Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Chasing Auroras in Finland

As described in a blog post I wrote last year, my wife and I took a trip to Tromso, Norway in late April 2018. While there we caught a planetarium show all about the aurora borealis or 'northern lights', with some wonderful time-lapse photography. We were hooked and decided that at some point in the future we would like to see such displays first hand for ourselves. Our Tromso trip was too late in the spring to see the auroras, so we'd have to plan another trip in the future, during a more opportune time for viewing.

Fast forward to early this year. My wife every year has a two week winter holiday from school, and this year it was to take place in mid-February, so this was our chance to try and see the auroras. A promotional deal from Wizz Air to Turku, Finland quickly helped us determine our starting point. After arriving in Turku we travelled by train north to the town of Rovaniemi (home of none other than Santa Claus), right at the Arctic Circle: this was going to be our home base for three days.

First sighting of the Aurora Borealis - Photo by Muir Evenden.
First sighting of the Aurora Borealis - Photo by Muir Evenden.

Rovaniemi has many tour guides and providers to take visitors on a variety of experiences (husky or reindeer sleigh rides, skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, you name it - including viewing auroras of course). Unfortunately, Rovaniemi has its share of light pollution so to really appreciate the auroras it is recommended to find a spot outside of town beyond the reach of the lights. Our first few days in Rovaniemi we were unsuccessful in seeing any aurora as the weather was either cloudy and/or the light pollution made it impossible to see anything but the moon or brightest stars.

Our hopes for viewing the aurora rested on a tour we had booked with the tour company "Lapland Welcome" on February 14th. Our aurora tour broke down roughly as follows:
  • 8 PM: Guides pick up clients (us!), go to the office and dress up in warm clothing/boots.

  • 8:45 PM: Drive clients to the remote location, about 50 minutes of travel time.

  • 10-12 PM: If lucky and sky is clear and Aurora is present, view/photograph aurora, warm up if needed in shelter and snack on provided sausages and hot drinks.

  • 12 PM: Return back to Rovaniemi (we got back at our hotel at 1AM).

While we were travelling to the observing site our tour guides were keeping an eye open for signs of aurora activity. Auroras can be fleeting and short-lived at times so if it showed itself before we reached our destination the plan was to stop immediately and get our viewing/pictures then. On our trip the aurora borealis finally made an appearance right as we were arriving at our final destination; the guides urged us to quickly go and get some photos while we could as there is no predicting how long it would last. We spent the next 10 minutes climbing a short hill to a better viewing location, and the Aurora picked up right as we arrived on top.

The Aurora Borealis captured at the top of the hill - Photo by Muir Evenden.
The Aurora Borealis captured at the top of the hill - Photo by Muir Evenden.

Needless to say, we were all excited! I kept snapping pictures as long as I could until the aurora faded away, and even then I captured some nice shots of the moon which provided some light to illuminate the landscape.

The Moon illuminating the landscape - Photo by Muir Evenden.
The Moon illuminating the landscape - Photo by Muir Evenden.

An aurora (plural: auroras or aurorae), sometimes referred to as polar lights, northern lights (aurora borealis) or southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in the Earth's sky, predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic).

Auroras are produced when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind that the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma, mainly in the form of electrons and protons, precipitate them into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere) due to Earth's magnetic field, where their energy is lost.

The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emit light of varying color and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles. Precipitating protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere. Proton auroras are usually observed at lower latitudes. Source: Wikipedia
Read More

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Elementary Students Research Deep Space Images

Insight Observatory was excited to offer elementary school students the chance to access their online remote robotic telescope, the Astronomical Telescopes for Educational Outreach (ATEO), to acquire their deep space images. The students used the Educational Image Request (EIR) to submit their deep space image requests. They were then able to choose to image with either the 16" reflector (ATEO-1) or the 5" refractor (ATEO-2A) telescopes. Manomet Elementary School Teacher, Nancy Cavicchi describes the classes assignment...

"This past January and February, the student’s from my 5th-grade science classes from Plymouth, Massachusetts had the unique opportunity to work collaboratively with Insight Observatory.

