Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Friday, July 31, 2015


Though I've never played a game of golf in my life - I used to frequent the Woods Hole Golf Club's course, at Woods Hole, Mass. - in the middle of the night, that is. You see, I'm an astronomer/astrobiologist.

On any given clear night, fellow astronomer Mike Petrasko, and I, used to drive our car and light pickup, equipped with my 8-inch, and Mike's 6-inch, 50-inch long, 70-inch high Newtonian reflector telescopes, up onto a fairway at at the golf course, in Woods Hole, to about the course's center.

Woods Hole Golf Course, Woods Hole, MA.
Woods Hole Golf Course, Woods Hole, MA.

There, we set up the telescopes and connected their motorized clock-drives, to our vehicle batteries, with cables and alligator clips; this was necessary so that, as the Earth rotates during the night - and the stars drift slowly across the sky, the telescopes, when aimed at an object, could counter that motion and follow along, defeating any tendency for the object to drift, in the telescope's field of view.

During the winter months, we'd usually arrive at the golf course just before midnight, set up the equipment and prepare to spend several hours in sub-freezing temperatures - many times, in the single digits. We'd break down the equipment and leave just after dawn. This happened three or four nights a week - regardless of our regular work schedules, of course.

Meade 826C Newtonian  8" Telescope.
Meade 826C Newtonian  8" Telescope.

We chose that particular observing site because the sky there is relatively dark, free of light pollution, to the north, and absolutely black in the south, over Vineyard Sound. Mike and I had been monitoring a list of galaxies, for possible, extra-galactic, supernovae outbursts.

Extragalactic supernovae are exploding stars, located in galaxies beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, the closest being several thousand light-years away. These outbursts occur, on average, only once every hundred years, or so, in any given galaxy - including our Milky Way. We actually discovered one, one morning, in February of 1989. It is known, today, as SN1989b and is located in the spiral galaxy, M66, in the constellation Leo, the lion. I remember that night very well... - it was 4°F!

One morning, around 4:00am, a local police officer drove up onto the course in his cruiser, with spotlights glaring, and parked next to my truck. In a mock tone of extreme concern, he asked me, what kind of weapon it was that I was using, and what it was pointed at! I told him that, that was highly-classified information and that I could not give him a meaningful answer. He enjoyed the comeback.

After we had explained that we were astronomers, with the SUNSEARCH program, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, and that the unusual looking instruments in question were astronomical telescopes, he pointed out that we were not supposed to be there, without express permission from the owner; we could only agree. But, he said, since our activity was benign - and possibly even useful, and since the ground was frozen solid (being February, our tires didn't mess with them, normally, immaculate grass) - that it would be OK, though, he suggested we try golfing there some time, instead.

Some of the finest - and loneliest - hours of my life were spent on that golf course, scanning the universe with my telescope and witnessing, first-hand, many of its mysteries, free of charge. It is where, one night, for the first time, with the use of my Skalnate-Pleso Observatory star atlas, that I had experienced a keen awareness of my bearings and my relative position on the Earth, and its position within the solar system, and the solar system's position within the Milky Way galaxy. At that moment, I simply felt like, for the first time, I knew exactly where I was.

It was there, throughout the year, that I did several Mars and Saturn observing sessions, and was witness to a global sandstorm, one night on the red planet. I also made note of any changes, over time, in growth or shrinkage in Mars' south polar ice cap, as Mars progressed through its seasons throughout the Martian year. I've seen Saturn's rings, both in an edge-on aspect and wide open. The interval between those two extremes is about three decades long. Yup, I've been around folks.

Maybe, someday, I'll take that officer's suggestion and play a game of golf there... after I learn how to play, of course... “Fore!”

By Dale Alan Bryant
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Monday, July 27, 2015

Astronomy Questions and Answers

I'd like to thank Mike Petrasko for inviting me here to share some of my experiences in astronomy, which, more often than not, included Mike himself! I'm an Amateur Astronomer with something like 35 years of experience being bent over the eyepiece of a telescope (and boy is my neck sore!) Mike and myself have had, probably some of the most interesting, sometimes bizarre (but usually entertaining) experiences in the history of observational astronomy. I will share them with you here as I recall them...

M66 Imaged by Adam Block.
M66 Imaged by Adam Block.

After having read my recent article on supernova SN1989B, my brother (not an astronomer!), texted me the following questions one night, included here with my answers:

Q: In your article, you talked about a star going supernova. If there was a planet with life orbiting the star, how much warning would their scientists have to save their civilization?

A: Scientists would know about the star’s condition long before it went supernova and would have had time to prepare—that is if there were actually any other place to go. However, after the explosion, the ejected material from the star would be travelling toward the planet at 10% of the speed of light and would reach the planet within just a few hours. The planet would be vaporized instantly.

Q: So, what could happen to our Sun to cause us a problem here on Earth?

A: The Sun has done nothing out of the ordinary in its entire history. It is a very stable star. It has an 11-year sunspot and solar flare cycle which occasionally causes us electrical problems here on Earth, but that’s about it. Its internal nuclear forces are able to balance its gravitational forces which will not allow it to collapse in on itself and then explode.

Q: So the Sun will never go supernova?

A: No, the Sun is not massive enough. Only stars 3 solar masses and more can go supernova. A supernova explodes after it uses up its nuclear fuel and collapses under it own weight. What’s left, if it has enough mass, will collapse even further to the point of no return and become a black hole—with a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape. If the star doesn’t have enough mass to become a black hole, it may become a sphere of carbon under pressure. We all know what happens to carbon under extreme pressure—it becomes a diamond! Yes, there are stars out there that are a pure diamond. "Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky” was more accurate than anybody knew, at the time! But if it continues to collapse, it will become a neutron star; literally, a ball of neutrons packed so tightly together that a teaspoonful would weigh millions of tons!

Q: So, just what will happen to the Sun?

A: The Sun, being a rather small star (specifically, a type G2 Yellow Dwarf), will begin to swell as it ages and move off the Main Sequence of stellar evolution to become a red giant star—a very slow process so no surprises here. Its edges will reach out to almost the orbit of the Earth. This is not good news for anybody sticking around as the Earth will be burned to a cinder! But there will be plenty of time to prepare; it will not happen for another 4.5 billion years.

Q: How are we related to all of this, supernovae I mean?

A: Well, the heavy elements such as iron, nickel, copper, magnesium, zinc, beryllium and the rest of the metals that make up terrestrial planets like Earth, and even our own bodies, were forged in the interiors of supernovae. That’s the only place in the universe these elements are created, along with minerals and silicates that become rock, sand and dust. They travel across space together to cool and condense into planets - and people! So, the atoms in our bodies once existed in the interiors of stars! To quote the late Cornell University professor of astronomy, Carl Sagan - “We are all star stuff.”

By Dale Alan Bryant
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Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering Clyde Tombaugh While New Horizons Visits Pluto

On the afternoon of July 14, 2015, just hours after the first images from the New Horizons spacecraft were transmitted back to earth from its close flyby encounter with Pluto, a fond memory came back to me as I stared at the images of the dwarf planet. This memory I am writing about is the day I had the honor of meeting Pluto's discoverer, Clyde W. Tombaugh. The event took place on crisp fall day back in the early fall of 1987. Mr. Tombaugh was the keynote speaker for AstroAssembly, an astronomy convention put on annually by the astronomical organization known as Skyscrapers, Inc. based in Scituate, Rhode Island.

Dale Bryant, Clyde Tombaugh and Michael Petrasko  at AstroAssembly - 1987
Dale Bryant, Clyde Tombaugh and Michael Petrasko 
at AstroAssembly - 1987

I was attending the convention with my good friend and current Insight Observatory Science Writer, Dale Bryant, as well as other members of the Cape Cod Astronomical Society. Dale and I attended nearly all of the morning and afternoon talks given by both professional and amateur astronomers. After the final talk was given before the dinner break, we ventured out of the society's clubhouse and suddenly found ourselves within feet of Mr. Tombaugh and his wife, Patricia. I recognized him immediately from pictures of the planet discoverer in astronomy books and magazines I had read growing up. I recall my reaction was that I was simply stunned accompanied with excitement. Not wanting to miss an opportunity for a picture, I asked Mr. Tombaugh if we could have a photo taken with him. He graciously replied "That would be fine". At that moment a fellow member of our astronomical society, Rich Zitola, took a picture of Dale and I with the famous astronomer. For many years an enlargement of this picture has been a permanent fixture on my fire mantle.

As I studied the detailed images of Pluto on my computer while this wonderful memory came back to me, I couldn't help but feel a bit melancholy. I was thinking how much I wish Clyde was still around to experience these spectacular images with us of the planet he spent years looking for and finally discovered on February 18, 1930. It is only fitting that a small portion of his ashes was placed aboard the New Horizons spacecraft with the inscription on the container "Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system's 'third zone'.
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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pluto's Craters from New Horizons

I processed this image to emphasize, that (contrary to popular belief), there actually ARE craters on Pluto! Apparently, there is some geological activity going on at the surface involving ice - and, possibly, some degree of erosion.

It is my opinion that, since Pluto wasn't one of the original planets of the solar system during its formation but, rather, was gravitationally captured at some point afterwards, (evidenced by its highly inclined orbital plane), that it didn't experience the early period of bombardment by rogue asteroids and other debris (remnants of the solar system's formation), that the terrestrial planets did, and as our moon's surface reveals. Earth suffered as much of the bombardment as did the moon, but, due to atmospheric and geologic erosion, much of the impact evidence has disappeared over the eons since, whereas the moon, being nearly geologically inactive and possessing no significant atmosphere, has preserved its geologic past.

New Horizons Image of Pluto in False Color.
New Horizons Image of Pluto in False Color.

If Pluto was present during part of the bombardment period, it, too, may have suffered impacts, but, like Earth, much of that evidence has been eroded away, hence, the scarcity of impact craters at its surface.

By Dale Alan Bryant
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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

An Astrobiologist's Brief View on Life

What are life-forms on Earth, made of? What about celestial objects, like other planets, comets, asteroids, and stars – what are they made of?

As can be shown, by an instrument known as a mass spectrometer, they all share the same, fundamental chemistry of Earth and its companion planets. All of these are made from the common chemicals, minerals, and metals that are found in and on the Earth.

MACSJ0717.5+3745 Galaxy Cluster Imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.
MACSJ0717.5+3745 Galaxy Cluster Imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Living organisms - animal, bacterial, fungal and floral, are composed of various combinations of these elements, which express themselves in varying molecular arrangements and can be found in the Periodic Table of the Elements. The myriad of potential arrangements accounts for the diversity of life on this planet.

Beyond hydrogen, all of this chemistry - entry but if it - was forged in the interiors of stars, namely, a type of star called a supernova.

A supernova is a catastrophic, stellar event, in which, the progenitor star collapses under its own weight, then, rebounds, blowing itself to smithereens - much of it, reduced to atomic nuclei. Due to a process called stellar nucleosynthesis (fusion reactions that take place at a star’s core, at extreme temperatures), at a certain temperature all of those elements are converted, one from the other, from the available hydrogen fuel; hydrogen is converted to helium; helium to lithium; lithium to beryllium, and on to the heavy metals.

The galaxies (galaxies are, simply, large collections of stars, bound by a common gravitational field) and all of the planets of our solar system, its comets, asteroids and our star, the Sun, and the exo-planets orbiting other stars (more than 2,000 have been confirmed by NASA/JPL and more than 350 are Earth-like) - all of these - including our very selves - are composed of these various molecular arrangements of those elements. Living things are not made up of some unique, special or mysterious substance. Cornell professor of astronomy and exobiologist, Carl Sagan, once made this accurate statement: “We are all star-stuff.”

