Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Silent Skies for Radio Astronomers

With the ever-increasing expansion of radio-frequency mobile telecommunication chatter via cellular / mobile phones and other wireless devices, will our skies be “silent” enough for radio astronomy?

By: Ringo Bones

The International Astronomical Union and the International Dark Skies Association had made significant progress recently in stamping out the scourge of urban light pollution during the celebration of the UN sponsored 2009 International Year of Astronomy. Especially when the Galloway Forest Park in Scotland was established as a protected dark sky area for stargazers and amateur astronomers. Unfortunately, nothing has been done for radio astronomers when it comes to the “trivial” problem of the increasing radio-frequency traffic that denied a chatter-free silent sky condition for astronomers who explore the cosmos in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Especially in radio frequencies of interest used in exploring our universe like galactic structure and evolution to signs of “extraterrestrial technology”.

As far back as the 1970s, astronomer Carl Sagan raised concerns over the US Department of Defense’s heavily encrypted DARPA Net “Hotline” operating so close a frequency to the hydroxyl radical radio frequency. In 1995, the Strasbourg-based European Science Foundation issued a warning that the rapid expansion of the mobile communications / mobile phone / cellular phone industry’s excessive “radio-frequency pollution” – a.k.a. RF pollution - was a serious threat to radio astronomers worldwide. Back then, Dr. James Cohen of Britain’s Jodrell Bank observatory decried the ongoing deployment of numerous low-Earth-orbit telecommunications satellites used to serve the mobile / cellular phone industry.

Around that time, Dr. James Cohen stated that even if the sideband emissions from satellite / mobile / cellular telephones were small, they would still devastate radio telescopes equipped with large dishes which are so sensitive they can detect extremely weak and distant RF signals on the sub-nanovolt level. Like urban light pollution plaguing astronomers who work in the optical portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, Dr. Cohen likened the problem to a professional photographer having a light shining into his or her lens every time he or she tried to snap a picture. Dr. Peter Napier of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory concurred with Dr. Cohen, saying that the problems of excessive RF pollution in the radio spectrum of our skies were severe and getting worse as the years go by. Dr. Napier characterized common telecommunications engineering practices as “inadequate” to prevent severe disruption to radio astronomy.

Due to a lack of a legally binding international treaty designed to protect the world’s radio astronomers against excessive RF frequencies reaching into their astronomical instruments or radio frequency pollution. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) had assigned a frequency of 1410MHz – previously the sole domain of the US DoD during the height of the Cold War to send heavily encrypted data streams – available for civilian use for satellite / mobile / cellular phone systems. Unfortunately, this radio frequency band is dangerously close to the 1412MHz signature of the hydroxyl radical – a hydrogen / oxygen molecular fragment widely distributed in space and is used by radio astronomers to map our universe.

In the time since the European Science Foundation issued its warning against excessive radio frequency traffic ruining radio astronomy, “celestial traffic” via telecommunications satellites around the Earth had increased tremendously. These now support an ever-growing market of dedicated ISDN modem / broadband modem lines / wi-fi / and mobile / cellular phones – not to mention an “experimental” system intended to prevent auto collisions. Not only do these satellites contribute to the RF frequency pollution that spoils radio astronomy - their highly reflective Teflon-coated antennae can also be a source of light pollution to astronomers working in the optical spectrum. These satellites – like the various Iridium satellites and the 24-satellite Global Positioning System in geosynchronous orbits - are probably the only “stars” visible in urban areas plagued by sodium-vapor street-lamp light pollution.

The radio frequency pollution problem shows no sign of abating. Mike Cousins, who runs the Stanford Research Institute’s radio-telescope research program, told the San Francisco Examiner that the problem is “constant, sometimes severe”. There is now a cellular phone tower just over the hill from Stanford’s 150-foot dish, Cousins told the San Francisco Examiner’s science writer Keay Davidson. “There is nothing we can do about it” Cousins says. The Stanford dish is sensitive enough to pick up radar reflections from ships in the Western Pacific and Citizen’s Band radio transmissions from as far away as Florida. Even Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, characterized the radio frequency pollution problem in radio astronomy as “science versus heavy-duty commerce”. Scientists at Seth Shostak’s institute search for radio frequency signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

Will the radio frequency pollution problem that plagues radio astronomers like urban light pollution problems plaguing astronomers using optical telescopes ever be solved? Most radio telescopes, like their optical counterparts, stand in once-remote and once-uninhabited locations that are now surrounded by highly urbanized civilization with their inherently light and RF polluting lifestyle. Even the International Dark Skies Association had failed to solve the increasing light pollution problem around Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California.

Recently, radio astronomers have developed a few techniques for separating the extraterrestrial radio signals of interest from the more mundane RF pollution noise. One is by computer correlation of signals received by two or more dishes spaced hundreds of miles apart. Using this technique, radio astronomers can filter out the transmissions of cellular phone “yakking yuppies” and concentrate on the spectrum of interest. The better – if not the best technique – for radio astronomers to beat radio frequency pollution is to build a radio astronomy dish as far away from the earthbound RF noise as possible – like on the dark side of the Moon. Sadly, this project won’t be getting any US Congressional funding anytime soon after the Bush-Cheney Consortium ran their “Global War on Terror in a malfeasant manner that left the US Government mired in a 12 trillion dollar debt burden. Some gifted scientist now smoking weed in Amsterdam could have built a faster-than-light capable spacecraft that carries a crew of 150 with that kind of money.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Can the International Astronomical Union Stop Urban Light Pollution?

As one of the major goals of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009), does the International Astronomical Union or IAU hold enough clout to stop the scourge of light pollution?

By: Ringo Bones

As the only international astronomical body that has the power to downgrade Pluto from a bona fide planet to a “dwarf planet” status, the International Astronomical Union could have easily stopped urban light pollution. But as of late, many amateur astronomers have always been wondering why the International Astronomical Union had always been “very meek” when it comes to stamping out the scourge of urban light pollution. The question now is, can the IAU – using its political clout – really has the power to stamp out the scourge of urban light pollution? After all, those sodium-vapor lamps that radiate as much light upwards as well as lit our streets is pretty useless when it comes to stopping a 123-grain Lapua Scenar round travelling at 2,600 feet per second, doesn’t it?

When it comes to achieving the “bottom list” of the International Year of Astronomy 2009’s major goals – i.e. on facilitating the preservation and protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage of dark skies in places such as urban oases, natural parks and astronomical sites. It did manage to score big points recently when the world’s astronomical community voted Galloway Forest Park in Scotland as one of the best stargazing sites on the planet. Galloway Forest Park was even awarded “dark skies” status and praised for accessibility to the general public. The park’s dark skies status accolade was probably due to the healthy tree cover filtering the distant glow of not-so-distant urban nighttime illumination.

Recently, the International Dark Skies Association had tested the levels of darkness in the Galloway Forest Park using a Sky Quality Meter – a method of darkness measurement that would rate a photographer’s darkroom (with the dim red light on?) a rating of 24, the highest reading possible. Galloway Forest Park got 23 out of 24, while the reading in cities such as Glasgow would be 15 or 16.

Despite of its relatively close proximity to major urban centers, it is a miracle that Galloway Forest Park managed to score very high marks on the Sky Quality Meter. But the park’s proximity to northern England, Central Scotland and Northern Ireland – not to mention the ferry port of Stranraer – allowed Galloway Forest Park to score high on the general public accessibility scale in comparison to some other famed but more remote stargazing sites in Britain. Let’s just hope that billionaire property developer Donald Trump doesn’t buy the park in order to turn it into an extremely well-lit casino and golf course. Noting that the full Moon can’t be seen anymore on a well lit nights of the Las Vegas Strip.

To the benefit of us amateur astronomers who live elsewhere on the planet. The International Astronomical Union should be urging governments around the world to redesign streetlights so that they only illuminate the pavement as opposed to our current ones that does double duty of shining a spotlight on four-engine World War II-era night-bombers flying at 25,000 feet. These overly bright streetlights that scatter their light everywhere can’t even make a 9-mm Parabellum round fall to the ground as soon as it leaves the muzzle of a Beretta 92-F – like those “newfangled” inertial dampening field devices. And lets not forget that they don’t even to do double duty either as a quantum-tunneling wormhole that allows our law enforcement personnel to “ miraculously materialize” at the scene of the crime in less than three seconds as far as I know. These overly-bright sodium-vapor lamps that scatter their lights all over the place – especially upwards – not only ruin amateur astronomer’s view of the night sky, they also produce unnecessary carbon dioxide that leads to global warming.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Saturn’s Newly Discovered Ring System: A Curious Astronomical Oversight?

Inexplicably overlooked by the Cassini-Huygens space probe’s arrival into Saturn back in 2004 is the planet Saturn’s newly discovered ring system the greatest astronomical oversight history?

By: Ringo Bones

When a newly-discovered ring system of the planet Saturn was first seen and discovered by a space based – though still in Earth’s orbit – Spitzer Space Telescope at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory back in October 2009. The first thought that came through my mind was how come the Cassini-Huygens space probe wasn’t the first one to “see” and discover this dust-based ring system of the planet Saturn when it entered into orbit there back in July 2004? You know, that controversial Cassini-Huygens space probe whose weapons grade plutonium-based thermal generator used to power its electronics was the subject of Professor Michio Kaku’s disdain during its launch back in 1997.

This somewhat curious and inexplicable astronomical oversight aside, the newly discovered ring system of the planet Saturn is a natural wonder of the cosmos to behold. Probably greater than that in comparison to the seven ring bands that we knew before. The new ring system lies 8 million miles from Saturn’s surface, compared to 85,000 miles of the outer reaches of the previously known ring system. If seen by the naked eye from the Earth’s surface, Saturn would appear as large as the full Moon instead of just a “bright-ish” star that is of no consequence to civilians clueless about navigating using star positions. Sadly, our eyes – normal human eyes that is – are not designed to see Saturn’s newly discovered ring system.

The NASA JPL Spitzer Space Telescope, which was the instrument used to discovered the new ring system back in October 2009, is primarily designed to “see” and find dim stars – i.e. brown dwarf stars that are believed to be the underlying explanation of the dark matter phenomena - that radiate most of their energy in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope which can only reach the TV infrared remote / gallium arsenide-based night vision goggles section of the electromagnetic spectrum. The previously mysterious dust deposits on one hemisphere of Saturn’s moon Phoebe could now be safely blamed on the newly discovered ring system, which is made up mostly of ultrafine dust particles.

Given that the dust particles comprising the newly discovered ring system of Saturn has an average temperature of –300ºF, one needs specialized equipment to see it. Like a germanium bolometer, an instrument first developed by Professor Frank J. Low of the University of Arizona. A germanium bolometer is an instrument used to detect extremely weak infrared – make that thermal-range – radiation. Composed of a tiny crystal of germanium cooled by liquid helium to almost absolute zero, a germanium bolometer is able to detect a hundred-trillionth of a watt of infrared radiation - equivalent to sensing the glow of a lighted cigarette 10,000 miles away. The NASA JPL Spitzer Space Telescope was probably equipped with one.

To us amateur astronomers, being able to see the newly discovered ring system of Saturn from our hopefully light pollution free regular stargazing sites could be an almost impossible task. At an average temperature of –300ºF – which is probably 50ºF colder than the surface of Pluto – the dust that make up Saturn’s newly discovered ring system will be too cold to be visible with the more common gallium arsenide-based night vision goggles / image intensifiers. Even those Vietnam War era photomultiplier tube-based image intensifiers will probably still can’t see Saturn’s newly discovered rings. A 5,000 US dollar bolometer-on-a-chip equipped thermal camera similar to that mounted on a state of the art firefighter’s mask when placed behind the eyepiece of a Celestron reflecting telescope with an 8-inch mirror will probably work. If the telescope’s primary mirror is efficient enough in focusing in the thermal infrared range – though I haven’t tried this set up yet.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Buying Your Own Starter Astronomical Telescope

From the elementary grade amateur to the tenured professional astronomer who decides to buy one, is buying your own astronomical telescope still a good investment?

By: Vanessa Uy

For the tenured professional whose significant other is understanding enough to allow him or her to own a “reasonably-sized” astronomy telescope – given that the one he or she uses on the job probably has a primary mirror taller than their two-story house. Owning a “portable” astronomy telescope surely has it’s own advantages. For the elementary grade amateur – or those in between – there’s nothing more satisfying than emulating the Golden Age of 17th Century Astronomy every time you use your telescope. But if you are looking for one, read on. Given that 2009 has been designated as the International Year of Astronomy, everyone should have the opportunity to experience first hand of using your very own astronomical telescope.

Even though there are very user-friendly astronomical telescopes that cost around 3,000 US dollars though the wisdom of shelling out with that sum of money can be questionable - especially if your funds doesn’t stretch that far. We should be looking for something more modest given that the world is currently in a recession. The second hand classifieds selling such items – like those on major astronomy magazines like Astronomy or Sky & Telescope - can be a good place to check out. But there are those brand-new priced between 150 to 500 US dollars that will do very well as starter telescopes. Even the ubiquitous 10 X 50 binocular telescope qualify as a very good starter refracting astronomical telescope. It can be used to see the major craters on the Moon and even has the magnifying power to see the planet Uranus.

There are two basic kinds of astronomical telescopes that you can choose: refractors and reflectors. A telescope’s primary function is to collect light and gather it to a focus. A refractor telescope uses a lens – called the objective lens – to refract or bend light to a focus. While a reflecting telescope uses a mirror – called the primary mirror – to reflect light to a focus. To know which type of astronomical telescope is best for you very much depends on what you will be looking at most of the time – or your specialty. Refractors are generally better for viewing small bright objects, like the Moon – if you consider the full Moon “small” – the planets, and double stars. Reflectors are generally suited for viewing large dim objects like the Milky Way, nebulae, other galaxies and star clusters.

When those in the know talk about a telescope’s “size” they are talking about its aperture. Aperture is the diameter of the telescope’s primary lens or mirror. For example, a 4-inch reflector doesn’t mean that the telescope is 4 inches long. It means that its primary mirror is 4 inches in diameter. For some weird reason, the aperture measurement of refractors or lens telescopes are usually given in millimeters, while the apertures of reflecting or mirror-type telescopes are usually given in inches. And remember an astronomical telescope’s job is to collect light. The larger the aperture, the more light it collects and the sharper the image it delivers. So chose the largest one you can afford because more than anything else, aperture determines what you will be able to see with the telescope.

Vibration can be an issue when it comes to starter astronomical telescopes. No matter which kind of telescope you choose, make sure it is attached to a good, sturdy mount. Telescopes mounted on long skinny legs that are held together with tiny screws are not worth the time and money. There is nothing worse than trying to use a telescope that makes the planet Jupiter look like that alien probe in the sci-fi TV series Threshold every time the cat walks by. Astronomical telescopes – especially the reflecting type – are prone to vibration. Even though my trusty but rusty Celestron 8-incher probably cost 1,500 US dollars when new, I can’t even play my stereo at a decent enough volume every time I use it because it vibrates wildly in time to the music. So listening to J.S. Bach’s organ cantatas or Iron Maiden’s Fear of the Dark while using a reflecting astronomical telescope is out of the question.

Speaking of astronomical telescope mounts, most beginners’ telescopes come with a simple alt-azimuth or equatorial mount. The “alt” means altitude and “azimuth” refers to horizontal movement. Which means an alt-azimuth mount allows the telescope to be moved or aimed up and down of left and right. An equatorial mount is set up so that one axis always points to the North Star. This type of mount moves in curves that match the movement of the celestial bodies in the night sky. Which can be an advantage if you want to use your telescope to capture long exposure photographs of a dim star using de rigueur 150 ASA 35mm photographic film.

There are advantages and disadvantages of each type of mount. Alt-azimuth mounts are mostly used in refractor or lens-type telescopes and are easier to use. And can be a boon if your telescope does double duty as a sniper’s spotting telescope. Especially if you are skilled enough to be a able to hit a bowling pin from 6,000 feet away using a rifle that fires the .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun cartridge. Although equatorial mounts – usually relegated to reflecting astronomical telescopes - are primarily designed to track celestial objects with ease. Plus the latitude and altitude readout on the equatorial mount can be very educational, especially if a seasoned astronomer ask you about the coordinates of the particular patch of night sky you are currently looking at. But most of all, it doesn’t matter which kind of mount you get, as long as it is sturdy enough for your telescope not to vibrate wildly every time the cat walks by.

By now, you’re probably asking how much magnification capability can I buy for my money. Sure enough, commercially manufactured astronomical telescopes’ power specification can be a contentious issue, especially since entry-level manufacturers tend to be too optimistic – even dubious - about the capabilities of their product lines. A telescope by itself doesn’t magnify anything because it doesn’t make objects look bigger it makes objects look brighter.

Making things look bigger is the job of the eyepieces you use with the telescope. Which – to the astronomical telescope’s manufacturers’ disdain – can allow you to use microscope magnification eyepieces as magnification eyepieces for your starter astronomical telescope. So it can be a boon if you also own a starter microscope. By changing eyepieces, you change the magnification. In most cases, the eyepiece will be marked with a number – usually in millimeters – that tells its focal length. The same eyepiece will deliver different magnifications in different telescopes. But in general, the lower the number on the eyepiece, the higher the magnification it delivers.

And believe it or not, you don’t even need a lot of magnification to see some interesting celestial vista. You can see Jupiter and the planet’s four biggest moons at a magnification of just 15 times (15X) – which is half that of the magnifying power of Galileo’s first astronomical telescope. While Saturn’s rings pop out at around 30X magnification. It is worth noting that most beginners’ astronomical telescopes – especially those with small apertures – can’t deliver a good image of anything at much over 150x. Either the result is an image that is too dark, since higher magnifications tend to darken the image, or is an overly distorted mush. Most entry-level astronomical telescopes – those priced between 150 to 300 US dollars – come with one or more eyepieces. You can also buy extra eyepieces separately or use ones from your microscope. Generally, it’s nice to have three sets of eyepieces: one for low power around 15X, one for medium power around 30X to 60X, and one for high power around 100X or greater.

For those beginners looking for an astronomical telescope on the cheap – which usually means second hand – avoid falling into the “long skinny trap”. I mean don’t discount a telescope just because it doesn’t looks like your typical astronomy telescope – i.e. long and skinny and mounted on a tripod. I’ve frequently encountered second-hand telescopes being offered on garage sales and swap meets that although very good, tend to look weird. Like the Astrocan, a round telescope that rotates on a short metal base. And Dobsonian reflectors – featured in the movie Roxanne – which have very stable box-shaped alt-azimuth mounts are often featured on Internet adverts being offered at prices too low to ignore. These two types are probably the most common second-hand astronomical telescopes being offered for sale. Although these types of astronomical telescopes have the disadvantage of not being so man-portable, unless of course your observation spot is accessible by car.

A good place to buy an astronomical telescope if you chose to buy one brand new are astronomy specialists shops – although some offer second-hand and “ex-dem” models at “very reasonable” prices. The clerks are more than likely to be able to help you choose a good scope within your budget, and you’ll also be able to test the telescope at the store. Also, you will be able to take the telescope back to the store if there are manufacturing defects. Or servicing within the warranty period since the shop is probably the telescope manufacturers authorized distributor / dealer. And the specialist shop carries a line of eyepieces and other accessories that you may want to buy later on. And believe it or not, specialist astronomy shops are probably the last place on the planet that sells 35mm photographic film. Given that - to my knowledge - everyday picture taking / photography has more-or-less gone completely digital since 2005.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Seeing Pluto

Debate over its planetary status aside, is it possible to actually see the planet Pluto using astronomical instruments commonly available to amateur astronomers?

By: Vanessa Uy

Mysterious Pluto managed to acquire “Page Six” supermarket tabloid-style popularity during the last few years. Mostly due to the International Astronomical Union’s somewhat hasty dethronement of its planetary status, thus inciting a populist uprising of a significant portion of planet Earth’s population. But to an amateur astronomer lucky enough to own an 8-inch reflector, chances of seeing this far-off real estate of our Solar System is now a possibility.

For some amateurs, seeing Pluto first hand via their own telescope can be a transcendental experience. Not unlike that of experiencing a live performance of "Beethoven’s Ninth” first hand. For others – like me – glimpsing it’s feeble light means creating your very own cherished memory. Especially if the most advanced digital camera you happen to own doesn’t have enough resolution to capture your “Pluto Moment” and post it on the Internet.

After the older members of our astronomy club had their “Pluto Moment” via their 8-inchers back in 1998. Using the star Zeta Ophiuchi as a guide star to find it back then. By the way, Zeta Ophiuchi is the bright middle star in the row of three at the bottom of the constellation of Ophiucus the serpent handler. Pluto’s current position on the latest Telrad Finder Charts puts it within the field of the constellation of Sagittarius, where it will remain until 2023.

As a consequence of our Earth-based vantage point, Earthbound astronomers will always see Pluto initially describes typical annual loop formations – which in this region of its orbit – averages around 2 ½ degrees across measured from Eastern to Western stationary points. The loops gradually open out into zigzag formations as Pluto approaches and then crosses the ecliptic – i.e. the apparent path of the Sun through the Zodiac as seen from our earthbound perspective. The helical nature - though it looks more like a squashed spring stretched sideways - of Pluto’s loop formations – which resembles a stretched spring – is a consequence of its steep – 17 degree - orbital inclination to the ecliptic. Coupled with the fact that Pluto is currently on the descending half of its orbit. Pluto’s opposition magnitude or brightness as seen from the Earth’s surface fades during the 16-year period – i.e. between June 2006 and July 2022 – from +13.9 to +14.3.

With Pluto’s magnitude fast approaching +14.0, you should be able to spot it with an 8-inch reflector from a dark observation spot, preferably one not plagued by urban light pollution. Once you become familiar with the Sagittarius constellation star field at medium power, crank up the magnification past 150x. An even higher power is better still, if the seeing conditions are good – i.e. the night sky is not shimmering like the air over a barbecue grill – or if your telescope’s optics is up to the task. Higher magnifications will darken the background, making Pluto more than just a faint flicker.

Even though blink comparators for amateur astronomers isn't yet widely available, the best way to confirm your very own observation of Pluto is to look for it twice – preferably a few days apart. You could decide to sketch the field with stars slightly dimmer than 14th magnitude. Use the second night’s observation to see which star has moved against the distant background stars. A broad V-shape of 8th to 9th magnitude stars can be used to anchor your sketch. Some newer telescopes are even equipped with a built-in LCD combining display with memory function. Which allows you to save your sketch into your telescope. To display their handicap prowess, some amateur astronomers who served as US Army or USMC snipers during Operation Desert Storm even masked down their 8-inchers while trying to find Pluto with less than 4 inches of available aperture.

My first hand experience – or is impression more apt - of “seeing” Pluto is that it looks like a pale blue robin egg colored star. From the eyepiece of my 8-incher with the magnification set at 150x – assuming that it’s chromatic aberration is invisible to my own eyes – Pluto does look different when compared to other stars within the Sagittarius star field. You can somewhat tell – assuming your own visual acuity is up to it – that Pluto merely reflects light from a primary source like our Sun. As opposed to the distant stars which can generate light by themselves. If an amateur astronomer has the ability to spot Pluto with his or her own 8-incher, and can do this with handicaps like masking their telescope to reduce available aperture. Then maybe they should consider becoming pros.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Brief History of Pluto

Since its discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh to its eventual – yet not by any means final – dethronement as a planet in 2006 by the IAU. Is Pluto for all intents and purposes a planet?

By: Vanessa Uy

Seeing VHS recordings – the 1990’s version of TIVO – of an aging Clyde Tombaugh in his last TV appearance for the first time, especially ten years after, can be quite disconcerting. With an oxygen tank in the background and a tube up his nose, defending to the “bitter end” on the then embattled status of Pluto as a true-blue bona fide planet after the discovery of the Kuiper Belt – a previously unknown region of our Solar System - back in 1992. Given all the available viewpoints of the “Great Pluto Debate”, I began to wonder if this issue would still be relevant as we enter into the 22nd Century?

Of all the books written about Pluto’s “embattled” status as a true-blue planet, the one that I consider being the most “scientific” when it comes to pointing out the present status of Pluto is the one recently published by Neil deGrasse Tyson titled Pluto Files. As a Frederick P. Rose Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and a member of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics, it is safe to say that Neil deGrasse Tyson is truly qualified to shed light on the on-going conundrum that has plagued Pluto’s planet-or-not status.

Even though the planet’s discovery in 1930 and naming it from a letter-writing “suggestion” of an 11-year-old British schoolgirl, it seems like Pluto has a somewhat “charmed” status right on the get go. Even though the Pluto’s planetary status was somewhat not-so-beyond-reproach from the beginning. I mean an orbital path that strays into the planet Neptune’s. Plus radically straying off our Solar Systems plane of ecliptic, Pluto has really got it coming from the beginning.

Then came the 1970’s, which given the advances in astronomical telescope technology allowed astronomers greater insight into Pluto. Astronomers around the world – university tenured or not – didn’t have to wait for the 248.4 years or so for Pluto to completely orbit around the Sun for them to know that there is seriously something wrong with the planet’s “personality”.

During the discovery of the Kuiper Belt back in 1992 – a hitherto monumental discovery in astronomy – given that various Japanese science fiction animated series has theorized its existence (remember that Star Blazer cartoon?) since the late 1970’s. Only highlights every astronomers doubts – especially ones affiliated with the International Astronomical Union and it’s Paris, France headquarters – to seriously cast their doubts about the somewhat “dogmatic” axiom describing Pluto as a planet since it’s discovery in 1930. When Pluto’s planetary status was endangered in the mid-1990’s, this prompted the now-aging and on assisted-living astronomer Clyde Tombaugh to have his last live television appearance defending his “pride-child” – namely the planet Pluto.

Toward the end of the 20th Century, the planetary status of Pluto was further eroded by such groundbreaking discoveries as “having 7 moons bigger than the planet itself”. Thus marking the somewhat untimely decline of Pluto’s planetary status. The Uruguayan upstart astronomer and IAU lap-dog named Julio Angel Fernández proposal of declaring Pluto’s “Dwarf Planet Status” only accelerated the process, but Pluto supporters won’t give up their planetary status issues without some semblance of a fight.

While Neil deGrasse Tyson mentions the American phenomena of a “Pluto Industry” which centers on the state of New Mexico staunchly supporting Pluto’s planetary status. Even though the state’s native son and Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh spent most of his time in Arizona – make that the observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona - during his discovery of Pluto. Even though most New Yorkers are now letting the issue go, everyone around the world now see the defense of Pluto’s planetary status as an American phenomena. But is there any strong and contemporary scientific basis that supports Pluto as a true-blue bona fide planet?

Recent scientific studies done by astrophysicists’ show that during the early days – a little over 4 billion years ago – of our Solar System, there were 20 or more planet-sized objects bumping into each other in the inner Solar System. The region now occupied by the planet Mercury all the way to Mars. Remember that Mars-sized rock that collided with the early Earth that eventually created our own Moon? This is how our Solar System looked back then. Now compare that to the present-day Kuiper Belt region of our Solar System. Given these existing facts we shouldn’t be dismissing Pluto as a true-blue planet too hastily.

Even though Pluto has earned itself the proverbial page-six-supermarket-tabloid-type-fame most of us could only dream about. And even though I myself thinks that it is very good that a lot of people had become interested in astronomy again and hopes that the Pluto controversy will not end for the sake of making astronomy popular again could anger quite a large number of people. But should the Pluto planet status be resolved soon, like before space tourism or space real estate becomes a booming business?

I would say yes, remember that “overpriced-gentrification-driven” Whitewater land development deal that almost destroyed the Clinton’s political career in America? I mean, should a parcel of land be over-priced by virtue of geologic stability alone? This debacle could affect the future real estate and space tourism development potential of Pluto. Just imagine the rigmarole and legalese nightmare that could ensue if the planetary status of Pluto remains unresolved by the time Paris Hilton’s descendents will be planning to create hotels and ski resorts on Pluto, only to be stymied by unclear zoning laws resulting from Pluto’s unresolved planetary status.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bose-Einstein Condensate Refracting Telescopes

With their ability to slow down light by 100 million or more times, does this mean that Bose-Einstein Condensates have very high refractive indexes and therefore excellent for telescope use?

By: Vanessa Uy

Though not yet mentioned - as far as I know - throughout Star Trek’s 40 or so years of history, just imagine a substance with the ability to slow down light from 300 million meters per second to 3 meters per second – the speed of a little girl riding a bike. With a substance like this, can we ever make the ultimate refracting telescope – i.e. the kind that uses lenses to magnify far away objects – using this substance as our lens?

For about 8 years or so, scientists have been experimenting with Bose-Einstein Condensate and had been observing their property of being able to slow down the speed of light as it passes through them by a factor of 100 million – even a little bit more in subsequent laboratory experiments. Given this kind of refractive index, which since hitherto we can only dream of, will we be soon making astronomical telescopes using Bose-Einstein Condensate for the lenses?

Currently, Bose-Einstein Condensates are still seen as mere “laboratory curiosity”. But since lab experiments have shown that given their ability to slow down light, Bose-Einstein Condensates certainly have refractive indexes several order of magnitudes greater than the ophthalmology-grade glass – which is 35% lead to increase it’s refractive index - currently used as optical lenses in telescope construction. Even the refractive index of diamond lenses – even if you can afford to use one – still pales in comparison to a lens constructed out of Bose-Einstein Condensate.

The higher the refractive index means the smaller or more compact you can make your telescope compared to one made using lenses with a lower refractive index, even if both of them are rated with the same powers of magnification. Looks like Bose-Einstein Condensates will have their first practical use in the field of astronomy. But if Bose-Einstein Condensates are a miracle material when it comes to refracting telescope construction, how come nobody has built one yet?

Using present technology, Bose-Einstein Condensates exists only in temperatures very near to that of absolute zero. It would be very impractical to construct a Bose-Einstein Condensate telescope the size of a Soviet-era RPG-7 with magnification ability comparable to that of the Keck telescope in Hawaii. When it’s cooling system – to maintain the structural integrity of the Bose-Einstein Condensate lenses – is the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Given the somewhat “rapid” advances in technology, a Bose-Einstein Condensate astronomical telescope could be built – someday. Remember back in the 1980’s where 12-bit digital video processing and CCD or charge coupled device cameras with peak quantum efficiencies approaching 85% can only be found in US National Security Agency reconnaissance satellites. Today 12-bit digital video processing is now de rigeur in DVD players – even those made in China. And high quantum efficiency CCD cameras can be easily bought in better specialist astronomy shops at prices from 200 to 1,000 US dollars each – which is nigh on impossible to purchase during the Reagan Administration. Plus those bolometer-on-a-chip helmet-mounted thermal-imaging cameras used by firefighters that used to cost 6,000 dollars 15 years ago can now even be bought for less than the hundred dollars in some garage sales and swap meets.

Technological advances always mean a quantum leap in performance coupled by a dramatic reduction in price and widespread ability. Who knows that 200 years from now, telescopes made from room temperature Bose-Einstein Condensate lenses will be widely available, even to middle-school kids. Too bad Gene Roddenberry haven’t built one for Captain James T. Kirk in the original series of Star Trek.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thomas Harriet: The First to Use the Telescope in Astronomy?

There is now proof that an Englishman from Oxford named Thomas Harriet was the first to use the then newly invented telescope in stargazing a few months before Galileo. Will our schoolbooks be revised?

By: Vanessa Uy

In a debacle somewhat reminiscent of the late 1970’s debate on who were the first to release the first Punk single – The Sex Pistols or The Damned? - Has now invaded the world of astronomy. And the timing that even supermarket tabloids can only dream of, given that we are just starting the UN-declared International Year of Astronomy in honor of the Galileo being the first to use the then newly invented device called the telescope in astronomy on that fateful night in 1609. Will this story be the forever remembered as the bombshell of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy?

The recently discovered document – according to the BBC World report aired on January 14, 2009 proves that the Oxford gentleman-scientist named Thomas Harriet (or is it spelled Harriett?) had beat the Italian polymath named Galileo in being the first to use the then newly invented device called the telescope in stargazing / astronomy. The newly found document focuses on the detailed drawings and sketches used by Thomas Harriet in his attempt to map the mountains on the Moon and to record on what he saw on his telescope near the end of December 1608.

Being a gentleman of stature in 17th Century Oxford, Thomas Harriet probably procrastinated in taking steps to publish his recent findings because he has other more important tings to do. Or because it would take almost superhuman-like feats to publish such groundbreaking and radical scientific findings in an age almost 400 years before the invention of the Internet, never mind Blogging and Web 2.0. Given these preexisting challenges of publishing ones own extremely groundbreaking scientific discoveries during 17th Century Europe, it's easy for both Thomas Harriett and Galileo to be ignorant of each others findings even years after their own lifetimes. But first let us review the a piece of equipment that both of them used to advance the then fledgling science of astronomy - namely the telescope.

The telescope - according to most Europeans at that time - was the product of Dutch spectacle-makers. These Dutch spectacle-makers who had been grinding lenses from chunks of glass - probably since Medieval Times - did so without fully understanding quite how they worked. A few years after 1600, one of them, possibly a Dutch scientists named Hans Lippershey. Discovered by happy accident that two lenses of appropriate curvature, held the proper distance apart, makes distant objects look larger. Galileo was the first - as we know so far - to put the fascinating invention to serious work in astronomy. But was he really the only one who did it during that time?

Given that Galileo was the first to publish his findings, he established the principal claim. Which sadly also draws the attention of the Pan-European Inquisition and the 17th Century Vatican Police Apparatus to the detriment of Galileo’s future standing in the scientific community of 17th Century Italy.

Back to the mountains on the Moon issue, dispute was arising fast over who should take credit for these glorious new discoveries hitherto never seen before the telescope was pointed to the heavens. Even though Galileo was very much aware of the dilemma between the urge to publish his findings quickly, and the need for continued observations until he was certain of their accuracy. Galileo chose to publish his findings immediately, thus was forever credited for being the first one to use the telescope as an astronomical instrument. Even though a gentleman from Oxford, England named Thomas Harriet had beat him to it by several months.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

My 2009 International Year of Astronomy Wish Lists

Even tough we are primarily honoring Galileo’s pioneering efforts in his use of the telescope in astronomy, we all can still wish for very interesting celestial phenomena this 2009 can’t we?

By: Vanessa Uy

Yes it was primitive, but have you ever wondered why no one before Galileo ever decided out of curiosity to use 15th Century era telescopes for stargazing and astronomical purposes before that fateful night back in 1609? We could be honoring Galileo out of his sheer luck 400 years later, but given his resolve against the genocidal bureaucratic might of the Inquisition, he really does deserve the honor.

Suppose we amateur stargazers and amateur astronomers can make a wish list about very interesting celestial / astronomical phenomena to occur that could make the night skies of 2009 the most interesting of the last 400 years. What would it be? For the sheer fun of it, how about a very bright supernova that could put the supernova of 1987 – Supernova 1987A – into shame? Though the supernova should occur not too close to our system to allow it to blow away the Earth’s ozone layer. Otherwise, a very bright supernova would be perfect.

Scores of comets would also be a good choice. Especially ones that rival the size and brightness magnitude of the comet Hyakutake’s appearance back in 1996, or what about the appearance of an oddly shaped comet? Like the Arend-Roland Comet of 1956. Or for an ultimate year-end finale, our large bright comet’s occultation with our very bright supernova during the Yuletide Season of 2009 just to make things more festive given the global economic downturn would still be around by then.

Those previously mentioned are probably the only ones that are of immediate concern to us amateur astronomers. Given the capabilities of the telescopes that we immediately possess. Those who are into astronomy as their day jobs could discover more fascinating and exotic astronomical phenomena this 2009. Like new extra-solar planets the size of our Earth for instance. Or what about new Kuiper Belt objects whose properties allow yet again the International Astronomical Union’s reevaluation of Pluto’s status as a bona fide planet.

Yep, those pesky little Kuiper Belt objects that had recently become the wildcards when it comes to Pluto’s status as a planet. Which to me is always good news, given that astronomy has always been ruminating in its complacent obscurity (in Uranus?). A controversy that allows it further mainstream-media exposure – even supermarket tabloid-style exposure – is always good for astronomy.

Remembering Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Is our contemporary astronomical community very reluctant to honor the achievements of Miss Henrietta Swan Leavitt because it could reveal the very recent chauvinistic past of astronomy?

By: Vanessa Uy

Her mathematical works in astronomy were frequently rumored to have helped in the eventual discovery of the planet Pluto in 1930. But American astronomer Henrietta Swan Levitt (1868 – 1921) was better known in the astronomical community for her discovery of the relation between the absolute magnitudes of Cepheid variable stars and the periods of their light-variations. Which later provided as a method for “sounding” the depths of our cosmos. She is also credited with the discovery of a number of asteroids, four novas, and 2,400 variable stars.

Around 1912 – i.e. during the early years of stellar spectroscopy - particularly at the Harvard Astronomical Observatory, almost all of the data were catalogued and analyzed by female astronomers – called “computers” – who were forbidden because of their gender / sex to use the telescopes. It is quite ironic that during the “Dark Ages” – i.e. in the early 20th Century’s chauvinist-leaning sociological period of modern astronomy - that the work of such female astronomers as Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon (1863 – 1941) came to be of greater significance. Especially when compared to the work of many of their male colleagues who saw these female astronomers to be nothing more than menial assistants.

Back in 1912, Miss Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an assistant at Harvard Astronomical Observatory had been assigned the task of studying 25 Cepheid variable stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud. Without any prior idea of the remoteness of the stars she was investigating, she noticed a peculiar characteristic that had since made all variable stars famous: The brighter they are, the more slowly they fluctuate. Miss Leavitt thought her find rather peculiar and published it. At once, because of her discovery, the great Danish astronomer at that time Ejnar Hertzprung – co-discoverer with Princeton’s H. N. Russel of the color-brightness graph and of the difference between dwarf and giant stars – took serious notice. The two of them soon realized that Miss Leavitt’s curious discovery might be the key to measuring the vast distances of the universe.

Before Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s discovery of Cepheid variable stars’ brightness fluctuations, astronomers previously used the geometric method of parallax in their attempts of measuring the vastness of our universe. Parallax is the apparent movement of stars, or in actuality a reflection of the Earth’s motion as viewed against the background of more distant stars. But parallax has one glaring drawback when used to measure the almost incomprehensible vastness of our universe. When measuring distances of 500 light-years and beyond, our base angle with respect of the diameter of the “circle” – actually it is an ellipse of low eccentricity - defining the Earth’s orbital path around the Sun could fall ridiculously low. When our base angle of parallax falls below 0.006 second, parallax as a means of geometrically measuring the vast distances of the universe becomes essentially useless.

This is where the beauty and brilliance of Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s discovery of using Cepheid variables to measure the vast distances of our universe comes into it’s own. If astronomers can see the distant galaxies and their retinue of Cepheid variables, those astronomers can measure how far away that galaxy is with certainty hitherto unobtainable previously via geometric parallax. Just imagine using geometric parallax to measure the distance of our nearest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. The parallax triangle that results in measuring the Great Galaxy of Andromeda’s 2 million or so light-year distance from us would look for all intents and purposes nothing more than a virtually straight line.

The 2009 International Year of Astronomy: Galileo Rem

Primarily a commemoration of that fateful night back in 1609 when Galileo first used a telescope in astronomy, but has our contemporary society come a long way since the Inquisition?

By: Vanessa Uy

When Galileo turned his “primitive” telescope to the night sky on that fateful night back in 1609, he never expected in his wildest dreams the wondrous vistas he had opened which people at that time had hardly dreamed were there. Galileo found mountains on the Moon; he soon found out that Venus had Moon-like phases, which proved the planet’s Sun-centered orbit. And also the four “little stars” orbiting Jupiter, which were later named collectively as the “Galilean Satellites” in Galileo’s honor; the countless stars never before seen in the main band of the Milky Way, plus the Sunspots traversing the solar disk which made him deduce that the Sun rotates. With all these discoveries, in one fell swoop, the old, comforting idea of the planet Earth being the center of creation was doomed 400 years ago.

Armed with these findings, Galileo became a convinced Copernican – i.e. the Earth and the rest of the planet’s revolving around the Sun, unlike the Church accepted Earth-centered Ptolemaic system – which spurred him into a “crusade” to gain Church acceptance of the Copernican system. But the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church at that time proved unyielding and even threatened to unleash the might of the Inquisition on Galileo. Which eventually coerced him to admit “errors” in order to avoid torture - all proved to be in vain to still Galileo’s questioning mind and his faith in God.

Now 400 years after that fateful night when Galileo decided to use the relatively primitive telescopes of the time for stargazing, the 2009 International Year of Astronomy should – in my opinion – be dedicated to Galileo’s resolve in the face of the “evil” bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church. Science shouldn’t be undermined with established power politics, especially when the findings are not to the liking of the powers-that-be. Remember during the height of the Bush Administration when the American ultra-conservative Christian Right decided to make scientific data proving that global warming / climate change is real be labeled a hoax and be made part of their accepted Christian doctrine? Well, America’s ultra-conservative Christian Right almost got away with it because plans to wean-off our dependence on fossil fuels were backlogged for eight years in order for them to maintain their political and financial hegemony - at the expense of our planet’s environment.

Luckily in the nick of time, a more enlightened leader was elected as the new US president in the name of Barack Obama. Economic problems aside, 2009 might yet prove to be a good year for astronomy. Lest we forget what Galileo already experienced first-hand almost 400 years ago that science and politics really are very nasty bedfellows. Which sadly what got Giordano Bruno burned alive at the steak. Maybe the Inquisition is still alive in the 21st Century.