Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Carnival of Space 189 is Now Open Come One, Come All!

The Carnival of Space is a weekly event hosted by a blogger of any and all things space. Welcome to Steve's Astro-corner. Get ready to be wowed and awed by what you see and read and in some cases by what you  hear. Today I am presenting for your pleasure, a fine assortment of blogs submitted to Brian Wang of the Next Big Future Blog . He rides herd on the dozens of space blog sites that send their blogs to the Carnival every week. If by chance, you own a blog that you wish to share with the world and in the process meet some really great people with a deep love for space "stuff" then by all means send your URL and a bit about the blog in an email to and you will be added to the editorial circulation list.  Previous episodes can be found here.  So with all that said, let's step in to the carnival and enjoy the show!
The first blog we come to is the always well written blog UniverseToday with senior editor, Nancy Atkinson submitting. This week Nancy shares the before and after shots of the terrible earthquake and Tsunami that rocked Japan last week. The post can be found Here.
(as a side note) I personally wish the people of Japan  a speedy and safe recovery from the collection of calamities that have struck this country.

After that dose of reality a little escape to the movies might be in order and  Ian O'Neill of the Discovery Space News website  has the ticket. Ian says "Despite the bad press, I really enjoyed 'Battle: Los Angeles.' It is, after all, just a movie about war, aliens and mankind's desire not to be exterminated without a fight." Check out  his movie review at Discovery

Next in our quest for all things space we have Allen Versfeld and his Blog: Urban Astronomer. Here, Allen discusses how New observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope have refined our measurements of the expansion of the universe.  These new figures strengthen the case for Dark Energy by eliminating a competing theory. Sounds like a team of scientists just got sacked! ouch that always stings when it is your research. I feel their pain. I just knew the Ether was a sure thing...

On to our next big thing and that is  Next Big Future. Brian Wang, the thinking man's Thinking Man sorts out, In space it is relatively easy to move quite large space rocks using solar sails, ion drives and other means. There are a lot of space rocks and a survey could be done to select the rocks that would have to be moved with the least amount of effort. Then once each asteroid is moved into place they would be locked into place. It could be easier to gather asteroids to make desired shapes instead of digging out a larger asteroid. Different sized asteroids could be used from 500 kg, to tons up to asteroids that are 100 to 1000 meter across. Brian is amazing! I would love to hang out with him but I am afraid my head would explode. His  thought provoking article can be found Here

On to Ian Musgrave of Astroblogger fame  Ian tackles the Super Moon issue. Is it the bringer of death and carnage or is it just another full moon that just so happens to be at Perigee? Ian sheds some light on this well written piece. Yes, I slipped a pun in there... Go Here for all things Super Moon.

Vega 0.0 Fran Sevilla of Vega 0.0 delivers big with an Introduction to the comoving coordinates in cosmology. This is number 16 in a series so you might have some catching up to do there but as always a fascinating read. This Blog is in Spanish but have no worries if you scroll down on the right side you will find the Google translator application. translate it to the language of your choice and enjoy getting your head around our ever expanding universe. Check this blog out... Here

Time to get retro and when it comes to retro space there are few better than  Amy Shira Teitel and her blog: Vintage Space. This time around Amy takes a look back  at some of NASA's "trial and error" testing methods in selecting the ultimate shape for the Mercury capsule.  This is a real trip down memory lane. These were some exciting times for space travel. Did I mention dangerous too? When I'm the test pilot the last thing I really want to hear the aerospace engineers say is: "Well...  let's try this." Read all about the trial  and tribulations of the US mercury program Here

Peter Lake of Astroswanny takes opportunity to video some of my favorite Space stuff; that being the fascinating world of cataclysmic variables. Astroswanny has been logging some telescope time on FS Aur as part of Dr Vitaly Neustroev's research project. Peter has created a great little video that shows off some of the odd behavior of this cataclysmic variable. Peter is one of those citizen scientists doing real science  on behalf of a full time scientist doing research.  Now that is something to hang your hat on Peter! Get an eyeful --->  Here

J P Skipper of Weird Sciences discusses Atlantis  and the possibility it did exist but they built their empire on some  very shaky ground. Lots of underwater mapping to look at and some leaps to make but hey that's what it takes sometimes to make that big discovery. Check out the hang out of Atlas and his kin at Weird Sciences

Steve Nerlich over at Cheap Astronomy  has a treat for your ears and mind. Steve delves into the  unravel the whole density wave spiral arm story. Take a listen  and then think about that! Pick up what Steve is putting down right Here . I really don't have a logo to post for  Steve because he is frugal or I would!

