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[ 20050225 ]

Amazing Compilation of Hubble Images

Graze on over to The Best of Hubble. Turn sound on. High-bandwidth connection recommended. Thanks to David Fox of the ASKC for the tip.

Jay Manifold [12:00 PM]

[ 20050223 ]

Eclipse Simulation

The ASKC's Dr Eric Flescher has created "... a simulation of the umbra/totality region on [sic] Libya looking down from the Moon for the March 2006 eclipse. I have also placed to the right of that, a simulated/picture of the sky during totality, including the constellations, stars, galaxies, nebulas and even comets.

"This was done with Starry Night Pro. I hope to provide a quicktime movie and quicktime VR movie possibly in the future."

Jay Manifold [9:49 PM]

More Cool Stuff from Spitzer

I posted about this instrument, and the great scientist it was named for, here. Longtime (like, longer than I've been alive) ASKC member Gil Machin posted this JPL news release on our Yahoo! group, so here it is:

PASADENA, CALIF. 91109. TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011

Contact: Jane Platt (818) 354-0880
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

INTERNET ADVISORY: 2005-031 February 22, 2005


The magic of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope comes alive in an online interactive presentation, available now at

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/stars_galaxies/ ,
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/spitzer-2005 or
http://www.nasa.gov/centers/jpl/starsgalaxies/index.html .

The show-and-tell feature highlights colorful images of galaxies, nebulas and other celestial wonders, all captured during the mission's first year-and-a-half in space. The images, coupled with artists' concepts, text and interviews with scientists, illustrate how Spitzer's powerful infrared eyes are dramatically enhancing our knowledge of the universe.

Infrared is particularly effective for penetrating thick, murky regions of space and revealing what lies beyond. Recent Spitzer discoveries include details about the chaotic planet-forming process around stars; a faint, star-like object in an area previously believed to be star-free; and a star system that may harbor the youngest planet ever found.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center, Pasadena, Calif. JPL is a division of Caltech.

Additional information about the Spitzer Space Telescope is available at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu .

- end -

Jay Manifold [9:45 PM]

[ 20050222 ]

Free Iranian Bloggers!

From the usual source ... how's about we run Committee to Protect Bloggers up to the top of the Blogdex rankings? The post about today's observance is here.

And for the regime, this paraphrase:

The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to your hopes, and you believe that any portion of power confided to us, will be exerted in opposition to your schemes. And you believe rightly; for we have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

(Read the original here; and just for fun, a visual. May it soon have a counterpart on Azadi Square in Tehran.)

Jay Manifold [4:12 PM]

[ 20050218 ]

Mass Extinction Dodged

-- by virtue of the fortuitously distant (50,000 light-years) SGR 1806-20, which emitted a gamma-ray burst brighter than a Full Moon in December; see this AFP story and these images and movies.

Applying the inverse-square law, I find that it would have been as bright as the Sun (which is 400,000 times brighter than a Full Moon) at the respectable distance of 79 light-years; looking at this table of bright stars (as seen from Earth), I find that just over half of them are closer than that. Actual density of stars in the solar neighborhood is about one per 300 LY³, so within 80 light-years, there are ~7,000 stars (sphere volume calculator). Maybe there's an undiscovered magnetar about to blow in there somewhere. ;^)

For the mechanism of extinction, see the following earlier posts:

Jay Manifold [6:10 PM]

Out of the Darkness

-- seventy-five years ago today, the greatest feat of pro-am observing in history; read about the discoverer here and here, or in this collaborative account (a personal favorite) or this charming biography by David Levy (of Shoemaker-Levy comet fame, now science editor of Parade magazine).

And, yes, Pluto is actually the largest Kuiper Belt Object, but I come down on the side of continuing to call it a planet, simply because it was found the hard way, with eyes and brains and lots of time. We stand on the shoulders of giants, whose memory should not be dishonored; and we can further honor them by taking the next step.

UPDATE: Previously acknowledged reader "Stickmaker," last heard from posing a scary idea about volcanic collapse and clathrate release, writes: "I am still disgusted we didn't get a probe there while Clyde Tombaugh was still alive. What would that have said about us as a culture, to get closeup images from a distant planet within the lifetime of its discoverer? What does it say about us that we didn't?"

