Author Archives: Greg Scheiderer

Astro Biz: Equinox Ale

Equinox aleMany 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 Equinox pale oat ale by Lagunitas Brewing Company. Lagunitas is headquartered in Petaluma, California, and has breweries there and in Chicago, and taprooms in several locations around the United States, including one in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, where it seems there are more brew pubs and tasting rooms than people these days!

Equinox is not only the name of the brew but also of a variety of hops used in the ale. Lagunitas gets many of its hops from the Yakima Valley in eastern Washington. The ale is a seasonal concoction that isn’t on the brewery’s website at present.

Naturally, we chose Equinox because the vernal equinox just happened at 3:29 this morning, Pacific time. And we love that the label depicts equal night and day. Happy springtime!

More info:


Welcome, spring, and AoT Seattle this week

It’s a busy week ahead on the area astronomy calendar as four club events, a seasonal observance, and a monthly get-together are on the docket.

AOT Seattle March 24Astronomy on Tap Seattle observes its second birthday this month, and will celebrate with a rare Friday gathering at 7 p.m. March 24 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. The evening’s talks will be a retrospective of the last year and updates of what’s happened in a variety of areas. Topics include gravitational waves, keeping stars weird, exoplanet discoveries galore, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, when a star is not really a star, and more! There will be a trivia contest and cool prizes as always. It’s free, but buy a beer or three.

Club events

GottliebThe Rose City Astronomers plan their monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 20 at the OMSI auditorium in Portland. Guest speaker Steve Gottlieb has a fascinating story to tell. Gottlieb recently completed observing the entire New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (NGC for short.) That project took him more than 35 years to finish—the NGC lists 7,840 deep-sky objects!

The NGC was compiled by astronomer John Dreyer in the late 19th century, but there were various errors on between 15 and 20 percent of the objects. Gottlieb will discuss the NGC/IC Project, a joint amateur-professional effort to re-examine the 100 to 200 year-old source material used by Dreyer.

The Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 21 at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue. EAS member Tom Hager will continue his look at Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. He’ll focus on the constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor, and the dim constellation Monoceros (the Unicorn) that lies between them. Emphasis of the talk will be on what we’ve learned in the 40 years since Robert Burnham published this classic astronomy reference collection.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor, all-weather presentation will be about ancient astronomy. If the sky is clear they’ll break out the telescopes for some observing.

The Island County Astronomical Society plans a star party at dusk Friday, March 24 at Fort Nugent Park in Oak Harbor.

Welcome, Spring!

Join Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info to watch the first sunset of spring from Solstice Park in West Seattle. Gather at the park at 6:45 p.m. Monday, March 20 for Enevoldsen’s 32nd seasonal sunset watch. The official charts put sunset at 7:23 p.m., but Enevoldsen has found it’s typically about 10 minutes earlier at that location.

Wrapping Mars Madness

The fourth and final presentation of Mars Madness will be given at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 25 at the Museum of Flight. Guest speaker Dr. Sanlyn Buxner, an education specialist and research scientist from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, will give a lecture titled, “Mars 201: Mission Accomplished.” Buxner will highlight the outstanding achievements and magnificent failures of more than 40 years of Mars mission science and engineering.


The Washington State University Planetarium in Pullman will run a show titled, “Other Earths” this weekend. The presentation highlights the ongoing search for planets in the Milky Way. How many planets are there? How many could support life? Is there life out there? How much we know might surprise you. Shows are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, March 24, and 5 p.m. Sunday, March 26. Tickets are $5 at the door, cash or check—no credit cards.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle offers a variety of shows each day. Their complete schedule is featured on our calendar page.

Futures file

Plan your astronomy fun by keeping an eye on our calendar. Recently added items include:

  • Astronomy night at Shorecrest High School in Shoreline April 4
  • Table Mountain Star Party registration opens April 1
  • Battle Point Astronomical Association’s next planetarium shows April 8
  • Astronomy Day at the Museum of Flight May 4

You can also learn of events from our postings on Facebook and Twitter.

Up in the sky

Saturn slides up close to the Moon in the predawn hours on Monday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.


