Category Archives: astronomy

Seattle is just like Mars, and other lessons from a 3-D trip

Attendees at the most recent gathering of the Seattle Astronomical Society went on an entertaining and informative 3-D trip to Mars, and learned that Seattle is just like the Red Planet.

Antonio Paris

Antonio Paris

Our tour guide was Dr. Antonio Paris, chief scientist at the Center for Planetary Science, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at St. Petersburg College in Florida, and author of Mars: Your Personal 3D Journey to the Red Planet (Center for Planetary Science, 2018).

Paris said he loves Mars and expects that humans will be going there sooner than later.

“I suspect that, the way things are going, probably in about 10 to 15 years we’re going to be on Mars,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think anyone is going to go it alone.

“Mars, in my personal opinion, is going to be an international effort, both with corporations as well as the government,” Paris said.

The book was something of a spinoff of an exhibit about Mars that Paris helped put together at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa. The exhibit proved pretty popular, and the book seemed the next natural step. Proceeds from book sales support the work of the Center for Planetary Science.

Paris featured fantastic 3-D images of a great many Martian geological features in his presentation. While his Ph.D. is in astronomy, he’s really morphed into something of a rock hound.

“We are primarily geologists that are studying all of the geological features here on Earth,” he said, “and we’re trying to compare and contrast them with what we see on the lunar surface, what we see on Mercury, Venus, and all of the terrestrial planets.”

Paris called the process comparative planetology.

Ripples

Ripple marks such as those shown in this photo from the rover Opportunity were deposited by water moving back and forth. Image: NASA/JPL

“If I look at something here on Earth and I can determine how that thing happened,” he said, “and I see the same thing on Mars, I can deduce that the same processes have occurred, most likely.”

That caveat was included on most of his deductions, but the comparisons are pretty compelling. For example, Paris passed around a flat piece of rock with ripple marks on it that he collected in the Canyonlands in Utah. Such ripple marks are created by water moving back and forth over the rock, and the Canyonlands piece looks exactly like stuff the rovers have seen on Mars.

Paris also showed photos of rock formations made when moving or freezing water breaks up bedrock, and wears it down into small pebbles. At least, that’s how it happens on Earth.

Potholes on Mars

This set of images compares the Link outcrop of rocks on Mars with similar rocks seen on Earth. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

“We call that either fragmented sidewalk or conglomerate terrain,” he said. Here in Seattle, especially after our recent cold and snowy weather, we just call it a pothole, and that’s how the Emerald City is like the Red Planet! Potholes all over the place!

Paris does a lot of rock hunting in the American southwest, which has a lot of Mars analog sites that scientists and NASA use in their Mars work. These include Moenkopi in Arizona, Canyonlands, the Mojave Desert, Death Valley, and the Flagstaff area.

The website for the Center for Planetary Science notes that Paris will make a presentation in Portland in September at a time and place not yet published. Dollars to Voodoo Doughnuts it will be with Rose City Astronomers. Stay tuned.

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Astro Biz: Moon’s Kitchen

Moon's KitchenMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Moon’s Kitchen Japanese restaurant. Moon’s Kitchen is on Fourth Avenue in Seattle’s Belltown Neighborhood.

Moon’s Kitchen has no official online presence that we could discover. That’s a little odd in this day and age; if there’s no website, does a place really exist? Probably so, as there’s a robust discussion of the joint on Yelp and the like, and it receives generally good reviews, though one grump called it a “glorified teriyaki place.” You can order Moon’s Kitchen dishes for delivery through Grub Hub, Uber Eats, and possibly others.

More info:

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Wow! Check out The Planets Online

There’s a great new website about our solar system that will blow your socks off! The Planets Online introduces viewers to a broad range of subjects in a unique, innovative, and entertaining way. The site naturally interweaves information on science, engineering, music, visual design, and technology—it could be a showcase for STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).

