Kelly Beatty thinks more amateur astronomers should be members of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), and he puts his money where his mouth is on the issue. Beatty, a senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine and a board member of the IDA, made an offer to waive his usual fee for speaking at the recent Seattle Astronomical Society banquet if the group could sign up at least ten new or renewing IDA members. At last word they’d added at least a couple of dozen.
Still, Beatty noted at the January 28 banquet that while there are roughly a quarter of a million amateur astronomers in the United States, the IDA has only about 3,000 members.
“That means that roughly one in a hundred amateur astronomers across the U.S. are members of IDA,” Beatty pointed out. “Isn’t that pathetic?”
“What other group has more to gain or lose from the success of the IDA and our dark sky preservation efforts?” he asked.
Beatty noted that LED street lighting is a major issue, and one on which regular citizens can help. If your city or town hasn’t converted street lights to LED yet, it probably will soon. LED street lights can be cheaper in a couple of ways. They consume less energy than typical street lights (though this paradoxically can cause a municipality to just buy more light), and the fixtures have a longer expected life span. What is important is that cities use fixtures that are at a color temperature of 3,000 kelvins or less. This provides warmer light with less blue in the spectrum. Blue light brightens the night sky more than any other color of light, and exposure to blue light at night has also been shown to harm human health and endanger wildlife.
Beatty said that the city of Phoenix recently decided to install 2,700-kelvin streetlights, Montreal dropped plans to install lights at 4,000 kelvins, and the entire state of Georgia is going with 3,000-kelvin lights.
“You have the power to make a difference in this fight against light pollution, individually and collectively,” Beatty said. “It’s not that people are opposed to doing the right thing, they just don’t know. It’s an education. So if you inject yourself into the process you can and will make a difference.”
Use your snow day to plan your astronomy activities for the week! Four area astronomy clubs have meetings on the calendar.
The Tacoma Astronomical Society will meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 7 in room 175 of Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound. Member John Finnian will make a presentation about the app Dark Sky Finder, including a demonstration of how it works and advice about how to get the most use value from it, particularly for stargazers who may wish to use it for finding potentially very good observing sites in the Northwest.
The Boeing Employees Astronomical Association will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, February 9 in room 201 of the Boeing “Oxbow” Fitness & Recreation Center, Bldg 9-150. The topic will be the upcoming total solar eclipse and advice about how to successfully observe it. Non-Boeing folks are welcome but must RSVP; details online.
Saturday, February 11 will be a busy day on Bainbridge Island with three events scheduled with the Battle Point Astronomical Association. The BP Astro Kids program has shows about gravity at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Following at 7:30 p.m. astronomer Dave Fong will do a Valentine’s themed show titled, “Star Stories: Twisted Tales of Love and Loss.” It’s a humorous take on Greek star lore. If the weather is good they’ll break out the telescopes for observing. It all happens at the association’s observatory and planetarium in Battle Point Park.
The Everett Astronomical Society will meet at 3 p.m. Saturday, February 11 at the Evergreen Branch of the Everett Public Library. Program topics had not been published as of this writing.
Check our calendar page for this week’s planetarium shows at the Pacific Science Center and the WSU planetarium, and for other upcoming astronomy events.
Up in the sky
There will be a penumbral lunar eclipse this Saturday, February 11. The eclipse will already be in progress at moonrise in Seattle, and will end a little before 7 p.m. It’s the only lunar eclipse that will be visible from North America this year. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.
The history of Pluto goes way back before it became a tiny twinkle in Clyde Tombaugh’s blink comparator. Kelly Beatty, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, told the story of Pluto in his keynote address Saturday at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society.
Kelly Beatty, right, with Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society January 28, 2017. Astronomy guys love their astronomy ties. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.
