Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

Next total solar eclipse in Atlanta

Posted: 4 August 2009 in Uncategorized
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I already knew Wolfram|Alpha could do some cool astronomy calculations, like comparing the escape velocities of the Galilean moons.  A recent W|A blog post also pointed out that you can calculate the next lunar eclipse.  So I tried to see when the next solar eclipse would be for my area and it came up with a partial solar eclipse in 2014.  Skip that and go to the next and it turns out there’s going to be a decent one in 2017.  As a reminder, I sent an email to myself via FutureMe.  It’ll be interesting to see if a) I’m still using gmail in 8 years, b) if FutureMe is still around sending emails, and c) if we can still see the sun.  Man, I love W|A.

Total solar eclipse in 2017

Total solar eclipse in 2017

Lunar Eclipse February 20, 2008

Posted: 21 February 2008 in Uncategorized
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Last night was the last total lunar eclipse for two years and it was quite good. Pittsburgh weather cleared long enough for me to snap a couple shots of the unobstructed moon with Regulus (the brightest star in the constellation Leo) bright above it and Saturn even brighter to the bottom left. There was still a light haze that I think made it difficult for me to get the focus right. I was able to capture the rich, red color while the moon was still exposing a sliver of sun-drenched rock. Then the clouds came in earnest and I was getting tired, so I went to bed, missing the full umbra. But at least I got to see some of it this time. Last time there was a lunar eclipse, I was completely out of luck.

Total lunar eclipse from February 20, 2008.  A sliver is still exposed to the sun. (more…)

Rumors are brewing that Microsoft is going to announce the release of a new product called Worldwide Telescope later this month. WT should allow users to zoom in on parts of the sky for which data exists. Data will be drawn from a number of ground-based telescopes as well as Hubble. Google Sky does this already in a nauseatingly ugly way. It’s bad. Epic fail there. Stellarium, on the other hand, is an open source star charting program that blows Google Sky away. I’ve been using it for a few years now and have been very happy with it. From the sound of the TechCrunch article, though, Worldwide Telescope could blow Stellarium away. I really hope so. And if it’s free, I’ll be forced to give Microsoft props for doing something right for a change.

Moon in the Clouds

Posted: 28 January 2008 in Uncategorized
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I can stare at the moon on a clear night for quite a while. When I was very young, I felt like I could reach out and touch it. When I first got into model rockets (around 8 years old), I thought I could build one big enough one day to send it to the moon. My stepfather at the time (Greg) dispelled that notion, but not unkindly. Anyhow, I was looking at the moon tonight and thought it looked cool through the clouds. I took this picture with the flash on, so the shutter speed was fast. I tried taking several other shots with very slow shutter speeds, but the clouds blurred and the moon was overexposed. I used a tripod, but unfortunately when I snap the shot I cause a slight jitter. You can see there is a double-image effect going on here, which is the result of my movement after clicking the button.

The moon in the clouds

Galactic Attactic

Posted: 18 December 2007 in Uncategorized
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When you subscribe to a crapload of feeds that have overlapping subject matter, you see interesting themes emerge. In the astronomy subblogosphere, the recent news about the double galaxy 3c321 has sparked yet another competition over who can come up with the coolest headline. In case you haven’t heard about it, 3c321 consists of two galaxies, one of which is shooting a jet of particles at the other (via its black hole) which could strip the atmosphere off any planets in that galaxy. Here are the headlines I have collected in the wild:

  1. Bad Astronomy: Taste my death ray, 3c321!
  2. Galaxy blasts neighbor with deadly jet
  3. NASA: ‘Death Star’ galaxy black hole fires at neighboring galaxy
  4. NASA Image of the Day: Black Hole Bully
  5. Discovery News: Galaxy zapping neighbor with deadly beam
  6. National Geographic: ‘Death Star’ galaxy found blasting smaller neighbor
  7. Celebritycraps: Black Hole ‘Owns’ Galaxy!!!
  8. Cumbrian Sky: ‘Death Star’ galaxy lets rip…
  9. BBC: Black Hole ‘bully’ blasts galaxy
  10. ArsGeek: I swear, some peoples galaxies…

And the list goes on with variations on the theme. Almost as shocking as the campy puns are the multitude of posts that just regurgitate titles from the major news outlets.

Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battlestation!

This phenomenon is not limited to the domestic abuse in double galaxy 3c321. I have observed it occur again and again. I suppose it comes from probably three different causes: catchy headlines attract readers, blogs are supposed to be creative outlets and so bloggers try to be creative (and I guess newspaper editors as well), and a natural desire by people to show off their wit. I decided to combine all three by going over the top and using a fake word just to make it rhyme. The result attracts readers, is creative, shows off my prodigious wit, and thumbs a cynical nose at the blagoblag for its absurdity while ironically increasing said absurdity. Insert arrogant, fake, British-gentleman laugh here.

As a side note, wouldn’t be interesting if we’re actually witnessing a galactic war between two ridiculously advanced civilizations who don’t mind taking millions of years to kill each other?

Phaethon Cometh

Posted: 7 December 2007 in Uncategorized
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One of the dark horses of the inner solar system makes its closest approach to Earth since it was discovered in 1983 soon.  Phaethon is an asteroid (perhaps the burnt out core of a comet).  We pass through its debris trail every December, resulting in the Geminid meteor shower.  This year, the Geminids will peak on December 13-14th.  Bonus:  the Geminids are likely to be even better than the Perseids this year.  Unfortunately, it’s cold out.  Plus I have an exam on the 14th.  This meteor shower didn’t get the memo I sent out that it had to fall on a weekend.

So what’s special about the Geminids?  Phaethon is a source of denser meteors than are found in most other meteor showers.  This results in meteor paths that can be jagged and more meteors that break apart and split.  According to, the Geminids have a history of slow, bright meteors and faint meteors, but few medium-brightness ones.  The moon will be a faint crescent and peak times will see 60-120 meteors per hour.

For more on the discussion of whether Phaethon is a burnt out comet or an asteroid, check out Astroprof’s page on the topic.  If you happened to download Celestia when I talked about it before, you can also download an add-on that includes a few thousand near-Earth objects.  Phaethon is included in that pack (it doesn’t come with Celestia by default, or at least I couldn’t find it).  That site (the Celestia Motherlode) has a number of very awesome additions to Celestia, so I recommend checking it out.


Posted: 1 December 2007 in Uncategorized
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When I was around 12 or 13, I first got a hold of my stepfather’s physics text book. It was magic. The rules that governed the physical world were right there in the form of equations on a page. I was totally captivated. Newton’s laws of motion, gravity, angular momentum, and the theory of relativity. When I first learned about relativistic time dilation, it was life-changing. I resolved to become an astrophysicist. A lot of changes happened in my life that turned that dream into my current one. But, like all first loves, it never went away.

When I got my first computer, I had hopes of writing a program that would plot the positions of the stars as they were in space (3-D) versus how they appeared in the Earth’s sky (2-D). I achieved a little bit of success getting the vectors worked out from the distance, right ascension, declination and so on. I had no easy way of visualizing it though. Doing 3-D plots in BASIC back in 1990 wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. So that project died.

Then like a ghost, Celestia came to me last night. Wrapped up in her open source glory, I dared not even dream that she could perform what I had so long abandoned all hope of. But she did my friend, she did. (My wife won’t like this imagery :))


Leonid Meteor Shower

Posted: 16 November 2007 in Uncategorized
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This weekend will be the peak time for the Leonid meteor shower. It is so-named because the meteors originate from the section of the sky corresponding to the constellation Leo. The most locateable star in Leo is Regulus, which rises these days just after midnight on the eastern horizon. A little while later, Saturn rises behind it. Saturn and Regulus are both fairly bright so they make an easy pair to spot. The sky map below is from a perspective of Pittsburgh, PA at 1:51 am tonight (November 17, 2007). Peak time for the shower will be around 4am tonight and tomorrow night. [source]

Of course, you don’t have to find the constellation Leo in order to enjoy the Leonids. The comet Tempel-Tuttle leaves a trail of dust as it orbits the sun and occasionally we stray right into it. In 1833, the event was so huge people from Europe and North America took note of it. Estimates of the storm activity put it at over 200,000 meteors per hour! I dream of such a thing. It even led to the song “Stars Fell on Alabama.” Another big storm occurred in 1866 and again in 1966. Unfortunately, it looks like this year will be a modest viewing year, which puts the Leonids lower on the totem pole than the Perseids, which occur back in early August.

