October 31, 2007

Build Your Own Astro Cameras!

For the monetarily-challenged astrophotographers (such as myself), there is a simple alternative. Single-use, disposable cameras can make excellent astronomical cameras; with some modifications of course.



The idea behind the whole concept is simple: even though the camera is handicapped with a focal plane of around f/10, the removal of the shutter mechanism allows for long-exposure photography. All the original pictures taken by me on this site are taken at f/2.8, and more often than not are a 30-second exposure. However, for the budget-minded astrophotographer, we are simply replacing the poor focal length with more time to collect light. A 25-minute exposure will generally, under decent conditions, provide a photo yielding about 2.5 more stars than are visible. Not too shabby, especially since disposable camera bodies are free from most photo labs. You also will want to pick up some used film canisters with toothed spindles.

Since this technique is so useful, let's go through the steps to successfully disassemble, modify, and use our new astrocamera.


  1. Open the camera body cautiously by unsnapping the plastic tabs. One plastic tab should already be removed by the original film processor. Unsnap all the pieces, four in total: the front, the back, the middle (main camera part), and a cylindrical film roll.

  2. Find out if the camera model used a flash. If it does not, skip to step 3. The flash unit retains its charge long after use and can be quite dangerous. Since we are photographing very dim stars, we do not want a flash so we need to remove the unit completely. If the camera has a flash unit, you must short out the large capacitor by connecting both leads with an insulated wire. Do this more than once!!!

  3. Now that we have either disabled the flash unit and removed it (or skipped that step entirely if you did not have one) its time to get the shutter mechanism out. You will need to remove the lens assembly temporarily so we can reach the mechanism. The lens assembly is normally on a piece of black housing and there may be a metal band securing it. Remove this C-shaped piece of metal and discard. Be careful not to get your fingers on the lens! This can ruin an image and causes the camera to be out of focus. At this point carefully remove the lens and set it somewhere safe, preferably a lens (or glasses) microfiber cloth.

  4. With the lens assembly removed you should see the shutter mechanism. It is a hinged metallic piece. Remove the spring it is connected to and the hinged metallic piece itself. Leave the plastic piece it is connected to alone.

  5. With the shutter mechanism removed, carefully replace the lens assembly.

  6. With the lens assembly replaced, snap the camera body back together.

And there we have it; a perfectly functioning astrocamera. We still need to load it with film and that can get a little sticky because a disposable camera runs reverse of what a regular camera does. Here's the steps for film loading:

  1. Remove a toothed spindle from the used film canisters you acquired.

  2. Put the toothed spindle in the reusable film canister.

  3. Attach the end of the film to the spindle with a small piece of masking or electrical tape and wind it up.

  4. Put it into the film canister with a little bit of extra film hanging out.

  5. Secure the top by screwing it in; we don't want light getting in here.

  6. Fasten the extra film hanging out to the original cylindrical canister.

  7. Put the camera body back together.

And there we have it! A perfectly functional astrophotography camera. Unless your going for star trails, you're going to have to have a device to properly track the sky.

Check out my post on barnyard trackers!!!

On a personal note, I've done this once before when I was a kid in space camp and the pictures turned out awesome! I'm running mostly on memory on what we did, but to fill in the holes, I borrowed heavily from this site at astrosociety.org.

Deadly Dance of Two Galaxies

Yesterday, the Hubble telescope spotted two intertwining galaxies and produced this stunning image:

The pair of galaxies are gliding past each other, and literally through each other, and the effects of gravity are evident. Even in the spiral arms, which appear as "fuzz", there are many millions of stars and even though they pass through the galaxy together, stars won't likely collide, though orbits will likely be altered.

Our First Award: Break Out Blogger Award


DrowseyMonkey has awarded this site with the Break Out Blogger award. Look for it (and any other) awards we receive at the very bottom of this webpage. Thanks!

October 30, 2007

More Astrophotography From Last Night

Here's a few of my photos from last night's photo session. I mostly did some stuff with the comet, but took a few more snaps. Check em out!










A Night with the Comet (17P/Holmes)

Our solar system post for Wednesday is an update on an object about 99.9% of all telescopes pointed upward are looking at: Comet 17P/Holmes.

It looks like the comet is still maintaining its current magnitude, and a "fuzziness", often described as nebulous, dust cloud surrounds the yellowish-greenish object. It is east of Mirfak, and nearly as bright, and it is very obviously apparent that it is not a star anymore.
In the following photo, the contrast of the yellowish tint of the comet has been increased digitally to give a more accurate picture of what I saw, rather than what the camera saw. I kept the other stars dim to make its location more apparent.


Here is an unaltered photograph depicting what you can expect through the naked eye.


Comet 17P/Holmes continues to blaze at a very visible 2.8 magnitude and will remain so until it burns its fuel and diminishes in magnitude again. No one knows when the comet will fade, but its very apparent anyone who wants to see 17P/Holmes will have a chance.

October 29, 2007

Deep Sky Objects Viewable with Binoculars

For today's deep space object post we'll be checking out a few deep sky objects that are visible this time of year to the amateur using binoculars! That's right, there are a number of deep sky targets that can be seen, albeit not in the vibrant, colorful flare that the best astrophotos exhibit. Below is a list of must-see objects that the amateur can see even before buying their first scope:


Andromeda Galaxy - This vibrant galaxy in the Andromeda constellation is the most well-known galaxy among amateur astronomers. You won't see the full visual prowess of this galaxy, like the dust lanes seen in photos, but you will see the Andromeda Core, the bright center of the galaxy surrounded by some fuzzy nebulosity. Don't expect the full glory of this galaxy and it won't disappoint.

Orion Nebula (M42) - The most famous of all nebula and a favorite among amateur astronomers is Messier's 42nd, the Orion Nebula. Simply aim your binoculars at Orion's "sword" (three visible stars perpendicular to Orion's "belt") and the binoculars will likely show a bit of nebulosity on a dark night (and away from light pollution).

The Pleiades (M45) - The Seven Sisters, or the Pleiades, is an open cluster of stars easily visible to the naked-eye, even under less than optimal conditions. Photographs often show dust clouds surrounding each star, but the binoculars likely won't bring this into view (under normal conditions). What you will see is the fiery blue beauty of a hot, young star "incubator". The view through binoculars, even without the dust clouds visible, is breath-taking.

The Hyades - This open cluster was observed, but never placed in Charles Messier's famous catalog. It has been known since ancient times, and makes a perfect "V" in the sky. This is the closest open cluster to Earth at a mere 151 light years away.

Locating these objects is easy. Visit the Sky View Cafe or Sky Maps and print a map. Or if you like, you can even check Stellarium software to see where it is relative to you real-time.

Look forward to more "Visible with Binoculars" posts in the future. Good luck to you!

October 27, 2007

The Last Survivor of a Cosmic Clash


Hubble telescope's most recent addition to its list of already impressive cosmic phenomena is disocvery of a quasar, MC2 1635+11.9, surrounded by the "shells" of stars. It resides in the MC2 1635+119, the host galaxy.

Researchers are suggesting that these star remnants are the casualties of a cosmic collision between two galaxies. This supports current views that many quasars are formed between galactic collisions.

Quasars are some of the brightest objects in the universe and exist in the centers of galaxies and are fueled by blackholes.

Harmony Node Installed



The Harmony node is officially installed in the International Space Station.

Wearing protective gear in case any equipment or hardware was jarred loose during the rocket flight, astronauts opened the door and went inside Harmony for the first time. Equipment was secured using more than 700 bolts; each of which will have to be removed by astronauts.

Harmony is about the size of a school bus and is the first living space increase in the space station since 2001. Harmony will serve as a connecting point for European and Japanese modules.

It certainly is a great day for space advancement. The spirit of spce exploration combined with a spirit of international cooperation is crucial if we ever want to make our home the entire solar system and not just Earth.

You can view the opening of the new hatch at CNN.com.

Supernova Remnant: G292.0+1.8


The Chandra X-Ray telescope has created a new, beautifully colorful composite image from the G292.0+1.8 nebula in Centaurus. This is considered a "textbook example" of the image, but the different colors, which represent different elements such as hydrogen or neon, teach us many things about the nature of supernovae.
More information available at Chandra's Official Site.

October 26, 2007

Planetary Astrophotography: The Web Cam Trick


Of all the expensive CCD and DSLR cameras available for astrophotography, a surprisingly cheap alternative exists for planetary photography that many video bloggers actually might already have: the web cam.

The premise is simple: a web cam essentially takes many camera shots, stitches them together, and then creates a video. Anyone interested in astrophotography knows that the sharpest, most colorful, most detailed images come from stacking multiple exposures on top of each other. If we take that same principle and reverse it by dissecting the video created by a webcam, we essentially have many multiple exposures in a relatively short amount of time. This works well on planets because we don't need very long exposures to extract tons of light because we'd just have a big blur if your telescope already has the planet in sight.

Connecting the webcam to the telescope is the most beautiful part: you don't need any special parts, just point the webcam down the eyepiece of your telescope!

Webcam astrophotography is not only very cost-effective (decent models can be purchased for $200 or less), it actually is almost unanimously considered the best way to photograph planets.

To get started, you will need the following:

  • Your telescope

  • Webcam

  • Software

For your telescope, use a larger focal length, because the higher magnification does not show up properly on the developed images. The webcams simply can't handle massively magnified moon or planet images.

Your webcam should have a CCD chip for best results. Philips Vesta Pro is a popular and highly recommended webcam.

