Category Archives: Armchair Astrophysics

Carnival of Space #129

Welcome to the 129th Carnival of Space!

I’m thrilled to have another opportunity to host this great showcase of space-related blog posts.

For those of you that are visiting Tiny Mantras for the first time, I’m a freelance writer and mother to a fanatical four-year-old astronomer. His interest in space has been unyielding for as long as he’s been able to talk. Therefore, I spend a lot of time reading astronomy blogs to try and become more scientifically literate, as well as riding imaginary space elevators out to Proxima Centauri and other stars in search of exoplanets. And smoothing flour and cocoa powder in a large bin so my son can throw rocks in it and make craters. Or making special trips to Big Lots to buy a bright yellow bucket for a $1 so he can keep his pretend meteor collection safe. You get the idea.

For my regular readers, I hope you’ll dig in here and learn something new about our universe. We’re entering the final weeks of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), so hurry up and get your Galileo on.

Speaking of IYA, the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope decided to honor it by combining their significant forces to create a stunning image of the core of our Milky Way galaxy. You can read more about it, find links to the image and plenty of additional info at the Chandra X-Ray Observatory blog, as well as at Dynamics of Cats.

Alan Boyle of MSNBC’s Cosmic Log calls it Triple delight in the Milky Way, with this description: “NASA has blended three views of our home galaxy’s turbulent core to produce a picture filled with scientifically significant snap, crackle and pop. And the deeper you go into the image, the more you learn.”

Boyle also sends Marvelous view … and a mystery: “Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft is making its final flyby past Earth on its way to an asteroid and a comet – a close encounter that should yield beautiful pictures of our home planet, and perhaps the answer to a cosmic mystery as well.”

If you’re preparing to do some holiday shopping for the younger set, Emily Ladkawalla of The Planetary Society Blog has reviews of several space-themed books for young children.

Mang’s Bat Page has a review of the National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky.

Nicole of One Astronomer’s Noise improvised an astronomy lesson with a group of elementary school kids by becoming a mythical creature in Unicorns and Starry Nights.

In hopes of reaching a wider community, The Lunar and Planetary Institute is putting images on flickr. First up: planetary size comparisons, such as Mars’ massive volcano Olympus Mons against the state of Wyoming, or Earth against Neptune’s great dark spot.

Next Big Future looks at the details and implications of the 100 kilograms of water ice found in the plume of the LCross crater impact.

Ian Musgrave of Astroblog has a guide to observing the Leonid meteor shower.

collectSpace gives us the scoop on a contest that NASA is holding for past and present space program workers to design a patch that will mark the end of the space shuttle era.

Weird Warp contemplates what it would be like to Take an Asteroid to the Stars and Arrive in Second Place.

Centauri Dreams sends the two-part report on the Project Icarus starship symposium, which was recently held in London: Part I & Part II. (Project Icarus is a joint effort between the British Interplanetary Society and the Tau Zero Foundation to update the classic Project Daedalus starship study of the 1970s.)

“Variable star junkie” Mike Simonsen of Simostronomy talks about documenting UGZs, weeding out impostors and other goals of The Z CamPaign.

Ian O’Neill of and Discovery News considers the possibility of tiny, man-made black holes.

Cheap Astronomy delivers part 2 of its Greenhouse Earth podcast.

Colony Worlds
n> lets us know that Off World Colonies Will Have Organ Labs (But No Organ Donors).

Kentucky Space shipped a couple of space systems recently to NASA: “one destined from Wallops and a suborbital launch to test some hardware that will be used on our orbital craft, KySat-1, and the second, a Nanorack/Cubelab combination, destined for Marshall and a Shuttle launch to the ISS. The innovative Nanoracks and Cubelab platform dramatically lowers the cost to organizations wanting to do microgravity research on the station. We’re very excited. In short, it was a great weekend and the team celebrated with an open house on the campus of the University of Kentucky.”

And lastly, Alice of Alice’s Astro Info provides an in-depth, spoilerific review of the apocalyptic, virtually science-free Hollywood disaster-thon, 2012.

