Astro Biz: Red Star Yeast

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

Today’s Astro Biz is Red Star Yeast. Seattle Astronomy moonlights as a home bread baker, and Red Star Quick Rise is our go-to yeast. The company also sells an active dry yeast, a cake yeast, and a premium, Platinum Yeast. Red Star is a brand of the Lesaffre Yeast Corporation, which has several other brands of yeast and baking products,

One might question whether night-owl astronomy and early-morning baking are compatible pursuits. I’d say they’re probably not, so I do most of my baking in the afternoons!

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Aperture fever strikes in the hunt for dark matter

There’s a truism in astronomy that aperture rules. The wider your telescope mirror or lens the more photons you can capture and the better views you’ll get of celestial objects. It turns out that aperture fever strikes professional astronomers as well as amateurs. The latest to fall victim to this malady is Julianne Dalcanton, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. Last week Dalcanton gave a talk at the UW titled “Building the Universe Piece by Piece.” It was part of the lecture series The Big Bang and Beyond being presented by the UW Alumni Association in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the university’s Department of Astronomy.


Prof. Julianne Dalcanton spoke about galaxy formation and evolution at the UW Nov. 18. 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dalcanton’s bailiwick is the study of the formation and evolution of galaxies, and she picked up that story where Miguel Morales left off two weeks before in the second lecture of the series. Morales took us up to the “end of the beginning,” the release of the cosmic microwave background, 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Once things cooled down after that, the universe developed more complexity.

“You have intergalactic gas that originally permeated the universe mixed with the dark matter and the light of the cosmic microwave background,” Dalcanton said. “This gas has funneled, along with the dark matter, into these increasingly rich structures and then funneled into galaxies.”

As the galaxies formed, so did stars out of even more densely concentrated areas of gas. Dalcanton noted that the Hubble Space Telescope has given us marvelous photos of stars being born in places like the Orion Nebula or the Eagle Nebula, subject of the now-famous photo “Pillars of Creation.”

Beautiful and deadly


“The Pillars of Creation” is arguably Hubble’s most famous photo. Image: NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University) –

“These scenes of great beauty are scenes of great destruction,” Dalcanton said. “The stars that are born here are the ultimate in ungrateful children. They are just going about their business absolutely destroying the cloud from which they were born.”

Dalcanton pointed out that we can recognize young stars easily because they’re massive, bright, blue, large, and hot. They tend to flame out quickly. On the other hand, smaller, cooler, dimmer red stars like our Sun last a lot longer.

“They all seem so different,” Dalcanton said. “There’s a clear regularity in their properties that must be directly linked to the physics that’s going on inside the stars.”

By looking at other galaxies and noting the distribution of young and old stars, astronomers get clues about how the galaxies evolved and how elusive dark matter works. Then they make computer models and compare the results to what they see around the universe. The theoretical models match the observations pretty well so far.

“Just because you can make it in the computer doesn’t mean that it’s true,” Dalcanton cautioned. “The study of the individual stars and the actual histories of individual galaxies, where we can pick them apart into their individual pieces, gives us a really strong constraint on all of these models. That then gives us the additional leverage to try to break apart various possible theories of dark matter.”

“The key ingredient to all of this is actually detecting individual stars,” she added.

We need a bigger telescope

This is where the aperture fever comes in.

Dalcanton heads up PHAT, the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury, a project in which Hubble made nearly 13,000 images of the Andromeda Galaxy and did a billion measurements of 110 million stars. Volunteers in the Andromeda Project helped sift through nearly a terabyte of data, and we learned a lot.

“As awesome as this is, Hubble is not enough,” Dalcanton said. “Hubble’s my babe, but it’s got its limitations.”

She said Andromeda was chosen for this survey because it is the closest, most massive spiral galaxy we can get a good look at.

“Even with the Hubble Space Telescope we can’t really pick apart all of the stars that we actually want to,” Dalcanton said.

HDST is the answer

The HDST would dwarf Hubble or the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch in 2018. Image: C. Godfrey, STscI.