Your software arsenal should include the following programs for the best results:

  • Adobe PhotoShop (For image color and attribute tweaking; also works as a stacker)

  • AstroStack (Freeware Image stacking software for astrophotography)

  • K3 CCD Tools -or- Registrax (Freeware CCD utility that can help "reverse engineer" webcam video to create stackable images)

**Photo is courtesy of http://www.webcam-astrophotography.com/.

My Sources and Additional Sources:

Web Astrophotography FAQ

AstroPix

K3 Astrophotography

October 25, 2007

Mega Outburst in Comet 17/Holmes


The magnitude 17 comet, Holmes, has experienced a tremendous boost in brightness. It jumped almost instantly from magnitude 17 to magnitude 3, an increase of about one million times brighter!

This makes a near-impossible comet to observe a naked-eye object in Perseus. Slew eastward from Alpha Perseii and you will run across it.

There is a distinct yellowish color to the comet. It is expected to stay bright for at least a week, at which time is will decrease in magnitude slowly until it is invisible, and ultimately, back to its original magnitude of 17.
New reports are putting the comet at a magnitude 2.8, which is brighter than its original magnitude when it was first discovered during an outburst in 1892.
This photo was taken by platarko on the Cloudy Night Forums.

October 24, 2007

The Overview Effect on Observers


"The Overview Effect" is described as a feeling of oneness, unification, and connection with the Earth as one single living organism. This effect occurs when astronauts are in space observing the Earth from the outside in.

Their is debate upon the legitimacy of this effect; however, some have gone so far as to say that it's inherent in our genes: being in space is part of our evolution. Five billion years of life and in the last forty five years, life finally made it back where it was "truly" born: space, the origin of all life.

So physicists actually hypothesize that the overview effect is a natural effect of quantum physics (that devilish little subject even the Ph.D's don't fully understand) on the human body. Will all these hypotheses flying around, one question still hasn't been answered definitively and I do not know if it will anytime soon: is the overview effect physiologically real, or psychologically real or both?

I personally believe space is simply a part of evolution: a process not totally explained by natural selection. What if entering a human entering space underwent an instant evolution on an individual basis, sort of like a cosmic barmitzvah? Space is our ultimate destiny as a species. In one hundred years we've gone from steam to space.. who's the say in the next hundred we won't go from Saturn to stars?

However, my question about this overview effect is if only astronauts have felt it. I personally think that astronomers have sampled the overview effect, however, not in its concentrated glory like astronauts have. I mean why else can a hobby turn into a lifetime passion? Amateur astronomers spend their lives collecting new and more advanced optic technology to delve just a fraction deeper into the void of space. Looking for what?

I like to chalk up what I think of as the "astronomers overview effect" to one of those liquor-containing choclates available around the holidays: we've certainly sampled it, and now we're going after the bottle that only those astronauts can seem to get plenty of.

New Astrophotography Series

I won't be doing this very often, but Friday will begin a five part article series: Astrophotography on a Budget. I wanted to give a heads up to the readers so we can have the chance t get the word out about this great series.

Some highlights:

  1. Essential freeware programs for the astrophotgrapher on a budget.
  2. Deep Space exposures under $2000!!
  3. Build your own Astro-Camera!!
  4. Much, much more!!

Harmony and Balloons


This is the first article in the new format outlined in the previous post. Hope you enjoy it!

In our Solar System this week I'd like to report on two new exciting changes; Harmony and the big balloon. Most of us know what Harmony is, the newest edition to the International Space Station. It was successfully launched yesterday live on NASA TV, (which, if I have any space fans reading, and I hope I do, is definitely worth a DirectTV bill each month) and the crew is beginning preparations to attach the Harmony module, aptly named by students, the first living space enhancement to the space station since 2001. After the launch, the astronauts could be heard stating the California wildfires were clearly visible from space.

Right now, according to NASAs website, the rendezvous is complete and preparations for the assembly have begun. There are five scheduled spacewalks on this mission; far more than normal on a shuttle mission such as this. The ISS will pave the way back to the Moon for mankind.

In other news, a large solar telescope has been launched on a balloon larger than a Boeing 747. The project, dubbed Sunrise, is an international collaboration to understand the magnetic fields and other atrributes of our Sun.

The ballon will rise more than 120,000 feet in the air, above the denser levels of our atmosphere, and above radiation-blocking water vapor and ozone. The optics on this instrument will be able to document surface features on the Sun to a size of just 19 miles long, which is nearly double the resolution of any current solar telescope (sorry for those of you who shelled out $5000 for a Coronado telescope!)

Balloon-bourne instruments such as this are less expensive to build than traditional spacecraft and their increased availability will likely take us in pursuit of Venus, a planet whose dense atmosphere, poisonous gases, and incendiary temperatures have kept researchers from sending a viable probe to send information back.

New, More Organized Format...

Okay, here's the deal: I want my posting to be more organized than it is right now. I want to have three days a week where readers will get an article. The following is the format I have decided on:

Mondays - Weekly Deep Space Object (Nebula, Supernova Remnant, Quasar, Pulsar, Galaxy, etc.)

Wednesdays - Weekly Solar System Object (Planets, asteroids, moons, solar flares, etc.)

Fridays - Astrophotography article.

I am leaning more towards astrophotography, because that is by far what gets the most traffic, the most comments, and the most links. I'm by far an expert on the subject, but I definitely

In addition to this new format, always keep on the lookout for articles that may be published as significant findings and new news in released but just remember, these three days there will be a new informational article.

October 21, 2007

Adventures in Astrophotography

I've learned quite a few lessons trying to master this thing called astrophotography. . Here are a few tidbits from my first serious astrophotography adventure last night:

  1. You will quickly outgrow basic equipment. After one night, I'm dying to do a fifteen minute exposure on an equatorial mount.

  2. You get a lot of blurry shots; especially of the moon. Keep the best; pitch the rest.

  3. At high zoom levels, a good tripod is essential. Nothing like a 30-second exposure that looks like a lightsaber battle because the tripod wobbled.

  4. 30 second exposures (which is what the limit on my camera is) just starts to bring out invisible stars.

  5. In digital astrophotography, Photoshop or other digital image enhancement software is crucial to creating publishable pictures. Stars picked up on the picture often need a contrast increase to become clearly definied and visible.

I'm just learning about astrophotography. Even though I write the occassional astrophotography article, I'm as new as they come. This essentially, is my first real attempt at astrophotography since acquiring an understanding of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Here are a few of my photos from last night's Orionid showe (unfortunately, no Orionids made an appearance in the photos):







October 20, 2007

Prepare for the Orionids! (Meteor Shower; October 21st!)

I know I set a reminder earlier this week, but I can't resist. The Orionids are occuring in less than five hours. A few fun facts for you stargazers:


  1. The radiant is above Orion's top-left shoulder (Betelgeuse). The radiant is the apparent origin point of all meteors.

  2. The meteor showers are actually formed because of Earth's annual movement through the debris trail left behind by Haley's Comet.

  3. The 2007 Orionids are estimated to be double the standard per hour rate.

  4. Be out around 1am to 2am to get the best seats in the house! (The gibbous moon will be gone and the radiant will be easily visible)

Enjoy, be safe, and have fun!

Habitable Planets Can Form in Binaries Research Suggests


Nearly 20% of all exoplanets found in surveys reside in binary star systems, which can be two, or possibly more, stars orbitting around a common center of mass. But can rocky, terrestrial, life-sustaining planets survive in the complex and harsh nature of a binary system? Nader Haghighipour thinks it can.

Simulations of moon and Mars sized objects lead researchers to believe habitable planets can certainly exist in the binary systems. Check out the research paper here:


I can't believe that researchers didn't know this; haven't they ever seen Tatooine?

October 19, 2007

Mar's Soil Contains 16% Water New Research Says


In perhaps one of the most significant scientific discoveries on Mars this century, and in light of recent claims Mars' past may have been drier than previously thought, researchers are conclusively saying that water still remains on the surface of Mars.

The canyons and canals that are hypthesized to have contained Martian water may actually have because Spirit's X-Ray spectrometer called APXS captured significant data about the water.

Oceans and surface water likely evaporated, but not before much of the water went underground and much of it trapped in mineral compounds beneath the surface.

However, we still do not know how or why the Martian water is gone...


October 17, 2007

Super Blackhole


The most massive blackhole to date has been found located in the M33 galaxy about 3 light years from Earth. The blackhole, part of the M33 X-7 binary system, is by far the largest blackhole ever found at approximately 15.7 times the mass of the Sun.

It also has a companion star; an unusually large star that is nearly 70 masses of the Sun. THe companion star in this binary system also hits the record books because it is the largest companion star to a blackhole ever recorded.

This system also eclipses regularly, and is the only known blackhole/star binary system to do so. This allows for unusually accurate measurements and the extreme nature of this binary system make it a great place to check out our current astrophysics models.

However, how such a large blackhole and companion have formed is very difficult to explain using current physics models....

Wonder if string theory has the answer to this one!

Orionid Meteor Shower (Sunday 10/21)



The Orionid Meteor shower will peak early Sunday morning and the meteors should be visible anywhere from 1:30am until sunrise.

The radiant of the meteor shower appears above and to the left of Betelgeuse, the massive red giant that marks Orion's upper left (from your perspective) shoulder blade.

The Orionids are an annual occurance that happens when the Earth travels through the debris trail of Haley's Comet.

Predictions for this year are looking quite optimistic and promising. We can expect the Orionid rate to be about twice the normal rate of twenty meteors per hours, according to the preliminary predictions of Sato and Watanabe of the Japanese Astronomical Observatory.

Aging Galaxy Is "Unique" Researchers Say


I Zwiky 18 looks like a typically young galaxy. However, the more researchers research this particular object, the older it appears to get.

Researchers have now located faint, older stars in the center of the galaxy that have proven researchers wrong... twice. The older stars show that initial estimates of its distance were off by more than ten million light years by measuring the light from these older stars.

It also proved researchers wrong because it showed that the galaxy is quite a bit older than initially thought. By dating the fainter, older stars, we find out that this galaxy formed at the same time other galaxies formed. However, the appearance of the galaxy is that of a younger universe.

The main components of this galaxy are hydrogen and helium, which suggests it was around near the beginning of time after the Big Bang. However, the reason that this galaxy still produces far less stars than its peers still eludes researchers.

"...it is certainly developmentally challenged and unique in the nearby universe," said astronomer Alessandra Aloisi from the Space Telescope Science Institute and the European Space Agency, who led the study.

October 15, 2007

Iapetus Flyby


Cassini's newest wide angle Saturn photo!

In the previous post, we showed the first high definition photo of Iapetus. Cassini recently just made a flyby of Cassini at a very low altitude. Check out the great pics!

The Volcanic Atmosphere of Io


We finally have a better understanding of Jupiter's volcanic moon, Io. On its scheduled flyby, the New Horizons spacecraft used its Alice ultraviolet spectrograph to photograph the aurora on Io for the first.

New Horizon's spectrograph readings showing the aurora on Io have given researchers the necessary information to calculate how much both the frozen surface material and volcanic plumes contribute to the atmosphere.

Io is the most volcanic object in the solar system. Io hurls sulfur-dioxide hundreds of the miles into the air where it eventually freezes. The frozen gas remains largely on the surface, slowly emitting gas that makes up approximately 97% of Io's atmosphere. During the daytime, present volcanic activity accounts for the remaining 3% of the atmosphere.

Io's aurora performs in much the same way Earth's does. Io's magnetosphere blocks the incoming radiation from the solar wind and the charged particles create the aurora, the visual phenomenon known as the "Northern Lights (aurora borealis)" or "Southern Lights (aurora australis)" on Earth.

October 12, 2007

Astrophotography: Barn Door Tracker


Ever pictured what the sky would look like with about ten times the amount of stars we have now in it? It sure would be beatiful. It actually does look like that, but your human eyes can only collect so much light, so little in fact, that we can't see nearly as many stars as other things.

Your camera is one of those other things. Your aperture is the setting that determines how much light gets let in. A wide open aperture (usually f/2.8) is a great start for astrophotography and will bring bright, high contrast stars into view with exposures of 15 seconds and even less.

But what about those super starry pictures you've seen? Well those must be on exposures much more than 15 seconds; more like 15 minutes! After your first fifteen minute exposure, you will learn a valuable lesson. The Earth rotates. You will have what is called "tracking errors" or blurs and in some cases, streaks. Star paths make good photos, however, to get a decent starry sky picture, you will have to compensate for the curvature and rotation of the Earth.

Ok, break out your graphic calculator and dust off your ancient calculus skills; this a math problem.

Just joking... thankfully one wonderous astronomer has already figured out all the trig, angles, and square roots of the problem and provided us with a simple solution for under $10: the barn door tracker (also called a Scotch mount).


With precise measurements listed in the construction details, you track the rotation of the Earth through a camera near perfectly up to fifteen minutes. With an exposure this long with precise compensation for the rotation of the Earth, you will get astonishing photographs! Check out this photo of the Andromeda Galaxy with just a simple camera.

Construction is straight-forward and simple; you just need to make some precise length cuts. Check out these pages for the construction:
  1. http://www.jlc.net/~force5/Astro/ATM/Barndoor/barndoor.html (Motorized)
  2. http://hometown.aol.com/davetrott/page17.htm (Double Arm Design)
  3. http://www.mikeoates.org/mas/projects/scotch/ (Quartz controlled)
  4. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Column/8102/ (Simple manual design)
Photos courtest of NiteLite Astrophotography web page!

October 11, 2007

Iapetus in Hi-Res


This is the first hi-res photograph of Saturn's moon, Iapetus.

Note that the two-tone color Iapetus is known for is visible even in hi-res, from close. Researchers think this stark contrast is due to uneven solar heating, which allows ice vapors to escape from the dark side (no star wars pun intended) and to be retained in the lighter side.

Notice that there is no grey; the contrast goes immediately from dark to bright.

The Oceans of Venus

Newly released computer models from the Denver museum of Natural History are presenting a very interesting fact: early Venus may have retained its oceans for more than a billion years.

During Venus' early life, it was constantly bombarded with asteroids. These impacts have significantly reduced the chance of life in previous models. However, the new model adds at least 400 million years to the existence of Venus' oceans. These additional years are very significant because they allow more time for more complex life to exist.

Interest in Venus has possibly been renewed with the sad news that Mars may have been less hospitable to life and even colder in its past than previously thought.

Either way, surface samples from the greenhouse planet would certainly shed some light on its possibly organic past. We may be looking for microbes on Mars, but I'd certainly like to see some fossils from Venus.

A Land of Lakes and Seas...


NASA has released a 60% complete mosaic of the northern hemipshere of Saturn's moon Titan. The view is quite striking. There is evidence that the dark bodies seen on Titan's surface are lakes, seas, rivers, and tributaries made up of liquid methane or ethane.

The distribution of the liquid bodies indicates that a process similar to Earth's water cycle is in effect. Researchers are fairly certain that it rains liquid methane on Titan.

Titan is now the only known object in the solar system to have standing pools of liquid on a rocky, terrestrial landscape.

While Titan may look like a rocky desert, don't be fooled. It is nearly -300 degrees Farenheit.

October 10, 2007

Why I Think There's Life On Mars...

Mars has always captivated earthbound observers for centuries. Giovanni Schiapelli created a modern map of Mars in 1877 that detailed a system of canals on Mars. The canals found on Mars are not the creation of an advanced race, but a natural geological phenomenon associated with standing water. The fact is, evidence readily available today proves that life exists on Mars, and however primitive it may be, it leads humanity to the inevitable conclusion that life is not a phenomenon localized to our planet, but widespread throughout our solar system, and star systems beyond ours.


Many different sciences have produced substantial evidence for life on Mars. Many topics are the subject of fierce scientific debate, but the sheer range of evidence of life is almost staggering. There is geological, atmospheric, and even physical evidence that life is indeed abundant on Mars in primitive form. The opposition of the fact life exists on Mars is quickly becoming scarcer, and many theories exist to disprove phenomenon that is happening on Mars right now that is conducive to microbial life. However, there are is so much intriguing evidence that life exists, no one theory can successfully link all the evidence supporting the existence of life on Mars and explain it.

The best piece of physical evidence we have is ALH84001. This cryptic code is actually the name of a Martian meteorite found in the Allen Hills region of Antarctica. It was discovered in 1984, and viewed more as a curiosity than anything else until in 1996 researchers found signs of life. There are several important pieces of information that lead researchers to believe in these signs of life. (Nichols, 2002).

One piece of intriguing evidence in ALH84001 is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). These are complex organic molecules that are frequently found in meteorites. It is presumed that these molecules were formed through some sort of non-biological process. However, when we look at the PAH in ALH84001, we see that the mixture is quite different than other meteorites, suggesting biological origin (Jones, 2002).

Another piece of this fascinating evidence is mineral deposits. In the core of ALH84001, globules of carbonate minerals, approximately 50 micrometers across, with cores containing manganese and rings of iron carbonate and iron sulfide, have been found. Mineral deposits of this composition on Earth are made by primitive bacteria. A deposit containing such diversity in such a small area makes a non-biological origin highly unlikely (Jones, 2002).

One of the most compelling findings in ALH84001 is, through the use of a powerful electron microscope, the existence of what is being called “ovoid”. These small shapes may actually be fossil remnants of an ancient primitive microbial life form. These fossils are significantly smaller in size than bacteria microfossils found on Earth, yet larger than alleged “nanofossils” discovered recently in terrestrial rocks. These “nanofossils” are generally not considered a viable fossil organism, hence the reluctance to declare the shapes cosmic fossils (Jones, 2002). Current theories are unable to prove these “ovoids” are of a non-biological origin.

These compelling findings are very intriguing, but to make the case for life on Mars, more evidence needs to be presented to convince the most skeptical. Geology is another major factor is considering the case for life on Mars. The presence of water on Mars has been a major facet for scientists determining the likelihood of life on Mars, and fortunately for researchers there has been no shortage of evidence of Mars’ once soggy past.

Strange formations mark Mars’ surface. On Earth formations such as this are only caused by erosion; water rubbing against stone. Photographs of Mars’ landscape reveal what, even to the average person, appear to be dry riverbeds, ancient seafloors, and gorges much vaster than the Grand Canyon. The question, however, is did water cause these curious geological formations. Researchers have been quick to point out that wind and volcanic activity are able to cause many of these features (Kruger 2004).

The debate was fierce, and both points of views had credible evidence to back them up. It was not until early in 2004 one of the Mars rovers completed chemical testing on a large outcropping in the Meridiani Planum. The surface of the formation is called a parallel lamination, and this formation is caused by minerals setting out of water. The formation was also rutted with vugs, tiny cavities created when salt crystals associated with briny water dissolve. Spectrometer tests confirmed that the wall was rich in sulfates, and contained a mineral called jarosite, which forms in water, but even contains water as well (Kruger 2004). There is no other scientific explanation than this area was once covered in water and NASA is confident enough to say that Mars’ past was a wet one.