That's why I resist cultural judgments, at least those involving space exploration; they're just too depressing. Having said that, since Tombaugh died in early 1997, the launch would have had to be no later than the mid-to-late-'80s; therefore the spacecraft would have had to be built in the early-to-mid-'80s; and therefore the project would have had to get underway in the late '70s.

Anybody who lived through those years in the US should immediately understand why there wasn't a Pluto mission in Tombaugh's lifetime. I'm actually rather a fan of Jimmy Carter, but in the metaphorical boxing ring of politics, when you've got National Malaise in one corner and Space Exploration in the other, guess who wins?

Jay Manifold [6:27 AM]

[ 20050217 ]

Life on Mars

Not billions of years ago -- right now. Via DarkSyd, who got it from Covington, graze on over and read Brian Berger's story on Space.com, NASA Researchers Claim Evidence of Present Life on Mars. If this holds up, it will be the science news story of the century.

UPDATE: A relevant post from fifteen months back -- Will Mars Be Off Limits? -- and check out the Technorati profile of the Space.com story, because plenty of smarter people than me are commenting on this.

Jay Manifold [5:31 PM]

[ 20050215 ]

Fantastic Voyage

Ray Kurzweil weighs in on the optimistic side, to put it mildly, of the whole genetic engineering/nanotechnology/transhumanist debate. While his position is certainly emblematic of Boomer-generation self-regard, early critiques of Fantastic Voyage (already at #31 on Amazon!) do not appear helpful.

Fairness bias -- in combination with the length limitations of mainstream journalism -- is evident in Jay Lindsay's AP story, in which brief negative snippets ("[t]he planet’s natural resources would be greatly stressed"; "[t]he gap between the haves and have-nots would widen") appear as supposed counterstrokes to Kurzweil's predictions. But since the counterarguments, as posed, collapse at the slightest touch (nanotech will give us easy access to the resources of the entire Solar System; economic progress over the past generation has been most rapid among the relatively poor), this leaves us with little idea of what the real challenges will be. Meanwhile, the Crisis of 2020 looms (terminology).

Ever since reading Engines of Creation eighteen years ago, I have wondered what would happen when knowledge of cell repair entered the public consciousness. My own predictive abilities are in doubt, since I expected the idea to be widely acknowledged by 1995. The only certainty is that we have a meme war ahead of us; and I know which side I'm on.

Jay Manifold [6:29 AM]

[ 20050206 ]

Then There's This ... (II)

Have I mentioned that I've got the coolest readers in the world? (Actually, yes, here and here, but I don't mind mentioning it again.) One of them is previously unacknowledged reader Carl Feynman, who wrote in about the bizarre SOHO image mentioned below:

You ask about "that jet-contrail-looking thing" in a SOHO image. A common artifact in SOHO images is little streaks produced by grains of dust that are knocked off the satellite and drift slowly away. SOHO images are pretty long time exposures, so these streaks are usually one or a few pixels wide and 10 to 100 pixels long. You can see lots of these if you look at randomly selected SOHO images. In fact, I think I see one in the image in question -- a little line pointing northwest-southeast, near the edge of the image around 1:30. I know something about this because I spent a few days looking into using SOHO images to detect vulcanoids, so I read the SOHO operations manual.

Now this doesn't explain the giant swoosh -- it's way too big and too curved to fit the usual pattern. However, if you think about it being a small object close to the telescope, rather than some astronomical object at an astronomical distance, it starts to make sense. Imagine a fairly large object falling off the satallite and drifting away, while rotating. The path gets narrower because of perspective, it shows internal streaks because the object was irregular, and the bright patch in the upper portion of the streak is caused a specular reflection off the object. I don't know how it followed a curved course in space -- maybe it was outgassing and rotating, which would make its path helical.

Being unaware that SOHO takes time exposures, nothing of the sort had occurred to me, but in retrospect it seems pretty obvious. Now, nobody decide it's a UFO and you have to kill yourself to get on board, OK?

Jay Manifold [1:36 PM]

[ 20050205 ]

Winter Night at Powell

Unseasonably warm weather and clear skies drew several amateur astronomers and guests to Powell Observatory last night for a beautiful evening under the stars. I drove down from work, arriving about 7:15 PM, and immediately encountered Jackie Beucher of the Astronomical League, pointing out to several visitors that the zodiacal light was visible in the west, a sure indicator of good sky transparency and dark skies.

Last night it appeared as a faintly glowing leftward-tilted cone, rising from the horizon in the west-southwest, stretching through Aquarius and Pisces, beneath the Square of Pegasus (see the 4 o'clock region of this fine map of the Winter sky). A rare sight, and one most city-dwellers never see, or recognize if they do; my last clear memory of seeing it was from the Texas Star Party a decade ago.

The indefatigable Mike Sterling was there with not one but two laser pointers, and I borrowed one briefly to demonstrate a simple algorithm for finding the Double Cluster, which is to extend the segment between Navi and Ruchbah (g and d Cassiopeiae) a couple of times its length. Then inside to the classroom, where Gary Martin had a crock pot full of chili dogs plugged in and ready to serve. Now that's civilized! But the best was yet to come.

No photograph can adequately convey the impression of viewing Saturn through even a small telescope -- though I certainly recommend the Cassini image gallery, and this shot from the Hubble. And when the telescope is not small, but has a 30"-diameter mirror gathering nearly twelve thousand times as much light as an unaided human eye, magnified to 186x by a high-quality 20 mm eyepiece -- all this on a night of excellent seeing, that impression is not only breathtaking, but prolonged; minute after minute of astonishing detail in a composition of utterly alien beauty.

In the field of view, Titan was highest, so prominent it seemed almost to show a disk; then, judging by their brightness, Rhea and Dione; below the planet, brighter Tethys; and very close to the rings, faint Enceladus. The rings were stunning as usual, with the Cassini Division clearly visible, and obvious differences in the brightness and texture of the A and B rings. Saturn itself appeared pronouncedly oblate; one of the visitors thought this was an optical illusion until I explained that the planet's size, low density, and rotational velocity combine to make its equatorial diameter nearly one-ninth greater than its polar diameter. And on the planet, much greater than usual contrast between the brighter equatorial region, darker higher latitudes, and poles -- this without a filter! -- plus faint filigrees of storms the size of continents, sweeping across the cloud tops with winds of a thousand kilometers an hour.

First-time visitors and metaphorically grizzled veterans were equally entranced. A warm, damp breeze -- a hint of Spring from the Gulf of Mexico, a long day's drive away -- blew gently out of the south as we stepped out of the dome. A large pair of binoculars, attached to a special mount so that their height could be adjusted without affecting their aim, was trained on the Pleiades. High above us, the great heptagon of the Winter sky: Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, and Castor (with Saturn nearby) -- with Betelgeuse in the center and the Milky Way cascading through, just to the left of Orion. A lovely and relaxing evening in a magnificent setting.

UPDATE (Sunday, 1:30 PM): Unmitigated enthusiasm from ASKC volunteer Mike Sterling, whose idea it was to open Powell on Friday night and who enjoyed every millisecond of it, as evidenced by this message to the E-Group, which I have left unedited to preserve its inimitable flavor:

A crime at Powell last night ...

Can't believe it - 15-20 cool people showed up to just hang out and mess around with astronomy - several scopes in the field - The 30" showing all of Orion's glory - Gray Martin's crock pot of dogs & chili - Rick Henderson & son &Mitch doing research in the AIC & then Richard hunting NEO's after 10pm on the 30" - Pete & Paul sharing views on their scopes (we need a Mary with them) - Jackie & guest (and she says "he's just my best friend's boy friend") and Jackie with her unfathomable knowledge showing us the 'zodiacal (zo die' a cal) shine' (http://www.as.wvu.edu/~jel/skywatch/skw9810h.html) (This really is an astronomical thingie and not in any way related to Jackie's best friend's boy friend) (hmmmm 4 parenthetical explanations for Jackie) - Gary Martin snappin pics thru the 30" - Doug Spalding. Randy Thompson, Jay Manifold, Roger & Pat Gurnke, Larry & Karen Rice copin views on the scopes and ambassadorizing 6+ walk-ins - having a Mom say, "I can't thank you enough. Ben will remember this for the rest of his life. I am in awe....And for some reason, I feel the spiritual rejuvenation that I get when I sit on top of a Rocky Mountain. Awesome, just awesome."

My memory cache is full and unable to process further recollections at this time. Sorry for names left out, wrong, or misspelled

THE CRIME: $2.50 - The monthly cost of my ASKC membership. (I woulda paid more lol).


Thank you ASKC............

Jay Manifold [5:31 PM]

[ 20050203 ]

Then There's This ...