The HDST would dwarf Hubble or the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch in 2018. Image: C. Godfrey, STscI.

That’s why she’s a big advocate for a new project on the drawing boards called the High Definition Space Telescope (HDST). Hubble’s mirror is 2.4 meters. HDST’s would be nearly 12 meters, and would have 25 times the surface area of Hubble. Dalcanton said that would give it vastly superior sensitivity and clarity.

“We would see fainter stars and we would see them in regions of the universe where they were much more closely packed together,” she said. It would be like going from an old tube TV to your new 60-inch high-definition television. HDST would be strong enough to spot planets orbiting relatively nearby stars, and could see more and more stellar nurseries like the Eagle Nebula.

“We would be able to see those in individual galaxies anywhere in the universe,” with the HDST, Dalcanton said.

“That’s what I’m rooting for.”


Museum of Flight receives F-1 engines that launched Apollo

Forty-six years ago today Apollo 12 became the second craft to land people on the Moon. Today the Museum of Flight received an incredible treasure: parts of the Rocketdyne F-1 engines that blasted Apollo into orbit.

Doug King, president of the Museum of Flight, announces the gift of the Apollo F-1 engines at a news conference Nov. 19, 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Doug King, president of the Museum of Flight, announces the gift of the Apollo F-1 engines at a news conference Nov. 19, 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The engines were found at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 2013 by founder Jeff Bezos and his team from Bezos Expeditions. Bezos requested that the engines be donated to the museum and NASA honored that request.

“This is truly a historic day for the museum, for our community,” said Doug King, president and CEO of the Museum of Flight. “I don’t think it’s too grandiose to say for our country and maybe even for humankind.”

“Exhibiting these historic engines not only shares NASA’s storied history, it also helps America educate to innovate,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a news release. “This display of spaceflight greatness can help inspire our next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and explorers to build upon past successes and create the new knowledge and capabilities needed to enable our journey to Mars.”

Bezos said he became interested in science and exploration as a five-year-old watching Neil Armstrong’s first small step on the Moon.

“You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you,” he said. Bezos said he thinks about rockets at lot, and one day it occurred to him that it would be great to find and restore those F-1 engines. The engineers who built them were working to send people to the Moon, and few folks at the time were thinking about posterity.

Expendable stuff

“That first stage with these gigantic engines is expendable; it’s supposed to crash into the ocean, that was the whole plan,” Bezos said.

Jeff Bezos founder Jeff Bezos talks about his passion for space and the project to recover the F-1 engines. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We’re working on changing that plan,” he continued. “I have this space company called Blue Origin; we’re trying to make reusable rockets because we don’t like throwing the hardware away.”

It took Bezos all of ten minutes of Internet searching to find the coordinates at which NASA said the Apollo 11 first stage rocket crashed. The hunt was on.

“That was going to prove to be the only easy thing about this project,” Bezos laughed. It was an incredibly complicated endeavor. Bezos Expeditions put together a team of more than 60 people who are experts in ocean recovery. They searched some 300 square miles of ocean with side-scanning sonar to find the engines and then pulled them out from under 14,000 feet of seawater, where they’d been at rest for more than 40 years.

The parts were restored at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. Much of the damage to the engines was caused not by their high-speed crash into the sea, but by silt and corrosion from four decades in salt water, though the large and highly recognizable bell-shaped nozzle extensions were badly mangled.

Great museum pieces

Geoff Nunn, the adjunct curator for space history at the museum, said the engines that drove Apollo were marvels of engineering.

Geoff Nunn

Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the Museum of Flight, talked about what makes the F-1 engines a special artifact. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The Rocketdyne F-1 was the largest single-chambered liquid-fueled rocket ever flown,” Nunn said. “Each engine produced over a million and a half pounds of thrust and stood 18 and a half feet tall.”

That’s quite a kick. King said all of the planes in the museum’s entire collection collectively have only half that much thrust. Five F-1s launched each Saturn V.