If you’re interested in perusing past carnivals or submitting to one in the future, visit Universe Today for details.

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A Gigantic, Happy Halloween

Do you know where in the universe you might find this?
400 years ago, Galileo concluded that it was orbiting this:
And with that, humanity took a giant step toward the realization that Earth isn’t the center of the universe.

We’ve had a full week of being Jupiter. At parties. Out trick-or-treating. At school. At Perkins Observatory. Sometimes with Europa-esque cracked-ocean face paint, but mostly without. He even won honorable mention for his costume at our neighborhood party last weekend. We thought about festooning his cheeks with volcanoes à la Io, but with all of this Halloweening, Declan has mostly told me “I feel like being just Jupiter today.”

Although, in moments, Venus, Pluto and Neptune’s moon Triton have monopolized his attention, he has loved Jupiter for more than half of his four-year-old life.

Meanwhile, I’ve been a little stunned to discover how alien the biggest planet in our solar system is to most adults. We would have had a much easier time with instant recognition if he’d wanted to be Saturn or Earth. I thought the extra big great red spot would be a good clue, but even the people who squealed about what a great idea it was for a kid to be Jupiter didn’t know much about its features.

He did school more than one grown-up as he trick-or-treated (including me). He let them know that all of the other planets in the solar system could fit inside of his. He told me that when you entered his atmosphere, it would smell like rotten eggs, which I surely did not know.

Mostly, though, he just shrieked with joy, heralding each new piece of candy that he got (with the exception of the person who gave him after dinner mints). This was the view of him and his mouse partner in candy mooching that we had for 99 percent of beggar’s night on Thursday:

Last night, when we went to Perkins Observatory, he was well appreciated. and he got to stand up in front of the crowd to help illustrate Jupiter’s features before stealing a quick look at his giant self in the telescope. It was a perfect celebration of both Halloween and the International Year of Astronomy (which we didn’t get to observe with the rest of the world last weekend due to rainy weather.)

This could be our last space-themed Halloween costume. Last year he was the solar system. The year before that, he simply wanted to be “space” (Phase I and II.) When we chatted about it last night, one of the astronomers noted that he seems to be getting smaller each Halloween. At this rate, he’s could be Eros or Eris next year.

Declan has told me that he wants to be some scary stabby person next year, I think because he’s mostly mild-mannered and would like to try being scary on for size. We’ll see what interests and fears another year brings. But Jupiter will live in a chest full of dress-ups, alongside his NASA uniform, space helmet, Star Trek: TNG captain’s uniform, and the shimmery capes and fabrics that take him on daily journeys to places no preschooler has gone before.

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It’s my 500th post! Let’s talk about death…

“Why are these big rocks covering them?” he asked me, as though someone had put the gravestone there to hold my grandparents under the earth.

“They help you and I to find the place where their bodies are buried,” I told him.

“Where are they? Have they turned to dust yet? Why can’t I see them?”

My last grandmother died a year before Declan was born. My grandfather five years before that. He knows them from pictures and stories.

“They’re buried six feet below here. Inside of a casket – a big wooden box with… pillows.”

“But why can’t I see them?”

“Most people don’t like to be remembered the way they look when they’re dead and turning into dust — they want to be remembered the way they looked when they were alive, like they look in the pictures we have.”

When I went to a parent education session about sex, death and lying in early spring of this year, the teachers warned me that age 4 is when these issues come calling. Don’t offer him a bunch of information about it, they suggested. But when the questions come, be honest and answer them. If you make stuff up because you don’t want to worry or upset them, they’ll eventually find out. Better to be with them through the hard feelings instead of thinking we need to protect them from them. Better to be compassionate and someone they can trust.

It took Dec all of a month after turning four before the questions began this summer. We had big tears before bedtime for two weeks in a row when the thought of my ill stepfather (Dec calls him grandfafa), dying left him breathless. And the questions… Does it hurt when you die? When will grandfafa die? Will I have to die when grandfafa dies?

For weeks, it continued to emerge at all hours. We’d be talking about kids at play camp in the car, then I’d hear his throat suddenly start to tighten and he’d ask me “why does everything have to die? I don’t want anyone to die, I don’t want things to change.”

I was afraid that science was going to be our foil as the intransigence of these biological truths hit him. I was afraid of the day when his knowledge of black holes and colliding galaxies and dark matter began to merge with an understanding of mortality. How overwhelming to be four and have such a sense of the vastness and forces of space, which often make Earth’s Mother Nature look as ferocious as a gnat.

For a few weeks, that fear felt justified. He was scared about the sun, because he knows it will expand in 4.6 billion years and likely incinerate the Earth, but it was hard to convince him what a long time from now that really is. He came up with complicated methods to save the earth from burning. I tried, gingerly, to explain that we, and no one that we now know will be here when that happens. He worried that the sun could become a black hole until a nice physics student told him it wasn’t big enough to do that. And somewhere in that barrage of constant questions and explanations, he finally drew his own tear-filled conclusion that he will die, too.

But science has actually been our savior though this process. I took the box with my dog Samson’s ashes from the china cabinet and let him examine them, tried to help him understand how much I loved my dog and that I knew it didn’t hurt when he burned because he was dead. We’ve talked about all of the things that dust has helped create – planets, moons, dinosaurs, us. We talk about perennial and annual flowers and how things regenerate. Our cat brought us a dead mouse the other day and I buried it in the yard. For days afterwards he asked me, “is it turning to dust yet?”

We explained heaven and reincarnation as ideas that some people believe in. We told him that death is one of those things that no one understands for certain. He seems to find the greatest comfort in some of the scientific certainties about what happens to a body or a flower or a star, which I honestly didn’t see coming.

He likes to die dramatically, repeatedly on the playground, preferably in slow motion. And we are still constantly addressing questions about what dies, how it dies, how long it takes it to die. I’m sure we’ll be in this process for a long time. But I’m so much more hopeful and less afraid about his capacity to emotionally process these things now.

Last night we were talking about what he dreams his life might be like when he’s older. Do you want to dance? Sell tomatoes? Be a dog doctor? Teach kids? Study the stars? Paint pictures?
(I try not to make a career in science a foregone conclusion. I want him to be comfortable choosing whatever he wants to be.)

Becoming a daddy keeps coming up first on his list.

“Someday, when I die, I’ll be a grandfather, and then I will turn to dust,” he told me. “It’s all part of my journey to become part of everything in the universe.”

Declan= MC2

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Does Brian Williams live in our world?

Sesame Workshops 7th Annual Benefit Gala
The last few weeks of no camp and parental work scrambling and no preschool have led to far more television consumption in this house than I would like to admit. Combine that with the onset of four, which has meant a thousand questions about death and birth, and I’ve been dancing in between the real and fictional universe, trying to draw lines in the air that help make the distinction between the two a little clearer to Declan without diminishing the fun and beauty of fiction and fantasy.

Enter questions like:

“Will Santa Claus ever die?”

“Will I ever be trapped in a warp bubble?” (In a kid world where I keep meeting Star Wars kids, mine is Star Trek kid, which I’ve found to be far less common, possibly because it’s easier to describe combat and war than it is to venture into “a warp bubble is a scientific theory, sweetie.”)

We’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing the fact that cartoon characters come out of someone’s imagination, even if they do regular-people type things. Then he sees commercials for things like Dora Live! where cartoon characters seem suddenly touchable. He gets really excited and yells “MOMMY, WE NEED TO GO SEE DORA LIVE! WE NEED TO SEE THE PLACE WHERE DORA EXISTS IN OUR WORLD! DORA! IS IN! OUR! WORLD!”

Sesame Street is one of those shows that I love most of all, but can be hard to explain because of the combo of real people and puppets. Brian Williams recently guest starred on Sesame Street and reported on all of the characters coming down with a case of “Mine-itis.” A chicken kept stealing his microphone and yelling “MINE!” (As much as Dec loves science and documentaries that seem way beyond him, he also loves to get his little kid on.)

So last night, as I was explaining that the president was about to give a speech that was really important to mommy, Brian Williams appeared. Declan’s brow furrowed. He grabbed my chin and turned my face to the screen.

“Mommy? Does Brian Williams live in our world?”

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Twinkle, twinkle

The last couple of weeks have been rough. With camp long since over and another three weeks before the preschool year begins, there’s been no consistent social diversion for my son. The adults of the household are grouchy, mostly because we have some work, but not enough, and projects that we thought were sure to pan out for us are currently stuck in the mud. I’ve been mired in that overwhelming, ultimate incompetent parent feeling. I’m so worried over providing both emotionally and materially that neither effort seems to be going all that well.

At this time last year, it became clear that Declan is as deeply social as he is intensely curious – or, at least that when he gets the opportunity to be social, it seems to offset some of his intensity. By the time we got him into his first classroom, I was desperate for him to have that new place to explore, new people to ask questions of, new things to become curious about. I spent entire days answering esoteric questions about space and anatomy. And I had to look up most of those answers because I don’t know what’s inside of a brain cell or what a neutron star is off the top of my head. I am one of two primary decoders for his universe, and while that’s mostly a thing of beauty and honor, it can also be exhausting, especially since I can’t afford not to work for a living as well as my work as a mom. When I was distracted or unable to answer those questions, it often made him mad. The opening of his social world made his demands on me less intense.

Last Saturday, we took him to COSI, where they had a special space day in celebration of the International Year of Astronomy. We lucked out and got a personal tour of an exhibit of deep space images taken by various telescopes from an OSU astronomy professor. Declan didn’t hold back a thought about any image, 99 percent of which he could identify on sight, prefacing nearly every sentence with “scientists think” or “scientists believe…” His dad and I reminded him that our tour guide was, in fact, a scientist a couple of times, to which the patient and amiable scholar said “it’s okay, your son is really quite a scientist himself.” One of the young women who ran the day’s demonstrations talked to him about eclipses and the life cycle of a star at length, asked to shake his hand and told him that she hoped he gets to do whatever he wants to in life and science.

On the same morning, he spent several minutes afraid of the live, fuzzy costumed character from Zula Patrol that he had especially hoped to see. He orbited him at a distance, worked up his courage, then suddenly ran to hug him and have his picture taken. He played happily in a litter box full of flour and cocoa, throwing rocks to get the idea of a meteor strike. (We now have a bin full of flour, cocoa and fling-worthy marbles at home.) Because above all else, he is four.

He hit me the other day because he was angry that I wouldn’t let him have a third popsicle. Then we talked about things, made up and he told me about feelings he’s had about classmates and new situations that he’s never shared before. He loves to watch Calliou. He’s obsessed over which stars are big enough to become black holes and whether they would impact our solar system. He does pratfalls around the house and asks me to film them so we can submit them to America’s Funniest Videos.

This morning he snuggled me and bounced around the bed while his dad talked about letting me sleep a little while longer. Then Declan pressed the top of his forehead to mine, stroked my hair and face and sang all of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in his sweetest and quietest voice before letting me be for a while.

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One way to recycle a tire from NASA

This is a tire that was used on the front landing gear of the Space Shuttle Endeavor on a 1994 mission. I saw at least seven or eight kids of multiple ages do some variation of this kind of play (at the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta).

What a cool way to get closer to space.

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Things I did not know a month ago

1. When a distant star shakes and shimmies ever so slightly (visible only through a high-powered telescope), that’s a good indication that it has planets orbiting around it. The gravitational pull of big dudes like Jupiter and Saturn are most likely make their suns go a-quiver, which is why most of the exoplanets that astronomers have discovered are gas giants, not the bitty Earth-like places.

