Category Archives: lectures

Astronomy on Tap Seattle debuts in new venue

One of our favorite local astronomy events moves to a new venue for the first time and is the highlight of our calendar this week.

AoT April 27, 2016At this month’s Astronomy on Tap Seattle the newest University of Washington professor of astronomy, Jessica Werk, will give a talk titled, “The History of You: The Rather Tumultuous Past of the Atoms in Your Body.” UW graduate student Ethan Kruse will give a talk titled, “To Infinity and Beyond: The Mind-boggling Scale of the Universe.” The event will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27 at Hilliard’s Beer Taphouse in Ballard.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is a free monthly event organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. It spent its first year at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company but has outgrown that space, and is moving to the larger Hilliard’s just a hop and a skip up Leary Way.

Dawn in the asteroid belt

Ron HobbsThe Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27 at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue. NASA Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a presentation about our modern understanding of the belt of minor planets between Mars and Jupiter. He will discuss the Juno mission that is on its way to Jupiter and what we might learn about the giant planet’s role in the creation of the feature we call the asteroid belt.

Closeup of Pluto


Will Grundy. Photo: Lowell Observatory.

We won’t even have all of the data from Pluto back from New Horizons until late this year, but we’ve already learned a lot about the former ninth planet. Astronomer Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory will be at the University of Washington this week to talk about some of the scientific highlights and puzzles that the New Horizons science team is investigating. He will also briefly touch on plans for January 2019 when New Horizons will get the first up-close look at a small Kuiper belt object. The talk , part of the UW astronomy colloquia series, will be at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 28 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the UW campus in Seattle.

Up in the sky

You can catch transits of Jupiter’s moons Io and Europa on Friday evening. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have other observing highlights for the week.


Martians celebrate Yuri’s Night

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel in space back on April 12, 1961, and the Yuri’s Night World Space Party marking the occasion is Tuesday. The night actually should be a week or so as various organizations mess with the calendar a little and observe Yuri’s Night when it’s most convenient locally.

The MartianIn Seattle we’re calling in the Martians to celebrate Yuri’s Night. Aditya Sood, one of the producers of the film The Martian, will speak at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 16. Sood will discuss the making of the movie and talk about his favorite moments in the story. He’ll also attend a meet and greet reception after the talk.

The Yuri’s Night website lists scores of registered events. The only one in the state of Washington is at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 16 at Pearson Air Museum at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The free, family-friendly activities will include the construction and launching of pressure bottle rockets and a talk about space exploration from the Oregon L5 Society. Dr. Cameron Smith will be present with his home-built high altitude pressure suit and his high altitude helium balloon, from which he intends to test his pressure suit later this year. Weather permitting, the evening will finish with an outdoor star gazing tour led by a national park ranger.

The Portland State Aerospace Society, a student aerospace group at Portland State University with decades of experience in high-powered amateur rocketry, will host a Yuri’s Night Party at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 12 in the engineering building of Portland State University. Planned events include a “space race” with challenges and games, technology displays from local rocketry and space groups, engineering labs open to visitors, and refreshments. They will also screen the film First Orbit, a reconstruction of what Yuri would have seen on his journey.

Explore Mars

Pacific PlanetariumThe third Friday planetarium shows at Pacific Planetarium in Bremerton will be held Friday, April 15 with shows at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. Explore Mars from above, below, and all around as they compare it to the other rocky planets. The folks at the planetarium just updated their website, and they’re still working some of the bugs out. For example, I’m not able to find the “buy tickets” link that they used to have. We expect you can get tickets at the door. For people coming from the east side of the sound, the planetarium is less than a mile from the Bremerton ferry dock; you could walk it and avoid the pricey ticket for your vehicle on the ferry!

Club events

saslogoThe Seattle Astronomical Society plans its free monthly public star parties for 8 p.m. Saturday, April 16 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather cancels the star parties; watch the SAS website or social media for updates.

taslogoThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will host one of its free public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, April 16 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. There will be a presentation about space exploration, and observing if weather permits.

Up in the sky

The Moon will be near Jupiter next Sunday. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have other observing highlights for the week.


