Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Very Special Night

(Luke 2:1-20)

Around the age of twenty years, a young Gaius Octavius Thurinus was adopted by his great-uncle, the Roman politician Gaius Julius Caesar, and also given the name Gaius Julius Caesar. He later received the honorary title of Augustus, and was then later renamed Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus. Augustus was the first emperor of the Roman Empire, reigning from 27 BC until his death in AD 14.

In 4 BC, Augustus issued a decree that in every region controlled by the Roman empire, the inhabitants were required to record their names and have their goods rated at a certain value, so that the emperor would understand how rich every country, city, family, and house was. Judea was included in this census--while Herod ruled Judea as king, he did so as a servant of Rome and Augustus. This census was done as a preliminary to taking a poll tax in the provinces, which followed a few years later. This initial census took place during the time that Quirinius was governor of Syria, which he controlled from 4 BC to AD 1. Interestingly enough, the actual taxing took place during his second instance as governor, from AD 6 to AD 11.

The usual Roman method of census was for the individual to enroll from their place of residence. But it was the Jewish custom to enroll by tribes and families. Both Joseph and Mary were of the family line of David, and would have enrolled where the family had its landed inheritance--Bethlehem. The timed journey of the couple from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem was necessary to fulfill the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5:2). Without Mary, Joseph or Augustus being aware, God was able to manipulate people and events so that His Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

It seems that the city of David was overflowing with his descendants that had returned home to be enrolled. It also seems that Mary and Joseph were not the first to arrive, perhaps because Joseph had led their journey at a careful pace out of consideration for Mary’s condition.

The formal lodgings in Bethlehem were filled, but Mary and Joseph managed to find something. Luke says that they found a stable or stall, possibly attached to one of the inns that they visited in search of rooms.

We do not now how long the enrollment process took, but we do know that while the couple was in Bethlehem, the time came for Jesus to be born. Mary closely wrapped the newborn Jesus in a long, narrow cloth in a manner that was done in the Near East during Bible times.

The “manger” where Jesus was laid is thought to have been a feeding trough for animals in the stall or stable. Tradition suggests that because of the numerous rock outcroppings in the region, Jesus was born in a cave. If this was the case, the manger may have been cut out of a rock wall.

God did not announce the joyous event of Jesus' birth to dignitaries in palaces but to lowly shepherds. Along with agriculture, tending flocks formed the basis of the economy of Palestine. What’s more, sheep raised on the hillside around Bethlehem may have been destined for temple sacrifices in Jerusalem, just six miles to the north.

Some of Israel's great heroes were shepherds, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. Several passages in Scripture characterize God as a Good Shepherd. And yet, the occupation of shepherd was held in low esteem, especially those who were hirelings rather than owners. Shepherds lived most of the year outside, away from town and townspeople.

When the angel appeared to the shepherds, they were appropriately surprised and frightened. The shepherds were not just impressed by the visible brightness of the scene, but by the radiance of God’s own glory.

The angel told the shepherds not to fear and then explained that he brought Good News, not just for the Jews, but for all people. The angel then tells them the words that Jews had longed for centuries to hear--this was the Christ, or the Messiah, God’s anointed One. But not just the Messiah, but also the Lord God Himself! The angel then gave the shepherds a sign by describing how they would find the baby--not in a palace or even in a grand home, but wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger or stall.

As if the shepherds had not received enough of a shock to their systems, they when beheld a sky filled with angels that praised and gave glory to God. The angels also announced that God wished peace upon those whom God favored.

Once the angels were gone, it did not take the shepherds long to decide that they were going to find this baby. We do not know how long it took, but we know that they found the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph, just as the angel had described.

The excited shepherds told the couple everything about their experience and what the angel had told them. Mary took in everything they said. She treasured it, or held it in high value and considered it often in the years to come.

In the end, the shepherds returned to their flocks and to their lives. But they did so rejoicing. This Christmas, how can you proclaim the birth of God’s Messiah? What can you do to help others know that Jesus has come?


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Joseph Learns About Jesus
(Matthew 1:18-26)

Who was Joseph--God’s choice for the earthly father of Jesus? Why did God choose him? The Bible does not tell us much. However, God must have been confident in Joseph’s faithfulness for God to entrust the paternal care of His beloved Son. It seems pretty certain that God selected both Mary and Joseph carefully. Matthew describes Joseph as a son of David. Luke traced the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38) beginning with His identification as the son of Joseph.

Mary and Joseph was betrothed to be married, similar to a modern-day engagement but was much more serious. That word has a different connotation in today’s language. The relationship of Mary and Joseph was one of pledged commitment with legal and social implications; however, the couple was not yet married, nor had they consummated their union. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he considered how to end the relationship. Joseph could have done it in an embarrassing and public manner, but his righteous and charitable spirit impressed him to dismiss her privately so as not to embarrass her.

Before Joseph could carry out his decision, an angel of the Lord intervened with the truth of Mary’s pregnancy. He told Joseph the baby was the Child of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. God wanted Joseph to have no reservations about Mary, but to take her into his house and care for her. Joseph demonstrated obedience by responding to God’s instructions to accept Mary. Joseph and Mary were given the privilege of naming the child. The angel told Joseph to name the baby Jesus, which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves,” or “the Lord is salvation.” The Child would be named this because He would save His people from their sins.

Scripture does not mention Joseph after Jesus’ childhood. We can only speculate as to Joseph’s life span. Many historians think that Joseph died sometime between Jesus’ visit to the temple and the beginning of His public ministry at age 30. We know that Joseph was chosen by God to impart human influence on the life of Jesus. Whom has God chosen you to influence? Pray that God will use you to build lasting spiritual foundations in the lives of others as you obey His leading in your life.


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Mary, God's Servant

(Luke 1:26-56)

Hundreds of years before Jesus' birth, many of God's prophets spoke about the birth and the life of the promised Messiah. The one most quoted at Christmas time may be that of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14), who prophesied specifically that the Messiah would be born to a virgin.

God sent the angel Gabriel to a young woman in the town of Nazareth to tell His plans for the birth of the Messiah. Gabriel told Mary that out of all women, she was chosen to carry the Christ child. Mary was both surprised and humbled at the prospect of being the mother of the Messiah. However, she demonstrated submissiveness to God's will by stating that she was God's servant. A servant does whatever their master says, and does not question the master's motive, authority, or reasoning. Mary accepted her role and asked that God's will be done.

Gabriel also told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was miraculously pregnant in her old age. Immediately after Gabriel departed, Mary traveled to see her cousin. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She cried out and then exclaimed, “Blessed above all other women are you! And blessed is the Fruit of your womb! How am I granted that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

In reaction to Elizabeth’s words, Mary offered praise for the greatness of God and thanksgiving for being used by Him. She proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked upon the low station of His handmaiden. From now on all generations will call me blessed! For He Who is almighty has done great things for me--and holy is His name! And His mercy is on those who fear Him with godly reverence, from generation to generation.”

God could have selected any young virgin, but He chose Mary. She accepted her role in God's plan and asked that God's will be done. Is God calling you into a role that surprises and humbles you--perhaps one that feels too challenging? How will you respond?