In a way, according to Beatty, the hunt for Pluto dates back to the late 1700s. The Titius–Bode law (since repealed) of the distances to the planets from the Sun worked well, with one exception: according to the law, there should be a planet between Mars and Jupiter. Thus a group of astronomers calling themselves the “celestial police,” led by Franz Xaver von Zach, set out to find this elusive object. They did it; on New Year’s Day, 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres. It wasn’t long before Juno, Vesta, and Pallas we found. At first all four were labeled planets, but now they’re known as the four largest asteroids—and possibly the first celestial objects to be demoted in status.
Later, because of irregularities in the motion of Uranus, astronomers predicted another planet out beyond its orbit. But even after the discovery of Neptune in 1846, anomalies remained. Percival Lowell and William Pickering predicted there was yet another planet beyond Neptune. The hunt was on for Planet X, and Pluto was finally discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. We soon learned that Pluto was pretty small, which lent some irony to its discovery.
“Pluto didn’t have any effect on Uranus and Neptune at all,” Beatty said. “It turns out that the mathematics were incorrect, the positional accuracy of those early observations was bad. There was no basis to the prediction whatsoever, and by dumb, fool luck Clyde found the planet Pluto that he had been seeking within about six degrees of the predicted position. Freakingly by accident.”
We didn’t know a whole lot about Pluto for a long time. The best photos we could get were fuzzy Hubble Space Telescope shots. Astronomers found methane ice on Pluto in 1976, and its moon Charon was discovered in 1978. Pluto’s atmosphere was discovered in 1988 when it occulted a star.
Pluto on thin ice
“In 1998 the bottom fell out of the pro-Pluto movement,” Beatty said. The beginning of the end was the discovery of another distant object in what we now call the Kuiper Belt. Astronomers figured that there had to be more out there than just Pluto, and we now know of more than 1,800 of them. Many of these objects are locked in a 3:2 orbital resonance with Neptune, just like Pluto.
“Not only is Pluto not alone, it’s not even unique in its orbit,” Beatty said. “Things did not look good for Pluto and its planet status.”
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) started hearing chatter that Pluto should not be a planet, and in 1999 it passed a resolution declaring that it still was. Brian Marsden, who headed the minor planet center of IAU, really wanted to classify Pluto as an asteroid, according to Beatty.
Then, in 2005, Eris was discovered. At the time it appeared to be bigger than Pluto, though we now know it is slightly smaller. It was bureaucracy that finally knocked Pluto off the planet list. Different committees at the IAU name planets and asteroids, so to decide to which committee to refer the new discovery for naming, they had to decide what it was. This led to the new definition of planet, under which neither Eris nor Pluto fall. The IAU declared Pluto to be a dwarf planet in 2006.
Beatty is not fond of the IAU definition of planet: an object that orbits the Sun, has enough mass to be round, and has “cleared the neighborhood of its orbit.”
“It’s a really stupid definition,” Beatty said, mostly because it’s hard to know the mass of faraway objects, and so the definition is difficult to apply. Plus he finds it puzzling that a dwarf planet is not a planet.
“We have dwarf stars which are considered stars.” he pointed out. “We have dwarf galaxies that are considered galaxies. A chihuahua is still a dog.”
New Horizons close-up of Pluto, one of the first and most iconic images from the mission. Photo: NASA.
Planet or not, the New Horizons flyby of Pluto in 2015 gave us a ton of new information about it and its moons. Beatty shared numerous photos of and findings about Pluto from the mission. It’s mostly made of rock, and might have liquid water below its surface. The surface features are mostly hard-frozen water ice, with a little frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide mixed in.
Most fascinating is evidence of geology happening right now in the form of flowing nitrogen ice.
“Pluto’s surface, against all odds, out in the frozen corner of the solar system,” Beatty marveled, “has flowing glaciers on it.”
The last of the Pluto data from New Horizons arrived on Earth back in October, but the mission isn’t over. The probe is headed out for a look at the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, at which it will arrive on January 1, 2019.
Beatty said this great new data about Pluto was worth the wait.
