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  • Posts Tagged ‘our incredible universe’

    Kepler Space Telescope still bursting our conception of the universe at its seams


    2011 - 12.27

     As Microcosmologist turns one, today is Johannes Kepler’s 440th Birthday. Happy 440th, ya old coot!

    This week I saw a headline at Ars Technica (one of my favorite sites to read): “This week in Exoplanets” which added the subtitle “with a side dose of the rest of science”. I had to laugh at this.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and venture that my readership is already well informed about the latest findings (go ahead and peruse the above link if not) so I’ll skip out on rehashing these latest news bytes. Indeed, one could run a whole blog solely devoted to chronicling the Kepler team’s findings.

    What fascinates and delights me at this moment is standing back and observing the fact that this project is completely dominating the headlines. To the point where other very interesting scientific discoveries are taking a backseat to Kepler. It underscores the universal desire to know this cosmos around us. And the yearning to answer that nagging question ‘are we alone?’ (spoiler alert: we’re certainly not!) It’s a natural question to ask. But it’s an exceptional group of people who begin the undertaking to concretely find it and prove life exists, which is what we’re all talking about here.

    So Kepler has found Earth-sized exoplanets, and exoplanets within the habitable zone of their star. It’s simply a matter of time before a world is located satisfying both of these criteria. As much as Kepler has grabbed the headlines, the project is still in the ‘warm-up’ phase, in the sense that if they need 3 transits to verify a planet, and the mission launched in 2009, next year will be the year in which they could start verifying planets with the exact size and position of Earth, orbiting around other stars. The best is yet to come!

    I firmly believe they will find their Earth-twin. Probably tens or even hundreds of them. To me, this is a foregone conclusion, but one that will nevertheless be monumental when it’s announced. It’s a major stepping stone on the path to finding more life as-we-know-it. When I think about the cosmos, think about its vastness, it occurs to me that if there is a non-zero probability of life arising (and here we are), then in a universe as inconceivably expansive as ours, life MUST abound. It simply must. The realist in me doubts that I will live to see its existence scientifically verified, but as a nerd-type I deeply envy/revere the people who are conducting this search. Going a step further, as a human being, a self-aware consciousness, I know it is in our nature and our very destiny to seek connection with whomever else shares this universe with us. It is a quest upon which we are compelled to embark.

    One thought that keeps reoccurring to me as the Kepler data gets dissected, is that our search is so ‘geocentric’. That is to say a lot of the analysis I read is focused purely upon the assumption that life can only arise on a goldilocks planet with Earth mass, Earth gravity, Earth atmosphere, and Earth chemistry. That’s a sensible and proper extension of the scientific though-process: we go with what we know. One thing I am very hopeful to see in my lifetime is the shattering of this geocentric view on life. Maybe even as early as this time next year when the Mars über-rover curiosity touches down on the red planet and kicks off its search for life there.

    We humans think of ourselves as impossibly complex organisms, but really we are nothing more than collections of microbes that have had long time scales to build up into spiffy configurations. If we find microbes in the soil of Mars, or deep underground in Martian caves or aquifers, or somewhere beneath the icy surfaces of Europa’s oceans, then it follows that given adequate timescales, these microbes can build up their own spiffy configurations in the form of Europa-pean super-intelligent dolphins or whales, or fox-like Martian creatures that exist in complex networks of subterranean caves. Consider the fact that the number of microbes which live inside your digestive tract is greater than the number of humans ever born. Intricate organisms grows from microbes, and the more extremeophiles that pop up, the wider the playing field grows.

    Daydreaming of what must be out there, I imagine there must be species which exist in far heavier gravities than a human could withstand, species that dine on arsenic-seasoned dishes, and organisms that swim through seas of radiation which would kill us almost instantly. When asked whether he looked forward to the first contact with an alien lifeform, Stephen Hawking expressed his belief that the encounter would likely parallel the meeting of Christopher Columbus and the American Indians. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more formidable intellect than Stephan, but the alien Christopher Columbus parable only holds true if Earth had some uncommon resource or a hospitable environment. Perhaps it does; oxygen atmospheres and vast oceans of liquid water. But look at our own search: singlemindedly seeking Earth-twins. Aliens from a gas giant would be singlemindedly searching for a planet like our Jupiter. How common would it be, for other intelligences to arise whose environmental requirements are incompatible with our own? And perhaps a more fascinating question: what would we learn by communicating with them? Even if we could never physically meet in person, what would their cultures have created? What truths would they see in the universe we share?

