Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message for March, 2007

In the interest of keeping track (yet again) of where anything I commit to the web goes and what good it may be, I'm reposting my monthly messages to the Syracuse Astronomical Society (SAS) here. If, by chance, you find me first, are local (Syracuse), and have any interest in SAS activities, do drop a line. We'd love to see your featureless outline at our observatory this year.

President's Message for March, 2007

This Month's Newsletter…

Stu Forster has outdone himself this month with the March Newsletter. I will not go into detail here, but highly recommend the preparatory material for the Marathon this weekend and the extended discussion from Jordan Blessing of Scopetronix.

2007 Messier Marathon

It is that time of year again! The SAS is having its annual Messier Marathon this coming weekend (March 16th/17th). I will not expound on the man (Charles Messier) or the mission (The Marathon) here, instead directing you to a few thorough websites on each. Between mid-March and early April, it is possible to observe all 110 objects in a single night. This, of course, requires the use of a number of "IFs" (IF the sky's clear, IF the moon's new, IF you're far enough from very bright light sources, IF the grease in your focus knob doesn't turn to stone in the freezing conditions, etc.). As has been usual, the Marathon will be held at "little Eridanus," otherwise known as Stu Forster's driveway. Friday the 16th is the expected night for it, with Saturday the 17th being the weather alternate (be sure to check the website Friday afternoon to confirm the date). For directions to Stu's house, email him at

As an aside, I was, at first, surprised to discover that critics of the Marathon exist, complaining that this "race to the finish" doesn't allow people to enjoy the beauty of the Messier objects. Well, I said there are critics; I did not say they had deep philosophical arguments with it. Everyone's a critic, I suppose. Sunday drives down 81 South to the observatory are always relaxing in the Fall, but many more people are at home watching NASCAR, somehow symbolic of the high-speed nature of our society. If nothing else, the Messier Marathon gives everyone their first orchestrated "dusting off" of their knowledge of the night sky before the seasons change and the nights become comfortable enough to enjoy being out in.

But wait! There's more! We are currently being graced by the presences of Venus (the bright object to our West and, of course, the third brightest object in our sky) and Saturn (to our East, in the vicinity of Leo and Cancer for most of the night). Venus will disappear quickly on the nights of the 16th and 17th (around 8 pm, but visible early in the pre-night sky), while Saturn will come within 20 degrees of our zenith by midnight.

Courtesy Thierry Lombry,
Click on the image for a larger version.

Prof. James Cordes MOST Space Series Recap

Those of us at the MOST on March 8th were treated to an excellent lecture by Prof. James Cordes of Cornell University. The title itself, "Radio Telescopes And The Search For Life In The Universe," may have done more to bring out the Syracuse X-Filers than the amateur astronomy community, but the search for life does not just entail listening for celestial Morse Code. Radio astronomy enables us to study the entire universe as well as our nearest neighbors (see the radio imaging of Jupiter and the Sun below), through which we can come up with models of universe age, formation and layout. From that, we can begin to consider how the universe may or may not be hospitable to one, few, or many forms of life and, perhaps, where best to look. It is from our understanding of the existence of life in the universe and what we assume to be the requirements for life on other planets (water, heat, raw materials), that we even have the notion of a "Habitable Zone" that drives astrobiology research.

(c) National Radio Astronomy Observatory / Associated Universities, Inc. / National Science Foundation. Click for larger versions.

The progression of the field (proof our tax dollars do go to some good) is best summarized in the two images below. The first, from a 1924 issue of the magazine "Radio Age," shows Corp. John H. Sadler "listening in" to radio signals from Mars, no doubt hoping to intercept the sounds of the Martians so that Orson Welles' prop manager would only have to make one trip to the Acme Sound Effects Store. A mere 83 years later, Dr. Cordes spent the end of his talk presenting the S.K.A. (Square Kilometer Array, not that hip sound from way out the kids dig in Central New York), a massive radio telescope facility that will, among other things, explore fundamental questions about the "origin and evolution of the universe.

A collaborator of Dr. Cordes that did NOT go unnoticed is astrophysicist Dr. Volker Springel at the Max-Planck-Institute for Astrophysics in Germany. His work in simulating galaxy formation and the evolution of the universe makes for some incredible animations (and many publications). As an example, I direct you to the gallery of galaxy formation images and movies from the Millennium Simulation project.

Amassed Astronomy Media Part 1: Podcasts

In case you didn't yet know (and who doesn't?), there's plenty of material available online to make you a better, more informed astronomer. In Syracuse, we often have to learn more from looking down at the screen than up with the scopes! In the interest of saving everyone google searches for the astronomical "best of the 'net," I've added a new astronomical media page to the website, at which the plan is to keep an accurate list of useful (and favorite) podcasts, image galleries, and general astronomical info. We welcome feedback and (more importantly) links to your favorites.

The list begins with podcasts, which have gone from obscurity to ubiquity over last few years. If you're still unaware of what podcasts are, I direct you to one of several websites that explain the 5W-H's. There are a number of phenomenal podcasts out there that deal with astronomy education and general stargazing. The media list begins with four of my favorites. I have made direct links to the podcast feeds on the list below that will subscribe you to these podcasts automatically in iTunes (which is freely available from Apple. Podcasts do NOT require iPods!).

