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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Astro Biz: Orion Building

Orion buildingMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is the Orion Building on California Avenue SW in West Seattle. The three-story structure was built in 2010, but the main, street-level retail space remained vacant until a little over a year ago, when West Seattle Runner moved out of its original store and into the Orion Building. The building also is home to West Seattle Orthodontics, Pacific Endodontics, innerspace healing center, and Elite Sports and Spine.

We chose the building for this week’s Astro Biz because the constellation Orion is well up in the southeastern sky as darkness falls on his eternal chase of the seven sisters, or Pleiades, across the night sky. We featured the Japanese name of the Pleiades, Subaru, a few weeks ago.

Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

Astro Biz index

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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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Astro Biz: Purple Moon shiraz

IMG_0946Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Purple Moon shiraz, available exclusively at Trader Joe’s. Purple Moon is not a winery; rather, it is an exclusive label for TJ’s created by Delicato Family Vineyards in Manteca, California. In addition to the shiraz, there’s also a chardonnay under the label and, at times, there has been a merlot as well.

Online reviews of the wine seldom get to stellar, but the price of Purple Moon is out of this world at around $4.

We went with the Moon with Astro Biz as a nod to the full Moon coming up on Saturday.

Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

Astro Biz index

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Astronomy on Tap Seattle goes radioactive

A stellar occultation and the monthly gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle highlight this week’s Seattle Astronomy calendar.

AOT goes radioactive

AoT_janAstronomy, beer, trivia, prizes, and fun are in store at Astronomy on Tap Seattle. The eleventh monthly gathering featuring free, informal astronomy talks presented by astronomy graduate students at the University of Washington is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20 at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. This month’s AoT is the Radioactive edition, with talks by UW astronomy Prof. Rory Barnes, titled only with the emoji on the graphic at left, and by UW post-doc Dr. Charli Sakari about “Radioactive stars as Cosmic Clocks.”

Astronomy on Tap is fun and informative, with lots of opportunity for chit-chat with gathered scientists. Bad Jimmy’s even has a brew named in honor of AoT: The Big Sipper Scotch Ale.

Moon occults Aldebaran

It’s cool when the Moon occults—moves in front of and blocks sight of—another bright celestial object. We’ll get a chance to see it happen this week, if the clouds cooperate, when the Moon blocks out Aldebaran early in the evening on Tuesday, Jan. 19. The brightest star in the constellation Taurus will seem to vanish at about 5:22 p.m. Seattle time, and will reappear on the other side of the Moon just over an hour later, at about 6:26 p.m.

Interestingly, this occurrence is not rare, but we don’t often have a good chance to see it. Right now we’re in the midst of a string of 49 straight months during which the Moon will occult Aldebaran, running through September 2018. But often the event can’t be seen from Seattle, and some of the times that it can be seen it happens during the day, which makes it more difficult to observe.

This column on EarthSky has all you need to know about the occultation, and more about Aldebaran, which used to be our pole star!

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.

EAS meets

The Everett Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23 at the Evergreen Branch of the Everett Public Library. As of this writing the program for the gathering had not been announced. Watch the EAS website or Facebook page for updates.

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Science and art meet in Silent Sky at Taproot Theatre

We love it when science and art meet, and its going to happen this month when Lauren Gunderson’s play Silent Sky, directed by Karen Lund, has its Northwest premiere from Jan. 27 through Feb. 27 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

FB_Silent_Sky_banner_lowline_700x259Silent Sky is the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, the American astronomer who 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. Silent Sky plays out against a landscape of fierce sisterly love, early feminism, universe-revealing science, and a time when humans were called “computers.”

Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson

Gunderson is a marvelous playwright who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have seen several of her other plays, including Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, the fascinating tale of Émilie Du Châtelet, the 18th-Century French physicist who not only translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica but also made profound contributions in fine-tuning Newtonian mechanics. Émilie usually bested Voltaire, one of her lovers, in battles of wits. We reviewed the 2011 production at ArtsWest in West Seattle and enjoyed it immensely. Silent Sky promises to be entertaining and enlightening as well. The cast includes Hana Lass, an outstanding local actor, in the title role.

Tickets to Silent Sky are available online.

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