Wallpaper Wednesday

27 09 2012

Gemini North with Southern Star Trails. Image credit: Gemini Observatory

I completely forgot yesterday was Wednesday. Rather, I remembered, but only as “Today is Wednesday, the day I talk to my developmental editor,” not as “Today is Wednesday, the day I remember that I have a blog I’m supposed to update at least once a week.”

It’s just as well I missed my regularly scheduled update because now I can write about yesterday’s press release from Gemini Observatory. The observatory announced that its astronomers have produced the sharpest image yet made using ground-based (Earth-based) instruments of Pluto and its largest companion, Charon.

Speckle image reconstruction of Pluto and Charon obtained in visible light at 692 nanometers (red) with the Gemini North 8-meter telescope using the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI). Image credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/NASA/AURA

The pixelated image might not look like much, but as the press release noted, it’s “the first speckle reconstructed image for Pluto and Charon from which astronomers obtained not only the separation and position angle for Charon, but also the diameters of the two bodies.” That’s pretty exciting—if anyone has tried to sell you the diameter of Pluto recently, he or she should have prefaced the number with the word “about.” Astronomers have been setting upper limits on the diameter since Pluto’s discovery in the 1930s (the 1960s seemed to be a particularly fertile decade for arguments on the topic), but still qualify their assertions with “± 20km”. I’ve been looking forward to the New Horizons arrival at Pluto in 2015, but the Gemini announcement makes the wait a little less painful.

Of everything I’ve read today, the comment I enjoyed most was made by Elliott Horch, coauthor of the Gemini study:

This was a fantastic opportunity to bring DSSI to Gemini North this past July. In just a little over half an hour of Pluto observations, collecting light with the large Gemini mirror, we obtained the best resolution ever with the DSSI instrument—it was stunning![1]

First, you gotta love the enthusiasm. I recently heard an NPR story about the development of robotic intelligence. The claim was that one day, humans would stop experiencing the “A-ha!” moment because robots would do all our thinking for us. I’m guessing Elliott Horch wouldn’t agree with that premise.

Second, the comment about “just a little over half an hour” caught my attention. It’s a little misleading, of course. As Horch knows, since he was in charge of the project to develop the instrument, hours and hours and hours went into the design and installation of the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI).[2] But then again, this is how contemporary astronomy works: you request a time slot on a popular instrument and pray the weather, the instrument, and everything else in the universe that can affect your project goes the way you want it to go. Sometimes you get an entire evening with an optical instrument, sometimes you get a few nights, sometimes you have to change your project because there’s no open time available at all. When everything works out, well, then  you see Charon and Pluto.

Today’s wallpaper celebrates the Gemini/DSSI/Korch team victory. Click on the observatory and star trails to reach the download page.


[1] Gemini Observatory Takes Sharpest Ground-Based Images Ever of Pluto and Charon (redOrbit.com)

[2] DSSI was installed temporarily at Gemini North last summer. It’s spent most of it’s observing life at Kitt Peak.

(Astro)photographer Vorrarit Anantsorrarak (aka CoolBieЯe)

25 09 2012

Some More Dream. Image Credit: Vorrarit Anantsorrarak (CoolBieЯe)

This photo has been circulating through facebook with some sort of quasi-spiritual text attached to it. The first time it showed up in my timeline, I thought it was a cut-and-paste job. The second time it showed up, I decided to do a little more investigating. I eventually tracked it to the camera of Vorrarit Anantsorrarak, a landscape architect for AECOM. As it turns out, that shot of a starry night in New Zealand is almost the least impressive of his work. I’m taken with everything that he’s posted to fb and flickr, but that fact that he was able to capture the ethereal qualities of northern lights on his first encounter with them really impressed me. He’s taken photos that are something beyond perfection. If you don’t believe me, check out his Norway 2012 photos. His Switzerland 2012 collection also features some breathtaking skyscapes. I don’t think you’ll consider any of your time wasted if you look through the rest of his portfolio on flickr and fb after your done with those.

Just maybe…

25 09 2012

Comet Hale Bopp viewed from Pazin in Istria/Croatia, 29 March 1997. Photo Credit: Philipp Salzgeber

The twitterverse is starting to light up with rumors about a new comet, C/2012 S1 (ISON). It’s projected to get “extremely close” to the sun in November 2013, at which point it may do what comets often do when affected by the sun’s proximity—disintegrate (see the fate of last year’s Comet Elenin). If the ISON comet makes it around the bend, however, it may attain a significantly negative apparent magnitude. A comet with a magnitude of -15 wouldn’t just be the brightest object in the night sky (a full moon has a magnitude of -13 or so), it would be one of the two brightest objects in the day sky. It’s not going to outshine the sun (magnitude around -26), but it would still be visible to the naked eye.

Skymania has a nice summary of the possibilities for the comet.

U.S. Fire and Smoke (MODIS)

23 09 2012

Wildfires in Washington State. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team, GSFC

I think the first line of NASA’s description of this photo says it all: “The summer of 2012 will unfortunately be known as the ‘Summer of Devastating Western Wildfires’ and practically not one state out west was spared.” At present, my home state is seeing a resurgence of flames due to lightning storms sans rainwater sweeping through the area earlier in the month. I’m particularly interested in the Okanogan Complex, since it’s closest to home, but the high evacuation levels of the Wenatchee Complex have been stressing me out for two weeks now.

The above photo comes from NASA’s U.S. Fire and Smoke Gallery, an intriguing yet somewhat depressing set of images taken by various satellites. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers (MODIS) on the Aqua and Terra satellites are doing what they were designed to do: provide an extensive, repetitive record of the earth’s surface. Terra flies north to south over the equator in the morning, Aqua crosses south to north in the afternoon. Between the two imaging systems, the entire surface of the earth is documented every 1-2 days. Most of the “MODIS Image of the Day” photos show us the troubled parts of the planet: typhoons, hurricanes, ash clouds from volcanic eruptions, massive phytoplankton blooms, and yes, smoke and fire from around the world.

Astronomy Photographer of the Year

19 09 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a brief write up of the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s competition for (Astro)Photographer of the Year. The results are in, and they’re beautiful.

Endeavour-SCA Mating Time Lapse

19 09 2012

Oh, yeah. NASA Kennedy posted a time lapse video of Endeavour’s mating to the SCA. Watching it, I had the same thought I posted a few days ago: the Shuttle retirement process is just about as fascinating as the spaceflight program.

Wallpaper Wednesday

19 09 2012

Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-134) on LC-39a. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

I made it home from my run this morning just in time for Endeavour’s last list off from Kennedy Space Center—on the back of a Boeing 747. Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) seem to be part of my daily life now. NASA has already uploaded a photo set of this morning’s ferry flight on its flickr site, but I’m taking this opportunity to link to a wallpaper that already feels vintage: a classic storm shot from April 2011 showing Endeavour on launch complex 39a before the rollback of the Rotating Service Structure.

This is a bit of belated information that I shared on twitter but forgot to post here: if you know the tail number of a NASA aircraft, you can use FlightAware to check for flight times. Endeavour’s last hop will take place courtesy of SCA N905NA, as did all the Shuttle ferry flights. You can type that tail number in at FlightAware to produce a list of scheduled flight times and destinations. I also use FlightAware to check on Super Guppy flights (tail number NASA941).

Click on the image above to reach the appropriate spot in NASA’s flickr stream. Once you’ve reached that page, right click on the image to save a copy to your harddrive.

Final Voyage of the Endeavour

15 09 2012

Endeavour, ready to travel. Photo credit: Mike Killian / www.MikeKillianPhotography.com

Mike Killian posted some sweet photos to the “Welcome Endeavour/Spot the Shuttle” group on facebook. Killian is a professional photographer out of Florida and his portfolio includes some fantastic Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral shots. Check out his Final Voyage of the Endeavour photos. I’m finding the decommissioning the Space Shuttles almost as impressive as their space flights.

Neil Armstrong: Burial at Sea

14 09 2012

NASA has posted a moving set of photos of Neil Armstrong’s burial at sea.

Endeavour’s Final Flight

14 09 2012

In case you missed it, Spaceflight 101 has a nice summary of Endeavour’s planned ferry flight next Monday, September 17. I have never been so envious of our relatives who live in California’s central valley as I am now.

Observatories and Instruments