What’s Astronomy Anyway?

So What is Astronomy?

I’ve been asked this question a lot over the years and I usually reply by saying the science of astronomy is more than learning a whole lot about stars. Astronomy actually comprises many different ways to look at the universe. At its simplest, astronomy is observation. You go out each night, look up at the sky and notice the star patterns, the planets, and the Moon… (if visible). But, astronomy also helps us understand how the objects we see formed. It answers questions such as “How are stars formed?” “How do stars end?” “Where do planets come from?” “How far away are the objects we see?” “How do galaxies form?” “When did it all begin?”

Astronomy is an ancient science – perhaps the first one humans invented. The names of stars come to us from ancient history. The constellations are ones that people have seen for thousands of years, and each culture made up stories about those star patterns.

To study faraway objects, people invented telescopes that extend our vision so that we can see dim, distant objects. You can start extending your own vision simply by using a pair of binoculars in your own backyard. They magnify the view and let you see things you can’t quite make out with your naked eye. If you want to see farther out to space, you need a telescope. Or, you can browse the Web to see what professional astronomers are finding out at the limits of the observable universe.

Astronomy is a very visual science and one that everyone can enjoy, even without knowing much of the science. So how do you “do astronomy”? The first step is simply to go out and look up. If you have a star chart, a pair of binoculars, or even an astronomy app on your smart phone you have at your fingertips incredibly powerful tools to help you explore on your own. So get out there and do some astronomy.


Although the Draconid meteors appearance this year probably peaked last night you may get a look at them after sunset tonight.  In the evening give your eyes a few minutes to adjust and look towards the constellation Draco just west of the North Star.


Also in the sky tonight is the International Space Station. Here is where and when to look:

Time:  Tue Oct 08 7:27 PM cdt

Visible:  5 min

Max Height:  69 degrees

Appears:  SW   –   Disappears:  NE

With a clear sky tonight and a max height of 69 degrees the ISS will look like a jewel crossing the heavens. Enjoy.

Juno Spacecraft to Pass Earth October 9th

The Juno spacecraft is using Earth for a gravity assist this Wednesday, October 9th! In case you aren’t familiar with Juno, it is a NASA spacecraft built to study Jupiter. I feel a special connection with Juno, because I watched it launch from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas V rocket on August 5, 2011.*(For more on that see the end of the article).juno

Juno is scheduled to reach Jupiter in 2016. Fun fact: Juno is the first spacecraft sent to the outer Solar System that uses solar power as its primary energy source. Juno has three huge solar panels, each nearly the size of a tractor trailer. They folded up neatly while inside the Atlas V for launch, then opened outward once in space. These panels will face the Sun, collecting energy for the duration of the voyage. Juno weighs about 8,000 pounds and is named for the Roman goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter (known as Zeus in Greek Mythology).

To get to Jupiter, Juno will perform a gravity assist using Earth. Essentially, it will use Earth’s gravity to slingshot itself out into space. The gravity assist will give Juno an extra boost of speed then it will coast the rest of the way to Jupiter. Juno is a very large spacecraft, and it will most likely be possible to view it as it makes its flyby. Unfortunately for viewers in the United States, Juno will not be visible. Observers in parts of Africa and Asia will be on the lookout. Don’t worry, you can tune in on Slooh.com for a live news feed of Juno‘s flyby. Click here for an observational chart of how to spot Juno around the world.

So what is Juno going to do once it gets to Jupiter? Juno will orbit Jupiter thirty-three times between July of 2016 and October of 2017.  It will travel in highly elongated orbits that will be slightly shifted so that after all thirty-three passes, Juno will have passed over the entire surface of Jupiter. The purpose of this elongated orbit is that it allows the craft to skim very close to Jupiter, but then takes it away again, therefore minimizing its exposure to the strong radiation coming from Jupiter. Juno will map Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields, helping us better understand the structure of the planet.  It will study Jupiter’s aurorae at its poles. Juno will also measure its chemical composition more closely, including its water content. All of this information about our Solar System’s oldest planet will help scientists gain a better understanding of how Jupiter formed, which will in turn better our understanding of the formation of our entire Solar System.

Will Juno stay out there forever? Juno has a very specifically timed mission, and once it completes its work, Juno will crash into Jupiter’s atmosphere. At the end of its mission, Jupiter’s radiation will have destroyed most of the spacecraft’s instruments despite its thick shielding. The main reason for the crash down is to prevent Juno from landing accidentally on one of Jupiter’s moons. An accidental landing of an Earth spacecraft could contaminate these environments, which would complicate future study.

One last fun fact: Lego figures of Galileo as well as the Roman gods Jupiter and Juno are aboard the spacecraft.junolegos

*Below is the full dome footage that I captured of the Juno launch. We were as close as civilians could get (we were bussed in). The actual blastoff happens around two minutes in. If you watch the whole thing you can hear mission control doing preflight checks and the countdown. Also, there was a dad with his two kids who was VERY excited about the whole affair, and provides some humorous commentary throughout the video. We were far enough away that we experienced the launch in stages. First we saw the light of ignition, then a few seconds later we heard the rumble of the engines, then a few seconds later we felt the heat blast. Yes, in 95 degree Florida heat from over a mile away we still felt the heat blast from the rocket. It was truly an awesome experience.


Maven(2)An exception from the federal government shutdown has been granted to NASA’s MAVEN mission “in order to protect U.S. property”. The property or properties we are talking about are on the planet Mars; the rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. If MAVEN’s launch window, which is only from November 18th through December 19th or 20th, is missed the next opportunity won’t come along until 2016. This delay would cause major problems since MAVEN’s communication equipment will take over the jobs that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey have been doing and will allow us to continue to communicate with both rovers. Both MRO and Odyssey have passed their planned lifetimes. Preparation for the launch of NASA’s MAVEN mission has resumed and will continue on an emergency basis.
Besides being equipped to communicate, MAVEN will also probe the Martin upper atmosphere for clues to how the atmosphere has thinned and where its water has gone. MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission.

Are Lightsabers Right Around the Corner?

real light sabers
Physicists at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms have figured out a way to make photon particles bind together to form molecules.  Photons have typically been thought of as massless particles that don’t interact with each other, and any binding of light particles has only been discussed theoretically.  “It’s not an in-apt analogy to compare this to light sabers,” says Mikhail Lukin, Professor of Physics at MIT.  “When these photons interact with each other, they’re pushing against and deflect each other. The physics of what’s happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies,” Lukin says.  A special type of medium has been created in which photons interact with each other so strongly that they begin to act as though they have mass, and they bind together to form molecules.  But are light sabers really right around the corner?
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Mars Express will take photos of Comet ISON’s coma, the atmosphere that surrounds ISON’s nucleus.  Also, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been tracking ISON and may be able to get a look as well through October 2nd.

These cameras were designed to shoot high-resolution photos of Mars but scientists are going to attempt to use them to catch a glimpse of ISON as it passes.  A lot depends on how bright ISON is as it gets closer to the sun.  Keep your fingers crossed….

The high-resolution imaging science experiment (HiRISE) is one of six science
instruments for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.


This illustration shows comet ISON closely passing Mars on October 1, 2013. Credit: NASA