Saturday, December 5, 2009

2012 and the end of the IYA

Last night was our last public lecture of the International Year of Astronomy. Cameron Hummels gave a talk on Will the World End in 2012? and the short answer to take away from his lecture was no, it will not. Cameron discussed some of the claims that are floating around about various ways in which the world/civilization could come to an end in 3 years time on December 21, 2012, and then he proceeded to scientifically debunk each claim with solid facts.

Following the lecture, we gave away 2 Galileoscopes as well as a few hundred NASA image posters to audience members. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't cooperative, so we were unable to view the winter sky, but we offered telescope tours of our facilities, and we had several slideshows on astronomical themes. Josh Schroeder discussed stars and their interiors, and then Andrew Brown presented a talk on the skies of the Southern Hemisphere--how they differ from ours and some visual highlights.

Lastly, there was a visiting schoolgroup of 50 middle school students from New Rochelle who had a special private discussion with some of our volunteers as part of the Rooftop Variables project.

All in all the event was our most successful cloudy outreach event with 250 attendees and more than 10 volunteers. Thank you everyone for helping us to close out the International Year of Astronomy with a bang!


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sidewalk Astronomy in Harlem

Yesterday evening the weather turned in our favor at the 11th hour, giving us a brief window in a week of dreary overcast skies. With a 6" telescope, Jess and I showed people the Moon and Jupiter from our usual corner, the plaza at 125th St & Powell Blvd. The landscape of craters and mountains, so dramatic in the first-quarter moon phase, made a big impression on the 70 or so people who stopped to have a look. Many were excited to hear about Cameron's lecture coming up on Dec 4th about the myth of the 2012 apocalypse, so hopefully we'll see some of those faces again next week.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gravitational Waves & Black Holes

Last night we had a good turnout for Professor Szabolcs Marka's lecture on gravitational waves and black holes entitled: "A Matter of Life and Death: How Black Holes Do It." Szabi gave a good introduction to gravitational waves and some of the expected strong sources of gravitational waves in the Universe. He finished up by talking about the various projects for actually observing gravitational waves and the difficulties in doing so.

Afterwards, we gave away a Galileoscope to a lucky member of the audience, and we provided some cool NASA swag to the attendees. The weather was mostly cooperative, so attendees had the option of going up to the roof to get views of the Pleaides and Jupiter, or sticking around in the lecture hall to hear a couple of mini-lectures and slideshows. Cameron Hummels explained the science behind the discovery of water on the Moon along with the most recent results from LCROSS that came out last week. Josh Schroeder discussed the basics of spiral galaxies and fielded questions on all kinds of astrophysical topics.

Thank you to all 8 volunteers and the 130 audience members who showed up for this event!


Friday, November 20, 2009

Fourth-graders experience Meteors

Yesterday, we were visited by a fourth-grade class from the Children's School of Brooklyn (P.S. 372). Together we went through several educational activities on the theme of "Comets, Asteroids and Meteors" to commemorate the Leonid Meteor Shower this week. We produced a small slideshow and discussed the differences between comets, asteroids and meteors. The students then created sandbox craters to discover the relationship between impactor size, speed and consequent crater size. We made a dry-ice comet out of household materials and demonstrated why it gets a tail as it falls into the inner solar system.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn't clear so we couldn't do any solar observations, but the students did get to see the telescopes, observe nearby Riverside Church, and see how different telescopes work. Lastly, we discussed how we, the graduate students got our start in astronomy and science, and what the children could do at this young age to pursue science and mathematics. All in all, it was very successful, and I thank the class and teachers for their visit!


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fall Family Astro with Comets and Meteors

This semester's Family Astro on Saturday, November 14th was the messiest yet.  We started off by telling families about the Leonids meteor shower, which has been taking place over the last few days.  We showed kids how comets can leave behind trails of debris, which hit the earth.  Jana Grcevich made a model comet out of dry ice and showed how it can crack and emit gas when it warms up.  Lia Corrales then talked about different types of meteorites and guided the kids in making a model meteorite out of cookie dough.  Yuan Li and Jennifer Weston had kids throw objects into powder to simulate the formation of craters.  Unfortunately, the weather was too wet to make any telescope observations.  Andrew Brown wrapped up by giving families a tour of the observatory, followed by a slide show about light and telescopes.  Families who felt inclined stayed for the last 20 minutes to watch Cosmic Collisions.  Approximately 17 children and their families were present at the event.

