It’s The End of the World As We Know It.

The end of the world

Don’t worry, you should feel fine.  This isn’t going to be a doomsday treatise that keeps in line with such films as Deep Impact, Sunshine, or Armageddon. There are no reports of gamma ray bursts heading our way for me to report on; no Planet X slowly cruising towards us on a collision course like in Melancholia.  No, the end of Earth as we know it will be far less immediate than any Hollywood story currently out there or in development.  The raw deal according to a recent article published in Astrobiology by Andrew Rushby is that the Earth has spent about 70% of its lifetime in the Sun’s habitable zone and in time will be consumed by the expanding growth of the sun.
But let’s not give away all of our possessions just yet.  The end of the world won’t exactly happen any time soon.
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Traveling Companions

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) wasn’t alone in the pre-dawn skies above Slooh’s Canary Islands Observatory recently. Accompanying Comet ISON was the huge asteroid “433 Eros” – the second largest Near-Earth Asteroid. Eros was traveling in roughly the same direction as ISON, but at a slightly faster apparent speed, and can be seen above and to the right of the comet. Slooh Members watched the images come in from the observatory in real-time, and immediately spotted the second object moving between successive images.

This time-lapse of five images, created recently by Paul Cox using Slooh’s online robotic telescopes, shows the two objects as they speed through the inner solar system. You can check out updates on Comet ISON and other related online robotic telescope shows at

“Han Solo” On Mercury

Han Solo on Mercury 1

The MESSENGER spacecraft has been orbiting Mercury for some time. A few weeks ago it snapped this image (left) of the northern region of the Caloris basin. A strange, elevated land formation captured at just the right angle bears a striking resemblance to the smuggler who “can make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs” or “is a stuck-up scruffy-looking nerf-hearder” (depending on who you ask).

Scientists think that this part of Mercury’s surface may have been part of the original terrain from before the basin was formed (most likely by a large impact event).

Seeing a familiar shape in random landforms is all in good fun, and examples of this have hit headlines other times before (think the “Face on Mars”). The official term for it is pareidolia.

Check out a similar human tendancy known as apophenia in last week’s article relating Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with “The Wizard of Oz”.



Curiosity Travel Log: 9/23/2013; Odometer reading 2852m


The view today from Curiosity’s Nav Cam

Since its one year anniversary on August 6th., Curiosity has traveled 1,079.52m (3,541′) or about the length of 12 football fields.  That’s an average of 22m per day which is short of NASA’s goal of at least 110m per day.  But during this period, Curiosity did have its longest drive of the mission when on 9/5 it advanced 138.62m. On that day the drive was extended well beyond what the Curiosity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena could see by enabling the rover’s on-board hazard avoidance system or Autonav.

Back To School Planet News!


Boys and Girls have you heard the news!  The planet, stars, comets and asteroids are on the move! Stay tune for more fun activities related to our Solar System.  In the mean time lets play a game.  Use the word bank to complete the following statements!  Creat a postcard or wirte a letter about the Solar System and send it to a friend! 

  See you soon!

                                                                                 Solar System Post Card Game

I am a star! 

I am the fastest planet!   

I am the hottest planet!

You live on me!

I am the Red Planet!

I am a rock floating between Mars and Jupiter!

I am the largest planet and also home to the” great red spot”! 

I have more rings than any other planet!

I am the only planet tipped on my side!

I am the eighth planet from the Sun!

                                                                                         Solar System Word Bank

Mercury       Venus         Earth     Mars             Jupiter         Saturn       Uranus        Neptune       Sun        Asteroids      Comets

Happy Autumnal Equinox, balance an egg!

I decided to take a break this week from Full Dome Saga to observe the upcoming autumnal equinox, which occurs on Sunday, September 22. I was having a conversation the other day about the first day of fall, and the age-old subject of balancing an egg came up in the discussion.  Can you balance an egg on the equinox????

First, let’s take a look at the equinox itself. For a refresher on the reasons for the seasons, click here .seasons

Last time I wrote a seasonal article, our Earth’s axis was tilting towards the Sun on the summer solstice. Now, the Earth has traveled along another quarter of its orbit. The Earth is still tilted, but the axis is leaning neither towards nor away from the Sun. Earth-lighting-equinox_EN This happens twice per year (once during fall and once during spring).  On the equinox, the day and night are about the same length. The name equinox is derived from the Latin words aequus, meaning “equal”, and nox, meaning “night”. If you are standing at the equator, the Sun will appear directly overhead at noon; both poles receive equal sunlight. For us up here in the Northern Hemisphere we are observing the start of fall. Remember, however, that down in the Southern Hemisphere they will be celebrating the vernal equinox as they are moving into springtime.

So where does the egg fit into all of this? Some say the idea of balancing the egg was started by the ancient Chinese. Balancing an egg on the equinox symbolized equality and the balance of light and darkness.  You can do this yourself at home. It is a challenge to balance an egg, due to its shape and its viscous interior (not to mention the position of the yoke throwing it off balance).
Balancing the egg on the equinox became a phenomenon mainly because the idea was passed from person to person. People thought that the equinox was a special day on which you can balance an egg. Perhaps this gave people the extra motivation to really try and get that egg to stand up. Successful egg balancers felt validated by their triumphs, which furthered the notion that this could only be accomplished on the equinox. This most likely led to the big misconception that the cause is a special balance between the gravitational pull from the Sun and the gravitational pull of the Earth during the equinox. This is not the case. So what makes the egg stand?

The answer is: our efforts! Try it yourself. The egg can balance upright on any day of the year. It takes time, concentration, and steady hands, but it can be done. Perhaps that was the original intent of the egg balancing; it’s a way to meditate and ponder on the first day of the new season. So go forth, celebrate the coming of fall, and balance an egg!

The real story behind Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

banner for Dark Side of the Rainbow

For years at the planetarium we’ve been playing Pink Floyd rock shows.  We routinely go between “The Wall” and “Dark Side of the Moon.”  Those shows are still big hits with our audience.  One of the questions I’ve been asked over and over again is whether or not we’ll ever play Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” along with the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”  This question is almost always followed by, “does it really sync up if you play them together?”  Okay, so here’s the real story about Pink Floyd, the Wizard of Oz, and whether or not they are purposefully linked together.  Well, here’s the real story behind Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and its connection to “The Wizard of Oz.”
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The Full Dome Saga Part 2: Resolution and Frame Rate

Welcome back to the Full Dome Saga. For those of you just checking in, last week’s article can be found here Part 1.

So what is a 4k production? It’s a full dome movie that takes four Kyras to produce it, a 4K production…..

Jokes aside… 4k is short for 4,000 pixels.


The movement here is not smooth.

Movies everywhere are made up of individual images called frames, played back at high speeds to simulate motion. The higher the frame rate, the smoother the motion and the higher perception of realism. Low frame rates cause motion to appear jerky and the picture to flicker. Think back on early films from the 1930s and 1940s, or funny internet GIFs of today.

When we go to a movie theater and they advertise that they are a 4k cinema, what they really mean is that their movie is 4,000 pixels wide and 2,000 pixels tall (roughly) because movies are rectangular (your HD tv at home is 1920×1080 pixels). So each frame is approximately 4,000 pixels across and 2,000 pixels tall.


Back away Smeagol, you look to realistic at this frame rate!!

Generally, movie theaters run at 24 frames per second.  Peter Jackson made headlines when he offered The Hobbit at 48 frames per second (gasp!). Many still argue that high frame rates for live action films on flat screens produce too much realism for the audience to enjoy. Personally I enjoyed they hyper realism of The Hobbit at 48 fps, but that’s just me.

Movies like The Hobbit push the envelope for current technology. Capturing live action at high resolutions and high frame rates (then double this for two cameras if you’re making a 3D movie), require sophisticated and expensive camera equipment. The Red Epic (used to film The Hobbit and other recent blockbusters) is advertised as a 4k camera. I am often asked, why don’t you planetarians use that to get 4k live action footage for your dome? Not so fast son….

Here in the planetarium things are a bit different. Rather than a rectangular screen in front of you, there is a hemispherical screen that surrounds you. The movie is in front of you, next to you, above you, and behind you. 4k in the planetarium world means each frame is 4,000 by 4,000 pixels (a square rather than a rectangle) twice the number of pixels per frame.


“To Space and Back” produced by Sky Skan. This full dome movie is available in 8k, 60 frames per second, and 3D!

Many digital planetaria run full dome movies at 30 frames per second, but producers are beginning to push the envelope. If you thought The Hobbit at 48fps was crazy, some digital planetaria offer full dome movies at 60 fps. The high frame rate applied to CG graphics creates that extra degree of smoothness and realism in the motion of objects on the dome. Stay tuned, as we have been dabbling in this a bit ourselves here at LASM!

The planetarium dome is a larger surface that surrounds the audience, unlike a traditional movie screen. Therefore motion is amplified on a dome screen. For this reason planetarium shows are edited with longer cuts than traditional movies and TV content, camera movement is slower, and objects move slower. Movement that is fast and somewhat jerky on a flat screen will look even more so on a domed screen. High frame rate smoothes the motion, resulting in a more realistic experience.

Why are most full dome movies CGI you ask? Come back next week for The Full Dome Saga PT3 where we will investigate the ins and outs of Live Action vs CGI production for the dome…..

The Mysterious Alignment of Planetary Nebula



As of Sept. 4th, Hubble astronomers have discovered an interesting surprise as they viewed over 100 planetary nebulae.  They noticed that the butterfly shaped nebulae that form near the bulge of the Milky Way tend to be aligned with the plane of our galaxy.  This is a surprising find seeing as how many of these nebulae have varying degrees of history and properties.

hubble-nebulae-01-130904Planetary nebulae are the expanding jet-like streams that surround dying stars.  It’s caused when a star blows out its outer layer into space long after the hydrogen has been used up.  Astronomers have been finding these recently and it’s puzzling why so many of them appear to be aligned in the same direction since they have different characteristics and placements in our galaxy.  It’s like bowling pins on a bowling alley.

It’s currently thought that the huge bulge that rotates around the galactic center has a large role in the outcome of how these planetary nebulae expel their outer layer. The magnetic fields of this rotating bulge may have a larger role in our galaxy than we previously thought. This is the larger part of the puzzle.  The star system’s orientation before it turned into a red giant and if the star is part of a binary pair are also contributing factors to the direction the gaseous cloud erupts from the star.

hubble-nebulae-03-130904Hubble astronomers are finding that planetary nebulae don’t align as much the further they get away from the galactic center.  This suggests that the galactic bulge had a stronger magnetic influence as the galaxy formed, much like a compass has on its needle.

The interesting aspect of this is that if the magnetic influence of the central rotating bulge has this type of affect on stars than it also has a surprising authority for the rest of the galaxy as well.

Umbrellas and Planets


Artist’s conception of sulfuric acid rain on Venus.

Bringing an umbrella in case of rain may have a different meaning depending upon the planet you’re on.  Our umbrellas protect us from the rain showers here on Earth, but wouldn’t hold up very well if caught in a downpour of sulfuric acid rain on the planet Venus. Atmospheres surrounding different planets produce a wide variety of different weather patterns and atmospheric conditions, most of which are very hostile to human life.  On Earth, atmospheric or air pressure is the force exerted on the Earth’s surface by the weight of the air above the surface. This is an important factor in determining weather patterns and especially when it rains.  Our atmosphere contains water vapor and when the atmosphere pressure is low, clouds usually form and turn the water vapor into liquid water we call rain.  On Venus however, the atmosphere contains opaque clouds made of sulfuric acid, so when it rains there it’s acid rain.

Further out in the solar system, the eighth and last planet in the solar system, Neptune has an atmosphere dominated by ices – methane and ammonia. But even with a chill in the air, Neptune still manages to host some of the most extreme and violent weather in the solar system.  But most amazingly is that as a result of Neptune’s high temperatures and pressure, its methane gas can be turned into diamond.  If liquid methane is squeezed to several hundred thousand times under extreme heat, diamond is produced and that’s what the weather conditions on Neptune are like.  So if diamonds appear in Neptune’s atmosphere, they fall like raindrops or hailstones toward the center of the planet.


Colorized image captured by Cassini of methane lakes on Titan.

Other than Earth, the only known world to have liquid lakes is the planet Saturn’s largest moon Titan, the second largest moon in the solar system.  Titan’s cloudy atmosphere is believed to be made of liquid methane, but the droplets of liquid methane in the rain clouds are 1,000 times larger than the rain drops here on Earth. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft still orbiting the Saturnian system has detected liquid methane lakes and rivers on Titan.


Artist’s conception of HD 189733b the exoplanet where it rains glass.

Atmospheres and weather conditions are not just confined to worlds of our solar system.  Numerous planets orbiting other stars have been discovered and many of these are known to have atmospheres.  Called exoplanets, these worlds range in sizes and distances from their parent sun.  One such exoplanet, the size of Jupiter, is named HD 189733b and orbits a star 63 light years from us.  Telescopic studies of this planet’s atmosphere imply that it contains significant amounts of water vapor and silicate particles resulting in a beep blue colored atmosphere. Because of this atmospheric mixture, when it rains on HD 189733b it comes down as glass particles.  My favorite exoplanet with bizarre-like weather conditions is a far off world known as OGLE-TR-56b, another Jupiter sized planet.  Intriguingly, the temperature of OGLE-TR-56b’s upper atmosphere is theoretically just right to form clouds, not of water vapor, but of iron atoms. Although unconfirmed, OGLE-TR-56b should experience exotic iron drops, thanks to strong heating from its nearby star.