Category Archives: lectures

The universe is big, even in small spaces

The universe is pretty vast even in confined spaces. That was the lesson given on opposite ends of the size scale at the most recent Astronomy on Tap Seattle event hosted at Hilliard’s Beer Taproom by University of Washington graduate students in astronomy.

Ethan Kruse

UW astronomy graduate student Ethan Kruse said the universe is a big place, and it will take some technological advances to reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Grad student Ethan Kruse was all set to give a talk that concluded we would never even get out of our solar system because it is way too big. Then a few weeks before the talk Stephen Hawking and friends announced their plan for getting all the way to neighboring star Alpha Centauri in 20 years through a project called Breakthrough Starshot.

“If I’m disagreeing with Stephen Hawking,” Kruse recalled thinking, “I should probably stop for a minute and reevaluate my thesis.”

Kruse remained on point about the mind-boggling scale of the universe. He said that if our Sun was the size of a basketball sitting on the stage of Hilliard’s, Earth would be the size of a sesame seed in the back of the room, 84 feet away, and the orbiting Moon would be the size of a grain of salt. At this scale Jupiter would be a golf ball on the Ballard Bridge and Pluto would be a grain of salt about a kilometer away—about the distance to Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company, which served as the venue for Astronomy on Tap Seattle for its first year. Alpha Centauri, in this set-up, is some 4,400 miles away—in London or Tokyo.

Kruse pointed out that the fastest spacecraft we have built so far, New Horizons, took a decade to get to Pluto.

“We went from Hilliard’s to Bad Jimmy’s in ten years,” he observed. “Don’t worry guys, we’re going to go to London in 20 years!”

The idea behind Starshot is that a super-light craft with a light sail could be accelerated by lasers to up to 20 percent of the speed of light. Kruse outlined a litany of technological challenges with the concept, including the ability to generate sufficient laser power, creating an adequately reflective material for the sails, being able to accurately aim the lasers at great distances, and shielding the craft from possible collisions with space debris. Still, he concluded, the idea is worth exploring, especially since the same technology could be used to explore the solar system more quickly.

“This is honestly the most realistic thing that anyone has proposed so far for getting to any other star system,” Kruse said.

It will, however, take a great deal of research and development.

“Don’t necessarily count on this before you die,” Kruse concluded. “Space is big.”

Jessica Werk

UW astronomy Prof. Jessica Werk says your atoms took quite a journey to become you. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Professor Jessica Werk, one of the newest hires onto the astronomy faculty at the University of Washington, also used sports equipment to illustrate her talk, “The History of You: The Rather Tumultuous Past of the Atoms in Your Body.” Werk pointed out that atoms are mostly empty space. If the nucleus of an atom were the size of a baseball, the nearest electrons would be a football field away.

After the Big Bang the universe was mostly light atoms: hydrogen and helium and a few others. Where did the carbon and calcium and other heavier stuff we’re made of come from?

“All evidence suggests that these atoms were fused in the cores of very, very massive stars twelve-and-a-half billion years ago,” Werk said. “Since then they have been on an absolutely crazy, long, sometimes violent journey to end up in your body 93 million miles from the Sun on this speck named Earth.”

Those atoms took a somewhat circuitous route to get here.

“Sixty percent of the atoms in your body we at one point outside of the galaxy in the circumgalactic or intergalactic medium,” Werk said. We don’t really know how they got here, but the best theory is that the atoms tend to cool off, and the gas rains back down on the galaxy, collapsing in star formation or becoming part of the debris disk out of which planets form.

There’s some mind-bending scale at the atomic level, too. Werk pointed out that there are 1023 atoms in a breath of air.

“Each breath-full of air contains more atoms than the number of breath-fulls of air in the entire Earth’s atmosphere,” she said. “What that means is that it is very likely that the last breath of air you just took contained at least one oxygen atom from the first breath of air that you ever took as a human being on planet Earth.”

That reminds us of a recent post by Ethan Siegel on the blog Starts With a Bang, in which he concluded that we all probably share atoms that were once part of King Tut or any other historical figure you might name.

AOT crowd

Astronomy on Tap Seattle outgrew Bad Jimmy’s, and pretty well packed the larger Hilliard’s at its first event there in April. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The matter that makes up your physical body is part of a huge universe that is continually evolving and recycling the material in it into new forms,” Werk concluded.

