Category Archives: astronomy

Lots of great choices for astronomy events this week

There are tons of great astronomy events on the calendar this week, topped by the opening of the Museum of Flight’s Apollo exhibit and a visit from the Night Sky Guy.

Apollo

ApolloA couple of years in the making, the new Apollo exhibit opens Saturday, May 20 at the Museum of Flight, though museum members can get an early sneak-peek Wednesday evening. The exhibit includes the F-1 engine parts fished out of the Atlantic Ocean by Bezos Expeditions, an intact F-1, and many more great space exploration artifacts. Check out our recent article and podcast previewing the exhibit.

The Museum will also hold its annual Space Fest over the weekend with a variety of presentations, exhibits, and discussions focused on Apollo and the Moon.

The Night Sky Guy and Mars

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is in Seattle for three talks at Benaroya Hall. Titled “Mankind to Mars,” the event will be an exploration of what it will take to get humans to the Red Planet. It’s produced in conjunction with the Mars miniseries created by the National Geographic channel. One show was Sunday afternoon, and Fazekas also appears on Monday, May 15 and Tuesday, May 16, both at 7:30 p.m.

Fazekas is the author of Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe: The True Science Behind the Starship Voyages (National Geographic, 2016).

AstronoMay at PacSci

Pacific Science CenterAstronoMay is under way at the Pacific Science Center, and a couple of interesting events are on the calendar for this week. Astronaut Nicholas Patrick will host a viewing and discussion of the film A Beautiful Planet 3-D at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 16. The film is a portrait of Earth from space captured by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Patrick will introduce the show and lead a Q&A session after. He’s now with Blue Origin; see our article about Patrick’s recent talk at Astronomy on Tap Seattle. Admission is $10, or $5 for science center members.

Then learn the ABCs of total solar eclipses, and get ready for the one that will be visible in parts of the United States in August, with Dennis Schatz, nationally recognized astronomy educator and Pacific Science Center senior advisor. Total Solar Eclipse 101 happens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 17. Cost is $5, free for members.

JWST

RiekeNASA’s next great space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is scheduled for launch in October 2018. George Rieke, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona and science team lead for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) that will fly onboard the scope, will speak at the University of Washington astronomy colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 18. The talk will focus on the capabilities of JWST, emphasizing the advances over present (and even some future) facilities, with examples of the science it will enable.

Club events

Rose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 15 in the OMSI auditorium in Portland. It will be their annual swap meet and astronomy information fair. The club, along with OMSI and the Vancouver Sidewalk Astronomers, will host public star parties at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 20 at both Rooster Rock State Park and L.L. “Stub” Stewart State Park.

The Island County Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 15 at the Oak Harbor Library.

The Seattle Astronomical Society monthly meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 17 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Guest speaker Woody Sullivan, professor emeritus of astronomy, will talk about the contributions of William and Caroline Herschel to our understanding of comets. Sullivan is working on a biography of William Herschel.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its free public nights for 9 p.m. Saturday, May 20. The topic for the indoor presentation will be black holes. If the weather cooperates they’ll break out the telescopes for some observing.

TJO

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryThe bi-monthly open house at the UW’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is set for 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 17. The topic for the evening’s astronomy talk has not been published. It’s a good idea to make reservations early, as these typically are filled up. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will conduct tours of the observatory dome and, weather permitting, offer a look through its vintage telescope.

Planetarium shows

The Bellevue College Planetarium will run a public show about black holes at 6 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 20. The show will include animations of the formation of the early universe, star birth and death, the collision of giant galaxies, and a simulated flight to a super-massive black hole lurking at the center of our own Milky Way Galaxy. It’s free, but reservations are suggested. See the website for registration info and other details.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center offers a variety of shows every day. Their full schedule is posted on our calendar page, where you can also scout out more future astronomy events.

Share

Meeting the Martians and getting snapshots of far-away planets

It’s possible that some extraterrestrials were at the most recent Astronomy on Tap Seattle gathering, at which we explored the possibility of life on Mars and looked at exciting new techniques for capturing images of exoplanets.

