February 2008 Archives

Blood Moon

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In response to Michele's comment from the previous post, I did do some nominal eyeballing of the lunar eclipse the other night, but nothing major given the uncooperative weather.

I caught a glimpse of the red moon peeking over a cloud mass as I got on the freeway coming home from work. It looked really cool, but it was behind me for the duration of the drive home so I didn't get a chance to look at it. By the time I got home it was just a faint red glow behind the cloud cover.

Dr. M and I went out to dinner, and on our way back the red moon was clearly visible, though the clouds were returning by the time we got home. I lingered outside wondering if I should set up the telescope, and at the moment the thought occurred to me a cloudy mist started forming in front of the moon, as if to tell me to go back inside and play on the Internet instead. And so I did.

There are, of course, tons of cool pictures of the eclipse available online, including this one from APOD in which the moon is shown with two of its sky-friends.

Jupiter at Dawn


I got up this morning to take a walk before work, but when I got outside and saw Jupiter hanging high in the eastern sky, I decided to stop putting off my pre-dawn stargazing (or planetgazing), and I went back inside to get the telescope.

As expected, Jupiter surpassed Saturn in terms of viewing awesomeness. I wasn't able to see the red spot, but I could clearly make out stripes, and even in the relatively bright dawn sky I could see four moons. Three of the moons formed a straight line relatively close to the planet, with one one the left and two on the right. A fourth moon was hanging farther off up and to the left. I suspect that if and when I observe Jupiter in a dark night sky I'll be able to see even more hot moon action.

One thing I noticed was that, particularly with the higher-powered eyepiece, it was just about impossible to get the planet fully into focus. I quickly realized that this had nothing to do with the optics of the telescope. Even when I took my hand off the focus knob, the sharpness of the image would fluctuate. Looking more closely, I could see what looked like those air perturbations you see over roads on hot days (only, in this case, small enough to be visible against a tiny dot in the sky). I imagine that the changing temperature of the morning atmosphere was creating all kinds of air turbulance, which was affecting the clarity of the image. Again, this is a problem that will hopefully be somewhat abated by viewing in a temperature-stabilized night sky.

As I was closing down the operation a woman who was walking her dog came along and asked me what I was looking at (in a friendly, not accusatory, way). I resisted the urge to say "Your apartment," and instead explained that I was observing Jupiter and pointed out the fading bright spot in the sky (the sun was creeping over the horizon at this point so the planet was becoming very hard to see). As we spoke, her dog investigated my backpack, and after she was gone I saw that he had drooled all over it. I'm sure the cats will be excited about that.

Saturn and Earthshine

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My friend Tom came over last night to cash in a long-standing promise to let him look at cool shit through the telescope. I was a little nervous about the prospect at first, since I was worried that all we'd be able to see was white dots, and he would have jackassed all the way down here for nothing. Fortunately, the evening delivered for both of us.

The plan was to look for (1) the Moon, (2) Saturn, (3) the Orion Nebula, and (4) the Andromeda Galaxy. I was dubious about Saturn since the star chart had it low on the horizon and there would therefore be a lot of crap in the way.

The Moon was, not surprisingly, easy to find. This was my first experience observing a crescent moon through the telescope, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Earthshine in the dark region. Even with the lower-powered eyepiece we could easily make out the features of the dark portion of the Moon, and viewing the region alongside the brilliance of the illuminated version was exceptionally neat.

After we had our fill of the Moon, I spotted a small yellow dot in the Eastern sky that I guardedly speculated might be the ringed planet. I swiveled the scope around (I'm getting the hang of the stupid non-intuitive rotational axes), centered the dot in the eyepiece, and checked it out using the lower-powered eyepiece without the Barlow lens. I could clearly see little bulges on either side of the dot. This, at last, was Saturn.

I installed the Barlow lens, and was actually able to see the dark space between the rings and the planet. Tom, with his natural 20/20 vision, was able to spot one of Saturn's moons about two or three Saturn-lengths to one side. We later theorized that a fainter speck closer to the planet was a second Moon.

I called Dr. M, who came to join us, and was also very excited. I switched out the eyepiece for the more powerful one, and at this magnification we were able to make out the top curve of the ring in front of the planet. It was also quite a challenge to get the brighter moon into the same field of vision as the planet, since the high-powered eyepiece focuses on such a tiny portion of the sky and the moon was so far to one side.

The three of us took turns ogling Saturn at the highest magnification power. The high power created two challenges, in addition to the problem of getting the moon into view: First, it was difficult to focus, not least because the three of us each have different eyesights (I finally broke down and kept my glasses on while observing, prompting Dr. M to comment that I looked like a stereotypical 1950s scientist). Second, the Earth's rotation creates a very high apparent speed at that magnification, so we had to constantly turn the fine adjustment knob to keep the planet in view as we watched it drift from left to right. For the first time, I wished that I had sprung for the motor.

My initial instinct was to declare this my most exciting viewing night, since it was the first time I was able to see discrete features on another planet. I won't commit to a decision as to whether the rings of Saturn are cooler than the Orion Nebula or the fake Pleiades nebula, but I will say that the Saturn experience makes me very eager to get Jupiter into the scope's sights. Jupiter is both larger and closer than Saturn, so I should be able to get quite an eyeful when I finally get up the energy to engage in pre-dawn observing (Jupiter has been hanging around the morning sky recently), or when Jupiter makes its way into the evening sky. For now, hey, I saw Saturn.

For Part Three of TSOS, I'll be eschewing the theoretical jimmity jam and presenting some or my favorite fun facts about the other members of our own solar system. So here we go.

Mercury, the sun's little punk. The solar system's littlest planet, and the one closest to our sun. Like many bars in San Francisco, Mercury has no atmosphere. With no atmosphere to hold the sun's heat, the surface temperature of Mercury's daytime and nighttime halves differs by about six hundred degrees. The NASA MESSENGER space craft recently buzzed Mercury and sent back a bunch of pictures that make the planet look like a larger version of Earth's moon, except with massive spider-like surface features that were obviously built by intelligent life forms.

Venus (hates you). Venus is surrounded by an extremely thick atmosphere that makes the planet very boring to look at from the outside. The only interesting thing about observing Venus is that it goes through phases, like the moon. The surface of Venus is marked by extremely high temperature and pressure, and as a result the planet has destroyed several landing probes sent there to bother it. Venus is also the setting of Ray Bradbury's All Summer in a Day, which is a very dumb story about horrible little children. Venus is also the setting of one of H.P. Lovecraft's only true science fiction stories -- In the Walls of Eryx -- which, not surprisingly, is scary as hell.

Mars, the cradle of civilization. Mars is confirmed to have been the home to several ancient races of intelligent life, whose relics and monuments have been painstakingly catalogued by NASA scientists interpreting data from various robotic probes. Today, Mars is the home of at least one sasquatch. This creature poses an immediate threat to human civilization, and as a result NASA has announced that all future robotic missions to the red planet will be heavily armed.

Jupiter, fat and fabulous. Jack Handy once said that Jupiter should be considered an enemy planet, regardless of whether we ever find life on it. Jack Handy is a fool. To the contrary, Jupiter is the Earth's protective big brother. Responsible for 90% of the non-solar mass of the solar system, Jupiter's gravitational field protects the inner planets from marauding asteroids and other undesirables that might want to enter our solar system, generally by deflecting them into the nether reaches of space. This phenomenon has led some scientists to conclude that a Jupiter-like planet is a requirement for life on other planets -- i.e., a planet can only have advanced life on it if it shares its solar system with a giant planet with protective gravity. Jupiter also has a dickload of Moons, including Europa, which closely resembles the icy planet of Hoth.

Saturn, the one with the rings. RINGS! RINGS! MOTHERFUCKING RINGS! JESUS CHRIST, WILL YOU LOOK AT THOSE RINGS! Most people associate Saturn with rings. Saturn has rings.

Uranus, the sideways planet. The third of the outer gassy giants, Uranus is best known as source material for countless bad jokes told by young boys. See, e.g., E.T. The coolest thing about Uranus is that it's the only planet with a sideways rotation. While all other planets "spin" as they orbit the sun, Uranus "rolls." It also has the word "anus" right there in its name.

Neptune, Hi, I'm on Neptune. Neptune is another gassy, featureless planet. It is not the largest, the prettiest, or the sideways-est. Until recently, its main claim to fame was the fact that it was sometimes the farthest planet from the sun due to Pluto's weird orbit. Now that Pluto isn't a planet anymore, Neptune is the farthest plan from the sun all the time. I don't know anything else about Neptune.

