31 August 2013

A Sea of Deep Space Objects

The Galactic Center
The waning days of Summer are an excellent time to enjoy a view into the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy. We observe our own galaxy all around us in the night sky, and if you are in a reasonably dark location, you can see the band of stars that are the spiral arms of our own galaxy stretch across the sky. At this time of year, as the sky darkens after sunset, the Milky Way stretches high overhead, touching the southern horizon at the constellation Sagittarius. In fact, when you look due south toward that very constellation, you are looking toward the center of the galaxy. Not surprisingly, you also can see a lot of beautiful deep space objects, and with a pair of binoculars you can see many interesting objects, from clusters of stars to nebulae. The diagram gives you an idea of the richness of this part of the sky and galaxy, and even in city lights you will still be able to spot many of these objects. A telescope is fine to use as well, but I find that binoculars give you a big picture and are quite good for seeing the colors and breadth of many of the big nebulae in and around Sagittarius. 

Six months from now, as the Earth swings around the Sun and our view of the night sky has shifted, we'll be pointing the opposite direction toward the 'antipode' of the Milky Way Galaxy, a much less interesting part of the sky (but still cosmically significant). So enjoy Sagittarius and the center of the galaxy while you can.

22 August 2013

The SETI and Europa Report

I don't post movie reviews on my blog, but I will talk a bit about a very interesting science fiction movie I enjoyed recently. The movie is called Europa Report, and it is a fact-based sci-fi, something that I quite enjoy because it employs very solid science and technology in its depiction of the future. In this case, the story is of a search for extraterrestrial life, a trip to the Jovian moon Europa in hopes of finding the first sign of life outside of Earth.

Europa Report poster
I find the search for extraterrestrial life and SETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) to be an excellent scientific endeavor, and the latest discoveries of exoplanets on the Kepler Mission, and the ongoing search being conducted by the SETI Institute at the Allen Array in Northern California, along with advanced astrobiology research going on at SETI in Mountain View, all are part of the grand search that captivates so many -- the ongoing pursuit of an answer to the question "are we alone in the universe?" I am happy that we live in a world where some of our tax dollars and donations support these scientific endeavors

The movie Europa Report, like Contact and Deep Impact, are portrayals of unusual or theoretical situations that attempt to remain scientifically grounded. I once heard astronomer and blogger Phil Plait give a fairly in depth assessment of Deep Impact, and although it has some flaws, it is mostly on the mark and an exciting movie for the subject at hand, a comet impacting the Earth. Europa Report follows the story of six astronauts on the long journey to one of Jupiter's moons, Europa, because it contains a large ocean of water under a layer of ice, and could harbor life. Without spoiling the movie ending, I'll simply say that the drama and excitement (and danger) of this kind of journey are well captured in this movie, and if you want an entertaining and riveting evening out, go see the movie. If you'd like a proper movie review, here are some good ones: Space.com is good, as is Roger Ebert's review and the review on io9.

08 August 2013

KALW Broadcast - August 8, 2013

I provide a fairly in-depth outline of the Perseids and how to see them during this interview with Ben Trefny of KALW's Crosscurrents program. Click here to listen.

KFOG Broadcast - August 8, 2013

Today's discussion with Greg Gory and the Morning Show team at KFOG includes the Perseids, the International Space Station, Star Parties and Saturn. Listen here. 

06 August 2013

Perseid Meteor Shower 2013

It's August, and that means it's time for one of the best meteor showers of the year, the Perseids. This shower occurs every year around August 11-12-13, bringing with it the promise of 50-100 meteors per hour under ideal viewing conditions. There are a lot of great resources on the web to learn about it (see below). For San Francisco and Bay Area residents, here are my thoughts on how to best enjoy it.

In the City: San Francisco and the Bay Area have a bit too much light pollution to see all of the meteors clearly, but you will certainly see some within city limits. The most important things are (a) to have a broad horizon with a view of as much of the sky as possible, and (b) to situate yourself in as dark of a spot as you can find, ideally shaded from streetlights or houselights. Let your eyes adapt and look overhead; you could see 5-10 per hour.

Outside the City: The best way to enjoy a meteor shower is outside of city limits, where darkness prevails and you have a broad view of the sky. As with any stargazing endeavor, you want to dress warmly and bring along creature comforts such as a sleeping bag, lawn chair, and a warm drink. Give yourself plenty of time to dark-adapt. And do this with friends -- it's much more fun when you share this with others.

Where to look: Directly overhead. They appear to originate from a spot in the eastern sky in the constellation Perseus, but they will be visible over all of the night sky.

When to look: meteor showers are always best viewed after midnight, when the rate of meteors goes up considerably. The peak nights for the 2013 Perseids are Sunday night (11th-12th) and Monday night (12th-13th), although Saturday night August 10th will be a fine night as well, as the meteors start to approach their peak and the weekend is in full swing.

In you live in the Bay Area, join the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers high atop Mt. Tamalpais for a full evening of astronomy and meteor watching on Saturday 10th. We'll have a lecture, star gazing through telescopes, and meteor viewing until 1:00 am. Admission is free. More details here: http://www.sfaa-astronomy.org/

Here are two excellent web resources on the Perseids:



Enjoy the show!

04 August 2013

A Graceful Moon

A Graceful Moon
This week we enjoy the start of the lunar cycle, from New Moon on the 6th through the waxing crescent phases. The Moon travels higher and more southerly each evening, as it starts its monthly orbit around the Earth, gracefully slipping along the ecliptic and closely brushing up against planets and bright stars. The view on Thursday 9th should be particularly engaging, as bright Venus stands in contrast to the brighter (but more diffuse) thin crescent Moon. You will need a good western horizon to enjoy this, where the pair will shimmer in the dusk sky. Later in the week the Moon will slide past bright star Spica and Saturn, and happily will set well before midnight, so as not to interfere with the Perseids meteor shower. More on the Perseids in my next blog post. For now, Clear Skies and Happy Viewing!