline, and video coverage of the mission.

http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov/ 

In honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve created a short presentation for you about comets. Feel free to use it in class, but please give me credit!

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I’ll be writing more later in the week about the significance of this mission, but for now, enjoy this presentation, and enjoy watching this incredible mission online!

Happy Comet-Gazing!

Is NASA headed for “The Abyss?”

TheAbyss Like most of us in this economy, NASA has had to make some budget cuts. When they released their 2014 budget, it cut over $55 million from the previous year. Planetary studies have been hurt the most with 300 million cut from the budget. Looking at this, it’s clear that studying our solar system is just not a priority anymore; NASA is taking new directions with its research and some of its new plans are quite exciting.

For Example, NASA is increasing its funding to support Earth science; tracking man made and natural changes to our planet, including pollution and climate changes. The idea is that hopefully learning more about how to protect our planet and to protect ourselves.

In addition, there is also a program in place to start manned missions into space once again. I’ve written about this before when I mentioned the Orion Spacecraft, the first manned spacecraft designed for interplanetary orbit in 30 years. NASA is already building the space capsule, and the whole project should be finished by 2021.

BUT, there is one item on the NASA budget that seems right out of science fiction- The capture and mining of ASTEROIDS!

That’s right, President Obama approved a new project designed to send a special craft out into space for the purposes of finding and capturing a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA), and then bringing it back down to Earth to study, and eventually mine it for its contents. This might sound like something out of a James Cameron movie, but it really is part of the NASA budget, and the project is getting underway as we speak.

So why mine asteroids? To answer this question, I’ll break down the arguments and, (to continue with the Sci-Fi theme I’ve begun), I’m going to list them one by one, and name them after some awesome Sci-fi movie titles.

1. The Abyss/ Avatar-

According to scientific estimates, one asteroid may contain over $20 TRILLION dollars worth of precious metals, as well as iron, nickel, and cobalt. Ultimately, it might improve NASA’s budget and the world economy greatly to invest in asteroid mining. Plus, unlike Avatar, all of these asteroids would be uninhabited, making mining comparatively easy from a socio-political standpoint. Still, as you can see from the video above, to make this plan economically viable on a large scale we would need to develop vastly superior rockets, to keep the cost of sending rockets up into space all the time lower than the profits reaped from the asteroids themselves. As far fetched as this idea may seem, companies are already working to make it a reality. Imagine NASA beginning a new industry as unlimited as the universe itself!

2. Titan AE

If our planet were to suffer a cataclysm, (which could literally happen any day now), we will need to find a new way of getting water, oxygen, and the ingredients to create plant life. In addition to precious metals, asteroids also contain all of these. Bits of oxygen and hydrogen are locked up within the rocks. In addition, we know that asteroids contain ingredients for life, since 3.5 billion years ago, they helped develop life on our own planet. Therefore, if we ever need to leave the Earth, it makes more sense to mine our raw materials from asteroids, rather than taking everything with us. Of course, getting us off the Earth, is a much bigger problem:

3. Armeggedon

As the Russian meteor explosion grimly reminded us, Earth could literally be hit by an asteroid at any time without warning. This is why the primary goal of the Asteroid Retrieval project is to study asteroids and determine how best to combat a potential threat. Lest we forget, an asteroid destroyed entire species on our planet 65 million years ago, and we need to be careful to make sure it doesn’t happen to us (cue the dramatic music).

So there you are, the major reasons why it’s a good idea to find asteroids and bring them back here. We eagerly await NASA making this project a reality, so that they make space a safer and more profitable place to live. As one more treat, here is a NASA animation of how the project might look, with dramatic Hollywood music underscoring for good measure.

Cool Astronomy Resources For Kids

Hello everyone!

In addition to running this blog and giving nightly astronomy tours, I am also working on developing a kid’s astronomy program for the resort. In my quest to make astronomy fun, accessible, and interactive for young people, I came across some valuable free resources that I’d like to share with you. Obviously there are hundreds of blogs, podcasts, video channels, and websites out there and I could never share them all, so if you like this post and think something should be added, let me know! I’d be happy to make this a new page on the blog and follow up weekly with new resources.

So here is a short multimedia collection of links that you can show to your young ones to get them excited about space:

Video channels

Deep Sky Videos– An excellent channel, not only for astronomy, but for science all together. It features great pictures by professional astro-photographers and lots of valuable data.


NASA TV- Here’s NASA’s official YouTube Channel, which provides you with simple, clear explanations of what our space agency is doing. Sometimes they interview astronauts on the International Space Station, and get them to talk about life in space.

NASA JPL Live This is not Youtube, but a live feed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Whenever there is any kind of live event at NASA, such as the docking of a spacecraft, or live pictures from Mars, you can access it with this link!

Video streaming by Ustream
Apps

Exoplanet- A free app that allows you to keep track of any new planets discovered outside our solar system. You can use your mobile device to find each planet in an interactive map of the galaxy, zooming at warp speed to newly discovered worlds.

Sky Viewer- This app tells you exactly what planets and constellations you are looking at by overlaying names and a connect-the dots pattern over the night sky. A GPS compass keeps track of where you are, and you can see the stars using the display. There is a pay version that also shows you more planets and keeps track of satellites, but the free version is a nice way to learn the constellations and keep track of where you are in the sky.

NASA Space Weather Map (Android App only)

View near real-time images of outer space from current NASA missions. Learn about weather near the Sun, Solar Wind, Magnetosphere, Aurora, and Heliosphere from scientists who study them

I did find some neat pay apps from this website too, just in case you aren’t  satisfied with the free stuff:

Websites

Astronomy.com– The official website of Astronomy Magazine, loaded with pictures, articles, and tips for amateur astronomers, and yes, there’s a kids’ page.

ISS Tracker- A website that allows you to know where the International Space Station is at all times!

NASA’s JPL Planet Quest- A great interactive site which teaches kids about planets beyond our solar system, by allowing them to create one, studying the ideal conditions for creating life in the universe.

Social Media

The Curiosity Rover’s Twitter Page- Updates from the mission, written in the first person by the robot.

Kids Needs Science (Tumblr Page)-Full of beautiful pictures of space objects and links to articles.

International Space Station Facebook -Regularly updated with videos, pictures, and news articles.

So there’s a rough start to the vast world of astronomy for kids on the web. Like I said earlier, I’d be happy to post any of your suggestions, or turn this into a regular feature on the blog. Let me know in the comments. In closing, just to show you how far we’ve come with online education, I’d like to post an oldie but a goodie- Bill Nye the Science Guy explores comets and meteors:

Happy Stargazing!

 

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare

Today, I’d like to switch hats for a little while from Astro-nut to Shakespeare Geek. I’ve been studying Shakespeare for a long time and since today is his birthday, I thought I’d take some time to celebrate it. Like a lot of Elizabethans, Shakespeare believed that the stars and planets helped to influence a person’s destiny. Of course, he lived in the time of Galeleo and Copernicus who questioned these established opinions, and you can hear this changing tide of ideology in the dialogue of his plays. Plus, Shakespeare frequenly uses stellar images to add some extra spice to his love poetry. After all, who doesn’t want to be compared to the radient Venus, the brilliant stars, or the kingly Jupiter?

So today, I’d like to sojurn with you for a while away from the shores of science, and into the sweet waters of music and poetry related to the stars, with Shakespeare as the pilot for our vessel. Hope you enjoy it!

The Facts Are These:

  • Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1613, and died at the age of 52.
  • He wrote 37 surviving plays, 154 sonnets, and four epic poems.
  • The word “Stars” appears 77 times in Shakespeare’s work.
  • The god Jupiter appears as a character in one of his final plays, “Cymbeline”
  • In his tragedy “King Lear” an old lord worries about disasters called by eclipses and comets.
  • One of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, Prospero, is a magician who uses the powers of astrology to control the elements.
  • Shakespeare was called “Sweet Swan Of Avon” by his contemporary Ben Johnson. The river Avon flowed through his home town of Stratford in Warrickshire. You can still see the swans today!

Some Famous Quotes From Shakespeare About Stars:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love. – Hamlet

Take him and cut him into little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun -Romeo and Juliet

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves – Julius Caesar

FOOL: The reason the seven stars are only seven is a pretty reason,

KING LEAR: Because they are not eight?

FOOL: Yes, indeed: thou wouldst make a good fool.

Shakespeare and Astrology

A diagram from the 17th century of the different planetary spheres and their influence on the four elements.

A diagram from the 17th century of the different planetary spheres and their influence on the four elements.

