Bad Astronomy Newsletter #19

June 18, 2018 Issue #19

Subscribe to this newsletter and somewhere in the Universe a star will explode, seeding nearby space with heavy elements needed to create more stars, planets, and life. That may be a coincidence, though.

Upcoming Appearances

Where I’ll be doing things you can watch and listen to

Hey, (Los) Angelenos! I’ll be at CalTech on Thursday, June 21 (yes, in a few days!) to be on a panel about the science of the TV show “Salvation”! Executive Producers Liz Kruger and Craig Shapiro will be on the panel as well. I’m the science consultant for the show, and we’ll be talking asteroids, spaceships, and more — there’ll be a screening of the season 2 premier, too. You don’t need a ticket, but it’s first come, first served, so get there early.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

Monday, June 11, 2018: Will they or won't they? Two galaxies that probably won't become one 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018: The jumbled mess in the center of Jackson Crater

Wednesday, June 13, 2018: The day the Sun erupted

Thursday, June 14, 2018: A quintet of galaxies that's actually a quartet. Except it's a quintet.

Friday, June 15, 2018: The chained princess’s drogue


Because my home state is pretty

My wife and I run a company called Science Getaways, where we take people on fun vacations to places they want to go anyway, and add SCIENCE.

We just got back home from the latest one, which we called Science Ranch 2018. We had 29 people come to Latigo Ranch near Kremmling, Colorado, a guest ranch tucked away in the Rocky Mountains. The views were gasp-worthy, and not just because we were at an elevation of 9,000 feet. All of these folks came because they are science enthusiasts (or sometimes married to one, only to find themselves becoming One Of Us along the way), and the Universe did not disappoint.

We went on a bunch of geology hikes with our guide to rocks Holly Brunkal, our favorite Earth scientist (which is why we’ve had her come to a half-dozen of these trips so far). Holly talked to us about how the mountains around us formed, and also about how magnetism has taught us so much about the history of the Earth (I didn’t know the location of the magnetic north pole itself played a key role in the acceptance of the theory of continental drift until I heard her talk about it!)

I took out my Celestron 20-cm telescope several times, to increasingly clear skies night after night. With our own eyes we detected photons of light that had once bounced off Jupiter and Saturn, or sent on their way across the galaxy from M57, M27, M13, and Albireo. We also saw ancient light that had traveled 12 million years, starting its journey from the magnificent spiral galaxy M81 and its companion bursting with starbirth, M82

Science Rancher Jason Griesbach brought a small electronic astronomical camera with him. We attached it to my ‘scope and took a series of 5-second exposures, allowing us to clearly detect the gas in the planetary nebula M27 (aka the Dumbbell) after only about a minute and a half, which was truly incredible.

[The Dumbbell Nebula in the constellation Vulpecula imaged using a Celestron 20-cm SCT and a ZWO ASI1600MC/MM color camera. Blue light is from oxygen, red from hydrogen. Credit: Jason Griesbach and Phil Plait]

Celestron also kindly gave me a smartphone adaptor they have called the NexYZ, so you can clamp a phone camera to the eyepiece and take pictures. Science Rancher Dave Rossiter took this image of Jupiter and its four big Galilean moons after about 30 seconds of setup:

[Jupiter and its moons (left-to-right) Ganymede, Europa, Io, and Callisto, using a Celestron 20-cm SCT and the NexYZ adapter with an iPhone. Credit Dave Rossiter and Phil Plait.]

Yeah, this will get a lot of use from me. That same night I had a very proud moment: I helped Dave and another rancher star-hop (find a bright object, then go from one star/object to the next to find what you’re looking for) and, for the first time, they saw the protoplanet (née asteroid) Vesta for the first time in their lives. Vesta is near opposition right now (when it’s opposite the Sun in the sky, and therefore closest to Earth and at its brightest), and was easy to see in binoculars. The spacecraft Dawn orbited Vesta for a year, taking incredible close-up shots and revolutionizing our understanding of it… but seeing it with your own eyes, knowing that light left it an hour or so before and stopped only because your own retinae got in its way… well. It’s a phenomenal experience.

[“Star Gazers”, showing us under the Milky Way at the Latigo Ranch. I’m the guy on the right. Credit: Michele Wedel]

On top of the science we also took lots of hikes, enjoyed the clean mountain air, had a really fun time line dancing with the Latigo ranch hands (who were really good), and went horseback riding. Now that I have horses at home (well, they’re my wife’s, but I feed them and talk to them and generally enjoy having them around as they do their horse stuff), I decided it was time to try out riding more, so I went on three different rides. I had a fantastic time, and only wish I had been able to get out more. My horse, Lariat, was a character (pretty much every horse is) and we got along well. It was cool to be able to see his behavior, understand it, and even predict it — like most horses he kept trying to sneak a snack or two during the rides, but I learned how to see the change in his body language as he tried to fool me into thinking he was just scratching his nose on his foreleg but actually was going for a patch of arnica flowers to munch on.  

But he took me to this little scene, and for that I thank him. 

[Close up of the photo above, with Vesta pointed out. The fuzzy blob above it is the open cluster M23, the reddish blob below and to the right the Lagoon Nebula, and the bright “star” is Saturn. The exposure time was long enough to slightly blur the stars. Credit: Michele Wedel.]

I’m home now, back to writing and tweeting about science and politics and generally catching up on life. But when I let my gaze wander over to my window and look west, the outline of the Rockies still seizes my attention. We haven’t yet determined what our next Science Getaways destination will be, but I know it’ll be a fun adventure. If you’re interested, we have a mailing list and we’ll let everyone know when and where we’ll be traveling next.

[My wife Marcella (on Dumbledore) and me (on Lariat) while out riding at Latigo Ranch.]

Et alia

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