Wednesday astronomy at UW

Most of the week’s astronomy activity is focused on a couple of events Wednesday at the University of Washington.

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 15 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the Seattle campus. Society member John McLaren will give a presentation about solar exploration, covering early human interactions with the Sun and their unexpected impacts on our growing technology. He’ll discuss how we learned about the Sun before the space age, what we’ve since discovered from space-based observing, and what the future holds for solar observations from space. The meeting is open to the public.

TJO goes retrograde

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

After the SAS gathering you’ll have just enough time to dash up campus to one of the twice-monthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, which begins at 9 p.m. With both Mars and Saturn in the retrograde parts of their orbits, the observatory director, Dr. Ana Larson, will talk about what that means, will discuss the historical context, and help visitors plot the motion of Mars against the background stars using a star map.

With both planets well placed for viewing, hope for clear skies and at peek at them through the observatory’s vintage telescope, operated by volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society.


The Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center has several astronomy shows every day. Check our calendar for the schedule.

Pacific Planetarium in Bremerton will offer public shows on Friday, June 17, with hourly presentations at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. The topic will be star hopping: how to explore the heavens using the constellations and stars as a guide. Admission to the shows is $5.

Up in the sky

Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn all remain well placed for evening viewing these days, but there’s plenty more to see. 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.


Juno set to answer big questions at Jupiter

Almost five years after it was launched, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter on July 4, and Ron Hobbs is pretty excited about it. Hobbs, a Seattle-based NASA Solar System Ambassador, recently learned the inside scoop about the Juno mission during a teleconference with the mission’s principal investigator, Dr. Scott Bolton, who is the associate vice president for the space science and engineering division at the Southwest Research Institute.

Juno at Jupiter

Artist concept of Juno at Jupiter. Image: NASA/JPL.

“The Juno mission is about reverse-engineering the recipe of the soup that is our solar system,” Hobbs said. He noted that the Sun contains the vast majority of the mass in the solar system. After the Sun was born, Jupiter formed next, and it weighs two-and-a-half times more than everything else—the rest of the planets, comets, asteroids, the works.

Juno has four main scientific objectives, according to Hobbs: figuring out what’s at Jupiter’s core, studying the planet’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, and figuring out where its water came from.


Ron Hobbs

NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The present theories about the solar system origin and evolution do not explain how Jupiter was enriched in heavy elements,” Hobbs said, noting that, in astronomical terms, anything above hydrogen or helium is considered heavy. “The key to understanding how the giant planets form, and then how the rest of the planets form, and how other planetary systems form is really the key to how those heavy elements got into Jupiter.”

Hobbs noted that the Galileo mission in 1995 sent a probe into Jupiter in search of water but didn’t find much. Scientists speculate they may have just gotten unlucky, and hit a sort of Sahara Desert area of Jupiter. Juno will avoid that problem by using antennas to measure microwave radiation from Jupiter; we’ll be able to tell how much water is there by how much energy is absorbed. It’s a lot less costly than probes and we’ll be able to get measurements from all over Jupiter and to greater depths.


Juno will answer questions about Jupiter’s most visible features as it studies the Jovian atmosphere.

“It’s going to be able to get atmospheric composition, temperature, cloud opacity and dynamics to depths greater than 100 bars at all latitudes,” Hobbs said. “We’re really going to start to understand what those belts and zones that we see here from Earth are composed of.”


“Jupiter has a huge magnetosphere, and there’s still some uncertainty about how it formed,” Hobbs noted. Like Earth’s Van Allen Belts, there’s a lot of radiation trapped there.

“They’re so intense at Jupiter that any spacecraft going into them is in danger of having its electronics fried,” Hobbs said. “Humans, living things, would never survive; the radiation levels are just incredible.”

Juno will make polar orbits around Jupiter. Previous missions have taken equatorial orbits. Hobbs said the polar orbit will help the craft avoid intense radiation, and will create some great imaging opportunities.

“We know that Jupiter has incredible aurorae, but they’ve never been seen up close,” Hobbs said. “In polar orbit Juno is going to be able to get close-up views.”

