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Bring the Universe to Your Classroom!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Visit to Tromsø

The end of April 2018 found my wife and myself in the Norwegian town of Tromsø, situated at the northern end of Norway, above the Arctic Circle at 69 degrees latitude. It was a spur of the moment decision to visit here, motivated by a desire to travel somewhere new during some holiday time away from work. A fine trip it was too: beautiful scenery, friendly people, a bit of adventure (dogsledding!), and downtime from the daily work grind.

Aerial view of the Norwegian town of Tromsø - Photo by Muir Evenden.
Aerial view of the Norwegian town of Tromsø - Photo by Muir Evenden.

Of course, I wouldn't be writing this blog post unless there was some sort of angle into the world of astronomy that I could discuss, no matter how tangential. What would that be? The location of Tromsø should give it away: Auroras! Unfortunately, we were here past the prime aurora watching season, but from what we saw in town, there are a plethora of ways to watch the auroras when the time is ripe (between mid-November and mid-January is best since during this time the sun never rises above the horizon). 

Sled dogs and sea cruises to observe the aurora borealis are just a few activities to engage in. Photos by Muir Evenden.
Sled dogs and sea cruises to observe the aurora borealis are just a few activities to engage in.
Photos by Muir Evenden.

There are guided bus or auto tours, sea cruises, night flights from the local airport (in case the clouds have you socked in), sled dog (or reindeer!) trips into the wilderness where you can camp under the stars, etc, etc.

Wall-sized Planisphere at The Planetarium at the Science Centre of Northern Norway   currently showing "Extreme Auroras".  Photo by Muir Evenden.
Wall-sized Planisphere at The Planetarium at the Science Centre of Northern Norway 
currently showing "Extreme Auroras".  Photo by Muir Evenden.

And if all else fails, you can visit the local planetarium at the science museum (https://nordnorsk.vitensenter.no/en/planetarium?language=en), which is exactly what we did, viewing the show "Extreme Auroras". Not quite as good as seeing it firsthand (but an excellent show nonetheless), but it'll have to do until next time when we come back in winter!
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Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Glory of the Globulars

I LOVE GLOBULARS!!!

Yes, I'm in love with globular star clusters - and here's why!...

Generally, globular clusters (GC's) are spherical, very tightly-packed, small-ish associations of mainly older, blue-type (high temperature) stars - i.e., stars which have used up most of their thermonuclear fuel and are ready to settle down into a sedentary lifestyle (whatever it is they do when they become sedentary - your guess is as good as mine), after about 13 billion years of existence, according to a current model of galactic formation. But astronomers now have reason to consider that, they may be quite a bit younger than previously thought - perhaps, only as old as 9 billion years... (see - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0370157300000144)

Globulars tend to encircle the galactic core (our Milky Way's core, as well as other spiral-type galaxies of sufficient mass), in a sort of spherical 'halo', or 'shell' containing about 150 clusters, at an average distance of about 50,000 light-years. It isn't clear how they came to have this configuration, but it is consistent in galaxies of our type, and mass.

Through a telescope, *globulars* are beautiful - no --- *gorgeous* in appearance - even in small 'backyard', beginner telescopes. It's worth checking these things out; you'll never forget them once you've seen one. Promise! Summertime is perfect for observing GC's. There are several of them, low in the southern sky in the area of the constellation Sagittarius. Being extended (non-stellar) objects, they aren't star-like in appearance, but rather, look like dim, hazy balls of light, brightening towards the center and just a bit smaller than the full moon. Larger telescopes (6" or 8" Newtonian's/Dobsonian's) will begin to resolve their centers and fringes into individual stars and give the clusters a 'mottled' appearance towards the center. The clusters appear, mainly, white, or bluish-white in color, with occasional reddish stars thrown in, here and there. Globular clusters are some of the more "presentable", brighter celestial objects; indeed, they're often touted by advanced amateurs, as, 'celestial showpieces'.

I saw my first GC when I was 8 years old, through a family friend's, father's, reflector telescope; his Criterion RV-6, six-inch Newtonian; that GC was M13 - the Great Cluster, in Hercules. I remember it as being "spectacular" and "surreal". I had never looked through a telescope before, but I was determined that I would have one, one day (That same night, I took my first look at Saturn with it, as well!)....and, happily, I did get one - that very next Christmas!

Globular Cluster 47 Tucanae (NGC 104) - Image by Insight Observatory.
Globular Cluster 47 Tucanae (NGC 104) - Image by Insight Observatory.

A globular cluster is one of the finest things you could give to a kid. Some other GC's around the area of the galactic core, including Sagittarius, and other constellations, are:

M2 - Aquarius 
M3 - Canes Venatici 
M15 - Pegasus
M22 - Sagittarius 
M30 - Capricornus 
M53 - Coma Berenices 
and 
M55 - Sagittarius

As I mentioned, all of these objects can be seen in most any decent, small telescope.

But this presents an opportunity for me to say something about this newer information about globulars, that may change astronomers minds about these clusters' ages and why these kinds of changes of mind, are OK.

Science is constantly in a state of flux. We learn in small increments over long periods of times, and sometimes, over whole generations. As new information is gleaned, by any of several methods of collection, hypotheses and theories are adjusted, e.g., adding to, or subtracting from them - not because we've got bad ideas from the start; look around you and you'll have proof that ideas can be spot-on, and have produced nearly everything in your field of view. But even the theory behind the production of, say, that computer over there on the table can be adjusted over time, and acquire some beneficial adjunct as new ideas are formulated and played out 'in the laboratory', etc.

My point being, that, when astronomers make an announcement, such as this one, it doesn't mean they were 'wrong' in their prior thinking; it only means that their current course needs some fine-tuning. Science, by nature, is a self-correcting 'tool'. If we weren't really learning anything (which seems to be a popular, though minor irritant in today's world of, 'Internet For Anyone - Anyone At All'!) - we'd all still be romping through the jungles, sporting, "stone knives, and bear skins." ** And that's no joke!

** (reference; "Star Trek": "The City on the Edge of Forever" - Mr. Spock, to Captain Kirk referring to the available technology of the day. As I mentioned, all of these objects can be seen in most any decent, small telescope.
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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Awesomeness of the Universe

"Appreciate the Awesomeness of the Universe..." This was the theme 8th-grade science teacher, Aaron Daniels, from the Plymouth Community Intermediate School, implemented when he brought two of his science classes into the Blake Planetarium (located inside the school in Plymouth, MA) to image and learn about galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. On May 17, 2018, Mr. Daniels brought the first two of his classes into the planetarium where Planetarium Director, Steven Davies presented a lesson he produced demonstrating the distances of deep-sky objects along with explaining what equipment was needed to get a better look at these objects. The equipment was to be Insight Observatory's Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO).

Mr. Daniels 8th-grade classes engaged in Mr. Davies lesson in the Blake Planetarium covering the distances of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters and how we get a better look at them. Photo by Emily Goonan.
Mr. Daniels 8th-grade classes engaged in Mr. Davies lesson in the Blake Planetarium covering the distances of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters and how we get a better look at them. Photo by Emily Goonan.

When I asked Mr. Daniels what his objectives were for using the ATEO with his classes he stated "Awe is felt when our mind begins to comprehend something that we did not comprehend before. This can be as simple as noticing the beauty in the intricacy of a flower or in marveling at the immense expanse of space. Our goal was to point the telescope towards 24 small patches of sky to capture galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. I hope that these images our students collect stay with them and bring a feeling of greatness whenever they need inspiration. In addition to the deep space photograph that the students used the ATEO from Insight Observatory to take, they will be required to create a caption. Their caption can be artistically applied to their photograph in any way they would like."

All captions will include at least the following information:
  • Name and nickname (if applicable) of the object
  • Classification of the astronomical object (galaxy, nebula, globular star cluster, etc.)
  • Definition of the classification of the astronomical object
  • Distance from earth (in light years)
  • Location in the sky (in which constellation)
  • Other interesting astronomical objects in constellation’s field of view
  • Actual size (not arc)
  • Description and additional information
  • Exposure
  • Names (this image may be published online; therefore, the first name only is optional

Once the list of deep-sky objects was submitted for imaging, they were immediately acquired that night as the weather was very cooperative the whole time I had my visit to the observatory. As John Evelan, Managing Partner of SkyPi Remote Observatory, and I were visually observing galaxy clusters with his 18" Dobsonian reflector telescope, we could hear the ATEO slewing all night long hitting the targets on the student's list. Once the images were processed by the staff at Insight Observatory they were uploaded to Astrobin.com, a website that hosts Insight Observatory's Image Gallery. Individual collections were created for each class where Mr. Daniels and his students may access the data they retrieved with the ATEO.

Insight Observatory Project Developer, Michael Petrasko, broadcasting live from Pie Town, NM to Plymouth, MA demonstrating how the ATEO acquires images of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. Photo by Emily Goonan.
Insight Observatory Project Developer, Michael Petrasko, broadcasting live from Pie Town, NM to Plymouth, MA
demonstrating how the ATEO acquires images of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. Photo by Emily Goonan.

Coincidently, I had just arrived on my annual trek to Pie Town, New Mexico to make some enhancements on our Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO) and thought it would be a bonus for the students if I broadcasted live from the observatory and explain how the remote telescope imaging system worked. After my brief live presentation, Steve presented his lesson followed by the students teaming up to request their deep-sky image using Insight Observatory's Educational Image Request Form (EIR). Each group was assigned an object they then would enter into the form along with their desired exposure time. We repeated the same format for the third class the next day.

M8 - The Lagoon Nebula in Sagittarius (left) and M3 - Globular Cluster in Canes Venatici (right)  Imaged by 8th-grade students in Mr. Daniel's science class from PCIS, Plymouth, MA.
M8 - The Lagoon Nebula in Sagittarius (left) and M3 - Globular Cluster in Canes Venatici (right)
Imaged by 8th-grade students in Mr. Daniel's science class from PCIS, Plymouth, MA.

Upon completion of the student's assignment, they returned to the planetarium to present their images taken with the ATEO and what they have learned from this experience. I would like to thank Mr. Daniels and Mr. Davies for allowing Insight Observatory to collaborate with their classes and the opportunity to bring the universe to their classroom. 

All of the images the 8th-grade students captured can be seen at the following links...

PCIS - Grade 8 - Spring 2018 - Mr. Daniels Class 1

PCIS - Grade 8 - Spring 2018 - Mr. Daniels Class 2
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