Friday, August 31, 2007

Uranus in the spotlight

In today's Visible Universe, read about Uranus' ring-plane crossing--our first edge-on view of the rings since they were discovered in 1977.

Not up for hard science on a holiday weekend? How about this: the story covers the origin of the planet's unfortunate name. And, I make lots of awesome butt jokes!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Charles Schisler, pulsar pioneer

The cultural mythology of pulsar astronomy begins with the story of Jocelyn Bell, who discovered the tighter-than-clockwork radio pulses of PSR B1919+21 back in 1967.

Bell and her adviser, Anthony Hewish, were the first to interpret and publish the phenomenon, but they weren't the first to notice it. Charles Schisler, now 81, beat them to it: While stationed at Alaska's Clear Air Force Station, Schisler picked up the cosmic blips with the radar receivers of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. (He was supposed to be scanning the Siberian horizon for incoming Soviet warheads; evidently, his mind had opportunity to wander.)

Schisler actually took his discovery to an astronomer at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who calculated that Schisler's radio source was located in the Crab Nebula. Schisler returned to his station and started keeping a log of other blips; he believes he may have spotted as many as a dozen pulsars in the months before Bell went public with her discovery.

Schisler came forward with his story earlier this month, when the warning system was decommissioned. His story appeared in a Nature advance online publication last week.

According to Nature,

He says that he feels he deserves no credit for his work, but he still regrets that he was unable to share what he had seen. "I wish we had had a way to communicate with the scientific community," he says.

It's a good point: The original discovery of gamma ray bursts was made with military satellites--and classified for six years afterward. Who knows what discoveries are languishing in sealed files today?

Watch this space

I know you want to hate British energy company npower for registering their corporate logo as a constellation. You want to decry the shameless commercialization of our shared night sky; you want to rail against npower for transforming the celestial sphere into a crass advertising space.

But it’s actually sort of sweet. This is no billboard-on-the-moon, neon-lights-on-the-space-station sort of thing: The company just mentally connected a group of stars (328, to be exact) to spell out “npower,” phoned up the International Star Registry, and bought a spot for their new “constellation” in the ISR’s book, “Your Place in the Cosmos.”

It’s more the idea of an advertisement than an advertisement itself: No one will see npower’s skywriting unless they want to. If only all advertising were so obliging.

(Incidentally, the International Star Registry has no official license to name astronomical objects, so the new constellation—like the thousands of stars named in honor of sweethearts—has no official status.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Still Rooting for NASA

What do Lindsay Lohan and NASA have in common? The Visible Universe (that's me) has the answer!

Happily, the space shuttle landed safely after a gouged tile and Hurricane Dean cast concerns over the mission.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Stars by Google

Just when you thought Google had cataloged everything on earth...they're taking to the sky. The latest version of Google Earth, the zoomable, customizable, digital globe, also features images of the night sky. The all-sky shots come from the Digitized Sky Survey, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and others; the Hubble Space Telescopes provides a selection of close-ups.

According to New Scientist, users can plug in their coordinates on Earth to see their personalized night sky, search a catalog of celestial objects, and pull up detailed information on planets, stars, etc.

The press suggests that this free software could replace programs like Redshift in the amateur astronomers' arsenal, but I suspect serious observers will still seek out specialized software for sky mapping--and for simulating the sky as it was in the distant past, or as it will be in the future.

The Sky program also lets users upload and pin their own images on Google's celestial sphere, which could be a big hit with amateur astronomers looking to share their CCD images.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

New Yorker in the dark

In this week's New Yorker, David Owen writes on our disappearing dark skies and what organizations like the International Dark Sky Association are doing to save them.

Light pollution abatement should be an easy sell: IDA-approved lighting provides the same useful illumination as conventional lighting but, because it doesn't leak light upward or horizontally, it saves money and energy. And, the IDA argues, "full cutoff" or "fully shielded" fixtures are actually safer than the "glare bombs" that typically light up our public spaces, since they don't create the sort of dramatically shadowed areas criminals might hide in.

But the New Yorker story makes it clear that stargazing is still the beating heart of the dark sky campaign. Owen writes:

I lay on my back on a bench and watched for meteors, which streaked past every few minutes: in a truly dark sky, shooting stars are too numerous to bother wishing on. We stayed until we noticed the first glow of the approaching sunrise. Stars near the eastern horizon melted away ahead of it, as though the darkness itself were dissolving.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

NASA This Week

NASA finally racked up some successes this week--the Phoenix Mars Lander lifted off without a hitch on its scouting mission to Mars' northern plains; the space shuttle Endeavour launched with teacher-astronaut Barbara R. Morgan aboard, bringing bittersweet closure to the story of Christa McAuliffe.

But just when you start to sense a heartbeat within the bureaucracy, NASA comes out with something like this, the sort of zombie-brained memo that could only be produced by committee. The memo outlines NASA's new "Message Construct," including the Core Message "NASA explores for answers that power our future" and the graphic element "Inspiration + Innovation + Discovery = Future."

According to the memo: "These messages have been market tested and have proven to resonate best with the general public."

Dubious grammar, capitalization, and arithmetic aside, these things seem to have had all the meaning, all the passion, scrubbed out of them. They reek of boardroom. Is this really all the inspiration the NASA Communications leadership can muster?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mergers and Acquisitions

Scientists scanning a distant galaxy cluster with Spitzer spotted a collision between four massive ellipticals--the first observed merger of so many large galaxies.

Lead author Kenneth Rines (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) compared the scene to "four sand trucks smashing together, flinging sand everywhere." (See the press release.) The sand, in this case, is a spray of billions of stars knocked out of position by the energy of the collision. Some of the stars will eventually be drawn back in to the new mega-galaxy; others will be orphaned in intergalactic space.

A notable property of the galactic quartet: it is gas-poor, unlike most observed mergers in which a rich supply of gas ignites to form new stars. According to Rines, this suggests that the biggest galaxies in the universe are new combinations of old stars.

Galactic collisions sound pretty violent in print--the popular language (the press release refers to the merger as a "Monster Galaxy Pileup" and a "cosmic smash-up") belies the slow-motion reality of these events, which play out over millions of years. Plus, it is extremely unlikely that any single star will collide with another--the scene most people intuitively picture when we talk about galaxies crashing in to one another.

Looking for life in all the wrong places

What do and astrobiology have in common? Find out in Friday's column on the National Research Council's "weird life" report.

Arecibo: Frontiers of Astronomy

With their telescope on the chopping block, some of Arecibo's top users will be gathering in Washington, DC next month to map out the future of science at the world's largest radio dish.

Likely research goals: more big sky surveys with the (relatively) new ALFA feed array system, which boosted the telescope's data collection rate by a factor of seven; long-term pulsar timing; SETI; and more.

Get conference details here.