Adrian Wyard

Adrian Wyard

The site is the creation of visual artist Adrian Wyard. Followers of Seattle Astronomy may recall that we wrote about Wyard’s show The Planets Live about three years ago (story here). The concept is that Wyard uses images of celestial objects to accompany and enhance classical music. He’s done it with Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Dvorák’s 9th Symphony.

The core of The Planets Online is a video of a performance of The Planets by the Auburn Symphony Orchestra directed by Anthony Spain and featuring the Seattle Pacific University Women’s Choir and Wyard’s visuals. This is no ordinary video, however. If you remember when we used to get our video on plastic disks, think of The Planets Online as a video loaded with special features. As the video plays, a sidebar describes the images and who created them, offers facts about the music, pulls up Wikipedia pages and other sources about the science, throws in tidbits of trivia, and more. You can switch any of these info streams on or off depending on your interests.

Here’s a little preview video of The Planets Online.

We expect you might spend a good deal of time with the site.

There are live performances of Wyard’s work coming up this spring in Florida, Virginia, and Texas. The last northwest live performances were back in April, May, and October last year. If you missed those, you can have a little fun—and learn a few things—with The Planets Online.

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Total lunar eclipse visible from Seattle

Seattle astronomy buffs are downright pessimistic about seeing celestial events, even those that happen during our good-weather months. (And we have them.) Thus in the week before the total lunar eclipse of January 20, 2019, I posted this on the Seattle Astronomy Facebook page.

Amazingly enough, at about mid-day on eclipse day the clouds actually did begin to part a little, and a check of the Seattle Clear Sky Chart revealed a prediction that we’d have just 30 percent cloud cover come eclipse hour, and that it would be downright clear late in the evening.

One learns not to trust these things, but when the full Moon actually got up above the trees and into a clear sky out back of Seattle Astronomy headquarters, I decided this was going to happen and hauled the telescope out of the basement and onto the back deck. As the eclipse began I snapped a quick photo in order to express my amazement.

I am not an astrophotographer, as people who evaluate the entries for the Seattle Astronomical Society‘s quarterly photo contest always remind me. This one was shot with my smartphone, though when using it with the telescope I find it devilishly difficult to get the proper aim through the eyepiece (must pick up one of those gadgets from Cloud Break Optics soon.) My other “astro” camera is an old Canon Powershot A530, which is pretty easy to just stick up to the eyepiece and shoot.

I used the phone to get a pretty OK, if somewhat pixellated, pic at totality, too.

Interestingly enough, I found that the color of the “blood Moon” wasn’t quite so pronounced through the telescope and camera is it was in my naked-eye view. I think the magnification diffuses the color a bit, and the camera isn’t really made for that sort of work.

Even my sweetie, who is not normally prone to looking through telescopes at night in January, or any other month, for that matter, went out quite a few times for a magnified look, and we both spent most of the eclipse watching from a warm environment inside behind the glass of the French doors.

I hope you got a chance to see the eclipse wherever you were. The next one visible in Seattle will happen in May of 2021.

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Searching for life with giant telescopes

The Kepler Space Telescope discovered more than 2,600 exoplanets—planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. Kepler used the transit method, watching for tiny dips in the amount of light coming from a star when a planet passed in front of it. After more than nine years in space, Kepler ran out of fuel last month and NASA officially ended the telescope’s science mission. The torch has been passed to a new generation of planet hunters, and experts in the field of exoplanets say we may be less than a decade away from answering one of humanity’s biggest questions: is there life somewhere besides Earth?

David Charbonneau

Harvard physics Prof. David Charbonneau gave a lecture at the UW Oct. 16. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We are the special generation that for the first time in human history is going to have the technological ability—if we choose—to go and answer this great question,” said David Charbonneau, professor of astronomy at Harvard University and a member of the Kepler mission team. Charbonneau gave a lecture recently at the University of Washington, part of the Frontiers of Physics series. He suggests that when we look for an inhabited planet, we don’t confine ourselves to just finding people.