The first piece unwrapped at the news conference this morning, still in its shrink wrap from Cosmosphere, was an injector plate from one of the Apollo 12 engines.

“The injector plate is really what is key to making the F-1 engine an engine and not just a million and a half pounds of bomb,” Nunn explained. “It’s covered in these minute holes that release fuel and oxidizer in an incredibly precise mixture in order to ensure that the combustion that occurs is smooth and controlled.”

Bezos injector

Bezos talks about the workings of the F-1 engine injector plate. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Some of the F-1 engine components will go on public display at the museum starting Saturday and will be out until early January. The full collection will be part of a new, permanent exhibit that will open late next year or in early 2017.

For Bezos, finding and restoring artifacts like the F-1 engines is not about looking to the past.

“It’s about today and it’s about the future,” he said. “It’s about building a 21st-century version of the F-1 engine. It’s about building reusable rockets.

“Civilization for many centuries has been getting better and better, and the point of recovering an object like this is to remind us of who we are and what we can do as we move forward as a civilization.”

The video below from Bezos Expeditions tells the tale of the recovery of the F-1 engines from the briny Atlantic.


The end of the beginning of the universe

Miguel Morales has been spending a lot of time pondering what he calls “the end of the beginning of the universe”—the cosmic microwave background. Morales, professor of physics at the University of Washington, heads up the university’s Dark Universe Science Center, a group working to figure out gravity, dark matter, dark energy, galaxy formation and evolution, and other cosmological mysteries. Morales gave a talk earlier this month titled “The End of the Beginning.” It was the second of a four-part lecture series, The Big Bang and Beyond, sponsored by the UW alumni association in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy.


The now-famous rendering of the cosmic microwave background “looks like Pollock. It’s kind of a mess!” jokes Prof. Miguel Morales. Yet it may hold clues to how the universe formed and how we all got here. Image: ESA and the Planck Collaboration.

Morales gave a “Cliff’s Notes” history of the formation of the universe, noting that the end of the beginning came about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the hydrogen and helium plasma formed by that event cooled sufficiently to change phase and release light.

“It froze from an opaque helium hydrogen plasma to a clear, neutral gas,” Morales explained.

The “glowing wall of gas” left behind is the cosmic microwave background. Recent measurements have confirmed temperature fluctuations in the CMB.

“These are real, hot and cold spots that we see on the sky,” Morales said. “This is the writing of creation on the wall.”

Ghostly evidence

Morales noted that this writing is extremely faint. He pointed out that the differences between the red an blue sections of the now-famous Planck map of the cosmic microwave background are just one part in 100,000.

Miguel Morales explains how oscillations in plasma created sound waves that can be spotted within the cosmic microwave background. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Miguel Morales explains how oscillations in plasma created sound waves that can be spotted within the cosmic microwave background. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This is really a testament to precision measurement,” he said. He noted that, given this level of accuracy, we can learn a lot about what was going on in the early universe from the evidence left behind.

For example, scientists have teased out sound waves from the cosmic microwave background. The waves were created when the plasma oscillated in what was essentially a tug-o-war between gravity trying to collapse the mass and photons resisting that force. How those sound waves propagate could hold clues to what was going on in the early universe.

Changing tactics

The early observations measured temperature, but Morales said the state of the art is to look at the polarization of the light, which could lead to a needle in the cosmic haystack.

“You might be able to see, in the polarization, the ghost of gravity waves from inflation,” he said. They actually thought they had something in observations from the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, but what they saw actually turned out to be spinning dust.

“The polarization that BICEP saw is contaminated by the galaxy,” Morales said. “We’re seeing stuff on the windshield here; it’s not all primordial.”

One of the greatest challenges in making these observations is fine-tuning the instruments to ignore the noise and not be faked out by the data.

“BICEP is a technical tour de force, the measurement is awesome. It’s just a little contaminated, and, to be honest, Planck is not sensitive enough to say how bad the contamination is,” Morales explained.

That, he said, is science.

“We’ll keep looking, scratching our heads, building yet more sensitive instruments as we learn to read the words about the universe written faintly on the sky.”