2. Even as the lone male dancer in a ballet class that wasn’t about space, my son loved to dance. He wants to stay in ballet lessons. People have told me that there are good scholarships out there for boys. I need to find out if that’s true.

3. It is possible to be winded by a sixty-second run one day, and find yourself running 20 minutes in a row without falling down dead five weeks later.

4. When your child begins to develop a real connection to visual art, it’s a beautiful thing. Especially when that connection involves imitating a piece by saying “I QUIT!” loudly and doing a faceplant on the floor in the middle of a Downtown gallery.

5. Letting your only child hang out with a couple of families that have three kids is an awesome reminder that left to their own devices, kids can and will work a lot of stuff out without your help.

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The dawning facts of life

The boy woke up before 6 a.m. the other day, wide-eyed and full of questions, starting with:

“Mommy, when I was an egg in your womb, how did I break out of my shell?”

“Um, human eggs are soft, not hard like the chicken eggs you saw hatching at school. They are a teeny tiny cell.”

“I don’t have a very hard nose like that.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Did you have other eggs inside of you?”

“Thousands, I think..?”

“Will you have a thousand other babies?”

“Heavens, no!”

“Why won’t those other eggs become babies?”

“Because mommy and daddy decided especially that we wanted to have a baby when we had you.”

“But how… why did I grow from an egg?”

“Because daddy gave mommy another cell to make you grow from both of us.”

“How did it get in there? Did he cut you open?”

“No, he was very nice about it.”

Naturally, I was caught off guard by these questions (particularly at the hour when they were asked), and I got out of the larger conversation that day by asking if we could talk about it after mommy has more sleep (and then both of us oversleeping for his camp). I expect we’ll resume the conversation soon.

So… I’ve got the old “Where Did I Come From” book from when I was a child, and lots of human body/science books that show the whole sperm meets egg thing – any book recommendations for presenting the real deal narrative with good science?

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A note to my boy, who is four today…

My little boy is four today. Four.

I feel like I’m supposed to say that I can’t believe he’s four already, and in some ways that’s true, but mostly it isn’t. I feel like I’ve been awake in motherhood, probably more than any other role I’ve played in my life. I’ve been present with him in these years. Lately I’ve had to remind myself what I was doing in the others, to seek out evidence of who I was before.

When I look at pictures of that chubby-cheeked mystery of a baby I gave birth to four years ago, I may feel nostalgic to hold that tiny body or dress him in those little clothes, but I don’t see a person that I miss. I see someone I’ve felt privileged to know and excited to watch unfold. Yesterday, for a moment when we hugged each other and he kissed me sweetly, I said, haphazardly, “I love your smooches and hugs so much. I hope you’ll always have smooches and hugs for me.” He looked at me strangely, and kind of sympathetically before he said “I will always hug you.” I thought, well, he won’t, but that will be another time and place and this is today. Or maybe he will. He is a master of surprises.

In true mother blogging fashion, here are some thoughts I wanted to write down for my son, to let him know some of the things that I see when I look at him, things that I’m coming to understand are just a fragment of who he is.

Dear Declan,
You are four today. You are amazing. You are tall and healthy and strong and kind and warm and well-loved by a remarkable number of people. This is the last week of your first year of preschool, where you surprised everyone by learning all the names of your classmates within the first couple of weeks, and then started on the parents. You knew the names of several of the moms and dads before I did.

You know more of the neighbors than I do, too. They ask you to eat dinner with them and plant beans in their yards because they enjoy your company. How lucky they are to learn so much about the solar system and the workings of the digestive system from you. How lucky we are to live on a block with adults who see and try to understand and appreciate you for you.

So far, you haven’t met a word you weren’t willing to try to use in a sentence. You sneak sweets at your two grandmothers’ houses and then tell me you know they aren’t nutritious. You looked at the painting a four-year-old friend gave you as a birthday gift last night and became delighted all over again that it’s now yours. “It’s very expensive,” you told me, I think because you understand the word to mean something you really, really like that’s hard to get. And then: “We make expensive paintings at our house sometimes too, right mommy?”

You’re becoming a Dadaist. You make jokes like “Why did the chicken cross the kitchen?” Answer: “Tweet tweet!” and you ring people’s bellies like doorbells until they say “Who’s there?” which you answer with nonsense words or silence. When we’re home together and you want my attention, you bust out with a nonsequitur like “a wild purple pansy has five petals.” You never hesitate when you name a new stuffed animal. Your teddy bear is Baljoulth. Your cat Pipapupa. Your dog Shoop. When I think you won’t possibly remember the name you concocted five days later, you always do. Silly, as you say, makes you a man.

You are compassionate. You’re a little uncertain about bugs in general, but when we went to the butterfly exhibit this year, you bravely approached the chrysalis case and watched some new wings fluttering behind glass. As we got ready to enter the biome where they fly freely, we heard multiple warnings not to touch them, especially with the palms of our hands, or they could get hurt. “What would happen?” you asked me. I tried to explain how the oils on our hands could weigh them down. “What if one lands on me and I hurt it?” You asked. Your outfit had no pockets, so I suggested folding your arms. As we walked in, we saw a butterfly on the path ahead of us, struggling and unable to fly. “What happened to it?” you asked me, tight sadness creeping into your voice. “Did someone touch it?” This was too much for your heart to bear and you buried yourself in my chest, hands clasped together, and ordered us to leave. You couldn’t bear to hurt one yourself. (Ants and spiders are, of course, a different story.)

You are kind. You sidle up to my elderly stepfather, your Grandfafa, whose hand tremors and shakes more each time we visit, and insist that he partake in the joy you know as Crocodile Dentist. You pat his knee. You dance for him. You talk to him about the things you’ve learned lately and try to get him to throw a foam football with you from the armchair he rarely leaves. You demand that Giga get him a bib at dinner. You kiss and hug him. Aging and debilitating illness can be scary, so I think we would try and understand if you were afraid, but so far, you are not. You are just light in the day of a person whose life is darkly clouding.

You rock a party hat. Or any hat. Or sunglasses. Or the hand-me-down green jean jacket that your best bud at school gave you. Another mom at school admires your sense of fashion. “He gets it,” she told me one day. “You wear one signature item with confidence – that’s the essence of style.”

Your curiosity is epic. Some people marvel at your intelligence, but it’s your questions and your imagination and the connections you make that routinely bowl me over. Every time I think they might wane, or that your interests may shift to playground endeavors, you surprise me by returning to space – outer and inner, turning so many of the perceptions that I had often thought safe inside out. Your thinking is magical and scientific. I can’t imagine why it is that you notice when we come home on different roads than we took to our destination. I don’t know why you always notice when we pass the confluence of Columbus’ two rivers. You can find our house from space on Google Earth, along with your school, Perkins Observatory, COSI and the Statehouse.

We are thinking of going to Chicago this summer and while we have museums and a planetarium in mind, the thing you most want to see is the patch of grass where the man sleeps on the blanket in Powers of Ten. This is the perspective you can’t seem to get enough of – these journeys from our little patch of earth to the edges of the known universe, and all the way back into us, where cells and atoms and chromosomes and DNA seem just as infinite. (By the way, you just played a space trivia board game with your dad meant for seven year olds and you completely hosed him in the first round.)

The only accurate expectation I had of parenthood was that your influence on me would be as great or even stronger than the one I had on you. In a culture where I think too many people talk at or down to kids instead of listening to and speaking with them, you manage to bring so many people to your level. I watched as people came to wish you well the other day – adults and children who took such great care to give you heartfelt gifts that reflected the person they see. You were gleeful and unbelieving that all of that stuff was for meant for you. You were as appreciative and excited as any gift-giver could be and even an attentive host who made certain his friends were festooned with a lei. You sow the seeds of kindness and wonder so naturally.

I can’t wait to find out what else we get to learn from you as we enter your fifth revolution around the sun. I love you so much, my sweet boy.

Happy birthday.


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