The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle event is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 25 at Hilliard’s. Astronomy Prof. Emily Levesque and graduate student John Ruan will give talks about some of the strangest celestial objects ever discovered or theorized. People outnumbered seats at the April event, and so the organizers suggest that you can bring a lawn chair and create your own premium seating.

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AstronoMay continues at PacSci with two talks this week

Saturday was Astronomy Day, but the Pacific Science Center is taking the whole month to celebrate AstronoMay! Two interesting talks highlight the calendar for the week.

Brett Morris

Brett Morris

Brett Morris, one of the co-founders of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, will give a presentation titled, “Hunting For Life in the Universe” at a Teen Science Café at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 at the center’s PACCAR IMAX Theater. Morris will introduce the science of astrobiology and how it seeks to measure and locate the conditions necessary for life in the universe. He’ll talk about telescopes and techniques used to explore other worlds and to try to track down life on them.

Dr. Will Grundy, the lead investigator for the surface composition team of New Horizons, will give a talk titled, “Pluto and Charon Up-close” at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, May 22 at the PACCAR Theater. Grundy will show close-up images from the mission and discuss his research, which involves icy outer solar system planets, satellites, and Kuiper belt objects using a broad variety of observational, theoretical, laboratory, and space-based techniques.

Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand at the center Saturday and Sunday with solar telescopes for viewing of the Sun. AstronoMay also includes planetarium shows, screenings of the movie A Beautiful Planet 3D, and other activities. Check the AstronoMay calendar page for a full listing.

Club events

saslogoThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a talk titled, “Juno to Jupiter: Piercing the Veil.” The Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in July. Over the ensuing year and a half, it will peer through the Jovian cloud tops and provide a deeper understanding of the composition and structure of the Solar System’s largest planet. Hobbs will explain what exciting science to expect from NASA’s latest outer planet mission.

Rose City AstronomersRose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 16 at the OMSI auditorium in Portland. It will be the group’s annual astronomy fair, with a swap meet, info booths, and brief show-and-tell sessions.

TJO open house

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryThere will be an open house at the University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 18. Students Cale Lewandowski and Jason Busnardo will be giving a talk about how to overcome the challenges of a trip to Mars. Reservations are strongly recommended for the talks, which are held in a small classroom in the observatory and often fill up early. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will offer tours of the observatory and a look through its vintage telescope if weather permits.

Up in the sky

Mars is nearing opposition and Jupiter remains well placed for observing. 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.

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Transit of Mercury highlight of the week; maybe the year

The most anticipated observing event of the year happens Monday morning, May 9, as Mercury will transit across the face of the Sun. The transit begins at 4:13 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, so it will be under way when the Sun rises in Seattle.

NASA illustration.

NASA illustration.

The weather gods are taunting Seattle astronomers, as usual. After a pretty good run of mostly clear weather, we awoke to rain on Mother’s Day morning. The forecast is for mostly cloudy cloudy skies around sunrise Monday, turning to sunny by noon, when the transit will be over. So, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see the transit constantly from sun-up to finish, but also looks pretty unlikely that we’ll get skunked.

There are several transit-observing events that we know about. Seattle Astronomy will be down at Seacrest Park near the West Seattle Water Taxi dock with a telescope; join us and have a look! The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold an observing event at Snoqualmie Point Park near the town of Snoqualmie. (UPDATE: The SAS event has been cancelled due to inclement weather.) There will be transit viewing and programming at the Pierce College Science Dome in Lakewood. Rose City Astronomers and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry will be observing the transit from the OMSI site in Portland. Check the links for details.

A couple of things to keep in mind about the transit. First, don’t ever, ever, ever look at the Sun without proper protection. Regular sunglasses won’t do the trick. You need special eclipse glasses. Second, Mercury is so small that you will need magnification to see it, and that means a telescope also equipped with the proper solar filters. Be safe out there!

Read our preview article about the Mercury transit.

