Tag Archives: Rose City Astronomers

Transit of Mercury highlight of the week; maybe the year

The most anticipated observing event of the year happens Monday morning, May 9, as Mercury will transit across the face of the Sun. The transit begins at 4:13 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, so it will be under way when the Sun rises in Seattle.

NASA illustration.

NASA illustration.

The weather gods are taunting Seattle astronomers, as usual. After a pretty good run of mostly clear weather, we awoke to rain on Mother’s Day morning. The forecast is for mostly cloudy cloudy skies around sunrise Monday, turning to sunny by noon, when the transit will be over. So, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see the transit constantly from sun-up to finish, but also looks pretty unlikely that we’ll get skunked.

There are several transit-observing events that we know about. Seattle Astronomy will be down at Seacrest Park near the West Seattle Water Taxi dock with a telescope; join us and have a look! The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold an observing event at Snoqualmie Point Park near the town of Snoqualmie. (UPDATE: The SAS event has been cancelled due to inclement weather.) There will be transit viewing and programming at the Pierce College Science Dome in Lakewood. Rose City Astronomers and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry will be observing the transit from the OMSI site in Portland. Check the links for details.

A couple of things to keep in mind about the transit. First, don’t ever, ever, ever look at the Sun without proper protection. Regular sunglasses won’t do the trick. You need special eclipse glasses. Second, Mercury is so small that you will need magnification to see it, and that means a telescope also equipped with the proper solar filters. Be safe out there!

Read our preview article about the Mercury transit.

AstronoMay continues

Pacific Science CenterAstronoMay continues at the Pacific Science Center this week. There will be two interesting lectures on Saturday, May 14. At 10 a.m. Elena Amador, a graduate student at the University of Washington, will talk about the search for water on Mars. Then at 2:30 p.m. Dr. Sandeep Singh, a planetary scientist from the Bear Fight Institute in Winthrop, will speak about Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Singh has worked on NASA’s Rosetta, Cassini, and DAWN missions.

Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand much of the day Saturday with solar telescopes for observing the Sun, and the center is offering planetarium shows and other astronomy-related programming throughout the week. Check their calendar for details.

PacSci Podcast about AstronoMay:

Club events

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will host one of its public nights beginning at 9 p.m. this Saturday, May 14 on the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The program will be about black holes, and there will be observing if the weather permits.

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association has several events on Saturday, May 14 at its Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. At their BPAstro Kids shows at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. youngsters will build their own planets and check them for life. Following at 8 p.m. astronomer Steve Ruhl will examine exoplanets: How we see them, what they tell us about our solar system, and how we might know if there other habitable worlds out there.

Check out our recent article and podcast about BPastro Kids:

Up in the sky

The Mercury transit is the big astronomical event of the week. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

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Gravitational wave discovery ushers in new era in astronomy

“This is beginning a new era in astronomy,” said Ethan Siegel about the publication in February of a paper announcing that scientists had detected gravitational waves. Siegel has taught physics and astronomy at Lewis & Clark College and the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon. He is creator of the science blog Starts With a Bang, and is the author of Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific, 2015). Siegel gave a talk at this month’s meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland about what he calls the discovery of a lifetime.

Dr. Ethan Siegel, creator of the "Starts With a Bang" blog, gave a talk about the discovery of gravitational waves to the Rose City Astronomers April 18. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Ethan Siegel, creator of the “Starts With a Bang” blog, gave a talk about the discovery of gravitational waves to the Rose City Astronomers April 18. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This was something, when it was first proposed, that was really taken to be a preposterous consequence of a theory and something that we never really thought we were going to be able to test,” Siegel said. “We have gone in 101 years from pure theory to concrete, direct detection of gravitational waves.”

Einstein’s theory of relativity states that mass and energy bend spacetime, and that’s why objects orbit each other. Relativity explained anomalies in the orbits of planets in our solar system, but Siegel said there is an “extra weird” effect because the orbits decay.

“Another consequence of Einstien’s relativity is that as things spiral in, and it takes a long time to do, but as they do they emit a special type of radiation; they emit radiation that goes through the fabric of space itself,” Siegel said. “This is gravitational radiation.”

It takes way too long for that to happen here in the solar system. For Earth’s orbit to decay completely and merge with the Sun would take 10150 years, according to Siegel. He said we’ll have to look elsewhere to see the effects happen on human-length time scales.

“You need to find heavy masses; heavier mass in relativity means a stronger effect,” Siegel said. “You need them to have small distances, where small distance is a few kilometers, not a few million miles. And you need them to orbit at fast speeds, where fast is kind of close to the speed of light.”

Luckily these conditions exist. Black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars can do the trick; the gravitational waves detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) last fall were generated by merging black holes. One of those black holes started out at 36 solar masses and the other at 29. After the merger they weighed in at 62 solar masses. That’s simple arithmetic: 36+29=65; what happened to the other three solar masses? Siegel said, oddly enough, this was a prediction by Einstein as well. It’s the flip side of e=mc2.

“When these two black holes merged, three solar masses, about five percent of the total mass, was converted into pure energy,” he said. “That energy is the gravitational radiation and is why we here on Earth were able to detect this huge event of two black holes merging from over a billion light years away.”

Siegel is amazed that we were able to figure the mass, spin rate, merging speed, mass loss and other characteristics of these distant objects.

“We learned all of this information from one 20-millisecond signal that moved two laser arms by less than 10-18 meters,” he marveled. “What I’d say we have now is a whole new way to discover our universe.”

Siegel, an entertaining and informative speaker, is scheduled to give another talk at the October 2016 meeting of Rose City Astronomers. He will discuss his book Beyond the Galaxy.

That way is improving rapidly. The LIGO detectors at Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, are being tweaked to even greater sensitivity. New detectors are planned for Italy, Japan, and India. Siegel said the ultimate would be to build three huge LIGO detectors in space, forming an equilateral triangle in Earth’s orbit and having detector arms hundreds of millions of kilometers long.

“If you do that, you can not only watch things merge with supermassive black holes, you can find mergers of ultramassive black holes,” Siegel said. We might even be able to spot gravitational waves from cosmic inflation within the light of the cosmic microwave background. Siegel said if that happens, it would prove that gravity is a quantum force.

“There’s no way to make these fluctuations unless gravity is inherently a quantum force,” he explained. “The process that makes these fluctuations is a quantum process.”

Siegel said it’s a thrilling time to be involved in astronomy.

“This is the first time we’ve seen something astronomical without using a telescope or light of any type,” he said. “This is the dawn of astronomy beyond light-gathering telescopes.”

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Astronaut talk, Astronomy on Tap this week

We’ll hear from South Korea’s first astronaut this week and celebrate the first birthday of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Astronaut Soyeon Yi

soyeonyi_calendarSoyeon Yi became South Korea’s first astronaut when she flew with a Russian crew on Soyuz to the International Space Station in 2008. Yi, who retired from the astronaut business in 2014 and now lives in Puyallup, will give a talk at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 26 at the Museum of Flight. Yi’s appearance is part of the museum’s annual Women Fly! event for junior- and senior-high girls who are interested in aviation and aerospace careers.

Happy birthday to Astronomy on Tap Seattle

AOT Seattle March 23In March 2015 Astronomy on Tap Seattle started bringing us beer and astronomy on a monthly basis. They’ll celebrate a year in business with a big bash at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 23 at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. A handful of mini-talks will highlight astronomical discoveries and advances of the past year. You’ll also be able to buy a special Astronomy on Tap Seattle beer glass and fill it with deluxe, barrel-aged Big Sipper, an imperial Scotch ale that was named by popular vote of AoT participants. Check out our article and podcast from earlier this month about Astronomy on Tap Seattle’s first year.

Rose City

The Rose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 21 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. Prof. James Schombert of the University of Oregon will take on the question of whether the universe is infinite, and how the latest observations are helping find answers.

LIGO lecture

A century after Einstein predicted gravitational waves, scientists with LIGO found them. Dr. Muzammil A. Arain, one of the authors of the paper that announced the discovery, will give a lecture at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 21 at Building 27 on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. The talk will cover the science behind the LIGO detectors, the basics of gravitational waves, and the data processing techniques employed by LIGO that enabled gravitational wave detection. Registration is $5 and can be done online.

Art on the Moon

NASA photo.

NASA photo.

The Giant Steps art exhibition and contest continues Saturday and Sunday at Seattle’s King Street Station, where it will be open from noon until 6 p.m. both days. The event challenged students, artists, engineers, architects, designers, and other space enthusiasts to imagine and propose art projects on the surface of the Moon. Their submissions will be on display at the station weekends through April 3. Admission is $10.

 

Up in the sky

Jupiter is just two weeks past opposition and well placed for viewing these days. The King of Planets will pass close to the Moon on Tuesday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

 

 

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Astronomy reduced to pixel archive science

A University of Oregon professor of physics frets that astronomy is drowning in data that threatens to reduce it to a “pixel archive science.” His solution is something right out of Star Trek.

Dr. Gregory Bothun made a presentation titled, “Big Data, Discovery, and a New Kind of Astronomy: Are We Prepared?” at the February meeting of the Rose City Astronomers at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. Bothun noted that efforts such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey provide the stuff of discovery.

Gregory Bothun

Prof. Gregory Bothun of the University of Oregon spoke about astronomy’s challenges with big data to a meeting Feb. 15 of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The great thing about surveys is that they produce a catalog of calibrated sources which serve the community on a worldwide basis and involve more people in astronomy,” he said, adding that, for this reason, surveys should come before more targeted observations of individual objects.

“We’ve done it the other way around, mostly because of some kind of fetish with large-aperture glass,” Bothun said. “We have spent far more money building large telescopes than we have on building real, useful surveys that serve the community.”

Bothun pointed out that sometimes a big telescope will do a survey, such as Hubble’s ultra-deep-field work, and this leads to tremendous advances.

“Every time an instrument does a calibrated survey, science moves forward much more rapidly than some individual working with some piece of aperture doing a follow-up observation,” Bothun said.

A pipeline problem

While Sloan was useful, Bothun said, it also illuminated a problem. It took eight years to get the survey’s 20 terabytes of data into the hands of scientists.

“We’re not good at pipeline processing of survey data in a timely manner to feed a community,” Bothun said. “We shouldn’t have to wait eight years to go from acquired pixels to reduced data to analysis. It should just happen instantly. To the extent that it doesn’t is the extent that we’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot and turn astronomy into a science that archives pixels.”

3point2billionpixelsThe problem is about to get more challenging. A coalition of institutions is building the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile. The LSST camera will have 3.2 billion pixels, and at 16 bits per pixel, each image it captures will be a whopping 6.4 gigabytes.

“Try to take a selfie of that and send it to your mom over wifi,” Bothun quipped. The challenge, though, is no laughing matter. It’s difficult to move that much data around, and it’s hard to look at it, too.

What you see is not all you get

“Every pixel in astronomy has a source in it. We need to see every pixel. We’re nowhere close to that,” Bothun said. A short-term answer may be visualization walls, commonly called viz walls. These are banks of high-definition monitors that scientists could use to display and manipulate vast amounts of data in one place. This would be perfect for looking at such large, high-resolution images. If you’re seeing a scaled-down version of a photo, Bothun said, the really interesting stuff may simply get averaged out. In addition, it’s better to look at a entire image at native resolution. This will take some training of our brains, but they’re capable.

“Your brain is a great visualizing machine. It’s a great parallel processing machine,” Bothun said. He said if it wasn’t we couldn’t drive on I-5. Think about how it would be if you tried to consciously track the speed and location of every other vehicle around you on the freeway. It’s not possible.

“Your brain does this automatically,” Bothun said. “It’s about time we we started to do data analysis in a forum that matches your brain’s algorithm.”

This would allow us “to take on extremely challenging problems, which is what leads to discovery in science,” he added.

Star Trek to the rescue

Viz walls may not be enough when it comes to the data from LSST. Its ten-year survey of the universe will generate a mind-boggling 60 petabytes of information. To meet the challenge, Bothun’s office is working on advanced visualization tools, a sort of three-dimensional viz cloud.

“It could be the holodeck,” Bothun said in reference to the virtual reality facility in Star Trek. “That’s how you should think of this.”

In this viz cloud trained humans could look at data in real time, and quickly sort out and discard what isn’t useful. After all, Bothun noted, the scientifically interesting data is usually just a tiny fraction of what is collected, and there’s no good reason to be pack rats with the rest.

“If all we’re going to do is take the raw data set and write it to disk, this is not a useful instrument,” he said of the LSST. “We have to do business differently if we want to optimize discovery.”

Big data is here, and visualization of this sort will help astronomers, but it will go beyond that; It can help in fields from finance and business to medicine, climate change, and counter-terrorism. To make effective use of the information available will require solutions to the pipeline and database challenges.

“All of this is absolutely vital for observational astronomy to continue to progress and continue to engage in discovery,” Bothun concluded.

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Busy Presidents Day week ahead

Happy Presidents Day from Seattle Astronomy. We celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln this week. Perhaps, though, we should observe Astronomers Day, because some big-name birthdays fall this week as well. Nicholas Copernicus was born Feb. 19, 1473—he would be 543—and Galileo was born Feb. 15, 1564—452 years ago this day. Maybe it is because of these two most important scientists that there are so many great astronomy events on the calendar this week!

Show me a rose

Rose City AstronomersWe’re planning a road trip to Portland, where the Rose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15 at the OMSI auditorium. Dr. Gregory Bothun of the University of Oregon will give a talk titled, “Astronomy, Big Data, and the Future.” The premise: we’re collecting astronomical data at an astronomically increasing pace, but human processing and thinking about all of this information can’t keep up. Is astronomy in danger of becoming a “pixel archive science?”

Silent Sky and These Things Abide

Silent SkyTaproot Theatre in Greenwood continues its run of Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson‘s play about astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, through Feb. 27. This Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m. the theatre will host a special conversation with the play’s director, Karen Lund, and Adrian Wyard of the Counterbalance Foundation as they discuss the search for truth by both science and religion, the history of the conversation between faith and science, and the possibilities for future dialogue. It’s free, but seating is limited, so contact the theatre if you wish to attend.

Watch for a post about our conversation with Wyard coming soon!

Decisions, decisions

There are two good events coming up on Wednesday, Feb. 17, but alas, you can only be in one place at a time, unless this whole multiverse thing is true.

AOT SeattleThe fine folks from Astronomy on Tap Seattle, organized by astronomy graduate students from the University of Washington, will host their monthly confab of astronomy, trivia, prizes, and beer at 7 p.m. at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. This month UW astronomer Dr. John Parejko will give a talk titled, “Detect the Ancient Universe Like a BOSS,” and Dr. Fabio Governato will speak about “Dark Matter, Black Holes and other reasons to work with NASA’s fastest supercomputer: Pleiades.” It’s free, but bring beer money.

Meanwhile the Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the UW campus in Seattle. Astronomy Ph.D. student Phoebe Upton Sanderbeck will give a presentation about how measuring the temperature of the universe can help us understand its development.

Saturn’s moons of promise

Pacific PlanetariumPacific Planetarium in Bremerton will feature its monthly third Friday astronomy talk this Friday, Feb. 19 with hourly presentations at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. NASA Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will share the latest findings about the environments on Saturn’s moons Enceledus and Titan, where liquid water and methane flow, which might provide the necessary conditions for life to develop. Tickets are $5 and are available at the door or in advance online.

The Mercury 13

Mercury 13Sally Ride became the first American woman in space when she flew on a space shuttle mission in 1983. More than two decades earlier 13 U.S. women were training for flight in the Woman in Space program. Of course, the Mercury 13 never got off the ground. At 2 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 20 at the Museum of Flight aviation expert Philip Tartalone will explore the genesis of the Woman in Space Program, the personalities involved, the testing, and the social mores of the early 1960s that ultimately doomed the program. The presentation is free with admission to the Museum.

Up in the sky

Jupiter will be at opposition next month, but it’s already placed pretty well for viewing in the late evening these days. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

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Local editor recognized for work on astro newsletter

Vicki Saunders, editor of BPAA Quarterly, the newsletter for the Battle Point Astronomical Association of Bainbridge Island, recently received fourth place recognition from the Astronomical League in the competition for the Mabel Sterns Newsletter Editor Awards. It’s the third time in the 14-year history of the awards, named for the AL’s first newsletter editor, that BPAA has placed. Saunders received honorable mention in 2006, and Bill and Anna Edmonds took fifth place in 2002.

Mabel Sterns

Mabel Sterns, above, was the first editor of the Astronomical League newsletter, and now the league's award for newsletter excellence bears her name. Vicki Saunders of the Battle Point Astronomical Association on Bainbridge Island took fourth place in this year's awards. Photo: Astronomical League.

Northwest astronomy clubs have not been all that well represented in the Sterns Awards. Rose City Astronomers from Portland took first place back in 2007 with the Rosette Gazette, edited by Larry Deal. Seattle Astronomical Society‘s Webfooted Astronomer, edited by Laurie Maloney, took a third in 2001, and Kathleen Higgins took second in 2002 for the Boise Astronomical Society newsletter.

The awards have a fairly rigorous nomination process, and Saunders noted that the recognition came despite the fact that she ignored one of the league’s strong suggestions, and that was to include the AL logo, preferably on the first page! The judges, former newsletter editors as well as editors of The Reflector, the Astronomical League magazine, apparently ignored that omission in their deliberations and recognized Saunders’ outstanding publication.

As a former editor of The Webfooted Astronomer, I recognize the challenge of putting out a good product month after month. It’s tough to find or create enough content. BPAA president Stephen Ruhl’s nominating letter was quoted in the AL Reflector in praise of Saunders’ work: “Vicki’s efforts create a newsletter that meeets the needs of the association and that draws the community into astronomy and the BPAA. It is the glue that holds our local astronomcal community together.” The winter 2011/12 issue is a good one, with seven feature articles created by club members.

Submissions for the 2012 Mabel Sterns Awards are due by March 31. Complete information about how to apply is on the AL website.

Congratulations to Vicki Saunders, and hats off to all of the astronomy club newsletter editors out there who keep their members informed and engaged.

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