Gifts for the astronomy enthusiast

‘Tis the season for gift giving, and Seattle Astronomy gets its fair share of requests for advice on what to give to those who are interested in astronomy and to those who might be.

Back in October a friend asked my recommendation for a telescope to give as a birthday gift for his 10-year-old godson. My friend had done some research and was leaning toward the Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector Telescope. That’s a perfectly good choice, but I suggested he consider the Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian at the same price. Two reasons: the Dob gives you great bang for the telescope buck, and it’s super easy to operate. Just drag it outside, point, and look. Dobsonians, with no computer drive, are not so useful for photography, but they’re great for looking at stuff. I’m a Dob guy, and have owned the eight-inch version of this Orion for many years.

I wrote about choosing gift telescopes two years ago, and that advice still stands. Astronomical binoculars make a good gift for someone just starting out in astronomy. The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer is a must-have book for those trying to figure out what would be the best telescope for them, and it will remain a valuable reference for years to come.

There are all sorts of gadgets astronomy buffs will love. There’s a selection of ideas, some of our personal favorites, in the Seattle Astronomy Store. Check it out.

When you visit the store you’ll notice there are a lot of books there. Given Seattle’s propensity for cloudiness, reading about astronomy and space is often more possible than actually going outside and looking at the night sky. We cover a great many author talks, and highlight their books here on the blog. Some of the best of the last year:

Marketing the MoonMarketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek. As a journalist and public relations practitioner, I was especially interested in this account of the PR effort behind the Apollo program and the race to the Moon in the 1960s. You don’t have to be a part of the space or journalism industries to enjoy this marvelous volume; any space nut will find the stories and examples of Apollo memorabilia fascinating. Our review.

Sally RideSally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, by Lynn Sherr. Author Sherr, who was part of the space-reporting team for ABC television, spoke about the book at Town Hall Seattle this summer, and we covered the talk and wrote about it here. Ride’s story is a fascinating one, and it’s interesting to ponder why it took the U.S. more than 20 years after its first “manned” space flight to send a woman along for the ride. It’s not unusual for women to fly in space now; Sherr’s book is a marvelous biography of their groundbreaker.

The Edge of the SkyThe Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is, by Roberto Trotta. Another author who came through Town Hall this year, Trotta did a thought experiment that turned into a book: Could he explain what he does—he’s a theoretical astrophysicist—using just the one thousand most commonly used words in the English language? This was a tall order, given that he couldn’t use such words as universe, galaxy, and planet. The answer to the question is yes, and he does it without dumbing down the content. Trotta also is a funny and engaging speaker. Our recap of his talk is here.

Stars Above, Earth BelowStars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks, by Tyler Nordgren. Nordgren, a professor, author, photographer, and artist, keynoted the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society in January and talked about his book, something of a travelogue for stargazing in national parks. Nordgren spent time in a dozen different parks over the course of 14 months, and came to realize that the preservation of the land that prevents development in the parks also, almost by accident, preserves the precious resource of truly dark skies. It’s a growing part of the appeal of the parks, articulated by the slogan “Half the park is after dark.”

The End of NightFinally, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Lightby Paul Bogard, has been out for a couple of years now, but it’s one of the best books I’ve read recently about astronomy. It’s not so much about the science as it is about the spiritual aspects of our connections to the night sky. It’s a travelogue, it’s poetry, and it’s a thought-provoking essay on our use of artificial light. I recommend the book as well as Bogard’s blog most enthusiastically. It is a pleasure to read his stuff.

If you’re looking for space-themed books for kids, Emily Lackdawalla at the Planetary Society recently blogged a review of 14 possibilities. A classic she didn’t mention is The Stars by H.A. Rey, the author of Curious George. Not just for kids, really, this book, originally published in 1952, is a great help in learning about the constellations and other celestial objects.

Find more gift ideas for space and astronomy enthusiasts in the Seattle Astronomy Store.


Asteroid mining: not such a crazy idea

When Bellevue-based Planetary Resources, Inc. first went public in April of 2012 with its plans to mine astroids for water and minerals there were many who reacted with an “Oh, pshaw.” Less than three years later, the successful landing by the ESA Rosetta mission of its probe Philae on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, out in the far reaches of the solar system, makes it all seem like a more plausible idea.

