Welcome to SkyTours with Derrick! If you've ever found yourself under the night sky wondering what that thing is, well, you've come to the right place to find out. I'll provide regular postings of just what's available for you to see at this time of this year, including planets, stars, constellations and my favorite - satellites! I'll also welcome your suggestions for what to add to the blog for your information and answer your questions.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Astronomy for Couch Potatoes: Astronomical Exploration by Computer

Couch potatoes? Let's not be so harsh. How about 'armchair astronomers?' Feel better now? However you see yourself, bringing the universe into your living room has become a reality for everyone from researchers to bored 8 year olds. Use the following list of websites to see how far you can go and what contributions you can make with just a laptop and a track pad. Learn how you can become a ‘Citizen Scientist’ in astronomy and space exploration. These are all locations where you can explore the universe from your den or family room - no spaceship required, just an active curiosity and plenty of time to spare. Some are pretty simple and straightforward - good for interested kids. Others are truly serious astronomical research efforts you can contribute to. Still others require relatively sophisticated equipment to participate but you can pick and choose what works for you. Enjoy!

LHC@home (http://lhcathome.cern.ch/)
-    enables users to help physicists model particle behavior in particle accelerators.

Stardust@home (http://stardustathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/)
-    enables users to aid researchers in the hunt for pristine interstellar dust particles captured in aerogel the stardust collection mission.

Transitsearch (http://www.transitsearch.org/)
-    enables amateur astronomers with CCD imaging capability on their telescopes to forward information about lightcurves at suspect stars to be examined for potential exoplanet discovery.

Mino Planet Center (http://minorplanetcenter.org/iau/mpc.html)
-    Much like TransitSearch, more advanced observers can monitor and report the activity and behavior of asteroids and minor planets.

International Occultation Timing Association (http://www.occultations.org/)
-    Also much like TransitSearch, more advanced observers record the obscuration of stars by planets and moons.

The Great Worldwide StarCount (http://www.windows2universe.org/citizen_science/starcount/) and the GLOBE Program (http://globe.gov/)
-    invites participants to count and report the number of stars seen from their location during specific times of the year. The effort is to assess the role of light pollution on astronomical observing around the world.

Citizen Sky (http://www.citizensky.org/)
-    asks participants to help scientists solve a 175-year old mystery about the appearance of a star, epsilon Aurigae. No observing equipment is required and participants can work on everything from observation to publishing the associated research papers.

Center for Backyard Astrophysics (http://cbastro.org/)
-    asks interested amateurs to join a global network of small telescope users  to monitor the activity of cataclysmic variable stars – stars that flare up in brightness on irregular schedules and for unknown reasons.

American Association of Variable Star Observers (http://www.aavso.org/)
-    is a well-established, well-organized and venerable organization whose mission is to catalog he behavior of stars of variable brightness. Its members range widely in age and experience but AAVSO has great projects for CS’s of all ages. Highly recommended.

Einstein@home (http://einstein.phys.uwm.edu/)
-    is a distributed computing program that uses your computer’s down time to search for gravitational waves from spinning neutron stars or radio pulsars in binary star systems. One project analyzes data from the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory and the other looks at data from Arecibo Observatory the world’s largest radio telescope, located in Puerto Rico.

Cosmology @home (http://www.cosmologyathome.org/)
-    uses your computer to find the best model that characterizes our universe as we currently understand it. Pretty heavy-duty stuff going on here…

SETI@home (http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/)
-    uses internet-connected computers to aid in the search for ET (I). The program which runs in the background downloads and analyzes radio telescope data.

Zooniverse (http://www.zooniverse.org/home)
-    Wow! Want to hunt supernovae? Galactic collisions? Look for solar storms or work on galaxy shape classification using Hubble Space telescope data? How about cataloging features on the moon? You can even work on the interpretation of weather records from the past centuries, all here at the Zooniverse.

Milkyway@home (http://milkyway.cs.rpi.edu/milkyway/)
-    uses your computer’s downtime to create highly accurate 3-D model of the universe using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Orbit@home (http://orbit.psi.edu/)
-    is a project funded by a NASA grant to use distributed computing as a means to better and more quickly analyze solar system dynamics data as it relates to the identification and characterization of Near-Earth Asteroids and their possible interaction with Earth.

Many of the projects use an application called BOINC that enables your computer to participate in distributed computational projects according to their Wiki:

"BOINC, short for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, is open source software for volunteer and grid computing. Its used by science research projects like SETI@Home, Rosetta@home, World Community Grid, Climateprediction.net and many other Universities and Organizations around the world.
Volunteers can download the BOINC software, attach to one or more of these science projects and participate in the science research. The BOINC software will run on any type of computer and just operates in the background and wont effect your normal computer use. Why leave a computer idle when it could be doing something beneficial for science?"

Check them out and have a good time!

November Skies 2010

With the arrival of November there’s no denying the coming of winter. Chilly temperatures and brisk winds define the major weather changes along with the one hour time shift that now comes a week later than in previous years. While sunrise seems ‘better timed’ early in the month, it’s the very early sunsets that catch our attention.  The time change provides an advantage for skygazers – we can start earlier.  So what’s to be seen?

By 10 p.m. the big three constellation of the summer, Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila, with their bright stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair (respectively) are now just above the western horizon and will soon retire until next summer. Of note is the Swan of Cygnus. With its new nose-down orientation, it’s much easier to see the bright stars as a cross standing upright on the horizon. Deneb becomes the top, the bird’s wings are the crossbar and the bill of the swan is the foot of the cross.

Taking center-stage this season is the mythical winged horse Pegasus, who was ridden by the mythical Greek hero Perseus.  Pegasus looks like a big square in the sky marked by four reasonably bright stars, one at each corner of the box. In the myths, Perseus rides Pegasus as he defeats the gorgon Medusa and rescues Andromeda, daughter of the Ethiopean queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus. Each of the characters mentioned here, except Medusa and Zeus, are constellations prominently placed near Pegasus. Zeus has no representation in the sky while Medusa is represented by the variable star Algol in Perseus.

Also running across the sky, just below Pegasus, is the Zodiac band of constellations. From west to east they are Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, and Gemini. Their singular astronomical significance, as a group, is that the sky paths of the sun, moon and planets flow through the constellations of the zodiac.

Around in the north, the big bear of the sky Ursa Major is now ‘nose up’ on the horizon. Its most famous sub-group of stars, the Big Dipper, stands on its last handle star, Alkaid.  To the east, the Winter Circle of Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini and Canis Major fill the east after midnight.

Our largest planet, Jupiter, is bright and easy to spot in the south as the sky darkens. Just to the east of Jupiter Uranus sits quietly, difficult to see without a telescope. Thirty degrees to the west is our most distant planet, Neptune. Even a small telescope under dark, clear skies will reveal their dim disks. Very low in the west both Mercury and Mars fight to be seen above the deepening sunset glow. In the pre-dawn sky over in the east, Saturn is well up an hour before sunrise. The brightest planet of our skies, Venus, is also visible, following not far behind Saturn.