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,