Random thought 2

Random thought 2

8378-m.jpgN.B. I’m going to post random thoughts on weekends. We all need to laugh, learn, and think in small amounts on weekends, and this is my small contribution

There are approximately 300,000,000 people in the U.S.

The U.S. is spending roughly $275 million* per day on the Iraqi war.

Celestron Nexstar 5″ Schmidt-Cassegrain GoTo scopes cost $799 plus shipping.

If the U.S. government spent on its people what it spends in Iraq in one day every person in America could own a nice GoTo telescope.

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In Search of Darkness

In Search of Darkness

IC 342Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…First star? Hello? You’re supposed to come out now. Stars? Someone? Shine? Please?

While I was a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin I watched the Ring Nebula (M57) disappear. When I first arrived in 1996, this former stellar atmosphere was clearly visible in binoculars from the roof of the building I worked in (RLM). In 2000 I could no longer see it, but some of my more owl-eyed students could see it faintly contrasting against the background glow of too many city lights. When I graduated in 2002, it was just gone. No pair of 10×50 binoculars was going to find it. According to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce the city grew from 846,227 people in 1990 to 1,452,529 people in 2005. With that growth came lights, and with those lights came star consuming light pollution. As the world population grows and becomes progressively more industrialized, our entire planet is losing its ability to see faint stars and galaxies in the night skies.

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Picking a Direction (and sticking to it!)

Picking a Direction (and sticking to it!)

Cover Art for 2001 Decadal SurveyOn January 24th the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) in the UK announced Michael Bode (an Astrophysics Prof at Liverpool John Moores University) will take the lead in defining a 20 year vision statement for astronomy in Europe. Dr. Bode was put in this powerful but unenviable position by ASTRONET, a consortium of eleven European science agencies. In this job, he will herd cats (e.g. scientists) until they come up with a unified vision. Specifically, he will work to get his community to agree on what questions are most vital to answer, and how these questions can most effectively be answered. This set of questions and methods for answering will be used to shape how limit resources are allocated for science.

This kind of a process isn’t new. In the U.S., we’ve been producing decadal surveys for a while, with the most recent coming out in 2001 (you can read it here, NRC cover art shown above right). Until recently, for every decadal survey desire, their was a matching plan of action that often included a NASA mission with allocated funding (or at least allocated web space). The problem is, the plan of the scientific community and the plans of individual members of Congress and the White House don’t always match.

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Flying Metal Bits

Flying Metal Bits

corot.jpgA quick fly through the nearby universe will show you, well, a whole lot of nothing. But, embedded in the nearest bits of that nothing are 8 spectacular planets, dozens of moons, and hundreds of random bits of rock and ice that, depending on where they orbit, fall into such categories as asteroids, Kuiper belt objects, and comets. Somewhat randomly distributed around (and sometimes on) these celestial objects are little bits of flying metal.

Locally, COROT (vaguely rhymes with Inspector Perot), obtained first light today (image above, credit CNES 2006 – D. Ducros). This orbital observatory will dedicate it self to the search for rocky worlds around other stars. A product of the European Space Agency, COROT will study nearby stars with its 30cm telescope, looking for slight changes in brightness indicative of planetary transits. The images it takes will also be useful for asteroseismology, the study of how stars bump and wiggle in reaction to chemical and thermal processes deep beneath their surfaces. Pre-launch calculations predict that every 150 days (the time COROT will spend studying one area of the sky), COROT could discover 10-40 rocky planets and tens of gas giants. Since the first published discoveries of an extrasolar planet around a pulsar in 1992, and around a normal star in 1995, astronomers have only discovered 209 extrasolar worlds. With COROT, that number could double in as little as 1 year.

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