AoT Seattle celebrates 1st birthday, announces move to larger venue

Astronomy on Tap Seattle last month celebrated its first year of of bringing the latest astronomical research and good beer to interested space geeks. The party was a little bittersweet, as they also announced that the series will be leaving Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company for the larger Hilliard’s Beer Taproom, another Ballard watering hole.

AOT at Bad Jimmy's

Astronomy on Tap Seattle packed in the crowds in its first year at Bad Jimmy’s. The series is moving to the larger Hilliard’s Taproom in Ballard. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The move does not come entirely as a surprise. The early Astronomy on Tap events last spring were well attended, and they’ve grown in popularity to the point where nearly 140 people were sardined into Bad Jimmy’s for the monthly gatherings. Brett Morris, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Washington who is the emcee and one of the co-founders of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, hinted at a move in an interview we posted before the birthday event.

“It’s been a wild ride growing from our initially small size to something that we almost can’t handle,” said Morris. “We’re going to try our best to keep up with it as it grows through our second year.”

Kristin Garofali, another co-founder of AoT Seattle, thanked Bad Jimmy’s for their support over the first year, noting that they even let participants vote to name their imperial Scotch ale (The Big Sipper) and at the birthday party served up a delicious version of it that was aged for several months in rum barrels.

“To see how this has grown has been super amazing,” Garofali said. She added that they hope to keep doing smaller events at Bad Jimmy’s.

We recently attended one of the Pacific Science Center’s PubSci events at Hilliard’s, which probably has four times the floor space of Bad Jimmy’s.

Supernova impostor

Breanna Binder gave an interesting talk at the March 23 birthday event, about a supernova impostor that turned out to be an x-ray binary system. An amateur astronomer spotted what looked like a supernova in 2010, but it kept churning out x-rays long after it faded visually. Binder said that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

“Supernova 2010da, not only is it not a true supernova, it may be the youngest possible x-ray binary,” Binder said, noting that it theoretically takes between four and five million years before an x-ray binary begins emissions. They’d seen none prior to 2010. “The 2010 eruption might have been the birth of a brand new x-ray binary, which is something that we had never witnessed before.”

The story was featured on the popular website IFLScience. Binder will give a talk about the supernova impostor at the UW Astronomy Colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the UW campus in Seattle.

Planet 9

One of the other more interesting mini-talks of the evening was made by Dave Fleming, who took a look at the possible Planet 9. Astronomers have recently speculated that there’s a ninth planet in our solar system, a so-called super-earth that is somewhere between Earth and Neptune in mass and about 700 astronomical units out. Fleming noted that a fair chunk of the exoplanets discovered so far are in that mass range.

“If there is one of these guys lurking in the solar system, if we could actually detect it with a telescope and send a probe to it, it would give us a huge insight into the planet-formation process,” Fleming said. “If this ninth planet does exist, maybe it’s some relic of the planet-formation process that got scattered out by Jupiter.”

Former planet 9, and more

Morris showed a large number of photos that New Horizons shot at Pluto. He had given a talk back in July, on the day of the mission’s fly-by, and shared the very first pictures it beamed back to Earth. Though it will continue transmitting data for quite some time, we already have a sizable collection of pics from the system. Among the most interesting discoveries from the new batch: a large canyon around the equator of Pluto’s moon Charon that may indicate an underground ocean.

Other talks at the birthday event covered supermassive black holes, fast gamma-ray bursts, how to find a Tatooine, and funky, planet-shaped megastructures.

The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle event is planned for April 27 at Hilliard’s. The program has not yet been published.


U.S.-Japan Space Forum meets this week in Seattle

Leading space policy experts from the United States and Japan will meet in Seattle this week and their public symposium is the highlight of our calendar of events.

The U.S.-Japan Space Forum is a standing committee of experts from the two countries who examine critical developments and opportunities for bilateral and multilateral space-related activities. Reflecting the increasingly important role of the private sector in national space capabilities, the forum integrates the perspectives of a wide array of experts, including corporate, academic, and other non-government players.

