Archive for the ‘Space Tourism’ Category

About That Fine-Structure Constant

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010


Your "alpha" varies throughout the universe and that means physical laws are different. Just when you thought you’ve got this physics thing worked out, POW: right in the kisser.

The report is currently undergoing peer review, but here’s the 411 from Swinburne University of Technology:

The report describes how one of the supposed fundamental constants of Nature appears not to be constant after all. Instead, this ‘magic number’ known as the fine-structure constant — ‘alpha’ for short — appears to vary throughout the universe.

"After measuring alpha in around 300 distant galaxies, a consistency emerged: this magic number, which tells us the strength of electromagnetism, is not the same everywhere as it is here on Earth, and seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe," Professor John Webb from the University of New South Wales said.

"The implications for our current understanding of science are profound. If the laws of physics turn out to be merely ‘local by-laws’, it might be that whilst our observable part of the universe favours the existence of life and human beings, other far more distant regions may exist where different laws preclude the formation of life, at least as we know it."

"If our results are correct, clearly we shall need new physical theories to satisfactorily describe them."

Here’s the abstract from the preliminary paper:

We previously reported observations of quasar spectra from the Keck telescope suggesting a smaller value of the fine structure constant, alpha, at high redshift. A new sample of 153 measurements from the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), probing a different direction in the universe, also depends on redshift, but in the opposite sense, that is, alpha appears on average to be larger in the past. The combined dataset is well represented by a spatial dipole, significant at the 4.1 sigma level, in the direction right ascension 17.3 +/- 0.6 hours, declination -61 +/- 9 degrees. A detailed analysis for systematics, using observations duplicated at both telescopes, reveals none which are likely to emulate this result.





Perseids Over Chickamauga

Friday, August 13th, 2010




Composite Perseids view on the night of Aug. 11, 2010, combined from 39 single station events over Chickamauga, Ga. (NASA/MSFC/D. Moser, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office) 

Thanks, Bill.

The Perseids have been observed for at least 2,000 years and are associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun once every 133 years. Each year in August, the Earth passes through a cloud of the comet’s debris. These bits of ice and dust — most over 1,000 years old — burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere to create one of the best meteor showers of the year. The Perseids can be seen all over the sky, but the best viewing opportunities will be across the northern hemisphere. Those with sharp eyes will see that the meteors radiate from the direction of the constellation Perseus.


Total Eclipse

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Has it been a month since the last post? I reckon it has. Spent three weeks sleeping in a tent in North Collins, N.Y. During that time, when we didn’t get a chance to read a newspaper, there was a total solar eclipse. Thanks to today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), we see what it was like from Easter Island…




 As the New Moon’s shadow slid across the southern Pacific on July 11, people gathered along the white, sandy Anakena Beach on the north side of Easter Island to watch a total solar eclipse. The experience was captured in this tantalizing composite image, constructed from a sequence of 50 consecutive exposures. At their center is the totally eclipsed Sun surrounded by a shimmering solar corona. From the well chosen viewpoint, palm trees appear in silhouette against a darkened sky and the faint light reflected in the water. Of course, towering above the onlookers, at the boundaries of land, ocean, and sky are Moai, the island’s mysterious monolithic statues.

Billions, in 3D

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Satcom types will be gathering in Washington next week for the Satellite 2010 conference and exhibition. It’s usually a subdued affair, populated most my men in dark suits. It remains an essential point of contact for people who work in commercial space.

Expect to see a few 3DTV demos, as that’s the next "bandwidth hog" the satellite operators are hoping. More bandwidth mean more money.

More exciting is what happens on Friday, 19 March 2010: "Hubble 3D" opens at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater. During the space shuttle final mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (STS-125), they packed an IMAX 3D camera with them.

Here’s the trailer…


And another example of what this telescope can do, via


Known Universe: The Video

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009


By far the coolest space video ever, via the American Museum of Natural History:

After hovering over Mount Everest and the gorges that plunge to the Ganges, you are pulled through the Earth’s atmosphere to glimpse the inky black of space over Tibet’s high desert. So begins The Known Universe, a new film produced by the American Museum of Natural History that is part of a new exhibition, Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe, at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.

The magic of this film, though, happens as the inky black expands. Pulling farther and farther from Earth, you see the deep blue of the Pacific give way to night as the Sun comes into focus, the orbits of the solar system shrink smaller and smaller, the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpio stretch and distort, and, as the Milky Way receeds, the spidery structure of millions of other galaxies come into view. Then, you reach the limit of the observable universe, the afterglow of the Big Bang. This light has taken more than 13.7 billion years to reach our planet, and you return, back to Earth, to two lakes that are nestled between Mount Kailash and Mount Gurla Mandhata in the Himalayas.

