Category Archives: lectures

Astronaut Wilson blazing trails to space

It’s interesting that so many people involved in space and astronomy can point to a particular moment when they became interested in the field as a career. For astronaut Stephanie Wilson it happened when she was about 13 years old.

Stephanie Wilson

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson spoke about her inspiration for pursuing a career in aerospace during a talk to participants in the Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program Saturday at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I was given a school assignment to interview somebody who worked in an interesting career field,” Wilson recalled. “I was interested in astronomy at the time, so I interviewed an astronomy professor at Williams College.”

Wilson said she was fascinated by the opportunities to travel, do research, and teach to which a career in astronomy might lead.

“That was my first interest in space and my introduction to science,” Wilson said.

Wilson spoke Saturday at the Museum of Flight in a presentation to the Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program. The program, named after the Washington-native astronaut who died in the space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003, aims to provide inspiration and role models for students who are underrepresented in aerospace.

“It really started a thought process about what other opportunities were available and what were some other ways that I could function in aerospace,” Wilson said of her talk with the astronomy professor. “I also had an inerest in working with my hands and understanding how devices are put together, so I did decide to study engineering in college.”

Statue of Mike Anderson

This statue of astronaut Michael P. Anderson is outside the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

She earned degrees in engineering science at Harvard and in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas. Wilson held jobs in structural dynamics, robotics, and spacecraft attitude control before becoming part of the astronaut class of 1996. She was the second African-American woman to fly in space, going on three shuttle missions to the International Space Station. During her presentation Wilson showed video of highlights of her STS-131 mission in 2010. She has logged 42 days in space, and hopes to go again. She said she’d especially enjoy a longer mission during which she could spend six months on the ISS.

Michael Anderson was part of the 1995 astronaut class, and Wilson met and flew with him during her early days with NASA. She said that gives her some extra affinity for his namesake aerospace program’s goals.

“I really hope that people see that, as a woman and as an engineer, I tried to worked hard in that field, I did the best that I could to advance those fields,” Wilson said. “I also hope that people see that I tried to make a path so that people could follow in those footsteps and continue on their work. I hope that young people will see that anything is possible.”

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Mr. Eclipse says west may be best for 2017 total solar eclipse

Fred Espenak has earned the moniker “Mr. Eclipse” though almost 46 years of observing, predicting, and chronicling solar and lunar eclipses. Espenak spoke about The Great American Total Solar Eclipse, which will cross the United States in August 2017, during his keynote talk Saturday, Jan. 30 at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Fred Espenak

Fred Espenak, known as “Mr. Eclipse,” gave tips during a talk at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society for viewing the August 2017 total solar eclipse. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Espenak retired in 2009 after a long career as the head eclipse guy at NASA, where he maintained the agency’s eclipse information pages. His photography of eclipses has appeared in numerous magazines, and he’s often tapped by the news media to provide expert commentary about eclipses. He’s had a hand in several books about the topic.

Espenak was bitten by the eclipse bug when he was in high school. He had just gotten his driver’s license and went on a 600-mile road trip to watch and photograph a total solar eclipse from Windsor, North Carolina in March 1970.

“I was overwhelmed by the experience,” Espenak said. “It was like nothing I had read in the books. The spectacle of totality just cannot easily be conveyed through books, through writing, through photographs, through video.”

The total solar eclipse that will happen on August 21, 2017 will be the first one visible from the continental United States since 1979. We’re lucky to live in the Northwest because some of the best odds for clear weather for the event are close by. That’s not the sort of sentence we write often on Seattle Astronomy.

Madras in August

“In Madras, Oregon the prospects there are 35 percent [cloudiness] from satellite data and 24 percent probability of clouds from the nearest airport,” Espenak said. “Madras is favored with probably the best long-term climate along the entire eclipse path, and that’s why a lot of people are heading in that area.”

Madras is about 45 miles north of Bend in central Oregon.

Espenak and eclipsing partner Jay Anderson have done some exhaustive analysis of the 2,500-mile path the total eclipse will take across twelve states from Lincoln City, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Anderson crunched weather data from satellite photos and airport reports and found that, in general, our chances are better out west. The midwest is prone to thunderstorms in the summer and the east coast can get clouds because of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. But Espenak cautions about relying too heavily on history.

Where to see the eclipse

“I can’t tell you the magic place where the best weather is going to be,” he said. “All of these statistics that Jay has concocted and derived are based on climate and 20-year studies.”

“On eclipse day you don’t get climate, you get weather,” Espenak added. While he has no magic spot, Espenak plans to start his personal pursuit of the 2017 eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, which is near the center of the eclipse path and has pretty good weather prospects.

“Casper is the location where the Astronomical League will hold its 2017 annual conference, and of course that’s going to bring a lot of eclipse chasers there,” Espenak explained. “That’s also what will bring me there, the conference. But I’m not saying I’m necessarily going to watch the eclipse from Casper, because it depends on what the two-day weather forecast is before eclipse day. If the weather looks good, I’ll stay there. If not, I’m prepared to run.”

That is Espenak’s most important piece of advice. As with real estate, when it comes to total solar eclipses, location is everything.

“Mobility, mobility, mobility is the key to seeing the eclipse, especially in this day and age with the wonderful weather forecasts you can get 24 to 48 hours in advance,” he said. “The biggest thing to keep in mind is if some large frontal system is moving across the United States, because that’s going to be the exception to the rule that throws these weather statistics out the window. That’s what’s going to change everything. If there’s a big front coming through, you want to look at the forecasts and make sure that you are on the dry side and clear side of that front at your location on eclipse day.”

That might mean you have to drive hundreds of miles to get a view of the Sun on eclipse day. Espenak said just do it if you have to.

“It’s worth it to see the total eclipse,” he said. “It’s the most spectacular thing you will probably ever see with the naked eye.”

Don’t miss this eclipse

After a long drought, it’s interesting to note that another total solar eclipse will be visible from the United States in 2024. But Espenak cautioned that this is no reason to bail on next year’s event because of a cloud or two.

“You really need to take every opportunity, becuase you never know what hand you’re going to be dealt in terms of weather,” he said, noting that, even with all of the data available and his experience chasing eclipses, about a quarter to a third of the time the weather leads to disappointment.

“It’s just a fact of the game,” he said.

More resources

Books by Fred Espenak

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Astronaut visit, three club meetings this week

A talk by a visiting astronaut and three astronomy club meetings highlight the week on the Seattle Astronomy calendar, and two of the week’s featured events are on the west side of Puget Sound.

Astronaut Wilson speaks at MOF program

Stephanie Wilson

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson. Photo: NASA.

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson, the second African-American woman to travel to space, will give a talk at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6 at the Museum of Flight. Wilson, who flew on three shuttle missions, appears in recognition of Black History Month and in conjunction with the Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program, named after the Washington native astronaut who died in the space shuttle Columbia tragedy. The program brings in mentors for at-risk students and gives them exposure to aerospace education, improving their chances to graduate from high school.

The talk is free with admission to the museum.

Astronomy clubs meet

Three area astronomy clubs have their regular meetings scheduled this week.

The Olympic Astronomical Society gathers at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1 in room Art 103 on the Olympic College campus in Bremerton. The club has a half-dozen interesting talks on its agenda for the evening.

Tacoma Astronomical Society will meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2 in room 175 of  Thompson Hall on the campus of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Popular speaker Ron Hobbs, a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador, will give a talk about the DAWN mission to Ceres.

The Spokane Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5 in the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Guest speaker and program information hadn’t been published as of this writing.

First Friday Sky Walk

Pacific PlanetariumIf you haven’t checked out Pacific Planetarium in Bremerton, this Friday would be a good time to do so. The planetarium presents a First Friday Sky Walk each month, with the next being on Feb. 5. These family-friendly presentations give a look at what’s up in the night sky for the coming month. The first show is at 5 p.m. and it is repeated hourly through 8 p.m. Before or after shows you can explore the planetarium’s space science exhibits and activities. Volunteers from the Olympic Astronomical Society will be present to answer your astronomy questions.

Tickets are $3 and are available online or at the door. For those coming from the east side of the sound, the planetarium is less than a mile from the Bremerton ferry terminal.

Up in the sky

The Moon passes near Mars, Saturn, and Venus this week as the early-morning lineup of planets continues. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

Follow the Seattle Astronomy calendar to keep up to date on astronomy happenings in the area.

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SAS banquet Saturday, Leavitt play opens this week

An appearance by “Mr. Eclipse” and the opening of a play about noted astronomer Henrietta Leavitt highlight the events on this week’s Seattle Astronomy calendar.

SAS banquet

EspenakThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its annual banquet on Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue in Seattle. The keynote speaker for the event will be Fred Espenak, known as “Mr. Eclipse” for his long career tracking, viewing, and writing histories of eclipses. Espenak will speak about preparing to view the Great American Solar Eclipse, the total solar eclipse coming up in August 2017 that will be the first visible from the lower-48 since 1979.

Tickets for the banquet are sold out. Check our preview of the event from earlier this month.

Silent Sky opens at Taproot

FB_Silent_Sky_banner_lowline_700x259Silent Sky, the true story of the work of American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, will have its Northwest premiere when it opens Wednesday at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

The play, written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Karen Lund, will run through Feb. 27. Leavitt discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. Her work at Harvard College Observatory received little attention during her lifetime, which spanned 1868–1921, but her discovery was the key to our ability to accurately determine the distances to faraway galaxies.

Remembering fallen astronauts

It’s hard to believe that Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed seven astronauts. Oddly enough, all three U.S. space disasters happened about this time of year. This Apollo I fire killed three astronauts on Jan. 27, 1967, and the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Museum of Flight pays tribute to the fallen fliers with its annual astronaut remembrance weekend this Saturday, Jan. 30.

The museum plans displays and video looking back at the events. NASA JPL solar system ambassador Ron Hobbs and Museum of Flight Challenger Learning Center coordinator Tony Gondola will give a presentation at 2 p.m. Saturday remembering the astronauts who paid the ultimate price in the line of duty.

Ready, Jet, Go!

Ready, Jet, Go!The Pierce College Science Dome and KBTC public television team up Sunday, Jan. 31 for a special event to launch the new PBS KIDS astronomy show Ready, Jet, Go! The event runs from 10 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. and includes hands-on science activities and screenings of the program at 10 a.m. and noon in the planetarium.

TAS public night

taslogoThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The planned program will be about Apollo missions to the Moon. Club members will be on hand with telescopes for observing, weather permitting.

Up in the sky

The Moon passes near the star Regulus in the constellation Leo on Monday, Jan. 25 and flirts with Jupiter on Wednesday evening. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

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Radioactivity is good for you

While most of us tend to think that radioactivity is dangerous, experts say that, like beer, it’s actually good for you in moderation. We learned this while drinking radioactive beer at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard on Wednesday during the “radioactive edition” of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Radioactive beer

Barnes

UW prof. Rory Barnes makes a point about radioactive beer during his Astronomy on Tap talk at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

University of Washington astrobiology professor Rory Barnes did the math on the beer. Figuring that a pint is about 90 percent water, carbon is about ten percent of the rest. That works out to 4.5 grams, or about 200 billion carbon-14 atoms. Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, which Barnes said means that, in your glass, there’s about one atomic decay every second.

“You are all drinking radioactive beer,” he said. Nobody stopped. I was sipping on a red IPA which was delightful and may have been even a bit more radioactive than the others!

Barnes noted that while we think of Chernobyl or Fukushima when we think about radiation, the process of radioactive decay is pretty important.

Radioactivity is good

“If it weren’t for the radioactivity inside our planet we’d all be dead,” he said. Barnes explained that decay of uranium, thorium, and potassium inside the Earth produces about 50 terawatts of energy, or about 0.1 watt per square meter on the surface. That much energy could run our entire civilization if we could capture it. As it is, it drives geologic processes such as plate tectonics, which helps regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

“It’s really important that the planet does a good job of keeping it from building up to too high of a level or dropping down to too low of a level because then our Earth would not be habitable,” Barnes explained. “Without (plate tectonics) the carbon dioxide would either build up and our planet would roast or it would get drawn down and our planet would freeze.”

Earth is in a sweet spot as far as this internal energy goes. Mars generates less than half the energy Earth does and is geologically dead. Jupiter’s moon Io generates a whopping two watts per square meter and is wildly active volcanically. For life, conditions have to be just right.

Radioactivity may lead us to ET

Barnes said that this fact could help guide us to other planets that might be likely to harbor life. The trouble is that in order to determine a planet’s internal energy and radioactivity we would have to look inside a rock that is hundreds of light years away.

“It’s not really obvious how you do that, but that’s what we need to do,” he said. “I’m sorry to say that the answer is that we can’t at this point. This is the limit of our scientific research right now.”

The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to determine the elements in the atmospheres of distant planets. Barnes said it would make sense to use JWST to look at planets that are near where supernovae have occurred, because these stellar explosions spread the heavy elements needed for this sort of planetary energy generation.

Radioactivity and the ages of stars

Sakari

UW postdoctoral research associate Charli Sakari explains how the age of a star can be determined by the presence of radioactive elements. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

UW astronomy post-doc Charli Sakari also uses radioactivity in her work. During her Astronomy on Tap talk she explained how she determines the makeup of stars by looking at spectra of the light they emit. Different elements leave a clear signature in the spectrum, absorption lines created when atoms in a star’s atmosphere absorb certain color wavelengths.