In addition to indisputable evidence that the Meridiani Planum was covered in water, more intriguing is the “blueberries” on Mars. This term refers to spherules scattered through the rocks. These spherules are caused by minerals accreting through water, although, in certain cases, volcanic activity can cause them. However, the pattern in which they are dispersed, scattered randomly; not layered on top of rock, makes it virtually impossible for volcanic activity to have caused this phenomenon (Kruger 2004). Lead investigator of the rover missions, Steve Squyres, sums it up nicely by saying, “We have concluded that the rocks here were soaked with liquid water. The ground would have been suitable for life” (Kruger 2004).

So the evidence is there that life once existed on Mars. Life on Mars today is probably much different. The landscape is barren, rocky, and cold. Life would be hard, even for a microbe. Can a primitive life form exist in such a condition? Life is very resilient, and studies prove that microbes can exist in extreme circumstances.

Studies prove that in extreme soil conditions, microbes can survive. Talus soils on Earth have been used to model the severe conditions on Mars. Current methods dictate Mars’ could actually be abundant in life below the surface (Ley, Williams, Schmidt 2003). On Mars, according to experiments on Earth in extreme environments, it is even possible that dormant organisms on the surface exist in polar ice caps and become active during periods of high obliquity (defined as the period of time when the axis is tilted towards the sun, which occurs approximately ever 10E8 years) (Ley, Williams, Schmidt 2003). During this time period, temperatures are high enough to allow liquid water to exist on the surface in regolith, or the loose heterogeneous mixture, covering rock (Ley, Williams, Schmidt 2003). So, in experiments meant to model the extreme conditions on Mars, it has been proven Mars would provide a viable habitat for microbes below the surface, and evidence exists that microbes may even have a hostile, but livable, habitat on the surface.

Geology and microbiology presents, to a great extent, irrefutable evidence, but studies of the present and past atmosphere of Mars add yet another intriguing argument. Trace gases in ALH840001 suggest that the Martian atmosphere was much denser, and much more hospitable to life as we understand it in the past. There is little argument amongst researchers that Mars’ atmosphere is quite different than it used to be.

The presence of methane gas has also been found in the atmosphere of Mars by three independent teams (Hogan, 2005). Typically, many researchers dismiss this gas, a gas known to be created by bacteria, as some sort of non-biological process, such as an ancient comet collision or volcanic activity. However, the methane is found localized, not distributed evenly throughout the atmosphere. Methane takes hundreds of years to break down by itself, giving wind the opportunity to disperse it throughout the atmosphere. Since methane takes such a short amount of time to break down, compared to other gases, the methane in the atmosphere must be somewhat recent, and the fact it is not deteriorating means that it must be replenished. An instrument called the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) has detected formaldehyde, in concentrations of 130 parts per billion, in Mars’ atmosphere (Hogan, 2005). The presence of formaldehyde is a very significant finding, mainly because this gas is produced by the oxidation of methane. The presence of formaldehyde also helps explain why the distribution of methane is localized and not evenly dispersed; if bacteria created the methane, it would be localized to the region they lived in. The only logical assumption, drawn by leading Mars researcher Vittorio Formisano is that, “…until it is shown that non-biological processes can produce this methane, possibly the only way is life.”

The measurement of methane is highly debated and Formisano’s colleagues fiercely question his methods, such as the ability of the PFS to successfully detect formaldehyde, our inability to accurately model the internal geology of Mars, and other such questions. However, to put the probability of life on Mars into perspective, there is no non-biological phenomenon known today that can produce methane in the patterns observed in Mars. If it is indeed a non-biological process, it is, as of today, unknown.

The combination of all of this evidence conclusively point to the existence of life on Mars, presumably underground in aquifers, whose existence is proven probable by current geological and atmospheric studies. The age of thinking little green men may inhabit the red planet is gone, but the fact life exists outside this solar system in any shape or form puts our own existence into perspective. When the announcement is made that the “smoking gun”, most likely a live microbial Martian specimen, is found, do not be shocked. The news has been a long time coming, because the evidence has been piling up in abundance since the discovery of potential microfossils and mineral deposits in ALH840001 and even more so since the Spirit and Opportunity rovers touched down and observed the once-wet landscape of the red planet.



References

Kruger, J. (2004, March). The blueberries of Mars. Time, 163(11). Retrieved December 8, 2005 from EBSCOhost database.

Hogan, J. (2005, February). A whiff of life on the Red Planet. New Scientist, 185(2487), p6-7. Retrieved December 7, 2005 from EBSCOhost database.

Ley, R., Williams, M., & Schmidt, S. (2003, April). Microbial population dynamics in an extreme environment: controlling factors in talus soils at 3750 m in the Colorado Rocky Mountains,

Biogeochemistry, 68, p313-335. Retrieved 12/12/2005 from EBSCOhost database.

