Friday, July 28, 2006

Feels like a Monday

Though it is Friday, it feels like a Monday here. The weather is dreary, my computer has been giving me fits, and I spent two hours in the middle of the night at the vet with one of my furry friends. So, I have little to say today -- my poor brain is aching.

Instead of discussion, I'll let you do a little "light" reading. This news release from the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn shows radar pictures of methane lakes and ponds on Saturn's largest moon Titan.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Conference preparations

In a little over a week, I will be packing up for a week in Leicester, England, for a conference on white dwarf stars. I'm not quite ready, so I need to bust my buns to get things prepared.

Conferences are one of the big events in a research astronomer's life, next to collecting data and writing papers. Astronomers from all over the world who work on a particular subject converge on the conference location to discuss their current research. Conferences are a chance to catch up with old friends, to learn what other people are working on, and to make new acquaintances and start new research projects.

One important part of science is the free trade of information, and this is facilitated by these conferences.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Cost of Observing

Strange Brew
by John Deering

How much does it cost to run a telescope? The above cartoon appeared in today's newspaper and compares professional astronomers' telescopes to the coin-fed tourist telescopes. (Clicking on the comic will take you to the comic's home page.)

Although the artist may not realize it, he came close to the cost of running a telescope. The Keck Observatory's twin telescopes cost $11 million/year to run. This works out to USD $15,500 per night (it's closed on Christmas Eve) per telescope. For a typical 10-hour night, this is about $1550 per hour, or 42 cents per second. So, bring your quarters!

Where does this money come from? It varies from observatory to observatory, and telescope to telescope. Most of the money to run a ground-based telescope comes from the National Science Foundation, which ultimately comes from the federal budget and your tax dollars. Many observatories use money from universities, which is a combination of state and federal money. A lot of telescopes are run with money from private endowments and private contributions. And a small handful of telescopes are run as businesses, with the observers paying for each hour they use the telescope.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Even professors can get excited

Even "stodgy" professors can get excited and enjoy themselves sometimes. This picture was taken at last week's teacher workshop at McDonald Observatory. It shows Professor James Liebert from the University of Arizona steering the 11-meter diameter Hobby-Eberly Telescope. If you look close, you can see a fairly big smile on Liebert's face as he drives the telescope around in a circle.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope has a unique design. It sits at a fixed angle, but can steer around in a circle. Because of this, there is a limited area of the sky in which the telescope can point (it is donut-shaped), but as the Earth turns, most objects in the sky find their way into the telescope's reach at some point. This design save many tens of millions of dollars in the design and construction of the telescope, though it does limit its science.

At any rate, we astronomers are rarely given the controls to a large telescope, as we are likely to try and run it somewhere it cannot go and break a $100-million instrument. Since the Hobby-Eberly can only go in circles, the operators let us play with it for a short period of time. And we had lots of fun.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Finishing the teacher workshop

We're all getting a little tired, but we've had a lot of fun. I am having fun, anyway, and I hope the teachers are, too. In the last few nights we have looked at nearly 50 Messier objects, a few dozen NGC objects, dozens of meteors and satellites, and a handful of bats, deer, and rattlesnakes.

We've also worked a lot on understanding white dwarfs, the remains of stars that have completed their lives. The point of this is not just to teach science teachers about white dwarfs, but also to present ways for teachers to relate the physics, geology, and chemistry that they teach to current science research. The hope is that, in this way, middle- and high-school students see that what they are learning is related to current, exciting research, and not just a list of math equations developed by a bunch of dead guys.

This morning we are wrapping things up, and by tonight I should be back home in my bed in Tucson!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Simulating the lives of the stars

As I've mentioned, I am at McDonald Observatory assisting in a workshop for middle and high-school teachers. Above is a picture of an activity we used to illustrate the lives of stars. Each teacher had a different-colored balloon to represent red dwarfs, yellow sun-like stars, white hot stars, and massive blue stars. The white and blue star teachers were a little surprised when their balloons were popped to simulate a supernova.

Anyway, tomorrow is the last day of this workshop. We've been using telescopes late into the night, and are starting to wear down.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Eyepiece observing with teachers

As I mentioned last time, I am at McDonald Observatory with a group of 15 science teachers from across the nation. Last night, we spent several hours looking through an eyepiece on a 36-inch diameter telescope.