- Lia -

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Micrometeorites and Clear Weather

Last night we had some beautiful weather for stargazing to accompany Lia Corrales' lecture entitled: "Meteorites: The Extraterrestrials in your Backyard." Lia talked about micrometeorites, very small particles originating in outer space which rain onto the surface of the Earth every day in significant amounts (estimated at 20,000 tons / year). She discussed ways where these come from, why they're important, and how you can find them in your own backyard. We followed her talk with a Galileoscope giveaway and lots of free NASA CDs for attendees.

We then opened up the telescopes for the attendees, both on the Roof and in front of Pupin. We observed Jupiter, the Owl Cluster (aka the ET Cluster), and the Andromeda Galaxy. Attendees also had the option of sticking around the lecture hall to see one of our various slideshows, watch Cosmic Collisions, or ask astronomers their burning questions at our Q&A. Overall it was one of our most successful nights of the year with over 200 people showing up to take advantage of this beautiful observing conditions.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Visit from Manhattan School for Children

Last night we had a group of 250 children and their parents from the Manhattan School for Children visit the observatory. After distributing some NASA swag to all of the children in the audience, we got started. We had a thirty-minute talk about what makes asteroids, comets and meteors different from one another, and how you can identify them in the sky. After some great questions from some of the elementary-school students in the audience, we showed a video of a NASA shuttle launch from last year along with footage of the crew aboard the shuttle while it was in orbit.

The second hour was meant to give the children views of the first-quarter Moon, Jupiter, and Albireo through our telescopes. Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative, and clouds covered most of the sky. We made the best of the situation with demonstrations of how reflecting telescopes work and views of nearby buildings through our telescopes on the roof and in front of the observatory. At the very end, the Moon peeked through some clouds to give a few remaining attendees views of its craters and mountains.

Thank you to Shakira Castronovo from MSC for helping to organize this event. I invite all the attendees to come to one of our public nights when hopefully the weather will be more cooperative!


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sidewalk Astronomy in Harlem

On Monday night, Jeff and I brought a small telescope from the Columbia astronomy department to the corner of Powell Boulevard & 125th Street. After setting up the 'scope next to the statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., we invited everyone walking by to stop and have a look at the first-quarter Moon and Jupiter. It was the third time this year that Columbia astronomers have coordinated "sidewalk astronomy" for our neighboring community. As before, none of the hundred or so people who stopped to take in the view regretted the interruption. Our next sidewalk astronomy attempt will be November 23-24.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Black Holes

Yesterday Gabe Perez-Giz, one of the senior PhD students in the department who does research on black hole dynamics, taught us all a little bit about black holes and common misconceptions in his talk entitled: "Black Holes for Dummies." He covered Newtonian gravity and general relativity, what black holes are and what black holes are not, and finally talked about what might go on inside the event horizon of a black hole.

Needless to say, despite its title the talk was at a little bit of a higher level than many of our lecturess, but I think people generally got something out of it judging by the number of interesting and insightful questions the audience members asked. After the lecture, we gave tours of the telescopes, had a 40-minute-long question & answer session with the graduate students, and then Cameron Hummels gave a short slideshow on the topic of "Comets, Asteroids and Meteorites." In addition, we gave away a Galileoscope to one lucky audience member, and several items were given out to those audience members who filled out a short survey involving astronomy software for a company called Project Aurora Games. All in all, despite the nasty weather, this was a very successful outreach night.

Thanks to all 150 attendees for braving the rain to come learn about black holes!


Friday, October 16, 2009

From Earth to the Universe

For the last week and a half, Columbia University has been host to the "From Earth to the Universe" (FETTU) astrophotography exhibit. This stunning exhibit consists of 50 spectacular images of planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies and more taken by ground and space-based telescopes over the last few decades. The exhibit is arranged as 25 double-sided, weather-proof, stand-alone panels, each featuring two high-resolution images blown up to a huge, 4-foot-by-3-foot scale. The photographs were placed in the center of campus, in front of Butler Library, where they remained 24 hours a day.

Additionally, volunteers from our Astronomy Department staffed a table next to the exhibit for 10 hours each day the exhibit was up. These volunteers answered questions about the exhibit, astronomy and science in general; they operated a solar telescope to give attendees safe glimpses of the Sun; and they gave out free NASA posters and other astronomy swag.

FETTU is one of the cornerstone projects of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 that brings beautiful multi-wavelength images of the cosmos to a wider audience in non-traditional venues such as public parks and gardens, art museums, shopping malls and metro stations. The exhibit tours all around the United States, but ours was its longest stay in New York City.

Overall, the exhibit was an overwhelming success with an estimated 10,000 attendees, over 3,000 pictures and posters given away, and loads of enthusiasm from everyone who saw the images. Thank you to everyone who was a part of making this one of the most largest astronomy outreach events in the history of New York City.

For images of our event, see our multimedia page. For more information about FETTU, please see their homepage. In case you missed out on all the free posters, check out this site to download a copy of your own.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dark Matter

Last night, Laura Newburgh presented an excellent lecture on the topic of dark matter. She described the scientific evidence indicating it exists, scientists best guesses for what it is, and future projects that we're hoping will provide insight into this peculiar entity.

Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative, so we were unable to observe the sky; however, there were no shortage of activities. After Laura's talk, Andrew Brown gave an informal talk on the prospects for life in the Universe, Cameron Hummels gave a talk explaining the recent water on the Moon and LCROSS mission, and Jessica Werk discussed how galaxies are constantly merging and interacting all around us in the Universe. In addition, there were tours of the telescopes and the observatory for those people undaunted by the overcast weather.

Thank you to all of the 175 attendees who showed up despite the clouds--we'll see you in a couple of weeks!


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Science Fiction and Water on the Moon

Jana Grcevich delivered one of the best lectures of the year last night entitled: "Science vs Fiction in Science Fiction". She had movie clips from Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and explanations as to why the physics in these scenes was not real science. The weather was very clear and the Moon was at first quarter, so we got great views of Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Ring Nebula, the Double Cluster, and the Moon.

After the lecture, Cameron Hummels explained the recent discovery of water ice on the surface of the Moon and its implications for the future of space exploration. There was also a Q&A session and a slideshow on different types of spiral galaxies by Maureen Teyssier. Lastly, we showed parts of the old AMNH planetarium show, Cosmic Collisions to finish off the night.

Thanks to all of the 100 attendees who showed up. I hope we'll see you at the From Earth to the Universe photo exhibition on campus the week of October 5-October 13.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Aliens and Life in the Universe

Last night, Friday September 18, we had a great lecture by Maureen Teyssier about what extraterrestrial life might have in common with us. She detailed the chemistry necessary for life as we understand it, as well speculated on how the environments of other lifeforms might affect them.

Unfortunately, the weather started out pretty crummy at the beginning of the night with clouds covering the sky. At 9:00 however, the clouds thinned, and we were able to set up 4 of the telescopes on the roof to look at various targets. We viewed Jupiter, Albireo, Alcor & Mizar, and the Double Cluster. Because some thin cloud remained, we were unable to look at any fainter targets.

At the same time, keeping in line with the "life in the universe" theme, Andrew Brown ran a slideshow on the possibilities of life on Jupiter's moon, Europa. We also showed a space shuttle launch video, some time-lapse photography from the summit of Mauna Kea (one of the biggest observatories in the world), and took questions from the audience on a variety of astronomical topics.

Thanks to all of the 125 attendees who showed up, and I hope we'll see you next week!


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New school year, new web presence

Thanks to the work of Destry, we now have a much-improved homepage to represent our outreach programs. In addition, we've expanded our web presence to include the following:

*this blog, where we'll document each of our events with descriptions and photos

*a schedule of our events at Google calendar

*a Facebook group to help spread the word

*a Twitter page with quick weather updates for stargazing

*a youtube account, where we'll soon archive video recordings of our Friday lectures.

Our first event of the fall semester is coming right up--this Friday, September 18th. We'll begin at 8 pm in the basement lecture hall 301 with a half-hour talk by Maureen, Is There Life Like Us in Outer Space?, and we'll follow that with rooftop stargazing if the sky is clear. We're looking forward to seeing new and familiar faces!