Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Year in Review

It's that time of year, isn't it folks?  Everyone is doing a "Year in Review."  Well, who I am to miss that bandwagon!  So in this final installment of Cosmic Strings for 2011, I give you my personal five favorite astronomy stories of 2011.  Enjoy!

The Total Lunar Eclipse of June, 15, 2011
2011 was a banner year for eclipses...we had 4 solar and 2 lunar eclipses.  I wish we could have seen them.  Sadly, all 6 eclipses were basically not observable from the United States.  But many of our international friends got to see some amazing sights...and of the the eclipses this past year, the June 15th lunar eclipse was likely the most wonderful.  It was a rare lunar eclipse where Moon passed through virtually the exact center of the Earth's shadow, making it not only a very long eclipse (the total duration was almost 6 hours!), but also one where the Moon took on a fabulous color.

The lunar eclipse of June 15, 2011 by Javier Algarra.  Courtesy Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Atmospheric scientists can tell a great deal about the Earth's atmosphere from lunar eclipses.  The reddish color of the Moon during a lunar eclipse is caused by sunlight bending through the Earth's atmosphere and striking the lunar surface even when it is in the shadow of the Earth.  Usually only deep reddish light gets through, but depending on the various particulates found in the atmosphere of the Earth, the Moon may appear bright red, copper colored, and even a yellowish-orange.  If you got to see this wonderful eclipse, count yourself lucky!

The Launch of Curiosity
It might seem odd to include a spacecraft launch in my list, but I can't help it.  I'm excited!  Another plucky robot has successfully made it off the Earth and is on its way to Mars.  Launch is a dangerous time...second only in danger to landing.  So Curiosity still has a long way to go before it can get to work...and the greatest danger lies ahead.  Mars has been a tough planet to explore...about half of the missions headed there have ended badly.  And yet, Mars is well worth the effort, as it is the place in the solar system most like the Earth.  If life is, or ever was, present in the solar system beyond the Earth, Mars is the most likely place for it.  The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have shown us definitive proof that Mars was wet in the past and likely still has a fair amount of water.  Perhaps Curiosity will be able to provide definitive evidence of Martian life!  If so, that will certainly make the list in 2012!

The launch of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, called Curiosity.  Courtesy NASA.

The Uncookable Comet Lovejoy
A late entry - but an amazing one!  Kreutz sungrazer Comet Lovejoy was discovered by Australia's Terry Lovejoy a bit less than a month before its close encounter with the Sun.  No one expected the cosmic chunk of ice and rock to survive its passage a mere 87,000 miles above the solar surface (Earth is on average 93 million miles from the Sun and I can still get a sunburn in the winter!) on December 16.  But as I write this, Comet Lovejoy is still kicking, headed away from the Sun and sporting an enormous tail.  Sadly, we can't see it very well from here in the United States, but its discoverer is still getting a nice view!  Southern hemisphere dwellers - get outside before the sunrise and enjoy the view of Comet Lovejoy in the east.  It's well worth the effort!

Comet Lovejoy after its incredible solar encounter by Kosma Coronaios. Courtesy

Pluto May Not Be a Planet...But it is a Moon Magnet!
First among dwarf planets Pluto was back in the news again this year - sporting a newly discovered moon.  The intrepid Hubble Space Telescope was searching for rings around the tiny body, but instead discovered a fourth moon circling this enigmatic little world.  Officially announced on July 20, 2011, little S/2011 P4 doesn't yet have a proper name.  But its discovery confirms that this world, though no longer considered a major planet, will remain a target for scientific curiosity and discovery for years to come.  New Horizons will arrive in 2015, increasing our understanding of the Plutonian system exponentially.  I can't wait!

The discovery of Pluto's newest moon, S2011/P4.  Courtesy STSci.

The End of an Era: NASA Retires the Space Shuttle
For 30 years, manned spaceflight was synonymous with the Space Shuttle.  NASA's fleet of launch-like-a-rocket-land-like-a-glider spacecraft were amazing machines, completing 135 missions to space, launching innumerable satellites and spacecraft, conducting thousands of experiments, and performing 37 construction and service visits to the International Space Station.  Groundbreaking mission like those of the Galileo spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope started with a launch from the cargo bay of a space shuttle.  While we mourn the loss of the 14 astronauts who died in the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, we must also acknowledge that the shuttle's work record of 30 years is nothing short of extraordinary.

Space Shuttle Discovery.  Courtesy NASA.

Now the United States has no manned spaceflight capability,. and the future of human exploration of space has never looked more bleak.  No other space agency has the same level of experience which NASA has in manned spaceflight.  But we will lose those skills rapidly if we can no longer send people into space to use them.  While NASA is actively seeking new astronauts, I wonder what they will do, since they must rely on the faltering Russian space agency to successfully carry them into space.  Human space exploration fires the imagination like few other things can, and the technological spinoffs from such efforts are too numerous to detail.  I hope that our government will be willing to make an investment in a future they can't imagine now, and not let the problems of today kill the dreams of tomorrow.

I wish you all a wonderful holiday season full of family, friends, love and joy.  And may 2012 be a truly stellar year for us all.
Carpe annum!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

'Tis the Season

Hey folks!

We started talking holidays two weeks ago, so I thought I'd keep it up, as we get a lot of calls around this time of year about good astronomy Christmas gifts.

My Dad loved Christmas.  He loved shopping...especially if he could get a bargain!  And then to have the joy of giving that bargain to someone and watching their face light him, that was the best thing ever.  But as every good bargain hunter Dad included...sometimes, a bargain turns out to be a raw deal.  To help you avoid the pitfalls as you shop for your favorite astronomy buff this season, here are my Do's and Don't's of astronomy holiday shopping.

DO find out what your astronomy-lover is looking for.
Anyone into astronomy as a hobby almost always has a list of things they've been just dying to get!  And it doesn't necessarily have to be an expensive list either.  Honestly, this is true for any're more likely to get the right thing if you ask what the right thing is.

DON'T "name" or "buy" a star for your astronomer.
It's a holiday bummer I deal with every year...a well-meaning shopper buys or names a star for their favorite astronomy-lover through one of a dozen companies offering the service.  Some are even geared towards kids, selling a stuffed animal to go with the gift.  Before you drop the $50 - $150 these things often cost, be aware of several things.  No one can buy or sell a star or the right to name a star.  It is against international law to do so.  These companies charge a lot of money for you to send your name in and they print it in a book that gets locked in a vault.  The names are NOT official, nor will any astronomer ever see them or use them.  These companies use extremely dim stars, well below the limits of human vision, and in some cases below the ability of most amateur-grade telescopes!  You will likely never be able to see the star you've "purchased."  In some tragic cases, I've discovered that these companies have made up stars - adding dots to star charts with a marker where no star actually is located.  At best, these items are a novelty worst, they are out-and-out fraud.  Save your money for a more practical gift, rather than blowing it on a pretty certificate and a poorly-made star map.

Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.  Try as you might, you won't be able to rename it for your mom.
Courtesy NASA.

DO purchase a gift membership to your local planetarium for your astro-pal!
A one-year membership to your local planetarium/museum is a gift that keeps on giving all year...and in many cases you can share it with your buddy!  If you're trying to keep costs down, check to see if your museum of choice offers an individual membership - that can be a a great cost-saver!  If you live in the southeastern Virginia area, check out gift memberships to the Virginia Living Museum and give them the gift of the Abbitt Planetarium and Observatory for a year!

DON'T buy a telescope from a big box store.
This time of year, every hobby, outlet, and big box retail chain carries telescopes.  Sadly, these instruments tend to be of poor quality, often breaking down before February.  Quality optical equipment costs between $150 and $400 for a basic instrument, and that money goes into producing excellent optical parts.  A telescope that advertises that it comes with numerous filters, extra lenses, and Barlows for $150 or less means that you will be receiving substandard optics, and guaranteed frustration.  If you're going to invest in optical equipment, purchase from a reputable optical dealer who will work with you for longer than your purchase.  We recommend dealing with Orion Telescopes - they have both high quality products and an excellent customer service department.  If you're not comfortable purchasing direct on the phone from Orion, the Virginia Living Museum is an authorized dealer and we carry a small backpack-type telescope from Orion called a GoScope.  Please come by and check it out!

The Orion GoScope - an easily portable starter telescope for under $200. Courtesy Orion Telescopes.

DO purchase quality optical equipment - even for a kid!
You don't have to spend a fortune to get good quality.  And you don't have to start with a telescope.  A high quality pair of binoculars will give you an amazing view of the Moon and the planets...and they can be used for other purposes if your little astronomer decides to become a botanist next week.

DON'T overspend.
Set a budget and stick to it, or you could find yourself unhappy in January.  If you can't afford a telescope this year, start with something else astronomical!  There are wonderful books available that can keep your astronomy buff happy until they've saved enough to get that first instrument.  There are also amazing home computer programs, excellent star maps, and other quality products they can enjoy.  A few suggestions: 365 Starry Nights by Chet Raymo is an excellent book for the new sky enthusiast; every astronomer should have a planisphere - a permanent map of the night sky - Edmund Scientific's Star and Planet Locator is a great one; Both Astronomy and Sky and Telescope Magazines also make wonderful astronomy gifts that keep on giving for an entire year.

An image from 365 Starry Nights.  This excellent book gives the beginning astronomy buff a different target for every night of the year, including wonderful illustrations like these to help you find it.  Since the sky is largely the same year after year, you can keep working through it until you've seen them all, no matter how cloudy it gets in your local area. Courtesy Chet Raymo.

DO purchase a meteorite as a gift!
Meteorites can be a wonderful gift for someone excited about astronomy, but they can also be very expensive.  Small samples may only cost you a few dollars, larger ones can be upwards of $500.  The most important thing to remember when purchasing a meteorite is to get a guarantee of authenticity.  The vast majority of "meteorites" for sale on the internet are regular old Earth rocks or chunks of industrial slag.  Some are sold by people looking to pull a fast one, others are sold by well-meaning people who genuinly believe their sample is a meteorite.  One good reputable sources for meteorites, trinitite and other such exotic stuff is United Nuclear.

DON'T buy "Moon rocks," "Mars rocks," or "deeds" to solar system real estate.
Like the companies who "sell" stars and star naming opportunities, these people cannot truly deliver the product they seem to be selling.  Solar system objects, by international treaty, cannot be owned or claimed by any individual or government, nor are individuals permitted to own pieces of them.  Any company which attempts to say otherwise is at best selling a gag gift, and at worst, committing fraud.  Don't give them your money.

The much-touted "Face" on Mars.  Even if you think it looks like you, you still can't own it.  Courtesy NASA.

As always, if you have any questions about a good astronomical gift, please give us a call or send us an email!  We'll be glad to help you out.  You can even comment here if you like!

Have fun with the holiday shopping, and I'll be back in two weeks!
Carpe noctem,

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  Since I'll be off tomorrow, preparing to enjoy the holiday with my family, I figured I'd post a day early, and keep it all on the Thanksgiving theme.

As you've likely come to expect from this blog, there also needs to be a generous dollop of humor, so in honor of Thanksgiving and with apologies to David Letterman...

From the home office in Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, here's my Top Five List of spacey things I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving.

5. The Abbitt Planetarium
Yep, I'm thankful for my job!  And not just for the usual it-pays-the-bills reasons either.  I'm one of those lucky people who truly has their dream job.  I get to work with people of all ages and share with them my love of the universe.  I get to exercise my creative drives and make shows in the planetarium on numerous different topics.  It's like being a Hollywood director without the pressures of Hollywood.  What more could I ask for?  And thank you to all of you who come to visit us and make it possible for me to continue to do what I love.

4. The Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble is truly one of the most remarkable spacecraft ever launched.  It's the telescope with 9 lives (at least!) and has provided us with innumerable stunning images of the cosmos.  It has survived not only the rigors of being launched into space aboard the space shuttle, but also numerous servicing missions designed to repair and upgrade its instruments.  When the initial flaw in the primary mirror was discovered shortly after launch, many people figured the Hubble was a loss.  Thanks to some amazing work by both engineers and astronauts, Hubble's flaw was repaired and for over 20 years this school-bus-sized scope has continually made our jaws drop with its incredible images.

Dying star V838 Mon.  Courtesy STScI/NASA.

Jupiter and its moon, Ganymede.  Courtesy STScI/NASA

Supernova 1987A.  Courtesy STScI/NASA.

Hubble is in decline now, since NASA has retired the space shuttle - the only vehicle which could be used to service the telescope.  Over the coming years, Hubble's systems will slowly degrade, until a final critical failure of some kind renders it useless.  Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is mired in funding problems as NASA struggles to maintain itself in these fiscally trying times.  Whether JWST makes it up or not, when Hubble images its last, I for one, will shed quite a few tears.  No other instrument, before or since, has done what Hubble can - inspire us all with wonder at the visions of the universe it provides.

3. The Apollo Missions to the Moon
We've been to the Moon.  Men from Earth have stood on the surface of the Moon and looked up at the fragile blue planet we call home.  It was real, we went there.  It was not, as so many people believe, an elaborate hoax.  And it is one of the most inspiring stories of human exploration ever.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface.  Courtesy NASA.

Exploration is always challenging.  But in reaching for the Moon, we had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  There is no water or air on the Moon.  Gravity is dramatically less, so machines behave in different and unexpected ways.  We had no idea what the surface of the Moon was like, or how men would react - physically and psychologically - to being in space or on the lunar surface.  And yet, in the space of a decade, we went from dreaming about it to being there.  I hope one day, NASA will be able to have that kind of drive and vision again.  If you don't know the story of our journey to the Moon - check it out.  It's worth it.

2. The Night Sky
There's something entirely captivating about a dark night sky.  Looking up at the stars is a wonderful, peaceful thing to do in a world that sometimes overwhelms us with activity.  And sharing it with someone you love, or even someone you're never met, makes the experience all the more special.  My daughter and I have looked at the sky since she was a tiny baby.  If you've never enjoyed a dark night sky - here's a goal for the new year.  Attend a star party.  Look through a telescope for the first time.  Just go outside one night and look up for a while.  And when you do, remember that all of humanity shares that sky with you.  No matter how far away, no matter how long ago they lived, everyone everywhere has seen the same stars that you can see just by looking up. (I miss you, Dad.)

The arc of the Milky Way in California photographed by Tony Hallas.  Courtesy Astronomy Picture of the Day.

We're in danger of losing our night skies forever as we turn on more and more nighttime lights.  Losing the sky means losing a powerful part of our heritage.  Don't wait too long to see it - or it might not be there for you to enjoy.

And the Number One spacey thing I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving...

1. The Mars Curiosity Rover
We're headed back to Mars!  Mars is a simply fascinating planet, and our exploration of it has only made it seem more intriguing.  While we've found no canals or war-like Martians, we have found tantalizing evidence of massive amounts of water having once covered the Martian surface...and even indications that there once may have been...and even yet may still on our rusty red neighbor.  The Curiosity rover is due to launch on November 25th, with a eye to landing on the Red Planet this fall.  I can't wait to see what amazing new discoveries it will show us.  Stay tuned!

The Curiosity Rover.  Courtesy NASA/JPL.

I wish you all a safe, happy, and joyful Thanksgiving!
Carpe Noctem!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Month They Call November

My friends, if you know the song that the title know some obscure music.

But I confess November is my favorite month.  I can't help it.  I love the fall, with cool temperatures and beautifully colored leaves.  I love the early sunsets and long dark nights, growing ever longer as the month progresses.  I love the holiday season, with Thanksgiving leading right into Christmas.

Okay, you got me.  I also love November because I was born in it!  ;D  So let's talk a little about what you can expect to see in the skies during this wonderful month.

You've got some great opportunities for planet watching this month.  Mercury and Venus are putting on a lovely show in the early evening sky, just after sunset.  The trick is you need a super-flat western horizon to see them.  But oh boy, the view is worth it!  If you can get outside on the evening of the 13th or 14th, Mercury and Venus will be very close to one another, and about as far from the Sun as Mercury is going to get for a while.  Give it a try - seeing Mercury even with the unaided eye is something most people have never done!  Let brilliant Venus guide your eye (it is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon).  Mercury will be a smaller star-like object within 2 degrees (about 2 fingers-width) of the bright planet, closer even than in the image below.

Venus and Mercury at sunset on April 5, 2010 by Manu Arregi Biziola.  Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Jupiter also graces the evening skies, looking like a stunning bright white star.  The largest planet in the solar system is rising near sunset, and so it is visible nearly all night long.  You've probably seen Jupiter in the evening sky already - it's pretty darn hard to miss!  It's hovering around between the constellations Aries, Pisces and Cetus...and none of those constellations have any bright stars in them.  So Jupiter is shining all alone in a fairly dark area of sky, which only makes it look that much more impressive.  To give you a sense of how bright Jupiter is, check out the picture below. 

Jupiter seen with the Full Moon in 2009 by Jens Hackman.  Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Even with a Full Moon ablaze in the sky, Jupiter stands out quite nicely.  Imagine how amazing it will look when all alone!  We'll be observing Jupiter for sure at our star party this weekend.  You haven't really seen Jupiter until you've seen it through a telescope!  Observing begins at sunset on November 12th here at the Abbitt Observatory, and as always, it's free!  Here's hoping for clear skies!

If you're hoping to see Saturn or Mars, you'll need to go outside during the pre-dawn hours...and now that we've changed back to Eastern Standard Time, that means being outside in the very early morning...perhaps around 4:30AM.  Your reward for bring an early riser will be a view of the Red Planet shining in the south, and the golden-yellow "star" of Saturn appearing low on the eastern horizon just before the Sun.  It's interesting to see these two planets in the same sky, since they both exhibit such distinct colors.  Towards the end of the month, they'll even be about the same brightness, so see if you can notice the color difference between Mars and Saturn.  Even if you can't, they will both be quite beautiful, as you can tell from the image below.

