“We hope to evoke your curiosity, with mysteries and secrets across disciplines,” Morris said. “I’m honored to be speaking alongside two distinguished faculty who work in history and literature, and wade into mysteries just as much as astronomers do. I’ll tell the story of one of the most important astronomers you’ve never heard of, and the mystery she uncovered in our Universe—and how we might solve it.”
The other speakers will be Andrew Nestingen, Chair and associate professor in the Scandinavian Studies Department, and Laurie Sears, Walker Endowed Professor in History.
The lecture will be held at 7 p.m. next Wednesday, February 21, in the Brechemin Auditorium, which is on the east end of the School of Music’s main floor in the Music Building on the UW campus in Seattle. The lecture is free but registration is required.
A March lecture in the series will be about dragons, and in April they’ll take on time.
As 2018 gets under way we take a look back at our five favorite stories from last year.
1. Total Solar Eclipse
Well, duh. We spent nearly two years previewing the greatest celestial observing experience one can have. We did some 28 posts and more than a dozen podcasts about the Great American Eclipse. Seattle Astronomy publisher Greg Scheiderer even appeared on KING-TV’s New Day Northwestto talk eclipses.
To top all of that preparation off, we had gorgeously perfect weather for the eclipse from our viewing point in Monmouth, Oregon at Western Oregon University. Check our dispatches from Monmouth.
2. Apollo exhibit at Museum of Flight
To anyone who grew up obsessed with the race to the Moon in the 1960s, the Apollo exhibit that opened in May at the Museum of Flight is about the coolest thing there is after total solar eclipses. And it’s lasted more than two minutes! This is another event that came with great anticipation. Bezos Expeditions found some actual F-1 engines that rocketed Apollo missions into space. They fished them out of the Atlantic Ocean in 2013. Some were donated to the museum in 2015—a story that made our top-five list for that year!—and the exhibit was in the works for nearly a year and a half. While the engines are a commanding centerpiece of the exhibit, there’s a ton of other cool Apollo stuff there as well. Check our podcast previewing the exhibit and article about the opening.
3. Finding ET at Pacific Science Center
The Pacific Science Center had a couple of events during 2017 that highlighted the search for extraterrestrial life. The exhibit Mission: Find Life! ran from March through September in the science center’s Portal to Current Research space. Finding life was also the subject of one of the center’s Science in the City lectures in December. UW professor Erika Harnett participated in both, and Astronomy on Tap Seattle co-founder Brett Morris spoke at the latter as well. Check our podcast with Harnett and articles about the exhibit and the lecture.
4. Astronomy on Tap Seattle
Astronomy on Tap Seattle has been putting on monthly astronomy talks for almost three years now; they debuted in March of 2015. From Bad Jimmy’s to Hilliard’s to their current home at Peddler Brewing Company, graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington put together monthly talks by students, faculty, and visiting dignitaries. The events also include astronomy trivia, prizes, and good beer. From astronomy art to polarimetry, we got a bit of everything this year. This month’s topics and date haven’t been announced just yet, but look for them around the fourth Wednesday each month.
UPDATE: No sooner did we publish this than the word came out that the next AOT Seattle will be at Peddler Brewing on January 24. Topic: Alien Moons.
5. Kelly Beatty talks Pluto
The Seattle Astronomical Society always lands great keynote speakers for its annual banquet in January, and 2017 was no exception as Sky & Telescope magazine senior editor Kelly Beatty told the story of the history of Pluto. Though Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930, Beatty noted that the hunt really dates back to the 18th century.
Writer and astrophotographer Robert Reeves will speak at this year’s banquet on January 28.
Up next: our favorite books and author talks of 2017!
Professor Erika Harnett opened the evening explaining the overall work of NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, which is headquartered at the UW.
Erika Harnett (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)
“We use a variety of techniques to study planets found in our solar system and in other solar systems for their potential habitability, the potential for life developing there,” Harnett explained.
Harnett’s particular research interest is on the vanishing atmosphere of Mars. Rovers there have helped us confirm that, while the Red Planet is now cold and arid, it was once warm and had oceans and flowing rivers. It also once had a global magnetic field, but it doesn’t any more.
“At some point in Mars’s history—and we’re really having a hard time telling when—its global magnetic field disappeared, and at that point its atmosphere was fully exposed to the radiation of space,” Harnett said. “Probably at that point it started losing a large amount of its atmosphere to space and that’s when water stopped becoming stable.”
There’s lots of ice at the poles and underground on Mars, but if warmed it would go straight to vapor because of the low atmospheric pressure.
Harnett and others are working to figure out the time line for if and when Mars was habitable.
Space is big
While we’ve been to Mars robotically and may well go in person one day, Harnett noted that space is big and there aren’t that many other places to go where life might be possible. For the rest of the universe we use remote sensing.
“We train telescopes looking at a variety of wavelenghts at those locations and try to see what kind of information we can read from those wavelengths of light,” she said.
We can figure out a lot even from a little bit of light. Aliens looking at Earth from afar might conclude that the blue light means lots of water. They could measure our rotation by tracking light changes. Green or brown light might mean vegetation while white would be an indicator of ice. We could use similar methods learn such things about exoplanets far away.
Life on Jupiter’s moons
Marshall “Moosh” Styczinski is a UW graduate student who said he first got interested in Jupiter after watching the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jupiter is still his favorite planet.
Moosh Styczinski (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)
“Its got these four big moons that are a great place to start looking if we want to find life elsewhere in the solar system,” Styczinski said. The focus is on Europa, but the other Galilean moons play a part as well.
“Io plays a surprisingly big role in both why Europa is a promising place to look, and how we study it,” Styczinski noted. Io is pockmarked with volcanoes and its surface is coated with sulfur spewed from those volcanoes. The moons are heated internally because of tidal heating and orbital heating, and not just on the rocky moons.
“Tidal heating causes friction in the interior that warms up the rocks and melts the ice from the underside,” Styczinski explained. “The ice forms a thick crust on top that acts like a blanket, keeping the water warm from the cold space outside.”
Life needs more than just water. Europa also probably has nutrients because liquid water comes into contact with hot rocks.
“Hydrothermal vents are what makes Europa an exciting place to look for life,” Styczinski said. “It has all the basic ingredients that life needs: an energy source, nutrients, water, and shelter.”
We’ve learned a lot about Europa and made models based on our observations so far, but we need more data to get a better handle on questions like the inner structure of this moon, how deep the water is, and where geysers and hydrothermal vents might be found. The Galileo probe is no more, but a couple of other missions are on the drawing boards. NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper some time in the next decade, and the European Space Agency is scheduled to launch JUICE—Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer—in 2022.
“Both of these missions are going to visit Europa many times, and return lots of valuable measurements that can help refine our models,” Styczinski said. “Finding the right model for Europa’s interior can directly guide future missions by telling them where to go and what we might find when we get there.”
We know for certain of some 2,500 exoplanets—planets orbiting stars other than our own Sun—and there are about five thousand more possibles, of which UW grad student Brett Morris, a co-founder of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, expects about 95 percent will also be confirmed as planets. Most of these have been discovered by the Kepler telescope observing a dip in the light when an exoplanet transits in front of its host star. Morris said this discovery is not really so tricky as it sounds.
Brett Morris (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)
“Probably even your iPhone camera is good enough to measure the change in brightness of the Sun when something goes in front of it,” he said. “If you just measure the brightness of the star instead of actually resolving the surface and seeing things going on, you can discover planets.”
Morris said that for every exoplanet the size of Jupiter, they’re discovering two that are about the size of Neptune and a dozen that are roughly the size of Earth.
“The big suprise is that the most common type of world is one that we don’t know anything about,” Morris said. A great many exoplanets have been discovered that are somewhere between the size of Earth and Neptune, which is about four times the diameter of the home planet. Since we don’t have any of these “mystery worlds” of that size in our solar system, the first thing astronomers want to figure out is at what size point these planets are more likely to be gaseous than rocky.
“Exactly where that line is will determine how much habitable real estate there is in the universe,” Morris said, as we don’t expect anyone or anything to be living on gas planets.
Morris is looking forward to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled for next year. JWST will see in infrared, and will examine spectra of light from the atmospheres of exoplanets to reveal the elements that exist there.
“What we hope to look for are oddballs,” Morris said. Earth, for example, is the oddball of our solar system. While Venus and Mars have atmospheres of mainly carbon dioxide, ours is rich with nitrogen, oxygen, and a host of trace elements.
“Life is what causes the atmosphere here to be different,” Morris said. “We might have trouble saying whether or not life is to blame if we were looking at planetts in other solar systems, but we could definitely flag that one and then try to study it harder, because something interesting is going on there.”
After the talks we watched the 3-D movie The Search for Life in Space. The film is visually spectacular. One often had the notion that a moon or the Cassini spacecraft were about to land in the next seat. It’s worth a look if you get a chance. It’s showing at Pacific Science Center at least through January. Check out the trailer below.
As we flip the calendar to December, there are a couple of good headline events, four astronomy club meetings, and several educational events to look forward to.
Astronaut and mountaineer Scott Parazinski is the only person ever to have both flown in space and stood on the top of Mount Everest. He’ll be at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 9 to talk about his experiences and his new book, The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (Little A, 2017). Parazinski will sign copies of the book after his talk, which is free with museum admission.
If you can’t make it Saturday, you can pick up the book by clicking the link above or the book cover at left; Seattle Astronomy gets a small royalty at no cost to you when you purchase this way, and it helps support our operations. Thanks so much!
Life in Space
The Pacific Science Center’s Science in the City lecture series continues at 7 p.m. Wednesday, December 6 with a program called Life in Space. Three University of Washington astrobiologists will discuss their research—including the search for planets around other stars, characterizing how stars influence the habitability of those planets, and techniques to mix computer modeling with data analysis to determine the characteristics of potentially habitable worlds. Two of the three presenters will be familiar to Seattle Astronomy readers. Brett Morris is a PhD candidate of astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington and is a co-founder and co-host of the popular Astronomy on Tap Seattle events. Dr. Erika Harnett is a research associate professor and was featured on the blog and podcast this year. The “new guy” is Marshall “Moosh” Styczinski, a grad student who does research using magnetic fields to peel back the icy crust of Jupiter’s moons, looking for places that life may be found.
After viewing the documentary The Search for Life in Space, the trio will answer questions about their research and other topics addressed in the film.
Tickets to Life in Space are $5, free for Pacific Science Center members.
In addition, two clubs have public outreach events on Saturday. The BP Astro Kids on Bainbridge Island will make LED holiday cards during sessions at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Ritchie Observatory on Bainbridge Island. Following at 7:30 p.m. the Battle Point Astronomical Association monthly planetarium show will focus on how neutron stars make gold, and how we can tell they’re doing it. The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 9 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be a viewing of the movie The Christmas Star. At both the Battle Point and Tacoma events there will be stargazing if the weather permits.
The universe is full of mysteries; that’s one of the reasons that astronomy is so interesting! We dug into a couple of puzzling phenomena at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. The session was dubbed “CSI: Universe,” and Brett Morris, one of the co-hosts of Astronomy on Tap Seattle and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, gave a talk about the star KIC 8462852, more commonly called Tabetha Boyajian’s star, thank goodness. His talk was titled, “The Weirdest Star Gets Weirder.”
Citizen scientists were the first to notice that there was something odd about Tabby’s Star. The Kepler Space Telescope was searching for exoplanets by watching for slight but regular dips in a stars brightness, a possible indication of a planet in orbit around a distant star. Morris noted that it can be difficult to write a computer algorithm to filter out noise in the data, so they enlisted the help of the public through the website PlanetHunters.org.
Brett Morris (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)
“What you can do on this website is help scientists look for things that are weird,” Morris said. People identify objects that don’t look right, then professional astronomers check them out. “Through this process they found a whole bunch of stars that misbehave.”
One of them was Boyajian’s.
“If we look at its colors, if we look at its spectrum, it behaves like all the other F-stars,” Morris said, “and so we were a little bit puzzled when we started looking at data.”
There were dips in light from Tabby’s Star, all right. There were smaller dips early in the mission that never really matched up. Then in March 2011 there was a huge dip of 15 percent of the star’s light, and it lasted for days, not hours as most transits do. Then in February 2013 there was an even bigger reduction in brightness of 20 percent. Nobody has come up with a plausible explanation for this.
“Whatever this is, this thing’s big,” Morris said.
No easy answer
An astounding array of possible explanations have been thrown out there. Examples include an object like Saturn with rings that could cause variations in the light curve, a passing comet, debris from a huge planetary impact like the one thought to have formed our Moon, and Tabby’s Star’s indigestion from having just swallowed a whole planet. The one in vogue at present is that a family of 10 to 20 comets, all giving off material, are creating these odd light curves. Morris doesn’t quite buy this one, either.
“The more bodies that you imagine being there, the easier it is to fit a light curve,” he said. “If you just keep adding new parameters into your model, eventually it will fit.”
“If you invoke wierdly shaped objects, you can fit it perfectly,” Morris added. “If you invoke the kinds of objects that we expect are most likely, it’s a lot harder. We really don’t know what this star is doing.”
Some have wondered if something between us and Tabby’s Star, maybe interstellar gas or dust, caused the strange light curves. Morris himself investigated this one. Back in May he got a Tweet—he said this is mostly how astronomers communicate these days!—noting that Tabby’s Star’s brightness was changing. He used the Apache Point Observatory to look for signs of absorption from interstellar gas or dust. But the spectra didn’t change even though the star was changing.
“We’re slowly ruling things out,” Morris said. “It’s not something in our solar system, it’s not something between us and the star; it’s got to be something near the star, but we don’t know what near the star could be doing this.”
As for wild speculation that the strange light curves could be caused by a Dyson Sphere or other “alien megastructure”:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I do not have any evidence to suggest that we can make a claim as extraordinary as that,” Morris said. He and a team of undergraduates at the University of Washington continue to work on the puzzle.
Coroner for the Stars
The second talk of CSI: Universe came from Prof. Melissa Graham of the UW, who does work on supernovae. These mark the death of a star, and Graham’s job is to figure out whodunnit.
Melissa Graham (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)
Graham pointed out that a star is considered alive if it’s in hydrostatic equilibrium; that is, when atomic fusion in the star’s core supports the star by counteracting gravity. Sometimes the death of a star is from natural causes. A typical star will fuse hydrogen and helium into carbon, then gradually fuses neon, oxygen, and heavier elements until eventually a core of iron forms. Graham said this means trouble, because fusing iron into something heavier is not exothermic; it doesn’t release energy.
“If you end up with a core of iron, your hydrostatic equilibrium suffers because you are losing out on that fusion in the core,” she said. “The core collapses because it can’t support itself anymore, the outer layers fall onto the inner layers, and you end up with a supernova explosion.”
Material blows away and leaves neutron star behind.
“That’s death by natural causes,” Graham said.
Type 1a supernovae are more interesting to stellar criminologists. These involve a white dwarf star, which is the remnant of a smaller star that doesn’t have enough mass to fuse carbon and oxygen into anything heavier.
“The carbon and oxygen core shrinks under its own self-gravity, and the outer layers are lost, which causes a really pretty planetary nebula,” Graham said. “The star is now supported by electron degeneracy pressure.”
This means the star isn’t alive because it’s not fusing elements.
“It’s more of a zombie star,” Graham said. “It’s died once and continues to live.”
The usual suspects
It’s a suspicious death when you see one of these explode. Graham rounded up the usual suspects: It could be a binary companion, such as a red giant or a sun-like star or another white dwarf. Sometimes it could be a pair of white dwarfs with a third companion star. A type 1a supernova also might from from a white dwarf’s impact with a primordial black hole or comet.
One way to figure this out is to simply look at the scene of the crime.
“Once this white dwarf star explodes, the other companion star would still be there,” Graham said. A companion would heat up and get brighter, so it might be detectable. Interstellar dust and gas may also light up from the energy of a supernova. Looking back at the scene later might detect such material that is at significant distance from the event. Graham is using the Hubble Space Telescope to check to find out if this is happening. She’s also looking forward to the completion of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is expected to find some ten million supernovae over its 10-year mission. With so many new examples we will, “really start to understand how these carbon-oxygen white dwarfs die,” Graham said.
We hope you have had a chance to dust off the telescope and get in some observing with the recent good weather. Seattle Astronomy had some fine looks at Jupiter and Saturn over the weekend. The forecast looks promising for some public star parties next weekend, too.
SAS is also involved, along with the Boeing and Tacoma clubs, with the Covington Community Park star party set for 9 p.m. Friday, June 30. This one, too, is weather dependent.
The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 1 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor program will be about constellations and star-hopping. The telescopes will come out under clear skies.
The Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 27 at the Newport Way Library in Bellevue. The topic for the night will be the August total solar eclipse. EAS doesn’t meet during the summer, so this will be its last gathering until September.
Astronomy on Tap Seattle will hold another of its gatherings at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 28. The topic for the evening will be CSI: Universe. AOT Seattle co-host Brett Morris will give a presentation titled “The Weirdest Star in the Universe Gets Weirder,” an update on Tabetha Boyajian’s star in light of its recent misbehavior. UW observational astrophysicist Dr. Melissa Graham will speak about her research as “Coroner For The Stars,” working to unravel the mysteries of supernovae.
There’s plenty of time for Q&A and prizes to win in astro-trivia.
It’s free, but buy beer, and bring a chair to create your own front-row seating.
Asteroid Awareness Day is Friday, June 28, and the Museum of Flight will offer educational activities and livestream lectures between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in its Alaska Airlines Aerospace Education Center.
Also Sprach Zarathustra
The Seattle Symphony is going to show the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey this weekend, and they’ll be providing some of the music live! Performances are at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, June 30 and July 1. Tickets, available online, range from $38 to $128.
Astronomy on Tap Seattle packed in the crowds in its first year at Bad Jimmy’s. The series is moving to the larger Hilliard’s Taproom in Ballard. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.
The move does not come entirely as a surprise. The early Astronomy on Tap events last spring were well attended, and they’ve grown in popularity to the point where nearly 140 people were sardined into Bad Jimmy’s for the monthly gatherings. Brett Morris, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Washington who is the emcee and one of the co-founders of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, hinted at a move in an interview we posted before the birthday event.
“It’s been a wild ride growing from our initially small size to something that we almost can’t handle,” said Morris. “We’re going to try our best to keep up with it as it grows through our second year.”
Kristin Garofali, another co-founder of AoT Seattle, thanked Bad Jimmy’s for their support over the first year, noting that they even let participants vote to name their imperial Scotch ale (The Big Sipper) and at the birthday party served up a delicious version of it that was aged for several months in rum barrels.
“To see how this has grown has been super amazing,” Garofali said. She added that they hope to keep doing smaller events at Bad Jimmy’s.
Breanna Binder gave an interesting talk at the March 23 birthday event, about a supernova impostor that turned out to be an x-ray binary system. An amateur astronomer spotted what looked like a supernova in 2010, but it kept churning out x-rays long after it faded visually. Binder said that’s not how it’s supposed to work.
“Supernova 2010da, not only is it not a true supernova, it may be the youngest possible x-ray binary,” Binder said, noting that it theoretically takes between four and five million years before an x-ray binary begins emissions. They’d seen none prior to 2010. “The 2010 eruption might have been the birth of a brand new x-ray binary, which is something that we had never witnessed before.”
The story was featured on the popular website IFLScience. Binder will give a talk about the supernova impostor at the UW Astronomy Colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the UW campus in Seattle.
One of the other more interesting mini-talks of the evening was made by Dave Fleming, who took a look at the possible Planet 9. Astronomers have recently speculated that there’s a ninth planet in our solar system, a so-called super-earth that is somewhere between Earth and Neptune in mass and about 700 astronomical units out. Fleming noted that a fair chunk of the exoplanets discovered so far are in that mass range.
“If there is one of these guys lurking in the solar system, if we could actually detect it with a telescope and send a probe to it, it would give us a huge insight into the planet-formation process,” Fleming said. “If this ninth planet does exist, maybe it’s some relic of the planet-formation process that got scattered out by Jupiter.”
Former planet 9, and more
Morris showed a large number of photos that New Horizons shot at Pluto. He had given a talk back in July, on the day of the mission’s fly-by, and shared the very first pictures it beamed back to Earth. Though it will continue transmitting data for quite some time, we already have a sizable collection of pics from the system. Among the most interesting discoveries from the new batch: a large canyon around the equator of Pluto’s moon Charon that may indicate an underground ocean.
Other talks at the birthday event covered supermassive black holes, fast gamma-ray bursts, how to find a Tatooine, and funky, planet-shaped megastructures.
The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle event is planned for April 27 at Hilliard’s. The program has not yet been published.