Astronomy magazine editors share their unique insight from behind the scenes of the science, hobby, and magazine.
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Mars, the next Everest?

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
Once upon a time, barnstorming over the countryside in a biplane was sufficiently thrilling and expensive for the idle rich. Then, the only thing that would do was taking a steamer to Africa to blast away at lions for the season. Then there was (and remains) the curious habit of paying a small fortune for the privilege of expiring on Mt. Everest from hypothermia, oxygen deprivation, or stumbling into a crevasse. Much later, attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon, a la Sir Richard Br...
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How bright is yonder star? (part 1)

Posted 11 years ago by Michael Bakich
In this blog and my next, I'm going to try to demystify the magnitude system — the scale astronomers use to measure the brightness of a celestial object. Let me start with a little history. The first known observer to describe and catalog differences in star brightnesses was Greek astronomer Hipparchus (ca. 190–120 B.C.). He divided his catalog of roughly 850 visible stars into six brightness ranges, or magnitudes. He called the brightest 1st magnitude and the faintest 6th magnitude. Observ...
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Chile diary (part uno)

Posted 11 years ago by Rich Talcott
  Early morning steam rises from numerous geysers and fumaroles at El Tatio — the world’s highest-altitude geyser field. Evelyn TalcottI've just returned from a 9-day trip to Chile & one of more than 30 participants in a tour sponsored by Astronomy magazine and organized by MWT Associates. We all had a great time, despite long plane rides from the States down to Santiago. Our two main reasons for going were to experience the clear skies of the Atacama Desert and the gian...
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Lost in translation?

Posted 11 years ago by Francis Reddy
An interesting question hit my inbox this week. How far south can an aurora be seen? Specifically, are the “northern lights” ever visible from Timbuktu? A 2004 New York Times article about medieval Arabic manuscripts triggered the question. The city of Timbuktu, Mali, was one of Africa’s intellectual hubs when the Renaissance was barely a twinkle in Europeans’ eyes. The article focused on efforts to rescue the ancient manuscripts. One 16th-century scholar, Mahmoud Kati, scribbled notes on va...
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Take that, Shelbyville

Posted 11 years ago by Anonymous
Earlier this week, I wrote about an auction to benefit the Stellafane telescope-making convention, held each year in Springfield, Vermont. Last month, Springfield hosted another noteworthy gathering: The Simpsons movie premiere. The July 22 extravaganza featured celebrities, costumed characters, and a yellow carpet matching the family's skin tone. Vermont's Springfield beat 13 other namesake cities in an online vote to host the premiere. The city of 9,300 residents received 15,367 votes,...
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Best of the web this week

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
I'm starting something new today: a weekly collection of interesting articles and blog entries I see during the week but don't blog on myself. First, to give credit where it is due, I got the idea from astronomer Pamela Gay's Star Stryder blog. Every week, she posts a "best of the blogs" feature called Space Carnival. Here are a few of my recent picks:Would your head explode in total vacuum? If you watch science fiction on film you might get that impression. But, actually, ...
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Boom! Boom! Out go the lights

Posted 11 years ago by Michael Bakich
  If you like reading about and/or observing the universe's biggest blasts, you'll be interested in a book that just crossed my desk. Supernovae and How to Observe Them by Martin Mobberley is, as the title suggests, a dual-purpose book. In "Part 1 — Supernovae: Physics and Statistics," Mobberley gives a bit of supernova history, introduces the types of supernovae, and tells us what astronomers have learned by studying these massive explosions. Mobberley's writing st...
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Wiki the Moon

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
Ever hanker to take a gander at the lunar crater Zwicky? If so, just click over to a slick new site on the web called The-moon. There, you will quickly learn that Zwicky is a 94-mile-wide (150 kilometers) crater at latitude 15.4° south, longitude 168.1° east. You can also find out that Fritz Zwicky (1898–1974) "was an American-based Swiss astronomer. He was an original thinker, with many important contributions in theoretical and observational astronomy." Zwicky and hundreds of other l...
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Ending this Friday

Posted 11 years ago by Anonymous
  Al Nagler, John Gallagher, and Stephen James O’Meara (left to right) pose with the Tele Vue refractor and prototype eyepiece. Springfield Telescope Makers, Inc. In a previous blog, Astronomy Associate Editor Daniel Pendick wrote about an exciting auction that will benefit Stellafane, the telescope-making conference held annually in Springfield, Vermont. Participants will bid on Astronomy author Stephen James O'Meara's Tele Vue Genesis refractor and Al Nagler's prototy...
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Relax, and watch Earth's shadow

