Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in October 2008 Black Mesa, Oklahoma sounds like the setting for a Hollywood Western. It looks like one, too. Every year at the Okie-Tex Star Party, three hundred amateur astronomers camp out for a week with their telescopes there, in hopes of dark dry skies. Some of their “amateur” instruments are larger in aperture than the telescopes of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo. The miracle of computerized fabrication and the modern Dobsonian mount (a way of holding a telescope in place that replaces complex hardware with simple Teflon pads) has brought the cost of quality optics to the point where the price of a large telescope can be less than that of a small automobile. My GPS unit directed me as far as Boise City, two hours north of Amarillo, Texas; after that, I was following roads too small for most maps. I was there to give a series of talks during … Continue reading

The Scale of the Universe
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Arguably, one of the most important concepts one learns from studying astronomy, is the astounding vastness of the cosmos. This vastness extends not only out to the very VERY large and far away – it extends down to the very VERY small. The human mind is ill-equipped to grasp the scale of the universe – but we can sure give it a try! Over the last few decades, several videos have been made showing the scale of the Universe. 1977: The iconic Powers of Ten video – remember: this was made before computer graphics: 1980: Cosmos: “The Edge of Forever” – Carl Sagan discusses the origins and structure of the Universe, and gives us the quote: “We are made of star stuff; we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” Here is the intro to the episode: 1996: IMAX movie Cosmic Voyage – narrated by Morgan Freeman. An updated version of Powers of Ten, with some nice computer … Continue reading

2016 Calendars are available!
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  Every year, the Vatican Observatory Foundation publishes a calendar featuring fantastic astronomical images from amateurs around the world… and noting dates of particular interest to astronomers. They can be purchased online here… This year’s calendar is out, and it looks great. (OK, so as proofreader I missed a couple of glitches, which immediately made themselves obvious as soon as I opened up the printed version. Nothing as bad as a couple years ago when we got Galileo’s birthday wrong!) On the back, I always write a pithy little paragraph or two that nobody reads. As a freebie for readers of The Catholic Astronomer, here’s what I put there this year: A few years ago, a couple of cosmologists who styled themselves as atheists attempted to show that there was “no need for God” to start the universe, at the moment popularly known as the Big Bang. They proposed thatthat a quantum fluctuation in the zero-energy vacuum field of the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2008, under the title “The Magic is Real” I have a friend who has found a new drug: it can keep him awake and programming at his computer for 36 hours straight, without too many bad side effects… or so he claims. I think he’s nuts; aside from the obvious dangers of self-prescribing anything, I happen myself to find sleeping to be a beautifully spiritual experience. (At least, that’s what I tell the homilist after Mass.) But I was struck mostly by the motivation behind my friend’s drug abuse. He is so passionately in love with being alive and doing his work that he resents having to waste eight hours sleeping every night. That passion is one of the great things about being a techie. It is illustrated wonderfully in the comic-book movie, Iron Man. There, the techie hero Tony Stark builds a mechanical suit that allows him to leap tall … Continue reading

Open Thread 3: Dark Vermillion Skies
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The effects of our Faith and Astronomy Workshop continue to echo. From Fr. Timothy Sauppé I received the following announcement  that he recently issued in his area: Formation of a Local Chapter of International Dark-Sky Association “Attention lovers of nature! Pollution comes in many forms! We can see the litter on the ground and smell the fouling of our air. Our ears become offended by unnecessary blaring car speakers in traffic. But most people don’t consider the most neglected of all forms of pollution…. the wasteful or unthoughtful night lighting otherwise known as light pollution. “Yes, at night we need to be able to see and to be safe, but with the growth of population, comes the ever increasing night lighting with no thought to its effects on people, the environment, and wildlife. If changes are not initiated, we will no longer be able to see nature’s greatest gift, the stars. Every new night light adds to the increasing glow … Continue reading

Encore: The Deepest Picture Ever
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Encore: on Wednesdays, we repost the best posts from previous months. To comment, please see the original post. My favorite astronomy picture is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (HUDF). NASA has released its ultimate version, called XDF, a couple of years ago. Whether it is the original version of the HUDF or the XDF version, I find both absolutely breathtaking. Let me explain a little bit to help you appreciate them. The field of view is tiny: if you wanted to cover the whole sky with a grid of similar images you would have to make 16 million of them! It would not be very practical because the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) had enough trouble taking this one picture. It took it about a month of accumulated gazing at one spot in the sky to obtain just one image. Not in a million years (literally) could the HST cover the whole sky with such images! What was the point … Continue reading

Open Thread #2: The Messier Marathon
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Lisa Tobias, who also provided our first open thread, expands further on the Messier Marathon that she mentioned there. I know a lot of amateur astronomers and a few professional ones. When you ask, they almost always they’ll you how they have loved the stars since they were kids and how they were so excited when they opened their first telescope box (probably a Wal-Mart special with more power than Galileo ever hoped for). That wasn’t me. I always enjoyed looking at the stars, but that’s all I did. Walking in and out to the car or sitting by the fire at camp; that was enough. I just looked up and imagined. Maybe it was Halley’s Comet that ruined it for me. I was only about 9 when the comet came through, but my school (which was located in the country surrounded by horse farms and corn fields) made a big event to go out and observe the comet. I … Continue reading

Terrifying Silence or Wondrous Generosity?
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In my previous entry I explained about the HUDF/XDF image, urging everybody to take a good look at it. Apart from the fact that it is always good to contemplate Beauty (and it this case there is both visual or intellectual beauty), I must confess that I had another had a hidden agenda. When I give talks to the general public, I try to illustrate the immensity of the Universe and of the “astronomical” numbers by showing a succession of images. First, I show the Sun and how enormous it is compared to the Earth. Then I point out that the Sun is of of the stars of our Milky Way Galaxy which comprises about 300 billion stars.     The number is so large that I need to go back and show pictures of Omega Centauri, a globular cluster with a mere 10 million stars (30,000-times fewer than the Galaxy). Then I return to the Milky Way and illustrate what it generally looks like … Continue reading

The Deepest Picture Ever
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My favorite astronomy picture is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (HUDF). NASA has released its ultimate version, called XDF, a couple of years ago.  Whether it is the original version of the HUDF or the XDF version, I find both absolutely breathtaking. Let me explain a little bit to help you appreciate them. The field of view is tiny: if you wanted to cover the whole sky with a grid of similar images you would have to make 16 million of them! It would not be very practical because the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) had enough trouble taking this one picture. It took it about a month of accumulated gazing at one spot in the sky to obtain just one image. Not in a million years (literally) could the HST cover the whole sky with such images! What was the point in having one of the world’s most famous and most expensive scientific instruments dedicate so much of its time to a single spot in the sky? … Continue reading