As I’ve mentioned in the “This Month In Astrology” posts, people of Shakespeare’s day believed that the planets and stars could influence a person’s desitny and their character. They believed that the universe contained four basic elements called humours, that were the forces behind the planets, the stars, and our bodies. The four humours corresponded to the four basic elements- Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. These humours reflected aspects of people’s personality- the cold and dry meloncholy, the warm and airy blood, the hot and fiery cholor, and the slow and temperate phlegm (the humour of water). Living in ballence with the planets, stars, and your own bodily humours was the best way to live a healthy life, so Shakespeare and his contemporaries studied the stars to figure out how to control and understand their lives. Queen Elizabeth herself had a pesronal astrologer who helped her get through the invasion of the Spanish Armada. A lot of Shakespeare’s tragedies focus on people whose destinies seem to be influenced by bad stars or planets. As I mentioned in “The Ides Of March” post, a bad planet or a comet could influence the fates of powerful people. Meanwhile, the comedies focus on people who let their humours take over them; from the melancholic Jaques to the foolish constable Dogberry, to the brave but idiotic Orlando, Shakespeare’s characters are at their funniest, when they are at their most “humourous.” In short, Shakespeare’s understanding of the humours and the stars allowed him to classify and examine different types of people, and how they deal with extrodinary situations. This is one reason we continue to read his work 400 years later.Finally, a little poetry reading. Here is one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a short poem that’s only 14 lines long.

In this poem, the speaker rejects the doctrine of Astrology when looking into the face of his beloved, and instead claime that the only celestial light he needs is in the bleoved’s eyes. When those lights are gone, the universe as he knows it will end, so he advises the object of his affection to have children to allow those lights to renew. This is the format of the first 126 sonnets, but Shakespeare uses incredibly varied devices to make the same simple point.

So I hope this little sojourn into Shakespeare’s swan boat was entertaining for you and I hope combining my love of astronomy and Shakespeare will help you, the reader to appreaciate both even more.

Happy Stargazing,

Paul
“Jove and my stars be praised! Here is yet a postscript” – Twelfth Night

PS. If you liked this little exploration into stellar poetry, please leave a comment below. There is a rich vein of poetry related to the Sun, Moon, and stars, and I would love to write about them in future posts.

Week of the Comet!

EXCITING NEWS! On March 10th, Comet Panstarrs will reach its closest point to the Sun, and be visible at last for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere! The comet has been visible in the skies below the equator since early February, but at last those of you who join us at Primland can see it!

First ever photo of Panstarrs, 2011

First ever photo of Panstarrs, 2011

Comet Pannstarrs was discovered in 2011 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Panstarrs) in Maui, Hawaii. It is a non-periodic comet, which means that it very rarely passes within this solar system. In fact, once the comet leaves the solar system, it might not be back for over 100,000 years!

At first, the comet was barely visible with a telescope, but since its re-appearance in February, it has become bright enough to see with the naked eye. As it reaches its closest place to the Sun on the 10th, it grows steadily brighter and brighter. Predictions are already afoot that after it reaches parahelion ( the closest distance from the Sun), Comet Panstarrs will shine as bright as the planet Venus, the brightest planet in the sky!

 

Photo of comets Lemon and Panstarrs taken March 3rd, 2013 at Las Campanas observatory, Chile. Photo courtesy Juri Beletsky (public domain).

Photo of comets Lemon and Panstarrs taken March 3rd, 2013 at Las Campanas observatory, Chile. Photo courtesy Juri Beletsky (public domain).

When to Look- Starting March 10th, the comet will be visible in the western sky, in the constellation Pisces. Over the next few days, it will move North, until it will pass the North Star on March 29th. For more info on where to look and where to look for teh comet, visit Astronomy.com’s guide.

Chart of the ideal times to see Pannstarrs, courtesy of the Griffith Observatory

Chart of the ideal times to see Pannstarrs, courtesy of the Griffith Observatory

How to Look: The Griffith Observatory has a whole guide on the best way to view the comet from where you are, click here.

For some tasty photos and videos of the comet from earlier this year, click here:

Rest assured, if you come down to Primland, we will be on the watch every night looking for the comet, and hopefully snapping a shot! If you sign up for a Tour Of the Universe, you might even be able to see the comet pass overhead!

Till then,

Happy Stargazing!

Doom From the Skies- week of 2/11-2/17

Greetings readers!

Photo of the meteor that disintegrated over  Russia's Ural mountains on February 15th.

Photo of the meteor that disintegrated over Russia’s Ural mountains on February 15th.

HOOLY COW! What a week it has been- between the asteroids going across the globe, a comet in Australia, meteors in Russia, and lightning strikes in Rome; it seems like the gods of astronomy are working overtime to make this a very fascinating week. I have posted a recap of this week’s events on Today In Astronomy to fill you in on anything you missed, with the best reporting the web can offer!

Enjoy!

-Paul