Showing posts with label Astronomy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Astronomy. Show all posts

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Shooting Stars

If you are a serious astronomy fanatic like a lot of us are, you can probably remember that one event in childhood that started you along this exciting hobby.  It might have been that first time you looked through a telescope.  But for many of us, it was that first time we saw a rain of fire from the sky that we eventually came to know as a meteoroid shower.

Photo of a part of the sky during a meteor sho...
Photo of a part of the sky during a meteor shower over an extended exposure time. 
The meteors have actually occurred several seconds to several minutes apart. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



At the time when you see the first one, it’s easy to remember the movie “war of the worlds” or some other fantastic image of aliens entering our atmosphere in droves to take over the planet.  But with some guidance and explanation of what was going on, we eventually learned that these showers were not at all threatening or any kind of invasion.  For the most part meteoroid showers are harmless, part of nature and very fun to watch.

So what are these strange lights in the sky?  Are they aliens invading from Mars?  Are the comets coming to start the next ice age?  Or perhaps asteroids burning up as they enter the earth's atmosphere.  The answer to the above questions is no to the first and “yes and no” to the other two.

A meteoroid is actually a small piece of space rubble, usually dust or small rocks that come from either a comet or the break up of an asteroid in space and that eventually plummets toward the earth.  We say “toward the earth” because the lights you see are the friction of the atmosphere burning up those small space tidbits and creating a spectacular show for all of us as they do so.  A particularly exciting moment to witness is when a meteoroid breaks up or explodes on entry.  A meteoroid that explodes is called bolides.

There are some interesting details about the life of a meteoroid that make the viewing of shooting stars even more fun.  To be seen, a meteoroid only needs to weigh as little as a millionth of a gram.  But the thing that makes them so spectacular to see is the tremendous speeds they reach as they enter the atmosphere.  Before burning up, a meteoroid will reach between 11 and 74 kilometers per second which is 100 times faster than a speeding bullet.   

We tend to think of t seeing a shooting star as a freak event and we associate it with superstition (hence, wish on a lucky star).  But there are actually thousands of them every year so it really isn’t that rare to see one.  In fact, scientists tell us that over 200,000 tons of space matter enters the atmosphere each year and burns up on entry.  

Comets are a big source of meteoroids because of the nature of those long tails.  A large amount of dust, ice, and other space debris gets caught up in a comet’s tail as it moves toward the sun.  Then as the comet moves away from the sun in its orbit, tons of this matter is thrown off into space to disperse.  As the Earth moves in its routine orbit around the sun, it often crosses through clouds of this discarded matter which becomes one of those “meteor showers” that are so popular for viewing.  

These showers of shooting stars are pretty easy for astronomers to predict so you can get into position to see the excitement at just the right time of night and be looking at the right area of the night sky.  Usually, the astronomy magazine or site will give you a general time and location to be ready to look when the meteoroids start to fall.  



Now keep in mind, this is a phenomenon of nature so it may not observe the time table exactly.  Also, note that there is a notation system for where the meteoroid shower will occur based on what constellation is its backdrop.  The section of the sky to focus on for the show is called the “radiant” because that is where the entering meteoroids begin to glow or radiate.  The radiant is named after the constellation it is nearest to.  So if the meteor shower is going to occur in the constellation of Leo, then its radiant will be called Leonid.  This will help you decipher the listing of asteroid showers in the publications.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Astrophotography

English: Principle of operation of an equatori...
The principle of operation of an equatorial mount to keep a telescope pointing
in the same direction. The black spots denote rotation axes seen end-on.
The green telescope is rotated at the same rate as the earth but in the
opposite direction, while the red telescope is not driven.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Astrophotography can be a rewarding pastime for some beginner astronomers.  Conventional 35mm cameras, Schmidt cameras, and CCD or Digital cameras can be used to take your spectacular pictures.  