As part of its meeting this week the forum will present a public symposium at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 16 at the Museum of Flight. The symposium will include a panel discussion about the threats and opportunities in the space industry, moderated by Prof. Saadia Pekkanen of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. Pekkanen is co-chair of the forum. The agenda is online.

The event is being sponsored by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, the Museum of Flight, the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, and the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Meeting and workshop from SAS

saslogoThe Seattle Astronomical Society has a couple of public events on tap for this week. The society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Local astrophotographer Mark de Regt will talk about how he moved from viewing in his yard to doing remote imaging with equipment located in the South Australia desert.

On Sunday the club will host a free public observing skills workshop, “Stargazing in the City,” aimed at helping new and intermediate observers learn and understand the sky. The session will be held at 2 p.m. March 20 at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the UW. Planned topics include how to identify stars and constellations, understanding astronomy lingo, use of binoculars and star charts, star hopping, and what to observe from light-polluted city skies.

Tacoma public night

taslogoThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its free public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19 on the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The topic for the evening will be ancient astronomy. If weather permits society members will be on hand with telescopes for observing as well.


Pacific PlanetariumPacific Planetarium in Bremerton will present its monthly third Friday astronomy talk March 18, with shows at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. As of this writing the topic had not been published. Admission at the door is $5. There’s a full slate of shows set for the weekend at the Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center. Check the Seattle Astronomy calendar for details.

Art on the Moon

NASA photo.

NASA photo.

The Giant Steps art exhibition and contest continues Saturday and Sunday at Seattle’s King Street Station, where it will be open from noon until 6 p.m. both days. The event challenged students, artists, engineers, architects, designers, and other space enthusiasts to imagine and propose art projects on the surface of the Moon. Their submissions will be on display at the station weekends through the end of March. Admission is $10.

Up in the sky

Venus will pass very close to Neptune on Sunday. 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.


Happy birthday to Astronomy on Tap Seattle

Astronomy on Tap Seattle has spent the last year confirming that astronomy and beer together make a great combination. We will celebrate AoT’s first year in operation with a gala event at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 23 at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. The free astronomy talks have drawn good crowds from the beginning, and the most recent events have seen attendees packed shoulder-to-shoulder into Bad Jimmy’s.

AOT Seattle March 23“It’s been a wild ride growing from our initially small size to something that we almost can’t handle,” said Brett Morris, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Washington who is the emcee and one of the co-founders of Astronomy on Tap Seattle. “We’re going to try our best to keep up with it as it grows through our second year.”

Morris said they had a hunch before they started that the audience was out there. Astronomy on Tap started in New York and has spread to a total of eight cities, and events elsewhere have drawn big crowds. Austin, Texas, for example, regularly attracts 400 people to its events in an outdoor beer garden.

“We knew that there was a big drive for this kind of event, especially in nerdy cities like Seattle, so we knew that the availability of participants was good,” Morris said, “but we didn’t really know if we’d be able to scale up the way we wanted or to reach the number of people that we needed to.”

They set out in hopes of being able to attract 50 people who would attend regularly to hear astronomy talks and enjoy a brew. They’ve accomplished that without any sort of paid advertising.

Brett Morris

UW grad student Brett Morris talked about the history of Pluto and the first photos from New Horizons at Astronomy on Tap Seattle July 15. He’ll give a Pluto update at the March 23 event. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It seems that word of mouth among nerds is really effective. The social networks have been all that we needed to get the word out,” Morris said. “The enthusiasm that we’ve had from the audience has been unbelieveable and unrelenting, and the beer is quite delicious.”

There will be a special treat at the March 23 event. Astronomy on Tap Seattle participants named one of Bad Jimmy’s beers, a Scotch ale that popular vote dubbed “The Big Sipper.” Several months ago the brewers stowed some of that ale in old rum casks.

“We’re going to tap those barrels for the one-year anniversary and serve this barrel-aged imperial Scotch ale in special commemorative glasses, that you can also purchase, that have astronomy on Tap logos on them,” Morris said.

There will be a series of short talks at the anniversary with updates on astronomy discoveries made in the last year, including the latest photos from Pluto and the possibility of the existence of Planet 9. Morris said that one of the great things about being an astronomer is that when an idea such as Planet 9 comes out, there probably is an expert close by who can lead the discussion about how plausible it is. Astronomy on Tap is essentially an effort to take that discussion public.

“As an astronomer you get to meet a lot of people, daily, who think that astronomy is great and would love to talk to you about space, and would love to talk to you about life in the universe,” Morris said, “but it’s rare that you really encounter people who spend their free time trying to learn more about astronomy and physics, and that really is the core audience of Astronomy on Tap.”

“I am consistently surprised by how many people are passionately interested in learning astronomy and physics at a level deeper than you might find in an astronomy magazine,” he added.

It has been a boon for people who write about astronomy for fun. It’s great to have a monthly topic, and the discussions and trivia contests that are a part of Astronomy on Tap are fun and informative.

The March 23 event begins at 7 p.m. at Bad Jimmy’s in Ballard. You might want to arrive earlier than that to get a good seat! It’s free, but bring beer money.


Finding exoplanets by detecting magnetospheres

Scientists are developing new and more refined ways to find and characterize exoplanets, and it involves a familiar local phenomenon. Magnetospheres of distant planets may help us spot them, and could tell us a lot about their potential for habitability.

Matt Tilley, a University of Washington graduate student working on a doctoral degree in computational space plasma physics and astrobiology, gave a talk last week titled, “The Magnetospheres of Solar System Planets and Beyond.” The lecture was part of the Pacific Science Center’s PubSci series at the Hilliard’s Beer Taproom in Ballard.

Matt Tilley

Matt Tilley discussed magnetospheres and how they might help us detect habitable exoplanets. The event was March 2 at Hilliard’s Beer Taproom in Ballard, part of the Pacific Science Center’s PubSci series. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Tilley explained that any planet that has a strong magnetic field will have a magnetosphere generated by the stellar wind from the star it orbits. Earth qualifies.

“The solar wind is actually an electrically charged gas that carries with it a magnetic field,” he said. “It’s an electrically charged magnetic wind blowing off of the Sun at a million miles an hour.”

The magnetosphere is essentially a bubble where the stellar wind is deflected around the planet.

“It literally is the force field for Earth, and it shields the Earth from being blasted by this electrically charged magnetic wind.”

Some recent research suggests that we may be able to spot the magnetospheres of exoplanets. To date we have found some 1,800 confirmed exoplanets, most of them by the Kepler mission which watched for slight dimming of stars which would occur as a distant planet transits the stellar disk. Usually the change in the light curve is pretty uniform, but in some cases it is not. Tilley noted that material from the stellar wind can accumulate in a bow shock at the magnetosphere, and this could be enough to show up in the Kepler data.

“If you have varying amounts of density of this electrically charged magnetic gas, this stellar wind, piled up against the bow shock, it will enter and start blocking some of the light before the planet ever enters the frame of the shot,” Tilley said.

There’s still debate about whether this is actuallly what is happening, but Tilley said it would be quite a useful discovery.

“It would be our first observation of a remote magnetic field,” he noted. “That tells us something about the composition, it tells us somethigng about the mass, the rotation rate—we can infer multiple planetary characteristics from just the magnetic field, just from this distance, this one measurement of light.”

That data, plus the existence of the magnetic field, could tell us a lot about a planet’s potential habitability.

There’s another possible way to discover exoplanets because of magnetospheres. Tilley noted that the transit method only works for edge-on systems in which the transit of planets can be detected from our vantage point. It’s extremely difficult to spot exoplanets visually because they’re so dim in contrast to their host stars. However, Tilley said that the magnetosphere generates strong signals called auroral radio emissions that shoot out from the planet’s poles. Planets generate much stronger radio waves than do stars, and so for face-on systems looking for these radio waves may well be a way to detect exoplanets.

Tilley said it’s an exciting time to be working in the field.

“Astrobiology is really the study of the conditions on a planet, the stellar conditions and the planetary conditions that make the situation right for life to form and right for it to survive long enough to evolve into something interesting,” he said.


Astronomy reduced to pixel archive science

A University of Oregon professor of physics frets that astronomy is drowning in data that threatens to reduce it to a “pixel archive science.” His solution is something right out of Star Trek.

