Tag Archives: Rory Barnes

Busy week ahead on the astro calendar

There’s something for everyone on this week’s astro calendar, with a new scale model solar system opening, two great lectures, a theater/science mashup, and a variety of club events on the docket.

A new scale model of the solar system that you can explore through geocaching opens today, May 1, on Bainbridge Island. Check out our article or podcast from last week to learn more.

Proxima b

You’ve probably heard by now of the discovery of a planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. (If not, check out our article featuring UW professor Rory Barnes discussing the possibility of the habitability of Proxima b.) The UW Astrobiology Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute will host a panel discussion about the planet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 3 in room 120 of Kane Hall on the university’s campus in Seattle.

The panelists include Guillem Anglada-Escude, lead discoverer of the planet and University of London lecturer; Victoria Meadows, University of Washington astrobiology professor and primary investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory; Barnes; and Olivier Guyon, University of Arizona professor and project scientist for the Subaru Telescope.

It’s free but registration is required; as of this writing there were still some tickets available.

Searching for Martians

Bob Abel talkMars may have been habitable before Earth was, and might be still. So where are the Martians? Olympic College professor Bob Abel will give a talk about the history of Mars and the prospects for past, present, and future life there at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 4 in room 117 of the Engineering Building on the Olympic College campus in Bremerton. It’s free.

Abel gave a talk on the same topic last week at Astronomy on Tap Seattle. Our recap of that event is coming soon.

Astronomy Day at MOF

The Museum of Flight celebrates Space Day during its Free First Thursday at 5 p.m. May 4. Local astronomy clubs will be on hand with information about their activities and they’ll have telescopes for observing if the weather cooperates. A special presentation at 6 p.m. will take a look at the technical challenges of getting Apollo to the Moon, and what that means for present-day space efforts. Tony Gondola, a solar system ambassador and coordinator of the museum’s Challenger Learning Center will be the speaker.

The event runs through 9 p.m.

Mashing up science and theater

Centrifuge2Infinity Box Theatre Project will present Centrifuge 2 at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6, at Stage One Theater on the North Seattle College campus. Centrifuge pairs science writers and playwrights to craft brand-new one-act plays featuring current science. Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer participated in the event last year and will be one of the science writers again this time around. Check out our article and podcast from last year to learn more about Centrifuge and Infinity Box.

Open house at TJO

The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington will hold one of its bimonthly open houses at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 3. The topic for the evening’s talk had not been published as of this writing. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to offer tours of the observatory and, weather allowing, a look through its vintage telescope.

Club events

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 2 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma. The topic will be club participation in viewing the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.

The club will also offer one of its free public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor session will be a presentation about constellations. They’ll break out the telescopes for observing if the sky is clear.

The Spokane Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Club member Nick Monkman will talk about the ABCs of finding objects in the night sky.

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans its monthly free public star parties for 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather causes cancellations, so watch the website for updates.

You can always scout out future events on our calendar page.

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Search for meaning continues

There is a great menu of interesting talks on this week’s calendar, including three with astronomy themes at a weekend event at Seattle University.

Search for Meaning FestivalSeattle University’s annual Search for Meaning Festival will be held on the university campus all day Saturday, February 25. The festival is a community event dedicated to topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life. It draws more than 50 authors and artists who will give interactive presentations. Three of these sessions are on astronomy-related topics.

At 9 a.m. Father George Coyne, SJ, former director of the Vatican Observatory and author of Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning (Crossroad 2002), will discuss the history of the evolution of life in the cosmos. Coyne’s thesis is that this history may lead us to a deeper understanding of what many secular physicists say themselves about the cosmos: that a loving creator stands behind it.

At 10:45 a.m. Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow, 2016), on which the current hit film is based, will give one of the keynote addresses at the festival. Shetterly will talk about race, gender, science, the history of technology, and much else. Reservations for Shetterly’s talk are sold out.

At 12:45 p.m. Marie Benedict, author of The Other Einstein (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016), will explore the life of Mileva Maric, who was Albert Einstein’s first wife and a physicist herself, and the manner in which personal tragedy inspired Mileva’s possible role in the creation of Einstein’s “miracle year” theories.

Check our post from December previewing the festival, and look at the trailer video below. Tickets to the festival are $12.50 and are available online.

Siegel at Rose City

Author and astrophysicist Ethan Siegel will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland at 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 20. Siegel will talk about his book Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific Publishing, 2015). He’ll examine the history of the expanding universe and detail, up until the present day, how cutting-edge science looks to determine, once and for all, exactly how the universe has been expanding for the entire history of the cosmos. Siegel is an informative and engaging speaker; check our recap of his talk from last year about gravitational wave astronomy.

AoT Seattle and an app for simulating the universe

AoT FebruaryAstronomy on Tap Seattle’s monthly get-together is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 22 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Two guest speakers are planned. Dan Dixon, creator of Universe Sandbox² will give an introduction to the app, an accessible space simulator that allows you to ask fantastical what-if questions and see accurate and realistic results in real-time. It merges real-time gravity, climate, collision, and physical interactions to reveal the beauty of our universe and the fragility of our planet. University of Washington professor in astronomy and astrobiology Rory Barnes will talk about “Habitability of Planets in Complicated Systems.” It’s free, except for the beer.

TAS public night

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 25 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be about the zodiac. If the skies are clear they’ll set up the telescopes and take a look at what’s up.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. We’ve recently added several events scheduled at the Museum of Flight, including:

Up in the sky

There will be an annular solar eclipse on Sunday, February 26, but you’ll have to be in South America or Africa to see it. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.

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Proxima Centauri b and the question of habitability

The discovery of evidence of a planet in orbit around our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, has people all agog and with good reason. It’s something of a misnomer, however, to call the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b “Earth-like.” Rory Barnes, a professor in the Department of Astronomy and the Astrobiology Program at the University of Washington, points out that the planet’s mass is probably somewhere between 1.3 and five times that of Earth.

Barnes

UW prof. Rory Barnes speaking at an Astronomy on Tap Seattle event earlier this year. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“There’s a lot of excitement about this planet because it is so close in mass to the Earth, but we don’t actually know if it’s even rocky like the Earth,” said Barnes during a recent talk at the Pacific Science Center. Barnes, who uses computer modeling to study the habitability of exoplanets, noted that even though Proxima Centauri is the next closest star, it’s still pretty far away at 4.24 light years. If the Sun were the size of a baseball resting on home plate at Safeco Field, Barnes said Proxima Centauri b would be a grain of sand in New York City. Still, he noted there’s understandable excitement about the discovery.

“The reason why I think that this is the biggest exoplanet discovery since the discovery of exoplanets is because it is still very close, at least relatively speaking,” Barnes said. “We really have a chance, with this planet, to potentially observe its atmosphere and its surface and maybe start to try and sniff out the presence of life on that planet. Or not. We don’t know yet. But being so close, it gives us a shot.”

Not really “like” Earth

While Proxima Centauri b is about the mass of Earth, plenty else is different. It’s twenty times closer to its home star than Earth is to the Sun, and goes around that star in just 11.2 days. We know little else about it. The star has just 12 percent of the mass and 14 percent the radius of the Sun, and its brightness is just one one-thousandth that of the Sun.

“This is a small, dim star,” Barnes said.

Is there life there?

Life requires energy, some bioessential elements, and liquid water. The energy and elements are abundant in the universe, so Barnes says the key to finding life elsewhere is liquid water.

“When we think about exoplanets, we’re really going to focus, at least for now, on surface water,” Barnes said. “Not only is it going to be easier to see, but it’s going to be more similar to the Earth and that gives us a better shot at maybe being able to interpret the observations that we’re going to get.”

The desire to find liquid surface water on a planet led us to the concept of the “habitable zone” around a star, an area where the temperature would be right for liquid water to exist. Barnes said Proxima Centauri b is smack in the middle of the habitable zone.

“This is a dream planet for those of us who study this field,” he said, but added a caveat: “Being in the habitable zone does not mean you’re habitable. It is just the first step we need to get to.”

“The habitable zone is jargon, and it’s really misleading,” Barnes added. “I apologize for my field for inflicting it on you!”

Barnes said there are several threats to habitability for planets orbiting M dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri. With the habitable zone so close to the star, there is potential that stellar flares could blow away the atmosphere of a planet within it. Planets that close are probably tidally locked, too, but this isn’t a deal-breaker; their atmospheres might distribute heat and energy effectively. Tidal heating could cause problematic volcanism.

Habitable zone chart

Barnes showed this chart demonstrating that while Proxima Centauri b is now within the habitable zone, the zone was once much further from the star.

The biggest threat to the habitability of Proxima Centauri b, according to Barnes, is that its star was once much bigger and brighter before it contracted into the dim, red phase it is in today. In the early years that would have meant that its habitable zone was out at a distance between .25 and .5 astronomical units, while Proxima Centauri b orbits at a mere .05 AU. Being so far inside the habitable zone after formation means that the planet could have lost all of its water and become a completely uninhabitable place like Venus. On the other hand, if Proxima Centauri b formed as something like Neptune, being so close to the star could have blasted away its hydrogen envelope.

“Maybe that planet could have actually transformed from an uninhabitable Neptune-like planet into a rocky planet like the Earth,” Barnes speculated. “This is what we at the University of Washington think is probably the best bet for how this planet could be habitable.”

Barnes is hopeful that the discovery of Proxima Centauri b will help boost support for the sorts of telescopes and observatories that can make the observations needed to learn more about this intriguing exoplanet and determine if it is habitable, and even inhabited.

While Barnes won’t give the odds of life there—there are way too many variables and so little we know right now—he sounds confident that we’ll find life somewhere. He noted that we’ve found life on Earth in the deep sea, extreme deserts, extreme cold, acidic environments, and under other harsh conditions.

“The realization that extreme life is everywhere is part of the astrobiological revolution that is occurring right now in science,” Barnes said. “This recognition that life finds a way gives us confidence as we go forward.”

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A look at a nearby exoplanet tops the week’s calendar

We’re back from a couple of weeks of travel and find a busy calendar of events for the week ahead.

Barnes

UW Prof. Rory Barnes at an Astronomy on Tap event in January. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

If you missed last week’s Astronomy on Tap Seattle event—as we did because we were out of town—then you missed getting some first-hand information from Rory Barnes, Professor of Astronomy and Astrobiology at the University of Washington, about the newly discovered exoplanet in orbit around our nearest stellar neighbor. Fear not: Barnes will give a lecture titled, “Opportunities and Obstacles for Life on Proxima Centauri B” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 31 at the PACCAR IMAX® Theater at the Pacific Science Center. Barnes will discuss how this Earth-sized planet was discovered, and how we’ll go about figuring out whether it’s habitable and inhabited. Tickets to the talk are $5 and are available online. It’s free for PacSci members.

Learn about telescopes

MOFTake a look through telescopes at the Free First Thursday event at the Museum of Flight from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. September 1. The evening will include family activities and exhibits about telescopes, and NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Tony Gondola will give a presentation titled “The History of Telescopes and How They Work” at 7 p.m. in the museum’s Fluke Challenger Learning Center.

While you’re out at the Museum of Flight check out the special exhibit Above and Beyond, which celebrates both the history and future of flight through a variety of immersive simulations, interactive design challenges, impactful stories of innovation, and more. Your opportunities are running out; the exhibit closes September 10.

Star Parties

As we turn the calendar to September star party season starts to wind down. There are several on the docket for this week.

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold a star party at the super-dark Brooks Memorial State Park near Goldendale from September 1-5. Closer to home, the club will hold a star party beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday, September 3 at the Rattlesnake Mountain Trailhead. Note that both of these events are for SAS members only; one of many good reasons to join now!

Olympic Astronomical Society will hold one of its Hurricane Ridge Star Parties Saturday, September 3. The event is free save for admission to Olympic National Park.

Oregon ObservatoryThe Brothers Star Party, a fundraiser for the Oregon Observatory at Sunriver, will be held August 31-September 5 near the town of Brothers, east of Bend, Oregon. Formerly held at Mount Bachelor, this star party has been at the new site near Brothers for several years, and the location gets high marks for dark skies. Find registration info, directions, and more details on the BSP Facebook page or website. Onsite registration is available.

Up in the sky

There’s a new Moon on Thursday, which means observing will be at its best, and Neptune reaches opposition on Friday; see if you can spot the most distant confirmed planet. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have more observing highlights for the week.

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Radioactivity is good for you

While most of us tend to think that radioactivity is dangerous, experts say that, like beer, it’s actually good for you in moderation. We learned this while drinking radioactive beer at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard on Wednesday during the “radioactive edition” of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Radioactive beer

Barnes

UW prof. Rory Barnes makes a point about radioactive beer during his Astronomy on Tap talk at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

University of Washington astrobiology professor Rory Barnes did the math on the beer. Figuring that a pint is about 90 percent water, carbon is about ten percent of the rest. That works out to 4.5 grams, or about 200 billion carbon-14 atoms. Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, which Barnes said means that, in your glass, there’s about one atomic decay every second.

“You are all drinking radioactive beer,” he said. Nobody stopped. I was sipping on a red IPA which was delightful and may have been even a bit more radioactive than the others!

Barnes noted that while we think of Chernobyl or Fukushima when we think about radiation, the process of radioactive decay is pretty important.

Radioactivity is good

“If it weren’t for the radioactivity inside our planet we’d all be dead,” he said. Barnes explained that decay of uranium, thorium, and potassium inside the Earth produces about 50 terawatts of energy, or about 0.1 watt per square meter on the surface. That much energy could run our entire civilization if we could capture it. As it is, it drives geologic processes such as plate tectonics, which helps regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

“It’s really important that the planet does a good job of keeping it from building up to too high of a level or dropping down to too low of a level because then our Earth would not be habitable,” Barnes explained. “Without (plate tectonics) the carbon dioxide would either build up and our planet would roast or it would get drawn down and our planet would freeze.”

Earth is in a sweet spot as far as this internal energy goes. Mars generates less than half the energy Earth does and is geologically dead. Jupiter’s moon Io generates a whopping two watts per square meter and is wildly active volcanically. For life, conditions have to be just right.

Radioactivity may lead us to ET

Barnes said that this fact could help guide us to other planets that might be likely to harbor life. The trouble is that in order to determine a planet’s internal energy and radioactivity we would have to look inside a rock that is hundreds of light years away.

“It’s not really obvious how you do that, but that’s what we need to do,” he said. “I’m sorry to say that the answer is that we can’t at this point. This is the limit of our scientific research right now.”

The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to determine the elements in the atmospheres of distant planets. Barnes said it would make sense to use JWST to look at planets that are near where supernovae have occurred, because these stellar explosions spread the heavy elements needed for this sort of planetary energy generation.

Radioactivity and the ages of stars

Sakari

UW postdoctoral research associate Charli Sakari explains how the age of a star can be determined by the presence of radioactive elements. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

UW astronomy post-doc Charli Sakari also uses radioactivity in her work. During her Astronomy on Tap talk she explained how she determines the makeup of stars by looking at spectra of the light they emit. Different elements leave a clear signature in the spectrum, absorption lines created when atoms in a star’s atmosphere absorb certain color wavelengths.

“If we measure how dark those lines are we can figure out how much of those elements is present in the atmospheres,” Sakari said.

It is especially informative to look for uranium and thorium.

“Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, which is about the age of the Sun, whereas thorium-232 has a half life of 14 billion years,” Sakari explained. “These half-lives are long enough that we can use them to date the ages of the oldest stars in the universe.”

The oldest stars have few elements heavier than helium. Younger stars can contain many heavier elements fused in the cores of the generations of stars that preceded them.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle drew a big crowd to Bad Jimmy’s on a rainy Wednesday night. In fact astronomy and beer lovers were packed in so tightly, and were generating considerable warmth, that the staff popped the garage-type doors open to let in a little fresh air. One wag in the crowd speculated that the robust attendance may have been an indicator of the sorry state of network television. We would say that, in eleven months of events Astronomy on Tap, which is organized by astronomy graduate students at the UW, has delivered plenty of good information and tons of fun. The next gathering is scheduled for Feb. 24.

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