Sunday, October 28, 2007

Comet Viewing

Comet 17P/Holmes recently brightened by a factor of about one
million, and is now easily visible as a bright star in the constellation
Perseus. If you look at it through even low-powered binoculars you
can make out its distinctly non-starlike appearance as a central bright
concentration surrounded by a diffuse but bright disk.

This comet currenly has no tail, but the disk of presumably recently
ejected material is growing larger by the night. At least, that's what
fellow bloggers report. Last night was the first clear night in Maryland
since the explosive brightening was reported on October 24.

If you know how to find Cassiopea (the big W), go perpendicularly
down to from the leftmost line segment of the W. You will then easily
see a triangle of stars, even if it is hazy. Even with a bright nearly full
moon nearby. Even right next to an annoying streetlight. The top star
in the triangle is Mirfak. The lower left "star" is the comet.

This page has wonderful finding charts and a plot of the observed
comet brightness as a function of time. According to the data there,
comet 17P/Holmes will be sitting in nearly the same place for many
weeks. And if predictions are to be made from recent brightness
estimates, it should stay bright for a while too. The comet had its
closest approach with the Sun in May, but the Earth is about to
catch up with, and overtake it in its orbit, giving us our closest
approach to the comet in early November.

Nights in Maryland this October are for the most part unusually
warm and calm. The comet is visible in the night sky soon after
sunset and stays an easily observable sky object for pretty much the
entire span of darkness in the night, so it is quite easy to catch a glimpse
of it, no matter what time is convenient for you to look. So, no excuses.
Go look at it!!! Tonight, tomorrow night, and whenever you think
of it.

If you are old, like me, you will remember years of cometary nothingness
when even the return of the famous Halley's comet was a complete flop.
Things started turning around for us in the early nineties with the amazing
shows of Hyakutake and the impact of Hale-Bopp with Jupiter. My South
American friend tells me that comet McNaught was quite something this
past January. So perhaps youngsters will take these times of cometary
plenty for granted. Don't. Go outside and see this one while you can. No
one can really predict when it will fade into its former next-to-nothingness
again. It is worth buying a pair of binoculars for!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Lofty Goals

Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the Carnegie Institution of
Washington last week, in which she outlined her proposed science
policy. What a breath of fresh air to hear the ideas of this person who
could be our next President---she demonstrates clear thinking
on the issues of the day. There's a critical need now for common
sense and rationality to win out over idiology and politics as the
driving forces behind basic science policy decisions. Hillary seems
well aware of this, and poised to reverse some devastating trends
pushed along by the Bush administration. Let's hope she gets the
change to put her plans into action, and that she is able to do so.
Her speech can be found at this link.

Hillary is apparently in favor of a balanced space science program,
and sounds generally supportive of the VSE. That could be an interesting
combination! I hope the other candidates articulate their general
science policies for us in the near future.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Rush Limbaugh, meet Brian McGough

In this ad (on YouTube, and to be shown on CNN and FoxNews,
my nephew gives Rush Limbaugh a little whatfor regarding his
belief that the soldiers who oppose the Iraq war in the media
are "phony soldiers". Rush is defending himself by saying he
was talking only about a single phony soldier. The transcript
is out there. Google it if you want to read it yourself,
and decide what Rush really meant. My opinion is if he used
the plural "phony soldiers" he was talking about more than just
one guys.