The right pieces are needed to make this a success.  You will need a shutter cable for the 35mm, an equatorial telescope mount to help with tracking your object for up to an hour sometimes.  A “T” mount to help align the camera with the eyepiece holder, and a guiding eyepiece to help keep your object in the center of your frame. 

There are many ways to pursue this hobby.  One is by using a camera mounted to the side of the telescope.  Another has the camera on the back of the telescope, using the scope as a guide.  The last is to use a camera that is attached to a movable mount on a tripod.  If you use these, please make sure your camera is steady and firmly attached with no vibrations or shaking. 

If you are just starting out, take your digital camera and select some constellations to snap.  To set your digital camera up, check your aperture and sensitivity settings.  Also, check your shutter speed.  All of these should be set to where more light can be focused especially when taking pictures at night.

Focusing means doing the manual focus on the camera or digging through the many menus until you find the right one and set it to what you want.  Then try to shoot something far away to see if the setting you programmed works.

White balancing is usually by default.  At night, the default setting will the sky to a brown-reddish color.  If you are going to incorporate long exposures of the night sky, try setting the balance to Tungsten.

  

After you take several pictures, transfer them from the camera onto the computer.  Sometimes they come up grainy, try reducing the size down by increments and you should soon have a clear picture.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

ASTEROIDS

There is a lot of exciting stuff going on in the stars above us that make astronomy so much fun.  The truth is the universe is a constantly changing, moving, some would say “living” thing because you just never know what you are going to see on any given night of stargazing.


243 Ida and its moon Dactyl. Dactyl is the fir...
243 Ida and its moon Dactyl. Dactyl is the first satellite of an asteroid to be discovered. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But of the many celestial phenomenons, there is probably none as exciting as that time you see your first asteroid on the move in the heavens.  To call asteroids the “rock stars” of astronomy is simultaneously a bad joke but an accurate depiction of how astronomy fans view them.  Unlike suns, planets and moons, asteroids are on the move, ever changing and, if they appear in the night sky, exciting and dynamic.

Like rock stars, asteroids have been given their fair share of urban myth and lore.  Many have attributed the extinction of the dinosaurs to the impact of a huge asteroid on the earth.  This theory has some credibility and, if it is true, it evokes some pretty startling images and foreboding fears in the current reining species on earth, the human race.

The fact that asteroids are fast moving space debris only makes their movement and activity more interesting and exciting.  Unlike a moon, planet or star, the odds that an asteroid could hit the earth are entirely reasonable and in fact, there are many documented cases of small asteroids making it through our atmosphere and leaving some pretty impressive craters in the earth’s surface.

Popular culture has happily embraced the idea of an asteroid impact.  The idea has spawned many a science fiction story adding the idea that alien life forms may ride asteroids to our world and start a “war of the worlds” situation.  But by far, the most talked about concept that has captured the imagination and the fears of science fiction fans and the general public is of another asteroid hitting the earth that could wipe out life as allegedly happened to the dinosaurs.  In fact, the movie “Armageddon” was based on this idea and the concept that somehow mankind could avert that catastrophe with technology.

But probably the best way to calm our fears and replace science fiction with science is with understanding and knowledge.  The truth is, there has been a lot of study of asteroid activity and the serious scientific community has gained significant knowledge of these amazing celestial bodies.  A number of probes to asteroids have been conducted which have given us a wealth of information about their composition and how we might predict their behavior.

We now know that the majority of asteroids we get to witness come from an asteroid belt that exists between Mars and Jupiter.  It is from this community of asteroids that many of the notable asteroids emerged.  Scientists have gained significant knowledge about the composition of asteroids and separated them into classes including class S which comes of the part of the belt that is closest to Mars, classes C, D and V which are classified by composition and a class called “Centaurs” whose flight patterns take them closer to Jupiter and Uranus.



Some of the probes NASA has conducted on near flying asteroids have performed some pretty amazing studies of these eccentric celestial bodies.  In 1994 the Galileo probe got within 1000 miles of the asteroid Ida and discovered that Ida actually had its own moon.

