Category: IYA

Hello, Red Planet!

By Phil Plait | January 25, 2010 4:00 pm

If you’ve been outside after it gets dark lately, you may have noticed the brilliant reddish star in the east. But that’s no star; it’s Mars! About every year and a half, the Earth passes Mars as they both orbit the Sun, very much like how a faster racing car on the inside track laps a slower-moving car on the outside track.

When Earth does lap Mars, the Red Planet’s on the opposite side of the sky from the Sun, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise — we say that Mars is at opposition when that happens. When it does, we get two advantages in one: it’s at its closest point, so it’s bigger in telescopes, and it’s up all night so you can observe it at your convenience. This happens next in just a few days, on January 29, 2010.

That’s why the Beauty Without Borders program has set up a Mars observing campaign, to get everyone outside and looking at Mars. If you are part of a local astronomy group, let them know about the campaign, which lasts from tonight, January 25th, through the 30th. Get folks to attend and see Mars through a telescope! It won’t be terribly big like you might see in space probe pictures, of course, but you may catch the polar ice caps, or some other features.

And when the event is done, you can report your results to the Beauty without Borders group, so they can collate them. Did you see the same things as people across the world?

I love hearing about events like this. The hardest thing to do, sometimes, is simply to get people to look up. You really should try it. Otherwise, you’re missing the entire Universe.


Tip o’ the Tharsis shield to ThilinaH.


Call to astronomers to report Unidentified Aerial Phenomona

By Phil Plait | December 24, 2009 8:00 am

denver_ufoI have been saying for years that a) most UFOs are simply misidentified mundane phenomena (satellites, meteors, balloons, Venus, weird clouds, even the Moon) and that 2) if they were real, astronomers — who spend a lot more time looking at the sky than your average person — should be reporting most of them.

My musings on this have been twisted and distorted by UFO folks — shocker! — even though I’ve been pretty clear about what I would count as evidence. But now we may have a way to cut through the garbage. A new website has been started for professional and amateur astronomers to report Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. I rather like this new UAP acronym, since it avoids the UFO/flying saucer baggage. Anyway, it was set up as part of IYA 2009 to help astronomers report things in the sky they may not immediately understand. Better yet, it has links to handy guides that will help people who might otherwise misidentify normal things like sundogs and other weather phenomena.

The website is the brainchild of Philippe Ailleris:

Despite the controversy surrounding the topic, he believes that it is possible to approach the UAP field from a professional, rational, and scientific angle without any a priori. He considers that UAP studies my increase the scientific understanding of today poorly understood natural phenomenon, and ultimately he even sees the potential for Science to discover new unknown phenomena, therefore making such study invaluable. His research therefore focuses on attempting to raise the interest of the scientific community and to bridge various fields to devise what he believes is the necessary multidisciplinary approach to studying the phenomena.

I agree. As Carl Sagan said, whether UFOs are real and we’re being visited, or they’re a mass social phenomenon due to the way our brains work, either aspect is fascinating and worthy of actual study.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Astronomy, Cool stuff, IYA

Another 365 Days

By Phil Plait | December 13, 2009 8:00 am

365 Days of Astronomy podcastGreat news, everyone! The 365 Days of Astronomy citizen podcast will go on for at least another year!

365DoA is an International Year of Astronomy project that lets you, the astronomy enthusiast, create your own astronomy podcast, upload it, and let everyone on this pale blue dot hear it. It was wildly successful, with spots filling up rapidly once it was announce last year. It also won a coveted Parsec podcast award this year, too.

But given this was an IYA 2009 project, I was wondering if it would continue on to 2010 and beyond, and it will! It’ll become a legacy project, and will be handled by Astrosphere New Media Association, a (charitable and tax-deductible!) online astronomy support group made up of dedicated people. I know this for a fact, because I’m a part of it.

Slots for 2010 are going fast, so you better grab a date if you want to participate! And if you want to help, then we could use some sponsors, too:

The podcast team also invites people and organizations to sponsor the podcast by donating $30 to support 1 day of the podcast, with your dedication appearing at the start of the show. For just $360, it is possible to sponsor 1 episode per month. Alternatively, you can also have a dedication message at the end of the show for a week, for a donation at the $100 level. These donations will help pay for editing, and posting of the podcasts.

