Cumberland Times-News

Bob Doyle - Astronomy

March 10, 2012

Come along for a dazzling tour of the universe

There have been a number of wonderful surveys of the universe done in DVD format recently. But you have to watch them all the way through to follow what you are seeing.

I would like to recommend another book by Dr. David Aguilar, an astronomer-artist who is director of Science Information at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Aguilar also has been the director of the Fisk Planetarium and Science Center at the University of Colorado.

Unlike other books that show fabulous images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the new giant telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, Dr. Aguilar as an artist can copy these images and then put a planetary surface or a space ship in the foreground to make a human connection.

Along with excellent text descriptions of these objects, this gives the reader a better grasp of what they are looking at. The book is “Planets, Stars and Galaxies,” a National Geographic Book published in 2007. The book is still up to date (includes the dwarf planet category). It may be special ordered through your local book store or through an internet book service.

 The Introductory section is “What We Know (about the universe),” including the probable origin of the universe, why it began. Aguilar describes the role that asteroid impacts have played in the past, including the 65 million BC collision that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

In astronomy, unlike other sciences, our telescopic images allow us to gaze back in time to see the early stages of the universe.

Our space telescopes now view the universe in microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet and X-rays, allowing different objects to be better studied and understood. In covering the other planetary systems, Aguilar portrays extraterrestrials in a way you haven’t yet seen in any science fiction movie.

 The second section is “Tour of the Solar System,” aboard a nuclear fusion powered ship that will allow us to reach Eris, the farthest dwarf planet in 60 days.

We first pass by our neighbor world Venus where at the cloud tops, winds roar at 200 miles/hour while there is scarcely a breeze at the 870 F surface. Next stop is Mercury, whose surface bakes during the day (800 F) and is deep frozen (-300 F) at the end of night.

Then a close swing by the sun where giant looping clouds of gases can be seen. The sun’s solar flares can cause power blackouts on Earth as well as glorious displays of the Northern and Southern Lights. The planet Mars with its very thin atmosphere has the most scenic surface features of the inner planets, including giant (extinct) volcanoes, a monster canyon valley and recent surface changes due to melting permafrost.

The giant planets have gigantic storms (as large as Earth), interesting ring systems and icy moons with volcanoes, emitting sulfur dioxide, water vapor or nitrogen gas.

 In “The Stars and Beyond,” we explore our Milky Way galaxy and its zoo of stellar objects, from giant gas clouds (where stars form) to the ever shrinking black holes. Selected objects visible through binoculars are shown on star maps.

Also included are brown dwarfs, objects with too little mass to be stars and too much mass to be planets. There are tight globular star clusters, where a planet’s night sky would be filled with hundreds of thousands of stars. (versus our night skies of up to one thousand stars).

Our Milky Way galaxy is approaching the nearest large galaxy in Andromeda at 300,000 miles per hour. In billions of years, these two galaxies will collide, disrupting the orbits of stars now orbiting the centers of each galaxy. The collisions of gas clouds (but not stars) will lead to a burst of rapid star formation, followed by a series of supernova explosions.

There are a number of strange galaxies, whose twisted shapes and long star trails indicate they are the remains of two galaxies that have collided. Like an iceberg where most of the ice lies below the surface of the ocean, our universe is pervaded by ‘“dark matter,” which has five times the mass of the visible matter we see in stars, planets and gas clouds.

 In the next to last section, “Are We Alone?,” Aguilar describes the simplest living things on Earth, which for most of our Earth’s history were the predominant forms of life.

Europa, one of Jupiter’s large moons has a thick salty ocean under its icy surface crust. Tidal friction provides energy there to keep the water from freezing; Might primitive life be there?

 In the last section, “Dreams of Tomorrow,” Aguilar speculates that in the far future, Liquid Metal Telescopes could be positioned at the North and South Poles of our moon to gather far more light than any conventional telescopes on Earth or in space. (By spinning a pool of liquid mercury, one can get a parabolic surface, just the shape to focus light of distant objects.)

Mars could be terraformed, thickening its atmosphere to restore conditions that existed in Mars’ early history when there were lakes and oceans on Mars.

THIS WEEK’S SKY: With our shift to Daylight Time, you’ll have to wait to 9 p.m. for dark skies. On March 13, the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter will be only 3 degrees apart in the western dusk (three degrees is about the width of three fingers held at arm’s length). Orange Mars in the Southeast is easy to spot. All three of these planets shine with a steady light, not twinkling as the night stars.

HOOFED ANIMAL PRESENTATION: Each March Sunday at 4 p.m., there is a free public presentation, “Hoofed Animals of the North and their Skies” in Compton 224, next to the swinging pendulum in our Science Building.

The animals described include the most common deer, bigger deer found farther North, our native Antelope, and the hoofed animal that lives farthest North. Enter Compton Science Building from the second floor entrance that faces a large open area and the older dorms.

After a brief interactive presentation, we will visit the Science Discovery Center and meet these animals. The animals there don’t mind being photographed.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

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Bob Doyle - Astronomy
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