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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What's In a Name?

Xena.  2003 UB313.  Eris.

These names all refer to the same astronomical body - a dwarf planet located out near Pluto.  "Xena" was the nickname given to the little world by its discoverer, Mike Brown.  2003 UB313 was its official designation until an official name, Eris, was given to it in  2006. Okay, well...technically, the body's official official name is 136199 Eris.

Eris and its moon Dysnomia, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Why all the fuss over a name?

In the astronomical community, names are important things.  For many of the same reasons they are important beyond the astronomical community too.  We need names to know what we're talking about.  If everyone had a different set of names for all the different objects in the solar system, well, it would make doing a live planetarium show a lot tougher, let me tell you.  Scientists around the world need a consistent set of names for things so they can share information with colleagues around the world

Names can also be used to honor different groups of people as well.  We like a certain consistency in that.  For example, all of the features on Venus are named for women.  Mostly goddess from various mythologies around the world, but also for famous women, and even some just commonly used women's names.  Of course, any convention just begs for exceptions.  Venus has three - all features that were named before the naming convention was put into use.  Two regions on Venus, Alpha Regio and Beta Regio, are simply named for the first two letters in the Greek alphabet.  There is only one feature on Venus named for a man - Maxwell Montes, named for physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

A radar image of Maxwell Montes on Venus - the only feature there named for a man.  Courtesy Wikipedia

Scientists are by nature organizers...we like to sort things into categories and name them all the same.  For example, the naming convention for moons of Uranus is to name them for Shakespearean sprites and fairies.  Thus the planet has moons like Puck, Oberon, Titania, and Ariel. 

Uranus and its 6 largest moons - from left to right, Puck, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

So who comes up with all this?

The governing body for astronomical science, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), puts together all the rules and regulations for how to name things, and gives official approval to the names of new objects. The IAU's Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) handles things within our solar system.  Names can be submitted to the WGPSN, and then they recommend them for approval by the General Assembly or reject them.  A name is not official until it has been approved by the General Assembly.

In general, the working rules for submitting a name to the WGPSN are:

  1. Nomenclature is a tool and the first consideration should be to make it simple, clear, and unambiguous.
  2. Features whose longest dimension is less than 100 meters are not assigned official names unless they have exceptional scientific interest.
  3. The number of names chosen for each body should be kept to a minimum, and their placement governed by the requirements of the scientific community.
  4. Duplication of the same name on two or more bodies is to be avoided.
  5. Individual names chosen for each body should be expressed in the language of origin. Transliteration for various alphabets should be given, but there will be no translation from one language to another.
  6. Where possible, the themes established in early solar system nomenclature should be used and expanded on.
  7. Solar system nomenclature should be international in its choice of names. Recommendations submitted to the IAU national committees will be considered, but final selection of the names is the responsibility of the International Astronomical Union. The WGPSN strongly supports equitable selection of names from ethnic groups/countries on each map; however, a higher percentage of names from the country planning a landing is allowed on landing site maps.
  8. No names having political, military or religious significance may be used, except for names of political figures prior to the 19th century. (Note: Apparently this only goes for religions that are widely practiced today, since gods and goddesses of ancient religions are obviously acceptable to the IAU.)
  9. Commemoration of persons on planetary bodies should not be a goal in itself but should be reserved for persons of high and enduring international standing. Persons being so honored must have been deceased for at least three years.
  10. When more than one spelling of a name is extant, the spelling preferred by the person, or used in an authoritative reference, should be used. Diacritical marks are a necessary part of a name and will be used.
  11. Ring and ring-gap nomenclature and names for newly discovered satellites are developed in joint deliberation between WGPSN and IAU Commission 20. Names will not be assigned to satellites until their orbital elements are reasonably well known or definite features have been identified on them.
Pretty intense, just to give something out there a name, huh?

The IAU has come under fire for a very big renaming - the recelassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet.  The IAU is also responsible for the definitions of the word "planet."  It's a work in progress, and many people think the IAU's definition of planet is still not right.  Pluto got moved into the dwarf planet category because the IAU defined a planet as having cleared its orbital area of similarly-sized bodies.   Pluto has several other objects of similar size (some of which are now dwarf planets, too) orbiting nearby, so it couldn't pass that part of the definition.  This same definition also places a requirement on a planet that it orbits the Sun.  That might seem like a no-brainer...until we remember that many other stars besides the Sun have big worlds going around them too.  Are these worlds not planets, simply because they orbit around another star?  Clearly, the definition of planet still needs a bit of tweaking. 

But that's why the IAU is there...and that's what science is all about.  As our understanding grows and changes, so also must our definitions, names and descriptions.  It's all part of the messy process of learning we call science.

When I first started working in the astronomy group at the Virginia Living Museum, I was young, and still working on my Ph.D.  The guys in the astronomy group called me "Astrogirl" - a nickname I still frequently use.  But I've been with the museum over 20 years now, volunteer to Astronomy Curator, and I'm probably getting a bit old for a nickname that prominently features the word "girl."  I think I might move up to a new one, bestowed upon me by one of the herpetologists here at the museum.

More from the cosmos in two weeks...until then...
Carpe Noctem!
Kelly, The Sky Doctor

Friday, December 6, 2013


HAHAHAHAHAHA!  We have a comet after all...somewhat.

So Comet ISON did not survive its close brush with the Sun.  And on solar approach, it didn't really get bright enough for us to see in our sky until it was much too close to our Sun.  So...phooey.

However, Comet Lovejoy, one of several by that name (the official name of this one is C/2013 R1)...a much less touted also currently in our sky.  It too, is approaching the Sun, with perihelion coming on Christmas Day.  The big difference here is...this comet might actually be visible in our sky!

Comet Lovejoy is currently a magnitude 4 object in the constellation Corona Borealis.  That puts the comet above the threshold for naked eye visibility.  You'll want a dark sky location to get the best view - anywhere that you can get away from bright sources of light will work.  And of course, the best time to see the comet is in the wee small hours before dawn.

