Exoplanets, killer stars, and beer

Astronomers are busy trying to figure out if and when an enormous flare from the Sun might fry us—or at least zap our mobile phones—and also are looking for planets like Earth in orbit around other stars. Those were the subjects of the talks at Astronomy on Tap Seattle last week at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. The Kepler Space Telescope figured in both talks.

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Rodrigo Luger spoke about the hunt for other Earths in a presentation at Astronomy on Tap 5 last week. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

University of Washington astronomy graduate student Rodrigo Luger led off the evening’s festivities with a talk titled, “Syzygies in Silhouette: The Search for Alien Earths.” A syzygy is simply an alignment of three astronomical bodies, and when that happens we can detect a planet orbiting a distant star; the planet essentially casts its shadow on Earth, and we can measure the slight drop in brightness of the star.

Luger called Kepler “by far the most successful planet-detection mission.”

“We currently know of more than five thousand potential planetary objects around other stars, which is amazing,” Luger said, noting that, twenty years ago, we knew of maybe a couple. “It’s a fascinating time for exoplanet science.”

Luger pointed out that the number of discoveries is especially incredible when you consider that Kepler is staring at such a tiny patch of the sky.

“If there are thousands of planets (in that field), imagine how many there are in the entire Milky Way,” he marveled.

Where is Earth 2.0?

One frustration is that Kepler has yet to find an exoplanet that is a close match for Earth. Luger said planets our size are a bit tougher to tease out of the background noise that Kepler collects. That may change, he said, when NASA launches the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in 2017.

“TESS is different; rather than looking at a tiny patch of the sky, it’s going to look at the entire sky,” Luger said.

“It’s going to focus primarily on smaller stars,” he added, noting that looking at these makes it “much easier when you want to detect Earth-like planets.”

By coincidence, the day after Luger’s talk the Kepler team announced the discovery of planet Kepler 452b, the closest match yet to Earth.

The Sun takes aim

James Davenport makes a point during his talk about solar activity. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

James Davenport makes a point during his talk about solar activity. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

James Davenport, who just earned his Ph.D. in astronomy at the UW, uses Kepler in his work as well. His main purpose is to better understand our own nearby star, the Sun, and figure out when it might aim a solar flare or coronal mass ejection at us.

Davenport’s talk, “How Stars Keep Active as They Age,” started with a history lesson. Back in 1859 English astronomer Richard Carrington was making daily sketches of his observations of the Sun. He was tracking a huge sunspot and, as he watched it, a couple of enormous bright patches appeared. It turns out that this was the first observation of a solar flare. About twelve hours later, people on Earth saw the most stunning aurorae in centuries.

“The sky lit up red and green, and you could see it as far south as Cuba,” Davenport said. “It was this magnificent, incredible event.” The penny dropped and scientists recognized that the solar flare was the cause of the aurora. The flare created such an electric surge that some telegraph operators suffered burns.

Don’t mess with that

“If a giant solar flare like the one that Carrington observed impacted the Earth today, it would cause trillions if not hundreds of trillions of dollars of damage,” Davenport observed, noting that TV, the Internet, and your mobile phone could get fried. “It could ruin the global economy. It would be a disaster of untold proportions, and there’s noting we can do about it. The sun is just going to hurtle these flares at us whenever it decides to.”

Davenport noted that this isn’t just an academic discussion; a flare of that magnitude barely missed Earth in July 2012.

“If it had been launched a few days earlier and it hit the Earth, we’d still be recovering,” he said.

The Sun is pretty unpredictable, Davenport said. Huge sunspots turn up about every 25 years, but there aren’t always giant flares that go with them. The good news is we’re learning more about the Sun all the time. Data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory is like an HD movie of the Sun that plays 24/7. There is always someone watching. Astronomers also are doing computer models of the Sun to try to figure out more about its processes. Kepler comes in to play by helping us look at thousands of stars of all ages. The younger ones tend to be more active, while older stars like the Sun are relatively serene. It wasn’t always that way for old Sol.

“The young Sun had bigger flares and more of them, and probably dumped out a hundred times more x-rays with every single flare,” Davenport said. “You don’t want to stand in the way of that.”

Cupcakes and beer

Mmmm. Cupcakes.

Mmmm. Cupcakes.

A lifetime of soaking up astronomical minutiae finally paid off for Seattle Astronomy at Astronomy on Tap 5 as our team, the Wild Guessers, took home top honors in both Pluto trivia contests of the evening. The prize: treats from Trophy Cupcakes decorated with images of the highly active Sun. We learned that Bad Jimmy’s strawberry mango hefeweizen goes well with cupcakes. Just watch out for the CMEs: cupcake mass ejections.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle hosts events at Bad Jimmy’s monthly. The next one is scheduled for August 26.

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Astronomy on Tap and more this week

Happy Moon landing day! July 20 marks the 46th anniversary of the day Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind and became the first human being to walk on the Moon!

For those interested in a little history, we’ve read a couple of good books about the race to the Moon lately. Space policy maven John Logsdon penned John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology, 2013). It’s an interesting account of the race that really wasn’t, and the pitfalls that nearly derailed the Apollo program before it got going. Logsdon has spoken in Seattle twice this year; check out our accounts of his address to the American Astronomical Society in January and of a talk last month at the Museum of Flight.

The second Moon book is of particular interest to public relations and marketing professionals. Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (MIT Press, 2014) by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek was one of our favorite books of last year. It’s loaded with great stories and lots of images of some of the marketing materials that helped sell the Apollo program. Check out our review here. The books are available by clicking the handy links above. They and more are also featured in the Seattle Astronomy Store.

Astronomy and beer

aot5posterHey, didn’t we just have Astronomy on Tap Seattle last week? Yes, we did; it was a special Pluto and New Horizons edition. Read our recap of the event. This Wednesday, July 22 at 7 p.m. AoT will be back at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. There will be brief talks by UW grad students in astronomy, and there’s always plenty of time for Q&A. This week Rodrigo Luger, exoplaneteer extraordinaire, will speak about “Syzygies in Silhouette: The Search For Alien Earths,” and James “JRAD” Davenport, connoisseur of small stars and big flares, will discuss “How Stars Keep Active as They Age.” There also will be trivia games and prizes. Hot tip: the prizes often are in the form of treats from Trophy Cupcakes, decorated in relevant astronomical ways, though past history is not necessarily an indicator of future performance. In any event, astronomy is great with a nice cold brew. Astronomy on Tap is free, but please RSVP.

Star parties

The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its free monthly public star parties at Green Lake in Seattle and at Paramount Park in Shoreline this Saturday, July 25. The star parties get under way at 9 p.m., presuming the weather is good. And when was the last time you saw a cloud? Go take a peek!

What’s up in the sky?

Saturn will appear just two degrees south of the Moon on Sunday night, July 26. Check Sky & Telescope magazine’s This Week’s Sky at a Glance for other observing highlights.

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Astronomy on Tap takes a look at the first Pluto pics from New Horizons

Back in the olden days of 1979 I took an undergraduate course in astronomy at the University of Washington. The Voyager spacecraft had just visited Jupiter and the astronomy faculty were positively giddy about the new photos, data, and knowledge coming in from the largest planet in our solar system. The excitement is perhaps even greater as we digest the first images from New Horizons, which buzzed Pluto earlier this week and got our first really close look at what used to be the ninth planet.

“It’s discovering a new planet that we already knew existed,” said Brett Morris, a UW graduate student in astronomy, at a special Pluto-palooza version of Astronomy on Tap Seattle Wednesday evening at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard.

The icy mountains of Pluto. Photo: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI.

The icy mountains of Pluto. Photo: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI.

Morris said the biggest discovery in the first batch of close-ups of Pluto is that, in a section of the dwarf planet’s “heart,” now named “Tombaugh Regio” after its discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, there are no craters.

“This suggests that the surface is less than 100 million years old,” Morris said. While that may seem like a long time, it’s a mere blink of an eye astronomically and geologically.

“This is really young, and that was a huge surprise,” Morris said. “This is the biggest surprise of the day. The surface must be active.” He added that we have no idea yet how this could be happening, and that scientists didn’t expect to find such a thing.

Another interesting finding were tall mountains in that photo.

Brett Morris

UW grad student Brett Morris talked about the history of Pluto and the first photos from New Horizons at Astronomy on Tap Seattle July 15. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We believe that these mountains are water-ice mountains eleven thousand feet tall,” Morris said, explaining that ice of methane or carbon monoxide would crumble at that height, but that water ice, in a place as cold as Pluto, would be as hard as rock.

“Imagine an ice cube the size of Mt. Rainier,” Morris said. “That’s what we’re looking at.”

Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, has material at its north pole that is darker than the rest of its surface which, like Pluto’s, also appears to be active. They’ve also spotted a large canyon on Charon.

“That canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, it stretches across a significant chunk of Charon,” Morris explained. “It’s either a really big crater or a valley carved out by something.”

The small moon Hydra appears to be made entirely of ice.

“This is a 30-mile hunk of ice sitting out there orbiting Pluto,” Morris said.

This animation combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto released on July 15, 2015.

Click to view this animation, which combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto released on July 15, 2015.

The photos returned by New Horizons are far better than any images of Pluto captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“The Hubble Space Telescope tried really hard to give us good images of Pluto, but that’s really difficult because it’s so far away,” Morris said. The telescope was able to see bright and dark regions on Pluto, but that was about it. Hubble also was used to search the Pluto system for rings, moons, and other objects that could be a hazard to the speeding spacecraft.

“At 15 kilometers a second, if there’s a piece of rice in your way it will destroy your spacecraft,” Morris noted. Four of Pluto’s five known moons were discovered by Hubble during this process.

Morris noted that it’s going to take a while for New Horizons to send us all the data it has collected during its flyby of Pluto. The spacecraft is equipped with what he says is essentially a 200-megabyte modem that only contacts Earth every once in a while.

“This is worse than AOL!” he quipped. We should keep receiving photos and data from New Horizons through November of 2016, so we have a lot of cool new discoveries to look forward to. May we be fortunate enough to enjoy a cold brew with each one of them!

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Pluto-paloozas and other events

With New Horizons whizzing past Pluto today after a nine-year journey, there’s plenty of excitement around the new learning about the former planet and its system. Thus many of this week’s events have a Pluto focus.

Pluto

New Horizons close-up of Pluto. Photo: NASA.

Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info is hosting a Pluto-palooza at 5 p.m. this afternoon at the High Point Library in West Seattle. Enevoldsen, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, will talk about the mission and new information coming in today.

By coincidence, Enevoldsen is the former director of the Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center. The PacSci folks have developed a special Pluto program for the planetarium: “The Outer Limits: Pluto and Beyond” includes images from New Horizons and more information about the dwarf planet that is more than three billion miles away. The program runs daily at 12:30 p.m., and they’ve added extra showings to the schedule for today and for Saturday, July 18. Check the planetarium schedule for a rundown of all show times. Admission to the planetarium is $3, but free for PacSci members. Tickets can be purchased online.

Pluto on Tap

plutopalOur friends at Astronomy on Tap Seattle have cooked up a Pluto-palooza program that will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 15 at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. AOT events are hosted by University of Washington graduate students in astronomy, and they’ll talk about Pluto history, have a Q&A, and share brand-new photos of Pluto. It’s free, but please RSVP, and enjoy a brew or three in toast of New Horizons at Bad Jimmy’s.

Speakers at Museum of Flight

The Museum of Flight will dedicate its Sunday to all things Pluto. There will be activities for kids, family workshops, and special exhibits all day. At 1:30 p.m. July 19 Alan Boyle, author of The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference (Wiley, 2010), and Ron Hobbs, NASA Solar System Ambassador, will talk about New Horizons and its discoveries about the Pluto system. You can grab a copy of Boyle’s book by clicking the link above or the photo at left; he’ll sign books after the talk. Also check out our previous Pluto coverage, including our review of three different Pluto books. The authors voted 2-1 against planethood.

All of the events are free with museum admission.

Sundial celebration

sundialThe Battle Point Astronomical Association had its equatorial bowstring sundial project on the drawing board for many years. A fundraising push in August and September of 2013 finally gave them the funds they needed to make the sundial a reality. It has been installed near their Edwin Ritchey Observatory in Bainbridge Island’s Battle Point Park; the photo at left was snapped during the installation back in May. BPAA will hold a celebration to dedicate the sundial at 1 p.m. Sunday July 19 in the park. Refreshments will be served, the observatory will be open for tours, and the club will have solar telescopes on hand for looking at the sun.

SAS looks at asteroid mining

The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 15 in room A-102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. Engineer Krunal Desai of Planetary Resources will talk about their first spacecraft and its mission, due for deployment from the International Space Station next week.

TJO and the shape of the universe

Wednesday is open house night at the UW’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. The event gets under way at 9 p.m. Unfortunately, the talk by students Riley Harris (engineering) and Rachel Morton (physics and astronomy) about the Shape of the Universe and Possible Implications of the Theories is already filled and the waiting list is closed, but other visitors can still get a tour of the observatory and a look through its vintage telescope.

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The inside story on the Curiosity rover

Rob Manning has been sending things to Mars for 34 years. A Whidbey Island native who was inspired about space by the far-out stories he read in National Geographic and Colliers, Manning is now the Mars Program Engineering Manager for the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab‘s Mars Exploration Program. He gave a talk this month at the Museum of Flight based on his book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014).

Rob Manning

Rob Manning, chief engineer for Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, gave a talk about the rover June 18 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Manning opened his presentation by showing the now-famous video of the JPL crew during the “seven minutes of terror,” the lag between the moment of Curiosity’s landing on Mars and the moment when the team finally learned it had been a success. Engineers were laughing and crying and backslapping. Emotional engineers?

“We were very relieved,” Manning joked, noting that a lot of money had been spent on the mission and many of them had been working on it for many years. “We know how fragile these systems can be even though we put in an enormous amount of work to make them as reliable and sturdy as possible.”

“These are human enterprises,” he continued. “They are not built by institutions, they’re not built by abstract organizations. They’re just a bunch of people working together trying to make sure they didn’t make a mistake.”

NASA lost interest in Mars for a while after the Viking landers found a pretty sterile and hostile environment. Manning’s first mission was Mars Pathfinder, which he jokingly calls “the easy one.”

“One way to get good at something is to start simple,” Manning said, noting that the landing system for Pathfinder, which he called “a brick with wheels,” was even less complicated than that of Viking.

Manning said that each mission teaches lessons, even missions that fail, such as the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. He said the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are essentially modified Pathfinders. Spirit and Opportunity, roving geologists, confirmed there was once water on Mars. The discovery raised questions that the roving geologists couldn’t answer, but that a roving geochemist could.

“The trouble is roving geochemists have a laboratory with all of this big lab equipment,” Manning said. “So we needed to figure out a way to take the lab equipment, shrink it down, put it in a rover, and send it to Mars.”

That became Curiosity, which Manning said has been doing great work.

“We’ve basically proven that Mars was a wet place, it had oceans, it had seas, it had a lot of water long ago,” he said, adding that early, simple life forms could have been perfectly happy there. Were they? We don’t know yet.

Next up is Mars 2020, which will collect rock and soil samples on Mars for a potential future return to Earth.

“We haven’t had the name-the-rover contest yet,” Manning joked. Its design will essentially be based on Curiosity, though in this case they are going to re-invent the wheels. Curiosity’s wheels have been punctured by sharp rocks that are essentially immovable, locked in place in Martian sediments.

“This is a failure of our imagination,” Manning said. “We had sharp rocks in our Mars yard (where they test out designs on Earth), but they weren’t glued down.” He said 2020’s wheels will be similar, but stronger, and not much heavier.

Manning’s current work is on that mission, and he’s also busy cooking up ways to slow down and land even larger and heavier spacecraft with an eye toward a possible human mission to Mars in the 2030s. Manning said that, because of its thin atmosphere, “Mars is not a very good place to land.”

We expect they’ll come up with a way to do it.

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Astro Biz: Blue Star Café & Pub

IMG_0952Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is the Blue Star Café & Pub on Stone Way in Wallingford. The Blue Star is just a short distance away from another Astro Biz, Sun Cleaners, and it is a sometimes post-meeting hangout space for the Northwest Science Writers Association.

We love the “eggs cetera’s” on the Blue Star sign; their website claims they offer “40 unique egg dishes,” though none of the menu items bears an astronomy theme (apart from the Blue Star pancake combo).

Check out the Blue Star on your next trip to Wallingford.

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!

Astro Biz index

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Big plans for satellite imaging company BlackSky Global

The latest Seattle-based entry into the private space business has announced ambitious plans to offer up “satellite imaging as a service,” selling color photos with one-meter resolution at a significantly lower cost and with far less turnaround time than is presently available in the market. BlackSky Global is aiming to launch two of its Pathfinder imaging satellites in the first quarter of next year and has the funding available to have a total of six of them up in orbit by the end of 2016. BlackSky’s long-term plan is to have a constellation of 60 high-resolution imaging satellites in operation by 2019.

Peter Wegner

Peter Wegner. Photo courtesy BlackSky Global.

“We’re laying out the systems so that we’ll be able to take a picture essentially of anywhere on the planet and send it back to a customer on a timeline measured in minutes, and be able to do that at consumer kind of prices,” said Peter Wegner, chief technology officer for BlackSky. “It really is exciting; it’s something that’s never been possible before.”

The typical buyers of satellite images are governments, corporations, and other large entities working on security, border defense, environmental monitoring, and precision agriculture. Wegner expects those, and more, to be BlackSky customers.

“It’s going to open up all kinds of new markets, too,” he said. “There are a number of firms around the world that use satellite imagery to do analytical predictions of commodities or natural resources, energy. It really is, in some sense, about global market intelligence and feeding the demand to know what’s happening around the world everywhere, all the time, 24-7.”

Eventually it will be a consumer business. You could go onto the BlackSky website and, for a few hundred dollars, order up a photo of your backyard. The one-meter resolution of the images will reveal people or groups of people, but they won’t be identifiable.

BlackSky Pathfinder Spacecraft - Final Integration_Jim Bowes, Technician

Technician Jim Bowes checks out the Pathfinder spacecraft. Photo courtesy BlackSky Global.

“That’s important because there are a lot of concerns about privacy, and we also have those concerns as a company,” Wegner said. “This allows us to provide the capability to monitor what’s happening around your environment, but not get down to the level where it causes a privacy concern.”

BlackSky is an independent company owned by Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries, which specializes in launching small satellites as secondary payloads. We wrote about the firm’s SHERPA payload adapter ring two years ago.

Wegner said Seattle is a great place for BlackSky’s sort of business.

“There seems to be a growing center of gravity for small space companies to move to Seattle,” he said, noting that the mix of aerospace, high-tech, and web expertise is perfect.

“All three of those things are really important for our business, because if you’re going to make this a consumer-level product, you need the web-scale business experience, you need the big data experience, and you need the aerospace experience, which all fits uniquely where we are in this area.”

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