23 February 2014

King of the gods (and the night sky): Jupiter

Jupiter and Winter Circlet
I've been enjoying Jupiter this winter. Jupiter is the most obvious and brilliant object in the night sky after sunset. It dominates the already spectacular winter sky, outshining the bright stars of Orion, Canis Major, Taurus and Gemini, and adding to this bright and busy part of the night sky. The attached diagram shows the bright "Winter Circlet" and the location of Jupiter among the stars of this distinctive circle of stars.

Jupiter is brilliant to the naked eye, but with some magnification becomes even more impressive. This article in Sky & Telescope provides but a few of the highlights to look for if you point binoculars or a telescope at Jupiter. It's marvelous to look at, even if you can only spot the four Galilean moons. But with stronger optics and a clear sky you can see the equatorial bands that stretch across the surface of the planet. And with even more magnification and excellent skies you can see the Great Red Spot. So much to look for in an object that is unmistakeable even in the brightest of city settings. Stop and take a look tonight for Jupiter -- you can't miss it.

Image courtesy Sky Safari.

17 February 2014

Dark Universe at the California Academy of Sciences

Over the past few years since the new Morrison Planetarium has opened, the California Academy of Sciences has used the state-of-the-art projection system at the Morrison to present amazing shows, scientifically accurate portrayals of the universe that include travel across vast regions of the cosmos using the latest research and findings from science and the latest in digital projection technology. The results are stunning visual experiences that relate some of the most complex and sophisticated concepts in science and bring the viewer face to face with these realities.

"Dark Universe" is the latest in a series of shows specially designed to take advantage of the Morrison’s projection system. The most recent shows have been created by the Hayden Planetarium and sometimes co-created with the Cal Academy. Dark Universe has credits that span the scientific community for the depth and breadth of visuals and scientific discoveries that are portrayed, an effort to create something that truly reflects the leading edge of our collective knowledge of the universe. The show focused on the most significant cosmological idea and astrophysics question that is being researched, to understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the two unknown materials that represent 95% of the “stuff” of the universe. 

Dark Universe appropriately addresses the rapidly increasing knowledge of our universe from the period of Edwin Hubble at Mt. Wilson observatory in the 1920s to the present era of research and discovery of the deepest regions of the universe. Hubble and his contemporaries established visual proof of the theories of galactic evolution and validated that the Milky Way was but one of an extraordinary number of galaxies in the universe, and did so via the concept of redshift, detecting quasars that were in such fast motion that their redshifted spectra proved that the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy in particular was farther than anything seen before in the Milky Way. Starting with that evidence and with the concept of redshift, astronomers over the past century have shown with increasing levels of precision that in fact everything in the universe appears to be expanding and based on mass and gravitational measures, the rates of expansion were not explained by the data they were measuring. "Dark Matter" and "Dark Energy" became the two needed elements to fully describe the physical phenomenon being measured in the cosmos. Yet our current (2014) techniques for measuring these impacts are still not sufficiently calibrated to reveal the true underlying physics and reality of dark matter and dark energy. 

Dark Universe provides highly accurate and visually engaging imagery, one of the hallmarks of the shows at the Morrison Planetarium. The graphics are quite advanced and bring us visuals that were unattainable even just a few years ago. The images are rich with scientific findings from many different missions and research teams (as the lengthy credits made clear), and I believe that the average viewer of Dark Universe will be as impressed as the scientifically-savvy viewer, and will come away with new knowledge and understanding of the cosmos. 

I highly recommend that anyone with interest in science and astronomy see this impressive show. The museum itself is always worth a visit for all of the richness and science it presents, and the Morrison is an excellent space in which to experience Dark Universe. Enjoy!