Gravity science

Jupiter is known as a “gas giant,” but scientists believe it has a metallic core of really heavy elements: iron, nickel, silicon and the like. They don’t know for sure.

“The gravity science that Juno will do will answer that question, will tell us the interior structure,” Hobbs explained.

Juno will study the interior of Jupiter by mapping both its gravitational and magnetic fields. Hobbs said scientists expect to find metallic hydrogen.

“We believe that at some point down in this giant body hydrogen is under so much pressure that it becomes a metal,” Hobbs said. “We believe there’s a whole ocean, if you will, or mantle of metallic hydrogen.”

About Juno

Hobbs said Juno is the second mission of NASA’s New Frontiers program. New Horizons, which flew past Pluto last summer, was the first.

“New Frontiers is a follow-on to the Discovery program, where NASA basically funds investigator-led missions,” Hobbs said. “The Discovery missions are all low-cost missions, largely to the inner solar system, but there were enough targets of opportunity that they saw the need for an expanded program.”

Juno will make 33 orbits of Jupiter, each taking about two weeks. It will get within 5,000 kilometers of its cloud tops. The electronics are protected from radiation inside a 200-kilogram titanium vault. The craft is powered by huge solar panels that are about 80 feet across as the craft spins. It will be the furthest we’ve sent a solar-powered spacecraft.

Juno Cam

Junocam photo of Earth

This image of Earth was taken during the close flyby of NASA’s Juno spacecraft on October 9, 2013. The coastline of Argentina is at the upper left, and clouds cover much of Antarctica at bottom. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Juno will be spinning, which makes photography a challenge. But we love our space images, and Hobbs said the craft carries the Juno Cam to grab photographs, though it’s not considered to be an official scientific instrument. Still, it took some great images of Earth during a gravity-assist fly-by in 2013. Hobbs said Juno Cam is naturally outside the titanium vault, which will leave it exposed to radiation.

“I’m looking forward to getting those pictures taken and down here on Earth early on in the mission, because I have a feeling it’s going to be one of the first things that gets fried,” he said.

Hobbs is looking forward to getting data from Juno starting next month.

“It’s a cool mission and it’s answering some really fundamental questions,” he said. “We’re going to learn a lot about our place in the universe once again.”

Podcast of our conversation with Ron Hobbs:


Astro Biz: Saturn building

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

Saturn buildingThis week’s Astro Biz is the Saturn Building in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. The Saturn Building features some street-level business spaces such as a bank, a wine and whiskey bar, and a skin care business. The building contains a variety of other work spaces of various sizes to meet the needs of many different sorts of businesses. The building in Fremont, the self-proclaimed center of the universe, has a big globe of the planet Saturn on its roof, and is right across the street from the Fremont Rocket.

We chose Saturn this week because the ringed planet was at opposition to the Sun last Friday and will be beautifully placed for observing all summer.

More info:


Cool vintage space and sci-fi art at Pivot Art + Culture

Some of the most visionary space and science fiction art from the 1950s and ‘60s is on display at Pivot Art + Culture. The exhibit, Imagined Futures: Science Fiction, Art, and Artifacts from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, will be on view through July 10 at the gallery on the ground level of the Allen Institute Building on Westlake Avenue in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.

Even if you didn’t grow up in the decades before the exploration of space became a reality, you’ve probably seen a lot of these pieces, which were featured in such magazines as Colliers, The Week, and Life, and often graced the covers of sci-fi books of the time.

The exhibit relies heavily on the works of two giants of the genre, Chesley Bonestell and Fred Freeman, but also features the works of more than two dozen artists from both the early decades and more recent times. Bonestell and Freeman weren’t entirely making up their images. Both worked closely with Wernher von Braun, who had significant input into the future of space and rocketry, and one of the great aspects of the exhibit is that it includes some preliminary artist sketches of the works with handwritten commentary from von Braun.

Separation of the Third Stage

Separation of the Third Stage of the Manned Ferry Rocket 40 Miles Above the Pacific Ocean, a 1952 painting by Chesley Bonestell, is part of the Imagined Futures exhibit on display at Pivot Art + Culture in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

One of the most iconic pieces in the exhibit is Bonestell’s Separation of the Third Stage of the Manned Ferry Rocket 40 Miles Above the Pacific Ocean, painted in 1952. It’s likely a familiar image to many space cadets. It was used on the posters advertising the exhibit, and was first used as a cover for the series, “Man Will Conquer Space Soon,” published by Colliers in March 1953. While the painting is not precisely prescient, von Braun’s notion of a multi-stage launch vehicle eventually became a reality as the Saturn V, and the reusable space plane was a precursor of the space shuttle. The exhibit includes not just the painting and the sketches that informed it, but a 1:48 scale model of the space vehicle that was produced for a 1955 Disney show Man and the Moon as well.

Movies and TV are represented in the exhibit, which includes vintage movie posters from Destination Moon and War of the Worlds, MGM stills from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a model of the agridome that was used in the film Silent Running as well as in the original 1970s version of the television series Battlestar Gallactica.

With a lot of cool stuff in the gallery, one piece does its darndest to grab all of the attention. That is a huge charcoal sketch of Saturn by Robert Longo that is around five feet tall and ten feet wide.

The exhibit also features an X-15 engine and an IBM System 360 computer.

The exhibit is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and stays open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission is just $5. Curator Ben Heywood leads tours of the exhibit beginning at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. It’s cool stuff and well worth a look for space and sci-fi buffs.

Our Flickr slideshow from the exhibit:


Discussion of space security is highlight of week’s calendar

Several area astronomy clubs have meetings and star parties this week, and the University of Washington hosts a symposium about space security.

Jackson School of International StudiesDoctoral candidates and junior fellows in the Space Security Initiative at the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies have been examining the prospects of various international spacefaring nations, and will present a briefing about their findings at the University this Wednesday, June 8. Seattle Astronomy is among the participant panel of journalists, space company representatives, government officials, military, economic development specialists, and other space thinkers involved in the discussion of the future of space exploration and security. We’ll report back on the discussion in a future post.

Astro club activity

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 7 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the University of Puget Sound campus. Seattle Astronomical Society member Mark de Regt will give a talk about how he moved from observing the skies from his yard to remote imaging with equipment located in the South Australia desert. He gave a similar presentation to the SAS back in March. The Tacoma group also will hold one of its free public nights beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday, June 11 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. An all-weather program about aurorae will be featured, and club members will have telescopes on hand for observing if weather permits.

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association has a full evening of events planned for Saturday, June 11. The club’s popular BP Astro Kids program will celebrate its first birthday at 5 p.m. by revisiting its first year of fun kid projects in a relaxed, science-based, crafty evening! Participants can come by any time as there is no talk, just celebrations! The club’s monthly planetarium program follows at 8:30 p.m., this time focusing on “Pluto & Some Planets.” Astronomer Steve Ruhl will examine the latest data about Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft. They’ll also take a brief look at the three bright planets currently in the evening sky: Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. If the sky is clear, astronomers will be on hand with telescopes. The event is free to BPAA members, $2 donation suggested for nonmembers, $5 for families.

Olympic Astronomical Society has its monthly meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 6 in room Art 103 at Olympic College in Bremerton. As of this writing the program had not been published.

Up in the sky

As the BPAA suggests, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn are all beautifully placed for viewing starting at dusk these days. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope list additional observing highlights for the week.


Space oddities at Astronomy on Tap Seattle

Things got a little strange at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, and not just because we were all drinking beer at Hilliard’s Beer Taproom in Ballard and enjoying eats from the Cave Man Food Truck parked outside. The event, organized by astronomy graduate students at the University of Washington, took on space oddities like Hanny’s Voorwerp and Thorne-Żytkow Objects.

Seattle Astronomy gets all sentimental about Hanny’s Voorwerp because it has a cool name and it was a subject of our third post ever when we started this effort in January 2011. The Voorwerp was noticed by Hanny van Arkle, a Dutch schoolteacher who was categorizing galaxies in Sloan Digital Sky Survey images as part of the Galaxy Zoo project. The object (voorwerp is Dutch for thing or object) appeared as a blue blob near the galaxy IC 2497.

