Astro Biz: Blue Moon Burgers

Blue Moon BurgersMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

Blue Moon Burgers is a locally owned chain that started in Seattle in 2005 and now has three locations in Fremont, South Lake Union, and Capitol Hill.

In astronomy a “blue moon” is the third full Moon in a season with four full Moons. In recent times, the definition has expanded a bit to also mean the second full Moon in a calendar month. At any rate, this happens about every two to three years. If you try a gourmet burger at Blue Moon we expect you’ll visit more often than once in a blue moon.

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Astro Biz: Luna Park Café

Luna ParkMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

West Seattle’s Luna Park Café is speaking the truth when it proclaims that it serves the “best milkshakes in Seattle.” Your Seattle Astronomy correspondent is particularly fond of the strawberry shake. Mmmmm. The café has been open since 1989.

Luna Park was an amusement park built on a 12-acre boardwalk on the Duwamish head, operating from 1907 through 1913. At extreme low tide one can still spot the rows of pilings that supported the boardwalk.

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Astro Biz: Space Needle

The Space NeedleMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

The Space Needle is Seattle’s iconic symbol. Built for the “Century 21″ Worlds Fair in 1962, it has been the city’s exclamation point for more than half a century. The Needle draws one million visitors each year, which operators say makes it the number one tourist attraction in the northwest.

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Gamma ray bursts, galaxies, exoplanets, and beer

Back in 1979 when I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington I took an introductory course in astronomy to fulfill some science credit requirements. The two Voyager spacecraft had just visited Jupiter and the faculty in the astronomy department seemed practically giddy about all of the new data received and textbook re-writing to come. These days, given the number of exciting missions returning information from the near and far reaches of the solar system, it seems we’re learning something new about the cosmos almost every day.

Case in point: earlier this week a trio of UW astronomy graduate students put on the first Astronomy on Tap event in Seattle, each giving a mini-lecture about their current research. Two of them had news fresh out of the headlines.

Zapped by gamma rays

Kristen Garofali was first up with a talk titled “To GRB or Not to GRB.” The GRB in this case stands for gamma ray burst.

Astronomy on Tap

There was a full house Wednesday at Bad Jimmy’s in Ballard for the first Seattle Astronomy on Tap event. Photo by @AoTSeattle.

“Gamma ray bursts are cosmic lighthouses,” directional beams that Garofali explained result from the formation of a black hole. “When the black hole forms there are two jets of energy emitted that are really high-energy.”

Last week, for the second time in less than a year, scientists thought they had detected a GRB from our closest galactic neighbor, M31, the Andromeda galaxy. This would have been a first; we’ve never detected a GRB so nearby before. The nearest have been billions of light years distant, while M31 is a mere 2.5 million light years away from Earth.

Both the event last May and the one last week turned out not to be GRBs. Garofali noted that there are other objects out there that emit gamma rays, but these don’t look at all like whatever was detected coming from the neighborhood of M31 last week.

“It’s too bright to be a transient or an ultraluminous x-ray source,” she said. “It’s too faint, however, to be a gamma ray burst.” Even so, Garofali finds the discovery and the mystery exciting. “It could open our eyes to some new process that we haven’t thought about before,” she said.

Garofali said the reason we should care about this is that gamma rays are nasty things. At the very least, one would foul up your cell phone reception, and a strong burst could cause mass extinction on Earth. In fact, there is some scientific speculation that a GRB may well be responsible for at least one of the mass extinctions that have hit our planet. However, to do that the GRB would have to come from relatively close by and be aimed right at us. The odds of that happening are extremely long, but not zero.

Astronomy porn

Talk number two by Nell Byler was titled “Andromeda, So Fly, So PHAT.” She wasn’t using dated slang, but rather was talking about the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury, a key tool for her work studying stellar populations. PHAT has taken up a lot of the Hubble Space Telescope’s time; the treasury was created from some 7,400 Hubble images involving 936 exposure hours. The collected data has resolved more than 117 million stars in our neighboring galaxy. The UW’s Julianne Dalcanton is the principal investigator for PHAT.

PHAT M31

This PHAT portrait of M31 is a mosaic of more than 7,000 Hubble Space Telescope images. Photo: NASA; ESA; J. DALCANTON, B.F. WILLIAMS, AND L.C. JOHNSON/UNIV. OF WASHINGTON; THE PHAT TEAM; R. GENDLER.

