Dave Eicher, editor of Astronomy magazine and science popularizer, brings you thoughts about astronomy, cosmology, nature, the hobby of astronomy, the sometimes disturbingly pseudoscientific culture we live in, and more.
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On the road: ALCON 2011 preview

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Tomorrow morning, I’ll leave for the annual Astronomical League convention dubbed ALCON. It’s a real joy to travel to these meetings and meet so many amateur astronomers who are doing observing, imaging, and spreading the joy of astronomy as a hobby. This year, ALCON is being held at Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah, so I’ll fly to Las Vegas and drive from there, arriving Thursday evening. Over the next few days, I’ll be reporting from this important meeting an...
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A (possibly) bright comet is coming

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Astronomers using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, have discovered a faint comet whose orbit could bring it close to Earth and the Sun and make it quite bright 2 years from now. Imaged on the night of June 5/6, 2011, the comet is designated C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) and was confirmed as a cometary object by astronomers Richard Wainscoat and Marco Micheli with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on nearby Mauna Kea. Now some 700 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers) from the Sun...
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Blazing hot image of the week

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
OK, I’ve seen a lot of deep-sky objects in my time so it takes something special to be unfamiliar and also a stunning image. This hot picture by Don Goldman of Ellis Grayson Bond 6 is just that — a killer! This obscure planetary nebula in Leo has rarely been imaged — let alone observed — by amateur astronomers. It’s a large object located at 9h53m, 13°45' (2000.0), glowing faintly and measuring 13' by 11'. The planetary lies at a dista...
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A favorite deep-sky object captured

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
I have lots and lots of favorite deep-sky objects. But among them, I hold a special place in my heart for a rather ordinary galaxy called NGC 4319 in Draco. It’s an “average Joe” NGC object in that it’s a barred spiral that glows at magnitude 12.8 and spans 3.0’ by 2.3’. So what‘s the big deal? Well, starting in the late 1970s, the galaxy was at the center of an enormous controversy over the validity of distances in the universe that were derived by red...
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The new Adler Planetarium

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
A story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal underscored the just-completed updating and renovation of the oldest planetarium in the United States, Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 1930, Adler has over the past several years undergone a $14 million upgrade that makes it a premier facility, along with the Rose Center and Hayden Planetarium in New York and Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. On July 8, the planetarium’s Deep Space Adventure show will premiere, taking v...
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Sad news for amateur astronomy

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Very sad news greeted me when I came into the office this morning. Michael Bakich informed me that he had heard of David Healy’s death, which actually happened a few days ago. For those who didn’t know him or know of him, David Healy (1936–2011) was one of the greatest astroimagers around and was for many years a superb writer and contributor to amateur astronomy at large. A contributing editor of Astronomy magazine, he not only shot thousands of spectacular photos from the 197...
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Robert Burnham, Jr.’s, 80th birthday, part two

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
On May 17, I reported here the strange tale of Robert Burnham, Jr., the astronomer who wrote the much-loved observing guide Burnham's Celestial Handbook, a standard for amateur astronomers for many years. Yesterday would have been Burnham's 80th birthday, and to mark the occasion science writer and editor Tony Ortega, a longtime friend of Astronomy magazine and now editor of The Village Voice, is publishing a special story. And no, we are not talking about our Robert Burnham, the longt...
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Robert Burnham, Jr.’s, 80th birthday

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
On May 17, I reported here the strange tale of Robert Burnham, Jr., the astronomer who wrote the much-loved observing guide Burnham's Celestial Handbook, a standard for amateur astronomers for many years. Today would have been Burnham's 80th birthday, and to mark the occasion science writer and editor Tony Ortega, a longtime friend of Astronomy magazine and now editor of The Village Voice, is publishing a special story. And no, we are not talking about our Robert Burnham, the longtime ...
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More on Boren’s nebula

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Yesterday, I told you about a new nebula imaged by Israeli amateur astronomer Harel Boren in a wide-field image of the dark nebula Barnard 171 in Cepheus.In Boren's words, the object is "a long red (and possibly a little blue) emission nebula that resembles a shock wave as visible in other objects. It is located a little north of Barnard 171 as a slightly curved wave rolling from west to east, and is about 16 arcminutes long and 1 arcminute wide." Here is an update from Boren: &quo...
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A new nebula discovered?

