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Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Astronomy And Neighbours In Space

So often during the night of the summer months in this beautiful part of Spain, the south east's night sky is so clear and awesome that when you arrive home in the dark, one feels the need or I do certainly, to observe the sky to try and understand the grandiose limitless wonder of the universe or simply to just enjoy the constellations and distant planets and stars.

An app on my phone can tell me all sorts of great interesting information (not sure how the astronomers arrived at such detail of distances and composition) about the stars in the night sky. But I use it in those months when the temperatures at night, in our terraces, make it so comfortable to wonder in awe at the vastness of space. I need to invest in a powerful telescope to appreciate the night sky with more accuracy and clarity.


Solar Walk App - Saturn and its Moons
Solar Walk App - Saturn and its Moons.

It is already 3 years since I had that kind of thought after arriving here to retire and I know that eventually, I will treat myself to such a device. But, so many people also share this kind of fascination for our night sky, especially scientists who are studying constantly the Universe, searching for new planets, galaxies or solar systems where there could be inhabited planets similar to our own.

My phone app says there are many moons orbiting our solar system's nine planets. Their names? I don't know; there could be over 150 of them! Some astronomers speak of 170 or more, maybe too many names to learn... Now they also talk in terms of Pluto's downgrading as a planet. Is it not now out there? I believe it is but if it is no longer a planet, what has it become?

Winter Constellations - Image by AstronomyTrek.com
Winter Constellations - Image by AstronomyTrek.com.

So what do we have out there? Constellations, solar systems, galaxies, planets, asteroids, stars of all sizes and distances from our planet, asteroids, dwarf planets and all kind of floating bodies in the sky: celestial bodies around our sun and many other stars. And astronomers say the Universe is growing constantly, towards where? How can there be so much space out there? They know there is, but how is it growing? They say they are discovering new solar systems all the time and in them more and more planets.

Can we say it is unimaginable that we are alone in outer space? Clearly, they think otherwise or else they would not be searching all the time for other inhabited planets out there. As a matter of fact, only a few months ago NASA issued news of several planets that could possibly have a similar life as our own planet. In that vastness of space, one day a few planets will be discovered with a life of some sort or another and perhaps with beings possessing superior technology than our own.

Maybe they are visiting us right now or have done so in the past and found us so primitive that they did not bother to say hello even and left us behind in our survival. But now we are traveling to other planets or will be soon, and already touched our moon so we are advancing all the time in our search for better space fuels to propel us through to other planets and eventually to other galaxies perhaps.

Science fiction now has to look for much further horizons and I am sure it is all the time because so many of the so-called science fiction technology gadgets are already in our hands, in everyday use by almost everyone.

If our planet was formed as a result of a giant explosion of gas and matter that made our star the sun and its other neighbor planets of ours around it, how many other planets can exist out there formed from the continuous explosions of gas and clouds of matter that perhaps one day will be called our space neighbors? Even if they happen to be hundreds of light years away from us?

You pay a visit to your neighbors frequently or from time to time but how can we visit any of our neighbors in outer space? Well, the scientists and astronomers are busy on that front every day and they do not stop in amazing us with their findings and wisdom.

These ideas and thoughts during the summer, are present quite often in my mind because of the sheer beauty of the sky at night in this part of the world. Writing this article to publish it also as a post on my site http://www.SweetHolidayHomes.com may give you a desire to visit this part of the world next time you feel you need a vacation to enjoy in this part of the world.

Article Source: German Calvo
http://EzineArticles.com/?Astronomy-And-Neighbours-In-Space&id=9239432
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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Featured Deep-Sky Object - M104 Sombrero Galaxy

The spring evening sky presents a plethora of galaxies to observe through remote robotic and backyard telescopes. One galaxy in particular that has interesting and unique characteristics is known as The Sombrero Galaxy, also called M104 or NGC 4594.

The Sombrero Galaxy is about 28 million light-years (50,000 light-years in diameter) from Earth in the constellation Virgo. The galaxy is so named because the halo-like features surrounding its disc is unusually large, making it look like a sombrero. It's not exactly known who discovered the galaxy. The discoverer was either Pierre Mechain or Charles Messier. William Herschel independently discovered the object in 1784, even though it had already been discovered by others.

M104  - "Sombrero Galaxy" in Virgo Imaged by Sam P. and Tom M.
M104  - "Sombrero Galaxy" in Virgo Imaged by Sam P. and Tom M.

The Sombrero Galaxy is a favorite target for well-equipped amateur astronomers. If you have a good dark-sky site, the object can be spotted through binoculars (those with large telescopes can spot the dust lane). This spring and early summer object can be found half-way between the constellations Virgo and Corvus.

Location of M104 in the Constellation Virgo
Location of M104 in the Constellation Virgo


NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope have been used to study the Sombrero in the visible and infrared light. The star birth regions stand out in infrared wavelengths are mostly located along the outer rim of the dust ring surrounding the galaxy’s core. The Sombrero Galaxy looks as it does partly because we are viewing it “edge on” from our point of view here on Earth.

"Close observations of the central bulge display many points of light that are actually around 2000 globular clusters that hover around the core of the galaxy, and the number could be related to the size of the central bulge. M104's spectacular dust rings host many younger and brighter stars, and show intricate details astronomers don't yet fully understand," stated the NASA website Astronomy Picture Of The Day in a July 2013 entry.

Examination of the galaxy in recent years revealed that it had a sort of "split personality," NASA said on another website, showing that is a large elliptical galaxy that has a disk galaxy embedded inside of it. The reason this happened is still poorly understood.

The image to the upper-left was acquired by 6th-grade students at the Plymouth Community Intermediate School located in Massachusetts as part of a class astronomy education project called "The Galaxy Project - What Lies Beyond the Stars?" The image was taken with a 17" telescope remotely in New Mexico with a 5-minute exposure.

Sources: Space.com, Space-Facts.com
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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Exoplanet LkCa 15b

As I was researching astronomy education projects pertaining to exoplanets, (my interest has been growing on the subject lately) I stumbled upon an interesting article on the web about an alien planet announced back in November of 2015. The alien planet, called LkCa 15 b, orbits a star 450 light years away and appears to be on its way to growing into a world similar to Jupiter.

LkCa 15 b is a candidate protoplanetary object in orbit around LkCa 15, a star in the Taurus-Auriga Star Forming Region. The object was discovered by direct imaging techniques using the Keck II telescope in 2011 by Adam Kraus and Michael Ireland. A 2015 study of observations from the Magellan Telescopes and the Large Binocular Telescope argued that the planet is forming through accretion. It is the first of its kind to be seen in the process of active accretion.

The artist's illustration shows how planets could form in a transition disc around a star similar to LkCa 15 b. Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech
The artist's illustration shows how planets could form in
a transition disc around a star similar to LkCa 15 b.
Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech.

"This is the first incontrovertible detection of a planet still in the process of forming--a so-called 'protoplanet'," commented Dr. Kate Follette in a November 18, 2015, Stanford University Press Release. Dr. Follette is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, and a co-lead author of the study published in the November 19, 2015, issue of the journal Nature. Dr. Follette's work produced a remarkable digital image of LkCa 15 b glowing in the glaring light of searing-hot hydrogen gas--which is a prediction of planet-formation theories that have now been verified directly by the important observations of Dr. Follette and her co-authors.

The observation was combined in the paper with data that had been provided by Steph Sallum, the co-lead author and doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who independently observed the same parent star with a complementary technique. Using the University of Arizona’s Magellan Telescope in Chile, Follette, her adviser at Stanford, Professor Bruce Macintosh, and their co-authors at the University of Arizona were able to hone in on this particular shade of red H-alpha light emanating from LkCa 15 b.

The planet is forming in a transition disk, a doughnut-like ring of dust and rocky debris orbiting its parent star, LkCa 15. The central clearings within transition disks are believed to be created by the formation of planets, which sweep up dust and gas from the disk as they orbit the star. Astronomers have long speculated that investigating these gaps could lead to the discovery of protoplanets, but getting a good look at these infant worlds has been challenging.

Adaptive optics observations from the Large Binocular Telescope and the Magellan Adaptive Optics System. Credit by: Steph Sallum
Adaptive optics observations from
the Large Binocular Telescope and the
Magellan Adaptive Optics System.
Credit by: Steph Sallum.

The team confirmed the existence of LkCA 15b, imaging it directly in hydrogen-alpha photons, a type of light that's emitted when superheated material accretes onto a newly forming world. (Like newborn stars, newborn planets are surrounded by disks of feeder material.)

In the November 2015 journal Nature, study team members reported that other LBT observations revealed the presence of another newborn planet, LkCA 15c, inside the gap and suggested that a third (LkCA 15d) exists there as well.

"We're seeing sources in the clearing," Sallum said. "This is the first time that we've been able to connect a forming planet to a gap in a protoplanetary disk."

"The researchers' discovery provides stringent constraints on planet formation theories," Zhaohuan Zhu of Princeton University, who was not affiliated with the new study, wrote in an accompanying "News & Views" piece in the same issue of Nature. "For example, such theories now have to explain how a giant planet can form 15-16 AU from its star within 2 million years, and still be growing after this time."

"The new technique demonstrated by Sallum and her team could lead to the discovery of many other newly forming exoplanets, allowing astronomers to learn much more about the distribution of young worlds",  Zhu added.

"Such an understanding of the young planet population will shed light on the decades-old problem of planet formation, and reveal how young planetary systems can evolve into older ones such as our solar system, billions of years after they were born," Zhu wrote.

Sources: Astronomy Now, Wikipedia, Space.com
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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Cobb Astro Park

On Saturday afternoon, January 30, 2016, The Cotuit Library hosted a talk entitled "The Sky Show" for the general public presented by Barnstable High School astronomy teacher, Michael Gyra and one of his students, Albert Brox III. The presentation started with Mr. Gyra showing a PowerPoint presentation displaying impressive pictures of occasional stargazing and observing sessions he and his astronomy students put on at Sandy Neck beach located in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Mike also displayed a series of astronomical slides and shared interesting facts about them. A few that stuck out was the distance of astronomical objects and the gravitational lensing. One of Mike's former students, Kevin Harrington is graduating from Umass with a double major in Astronomy and Neuroscience. Kevin was part of a team who identified 8 new sources (early galaxies) through gravitational lensing.

Cobb Astro Park - Photo by Mike Gyra
Cobb Astro Park - Photo by Mike Gyra.

What I found to be the most impressive part of the talk was what Mike and a team of others accomplished on the campus of Barnstable High School. The center courtyard at the High School was a forgotten space for many years, overgrown with weeds and basically ignored. Over the span of 11 years, since 2004, Mike and his team (as well as help from students) transformed the courtyard into the Cobb Astro Park. The park features gardens, murals, mosaics, marble sculptures, a labyrinth, and an observatory. The park has an unmistakably Greek Esque decor, with Doric columns all around its perimeter, an amphitheater, statues of Poseidon and The Winged Victory, an interactive sundial and murals depicting the Parthenon and astronomical constellations.

Albert Brox III Controlling  the 14" Telescope in the David B. Cole Observatory - Photo by Mike Gyra
Albert Brox III Controlling  the 14" Telescope in the
David B. Cole Observatory - Photo by Mike Gyra.

Located at the center of the park is the David B. Cole Observatory, which features a retractable roof, computer control room, and houses a Celestron 14" telescope equipped with a CCD camera system for imaging celestial objects. This brought us to the last part of the presentation. Mike's student, Albert, took over the lecture to display his collection of images of deep-sky objects he had taken through the observatory's telescope. Albert Brox III, a sophomore at the high school had imaged deep-sky objects M42 - The "Great Orion Nebula", M13 - The "Great Hercules Globular Cluster, and my personal favorite of his images, M1 - The "Crab Nebula" in the constellation of Taurus, a supernova remnant from a supernova first recorded by Chinese astronomers in AD 1054. Albert acquired and processed all of the images himself with astronomy imaging processing software such as MaximDL and Gimp. The amazing part of this story is that Albert has only been imaging for a little over half a year since the observatory became operational in July of 2015.

M1 - The "Crab Nebula" Imaged by Albert Brox III
M1 - The "Crab Nebula" Imaged by Albert Brox III.

I was fortunate to meet and speak with Mr. Gyra and Mr. Brox after the talk about their accomplishments and how inspiring they were and how nice it was to hear of a high school participating in great depth with astronomy education. Mike and I also discussed a plan about Insight Observatory and Barnstable High School collaborating on astronomy projects with his astronomy classes for the next school year.

A sincere thank you to Mr. Gyra and Mr. Brox for sharing their interests and passion for astronomy with the public. Also, a special thank you to the Cotuit Library for their continuing series of talks on the subject of astronomy.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Featured Deep-Sky Object - NGC 3115

Welcome to the first post of Insight Observatory's "Featured Deep-Sky Object" series. The purpose of these posts is to share some images of the finest deep-sky objects in the night sky and a few facts about them. All images of these objects posted have been acquired by either Insight Observatory staff members or students utilizing remote robotic telescopes.

Our "Featured Deep-Sky Object" for this post is NGC 3115. Also called the Spindle Galaxy or Caldwell 53, NGC 3115 is a spiral galaxy located in the southern hemisphere constellation Sextans. The galaxy was discovered by William Herschel on February 22, 1787. At about 32 million light-years away from Earth, the galaxy is several times bigger than the Milky Way. It is a lenticular galaxy because it contains a disk and a central bulge of stars, but without a detectable spiral pattern. NGC 3115 is seen almost exactly edge-on but was originally misclassified as an elliptical galaxy. There is some speculation that NGC 3115, in its youth, was once a quasar.

NGC 3115 - "Spindle Galaxy" Imaged on T13 by Insight Observatory
NGC 3115 - "Spindle Galaxy" Imaged on T13
by Insight Observatory.

