Saturday, September 12, 2009

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore....

So, if I ask , "What's your favorite real life space craft?" I think most people would answer Hubble. That's fine and up to a point I'd agree with them until I think of Cassini. Cassini has once again sent back the picture above and I think that it rivals anything Hubble has produced.

Why this adulation for a fuzzy, out of focus image? Well, how about this for an answer? That's a picture of the surface of world that has lakes, oceans, clouds and even rain. It's atmosphere is comprised mostly of Nitrogen, the same as ours here on Earth. Here's a world that may be rich in the chemicals that started life on our world. Where is this planet that's a twin of Earth you might ask? Well, first off, it's not really a planet but a moon of Saturn....Welcome to Titan!

We can't talk about Titan with out talking about it's temperature. It's cold! How cold? How about cold enough for ice to be a hard as the hardest rock on Earth. How about cold enough for Methane to rain from the clouds as liquid and forming rivers and lakes? That's cold! We don't know for sure what we're looking at in the image above but we can guess that we're seeing dark methane lakes and other landforms created by running liquid.

Wow, Cassini...just WOW.

Monday, July 20, 2009

40 Years of Wonder

I have never known a world where man has been bound to the surface of the Earth. When I was born, 3 years had passed since Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin and American Astronaut Alan Shepard became the venture into what Carl Sagan once called, "The Cosmic Shoals" just beyond the atmosphere. In less than 9 years, our species would do what man has always dreamed of, set foot upon another world.

Three men who's names will be remembered for as long as man explores the universe where just the tip of iceberg. Thousands of men and women worked to fulfill the dream and on July 20, 1969 they were joined by billions on the Earth in watching a 38 year old human being emerge from a small spider-like machine and step upon the surface of the moon.
We spent only a little over 2 hours on that first "small step". We returned 6 more times and another 10 men joined Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to become the only humans to have walked those small steps. Beautiful Desolation is how Buzz Aldrin described the lunar surface and now, 40 years later, our species is once again making more of those small steps.

Will we do it, will we return to the moon? I believe we will but it might not be as Americans or as Soviets or as Chinese. We will return to the moon and go beyond as one Humanity because the Cosmos are bigger than petty nationalism of one small planet.

So, the question isn't where were you 40 years ago? but where will you be 40 years from now when our species take another "Small Step"?

Monday, May 25, 2009

To our Service Personel, past and present....


If not for you and your sacrifices, people like me wouldn't be able to say the things we want to say, live where we want to live and think thoughts that are unencumbered by someone else's political ideologies.

So thank you again and not just today, but for every day that you and your fellows have given to our country.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tables, Fumes and Galaxies GALORE!

WOW! Has it been a while since I posted last. Sorry about that but time and the work of being unemployed has kept me away from the computer. My Lady, Amber, and I have about 90% of our stuff moved from our Bay Area mobile home to our new digs in Redding CA. Hopefully, we even have a buyer lined up for the mobile and we'll be up here permanetly in another few weeks.

In the meantime, we've been working on trying to get the new house tweeked for our comfort level and that has included the building of 3 custom computer tables. I have to admit, it's been a while since I pulled out my power tools but out they came and I'm pretty proud of the results. I'll post pics of them in place once they are dry and moved into place.

Nights have been spent either passed out in bed or sitting out in the back yard hunting galaxies in the Virgo Cluster or searching for Globular Clusters. I've gotten some good views of the Sombrero Galaxy and the Bee Hive Cluster as well as several others. I'm really looking forward to the Summer sky and trying my hand at capturing the Ring Nebula in my astrocam.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Still Alive?! far

We just finished moving the 2nd load of stuff from San Jose to Redding. The good news is this is the last load of telescope equipment to come up so I can now start to work on getting my "night eyes" working again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Well, Today's The Day!

Well, today is the last day on the current job and the start of the major packing for the move from the Bay Area and up to beautiful Shasta Lake area of Northern California.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Playing Footsie

As you probably have figured out by the name of this blog as well as my profile picture, I have a parrot. A female Green Wing Macaw to be exact.

I also have two cats Mal and Inarra (yes, I'm a Firefly fan...go figure).


Now Mal and Sunniva (the parrot) have gotten to be best friends. They will chase each other all over the house and play footsie with each other.