We have met the Martians and they are us—maybe

“Are we all Martian-Americans? We still don’t know,” said Bob Abel, a professor of applied physics at Olympic College and collaborator with the University of Washington’s Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Group. Abel gave a talk titled, “Where Are the Martians?” at Astronomy on Tap Seattle April 26.

Giving a quick geological and topographical history of Mars, Abel said that the Red Planet is just one-half the diameter of Earth, and thus has just one-eighth the volume of Earth, so Mars cooled off pretty quickly.

Mars Mudstones

Curiosity shot this image in Gale Crater on Mars. The mudstones indicate a long history of standing water in that location. Photo: NASA.

“During the early formation of the solar system, it would have cooled to the point where liquid water could exist on its surface before the Earth got to that point,” Abel said, adding that it’s clear that water was once abundant on Mars. The rovers Spirit and Curiosity both landed in craters that used to be lakes, and Opportunity set down on the edge of what scientists think was once a salty sea.

In addition, Abel said that Spirit found opaline silica in Gusev Crater on Mars.

“The place where you find this on Earth is near geysers and hydrothermal vents,” Abel said. You’ll find heat, water, and minerals around these vents. “You’ve got all the stuff for life, and you find the most primitive life clustered around these on Earth.”

Bob Abel

Prof. Bob Abel of Olympic College gave a talk about Mars and Martians at Astronomy on Tap Seattle April 26, 2017. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The surface of Mars is awfully barren now, but life could have conceivably existed there in the distant past. Scientists have found meteorites from Mars on Earth, and inside some of those meteorites they’ve found structures that look like nanobacteria. The debate continues over whether these are biological or not.

“It’s still somewhat up in the air, but it’s tantalizing evidence,” Abel said. “The question still remains, did life start earlier on Mars, since it was capable of being inhabited? And by the time Earth was habitable, did meteorites come to Earth and start life on Earth?”

The investigation continues.

As for present-day Mars, while the surface appears devoid of life, we may find something if we dig a little deeper. Abel said that Curiosity detects occasional outbursts of methane on Mars. He pointed out that most methane on Earth is created by biology.

“I’m personally rooting for flatulence, but we don’t know yet what’s causing it,” he laughed. But, through measurements made by many different Mars orbiters, we’ve learned that the planet’s outer core is molten. So beneath the surface there is heat, water, hydrocarbons, and soil: everything life wants. Abel recalled a talk last year by Penelope Boston, head of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

“She can’t see how life doesn’t exist below the surface of Mars,” Abel said.

Snapshots of exoplanets

Getting photographs of exoplanets—planets orbiting far-away stars—is a relatively new field within astronomy. The first such images were captured just eight years ago or so. Benjamin Gerard said the technology and capabilities within the field are advancing rapidly. Gerard, a doctoral student in physics and astronomy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, uses the Gemini Planet Imager to trick out pictures of planets near stars that are many light years away. These photos can be useful for figuring out the components of a planet’s atmosphere and whether it has oceans and continents.

Gerard

Doctoral student Benjamin Gerard gave a talk about his work imaging exoplanets at Astronomy on Tap Seattle April 28. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Gerard said the main challenges in exoplanet imaging are resolution and contrast. He explained that the key to good resolution is adaptive optics. If you’ve looked through a telescope you have likely had nights when the objects you observe appear to be wiggling around because of atmospheric turbulence. Gemini corrects for this with adaptive optics.

Light from the object hits a deformable mirror as well as a component called a wave-front sensor. The sensor measures the amount of turbulence, sends the information to the mirror’s actuators, which can correct for the aberration.

“The mirror deforms once every millisecond,” Gerard said. “This aberration gets corrected and is constantly re-focused onto the camera. Once it reaches that point this image that is very turbulent suddenly becomes much more stable and we can get much better resolution.”

Gerard said this is a plus for ground-based telescopes.

“With this technique, we can basically take a ten-meter telescope and make it like we were in space,” he said. “With adaptive optics we actually do better than any space telescope in resolution.”

