Sponsor will try again next year on light pollution study

We reported yesterday that a proposal to do a study of light pollution in the state of Washington was dead for this year’s session of the state Legislature. The prime sponsor of the measure says she plans to try again next year.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell

Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle is the prime sponsor of a bill calling for a study of light pollution in Washington. Though the proposal is tabled for this year, she plans to try again in 2016.

“I think this is an important issue,” wrote state Rep. Jessyn Farrell in an email to Seattle Astronomy, “but it’s going to take some time and education to get movement.”

Farrell’s bill is HB 2057, which was formally introduced Feb. 10 but did not receive a hearing or vote in the House Environment Committee. Last Friday was the deadline by which bills had to earn committee approval in order to remain eligible for further consideration this year.

The bill is just over one page in length, and simply would have directed the state Department of Ecology to “analyze the current extent of light pollution that adversely affects the quality of the environment, the value of property, and the health and well-being of the public,” and to recommend solutions to the problem. Though it didn’t get much consideration this year, we believe it is the first time the subject of light pollution has been raised in six years. Our post about the introduction of the measure includes a bit of history of the debate in Olympia.

The International Dark-sky Association and its local chapter Dark Skies Northwest are aware of the measure, and with lead time may be able to help provide some of the education Rep. Farrell believes is needed. In the meantime the astronomy community can help raise awareness by contacting legislators to support the bill in particular and curbs on light pollution in general.


Proposal to study light pollution switched off

Less than two weeks after it was formally introduced in the Washington State House of Representatives, a bill that would have directed the state Department of Ecology to study light pollution and recommend possible remedies appears to be off the table for this year’s session.


Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, chair of the state House Environment Committee, did not schedule a hearing on the light-pollution study bill.

The measure, HB 2057 sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell of north Seattle, was referred to the House Environment Committee, but did not receive a hearing. Last Friday, February 20, was the Legislature’s self-imposed deadline for having bills out of committee if they are to be eligible for further consideration.

While the bill may be dead the idea is not necessarily so. Occasionally, bills can be revived through parliamentary procedures, or they can be amended onto other measures, though neither of those possibilities seem likely in this case. The directive could be attached as a proviso to the Department of Ecology budget. Were that to happen, we would not likely know about it until the budget proposals start coming out in a month or so.

If nothing happens for the rest of this year’s session, the bill will be automatically re-introduced again for the 2016 legislative session, though the timeline for the study would likely be pushed back a year as well if the measure is considered at that time.

It is difficult to gauge how serious the effort is to take a close look at light pollution in the state. Neither the prime sponsor of the bill, Rep. Farrell, nor the Environment Committee chair, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of West Seattle, have responded to Seattle Astronomy’s requests for information.

We will keep you posted if we learn more.

Further reading
Our earlier story about the bill’s introduction


An evening with famed comet hunter Don Machholz

In an age when automated programs are scanning the night sky using high-tech telescopes, CCD cameras, and computing power to find near-Earth objects, Don Machholz continues to search for comets the old-fashioned way.

“I do it visually,” Machholz explained at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society last month. “I do not use cameras, I do not use CCDs. I look through the eyepiece and I push the telescope.”

Scheiderer and Machholz

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer, left, with comet hunter Don Machholz at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Machholz is the record holder, with eleven comets discovered visually since he started his hunt in the mid-1970s. That doesn’t sound like so many, but consider this: according to the Catalog of Comet Discoveries, there have been 1,502 comets discovered since 2005. Of those, just three have been discovered visually. The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) got full or shared credit for thirty-three comet discoveries last year alone. The last time a comet was discovered visually was in 2010, when there were two, and Machholz bagged one of those.

There’s a little bit of luck involved in comet hunting. Machholz jokes that the first thing you need to do to find a comet is to be looking where it is in the 40,000 square degrees of sky. But he has a system. He checks websites to figure out where the programs like Pan-STARRS are looking on a particular night and then conducts his hunt in a different part of the sky. Machholz divides the sky into sections, and makes telescope sweeps covering about fifteen degrees at a time. Then moves down about a half field of view and sweeps again. He keeps meticulous records of his searches.

“It sounds boring, but you get to see a different part of the sky all the time,” Machholz said.

He got interested in astronomy as a boy. His father was a naval navigator and had a book with star charts that Don used to learn the sky. When he was about eight years old his sister brought home a book about meteors that piqued his interest. Finally, Machholz received a telescope for his thirteenth birthday. On the third night out he found Saturn.

“I could see the rings on it,” he recalled, thinking stargazing might not be such a bad hobby. He was hooked.

A family tragedy helped drive Machholz’s comet-hunting program early on. In 1976 his brother, an avid skier, was killed in an avalanche. Machholz found himself depressed, with insomnia, sleeping just a few hours a night, but with lots of energy.

“That’s kind of the ideal ingredients for a comet hunter,” he said. “For the next three or four years my comet hunting program developed to a greater and greater depth. Comet hunting wasn’t just something I did, it became part of who I am.”

His early comet hunting was done from his parents’ back yard and other locations around Concord, California. After moving to San Jose in 1976 he did much of his observing from nearby Loma Prieta mountain. In 1990 he moved to Colfax, California and built an observatory there.

After so much time at the eyepiece, Machholz says his heart still skips a beat or two when he thinks he has found a new comet.

“It’s a very important moment,” he said. “First I want to remember what song was on the radio.” He always has the radio playing when he hunts, and his presentation was full of music from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Phil Collins and Cyndi Lauper. He adds, though, that there’s no time for jumping up and down when he finds a comet, because there’s serious work to do.

“You don’t want to lose it,” he explained. “You might have it in the field now, but if you bump the telescope or let too much time go by and it drifts out of the field, you have to be able to find it again.”

“You have to be sure you know where you’re looking, make sure it’s not a galaxy or a cluster,” he added. He double checks with his star atlas, makes a drawing that puts the comet in its position compared to the field of stars, and watches to see if it moves. If all that checks out he reports the discovery by email, phone, and fax.

96/P Machholz

Comet 96/P Machholz as seen by the HI-2 camera on the STEREO-A spacecraft.

Of all of his discoveries, Machholz said comet is 96P/Machholz is his favorite.

“It is an amazing comet; it has its own Facebook page,” he said.

The orbit of 96/P Machholz changes because of the influence of Jupiter, and the perturbations have some scientists thinking there may be large undiscovered planets way out beyond Pluto. The comet also is low on carbon and cyanogen. This hasn’t been explained, though the leading ideas are that it may have originated in another solar system, or been exposed to temperature extremes that changed its chemical composition.

It was a pleasure to spend an evening with Don Machholz. His lively presentation was full of humor and had the banquet audience laughing and engaged.


Washington Legislature considering study of light pollution

Rep. Jessyn Farrell

Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle is the prime sponsor of a bill calling for a study of light pollution in Washington.

A bill has been introduced in the Washington State House of Representatives that would direct the state Department of Ecology to conduct a study of light pollution in the state and to make recommendations for reducing it.

The measure, HB 2057, is sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, a Democrat from Seattle. It has been referred to the House Environment committee, the chair of which, Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of West Seattle, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill is a simple one, just over a page long. It directs the department to “analyze the current extent of light pollution that adversely affects the quality of the environment, the value of property, and the health and well-being of the public.” It specifies that the study must evaluate, at a minimum:

  • The risks to public health, well-being, and the environment posed by light pollution
  • The locations in the state with the greatest prevalence of light pollution and the greatest impacts of light pollution on environmental quality, ecosystem function, and public well-being
  • Policy options for addressing light pollution that have been adopted by other jurisdictions

The department would be required to report the results of the study back to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2017, and include recommendations for policy changes to address light pollution.

This is the first legislative look at light pollution in the state in six years. Rep. Pat Lantz, a Gig Harbor Democrat who has since retired from the Legislature, introduced a far-reaching light pollution statute in 2008, and Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, proposed a similar measure the following year. The latter earned committee approval in 2009 but never came to a vote in the House of Representatives. The earlier measures would have required that all new lighting be fully shielded, and would have banned the sale and use of mercury vapor lights, among other considerations. It had strong support within the astronomy and environmental communities, but drew opposition from a variety of developers, sports teams, billboard operators, and gas stations. The state Department of Transportation warned that the cost of bringing highway lighting up to the new code would have been prohibitive.

The Legislature’s website includes the text of HB 2057 as well as the capability to comment online. Seattle Astronomy will continue to follow the measure, which must gain committee approval by Feb. 20 if it is to be eligible for continued consideration this year.


Inflation: A cold little swoosh

Max Tegmark says that when he was applying for graduate school in physics, you’d best not mention the idea of parallel universes if you wanted to be accepted. A quarter century later Tegmark, an MIT physicist, stood before the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society making a plenary address titled “Inflation and Parallel Universes: Science or Fiction?” that made the concepts seem downright plausible.

Tegmark’s 2014 book, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, has sparked a lot of conversation inside and outside the scientific community. AAS Vice President Jack Burns of the University of Colorado says that made Tegmark a great pick for a talk at the biannual confab of astronomers.


MIT physicist Max Tegmark speaks at the American Astronomical Society meeting Jan. 7 in Seattle.

“Max’s approach to cosmology and big-picture questions have really been largely non-traditional, and I find that exciting,” Burns said in introducing Tegmark at the Jan. 7 meeting in Seattle. “Max is a rebel within a highly orthodox infrastructure that we all have to work in.”

Tegmark said that we as a species have a history of thinking too small.

“If we ask what we humans have figured out so far during the 13.8 billion years of our cosmic evolution, I think it’s one long story of underestimation,” Tegmark said. “We’ve again and again and again underestimated the size of our cosmos, realizing that everything that we thought existed was just a small part of something much grander: a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, clusters of galaxies, our observable universe, and maybe, as we’ll explore in this talk, a hierarchy of parallel universes.”

Tegmark said he wasn’t there to prove that inflation or parallel universes exist, but to correct some misconceptions. Most particularly, he poked at the notion that the existence of parallel universes cannot be tested scientifically. He contends that inflation predicts many phenomena that can be observed and measured. We wouldn’t throw out general relativity just because we have yet to observe a black hole directly. Likewise he said we shouldn’t dismiss parallel universes because we have yet to visit one.

Tegmark noted that inflation is more than just a mainstream idea now.

“It’s really, in my opinion, the most audacious idea we have, the most audacious extrapolation of physics so far,” he said. He noted that human growth interestingly parallels an inflationary early universe. Our number of cells double daily after conception, but the growth rates slows down soon after. The same happened with inflation. He points out that many people often think incorrectly that inflation followed the Big Bang.

“Inflation creates the Big Bang,” Tegmark said. “I think it’s more logical to say that before our Big Bang there was a cold little swoosh. That’s the early stages of inflation.”

“Inflation does this great party trick,” he added. “You can start with a tiny finite volume, less than a proton, and within there you can make an infinite volume inside the finite volume.”

Beings within a pocket may not be aware of what is going on outside.

“It’s pretty crazy, but that’s what you can do with general relativity,” Tegmark said. “Moreover, if there are many places where inflation doesn’t end, there’s nothing preventing you from having multiple, disconnected pockets like this.”

So how does Tegmark answer his own question? Are inflation and parallel universes science or fiction?

“Inflation has emerged as the most mainstream explanation for what happened early on,” he contended. “Whether it actually occurred and produced parallel universes is, of course, not yet settled. It remains controversial. But the key point that I want you to take away from this is that this controversy is clearly a scientific controversy, not a philosophical one, because the way it’s being settled is with data, not by people beating each other over the head with bottles in a bar.”

“2015 should bring much more clarity to what is going on,” Tegmark concluded. “Our universe is going to be an exciting place this year.”

The talk was engaging and the book should be a good read.


Happy fourth birthday to Seattle Astronomy!

Seattle Astronomy celebrated its fourth birthday last week; our first post came on January 9, 2011, and was a brief preview of the 217th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which began that week in Seattle. Our calendar post also looked ahead to a photo exhibit by Roger Ressmeyer and a talk at the Boeing Employees Astronomical Society by Dr. Connie Walker of Globe at Night.

We wrapped up our fourth year with some observing of Comet Lovejoy on birthday eve, from our observing deck at Seattle Astronomy world headquarters in West Seattle. In this post we look back at our five favorite stories from the past twelve months.

5: Tyler Nordgren speaks at Seattle Astronomical Society annual banquet. Nordgren, professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Redlands in California, is an artist, photographer, national park curriculum designer, and night-sky ambassador. He also is the author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks. Nordgren has designed travel posters for solar system destinations, in the style of the 1930s WPA “see America” works. We picked up one of his Mars posters for the Seattle Astronomy office. Nordgren is an engaging speaker and is doing some great work on behalf of dark night skies. Other enjoyable book talks in the past year were given by journalist Lynn Sherr about her biography of astronaut Sally Ride, and by Roberto Trotta about his book The Edge of the Sky, in which he explains cosmology using just the 1,000 most common English words.

4: Sky Guide developers win Apple Design Award. Seattle-area software developers Chris Laurel and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs, received a 2014 Apple Design Award for their gorgeous iOS app Sky Guide. The app was featured as one of the hot products for 2014 in the January 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

The sundial on a SW-facing wall of the University of Washington Physics/Astronomy building was the first Sullivan helped build and design, 20 years ago.

The sundial on a SW-facing wall of the University of Washington Physics/Astronomy building was the first Sullivan helped build and design, 20 years ago.

3: Seattle as sundial capital of North America. University of Washington astronomy professor Woody Sullivan gave an engaging talk about sundials at a gathering of the Eastside Astronomical Society in March. The subject was so compelling that the conversation went well beyond closing time of its venue at an Eastside library and continued in the parking lot for another 45 minutes.

2: AAS 225 meets in Seattle. Billed as the Superbowl of Astronomy, at least in football-mad Seattle, the American Astronomical Society held its winter meeting in town to kick off 2015. It was a coincidence that we were geared up to attend the previous Seattle meeting four years ago just as we started the blog. However, complications resulting from having a day job prevented us from attending that confab in 2011. For reasons not entirely unrelated, we quit the day job the following month to join the family consulting practice. Four years later Seattle Astronomy and Scheiderer Partners are still going strong!

A number of great stories came out of AAS 225, including the announcements of new exoplanets, the release of new data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and a talk by one of the Rosetta mission scientists. We have a few more stories yet to come from the event, including those about a talk by Max Tegmark about multiverses, and some storytelling from the folks who discovered Fermi bubbles.

The AAS is next scheduled to be in Seattle in January 2019, though there’s been some talk of shaking that quadrennial schedule up a bit and holding one of the society’s summer meetings in town.

Solar Eclipse

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

1: Partial Solar Eclipse visible from Seattle. Solar eclipses are rare events, and it’s even more unusual to see them in Seattle because our odds for a cloudy day are a bit higher than those of other cities. But last Oct. 23 things worked out beautifully as we saw much of the first half of a partial solar eclipse, from shortly after the event began to about the time of greatest coverage. At least that was when the clouds rolled in for the duration at Seattle Astronomy headquarters in West Seattle. We captured a few photos while it lasted and shared the day with some neighbors. It was a successful skywatching event and the clear highlight of the astronomy year in Seattle.

Happy birthday to us! We are hoping that year five proves to be just as much fun. Keep looking up!


SDSS delivers a new look at the sky

Astronomers are crunching enormous amounts of data and amassing more all the time. It’s almost enough to make one think that there’s more data in the universe than the universe can hold, but that would be something of a paradox.

Another 100-terabyte chunk of data was delivered to the astronomical community Jan. 6. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) made the final release of the third epoch of its survey (SDSS-III) in Seattle at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Data Release 12 (DR12) contains measurements of the properties of nearly half a billion stars and galaxies, making it one of the largest and richest databases in the history of astronomy. SDSS-III spent six years collecting that data using the 2.5-meter Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows our Milky Way Galaxy. The galaxy shape is an artist’s conception, and each of the small white dots is one of the hundreds of thousands of stars as seen by the SDSS. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc. and Jonathan Bird (Vanderbilt University)

A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows our Milky Way Galaxy. The galaxy shape is an artist’s conception, and each of the small white dots is one of the hundreds of thousands of stars as seen by the SDSS. Image credit:
Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc. and Jonathan Bird (Vanderbilt University).

“The most astonishing feature of the SDSS is the breadth of ground-breaking research it enables,” said Daniel Eisenstein of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of SDSS-III. “We’ve searched nearby stars for planets, probed the history of our Milky Way, and measured nine billion years of our universe’s accelerated expansion.”

DR12 includes data from several different surveys.

APOGEE (the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) looked in near-infrared wavelengths to see through obscuring dust clouds and mapped the distribution of 15 separate chemical elements in more than 100,000 stars, probing all regions of the Milky Way.

“That’s a huge amount of information,” said Steve Majewski of the University of Virginia, APOGEE’s principal investigator, “and each element reveals a different subplot in this galactic screenplay. Sometimes the interactions between the characters are quite surprising!”

MARVELS (the Multi-Object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-Area Survey) made repeated measurements of 3,000 stars to detect the back-and-forth motions that could reveal unseen orbiting planets.

“MARVELS is the first large-scale survey to measure these tiny motions for dozens of stars simultaneously,” said principal investigator Jian Ge of the University of Florida, “which means we can probe and characterize the full population of giant planets in ways that weren’t possible before.”

SDSS conference

Scientists involved with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey talk about their latest data release during a news conference Jan. 6 at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle. L-R: Connie Rockosi, Daniel Eisenstein, Jian Ge, Steven Majewski, and Michael Wood-Vasey.

BOSS (the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey) maps the fossil imprints of sound waves that filled the universe during the first half-million years after the Big Bang. The BOSS team is using those imprints to trace the expansion of the universe across nine billion years of cosmic history, with unprecedented precision.

SEGUE (the Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration) measured visible-light spectra of a quarter-million Milky Way stars.

“Data release 12 is the largest SDSS data release so far, it contains data that make more precise measurements than before, new kinds of data in new wavelength ranges for the survey facility, and new techniques for making those measurements,” said Connie Rockosi of U.C. Santa Cruz, the lead scientist for the Sloan telescope. Rockosi added that more science is certain to come now that all of that data has been released to the public.

And there’s more data to come. SDSS-III may be finished, but SDSS-IV began began a six-year mission last July to study cosmology, galaxies, and the Milky Way.