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hannah was Thankful for Answered Prayer
(1 Samuel 1:1-20)

Hannah was first of the two wives of Elkanah. The second wife was Peninnah. Elkanah greatly loved Hannah, but she was barren, unable to give children to Elkanah like Peninnah did. Still, Peninnah was jealous of Hannah because of Elkanah’s favoritism.

Even with Elkanah’s love and attentiveness, Hannah was sad. She longed for a baby. Hannah even endured Peninnah’s teasing for being barren.

Each year, Hannah traveled to the city of Shiloh to worship, make sacrifice to the Lord, and ask the Lord for a child. Hannah vowed that if the Lord gave her a son, she would give him for service to the Lord. The priest Eli watched Hannah praying and crying, thinking she was drunk.

After Hannah explained to Eli, he told Hannah to go in peace with his hope that God would grant her prayer. Hannah was greatly encouraged by Eli. The next morning, she worshiped again and then returned to her home. Hannah persevered in prayer. As a difficult situation lingers, it can become hard to pray; yet Jesus taught us to persevere as Hannah did.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
--Matthew 7:7-8 NIV

God gave Hannah the desire of her heart—a baby boy. She named him Samuel. Just as she promised, Hannah took Samuel to Shiloh after he was weaned. Apparently, Hannah did not give her decision a second thought. She willing followed through on her commitment.

Is prayer a priority in your life? Where do you pray? How do you pray? Ask God to give you the earnestness and faith of Hannah in your prayers to Him.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

David’s Efforts to Worship and Give Thanks
(1 Chronicles 13; 15:1-4, 11-12, 14-28; 16:1-43)

King David made two attempts to return the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The first attempt failed because David did make sure that the ark was shown the proper respect required by God.

Later, in the second attempt, David made sure that everyone respected the ark and that all of God’s rules were followed. First, David prepared a place for the Ark. Next, he reminded the people of God’s laws regarding the ark. The tribe of Levi was chosen by God to carry the Ark and to be priests. God chose them because they were the only ones who stood with Moses against the people who worshipped the golden calf. The Levites were consecrated to God and assumed priestly responsibilities. It was their responsibility to maintain the holiness of the temple; therefore, they were the only ones qualified to carry the ark.

Next, David prepared and organized the people for worship. Note that congregational worship requires leadership and preparation. Our church leaders help us to worship God. Being a musician himself, David knew the value to expressing praise through music and poetry. Take a moment to think about those people in your congregation that contribute to your worship experiences. You may even want to send a note of thanks to them for playing an instrument, singing, or leading in congregational worship.

David made sure that offerings were given, that the peopled were blessed, and that they all participated in fellowship. These three things are important elements of worship. In Old Testament times, the worship leader stood and loudly proclaimed a blessing with outstretched hands. In the prayer, he asked for God’s blessing, protection, and mercy. As the name Yahweh was proclaimed, the people gained a strong sense of their belonging to God.

Take a few minutes to read the song of thanksgiving and praise that is given in 1 Chronicles 7-36. Thanksgiving is a natural response of worship. True worship focuses on God’s actions and recognizes His attributes. What causes you to praise God? What encourages you to give God thanks?


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Elijah Prayed and Knew that God Would Help
(1 Kings 17:1-24; 18:1-2, 41-46; James 5:17-18)

Elijah was a prophet of God in Israel about nine hundred years before the birth of Jesus. In Elijah’s time, Israel was divided into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah, with the city of Jerusalem retained as the seat of government for Judah. The northern Kingdom of Israel was ruled by King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel, originally from Phoenicia. Ahab allowed within Israel the worship of another god other than Jehovah—in other words, a false god. The god’s name was Baal, the god of the Canaanites. What’s more, Queen Jezebel, a priestess of Baal.

Needless to say, the Israelite prophets were pretty upset about the whole Baal situation, but none was more upset than the prophet Elijah. Elijah’s name in Hebrew is “Eliyahu,” meaning “my God is Yahweh” (my God is Jehovah). We are not certain whether Elijah was his birth name, or whether he was given the name because of his loyalty to Jehovah. Elijah prayed to God and Elijah listened to God. He did what God told him to do and went where God told him to go.

God had Elijah tell King Ahab that there would be no more rain. God then had Elijah hide from Ahab and God took care of Elijah while he hid. After three and a half years of drought and famine, God sent Elijah back to a very mad King Ahab.

Ahab blamed Elijah for the drought, but Elijah responded that Ahab and the kingdom’s idolatry were ultimately the cause of the problem. Elijah had prayed that God show the people the error of their ways by holding back the rain. Since one of Baal’s powers was over the weather, bringing a drought to the kingdom showed just how powerless Baal truly was.

Elijah told the people it was time for them to stop dividing their attention between Jehovah and Baal. They should choose once and for all. Elijah proposed a contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. To sacrifices were prepared. Whichever sacrifice was consumed by fire, that was the true God. Elijah stood alone against almost 1,000 worshippers of Baal. Baal did not respond to the hours of dancing, cutting, and calling of the prophets of Baal. Then Elijah called upon God. God answered with fire that consumed both the sacrifice and the altar. Following this demonstration, the people recognized the truth and made short work of the prophets of Baal.

Elijah then told Ahab to prepare because rain was coming. Elijah knew that Jehovah would send the rain, but it was not instantaneous. Elijah’s servant checked six times with no visible response to Elijah’s prayer. But with the seventh time, the answer came.

Elijah prayed and the rain stopped; Elijah prayed and the rain fell. Elijah asked God for help and God responded. Try making a list of requests for God’s help. Note what you hear from Him and how He answers your prayers. And be sure to thank God for His faithfulness in hearing you.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Vatican Joins the Search for E.T.

I’ve got a quickie, today. And it’s an interesting one. It seems that the Vatican has come a long way since it put Galileo Galilei under house arrest for his writings on a Universe in which Earth was not at the center.

On the occasion of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science organized and held its first Study Week on Astrobiology. The event took place from Friday, November 6, through Tuesday, November 10.

In view of the discoveries of extra-solar planets and, Vatican officials have responded that the question of extra-terrestrial life is interesting and deserves serious consideration. At the event, experts offered information on planets discovered outside of our solar system and also discussed how life may have started on Earth. When asked whether aliens would present a challenge to church teaching, officials responded that the search for alien life did not conflict with the faith because nothing can put limits on God’s creativity.

To learn more about the Study Week, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and the International Year of Astronomy 2009, check out these links:

Overview Booklet on the Study Week on Astrobiology

Pontifical Academy of Sciences

International Year of Astronomy 2009


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The “Cassiopeia A” Puzzle May Be Solved

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A is one of the youngest in the Milky Way Galaxy, located about 3.4 kiloparsecs (11,000 light-years) away. The expanding cloud of material is now about 10 light-years across. The cloud is very faint optically, only visible in long-exposure photographs. However, it is a very bright radio source.

The supernova remnant was officially discovered in 1947 by radio astronomers from Cambridge, England. It was first named Cassiopeia A and later cataloged as 3C 461. The radio source was not visually confirmed until 1950.

