Archive for April, 2010

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Going on hiatus

April 29, 2010

I have about a trillion things I would like to blog about here–Mercury, Venus, Saturn, the return of the summer constellations–but I’m not going to get to any of those things today, or anytime soon. I have a lot of end of the academic year activities coming up and some papers I desperately need to finish writing, and amidst all this meatspace busyness I’ve decided to give myself some time off from bitspace. The whole month of May, in fact.

If you get here while I’m gone and need something to do, print out this month’s Evening Sky Map, grab some binoculars, and go see the universe. If you get through with the ESM target list and need more, there is a great set of free star charts here and links to observing projects on the sidebar. If it’s cloudy where you’re at, the stars are always twinkling in Stellarium. If you’re thinking about buying a telescope, good for you–just read this first.

Before I take off, here are a couple of cool pictures. First, a picture of Palomar Observatory Public Affairs Coordinator Scott Kardel with the 200-inch (5 meter) Hale telescope, from his website:

The 200-inch was the world’s largest telescope from 1948 to 1975, and the largest useful telescope from 1948 to 1993, when it was eclipsed by the first of the 10-meter Keck telescopes. (The 6-meter Soviet BTA-6, which reigned as “world’s largest” from 1975-1993, was more of a publicity stunt than a functional intrument.)

Now CalTech, the University of California, and a consortium of Canadian, Japanese, and Chinese universities and observatories are building the Thirty Meter Telescope. That’s right: a reflecting telescope with a segmented primary mirror almost 100 feet across. I’m a sucker for pictures of colossal telescopes looming over puny humans (like, er, this one: world’s largest from 1908-1917), so I almost swooned when I saw this digital rendering on the TMT site:

This looks like science fiction, but it’s not. They’re going to start building the TMT this year, with first light planned for 2018. Hang on–the known universe is about to expand again.

See you in June.

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The moon and Saturn tonight

April 19, 2010

It was almost freakishly clear and calm here in Claremont this evening. My friend and fellow blogger Andy Farke came over and we spent some time looking up.  First target was the waxing crescent moon. Here in town, the seeing is often so bad that at anything over 100x, the image looks like it is under a rippling sheet of water. But tonight we were able to push on to 240x with no problems. I’d say the effects of seeing (atmospheric turbulence) didn’t start to be noticeable until 120x and even at 240x it wasn’t a dealbreaker.

Here’s Mare Nectaris and vicinity (click for the larger, unlabeled version). The line of craters formed by Theophilus, Cyrillus, and Catharina is an easy catch in binoculars at this phase. The Altai Scarp is an immense range of cliffs, hundreds of miles long. Mare Nectaris formed as a multi-ringed impact basin, much like the Chicxulub crater from the “dinosaur-killer” asteroid, and the Altai Scarp is the largest surviving stretch of one of the outer rings.

We had a look at Mars, which was a well-defined disc with hints–and only hints–of detail. I suspected the ice cap from time to time, but couldn’t convince myself that I’d really seen it, as opposed to just thinking the disc looked lighter where I know the ice cap ought to be. Still, a whole ‘nuther planet, y’know? Give me a telescope and a world to point it at and I get a little giddy.

The real treat of the evening was Saturn. At 120x it was crisp and jewel-like, but at 240x it was simply astounding. I have never seen so much detail in one of my own telescopes. The photo is by far my best ever for Saturn, but it just doesn’t do it justice, not by a long shot. The whole planet was striped with pastel bands, and we could clearly see the gap between the rings and the planet. The dark band stretching across the disc is the shadow of the rings. Three moons shone out proudly to the left of the rings; Stellarium informs me that they were Dione, Rhea, and Titan, from inward to out. After Andy left I even caught little Enceladus–she of the geysers–between Dione and the rings.

I also cruised over to the globular cluster M3 and it was very nice, a contained explosion of stars. It looked better than I’ve ever seen it, which is saying something since the moon was out. Most DSOs don’t suffer unduly from bad seeing since they are extended and dim to begin with, but globs do. I’m half-tempted to haul out the scope again and have a look at M13, which ought to be up now, but I have to sleep sometime. Good night, and clear skies.

Photos taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera, shooting through an Orion SkyQuest XT10 telescope and Orion Stratus eyepieces.

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Free Mag 7 Star Charts

April 17, 2010

Okay, this is pretty ridonkulously cool: a nice set of star charts, covering the entire sky to magnitude 7 (a bit more than the average person with maximally dark-adapted eyes could see from a desert island on a new moon night), on 20 pages, printable from your desk, for free.

I found these because I have misplaced–temporarily, I sincerely hope–my Pocket Sky Atlas and I need something to work  with right now. This set looks like a winner. I don’t have a working printer at home so I’m printing these online at Fedex Office and I’ll pick them up tomorrow. Maybe I’ll do a full-on review after I’ve had a chance to test-drive them.

Anyway, if you’re just getting started and you’re ready for the next step after The Evening Sky Map–or if you’re an experienced observer who just can’t turn down a nice set of free charts–snap these up. Here’s that link again.

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JPL tour

April 4, 2010

All right, I doubt if I fooled anyone with the last post, but I had to try right? This is a lab at JPL, and those are duplicate Mars rovers, but it’s not no secret what they’re up to. This is a shot of the famous “sandbox” where maneuvers planned for Spirit and Opportunity are tested here on Earth before they are attempted on Mars. I took this picture from the viewing gallery, which is open to everyone who takes a tour. My tour was back on January 8 of this year, and I’m finally getting around to blogging about it only three months late.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was started up by some Caltech grad students back in the 1930s, as a place to test the jet engines they were building for their thesis work. At the time, jet propulsion was the most cutting-edge technology on the planet. I wonder how many of those interwar engineers imagined that their country would have bootprints on the moon in three decades, and probes flying past the outer planets in four?

Anyway, in the 1950s the folks at JPL teamed up with Werner von Braun to build and then orbit the first US satellite, Explorer 1, which discovered Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts. When NASA was founded in 1958, JPL became the center of US efforts to explore the solar system with robot probes, and it continues in that role to this day. The various moon and Mars mappers, Mariners and Pioneers and Voyagers and Vikings, orbiters and atmospheric probes and landers, and rendezvousers with comets and asteroids–in short, just about everything awesome that NASA has done outside of the manned space program and a few of the space telescopes–were all born at and controlled from JPL. A surprising number are still working, including some that have been out there almost as long as I’ve been alive.

JPL has an annual open house each May, and school groups can arrange tours at other times. Vicki and London and I got to go in January because someone I met doing sidewalk astronomy last fall was organizing a school trip and had some extra slots. It was quite an honor to get to go along, and just stupendously cool.

The coolest part was seeing the stuff that’s still being built. Right now, this is mostly the Mars Science Lab, set to depart for the red planet in a year and a half, and its supporting spacecraft. Here a couple of engineers work on the robotic arm for the MSL–not the actual arm or the actual rover, but an exact duplicate. They’re working out the programming bugs on the clone before they put the program in the real one.

Here’s London with a mockup of MSL. It’s big, beautiful, and kinda freaky. The gearhead in me says, “That is one sweet robot!” The Cro-Magnon says, “That is one unnervingly big robot”, and is happy not to have to see it trundling around on its own.

Here is the giant cleanroom, the size of a high school gymnasium, where the MSL mission stuff is being built and stored. That big silver dish in the corner is the MSL aeroshell, which will decelerate the crane and rover in Mars’ thin atmosphere. This is not a mockup or a duplicate; in about two and a half years, that actual thing in the corner will actually be crashing through the Martian atmosphere at several thousand miles per hour.

Here are more bits of the gumdrop-shaped probe that will carry MSL to Mars. I think the flying-saucer shaped thing in the foreground is the parachute carrier,  but I could be wrong.

And here’s the crane that will hover on its rocket engines while it lowers the MSL rover to the surface. Sounds crazy, I know, but apparently they did exhaustive design studies and this is the best way to get a rover the size of a car down to the surface. MSL is big, and the bouncy balloon thing that worked so well for Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity ain’t gonna cut it this time around (see a cool comparison shot of the three types of rover here; also, how cool is it that we’re on our third generation Mars rover?).

The back wall of the cleanroom is tiled with giant versions of the patches from the various JPL missions, from the early Surveyors and Rangers to Cassini, the current Mars rovers, and New Horizons. I don’t know if that gives the people who work there some anxiety of influence, or more of a “Hell yeah, we’re awesome!” feeling, but I definitely leaned toward the latter.

Our tour ended in a viewing gallery overlooking Mission Control, where busy people keep track of flybys, orbiters, landers, and rovers, from MESSENGER heading for orbital insertion around Mercury, to New Horizons streaking toward its 2015 Pluto flyby, to the Voyager probes approaching the heliopause, far beyond the orbits of the gas giants.

I wish the lighting would have been brighter so I could have gotten a crisper shot; this was my favorite thing in the whole tour. This one screen in Mission Control has data scrolling in, in real time, from many of the active probes (not all of them; MESSENGER, for example, was not up on the boards when I was there). I got to watch data coming in from the Voyager probes, which were launched when I was two years old. How cool is that?

UPDATE, two and a half years later: Curiosity landed safely on Mars last night, so some of the hardware in the photos above is there on Mars, working. Oh, and Spirit has given up the ghost, but Opportunity is still going strong, 3116 days into its 92.5-day mission.

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Mars landings faked!

April 1, 2010

Here’s a picture of the shadowy government “lab” where all of the images from the supposed Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are invented by Hollywood special effects artists under the direction of unscrupulous government “scientists”. As this remarkable image clearly shows, each rover has only a small sandbox to roll around in. The rest of each faked image is created by the holographic projector standing on the yellow tripod in the middle of the room. The technology used to bilk the unsuspecting public out of  billions of dollars has come a long way since the moon landing hoax!

How much longer are we going to let the incompetent liars at NASA keep taking our tax dollars to support this transparent fraud!!?? Just Say No to the Fake Space Show! Contact your senator or representative today!

(For those without much sense, or a sense of humor: this is a joke, obviously!)