Friday, August 31, 2012

Lick Observatory Event

On Saturday, September 15, at Lick Observatory--located at Mt. Hamilton, about an hour drive from San Jose--there will be a "BBQ with the Stars." In addition to the barbeque dinner, there will be live music, entertaining and informative astronomy lectures, and viewing through the observatory's large historic telescopes. Professor Alex Filippenko will be one of the main speakers, along with Sandra Faber (Interim Director, University of California Observatories), Professor Geoff Marcy (the world's leading hunter for planets orbiting other stars, and Timothy Ferris (one of the world's best science writers).

Dinner catered by Bruno's Barbeque (with vegetarian options) will be served from 5 to 7 p.m., followed by astronomy talks and viewing through the large telescopes from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. The talks will be at a level suitable for the lay public, including kids. There will be plenty of time to ask questions of the astronomers, too. Musical entertainment will be provided by Silicon Valley's Dr. West playing live 1970s music, and classical guitar duo Equilibrium.

Tickets to this very special event are limited and must be purchased in advance by calling the UC Santa Cruz Ticket Office at (831) 459-2159 or online at . Admission is only $60 per person (plus a small ticket service fee), and proceeds benefit Lick Observatory's extensive public programs. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

How has NASA affected you?

What has NASA done that has affected you? Well, do you like to hang glide? NASA developed the materials. Runs marathons? Own a home? NASA created the fabric that insulates and protects both runners and inhabitants. What else did they do? Well, there's a nifty site called WTF NASA that will tell you. You can decide, as you click through the links, whether the facts "Fail to Launch" or maybe "That Rockets!"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Moon Disaster

This is the first page of a speech written by Bill Safire for President Nixon to read if the moon landing went poorly and the astronauts were unable to return. As we know, thankfully it was unnecessary but it's still a poignant insight into the fears and uncertainty of space exploration.


"Unbeknownst to the American people, one of the President's speechwriters, William Safire, was asked to write a statement that the President would make to the American people in the event of a disaster. Though never delivered, it remains an eloquent tribute to the bravery and pioneering spirit of the astronauts. When the astronauts of Apollo XI returned safely to earth, their mission was hailed around the world as an achievement of epic proportions, and this statement was quietly tucked away into the record."

Friday, August 10, 2012

Annual Perseid Meteor Shower

The annual Perseid meteor shower is coming on Saturday night, and I encourage you to view it. (Friday and Sunday nights should be okay, too, but not quite as good.) The shower peaks around 2-4am PDT on Sunday, August 12 (that is, Saturday night, August 11). Try to get as far away from city lights as possible. No binoculars or telescopes are needed; just view the sky with your unaided eyes from as dark a location as possible, away from city lights. Dress warmly, and bring a hot beverage if you wish. You can lie down on a blanket or a lawn chair, for comfort. Looking anywhere in the sky is fine, but views to the northeast should provide the most meteors.

There are many good references with viewing tips, etc. From

"If you ask most skygazers to name their favorite meteor shower, the odds are good that `Perseid' will be the first word out of their mouths. This annual shower seemingly has it all: It offers a consistently high rate of meteors year after year; it produces a higher percentage of bright ones than most other showers; it occurs in August when many people take summer vacation; and it happens at a time when nice weather and reasonable nighttime temperatures are common north of the equator. No other major shower can boast all four of these attributes.

 And this year’s Perseid meteor shower promises two other significant advantages. First, it occurs when the Moon is at a waning crescent phase, which means bright moonlight won’t diminish the number of visible meteors. And second, the shower peaks on a Saturday night, August 11/12, so most people can afford to sleep in or at least relax the following day... The crescent Moon, which rises shortly after 1 a.m., won’t have much impact because the shower consistently produces lots of bright meteors. Observers under clear dark skies likely will see 60 to 80 meteors per hour -— an average of at least one per minute —- in the hour or two before twilight starts to break shortly after 4 a.m. local daylight time. By then, the brilliant planets Venus and Jupiter will add to one of the finest predawn shows of 2012."

 Have fun, and I hope you have clear skies!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Exploring with Curiosity

Late last night, the NASA "Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)" mission gently landed its fully robotic "Curiosity" rover in a crater on Mars. It was launched on November 26, 2011. The rover is aptly named.
The mission's primary purpose is to determine whether Mars could ever have supported life, but this does not yet extend to detecting current life itself. 

This is by far the largest rover to date: 10 feet long (not including the arm), 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall, weighing 2000 pounds. If you’re having a tough time visualizing that, it's about the size of a typical car.
The mere landing of a vehicle this size, not to mention the execution of its experiments, will be a veritable marvel of modern mathematics, science, technology and engineering. The landing sequence had multiple steps addressing various challenges (some introduced by prior steps), designed to slow the vehicle from 13,000 mph upon hitting the thin atmosphere to a soft landing in 7 minutes, each of which had to work flawlessly or the whole enterprise would fail! Furthermore, because it takes 14 minutes for electromagnetic signals to travel one way between Earth and Mars, the entire landing had to have been accomplished via autonomous robotics, without any direct human intervention. By the time mission control received indications of entry into the thin Martian atmosphere, the Curiosity rover had already been sitting on the surface of Mars for at least 7 minutes. Yikes!
If interested, take a look at the following two videos about the astounding landing sequence:
"Video: Curiosity's Landing" a simple, excellent, non-narrated video -- just gets your heart racing!
"Video: Curiosity's Seven Minutes ofTerror" which is narrated by JPL scientists; includes fascinating context about the design decisions that had to be made.

Another good site is"Fast Facts" which includes basic info, simply presented, with links for digging deeper.