Astro Biz: iLanga

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

ilangalogoToday’s Astro Biz is iLanga Software Development and Environmental Consulting based in Kirkland, Wash. What’s so Astro Biz about that? Founder Paul Rodman notes that the company was founded in the middle of winter. From the iLanga website:

Having not seen any sunshine for months we decided that “Sun” was an appropriate name for the company. However, it was already taken. We hauled out a multi-language dictionary and looked up “sun” in other languages. “iLanga” is the Zulu word for “The Sun”. It is common to prefix Zulu words with lower-case “i”. Since we created the company it has become common practice to prefix company names with “i” or “e” to denote the fact that they are Internet-related. We wish it known that we didn’t follow this trend in our naming.

As an added astro-bonus, iLanga makes and sells astronomical software, including the fantastic AstroPlanner that we at Seattle Astronomy often use to plot our observing sessions. It’s the first Astro Biz that’s actually in the astronomy business!

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UW’s Foucault pendulum out of action

DSC_0004We were sad to see on a recent visit to the Physics/Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle that the university’s Foucault pendulum is out of commission. According to the sign on the railing around the pendulum:

I have been damaged possibly due to vandalism. My mounting support bracket and cable are both damaged and need to be replaced. I don’t know when this can happen yet.

I’m sorry I can’t swing gently for you at this time and I know people miss me.

Given the nature of the damage, we wonder if some dimwits tried swinging from the pendulum.

We hope the pendulum is repaired soon. If blog hits are any indication, people are interested in Foucault pendulums. A post we wrote 2011 about the world’s largest Foucault pendulum, in the convention center in Portland, Oregon, is consistently among the top ten viewed on Seattle Astronomy.


Astro Biz: Ursa Major stellar shave cream

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

IMG_0948Today’s Astro Biz is Ursa Major stellar shave cream which, for extra astro bonus points, includes sunflower among its ingredients.

We first saw Ursa Major shave cream at a shop called Prize in Ashland, Oregon. According to the Ursa Major website—the company is based in Burlington, Vermont—a couple of Seattle retailers carry the product: Hammer + Awl in Madrona and Freeman on Capitol Hill. You can also order online.

The company makes a variety of skin-care products with a focus on all-natural ingredients and a promise that its products are robust, healthy, and sublime.

More info:

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Two big conferences mean lots of talks on this week’s astro calendar

With two sizable astronomical conferences in town this week the Seattle Astronomy calendar is packed with interesting events.

LSST Project and Community Workshop

lsstlogoMore than 200 scientists from around the world who are working on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will gather this week in Bremerton for the LSST Project and Community Workshop. While the formal conference runs from Aug. 17–22, the program also includes public events starting Sunday, Aug. 16 and running nightly.

lssttalksThe free talks, sponsored by Olympic College, will be held at the SEEFilm Bremerton Cinema starting at 7 p.m. each evening.

Aug. 16: LSST in the Solar System
“Finding Icy Worlds Beyond Neptune, Never-Before-Seen Comets, and Killer Asteroids”
Dr. Lynne Jones, University of Washington

Aug.17: LSST and the Milky Way
“Mapping the Milky Way, Our Cosmic Backyard”
Dr. Beth Willman, LSST / University of Arizona

Aug. 18: Astronomia de LSST (en español)
“Mapas celestes desde el Sur del mundo”
Dr. Knut Olsen, NOAO

Aug. 19: LSST and Cosmology
“Measuring and Modeling the Universe’s Dark Stuff”
Dr. Jim Bosch, Princeton University

Aug. 20: LSST in the Time Domain
“Explosions in the Sky! Observing our Changeable Universe with LSST”
Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, Adler Planetarium

The theater is just a half-mile walk from the Bremerton ferry terminal.

In addition to these talks, there will be an “astronomy slam” at five different Bremerton locations on the evening of Aug. 18. The slam will include brief talks by five different astronomers at each site. Check the Olympic College calendar for places and times.

Space Elevators

isec logoThe other big event in the area this week is the annual Space Elevator Conference put together by the International Space Elevator Consortium. The conference, running from Aug. 21-23 at the Museum of Flight, will engage an international audience of scientists, engineers, educators, entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, and students in discussions of space elevator development.

There is a public component to this event as well. It includes a family science fest from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 22. This family-focused, STEM-centric event will feature lots of hands-on activities, demos, and exhibits. It’s free with museum admission. More details.

The last generation of lonely astronomers

Ada’s Technical Books and Café on Capitol Hill in Seattle will host a conversation about exoplanets at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 20. Journalist Glenn Fleishman will interview Dr. Sarah Ballard, NASA Carl Sagan Fellow of the University of Washington, about worlds like our own and exotic potentials. They’ll talk about why planets in solar systems are either mostly in a plane or completely cattywampus, the limits of what we can learn without venturing out, and what distant worlds teach us about our own neighborhood. Free.