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Israeli astroimager Harel Boren emailed the Astronomy magazine offices that in shooting a wide-field image of the dark nebula Barnard 171 in Cepheus, he may have imaged a previously unknown nebula. The accompanying photo from Boren shows an annotated outline of the shape and area of the newly discovered nebula. Boren captured the image June 2 and 3 from the Negev Desert in Israel, using an 8-inch f/2.8 Boren-Simon Newtonian scope, an SBIG ST8300M CCD camera, and exposures of 1.5 hours through a ...
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Incredible asteroid video!

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Today NASA released an amazing video of the asteroid 4 Vesta shot on approach from the Dawn spacecraft. This is something you've just go to see. The video shows 20 frames the spacecraft obtained for navigational purposes on June 1. The asteroid's jagged shape is visible, as well as shadowy spots on Vesta that were previously visible in images made with the Hubble Space Telescope. Dawn is approaching Vesta and will enter orbit around the minor planet on July 16. Vesta is of great importan...
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Everyone’s Universe by Noreen Grice

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Have you ever been to a star party and seen someone who is disabled struggle with the ability to enjoy the universe? Do you know someone who would like to have the universe be more accessible to enjoy? If so, astronomy educator Noreen Grice has the book for you. Everyone's Universe: A Guide to Accessible Astronomy Places by Noreen Grice (135 pp., paper, You Can Do Astronomy, New Britain, Connecticut, 2011, $19.95; ISBN 978-0-9833567-0-7) explains how to help everyone see and enjoy the univer...
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Catch the supernova in the Whirlpool Galaxy

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
If you haven't yet seen the "new star" in one of our favorite galaxies, M51 in Ursa Major, I encourage you to do so on the next clear night. The supernova erupted in the Whirlpool Galaxy on May 31 and was first observed by French amateur astronomer Amédée Riou. A German astronomer, Thomas Griga, confirmed the observation the next day and soon thereafter the supernova, the third in M51 in the past 17 years, was widely known among astronomers. The supernova, design...
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Is this what the Milky Way looks like from the outside?

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Today, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) released this cool image of the galaxy NGC 6744 in Pavo, deep in the Southern Hemisphere. This "postcard from extragalactic space," as the ESO press office puts it, shows a galaxy remarkably similar to the Milky Way in structure, so it gives us a glimpse of what our galaxy might look like from afar. The image was made with the 2.2-meter telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile. The galaxy lies about 180 mi...
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The world’s most celebrated astronomy Ph.D.

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Over the Memorial Day break, I had occasion to throw in a DVD or two, and wanting to relive a little music, I watched large swaths of Live Aid, the iconic 1985 concert that featured numerous acts on stages at Wembley Stadium in London, England, and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Again, I was reminded that Queen, the legendary British rockers, stole the show that day. Set against a galaxy of other stars, the foursome of Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon blew ...
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Astronomy magazine’s legacy — and a mini “museum”

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Although this year is the 38th in the history of Astronomy magazine, it is a big year for remembering the magazine’s heritage. Some amateur astronomers are not aware of the fact that for 31 of those years, Astronomy has been the largest circulation title on the subject, well ahead of its competitors. The modest publication that Steve Walther started as an outgrowth of his college work quickly caught fire as the most widely read publication of its type. In this big year of remembering the m...
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The Case for Pluto

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Whether you believe Pluto should still be classified as a planet or you’re dancing on its planetary grave, you owe yourself a book treat. Alan Boyle’s The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference (258 pp., hardcover, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2010, $22.95, ISBN 978–0–470–50544–1) is a sensational work that ought to be on your bookshelf. A smooth, succinct summary that reads like a detective story filled with intrigue, the work was craf...
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JFK and the promise of space

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress on a variety of topics he labeled “urgent national needs.” The speech is famous now for a variety of reasons, but none more so than for the president’s call to action to land a man on the Moon before the decade of the 1960s was gone. In this one address, JFK lit the fuse on the Apollo program and sent the American space initiative into overdrive. What follows is the talk’s portion devot...
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An impressive Georgia bolide

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
On Friday evening, May 20, observers in Georgia and Alabama witnessed a spectacular fireball blazing across their sky — a 6-foot-diameter (2 meters) chunk of asteroid or comet whizzing in at high velocity and creating an enormous flash. This happens from time to time, and, fortunately, NASA’s cameras were awake along with the observers, capturing amazing images of the bolide meteor (bolide is a term used for super-bright meteors). Subsequent analysis from two NASA cameras, one ne...
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Hot image of the week: M83

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
I remember the first time I saw galaxy M83, a bright, sprawling, face-on barred spiral in Hydra. It was an early summer night in my observing field in Oxford, Ohio, with my Celestron-8 trained way down along the treetops. Yet the galaxy was tantalizingly cool, a big glowing mass of light surrounding a bright core. Only later did I see M83 from a more southerly latitude and fully appreciate what it has to offer. With a large scope in the American Southwest, the galaxy comes alive with well-defin...
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The value of capturing deep-sky objects on paper

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
When I was starting to observe the sky in the mid-1970s, it was pretty common for people to head outside with a pad of paper, some pens and pencils, along with their red flashlights. These days, it seems most people want to simply look from one object to another in quick succession. But there’s value in drawing the objects as you see them in the eyepiece. The most important benefit you’ll get from sketching is the pure observing experience. Sketching makes you observe critically. It&...
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An important new book on extrasolar planets

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Yesterday, I told you about Phil Harrington’s new book on challenging sky objects. Another book written by a regular from the Astronomy magazine family has appeared, and is a significant contribution to a scientific subject — exoplanets. In Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets (255 pp., hardcover, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2011, $24.95, ISBN 978–0–691–14254–8), Ray Jayawardhana of the University of Toronto describes th...
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Check out Phil Harrington’s Cosmic Challenge

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Once in a while, a great new book for amateur sky observers rolls off the presses. Such an event has just happened again, with the publication of Cosmic Challenge: The Ultimate Observing List for Amateurs. Written by Astronomy Contributing Editor Phil Harrington, the book (469 pp., hardcover, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2011, ISBN 978–0–521–89936–9, $45) is a veritable treasure-trove of observing info. The book presents 187 challenging objects for observers of a...
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Remembering Robert Burnham, Jr.

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
A month from now, June 16 will mark a special day. It’s the birthday when one of the most famous astronomy writers in the world, Robert Burnham, Jr., would have turned 80 years old. (No, not our Robert Burnham, the longtime editor at Astronomy magazine who now works at Arizona State University. The other Robert Burnham.) Robert Burnham, Jr., died at age 61 in 1993, years after writing the beloved three-volume compendium Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, which served as an observing bible...
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Question: How valuable has the shuttle program been?

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
With this morning’s final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, the second-last shuttle launch, here’s a question to ponder: Has the space shuttle program, which commenced with its first manned flight in 1982, been worth it? The 135 flights have produced some science and lots of technological advances from experimenting in low Earth orbit. But would the cost of the shuttle program (estimated to be $170 billion through 2008) have been better applied to scientific probes to the planet...
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Hot image of the week: The Owl Nebula

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
I remember vividly getting my first telescope in the spring of 1977; it was a classic, orange-tubed Celestron-8, with a full set of eyepieces and other accessories. On one of my first nights under a dark sky with it, I recall vividly observing the Owl Nebula, (M97), in Ursa Major. Seeing the two dark “eyes” in the nebula’s disk was a very cool early accomplishment with that scope, I thought. So when Astronomy’s photo editor Michael Bakich showed me a new image of th...
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Media shame of the month: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
If we’re going to have a world in which people get smarter as time goes on, we must start living in the current century. Today, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), our friends Down Under, issued a press release conveniently calling attention to the current planetary grouping in the predawn sky. (They, like most of the other media, call it an “alignment” because it sounds a little more preordained that way, or at least a little organized.) In a staggering act of ...
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Dawn spacecraft motors toward asteroid Vesta

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
There’s exciting news from the solar system — NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is set to orbit the asteroid 4 Vesta, has captured images of the big rock on its approach. The photos, released today, show the asteroid, which measures 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, as a small disk from a distance of 752,000 miles (1.2 million km). When Dawn begins orbiting Vesta July 16, it will collect data from an altitude of only 1,700 miles (2,700 km), imaging the famous asteroid so that pl...
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The skies belong to everyone, part seven: Galaxies

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
In the past six parts of this miniseries, we’ve looked at all types of objects you can easily observe in the night sky — the Moon, planets, comets, stars, star clusters, and nebulae. In this final entry, we now turn to deep space, to galaxies far beyond our Milky Way. Our galaxy, a collection of at least 200 billion stars, is but one of at least 125 billion galaxies in the universe. We can’t see them all — most are too far away to be viewed by instruments other...
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The skies belong to everyone, part six: Nebulae and star clusters

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
So you bought a telescope to look at everything the universe has to offer. You’ve explored the various craters and maria of the Moon plus the planets, comets, and stars. What should you look at next? Stars form in groups as giant gas clouds collapse inward and compress the matter into dense, hot clumps. The process of stars exploding and creating gas clouds and gas clouds coalescing back into new stars is ongoing. So anyone with a small telescope can go outside anytime and observe cluster...