    Among the awe-inspiring discoveries ongoing in our lifetimes, the chronicling and cataloging of exoplanets is right up there at the top. The other prong of this search is the expansion of our science’s boundaries on where life can exist. That includes extremeophiles living in volcanos and deep sea trenches here on earth, as well as the planetary science missions underway and forthcoming. Both of these are metaphorical digging in our own backyard that will change the way we look at what we see through the mirrors of our greatest telescopes. As Kepler blows up the newspaper headlines, my mind floats out to the Curiosity rover, traveling fast and silent through the coldness of space, racing towards a higher plateau in our search to find the next door neighbors beyond the thin blue shell of Earth’s skies…

    To Catch Some Photons From Across Our Cosmos


    2011 - 12.06

    So I’ve been researching telescopes with the goal of getting into astrophotography.  So far I’ve learned that I have A LOT to learn.  As in, seriously, A LOT.  This remains a distant goal.

    A good part of this research is simply gawking at awesome pictures that people have taken and seeing what equipment they used to do it.  This has also been a learning experience about objects in the sky and a good calibration of expectations towards what I might achieve on my own someday assuming I put in the time to learn the tricks of the trade, the money to get a capable setup, and practice enough to become talented with it.  Just tonight I saw the first amateur image of an object I really love, 47 Tucanae.  This picture was taken in the Andes mountains, with a mind-mindbogglingly expensive telescope setup, but still… it gives a glimpse of what is possible.  Even a fraction of this is mind-gasmly sweet:

    Also, this happened yesterday


    2011 - 11.27

    The latest and greatest Mars rover, Curiosity,  lifted off successfully for the red planet.  I’m guessing all my fellow space geeks were abundantly aware of this already, and knew that this puppy has a footprint the size of a humvee, carries 10 times the scientific payload of any previous rover, and has more sophisticated analysis tools than any previous mission to mars.  This baby is the biggest, baddest, and sexiest rover ever to depart for another world.  It’ll be landing in August of next year.  That’s pretty friggin exciting.

     

    Star Party Timelapse


    2011 - 10.24

    This weekend I attended a Star Party (aka an astronomer hangout session) with the North Houston Astronomy Club and took along my timelapse setup.  I got to meet some cool people who are way into the stars, and got in some solid time staring at the heavens during the Orionid Meteor Shower.  I’m pretty psyched about the resultant video below because it combines a whole bunch of techniques and tricks that I have never tried before.

    Public service reminder: hit the 1080p and fullscreen it.  We’re looking at stars.  They’re small!

    For anyone who’s wondering, those 4 tall poles in the timelapse where the sun is still going down are actually a radio telescope, set up to listen to the sounds of Jupiter as it passes southernly-overhead in the middle of the night.  Bonus points for exotic telescopes!

    I had done “star trails” images before by using this simple, free program called StarStaX, but I hadn’t realized that the same program can save a picture at every step during the composite-making process, which gives these really neat star trails videos.  I also found a photoshop actions file as blogged about on Owen Scharlotte’s site that let me do the fading-startrails effect. This is my first time using either of those techniques. (UPDATED…TWICE!: Owen had a broken link, which is now fixed! His actions are now more sophisticated as well, so click here to download the version I used, which I’ll leave posted as it was requested of me via email from a reader. Please note: I can’t provide technical assistance with this actions file. You’ll have to read Owen’s website and figure out on your own how it works. You should check out his site anyway, as it’s good.)

    As with my last attempt, I did a batch process on all 1,145 photos before compiling them into the video.  I figured out how to remove hot pixels from the dark parts of the sky (using a subtraction layer on a noise reference image), but I still haven’t mastered removing them from lighter regions near the horizon.  There’s definite room for improvement.  Another very cool thing: I learned a few neat, new tricks with Shadow/Highlights in Photoshop as well as Curves; two functions I use all the time.  Hah!  And I arrogantly had assumed I knew all there was to know about these functions!  Enlightening and humbling in the same moment.  This whole deal was certainly a beneficial learning experience.

