FirstLight Astronomy Club

33°29.6'N / 117°06.8'W / 1190 ft.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

What an extraordinary year it has been in astronomy! It seems that each year - with the development of new ways of imaging and the launch of new satellites and space probes - our knowledge of the universe and its workings seems to expand exponentially.

Here’s a brief lookback at the great year, followed by an encouraging nudge for you yourself to have a great 2006, cosmologically speaking.

This year was a tremendous year on all astronomical fronts, but especially for those investigating our own backyard – our solar system. Here we delved deep into comets and asteroids and planets and moon and rings. Oh my!

Astronomers spent an absolutely mind-numbing amount of time on and around two familiar planets, Saturn and Mars, and the results were wondrous.

The Cassini spacecraft buzzing around Saturn sent back images that made you believe you were in orbit with it, just skimming by Saturn’s rings and icy satellites. But imaging countless moons and those beautiful rings was just part of it. Cassini also dumped its probe, Huygens, to land on mysterious Titan, the giant moon of Saturn. See a year of images and results at saturn.jpl.nasa.gov.

The tiny twin rovers of Spirit and Opportunity made Mars actually seem inviting, like you could pitch a tent there and hike around for days. The Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena hit back-to-back homeruns with these two wee warriors, which continue to send images back from the Red Planet – over 35000 and still counting. See some at marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov.

On July 4th, JPL slammed an impactor from its spacecraft Deep Impact smack into Comet 9P/Tempel 1, a stunning feat of engineering and planning. And the whole crash was captured on digital images, apparently for insurance purposes. You can see it all at deepimpact.jpl.nasa.gov.

And of course, Planet X was found by astronomers working at Palomar. Temporarily named Xena - for the television warrior princess, I kid you not - she is bigger than Pluto and a heckuva lot farther out. Guaranteed to resurrect the “what-is-a-planet-really?” debate, it is possible that because of this discovery Pluto may be demoted from planet to “trans-neptunium object.” Mark my words, there will be insurrection in the streets if that happens!

These are just a few of the big discoveries this year. My hope is that all this can be an impetus for you to make 2006 a great year in astronomy – for yourself! Maybe this coming year can be the year you decide to actually do some of the things you’ve always wanted to do in this exciting discipline. Here are a few suggestions you might resolve to tackle this year.

  • Resolve, perhaps, to get a good book on astronomy from your local bookstore or amazon.com. But get one that is at your level! No need buying an upper-level astrophysics treatise if you just want an overall picture of the cosmos.
  • Resolve to either buy or borrow a new or used telescope. Finally you’ll be able to see the planets and the Moon and nebulae and star clusters for yourself, and on your own time. And then you can share your excitement with friends and family. How to buy a proper scope is found at astronomy.com.
  • Resolve to buy one astronomy software program. Programs like Starry Night or Redshift can take you all over the skies in the comfort of your own home. And the graphics in the latest offerings are jaw-dropping.
  • Resolve to do your own naked-eye sky observations. For example, you can make a hobby out of observing the Moon for a month and how it goes through its phases. Or you can observe where the sun rises and sets throughout the year, or how it traverses across the sky from season to season.
  • Resolve to make your house more sky-friendly. Install lights this year around your home that direct light downwards, and out of your neighbor’s yard! Set them to turn off after a certain stretch of inactivity. We owe it to each other and to our children to make the night sky darker and more brilliant - for everyone.
  • Resolve to stay up for one meteor shower this year. They occur all year, some are better than others. The good ones are absolutely spectacular! You can find a calendar of this year’s showers at www.imo.net.
  • Resolve to get to know the constellations for the different seasons. There are fascinating stories involved in each one of these, and not just the Greek and Roman stories. Countless cultures throughout the world have their own sky stories, many of which are just great reading.
  • And if you have the money, you might resolve to see this year’s total solar eclipse on March 29th. It starts in Brazil, sails across the Atlantic, through the Sahara, into Asia Minor, ending in Mongolia. No money? Join a club. You can wait with me until 2017 when one sweeps through the Northwest US.
  • Resolve to visit an observatory. One of the world’s premiere scopes is on Palomar Mountain. Take a day with the family and visit those sacred grounds. There are full tours available for groups.

One way or another you can make this wonder-filled discipline of astronomy, one growing daily in knowledge and wonder, your own. No need to wait for the pros to bring you the great gifts. Go out and discover them yourself this year!

Visualizing the Universe

When I was taking astronomy in college my textbook had nothing much to look at but some really bad photographs of stars and some cheesy drawings of phenomena yet to be imaged. That was a while ago. Things have changed dramatically since, to say the least. Space images today are magnificent works of art.

Wanna see some?

There has been a staggering improvement in the last couple decades in the ability to image space objects. Charge-coupled devices, aka CCDs, have taken the place of film in space photography. They allow us to capture digital images in a fraction of the time it took to expose photographic plates.

Adaptive optics (AO) are newfangled computerized devices placed on telescope imaging equipment to get rid of the distortion caused by our atmosphere. Of course, those telescopes out in space need no such equipment and have been taking crystal clear images since the 1990’s. But, boy, what a difference they are making down here.

And we are no longer limited to just the visible wavelengths of light. We can “see” in just about every part of the electromagnetic spectrum nowadays, from lethal gamma rays all the way over to the harmless radio wavelengths and everything in between.

But where can we see these resplendent images?

They are all over publications such as Astronomy Magazine and Sky & Telescope. But you can also find them online - all over the web.

Starting in the so-called visible wavelengths, those we can see, you might begin your journey at the Hubble Space Telescope sites - hubble.nasa.gov, hubblesite.org, and heritage.stsci.edu. After a disastrous debut in the early 90’s, the Mighty Hubble got fixed. Here are archives of some of the most spectacular sky shots ever made. Be prepared to be awed.

There is another site that can take you on a journey through all our solar system. It is the by-product of all the NASA/JPL spaceflights made over the decades. This reservoir is absolutely filled with images from all the planets, their seemingly countless moons, and a host of other solar system debris. It is called the Planetary Photojournal and can be found at photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov.

A similar site, not as extensive, but arguably more easily understood, is The Nine Planets Solar System Tour at www.nineplanets.org.

But why stop at visible wavelengths? There are whole new worlds up there, unseen with human eyes.

The universe in infrared can be seen at the Spitzer Telescope site - www.spitzer.caltech.edu. Here you can get a little lesson on what seeing in infrared is all about, and then take some looks at seemingly ordinary parts of the sky and see how they brilliantly light up when seen with IR eyes.

One the other side of the spectrum is the strange world of x-ray astronomy found at Chandra X-Ray Observatory - chandra.harvard.edu. No pictures of bones or teeth here. Just superdeadly supernovae and supermassive blackholes.

Want to see the sun without burning your eyes out of their sockets? Go to the spectacular site of SOHO, The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory - sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov. Find here images of coronal mass ejections and solar flares and sunspots – and star-crossed comets crashing to their deaths.

Super-detailed images of sunspots, so detailed and large you feel you could fall into one, are found at a Swedish site, The Institute for Solar Physics - www.solarphysics.kva.se. But bring a rope, you just might fall in after all.

And there are images of our own planet, of course. But I cannot describe how jaw-dropping these images are; to do so would require a language not known to man. They can be found at the NASA Earth Observatory - earthobservatory.nasa.gov. I’m a little embarrassed to say I have spent hours and hours there just staring at the images of our beautiful planet – volcanoes, coastlines, hurricanes, mountain ranges, cities… Sigh…

You can see images of great telescopes themselves, and how they work, along with galleries of their images at sites like those for the twin Gemini Telescopes - gemini.edu – and, of course, our very own Classic on the Hill, Palomar Observatory - www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar.

But perhaps the most profound collection of astro images can be seen at the web workhouse of all images celestial, Astronomy Picture of the Day. As implied in the name there is a different image everyday, covering the entire spectrum of astronomy, with small descriptions and links for each. And there is an archive for all past thousands of images and a search tool for finding your favorite object.

And then, after surveying these amazing images, you and your family can sit down and have a philosophical discussion on why it is that mere collections of gas and dust can be considered “beautiful things,” and why they move us so.

Need I say anything more? No, I think you’ve got the picture.
Temecula Valley High School / Temecula, CA · Some images © Gemini Observatory/AURA Contact Me