The age of the supernova is not certain. Based on the cloud’s angular expansion rate, astronomers calculate that the expansion began around AD 1667. Interestingly enough, it is possible that the supernova may have been observed on August 16, 1680, by British astronomer John Flamsteed (1646-1719) when he recorded what he described as a sixth magnitude star “3 Cassiopeiae.” Some suggest this may have been shortly after the supernova event, because the expanding cloud of material would have been very bright immediately following the supernova event.

The fate of the star which became a supernova remnant has long been a puzzle to astronomers. They thought it might have become a black hole or a neutron star, but did not known for certain.

Astronomers could not see the core of the remnant until 1999, when NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory first imaged the collapsed star. But even with this new information, astronomers are still questioning. The amount of energy it radiates was either much too small for a neutron star, and there were no pulses observed in the radiation and it had a low magnetic field (so not a pulsar/neutron star). The astronomers found a carbon atmosphere, which was also puzzling. The recent thought is that the hydrogen and helium from the remnant were falling back onto the star’s very hot surface (with temperatures up to 1 billion Kelvin, or 2 billion degrees Fahrenheit), allowing it to perform fusion on these and change them into carbon.

The latest studies suggest that this is what a neutron star looks like when it is very, very young. As it gets older, it will cool quite a bit, eventually stop burning the hydrogen and helium into carbon, and develop a hydrogen atmosphere. To learn more, check out this link:

NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory


Monday, November 09, 2009


The constellation Andromeda is one of the six predominant evening constellations in the month of November for the Northern Hemisphere. The others are Cassiopeia, Phoenix, Pisces, Sculptor, and Tucana.

Greek Mythology

Named after the princess of Ethiopia in Greek mythology. Andromeda is sometimes called “the Lady in Chains,” “the Chained Lady,” or “the Chained Woman.”

In Greek mythology, Andromeda was the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, king and queen of Ethiopia. Cassiopeia had bragged that Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids, the nymph-daughters of the sea god Nereus. To punish Cassiopeia for her arrogance the main god of the sea, Poseidon, sent the sea monster Cetus to ravage the coast of Ethiopia. In desperation, Cepheus consulted the Oracle of Zeus, who told Cepheus that the sea monster would not stop until his daughter Andromeda was sacrificed to Cetus by chaining her to a rock on the coast of Jaffa (today called Japho or Joppa; in Hebrew Yafo; in Arabic, Yafa).

Fortunately for Andromeda, she was saved from this grim fate by the hero Perseus. Having just returned from slaying Medusa, the Gorgon, Perseus used the severed head of Medusa to destroy Cetus by turning the sea monster to stone. Perseus then set Andromeda free and the two were married.


Andromeda is visible in the northern hemisphere from August through January. It can be seen directly overhead on November 10 at 10PM local time.

In the above sky chart, Andromeda is bordered by Cassiopeia to the north, Lacerta to the west, Perseus to the east, and the constellations Triangulum, Pisces and Pegasus to the south. Image Credit: Your Sky, by John Walker (

The four brightest stars in Andromeda are:

Alpha Andromedae - traditionally called Alpheratz (or Alpherat) and Sirrah (or Sirah). This is a binary star with an overall apparent visual magnitude of 2.06. Before the formalization of constellation structures, Alpheratz was also considered a member of the constellation Pegasus called Delta Pegasi. Alpheratz forms the asterism called the Great Square of Pegasus.

Beta Andromedae - traditionally called Mirach. Mirach is 200 light-years from earth and has a visual magnitude of 2.1.

Gama Andromedae - traditionally called Almach. Almach is actually multiple stars having contrasting colors.

Delta Andromedae - called Sadiradra, a 3rd magnitude star

Deep Sky

The most prominent deep sky object in Andromeda is M31 – Messier object 31. It is a spiral galaxy which is more commonly known as the Andromeda Galaxy, because it appears within the constellation Andromeda. This is one of the most distant objects visible to the naked eye, approximately 2,500,000 light-years away from Earth. In a dark sky, M31 can be seen as an elongated fuzzy patch near Mu Andromedae, roughly opposite of Beta Andromedae.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Cornelius and Peter asked and God Answered
(Acts 10:1-33)

Ever had a dream that seemed so real that it still affected you after you awoke? What if you were living at the time of the New Testament and received a vision from God calling to you act on faith? Would you believe? Would you commit to whatever you were called to do? These very questions were pondered by the Apostle Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Cornelius lived in Caesarea, a city in Israel near the Mediterranean coast, mid-way between the present day cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Cornelius and all of his family where devout and feared God, yet they did not know Jesus. One day, while Cornelius was fasting and praying, an angel of God visited him in a vision. Rather than simply revealing Jesus to Cornelius, God called on Cornelius to act on faith by sending servants to find Peter in the town of Joppa, known today as Yafo or Jaffa.

The day after Cornelius’s faith got a workout, the same thing happened to Peter. While he was praying, he became hungry and fell into a trance. God gave Peter a vision, presenting him with many food possibilities that all were considered unclean by Jewish law. Peter refused them, but God warned Peter to not call unclean anything which God had made. Peter was given this vision three times, just to make sure that he got the point: nothing that God made was unclean. Shortly after the vision, to give Peter one more nudge, the Holy Spirit told Peter that messengers were looking for him and that he should go with them. Like Cornelius, God was calling on Peter to act on faith.

The next day, Peter traveled with the messengers back to Caesarea. Though Jewish tradition said that Jews were not to associate with a Gentile, let alone entering the home of a Gentile, Peter went straight into Cornelius’s home and told him and his family all about Jesus. Through the prayers of Cornelius and Peter, and through their exercising of their faith, Jesus was preached to the Gentiles.

In our prayers, we may ask God to use us for His glory, but do we realize what He may ask of us? And when God does respond to our prayers, will we be ready to exercise our faith?


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Astronomy is for Everyone, Part Four

Welcome back to our series on getting started right in amateur astronomy. Last time, we looked at telescopes. This time, the mounts…

Telescope Mounts

The mount of a telescope is just as important as the telescope itself, if not more so. A telescope is of little use if it cannot be kept steadily aimed at the object of interest. There are two main types of telescope mountings: equatorial and altazimuth.

Equatorial Mounting

The equatorial mounting is designed to be set up in a certain way in a specially prepared location. In its simplest form, the equatorial has two axes at right angles to each other. It is an all-purpose mounting, generally used for serious work. Some equatorials have setting circles, which make it possible to aim the instrument automatically at the right point in the heavens.

Above is a German Equatorial mount attached to a pier. Image Credit: Author

Altazimuth Mounting

The altazimuth mounting is simpler to operate than the equatorial mounting. It allows two motions of the telescope - up and down, an "altitude" motion; and horizontal, an "azimuth" motion. This is a good general-purpose mounting. It can be made light, portable, and easy to take down and set up.

Above is a Dobsoinan Altazimuth (a "Dob") mount. Image Credit: Author

Here are some helpful mounting terms:

Altazimuth - A mount in which the telescope is allowed to pan around in the horizontal plane (azimuth) and pivot up and down in the vertical plane (altitude).