But still!  It's a comet!  HA!

Comet Lovejoy has already made its closest approach to Earth.  But as it draws closer to the Sun, its brightness may continue to increase, meaning that the comet may be on a path to looking better and better in our early morning skies.  Since Lovejoy will only get about as close to the Sun as Mercury, it might even survive and continue to put on a good show into the new year.  Stay tuned!

This finder chart will help you locate Comet Lovejoy in the morning sky:

Finder chart for Comet Lovejoy.  Courtesy
Note that the chart shows three comets in this region...the only one you will be able to see is Comet Lovejoy.  At least a pair of binoculars will be needed to see either ISON or Linear X1.  Lovejoy has a decidedly greenish appearance and should be nicely visible from a dark location.

Best of luck seeing the comet!  If things continue to improve, we'll do a comet-watching event, so stay tuned for more details.

Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Comet ISON Post-Mortem


No, it's not the holiday's the lack of a comet.

Sadly, it looks like Comet ISON did not fare too well in its first ever (and probably last ever!) trip around the Sun.  The comet was brightening dramatically as it approached the Sun, but then even before perihelion (it's point of closest approach to the Sun) the comet suddenly dropped in brightness...not usually a good sign.  It often heralds a breakup of the object.

Thanksgiving Day saw ISON directly behind the Sun from our view at perihelion...and then, it came back!  But sadly it was much, much dimmer than when it rounded the Sun, and then it proceeded to continue to dim rapidly.  Whatever is left of Comet ISON will not be bright enough to put on any kind of display in our skies this December.

A movie of Comet ISON plunging toward the Sun and then emerging, much diminished, on the other side.  Courtesy NASA and the SOHO Spacecraft.

Ah well.  It was exciting to hope for...but it wasn't meant to be.

We've got holiday fun to cheer us up though - Star of Wonder: Mystery of the Christmas Star and Laser Holidays are back in the planetarium for the rest of this year.  And of course, the December Star Party (December 14) will feature not only those two shows, but also a free concert by the United States Salvation Army Brass Band.  And hopefully the skies will be crisp and clear so we can enjoy the natural celestial show as well.

Still, a nice bright naked-eye comet would have been a wonderful early Christmas present.  Maybe if we're lucky, the Geminid meteor shower will consent to give us a few good meteors on December 14th, despite the nearly Full Moon.  Come join us and find out!

More from the world of astronomy in two weeks...until then...
Carpe Noctem!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Time for an Update!

Hello!  As I write this, we astronomy folks here at the VLM are preparing to leave on a big trip to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, WV.  We're taking two busloads of high school students on an overnight trip to learn about radio astronomy, and even get to operate one of the radio dishes!  It should be a blast.  But before we go, I wanted to quickly update you about the latest in astronomical news.

MAVEN has successfully launched!  It went up beautifully on November 18th as planned and is now on its way to Mars.  It should arrive at the Red Planet on September 22, 2014.  Watch for more news about the spacecraft then!
The MAVEN mission patch.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Speaking of watching things...Comet ISON is starting to get good!  The comet now sits at magnitude 4.0, bright enough to be seen by the unaided eye!  Unfortunately, it also sits very close to the Sun.  So we will still need to wait until it passes by the Sun and swings around for our best view.  Hopefully, the comet will survive its close pass by the Sun and emerge as a brilliant object for us to enjoy throughout December.  Stay tuned for more information!

Comet ISON post-outburst.  The comet is increasing in brightness almost daily as it nears its close approach to the Sun on Thanksgiving Day.  We should be able to see it in our December skies, if it survives.

Finally, keep your eye on the news for the telescopes in Green Bank, WV.  There's a danger that within 5 years, the NSF will eliminate funding for the major instrument there - the Green Bank Telescope.  It's primarily used for active astronomical research, but the facility surrounding the GBT allows students like the high schoolers we're bringing there tomorrow to get experience using real-world scientific research equipment.  Hopefully, the NSF will change its thinking about this amazing facility only 4 hours from Hampton Roads.

The GBT at the NRAO facility in Green Bank, WV.  Open to visitors, its well worth stopping by if you are going to be in the Wild and Wonderful state next door!

Oh!  I almost forgot!  Happy 15th birthday to the International Space Station!  Today marks the 15th anniversary of the first launch involved in constructing the now massive station, currently home to the Expedition 38 crew of 6 astronauts.  I hope they get to have cake today!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I'll see you in two weeks!
Carpe noctem,

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Seeing Red

Look out Mars, here we come (again)!

Yep, we're about to launch another spacecraft to Mars.  It's exciting!  Hopefully, on November 18th, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft will liftoff from Cape Canaveral and begin the 10-month journey to the Red Planet.

An artist's concept of the MAVEN spacecraft at Mars.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

We've learned a great deal about the chilly little world next door over the years.  Rovers aplenty have driven its surface - two of which, Curiosity and Opportunity, are still active.  We've discovered an abundance of evidence that shows that water once flowed freely across the surface of may have formed rivers, lakes, even oceans.

If that is so, the atmosphere of Mars must once have been thicker, for the current thin atmosphere of Mars does not allow water to remain on the surface in liquid form for very long.  Where did this atmosphere go?  What happened to all the water?  On a more global scale - how has the global climate of Mars evolved over the millennia?  And what does that teach us about global climate change here on the Earth?  The MAVEN mission will be headed to Mars to help us answer these questions.

The reddish-orange atmosphere of Mars is visible above the surface in this image from Viking.  Note the Galle "Smiley Face" Crater towards the center-left of the image.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

MAVEN will be an orbiter, remaining above the planet to inspect its atmosphere and how it changes over an extended period of time.  It's four primary mission objectives are:
  • Determine the role that loss of volatiles to space from the Mars atmosphere has played through time.
  • Determine the current state of the upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the solar wind.
  • Determine the current rates of escape of neutral gases and ions to space and the processes controlling them.
  • Determine the ratios of stable isotopes in the Martian atmosphere.
This data will help us understand a lot about how Mars has changed over the long history of the solar system.  It's also important data to have as we continue to consider the possibility of sending humans to explore the surface of the Red Planet.

We're going to Mars now because Mars is making its way closer to us.  In April of next year, Mars will once again make a close approach to Earth, meaning that travel time from Earth to Mars is shorter now.  If problems force a delay in launching MAVEN beyond December 7, scientists will have to wait until 2016 before they can try again.  So hopefully, all systems will be go on November 18 for a great launch!  You can watch the launch activities online at NASA-TV.  And before we know it, even more exciting data will be coming our way from the Red Planet!

More from the universe in two weeks!
Until then,
Carpe Noctem!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

C'mon, Get Happy!

And if you're not humming a Partridge Family song right're younger than I am.

Fall has finally arrived, and I am indeed happy.  I know the official start of Fall was over a month ago, but the weather hasn't really caught up with the fact here until today.  It is brisk and sunny outside, and now the season for good observing can truly get underway.

Apparently the Sun is happy about it as well, since it seems to have decided to put on a show celebrating the change of weather patterns.  Check it out:

The Sun on October 24, 2013.  Courtesy
Every 11 years, the Sun enters a period of maximum activity.  2013 is supposed to be a Solar Max year, but things on the Sun haven't exactly been popping.  In fact, this is one of the weaker solar maximums we've seen in recent history.  But some scientists are forecasting a tick up in activity as we approach the new year, and they may be right.  Those lovely dark areas you see on the face of the Sun are sunspots, and the more spots there are, the more active the solar surface is.  Sunspots are caused when the magnetic field of the Sun breaks through the surface and allows heat to be funneled away, cooling a small region of the surface.  "Cooling" is relative, by the way - the surface of a sunspot is still a toasty 7,000-8,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  But that is substantially cooler than the average 10,000 degrees of the bright solar surface! Oh, and when I say a "small region" of the surface...keep in mind, all those spots you can see on the Sun are bigger than the Earth in diameter.

Here we're seeing the Sun in white light, or the kind of light we normally see.  If we look in a different wavelength...say, ultraviolet...the sunspot regions show amazing amounts of activity.

Bright sunspot region AR1877 snaps off a solar flare.  Photo by the Solar Dynamics Observatory.  Courtesy
The inset image is a single frame from a movie taken by SDO of a solar flare that exploded out from one of the sunspot regions.  The Sun is an incredibly active body, and it is quite amazing to observe.  To safeguard your eyesight, however, always take proper precautions before viewing the Sun:

To safely view the Sun, use:
  • an ENDCAP solar filter on a telescope
  • Arc welder's glass #14
  • Solar Eclipse glasses
NEVER use the following:
  • Eyepiece solar filters (they can overheat and break)
  • Shades of arc welder's glass other than #14 (not enough protection!)
  • Regular or prescription sunglasses (even if they block UV, that is not enough protection!)
  • Exposed film
  • Viewing the Sun low to the horizon when it appears red (this is NEVER safe!)
As long as your eyes are properly protected, viewing the Sun can be a fabulous experience.  Depending on what kind of filter you use, you may be able to see sunspots, prominences, flares or other types of activity on the Sun's surface.  And these things may change or move right before your very eyes!  Our Sun is an active, exciting star, and it's worth taking a look at.

And right now, the Sun is giving us a whole lotta lovin'.  Enjoy!
Until next time...
Carpe Diem!  :D (and Noctem too!)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Politics - The Art of the Possible

The titular phrase of this post references a saying by Prince Otto von Bismarck, Germany's fabled Iron Chancellor.  It's also a wonderful song in the musical "Evita."  It's also something I wish our Congress would get around to remembering.

Politics, at its best, should be a way of blending together various viewpoints to bring about compromises that please the vast majority of the people our case, us, through our elected representatives.  Sadly, right now, our Congress is behaving like a toddler who's been told he has to eat his Brussels sprouts - mouth tight shut, eyes closed, head in the air, and completely refusing to listen


I've seen numbers estimating the number of people affected by the government shutdown at around 800,000.  Sorry, I think that's a gross underestimation.  Though I guess it depends on how you define "affected."  My guess is they are thinking only of federal workers furloughed.  But the shutdown trickles down into everything.  Here's a case in point.

This Saturday, here at the Virginia Living Museum, we are hosting our monthly Star Party and Laser Light Night.  We were planning on a big event, in celebration of International Observe the Moon Night, which is also Saturday October 12.  NASA Langley planned to join us, with some awesome exhibits about current missions to the Moon and what we hope to do in the future.  The Blue Aces Air Force Band was also going to come out to play some great music on the lawn and get everyone in a great mood for the evening.

Sadly, because of the government shutdown, neither of those things can happen.  NASA is effectively closed (except for essential ongoing mission operations) and the Air Force can't really say that having a band play a local event is essential either.  But it is going to affect us, as many people who might have come out to enjoy these things will now stay home.  We're not federally funded here at the VLM...but we're affected, nonetheless.

On the good side, we'll still be here, doing our regular Star Party thing!  We're hoping to have some extra help on hand viewing the Moon (assuming the weather cooperates!) from the good folks of the Langley Skywatchers and the Virginia Peninsula Astronomy Stargazers.  And there will be the usual slate of planetarium and laser shows to enjoy (ticket purchase required for shows - stargazing is FREE!).  I hope we'll see some of you here for the fun!

In other news,  Comet ISON is improving, and may soon be visible to the unaided eye!  It is a wonderful target for backyard telescopes at this time, and is beginning to show color!  Check it out...

Comet ISON as photographed by Michael Jaeger of Weissenkirchen Austria.  The greenish glow is caused by cyanogen and carbon in the comet's coma.  Courtesy 

Look for ISON in the early morning, just before sunrise.  You'll need a telescope, as it is not yet visible to the unaided eye.  Mars will serve as a wonderful guide to finding the comet over the next few days.

Finder chart for Comet ISON on October 9, 2013.  Courtesy

Enjoy! Hopefully by next month we will be enjoying a naked-eye comet and a reopened government.
Until next time,
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

From the King of Planets to a Nobel Prize Winner

Does anyone out there besides me remember a wonderful television series called Connections?

It was hosted by James Burke, produced by the BBC and ran on PBS back in the late 70s and early 80s.  The mid-80s saw a similar program, The Day the Universe Changed, also on PBS and hosted by Burke.  In the mid- to late 90s cable TV got into the act with TLC (back when it could honestly claim the name The Learning Channel) running two follow-on series: Connections2 and Connections3.  I never liked those as much, but I adored the original series and Universe.  James Burke is, even today, one of the more brilliant science historians the planet has ever seen.  His approach to the history of science is simple and at once astonishing.  In short, he takes a "six degrees of separation" approach - everything is interconnected.  He rejects the linear approach - one discovery leading in simple direct line to a final conclusion - and shows you the massive web of interconnectedness that is all of human history - science, art, politics, music, anything and everything.  It was a mind-blowing experience to watch any episode of any of James Burke's shows, and I credit him with propelling me forward to not only study science, but to attempt as best I can to teach it to others and help them see its connection to their daily lives.

James Burke, wizard of science history.  Courtesy Wikipedia.
 I really must get some of those shows on DVD.

If ever the opportunity presents itself (Netflix, perhaps?) watch them.

But, actually, you can sort of engage in a poor man's version of Connections right now.  Wikipedia allows one to spend hours discovering ever more bizarre connections between things you never thought had a single thing to do with one another.  I call it a poor man's Connections because it lacks the vision and brilliance and wonderfully dry humor Mr. Burke brings to his programs.  But it is fun to get lost in Wikipedia nonetheless.

One of my favorite episodes of Connections, "Eat, Drink and be Merry..." explains how a plastic credit card leads us to landing a man on the Moon.  I'll not reproduce that for you here (go find the episode and watch it!) but I will share an interesting little journey I took through Wikipedia earlier today (the inspiration for this post).

I started on the Wikipedia entry for Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system.  I went there looking for a specific piece of information (which I now cannot for the life of me remember) but I quickly got absorbed in just reading.  And don't look shocked - NASA has enough tech geeks that police Wikipedia's space science entries - they are usually quite accurate.

Jupiter, king of the planets.  Read on to find out what this has to do with the Nobel Prize.  Image by Cassini.  Courtesy NASA and Wikipedia.

Anyway, I soon jumped from Jupiter the planet to Jupiter the Roman god.  I've always been fascinated by mythology (mostly Greek, but Roman works too) and so that was a natural leap for me.  From there I discovered that many of Jupiter's functions were focused on the Capitoline - and I clicked.

The Capitoline is one of the seven hills of Rome.  Its ancient ruins are largely buried under medieval and Renaissance palaces surrounding a piazza... *click*

A piazza is simply the Italian name for a city square.  Inigo Jones brought the style to London in the building of Covent Garden under the patronage of Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford... *click*  (okay, another predictable one for me...I confess to be a total anglophile and I love reading about British nobility)

The 4th Earl of Bedford not only championed the building of Covent Garden with its piazza and Church of St. Paul, he was also the man who pioneered the project to drain The Fens of Cambridgeshire... *click*

The Fens, or the Fenland, is an enormous area of marshland, now largely drained thanks to efforts of our friend Francis Russell.  They are so called because they are true fens -possessing an alkaline water chemistry...  *click*  (I clicked here because usually alkaline water is not so good for plant growth...curiosity got me...)

An alkali is a basic or ionic salt of an alkaline earth metal... *click*  (curiosity again...I'd never heard the term alkaline earth metal before...or if I had I dumped out of my brain with the rest of what I ever learned about chemistry!)

The alkaline earth metals are all elements in a particular column of the periodic table, usually called the group 2 elements (aha! That I know!).  These elements are beryllium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium and radium... *click*  (everybody likes radioactive stuff!)

Radium is a highly radioactive element discovered, in the form of radium chloride (a salt!  see above) in 1898 by Marie Curie...(hey wait!  I know her!)

Marie Curie, is of course, known to any girl who goes into the sciences.  She was a Polish physicist and chemist, the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize, the only woman ever to win in two fields (physics and chemistry), and still the only person of either gender to win in multiple sciences (the other three multi-Nobel winners received theirs in only one science category).

Marie Curie, a giant in the fields of physics and chemistry by anyone's standards.  And forever connected to the planet Jupiter.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

So there you go.  If anyone ever asks you what the Nobel Prize has to do with the planet Jupiter, you can now tell them.

Okay, silly, but a fun way to spend an afternoon.
More in two weeks...
Until then, carpe noctem!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Greetings, friends.

Forgive me, but today, as a native New Yorker, I find it difficult to write a substantive post.  So I shall share with you instead two photographs.

This is how I will always remember the World Trade Center:

The World Trade Center on March 1, 2001.  Courtesy Wikipedia.
And this is our home.  The only one we have.  Here's hoping we can find a way to live in it together.

The Earth as photographed by the astronauts of Apollo 17.  Courtesy NASA.
If you are in the area, please do come join us at the Virginia Living Museum this Saturday for our monthly Star Party and Laser Light Night.  We're hoping for fine weather so we can really enjoy the sky.

Until next time,
Carpe Noctem,

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hey there, LADEE!

Okay, the title works much better if you think of saying it with a nice Irish accent.

We're going back to the Moon!  Okay, it's with a robot right now, but hey, let's take what we can get!  LADEE, or the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, will launch from the Wallops Island Flight Facility here in Virginia on September 6th.  That means we should have a great view of the will much of the east coast of the United States, in fact.

The LADEE Spacecraft.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Wait a minute...Lunar Atmosphere?  Yes, lunar atmosphere.  Most of the time, when we talk about the Moon, we say it has no atmosphere.  That's because for all practical purposes, it doesn't.  There's certainly nothing like air that we could breathe.  And yet, there are some tenuous gases around the Moon...and I do mean tenuous.  The pressure of the "lunar atmosphere" is less than one hundred trillionth of Earth's atmospheric pressure at sea level.  You don't get more tenuous than that!  It seems to mostly be comprised of argon, helium, sodium, potassium and hydrogen, most of which probably comes from outgassing from the Moon itself.  But we'd like to know more about this "atmosphere," where it comes from, and what effect it may have on any future (and perhaps permanent) missions to the Moon.

And then there's dust.  Dust is tricky stuff in space.  It can make for some real problems.  The Moon's surface is covered in dust - lunar regolith is essentially dust-sized particulates and they can get everywhere.  A major challenge for any equipment working in the lunar environment is how to deal with the lunar dust.  The more we know about it, the better we can plan to handle the dust as we eventually head back to the Moon, hopefully, to stay.

Dust may also be the answer to an enduring mystery that came out of the Apollo missions.  Apollo astronauts reported seeing mysterious glows and rays above the lunar surface.  These could have been caused by sodium ions...or they could have been caused by sunlight shining on dust in the lunar atmosphere.  LADEE will be seeking the answer to this enduring mystery.

A sketch made by Apollo astronauts showing the glows and rays observed above the Moon.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Watch my blog for more information on when and where to look for LADEE's launch as we get closer to T minus zero.  If all goes well, on September 6, Virginia will be host to an amazing sight - and the start of a 3 to 9 month exploration of more mysteries of the Moon.

Until then,
Carpe noctem!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

COSMIC STRINGS ALERT: Nova Delphini 2013

Woohoo!  We got us a nova!

A nova is a small, usually white dwarf star which brightens significantly because a companion star dumps material onto it.  When this new material becomes hot and dense enough - WHAM!  Nuclear fusion suddenly begins again, making the once-dead little star come to life and produce a whole heck of a lot of energy all at once.  A white dwarf can go nova repeatedly - as often as the supply of fuel is replenished to sufficient levels by its companion.

Nova Delphini 2013.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

That appears to have a happened to a star in the constellation Delphinus the Dolphin.  The once-invisible star has brightened dramatically over the last few days - and it is now at just about the limit of vision for the average skies in our area.  If the sky around where you are is relatively dark and uncluttered at night, you should be able to pick out a faint "new" star in Delphinus.

"New" is in fact the Latin translation of nova.  Early astronomers thought that what they were seeing was a new star bursting into life.  Today we know this is not the case, but the name persists.  And in one sense, it is a "new" star, since normally this little white dwarf cannot be seen with the human eye at all.

This uptick in brightness may only last for a few days, and fortunately for us, the nova is well-placed in our evening skies for viewing.  Don't miss your chance to see this beautiful object!  Once the sky is nice and dark, head outside to check out the area near the Summer Triangle for the nova.  The chart below will help you locate it.  Bring out a pair of binoculars or a telescope to help you, as even at this new brightness, the nova may be just on the edge of your vision.

A guide to finding Nova Delphini 2013.  Image from Universe Today, created in Stellarium.

Best of luck!  If you see it, leave me a message in the comments!
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

No Stars Over Nashville

Howdy y'all!

Okay so after another missed post by the automatic poster, I give up.  And that's how I find myself sitting in a hotel room in Nashville, writing this entry.

I'll be on the road most of this month, actually.  Having a school-age child, this is our chance to go on vacation before the school year begins again.  So far, I've spent a week in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and now I'm in the middle of a week in Nashville.

I grew up in New York City, where a night filled with stars meant you were either seeing a Broadway show or you were in the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan.  I can remember being a kid and being so excited for summer and the return of the Summer Triangle - three bright stars that I could pretty reliably find in evening sky.  I knew the Big Dipper and Orion only from my many visits to the Hayden.  The Moon was a well-known friend, of course, and I could spot planets, but frequently couldn't tell which was which.

Since moving to Virginia, where the skies are much darker, even with as much growth as there's been in the Hampton Roads area, I've naturally come to know as much about the real sky as I do in the planetarium.  The real sky is different from the planetarium sky of course, because the real sky is...real!  It's big!  And things twinkle!  And you can see satellites and meteors and all sorts of stuff that's kind of hard (and often distracting) to simulate in the planetarium environment.

Whenever I travel, I try to take some time to check out the local skies, wherever I am.  Chadds Ford was a nice place to stargaze, once I drove away from the main roads.  I didn't take long to find an area with pretty much no lights at all and beautifully dark skies.  Wilmington, Delaware is the nearest major city, and the sky glow from it was largely unnoticeable thanks to some nearer object shielding me.  Sky glow, the excess light thrown up into the sky by artificial lighting used by people, is the stargazer's great nemesis.   It washes out the sky, and obscures from our view much of what we should be able to see.  So many of us now live near cities that most people, at least here in the United States, have never seen the Milky Way, the beautiful cloudy band of light that stretches across our sky every evening.  It's our view of our galaxy as seen from the inside, and it's amazing.  I got to see it in Chadds Ford, thanks to a clear night and a fairly open area with no streetlights.

Here in Nashville, I'm not so lucky.  Nashville is Music City USA, and it's a busy, fun, and exciting place.  But with all that comes the inevitable light pollution problem that so many have.  I've seen the Moon here thus far, but that's it.  The next two nights are supposed to be cooler and clearer than the sky has been so far - I'm hoping to spot a little more in the sky tonight.

Light pollution is a problem that can be solved - and so easily!  It even saves us money! All we need to do is make sure the lights we need for safety and security and fun are shielded - that is, they are protected so no light is wasted by shining up into the sky.  After all, light that shines up just lights us birds and airplanes and the sky, so why bother spending money on that?

Later this month, I'll be in Grenloch, New Jersey.  My folks live there, and I know those skies pretty well.  Sadly, the Garden State is losing its sky as rapidly as it loses its rural areas.  Here's hoping that someday we can reclaim those skies.  It isn't too late.

Wherever you go this summer, may the skies above be clear and light pollution free!
Until next time,
Carpe noctem (and yee-hah!),

PS: Hey!  Don' forget the annual Perseid meteor shower is underway!  We're officially past the peak, but you should still be able to see meteors in the evening any time after the Sun goes down.  The darker your sky, the more you will be able to see.  Just get outside and look!  No telescope or binoculars needed!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I'm Sorry I'm Confused...

Well, hello!

Sorry about the lack of a post two weeks ago...I wrote one, but for some reason Blogger never posted it.  I've gotten so used to this thing working so well, I never thought to check to see if the scheduled post properly popped up!  I'll have to be more diligent with this thing in future.

I am smack dab in the middle of summer camps this week.  I'm currently teaching rising first and second graders about the planets - and it's TONS of fun!  I love working with kids...they always seem to know way more than I think they will.  It's awesome.

Anyway, since I've got planets on the brain, I thought I'd share a few tidbits about planets that my kids know...but maybe some of our grownups out there don't!  Enjoy!

Did you know...

...Mercury has a thin "borrowed" atmosphere of solar wind surrounding it.  The gases streaming away from the Sun will wrap around Mercury for a little while before continuing their journey through space.  It's not a very nice hug, however...the impact of the gaseous material can blast sodium ions off the surface of the planet!

...Venus rotates backward.  Something quite traumatic must have happened to our neighbor in its early history, as the planet appears to have been tipped completely over by a massive impact.  This same event massively slowed Venus' rotation as well, leaving it with a day which is longer than its year!

...Earth has been visited by spacecraft more times than any other planet.  Indeed, the majority of the spacecraft launched by the various space agencies around the world have been placed in orbit around our home planet for a wide variety of purposes, including scientific study.

...Mars is only half the diameter of Earth.  The much-maligned Red Planet - long considered the home of aliens bent on taking over the Earth to gain its vast supply of precious water - actually boasts several geologic superlatives despite its small size.  Mars is home to one of the largest canyons in the solar system (the Valles Marineris - large enough to stretch from New York City to Los Angeles if placed here on Earth!) as well as the largest volcano in the solar system (Olympus Mons - standing two and a half times the height of Mt. Everest and with a base as large as the state of Virginia!).

...Jupiter has the longest-lived cyclonic storm ever seen.  The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is actually a storm that has been raging in the atmosphere of the giant planet for more than 400 years - at a minimum!  Galileo Galilei first noted the presence of the storm in 1609 when he observed the giant planet through his simple telescope...but of course, since he was the first person ever to see Jupiter in that way, we have no idea how long the storm had been there before he saw it.  The Great Red Spot continues to fascinate amateur and professional astronomers alike to this day.

...Saturn has such a low density that you could float it in a bathtub...if you could find one big enough!  Though the second largest planet in the solar system, Saturn is less dense than water.  So if we could get enough water together, Saturn could float in it.

...Uranus rotates on its side!  Like Venus, it appears this planet also suffered a major whack early on...resulting in an orbital tilt of 98 degrees.  So the moons and rings of Uranus appear vertically around the planet, rather than the horizontal aspect we might expect.

Uranus - the Sideways Planet!  Courtesy NASA.

...Neptune used to have an enormous hurricane too...but now it's gone!  When seen by the Voyager spacecraft in 1989, Neptune boasted the Great Dark Spot, an atmospheric storm of some kind that appeared as a darker blue splotch on the planet.  In 1995, Hubble was aimed at the 8th planet, hoping to get a another look at the dark spot - but it was nowhere to be seen.  Unlike Jupiter, Neptune's storms seem to be short-lived things.

And we really can't finish out a post about planets without mentioning the dwarf planets!  There are officially five dwarf planets in the solar system these days - Ceres, the largest of the asteroids, and 4 Kuiper Belt objects - Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.

Pluto now boasts five moons of its own - and they all finally have official names!  Recently, the International Astronomical Union officially named the two moons discovered in 2011 and Pluto is now attended by Charon, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, and Styx.  Not bad for the premiere dwarf planet of the solar system!

Pluto, now a virtual mini solar system of its own.  Courtesy NASA.

Well, that's about all I have time for just now.  Hope you discovered a little something new about the solar system in which you live!  See you in two weeks...assuming Blogger doesn't go crazy on me again.

Until then...Carpe Noctem!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

And Now for Something Completely Different...

...a man with a tape recorder up his nose.

Monty Python's Michael Palin as The Man with a Tape Recorder Up his Nose

I absolutely love Monty Python.  I can't help it.  I'm one of those bizarre people who finds British humor positively hysterical.  Human beings seem to come in two flavors: those that flip for British humor, and those that can't stand it.  And you don't get wafers with either variety.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Monty Python, however, is the fact that the members of the troupe are very well educated and inject that into their brilliant comedy.  There's something wonderful about that.  I mean, how else does one conceive of a comedy bit where a Roman centurion vehemently corrects a Jewish ne'er-do-well on the grammar of his Latin graffiti?  Romans you go the house?  It's still one of my favorite bits from Life of Brian.

Astronomy is not neglected by the Pythons either.  If you've ever see The Meaning of Life, you'll certainly remember The Galaxy Song, a jaunty little ditty written and sung by Eric Idle to convince an ordinary British housewife to donate her organs (and right now please).  The words are as follows:

Monty Python's Terry Jones as Mrs. Brown and Eric Idle performing "The Galaxy Song" in "The Meaning of Life"

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the 'Milky Way'.
Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

It's a brilliant song, all the more so because it's pretty much 100% accurate.  We'll forgive Eric the use of the word "revolving" when he really meant "rotating"...after all, it's a very common mistake.  But beyond that one slip in lexicon, the song is spot on. 

Our Earth really does rotate, on average, at 900 miles per hour.  Think about that.  Right now, as you sit reading this, you are IN MOTION at almost 1000 mph.  And that's just the Earth's rotation.  Our revolution around the Sun, at 19 miles a second, clocks in at over 68,000 mph.  Comparatively, the entire solar system trundles along at only 40,000 mph as it moves around the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

A second error, if you want to call it that, occurs here.  We now believe that our galaxy probably contains 200 billion stars...but of course, it depends a little on who you ask.  100 billion as an estimate back when the song was written would be perfectly acceptable.  All of the other measures concerning our galaxy are quite correct.

So the next time someone complains about you just sitting on the couch, watching TV, you can explain to them just how fast you're really moving when you do that.  No wonder you need to sit down!

Until next time,
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Woohoo! It's Time to Star Party!

Greetings, astronomy fans!

Ah, the summer star party.  Sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it?

Actually, we're really excited about our summer star parties.  We'll have time in the early part of the evening to view the Sun, which is pretty awesome right about now.  We're in solar maximum, so there's almost always something cool to see.  And by cool, we mean about 8,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  That's the rough temperature of the average sunspot, a cool, dark region on the solar surface.  I know, it doesn't exactly sound cool...but with the rest of the solar surface hovering around 10,000 degrees, suddenly 8,000 doesn't sound so bad.

The Sun today, June 5, 2013.  Image courtesy NASA and

Once the Sun sets, we'll be treated to some wonderful sights in the evening sky.  Saturn is prominent right now, and looking awesome.  At a recent overnight event at the museum, we saw 4 moons (out of Saturn's many dozens), Cassini's division (a large gap in the ring system), and even some faint banding in the clouds of the giant planet (yellow and white clouds generally don't make for great contrast, so when you can see them, it's quite lovely).  Saturn is truly a sight to behold in a telescope, and well worth the wait for the darkness of night.  Beyond Saturn, expect to see some beautiful double stars, like Alberio, in the head of Cygnus the Swan...and perhaps a nebula or two, like the the Ring Nebula in Lyra the Harp.

Still from a video of Saturn shot June 2, 2013.  Image by Dash One using Raspberry Pi.

While you're waiting for the darkening sky to reveal it's secrets, we've got a special treat for you.  The United States Air Force Heritage Combo, the Blue Aces, will be rockin' it out in the Conservation Garden from 6-8pm (if the weather is inclement, they'll move into the lobby of the main museum building).  Trust me, you're going to enjoy that!  And did I mention that everything we've talked about so far is free? No really, FREE!

The Blue Aces.

Beyond the freebies, you can support the Virginia Living Museum and see some amazing stuff this Saturday night.  Only during the three evening star parties of summer can you visit our stunning summer exhibit, Bodies Revealed, without paying admission to the museum as well.  Stand alone tickets to Bodies Revealed will be available for $15 for adults and $12 for kids.  Members, of course, are only $7.  The exhibit is an incredible journey through the human body - you won't want to miss it.

Also available is an expanded slate of shows in the Abbitt Planetarium!  At 5:30pm, you can see Microcosm, our show about the parallel developments of space exploration and medical technology that will also propel you into a possible future where human beings can go inside the human body to cures diseases.  At 6:30pm, take a break and rock on with Laser Pop, featuring pop music across the decades.  At 7:30pm, catch a preview of the evening sky with Virginia Skies, a live sky talk with one of our staff astronomers.  At 8:30pm, the rock and roll goes on with Laser Vinyl, a mix of classic rock hits you won't want to miss. Rounding out the night is a Pink Floyd double feature - The Wall at 10pm and The Vision Bell at 11:30pm.  The Wall features selections from that classic album, while The Vision Bell is a fabulous mix of old and new Pink Floyd favorites inspired by the release of The Division Bell.  It's a double header you won't want to miss.  Shows in the planetarium are $6 each, or catch a double feature (any two shows on the same night) for $10.  Members are always half price!

Besides all this fun, the Wild Things Museum Store and the Wild Side Cafe will be open for your shopping and eating pleasure!  Plus enjoy the beautiful gardens as the Sun goes down and the evening cools off.  All in all, our summer star parties should be a blast!  Our first one is this Saturday, June 8, and will be your only chance to see the Blue Aces.  Come out and join us!

Until next time,
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

WOAH...Look at the time!

Holy moly, has it been two weeks already!?!

Okay, well I'm going to make this quick, as we are in our busiest season here at the Virginia Living Museum.  Summer is a-comin'...and we are all working like crazy to be ready!'s a primer on what you'll find here if you come visit this summer!

The big news is our big exhibition - Bodies Revealed - a fascinating exhibition of specially preserved human specimens of the kind usually reserved for medical students.  The exhibit will take you on an incredible journey through the various systems of the body, plus allow you to see exactly what happens to a body afflicted with various kinds of diseases.  It is truly incredible - the human body is a marvel to behold, and this exhibit really brings out the incredible complexity of our inner workings.  The exhibit opens to the public on Saturday - members only can visit on Friday!

In the Abbitt Planetarium, you can explore the inside of the body with a fanciful look into the future of medicine with Microcosm - a fantastic voyage into the body as only a fulldome theater can bring it to you.  The show makes an excellent companion to the Bodies Revealed exhibit and will be offered at 11:30am and 2:30pm every day beginning on Friday.

Journey inside the human body with Microcosm.  We'll also explore the parallel history of astronomical and medical advancements.

For those with a more historical bend, we'll also be featuring a program to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address later this year.  Before he was president, Abraham Lincoln was a well respected lawyer.  In his most famous case, he successfully defended a man against a murder charge by introducing scientific evidence about the Moon.  For many years, historians have argued over whether Lincoln actually had science on his side, or whether he faked his "evidence" to free his client.  Discover the answer with our new program Abraham Lincoln: The Case of the Missing Moon, showing every day at 12:30pm beginning this Friday.

If you're hoping to learn about what's going on in the evening skies, you'll really enjoy our Virginia Skies program.  This live discussion of the current evening skies will be shown every day at 1:30pm, starting this Friday.  One of our staff astronomers will take you on journey through the current constellations, planets, and other celestial objects appearing in your night sky.  Don't forget to bring your questions!

Finally, if you're looking to just kick back, relax, and rock out for summer, we've got you covered at our 3:30pm laser show.  Beginning this Friday and running through June 30, enjoy an eclectic mix of movie tunes, rock and pop with Laser Mania.  Celebrate our magnificent country all through the month of July with Spirit of America.  From August 1 through Labor Day weekend, get dancy with a wild selection of electronic dance music in ElectroLaze.  All our laser shows feature amazing laser light splashed all over our 30 foot dome to accompany excellent music selections.  You can check out playlists for our shows on our website.

Of course, summer also brings summer camps, and we are really excited about our offerings this year.  We do classes for kids having completed kindergarten up through grade 5 - and each week is packed full of incredible science, fun, games, activities and planetarium shows!  We do have a few spaces remaining in some of our camps - check online for current openings, or call (757) 595-9135 and our lovely ladies in reservations will help you out. 

Well, the unofficial start of summer is this weekend, and I plan to spend it with friends and family.  I'm really looking forward to checking out the new Star Trek movie! 

Ah, the reboot of Star Trek.  I confess I much enjoyed the first one, despite my best efforts.

All right, my time is up!  Back to work.
Until two more weeks have long and prosper!
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

So...why are you here?

I get asked that question a lot.

Well, okay, not really.  Most people are not so bold as to ask that question directly.  They tend to come at the idea with comments like "Oh...I had no idea there was a planetarium at this museum."  Or perhaps, "Wow, when did you guys build this?"  Or the ever-popular "How long has this been here?"

But the looks on their faces and the tone of their voices say "What's a space science thing doing at an animal museum?"

We do have a lot of animals.  They are awesome and amazing, and I completely understand why people love them, because I do too!  (personal favorites: the bobcat and the otters)  But the Virginia Living Museum is about more than just adorable animals.  We are a nature and science center.  We aim to showcase the natural wonders of Virginia - all of them.  Plants, animals, mountains, trees...and yes, even the sky.

More than this, we are hoping to inspire in our guests a passion for the world that surrounds them.  It's a world worth saving.  Not only the playful otters and the majestic bobcat, but also the brilliant stars of night, the delicate flowers, and so very much more.  And even more than this...none of what makes Virginia the incredible place it is exists separate from the planet on which we find ourselves.  And our wondrous Earth cannot exist without the solar system of which it is a part.  And that solar system resides in the Milky Way island universe within a vast cosmos...all of which makes up "our environment."  To understand our own little world, we must understand the universe.

We as humans like to compartmentalize things.  We categorize, sort, subdivide and organize.  This helps us to understand where we are in the universe, and to deal with the mundane aspects of daily life.  But we forget at our peril that we are all citizens of the cosmos.  Ask anyone who has had the great privilege to see the Earth from space.  They understand.

Our wonderful planet as seen from Apollo 17.  Courtesy NASA.

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified fa├žade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.
— Michael Collins, Gemini 10 & Apollo 11 astronaut

That's why we're here.  To transport you, even for just 30 minutes or so, into the cosmos and show you just how precious and wonderful is your environment.

Until next time,
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

When One Giant Sets...Another Rises...

Okay, perhaps not as eloquent or well known as the similar saying about doors...but more relevant to the sky right about now.

I do hope you've had the chance to look at Jupiter during this Winter/Spring season.  For some time now, Jupiter has been the dazzling bright white star-like object in the western sky, easily visible as the Sun sets and lingering for a while afterwards.  Well...the lingering is almost over.  Jupiter is now setting perhaps two hours after the Sun, and that time will grow progressively shorter as the days go by.  By the end of next month, Jupiter will be gone from our skies, disappearing into the glare of the Sun.  Long before that happens, it will become very difficult to catch telescopically, being low to the horizon just after sunset.  The season for Jupiter is ending, my friends, and if you haven't yet spent a pleasant evening outdoors, marveling at the wonders of the solar system's largest planet, I urge you to do so without delay.  It would be a shame to miss it.

Jupiter as seen through a small telescope.  The small "stars" seen around the planet are its four largest moons.  Image by Donald Waid. 

Yet even as Jupiter descends into the evening twilight, Saturn also rises.  Climbing up from the eastern horizon around sunset and visible nearly all night long, Saturn is becoming a better and better target for that telescope lingering in your garage or closet.  As Jupiter disappears below the western horizon, Saturn climbs higher into the south, gently gracing the sky with its golden glow.  Saturn appears like a golden-yellow star in the night sky - one that doesn't appear to twinkle.  Planets rarely twinkle, except under the most humid of conditions (think August!), while stars are so distant from us the moving atmosphere of Earth causes them to twinkle even under the best of seeing conditions.  Look to the southeast at 10pm and you'll be able to spot beautiful Saturn quite easily.  It won't be as bright as Jupiter, but if you look tonight, the Moon will be next door to the right, easily guiding your eye to the planet.  And don't worry if you miss it - Saturn will be with us all summer long.  We expect to see quite a lot of it at our summer star parties here at the Virginia Living Museum - so come on out on the second Saturday of the month and join us.  Trust me, there are few sights in the world more amazing than Saturn's rings in a telescope.  Don't miss it.

Saturn seen up close and personal by the Cassini spacecraft.  Don't worry, you'll be able to see the rings without having to travel a billion miles.  Even a quality pair of binoculars will show you the rings of Saturn.  Image courtesy NASA.

So that's my advice to you - go outside and see the planets.  Take a deep breath.  Relax.  And drink in the wonders of the universe around you.

Until next time,
Carpe noctem!