Sunday Matinee – Science In My Kitchen

While I recognize that this video is a departure from my primary focus on the space sciences, I just had to share this video. My kids and I made this video as we explored the interactions between milk and dish soap, using food coloring to make the interaction visible.

Kind of neat, yeah? The video should show you everything you need to know to try it yourself. The degreasing elements of the dish soap break up the fat in the milk (whole milk will work better than reduced fat), and the food coloring is along for the ride.

I bet you have everything you need to try this yourself, so what are you waiting for?


NASA Facebook Game – Space Race Blastoff

Image Credit: NASA

NASA recently released its first multiplayer Facebook game, Space Race Blastoff. It’s a competitive trivia game, in which you’re pitted against random opponents from around the world. You earn points for correct answers and bonus points for getting the correct answer first. I’ve played a few rounds and was actually surprised at how challenging some of the questions were. For example, you might be shown a photograph an astronaut and have to answer whom it is. I got Tom Stafford right, but didn’t recognize Stanley G. Love. Other questions aren’t specifically NASA-related, ranging from questions about the periodic table of elements to pop-culture references. If you’ve got a few minutes to spare and want a quick and fun test of your space sciences knowledge, give it a shot!


GRAIL: Ebb and Flow

Artist's Rendition of Grail Mission

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Earlier this month, I gave a minor overview of NASA’s Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. I had mentioned that the two mirror-twin spacecraft that make up the mission were currently — and temporarily — dubbed GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B, with official names coming later in the month. Beginning last October, NASA appealed to elementary students to come up with replacement names for the spacecraft.

Over 11,000 students, from 45 states and several territories, participated in contest, making for stiff competition.

Ultimately, it was the 4th Grade students from Emily Dickinson Elementary school, in Bozeman, Montana, who were chosen as the nationwide winners of the naming competition, with their names of Ebb and Flow. The students arrived at their name by researching what the GRAIL mission was studying and how it worked. They learned how important the Moon is to our lives on Earth, and how the Moon’s gravity causes our high and low tides. They decided on Ebb and Flow, because the names represent both the Moon’s gravity and its effects on our home.

Congratulations Emily Dickinson 4th-Graders! Not only did you come up with great contest-winning names, you came up with names that will forever exist in the historical pages of the world’s exploration of space!

For more about GRAIL, check out these links:


Neil deGrasse Tyson on The Daily Show

Astrophysicist, and renowned promoter of science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, sat down for an interview on The Daily Show with John Stewart. As always, Neil’s commentary drips of a passion for discovery and exploration. Science and comedy mix well!

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart


Be A Citizen Scientist – Globe At Night 2012

Globe At Night Logo

When we think of what it takes to be a scientist, we imagine many torturous years or studying, research, and education. While that certainly might be the path for a Ph.D. in a field of science, it certainly isn’t required to do science. In all actuality, we do science everyday; most of the time without even thinking about it.

For now, I want you to think about doing some science; science that will help many other scientists around the globe. It’s quick, easy, and fun. Participate in the 2012 Globe At Night.

Globe At Night relies on scientists around the globe, including amateurs, to make simple observations of the night sky in their area. The purpose is to obtain useful data on light pollution and astronomical viewing. Light pollution has a number of detrimental aspects, from negative affects on wildlife to issues regarding energy consumption. Most apparent to skygazers such as myself and many of you, light pollution is quickly degrading our view of the starry night sky. Globe At Night’s mission is to raise awareness about light pollution and collect data to measure its current impacts.

So contribute your scientific skills to the effort! All you really have to do is go outside, look at the constellation Orion (which is one of my favorites and worth viewing just for the sake of viewing it), and then compare your view with the charts provided. Globe At Night has a very user-friendly interface¬†for recording the data, and they even offer smartphone applications (check your market for “Globe At Night”). After that, check out the map that integrates all of the data already being collected around the planet and find out where on Earth you’ll see the darkest skies.

There are four opportunities to participate this year, and the first is currently happening now (January 14 to 23). So please do it now! The next opportunities will be: February 12-21, March 13,22, and April 11-20.

Fellow scientists, thanks for your help!


To Boldly Go

Mars, from Hubble 2005The Journal of Cosmology recently published a proposal (Journal of Cosmology, 2010, Vol 12, 3619-3626.) for the exploration settlement of Mars. This proposal, however, is a little different than most consider when thinking of interplanetary travel.

These missions would be one-way.

Myriad space-exploration resources and money go into making the return-trip possible, and many argue that that cost is too great, financially and politically. The authors of the article, Drs. Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies, agree. They say to scrap the return mission.

What they propose is that we (the humans of Earth) send two space crafts to Mars, each with two people on board. Those initial four people would create the infrastructure and conduct science and research for future one-way missions. Prior to this, some robotic exploration would be advised, to deploy power generators, deliver a couple years supply of food, supply agricultural equipment, seek out areas on Mars suitable to shelter human habitation (lava tubes are mentioned), and to research any Martian biota that may exist (primarily to understand what effects it could have on human health, as well as what impact human interference could cause to Martian life).

Future missions would follow, bringing additional tools, supplies, and resources, and additional human inhabitants. They reason that within several decades after the first pioneers land, a possible population of about 150 Mars emigrants would exist. This could constitute a viable gene pool for a permanent reproduction plan on Mars.

Why? I can think of thousands of reasons.

