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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

To Boldly Go...

Status report, number one.

The museum continues to be only partially open after our major flood.  Work is beginning on restoring the lower level, and while that proceeds, we continue to offer discounted admission and free planetarium shows.

Set course for new topic, warp one...engage.

Sorry, I just love Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I love it even more than the original.  I got in the mood to talk about this when I stumbled upon this article (thanks gmail news snippets!).  They do have an interesting point - little of today's science fiction (and we won't even discuss the travesty of the stuff now running on Syfy) embodies such a positive and enthusiastic outlook on the future of humanity.

Certainly the state of our manned space program (at least here in the U.S.) doesn't bode well.  Since the retirement of the shuttle, we've now become completely dependent on the "kindess of strangers" if you will...or at least the kindness of our Russian partners, who are now our only means of getting astronauts into orbit.  I fear that the longer we go without sending humans into space, the more likely it is we will lose the skills that will allow to do so in the future.  The road to Mars, or indeed, even back to the Moon, is going to be a long and hard one at this point.  I continue to hope that our need to explore will reassert itself.  And more importantly, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the economic advantages for exploration.  Opening up "new worlds," be they terrestrial or in space, always opens up amazing economic opportunities as well as advancing our scientific understanding. 

But on to other aspects of Star Trek.  While manned spaceflight is a reality, many other things that Star Trek is famous for are not yet in the realm of possibility.  Warp drive, for instance.  Nothing yet can break the speed limit of light, and honestly, without that, our ability to range much beyond our solar system will be severely limited.  Even if we reach the point where we can travel at the speed of light, some 186,000 miles per second, it would take us four years plus to reach the nearest star after the Sun.  Everybody else is even further away, and the distances grow incredibly rapidly.  The nearest potentially habitable exoplanet thus far identified is 15 years away at the speed of light.  That's a long trip to just drop by and say hello.  Physics is by far not done with this one - we've been searching for ways to overcome this limitation for a long time, and there may yet be a way to do it.  We don't understand everything about the universe yet.

An artist's conception of exoplanet Gliese 876d, 15 light-years away from Earth.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

I always chuckle every time I hear Miles O'Brien complain about some kind of problem with the Heisenberg compensators in the transporter system.  It's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that makes the idea of matter transporters so untenable, so of course they'd have to have found some way to compensate for that.  The HUP tells us that we cannot know the exact position and momentum of any particle at the same time - if we know its position really precisely, then we can't have much information about where it is going or how fast, or vice versa.  Problem is, if you're going to break someone into atoms and send them whizzing across empty space, you're going to need to know exactly how to put them back together again at the other end...and that would require having very precise measurements of the exact state of all those atoms.  Or you might end up with some very unhappy (probably very dead) people at the other end.  Still, there are people working on such systems - most for non-living matter, at this point.  Maybe someday...

Finally, as someone involved in theater and acting, I am always so very impressed with the quality of the work of several of the actors on ST:TNG.  Patrick Stewart is phenomenal as Captain Picard, Brent Spiner as Data is quite probably my favorite character of all time.  Jonathan Frakes did an excellent job as William Riker.  My two favorite recurring characters have to be John de Lancie as Q (as a side note - he does voice overs for planetarium shows.  Listening to him read the phone book would be fascinating!  What a voice!) and Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan.

ST:TNG turns 25 this Saturday.  Like every incarnation of Star Trek, TNG has its good seasons and bad ones...its amazingly brilliant episodes...and its...well...turkeys.  But overall, it remains one of my all-time favorite science fiction television series.  If you've never seen it - I highly recommend it.  If you have - celebrate their silver anniversary by rewatching some of your favorite episodes.  I know I will.

The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Top row: Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes.  Second row: Marina Sirtis, Levar Burton, Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner
Shall we proceed to our next desitination, Captain?  ETA is two weeks.
Make it so, number one.
Carpe noctem,

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Keep Looking Up

Greetings all!

I know, I know, I'm a day late again.  Once again, the internets refused to let me in to my blog if I'm not at work.  I'm not sure what's broken, but I think I'm going to stop trying to fix it.

Things are still a little shaken up here at the museum as we work on recovering from the flood, but overall, we're trying to get everything settled down into something resembling a routine.  So I thought I'd go back to a routine here as well and just talk about what's visible in the sky right now.  Sometimes doing the "normal" things helps the most when things are decidedly not normal.

We're getting ready to make the transition into fall, with longer nights and cooler temperatures, thank goodness.  It's a pleasure to be outside in the evenings might even find you need a light jacket if you plan to stay outside for any length of time.  What a wonderful thing!

It will still be a couple of months before the brilliant stars of winter begin to grace the evening skies, but until then you can enjoy the last hurrah of summer - The Summer Triangle.  Three bright stars form a brilliant triangle that sits high overhead just after sunset and descends towards the west as the evening passes on.  To the East, you'll find the familiar Great Square of Pegasus - four stars in an almost perfect square dominate the eastern sky and mark the location of the legendary winged horse.  Two simple bright shapes that are pretty tough to miss.

The Summer Triangle and its surrounds.  Courtesy the University of Illinois.  Note that the Milky Way passes directly through the center of the triangle.

Looking westward at sunset might allow you a final quick glimpse of the planets Mars and Saturn, both sinking rapidly towards the Sun.  By the end of the month, both planets will be lost to our view.  Mars will still be in the news regularly however, as Curiosity really gets rolling on its mission to explore the Red Planet.  Sadly, with Mars and Saturn so low, and both relatively dim, you might miss them if you have anything other than a totally clear flat western horizon...hard to come by on the east coast of the United States.

However, don't get too downcast just yet.  If you can stand an early morning wake up call, you can see a pair of beautifully brilliant planets in the early morning sky.  Head outside around 5am and look to the east to see Venus and Jupiter dominate the pre-dawn sky.  Jupiter stands high in the east (almost to the south) with Venus lower but still plenty high enough to be seen quite easily.  These two are the brightest of the planets visible to the unaided eye, and make a stunning pair.  Well worth the effort of rising before the Sun to enjoy them.

Venus, The Moon and Jupiter in the early morning sky.  Photograph by Alan Dyer.  The Moon is the brightest object in the field, with Venus slightly up and to the left.  Jupiter stands up towards the top of the image to the right of the Moon and Venus.

Ah.  Just talking about the beautiful skies of fall helps me feel a bit better.  There's plenty of work still to be done, but taking the time to enjoy the simple things in life really does renew your spirit.

See you in two weeks...and until then...
Carpe noctem!