Viewing conditions for Pittsburgh look grim, which is typical of this time of year. This morning we had our first real snow. It had snowed a week or two ago briefly, but that was more of a snowy drizzle/wintry mix. Today there was actually accumulation on the dead leaves in the yard and on some cars. Nothing major yet.

The constellation Leo with Regulus and Saturn, where the Leonid meteor shower originates

Astronomers have theorized for years that there must be more mass out there than we can see. Based on the movements of galaxies, star systems, and gas clouds the number of stars just can’t account for it all. Enter dark matter. Matter we can’t see. Special stuff. Even a whole Dark Galaxy.

On a side note, I’ve always thought that would make the perfect penal colony for an intergalactic empire.

“Mr. Adams, for your crimes against the Blagoblag, you are hereby sentenced to spend the rest of your natural life exiled to … the Dark Galaxy.”

“Noooooooooo!! Please, execute me instead!”

So a couple of Canadian astronomers (why their Canadaness is important, I don’t know) have proposed a new theory of gravity that dispenses with the need for dark matter altogether. From a strictly lay viewpoint, since I don’t have enough of a physics background to make an informed assessment, dark matter has always struck me as ad hoc. So dispensing with it would be much more elegant, in my opinion. Of course it would mean the end of the Dark Galaxy and my dreams of a vast network of prisons for political dissidents from the Rebel Alliance.

Last summer, observation of a galactic collision in the Bullet Cluster was touted as an event that caused dark matter to separate from the regular matter in galaxies and was considered evidence of dark matter’s existence. Enter Canadian astronomers: claims of dark matter’s existence premature. They have proposed a modified theory of gravity (MOG), which would account for everything observed in the collision. Excellent. Note: they are not announcing the theory, which has been around for a year or so, but the application of the theory to actual observed data.

John Moffat, the lead researcher, makes a great point that mirrors my feelings about dark matter quite well. He compares theories of dark matter to the 19th Century theory of the luminiferous aether, the hypothetical medium of space through which light was able to travel. “They saw a glimpse of special relativity, but they weren’t willing to give up the ether. Then Einstein came along and said we don’t need the ether. The rest was history.” [source]

I caught Randy Pausch on Oprah yesterday (and yes, a dying CMU professor IS the one of the few things that will make me endure watching Oprah). His last lecture focused on the importance of childhood dreams and he mentioned the landing of men on the moon as a pretty fundamental motivator. Heck, it inspires me still and I wasn’t even alive. So I especially love it when NASA gets kids involved in the space program (I’ll return to this after a brief rant). Too much today, launches of the shuttle, the existence of the International Space Station, and probes sent to other planets are just routinely ignored or sidelined by the mainstream press. Discovery launched today carrying the Harmony module to the ISS and it got about 3 seconds on the Today show.  The result? People think the space program is totally useless. It doesn’t help when Nobel laureates like Stephen Weinberg call the space station an “orbital turkey” that “has produced nothing of scientific value.” That brings to three the number of Giant Turds with Nobel Prizes (joining James Watson the Racist and Al Gore the Murky-Green Fraud). For a nice rebuttal of the Weinberg gibberish, there is this article from adAstra that mirrors the point by Randy Pausch a bit.

Anyhow, returning from my rant. NASA has announced a contest for school kids to name a place for the Cassini probe to point. Cassini is currently in the Saturn system. It recently left Iapetus, which I indicated looks like the Death Star. Currently it is focusing on Saturn’s moon Titan and will be doing some close flybys of it over the next few months. For students to participate the contest, they need to write a 500-800 word essay on why Cassini should look at one of four possible targets on November 30, 2007. So if you know a kid in grades 5-12, let them know.

Four Targets:

  1. Mimas (a moon) coming out from behind Saturn
  2. Saturn’s rings and a lot of moons
  3. Prometheus (another moon) and the F-ring (Prometheus seems to actually steal matter from the ring)
  4. Tethys (yet another moon) and its Odysseus impact basin