The Science of the Solar System

28 03 2014
Pluto System, Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JPL/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), HST Pluto Companion Search Team

Pluto System, Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JPL/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), HST Pluto Companion Search Team

I’m the first to admit I don’t understand the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) model of education. I can’t figure out how companies like Coursera make money by offering free courses and I can’t see how anyone thinks they MOOCs can replace a four-year university education. I’m an advocate of online education for some courses, in some forms, but not for an entire college education. But no one asked me, and as long as the instructor gets paid and the student gets some intellectual benefit, I have no complaints. I’ve taken one MOOC (on Thomas Jefferson, because hey, UVa), learned a lot, and found it a pretty good use of my spare time.

The preceding paragraph was just a warm-up for the real purpose of this post: to remind you that you’re running out of time to register for Mike Brown‘s free online course, The Science of the Solar System. Judging only from the intro video, it looks like it’s going to be a fun class. I saw Mike give a talk at NEAF last year and enjoyed it. His material was pitched at a good level, assuming his audience had enough knowledge to follow him, but was not made up of astrophysicists.

Plus, he was nice enough to autograph a copy of his book for my wife.

Also coming up is a MOOC on the technology of astronomy (AstroTech: The Science and Technology behind Discovery). I think I’ll be enrolled in this one. My research deals with Early Modern “astrotech” and it might be fun to look at a more contemporary perspective.





David Malin, The Invisible Universe

22 03 2014
David Malin, Dust and Gas Adrift in Orion (UKS 1). Image ©Anglo-Australian Observatory; ©Anglo-Australian Observatory/Royal Observatory, Edinburgh; ©Malin/IAC/RGO; ©Malin/Pasachoff/Caltech

Dust and Gas Adrift in Orion (UKS 1). ©Anglo-Australian Observatory; ©Anglo-Australian Observatory/Royal Observatory, Edinburgh; ©Malin/IAC/RGO; ©Malin/Pasachoff/Caltech

The Invisible Universe, the lovely online exhibition of David Malin’s astrophotography at the Joseph Bellows Gallery, will be available for viewing for at least a couple more weeks. According to the gallery site, it will be viewable through April 2, 2014. This is one exhibition I wish I could view in person—there are few things more stunning than platinum-palladium prints, regardless of the subject.

David Malin was at the Anglo-Australian Observatory (now the Australian Astronomical Observatory, AAO) for twenty-six years as a photographic scientist-astronomer. If you are a fan of astrophotography, you have undoubtedly seen his most popular books, The Invisible Universe (1999) and Ancient Light (Phaidon, 2009).

The AAO owns the copyright for any of Malin’s images that required the use of the observatory’s instruments. David Malin Images manages the copyrights: follow this link for more information about photosales and reproduction rights.





Project Yosemite

3 03 2014

I’ve mentioned Yosemite a few times over the past two years. I have family in California’s Central Valley, and when we visit, it sometimes seems as if the mountains are literally calling to me. Skywatching is amazing up there (if you can get past your fear of being eaten by a cougar) and there is no shortage of photographs and films to prove it. To wit: Project Yosemite recently released a second timelapse, ostensibly documenting a 200+ mile backpacking trip, but really giving us a good view of the park’s changing skies. Their first video, released in 2012, was stunningly beautiful. Yosemite HD II may be even better.

ETA: The air traffic over Yosemite never ceases to amaze me.





Visiting McCormick Observatory

27 02 2014
Leander McCormick Observatory, Mount Jefferson, University of Virginia, November 2013. Image credit: JR

Leander McCormick Observatory, Mount Jefferson, University of Virginia, November 2013. Image credit: JR

I took the students in my “Spaces of Science” seminar to the Leander McCormick Observatory at University of Virginia for a viewing session last night. Sometimes I forget how fun it is to watch students learn—it often happens outside class, when they’re reading and writing and making connections across courses. So, to be under the same dome with them during the process was really lovely experience.

Much of last night’s success was due to McCormick’s outreach program. I could have listened to Dr. Ed Murphy talk for another three hours. He imparted a lot of information, ranging from a discussion of the serrated blades of the McCormick reaper (really) to the reason Betelgeuse appears red to the naked eye, but managed to wrap it all into an entertaining narrative that held our attention. I swear, even I believed Orion could stand in the ocean before he took an arrow to the head.