5th-grade students submitting their image requests on Insight Observatory's   Educational Image Request (EIR) form. Photo by Mrs Cavicchi.
5th-grade students submitting their image requests on Insight Observatory's 
Educational Image Request (EIR) form. Photo by Mrs Cavicchi.

Students were paired up to work together to research different celestial bodies. Their assignment was to become “class experts” and to share their knowledge with each other. Students spent time researching their choice of a galaxy or a nebula. They gathered information, created a Google slide presentation, and then presented it to their classmates.

M42 - The Orion Nebula imaged on ATEO-2A by Kasey G. and Haylee L., NGC 2903 - Spiral Galaxy imaged on ATEO-2A by Julianna S. and Lily H. and M44 - The Beehive Open Cluster imaged on ATEO-1 by Faith N. and Oliver E. from Mrs. Cavicchi's 5th-grade science classes.
M42 - The Orion Nebula imaged on ATEO-2A by Kasey G. and Haylee L., NGC 2903 - Spiral Galaxy imaged on ATEO-2A by Julianna S. and Lily H. and M44 - The Beehive Open Cluster imaged on ATEO-1 by Faith N. and Oliver E. from Mrs. Cavicchi's 5th-grade science classes.

All their hard work paid off when the remote telescopes in New Mexico captured images of each student’s celestial body. Their excitement was beyond anything we could have imagined. When we started this project they had very basic knowledge of space and did not have a clear understanding of how vast space really is. While researching, the children’s curiosity grew tremendously to discover the depth of space exploration."

M81 - Bode's Galaxy imaged on ATEO-1 by Madison M. and Bianca B. and M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy imaged ATEO-1 by Makenna S. and Odybray F. from Mrs Cavicchi's 5th-grade science classes.
M81 - Bode's Galaxy imaged on ATEO-1 by Madison M. and Bianca B. and M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy imaged ATEO-1 by Makenna S. and Odybray F. from Mrs Cavicchi's 5th-grade science classes.

Read More

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Universe: A "Life-Building Machine"?

Astronomers, astrobiologists, cosmologists, and the like, generally believe that life exists elsewhere in our universe, with some allotment of that life, being, intelligent life. This is why a relatively new field of astronomy, known as astrobiology, came to be, and the reason there exists, the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) - a privately funded program employing various, large-scale radio telescopes (dishes), in a methodical search for extraterrestrial intelligence by monitoring the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). Astrobiologists and radio astronomers are looking for potential, artificial EMS signals - perhaps, some repetitive, or unusual pattern - set against the background of the natural, randomized static radiation of the spectrum, overall, which pervades all of space.

2019 Dale Alan Bryant

Although this search is now in its fifth decade (on again/off again/on again, in various incarnations), to date, we have found - exactly nothing. However, considering the practically infinite number of stars in the visible universe, we've just begun to explore in this sense, and what has been explored is only a tiny sample; merely a fraction of a percent of all known stars.

Moreover, it has become altogether clear to us - by the sheer number of new planetary systems that have been discovered, using a highly specialized piece of orbiting, electronic equipment: the Kepler Orbiting Observatory*, that, life as we know it, can exist – and, possibly, even flourish to the point of the production of large, macrobiotic organisms, like ourselves, and, possibly intelligent organisms on planets, far beyond our own Solar System.

Additionally, our own “Solar system” is just one of many, many other planetary systems that are now known to exist, circling nearly every star (and, technically, making those stars, “suns”, in their own right). How many planets? - in how many new planetary systems? - more than 4,500, recently discovered planets, hundreds of which have been confirmed to be Earth-like, in size, existing in planetary systems currently numbering over 2,000 - that's how many! Astonishingly, the current rate of planetary discovery, is, roughly: one planet, every 30-40----days! (And, I'm happy to report, that, I have been a part of that search for the last few years, and have contributed to at least one planetary discovery!) These new planets are called exoplanets; the prefix, 'exo', denotes that, they are planets, which are beyond - and are not a part of - our own Solar system.

The “Solar system”, proper - our planetary system of planets is, of course, called the Solar system for the simple reason, that, the sun's proper name is, “Sol” (pronounced, "sole"), which takes its name from the Roman god of the Sun, hence, the "Sol-ar" system, or, the system of planets belonging to the star – our star - "Sol".** 

We used to believe that planets orbiting stars, other than the sun, were a rarity until we were able to analyze data gathered by the Kepler space telescope - a powerful, Earth-orbiting satellite who’s job it was to detect certain, ‘signature’ anomalies, in the stars of our galaxy. When we did, we found that planets were very much in abundance, in orbit around these stars; typically, from one, up to, at present - eight; in fact - we now know that there are more planets in our Milky Way galaxy - than there are stars - far more! Naturally, this extends to the countless other galaxies, as well.

We know that life has arisen at least one time in the universe - right here on our own planet – and, that this life is composed of the very elements with which the rest of the universe is made. This information was gleaned when astronomers learned that they could analyze the light of a star, using an optical instrument similar in principle to a prism called the spectroscope. That instrument divides star light up into a visible spectrum of color, interspersed with the dark, tell-tale, absorption lines of various elements, e.g., hydrogen and helium, and, with that, astronomers found that every element in our bodies, and all of the elements found in the Earth, are also scattered throughout the rest of the universe. This tells us that the universe, is, essentially, and fundamentally, the same everywhere.

Today, we understand that the elemental composition of our bodies was, literally, forged under the tremendous heat and pressures within the interiors of a certain type of star called a supernova - which is what prompted the astronomer and exobiologist, Carl Sagan, to make the surreptitious, and, somewhat deceptively accurate statement: "We are all, star-stuff".

And, so it is true. We are what the stars are; indeed - star-stuff. But we are also living star-stuff.

We know that the elements of the universe, ultimately, came together to produce life, here on our planet, by way of the “kick-starting” of amino acids - the very building-blocks of all living things. Amino acids seem to be so prevalent in the cosmos that they are even found within the dense, frozen cores of certain types of meteorites, known as, carbonaceous chondrites: a kind of meteorite formed from the “leftover”, constituent, primordial elements from the Solar System's formation.

Life on the Earth comes in many varieties and adaptations, culminating in the million+ known species of living organisms on our planet; and there isn't a single biome which is lacking for life forms to inhabit them, including, deep into the Antarctic's mile-deep ice sheets.

Now, let’s consider that most of the exoplanets, now known to exist, were discovered in just a tiny portion of the sky – a swath, about the size of an adult's, closed fist held at arm's length. Now, imagine this tiny area, just a few degrees across, and containing all those stars, closely examined by the Kepler telescope - with their planets, in orbit around them - and multiplying that out, to cover the rest of the sky. It would seem that, everywhere we look, we are going to find other worlds – many of them, as inhabited as Earth. The universe is likely littered with them! And, using the principle of mediocrity, if we can use ourselves as an example, then, we are one instance of a "living" planet.

How many more life-bearing planets must there be out there? What kind of life these worlds may host, is entirely unknown - be it, intelligent, or otherwise. But before we came to know, what we know, do know, we had believed that planets – and, especially, planets like the Earth - must be a very rare occurrence in the Cosmos. Now, however, we know this not to be the case; more than 750, Earth-sized planets, have now been confirmed to exist.

Data from the Kepler Space Telescope is still being downloaded to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, and it will take several more years to sift through all of it. How many more exoplanets will be, 'plucked from the sky', as we continue with our rapid progress in the space sciences? In my opinion, I think we will find, that: life in the universe - will be the rule, rather than the exception. Moreover, rather than seeing our Universe, as a barren, lonely desert, with just, one, unique, life-bearing planet – we may come to look upon it, as a potential, veritable, 'life-building machine'.

*(a large, orbiting space telescope, akin to the Hubble Space Telescope)

**Exo-planetary systems take on the name of their 'host', or, 'parent' star, so that, one can imagine a "Vegan System", or, "Rigellian System".
Read More