“There may be other humans out there, but I’m going to advocate that we need to create and cast the broadest net possible when we go and actually make the first search for life outside the solar system,” Charbonneau said. He noted that SETI has been listening for years with no contact so far, and other planets are too far away to visit any time soon. But we are on the verge of being able to analyze the chemical content of exoplanet atmospheres, and that can tell us if there’s life on the ground. A scientist on a distant planet looking at Earth could tell there is life here by the chemicals in our atmosphere.

“Life has radically changed the content of our atmosphere,” he said, by creating oxygen and other elements. “We’re going to try to detect life through the unintentional waste products that are produced as life goes about its business.”

News reports of discoveries often note if an exoplanet is “Earth-like,” but in reality we know little about conditions on these far-away worlds. We can accurately figure an exoplanet’s size, mass, and density, but know little else about them. Two new telescopes—one in space, one on the ground—may be able to give us the data we need to know about actual conditions on these planets.

Giant Magellan Telescope

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is being built in Chile by an international consortium, and is expected to begin science operations around 2023. The GMT will be the largest optical telescope ever constructed, with seven 8.5-meter mirrors. This huge telescope will be able to gather an enormous amount of light, enough to analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets.

James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a NASA project scheduled to launch in 2021. JWST will have a 6.5-meter primary mirror, and the observatory will be able to observe light in the infrared, and that’s important.

“Infrared is where all the molecules we want to study show their fingerprints,” Charbonneau said, listing oxygen, water, and methane among the molecules of interest.

He said the JWST “will revolutionize essentially all major branches of astrophysics.”

Charbonneau said we need both of the new telescopes to nail down whether an exoplanet is inhabited.

“Individually, a large ground-based telescope or the James Webb Space Telescope cannot tell us if there’s life on a planet,” he said. That’s because they’re sensitive to different molecules. The GMT could spot oxygen, which usually means life. It’s not certain, though, because oxygen could be created in other ways. The JWST could find methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, which would put that oxygen in context, determining if it’s there because of biological activity.

“The idea is together they can get the data that will allow us to conclude that there really is life,” Charbonneau said.

TESS and MEarth

While we wait for these two observatories to be completed, astronomers are not sitting idly by. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is continuing the work of Kepler, using the transit method to search for more exoplanets.

“Our mission is to find hundreds of nearby small planets amenable to detailed characterization,” said Charbonneau, who is a co-investigator on the mission. TESS will survey the entire sky over a period of two years. It was launched in April, began science work in August, and found its first exoplanet in September. Charbonneau said that by December they should have the data to determine if this new exoplanet has an atmosphere.

Charbonneau is the primary investigator for the MEarth Project, which is searching for habitable exoplanets around nearby stars. MEarth consists of two automated observatories, one near Tucson, Arizona and the other in Chile. Each employs eight robotic 16-inch telescopes that constantly watch M-dwarf stars for transiting exoplanets. There are several good reasons to look at these “red dwarf” stars. They’re plentiful—there are about 240 of them within 30 light years of us, compared to just 20 G-stars like the Sun. Since they’re smaller stars and not as bright, they won’t wash out an orbiting planet’s atmosphere, making the observation technically easier.

The following time-lapse video shows the MEarth-North observatory in action.

 

The point of both TESS and MEarth is to create a good list of things for GMT and JWST to check out once they come on line.

“The search for atmospheric biomarkers such as oxygen will be humanity’s first attempt to really answer this great question about whether or not we are alone,” Charbonneau said.

You can watch the entire lecture here:

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Waffles and big data in the universe

Waffles and big data were on the menu at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard.

Leah Fulmer

Fulmer at work. Photo: Astronomy on Tap Seattle

Leah Fulmer, who is working at the University of Washington on her Ph.D. in astronomical data science, gave a talk titled, “Data-Driven Astronomy in the 2020s and Beyond.” Fulmer explained that we’re in the midst of a “data tsunami” that’s been growing over the last three decades of astronomical surveys.

Back in the 1990s the Palomar Digital Sky Survey and the Two Micron All-Sky Survey each collected about a terabyte of data. That’s a trillion bytes; 1012 bytes. Enough to fill a thousand one-gigabyte smartphones.