“I love seeing the success of this mission because it proves that what we are doing is technically feasible today,” said Caitlin O’Keefe, director of marketing for Planetary Resources, on Tuesday during a Science Café talk sponsored by the Pacific Science Center at The Swiss Pub in Tacoma. O’Keefe added that Philae and Rosetta are ten-year-old craft that have spent a decade traversing six billion kilometers of space. Technology has advanced during that time; think about what your cell phone couldn’t do in 2004.

Caitlin O'Keefe

Caitlin O’Keefe, marketing director for Planetary Resources, spoke about asteroid mining at a Science Café event Tuesday in Tacoma. Photo borrowed from Facebook.

O’Keefe and everyone at Planetary Resources understand the skepticism. She quoted company co-founder Peter Diamandis as saying, “The day before something is a breakthrough it is a crazy idea.”

They’re creating the technology today to get themselves to that breakthrough. Advances in spacecraft control, avionics, communication systems, propulsion, and observation will help them identify and then get to resource-rich asteroids.

Unfortunately, one of their first tests of the technology went up in flames. Their Arkyd 3 satellite, which was to try out some of their new systems, blew up with the Antares rocket back in October.

“This was a bummer for our team to watch,” O’Keefe said. “There was a big hooray when it launched, and some not so nice words when it exploded six seconds later.”

But, she added, they’ve been able to shrug it off, in large part because their philosophy is to build a lot of small and relatively inexpensive spacecraft rather than putting all of their space-bound eggs into one billion-dollar basket.

“This is going to be a very important part of the space industry going forward: the ability to accept failure,” she said.

Many of the questions from the patrons of The Swiss during the talk centered around the financial aspects of mining in space. O’Keefe noted that there is a lot of potential. For example, one target astroid is thought to contain some $500 billion worth of platinum, which if mined would be more than has been extracted from Earth to date. While that could be a big payday, their first target is a more common substance: water. Water is good for drinking and protection from radiation, and can be turned into rocket fuel. And O’Keefe pointed out that it’s a lot cheaper to pick up water in space than it is to take it with you. To launch a bottle of water into low-Earth orbit you need about 50 times its mass in rocket fuel, and that pencils out to about $20,000. The savings add up, and it will make long space missions much more fiscally possible; a spacecraft can go all the way from Earth to Pluto on the same amount of fuel it takes just to launch into low-Earth orbit.

Mining may well be easier in the zero gravity of space, too, and the methods for doing it are pretty straightforward.

“Building this technology will be extremely difficult,” O’Keefe admitted. “I’m not downplaying the difficulty of a complicated system, but the theory of how to extract it is pretty well known.”

O’Keefe invited us all to join the asteroid mining effort. You can go to Asteroid Zoo, a venture launched this summer by Planetary Resources and Zooniverse, to help comb through data and identify potentially resource-rich asteroids.


Partial solar eclipse seen in Seattle

The partial solar eclipse of October 23, 2014 was a highly successful skywatching event by Seattle standards. Much of the first half of the eclipse was visible as it dodged clouds around the city. I viewed it from the sidewalk in front of Seattle Astronomy world headquarters in West Seattle.

Few observers held out much hope for seeing the eclipse. The weather forecast had been for rain and clouds for much of the Northwest. In the days leading up to the eclipse area astronomy message boards carried some talk of road trips to sites with better potential for clear skies, such as Yakima or other parts of Eastern Washington, though one seasoned observer wrote, “I have no confidence in finding anywhere drivable that reliably will have clear skies.” Clearly, a man who has been through this before.

Sure enough, we awoke on the morning of the eclipse to heavy rain and solid, dark, gray cloud cover. There seemed scant likelihood we would be seeing the eclipse. But by mid-morning the rain let up, and at about 11:37 a.m. I sent out this tweet and photo:

The blue sky held for the most part, and though the exact moment that the eclipse began was obscured by a cloud, the sun was out in full glory not long into it.

Eclipse start from Seattle Astronomy HQ.

Just minutes into the partial solar eclipse of Oct. 23, 2014. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It didn’t last long. Not more than 15 minutes later a robust thunderstorm, including lots of hail, blew through the area, obscured the Sun from view and drove us for cover. The storm didn’t last long, but the cloud cover remained for a while. Perhaps 20 minutes to half an hour later, we spotted a patch of blue sky to the west and urged the Sun to steer into it. It did! For the next hour or so the eclipsing Sun played hide and seek with us, dodging under cloud cover and then peeking back out again.