Brought to my attention by John Cravens of the ASKC, this bizarre image from the SOHO spacecraft. That's the Sun in the center, blocked off by an occulting disk, held in place by the extension pointing towrad the upper right, and those are more-or-less ordinary coronal jets coming out radially -- but what's that jet-contrail-looking thing?!

Jay Manifold [7:12 PM]

First Star Party of the Year!

From the ASKC E-Group, this announcement from the fine folks at ICStars ...

The Stargarden Foundation is holding its first public star party of 2005 this Saturday, Feb 5. This is the first official public night at the Charles Douglas Observatory, located on the Icstars Ranch, 4 miles northwest of Warrensburg, Missouri. The topic for the night will be star clusters.

The event is free and open to the public. A $5 donation is suggested to cover observatory operating expenses. The observatory will be open for stargazing, weather permitting. The Douglas Observatory has one of the largest telescopes in Missouri available for viewing comets, stars, planets and nebula – a 24 inch reflector telescope.

The featured talk will be on star clusters and be given by amateur astronomer Rob Robinson. The talk will begin at 7 p.m. and will be given regardless of the weather.

The observatory is located by going approximately 4 miles north of the corner of Missouri Highway 50 and Missouri Highway 13. Turn west on OO Highway and go 1.49 miles, just across a single lane bridge. The entrance to the Observatory is marked by a yellow sign on the north side of the road.

The grounds will be open at 6 p.m. For more information call 660-747-9458 (Vic & Jen Winter).

Jay Manifold [2:15 PM]

DSS Purchase Complete

(UPDATE: Official announcment here.)

Ref this earlier post ... also on the E-Group, ASKC member Randy Thompson reports: "By this afternoon the papers should be signed and the DSS will be ours!!!!"

Randy always signs off with "Dark Skies and Smooth Roads," and now that we've got the dark skies taken care of, it's time for a smooth road, as the dark-sky site is frequently abundant in proverbial Missourian mud. There's already been lots of discussion about this amongst ASKCers, but I'd still like to ask readers who've purchased (or built) either gravel or paved roads onto private property to pass along any lessons learned (first-time e-mailers will encounter Spam Arrest's verification procedure).

UPDATE (7:20 PM CST) - That was fast! Previously known reader Brett Bellmore, last acknowledged for an entry in the Contest Contest, writes: "Based on my experience with 250 feet of gravel driveway, start with really coarse broken rock, 2-3 inch size, and spend a year or so driving over it before you go to anything finer. If you really want to get fancy, though, I understand a layer of landscaping fabric under the rocks does wonders for the long term survival of the roadbed."

Jay Manifold [2:15 PM]

Sole Survivor

An astounding story out of Wisconsin: the first-ever case of someone surviving symptomatic rabies without being vaccinated. Nathan Seppa of Science News has the info at One in a Million: Patient survives late-stage rabies infection (sorry, subscriber-only link). Excerpts:

Charles Rupprecht, chief of the Rabies Section at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta .... notes, "this is a sample size of one—over 4,000 years."

Giese's harrowing journey began in a church. She scooped up a fallen bat and then released it outside. As she did, the bat bit her finger. Thinking it was a scratch, she simply washed out the tiny wound with hydrogen peroxide.

A month later, her symptoms appeared.

[Pediatrician Rodney E.] Willoughby and his colleagues suspected that the brains of rabies patients send out signals that sabotage vital organs.

So, the team elected to slow the girl's brain activity using an anesthetic and drugs that inhibit the effect of glutamate, a chemical carrier of brain signals that causes problems when it's overabundant, as in patients with head injuries and a variety of brain disorders. The doctors also administered antiviral medication and put Giese on a breathing machine.

Some of this strategy is outlined in the Dec. 24, 2004 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The team plans to release more details later this year.

Willoughby says that a major element of this strategy was to buy time for Giese's immune system to eradicate the virus. In theory, shutting down her brain wouldn't hinder her immune response.

Her time in a coma was surprisingly uneventful. "She was supposed to try to die in lots of ways," Willoughby says. "We actually had a list taped to her chart. We had a game plan for every possibility."

Instead, Giese made abundant antibodies against rabies virus, and after just a week in a coma, she no longer showed any sign of infection. It was time to wake her up.

In more recent news, Jeanna is now up and around.

Jay Manifold [2:14 PM]