The problem of contrast is apparent to anyone who has visited social media, which is full of bad-contrast photos. Especially common are pics of people posed in front of windows. Often the people appear as silhouettes because the light from the window is way brighter. While exoplanets don’t pose in front of cosmic windows, contrast is a huge problem when it comes to getting the images.

“A planet like Earth is about ten billion times dimmer than it’s host star,” Gerard pointed out. Using a coronagraph helps block out the light of the star and remove its glare from the image. They also use a technique called angular differential imaging to overcome aberrations within the instruments. This is a little bit counter-intuitive to the amateur astrophotographer who typically uses an instrument rotator during long exposures to compensate for the apparent motion of objects caused by the rotation of the Earth.

“For exoplanet imaging this is actually helpful, so we turn off the instrument rotator and the planet appears to rotate with respect to the view of the fixed telescope instrumental aberrations,” Gerard said. “We can distinguish one from the other.” Computer algorithms can later put images made in this way back together to create even greater contrast.

Gerard hopes they’ll be able to do even better in the near future. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s. It will have a deformable mirror that should have the capability to image smaller planets like Earth.

“This is many orders of magnitude better than we can do on ground-based telescopes, because on a space telescope you’re much more stable,” Gerard said. “On the Hubble Space Telescope now we can’t reach this sort of contrast because there is no deformable mirror.”

Since Gerard gave the talk NASA announced an independent review of WFIRST that could change its timeline and instrumentation.


The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle gathering is set for May 24 at Peddler Brewing Company.

Share

Busy week ahead on the astro calendar

There’s something for everyone on this week’s astro calendar, with a new scale model solar system opening, two great lectures, a theater/science mashup, and a variety of club events on the docket.

A new scale model of the solar system that you can explore through geocaching opens today, May 1, on Bainbridge Island. Check out our article or podcast from last week to learn more.

Proxima b

You’ve probably heard by now of the discovery of a planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. (If not, check out our article featuring UW professor Rory Barnes discussing the possibility of the habitability of Proxima b.) The UW Astrobiology Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute will host a panel discussion about the planet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 3 in room 120 of Kane Hall on the university’s campus in Seattle.

The panelists include Guillem Anglada-Escude, lead discoverer of the planet and University of London lecturer; Victoria Meadows, University of Washington astrobiology professor and primary investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory; Barnes; and Olivier Guyon, University of Arizona professor and project scientist for the Subaru Telescope.

It’s free but registration is required; as of this writing there were still some tickets available.

Searching for Martians

Bob Abel talkMars may have been habitable before Earth was, and might be still. So where are the Martians? Olympic College professor Bob Abel will give a talk about the history of Mars and the prospects for past, present, and future life there at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 4 in room 117 of the Engineering Building on the Olympic College campus in Bremerton. It’s free.

Abel gave a talk on the same topic last week at Astronomy on Tap Seattle. Our recap of that event is coming soon.

Astronomy Day at MOF

The Museum of Flight celebrates Space Day during its Free First Thursday at 5 p.m. May 4. Local astronomy clubs will be on hand with information about their activities and they’ll have telescopes for observing if the weather cooperates. A special presentation at 6 p.m. will take a look at the technical challenges of getting Apollo to the Moon, and what that means for present-day space efforts. Tony Gondola, a solar system ambassador and coordinator of the museum’s Challenger Learning Center will be the speaker.

The event runs through 9 p.m.

Mashing up science and theater

Centrifuge2Infinity Box Theatre Project will present Centrifuge 2 at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6, at Stage One Theater on the North Seattle College campus. Centrifuge pairs science writers and playwrights to craft brand-new one-act plays featuring current science. Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer participated in the event last year and will be one of the science writers again this time around. Check out our article and podcast from last year to learn more about Centrifuge and Infinity Box.

Open house at TJO

The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington will hold one of its bimonthly open houses at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 3. The topic for the evening’s talk had not been published as of this writing. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to offer tours of the observatory and, weather allowing, a look through its vintage telescope.

Club events

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 2 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma. The topic will be club participation in viewing the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.

The club will also offer one of its free public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor session will be a presentation about constellations. They’ll break out the telescopes for observing if the sky is clear.