What’s a voorwerp?

John Ruan

Graduate Student John Ruan spoke about Hanny’s Voorwerp at Astronomy on Tap Seattle May 25. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

During his talk titled, “Citizen Discovers Strange Black Hole Echoes: The Science Behind Hanny’s Voorwerp,” UW graduate student John Ruan said there were four ideas about what it was. All of them were wrong.

Imaging artifact. It could have been just a blip on the camera, Ruan said, but other observers were able to spot it.

Unknown solar system object. Ruan said solar system objects move rapidly, but the Voorwerp was found on photographic plates made more than 50 years ago, and it hadn’t budged.

Distant, high-redshift galaxy. The redshift was not high enough for the Voorwerp to be at great distance.

Milky Way nebula. Conversely, it wasn’t something in our own galaxy, either, this time because the redshift was not great enough.

It was in examining the spectra, though, that Ruan said a clue was found. The emission lines were strong.

“To get emission lines that are this strong, you need a really, really bright source that emits a lot of high-energy light,” Ruan said, the kind of light you get from gas falling onto a black hole. “This is evidence that this object was produced by a quasar.”

Hanny's Voorwerp

Hanny’s Voorwerp appears as a green blob in this photo by NASA, ESA, W. Keel (University of Alabama), and the Galaxy Zoo Team.

There was just one small problem with the idea. There’s no quasar in any of the photos. Ruan said the quasar was probably created when the galaxy merged with a smaller one.

“It disturbs the gas in this larger galaxy, and this gas, some of it, because it’s disturbed it will fall into the center of the galaxy and fall into the black hole,” Ruan explained. This ignited the quasar, but at some point it literally ran out of gas.

“That quasar became quiet again, and it looked like just a normal galaxy, however the gas cloud that the quasar was shining on still appears to be lit up,” he said. “And that is Hanny’s Voorwerp.”

Similar objects have been discovered and are generally referred to as quasar ionization echoes. Ruan said Hanny’s Voorwerp will gradually fade as the ionization of the gas wears off.

The weirdest stars in the universe

Emily Levesque is just finishing her first year on the astronomy faculty at the University of Washington, and her research bailiwick fit perfectly into space oddity night.

Emily Levesque

Emily Levesque makes a point about TZOs. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I study weird stars, strange stars, the really oddball stars that we can’t easily explain,” Levesque said. Indeed, she started out looking at the odd couple of stars: red supergiants and neutron stars.

Red supergiants are enormous, massive, relatively cool stars. The largest one found so far is so big that it’s surface, if it were plunked into our solar system in place of the Sun, would reach almost out to the orbit of Saturn. Neutron stars are the small, dense remains of supernovae. They are no bigger than a city.

“There’s only one thing that I can do to red supergiants and neutron stars to make them weirder at this point,” Levesque said. “If we put a red supergiant and a neutron star into a binary, and we merge them, we get a very, very weird object.”


The weird object is called a Thorne-Żytkow Object (TŻO) because Kip Thorne of Caltech and Anna Żytkow of the University of Cambridge hypothesized just this sort of thing way back in 1977. Żytkow heard that Levesque was studying red supergiants, and sent an email asking if she’d like to give a shot at spotting a TŻO. It was quite a challenge.

“A neutron star is the size of the city of Seattle,” Levesque said. “A red supergiant is bigger than the orbit of Jupiter. If you embed a neutron star inside a red supergiant it’s virtually impossible to detect.”

As with Hanny’s Voorwerp, the spectra were the key. Inside a TŻO, convection pockets would circulate material and create bizarre chemical processes. As stuff nears the neutron star at the core it would be bombarded with protons, changing it into a different element. Then as it nears the surface of the star, it would decay into yet something else. The process repeats. If the spectrum reveals the presence of elements that you would not normally expect to see at the surface of a cold star, you may be onto something.

Two years ago Levesque and her team looked at 100 red supergiants, and 99 of them appeared normal. The spectrum of one of them, HV 2112, showed unusual concentrations of rubidium, lithium, and molybdenum.

“This was a signature that we’d actually found the first example of a Thorne-Żytkow Object in the universe,” Levesque said.

