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Mercury magazine

Spring 2012 - Volume 41, Number 2

Spring 2012 - Volume 41, Number 2

Table of Contents



[16] Lighting the Fire, Don McCarthy
The University of Arizona's Astronomy Camps promote an authentic understanding of science, research, and engineering among young students and adults by providing unique, hands-on, immersion adventures in scientific exploration via astronomy and related subjects at high-altitude observatories.

[22] Creative Teaching with Astronomically Inspired Music, Matthew Whitehouse
Since 2006, I have helped students explore the connections between music and astronomy for The University of Arizona's Astronomy Camp. This exploration takes the form of a series of 15- to 20-minute presentations at the beginning of each night of Camp.

[14] Kepler: A Harbinger for Astrobiology, Trevor Quirk
Astrobiology, long perceived as a disparate collection of different sciences, is coming into its own thanks to the successful mission of the Kepler spacecraft.

[26] Astronomy in the News
New looks at Mercury and Vesta, a Martian dust devil, and when dark energy turned on — these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Editorial, Paul Deans
Where Are All the Good UFO Photos?

[5] First Word, James G. Manning
Real Things

[7] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
80 Years Ago: The Size of the Universe

[8] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
Gascoigne at 400

[9] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Properties of Green Pea Galaxies

[10] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
Hard Budget Times Ahead

[11] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
A Brief, Bold Look at Antimatter

[12] Education Matters, David Bruning
The Doorway of Forgetfulness

[13] Reaching Out, James Lochner
NASA and the Arts

[14] Societal Impact, Trevor Quirk
Kepler: A Harbinger for Astrobiology

[31] Society Scope/ASP Supporters
Thank You to Our Supporters

[36] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
May's Annular Solar Eclipse

[39] Reflections, Paul Deans
June 5/6: the Transit of Venus

Lighting the Fire

by Don McCarthy

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I was captivated by the adventure, both physical and mental, of the era of space exploration. I longed to be part of that process and somehow to contribute personally. So I became a scientist with the goal of working in space. However, I missed the final cut of the original Shuttle astronaut selection in 1977, as 10,000 applicants were whittled down to 100 and finally to only a few.

From that exciting experience I learned something surprising: NASA had not understood the 'deep impact' that Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo had on a new generation. The combination of forefront research and education is a powerful force to inspire and empower people of all ages. Yet, the benefits of inspiration and education are long-term. They do not lend themselves easily to quantitative assessment and may only be realized decades later.

For nearly three decades I have led a group of dedicated students and educators in an inspiring educational program called "Astronomy Camp." Sponsored by The University of Arizona (UA) Alumni Association, the "Camps" have engaged students from around the world and impacted my university and the nation in surprising ways. Now, on our 25th anniversary, we will soon enroll children of former Campers! Our experience illustrates the benefits of teaching science authentically, merged holistically with its partners of math, engineering, and technology. It also contains lessons to benefit parents, educators, and administrators who seek to solve the growing problem of a changed society that seems not to value basic research and numeracy.

Creative Teaching with Astronomically Inspired Music

by Matthew Whitehouse

Imagine that you are sitting on the floor in the dome of a large scope — perhaps the 2.3-meter Bok telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. You're at The University of Arizona's Astronomy Camp, and sunset's glow is fading — time for the nightly dark-adaptation music presentation.

Following a few logistical announcements, the dome lights dim to red and a brief explanation of the night's dark-adaptation music selection commences. The dome lights are then turned out completely, and the music begins to play. This piece is more unusual than the selections from the preceding nights of Camp, and you find the music almost perplexing.

After the music finishes, you join in a discussion regarding the ways in which you think the music connects with astronomical concepts. The whole experience leaves you ready to "let your mind start a journey through a strange new world," to quote from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Music of the Night."

Kepler: A Harbinger for Astrobiology

by Trevor Quirk

In March 2009, the Kepler spacecraft blasted into the Cape Canaveral night — struck like a match, blazing white and orange across the sky. It was NASA's first mission entirely dedicated to astrobiology, a science that draws on knowledge from many disciplines to search for alien life. Since reaching its Earth-trailing orbit, Kepler has been sending home data that is inciting dramatic growth in the field. Astrobiology is more active and has more resources than ever, and it has finally begun to take a place on the mantle of legitimate science.

Kepler's primary goal is simple: Determine the prevalence of Earth-like planets in our galaxy. World-class telescopes traditionally facilitate several astronomical projects at a time, but Kepler is one of the simplest in NASA's history — a point-and-shoot operation, aimed along a thin but deep cone of space.

"We didn't know what we were going to find," says Alan Gould, Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley and a Kepler Co-Investigator. "We knew we had a good technique. But we really did not know."

Astronomy in the News
Hubble Reveals a New Type of Planet

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Our solar system contains three types of planets: rocky, terrestrial worlds, gas giants, and ice giants. Planets orbiting distant stars come in an even wider variety, including lava worlds and "hot Jupiters."

Observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have added a new type of planet to the mix. By analyzing the previously discovered world GJ1214b, astronomer Zachory Berta (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA) and colleagues proved that it is a water world enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere. "GJ1214b is like no planet we know of," said Berta. "A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water."

GJ1214b was discovered in 2009 by the ground-based MEarth (pronounced "mirth") Project. This super-Earth is about 2.7 times Earth's diameter and weighs almost 7 times as much. It orbits a red-dwarf star every 38 hours at a distance of 1.3 million miles, giving it an estimated temperature of 450°F.

In 2010, CfA scientist Jacob Bean and colleagues reported that they had measured the atmosphere of GJ1214b, finding it likely that the atmosphere was composed mainly of water. However, their observations could also be explained by the presence of a worldwide haze in GJ1214b's atmosphere.

Berta and his co-authors used Hubble's WFC3 instrument to study GJ1214b when it crossed in front of its host star. During such a transit, the star's light is filtered through the planet's atmosphere, giving clues to the mix of gases. The atmospheric model most consistent with HST data is a dense atmosphere of water vapor.