Dr. Gregory Bothun made a presentation titled, “Big Data, Discovery, and a New Kind of Astronomy: Are We Prepared?” at the February meeting of the Rose City Astronomers at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. Bothun noted that efforts such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey provide the stuff of discovery.

Gregory Bothun

Prof. Gregory Bothun of the University of Oregon spoke about astronomy’s challenges with big data to a meeting Feb. 15 of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The great thing about surveys is that they produce a catalog of calibrated sources which serve the community on a worldwide basis and involve more people in astronomy,” he said, adding that, for this reason, surveys should come before more targeted observations of individual objects.

“We’ve done it the other way around, mostly because of some kind of fetish with large-aperture glass,” Bothun said. “We have spent far more money building large telescopes than we have on building real, useful surveys that serve the community.”

Bothun pointed out that sometimes a big telescope will do a survey, such as Hubble’s ultra-deep-field work, and this leads to tremendous advances.

“Every time an instrument does a calibrated survey, science moves forward much more rapidly than some individual working with some piece of aperture doing a follow-up observation,” Bothun said.

A pipeline problem

While Sloan was useful, Bothun said, it also illuminated a problem. It took eight years to get the survey’s 20 terabytes of data into the hands of scientists.

“We’re not good at pipeline processing of survey data in a timely manner to feed a community,” Bothun said. “We shouldn’t have to wait eight years to go from acquired pixels to reduced data to analysis. It should just happen instantly. To the extent that it doesn’t is the extent that we’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot and turn astronomy into a science that archives pixels.”

3point2billionpixelsThe problem is about to get more challenging. A coalition of institutions is building the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile. The LSST camera will have 3.2 billion pixels, and at 16 bits per pixel, each image it captures will be a whopping 6.4 gigabytes.

“Try to take a selfie of that and send it to your mom over wifi,” Bothun quipped. The challenge, though, is no laughing matter. It’s difficult to move that much data around, and it’s hard to look at it, too.

What you see is not all you get

“Every pixel in astronomy has a source in it. We need to see every pixel. We’re nowhere close to that,” Bothun said. A short-term answer may be visualization walls, commonly called viz walls. These are banks of high-definition monitors that scientists could use to display and manipulate vast amounts of data in one place. This would be perfect for looking at such large, high-resolution images. If you’re seeing a scaled-down version of a photo, Bothun said, the really interesting stuff may simply get averaged out. In addition, it’s better to look at a entire image at native resolution. This will take some training of our brains, but they’re capable.

“Your brain is a great visualizing machine. It’s a great parallel processing machine,” Bothun said. He said if it wasn’t we couldn’t drive on I-5. Think about how it would be if you tried to consciously track the speed and location of every other vehicle around you on the freeway. It’s not possible.

“Your brain does this automatically,” Bothun said. “It’s about time we we started to do data analysis in a forum that matches your brain’s algorithm.”

This would allow us “to take on extremely challenging problems, which is what leads to discovery in science,” he added.

Star Trek to the rescue

Viz walls may not be enough when it comes to the data from LSST. Its ten-year survey of the universe will generate a mind-boggling 60 petabytes of information. To meet the challenge, Bothun’s office is working on advanced visualization tools, a sort of three-dimensional viz cloud.

“It could be the holodeck,” Bothun said in reference to the virtual reality facility in Star Trek. “That’s how you should think of this.”

In this viz cloud trained humans could look at data in real time, and quickly sort out and discard what isn’t useful. After all, Bothun noted, the scientifically interesting data is usually just a tiny fraction of what is collected, and there’s no good reason to be pack rats with the rest.

“If all we’re going to do is take the raw data set and write it to disk, this is not a useful instrument,” he said of the LSST. “We have to do business differently if we want to optimize discovery.”

Big data is here, and visualization of this sort will help astronomers, but it will go beyond that; It can help in fields from finance and business to medicine, climate change, and counter-terrorism. To make effective use of the information available will require solutions to the pipeline and database challenges.

“All of this is absolutely vital for observational astronomy to continue to progress and continue to engage in discovery,” Bothun concluded.