In 1992, Astronomers John Kormendy of the University of Hawaii and Douglas Richstone of the University of Michigan announced what was observed to be a supermassive black hole in the galaxy. Based on orbital velocities of the stars in its core, the central black hole has mass measured to be approximately one billion solar masses. The galaxy appears to have mostly old stars and little or no activity. The growth of its black hole has appeared to have stopped.

In 2011, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory examined the black hole at the center of the large galaxy. A flow of hot gas toward the supermassive black hole has been imaged, making this the first time clear evidence for such a flow has been observed in any black hole. As gas flows toward the black hole, it becomes hotter and brighter. The researchers found the rise in gas temperature begins at about 700 light-years from the black hole. This suggests that the black hole in the center of NGC 3115 has a mass of about two billion solar masses, supporting previous results from optical observations. This would make NGC 3115 the nearest billion-solar-mass black hole to Earth.

Fact Source: Wikipedia
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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Of a Different Color...

Where is the color? A common question that gets asked among star party visitors and those first-time telescope buyers when they get a glimpse of galaxies and nebula through a telescope. We have been primed through the media - be it web, television, or print - to expect these nebulae and galaxies we observe through our telescopes to have the multicolored palette and hues that we see from images taken with photographic or modern CCD technology. Yet when we step up to the eyepiece to view the Orion Nebula or Whirlpool Galaxy, we see only a grayish blue image through the telescope. So what happened?


Visual Observation of M42 - Orion Nebula Sketch by Jeremy Perez, Flagstaff, AZ.
Visual Observation of M42 - Orion Nebula
Sketch by Jeremy Perez, Flagstaff, AZ.

It boils down to biology, in particular how your eye works. Your eye has a light-sensitive area called the retina which is composed of two types of light-detecting cells called rods and cones. The difference..?
  • Cones, located near the center of the eye, are capable of detecting color when there is plenty of light available.  They are not so good, however, at detecting low light levels such as through a typical amateur telescope.

  • Rods, on the other hand, are much more sensitive to low light levels. They do not, however, detect color and are located mostly away from the center of the retina - this is why you can often detect more detail when viewing an object through a telescope by using "adverted vision", effectively looking not directly at the object but slightly off center so that you bring your rods into play.

CCD Image of M42 - Orion Nebula Mike Petrasko & Muir Evenden - Insight Observatory
CCD Image of M42 - Orion Nebula
Mike Petrasko & Muir Evenden - Insight Observatory.

So there you have it: because of the low light levels present in most astronomical objects viewed through a telescope, the cones of your eye are unable to detect the object, whereas the rods are able to perform this task, but without any color information. When there is enough light available, such as when we view a planet like Jupiter or Mars through the telescope, then cones can come into play and we see the same color as comes from NASA space probes. Note that photographic or electronic (CCD) detectors don't have this cone/rod problem, but in order to improve their sensitivity to low light, a combination of low temperature and long exposures must be used to record the light from the object and present it to us in the form of an image.
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Saturday, February 6, 2016

What's Brewing in Gdańsk

If you spend any amount of time researching the history of famous astronomers of the past you can discover some surprising aspects about that person. Quite often astronomers (and scientists in general) of centuries ago were multi-talented individuals, born out of the necessity to support themselves with a living while they pursued their studies.

Hevelius monument in Gdańsk
Hevelius monument in Gdańsk.

Today we will look at one such individual: Johannes Hevelius (or Jan Heweliusz in Polish) was an astronomer who lived between 1611 and 1687 in Danzig (now Gdańsk in Poland). Although he took part in local municipal administration activities, his main interests lied in astronomy. Building an observatory on his roof known as Sternenburg or "Star Castle", his studies there drew notice from Polish royalty and other astronomers like Edmond Halley, among others. Known for his naked eye observations, he published star atlases which included seven constellations that he invented that are still in use today:
  • Scutum: The shield, in honor of King John III Sobieski of Poland who helped Jan rebuild his observatory after a fire
  • Sextans: The sextant, in commemoration of the instruments he lost in the fire
  • Vulpecula: The Fox
  • Canes Venatici: The hunting dogs
  • Lacerta: The lizard
  • Leo Minor: The little lion
  • Lynx: The Lynx

Beer Brand Label.

Impressive achievements to be sure...so what could possibly be Hevelius' other notable occupation of interest to us? Beer! Not so strange considering Hevelius took over the family brewery from his German parents and was head of the local brewing guild. Brewing beer was a tradition in his family, and even today you can buy a beer named after Gdańsk's local son.

Memorial to Hevelius in St. Catherine's Church
Memorial to Hevelius in St. Catherine's Church.

Today if you visit Gdańsk you can view the legacy of Johannes Hevelius: the former location of his home and brewery, Ul. Piwna (Piwna or "Beer" Street), and his final resting place in St. Catherine's Church. And of course, tip a tall cool one in honor of Jan himself!
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