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    This pic of the Orion Nebula is so fresh.


    2012 - 07.17

    No one can argue otherwise:

     

    Oh man, two new Hubble Space Teless–heyyyyyy wait a minute!


    2012 - 06.14

    I dig space telescopes. The images they produce are moving on an emotional level and alter the way I see the world around me on an intellectual level. I like talking about them, thinking about the things they are telling us about that giant universe that’s out there, lurking above the thin blue haze which protects us from vacuum. In the news last week I see that NASA has recently been given not one, but TWO spare telescopes from one of the sixteen different US spy agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office. In fact, the mirrors on these things are the same size as Hubble’s mirror (7.9ft). NASA isn’t sure yet how they’ll use these super sweet mirrors. The ‘scopes will need to be kitted out with cameras, spectroscopes, electronics, etc and applied to a specific mission before they see any use, which they’re saying will probably happen in the 2020s.

    But hold the phone here–these things were sitting in a warehouse collecting dust for who knows how long before some record keeper at the NRO said, gee, maybe someone could, like, use these? I recently donated some items to the local goodwill and all of it was stuff that had been sitting around forever; things I hadn’t interacted with in years and were essentially useless to me. The discoveries Hubble has made, the pictures it’s been taking, the realizations about the universe it’s spurred–you could argue that it’s the most important single instrument on the NASA inventory.

    And yet, at just one of our 16 spy agencies, they’ve got TWO of these things, mothballed. The optics on these, still considered “state of the art” to NASA, are ostensibly so old and outdated to the spy crowd that they’re literally giving them away. This raises so many questions… It makes you wonder what else your tax dollars have bought, sitting unused in a giant warehouse somewhere. It makes you wonder what the heck the NRO is using now that is so much better, to the point that a Hubble-equivalent is considered worthless. It makes you wonder how much THAT cost (and when they’re giving one to NASA). It makes you wonder why publicly-funded NASA has to struggle and languish and put a hundred other amazing missions on the chopping block in order to make their James Webb Space Telescope happen, while the also-publicly-funded spy agencies probably get a blank check in a blacked-out portion of the budget with carte blanche to build the best ‘scopes concievable… something far ahead of what NASA can do. It makes you wonder about the ability of democratic governments, of which we are made to believe the Unites States is supposedly the pinnacle, to allocate their collective resources into meaningful and worthwhile pursuits. It makes you wonder about our priorities as a society… which I suppose are decided on our behalves by a tiny elite, as they always have been throughout history.

    In the end, someone devoted to discovery, understanding, and endless research (aka science as a whole, science as a lifestyle) needs to calibrate their expectations. That’s a despicable euphemism but it’s a fact of life. In the world of academia, you will be hard pressed to find places where the engineering department funding and facilities outstrip that of the athletic department. Those rare enclaves exist as exceptions to the rule. Will governments continue to squander their cut of the GDP on self-indulgent machinations? Until the end of time. There is a constant battle going on inside of me, between cynicism and optimism. Which side of that battle rules the day comes down to what I focus on. For today, I want to force myself into focusing on the part of this tale where NASA gets two new Hubble mirrors for free. And remind myself that Kepler is still scoring more points every day while James Webb inches ahead here on the ground. All those facts are something worth toasting to. Here, here.

    Frontiers.


    2012 - 06.05

    Post #250.  Sestercentennial, baby.  Time for some introspection…

    I’m not sure what to feel about the crescendoing success of SpaceX. On one hand, it’s awesome that we’ve arrived at a point in time when space travel is within reach of a smart company. SpaceX did a nice job broadcasting their launch/ISS docking, including lots of cheering and even a tear-wipe or two. You’d never get that from NASA (and that’s not a bad thing). It is cool to see them get emotional about it–as well they should. I hope they do more live-broadcasts and behind the scenes TV work. I hope they’re not all secretive about the awesome work they’re doing, like say, Apple would be. Or China.

    And on that other hand, I worry that this event signals the beginning of the end for NASA. One thing that makes the work NASA does so incredible is that they do what they do because… someone should. Someone should walk on the moon, someone should evaluate the cosmic microwave background, someone should build the most badass space telescope ever and use it to learn the infinite secrets of the universe. Someone very seriously should do all those things–and much more–in space. Part of me worries that transferring the routine spacefaring work over to a private company is the first step of congress gradually scaling back and eventually pulling the plug on the whole thing. One amazingly great thing about public funding is that it goes to the PUBLIC good. One agonizingly bad thing about public funding is that it’s controlled by utterly short-sighted, duplicitous, and/or clueless plutocrats. AKA congressmen!

