Astronomy magazine editors share their unique insight from behind the scenes of the science, hobby, and magazine.
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Everything old is wonderful again

Posted 10 years ago by Daniel Pendick
The other day, I was interviewing Harvey Richer, a professor of astronomy at the University of British Columbia. He and one of his former Ph.D. students, Jason Kalirai, recently discovered the most distant star clusters ever observed. The press material included a lovely image of the clusters, so I jumped on the story. After all, one of the things that drives the popularization of astronomy — and, at least in part, subscriptions to Astronomy magazine — are the pretty pictures.But it&...
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Soccer-ball space science

Posted 10 years ago by Francis Reddy
With its exciting operations at asteroid Itokawa in late 2005, Japan's Hayabusa showed the time has come for on-site exploration of near-Earth asteroids and comets. Dennis Ebbets and his colleagues at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, presented a novel design concept for such missions at this week's American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.   A spherical lander opens its petals and sets to work on an asteroid in this illustration. In the distance, a...
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Winter deep-sky challenges

Posted 10 years ago by David Eicher
The next time you're out observing and you find yourself checking out the same objects one too many times, consider branching out into some new territory. Find a level of object that pushes your equipment and your observational skill, and draw up a list of new things to see. Try sketching the objects carefully with a pad of paper, a dim red flashlight, and a soft pencil (an Eberhard Faber Ebony pencil works best for smudging the faint light of nebulae and galaxies). Many years ago, an old ob...
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Fly me to the Moon

Posted 10 years ago by Daniel Pendick
You're a Silicon Valley god. You developed the most killer "killer app" in history. You just sold it to Google for a few billion dollars and change. You can have anything you want. What will it be? Diamond-encrusted cell phone? Nightly caviar bath? Health insurance with no deductibles or co-pays?How about a thrill ride into suborbital space?A surprisingly large number of the conspicuously wealthy have already paid their fares to a variety of companies offering "space tourism&q...
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Dusk and dawn delights

Posted 10 years ago by Rich Talcott
The big news in the observing world this past week has been the remarkable brightness of Comet C/2006 P1 (McNaught). It has now reached magnitude -2 — as bright as the planet Jupiter — and makes an impressive sight shortly after sunset.  Comet C/2006 P1 (McNaught) hangs low in evening twilight, just above some encroaching clouds, from Astronomy’s headquarters in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Ernie Mastroianni The comet took most astronomers by surprise. It was a 17th-magnitude obje...
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Drat! Plutoed again!

Posted 10 years ago by Daniel Pendick
I love words. Or as I sometimes say after firing off a particularly groan-inducing pun or double entendre, "I'm a word guy." So imagine my excitement, as both a lifelong word guy and a member of the Astronomy staff, when I heard the news that the American Dialect Society (ADS) had declared plutoed its word of the year. Plutoed means "to be demoted or devalued." As in, "One day you're a planet, the next you're not." Rodney Dangerfield would understand. So...
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Google me up, Scotty

Posted 10 years ago by Daniel Pendick
After it begins operation in 2013, the 27.5-foot (8.4 meter) Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will image an area of the sky roughly 50 times that of the Full Moon every 15 seconds. Its 3,000-megapixel digital camera will pour out 7,000 DVD's worth of bits and bytes every night, causing astronomers to reel drunkenly with data. But who in the world is going to organize and analyze such a vast amount of information? Who ya gonna call?Google, that's who. This side view of the 8.4-meter...
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Party like it's 2007

Posted 10 years ago by Michael Bakich
If you've never been to a star party, what are you waiting for? Star parties are ideal settings for amateur astronomers, especially beginners. Such gatherings offer several advantages.First, attending a star party places you in a group of like-minded individuals who either can answer your questions or help you figure out where to get them answered. Astronomy clubs host most star parties, and club members generally love to share information about their chosen hobby.Another advantage to a star...
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Where astronomy meets medicine

Posted 10 years ago by Francis Reddy
The star-forming region IC 348 is rendered as 3-Dcontours, together with slicing planes, in 3D Slicer. IIC/CfA"Astronomical medicine" isn't a word combination I ever expected to come across. Yet, today, while scoping out papers presented at the American Astronomical Society's Seattle meeting, I caught sight of a report on something called the Astronomical Medicine Project.  Color me intrigued.Known less formally as AstroMed, the project is part of Harvard University's...
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Deep sky dilemma

Posted 10 years ago by Michael Bakich
About half of our readers observe regularly. I hope you're one of them, because those of us who scan the sky find observing both fun and rewarding. Plus, this blog will mean more to you.Here's a question for observers: Are you in a rut? Now, I'm not here to poo-poo anyone's observing, but if you find yourself looking at the same objects every time you head out under the night sky, your observing lacks diversity. Let me give you an example. Years ago, I had a friend who owned a gr...
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The sky is falling

