Tenth anniversary of the beginning of the end for Pluto

It’s hard to believe it has been a decade already since Mike Brown and his Caltech team discovered the dwarf planet Eris and inadvertently kicked off the brouhaha that eventually resulted in Pluto being “demoted” from its status as our solar system’s ninth planet. Brown and company discovered Eris on January 5, 2005, from images shot in October 2003.

How I Killed PlutoSome years later we read three books about the demotion of Pluto: Brown’s How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming; Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet; and The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference by Alan Boyle, science editor for NBCNews.com and author of Cosmic Log.

All three books are great reads; I reviewed them in 2011 and noted that the authors voted 2-1 in favor of Pluto’s demotion as a planet. Boyle cast the lone dissenting vote. Brown’s book was especially interesting for its inside story of how the discovery came about, and how the search for Trans-Neptunian Objects changed his life. It may well be worth a re-read this month on the ten-year anniversary of the discovery.


The Super Bowl of astronomy hits Seattle

They’re calling it the Super Bowl of Astronomy, and while we don’t expect cheerleaders shaking their pom-pons or legions of blue-clad number twelves chanting “caw” at a plenary talk about Fermi bubbles or at a poster session about emerging multiwavelength views of planetary nebulae, some 2,600 astronomers, planetary scientists, educators, and journalists will hit the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle for the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society today through Thursday.

aas_225web_bannerSeattle Astronomy will be on hand, though this is the stargazer’s version of a 415,000-square-foot candy store; with 1,900 scientific presentations crammed into the five days, it’s hard to know where to start! We’ve sketched out a tentative schedule, starting with the welcome address Monday morning and a talk by University of Colorado astronomer Daniel Baker about new discoveries about the Van Allen Belts. We won’t likely call it quits until after a town hall session about the Hubble Space Telescope Thursday afternoon.

A couple of satellite events have sprung up because of the presence of so many astronomy professionals in town. Tuesday evening at Town Hall Seattle the Springer Storytellers will feature five astronomers and their tales of exploration, part of Springer Publishing’s Story Collider project. Wednesday evening at the Museum of Flight NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn will talk about the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018. Friday the Boeing Employees Astronomical Society will hold its holiday banquet, to be keynoted by Robert Nemiroff, founder of the popular website Astronomy Picture of the Day. Follow the links for details about these events.

Information about the AAS meeting is online at the AAS website. If you want to follow on social media, conference participants will be using the hashtag #aas225 with their posts. The AAS is on Twitter at @AAS_Office, and on Facebook as well.


Comet hunter Machholz to keynote annual Seattle Astronomical Society banquet

Don Machholz

Comet hunter Don Machholz will keynote the Seattle Astronomical Society annual banquet Jan. 24.

The Seattle Astronomical Society always seems to score interesting speakers for its annual banquet, and this year is no exception. Renowned comet hunter Don Machholz will give the keynote talk at the 2015 banquet Saturday, January 24, at the Swedish Club, 1920 Dexter Avenue North in Seattle.

Machholz is a prolific comet finder; he has eleven comet discoveries listed to his credit. The first was Machholz 1978L, discovered in September of that year after more than 1,700 hours of observing. The most recent was comet C 2010 F4 (Machholz). All of his discoveries have been made visually, quite a record in these days of digital cameras, computers, and space telescopes joining in the hunt.

Machholz is also considered to be one of the creators of the Messier marathon, an challenge to astronomers to observe all 110 objects in Charles Messier’s catalog in one night. Machholz has written a guidebook, The Observing Guide to the Messier Marathon: A Handbook and Atlas, published by Cambridge University Press in 2002.

Machholz has written several other books. Decade of Comets chronicles the comets discovered visually between 1975 and 1984. An Observer’s Guide to Comet Hale-Bopp came out in 1996.

It should be a most interesting evening.

Tickets to the banquet have been available for members of the Seattle Astronomical Society for several weeks, and went on sale to the general public today. The cost is $40 for members, and $50 for non-members. But why not sign up? Membership is just $35 annually. The Jan. 24 event will begin with a happy hour at 5 p.m., followed by a buffet dinner at 6 p.m. and the program at 7 p.m.

Further reading:

Don Machholz website


Spotting black holes

Black holes remain among the more mysterious objects in the universe. Though John Michell and Pierre-Simon LaPlace first posited their existence back in the 18th century, nobody has ever actually seen a black hole. Dr. Sean O’Neill, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Physics at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, attempted to shed some light on these objects that don’t emit any during a talk at this month’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Steve O'Neill

Dr. Steve O’Neill of PLU spoke about black holes at the December meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

O’Neill’s talk was titled “If We Can’t See Black Holes, How Do We Know They Exist?” His answer to the question boiled down to the notion that scientists have not yet come up with any other plausible explanation for some of the phenomena that they have seen.

