Astro Biz: Blue Mercury

Blue Mercury PortlandMany 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 Blue Mercury. The company has a chain of makeup and skincare stores and spas around the country. There’s one at University Village in Seattle, but we first spotted Blue Mercury on a recent visit to Portland, Oregon.

We selected Blue Mercury this week because we’re getting pumped for Monday’s transit of Mercury. There’s some reason to be optimistic; a current forecast of “partly cloudy” for the day makes us think we’ll have a good shot at a glimpse of the transit. We’ll be watching the forecast over the coming days.

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Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

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AstronoMay kicks off at PacSci

Pacific Science CenterWhy settle for one astronomy day when you can have AstronoMay? Astronomy Day is May 14, but the Pacific Science Center has the whole month packed with astronomy activities. The first is coming up at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in the center’s Willard Smith Planetarium, which will hook up with the Adler Planetarium and others around the country for an interactive, networked lecture, “From The Big Bang To The Multiverse And Beyond.” The talk will be given by Dr. Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, a noted cosmologist credited with coining the term dark energy. Turner will delve into what we know and also tackle some of the mysteries and puzzles of cosmology today.

Other lectures planned for AstronoMay:

  • Elena Amador, a UW graduate student in Earth and Space Sciences, presents, “Search for Water on Mars” May 14 at 10 a.m.
  • Dr. Sandeep Singh, planetary scientist at the Bear Fight Institute, presents “Saturn’s Hazy Moon, Titan” May 14 at 2:30 p.m.
  • Dr. Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory presents “Pluto & Charon Up-Close” May 22 at 2:15 p.m.

The lectures are free with admission to the Pacific Science Center, but tickets are required and available online.

On Saturdays during May, and on Sunday, May 22, volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be set up on the courtyard of the center with solar telescopes for safe viewing of the Sun. All month long there will be exhibits and hands-on activities about space and astronomy, and planetarium presentations (our calendar has the schedule) and IMAX movies, including A Beautiful Planet 3D.

AstronoMay website and calendar.

Club news

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyArea astronomy clubs are busy this week. The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3 in room 175 of Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound. There will be a presentation by Michael Laine, president of the Liftport Group, which is drawing up plans for a lunar elevator. The club will hold one of its free public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 7 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The TAS student group will make a presentation about the solar system. Observing will happen if weather permits.

Spokane Astronomical SocietyThe Spokane Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Stefanie Milam, a project scientist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, will give a presentation on either the James Webb Space Telescope or recent discoveries of sugar and ethanol in comets. They note the latter represents all of the makings for a wild star party.

Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its 12th annual spring Camp Delaney Star Party May 4-8 out at Sun Lakes State Park near Coulee City in Eastern Washington. Club members already on site recommend industrial strength bug protection as the mosquitos are out in force. Note the preregistration was required for the event.

Supernova impostor

Brianna Binder

Breanna Binder. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Breanna Binder of the University of Washington will give an astronomy colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in the Physics/Astronomy Auditorium on the UW campus in Seattle. Binder will talk about supernova 2010da, which is not really a supernova, but an interesting object with a high-luminosity, variable X-ray emission. The X-ray emission is consistent with accretion onto a neutron star, making SN 2010da both a supernova impostor and likely high mass X-ray binary. Binder gave a talk about x-ray binary systems last August at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s monthly meeting.

Space Day at Museum of Flight

moflogoThursday is not only Cinco de Mayo, it is Space Day at the Museum of Flight. It’s part of the Museum’s free first Thursday from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Local astronomy clubs will be on hand with information, and telescopes for observing if weather permits.

Open House at TJO

There will be an open house at the University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 4. As of this writing the schedule for the events talks by undergraduate students had not been published online. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to offer observatory tours, and perhaps a peek through its vintage six-inch 1892 Warner and Swasey telescope with Brashear objective.

Up in the sky

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks this week. Learn about the shower and other observing highlights for the week from This Week’s Sky at a Glance by Sky & Telescope magazine or The Sky This Week from Astronomy.


