Category Archives: astronomy

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Thanks for visiting the Seattle Astronomy blog!

We’ve moved to a new URL:

As of today all new content on Seattle Astronomy will be posted there. We’ve migrated most of our material from the last 9+ years over to that URL as well. We’ve decided to discontinue our “Astro Biz” feature and so have not moved those posts, nor have we brought over numerous “upcoming events” posts that are no longer relevant and don’t seem to have any evergreen value.

As of now we plan to maintain our astronomy events calendar–though few events are occurring these days–as well as our maps to stargazing sites.

This site will remain live until our hosting expires in late July, after which we expect it will disappear.

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Helicopters on Titan

Jason Barnes hesitates to call the upcoming Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan a helicopter.

“Dragonfly is a nuclear quadcopter lander,” said Barnes while admitting that it sounds at least a little bit crazy. Barnes, a professor of physics at the University of Idaho and deputy principal investigator for Dragonfly, made a presentation at an online astrobiology colloquium at the University of Washington this week. Dragonfly will search for signs of life, biosignatures, on the distant moon.

Why Titan?

Barnes noted there are several good reasons for a mission to Titan. It’s one of just four places in our solar system with both a solid surface and a significant atmosphere—the others being Earth, Venus, and Mars. Titan has important similarities to Earth, especially the pressure and composition of its atmosphere.

Online seminar
The online colloquium was attended by more
than 100 people. This slide compared places
with an atmosphere and solid surfaces.

“The combination of a thick atmosphere and low gravity make Titan the easiest place to fly in the entire solar system,” Barnes said. He noted that we’ve focused on finding water in the search for life, and there’s lots of water on several of the icy moons of the outer solar system.

“The real reason that Titan among these is the most compelling target, I think, is not the water, it’s the carbon,” Barnes said.

He explained that Titan’s atmosphere is made up of mostly nitrogen, but that it contains about 5 percent methane. Ultraviolet light from the Sun breaks methane molecules down into smaller ones that then recombine into larger complex carbon chains that eventually rain down to the surface of Titan.

“They provide the carbon from which you can potentially build up prebiotic and possibly biotic molecules to start the process of how we think life may have formed on Earth four billion years ago,” Barnes said.

Where to look

Observations from the Cassini mission and its Huygens probe have given us several places to look. There are large dunes of organic material on Titan separated by open areas of the moon’s water-ice crust. The impact crater Selk may have once contained a huge water sea that remained liquid for tens of thousands of years—a great place for life to form. Hopscotching to these various places is how the concept of the mission came about.

“We came upon this solution because we needed mobility to be able to get to both the water ice and organic sediments,” Barnes said. “We call it a rotorcraft relocatable lander because we spend almost all of our time on the ground.”

Indeed, Dragonfly will fly to a new spot only about once every Earth month, using time on the surface of Titan to conduct a battery of experiments. One of the mission’s main goals is finding chemical biosignatures. Barnes figures it will be the first mission with such a specific goal since the Viking landings on Mars. He added that there won’t be a rush to judgement on the question of life.

“There’s no silver bullet when it comes to looking for biology,” Barnes said, adding that no single indicator will make them declare they found it. “This is going to be a long, scientific process by which we put in multiple lines of evidence to try to see if we can figure out what’s going on.”

A big spacecraft

Dragonfly. Image: Johns Hopkins APL

Dragonfly will be about two or three meters tall, about three and a half meters long, and weigh about half a ton. It will carry four instruments: a camera suite with eight cameras in all, a mass spectrometer, a gamma ray/neutron spectrometer, and environmental monitoring systems including a seismometer.

The launch of Dragonfly is set for 2026, and it will take about eight and a half years for the craft to get to Titan.

“Exploration of the outer solar system is a process for the patient,” Barnes said.


Watch Barnes’s entire presentation:

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International Dark Sky Week April 19-26

International Dark Sky Week is coming around at just the right time. The weeklong (April 19-26) celebration of the night is supported by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). It is an opportunity for us all to consider the role of the night and its star-filled sky in each of our lives. This year, IDA is encouraging people around the world to come together online to celebrate the night and engage with authors, creators, scientists, and educators whose works have been vital to the movement to protect the night from light pollution.

“Right now, families around the globe find themselves spending many hours at home together,” notes Ruskin Hartley, IDA’s executive director. “It’s a perfect time to reconnect with the night sky — and International Dark-Sky Week provides a portal for that experience.”