Causing mayhem and mass destruction in the Universe Sandbox

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if the Sun somehow vanished from the solar system, or wanted to watch planets smash into each other, or thought it would be fun to bombard the Moon with asteroids, you’re in luck! You can do all of those things and more with a computer game called Universe Sandbox2. Dan Dixon, creator of Universe Sandbox2, gave a demonstration of it at this week’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

“It is software that allows you to ask fantastical questions about the universe and see plausibly true answers,” Dixon said.

Universe Sandbox2 sells for $25.

The possibilities are vast. The slogan for Universe Sandbox2 is “create & destroy on an unimaginable scale,” and the software delivers. It lets users tinker with an incredible number of variables, from the mass and density of objects to the chemical makeup of their atmospheres. Eliminate all of the carbon dioxide and see what happens! Move the Moon in closer to Earth and watch the chaos. For all of the interesting science questions it can answer, Universe Sandbox2 also appeals to our inner 12-year-old.

“People like to collide things,” Dixon noted, and clearly he is one of those people.

“It’s a physics simulation, so in addition to doing interesting things with orbits, you can also do interesting things with collisions,” he added.

Universe Sandbox screenshot

Screenshot from Universe Sandbox2 of an object colliding with Earth.

Those mash-ups got a lot of oohs and aahs from the attendees at the meeting at the University of Washington. It was fun to see what Earth would do to the ring system if it were placed in orbit around Saturn. (Spoiler alert: Disruptive!) Dixon raced through dozens of scenarios, and that only scratched the surface.

He said the results shown in Universe Sandbox2 are “plausibly” true because they have to make some compromises. They don’t simulate every object or every particle out there because that would take way too much computer oomph.

Plausibly true

“It’s a very simplistic simulation; we’re not doing any pressure waves or dark matter,” Dixon said, “but it still is pretty cool.”

So when Mars smacks into Earth in an attempt to see if a new moon would result, you don’t necessarily have all of the data you would like.

“You really would want to have like a billion pieces,” Dixon said, but “because we’re trying to do this real time on modern-day desktops or laptops, you can’t have as many pieces as you want and get it still to run in real time.”

“We’re undoubtedly wrong in a lot of cases, and there’s a lot of room for improvement in the simulation,” Dixon noted. They’re revamping the way the program handles stellar evolution and are working to improve planetary climate simulations. Part of the challenge is that they’re often simulating events for which there is not yet a scientific answer.

“We’re trying to solve things that are not well-defined or understood,” Dixon said. That’s not to say they’re just making stuff up.

“Being realistic is really important to me,” Dixon said, but they want to let users come up with their own crazy scenarios. “One of the goals of the software is to allow ridiculous premises but then carry that to a realistic conclusion.”

Humble beginnings

In a way, Universe Sandbox2 has been in development for 20 years. When Dixon was in middle school his father downloaded a simple gravity simulator from a BBS list. (Remember those?) It didn’t have many features, but it caught Dixon’s interest.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the motions of gravity,” he said, “and gravity is a really simple formula, too. It’s always fascinating how this really simple formula can do these really beautiful and organic interesting motions.” Later on in middle school Dixon coded his own simulator. He’d tinker with it every once in a while, then became serious about it about ten years ago.

“This was not like the grand ambition. It was a thing I was working on for fun, and now it’s turned into this crazy thing,” Dixon said. “What started as a personal side project is now what myself and eight others do full time.”

“I think if I had a time machine and I went back and showed my younger self what it’s become, I would have been overwhelmed and wouldn’t have started on it,” he laughs.

“This is a passion project that I’m fortunate enough to continue working on.”

View the Universe Sandbox2 teaser below. Purchasing through this link supports not only Universe Sandbox2 but also Seattle Astronomy in our efforts to tell interesting stories.


Astro Biz: Fremont Space Building

Fremont Space BuildingMany 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 Space building in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Space is literally a building full of office spaces, three stories worth of them. The plaza in front of the building features an intergalactic public art installation. Space is part of the group, which includes the Saturn Building, featured as an Astro Biz last June.

More info:


Pi Day, Mars Madness, and more this week

Pi Day, Mars Madness, planetarium shows galore, and astro club events fill a busy calendar this week.

Pi Day

Celebrate Pi Day at 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 14 at the Pierce College Science Dome. This free celebration will include hands-on math and science activities, a pi recitation typing contest, and Chaos and Order: A Mathematical Symphony. Please reserve seats in advance for the symphony, which will run at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. in the dome. Reservations are not needed for the other activities.

MOF Mars Madness

Phoenix landerMars Madness continues at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 18. This week’s presentation will feature the museum’s Carla Bitter, former education and public outreach manager of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission, who will give a family friendly, fast paced Mars 101: Know Your Missions presentation, complete with Red Planet prizes. Mars Madness is happening every Saturday in March, and is free with museum admission.

Club meetings

The Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 13 in room Engineering 117 at Olympic College in Bremerton. A guest speaker will talk about the Moon. Mysteriously, the club website doesn’t list who the speaker will be. Is it a major Moon celebrity?

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. on the Ides of March—Wednesday, March 15—in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Guest speaker Dan Dixon, creator of the Universe Sandbox simulation game, will talk about how he and his team of programmers, a planetary scientist, and a climate scientist collaborated to create an app that can model galactic collisions and solar system dynamics.

Planetarium shows

Check out The Secret Lives of Stars, a free show at the Bellevue College Planetarium that will play at 6 p.m. and repeat at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 18. Reservations are recommended; information about reservations, parking, and location is online.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center offers a variety of programs every day. Check their complete lineup on our calendar page.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. We’ve recently added:

Up in the sky

Jupiter, Spica, and the Moon will form a nice triangle in the evening on Tuesday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.


Astro Biz: Orion buses

Orion busesMany 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 Orion buses. Based in Mississauga, Ontario, Orion manufactured transit buses from 1975 until 2013. King County Metro Transit continues to operate a number of Orion buses; this Wikipedia article says that Metro purchased 199 of them between 2010 and 2012. There have been suggestions that posts supporting the windshields of these buses create blind spots that may make it more difficult for bus drivers to spot pedestrians.

We chose Orion this week because the constellation of the hunter is high in the south as darkness falls these days. Wait for a clear night and a view of the Orion Nebula in his sword.

More info:


Mars madness and more this week

Mars Madness continues this week at the Museum of Flight, and a couple of astronomy clubs have interesting events on the calendar as well.

Mars Madness


Roger Myers. Photo: Museum of Flight

Lots of things go mad during the month of March, and the Museum of Flight is looking at Mars with special programs each Saturday. This Saturday, March 11 at 2 p.m. Roger Myers, formerly of Aerojet Rocketdyne, will give a talk about getting to Mars and back. Myers should know; he has worked on space transportation and in-space propulsion for more than 30 years, on dozens of missions including all Mars landings after Viking. He is a Fellow of the AIAA, a member of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, is the president of the Electric Rocket Propulsion Society, and was awarded the AIAA Wyld Propulsion Award in 2014.

If you’re headed out to the museum on Saturday, don’t miss the weekly aerospace update at 1 p.m.

Tacoma Astronomical Society

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 7 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the campus of the University of Puget Sound. TAS member Dave Armstrong will discuss his approach to telescope mirror fabrication.

BEAS and Pluto

The Boeing Employees Astronomical Society will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9 at the Boeing “Oxbow” Fitness Center. Participants will view a webinar presentation about the Pluto New Horizons mission from the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern. Guests are welcome but must RSVP here.

Battle Point Astronomical Association

BP Astro KidsThe Battle Point Astronomical Association has a full evening of events planned for Saturday, March 11. Its popular BP Astro Kids program will meet at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. The family date night for this month will be a look at how the Hubble Space Telescope gets all of its gorgeous photos back to Earth. Participants will transmit their own images to each other, paint universe photos and more. Suggested donation is $5 to cover supplies.

BPAAAt 7:30 p.m. the club’s planetarium show will be “Climbing the Cosmic Distance Ladder.” Astronomer Steve Ruhl will show how astronomers, past and present, determine distances to objects. If the sky is clear, club members will be on hand with telescopes. It’s free for BPAA members, $2 donation suggested for non-members, and $5 for families.

It all happens at the association’s Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. We’ve recently added BP Astro Kids events for the spring and summer and the meetings of the Boeing Employees Astronomical Society for the next several months.

Up in the sky

Jupiter is well placed for viewing after midnight this week as it approaches opposition on April 7. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.