Sun streak ends! Whither Mercury?

All good streaks must come to an end, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Cal Ripken, Jr.’s consecutive games-played record of 2,632. This morning Seattle Astronomy‘s personal mark of successful astronomical observations of Sun-related events was snapped at a modest four when we failed to spot Mercury during its transit across the face of the Sun.

Waiting for Mercury
Conditions looked semi-hopeful shortly after sunrise that we’d see the Mercury Transit. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Hope of spotting Mercury remained alive until the bitter end. I arrived at Seattle’s Seacrest Park just before sunrise when the transit had already been under way and below our horizon for a couple of hours. We got a few glimpses of the Sun during the morning, most not enough to register even a glimmer of light through properly filtered optics. Then came proof that Mother Nature can be cruel and sadistic, especially to those who would practice astronomy in Seattle. With the transit slated to end at about 10:04 a.m. PST, the clouds parted a bit at about 10:02, setting off a mad scramble to point, focus, and look. I thought I caught the barest edge of Mercury leaving the disk of the Sun, but I couldn’t be sure. There were lots of clouds in the view. The Sun was there but Mercury, true to his fleet-of-foot reputation, was gone. I count it as a nice try.

Not everyone who came to our viewing event was skunked. Seattle-based Associated Press photographer Elaine Thompson caught this shot during a brief clearing:

It pays to be prepared! The day was not a total loss. Many folks enjoyed a look at the Mercury-free Sun after the transit, a nice woman named Liz brought some Top Pot donuts to share, and hanging around at the beach waiting to spot Mercury with some new friends was not a bad way to spend a Monday morning.

I’d successfully seen four recent Sun events: the August 2017 total eclipse of the Sun, the Mercury Transit in May 2016, a partial solar eclipse in 2014, and the transit of Venus in June 2012. Off to start a new streak.

There will not, however, be another Mercury transit until 2032, and not one visible from North America until 2049. See you down at Seacrest Park in thirty years!

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Mercury transit tomorrow!

The weather forecast is decidedly iffy for folks in Western Washington to view the transit of Mercury across the Sun on Monday morning, November 11. But a number of groups, including Seattle Astronomy, are planning to be out and waiting for breaks in the clouds in order to catch a glimpse of this relatively rare astronomical event.

Transit of Mercury
Our photo of the 2016 Mercury transit from Seattle. If you click on this photo to see the larger version you can see Mercury just to the left of the center of the disk of the Sun, and a sunspot cluster to the right. Taken with a Canon PowerShot A530 through an 8-inch Dob at 48 power. Photo by Greg Scheiderer.

Typically there are 13 Mercury transits visible in any given century, and there will be 14 of them during the 21st Century. We last had one visible from Seattle just over three years ago, in May of 2016. Tomorrow’s will be the last until 2032, but that one and the next won’t be visible from North America. Our next chance to see a Mercury Transit from Seattle will be in May of 2049.

Thus we’ll be down at Seacrest Park in West Seattle near the Water Taxi dock in hopes that we won’t have to wait 30 years or travel halfway around the globe to see Mercury in transit. We’re aware of a handful of other viewing opportunities tomorrow in the Northwest:

Watch our calendar page for others; we’ll add them if we hear about them for the rest of the day.

There are a couple of things to consider when viewing the transit. First, the requisite warning not to look at the Sun without eclipse glasses or a properly filtered telescope. Second, you’ll not likely see Mercury without some magnification; it’s pretty small. Third, don’t try to use eclipse glasses with a telescope or binoculars; the equipment itself must be properly filtered or severe eye damage will result.

Alan Boyle of Geekwire has a good article about the 2019 transit that includes some links for viewing the event online should our weather fail to cooperate.

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Astro Biz: 7 Moons wine

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.

7 Moons Red Blend

Today’s Astro Biz is 7 Moons Red Blend wine from the 7 Moons Wine Company of Oakville, California. The red blend is a mixture of wine from seven different grape varietals: Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Malbec , and Grenache. The company also makes a “dark side” red blend, though its website does not point out how it differs from the standard, and sticklers will quibble with the use of dark side, as the far side of the Moon is often illuminated.

There’s a bit of fun involved as the company uses seven different corks, each depicting one of the Moon’s phases. They urge imbibers to collect all seven, though there’s no indication of any sort of prize for successfully doing so.

More info:

The case against a Mars colony

When there’s talk about people from planet Earth going to live somewhere else in the solar system, more often than not the envisioned destination is Mars. Daniel R. Adamo says we’re getting way ahead of ourselves on that scenario. Adamo, a co-founder of the Space Enterprise Institute who worked 60 space shuttle missions from the flight dynamics desk, gave a talk titled, “Questioning the Surface of Mars as the 21st Century’s Ultimate Pioneering Destination in Space” at the recent Pacific Northwest Aerospace Expo held at Portland State University.

