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The Loss of a Legend

I don’t usually do two posts in one day but there are just some things that must be shared and written about.  Today the astronomy community lost a true legend.  John Dobson, who invented the Alt-Az telescope mount that bears his name, passed away today at the age of 98.

Mr. Dobson leaves behind a long legacy of astronomy outreach dating back to 1967.  He co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, which exists to popularize amateur astronomy on the streets.  Dobson was dedicated to outreach and sharing his love for astronomy with as many people as possible.  Among his other exploits are amateur telescope making, public speaking, and he has published a book on telescope making.  His influence has literally been felt around the world as his Dobsonian mount revolutionized amateur astronomy.  The Dobsonian mount presented amateurs with a simple, yet elegant design for a telescope that was also low-cost.  His mount allowed for telescopes of all sizes to be inexpensively mounted and maneuvered with one hand.  Although I never met him, Mr. Dobson certainly had a big impact on my life.  My first telescope was a Dobsonian mounted scope.  It made my entry into the hobby buttery smooth and enjoyable.

It’s sad to think of a loss this massive but the best way to move forward is to raise a glass and say “Thanks!”  He will be missed in the astronomy community but he has left us with invaluable contributions.  I can only hope that we can continue the work he began almost 50 years ago and bring the love of astronomy to even more people.


John Dobson, 1915-2014












Geyser Erupts on Europa: Jovian Moon May Have Ice Geysers

Big news came from the Hubble Space Telescope today.  Observations from the famous telescope made in ultraviolet light show a large plume of hydrogen and oxygen spewing from, Jupiter’s moon, Europa’s south polar region.  Europa is one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, known as the Galilean Moons, after their discoverer Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.  The plume is guessed to be water gushing from cracks in the ice that covers the entire surface of Europa.  This is the first observation of geysers on Europa although it has been suspected for some time now.  


Image of Europa with actual Hubble data superimposed on top to show where the plume was observed. Photo by NASA, ESA, and L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany)

Europa is roughly the same size our our moon and is covered with ice.  This has been known for centuries since Galileo discovered the moon in 1610.  Europa is easily visible in binoculars and small telescopes and is extremely bright.  It was correctly guessed that Europa was covered in a layer of ice because it reflects a very high amount of sunlight.  Ice is one of the most reflective materials, about 70% of sunlight is reflected back off the surface.  The spacecraft we have sent to Jupiter such as Voyagers 1 and 2 and the Galileo probe confirmed the existence of an icy surface.  

The surface of Europa is interesting because it doesn’t contain any craters or any marks of impacts like the vast majority of moons in the solar system.  That means that Europa is constantly re-making its surface.  The same way glaciers and tectonic plates reform the surface of Earth, giant cracks along the surface of Europa indicate that the surface is geologically active.  Where there is surface tectonics there should be geological events such as volcanoes or geysers.  That’s what Hubble confirmed today.

The observations from Hubble showed a massive plume of water gushing from the moon’s south polar region.  The plume extends approximately 200 km (125 miles) into space.  Europa has no atmosphere and much less gravity than Earth so the vapor is able to spew well beyond the surface of Europa.  The water from the geyser was blasted from beneath the icy surface at a whopping 700 kilometers per hour (1,500 mph).  That’s three times faster than a commercial jet!  Two questions remain to be answered:  How do we know the geyser is shooting out water and where does that water come from?

A Veritable Waterworld

The existence of water on Europa has actually been known for a long time.  To know how this works we have to know a little bit about Europa’s orbital properties.  Europa orbits Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet.  Jupiter’s gravity is so intense that it actually effects the insides of its closest moons.  Europa’s orbit is slightly elliptical, meaning that it isn’t a perfect circle, an ellipse or oval-shaped orbit.  Most celestial bodies have slightly elliptical orbits but Europa’s is more pronounced.  When Europa is closer to Jupiter the massive gravity of the planet literally squeezes the moon and stretches the rocky core.  This pressure and friction creates heat under the icy surface and has created a subsurface ocean on Europa.  It is guessed that Europa actually contains more water than Earth as Europa’s ocean is global, there are no landmasses.  NASA and the European Space Agency hope to eventually send a probe to Europa to explore this massive subsurface ocean because where water exists the possibility of life also exists.


