Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Monday, June 12, 2017

ATEO Nearing First Light

In our previous post "ATEO Feeling at Home at SkyPi" regarding the installation of the Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO), we mentioned the focuser needed some improving before achieving first light. We just received an update from John at SkyPi Online Observatories that the hardware necessary for the upgrade is in and the focuser is now in the hands of their machinist. John stated that by the end of this week he should have the revamped focuser back and that he and the staff at SkyPi will be completing the telescope build. The timing for first light will be perfect due to the waning phase of the moon.

Insight Observatory's Systems Engineer, Muir Evenden, with the  Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO-1).
Insight Observatory's Systems Engineer, Muir Evenden, with the
Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO-1).

While the telescope's focuser is being attended to since our return from the ATEO installation in New Mexico, Insight Observatory's System's Engineer and Co-Founder, Muir Evenden, has been continuing his development of the telescope's online interface. This web-based application will allow students, educators, and the general public to access the telescope remotely from anywhere in the world. 

As Muir continues his work on the telescope's interface development, Insight Observatory's Project Developer and Co-Founder, Michael Petrasko, continues to work on promoting awareness to educational communities and forums regarding the future availability to the 16" telescope. If all goes according to plan, the ATEO remote robotic online telescope will be accessible this upcoming July 2017.
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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Observers Track the Next New Horizons’ Target

January 1, 2019, is still several months away, however, for members of NASA's New Horizons team, it's hurtling toward them like a freight train. That's when the spacecraft will fly past the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 at close range.

Astronomers guess that it's between 25 and 45 km (15 and 30 miles) across, but the exact size depends on the reflectivity of its surface — and that's unknown. In fact, they needed the Hubble Space Telescope to discover this incredibly dim speck (magnitude 27½) at all. It's some 6½ billion km (43.3 astronomical units) from the Sun, a third farther out than Pluto is.

The stellar "shadow" cast by 2014 MU69 took about 11 minutes to sweep across Earth, so from any given location the star would disappear for no more than about 2 seconds.
The stellar "shadow" cast by 2014 MU69 took about 11 minutes to sweep across Earth,
so from any given location, the star would disappear for no more than about 2 seconds.

"This object has so far proven to be impossible to detect from the ground," laments Marc Buie (Southwest Research Institute). "100% of the data we have directly on 2014 MU69 is from HST, starting with the discovery images and then onward to additional images for astrometry."

To learn more and guess less, Buie and the New Horizons team have turned to an observing technique that can be even more powerful than HST: stellar occultations. It turns out that 2014 MU69, currently drifting among the rich star fields of Sagittarius about 5° northeast of the Teapot, passes directly in front of three stars this year: June 3rd, July 10th, and July 17th. That's the good news. The bad news is that these stars are themselves very faint, and (as the maps below show) getting into the predicted tracks presents plenty of challenges.

Read Full Source Article at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/solar-system/observers-track-new-horizons-next-target/
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Thursday, June 8, 2017

What Are Astronomical Artifacts?

In a nutshell, Astronomical Artifacts are objects erected or constructed by ancient civilizations that were used in conjunction with the visible celestial bodies that orbited the planet outside the Earth's atmosphere. Such objects as the stone circles at Nabta Playa in Egypt, as well as the pyramids and the construction of Stonehenge, are all considered ancient Astronomical Artifacts. The civilizations that built these monuments often used these objects for both religious ceremonies and astronomical purposes. There are some theorists that claim the enormous statues on Easter Island also had astronomical symbolism. Theories and debates over how these objects were created and what they were intended to be used for range from the simple to the extreme. Some believe these monuments were erected by civilizations that were far superior intelligently for their time in history, while others believe they provide evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation and interference with human history.

Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England - Image Credit: Joel Connors
Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England - Image Credit: Joel Connors.

The pyramids of ancient Egypt were constructed in alignment with the pole star and the Great Temple was built in alignment with the rising of the midwinter sun. These monuments assisted the Egyptians with determining different natural occurrences, such as the annual flooding of the Nile river basin. They also assisted the temple astronomers with following the different phases, conjunctions and rising of such celestial bodies as stars, planets and their natural satellites, or moons.

Stonehenge is another Astronomical Artifact. This monument has a much-storied history dating all the way back to 8,000 B.C. There is significant evidence suggesting that at some of its earliest moments in history it was used as a burial facility. Archaeologists have uncovered several grave sites around the area where the stones are actually erected. They have also found evidence to suggest that several different generations of people used the area for different purposes. Religious rituals and ceremonies were also conducted at this historical site, and several theories exist as to how the stones were actually aligned and what they were intended for, most of which surround religious theories as well as astronomical symbolism in the formation of reading and charting stars and planets.

The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered in 1900 by sponge divers off the coast of the Greek Island Antikythera when they came across an ancient Roman-era shipwreck. This bronze device is about the size of a shoebox and baffled scientists and archaeologists for years. It wasn't until very recently that a British researcher, exploring the evidence and inscriptions on the mechanism, was able to identify and establish it as the oldest surviving astronomical computer. It has 30 wheels and dials that are covered in astronomical inscriptions and texts which have been used to decipher and translate ancient Greek languages that haven't been seen or used in over 2,000 years.

One of the oldest educated and intelligent civilizations in the history of humans is the Sumerians who were also steeped in the knowledge of Astronomy for their period in time. The Mul Apin tablet is an artifact that dates back to the time of the Sumerians. This device contained astronomical information, as well as significant dates for the rising and setting of specific constellations. It also included a record of omens that were predicted by the reading and mapping of celestial objects.

If you're new to the wonderful world of astronomy, or star gazing, a great outset would be Asynx Planetarium Software.

To download the software and to start your observations today, visit http://www.asynx-planetarium.com an invaluable source of information for beginners.

Christian Nuesch Article Source: What Are Astronomical Artifacts?
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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Earth - "Un-Flattened"

There is a hefty price to pay for, *profound*, scientific illiteracy, as is demonstrated here, by the person who contrived the 'info'-graphic below....

In attempting to 'prove' that the Earth is flat, the creator of this image doesn't seem to know that the Sun's apparent movement across the sky, due to the rotation of a round, roughly, spherical Earth, is from East to West and NOT from North to South. Two people making observations, from two different points along a line of longitude (in this case, early in the morning, separated by a few thousand miles), are not going to see the Sun in the sky in the same position in latitude; in fact--they're within only one time zone from each other! They will, however, see it at approximately at the same elevation from the horizon--and in the case of the graphic, are, in fact, within one-time zone from each other!

Here's a simple way to demonstrate that the Earth is a globe--or, at least, that it is NOT a flat, linear field.

Take, a sheet of cardboard or poster board--or, even an 8-1/2" x 11" sheet of paper--outside, when the sun is low in the sky, at, or very near the eastern horizon just after sunrise. I should mention, here: you need to know a person who is well West of you, preferably, on the West Coast, but any place considerably West of you will do. (This person should also be of pleasant demeanor - and not mind being awakened in the middle of the night!)

Now, holding the sheet in your hands, in front of you, level to the ground and facing the sun, imagine the sheet to be the flat Earth, and, imagine that a tiny you is standing on the end of the sheet nearest the Sun (farthest from your body) and, your, also, tiny friend on the west coast is standing at the end of the sheet farthest from the Sun - the end closest to your body.

Note that the sheet is evenly illuminated by sunlight when it is level with the ground, and that, both you and your friend are standing in daylight - both of you can see the sun in the sky at the same time and at the same elevation. You have just created a scale model of a "flat" Earth, and the sun's position relative to it.

Okay--now, with one hand holding the end of the sheet farthest from you, take the end of the sheet closest to you and bend it, slowly, downwards, toward the ground, with your other hand until you have formed, roughly, a 90° arc. Note that the sun is now shining only on the segment of the arc farthest from you (our "East Coast", in this demonstration). The segment of the arc curved downwards, away from the Sun - the West Coast, is now in shadow. You have just created a scale model of the "curved" surface of the Earth, and the Sun's position relative to it. 

Which scenario works best in explaining why it is daylight at some points on Earth, while, at the same time, it is dark at other points--the 'flat-Earth' model or the 'curved-Earth' model?

OK - now, if you thought that was tricky - let's test this hypothesis by getting some data from your friend to the west.

Give your friend a call on the phone - apologizing, and explaining that you are, "on an important mission of 'scientific discovery', to prove the non-linear, non-'flat'- field properties of the Earth as an 'oblate spheroid'!".... [yeah, uh-huh - you just go ahead and try that!]

When all the yelling, accusations, and humiliation (on your part), have subsided, ask him, or her, this: "Where is the sun, in the sky, right at this moment?"... 

(After another, hopefully brief, round of biting, acerbic, accusatory statements regarding the level of your sanity), he or she, will tell you that, it is dark - the sun has not yet risen - and that you should go back to bed! 

This scenario is, of course, best explained because of the curved surface of the Earth, and your friend's perspective (of both the Earth - and of you), relative to the Sun, and it corresponds exactly to the cardboard curvature demonstration.

You have proven the surface of the Earth to be a curve, rather than a plane. That is an excellent thing!
The demonstration works just as well, at or near sunset, where you will get the opposite results, with your friend out west, this time, in daylight, while you are at dusk.

But, to get back to the price paid: it is in the self-betrayal - in front of the entire, civilized, online world, that -- you don't know what the h*ll you're talking about! 

A little common sense--and a demonstration--go a long way, folks!
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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Observing the Crescent Nebula

The dark skies of Pie Town, New Mexico allowed me to have one of (if not the best) visual observing experience of my life. While my colleague, Muir Evenden and I were installing the Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO) in the mountains of western New Mexico, we had the chance to do a few nights of visual observing.

One of the staff members at SkyPi Remote Observatories, Michael, was generous enough to invite us to his home not far from the observatory to observe through his 20" Obsession Dobsonian Telescope. The views through this fine instrument complemented with the dark clear skies along with his 2" Nagler eyepieces were simply breathtaking. I could go on in this post about every single object I observed into detail due to how amazing they all looked. However, I wanted to share my experience with observing a new object for the first time... NGC 6888, otherwise known as the "Crescent Nebula".

 NGC 6888 - The "Crescent Nebula in Cygnus - T.A. Rector (NRAO/AUI/NSF and NOAO/AURA/NSF)
NGC 6888 - The "Crescent Nebula in Cygnus - T.A. Rector (NRAO/AUI/NSF and NOAO/AURA/NSF).

After Michael showed me the Veil Nebula through his telescope, he asked me if I wanted to look at the Crescent Nebula in the constellation of Cygnus. I have read and seen images regarding this object, however, I have never actually observed it. After Michael slewed the telescope to the object, I climbed the ladder to take a glimpse and I was truly speechless! Michael had an Oxygen III filter (which is a necessity for this object) attached the eyepiece that allowed me to see the emission nebula in detail very much like the image above. Michael said some of his guest observers will say "it looks like an ear".

The Crescent Nebula is about 5000 light-years away from Earth. It was discovered by Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in 1792. It is formed by the fast stellar wind from the Wolf-Rayet star WR 136 colliding with and energizing the slower moving wind ejected by the star when it became a red giant around 250,000 to 400,000 years ago. The result of the collision is a shell and two shock waves, one moving outward and one moving inward. The inward moving shock wave heats the stellar wind to X-ray emitting temperatures.

After observing this object, I have added it to the list of deep-sky objects to image through the ATEO when it goes online within the next few weeks. We have an Oxygen III filter in the filter wheel attached to the telescope.

A special thank you to Michael from SkyPi Online Observatories for introducing this fine object to me! It brought back great memories of what it was like looking at deep-sky objects through a telescope for the first time.

Source: Wikipedia - Crescent Nebula
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Friday, June 2, 2017

"Hey Rocky - Watch Me Pull an Asteroid Out of My Hat!"