Byler showed a great deal of “astronomy porn”—stunning Hubble images from the project. They’re more than just pretty pictures; Byler said PHAT has the potential to reveal much about star formation, stellar evolution, and a host of other questions about how galaxies work.

“Even though we’re looking at stars within another galaxy it provides a lot of insight for galaxies that we can’t resolve and for our own galaxy, which we think is pretty similar to Andromeda itself,” Byler said. “And there’s lots more science to be done.”

Little green men

Brett Morris closed the evening with a talk titled “Dear Grandpa.” Morris is an astrobiologist, which his grandfather thinks is a pretty fishy undertaking involving the cover-up of the existence of extraterrestrials. Morris is hoping to find ETs, though, and on the very day of Astronomy on Tap the news wires were abuzz with new information about subsurface oceans on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, both of which could be havens for life. Kenneth Chang’s article in the New York Times provides excellent coverage.

Enceladus geysers

Water vapor geysers erupt from the south pole area of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Photo: NASA/JPL.

“Enceladus has what we call cryovolcanoes; they’re volcanos that shoot out water,” Morris said.

“I personally think that this is the best chance to look for life elsewhere in our solar system because we can send a spacecraft that just orbits this moon and picks up the water as it shoots out of the moon,” he said. “Could it get more convenient? We don’t need to dig at all!”

Morris explained how the Kepler Space Telescope hunted for planets around other stars, though he bristled a little at the fact that when one is discovered similar in size to our home world it is invariably called “Earthlike.”

“Those have very broad, flimsy definitions,” he said, noting that Venus, which is practically our twin in size and mass, could be called Earthlike, but it would not be a nice place to visit. Morris is excited for scientific advances that will help us get a better idea of what exoplanets are truly like, and to identify which ones might harbor life like us.

The Astronomy on Tap event was well attended, with more than 60 people jamming into Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard (which pours a lovely IPA, by the way). The talks were well received and games were enjoyed, even though our team, nicknamed “Hubble Trouble,” did not win any cupcakes donated by Trophy Cupcakes. The organizers plan to be back with more events. Follow them on Twitter at @AOTSeattle. Also watch Facebook, where they hope to set up a page soon.

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Sponsor will try again next year on light pollution study

We reported yesterday that a proposal to do a study of light pollution in the state of Washington was dead for this year’s session of the state Legislature. The prime sponsor of the measure says she plans to try again next year.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell

Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle is the prime sponsor of a bill calling for a study of light pollution in Washington. Though the proposal is tabled for this year, she plans to try again in 2016.

“I think this is an important issue,” wrote state Rep. Jessyn Farrell in an email to Seattle Astronomy, “but it’s going to take some time and education to get movement.”

Farrell’s bill is HB 2057, which was formally introduced Feb. 10 but did not receive a hearing or vote in the House Environment Committee. Last Friday was the deadline by which bills had to earn committee approval in order to remain eligible for further consideration this year.

The bill is just over one page in length, and simply would have directed the state Department of Ecology to “analyze the current extent of light pollution that adversely affects the quality of the environment, the value of property, and the health and well-being of the public,” and to recommend solutions to the problem. Though it didn’t get much consideration this year, we believe it is the first time the subject of light pollution has been raised in six years. Our post about the introduction of the measure includes a bit of history of the debate in Olympia.

The International Dark-sky Association and its local chapter Dark Skies Northwest are aware of the measure, and with lead time may be able to help provide some of the education Rep. Farrell believes is needed. In the meantime the astronomy community can help raise awareness by contacting legislators to support the bill in particular and curbs on light pollution in general.

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Proposal to study light pollution switched off

Less than two weeks after it was formally introduced in the Washington State House of Representatives, a bill that would have directed the state Department of Ecology to study light pollution and recommend possible remedies appears to be off the table for this year’s session.

Fitzgibbon

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, chair of the state House Environment Committee, did not schedule a hearing on the light-pollution study bill.

The measure, HB 2057 sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell of north Seattle, was referred to the House Environment Committee, but did not receive a hearing. Last Friday, February 20, was the Legislature’s self-imposed deadline for having bills out of committee if they are to be eligible for further consideration.

While the bill may be dead the idea is not necessarily so. Occasionally, bills can be revived through parliamentary procedures, or they can be amended onto other measures, though neither of those possibilities seem likely in this case. The directive could be attached as a proviso to the Department of Ecology budget. Were that to happen, we would not likely know about it until the budget proposals start coming out in a month or so.