AstronoMay continues

Pacific Science CenterAstronoMay continues at the Pacific Science Center this week. There will be two interesting lectures on Saturday, May 14. At 10 a.m. Elena Amador, a graduate student at the University of Washington, will talk about the search for water on Mars. Then at 2:30 p.m. Dr. Sandeep Singh, a planetary scientist from the Bear Fight Institute in Winthrop, will speak about Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Singh has worked on NASA’s Rosetta, Cassini, and DAWN missions.

Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand much of the day Saturday with solar telescopes for observing the Sun, and the center is offering planetarium shows and other astronomy-related programming throughout the week. Check their calendar for details.

PacSci Podcast about AstronoMay:

Club events

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will host one of its public nights beginning at 9 p.m. this Saturday, May 14 on the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The program will be about black holes, and there will be observing if the weather permits.

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association has several events on Saturday, May 14 at its Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. At their BPAstro Kids shows at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. youngsters will build their own planets and check them for life. Following at 8 p.m. astronomer Steve Ruhl will examine exoplanets: How we see them, what they tell us about our solar system, and how we might know if there other habitable worlds out there.

Check out our recent article and podcast about BPastro Kids:

Up in the sky

The Mercury transit is the big astronomical event of the week. 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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AstronoMay kicks off at PacSci

Pacific Science CenterWhy settle for one astronomy day when you can have AstronoMay? Astronomy Day is May 14, but the Pacific Science Center has the whole month packed with astronomy activities. The first is coming up at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in the center’s Willard Smith Planetarium, which will hook up with the Adler Planetarium and others around the country for an interactive, networked lecture, “From The Big Bang To The Multiverse And Beyond.” The talk will be given by Dr. Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, a noted cosmologist credited with coining the term dark energy. Turner will delve into what we know and also tackle some of the mysteries and puzzles of cosmology today.

Other lectures planned for AstronoMay:

  • Elena Amador, a UW graduate student in Earth and Space Sciences, presents, “Search for Water on Mars” May 14 at 10 a.m.
  • Dr. Sandeep Singh, planetary scientist at the Bear Fight Institute, presents “Saturn’s Hazy Moon, Titan” May 14 at 2:30 p.m.
  • Dr. Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory presents “Pluto & Charon Up-Close” May 22 at 2:15 p.m.

The lectures are free with admission to the Pacific Science Center, but tickets are required and available online.

On Saturdays during May, and on Sunday, May 22, volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be set up on the courtyard of the center with solar telescopes for safe viewing of the Sun. All month long there will be exhibits and hands-on activities about space and astronomy, and planetarium presentations (our calendar has the schedule) and IMAX movies, including A Beautiful Planet 3D.

AstronoMay website and calendar.

Club news

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyArea astronomy clubs are busy this week. The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3 in room 175 of Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound. There will be a presentation by Michael Laine, president of the Liftport Group, which is drawing up plans for a lunar elevator. The club will hold one of its free public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 7 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The TAS student group will make a presentation about the solar system. Observing will happen if weather permits.

Spokane Astronomical SocietyThe Spokane Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Stefanie Milam, a project scientist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, will give a presentation on either the James Webb Space Telescope or recent discoveries of sugar and ethanol in comets. They note the latter represents all of the makings for a wild star party.

Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its 12th annual spring Camp Delaney Star Party May 4-8 out at Sun Lakes State Park near Coulee City in Eastern Washington. Club members already on site recommend industrial strength bug protection as the mosquitos are out in force. Note the preregistration was required for the event.

Supernova impostor

Brianna Binder

Breanna Binder. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Breanna Binder of the University of Washington will give an astronomy colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in the Physics/Astronomy Auditorium on the UW campus in Seattle. Binder will talk about supernova 2010da, which is not really a supernova, but an interesting object with a high-luminosity, variable X-ray emission. The X-ray emission is consistent with accretion onto a neutron star, making SN 2010da both a supernova impostor and likely high mass X-ray binary. Binder gave a talk about x-ray binary systems last August at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s monthly meeting.

Space Day at Museum of Flight

moflogoThursday is not only Cinco de Mayo, it is Space Day at the Museum of Flight. It’s part of the Museum’s free first Thursday from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Local astronomy clubs will be on hand with information, and telescopes for observing if weather permits.

Open House at TJO

There will be an open house at the University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 4. As of this writing the schedule for the events talks by undergraduate students had not been published online. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to offer observatory tours, and perhaps a peek through its vintage six-inch 1892 Warner and Swasey telescope with Brashear objective.

