In the Sky this Week – September 12, 2017
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Mercury is about as high as it’s going to get in the eastern predawn sky on the 12th, and will start getting lower each morning. Sirius is high in the sky, and the constellation Canis Major is now fully visible above the southeastern horizon before sunrise. Mercury and Mars will appear very close to each other in the eastern predawn sky on the 16th. Saturn continues to be a great observing target in the southern sky after sunset. The Moon will be in conjunction with the star Aldebaran on the morning of the 12th, and will appear between(ish) the stars Aldebaran and Betelgeuse on the 13th. The eastern predawn sky on the 18th should look pretty interesting: Mercury, Mars, a sliver of a waning crescent Moon, the star Regulus and Venus will all appear in a line. Sunspot AR2680 has rotated into view; this sunspot is about the same size as AR2673 was from last week – which ballooned out and blew off … Continue reading

Become a Volunteer NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador
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NASA/JPL is looking for highly motivated volunteers to communicate the science and excitement of NASA’s space exploration missions and discoveries to the people in their communities. Each September, the volunteer NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program has a recruitment drive for new volunteers; there are currently volunteers from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands. SSAs are required to do a minimum of four events over the year, and log them on the SSA website; events can include: lectures, workshops, star/eclipse parties, hands-on activities, etc. The SSA program hosts frequent teleconferences with NASA scientists, mission specialists, and engineers covering a HUGE range of topics; presentation materials and media for each teleconference are made available for SSAs to use. When it can, the program also provides freebies; my wife and I received 1000 solar glasses and distributed them far and wide before the eclipse. Applicants that are accepted into the program are required to … Continue reading

The Self-Gift Of Creation: An Insight Into The Cosmology Of Saint John Paul II
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One of my favorite parts of going to local bookstores is stumbling upon an unforeseen literary gem. This past week, I had one of those moments as I found a new book that is a collection of retreat notes from Saint John Paul II titled, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries of Pope Saint John Paul II. As I paged through the collection of retreat notes, my first thought was, “This will be perfect for someone who wants to understand Saint John Paul II, but has no background in theology!” Unlike Saint John Paul II’s official writings that are heavily influenced by the philosophy of phenomenology and presented in the mystical tone of Saint John of the Cross, these journals contain simpler language that, at times, feels like you are given a glimpse into how Saint John Paul II first worked through his basic ideas in prayer before refining them to be included in his professional writings. My second thought … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Leaving the neighborhood
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2013 At the annual European Planetary Science Congress [held in September 2013] in London, I was chatting with some postgraduate students about their studies of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. It’s the target of the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer mission that the European Space Agency hopes to launch in 2022. Europa’s subcrustal oceans may be the best place in our solar system to look for non-terrestrial life forms – an idea that I can claim credit for first proposing in print in 1975, based not so much on my computer models as on all the science fiction I’d been reading.           It’s exciting to see a crazy idea of mine (and, to be honest, of many other folk) turned into a space mission. But it’s sobering to realize I will be 78 years old in 2030, when it arrives. Indeed, not only were those postgraduate students not yet … Continue reading

Globular Clusters and Black Holes: Detection!
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We return to the topic of the humble globular cluster, an object that usually draws little attention as it consists of a clump of about a million very dim stars. One aspect of globular clusters that is interesting is that all of these stars are enclosed in an incredibly small space. As an analogy, imagine substituting stars in the sky with administrators in an office. Let us say that your task is to house 10 administrators You could choose to give them each their own desk space in a large room, or you could to save on space and crush them all into a small elevator for eight hours per day. The former case is similar to that of the Milky Way. In the Milky Way, each star (administrator) is sitting in a part of sky (a desk) that is spaced a comfortable distance from the other stars (administrators). Thus when we look up at the sky at night, we … Continue reading

Sun Spots, CMEs, and Solar Storms!
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Oh my! Sol apparently didn’t get the memo that it’s past solar maximum, and time to be heading towards solar minimum. There are a couple massive sunspot groups (Active Regions) on the Sun, and one in particular has magnetic fields harboring enough energy to generate X-class solar flares. AR2674 hasn’t changed much in size over the the last few days, but it is still a very active region with large coronal loops. AR2673 was an innocuous little spot last week, then over the weekend ballooned out into an area larger than the Earth, with intense magnetic fields. On September 4th, AR2673 spit out a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) towards Earth – due to hit Earth’s magnetic field today (Sept. 6th), and causing G3-class geomagnetic storms on September 6th and 7th; effects can include: GPS problems, intermittent HF radio, spacecraft surface charging, power system voltage corrections, etc… Aurora watchers may want to keep an eye on the Auroral Oval, as increased auroral activity … Continue reading

From the Faith & Science pages: The Louvain Lectures of Robert Bellarmine
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Have you noticed the little ads for the Vatican Observatory Foundation’s “Faith & Science” resource?  This is a collection of articles, videos, book excerpts, selections from this blog, and even whole books that pertain to faith and science.  There are all kinds of interesting things in it, such as a poem of prayer and praise written by James Clerk Maxwell (Maxwell developed the theory of electromagnetic waves—he ranks just behind Newton and Einstein in the Hall of Fame of Science).  And, there are the Louvain Lectures of a young Jesuit named Robert Bellarmine (click here to go to the Louvain Lectures entry on the Faith & Science pages). These lectures were published by the Vatican Observatory in 1984.  They were translated into English from Latin by Ugo Baldini and Fr. George V. Coyne, S. J. (who was Director of the Vatican Observatory at that time).  They are the teaching notes of the young Bellarmine—later to be Cardinal Bellarmine, still later … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week – September 5, 2017
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Mercury and Mars make a reappearance very low in the eastern morning sky – so low in fact, you may have trouble seeing them if you have low shrubs; atmospheric turbulence and light pollution may also make them difficult to spot. Over the week, Mars will not get any higher in the sky, but Mercury will get visibly higher each morning. Mercury will be very close to the star Regulus in Leo on Sept. 10th. Catch Mercury while you can – by next week, Mercury will start getting lower in the sky, and will vanish entirely by late September. The full Moon rises in the east with the sunset on Sept. 5th; Saturn remains high in the southern sky, after sunset. Polaris, the North Star, is visible above the northern horizon before dawn. Two of Polaris’ three stars can be made out in a modest sized telescope; Polaris A, the primary component of the trinary is a Cepheid variable star, … Continue reading

Why Do We Have A Day Of Prayer For Creation?
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On September 1st, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint statement inviting all people of good will to pray for creation. The statement was brief and reiterated major themes that both leaders have emphasized in the past. At my assignment of St. Joseph Parish and School, we commemorated the day by taking a moment of prayer for creation and for the victims of Hurricane Harvey during our school Mass. Our commemoration was simple and brief, but provided an opportunity for all of us to be reminded of our call and responsibility to care for creation. Below is the audio from Vatican Radio that provides a brief summary of the joint statement and reaffirms that this celebration is now normative for both Eastern and Western Christians. For some, the need to care for creation is self-evident. In Sudan and South Sudan, the impact of climate change is rapidly transforming a once vibrant ecology into a land in crisis. When reading … Continue reading

Calendars!
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Happy September the first… and happy Calendar Day! Yes, the official Vatican Observatory Foundation calendar is now available for sale: These calendars have been a tradition for more than ten years. Every month has an excellent astrophotograph, donated to us for our use, by some of the best amateur astrophotographers in the world. The 2018 calendar features work by Damian Peach from the UK (who did the cover photo above), Bernard Hubl from Austria, J-P Metsavainio from Finland, Adam Block from the University of Arizona… and more. Twelve… no, make that, fourteen fantastic images. (Counting the cover, and January 2019.) The calendar itself contains a delightfully eclectic selection of astronomically significant dates. And probably one or two typos, even though Dr. Brendan Thomson (who puts this together for us every year) and I must have proofread it at least three times each. Tell us of a typo and I will send you a cookie. The calendar is meant to be … Continue reading

A Plea For Help: A Call To Solidarity With Hurricane And Flood Victims Globally.
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These past two weeks, we in the United States have witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. With images of Texas that are reminiscent of the “100 Year Storm” called Hurricane Katrina from 2005, the devastation provokes two thoughts: Are 100 year storms now going be 12 year storms and how can we help the people of Texas? Outside of the United States, devastating floods are ravaging other parts of the world. In Bangladesh, the death toll is over 130 with millions of people being displaced. In Nepal, the death toll is over 140, while extreme flooding in different regions of India have caused over 500 deaths. In Sierra Leone, the presumed death toll due to floods will be more than 1,000 people. This Friday, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew will be making a joint statement on the need to care for creation. In light of this, I will save my thoughts on our current ecological crisis for Monday. Today, let us pray for the victims of … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Myriad planets
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2012 One hundred thousand planets. That’s the census we can infer for just one corner of the Milky Way Galaxy being watched by the Kepler space telescope, according to results presented [August 2012] at the International Astronomical Union in Beijing. Watching each of 145,000 stars in a bit of the Milky Way about 10 degrees wide over many years (three and a half years, [as of that time]), Kepler is looking for faint dips in brightness occurring on a regular basis that can be attributed to the passage, a “transit”, of a planet in front of that star. So far some 2300 candidate planets have been identified. (Many stars have more than one candidate.) But in order for us to see such a blip, the planet’s orbit must be lined up almost exactly between the star and us; we’re missing any planets whose orbits are tilted above or below their star … Continue reading