The Spokane Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Club member Nick Monkman will talk about the ABCs of finding objects in the night sky.

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans its monthly free public star parties for 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather causes cancellations, so watch the website for updates.

You can always scout out future events on our calendar page.

Share

Hunting the geocached solar system on Bainbridge Island

Most of us have experienced a scale model solar system. A new one with a different spin will open up May 1 on Bainbridge Island. To find the Sun and planets in this solar system, you’ll have to conduct a successful geocache hunt.

“Everybody who does it can collect the entire set of planets and custom stamps in a passport book, but the trick is, they have to go to each planet to do it,” said Erica Saint Clair, proprietor of Rosie Research, which creates fun science learning adventures for kids and families. Saint Clair also leads the BP Astro Kids education program of the Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA). It was through the latter that the idea for the geocache scaled solar system model came about.

Geocached solar system

Adventurers can explore a geocached solar system on Bainbridge Island beginning May 1. Find the treasure chest at each planet and get a stamp for your passport. Visit every planet to win cool prizes! Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

About a year ago the BP Astro Kids made solar systems on a string, but it was a challenge to create an exercise that represented both the proper sizes of planets relative to each other, as well as the scale of the distances between them at those sizes. The BPAA children’s librarian suggested just making an island-wide solar system using geocaching. Saint Clair originally laughed at the idea—thinking that’ll be easy!—then rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Now it’s about to go live. The Sun is about five feet in diameter in this solar system.

“It fits really well on the island, and it gives a really good perspective for people about the size of our solar system,” Saint Clair said.

“You can walk downtown Winslow and go through our terrestrial planets, and then Jupiter and Saturn and the other guys are a little further away,” she added. “You definitely need a car for Pluto because it’s the other end of the island.”

Geocache patch

Visit every planet on Bainbridge Island and get this cool patch. Photo: Rosie Research.

The key piece of documentation for the hunt is the solar system passport. The passport includes information about the project and interesting facts about the Sun and each planet. Most importantly, it gives the coordinates of each of these objects. Go to Bainbridge Island, plug the coordinates into a GPS device—the map app on your smart phone will do, but there are also special geocaching apps—and the search is on! At each spot geocachers with a good eye will find a hidden treasure chest with a special stamp for their passport—that’s how you’ll prove you’ve been there. Some local businesses will be handing out the passports, and some are offering prizes like ice cream or pizza for those who collect certain stamps.

“It’s not only a geocache hunt, it’s also a fun afternoon activity with treats,” Saint Clair said.

Geocachers who visit every planet can bring their passport to one of the monthly BP Astro Kids events and receive a colorful completer’s patch as the reward for their dedicated pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Saint Clair said that a goal helps motivate many kids to finish a project like this; her own daughters are the user testers for many of her projects, and it works on them! She’s hoping that the challenge of the hunt will inspire interest in the project.

Challenge of scale modeling

There are a lot of big numbers in astronomy, and Saint Clair said that’s a challenge for this sort of endeavor.

Erica Saint Clair

Erica Saint Clair presents BPAstro Kids programs for the Battle Point Astronomical Association.

“It’s really difficult to scale a model, because either the sizes are so unfathomable or the distances are so unfathomable, and to bring one into focus inherently blurs the other,” she said. She hopes that using informative passport books will help convey more information that might not work at the scale of the model.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association will hold an Astronomy Day celebration at Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. this Saturday, April 29. Saint Clair said kids and families can pick up their passports and take a solar system tour that day in preparation for the solar system geocache hunt going live on Monday.

If you’d like to support the educational efforts of Rosie Research, visit their Patreon Page and become a patron of science.


Podcast of our interview with Erica Saint Clair:

More info:

Share

The search for ET at Pacific Science Center

They’re thinking a lot about extraterrestrial life these days over at the Pacific Science Center, where two new exhibits explore how scientists are working to identify far-away planets that may harbor life, and how we’re going to feed ourselves while we’re on our way to pay a visit.

