Crowdfunding a space science startup

It doesn’t appear that our investment in NASA is going to change anytime soon, and that’s a shame because about 10% of NASA’s budget goes to funding research and education. In other words only about 0.05% of the entire federal budget goes towards actually funding the research that leads to scientific and engineering breakthroughs or educating the next generation of scientists.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of money to be spending on a resource our country – indeed, the entire world – needs.

And so, a team of astronomers and educators got together to fund Uwingu, a private company that will use its profits to fund research and education projects. The amount of annual funding it can provide is, of course, dependent on how well the company does. But the business model seems pretty straightforward; develop and sell educational products (after all, that is what the founders of the company are good at already) and use the profits to fund more research and education projects.

It’s so crazy, it just might work!

But like any company, Uwingu needs startup capital, and this is where we come in. So far they’ve raised a little more than the $65,000 of the $75,000 they need, but they need that final push to get them there. Check out their fundraiser page and kick in a few bucks. Every bit helps!

Here are a couple of videos to give you a better idea of what they’re all about:

I wish them the best of luck geting this venture off the ground.

An award-winning Whirlpool

Martin Pugh’s award-winning image of M51. If you really want to be blown away, check out the full resolution image. Wow!

M51, aka the Whirlpool Galaxy, is a favorite target for professional and amateur  astronomers alike. It’s a relatively nearby pair of galaxies that are interacting with one another. M51 is the large spiral, seen nearly face-on to us, and its arms are bursting with new star formation. This of course is due to the tidal interaction with its companion NGC 5195, which is a dwarf galaxy passing “underneath” one of the Whirlpool’s spiral arms.

Of course, the Whirlpool has been imaged in exquisite detail by the Hubble Space Telescope and others, but this image is a winner in more ways than one. Martin Pugh’s image was voted the overall winner in the Royal Observatory’s 2012 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. And yeah, click that link because even the “als0-rans” images are breathtaking. Seriously, you won’t believe that these images were made by amateur astronomers with backyard telescopes!

What amazes me about Martin’s image is the combination of subtle details and wide range of features. The wisps of scattered gas and dust from the smaller companion are rarely imaged, and yet there they are in the same image as the fine, tightly wound spiral arms near the nucleus of the Whirlpool itself. Then there are of course the fine dust lanes etched into the spiral arms, dotted with the sapphire blue that is the telltale sign of hot new stars recently born in the arms. The colors, the hues, the saturation, and the balance of capturing all of that stunning detail make this one of the best images of the Whirlpool I’ve ever seen – and yes, I’m willing to rank it up there with Hubble’s image.

Not bad at all for a guy with a 17-inch telescope! I can’t imagine the hard work, patience, and skill it must have taken to produce this image. Fortunately, Martin has a few more knockouts on his Flickr stream for our viewing and mind-blowing pleasure. Take some time to check them out, as well as browse through the contest’s photo pool which is chock-a-block of amazing astro-image awesomeness!

A slightly warped edge-on spiral galaxy

NGC 4634 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope – click for 1280×1093 version, or for full-on warpage, get the 23796×2388 version

Hot on the heels of another beautiful Hubble image of an edge-on spiral galaxy is a Hubble image of NGC 4634. What makes this image so interesting is the slight warp in the disk. If you look closely, you’ll see that the  disk is tilted upright on the right hand side of the image and slightly downward on the left hand side. This is because NG 4634 is not alone in the cosmos, but has a nearby companion tugging on it, just outside of Hubble’s field of view. The companion – NGC 4633 is clearly visible in this wide-field image from the Digital Sky Survey:

Digital Sky Survey image of NGC 4634 & NGC 4633, rotated to match the Hubble image. Get the full field of view or the full resolution version

Even though they’re not interacting yet the Hubble image clearly shows that NGC 4634 is already feeling the gravitational effects of it’s neighbor, NGC 4633. As the two galaxies tug on each other, their shapes begin to distort, as clearly seen by the warp in NGC 4634’s disk. But something else is going on as well – as gas clouds are tugged about the disk of NGC 4634, they collide with slower-moving material. When clouds collide, gravity takes over and stars eventually form within them.

But don’t take my word for it, just look at the Hubble image and you’ll see pink cloud formations that are billowing from the radiation of hot, newly formed stars within. And then there’s all of these jewel-like clusters of very hot, massive stars that have formed all along the length of the galaxy’s disk!

Over the next billion years (or so), these two galaxies will merge, first by passing through one another, and eventually coalesce to form one large elliptical-shaped galaxy. All of the while, new stars will be bursting into life as more and more of the clouds come together and gravity starts working its magic. Should be a very cool show indeed!

The coolest Curiosity descent video you will ever see

From Bard’s YouTube description “Working frame-by-frame, it took me four weeks to produce this video. It was a labor of love. You can support my efforts with a donation or just let me know that you enjoyed it.”

By now you’ve probably seen several of the videos of MSL Curiosity’s descent to the surface of Mars, but I betcha haven’t seen it like this:

Is that incredible or what? This video is brought to us not by NASA, but by Bard Canning, an “amateur” video engineer who obviously put a lot of work into creating this magnificent video.

The video is actually an interpolation of the original high-resolution video taken by the Mars Descent Imager mounted at the bottom of Curiosity. The original video was taken at a rate of of just 4 frames per second (fps), resulting in a very jerky visual. To create the smooth, natural motion, Bard had to increase the frame rate from 4fps to 30fps. But those frames don’t actually exist, so Bard had to create them!

Bard does this by using a technique called motion-flow interpolation. In other words, he had to work frame-by-frame for 4 weeks straight, creating 26 additional frames by comparing the differences between the 4 frames of the original video – for each second of footage!

But that’s not all – Bard worked hard to stabilize the video, since Curiosity was obviously swinging wildly on the way down, and even tweak the color balance of every frame of footage.

The result is a smooth, natural feeling of what it must have been like to actually descend with Curiosity through the atmosphere and land on the surface of Mars. Coupled with the actual sound from the spacecraft, and you have a video that feels more real than the actual footage!

As an added bonus, Bard was kind enough to share his movie-making magic with us in a separate video, and even a side-by-side comparison with the original video. Both are worth checking out.

First light in the hunt for Dark Energy

Dark Energy is a bit of a problem in Cosmology. It makes up 75% of the universe, it’s speeding up the expansion of the universe, and we don’t have any idea what it is.

In order to get a handle on what Dark Energy really is, we need to get a detailed survey of phenomena such as:

…over a wide swath of the sky at an unprecedented level of detail. The Dark Energy Camera, built at Fermilab, is designed to do just that. Armed with 62 CCDs, the camera takes images at a whopping 572 megapixels! When mated to the large 4-meter Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, the camera becomes an ultra high-resolution sky-grabber:
Small Megellanic Cloud imaged by the Dark Energy Camera

That’s the Small Magellanic Cloud – a small satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way about 200,000 light years away. Of course, the SMC has been imaged in its entirety before, but not to such a high resolution in a single image.

Over the next five years, the camera will create detailed images of one-eighth of the southern sky. One-eighth might not seem like a whole lot, but that’s 5,000 square degrees – enough to discover 300 million galaxies, measure 100,000 galaxy clusters, and detect 4,000 supernovae. Suffice to say, that is a lot of data, and astronomers are going to need it if they are going to get a better handle on what Dark Energy is. After all, if we cannot see it, we have to look at the universe on a very large scale if we’re going to be able to measure its effects on the stuff we can see.

So, the Dark Energy Camera is locked and loaded at the prime focus of the Blanco telescope. just about ready to begin its investigation into something that makes up the overwhelming majority of the universe that we didn’t even know about until 15 years ago. I can’t wait to see what we learn.

Credit: Dark Energy Survey Collaboration.