Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sorry for delays in posting and whatnot

For the past few days, my blogging service and web service have been trying to ignore each other. So some posts appear as I put them up, some wait a day or two. Grrr!

Let's go fix Hubble!

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin announced this morning that NASA will schedule a space shuttle flight to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, likely to launch in early 2008. You can read the full story here.

I won't bother repeating the details from the story. But most astronomers are quite elated at the news. After a rocky beginning due to a misshapen mirror, Hubble has proven to be one of the most productive telescopes ever made, making many important scientific discoveries. The fact that Hubble is as popular a telescope now as it was when it was launched shows how important it has become.

I wish the astronauts well in their training, and safety on their mission.

Monday, October 30, 2006

This concludes the test

This concludes our test of the blog posting service. Had this been an actual posting, the headline would have been followed by official information, news, or instructions.

This is a test

This is a test of the Blog Posting System. This is only a test. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Decision coming on Hubble

Ever since the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia nearly four years ago, the final planned shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope has been in limbo. First it was cancelled, then changed into a robot mission, then re-instated as a possible mission, and then made dependent on the last two space shuttle flights.

This Friday, NASA will inch closer to a final decision on a Hubble repair mission. Space shuttle engineers are going to be meeting to discuss whether a repair mission is relatively safe, or whether it is too unsafe to proceed. If they deem it unsafe, then that will spell the end for Hubble. If they deem it safe enough, then the NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, will make the final call.

Hubble is working away, but in worsening shape. Its batteries are old and need replaced. Its gyroscopes are old and need replacing. Its pointing system is old and needs replacing. Its main camera has been acting flaky, and its secondary camera is nearly 10 years old -- ancient for space hardware. Its only spectrograph died a couple of years ago. Two brand new instruments have been built and are ready to be put onboard.

Do I think Hubble will be repaired? I don't know. I would like to see it repaired, but I am not the person who would be putting my life on the line. Hubble repairs are not worth six or seven human lives. My hope is that the engineers will not feel pressure from any side, but have a chance to honestly express their concerns and their confidence in a repair mission.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Upcoming travel...

My blogging will be light for the next week, as I'll be doing some travelling. However, I will update you on how things are going and any exciting news as time allows!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Time for job applications!

(Note: I will post any further news on the telescope damage in Hawaii as things unfold; right now there is pretty much no change over my past postings. A big thank you to UC Santa Cruz astronomer Jay Strader for feeding me information!)

Yes, now that I have just moved, it is time to start applying for jobs again. Those of you who were reading last year know what a chore the search for academic jobs is -- we apply for jobs in the fall, interview in the spring, and, if we are lucky, start the following fall. Since my new job lasts for up to three years, why start torturing myself again this year?

There are many reasons, both professional and personal. But one major reason is that the job process is quite non-scientific. Different universities have different desires, but they have to be very careful in wording job advertisements. Internal politics can play a role, as can the one person who supports an applicant being out with the flu for one committee meeting.

For these reasons, and others, I think it is best not to rest on my laurels, but to keep up the search for a permanent position. And so, having just moved to Texas, I must look forward to the possibility of moving again, put my best foot forward, and start trying to sell myself for the second year in a row!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More updates on the Hawaiian observatories

As I mentioned yesterday, the Keck Observatories are in pretty good shape, but will need a few more days to recover.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope seems to have similar damage to the Keck telescope -- the pointing system is offline, and the dome is not working at the moment.

The Gemini North telescope has similar damage but seems to be in good shape.

I looked at web pages for a few other telescopes; only the Subaru Telescope (owned by Japan) has not posted their status, and in general it appears that no mirrors are broken, but it will take a few days to start bringing telescopes online.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hawaiian telescope damage

I received some emails from friends about the status of the Keck Observatory's twin telescopes, the world's largest telescope. They are located about 30 or 40 miles east of the epicenter of yesterday's magnitude 6.7 earthquake, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The mirrors do not appear to be damaged, but there are some (probably minor) problems with the telescopes. The telescopes had restraints in case of an earthquake, but the shaking may have exceeded those limits. The telescope also uses an "encoder" to tell where it is pointed on the sky, and this encoder is out of whack. All of the instruments seem to be okay, though the electronics reported a little bit of overheating. In short, the telescopes are probably offline for a few days to a week, but the engineers seem confident all can be fixed.

