BAN #345: Gmail tip, Alien Phalanx

2 August 2021   Issue #345

[The planetary nebula M 2-9, winds from a dying star. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Legacy Archive / Judy Schmidt]

Subscribers nuke it from orbit. it’s the only way to be sure.

Life Hacks

Not what you might expect from an astronomer, but in my defense I am alive

I use gmail, and for some reason I sometimes label and archive emails I want to save when they’re still unread. This is my own fault; I will read an email and than mark it “unread” if it’s something I have to take care of later. Sometimes I archive them before marking them as “read” again, though, so the sidebar tells me I have 147 unread emails archived under the “lectures” label, for example.

These are old emails, and I have a bajillion emails in the folder, pages and pages of them. How to find the ones marked as unread so I can mark them as read and not see them silently mocking me in the sidebar?

So I looked it up. In the “Search mail” field at the top of the Gmail page, put in “is:unread” and boom. Unread emails are listed. You can do this in the archive, too: “label:lecture is:unread”. To mark them as read, just click the little square (it says “Select” when you hover over it) at the top left of the list and then click the “read” icon (the open envelope).

Woohoo! No more guilt. Well, no more “j’accuse!” unread emails I can see. And if I don’t see it, it’s not a problem!

Yeah, that last sentence may need to be the subject of another Life Hack.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[The galaxy cluster MACSJ0138.0-2155 has so much mass it gravitationally distorts light from a more distant galaxy, warping it into arcs as seen from Earth. From Monday’s article. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Newman, M. Akhshik, K. Whitaker; CC BY 4.0]

Monday 26 July, 2021: Magnificent Hubble image of a cluster warping space and stripping gas

Tuesday 27 July, 2021: An ancient remnant of a galactic collision encircles the Sombrero Galaxy

Wednesday 28 July, 2021: Forecast for Jupiter's moon Ganymede: Extremely cold and… humid?

Thursday 29 July, 2021: This is the best time all year to see the ringed magnificence of Saturn

Friday 30 July, 2021:Psyche is the most metal asteroid: It may have volcanoes that spewed molten iron

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I recommend

Something I think you’ll like

If you don’t know my friend Scott Sigler, you should. I’ve mentioned him in BAN a few times before (notably here, where I did a podcast with him and his wife A): He’s an author who writes mostly scifi/horror, and his stuff is all science-based, or at least he tries to stick to good science as much as he can. His horror stuff is really good, and the Pandemic trilogy is quite unsettling (affiliate link). I highly suggest you pick those up.

Scott has a new(ish) novel that I finished recently and it was great. It’s called Aliens: Phalanx, and yes, it’s set in the Aliens universe. I’ve seen quite a few short videos and such set in the same universe, and they tend to repeat the same stories already told; humans on a spaceship or whatever find an egg, get infected, blah blah blah.

But Scott’s story is significantly different. I won’t spoil it, but it takes place on a planet where the humans have essentially medieval tech and thinking. There used to be a more advanced civilization that spanned much of the planet but now there are separate groups in holds; mountain fortresses to protect them from “demons” that prowl the land.

The story focuses on a young woman, Ahiliyah, who is a runner: teenagers who can travel quickly across land from hold to hold for trade. She’s a great protagonist: Smart, willfull, unwilling to take any crap from anyone, but still grounded and interesting, even vulnerable at times. We follow her as the situation on the planet changes, and she has to accept more responsibility to save her people and, hopefully and eventually, much more.

Sorry about being vague, but I hate spoilers!

Given her character, I’ll note this isn’t what I’d call Young Adult, though I’d have no problem letting a young teenager read it. I found it really engaging, fun, brisk, and difficult to put down. He has a new take on both the humans and the aliens which makes the story fresh, and he has an ability to draw you in and make you care about the characters; that made the scenes with the demons a lot edgier and scary.