“We finally know what this planet/dwarf planet/interesting world looks like,” he said. “It was a 30-year effort from the time the Pluto missions were first conceived until we finally got out there. Some of the people involved, like Alan Stern, were there every year of the way, and boy, what a rich reward they have for their efforts.”
If there’s any anti-science sentiment around these parts it wasn’t evident last Friday at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard, where some 500 space enthusiasts packed the brewer’s beer garden—yes, we were sitting outside, in Seattle, in January—to hear from employees of Kent-based Blue Origin about the company’s latest testing and the prospects for an affordable ride to space any time soon. The event was the latest installment of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington.
L-R Nicholas Patrick, Dan Kuchan, and Sarah Knights of Blue Origin after their presentation at Peddler Brewing Company. Astronomy on Tap photo: Brett Morris and Nicole Sanchez.
“Our ultimate mission is to have millions of people living and working in space,” said Sarah Knights, outreach coordinator at Blue Origin. “The way that we’re focused on that is to lower the cost of human spaceflight, and one of the ways to do that is to make vehicles reusable, so that’s our primary focus right now.”
Blue Origin’s current test vehicle is the New Shepard, a capsule and vertical takeoff/vertical landing rocket. It’s powered by the BE-3, for Blue Engine 3, which is fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen and can deliver 110,000 pounds at full thrust. As suggested, the rocket blasts off, and then lands softly back on Earth.
“As it’s coming back down we can throttle it back to about twenty percent of its full throttle, so that means that as the propulsion module is coming down we can have an equal thrust-to-weight ratio, find the landing pad, and very gently set it down,” Knights explained.
Blue Origin safety test
Dan Kuchan, Product Development Team lead engineer on the New Glenn program at Blue Origin, said the most recent test of New Shepard, conducted in October, was of the vehicle’s full-envelope crew escape system.
“That means that if the rocket at some point decides that we can’t go to space today, the crew capsule can jettison itself and get out of Dodge,” Kuchan explained. It was the first such in-flight escape test for a space vehicle since 1965, during the Apollo program. Kuchan showed this video of the flight test during the presentation.
“That was an awesome test and it capped off the fifth flight and landing for that booster,” Kuchan said. “The system worked flawlessly.”
So far New Shepard has only flown without a crew, but they hope to have astronauts on board soon. That’s where Nicholas Patrick comes in. Patrick, a former NASA astronaut who flew on space shuttle missions for construction of the International Space Station, is now Blue Origin’s human integration architect.
“I’m responsible for worrying constantly about every aspect of flying on our spacecraft,” Patrick said. That includes everything from meeting rules and regulations, testing to make everything right, and every imaginable human factor.
They chose a capsule rather than a winged vehicle like the space shuttle partly for safety. The smaller capsule can get away from the booster quickly, as demonstrated in the video above. Patrick said it’s also a better way to travel.
“For those who are paying to ride aboard a New Shepard in the coming years this is a more authentic rocket flight experience than most other ways you could get to space,” he said.
The New Shepard capsule has big windows, the largest ever flown in space, and all passengers will have one of their own; there are no middle seats on New Shepard. Suborbital flights will last about eleven minutes, and passengers will be weightless for several minutes.
“We want to give them the best imaginable experience,” Patrick said. He showed this video animation of what a New Shepard flight will be like.
“That’s a New Shepard flight that we hope will be available to anybody who can get in and out of the capsule, who can tolerate the three Gs on ascent, and a little higher on descent,” Patrick said. “So start saving.”
At what cost?
How much to save is a question that Patrick said hasn’t yet been answered.
“Obviously everybody’s goal is to get this price down a long way,” he said. “We’re not going to get millions of people living and working in space by charging a quarter of a million or a hundred thousand dollars just for a suborbital flight.”
The question of when people will fly on New Shepard also hasn’t been answered.
