Astro Biz: Mars bar

marscandybarMany 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 Mars chocolate bar. The candy bar was not actually named after the planet, but for its creator, Forrest E. Mars, who developed the bar in the U.K. in 1932. The Mars company makes some of the most famous chocolate brands, including M&Ms, Snickers, Three Musketeers, Milky Way, and Dove.

Truth be told, we’d originally penciled in the Mars Bar in the University District for this week’s Astro Biz. (Believe it or not, we are semi-organized about this blog!) When we went up there to shoot some photos the other day, we found that the joint was no longer there, apparently closing in March. Oddly enough, there was a similarly named Café Venus and Mars Bar on Eastlake, and it closed in 2013. So, while the age of the solar system is in the neighborhood of 4.5 billion years, it appears that bars and restaurants named after Mars, at least, may not be quite so lasting.

You may have guessed that we wanted a Mars Astro Biz this week because the Red Planet was at opposition to the Sun yesterday, will have its closest approach to Earth for the year on Monday, and is at its best for observing in more than a decade.

Mars Bar & GrillMars bar Cafe Venus

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!

Astro Biz index

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

Mars at opposition, AoT looks at weird objects

Mars from Hubble

Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this striking image of Mars on May 12, when the planet was 50 million miles from Earth. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute).

The season of Mars begins this week as the Red Planet reaches opposition on Sunday, May 22! That means that Mars will rise around sunset, be highest in the southern sky at around 1 a.m., and will be visible all night long. When Mars is at opposition it also is near its closest approach to Earth, which this year happens on Memorial Day.

This year’s apparition is a particularly favorable one for Mars, which will draw nearer to Earth than it has been in more than a decade. At closest approach on May 30 Mars will be just 46.8 million miles away from us; it will be at its brightest for the year and we will have our best chance to see surface details through our telescopes. After Memorial Day Mars and Earth will slowly get further apart and Mars will appear to grow dimmer. The best views will be through June, but Mars will be reasonably well placed for observation through the rest of the year.

This NASA site has good information about the Mars opposition and current activity on the Red Planet.

Space oddities

AoT Seattle May 25, 2016The next edition of Astronomy on Tap Seattle is coming up at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 25 at Hilliard’s Beer Taproom in Ballard. The monthly event organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington this time takes a look at real-life space oddities. UW astronomy professor Emily Levesque will talk about her research on “The Weirdest Stars in the Universe,” and grad student John Ruan will give a talk titled, “Citizen Discovers Strange Black Hole Echoes: The Science Behind Hanny’s Voorwerp.”

Astronomy on Tap also features trivia contests, good beer, good science, and a lot of fun. There are typically more participants than there are chairs, and the organizers suggest you can bring a lawn chair and create your own premium seating.

Fly above it all

Above and BeyondAbove and Beyond: The Ultimate Interactive Flight Exhibition opens May 28 and runs through September 10 at the Museum of Flight. It’s the west coast premiere for the exhibition, which explores the wonder of flight and the marvels of aerospace innovation, design, and technology. Above and Beyond is designed to be the most interactive touring exhibition on aerospace, with approximately 5,000 square feet of exhibition space, including a 180-degree immersive theater presentation, a high-tech media-rich historical timeline, a simulated space elevator ride, a challenge to design and test a supersonic fighter jet in a virtual high-speed flying competition, and an avatar-based motion-capture group experience that demonstrates flight like a bird.

Astronaut Tom Jones

Astronaut Tom Jones. Photo: NASA.

Seattle Astronomy plans to run a full-length preview of the exhibition later this week. It has been at the Smithsonian and in Abu Dhabi, and recently wrapped up runs at the St. Louis Science Center and the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

Shuttle astronaut Tom Jones will be at the museum Saturday to help kick off Above and Beyond. At 2 p.m. Jones will give a talk about what it’s like to fly in space. Afterward, he’ll sign copies of his book, Ask the Astronaut: A Galaxy of Answers to Your Questions on Spaceflight (Smithsonian Books, 2016). The lecture, and the exhibition, are free with admission to the museum.

Books by Tom Jones:

Up in the Sky

With Mars reaching opposition we have a pretty good three-planet show in the evenings. Jupiter was at opposition March 8 and these days is high in the south at dusk and sets around 2 a.m. Saturn will be at opposition June 3. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have additional observing highlights for the week.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

New Horizons reveals much, raises questions about Pluto

I overheard a little academic snark after a recent University of Washington astronomy colloquium. “It must be nice to be a planetary scientist,” said one attendee. “The answer to everything is, ‘I don’t know.’”

Grundy

Will Grundy. Photo: Lowell Observatory.

The topic of the day was Pluto, and the speaker was astronomer Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory. Grundy is a co-investigator for the New Horizons mission that flew past Pluto last July and will be beaming data back to Earth through the end of this year. He heads up the mission’s surface composition science theme team.

To be sure, Grundy’s talk was peppered with words like probably, puzzle, conjecture, speculation, and, yes, “We don’t know.” To be fair, we have learned quite a lot from a spectacular collection of snapshots beamed back to Earth from a dwarf planet three billion miles away. UW astronomy professor Don Brownlee talked about the scientific achievement, and the advances of the last 50 years, in his introduction of Grundy.

“Mariner 4 went to Mars and took 22 exciting pictures which we would now think were absolute dirt because they were 200 by 200 pixels and had very poor signal-to-noise ratio,” Brownlee said. “We’ve had this fantastic half-century of discovery of things where objects in the solar system went from dots to actual worlds. The last first-time is Pluto.”

One thing that we know fairly definitively is the variety of materials that are on Pluto’s surface. Grundy, who is a spectroscoper, showed many of the colorful images that reveal which compounds are there.

“The outer solar system would be a really colorful place if our eyes could just see a little farther out into the infrared,” Grundy noted, “but I guess it wasn’t advantageous to us running around on the African savannah to be able to distinguish methane ice from nitrogen ice.”

Psychedelic Pluto

“The outer solar system would be a really colorful place if our eyes could just see a little farther out into the infrared,” says New Horizons scientist Will Grundy. Mission scientists made this false color image of Pluto using a technique called principal component analysis to highlight the many subtle color differences between Pluto’s distinct regions. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Many other images showed the fascinating and varied terrain of Pluto, and this is where a lot of the we-don’t-knows come in. There are features that look for all the world like drainage canals, but it’s way too cold on Pluto for liquids. Perhaps the features were caused by glaciers, or some material we don’t know about. Other areas show what look like sand dunes with ripples on them, but Pluto’s atmosphere is too thin to blow sand around. Perhaps there was a thicker ancient atmosphere. Each photo revealed amazing detail and features, and many may well remain mysteries until more data can be collected.

“All of these different things are going on on different time scales,” Grundy said. “Sorting out the processes that we’re seeing here is going to be a fun challenge.”

The images are truly remarkable, though Grundy suggested they’re even better in higher resolution than he could display on the lecture-room screen. He suggested delving into the New Horizons image archive for some good viewing.

Pluto may seem insignificant to some, especially in light of its reclassification to dwarf planet, but Grundy said it’s well worth it to explore the “cold fringes of the solar system.”

“These things are really faint, really far away, really hard to get to, not huge,” he said. “Arguably they are the debris that’s left over from the formation of the giant planets, and they preserve a lot of clues about the planet-formation process specific to our solar system and perhaps general solar systems more broadly.”

“From my point of view, I’m just interested in exploration, just seeing what the objects out there are like.” Grundy continued. “If you like geology, or real estate, most of the solar system’s solid surface is out there.”

As New Horizons continues to beam back data it collected during last summer’s fly-by, it also is zipping toward another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, at which it will arrive on New Year’s Day 2019.

There’s another chance to catch Grundy’s presentation about Pluto coming up this weekend. He is scheduled to give a talk titled “Pluto and Charon Up-close” at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, May 22 at the PACCAR IMAX Theater at the Pacific Science Center. It’s part of the center’s on-going observance of AstronoMay.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

St. Louis on the edge for 2017 total solar eclipse

From Seattle we’ll have to drive about 200 miles south to get to the edge of the path of totality for the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States on August 21, 2017. The north edge of the path will cross I-5 near Aurora, Oregon. In St. Louis, the edge of the path cuts right through town. It sounds convenient, but Don Ficken, who chairs the St. Louis Eclipse 2017 Task Force, said there are disadvantages.

St. Louis Eclipse 2017“St. Louis is, in many ways, blessed by the fact that we have an eclipse coming through at least the southern part of the city,” Ficken said. “In other ways it’s a challenge. It’s not like Nashville where it’s going through the core; it’s basically just hitting the edge of the city.”

The northern edge of the path of totality almost cuts St. Louis in half, with the south and west sides of the city being in, while the north and east sides are not. Many big attractions in St. Louis, such as the Gateway Arch, Forest Park, Busch Stadium, the Zoo, and the St. Louis Science Center all lie outside the path of totality, while those inside the path will experience a shorter eclipse of a minute or less.

“When we talk with the main core of the city, it’s kind of hard for them to get real excited when they’re really on the edge of the eclipse,” Ficken said.

Thus, for the St. Louis area, the focus of eclipse planning has been on the more rural areas that are deeper into the path of totality of the eclipse. They began their work in 2014 but really got going in earnest at a workshop last fall.

“We decided up front that we were planning to inspire—in other words get people excited about it, educate and tell them about what’s going on, and then of course connect them to the resources, but we do not want to plan any events,” Ficken said. “We’re simply trying to raise awareness and do everything we can to get the region ready.”

The task force created teams that work with the many different counties and municipalities within the eclipse path. The St. Louis Astronomical Society, of which Ficken is a member, has been doing its part. Last weekend the club had a booth, for the first time, at the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show. They’re doing other outreach in an effort to reach at least 25,000 people with information about the eclipse. Part of the outreach is linked to their library telescope program, which has made 88 scopes available for checkout from area public libraries.

“We are doing programs, working with the public in the libraries right within their communities,” Ficken said. “Not only do we explain how the telescope works, but we talk about the solar eclipse coming up.”

Their best prop is a display map of the eclipse path, which Ficken said really grabs people’s attention and interest. They get to see what is coming their way.

“We’re going to be doing a ton of outreach to raise the visibility, which will then create, we think, more pressure to actually plan actual events,” he said. The work is beginning to pay off.

Don Ficken. Photo: LinkedIn.

Don Ficken. Photo: LinkedIn.

“Particularly the rural areas are so juiced on this thing; they’re excited, I mean really excited,” Ficken said. “This is like the biggest thing that’s probably ever going to happen to some of them and they’re on the map. Particularly little towns like Festus and Perry County; Perryville is just going bonkers down there with their planning. It’s like the biggest event forever for these guys down there.”

St. Louis is a great choice as an eclipse viewing destination, according to Ficken. As a major metropolitan area, there’s a lot to do there. Come eclipse Monday, it’s an easy drive to go south or west to get deeper into the path of totality, with center-line towns just 30 to 40 minutes away.

“You’ve got plenty of time to get where you want to, get all settled in, and just have some fun,” Ficken noted. “For those who want to just make an easy trip, have a great weekend, have some fun, add a third day on to make it a three-day weekend, we’re really perfectly suited for that.”

Many towns and businesses within the eclipse path have committed to having events for the eclipse, though a significant number of them haven’t settled on the details yet. As they’re confirmed, they’ll be posted on the St. Louis Eclipse 2017 website. Ficken expects the interest to snowball.

“We’re excited, we have lots of great stuff going on, but I expect a lot more to happen as we get into fall and the media starts picking up on this,” Ficken said. “It will be crazy.”

Podcast of our interview with Don Ficken:

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

The universe is big, even in small spaces

The universe is pretty vast even in confined spaces. That was the lesson given on opposite ends of the size scale at the most recent Astronomy on Tap Seattle event hosted at Hilliard’s Beer Taproom by University of Washington graduate students in astronomy.

