A Solar Jack-o’-Lantern!

Spoooky Sun, courtesy the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO
Spoooky Sun, courtesy the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

Our Sun is a wonderful, active, and occasionally downright spooky star if you look at it right. As luck would have it, the Sun presented a decidedly Jack-o-Lantern face to the Solar Dynamics Observatory on October 8 2014.

Suffice to say, we could never see the Sun like this with our own eyes. Instead, the Jack-o-Lantern image was created by combining two sets of ultraviolet images that would normally be colored gold and yellow. But since it’s so close to Halloween, the SDO team went with black and orange and the result is hallow-eerie-awesome! You can view the individual images that made up the Jack-o-Lantern composite at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center website.

Even though our Sun has been relatively weak compared to recent decades, it still puts on tremendous displays of magnetic activity. Its magnetic field lines get twisted and form regions of magnetic activity on the surface of the Sun. We see these active regions as sunspots in the visible part of the spectrum, but in ultraviolet we can see the plasma suspended in these magnetic field lines. The result is spectacular:

Incandescent Sun. Credit: NASA

Happy Halloween!

Having a go at Ello


Last week I received an invite to Ello, the fancy new social network everyone is talking about but few are using (though that is rapidly changing as of this writing). It’s very new, but in my opinion not that fancy, at least not just yet.

Ello’s mission goals are to create a social network that is permanently free of advertising, guarantees the privacy of its users, and promises never to sell your personal info or anything you post to third parties. Others have tried this before and failed. But who knows, perhaps enough of the public have reached a tipping point with Facebook’s “All your data are belong to us” model. Time will tell.

I’ve tried other social networks before, but I find myself coming back to Ello from time to time and seeing what’s going on in there. I’ve already linked up with several longtime friends and even some Launch Pad and NASA Social friends as well so it very much has that “private party” sort of vibe to it.

Oh, and I’m on there as @christianready so feel free to link up if you’re on Ello.

Starstuff Shirts

This summer, I backed a Kickstarter campaign to help get Starstuff Clothing off the ground. My funding level entitled me to two shirts which I received a couple of weeks ago. After wearing them a bit, I thought I’d offer a review. But first, here they are, modeled by yours truly:

We are all made of star stuff, and so are our shirts.
We are all made of star stuff, and so are our shirts. Me rocking Hubble Space Telescope images of the Orion Nebula (left) and Tarantula nebula (right).

Believe it or not, I am  not a professional model. I know, right? Anyway, as you can see, the shirts are complete wraparound space images! Starstuff calls these Galaxy shirts, but they are really Hubble Space Telescope images of the Orion Nebula and the Tarantula Nebula, both of which are star forming regions in the Milky Way and Large Magellanic Cloud.

What really sets these shirts apart is that the images are dyed into the fabric using a process called sublimation printing. As Starstuff explains on their site:

Essentially, a gigantic sheet of ink-covered paper is laid across a blank shirt. The ink is pressed and heated, literally vaporizing the ink … which then immediately binds to the fibers of the shirt. You can’t feel the ink printed on top of the shirt, because it’s not — it’s DYED into each individual thread. This creates an incredibly natural, smooth feel to the shirt — and it’s literally impossible for the image to crack or flake off over time like regular screenprinted shirts do. The colors will always stay vibrant and amazing as long as you live.

I was a bit skeptical at first, having bought many a t-shirt that looks cool but turns out to be rather uncomfortable to wear. However, these shirts are very comfy and wear very easily. I haven’t noticed any wrinkling, binding, or fading since I’ve had them. W00T!!!

But this technique does have one drawback:  the ink cannot make its way into every fiber and thread of the shirt, particularly in the seams and armpits. The result are white “image artifacts” in the shirts – that is, spots where the ink didn’t reach. Starstuff is very up front about this, and they explain this phenomenon on their website. My shirts were no exception to this problem.