Professional astronomers rarely get to look through telescopes. We take many thrilling pictures, but never do any work with our unaided eye.

Last night, we looked at galaxies, globular clusters, planetary nebulae, binary stars, open star clusters, and the planet Jupiter. My personal favorite was the Whirlpool Galaxy. In most amateur telescopes, the spiral arms are hard to see, but in the large telescopes, the spiral arms just jumped right out at me. It was absolutely wonderful -- I could have looked for hours. BUT, alas, the point was for our teachers to look through the telescopes, not the professional astronomers.

Tonight will not be as fun, as it will likely rain. But hopefully our teachers can continue to learn the secrets of astronomy to take back to their classrooms.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Astronomy & Society

We astronomers are often asked what good astronomy does for society. We ask this ourselves, as understanding black holes doesn't seem applicable to many of society's ills. But astronomers have answered this question by saying that astronomy's responsibility to society is to teach science to the public.

Today I drove from Tucson to McDonald Observatory in western Texas. My collaborators and I are hosting a continuing education workshop for middle- and high-school teachers, where we will be showing how our research is related to the science that they teach their classes. Many of these teachers work with underprivileged students, and so this work

As this workshop goes on, I hope to be able to show some pictures and talk about how it is going.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Asteroids and Foam

The same thing has been bugging me about the recent "near-miss" of a small asteroid and yesterday's launch of the space shuttle Discovery. This has to do with both real and misplaced concerns and whether or not we are looking.

Asteroids like 2004 XP14 have been coming close to the Earth for 4.5 billion years. Some hit, most miss. It's only been recently that we have heard about these near-misses in the news, as it has only been recently that we have been looking. While it is good that we are now concerned and looking out for hazardous asteroids, and while news coverage of these near-misses helps keep the danger in mind, we don't need to panic when an asteroid has a near-miss.

It is very similar with the space shuttle and news stories about it losing foam during liftoff. Many people have the impression that the falling foam is a new problem, but this has been happening since the first shuttle launch. It was not until the tragic loss of Columbia that people became aware of the danger and NASA started watching for foam. Now, every little piece is scrutinized, as it should be, but that does not mean that the public needs to be scared for our astronauts with every falling bit of foam.

Should we be on the lookout for rogue asteroids and falling shuttle foam? The answer is undeniably YES! Do you need to worry about every near miss and every lost piece of foam? NO. It is impossible and impractical to prevent every near-miss of an asteroid and every chunk of falling foam. What is important is that scientists and engineers keep watching and that the public stay concerned but not fearful with each event. If we don't watch, we can miss the one event that will lead to disaster, as happened with Columbia. But paranoia is not healthy, either.

So, keep your eyes open and your wits about you!

Quiet next few days...

I'm leaving to look for a home in my soon-to-be new hometown today, so I may not get to write much until next week. But, maybe I will; we'll find out. :)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Independence Day

230 years ago today, 56 people risked their lives to sign the Declaration of Independence, beginning an ongoing experiment on democracy and self-determination. Sometimes the U.S. has done well, sometimes it has not. Here's hoping many more successes are ahead.

Today, seven men and women from the U.S. and Europe risked their lives as the aging space shuttle successfully launched into orbit. We know that they still face many risks in the coming two weeks, and I wish them luck.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Asteroid near-miss

Last night, an asteroid passed about 270,000 miles away from Earth, just further away than the moon. Some news organizations called this a "huge" asteroid. This is an overstatement. The asteroid is about half a mile across, which is larger than most asteroids, but much smaller than the largest asteroids (nearly 500 miles across, or 1000 times larger in diameter).

1/2 mile diameter is big enough that we need to keep an eye on this object, 2004 XP14. With computers, we are certain that 2004 XP14 will not hit the Earth in the next 200 years. It is hard to predict with certainty for much larger periods of time until we know more about the asteroid. Still, in the far distant future, 2004 XP14 could very well hit the Earth. An asteroid of this size would cause tremendous damage on a local level, and could destroy a city, but the effects would not reach further. If the asteroid hit the ocean (quite likely, since 3/4 of the Earth is water!), then a tsunami might be generated, but the effects would depend on where the asteroid would hit.

So, no need to worry for now -- Earth is still safe for the foreseeable future.