“If we measure how dark those lines are we can figure out how much of those elements is present in the atmospheres,” Sakari said.

It is especially informative to look for uranium and thorium.

“Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, which is about the age of the Sun, whereas thorium-232 has a half life of 14 billion years,” Sakari explained. “These half-lives are long enough that we can use them to date the ages of the oldest stars in the universe.”

The oldest stars have few elements heavier than helium. Younger stars can contain many heavier elements fused in the cores of the generations of stars that preceded them.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle drew a big crowd to Bad Jimmy’s on a rainy Wednesday night. In fact astronomy and beer lovers were packed in so tightly, and were generating considerable warmth, that the staff popped the garage-type doors open to let in a little fresh air. One wag in the crowd speculated that the robust attendance may have been an indicator of the sorry state of network television. We would say that, in eleven months of events Astronomy on Tap, which is organized by astronomy graduate students at the UW, has delivered plenty of good information and tons of fun. The next gathering is scheduled for Feb. 24.

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Mr. Eclipse to keynote SAS banquet

People around the U.S. are already gearing up for what many agree is the coolest of astronomical events: a total eclipse of the Sun. The one that will happen on Aug. 21, 2017 will be the first since 1979 that will be visible from the lower 48 in the United States. Fred Espenak, known as “Mr. Eclipse,” will give a detailed preview of the eclipse at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society at 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue North in Seattle.

Espenak

Fred Espenak

If you want to know about solar eclipses, Espenak is the guy to ask. A retired NASA astrophysicist, he has seen 26 of them since his first in March of 1970, and he’s arguably the authority on the history of solar eclipses. He’s had a hand in writing The Fifty Year Canon of Solar Eclipses, 1986-2035 (Sky Pub Corp, 1987) and the Thousand Year Canon of Solar Eclipses 1501 to 2500 (Astropixels, 2014). He has contributed to three books about the upcoming 2017 event: a 2017 Eclipse Bulletin (Astropixels, 2015), Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 (Astropixels, 2015), and TOTAL Eclipse Or Bust!: A Family Road Trip (Astropixels, 2015). These last three have been recognized as hot products for 2016 by Sky & Telescope magazine. As you may have guessed, Espenak is the proprietor of Astropixels Publishing, too.

Reservations for the banquet are $45 and are available now to Seattle Astronomical Society members. Tickets for non-members will be available beginning Monday, Jan. 11 at $60. But why not join today, get the member price, save a few bucks now, and enjoy the other member benefits of SAS?

Other reading:

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Kick off the new year with Open Mic Science and a meteor shower

A meteor shower and an astronomy talk at Open Mic Science highlight the first full week of the new year on the Seattle Astronomy calendar.

Dark matter

biopenmicOpen Mic Science on Bainbridge Island has been hosting events monthly, except during the summer, for about three years now, but this month’s talk will be the first in the series about astronomy. Steve Ruhl, who is president of the Battle Point Astronomical Association, will give a talk titled “Cosmology, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy” at 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 4, 2016 at the Treehouse Café on Bainbridge.

Open Mic Science, A Bainbridge Science Café, is free. The series is based on the principles of Cafe Scientifique and is committed to the public understanding of science.

Quadrantid meteor shower

By EarthSky Communications, Inc., via Wikimedia Commons

The radiant point for the Quadrantid meteor shower. By EarthSky Communications, Inc., via Wikimedia Commons.

The Quadrantid meteor shower is the first of the year. The good news for meteor watchers in early 2016 is that the Moon will be a waning crescent, so it shouldn’t interfere much with the view. The bad news is that the peak for this particular shower is shorter than most. Look for Quadrantids any time after midnight and into the wee hours of Jan. 4 before dawn. This article from EarthSky has lots of information about viewing the Quadrantids.

Venus will have an exceptionally close encounter with Saturn on Friday, Jan. 8, and will also pass close to the Moon on Wednesday. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy run down other observing highlights for the week.

Club events

taslogoThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 5 in room 175 of Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound. The program will be the second of three parts on nucleosynthesis of elements.

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association plans its monthly planetarium show for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9 at the Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. The program, “The Solar-Powered Battle Point Sundial,” will explore the history, art, and science of sundials and celebrate the new sundial the group built in the park last year. Telescopes will be available for observing, weather permitting, and sundial shows for kids will precede the main presentation at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Free for club members, $2 suggested donation for non-members.

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