Saturn (left) and Mars (right)  flank the Beehive Cluster in June of 2006 by Tunc Tezel.  
Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Maybe you prefer something more showy than just planets hanging around in the sky.  Well November can oblige.  The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks on November 17th every year, and this year is no exception.  You may remember the Leonids from the meteor storms of the early 2000s.  While no storm is predicted for this year, we will still pass through a stream of debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, resulting in a higher-than-normal rate of meteors being visible all coming from the direction of the constellation Leo.  Since Leo rises around midnight at this time of the year, put the East at your back and watch for shooting stars any time after sunset on November 17th.  Your best view is likely to be had during the wee morning hours of November 18th.  Since the Moon will be on the wane, it too will rise late, giving you some time to see the meteors against the backdrop of a dark sky.  No telescope required for this event - you want to be able to see as much of the sky as possible.  Patience is the key with meteor showers - set up a lawn chair and watch the sky.  The longer you watch the more meteors you will see as your eyes adjust to the darkness.  Enjoy!

The 1999 peak of the Leonid meteor shower by Juan Carlos Casado.
The image is a 20 minute exposure and captured several meteors.
Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Oh yes indeed.  Halloween is this coming Monday.  If you have little kids in your house, like I do, your days are filled with costume prep, costume changes, plans to meet friends and trick-or-treat the best neighborhoods (the ones where you can get the most candy!) and hiding the candy you're supposed to give out from your husband.

You might not think of Halloween as a particularly astronomical holiday...but hey, my tag line up at the top says "Connecting astronomy and space science to...well...just about everything."  So...let's look for some spacey Halloween fun.

The celebration of Halloween is often linked back to a Celtic festival held around this time of year called Samhain, which literally means "summer's end."  As the days begin to shorten and the nights lengthen thanks to the tilt of Earth as we orbit the Sun, the residents of the British Isles (and many other places around the world) would hold a final party as the harvest came to an end, and preparations for the coming long winter ended.  During the winter, travel would be difficult, if not impossible, and this last celebration before the months that many people would spend shut in the their homes against the poor weather was a special one.  So astronomy comes into play right from the beginning of this spooky holiday.

But surely there isn't anything spooky about space itself, right?  Well...think again.  Space is filled with creepy and crazy things...mostly hidden in nebulae, those enigmatic clouds of gas and dust found throughout our galaxy (and indeed, all others).  In reality, these clouds are either leftovers from the deaths of stars, or stellar nurseries, where new stars are being formed.  But sometimes, we can't help but see something else in them.  For example, can you see the cackling face in this nebula?

The Witch Head Nebula.  Courtesy NASA.

This is the Witch Head Nebula, and the resemblance is truly striking!  I certainly wouldn't want to see that laughing at me through my eyepiece...well, actually, that would be kind of cool!

Not afraid of wicked witches?  Try this one on for a scare.

The Ghost Nebula.  Courtesy NASA.

This one is called the Ghost Nebula, and those wispy tendrils truly do make it seem as if something is swooping down towards us.  An apparition worthy of a Hollywood movie...except this is the real thing, and located in the Pleiades star cluster, which will soon be gracing our winter evening skies.  Still not convinced space is spooky?  How about one more?

The DR 6 Star Forming Region.  Courtesy NASA.

Now that is one creepy face.  Bearing a striking resemblance to a human skull, this nebula has the unimaginative name of DR 6.  I think the Skull Nebula suits it far better, however.  It sometimes called the Galactic Ghoul...which is pretty darn creepy, if you ask me.

All right, you got me.  Space isn't really's our own active imaginations that see spectres and spooks in the skies.  But it certainly is fun, isn't it?  Speaking of fun, I hope you'll join us this Saturday October 29th at the Abbitt Planetarium for some fun in the planetarium as we run Fright Light, our Halloween Laser Spook-tacular.  Showtimes at 7pm, 8:30pm, and 10pm.  Come on down for some terrifyingly awesome music, wicked cool laser lights, and even some sweet treats. 

However you decide to celebrate, have a safe, fun, and spooky Halloween!
Until next time,
Carpe noctem,

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Over the Moon

Actually, I'm kind of not.

We had an amazing night last Saturday, observing the Moon.  The NASA exhibit was awesome...I touched a piece of the Moon!  Our Moon is incredible!

And that got me thinking...what about all the other moons?  Does anybody realize how incredibly awesome they are?

We tend to focus on our own Moon.  Makes's big, bright, and plays an important role in the existence of life here on Earth.  But among the major planets there are 168 other moons...all equally fascinating worlds in their own right!  So let's explore some of the other moons out there...and kind of play a little compare and contrast with our Moon, if you will.

Earth has one moon.  That's it...just The Moon.  Most of the other planets have many more moons indeed...Jupiter takes the prize for the most (if you don't count ring particles!) at 64 known satellites.  Even Mars has 2 moons - double what we've got!  The only planets with fewer moons than Earth are Mercury and Venus - neither world has any moons at all. 

Size matters though...Mars' two moons are extraordinarily tiny.  Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Panic), as the Martian moons are named, are most likely captured asteroids.  They are small potato-shaped bodies, barely findable in a telescope from here on Earth...and even then only when Mars makes a close approach to us.  Such jagged chunks of stuff can be found orbiting all of the gas giant planets as well...the majority of the solar system's moons are weird little lumpy leftovers from the formation of the planets.

Phobos (top) and Deimos (bottom).  Courtesy NASA.

On the other hand, our Moon is not the largest in the solar system, either.  That distinction goes to Ganymede, largest moon of Jupiter.  In fact, Ganymede is larger than the smallest major 3,280 miles across it beats Mercury's size by more than 200 miles.  This massive moon is truly a world in its own shows evidence of tectonic activity, its own magnetic field, and it might even have an atmosphere.  Talk about your colossal moon!

Ganymede from the Galileo spacecraft.  Courtesy NASA.

Speaking of atmosphere, our Moon hasn't got one.  If you plan on visiting the Moon, make sure you bring your own air.  The moon with the densest atmosphere?  Saturn's enigmatic Titan.  The moon, explored by the Huygens lander, has the distinction of being the only moon known with an atmosphere consisting of more than trace gases.  It is a dense soup of hydrocarbons, with numerous distinct layers...shrouding the moon and looking like a heavy layer of orange smog.  So impressive is this moon's atmosphere that it is believed to be, like Venus, a super-rotator - that is, the atmosphere actually rotates much faster than the moon itself does.  The Huygens probe showed us incredible details about Titan, but so much more remains to be learned.

Titan from the Cassini spacecraft.  Courtesy NASA.

The surface of Titan from the Huygens probe.  Courtesy NASA/ESA.

Keep in mind, we've limited ourselves at this point to explore the moons of the major planets.  There are more moons than that in the solar system!  Of the 5 confirmed dwarf planets, 3 have moons: Eris has Dysnomia, Haumea has Namaka and Hi'iaka, and Pluto has Charon, Hydra, Nix, and the newly discovered P4 (it's so new it doesn't have a name yet!).  Pluto is only 2/3rds the size of our Moon - and it has 4 moons of its own!  Incredible!

Pluto and its 4 moons from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Courtesy NASA.

Oh, so you think only planets, be they major or dwarf, can have moons?  Not so...the asteroid Ida has a moon, Dactyl, first discovered by the Galileo spacecraft as it passed by on its way to Jupiter.  The solar system is rich with moons!  Take some time to explore them...both by reading up on them and by checking them out through telescopes - the moons of Jupiter and Saturn can easily be seen in telescopes from Earth!

Ida and its tiny moon Dactyl from the Galileo spacecraft.  Courtesy NASA.

Have fun mooning around, and I'll see you next time!
Carpe noctem,

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I'll See You on the Dark Side of the Moon

There is no dark side of the Moon, really.  Matter of fact, it's all dark.

Pink Floyd had it correct, you know.  The Moon doesn't generate its own all the planets and moons of our solar system, it merely reflects the Sun's light.  But what a beautiful reflection it is.  So let's talk a little bit about the Moon.

It's pretty much the easiest thing to observe in the night sky.  It's big, bright, and details can be seen with nothing more than your eyes!  We've been looking at the Moon a long time - ever since man first raised his eyes to the skies.  Every culture around the world has seen things depicted in the patterns of light and dark rocks on the Moon...faces are common, both male and female...and numerous animals have been found cavorting across the face of the Moon.  What you see may depend on your vision, the clarity of the sky when you look, and your own imagination.

(From top) Man carrying sticks, with dog; Rabbit; Human face 1; Human face 2; "The Lady in the Moon" Attributed to Magnus Manske, Wikipedia

When scientists began investigating the Moon, the darker areas were quickly named "mare," Latin for "sea."  Indeed, early astronomers believe that the dark regions on the Moon might be water, filling the low-lying regions of the lunar landscape.  These regions were given names like "Sea of Fecundity," "Ocean of Storms," and "Bay of Love."  Even after men traveled to the Moon and found no water on the surface at all, let alone oceans, seas, and bays, the naming scheme persisted.  There seems to be a permanent connection between water and the Moon

It turns out, there actually is!  The Moon's gravitational influence is the primary reason why we have tides.  The Earth's gravity keeps the Moon in orbit around us.  The Moon's gravity tugs on the waters of Earth, forcing them to move up and down in response to its gravity.  The Sun gets in on the act too, but if the Earth had no Moon, the tides would be all but invisible to us.  Many species of life depend on the constant and regular motion of the tides...and many scientists believe that without the tides, life as we know it on Earth would not be possible.  Turns out those ancient astronomers were on the right track after all - the connection between the Moon and water is extremely important to all of us here on the Earth.

Observing the Moon is easy...just look up!  Okay, well, maybe it's not that easy.  The Moon isn't always visible in our sky - you have to know when and where to look to see itThe Moon's phases, or changes in shape, are caused by our perspective changing as the Moon revolves around us in its monthly cycle.  We see varying amounts of the daytime side of the Moon depending on where the Moon is relative to the Sun as it orbits around us.  Many people assume the best time to observe the Moon is during a Full Moon, since the entire side of the Moon facing us is lit up.  But that's actually not true, for two reasons.  First of all, a Full Moon, by definition, is exactly opposite the Sun, meaning that it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise.  This might sound great - the Moon is visible all night!  But the means that you must wait until around midnight for the Moon to be high in the south, where it is easiest to observe.  And let's face it...most of us are not quite that lunatic.  (Ha!  Fun play on words!)

First Quarter Moon.  Courtesy NASA.

The second reason why the Full Moon is not the best for observing is that during a Full Moon, the light striking the surface of the Moon is coming pretty much from directly overhead, from the lunar perspective.  That means there are virtually no shadows, and very little contrast.  Shadows give you a sense of height and depth - something that really adds to your observing as you look at mountains and craters on the surface and try to get a sense of how high or deep they are.  The best time to observe the Moon is during the First Quarter phase - the Moon is high in the south around sunset, and the dark line the runs across the face of the Moon dividing the daylight side from the nighttime side (it's called the terminator) is perfect for viewing - the shadows there are long and deep, and you get an excellent sense of depth perception when you scan along it with your telescope.

In fact, consider this an invitation to join us here at the Virginia Living Museum on the evening of October 8th.  Not only is that our regular monthly Star Party and Laser Light Night, it also happens to be International Observe the Moon Night, and we will be celebrating!  A First Quarter Moon will be gracing the skies, and, weather permitting, we'll have our telescope trained on it to give you the best view possible.  We'll have some special Moon-based crafts and activities for kids, and the folks from NASA will be on hand with their Driven to Explore exhibit...which includes a rare TOUCHABLE Moonrock!  There are only 8 lunar samples in the world that can be touched - don't miss your opportunity to touch the Moon!  The festivities begin at 6pm, and are FREE to all, except for the planetarium and laser shows ($3 for members, $6 non-members).  We'll see you there!

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Day Late and a Dollar Short


You know, I've been so proud of myself for keeping this up...even posting a day early when I know I won't be around on a Wednesday...

So imagine my shock when I looked ay my calendar and saw the "Update Blog" icon proudly displayed across...YESTERDAY!  ACK!  Talk about a good time for a time would be it!  Or even a good improbability  Well, guess I'll just have to take my lumps and admit to being a day late.  I blame it on the calendar program...I'm quite sure that banner wasn't there yesterday.

Anyway, I'm back today!  Let's talk about something spacey!  Specifically, let's talk about what's going on in the sky for this month.

The sky is still desperately clinging to more water than I would like.  I'm waiting for the final break in humidity...the one that announces in no uncertain terms, "okay, Fall has arrived!"  The autumn months are excellent for's cool, but not too cold...the sky is clearing up and visibility improves...sunsets are coming steadily earlier, giving us more nighttime to enjoy.

One of the most prominent objects in the sky right now makes its appearance in the late evening sky in the east.  It rises up, brilliant white and very steady, and more than a few people have wondered if they are seeing a UFO!  Don't worry though, it's not an alien invasion.  It is instead the regal planet Jupiter.

Jupiter is one of the brightest objects you'll ever see in our night sky; fourth behind the Sun, the Moon and Venus.  Combine that brightness with a still-soupy atmosphere and you can get some strange effects.  Normally, the planets don't twinkle.  Twinkling of stars is caused by the tiny bit of light we receive from a star getting jostled about by the moving air of the Earth - so naturally, twinkling is more intense under humid or smoggy conditions.  Planets are much closer to us than the stars, so their light tends to be stronger, and less affected by the air.  But on a humid night, even a planet can seem to fiddle, fidget, wink, flash colors, or move about slightly thanks to atmospheric effects.  Add that to our tendency to squint at something to try to "bring it into focus" and it's not hard to see why magnificent Jupiter has been mistaken for an alien spacecraft.

Jupiter.  Courtesy NASA.

Another spacecraft Jupiter (and Venus, too) is often confused with is the International Space Station.  The ISS is quite bright, occasionally even exceeding Jupiter's brightness as it crosses our sky!  However, there's a big difference between Jupiter (or any planet) and the ISS - speed.  Planets are stationary, by and large.  Oh sure, they are orbiting the Sun, just like we are, but you won't notice that motion when looking up at a planet at night.  If you stand and stare long enough (maybe an hour or two), you will notice that planets, like all other celestial objects, move slowly across our sky.  This is thanks to the rotation of our very own planet Earth - and that's why all natural objects cross the sky from east to west.  The Sun, The Moon, the stars, the planets...everybody appears to move east to west across our sky thanks to the Earth's own rotation on its axis.

 The International Space Station.  Courtesy NASA.

Spacecraft, however, move thanks to the initial kick from the rockets that got them up into orbit and the gravitational pull of the Earth.  So not only can they move in pretty much any direction we choose to set them, they can also move much, much faster than the rotation of the Earth carries objects across our vision.  The ISS, for example, circles the world in about 90 minutes, meaning that it will cross your patch of sky in about 5 or 6 minutes or so.  How can you distinguish the ISS from a plane?  Easy - planes always have some kind of blinking light.  The ISS will move fast, and shine rock steady.  The best way to be sure you're looking at the ISS is check with the excellent satellite tracking website  You'll need to tell them your location - latitude and longitude are best if you have them (try Google Earth for help) - and then they'll tell you when and where you can look up to see satellites whizzing by over your head.  If you've never done this before, be warned - it is very fun and highly addictive!

Before I go, let me share some exciting news about Jupiter for those of you with telescopes...the South Equatorial Belt is back!  Jupiter's rapid rotation for such a large planet (the gas giant is ten times the size of Earth but rotates once in under 10 hours!) causes its clouds to form into huge stripes around the whole planet.  Most of the time, these stripes are pretty constant - there are usually a couple large dark reddish belts around Jupiter which contrast beautifully with other whitish stripes.  Recently, the southern belt decided to take a vacation, disappearing from telescopic view for quite some while.  Now, whatever weather processes on Jupiter that allow such things to form have kicked back in, and the SEB is returning beautifully.  So check out Jupiter with your telescope (or even binoculars!) and enjoy the show.

Well, I guess that catches us up for now...and I promise to be on time in two weeks.
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Closed for Remodeling

Hey, that film's already opened.  I saw that on a marquee just last week.

And if you remember that go all the way back to the A-Team in the 1980s.  Good for you.

So for this installment, I wanted to explain why the Abbitt Planetarium closes down after Labor Day every year.  Let me start by explaining how things used to work.

Back before our renovation, when we were still a "traditional" planetarium (meaning no digital equipment), we closed for 5 different weeks each year.  During those weeks, we would be programming and installing a new planetarium show.  This meant dealing with hundreds of slides, synchronizing everything with SMPTE time code, and then testing and debugging the show for days on end.  We generally got very little sleep during those weeks...and we had to close every time we wanted to install a new show.  Plus, we could only do one at a time.  Ever.

These days, with our digital technology, programming a new show is much, much easier.  We no longer need to close for a full week when we want to get a new program in place.  And having multiple programs that can run during a day is simple!  So...why do we close for three weeks then?

The main reason is that it allows us some time to do all the maintenance tasks that we used to do back in the day when we were closed for show installation - clean the carpets, repair the seats, back up the computers, repair the dome, clean the projectors, remove outdated materials, and all that other stuff that is so much easier to do when you don't have to worry about customers coming in.  Another reason is that we do need some time in the theater to work out programming issues, and September is generally slow, what with kids just back to school and all.  Finally, the Abbitt Planetarium is run mostly by two people, and after a long summer of 7-days-a-week operation, we're pooped!  We generally get to take our "summer vacation" after the summer months, so we can be here during the time when other folks are looking to enjoy the theater on their vacations.
So while we won't really be remodeling, the Abbitt Planetarium will be closed from September 6 through September 30, to spruce things up a bit, and get some more shows ready to go.  So what can you expect to see on October 1?

One thing we'll have going on is a continuation of our summer preschooler program The Zula Patrol: Under the Weather.  What will make it extra fun is that we're partnering with the Children's Museum of Richmond, who will be hosting a Zula Patrol themed exhibit during the fall!  If you're a member of the VLM, you can visit the Children's Museum for free and enjoy the Zula Patrol experience.  If you're a member of CMoR, come visit the VLM for the planetarium show!  You'll receive a discount on your admission to the museum, and the Zula Patrol show for free.

The Zula Patrol.  Courtesy Spitz Creative Media.

We'll also be featuring IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System.  If you've not yet seen this visually stunning show about NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, come join us this fall for sure.  This show will be gone in November, as we'll be transitioning over to our holiday programming by Thanksgiving (which we'll also be working on this September!).  IBEX is studying the region of space where the Sun's influence ends, and interstellar space begins.  Scientists are learning some amazing things about how this boundary keeps us safe as we journey through the Milky Way.

An artist's conception of the IBEX spacecraft.  Courtesy NASA.

And on the weekends, you can always catch Virginia Skies, our classic program about what's going on in skies above us on any given night.  Plus we'll be busy behind the scenes, getting ready for our Halloween event, Night of the Living Museum, and work has already begun on the shows that will premiere in 2012 (A doomsday show?  Oh yes, you bet we'll have a show about the end of the world!).  Can't wait until October for some fun in the planetarium?  Join us on September 10th for our monthly star party and laser light night.  Catch an evening showing of IBEX at 7:30pm, and then stay for some amazing laser shows.  At 8:30pm is Laseropolis, a fun and funky mix of great music for families.  At 10pm is Laser X, a hard-rockin' alternative experience.  Wrap up the night with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon at 11:30pm.  We're really hoping for clear weather, after the rain washed out August's star party.  Hope I'll see you there!

So come by and see us this Labor Day weekend.  Take in one of the shows that will be leaving us for a while.  And then stay tuned - more fun will be coming soon!  So until then...

Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Little Robot that Could

Greetings all!

I've got a friend who loves little robots.  And no, it's not Grant Imahara.  She's a science educator here at the museum with me.  And I have to confess, I totally understand.

There's something wonderful about a little, plucky machine, doing its job despite all obstacles.  Maybe that's why we love movies like Wall-E so much - little robots are just so darn cute!  Okay, so I'm anthropomorphizing...a lot.  But I can't help it.  Because the subject of this post is a truly amazing little robot - MER-B, better known as the Mars-exploring robot Opportunity

An artist's conception of Opportunity on the surface of Mars.  NASA

It's hard to believe, but Opportunity and its twin sister, Spirit, arrived on Mars in January 2004.  That's right - this rover, which was designed for a 90-day mission, has now been traveling around on the surface of Mars for over seven years.  That right there is reason enough to love this intrepid little robot.

The science achievements from the Mars Exploration Rover program have been nothing short of extraordinary.  We've learned an incredible amount about Mars and its history.  Thanks to the rovers, we know that Mars did indeed have a wet past, and most certainly still has water which occasionally makes a surface appearance.  Opportunity discovered the first meteorite on another planet - Heat Shield Rock - while investigating the site where its own heat shield landed.  The rover has traveled about 20 miles across the surface of Mars, inspecting rocks, digging holes, taking photographs and measurements, and performing numerous other scientific tasks.  It has survived dust storms, a cranky shoulder joint, and even getting stuck in a sand dune for a time.  Its exploits are far too numerous to detail in this space, but I strongly encourage you to read about them.  Opportunity's story is an incredible one, full of achievement, drama, and most of all, the strength and determination of her human crew back here on Earth.

I felt it was time to interest people in the Mars rover again, because Opportunity has achieved quite a milestone in the past few days.  It has been traveling toward Endeavour Crater on Mars for three years, and at long last, arrived at the massive hole in the Martian surface just last week, sending back this lovely photo.

The far rim of Endeavour Crater as seen by Opportunity.  NASA.

Thus Opportunity begins another new chapter in its long and varied history.  Its twin, Spirit, sadly has ended its mission, and has been out of contact with NASA for more than a year.  But Opportunity seems to still be going strong.  I hope this "Little Rover That Could" keeps on keeping on for a long, long time to come.

If you'd like to see Mars, and wave hello to the rover, check your early morning skies.  Mars shines in the eastern sky before sunrise, looking like a dull orange or yellowish star.  Keep watching it, because Mars and Earth are now approaching each other rather than receding, so the Red Planet will grow steadily in size and brightness in the coming months.  While Opportunity may not be able to see you, nor you see it, it's incredible to think that as you look at a small planet millions of miles away, something made by human hands is driving along, helping us discover the wonders of another world.

Until next time,
Carpe noctem,

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Dog Days are Back

Hey everyone!

Well, here we are again.  It's August.  The weather is hazy, hot, and humid.  Going outside for more than about 4 seconds results in sticky wet clothes, lots of sweat, and generally feeling nasty really fast.  It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an astronomer's favorite time of year.

And yet, there's still stuff to talk about, even if we'd rather stay inside while we do it!

Traditionally, August days are called the Dog Days of Summer.  The phrase refers not to the lolling tongues of dogs desperately trying to stay cool, but to the brightest star in the nighttime sky, Sirius.  It's the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog, and therefore it is often called the Dog Star.

The star Sirius.  NASA

The ancient Greeks noticed that in August, when things were getting pretty hot, the star Sirius rose in the East just before the Sun, meaning that Sirius shares the sky with the Sun virtually all day.  Since Sirius is so bright, the Greeks figured it must be pretty close, and the extra heat in August was caused by Sirius adding its light and heat to the powerful rays of our own Sun.  The Romans and the Egyptians also shared this same belief - and in fact, the Egyptians were especially attentive to Sirius, as the Dog Days occured just before the annual flooding of the Nile.  Score one for the ancients, no?

Well, the ancients were unaware of just how far away stars are.  They were correct in their assumption that Sirius is pretty close to us - it's about 8 light years away, or 47 trillion miles.  As close as that is as stars go, that's still much, much too far away for Sirius to have any kind of effect on our weather.  The Sun is only 93 million miles away, and that's the cause of our weather changes.  The heat at this time of year is the result of the Earth's tilt - the Northern Hemisphere is tipped towards the Sun during summer, giving us long days and lots of intense sunlight.  No additional stars required.

Don't feel too bad for the ancients.  They might not have been right about everything, but they did hand down some wonderful stories and ideas that are still fun to share.  Take the exciting tale of Perseus, son of Zeus and legendary hero.  His story is best known today as the campy classic film Clash of the Titans (trust me, for maximum enjoyment, stick to the original, not the sad modern remake).  You might want to rent it around August 12, and enjoy a midnight movie at home.  When the film is over, head outside and look up.  You should be just in time to catch some of the annual Perseid meteor shower, which will peak around 2AM on the morning of August 12.  Meteors will seem to come from the direction of the constellation Perseus, so put him at your back if you can. 

The constellation Perseus.  NASA

Staying away from bright sources of light will also help...and the best way to enjoy any meteor shower is from the comfort of a lawn chair so you can watch the sky as long as possible.  The beautiful streaks of light you see are bits of Comet Swift-Tuttle disintegrating in the Earth's atmosphere.  Want more information on meteor-watching.  Come by the museum any day at 1:30PM for our Virginia Skies program - one of our staff astronomers will be happy to help you with your questions about meteor showers, or any other astronomical topic!

And, just in case you were wondering...that bright golden star in the West in the early evening is Saturn, still nicely visible.  Out a bit late and noticing a bright white star in the East?  That's Jupiter.  Enjoy!

Carpe noctem!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

So, What Do You Think?

Hello all!

Third post, and already I'm asking for your help.

I'm writing this tonight from a conference I attend every year for planetaria who own a system like the one we have at the Abbitt Planetarium.  We all get together and share techniques, ideas, and learn new ways to make our shows better.  We also watch a lot of trailers for new shows, and sometimes get to watch an entire show, so we can make informed decisions about what programs we'd like to bring to our theaters.

So my question for you, my readers, is this:

What topic would you like to see in a new planetarium show?

At the conference so far I've seen shows on the history of the universe, the history of life on Earth, the history of the Earth for kids, the history of the Earth for adults, the lifecycles of stars, black holes, and Charles Darwin and his theories.  Keep in mind that this list is a tiny portion of the shows available, so feel free to go off the board and suggest any topic that interests you, even if it has only a very loose connection to astronomy or space science.  I'd really love to know what you think, so please leave your ideas in the comments section.  I tried to make it a poll, but the system is fighting me and making the thing unreadable.  So please, comment away!

I'll write a longer post when I get home again and digest all the new information I've learned - and believe me I'll need two weeks for that!  But my tip for you this week - wake up early Thursday morning and watch the final landing of a Space Shuttle.  Atlantis is scheduled to return to Earth at 5:56am on Thursday morning, July 21st.  It's your last chance to watch one, so be sure to tune in.  American human spaceflight is coming to an end, and I for one will sorely miss it. 

The crew of Apollo 1.  NASA

The last crew of Challenger.  NASA

The last crew of Columbia.  NASA

In memory of those who gave their lives in pursuit of knowledge of the universe...
Carpe Noctem,

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Lord of the Rings

Hey everyone!

No, this post will not be about Hobbits, the Shire, or the Land of Mordor where the Shadows Lie.  Although, as you might guess, I could go on about that for days.

No, for this, our third get-together, I thought I'd give you a little information about what's going on in the sky right now.  After all, that's one of the main reasons I started this blog, and we really haven't gotten down to it yet!  So let's talk summer night skies.

Sadly, they often are not the best.  And I'm not just talking about the perennial 30% chance of evening thunderstorms that rules the weather forecast at this time of year.  Even when the sky is "clear" in the summer here in Hampton Roads...well, it isn't really clear.  If there's one thing southeastern Virginia has in abundance in the summer, it's the three H's - haze, heat, and humidity.  All the water and other particles in the air make the seeing - that's what astronomers call the condition of the atmosphere as regards how well you can image astronomical objects - rather poor.  Even if there is not a cloud in the sky, your view of a planet or the Moon through your telescope will seem to swim around, never quite stay focused, and be rather washed out.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it isn't worth going outside on a clear night in summer - it most certainly is!  You just want to be aware of the limitations the air will put on your ability to see details of the sky.

Another factor for summertime stargazing - time.  Sunsets are late at this time of year, since our long days are made "longer" by daylight savings time.  With the Sun still brightening the sky as late as 9pm, you'll need to wait pretty late to get a truly dark sky for the best viewing.  That's okay, though - the later you wait, the cooler the air will be, relieving some of the seeing problems and making your stargazing more enjoyable.

Right now, two wonderful objects are gracing our early evening skies - Saturn and the Moon.  The Moon is currently waxing, or getting bigger, night after night, heading towards First Quarter.  That's the best time to view the Moon, since the deep shadows created along the line separating day and night on the Moon give you excellent depth perception and let you see a lot of detail.  Saturn is a beautiful golden-yellow "extra star" shining in the constellation Virgo.  Both objects can be seen together in the west-southwestern sky around 10:30pm for the next few days.  After that, the Moon will have moved off, but Saturn will linger there for some time yet.

The sky at 10:30pm on July 9, 2011.  Created with Starry Night Sky Explorer

Both Saturn and the Moon are best enjoyed with a telescope.  Seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time is truly a life-changing experience.  I can't really describe I'll just give you a little preview.

Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft.  NASA

Okay, that's cheating...Cassini has a way better view than anything you can get from here on Earth.  But nonetheless, seeing Saturn's rings for yourself from about a billion miles away is awe-inspiring!  If you don't have a telescope of your own, come by the museum this Saturday night.  We'll be hosting our monthly Star Party and Laser Light Night on July 9, and if the weather holds, we'll surely be looking at Saturn and the nearby Moon.  Stargazing is free, and there's a host of other things to do in the early evening before it gets dark.  The cafe will be open at 6pm for dinner, drinks and snacks, and all the fun starts after that. 

So now you see why I had to title the post as I did.  Don't miss the opportunity to see the magnificent Lord of the Rings.  By the end of summer, Saturn will be too close to the Sun to see, so get outside soon!  Can't get to the museum this weekend?  No worries.  If you've got a pair of binoculars, you can see the rings of Saturn for yourself.  Just be sure to hold them super-steady - a tripod mount like you might use for a camera will be a real help.  Enjoy the view!

Carpe noctem!