Tag Archives: Alan Boyle

Get the scoop on SpaceShipOne

A lesson on how to make a spaceship and several astronomy club events highlight the local calendar for the coming week.

Road to SpaceShipOne

Meet the principals in XPRIZE-winning SpaceShipOne project at 5:30 p.m. Monday, October 17 at the Museum of Flight. Author Julian Guthrie will discuss her book about the XPRIZE competition, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight (Penguin Press, 2016). Three of the renegades will join her as Geekwire science correspondent Alan Boyle moderates a panel discussion including XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, co-founder Erik Lindbergh, and Dave Moore, project manager for Paul Allen on the XPRIZE-winning SpaceShipOne.

The evening will include a meet-and-greet reception from 5:30 until 6:30, Guthrie’s presentation at 6:30, the panel discussion at 6:45, and a question-and-answer session and book signing from 7:30 until 8:30. Cost is $10 and tickets are available online.

You can pick up a copy of the book at the link above or by clicking the image of the book cover.

Astro club events

Michael BarrattThe Rose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 17 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. The guest speaker will be astronaut Michael Barratt, who spent 199 days in space as flight engineer for International Space Station expeditions 19 and 20 in 2009 and also flew on STS-133, the final flight of the shuttle Discovery, in 2011. Barratt is a native of the Portland area.

The Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 18 in the Willard Geer Planetarium at Bellevue College. Patti Terhune-Inverso, an astronomy instructor at the college and a member of Eastside Astronomical Society, will present the introduction to the constellations that she uses for her classes at the beginning of each quarter.

The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 19 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. The program had not been published as of this writing.

Astronomy in Pierce County Saturday

Pierce College will host a couple of events at its Fort Steilacoom campus on Saturday, October 22.

haunted-night-skySpook-tober continues at the Pierce College Science Dome, which will be presenting a kids’ show called “Haunted Night Sky” on Saturdays through Halloween. Participants will be able to find creatures in the night sky, build a Frankenstein satellite, and take a tour of the Sea of Serpents on the Moon, the Witch’s Head Nebula, and other spooky places in the universe. Best for kids ages 3-12. Shows are scheduled for 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. each Saturday. Cost is $3.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for Saturday evening at 7:30. The indoor program will be a Halloween special. They’ll break out the telescopes for observing if the weather cooperates.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. New additions to the calendar this week include a talk by astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan at Town Hall Seattle November 14. Natarajan will talk about her new book, Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos (Yale University Press, 2016). Tickets are $5 and are available online.

Up in the sky

The Orionid meteor shower peaks this Friday and Saturday. Learn about the showers and other observing highlights for the week by visiting This Week’s Sky at a Glance by Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week by Astronomy.

Perseid meteor shower 2016: Where to see it

Astronomy wags love to point out that things like comets and meteor showers don’t pay much attention to the predictions of experts. This does not dissuade said prognosticators from making their forecasts. This year astronomers say the annual Perseid meteor shower may well be even better than usual, thanks to geometry and a gravity assist from Jupiter.


Direction of the Perseids. Image: NASA.

“Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of August 11–12,” said Bill Cooke with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour.”

Keep in mind that you won’t see that many if you stay in the city, where all but the brightest of the meteors will be washed out by light pollution. But you’ll still be able to enjoy some shooting stars in your own backyard. That’s where I usually watch for Perseids (my back yard, not yours!).

The predicted peak is in the early morning hours on Friday, August 12.

We’re often asked where the best places are to go to see meteors or other cosmic objects. I’ll break out the answer for in-city, and away.

Within the city

You’ve got to get at least 30 miles or so from the center of a city to get away from the effects of light pollution. But some areas in a city are better than others. As a general rule, find places away from direct light. You also want to be able to see as much of the sky as possible. Large city parks are often places where both of those things can happen. For example, the Seattle Astronomical Society holds monthly star parties at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline, where the viewing is a little better than it is next door to an automobile dealership. Other sources cite Lincoln Park and Solstice Park in West Seattle, and Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill as good places to see the stars. Parks on the water can be good; water is flat and there aren’t as many lights out on a lake or harbor.

One thing to keep in mind about parks are the official hours. Green Lake is a 24-hour park, while Jefferson and Lincoln parks are listed as open from 4 a.m. until 11:30 p.m., as are most Seattle city parks. Paramount Park is open “dawn until dusk” according to the Shoreline website. Perhaps city officials can be persuaded to waive early closures for special circumstances like meteor showers.

Be careful when you’re out at night in the parks.

Outside the city

Get away from the city lights and your stargazing prospects improve. One of the closest spots to do this is on Bainbridge Island. The Battle Point Astronomical Association has set up its planetarium and observatory in Battle Point Park on the west side of the island. Shielded a bit from the city and in a large, open space, the skies there are pretty good, given the proximity to Seattle. As a bonus, you may well find BPAA members there when there’s a meteor shower.

National Parks are great places to find dark night skies. Two spots that are great for stargazing are Sunrise Point on the way to Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park, and Hurricane Ridge south of Port Angeles in Olympic National Park. Area astronomy clubs often use Sunrise Point and the Olympic Astronomical Society holds regular events at the Ridge. Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info also recommends Staircase campground on Lake Cushman near Hoodsport on the southeast side of Olympic National Park, and Lake Ozette campground way up near the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. For that matter, most anyplace out on the coast will be good. The beach will offer good horizons and it’s pretty dark out there.

Head east. Going out I-90 and into the mountains, perhaps into Eastern Washington, can offer nice, dark skies and better weather. One of Enevoldsen’s favorites in the Lake Kachess campground just past Snoqualmie Pass. Take exit 62 from I-90. Last year Alan Boyle of Geekwire wrote an article about the Perseids and suggested Elk Heights Road off I-90 east of Cle Elum. That’s getting to be a bit of a haul for Seattle-area stargazers. If you’re really up for a drive, head to Goldendale. It’s super dark there, and the Seattle Astronomical Society holds star parties twice each year at Brooks Memorial State Park, just a bit north of town. While you’re out there visit the Goldendale Observatory State Park on a bluff above the city. There’s also a scenic overlook of the Columbia River on I-90 just a bit past Vantage with spectacular views and dark skies. One might find countless good spots along the Gorge between the last two.

Pack it in

My first experience with the Perseids was a memorable one. When I was 12 years old and on a backpacking trip with my father and Boy Scout troop, we slept out under the stars on a crystal-clear night in an open field just west of the village of Holden. We had no idea about the Perseids, but saw a constant stream of them through the night. It was a most memorable evening. This post from two years ago tells that story. So, while you might not be up for a hike to Holden, the wilderness offers most excellent viewing opportunities.

Wherever you go, find a lot of sky, look to the northeast after midnight, and enjoy the Perseids.


Here are some maps to selected stargazing sites. Have a suggestion? Email us and we’ll check it out!

More reading:

Pluto in retrospect, and club events this week

It has been just over a year since the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, and there are a couple of opportunities this week to look back at the mission and what we’ve learned so far about the former ninth planet.

Rose City AstronomersJohn Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado will give a talk about New Horizons at the monthly meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland. Spencer, a member of the New Horizons science team, studies the moons and other small bodies of the outer solar system using ground-based telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope, and close-up spacecraft observations. He was a science team member on the Galileo Jupiter orbiter and continues to work on the science team of the Cassini Saturn orbiter. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 18 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

moflogoNASA JPL Solar System Ambassador and Museum of Flight Educator Tony Gondola will give a talk about New Horizons at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 23 in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at the museum. Gondola will talk about new Plutopian perspectives and the planetoid’s dynamic system of moons. He’ll also look at what’s on the horizon as the spacecraft heads out into the Kuiper Belt and the extreme reaches of the solar system.

Science Café

Pacific Science CenterTake a look at the future of space exploration at a Pacific Science Center Science Café at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 19 at Wilde Rover Irish Pub in Kirkland. Alan Boyle, aerospace and science editor at Geekwire, will discuss “The Next Frontiers for Space Exploration” given the rapidly advancing private space industry, its implications for exploration, and the diplomatic and economic questions it raises.

Wednesday at PacSci’s Boeing IMAX® Theater Trekkers can enjoy a Star Trek movie marathon that includes the latest film in the franchise. The marathon begins with Star Trek (2D) at 4:30 p.m. July 20, followed by Star Trek Into Darkness (3D) at 7 p.m. and the premiere of Star Trek Beyond: An IMAX 3D Experience at 10 p.m. Tickets are $40, with discounts for members, seniors, youth, and children.

Wednesday at UW

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 20 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. The program will be a show-and-tell by SAS members and includes recent astrophotography efforts as well as a talk from Seattle Astronomy about some of our recent activities.

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryLater that evening at 9 p.m. the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory will hold one of its twice-monthly open houses. The astronomy talks for the evening are completely filled, but you may still be able to get a tour of the observatory dome and a look through the vintage telescope operated by Seattle Astronomical Society volunteers. Visit the observatory website to make reservations for future events, which happen on the first and third Wednesday of the month through September.

Up in the sky

Jupiter is getting lower and lower in the west these days as dusk falls, but Mars and Saturn are still well-placed for evening observing. 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.

Let’s get Pluto and New Horizons on a postage stamp


Postage doubled between the time of Project Mercury and the Moon landing. And airmail was all the way up to a dime. Stamps from the Greg Scheiderer collection.

I find it fascinating how often my interest in space and astronomy sends me off on a mental trip to another place and time. Beyond the notion that my eyeball often captures photons that left their point of origin before the dawn of human civilization, I sometimes find that the hobby moves me around even within my own lifetime.

It happened again today. I learned during my morning reading about the newly launched effort to get the U.S. Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp depicting the New Horizons mission to Pluto. This leads me to a confession: I’m a former philatelist.

This is a deep, dark secret that not even my wife knew about. I hadn’t had the stamp album out of the box in probably 40 years. Yet the thing kept following me through nine moves, and probably even more efforts to jettison junk. Somehow, this morning, I found the box, opened it up, and went in search of some of those space stamps I remember so well. As the collected works spread out to take up most of the dining room table, my wife walked in and, with a puzzled look, asked “What’s all that stuff.” Well, its the stamp collection, of course. (It had been in that box she kept asking me to move to another spot after the latest move, back into the house after last year’s remodeling project.)

More stamps

Many nations issued stamps commemorating space heroes. Here is a stamp from Mongolia depicting Yuri Gagarin, a Qatar stamp of Neil Armstrong, one from Romania with Wally Schirra, and a Hungarian stamp of John Glenn. From the Greg Scheiderer collection.

Among the valued items in my stamp box are my stamp collecting merit badge pamphlet and my handwritten notes, on 3×5 cards, for the presentation I made to earn the badge. In the notes I listed three reasons for stamp collecting: money, fun, and learning about other countries. At least one of those is true; stamp collecting is the only reason I know where Qatar is. The Middle-Eastern country issued some gorgeous stamps in the day. Though, now that I think about it, I’m having fun with it today, too! As for the money part, I don’t expect that the stamps a 12-year-old could buy in 1969 for 50 cents per bag amount to much cash value, but if you’re an appraiser who found this post by Googling “million-dollar space stamps” please let me know. (I’ll find a way to monitize this blog yet!)

I wonder if my interest in space had something to do with my interest in stamp collecting. As a kid growing up in the 1960s I was fascinated by the space race, and the stamps of many countries depicted the achievements of space adventures. This wasn’t limited to the United States and the Soviet Union. Many countries issued space commemoratives. Soviet-bloc nations were big on what the Russians were doing, but even tiny places like Dominica, Togo, and Rwanda issued space stamps. Space exploration and the Moon landing captured the imagination of the entire world, not just little space dreamers like me. Somehow my stamp collection languished for four decades. But today I’m glad I have it.

Proposed Pluto stamp

Concept art by Dan Durda for a postage stamp commemorating the New Horizons mission to Pluto. The New Horizons team is pushing for the stamp through an online petition to the U.S. Postal Service.

