Pic of the Week

 

arp273_hst

Peculiar Galaxies of Arp 273

This week’s photo, from NASA, we see two galaxies experiencing a close encounter:

The spiky stars in the foreground of this sharp cosmic portrait are well within our own Milky Way Galaxy. The two eye-catching galaxies lie far beyond the Milky Way, at a distance of over 300 million light-years. Their distorted appearance is due to gravitational tides as the pair engage in close encounters. Cataloged as Arp 273 (also as UGC 1810), the galaxies do look peculiar, but interacting galaxies are now understood to be common in the universe. In fact, the nearby large spiral Andromeda Galaxy is known to be some 2 million light-years away and approaching the Milky Way. Arp 273 may offer an analog of their far future encounter. Repeated galaxy encounters on a cosmic timescale can ultimately result in a merger into a single galaxy of stars. From our perspective, the bright cores of the Arp 273 galaxies are separated by only a little over 100,000 light-years. The release of this stunning vista celebrates the 21st anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit.

With all the talk of gravitational waves and black holes recently, I thought this was an interesting specimen. See the original here.

This Month in Stargazing: February

This month promises to provide some good opportunities for naked-eye viewing as we continue with cool winter nights, and (hopefully) clear skies:

Five planets before sunrise: about 45-60 minutes before sunrise, you can still view all five of the planets visible with the naked eye. Look for Jupiter in the southwest, and proceed to Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury towards the southeast. The moon does start rising early in the morning this month, but it is also waning, so shouldn’t cause too much interference. Mercury will be particularly striking on February 7. In addition, the moon will be on the other side of the Earth at night on February 8. Discover magazine has a good blog about how to view this event.

Feb. 1 – The moon will be in conjunction with Mars in the early morning hours, rising in the southern sky, with the closest approach occurring in the constellation Libra.

Feb. 3 – Now it is Saturn’s turn to meet the moon, again in the early morning hours.

Feb 23. – Jupiter greets the moon, rising in the east and reaching their highest point, at least here in the Pacific Northwest, at 01:24. Look for their closet approach in the constellation Leo.

Feb. 29 – Mars and the moon meet up once again in the southern sky in the early morning hours, at 01:31.

Moon: The New Moon will be on February 8, which of course promises means some good stargazing. The full moon will be on February 23.

Remember that any of the times listed here need to be adjusted for your locality. For example, the times for most of the planetary conjunctions with the moon are about 30 mins earlier in my hometown of Sacramento. Your best bet is to use a resource like In-The-Sky.org, which will make adjustments based on your location.

Happy viewing! Pax.

Other sources:

Pic of the Week: Majestic Saturn

Ah, everyone’s favorite planet! Fresh from the Cassini mission, this picture shows the sheer immensity of the sixth planet orbiting Sol. To give you an idea of how big it is, look in the lower right-hand corner and you will notice one of its moons, Tethys. To give you some reference point, our own moon is only about 3 times as large as Tethys. You could fit 763 Earths inside Saturn itself.

Saturn

From JPL/NASA: This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 8 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on March 7, 2015 using a spectral filter that preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 752 nanometers.

Tethys has been brightened by a factor of 2 to increase its visibility.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.6 million miles (2.6 million kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 10 miles (16 kilometers) per pixel. Tethys is slightly closer at 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) away, for an image scale of 9 miles (14 kilometers) per pixel.

Pax.

From Wandering Hobbit to Believing Astronomer

Well, I meant to post this update about a week ago, but alas, as a seminarian in graduate-level theology, other matters tend to take the forefront (and rightly so!). But I finally have a moment to sit down and give a proper update here at The Believing Astronomer, what used to be The Road Goes Ever On.

First, you’ll notice that I have my own website domain now, thanks to a generous Christmas gift from a family member (thanks Dad!). I’m still running trusty ol’ WordPress, but it should be easier to find the site now. The new address is also reflected in the new title, which is, as you can see, The Believing Astronomer.

But why the new name? Well, there are a couple reasons:

  1. Science and faith are two important aspects of my life, especially astronomy and cosmology in terms of science. While science can never replace my faith, I fully believe that faith and reason go hand-in-hand. God gave us minds to use and to observe, to study the world. We are called to a responsible examination of everything around us, and by doing so, we can get to know His creation even better. I wanted this to be reflected in the blog, not only in title, but in actuality: I plan on posting more astronomy and cosmology based articles from time to time, as well as other odds and ends such as a series on backyard astronomy basics, the first post of which can be seen here. At the same time, my faith, as I said, remains paramount, so I will continue posting on matters concerning my Catholic beliefs, and continuing series such as On the Journey. From time to time, the two topics will most certainly intersect. Of course, I will also post updates on my journey towards the priesthood, as that is, of course, my first concern in my life (well, besides loving and serving God and neighbor, but they all go together, in my opinion).
  2. While I loved the Tolkien reference in the name of the blog (from the poem “The Road Goes Ever On“), I fear that it might be a copyright issue, so rather than even have the remote possibility of receiving a friendly note from the Tolkien estate (although I would like to think he might appreciate some of the work here), better safe than sorry.

So there you have it. This particular hobbit continues the journey, seeking God, looking up, and as always, keeping you in prayer. Please pray for me as well!

Pax.

Backyard Astronomy: Getting Started

Note: Regular readers may notice some changes. Please hang in there while the dust settles; I will be posting an update on said changes (including background on the new address and blog title) this weekend. You can still expect reflections on faith, literature, and current events, but I also want to include more science (and specifically astronomy) based content as well. As always, I reserve the right to post as frequently or infrequently as needed, due to my primary duties and busy schedule as a seminarian and graduate student in Theology. Pax.

 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, 
   and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
   much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

-“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

Telescope

I hate to break it to ya, but you will be starting with something a bit more modest – your own two eyes. Photo by User Ericd on en.wikipedia (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

A few people have asked me how to get involved in astronomy. I am no expert by any means, but I am also happy to help people get started on the journey. After all, astronomy helped me in my own faith journey, and continues to be a profound inspiration for me to this day. So when someone expresses an interest in discovering the secrets of our endless universe, I jump at the chance to be a guide, however imperfect. To be honest, that is one of the reasons* for this blog: I hope to show people that the sciences like astronomy and religious faith are not mutually opposed. Here are a few things I have learned over the years about getting started in astronomy:

Go outside and look up – Often times when we get involved in astronomy, we want to go out and buy a telescope, expecting to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos. This is probably the worst thing you could do, and will likely destroy your new hobby. Just go outside and look, and I don’t mean step outside for a few minutes and say, “oooh, that’s nice, time for some hot chocolate.” No, bundle up, get comfortable, and really look. Find objects in the sky that interest you. Jot down their location by identifying familiar constellations.  Try to get away from light pollution too (take a look at the International Dark-Sky Association for more info).

Don’t go off and buy expensive equipment at the start – I already mentioned it above, but seriously, don’t go out and buy the Celestron NexStar 8SE telescope, even if you can afford it, at least not yet (after all, it is pretty nice). Your own two eyes are just fine to start with, and eventually, you can upgrade to a good pair of binoculars. One useful piece of equipment that you can invest in now (for only 10 bucks) is a planisphere, an adjustable hand-held star chart. Make sure you purchase one that corresponds to your area though! There are also many useful apps that you can get for free or relatively cheap.

Share it with someone – Astronomy becomes even more fun when you are with someone. You can compare notes and help one another notice things that perhaps the other person did not notice there before. It’s also great to just geek out about what you saw while warming up over the afore-mentioned cup of hot chocolate after a night of productive star-gazing. You are likely to find astronomy clubs almost anywhere, and many of them are more than eager to help newbies get started.

Read and write – Read read read! The internet of course is a great resource to stay alert to current astronomical events and new breakthroughs. You should also venture down to the local bookstore and library and peruse their selection of astronomy books. There are many fine works out there to get you started. One important aspect of astronomy that I think is often overlooked by the budding backyard sky watcher is journaling. Whenever you go outside and look at the stars, right down what you see! Take notes, draw pictures, give details about the conditions. The more detailed the better, and it will help hone your observational skills.

Be patient – Astronomy is not a sport of the impatient. Some nights you will see countless wonders that leave you breathless, and others you will see a grey rain cloud covering up that planet or nebula you were hoping to catch, and that’s OK. The important thing is to keep at it and to not get discouraged.

Google will provide many resources on getting started in astronomy, and many of the articles provide similar advice, but I have found these sites to be particularly helpful:

Over the next few months, I will provide more detailed posts on each of the topics above, such as explaining the various types of telescopes and some methods for astronomical observations and journaling. These will be including among the more faith-based topics I cover and an occasional review here and there, as well as some newsy items. I currently carry a full load of graduate courses, so I can’t promise a timeline, but my own love for things otherworldly will motivate me to write, and I hope that I can guide one or two people in their first steps into this amazing world. Until then…

Pax.

Pic of the Week: A Universal Scale

(If you were a subscriber to The Road Goes Ever On, from walkingamdg.wordpress.com, things may look a bit different. Don’t worry, I’m simply redesigning the site a bit, including adding a new custom address: BelievingAstronomer.com, with a focus on faith, science, literature, reflections, with news and reviews thrown in from time to time. A longer post will be added this weekend, as I am currently on retreat and this post is simply a pre-scheduled item that I set up at the end of December. Feel free to tell me what you think!)

From time to time, I will post interesting pictures from astronomy and cosmology, although expect a few surprises too… I’m talking science fiction, faith, or other branches of human knowledge that relate to this enterprise. This week, however, we look at the solar system. In fact, we look at how mind-bogglingly huge our solar system is through NASA’s own APOD, which, incidentally, has brought us a video rather than a picture. Enjoy!

From NASA:  Want to build a scale model Solar System? A blue marble 1.4 centimeters (about half an inch) across would be a good choice for a scale model Earth. Since the Sun is 109 times the diameter of Earth, a 1.5 meter diameter balloon could represent the Sun. But the distance between the Earth and Sun, 150 million kilometers, would translate to just under 180 meters (590 feet) at the same scale. That would mean the completed project, including the orbits of the outer planets, is probably not going to fit in your backyard. Still, you might find enough room on a dry lakebed. Check out this video for an inspirational road trip through the Solar System to scale.