If true, it means a new way to make stars and a new way to make elements. Levesque said they’re still calling the star a candidate or possible TŻO because of the Sagan Standard that holds that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

“The evidence that we have is really compelling, but it’s three little blips in a spectrum,” Levesque said. “We desperately want to find more of these, we want to find other ways of detecting them. We’d ultimately love to have a whole set of Thorne-Żytkow Objects, and have a whole set of stars that we can look at that can hold the title of weirdest star in the universe.”


Astronomical League headed for Casper for 2017 total solar eclipse

Casper, Wyoming promises to be a major destination for total solar eclipse watchers in August 2017. The weather prospects are good enough there that the Astronomical League decided several years ago to hold its annual convention, the ALCon, in Casper during the days leading up to the eclipse.

AstroCon2017“Downtown Casper is right on the centerline,” of the path of totality said John Goss, president of the Astronomical League. “Plus Casper does have some amenities.”

The league considered places like eastern Oregon, but found the smaller towns along the eclipse path didn’t really have accommodations to support a large gathering such as the ALCon. It will be a tight fit in Casper, a city of just more than 55,000 population.

“There are only so many hotels in the Casper area and the Astronomical League has special rates set up with three of them,” Goss said. Those rooms are all reserved, and the league continues to work to secure convention rates at more Casper hotels.

Mr. Eclipse himself, Fred Espenak, will be the keynote speaker at the 2017 ALCon (see our article about his Seattle talk earlier this year). However the event won’t be entirely devoted to the total solar eclipse.

“We have room or slots for about 25 people to speak, so we’re going to have a wide range of topics that they’re going to cover,” Goss said. “The eclipse is a big deal, but that also means that it’s a dark-sky time for the month since the Moon is in the daytime. We want to make sure that people get some chances to go outside in the evening and get some observing done.”

Casper is at over 5,000 feet in elevation, and, given good weather, observing at night promises to be excellent.

“This is one ALCON in which we expect to have a big attendance, and it will be a lot of fun, too,” Goss said. He noted that Astronomical League people have visited Casper several times to meet with city officials.

Wyoming Eclipse Festival“Two years ago they were not knowledgeable at all about the eclipse,” he said. “They know about it now, and the whole town is planning for the big event.” The Wyoming Eclipse Festival will be held at the same time as the ALCon and will include camping, observing locations, and a variety of other activities.

Goss pointed out that while the total solar eclipse will follow a path across the country that is just 70 miles wide, the entire nation will be able to see a partial eclipse. It’s not the same, but it’s still a big deal, and one effort of the Astronomical League is to create materials for its member associations that are outside the path of totality to use in their outreach.

This year’s ALCon

With the growing anticipation about the total solar eclipse it is easy to look so far ahead as to miss what is right in front of you. The ALCon this year will be held August 10-13, 2016 in Arlington, Virginia. The keynoter will be NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

John Goss

John Goss. Astronomical League photo.

“He is the top guy at NASA,” Goss said. “He’s the guy who reports to the president, he’s the guy who you want to speak to if you want to hear about the future of America’s space exploration and the future of NASA.”

Other scheduled activities include a behind-the-scenes look at the Goddard Space Flight Center and visits to the Smithsonian. Goss is especially excited for a tour of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

“You have to have an ‘in’ to be able to go in and see this place,” he said. “It’s full of history.”

About the Astronomical League

The Astronomical League is an umbrella organization of more than 240 astronomical societies across the United States. Membership has been growing and is currently at about 16,500, according to Goss. That’s down from a peak of about 17,500 in 2004 when they lost some members after a dues increase.

“What really got us was the beginning of the so-called great recession, and people were just cutting back all the way around,” Goss said. “That hurt us, but we’re coming back into it. I feel pretty good about it.”

Goss himself is an avid amateur astronomer and lived in western Washington at the time of the last total solar eclipse to hit the U.S. He watched the 1979 event from Yakima.

“It’s a great hobby,” Goss said of astronomy. “We want to emphasize to our members that they should get out and do some observing and enjoy the night sky.”

Podcast of our interview with John Goss: