Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘telescopes’

Catching up with my thoughts

Here are some things I’ve been thinking about and reading about lately.

Giant lasers in trouble

Nature Photonics recently published an editorial highlighting the proposed elimination of two powerful U.S. lasers from the Energy Department’s budget. These are at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. In particular, the cutbacks at the LLE would hurt the research community.

Light-adapting contact lens

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently cleared the first contact lens that gets darker in bright light, the way some eyeglass lenses do. I don’t want to delve into the details here (I’m certainly not trying to provide corporations with free advertising), but I’m just wondering what these lenses will make the wearer’s eyes look like. I know that the darkening eyeglass lenses look darker on someone else than they appear to me when the glasses are on my face, if that makes any sense. (I have one pair of eyeglasses that darkens and one pair that does not.) It will be weird if these contact lenses make people look as if they have large dark holes where their irises are supposed to be.

A global crisis

My next feature article for Optics & Photonics News will be on optics in oceanography. It hasn’t been published yet, but I can tell you that it mentions the growing problem of plastic garbage in our oceans. The New Republic says that the problem is so big that it will take an agreement as large as the Paris climate accord to handle it.

Looking for extrasolar worlds

This week NASA and SpaceX are scheduled to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, better known as TESS. Back in January I wrote a newsbrief about TESS for OPN. Today was supposed to be launch day — and, as I write this, the countdown timer on the TESS website is still ticking away — but SpaceX tweeted earlier this afternoon that the launch has been postponed until Wednesday to review some guidance, navigation and control issues.

What I’m doing

Besides writing for OPN, I’m helping a colleague, OSA Fellow Jeff Hecht, with some photo research for his next nonfiction book. I’m mentioning this in case anyone who gets an email from me follows the link in my signature back to this website.

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“Daddy almost broke the space telescope…”

I already retweeted the link I’m going to write about, but some stories are just so good that they deserve more than a tweet.

The website io9.com gave a great review of the new first-person Esquire story of how astronaut Mike Massimino “almost broke” the Hubble Space Telescope during the final repair mission to that spacecraft in 2009. I’ve been fascinated with Hubble for most of my adult life, and I wrote an article previewing the final repair mission in 2008 (just before the mission was postponed for a few months — doggone it!). In fact, when I was at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for “media preview day,” the four spacewalking astronauts went into the giant clean room to practice handling the actual tools that they would be using in space. I didn’t get to meet them, but from the observation window I could see them walking around in their masks, booties and garb. Needless to say, I thought that was extremely cool!

You can read the full Esquire story at this link.

Massimino, of course, has been a media-savvy astronaut for a long time; I think he was the first astronaut to use Twitter. And he played a bit role as himself in a few hilarious episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (well, aren’t all the episodes hilarious?).

Speaking of space, NASA is going to shoot for the Moon again tonight, albeit with a small, unpiloted spacecraft. Go here or here or here to find out if you will be able to glimpse the launch, which is going up from southern Virginia instead of Florida. My neighborhood is full of tall, mature trees, but if I walk up the street a half-block or so I might just be able to glimpse enough of the southeastern sky to see something. We shall see.

Most of the publicity surrounding this spacecraft has focused on its planned atmospheric and dust experiments, but the Office of Science and Technology Policy informs us that the craft will also test out a new kind of laser communications system that could potentially rocket-propel (metaphorically speaking, of course) the bandwidth from space.

Clear skies!

Ask a physicist!

If you want to boost attendance at your local religious congregation, just ask a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to deliver the weekly sermon. This actually works!

Folks at Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church (Adelphi, Md.) were honored to have Dr. John C. Mather of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in the pulpit yesterday. Dr. Mather had been at the church a few months ago to attend the memorial service of Frank McDonald, a retired NASA GSFC high-energy astrophysicist, and once he got talking to the minister, she invited him back for a Sunday service.

You can read both his talks during the service — first some comments to the children at the beginning of the service, and then his sermon for the adults. The sanctuary was full!

After the service, Dr. Mather stuck around for a discussion circle in one of the church’s classrooms. About 35 folks got a chance to ask him questions about space-time, the origins of life, the spirituality of scientists, and the James Webb Space Telescope. I didn’t take notes, but I enjoyed the session thoroughly. How often do folks get to sit around and chat with a Nobel laureate?

Tomorrow: the transit of Venus!

I put an exclamation point at the end of the headline because, well, I’m excited!

Tomorrow, part of planet Earth will experience a “transit of Venus,” meaning that we’ll see the second planet from the Sun pass across the disk of the Sun. We see transits of Jupiter’s larger moons across the face of Jupiter all the time, but a transit of Venus across the Sun is something quite special. Usually when the Earth, Venus and the Sun line up in that order, Venus is above or below the face of the Sun because of the inclination of its orbit. Once or twice in a really great while, Venus actually crosses in front of the Sun from our viewpoint on Earth.

I say “once or twice” because the complicated orbital mechanics of the solar system makes the transits come in relative pairs, with huge time gaps in between. Sky & Telescope magazine goes into much more detail in its press release on tomorrow’s event.

The first transit of the current pair took place on June 8, 2004 — almost eight years ago. That transit was at sunrise from the perspective of the East Coast of the USA, so one had to rise fairly early in order to catch it. This year’s event will be at sunset instead of sunrise, and for the East Coast, the Sun will go down while the transit is still going on. All the same, the event’s still going to be spectacular.

If you want to see the transit, the first rule is: DO IT SAFELY! Do NOT look directly at the Sun. You probably won’t see Venus anyway, and you will certainly damage your eyes. Again, Sky & Telescope has a complete guide to viewing the Sun safely. In 2004, I used a pair of 10 x 25 binoculars to project the solar image onto a piece of white cardboard. I did NOT look through the eyepiece — it’s easy enough to tell when the binoculars are pointing at the Sun. You could try doing this projection method with two pieces of thin cardboard — make a pinhole in one and use it to project onto the other. This works for partial solar eclipses, but I am not sure whether this will provide enough detail to see the small dot that is Venus.

Another safe method of viewing the transit of Venus is to attend an event staged by people who know what they’re doing when it comes to the combination of optics and the Sun. In the area where I live, I have a choice between the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt’s viewing at the NASA Goddard visitors’ center or the University of Maryland astronomy department’s public viewing atop a campus parking garage. The University of Maryland page has a list of links to other public viewing sites in and around Washington, D.C. Various U.S. observatories are also planning webcasts, so you might be able to continue watching the transit even after your local sunset — or even if your local area is overcast. (Drat those clouds!)

Notice that I’ve been throwing around words like “tomorrow” and “sunset” from the point of view of my personal location. Northwestern Canada, Alaska, much of Asia and eastern Australia will see the whole transit. Some places, like western Africa and most of South America, won’t see it at all. And from the perspective of other locations, the transit will take place at sunrise on Wednesday, August 6. See the NASA Eclipse Web page, curated by Fred Espenak, for an excellent explanation of these details.

Finally, if you’re seeking some music to play while watching this fabulous celestial event, may I suggest John Philip Sousa’s Transit of Venus March?

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) update

First, a reminder: You have only a day or two left to read my OPN feature article (and cover story for the November 2011 issue), “Optical Innovations in the James Webb Space Telescope.” Soon, it will vanish into the OSA-members-only archives of the magazine.

Second, an important update: Since the article was published, the JWST has gotten the full funding that it needs. Huzzah! I predict that, once it’s in orbit and collecting data, the discoveries made from JWST data will be so dazzling and mind-blowing that people will forget that its funding was ever in doubt. (After all, when was the last time you heard “Hubble” rhymed with “trouble”?)