June 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper album, and of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Visiting Chicago that month, on my way to buy the Sgt. Pepper re-issue I found myself driving past Fermilab.
Nothing says "big science" like a particle accelerator. This was Fermilab in 2012
The main building of Fermilab, 16-story Wilson Hall, is two curved slabs shaped like hands in prayer. It’s been compared to a French gothic cathedral. Rising above the flat Illinois prairie, it’s easily visible from the highway I was on – Kirk Road.
The comparison to a church goes beyond its architecture. Fermilab is a classic example of “big science.” For 50 years it’s been home to 1750 scientists and engineers, working on projects ranging from the discovery of subatomic particles to the exploration of the nature of the neutrino. By generating the building blocks of the universe, then smashing them together, they’ve both confirmed and challenged our theories of how reality works.
I remember one of the current principle investigators there when he was a student at MIT many years ago, a squeaky-voiced freshman while I was a lordly senior. And I’ve met a number of Jesuit scientists who have worked at Fermilab over the years. But the folks at Fermilab whom I know best, the friends I was visiting this week, are engineers and technicians there. Like lay brothers supporting the work of the scientist-priests, they keep the machinery running, and keep the experiments safe.
Todd Johnson with one of Fermilab's toys...
...and Todd with a gizmo he made at home, using sound waves to estimate the volume of a meteorite
Every Wednesday evening a group of them — reminiscent to me of the famous Oxford “Inklings”, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and friends — gather at a local diner to swap stories…
A video camera on a wire, meant to inspect welds inside a pipe within the accelerator ring, kept getting snagged in the pipe’s bends; so one guy drilled through some bocci balls and ran the wire through them to keep it off the sharp corners. The scientists wanted a 3-D computer visualization of a new control room; another engineer borrowed the software from a graphic computer game called Doom, inserted images of the proposed room layout, and then at the end of the demo hit a few control keys to reveal that the shoot-em-up aspect of the graphics package was still intact! Meanwhile, other members of the gang show off gizmos made in their basements, just for fun: a tiny piston that spins a wheel, operating off the heat from the palm of your hand; a singing Tesla coil (search “Zeusaphone”)…
The Fermi scientists may work to uncrack the mysteries of the universe, with perhaps a bigger grant or even a Nobel Prize as further inducement. The engineers do their work simply for the joy of making really cool stuff. In both cases, the work itself is more than any one person could do alone. The scientists would be helpless without the mile-wide accelerator ring built and maintained by the engineers; the engineers would never have the chance in their own basements to build the beautiful machinery that they get to use every day. But then, could someone “find Jesus” without the infrastructure of a church that preserved and transmitted who Jesus was and what He taught? We need big religion like we need big science.
Driving home, I listened to the new extra CD of Sgt. Pepper, with early takes and studio chatter. It was fascinating to hear the songs in progress, noting the bits that John, Paul, George and Ringo each contributed. But none of the out-takes matched the glorious version of the final album with all of them playing together… enhanced and preserved by the team of recording engineers.
David Brown, SJ observing the planets at the Specola in Castelgandolfo
[A version of this appeared at CatholicPhilly.com in July 2010.]
On Friday, I walked onto the driveway to call the cat in for the night, peering under her favorite bushes, warmed by the brick wall of the house. I happened to look up. There, on a velvety deep cobalt sky, perfectly framed between two towering trees across the street, was a brilliant Venus and a slim crescent of the moon. The sight took my breath away, so much so that after a moment, I went back inside and pulled my husband out of bed to come see.
As I sat on the driveway, watching the moon inexorably slip away, I remembered an evening sitting on a bench outside the Jesuit retreat house on Eastern Point in Massachusetts. The bench faced east, not west, so instead of watching the fiery exuberant swirls of red and gold over Gloucester bay, my view was one of an impending darkness extending further than I could see. The blue of the clear sky slowly deepened, the stars came into focus.
The sense of being intentionally and inexorably turned away from the sun to look into the depths of the universe was strong. It was as I could feel earth spinning in space, the planet’s face — and ours — turned once a day toward the vastness of space. We look out into the universe each night whether we wish it or not.
It reminded me of my youngest child. When he was a toddler and wanted to be certain of my full attention he would take my face in both his hands and turn it toward his. Does God turn us to face the immense once each day so that we will have to look into the depths of eternity? Does he want to be assured of my full attention? What does He want me to see? to hear?