Gravitational wave discovery ushers in new era in astronomy

“This is beginning a new era in astronomy,” said Ethan Siegel about the publication in February of a paper announcing that scientists had detected gravitational waves. Siegel has taught physics and astronomy at Lewis & Clark College and the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon. He is creator of the science blog Starts With a Bang, and is the author of Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific, 2015). Siegel gave a talk at this month’s meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland about what he calls the discovery of a lifetime.

Dr. Ethan Siegel, creator of the "Starts With a Bang" blog, gave a talk about the discovery of gravitational waves to the Rose City Astronomers April 18. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Ethan Siegel, creator of the “Starts With a Bang” blog, gave a talk about the discovery of gravitational waves to the Rose City Astronomers April 18. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This was something, when it was first proposed, that was really taken to be a preposterous consequence of a theory and something that we never really thought we were going to be able to test,” Siegel said. “We have gone in 101 years from pure theory to concrete, direct detection of gravitational waves.”

Einstein’s theory of relativity states that mass and energy bend spacetime, and that’s why objects orbit each other. Relativity explained anomalies in the orbits of planets in our solar system, but Siegel said there is an “extra weird” effect because the orbits decay.

“Another consequence of Einstien’s relativity is that as things spiral in, and it takes a long time to do, but as they do they emit a special type of radiation; they emit radiation that goes through the fabric of space itself,” Siegel said. “This is gravitational radiation.”

It takes way too long for that to happen here in the solar system. For Earth’s orbit to decay completely and merge with the Sun would take 10150 years, according to Siegel. He said we’ll have to look elsewhere to see the effects happen on human-length time scales.

“You need to find heavy masses; heavier mass in relativity means a stronger effect,” Siegel said. “You need them to have small distances, where small distance is a few kilometers, not a few million miles. And you need them to orbit at fast speeds, where fast is kind of close to the speed of light.”

Luckily these conditions exist. Black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars can do the trick; the gravitational waves detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) last fall were generated by merging black holes. One of those black holes started out at 36 solar masses and the other at 29. After the merger they weighed in at 62 solar masses. That’s simple arithmetic: 36+29=65; what happened to the other three solar masses? Siegel said, oddly enough, this was a prediction by Einstein as well. It’s the flip side of e=mc2.

“When these two black holes merged, three solar masses, about five percent of the total mass, was converted into pure energy,” he said. “That energy is the gravitational radiation and is why we here on Earth were able to detect this huge event of two black holes merging from over a billion light years away.”

Siegel is amazed that we were able to figure the mass, spin rate, merging speed, mass loss and other characteristics of these distant objects.

“We learned all of this information from one 20-millisecond signal that moved two laser arms by less than 10-18 meters,” he marveled. “What I’d say we have now is a whole new way to discover our universe.”

Siegel, an entertaining and informative speaker, is scheduled to give another talk at the October 2016 meeting of Rose City Astronomers. He will discuss his book Beyond the Galaxy.

That way is improving rapidly. The LIGO detectors at Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, are being tweaked to even greater sensitivity. New detectors are planned for Italy, Japan, and India. Siegel said the ultimate would be to build three huge LIGO detectors in space, forming an equilateral triangle in Earth’s orbit and having detector arms hundreds of millions of kilometers long.

“If you do that, you can not only watch things merge with supermassive black holes, you can find mergers of ultramassive black holes,” Siegel said. We might even be able to spot gravitational waves from cosmic inflation within the light of the cosmic microwave background. Siegel said if that happens, it would prove that gravity is a quantum force.

“There’s no way to make these fluctuations unless gravity is inherently a quantum force,” he explained. “The process that makes these fluctuations is a quantum process.”

Siegel said it’s a thrilling time to be involved in astronomy.

“This is the first time we’ve seen something astronomical without using a telescope or light of any type,” he said. “This is the dawn of astronomy beyond light-gathering telescopes.”