Spooky action explained

Some eighty years ago Albert Einstein derided the notion of quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.” Today, according to author and journalist George Musser, “We’re starting to see the hazy outlines of an answer,” to questions about the how particles in different locations appear to act on each other. He is quick to add that there are still scientists who don’t really believe that non-locality is a real thing.


Author George Musser explains separate particles magically acting on each other during his talk Nov. 3 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Musser is the author of Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time—and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). He spoke about the book and the science earlier this month at Town Hall Seattle.

Musser noted that Einstein was clearly bothered by some aspects of quantum mechanics, particularly the notion that randomness governs the universe. This led to his famous observation that God does not place dice.

“It was arguably Einstein’s number one concern,” Musser noted. “His deeper worry, actually the worry that led him to the worry about randomness, was the worry about non-locality. What is non-locality? How can this magic sorcery kind of thing be happening in the real world?”

That’s the quality that got Musser interested in writing about the subject.

“It’s the closest thing that we have in contemporary science to real, honest-to-god, Harry Potter magic,” he said. He noted that it turns up in many different sciences, and isn’t just a “freak show” over in quantum mechanics.

Space is constructed

Muster detailed the experimental evidence that has established that entanglement is a real phenomenon. String theory, loop quantum gravity, and other attempts to explain what’s happening have, at their cores, a similar idea, according to Musser. That idea is that space isn’t just empty and out there; it’s made of something.

“Anyone working on quantum gravity thinks that at some level space is constructed,” Musser explained. “That gives you the opening to deal with non-locality. No longer is that an insoluble puzzle that has been hanging in the air since Einstein’s days.”

Muster suggested thinking about water to illustrate the idea. A single molecule of H2O does not have the properties of water. It’s only when you get a whole bunch of that molecules together that water can flow or have surface tension.

“Likewise, if space consists of atoms, each individual atom is not spacial. Each individual atom lacks the properties we associate with spacial things,” Musser said. “Those spacial properties are derived collectively from the interactions among atoms.”

Given that idea, it’s possible that space can also change its state, just like water can boil and evaporate or freeze, and perhaps that’s part of what is driving our perception of different locations and entanglement.

“It seems that these things are in a predetermined location, but maybe that quality of being in a predetermined location is actively being generated all the time, below our level of consciousness, below the level even of our theories,” Musser said. “There’s some deeper machinery in the natural world.”

It’s a complicated concept to work into a 500-word blog post or a 45-minute lecture. You can listen to an audio recording of Musser’s talk on the Town Hall Seattle website. He is an engaging speaker, and Spooky Action at a Distance promises to be a good read.


Tough choices Wednesday on week’s busy astro-calendar

There are several great astronomy events on the docket for this week. Unfortunately, three of them are at the same time on Wednesday.



The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington continues with another of the lecture series The Big Bang and Beyond. UW astronomy professor Julianne Dalcanton will give a talk titled “Building the Universe, Piece by Piece.” Dalcanton will highlight the unique role that the Hubble Space Telescope has played in shaping our understanding of galaxies and stars as she illuminates the complex forces that have shaped the universe we see around us. She will also talk about the future of space exploration and how it will shape future discoveries about the universe. All free tickets have been claimed for the talk, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18 in room 120 of Kane Hall on the UW campus in Seattle. There will be a waiting list in the event of no-shows.

AOT in the Star Wars spirit

aotnovIf you prefer a little beer with your astronomy head over to Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard Wednesday for another Astronomy on Tap Seattle event. It’s the ninth monthly event in the series, being presented by graduate students from the University of Washington. It’s so popular that Bad Jimmy’s named a brew especially for AoT: the Big Sipper, a Scotch Ale. (It’s yummy.)

This month the topic is planets with two stars. Guest speakers will give brief talks about “How to Find a Tatooine” and “How to Build a Tatooine.” The event is set to coincide with a certain movie release. We’re not sure which one, as they’re not saying. Astronomy, trivia games, prizes, fun, and beer get under way at 7 p.m. It’s free, but RSVP.

