Tag Archives: astronomy

Beginnings of a solar system magnum opus

We’ve had a concert here all morning yesterday. It featured extended thoughts about all the planets in our solar system, but we had to listen to it through the bedroom door. Somebody gets self-conscious while performing in front of his parents.

I did manage to get him to tell me some of the words, which I wrote down:

“Song about Jupiter with Clouds… about Jupiter”*

One little place with a Halloween cloud
It’s a place with the place with a birth it’s Jupiter
Boing ba ba boing ba ba boing boing boing

It’s the place with the clouds that will make you look scary
Make you look scary make you look like a berry
Boing ba ba boing ba ba boing boing boing

“Earth Song”
Earth song from Tracy on Vimeo.

(He’s been singing this for days, although I had no idea until today that it was supposed to be about Earth. How unsettling.)

*Copyright Declan 2009

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The universe doesn’t revolve around you

399 years ago today, Galileo Galilei was looking through his telescope when he took note of two starry objects next to Jupiter. The next night, he noticed that they moved strangely, so he kept his lens trained on the giant planet for several days. He saw that there were actually four of these bodies in motion, and came to the realization that they were orbiting around Jupiter.

This was humanity’s most compelling evidence that Copernicus was right. Jupiter does not revolve around us. The sun does not revolve around us. The universe does not revolve around us. I’m not sure that we’re grounded in these facts yet, nearly 400 years later.

You can’t mark this occasion by looking at Jupiter tonight, unless you live on the other side of the sun. But the moon will be crossing the Pleiades at sunset, which, my son informed me last night, is my “favorite cluster.” Then he had plastic mommy drive plastic him in a plastic car to “the observatory” to look through telescopes.

The Galilean moons of Jupiter (pictured): Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto.

P.S. These moons are not finished messing with our overdeveloped sense of importance yet. There is evidence of saltwater on three of them, and of large oceans on Europa. That could mean life off of our planet in our own solar system. Read more.

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The Carnival of Space #81

Happy Thanksgiving and welcome to the Carnival of Space!

It’s fitting that Tiny Mantras was given the chance to host this weekly collection of cosmological articles on this holiday, because I am definitely thankful for the wealth of astronomy blogs and sites out there. You see, you’ve reached what some would call a “mommy blog,” but one in which I do a lot of reflecting on how to keep up with and nurture my son’s intense passion for space and other scientific interests. Between this carnival and the blogs in my reader, we always have something new to talk about.

I am also thankful to him for requiring that I learn so much about space every day. When you get into this parenting gig, you expect some profound and life-changing experiences, but inspiring me to learn vastly more about my place in the universe wasn’t one I saw coming. It is an awesome gift.

To start the holiday shopping season, I put together a round-up of my favorite space books for kids (the ones we actually read over and over). What’s Up Astronomy is also ready to help you get in gear with ten tips for buying a telescope.

Now on to the reason most of you are here – gobs of great new posts about space:

From Collect Space, a video of Dr. Don Petit as he demonstrates how to improve the coffee drinking experience in a weightless environment.

Alan Dyer was in the hot seat last week, handling news media calls about about the big meteor that exploded over western Canada on November 20: Tracking the Big Fall.

News and photos from the current space shuttle mission, STS-126, courtesy of Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson.

Mars has large, buried glaciers near its equator, detected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Spacecraft this week. (The Meridiani Journal)

Phoenix Pictures Gallery heralds the beauty of NASA technology in “The Day I Met Phoenix.

For the first time this week, it was reported that carbon dioxide has been detected in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star.

With Barack Obama announcing new cabinet and staff appointments daily, several folks are weighing in on the future of U.S. space policy. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy makes a case for the funding for NASA, as well as its need for greater oversight.

At Music of the Spheres, FlyingSinger shares a letter he sent to Obama’s transition team (via change.gov) about the future of NASA and private space ventures.

The Moon is Not Enough! says Bruce Cordell of 21st Century Waves, as he considers the strengths and potential pitfalls of The Planetary Society’s road map for space exploration in the 21st century.

Ian O’Neill of astroEngine ponders the reasons that so many robotic missions into space are constructed around the search for life, and whether or not they are worth the effort.

Ethan Siegel of Starts With a Bang poses the question “what happens when we move at the speed of light?” He warns that it “isn’t pretty.”

At Centauri Dreams, two stories look at recent findings of strong cosmic ray sources, an anomalous situation since it has been assumed until recently that cosmic rays arrived at the Earth without any clear direction of origin. Are there astrophysical objects near the Earth that are accelerating these particles, or is this evidence for dark matter? The jury is out, but the data keeps coming in.

At Colony Worlds, “Uranus: One Planetary System to Fuel Them All?” posits that though the blueish-green giant may lack large lunar children like Titan and Triton (not to mention a set of dazzling rings), Uranus may be the key that enables humanity to not only conquer the outer limits of our own solar system, but perhaps enable us to reach the next one as well.

If measures are not taken to address the effects of the greenhouse gases produced by our civilization, extreme climate changes will occur: droughts, heat waves, and floods. Understanding the behavior of greenhouse gases is critical for developing effective measures to fight climate change. The Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) is the first satellite to observe greenhouse gases from space. Check out GOSAT a.k.a. IBUKI Scheduled for Launch at OrbitalHub.

Sean Welton explains why Saturn’s rings will look closed from Earth’s vantage point by the end of the year at Visual Astronomy.

Amanda Bauer of Astropixie describes those two bright lights currently shining in the westerly evening sky: Venus and Jupiter. They are approaching each other quickly this week as they move in opposite directions along the ecliptic. My Dark Sky also has a post about this pair, and how to get the most out of looking at them.

Looking for stars that host exoplanets can be a pain, says Ian Musgrave
n> of Astroblog, but two of the most recent stars hosting exoplanets can be easily seen from your backyard.

Form the annals of space history, Altair VI’s David Portree has written a two-part post about Philip Bono’s 1960 plans for a delta-winged glider that could make it to Mars, replete with scans of several of Bono’s original drawings.

At One Astronomer’s Noise, Nicole looks at evidence of an ancient asteroid impact near present-day New York City.

The Space Video of the Week looks at how a very old technology – balloons – is being used to accomplish space science.

From A Babe in the Universe: On November 20, 1998 the first module of the International Space Station was orbited. Read about the tenth anniversary/ISS Birthday Party at Space Center Houston.

On the lighter side, when marketers get involved with astronomy the results can be a bit strange, see Tipsy Orion.

Finally, at the Planetary Society, read Solar Conjunction: Holiday for Mars Missions, and an Opportunity Update.

If you’re interested in perusing the archives of the Carnival of Space, submitting something for a future carnival or hosting it yourself, you can find all of the details at Universe Today.

Well that was intimidating, but fun. If you catch any errors, let me know and I will fix them pronto. Thanks to Fraser for letting me host this week.

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Space books that we love (for children… mostly)

One of the nice things about having a child fixated on space is that it’s an easy obsession to feed. The discount shelves of most bookstore chains are loaded with gorgeous picture books full of astronomical phenomena, courtesy of Hubble and other high-powered telescopes.

A few fellow parents hoping to foster or develop their child’s interest in space have asked me for book recommendations. We’ve checked dozens out of the library and received several as gifts, but there are only a handful that I would heartily recommend.

Rhyming & scientifically accurate books
There are still certain facts and concepts that I remember vividly simply because I learned a rhyme or poem or song about them when I was a child. I think these are handy and fun introductory books for kids, but I learned quite a few things from them too:

Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings
“The Universe is every place,
including all the e m p t y space…”

I love the images in this book, as well as the rhymes that describe some characteristics of each planet, black holes, galaxies and more. You can crack the book open to one page and get your fill of Saturn and a few of its moons, or read the whole thing in one setting.

Planets: A Solar System Stickerbook
“First comes Mercury, catching sun’s rays/It has hot, hot nights and cold, cold days.”