Artists conception of a cutaway of Europa showing the icy surface, subsurface ocean, and metallic core. Photo by NASA / JPL

The Giant Plume

We’ve answered where the water comes from, but how are scientists sure it is indeed water that was spewed from the surface and how does such a tiny moon have geysers that powerful?  Hubble doesn’t just do visible light observations.  The telescope is also equipped with a camera that can image in ultraviolet light.  The actual images taken by Hubble don’t show what we think of as a geyser like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.  What Hubble observed was actually individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the plume.  Since Europa has no atmosphere the hydrogen and oxygen atoms were in space.  Jupiter, like Earth, generates an magnetic field in its solid metal core.  When the water from the geyser interacts with the electrons from Jupiter the water separates into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms which glow in ultraviolet light.  That’s the best possible explanation for why Hubble observed these two individual atoms.

But where did the geyser come from?  Well as we saw earlier about Europa’s elliptical orbit, the moon is closer at some points and further away at others.  As Europa moves closer to Jupiter it is squeezed and crunched by Jupiter’s immense gravity.  Then as Europa moves further away from Jupiter cracks in the ice open up and allow the subsurface water to rise up and spew out.  As it so happens, Hubble recorded these observations while Europa was moving away from Jupiter so it makes sense that the cracks in the icy surface were opened up.

Teeming With Life?

The prospect of life swimming in Europa’s ocean has long been intriguing.  The discovery of geysers on Europa make the question even more worth exploring.  As we see from geysers on Earth, a lot of power in needed to blast material out from under the surface.  On Earth this comes from heat and pressure that builds up beneath cracks in the Earth’s crust.  When the heat and pressure becomes too great water and gases burst forth in a steaming awesome display of geological activity.  

One of the theories of how life began involves water and heat in the prehistoric oceans of Earth.  Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor mix heat and amino acids to create the first organic materials.  To this day life thrives around hydrothermal vents despite the extremely alien conditions.  We know there is heat in Europa’s oceans due to the gravitational heating of the core from Jupiter and there’s water which is a universal solvent.  Could the mixing of amino acids, water, and heat have occurred on Europa as well?  The prospect is certainly intriguing and worthy of further exploration.  Curiosity is one of humanity’s definite traits so hopefully in a decade or two we will have a spacecraft on its way to Europa to explore the subsurface ocean and attempt to find evidence of life.  Imagine fish (or something totally alien) swimming around on the moon of a distant planet!  How that would change our views of life and its frequency throughout our galaxy! 

The Street Corner Astronomer

A couple weeks ago I had a very pleasant surprise while visiting my soccer bar in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  I was at Slaínte watching the United State’s first World Cup 2014 qualifier match and upon leaving I saw something I did not expect.  A blue Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a fork mount was set up right on the brick steps of the south end of Broadway Square!  I immediately told my friend and his brother that I’d meet them back at his house to play some FIFA but I absolutely had to check out this display.  The telescope was an 8″ SCT and was owned by a man named Herman Heyn.  Herman is an elderly man who brings his scope out on weekends whenever the weather is clear.  He goes by the name of “Baltimore’s Street Corner Astronomer” and has been setting up his telescopes in Baltimore since 1987!  He is rather well-known among Fells Point regulars and residents by his blue SCT scope with the words “HAV-A-LOOK” printed on the side of the optical tube.  Herman delights in letting people peer into his scope and see sights such as Saturn, Jupiter, the moon, Venus, the Pleiades, and some of the Messier open clusters.  Most of the passerby are intrigued by the telescope having never had the experience before.  While talking with Herman, I watched about ten people look into the scope and they all had the typical wow-factor reaction.  The object of the night’s observation was Saturn and the awestruck visitors were simply delighted to have seen Saturn for the first time in their lives!  However, for every believer there is a doubter.  Several people passing by tried to convince me it was a fake and that we were just looking at a picture of Saturn taped over the aperture.  Those poor people.  They’ve yet to experience the joy of gazing at a beautiful ringed planet almost one billion miles away.