Astronomy on Tap Seattle debuts in new venue

One of our favorite local astronomy events moves to a new venue for the first time and is the highlight of our calendar this week.

AoT April 27, 2016At this month’s Astronomy on Tap Seattle the newest University of Washington professor of astronomy, Jessica Werk, will give a talk titled, “The History of You: The Rather Tumultuous Past of the Atoms in Your Body.” UW graduate student Ethan Kruse will give a talk titled, “To Infinity and Beyond: The Mind-boggling Scale of the Universe.” The event will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27 at Hilliard’s Beer Taphouse in Ballard.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is a free monthly event organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. It spent its first year at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company but has outgrown that space, and is moving to the larger Hilliard’s just a hop and a skip up Leary Way.

Dawn in the asteroid belt

Ron HobbsThe Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27 at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue. NASA Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a presentation about our modern understanding of the belt of minor planets between Mars and Jupiter. He will discuss the Juno mission that is on its way to Jupiter and what we might learn about the giant planet’s role in the creation of the feature we call the asteroid belt.

Closeup of Pluto


Will Grundy. Photo: Lowell Observatory.

We won’t even have all of the data from Pluto back from New Horizons until late this year, but we’ve already learned a lot about the former ninth planet. Astronomer Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory will be at the University of Washington this week to talk about some of the scientific highlights and puzzles that the New Horizons science team is investigating. He will also briefly touch on plans for January 2019 when New Horizons will get the first up-close look at a small Kuiper belt object. The talk , part of the UW astronomy colloquia series, will be at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 28 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the UW campus in Seattle.

Up in the sky

You can catch transits of Jupiter’s moons Io and Europa on Friday evening. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have other observing highlights for the week.


Astro Biz: Moonstruck Chocolate Café

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

Moonstruck Chocolate CafeThis week’s Astro Biz is Moonstruck Chocolate Café in Portland. The Moonstruck Chocolate Company has four cafés in Portland and another in Beaverton, Oregon. They feature handmade artisan chocolates, drinking chocolates, and a variety of decadent desserts. In keeping up with our recent meme of beer and astronomy, Moonstuck also offers a collection of chocolates based on Oregon craft beers. So now we have to add chocolate to our list of observing essentials!

We chose Moonstruck this week because we’ve just discovered them on several recent trips to Portland to visit Rose City Astronomers.

More info:

Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

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Astro Biz: Blue Moon Tavern & Grill

McMenamin's Blue Moon Tavern & GrillMany 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 McMenamin’s Blue Moon Tavern & Grill in Portland. McMenamin’s owns some 70 pubs and other joints, mostly in the greater Portland area, but also spread out from Eugene, Oregon to Bothell, Wash. The Blue Moon is the only Astro Biz in the bunch. It’s in the northwest neighborhood of Portland at 21st and Glisan. It has been the site of some sort of drinking establishment for the better part of 150 years, once being the renowned biker bar Good Time Charlie’s. It has been the Blue Moon for more than 30 years. The business survived a fire that gutted the building in 2000.

Blue Moon is shaping up as a favored Astro Biz name. The McMenamin’s place is the second tavern and third overall Blue Moon on the list, which now includes 13 Moon names, the leader by far.

We chose the Blue Moon because we just discovered it this morning. Plus we like to mix our astronomy with beer. We attended the Rose City Astronomers meeting last night in Portland, and found the Blue Moon along the way to our favorite PDX breakfast spot, Kornblatt’s, which is not an Astro Biz, but its corned beef hash is out of this world.

More info:

Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

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Catch the Mercury transit May 9

One of the rarest of predictable astronomical events will happen May 9 when we on Earth will be able to see Mercury move across the face of the Sun. Mercury transits happen about 13 times per century. The last one was in 2006 and the next is relatively soon, in November of 2019. After that there won’t be another until 2032.

By contrast, transits of Venus occur in pairs eight years apart separated by more than a century. There were Venus tranists in 2004 and 2012, and there won’t be another until December of 2117.

