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.