Maximum eclipse happened right about 3 p.m., and about 15 minutes after that one of the neighbor kids who had come over for a look through the Seattle Astronomy telescope and eclipse shades spotted a flash of lightening. A rumbling thunderclap followed a few seconds later, and within a minute or two it was raining and hailing hard. Alas, we’d seen the last of the eclipse for the day. Another blue patch finally arrived right around 5 p.m., old Sol popped into view, but the disk of the new Moon had passed by and the eclipse was over.

The eclipse was especially interesting because of the giant sunspot aimed right at us. You can see it in the photos, which, I admit, aren’t that great. They were made with a little point-and-shoot camera stuck right up to the telescope eyepiece. I don’t claim any real talent for astrophotography, but like to grab a few snapshots, just to show that I was there.

Solar Eclipse

The partial solar eclipse of October 23, 2014, right around the time of maximum coverage as seen from Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The eclipse put me in mind of the 2012 Venus transit, when bad weather and a desire to see what was a once-in-a-lifetime event convinced me to drive as far as Corning, California for a chance to see the Sun. (Read the accounts of the trip down and the transit day elsewhere on this site.) This time I decided to stay home, and it paid off. While I didn’t see the whole eclipse, I saw enough to enjoy and appreciate this awesome spectacle, and was able to share it with some neighbors too!

I can’t help but laugh at myself because I still audibly gasp most times at the start of these sorts of events. Seeing the solar eclipse or the Venus transit begin just when the scientists said it would just amazes me, and the spectacle itself is so awesome. Even just spotting Saturn again after it has been out of view, or up too early in the morning, tickles my astronomical fancy. The universe is such an amazing place.

I’m happy that Seattle weather gave us a break and let us have a good view of a great celestial show.


Science jargon and the all-there-is

Sometimes when scientists speak nobody has the foggiest idea what they’re talking about. Even other scientists can have trouble decoding the lingo of colleagues from other specialties.

Roberto Trotta thinks that’s a problem. A theoretical astrophysicist with Imperial College in London, Trotta is also passionate about good communication about science. As science communicators ourselves, Seattle Astronomy was excited to hear his recent talk at Town Hall Seattle.

The Edge of the Sky“I’m very much interested in sharing the mysteries and the outstanding questions that cosmology raises with the public at large,” Trotta said. “It’s only fair that we share our ideas and the reasons why we do what we do with the people who are actually funding the work. To me, talking about science in a way that’s understandable and utterly engaging for the public is a very important concept.”

Trotta’s new book, The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is, uses just the 1,000 most common English words to explain what he does in his day job. That’s a tall order; Trotta had to write about cosmology without using words like telescope, galaxy, Big Bang, universe, and dark energy, none of which made the list.

“This book came out of a little idea that it should be possible to talk about very hard things in a straightforward way that all people can understand,” Trotta said.

It doesn’t always happen that way. Trottoa told the story of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson working at Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1964. The two were using a new antenna to detect radio waves, but were having trouble eliminating persistent background noise. Eventually they wrote a short paper titled “A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 MC/S.”

Roberto Trotta

Roberto Trotta talked about his book “The Edge of the Sky” Sept. 30 at Town Hall Seattle

“What these two gentlemen were trying to say is ‘We picked up the echo from the Big Bang!'” Trotta marveled. They had found the cosmic microwave background and eventually received a Nobel Prize for the work. Trotta gave other examples of scientific papers with language that he called “impenetrable” and “incomprehensible.”

“Jargon is in the way,” he said. “Jargon is one big obstacle in having a dialog with the public.”

Trotta’s first shot at the 1,000-word concept was describing his own job in this simple, straightforward language during a public lecture. It received a positive reaction at that talk, as it did at Town Hall, and so he decided to take the concept further.

“The book began very much as an experiment because I wanted to see how far I could stretch this language,” he explained. “Would it break? Would it become boring? Would it become impossible?” He wondered whether complicated concepts such as dark matter could be explained in such simple terms.

