Just wow:

We live in an age when one can make animated gifs of the daily sky ON MARS.

EDIT: Here's a lovely video of the Martian sunrise:



Astro-Porn of the Day: Lagoon Nebula

galaxy M51

Click the image to see the story and bigger images.

I vividly remember the first time I saw the Lagoon Nebula in my Crown 6" Newtonian reflector (on a heavy German-equatorial mount). I was about 14 years old, and I'd dragged the telescope out on a late-summer midnight. I lived a couple of miles outside of a small western-Minnesota town, and our neighborhood only had one streetlight to pollute the night. Carrying my equipment a few hundred yards beyond led to almost entirely dark skies, so the Milky Way and its core glowed like a million tiny sparks arcing across the sky, mottled with fuzzy bright spots. Toward the galaxy's core lay several dramatic nebulae, including this one, spanning huge across the eyepiece, not far from the Trifid Nebula and a whole bunch of other objects. Even using a small instrument, all you have to do is slowly sweep your telescope or binocular across this rich field to see endless star-birthing regions and star-clusters. Gorgeous.

"VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. Together these are providing a vast legacy of publicly available data for the global astronomical community."

Another shot:

Click the image to see source page.

More cool facts about this extremely rich section of the sky: "Sagittarius contains 15 Messier objects: Messier 8 (M8, NGC 6523, Lagoon Nebula), Messier 17 (M17, NGC 6618 Omega, Swan, Horseshoe or Lobster Nebula), Messier 18 (M18, NGC 6613), Messier 20 (M20, NGC 6514, Trifid Nebula), Messier 21 (M21, NGC 6531), Messier 22 (M22, NGC 6656, Sagittarius Cluster), Messier 23 (M23, NGC 6494), Messier 24 (M24, NGC 6603, Sagittarius Star Cloud), Messier 25 (M25, IC 4725), Messier 28 (M28, NGC 6626), Messier 54 (M54, NGC 6715), Messier 55 (M55, NGC 6809), Messier 69 (M69, NGC 6637), Messier 70 (M70, NGC 6681) and Messier 75 (M75, NGC 6864). The constellation also has 22 stars with confirmed planets."



Moon red
Ever wondered what a moonrise looks like from space? Aboard the ISS, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata just captured and shared this otherworldly photo of the crescent Moon rising from Earth's atmosphere:

Click the image to see the NASA page.

This is not a false-color image: The gas and dust in each layer of the atmosphere act as prisms, filtering out certain wavelengths of light. You can't really get a view like this from Earth (well, for a lot of reasons, but that's one.) Here's another shot of a moonrise from space, taken by astronaut Ron Garan in 2011:

Click the image to see Ron Garan's Twitpics page.

Happy moonrise Friday!

mushroom cloud
Astrophysicists have announced an exciting, new view of the early Solar System.

Click the image to see the story on one asteroid's water plume.
In the solar system's infancy, after the planets, asteroids and smaller bodies had formed, we didn't see gentle, circular(-ish) orbits as we do today for most major bodies. Since the 1980s, astronomers thought the Asteroid Belt formed where it lives today, a loose formation between Mars and Jupiter, a loose scattering of rock and dust that simply failed to form into a planet. However, astronomers have been studied a lot of asteroids since that time, some close-up using robotic missions like NEAR-Shoemaker. We have now learned that things weren't always as they are now, and that violence and randomness ruled the early Solar System.

"What we're leaning toward now is that asteroids, rather than forming in the asteroid belt, formed throughout the entire solar system... as close to the Sun as Mercury and as far away as Neptune, and then, through the planetary migration, you scatter them all over the place. What's left is what you see in the asteroid belt today," says astrophysicist Francesca DeMeo. The new theory is that the asteroids now residing in their Mars-to-Jupiter prison had once flown free throughout the Solar System, free to pummel planets, hurtle to a fiery death in the Sun, careen off into deep space on their own. Wildly orbiting planets launched these smaller bodies hither and yon. How crazy were these early planetary dances? It now appears that Mars might have visited Earth's realm - which also explains why we regularly find Mars meteorites on Earth - and mighty Jupiter's orbit once dipped as close as Mars' current locale. All this random chaos meant that little guys like comets and asteroids had no say in where they lived, and the Big Guys like Jupiter really were the gods who controlled the lives of billions of little guys populating the Solar System. The Old Gods might even be responsible for life on Earth, seeding our planet with water by hurtling comets and other icy bodies at us, plus carbon compounds from carbonaceous asteroids. I can see the headline: "Science Proves Life Came from the Gods!"

Click this thumbnail to see the full-size asteroid infographic.

Sure, now Lord Jupiter is happy to maintain a stately, near-circular orbit, maintaining a gravitational fence around the wild ones penned in the Asteroid Belt (Lord Mars keeps the other gate shut), but in their youth they were unpredictable gods, much like their namesakes.

Had to share this little bit of Astro-Awesomeness. I'll leave you with this lovely image of dwarf-planet Ceres (formerly known as "asteroid Ceres," but now a peer of Lord Pluto):

Click the image to see the Wikipedia article on Ceres.

PS: It now appears that Ceres - which makes up about 1/3 of all the asteroid-ish mass in the Solar System - is habitable; that is, is giving off a plume of water vapor. This place has a water-rich atmosphere!

These discoveries... I tell you what: We live in amazing times.


Here's what I did with winter break!

RenFaire Chris
Notice I don't call it "vacation," and here's why. On the other hand, it sure was a nice break to not have to be "on" for classes all week!
  • I've been writing several mornings, every week since mid-December. Completely revised the opening scenes of The Galactic Adventures of Jack & Stella, completely re-envisioned how I'm handling POV (which means significantly rewriting every single other scene, too), wrote many more notes for future scenes, and cut thousands of words while writing thousands more... I've passed a total of 44k words, which means it's more than half-way done (based on a projected 70k)!

  • Finished updating all three syllabi and Blackboard sites (that's the web interface for KU courses) for my spring semester classes. Sent all the students links to where their syllabi live online. HOORAY! Good lord, is it just me or does it take everyone most of a day to do this for each course?

  • Worked a bunch on the hot-rod Newport, including rebuilding the broken valvetrain; finishing installing the new fuel-injection system; installing half the custom exhaust (with electric cut-outs for added raucousness on demand!); designing a crankcase-ventilation system that won't put so much smoke into the intake and getting started installing that; and finding a great deal on a new front-drive system that'll upgrade the alternator to handle fuel-injection duties, the A/C and power-steering pump to something that works, and convert it to a simpler serpentine-belt system that'll make it more reliable and more efficient - oh, and it's all polished aluminum, so it's much lighter and really pretty, too. ETA for street duty: a week or two! Assuming something else doesn't blow up....

  • Did a bit of work on the Chevelle, but I want to get the Newport mobile, washed, waxed, and covered before really diving into this project; picked up some more parts I'll need, though. ETA for street duty: Late spring.

  • Rewired a cool vintage ceramic lamp and installed it in the ceiling of my living room. MUCH nicer than the old (light-free) ceiling fan that used to clutter up the space:

  • Did a bunch of updates on the Center for the Study of Science Fiction's website, and planned much more. Oh, and we're working with a major donor right now who's intending to support not only a full-ride scholarship for the summer Workshops, but also something even bigger for a student coming to study SF during the regular semester. Details to come....

  • Started reading for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel. Loving everything so far, which is great, but could also be trouble come decision time....

  • Got back into astronomy, with a new (to me) 100mm f/9 apochromatic refractor. WOWEE, does it provide gorgeous images! This is my first apochromat, a type of refractor that uses varying types of rare-earth glass to produce lovely, sharp, and color-free images. On a really nice German equatorial mount with dual-axis drives and a handy through-the-polar-axis North Star finder:

  • Resumed a regular, hardcore workout schedule at the gym. Tried the beautiful-but-useless fancy fitness center here at KU (Ambler), because it was free to staff & faculty last week; we usually use beat-up, old, and dingy - but free - Robinson, because of its really useful and large free-weights room, and only visited crowded Ambler that once.

  • Oh, and on a related note: Not to sound braggy or anything, but over Break the awesome clevermanka started giving me regular, multi-hour massages at least once a week, sometimes EVERY DAY. OMG, I am so lucky.