Other probes have fired impactors into asteroids and even landed on an asteroid to produce some amazing scientific data for us.  There is much to learn about asteroids in our love of astronomy and that knowledge only makes our enjoyment of seeing them in the cosmos even more exciting.

243 Ida and its moon Dactyl. Dactyl is the first satellite of an asteroid to be discovered. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Pictures in the Sky - ASTRONOMY

One of the earliest activities we engaged in when we first got into astronomy is the same one we like to show our children just as soon as their excitement about the night sky begins to surface.  That is the fun of finding constellations.  But finding constellations and using them to navigate the sky is a discipline that goes back virtually to the dawn of man.  In fact, we have cave pictures to show that the more primitive of human societies could “see pictures” in the sky and ascribe to them significance.

The Big Dipper constellation, where Hubbard sa...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Constellations also have been important in culture and navigation long before we had sophisticated systems of navigation.  Early explorers, particularly by sea, relied exclusively on the night sky to help them find their way to their destination.  In fact, when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and “discovered” America, he could not have done it without astronomy and the help of navigation of the cosmos, much of which is made possible because of the important constellations.  

When learning to find the great constellations in the sky, we use the “find one, you found them all” system.  That is because the easiest constellation to find will guide us to the rest of them.  That constellation is The Big Dipper.  Look to the northern sky on a clear night and widen your field of vision from just focusing on one star and it will pretty much jump out at you.  In will look like a big kitchen pot or ladle, right side up in the fall, upside down in the spring.

When you have the big dipper under control, you can pretty easily find the North Star.  This is the star that those ancient sailors depended on the most to find their way to land.  Start with the far edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper, the side that is opposite the handle.  There are two stars that make up that side of the bowl.  So start at the bottom of the pot and mentally draw a line to the top star of the bowl.  These two stars are “pointing” to the North Star.  Just keep following that line, curving a bit with the sky and the bright star that you come to is the North Star.  You can impress your friends or family if you know the scientific name for this star is Polaris.

The North Star can then take you to The Little Dipper.  The key here is that Polaris is the tip of the handle of The Little Dipper and the bowl hangs down from the handle like it was hanging up in the kitchen.  Be patient with this one as the stars that make up The Little Dipper are dimmer than The Big Dipper.  But it pretty cool once you find it.

These are the obvious starting places but from The Little Dipper you can find the constellation known as “The Swan” or Cygnus.  Just use the same system you used to find The North Star but continue drawing that line that started in those pointer stars in the bowl of The Big Dipper.  Go about half as far as you went to find Polaris and you are there.  You will see a trapezoid of stars about as big as The Big Dipper.  This trapezoid forms the tail of The Swan.



That line that we are drawing from the pointer stars is our roadmap to another well known constellation which is Cassiopeia.  If you use that line and imagine you are directly under the two pointer stars, you will se a big “W” just off to the left of the line.  This is the constellation Cassiopeia, the wife of the king of Egypt, Cepheus, in Greek mythology.  There are so many more wonderful constellations to find and a good star map can continue your quest.

Like Cassiopeia, all of the constellations have wonderful stories and myths related to Greek culture.  It is just as fun to find the star clusters themselves as it is to enjoy the rich culture related to that constellation.  For all of the signs of the zodiac, for example, there is a related constellation in the sky.  So whether you are serious about astrology or not, its fun to find the constellation that relates to your “sign” (or that of your children) and be able to see how the ancients related to these pictures in the sky.



Saturday, November 26, 2016

Look – Up in the SKY!

When television was young, there was a hugely popular show based on the still popular fictional character of Superman.  The opening of that show had a familiar phrase that went, “Look.  Up in the sky.  It’s a bird.  It’s a plane.  It’s Superman!”  How beloved Superman has become in our culture and the worldwide fascination with extraterrestrials and all things cosmic only emphasizes that there is a deep curiosity in all humans about nature and astronomy, even if many people would not know to call it astronomy.