Mission: Find Life!The exhibit Mission: Find Life! opened up last month in the science center’s Portal to Current Research space. Erika Harnett, a University of Washington professor of Earth and Space Sciences who serves as the education and outreach lead for the UW’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), was one of the key players in developing the content for the exhibit.

“We really wanted to connect the research being done by the Virtual Planetary Laboratory and some of the more cutting-edge science,” Harnett said.

It’s all in the biosignature

They decided to focus on examining the biosignatures of exoplanets. Harnett noted that we actually have the technology to take images of planets orbiting other stars, even though the images only amount to a pixel or two.

“From that single pixel you can actually glean quite a bit of information,” Harnett noted. “Scientists are trying to figure out if, from that, you can actually start to see if there are signatures of life on a planet, and really the initial work that they’re doing now is defining what are the signatures of life on Earth.”

The color of the light might tell you if you’re looking at ocean or continents. You might even identify the chemical components of a planet’s atmosphere or the types of molecules that are there.

Promotional material for the exhibit notes that, for finding life, “the color purple may be the key.” Harnett explained that that’s because red dwarf stars are plentiful in the universe, and they last a long time—long enough to give life plenty of time to develop. Whatever life appears would be faced with much redder light than we have here on Earth.

“Life will want to make use of it as much as possible, so it’s going to be either purple or black vegetation, instead of green, to be able to absorb as much electromagnetic radiation in the visible as possible,” Harnett said. She noted that, for the exhibit, they wanted to convey the speed of discovery—scientists verify new exoplanet discoveries practically every day. She also wanted to set expectations about what sorts of life might be found. Spoiler alert: it won’t likely be little green men like the ones on the socks Harnett wore when we spoke.

“It’s more likely that it’s going to be something like microbes or bacteria, because that’s actually what most of the life on Earth is. It’s not the most visible, but it’s the most plentiful,” she said.

Watch an exoplanet transit

One of the cool, hands-on features of the exhibit gives visitors a look at how scientists using the Kepler Space Telescope actually find exoplanets. A lighted globe represents a star, and you can spin a couple of planets around it.

“Then they have a sensor off to the side,” Harnett said—it’s actually inside a model of Kepler. “On a screen you can see the light from the star, and then as the planet transits you can see the dip” in the amount of light that arrives at the sensor.

“You get to actually play with that and explore what the change in signal associated with a planetary transit looks like,” she added.

Another interactive feature of the exhibit is a large touch screen that uses the NASA Eyes on Exoplanets program to let visitors explore planets.

Communicating science

The Mission: Find Life! exhibit is part of the VPL’s work funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which requires that a portion of funds be reserved for education and public outreach. VPL has created several science-on-a-sphere shows and trained numerous graduate students to be science communication fellows.

“The Portal to Current Research project is the culminating part of our work,” Harnett said. She has been involved with the Pacific Science Center’s communication fellows program for about a decade and said she feels effective communication about science is important.

“If scientists do a better job of communicating their science there would not be quite as much mistrust of science,” she said. “Everybody needs to get out more into the community and be doing more communication and writing for the general public, as opposed to just writing the peer-reviewed articles that will go into a journal and ten people will see.”

Harnett said they’re working to line up astrobiologists to offer talks during the exhibit’s run, especially during Astrono-May at the science center. Mission: Find Life! runs through September 4, 2017 at the Pacific Science Center.

What’s for lunch?

Feeding Future AstronautsAnother new exhibit called Feeding Future Astronauts is just across the gallery from the Portal to Current Research space. Growing food in space will take a lot less energy than carrying a bunch of it along, and the exhibit highlights some of the things NASA is trying. In the test garden of the exhibit they’re growing “outredgeous” lettuce, “Tokyo bekana” cabbage, and “Red Robin” cherry tomatoes. The latter will be a challenge because tomatoes require pollination, and as far as we know there are no bees in space. ISS astronauts are experimenting with hand pollination and how it will work in microgravity. The Red Robin might be a good variety of tomato to try in your Seattle garden; the ones in the exhibit were doing great for early April with only artificial light.


Podcast of our interview with Erika Harnett:

Share

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.

Planetaria

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.

Share

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.

Share