If you’re wondering if I’m biased, well, yes, Scott and A are dear friends, but one reason we all like each other is we respect what the others do. I would never recommend something I didn’t myself enjoy. And I enjoyed the heck out of this book. I’ll also note he’s a New York Times bestselling author, so there’s that too.

It’s available at the usual places, including Amazon (again, affiliate link). There are other books  20th Century Fox has approved by other authors as well. If they’re anywhere near the quality of Scotts book I’ll be picking them up, too.

P.S. My colleague Jeff Spry at SYFY write a review of the book a while back, too.

Et alia

You can email me at thebadastronomer@gmail.com (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at about.me. Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!

BAN #343: Happy birthday Pirillo, An eclipse from 1.5 million km away

26 July 2021   Issue #343

[The planetary nebula M 2-9, winds from a dying star. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Legacy Archive / Judy Schmidt]

Subscribers are never eclipsed, annularly or otherwise

Blast from the Past

A quick link to an old post or article because it’s relevant, or came up in conversation, or just because it deserves a second look.

Today just so happens to be my friend Chris Pirillo’s birthday, so I figure I’d give him a shoutout.

By coincidence, I was poking around twitch.tv seeing what sort of science content they had and he was doing a live stream, so I popped in to say hi. I haven’t talked with him in a while and we reminisced; we met when he was doing a show on TechTV called “Call for Help”, where people could call in about computer stuff and he’d answer. He invited me on to do movie reviews from a science standpoint, and while I can’t remember how many times I came down to do the show, but it was always fun.

While we were talking I wondered if any of those segments were online so I did a quick search, and this came up: An article I wrote on Discover about it! I had totally forgotten about this, but in my defense it was 14 years ago.

Back then, I found an old VHS tape with the show, so I digitized it and uploaded it to YouTube. Here it is:

It’s so odd: I look the same, but different. Like my head was rounder, which to be fair might be a video aspect ratio issue, but may also show my actual aspect ratio has changed over the years. I do miss that shirt though.

Anyway, Chris is on Twitch.tv and Twitter (he was literally the first person I followed on Twitter when I first joined) and probably other stuff, so drop by today and wish him a happy birthday!

[Chris and me from 2007, I think, when I met up with him one day in San Francisco and we hung out.]

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[A portion of the huge Taurus Molecular Cloud is seen here in two-panel mosaic. From Tuesday’s article. Credit: Adam Block /Steward Observatory/University of Arizona]

Monday 19 July, 2021: A deep look at a nearby galaxy’s black hole reveals the launching point of intergalactic jets

Tuesday 20 July, 2021: The sky is filled with rivers of darkness

Wednesday 21 July, 2021: Do you have to be a billionaire to ride a rocket to space? No, but it helps.

Thursday 22 July, 2021: A disk of material around an alien planet may be forming moons as we watch

Friday 23 July, 2021: The tallest mountain on a neutron star may be a fraction of a millimeter tall

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Pic o’ the Letter

A cool or lovely or mind-bending astronomical image/video with a short description so you can grok it

On June 10, 2021, the Moon passed directly between the Earth and the Sun, creating a solar eclipse. This means its shadow is cast down on the planet. From Earth we see the Sun blocked by the Moon, either partly or wholly, but if you look down on Earth from space you see, well, the shadow of the Moon cast on the Earth.

The NASA/NOAA satellite DSCOVR sits about 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth in the direction of the Sun, taking images of our planet every hour or so. It had a phenomenal view of the eclipse:

[The June 2021 solar eclipse seen from the DSCOVR satellite. Credit: NASA/NOAA]

Yeah, whoa. Due to geometry the shadow falls on different parts of the Earth in different eclipses, and this one was a little bit arctic. It was also an annular eclipse: The Moon was near apogee, when it’s farthest from Earth, and appears a little bit smaller to us so it doesn’t block the entire Sun. Instead it leaves a circle of solar surface around it at maximum, like a ring. This happened in June when the Earth was also farthest from the Sun, so the Sun was a bit smaller too. That change is only a few percent, where the Moon changes size by 10% or so over its orbit; together it still meant we got an annular eclipse.