Up in the sky

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks this week. Learn about the shower and other observing highlights for the week from This Week’s Sky at a Glance by Sky & Telescope magazine or The Sky This Week from Astronomy.

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Gravitational wave discovery ushers in new era in astronomy

“This is beginning a new era in astronomy,” said Ethan Siegel about the publication in February of a paper announcing that scientists had detected gravitational waves. Siegel has taught physics and astronomy at Lewis & Clark College and the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon. He is creator of the science blog Starts With a Bang, and is the author of Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific, 2015). Siegel gave a talk at this month’s meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland about what he calls the discovery of a lifetime.

Dr. Ethan Siegel, creator of the "Starts With a Bang" blog, gave a talk about the discovery of gravitational waves to the Rose City Astronomers April 18. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Ethan Siegel, creator of the “Starts With a Bang” blog, gave a talk about the discovery of gravitational waves to the Rose City Astronomers April 18. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This was something, when it was first proposed, that was really taken to be a preposterous consequence of a theory and something that we never really thought we were going to be able to test,” Siegel said. “We have gone in 101 years from pure theory to concrete, direct detection of gravitational waves.”

Einstein’s theory of relativity states that mass and energy bend spacetime, and that’s why objects orbit each other. Relativity explained anomalies in the orbits of planets in our solar system, but Siegel said there is an “extra weird” effect because the orbits decay.

“Another consequence of Einstien’s relativity is that as things spiral in, and it takes a long time to do, but as they do they emit a special type of radiation; they emit radiation that goes through the fabric of space itself,” Siegel said. “This is gravitational radiation.”

It takes way too long for that to happen here in the solar system. For Earth’s orbit to decay completely and merge with the Sun would take 10150 years, according to Siegel. He said we’ll have to look elsewhere to see the effects happen on human-length time scales.

“You need to find heavy masses; heavier mass in relativity means a stronger effect,” Siegel said. “You need them to have small distances, where small distance is a few kilometers, not a few million miles. And you need them to orbit at fast speeds, where fast is kind of close to the speed of light.”

Luckily these conditions exist. Black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars can do the trick; the gravitational waves detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) last fall were generated by merging black holes. One of those black holes started out at 36 solar masses and the other at 29. After the merger they weighed in at 62 solar masses. That’s simple arithmetic: 36+29=65; what happened to the other three solar masses? Siegel said, oddly enough, this was a prediction by Einstein as well. It’s the flip side of e=mc2.

“When these two black holes merged, three solar masses, about five percent of the total mass, was converted into pure energy,” he said. “That energy is the gravitational radiation and is why we here on Earth were able to detect this huge event of two black holes merging from over a billion light years away.”

Siegel is amazed that we were able to figure the mass, spin rate, merging speed, mass loss and other characteristics of these distant objects.

“We learned all of this information from one 20-millisecond signal that moved two laser arms by less than 10-18 meters,” he marveled. “What I’d say we have now is a whole new way to discover our universe.”

Siegel, an entertaining and informative speaker, is scheduled to give another talk at the October 2016 meeting of Rose City Astronomers. He will discuss his book Beyond the Galaxy.

That way is improving rapidly. The LIGO detectors at Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, are being tweaked to even greater sensitivity. New detectors are planned for Italy, Japan, and India. Siegel said the ultimate would be to build three huge LIGO detectors in space, forming an equilateral triangle in Earth’s orbit and having detector arms hundreds of millions of kilometers long.

“If you do that, you can not only watch things merge with supermassive black holes, you can find mergers of ultramassive black holes,” Siegel said. We might even be able to spot gravitational waves from cosmic inflation within the light of the cosmic microwave background. Siegel said if that happens, it would prove that gravity is a quantum force.

“There’s no way to make these fluctuations unless gravity is inherently a quantum force,” he explained. “The process that makes these fluctuations is a quantum process.”

Siegel said it’s a thrilling time to be involved in astronomy.

“This is the first time we’ve seen something astronomical without using a telescope or light of any type,” he said. “This is the dawn of astronomy beyond light-gathering telescopes.”

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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

Grundy

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.

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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.

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