“We’re not driven by that kind of schedule,” Patrick said. “We’re driven by our flight test program and the success or challenges we face in each of those tests.”
“What I can tell you is that I expect we’ll be flying people in the next year or two,” he added.
Kuchan noted that, in a way, New Shepard astronauts will be human guinea pigs.
“New Shepard and everything we’re doing, sending tourists into space, is all a way for us to practice and master landing a reusable rocket, and using it in a commercially viable way, so that over the next 50, 100, 200 years we can move civilization deeper into space,” Kuchan said.
Next steps: a bigger rocket
Blue Origin’s motto is gradatim ferociter—step by step, ferociously. The next step for the company is on the drawing board now: the New Glenn, which will get payloads into Earth orbit. The New Glenn will dwarf the New Shepard. While the latter is powered by one BE-3 engine that delivers 110,000 pounds of thrust, the New Glenn will have seven BE-4 engines that deliver 550,000 pounds of thrust each. That’s a lot of oomph. Again, there’s no totally firm timeline, but Kuchan said they’ve been asked to deliver the rocket by the end of the decade, and added that they plan to do so. It’s another step on the way to having millions of people living and working in space.
“Every single decision that gets made at Blue Origin is weighed against that ultimate goal,” Knights said.
Many 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 Moon Cheese. According to the Moon Cheese website, they “crunchify” 100% natural cheese into the tastiest snack possible (on this planet at least)! Moon Cheese is available in cheddar, gouda, and pepper jack flavors.
Moon Cheese is made by a company called nutraDRIED LLP based in Ferndale, Washington. They claim that the ingredients are “just cheese.” There’s no indication that actual parts of the Moon are included.
A talk by a visiting astronaut and a handful of public star parties are the highlights of the astronomy event calendar this week.
The astronaut remembrance exhibit continues all week at the Museum of Flight, with displays and videos honoring the astronauts who have died in the pursuit of space exploration. NASA astronaut Dr. Michael R. Barratt will give a talk at the museum at 2 p.m. Saturday, February 4. Barratt’s appearance is part of the Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program, an annual event which gives underserved children throughout Washington the chance to participate in the museum’s educational programs rooted in aerospace. Anderson, a Spokane native, perished in the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Barratt, also a Washingtonian, flew several shuttle and ISS missions and is presently serving in NASA’s International Space Station Operations and Integration branches to handle medical issues and on orbit support. His talk is free with museum admission.
Philip Swan of the Atlantis Project will be the featured speaker at Science on Tap at 7 p.m. Monday, January 30 at the Vios restaurant at Ravenna Third Place Bookstore. Swan will give a talk titled, “Space Infrastructure: Ferries are to Bridges as Rockets are to what?”
There are four free public star parties on tap for the weekend. The Covington Community Park Star Party is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, February 3 at the park. This popular event presents a good opportunity for stargazing south of the city. It’s sponsored by Covington Parks and Recreation and supported by the Seattle, Boeing Employees’, and Tacoma astronomical societies. The Seattle Astronomical Society plans its monthly free public star parties for 6 p.m. Saturday, February 4 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. These events are cancelled in the event of rain or cloudy skies. The Tacoma Astronomical Society holds its public nights whether it’s clear or not. One is coming up at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 4 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be about 110 Celestial Objects. The telescopes will come out if weather permits.
You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. We’ve recently added listings for:
The Moon will join Venus and Mars in a pretty little grouping Wednesday, February 1. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.
Many 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 capers from Star Fine Foods. According to its website, Star traces its roots back to the late 19th century in San Francisco, where it started out as an olive oil importer. Over the years it added balsamic and wine vinegars, olives, peppers, capers, and other specialty items to its list of products. The site says that Star is the number-one selling brand of olive oil, wine vinegar and Spanish green olives in retail grocery stores in the Western United States.
We featured Star capers this week because it’s been a while since we shot this photo, and the jar is about empty! Time to get more capers!