In the Sky this Week – June 27, 2017
avatar

Venus remains high in the eastern morning sky, the Pleiades star cluster appears between Venus and the star Capella. The Moon is a waxing crescent, appearing in the west after sunset. Jupiter is high in the southwest, and Saturn is low in the southeast sky after sunset. There will be a conjunction of the Moon, Jupiter and the star Spica on the evenings of June 30th and July 1st. Here is the current positions of the planets in the solar system: … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week – June 22, 2017
avatar

The planet Venus appears high in the eastern morning sky; the bright star Capella, to the northwest, is the last star to fade with the oncoming dawn. The waning crescent Moon will vanish amid the morning haze to the east, to reappear in the west as a waxing crescent after dusk on June 25th. The Summer Triangle is an asterism formed from the three stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega, the brightest stars in the three constellations of Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra. They can be see in the eastern sky before midnight. Jupiter is high in the southwestern sky after dusk, and sets in the west around 1:30 AM. Saturn appears high in the southeastern sky after dusk, is at its highest around midnight, and sets in the southwest just before dawn. Directly overhead, the Milky Way flows through the constellations Cygnus and Aquila (if you live in a city – trust me, it’s really there… drive out of the city … Continue reading

Asteroid Day 2017
avatar

It’s June, Asteroid Day approaches! Asteroid Day is a global coalition of scientists, astronauts, physicists, artists, musicians and concerned citizens that have come together to focus the world’s attention on the nature of asteroids, and the solutions that could protect all life on Earth from future asteroid impacts, and inspire the next generation. Since the summer of 2015, worldwide Asteroid Day events have been held on June 30th, the date of the historic Tunguska Impact Event of 1908. The founders of Asteroid Day drafted the 100X Declaration. In short: Over the last decade and a half, we’ve discovered a LOT of near-Earth asteroids, and continue to do so. Some of these asteroids can potentially impact the Earth. Some of these asteroids are large enough that an impact would be “a bad thing.” We need to accelerate the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years. We need to get government, private and philanthropic organizations … Continue reading

Hymns of Faith and Science
avatar

A few years ago, I gave an astronomy-themed retreat in the UK and among those attending was Trevor Thorn, who among other things writes hymns. He shared a few of his astronomy-themed hymns with me. Now, I’ll be honest, I find most such mash-ups tend to be pretty cringe-worthy. So I was all the more surprised to read his; they were very good… as you can see, on his blog site, The Cross and the Cosmos. (Which also includes a lot of other faith/astronomy themed art.) One particular bunch were written with kids in mind, and they’re quite fun. He’s “test-run” some of his songs with local church schools in Cambridge. Here’s a short video about that effort: … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Song of Praise
avatar

This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2016 When Pope Francis issued his groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato Sì, the Italian publishing house Elledici took the moment to reissue a book written in the 1960s by the Italian scientist Enrico Medi: Canitco di Frate Sole, a meditation on the Franciscan poem that gave Pope Francis his title. At that time, they asked me as the “Pope’s astronomer” to write an introduction for the book. On first anniversary of the Pope’s encyclical, in 2016, I was invited to Medi’s home town of Senigalia, on the Adriatic coast, to celebrate the publication of this book. I’d never heard of Medi; but I discovered that he was the spokesperson of his generation in Italy on faith and science. Reading his words, even with my poor Italian, I can see why. For example, in one chapter Medi begins with our scientific understanding of water as a marvelous molecule, but he arrives at finding in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
avatar

Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2004 – the first of many columns I wound up writing about the definition of a planet, leading up to the IAU decision about Pluto in 2006. And this is a repeat of a blog entry first published at the Catholic Astronomer three years ago… as I have run out of Tablet columns to publish! On the other side of Neptune live the Trans-Neptunian Objects, or TNOs. They are worlds so faint that to measure their colors, we use a mirror nearly two meters across to gather their light, which we focus into a spot of only a few hundreds of a millimeter, collecting it with an ultra-sensitive electronic chip, over a five-minute time exposure. They move – more than five minutes and the spot turns into a streak. But take enough exposures over a few hours and you can plot their motions against the background stars and galaxies. The TNOs are thought to be the … Continue reading

Eratosthenes Drawing Drama plus an Experiment opportunity for schools all over the planet
avatar

On that cold evening back in 2007 Eratosthenes looked powerful in its position emerging into the suns warm rays. Rupes Recta was also inviting and Plato almost called me again. Even drenched in sunlight Plato’s steel grey floor carried those unmistakable flame shaped shadows. Eratosthenes is a truly dramatic crater, a sweeping mountain chain whips away from it in a visual series, of broken, deep shadows. Montes Appeninus is cut and chopped first by Mons Wolf, and then by Mons Ampere. Next in line, Christian Huygens name is lent to Mons Huygens named in honour of the discoverer of Saturn’s largest moon Titan . This high mountain (164,000ft) is a billion miles away from those primal methane or ethane seas discovered by the Cassini Huygens mission on one of its routine flybys. Mons Bradley and Mons Hadley cradle the Apollo 15 lunar landing area from 1971. A mission that put wheels on the moon for the first time. This wonderfully … Continue reading

Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn
avatar

Also in Exploring the Solar System Exploring the Solar System: The Mass of the Sun Marvellous Mars Drawing Workshop at Dunsink Observatory Dublin Astronomical Sketching – Education in action Stars Wonderful Stars at Wexford Town Library Ireland Get ready the Perseids are coming Space the final Frontier – World Space Week 2016 On the richness of the lunar surface Dark Sky Magic at Ballycroy National Park Mayo Ireland Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn Cosmic Lobster Pot A Slice of Solar Drawing in h-alpha View the entire series … Continue reading

On Operas and Stars, Aliens and Refugees
avatar

I was recently in correspondence with Carl Pennypacker at Berkeley. To quote Wikipedia: “Dr. Pennypacker has spent much of his career as a research astrophysicist, receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1978. His principal research was the studying of supernovae and the building of techniques for their automated discovery. With Rich Muller, he co-founded the Berkeley Supernova Search, which later became the Supernova Cosmology Project. He shared the 2007 Gruber Prize in Cosmology and the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for the Supernova Cosmology Project’s discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.” All true. But in addition to that, he has a deep interest in science outreach… and music. When he shared with me a video he’d been involved with (see below) I asked if I could post it here, and if he would give me a few words of introduction. He graciously agreed to both. He writes (edited from a couple of emails): I was part of “The Global Skylight” opera, as part of the IAU’s … Continue reading

Bringing Mars to Earth – Educational Outreach
avatar

  Mars is an extraordinary planet , its textures and exquisite beauty have been brought to Earth by the images of HiRise on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter . Curiosity gives us a ground eye view as it drove through Gale crater and on to Mount Sharp. From Earth by eye Mars is but a tiny pink dot , in small telescopes it becomes a slightly larger pink dot . It is not easy to see detail on Mars for most people. My best views were in the South refractor at Dunsink Observatory and through a friend’s 16 inch Schmidt Cassegrain.The polar caps stood out in the 16 inch while the 11.75 inch objective at Dunsink showed a hint of dark areas on the predominantly rusty pink planet body. Of course Martian dust storms and the quality of our sky has a lot to do with seeing any detail at all. Pointing out Mars in the sky for public groups and children’s … Continue reading

Endeavour Space Academy
avatar

I cannot remember a time when I haven’t been fascinated with astronomy, the space program, and science fiction. I was a child during the Apollo era, and a young man when the original COSMOS first aired. I cut my teeth on Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Larry Niven; Carl Sagan was, and remains to this day, my personal hero. Now that I think about it, I started doing astronomy outreach the moment I got my first cheap telescope in 1968; I showed the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn to the neighbors, and took it with me to summer camp. I had one of those really scary green glass eyepiece solar filters – that got used a lot more than I like to think about! My wife gave me an 8″ Dobsonian telescope for my 40th birthday, that came with a not-scary-at-all solar filter; that telescope has seen a LOT of use in 16 years – so much so, it’s … Continue reading

Dark Sky Magic at Ballycroy National Park Mayo Ireland
avatar

“The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.” – Carl Sagan There is something deeply magical about a truly dark night sky. Objects that you would strain to see or not see at all in suburbia populate every eye movement. Peripheral vision fine tunes to a state of high alert with ease. Observing rewards even before dark adaption. My visit to Ballycroy National Park in Co Mayo reminded me of so many holidays in the west of Ireland long ago when our children were young. After a day of extreme foggy conditions across the whole country I was not expecting to see any stars at all. Shortly after my talk we went outside to check up on things. Even with some small lights on in the visitors centre the sky was mind-blowing. Ballycroy National Park I had been introduced to Georgia MacMillan from the Mayo Dark Skies team by … Continue reading