Suddenly the sunset felt like a distractingly noisy party, the rise of the night, like slipping out the door into a quiet and still street, where you can hear the cicadas and the breeze in the trees. I thought of a line from Robert Alter’s starkly powerful translation of the psalms: By day the Lord ordains His kindness and by night His song is with me — prayer to the God of my life. [Ps 42:9] In his commentary Alter notes that while this verset is often read as our response to God for His goodness, our song to Him in the night, the Hebrew implies that God also sings to us in the night. What do I hear in the quiet streets of night, where God sings to me?
In the stars whose light is so strong we can see it at inconceivable distances, I hear of my powerlessness and God’s strength. No light that I can kindle will ever compare. There is a taste of eternity in these photons first sent streaking across the universe years ago that touch me only now. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever now shall be. I feel God’s timeless hands on my face. God seeking me out.
I hear, too, an invitation to dig deeper into the tangible universe that presents itself, to think about everything from the Venusian atmosphere to the optic nerve that insinuates itself into my brain to the evolution of the stars I can barely glimpse on this overlit urban street. I hear God hoping I will find these mysteries drawing me deeper into the ultimate Mystery.
“To know the universe, at least in part; to know what we know and what we don’t know, and how we can go about learning more; this is the task of the scientist. There is another way of seeing things, that of metaphysics, which acknowledges the First Cause of everything, hidden from tools of measurement. Then there is still another way of seeing things, through the eyes of faith, which accepts God’s self-disclosure. Harmonizing these different levels of knowledge leads us to understanding, and understanding – we hope – will make us open to wisdom.”
In these warm summer days (or cold winter nights depending on your latitude!) look up at the stars, out into the vastness of the universe. What is God singing of to you?
Astronomers recently witnessed yet another ho-hum explosion of a star, or so they had thought..
Stars are fairly common near the centers of pairs of colliding galaxies, as are supermassive black holes. What happens when the two objects approach each other? The story begins when the star that is central to this week's story appeared to fall right on top of a black hole, at which point it released large amounts of X-rays.
This signature is typical of an exploding star, which is also a relatively common phenomenon in the centers of galaxies. On tracking this supernova over a ten-year period, however, the star did not show the attributes typical of others. It did not fade away over time as its energy dissipated, but instead formed into a long radio jet similar in appearance to a jet trail of an airplane passing overhead.
According to the results of a long-term study led by Seppo Mattila of the University of Turku in Finland, and Miguel Perez-Torres of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Spain, the answer to the mysterious circumstances of this stellar death is far from pedestrian.
By analyzing the radio jet and other observations taken in infrared colors, or heat, they discovered that the black hole that neighbored the ill-fated star was not a passive observer of the supernova. Rather, the scenario that fits the data best is that a portion of the star was consumed by the supermassive black hole, while another portion was stretched like taffy by the black hole into a long spaghetti-like stream of stellar material which we now see as the radio jet.
This is a rare detection of what astronomers call a "tidal disruption event," in which a black hole is caught disrupting a star. Such events may be relatively common especially in the centers of galaxies, and also usually hidden from our view.
Jupiter, the Moon, and the stars Arcturus and Spica are all in the same region of the southern sky at 10:30 PM on June 20th.
Jupiter the Moon, and the stars Arcturus and Spica in the southern sky at 10:30 PM on June 20th. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Saturn is low in the southeastern sky, and Jupiter is high in the southern sky after sunset.
Saturn in the southeastern sky at 10:30 PM, June 20, 2018. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Mars shines bright red in the southern sky early in the morning; Saturn is a bit lower in the sky, and towards the southwest.
Mars and Saturn in the southern sky at 3:30 AM, June 21, 2018. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
A waxing crescent Moon joins Venus in the western sky at sunset. Mercury also makes an appearance low in the western sky - a brief few moments before sunset.
Moon, Venus and Mercury in the sky at 9:30 PM, June 19, 2018. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Mercury will continue to brighten as it climbs towards Venus until July 1st, after which it will start to descend towards the horizon, vanishing around end of July.
The Moon from June 5-11, 2018. Visualizations by Ernie Wright
The Moon is a waxing crescent and will be at first quarter on June 20th; the Moon will then be a waxing gibbous. This will be a great week for observing the Moon near sunset!
Observing Target: M13 - The Great Cluster in Hercules
M13 is a globular cluster in the constellation Hercules, and probably the 2nd object I pointed my 8 inch Dobsonian telescope at.
Location of M13. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Location of M13 – zoomed. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
In small telescopes, M13 appears like a nebulous puff-ball - almost like a comet. In medium to large-sized telescopes, hundreds of stars become distinct, some looking like diamonds. Space telescope images of the M13 reveal hundreds of thousands of stars; M13 really is quite a stunning sight.
M13 Wide-Field image. Credit: Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
Hubble catches an instantaneous glimpse of many hundreds of thousands of stars moving about in the globular cluster M13, one of the brightest and best-known globular clusters in the northern sky. This glittering metropolis of stars is easily found in the winter sky in the constellation Hercules. This image is a composite of archival Hubble data taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Observations from four separate science proposals taken in November 1999, April 2000, August 2005, and April 2006 were used. The image includes broadband filters that isolate light from the blue, visible, and infrared portions of the spectrum.
Time-lapse simulation of a globular star cluster over several hundreds of thousands of years:
Animation of a globular cluster in 3D:
AR2713 is a small sunspot group near the equator of the Sun; the spot is very small, and hard to spot on HMI images. However it's easy to see the active region at the frequencies shown in the videos below - there is a lot of coronal loop activity associated with this sunspot.
Coronal holes have reopened at both poles; SpaceWeather.com says: "Earth is moving deeper into a stream of solar wind that arrived during the early hours of June 18th. This is causing the solar wind near our planet to quicken, blowing faster than 500 km/s (1.1 million mph). High latitude sky watchers should remain alert for auroras, especially in the southern hemisphere where winter darkness favors visibility." The solar wind speed is 488.6 km/sec, with a density of 12.3 protons/cm3 - that's the highest particle density I've seen!
As has been the norm for the last few weeks, several small short-lived prominences have been appearing on the Sun's limb over the past couple days; AR2713 is the bright orange region in the video below:
This past week, I have been blessed with the first of two weeks of vacation. Next week, I will explain why I am in Portland, Oregon and the connection I found between Pope Francis' Encyclical Laudato Si'and my vacation. For this week, I want to share a simple reflection based on the readings from this past Sunday's Mass and my visit to the Hoyt Arboretum at Washington Park. For starters, let's get last Sunday's first reading back in our heads and hearts.
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,,
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.
And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD,
bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
wither up the green tree,
and make the withered tree bloom.
As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.
I found it to be a moment of grace that this first reading coincided with my first experience of red cedars one finds on the west coast of the United States. Amid this collection of trees, there was also a Lebanon Cedar. Whether it be the Cedar of Lebanon or the number of Giant Sequoya that towered over me like Cathedral spires, the pairing of our first reading with Psalm 92 in this weekend's Mass took my heart deeper into the spiritual wilderness.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
To proclaim your kindness at dawn
and your faithfulness throughout the night.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
The just one shall flourish like the palm tree,
like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow.
They that are planted in the house of the LORD
shall flourish in the courts of our God.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
They shall bear fruit even in old age;
vigorous and sturdy shall they be,
Declaring how just is the LORD,
my rock, in whom there is no wrong.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
A picture I took about a year ago, standing beneath the vaulting spire of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph the Workman, the Cathedral of the Diocese of La Crosse (my home Diocese). The height of the Cathedral is 216 feet. The height of redwood trees can reach in excess of 350 feet.
As I stood beneath the towering grandeur of the Redwood Trail, it dawned on me that the last time I had a spiritual experience like this was when I visited some of the historic Gothic Cathedrals in Europe and the United States. As I twisted my neck upward to try and peer at the top of the cedars, I remembered twisting my neck in a similar fashion beneath the spires of vaulting sacred spaces. I recalled Bishop Robert Barron sharing with us as seminarians that part of the genius of Gothic architecture is that it naturally compels us to gaze upward, straining to see the top of the structure. This natural contortion reminds the Christian that we are to constantly fix our gaze heavenward, straining to glimpse the Divine.
When we fix our gaze heavenward, whether it be to the top of a Gothic Cathedral or top of a giant cedar, we become powerfully aware of two realities: How massive the structure is we gaze upon and how small we are in relation to that structure!