Dobsonian Altazimuth – Also just called a “Dobsonian” or a “Dob,” it is a modified form of altazimuth mounting that has become popular in recent decades for short-focus reflecting telescopes. It is named after John Dobson, an American amateur astronomer. The Dobsonian mount is noted for its low cost and portability.

Equatorial - A mounting which directly counteracts the Earth's axial spin and makes it easier to track objects while you are observing. One axis (called the polar axis) is aligned so that it points directly at the north celestial pole. The other axis of the mounting is called the declination axis. It allows the telescope to move up and down in declination (north and south of the celestial equator).

Fork-type Equatorial - also called a fork mount, it is a design which has become widely used for catadioptric telescopes.

German Equatorial - the most popular type of equatorial mount design.

Above, a fork mount. Image Credit: Author

In our next installment, cameras (film and CCDs)…


Monday, November 02, 2009

 The Thirty-Meter Telescope is Coming in 2018

Near Pasadena, California, a team of scientists, engineers, and project specialist are busily planning and designing what will become, upon completion, the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth. Their project is the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), and it will enable astronomers to study objects in our solar system, stars systems elsewhere in or Milky Way Galaxy, neighboring galaxies, and forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe—in essence, looking back to the beginnings of the observable Universe.

Begun in June 2003, the nonprofit TMT Observatories Corporation has as its partners, the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), the University of California (UC), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). While these are the current partners, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) was also a partner at the early phase.

The TMT project is the result of three earlier large-telescope projects that were merged: the California Extremely Large Telescope (CELT), which was a partnership between Caltech and UC; the Very Large Optical Telescope (VLOT), led by ACURA; and the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT), which was a partnership between the National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO) and the Gemini Observatory.

The TMT will integrate the latest innovations in precision control, segmented mirror design, and adaptive optics to correct for the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere, enabling the TMT to study the Universe as clearly as if the telescope were in space. The TMT builds on the success of the twin Keck telescopes, using a 30-meter primary mirror composed of 492 segments. This will give TMT nine times the collecting area of today’s largest optical telescopes.

On July 21, after extensive studies, the TMT Observatories Corporation announced that the slope of the volcano Mauna Kea, Hawaii, had been selected as the site for the TMT. Construction is expected to begin October 2011. If all goes on schedule, the TMT will see first light in 2018. For more on the TMT and its partners, check out this link:

Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Jesus’ Teachings on Prayer
(Matthew 4:23-25; 5:1-2; 6:5-13)

What is prayer? In the most basic sense, prayer is talking to God. Through prayer, we can thank God and listen to God. We can express our worship of God, our gratitude, and our dependence. When Jesus was asked by His disciples about prayer, this is what He told them.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“ ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
--Matthew 6:5-13

When praying, Jesus told His disciples to avoid the showy manner of the hypocrites and the mindless repetition of the heathens--non-believers. Jesus also stressed the privacy of prayer and the precision of prayer. Prayer is not intended for an earthly audience. The purpose of prayer is to build our relationship with God. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples emphasizes five characteristics: the supremacy of God, the work of God, the provision of God, the forgiveness of God, and the protection of God.

When we talk to God, we should show reverence. Jesus’ use of the word “Father” indicates an intimate, close relationship and recognition of authority. Jesus’ use of “Holy” acknowledges that God is One who is set apart, different from us. While any posture can be used in prayer, we should understand that kneeling, bowing our heads, and closing eyes communicate reverence to God and show recognition that God deserves our respect.

By praying for God’s will to be done, we submit to follow God’s plan wherever it leads. Whether we acknowledge it or not, God works around us, in us, and through us.

While God knows what we need, He wants us to acknowledge His provision. God meets our physical needs. Jesus’ reference to “daily bread” can represent all of our basic needs, including food, water, and even the air we breathe. In addition to the physical, God also meets our spiritual needs. We ask for His forgiveness to restore relationships. Seeking forgiveness unites us with God and others. We also can ask God to guide us so we live in ways that maintain that relationship.

Whether the need is small or large, God can meet it. Do you truly trust God to meet your needs?


Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Gould Belt Shaped by Dark Matter

Within our Milky Way Galaxy, our sun is part of an area of space known as the Gould Belt, containing a swirl of stars. This partial ring is about 3,000 light-years across and is tilted toward the galactic plane by about 16 to 20 degrees. The Gould Belt is named after American astronomer Benjamin Apthorp Gould (1824-896), who first identified it in 1879. The Gould Belt contains many relatively young stars--perhaps 2 million of them are less than 60 million years old. While our sun is part of the Gould Belt, it is much older--with an estimated age of 4.6 billion years.

In 1997, astronomer Wolfgang G. L. Pöppel of Argentine Institute of Radio Astronomy noted that using the common explanations, astronomers could not explain where all of the Gould Belt’s young stars came from. Pöppel thought that, since these young stars surround our own sun, it might be nice for us to know how they came to be.

In a study published earlier this year, astrophysicist Kenji Bekki of the University of New South Wales, Australia, suggests that within the last 60 million years, this area of our galaxy was struck by a huge, invisible wrecking ball made of a clump of dark matter--mysterious particles created in the aftermath of the Big Bank. The clump proposed to have affected this area would have the mass of 10 million suns. The impact resulted in the Gould Belt and its young stars.

So far, astronomers have only detected dark matter by its gravitational pull on galaxies. Because it does not emit or reflect light, dark matter is impossible to see with optical telescopes. This leads astronomers to believe that the bulk of dark matter is so-called “weakly-interacting massive particles” (WIMPS). These WIMPS are exotic particles much like neutrinos that only rarely interact electromagnetically with normal atoms. Despite its invisibility, the observed gravitational pull of dark matter suggests that there is about five times more of it than what we consider to be normal matter--the stuff that makes up planets, stars and us.

Bekki’s study proposes that the Gould Belt was one of the stellar substructures that were formed from high-speed, off-center collisions between giant clouds of gas and dust and clumps of dark matter, both of which are orbiting the Galaxy. Bekki’s computer modeling shows that the Gould Belt could have been created within 45 million years.

Bekki’s study also suggests that, because of the gravitation effects of the dark matter at the time of the collision, the dark matter may be responsible for perturbing the orbits of the objects in the Kuiper belt, causing them to fall toward the sun and creating a wave of comets in the inner solar system over the last several million years.

Bekki admits that these are speculations. However, he notes that if the Milky Way has 20 dark matter clumps surrounding it, Bekki reasons that a Gould Belt-like ring of stars would be likely to form from dark matter collisions every billions years or so, and that about one tenth of one percent of the stars in our galaxy may have been started in this way.

To learn about Bekki’s study and about dark matter, check out these links:

“Dark Impact and Galactic Star Formation: Origin of the Gould Belt.” Submitted June 28, 2009. Kenji Bekki., Cornell University Library.

University of New South Wales, Australia

Argentine Institute of Radio Astronomy (Instituto Argentino de Radioastronomía)

Dark Matter. NASA’s Imagine the Universe Web Site.


Friday, October 30, 2009

GRB 090423 is Oldest and Most Distant Object Yet Discovered

Back on April 23 of this year, NASA’s Swift telescope detected a gama-ray burst (GRB), specifically documented as GRB 090423. About 20 minutes after the burst, one team led by UK astronomer Nial Tanvir began observations using the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. About 14 hours after the burst, another team led by Italian astronomer Ruben Salvaterra began their own observations using the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) on La Palma, in the Canary Islands. The both teams were able to observe the afterglow for 10 days.

A GRB is the most powerful explosion since the Big Bang. GRBs occur somewhere in our sky approximately once per day and are brief, but intense, flashes of gamma radiation. They last from a few milliseconds to a few hundred seconds. GRBs are thought to be associated with the cataclysmic death of a massive star, and are thought to be triggered by the center of the star collapsing to form a black hole.

The two teams have reported the results of their careful study of GRB 090423. Their results indicate that the star that collapsed was 13.1 billion light-years away. The distance suggests that the star collapsed roughly 625 million years after the Big Bang. This is the oldest and most distant celestial object in the known universe. If the two teams’ results are correct it would suggest that massive stars were being born and dying as early as about 625 million years after the Big Bang.

Follow-up studies are planned for next year. Astronomers will use the Hubble Space Telescope to try to locate the distant and early galaxy from which the GRB came. For more information on this event, and for more information on the referenced observatories, check out these links:

Bursting at High Redshift. Editor’s Summary. October 29, 2009,

Stellar Blas is Record-Breaker. Victoria Gill. October 28, 2009. BBC News.

NASA’s Swift Gama-Ray Burst Mission Home Page

United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT)

Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG)


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Indonesian Bolide of October 8

Back on Thursday, October 8, around 11 am local time, the people of the coastal town of Bone on the island of Sulewesi, Indonesia, were frightened by thunderous sounds and shaking walls. The people rushed out of their homes, thinking they were in the middle of yet another earthquake. They were met by the sight of a twisting trail of debris in the sky. What they had experienced was in fact the result of an exploding fireball, which is called a bolide.

The bolide was caused by an asteroid with an estimated width of about 10 meters (33 feet). Atmospheric pressure caused it to explode, releasing an amount of energy equivalent to a small atomic bomb. The explosion triggered infrasound sensors of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) more than 10,000 km away. Analysis of the infrasound data revealed an explosion at latitude 4.5˚ S, longitude 120˚ E, close to Bone, with a yield of about 50 kilotons (100,000 pounds) of TNT, about two or three times the power of World War II-era atomic bombs.

The asteroid that caused the blast was not known to astronomers before the event. According to statistical studies of the near-Earth asteroid population, such objects are expected to collide with Earth on average every 2 to 12 years.

Those are just the barest of details, but I thought I would share. To get first-hand information on this event, check out these links:

YouTube Video of Local News Broadcast

October 8th Article by the Jakarta Globe

October 8th Article by the Jakarta Post

To learn more on what has been learned so far, and to learn about NASA’s Asteroid Watch program and NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, check out these links:

NEO Program October 19 Press Release

Twitter Page for NASA’s Asteroid Watch

NASA’s Asteroid Watch

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Debate Over Pluto Continues

Science writer Alan Boyle will soon publish a book in which he outlines his objections to the 2006 ruling by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that caused Pluto be classified as a dwarf planet rather than a planet. His new book is called, “The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference,” available November 9.

The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference

The focus of Boyles dispute is the IAU's addition to the planetary definition that a planet must have cleared the neighborhood of its orbit. The addition demoted Pluto to a new class of celestial bodies known as dwarf planets. By the IAU definition, a dwarf planet orbits the Sun, is large enough that its gravity has crushed it into a sphere, but it has not cleared debris from its planetary neighborhood.

In his book, Boyle claims the IAU’s definition is too narrow and he suggests that even Earth might not be considered a planet by the IAU's definition because it too hasn't completely cleared its orbit.

Other astronomers also make the argument that the decision on Pluto comes too soon. They note that technology is only just beginning to allow the discovery of planets the size of Earth and smaller around other stars. And some astronomers believe there's still a possibility of finding objects bigger than Mercury in our own solar system.

Boyle cites the example of the "Captain Kirk rule," offered by Principal Investigator Alan Stern of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt. Stern’s rule states that if you are looking out the window of your spaceship, you’d like to know whether something is a planet just by looking at it.

When Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at Lowell Observatory in 1930, it was thought to be the Planet X that astronomers had expected to find beyond the orbit of Neptune. But in the decades that followed, astronomers hypothesized that Pluto might be just the first of a number of objects beyond Neptune.

Astronomers reasoned these objects would be planetary leftovers from the early formation of the solar system and that they could exist in abundance in a region of the outer solar system we now know as the Kuiper belt (Kuiper rhymes with “viper”). The Kuiper belt, sometimes called the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, was discovered in 1992 and named in honor of the work done by Irish astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth (1880 – 1972) and Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper (1905 – 1973). In contrast to Bolye and his contingency, other astronomers argue that if Pluto was discovered today, it would be classified as a Kuiper Belt Object.

Jupiter’s gravity kept the region of rocky debris known as the Asteroid Belt from forming into a planet. In that same way, Neptune's gravity has kept the icy objects of the Kuiper Belt from combining into a large planet as well.

For over fifty years, Pluto was the only object of its type to be found. Even Boyle admits that Tombaugh was lucky in finding it. The second Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) wasn't found until the 1990s, but that discovery was followed by a rash of other new KBOs. In 2005, Astronomer Mike Brown discovered an object beyond Neptune even larger than Pluto, and the IAU was compelled to vote on a new official planetary definition rather than face the possibility of having the outer solar system full of new planets.

To learn more about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, and to learn more about Boyles new book, check out these links:

The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference. Author Alan Boyle

NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, Mission Home Page


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Number of Sunspots is Growing

The Sun is beginning to show more signs of life. Sunspot 1029 came into our view over the weekend, and is just bristling with B- and C-class solar flares. The sunspot’s magnetic polarity indicate that it is part of new Solar Cycle 24. If it continues to grow at its current rate, this sunspot could soon become the biggest of 2009.

SOHO image of sunspot 1029. Image Credit: NASA

If you notice the size references at the bottom of the image, you will see that sunspot 1029 is already larger than the width of several Earths, and may be larger than the width of Jupiter before it is done. To learn more about the current sunspot activity, check out these links.

NASA/ESA’s Solar and Helospheric Observatory (SOHO)

NASA/ESA’s SOHO Sunspot Page

While we are on the subject of the Sun, I should mention that there are a lot of solar missions currently flying, with more expected in the next few years. Here is a rundown of the most notable missions in progress.

NASA/ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)
Launched December 2, 1995, this international mission has been keeping a steady watch on the Sun. The SOHO team has been able to warn Earth of approaching coronal mass ejections that could potentially disrupt communications. Through the work of professionals and amateurs, SOHO has discovered dozens of comets, many of which are destroyed by the Sun’s powerful gravity and energy.

NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE)
Launched August 25, 1997, ACE measures particles that travel to Earth from the Sun, interplanetary space and the far reaches of the Milky Way.

NASA’s Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE)
Launched April 2 ,1998, TRACE studies the three-dimensional magnetic structures which emerge through the Sun’s photosphere (the visible surface of the Sun) and defines both the geometry and dynamics of the upper solar atmosphere (the transition regioun and corona).

