Annular Solar Eclipse (金環日食) 2012

May 21, 2012

The moon passed in front of the sun right at the end of Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors.  The forecast was for a perfect annular eclipse as seen from Tōkyō, but the weather forecast for the eastern capital was far from clear.  We elected to spend the night of the 19th in Niigata, and the next morning, Cristina and I set out early to watch the sunrise and hand out glasses to passersby to watch the moon pass in front of our sun.

The kanji for this astronomical event–金環日食–translate quite literally as “a golden ring making a meal of the sun”.  The geometry of our solar system sees our moon dieting on our stellar neighbor.

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Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors (小惑星、彗星、流星)

May 16-20, 2012

Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors is a scientific conference held every three years, organized with support from the International Astronomy Union (IAU), the same folks who in 2006 voted to demote Pluto.  Planetary definitions aside, I was excited when they announced a conference in 2011 in Japan; small solar system bodies and the Land of the Rising Sun, what could be a better combination?  Then the Tōhoku Disaster of 2011 happened, and the conference was postponed until 2012, a year of uncertainty for me.  I cobbled together a project, support, and submitted an abstract on observations I’d taken earlier this year on a binary asteroid system, (22) Kalliope and its moon Linus, and packed my bags for Niigata, northwest of Tōkyō through the alps.

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Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton

February 15, 2012

Another year, another telescope trained on another asteroid.  I spent the evening of February 15 at the summit of Mt. Hamilton near San Jose with the 40″ Nickel telescope pointed at (22) Kalliope and its moon Linus.  The asteroid slowly plodded across the camera frame as the hours ticked by from sunset until 1 am.  The weather was clear, if windy.  Most of the observing was supposed to be done remotely from a basement at UC Berkeley, but I had to be checked out first at the actual telescope before I could remotely observe, so away I drove to Mount Hamilton.

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Kagoshima University Observatory and the (20000) Varuna occultation of 2012

January 2, 2012

Like a number of research universities, Kagoshima University has its own observatory. Nestled in rolling hills reminding me of Marin County and surrounded by beef cattle fields* (also a university property), the observatory is home both radio and visible wavelength astronomy facilities. A large radio telescope downhill from the optical observatory faded into the evening light.

Our telescope was a 1-meter reflector, operated by a posse of graduate students.  How to change the mirror configuration?  Put one of said grad students on a ladder, then grab his belt loops so he doesn’t fall into the primary mirror.

Why travel several thousand miles by squeezing onto Shinkansen like sardines to visit this observatory? A minor planet, known by its number (20000) or its name Varuna after a Hindu god, was predicted to pass in front of a particular star, occulting the distant stellar object’s light. Varuna’s shadow as cast by the star would sweep across the Pacific Ocean that night, ostensibly visible from Japan, Hawaii, China, Thailand, and other neighboring countries.  The actual occultation only occurs for a few seconds.

(20000) Varuna's shadow predicted track across the Pacific

Measuring this dip in brightness helps inform better orbital models for Varuna, search for companion moons, and even probe the existence of an atmosphere around the tiny, icy world.

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Arriving in Kagoshima-ken, Satsuma-sendai-shi

December 30, 2011

A few days before New Years Eve I boarded a plane to Japan, carrying with me a Pelican case containing a camera, a netbook, an assortment of cables, and instructions on how to connect all of it to a telescope at Kagoshima University on the southernmost main island of Japan.  The goal was to capture a Kuiper Belt object’s passing in front of a distant star in order to better understand the size and orbit of this icy world known as (20000) Varuna.

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Back to Japan! (for a week)

Three months after I left Japan, I’m still wading through a backlog of photos to post and stories to tell in this space, and it’s not going to get any easier: on December 29 I’m heading to Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu to observe trans-Neptunian/Kuiper Belt object (20000) Varuna pass in front of a distant star. About 1000 km across and taking 283 years to orbit the sun, Varuna is believed to be reddish, icy, and elongated; watching it occult this star will help better constrain its size and shape.

I’m hoping for clear skies and good data, as well as a chance to explore Sakurajima, a local active volcano near Kagoshima-ken. Any other suggestions of places to visit or things to see near Kagoshima-ken, Sendai-shi (not the Sendai devastated by the earthquake in March)?

With that, I’ll leave you with a photo of another active volcano in Japan, this one seen in the dark past a lake, boats, and pink cosmos.

Sandstone Peak June 2011

I’ve been visiting Southern California as part of a global observing campaign to image Pluto and its moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra as they pass in front of bright stars on June 23 and 27.  Michael Hicks, Beverly Thackeray, and I, assisted by Heath Rhoades, successfully saw Charon block the light of the star on the morning of June 23 from JPL’s Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, CA.

After the occultation, I’ve had the opportunity to go on a few hikes in the Los Angeles area, including Sandstone Peak, a rocky outcropping in the Santa Monica Mountains which, despite its name, is igneous in origin.  A 6-mile loop brings you from the parking lot on Yerba Buena Road up through the hills and forests to the stony peak.  The last time I hiked this trail was on a foggy afternoon in January, so the sun was quite welcome on this excursion.

The rock contemplates AndyToward the ValleyFlowers and mountainsEcho Cliffs rock climbersWild lilyFluffy flowers
LizzardFuzzy treesFoggy PacificIgneous formationsMarine LayerAndy contemplates a rock
Near the summitSucculent

Sandstone Peak June 2011, a set on Flickr.

Love in the time of Kepler

Johannes Kepler, I think, was one of my undergraduate advisor‘s favorite historical astronomers; I distinctly remember a lecture from 2003 about Kepler’s understanding of orbital motion:

If you asked Kepler, “Why do your laws work the way they do? What causes planets to move in these sorts of orbits?” Kepler would tell you that, “God is a mathematician, and so am I!”

Though Kepler’s celestial mechanics equations worked for predicting the position of Mars and other bodies, Kepler was not able to explain why planets moved the way they do around the sun without invoking a higher power.  As a geometer, Kepler tried to understand the behavior of the solar system in terms of areas, ratios, and other geometrical principles; it wasn’t until Newton came along that there was a more elegant mathematical understanding and derivation of celestial mechanics and the laws of motion: calculus and the inverse square relation for gravity.

In 2011, hundreds of years after Kepler’s life, a telescope named after this German astronomer is in orbit around Earth to look for… other Earths around other stars. Last week a bonanza of candidate Earth-like planets was announced; astronomers everywhere cannot contain their excitement at the prospect of planets like home in the habitable zones around other stars.

Kepler’s ideas were revolutionary for his time, and it’s appropriate that a revolution in Egypt occurred almost simultaneously with the release of Kepler mission results.  (I’d like to add that Jack Lissauer of the Kepler team is perhaps one of the nicest guys in astronomy; I’m really glad that someone like him is involved in this project.)

The Kepler team isn’t content to just release mountains of data on potentially habitable terrestrial planets; they also have a t-shirt available with a Carl Sagan quote:

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

The shirt features a variable star light curve in the shape of a heart, which is appropriate, as asteroid light curves were my first astronomical crush.

If you’re looking for more interplanetary affection in time Valentine’s Day, NASA’s Stardust-NExT mission will be encountering comet Tempel 1 on Monday. Stardust-NExT originally sampled another comet, Wild 2, on Independence Day in 2004; Tempel 1 will be the second comet imaged by this mission. Ooh la la.

Much love to all heavenly bodies in this solar system and beyond.

Don’t you love living near the triple point of water?

We had pouring freezing rain today, after some lovely powder then some very warm days (I use “warm” in the relative sense–40˚F around here and I ditch the heavy coat and pretend it’s spring). Walking up to the Observatory, the fields were covered in snow that had turned to ice, while water rushed from the higher hills to the ponds in the lower areas. The humidity was causing a white mist to form near the roots of the black trees.

We live on a planet where the temperatures and pressures are hover near the triple point of water. Some happy coincidence allows us to have solid, liquid, and gas dihydrogen monoxide, all within our reach.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to live on a planet at the triple point of some other molecule or element? Take Titan, for instance. Its surface is only a few degrees away from the triple point of methane and it is so cold such that methane rivers flow over solid water ice “rocks”. The aforementioned author, Henry Roe, spoke here a few weeks ago–his various techniques for probing the nature of Titan’s surface were fascinating. It’s amazing how you can find out so much about a moon that’s eight times further from the sun than Earth is, just by using huge pieces of glass to collect photons.

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