Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thirty Meter Telescope: One Step Closer

The word out of Hawaii this weekend is that the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is now one step closer to becoming a reality.

For those that don't know the TMT is an ambitious scaling up of the Keck design that would have a primary mirror 30 meters across consisting of 492 segments. That would give it nine times the light-gathering power of one of the existing Keck telescopes, allowing for the deepest, highest resolution studies ever performed with visible and near infrared light. Compared to the Hubble Space Telescope, TMT will have 144 times the light collecting area and more 10 times the resolving power.

An artist's concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope

The hurdle to building the colossal telescope was that the Hawaiian state Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously granted approval to place the telescope in the location that its builders most want to put it, atop Mauna Kea. In addition to being one of the best astronomical sites in the world, Mauna Kea is also sacred ground for many native Hawaiians, some of which oppose the project. To help give them the proper voice, the board also granted the opposition voice one last hearing on the issue. The final outcome will not likely be decided until mid summer.

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Amazing Sunspot Video

Over 100 years ago astronomer George Ellery Hale discovered that sunspots are magnetic disturbances on the surface of the Sun.  These magnetic disturbances slow down the flow of energy out from the Sun's interior, cooling a region of its surface (called the photosphere) enough to make it look like a dark spot.

Hale spent a lot time time studying the Sun and its spots. I am sure that he would have been overjoyed to see the video in my Sunspots on the Rise post a few days ago, but he would have been completely bowled over by this next one.

It shows the development of the same sunspot group (# 1158), but this time the view was not taken with visible light.  Instead it was taken with the Solar Dynamics Observatory's Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager, which delivers a picture of the magnetic disturbances on the Sun's photosphere.

White represents magnetic north and black magnetic south.  When watching the video it is very easy to see that the upper regions of the sun are dominated by convection.  You may recall that with convection hot fluids rise while cooler ones sink.  Convection is what powers Earth's weather & plate tectonics, allows hot air balloons float and so much more.

Being so close to us, it is almost easy to forget that the Sun is a star.  The stars seem changeless, but like the Sun they too are boiling, energetic dynamic places.

You can see more images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, across many wavelengths of light here.

Sideral Motion

Check out this beautiful video from the Bailey-Salgado Project. It is another example of compelling time-lapse video that shows off the wonders of the nighttime sky.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

2 Beautiful Videos of the ALMA Array

If you want to see a beautiful sky, free from light pollution, and an impressive telescope array in action check out the two time-lapse videos below of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA):

Science is beautiful.

Here is a direct link to YouTube for video #1 and video #2

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

Destroyer of Worlds

For any who may have missed this, the good folks over at the Spitzer Science Center have been producing wonderful, informative & humorous videos on infrared astronomy. This one, Destroyer of Worlds, features the voice of none other than Wil Wheaton.

It is certainly worth ten minutes of your time.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

HST's View of Spiral Galaxy NGC 2841

Today the Hubble Space Telescope team released this photo of spiral galaxy NGC 2841.

The galaxy is located some 46 million light years away in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major. It is sporting beautiful, dusty spiral arms that are curiously lacking in the pinkish glow of the gas clouds that form new suns.

While you are here, why not click over to see an infrared view of this same galaxy taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Sunspots on the Rise

The closest of the Visible Suns is, of course, the Sun. After a long period of relative inactivity the Sun is now becoming much more active.  This means that it is now sporting more sunspots and is more likely to burst forth with solar flares which can lead to disruptions to radio or cell phone traffic and brilliant displays of the northern and southern lights. For those of us with telescopes equipped with solar filters it means that the Sun is now interesting to look at again.

The latest region of interest on the Sun is sunspot group 1158.  Check out this fantastic video from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory that shows five days of the growth of this sunspot group:

Earlier this week this sunspot group unleashed a flare pointed at Earth which should lead to some nice auroral displays especially for those who live in the far north or south.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

M78's Reflected Glory

Check out this new image of M78, a reflection nebula in the constellation of Orion. It comes from the European Southern Observatory's 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Most images acquired for astronomical research never get processed in a way that turns them into something beautiful, like this one has.  The researcher processes them to maximize what can be learned.  Turning them into an image that is fit for public consumption takes extra work. That is why it is pretty cool that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) held a contest last year to let anyone process some of their data into pretty astronomical pictures.

Igor Chekalin won the contest with his image of the nebula M78. His winning entry inspired ESO to do their best on the same data.  The result is the photo above. The full scoop on the image is here, but note that (like the blues in the image on the masthead for Visible Suns) the blue colors are signs of a reflection nebula.  Unlike a nebula such as the Lagoon (M8) or the great nebula in Orion (M42), this nebula is not shining from its own emitted light. In those cases a nearby hot star (or stars) causes the gas to fluoresce.  In M78 starlight is not powerful enough to make it glow.  Instead it is reflected and scattered by the dust grains in the nebula.  Like the other nebulae, the area in and around M78 is home to young and newly forming stars.

You can get the image here in full resolution, a 188 MB tiff file or take the video flyover below:

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Deep Impact's Crater on Tempel 1

Here it is, the crater that was produced on comet Tempel 1 when Deep Impact impactor slammed into it in July 2005:

The view on the left was taken by the Deep Impact probe. On the right a new image from Stardust-NExT. Given how impressive the cratering process was, many people were expecting to see a much more prominent crater, but mission scientists indicated that it was about what was expected. From NASA:

On the left, the image from Deep Impact shows a dark mound about 50 meters (160 feet) in size. It is inside a yellow circle that shows the area hit by the impactor released by Deep Impact. The image on the right, newly obtained by NASA's Stardust spacecraft, shows the impactor erased that dark mound and flattened the area. The outer circle annotated on the right-hand image shows the outer rim of the crater and the inner circle shows the crater floor. The crater is estimated to be 150 meters (500 feet) in diameter.

Scientists are still working to estimate the depth of the crater, but preliminary analysis shows that it is shallow.

Hats off to the Stardust-NExT team for pulling off such a successful mission. There was a great deal of planning to ensure that the proper side of the comet would be visible during closest approach. All of this could not have been done without the many ground-based observations of the comet that provided the necessary data to make this flyby a success.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Another Tempel1 Animated gif

This one is just the close approach images of Tempel 1 taken by Stardust-NExT:


Animated Gif of 1st Dozen Tempel 1 images

Here is an animated gif that I created showing the first dozen images that NASA posted of Tempel 1 taken during last night's encounter by the Stardust-NExT spacecraft:

Gif Created on Make A Gif

Images of Tempel 1 from Stardust-NExT Coming In

After a successful flyby last night, the images of Comet Tempel 1 are starting to arrive.

NASA's caption for the image:

Comet Tempel 1 as Seen by NASA's Stardust

NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:39 p.m. PST
(11:39 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011, from a distance of approximately 946.05 trillion kilometers (587.85 trillion miles). The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005.

Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission that will expand the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages Stardust-NExT for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. Joe Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., is the mission's principal investigator. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

Globe at Night, Light Pollution & Dark Sky Videos

Does your view of the constellation Orion resemble the view on the left or the right?

The difference between these two simulated images of the constellation Orion is the amount of light pollution in the night sky.  The view on the left is similar to what many city dwellers can see while the one on the right would come from a sky that is nearly free from light pollution.

Chances are you already know if your sky is free of light pollution or not (most likely not), but measuring and reporting the brightness of the sky where you live is a valuable and easy thing to do.  

The Globe at Night program is your ticket to participate in a citizen-science campaign to measure the brightness of the night sky.  This world-wide program, which uses the stars of Orion to help measure light pollution, runs from February 21 until March 6. Follow the link to Globe at Night for the details on how to participate. If you participate you'll be contributing to science and helping to measure light pollution, a growing problem throughout the world.

It is an unfortunate fact of city life that most of us have never truly experienced an awesome, dark sky. To see how beautiful the night sky can be have a look at this time-lapse movie of the Milky Way rising:

Here's a direct link to the video on YouTube.

To learn more about light pollution here is another video for you check out - Preserving Dark Skies, from McDonald Observatory

By the way the two simulated views of Orion at the top of the page were produced using the desktop planetarium program known as Stellarium. I will eventually post a review here of Stellarium, but as you might imagine it is a worthy program available at a great price (It's free!).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

App Review: Exoplanet

These days the branch of astronomy devoted to the discovery and study of exoplanets (planets that orbit stars beyond our sun) is undergoing an explosion of sorts as new worlds are being discovered at a prodigious rate.

Just a couple of weeks ago the team of astronomers using the Kepler space telescope announced the discovery of a solar system with six worlds and that they had over 1,200 more exoplanet candidates awaiting confirmation. Many more exoplanets have yet to be discovered by the Kepler and other teams, but if their early exoplanets are confirmed it implies that their may be well over a million Earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone.

Keeping current with this field is now officially a difficult task.  Fortunately there is a handy, free app called Exoplanet available for the iPhone & iPad that conveniently summarizes just about everything that is known about the exoplanets that have been discovered so far. 

Upon opening the app, you'll be prompted if there is new data waiting to come over to your device. As of the last update to the database there are 528 known exoplanets.The app allows you to see data on the exoplanets and sort this data by any number of characteristics such as orbital period, mass, radius, discovery year and much more.  You can even filter the data and combine search features.  So if you want to sort the list by mass and only see exoplanets around G-class stars (like our own sun), you'll find that the smallest exoplanet discovered so far that orbits around a sun-like star is Kepler-11 f  (one of the member of the six-world system illustrated near the top of this posting).

You can choose the exoplanet with a simple touch and a graphic like the one below (this time for Kepler-10 b) pops up that graphically displays the method of discovery (transit), the size of the world (relative to Earth, Jupiter, Uranus or Neptune), a star chart showing the location of the host star, and an orbital diagram that relates the orbit of the exoplanet to our own solar system.  Touch any one of these and an expanded view slides into view. There is also actual data on the world and links to published scientific papers related to the world you are looking at.

From the main menu you can also find recent exoplanet news, basic information on exoplanets and how they are discovered.  The app also has the ability to generate plots of data which you can then export to a PDF file.  The Milky Way section plots the locations of exoplanets in our galaxy.  You can zoom and tilt the view of the galaxy.  I found the Milky Way plot to be the least useful tool within the app.

If you are interested in exoplanets or possibly looking for data to help draft a science fiction story this app is a worthy tool.  Exoplanet provides current and accurate information on exoplanets. I have been running it for some time on an iPhone 3GS and an iPad. The app is very easy to use and free.  There is some hint in the app that a future update may make it ad supported.  Currently there is a provision to "Remove ads for $0.99" even though there are no ads in the app yet.  $0.99 isn't much of an investment to help support future releases.  Check out the developer's website for more information and a video of the app in use.

I plan on doing more reviews of astronomy apps. As you may have guessed, I am an IOS user so the reviews will be skewed to apps that are available for the iPhone and iPad.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Comet Encounter & A Storm on Saturn

We live in amazing times with access to more astronomical information than you can easily digest available to us almost instantly on our computers or smart phones.

NASA has done a fine job of making images from the missions to other worlds visible to the public (as they should since the public is footing the bill) pretty much as they come into to scientists. You will get the chance to see some brand-new imagery on Monday evening as NASA’s Stardust-NExT spacecraft makes a flyby of comet Tempel 1 at 8:37 p.m. PST.

This will be the second time that Tempel 1 has been visited by a spacecraft. You may recall that the Deep Impact mission crashed a big hunk of copper into the comet on July 4, 2005. The resulting impact as captured by the flyby probe was spectacular. (Why was the impact probe made of copper? Comets are not made of copper. Everything ejected by the impact what wasn’t made of copper was part of the comet)

The Deep Impact spacecraft did not see the crater that was produced from the crash. As the Stardust-NExT spacecraft makes its flyby on Valentine’s evening the team hopes to image the new crater. They are also hoping to see any changes that have may taken place to the comet as it has made one orbit around the sun since the last flyby. So if you don't have a Valentine's Day encounter of your own lined up, you may wish to visit the Stardust-NExT website to see theirs.

Another probe that is returning amazing results is the Cassini mission to Saturn. The Cassini imaging team posts their raw images on their website as they come in. Here and there among the calibration images of star fields are space-art like views of Saturn with its rings and moons. Here is a representative raw image that I grabbed earlier today:

This image of Saturn was taken one week ago (February 4, 2011). Cassini was almost 2 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) from Saturn when the photo was captured. It shows a partially illuminated Saturn with its rings appearing as a thin line running from the upper left to the lower right. The shadows of the rings can be seen on Saturn’s cloud tops just to the right of the rings.

Much more interesting is the amazing weather disturbance to the left of the rings. It is called the “northern electrostatic disturbance”  after its location in Saturn’s northern hemisphere & its frequent lightning discharges observed by Cassini.

This naturally occurring, but rare weather outburst is visible to anyone armed with a decent-sized amateur telescope.  Saturn is currently in the constellation of Virgo and doesn’t rise until 10 pm or so. As such it is best seen after midnight when it is higher in the sky.

There is no telling how long the storm will last or when such an event will next be seen, so look now while it lasts. I confess I have not had the time to go out and have a look (too much time at work), but I encourage everyone with a telescope to give it a shot.

Welcome to Visible Suns

Welcome to my new astronomy blog, Visible Suns. Some of you may know Palomar Skies, the blog I write for Palomar Observatory. While this blog may include some Palomar-related things from time to time, it is being written by me and does not in any way reflect any official opinions of Palomar Observatory or Caltech. This blog will cover my take on anything in astronomy and how people can participate in their own astronomical explorations.

Expect to find current sky happenings, reviews of astronomy apps, astronomical news, words of encouragement on light pollution and much more.

I will start this new voyage by posting the first video of The Sagan Series - an inspirational video featuring the words of the late Carl Sagan.

From time to time I will be posting more of these videos, but you can keep up with them on your own by liking The Sagan Series on facebook or subscribing to damewse's channel on YouTube.