Jones, N. (2002) Ancient time capsule reveals Martian past. New Scientist, 175(2358), 20. Retrieved December 6, 2005, from EBSCOhost database.

Nichols, M. (2001) Signs of nearby life. Maclean’s, 114(11), 50. Retrieved December 6, 2005, from EBSCOhost database.

Fight the Light: Calling All Readers


Many urban astonomers, stargazers, and photographers have a major problem with the night sky: light pollution. Light pollution has long robbed urban residents of the natural view of our Milky Way. Magnitudes on some of the most impressive celestial objects are greatly diminished, and the blackness of night is replaced with a reddish purple haze.

There is something we can do however. While we probably won't cause any major urban blackouts, we certainly can show how inefficient our outdoor lighting actually is. To fight the ever-increasing problem of light pollution we can all join the Great Worldwide Star Count.

The premise is simple. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, observe Cygnus. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, observe Sagittarius. Compare the stars to the magnitude chart available on the website, and log your findings through the website. That's it.

This very possibly could be the first step to reclaiming our night sky. Log into the website and fight the light!

October 8, 2007

Five Tips for Amatuer Astrophotographers


Here's a few tips for armchair astronomers (such as myself) who have a digital camera, but no telescope:

1.) Buy a Tripod - Buying a tripod does not have to be terribly expensive. You don't need the most expensive kind, just one that will stabilize the image. If you are like me, you've never shot long exposure pictures, which a tripod really helps with. Which brings me to...

2.) Shutter speed - When we take standard photos, it happens pretty quick, usually 1/1000th of a second is what the shutter speed is set at. When we photograph stars, they typically are very dim. We need to set the shutter speed for as long as it will go. Usually the longest you can set this is 15 seconds, but many models have a manual shutter speed that lets you control how long your soon-to-be photo is exposed. The longer the better... to a certain point, so be sure to experiment with your particular model of camera!

3.) Aperture - This is a variable sized hole in the camera that controls how much light hits your digital sensor. You want the the largest sized hole, usually f/2.8. The smaller the number, the larger the hole. f/2.8 is a larger hole, thus allowing more light into the camera, than an aperture size of f/5.6. You want the largest aperture available on your camera to take night sky photographs.

4.) ISO - This setting is usualy set at 100, but can have different default camera settings. Generally, the higher the ISO, the brighter the picture is, however, the result with have more "noise" and appear grainy. More expensive cameras have ISOs of 800, 1600, or even 3200. Try the highest ISO setting when you take photographs and reduce the ISO if the image appears too excessively grainy.

5.) White Balance - This is normally set to automatic by default. Set your white balance to incandescent for much better results. Some expensive cameras have custom white balance filters which can end up looking even better than the incandescent preset. Experiment... but remember, the automatic setting on this will make the photo results less than desireable; especially near light pollution.


6.) Focus - Easy one... take it off manual and focus on infinity (the furthest possible point away i.e. the sky)!


Now your ready to shoot some serious stars. Even with a consumer grade digital camera, you can actually see more stars than are actually visible because your camera is literally collecting any light it can find for 15 seconds (or more if your using manual shutter speed).

The example photo up top is courtesy of Chris Picking from Starry Night Photography. His site has tons of photos of celestial bodies. Check it out; it's well worth it.

Just 4 Fun: Space Invaders!!

Thought you guys might like this... just for fun!






Japan's Lunar Orbitar






SELENE, the Roman lunar deity later supplanted by Artemis, is alive once again. She's headed back to the moon with a mission: to study the origins of the Moon, its geologic evolution, and to map its surface. SELENE has a double-meaning: part lunar deity, and part Selenological and Enginnering Explorer, and is better known by its nickname Kaguya.

Kaguya carries a HDTV camera which it has used to capture the first HD images of Earth from space. Kaguya however is full of firsts. It will be the first probe to orbit the Moon at an extremely close proximity of about 100 km.

Kaguya will break into three main parts once it achieves orbit: the main orbiter, a VRAD satellite (Vstar) and a relay satellite (Rstar). The main orbiter will use its instruments in conjunction with the other peripheral satellites.

The instrument payload includes:
  1. HDTV High-Definition Video Camera
  2. X-Ray Spectrometer
  3. Gamma Ray Spectrometer
  4. Multiband Imager
  5. Spectral Profiler
  6. Terrain Camera
  7. Lunar Radar Sounder
  8. Laser Altimeter
  9. Lunar Magnetometer
  10. Charged Particle Spectrometer
  11. Plasma Energy Angle and Composition experiment
  12. Radio Science
  13. Upper atmosphere and plasma imager
  14. RSAT Gravity Four-Way Doppler
  15. Differential VLBI Radio Source

Check out the official instrument page for detailed descriptions of what each instrument does.

Kaguya is expected to be in lunar orbit on October 19th.