Astronomy Online

Pluto Humor

Now that Pluto isn't a planet any more (sort of, it's a dwarf planet, so it's still kind of a planet, just a special planet), it's time to tally some of the funny commentaries. Here are my favorites so far:

I'll add to the list if I come across more.


When Galaxies Collide

August 25, 2006 The October 2006 issue of S&T should be in the hands of many subscribers by now (newsstand browsers should see it around Labor Day). The cover story about the upcoming collision of our and the Andromeda galaxies makes for interesting reading. Basically, some 3 billion years from now, the two largest galaxies in the Local Group will get very close together. They may not actually pass through each other, but "merely" swing around each other. Either way, the gravitational disruption will send stars everywhere. Why worry about the Sun becoming a red giant in 5 billion years, when we — and however many dwarf planets there will be — might not even be in the Milky Way at that time?

The article's author, John Dubinski, has studied the galaxy collision with the help of computer modeling, and he has created many fascinating animations of interacting star systems. You can sample them by visiting Dubinski's Web site. The animations are also available on a DVD (with music by John Kameel Farah), which is how I first watched them.

Although some of the animations are purely fantasy (such as, five identical spiral galaxies form a regular pentagon and then fall into each other), there are several specifically for our Andromeda encounter. After the collision, the Sun just happens to repeatedly fly back and forth through the core of the Milky Way like a pendulum. That's probably not what the Sun will do, but it's one of the possibilities. Dubinski also created a 3-D animation that uses the standard red-and-blue glasses. It didn't work too well for me, however. But that could be partly due to the fact that I need to get new eyeglasses.


My Definition of "Planet"

August 22, 2006 OK, I've thought more about it. Here's my suggestion for the IAU (actually, S&T editor in chief Rick Fienberg said he made similar suggestions to the astronomers already):

There are eight planets. Everything else is an asteroid. That would leave moons as moons (a.k.a. satellites) and leave comets as a separate class of object. Asteroid is a perfectly fine word. No need for "minor" or "dwarf" planets or "small solar system objects."

We have main-belt asteroids, near-Earth asteroids, Trojan asteroids, Centaur asteroids, and Kuiper-belt asteroids (like Pluto) — all which will be managed by the, uh, Asteroid Center.

We'll worry about extrasolar planets and "rogue" planets (loner worlds unattached to stars — like the Moon was in Space: 1999) later.


Think of the Children!

August 22, 2006 The issue of setting the definition of the planet gets more interesting as the IAU meeting continues. There should be some more details today.

What has amused and annoyed me is how the general media has been covering the story. I yelled at the TV several times as national and local news reported that "astronomers had decided there would be 12 planets" as if it was a done deal. While newspapers generally got the story right, their headlines often confused the issue. Then there was the call to come up with a new mnemonic for remembering the planets (you know, "My Very Eager Mother Just, etc." ). First, there aren't any new planets yet. Second, "Xena" isn't 2003 UB313's approved name!

Perhaps astronomers will decide on a definition for a planet this week, and perhaps not. I await to see how the mass media reports on how astronomers "changed their decision" to have 12+ planets.

But to anyone who is whining about having to remember all the new objects that may subsequently be called planets, as well as books having to be rewritten and such: Get over it. I wonder if there was such bellyaching back in the 1800s when the United States was adding a new state to the union every few years. Maps had to be redrawn! Children had to learn new things! Oh, it must have been truly horrible. Seems to me that occasionally adding new planets to the solar system is. . . American! Stephen Colbert should be proud!

And should Pluto be demoted, "disappointing children" shouldn't be part of the equation. If mere "tradition" is a major factor for keeping the status quo, then you've already lost my interest.


Iridium: The Movie

August 16, 2006 Have you ever seen and Iridium flare? If not, you need to read our article and make a point to catch one. Good ones shine dozens of times brighter than Venus. It’s great fun to know exactly when and where one will appear in the sky and then to point it out to a bunch of people who have no idea what’s coming.

A fresh aspect of watching Iridium flares can be seen on the aforelinked article. Go ahead and click it; it will open in a new window or tab. The second illustration is from Tom Bisque, one of the innumerable Bisque Brothers of Software Bisque (there are five or a dozen of them, I don’t remember — I think they build more as they need them), makers of fine astronomical software and equipment. Just last week Tom posted his success of capturing a movie of an Iridium flare. He used one of his company’s drool-worthy Paramount robotic mounts to track one of the satellites that was predicted to brighten to about magnitude –3½. He captured the result on video and converted it into several versions suitable for watching on the Web.

I've seen plenty of photographs of flares, but they always look more like meteors than a moving satellite and thus failing to capture what they truly look like. This is the first movie of one I’ve watched, and it’s quite cool. Check out the movie, and read about how Tom did it.


Missed Opportunities?

August 11, 2006 Back in June, a press release from the Pluto-bound New Horizon's mission noted a successful imaging test of one of its cameras. The spacecraft was able to track a small asteroid designated 2002 JF56 as the two passed each other. The resulting picture wasn’t spectacular, but it once again brought to mind something I’ve wondered about for several years. The idea occurred to me when the Cassini spacecraft snapped an image of asteroid 2685 Masursky in January 2000 while on its way to a flyby of Jupiter.

There are many more asteroids known now than there were back when space missions were being planned (by an order of magnitude). I wondered if on their way to the outer solar system, did the Pioneers, Voyagers, or Galileo happen to pass by an asteroid that at the time was unknown? How many asteroid-imaging opportunities were missed because such-and-such object wouldn't be discovered for another 10 years? I don’t necessarily mean very close passes that would have been a hazard to the probe or gravitationally alter its trajectory, but flybys close enough that significant imagery could have been performed.

If such missed-opportunity asteroids exist, I thought it would be an interesting article for Sky & Telescope. But someone would have to figure all that out, and I sure couldn't do the computations! I sent the query to a couple of asteroid researchers, but no one had time to devote to it. Anyone want to give it a go?


Cool Photo

August 9, 2006 I like photographs that juxtapose terrestrial items against something celestial, such as when flying objects cross the disk of the Sun or Moon. Many such images have appeared in the Gallery and Skyscapes departments of Sky & Telescope and Night Sky. This picture — forwarded to me by a coworker — is probably my favorite to date.


It's About Time

August 7, 2006 I'm back from a week out of the office to attend a high-school reunion and do other touristy activities in the greater Washington, DC, area and I see that our new Web site has indeed launched. Unfortunately, the full blog capability hasn't yet been worked out, so for the time being, I will have to manage new posts by editing the original article. This isn't how blogs are supposed to work, but it's being worked on.

Anyway, one of the activities of last week was getting a tour of the US Naval Observatory from public affairs director Geoff Chester. Geoff showed me around years ago, but this time I brought along my girlfriend, sister, nephew, and niece. Geoff gave a very informative tour that updated me on various programs that USNO is doing to provide the world the best timekeeping. Nowadays, one of the most important activities that the scientists there do is looking after the time signals from the satellites of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

One of the Internet-releated aspects of the tour was that USNO has been battling hackers lately. This was first brought to my attention by a high-school classmate at the reunion who is an astronomer at USNO. He had to help get the Web site back to normal. You see, while the facility is an observatory, it's also a part of the US Navy, and anything with a .mil domain name tends to get attention by online troublemakers.

Another point of interest was when Geoff explained that over the past few years, more and more computers have been wanting to sychronize their internal clocks to the master atomic clock at USNO. Many operating systems do this automatically via Network Time Protocol (NTP). These requests began to use so much of the observatory's Internet bandwidth that it had to ask for a separate high-speed line to carry the load. Also, USNO still has dial-up lines in which you can use a modem to connect to the master clock at 1,200 baud. Ah, those were the days. . . .


Here's My Blog and Welcome to It

August 1, 2006 As my coworkers and friends know, I’m happy to forward the URL for an interesting and/or useful Web site — or perhaps a fascinating or funny news story. I’ve been careful to avoid becoming one of those special correspondents who sends blanket e-mails about every virus warning, urban legend, and piece of Internet “humor” that he or she comes across. I try to make my communications appropriate.

With this blog, I’ll now be able to do the same to a wider
audience. So what’s the blog about? Nominally, it will focus on
astronomy and the Internet, but it may go into some issues about
astronomical software. The blog will act as a supplement to my Astronomy Online column in Sky & Telescope. I hope to post short notes as well as provide updates to Internet and software-related items that have been
previously discussed. Furthermore, I’ll be able to highlight the new
features of SkyandTelescope.com as they come online.

While I regularly read several blogs (for news, techy, local, and
astronomy info). I certainly don’t read all of them. I treat blogs like television: there are a lot of good shows that I don’t watch because I think I already watch enough TV. I’ll probably point you to some of these blogs, but I also welcome your input about the interesting places you visit online. You can write to me
directly
, or add your voice to the blog comments below. We'll review your comments (to make sure they're family-friendly) and will display them ASAP.