NASA illustration.

NASA illustration of the 2006 Mercury transit.

Julie Lutz, an emeritus research professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the Mercury transit will be mostly spectacle, as there isn’t much science to be done.

“We’ve learned about all we can from previous transits of Mercury,” Lutz said. “Early on it was a matter of using the transit timings and things like that to confirm things about the orbit of Mercury, get it more and more accurately, try and deduce the size of the planet, things like that.”

During the transit Mercury will appear as a small, black dot crossing the face of the Sun. Lutz pointed out that watching for such occurrences at other stars is precisely how astronomers are detecting exoplanets.

“We can detect Earths now,” Lutz said. “The Kepler mission has changed the whole picture of planet distributions.” She added that if there is a planet the size of Mercury, which has a diameter of just over 3,000 miles, in orbit around a distant star, we couldn’t spot it in transit. We detect exoplanets by watching for slight reductions in brightness as the planets block some of the light as they transit. Our current instruments just aren’t sensitive enough to see the small change that would be caused by an exo-Mercury.

Mercury will even be a little tough to spot from Earth. While we could see the Venus transit just by looking at the Sun through eclipse glasses, that won’t work with Mercury.

“Mercury is smaller than Venus and further from the Earth, so the apparent size of the planet from our point of view is going to be smaller, so it will be harder to see,” Lutz said.

You’re going to need some magnification, according to Stephanie Anderson, co-owner of Cloud Break Optics in Ballard.

“In order to see Mercury well, you’re going to have to get to 20 to 30 power,” Anderson said. Binoculars with solar filters won’t be quite enough, as these typically have somewhere between eight and 10 power. Binoculars could be used to set up a projection of the Sun’s image on a screen or sheet of paper. Otherwise, Cloud Break’s Matt Dahl said almost any telescope would do the trick.

“You need a front aperture mask of some sort to minimize the light through it. Don’t ever use a telescope to look at the Sun without proper filtration,” Dahl warned. “If you want to see all of the other effects that are going on the Sun, the prominences and granularity all that kind of stuff, a specific solar telescope would be ideal.”

If you don’t have a telescope or a friend who has one, Anderson said they could set you up with a simple refracting telescope or a tabletop reflector for around $100. The aperture mask and solar filter will run $50 to $75, so for less than $200 you’d be ready to roll.

“Then you can use that cool thing to see the (solar) eclipse when it comes up next year in August, and then you can also use it to view the night sky,” Anderson said. “It’s good for more than just viewing the Mercury transit.”

Both Dahl and Anderson are accomplished astrophotographers, and Dahl said shooting the Mercury transit will be relatively easy. He said the Sun is a bright enough object that you wouldn’t really even need a tracking mount. Just hook up your DSLR or a webcam to your telescope. Anderson added that it might even be simpler than that.

“Just use your smartphone to snap a picture right through the eyepiece,” she said. “You might have the technology in your pocket already.”

It can be tough to get a good frame with a smartphone and a telescope, but Anderson said you’ll have time to experiment.

“The event will last for quite a while, so you’ll have some time to mess around with it,” she said.

The full Mercury transit will be visible east of the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska. It will already be in progress when the Sun rises at 5:40 a.m. on May 9 in Seattle, and it will end at about 11:40 a.m. Pacific time. Dahl and Anderson are considering setting up viewing at Magnuson Park, and Seattle Astronomy may be down at Anchor Park at the far north end of Alki Beach Park if the weather is good. If it looks like it will be a cloudy day, we all might hit the road in search of clearer weather, because transits are cool.

“The thing that excites me the most about them is that you get to see the pieces of the solar system moving together,” Anderson said. “You get to see that the Sun has planets going around it. It’s really an amazing thing to see with your own eyes.”

“It gives you a really humbling size reference when you contrast the size of the Sun to the size of the tiny little dot,” of a transiting planet, Dahl said. “The Venus transit four years ago was awe-inspiring for me that way.”

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