What I find interesting in both settings, the Gothic Cathedral and the Gothic Sequoya, is that I don't feel a sense of insignificance in this smallness, but a sense of peace, joy, and love. Further, when I gaze upon the refraction of light through stained glass windows or observe light's gentle bend through the leaves of nature's woodland giants, I am reminded how the light of faith touching our lives can cast a warm, mystic light on a world that strains to see and experience God's love. This light of God's love shows through those who inspire us to grow from a small shoot plucked from the top of the spiritual cedar of the community of faith by God and aids us to grow into the well-rooted tree of faith God calls us to be. Our lives become a constant gaze "upward," praying to grow into the towering spires of faith that surround us, being taken in awe and wonder by the growth we see in those who allowed Christ to bring them to full maturity.
For those of you who are familiar with the history of Gothic architecture, you know that the term "Gothic" was first used as a derogatory statement against what was seen as a bizarre and grotesque form of architecture for a sacred space. In time, however, the genius and beauty of these structures were appreciated despite the continued use of their derogatory name. In that spirit, if we remove the moralizing aspect of the term "Gothic," recasting it more as an objective statement of something atypical, not in proportion with things more "common," could we not see in the Everglades of our faith that saints stand like Sequoya and Gothic Cathedrals amid a world of mundane structures? Their lofty stature can, at first, give us a sense of insignificance as we strain to understood how their lives inform us how to live our lives of faith. However, when we realize that it is beneath the shady branches of their intercessory prayers and God's grace that we move from sapling to Lebanon Cedar, we can instead find protection, stability, faith, hope, and love. We begin to see and experience moments of rapid growth, painful pruning, and seeds of faith God plants through us, continuing the family tree of the Church. In a real way, the Gothic Cathedral and Gothic Sequoya become the metaphor for our spiritual lives that Jesus alluded to in this weekend's Gospel.
Jesus said to the crowds:
“This is how it is with the kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and through it all the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.”
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private. (Mark 4:26-34)
Spiritual Exercise: The call for care for creation is not only one of moral decisions on how to protect our environment, but also to see this call rooted in spirituality, affirming the fundamental goodness of all of God's creation. In Eastern Christianity, they speak of the "Sacrament of Creation," viewing the lack of caring for creation in a way akin to desecrating one of the seven Sacraments. Do you find this type of sacredness in how we view the natural world today? Do you find insights through the natural world that can draw us more deeply into the love of God? If weather permits, get outside today, enjoy the beauty of God's creation, open your heart, and don't be surprised if God reveals his love to you through the gift and beauty of our common home.
For most of its 125+ years of existence, The telescopes of the Vatican Observatory (V.O.) were located exclusively on Vatican territory, either in Vatican City itself or, starting in the 1930’s, at the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. However, in the early 1990’s the V.O. built a telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, where the skies are much darker and clearer than they are around Rome. This is the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, or VATT. The name “Advanced Technology” refers to the VATT being one of the first telescopes to be built using a radically compact design and a new technique of telescope-building—things which since then have become much more common in big telescopes. The VATT is of course not in Vatican territory, and while it is staffed by V.O. astronomers, most of its operating funds come from private sources—such as you, O Reader of The Catholic Astronomer (please click here to support the VATT and the sorts of science discussed here). The U.S. operation that keeps the VATT running is the Vatican Observatory Foundation—hence the web address for this blog. The V.O. still has its older instruments at Castel Gandolfo, but they are used mostly for outreach. The VATT is the V.O.’s research telescope.
Below is a sampling of some recent publications or presentations featuring research that was done using the VATT. And to explain a few acronymns: “PEPSI” is “Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectroscopic Instrument”; “NEO” is “Near Earth Object”; “TNO” is “Transneptunian Object”.
Title: “PEPSI deep spectra. II. Gaia benchmark stars and other M-K standards”
Authors: Strassmeier, K. G.; Ilyin, I.; Weber, M.
Published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, Volume 612 (April 2018)
From the Abstract: High-resolution échelle spectra confine many essential stellar parameters once the data reach a quality appropriate to constrain the various physical processes that form these spectra... We provide a homogeneous library of high-resolution, high-S/N spectra for 48 bright AFGKM stars, some of them approaching the quality of solar-flux spectra... Well-exposed deep spectra were created by average-combining individual exposures. The data-reduction process relies on adaptive selection of parameters by using statistical inference and robust estimators. We employed spectrum synthesis techniques and statistics tools in order to characterize the spectra and give a first quick look at some of the science cases possible... [T]hese spectra are now made public for further data mining and analysis. Preliminary results include new stellar parameters for 70 Vir and α Tau, the detection of the rare-earth element dysprosium and the heavy elements uranium, thorium and neodymium in several RGB stars, and the use of the 12C to 13C isotope ratio for age-related determinations. We also found Arcturus to exhibit few-percent Ca II H&K and Hα residual profile changes with respect to the KPNO atlas taken in 1999... Based on data acquired with PEPSI using the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT).
Title: “High Resolution Optical Spectroscopy of the Classical Nova V5668 Sgr Showing the Presence of Lithium”
Authors: Wagner, R. Mark; Woodward, Charles E.; Starrfield, Sumner; Ilyin, Ilya; Strassmeier, Klaus
Presented at the American Astronomical Society, AAS Meeting #231 (2018)
From the Abstract: The classical nova (CN) V5668 Sgr was discovered on 2015 March 15.634 and initial optical spectra implied it was an Fe II-class CN. We obtained high resolution optical spectroscopy on 30 nights between 2015 April 3 and 2016 June 5 with the 2 x 8.4 m Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and the 1.8 m Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) using the Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric Spectroscopic Instrument (PEPSI)...
Title: “The Four-Color Broadband Photometry for Physical Characterization of Fast Rotator NEOs”
Authors: Kikwaya Eluo, Jean-Baptiste; Gilmour, Cosette M.; Fedorets, Grigori
Presented at the American Astronomical Society, DPS meeting #48 (2016)
From the Abstract: Fast rotator NEOs, having size in the range of several meters in diameter (H > 22), turn to be very faint. In order to study their physical characterization using photometry, it is required to use a system of filters that covers for each of them a large bandwidth of at least 0.8 micrometers. Traditional and inexpensive Johnson-Cousins broadband filters (B, V, R, I) work efficiently well. 11 NEOs were observed at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) from 2014 to 2016...
Title: “Two Color Populations of Kuiper Belt and Centaur Objects” Authors: Tegler, Stephen C.; Romanishin, William; Consolmagno, Guy
Presented at the American Astronomical Society, DPS meeting #48 (2016)
From the Abstract: We present new optical colors for 64 Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) and Centaur objects measured with the 1.8-meter Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) and the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT). By combining these new colors with our previously published colors, we increase the sample size of our survey to 154 objects. Our survey is unique in that the uncertainties in our color measurements are less than half the uncertainties in the color measurements reported by other researchers in the literature... We are grateful to the NASA Solar System Observations Program for support, NAU for joining the Discovery Channel Telescope Partnership, and the Vatican Observatory for the consistent allocation of telescope time over the last 12 years of this project.
Title: “Discovery, observational data and the orbit of the Transneptunian object (420356) Praamzius”
Authors: Cernis, K.; Boyle, R. P.; Wlodarczyk, I.
Published in Baltic Astronomy, Vol. 25 (2016).
From the Abstract: A project for astrometric and photometric observations of asteroids with the VATT telescope on Mt. Graham is described. One of the most important results is the discovery of the Transneptunian object (420356) Praamzius. We computed its orbit applying 198 optical observations from 2003 February 1 to 2016 January 30... Using a typical albedo value of 0.08 for Centaurs and TNOs, we get a diameter of (420356) Praamzius in the range 302--425 km.
Click here for other posts pertaining to research at the Vatican Observatory.
I was in the 2015 inaugural seminar class at which you challenged us to take back to our parishes what we learned that week. Well, as you know, since then I have been holding Star Parties at our local county park and giving talks on the effects of light pollution.
Most recently, I have had a commemorative bench installed and tomorrow we will honor a former parishioner who controlled 15 of the 70 earth and space based telescopes on August 17, 2017 and helped with the detection of the cosmic event from 130 million years ago that become GW170817. He name is Dr. Jeff Cooke and he will be honored by our city and parish at 11 AM. Here is a layout of the bench’s back which we filled with scientific information and pictures.
Here's the commemorative bench back.
Pope Leo XIII would be proud.
God Bless, Fr. Sauppé
This is a good place to remind folks that starting on September 1, we will be taking applications for the 2019 Faith and Astronomy Workshop, to be held at the Redemptorist Retreat Center north of Tucson on January 14-17, 2019. Stay tuned for further details!
This column was first published in The Tablet in June, 2004, and first published here in 2015... read the end to find out what happened!
An artist's concept of Juno at Jupiter. The mission will be the ninth to visit Jupiter, and the second to orbit it. Credit: NASA via Wikipedia
The people who design airplanes say that a plane can’t fly until its weight is matched by the weight of its paperwork. The same must be true for launching spacecraft to another planet. Last month [May 2004] I took part on a NASA panel in Washington DC, reviewing five competing plans to build a planetary probe; in the run-up to the panel I was shipped 30 pounds of paper to read.
NASA’s “New Frontiers” program is a development of another project driven by piles of paperwork: the Solar System Decadal Survey commissioned by NASA and executed by the National Academy of Sciences in 2002. After hearing from hundreds of planetary scientists at meetings around the world (and reading white papers solicited and gathered by various international societies) a committee of graybeards outlined where NASA should be spending its money over the next ten years.
Among their recommendations were four straw man missions, detailed outlines of possible space probes that NASA could pull off for about $700 million dollars. They proposed: to measure the atmosphere and surface of Venus; to sample the far side of the Moon; to probe the chemistry of Jupiter’s deep atmosphere; or to visit a comet and return with a chunk of its ice.
NASA issued an “announcement of opportunity” last year , for proposals to do any one of these missions. Five teams responded (one straw man mission attracted two competing groups). Each team had a Principle Investigator, responsible for running the show, and at least a dozen other senior scientists drawn from academia; an equal team of engineers affiliated with whichever aerospace company proposed to build the hardware; and an outfit like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California or the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to manage the assembly, launch, and flight of the spacecraft.
The proposals I reviewed outlined the exact instruments the teams hoped to fly, the rockets used to put these instruments on their way, and the kind of scientific results the proposers expected to get. They also included the credentials of the team, and a budget. No surprise that each proposal wound up weighing several pounds.
Fourteen of us met for four days to look over their science and judge if their plans were coherent, convincing, and likely to work. Will that measurement really yield the crucial data point we need to resolve an important conundrum, or is it just something that’s easy to measure, but otherwise meaningless? Will the actions of one experiment contaminate the results of another? If they propose to bring back a sample, have they thought through what they’re going to do with it when they get it back to Earth?
Another team, of engineers, looked over the same proposals from a technical standpoint: can their rocket actually lift their spacecraft off the ground? Do their proposed orbits make sense? Do their proposed instruments actually work the way the scientists claim?
We didn’t rank the proposals against each other, but graded them against an absolute scale (poor to excellent), giving a terse summary of each proposal’s strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the process, a month or so from now, one or two – or none – of these proposals will pass this first hurdle and their teams be given a few million dollars to fill out these plans, shore up the shortcomings, and develop the mission to the point where an actual spacecraft could be built. (Indeed, each proposal we saw already represented millions of dollars worth of time and effort invested by the teams’ institutions.) Only then will some NASA administrator finally choose who gets to fly.
It’s a staggeringly unwieldily and staggeringly slow process. Bureaucracy always is.
The current head of NASA is criticized for being a bean-counter who’s lost sight of The Dream; his predecessor was criticized for being too much a dreamer. NASA has always been plagued by wasted efforts, cost overruns, self-perpetuating divisions, and projects driven by pork-barrel politics. Bureaucracy in general, not just NASA’s, is an easy target for people trying to identify what’s wrong with the world. I can think of many thrillers where the faceless, heartless System is The Enemy; I never read a book where it’s the hero.
But at the end of the day, these enormous piles of paper accomplish what no one individual could ever do: they can send an incredibly intricate pile of pipes and circuits hurtling off the Earth and onto another world, and have it do worthwhile tasks once it arrives. Products of this all-too-human, all-too-flawed System can tell us things we might never have imagined about the functioning of our planetary system.
If you take all of NASA’s paperwork and stack it in a pile, you can climb on up to the top and touch the Moon. Humans had dreamt of space travel since Scipio wrote of sending Roman Legions to Jupiter, but it was only these big bureaucracies -- NASA and its Soviet counterpart, now joined by ESA and the Asian giants -- that actually got us into the heavens.
It gives me a measure of perspective on certain other unwieldily bureaucracies I deal with every day.
The Juno mission to Jupiter was the eventual winner – and my personal favorite as well. It was launched in 2011 and it arrived at Jupiter in 2016! Follow that link to some spectacular images.
Mars and Saturn are visible in the southern sky before sunrise. Mars is getting larger in telescopes as we near opposition with the planet at the end of July.
Mars and Saturn in the southern sky at 4:30 AM, June 12, 2018. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Jupiter remains near the double-star Zubenelgenubi II (Alpha Librae) in the southern sky after sunset on June 12th.
Jupiter in the south sky near the double-star Zubenelgenubi II (Alpha Librae) at 10:30 PM, June 12, 2018. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Venus is almost aligned with the stars Pollux and Castor shortly after sunset on June 12th.
Venus with Pollux and Castor, 9:50 PM, June 12, 2018. Inset shows Venus' current phase. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
The Moon from June 12-18, 2018. Visualizations by Ernie Wright
The Moon is a waning crescent and will be new on June 13th. The Moon will be a waxing crescent after the 13th, visible in the western sky near sunset.
The Moon and Venus, 10:00 PM, June 16, 2018. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Observing Target: NCG 6910
I found this gem while scanning around the constellation Cygnus with my 8 inch Dobsonian telescope. NGC 6910, also known as the Inchworm Cluster, is an open star cluster near the star Sadr in Cygnus.
Constellation Cygnus. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Location of NGC 6910, the Inchworm cluster, in the constellation Cygnus. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
In small telescopes, NGC 6910 appears (kinda) like a three-armed starfish. Time exposures of the cluster reveal the rich nebulosity of emission nebula IC 1316, that the cluster lies within.
NGC 6910 through a small telescope. Image credit: Peter Wienerroither, http://homepage.univie.ac.at/~pw/
NGC 6910: stacked images from modded Canon 500D using OIII and Ha filters. Image credit: Erik Larsen derivative work: Roberto Mura / Creative Commons CC BY 2.0
The sun has been spot-free for 7 days, although from the roiling coronal loop activity rotating into view on the left side of the video below, I would bet we'll be seeing an active region soon.
There are a couple minor coronal holes near the equator; the holes at the Sun's poles continue to be at a much reduced size from recent months.
SpaceWeather.com says: "Earth's magnetic field is quiet as our planet moves through a region of calm solar wind. Activity could increase on June 13th, however, when Earth enters a solar wind stream flowing from a small hole in the sun's atmosphere. NOAA forecasters say there is a 25% chance of minor geomagnetic storms." The solar wind speed is 298.2 km/sec, with a density of 4.2 protons/cm3.
There have been several small prominences on the Sun's limb over the past couple days; the region of coronal activity rotating into view is clearly visible in the image below:
Back in 2006, Wendee and I founded an organization designed to spread our enthusiasm and passion for the night sky. We called it the National Sharing the Sky Foundation. Its basic purpose was to bring the magic of the night sky to as many people as we possibly could. Over the years, we have encouraged thousands of people to enjoy the night sky. Whether this happened in small groups, at public schools or even smaller groups at our home, at big “star parties” on University campuses, or at dark sky sites at remote locations, our goal has always been to share the sky in the simplest way we could.
Messier 15 from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA
Do I have a favorite memory from Sharing the Sky? Indeed, I do. Of all the nights I have spent under the stars, the greatest moment was at our Adirondack Astronomy Retreat in upstate New York. One night there I gazed at the giant globular star cluster in the constellation of Pegasus. It is called Messier 15. I was looking through Fritz, a giant 25-inch diameter reflector telescope belonging to longtime retreater David Rossetter. As I peered through the eyepiece I was not looking at the cluster. I was strolling down an avenue of myriad stars. Stars to my left, stars to my right, and stars surrounding me like a field of golden flowers.
In fact, of all the events Sharing the Sky has put on, the retreat was my favorite. Each summer we would join some 35 to 45 people, most of them with telescopes, notebooks, and often cameras. The people attending this retreat are the smartest I’ve ever met. Their attitudes, their hopes to see that faint galaxy, or even catch a comet roaming among the stars, were wonders to behold. The enthusiasm of the group was contagious.
On most nights I also tried to follow whatever conversations were taking place across the field of telescopes. Whatever I took away from these tidbits of wisdom, whether they had anything to do with the night sky or not, I have never forgotten them. Sometimes the topics to be discussed would be political, sometimes literary, or at other times just nonsensical fun. Most important, I felt a part of the joy that the other people were feeling.
Sharing the sky is not just sharing knowledge about the Universe. It is sharing a feeling of peace and fun that comes when the sky begins to darken at the start of a perfect night.
Passing on the effort
Last May, however, I reached my seventieth birthday. I hope I have many good years left, and to help ensure that I do, Wendee and I decided that the time has come to hand our foundation over to younger people. Accordingly, On May 22 (my 70th birthday) Joe and Rita Wright, good friends who live in Kansas City, took over the Sharing the Sky Foundation.
We are not bowing out completely. Our monthly star evenings at the Corona Foothills Middle School will continue. There we will go on inspiring the bright young minds of tomorrow’s adults. They may be in middle school or high school now, but who knows what they will accomplish with a little help from a friendly night sky? I will also continue this Skyward column. It is important to motivate readers any way I can.
David H. Levy Presenting to School Students. Credit: David H. Levy.
It is not enough to learn the night sky. One must experience it. And just looking up is insufficient. When you get your first look at the Moon through a high-powered eyepiece, or the exquisite rings of Saturn, or a galaxy whose light has traveled across a billion years of space and time, your life can change in ways you cannot begin to imagine. Put away your cellphone, open your eyes, a gaze towards heaven. You will become a part of a cacophony of people who have looked up in earlier times. And that is what Sharing the Sky is all about.
To get more involved in astronomy, seek out local astronomy clubs and societies - the NASA Night Sky Network is a great resource for this. Many astronomy clubs host public observing nights where you can get sky tours and use their telescopes.
The NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program has volunteers all over the U.S., and several other countries, who will come your school or other venue and talk about astronomy and space science - for free! ~ Editor
Coronal Loops on the Sun, seen in extreme ultraviolet. Image credit: NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.
This 50-hour time-lapse video shows coronal loops in motion, and a couple solar flares:
Coronal loops are frequently associated with sunspots; sunspots are visible manifestations of where powerful magnetic fields pass through the Sun's photosphere and extend out into the Sun's atmosphere. Coronal loops often arc between pairs of sunspots with opposite magnetic poles.
Coronal Loops Over a Sunspot Group. Image credit: NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.
Coronal loops are more numerous around solar maximum - the time in the Sun's 11-year sunspot cycle when sunspots appear more frequently.
Eleven years in the life of the Sun, spanning most of solar cycle 23, as it progressed from solar minimum (upper left) to maximum conditions and back to minimum (upper right) again, seen as a collage of ten full-disk images of the lower corona. Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech
Coronal loops can extend thousands of kilometers above the Sun's photosphere and out into the Sun's upper atmosphere - the solar corona. Some loops are extremely hot, having temperatures of a few million degrees.
Solar coronal loops observed by the Transition Region And Coronal Explorer (TRACE), 171 Å filter. These loops have a temperature of approximately 106 K. These loops contrast greatly with the cool chromosphere below. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
On July 19, 2012 a flare happened on the Sun; above that region, a large coronal loop formed. For an entire Earth day this powerful magnetic loop caused hot plasma in the corona to cool, condense and rain down onto the Sun!
Coronal loops are one of several topics I cover during my short presentation about the Sun; I've given this presentation numerous times, and always get *gasps* at a couple spots. I keep adding more images and animations to my presentation... what can I say, the Sun is amazing!
This is just a fun little post to show off some pretty scenery. The video below was taken by yours truly, from atop the papal palace at Castel Gandolfo, site of one of the telescopes of the Vatican Observatory. Castel Gandolfo overlooks Lago Albano, a volcanic lake. A firefighting plane just happened to be practicing on the lake at the time, making an already spectacular scene just all the more interesting. (That's Br. Guy talking about the plane in the first part of the video; I was shooting the video for my students, so you will hear me addressing them, too.) Scroll down below the video for a nice still shot of the plane.