Other stuff, too, like watching the new BBC Sherlock series! (Which starts on PBS tonight.) LOVE IT SO MUCH.

What did you do over the past month, whether or not you got a break?


Astro-Porn of the Day: Asteroid strike!

We got hit by an asteroid earlier this week:

"Discovered on New Year's Eve by a telescope in Arizona, a small asteroid struck Earth somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean - apparently unnoticed - about 25 hours later."

Click the image to see the Sky & Telescope article.

How do we get hit by a frakkin' ASTEROID and not even notice? Makes you feel some hope for the future: Sure, we get whallopped all the time, but we'll make it because it's really unlikely to be an asteroid huge enough to crack the crust or accurate enough to annihilate a city.

Cool! The dinosaurs are still extinct, but we aren't.



Merry Christmas from the Moon (and 1968)

Moon red

Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, entered lunar orbit on December 24, 1968 - Christmas Eve. That evening, Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders made this then-live television broadcast from lunar orbit, during which they showed pictures of the Earth and Moon as seen from Apollo 8. Later, they took the first Earthrise photo:

Click the image to see the excellent Wikipedia article (with lots of great photos).

click for transcriptCollapse )

Go here to learn more about the Apollo missions.

Merry Christmas!
NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
HUGE space news:

On Saturday, December 14, 2013 - at 7:11 AM (Central - that's 1311 GMT or 9:12 PM Beijing time), China's Chang'e 3 lander and its Yutu Moon rover (aka "Jade Rabbit") touched down on our cratered companion world. We haven't seen another soft-landing on that cratered surface since 1976, with the last Russian Luna spacecraft (Luna 24):

Click the image to see the Wikipedia article on the history of lunar landings.

Jade Rabbit touched down in Sinus Iridum ("Bay of Rainbows"), the northern part of Mare Imbrium ("Sea of Showers") in the Moon's Northern Hemisphere. CHINA IS ON THE FRAKKIN' MOON, FOLKS.

Here's the Chang'e 3 lander saying goodbye to its Yutu rover:

Check out this great ITN (British news) video with footage of the whole historic mission:

Readers of this blog are probably wondering why I haven't written about this until now. Well, beyond the usual excuses (final papers are arriving fast and furious, plus other obligations), I was just plain astounded by the news: China - the last communist-dictatorship mega-nation - is the one that has returned to the Moon, and it's a part of their military (whereas NASA, though tied to the US military, is independent). This is huge in so many ways, folks: No one has explored the Moon (except by orbiting or crashing into it; the latest hard-landing was NASA's LCROSS in 2009) since the 1970s. No one has ever set foot on the Moon except for Americans, and that ended in 1972 with Apollo 17, the program that ignited passion and excitement for space like nothing before with photos like this one of John W. Young on the frakkin' Moon:

Click the image to see the excellent Wikipedia article on the Apollo program.

The US Apollo program (and the Soviets counterpart) was motivated less by passion for space exploration than a desire to prove our technological superiority to the world. When the Soviet program faltered - after soft-landing the first rover - the steam went out of US exploration, thus beginning the era of the space-truck Shuttle. Besides the early excitement and a couple of catastrophes, most people didn't even know when a Shuttle was launching. On the other hand, the Chinese have long-term goals at play. Are they as interested in exploration as they are in displaying their techno-feathers? Do they primarily aim to prove their capability to do things no one else has done for 40 years? Or are their intentions darker?

Jade Rabbit is only the latest step in China's methodical space program. They have enjoyed a series of triumphs in crewed space flight during the past decade, including launching humans into orbit and docking two ships in space. China lost its first (and only) Mars probe soon after launch in 2011 - it's important to note that this was due to a Russian booster failure, not a failure of Chinese equipment - but both of its Moon probes (the previous Chang'e 1 and 2, named for the luminescent goddess who lives on the Moon), like its manned space missions, were successful. They plan to send another rover just like this one soon, then a robotic mission to return lunar samples by 2018. Assuming these missions are successful, they plan to send taikonauts - Chinese astronauts - to walk on the Moon a few years later. After that, who knows? Moon bases? Taikonauts leaving footprints on Mars? Chinese flags flying over a multitude of Solar System objects?

Fan-art Photoshop of an Apollo photo.

It all began with a race, then Apollo's tone hit it just right, involving everyone in what NASA cleverly forged into a human - rather than American - endeavor, thus igniting a passion for space that spread across the whole world:

With images like the first Earthrise seen from lunar orbit, taken by astronaut Bill Anders through the porthole of a frakkin' spaceship:

Until that moment, humans traveling to other worlds was "science fiction." When that image made its way back to Earth, the world had forever changed. Putting humans into space made it real for us; rockets and satellites (starting with the Soviets' 1957 Sputnik) and rovers were damned impressive, and blew us away. But putting people into space transformed the endeavor into something real, something we might do or have done, if only our lives had gone a little differently. Rovers after that have improved so much, and NASA was so brilliant with its Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, that we can identify a little with them. But if the Chinese put a person on the Moon, they'll once more re-ignite the human imagination. If they set foot on Mars? I can't even imagine how powerful that would be to the human psyche... and how terrifying to some: the Red Menace on the Red Planet.

Ultimately, if you're like me, you hope that the Chinese determination spurs a more enduring human emigration beyond this tiny world's fragile surface. I'll leave you with this quote from James Gunn, perhaps the foremost Asimov scholar:

"In 1973 [Asimov] pointed out that we were living in a science fiction world, a world of spaceships, atomic energy, and computers, a world very much like the world that he and other science fiction writers had been describing a quarter-century before. It was a world typified by the first Moon landing, four years before. 'Science fiction writers and readers didn't put a man on the moon all by themselves,' he told me, 'but they created a climate of opinion in which the goal of putting a man on the Moon became acceptable.'"

Hear, hear. As much as I feel conflicted saying this, Thank you, China. Let's hope the rest of the world feels the spurs to reach up and explore beyond our little neighborhood once again.
and now a couple of big imagesCollapse )
RIP Comet ISON. Did you get a chance to see it? Did you take any photos you'd like to share? If so, I'd love to see 'em!

Here's a fantastic obituary of the comet's dramatic life:

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON)
Born 4.5 Billion BCE, Fragmented Nov 28, 2013 (age 4.5-billion yrs old)

Click the image to see Karl Battams' story. Click here to see the full-size image.

Born in a dusty and turbulent environment, comet ISON spent its early years being jostled and struck by siblings both large and small. Surviving a particularly violent first few million years, ISON retreated to the Oort Cloud, where it maintained a largely reclusive existence for nearly four billion years. But around 3-million BCE, a chance encounter with a passing star coerced ISON into undertaking a pioneering career as a sungrazer. On September 21, 2012, ISON made itself known to us, and allowed us to catalog the most extraordinary part of its spectacular vocational calling.

Never one to follow convention, ISON lived a dynamic and unpredictable life, alternating between periods of quiet reflection and violent outburst. However, its toughened exterior belied a complex and delicate inner working that only now we are just beginning to understand. In late 2013, Comet ISON demonstrated not only its true beauty but a surprising turn of speed as it reached its career defining moment in the inner solar system. Tragically, on November 28, 2013, ISON's tenacious ambition outweighed its ability, and our shining green candle in the solar wind began to burn out.

Survived by approximately several trillion siblings, Comet ISON leaves behind an unprecedented legacy for astronomers, and the eternal gratitude of an enthralled global audience. In ISON's memory, donations are encouraged to your local astronomy club, observatory or charity that supports STEM and science outreach programs for children.



NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
With the coming of spring in the Saturn system, the skies are clearing over the moon Titan, giving NASA's Cassini spacecraft a great view of the hydrocarbon seas and vast salt flats normally hidden in organic-molecule smog:

Click the image to see NASA's page with lots of photos and info.

One of the biggest seas is called Kraken Mare, I kid you not:

Click the image to see more about Titan's salt flats.

As cool as that is, though, you have to check out what spring lighting has uncovered about Saturn's amazing, hexagon-shaped polar hurricane:



NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
...assembled into a riff on Van Gogh's "Starry Night":

Click the image to see the WIRED article and more photos. Click here to see a much-larger version of the image. Click here to see some amazing close-ups and samples of Hubble's best photos.

Astrophysics post-doc Alex Harrison Parker made this mash-up.

Science and art, unite!

The Perseids are coming! The famous Perseid meteor shower is underway already, though at a slow rate. Things get hot on Sunday and Monday nights. If you can get to truly dark skies, expect to see about 100 meteors per hour during the peak (cut that in half if you're watching near a city). Looks not-so-hot for Kansans (it seems to be fall weather here), but if the skies clear, don't forget to look up! A chaise lounge and mosquito repellant are your friends. Human friends are good, too, as is a nice bottle of wine.

Click the image to see photographer Oshin D. Zakarian's page.

More details on the Sky & Telescope blog, here.



Astro-Porn of the Day: New Supernova!

galaxy M51
News from the galaxy M74, the faintest of the Messier objects (but still observable in a smallish telescope):

A new supernova has burst to life (the bright star in the cross-hairs, below):

If you want to see it in a telescope, here's where to look:

We see supernovae when super-massive stars explode, often outshining the galaxies where they erupt. This supernova is magnitude 12.5 and has stopped brightening; the entire M74 galaxy shines at only magnitude 10.0, so it's almost as bright as the other 100 billion stars shining as normal. Whoah.

Here's what a supernova looks like after it's exploded, shed much of its mass (the glowing "planetary nebula"), and shrunken to the white-hot dot of its core neutron star. In fact, some supernovae are so massive before the explosion that they end up as black holes. Here's the Crab Nebula, recorded by Japanese and Chinese astronomers (and Native Americans, among others) in 1054, still glowing bright nearly a thousand years later:

The Sun will never explode like that; however, it will expand to red-giant phase over the next few billion years, engulfing first Mercury, then Venus, and even the Earth: Yes, the Sun's diameter will swell to larger than the Earth's orbit.

Astronomy is full of AWESOME. And I mean that in a very literal way.



galaxy M51
You might already knew about this, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is reprising Carl Sagan's most-awesome-ever program, Cosmos! It'll show on both the FOX network and National Geographic TV starting next spring.

More details:

"More than three decades after the debut of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Carl Sagan's stunning and iconic exploration of the universe as revealed by science, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey sets off on a new voyage for the stars. Seth MacFarlane and Sagan's original creative collaborators - writer/executive producer Ann Druyan and astronomer Steven Soter - have teamed to conceive a 13-part docu-series that will serve as a successor to the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning original series."

Here's the original-series trailer:

"Hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series explores how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. It brings to life never-before-told stories of the heroic quest for knowledge and transport viewers to new worlds and across the universe for a vision of the cosmos on the grandest scale. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey invents new modes of scientific storytelling to reveal the grandeur of the universe and re-invent celebrated elements of the legendary original series, including the Cosmic Calendar and the Ship of the Imagination. The most profound scientific concepts are presented with stunning clarity, uniting skepticism and wonder, and weaving rigorous science with the emotional and spiritual into a transcendent experience."

And here's the brand-spankin'-new trailer for the new series, just released for DragonCon:

"Carl Sagan's original series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was first broadcast in 1980, and has been enjoyed by more than 750 million people worldwide." Including me, a few times now. I can hardly wait for this new one!

And now it's back to working on tonight's talk on "Science Fiction: Mythologies for a Changing Age." (scheduled to begin at 7:30pm in Lawrence's Free State Brewery; I'm arriving for dinner at 6:15pm).

Chris Clone Trooper

The Campbell Conference is a wrap - what a great time! Despite a million challenges, everyone able to attend seemed to enjoy the event, many were inspired by the various talks, the receptions were a blast, and awards were dispensed. Who won what? Check out the press release on the CSSF News page! Congratulations to all the winners - this was an incredibly good year. Depending on your reading tastes, your favorite book or short story for 2012 might turn out to be any of the finalists, so the jurors recommend that you read all the works on both the Sturgeon short-list and the Campbell short-list.

How about a quick bit of Astro-Porn? Check it out: Great shot of the International Space Station skittering across the surface of the Moon (I lie... nice shot of the ISS and the Moon, though):

Click the image to see the Spaceweather page. Thanks to Jeremy Tolbert for the tip!

Okay, now I'm off to the Intensive Institute on Science Fiction. Good day!


Click the image to see Keith Stokes' photo-essay of the event.
star-forming nebula
The Horsehead Nebula is an icon in astronomy, yet even icons can be re-imagined with modern digital processing and infrared photography. Check out this beautiful new photo, just released today:

Click the image to see the Hubble Heritage page where amateur astronomers and photo-processing experts the world over created new Horsehead Nebula images.

In this new photo, it's less clear why it's called the Horsehead Nebula (see the black-and-white one below for a more-iconic shot). Images of this shadowy nebula have graced astronomy publications forever. This new Hubble-and-VISTA photo uses infrared wavelengths to showcase the horse's head and neck in ghostly beauty. Radiation pressure from nearby stars shapes the silhouette of gas and dust, carving it into the shape you see here. The horse's head spans about a parsec (three light-years), while the overall sea of star-forming gas and dust stretches across hundreds of light-years of space (click for a broad-vista photo) in the constellation Orion, and includes the Great Orion Nebula.

To give you an idea of what people have been used to seeing in telescopes without infrared resolution, here's another lovely photo taken by astronomer Terry Hancock over a six-hour exposure using a Hydrogen-Alpha filter with his 12" telescope:

Click the image to see Hancock's Flickr page.

Still gorgeous, and of a quality only major observatories could have produced just a decade or two ago.



galaxy M51
Been buried; sorry for absence; have some amazing astro-porn!

Click the image to see the Spaceweather website.

Just WOW. The comet is still visible as it moves farther from the Sun, though it's growing dimmer, too. But WOW.

Back to work,


Helioviewer - the Sun on your desktop

NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
Whoah, how did I never know about this before? As someone who is passionate about the Sun, the nearest and easiest-to-observe star in our galaxy, dramatic and amazing, I should have had this in my Faves long ago and shared it with everyone right away.

Here you go: NASA's Helioviewer project! You can view images and videos of the Sun from many sources, take screenshots and videos of what you see without special software, and share them. Like this!

Click the image to see NASA's Helioviewer website.

And you can also make movies (though I've yet to figure out why mine aren't showing up on YouTube). is an open-source project for the public to view imagery based on a variety of solar and heliospheric data. The project is funded by ESA and NASA. Cool beans.



Comet Pan-STARRS is at its brightest right now, and finally rising high enough above the horizon for people living in the Northern Hemisphere to see it. Lots of details and observing recommendations on Sky & Telescope's website. Here's a chart of where to look, when:

Click the image to see the Sky & Telescope article.

But if a little comet isn't exciting enough for you, we have another one coming in the fall! Space scientists are eagerly awaiting comet Ison, due to fill the sky in November of this year.

In other news, have you seen today's Google Doodle? Don't panic! But be sure to click through the Encyclopedia Galactica, and see if you can identify all the objects on the spaceship control panel. The best description of the Doodle is on the Telegraph's site, but it's full of spoilers! After you play around with the Doodle for a while, check it out.

Finally, the experiment with writing first thing in the morning has resulted in huge productivity. I've been planning about an hour of writing, but every time I've started, I've ended up writing far longer than that. I'm up a couple thousand words since I started doing this last week. (Today's work was mostly Appendix material, but also some story. Writing is weird.) HOORAY! Conversely, whenever I've start doing something else (as I did over the weekend), that's it: No writing.

For those of you playing along, I hope your own experiment is going well.

First up, breaking news:

Early this morning, local time in the Ural region of Western Russia (just after midnight in these parts), near the cities of Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg, a bus-sized meteor estimated to weigh about 10 tons streaked across the sky as bright as a welding-arc, entering the atmosphere at 33,000 mph and then fragmenting in a massive explosion that sent countless meteor and meteorite fragments fireballing to Earth.

The shockwave shattered windows over a wide area, damaging buildings and injuring more than 950 people in the cities of Chelyabinsk, Tyumen, and Sverdlovsk in the Russian Republic of Bashkiria and in northern Kazakhstan. At least one fragment of the huge meteor or small asteroid crashed into a Chelyabinsk zinc factory, severing the fiber-optic internet phone service. Check out this amazing video montage from several points of view:

It's not just YouTube that offers videos of the event (that's a search-query link); has a great collection of videos, too.

Here's the CNN story. Here's the Sky & Telescope Magazine story; and here's the Reuters story.

Witnesses report that the explosion was so loud it resembled an earthquake or thunder even at a great distance, and that huge trails of smoke streaked across the sky. Others reported blazing objects falling to Earth. Police in area around Chelyabinsk are on high alert, and have enacted the "Fortress" plan in order to protect vital infrastructure.

Some astronomers are saying that this small asteroid was a straggler from the annual Quadrantid meteor shower - talk about a big fireball! (Sorry I neglected to provide a heads-up about this shower, as it's usually one of the best, but work has buried me pretty much since before the semester started.)

This huge meteor or small asteroid has no relation to Asteroid 2012 DA14 (despite the title of the YouTube video, above), set to blast past Earth so close that it could hit some of our satellites. Follow the link above to Sky & Telescope Magazine's website to learn how to watch this asteroid skim past us tonight. It is as big as a building - 150 feet wide - so big that if it hit our atmosphere, it would release 2.4 megatons of energy, comparable to the 1908 Tunguska event, which released an estimated 3 to 20 megatons of energy. So Asteroid 2012 DA14 is not a world-killer, but today's far-smaller event in Russia gives us a taste of what it might be like to be in the vicinity of such a thing.

EDIT: Here's the NASA TV story about the asteroid fly-by:

Space-based defenses, anyone?

NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
Colonel Chris Hadfield is a Canadian Astronaut currently living in space aboard the International Space Station. He has a Tumblr account and regularly posts images he takes out the window of the ISS. Just wow. His Tumblr is a great reason, all by itself, to get an account.

Here are a few examples:

Boston at night, glowing under a trace of fog:

Venezuelan valley framed by misty clouds - mysterious, beautiful, and surreal:

Full Moon rising. So near, and yet...

And here he is! Zero G allows for some great interview entrances:

Click any of the images to see Colonel Chris Hadfield's Tubmlr blog.

star-forming nebula
This just in:

A Connecticut high-school astronomy teacher has uncovered a dazzling view of a nearby galaxy while exploring the "hidden treasures" of the Hubble Space Telescope. Here's where he started, the original Hubble shot:

Click the image to see the article.

The photo shows an star nursery spotted with dark dust lanes in the Large Magellanic Cloud - an irregular companion galaxy to our Milky Way Galaxy - about 200,000 light-years from Earth. As the Milky Way’s gravity gently tugs on our neighbor’s gas clouds, they collapse to form new stars. In turn, these light up the gas clouds in a kaleidoscope of colors.

Josh Lake, a high school astronomy teacher at Pomfret School in Pomfret, Conn., as part of the "Hubble Hidden Treasures" contest that challenged space fans to find unseen images from the observatory. Lake won first prize in the Hubble photo contest with an image of the LHA 120-N11 (N11) region of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Hubble officials combined Lake's image with more observations of the N11 region in blue, green, and near-infrared light to create this new image:

Click the image to see the article.

From NASA: "In the center of this image, a dark finger of dust blots out much of the light. While nebulae are mostly made of hydrogen, the simplest and most plentiful element in the universe, dust clouds are home to heavier and more complex elements, which go on to form rocky planets like the Earth."

Look at all those baby stars! Just wanted to start everyone's week off with some pretty.

Now I'm off to take a look at the scholarship hall KU Housing suggests we use for this summer's CSSF Speculative Fiction Writing Workshops (short-fiction workshop here, novel workshop here) - we're taking applications now, so if you or someone you know is interested, it's time to apply!



Astro-Porn of the Day: Vela Supernova Remnant

galaxy M51

Click the image to see the NASA page.

About 11,000 years ago, a star in the constellation Vela exploded, creating a flash of light briefly visible to humans living near the beginning of our recorded history. The outer layers of the star collided into interstellar gas and dust, driving a shock wave still visible today, as you can see in the photo above. The resulting dramatic nebula spans almost 100 light years and appears 20 times the diameter of the full Moon from our POV. As gas rockets away from the exploded star, it decays and reacts with the interstellar stuff around it, producing light in many colors and energy bands. At the center of the Vela Supernova Remnant glows a pulsar, a star as dense as matter can get, which rotates more than ten times per second.



galaxy M51
...the galaxy, that is. NASA's Kepler mission just announced that they have discovered 461 new planets. Four of the new planets are less than twice the size of Earth ("super-Earths") and orbit in their sun's habitable zone, the orbit where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet. Since last year, Kepler has increased its planet-discovery by 20&percent; and now totals 2,740 potential planets orbiting 2,036 stars. The categories that saw the most dramatic increases are the Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized candidates, which grew by 43 and 21 percent, respectively:

Click the image to see the story.

I suspect we'll end up discovering that most stars have a crew much like that of our Sun: Mostly gas giants in the outer reaches, and mostly little rocky worlds up close.

Click the image to see the story.



The Geminids peak tonight! Considering it's a New Moon (no stray light from the Moon, as it's on the Sun side of the Earth), skies will be extra-dark, so you'll be able to see more and fainter meteors. Things get fiercest after midnight. Get out there!

Click the image to see photographer Randy Halverson's post.

Oh, and coincidentally, there's a brand-new meteor shower making its first appearance tonight! This one doesn't yet appear to be named, but it'll show up between Pisces and Pegasus. This one will be better to catch earlier in the evening, once it's fully dark, because those constellations set earlier.

Ooh, and here's a neat NASA video that talks about the unique nature of the Geminids:

Want an all-night meteor-stravaganza? Head out after dark and stay out until 3am or so! I suggest a nice chaise lounge, blankets, booze, and friends. If you also bring a pair of binoculars, they can provide lovely views of other astro-objects for variety. Here's a lovely observing guide to help plan. I find the best way to watch a meteor shower is with friends: You can point out meteors they don't want to miss, and you have a great excuse to talk for hours.



Solar telescope is up and running!

NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
I finally found a little time to finish mounting my "new" Solarmax hydrogen-alpha telescope onto an antique mount, so I can actually use it. And WOW does it work great! Here it is, on an old German equatorial mount that I found abandoned on the side of the road last summer (Seriously. It used to hold a 4" Newtonian reflector. Anyone want an old, barely usable telescope?):

The tripod is cheap and old (read: WOBBLY), and the mount's slow-motion worm-gears are stiff, but it works fine temporarily for low-power Sun-watching. I'll get myself a proper clock-drive mount on a sturdy tripod soon, but in the mean time, the Sun is available for viewing. WOWEE, did I mention it looks great through this little dedicated solar 'scope? This next photo gives you an idea of how the Sun looks through this scope (the photographer used the same instrument); if anything, it looks even more dramatic today, with filaments stretching off into space at least twice as far:

Click the image to see Mark Hellweg's Flickr page.

Note the string-like filaments and prominences along the limb of the Sun's globe, the granulation of the surface, and what appear to be "cracks" (magnetic disturbances).

When looking at the Sun, it's useful to get an idea of scale. How big are those "tiny" prominences? How miniscule are those grains of solar-stuff? Here's the Earth 'shopped near a small flare, to lend some perspective:

Click the image to see this astro-blog.

A feature of this telescope that I thought was just a marketing ploy turns out to be amazing: It's "tunable," in that you can turn a little dial between the front H-a filter and the second H-a filter, and this shifts the spectrum of light passing through to the eyepiece a little toward the red end or a little toward the blue end of the H-a band of light. What this does is alter what's most visible, much the way other Doppler effects work: Toward the blue (I know, it's ALL red, but the less-red end of the light-frequency) end, features moving toward the Earth are more visible; toward the far-red, features moving away from the Earth are more visible. I found that most prominences suddenly LEAPED INTO VIEW about 1/2 to 3/4 of the way tuned, suggesting that most of today's liveliness is taking place on the very edge or slightly toward us. Makes sense, considering we can't see the other side of the Sun's globe... and if we could, it would be the same deal over there, of course!

Here's someone having fun naming prominences (you'll have to follow the link to the original to see the full-size image in order to read the sometimes whimsical names):

Click the image to see the big image.

