Seattle Astronomy calendar, week of June 22

Is it live, or is it Memorex? Two of the top local astronomy events of the week are on tape with real-time discussion, while we can look up in the sky any night and watch the two brightest planets draw ever closer to each other.

Science on Screen

Hillary Stephens

Hillary Stephens of the Pierce College Science Dome.

Though we had not heard of this series before, Science on Screen returns to the Grand Cinema in Tacoma at 6:45 this evening, June 22. The evening will include a viewing of the 2011 science fiction film Another Earth, in which a duplicate of our planet is discovered within the solar system, and a discussion titled, “Is Anyone Out There?” The discussion leader will be Hillary Stephens, director of the Pierce College Science Dome planetarium.

The concept of Science on Screen was started by the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston. The program creatively pairs films with lively introduction lessons by scientists. It returns to Tacoma and Pierce County for a second year thanks to a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation.

Astronomy on Tap

cosmosontapAstronomy on Tap Seattle returns to Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 24. This time the topic will be Cosmos on tap, as attendees will view episode number one of the original Cosmos series featuring Carl Sagan. Graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington are the presenters of Astronomy on Tap. This will be their fourth event since launching this spring, and it’s always fun and informative.

A guest speaker will be on hand Wednesday to introduce the show, lead a Q&A, and discuss what has changed since Sagan created this groundbreaking series. Also promised: Cosmos trivia, Cosmos bingo, prizes, and fun. Astronomy and beer; you can’t beat it! It’s free, but please RSVP so they know how many to expect.

Venus and Jupiter draw closer

The two beacons of the twilight sky, Jupiter and Venus, continue to draw closer and closer together in the west each day as dusk settles in. The Moon joined the dance the last several nights, but now it’s just the two brightest planets doing their little dance. They’ll appear barely over two degrees apart by Friday, and they’ll be at their closest next Tuesday, June 30, when they’ll be just a third of a degree apart and will easily fit into the low-power field of view of a telescope.

Check Sky & Telescope‘s “This Week’s Sky” feature for more observing highlights, and bookmark the Seattle Astronomy calendar to keep up on local astro events.


Book review: Photography Night Sky

We at Seattle Astronomy are not into astrophotography as such; while we enjoy the images created by others, our own interests in amateur astronomy lean strongly toward visual observation. Nevertheless, we have been known to do a little shutterbugging from time to time, and thus Photography Night Sky: A Field Guide for Shooting After Dark (Mountaineers Books, 2014) is an interesting read.

Authored by Jennifer Wu and James Martin, Photography Night Sky is not a guide for deep-sky photography, but rather a primer for shooting nightscapes, including stars, the Milky Way, star trails, the Moon, and twilight scenes. Wu and Martin also cover meteors, aurorae, false dawn, and other celestial phenomena.

The 100 gorgeous color photos included in the book are proof enough that the authors know what they’re talking about. They have the credentials to back it up, too. Wu has won a bevy of awards for her work and is a Canon “Explorer of Light” photographer. Martin has written and photographed professionally since 1989 and is the author of several books, including the best-selling Photography Outdoors: A Field Guide for Travel and Adventure Photographers, which had a new release last year.

Photography Night Sky is a highly accessible guide for the novice shooter, and we expect seasoned photographers also will find some good pointers within. Wu and Martin cover equipment and preparation for shooting, and get into such topics as composition, focus, and optimum camera settings for various conditions. They also address some of the challenges of photography at night, especially shooting in the cold. The book includes chapters about the various sorts of objects one might shoot in the dark, and a full chapter about post-processing of images.

We were especially interested in the sections about lighting and the methods, such as light painting, for enhancing the appearance of objects at night without washing out the stars you’re trying to capture in your images.

Wu was in Seattle to give a talk last month, but we had to miss it, as it was scheduled at the same time as a lecture by renowned cosmologist Jim Peebles. But we’re glad to have a copy of Photography Night Sky, and hope the advice from Wu and Martin will help improve our own imaging. Pick up a copy at the link or by clicking the cover photo above, or visit the Seattle Astronomy Store.



One-sided race to the Moon nearly derailed

It’s a popular narrative that the race to land a man on the Moon in the 1960s was launched by President John F. Kennedy in a speech to Congress in May of 1961, and was a gung-ho, nonstop effort until the goal was achieved in 1969. In fact, the space policy expert Dr. John M. Logsdon says the whole thing was nearly undone in 1963.

John Logsdon

Space policy expert Dr. John Logsdon spoke June 13 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Logsdon is the founder and longtime director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University and author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He gave a talk titled, “John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and the American Space Program” last weekend at the Museum of Flight.

Logsdon pointed out some interesting contrasts between the two presidents. Richard Nixon was an early space booster, arguing for a civilian space agency when he was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower. Some historians think of Nixon as the father of NASA. Meanwhile Kennedy didn’t have much interest in space until the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April of 1961. This got Kennedy’s attention, and he gave his advisors the task of coming up with a space effort that the United States could win. Their answer was landing on the Moon, and that became Kennedy’s goal.

“It had very little to do with a view of humanity’s future in space or some romantic image of the space frontier,” Logsdon explained. “This was a Cold War, deliberate act of competition, seeing space as an area to demonstrate which social system, which governmental system was superior.”

Ramping up space spending

“Kennedy not only talked the talk, but he backed up his rhetoric with commitment,” Logsdon added. “This was a war-like mobilization of human and financial resources.”

Indeed, the NASA budget nearly doubled the first year and more than doubled again the second, and the skyrocketing cost came under considerable criticism. Kennedy was sensitive to this for a couple of reasons. He was concerned about the political impact of the Apollo program losing support, and worried that spending on space could be a negative in his 1964 re-election campaign. There was some talk of cutting the budget or relaxing the end-of-decade timeline for the goal. Kennedy also spoke openly of making the quest for a Moon a cooperative venture with the Soviet Union. Logsdon said that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev originally expressed some interest in the idea, but was talked out of it by advisors worried that cooperation would reveal that the Russians really didn’t have lunar launch capability.

The one-sided race

“The United States was racing only itself,” Logsdon said of that lack of capability. “The Soviet Union, as of September of 1963, didn’t have a lunar program” and, in fact, didn’t decide to try until 1964.

“It was not reality as long as Kennedy was president. It became reality by the end of the decade,” Logsdon said.

Kennedy visited the launch center in Florida on Nov. 16, 1963 and was impressed by the rockets and the facilities.

“This visit excited Kennedy,” Logsdon said. “He came away from the visit full of regained enthusiasm for the program.”

On Nov. 21 Kennedy made a speech in San Antonio in which he said that the conquest of space must and will go ahead. He was assassinated the next day, and that ended any possibility that Apollo would be scrubbed. It became a memorial to the fallen president. Logsdon said it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if JFK had lived or if Khrushchev had said “yes” to collaboration.

Logsdon said he doesn’t see Kennedy as a visionary in terms of humanity’s future in space.

“He was rather a pragmatic politician that saw a leadership-oriented space program as in the national interest in the particular situation of the early 1960s. He chose the lunar landing as a way of demonstrating the capabilities of this country,” Logsdon said.

Nixon and Apollo

Nixon was sworn in as president six months to the day before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon with Apollo 11.

“Unlike Kennedy, who saw space in geopolitical and foreign policy terms, Nixon viewed the space program as an issue of domestic politics: of technology, of innovation, of job creation, of something that is part of what the government does to stimulate society,” Logsdon said.

He contends that Nixon made three key decisions about space. He didn’t set a grand goal like going to the Moon or Mars. He opted to treat space exploration as just another one of the things that government does, nothing special. And his administration approved the space shuttle, though Logsdon said they chose to, “build a program around the shuttle without a long-term goal for the shuttle to serve.”

Logsdon said there may have been some wisdom there. A big goal, and an accompanying big budget, could have been a target, while a small, sustainable space program didn’t attract much opposition.

“Nixon was totally convinced of the importance of human spaceflight and of keeping astronauts in orbit, and that human spaceflight was essential to a U.S. leadership position,” Logsdon said. “He was intrigued by the various national security uses of the shuttle, which never happened.”

Naturally, electoral politics entered into it as well. The shuttle program created jobs in California, and Nixon needed to win California to gain re-election.

Logsdon is an engaging speaker and used a lot of video and audio clips in his presentation. His books are worth a look for anyone interested in the history of the space program. To buy the books click the links or book covers above, or visit the Seattle Astronomy Store.

More reading:


Seattle Astronomy calendar, week of June 15

Summer arrives in the Northern Hemisphere this week, there will be an array of public astronomy events, and we celebrate a couple of anniversaries of women in space.

The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. As of this writing, the guest speaker presentation was still listed as TBA; watch the SAS website for updates.


The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Later that evening, starting at 9 p.m., the University of Washington will host one of its bi-monthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Rebecca Kemmerer, a senior in physics and astronomy, will give a talk titled, “Stars and Their Place in the Milky Way.” Kemmerer’s presentation will include a discussion of the different types of stars in our galaxy and the ways that their masses influence how they are born, live, and die. It’s free, but reservations are strongly encouraged for the talk; the classroom is small and fills up quickly! Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to give tours of the observatory and, if weather permits—and we’re optimistic it will!—will offer a look through the facility’s vintage telescope.

Women in space

Two anniversaries of women in space come up this week. Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space when she flew on Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. That flight is still the only solo space flight by a woman. Twenty years and two days later, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to fly in space when she launched on the crew of the Challenger and STS-7. Ride has been on our pages a lot of late. Her birthday was May 26, and we also enjoyed Lynn Sherr‘s recent biography of the astronaut, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space (Simon and Schuster, 2014). Sherr was in Seattle last year and spoke about Ride.

Busy Saturday of astro events

There will be a lot to choose from for astronomy enthusiasts on Saturday, June 20. The day’s festivities kick off with a talk by Rob Manning, the chief engineer for the Mars rover Curiosity. Manning will talk about his book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014). The talk will be at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Flight. For our money the landing of Curiosity on Mars was one of our greatest engineering achievements. Here’s a chance to get the inside story. Pick up the book in advance. Manning will sign copies after his presentation.

Summer begins Sunday at the solstice, which happens at 9:38 a.m. Pacific time. Saturday evening Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info will host a solstice sunset watch at Solstice Park in West Seattle, with the gathering beginning about 8:45 p.m. for the sunset, which will be at about 9 p.m. Enevoldsen is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, and this will be her 25th seasonal sunset watch at the park. They’re fun and informative!

The Seattle Astronomical Society will host two public star parties June 20, at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Both will begin at 9 p.m., weather permitting. The Tacoma Astronomical Society also plans a public night Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. Presenter Chuck Jacobsen will talk about the Sun, and, weather permitting, members will be on hand with telescopes for a look at what’s up in the sky.

Happy Father’s Day

In case it slipped your mind, Father’s Day is June 21, and we think dear old dad would love a telescope, eyepiece, or astronomy book as a present! There’s a lovely selection of such things in the Seattle Astronomy Store!


Astro Biz: Bella Luna Pizzeria

IMG_0944Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Bella Luna Pizzeria in Suquamish. Bella Luna could hardly have a prettier setting; it is right on the water overlooking Port Madison and Puget Sound, just north of the Agate Pass Bridge that connects Bainbridge Island to the rest of Kitsap County. Their outdoor dining area is an unbeatable spot on a lovely summer evening. Thanks to our pal Clarence Moriwaki for introducing us to the place!

Bella Luna is on the Port Madison reservation of the Suquamish Tribe. In fact, the grave of Chief Seattle is just up the hill from the pizzeria.

IMG_0945They have some astro-fun with their menu at Bella Luna. Their specialty pizzas include the Big Dipper BBQ Chicken, Planet Pesto Chicken, Meat Me On Mars, Full Moon, the Starry Hawaiian Night, and the Cosmic Combo.

Oddly enough, there is more than one Luna in the area. Bella Luna notes on its menus and website that it is not associated with Luna Bella Ristorante of Kingston. We also found a website for a Bella Luna Pizza and Pasta in Burien, though we are slightly skeptical about a place whose website has “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet” language on its homepage. We also found some evidence of Bella Luna Pizza in Corpus Christi, Texas, Fresno, California, Cincinnati, Monroeville, Pennsylvania, and Perdido Key, Florida. When the Moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore! There may be some Astro Biz field trips in our future!

More info:

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


Seattle Astronomy calendar, week of June 8

A visit from a space policy expert and a bunch of astronauts on the town highlight this week’s space and astronomy events in the Seattle area.

Dr. John M. Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University and a leading expert on and historian of space policy, will visit The Museum of Flight this week. Logsdon will talk about his book, After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program, in a lecture at the museum at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13. The book is one in a series of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology, which includes Logsdon’s 2010 tome John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

This will not be the first visit to Seattle for Logsdon this year; he spoke on a similar topic at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in town back in January. Read our coverage of that talk and pick up the book in advance. Logsdon will sign books after his talk.

Astronauts on the town


Astronaut cavorts at Kubota Garden on Earth Day in this Museum of Fight photo.

Museum of Flight fans are probably familiar with Astronaut, a character who has been a staple in the museum’s advertising and social media since he came on board in 2012. You’ll be seeing a lot of Astronaut around town this summer. As part of its 50th Anniversary celebration this year, the museum has created the public art project Astronauts on the Town. Artists have decorated 25 six-foot-tall fiberglass versions of Astronaut, and they will be on display at various public locations around town, with deployment beginning Friday.

No doubt many selfies will be taken with Astronaut during the course of the summer. All 25 statues will return to the museum in September for an anniversary event.

Planetarium show on Bainbridge Island

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association offers a planetarium show this Saturday, June 13 beginning at 8:30 p.m. The topic will be “Exploring our Solar System.” Dr. Erica Saint Clair will discuss six decades of exploration of the solar system with landers, rovers, and probes. It’s an especially timely topic as New Horizons speeds toward its July encounter with Pluto.

If the weather is good they’ll also open up the Edwin Ritchie Observatory and have other telescopes available for viewing the heavens. The event is free for association members, $2 donation suggested for nonmembers, $5 for families.


Understanding relativity

Jeffrey Bennett thinks we ought to be teaching kids about relativity in grade school because Einstein’s theories explain so much about everything, from why the Sun shines to gravity to how your GPS system knows where you are. His book What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter (Columbia University Press, 2014) does a marvelous job of making sense of some of the seemingly strange consequences of relativity.

Jeffrey Bennett

Jeffery Bennett spoke about his book “What is Relativity?” at the meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society in April. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Bennett spoke about relativity at a meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society in April. He’s on a tour marking the International Year of Light and the centennial of general relativity.

Bennett noted that a key idea of relativity is that it is motion that is relative. He illustrated this by talking about a plane flight between Nairobi and Quito, two cities on Earth’s equator. The plane leaves Nairobi, flies at 1,670 kilometers per hour, which happens to be the Earth’s rotational speed at the equator, and then lands in Quito.

A person standing on Earth would say the plane flew west at 1,670 kilometers per hour. However, a person watching this flight from the Moon would have seen the plane take off, hover while the Earth spun under it, and then land once Quito arrived. That person would peg the plane’s speed at zero. Who is right?

“Einstein’s answer is both are correct,” Bennett said, “and neither one makes sense unless you specify what you’re measuring your motion relative to.”

Absolutes are key in relativity

Bennett explained that the heart of relativity is not what is relative, but the two things that are absolute: the laws of nature and the speed of light. He used an airplane flight to illustrate the latter point as well.

If you’re in a plane going 500 miles an hour, and you throw a ball forward at 10 miles per hour, a person on the ground would see that ball going at 510 miles per hour—the speed of the plane plus the speed of the ball. However, if you shined a flashlight forward, the light would go at the speed of light, not light-plus-500. The motion of the plane does not effect the speed of light.

“It is not effected by motion of either the observer or the source,” Bennett explained. “It’s an experimentally measured fact that the speed of light is the same for everyone, and from this single fact, if you do thought experiments, you can derive all the seemingly strange consequences of relativity.”

Not so fast!

The book is loaded with such thought experiments that help one get a grasp on the concepts. One Bennett talked about at length is the impossibility of exceeding the speed of light. Imagine a spaceship with theoretically unlimited speed. If Bennett, as the pilot, turns on the ship’s headlights, both he and an observer outside the craft would see the light from the headlights moving ahead of the ship at the speed of light.

“If the headlights are going the speed of light then I’m going less than the speed of light,” Bennett explained. “We set no limits, and yet the fact that the speed of light is the same for everyone means I cannot reach it or exceed it.”

“This is not a challenge to be broken technologically,” he continued. “It’s something that simply cannot be done. In fact, the idea that you cannot go faster than the speed of light is so well established that not even science fiction writers try to break it. That’s why they go through wormholes or into hyperspace or make warp drive to bend spacetime, because science fiction writers know you cannot travel through the universe at a speed greater than the speed of light. It simply can’t be done because the speed of light is the same for everyone.”

Bennett explained that the predictions of the effects of relativity have been tested exhaustively, and much of what we see in our everyday lives serves as proof that it works.

“The sun shining is evidence that relativity is correct,” he said. “Every time you turn on a computer or a light our a cell phone you’re testing the theory of relativity and showing that it works. This is an extremely well-established idea.”

Uncommon sense

Bennett speaks about relativity often and finds that many people have a hard time with it because they feel it violates their common sense.

“The good news is it actually doesn’t violate your common sense,” Bennett said. “The bad news is the reason it doesn’t violate your common sense is because when it comes to these ideas, you just don’t have any common sense.”

Why not? Common sense, by definition, derives from everyday experiences.

“These effects of relativity become noticeable when you’re traveling at speeds close to the speed of light. And guess what? You’ve never done that,” Bennett said.


Jeffrey Bennett at the UW's physics/astronomy auditorium. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Jeffrey Bennett at the UW’s physics/astronomy auditorium. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

When it comes to gravity, Newton had the math pretty well figured out, but even he thought the notion of one massive body acting somehow on another had sort of a weird, magical quality. Einstein came along and figured out that gravity is simply curvature of spacetime.

“This is one of the fundamental ideas of general relativity,” Bennett said. “Gravity is no longer a magical force at a distance, it’s just objects following the natural contours of spacetime as they are shaped by masses in the universe.”

Evidence that this is true includes gravitational lensing, gravitational time dilation, black holes, and gravitational waves. The first has been seen, the second measured, and we’ve seen the effects of the third. Bennett said scientists are optimistic they’ll actually detect gravitational waves in experiments this year.

Why relativity matters

Bennett feels that scientific knowledge, understanding of reality, and the inspiring human potential to do great things through science are among the reasons that relativity matters. A fourth reason is highly philosophical.

“In a sense, every action you ever take is a permanent part of spacetime,” he said. “Your life is a series of events, and this means that when you put them all together you are creating your own indelible mark on the universe. Perhaps if everyone understood that, we might all be a little more careful to make sure that the mark we leave is one that we are proud of. This may be a little naive, but I actually believe that if everyone understood the theory of relativity we’d all treat each other a little bit better.”

What Is Relativity? is an outstanding book that dives deeper into these concepts and leaves the reader with a better understanding of relativity.