Voyager I and II (Part I)

Did you know that humans have never had spacecraft in interstellar space? Depending on how you read that and how you think of “interstellar space”, you may or may not be surprised. Interstellar space, put simply, is a region of space beyond the influence of our sun, light and minute gravitational effects notwithstanding. Our sun emits vast amounts of energy, as I’ve mentioned with some detail, which creates a bubble of pressure against the diffuse gasses that fill the vast tracks of space between stars. When I say diffuse, I mean you might only find as little as one atom of hydrogen per cubic meter of space. This is far, far more perfect a vacuum than anything we could create on earth, yet still not empty. Pretty cool.

The Voyager II spacecraft. Less computing power than the CD player I had in high school, but still has 33 years of epic scientific discovery under its belt.

Measuring things that are so slight is extremely challenging and figuring out exactly where these boundaries lie is best discovered by flying across them. As I’m sure you can imagine, these things are pretty far away and it takes quite a while to reach them, even at high speed. The good news is that we have two spacecraft nearly there, and it only took them 33 years. The funny part is that this was not the original mission of these craft, but thanks to some exquisite engineering, creative ingenuity and dumb luck, this is how far they’ve gone.

"Termination Shock" is totally the name of my next punk band.

Originally named “Mariner Jupiter/Saturn 1977”, they were re-named Voyager I and Voyager II shortly before their launch in the late summer of 1977. The early mission gave us the best views of Jupiter and Saturn we would get for decades and still the best images of Uranus and Neptune (in visible light) we have today.

The next few posts will be about the Voyager missions, but I can’t end this one without one of the amazing Jupiter Images that forever changed the way we view our solar system.

Not too shabby for 1979! That's Io on the left and Europa on the right. Voyager I showed us that Io was covered with sulphurous volcanoes and Europa with fissured ice, hinting at a giant liquid-water ocean beneath.

Christmas Lovejoy

There are times I wish I didn’t live in the northern hemisphere. My brother-in-law lives in New Zealand, so maybe one of these days we’ll have an extended visit. It’s too bad we’re not there now though, since they have a great view of a pretty spectacular comet.

Nice view, but it looks like it might be a little Chile there.

Pretty amazing. What’s even more amazing is that we just saw this comet plunge through the atmosphere of the sun and come out intact! We’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was a well recorded event.

I’m sure in the not too distant past, someone would have interpreted this as some kind of scary omen indicating some terrible disaster about to befall their civilization. Certainly the result of offending a deity that clearly knew you weren’t really paying attention at the last goat sacrifice. Well, aren’t you sorry now, you about-to-be-smote jerk!

Good thing we don’t have that kind of backward thinking in the 21st century!


Happy Holidays and Merry New Year

This has been an eventful year for astronomy. The James Webb Space Telescope was “saved”, the shuttle was retired, we got the best looks to date of an asteroid and Mercury, plus we were seemingly bombarded with numerous discoveries of exoplanets, a surprising number very like Earth. Of course, there was much, much more, but listing it all out is no fun.

I suspect next year will be at least equally exciting and quite possibly as tumultuous. It should go without saying that the one thing that won’t happen will be the world’s end via Mayan prophetic calendar disaster. Some day I’ll open a museum of all the failed doomsday predictions that have ever failed. It’ll be a hoot!

At any rate, regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or just stick with some oldschool Pagan rituals, have a safe and happy whatever as well as a safer and at least equally happy new year. May you get all the things you want and want all the things you get.

Now, here are some dudes on Mir at their 1997 Christmas party.

It's way hard to photocopy your butt in zero gravity, so they discovered.

You’ll burn your eye out kid.

New England has been totally lame for evening observing lately, but this is where I live, so this post will be about one very appealing alternative that I’ve touched on before: solar observing. With the Venus transit coming up next year, expect to hear a lot about this in the next few months. Fortunately, the relevant equipment has come along way in the last decade.

First off, I have to say a word (OK, more than one) about safety. Once upon a time, there were a wide range of products available that made it seem as though people of yesteryear did not value their lives, limbs or senses. One of these products was the solar viewing eyepiece, which was just a regular eyepiece with a thin bit of coating or foil added between (or on) the lenses. These worked well, for a while, but had a tendency to crack under the intense energy of focused sunlight, with no warning. Maybe you remember using a magnifying glass to burn your initials (or dirty words) into a piece of wood when you were a kid. Now imagine doing that to your retina.

Go ahead kid, have a look, depth perception is totally overrated anyway.

These days, there are MANY superior options, both in terms of safety and performance, but mostly safely. In all cases (but one, which I’ll point out) to view the sun responsibly, you need to either have a dedicated solar scope, have a solar filter on the outside of your scope or simply use a non-telescope device.

Humans love to focus on the exceptions, so let me get it out of the way. Baader makes a special solar diagonal that, as far as I can tell, is the only eyepiece-end solar mod for a standard telescope that is safe to use. Of course, by using this on many modern scopes, which are often filled with matte black baffles that will gladly heat up immediately, you’ll have a different set of issues to deal with. Also, these can ONLY be used on refractors.

This is your exception. Your $600 exception. I'm sure it's perfect for someone.

OK, so now that’s out of the way…

For most of us, we non-solar and non-refractor telescope having 99%, the cheapest and best option is to put a good solar film “cap” on the end of our regular scope. I swear I’m not a shill for Baader, but they happen to make a very good and widely used solar film. No matter who makes it though, the ratio of light that penetrates it should be in the range of 100,000 to 1, or 0.00001% of incoming light. That’s not much, but the sun emits quite a bit and you’ll have a bright image with sunspots visible.

Ooooooo... sunspots.

But what about all those cool CMEs and prominences? WHAT ABOUT THEM?

Ok, so you want to see the really cool stuff. Fair enough, it’s pretty cool after all. What you’ll need is a scope with a specific type of filter (often integrated, but in some cases available as a mod) and they’re not really cheap. What you want is a Hydrogen-Alpha (Hα or H-alpha, which only allows the transmission of light emitted from hydrogen) filter and, in my opinion, the best way to get one is to have it built into a solar-dedicated scope. Lundt and Coronado are the brands to look to for this and the cheapest ones are around $600,  the same price as the Baader wedge. Of course, they quickly get more expensive and you get different things with the pricier models. It’s no challenge to spend $3000 on a middle-range solar scope, but you do get something very special for your money, a view of solar activity that will astound anyone who sees it.

Sun, you so crazy.

Pictures don’t even do this type of viewing justice, it’s really that spectacular.

Don’t have $600-$6000 to spend? Don’t think you’re simply out of luck, you still have options. Good, cheap options too, like cutting a pinhole in a box and putting it over your head, which does actually work, but won’t give you much detail. Or, if you want to use something in public and not have people think you need to have the police assist you back to the institution from which you must have escaped, there are items which might even draw a small crowd of curious passers-by.

Be warned, in some less developed countries this is conisered witchcraft.

“Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it.  Advice is a form of nostalgia; dispensing it is a way of wishing the past from the disposal–wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth. “

Also, don’t forget your sunscreen.

Gifting for Astronomers

A friend of mine emailed me the other day because they wanted to buy a telescope for their spouse, who seems interested in astronomy, but currently doesn’t own one, and asked for my input. I’m being careful with my pronoun usage here, just in case someone sees this that shouldn’t. I realize it might be a little funny to read, but I’m sure you understand. I’ll apologize now if you are a different  spouse of a friend of mine that’s interested in astronomy and after reading this you get a sweater or USB lava lamp instead of a telescope.

Not a telescope, though kind of amusing in its own way. I admit, I have one.

This friend of unspecified location, age or gender did their homework though, and impressively so. They avoided the common pitfalls, like getting excited when a Tasco scope with a 2″ aperture claims “700x magnification” or going too far the other way and considering a “cheap” dobsonian that’s impractically big and will never get used. Following my theme of not getting specific, so I don’t totally ruin somebody’s holiday gift experience, I’ll say they pretty much had the right idea and I only confirmed that it was correct. Bravo, person.

It got me thinking about it though. Buying stuff for an aspiring, novice or experienced amateur astronomer is pretty tough. If they don’t have anything, you want to get them a good starter thing. If they have some stuff, you have to figure out what they need. If they have everything, that spoiled jerk is just getting a sweater*. OK, so maybe the last one is pretty easy.

Enjoy your sweater, you everything having jerk.

My wife knocked it out of the park for our anniversary by getting me a super-nice 2qt thermos. It was something she knew I needed, was something I was reluctant to get for myself and that I’ll definitely use. I’m glad she chose that over trying to find some weird eyepiece I might use or a second USB lava lamp. It may sound funny that something like that was perfect, but it was and she was clearly paying attention. It’s a good example though, things like that are useful and meaningful to many amateurs, but I’m certain I’m not alone in my reluctance to get it on my own.

What about the scope for the interested beginner though? How cheap is too cheap? How basic is too basic?

Depending on your budget, location, age and interest, the answer will vary. If you’re anywhere near a big city, aperture will matter, so a 6″ scope is (probably) a better choice than a 4″. If you’re somewhere that will require travel to view anything, portability is (probably) a  BIG deal. At least two eyepieces should be included and if you have to spend $29 on an extra mediocre Plössl, it might make the scope much more useful. In the end, for anyone, the scope that gets used is the right one, whatever that may be. Don’t forget about binoculars too, they’re sometimes more useful than a scope anyway and you can get a nice pair of 10x50s for under $100, not to mention that they are a little more useful for non-astronomy things. Try birdwatching with a 6″ Dobsonian and you’ll see what I mean, but Jupiter will be notably more impressive with the scope.

For some though, portability isn't the #1 priority.

The site I recommend for a first scope is Orion’s, they have good quality and inexpensive stuff for entry and intermediate level AAs. Ad an “s” to the URL and is pretty good too. If you have something specific in mind, Highpoint Scientific, Astronomics or OPT are great, especially for things like eyepieces and higher-end accessories. There are certainly many more, but these are my preferences.

No matter what, giving this kind of gift makes you awesome, regardless of how much or little you spend. So, happy holidays, and when you get out there to use whatever you get, don’t forget your sweater.

*I actually really like sweaters.

Giving the gift of Sagan

First off, you may have noticed I’ve been really terrible lately about updating the ‘ol blog lately, but don’t worry, it’s just been tricky schedule stuff. I should be back on a more regular posting pace by the end of the year.

Secondly, my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary yesterday, which would normally have noting to do with astronomy, but she gave me a very special book. I was presented with a first edition copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, which is I think the ONLY book of his I didn’t have. It’s definitely the next thing I’ll read. This book is so uncommonly seen that I couldn’t even find an image of the cover online, only the reprint, which is a bit different.


It’s a huge understatement to say I’m looking forward to this. Have no fear that I’ll be generous when it comes time to share my opinions about it.


Winter Observing

Winter is coming, not that you’d know it today, it’s like 65° in MA right now. Being New England though, it could snow in 48 hours. At any rate, cold weather is coming and despite being a total wimp about being cold, I really prefer observing on below-freezing nights.

This guy knows what I'm talking about.

Dealing with moisture and bugs is a bigger pain than cold, in my opinion. Of course, when it gets very chilly, you might wind up with frost instead of dew, but that dry winter air generally seems much friendlier to my equipment. Naturally, when it’s cold, it takes longer for a telescope to cool down and it can be dangerous to let yourself cool down with it, so keeping warm is the obvious key to making this work.

Any person that lives in a climate that has snow knows the value of layers. When you’re sitting pretty much still on a cold night, for a long period, there are a few other things worth keeping in mind as well though. Exposed skin is a problem in that kind of situation, especially when it comes to things like ears. I like to wear a balaclava, which might make me look kind of like a Ninja, but hey, there are definitely worse things to look like. Those also keep your eyes unobstructed.

Not to be confused with Baclava, which I also enjoy very much, but will not keep your ears warm. At least not without making them inconveniently sticky.

The right gloves are key too. I found a nice pair made by (or branded by, at least) Timberland that fit tight and are made of thin spandex-like stuff, like those Isotoner ones my mom used to wear. They have rubber grippy bits on the fingertips and I can perform all functions while wearing them. Granted, they’re not as warm as puffy ski gloves, but I can leave them on while I do stuff and I think that makes them more functional. I’ve been out for hours on 20° nights and my hands have been fine.

The hardest thing to keep warm is my legs. From my ankle to the top of my thigh, I find it hard to layer sufficiently. I’m sure a good pair of real winter pants would do the trick, but I don’t have those yet. At any rate, when I come in from the cold, my legs are the only part of me that wind up  uncomfortable. I still keep chemical warm-up packs and a thermal blanket in my bag, just in case I get in over my head, too.

The reward for dealing with all of this is worth it to me though. Clear, dry air and no mosquitoes feel like a prize in this part of the world.  There’s real beauty in the stillness of a winter wilderness too, especially under the stars. As long as you prepare, I think it’s the best time of the year for astronomy.

Just don’t try licking a cold telescope.

Carl Sagan’s Contact

Pretty much everyone knows that when you compare a book to a movie, the book wins 99.99% of the time. Contact is no exception, but in this case, I think the movie is pretty darn good too. The content and the depth of the book are much greater, as to be expected, but also the science is impeccable. The movie was made many years later and Sagan (one of the original screenplay writers) understood the audience needed to watch a somewhat different kind of story, but since he wasn’t around for the final edit, there are some errors in the science. By Hollywood standards though, it’s still probably better than anything else out there.

The movie, unfortunately, leaves many of the most exciting scientific revelations gleaned from the message out of the picture, but gives a more simplified and movie-friendly, and pathos heavy, tale of Ellie and a few people around her. If the movie were true to the book, it would have been a trilogy and cost 400 million dollars. Naturally, the ending is wildly different and the revelation at the end of the book stood the hairs up on the back of my neck. The movie ending was almost a tear-jerker.

Robert Zemeckis did a fine job directing and the cinematography was spot on. (Possible spoiler in this paragraph and video, read/watch at your own risk) In fact, one of my favorite scenes (in any film) that very subtly and elegantly uses some effect trickery to enhance and empower a scene without being cheesy or exploding anything, was when young Ellie is running up the stairs to fetch some medicine, urgently.

So, if you haven’t read the book, you probably should. If you liked the movie, you definitely should. If you read the book and haven’t seen the movie, just keep your expectations in check and go for it, you won’t regret it.

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

In 1980, when I was six years old, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired for the first time on PBS. This show changed my life, which sounds silly when I write it out, but it’s true. It was his presentation of ideas and information that absolutely and permanently changed my view of the universe. I’m sure that was exactly the point, even if I was probably younger than the target audience. Even today, over 30 years since it’s airing, almost all the things presented are congruent with our current theories and understanding.

He also made turtlenecks look better than anyone thought possible.

Something like 10% of the world’s population has seen this show, which given its distinct lack of supermodels and petty fights between the vapid and spray-tanned, is almost shocking. Until 2009, it was the most viewed thing to ever air on PBS. The 13 episodes will comfortably and non-technically give you a pretty good foundation for understanding almost every big-picture concept in modern astronomy, while still being entertaining. There is almost no way to overstate the impressiveness of such a feat.

Strap in your brain and get ready to fly in some spaceships of the imagination.

In 2013, Fox (yes, you read that correctly) will air 13 NEW episodes hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was personally and professionally influenced by Sagan. There is a shred of hope that the new series will be good with Tyson as the host, but it almost can’t live up to the original. At least, I don’t see how, but I’d be very happy to be wrong about this one.

If you want, you can now watch the original series for free on Youtube. Can’t beat free!

Carl Sagan Day

This past Wednesday was Carl Sagan Day, though in some places it’s being celebrated today. Some of you may know that he was and is my all-time hero and my favorite person in the history of history (besides my wife, of course). He did science and made the public care, because he cared about them. He wanted us to survive ourselves, grow both intellectually and culturally with the help of science and never forget how rare and beautiful our pale blue dot truly is, plus to learn to understand and appreciate the cosmos in which drift. A tall order, but (I think) the best order.

With him, we did these things, just a little. It’s important to remember and celebrate the accomplishments of people like him, in whatever way we feel is best. After writing a big draft blog post for this past week and scrapping it, I’ve instead decided to make my posts over the next week Sagan related.

Sagan is my co-Jedi.