The week includes online presentations by a couple of authors that we have featured in the past on Seattle Astronomy. Paul Bogard wrote one of our favorite books, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light (Little, Brown and Company, 2013). Bogard will do a reading from the book Tuesday, April 21. Tyler Nordgren, a professor of physics and an artist, will do a talk about the role of art in conversation on Monday, April 20. Nordgren has created a series of great solar system travel posters and is the author of Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016). Jeffrey Bennett, author of What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter (Columbia University Press, 2014), will give a presentation called “I, Humanity” on Sunday, April 19. It is geared toward kids in grades five through seven.

There will be numerous other presentations about various astronomical topics. You can access the full schedule online, but beware that it isn’t particularly user friendly, and specific times for most of the presentations have not yet been set as of this writing.

Further reading:


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Pink supermoon

Pink supermoon

I always note that I’m not really an astrophotographer, and this is readily apparent to anyone who sees my shots, but I do occasionally like to take a snap just to prove I was there. Thus, here’s my photo of the full Moon of April 7, 2020.

There are those who call this the pink Moon, even though it isn’t pink, and a supermoon, which may be an exaggeration even though the Moon is excellent. I’ve read a few sources this morning claiming that we “often” call the April full Moon the “Grass Moon” or the “Egg Moon.” This may well depend on just how you define often.

The super bit comes from the fact that this particular Moon does appear to be slightly larger in the sky–about seven percent bigger than the average full Moon. That’s because the moment of fullness came when the Moon was near perigee, its closest point to Earth during its orbit around us.

For those into photo specs, I made this with a simple Canon PowerShot A530 pointed through the eyepiece of my 8-inch Dobsonian at 50x magnification.

The Moon will be pretty close to full this evening and almost as super, so check it out if you can.


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Open houses on hold at Jacobsen Observatory

The first of this year’s semimonthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus was scheduled for today. Like many events, the series has been halted by our “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory
The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

In normal years the events are held on the first and third Tuesdays of each month from April through September, but the observatory’s website notes that the open houses “are suspended until all classes are being held in their regular classrooms and our undergraduate volunteers are back on campus.” Undergrads give talks about astronomy at the events, and volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society staff the observatory’s vintage 1892 telescope, which features a 6-inch Brashear objective lens on a Warner & Swasey equatorial mount.

The website notes that organizers hope to welcome students back and to resume the open house series “soon.”

Watch this space for updates.


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A look at the Perseverance mission to Mars

Astronomy events are few and far between these days as clubs cope with stay-at-home restrictions and institutional closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most meetings and public star parties have been canceled for March and April while a few wait to see how events unfold.

Like some in arts and entertainment, astronomy clubs are looking for ways to take at least some of their activities online. Case in point, the Seattle Astronomical Society last week held its monthly meeting using the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Members enjoyed a presentation by SAS president John McLaren, who also is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, about the upcoming Perseverance mission to Mars.

A history of Mars exploration

McLaren gave a quick history of Mars exploration, from Mariner 4 which sent 21 photos back from Mars after a fly by in 1965 to the present work of Curiosity. He noted that Viking 1 in 1976 sent back the first photo from the surface of Mars. It was no accident that it shot its own foot.

Viking's foot on Mars
The first Viking 1 photo from Mars. Credit: NASA

“If we can only get one picture back, this is the most important picture, because they want to see how well the landing gear performed,” McLaren explained. “If they can see how the landing gear did, it gives them an idea of how they can improve the next lander.”

Unfortunately, experiments conducted by Viking were thought to rule out the possibility of life on Mars, though McLaren noted that there’s still some discussion about whether those experiments were conducted and interpreted properly. In any event, the zeal for Mars exploration cooled somewhat until the mid-1990s, when a Mars meteor discovered on Earth was found to contain what could be fossilized bacteria. This sparked new scientific interest in the Red Planet.

We returned to the surface of Mars in 1997 with Sojourner and Pathfinder, which proved we could land and drive around a rover on Mars.

“It truly was the Pathfinder that led us to design more sophisticated vehicles,” McLaren said. Spirit and Opportunity followed in 2004 and Curiosity landed in 2012.

Same car, new features

Perseverance, known as Mars 2020 until a recently concluded naming contest, will be something of a souped-up version of Curiosity. It’s based on the same design, but they’ve re-engineered the wheels, as those on Curiosity showed heavy wear unexpectedly early in its mission. Perseverance will also carry different instruments more specialized for astrobiology and geology. It will drill core samples and leave them cached on Mars awaiting a possible future return mission. And its cameras in general are more powerful and versatile than those of Curiosity. It’s mission is different, too. While Spirit and Opportunity were sent to follow the water and Curiosity is trying to figure out if Mars could have supported microbial life, Perseverance will actually be looking for evidence of that life.

Perseverance landing site on Mars
A photo by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the planned landing site for Perseverance. The target is the smooth, purple-ish area to the right of what looks like a river delta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

A big challenge for the engineers will be delivering Perseverance to its landing site, which is in a crater called Jezero on the edge of what appears to have once been a lowland sea. There’s what looks like a former river delta on the edge of Jezero crater.

“The hope is that water was here for a long time, water flowed down here building this silt, that this is the most likely location where they hope to find any signs of life,” McLaren said.

A small target

The challenge is that the landing ellipse, the target they need to hit, is ten times smaller by area than that of Curiosity and some 300 times smaller than Pathfinder’s. They’ll used a technologically enhanced version of the sky crane technique that worked for Curiosity to try to hit that target.

The window for a possible launch opens on July 17 this year and McLaren said NASA expects to land Perseverance on Mars on February 18, 2021.

You can watch a recording of McLaren’s presentation on the Seattle Astronomical Society website.


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Amateur astronomy in the age of coronavirus

Coronavirus and social distancing cannot deprive us of our enjoyment of astronomy. One can make the case that the best way to enjoy the hobby is with a telescope in your back yard in the middle of the night, as noted in my most recent tweet of Sky and Telescope’s weekly update of stuff to see.

On the other hand amateur astronomy is also a highly social endeavor. There are jillions of astronomy clubs all over the country with members devoted to putting on interesting meetings and to sharing their enjoyment of the heavens with their neighbors. The members of these clubs also rely on each other as answerers of how-to questions. Our last post was about Goldendale Sky Village, which is being designed as a spot in which it will be easy for members to observe the night sky together.

In the coronavirus era the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko has been replaced on astronomy’s hardest-to-spell list by the word “canceled.” As astronomy groups call off their events one sees this AP-Style preferred spelling about as often as “cancelled,” which most dictionaries list as OK, too. Grammar police from both sides tend to weigh in with little impact.

Calling the whole thing off

Regardless of the spelling, a great majority of official astronomy events are being canceled these days. Part of the challenge is that many astronomy organizations hold their gatherings at schools or colleges, libraries, museums, and other sorts of places that are now buttoned up. Just this morning Washington governor Jay Inslee announced a ban on any confab of more than 50 people, and said even smaller meetings had to meet strict guidelines for hygiene and social distancing. Officials urged people to avoid any “unnecessary interactions” at least for the next couple of weeks. As much as I love them, astronomy events probably fall into that category.

The Seattle Astronomical Society has canceled its March meeting which would have been on the 18th. The club is looking at streaming more meetings, as it did with a remote guest speaker last month. Similarly, the Rose City Astronomers in Portland have ditched their regular meeting set for tonight, though club members can check out an online meeting via Zoom. Clubs in Bainbridge Island, Everett, Whatcom County, Island County, Tacoma, Bellevue, Tri-Cities, and Eugene also have nixed many of their events at least for March and some in April.

Taking it online

A couple of major events are planning to go virtual. The Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF), perhaps the hobby’s biggest trade show, is switching to a one-day online event set for April 4. The next meeting of the American Astronomical Society, scheduled for Madison, Wisconsin May 31 to June 4, is looking at moving from an on-site/in-person conference to a fully remote/virtual one.

The author social distancing
Social distancing in astronomy! The author caught the 2012 transit of Venus by himself at a remote county park in northern California. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

These are hard times for astronomy bloggers, too. The Museum of Flight, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Pacific Science Center, and Town Hall Seattle are all closed, and these have provided many great astronomy events that we’ve covered over the years. In addition, we haven’t heard anything official from Astronomy on Tap Seattle about the status of its monthly gathering, but it typically draws way more than 50 people, is held in a beer garden, and all of those have been closed, so we can connect the dots on that.

Nevertheless we soldier on! We’ve got a little stretch of clear sky going, so social distance yourself and get out and enjoy it while it’s here. We’ll keep blogging it up and, once this virus is licked, we’ll see you at the next star party. In the meantime, wash your hands.


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