English: Pleiades Star Cluster
Pleiades Star Cluster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences of all time.  When archeologists unearth ancient civilizations, even as far back as the cavemen, they invariably find art that shows mans unquenchable fascination with the stars.  To this day, you can easily get an animated discussion at any gathering on the topic of “Is there intelligent life on other planets?”

Many have tried to explain mankind’s seeming obsession with outer space as a result of an ancient memory or as part of mankind’s eternal nature.  Whatever the cause, people of every age and every nation share this one deep interest, to know more about the universe that our tiny planet is just a part of.

It’s rather strange because the actual conduct of a serious student of astronomy is really not the stuff of high adventure.  You will never see a “Raiders of the Lost Arc” or “Jurassic Park” movie made about an astronomer.  Excitement for lovers of this science is to stay up all night watching the cosmos through a powerful telescope.  But that fact does not seem to discourage the tens of thousands to get into astronomy each year and the huge interest worldwide with the stars, the planets and the universe.

There may be no other universal human fascination that does so much to make national boundaries and even international animosity seem to evaporate.  Other than the Olympic movement, international cooperation to achieve great strides for human kind in space seems to go forward without interruption even when the nations cooperating in those projects are virtually at war back on the surface of the earth.  It is a strange thing to watch as Russian, American and other astronauts work together like brothers on space missions even as their home nations are busily pointing missiles at each other back at home.  It almost makes you think that we should put more energy and money into the space program, not less because it seems to be a bond that heals tension rather than creates it.


Why is astronomy so exciting even though we have no dinosaurs, moving animals or any real danger to most who are obsessed with the discipline?  It may go back to a basic curiosity that all human beings have about their natural habitat and this big mysterious thing out there called space.  Maybe it goes back to that old saying at the beginning of Star Trek that space is “the final frontier”.

But we all share that ongoing sense of excitement each time we take out our telescopes and gaze directly at the cosmos above us.  We feel we are looking at the very dawn of time.  And in light of the issues with the speed of light which means that many of the twinkling stars out there are really light from those stars that started their journey to us thousands of years ago, we are in actually looking directly at the past every time we direct our eyes skyward.

But we don’t have to worry about ever conquering the final frontier and finding our curiosity satisfied.  There will always be more to learn and discover in the world of astronomy.  And it is likely that mankind’s curiosity about astronomy is just as limitless as well.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

MOON Fever

Of all of the celestial bodies that capture our attention and fascination as astronomers, none has a greater influence on life on planet Earth than it’s own satellite, the moon.  When you think about it, we regard the moon with such powerful significance that unlike the moons of other planets which we give names, we only refer to our one and only orbiting orb as THE moon.  It is not a moon.  To us, it is the one and only moon.

Full Moon view from earth In Belgium (Hamois)....
Full Moon view from earth In Belgium (Hamois).
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The moon works its way into our way of thinking, our feelings about romance, our poetry and literature and even how we feel about our day in day out lives in many cases.  It is not only primitive societies that ascribe mood swings, changes in social conduct and changes in weather to the moon.  Even today, a full moon can have a powerful effect on these forces which we acknowledge even if we cannot explain them scientifically.

The most obvious physical phenomenon that is directly affected by the gravity of the moon are the tides of the ocean.  The tides are an integral part of how maritime life is regulated and the comings and goings of the fishing world in coastal communities.  But not very many people know that at certain times of the year when the orbits of the earth bring the sun and moon into right alignment, there can even be tidal effect on inland bodies of water and even on the solid earth.  Eons ago, when the moon’s orbit was closer to the Earth, it was the effect of the moon that caused massive changes in the topography of the land and on continental drift as well.  This reflects the powerful effect the moon has had on both human history and on global geographical history as well.