How can our universe (or the one we are in at the moment) exist at the same time as another one? Would the other universe be a mirror image of this universe or would it have the same stuff in it but the stuff act differently from what we are experiencing now?  Those are some very good questions and for the answers or some answers. Go to the venerable Sage of Warp Chris Dann and his Blog Weird Warp for the skinny.

The Space writer (Carolyn Collins Petersen)   muses on the events of 25 years ago, when observations of Comet Halley were at their peak.  It is very hard to believe that it has been that long since the Halley experience was upon us. I am that old ... Read a great story by a great writer over at The Space  Writer

For a series of videos presented by the blog: We are all in the gutter, go here, here and here
This week They've been showcasing a series of videos about the Universe made by astronomers in Portsmouth. Three have been posted here with two more to be seen at this site.

Dr. Bruce Cordell has been perusing the latest data from the Kepler mission  and finds the mission seems to suggest Earths are 'Relatively Scarce'. Are we the only ones? no Galactic pen pals? Dr. Cordell is leaning in that direction. Find out all about it at Bruce's 21st Century Waves

A simple sentence can sometimes say a whole lot. So when you read Einstein's work was crucial to virtually every aspect of modern physics, what does that make you think? To wade out into those waters is none other than the Chandra Blog I guess Chandra was super busy way up in space taking some killer x-ray images so Megan Watzke stepped in to say happy birthday to Albert Einstein. He would have been 132 on March 14th. check out this short muse Here

Lastly, I offer for your enjoyment the witty repartee of Steve's Astrocorner as he takes a look at the Sun with a filter of course and ponders the latest study going about solar cycles. You can look at the Sun talk Here

I knew if I was ever going to get "witty repartee" and my blog in the same sentence I was going to have to do it my self . With  That my friends  is the end  of Carnival 189 I hope you enjoyed it. As I leave you. I just wanted to say happy birthday to the Cincinnati Astronomical Society as they celebrate 100 years of astronomical excellence.
Until next time,
Keep looking up!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What is Up With The Sun?

Have you noticed the Sun has been in the news a lot lately? The reason is the current cycle is finally starting to wake up and send out more flares and solar storms. I am happy about it and my solar filter is happy as well.  It finally gets to come out of the box and play! Its recent turmoil is particularly newsworthy because the Sun was very quiet for a super long time. Astronomers had a tough time explaining the extended solar minimum. New computer simulations imply that the Sun's long quiet spell resulted from changing flows of hot plasma within it.

The Sun is made of  plasma,  not liquid solid or gas. Plasma contains negative electrons and positive ions which flow freely. Flowing plasma creates magnetic fields, which lie at the core of solar activity like flares, eruptions, and sunspots. The Sun contains huge streams of plasma kind of like our Earth's ocean currents. Those plasma currents affect solar activity. 

The Sun also operates in cycles... many cycles. In one of the cycles the Sun's activity rises and falls on 11 year increments. At its most active, called solar maximum, dark sunspots are scattered on the Sun's surface and frequent eruptions, explosions you name it send billions of tons of hot plasma into space. If the plasma collides with Earth, it can disrupt communications and electrical grids and short out satellites.

During solar minimum, the Sun calms down and both sunspots and eruptions are rare. The effects on Earth, while less dramatic, are still significant.  the solar wind that blows through the solar system  weakens,  and add to that the Sun's magnetic field weakening and more cosmic rays reach us from interstellar space. This is not a good thing.
The most recent solar minimum had an unusually long number of quiet and spotless days: 780 days during 2008-2010. Can you say wow? In a typical solar minimum, the Sun goes spot-free for about 300 days, making the last minimum the longest since 1913.
The last solar minimum had two major characteristics, one being no sunspots and  the other a weak polar magnetic field.
The team studying this phenomena used computer simulations to model the Sun's behavior over 210 activity cycles spanning some 2,000 years. He specifically looked at the role of the plasma rivers that circulate from the Sun's equator to higher latitudes. These currents flow much like Earth's ocean currents: rising at the equator, streaming toward the poles, then sinking and flowing back to the equator. At a typical speed of 40 miles per hour, it takes about 11 years to make one loop.
A team of scientists discovered that the Sun's plasma rivers speed up and slow down like a malfunctioning conveyor belt. They find that a faster flow during the first half of the solar cycle, followed by a slower flow in the second half of the cycle, can lead to an extended solar minimum. The cause of the speed-up and slowdown likely involves a complicated feedback between the plasma flow and solar magnetic fields. 
This study  is trying to make sense of this wandering current of plasma flow."It's like a production line - a slowdown puts 'distance' between the end of the last solar cycle and the start of the new one," says Team member Munoz-Jaramillo.