    But stepping back from the technical aspect of all this, and speaking of humbling, have a look at those stars.  Wowzers.

    Something that really knocked me out that night was seeing “the great nebula in Andromeda”, aka M31, aka the Andromeda Galaxy.  Maaan.  I mean… every star you see in the sky is an incomprehensible distance away from us.  Jeez, really I can’t even genuinely comprehend the distance from Earth to Venus, let alone the distance from Earth to Proxima Centauri…  But holy %*#^ Andromeda, that’s 2.5 million light years from Earth.  And you can see it with your naked eye if the sky has clear “seeing”.   Hanging out with a bunch of astronomers and having them point out all these fascinating things in the sky was really inspiring.  There’s certainly more sensational things to be seen in the sky (Jupiter and it’s four Galilean moons was truly a sight to behold) but looking up and spotting another galaxy, well that blew my mind.  I checked it out through both binoculars and a pretty excellent telescope as well.  No matter how you see it, it’s dim.  But it’s there, and one of the top mind-boggling sights of  my year.

    You can see it, as my camera saw it on the left.  I drew in purple dashed lines connecting some of the nearby stars in the Andromeda constellation that make it easier to spot.  The galaxy itself is circled in green.  As you can see it’s not much more than a faint blur.  But man oh man, did those photons ever come a long way before, by sheer random chance, happening to land upon the image sensor of my camera.  At the time that those photons left the Andromeda Galaxy, the genus Homo had literally just begun.  Homo Habilis was the species.  Definitely still very very ape-like.  By contrast, Homo Sapiens emerged 250,000 years ago; an order of magnitude more recently.  Wow.

    Even though there are fantastic pictures out there of such objects as Andromeda, it’s still so very powerful to see it with your own eyes–to have your own retinas collect some photons that traveled 2.5 million years to reach them.  Seeing that is ….. well it’s breathtaking.

    —-

    Meeting other people who are jazzed about the sky was a highlight of the evening as well.  One thing I had hoped to do was learn a bit about telescopes since it’s somewhat of a long-term goal of mine to acquire one.  I met a guy named Rusty who had just gotten a brand new Orion model off eBay.  It was his first real night out with it, so he was still getting things dialed in, but overall he had it in pretty great form.  Seeing his excitement over the new instrument was infectious and definitely made me want to go do some further research.  But talking to him at length also made me realize that I have 100% no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to ‘scopes.  It’s going to be quite some time before I know enough to even consider a purchase.  In the meantime, I think I might invest in a good, lightweight, comfortable pair of binoculars.  I had read people saying that this was a great first step into astronomy online, but I sort of scoffed at the idea, thinking, naahh, what I want is a badass telescope!  And yes, that IS what I want, but still, a good pair of binoculars is certainly a fun, portable, and instantly-maneuverable way to check out the sky.  I think I will be getting a pair.

    That, and a 75mW laser pointer! ;)

    Ooh, ooh, this is righteously cool!


    2011 - 10.21

    Tomorrow I’m going to go do a little stargazing and hopefully come back with some new timelapse, startrails images, and maybe a little knowledge of telescopes depending on who all ends up at the Orionids Meteor Shower Star Party.

    I found this free program called Stellarium that basically loads up an Ultrasweet 3D Ultramap of the sky… which you can do tons of helpful stuff with: you can enable/disable things like constallations (lines or drawings!), labels, satellite orbits, see through the Earth, or remove the atmospheric haze. You can zoom in on anything, you can click on anything and it tells you what it is, you can sort objects by type (planets/nebula/galaxies), and there’s a night mode so everything turns red (to save your nightvision if you’re using it outdoors at night). You can advance (or rewind) the time to anytime you like, and reposition yourself anywhere on Earth to see how the sky looks. Man! That’s just, like, badass!

    It’s like Google Earth, for the sky. I’m pretty amazed that you can zoom way, way in and click on ANY star. I don’t know the last time you checked, but there are A LOT OF STARS in the sky.

