Gift ideas for the astronomically inclined

It’s that time of year again when we start getting questions about what sorts of gifts to give to astronomy buffs. Here are a few great ideas for you.

Year of the eclipse

Eclipse map 2024

Map courtesy Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

A solar eclipse was visible all over the country back in August, and the path of totality stretched from coast to coast in the United States. Eclipse mementos would make excellent gifts this year. A great source for them is GreatAmericanEclipse.com, which has a wide selection of eclipse maps, attire, and accessories, and is running discounts this month. Plus it’s never too early to start gearing up for 2024’s eclipse! We interviewed mapmaker Michael Zeiler late last year about his work; check out the article and podcast based on that interview. Zeiler’s maps are gorgeous and suitable for framing.

Sorin Space Art out of Denver offers some marvelous items, including prints of Sorin’s solar eclipse photography. He’s also made some hand-painted tree ornaments depicting the Moon, Sun, and planets, but as of this writing he was running a bit short of supply on those. Sorin also is the proprietor of Astro Box, a quarterly subscription service that delivers space art, writing, apparel, and more four times each year. It’s a cool gift that keeps on giving.

Two Chicks Conspiracy offers a line of artistic belts and accessories. Several of their belts have space-themed designs, and they created a special key fob in commemoration of the 2017 total solar eclipse.

Books

Tyler Nordgren’s book Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016) was on our year-end gift list last year and remains a good pick this time around. It’s a combination of eclipse mythology and history, travelogue, and eclipse science, and is a fine read. Check out our review of the book and our recap of Nordgren’s author talk about it.

Another good read for eclipse year is David Baron’s American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017). Baron’s book is a look back at the American total solar eclipse of 1878 and in particular how main characters Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson led high-profile eclipse-viewing expeditions to the wild west that helped spark a national interest in science. Baron gave a talk about the book earlier this year. Here’s our recap.

Telescopes

Recommending a gift telescope is tricky business. I’ve written a number of past articles on the topic, and the ideas there still hold true. If you don’t know what to get, a great reference is the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (Firefly Books, 2008) by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. It’s a marvelous book for walking one through the ‘scope-choosing process, based on one’s astronomical interests. I used it when I first started out in stargazing, and it’s still a valued reference years later.

If you want to get a first-hand look at a variety of different telescopes, including solar scopes that are designed for observing the Sun, it would be worth a trip to Cloud Break Optics in Ballard. They have quite a selection of ‘scopes in their show room and a lot of experience in stargazing and astrophotography. They’re also running a holiday blowout sale on both new and used gear. Cloud Break Optics is a patron of Seattle Astronomy on Patreon.

That said, I will let you know that the Orion eight-inch Dobsonian telescope is my personal scope of choice. It’s easy to use—just take it out to the back yard, point at something, and take a look! With its simple design it also delivers the most visual bang for the telescope buck. This telescope is really not for photography, though I’ve used it to get smartphone pictures of the Moon and the Sun. Other objects like galaxies or nebulae require longer exposures and that means a ‘scope that can track objects to compensate for the Earth’s rotation. That starts to run into a little money.

Binoculars are also a good gift for someone just starting out in astronomy. Get some that are at least 10x power and 50mm in aperture. I have a 10×50 outfit from Orion, and one can see a lot of neat stuff with a good set of binoculars.

Experiences

If you’d rather give experiences than stuff, how about a membership to a local organization? The Pacific Science Center, the Museum of Flight, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry often have space- and astronomy-themed exhibits and presentations. Memberships are a good value that keep on giving all year long!

If you purchase items though Amazon links on this page, Seattle Astronomy gets a small royalty at no cost to you. That helps support our efforts to bring you great astronomy stories. We thank you for your support.

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Astro Biz: Crazy Aaron’s Cosmic Thinking Putty

Many 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 Crazy Aaron’s Cosmic Thinking Putty. We’ve had a tin of Crazy Aaron’s product on our desk for around 20 years! It’s nice to know of products with staying power. We never, however, really thought of it as an Astro Biz until we spotted some of what we take to be a new line of cosmic colors of it in a small shop in San Francisco last weekend. Available versions of the putty include Milky Way, Solar Wind, Star Dust, and North Star.

Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty really works. You can squeeze it, stretch it, mold it while you ponder those knotty problems. This can also be considered a procrastination technique, and sometimes that’s necessary, too.

More info:

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Calendar: club events open December

As we flip the calendar to December, there are a couple of good headline events, four astronomy club meetings, and several educational events to look forward to.

Astronaut and mountaineer Scott Parazinski is the only person ever to have both flown in space and stood on the top of Mount Everest. He’ll be at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 9 to talk about his experiences and his new book, The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (Little A, 2017). Parazinski will sign copies of the book after his talk, which is free with museum admission.

If you can’t make it Saturday, you can pick up the book by clicking the link above or the book cover at left; Seattle Astronomy gets a small royalty at no cost to you when you purchase this way, and it helps support our operations. Thanks so much!

Life in Space

The Pacific Science Center’s Science in the City lecture series continues at 7 p.m. Wednesday, December 6 with a program called Life in Space. Three University of Washington astrobiologists will discuss their research—including the search for planets around other stars, characterizing how stars influence the habitability of those planets, and techniques to mix computer modeling with data analysis to determine the characteristics of potentially habitable worlds. Two of the three presenters will be familiar to Seattle Astronomy readers. Brett Morris is a PhD candidate of astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington and is a co-founder and co-host of the popular Astronomy on Tap Seattle events. Dr. Erika Harnett is a research associate professor and was featured on the blog and podcast this year. The “new guy” is Marshall “Moosh” Styczinski, a grad student who does research using magnetic fields to peel back the icy crust of Jupiter’s moons, looking for places that life may be found.

After viewing the documentary The Search for Life in Space, the trio will answer questions about their research and other topics addressed in the film.

Tickets to Life in Space are $5, free for Pacific Science Center members.

Astronomy club activity

Four clubs have their monthly meetings this week:

In addition, two clubs have public outreach events on Saturday. The BP Astro Kids on Bainbridge Island will make LED holiday cards during sessions at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Ritchie Observatory on Bainbridge Island. Following at 7:30 p.m. the Battle Point Astronomical Association monthly planetarium show will focus on how neutron stars make gold, and how we can tell they’re doing it. The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 9 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be a viewing of the movie The Christmas Star. At both the Battle Point and Tacoma events there will be stargazing if the weather permits.

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Calendar: Club meetings and planetarium shows this week

We have two astronomy club meetings and a handful of planetarium shows on the calendar for the coming week.

Science Fact or Science Fiction?The Pierce College Science Dome will offer a special program, Science Fact or Science Fiction, from 5 p.m until 8 p.m Friday, December 1. The evening will include lots of hands-on activities as well as a planetarium show that compares fictional planets to some real ones we’ve discovered.

It’s all free, but early reservations are recommended for the planetarium shows. Do that online.

Saturday, December 2 will be a busy day at the dome. It’s new planetarium show for children, Amazing Aurora, will run at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. each Saturday during December. Following this Saturday at 3:15 p.m. they’ll run the all-ages show “Life: A Cosmic Story.” They’ll present a different all ages show each Friday and Saturday during the month.

Get in some Cosmic Yoga at 7 p.m. this Friday, December 1 at the WSU Planetarium in Pullman. The event includes live music, a yoga instructor, and outstanding astronomical images. Cost is $15, check or cash at the door. Then on Sunday, December 3 at 5 p.m. the planetarium show “Some Like It Hot” will look at temperature in the universe, from the cryogenic outer reaches to the stellar nuclear furnaces.

Celebrate Mars!

Red Planet Day at PacSciTuesday, November 28 is Red Planet Day at the Pacific Science Center. Wear a red article of clothing to receive half-off admission.

Activities include a special planetarium show Mars Live! that explores the history of Mars exploration and the geology and the future of the Red Planet. Catch a Mars presentation on Science On a Sphere and enjoy hands-on activities relating to the alien planet. While you’re there you might check out the IMAX® documentary, The Search for Life in Space to explore the age old question: “Are we alone?”

Club meetings

Rose City Astronomers in Portland will hold their monthly meeting at OMSI at 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 27. OMSI’s Jim Todd will give a behind-the-scenes tour of the newly remodeled and updated OMSI Planetarium.

The Spokane Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 1 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30  p.m. Saturday, December 2 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor program will be about choosing a gift telescope. If the weather cooperates, they’ll break out the telescopes for some observing.

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Merging neutron stars and cool galaxies at Astronomy on Tap Seattle

One of the cool things about the Astronomy on Tap Seattle series of talks in pubs is access to scientists who are working on headline news. It happened at their October gathering at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Jennifer Sobeck, a stellar astrophysicist in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington, was all set to give a talk titled, “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Bumming Around the Milky Way.” But a few days before the talk the news hit that LIGO and others had detected gravitational waves generated by merging neutron stars. Neutron stars are Sobeck’s thing, so the script went out the window and we learned about what happened.

Sobeck noted that neutron stars are what’s left behind when high-mass stars—around four to eight times the mass of the Sun—blow up in a supernova. Neutron stars are incredibly dense; the mass of the Sun packed into something 12 miles across. They have a crust, though light still gets through.

“Inside is just basically a soup,” Sobeck said. “It’s a hot mess.”

Everything inside is so compressed that scientists call it “degenerate.”

“There are no more atoms, there are no more molecules, those are all blown apart,” Sobeck explained. “It’s just like a soup of neutrons; there are just tons of neutrons, and the really cool thing is down in the center, they think the pressures are so high that you actually might get quarks.”

Neutron star merger animation by ESO/L. Calçada. Music: Johan B. Monell

August discovery

Scientists knew they had detected a neutron star merger rather than the sort of black-hole mergers previously spotted by LIGO because the signals are different. The interesting thing about the detection of two neutron stars merging is that we could see it visually because the event created a kilonova, like a supernova, but smaller.

“It’s a little bit less on the explosion scale,” Sobeck said. “Kilonova means that you’re able to have electromagnetic radiation across the spectrum that a whole bunch of facilites were able to monitor.”

So when LIGO and VIRGO detected the gravitational wave, with the help of the Fermi gamma ray space telescope and the ESA’s Integral gamma-ray observatory they they were able to narrow down the location of the event and tell others to look there. When the optical observations came in, the kilanova was spotted in the galaxy NGC 4993.

“This has never been done before,” Sobeck noted. The detection occurred in mid-August of this year, and by the end of the month the visual was gone.

“This kilonova explostion lasted only for a period of only 15 days,” Sobeck said.

Observations were made not just in the visual, but across the spectrum from gamma rays to radio, and more than a dozen observatories were involved in the analysis.

“You’re getting a different piece of information from all of these parts of the spectrum,” Sobeck noted. “They all helped fill in that puzzle.”

The story in the media

Where stuff comes from

Periodic table showing origin of elements in the Solar System, by CMGLee on Wikimedia Commons based on data by Jennifer Johnson, Ohio State University.

Sobeck said the press went a little overboard with headlines such as collision “creates gold” (CNN)  and “Universe-shaking announcement” (New York Times), yet it’s true that the kilonova made some gold. Sobeck showed the periodic table of elements at left (click to see it bigger), modified to show where all of the elements came from. She noted that hydrogen, helium, and a bit of lithium came from the Big Bang, the rest were made in stars. But stars can only fuse elements as heavy as iron. To get the really heavy stuff called lanthanides you need a kilanova. The emitted light tells you what’s there. If you see blue light after a kilonova, that means there’s a high concentration of silver, cadmium, and tin. If the light is more red, then platinum, gold, mercury, or lead is present.

“This particular event went from blue very, very, quickly to red, and it stayed red most of the time,” Sobeck said. “Hence, we’ve got a bunch of gold on our hands.”

“We found out that neutron-star mergers do make elements,” she said. “We were right, so huzzah!”

All kinds of galaxies

Grace Telford, a graduate student studying astronomy and data science at the UW, stuck with her original topic of “A Whirlwind Tour of Galaxies: the Tiny, the Gigantic, and Everything in Between” for the October Astronomy on Tap. She noted that there are several ways to classify galaxies:

  • Stellar mass or brightness
  • Shape
  • Star formation rate
  • Nuclear activity

Stellar mass or brightness

This is pretty straightforward.

“Basically the more stars a galaxy has, the brighter it is,” Telford noted. There’s quite a range of sizes. The Milky Way is a pretty common-sized galaxy, and it’s hard to make them bigger. The largest are around 10 times the size of the Milky Way.” Smaller galaxies are plentiful.

“A dwarf galaxy is something that is at least a hundred times less massive than our Milky Way,” Telford said, and they can go a lot smaller.

Way out at the small end of the chart are ultra faint dwarf galaxies, which can’t really be seen because they’re too faint. They can’t be detected at long distances.

A recently discovered type is called an ultra diffuse galaxy. This may be the same size as the Milky Way but have 100 times fewer stars, all held together by dark matter.

“This is an open area of research,” Telford said. “It’s hard to explain how to form these wierdo galaxies that are not very massive at all, but huge.”

Shape

The three main shapes of galaxies are elliptical, spiral, and irregular. Spirals may come with a large central bulge or a bar. Irregular galaxies tend to be small.

Star formation rate

It’s in star formation rate that galaxies really differentiate themselves, Telford said. Galaxies that emit a lot of blue light have lots of young stars and new star formation. Galaxies that look red are “quenched.” Their stars are older, and there’s little new star formation.

In between red and blue is the “green valley” of galaxies. They don’t actually emit green light, but they’re in transition from blue to red.

An interesting type is the “starburst” galaxy. These are galaxies that somehow stumble into a source of gas that wasn’t available to them before.

“They have the ability to form stars at a very high rate relative to the normal amount of star formation for a galaxy of its size,” Telford explained. “As a result, you have a lot of these massive young stars that are dying and exploding as supernovae and injecting a lot of energy into the gas.”

These objects are short-lived, they exhaust their gas in a hurry, at least in astronomical terms—in between 100 million years and a billion years.

Nuclear activity

Most galaxies have supermassive black holes, which can create jets of energy.

“Sometimes these black holes eat a lot of gas really quickly and then they blow out a whole bunch of energy,” Telford explained. These jets are nuclear activity. Galaxies with active galactic nuclei are most typically found in the green valley, though they’re in other types as well.

Telford gave a plug for Galaxy Zoo, where you can go looking for these differing types of galaxies and actually participate in citizen science.

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Visiting Vesta and Ceres

The Dawn spacecraft has found a lot of surprises at Vesta and Ceres. Debra Buczkowski
a geologist and planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, gave a talk recently at the Museum of Flight discussing some of the findings from the mission.

Buczkowski

Dr. Debra Buczkowski, a geologist and planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, spoke about the findings of the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres recently at the Museum of Flight. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Vesta was Dawn’s first stop, entering orbit around the asteroid on July 15, 2011. Scientists expected to find volcanoes on Vesta. Buczkowski explained that this expectation traces back to meteorites found on Earth that are know to be from Vesta. These are known as HEDs: “howardite–eucrite–diogenite.” These closely resemble igneous rocks found on Earth, and those are made from volcanic activity. But the volcanoes aren’t there.

Before Dawn arrived at Vesta the Hubble Space Telescope showed that Vesta wasn’t spherical, but rather was significantly flattened out at its south pole. Scientists speculated that this was because of an enormous impact, and that proved to be correct. Dawn observed a huge impact crater, now called Rheasilvia Basin, the rim of which is almost as wide as Vesta itself.

“It really should have broken the asteroid apart,” Buczkowski said of the impact that created the basin, which has a huge central peak. Dawn also found a second impact crater, Veneneia Basin, which is almost as large.

Another surprise finding from Dawn is that Vesta is fully differentiated.

“Most of the asteroids are just kind of chunks of rock with one kind of rock all the way through,” Buczkowski explained. “Not Vesta; Vesta actually has a core, it has a mantle, and it has a crust.”

Vesta’s core is about half the diameter of the asteroid itself, about 220 kilometers.

“This is probably why Vesta did not fall apart when the Rheasilvia Basin formed, because it has this huge, massive core,” Buczkowski said.

The surface of Vesta was found to have lots of fractures, features larger that Earth’s Grand Canyon that look like faults. Buczkowski said they did a lot of computer modeling to see if an object the size of Vesta with a core the size of Vesta’s could develop fractures on the crust.

“The stresses that result from that huge impact kind of get redistributed because of the giant core,” she said of the findings. “Instead of being focused around the crater, they move to the equator and fracture at the equator. If we do this same model without the giant core, there’s no fracturing at the equator. So it’s because of the giant core that we have these huge fractures.”

Buczkowski said that was a little disappointing because they were hoping for volcanoes or magma-driven geology. While they didn’t find volcanoes, there is evidence of moving magma that didn’t break through to the surface. Rather, it pushed some of the surface upward, forming mounds.

On to Ceres

Dawn departed Vesta in September 2012 after spending about 14 months in orbit. As Dawn approached the dwarf planet Ceres there was much speculation about extremely bright spots on its surface that were found in Hubble images. Other observations had detected water vapor on Ceres. Since Ceres is relatively large but not dense, scientists were expecting to find ice. But there was more rock and less ice than anticipated. What they did find, Buczkowski said, was evidence of volcanism.

Occator crater

This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows Occator Crater on Ceres, with its signature bright areas. Dawn scientists have found that the central bright spot, which harbors the brightest material on Ceres, contains a variety of salts. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

“We’re not expecting magma on Ceres,” she said. “Ceres isn’t dense enough for the kind of magma that we’re used to here on Earth, made out of silicate rocks. This is something called cryomagma; it is basically ice with a little bit of rock.”

The biggest and brightest of the bright spots, named Cerealia Facula, is in the crater Occator. Many of the craters on Ceres are fractured, even on the crater floors, and the many bright spots on Ceres are associated with these fractures.

“What it’s looking like is that we’re having cryomagmatic activity underneath (Occator) crater,” Buczkowski said, “and what’s coming up out of these fractures is a pyroclastic spray, and the water, the volatiles in that, is sublimating away and all it’s leaving is the sodium carbonates.” Those are the bright spots we see all over Ceres.

Dawn also found that Ceres is covered in ammoniated phyllosilicates.

“Ammonia is interesting,” Buczkowski explained. “We don’t expect to find ammonia this close to the Sun, it’s usually something that’s found further out in thhe solar system.” They’re still studying whether Ceres may have formed further from the Sun and migrated in, or if the ammonia somehow made its way to Ceres from the outer solar system.

It turns out that Ceres had quite a few volcanoes, though most of them have now collapsed. There’s one that hasn’t, known as Ahuna Mons, that stands about five kilometers tall. It’s a cryovolcano.

“The volcano that we thought would be on Vesta is on Ceres,” Buczkowski noted. Ahuna Mons may be younger than the others, and also may collapse over time.

Like Vesta, Ceres was found to be differentiated, though only partially so.

“There’s a rocky core, there’s a volatile-rich mantle, and there’s a muddy slurry, a mud ocean” below the crust, Buczkowski said.

Dawn at Ceres and VestaCeres is now considered a dwarf planet, while Vesta still has asteroid status because of its lopsided shape from the giant impact. Buczkowski figures Vesta deserves dwarf-planet status, too. Whatever you call them, she thinks they’re fascinating to study because they’re kind of a bridge between the asteroids and rocky planets.

“These are more involved bodies than just plain, old asteroids,” Buczkowski said. “They’re not just chunks of rock floating in space. They’re actually like little mini-planets. They’ve got a lot of planet-like properties.”

Though they’re pretty small, they can teach us a lot.

“They’re interesting to us because they tell us a lot about how Earth and the other planets formed,” Buczkowski said. “Studying these little protoplanets we actually are looking back to the beginning of the solar system.”

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Calendar: Watch and hear a lecture from Adler

There’s a full Moon on Saturday and Daylight Saving Time ends on Sunday. Maybe that’s why the astronomy calendar is a little sparse this week!

Are we alone in the universe?

Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered over the past two decades. Dr. Lisa Kaltenegger, Director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University and an associate professor in Cornell’s astronomy department, will discuss these discoveries during a lecture at 5:30 p.m. Friday, November 3 at Adler Planetarium in Chicago. You don’t have to be in the Windy City to attend; the lecture is part of the bi-annual Kavli Fulldome Lecture Series and will be live streamed to the Pacific Science Center’s Willard Smith Planetarium! It’s part of the center’s on-going Science in the City lecture series. Kaltenegger will explore how we can determine which exoplanets might be suitable for life and cover techniques and missions that could detect life on these faraway worlds.

Tickets are $5, and free to science center members. Space is limited, so advance tickets are recommended.

Club meetings

The Spokane Astronomical Society will meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 3 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. The guest speaker had not been published as of this writing.

The Seattle Astronomical Society will offer one of its new members orientation sessions at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 5 at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. While the title calls out “new members,” prospective members are welcome as well. It’s a good time to find out what the society has to offer—and sign up!

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