The Universe (The Most Dangerous Place in the Universe)

August 21, 2007

The new episode of The Universe for this Tuesday is “The Most Dangerous Place in the Universe.” Here’s a preview…

Take a tour of the cosmic hot zones–black holes, galaxy mergers, gamma ray bursts and magnetars. Super massive black holes can literally “lasso” the Earth out of the solar system. A clash between two galaxies can result in a barbaric ritual called “galactic cannibalism” in which the dominant galaxy’s super massive black hole literally eats the weaker one. Magnetars are a cosmic magnetic force so strong it could wipe out data on every credit card on the planet. Cutting-edge computer graphics are used to bring the universe down to earth to show what life would be like on other planets, and to imagine what kind of life forms might evolve in alien atmospheres.

As we’ve said before, “check your local listings” for a show time near you. This excellent series is a rarity on television these days. You won’t be disappointed.


The Summer Triangle

August 19, 2007

During the year, there are times when the patterns in the sky form recognizable shapes. One of the easiest things to see during the summer months is the Summer Triangle. It is made up of the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega, three of the brighter stars of the summer sky. Altair is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle; Deneb the brightest star of the constellation Cygnus, the swan, and Vega – the brightest star of the summer skies – in the constellation Lyra, the Lyre.

The Summer Triangle is considered an asterism, which is a pattern of stars which is either part of a whole constellation, or parts of several constellations. The Big Dipper is probably the most famous asterism.

In early summer these stars and their constellations rise before midnight, but during August they are directly overhead in the mid-evening skies, and is still visible low in the northwest before dawn.

The Summer Triangle

Even though it’s the “Summer Triangle”, this asterism is visible from late spring into early winter, but it is most prominent during the summer months. Winter has it’s version of the triangle itself, with the stars Betelgeuse, Procyon, and Sirius.

So whatever the time of year, there’s a triangle above your head at all times. It’s up to you to decide if it’s equilateral, isosceles, or something else.

The Universe (The Outer Planets)

August 14, 2007

The new episode of The Universe for this Tuesday is “The Outer Planets.” Here’s a preview…

New discoveries regarding the Outer Planets are creating a fundamental rethinking of our solar system. Uranus is a toxic combination of hydrogen, helium and methane. Scientists speculate that the planet was knocked on its side after colliding with another body. Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, is cold and barren, but some scientists speculate that liquid water might exist under Triton’s icy surface. If this is proven true, Triton could be the home to one of the biggest discoveries of all time. Cold and inhospitable, Pluto completes one orbit around the solar system every 248 years. Cutting-edge computer graphics are used to bring the universe down to earth to show what life would be like on other planets, and to imagine what kind of life forms might evolve in alien atmospheres.

Obviously they made this episode before last August, when Pluto was “demoted.” But please watch anyway. Again, “check your local listings” for a show time near you. You won’t be disappointed.

Time and Distance

August 13, 2007

At our public night last Saturday (the 11th) we showed off various objects to the people in attendance, from Jupiter all the way out to deep sky objects like the Dumbbell nebula and the M13 star cluster. In our standard introduction to these objects, we give information like type, distance, and other interesting things. With deep sky objects, because we are talking immense distances of light years, we explain what a light year is. For instance, the distance to the Dumbbell nebula is approximately 1300 light years from Earth. That means it takes light from the objects 1300 years to get to our eyes. For some of these objects, by the time the light arrives on earth, they might not even exist anymore. It certainly boggles the mind.

Here are some common times for light travel to certain objects (using average distance between objects):

Earth to Sun — 8.3 light minutes
Earth to Moon — 1.28 light seconds
Earth to Mars — 4.3 light minutes
Earth to Jupiter — 35 light minutes
Earth to Saturn — 70 light minutes
Earth to Uranus — 2.5 light hours
Earth to Neptune — 4 light hours
Earth to Pluto — 5.33 light hours
Earth to nearest star (Proxima Centauri) — 4.3 light-years
Earth to Andromeda Galaxy (farthest object you can see with the unaided eye) — 2.9 million light years

As you can see, it takes a while to get places when you are in space. Unfortunately we don’t have warp drive, hyper drive, or anything else that exists in the minds of science-fiction writers (which is too bad). Space is vast.

Or like the quote from the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

So the next time you are outside under the stars, look up and consider what is out there, and how long it took the light from those objects to get to your eyes.

Oh yeah.. don’t forget to realize how beautiful it all is.

Veen Observatory Visitors’ Night for August 11

August 12, 2007

**Update 8/12 12.45am: The public night was a success, although clouds did drown out the last 45 minutes. Thanks to the following media outlets for their support: WLHT-FM, WOOD-TV, WXMI-TV, WZZM-TV.**

With partly cloudy/mostly clear skies tonight (Saturday night) the James C. Veen Observatory – located south of Lowell, MI – will be open for public tours and telescopic observations. Here are the particulars:

Time: 9.00pm – Midnight
Admission: $3 – Adults, $2 – kids 17 and under, under 5 free

Full information on Visitors’ Nights can be found on the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association website – Just click on the Visitors’ Night link in the menu.

There you will find a map showing directions to the observatory, and a FAQ about visitors’ nights. On the main page of the site, click on the OPEN sign, and you will be taken to a page with particulars about the specific night detailing what objects will be featured through the telescopes.

Tonights main feature will be the planet Jupiter. The solar system’s largest planet hangs low in the southern sky, and a telescope will show clouds bands on the planet, plus four of it’s moons. Along with the solar system’s largest planet, we will show off some of the finest objects of deep space as well, including nebulas and star clusters. And who knows, perhaps a comet and an asteroid. The sky’s the limit.

This is also the weekend for the Perseid Meteor Shower, possibly the most widely known meteor shower of the year. Keep looking skyward when you are outside to catch these fleeting streaks of light in the sky.

If you go out to the observatory, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the experience. You can leave comments here, or drop an email to graaa @

Meteor Shower Weekend

August 10, 2007

This weekend is the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. Around the 11th or August each year the Earth, in it’s orbit around the sun, intersects the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet, while going through the solar system, left a debris trail of small particles of dust and dirt grains, and these specks – when hitting the atmosphere – glow as they burn up, giving us “shooting stars”, or meteors.

The actual peak of the shower is Sunday night/Monday morning, but it is a wide peak, and some meteors have already been seen.

We will be featuring the meteor shower at our public night at the Veen Observatory tomorrow night, and visitors should be able to see quite a few during the evening.

One of the really fun things to see are “earthgrazers.” These meteors hit the atmosphere and travel across the sky slowly with bright colors for a long time. The meteor is actually skipping off the earth’s atmosphere and going back out into space (or burning up).

For more information about the meteor shower, please check out Science@NASA’s Great Perseids article. For detailed information about going out to observe the meteors during their peak overnight Sunday, please read 12 things you need to watch the Perseid meteors Sunday night at astronomer (and author) Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” website.

And if you can, please join us out at the Veen Observatory tomorrow night for clear skies, some great views through the telescopes, and the Perseid Meteors.

We Have Liftoff!

August 8, 2007

At 6.36pm EDT, the Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off from Pad 39B at Cape Canaveral for a scheduled 11-day mission to the International Space Station. Everything went smoothly, and Endeavour is now safely in low earth orbit, heading for a rendezvous and docking with ISS on Friday.

Soon the orbital elements will be available, and by going to sites like Heaven’s you will be able to see when the shuttle (and the space station) will be flying over your location (please see this previous post about seeing ISS).

You can follow the mission at the shuttle mission page and if there are any special events, we’ll talk about them here. Locally, we have the Community Media Center to thank, as they broadcast NASA-TV on local cable channel 24 (Livewire). The GRAAA sponsors NASA-TV locally.

So Godspeed Endeavour, and good luck.