Serious fun with astronomy, history, and literature

The University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences is presenting a monthly Serious Fun Lecture series, and the event next week includes Brett Morris, co-founder of Astronomy on Tap Seattle and a Ph.D. candidate in the dual-title Astronomy and Astrobiology Program. Morris will be one of three speakers to tackle the topic “Secrets and Mysteries.”

Brett Morris

Brett Morris

“We hope to evoke your curiosity, with mysteries and secrets across disciplines,” Morris said. “I’m honored to be speaking alongside two distinguished faculty who work in history and literature, and wade into mysteries just as much as astronomers do. I’ll tell the story of one of the most important astronomers you’ve never heard of, and the mystery she uncovered in our Universe—and how we might solve it.”

The other speakers will be Andrew Nestingen, Chair and associate professor in the Scandinavian Studies Department, and Laurie Sears, Walker Endowed Professor in History.

The lecture will be held at 7 p.m. next Wednesday, February 21, in the Brechemin Auditorium, which is on the east end of the School of Music’s main floor in the Music Building on the UW campus in Seattle. The lecture is free but registration is required.

A March lecture in the series will be about dragons, and in April they’ll take on time.

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Astro Biz: Starburst

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

This week’s Astro Biz is Starburst candy. Starburst, according to the company website, was invented in 1960 in the UK under the name “Opal Fruits.” The candy found its way to the US in 1967—no doubt part of the British Invasion—and was re-named Starburst. The candy’s trademarked tagline is Unexplainably Juicy™, which makes it an especially good Astro Biz, because there’s still much in the science that can’t be explained. Plus, Starburst is a brand of Wrigley which is a subsidiary of Mars, and so you’ve got many levels of Astro-ness in there.

Since Starburst has been around for a long time, you may wonder why it took so long for it to appear as an Astro Biz. Truth be told, while I sometimes go on field trips to shoot photos of Astro Bizes, most of them are just things I stumble across, and I just happened to notice Starburst the other day at our local market.

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Calendar: UW colloquium and AOT Seattle this week

A couple of interesting talks and no less than five club meetings fill the astronomy event calendar for this week.

UW Astronomy Colloquium

Juno at Jupiter

Juno at Jupiter. Image: NASA

Come learn about what the Juno mission is accomplishing at Jupiter. Sam Gulkis of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the co-investigators for Juno, will speak at the University of Washington astronomy colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, February 15 in the Physics/Astronomy Auditorium on the UW campus in Seattle. Often the colloquia are a little heavy for the non-scientist audience, but this one sounds approachable. Gulkis will discuss how Juno peeks under Jupiter’s clouds using microwaves and other techniques, and he’ll fill us in on some of the mission’s early findings.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle

AOT Feb 2018Astronomy on Tap Seattle has an unusual Friday gathering this month, with two talks, astronomy trivia, and great prizes on the docket for 7 p.m. February 16 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. The topic for the evening will be Cosmic Explorers. Dr. Jen Sobeck, a senior research scientist in the UW Department of Astronomy, will talk about the Harvard Computers—the women who mapped the sky! Dr. Elizabeth Tasker, author of The Planet Factory: Exoplanets and the Search for a Second Earth (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2017) will talk about “Earth 2.0” and the search for a habitable world. (By the way, if you buy the book from that link, Seattle Astronomy gets a small royalty at no cost to you! It helps us do what we do. Thanks!)

AOT is free, but remember to buy beer. Bring a lawn chair to create your own front-row seating!

Cosmic love

The Washington State University Planetarium in Pullman has a special show planned for Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, February 14. “Some Like It Hot” will show at 7 p.m. and again at 8:30. It’s not the movie with Marilyn Monroe, and Tony Curtis; this planetarium show is all about temperature—from the frigid to the muy caliente, the universe has it all.

Admission is $5 cash or check at the door. No credit cards are accepted at the planetarium.

Check our calendar page for a list of links to other planetaria in the area.

Astronomy club meetings

The Island County Astronomical also plans a public star party for 7 p.m. Friday, February 16 at Fort Nugent Park in Oak Harbor.

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Astronomy’s neglected stepchild

Robert Reeves has been an astronomer for nearly 60 years. The Moon was his first love; he shot his first photograph of it in 1959, and laments that it isn’t such a popular target for amateur astronomers any more.

Robert Reeves

Astrophotographer and author Robert Reeves was the guest speaker at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society on Jan. 28, 2018. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

“The Moon is not just that big ball of light pollution in the sky,” said Reeves during his keynote talk at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet last month. “The Moon used to be a target for American technology. The Moon was a place to be explored; it was a destination.”

Reeves was interested in the Moon even before there was a space program. We were all agog during the race to land on the Moon, but when the race was won many moved on to other things.

“Back then American heroes rode a pillar of fire and dared to set foot on another world,” Reeves said. “The scientific mindset, the desire to explore the solar system was there. That was a time when America was only limited by its imagination; we could do anything we wanted to do”

Alas, Reeves notes, politics is different now.

“America has lots its will, it’s lost the guts to go into deep space,” he said. “We’ve been rooted in low-Earth orbit for four decades.”

“Space exploration is not the same, but the Moon that we wanted to go to still beckons us,” he added.

Bringing the Moon back

Reeves’s talk was titled Earth’s Moon: Astronomy’s Neglected Stepchild. He aims to turn that around.

“I’m here to bring the Moon back,” he said. “The Moon is still a viable target; we can see it from our own back yard.”

Reeves is a prolific writer about astronomy. His first published article appeared in Astronomy magazine in 1984. Since then he’s written some 250 magazine articles and 175 newspaper columns about the topic. In fact, just days after his talk here the March 2018 issue of Astronomy arrived, including an article and photos by Reeves about hunting for exoplanets. His mug also appears, along with one of his lunar photographs, on a back-cover advertisement for Celestron.

Reeves has written five books in all, including three how-to manuals about astrophotography: Wide-Field Astrophotography: Exposing the Universe Starting With a Common Camera (1999), Introduction to Webcam Astrophotography: Imaging the Universe With the Amazing, Affordable Webcam (2006), and Introduction To Digital Astrophotography: Imaging The Universe With A Digital Camera (2012). All are from Willmann-Bell.

Reeves feels the webcam book helped launch a whole industry and trained a generation of astrophotographers. He points out that back in the 1960s you could count the number of good astrophotographers with the fingers of one hand. Now there are thousands of people turning out great images, and they all get to use superior gear.

“Amateur instruments off the shelf today just blow away what the pros used to do on the Moon, and it’s relatively easy to do this,” Reeves said. I asked Reeves if he laments the passing of film photography. He said he did, a little, noting with a laugh that he has four decades worth of photography that is obsolete! But he said the fact that he can turn out more better-quality images in less time with digital makes up for that.

Check out Reeves’s website for a image-processing tutorial, to buy prints and posters, and find lots of other lunar photography information.

Asteroid 26591 is named Robertreeves and asteroid 26592 is named Maryrenfro after his wife; Renfro is her maiden name. It is believed they are the only husband and wife with sequentially numbered asteroids named after them! Robert noted that his takes about four years to orbit the Sun, while Mary’s goes around in about 4.4 years.

“Every ten years I catch up to her,” he said, “so for eternity I’m going to be chasing Mary around the solar system.”

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Books by Robert Reeves:

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Astro Biz: Vega apartments

Vega apartmentsMany 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 Vega apartments in West Seattle. Vega is about half a block from the West Seattle Junction transit center, often a transfer spot for us as we head to or from astronomy events around town, so the building’s blue neon sign was hard to miss as we rode by.

We had to smile a bit at the building’s website claiming that Vega is “ten minutes from downtown.” That’s a 3 a.m., maybe, but Vega is in a good spot for access to transit as well as restaurants and other businesses in the Junction neighborhood.

We wonder what it is about naming apartment buildings after astronomical objects. We’ve featured several already and there are a couple more in the queue.

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Beyond Pluto with New Horizons

Ron Hobbs has been a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador almost since that program started just over 20 years ago. What began as an effort to recruit volunteers to help keep people informed about the Galileo mission to Jupiter soon expanded to include most other JPL missions.

“Education and public outreach is very important to NASA,” Hobbs explained. “They’re spending Americans’ money to go out and explore the universe, and they want to make sure that they get the information out to everyone who’s interested in it.”

New Horizons

There’s a lot of interest. Hobbs and I talked recently about New Horizons, which did a historic fly-by of Pluto in 2016 and is now napping while whizzing through space for a New Year’s date with the romantically named 2014 MU69. This object, discovered in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope specifically to find a potential place for New Horizons to visit after Pluto, is in a relatively undisturbed part of the Kuiper Belt. Observatoins made of MU69 suggest that it is either oblong or a binary object, perhaps a contact binary. Recent research has suggested that most early planetesimals were binaries.

“It is very likely that it is one of these primordial planetesimals,” Hobbs said. “So in some senses the exploration of MU69 may be more important than the exploration of Pluto. And that’s saying a lot.”

Hobbs shared a couple of favorite bits of information about New Horizons. For one, the spacecraft is carrying human remains.

“Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, will become the first human being to have their remains interred in interstellar space,” Hobbs noted.

Phair and Stern

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern presents a plaque to Venetia Burney Phair in December 2006, commemorating the name “Venetia” for the New Horizons Student Dust Counter. Phair passed away in 2009. Photo: NASA

One of the instruments aboard New Horizons is the The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, named after the English schoolgirl who suggested the name for Pluto way back in 1930. The instrument was built and managed by students at the University of Colorado.

“It is the first student built instrument on a major NASA probe, ever,” Hobbs said. It’s just one example about how the mission is becoming a world-wide effort. Hobbs marvels that we are all space explorers.

Scientists are searching for another possible target for New Horizons after it does its flyby of MU69. Hobbs said the craft has limited fuel, so it’s unclear how much more it can maneuver.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about New Horizons and how ordinary citizens are participating in science.

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Hobbs also recommends a recent NASA “Gravity Assist” podcast featuring New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.

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Calendar: Week of Feb. 5, 2018

There are a couple of club meetings and public events on the calendar for the coming week.

WSU Planetarium

There’s a new show this weekend at the Washington State University Planetarium in Pullman. The program, titled “HST’s Greatest Hits,” highlights the Hubble Space Telescope’s legacy: the deep fields, the stellar nurseries, the black holes, the supernovae. Taken as a whole, HST has opened new vistas of human thought and redefined our place in the cosmos.

The program will run at 7 p.m. Friday, February 9, and repeat at 5 p.m. Sunday, February 11. Admission at the door is $5, cash or check; no credit cards are accepted. Kids 6 and under are free.

Club events

The Battle Point Astronomical Association on Bainbridge Island has a full afternoon and evening of events set for this Saturday, February 10. The BPAstroKids program will have a Valentine’s special at 4 p.m. and again at 5 p.m. Participants will be able to make pop-up LED Valentine’s cards and build lava lamps. Then at 7:30 p.m. the club’s planetarium show will tell “Twisted Tales of Love and Loss,” as astronomer Dave Fong will present humorous takes on ancient Greek star lore.

There’s a $2 donation suggested for admisison. There will be stargazing, too, weather permititng.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 10 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be about binocular astronomy. There will be stargazing if the clouds part.

Club meetings

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