“We’ve been brainwashed by information that is a hundred years old or more into thinking Mars is the place to go,” Adamo said. Everything from Percival Lowell’s erroneous conclusions that intelligent beings built canals on Mars to much of the science fiction of the 20th Century made the Red Planet an alluring celestial sphere for earthlings.

Daniel R. Adamo spoke about the prospects for colonizing Mars during a presentation at the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Expo Sept. 28, 2019 at Portland State University. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Mars is a socio-cultural destination,” Adamo said.

Adamo draws a distinction between exploration and pioneering of Mars, and he’s all for the former, though he contends robots remain best suited for discovery.

“If the aim is to explore as much as possible, telepresence from a moon of Mars is cheaper, more productive, and more safe than putting people on the surface,” he said. With a control center on Deimos, for example, people could operate rovers and such without the lenghty communication lag that makes that more of a challenge from Earth.

For those who would extract resources from Mars, Adamo points out that there’s nothing there we can’t get at home, and if there was some sort of useful new mystery ore it would still be safer to have robots do the mining.

Problems with colonizing Mars

For a colony on Mars to make sense, Adamo says a number of things have to happen. There has to be a reason to go. The colony needs an economy. And people need to be able to survive and thrive there. At present, he contends none of those things are true.

He noted that human migration has always happened for a reason, whether it was war, famine, pestilence, oppression, or some other condition that made people feel their backs were up against the wall. There’s also no credible threat to our survival here like an impending asteroid strike. There’s simply no reason to leave Earth and live somewhere else. If there was, Adamo says there’s been no way shown to sustain such a colony; there’s no business plan.

“Ultimately, you’d better return sustained profits because even if you’re just a colony you’d better send some resources to the mother country to justify all of those finished goods that they’re sending you that make quality of life possible,” he said. “You’re not going to be mooching off the taxpayers.”

Survivability is the biggest challenge Adamo sees to Mars colonization. Solar and cosmic radiation would force people to live under ground; it’s not the most appealing notion, but he contends regular work on the surface of Mars is not realistic if you want to live long. The biggest wild card he sees is gravity. It’s a complete unknown whether humans could procreate on Mars, where gravity is just 38 percent as strong as it is on Earth. Without children, you’re not going to put down multigenerational roots on another world.

Adamo isn’t suggesting that the notion of colonizing Mars be abandoned, but he says we need to know a lot more before making such a move. He suggests we might study the gravity question first from habitats in low-Earth orbit and later on small bodies such as near-Earth asteroids. Then we could learn how people adapt to lower gravity. He says pioneering on Mars should only be considered if it can be shown that we can thrive there economically and biologically.

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The Pacific Northwest Aerospace Expo was hosted by the Portland State Aerospace Society, an interdisciplinary student aerospace project at Portland State University. They plan to make the expo an annual event.

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Astro Biz: Blue Star Donuts

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Blue Star Donuts from Portland. Blue Star has eight locations in the Rose City and three more in Southern California. The company has been around since 2012.

We found Blue Star Donuts while walking around Portland during the first annual Pacific Northwest Aerospace Expo held at Portland State University last weekend. Watch for our recap of that event coming soon!

More info:

Astronomy behind the scenes: great successes and colossal blunders

The most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle promised to take us inside the way science is really done, and delivered with tales of unexpected successes and a colossal fail that left a team of cosmologists with cosmic egg on their faces.

Leah Fulmer

Leah Fulmer, a second year graduate student in astronomy at the University of Washington, gave a talk titled “Falling with Style: How Astronomy’s Most Intriguing Discoveries Happen by Accident.” Fulmer noted that astronomers have lots of choices when it comes to their research. They can select which part of the sky to examine, what to look at, how long to look, how often to look, and in which wavelengths of light to look, just to name a few. There’s lots of potential there.

“Every time we look at the universe in a new way we discover new phenomena that we never even expected to see,” she said. Fulmer shared three historical examples of such scientific serendipity.

The first was the detection of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) back in the 1960s. At the time it was theorized that 400,000 years after the Big Bang the CMB would have left its energy throughout the universe as a result of the event. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson had access to a big radio telescope and were working on doing some radio astronomy. The problem was that they couldn’t tweak out some pervasive and persistent noise from their observations. Meanwhile down the road some theorists at Princeton were trying to figure out how to detect evidence of the CMB. Penzias and Wilson had already done it!

“By accident they took this telescope that NASA had built for satellite communicaiton, they stuck it out there, and they found literally the origins of the universe,” Fulmer said. “This changed our understanding of astronomy and physics as we know it and it was a really, really big deal, just by looking at something in a new wavelength.”

More recently the operators of the Hubble Space Telescope decided to pick out an empty, black part of the sky and have the scope stare at it for 100 hours. Many scientists thought this was a bit daft.

The Hubble Deep Field. Image credit: Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI) and NASA/ESA

“They found what’s now known as the Hubble Deep Field,” Fulmer said. “They found an incredible plethora of galaxies that they never expected to see.” It revolutionized our understanding of the number of galaxies in the universe and added greatly to the types, shapes, and sizes of galaxies that we know about.

The Kepler Space Telescope found thousands of exoplanets, and collected data on so many things that scientists couldn’t possibly look at all of them. They enlisted citizen scientists through Zooniverse to help examine objects. Participants looked at the data and among their findings is an oddly behaving star for which its light curves defy explanation. We now know of it as “Tabby’s Star,” after astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, who wrote the paper about the discovery.

“To this day we don’t actually know what this star is,” Fulmer said. There have been lots of ideas about the odd light curves, from a random pack of asteroids that might be irregularly blocking light, some sort of cosmic catastrophe that kicked up debris, and even giant space structures built by an unknown civilization.

“It’s very precarious for an astronomer to suggest that this might be aliens,” Fulmer laughed, noting that the media would have a field day with that sort of thing.

The potential for discovering strange new things in the universe is about to increase. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is scheduled to go online in a few years, and when it does it will collect petabytes of data, doing a complete sweep of the sky every few nights for a decade.

Fulmer said a big part of her job in the project will be to help “develop an algorithm that is going to be able to systematically identify the things that we’ve never seen before.” That’s a tall order, combing all of that data for things we know about, things that have been theorized, and those that come out of the blue.

“We don’t what surprises we might find,” Fulmer said, “but that’s what makes it so exciting.”

Oops

Samantha Gilbert, a first-year graduate student in astronomy at the UW, told a story about a colossal and embarrassing failure. Her talk was titled, “Leaving the Competition in the Dust: A CMB Case Study.”

“The story I want to tell you tonight has everything: It has science. It has drama. It has egos. It has really esoteric vector math,” Gilbert said to laughter. “It encapsulates some of the things that are really wrong with how some people do science today.”

The story also involves the cosmic microwave background. Cosmologists are trying to figure out what happened between the Big Bang and the formation of the CMB 400,000 years later. A leading theory is that there was a period of inflation in the moments after the Big Bang during which the universe expanded rapidly. If that happened, it would have created gravitational waves, and those waves would have left behind a pattern in the CMB that we could recognize, called “B-mode polarization.”

A map of the cosmic microwave background. Image credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team

“B-mode polarization is an extraordinarily difficult thing to detect,” Gilbert said, “but proving it exists, proving that inflation really happened by detecting the traces of inflationary gravitational waves” would be Nobel Prize-worthy.

That’s where the intrigue starts. One group striving for this discovery had an experiment called BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), which was followed by BICEP2, which had more sensitive detectors than the first version and more of them. They found what they were looking for. In fact, the signal of B-mode polarization was even stronger than anticipated. The team declared the discovery during a 2014 news conference at Harvard, issued a video, broke out the bubbly, and in general whipped up lots of hoopla about the discovery.

In the following months some 250 papers were published in response to BICEP2. One of them was from BICEP’s main competitor, the Planck Experiment, and their point was that BICEP’s discovery was bunk and that what they detected was not B-mode polarization, but cosmic dust.

“The fact that BICEP2 had so confidently announced a result that was so quickly disproven had a rippling effect throughout the community,” Gilbert said. “Scientists were horrified because they thought, ‘now the public is going to discredit us, they’re not going to trust us.’ Journalists were also horrified because they felt they had a role in spreading disinformation.”

They were also seeing an ugly side of the scientific community.

The need for speed

How did this happen? BICEP principal investigator Brian Keating wrote a book about their process, titled Losing the Nobel Prize (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018). Gilbert summarized their decision-making.

She said BICEP2 only looked at one wavelength of light so they could get the results as quickly as possible. They knew about the possibility of cosmic dust, but didn’t have the tools to distinguish between dust and B-mode polarization. The Planck folks were thought to have the data, and BICEP asked them to share. They declined.

This led BICEP to jump to the conclusion that Planck also had evidence of B-mode polarization and were aiming to scoop them on the discovery and dash their dreams of a Nobel Prize. So they hurried to make the announcement. This might have worked out OK, if they’d been right, but the BICEP group made one other glaring error.

“They actually hadn’t put their paper through peer review,” Gilbert noted, generating groans among the science-savvy audience at Astronomy on Tap.

“That is a no-no,” she understated. “That is a bad thing to do because peer review is what makes science credible in the first place. It’s a really important check against the dissemination of junk science. You really need other scientists to independently assess your results.”

Gilbert said the bad decisions were all motivated by fear.

“Overly competitive environments are part and parcel of an individualistic conception of science and an individualistic conception of science says that the most important thing is to get a result before your competition,” she said. “When that’s the environment that you’re working in you tend to make decisions based on fear.”

“I would argue that the reason that BICEP2 made these decisions based on fear is that they were operating in such a toxically competitive environment that it became dysfunctional,” Gilbert said. “Whether you think competition is really good for science, really bad, or somewhere in between, I think that this case study shows us that it’s really worth thinking about the ways that we systemically and interpersonally encourage competition, and how that might jeopardize our ways of knowing.”

Gilbert said there’s hope for the future. The hunt for B-mode polarization continues, and BICEP and Planck are teaming up going forward, combining their resources and know-how in the work.

“Competition might be the most efficient way to A result, but collaboration is probably the most efficient way to a RELIABLE result,” she said.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington.

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More info:

Watch both talks on YouTube

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Mapping the Moon

When we went on a road trip to a new place when I was a kid my dad would pick up a map from the nearest gas station. There were no gas stations on the way to the Moon, but the first astronauts to land there had a map anyway, thanks to the work of Harlan “Buzz” Reese and colleagues. His son, Tom Reese, talked about his father’s work at the most recent meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

“What I’m honored to share tonight are images mainly from our dad’s collection, which for more than 50 years was pretty much just stuffed in boxes and cardboard tubes, but we now think of them as artifacts,” Tom Reese said. His father, who passed away in 2013, worked for many years at the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center (ACIC) in St. Louis. It was an office of the Air Force and was considered the premier mapping organization in the country. The elder Reese was a civilian who worked on the project creating charts of the Moon for NASA.

“They worked with the photographs from any source they could get, the best pictures that were available,” Reese said. That included images made by ground-based telescopes and lunar orbiters, and later photos shot by astronauts during Apollo missions. There was no image-editing software in the 1960s, but the folks at ACIC did have a cut-and-paste operation; they literally pieced together many of their charts by making copies of photographs, cutting them out, and building maps of larger areas as mosaics of many images. Some of them were huge, room-sized. They’d sometimes build these maps on the entire floor of a large room and walk around in stocking feet so as not to damage them too much. The charts include handwritten notes and tell-tale identification of the people who made them.

This photo of the Apollo 11 landing site was made by Apollo 10 and includes a handwritten overlay by Harlan Reese. Photo: Tom Reese.

“My dad’s smeared fingerprints and careful mapping marks are also a down-to-Earth tribute to the other 400,000 human beings whose efforts made the journey possible,” Reese said.

Reese, an independent journalist, photographer, author, artist and teacher whose work as a newspaper and magazine photojournalist was nominated for Pulitzer Prizes during his career at The Seattle Times, spoke of a sense of awe and wonder when making a photograph of the Moon.

“I think it was with the same sense of wonder that my dad saved all these things that were actually scraps of his work,” Reese said, “but I also think he thought of these as a gift to be shared.”

Part of that wish came true this year, when several of the charts were included in the Destination Moon exhibit that wrapped up earlier this month at the Museum of Flight. Reese said he hopes the entire collection can some day wind up in a place where it can continue to tell a part of the story of the Apollo missions.

Tom Reese spoke about his father’s Moon mapping at the Sept. 18, 2019 meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It’s amazing to think that the lunar orbiters that preceded Apollo were shooting photos using film, processing that film in space and then sending the images to Earth via radio. Today’s digital cameras on spacecraft capture far greater resolution. For the cartographers who mapped the Moon there was a good deal of art to go with the science.

“On the early maps of the Earth you can see where they would come to the limit of the known world and simply mark down ‘terra incognita’ or ‘beyond this point there be dragons,’” Reese said. “In the early mapping of the Moon precision was key, of course. But the audacity to fire three men packed into a rattling tin can to an unexplored world also required calculating on the unforeseen.” The mappers analyzed all of the data they had to give accurate representation of the sizes of and distances between lunar features so that the maps would be useful guides.

You can see many of the images Reese shared during his presentation on his website.

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