I’m a big fan of Pluto and think the stamp idea is a worthy one. If we’re going to stick with busting Pluto down to dwarf status, the least we can do is to remind snail-mail users and stamp collectors that the first space mission out that way is due to arrive in July 2015. Organizers say we’ve got to start now in order to have the stamp ready for sticking in three years. It can take that long to navigate the red tape!

So go here and sign the online petition to request a Pluto and New Horizons stamp. The aim is to collect 100,000 signatures to send to the USPS, and they’ve got 4,300 of them as of this writing. That’s not much progress, but the effort is just under way, and getting a boost from the likes of the Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society, Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log, Space.com, Sky & Telescope, and a host of others. Boyle is a big Pluto fan and is the author of The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference, one of three books about the ex-planet about which I wrote last year.

Let’s show our love for space nuts, stamp collectors, and dwarf planets. Power to Pluto!

Authors vote 2-1 against Pluto

Authors of what I call the “Pluto Trilogy” vote 2-1 against planethood for the distant icy world. I just completed reading three recent books about Pluto: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown, Caltech astronomer and discoverer of Eris; The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York; and The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference by Alan Boyle, science editor for MSNBC.com and author of Cosmic Log.

Research scientists sometimes turn out prose that isn’t accessible for the non-Ph.D. In How I Killed Pluto Brown, however, weaves an entertaining, witty, and sometimes poetic tale about the years of work that went into the discovery of Eris, a Kuiper Belt object thought to be just a little bigger than Pluto. One need not be an astronomer to appreciate the detailed account of the search for the “tenth planet”, nor a detective to appreciate Brown’s story of the controversy surrounding credit for the discovery of Haumea, now the fourth-largest known dwarf planet in our solar system. The interweaving of stories about Brown’s personal life during the hunt are endearing.

One could not have faulted Brown for holding out for full planet status for Pluto. That would have given him status as discoverer of the tenth planet. As a scientist, though, he believes Eris and Pluto have more in common with the thousands of Kuiper Belt objects than they do with the big eight, and is happy to have them thought of and categorized differently.

While Brown’s discoveries forced the hand of the International Astronomical Union on establishing its controversial definition of planet, it was Tyson and the Hayden Planetarium that inadvertently ignited the Pluto debate when Eris was not even yet a dim, slow-moving glint on Brown’s computer screen.

“I keep getting blamed for Pluto,” Tyson said at a speaking engagement in Seattle last month. “Eleven years ago we opened an exhibit in New York City where we grouped Pluto with other icy brethren in the outer solar system, and the nation’s population of elementary school children got pissed off.”

The Pluto Files is full of letters from those children and cartoons from various points of view in the debate. While the actual IAU debate and vote is almost an afterthought in Brown’s book, Tyson gives it fairly detailed treatment.

Tyson said that the planetarium didn’t set out to cause trouble, but simply considered, in the design of their exhibits, the recent discoveries of thousands of Kuiper Belt objects.

“Some of them have orbital properties that greatly resemble that of Pluto,” he said during his Seattle talk. “So Pluto has brethren out there. Pluto and they look more alike, than either they or Pluto look like any of the other eight planets, and we figured it was time for Pluto to own up to its actual identity.”

Oddly enough, the exhibit was up and running for almost a year without a peep before the New York Times finally took notice and ran a front-page article lamenting that Pluto wasn’t a planet, at least in New York. The mail barrage was on.

Boyle is the most sympathetic to Pluto. In my coverage of his talk here last year, I wrote, “Alan Boyle thinks Pluto should be considered a planet, but ultimately believes a lot of people are taking the question way too seriously.”

The Case for Pluto delves deepest into the IAU deliberations, and includes text of all of the various resolutions about the definition of planet. It’s a great read, full of humorous observations about the personalities involved and the gyrations people go to in order to come to grips with their Pluto issues.

All three books are engaging reads and highly recommended for those interested in Pluto and the solar system. They’re not likely to be the last words, either. Bloggers know that Pluto generates a lot of hits, and publishers are surely watching to see how many books the dwarf planet will sell.