Posted 10 years ago by Daniel Pendick
Everyone carries around a kit bag of pet jokes or wisecracks. One of my favorites gets pulled out at every "just in case" moment in life, as in, "just in case something happens to me." Only in my case, it's "just in case a meteorite hits me in the head." It always gets at least an amused smirk.Until the other day, when a Reuters news report popped up on my computer monitor about a suspected meteorite strike on a house in New Jersey. The metallic-looking object, ...
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Gerald Ford

Posted 10 years ago by Anonymous
Gerald Ford, the United States' 38th president, passed away yesterday at age 93. Most citizens, regardless of how they feel about his political affiliation, give him credit for mending a nation rocked by the Watergate scandal created by his predecessor. As many reflect on Ford's legacy, his support of U.S. efforts in space should not be overlooked.As a member of the House, he was instrumental in passing legislation that developed NASA. President Ford championed the space agency's ef...
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In the dark

Posted 10 years ago by Anonymous
I haven't seen many dark skies. I guess I'm just a city girl. It's easy to forget to look up when there's not much to see except Orion and the Moon. I've seen them before. But I've been to Kitt Peak in Arizona, where I marveled at the number of stars. And I spent a summer living in the Greek countryside, where the Milky Way was bright overhead. The "Online extra" for February's "Simple steps to save the night sky," lists the United States' dark...
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A weather eye turns 40

Posted 10 years ago by Francis Reddy
Satellite images have become such a staple of nightly TV weather segments, it's difficult to imagine a time when they didn't exist. Yet, the first full-disk images of a cloudy Earth turned 40 earlier this month. It's not much to look at by modern standards. But images like this from ATS-1's spin-scan cloud camera revolutionized meteorology. NASAAn innovative device called a spin-scan camera made these first images possible. The first one roared into a 22,200-mile-high (35,800 kil...
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A short history of the birth and death of stars

Posted 10 years ago by Michael Bakich
You can cram a lot of data in a 156-page book. For example, we just received Steve Coe's Nebulae and How to Observe Them (Springer, London, 2006). If you're a beginning or intermediate observer, and if you're interested in observing nebulae, this is a book you should check out. I like the book for many reasons. Coe writes in a conversational tone. You can sample many of Coe's stories in the pages of Astronomy. As I write this blog, his most recent story ("Explore winter'...
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Back to the future

Posted 10 years ago by Rich Talcott
Time travel has always intrigued me. Sometimes, I like to imagine what it would have been like to witness an historic event. Say, to be on the balcony with Galileo when he first saw the moons of Jupiter or the phases of Venus, and started us down the long road to understanding our place in the universe. Other times, I think about what the future may hold.So, it should come as no surprise that I perked up when I read the latest update from the Jet Propulsion Lab on the Cassini spacecraft's mi...
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See some great sights close to home

Posted 10 years ago by Michael Bakich
At the start of the classic film Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee's character tells one of his students to consider a finger pointed at the Moon. As the student closely examines Lee's finger, Lee slaps him on the head and says, "Don't concentrate on the finger, or you'll miss all that heavenly glory."For this installment, let me turn Lee's statement around: Don't concentrate on the heavenly glory or you'll miss some beautiful atmospheric sights. In other words, w...
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A night under the stars — and haze

Posted 10 years ago by Rich Talcott
Mathematicians like me find numbers in almost everything we do. Last night, the key number was 11 — a simple count of the number of Geminid meteors I saw while observing for 1 hour centered around the shower's predicted peak at 2:45 A.M. CST.At first glance, that doesn't sound like many. Meteor expert Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute predicted the Geminid shower would peak at a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of 130 +/- 20 meteors per hour. But bear with me — you'll see ...
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Lunar anniversary

Posted 10 years ago by Anonymous
Today marks 34 years since Apollo 17's Eugene Cernan became the last astronaut to tread on the Moon's surface. He and Harrison H. Schmitt, the first scientist on the Moon, landed on the lunar surface December 11, 1972. The lunar module took off from the Moon December 14, 2006, and the astronauts returned to Earth on the 19th.Besides lunar strolls, Neil Armstrong and Cernan — the first and last person to do so respectively — have something else in common: both are graduates of...
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The Planetary Society offers $$$

Posted 10 years ago by David Eicher
On Wednesday afternoon at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, the Planetary Society announced a major award for "asteroid tagging." The $50,000 prize will be awarded to the winner of the Society's Apophis Mission Design Competition, which asks participants to submit designs for a mission that could rendezvous with and "tag" a near-Earth asteroid (NEO) that could collide with Earth. According to the Society, tagging could be required to track an astero...
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Will the next solar cycle please stand up?

Posted 10 years ago by David Eicher
Astronomers at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco are debating predictions of what the next solar cycle, number 24, which will start next year and will peak in 2011, will be like. Ironically, with new techniques to analyze solar cycles and with more observations than ever before, solar physicists are predicting a wider range of possibilities than ever before. As astronomer Bill Murtagh of NOAA's Space Environment Center says, "The next solar cycle might among the bi...
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Ringworlds: under the hood

Posted 10 years ago by Francis Reddy
Larry Esposito knows planetary rings. In 1979, as a member of the imaging team for the Pioneer 11 Saturn flyby, he discovered the planet’s kinked and braided F ring. He’s also a member of the science team for the Cassini probe, now orbiting Saturn. Who better, then, to serve as guide on a tour of ringed planets?Esposito’s Planetary Rings is not a book aimed at a broad audience — its $110 list price alone prevents that — but much of the text is accessible to general ...
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More evidence for global warming on Earth

Posted 10 years ago by David Eicher
Sitting around in the office at Astronomy 20 years ago, our editors used to joke about stories in the magazine centered on Earth. But then it struck us, why limit ourselves to just the other planets? Why not study important Earth stories in the pages of Astronomy? After all, Earth is a planet, too! Stories about planet Earth used to be pure science pieces. Now, in the last decade or so, they have become increasingly political as well. On the first day of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meet...
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The weather gods hate me

Posted 10 years ago by Michael Bakich
The onset of winter heralds many things amateur astronomers love: maximum darkness, high Full Moons, and Orion the Hunter at its summit. Add to these the sights and sounds of the Christmas season. Bah, humbug!Don't get me wrong. I like even the tackiest commercialism of Christmas. It's astronomy, however, that puts me in a bad mood this time of year. You see, I live in Milwaukee, and, like most locations in the northern U.S., winter brings bitter cold and the cloudiest skies this side of...
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Science in the round

Posted 10 years ago by Francis Reddy
What do you get when you combine four video projectors, five computers, and a suspended, 6-foot-wide white sphere? An entirely new way to tell visual stories, says Michael Starobin, senior media producer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Baltimore.Starobin and the Goddard visualization team have produced the first true movie for this new medium. Their 16-minute film Footprints dramatically depicts Earth, the Moon, and the planets as if you’re floating above them. The...
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Discovery - will it transit the Moon?

Posted 10 years ago by Rich Talcott
NASA hopes to launch the space shuttle Discovery this evening. If it blasts off on schedule, observers in northeast Florida may witness a rare, perhaps unprecedented event: a shuttle's passage across the face of a nearly Full Moon.Discovery looks like it will be ready. By yesterday afternoon, engineers had resolved two last-minute technical issues, and NASA cleared the shuttle for flight. Now, all we need is cooperative weather. As of this morning, there appeared to be a 60-percent chance of...
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The Barnyard Constellation

Posted 10 years ago by Dick McNally
I had a flying instructior once - his name was John - who told about some of the darkest skies in the United States - over North Dakota.John was flying cross-country in his Cessna 172 at night.  It was so dark that he couldn't see the horizon. The yard lights on the farms below looked like stars.All of a sudden the cookie tin John had in the back seat started floating up into the air. Then John realized he had so confused the yard lights with the stars that he was starting to turn the a...
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All I need is the air that I breathe

Posted 10 years ago by Rich Talcott
"All I need is the air that I breathe," to quote from a top-10 Hollies song from 1974. (Full disclosure: Love was also a required commodity for songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood.) But how did that air - or at least the oxygen vital to our existence -get into the atmosphere? It's a question that has troubled scientists for decades.At one level, it's pretty straightforward. More than 2 billion years ago, organisms suddenly developed the capacity to release molecular o...
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Early astronaut menus

Posted 10 years ago by Anonymous
Trail-blazing astronauts should be commended for enduring NASA’s early menus.According to the space agency, John Glenn, America's first man to eat while orbiting Earth, found the task of eating fairly easy, but found the selection limited. During the 1960s, other Mercury astronauts endured bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried powders, and semi-liquids stuffed in aluminum tubes. Most astronauts agreed the foods were unappetizing and they disliked the process of eating: Freeze-dried foods were...
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The sky is falling

Posted 10 years ago by Michael Bakich
“Why should people observe meteor showers?” A reporter writing a story about an upcoming meteor shower asked me this question. He seemed satisfied with my answer, but as I thought about the question, more reasons came to mind. Let’s see how many I can remember: 1) Meteor-watching is easy. This is not an expedition to a remote mountaintop in an attempt to detect an ephemeral galaxy at your telescope’s limit. For meteor showers, just set up a lawn chair (preferably a recliner), grab a blanket, an...

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