Annual Atlanta Star Party Coming Soon!

If you happen to be attending DragonCon or just live near Atlanta, come and listen to some fantastic speakers and help do astronomy research and education at the Annual Atlanta Star Party!

What: Since 2009, this annual charity event celebrates science and space, and brings people together for a great cause.

When: August 28, 2014, 7:00 p.m.

Pamela Gay and the crew at the 2013 Atlanta Star Party. Credit: Bruce Press
Pamela Gay and the crew at the 2013 Atlanta Star Party. Credit: Bruce Press

Who: Astronomers Pamela Gay, Nicole Gugliucci and Derek Demeter will be speaking at the event.

Where: The Emory University Math and Physics Department hosts the celebration at The Emory Math & Science Center, 400 Dowman Drive, Atlanta, GA 30322.

Why: Proceeds from the Star Party go to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America and CosmoQuest. And, as always, we throw this party in memory of Jeff Medkeff, the “Blue-Collar Scientist.”

Family fun at the 2012 Atlanta Star Party. Credit: Bruce Press.
Family fun at the 2013 Atlanta Star Party. Credit: Bruce Press.

Tickets can be bought at http://atlantastarparty.com/tickets/ and you can share the promo code STARRY2014 for $5 off.

There is also a silent auction already started at: http://atlantastarparty.com/silent-auction/

Why Is the Solar System Flat?

It’s no mystery that the planets, moons, asteroids, etc. in the Solar System are arranged in a more-or-less flat, plate-like alignment in their orbits around the Sun.* But why is that? In a three-dimensional Universe, why should anything have a particular alignment at all? In yet another entertaining video from the folks at MinutePhysics, we see the reason behind this seemingly coincidental feature of our Solar System — and, for that matter, pretty much all planetary systems that have so far been discovered (not to mention planetary ring systems, accretion disks, many galaxies… well, you get the idea.) Check it out above.

Video by MinutePhysics. Created by Henry Reich
Continue reading “Why Is the Solar System Flat?”

New Online Classes to Help You Learn More about the Universe

Roughly eighty percent of all the mass in the Universe is made of dark matter – a mysterious invisible substance responsible for the structure of galaxies and the patterns of the cosmos on the very largest scales. But how do we know that?

Astronomical images are beautiful, but that’s not their primary purpose from a scientist’s point of view. How can we take those images and infer things about what they are?

We only know of one planet harboring life: Earth. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos. How can we infer things about possible alien organisms when we can’t see them (yet)?

If you’re curious about those and other classes, CosmoAcademy — a project from the CosmoQuest educational and citizen-science group — could be for you. We’re offering three new online classes: Introduction to Dark Matter, Introduction to Astronomy via Color Imaging, and Life Beyond Earth: Introduction to Astrobiology.

These classes are short, four-hour courses designed for curious but busy people. All CosmoAcademy classes are offered online through Google+ Hangouts, a type of video chat. Part of the reason we do that is to limit the size of courses to eight students. That allows us to provide individual instruction in a way no other kind of online class is able to do – you aren’t a faceless student, but part of every discussion. In fact, if there’s a topic you want to discuss, there’s a good chance your instructor will take the time to talk about it.

Interested? See our course listings, and please let me know if you have any questions. Here are a few more details:

CQX015: Introduction to Dark Matter

Roughly eighty percent of all the mass in the Universe is made of dark matter – a mysterious invisible substance responsible for the structure of galaxies. But how do we know that? In this course, we’ll examine the evidence in favor of dark matter’s existence, from the rotation of galaxies to the radiation left over from the infancy of the cosmos. After that, we’ll examine what we can infer about the identity of dark matter and sketch out some of the experiments designed to detect it. This class assumes no background except a strong interest in astronomy and cosmology.

Instructor: Matthew Francis
Course structure: Two weeks, four 60-minute meetings
Meeting times: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9–10 PM US Eastern time (6-7 PM US Pacific time)
Course dates: January 28—February 6, 2014

Enroll today!

CQX021: Introduction to Astronomy Via Color Imaging

When astronomers look at a star, nebula or galaxy for the first time, they see some unreachably distant object acting in some unknown way. What does it have to be made of and how does it have to be acting to look like that? In this class we will be looking at how we use the visual appearance of astronomical objects to figure out what they are. We will examine this problem by making our own color images from the sources provided by observatories from real research projects. From the subtle hues of stars in a distant galaxy to the eerie neon colors of nebulae to the chaotic Sun, by looking at objects in the right light, we can find out what makes them tick.

Instructor: Peter Dove
Course structure: Two weeks, four 60-minute meetings
Meeting times: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8–9 PM US Eastern time (5-6 PM US Pacific time)
Course dates: Tuesday, February 25—Thursday, March 6

Enroll today!

CQX013 – Astrobiology: Life in the Universe

What will it take to find extraterrestrial life? Frank Drake penned his famous “equation” to determine the instances of life in the Galaxy over 50 years ago. Meant more as a discussion guideline than a rigorous mathematical formula, it will guide our discussion on the science of astronomy, biology, and astrobiology as we consider the possibility of life in the Universe.

Instructor: Nicole Gugliucci
Course structure: Two weeks, four 60-minute meetings
Meeting times: Mondays and Thursdays, 9–10 PM US Eastern time (6-7 PM US Pacific time)
Course dates: Monday, March 17 — Thursday, March 27

Enroll today!

New Online Astronomy Course from CosmoQuest

For those of you who’d like to brush up on your Astronomy knowledge, or never took Astronomy 102, CosmoQuest has a new online course offering for you!

Following the success of the initial 101-level course (CQX 001: Solar System Science), the newest course offering is “CQX 003: Galaxies and Galaxy Clusters”. Just like the previous course offering, CQX003 is an 8-session, 4-week course, which will explore galaxies, galaxy clusters, and brief introduction to cosmology.

“Planets are cool and all, but I’m an extragalactic girl at heart. There is just NO comparison for studying the way that billions of stars interact in some of the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe.” said Nicole Gugliucci (CosmoQuest) via the CosmoQuest Blog. “This class will cover all of that as well as what active galaxies are all about, another one of my favorite subjects. Then it will round up with a brief introduction to cosmology which is truly the study of EVERYTHING.”

Once again, the course will be a hybrid online course with lectures taking place via Google+ hangouts, with course assignments and homework assigned via Moodle. The instructor will once again be yours truly, Ray Sanders. For those not familiar with me, I’m a research assistant at Arizona State University, and have written for Universe Today in the past. I also blog when I have time over at “Dear Astronomer”.

In addition to my lectures, there may also be “guest” appearances from astronomers Dr. Pamela Gay, and Dr. Nicole Gugliucci.

“I love my solar system and its amazing planets and moons, but this class will give you a chance to expand your understanding beyond the solar system and explore the limits of what we know about the universe.” adds Georgia Bracey (CosmoQuest). “Beginning back when the idea of other galaxies was still a matter of debate, you’ll journey forward to examine our present-day understanding of how galaxies are formed and evolve, including a look at some of the hot topics in astronomy like dark matter, dark energy, active galactic nuclei, and the geometry of the universe.”

CosmoQuest has additional courses in the works for students interested in Cosmology, Data Reduction, Geology/Planetary Science, and more.

The cost for the class is $240, and the class is limited to 8 participants, with the possibility for an additional 5 participants. CQX003: Galaxies and Galaxy Clusters begins on November 26th 2012. More information, and a sign up link is at: http://cosmoquest.org/Classes

Don’t miss this opportunity to combine the convenience of an online class with the lively interaction of a small group of astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts!

CosmoQuest Offering Online Astronomy Course

Want to brush up on your astro-knowledge? Wishing you had taken that Astronomy 101 course in college? CosmoQuest – the citizen science and web-based astronomy community — is offering online astronomy courses, and their first offering is now open for signups! “CQX 001: Solar System Science” is an 8-session, 4-week course, exploring the solar system, planetary geology, and extrasolar planets.

“Not everyone has access to astronomy and space science classes,” said Dr. Pamela Gay, the founder of CosmoQuest. “With CosmoQuest, we’re looking to make the universe accessible to everyone at a cost comparable to what you might pay for dance or music lessons.”

The classes will be offered online through a Google+ Hangout, and this first course offering will be taught by someone familiar to Universe Today readers: Ray Sanders, who contributes to UT and also answers astronomy questions at his blog, Dear Astronomer. Ray is a research assistant at Arizona State University.

“By combining Hangout technology with educational content, we’ll be able to deliver an outstanding classroom experience,” Ray said. “In this first course, CosmoQuest students will be able to participate in typical “Astro 101” solar system course material – our Sun and its planets. We’ll also briefly explore Pluto’s status, astrobiology, geology, and planetary systems outside our solar system.”

“Solar System Science” is just the first of many classes that CosmoQuest has planned.

“In the coming months, we’ll be opening courses on data reduction, observing, stars, galaxies, and more,” said Pamela. “Our goal is to prepare people to take part in more and more advanced citizen science programs over time.”

If you’ve ever participated in a Google+ Hangout, you know how fun they can be. Here’s a chance to use a Hangout to really put your brain to work over the summer!

“By keeping the classes small and meeting “face-to-face” using Google Hangouts, CosmoQuest’s online classes let students engage in content-rich real-time dialogue with their instructor and fellow classmates,” said Georgia Bracey, who is with the Education & Public Outreach team at Cosmoquest. “This brings a high level of flexibility, depth, and student-centeredness to the class in a way that’s not usually possible in a traditional lecture course.”

The cost for the class is $240, and the class is limited to 8 participants. This first CosmoQuest Academy class begins on July 24, 2012. You can find out more information and sign up at this link.

ERGO – Students Sign up to Build the World’s Largest Telescope!

Inspired by SETI Chief, Jill Tarter’s 2009 TED ‘Prize Wish’ to “Empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company” the Energetic Ray Global Observatory or ERGO is an exciting new to project that aims to enlist students around the world to turn our whole planet into one massive cosmic-ray telescope to detect the energetic charged particles that arrive at Earth from space. Find out how it works and how your school can get involved Continue reading “ERGO – Students Sign up to Build the World’s Largest Telescope!”

Chaos and Education at 120,000 feet for Camilla the Rubber Chicken

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In my travels, I’ve had the pleasure of regularly meeting up with Camilla the Rubber Chicken, the social media maven and mascot for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. But lately I’ve been seeing here virtually everywhere — on television, splashed across all sorts of websites, and even in my local newspaper. What Camilla does is try to capture the imagination of students and get them interested in space and science. With her latest adventures she’s done just that, and now captured the attention of people all around the world, too.

What did she do? She flew to the stratosphere — about 36,000 meters (120,000 ft) up — on a helium balloon right into the throes of one of the most intense solar radiation storms since 2003.

“I am still glowing,” Camilla joked.

Inflating Camilla's ride. Image courtesy Bishop Union High School.

Students from Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky group spearheaded the flights, as Camilla actually flew twice — once on March 3 before the radiation storm and again on March 10 while the storm was in full swing. This would give the students a basis for comparison of the radiation environment.

On board with Camilla was a payload of four cameras, a cryogenic thermometer two GPS trackers, radiation detectors, Seven insects and two-dozen sunflower seeds (fittingly, the variety known as “Sunspot” — Helianthus annuus) all inside a modified department store lunchbox.

“We equipped Camilla with sensors to measure the radiation,” says Sam Johnson, 16, of Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky student group. “At the apex of our flight, the payload was above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere.”

Camilla made it back in one piece, but unfortunately, the insects died.

“This story is really about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and about these kids from Bishop, California who have worked really hard in developing the mission, planning it, and then executing it,” Camilla told Universe Today. “They had to overcome set-backs, review their processes, come up with better solutions and implement them. For them it was a great hands-on learning experience and they are and can be proud of their accomplishments.”

NASA knows that these kinds of programs, where kids can get involved in hands-on research, are very important for introducing and keeping students interested in STEM subjects, important areas of study for future NASA scientists and engineers.

“As you know, I not only want to educate about our Sun and space weather, but I want to inspire and show kids (and adults) how much fun science and engineering really is,” Camilla said via email. “Team SDO’s goal has always been to encourage more girls into STEM careers and seeing that this team had several girls on the team was just the most rewarding.”

Students prepare Camilla for her ride into the stratosphere. Image courtesy Bishop Union High School.

The video of the balloon popping and part of Camilla’s flight:

During the two-and-a-half-hour flights, Camilla spent approximately 90 minutes in the stratosphere where temperatures ( -40 to -60 C, -40 to -76 F) and air pressures (1 percent sea level) are akin to those on the planet Mars. The balloon popped, as planned, at an altitude of about 40 km (25 miles) and Camilla parachuted safely back to Earth. The entire payload was recovered intact from a landing site in the Inyo Mountains.

The fifth grade students who assisted with the flight have planted the sunflower seeds to see if radiated seeds produce flowers any different from seeds that stayed behind on Earth. They also pinned the corpses of the insects to a black “Foamboard of Death,” a rare collection of bugs that have been to the edge of space.

Meanwhile, Camilla’s radiation badges have been sent to a commercial laboratory for analysis.

The students say they are looking forward to the data and perhaps sending Camilla back for more.

“I truly believe that text books will always be around,” Camilla said, “but real-life hands-on projects like these are wonderful, and will become more popular.”

Here’s a video of an X-class flare from sunspot AR1429, which unleashed more than 50 solar flares during the first two weeks of March:

Read more about Camilla’s adventures, or our previous article, How a Rubber Chicken is Spreading the Word About NASA’s Space Missions and Science.

How Small Are Atoms?

Here on Universe Today we often discuss things that exist on the atomic and sub-atmonic scale. Even though astronomy is concerned with very big things that happen over very, very large distances and time spans, the reality is that our Universe is driven by events occurring on the tiny atomic scale.

We all know atoms are really small (and the particles inside them are even smaller.) But… how small are they, really? To help answer that question, here’s a neat little animation from TEDEducation, presented by Jonathan Bergmann and Cognitive Media.

(That’s one big grapefruit!)

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Texas School Kids Get To Talk To Space

Some lucky sixth-, seventh- and eigth-graders at the O. Henry Middle School in Austin, Texas got the chance to chat with Expedition 30 astronauts Dan Burbank, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers aboard the International Space Station today, getting answers to their questions about life in orbit. The video was shared by NASA TV shortly after. Enjoy!

Credit: NASA

Student Alert: GRAIL Naming Contest – Essay Deadline November 11

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Student Alert ! – Here’s your once in a lifetime chance to name Two NASA robots speeding at this moment to the Moon on a super science mission to map the lunar gravity field. They were successfully launched from the Earth to the Moon on September 10, 2011. Right now the robots are called GRAIL A and GRAIL B. But, they need real names that inspire. And they need those names real soon. The goal is to “capture the spirit and excitement of lunar exploration”, says NASA – the US Space Agency.

NASA needs your help and has just announced an essay writing contest open to students in Grades K – 12 at schools in the United States. The deadline to submit your essay is November 11, 2011. GRAIL stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory.”

The rules state you need to pick two names and explain your choices in 500 words or less in English. Your essay can be any length up to 500 words – even as short as a paragraph. But, DO NOT write more than 500 words or your entry will be automatically disqualified.

Learn more about the GRAIL Essay Naming Contest here:

Read all the Official Contest Rules here:

Download the Naming Contest Submission Form here:

Students: NASA Wants You to Name that GRAIL !
Write an Essay and name these twin Lunar mapping satellites. NASA’s twin GRAIL A & B science probes are now streaking to the Moon and arrive on New Year’s Day 2012. This picture shows how they looked, mounted side by side, during launch preparations prior to blasting off for the Moon on Sept. 10, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The GRAIL A and B lunar spaceships are twins – just like those other awe inspiring robots “Spirit” and “Opportunity” , which were named by a 10 year old girl student and quickly became famous worldwide and forever because of their exciting science missions of Exploration and Discovery.They arrive in Lunar Orbit on New Year’s Day 2012.

Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10 from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer

And there is another way that students can get involved in NASA’s GRAIL mission.

GRAIL A & B are both equipped with four student-run MoonKAM cameras. Students can suggest targets for the cameras. Then the cameras will take close-up views of the lunar surface, taking tens of thousands of images and sending them back to Earth.

“Over 1100 middle schools have signed up to participate in the MoonKAM education and public outreach program to take images and engage in exploration,” said Prof. Maria Zuber of MIT.

Prof. Zuber is the top scientist on the mission and she was very excited to announce the GRAIL Essay Naming contest right after the twin spaceships blasted off to the Moon on Sep 10, 2011 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

What is the purpose of GRAIL ?

“GRAIL simply put, is a ‘Journey to the Center of the Moon’,” says Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.

“It will probe the interior of the moon and map its gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before. We will learn more about the interior of the moon with GRAIL than all previous lunar missions combined. Precisely knowing what the gravity fields are will be critical in helping to land future human and robotic spacecraft. The moon is not very uniform. So it’s a dicey thing to fly orbits around the moon.”

“There have been many missions that have gone to the moon, orbited the moon, landed on the moon, brought back samples of the moon,” said Zuber. “But the missing piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the moon is what the deep interior is like.”

So, what are you waiting for.

Start thinking and writing. Students – You can be space explorers too !

Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
GRAIL Lunar Blastoff Gallery
GRAIL Twins Awesome Launch Videos – A Journey to the Center of the Moon
NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core
GRAIL Unveiled for Lunar Science Trek — Launch Reset to Sept. 10
Last Delta II Rocket to Launch Extraordinary Journey to the Center of the Moon on Sept. 8
NASAs Lunar Mapping Duo Encapsulated and Ready for Sept. 8 Liftoff
GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad
GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery