When you are an “astronomy guy”, around this time of year you get inquiries from friends looking to buy a telescope as a Christmas present. Often this is for a child or a grandchild, but sometimes the friend is shopping for him or herself. I must admit to skepticism when someone is willing to spend $1000 on a telescope for their four year old—just exactly who is this telescope for? But my role is not to judge, just to provide information and to make recommendations.
I want to make it clear that these recommendations are based on my personal experience from childhood until now. My first telescope (at age 10) was an inexpensive reflector from the Sears Roebuck catalog, and my current instrument is a top-of-the-line refractor. I see a lot more with my current scope than I did more than fifty years ago—I know a lot more, too—but I’m not sure I derive any more pleasure from its use. A different astronomy person would probably give you a different list. What that reflects is the wonderful range of options available today. When I built my own telescope in the late 1970s, it was better than anything I could have bought ready-made at the same price. In my opinion you are better served today buying that ready-made scope unless you are skilled in a number of areas beyond being able to use a tape measure, an electric drill and a screwdriver. That’s about all that was required for me in 1979!
DO NOT, REPEAT, DO NOT buy anything from a store that does not specialize in telescopes. What you get there is cheap plastic junk. There are wonderful showrooms scattered around the country, but most people probably do not want to drive that far. The good news is that two vendors (Astronomics and Orion Telescopes) I have used extensively both have wide selections online and excellent customer service. These are certainly not the only vendors available! If you want to get an idea of what is out there, just pick up the latest issue of Sky & Telescope at your local newsstand. These are simply the ones with which I am most familiar.
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Spectacle or speck?
OK, I stole that phrase. But it’s just too good not to use.
Comet ISON will very soon be upon us. The image above was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope when ISON was a little over four times as far away from the sun as is the earth. Starting in mid-November, it will get ever lower in the eastern sky just before dawn. If it survives its passage very near the sun, we could see it again in early December. But will it be the “comet of the century” promised earlier this year? Or will it join the infamous Comet Kohoutek and numerous other over-hyped comets as a disappointment for the general public? At this point no one really knows, although prospects for the former are—ahem—fading.
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Let’s establish a few things at the very beginning. I love movies about space. I quite happily go along with improbabilities like warp drives, phasers, Vulcan mind melds and the concept that every extraterrestrial species we encounter will be remarkably humanoid. My very favorite science fiction trope is time travel, as unlikely a physical concept as there is. So I most certainly enjoyed the recent movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and I would recommend it to anyone as a gripping story and spectacular visual feast. Still, there was this quietly persistent voice in the back of my head sputtering “But, but…you can’t do that!” Will these sorts of things keep you from enjoying the movie? Well, they didn’t keep me from enjoying it, and I am probably the biggest science nerd that most of you know. Without giving away anything that isn’t in the trailer, I’m going to focus on the most egregious of these scientific boo-boos.
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It was a lot simpler in Galileo’s day.
Up and down, left and right, manually controlled—simple, right? Yes, but simpler was not always better, at least until computers came along. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
There are two issues to be dealt with here.
- Pointing the telescope accurately.
- Following the apparent movement of celestial objects so that they remain in view.
Accurate pointing–The first is not a big problem if you are not working with a high-magnification view. A pair of 7 x 50 binoculars which magnify 7 times (the 50 is the diameter of the light-gathering lens in millimeters) can be hand-held and pointed with relative ease. A typical field of view for these binoculars is 7 degrees, and this is 14 times the width of the full moon.
A larger instrument clearly cannot be hand-held, and larger light-gathering elements (whether a lens or a mirror) allow higher magnifications. Here is the view afforded by a medium-power eyepiece in combination with the 20-inch Gilbert telescope at Lynchburg College’s Belk Observatory. This field is about ¼ of a degree across and is indicated by the red circle beside the moon.
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To boldly go where no one has gone before…
Bigger than Elvis? I would say so.
NASA announced today that the Voyager 1 spacecraft launched 36 years ago has finally entered interstellar space, the space between the stars. This is an epic stage of human exploration. You can read more about it here.
A friend: “Hey, did you see that blue moon last night?”
Me: “Uh, yeah, I went outside and took a peek.” (Even if I didn’t.)
Look, don’t misunderstand. I’m all for anything that gets people outside and looking at the sky, and if overblown media stories about “super” moons and “blue” moons accomplish that, then it’s a good thing. But let me explain why I don’t get all that excited about it.
- Full moons are right up there with clouds as enemies of astronomical observing. Not only are they so bright that they wash out anything but the brightest stars and planets, they really aren’t much good for lunar observing, either. With the sun directly over the middle of the lunar disk, there are no shadows, and therefore no relief. Compare these two images of the lunar crater Hipparchus, which is near the center of the moon as we view it from Earth. This first one is taken when the moon is nearly full, almost completely illuminated.
Now look at this image taken near first quarter, when we see the lunar disk as half-illuminated, with the sun casting long shadows over Hipparchus (which is the central crater). I’ve rotated this image to give it roughly the same orientation as the first one. Look at how much more detail is visible. Can you even tell you are looking at the same object?
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On a crisp Bedford County day in early 2007, I walked slowly around a ridge in the middle of a cleared field at Lynchburg College’s Claytor Nature Study Center. The ridge was the highest point on the property, but I wanted to be sure the view was such that tree lines in all directions were as low as I could get them. Walking in small circles, finally I stopped and said (apologies to Brigham Young), “This is the place.” The pier for the Margaret Gilbert telescope at the Belk Observatory now stands under a dome at that spot.
What makes a good spot for an observatory? First of course, you need to own the land or at least have permission to build on it. When Lynchburg College was gifted with the Claytor property in 1998, it provided both the land and the dark skies that an observatory needs. LC’s gorgeous campus doesn’t really have the space—even I wouldn’t dream of putting an observatory in the Dell—and the lighting on and around our campus means much of the sky would simply be washed out. So two factors are obvious and were met by our Bedford county site: relatively unobstructed views and relatively dark skies. What other factors are important, and what makes for an “ideal” location for an observatory?
- Clear skies: There is a reason that there are no world-class observatories east of the Mississippi River. Our cloudy and rainy summer of 2013 has been especially frustrating as we seek to calibrate our telescope and open the facility to the public. The more clear nights, the better your chances of seeing the sky. You can see from the image below why there are major observatories in Southern California and Arizona, and not in Cleveland, Buffalo, or Portland!
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Last July, I posted about the possibility that the Curiosity spacecraft might be captured during its parachute descent to the Martian surface by another spacecraft in Mars orbit, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Indeed it was, and the resulting image is below. Astounding! One human-made robot in orbit around Mars images another human-made robot on its way to the surface. We truly do live in an age of wonders.
Wait a minute! Isn’t plutonium that nasty stuff they make bombs from? Radioactive? The stuff Doc Brown stole from Libyans to fuel the Back to the Future DeLorean time machine? Well, yes…but there’s more to it than that.
Plutonium exists as several different isotopes, forms of a single element that differ only in the number of neutrons in their atomic nuclei. Their mass number is the total number of protons and neutrons. The isotope of plutonium that is used in nuclear weapons is plutonium-239, but the isotope we want to talk about is plutonium-238 (Pu-238).
Pu-238 is used as a power source—not for time machines, but for spacecraft. Two of its characteristics make it especially suitable for that purpose.
- Almost all of the radiation emitted by Pu-238 is of a type that is easily stopped by minimal shielding. That translates to less weight needed to shield the rest of the spacecraft from this radiation.
- It has an almost ideal half-life of 88 years. This is both long enough and short enough: long enough to last for decades on a long space mission, and short enough to provide lots of energy from a relatively small amount of material. Think for a minute about how the half-life of a radioactive material affects its activity. If half of it decays (emitting energy as it does so) in 100 years, that is a lot more energy than if the same amount of material takes a million years to decay. Shorter half-lives translate into higher activities.
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In the post just previous to this one, you saw some views of Earth and Saturn generated by a very useful online tool, Solar System Simulator. I thought I would use that tool to show you the Cassini spacecraft’s changing view of Saturn as it moves from its current position today (July 10, 2013) to the point at which it will aim its camera toward Earth on July 19. We’ll use the same time (5:30 p.m. EDT) each day to separate each image by 24 hours. Keep in mind that in the last image, even though the Sun is not obscured by Saturn, the camera will be pointed at Earth, not the Sun. The camera will sweep from right to left for over four hours, and by the time it gets to the left edge of Saturn, the Sun will be behind the planet. Enjoy flying with Cassini!