Friday, July 31, 2015

Mike Brown's Planetary Science Class on Coursea (review) OR How I got to glimpse another life

Earlier this year, a post on cloudy nights spoke of an opportunity to take an online planetary science class with Mike Brown at CalTech. The course was based on a graduate level course, and consisted of online lectures, quizzes and homework. The course started with thousands, however only around 800 actually passed with a 70%. I made an 89%.

When growing up, what got me into astronomy and space was a NOVA special about the Voyager space probes that flew to the outer solar system. It was narrated by Patrick Stewart from Star Trek The Next Generation. This would have been around the time I was in 5th grade or so. I didn't think much about planetary science as a career till I was much older. Life has a way of getting in the way sometimes and things that teenagers can't control can derail things. I remember in high school there being a senior level geology class that I wanted to take. I, however, was not able to take it because of school rules. In the end it would not matter because I dropped out of high school my senior year anyway. I worked for a couple of years and then one day decided I was going to go to college. I was 19, I was in Missouri with my Dad visiting my grandmother, and by golly I was going to do it. And I did. Community college, I took English 101, Math 093D (Pre-Alegbra) and Library Skills. I passed all the courses, with each being a B. The following semester I took Math 95D (Algebra),English 102, Psychology 101, and Geology 101 with lab! So it took a few years but I got the Geology class. I passed it with a B+, and decided I was going to major in Geology and eventually study the planets. I really wanted to study Neptune! I have always loved the planet since that old NOVA special.

In the end I would not study planetary science or geology. I today have an accounting degree, and work in banking (and I do also have a high school diploma). I help develop programs that stop fraud on debit cards. I am not the person who calls you wanting to know if you did a transaction... I promise! I help write "rules" for cards that stop bad transactions from happening in the first place. But enough about that!

Now fast forward to 2015. This class I thought would be just some lectures and simple homework. Ya know, list the order of the planets. What is a crater. How does the Sun work. Stuff that one can learn on Wikipedia. I signed up because well it is space and I love anything about space. The first lecture was pretty much where the planets are in the sky. How to download the program Stellarium. That kind of thing. By about the third or fourth lecture the class was learning about the atmosphere of Mars. Needless to say this is not going to be a rehash of some "How The Universe Works" tv show or Astro 101 class.

Over the nine weeks the class got very deep. We learned about the Nice model, the Grand Tack model. We studied the chemistry of comets. We learned why Europa has oceans. We learned about why Enceladus has plumes and a ocean, and what it means. We learned that the solar system has an asteroid belt that has actual belts inside it. Yes belts inside a belt!

In the end I was challenged. And in the end I learned I was probably never capable of being a planetary scientist. Now this isn't some down with me, I am sad post. Not at all. People who study space have to be very smart and very good at math and science. I have a passion for space, but that doesn't mean I can do high level math and physics and chemistry. Academics in the space sciences also have to be willing to put up with a tough life style. They are broke a good part of their 20s and maybe 30s being grad students and post docs and researchers living on a grant, shoestring budget and maybe a prayer. And in the end, they have to be the best of the best when it comes to academics and grades. I am a solid B student. I am not a "professor smart" person.

So where am I going with this. This is sounding like a Debbie Downer. I for nine weeks, got to be a planetary scientist, well a student planetary scientist.... and I loved it. I am proud of my 89%. I am proud of a "certificate" that I earned (it is just a PDF doc with no credits at any school). I actually got to learn science and not just look at pictures or listen to a podcast (while usually mowing grass or working) and learn why things are what they are in the sky. Why our solar system is the way it is. In essence I was that fifth grader again watching and learning about the solar system all over again like it was new.

In the end I got to glimpse another life of something I could never do, but for nine weeks I did do.

But I will warn you those who are reading, it is dang tough. When the guest lecture by Bethany Ehlmann starts, you are going to be really second guessing yourself... I know I did. But I am so glad I toughed it out and grew as a person.

Thank You Mike Brown. I can not recommend your course enough.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings (book review)

I finished this book recently, I started it back in January. Needless to say this one was really tough for me to get through. The topic of exoplanets is so interesting, but this author really doesn't tell that story. He tries to... until he tells the reader about the geology of the northeastern US or in another chapter tells me about climate change or the last space shuttle mission or... well you get the idea. I think a history of the discovery of exoplanets would be an interesting read, but this book isn't it. The section on Geoff Marcy was very short, however it is clear the author thought high of Sara Seager. I know the folks at Sky News said this was one of the best books of 2014, while I have tremendous respect for Terry Dickinson and Alan Dyer, this book just didn't do it for me. If you want to read it, wait till it hits your local library or is a dollar or two on the used book market. I may have had too high of hopes for this book being I really like astronomy books similar to this (ex. The Day We Found The Universe by Bartusiak), but Five Billion Years of Solitude is really just meh.

And to be fair. I think a book on the geology of the eastern USA would be interesting. I have read about climate change and it is a problem like the author implies.... oh and I do like Space Shuttles, have read about those too! I just don't need any of this in a book about exoplanets... In the end this should have been about 50 to 100 pages shorter or done in a magazine like National Geographic. Now to be fair this is Mr. Billings first book, but I wonder if this was the first book for the editor as well.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Astronomy education on the Internet

Today we are very fortunate to live in a time where one can find so much astronomy on the Internet. When I was younger and before there was a really a Internet, say early 1990s one would have to wait till Sky & Telescope or Astronomy magazine showed up at the local bookstore or your mailbox.

Fast forward to today. The magazines still publish paper items, however if you want to read what researchers are doing you can go on Astro-ph and read research papers before they are published. Heck they even have a twitter feed, that alone makes having a twitter account worthwhile. If the planets are more you are thing, the planetary society has a wonderful blog to keep you update on solar system matters. Again many of the researchers have a twitter feed or homepage, so you can keep up to date on what they are up to. If there is specific space mission, they most likely have a website you can follow as well.

If learning in a more academic environment is more you thing, check out iTunes and iTunesU. Just today I listened to a lecture on asteroids that was done at the University of Arizona (my favorites are in the LPL and Steward Observatory sections). Another good choice is the Astronomy Cast podcast, download an episode and learn some astronomy while working out in the gym or going for a walk in your neighborhood. Even S&T has a weekly email blast of interesting astronomy news.

So when I hear the older generations complain about how things are not as good now as the good ole days, I have to take a moment and keep calm. I for one am glad that folks don't have to wait months and months to get astronomy news. Having so much knowledge available and only needing an Internet connection (or smart phone), who would want to go back?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Messier 67 Open Cluster

I have started sketching the Messier objects with the Orion dob, I figured it would be a fun way to earn the Messier Observing Pin from the Astronomical League. I caught this cluster earlier this month and boy did I enjoy it. This is a cluster that gets overlooked by so many other grand clusters out there such as M45, The Double Cluster, Messier 103 and The Wild Duck Cluster. Messier 67 just seems not to get much loving. Well as I write this there is a thread on CN that is asking about open clusters and what are favorites of the readers, ironically someone mentioned Messier 67.

So what is it that makes Messier 67 a nice one. Well it is pretty easy to find (see this chart). It is also pretty bright, even visible to the unaided eye in dark skies, easy with binoculars. And when you put a scope on it, using lower power the cluster has lots of bright member stars plus lots of neat faint ones. It also has some dark “lanes” where there are no stars. To me it seemed the stars seemed to go off in directions in clumps. I also thought there were a few stars that hinted some red color... take a peek and see.

Messier 67 is located in the constellation of Cancer. It has a apparent magnitude of 6.1. It is one of the oldest open clusters, and may contain some blue stragglers. For professional astronomers, M67 is interesting because of that.

So get out there and check this cluster out!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Well... Because App Lists Are So Cool Right Now!

The March issue of Sky and Telescope has a list of apps that many of their editors like. Well I read over their list and some I agree with some I don’t. So for this bonus blog post for January I thought I would tell you what is on my iPhone 5c as of January 31, 2015.

Sky Safari 4 Basic.... This is my app that I use for when out observing with binoculars or wanting to know where a comet might be before I go out that next morning. I downloaded this to replace Stellarium mostly because this app is way more powerful and frankly I was really miffed that Stellarium started charging money for their app in the App store. Sorry just don’t think it is all that good for the price, though nice if free.

Gas Giants... Basically tells you where the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are. I like it can be done with telescope orientation. The eyepiece view is a little lacking though.

Jupiter Moons... I got this because Sky and Telescope puts it out, does what Gas Giants does, but I like the presentation a little better. Same goes for Saturn Moons too.

Mars Atlas.... A really cool atlas that will show you what Mars looks like in your scope when it is near opposition. I would say this is essential for figuring out what the dark features one is seeing.

Lunar Atlas.... Same as Mars Atlas but with the Moon. Obviously more useful since the Moon is more observable then Mars.

Satellite Safari... Basically like Sky Safari but focuses on satellites. Really cool, though it can be a little limited to due it’s database.

Sky Week Plus... Another S&T app. Nice. Gives a good event or two each night to observe.

SkyGuide.... Beautiful. Was a free download from Pick of The Week. Really glad I went to Starbucks that week. I use it from time to time.

Star Atlas... Meh, it is okay. I am a little disappointed with it. I was expecting more, but when you need an atlas on your iPhone it is okay.

Orion... All it is good for is downloading their current catalog. It is nice time waster at work though!

NASA... Just get it, keep up with the space program.

ESA... Same as NASA, just applies to Europe. Both apps let you watch launches live though which is cool.

APOD... Astronomy Picture Of The Day. Enjoy the pictures. Sometimes videos won’t play though.

Exoplanet.... Really cool to keep up on discoveries, though the push notifications can get a bit annoying.

Moon Map Pro.... What I like with this is the LRO images. This coupled with Lunar Atlas to me should be a staple for every observer.

iCSC... This is the new version and it is really good. It can be a little slow to update and the set up took it a couple of times to remember my favorites. I so prefer this to Scope Nights which I know S&T has talked up so much. I actually liked Scope Nights when I first got it, however when the developer updated it and most of the features became only available if downloaded for a fee. Sorry but that isn’t the way to run an app and well the comments on the Apple site reflect that! The Clear Sky Clock deserves a good app and this is it.

So those are the apps I use. I am glad for all of them and they all serve a purpose. If you have any specific questions leave me a comment and I will be glad to answer you.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

In Praise of The White Light Solar Filter

One of the things I am very thankful for is white light solar filters. They are available for purchase for most types of telescopes. The filter can come in various forms, but all fit on the front of the telescope. Any filters that screw into the eyepiece of your scope you should not use for safety reasons.

I ordered my solar filter from Orion when I ordered the telescope. The one I use is made of Baader Solar Film. The film is cut to size and put into a cell and it just pops on to the front of the telescope. It makes for easy viewing of the sun in what is called white light. The white light image of the sun will show you sunspots which you can track across the disk of the sun. The white light image is the same as that as the solar telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, however that is a dedicated solar telescope that uses a projection method. In white light you will not see flares or mass ejections from the Sun. That requires a dedicated telescope that sees in "Hydrogen Alpha." These dedicated telescopes run over 500.00 for a small basic one and top out in the thousands of dollars for a top of the line rig.

I really think white light solar filters should be in every amateur astronomer’s arsenal. You don’t need a large or expensive scope to use one. The filter themselves are pretty cheap too. The one I purchased was about $50.00. A white light solar filter would be a good thing to get for a old small refractor that you may not being using any more OR to take with you for long multiple night star parties so you have something to do during the day. A smaller scope in my opinion would be best for a solar filter just because the seeing is usually not great in the day time... however you don’t have to deal with dew or really cold temperatures either. To me that is a win-win right there.

There is also a Sunspotter pin from the Astronomical League that you can complete.

In short a white light solar filter to me is one of those things everyone should have, it will get you out using your scope more. I know for me it gets me out there pretty much once a week using the scope!

Oh one last thing, I promised a post a month last November. I am sorry I didn't get one out last month. I was under the weather with the flu for a bit last month... so you readers out there (all 3 of you ha ha) will get a second blog post this month!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A big update! A big update!

So it is has been a while since I have updated the blog. A lot has happened. The LX200 I was using finally died. The RA motor system went out and I decided to part it out. Now today I have a new Orion 8in SkyQuest XT Dob. I am excited to use the dob and am excited that I have a scope that doesn’t have anything electronic to break. I am not going to make this blog a review since it is still early in the ownership, but overall I am satisfied... but there are some items that will be modified.

I have decided to start observing all the Messier objects with it as my first project. I have seen them all once or twice at least in my life but it has been years since I have used a scope without GOTO. I am going to enjoy star hopping and using charts again. I also got a solar filter and completed my first solar disk drawing.

I know I have said this many times, but I am really going to try and make this a monthly blog. I know it will be tough, but I am going to do it. I think making it a goal much like my observing projects will help.

So that is all I have for now but keep checking for there will be updates I promise.

(No really I do!)