NASA has a pretty nice video summing all this up and explaining DSCOVR too:

The next big solar eclipse in the US in is 2024. My wife and I are thinking of doing a Science Getaway for that one, so stay tuned for more info!

Et alia

You can email me at thebadastronomer@gmail.com (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at about.me. Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!

BAN #341: Hubble fixed, Find exoplanets for NASA

19 July 2021   Issue #341

[The planetary nebula M 2-9, winds from a dying star. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Legacy Archive / Judy Schmidt]

Subscribers keep my own payload computer operating smoothly

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news

As I reported recently over on my blog, on June 13, 2021 the Hubble Space Telescope went into “safe mode”, shutting down systems, closing its hatch, and putting itself into what’s essentially standby mode. This is an automatic feature when it detects a fault in its hardware or software that could cause trouble.

It took a long time to diagnose, but the problem is a faulty payload computer, which organizes and controls the observatory’s scientific instruments. On July 15 engineers switched to a backup payload computer — pretty much all hardware onboard has redundant backups — and successfully got Hubble to turn back on!

The first observations since the shutdown were done on Saturday, and apparently everything is working fine. Phew!

[The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, seen here above the Earth during the last servicing mission in 2009. Credit: NASA]

Hubble was launched into space in April 1990, and for the past 31 years has been taking incredible observations of the cosmos. It’s not clear how much longer it will last — everything on it is at least 20 years old — but for as long as we get to have it, I’m good.

I have a long history with Hubble, and I want it to go on as long as possible. The good news is, clever people here on Earth are looking after it.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[The supernova SN 2019NP (centered) blew up in the galaxy NGC 3254, and Hubble was used to observe both it and the stars around it to more accurately gauge its distance. From Monday’s article. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Riess et al.; CC BY 4.0]

Monday 12 July, 2021: Measuring the expansion of the Universe: Dying stars may be telling us we're doing it wrong.

Tuesday 13 July, 2021: Mars 'copter Ingenuity still flying high, spots hazards for the Perseverance rover

Wednesday 14 July, 2021: The ultimate fate of a nearby four-planet system: cosmic pinball, then game over

Thursday 15 July, 2021: Mysterious bursts of radio pulses prefer a galaxy's loving arms

Friday 16 July, 2021: How are stars born? Absolutely gorgeously. See for yourself.

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news

[Artwork depicting exoplanets orbiting another star. Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle]

This is somewhat niche, but if you’re an amateur astronomer with a decent ‘scope and a CCD, you can help NASA discover and characterize exoplanets!

Most exoplanets are discovered using the transit method, when we see their orbits edge-on and they pass in front of their star once per orbit. The amount of light from the star drops a bit, and this can be measured. In the case of a Jupiter-sized planet and a Sun-sized star, that drop is about 1%, well within reach of digital cameras on, say, a 20-cm telescope for many stars.

NASA has partnered with the venerable AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers) on a project called Exoplanet Watch, where you can observe stars and look for exoplanet signals. You can actually discover exoplanets, help astronomers better understand previously found ones, and do a host of other observations that support the search for other worlds. In some cases you don’t even need your own telescope; they have robotic ones taking data you can examine as well.

Way back when I did some work with the AAVSO, and this is a dedicated group of people who love watching the skies. I’m glad they’re involved.

I remember when the first exoplanet transits were being seen, and it was becoming clear a lot of stars would have them. I stood in front of a blackboard in a friend’s office and did a bunch of back-of-the-envelope calculations, proving to myself that the 35-cm robotic telescope we were putting together for the university would easily be able to make observations like this for a lot of brighter stars. That was a long time ago, and we’ve come a long way since then.

So if you have a hankering to look for strange new worlds and want to make a real and lasting contribution to science. Take a look at Exoplanet Watch.

Et alia

You can email me at thebadastronomer@gmail.com (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at about.me. Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!

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