A quick read with graduated pages that take you, in quick two-line rhymes, from the sun out to Pluto. This book and Goodnight, Moon were the first two books that my son memorized. He hasn’t forgotten that Mercury is both burning and fridgid, or that Uranus is lopsided.

There’s No Place Like Space: All About Our Solar System
“On Venus the weather is always the same/Hot dry and windy with no chance of rain.”

I don’t find the Seuss Learning Library books nearly as charming as any of the things written by their namesake. Still, this is a decent volume, written in highly Seuss-ian rhyme.

Fantasy/adventure space books
There is plenty of allure in the danger and mystery of the exotic locales that space has to offer, but I think that the latitude to imagine the completely off-the-wall is important too. Just look at your flip phone and consider how much Star Trek has influenced real science. I expect (and hope) that this list will grow substantially over time.

Space Boy
This is the story of Nicholas, who climbs into a his backyard rocket ship and takes a trip to the moon to get away from all of the noise in his house (because there is no noise in space). It’s a sweet and simple story, with bonus zero-gravity tomato slices.

Moongirl: The Collector’s Edition Book and DVD Gift Set
If you like collecting fireflies, and think that it makes perfect sense that children, romance and amusement park rides, not some man or dairy product, are responsible for the moon’s glow, then I can’t recommend this enough. The book, and the brief animated version of the story on the DVD (it’s under five minutes long), are both quality.

Books we want
There are a couple of new
titles that I’m really looking forward to reading, but that we might enjoy more once my boy is able to sit still a bit longer.

Icarus at the Edge of Time
We really love Brian Greene around here. For several months, his NOVA – The Elegant Universe was our Sesame Street. So I’m thrilled that he’s decided to recast the myth of Icarus as as a trip to a black hole in this giant board book. Just remember: when you’ve crossed the event horizon, there is no going back!

George’s Secret Key to the Universe
We haven’t graduated to chapter books yet, but when we do, this one, penned by scientist Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy, will be at the top of my list. Apparently, the bones of the story are deeper concepts of physics and time, wrapped in an adventure’s skin.

For more technical scientific information, including great photos, illustrations and conceptual explanations, I can’t recommend the various DK Books about Astronomy and the Universe enough, but they’re a pretty dry read on their own. Periodically, you can find one that has suggestions for cool, hands-on experiments, like reproducing the stormy clouds of Jupiter with food coloring and milk.

Happy space reading! If you have a book that you and/or your kids love about space, please tell me about it in the comments.

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Tiptoeing through the solar system

Some parents I know risk their feet and balance daily to toy cars, Barbie dolls or little plastic animals. In our house, it’s the Solar System – a collection that’s been growing for well over the past year and a half.

I try to get Declan help me to put all of them away in bins every night – inevitably making the floor a blank canvas for him to lay solar systems all around the room the next morning.

We’ve gone through periods of obsession with particular planets, and he’s long since rejected soft blankies with dogs on them in favor of shimmery fabrics from the craft store that he calls “the fabric of space and time.” He might be astrophysicist Brian Greene’s youngest groupie.

I replaced one of the shades on my back car window with window clings of the planets last year. And there’s nary a spherical object in our home that hasn’t, at some point, been substituted as a planet, moon or star.
The first acquisitions were paper and cardboard planets. One system went on the wall on his second birthday, but it only stayed there for a couple of weeks while he memorized their order. He learned their names when he was about 20 months old, during a watershed language-accumulating phase – one week colors, the next week shapes, then numbers and then planets – at his insistence.