The professor noted that traditional methods of observing astronomical objects simply are not practical for viewing black holes.

It would not work to send a spacecraft for a look. O’Neill pointed out that the nearest likely black hole is some 1,300 light years away from Earth. It would take a craft like Voyager about 25 million years to get there, and then, even if it arrived with its power source and transmitter intact, you would still have to wait 1,300 years to receive any messages about its findings.

“Traveling there is a terrible option,” O’Neill understated. “The direct visit option is bad even for things in the outer solar system, let alone things outside of our solar system.”

Imaging is also well nigh impossible, O’Neill said, and not just because a black hole, by definition, does not emit any light. Black holes, though incredibly massive, are also dense and quite small. Today’s telescopes don’t offer adequate resolution for a visual or photographic look; it would take a scope about ten thousand times the size of Hubble to spot the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Other methods offer some hope. O’Neill says we might well be able to spot the gravitational effects of a black hole, especially one circling another or dancing gravitationally with another massive object. In such cases general relativity predicts gravitational waves in space-time, and these might be observed directly. The approach is to use laser interferometry to detect changes in light wavelength. O’Neill says it’s a complicated process from which it is difficult to separate observational noise.

“In practice, there have been no detections of this phenomenon happening yet, even though most people think it probably does happen,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill says gravitational lensing also holds some promise, especially as observing equipment gets better.

“It’s tough to pick out the individual little black holes, though,” he said, noting that the method is used to look at distant, large, massive objects that lens other distant objects.

Though we haven’t yet seen a black hole, there’s plenty of evidence that infers that they exist. O’Neill shared data from observations of stars orbiting the center of our galaxy, seen in the infrared to cut through the dust blocking our direct visual view. Using Newton’s laws on the data from a number of years to reconstruct the orbits of the stars suggests they’re going around something that is about 3.7 million times more massive than our Sun. Whatever it is, we can’t see it because it doesn’t emit any light of its own.

“It’s tough to come up with a good alternative of what this could be,” O’Neill said. “It’s tough to imagine that gravity just goes wrong at this one point, for some reason, at the center of our galaxy.”

“That’s where we get a lot of direct evidence for what we think is the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way,” he concluded.

Looking at other objects leads to similar conclusions. Cygnus X-1 is a huge source of x-rays that is pulling material from a donor star nearby. The material holds a great deal of potential energy because of the high gravity of the system.

“All of that energy has to be converted into some form,” O’Neill explained. “Some of it is certainly kinetic, because stuff will speed up, but some of it is also going to be thermal energy. It will hit other little particles of gas, all of this will heat up to the point that it starts emitting x-rays, and that’s the stuff that we think we can see.”

One of O’Neill’s research interests is computer modeling of the jets of material often spotted shooting out of the centers of galaxies, such as Centaurus A. He shared a number of these simulations, in which material plummets toward a presumed black hole, doesn’t quite fall in, and then shoots away at great velocity. The models can be rotated to simulate views from various angles and compare the results to actual observations. While it’s an active area of research, O’Neill says most scientists are on the same page with their thinking.

“The reigning theoretical model for these jets by far—there’s essentially no viable alternative—is that fundamentally they’re powered by black hole gravity at the source,” he said.

While O’Neill notes that computer simulations like the ones he creates are way cheaper than observing, he expects that actual observations of gravitational waves from merging black holes are not far off. He also thinks that high-resolution x-ray and radio observations will allow us to see the disks of material around black holes within his lifetime.


Gifts for the astronomy enthusiast

‘Tis the season for gift giving, and Seattle Astronomy gets its fair share of requests for advice on what to give to those who are interested in astronomy and to those who might be.

Back in October a friend asked my recommendation for a telescope to give as a birthday gift for his 10-year-old godson. My friend had done some research and was leaning toward the Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector Telescope. That’s a perfectly good choice, but I suggested he consider the Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian at the same price. Two reasons: the Dob gives you great bang for the telescope buck, and it’s super easy to operate. Just drag it outside, point, and look. Dobsonians, with no computer drive, are not so useful for photography, but they’re great for looking at stuff. I’m a Dob guy, and have owned the eight-inch version of this Orion for many years.

I wrote about choosing gift telescopes two years ago, and that advice still stands. Astronomical binoculars make a good gift for someone just starting out in astronomy. The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer is a must-have book for those trying to figure out what would be the best telescope for them, and it will remain a valuable reference for years to come.

There are all sorts of gadgets astronomy buffs will love. There’s a selection of ideas, some of our personal favorites, in the Seattle Astronomy Store. Check it out.