If nothing happens for the rest of this year’s session, the bill will be automatically re-introduced again for the 2016 legislative session, though the timeline for the study would likely be pushed back a year as well if the measure is considered at that time.

It is difficult to gauge how serious the effort is to take a close look at light pollution in the state. Neither the prime sponsor of the bill, Rep. Farrell, nor the Environment Committee chair, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of West Seattle, have responded to Seattle Astronomy’s requests for information.

We will keep you posted if we learn more.

Further reading
Our earlier story about the bill’s introduction

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An evening with famed comet hunter Don Machholz

In an age when automated programs are scanning the night sky using high-tech telescopes, CCD cameras, and computing power to find near-Earth objects, Don Machholz continues to search for comets the old-fashioned way.

“I do it visually,” Machholz explained at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society last month. “I do not use cameras, I do not use CCDs. I look through the eyepiece and I push the telescope.”

Scheiderer and Machholz

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer, left, with comet hunter Don Machholz at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Machholz is the record holder, with eleven comets discovered visually since he started his hunt in the mid-1970s. That doesn’t sound like so many, but consider this: according to the Catalog of Comet Discoveries, there have been 1,502 comets discovered since 2005. Of those, just three have been discovered visually. The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) got full or shared credit for thirty-three comet discoveries last year alone. The last time a comet was discovered visually was in 2010, when there were two, and Machholz bagged one of those.

There’s a little bit of luck involved in comet hunting. Machholz jokes that the first thing you need to do to find a comet is to be looking where it is in the 40,000 square degrees of sky. But he has a system. He checks websites to figure out where the programs like Pan-STARRS are looking on a particular night and then conducts his hunt in a different part of the sky. Machholz divides the sky into sections, and makes telescope sweeps covering about fifteen degrees at a time. Then moves down about a half field of view and sweeps again. He keeps meticulous records of his searches.

“It sounds boring, but you get to see a different part of the sky all the time,” Machholz said.

He got interested in astronomy as a boy. His father was a naval navigator and had a book with star charts that Don used to learn the sky. When he was about eight years old his sister brought home a book about meteors that piqued his interest. Finally, Machholz received a telescope for his thirteenth birthday. On the third night out he found Saturn.

“I could see the rings on it,” he recalled, thinking stargazing might not be such a bad hobby. He was hooked.

A family tragedy helped drive Machholz’s comet-hunting program early on. In 1976 his brother, an avid skier, was killed in an avalanche. Machholz found himself depressed, with insomnia, sleeping just a few hours a night, but with lots of energy.

“That’s kind of the ideal ingredients for a comet hunter,” he said. “For the next three or four years my comet hunting program developed to a greater and greater depth. Comet hunting wasn’t just something I did, it became part of who I am.”

His early comet hunting was done from his parents’ back yard and other locations around Concord, California. After moving to San Jose in 1976 he did much of his observing from nearby Loma Prieta mountain. In 1990 he moved to Colfax, California and built an observatory there.

After so much time at the eyepiece, Machholz says his heart still skips a beat or two when he thinks he has found a new comet.

“It’s a very important moment,” he said. “First I want to remember what song was on the radio.” He always has the radio playing when he hunts, and his presentation was full of music from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Phil Collins and Cyndi Lauper. He adds, though, that there’s no time for jumping up and down when he finds a comet, because there’s serious work to do.

“You don’t want to lose it,” he explained. “You might have it in the field now, but if you bump the telescope or let too much time go by and it drifts out of the field, you have to be able to find it again.”

“You have to be sure you know where you’re looking, make sure it’s not a galaxy or a cluster,” he added. He double checks with his star atlas, makes a drawing that puts the comet in its position compared to the field of stars, and watches to see if it moves. If all that checks out he reports the discovery by email, phone, and fax.

96/P Machholz

Comet 96/P Machholz as seen by the HI-2 camera on the STEREO-A spacecraft.

Of all of his discoveries, Machholz said comet is 96P/Machholz is his favorite.

“It is an amazing comet; it has its own Facebook page,” he said.

The orbit of 96/P Machholz changes because of the influence of Jupiter, and the perturbations have some scientists thinking there may be large undiscovered planets way out beyond Pluto. The comet also is low on carbon and cyanogen. This hasn’t been explained, though the leading ideas are that it may have originated in another solar system, or been exposed to temperature extremes that changed its chemical composition.

It was a pleasure to spend an evening with Don Machholz. His lively presentation was full of humor and had the banquet audience laughing and engaged.

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