Ever since, he’s wanted to hold his planets, to lay them out on the floor in order, to whoosh them past his face, one by one. The glow in the dark asteroids are used to make the asteroid belt sometimes. Other times he’s made it with a bunch of crumpled scraps of paper.
These are from a lunchbox full of small & mostly handmade things, there are dried balls of Play-doh that he made and Fimo shapes we made together (the flat sparkly one is Andromeda galaxy). There are also eight big marbles that his dad got for him, which Declan promptly gave planetary names.
This week’s most popular solar system is made up of balls from around the house. There are 10 because this collection includes Pluto and Charon, its moon. (I’m never sure which planet’s moons are going to make it into the mix.)
This is a nesting toy that readily became the outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and missing Pluto (which has rolled somewhere else in the house).
We have a couple of different solar system floor puzzles (gifts) that he loves and has started to mess up and reassemble without my help in the last couple of weeks. And the last page of this Teddy Bear book (based on the jump-rope rhyme) has nine bears, which he renamed as the planets (again, Pluto included) several months ago.
These bath letters represent the solar system and more, straight out of the Interactive Universe web site he loves – they are (counter clockwise): Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Hale-Bopp comet, Haley’s Comet, Helix Nebula (subbed the backwards 2 because we didn’t have another H), Orion nebula, Proxima Centauri (the nearest star to us after the sun), Black Hole, Milky Way (Y, because we only had two Ms) and Andromeda Galaxy.
Recently, all of this playroom space travel started to develop into a deeper appreciation for Earth – its oceans and continents, its gravity, all of the unique ingredients it possesses that made us possible.

Because he insists that we continually remain on this galactic ride, that new appreciation for the earth, our place in the universe is all of ours, not just his.

Also see Jupiter in its earthly incarnations.

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Dancing in the rings

Sleep was interrupted for a long while in the wee hours of this morning, when Dec woke up weepy.

“I want to dance in Saturn’s rings,” he cried. “I do want to do that. I want to twirl.”

He had little to say beyond this, his mantra. He was only momentarily hysterical about it… mostly just teary, sighing, longing.

“You can,” I kept whispering to him, brushing his forehead. “Just close your eyes and go back there.”

He woke up this morning still thinking about it. Still wishing for it.

“I want to dance in Saturn’s rings,” he told me again, first thing.

“Were you dreaming that you were dancing on Saturn’s rings?” I asked him.

“No mommy. Not on the rings, in Saturn’s rings. All around the chunks of ice.”

“You were floating and twirling through sparkly chunks of ice?”

“I was. I want to.”

Around here, dreams can be strangely, scientifically accurate.

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What do you see?

“These are the pillars of creation,” he said to me today. “See? They look like a daddy, a mommy and a baby.”

They are inside of the Eagle Nebula – a stellar nursery.

I’m glad that he sees us among the stars.

Here’s a tour he loves to take:

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Saturn has rings!

It’s roughly a light hour (or 746 million miles) away, but when you look through a telescope it’s just right there, so clear with its rings and its many moons. I thought about Galileo seeing it for the first time 400 years ago, how he must have puzzled, the stir his telescope created.

I teared up a little after I looked at Saturn, wondering how I made it to my late 30s without looking so closely at the heavens before. It’s yet another gift my son has given me.

We also examined the surface of the moon and saw a distant galaxy (M105, I think). Then it clouded up and other people left, allowing Declan ample time to play with some computer program that let him fly through the universe, as well as to chat with an astronomer who also happens to clearly enjoy kids.

I got the last-minute notion to run us up to Perkins Observatory on Friday night (thanks to Ed for the reminder). I’d considered it last summer, but hadn’t gone because Declan was still just two, and three was the suggested youngest age, although I think they’d have made an exception if I’d just asked.

At any rate, I’m so glad we went – what a wonderful, family-friendly place, full of people who are just thrilled to tell you whatever they can about the skies. Dec was excited to see through the different telescopes, but he also could have spent hours looking at their book collection, examining globes of Mars and Venus, and trying out all of the different astronomy computer programs. (His mouse skills are so good, it’s a little bit freaky.) I think we’ll be making regular visits back, so that we can see more of the planets as they come into view. And celebrate the sun in July.

If you are in Central Ohio, I highly recommend visiting Perkins. They recently lost their major source of funding (OSU), because while they have the second-largest telescope in Ohio, there are more powerful ones out there nowadays that the university can lease to do its research. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more enthusiastic proponent of science than Director Tom Burns, and that makes the place a real local treasure. He seemed genuinely thrilled to be with people in the crowd who were about to undergo the life-changing experience of seeing Saturn through a telescope, and he was so, so kind to my son.

They are currently on a drive to increase their endowment and save the observatory, so bring plenty of change for the change vortex, money for a Moonpie and whatever else you can spare when you visit.

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Spaced out at NASA’s Plum Brook Station

It’s been said in recent years that NASA has lost its luster with Americans, or somehow doesn’t capture or inspire the public imagination the way that it used to. The kabillion** people who showed up for the open house at Plum Brook Station this weekend suggested otherwise. It was the first time the place had been opened to the public in 10 years or so, and likely the only time it will be for another 10 years.

We went, as part of our quest to connect Declan with a scientist or two in his beloved space field this summer. (Next year, I want to find a way to go to this.)

It was overwhelming.
Here he is, in the control room of one of the test facilities. The space shuttle had just lifted off for it’s mission to take a Japanese space lab to the International Space Station and rescue its toilet. We were able to watch it soar into the heavens on NASA TV. And Declan was able to pretend to fill a test tank with cryogenic liquid on the computer. (Or something like that.)
That is the lid to a nearly 200-foot deep chamber where they’ve tested rockets. It hasn’t been in use for a while, but it’s impressive. And kind of scary. (To me, more than to Declan).
Declan wore his “Galaxies fade away, all stars merge” shirt and carried a small space book around with him. His obvious interest drew a few smiles and comments from the very friendly staff. There were so many of them, he was a bit intimidated.
Here we are, in the world’s largest space environment simulation chamber, where a bunch of the components of Orion will be tested before they head moonward.

Given his longtime adulation of the liquid nitrogen geysers on Triton, this cryogenic demonstration was a particular thrill. Purple flowers were frozen and smashed, a balloon was deflated in the bucket that re-inflated as soon as it was taken out, and Declan got to touch a ball that was smoking cold from liquid nitrogen.
He also got to look inside of a manned maneuvering unit and took his own picture of a Robonaut. I have to hand it to the folks at NASA – there are a lot of places that purport to educate and entertain people of every age, but few succeed. The staff seemed genuinely interested in answering questions and offering information to its visitors, be they 3 or 73. (And I’m a tough critic.)

The whole Plum Creek site is so big, they bused us from one part of the facility to another. I wish that we had made arrangements to stay overnight and gone to the open house on both days. I didn’t realize how vast of a place it was, and how much there was to see. If we’d had more downtime, maybe Dec would have gotten comfortable enough to chat with a staff member or two. I suppose if space is still an interest of his when he’s (gasp) thirteen, we’ll know better next time… in 2018.

**Not an official NASA estimate.

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Born in the bulge (or bull-dge)

“Mommy, I was born in the bulge of the Milky Way.”

Declan has been telling me this at random intervals for two or three months now.

Because human anatomy has become one of his secondary interests, after astronomy, he likes to snuggle up to my belly and talk about being born. And since he’s had a proclivity for saying things that make him seem like the great mystic baby from the distant planet of Zog for as long as he could speak, I chalked it up to some verbal conflation of bulging bellies and the latest galaxy wisdom from our bevy of space documentaries. (Oddly, as I was writing this, he was watching Unfolding Universe, his very first favorite space show, and we just took a computer-generated flight through the Milky Way’s “bulge” so there you have it.)

Yesterday, moment after waking, he thrust a book about constellations into my hands.

“We’re having a book about stars now,” he commanded.

I complied.

We got to Taurus, his birth sign, and he pointed at it between the eyes.

“I was born in the bulge,” he told me again. “See? It’s the bulge, where I belong.”

I used to think I knew where babies came from. I’m not so sure anymore.

And speaking of birthdays, happy 129th to the spirit of this person:

Also, to the considerably younger father of mine, as well as my dearest childhood friend, all born on this important (in my universe) day of the fishes.

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