Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Total Lunar Eclipse

New York was graced with a beautiful view of a full lunar eclipse last night. It was the first full lunar eclipse which has been visible here in almost 3 years, and there won't be another one we can see until April 2014. Consequently, Columbia Astronomy Outreach held a viewing event in the middle of Columbia's campus in front of the Alma Mater statue for anyone who wanted to come catch a glimpse.

The weather was clear but cold and windy (with windchill it reached 12F) last night. Our event was set to last from 1:30AM until 4:00AM, but there were already people present when we started setting up at 1:10AM. We set up several telescopes and binoculars for public use. We had one automated telescope and CCD combination to take images of the eclipse as it occurred. We also had a table with lots of hot cocoa and NASA swag (posters, bookmarks and the like) for anyone to take. Our volunteers answered any questions posed to them regarding eclipses, astronomy and the like.

The partial eclipse began at 1:33AM when the shadow of the Earth (the umbra) began covering the disk of the Moon. The Moon looked pretty strange as you witnessed a big bite being taken out of it, getting gradually larger with time. Throughout this period we had a huge influx of people such that the crowd grew to about 250. Most of the attendees were students walking through campus or taking a break from final exams, but probably about 25% of the crowd was made up of amateurs and members of the public.

Eventually at 2:41AM the shadow covered the Moon entirely, marking the beginning of the total phase of the eclipse. This phase was pretty spectacular--the disk of the moon was bathed in a deep reddish amber color. During totality, the Earth sits right in between the Sun and the Moon, so that most of the sunlight that normally illuminates the Moon is blocked by the Earth. However, some sunlight entering our atmosphere around the edges of the disk of the Earth can bend and refract and eventually make it to the Moon. This sunlight is effectively stripped of all blue light by our atmosphere (this is why our sky is blue) leaving only red light to shine on the Moon.

As you might guess, the hue and brightness of a total lunar eclipse is sensitively dependent on the material in the upper atmosphere of the Earth, since this is where the sunlight destined for the Moon must travel during an totality. Recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Indonesia have pumped lots of ash and particulate into the upper atmosphere. These small particles block all wavelengths of light (not just blue light), and it results in a darker overall eclipse. In fact, this was the darkest lunar eclipse I've seen in the last 15 years.

The crowd got pretty enthusiastic about totality with cheers at several point, a shouted countdown ("9, 8, 7,...") at another point, and just general excitement. After about 20 minutes of totality, half of the crowd dispersed and went back to studying or sleep, but there were still a hundred people or so who remained.

There were a few different media crews present including a Japanese television crew, a New York Times photographer, and a few independent media groups. Photographs taken from our event (see above) were included in a New York Times article on the eclipse. Later that morning, I was interviewed by NPR's "The Takeaway" along with Neil deGrasse Tyson regarding the eclipse and our event.

Totality lasted until 3:53AM, when the shadow of the Earth receded and the Moon began its return to full brightness. The second partial phase (where again the Moon has a "bite" taken out of it) lasted until 5:01AM. At the very end, there were still a couple dozen diehards still present trying to get the perfect picture or just enjoy the moment with a hot cup of chocolate. Overall, the event was a great success with mostly clear weather and around 300 participants. Thanks to everyone who joined us!


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Earth's Moon

Dr. Arlin Crotts gave an exciting lecture on the topic of the Moon last night. He is currently writing a popular science book on the Moon to be released in the next six months. After a brief history of the space race and the various exploration attempts made by different countries, he discussed the more recent results indicating the presence of water and various organic molecules. Lastly, he mentioned the future of lunar exploration and that the key players may not include the USA.

The weather started out hazy but cleared up after 30 minutes, giving us good views of Jupiter, the Double Cluster, the Pleiades and of course the Moon. There were 3D wall presentations for visitors as well as an informal Q&A session with Josh Schroeder and Cameron Hummels on a variety of astrophysical topics.

Thanks to all of the 100 attendees who turned out for an excellent night of astronomy.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Forming Stars and Forming Life

Last night, Dr. Daniel Wolf Savin delighted our audiences with a public talk entitled: "The Genesis Projects: Forming Stars to Forming Life". He discussed his recent experiments to categorize the abundance of molecules in the early universe which aided in the creation of the first population of stars. He also talked about the creation of more complex molecules later in the Universe and how these organic molecules set the stage for the development of life here on Earth and perhaps elsewhere. It was a great lecture, and we had such a large audience that not all of them could sit in the 260-seat lecture hall.

While the weather forecast had called for cloudy weather, it ended up clearing part of the way through the night, providing us with an opportunity to observe the heavens. We set up 4 telescopes to observe The Pleiades, The Double Cluster and Jupiter. Unfortunately there were such large crowds that it some people a bit of time to get a glimpse through a telescope.

In addition, Brandon Horn led a discussion of the recent news of bacteria that appears able to replace its internal phosphorus molecules with arsenic molecules. This is noteworthy because it has been held that phosphorus is a molecule necessary for life, so this may mean there is a much larger variety of conditions suitable for life than previously thought.

Jana Grcevich operated the 3D wall upstairs giving audiences a 3D experience in looking at the sky and the things we find in it.

Overall, it was a great night with record-breaking numbers of attendees: over 350! Thanks to everyone for coming out!


Monday, November 22, 2010

Family Astro: Black Holes!

Seven kids and about 10 adults visited the Columbia Astronomy department for an afternoon full of activities designed to teach about Black Holes. First we had a talk explaining that black holes are areas which are so dense nothing can move fast enough to escape out of them. We also learned that black holes are the remains of massive stars which have died. We had a demonstration using stretchy fabric and heavy balls of how gravity is a result of space curving, and put ping pong balls on orbits. We also talked about the extreme densities of black holes what would happen if you fell into a black hole.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Public Observing and Lecture: November 12, 2010

Columbia University Astronomy PhD candidate Taka Tanaka presented an excellent lecture on colliding black holes to a packed lecture theatre of particularly enthusiastic visitors. Afterwards record numbers stayed for stargazing and slideshows.

Monday, November 8, 2010

October 29 Outreach Report

Postdoc Josh Peek gave an excellent lecture on Friday, October 29,
titled "Outer Space" to about 250 visitors. We took a tour of space
near to us and far away as Josh proved outer space isn't just "space"
but rather that most of the atoms in the universe are in the form of
soot and gas hiding in between planets, stars, and galaxies. The
audience was treated to pictures and explanations of the many forms
this matter can take. These include cold clumps of gas and dust which
block out the light coming from behind them and can sometimes form new
stars, as well as hot gas in clusters which can rip a galaxy's gas
right out of it. After the lecture many people were able to observe
Alberio, the double cluster, and Jupiter and four of it's moons. In
addition to observing, guests were also able to watch a 3D wall
presentation on Mars by Cameron Hummels, or to watch the film Cosmic
Collisions. Thanks to all our visitors and to all the volunteers for a
great night!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Astronomy Public Lecture: Oct. 15

Professor Kathryn Johnston gave a great lecture on Friday, October 17, about how galaxies collide with each other. With the help of simulations and a comparison to observations she explained that collisions among galaxies are common in the universe, commenting that many galaxies are in fact expected to be the remnants of galaxy mergers billions of years ago. Applying these concepts to our own galaxy, she presented some of her own research searching in the Milky Way for the tell-tale signs of recent galactic mergers: tidal streams. While in fact, through careful astronomy, we do see several tidal streams, Prof. Johnston showed that, through simulations, we expect our galaxy to merge with dozens of smaller, dwarf galaxies. She ended the talk with a video showing a simulation of what is expected to happen in a few billion years when our galaxy collides with our closest major galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy so no observing was possible, but one of our graduate students, Jana Grcevich, displayed 3D videos with our dual projector setup. Another graduate student, Josh Schroeder, took visitors on a tour of our telescopes and explained their history. We also had two mini-lectures about techniques used to find planets in other solar systems, and planetary nebulae. From the 120+ visitors that enjoyed Kathryn's talk, we received a great deal of excitement to come back in the future, especially during clear weather. Thanks also, to the 5+ volunteers that made the event possible!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Yeshiva University Outreach

On October 7 at 7:30 pm, about 30 students from the Chemistry Clubs at Yeshiva University visited the Astronomy Department to get a tour of the heavens. Graduate student, Jana Grcevic gave a presentation on color and chemistry of the heavens as well as a view of our 3D movie theater. Then, we proceeded up to the roof to get views of Jupiter, Alberio, and the Ring Nebula.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Harlem Science Fair

125th St & Powell Blvd on October 2nd

Saturday, October 2, 2010

October 1: The History of Martian Exploration

On the 1st of October Jeff Andrews presented a talk on the history of Martian exploration. The crowd were very receptive and interested and the majority of the hundred or so, stayed for the entire nights activities. While there were a few technical and practical glitches, the crew were able to improvise their way to solutions. Special mention should go to Yuan and Brandon for going above and beyond their roles.

The crowd responded well to the background music played before the event during the introductory slideshow explaining the program for the night. I think that this is a nice professional touch that should be continued. Observing was very successful on the roof, as were the two informal presentations in the lecture theatre.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Black Hole Beats and Fresh Autumn Stars

This past Friday (Sep 17) we held an exciting lecture by Professor Janna Levin. She explained the amazing consequences of merging black holes as dictated by General Relativity. The disruptions in spacetime generated by these encounters produce a bizarre kind of music that we may finally tune into with the next generation of gravitational wave detectors.

Following the lecture, most of the audience headed up to the roof of Pupin to take in the beautifully clear evening sky. While volunteers offered the usual celestial close-up views through three telescopes (showing the Moon, Jupiter, Uranus, and the Double Cluster), Josh gave tours of the newly visible Autumn constellations, and down in the lecture hall three more volunteers narrated a remote observing session with a telescope in the Canary Islands.

By all accounts it was a great start to our new season of Friday night events.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Sept. 3: Frits Paerels Talk and Remote Observing

On Friday, Sept. 3 some 140 people attended a lecture by Dr. Frits Paerels about missing matter in the universe. Dr. Paerels described how astronomers came to understand that most of the matter in the universe was unaccounted for. Showing beautiful images of clusters of galaxies and simulations of the large-scale structure of the universe, Dr. Paerels described how only 4% of the universe was made out of normal matter and how fully 50% of it hasn't yet been detected.

After this great talk, we were treated to a remote observation by graduate students Neil Zimmerman and Andrew Brown who imaged Stephan's Quintet using the website These observations were a big hit with our regular visitors. Other newcomers were treated to a tour of the observatory on the roof with an exhortation to return soon!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This past Friday, recent graduate of the Columbia Astronomy doctoral program, Stephanie Tonnesen, gave a talk entitled, "Hubble Deep Field: Looking back in Time." In her talk, Stephanie gave us a detailed background on the nature of the Hubble Deep (HDF) and Ultra Deep fields (UHDF). She also gave us a sense of just how difficult an exposure of 150+ hours is in low Earth orbit due to the glare of the Sun. However, the biggest problem in terms of getting a great picture of the past was finding a patch of sky where few Milky Way stars existed. Too many foreground stars would actually outshine the very distant, and hence, faint galaxies that were the precise interest of that survey.

After showing us great pictures of these galaxies, Stephanie went on to explain the why astronomers are so interested in objects whose features we can barely make out. One main question addressed in the HDF & UHDF pictures is, "How do galaxies form?" Stephanie pointed that there are two main theories for galaxy formation: monolithic collapse and hierarchical merging. In monolith collaspe, different- sized gas clouds collapse due to self-gravity and form tight clumps of stars and/or stellar disks that constitute galaxies. In hierarchical merging smaller galaxies merger together to form larger galaxies that then feed off of remaining smaller satellite galaxies to grow. Occassionally these galaxies would run into another massive galaxy to form elliptical galaxies.

One observational fact that Stephanie pointed out that may favor monolithic collapse (at least in the early universe) is that the light Hubble observes in the visible here was redshifted from the ultraviolet (UV) light emitted from the HDF/UHDF galaxies. She showed us a UV picture of a nearby galaxy and we found that the picture looks clumpy due to the clusters of young star formation in the galaxy. Since massive blue stars in young star clusters emit predominately in the UV, could it be that the "blue dots" that we originally claimed to be merging proto-galaxies are actually starbursts in a single galaxy?

The audience asked many questions about galaxy formation and about the prospect of sorting the "blue dots" issue out. Stephanie explained that telescopes like James Webb and other projects will target visible light from these galaxies in the infrared (IR) to possibly solve this issue. This issue also highlighted why astronomers try to view objects by collecting all wavelengths from the electromagnetic spectrum. Once again, our speaker fielded a myriad of good questions from our audience and we ended our Q&A session only in the interest of observing time.

Thanks to the 7 volunteers and the 85+ people who attended our lecture and observing night!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Astronauts and Moon Landings

Yesterday, we provided a free screening of the film Apollo 13 to an audience of around 120. Erika Hamden and Cameron Hummels introduced the film with a short history of the Space Race along with a few definitions of some jargon terms that were used in the film (e.g. burn, gimbal lock, LEM). The film lasted about 2:20, and the auditorium thermostat seemed broken so the audience got an accurate experience of how cold it was in the broken command module of Apollo 13.

After the film, Erika and Cameron spoke for 20 minutes about how scientifically accurate the film was (very), and then discussed what broke in the actual Apollo 13 service module and why. They presented information about the remainding days of the Apollo program and the followup Shuttle program. Lastly, they gave information on how to go see the remaining shuttle launches and tips for youngsters on how to become an astronaut.

Unfortunately, the sky was cloudy, so we were unable to observe. NASA swag of Hubble Space Telescope photos and stickers for the HST-servicing mission were given out to audience members.

Thanks to everyone who turned out!


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Supernovae Lecture and Stargazing: July 2, 2010

This past Friday, recent post-baccalaureate of the Columbia Astronomy program, Nicholas Hunt-Walker, gave a talk entitled, “Supernovae: Going out with a Bang!” In his talk, Nick gave a clear overview of the main points of stellar evolution that lead up to two different types of supernovae: mass-accretion and core-collapse. He told us that mass-accretion type supernovas (also known as Type Ia) arise from binary systems where one star has already gone through all of the evolutionary phases, becoming a hot, dense stellar remnant, called a white dwarf. The other star, being less massive at birth, takes longer to evolve, eventually becoming a red giant star. When this occurs, the red giant star becomes so puffed up that its outer layers are close enough to the white dwarf companion that it becomes more gravitationally attracted to it. Thus, the white dwarf starts to siphon off the envelope of the red giant star and forms an accretion disk around itself. When enough matter has piled on the white dwarf it ignites thermonuclear burning in its core again. However, since it no longer has an envelope of mass around the core like a normal star, it can’t contain the increase in pressure and temperature and thus ignition becomes a runaway event that blows the white dwarf apart!

The second type of supernova (also called Type II) comes from the core collapsing in a massive star that is capable of fusing Hydrogen in its core up to Iron. Once this occurs, the star can no longer create enough energy in the core to support the many solar masses of matter above it. In seconds the star implodes on its self and then blows apart, usually leaving a neutron star or black hole behind. Nick received a myriad of good questions about the particulars of these processes and he patiently responded to everyone who asked.

He then went on to show us many beautiful examples of supernova remnants and how you can tell the difference between the type of supernova that created them from the characteristics of the remnants themselves. One good example of the observational difference is that a core-collapse supernova can have a compact stellar remnant in its center whereas a mass-accretion supernova can’t since the central object is totally destroyed! Nick also told us why we view the spectra of these remnants in different wavelengths like the X-Ray, Radio, and Optical. He explained that with this data we can better figure out what the progenitor star was made of and how and when it exploded.

Finally, Nick shared some historical accounts of famous supernova like the Crab supernova, seen by Chinese and Arab astronomers in 1054, and Tyco Brahe’s supernova, seen by, well, the man himself, in 1572. There continued to be many good questions from the audience about supernovae and their remnants. It was only in the interest of time for observations on the roof that the Q&A session ended.

We had a great turn out and our attendees made full use of our facilities by watching astronomy visualizations on our 3-D wall, ran by graduate student Yuan Li, and by going to the roof to stargaze. It’s cool to think that some of the stars we observed will be become supernovae in the future.

Thanks to the 9 volunteers and the 140+ people who attended our lecture and observing night!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Visitors from Manhattan East School

Today, we had a visit from the Astronomy Club of Manhattan East for the Arts and Academics in East Harlem, NY. A few of the graduate students presented several interactive activities for the club, including a solar-system walk, solar observing, an observatory tour, and a 3D flight through the Universe. In addition, we fielded several questions they had about astronomy, physics, science and college life. They were a great group of kids, and we were happy to have them here!

Thanks to all 15 of our visitors and the 4 volunteers who put this on.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Time Machine: June 18

The free screening of H.G. Wells classic tale “The Time Machine” (1960) drew around 45 viewers this Friday. Following this movie, graduate student Jennifer Weston led a discussion about the film with the audience, and talked about some of the implications of time travel and the ideas behind it.

Some of the topics covered included: Discussing what humans will be like in 800,000 years, with a review of how we’ve changed in the past 800,000 years. We concluded that while the human race could potentially split into two very different species, our time traveler would NOT be able to speak perfect English with them.

How to resolve the apparent paradoxes of time travel. Multiple time lines and predestination were thought to be some possible ways to prevent paradoxes when you attempt to kill your own grandfather. We also introduced the concept of closed time-like curves.

After this, we had an overview of the physics of traveling through time. We reviewed some of the background for Special and General Relativity, light cones, and black holes. Finally, we outlined how one might build a time machine with wormholes and cosmic strings.

Following the movie, telescopes were set up outside on College Walk, manned by a number of students. Passersby were able to see close up views of the beautiful quarter moon, and the planets Mars, Venus, and Saturn, and the stars Arcturus, Mizar and Alcor. Over the course of a bit more than an hour, about 90 people came by to take advantage of the clear night. Thanks to everyone who attended and to those who volunteered!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

From Physics 101 to Pigeons

Around 60 people attended our first event of the summer -- a free screening of The Core. Afterwards graduate student Lia Corrales guided the audience in a discussion around two major topics:

(1) Where does the earth’s electromagnetic field come from?
We reviewed the “Physics 101” of generating magnetic fields. We debunked the idea that simple rotation generates the earth’s magnetic field, and explained how much energy it would take to ‘stop’ or ‘reverse’ the rotation. We reviewed some of the scientific research showing that the earth’s magnetic field can have a complicated interior, can change over time, and occasionally switches polarity.

(2) What effect does the electromagnetic field have on life?
We discussed what solar wind does and does not contain, as referenced in the film. The highlight of the evening was the discussion centered on pigeons! We reviewed the scientific article showing that pigeons could sense magnetic fields. However, we also learned that pigeons used landmarks like roads to navigate. We concluded that a change in the earth’s magnetic field would not be enough to disorient pigeons into a kamikaze death dive, but would be enough to force them to ask for directions on the way home.

Unfortunately, the cloudy sky prevented telescope viewing for the night. Fortunately, the summer series of events got off to a great start, thanks to all the people who attended and our five volunteers!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Photographing Extra-Solar Planets

Despite forecasts for bad weather last night, we got some relatively good skies and views of M3 (a globular cluster of stars), Alcor & Mizar (a binary pair of stars in the Big Dipper), and Saturn. There was a wonderful lecture by Anand Sivaramakrishnan, the chief instrumentation engineer at the Museum of Natural History, on the topic of directly imaging extrasolar planets using interferometry. He discussed a new way in which to observe with modern optical and infrared telescopes which provides more information about planetary companions of stars than other methods. This new technique is currently being used on the Gemini telescope and will soon be used on the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor.

To follow up on the lecture, we showed a couple of short films on various aspects of stars, including the new program: "Journey to the Stars." Additionally, we had a few informal lessons from Jia Liu and Jennifer Weston regarding "Stars" and "Comets and Meteor Showers" to celebrate the Eta Aquarids meteor shower going on last night. There was some NASA poster swag for everyone to take.

Thank you to the 8 volunteers and 75 attendees last night!

Monday, April 26, 2010

April 23: Public Lecture and Stargazing

A beautiful clear night encouraged nearly 100 people to venture to Rutherfurd Observatory where we first hear from Prof. David Helfand about reconstructing cosmic history, atom by atom. Dr. Helfand's talk detailed how the nuclei of atoms could be used to track events in prehistory from the changes in our planet's ecosystem to the very origins of the universe. This engaging talk was a condensed version of his popular Teaching Company series of lectures.

After the fantastic lecture, we heard from graduate student Jana Grcevic about the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. The skies were clear and we got great views of the moon, Mars, Saturn, M13, and other targets that are often difficult to see from Manhattan without the aid of a telescope. All in all, a spectacular evening.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sidewalk Astronomy in Harlem

On Tuesday evening a small group of astronomy students set up telescopes outside the Magic Johnson cinema at 124th & Douglass Blvd. Amidst the mild weather we had an easy time surprising people on the sidewalk with close-up views of the Moon, Mars, and Saturn. About 150 people stopped for a look over the course of two hours. The above photo, taken by Laura Vican, shows Jennifer Weston pointing out Saturn to a new stargazer. The organizers aim to repeat the success of this outing once a month.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Radio Astronomy Lecture at Pupin Hall: Friday April 9.

The public lecture event from 8 to 10pm on Friday, April 9th, was both informative and entertaining. About 70 people attended the lecture by Grad Student Destry Saul entitled "Hearing Cosmic Static: The Accidental and Amateur Birth of Radio Astronomy". Destry explained how Carl Jansky at AT&T's Bell Labs serendipitously made the first detection of radiowaves from distant galactic sources while conducting telegraph R&D. He also explained why astronomers were slow to grasp the importance of this new sub-field of astronomy and how it took a decade after for a radio enthusiaist, Grote Reber, to reinvestigate Jansky's findings and properly establish the field of radio astronomy. The different interests that Reber maintained, in addition to radio, and the scientific fervor that he brought to his studies really reflected the true spirit and enjoyment that scientists have when they love their work. Finally, Destry was nice enough to show us some cutting edge radio research that he and his team at Columbia are working on.

Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative so it wasn't possible to observe but our 13th floor classroom was once again pressed into full service with Ryan Jong, a post-doc, running our 3-D wall. He showed a number of 3-D animations and simulations of galaxy mergers, formation, and of the cosmic web of galaxies in the universe. Our lecture was also followed up by tours of our observatory and telescopes and by a couple of slide shows in the lecture hall.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Public Lecture and Stargazing: March 26, 2010

Tonight's event from 8 to 10pm on Friday, March 26th, was a great time for everyone. Over 60 people attended a lecture by Grad Student Yuan Li entitled "Shaping Galaxies with Supermassive Black Holes". Yuan discussed first what a black hole is, and then explained how SMBHs are almost always found at the center of galaxies. She explained the M-sigma relation in an amazingly understandable way and provided some ideas about what might cause this correlation, including a great movie of a galaxy merger. Yuan's lecture was interesting and elicited a huge number of questions from the people in attendance.

The weather was hazy, with views of Mars and the Moon. Later in the evening it cleared up a little more, and Mizor and Alchor were observed as well. The 13th floor classroom was put to new use with a movie screening by Lia Corrales of Tyler Noerdgen's investigation of the night sky in national parks. A compelling section of his work, called "Sky Above, Earth Below" , which details light pollution at so-called dark sky sights, was shown.

We got some press coverage of last night's event. Read it now in the Columbia Spectator.

Monday, March 8, 2010

March 5, 2010: Gamma-ray bursts

We had an exciting evening on Friday March 5 from 7 to 9 pm with about 60 visitors to Pupin Hall and Rutherfurd Observatory. John Ruan, a Columbia College Senior in the Department of Astronomy (going on to graduate school next year) gave a fantastic lecture about gamma-ray bursts. Among the most amusing anecdotes he gave was the number of Coca-colas all of humanity would need to drink over the age of the universe in order to equal the amount of energy given off by one gamma-ray burst. The answer was a number too large to count in your lifetime!

Although it was hazy, the skies were clear enough to get a peak at Mars. The Red Planet is on a close approach to the Earth right now (an event that happens approximately once every two years) and so our view of it is getting to be pretty good. Even a small pair of binoculars can reveal that it is a disk and a moderately powered telescope can resolve the white polar ice caps! Definitely worth a look.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Exoplanet Hunting Techniques!

Summer Ash gave an amazing talk last night entitled: "Galactic Planet Hunting." She discussed the different techniques astronomers are using to find planets outside of our solar system, from looking at the wobble of the planet's host star, to looking at the drop of light that occurs when a planet eclipses its host star, and finally to looking for the planet directly. Additionally, we gave away some NASA swag, we had the 3D wall show and a flythrough the Solar System, and we had a few slideshows (Astronomy Picture of the Day and the discovery of water on the Moon).

Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative. It was clear when the lecture began but quickly became totally overcast for the observing period. However, we were able to give several groups of people a tour of the telescopes along with some history and background as to how they work.

Thanks to the 100 attendees and several volunteer graduate students!


Monday, February 8, 2010

Brown Dwarfs and 3D Mars on a cloudy night

Though the clouds kept us from observing the heavens, we had a delightful time from 7 to 9 pm Friday, February 5, 2010 learning about brown dwarf stars from Dr. Emily Rice of the American Museum of Natural History in a half hour lecture. Dr. Rice explained how brown dwarfs were first hypothesized and discovered and what we could expect with new missions including the WISE spacecraft for finding more of these enigmatic objects. She believes that it is likely there is a brown dwarf closer to us than Proxima Centauri (the second closest star to us after the Sun) that hasn't been discovered yet, but will be with WISE. Watch the news for exciting announcements coming from this mission which has been flying for almost two months now.

Additionally, we had a wonderful 3D-tour of Mars led by our own graduate student, Jana Grcevich using new 3D-display technology in our 1322 Pupin theater. These trips through 3-dimensional space are getting to be a real hit with those who attend our outreach events. If you haven't been in a while, consider coming and experiencing it for yourself!

Family Astro Day will be happening in two weeks February 20th from 5 to 7 pm. The theme this time will be "EXOPLANETS: The Search For Planets Outside Our Solar System". The program is designed for families with children aged 6 to 12. Space is limited, though, so please e-mail us to RSVP.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Extraterrestrial Life and The 3D Wall

Friday, January 22nd kicked off our spring public lecture series and stargazing nights. First we had an excellent lecture by Neil Zimmerman entitled The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in the 21st Century. Neil talked about the Drake Equation, the SETI program, and the various ways astronomers search for intelligence in space using radio scans, laser scans, and more. He then discussed upcoming SETI projects involving the Allen Telescope Array and the Square Kilometer Array.

Since the weather was clear, we were able to observe on the roof after the lecture. Targets included Mars, the first-quarter Moon, the Pleaides, and the Orion Nebula. In addition, there were slideshows held on how stars work and the diversity of galaxies in the Universe.

We had a new treat for visitors last night: 3D visualizations of galaxies, the Orion Nebula and a fly-over Mars using our state-of-the-art 3D wall. Visitors were lent 3D glasses for a fully immersive astronomy experience. We intend to hold this fairly frequently during our star-gazing sessions.

Thanks to all the 140 attendees and 10 volunteers who showed up!


Friday, January 22, 2010

Moon Highlights

On Thursday January 21st, we hosted Columbia University's Treasury Department for an hour and a half of discussion and observations. First we taught the 12 or so attendees about the recent discovery of water on the moon. We detailed the nature of these discoveries and the implications they have for future space exploration and extraterrestrial life. Then we went up to the roof to take advantage of the cloud-free night. The Orion Nebula, the Pleaides and the first-quarter Moon were all visible.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Telescopes and Children

On Friday, we hosted about 26 first and second graders, plus two fifth graders, from the EP1 public school.  Lia Corrales and Nick Hunt-Walker were the two graduate student volunteers for this group.  The visit lasted from 11 am to about 12:45 pm.

A lot of the session was based on telescopes. The kids were asked to draw a picture or write their name on a piece of paper, which we taped to a wall on the opposite end of the hallway. Then they looked at the pictures through a galileoscope to see how the image was flipped upside-down. We showed them how the lenses flipped the image using an optics bench demonstration. We then gave them a tour of the observatory and explained to them the difference between a refracting (lense) telescope and a reflecting (mirror) telescope. Finally, we gave them a slide show of solar system pictures and answered their questions. The children sang us a song before leaving.

Overall, it went well because the kids were enthusiastic (and adorable). One thing that would have made it better would have been using tripods with the galileoscopes. It was difficult to keep them steady enough for the kids to look through. An adult ended up steadying each using the back of a chair so that kids could look, so it took a long time to get through that portion of the activity.

- Lia -