Search for meaning contines

There is a great menu of interesting talks on this week’s calendar, including three with astronomy themes at a weekend event at Seattle University.

Search for Meaning FestivalSeattle Univeristy’s annual Search for Meaning Festival will be held on the university campus all day Saturday, February 25. The festival is a community event dedicated to topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life. It draws more than 50 authors and artists who will give interactive presentations. Three of these sessions are on astronomy-related topics.

At 9 a.m. Father George Coyne, SJ, former director of the Vatican Observatory and author of Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning (Crossroad 2002), will discuss the history of the evolution of life in the cosmos. Coyne’s thesis is that this history may lead us to a deeper understanding of what many secular physicists say themselves about the cosmos: that a loving creator stands behind it.

At 10:45 a.m. Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow, 2016), on which the current hit film is based, will give one of the keynote addresses at the festival. Shetterly will talk about race, gender, science, the history of technology, and much else. Reservations for Shetterly’s talk are sold out.

At 12:45 p.m. Marie Benedict, author of The Other Einstein (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016), will explore the life of Mileva Maric, who was Albert Einstein’s first wife and a physicist herself, and the manner in which personal tragedy inspired Mileva’s possible role in the creation of Einstein’s “miracle year” theories.

Check our post from December previewing the festival, and look at the trailer video below. Tickets to the festival are $12.50 and are available online.

Siegel at Rose City

Author and astrophysicist Ethan Siegel will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland at 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 20. Siegel will talk about his book Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific Publishing, 2015). He’ll examine the history of the expanding universe and detail, up until the present day, how cutting-edge science looks to determine, once and for all, exactly how the universe has been expanding for the entire history of the cosmos. Siegel is an informative and engaging speaker; check our recap of his talk from last year about gravitational wave astronomy.

AoT Seattle and an app for simulating the universe

AoT FebruaryAstronomy on Tap Seattle’s monthly get-together is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 22 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Two guest speakers are planned. Dan Dixon, creator of Universe Sandbox² will give an introduction to the app, an accessible space simulator that allows you to ask fantastical what-if questions and see accurate and realistic results in real-time. It merges real-time gravity, climate, collision, and physical interactions to reveal the beauty of our universe and the fragility of our planet. University of Washington professor in astronomy and astrobiology Rory Barnes will talk about “Habitability of Planets in Complicated Systems.” It’s free, except for the beer.

TAS public night

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 25 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be about the zodiac. If the skies are clear they’ll set up the telescopes and take a look at what’s up.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. We’ve recently added several events scheduled at the Museum of Flight, including:

Up in the sky

There will be an annular solar eclipse on Sunday, February 26, but you’ll have to be in South America or Africa to see it. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.

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Threading the needle with Cassini at Saturn

The hugely successful Cassini mission to Saturn will come to a fiery end in September, and you can hardly blame NASA for going a little Star Trek on us.

Ron Hobbs

Ron Hobbs. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We’re going somewhere where no spacecraft has ever gone before, into this region between the glorious rings of Saturn and the cloud tops of the planet,” said Ron Hobbs, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, at this month’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. After 22 orbits through the eye of that needle—a 2,500-kilometer-wide gap—they’ll splat Cassini into the planet and burn it up.

“Now that we’ve discovered that there’s at least one moon, and maybe several, that could have the conditions for life, it’s very important to not leave a derelict spacecraft orbiting around Saturn,” Hobbs noted. “One of the important things at the end of the solstice mission will be to dispose of the spacecraft.”

The second extended mission of Cassini was named solstice because it is almost the beginning of summer in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.

Let’s do science

Before they crash Cassini, they figured there was some time to do some great science in that place where no spacecraft has ever gone. Most importantly, they will get a better picture of the internal structure of Saturn and examine its ionosphere, inner radiation belts, and auroral region.

“This would have been worth sending a spacecraft to Saturn for just that measurement,” Hobbs said, noting that it is essentially what Juno is doing at Jupiter. They’ll also check out the particles of Saturn’s D ring at close range, and be able to better gauge the mass of the ring system, which will help pin down its age.

“I can’t wait for the pictures,” Hobbs added. “The pictures that come out of this mission are just going to be spectacular.”

Shooting the gap

Hobbs said NASA has been using interactions between Cassini and Saturn’s moon Titan to nudge the spacecraft’s orbit to where they want it to be.

“Titan is really the only object in Saturn orbit that has enough mass to allow it to do gravitational assists and re-direct its orbit,” he said. “That allows [Cassini] to change its orbit and change the plane of its orbit.”

Cassini orbits

This graphic shows the closest approaches, or periapses, of Cassini’s final two orbital phases.The ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray; grand finale orbits are shown in blue. The orange line shows the spacecraft’s final plunge into Saturn. Credit: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory – Caltech

In late November a brush with Titan dropped Cassini’s perichron—the point closest to Saturn in its orbit around the planet—down to just outside the F ring. In April, another Titan flyby will drop that perichron down to between the D ring and Saturn’s cloud tops.

“That’s when it’s going to get really exciting,” Hobbs said. Cassini will do 22 “grand finale” orbits through the eye of this needle, each lasting six days, collecting science data until one final encounter with Titan puts the spacecraft on a trajectory to splat into the planet on September 15.

It’s amazing how much planning and politics went into all of this. Hobbs said the actual trajectories of the orbits for this grand finale were determined a little over three years ago. Ever since then there’s been a spirited discussion between scientists, engineers, and mission leaders about what science to do to get as much data as possible out of the final mission. That determination was just completed last month.

“The spacecraft drivers are now writing the code for these orbits,” Hobbs said. That will tell Cassini where to go and where to point its instruments to make the observations as planned.

A good ride

Hobbs noted that Cassini was launched in October 1997, and so will end its mission just shy of twenty years in space.

“Without a doubt it has been one of the most successful and audacious missions NASA and the international community have operated,” he said. “This is going to be one of the highlights of space exploration in the last couple of decades.”

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Astro Biz: North Star Diner

North Star DinerMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is the North Star Diner in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. While the real North Star, Polaris, is only visible when it’s dark out, the North Star Diner is open 24 hours a day.

We appreciate that the North Star truly embraces its Astro Biz heritage; the diner’s logo is of a small bear with a star on its tail. Ursa Minor indeed!

More info:

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Valentine’s week astro events

Astronomy buffs will have to make a tough call Wednesday as two interesting but very different events will be held across town.

CassiniThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 15 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Guest speaker Ron Hobbs, a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador, will give a talk titled, “Cassini’s Grand Finale: Overview and Challenges.” Hobbs will cover the daring moves the orbiter will make in its final days at Saturn before the mission ends and the craft is crashed into the planet in September.

Women in ScienceMeanwhile at Seattle University the Infinity Box Theatre Project will present its eighth annual Galileo Dialogues at 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 15—Galileo’s birthday!—in the Seattle University Student Union Building, Room 160. The evening is presented in collaboration with the Seattle University Physics Department and the Association for Women in Science, and features a reading by Catherine Kettrick of “Celebrating Women in Science”—things you don’t know about several centuries of women who have made major contributions to several areas of science—mostly in their own words. It’s free, though donations are appreciated. You can reserve a seat online.

Nerds in space

The Science and Math Institute and Multicultural Services at Bellevue College will hold a lunchtime Science Café at 12:30 p.m. Friday, February 17 in room C130 of the student center. Guest speaker Tim Lloyd, a rocket scientist with Blue Origin, will share his experiences working for the local space flight company in a talk titled, “One Nerd’s Journey to Space.”

Planetarium shows

Catch a free planetarium show about New Horizons at the Willard Geer Planetarium at Bellevue College at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. Saturday, February 18. The shows are sponsored by the college’s Astronomy Department and the Science and Math Institute. There’s no charge, but you can make reservations online to assure yourself a seat.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center has programs daily. Find their full schedule on our calendar page.

The Washington State University Planetarium in Pullman offers a show about the Moon on Monday, February 13 and a special Valentine’s show on Tuesday, February 14. Both programs begin at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.

Up in the sky

Have you been enjoying views of Venus lately? The planet reaches “greatest illuminated extent” this week, which means it’s at its very brightest. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.

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Astro Biz: Northstar Winery

Northstar merlotMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is the Northstar Winery in Walla Walla, Washington. Northstar’s specialty is merlot, though they do a wide selection of other varietals and blends. The winery was started in the early 1990s and in the early days was guided by celebrated California
 winemaker Jed Steele, who worked extensively with Northstar’s current winemaker,
 David “Merf” Merfeld, who has been the head winemaker since 2005. By coincidence, Steele is behind another Astro Biz wine, the Shooting Star aligoté, which made the list in November.

More info:

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Pushing for IDA membership

Kelly Beatty thinks more amateur astronomers should be members of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), and he puts his money where his mouth is on the issue. Beatty, a senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine and a board member of the IDA, made an offer to waive his usual fee for speaking at the recent Seattle Astronomical Society banquet if the group could sign up at least ten new or renewing IDA members. At last word they’d added at least a couple of dozen.

IDA logoStill, Beatty noted at the January 28 banquet that while there are roughly a quarter of a million amateur astronomers in the United States, the IDA has only about 3,000 members.

“That means that roughly one in a hundred amateur astronomers across the U.S. are members of IDA,” Beatty pointed out. “Isn’t that pathetic?”

“What other group has more to gain or lose from the success of the IDA and our dark sky preservation efforts?” he asked.

Beatty

Beatty

Beatty noted that LED street lighting is a major issue, and one on which regular citizens can help. If your city or town hasn’t converted street lights to LED yet, it probably will soon. LED street lights can be cheaper in a couple of ways. They consume less energy than typical street lights (though this paradoxically can cause a municipality to just buy more light), and the fixtures have a longer expected life span. What is important is that cities use fixtures that are at a color temperature of 3,000 kelvins or less. This provides warmer light with less blue in the spectrum. Blue light brightens the night sky more than any other color of light, and exposure to blue light at night has also been shown to harm human health and endanger wildlife.

Beatty said that the city of Phoenix recently decided to install 2,700-kelvin streetlights, Montreal dropped plans to install lights at 4,000 kelvins, and the entire state of Georgia is going with 3,000-kelvin lights.

“You have the power to make a difference in this fight against light pollution, individually and collectively,” Beatty said. “It’s not that people are opposed to doing the right thing, they just don’t know. It’s an education. So if you inject yourself into the process you can and will make a difference.”

IDA’s page about outdoor lighting basics and its LED practical guide have lots of useful information. Oh, and you can sign-up online. There’s a $15 annual membership for students, and standard memberships start at just $35.

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Several club events on this week’s calendar

Use your snow day to plan your astronomy activities for the week! Four area astronomy clubs have meetings on the calendar.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 7 in room 175 of Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound. Member John Finnian will make a presentation about the app Dark Sky Finder, including a demonstration of how it works and advice about how to get the most use value from it, particularly for stargazers who may wish to use it for finding potentially very good observing sites in the Northwest.

The Boeing Employees Astronomical Association will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, February 9 in room 201 of the Boeing “Oxbow” Fitness & Recreation Center, Bldg 9-150. The topic will be the upcoming total solar eclipse and advice about how to successfully observe it. Non-Boeing folks are welcome but must RSVP; details online.

Saturday, February 11 will be a busy day on Bainbridge Island with three events scheduled with the Battle Point Astronomical Association. The BP Astro Kids program has shows about gravity at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Following at 7:30 p.m. astronomer Dave Fong will do a Valentine’s themed show titled, “Star Stories: Twisted Tales of Love and Loss.” It’s a humorous take on Greek star lore. If the weather is good they’ll break out the telescopes for observing. It all happens at the association’s observatory and planetarium in Battle Point Park.

The Everett Astronomical Society will meet at 3 p.m. Saturday, February 11 at the Evergreen Branch of the Everett Public Library. Program topics had not been published as of this writing.

Planetaria

Check our calendar page for this week’s planetarium shows at the Pacific Science Center and the WSU planetarium, and for other upcoming astronomy events.

Up in the sky

There will be a penumbral lunar eclipse this Saturday, February 11. The eclipse will already be in progress at moonrise in Seattle, and will end a little before 7 p.m. It’s the only lunar eclipse that will be visible from North America this year. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.

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