Category Archives: Astronomy

Solar Eclipse

While hiking in the woods yesterday, I spontaneously decided to build an improvised pinhole camera to see the solar eclipse. Materials used: a roll of toilet paper, some aluminum foil I found in a trash can, a notepad from my backpack, and of course, my trusted Swiss army knife. Here is the resulting contraption and the image it produced:


If this does not impress you, here is a more professional image taken by the European Proba-2 microsatellite. (Hey, it cost a bit more). Credit: ESA/Pierre Carril.

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SOFIA

Last year I became one of the first journalists to fly on a science mission aboard SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) developed and operated by by NASA and the German aerospace agency DLR.

In essence, SOFIA this is a giant, state-of-the-art infrared observatory packed into the aft fuselage of a highly modified Boeing 747SP. By making airborne observations high in the stratosphere, SOFIA’s instruments can gather light above 99% of our atmosphere’s water vapor. The flying observatory is now beginning to enter full scale scientific operations.

Our 10-hour long flight (dubbed Basic Science Flight 2) took off from U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. Most of our circuitous flight took place over the Pacific Ocean. After about 10 hours in the air, during which we reached altitudes of 43,000 feet, we returned safely to Palmdale.

The mission consisted of tests and observations on the GREAT instrument (the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies), which were successfully carried out.

It was a thrilling experience, and I was most impressed with the professional workmanship of the entire NASA crew. Keeping this highly complex, unique aircraft operational and flying in a reasonably safe manner is no easy task requiring much coordination and teamwork.

My detailed report was published in the January February 2012 issue of Gruner+Jahr’s popular German science magazine, P.M. Magazin. An excerpt (in German) can be read here. (The magazine will continue to be available online in both print and iPhone/iPad app editions).

Click the image below to see my photo album:

 

Links:

SOFIA on Wikipedia

NASA’s SOFIA Page

DLR’s SOFIA Page (English)

DLR’s SOFIA Seiten (Deutsch)

Deutsches SOFIA Institut (DSI)

SOFIA Science Center (USRA Page)

 

 

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Trouvelot: Astronomical Drawings And Invasive Species

In June 1881, a brilliant comet streaked across the skies of the northern hemisphere. This image is part of a recently digitized series of illustrations by the French-born artist Etienne Leopold Trouvelot (1827-1895).

Other images show Jupiter, Saturn and details of the Moon and Sun. Another records a meteor shower that lit up the skies one night in November 1868. [See Trouvelot’s Astronomy Illustrations]. All images were made available by the New York Public Library.

Trouvelot was less known for his astronnomical drawings, but more for his work as an amateur entomologist. This, however, had unintended results. As part of an attempt to produce silk in America, Trouvelot brought in gypsy moths from Europe — to be bred in the United States. Things went awfully wrong. Some larvae escaped and became an invasive species. To this day, gypsy moths are a devastating pest in America, destroying forest foliage in parts of the Southeast and Midwest, and in the northeastern United States.

I wish Trouvelot had stuck to drawing astronomical objects.

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Visiting Mount Palomar

Last weekend I was part of a group making a visit to the Mount Palomar Observatory.

When I was in school (voraciously sucking up astronomy books), Mount Palomar seemed to me like a place of magic and wonder. From its opening in 1949, and until 1992/93, the giant 5.1 m (200 inch) Hale Telescope was the largest and most important telescope in the world. (Actually, there was a larger Soviet telescope of a later design, but it is often omitted because it never functioned quite well).

The compound on the Southern California mountaintop also encompasses several smaller telescopes. Together, they account for most of the groundbreaking discoveries in the entire history of astronomy.

Here are some pictures. (Click to enlarge).

In front of the Hale Telescope dome, Mount Palomar. From left to right: Jed Laderman, Dave Yantis, Robert Lozano, Reinhard Kargl.

Standing under the massive, 200 inch primary mirror of the Hale Telescope.

Looking up to the secondary mirror, toward the top of the dome. In the old days, this is where the observer would have sat in a cage all night long, handling photographic materials. Today, the instruments are photo-electronic. Human observers no longer ride the elevator to the top).

The old control panel, preserved in a perfect vintage look. Doesn't it seem like something from Star Trek? (Today, the telescope operator sits in a heated cabin, insulated from the dome interior. This being on a mountain top, it gets extremely cold in the winter).

View from the Hale dome's circular catwalk. In the distance is the dome of the historic 18 inch Schmidt telescope. Beginning in the 1930s, Fritz Zwicky did his first surveys of supernovae here. The dome is no longer in use today.

More on Fritz Zwicky and the 18 inch Schmidt telescope.

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SOFIA: Flying High For Astronomy

I am rather excited about SOFIA, the airborne infrared telescope which is now flying its first scientific missions. I am hoping to do a lot of coverage on it in the future.

The program is a collaboration between NASA and the German aerospace agency, DLR. Much cheaper and more flexible than an infrared space telescope, it it hoped that the research flights will continue for 20 years or more.

I recently attended an in-depth press briefing at the Dryden Flight Research Center at U.S. Air Force Plant 42, where the aircraft is now based.

