Dr. Pascal Lee is a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute. He’s also Chairman of the Mars Institute, and Director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center. His research includes the history of water on Mars and planning future human exploration of Mars. Pascal has a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Space Sciences from Cornell University. We chatted about how he spent his very early years in Hong Kong, inspired by American and British SciFi TV shows. Later, he migrated to Paris where he continued his education and, inspired by Dr. Carl Sagan, made his way to Cornell in the 1990s. He was Dr. Sagan’s last teaching assistant. Next, we talked about his trips to the remote Canadian island, Devon, to study Mars-like conditions. We wrapped up with an introduction to his thoughts on SETI.
“Exoplanets are planets that lie beyond our own solar system.” Thousands have been discovered to date, in our galaxy, by various means. However because they are so far away, many light years, no telescope can (yet) image them well. Even so, it’s possible to deduce certain general properties. Here are 10 of the strangest— descriptions along with artist illustrations to spark our imaginations.
Have you ever wanted to sleep, comfortably, under the stars? From Digital Trends: “…’head in the stars’ may sound like a Coldplay lyric but it’s a pretty good description for this tiny house in France being manufactured by a company called SCOP Optinid.” Plus it’s transportable. It’s a star gazer’s dream trailer, with all the amenities, for just US$54,000. Binoculars not included.
Sander Berents has been fascinated by astronomy since childhood when he started using his older brother’s telescope. In his teens, he also became immersed in BASIC and assembly language programming with his TRS-80. Later, he earned an M.S. in astrophysics. His earliest jobs involved computer programming, and nowadays, he’s an independent, professional macOS software developer and the developer of the macOS app called Observatory. Version 1.0 was released in April 2016. We chatted about the development of Observatory, written in Objective-C and C++, which has several important features for astrophotographers: plate solving, image stacking and a digital blink microscope used for discovery. This app can also be used as a non-destructive photo library for astrophotos. Sander chatted about life as a developer and explained a little bit about how astronomers use his app.
A rogue planet is a planet that’s not in orbit around any star. It’s by itself, in orbit around the galactic center. It may have formed around a star and perhaps some severe gravitational perturbation ejected it into the space between stars. In any case, only a few are known. In this discovery, a very large one was detected via its radio emissions. Fascinating.
The predictions are that we could be in for a spectacular meteor shower, the Perseids, in the early mornings August 12th and 13th. Perhaps 75 meteors per hour. John explains where to look and how to capture some great photos with your iPhone.
Mike Weasner is a noted amateur astronomer, known for his book on the Meade ETX telescopes, early iPhone astrophotography and work with the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) in Arizona. Very early in life, Mike fell in love with astronomy, and that led to a B.S. in astrophysics. Via ROTC, Mike later joined the United States Air Force, where he served as a fighter pilot (A-7D), instructor (T-38), and a manager in the Air Force’s Space Shuttle Program Office. After his USAF duty, Mike spent 23 years as a program manager with TRW/Northrop Grumman. We chatted about his Air Force days and some interesting flight experiences. In the second segment, we talked about the construction of his observatory, evolution of his telescopes, astrophotography of asteroids, supernovae patrol and his work with the IDA.
An international team of hundreds of scientists is finishing construction of the LSST telescope, or Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. It will search for asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth. Despite our best technology it’s difficult to detect asteroids, let alone asteroids that are speeding toward our planet. The reason is that asteroids are dark; they don’t give off visible light and are hard to detect in the blackness of space.
With significant funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, LSST will search for PHAs during its 10-year mission by observing the same area of sky at hourly intervals searching for objects that have changed position. Anything that moves in just one hour has to be so close that it is within our solar system.
Dr. John C. Barentine is an astronomer, historian, author and science communicator. He is currently the Director of Conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) in Tucson, Arizona. He earned his master’s degree in physics at Colorado State University and his Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. Throughout his career, he’s been involved in education efforts to help increase the public understanding of science. We started with a brief segment on his early career as a observing specialist at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. In the second segment, we chatted about his work at the IDA in Tucson, the organization, its goals, and why it’s so important for all of us who live on planet Earth to be able to look up on a clear night and see stars.
Except for one, Andrew regularly use these apps so he knows they’re good.
Ben Pearson, an electrical engineer by training, has put together a website that tracks the Tesla Roadster that the SpaceX Falcon Heavy put into orbit around the sun. His website scripts extract data from from JPL Horizons to provide continuous updates on the position of Roadster’s passenger Starman. Check it out.
Stars come in all sizes, from white dwarfs to average stars like our Sun. But stars can be oh, so much bigger than our G-class sun. Like blue giants. How much bigger? If our sun were placed next to Rigel, it would be barely visible. This excellent video puts it all in perspective. Check it out.
Graham Dawson is an iOS and Android indie developer who specializes in meteorological and astronomical reference apps. He’s the founder and director of Ajnaware Pty, Ltd in Australia and publishes apps under the name ozPDA. Graham holds a B.Sc. in physics and meteorology, and a Ph.D. in oceanography. Graham told me about his early interest in weather thanks to extreme conditions, especially snow. That’s because, in his youth, he was skiing in Switzerland. Soon he had a weather observation station in his backyard, and he could think of nothing else as he entered his undergraduate years. Today, he publishes a wide range of apps related to the sun, moon, wind, weather and time. Some feature augmented reality. Thanks to his academic background, these apps have rock solid computational credentials. Graham told me how it all came to be.
Dr. Phil Plait is an astronomer and a very popular science communicator. His blog, Bad Astronomy, “covers the entire universe, from subatomic particles to the Big Bang itself, astronomy, space exploration, and the effect of politics on science.” Like many young astronomers, Phil’s interest in astronomy ignited when he first saw Saturn and its rings through a telescope. He earned his Ph.D. working on the study of supernovae with the Hubble Space Telescope. We chatted about his career, his enduring work in amateur astronomy with his telescope, his love for science communication, why people who don’t believe in the Apollo moon landings are wrong, the study of a potentially dangerous asteroid or comet collision with Earth, how climate change is affecting us, and the recent discovery of a nearby solar system with Earth-like planets.
Paul Hayes at Sky & Telescope has written a great tip about how to use the iPhone’s accessibility features to turn the iPhone’s entire display a specific color profile. For example, if you need to shade the iPhone’s entire display permanently reddish in order to preserve night-time dark adaption, you can do that. This technique would be particularly handy for amateur astronomers. While some astronomy apps have this feature, this tip applies to the iPhone’s display across the board. The tip is beautifully described, including an explanation of accessibility shortcuts, and also invites exploration for those who have certain kinds of color blindness. Check it out.