New Cassini Module in NASA Eyes App
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The new Cassini Mission module is live in the NASA Eyes on the Solar System app! The module is JAM-PACKED with features, including a cinematic simulation the entire 20-year mission, images of Saturn, its rings and moons, an interactive timeline – where you can follow the spacecraft throughout its mission, and simulations of several Cassini Grand Finale events. NASA Eyes is a free app for the PC/MAC and a GREAT educational tool. With NASA Eyes, you can go to any planet in our solar system, many moons, asteroids, and comets. You can zoom to several different active space missions, and simulate what they are doing in real-time, or fast-forward or backward to any point in their mission; several missions have built-in tours – like Cassini. There’s a module about the 2017 eclipse, and the Eyes on the Earth module has several different visualizations of climate data. The Eyes on Exoplanets module lets you zoom to hundreds of different exoplanet systems, see what … Continue reading

Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower 2017
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The Eta Aquariids meteor shower appears strongest when when viewed from the southern tropics. From the equator northward, the shower typically produces only medium rates of 10-30 per hour just before dawn. Meteor activity is good for a week centered the night of peak activity. These meteors travel at a high rate of speed, and produce a good percentage of persistent trains, but few fireballs. Peak: May 6-7th Active from: April 19th to May 26th Radiant: 22:32 -1° (see image above) Hourly Rate: 55 Velocity: 42 miles/sec (swift – 66.9km/sec) Parent Object: 1P/Halley The moon will be a waxing gibbous, setting around 4:00 AM. Source: American Meteor Society … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2014 A member of our Vatican Observatory community, Fr. Bill Stoeger, died of cancer last month [2014]. I could say that Bill was both the smartest man and the holiest man I have known; but he would have rejected that characterization out of hand. So I will only say that his goodness and his genius never ceased to move me. He’s the only person I know who could work the mathematics of the Big Bang, and also direct retreats for religious women. Bill’s religious faith did not control the science he did, but how he did it. For example, more often than not he collaborated with scientists from the developing world – South Africa and Brazil in particular. And he showed a special patience with those members of our scientific community who could be brilliant but eccentric and sometimes hard to deal with. His scientific output was astonishing. At Cambridge … Continue reading

Lyrids Meteor Shower 2017
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The Lyrids meteor shower is a medium strength shower that typically produces good rates for three nights centered on the maximum. These meteors usually lack persistent trails, but have been known to produce fireballs. This shower is best seen from the northern hemisphere, where the radiant is high in the dawn sky. This shower can be seen from the southern hemisphere, but at a lower rate. Peak: April 21-22nd Active from: April 16th to April 25th Radiant: 18:04 +34° (see image above) Hourly Rate: 18 Velocity: 30 miles/sec (medium – 48.4km/sec) Parent Object: C/1861 G1 (Thatcher) The moon will be a waning crescent, rising shortly before dawn. Source: American Meteor Society … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Maybe
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2013 The Kepler Space Telescope, monitoring a hundred thousand stars to catch the faint flickers of light that might indicate the shadows of planets, announced [April 2013] the discovery of a star that may have two super-Earths orbiting within its “Goldilocks zone.” That’s the distance from the star where liquid water should be stable. The idea of a system with two planets that could harbor life brings up all sorts of exciting science-fictional possibilities. Well, maybe. We don’t know for sure yet that either planet really is Earth-like; they could be small gas balls. We don’t know yet if either planet has an atmosphere, much less the sorts of chemicals we associate with life. And after all, our own solar system has two bodies within its Goldilocks zone – Earth and its Moon – but only one has life. For that matter, Mars is close enough to that stable zone … Continue reading

Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Omitted Data and the Tides
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Last week I wrote a post on how even books for children and travel books state (incorrectly) that Galileo proved that the Earth circles the sun, as Copernicus had said it did.  This post tells a strange story about Galileo’s efforts to prove that the Earth circles the sun. In Galileo’s time, no telescopic observation was likely to prove Earth’s motion.  Before the telescope had even been invented, Tycho Brahe had proposed a geocentric theory in which the planets circled the sun while the sun, moon, and stars circled the Earth.  Brahe’s theory was mathematically and observationally identical to Copernicus’s heliocentric theory insofar as the Earth, sun, moon, and planets were concerned: the “machinery” of both systems was the same, it was just that in Brahe’s the Earth stood still, whereas in Copernicus’s the sun stood still.  Galileo’s telescopic observations proved that Venus circled the sun—but Venus circled the sun in both Brahe’s geocentric theory and in Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.  … Continue reading

Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn
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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

Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2013, soon after the election of Pope Francis How do I feel about a Pope who is not only a fellow Jesuit, but one who’s studied science (in his case, chemistry) as well? To be honest, I am terrified. For the past twenty years I have lived off the expectations that others have of Jesuits and scientists; now I am going to have to deal with someone who can see past the mystique. Familiarity breeds a certain discomfort. I can only imagine what it’s like for our Observatory’s director, Fr. Funes, who is himself not only a Jesuit and scientist but also from Argentina. [In fact, as it later came out, when José first began the process of entering the Jesuits as a young man, one of the Argentinian Jesuits who interviewed him was a certain Father Bergoglio…] Pope Francis’ chemistry background has not gone unnoticed in the scientific world. A … Continue reading

Musings From a 7th Grade Biology Class
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When people ask me what I do for a living I generally respond:  For the past 16 years I have been teaching science to the hormonally impaired. Here in the United States that means teaching sixth through eighth grade, i.e., my students range from 10 to 14 years old.  These students are either entering the fun age of puberty, or are in the complete throws of hormonal impairment , which means they have other things on their mind besides studying. About this time of year I usually enter into the biology phase of science with my 7th graders; and inevitably, the introduction of cells leads to a discussion of evolution and God. I teach in a small town in southeast Michigan called New Haven. The religious base of this town is either Baptist or Lutheran, along with some Catholics and various other religions. When I bring up that prokaryotic cells eventually evolved into eukaryotic cells (single-celled organisms into complex multi-celled … Continue reading

Exoplanet Extravaganza
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Exoplanet news has been all the buzz since the announcement of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star 39 light-years away from Earth – that’s 229 trillion miles or 369 trillion kilometers. Three of those worlds orbit within that star’s habitable zone, increasing their likelihood of supporting life. Two hours after the announcement, I discussed with students in the Endeavour Space Academy, what exoplanets are, exoplanet detection methods, and the thousands of exoplanets found to date. The questions I got mirror those I’ve seen asked online: Can we go there? Well, there are a lots of gotchas to that question. At our current level of technology, and using the fastest object humans have created as a baseline, it would take well over 100,000 years to reach this star system; Remember: “Space is big. Really big!” Speaking of “we,” what will modern-day humans have evolved into after 100,000 years? Could life exist there? It’s certainly possible. With the discovery of … Continue reading

The Beer and the Telescope
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During a bout of insomnia Thursday morning, around 2 am, my phone buzzed with an incoming email from the editor of L’Osservatore Romano asking if I could get them an article about the TRAPPIST-1 planets. By noon. Italian time. So I stayed up another hour — I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway — and shipped one off to them by 3 am Tucson time. It ran in the Feb 23 edition… click here for a link. Of course, they translated it into Italian. Here is the original English text that I sent them… they edited it slightly. Last year, a team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium announced the discovery of three planets around a star observed by one of their telescopes, TRAPPIST South. This week they have published new results in the scientific journal Nature that expands the number of planets in this system to seven. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, director … Continue reading

From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
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This article first ran in The Tablet in February, 2016 At the museum of the history of science in Florence, honoring its famous local son Galileo, one can find a marvelous display of a 17th century high technology peculiar to Italy: fine glasswork. Consider the bubble-free glass that Galileo needed for his telescope lenses, the “Florentine flasks” beloved of chemists, the elaborate thermometers of the “Accademia del Cimento.” Italian glass technology made Italy the birthplace of the scientific revolution.  But a century later, as displayed in another room in this museum, mechanical devices produced in Britain and Germany allowed measurements of our universe to a much higher precision. With such instruments, those nations overtook Italy in the world of modern science. The February 2016 announcement of the observation of gravitational waves demonstrates again how our knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe is advanced by our ability to measure nature ever more precisely. To detect the tiniest ripple in the space-time continuum, … Continue reading