Among those present were NASA’s SOFIA Program Manager Robert R. Meyer, DLR’s Program Manager Alois Himmes, the Director of the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB David D. McBride, Associate Center Director at NASA/Ames Steve Zornetzer, Director of Science at Ames Michael Bicay, SOFIA Project Scientist Pamela Marcum, Cornell University astronomer Terry Herter, Division Head for Submillimeter Technology at the Max-Planck Institut for Radioastronomie Rolf Güssen and Science Mission and Operations Director Erick Young.

Looking at the SOFIA aircraft from within its hangar at the Dryden facility at Air Force Plant 42. The door revealing the infrared telescope is open. Photo: Reinhard Kargl. Click to enlarge.

Telescope Assembly and SI Integration Manager Thomas Keiling probably got a sunburn while patiently explaining his "baby" to everyone wanting to know details. Photo: Reinhard Kargl. Click to enlarge.

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New Book On Multiple Universes

Brian Greene, the author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, tackles the existence of multiple universes in his latest book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

Here is Brian Greene, interviewed by Terry Gross, for NPR’s Fresh Air.

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos –
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Knopf (January 25, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307265633
ISBN-13: 978-0307265630
List price: $29.95

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Voyagers In Space

It’s been exactly 30 years today since Voyager 1 made its closest approach to Saturn. Its sister ship, Voyager 2, followed closely behind. Curious where they are now?

Voyager 1, which was launched on Sept. 5, 1977, is currently about 17 billion kilometers (11 billion miles) away from the sun. It is the most distant spacecraft launched from Earth. Voyager 2, which was sent on its way on Aug. 20, 1977, is travelling at a distance of 14 billion kilometers (9 billion miles) from the sun.

Both craft have reached the outer regions of the Solar System and are still returning useful scientific data. (Where exactly we should consider the Solar System to end and interstellar space to begin is subject of scientific controversy. Some astronomers take the position that the solar system extends quite a bit further. If the Voyagers continue to radio back measurements, they might contribute to the debate).

The Voyagers were built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which continues to operate both spacecraft.

More Voyager information is available at:

http://www.nasa.gov/voyager and http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov .

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中秋節

Originating in China about 3,000 years ago, the “Mid-Autumn-” or “Moon Festival” (Zhongqiu in Chinese, Tết Trung Thu in Vietnamese) is one of the year’s most important holidays in much of Asia.

Having admired and loved the Moon since childhood, I have come to think that the Chinese had the right idea by giving the Moon its own holiday. There are of course many beautiful myths and customs surrounding it, the details of which vary by region. But the roots go back to the beginning of science, as the festival marks both Autumnal Equinox and Full Moon. This year was very special, because both occurred simultaneously, which has not happened in 20 years.

Full Moon and Jupiter over West Los Angeles. Photo: Reinhard Kargl, 2010. Click to enlarge.

I took the above picture from a hilltop west of Los Angeles, looking east just before 11 PM last night. (B&W, digital SLR, ISO 50, 24 mm lens, f/2.8, 15 sec., 2 stops underexposed. Digitally processed and vignette added. The blur was natural and caused by moist marine layers drifting in from the ocean).

PS: And yes, I did get to enjoy the traditional moon cakes. (Three different kinds!)

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Goodbye, Summer

Tonight at precisely 03:09 Universal Time (UTC) summer ends and fall begins on Earth. (Data source: U.S. Naval Observatory).

Fall or “autumn” starts with the “autumnal equinox”, an astronomical event during which the celestial equator and the ecliptic intersect. At this point in time, the tilt of the Earth’s axis is neither inclined away from nor toward the Sun, and the center of the Sun lines up with the Earth’s equator. When this happens, there is a point on the Equator where, if you stood there, the center of the Sun would be located exactly above you.

Two such moments (“equinoxes”) exist each year. In addition to the “solstices”, they mark the change of seasons.

Man’s knowledge of this goes back thousands of years, as we can tell from cult sites and edifices specifically constructed to mark these events.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Islands, Scotland. This Neolithic site was built about 4,500 years ago.

Here is more about the Ring of Brodgar.

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More Dwarf Planets

I grumbled when the  International Astronomical Union erased Pluto from the list of “planets” in our solar system. Memorizing the names of the nine planets seemed simple enough when I was in school. Why make it any easier on today’s kids? Besides, I liked my old neighborhood just fine.

But in retrospect, I have to admit that the decision was right. Otherwise, school kids would now have to memorize the often bizarre names of  quite a few more “planets”. Many of the recently discovered “Trans-Neptunian” objects are very similar to Pluto and  should therefore be in the same class. One of them (“Eris”) is even larger than Pluto and has a moon (“Dysnomia”). Sedna, Makemake (in case you are wondering about the name, scroll to the bottom) and Quaoar are only slightly smaller.

Source: National Geographic. Click to enlarge.

Having lost its “planet” designation, Pluto (now a “dwarf planet”) has gained two more moons, making it three: CharonHydra and Nix.

National Geographic just published a brief article on the discovery of 14 new TNOs. Why are these cold worlds important? Because they represent building blocks from the early days of our Solar System, and we are interested in learning how (and from what) it formed. NASA’s New Horizon space probe will help to address this question. It is now about halfway to Pluto’s neighborhood.

PS: Makemake was discovered at Easter. Following tradition and IAU rules, it was given the name of a creator deity. Makemake, the creator of humanity and god of fertility in the mythos of the Rapanui, the native people of Easter Island, was chosen in part to preserve the object’s connection with Easter.

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