I freely admit that some of the pleasure of last night came from the fact that I also got to look through the 26-inch telescope. That’s the largest refractor I’ve ever used, and I enjoyed it so much I almost asked if I could stay late to watch Ganymede emerge from Jupiter’s shadow. As it was, we had a great view of Jupiter and Io during the class session. Dr. Murphy also showed them the Trapezium Cluster in the Orion nebula and blew one of my student’s mind when he told her that “new born” means 3,000,000 years old when it comes to stars.

Approximately half my students under-dressed for the weather, which was bad in that the temperatures fell below freezing, but good in that the class experienced observational astronomy as it would have been in the nineteenth century. One of the things that students can’t learn about the (historical) practice of astronomy unless they visit a big instrument is how much observing depends on bodily motion. We’ve been reading about Lick Observatory, where the floor moved up and down on a system of hydraulics to help astronomers chase objects across the sky. At McCormick, the approach was more traditional—astronomers climbed up and down a laddered observer’s chair that moves around the observatory on wheels. Then there was the manual positioning of the telescope as well as dome rotation (dome rotation still done by hand at McCormick). And then there was observing in the freezing cold, because heating the dome would disturb the optics with warm air currents.

I hope my students had as much fun as I had. Check back in a couple months for an update—I’m applying for a ticket to visit University of Virginia’s Fan Mountain Observatory in April. I hope that my students caught the bug and will join me for the evening.





“Spacefaring”

26 02 2014

I came across this odd but compelling Spacefaring video about the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) while doing some research on Achyut Kanvinde’s design for the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad (1954). I can’t decide how I feel about contrast between “villager” and “science”. The video is also a little misleading, as India’s space port is in Andhra Pradesh (just up the east coast from Chennai). On the other hand, I watched it twice, which means it captured and held my interest.





Cristina de Middel – ‘The Afronauts’

10 09 2013
Man at instrument panel

Excerpt from ‘The Afronauts’, Cristina de Middel

I came across this exhibit review in a section of the New York Times that had been abandoned in the local coffee shop last week. Cristina de Middel, freelance photographer and photojournalist, has imagined a project—created a world, really—out of the traces left by Zambia’s space program. Initiated by Edward Makuka Nkoloso in 1964, the program foundered and failed in a matter of months. The Internet is a good source for mockery of Nkoloso’s ambitions (see this “forgotten space program” video, for instance), but de Middel appears to be doing something else. I can see the potential for laughter in some of her photographs, but she also manages to capture some of the intellectual brutality of the post-colonial experience. Who has the right to aspire to a new nation? To mobility? To colonize space?

Maybe we can laugh at Zambia’s misguided efforts in training astronauts, perhaps we can shake our heads over Nkoloso’s antics, but we’d only be making fun of ourselves. The instrument panel in the above photograph doesn’t look much different from those used to support the Apollo mission. The United States sent humans to the Moon with memos typed on manual typewriters and spacecraft operated with yes-no toggle switches. I mean, you can fly a Space Shuttle with a 386 microprocessor. Starting a space program with whatever resources are available…I don’t see the problem.

I don’t know what de Middel’s intent was, and I’m sure she was headed somewhere else creatively, but she’s left the viewer an opening to critique the hoarding of space exploration by a few privileged nations, always at the expense of others.

I’d like to link directly to de Middels’ ‘The Afronauts’ portfolio, but the design of her website makes that impossible. I’ll give these directions: after you arrive on her home page, click on the PROJECTS link at the bottom of the page. Currently, THE AFRONAUTS is at the top of the projects list.





Wallpaper Wednesday: Aurora Borealis

4 09 2013
Big Aurora. Image copyright Göran Strand.

Big Aurora. Image copyright Goran Strand.

Earlier this week, the Universe Today blog featured aurora photographs taken by Frank Olsen and Göran Strand. Both photos were beautiful, but I’m in love with luminous sky in the image Strand posted on his blog last week. I’m also in love with his description of the scene: he claims that photo looks as “if a green blanket was put on top of the sky (om en grön filt lagts över vår himmel)”. This aurora is much friendlier than the goblinesque northern lights that frightened me as a child.





Upcoming LADEE Launch

2 09 2013
NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft sits in the nose-cone at the top of the full Minotaur V launch vehicle stack.

LADEE in the Fully-Stacked Minotaur V Fairing. Image credit: NASA Ames/ Zion Young

If you’ve been missing your lunar reconnaissance instruments since the GRAIL impact, you might find some relief through the upcoming launch of  the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). Don’t get too attached to LADEE’s instruments, though—this mission will only last about 160 days. The mission team has allowed thirty days travel time (from Earth to lunar orbit), thirty days for positioning and shake-down, and 100 days for science.

My first reaction to the LADEE project was, “Whoa. You mean we don’t know that already?” Many people feel that the Moon is old hat, a been-there-done-that kind of place. But it turns out we don’t really know much about out closest neighbor, despite the success of the Apollo missions. Did you know that the Moon has an atmosphere? Three of LADEE’s science projects (the Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer; the Neutral Mass Spectrometer; and the Lunar Dust Experiment) will be studying it through spectral and particle analysis. The fourth component of the payload, the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, revolves around a search for a faster means of communicating in space.

If conditions are right, I should be able to see the LADEE launch Friday, September 6, 2013. More correctly, I should be able to watch the launch vehicle (a Minotaur V) streak across the tree tops at T+90 seconds, give or take a few seconds. The launch window opens at 11:27 p.m. EDT and LADEE will be leaving Earth from the Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia. If you’re on the east coast between North Carolina and the Maritimes, with an open view to the east-north, you might be able to see the rocket. If you fancy a trip out to Wallops, you can find a list of public viewing sites here.

Maximum Elevation Map.  Image courtesty: Orbital

Maximum Elevation Map. Image courtesy: Orbital

From the Orbital Minotaur V website: “This map shows the maximum elevation (degrees above the horizon) that the Minotaur V rocket will reach depending on your location along the east coast. The further away you are from the launch site, the closer to the horizon the rocket will be. As a reference, when you look at your fist with your arm fully outstretched, it spans approximately 10 degrees. Thus if you are in Washington, DC the highest point the Minotaur V will reach is approximately 13 degrees above the horizon, or just slightly more than a fist’s width. The contours shown stop below 5 degrees. It is unlikely that you’ll be able to view the rocket when it is below 5 degrees due to buildings, vegetation, and other terrain features.”

First Site Map. Image courtesy Orbital.

First Site Map. Image courtesy: Orbital

From the Orbital Minotaur V website: “This map shows the rough time at which you can first expect to see the Minotaur V rocket after it is launched. It represents the time at which the rocket will reach 5 degrees above the horizon and varies depending on your location along the east coast. We have selected 5 degrees as it is unlikely that you’ll be able to view the rocket when it is below 5 degrees due to buildings, vegetation, and other terrain features. As a reference, when you look at your fist with your arm fully outstretched, it spans approximately 10 degrees. As an example, using this map when observing from Washington, DC shows that the Minotaur V rocket will reach 5 degrees above the horizon approximately 54 seconds after launch (L + 54 sec).”

Happy LADEE Launch!

ETA: I forgot to tell you that you can follow LADEE on twitter at https://twitter.com/NASALADEE!





Apollo Surface Panoramas

19 07 2013
Apollo 14 Landing Site, Solar Wind Collector. Image courtesy: NASA, Lunar and Planetary Institute

Apollo 14 Landing Site, Solar Wind Collector. Image courtesy: NASA

Warren Harold at the Johnson Space Center has created a great thing: a digital library of panoramic photos of the Apollo landing sites. Even better, the photos are supported with zoom and pan functions, so you can waste an entire morning studying the details of the moon’s surface. My favorite is the Apollo 14 landing site—it’s surreal in its clarity. Click here to go to the Apollo Surface Panorama page at the Lunar and Planetary Institute.





Observatory Cats

28 06 2013
Deimos, HiRISE ceiling cat.

Deimos, HiRISE ceiling cat.

Astronomy with cats: