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Lectures and a concert celebrate UW astronomy’s 50th anniversary

The University of Washington Astronomy Department is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall with a number of special events of interest to astronomy buffs and more.

The celebration had something of an informal kickoff back in May when cosmologist Jim Peebles gave a talk celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the cosmic microwave background. Several of the upcoming celebratory events were mentioned at that lecture, and now details are firmed up for most.

originsposterThe centerpiece of the celebration is an audiovisual concert called Origins: Life and the Universe that will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, November 7 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Eight Seattle composers have created original orchestral music that showcases the complexity and beauty of our universe. The symphonic concert will be accompanied by projected high-resolution movies created using some of the most spectacular imagery, videos and conceptual art from the Hubble Space Telescope and a variety of other sources. The live concert will feature Grammy-award winning conductor David Sabee and the renowned Northwest Sinfonia orchestra.

Origins will be a benefit for the scholarship program at the University of Washington Astrobiology Program in the Department of Astronomy. It will be presented by Burmer Music, The Composition Lab, University of Washington’s Astrobiology Program, and Department of Astronomy. The eight featured composers are Nan Avant, Barry Dowsett, Eric Goetz, Stan LePard, Howard Mostrom, Glenna Burmer, Tim Huling, and Kohl Hebert, a 12-year-old musical prodigy making his orchestral premiere.

Tickets are $32, $22 for students, and are available through the Seattle Symphony website. The organizers will be offering discount pricing for members of local astronomy clubs.

Supporting lectures

Three free public lectures have been planned to highlight the science featured in Origins and to preview some of the music written for the concert.

Origins of Nebulae and Stars
Thursday, Oct. 1, 6 p.m. at the Museum of Flight
Professor Bruce Balick of the UW Department of Astronomy will discuss the origin and development of nebulae and star nurseries. Composer Avant’s piece “Bijoux” showcases some of the more spectacular nebulae ever discovered. The talk is free, as part of the museum’s free first Thursday program.

Origin of the Universe and Everything in It
Saturday, Oct. 17, 2 p.m. at the Museum of Flight
Professor Matt McQuinn of the UW Department of Astronomy will take a close look at how our universe was formed and how small fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background grow into galaxies with stars and planets. Burmer, who composed a piece entitled “The Big Bang,” discusses her musical and visual interpretation of the 13.8-billion-year history of our universe, exploring the process that composers and filmmakers use to bridge science and art. Free with museum admission.

Oceans, Volcanoes and the Origin of Life
Tuesday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m. at the Pacific Science Center
Professor John Delaney of the UW Department of Oceanography, one of the world’s foremost experts on deep-sea volcanoes, will explore the hydrothermal activity that may have produced life on primordial Earth. He is joined by composer Dowsett, whose composition, “The Evolution of Carbon and Stardust,” is part of the Origins concert. Admission to this event is $5 for the general public; members of the Pacific Science Center, UW students and alumni with ID, and members of the Seattle Astronomical Society will be admitted free.

The Big Bang and beyond

bigbangAlso in connection with the Astronomy Department’s anniversary, the UW Alumni Association is sponsoring a series of four lectures titled The Big Bang and Beyond: Four Excursions to the Edges of Time and Space. The talks feature three UW faculty members and a prominent alumnus, and each will be held in room 120 of Kane Hall on the UW campus in Seattle. Here is the schedule for the Wednesday evening lectures:

Andy-Connolly_210Unravelling our own cosmic history
Wednesday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.
UW professor Andy Connolly will take us on a tour of how, using the latest technologies, astronomical surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Large Synoptic Sky Survey Review produce some of the deepest optical images ever obtained. These images allow us to look for flashes from the most energetic events in the distant universe and dramatically extend our cosmic reach.

Miguel_Morales_210The end of the beginning
Wednesday, Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m.
Inflation, particle production, huge sound waves and gravity waves—the early universe was a strange place. This phase of the universe culminated with the release of the oldest light we can ever hope to see: the cosmic microwave background. In this lecture, UW professor Miguel Morales will focus on how scientists read the subtle patterns in the cosmic microwave background to infer what happened in the first few moments of our universe’s history.

Julianne-Dalcanton_2101Building the universe, piece by piece
Wednesday, Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m.
UW professor Julianne Dalcanton will highlight the unique role that the Hubble Space Telescope has played in shaping our understanding of galaxies and stars as she illuminates the complex forces that have shaped the universe we see around us. She will also talk about the future of space exploration and how it will shape future discoveries about the universe.

adamfrankBefore time, beyond the universe
Wednesday, Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m.
Adam Frank, UW alum, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, and well known science communicator will take us on a journey to “the wild west of physics”—the speculative realm of how time began, how many universes are out there and whether or not we need to rethink our fundamental approach to cosmic questions. Beginning with questions that informed philosophy for centuries, Frank will show how physicists and astronomers are working to create bold new ways of seeing reality, much in the same fashion as Leonardo, Copernicus, Bacon, Newton and their contemporaries reframed the human perspective in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Talks in the Big Bang and Beyond lecture series are free, but preregistration is required.

Astronomy store Cloud Break Optics opens in Ballard

For the first time that anyone can remember there is a retail shop run by and for amateur astronomers selling telescopes and astronomy gear in the City of Seattle. Cloud Break Optics opened quietly in Ballard a couple of weeks ago and is gearing up for a grand opening celebration later this month.

Cloud Break Optics

Matt Dahl and Stephanie Anderson with one of their light buckets in front of their telescope shop, Cloud Break Optics, in Ballard. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Cloud Break Optics is owned and operated by Stephanie Anderson and Matt Dahl, longtime friends and Colorado transplants who got their start in the business working at a telescope store in the Denver area. They ended up in Seattle because of astronomy, education, and love.

Both have some impressive credentials. Anderson, who got interested in space after reading an Isaac Asimov book as a kid, majored in math and physics and taught at Metropolitan State University and the University of Colorado Denver. She was working as a guide on a solar eclipse tour in 2009 when she met her future husband, a Seattle resident.

“Our first date was three weeks in China and Tibet,” Anderson said. They started up a long-distance relationship between Denver and Seattle but, one December when Anderson’s adjunct contract at Metropolitan ran out, she didn’t renew and moved to Seattle.

Dahl received his first telescope for Christmas when he was 17, and was hooked after one look at the Moon. Later Anderson sold him his first larger telescope. He started college as a music major, but eventually switched to physics.

“Basically it’s been all downhill from there,” he joked. Dahl did research on extrasolar planets and, after college, got a job at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder and worked on the Kepler mission. In 2012 his wife was admitted to a master’s program at Bastyr University in Kenmore, and they moved to Seattle. It was a bit easier having a friend, Anderson, already in town.

An astronomy hiatus

Dahl and Anderson gave up on astronomy for a while after moving to Seattle; after all, we have our reputation as a cloudy and rainy place. But a trip to the Rocky Mountain Star Stare last summer reignited their interest. They went to the Table Mountain Star Party as well last year, and some old ideas resurfaced.

“Throughout our friendship we’d always kicked around this idea of owning a telescope store,” Dahl said. Late last summer, they decided to do it. Anderson explained there were two main factors that led to their leap.

“One was the realization that you really don’t actually have to go that far in the wintertime in order to have a nice, clear sky,” she said. They figured out local weather patterns and learned that things were better in Eastern Washington. “We realized we really weren’t traveling further than we were in Colorado to get a good, dark sky.”

The second was a practical matter that sprung from their renewed interest in observing.

“We really didn’t have a place we could go locally,” Anderson said, to make a quick pick-up of a key piece of gear they needed for an observing session. “We thought there would be a niche to fill.”

Experience counts

A big part of that niche is their personal knowledge and experience, according to Dahl.

“We each have hauled many a telescope from one location to another, and observed with different types of telescopes, imaged with different types of telescopes,” Dahl said. “We have a slew of knowledge in our back pockets. A lot of astronomy is getting that jump start from somebody who had done it before.”

“If your first observing experience is a pleasant one because you know how to operate your telescope and you have an instrument that will show you what you think it will show you, you are far more likely to stay in the hobby,” he added.

Anderson noted that sometimes the personal touch is the only way to go.

“A German equatorial mount is very confusing to someone who has never seen one before,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to learn on your own. You need someone to show you and explain what the theory is behind it.”

File Aug 02, 3 58 42 PM

The author shot this photo of the Sun using an iPhone attachment to a solar scope set up in the Cloud Break Optics parking lot. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The hands-on approach is important. As we talked about their plans for the shop we discussed astrophotography and the challenges I’ve had getting good photos with my smartphone. We soon had a solar telescope set up in the Cloud Break Optics parking lot and I was taking pics with the help of a nifty phone attachment. You get a better sense for the various telescopes and gear when you can actually see them, touch them, and use them. You just can’t get that experience online.

The challenges of a brick-and-mortar store

Anderson and Dahl recognize that a huge chunk of the sales of astronomy gear these days happens online, and so they are doing Internet sales and shipping globally.

“We have to compete in that market,” Dahl explained. “At the same time we wanted to provide a customer service experience” for people local to the Seattle area.

“We want them to come into the shop, talk to us, give them the advice and the expertise and the knowledge that we have,” he said. “At the same time we can provide as much of that as possible on our website.”

You can follow Cloud Break Optics on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Drop by the shop at 2821 NW Market Street in Ballard, and watch for news of their upcoming grand opening celebration. They’ll be at Table Mountain again next week, this time with their vendor hats on. We expect they’ll work in a little observing as well.

An evening with famed comet hunter Don Machholz

In an age when automated programs are scanning the night sky using high-tech telescopes, CCD cameras, and computing power to find near-Earth objects, Don Machholz continues to search for comets the old-fashioned way.

“I do it visually,” Machholz explained at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society last month. “I do not use cameras, I do not use CCDs. I look through the eyepiece and I push the telescope.”

Scheiderer and Machholz

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer, left, with comet hunter Don Machholz at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Machholz is the record holder, with eleven comets discovered visually since he started his hunt in the mid-1970s. That doesn’t sound like so many, but consider this: according to the Catalog of Comet Discoveries, there have been 1,502 comets discovered since 2005. Of those, just three have been discovered visually. The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) got full or shared credit for thirty-three comet discoveries last year alone. The last time a comet was discovered visually was in 2010, when there were two, and Machholz bagged one of those.

There’s a little bit of luck involved in comet hunting. Machholz jokes that the first thing you need to do to find a comet is to be looking where it is in the 40,000 square degrees of sky. But he has a system. He checks websites to figure out where the programs like Pan-STARRS are looking on a particular night and then conducts his hunt in a different part of the sky. Machholz divides the sky into sections, and makes telescope sweeps covering about fifteen degrees at a time. Then moves down about a half field of view and sweeps again. He keeps meticulous records of his searches.

“It sounds boring, but you get to see a different part of the sky all the time,” Machholz said.

He got interested in astronomy as a boy. His father was a naval navigator and had a book with star charts that Don used to learn the sky. When he was about eight years old his sister brought home a book about meteors that piqued his interest. Finally, Machholz received a telescope for his thirteenth birthday. On the third night out he found Saturn.

“I could see the rings on it,” he recalled, thinking stargazing might not be such a bad hobby. He was hooked.

A family tragedy helped drive Machholz’s comet-hunting program early on. In 1976 his brother, an avid skier, was killed in an avalanche. Machholz found himself depressed, with insomnia, sleeping just a few hours a night, but with lots of energy.

“That’s kind of the ideal ingredients for a comet hunter,” he said. “For the next three or four years my comet hunting program developed to a greater and greater depth. Comet hunting wasn’t just something I did, it became part of who I am.”

His early comet hunting was done from his parents’ back yard and other locations around Concord, California. After moving to San Jose in 1976 he did much of his observing from nearby Loma Prieta mountain. In 1990 he moved to Colfax, California and built an observatory there.

After so much time at the eyepiece, Machholz says his heart still skips a beat or two when he thinks he has found a new comet.

“It’s a very important moment,” he said. “First I want to remember what song was on the radio.” He always has the radio playing when he hunts, and his presentation was full of music from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Phil Collins and Cyndi Lauper. He adds, though, that there’s no time for jumping up and down when he finds a comet, because there’s serious work to do.

“You don’t want to lose it,” he explained. “You might have it in the field now, but if you bump the telescope or let too much time go by and it drifts out of the field, you have to be able to find it again.”

“You have to be sure you know where you’re looking, make sure it’s not a galaxy or a cluster,” he added. He double checks with his star atlas, makes a drawing that puts the comet in its position compared to the field of stars, and watches to see if it moves. If all that checks out he reports the discovery by email, phone, and fax.

96/P Machholz

Comet 96/P Machholz as seen by the HI-2 camera on the STEREO-A spacecraft.

Of all of his discoveries, Machholz said comet is 96P/Machholz is his favorite.

“It is an amazing comet; it has its own Facebook page,” he said.

The orbit of 96/P Machholz changes because of the influence of Jupiter, and the perturbations have some scientists thinking there may be large undiscovered planets way out beyond Pluto. The comet also is low on carbon and cyanogen. This hasn’t been explained, though the leading ideas are that it may have originated in another solar system, or been exposed to temperature extremes that changed its chemical composition.

It was a pleasure to spend an evening with Don Machholz. His lively presentation was full of humor and had the banquet audience laughing and engaged.

Pops, the Perseids, and a trip back in time

August always makes me wistful these days, and its all because of my father and the Perseid meteor shower.

When I was 12 years old, about to turn 13, I was on a backpacking trip in the Washington Cascade Mountains with my Boy Scout troop and my dad, who was an avid hiker and later our Scoutmaster. By coincidence the hike was in early August. We had some heavy rain during the early part of our adventure, but one night, camped near the small village of Holden, the weather was glorious, the night was crystal clear, and we slept out under the stars. As the sky darkened to the pitch black of the deep wilderness, far away from population centers, we marveled at the near constant stream of shooting stars; it wasn’t planned, and I don’t think any of us even knew they had a name, but Perseid meteors of many colors sizzled through the sky. I don’t think I could have counted them; there must have been a hundred or more every hour!

Greg and Dad at Miner's Ridge

The author, at right, with his father near Image Lake after climbing Miner’s Ridge on a hike in August 1970. Rain and clouds went away later in the week, enabling the best possible view of the Perseid meteor shower.

It was a sight like none any of us had ever seen, coming from the Seattle suburb of Renton, light polluted even then. It was a night I will never forget.

Part of the magic of astronomy is the perspective it gives us about time. We see the Moon as it looked about a second ago, the Sun as it was eight minutes in the past, and M31, on a collision course with us, as it looked 2.5 million years ago. The Hubble Space Telescope brings us views of things as they looked close to the birth of the universe.

Every time I see a meteor I’m transported back to 1970, in my sleeping bag in a wilderness clearing, watching hundreds of meteors shoot through the sky, on a hike with my father, who is young, vital, and alive.

Dad passed away in mid-August of 2000, just a few days after the peak of that year’s Perseid shower. The anniversary always makes me look back, and up.

My backyard in West Seattle isn’t ideal for meteor watching. For one thing, it’s in Seattle, where it’s usually cloudy, and if it’s not the city lights wash out all but the brightest of the Perseids. Still, ever the optimist, I always go out and look, just in case. This year was worse than usual for Perseid viewing. The Moon was near full, and though we’ve had a stretch of favorable weather this summer, there were thunderstorms and heavy rain the early morning of the Perseid peak. Shut out again.

The next evening was mostly clear, though, and I went out, grabbed a chair on the deck, and waited just to see if any stragglers would show up. It took about 20 minutes before a fabulous, bright Perseid blazed across the sky.

The astronomy buff in me knows that this meteor was just a little chunk of the ancient comet Swift-Tuttle, itself possibly a piece of the stuff of which the solar system is made. My inner 12-year-old viewed it as a signal from Pops. Things are all right, buddy. Keep looking up.