While talking to Herman about our shared interest in astronomy I found out that he’d been interested in the subject since the 8th grade when his science teacher taught an astronomy lesson.  I quickly developed a respect and admiration for Herman and his devotion to spreading the word about astronomy.  His desire to spread his passion to random people is admirable and I wish there were more people like him in our hobby!  After taking a quick peek at Saturn at about 130x I dropped the remaining couple dollars from my wallet into his donations hat and regrettably had to leave.  I spent about 20 minutes talking with Herman and I left very encouraged by the encounter!  I hope to go down to Fells Point again very soon and hopefully HAV-ANOTHER-LOOK!  Check out Herman’s website at!

Star Wars Day

May the Force be with you!  Or in today’s case, “May the 4th be with you!”  Yes that’s right, today is Star Wars Day!  Why?  No other reason than because “the 4th” sounds like “the Force” if you have a lisp.  Today we remember the iconic film franchise in all its glory.  I know I’m a bit young to really reminisce about Star Wars being born in 1988, five years after Return of the Jedi was released, but I practically grew up on Star Wars.  I remember when my dad bought the Star Wars trilogy set on VHS when I was probably about five years old.  I watched them ALL THE TIME.  The space adventure captured my attention and is probably part of the reason I am interested in space and astronomy now.  The films were unlike any other action/adventure movie out there, being set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  I probably didn’t even know what a galaxy was when I was five but I knew I wanted to go there and see Tattooine and Yavin IV.  I wanted to fight against the Empire on a Rebel starship, fire proton torpedoes down the Death Star’s maintenance shaft.  Most of all I wanted a real lightsaber!  Those things are freaking cool!  As a kid I didn’t understand all the thematic elements involved in the film, from the underdog, to the good vs. evil concept, and the faith aspect of the Force and the Jedi.

Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.

My love for the films grew in elementary school when my friend Bobby and I would sit at the lunch table and peruse through books like Star Wars:  The Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels.  There were hours of endless reading to be had from books like these, and read them we did!  My friend Mitch whom I met when I was seven also had a fond love of Star Wars from an early age and that allowed our friendship to blossom.  We both collected action figures and Legos like no one else we knew.  Almost every Saturday we went over Mitch’s house and played with the action figures and spaceship toys.  We even played baseball games with the toys as the players.

I saw my first Star Wars film in the theater in 1999 when Episode I was released.  There was nothing like hearing the THX intro and the 20th Century Fox fanfare played in mind-blowing Dolby Digital!  The opening scroll was just enchanting to see it on the big screen for the first time!  I often imagine what the generation before me must have felt and experienced seeing the original films for the first time.  My love for the franchise was complete when Episode III came out in 2005 bringing the epic saga full circle.  Knowing this was the last Star Wars film ever was a bit sad, but I was thankful for the opportunity to see it and to have been a fan my whole life.

I can’t believe that it’s been 35 years since A New Hope was released!  Not that I was even alive that long ago, but it’s remarkable that the films still have a very devoted and engaged fan base.  The Star Wars franchise has truly taken its place among film legends.  My hope is that the younger generation, and those to come will be able to experience Star Wars like I did and see it for what it truly is:  a legendary and innovative saga.  I’ll close with the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Remember, the Force will be with you, always.”

Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.

Another post about Earth Hour 2012 from a fellow blogger Darc Xed. Has some pretty neat pictures of what Earth Hour looks like.

Stop SOPA and PIPA

This is off topic and it will be short.  Today the internet is on strike.  Many popular website such as Wikipedia and Reddit which use user submitted content to thrive are blacked out today in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).  Basically, these laws if passed would give the executive branch of the government the authority to block or even shut down websites that have potentially pirated material that violates copyright laws.  This will in effect censor the internet, the only truly free place left in the world where humans can share knowledge, information, and a video of themselves singing “Moves Like Jagger” on YouTube.

How can a government regulate something that is global and theoretically doesn’t exist?  What is the internet besides a bunch of invisible 1’s and 0’s that float above our heads bouncing off of satellites in space?  Basically, the internet belongs to the world and we should be free to use it however we please.  If America is truly the land of the free we CANNOT allow these bills to pass into law!  Please use Google’s petition to contact your lawmakers and let them know that you DO NOT support SOPA or PIPA.  The internet is counting on you!

Mars Images App

Mars Images app

Smartphones really can do some amazing things!  The latest app I downloaded to my iPhone is the Mars Images app from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  It uses the comm uplink from the long-lived Martian rover Opportunity and downloads them directly to your phone or tablet!  How cool is that?!  The Opportunity rover is currently “hibernating” during the harsh Martian winter but there is a pretty large cache of images already stored.  There will also be the opportunity to see images from JPL’s newest rover Curiosity when it arrives on the Red Planet in August.  You can download the app for your iOS device or Android.


I’ll admit this is completely off-topic but it’s too good and far too important to not write about it.  The NFL Playoffs are here again!  We’ve seen a lot of strange playoff rituals over the years including the playoff beard which has made a HUGE comeback in recent years.  Brian Wilson of the San Francisco Giants grew one of the most menacing playoff beards of all time two years ago.  Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas grew a very robust neck sweater this past spring for the the Stanley Cup playoffs, and even the Baltimore Ravens’ own Joe Flacco grew his own playoff beard last season but I’ll admit it was more like playoff scruff.  But this season Wacco Flacco is at it again!  This time around he’s more groomed and more intimidating looking than ever!  This is the year of the playoff Fu Manchu!  Other NFL greats have rocked massive mustaches in years of yore including Aaron Rodgers, Joe Namath, Fred Biletnikoff, Mike Ditka, Bubba Smith, and Dave Wannstedt.

The Fu Manchu has started a craze in Baltimore and now for a limited time only you can own your piece of Baltimore football history with the Purple Fanstache!  The adhesive purple felt mustache looks just like your favorite quarterback own facial dressing!  They’re only $5 over at and for every Fanstache that is sold $1 will be donated to the Living Classrooms Foundation!  So head on over to now!

Apollo 13 LEM Checklist Pulled From Auction

An interesting ongoing story from NASA, courtesy of, is that the sale of several items at an auction in Dallas, TX have been suspended pending a claim against the items for which NASA believes are still owned by the space administration.  Of the more than 200 space related artifacts sold, the most expensive artifact was the lunar module checklist from the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.  The checklist is a 70 ring-bound list of instructions on how to manually power up the lunar module Aquarius.  In the Apollo 13 mission astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert used the lunar module, or LEM for short, to survive the journey home from the moon after a mid-mission explosion.  The checklist was also used as a prop in the 1995 Ron Howard movie starring Tom Hanks.

Heritage Auctions of Dallas received the checklist from Apollo commander Jim Lovell who believed he was the rightful owner of the checklist after finding it while cleaning out a bookshelf at his home.  Mr. Lovell is a national hero for his leadership during the 1970 mission and has an excellent reputation outside of the astronaut corps so it’s hard to believe any intentional misdeed on his part.  It seems logical that the checklist would belong to NASA but there must have been some confusion regarding its ownership because Lovell has since given away several artifacts from his NASA days to his children and other collectors without upsetting the agency.  It would be unfortunate if NASA does hold title for the checklist however, because I have a huge amount of respect for Lovell and all the crew and staff of NASA for their handling of Apollo 13 and would love to own the checklist myself!

Until the ownership is sorted out the checklist will remain in Heritage’s vault.  The checklist sold for a record-setting $388,375, the most ever for a space-related artifact.

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