Sibling rivalry in massive stars

saslogoThe Seattle Astronomical Society holds its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 19 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. UW astronomy graduate and lecturer Breanna Binder will provide an overview of single star stellar evolution, and discuss how massive stars in binary systems evolve differently from single stars. Free and open to the public.

TJO open house

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is the second oldest building on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. Twice-monthly open houses at the observatory resume March 2. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Wednesday is also open house day at the UW’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, starting at 9 p.m. Engineering student Kyle Musselwhite will give a talk titled, “Hey, What’s That Sound? The Universe!” Musselwhite will outline relationships between the history of science and musical thinking, followed by discussion of why music is a useful tool for conceptualizing certain properties of the universe (especially time and distance). The talk is free but reservations are strongly recommended; the classroom typically fills up quickly.

Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society give tours of the observatory dome and, weather permitting, offer looks through its vintage telescope.

Star parties

The Seattle and Tacoma astronomical societies have public events scheduled this Saturday, Aug. 22. SAS holds its monthly free public star parties at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Both begin at 8 p.m., weather permitting. The Tacoma club meets at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College for a public night beginning at 9 p.m. Aug. 22. A panel will do a presentation on women in astronomy, and volunteers will be on hand with telescopes for observing, weather permitting.


Astro Biz: Polaris Electric Bicycles

IMG_1620Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Polaris Electric Bicycles. We often see a van from Polaris eBikes parked along Alki Avenue during our morning walks.

In truth, we aren’t sure if the van is down there because you can rent an ebike to ride on Alki, or if it’s just because someone who works for Polaris or a dealer lives down there. The Polaris website lists two dealers for the bikes in the Seattle area: Seattle eBikes on First Avenue South, and Pierre’s Polaris in Kenmore.

In either case, good work naming the company after the North Star!

More info:

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Perseids and more on this week’s astronomy calendar

It’s a big week for astronomical observing, as the Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight under optimum conditions, and a couple of the region’s biggest annual star parties are under way. Meanwhile a series of astronomy talks comes to Bremerton starting Sunday and running through next week.

The Perseids


Where to spot Perseid meteors. Image: NASA.

The biggest shooting star spectacle of the year peaks tonight and early tomorrow morning and it’s coming at nearly the perfect time of the month. The Moon will be new on Friday, so its slim, waning crescent won’t mess with our view of the Perseid meteor shower. Now, the weather—that’s another story. As I write this it’s cloudy and thundering at Seattle Astronomy world headquarters in West Seattle, though it hasn’t rained just yet. The hour-to-hour forecast for the day it is for about a 40 percent chance of rain through the evening, then clearing after about midnight or 1 a.m. If that clearing comes through, it will be perfect for Perseid watching.

I’m often asked where to go to watch stuff in the Seattle area, and was going to write up a post about it, but Alan Boyle did a piece for Geekwire that does the job nicely. I would add Hurricane Ridge to the list if you’re interested in traveling to the peninsula. I’ve also had luck finding skies that are a bit darker down at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. And if the weather looks better on the east side of the mountains, head out toward Cle Elum, or even further east and south; skies are especially dark in the Goldendale area at Goldendale Observatory State Park—the observatory is staying open late for the Perseids—and at Brooks Memorial State Park.

Boyle’s Geekwire article mentions a star party tonight hosted by the Seattle Astronomical Society and other area clubs at the Sunrise Visitor Center at Mount Rainier. If you’re interested in a little less formal experience, Sunrise Point, about three miles east of the visitor center at the last, sharp switchback in the road before the top, has spectacular views and is a popular stargazing destination. It’s dark up there, and the National Park System is making a point to have more astronomy-related programming in the evenings.

The Washington Trails Association offers this list of suggested viewing spots in its Dark Places Digest.

EarthSky has a good article with all you need to know about the Perseids.

Star parties

Three of the region’s biggest annual star parties are under way. The Table Mountain Star Party runs through Saturday at Eden Valley Ranch near Oroville, having moved there when a forest fire in 2012 rendered the namesake Table Mountain site near Ellensburg unusable. The Oregon Star Party at Indian Trail Spring in eastern Oregon, and the Mt. Kobau Star Party, held north of Osoyoos, B.C., run through Sunday.

LSST and astro talks in Bremerton

lssttalksA group of about 300 astronomers working on the Large Synoptic Space Telescope (LSST) project will be gathering for their annual workshop, which this year is being held in Bremerton beginning Sunday at the Kitsap Conference Center. A side benefit of the meeting is a nightly series of talks given by conference participants. Check this list of the presentations, which run nightly from August 16-20. There also will be an “astronomy slam” night on Tuesday, with mini-talks at a variety of different locations around Bremerton.

In the video below Dr. Bob Abel, physics professor at Olympic College and a member of the LSST team, discusses the project and the workshop with Bremerton BKAT Cable Access Television.


Astronomy store Cloud Break Optics opens in Ballard

For the first time that anyone can remember there is a retail shop run by and for amateur astronomers selling telescopes and astronomy gear in the City of Seattle. Cloud Break Optics opened quietly in Ballard a couple of weeks ago and is gearing up for a grand opening celebration later this month.

Cloud Break Optics

Matt Dahl and Stephanie Anderson with one of their light buckets in front of their telescope shop, Cloud Break Optics, in Ballard. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Cloud Break Optics is owned and operated by Stephanie Anderson and Matt Dahl, longtime friends and Colorado transplants who got their start in the business working at a telescope store in the Denver area. They ended up in Seattle because of astronomy, education, and love.

Both have some impressive credentials. Anderson, who got interested in space after reading an Isaac Asimov book as a kid, majored in math and physics and taught at Metropolitan State University and the University of Colorado Denver. She was working as a guide on a solar eclipse tour in 2009 when she met her future husband, a Seattle resident.

“Our first date was three weeks in China and Tibet,” Anderson said. They started up a long-distance relationship between Denver and Seattle but, one December when Anderson’s adjunct contract at Metropolitan ran out, she didn’t renew and moved to Seattle.

Dahl received his first telescope for Christmas when he was 17, and was hooked after one look at the Moon. Later Anderson sold him his first larger telescope. He started college as a music major, but eventually switched to physics.

“Basically it’s been all downhill from there,” he joked. Dahl did research on extrasolar planets and, after college, got a job at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder and worked on the Kepler mission. In 2012 his wife was admitted to a master’s program at Bastyr University in Kenmore, and they moved to Seattle. It was a bit easier having a friend, Anderson, already in town.

An astronomy hiatus

Dahl and Anderson gave up on astronomy for a while after moving to Seattle; after all, we have our reputation as a cloudy and rainy place. But a trip to the Rocky Mountain Star Stare last summer reignited their interest. They went to the Table Mountain Star Party as well last year, and some old ideas resurfaced.

“Throughout our friendship we’d always kicked around this idea of owning a telescope store,” Dahl said. Late last summer, they decided to do it. Anderson explained there were two main factors that led to their leap.

“One was the realization that you really don’t actually have to go that far in the wintertime in order to have a nice, clear sky,” she said. They figured out local weather patterns and learned that things were better in Eastern Washington. “We realized we really weren’t traveling further than we were in Colorado to get a good, dark sky.”

The second was a practical matter that sprung from their renewed interest in observing.

“We really didn’t have a place we could go locally,” Anderson said, to make a quick pick-up of a key piece of gear they needed for an observing session. “We thought there would be a niche to fill.”

Experience counts

A big part of that niche is their personal knowledge and experience, according to Dahl.

“We each have hauled many a telescope from one location to another, and observed with different types of telescopes, imaged with different types of telescopes,” Dahl said. “We have a slew of knowledge in our back pockets. A lot of astronomy is getting that jump start from somebody who had done it before.”

“If your first observing experience is a pleasant one because you know how to operate your telescope and you have an instrument that will show you what you think it will show you, you are far more likely to stay in the hobby,” he added.

Anderson noted that sometimes the personal touch is the only way to go.

“A German equatorial mount is very confusing to someone who has never seen one before,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to learn on your own. You need someone to show you and explain what the theory is behind it.”

File Aug 02, 3 58 42 PM

The author shot this photo of the Sun using an iPhone attachment to a solar scope set up in the Cloud Break Optics parking lot. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The hands-on approach is important. As we talked about their plans for the shop we discussed astrophotography and the challenges I’ve had getting good photos with my smartphone. We soon had a solar telescope set up in the Cloud Break Optics parking lot and I was taking pics with the help of a nifty phone attachment. You get a better sense for the various telescopes and gear when you can actually see them, touch them, and use them. You just can’t get that experience online.

The challenges of a brick-and-mortar store

Anderson and Dahl recognize that a huge chunk of the sales of astronomy gear these days happens online, and so they are doing Internet sales and shipping globally.

“We have to compete in that market,” Dahl explained. “At the same time we wanted to provide a customer service experience” for people local to the Seattle area.

“We want them to come into the shop, talk to us, give them the advice and the expertise and the knowledge that we have,” he said. “At the same time we can provide as much of that as possible on our website.”

You can follow Cloud Break Optics on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Drop by the shop at 2821 NW Market Street in Ballard, and watch for news of their upcoming grand opening celebration. They’ll be at Table Mountain again next week, this time with their vendor hats on. We expect they’ll work in a little observing as well.