I have a great life. My wonderful wife tolerates and encourages my astronomy hobby, even though she’s not about to come out and freeze her tail off for a glimpse of the Cassini Division. We have a nice consulting practice, and sometimes people publish my writing. I don’t want to be 12 again. But I like having a time machine that takes me back to spend a little more time with the old man every once in a while.

I miss you, Pops.

Spokane astronomer competes for title of King of the Nerds

Spokane astronomer Kayla LaFrance hopes to help run missions to Mars or even walk on the Red Planet herself one day. Her short-term goal is to be recognized as one of the nation’s top geeks. LaFrance, a member of the Spokane Astronomical Society, will be a contestant on the second season of the television show “King of the Nerds,” which airs on TBS beginning Jan. 23. It’s not just a title; the person proclaimed monarch of dweebiness will receive a prize of $100,000.

Kayla LaFrance

Kayla LaFrance. Photo courtesy of Trae Patton, Turner Entertainment Networks.

LaFrance isn’t your garden-variety nerd; while she describes herself as a “typical kid out of college with no career,” she has legitimate astronomy credibility. In May 2012 she finished work on her master’s degree in space studies at the University of North Dakota, where she did independent research on the organization of Mission Control for the surface exploration of Mars. She earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics, with minors in mathematics and public relations, from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Those raised on Sesame Street may be thinking that one of those things is not like the others, but for LaFrance the PR minor meshed well with her interests.

“Sidewalk astronomy has always been a huge part of what I really enjoy doing,” LaFrance explained. “I thought public relations would be a good way to help me hone my skills at the telescope—helping little kids get into astronomy, helping parents figure out what’s going on, dealing with conspiracy theorists—it’s been a very big part of my time with the astronomy club.”

The Astronomical League has recognized LaFrance for her enthusiasm for outreach, twice presenting her with its Jack Horkheimer Award for Exceptional Service by a Young Astronomer—a first place award in 2003, and second place in 2002. More than a decade ago, the league’s articles about the awards noted LaFrance’s plan to visit Mars.

Star Trek captured LaFrance’s fancy when she was a little girl, and she’s been hooked on space ever since. Her seventh-grade teacher at Greenacres Junior High in Spokane Valley, Thomas Herrmann, launched her on her astronomy trajectory.

“[He] challenged me to stop looking at just the TV and start looking at what was really up there,” LaFrance said of Herrmann. “He showed me stuff with his telescope and started everything.”

She joined the Spokane Astronomical Society shortly thereafter and has been an active participant ever since, excepting for when she has been away at college. She frequently gives talks to the club, usually about Mars.

LaFrance made the cut for “King of the Nerds” last year, but passed when an even cooler opportunity presented itself. She scored an internship with the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration, where she did research on composites that represent science’s best guess about what Mars soil is like, based on data from various robotic missions. She was free for season two of the program, the producers were still interested, and she filmed episodes of the show last summer in Los Angeles.

“It was the best experience that I’ve participated in to date, and I’ve done some pretty cool stuff and seen some cool stuff,” LaFrance said. “I loved every moment of it. It was also the most challenging and stressful event of my life.”

LaFrance said her focus on Mars stems from her interest in human space exploration.

“The next logical step, in my opinion, is Mars, so I devoted a lot of my research time in college to the purpose of sending humans to Mars,” she said. “I’ve long been fascinated my Mission Control and how they operate and how they support crews in space. Of course if I could go into space I would definitely do it, but ultimately I would like to be flight director for missions on Mars.”

LaFrance plans to pursue a Ph.D. degree some day, but figures she needs more practical experience first, so will be looking for work with government or private agencies involved in aerospace and mission operations.

In the meantime, watch for her on “King of the Nerds.” The program, hosted by Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong, two of the stars of the 1984 film “Revenge of the Nerds” and its sequels, airs Thursday nights beginning Jan. 23. It will be on at 10 p.m. in Spokane, but, as they say, check your local listings. Keep an eye on Mission Control, too. I wouldn’t be surprised to see LaFrance turn up there sooner than later.

Follow LaFrance on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her bio video for “King of the Nerds” below.