Ethan Kruse

UW astronomy graduate student Ethan Kruse said the universe is a big place, and it will take some technological advances to reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Grad student Ethan Kruse was all set to give a talk that concluded we would never even get out of our solar system because it is way too big. Then a few weeks before the talk Stephen Hawking and friends announced their plan for getting all the way to neighboring star Alpha Centauri in 20 years through a project called Breakthrough Starshot.

“If I’m disagreeing with Stephen Hawking,” Kruse recalled thinking, “I should probably stop for a minute and reevaluate my thesis.”

Kruse remained on point about the mind-boggling scale of the universe. He said that if our Sun was the size of a basketball sitting on the stage of Hilliard’s, Earth would be the size of a sesame seed in the back of the room, 84 feet away, and the orbiting Moon would be the size of a grain of salt. At this scale Jupiter would be a golf ball on the Ballard Bridge and Pluto would be a grain of salt about a kilometer away—about the distance to Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company, which served as the venue for Astronomy on Tap Seattle for its first year. Alpha Centauri, in this set-up, is some 4,400 miles away—in London or Tokyo.

Kruse pointed out that the fastest spacecraft we have built so far, New Horizons, took a decade to get to Pluto.

“We went from Hilliard’s to Bad Jimmy’s in ten years,” he observed. “Don’t worry guys, we’re going to go to London in 20 years!”

The idea behind Starshot is that a super-light craft with a light sail could be accelerated by lasers to up to 20 percent of the speed of light. Kruse outlined a litany of technological challenges with the concept, including the ability to generate sufficient laser power, creating an adequately reflective material for the sails, being able to accurately aim the lasers at great distances, and shielding the craft from possible collisions with space debris. Still, he concluded, the idea is worth exploring, especially since the same technology could be used to explore the solar system more quickly.

“This is honestly the most realistic thing that anyone has proposed so far for getting to any other star system,” Kruse said.

It will, however, take a great deal of research and development.

“Don’t necessarily count on this before you die,” Kruse concluded. “Space is big.”

Jessica Werk

UW astronomy Prof. Jessica Werk says your atoms took quite a journey to become you. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Professor Jessica Werk, one of the newest hires onto the astronomy faculty at the University of Washington, also used sports equipment to illustrate her talk, “The History of You: The Rather Tumultuous Past of the Atoms in Your Body.” Werk pointed out that atoms are mostly empty space. If the nucleus of an atom were the size of a baseball, the nearest electrons would be a football field away.

After the Big Bang the universe was mostly light atoms: hydrogen and helium and a few others. Where did the carbon and calcium and other heavier stuff we’re made of come from?

“All evidence suggests that these atoms were fused in the cores of very, very massive stars twelve-and-a-half billion years ago,” Werk said. “Since then they have been on an absolutely crazy, long, sometimes violent journey to end up in your body 93 million miles from the Sun on this speck named Earth.”

Those atoms took a somewhat circuitous route to get here.

“Sixty percent of the atoms in your body we at one point outside of the galaxy in the circumgalactic or intergalactic medium,” Werk said. We don’t really know how they got here, but the best theory is that the atoms tend to cool off, and the gas rains back down on the galaxy, collapsing in star formation or becoming part of the debris disk out of which planets form.

There’s some mind-bending scale at the atomic level, too. Werk pointed out that there are 1023 atoms in a breath of air.

“Each breath-full of air contains more atoms than the number of breath-fulls of air in the entire Earth’s atmosphere,” she said. “What that means is that it is very likely that the last breath of air you just took contained at least one oxygen atom from the first breath of air that you ever took as a human being on planet Earth.”

That reminds us of a recent post by Ethan Siegel on the blog Starts With a Bang, in which he concluded that we all probably share atoms that were once part of King Tut or any other historical figure you might name.

AOT crowd

Astronomy on Tap Seattle outgrew Bad Jimmy’s, and pretty well packed the larger Hilliard’s at its first event there in April. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The matter that makes up your physical body is part of a huge universe that is continually evolving and recycling the material in it into new forms,” Werk concluded.

The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle event is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 25 at Hilliard’s. Astronomy Prof. Emily Levesque and graduate student John Ruan will give talks about some of the strangest celestial objects ever discovered or theorized. People outnumbered seats at the April event, and so the organizers suggest that you can bring a lawn chair and create your own premium seating.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

Astro Biz: Blue Moon Brewing Company

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

Blue Moon beerThis week’s Astro Biz is Blue Moon Brewing Company. Blue Moon is based in Colorado and is best known for its Belgian white beer, but also makes an India pale ale and a variety of seasonal brews as well.

We chose Blue Moon this week because the full Moon of May 21, 2016 is a blue Moon, at least by the older, classic definition, which holds that a blue Moon is the third of four full moons of a season, the time between the equinox and the solstice or vice versa. Around about the middle of the 20th century, a new definition came into common use, designating the second full Moon in a calendar month as a blue Moon.

According to a story on the company website, as the folks at Blue Moon Brewing Company were trying to decide what to name their operation one of those involved remarked that a beer this good comes about “once in a blue Moon,” a phrase that means something that doesn’t occur very often. The name stuck.

Which is more rare? A blue Moon by the seasonal definition happens seven times in a 19-year cycle, while the blue Moon defined by the month happens seven or eight times in 19 years. The last seasonal blue Moon was in August 2013, and the next after the one this week will be in May 2019 . The last by the monthly definition was in July 2015, and the next will be in January 2018.

Oddly enough, while the term blue Moon is supposed to represent rarity, it is becoming the most popular of Astro Biz names. The brewer is the fourth, joining two taverns and a burger joint. Astronomy and beer do seem to mix!

More info:

Astro Biz index

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

AstronoMay continues at PacSci with two talks this week

Saturday was Astronomy Day, but the Pacific Science Center is taking the whole month to celebrate AstronoMay! Two interesting talks highlight the calendar for the week.

Brett Morris

Brett Morris

Brett Morris, one of the co-founders of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, will give a presentation titled, “Hunting For Life in the Universe” at a Teen Science Café at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 at the center’s PACCAR IMAX Theater. Morris will introduce the science of astrobiology and how it seeks to measure and locate the conditions necessary for life in the universe. He’ll talk about telescopes and techniques used to explore other worlds and to try to track down life on them.

Dr. Will Grundy, the lead investigator for the surface composition team of New Horizons, will give a talk titled, “Pluto and Charon Up-close” at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, May 22 at the PACCAR Theater. Grundy will show close-up images from the mission and discuss his research, which involves icy outer solar system planets, satellites, and Kuiper belt objects using a broad variety of observational, theoretical, laboratory, and space-based techniques.

Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand at the center Saturday and Sunday with solar telescopes for viewing of the Sun. AstronoMay also includes planetarium shows, screenings of the movie A Beautiful Planet 3D, and other activities. Check the AstronoMay calendar page for a full listing.

Club events

saslogoThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a talk titled, “Juno to Jupiter: Piercing the Veil.” The Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in July. Over the ensuing year and a half, it will peer through the Jovian cloud tops and provide a deeper understanding of the composition and structure of the Solar System’s largest planet. Hobbs will explain what exciting science to expect from NASA’s latest outer planet mission.

Rose City AstronomersRose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 16 at the OMSI auditorium in Portland. It will be the group’s annual astronomy fair, with a swap meet, info booths, and brief show-and-tell sessions.

TJO open house

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryThere will be an open house at the University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 18. Students Cale Lewandowski and Jason Busnardo will be giving a talk about how to overcome the challenges of a trip to Mars. Reservations are strongly recommended for the talks, which are held in a small classroom in the observatory and often fill up early. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will offer tours of the observatory and a look through its vintage telescope if weather permits.

Up in the sky

Mars is nearing opposition and Jupiter remains well placed for observing. 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.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare