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Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

I was up at night in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It was well after midnight in Germany, I was 12 years old, and I got special permission from my parents to stay up. I think I was up all night. I learned to dream early.

When I was just 8 years old, one of my friends had a topical encyclopedia, where one book was about the solar system. We didn’t have any high resolution photographs of any of the planets in 1964. So Mars was just a fuzzy red blob.

More than 50 years have passed, and now NASA has successfully flown the tiny helicopter named Ingenuity on Mars. To commemorate the momentous occasion, NASA included a scrap of fabric from the Wright Brothers flyer in Ingenuity. The Wright Brothers flyer was the first powered flight on Earth. Ingenuity was the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. And we got to watch it (after many light minutes of transmission delay).

See the entire experience here:

I am fascinated that we can see mountains on Mars in clear view. It’s an enormous journey from the grainy image in the encyclopedia. Mars is right now 180 million miles away, much farther than the sun, yet, we can see the little helicopter rise.

What an amazing time to be alive!

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When I am preoccupied with our small lives, political upheaval, and a raging pandemic, it always helps me when I get some perspective on the my life, the world, and ultimately what really matters.

Invariably, I get drawn to astronomy, and visualizing the amazing distances involved. We even have this saying that when some number is huge, it’s “astronomical.”

At one time I speculated and visualized the size of our galaxy with respect to the sun. I wanted to know the distance to the nearest star if the sun was the size of a red blood cell. I documented that in this post Tangerines and the Size of the Solar System and Galaxy, which you might read again.

Recently I stumbled upon this video by a young man in Switzerland. He used a more humanly imaginable scale of the sun being 1 millimeter in diameter, or about size size of a grain of sand. After all, I am sure you can’t really visualize the size of a red blood cell of 7 micrometers. But we all know the size of a grain of sand. Here is his video. It takes a few minutes, but you will enjoy it.

You must admit, that after he walked away from his yard and got in his car, you were amazed, but then, as he kept driving, it brought it home more and more.

30 kilometers, or about 19 miles, is a huge distance from one to the next grain of sand. There is nothing else in between. Imagine a space ship having to travel that distance, and you quickly realize how unlikely travel between the stars actually is. Then think about that when somebody tells you about UFOs coming from “outer space.”

At that scale, our galaxy would be about the size of the orbit of the moon around the earth. Imagine a disk as big as the path of the moon around the earth, all filled with grains of sand (stars) being some 30 kilometers apart from each other on the outside, and a bit more dense in the center. This also helps with visualizing two galaxies colliding. Would stars ever collide, when they are grains of sand 30 kilometers apart in each galaxy? Not very likely at all.

 

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This is the best photograph I caught today – at the time of  the closest proximity of Jupiter and Saturn in our sky since March 4, 1226.

The camera was at 60 times magnification, so they are really close together. If the moon were there, it would be five times bigger than the distance between the two planets.

Since I can’t add a “banana for scale” in this picture, I thought I’d show the view in daylight, with the red frame indicating the approximate view above.

Next time they’ll be this close will be in 2080. My grandson will be 61 years old then.

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Great Conjunction – Take Three

Alignments between Jupiter and Saturn are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so. This conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will get. The last time they were this close was just before dawn on March 4, 1226. That’s almost 800 years ago.

Unfortunately, this time, as spectacular as it is, the planets are pretty much on the other side of the sun, or rather, the earth is on the wrong side of the sun while it’s happening. Therefore, you can only see it from sunset for about an hour, before the “star” sets. If we were on the other side of the sun right now, we could lie on our backs in the grass, stare up at the night sky for hours and observe. Oh well, we’ll have to wait a few hundred years before the next chance.

Here is a photo I took tonight around 6:00pm Pacific time. If you look carefully, you’ll see the big eucalyptus tree silhouetted in front of the sky. Click to enlarge for better viewing.

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Great Conjunction – Take Two

It turns out, the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is easily visible from our own backyard. No reason to travel to higher ground. With it being this close to the sun, it’s only optimally visible between 5:00 and 5:45pm, and then it gets too close to the horizon, when it’s darker, but it’s already dimmer due to the closeness of the horizon and the associated flickering of the air and reddening of the sky, which makes our sunsets so beautiful. But that’s not good for viewing of planetary conjunctions.

I took the following pictures right around 5:30pm, when the sky was still somewhat light, and no other stars were visible.

Yesterday, I took out the Lumix camera, put it on a tripod, set it on sky mode with a 15 second exposure, and took this picture:

Great Conjunction – December 18, 2020

Obviously, the 15 seconds are too long. The earth moves much too fast. So tonight, I just set on Intelligent Auto mode, figuring that it knows better how to do this than I, and it did:

Great Conjunction – December 19, 20202

The planets are now closer together again since yesterday. I am much happier with this picture. I am going to try this setting again tomorrow, and, of course, on the big day on Monday.

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Great Conjunction

Trisha just came home from the grocery store with a picture of the Great Conjunction made with her phone from her car window – and a sliver of the moon below it. We have watched the planets approach each other every night in the last few days at 5:30pm. They are visible from our back yard.

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Here is an excellent video that teaches us all about the upcoming Great Conjunction on December 21, 2020.

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I am really tired being fed nonsense news from “NASA” by the U.K. rag Daily Star about asteroids set to “collide with Earth’s orbit” or “asteroids crashing into earth’s orbit.”

I get links like this every few days. Here are two separate links to that effect:

Fake Asteroid Link 1 and Fake Asteroid Link 2.

It appears there is somebody who works at the Daily Star who specializes in fabricating pictures of earth from space with fiery balls or huge rocks heading for earth.

Note also that the headlines are “technically correct” since the asteroids never actually crash into earth, just into earth’s orbit. Earth’s orbit is a huge imaginary circle around the sun with an approximate length of 940 million kilometers. At any given time, the earth is only at one point along that giant circle. So yes, every day, lots of asteroids come close to that circle somewhere in space. That point in space can be on the other side of the sun, about 300 million kilometers away. It’ll take us 6 months to get there.

I don’t think I’d call it “crashing” when a space rock crosses over an imaginary line somewhere in space. Obviously, this fluff in the Daily Star is silly click bait and I don’t understand what causes it to show up so frequently in my social media feeds.

It’s another effort to dumb us down.

 

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I have only seen, with my bare eyes, two comets.

The first one was Halley’s when it came in January 1986. My daughter had just been born a few weeks before. We went out in the dark fields and barely saw the smudge in the sky that was Halley’s Comet. It was not a spectacular showing that year. With a period of 75 years, it won’t be back until 2062. I remember thinking about the life of my daughter then, and realizing she’d be 75 years old when the comet would be back.

Today I saw the NEOWISE comet.

Trisha and I drove out to Lilac Road in Valley Center to have some unobstructed northern horizon. We found a suitable spot on the side of the road and pulled over. I knew where the comet was supposed to be with relation to the Big Dipper. The evening sky was still kind of light where the sun had just set. So we had some time to wait.

Trisha just bought a brand-new iPhone a few days ago. It is known to have an excellent camera. I suggested she’d take a picture of the Big Dipper to practice and see how it came out. She did, and showed me the picture she took.

NEOWISE Comet [click to enlarge]

And look! Down on the bottom of the picture you can see the comet. I knew approximately where it would be, but we could not even see it yet with our bare eyes. The camera found it for us. Now we knew where to look.

NEOWISE Comet

 

Here is another picture of the comet with me pointing at it.

NEOWISE is actually an acronym for the telescope that detected the comet in the first place, named Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The official comet’s name is C/2020 F3.

The comet will be visible with the naked eye through most of July 2020, and then it will start fading again, going on its long journey. But make sure you say good-bye, because it won’t come back to visit us until the year 8820. The last time it was here was about 4500 years ago.

And that puts my life into perspective. Today was a good day!

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Today’s NASA’s image of the day is this stunning photography of the Galaxy M81 in Ursa Major.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech [click to enlarge]

I have taken the liberty of adding a little mark for illustration purposes. I added a tiny red circle at the end of the green arrow.

If M81 were the Milky Way, our own sun would be approximately where the little red circle is. A bit on the outside of one of the arms, far away from the center.

However, here comes the stunner: If this were the Milky Way, and our sun would be in the middle of the little red circle I drew, then all the stars we see with our naked eyes in our night sky would be within the little red circle. The farthest stars we can see are just a few thousand light years away.

And that is our little world.

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This has got to be one of the coolest things anyone has ever done. On February 6, 2018, Musk shot his Tesla roadster convertible with a space suited dummy in the driver’s seat on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket into an orbit around the sun. The car is now further away from the sun than Mars is. It will circle the sun for billions of years.

We’ll all be gone one day, but that car, and that dummy, will be like new, orbiting the sun.

The fact that a private individual can pull this off is fascinating to me.

Say what you will. Go SpaceX!

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I have waited for In Saturn’s Rings for several years and have followed their Facebook page. It took the producers years longer to finish it than they thought it would. It was supposed to be done on December 31, 2014, but was finally finished on May 4, 2018. It is a 42-minute documentary made exclusively from real photographs taken by spacecraft, from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Cassini-Huygens space craft. The movie uses no computer generated graphics (CGI) technology. All images are arrangements of actual photographs.

There are not many places in the country where the film is currently shown. On my visit to New York City I decided to go out to the New York Hall of Science in Flushing, NY, about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan where it is currently playing.

I have always been fascinated with Saturn and its rings, and I have written plenty about it here. Here is one of my descriptions from almost five years ago where I marvel about floating in the rings and then actually refer to this movie.

But I was disappointed. Perhaps I am spoiled by the amazing CGI production in movies and documentaries where pictures are enhanced and animations are smooth and stunning. In Saturn’s Rings seemed flat and boring in comparison. But again – I realize that there is value in looking at actual photographs, not made-up stuff. And I give the producer credit for that.

However, there is too much fluff in the movie. It starts out with the Big Bang and plays images of Hubble of distant galaxies. Then it moves into an odd collage of photographs of science and scientists, wasting a lot of time on those flying and merging still photographs that didn’t add any value to the message or the film itself. There were fillers, and there were too many of them.

The film is narrated in parts, but some of the descriptions of images were subtitled rather than narrated. I found that annoying. The images were there for a short time, and rather than looking at the images, I found myself reading the captions that described what I was looking at while the narrator was silent. Then the images were gone and the next ones came up. I missed them. This happened a lot.

In Saturn’s Rings is an admirable effort but ultimately not worth it. The images you see in the movie would be much more valuable in a book. Buy a book on the Cassini mission and I am sure you will see the best photographs there. You can read the captions in leisure, and then look at the images as long as you want. In the movie, you only have a few seconds before the next one comes along. Having the image move, or zoom in or out is not adding enough value to account for the brevity of the viewing experience.

As coincidence would have it, I was flipping through the channels yesterday and came across the Science Channel and found Space’s Deepest Secrets – Cassini’s Grand Finale. This was a documentary about the Cassini mission and it showed spectacular graphics of Saturn taken by Cassini but it also provided professional narration and interviews of scientists along with the history of the program. The subject was similar to that of In Saturn’s Rings, but done much better.

 

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Panorama on Mars

While we quibble here on Earth about little things like tax cuts, there are other worlds out there, with mountains, and valleys, and ancient washes.

Here is a panoramic picture of Gale Crater, where the Curiosity rover landed in 2012 and has been working since.

I sit here, watch this, and reflect on my little place in the world.

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Earth and Moon

Image Credit: NASA/OSIRIS-REx team and the University of Arizona – [click to enlarge]

We forget how empty space around us is. This picture taken from composites of the OSIRIS spacecraft shows how far the moon is away from the earth, and how little it is, yet, it is our nearest neighbor. There were nine manned missions that went to the moon in the history of humanity, of which six landed on the moon. The last such mission was in 1973, which is now 45 years ago! A number of the people involved in these missions are no longer alive now.

Humans haven’t left the little ball on the left since then, and missions to the space station, in comparison, are so close to earth that you could not even see them on this image.

Space is vast.

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