Needless to say, life is "interesting" in my house.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bit's O Space and a Dark Dance of Death (With repects to the BA)

Photo Curtasy of the Cassini Imaging Team

Cassini Answers More Questions

Take a look at the photo above. That bright dot in highlighted by the box is a new moon and it answers one of the multitude of questions that the Cassini Space Probe has brought forth. Namely, what is the possible source of Saturn's G Ring?

Saturn's rings were first spotted by Galileo 400 years ago and have since fascinated folks ever since. The rings themselves are named in the order of discovery but not the order that they are extended out from the planet so you have this - D C B A F G E. The G ring is one of the very diffuse rings out at the edge of the ring system and in 2007 a possible source of material was spotted by Cassini. A bright arc of large icy objects was seen but, unlike other rings, there was no shepherd moon associated with the ring. Shepherd moons act as a combination street cleaner/traffic cop for the rings. They clean up and define the rings with their gravity and the gravitational interactions with other Saturnian moons. In this case, the moon Mimas disturbes this little moon's orbit in such a way that it maintains the G ring's bright arc and supplies the rest of the ring with material to renew itself over selveral orbit.

Both Universe Today and The Bad Astronomer have a lot more information.

Twin Black Holes Found Locked In A Stellar Dance.

The BBC is reporting that researches have found very compelling evidence of a binary system of black holes orbiting each other in the same galaxy. Here's the link for all the details regarding the discovery.

A black hole is probably one of the wierdest things in the universe. Supermassive ones appear to be the power source in most, if not all, galaxies. They are created at the end of a massive stars life when the eons long battle between gravity and engergetic expansion finally reaches its end and gravity wins. A star has converted all the matter that can be converted and it's own gravity starts to compress the remaining matter down to a single point. So the star gets smaller but it still has the mass of a star. Since gravity is a product of mass, you have an object that may only be the size of a small city but having the gravitational influence of the original star. Too say wierd things happen at this point is an understatement.

Check out the absolutely fantastic Astronomy Cast for a ton of info on black holes and stellar life cycles. And check out The Bad Astronomer's 10 Things You Don't Know About The Sun!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I Don't Think They'll Take Mine

NASA needs help and they're asking for it from the public.

They have a new module going up for the International Space Station and they need a name. They are asking the public to vote on or suggest their own for the new module. You can participate by going here and voting. As a Browncoat (a fan of the SciFi series Firefly), I am really happy to see that Serenity seems to be leading the pack.

Oh, and what was my suggestion that I don't think they'll accept?

Well, this module will house the Oxygen Generation System that takes the stations waste water and breaks it down to oxygen and hydrogen. So my suggestion, call the thing the Gas Passer!

And don't forget to check out Comet Lulin in the South East sky tonight!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Some Highs and Some Lows and a Chilling Discovery

Just a couple of quick news items from today -

NASA's Orbital Carbon Observatory suffers a catastrophic launch failure.

As reported over at Universe Today, NASA's OCO space craft crashed just short of Antarctica this morning soon after launch. According to preliminary findings, the T3 fairing failed to separate preventing the spacecraft from achieving enough velocity to make orbit.

Comet Lulin putting on quite a spectacular show.

Want to see a green comet? Grab a pair of binoculars and head outside around 9pm tonight (and for the next week or so) and look to the south east. Sky and Telescope's web site has a good article on finding the comet here. The comet is bright but is so large that all that light is being spread out over a large area and makes seeing it with just your eyes rather difficult unless you happen to be in a very dark site. Phil Plait (aka The Bad Astronomer) reports that he saw Lulin and estimates that it covers a span of sky roughly the same size as the full moon (1/2-1/3 of a degree). For a lot more information about Comet Lulin head over to my frieind, Nite Sky Girl's site and check out what she has to say about it.

Waiter, there seems to be a Super Nova floating in my martini.

Imagine looking out across the night sky when suddenly, from out of nowhere, a bright light flares into existance. In the year 1006, Arab and Chinese astonomers didn't have to imagne it, they could observe it happening. What they saw was a massive explosion of a star called a Super Nova. Today, one thousand years later, a team of Japanese scientists have found the first direct evidence of the event in, of all things, an ice core sample taken in Antarctica. What the found was the tell-tale signs of the Gamma Ray Burst interacting with our planet. A spike in Nitrogen Oxide that matches the 1006 event (along with two others matching up with other reported nova events including the one that created the Crab Nebula) show when the Gamma Ray Burst ionized Nitrogen atoms in our upper atmosphere. Once again, Universe Today has all the details.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Glimpse Of Our Future

500 light years away form us, a star very much like our sun is slowly dying. It's converted most of it's Hydrogen fuel into heavier elements. Because the nuclear fission has slowed, gravity is starting to win out over pressure and the star is starting to collapse into a White Dwarf. The cool part of all this is that we now have a picture of it!

This image is of T Leporis, a Miri type star in the constellation of Lepus (The Hare) was taken by an amazing technique called Interferometry with the European Space Organization's VLTI telescope Array. Interferometry uses multiple telescopes all pointed to a single target. By using an extremely complex process that combines the light recieved by the different 'scopes and treats them all as a single scope with an apature equal to the distance between the individual telescopes. For more information on the VLTI, here's the Wikipedia entry on it.

Now that we know a little of how the image was taken, let's take a look at what it actually is. In order to interpret the image, we need to have a basic understanding of how a star works. Let's see if we can cram a couple of weeks of Astronomy 101 into a paragraph. Drum Roll Please!

A star is, at it's most basic level, a huge fusion reactor. It works by fusing Hydrogen atoms into other atoms and generating photons. A photon is a packet of electro-magnetic energy and depending on it's frequency, may be anything from an x-ray to the particle of visible light that we capture in our telescopes to microwaves that can cook an astronaut in orbit. It's these photons that push out against the gravity of the sun's mass. A more energetic star will be larger than a less energetic one because there is more pressure pushing out. As the star ages and the fuel is used, the light pressure that inflated the stellar atmosphere begins to lessen and gravity starts to take over as the defining force of the star's physical shape.

The star begins to collapse on itself. Think of a balloon, you blow it up and the pressure of the air inside the balloon pushes the rubber skin out. If you let the air out of the balloon, the skin of the balloon will start to shrink into it's origninal, un-inflated state. In a star though, when it starts to collapse, strange things begin to happen. As the inner layers start to collapse, the individual atoms (mostly Helium at this point) start to move together and when the pressure of the collapse is high enough, they begin a new round of fussion. This time, instead of Hydrogen fusing into Helium, it's Helium fusing into Carbon. Just like striking a match, the star erupts with a burst of energy blows out it's own outer layers of atmosphere. This is where we get the beautiful planetary nebulas like this one.

M57 - The Ring Nebula

So, back to T Leporis. We are looking at a picture of the collapsing core of the star with the outer layers of stellar material being blown off it's surface. For a sense of scale, the inner part of that image (the stellar core) is about as big around as the orbit of the Earth around our Sun! If you consider the size of objects in the Universe, capturing an image as small as T Leporis is an amazing feat and the ESO scientist have good reason to be proudly celebrating.

Universe Today has a lot more details along with a picture of another VLTI image shoing a binary star system in the Great Orion Nebula.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Far Out!

If you've read my blog then you know that I have a slightly more than healthy obsession with astronomy. My idea of the perfect evening is huddling next to my Orion Dob and stare longing through the eyepiece at a distant nebula or cluster. Needless to say, my fiance has a radically different idea of the perfect evening but I figure that's why they invented daylight savings time.

One of the things we DO share (other than a parrot who's way WAY too smart for her own good and a couple of cats who aren't) is our enjoyment in listening to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. The theme song to it is written and performed by a gentleman by the name of George Hrab and it's called FAR. George has been nice enough to post a video for the song up on YouTube.

George, you Rock Sir!

George also has a podcast of his own and to say it's awesome really doesn't do it justice so go visit and have a listen.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Yep, he was...dead wrong when it comes to the Survival of the Fittest. You know, the part of his Origin of the Species that explains how random mutations in a species can propagate new species that may be more successful in a given environment that the original species. Apparently, this fairly simple to understand part of the theory fails completely when one is presented with co-workers.

I made the mistake of walking into the lunch room at got smacked right in the face with the following quote, "Oh it's true.....I read it in check out line the other week, we're all going to die in 2012 because of a alien planet sending our solar system through the center of the Universe." I'll wait until either the guffaws die down a little or you pick you chin up from the floor. No, I'm serious, I'll wait.......

Ok, we all back? Cool.

We live in an age where information is the number one driver of economic prosperity. Don't believe me, look at Google's stock price vs. GM's and ask yourself what does Google actually produce? When I'm faced with blatant stupidity (sadly, more often than not) I really try to ignore it because I'll never, EVER, change the minds of the passionately stupid.

And sometimes I fail....badly....

Like when they look at me and out of they're mouths come this, "Hey Greg, you know all about this astrology stuff. what's the deal? Can't your stupid scientists do anything?"

It's at this point that I realize that Darwin NEVER had to deal with stupid co-workers because if he did, the Theory would go to great lengths to prove that the least competent of a species would be the ones who survived and prosper. I found myself starting to explain that the whole 2012 thing was nothing more than deep pile of bull and that one should apply the Skeptical Golden Rule; If it sounds to good to be true, it probably isn't!

After about 10 minutes of trying to explain that there is no phantom planet that is moving from the outer reaches of the solar system because, as Douglas Adams explained so well, Space is big....mind numbingly HUGE. I got hit with the statement that will stick with me for the rest of my life and teach me to keep my mouth shut in the future...."It's people like you that take all the magic out of God and you're going to be very lonely when we all die in 2012!"

Ummm,'s REALLY time to clean out that scum filter on the shallow end of the Gene's getting pretty thick.

Friday, January 23, 2009

But where's the Monolith?

Grab a set of 3d glasses (those red and blue ones) and take a look at this video from the Japanese Space Agency's Kaguya (Selene for those gaijin among us) lunar probe.

So, what are you looking's a stereo image of the Tycho crater on the moon. If that name sounds familiar, it's named after 17th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. It was also the spot where, in Arthur C. Clark's 2001 where the TMA-1 monolith was uncovered. It's the white spot in the lower center of the picture on the left.

Tycho Crater is the result of a large impact that's fairly young as lunar craters go, a mere 108 million years. Take a moment to think about that, the impact that created the crater happened when the dinosaurs were strolling through the park. Imaging the view they had of a huge flash of light on the surface of the moon. They could probably see the huge ejecta splash that formed that white ray system that makes Tycho so easy to see.

One of the very cool things about looking at Tycho is the central mountain peak. It was formed when the crater was made. When the impactor hit the lunar surface, the incredible pressure and energy imparted liquefied the lunar crust and so it behaved in the same way dropping a pebble into a pond does, by sending out ripples and making a splash. That splash of molten rock is what has formed the central mountain peak.

Our closest neighbor is a still a pretty cool place.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Good, Bad and simply AWESOME!

Yesterday was a sad day for those of us who remember the 1960s, both Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan passed away. The first time I remember seeing Ricardo Montalban was in the Star Trek episode Space Seed and was struck by not only his phenomenal voice but the the power he brought to the part. Khan (Ricardo's character in the episode) went on to become one of the greatest characters ever to come out of the original series.

For more on Ricardo Montalban, here's his entry in IMDB.

Patrick first caught my attention when the local PBS station was rebroadcasting the The Prisoner along with it's Saturday Night SciFi block (my first Doctor was John Pertwee btw :-) ). After devorering him as Number 6, I discovered Danger Man or as it was broadcast here in the United States, Secret Agent. Like Ricardo, Patrick's voice and presence on screen made the series stand out.

For Patrick's bio, I refer you to Wikipedia.

My thoughts are with the families and friends that both these great actors left behind and a heartfelt thanks to the them for all the fond memoies they've given us.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rant Alert

Sorry, but it's "That" time again. Time when the level of stupid reaches the flood gates of tolerance and it spills over all over my shoes...

I've been reading multiple blogs on the spate of anti science legislation that is popping up a couple of states. Both The Bad Astronomer and P.Z.'s Pharyngula blogs have the details but the basic gist of these bills is this; Evolution as described by Darwin is a theory and not fact. Because it's a theory, alternative "theories" should also be taught.

Sounds reasonable enough on the surface except that the people who are backing these are religious fundamentalists who want creationism taught as a science. It comes down to a misunderstanding of what science is. To a fundamentalist, science seems to mean a philosophy akin to their religion. To everybody else, science is a tool or method for of exploring and defining the natural world . The supernatural has no place in science as, by definition, it is beyond the natural world. In science, a theory is a collection of observations, evidence and ideas that model something in nature. Because it's a model, it can be held up and tested to see if it holds true. A good example of this is Einstein's Theory of Relativity. It's been tested and retested over and over again and still holds to be an accurate model of the universe while Aristotle's theory that the Earth was the center of the universe and the Sun, Planets and stars all revolved around in perfect spheres failed to accurately model what later scientist (particularly one, Galileo) where observing.

This brings up another quality of a theory, it can make logical predictions. Einstein's theory predicted that time would slow (in respect to an outside observer) the closer one approached the speed of light. This prediction was proved correct several times since the 1950s and CERN runs an ongoing Time Dilation experiment currently. Poor Aristotle's theory fell apart because it couldn't explain or predict the retrograde motion observed in the motion of several planets.

So, what does this have to do with original rant? Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a good scientific theory as it cites observations and make predictions that can be tested. The creationist's intelligent design theory makes no testable or observable predictions. Nor does it doesn't cite observations but only hearsay and rumor. It's data source is, in their own words, supernatural and that alone removes it from realm of science.

Beyond the "Teach the controversy" stupidity, these people are trying to stifle the teaching of basic scientific methodology and that can have devastating effects on society. Our society is one based upon science and rational thought. Imagine this, the computer you are using to read this suddenly stops working. Unless you are one of the small percentage of the population that repairs computers, you're out of luck and your machine is going to stay broken. Sure, you could wave a stick over it and maybe say a few words in the hope that it will sudden fix itself but really, you need somebody trained to solve your problem. Now take that example to an extreme and say, oh a nuclear power station suddenly starts to see where this can go.

Not knowing how to fix a computer is not something to be ashamed of (hell I open the hood on my car and immediately curl up into a fetal position) and socially its ok. The problem is that so many fundimetalists don't understand (or worse refuse to try to understand) scientific concepts like evolution and then decide that because they can't understand it, it's beyond understanding. They call scientists snobs or elitist because they use a vocabulary that is not in the everyday lexicon of the general public. They fail to understand that every profession has it's own linguistic shorthand and not everybody is trained enough in that area to understand it. It comes down to a very old saying, "If it was easy then anybody could do it".

Anyway, I'd like to close with a request....Fundamentalist, please stop relishing the ignorance and stop trying to send us back to the Dark Ages....they were called that for a reason folks.

She worked WHERE?!

Just caught up with reading Nicole's One Astronomer's Noise blog and discovered that she did her under grad work on the VLBA. She's got a lot of info on the hows and whys of the VLBA (plus just being a fun read).

So, go over and pay her a visit and tell her that Greg95111 says hi!

Monday, January 5, 2009

But Officer, My speedo said 500,000mph...honest

Do you ever get the feeling that the galaxy is spinning out of control and the best thing to do is just hang on for the ride? Well guess what, that feeling may be more accurate than you might think.

Scientist using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) have discovered that our Milky Way galaxy is spinning about 100,000mph faster than previously thought. According to the findings, our solar system is moving through space at a respectable 600,000mph. To give that some sort of perspective, the average distance between the Earth and the Moon is 250,000 miles and it took the Chandrayaan-1 probe took 2 weeks to travel to the moon and the Apollo Astronauts did it in about 3 days.

They also found that our galaxy is about 50% more massive that what was previously estimated. This puts the Milky Way about even with Andromeda in terms of mass. This also means that our chances of colliding with another galaxy has increased as well. Why is that you might ask? Well, remember that gravity is the result of mass. The higher the mass, the more gravity there is and the farther away it's influence is felt (thanks to the Inverse Square Law).

So, where does this extra mass come from? Good question and one that's at the forefront of Astrophysics at the moment. We think it has to do with something called Dark Matter. Dark Matter eh?, sounds like some sort of Star Wars baddie doesn't it? Well, the truth is, it's a place holder. A way of describing something that we can't directly observe. Dark Matter may be something as simple as dust particles that don't emit or reflect very much light. It might also be something exotic and brand new to physics. Scientist can see what Dark Matter does (speeding up the expansion of the universe is one of the results that are being studied) but so far they haven't seen the stuff and until they do, the placeholder name will remain.

As amazing as these discoveries are, the tool that was used is just about as mind boggling. The VLBA is one incredible machine. You may have heard it said that in astronomy, aperture is king. Aperture is simply a measurement of how much information (in terms of the electro-magnetic spectrum) a telescope can collect. The larger the aperture, the more data can be collected and the farther the scope can look. Most research telescopes have apertures described in terms of metres or feet but the VLBA might be described in terms of miles! VLBA is made up of 10 radio telescope dishes spread from Hawaii to St. Croix Virgin Islands. Each telescope dish is 25 metres across and because all ten are linked together and work as a single unit, the aperture of the VLBA is about the same as the diameter of the Earth. It can resolve objects in space about 50 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Pretty cool isn't it?!

Here's the original report!
And to the VLBA