Sublimation printing blues. White seams in the armpit (left) and shoulder (right)
Sublimation printing blues. White seams in the armpit (left) and shoulder (right)

In my view, this is hardly a show-stopper. I’ve found that the white seams really don’t distract from the beauty of the shirt. But I’d like to point this out just in case anyone decides to pick one up and wonders what’s going on there.

And I hope you will pick one up, because any business that promotes an appreciation of the cosmos is a business very well worth supporting. Besides, you’ll look damn good doing it. I love my shirts and look forward to ordering more as their product offering expands. If you’re like me, you probably wear your love for astronomy on your sleeve. Now you wear it on the rest of the shirt, too!

Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 on August 25, 1989. It didn't look like this on the TV screen.

Neptune, 25 Years Ago Tonight

On August 25, 1989, I was in the observatory at Villanova University taking data with the astronomy department’s 15-inch telescope. The telescope was doing it’s thing – measuring the shift in brightness of a binary star system as one star eclipsed its companion hundreds of light-years away. It wasn’t exceptionally difficult work – you boot up the computer, point the telescope to its target, turn on the photometer and let the photons come trickling in. In a roll-off roof observatory, I had the entire night sky to gaze upon, which I typically did during those long observations.

But on this night, my attention was turned toward a television set I brought into the observatory. I turned the brightness almost all the way down, and tuned to WHYY, the local PBS station serving the greater Philadelphia area. I never watched TV while observing before, but tonight Voyager 2 was making its closest approach to Neptune, and I was going to see it live.

The broadcast was billed as “Neptune All Night” – a live, real-time telecast as Voyager 2 made it’s closest approach 5,000 miles above Neptune’s cloud tops. From midnight until 7am, I watched image after raw, grainy image appear on the screen revealing an alien world as seen by the spacecraft as it flew by at 42,000 miles per hour.

Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 on August 25, 1989. It didn't look like this on the TV screen.
Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 on August 25, 1989. It didn’t look like this on the TV screen. Image credit: NASA/JPL

During the broadcast, a panel of astronomers from the Franklin Institute, the University of Pennsylvania, and even a science fiction writer commented on the images as they were coming in.

Clearly, there were millions of people watching. I’m sure there were watch parties in people’s homes, universities, and of course at JPL, where the mission was being run and was the primary broadcast center for the evening’s flyby. Throughout the evening, people would call in asking questions the experts did their best to answer.

Intro to Neptune All Night – WHYY Philadelphia

But standing there, alone in the dark, it felt at times that it was just Neptune, Voyager, and myself. I often looked up from the TV toward the southwest sky, where, 2.7 billion miles from earth, our robotic emissary was transmitting these images.

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 9.51.31 PM
Simulation of sky from Philadelphia on the morning of August 26, 1989. Source: Starry Night College.

As Neptune set in the southwest, the encounter was coming to an end. Toward the east, the sky was lightening and the Sun would be up soon. I ended the observation, closed up the telescope, shut down the computers, and closed the roof.

And Voyager 2 sped on into the night.

Joshua Tree Nights

My friend Mark “Indy” Kochte has done it again, producing a spellbinding time-lapse video of the night skies. Turn up the sound, click HD, go fullscreen, and behold:

Joshua Tree Nights from Mark 'Indy' Kochte on Vimeo.

As the title of the video suggests, the sequences were shot in Joshua Tree National Park during two separate weekend visits to the Park, one in September, one in November (during the 2012 Leonid Meteor Shower). Quoting Mark’s writeup, here are some cool bits in the video:

The bright star-like object that appears from behind a sky-silhouetted Joshua Tree at 0:15 is Jupiter. Jupiter also appears at 0:24, 0:38, and rises through the Arch near White Tanks Campground at 0:57.

The shadows that play across the rocks in the Arch sequence are from the moon setting behind the camera.

Venus makes an appearance at 0:50 and rises during the final sequence at 1:38

The star trails at 1:13 were created using StarStax. On the left side of the field of view at 1:19 you’ll note the appearance of a bright shaft of light. That was a minor fireball from the Leonid meteor shower. All the other streaks you see shoot across the field of view are planes.

The final sequence (at 1:28) features a classic instance of Zodiacal Light, the glow you see in the sky as the camera pans from right to left. It was *very* evident with the naked eye. It took me a while to figure out that it wasn’t light pollution from a distant town (of which there are no light domes in that direction from Joshua Tree), but rather an extremely vivid case of Zodiacal Light. (I have only seen it this bright once since during a trip to New Mexico in 2013)

The lights on the hill from 0:33 to 0:38 are of some night hikers a few miles away from where I was shooting.

Now I got to get to Joshua Tree Park and see this for myself, in real time of course.

Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop

Launch Pad 2014 Retrospective and Slides

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience at this year’s Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for a while now. Ok, who am I kidding, I’ve been meaning to write about anything on this blog for a while now but I’ve been so busy with my new job that there has been precious little time for anything else. (In fact, no sooner did I return home from Wyoming than I had to re-pack my stuff and head up to New York City for meetings — talk about contrast.)

Which is why Launch Pad couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Yes, it’s a lot of work, and yes, it consumes a great deal of my personal CPU, but it’s a welcome reset from the daily routine and a chance to do what I love to do best — tell cool people about the universe.

And what a bunch of cool people! Launch Pad self-selects for those who want to learn astronomy and who are willing to commit the time and expense to spend a week with us in Laramie, WY to do it. Each year brings a group of truly wonderful people and I couldn’t have been more delighted to get to know this years’ participants.

Far better writers than I such as Andrew Liptak, Jenn Reese, Sarah McCarry, Susan Forest, Gabrielle Harbowy, and others took the time to express their thoughts on this year’s Launch Pad and I highly recommend checking them out. In the meantime, as promised, here are my slides from this year’s workshop (NOTE: The file sizes on most of these are very large so please be patient as they download):

Exploring Our Solar System — I’d like to think this subject is somewhat self-explanatory, but it’s awfully hard to condense the entire solar system into a one-hour talk. Especially since we’re finding out so many things about it.

Motion, Energy, and Gravity — I had to rush through this one to get it ready for presentation but I think we got the main points covered here.

Binary Stars and Exoplanets — I pride myself on this one as the work I did on binary stars as an undergrad used the same techniques that detect extrasolar planets today. It turns out it wasn’t a matter of telescope power — the signal was hiding in the noise the whole time, just waiting for the computational horsepower to improve.

Stars — How stars’ temperature and radii determine their luminosity, how their spectra allow us to classify them according to their temperature and mass, and how they form in the first place.

Stellar End States, Part 1 — How low-mass stars evolve and die, with a preview of things to happen to our Sun starting in a few billion years.

Getting to share the universe with such wonderful people is always a joy, but I think this year was extra special thanks to our advisor Peepy dropping by to help us.

We’ll be doing this again next year so I guess I’d better start updating my slides.

Launch Pad 2014 is GO

Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop A lot of behind-the-scenes work has been going into making this year’s Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop a reality. First, we are actually funded this time, thanks in no small part to an Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) grant from Space Telescope Science Institute, and of course to Mike Brotherton for writing a winning proposal.

Launch Pad is only as good as the people who attend, and this year we have an amazing lineup:

It’s shaping up to be another great year and I am looking forward to meeting these amazing  people!

This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Math.

In this week’s astronomy lab, my students needed to make some simple calculations, mostly involving some arithmetic and a little bit of algebra to convert  hours and minutes into decimal hours (for example, 1hr 30min = 1.5 hrs) and some arithmetic. Nothing too complex, but it was nevertheless a major challenge for many of my students, eliciting groans of “I suck at math”, “I’m not a math person”, etc.

I’m sympathetic, to a point. I struggled with math quite a bit as a wee lad, and even as an undergraduate astronomy major in college (don’t tell anyone). But looking back, I realize that the reason I “sucked” at math was because I told myself I sucked at math. Once I decided I no longer sucked at math, I suddenly got better at it.

I watched this happen to a student when faced with the problem of calculating the difference in time.  He was struggling with some time calculations and asked me for help. It went something like this (and yes, I’m paraphrasing):

blackjackMe: Ok, so you need to figure out the time difference between 1:16 and 1:21. What is it?
Student (tired, frustrated): Oh man, I’m just not sure right now.
Me: No problem. Let’s imagine you and I are playing blackjack together in Atlantic City—
Student: Now you’re talking my language!
Me: Cool. So you’re dealt a 7 and a 9. What do you have?
Student: 16, a really sucky hand.
Me: And the dealer is showing an 8, what do you need to do?
Student: This sucks, I have to hit.
Me: Yeah, you do, but what do you have to pull in order to make 21 and guarantee you won’t get beat?
Student: A 5.
Me: Right, so what’s the difference between 1:16 and 1:21 again?
Student: Oh geez, of course. Duh!

I got a little lucky here – I didn’t know that the student played blackjack, I just guessed. But mathematically, the problem was the same.  The context of the problem seemed to make all the difference. At the blackjack table, he no longer seemed to think he sucked at math and suddenly the problem was a piece of cake.

A lot of math phobia gets swept away when you are presented with problems in a more familiar setting. That’s why I know my students don’t suck at math, or at least not nearly to the degree they think they do. After all, math is hard, but it’s a skill you can learn.

I’ll wrap this up with a video that caught my eye this morning that dispels a lot of the myths, fears, and misconceptions about math. I’m not a genius at math by any means, and I might have to stop and think a little bit more when solving a problem than others. But I don’t suck at it, and neither do you.

Some Thoughts on Cosmos

Image credit: FOX

I realize that there are no shortage of reviews of last night’s premiere of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (including one by my good friend Mike Brotherton), but I did have a few thoughts of my own. First and foremost, I loved this show. It was beautiful and poetic, thoughtful and insightful, and firmly made the case that science is the only way to really understand the world and universe we live in. Will I love it as much as Carl Sagan’s original? Maybe, maybe not, and truthfully, I’m ok with either outcome.

On the shores of the cosmic ocean. Image credit: FOX
On the shores of the cosmic ocean. Image credit: FOX

Although Sagan is no longer with us, having his protege Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm of the new Ship of the Imagination is a fitting passing of the torch. And what better way to begin the new voyage than with an homage to Sagan. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting kickoff to this series than to literally begin at the same location Carl did 34 years ago.

But in that time a new audience has grown up that is inundated with even more television channels and production values that far surpass anything Hollywood was capable of producing in 1980. Make no mistake, the production values of the original Cosmos were, in my opinion, absolutely incredible. I truly felt like I was flying through the universe with Carl on his ship. Even though there is no way they could possibly do a poor job with this new production, I was wondering if the new series might go overboard with the use of visual effects, or use them in a way that has, quite frankly, been done to death in other science programs. The answer, to be honest, was a bit of a mixed bag for me.

The Spaceship of the Imagination. Image credit: FOX
Takeoff in the Spaceship of the Imagination. Image credit: FOX

Cosmos sets out to orient the viewer in much the same way as it originally started out – by describing our place in both in space and in time. The space bit had Tyson and his ship zipping through the Solar System, which was fine until…

Um...no. Credit: FOX
Um…no. Credit: FOX

To be fair, they didn’t show the Ship zigzaging around the asteroids in hairpin tuns a-la the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; This shot was much more graceful than that, suggesting perhaps a little bit more space between the asteroids. But the truth is that asteroids are already very, very far apart from one another. I personally would have much preferred a setup where the audience thinks they’re about to play cosmic dodge ball, only to discover that the asteroid belt is wide open with nothing in sight, and Tyson actually having to set course to fly by an asteroid in order to glimpse one up close. That might not have been as visually stunning, so it looks like they went for the cool shot instead, but they also reinforced a very common misconception.

Things get much more interesting – and pretty accurate – when passing through the Jupiter system. The sequence of flying through the Great Red Spot absolutely blew me away.

Near the eye of the storm in Jupiter's Great Red Spot. Credit: FOX
Cloud canyons near the eye of the storm in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Credit: FOX

Of course, you can’t do a Saturn flyby without going through the rings. I’ve heard some complaints that they didn’t get the scale right here, but the thickness of Saturn’s rings vary from as thin as 10 meters to as thick as 1 kilometer.

Cosmos' depiction of flying through Saturn's rings. I can live with it. Credit: FOX
Cosmos’ depiction of flying through Saturn’s rings. I can totally live with it. Credit: FOX

All things being equal, this was just too cool a shot to pass up, so I’m good with it.

Next was an all-too brief mention of the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. I know it’s an ambitious first episode show and there’s only so much time to devote to such things but I feel bad for those two worlds. To their credit, they took a moment to describe Trans-Neptunian Objects and the icy worlds of the Kuiper Belt, but once again they overcrowded the scene.

Asteroid belt: Not to scale (or reality) Credit: FOX
The Kuiper Belt: Not to scale (or reality) Credit: FOX

It seems that in this new sequence, we are dodging space rocks a-la the Millennium Falcon, which is unfortunate. In reality, there’s even more space between Kuiper Belt objects than there are between asteroids by virtue of the fact that the Kuiper Belt extends so much farther from the Sun than the asteroid belt. Alas, the cool shot wins out and a misconception is reinforced. Bummer.

We probably wouldn't see this either but whaddyagonnado? Credit: FOX
We probably wouldn’t see this either but whaddyagonnado? Credit: FOX

Interestingly, as Tyson leaves the Solar System, he looks back on the Oort Cloud and notes that the objects there are as far apart from one another as Earth is from Saturn. I guess that’s why he didn’t have to dodge them on the way out. My only observation here, as with any depiction of the Oort Cloud, is that at this imagined distance, the icy comets that populate the cloud are much too small to be seen; The Oort Cloud would be no more noticeable from outside the solar system than it is from our vantage point well within it. And yet there needs to be a way to visually communicate to the viewer that they’re there, so we get a delicate sphere around the Sun.

Jumping forward in the sequence, Tyson continues to define our cosmic address through our diminishing place in the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies. Whenever I see shots like this, I get goosebumps, despite having been familiar with the scale of the observable universe for most of my life. However, I’ll just note that if we really were as far out in between galaxies as depicted in the sequence, we wouldn’t  be able to discern each individual galaxy with our own eyes. Remember, each galaxy in an image like the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field is the result of 2 million seconds of exposure time – nothing our eye would ever be able to register in a glimpse, even if we were looking through the Hubble Space Telescope itself. Still…goosebumps!

It’s when we zoom out to the large scale structure of the observable universe that we finally complete our cosmic address.

The entire observable universe. Yep. Credit: FOX
The entire observable universe isn’t entirely purple. Credit: FOX

I’m not sure why they chose to represent this as purple in color, but my guess is that it was inspired by the Millennium Simulation Project, an ambitious model of the gravitational interaction of a whopping 10 billion galaxies. Here is a small piece of their result:

Image from the Millennium Simulation Project. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics
Image from the Millennium Simulation Project. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics

To tell the truth, I wish they had used this image instead of the one they created. Not only is it more realistic, but it makes the observable universe seem larger than it appeared in Cosmos.

When describing the history of the universe, we are (re)introduced to the analogy of an earth calendar. I always thought this was the best way to convey the  13.8 billion-year history of the universe, and the comparatively negligible length of time humans have been around to notice it, to a lay audience. Naturally, this has to start with the Big Bang which, unfortunately, cannot really be properly described even with the most sophisticated of visual effects.

Definitely not the biggest. Credit: FOX
Definitely not the biggest. Credit: FOX

Don’t get me wrong, it was a cool sequence. The problem is that you cannot really depict spacetime expanding into itself, which is what really happened (and is continuing to happen). That’s because there is no outside for the universe to expand into. Perhaps the most accurate way to depict a Big Bang is to show nothing on screen, then show “fire” everywhere. There was a 1991 documentary called The Astronomers that depicted the Big Bang exactly this way. But it’s hard to convey the idea of a massive explosion without showing something…well…exploding. Hmm…

Truth be told, I’d be ok with this had Tyson not made the statement that in the beginning the entire universe was compressed down to the size of an atom. If he had instead said it was the observable universe that was so compressed, it would have made all of the difference. Here’s why:

Most cosmologists generally believe that the universe is infinite. By that definition, it extends farther beyond the farthest points in space we can see. These farthest points define the observable universe, and Tyson makes a point of distinguishing the observable universe from the entire universe, which is infinite.

But here’s the catch – if the entire universe is infinite today, then it must have been infinite in the beginning as well.  But how can something be both infinite and compressed down to the size of an atom? It can’t, but the part that defines today’s observable universe can, with all of the points of the infinite universe beyond compressed next to it, and so on. Here’s an illustration from Edward Wright’s excellent cosmology FAQ:

The universe as it was 1 billion years after the Big Bang (left), and 13 billion years later (right). Note that the galaxies (points) do not expand. Image credit: Edward Wright
The universe as it was 1 billion years after the Big Bang (left), and 13 billion years later (right). Note that the galaxies (points) do not expand, but the spacetime in between does, carrying the galaxies away from each other. Image credit: Edward Wright

The green circle represents our observable universe, with the galaxies (dots) much closer together a billion years after the Big Bang than they are today. If we run the clock back further to the beginning, our green observable universe would be infinitesimally small, but the dots (representing the galaxies we will never see) will still go on forever.

Alas, by stating that the entire universe was compressed to the size of an atom, I think Tyson may have reinforced a major misconception.

Again, none of this is to take away from what I thought was an amazing production. And truth be told, we need Cosmos on our screens now more than ever.  Carl Sagan presented Cosmos at a time of both great exploration of our solar system and of grave danger to our home planet and to humanity’s own existence. Sagan understood that our very survival depends on humankind’s knowledge of the cosmos, and of our place in it.

Today, we find ourselves once again in peril – perhaps not from nuclear annihilation but certainly from a rapidly warming planet –  but now amid an ever-increasing wave of science denial. Denial of global warming, modern medicine, biotechnology, and of investments in research. If there was ever a time when we need to present Cosmos to a new generation, it’s now.

You can view the entire episode here. Enjoy the journey.

Mars One-Way

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Eleanor Roosevelt
Would you live here? Could you live here? Image credit: NASA/JPL
Would you live here? Could you live here? Image credit: NASA/JPL

Would you take a one-way trip to Mars? Think about that for a moment: would you leave your family, friends, the entire planet Earth behind to live out your days forever enclosed in a sealed habitat on a distant planet, entirely dependent on your fellow colonists and resupply ships from Earth? Here are some people who say they will:

Mars One Way by Skylar Nielsen & Vitas Brevis Films (go full screen & click ‘HD’)

It’s a thought-provoking short film which gives insight into the type of people who are willing to undertake such a journey. All of them applied to Mars One, an ambitious program to select and train the first human colonists to live out their lives on Mars. There are many reasons why this would have to be a one-way mission, but the short version is that by the time humans get to Mars, there would be no way they could survive a return to Earth. Mars’ gravity is less than ½ of Earth’s. Even if we could somehow simulate that environment on the journey to/from Mars, their muscular/skeletal structures would atrophy far too much to make survival in Earth’s 1g environment possible. That’s why the trip would have to be one-way: permanent exile on Mars.

And yet, for these people, such exile would give their lives tremendous purpose, one far different from those of us who would remain behind on Earth. It’s important to consider this because it shows that in a very real sense, humanity is going to have to change in a fundamental way if we ever become a true multi-world species.