In Feb of 2012, Earth collided with a 65ft. in diameter asteroid, which exploded over the Russian town of Chelyabinsk. We all know the fortunate outcome there--they were extremely lucky, in that, the sonic boom, created by the disintegrating rock (at a height of 15 miles as it careened through our atmosphere toward the ground at 45,000 miles per hour), caused thousands of injuries, partially demolished buildings and shattered windows. Had the asteroid entered the atmosphere at a steeper angle, the results would have been catastrophic.

This is the trail of Chelyabinsk asteroid which exploded about 14 miles above ground with a force nearly 30 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb in 2013. Credit: Neuromainker via YouTube/Screenshot by Irene Klotz for Discovery News
This is the trail of Chelyabinsk asteroid which exploded about 14 miles above ground
with a force nearly 30 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb in 2013.
Credit: Neuromainker via YouTube/Screenshot by Irene Klotz for Discovery News.

And we never saw it coming. This meteor snuck right up on us from the direction of the sun, out of sight in the blinding light of day, as if some celestial magician had pulled it out of a hat--then threw it at us.

But, guess what? There's more to this celestial magic act...  

Bullwinkle pulling an asteroid from his hat

Let's start here...

This past April, Earth's orbit intersected the orbit of an asteroid debris field--the debris train, left in the wake of an orbiting, cometary, or, asteroidal body. This particular field is several times the Earth's diameter, and we were right in the thick of it for the entire month of April, as well as the end of March and beginning of June. Earth's atmosphere encounters this field, and others somewhat like it, on occasion, every April, which, due to the pull of gravity produces 'fireballs' (unusually bright) and 'bolides' (exploding) meteors. But, parts of the field have been increasing in density over time.

Astonishingly, we've had 16 near-misses by asteroids, since January of this year, some within just a quarter of the distance to the moon, and one, actually, at an altitude of less than our GPS satellites! Most of these objects were just a few meters across, with the exception of one, which was a few kilometers in diameter!

So, is this kind of thing common? Could we experience another collision, similar to the Chelyabinsk event?

Well, it isn't a matter of, "If". Rather--I'm afraid--it's a matter of "When". And, that's not just an 'alarmist'' opinion, either; here's the deal:

Space--particularly interplanetary space--is not, entirely, empty. At any given time, there is an assortment of asteroidal and cometary debris surrounding the Earth, and in its orbital path around the Sun. Most of this debris is particulate. But, the process of the formation of our solar system, left behind a wide range of sizes of fragmented rock and iron. In our immediate neighborhood, there are asteroids composed of this material ranging in size from bits of dust, to rocks---to boulders---to school buses---even to 5-story apartment buildings! The Chelyabinsk meteorite was the size of the latter. And, there are a few asteroids out there--- the size of small moons!

On an average day, Earth's atmosphere encounters two basketball-sized asteroids. In any two-week period, we get slammed, by one SUV-sized asteroid. Some burn up, entirely in the atmosphere--and, some, make it to the ground.

In the early days after the formation of our solar system, there was much more of this material, which ended up on the surfaces of Earth and the moon and other planets. Here on Earth, the processes of weathering and erosion have erased most of the evidence for those impacts. However, there is plenty left-over for orbital physics to play with.

Earth--and, ourselves--are moving through space, on our annual revolution around "Sol", our star--our sun (counterclockwise, viewed from the Sun's North Pole), at a speed of 33,000 mph. At the same time, we're rotating on our axis, eastward, at a speed of 1,000 mph.

Here's a very fitting analogy: We're driving down the freeway, blindfolded--with the pedal to the floor; eventually, we're going to crash---unless we can prevent it from happening, altogether, with an early detection/warning and response system.

Become a member of the NASA Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), a program which keeps track of these objects by monitoring and plotting their positions, trajectories and velocities. You could--literally--save the world.

**The title, some of you may remember, is a take-off on the 60's cartoon styles, "Rocky and His Friends" ("Bulwinkle" was, undoubtedly, his closest!).
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