Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Tag

Moonstruck   Leave a comment

MoonDaguerreotype

The Moon, as photographed by Louis Daguerre, 1839

I’m not kidding when I say I’ve been moonstruck since childhood. That’s when my parents dragged me out of bed on one sultry July evening. Mom opened the bedroom door, shook me and said, “Wake up! You have to see this!” Grumpily, I dragged my sleepy self down the hall and into the living room, where my parents, grandparents, sister and brother sat, glued to the TV. My seven-year-old self stared at the screen, impatient. After a few moments, Neil Armstrong hopped out of the LM and into history, followed shortly thereafter by Buzz Aldrin.

The whole concept seemed so wild to me. That giant Saturn rocket shooting them into space. Three men jammed into what seemed not much larger than a Volkswagen Beetle. Being able to see and hear them from an ever increasing distance. And then, the landing. Walter Cronkite’s gushing on air wasn’t much different from everyone in my house. Or the world, for that matter.

I didn’t really think about all the technology, or the training, or the money, or even the space race that evening. Other NASA missions came and went, and my family followed them all. But somehow, this one stood out from the rest. Three guys achieved something no one else has ever done then and since (although that will change shortly).

All I knew was that I wanted to be an astronaut. Desperately.

As the years went by, I shifted my interests to astronomy and learning the constellations, and the shifting planets in the nighttime sky, plus the occasional comet and meteor showers. I never did well in math, so I gave up my dream of becoming an astronomer. But my love for the offworld never faded, and I kept my sweet spot for the moon.

There’s nothing more entrancing than watching the glow of a full moon on a white blanket of snow, as the whitened trees glisten from its brightness. Or how a summer night feels so romantic with the moon sailing over the ocean. How welcoming the moon can be when it peeps out from a clearing sky, or transform into a mysterious red when it eclipses. Or blots out the sun and turns black.

Lots of sci-fi novels and movies use the moon as a backdrop or a plot device. It has religious significance for many. One can be mooned, have a moonface, or eat a moon pie, or wear a moonstone. Or be like Cher and Nicholas Cage and be moonstruck.

If you’re lucky and under the right conditions, you can catch the new moon in the old moon’s arms, or the old moon’s arm around the new moon. That means right before and after a new moon, there’s a thin ribbon of light, the slenderest of crescents, holding the dark side. Through a telescope or good binoculars, you can make out some details of the dark side too. This phase doesn’t last long, as it’s right before sunrise or just after sunset, and the moon is very close to the sun in the sky and very near the horizon.

If you catch it just at the right time, you can see an occultation, or the moon appearing to hide a star or planet. It’s literally now you see it, now you don’t. The moon slides in front of a celestial body, for a matter of minutes or hours. Then the celestial body magically reappears. It’s fascinating to watch.

During daylight, a moonrise might seem as if it’s almost see-through and blue. Spotting a full moon rising from a mountaintop is downright spectacular. You’ll never see something so big in your entire life. Or catching it rising over the ocean – the glow on the horizon, then a tiny, shy peep, as it creeps higher into the sky, a ribbon of light shimmering over the ocean’s surface, until, for a moment, the entire orb appears to be balancing on the horizon itself. Way cool!

I’ve already spent much of last and this week reliving the moon landing and the entire NASA early space mission by watching programs on PBS, or reading articles, or posts on my Twitter feed. I still marvel at this accomplishment.

But most importantly, I remember how unifying this singular moment was for our planet. How we all came together to marvel at such an achievement. It was an accomplished started out of competition and ended in peace. We need, not only as a nation, but as ambassadors of this legacy, to remember what good can come of scientific achievements, and to put aside all that makes us angry and frustrated, in order to move forward to use our discoveries to better the fates of all humankind.

 

A Busy Day for Space Fans   Leave a comment

blackhole

Credits: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

So where does one begin on a day like today? I can’t honestly say what story could top seeing a photograph of an actual black hole. But the news certainly is fascinating. And check out the link. There’s a complete picture of Messier 87, a giant galaxy some 55 million light years away, located in Virgo.

Einstein theorized in a paper published in 1915 that star’s light rays curved around the sun during an eclipse. That meant the stars appeared about 1.75 second of arc away from their positions.

In May 29, 1919, when a six-minute total eclipse in Brazil caused British astronomer Arthur Eddington to determine that light rays from other stars bent when subjected to the gravitational field of our sun.  He proved this through the use of photographs, and others have proven it since.

Jump to 2016. MIT graduate student Katie Bouman created the algorithm that produced the first image of the black hole. Her contributions seem to be a bit underreported, but thanks to her work, we now see the image pictured above.

Falcon Heavy launching 400 x 600

Credit: Kennedy Space Center

The second big story (to me at least) is Falcon Heavy. It was supposed to launch today, but thanks to high winds aloft, we’re going to have to wait until tomorrow. But the cool thing about it is its three boosters, all expected to land perfectly. I’m always fascinated by this new generation of rockets. Elon Musk, for all his faults, is a genius. Not only did he create a better class of rockets, partly recyclable, he also made their capsules so sleekly modern.

And lastly, on April 11 NASA will host a teleconference on its study of its astronaut twins, Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly. This eagerly-awaited report will detail how Scott Kelly was affected by living in the ISS for 340 days, as compared to his twin brother, Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth. So far, these are the only twins who have both served on the ISS, and, as such, are uniquely qualified for this important study.

 

Comet Con   Leave a comment

Who doesn’t have a fascination with comets?

Mercurial, fickle, entirely dramatic in all ways, these nomads of the heavenly sky form bonds with our souls.  From expectation to delivery, these babies take years to put in appearances in our nighttime skies, and, like any baby, one never quite knows what to expect until its head pops out.

Example?

Sure, who doesn’t remember Hale-Bopp?  Back in my Manhattanite days, I lived a stone’s throw from the Empire State Building.  Out my bedroom window, there was the perfect view of H-B in the fading daylight, competing with the city’s electric glow, pulsing with energy and brilliance.  I knew just where to look, and trained my eye in that sweet spot until its head poked from behind the dark curtains and the hazy feathers of its tail teased its way into the night.  From its heavenly stage, it delivered a show guaranteed to enthrall the most jaded of Broadway critics.  And when it departed after its celebrated run, Hale-Bopp imparted the warmest of memories, leaving an unforgettable performance in its wake.

Comet_Hale-Bopp_1995O1

Queen of the Night: Hale-Bopp in 1997

But as fans of ISON know, it ain’t all grand, despite the promises of glory.

My first experience with disappointment, comet-wise, occurred during the sixth grade.  For months I climbed up my brother’s ham radio tower to access the relatively lower dining room roof and perched up there, looking for something, anything, in the dusk along the horizon.  Nothing.  Then bit by bit, tiny wisps of something resembling a pinhead with a tiny thread appeared.  Is…that…IT? I remembered thinking, even dragging my mother up there (well, she peeked out of an upper floor window) hoping it grow larger and start wiggling that ginormous tail.  But it never did, and eventually it faded, returning to the cosmos from whence it came.

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 Comet Kohoutek, as promised but not delivered 

Let’s jump to 1986.  My grandfather, then well into his 80s, used to tell us when he, as a kid, remembered beautiful Halley’s Comet dominating the evening skies, literally stopping people in their tracks to observe its majestic tail.  “Oh, it shimmered like you can’t imagine,” he’d say, and in the relative darkness of the area of Pennsylvania mining country where he lived, there were few people who didn’t take in a lengthy stare in wonderment of nature.

So when he read in the paper that he’d still be present for its return, he lit up like the comet he remembered.  “You’ll see nothing like Halley!” he promised.  “Never thought I’d be around long enough to see it again, but I am, and I can’t wait!”

He shuffled out in the backyard of our New Jersey home, looking up towards the heavens only to see this tiny smudge, barely visible to the naked eye.  “Really?” he said, as I pointed it out to him.  “C’mon.  That’s not it; that’s a plane.”  As I assured him that blurry patch was not a plane but indeed the major disappointment of the decade, he sighed and said, “Well, at least I saw the real thing.  Shame you won’t,” and went back inside.  He’s right, you know, because as much as I’d like to hope I’d be around in 2061, the get-real part of me says I won’t.

220px-Halley's_Comet_-_May_29_1910

What Grandpa saw and I didn’t: 1910 Halley’s Comet

So what other comets lie in wait for us out there?  Well, literally dozens of comets are discovered every heart.  Most one can’t see without a telescope or a good set of binoculars, but there’s generally a decent selection from which to choose.  On October 19, 2014, Mars has a good chance of being brushed by the tail of Comet A1 Siding Spring’s tail – a great event and excuse to beg, borrow or steal a telescope.

And who knows?  You might be in for a memorable treat!  Cross your fingers and wish upon a star…

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