As I was watching the Sun, my neighbor Bret stopped by his house while running errands, saw me, and strolled over for a view. Even he was able to see these details - surprising, because getting a good look through a telescope pointed at the Sun requires practice. You need to leave open both eyes while covering the one you're not using and shading the other... and focusing at the same time with your third hand. And keeping the Sun centered in the eyepiece by turning the mount's slow-motion equatorial control with your fourth hand. Wonderful to be able to share my first time!

Okay, now I'm back to work. Finals are pouring in, y'know.



Chris Clone Trooper
My publisher, Hadley Rille Books, just celebrated seven years in the business, and to commemorate the achievement made this little video. Congratulations, Eric T Reynolds (lj user="ericreynolds") and HRB!

So what does "Hadley Rille" mean? It's a feature on the Moon near where Apollo 15 landed.

Here's a shot from orbit:

And here's one just before the astronauts scooted over aboard their rover:

Click the images to see the original Apollo 15 mission transcripts.

In other exciting astro-news, asteroid 4179 Toutatis is en route to its Doomsday rendezvous with Earth - less than two days away now!

Click the image to see the Wiki page about this Asteroid of Dooooom.

Irregularly shaped at almost 3 miles by 2-1/2 miles by 2 miles, this bad boy is about the size of a mountain. Approximately as massive, too: It weighs more than 5 trillion kilograms (3 trillion-ish pounds), about the same mass that has fallen onto the Earth since it formed. When it was (re)discovered in 1989, the French astronomer named it "Toutatis," an ancient Gaulish (Gaulian?) god best known from the French Asterix le Gaulois ("Asterix the Gaul") comics, wherein the village chief often appeals to Toutatis to keep the sky from falling. Amazingly, it works! The sky never falls. And yet, now Toutatis the Doom-Asteroid approacheth....

Does this mean those who pray for the coming Mayan-guaranteed Doomsday are about to get their wish? Pshaw. Sorry to burst their bubble, but it'll pass a long way past the Moon's orbit this time around.

Still, the combination of "MAYAN DOOOOOM!" and this puppy should focus extra attention on the need to track and prepare for defending against Earth-skimming asteroids, because this one could well whack us at some point in the future, and that would be bad. It passes us every four years, sometimes closer than others... and every time it does, its orbit changes. Jupiter's gravity also messes with its orbit, so there's a chance that one day it'll rip a hole through the Earth's crust - a better chance than you'll be hit by lightning, killed by a terrorist act, or [insert your favorite cause of unnatural death].

Want to watch the asteroid through your own telescope? Sky & Telescope put together this handy viewing guide, with maps and everything. Fascinatingly, it'll blast past Earth so fast that you'll be able to watch it creep across the sky at 20 arcseconds per minute - fast enough to see its motion in real time! Due to the Earth's rotation on its axis, the sky appears to move about 15 degrees per hour, or about 15 arcseconds per second. So the asteroid will whip past even faster than the stars move across the sky. In a telescope, that'll be QUICK!

However, it'll be a challenge to find and track, of course, with all that motion. Want to watch the encounter via some Earth-based robotic telescopes? You can follow along at's live coverage starting in about 26 hours. Also, the Chinese Moon-orbiting spacecraft, Chang'E 2, will pass within 200 miles of the asteroid, but few expect it to provide good images because its camera configuration is only really suited for taking pictures while carefully orbiting, say, THE MOON. (Hm, the Moon keeps appearing in this post... a Mayan conspiracy, perhaps?) The Moon remains steady beneath the orbiter - unlike 4179 Toutatis, rocketing past at 11 kilometers per second (24,000 mph).

Short answer: We'll survive... THIS TIME *cue scary organ music*

Mars rover
That is so full of fantastic... you've surely seen a bunch of descent and landing photos (which this person used), and some animations from NASA, but this video created by Bard Canning is perfect!

Here's how Canning describes it: "Working frame-by-frame, it took me four weeks to produce this video. It was a labor of love. You can support my efforts with a donation or just let me know that you enjoyed it. Ultra-resolution, smooth-motion, detail-enhanced, color-corrected, interpolated from the original 4 frames per second to 30 frames per second. This video plays real-time at the speed that Curiosity descended to the surface of Mars on August 6, 2012."

NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
Holy Superstorm, Batman! Check out what's churning at Saturn's north pole:

Click the image to see the Cassini page.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft took this image yesterday from about 360,000 kilometers away. The new photo shows what's going on inside this hexagon-shaped cloud structure that stretches 25,000 kilometers across Saturn's North Pole:

Click the image to see the Cassini page.

Because Saturn's North Pole has emerged from its 15-year-long winter, when sunlight does not fall on the pole, Cassini can now study this vast storm - about the size of Earth - at the hexagon's core. Astronomers think these storms form in the same way as hurricanes, with warm, moist air rising from lower cloud layers. The storms might be permanent, or could come and go with the seasons.

Cassini previously observed Saturn's south pole before in 2006, where a storm two-thirds as wide as Earth was raging. That vortex was the first place in the solar system other than Earth where astronomers saw eye-wall clouds, a typical feature of hurricanes, where a bank of clouds towers above the central pit.

In other astro-news, have you been watching Jupiter and the Moon dancing on the Eastern horizon after sunset? Two days ago, they were within a Moon's-width apart, the two brightest nighttime objects in the sky! If you have a telescope, now's the time to check out the giant planet, which is giving us its best views of the year over the next few days. If you want to watch the Great Red Spot transit across Jupiter's stormy bands, check out this handy tool by Sky & Telescope. This is what it looked like when Voyager 1 zipped past about 10 million kilometers from the planet in 1979:

Click the image to see the NASA page.



Chris' telescope buyer's guide 2012.

telescope Chris, Meade Lightbridge Dobsonian
A friend suggested that I offer some advice on buying a telescope as a gift for a first-time astronomer. Well, the holidays are fast approaching, so I thought he might not be the only one who could use such advice. Thus my first-annual Telescope Buyer's Guide!

Assuming that a telescope gift must fit a modest budget, my first note is a caution: Do not buy a Wal-Mart telescope! Also beware of "tabletop telescopes," because your view is only as nice as the mount is stable. Remember, if you're using 32x magnification, that also multiplies any vibrations by 32 times. Anything that costs less than about $200 will give you more headaches than pleasure, and ruin the young astronomer's feelings about this wonderful activity.

So, a few basic guidelines.

Optical Design

If purchasing a refractor telescope (one that uses a lens for the primary objective on the business end, with the eyepiece at the opposite end), start looking at one with an objective lens at least 60mm diameter (about 2-1/2"), preferably 90mm. Here's a nice example, the Celestron Omni XLT 102ED (that's 102mm aperture, and better-than-average ED glass):

Click the image to see this telescope's web-store page.

Refractors are simple to use but, at the low-priced end, give false color due to the primary-lens design. Achromatic (and apochromatic) designs reduce (or even eliminate) this flaw... but at a cost. Because they have no central obstruction in their light-path as with a reflector, they provide brighter, sharper images at smaller objective sizes. Here is a fantastic apo refractor that is also very portable, the Explore Scientific 80mm f/6 ED APO:

Click the image to see this telescope's web-store page.

Which is similar to the Meade ETX80AT (their refractor on the popular ETX robotic mount):

Click the image to see the OPT web-store page.

Reflectors vary a lot in design. The current most-popular style is the Schmidt-Cassegrain (SCT), which uses a mirror as primary in the rear of the tube that bounces off a small secondary mirror at the opposite end (which in turn shoots the light down the middle to your eyepiece at the rear), plus uses a sealed corrector lens at the business end (called the "aperture" - the diameter where light enters). A useful SCT starts at 90mm diameter (about 3-1/2") and can grow much larger. Here's a nice example at the small end of the spectrum, the Celestron NextStar 90:

Click the image to see this telescope's web-store page.

A similar 'scope is the Meade ETX90:

Click the image to see this telescope's web-store page.

Both are excellent starter instruments that easily track the sky and even have motorized, automatic go-to features, and are both affordable. I wouldn't go smaller than 90mm in an SCT. Get the nicest one you can afford! That's still portable, anyway; my 12" Meade LX90GPS weighs about 120 pounds, whereas an ETX90 only weighs about 20 counting the mount and everything. Here it is at sunset during the 2012 Venus transit of the Sun:

These are typically the easiest reflectors to use because they're so compact, and their shorter tubes make them even more manageable than a refractor. My 12" Meade LX90GPS (that's 304mm) would have been a nice university observatory instrument in the 1970s with its GPS locating and tracking and massive go-to database of astronomical objects, but now anyone willing to spend a few thousand bucks can buy one and enjoy hero views of the universe. The SCT optical design allows for cheaper mirror production, allowing you to get a lot more 'scope for the money.

You can find many other types of reflectors out there, but the Newtonian design (attributed to Sir Isaac) used to be the most popular, and provides the greatest light-gathering power for the dollar. It uses an open tube with a primary mirror opposite the open end, and a secondary mirror set at a 45° angle, which bounces the light into the eyepiece set at the top-side of the tube. Here's a nice example of a useful Orion AstroView 6" Newtonian reflector on a German equatorial mount:

Click the image to see this telescope's web-store page.

I wouldn't buy a telescope smaller than 6" aperture (152mm) in a Newtonian if you want the gift-recipient to enjoy it for more than a short time. Though a 4-1/2" Newtonian - a popular entry-level aperture - will provide lovely views of bright objects, it has very little resolving power (see below).

The Newtonian layout allows for the most-comfortable viewing positions and very stable mounts; to use a refractor or SCT at a comfortable viewing angle, you need to prop it up on a tall tripod, whereas a Newtonian can sit practically on the ground if the optical tube is long enough. On the other hand, it's also the least-compact design, requires occasional collimation to ensure the mirrors are aligned, and gets dirty inside faster. On the third hand, it's also the easiest to mount cheaply, because the heavy part sits low to the ground...


...thus was born the Dobsonian design, popularized by the sidewalk astronomer John Dobson in the 1970s. It looks like this Orion SkyQuest 6" Dobsonian (which uses the Newtonian optical design):

Click the image to see this telescope's web-store page.

Here's my other telescope, a present for publishing my first book. It's a Meade Lightbridge 16" Dobsonian reflector, with a Newtonian optical design. Because it's so large, instead of a solid tube it uses removable struts. This makes it lots lighter and WAY more portable - so much so that this giant can fit into a small car:

Click the image to see this telescope's web-store page.

On the other hand, it's a pretty large and heavy 'scope, not something I'd recommend for beginners. But if you have the space to store it and the strength to carry around 60-pound components (the base, or the rear mirror-box), a large Dobsonian like this is far less expensive for the optical performance than any other design. Almost anyone, however, can get a lifetime of pleasure out of a FAR smaller 10" or 12" Dobsonian, at a lot less cost, too.

My second telescope was this Crown Optics 6" f/8 (that means the focal length was 8 times the diameter of the mirror, making the tube 48" long) Newtonian reflector on a German equatorial mount with clock drive (which required a REALLY LONG extension cord to track the sky):

The German equatorial design is a bit more cumbersome and a lot more expensive than the Dobsonian box, but it allows for precise tracking of astronomical objects. These days, you can get one with battery-operated clock drives to counter the Earth's rotation and even GPS-precision go-to and tracking.

My first telescope was a very simple and completely manual Edmond Astroscan, a 4-1/2" rich-field (meaning "low power") Newtonian on a ball-and-socket mount:

Click the image to see this telescope's web-store page.

It was ultra-portable, foolproof to use, and nearly indestructible, but really limited in what it could reveal of the heavens. I quickly moved on to the Crown Optics 'scope, wanting more sky and something with a clock drive. It didn't have GPS or go-to, but did track the movement of the sky (countering Earth's rotation), so objects stayed centered in the eyepiece for long-time viewing, star parties with lots of people wanting to look, or astrophotography.

German equatorial mounts do require some setup, whereas the GPS-driven go-to instruments make setting up for a night's observing much simpler. Not nearly as simple as something like the Astroscan or a Dobsonian-style telescope, but way more useful for beginners and experts alike.

What You Can Expect to See

I would recommend one of the simpler, smaller instruments for a first-time astronomer: One of the 90mm or 120mm SCT designs is great for super portability and ease of use. A 6" or 8" Newtonian on an equatorial mount will show you every single nebula, star cluster, and galaxy in the Messier catalog, plus lots more. It'll also show you every planet in the Solar System, though Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto require a good eye to distinguish from stars in the eyepiece. Reflector designs cost a lot less than equivalent refractors.

Want to mostly view the planets, the Moon, and other bright objects? A really nice refractor will give you the best images, and you don't need much light-gathering power. More important is the focal length: In this case, longer is better. You want a focal-ratio of f/8 or longer. SCTs are almost all longer than that, as are low-priced refractors and many smaller Newtonians.

Want to get really nice views of those same objects, be able to magnify them more? Then you need a bigger aperture for better resolution.

Want to go deep-sky, walk across galactic spirals and float through vast nebulae? Go with the biggest reflector you can afford, and aim for shorter focal lengths. They call these "rich-field" instruments, because the field is wider and brighter.

Oh, and if you want to study the Sun, you need dedicated equipment. My SCT uses a big mirror over the open end, which blocks most of the light. This is the cheap route, and provides nice views of sunspots. Optimally, you'll get yourself a dedicated solar telescope if you want to spend a lot of time with the Sun; I just got the older (now out of production) double-stacked version of this one, the Coronado SolarMax 40mm Hydrogen-alpha solarscope:

Click the image to see a similar solarscope, the Coronado PST 40.

Where a go-to instrument becomes worth the investment is hunting down dimmer and harder-to-identify objects. They can take a long time to find without a smart telescope pointing the way. On the other hand, like me you might enjoy the satisfaction of finding things yourself. If so, go crazy and get yourself a Dobsonian, which for the same money will reveal many more wonders of the deep sky. Typically, you get two or even three times the optics (diameter, thus light-gathering power) in a Dob than in an SCT or Newtonian, or many times that of a refractor.

A Note on "Power"

Cheapo supermarket telescopes will declare "600x POWER!" and such on the box. That is nonsense. Any 60mm refractor (or 120mm reflector) cannot give you that kind of magnification unless you're using it on a mountaintop, free of humidity and near the edge of the atmosphere. Useful magnifications are around 10x to 40x for most viewing; if you want to roam across the surface of the Moon, play around with different eyepieces to bring yourself "closer" (higher magnification, with worse resolution) or to show more of the Moon (almost no magnification at all, with sharp resolution). The Orion Nebula is stunning in my 12" telescope, but only visible at super-low magnifications.

Real telescope "power" comes from three things:

1) Its ability to gather a lot of light and squeeze it into your eye. The wider the diameter of the objective lens or mirror - the greater its surface area - the more light it gathers. For example, a smallish 70mm objective has 100 times the light-gathering power of your fully dilated eye!

2) Its ability to collect detail. The greater the diameter of the objective, the finer the telescope's resolving power (limited by atmospheric seeing). On any given night, a larger telescope will provide more-precise views of objects and reveal more hidden detail than a smaller one. Up to a point. Dust, humidity, clouds, and wind turbulence all affect this. Observatory-scale telescopes are greatly limited by these things, which is why they live high atop mountains and use fancy software to correct the photographs they take.

3) Its ability to reveal minute detail. Here's where magnification comes into play. Remember, most of the time you don't use much at all - I almost never hit 100x, and can seldom use that much under crappy Eastern Kansas skies. However, the longer your focal length (length of optical path - twice the length of the tube in an SCT, or about the length of the tube in a refractor or Newtonian), the more detail you can find by increasing your magnification. Shorter eyepiece focal lengths give you higher magnification (you divide it into the telescope's focal length to find the x), but you can seldom use an eyepiece shorter than 12mm. My favorite eyepiece is a 32mm monster with huge field of view, because its images are so sharp. So the bigger your primary, and the longer your f/ratio, the higher USEFUL magnification you can get from a USEFUL size eyepiece.

Okay, that one might have gotten a bit complicated, but you see my point. Don't use advertised magnifying power as a selling point. Your 8x binoculars are about right for 40mm objective lenses; more power, and you couldn't hold the image still, and it would be blurry. Low power is best for almost everything.


People often forget that the eyepiece is just as important as the objective lens or mirror. Get at least two; I'd recommend a mid-power (14mm - 18mm) and a low-power (24mm or larger) for starters. Three is optimal, ranging from 12mm to 40mm or larger. Really short focal-length eyepieces are a pain to use and don't provide much benefit. Really long focal-length eyepieces get pricey, because they use large lenses.

Most beginners (and those wearing glasses while using a telescope) need at least 15mm of eye relief to see the entire field. This means the image formed by the eyepiece is visible from up against it out to 15mm away. The longer, the better.

Aim to get the widest apparent field of view you can afford. Low-priced but nice Plossl designs typically provide 50° or so AFOV. Really nice multi-element designs can provide more than 100° AFOV, providing a sort of "spacewalk" feel.

Finally, make sure it's both fully coated and multicoated. This means all the lenses are coated on both sides against stray light, damage, and so forth. A nice foldable eyecup is handy. Oh, and get yourself an eyepatch to cover the eye you're not using, because squinting reduces your ability to see very well and is fatiguing.

This is the updated version of the eyepiece I use most of the time:

Click the image to see this eyepiece's web-store page.

It's a 24mm focal length, so medium power. It has an 82° AFOV, which is HUGE. Even though it has a complex lens system, it gives sharp images (probably because it's fully and multi-coated). And it's great for everyone to use with 17mm of eye relief.

Here's a nice assortment of nice eyepieces available through OPT, a place I buy stuff from a lot. Sort by price to see how little or much you can afford. Remember, it's tough to go wrong by buying REALLY NICE eyepieces, because that's what makes all the difference. A great telescope's images can be killed by cheap eyepieces, and an assortment really enhances the experience.

Final Recommendations

If you have a big budget and want to get a 'scope that'll last a lifetime, consider a 120mm apochromatic refractor, an 8" or 10" SCT, or a 10" or larger Dobsonian. These all cost about the same - let your goals be the guide!

You can get a nice telescope at a lot of local optics shops, plus online dealers. My favorites are Oceanside Photo & Telescope (OPT) and Orion Telescope, both of which I've linked to frequently from the photos above. The two biggest manufacturers are Meade and Celestron, plus Orion.

Finally, remember that patience on the part of the user is the most-important element of a good night's observing. If your gift recipient is young or easily distracted, aim for easy to use, portable, and something that'll provide dramatic views.

In short, spend as much as your budget allows to get the greatest aperture, best mount, and nicest eyepiece assortment. Too small an aperture = dim, fuzzy views. Shaky or challenging-to-use mount = awful experience. Cheap eyepieces = nonexistent or crappy views. But if you go TOO crazy in size or weight, that can also kill portability.

Click the image to check out a star-party page.

I hope this helps!

I almost forgot to remind everyone: Tonight is one of the nicer meteor showers of the year, and it'll happen when the Moon isn't muddling the darkness much. Best time to watch? After midnight, but any time after 10pm is good.

Click the image to see the Astronomy Magazine article.

This shower is special in that, some years, we get thousands of meteors per hour, and they hit so fast (40 MILES per SECOND) that they leave outstanding fireballs and smoke-trails.

Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, two-and-a-half miles across and passing us every 33 years, is responsible for this light show. Where to look? Toward the constellation Leo!



Astro-Porn of the Day: Huge Saturn Storm.

Saturn's rings
NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this true-color photo of a huge storm churning through Saturn's atmosphere a couple years ago, but it's still raging. This storm is the largest and most intense observed on Saturn, about 500 times the area of the biggest storms ever observed there; in this shot, it's about 6000 miles by 10,000 miles. That's about the size of the planet Earth. However, at its biggest it extended nearly one-third of the way around the planet, about 62,000 miles. That's a single storm that's almost eight Earth diameters. Big sucka.

Click the image to see NASA's Cassini mission page.

The shadow cast by Saturn's rings has a strong seasonal effect, and scientists theorize that the seasonal change kicked off the powerful storms. Periodic, huge storms called Great White Spots have been observed in previous Saturnian years (each of which is about 30 Earth years), usually appearing in late northern summer.

Here's what it looks like now (in infrared):

Click the image to see the Sky & Telescope site.



Three things for a Monday

mushroom cloud
First, a bit of Doomsday Astro-Porn: On February 15 (just a few months from now), Asteroid 2012 DA14 will whoosh between the Earth and our geostationary communication satellites. You read that right. Not between the Earth and the Moon, but below high Earth orbit. Current estimates have is blasting past at just 22,500km above the surface of the Earth - the closest call in regards to asteroids of this size since 1908 (if you believe the Tunguska impactor was an asteroid, not a comet) or the Barringer impactor (which made Arizona's Meteor Crater) 50,000 years ago. That one blasted a hole 1,200 meters in diameter and 170 meters deep, exploding with the force of a nuclear bomb. This puppy is a little bigger than that one, about the size of a city block: approximately 45 meters in diameter and massing about 130,000 tons. Here's what it looks like, lurking in the dark:

Click the image to see the Cosmos Magazine article.

Next: It's Election Day tomorrow in the US! If you haven't already voted early (like me!), get out there. On a totally unrelated note, Frederik Pohl writes about how the failure of our social support network appears to be leading the elderly into a life of crime. I wonder how many incarcerated seniors end up in prison by choice, considering the 63% rise in their prison population and all. Now, if Fred were writing this (as fiction), we could see some very interesting outcomes....

Speaking of doomsday and politics, Doonesbury nails it on the head:

Click the image to see the Slate Doonesbury page.

And third: Check out this article about how some kids in totally undeveloped Africa not only learned how to use tablet computers - and hack them! - but figured out all this on their own, in another language. As I started reading this, I thought, "Whoah, that sounds like Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age." And then the article's author says the same thing. Very informative about human nature and about ways kids learn.

Oh, and despite Halloween socializing, I got another 1000 words written on The Galactic Adventures of Jack & Stella! (Okay, technically that's five things.)



Chris Clone Trooper
Y'know, checking my posting frequency really reveals how much time grading and teaching-related work consumes a teacher's life from mid-terms through the end of the semester. Sorry! Dropping in for a quick update before, yes, getting back to grading.

But first, I'm going to VOTE EARLY at the Burge Union at the University of Kansas! If you live in Douglas County, KS, I urge you to make a write-in vote Matt Maksimowicz for Sheriff. Why choose the lesser evil?

You can probably vote early where you live, too. But whether you do or you wait for the Big Day, VOTE.

Over the last week, I've:

* Tinkered with the Chevelle. Wanted to do a lot more, but... life.

*Finally bought myself a proper solar telescope, which I've been coveting since the Venus transit observing event in the spring. I got a super deal for it barely used on eBay; it's a double-stacked Coronado SolarMax 40mm Hydrogen-alpha with the SM40 and T-Max tuner. Here it is:

As soon as it arrives (just got it from eBay - half price!), you KNOW I'll drop it onto my antique German equatorial mount with slow-motion handles to track the Sun across the sky, take some photos, and post 'em here.

* Reorganized the sheds to make room to move the (wrecked, soon-to-be Land Speed Record) Aprilia RS50 and put the BMW R100S away for winter. This means the covered front-porch parking spot is available for my winter transportation: My Vespa S150! (With windshield, of course.)

* Wrote another 2500 words on the novel, which means I finally broke the 20k barrier! So while the wordcount finally breached this milestone, the notes document has also just surpassed 17,000 words. That's only the .doc file, not counting dozens of pages of hand-written notes. Taken together, Jack and Stella technically comprises nearly a novel's worth of writing so far. Huh. I'll be using the NaNoWriMo excuse to work lots more on it this coming month.

The Galactic Adventures of Jack & Stella progress:

In case you haven't seen it yet, John Scalzi wrote a
smart (and disturbing) response to some politicians about rape and politics. Check it out, but be warned it's just plain creepy. Some of the responses are disturbing in other ways. But it's an important thing to read right now as we head into politics season, as The Handmaid's Tale becomes less SFnal and more mimetic.

Speaking of politics,
xkcd does it again with a fascinating infographic on changing political demographics in the US.

To those who live out East, please be safe as the big storm blasts your way.

NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
This post is for you science-lovers out there... that's everyone who likes heat in the winter, A/C in the summer, cell phones, food, modern roads... you get the idea. But especially for those who love contemplating the universe and our place in it, here are two things I must share. First, an event:

Did you know that the KU Natural History Museum hosts a series called, "Science on Tap"? Next Tuesday evening, October 16, the event is called "Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Expanding Universe." It's held at Free State Brewery from 7:30pm - 9:00pm. Description:

More than a decade after the Nobel-prize-winning discovery about the accelerating expansion of the universe, scientists are still trying to pin down exactly what dark energy is and solve one of the most profound questions in modern physics. This mysterious force repels gravity and is estimated to account for about 70 percent of the substance of the universe. For this Science on Tap, Bharat Ratra of Kansas State University will discuss dark matter, dark energy, and how scientists understand these components of the ever-expanding universe.

Sounds fantastic. I'll be there!

Speaking of things that fill me with joy, Neil deGrasse Tyson is my hero. Check it out:

Everyone should hear these wise words - especially our world leaders.

Remember the magnetic filament creeping across the surface of the Sun from one of my Astro-Porn posts last month? Here it is, the massive cloudlike feature on the left side of the Sun in this image:

Click the image to see that LJ post.

Well, here's what happens when they go KAPLOOEY and erupt! Beauty from destruction:

Click the image to see NASA Solar Dynamics Library page - with a video!

The filament stretched and arched upward until it broke and blasted off into space. Some of the plasma from this eruption hit Earth with a glancing blow on September 3, generating some beautiful aurora:

Click the image to see a Daily Mail news article about the event.



galaxy M51
The reason I bought my first multimedia-capable computer, in 1997 or so, was to be able to see the amazing and wonderful images that NASA was sharing across the internet. Since then, not only has NASA continued to do this, but so have many other places - like The University of Arizona's Mt. Lemmon Sky Center, responsible for the photo below. Since then, they've only been getting better at it, building easy-to-use galleries, posting quick-view images that you can click to open massive original-size images, and writing lovely descriptions of what you're looking at.

The photo below is one of the reasons I go on living in this crazy world. I mean, seriously, take a moment to bathe in the quiet alien beauty of this spiral galaxy, NGC 5033. In May of this year, astronomer Adam Block took this shot through a 32-inch telescope using a CCD camera, they toyed with the image using Photoshop and another astrophoto program. This kind of photograph is now within reach of small instruments (nowadays, some individuals even own 'scopes that size!), and digital imaging and processing further democratizes the once-esoteric field of astrophotography, which used to require vast knowledge of chemicals, supercooling tech for film, processing tricks, glass plates, and so forth - and some of these exposures took all night. Mess up the emulsion or developing time? Your night is lost. Not any more. Now we get astrophotos like this on a regular basis:

Click the image to see a very large, full-size image courtesy of the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter.

That should blow your mind! For reference, here is what the pre-digital age of astronomy looked like - and this is one of the era's best-known photos of one of the nearest galaxies, taken through the world's largest telescope at Mt. Palomar:

Click the image to see the Wiki page about the Andromeda Galaxy.

I mean, just compare the two. Check out how the vintage Andromeda photo is devoid of clear division between the spiral arms; notice how playing with color filters helps you identify the different types of stars in the newer photo; and so forth. But perhaps most impressively, check out the giant, 2MB version of NGC 5033, and you will be astounded by how many of the "stars" surrounding the galaxy are, in fact, more galaxies.

It makes sense, of course, because the universe holds more galaxies than our galaxy holds stars, and galaxies are larger than stars - they have to be really far away to appear smaller than a star. But WOW. LOOK AT ALL THOSE GALAXIES. That photo contains literally hundreds more identifiable galaxies! Perhaps THOUSANDS to an expert eye. WHOAH.

Now, for just a moment while you are floating in space, hunting for galaxies millions or billions of light-years away, turn around. Look for the Milky Way Galaxy among the stars. There, far out in the Orion Arm of our spiral galaxy, that's our Sun. Can you see it? Maybe, if you know where to look, and if you're using a big telescope and a high-resolution digital camera and using excellent software. Our star is a mundane one, smallish compared to the giants easily visible among the swirling multidudes.

But on a little rocky planet not far from the Sun's flares, bathing in its warmth at a temperature high enough to melt water ice - but not so hot as to boil it - dwells an intelligent species that not only ponders the meaning of life in a vast universe, but only looks upon the pinpoints of light in the sky and asks what they are, and is currently taking tiny steps in their direction. Every thought that every intelligent creature on that little planet has ever held, every hope and dream and fear and frustration, every feeling of love or hate toward another, every drama and birth and death: All that every human being who has ever lived has thought or done is contained within a narrow orbit around that little star, within a handful of miles of the surface of a planet invisible from this distance. Yet some of those beings still consider themselves to be masters of the universe.

It is charming, really.

This perspective... this is one reason I sky the skies (and the internets) for such discoveries. It's also why I love science fiction. This is where I derive my love of astronomy, and sharing it through photos and words is where I derive most of the pleasure.


Astro-Porn of the Day: Jupiter Goes BOOM.

Yesterday, Jupiter took one for the team:

Click the image to see the i09 article. I love their "Jupiter saved us!" angle.

Amateur astronomers witnessed the event, and George Hall of Dallas, Texas, even filmed it (the above gif-enated shot is a still from his recording). The light from the explosion lasted between two and four seconds; Dan Petersen described it as "a bright white, two-second-long explosion just inside Jupiter's eastern limb... about 100 miles in diameter."

What smashed into ol' Jove was probably a small asteroid or a comet, similar to previously observed impacts. The best-known Jupiter impacts were when fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter in 1994 and then 2009, leaving behind multiple atmospheric scars visible for weeks to anyone with a medium-sized telescope. Here's a mark from the July 2009 impact:

Click the image to see the NASA site.

Will this impact produce such lingering scars? Time will tell. If you have a telescope, get out there and look! Jupiter is the mega-bright object that dominates the post-midnight sky, standing nearly overhead in the wee hours of the morning.



Right now, a dragon half the radius of the Sun is creeping across its surface:

Click the image to see the NASA site.

Okay, it's not REALLY a dragon; rather, a cloud of plasma. But this "cloud" above the Sun is way different than a cloud in the Earth's skies. The long feature on the left of this photo is actually a solar filament made of charged hydrogen gas held aloft by the Sun's magnetic field. This filament was photographed on the Sun about two weeks ago near the active region on the right - see the sunspots. Filaments typically last for a few days to a week, but a long filament like this might hover over the Sun's surface for a month or more. Some filaments can trigger large Hyder flares when they collapse back onto the Sun. Boy oh boy do I wish that I had already gotten myself a proper Hydrogen-alpha solar telescope....

Bonus photo: After turning in final grades for summer, I took a short camping trip with some friends out to Clinton Lake. Here we are:

Dan, Alex, Anthony, Matt, and me.

On Friday night, the Perseids were pre-peak, but we still saw a few. Sadly, Saturday night (the peak), clouds rolled in, so we only caught a streak through the occasional break. Others had better luck:

Click the image to see the photographer's site (in German).

Fall semester has begun, so I'm off to meetings and my second class session!

The Perseid meteor shower peaks tomorrow (Saturday night), but you'll be able to see a bunch of meteors both tonight and Sunday night, as well. Here's where to look:

Click the image to see the story.

The Perseids begin as tiny specks of dust that hit Earth’s atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, vaporizing from friction with the air and leaving behind the streaks of plasma and dust as they self-destruct. The meteors appear to radiate from a spot on the border between the constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus (the latter gives its name to the shower). This radiant lies about one-third of the way from the northeastern horizon to the highest point in the sky (zenith) around midnight local time and climbs higher as the Earth spins toward dawn; this is why you'll see more the later you stay up watching, because more are visible above the horizon.

The crescent Moon rises shortly after 1:00am, so it won’t ruin the show: The shower consistently produces lots of bright meteors, and the Moon's phase is pretty late-crescent (no not very bright). During the show's peak, under clear dark skies, you'll likely see 60-80 meteors per hour in the early pre-dawn hours. In the hours just before twilight, the brilliant planets Venus and Jupiter rise, adding to one of the finest predawn shows of 2012.

And now for the Astro-Porn! Here's a gorgeous time-exposure showing Perseid activity:

Click the image to see the Sky & story.

I'll be camping outside of town tonight and tomorrow night with some friends, so should be lovely! I'll also bring a telescope or two.



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