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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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...
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The skies belong to everyone, part five: Stars

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 carters and maria of the Moon plus all the planets and comets.  What should you look at next?Looking beyond the family of the Sun, we take a long step into deep space. Stars, like people, come in many sizes, types, and ages. The majority of stars, in fact, are not alone. Just as the Sun has planets, some stars have other stars. Many of these double star systems are conveniently place...
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The skies belong to everyone, part four: Comets

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 all the planets. What should you look at next? Every once in a while, and usually completely unexpectedly, a bright comet sweeps in near the Sun and becomes the sky’s most commanding sight — temporarily. There are also many periodic comets, including Halley, that return at regular intervals and whose orbits are well-known. In either case, bri...
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The skies belong to everyone, part three: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune

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, and some of the planets  — Mercury, Venus, and Mars. What should you look at next? The solar system’s giant planet, Jupiter, is enormous — so huge it could hold 1,000 Earths. Jupiter is fascinating with a telescope or even with 7x binoculars. Its four brightest moons — Io, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto (each as big as Earth&rsqu...
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The skies belong to everyone, part two: Mercury, Venus, and Mars

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. What should you look at next? Why not go after some planets? Seven planets are visible in backyard telescopes. The planet that orbits closest to the Sun, Mercury, is bright but never appears very far from the Sun in the sky. You must always look for it right before sunrise or soon after sunset. Mercury is small and distant enough that binoculars and telescop...
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The skies belong to everyone, part one: The Moon

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
So, you bought a telescope to look at everything the universe has to offer. There are moons, planets, stars, comets, nebulae, and galaxies, many of which are visible to users of small telescopes on any clear night. What should you look at first? There’s no better way to start in astronomy than with the Moon. The brightest and largest object in the sky, the Moon is covered with features easily visible in binoculars or small telescopes. You can actually see some lunar features with your una...
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Have a spare $100,000?

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
If so, you just might be able to win the bidding for Alexei Leonov’s flown space suit from the Apollo-Soyuz Test Mission, July 15–19, 1975. It’s just one item among many dozens of space-related memorabilia in an auction to be held May 5, 2011, by Bonhams in New York. This big space auction is loaded with unusual and one-of-a-kind items for the collector who has everything and misses the heyday when space exploration was more aggressively funded. Among the other treasures: the c...
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What kind of a thinker are you?

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Every day you are alive on planet Earth, there’s a big philosophical question you have to deal with many times. How do you determine what is the truth? What thought process or processes do you use to decide what constitutes reality? Do you use different kinds of thought processes for different areas of your life? Four broad types of thinking exist. They stretch over a spectrum from simple to complex, from primitive to sophisticated, from employing “gut feelings” to analysi...
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The history of Astronomy magazine

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Little did Steve Walther know that his brainchild would turn into the greatest magazine about astronomy in the world. At 29, the ambitious graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point launched a periodical about his first love, the stars. The premier issue, August 1973, held 48 pages and five feature articles, plus information about what to see in the night sky that month. Walther had grown up in the Milwaukee area and taken jobs in public relations after college, yet always dabbling in...
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Not so fast, New York Times

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
On April 4, 2011, the New York Times ran a story called “Black-Market Trinkets from Space” in which writer William J. Broad lashed out at amateur meteorite collectors and dealers for practicing their hobby. “An illegal sales market has boomed” in the wake of increasing interest in space rocks, claimed Broad. He quoted Dr. Ralph Harvey of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland as calling the meteorite trade “as organized as any drug trade and just as ...
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Celebrating Earth Day

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
You know, I noticed on the calendar when I came into work on Friday that April 22 was Earth Day. That’s great, and I fully support Earth as a good planet and a nice place to be. Sure beats the chills you would get on Mars, the trouble you would have breathing on Mercury, or the scorched hellfire that would consume you on Venus. And bringing attention to good causes is pretty fine, too, as long as it’s not a manufactured process, as it usually is, to sell greeting cards or solicit cas...
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Tidbits from Tunisia

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
As many of you know, Astronomy magazine took a tour group of 22 to Tunisia to hunt for meteorites and explore historical and archaeological wonders back in March. We found abundant, albeit small, meteorites at Tataouine. En route to our meteorite hunt, we visited a famous Star Wars filming site, the ancient Berber fortified granary Ksar Ouled Soltane, which was used as a set for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Two of our most exotic travelers were Phil and Wendy Evans, who live on Rarotonga in t...
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On the road: The American Museum of Natural History

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
When in New York the past few days, I spent a great deal of time at the American Museum of Natural History. Among the numerous collections on view at the institution are the specimens in the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites. I spent a great deal of time in this gallery studying and photographing the collection, which is one of the best anywhere. The stones, irons, and stony-irons are displayed beautifully in a circular room spread about the gigantic Cape York chunk in the room’s center. Name...
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On the road: The Rose Center for Earth and Space

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Following the Northeast Astronomy Forum in Suffern, New York, I traveled to New York City to work on a couple stories for future issues of the magazine. I won’t divulge exactly what they will be, but let me share a few photos of the day I had at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History. The Rose Center is the preeminent astronomy educational museum and planetarium in the United States, and it is under the direction of a good friend of the magazine, Neil...
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On the road: The Northeast Astronomy Forum, April 17, 2011

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
The second day of the Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) got underway early with a meeting of the board of the Astronomy Outreach Foundation (AOF), a group of telescope manufacturers that is assembling programs to promote the hobby. Working with partners including Astronomy magazine, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the International Dark Sky Association, and other groups, the AOF is going to have a big year with new surprises, some of which you will see in the next few weeks. The program ...
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On the road: The Northeast Astronomy Forum, April 16, 2011

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
The first day of the 2011 Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) got off to a big start on the morning of Saturday, April 16, 2011, at the Eugene Levy Fieldhouse at Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York. More than 140 vendors were on hand, including all the large telescope manufacturers and many retail dealers, as well as numerous accessory producers and media such as Astronomy magazine. Inclement cold, rainy weather eliminated one of the daytime activities, solar observing, but many hundre...
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A recent history of telescopes

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
On the eve of the Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) in Suffern, New York, the nation’s largest astronomy expo, I’d like to reflect on telescopes. The history of amateur astronomy is filled with many memorable moments in scope technology. Those of us fortunate to attend NEAF this year will see a spectacular array of new equipment from numerous manufacturers. But what about some of the historical highlights of the amateur astronomy telescope market? This compilation of key dates, from ...
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On the road: The Northeast Astronomy Forum

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Tomorrow, I will fly east to Newark and then drive up to Suffern, New York, to attend the 20th anniversary of the Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF), America’s premier astronomy expo, which takes place at Rockland Community College April 16 and 17. (See http://www.rocklandastronomy.com/NEAF/index.html.) The event is driven by the energy and tireless work of many people, but none so much as Alan Traino, the Rockland Astronomy Club’s workhorse. I will report on the event this weeke...
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Starman: The truth behind the legend of Yuri Gagarin

Posted 6 years ago by David Eicher
Lots of buzz shot across the Web yesterday to mark the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s celebrated 108-minute spaceflight. That event ushered in a new era, and it’s amazing that we now have a half-century of space exploration under our belts, as well as 108 years of human flight. You probably read a few posts yesterday online summarizing the excitement over Gagarin’s orbital flight April 12, 1961, that made him a hero of the Soviet Union. A mere 7 years later, Gagarin was tra...

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