For the second installment of the TSOS series, I'll be discussing the freakiness of space itself, as opposed to the stuff in space.

Most people know that the universe is expanding. What people might not realize is that the universe is not expanding into empty space. Rather, space itself is expanding. The universe is like the two-dimesional surface of a bubble being inflated -- one minute there's X amount of surface; the next minute there's X + Y amount of surface. Space works the same way -- just expand the two-dimensional surface to a three-dimensional surface.

This has several important ramifications. First off, cosmic objects are generally moving away from each other. The movement of galaxies relevant to each other is a function not only of the peculiar velocity of each galaxy relative to space, but also of the rate at which space itself is expanding between the galaxies. It's like two bugs standing on a bubble, moving away from each other because the bubble is getting bigger.

This also means that the universe has a shape. And depending on that shape, space could be non-Euclidean, meaning that parallel lines actually diverge or converge. In a closed universe, in which parallel lines converge, light also travels in a circle. This means that, theoretically, if you observe an extremely old object in one direction, you should be able to turn around and see the exact same thing in the opposite direction. I believe (and someone may correct me), that the most current observations indicate that we actually live in a flat (Euclidean) universe, where cool stuff like this doesn't happen. But still.

Finally, it means that there's nothing "outside" the universe. Or at least nothing accessible by our current understanding of things. Time and space exist within the universe, not outside it. This, of course, brings up all kinds of unanswerable questions about what happened before the Big Bang, the existence of multiple universes, and so on, but for now this is a fun thing to toss out at cocktail parties.

In honor of Just Science 2008, I'll be posting a series this week called "The Terrible Secrets of Space" (named for this). Not everything (or anything, perhaps) I discuss in these posts will qualify as cutting-edge science. Rather, I'll be posting about some of the freakier things about the universe and its various bits and pieces, and the stuff that motivates my interest in backyard astronomy. I figure it gels well with the nascent nature of this here blog.

We'll start off with a relatively straightforward, and hopefully none-too-boring, perspective on how small we are in the overall shootin' match.

First up, we have a highly simplified Total Perspective Vortex:

I've seen some nitpicking online about whether the exact sizes and scales or correct, but you certainly get the idea. Our planet is tiny compared to the sun, and our sun isn't all that big either. What the video doesn't show is the galactic scale, in which stars barely resolve into individual dots, and, of course, the universal scale, for which I just happen to have another handy dandy visual aid:


What you're seeing here in this NASA chart is the composition of the universe (bearing in mind the duality of matter and energy -- E=mc^2, in case you ever wondered what that equation actually means). Of the small portion of the universe comprised of visible matter, an extremely small percentage is comprised of stars, and a smaller still percentage is comprised of the heavy elements that make up planets. This chart deals in composition rather than volume, but the message is similar: We're extremely small not only in terms of the space we take up relative to the total available space to be taken up, but also in terms of the percentage of the universe devoted to materials that make our lives at all possible. Dig?

Bringing this exercise closer to home, we have this famous monologue from Carl "Billyouns and Billyouns" Sagan:

I don't endorse all of the philosophical extrapolations in the video, but, again, you get the point: we are very, very small.

(I should add here that Bill Nye the Science Guy did a really cool demonstration on one of his shows in which he demonstrated the relative scales of the solar system by placing (very small) scale models of planets at their proper distances around a scaled-down sun. The first few planets were relatively close -- though not as close as you might expect -- but the outer planets required vehicles to reach. There's a re-creation of sorts available on YouTube that's altogether unwatchable. I won't link to it here because I don't want you to blame me when you claw your eyeballs out.)

You can play this game with time, too, though unfortunately I don't have any visual aids. The universe, so it's reckoned, is about 14 billion years old. Earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years. Humans (at least the ones on earth) have been around for 200,000 years. Let's say a human life is about 100 years. If the entire age of the universe were condensed into a single 24-hour day, the human race would have shown up at around 11:59:59 p.m. A human would live for about six ten-thousandths of a second.

So, there you go. Keep this in mind as we continue our tour of the freaky universe through out the week.

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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