When you visit the store you’ll notice there are a lot of books there. Given Seattle’s propensity for cloudiness, reading about astronomy and space is often more possible than actually going outside and looking at the night sky. We cover a great many author talks, and highlight their books here on the blog. Some of the best of the last year:

Marketing the MoonMarketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek. As a journalist and public relations practitioner, I was especially interested in this account of the PR effort behind the Apollo program and the race to the Moon in the 1960s. You don’t have to be a part of the space or journalism industries to enjoy this marvelous volume; any space nut will find the stories and examples of Apollo memorabilia fascinating. Our review.

Sally RideSally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, by Lynn Sherr. Author Sherr, who was part of the space-reporting team for ABC television, spoke about the book at Town Hall Seattle this summer, and we covered the talk and wrote about it here. Ride’s story is a fascinating one, and it’s interesting to ponder why it took the U.S. more than 20 years after its first “manned” space flight to send a woman along for the ride. It’s not unusual for women to fly in space now; Sherr’s book is a marvelous biography of their groundbreaker.

The Edge of the SkyThe Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is, by Roberto Trotta. Another author who came through Town Hall this year, Trotta did a thought experiment that turned into a book: Could he explain what he does—he’s a theoretical astrophysicist—using just the one thousand most commonly used words in the English language? This was a tall order, given that he couldn’t use such words as universe, galaxy, and planet. The answer to the question is yes, and he does it without dumbing down the content. Trotta also is a funny and engaging speaker. Our recap of his talk is here.

Stars Above, Earth BelowStars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks, by Tyler Nordgren. Nordgren, a professor, author, photographer, and artist, keynoted the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society in January and talked about his book, something of a travelogue for stargazing in national parks. Nordgren spent time in a dozen different parks over the course of 14 months, and came to realize that the preservation of the land that prevents development in the parks also, almost by accident, preserves the precious resource of truly dark skies. It’s a growing part of the appeal of the parks, articulated by the slogan “Half the park is after dark.”

The End of NightFinally, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Lightby Paul Bogard, has been out for a couple of years now, but it’s one of the best books I’ve read recently about astronomy. It’s not so much about the science as it is about the spiritual aspects of our connections to the night sky. It’s a travelogue, it’s poetry, and it’s a thought-provoking essay on our use of artificial light. I recommend the book as well as Bogard’s blog most enthusiastically. It is a pleasure to read his stuff.

If you’re looking for space-themed books for kids, Emily Lackdawalla at the Planetary Society recently blogged a review of 14 possibilities. A classic she didn’t mention is The Stars by H.A. Rey, the author of Curious George. Not just for kids, really, this book, originally published in 1952, is a great help in learning about the constellations and other celestial objects.

Find more gift ideas for space and astronomy enthusiasts in the Seattle Astronomy Store.


Asteroid mining: not such a crazy idea

When Bellevue-based Planetary Resources, Inc. first went public in April of 2012 with its plans to mine astroids for water and minerals there were many who reacted with an “Oh, pshaw.” Less than three years later, the successful landing by the ESA Rosetta mission of its probe Philae on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, out in the far reaches of the solar system, makes it all seem like a more plausible idea.

“I love seeing the success of this mission because it proves that what we are doing is technically feasible today,” said Caitlin O’Keefe, director of marketing for Planetary Resources, on Tuesday during a Science Café talk sponsored by the Pacific Science Center at The Swiss Pub in Tacoma. O’Keefe added that Philae and Rosetta are ten-year-old craft that have spent a decade traversing six billion kilometers of space. Technology has advanced during that time; think about what your cell phone couldn’t do in 2004.

Caitlin O'Keefe

Caitlin O’Keefe, marketing director for Planetary Resources, spoke about asteroid mining at a Science Café event Tuesday in Tacoma. Photo borrowed from Facebook.

O’Keefe and everyone at Planetary Resources understand the skepticism. She quoted company co-founder Peter Diamandis as saying, “The day before something is a breakthrough it is a crazy idea.”

They’re creating the technology today to get themselves to that breakthrough. Advances in spacecraft control, avionics, communication systems, propulsion, and observation will help them identify and then get to resource-rich asteroids.

Unfortunately, one of their first tests of the technology went up in flames. Their Arkyd 3 satellite, which was to try out some of their new systems, blew up with the Antares rocket back in October.

“This was a bummer for our team to watch,” O’Keefe said. “There was a big hooray when it launched, and some not so nice words when it exploded six seconds later.”

But, she added, they’ve been able to shrug it off, in large part because their philosophy is to build a lot of small and relatively inexpensive spacecraft rather than putting all of their space-bound eggs into one billion-dollar basket.

“This is going to be a very important part of the space industry going forward: the ability to accept failure,” she said.

Many of the questions from the patrons of The Swiss during the talk centered around the financial aspects of mining in space. O’Keefe noted that there is a lot of potential. For example, one target astroid is thought to contain some $500 billion worth of platinum, which if mined would be more than has been extracted from Earth to date. While that could be a big payday, their first target is a more common substance: water. Water is good for drinking and protection from radiation, and can be turned into rocket fuel. And O’Keefe pointed out that it’s a lot cheaper to pick up water in space than it is to take it with you. To launch a bottle of water into low-Earth orbit you need about 50 times its mass in rocket fuel, and that pencils out to about $20,000. The savings add up, and it will make long space missions much more fiscally possible; a spacecraft can go all the way from Earth to Pluto on the same amount of fuel it takes just to launch into low-Earth orbit.

Mining may well be easier in the zero gravity of space, too, and the methods for doing it are pretty straightforward.

“Building this technology will be extremely difficult,” O’Keefe admitted. “I’m not downplaying the difficulty of a complicated system, but the theory of how to extract it is pretty well known.”

O’Keefe invited us all to join the asteroid mining effort. You can go to Asteroid Zoo, a venture launched this summer by Planetary Resources and Zooniverse, to help comb through data and identify potentially resource-rich asteroids.


Partial solar eclipse seen in Seattle

The partial solar eclipse of October 23, 2014 was a highly successful skywatching event by Seattle standards. Much of the first half of the eclipse was visible as it dodged clouds around the city. I viewed it from the sidewalk in front of Seattle Astronomy world headquarters in West Seattle.

Few observers held out much hope for seeing the eclipse. The weather forecast had been for rain and clouds for much of the Northwest. In the days leading up to the eclipse area astronomy message boards carried some talk of road trips to sites with better potential for clear skies, such as Yakima or other parts of Eastern Washington, though one seasoned observer wrote, “I have no confidence in finding anywhere drivable that reliably will have clear skies.” Clearly, a man who has been through this before.

Sure enough, we awoke on the morning of the eclipse to heavy rain and solid, dark, gray cloud cover. There seemed scant likelihood we would be seeing the eclipse. But by mid-morning the rain let up, and at about 11:37 a.m. I sent out this tweet and photo:

The blue sky held for the most part, and though the exact moment that the eclipse began was obscured by a cloud, the sun was out in full glory not long into it.

Eclipse start from Seattle Astronomy HQ.

Just minutes into the partial solar eclipse of Oct. 23, 2014. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It didn’t last long. Not more than 15 minutes later a robust thunderstorm, including lots of hail, blew through the area, obscured the Sun from view and drove us for cover. The storm didn’t last long, but the cloud cover remained for a while. Perhaps 20 minutes to half an hour later, we spotted a patch of blue sky to the west and urged the Sun to steer into it. It did! For the next hour or so the eclipsing Sun played hide and seek with us, dodging under cloud cover and then peeking back out again.

Maximum eclipse happened right about 3 p.m., and about 15 minutes after that one of the neighbor kids who had come over for a look through the Seattle Astronomy telescope and eclipse shades spotted a flash of lightening. A rumbling thunderclap followed a few seconds later, and within a minute or two it was raining and hailing hard. Alas, we’d seen the last of the eclipse for the day. Another blue patch finally arrived right around 5 p.m., old Sol popped into view, but the disk of the new Moon had passed by and the eclipse was over.

The eclipse was especially interesting because of the giant sunspot aimed right at us. You can see it in the photos, which, I admit, aren’t that great. They were made with a little point-and-shoot camera stuck right up to the telescope eyepiece. I don’t claim any real talent for astrophotography, but like to grab a few snapshots, just to show that I was there.

Solar Eclipse

The partial solar eclipse of October 23, 2014, right around the time of maximum coverage as seen from Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The eclipse put me in mind of the 2012 Venus transit, when bad weather and a desire to see what was a once-in-a-lifetime event convinced me to drive as far as Corning, California for a chance to see the Sun. (Read the accounts of the trip down and the transit day elsewhere on this site.) This time I decided to stay home, and it paid off. While I didn’t see the whole eclipse, I saw enough to enjoy and appreciate this awesome spectacle, and was able to share it with some neighbors too!

I can’t help but laugh at myself because I still audibly gasp most times at the start of these sorts of events. Seeing the solar eclipse or the Venus transit begin just when the scientists said it would just amazes me, and the spectacle itself is so awesome. Even just spotting Saturn again after it has been out of view, or up too early in the morning, tickles my astronomical fancy. The universe is such an amazing place.

I’m happy that Seattle weather gave us a break and let us have a good view of a great celestial show.