1. Stardate [iTunes Podcast Link] – The best 2 minutes on radio. Until the show became available as a podcast, I would endeavor to make sure I was by a radio tuned to WRVO at either 6:58 am or 6:58 pm for my daily fix of Sandy Wood and the night's festivities. If our own Mike Brady were to begin handing out seals of approval, I suspect Stardate would get the first.

2. Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer [iTunes Podcast Link] – I suspect anyone that grew up watching WCNY knows the name Jack Horkheimer, whose Star Gazer program has run on Sunday evenings (around 6 pm) for as long as I can remember. Easily the most enthusiastic man in Astronomy with, very likely, the most easily understood descriptions you'll find about the week's best night views. Both audio and video podcasts are available, the video version being the same as seen on PBS stations.

3. Astronomy 161/162 [iTunes Podcast Links For 161 and 162]- Prof. Richard Pogge (pronounced Po-Gee) is a Professor of Astronomy at Ohio State. The Astronomy 161/162 podcasts are the audio from his classes, which cover general astronomy at an undergraduate level. These lectures are excellent material for reminding yourself of things you forgot (definitions, methodologies) and learning about much of the best history and basic science in astronomy (do you know why a "foot" is divided into 12 inches?). College level astronomy for the cost of a few megabytes on your hard drive. I don't think there's a better deal out there. If that weren't enough, his department website includes all of the lecture notes from the class, so you don't even have to go hunting for an H-R diagram. Also a Mike Brady favorite.

4. Astronomy a Go Go [iTunes Podcast Link] – This podcast appeared early in the history of the iTunes Music Store and has a good, long run to date. Show host Alice Few has been providing podcasts on most everything astronomical since late 2005. In addition to the regular shows, the podcast features a monthly "Tour of the Night Sky" where Alice walks you through what's up there in a relaxed, easy to follow manner (plenty of time to convince yourself you're seeing what you think you're supposed to be seeing!). As if the podcast weren't enough, the Astronomy a Go Go website is quite possibly the most content-rich site for amateur astronomy on the web.

This is the beginning of the list! The plan is to include many other links in the Astronomy Media page. If you have favorite links, please send them along and, if you like, include a description of why you like it.

NASA Night Sky Network

Click here to watch an introductory video.

Some of you may have noticed that we went national with the latest web update. The SAS joined the NASA Night Sky Network late last year. The NASA website describes the Night Sky Network as "a nationwide coalition of amateur astronomy clubs bringing the science, technology, and inspiration of NASA's missions to the general public." This Network was put together by NASA, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Astronomical League, and is kept going with the help of the many (many) societies across the US, including our selves and our friends to the East, the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society in Clinton.

It is an excellent arrangement for ANY astronomical society. NASA provides materials, connections, and a base of operations at the NSN website for helping people find local astronomy clubs. We continue to do what we try to do best: get people to look up! One of the active membership benefits is the arrival of Toolkits, self-contained projects including videos, documentation, and demonstration materials. The purpose of these Toolkits is to present some topic with visual aids in detail. We currently have the "Shadows & Silhouettes: Phases, Eclipses, and Transits" Toolkit ready for presenting at the Darling Hill Observatory opening in April.

While the purpose of the Night Sky Network is public outreach, our activity as of late has hovered… somewhere below the tree line recently, a result of the down-time in activities for the SAS that comes with the winter months and life in Syracuse. The opening of the observatory in April and monthly Spring/Summer viewing will be serving as the bulk of our contributions to the Night Sky Network, with the specific activity roster for the year's viewing in the works and the current schedule available on the Meetings and Public Viewing page. As always, we'd love to see your dark, featureless outline at our public viewing sessions.

As this post has gone a bit long, the review of the Celestia program will be spared for the next message, at which any update from the Messier Marathon and new additions to the media page will be posted.

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)…-how-to-podcasting-get

Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message for February, 2007

In the interest of keeping track (again) of where anything I commit to the web goes and what good it may be, I'm reposting my monthly messages to the Syracuse Astronomical Society (SAS) here. If, by chance, you find me first, are local (Syracuse), and have any interest in SAS activities, do drop a line. We'd love to see your featureless outline at our observatory this year.

President's Message for February, 2007

Next Meeting

As a brief digression, one of my own research areas (molecular manufacturing) includes as part of its debate some number of scientists convinced of the impossibility, some number convinced of the inevitability (myself included), and a large majority that hasn't thought hard enough about it to have an opinion either way. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a single landmark demonstration to settle the debate. There are many direct comparisons to the work Prof. James Cordes will present as part of the MOST Space Science Series this Thursday. Is there life (other than what we find here on Earth) in the universe? Well, some are convinced yes, some no, many probably haven't spent an entire cup of coffee trying to come to a logical conclusion, and there hasn't been a single landmark demonstration either way. It is comforting to know that there are still VERY BIG questions in science we have yet to answer despite how confident many are in what we THINK we already know.