It worked, and early reviews of the book have been positive. Trotta said that writing the book was almost like learning a new language. There were a few hiccups along the way. He first thought of translating “Big Bang” to “Hot Flash.” This turned into “Big Flash” for obvious reasons. Other terms in The Edge of the Sky:

  • Universe: The all-there-is
  • Galaxy: Star crowd
  • Telescope: Big seer
  • Dark energy: Dark push
  • Earth: Home world

Trotta said that since the book began as a thought experiment he really didn’t have a target readership in mind, but that he hopes it will appeal to readers from young adult on up who want to get a better grip on the sometimes challenging but always fascinating topics of cosmology.

The Edge of the Sky is worth a look.

Other reading:

Roberto Trotta’s website
The 1,000 word list



New mystery novel set at Jacobsen Observatory

The University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is the setting for some of the scenes in a new mystery novel from local author Bernadette Pajer. A celebration of the release of The Edison Effect, the fourth title in Pajer’s series of Professor Bradshaw mysteries, was held recently at the observatory.

Pajer’s protagonist Benjamin Bradshaw is a fictional professor of electrical engineering at the UW and solver of mysteries involving electricity. Seattle needs his expertise; the books are set in the early 1900s, and electricity is still something of a puzzle to people and the police. The tagline for the series is “Seattle in the time of Tesla.”

“It’s a very exciting time period to research,” Pajer says, “not only the city where I was born and raised, all of those details, but the scientific history, where we came from and how quickly.”

A happy coincidence brought Professor Bradshaw to the Jacobsen Observatory. In 2012 Pajer participated in a panel discussion about mysteries at the Taproot Theatre in Seattle, which was performing a stage version of the Dorothy Sayers story Gaudy Night. One of the people who attended the event was George Myers, whose great-great-grandfather was Joseph Taylor, the UW’s first math professor and first director of the observatory. After the discussion Myers emailed a photo of Taylor to Pajer.

Joseph Taylor

Joseph Taylor, the first director of the UW’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, is a character in Bernadette Pajer’s new mystery novel The Edison Effect.

“I just knew instantly when I saw that photo that professor Bradshaw knows this guy, and, not only that, they’re friends, so I wove him into The Edison Effect,” Pajer says. She notes that no astronomy happens in the book, but several key scenes occur at the observatory.

Myers and other relatives of Taylor attended the book launch at the observatory, and enjoyed learning a few new things that Pajer’s research turned up about their ancestor. For example, Taylor laid the cornerstone at Denny Hall, which was the first building on the current UW campus, known then as the Administration Building. Its basement is where Professor Bradshaw has his electricity lab. Interestingly, the Jacobsen Observatory was constructed of materials left over from the building of Denny Hall.

“It was fun!” Pajer says of the launch event. “I had the ghost of Bradshaw, and the real ghost of Joseph Taylor that were at the observatory. It was a really cool way that fact and fiction were mingling.”

The character of Bradshaw came to Pajer in part because of her own interest in science. She studied civil engineering at the UW, but dropped out to get married. Twenty years later she went back and earned an interdisciplinary degree in culture, literature, and the arts at UW Bothell.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It just turned out that I was much better at writing about science than actually doing it,” Pajer says, adding that she finds it fascinating to blend art and science. “I think it makes it more entertaining. Peer science can often be very dry, but when you can present it in an entertaining way, it’s a great way to learn.”

Pajer takes pride in the scientific accuracy of her books. She consults experts during her research and writing, and the volumes have earned the stamp of approval after peer review by the Washington Academy of Sciences. She also works hard to get the historical details of Seattle and the UW right.

The first book in the Professor Bradshaw series was A Spark of Death, published in 2011, followed by Fatal Induction in 2012, Capacity for Murder in 2013, and then The Edison Effect this year. Pajer is just beginning to noodle on her next story, which she thinks may be set in 1907 at the time of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.

The books are great for lovers of mysteries and science. Check ‘em out!


Tessering around the universe with A Wrinkle in Time at OSF

It is a bonus when our interests in theater and astronomy intersect, and that is happening this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with its production of A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle. The OSF play is a world premiere adapted and directed by Tracy Young.


Alejandra Escalante as Meg Murry in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of A Wrinkle in Time.

In A Wrinkle in Time math whiz Meg Murry (Alejandra Escalante), her über-genius little brother Charles Wallace Murry (Sara Bruner), and pal Calvin O’Keefe (Joe Wegner) zip around the universe in search of missing papa Murry (Dan Donohue). They accomplish their travel by bending time and space in a tesseract, or “tessering,” as explained by the helpful science fair project by Science Girl (Jada Rae Perry).

Kids traversing the universe make for some imaginative and wonderfully silly stage effects and costumes, and we think especially of the multi-tentacled Aunt Beast (Daniel T. Parker), for whose costume a good half-dozen vacuum cleaners must have given their lives, or at least their hoses.

The performances are top-notch. We single out Escalante and Bruner especially, as well as Judith-Marie Bergan, who was much fun as Mrs. Whatsit, something of an intergalactic tour guide for the adventurers. Bergan, we think, can play anything, from the comic to the manic (as we note my Sweetie, the official scorer’s, recent review of last year’s production of The Tenth Muse.)

For all of its goofiness, the play takes on some serious themes about the mysteries of the universe, the nature of time and space, the dangers and advantages of technology, and of the strength and importance of family ties and love. The science isn’t so heavy that you need to be a cosmologist or physicist or a math geek like Meg to get it, though a bit of sci-fi familiarity with the concept is helpful.

According to the program notes the book took criticism from all sides when it came out, some charging it with being too religious and others saying it is too secular. That feels like it hit the right spot! The book also has some Cold War undertones about how things would look under a totalitarian society.

We’ve not read the book but plan to pick it up when we return home from Ashland. The play runs at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 1. It’s great fun; check it out!


This review is republished from the West Seattle Weisenheimer.


October is eclipse month

The new issues of Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines arrived in the mail over the last couple of days with reminders that a couple of cool events should be visible from Seattle in October. There will be a total eclipse of the Moon in the early morning hours on October 8, and a partial eclipse of the Sun in the afternoon on October 23.

The lunar eclipse October 8 will begin in Seattle at 1:15 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time with the onset of the faint penumbral eclipse. The real show starts about an hour later when the Moon enters Earth’s umbral shadow. The eclipse will reach totality at 3:25 a.m. and the Moon will remain in complete shadow for just under an hour. The umbral eclipse will be over at about 5:35 a.m.

As an added attraction during the eclipse, the planet Uranus will be close by the shadowy Moon, passing about one degree south of it during the event. You will need binoculars or a telescope to spot Uranus, which is at the best point for observing it this year. It will reach opposition to the Sun October 7, and thus is up all evening and is at its closest to Earth.

Animation showing the moon’s penumbral shadow sweeping from west to east across the Earth’s surface on October 23, 2014.

Animation showing the moon’s penumbral shadow sweeping from west to east across the Earth’s surface on October 23, 2014.

The partial solar eclipse October 23 happens at a much better hour for those of us in the northwest. In Seattle the eclipse begins at 1:35 p.m., will reach its maximum at 3 p.m., and be over at 4:20 p.m. All times are Pacific Daylight Time.

It is not all that unusual to see a partial solar eclipse, but this should be a particularly good one, as about 64 percent of the Sun’s disk will be covered by the Moon from our vantage point.

We’re lucky to be in Seattle, as the eclipse will cover more of the Sun the further north you go. The maximum for this eclipse is some 81 percent up in northern Canada. On the other hand, we’re unlucky to be in Seattle, as we average only five clear days during October, when the Sun’s rays reach us during only about 37 percent of daylight hours. So we’re rolling the dice a bit when it comes to actually having breaks in the clouds so that we can see the eclipse. Ever the optimists, we note that October is not our worst weather month, and we have the dates for both eclipses marked on our calendar.

Please remember never to look at the Sun without proper eye protection. The eclipse glasses at right are a good a low-cost choice. They and a number of other options are available from the software and accessories section of our Seattle Astronomy Store. If you’re using a telescope or binoculars, make sure they’re fitted with solar filters; looking at the Sun through an unfiltered magnifier can cause serious eye damage in a big hurry. If you don’t have the right equipment, it’s a good bet to try to find out if an astronomy club near you plans a viewing event. As of this writing, we know that the Tacoma Astronomical Society plans a free public solar eclipse watch at Pierce College and the Pierce College Science Dome. We know of no others at the moment, but imagine that plans will be made in the coming weeks.

Seattle Astronomy will probably be out somewhere about town with our telescope and some solar shades if the weather looks favorable on eclipse day. We’ll keep you posted about our plans.