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Mercury magazine

Summer 2014 - Volume 43, Number 3

Summer 2014 - Volume 43, Number 3

Table of Contents



[17] Stalking the Universe, William Gutsch
Melding astronomy with Hollywood magic creates inspirational astronomy programs.

[24] Making Science Fun: The “Dark Skies, Bright Kids” Program, Kimberly Sokal, with contributions from Sandra Liss
We spark an interest in science by creating long-lasting relationships between elementary and early middle school students and astronomers.

[32] Extrasolar Planets: The Saga Continues, Paul Deans
An occasional account of our ongoing discoveries of planets beyond the solar system.

[40] Astronomy in the News
A new crater appears on Mars, stellar evolution in real time, and trio of supermassive black holes shake space-time — these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Perspectives, Paul Deans
Looking Into the Past

[5] First Word, Linda Shore
The Night Sky Still Beckons

[7] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
Simon Marius and the Satellites of Jupiter

[8] Astronomer’s Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
The Future of Visual Observations

[10] Planetary Perspectives, Emily Joseph
Closer and Closer to Home

[11] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
A New Twist on Gamma-ray Bursts

[13] Education Matters, David Bruning
Despite Our Training

[15] Reaching Out, Bethany Cobb
“No” is Sometimes the Hardest Word to Say

[46] ASP Tidings / ASP’s 2014 Award Recipients

[52] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Two eclipses in October

[55] Reflections, NASA/JPL
Giant Moon, Giant Planet

Stalking the Universe

by William Gutsch

I began my career many years ago as a college professor and now, as I near retirement age, I find myself back in the classroom. While teaching a room full of university students and even doctoral candidates can be rewarding, I have had the great privilege in the interim years to work with an incredible array of very talented people from both the arts and the sciences — to write, produce, and direct a wide variety of programs on astronomy for a wide variety of media. Each in its own way was a type of classroom, but each came with its own set of capabilities and magical tools, which allowed me to transport people of all ages on fantastic rides across this amazing universe. I’d like to take you on some of those journeys and, in so doing, introduce you to some of the “tools of the trade.”

I should preface all that follows with the fact that, for me, “Job One” must always be scientific accuracy and pedagogical soundness. Within the limitations of production, there is never an excuse for less. But especially, as part of the latter, one must always be mindful of the fact that, as Anatole France once said, “In order that knowledge be properly digested, it must have been swallowed with good appetite.” So, like any good teacher, you must always know your audience and don’t forget to make learning fun.

Making Science Fun: The “Dark Skies, Bright Kids” Program

by Kimberly Sokal, with contributions from Sandra Liss

While working with the outreach group Dark Skies, Bright Kids (DSBK), I have experienced the “holy grail” of teaching: students sincerely beg us to come back and teach them more astronomy! At the end of their eight-week Astronomy Club, these students will actually tell us that they are scientists. We believe this success reflects our simple philosophy regarding science outreach: build relationships with students and model the inquisitive nature of scientists. This recipe is the foundation of our unique and long-lasting program Dark Skies, Bright Kids at the University of Virginia (UVa).

Inspired by some of the darkest skies on the eastern seaboard, UVa Astronomy Department faculty member Kelsey Johnson created DSBK to enhance science education by utilizing children’s natural curiosity. The founding of DSBK was largely motivated by limited STEM enrichment opportunities offered at rural schools and the recent de-emphasis of science content as a result of a stronger focus on early reading and mathematics.

Extrasolar Planets: The Saga Continues

by Paul Deans

This is truly astonishing. Think of it. Twenty-two years ago we didn’t know of any extrasolar planets (planets orbiting other stars). Now there are more than 1,700 confirmed exoplanets, and we’ve directly imaged 12 of them. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history. And it’s useful to bring historical context to today’s top astronomical news story: the rapid rise in the number of known planets beyond our solar system.

On April 21, 1992, radio astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail announced the discovery of two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12. A third planet was identified two years later. This is considered to be the first definitive detection of exoplanets. (In reality, the first published discovery of an extrasolar planet was made in 1988 by three astronomers in Canada, but the planet orbiting Gamma Cephei wasn’t confirmed until 2003.)

Spitzer and WISE Telescopes Find Close, Cold Neighbor of the Sun

NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered what appears to be the coldest “brown dwarf” known — a dim, star-like body that surprisingly is as frosty as Earth’s North Pole. Images from the space telescopes also pinpointed the object’s distance to 7.2 light-years away, earning it the title for fourth closest system to our Sun. The closest system, a trio of stars, is Alpha Centauri at about 4 light-years away.

“It’s very exciting to discover a new neighbor of our solar system that is so close,” said Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, University Park. “And given its extreme temperature, it should tell us a lot about the atmospheres of planets, which often have similarly cold temperatures.”

Brown dwarfs start their lives like stars, as collapsing balls of gas, but they lack the mass to burn nuclear fuel and radiate starlight. The newfound coldest brown dwarf is named WISE J085510.83-071442.5. It has a chilly temperature between minus 54 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 48 to minus 13 degrees Celsius). Previous record holders for coldest brown dwarfs, also found by WISE and Spitzer, were about room temperature.

“It is remarkable that even after many decades of studying the sky, we still do not have a complete inventory of the Sun’s nearest neighbors,” said Michael Werner, the project scientist for Spitzer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “This exciting new result demonstrates the power of exploring the universe using new tools, such as the infrared eyes of WISE and Spitzer.”