    I see headlines about NASA planning a manned mission to Mars–in 2033–and I just sigh. Those kind of timelines are just pure talk. There’s no responsibility for something that’s supposed to happen 20 years from now, no accountability for the people who make those claims. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I sort of feel like it’s never going to happen unless we have another JFK moment where the man in charge says, “your objections are nice and all, but too bad, we’re going to Mars because I say we’re going to Mars, and there is nothing you can do to stop this.” That’s basically what JFK did. I read an interesting article that gave stats on the public approval ratings on the worth of the Apollo program and even right AFTER the moon landing, they maxed out at around 43% I think it said. Even in their moment of glory, less than half of Americans thought it was a worthwhile exercise. I do wonder, if they asked those same people today, with the context of history now putting it into perspective, what the percentages would be.

    There’s a billboard I used to pass on my way home that’s advertising for an Alzheimer’s association. It shows a picture of an Apollo astronaut on the moon and asks “Do You Remember?” I think it’s poignant that out of every world event in the last century they could have picked, and even right over the top of personal events like your daughter’s wedding, or your favorite dog, or (insert personal joy of choice here), they picked the moon landing. THAT is the one thing that blew everyone’s collective mind and stands out brighter than anything. That is the one piece of history you simply cannot forget.

    I saw a late night comedian once, lampooning the USA by comparing us to Michael Jackson, saying “It’s kind of sad when your greatest achievement is a moon walk that happened three decades ago.” OUCH! As someone who grew up watching the space shuttle take routine flights, it feels wrong that NASA has no manned launch vehicle now. I’ll enthusiastically say that it feels great to see an American company take up that mantle (or at least getting closer and closer now). But I worry that as private enterprise takes the lead, and we transfer over to a system that ruthlessly asks the question “what is the short term profit?” that human spaceflight could miss out on true glory while grubbing for coins.

    If I can live to see one piece of history unfold, a man landing on mars would be far-and-away the thing I’d love to witness. When I look at that billboard with the astronaut, that’s what I think about. When will come THE moment for my generation, that piece of history you can never forget? Not a disaster or a scandal or a sporting event–but a true triumph of humankind. Those are rare. And accordingly meaningful. In 2033 I’ll be 53 years old. Will boots touch martian soil by the time I break 60 years of age?  Will I live to see it at all?

    Space News Quarterly


    2012 - 06.01

    A few space related odds and ends:

    Another awesome interview with Level 60 Exoplanet Wizard Geoff Marcy, from Wired Science. He talks about how he’s leaving the Kepler planet hunt and joining the SETI team, which is pretty sweet. He goes on to describe how alien civilizations probably use lasers to communicate–highly directed beams of signals–and that we’ve been beaming lasers into space ourselves, ironically from the adaptive optics systems of large telescopes! It’s a cool read, check it out:

    There’s also a cool interview with the outgoing SETI champion, Jill Tarter, who is stepping down from the leadership role to concentrate more on fundraising for SETI, which is good to hear. She cites last year’s shutdown of the Allen Telescope Array as a wakeup call–I’ll bet it was. As written about previously on here, they’re looking to do more crowdsourcing and other creative ways of securing the finances to continue their important work, and that’s a smart choice.

    Last thing I’ll highlight is that last week the SpaceX Dragon capsule at last docked with the ISS. That’s a significant event in space exploration, purely because until now only Japan, NASA, Russia, and the ESO had sent spacecraft there–all large governmental organizations. This docking is a feat of engineering and it’s really cool that SpaceX has gotten that far along.

    Infrared Telescope Action


    2012 - 05.25

    Just check this out.

    Now think about what the James Webb will be able to do in infrared….

    Kepler lovers, get comfy


    2012 - 04.04

    The Kepler Space Telescope, which I was riffing on a while back was supposed to run out of funding this November.  Well, stock up on popcorn exoplanet hunters because the show is going to keep going for a long time!  As of today, NASA has extended the mission to 2016.  Yes, that’s right.  Pass the salt :D

    Riding the Solid Rocket Booster, Skywalker Sound Style


    2012 - 03.28

    While we’re on the subject of pure, incredible space videos, this one:

    Sequel to my previous SRB video post, this video has got auditory improvements courtesy of Skywalker Sound.  Where was this video, like, 8 years ago when they were busy axing the space shuttle??

    Timelapse… IN SPACE


    2012 - 03.26

    I’m guessing a lot of the readership is already aware of this video, but I’m going to post it anyway because this timelapse is just THAT badass. It’s shot from outer space (on the ISS) and shows some unbelievably spectacular views of the heavens in motion and earth spinning below them.  To me, it really drives home the notion that we’re floating in space… a fact that we seldom take time to appreciate.  Ultra-cool:

     

    And, unlike a lot of awesome timelapse videos, the music is surprisingly tasteful! I can’t get enough of this one.

    μC Bicentennial


    2012 - 03.12

    Well here we are folks, blogpost # 200. It’s nice milestone to be hitting!

