A Voorwerpish Comic

A Voorwerpish Comic

Sometimes, as an astronomer, I get to do some really weird stuff. This summer is one of those times. I actually, thanks to project PI (i.e. lead) Bill Keel, got an opportunity to help produce a comic book telling the story of how a Dutch school teacher found the light echo of a once bright Quasar. Light echos, like sound echos, for when waves (in this case light waves) bounce of a surface and reflect back to an observer, arriving after waves that took a more direct path. A man on a cliff may holler, with his initial outcry reaching you in factions of a second, while the reflection of his voice off a distant outcrop of rock may reach you a few moments later. Trying to figure out that a random green blob of gas is a light echo was anything but easy. In this comic...

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Falling out of a Cluster: The history of the Sun

Falling out of a Cluster: The history of the Sun

One of my favorite things to do with students in the late fall is to take them outside and point first to the Orion nebula, then to the Pleiades, and finally to the Hyades cluster, saying “these are snap shots in the evolution of open clusters.” Each of these systems is the home of young stars, but while the Orion nebula is very much a stellar nursery, with stars just 10 million years old or younger, the Pleiades, is more like a day care center with stars 100 million years old or younger. At the same time, Hyades is more like an afterschool program for stars 730 million years old or younger. All these systems are filled with celestial children. In their youth these stars still gather in clumps. But, as they age, the stars will drift apart until, as...

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Cepheid + Light Echo = Accurate Distances

Cepheid + Light Echo = Accurate Distances

I am so so frustrated that I can’t get the full journal article associated with this press release. I’m going to have to do some emailing tomorrow to see if someone can get it to me. Here is what has me excited. In a new paper in Astronomy and Astrophysics (which my Uni doesn’t get) with Pierre Kervella as lead author,  the distance to a Cepheid variable has finally been accurately measured in a method so simple I can’t believe it wasn’t done before. The binocular-bright Cepheid RS Pup is embedded in a nebula. As it’s light varies, it causes the dust and gas to also vary in brightness. By measuring how long after the star varies in brightness the blob of gas and dust varies in brightness, it is possible to tell how far...

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Honesty in Observing:
The Crab Nebula & an 8.2-m telescope

Honesty in Observing:The Crab Nebula & an 8.2-m telescope

The Crab Nebula as seen by SubaruAs I’ve mentioned before, press releases that don’t really contain science are one of my pet peeves. That said, one such press release came across my inbox this morning and made me giggle happily. The image was of the Crab Nebula (above left: credit: NAOJ); a nearby supernova remnant formed in 1054. The telescope in question was Subaru; an 8.2-m telescope in Hawaii operated by Japan’s National Institutes of Natural Science. Subaru isn’t a facility that buries reporters in press releases. This pretty picture was just press release #4 for 2007, and the other three were solid new results (as were all the non-instrument or education related releases of 2006). So why did this non-science press release from such a respectable press office make me giggle?

Here is a quote from Toru Yamada, one of the observing team’s members: “We just wanted to look at something beautiful.”

I love honestly.

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Helix hides Comets in its Core

Helix hides Comets in its Core

169140main_piaa09178-330.jpgIt is easy in astronomy to lump different objects into specific groups. At the top-most level, there are stars, galaxies, planetary systems (including asteroids and comets), and dust-bunnies interstellar and intergalactic media (clouds and nebula). Looking a bit deeper, each of these categories can be nit-picked apart into more sub-categories. For instance, stars can be divided up by energy generation mechanism, or mass, or both. But, astronomy isn’t just the study of a bunch of discrete objects that can be junked into boxes any more than plant science is the study of how a bunch of leaves that can be classified by structure. Both sciences must consider the ecology around discrete objects. Trees grow in forests in symbiosis with other plants and animals, and are both harmed and helped through these synergistic relationships. Stars too exist in rich environments, and when we study stars and their evolution we are also studying the evolution of their planetary systems and of the galaxy they live within. Until recently, it was easy to see the average star as an isolated object on a solitary journey from molecular cloud to planetary nebulae – we simply weren’t able to see anything other than the star and what isn’t seen is easily ignored. Today, however, that is all changing.

As we peer at stars in more wavelengths and in greater detail, we are beginning to find evidence of planetary systems around more and more objects.* As we witness this co-formation of stars and planets it is becoming impossible to stick stars in discrete boxes – Stars and planetary systems must be studied as a whole. This was brought home to me by a newly released Spitzer Space Telescope image of Helix nebula (above right, credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Su (Univ. of Ariz.)). This favorite object of amateur astronomers appears as a faint swirl of light through the eyepiece of a backyard telescope in a dark location. With Spitzer, it is resolved into concentric rings marking the location of a dead star. Around that dead star are the remnants of a cometary cloud.

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