The ultimate goal of studies like this is to predict upcoming solar maxima and minima - both their strength and timing. At the moment predicting minimums is still not a reality. The sun has an endless multiple feed back system,  so making predictions will take some time get right. Watching these plasma flows and measuring  strength of poles etc will allow science to get a better picture of when these cycles might begin and end. Until then, we are using the 11 year plan give or take a couple of years!
Until next time,

Keep looking up!

Steve T

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dr. Jim Elliot: Discoverer, Teacher, Mentor and Friend (1943-2011)

Once in a lifetime someone crosses your path with the perfect combination of life skills, knowledge and passion. Jim Elliot was such a person. James Ludlow Elliot was born in 1943 and received his S.B. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1965 and his Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in 1972. Before returning to MIT in 1978, he was a postdoc and faculty member in the Astronomy Department of Cornell University where as a part of a team in 1977, discovered the rings around the planet Uranus. Their team watched as Uranus appeared to blink several times passed the planet then blinked the same amount of times. At first it was a very big surprise to the group.  Their first answer was that the equipment had malfunctioned. They later (after careful analysis) realized the blinking was caused by a band of rings surrounding the planet. These rings are very dark and narrow, unlike Saturn's, which are bright. Voyager II sent back many pictures that clearly show these rings. Elliot was also part of a team that observed global warming on Triton, the largest moon of Neptune. Dr. Elliot ended his career as  Professor of Physics and Professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT, and Director of the George R. Wallace, Jr. Astrophysical Observatory. Elliot used the techniques of planetary astronomy, particularly stellar occultations, to probe planetary atmospheres and the physical properties of small bodies in the outer solar system and beyond. Of particular interest to him was Pluto, Triton, Kuiper Belt objects and extrasolar planets. Dr. Elliot was good at it too. He, along with Paul Schechter and others at MIT and Harvard College Observatory, have constructed a CCD camera for the Magellan telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile. Elliot also worked with colleagues at the Lowell Observatory to build a high-speed imaging photometer for occultations (HIPO) for NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). 

To list all of the accomplishments for science that Dr. Elliot has earned would take more space than I have to type.  With that said,  all those accomplishments are nothing in comparison to the way he taught and nurtured the great minds that are  planetary scientists today. I asked Dr. Heidi Hammel , world renown planetary scientist and the first undergrad student of Dr. Elliot for a bit of a window into the man that was James Elliot.  She replied: One of Jim Elliot's gifts was this: he gave young students his trust, and thereby enabled them to do things they otherwise might never have tried. In my case, after I had graduated from MIT, he considered me a fully trained astronomer, literally. That summer, he sent me off to grad school in Hawaii with a letter stating that I was supposed to do his observations at the University's 88-inch telescope. It caused all kinds of trouble - this girl coming in who was not even yet a graduate student, saying she was supposed to use the a telescope on Mauna Kea. Why, they didn't even let graduate students use the telescopes without supervision! Jim was adamant that I do it, though; he refused to come to Hawaii. Eventually we worked out a deal that a postdoc would come with me to "supervise". It was cloudy, but that didn't matter. Jim had made his point, and I was fully empowered. I've heard many of his other students tell similar stories: sent off to who knows where with his utter confidence they were up to the challenge. And so, of course, they were. 

John of Salisbury wrote once: "We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours." Jim was one of the giants that  John mentions.  That really only scratches the surface of Jim as a Mentor.  He deeply cared about people,  his people in particular.  Dr. Michael Person of the MIT Planetary Astronomy Lab a research scientist directly under Dr. Elliot wrote in regards to Jim's caring nature: "I echo Heidi's impression of Jim as a mentor. He was certainly a great influence in my life. A true mentor in the classic sense, those of us who apprenticed under him were fortunate enough to not only learn our craft from a master, but to spend years with a man who cared as much about how his students progressed in their lives as he did in their research. As much friend as teacher and colleague, he will be sorely missed."Anyone who ever knew Jim or studied under him could echo these comments about this great man. Jim lives on in the people he has touched. His legacy is great for his techniques will be built upon as we study distant planets orbiting distant stars, or discover even more distant worlds in the far off frozen world of the Kuiper belt. Moreover, He has shown the value of empowering students to go out and take life by the horns and do the impossible. Those are truly great words to teach and live by.  Go peacefully into the night Jim. You have left this world in good hands.
Until next time,

Keep looking up!

Steve T