For starters, because the project is technically feasible to begin today. With current technologies and capabilities, a successful mission of this sort is quite feasible. We did it on a nearer scale with the Apollo missions to the Moon, and that was more than 40 years ago. Sure, there are greater challenges related to the distance (about 6 months with current chemical rockets to Mars vs. 3 days it took the Apollo missions to get to the Moon) and environment of Mars compared to the Moon; but again, you can subtract the return portion of the mission from the equation.

Additionally, our species will not survive on Earth forever (super volcanoes, intolerable global warming, asteroid impacts, pandemics, etc.). Mars could function as a lifeboat for human species, and the advances we make in the process could accelerate our ability to become an interstellar race. If the human race is to survive, we simply must travel. [We cannot forget, that within a small handful of billions of years, the Earth will be cremated as the sun converts into a red giant; expanding to a point that the Sun’s equator will possibly exist at a point further than the current orbit of the Earth.]

Aside from utilitarian reasons, exploring and populating new frontiers is part of what makes us human. It’s what we do. We’ve accomplished amazing things in the short history of our species. We’ve conquered the lands, seas, and air. Humans have descended to the deepest depths of our oceans (Jacques Piccard and Lieutenant Don Walsh descended to Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, aboard the Bathyscaphe Trieste, in 1960) and climbed the Earth’s highest peaks. We’ve learned to fly and have had an uninterrupted human presence in Earth orbit for more than a decade. We’ve gone as far as putting our species on our nearest natural neighbor, the Moon, on multiple (the last being 38 years ago; Apollo 17) occasions. And while we have explored, and are currently exploring, our solar system, it has always been by proxy. Our probes (Voyager 1 & 2 are still returning data after 33 years, as well as other probes) and rovers (Opportunity is humming along on the Martian surface, and I’m hoping Spirit will eventually wake back up.)

Mars is the next step in the walk of human destiny. If we can’t muster the political will to take that step, then our journey is over and we’ll live out the rest of our existence — a flash in time — on this currently habitable rock. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not this is good enough.

I’ve spent hours staring at Mars, whether with my eyes, or through the eyepiece of my cheap telescope.

If given the opportunity to participate in one of these missions, I’d sign up; if for nothing else, to have the same view of Earth, behind the eyepiece of a cheap telescope on Mars.

Ursa Major

The following video is my first real attempt at time-lapse astrophotography. I chose one of my favorite constellations, Ursa Major (best known for containing The Big Dipper). The video shows the motion of the constellation over a 45-minute period.

I live in a small city, so some light pollution factored into the result but overall the night was quite clear. You can clearly make out “The Horse and Rider”, two stars that make up what is typically seen as the second star in The Big Dipper’s handle. The ability to see these two stars, Mizar and Alcor, was used by the Arabs, Romans, and English to test the eye-sight of their warriors.

But there’s even more to Mizar and Alcor than meets the (unaided) eye. Mizar is actually a quadruple system of two binary stars and Alcor is a binary system. Together, they make up sextuple system, as they are all apparently gravitationally bound.

To put it simply, Mizar — which we see as the brighter star, the horse, making up the Horse and Rider — is two sets of two stars orbiting each other. Alcor, is a single set of two stars orbiting each other, and is in turn interacting with the Mizar system. Six stars, dancing together in a cosmic folk dance, appearing to us on Earth as one or two stars (depending on your eyesight).

Additionally, this all goes to show that as much as we think we know about the cosmos, there is so much more out there to discover. Mizar and Alcor have been two of the most observed objects in the night sky for millennia, yet we still continue to unravel more of their magic.

Ursa Major

Ursa Major

Black Eye Galaxy

Black Eye Galaxy
(click image to largeify)

The Black Eye Galaxy (Messier 64), in the constellation Coma Berenices, is a spiral galaxy, visible with even a small telescope. It was discovered in 1779, by Edward Pigott (and independently a month later by Johann Elert Bode and in 1880 by Charles Messier). In a majority of galaxies, the stars all orbit in the same direction. Interestingly though, the gases in the outer region of M64 rotate in the opposite direction of the gases and stars within the inner region. To clarify the scale, the inner region has a radius of 3,000 light years, while the outer region extends an additional 40,000 light years. (That’s big, but take note that M64 is 19,000,000 light years from Earth.) The boundary between the two regions is believed to trigger a very productive birthing ground for many new stars. Astronomers believe that this pattern was caused when M64 absorbed a satellite galaxy brought in on a collision course, approximately 1 billion years, or more, ago.

The darkened band that gives the galaxy it’s nickname is a dust feature that’s obscuring the light from the nucleus of the galaxy.

Dying A Beautiful Death

The red giant AFGL 3068 is dying a beautiful death. Like all red giants, as they expand they spew their outer layers into space in a spherical shape. What’s unique about AFGL3068 however, is that it’s actually a binary star — two stars orbiting each other. Due to the orbits of the two stars, the material that’s ejected isn’t able to expand into a sphere, but in this amazingly perfect (and awesomely huge at 3 trillion kilometers!) spiral.

Look for yourself:

AFGL 3068

AFGL 3068

(Click image to embiggerify)

Thanks Hubble!

My Name Is Earl

I neglected to post this a couple of days ago.

@Astro_Wheels tweets from 173 miles above and, as you can see, has an amazing vantage point to capture awesome images of our planet and its systems.