SAS takes on photography

saslogoThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the UW campus in Seattle. The club’s former president, Denis Janky, will give a talk titled “Astrophotography With a Large Dobsonian Telescope and Color CCD Camera.” Janky is a long-time visual observer who only recently began dabbling with astrophotography. He uses a Mallincam Universe color CCD camera with an Obsession Dobsonian telescope. The Obsession has a tracking system, but is designed for visual observing. The Mallincam has capability for real-time observation on a computer screen and is also a full-fledged color CCD camera. Janky will show his setup and explain how it works.

The club will also hold its election of officers for the coming year.

Eastside Science Café

logo-233x751The Eastside Science Café tackles an astronomy topic this month. Matt Tilley, a Ph.D. student in the UW Astrobiology Program, will give a talk titled “The Magnetospheres of Solar System Planets and Beyond” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17 at Wilde Rover Irish Pub in Kirkland. Tilley will talk about how the Earth’s magnetic field shields us from deadly solar radiation. He’ll look at other planets and discuss how magnetic fields might be used to explore planets light years away.

Science cafés are a program of Pacific Science Center.

Saturday star parties

Both the Seattle and Tacoma astronomical societies plan public events for Saturday, Nov. 21. SAS will hold its free monthly public star parties at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Both will get under way at 5 p.m., weather permitting. Tacoma Astronomical Society‘s public night at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College will begin at 7:30 p.m. with a presentation about the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Telescopes will come out for observing if the weather cooperates.

Track upcoming events on the Seattle Astronomy calendar.


Dark matter may have killed the dinosaurs

Harvard particle physicist and author Lisa Randall has a new hypothesis about what killed the dinosaurs, and it’s a surprisingly simple one. The possible culprit: dark matter.

Lisa Randall

Physicist Lisa Randall spoke at Town Hall Seattle about her hypothesis that dark matter may have triggered the events that killed the dinosaurs. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Randall visited Town Hall Seattle last week to talk about her ideas, explained in her new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015).

Randall noted that ordinary matter forms into disks like our galaxy and solar system because it interacts with light, radiates photons, cools, and collapses. Dark matter, on the other hand, doesn’t interact with light and so stays diffuse. It is believed that the Milky Way Galaxy sits inside an essentially spherical halo of dark matter.

Here’s where Randall throws in a what-if. The model for dark matter presumes it consists of only one type of particle. But that’s not necessarily so.

“Maybe there’s a new type of dark matter in addition to the dark matter that people talk about,” Randall said.

“Suppose you had dark matter which could radiate,” she speculated. “Maybe dark matter interacts with its own light, which I’m going to call dark light.”

If that’s the case, this particle also could form structure, Randall said.

“Most of the dark matter is going to stay intact in a spherical halo, but this small fraction, maybe five percent of dark matter that interacts with dark light, can also collapse into a disk,” she said. This thin disk of dark matter would be embedded in the plane of the galaxy.

Here’s how that could have been the death blow for the dinosaurs, and a big chunk of the rest of the life on Earth, about 66 million years ago. Randall noted that, as our solar system rotates around the galaxy, it doesn’t follow a simple, flat course.

“As it goes around it actually bobs up and down through the plane of the Milky Way,” every 30 million years or so, she said.

“When it goes through that mid-plane, if there is a dark-matter disk there will be an enhanced gravitational force,” Randall explained. “So our hypothesis is that every time it goes through the mid-plane it can trigger comets getting dislodged from the Oort Cloud, and one of those could have been the comet that actually did in the dinosaurs.”

Randall stresses that this is all highly speculative, but she’s looking for evidence in her current research. She’s hoping to get data to further test the notion from the Gaia satellite, which will make precise measurements of the motions of about one billion stars. That will help us get a better handle on dark matter and where it is.

In the meantime Randall marvels at the interconnectedness of the universe. Galaxies could not have formed without dark matter, yet it may also have set into motion events that wiped out much of the life on our planet, also paving the way for large mammals, like us, to flourish.