Pale Blue Dot

All astronomy images have immediate aesthetic appeal. It's a given. The degree to which these images convey deeper meaning and make the viewer stop and think about their place in the universe is another story. With all of the phenomenal Hubble images published in coffee table books, passed around on flash drives at Astro Club meetings, and cropped to perfect desktop background dimensions, there's one specific pre-Hubble image that made the rounds as a real eye opener, if for no other reason than you had to be looking hard to see the fuss. The Big Sky Astro Club in Montana has devoted a web page to the photo of the original "Pale Blue Dot" that is Earth, the image that inspired one of Carl Sagan's great lectures and books on our place in the universe (they include some of Sagan's thoughts on the subject as well). The image is a shot of the Earth from Voyager I at a distance of 4 billion miles (taken in 1990). With all of the complexity on this planet, we take up less than one pixel's width on an old camera at an astronomically insignificant distance. It is, by all accounts, the anti-Google Earth, where the fascination is not finding your car in your driveway, but finding the Earth, knowing it's in the view, without the help of the two lines provided on the Big Sky Astro web page (the original and a larger version are stored here on the SAS site, taken from the only untouched version I could find from the Sky Image Lab. If you can't see Earth, get the dust off your computer screen!).

Click for a larger version

Hubble News

But speaking of the most prolific contributor to the astronomy bookshelves of our local Borders and Barnes and Noble, it would not do to let the end (?) of the most sensitive instrument on the Hubble telescope go unnoticed in an Astro message. A short circuit in a backup system (running as primary) has turned off the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) instrument, the most sensitive camera on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Hubble, like all of the NASA projects, is really almost two complete satellites in one. As S.R. Hadden (well, John Hurt) put so eloquently in the movie Contact, "First rule in government spending: why build one when you can have two at twice the price?"

This is not at all to say that the Hubble is a dead stick. Three cameras, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrograph (NICMOS), the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) (which is, actually, the one that has provided many of the images that make media headlines), and the Fine Guidance Sensors (FGS), remain functional, pending all of the equipment checks to be performed on the HST.

The future of Hubble and future missions was discussed on the February 2, 2007 Science Friday with Michael Weiss, Deputy Program Manager for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA Goddard. The podcast for this interview is available at the Science Friday site.

An Interesting View of Jupiter

On the subject of great astrophotography, the image below made the rounds on a number of the news services this week. What you're seeing is a wonderful photo of Jupiter and all four moons. Callisto is at far left (roughly 1/2" from the lower left corner), Io (closest to Jupiter) and Europa (to close right of Io), and Ganymede (far upper right of the photo) fall to the right. What makes this image so interesting is that it was taken from orbit. The orbit of Mars, to be exact, using the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The lengths we go to for clearer images!

As it happens, there's no mention of the Galilean moons on the webpage accompanying the image (it is a Mars mission, after all). Fortunately, they do provide the day of the photo (January 11, 2007). With the help of a pen (for distance measurements) and the "Jupiter's Moons" calculator available on the Sky & Telescope sight, I've decided that the photo must have been taken at approximately 22:05 UT (If you try this at home, note that the photo is rotated a few degrees clockwise from the orientation they show in the java applet). Fashion will come and go, but F=ma is forever.

Click for a larger version

Universe By The (Large) Numbers

In a world involved in a heated debate over global warming and pollution, it is important at times to recognize the significant contributions of individuals who have had profound impacts on our use of planetary resources. Today, I write in high regard of John Napier, the architect of the logarithm. To ignore the complexities of nearly 400 years of mathematics, a logratihmic scale is one in which each power of 10 takes up the same amount of vertical space. So, the distance between 0 and 1 on a vertical axis would be the same as the distance between 1 and 10, 10 and 100, etc. To the astronomer, such an approach allows the inclusion of a BROAD range of distances on the same… piece of paper.

"That's a pretty uninformative description," you say. Example? Of course. The link below is to one of the neatest line-drawn images I've seen in astronomy, showing the distance of things in the universe to the center of the Earth. On a logarithmic plot, the total height of the image is just under 3 meters. Taking the 0 to 1 separation on the right hand side to be the standard unit in the universe (12 cm), the total distance in the 3 meter image represents, on the logarithmic scale, 12×1020 cm. That's 12 with 20 zero's after it, or 12×1021 millimeters, 12×1018 meters, 12 x 1015 kilometers, you get the idea. If you were to plot this image on a standard axis and fold it using the Earth and the Moon (285,000 kilometers) as the ends, you would have to back-and-forth the piece of paper 15,584,415,584 TIMES before you were through. And remember, the 12 cm represents the distance from the center of the Earth to the surface, which is actually 637,810,000 centimeters. The logarithmic scale. That's what I call a tree saver!

Click for a larger version

I think that's enough mental hopscotch for now (that was far more complicated than it needed to be, but this is supposed to be as much for education as it is for astronomical entertainment). Up next, the Night Sky Network introduction promised in the previous update, the Celestia program, and the beginning of a long digression into astronomy podcasts!

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)'s_laws_of_motion