Each episode gets between 5000 and 10,000 listeners, so it’s not a terrible way to advertise if you’re looking for that. But submitting an entry is free. If you read this blog — and you do, I see you there — then astronomy is something you enjoy. I bet you can think of some topic here that inspires you, that fires you up, that makes you think.

Go ahead! Make my year.


Aiiiieeee! Slow down!

By Phil Plait | December 11, 2009 2:00 pm

Sometimes, news comes pouring in to Bad Astronomy HQ, and I am but a man, so I can’t keep up (writing about Saturn’s moons and giant galactic panoramas and big weird Scandinavian spinny thingies keep me pretty busy, y’know).

So here are some quick bits o’ interest.

1) Dr. Harriet Hall will inject (haha!) some medical sense into Oprah

2) You already knew this, but Rush Limbaugh is somewhat misinformed on basic matters of science and medicine*.

3) Obama’s science advisor John Holdren reads a book by my Hive Overmind compatriots!

4) Pulsar-discoverer Jocelyn Bell-Burnell blogs.

5) My friend, the Aussie skeptic Richard Saunders appeared on national TV and handed an astrologer his head.

6) My evil twin Richard Wiseman is fun at parties. Here’s the video:

OK, good. That oughta keep y’all busy while I write up my next big astronomy post.

In your head, you may wish to replace my description with some artfully selected words from Al Franken’s book title.

Photogenic astronomers

By Phil Plait | December 8, 2009 8:00 am

I love clever photographers. Max Alexander falls firmly into that category, given his brilliant collection of photographs he took of UK astronomers as part of the IYA. As he put it:

I chose to portray astronomers as individuals, rather than astronomy as a subject, in order to personalize the contributions to society. […] Almost every picture has a story behind it, either because of the relevance and personality of the scientist, or because of the context of the situation.

I think he did pretty well! My favorite is this one:


Why? Because of the astronomy inside joke of her holding a staticky television. Read the info for that photo to see why.

Tip o’ the lens cap to my bud Amanda Bauer, aka astropixie.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, IYA, Pretty pictures

Moody Moon

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2009 8:00 am

My brother-in-law is a pretty good photographer (as you may remember). He just posted this lovely picture of the waxing gibbous Moon tucked in amongst the clouds at sunset:

Click it to embiggen. It’s not hard to get nice shots of the Moon, even during the day, though to get one this nice it does take a bit of experience and work. But it’s not all that technically challenging, and since it’s IYA 2009 anyway, I encourage everyone to give it a try. The Moon is bright and easy to spot, making it the obvious target for a beginning attempt at astrophotography. But you’ll need a telephoto; the Moon is smaller in photographs than you might expect. Experiment! Play around! And if you get nice results, link to ’em in the comments. Let’s see what you’ve got.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, IYA, Pretty pictures

Astronomy and skeptical auctions

By Phil Plait | September 21, 2009 4:30 pm

Just a reminder: the Ebay auctions for Apollo commemorative memorabilia signed by me and for a private music session with George Hrab end tomorrow (Tuesday) around 21:00 GMT! The winners of the auctions can then purchase TAM London tickets, so if you still want to attend the meeting here’s a great chance, and you win nifty stuff, too.


Also, the fantabulous Pamela Gay has two Galileoscopes for auction on Ebay with the boxes autographed by some celebrities at Dragon*Con: one is signed by the cast of Battlestar Galactica and Felicia Day, and the other by the cast of Ghost Hunters International. I know, I know, but as Pamela points out, the goal here is to get everyone to look at the sky, and maybe, just maybe, if someone who’s a fan of the latter gets a ‘scope, they’ll observe the dark sky and turn away from the dark side.


I got my Galileoscopes!

By Phil Plait | August 24, 2009 7:19 am

My Galileoscopes arrived in the mail!

Yay! There were some shipping problems, and it took longer than expected (they arrived about a month ago but I’ve been too busy to write up this post). But still, very cool. I ordered three; one for my daughter and me, one to give away on the blog (coming soon), and one that was an anonymous gift to some place that could use a telescope to show kids the wonder of the skies.

