Busy week ahead on the astro calendar

There’s something for everyone on this week’s astro calendar, with a new scale model solar system opening, two great lectures, a theater/science mashup, and a variety of club events on the docket.

A new scale model of the solar system that you can explore through geocaching opens today, May 1, on Bainbridge Island. Check out our article or podcast from last week to learn more.

Proxima b

You’ve probably heard by now of the discovery of a planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. (If not, check out our article featuring UW professor Rory Barnes discussing the possibility of the habitability of Proxima b.) The UW Astrobiology Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute will host a panel discussion about the planet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 3 in room 120 of Kane Hall on the university’s campus in Seattle.

The panelists include Guillem Anglada-Escude, lead discoverer of the planet and University of London lecturer; Victoria Meadows, University of Washington astrobiology professor and primary investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory; Barnes; and Olivier Guyon, University of Arizona professor and project scientist for the Subaru Telescope.

It’s free but registration is required; as of this writing there were still some tickets available.

Searching for Martians

Bob Abel talkMars may have been habitable before Earth was, and might be still. So where are the Martians? Olympic College professor Bob Abel will give a talk about the history of Mars and the prospects for past, present, and future life there at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 4 in room 117 of the Engineering Building on the Olympic College campus in Bremerton. It’s free.

Abel gave a talk on the same topic last week at Astronomy on Tap Seattle. Our recap of that event is coming soon.

Astronomy Day at MOF

The Museum of Flight celebrates Space Day during its Free First Thursday at 5 p.m. May 4. Local astronomy clubs will be on hand with information about their activities and they’ll have telescopes for observing if the weather cooperates. A special presentation at 6 p.m. will take a look at the technical challenges of getting Apollo to the Moon, and what that means for present-day space efforts. Tony Gondola, a solar system ambassador and coordinator of the museum’s Challenger Learning Center will be the speaker.

The event runs through 9 p.m.

Mashing up science and theater

Centrifuge2Infinity Box Theatre Project will present Centrifuge 2 at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6, at Stage One Theater on the North Seattle College campus. Centrifuge pairs science writers and playwrights to craft brand-new one-act plays featuring current science. Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer participated in the event last year and will be one of the science writers again this time around. Check out our article and podcast from last year to learn more about Centrifuge and Infinity Box.

Open house at TJO

The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington will hold one of its bimonthly open houses at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 3. The topic for the evening’s talk had not been published as of this writing. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to offer tours of the observatory and, weather allowing, a look through its vintage telescope.

Club events

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 2 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma. The topic will be club participation in viewing the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.

The club will also offer one of its free public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor session will be a presentation about constellations. They’ll break out the telescopes for observing if the sky is clear.

The Spokane Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Club member Nick Monkman will talk about the ABCs of finding objects in the night sky.

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans its monthly free public star parties for 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather causes cancellations, so watch the website for updates.

You can always scout out future events on our calendar page.

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Hunting the geocached solar system on Bainbridge Island

Most of us have experienced a scale model solar system. A new one with a different spin will open up May 1 on Bainbridge Island. To find the Sun and planets in this solar system, you’ll have to conduct a successful geocache hunt.

“Everybody who does it can collect the entire set of planets and custom stamps in a passport book, but the trick is, they have to go to each planet to do it,” said Erica Saint Clair, proprietor of Rosie Research, which creates fun science learning adventures for kids and families. Saint Clair also leads the BP Astro Kids education program of the Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA). It was through the latter that the idea for the geocache scaled solar system model came about.

Geocached solar system

Adventurers can explore a geocached solar system on Bainbridge Island beginning May 1. Find the treasure chest at each planet and get a stamp for your passport. Visit every planet to win cool prizes! Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

About a year ago the BP Astro Kids made solar systems on a string, but it was a challenge to create an exercise that represented both the proper sizes of planets relative to each other, as well as the scale of the distances between them at those sizes. The BPAA children’s librarian suggested just making an island-wide solar system using geocaching. Saint Clair originally laughed at the idea—thinking that’ll be easy!—then rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Now it’s about to go live. The Sun is about five feet in diameter in this solar system.

“It fits really well on the island, and it gives a really good perspective for people about the size of our solar system,” Saint Clair said.

“You can walk downtown Winslow and go through our terrestrial planets, and then Jupiter and Saturn and the other guys are a little further away,” she added. “You definitely need a car for Pluto because it’s the other end of the island.”

Geocache patch

Visit every planet on Bainbridge Island and get this cool patch. Photo: Rosie Research.

The key piece of documentation for the hunt is the solar system passport. The passport includes information about the project and interesting facts about the Sun and each planet. Most importantly, it gives the coordinates of each of these objects. Go to Bainbridge Island, plug the coordinates into a GPS device—the map app on your smart phone will do, but there are also special geocaching apps—and the search is on! At each spot geocachers with a good eye will find a hidden treasure chest with a special stamp for their passport—that’s how you’ll prove you’ve been there. Some local businesses will be handing out the passports, and some are offering prizes like ice cream or pizza for those who collect certain stamps.

“It’s not only a geocache hunt, it’s also a fun afternoon activity with treats,” Saint Clair said.

Geocachers who visit every planet can bring their passport to one of the monthly BP Astro Kids events and receive a colorful completer’s patch as the reward for their dedicated pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Saint Clair said that a goal helps motivate many kids to finish a project like this; her own daughters are the user testers for many of her projects, and it works on them! She’s hoping that the challenge of the hunt will inspire interest in the project.

Challenge of scale modeling

There are a lot of big numbers in astronomy, and Saint Clair said that’s a challenge for this sort of endeavor.

Erica Saint Clair

Erica Saint Clair presents BPAstro Kids programs for the Battle Point Astronomical Association.

“It’s really difficult to scale a model, because either the sizes are so unfathomable or the distances are so unfathomable, and to bring one into focus inherently blurs the other,” she said. She hopes that using informative passport books will help convey more information that might not work at the scale of the model.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association will hold an Astronomy Day celebration at Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. this Saturday, April 29. Saint Clair said kids and families can pick up their passports and take a solar system tour that day in preparation for the solar system geocache hunt going live on Monday.

If you’d like to support the educational efforts of Rosie Research, visit their Patreon Page and become a patron of science.


Podcast of our interview with Erica Saint Clair:

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Astro Biz: Nova apartments

Nova apartmentsMany 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 Nova apartments in West Seattle. Nova is a pretty new complex, a built green community that is just across from the West Seattle Family YMCA, in the middle of the triangle formed by 35th Avenue SW, Fauntleroy Way SW, and SW Alaska Street.

We like that they lean into the astronomical in their marketing, too, with “stellar” living and out-of-this-world amenities in West Seattle. We’re not sure if we’d want to live in something that is named after a catastrophic explosion, though!

More info:

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Mars events on tap for week of Astronomy Day

There are a couple of Mars-themed events on the docket for Red Planet buffs this week, plus star parties and Astronomy Day celebrations.

AOT April 26Astronomy on Tap Seattle returns to Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 26. Two talks are on the schedule. Bob Abel, a professor of applied physics at Olympic College, will give a lecture titled, “Where are the Martians?” Abel will look at the history and current state of our nearby neighbor, Mars, and examine the possibilities of life in its past, present, and future. University of Victoria doctoral student Benjamin Gerard will discuss his research on “Imaging Worlds Beyond Our Solar System.” He’ll show pictures of other worlds and explain how we use the most powerful telescopes and specially designed optical systems to distinguish an exoplanet from the overwhelming glare of its host star.

Abel, by the way, is scheduled to give a talk on a similar topic at Olympic College on May 4.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is free, but buy some beer. Bring your own chair to create a front-row experience in the Peddler beer garden!

Red Planet insider

There’s more Mars in store when NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Terry Himes gives a talk at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 29 at the Museum of Flight. Himes is a veteran of many Mars missions, such as the InSight and Phoenix landers. He’s also worked on Dawn, Deep Impact/Epoxi, and more. Learn what it takes to get there, and back.

Star parties

There are several star parties scheduled for the weekend. The monthly Covington Community Park Star Party is planned for 9 p.m. Friday, April 28 at the park in Covington. The star party is a joint effort of the Seattle Astronomical Society, Boeing Employees Astronomical Society, and Tacoma Astronomical Society. It’s weather dependent, so watch the websites for more information.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association will celebrate Astronomy Day beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 29 at their Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. Daytime activities include viewing the Sun, a walk through the solar system, and tours of the observatory. Once it gets dark they’ll look at Jupiter and other celestial delights if weather permits.

OMSI and Rose City Astronomers in Portland celebrate Astronomy Day with star parties at two locations: Rooster Rock and Stub Stewart state parks in Oregon. They’ll get going at sunset, weather permitting.

You can always scout out future events on the Seattle Astronomy calendar.

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New Apollo exhibit opens at Museum of Flight next month

There’s a lot of excitement these days over at the Museum of Flight, where they’re working hard to complete their new Apollo exhibit by the time it opens for visitors on May 20, 2017. While the exhibit bears the name of the Moon-landing program, Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the museum, notes that it will cover lots of ground from the start of the space race after World War II through the post-Apollo 1970s.

Apollo“We’re trying to re-focus on the Apollo story, re-integrate Pete Conrad’s artifacts, and showcase these amazing artifacts that we received from NASA by way of Bezos Expeditions: actual, Apollo-flown, F-1 engines,” Nunn said.

We covered the event in November 2015 when Jeff Bezos formally presented the engines to the museum, restored after an amazing search, discovery, and recovery from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Nunn said the museum recently received a new artifact on loan: an intact F-1 engine that was originally set to launch Apollo 16, but was switched out after a fire. It took some fancy engineering to get an engine 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide and weighing nearly 20,000 pounds into the gallery. It will provide an interesting contrast to the engines Bezos recovered.

“Our F-1 engine survived a million and a half pounds of thrust and burning rocket fuel, it survived a strike by lightning, and then a plummet from the edge of space down to smash into the ocean, and then 40-plus years on the bottom of the ocean,” Nunn noted. “That is an artifact!”

See a bit of the first airplane

The engines are just one of several of what Nunn calls “crown jewels” in the Apollo exhibit, which also includes Deke Slayton’s astronaut pin and a fabulous new addition.

“We are receiving on loan from Neil Armstrong’s family a couple of pieces of the original Wright Flyer that were carried to the Moon by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11,” Nunn said. “They’re just little, tiny bits, but the first airplane made it to the Moon and we’re going to have a couple of those on display, so there’s going to be quite a few one-of-a-kind, amazing artifacts in this exhibit.”

Astronaut humor

Geoff Nunn

Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the Museum of Flight, at an event when the Apollo F-1 engines were formally presented to the museum in late 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The exhibit will also bring back many items from astronaut Pete Conrad that were part of the past Rendezvous in Space exhibit that was displaced at the museum by the construction of its Alaska Airlines Aerospace Education Center. Among the inventory is a cap Conrad wore on the Apollo 12 mission. It’s a standard type of navy cap, but Conrad had a propeller added.

“That cap is really indicative of Pete’s personality,” Nunn laughed.

The cuff checklist Conrad used on the Moon also will be on display. These lists spelled out the various steps for different tasks the astronauts would do on the Moon. For Apollo 12, the ground crew also slipped in some cartoons and Playboy playmate photos. Nunn said it was quite a challenge to tell that story while keeping the exhibit G-rated.

“When it comes to amazing and notable and hilarious things, Apollo 12 is really a gold mine as far as Apollo missions go,” he said.

More cool stuff to come

Many of us of a certain age remember exactly where we were and what was going on when we watched the Moon landings on television in the midst of the tumultuous 1960s.

“One of the things that we’re really trying to capture is just how much the space program interplayed with the context of what was going on at the time,” Nunn said of the exhibit. He noted that the opening of the Apollo exhibit is just the first chapter in the museum’s storytelling about the program. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is doing some remodeling, and has created a traveling exhibit called Destination Moon that will visit four cities. It will be at the Museum of Flight from March 16 through September 2 in 2019.

“On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing—July 20, 2019—you can see Neil Armstrong’s space suit and the Apollo 11 command module here at the Museum of Flight,” Nunn beamed. “It’s going to be awesome.”


The museum’s annual Space Fest will coincide with the opening of the exhibit May 20 and 21. The schedule for a variety of events is still being finalized.

Podcast of our interview with Geoff Nunn:

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Krauss and the greatest story ever told (so far)

We’re living in the best of times and the worst of times according to best-selling author and award-winning theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. The best is represented by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which has helped reveal the Higgs particle that ties together the standard model of physics. The worst is reflected by the president’s proposed federal budget that could derail physical science research. Krauss spoke about his latest book, The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017) last week at Town Hall Seattle. It was an informative and humor-filled lecture.

Lawrence Krauss

Author and physicist Lawrence Krauss spoke April 12, 2017 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This is really humanity at its greatest,” said Krauss of the discoveries at the LHC, which represent the work of thousands of scientists from all over the world. Krause’s talk was a walk through the history of discovery in physics, going all the way back to Plato and along the way bumping into Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Fermi, Feynman, and more before arriving at quantum mechanics, the standard model, and the Higgs field.

“The real world is so different than the illusion that we see,” Krauss said. “The world of our experience is an illusion, and it’s an amazing story how we, over centuries, have been able to cut through that illusion to see reality underneath.”

We’ll leave the full tour of advances in physics to your reading of the book and, for this article, focus on Krauss’s take on the problems and challenges facing science today. He feels that much of the current mistrust of science stems from a common misconception that tomorrow’s science will make today’s obsolete, and that therefore scientific facts are little more than a subjective fad. Krauss said that is completely wrong.

Truth is eternal

“What is true today—and by true in science we mean what has satisfied the test of experiment today—will always be true,” he said. “Newton’s laws may have been supplanted at the extremes of scale by general relativity or quantum mechanics, but to describe baseballs or cannonballs or even rocket ships, they’re as true today as they were then, and whatever new physics we discover in quantum gravity or whatever, it’s not going to change. At the scale of humans, it’s got to revert to Newton’s laws. A million years from now, whatever we learn in science, if I let a ball go it’s going to fall as described by Newton’s laws.”

Krauss also let us in on what he jokingly referred to as a well-kept secret.

“Scientists are human,” he said. “That means they have prejudices and biases and pigheadedness, and that’s fine. What’s really neat is that science forces them in the right direction, kicking and screaming. The individual scientists are full of nonsense, but the scientific process protects us from that nonsense.”

Searching for a better toaster

Science is almost inextricably tied to technology, and Krauss frets that this causes people to wonder what new discoveries are “good for.”

“People don’t ask that for Mozart concertos or Picasso paintings or Shakespeare plays,” Krauss noted, “but it’s all the same thing. It’s what makes humanity worth living for. The fundamental importance of science, to me, is not the technology, but the fact that it forces us to confront reality and change our picture of our place in the cosmos. That’s what good literature, good music, good art do. That’s what the process of learning and growing as a society is all about.”

End of story?

The “So Far” in the title of the book is a reference to the notion that the story of discovery will continue to get more amazing if we keep asking questions. But Krauss is worried that we may not be able to do so. He noted that the president’s proposed federal budget would cut the Department of Energy—the primary funder of research in the physical sciences—by 20 percent, and eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museums and Libraries. That would save around $1.82 billion, while Krauss notes that the same budget would provide $2 billion to start building a wall between the United States and Mexico.

“To protect us against these unimaginable horrors, we’re willing to cut these things in our society that are so central,” Krauss observed. “We are in the process of getting rid of what is important for making the nation worth defending.”

“Art, literature, music and science are part of the greatest story ever told, and when we give that up in the name of defense, what are we really killing?” he asked.


More books by Lawrence Krauss:

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Astro Biz: Meet the Moon café

Meet the MoonMany 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 Meet the Moon café in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood. Meet the Moon is right on Lakeside Avenue South, which as you might imagine is right on the shore of Lake Washington. Unfortunately, the café has no water views, as its windows all face west out onto the street.

The food is good, though; I had a marvelous breakfast burrito on my recent visit. They’re open 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. most days, staying open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Meet the Moon is part of the Heavy Restaurant Group that includes Purple, Barrio, and several others.

More info:

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