Backyard Astronomy: August 2015

Here are some fun astronomical events you and your family can enjoy in the month of August. All you need is an inexpensive telescope or binoculars for most of these events, but some of them are viewable with the naked eye.

August 7: Mercury, Jupiter, and Regulus will be within one degree of each other in the sky.

August 12-13: Perseids Meteor Shower. Meteor showers occur when the Earth moves through a cloud of debris left behind by a comet. The Perseids are debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. As meteor showers go, this one is top-notch, producing many bright streaks and up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak. The shower runs every year from July 17th to August 24th, but will peak on the night of the 12th and the early morning of the 13th. Look in the direction of the constellation Perseus after midnight for your best chance.

August 19: Mars will appear to cross in front of the Beehive Cluster, an open cluster of stars located in the constellation Cancer.

August 29: Super Moon. The Moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth during its full moon phase, making it a little bigger and brighter than usual. This will be the first of three Super Moons for 2015.

Weekly Psalm 19: The Antennae Galaxies

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — the Antennae Galaxies.

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This spectacular pair of colliding spiral galaxies is located 45 million light-years from Earth. They started their encounter a few hundred million years ago, but the entire collision will likely last a couple billion years. Drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, they will undergo several passes and collisions before their stars and gas finally settle down to make a new, single galaxy. The interaction has sparked intense star formation, visible as the blue regions, surrounded by excited hydrogen gas, visible in pink.

The Antennae Galaxies derive their name from the long streams of stars that extend from the galaxies like antennae, seen in wider-field images, like the one below.

The Milky Way Galaxy is on a collision course with its nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. At some point during this future encounter, the collision will probably look much the same as the Antennae Galaxies:

Top image of the Antennae Galaxies, credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. The wide-field ground-based image was taken by Robert Gendler.

Weekly Psalm 19: Jupiter and Io

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — Jupiter and Io.

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Last week, we were reminded of God’s handiwork with little Pluto, as imaged by the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons was launched in January 2006, and a little more than a year later it made a flyby of Jupiter, using the giant planet’s gravity to gain speed and shorten its journey to Pluto by three years. NASA made the most of that flyby to take images of Jupiter and its moons with unprecedented detail. The above image is a composite of Jupiter in infrared and its moon, Io, in true color. The blue and red in Jupiter’s atmosphere show high- and low-altitude clouds, respectively. The blueish flare on the night side of Io shows scattered sunlight off of a volcanic plume.

Image of Jupiter and Io, credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Goddard Space Flight Center.

Stars

“Stars”
by Valerie Worth

While we
Know they are
Enormous suns,
Gold lashing
Fire-oceans,
Seas of heavy silver flame,

They look as
Though they could
Be swept
Down, and heaped,
Cold crystal
Sparks, in one
Cupped palm.

Weekly Psalm 19: Pluto

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — Pluto.

NH-Pluto-color-NewHorizons-20150713

After nearly 10 years and three billion miles, the New Horizons spacecraft has arrived at Pluto. This image was taken by New Horizons yesterday (July 13) before it made its closest approach of about 8,000 miles.

Pluto is perhaps best known in recent times for its demotion from the ninth planet in the solar system to dwarf planet or “plutoid.” It orbits the Sun at about 40 times the Earth’s orbital distance. It is likely the largest and most massive member of the Kuiper Belt, a large collection of icy-rocky objects in the outer region of the solar system.

Pluto imaged by New Horizons. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI.

Humility

May the Force be with all of us

In 1977 my father took my brother and me to see Star Wars, and what I saw transformed me. On that screen, which seemed so big to a little kid, I was swept away from my Earth-bound existence and became conscious for the first time of our universe.  This was the defining moment in my life and it occurred when I was six years old.

Now that I am an adult, I realize how short on science the movie was, but I will be forever grateful for the way it got me thinking about outer space in a significant way. Space was all I could think about for years after: the awe, the mystery, the unlimited possibilities. From that moment onward, a life dedicated to the study of space science was inevitable for me.

Almost four decades later, I’m a professional astrophysicist. I have Jodie Foster-in-Contact moments whenever I go to a remote observatory and watch the transcendent night sky. Every time, it transports me back to 1977 and reignites the sheer wonder and indescribable joy I felt at the sight of a sky filled with thousands of far-off suns. But the wonder is deeper and more complex than it was when I was six years old, because of what I know. I now know what powers each of those suns, I know how they formed, when they formed, that most have planets orbiting them, and, though the stars appear to extend infinitely in all directions, I know that I’m really only looking at the outskirts of the vast Milky Way galaxy. But most important of all, I now know that all of this was deliberately created.

My brother and I were brought up with little in the way of religious instruction or experiences. He and I found God after long journeys on separate paths. It was the intense love my brother felt for his children and his need to believe they would have eternal life that brought him to God. What led me to God was my love of all things space and everything I learned as a student about the creation of the universe and the way nature is so exquisitely fine-tuned for intelligent life.  Science continues to be the basis of my unshakable conviction that nothing as beautiful and orderly as our universe could be an accident.

Whenever I stand on the peak of Mount Locke wrapped in the awe of a perfect night sky, I am infused by a feeling of complete humility. But, I understand in those moments what a little girl couldn’t possibly have understood forty years ago, that I am feeling humility in the midst of God’s divine work as I view proof of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Insignificance

Whenever I teach introductory astronomy, I hand out a questionnaire to my students and ask them to describe their main challenge (if any) with astronomy in terms of their religious or philosophical worldviews. Some students are troubled by the apparent conflict between science and their religious beliefs, but the most common response by far is a feeling of insignificance in the face of their new awareness of the vast scale of the universe.

Their answers reflect an intense humility, but it is often different from what I feel. Their humility, combined with the sense of insignificance, seems to lead many of them to disturbing feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness. I realized some time ago that people who do not believe in God feel the same degree of humility when they look at the night sky as I do, but they often turn the humility inward where it is translated into feelings of personal worthlessness. This feeling is not unique to the young and uninitiated in science. Physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg lamented in his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

I am fortunate to know that our vast universe is exactly the size it has to be to give rise to intelligent life.  Just about every scientist knows this, but the unfortunate non-believers are materialists for whom the vastness of the universe is also a constant reminder of the cold and deadly indifference of nature. Some non-believers, like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, hope for something after death, but largely accept the materialist view that this existence is all that there is. They retreat to gratitude for the moment, which is an intellectual evasion of their terrible truth.

Other scientifically informed people evade thoughts about the creation and fine tuning of the universe in a different manner, by pushing it beyond the bounds of investigation. They maintain that ours is one of an infinite number of universes—the multiverse—which we can never observe. They argue that we must have simply won the multiverse lottery and the jackpot was all of the conditions necessary for life. It seems to me that if people feel insignificant and hopeless in a vast universe, they aren’t going to feel any better being part of an even bigger multiverse. A darker road is taken by a few, like biologist William Provine, who simply accept their insignificance and acknowledge that a godless universe can have no meaning. It is an honest assessment for a materialist, but one that is filled with despair.

The deliberately more optimistic atheist will talk of his awe of the universe, but I know from experience that is only what he says in public to make his case. If he is capable of taking the next step in his reasoning, he can’t help but move to terrifying thoughts. He may feel wonder at the universe, but if he knows its history he can’t escape the understanding that nature doesn’t care about him. His awe, humility, and fear must all be based on the inescapable realization that ultimately the cosmos will bring about his destruction and the eventual annihilation of the entire human species. Nothing that he or anyone else does will ever have any meaning.  The atheist who looks at outer space as merely a pretty picture is deluding himself. If there is no loving God as Creator of the universe, what the atheist is really looking at in the heavens is the end of all hope or meaning.

There is no need for such a dim view of existence. Because I believe in a loving and purposeful God, when I look at outer space, I see something created with mankind in mind. I know that I am small in physical size, but huge in significance. My awe and humility expand my being through the knowledge that there is a divine power guided by God’s love for all of us. His love changes space into something more like Star Wars: a wonderful challenge that we can meet with joy because of our God-given spirit and intellect.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet

Psalm 8:1-6

Weekly Psalm 19: Carina Nebula

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — the Carina Nebula.

Carina_Nebula

The Carina Nebula is a giant diffuse cloud of gas spanning almost 500 light-years and containing many large, bright, hot stars. It’s about three times larger than the great nebula in Orion, but is not as well known, because it’s only visible from the Southern Hemisphere. This is one of my personal favorites, and a portion of it appears in the right-hand menu bar if you scroll down.

This nebula is located on the sky in the constellation Carina (hence its name), and is physically located about 7,000 to 10,000 light-years away in the Carina-Sagittarius spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. For reference, our Solar System is in the adjacent Orion arm. (See below.)

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Carina Nebula image credit: ESO/T.

Weekly Psalm 19: NGC 7006

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — globular cluster, NGC 7006.

NGC_7006_(HST)

Globular clusters are spherical clusters of stars orbiting in the halos (the outermost regions) of galaxies. This particular cluster is orbiting in the halo of our Milky Way Galaxy, at a distance of about 135,000 light-years from Earth. It appears in the sky in the direction of the constellation Delphinus. Due to its distance, it’s very faint in the sky and therefore difficult to detect with small telescopes. The above image was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The stars in NGC 7006 all formed at about the same time, and are therefore all roughly the same age. They are very old stars — almost as old as the universe — and will remain tightly gravitationally bound to each other their entire lives.

Globular cluster NGC 7006, image credit: HST/NASA.

Backyard Astronomy: July 2015

Here are some fun astronomical events you and your family can enjoy in the month of July. All you need is an inexpensive telescope or binoculars for most of these events, but some of them are viewable with the naked eye.

July 1: Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. A conjunction occurs when two or more planets overlap, or appear very close together, in the sky. This year’s closest conjunction is in July when Jupiter and Venus will appear to be less than half a degree — the diameter of the full Moon — away from each other. This will be a good one to view through a small telescope.

July 28-29: Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower. Meteor showers occur when the Earth moves through a cloud of debris left behind by a comet. The Delta Aquarids are debris from the comets Marsden and Kracht. The shower will peak on the night of the 28th and the early morning of the 29th. This is an average meteor shower that would normally give a decent show, but will largely be washed out by a nearly full Moon. You can still catch a few meteors if you’re persistent. Look in the direction of the constellation Aquarius after midnight for your best chance.

July 31: Blue Moon. A Blue Moon is a second full Moon in a calendar month. They’re sort of rare, but not super-rare, hence the phrase, “Once in a Blue Moon.”

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss dinosaurs and the age of the world and pursuing science as a Christian student.

Shawn made the following criticism in the comments to the “Six Days” post:

Below the slideshow you asked for corrections. I can’t speak to the astrophysics parts, but I can concerning two standpoints — that of theology, and that of fossil evidence, particular in reference to humans, but also in reference to even dinosaurs, which have been found containing soft tissue, something that seems strange, but plausible for a world of only 6-10K years, but absolutely forbidden for a world millions, even billions, or trillions of years old.

This strikes me as an odd observation. Taking the soft tissue evidence at face value, why couldn’t we simply have young dinosaurs in a very old world? It might be a bit awkward, but there is nothing in either science or scripture I’m aware of that “absolutely forbids” this.

In any case, it turns out that the soft tissue evidence is not necessarily a problem for old dinosaurs. It’s quite possible what we’re discovering is that scientists don’t understand decay like they thought they did. Evidence is mounting that, under certain conditions, soft tissue can be preserved during fossilization for millions of years. Nor is it a problem for Christianity, given that I believe scripture [together with a basic understanding of cosmology -Ed.] strongly implies an old universe/old Earth, anyway. Also, for you conspiracists out there, consider that the scientist who made the discovery, Mary Schweitzer, identifies as a committed Christian.

—–

HB writes:

I’ve wanted to change my major to astronomy, but I feel it will be a hard major to be in as a Christian. As an astronomer, do you feel that people are trying to convert you? Or do they respect your beliefs and work with you just the same? And is becoming an astronomer as cool as it seems?

I became a Christian halfway through my graduate studies in astrophysics, and did not find it difficult at all. Nobody in my department gave me any trouble for my beliefs. A few of the faculty and grad students were also Christian, which helped. However, I can foresee a problem being a young-earth creationist Christian and trying to major in astronomy, since so much of the subject matter reveals a very old age for the universe. But if you are not a young-earther, that’s not a concern.

Now, that said, if you are passionate about astronomy, you should not let the fact that you are Christian deter you. Science needs Christians. And we know from scripture and history that we will face many challenges and obstacles just for being followers of Jesus Christ. Since that’s inevitable, just do what you feel you are called to do, and ignore those who would give you any trouble.

And, yes, becoming an astronomer is wonderful. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Do keep in mind, though, that being a scientist is sometimes tedious, but that probably describes just about any job.