The structure of The Known Universe is based on precise, scientifically-accurate observations and research. The Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History maintains the Digital Universe Atlas, the world’s most complete four-dimensional map of the universe. The Digital Universe started nearly a decade ago. It is continually updated and is the primary resource for production of the Museum’s Space Shows such as the current Journey to the Stars, and is used in live, real-time renderings for Virtual Tours of the Universe, a public program held on the first Tuesday of every month. Last year, some 30,000 people downloaded the Digital Universe to their personal computers, and the Digital Universe will soon be updated with a more accurate and user-friendly software interface. Digital Universe is licensed to many other planetariums and theaters world-wide.

“I liken the Digital Universe to the invention of the globe,” says Curator Ben R. Oppenheimer, an astrophysicist at the Museum. “When Mercator invented the globe, everyone wanted one. He had back orders for years. It gave everyone a new perspective on where they live in relation to others, and we hope that the Digital Universe does the same on a grander, cosmic scale.”

The new film was produced by Michael Hoffman, and directed by Carter Emmart. Brian Abbot manages and Ben R. Oppenheimer curates the Digital Universe Atlas. The exhibition at the Rubin, Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe, opened on December 11 and continues through May 10.

The animation was done in Uniview (SCISS AB)


Leonid Love

Thursday, November 19th, 2009


Amman, Jordan




South Africa


Guffey, Colorado

The Leonid Meteor Shower was, by most accounts, a modest one this year as between 200 and 300 fell during the peak this week. Apparently, Mongolia was a good place to watch. In the Western U.S., a Bolide meteor caused a huge fireball lit up the sky around midnight. The account, via

 People from Southern Idaho to Cedar City reported seeing a bright light in the sky shortly after midnight Wednesday, according to an article on

The article says a meteor is the likely cause of the bright light that lit up Utah skies. The earth is currently passing through the Leonids, a spectacular annual meteor shower.

Some northern Utah residents also reported on Facebook that they heard a noise and felt shaking along with the bright light, including one former Washington City resident. There are also reports on Twitter of several “shooting stars” visible in the Hurricane area.

You can follow reactions to the meteor on Twitter by searching for the hash tag #strangelight.

Here’s the news report from Fox13 in Utah:


The security cameras at the University of Utah’s Milford Observatory‘s captured this video footage:


Which the AP is running with…


Colliding Galaxies

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Well done…



Halley’s Tail

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009


The Orionids meteor showers peaked this morning as we’re passing through the tail of Halley’s Comet, via

The Orionids were frequently observed during the latter years of the 19th century and became the focus of debate during the first quarter of the 20th century. The British amateur astronomer W. F. Denning and the American astronomer C. P. Olivier began using the pages of two astronomical periodicals to debate whether the Orionid radiant, the point from which the meteors seemed to radiate in the sky, moved from one day to the next: Denning argued that it did not, while Olivier argued that it did. Each astronomer had supporters that chimed in, but the argument remained essentially theirs. The problem was that the Orionid radiant was more diffuse than the other well-observed annual meteor showers. Thanks to the use of photography and the very precise plotting of meteors by several amateur and professional astronomers, Oliver was eventually proven correct.

One very unusual feature the Orionids tend to display is an unpredictable maximum. In 1981, observers reported very low rates of less than 10 meteors per hour during the period of October 18 to 21 (maximum predicted for October 21), but high rates of near 20 per hour were noted on the morning of October 23. Interestingly, a study published in Czechoslovakia during 1982, revealed the Orionids generally exhibited a double maximum. The finding was based on observations made during the period spanning 1944 to 1950. Shortly thereafter, several visual studies indicated the presence of a "plateau effect" or a long period of maximum devoid of any sharp decline of activity, instead of a double peak. Most notably, the 1984 observations of the Western Australia Meteor Section, show a nearly flat maximum lasting from October 21 to 24, while N. W. McLeod, III (Florida, USA), has frequently noted it to stretch up to 6 days.

The Leonids, due next month, are more frightening to satellite operators. Especially this year.


DIY Friday: Sidewalk Telescope

Friday, September 18th, 2009


Hey, good telescopes aren’t cheap. But can you build one yourself? Popular Mechanics published a piece last fall on How to Build a Dobsonian  Telescope:

When I set out to build a portable telescope, known as a Dobsonian telescope, the first step had me stymied—where do you find 6 ft of 8-in.-dia cardboard tubing?