    I think I’ll be using this a bunch to learn more about the heavens. Seriously this is mondo-helpful. If you’re into the sky, even just a little bit, you gotsta check this out.

    3 hours of night sky in under 30 seconds


    2011 - 10.09

    A short timelapse video I made, showing the night sky from 12:30am-3:30am.  I used 830 images to make this, and you can see the corresponding startrails images in the previous post!  Don’t forget to hit fullscreen and 1080p on the video.  A tiny preview doesn’t do the stars justice!

    I’ve wanted to get into making timelapse like this for a long time, so it’s rewarding to put one of these together.  I did a batch process on all photos in Photoshop before compiling into a video, which was an awesome idea; definitely want to do more and get better at all of this.  Check out that SKY!

    This JUST happened. 3 hours of starlight


    2011 - 10.08

    I’ve been up to my usual shenanigans tonight, which involve staying up till all unreasonable hours of the morning.  While doing so, I set out the camera and captured this sweet startrails image from 12:30-3:30am.  Saaweeeeet!

    Since the above image is actually composed of 800+ individual 10 second exposures, I also made this version which is only a short part of it; a good stretch without any clouds.  And just to keep things fresh, I flipped the canvas horizontally.  Because, ya know, why not?

    Note that clicking on either of these will unleash the 1920 x 1280 sized versions.

    This is truly inspiring: masterful timelapse


    2011 - 09.30

    Today I was derpin’ around on the timelapse subreddit, and I found a link to this video.  There’s a lot of badass timelapse out there, but wow, this compilation really has it all. I wanna do stuff like this…
     

    So I didn’t get a timelapse video during the Perseid meteor shower, but I DID get this:


    2011 - 09.24

    Enough clear photographs to make a startrails image!

    I just now realized I could do this, using a program called StarStaX.  This is badass, and I am going to be doing more of it.  YES!

    Originally I had intended to use my intervalometer to shoot exposures all night (which worked) but something I didn’t anticipate ruined the fun: DEW on the lens!  Who knew.  In any event, a totally full moon also blew out the sky and prevented me from getting many stars.  The images used to build the star trails picture you see above were captured before the moon rose above the tree line behind me.

    There’s always next time.

    The Sky’s Not The Limit–It’s A Boundary To The Endless & The Timeless


    2011 - 09.08

    So right now there’s a supernova named SN 2011fe going on, one that’s visible with a set of binoculars, if you know where to look. That’s pretty awesome. I have to admit, I totally feel like I’m missing out on some rare, limited offer by not being in possession of a telescope.

    Let’s talk about that–how awesome it would be to have your own telescope. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time now, and I feel a steady itch building. Something tells me I might have one within the next year or so. My chief interest is of course, simply checking out the stars, but a close second priority would be using it to make pictures. I’ve read many articles about neat things discovered by amateur astronomers who just sort of happened to be looking at the right thing at the right time, and think, man, it would be so badass to join those ranks.

    Indeed, the picture on the wikipedia page for supernova SN 2011fe was generated by this guy, using a Canon 60D (which has the exact same sensor/guts as my very own Canon T3i). JEALOUS! SO COOL. TOTALLY JEALOUS! It’s my turn to exclaim, with no dignity, oh that should so be me taking that picture! Maybe someday. Maybe someday you too could get a wikipedia-worthy photo of a rare astro-event. Keep on dreamin’ kid.

    So I did some searching to see what people out there are already doing and get an idea of what kind of images I could potentially attempt to make on my own, and I happened upon a few websites that well, jeez, just about exploded my eyeballs with pictures you’d swear came from a hundred-million dollar Hawaiian telescope or something. The picture above is one such example, taken by Mr. Georgiy Suturin. I mean, I have no illusions that these guys are way beyond anything I could achieve, but STILL, the fact remains that they are doing this in their own backyards with cobbled-together setups. That blows my mind. Spend a little time checking out the galleries on the sites below, I promise you will not be disappointed:

    Steve’s Astro

    Igor Chekalin

    Georgiy Suturin

    So yeah, wish I had a telescope. I’d check out that supernova. Maybe it’s time to start researching and figuring out what hardware I’d need…