Posted 11 years ago by Michael Bakich
Not all observing is difficult and requires lots of specialized, high-priced equipment. Case in point: Tuesday morning, August 28, North America will experience another total eclipse of the Moon. While West Coast and Hawaiian observers have the best seats, the rest of us will at least see the first half of the event, as the Moon slides into the darkest part of Earth's shadow. It's true some amateur astronomers like to push the limits, observing faint, deep-sky targets barely discernible...
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Wired looks at high-tech equipment

Posted 11 years ago by Anonymous
  John Chumack imaged M15 September 9, 2006, from his observatory at the Yellow Springs Research Station in Ohio. John Chumack Fraser Cain, podcaster and web guru behind Universe Today, recently wrote a piece regarding advanced observers' home observatories for Wired's web site. With observer profiles, astrophotography, and instrument shots, the article introduces readers to some of the leading astroimagers and their advanced equipment. Even if you aren't a lifelong re...
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In Herschel's footsteps

Posted 11 years ago by Michael Bakich
  If you're looking for a well thought out, guided, deep-sky observing challenge, this blog's for you. Steve O'Meara's Herschel 400 Observing Guide just landed on my desk. Oh my! German-born English astronomer Sir William Herschel (1738–1822) ranks as one of astronomy's all-time superstars. He discovered Uranus, two moons around both Saturn and Uranus, and the direction in which our solar system is hurtling through space. He was also an indefatigable observer, discove...
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All the dumb stuff

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
In a recent blog, I talked about the surprising difficulty of landing heavy crewed payloads on Mars — in fact, its present impossibility, in lieu of new technologies. That's a very big challenge to future Mars exploration, although not at all insurmountable. But what about the dumb stuff? The little things we take for granted on Earth that are actually quite difficult in zero-gravity? No, I don't mean using the toilet, although that's up there on the list. How about this: A dooh...
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After Sputnik

Posted 11 years ago by Anonymous
  Many publishers have released books celebrating 50 years of space exploration since Sputnik's launch October 4, 1957. Among these pictorial collections, no one has done it better than Smithsonian Books. Edited by Smithsonian curator Martin Collins, After Sputnik: 50 Years of the Space Age presents the best pieces and images from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's spaceflight collection — some not currently displayed at the museum. This unique perspective provides a ...
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Risen from the dead

Posted 11 years ago by Rich Talcott
  Phoenix's robotic arm digs a trench in the ice-rich martian soil, seeking signs as to whether Mars may be hospitable to life. Corby Waste (JPL) If the weather holds along Florida's Atlantic coast, NASA's Phoenix spacecraft should blast off from Cape Canaveral this Saturday. Its target: the frozen plains of northern Mars. After a voyage of nearly 10 months, the probe will set down in the Red Planet's polar region next May to study the history of water at the landing ...
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Loony science

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
There's something about the Moon that makes people crazy. No, let me rephrase that: There's something about the Moon that makes people believe dumb stuff.For instance, have you received an e-mail yet saying that during the opposition of Mars in December — during which the Red Planet will be closer to Earth than at other times — its disk will look as big as the Full Moon? No? You will.In the November 2008 Astro News section, we report on a somewhat loony proposal by police in ...
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Don't fear the filter, part 3

Posted 11 years ago by Michael Bakich
This week, I conclude my three-part series on filters by discussing specialty filters. Everyone's welcome to their opinion, but, to me, any filter that's not a color filter is a specialty filter. Most specialty filters fall into the category of "light-pollution-reduction" (LPR) filter. Two exceptions are neutral density and polarizing filters. A neutral density (ND) filter reduces the amount of light (by absorbing it) but doesn't filter any of the colors. ND filters have t...
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What effect does opposition have?

Posted 11 years ago by Rich Talcott
  Saturn's rings glint brightly thanks to the "opposition effect" in this June 12 image, taken by the Cassini spacecraft.NASA/JPL/SSIWhile I was out walking Wednesday evening, brilliant Jupiter stood slightly above the gibbous Moon. With the Moon waxing toward its full phase this weekend, I couldn't help but think about how quickly our satellite brightens as Full Moon approaches. As if to drive the point home, NASA has just released an image of Saturn that shows the same e...
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Let go of that Lunar Equipment Conveyer!

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
Q: What's the difference between trash and important archaeological artifacts?A: About 100 years. Where people tossed their garbage a century ago, archaeologists can often find revealing remnants of culture. On the Moon, the transformation from trash to treasure took less than 4 decades.U.S. astronauts left a lot more behind on the Moon than their footprints as they took small steps for man and giant leaps for mankind. The detritus at Tranquillity Base, where the first humans landed on the M...
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Don't fear the filter (part 2)

Posted 11 years ago by Michael Bakich
This week, I continue my three-part series on filters by giving specific recommendations about planetary observing through color filters. Mars lies at opposition as 2007 ends, and it's already on most observers' minds, so let's start with the Red Planet.As I mentioned last week, choose the filter density that's correct for your telescope. For example, if I suggest a red filter for a certain feature, choose 1) a #21 (orange) filter if your scope's aperture is 4 inches or less;...
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The next martian crater - us?

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
I just read, with a mixture of fascination and embarrassment, writer Nancy Atkins' compelling article — posted on the Universe Today web site — about the realities of landing humans on Mars. The article asks the simple question of how we would land a crewed spacecraft on Mars. She does a beautiful job with it, and you should stop right here and read the article for yourself.My embarrassment is in regard to the fact that the whole question never even occurred to me, after all thes...
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A date for the ages

Posted 11 years ago by Rich Talcott
  The first photo ever taken from the surface of Mars showed lots of rocks and sand — and the footpad of the Viking 1 lander. NASA/JPLVirtually everyone who reads this blog knows what happened on this date in history. But I'm not going to spend much time talking about Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's small steps. Instead, I want to recall a lesser leap in human history, one that launched our search for life elsewhere in the universe.On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 lander ...
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Spidey senses to tingle in orbit?

Posted 11 years ago by Anonymous
  Dava Newman models her BioSuit on the MIT campus. Donna CoveneyEver since NASA has launched people into space, astronauts have worn bulky, gas-pressurized outfits. Over time, these suits have increased in weight to 300 lbs. — limiting mobility. Thanks to MIT, astronauts could don a sleeker outfit on future missions.Dava Newman, Jeff Hoffman, her students, and design firm Trotti and Associates have designed a Spandex and nylon BioSuit. According to MIT, this isn't your grandfathe...
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Roving Mars animation

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
Do you want a little help appreciating the utter inherent coolness of the Mars Exploration Rover missions? Check out the video created by up-and-coming digital artist Daniel Maas. The 9-minute video, accurate to the smallest detail, depicts the launch, landing, and surface meanderings of a rover. Two of the robotic buggies, Spirit and Opportunity, remain alive and well on Mars. My favorite sequence is the rover's bouncy air-bag landing, after which the rover's triangular carrier opens li...
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Don't fear the filter (part 1)

Posted 11 years ago by Michael Bakich
With Mars beginning to brighten to its best appearance of the year (which will happen Christmas Eve), I thought I'd blog about filters. Lots of articles will explain the best way to observe Mars — you can catch mine in December's Astronomy — and they'll all have something to say about color filters. It's a big subject, so I'm breaking it down into three parts.First, a small point about filters. No filter makes any part of any astronomical object brighter. Because ...
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A lucky anniversary

Posted 11 years ago by Rich Talcott
  Several dark spots mar Jupiter’s atmosphere after Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into it between July 16 and 22, 1994. NASA/Hubble Space Telescope Science TeamWhere were you 13 years ago? If you're like me, you were eagerly anticipating a once-in-a-lifetime event — with no clue as to how it would play out. Astronomers and backyard observers around the globe had their sights set on Jupiter. More than 20 fragments of a rogue comet known as Shoemaker-Levy 9 were steaming towa...
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Are you sure ... ?

Posted 11 years ago by Michael Bakich
My wife and I maintain a running gag. Let's say she and I are observing a meteor shower. Perhaps I saw a nice meteor and exclaimed, "There's one through Triangulum, heading south; magnitude –1; 10° trail." If she didn't see it, her response, based on our gag, would be, "That's an unconfirmed observation." This all started at the 1999 Texas Star Party (TSP), which is held in the Davis Mountains. My observing buddy Mike Marcotte (who now occasiona...
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Life as we don't know it

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
Could NASA's current approach to exobiology — the study of alien life forms — end up with astronauts stumbling across extraterrestrial life and not even realizing it? A report by the National Research Council (NRC) released Friday raises this provocative question. (The NRC is part of the National Academies, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, expert advice to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine.) You can read the report online, or buy it for $24.95.For m...
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The Vatican Observatory Summer School (part 3)

Posted 11 years ago by David Eicher
The past two blogs I've posted described the Vatican Observatory Summer School and its activities. What a tremendous group of students — I had a wonderful time visiting with them, seeing the Vatican Observatory's treasures, and meeting the skilled faculty who lead these grad students in their quest for knowledge. Each year at the VOSS, the students study hard, but they also have an opportunity to absorb a bit of Italian culture by traveling to some of that nation's greatest cities. W...
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Exoplanet preview from Santorini

Posted 11 years ago by Daniel Pendick
I just caught some hot news about exoplanets on the "Centauri Dreams" blog by Paul Gilster, a veteran science and technology writer and author of Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration. If you have never seen Paul's blog, try it. In his own words, it's "a review of research issues in deep space exploration, with an eye toward interstellar possibilities."On Friday, June 29, Paul reported on some blog postings from astronomer Steinn Sigurðs...

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