I’m a physicist by training, an amateur astronomer by inclination and an occasional visitor to the home center for DIY projects. A massive tube is not usually on my shopping list. I stood in the store with meticulous notes on the materials I needed, but no one could find them. "Um, I think it might be called Sonotube," I repeated, until someone pointed me toward the concrete form tubes in the garden area. And no, my local hardware store did not carry Teflon.

I had heard that building a Dobsonian was simple and inexpensive. This is in fact true—but collecting the materials takes some doing. This is a far cry from John Dobson’s experience when he first built the portable, sidewalk telescopes that now bear his name. "We were just scroungers," he tells PM. "The whole thing was made out of junk. The cardboard tubes were lying around. The shingles used to mount the mirror were blown off roofs in storms. We built the mount from window cutouts from schoolhouse doors that had been thrown away." At age 91, Dobson is as passionate about building inexpensive telescopes as he was when he built his first one in 1956. When I brag that the plastics supply store where I finally found Teflon gave me some scrap for free, he exclaims, "Good for you!"

I did not admit to him that I didn’t grind my own telescope mirrors—something he did with two porthole windows and sand paper—and that I didn’t build my own eyepiece out of binoculars. (Optics these days can be purchased in kits online.) Nonetheless, the instructions I used were very similar to Dobson’s original Plans for Building A Sidewalk Telescope. I based my design on the telescope plans provided by Ray Cash, a member of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, modifying the plans even further with a few ready-made parts.

Dobson claims he didn’t invent the sidewalk telescope, as he had lots of help with his early prototypes. However, Dobson did choose to promote his sidewalk telescopes at the cost of his longtime home. After 23 years living in a Vedanta (a branch of Hinduism) monastery, where he built telescopes surreptitiously in the basement and then snuck out at night to introduce the neighborhood kids to the stars, he was told he had to choose between life as a monk or as a telescope builder. That was in 1967. Today, Dobson still tours the world to teach telescope building. The collection process turned out to be an enjoyable treasure hunt—but don’t worry, the source list we put together below explains how to find everything. As I sawed and drilled, I murmured a fairly steady mantra to myself of "Why on earth do I have to do that? Oh. Wow. That’s brilliant." The design isn’t intuitive or obvious, but it is wonderfully elegant.

In essence, it’s a telescope built onto a gun mount, which balances through friction as it swivels on an LP record. My total cost was around $400. You may be able to buy a similarly sized commercial telescope at that price these days, but you wouldn’t have nearly as much fun. The actual construction took a weekend, and it would be a great project to tackle with kids.

Dobson may be nonchalant about how he used only junk to build his scopes, but it took an impressive mind to figure out how to use that junk in such ingenious ways. Building my telescope, watching it swivel so smoothly, seeing the stars, I basked in the reflected glory of that ingenuity. I am hooked. I want to build another one—and next time, I’m going to grind my own mirrors.


It started in San Francisco with the Sidewalk Astronomers. Find yourself an astronomy club where you are and get into it. This is the International Year of Astronomy. What have you done so far?

Amateur Astronomer

Friday, September 18th, 2009


The Telegraph (U.K.) published an image gallery featuring Astronomy Photograph of the Year Martin Pugh, who happens to be an amateur.


A few words from the photographer: ‘An extremely popular imaging target, it was an absolute “must do” for me. My objective was to produce a high-quality, high-resolution image, blending in Hydrogen-Alpha data to enhance the nebulosity. If I could change something about this photograph I would expand the frame to include the Flame Nebula, and then expand it further to pick up the Great Orion Nebula to create a superlative wide-field vista of this region.’

What’s in the picture: The Horsehead Nebula, is a dark cloud of gas and dust. The gas, dust and other materials condense to form dense knots, which will eventually become stars and planets. New stars have already formed inside part of the dust cloud, as can be seen on the bottom left.

Equipment: SBIG STL11000 CCD camera guided with adaptive optics; 12.5-inch RC Optical Systems Ritchey-Chrétien telescope; Software Bisque Paramount ME mount; 19 hours of exposures

What competition judge Chris Lintott thought: ‘I think this is the perfect deep-sky image; perfectly composed, it grabs your attention straight away. When you look closer, the detail is absolutely stunning, whether it’s the fine structure in the curtain behind the horse or the subtle details on the edge of the dark nebula itself.’

Check out the others on Flickr. Good stuff.