Most importantly, nobody was hurt. The main buildings in the town of Waimea suffered some cosmetic damage, but are otherwise okay.

I haven't heard anything about other telescopes, but I would be surprised if they were not in similar condition.

The Hawaiian Earthquake

Yesterday's earthquake near the Big Island of Hawai'i was of interest to me, not only because of a passing interest in geology, but also because of its potential impact on astronomy. Several large telescopes are located on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island. These telescopes are very sensitive instruments, so the major shaking of the earthquake may well have caused some damage.

So far, I have not heard any reports from any of the observatories. However, I did notice that some websites detailing weather on Mauna Kea are back up and operating, meaning that power has been restored. The current weather seems to be lousy, though, with high humidity and cold temps, so it may be too dangerous weather-wise for much to happen on the mountain today. Almost certainly no observing was done last night.

I will certainly let you know if I hear any news. In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed. And if you'd like to help the people of Hawaii, please consider making a donation to the American Red Cross National Disaster Relief Fund. This fund is still helping the Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricaines Katrina and Rita, as well as helping victims of disasters across the country.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Politics, Elections, and Astronomy Research

Last night, my home phone rang off the hook with calls from various political groups and politicians, all trying to win my vote in the upcoming elections. Of course, many of these politicians are in Arizona and having their calls automatically forwarded to my new home, so they are wasting their time. I couldn't vote for them if I wanted to.

A few people have asked me which political party would better serve science research. Now, I have to keep most of my opinions to myself or I'll get in a lot of trouble with elections commissions. But historically, science spending does not seem to be correlated with the party in power. There are some exceptions, especially with medical research, but if the amount and types of medical research funding concern you, you probably are already aware where each party stands.

More important to astronomy and other sciences than who is elected in November is the issue of the Fiscal Year 2007 budget. Congress adjourned to go campaigning without passing most spending bills for FY2007 (which has started), so Congress will have to come back after the election and pass those bills, probably as a single "omnibus" spending bill, which means that few members of congress will actually read the whole thing. They will look to make sure that the programs most important to them have been funded, and then vote for the bill.

This means that you still can make a difference! If you want to help astronomy research, write your Representative and Senators and request that they support the president's proposed fiscal year 2007 funding for the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy. President Bush suggested that both of these budgets be increased as part of his American Competitiveness Agenda. You can also suggest that funding be increased for NASA -- NASA's proposed budget will force it to instantly kill many astronomy and space science research missions.

Whenever writing your congresspersons on any issue, be sure to indicate that you are a constituent, meaning that you and/or your parents/family/friends can vote for that person. Congresspeople don't have enough time to read all their mail, so aides do that. And letters where the writer is not a constituent are often tossed aside. To find out who your Representative and Senators are, and to get their mailing and email addresses, go to this website for Representatives and go to this site for Senators.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ig Nobel Prizes awarded!

Late last week, the 2006 Ig Nobel prizes were awarded at a star-studded ceremony on the campus of Harvard University. These award celebrate the "best" of research that cannot and often should not be repeated.

For example, the Ig Nobel in physics went to Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris), who studied why, when you bend spaghetti until it breaks, you get three or more pieces instead of just two. The short answer being, that, when the spaghetti breaks, little waves from the break travel up and down the noodle. As much of the noodle is near the breaking point, in some places this wave pushes the pasta over the limit.

(Note to kids -- this is a fun experiment to try. Bend a bunch of spaghetti until it breaks, and count how many pieces it makes. Then try to explain to mom or dad why there is spaghetti everywhere. Remember to tell them that this is award-winning physics! And then you can explore the physics of how a broom sweeps up spaghetti. Just don't tell your parents where you got the idea from.)