It comes packed pretty well, and all the pieces were there. The lenses are glass — very nice! — and the plastic in the tube is solid and fits together pretty well. I will say that the instructions are not terribly clear; if you get a ‘scope, go to the Universe Awareness for Young Children site, which has language neutral instructions that make assembly a snap.

Once I opened that page, assembly took only a few minutes. When it was done, I mounted it on my sturdy tripod (I highly recommend using one) and took it outside for a spin.

Galileoscope setup

As expected, with the low power eyepiece it’s not too hard to use. The difficulty for beginners is that the telescope employs a lens, which means images are reversed and upside-down, so be prepared for that! It takes getting used to, but most folks do get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Star images are pretty crisp. That means the lenses are decent quality and aligned well. I tried for Saturn, but couldn’t see the rings. The planet is clearly a disk, but the rings are almost edge-on and difficult to discern. Plus, Saturn is about as far away as it can get right now, so it’s a poor target to choose. It was the only object up at twilight, though, which is why I tried.

Later, Jupiter rose above our treeline, and the good news is it gets higher every night for a while now. Through low power the planet is easily resolved as a disk, and the four big moons were a piece of cake to spot. I could even just barely make out two or three of the cloud stripes on Jupiter.

I found the higher-power eyepiece almost impossible to use, which I actually expected — it’s hard enough in much more expensive telescopes. Higher power means smaller field of view, so finding objects is tough. Focusing is hard as well, since the target is hard to keep centered. I suggest finding the best focus with both eyepieces and then marking the slider tubes with a white or silver marker that you can see in the dark. That way you can pre-focus.

All in all the Galileoscope is a good piece of equipment. It’s not hard to assemble, and if you have a tripod and some measure of patience it will allow you view large bright objects. You won’t go galaxy hopping with it, and the inverted view makes bird-spotting hard too. But it serves the purpose it was designed to do: get astronomy in the hands of people everywhere for a very low price.


Experience the planets

By Phil Plait | August 11, 2009 7:00 am

Check out this digital drawing of Saturn:

Experience the Planets artist drawing of Saturn

Gorgeous, isn’t it? Drawn by artist Gregory Siegburg, it’s part of a new project called Experience the Planets, started by a talented group of artists who want to create and collect beautiful artwork of the planets so that people can get a view of them that — so far — are difficult to obtain or cannot be achieved with our probes.

The pictures they have there are incredible, and available for download as wallpaper, too. My only complaint is that they don’t have enough! But they’re looking for more artists, so if you have the talent, you might want to contact them. They’re supported by the International Year of Astronomy, too! So this is the real thing.

Go there and check out their work. It’s beautiful.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, IYA, Pretty pictures

Get a Galileoscope! Hurry!

By Phil Plait | May 28, 2009 9:14 pm

A few months ago I wrote about the Galileoscope, a wonderful inexpensively priced telescope that is being produced as part of the International Year of Astronomy. There were some initial problems with shipping, but I have been told that ‘scopes are shipping and will be in the hands of eager folks by early June or July latest! Yay!

Galileoscope setup

Now here’s the thing: production is not so simple for these telescopes, and the folks making them want to continue to do so. But unless they get a bunch of orders right away production will stop. They need orders by the end of May, which means that if you’re thinking of getting one or more — and at $15 each (plus shipping) it’s cheap to do so — then please send in your order now! Don’t wait; if you do it may be too late. At the very least the price will go up, and at worst they won’t be able to make any more.

I bought three: one for my daughter (and, to be honest, me), one for her school, and one to give away on the blog. I’ll do that last bit once they get here — but don’t rely on winning it; I expect to get about 1000 entries for it.

So stop reading this blog and go buy a ‘scope or three. Give ’em to folks who can’t afford ’em, donate one to a school, or simply designate your order to go to a faraway land where the kids need the inspiration and awe of seeing Jupiter’s moons, the phases of Venus, the mountains of our own Moon, or Saturn’s rings.

I became interested in astronomy at the age of five because I saw Saturn through a small telescope. Will you please help another child appreciate the wonder of astronomy? You never know where it will take them.


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