The 2000s brought the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer. These collected in the tens of terabytes of data. In the 2010s Pan-STARRS collected a petabyte of data; a quadrillion bytes.

In the future this astronomical growth in data collection will continue. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) under construction in Chile will survey the entire night sky every few nights for ten years. It will ultimately collect an astounding 500 petabytes of data—that’s 20 terabytes every single night.

“SDSS had a total data collection of 40 terabytes,” Fulmer pointed out. “We’re going to have one SDSS every two nights in the 2020s. This is a big freaking deal.”

On top of the data, Fulmer noted that the LSST will alert its network when it finds something interesting. Given the amount of data, Fulmer said there will be ten million alerts every night, or about 232 every second.

“This is overwhelming; this is a data tsunami,” she said. “With this sort of data collection astronomers cannot do our science in the way we have up until this point.”

A new way to look at data

Up until recently astronomers would apply for telescope time, make their observations, take the data home, and analyze it. That won’t work in the era of big data for a couple of reasons. First, you can’t jam that much data onto your laptop. Second, there just aren’t enough astronomers to sort through data on objects one by one. As you might guess, we need the help of computers.

“Specifically, we need the help of machine learning,” Fulmer said. This can be both “supervised” and “unsupervised” learning. Astronomers can identify objects by their light curves, and the computers can be taught what those are. That’s supervised. In unsupervised learning, the computers can go out on their own and sort various observations into categories with similar characteristics, and we can figure out what’s in each category.

Once you figure that out, a data broker like ANTARES (the Arizona-NOAO Temporal Analysis and Response to Events System, and yes, astronomers still rule at acronyms) can let the right people know about discoveries in a timely manner.

Fulmer said it’s interesting that ANTARES will never look at the sky, just at data, and that many future astronomers may never visit a telescope, just analyze the data. Different fields can learn from each other about how to process all of this information.

Fulmer finds the era of big data exciting.

“It’s not just data-driven astronomy, it’s data-driven everything,” she said.

Astronomy with your breakfast

N. Nicole Sanchez is working on her Ph.D. in astronomy at the UW, and her research interest is in spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way and how they evolve. This, naturally, led her to think of galaxies as waffles. Thus the title of her talk, “Black Holes, Gas, and Waffles.”

Spiral galaxies form into disks, she explained, and a waffle is a disk. The galaxies have a central bulge, represented on the waffle by a big pat of butter. Marshmallows, suspended by toothpicks, represent globular clusters of stars. Red and blue sprinkles represent old red stars and young blue ones. You just have to imagine the supermassive black hole at the center of the waffle. It may be massive, but it’s super small compared to the size of the waffle.

Sanchez came up with the idea for this model while teaching at the UW in the “Protostars” summer science camp for middle school girls the last couple of years. In the waffle model, syrup represents the gas in the galaxy.

“That’s what you’re making your stars out of, so there’s going to be a lot in your disk,” Sanchez said.

In fact, her faculty advisors got wind of the waffle model and said it would need A LOT of syrup, which led to the hilarious twitter thread below. Click on it to see the academic discussion.

Sanchez admitted that her waffle galaxy may be “a bit too simplified” as a model. But the syrup is important.

“There’s actually tons of gas around really all galaxies, in what’s called the circumgalactic medium,” Sanchez said. The gas is important to the evolution of a galaxy. It feeds the black hole and helps  form stars.

Sanchez studies galaxies by using cosmological hydrodynamic simulations.

“I put a bunch of particles in a box, turn on gravity, and let time happen,” she laughed. After running a simulation she looks for a galaxy similar to the Milky Way, and examines interactions between the galaxy’s supermassive black hole and the circumgalactic medium.

“The supermassive black hole is actually really vital to the evolution of the CGM because it’s moving all of this metal that’s being created in the hearts of stars in the disk of the galaxy and it’s propagating them out into the CGM,” Sanchez explained. Without a supermassive black hole, the circumgalactic medium would not look like what astronomers have observed.

Pass the syrup.

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