The Ig Nobels are given in the spirit of fun. Yes, science does address important issues facing society, but some issues are more important than others.

I think there is also a small lesson to be learned. Many of these awards are given to research that is published in a professional journal. Remember -- just because some research is published doesn't mean it is important and/or correct!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Looking through a new telescope

Blogging was quiet last week, as I was struggling to learn enough to apply for telescope time here at my new institution. It is that time of year where every American observer is preparing proposals to use telescopes, as almost every American observatory has deadlines in September and October.

A major part of proposing to use a telescope is showing that you are not going to be wasting the time. Not only does this mean you have a good project, but the project should be able to be done on the telescope you are asking for AND you need to show that you understand how to use the telescope you are asking for.

The big telescope at McDonald Observatory is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, a joint venture between the University of Texas, Penn State (go Nittany Lions!), Stanford, and two German Universities: the Universities of Munich and Göttingen. The HET is not just another big telescope, however. It has a unique design that keeps it at a fixed angle above the ground (though it can spin around in circles). This means that there are many intricacies about planning the observing -- when are objects in the donut-shaped swath of sky the telescope can see? Does your program make the best use of this unique design?

So, I had to learn a lot very quickly about the telescope and its capabilities. I'm not positive that I learned enough, so it is quite possible I won't get time on the telescope. But, hopefully, I will get comments and even just a little data so that next time I am better prepared.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Astrophysicists win Nobel Prize in Physics

So, last week when I promised to try and talk about the winners of the Nobel Prizes, I was worried that the physics Nobel Prize would go to some people who worked on subatomic particles, which I don't understand all that well. But, instead, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to John Mather and George Smoot, American scientists who worked on the COBE satellite.

COBE, the Cosmic Background Explorer, was launched in 1989 with the goal of examining the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB. The CMB was predicted by a paper by scientists Ralph Alpher and George Gamow as part of what became known as the "Big Bang" theory. The CMB is an "echo" of the Big Bang, light left over from when the Universe cooled from a very hot soup of particles into what we see today. The CMB was discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who were later awarded the Nobel Prize for their work.

Before COBE, the CMB looked almost perfectly smooth. This was a problem! Look at the Universe today, and what do you see? Stars, galaxies, and LOTS of empty space. The Universe is not smooth. To turn the smooth CMB into today's Universe, there had to be tiny, tiny irregularities in the CMB. These irregularities are tiny -- If the CMB were an Olympic-size swimming pool, the ripples that became today's galaxies and stars would be waves about 1/64th of an inch high.

COBE was launched to look for these ripples. If they existed, the Big Bang would be confirmed. If they didn't exist, the Big Bang would be in a lot of trouble. John Mather was responsible for heading up the COBE satellite and experiments, and George Smoot led the scientific team that discovered the ripples in the CMB. These two scientists and their teams of scientists and engineers provided the data required to test the Big Bang theory, and the Big Bang theory passed with flying colors.

Congratulations to Mather, Smoot, and all of the scientists who worked with them!

Monday, October 02, 2006

A question for any frequent travelers

The following is not a complaint, but an honest question for any of you who fly a lot. I'm just trying to figure out human behavior.

This weekend I took a trip to California to visit family, flying out on Friday and coming back on Sunday. Both times, I sat in the aisle seat, which I chose because I like to be able to stand up and stretch without climbing over the poor bloke next to me. Anyway, both times, the person at the window next to me pulled the shade down on the window before takeoff and left it down the entire time. My question is, why?

I can think of two major reasons someone might do this. One, they don't like the window seat and had to take one. Two, something is wrong with the view (like we are over the ocean, or the sun is shining in, or with the clouds it is too bright). But neither of these seemed to fit on my flight. There were aisle seats available, and the sun was not shining in our side of the plane.

So, my question is, what is the point of a window seat if you close the window shade and it is not one of the two points I made above? Am I missing something obvious?

Again, I'm just curious. If I wanted to look out the window badly enough, I could have had a window seat, so I'm not an anyway peeved by this behavior.

As for astronomy, well, I have no burning comments today. Back to science tomorrow!