Every niche, on this planet, is aggressively occupied by some form of life; no territory is wasted. Earth and its supporting star, the Sun, are rather average places; there is nothing outstanding about our Solar system – the sun and its planets - and, possibly, even ourselves and yet, life arose here just the same. So, what are the chances of life arising elsewhere, in our or other galaxies in the universe? It seems to me that life, will, ultimately prove to be the rule and not the exception.

By Dale Alan Bryant
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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Environmental Science Camp Receives Observatory

The staff at Insight Observatory has recently taken on a new project at Camp Bournedale, an environmental and science located in Plymouth, Massachusetts. A foundation is known as the S.T.E.P (Science, Technology, Engineering of Plymouth) also based in Plymouth, MA raised funds and generously donated a complete setup for a remote robotic observatory for astronomy education. The equipment consists of a 3 foot in diameter domed observatory, 10" Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope, SBIG CCD Camera and a computer in which the equipment will be operated with from a building nearby the observatory's location on the campus.

Insight Observatory staff measure for the telescope mountInsight Observatory staff measure for the telescope mount.
Insight Observatory staff measure for the telescope mount.

The purpose of this equipment is to allow students and faculty attending the camp to monitor real-time solar activity (such as sunspots), the moon as well as the brighter planets such as Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. There will also be opportunities for smaller groups to learn how to image deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae.

The first phase of this endeavor is designing and constructing a mount for the telescope to be installed in the observatory. This task is nearly completed and should be ready for installation in the upcoming week. The second phase will then be networking the dome, telescope, and imaging camera to the building that will house the computer system. The domed observatory has been constructed on a decking platform that allows the observatory to be easily be accessed for equipment maintenance. The observatory is also located on an open space where camp attendees to learn the night sky while witnessing the dome and telescope slewing around to image the planets.

The observatory that will house the remote robotic telescope.
The observatory that will house the remote robotic telescope.

When the observatory installation is completed, two plaques will be presented for dedication, one for William Luzader (former Director of Blake Planetarium located at the Plymouth Community Intermediate School and one for the Sheehan Family Foundation, both of whom were instrumental in making the observatory project possible.
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Monday, July 13, 2015

July Meteor Watch

July highlights a few meteor showers, however, none ascents to significant status. The Piscis Austrinids and Alpha Capricornids delivering a maximum of 5 meteors for each hour at their late July peak, however, Southern Hemisphere observers will have better perspectives. The Alpha Capricornids are active for over a month lasting from July 6 through August 10. Unlike most showers, the Alpha Caps have a plateau-like maximum with maximum activity lasting from July 25-30. Since maximum activity is still 2 weeks away, hourly rates will be less than 1 no matter where you are located. The radiant is currently located in the area of the sky that is located in northeastern Sagittarius, roughly 3 degrees north of the 4th magnitude star known as Rho 1 Sagittarii. The radiant is best placed near 0100 hours local daylight time (LDT) when it lies on the meridian and is highest in the sky. With an entry velocity of 22 km/sec., the average Alpha Capricornids meteor would be of slow velocity.

Radiant of the Southern Delta Aqaurid meteor shower.
Radiant of the Southern Delta Aqaurid meteor shower.

The month's best performer is the Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which ordinarily delivers 15 to 20 meteors for every hour. Sadly, the shower peaks the morning of July 30th, one day preceding the month's second full moon. The event does keep up its crest level for a few days so meteor watchers will get a better show on the off chance that they observe within the hour or two in the middle of moonset and the beginning of morning dusk of July 27th and the 28th. The Delta Aquariids get their name because their radiant appears to lie in the constellation Aquarius, near one of the constellation's brightest stars, Delta Aquarii. There are two branches of the Delta Aquariid meteor shower, Southern and Northern. The Southern Delta Aquariids are considered a strong shower. The shower originated from the breakup of what are now the Marsden and Kracht Sungrazing comets. Meteor showers can provide fun for astronomy education projects such as visual meteor observing as described in last April's post, "Methods for Observing the Lyrid Meteor Shower".
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