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Mercury magazine

Summer 2010 - Volume 39, Number 3

Summer 2010 - Volume 39, Number 3

Table of Contents



[14] The Day We Found the Universe, Marcia Bartusiak
The discovery of the modern universe is a story filled with trials, errors, serendipitous breaks, battles of wills, missed opportunities, herculean measurements, and brilliant insights. In other words, it is science writ large.

[19] Learning How to Build a Solar System, Joel D. Green
New stars are shrouded in dust and gas, but thanks to data acquired by the Spitzer Space Telescope, we're finally uncovering their secrets.

[24] NASA's New Airborne Observatory Sees "First Light," Nicholas A. Veronico
A unique telescope takes to the sky to help reveal the infrared cosmos and provide a tremendous platform for expanding the horizons of students from all age groups.

[29] Astronomy in the News
Spectacular first-light images of the Sun, a planetary system out of tilt, and a vast reservoir of intergalactic gas 400 million light-years away — these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Editorial, Paul Deans
The Moai, the Eclipse, and the Milky Way

[5] First Word, James G. Manning
Wishing You a Starry Night

[7] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
80 Years Ago: The Asteroid Eros

[8] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
Tales From the Crypt

[9] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Understanding Ozone

[10] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
Lightning on Venus?

[11] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Trigger for Biggest, Baddest Black Holes

[12] Education Matters, David Bruning
What is Your Theory?

[13] Reaching Out, Bethany Cobb
Teaching Science to Adult Learners

[34] Society Scope/ASP Supporters
Bok Award Winners

[36] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Two Oddball Stars

[39] Reflections, Tony Phillips
Journey to the Stars Free DVD

The Day We Found the Universe

by Marcia Bartusiak

... a presentation made on Thursday, New Year's Day, ultimately overshadowed all other events at the meeting. Looking out their hotel windows that inaugural morning of 1925, convention-goers discovered a blanket of snow covering the city, enough to give holiday sleds a good tryout, reported the Washington Post. Despite the ongoing snowstorm, however, the astronomers kept to their schedule and walked the short distance to the newly constructed Corcoran Hall, on the nearby campus of George Washington University, for a joint session with the mathematicians and physicists of the AAAS. They first heard a talk on stellar evolution, followed by a lecture posing the question "Is the Universe Infinite?" which led to a lively discussion among the conferees. Then right before the noon break, a paper modestly titled "Cepheids in Spiral Nebulae" was presented to the assembled audience. Those not familiar with astronomy likely imagined it was a minor technical work, of interest only to a specialist. But the astronomers in the room immediately grasped its significance. For them, it was electrifying news. Despite its lackluster title, this paper was no less than the culmination of a centuries-long quest to understand the true nature and extent of the cosmos. January 1, 1925, was the day that astronomers were officially informed of the universe's discovery.

Learning How to Build a Solar System

by Joel D. Green

My bio may say "post-doc," but I'm actually in the planet-construction business. It certainly sounds more exotic than "post-doc." And since, in the "real world," everyone I meet has a business card, I'm now designing one for myself — it'll have a hardhat on it. This card might prove very handy should I ever run into Slartibartfast or anyone else from Magrathea.

Of course, in practical terms, what I actually do is study the construction and assembly of solar systems — how stars and planets are born from gas and dust inside giant stellar nurseries. And yes, for an astronomer, this is practical!

I focus principally on stars that are in their infancy -- ranging from less than 25 million years old all the way down to stars that are in their first 10,000 years of life (stars born around the time of the development of agriculture here on Earth). Some of these suns are barely definable as stars. They're more like slowly compressing agglomerations of gas and dust surrounded by slowly spiraling, infalling material.

NASA's New Airborne Observatory Sees "First Light"

by Nicholas A. Veronico

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, reached its "First Light" flight milestone during the early morning hours of May 26, when the aircraft's telescope and attached infrared camera collected light from celestial targets for the first time at altitude.

The flight was conducted from NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility at the Palmdale Airport in Southern California. SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP fitted with a 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter infrared telescope in the aft section of the plane, and is a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Bonn, Germany.

Energy collected by SOFIA's telescope was channeled into the Faint Object infraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST). FORCAST, built by a team from Cornell University, headed by Principal Investigator Dr. Terry Herter, is a mid-infrared camera that records images through filters in the wavelength range of 5 to 40 microns. (For comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.) Using FORCAST, scientists recorded images of Jupiter and the galaxy M82 (located approximately 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major) at wavelengths unobservable by either ground-based observatories or current space-based telescopes.

Astronomy in the News
First Light for the Solar Dynamics Observatory

NASA Science News

At an April 21, 2010, press conference in Washington DC, researchers unveiled "First Light" images from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, a space telescope designed to study the Sun.

"SDO is working beautifully," reports project scientist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center. "This is even better than we could hae dreamed." As soon as SDO's telescope doors opened, the spacecraft began beaming back scenes so beautiful and puzzlingly complex that even seasoned observers were stunned.

One of the most amazing things about the observatory is its "big picture" view. SDO is able to monitor not just one small patch of the Sun, but rather the whole thing — full disk, atmosphere, surface, and even interior.