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!

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!

Everything You Wanted To Know About Asteroids

 With the recent asteroid pass over Earth, and the Russian meteor that exploded last week, I thought this would be a perfect time to have a bit of a discussion about asteroids.

Asteroid DA 14, which passed the Earth at a distance of about 17,000 miles February 15th.

Asteroid DA 14, which passed the Earth February 15th.

What are Asteroids?- An asteroid is basically a rock that floats in space.  They do not have any atmosphere, and are too small to be considered plaents. Most asteroids are part of a vast belt between Mars and Jupiter nearly 60 miles wide. According to Space.com, the belt has over 750,000 asteroids floating within.  Asteroids are generally made of rock, but they often contain gasses like Nitrogen and Hydrogen at their cores. NASA has 3 different classifications of asteroids- Class C, (which are mostly made of Carbon), are the most common, and appear gray, like DA14 and the Russian meteor.

The biggest asteroid ever seen is technically also a dwarf planet named Ceres, discovered in 1801. It is nearly 600 miles across and orbits around Mars and Jupiter.

A view of the Orion Nebula in the constellation of Orion. Those three streaks are meteors that I captured as they came shooting across the screen.

A view of the Orion Nebula in the constellation of Orion. Those three streaks are meteors that I captured as they came shooting across the screen.

Difference between Asteroid and Meteors. An asteroid is an asteroid, asl long as it does not pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, then we re-name the object a meteor, commonly known as a “shooting star.” Like fireworks, meteors burn with a variety of different colors, depending on the chemical composition of the metals of which they are made.

Once the meteor finally hits the Earth’s surface, it is re-classified again as a meteorite. Over 10 tons of meteors hit the Earth every day, but by the time they get through the mile-long journey through the Earth’s atmosphere, the meteors are reduced to dusty grains no bigger than the sand you find on the beach.

 A Meteor Shower occurs when lots of tiny pieces of rock go through the Earth’s atmosphere at once and burn up in bright streaks. These streaks are often the debris from a comet and occur at regular intervals throughout the year. The next one to occur in 2013 is the Lyrid Meteor Shower, the debris from Comet Thatcher; the shower is scheduled to appear on April 22nd.
Meteor Crater Arizona, site of a meteor impact over 500 million years ago!

Meteor Crater Arizona, site of a meteor impact over 500 million years ago!

Meteors have crashed into the Earth, Moon, and other planets since the beginning of time. Over three billion years ago, asteroids containing the carbon and oxygen like outer-space care packages, hit the Earth, causing the planet’s atmosphere to slowly change from mostly methane gas, to its breathable state that supports living beings. On the Moon, asteroid collisions formed the craters that we see when we look at the Moon through telescopes. Some even speculate that the Moon might have been formed with an asteroid crashed into the Earth, sending molten rock into space that eventually cooled down to form the current Moon. As you can see in the picture on the left, meteors do still occasionally hit the Earth, although most of them burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere

Have there been any recent close calls with asteroids besides the Russian meteor? You may know that the same night as the Russian meteor, a much larger asteroid called DA 14 flew harmlessly by the Earth. Last year some speculated that DA14 would be eventually strike the Earth, and bring about the fabled 2012 Mayan apocalypse. However, these are only the most famous recent close calls. According to the International Astronomy Union (IAU), over 900 Near Earth Asteroids have been observed since 2011. A NEA is defined as an asteroid that passes within 1.3 Astronomical Units, or the distance between the Earth and the Sun. One of the most frightening examples occurred over the Mediterranean Sea. Space and Defense agencies warned that a sea impact could actually be worse than a land impact, as it could create massive tidal waves that could drown the whole country. Fortunately the meteor disintegrated before hitting the planet. General Simon Worden delivered a speech where he expressed relief that the asteroid didn’t impact, or even worse, be mistaken by mediterranean countries as hostile fire, and therefore an act of war:

The event of this June caused little or no notice as far as we can tell. But had it occurred at the same latitude, but a few hours earlier, the result on human affairs might have been much worse. Imagine that the bright flash accompanied by a damaging shock wave had occurred over Delhi, India or Islamabad, Pakistan? Neither of those nations have the sophisticated sensors we do that can determine the difference between a natural NEO impact and a nuclear detonation. The resulting panic in the nuclear-armed and hair-trigger militaries there could have been the spark that would have ignited the nuclear horror we’d avoided for over a half-century. This situation alone should be sufficient to get the world to take notice of the threat of asteroid impact- Gen. Worden, quoted in SpaceRef.com.

How are scientists studying these asteroids? Scientists all over the globe are keeping close watch for Near Earth Asteroids with ground based telescopes and space probes. In fact, the Canadian Space Agency just launched a new satellite early last week designed to track asteroids and other Near Earth Objects: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/satellites/neossat/default.asp

Not to be outdone, NASA is also developing the NEAR program, and Russia has the Planetary Defense League. Plans are also underway for a new system of telescopes designed to give everyone on Earth a week’s head’s up for an imminent asteroid impact called the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) to be ready in 2015.

Why didn’t scientists predict the Russian meteor? Simply put, the meteor, (which has been described by NASA as a “little asteroid”), was too small for the space agencies to detect.

Could an asteroid destroy the Earth? To be honest- yes. Although the planet Jupiter, with its massive size helps considerably in deflecting asteroids, an asteroid could impact the Earth at any moment. If the asteroid is of sufficient size, its impact could send dust into the atmosphere, blotting out the Sun. This would effectively kill all life on Earth. We know this is true because it’s exactly what killed the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago. This is why studying asteroids is so important.

How to prepare for an asteroid apocalypse– Discovery Magazine.com has provided a list of 10 ways to stop an asteroid for fun, which I have linked to here. My personal favorite is the plan to paint the asteroid with light-deflecting paint, to hopefully use solar radiation to push it away.

Well, hope that satisfies your craving for outer-space knowledge. As you know, although asteroids and meteors are fairly common, they only rarely hit the Earth. With any luck, our planet will be safe from a catastrophe for a long, long time.

Happy Stargazing!

Paul

Updates For This Week 2/18- 2/24

Hi everyone,

I’m playing a little bit of catch up, since I spent yesterday enjoying my birthday, so here’s the topics I’ll be covering for the rest of the week:

Comparison in scale between planets of the solar system, and Kepler 37b (NASA- public domain)

Comparison in scale between planets of the solar system, and Kepler 37b (NASA- public domain)

 

 

 

Today In Space History: Today I’ve posted a brand new discovery of the extrasolar planet Kepler 37b- the smallest planet ever discovered! It’s only about the size of the moon, and orbits its closest star in less than a month.

 

Map of the zodiac constellations with Pisces emphasized.

Map of the zodiac constellations with Pisces emphasized.

 

 

 

This Month In Astrology: Pisces. My birthday, (like Copernicus’) falls on the zodiac sign Pisces, which runs from February 19th-March 20th. Tonight I’ll be writing some interesting details about my own star sign- the placement in the sky, the elements. and the dominant characteristics that a Piscean such as myself is supposed to have. I’ll also be writing a post where I’ll teach you to create your own horoscope!

Image of Taurus the Bull, taken from 15th century Norman astrology book.

Image of Taurus the Bull, taken from 15th century Norman astrology book.

 

 

 

 

Astronomy Myths and Legends: Taurus Right now, the Moon and the planet Jupiter are right in the eye of the constellation Taurus the Bull. I thought I’d give you guys some insight into this zodiac constellation, and the somewhat curious myth that spawned it.

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, listens during a meeting of the council at the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill.

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, listens during a meeting of the council at the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill.

 

 

 

 

Special Post (Today In Space History) Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, one of the greatest astrophysicists of our time, and director of the Heyden Planetarium.

 

 

Asteroid DA 14, which will pass the Earth at a distance of about 17,000 miles February 15th.

Asteroid DA 14, which will pass the Earth at a distance of about 17,000 miles February 15th.

Special Post- How to Survive an Asteroid Impact!

Enjoy all this as the week goes on!

-Paul

Happy Birthday Copernicus (and also ME!)

Hello everyone!

Today is my birthday, as well as the Renaissance scholar and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, who helped prove that the Earth revolves around the Sun. To be honest, I’m taking a little break today to enjoy my own birthday, so in my absence, enjoy this documentary about Copernicus, and I’ll be back tomorrow.

See you,

Paul

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

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas…

Hello Everybody!

January Sixth is the date where Christians traditionally celebrate the Three Wise Men or Magi finally reaching the Christ child in Bethlehem after following a new star in the east. Since this date is so closely associated with astronomy, I thought I’d examine some of the theories surrounding this story. A few weeks ago, Primland Astronomy hosted Father Chris Corbally from the Vatican Observatory, who came and gave his theories as to whether the Star of Bethlehem could have been a scientific phenomenon. The three prevailing theories are that the star was either a comet, a supernova, or a planetary conjunction which would have given the appearance of a new star, since it gave off the combined light of several planets.

Giotto Scrovegni- "The Adoration of the Magi", painted 1306. Notice the comet-like Star of Bethlehem, which might have been inspired by Halley's Comet, which appeared in 1301.

Giotto Scrovegni- “The Adoration of the Magi”, painted 1306. Notice the comet-like Star of Bethlehem, which might have been inspired by Halley’s Comet, which appeared in 1301.

The Comet Theory

Comets have long since been portents in the lives of kings. For example Julius Caesar was killed the same year as comet, and William the Conquerer assumed the throne on Christmas Day in 1066, the same year that Halley’s comet appeared over England. Furthermore the description of the star of Bethlehem moving across the sky and hanging over the manger sounds the most plausible with a comet, as opposed to a fixed star. Thus, there is a lot of symbolic evidence to support the claim that the star was really a comet, which is one reason why it was immortalized in this painting by the early renaissance artist Giotto (right). However, the problem with this theory is that comets are equally associated with ill omens, and that the closest comet visible in Bethlehem appeared sometime in the period 9 March to 6 April 5 BC and lasted over 70 days (Source: Colin Humphreys, “The Star Of Bethlehem” From Science and Christian Belief , Vol 5, (October 1995): 83-101. Accessed January 5th from http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Astronomy-Cosmology/S&CB%2010-93Humphreys.html).

). If you take this date as the literal truth, this would mean revising the date and year of Christmas.

The Supernova Theory

Type 1A Supernova around an eliptical galaxy (Hubble)

Type 1A Supernova around an eliptical galaxy (Hubble)

A supernova is an exploding star, that becomes millions of times more bright than its entire life cycle, and then burns away into space. The advantage of going with supernovas instead of comets as a candidate for the Star of Bethlehem, is that they are so bright that they are visible in broad daylight, which would explain why the shepherds and King Herod saw the star too (Humphreys). As you can see in the photo on your left, the In addition, since comets generally follow a pretty predictable path, astronomers like the Magi might be less impressed with a comet than with a supernova, which only occurs once every 500 years, and was not well-known to ancient astronomy. Chinese astronomers record a supernova that happened around 5BC, but unfortunately, western records to not confirm it (Corbally). This could just mean that the supernova occurred too fast for most astronomers to observe it, except for the Magi, who were part of a religious sect that specifically went after heavenly signs. If you watch the documentary above, it mentions that there really were a small group of astronomers who called themselves the Magi out of Persia, and they followed astronomy closely as portents of the future.

Planetary Conjunction

One of the big hoaxes of 2012 was the theory that the planets were all going to align and throw the gravitational constant of the universe out of balance and destroy the Earth. Real planetary alignments or conjunctions can lend unusual light to the planets as they share the same space in the night sky. In fact, if you peruse Dr. Corbally’s website, he suggests that the triple conjuction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC that made a beam of light appear to fall from the two planets down onto Bethlehem, just like some Christmas cards depict.

Ultimately, this is an article of faith. Dr. Corbally also suggests that the Star could have been a divine intervention, which is neither provable or disprovable to science. However, it has captured the imagination of a great deal of artists, philosophers, theology scholars, and of course, astronomers. As I said before, the stars are a rich territory for myth and legend and when we look at questions like this we re-connect with what makes us human.

Happy Twelfth Night everybody! I hope this post gave you some epithany’s of your own.