Archive for the ‘Mars’ Category

h1

A little piece of Mars

July 21, 2016

Mini Museum no 3614 DSCN1469

This is my Mini Museum: a collection of tiny samples of rare and interesting specimens from the history and prehistory of Earth and the solar system. There’s a lot of stuff in here that is very satisfying as both a paleontologist and an amateur astronomer. Highlights for me are the preserved woolly mammoth meat, the fiberglass casts of Diplodocus bones used as the Krayt Dragon skeleton in Star Wars: A New Hope, and, above all, the tiny piece of the Martian meteorite Zagami. It’s labeled “Martian atmosphere” because the meteor is known to contain tiny bubbles of Martian atmosphere in pockets of melted glass (Marti et al., 1995).

The specimens are embedded in a single block of acrylic that is 5 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. At $299 it’s not cheap, but it’s a pretty astounding collection of objects at any price. There is also a smaller, 10-specimen edition for $99. It doesn’t include Zagami or the Krayt Dragon, but it does have asteroid fragments, Stegosaurus plate, woolly mammoth meat, fulgurite, and the moon tree sample. These will sell out at some point, so if you’re interested in picking one up, don’t tarry.

Reference

Marti, K., Kim, J.S., Thakur, A.N., McCoy, T.J. and Keil, K., 1995. Signatures of the Martian atmopshere in glass of the Zagami meteorite. Science, 267(5206), p.1981.

Advertisements
h1

Small, medium, large – observing near and far in the last two weeks

June 4, 2016

Matt at Delicate Arch IMG_2984

Preface – Running with the Red Queen

I’ve just finished maybe the busiest spring of my life. January and February were largely sunk into day-job work – time-consuming, but necessary, interesting, and in fact rewarding. Then the last three months have been taken up with travel and public lectures.

  • In March I went to Oklahoma for 10 days of paleontological research in field and lab, and I gave a talk at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History titled, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?”
  • In April I did a two-day trip to Mesa, Arizona, for more paleo work. No talk on that trip, but I did participate in the “Beer and Bones” outreach at the Arizona Museum of Natural History.
  • In early May I was in Utah for another 10 days of paleo research, and I gave a talk at the Prehistoric Museum in Price on, “Why elephants are so small”. My colleague Mike Taylor and I took one day off from dashing through museums to tour Arches National Park, which is where Mike took the photo at the top of the post.
  • Last weekend I was up at RTMC, where I gave a Beginner’s Corner talk on, “The scale of the cosmos”.

I’m not complaining – far from it. It’s been exhilarating, and the collaborative work I have rolling in Oklahoma and Utah will hopefully be paying off for years. And planning and executing all of the work has been satisfying. Particularly the RTMC talk, which deserves a whole post of its own. And ultimately this is all stuff that I chose to do, and if I could do it all over again, I would.

BUT there have been consequences. Most frustratingly, I haven’t had enough uninterrupted time to get anything written up for publication – not the sizable backlog of old projects I need to get finished up, and not the immense pile of new things I’ve learned this year. I haven’t gotten out to observe as much as I’d like, and I’ve barely blogged at all.

And it’s not over. In two weeks I leave for a week of paleo fieldwork in Oklahoma, then I’m back for a week, then I’m off to Utah for about 10 more days of digging up dinosaurs. In between I’ll teaching in the summer human anatomy course at WesternU.

But I’ve had a nice little pulse of observing in the last couple of weeks – two weekends ago up at Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo, last weekend at RTMC above Big Bear, and this week at Santa Cruz Island off the coast. No time for separate observing reports, so I’m combining them all into one.

Observing Report 1 (Medium): The Planets and Moon from Arroyo Grande

I was fortunate to be part of a great, tightly-knit cohort of grad students at Berkeley. Of the people I was closest to, some are still in and around the Bay Area and some of us have been sucked into the gravity well of the LA metro area. Occasionally we get together somewhere halfway in between, either up in the Sierras or near the coast. I usually take a telescope, because almost everywhere is darker than where I live, and when I’m traveling by car there’s simply no reason not to.

IMG_9452

This year we met up for a couple of days and nights in Arroyo Grande. We hiked in the hills, went down to Morro Bay to watch ocean wildlife and buy seafood, played poker, and generally got caught up on work, family, hobbies, and life. Our first night was wonderfully clear. I had along the trusty C80ED, which has become my most-used scope. It’s mechanically rugged, optically damn near perfect, and compact enough to not require much time or thought when it comes to transportation and setup. On Saturday, May 21, we spent some time with Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn were as they always are: beautiful and surprising in their immanence. I cannot look through the telescope at either of them without being forcefully reminded that they are as real as I am, that as I go about my days full of busyness and drama, they are always out there, hundreds of millions of miles away, go about their own business whether I or anyone else pay them any attention or not. One of my friends had never seen the rings of Saturn with his own eyes, so that was an added bonus.

Mars was the real treat. Using the Meade 5mm 100-degree EP and a Barlow I was able to crank up the magnification to 240x. The dark dagger of Syrtis Major and the white gleam of the north polar cap were both obvious. It is always arresting to see details on this world that has loomed so large in the human imagination, from ancient mythology to science fiction to current and future exploration.

The next night we sat out on the patio, eating oysters and watching the sun set. I didn’t have any of my own binoculars along, but a friend had brought a couple, and after it got dark we watched the still-mostly-full moon rise through the trees on the ridgeline to the east.

It was all shallow sky stuff (solar system, that is), but it was all spectacular, and I’m glad we did it.

Observing Report 2 (Large): Going Deep at RTMC

Last weekend I was up at RTMC, finally. I’ve been wanting to go since I got to SoCal, but in the past it’s fallen on the same week as our university graduation and I’ve been too wiped out. I didn’t make it up for the whole weekend. We went up as a family to stay Saturday and Sunday nights. I went up to RTMC early Sunday morning to look around, give my talk, and hang out. Ron Hoekwater, Laura Jaoui, Jim Bridgewater, Ludd Trozpek, and Alex McConahay of the PVAA were all there and we spent some time catching talks and jawing about skies and scopes. I also chatted with some folks from farther afield, including Arizona and NorCal.

IMG_9523

I took off in the afternoon to spend time with London and Vicki, then went back up after dinner. All I had along were my Celestron 10x50s (yes, those), but Ron had his 25-inch Obsession dob, and he was content to use it as the centerpiece of a group observing session. We looked at the planets, or at least Jim Bridgewater and I did – Ron had checked them out the previous night and didn’t want to blow out his dark adaptation. That was a smart call, as the Obsession gathers a LOT of light and the planets were almost blown out. We could have put in a filter, but ehh, we had other things to be getting on with.

We started with globular clusters. M3, M5, M53, NGC 3053, and one or two other distant NGC globs. The close ones were explosions of stars that filled the eyepiece. The distant ones shimmered out of the black like the lights of distant cities. Then we moved on to galaxies. M81 and M82 were bigger, brighter, and more detailed than I had ever seen them. M51 was just stunning – the spiral arms were so well-defined that it looked like Lord Rosse’s sketch.

M51 sketch by Lord Rosse

As nice as those were, the Virgo galaxy cluster was better. There were so many galaxies that identifying them was a pain – there were so many little NGCs in between the familiar Messier galaxies that my usual identification strategies kept getting derailed. It was kind of embarrassing, actually – I did just write an article about this stuff. But also incredible. NGC 4435 and 4438 – the pair of galaxies known as “The Eyes” – were so big, bright, and widely separated that I didn’t realize I was looking at them until the third or fourth pass.

We finished up on planetary nebulae. The seeing was good but not perfect – the central star in the Ring Nebula was visible about a quarter of the time. The Cat’s Eye, NGC 6543, was a fat green S with a prominent central star – it looked like it had been carved out of jade.

An evening under dark skies with a giant scope is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you get to see so many unfamiliar objects, and so many details in familiar objects, that are beyond the reach of smaller scopes. A curse because by the end of the session you may find yourself thinking, “Sheesh, why do I even bother with my little 3-, 5-, and 10-inch scopes?”

Fortunately another observing experience, one that would remind me of the joys of small-aperture observing, was right around the corner.

Observing Report 3 (Small): A Binocular Tour of the Spring Sky

My son, London, is finishing up fifth grade at Oakmont Outdoor School, one of the half-dozen or so different elementary schools in the Claremont Unified School District. We were fortunate when we moved to Claremont to land just a couple of blocks from Oakmont – we would have been happy to land within walking distance of any of the schools, but if we’d had our choice we would have picked Oakmont anyway, since we wanted to raise London with as much exposure to the outdoors as we could.

Oakmont’s slogan is, “Learning in the world’s biomes”. The major activities of each grade are organized around a particular biome, and so is the end-of-year field trip. In third grade, the kids went to Sea World. Last year it was the desert by Palm Springs for a 2-day, 1-night trip. This year it was Santa Cruz Island, in Channel Islands National Park, for a 3-day, 2-night trip. Parent chaperones are needed and I’ve been fortunate to get to go every year.

IMG_9598

The island was amazing. We saw dolphins, sea lions, and petrels on the boat ride out – I took the photo above from the prow of the ship – more sea lions, seals, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and red pelagic crabs at the shore, and dwarf island foxes, ravens, and the occasional hawk inland. On the final evening, June 2, we hiked up to the top of the cliffs to watch the sun set over the Pacific, which was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d see something even more beautiful just a few hours later.

I had binoculars along – Bushnell 10×40 roofs that I got specifically for daytime use, and which I had used a lot on the trip already to watch wildlife. When we got back to camp, a few of the teachers and hung back and started talking about the planets, bright stars, and constellations. I started pointing out a few of the brighter targets and passing around the binoculars, and we ended up having an impromptu binocular star party. (The kids and a fair number of the adults were all exhausted from a full day of hiking, and sensibly went to bed.)

IMG_9987

What followed was one of the best and most memorable observing sessions of my life. The only permanent residents of Santa Cruz Island are a couple of National Park employees, and they turn their lights off after dark. We got a little light pollution on the eastern horizon from Ventura and Oxnard, some 20 miles distant, but for the most part the sky was darkAfton Canyon dark, Hovatter Road dark – what I typically refer to as stupid dark.

We roamed all over the sky, looking at targets large and small, near and far, bright and dim. I didn’t keep track as we were going, but I wrote down a list yesterday morning on the boat ride back to the mainland (we went through a fog bank and only saw a handful of dolphins, so I had plenty of time).

In the northern sky:

  • Polaris and the Engagement Ring asterism
  • Mizar and Alcor
  • M51 – yes, it was visible in the 10×40 bins
  • The 3 Leaps of the Gazelle

In the western sky:

  • M44, the Beehive – easily visible to the naked eye, and just stunning in the binos
  • Leo
  • Coma Berenices star cluster
  • Virgo/Coma galaxies – identifications were tough, but a few were visible

In the eastern sky, Lyra had just cleared the trees when we started observing (at 9:15 or so), and all of Cygnus was above the trees when we finally shut down at 12:45 AM. In addition to tracing out the constellations, along the way we looked at:

  • Epsilon Lyrae, the Double-Double star
  • Albireo
  • Alpha Vulpeculae (the subject of my Binocular Highlight column in the ### issue of Sky & Telescope)
  • Brocchi’s Coathanger (Collinder 399)
  • Sagitta (just traced the constellation)
  • M27, the Dumbbell Nebula
  • Sadr and its surrounding ring of stars in the heart of Cygnus
  • NGC 7000, the North American Nebula – this and the Northern Coalsack were easily visible to the naked eye once Cygnus has risen out of the near-horizon LP

…and we just cruised the Milky Way from Cygnus to Cepheus, not singling out individual objects but just taking in the rich star fields.

But the southern sky was the best. Looking south from Santa Cruz Island, there’s only open ocean, broken here and there by other, distant islands and ultimately by Antarctica. It reminded me of looking south from Punta del Este in Uruguay, only I was in a valley instead of on a beach. The ridgeline to the south did cut off a bit of the sky, but we were still able to see all of Scorpio, including the False Comet, made up of NGC 6231 and Trumpler 24, which was one of the highlights.

It was trippy watching the Milky Way rise. I usually look at the summer Milky Way when it is higher overhead. I usually have to do that, because the objects aren’t visible in the near-horizon haze. But from Santa Cruz Island, things were not only bright but obvious as soon as they cleared the ridgeline to the south. It’s almost pointless to list them – we saw every Messier object in the “steam from the teapot”, from M7 and M6 in the south to M11 in the north, plus a lot of NGCs, plus star clouds and dark nebulae almost beyond counting. They were all great through the binoculars – M7 was a special treat, like a globular cluster on a diet – but honestly the best views of the night were naked-eye.

I realized that I am just never out observing the Milky Way at this time of year. My regular desert observing spots are all too hot in the summer, and when I do go there is often at least some light pollution to the south (El Centro from the Salton Sea, Barstow from Owl Canyon, etc.). I do most of my deep and dark observing in October and November, when the southern Milky Way is setting, not rising.

So I was completely unprepared for how much detail would be visible to the naked eye. When the Milky Way rose, it didn’t look like a band of light, it looked like a galaxy. I searched through a lot of photographs of the rising Milky Way to find one that approximated the naked-eye view, and this is the closest I got:

I am not exaggerating – the bright and dark areas were that defined. The Great Rift was visible from Cygnus to the horizon, and its southern border was notched by distinct deep sky objects from Aquila onward. The Scutum Star Cloud, M16, M17, M24, M23, M8, M6, M7, NGC 6281, and the False Comet were all easily visible to the naked eye as a chain of luminous patches against the dark dust lane of our own galaxy. In fact, I noted NGC 6281 with my naked eyes first, thought, “What the heck is that?”, and had to look it up. We also caught M4, M22, M23, and M25 in the bins, plus a bundle of dark nebulae that I’d never noted before and didn’t bother keeping track of.

Longtime S&T contributor Tony Flanders (now retired but still writing occasionally) is active on Cloudy Nights, and his sig file reads:

First and foremost observing love: naked eye.
Second, binoculars.
Last but not least, telescopes.
And I sometimes dabble with cameras.

Until fairly recently I would have listed my own preferences in reverse order, from telescopes to binos to naked eye. That may sound odd for a “bino guy”, which I guess I am since all of my ‘professional’ astro-writing has been binocular-based. But it’s true – as much as I love binoculars, I would have picked a telescope first. But I am – gradually, belatedly – waking up. In some ways, it would have been great to have a scope, any scope, along on the island trip. I’m sure that even the C80ED would have taken us crazy deep, considering what we could see with a pair of low-end 40mm roof-prism bins. But it would also have come between us and the sky, and I would have spent more time futzing with eyepieces and less time just looking up.

This was a surprising and welcome realization, coming so shortly on the heels of a frankly astonishing session with Ron’s 25-inch dob at RTMC. I was worried that big-telescope observing might spoil me, but that fear turned out to be unfounded. All I need to be happy is a dark sky. If I have some people to share it with, even better. Anything more is just cake at the end of an already long buffet.

Let’s eat.

h1

Hell yes–wheels down on Mars again!

August 6, 2012

We all stayed up last night to watch Curiosity land on Mars. It was amazing, to be watching the live feed from Mission Control at JPL, hearing the live telemetry being relayed, and then just moments after touchdown get to see the first photo sent back by the rover (it’s grainy and blurry because the transparent lens cap is still on the camera to protect it from the dust kicked up by the landing).

As John Holdren, President Obama’s assistant for science and technology, said, “there’s a one ton automobile-sized piece of American ingenuity and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”

I was particularly engaged because I had gotten to see parts of the actual spacecraft, including the aeroshell and rocket skycrane, during a tour of JPL two and a half years ago. Strange and amazing to know that the same machinery I saw in the big white room at JPL is now on Mars.

During the landing, data were relayed  back by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been in orbit around Mars for 10 years, 9 months, and 13 days. This decade-old craft was never designed to function as a data relay, but, you know, engineers are smart. Curiosity joins the rover Opportunity, which is still going strong 3116 days into its 92.5-day mission.

Turns out, we weren’t the only ones watching the landing. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter got a photo of Curiosity on the way down, using its HiRISE camera.

This is the second time MRO has caught a Mars lander on the way down; it got a photo of Phoenix descending under its parachute back in 2008.

Happily, today’s xkcd explains why I’m blogging about space on a Monday morning:

Or, as my buddy Jarrod put it on Facebook, “We just landed a one-ton NUCLEAR ROBOT on another planet with a SUPERSONIC PARACHUTE and a FRICKIN’ ROCKET SKYCRANE.”

Good times.

h1

Curiosity arrives at Mars this weekend!

August 2, 2012

Our newest and largest Mars rover, Curiosity, will arrive at Mars Sunday night or Monday morning, depending on your time zone (image from Wikipedia). I say “will arrive at Mars” because we won’t know if it landed safely or just hit Mars until 7 minutes after the fact. As you can see from this nifty calculator, the distance between Earth and Mars is currently 152 million miles and growing. The landing is scheduled to occur at 10:31 PM, PDT, on August 5, or 1:31 AM EDT, or 5:31 AM UT/GMT.

This video about the landing explains something of the difficulty and complexity of landing a BIG rover on Mars, and some (but not all) of the justification for going with the never-before-attempted skycrane landing method.

Fingers firmly crossed!

h1

Back to Barsoom

February 6, 2012

I haven’t had a look at Mars through my telescope yet this year, but I have seen it with the naked eye a few times, when I’ve been out late at night. Mars has been much on my mind lately, because I’ve been rereading the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first book, A Princess of Mars, follows the adventures of John Carter, an ex-Confederate officer who is mysteriously transported from the desert southwest to the desert planet. He is captured by warlike Martians, falls in love with a human princess, and goes through a series of chases, escapes, imprisonments, arena battles, and deadly duels. The tale was first published in serial form in 1912, when the “canal” theory of Mars was at its most popular. The Mars of Burroughs’ novels, known as Barsoom by its inhabitants, is only sustained in a habitable state by the high technology of the dwindling races of Martians, in particular the canal system and the “atmosphere plants” that produce and distribute breathable air. The canal theory is a historical curiosity now; when modern astronomers get excited about Martian water, it’s over braided fluvial systems that seem to change from year to year, based on high-resolution photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Burroughs’ Mars books are all ripping adventure yarns and they inspired much of the pulp science fiction of the early 20th century–and many of the science fiction films of more recent years, from Star Wars to Avatar. That circle is about to be completed: in this 100th anniversary of the first publication of A Princess of Mars, the story is finally coming to the big screen, in Disney’s John Carter, set to be released on March 9.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the movie. But I’m also looking forward to hauling out a telescope and having a good look at the red planet. The thing that always gets me about seeing planets through a telescope is that I am forcefully confronted with how real they are. Of course, nebulae and galaxies and everything else “up there” is equally real, but as much as I love those things they don’t have the same mythic hold on me as the planets. Even when I look up with my naked eyes and see Mars, I experience a curious sense of dislocation, knowing that Mars is really there. The canals may be (human) history, but the ice caps and canyons and volcanoes and dust storms are all just as real as you or me. And at least a handful of Earthlings really have been transported to Mars and have left their tracks on its dry, dusty plains. The fact that these have all been robots so far should not discourage us. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, Mars calls to us, possibly in a more profound and mysterious way than any other heavenly body. I don’t know exactly when we’ll get there, but I think we will actually get there, and have adventures no less exciting than those of John Carter.

I’m going a lot sooner. I have this weird device in my garage. It looks like a small water heater, but it’s really a transporter. Very soon, I’m going to Mars. I’ll let you know if I ever come back.

If you’ve never read A Princess of Mars or the rest of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, you can start right now, for free. Most are in the public domain, and you can find them at Project Gutenberg, and on Amazon in free Kindle versions, and probably elsewhere on the web as well. For more of my thoughts on the upcoming movie, go here, and for my previous posts on the real Mars, go here.

h1

Ginormous Mars atlas for free

June 23, 2010

Your tax dollars at work: the USGS map of the Hellas Planitia region of Mars, all 13.8 megabytes of it, is freely available for download here. Hat tip to Mike.

If you’re more interested in the kind of Mars exploration depicted above, try here.

Either way, have fun!

h1

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.