You may sometimes wonder where the moon came from.  Was it a planet that traveled too close to Earth and was captured in our orbit?  Actually, the prevailing theory of modern science is that the moon was the result of a large scale collision with the still developing Earth early in its development which caused this large “chuck” to spin off into an orbiting body.  This explains the similarity in composition as has been confirmed by many of the moon exploratory space missions that were conducted by NASA.

But this background also highlights another important influence the moon has had on Earth’s development that is seldom recognized and that is the stabilization of Earth’s orbital pattern.  Most know that Earth is not round but more of an egg shaped orb.  To be blunt, the Earth would wobble.  Without the moon’s stabilizing influence, this shape would shift dramatically so the tilt of the axis, that is the polar caps would shift dramatically with each seasonal rotation producing climacteric, changes much more violent and drastic than we are used to.  It is possible that life as we know it could not have developed here had the moon not been there to “keep the Earth in line” and continue to stabilize the orbital position of the Earth so our climate could remain stable and mild.



A third significant influence of the moon comes from that origin as coming from a collision which “ripped” the body of the moon from the developing core of the Earth.  Because of this disruption in how the core of our planet developed, the metals that are usually intact in the core of the planet are actually scattered up and down the geography of the earth in diverse ways.  Usually the metals of the planet are all concentrated deep in the core.  But because of the collision which took the moon out to orbit, metals that have been crucial to the development of our industrial and technological cultures are readily available and easy for use to mine.  This again, is something we can thank the presence of that lovely moon in the sky for.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

SPACE, The Final Frontier

While it was just a TV show, that little speech at the beginning of the original Star Trek show really did do a good job of capturing our feelings about space.  It is those feelings that drive our love of astronomy and our desire to learn more and more about it.


A star forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, perhaps the 
closest Galaxy to Earth's Milky Way
PhotoSource: Wikipedia

The thing that is most exciting about studying the universe is also the most frustrating and that is that no matter how expert we get, we are always just getting started.  But if it’s any consolation, some of the most advanced minds in science and from history always felt that way about space.  Even the greats such as Copernicus and Einstein looked up into space and felt like they were just a spec in the presence of such infinity.

Of course space is not infinite.  It has to be finite which means somehow there must be an end to it.  But if there is, nobody on this tiny planet has figured out where it is.  The only thing that has brought us to “the end of the universe” is our limited ability to see any deeper into space.

But conquering the final frontier of space means more than just seeing more stars and planets and building the biggest telescope we can.  There are some mind blowing concepts about how space works that we have ahead of us to conquer.  The big bang and the expanding universe alone was enough to set your mind to spinning.  But then we have the coming of Einstein and the theory of relativity to set the entire idea on its ear.  All of a sudden space is not just three dimensions but the dimension of time becomes exportable and the twisting and maybe even travel through time seems almost possible.

The frontier of space is as much a journey of the mind as it is of distance.  When Steven Hawking showed us the mysteries of black holes, all of a sudden, time and space could collapse and be twisted and changed in those intergalactic pressure cookers.  If not for the wonders of radio astronomy, these ideas would remain just ideas but slowly science is catching up with theory.

But the brilliance of mathematicians and genius minds like Hawking and Einstein continue to stretch our concepts of space.  Now we have the string theory that could revolutionize everything we know about space, time and how the universe relates to itself.  We can’t just say, no, we have discovered enough.  It’s the final frontier.  The Starship Enterprise would not stop exploring so neither can we.  Because there is a hurdle still ahead that has a name but no real answer to it yet.  It’s called the Unified Field Theory and those that know tell us that when the Einsteins and Hawkings of our day crack that theory, every other theory will fall into place.

These exciting concepts seem some tools to put the enormity of space in context.  That may also be the value of science fiction.  Not only are science fiction writers often the visionaries of what comes to be in the future but they give us the idea that space is knowable, that despite how big it is and how small we are, we can conquer this frontier like we have conquered others before us.

For mankind, that is often enough.  If we can get the vision that we can conquer something, even if it is something so massive, so impossibly huge, it seems that we are capable of anything.  And the love of astronomy, maybe unlike any other force on earth, has brought together mankind toward that common goal of conquering the universe.  The quest to establish an international space station and to cooperate on spreading our reach off of this planet seems to find commonality between nations that otherwise cannot get along on the surface of the earth.



That alone may be a reason that we must continue to support astronomy locally and the space program nationally.  It is something that seems to bring peace rather than war and make us a better people.  But more than that it is as though this is what we were created to do.  To reach out to the stars may be our destiny.  If so then our love of astronomy is more than a hobby, it’s a calling.



Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Night SKY

No matter how far along you are in your sophistication as an amateur astronomer, there is always one fundamental moment that we all go back to.  That is that very first moment that we went out where you could really see the cosmos well and you took in the night sky.  For city dwellers, this is a revelation as profound as if we discovered aliens living among us.  Most of us have no idea the vast panorama of lights that dot a clear night sky when there are no city lights to interfere with the view.

Milky Way
Milky Way (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sure we all love the enhanced experience of studying the sky using binoculars and various sizes and powers of telescopes.  But I bet you can remember as a child that very first time you saw the fully displayed clear night sky with all the amazing constellations, meters and comets moving about and an exposure of dots of light far to numerous to ever count.

The best way to recapture the wonder of that moment is to go out in the country with a child of your own or one who has never had this experience and be there at that moment when they gaze up and say that very powerful word that is the only one that can summarize the feelings they are having viewing that magnificent sky.  That word is – “Wow”.

Probably the most phenomenal fact about what that child is looking at that is also the thing that is most difficult for them to grasp is the sheer enormity of what is above them and what it represents.  The very fact that almost certainly, virtually every dot up there in the sky is another star or celestial body that is vastly larger that Earth itself, not by twice or ten times but by factors of hundreds and thousands, can be a mind blowing idea to kids.  Children have enough trouble imagining the size of earth itself, much less something on such a grand scope as outer space.

But when it comes to astronomy, we do better when we fall into deeper and deeper levels of awe at what we see up there in the night sky.  Some amazing facts about what the children are looking at can add to the goose bumps they are already having as they gaze eyes skyward.  Facts like…

* Our sun is part of a huge galaxy called the Milky Way that consists of one hundred billion stars just like it or larger.  Show them that one hundred billion is 100,000,000,000 and you will se some jaws drop for sure.

* The milky was is just one of tens of billions of galaxies each of which has billions of stars in them as well.  In fact, the Milky Way is one of the small galaxies.

* If you wanted to drive across the Milky Way, it would take you 100,000 years.  But you can’t get there driving the speed limit.  You have to drive five trillion, eight hundred million miles per year to get all the way across that fast.

* Scientists calculate that the Milky Way is 14 billion years old.

These little fun facts should get a pretty spirited discussion going about the origins of the universe and about the possibility of space travel or if there are life on other planets.  You can challenge the kids to calculate that if every star in the Milky Way supported nine planets and if only one of them was habitable like earth is, what are the odds that life would exist on one of them?  I think you will see some genuine excitement when they try to run those numbers.



Such discussion can be fun, exciting, and full of questions.  Don’t be too hasty to shut down their imaginations as this is the birth of a lifelong love of astronomy that they are experiencing.  And if you were there that first moment when they saw that night sky, you will re-experience your own great moment when you was a child.  And it might set off a whole new excitement about astronomy in you all over again.



Sunday, January 31, 2016

Radio ASTRONOMY

English: Green Bank Telescope at National Radi...
Green Bank Telescope at National
Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank
(Photo credit: 
Wikipedia)
For most of us, the idea of astronomy is something we directly connect to “stargazing”, telescopes and seeing magnificent displays in the heavens.  And to be sure, that is the exciting area of astronomy that accounts for it’s huge popularity.  So to the uninitiated, the idea of “radio astronomy” seems strange. 

 There are two reasons for that.  First is that humans are far more visual than audio oriented.  And the second is that radio astronomy doesn’t really involve “listening” to the cosmos except to the extent that scientists who use this sophisticated form of “stargazing” do not rely on visual study to conduct their work.

To appreciate what is really exciting about radio astronomy, first we have to shift how we view astronomy.  That is because to professional astronomers, studying the universe is more about frequencies than it is about visual documentation of phenomenon.  This takes us back to Physics 101.

Light, obviously, is the physical phenomenon that empowers our ability to use our visual confirmation system, e.g. our eyes to appreciate something, in this case the stars.  So when we look up at the heavens, we can see the light emitting from a star or reflecting from a planet or moon.  In many cases, if we see a far away star, we are actually seeing it hundreds or thousands of years ago because that is how long it takes for that light to cross the universe and be visible in our sky.  That alone is a pretty mind blowing idea.

Now light itself is a pretty strange substance.  But to our astronomy scientists, light is just another energy that exists in a certain frequency.  Now, we tend to think of frequencies when we talk about sound waves.  In scientific terms light, energy and sound are just a few forms of the same thing, frequencies of energy that are emulating from a source.

Now we get to why radio astronomy is so necessary.  The range of frequency that light occupies in the big spectrum of frequencies is really pretty small.  To put that more bluntly, we can only “see” a tiny part of the universe that is actually there.  Now when you look up in the night sky and it is so overwhelming, when you then that we are seeing just a tiny amount of what is actually going on up there, again, our minds can get pretty overwhelmed.

Radio astronomy uses sophisticated sensor equipment to study ALL of the frequencies of energy coming to us from the cosmos.  In that way, these scientists can “see” everything that is going on out there and so get a precise idea of how the stars look, behave now and will behave in the future.

For some of us who have heard about radio astronomy, we think of it in terms of “listening” for signs of life in the universe.  And yes, SETI, or “the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence” is a part of radio astronomy, albeit a tiny part.  But of much greater importance is how radio astronomy has empowered serious astronomers (that is those who get paid to do it) to study stars many light years away, to study black holes which we could never see with our telescopes and to gather research and data about the whole of the universe that otherwise would be impossible to know and understand.



This is important work that is constantly ongoing in the world of astronomy.  It is worth keeping up with and learning more about as we have barely scratched the surface in our brief discussion today.  But understanding how important radio astronomy is will only deepen and make more meaningful your love and grasp of this big field of knowledge known as astronomy.



Friday, January 8, 2016

The UNIVERSE through a Child’s Eyes

There is something about parenthood that gives us a sense of history and a deeply rooted desire to send on into the next generation the great things we have discovered about life.  And part of that is the desire to instill in our children the love of science, of learning and particularly the love of nature.  

Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...
Galaxies are so large that stars can be considered particles next to them
(Photo credit: 
Wikipedia)

Your fascination with the universe and how to explore it as we so often do in the field of astronomy can be highly academic and dry as maybe it was if you took a course in astronomy.  But when you get out there in the field at night, your equipment is just right and the night sky comes alive with activity, there is no other experience like it for majesty and pure excitement.  And that is the kind of experience we want our children to come to love as much as we do.

It’s actually not a big jump from play to learning for children when it comes to learning about the natural world, science and astronomy.  Exploration is a natural part of being a child and growing up in a fascinating world and universe.  So if we can find ways to take that natural desire to explore and instill a life long passion for astronomy, we will have given our children a truly great gift.

So with a few simple family activities, we can instill that love of astronomy in our offspring.  Here are some ideas.

* Make star gazing part of family life.  You already love to go outdoors as often as possible to enjoy the stars.  So don’t let that be your private passion.  Get everybody into the act.  The kids will love it and look forward to those nights as much as going to the circus.

* Make each new experience in growing into astronomy a fresh threshold.  So the first experiences might be what you experienced as a kid, just laying on your back out in the country with the panorama of the stars overhead trying to take it all in.  Go ahead and challenge them to count the stars.  It’s a fun exercise and one they will save to use as a joke on their kids when they do this same thing in a few decades.

* Take them along the road of learning, introducing binoculars so they can focus on particular areas of the night sky.

* Now they are hooked and want to know about why some of the stars are brighter than others.  They have no idea they are going to astronomy school and don’t even know it.  You can tell them about the constellations as you point out how to find them by keying off the North Star.  By being able to find things in that mass of stars and knowing there is such a vast amount more they can pick out, they are ripe for learning from star maps and about how the galaxies work.

* Think of their excitement as they notice the changes in the night sky.  The phases of the moon and the effect of the rotation of the earth on the position of the planets.  Help them find their favorite celestial bodies each night.  Before long they will learn to chart the movement of the stars just like the early astronomers did.

* Now you will get caught up in the excitement of finding new things to reveal to your excited crew of fledgling astronomers.  When you reveal that you are going on a safari to see an eclipse, a meteor shower or the once in a lifetime appearance of a comet, that gift will as big as anything you might spring on them for Christmas.



The wonders of the night sky will captivate your children the way it has you for years.  And you will have done them the greatest favor you ever could do by making them lifelong lovers of the universe.



Tuesday, December 22, 2015

TELESCOPES 101

Buying the right telescope to take your love of astronomy to the next level is a big next step in the development of your passion for the stars.  In many ways, it is a big step from someone who is just fooling around with astronomy to a serious student of the science.  But you and I both know that there is still another big step after buying a telescope before you really know how to use it.

View of the corrector and primary mirror of a ...
View of the corrector and primary mirror of a commercial Schmidt-Cassegrain.
 (Photo credit: 
Wikipedia)

So it is critically important that you get just the right telescope for where you are and what your star gazing preferences are.  To start with, let’s discuss the three major kinds of telescopes and then lay down some “Telescope 101” concepts to increase your chances that you will buy the right thing.

The three primary types of telescopes that the amateur astronomer might buy are the Refractor, the Reflector and the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope.  The first two are named for the kind of lens that is used.  It is pretty easy to see that the lens is the heart of the telescope so the kind that you will use will determine the success of your use of that telescope.

The refractor lens is the simplest because it uses a convex lens to focus the light on the eyepiece.  So the lens bends outwards for this purpose.  The refractor telescope’s strength is in viewing planets.  The reflector’s strength is in seeing more distant objects and the lens is concave or bends in.  It uses mirrors to focus the image that you eventually see.  The final type, the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope is the most complex and accomplishes the goals of both but it uses an involved system of mirrors to capture the image you want to see.

So to select just the right kind of telescope, your objectives in using the telescope are important.  To really understand the strengths and weaknesses not only of the lenses and telescope design but also in how the telescope performs in various star gazing situations, it is best to do some homework up front and get exposure to the different kinds.  So before you make your first purchase…

* Above all, establish a relationship with a reputable telescope shop that employs people who know their stuff.  If you buy your telescope at a Wal-Mart or department store, the odds you will get the right thing are remote.

* Pick the brains of the experts.  If you are not already active in an astronomy society or club, the sales people at the telescope store will be able to guide you to the active societies in your area.  Once you have connections with people who have bought telescopes, you can get advice about what works and what to avoid that is more valid than anything you will get from a web article or a salesperson at Wal-Mart.

* Try before you buy.  This is another advantage of going on some field trips with the astronomy club.  You can set aside some quality hours with people who know telescopes and have their rigs set up to examine their equipment, learn the key technical aspects, and try them out before you sink money in your own set up.



There are other considerations to factor into your final purchase decision.  How mobile must your telescope be?  The tripod or other accessory decisions will change significantly with a telescope that will live on your deck versus one that you plan to take to many remote locations.  Along those lines, how difficult is the set up and break down?  How complex is the telescope and will you have trouble with maintenance?  Network to get the answers to these and other questions.  If you do your homework like this, you will find just the right telescope for this next big step in the evolution of your passion for astronomy.