    Hmm, pressure’s on, better bust out something cool… how about a photo I took…… of the moon?? 

    Shot with Canon 100-300mm @ 300 and cropped (1:1 original resolution shown). 1/125th @ f/11 ISO 100. w/ a Canon T3i. Mirror lockup and ten second delay on the shutter. Phase based autofocus (through the viewfinder). Light enhancements in CS5.

    It occurred to me that I’d never taken my 100-300mm zoom outside on a clear night at tried snapping shots of the moon at the long end of the lens. What you see here is a 100% resolution crop. So this is the max resolving power of my erm, best refractor, at the moment, coupled with the T3i’s max 18MP setting. I’d say it came out pretty well.

    And speaking of new phases, I will be moving soon! Which means a whole lot less time on the computer and thereby a whole lot less time available for posting on here for a while. Fortunately I’m way, way, way behind on posting my Primo Vino Art, so there will be a bountiful explosion of images for you photography nuts and oenophiles. I intend to schedule these posts in advance, so while I am busy shuffling boxes around there will still be a steady stream of things to look at.

    Speaking of things to look at, some of you may have noticed that the header image at the top of this blog has been changing recently. I happened upon a really sweet little piece of code that allows you to setup a directory full of images, and then randomly display any one of them. Currently there are 4 different header images that appear at random. Over time, I intend to continue expanding this until there’s like 10-20 different ones. Eventually the background may become randomized as well. Variety! It’s the spice of life. And we all know spice expands consciousness.

    Feels good to hit 200! Cheers people!

    A sampling of Nebulae from Other Galaxies


    2012 - 03.03

    A week or so ago I sent a brief letter to mister Phil Plait, aka the Bad Astronomer. I read his blog about every day and it’s almost always got something of interest to me. The letter was:

    I keep thinking about something you said on Bad Astronomy. You were talking about the Orion Nebula, saying how it’s so large and vibrant that it would stand out to observers from another galaxy who were looking at the Milky Way. That got me thinking: are there large nebulae in other galaxies that we can see, as ‘standout’ features? The biggest picture I’ve ever seen of another galaxy was Andromeda, and I looked for an equivalent of M42 in M31, but I didn’t spot much. Are there any well known examples of large beautiful nebulas in other galaxies?

    And he replied:

    Actually, yes. Look online for image of the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is lousy with nebulae. Also NGC 604 in the Triangulum Galaxy. One of my favorites!

    So let’s look at those things he recommended! We’ll start with NCG 604.  Since this one is actually located inside of a distant galaxy, I think it qualifies best as what I was originally thinking of.  First off, check out this sweet 25 hour “amateur” capture of the whole Triangulum Galaxy:

    If you didn’t spot NGC 604 already, it’s the large pinkish area straight below the two large yellow stars at the top of the picture.  The appearance of NGC 604 seems to vary a lot depending on what wavelengths you look at.  This one from Hubble is my favorite:

    I did a little reading based off Phil’s suggestions and found out that all the Nebulae I’ve been digging are called H II regions, for those who are ‘in the know’. As you might guess, this name refers to a concentration of ionized hydrogen gas, H2. Get the full lowdown on wikipedia, it’s a good read.  But back to the gawking.  Checking out the Large Magellanic Cloud, the biggest standout Nebula is the Tarantula, which is actually the most active starburst region in our local group of galaxies. Accordingly, it’s mondo-luminous. If the Tarantula Nebula were as close to Earth as the Orion Nebula, it would shine as bright as the full moon in the night sky. Think about that! It would cast shadows; you could possibly read by that light at night. Jeez.

    Also really sweet in the LMC is LH 95, another incredible-looking nebula where stars are being born.

    Just for a little perspective, here are some distances:
    Large Magellanic Cloud: 160 thousand light years (w/ Tarantula Nebula NGC 2070)
    Andromeda Galaxy (M31): 2.6 million light years
    Triangulum Galaxy (M33): 3 million light years (w/ NGC 604)

    Far out, maaaan. It’s cool to check out those starburst regions as parts of other galaxies. A brief blurb from wikipedia worth repeating:

    From a viewpoint in the LMC, the Milky Way would be a spectacular sight. The galaxy’s total apparent magnitude would be -2.0—over 14 times brighter than the LMC appears to us on Earth—and it would span about 36° across the sky, which is the width of over 70 full moons. Furthermore, because of the LMC’s high galactic latitude, an observer there would get an oblique view of the entire galaxy, free from the interference of interstellar dust which makes studying in the Milky Way’s plane difficult from Earth. The Small Magellanic Cloud would be about magnitude 0.6, substantially brighter than the LMC appears to us.

    One more to leave you with, N90, in the Small Magellanic Cloud:

    If you dig this, then check out what else awaits under the cosmology tag.