Launched December 20, 1999, ACRIMSat is the third in a series of long-term solar-monitoring satellites. The spacecraft tracks the impact of Total Solar Irradiance (TSI) on Earth's climate.

NASA’s Reuven Ramaty High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI)
Launched February 5, 2002, RHEESI uses X-ray imaging to explore the basic physics of particle acceleration and explosive energy release in solar flares -- gigantic explosions in the atmosphere of the Sun. RHESSI produced the first high-resolution movies of solar flares using their high-energy radiation. It also made the first images of a flare in gamma-rays, discovered strong polarization in a cosmic gamma-ray burst; and made the first hard X-ray imaging spectroscopy of flares from thermal to non-thermal energies. RHESSI also measured the roundness of the sun with unprecedented precision and found it is not a perfect sphere. The mission is named in honor of one of the founding mission members who died in 2001, Reuven Ramaty.

Hinode (Solar-B)
Launched September 22, 2006, Hinode is an international mission to study the Sun. The spacecraft is designed to study the generation, transport and dissipation of magnetic energy from the photosphere to the corona and will record how energy stored in the sun's magnetic field is released. Hinode found the Sun's magnetic field is much more turbulent and dynamic than previously known. Spacecraft data showed magnetic waves play a critical role in driving the solar wind, a stream of electrically charged gas blasted away from the Sun. Better understanding of the solar wind may lead to more accurate prediction of damaging radiation waves before they reach satellites. The name Hinode is Japanese, meaning “sunrise.”

Launched September 18, 2006, STEREO is actually two observatories. One moves ahead in Earth’s orbit and the other trails behind. These study the structure and evolution of solar storms as they blast from the Sun and move out through space. STEREO has made the first 3D measurements of a solar jet and is still sending information back to Earth from orbit.

Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX)
Launched October 19, 2008, IBEX is designed to detect the edge of our solar system. Operating from Earth orbit, the spacecraft uses neutral atom images to detect particles from the termination shock at the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space. IBEX made the first all-sky maps of the heliosphere. One of the immediate results was a surprise: the maps are bisected by a bright, winding ribbon of unknown origin. The finding could change our understanding of the heliosphere.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Astronomy is for Everyone, Part Three

In this installment we consider what many typically think about first when considering amateur astronomy--choosing a telescope.


At some point in their observing, every amateur astronomer considers whether a telescope can aide them in their observing. The light-gathering and magnifying power of telescopes brings out details of the Moon's surface. It reveals Jupiter's larger satellites and its banded clouds, as well as markings on Mars and the rings of Saturn.

There are three popular types of telescope configurations:

1. Refractors, which use lenses to collect and focus light.

2. Reflectors, which collect light with a large mirror.

3. Catadioptrics, which are a special class of telescope that use lenses as well as mirrors. They are considered by some as modified reflectors.

Refractor Telescopes

The familiar long tube telescope, with the lens in front and the eyepiece in back, is the standard design of the refractor telescope. This design is commonly seen in department stores. While all look generally the same in advertisements, quality varies tremendously.

Beware of advertising claims of extremely high magnification. These are usually achieved by pushing the telescope to its limit, and then the images are not satisfactory.

Look for sturdy mechanical construction. A spindly mount will wobble at the slightest touch and ruin the view. Favor models with low to medium power eyepieces of good quality, rather than those with high-power, low quality eyepieces. Fittings for the eyepieces, diagonal prism, and accessories should be of machined metal, not molded plastic.

Newtonian Reflector Telescopes

The Newtonian reflector (invented by Sir Isaac Newton) is a very popular and economical telescope. Its simple high performance design provides tremendous light grasp at the lowest cost per unit of aperture of any type of telescope. Many observatory telescopes are Newtonian designs. Small Newtonians are very portable because the tube can detach from the mount.

Because the light is gathered and bent by mirrors, the image is rotated and usually appears upside-down or sideways. Their large aperture makes them ideal for deep-space views of galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae. The optical design results in sharp, high-contrast planetary and lunar views.

Compound "Catadioptric" Telescopes

Compound telescopes combine the best features of refractors and reflectors into very compact, lightweight instruments. They use both mirrors and lenses, resulting in telescopes only about twice as long as they are wide. Unlike the basic refractor and reflector, these telescopes are distinctly modern 20th century designs, the products of high-technology manufacturing techniques.

The features are many -- the closed tube, lightweight, rugged designs are easily portable, and the superb optical performance is better in nearly every respect than any single telescope. Little if any maintenance or alignment is required. The lightweight optical assembly allows very strong mounts to be made very light in weight. Camera adapters and many varied accessories are widely available and easily attached. The one significant disadvantage is just what might be expected: compound telescopes cost more than other types of telescopes.

Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescopes

The Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope was introduced by D. D. Maksutov in 1944. It uses a deeply curved, thick front corrector lens, with a reflective spot on the corrector acting as a secondary mirror. Large diameter models are very difficult to manufacture and take a long time to reach thermal stability at night.

Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescopes

The Schmidt-Cassegrain design was made commercially economical due to the optical production innovations of Tom Johnson at Celestron International in the late 1960's. His techniques for producing the complex-curved Schmidt corrector plate were the foundation for every major manufacturer in the business.

Unlike the Maksutov, the Schmidt-Cassegrain has a separate, adjustable secondary mirror mechanically attached to the glass corrector plate. The most popular sizes are 8" to 11" diameter models on fork mounts. As with Maksutovs, large diameter models take a long time to reach thermal stability at night.

In our next installment we will examine telescope mounts...


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jesus Brought God's Grace
(Luke 4:16-22)

Today, Nazareth is the capital and the largest city in the Northern District of Israel, having a population of about 185,000. In Jesus’ time, Nazareth was a village in lower Galilee. People of that time often looked down upon the village and its inhabitants. This attitude may have been caused by Nazareth’s small size, unpolished dialect of the inhabitants, a general lack of culture or significance, and perhaps even questionable moral and religious respectability. Even so, it soon became a place of significance because Jesus grew up there.

Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, as was His custom for so many years. Jesus must have been respected in the synagogue and must have been asked on several occasions to read from Scripture and comment on it. Jesus stood to read the Scriptures. Jesus was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. We do not know if Jesus asked for this particular scroll, but we do know that Jesus was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus chose a particular place in the scroll from which to read. We know this Scripture passage as Isaiah 61:1-2. Jesus used this passage to emphasize His identification with the subject of Isaiah’s writing—the Messiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
--Luke 4:18-19 NIV

This Scripture passage gives the purpose for Jesus’ coming. The passage that Jesus read in the synagogue announces that the Spirit of the Lord is upon the Christ, the One anointed by God. Anointing means to set aside for some unique and special purposes. Jesus had come to proclaim God’s good news and to heal broken lives.

Luke tells us that after reading, Jesus rolled up the scroll, returned it, and sat down. Sitting indicated that Jesus would discuss and explain what He had read. As everyone listened Jesus told them that God’s Word, spoken long ago by Isaiah, had been fulfilled as they were listening. The long wait was over.

The people complemented Jesus on his reading and they were amazed as they listened to His comments, which Luke characterizes as words of grace.

Even so, the people wondered at what they heard. They asked each other, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” They had watched this one grow from a little boy into a man. But He was more than that. He was Jesus, Son of god, who brought God’s grace into the world.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Astronomy is for Everyone, Part Two

Today we have the second installment of our tips for getting started right in amateur astronomy.


Every observer should own a good pair of binoculars. These gather far more light than the eye, they magnify images and use the capacity of both eyes. Binoculars are the ideal instrument for the beginning observer for the following reasons:

1. They are portable.

2. They have a wide field of view.

3. They are relatively inexpensive.

4. They will still be of use even if you later progress to a telescope.

Binoculars are ideal for helping the beginner find their way around the night sky. Star colors are more noticeable through them.

Binoculars are well suited for:

* Scanning star clusters

* Picking out nebulae and galaxies

* Recording light changes in variable stars

* Watching for novae and comets

* Observing Jupiter and its 4 main moons

* Observing Mercury in twilight

* Observing the crescent of Venus

* Searching for dim Uranus and Neptune

* Observing bright asteroids

* Getting to know our closest neighbor, the Moon

Choosing Binoculars

The beginning observer might be tempted to think that bigger is better. However, when choosing binoculars, a pair with a magnification of 7 to 10 times is advisable because of the
increased weight. Anything larger would be difficult to steady by hand.

Consider this progression before choosing high magnification binoculars.

1. Higher magnification

2. Heavier binoculars

3. More difficult to steady

4. Bigger images with bigger and more frequent shakes

5. Unhappy observing

High magnification binoculars are used by many experienced observers, but they are normally mounted in order to provide the steadiest images possible.

Binoculars require prisms in order to give the observer a right side up image. Porro prism binoculars are the most common type. Binoculars of the roof prism design are also very good and they also have the added feature of compactness.

Many stores have seasonal sales on binoculars. This makes it possible to own a good pair of binoculars on even a tight budget. Before buying, you should try them out first to make sure that the images appear sharp and clear. If you cannot find a good brick-and-mortar store where you can pick up the exact pair of binoculars you are considering, make sure that the online store you use has a no-questions-asked policy on returns.

Unwrap the binoculars and focus them on a point of light as far away as possible and check for flaws in the image. If you see any distortion in the light, that will only be intensified when you are gazing at a sky full of pinpoint light sources! Don't let someone else pick out a pair for you because their eyes might not see an image exactly the way yours do. Another important point when examining binoculars is to check for the presence and amount of coatings on the optics. A good pair of binoculars will have anti-reflective coatings on each surface of every lens and prism in the binoculars. This reduces the possibility of glare and reflected images when observing. Beware of manufacturer packaging. While all say they use coated optics, not all use only completely coated optics.

Stay tuned for the next installment, telescopes...

Friday, October 23, 2009

First Results of SPT’s SZ Survey

On Saturday, October 10, the astronomy team managing the South Pole Telescope released the first results from their initial SZ survey. Wait. You didn’t know we had a telescope at the South Pole? It’s true. We do.

The SPT is a colaborative effort, supported by many U.S. universities and organizations, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), with most of the staff based at the University of Chicago. Located at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the SPT was constructed between November 2006 and February 2007, and saw first light on February 16.

The largest telescope deployed at the South Pole, the SPT stands 22.8 meters tall and has a 10-meter dish covered with a network of detectors. Like a few other cutting-edge programs, including the ESA/NASA Planck mission, SPT is studying cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), the afterglow of the Big Bang. On the electromagnetic spectrum, CMBR falls somewhere between heat radiation and radio waves. The CMBR is mostly uniform, but it contains tiny ripples of varying density and temperature. These ripples reflect the seeds that, through gravitational attraction, grew into the galaxies and galaxy clusters that are visible today.

One advantage of the SPT location is the darkness. The months of darkness during the South Pole winter gives ample opportunities for exploring the skies, and the desolate location ensurse that light pollution from buildings and streetlamps is of little concern. Dry, cold air allows CMBR to be observed with minimal interference from water vapor.

Another advantage of the locating at the South Pole is that the observed celestial bodies do not set, but instead rotate once every 24 hours around celestial north. This allows the scientists to track on a point in the sky for months or even years. This is in contrast to the middle latitudes where stars eventualy dip below the horizon after a few hours.

The SPT is currently conducting a Sunyaev-Zel'dovich (SZ) effect survey over large areas of the southern sky, searching for massive galaxy clusters to high redshift. The SZ effect is the result of high energy electrons distorting the CMBR through a phenomenon called inverse Compton scatting. In their preliminary study, the team is focusing on a 40 square-degree area targeted by the Blanco Cosmology Survey (BCS). Over two seasons of observations, the region has been mapped by the SPT at frequencies of 95 GHz, 150 GHz, and 225 GHz.

On October 10, the team reported the four most significant detections of SZ-effected galaxy clusters in this field, three of which were previously unknown and, therefore, represent the first three galaxy clusters discovered with an SZ survey. The team is very excited about the latest results because they demostrate that SZ surveys can be an effective means of finding galaxy cluters. The results also show that the SPT is a very effective instrument for this type of study.

For more on the SPT and other CMBR-related missions, check out these links:

South Pole Telescope

Planck Mission, ESA Home Page

Planck Mission, NASA Home Page

NASA’s Legacy Archive for Microwave Background Data Analysis

NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) Archive Page

NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Archive Page

NASA's and the Netherlands (NIVR) Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) Archive Page


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Welcome the Galilean Nights

If you have wanted to see the wonders of the night sky and didn’t have a telescope, now is your chance! Just look around for an astronomy club, planetarium, science museum, or science center in your area. They are sure to be out and about over the next three evenings. From this Thursday evening through Saturday evening (October 22 through 24), amateur and professional astronomers have been asked to observe (pun intended) the “Galilean Nights,” a Cornerstone Project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.

Promoted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the “Galilean Nights” is an international project encouraging amateur and professional astronomers, enthusiasts and the public, to head outside and point their telescopes toward the wonders of the night sky that were first observed 400 years ago by revolutionary Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642).

In a coordinated effort, astronomers will share their knowledge and enthusiasm for space by encouraging as many people as possible to look through a telescope at our planetary neighbors. The celestial bodies being emphasized are those that Galileo observed, including Jupiter and the Moon, which will be in good positions for observing.

The planners hope to give hundreds of thousands of people the thrill of looking through an astronomical telescope for the first time. More than 1,000 public events in over 70 countries are participating.

Galileo build his first two-lens telescope in mid-1609 based on the design of German-Dutch lensmaker Hans Lippershey, who constructed the first telescope in the Netherlands in 1608. Based upon available material, historians estimate that Galileo first his telescope toward the sky in October 1609. His observations eventually led him to discover many things. Galileo discovered the four main satellites of Jupiter. He realized that Earth’s moon was pitted with craters and not a perfect sphere. These and many other discoveries led Galileo to conclude, like polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around.

Galileo was tried for heresy by the Vatican and forced to recant. The last ten years of Galileo’s life were spent under house arrest. Thankfully, we today are not subject to the same restrictions of thought, so do something about it. Get out their and see the wonders of the nighttime sky. They are waiting just for you!

To find a “Galilean Nights” event in your area, to learn more about the “Galilean Nights” project, and to learn more about the International Year of Astronomy 2009, check out these links:

Galilean Nights

International Year of Astronomy 2009


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ares I-X Prepares for Critical Test Flight

Early Tuesday, the Ares I-X rocket was slowly moved from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Complex 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Launch is set for October 27 at 8 a.m. EDT. If rescheduling is necessary, other launch opportunities are available October 28 and 29.

The Ares I-X is a full-scale replica of the Ares I, a key element in NASA's Constellation program. The goals of Constellation are to (1) replace the soon-to-retire Space Shuttle orbiters with a safer, lower-cost rocket to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit and (2) development of the Ares V, a large, unmanned heavy lift rocket that would support eventual expeditions to the moon.

While the 327-foot-tall Ares I-X is a replica, not all of its elements match the final Ares I design. The 1.8-million-pound Ares I-X rocket is composed of two stages. The first stage is a four-segment solid-fuel booster based on technology from the Space Shuttle program (the production Ares I will have five segments), the second stage is a dummy and perched atop is a mockup of an Orion crew capsule and escape rocket. More than 700 sensors have been mounted on the launch vehicle as well as three television cameras in order gather as much data as possible.
The goals of the test flight are to verify computer models and flight characteristics during the critical first two minutes of flight when aerodynamic stresses are most severe. When launched, the first stage will fire for two minutes, boosting the vehicle to an altitude of about 130,000 feet and a velocity of nearly five times the speed of sound. At that point, roughly 43 miles due east of the launch site, the first stage will separate and fall to the Atlantic Ocean, testing the new parachutes designed for the Ares I. The dummy upper stage will crash into the Atlantic about 147 miles from the launch site and will not be recovered.

The total cost of the Ares I-X project--including launch vehicle and all preparations and management--is expected to be around $445 million. This launch is a critical test flight, as it will likely play a major role in the ongoing debate about NASA's post-shuttle manned space program.
The White House is currently reassessing the program, considering five options that have been developed by an independent panel of space experts led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. Only one of the five options includes the Ares I. The test flight of the Ares I-X could prove critical to the future of the Constellation program. A success would not guarantee a continuation of Constellation, but a failure could prove fatal.

To learn more about the Aries launch vehicles, the Orion spacecraft, or the Constellation program in general, check out these links:

NASA’s Constellation Program

NASA’s Ares I-X Launch Vehicle, part of the Constellation program site

NASA’s Ares Launch Vehicle Family, part of the Constellation program site

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft, part of the Constellation program site


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thirty-Two More for HARPS

This week--October 19 through 23--in Porto, Portugal, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is jointly holding an international conference with Centro de Astrofísica da Universidade do Porto (CAUP), a private astronomical association of the University of Porto. The topic of the conference is the progress of exoplanet studies--exoplanets being extrasolar planets, or planets orbiting in other star systems.

On Monday, those attending received a report on the first five years of operation of the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), the spectrograph used on ESO’s 3.6 meter telescope. The HARPS team was excited to announce that in its first five years of operation, HARPS had discovered 75 exoplanets in 30 different planetary systems. This number included the announcement of 32 brand new exoplanets discovered by HARPS.

The precision of HARPS has allowed astronomers to search for small planets, those with a mass of a few times that of the Earth--known as super-Earths and Neptune-like planets. To date, HARPS has discovered 24 of the 28 planets known to have masses below 20 Earth masses. Most of the new low-mass planets reside in multi-planet systems, with up to five planets per system.

First installed in 2003, HARPS is able to measure the back-and-forward motions of stars by detecting small changes in a star’s radial velocity--as small as 3.5 km/hour. This precision is crucial for the discovery of exoplanets and the radial velocity method, the most prolific method for searching for exoplanets. The radial velocity method is one which detects small changes in the radial velocity of a star as it wobbles slightly under the gentle gravitiational pull from an unseen orbiting planet.

The achievement of the HARPS observing teams has increased the number of known low-mass planets by 30 percent. As of this latest count, there are roughly 400 known exoplanets. To learn more about the discoveries of HARPS and about exoplanets in general, check out these links:

European Southern Observatory (ESO) October 19 News Release and Images

European Southern Observatory (ESO)

Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia


Monday, October 19, 2009

LCROSS Confirmation of Impact Plume

In Friday, October 16, the mission teams for NASA’s Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) released images covering all phases of the first impact on Friday, October 9. The teams appear to be ecstatic about the quality of the data they are now working with.

The announcement on Friday included the release of several images of the impact plume created by the Centaur upper stage. The images are in visible light and infrared. The plume appeared to measure 6 to 8 kilometers across, as detected by the LCROSS instruments from 600 kilometers above the impact. The data clearly indicates a plume of vapor and fine debris. The brightness of the ejected material appears to be at the low end of the team’s predictions and may provide a clue to the properties of the material that was struck.

LCROSS image taken from 600 km above the surface, taken fifteen seconds after the Centaur upper stage hit the floor of crater Cabeus. The impact plume (circled) measures 6 to 8 km wide. Image Credit: NASA

Nine different instruments aboard LCROSS captured every phase of the Centaur’s impact, from the initial flash, to the debris plume, and even the Centaur’s crater. As LCROSS moved toward the surface, preparing to create the second impact, it continued to return data in the visible, near-infrared and mid-infrared ranges of the spectrum. Excellent images were returned of the Centaur impact crater at a resolution of less than 6.5 feet (2 meters). The images indicate that the new crater measured about 92 feet (28 meters) across.

And yet, with all of the data collected by LCROSS, as well as the space-based and ground-based observing sites, the mission teams aren’t ready to announce whether they observed water ice at the impact site. The recorded data is continuing to undergo a normal scientific review process and NASA will release new information when it becomes available. For more on the LCROSS announcement from October 16, and more on the released images, check out these links:

NASA's Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) Mission

VisibleCamera image of the Centaur impact plume from NASA’s LCROSS Spacecraft

Zoomed-in VisibleCamera image of the Centaur impact plume from NASA’s LCROSS Spacecraft

Mid-Infrared Camera Images of Centaur Impact from NASA’s LCROSS Spacecraft

Near-Infrared Camera Image from NASA’s LCROSS Spacecraft

Centaur Impact Images from NASA’s LCROSS Spacecraft


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jesus Showed Love to Zacchaeus
(Luke 19:1-10)

The basic truths of the Bible can, at times, be the most difficult to practice in our daily lives. Just think about those people you encountered this week who were difficult to love. For that matter, think about those around you this week who might have considered you to be, at least at times, difficult to love. Are you daily showing that you love Jesus?

Luke 19:2 describes Zacchaeus as a chief tax collector in Jericho. Tax collectors were contracted by the Roman government to gather and send money to Rome. As a Jew collecting taxes for the Romans, the occupying government, Zacchaeus quite naturally had a bad reputation among his fellow Jews. Zacchaeus is described as a chief collector, implying that he was responsible for all the taxes of Jericho and that he had other collectors working under him. Zacchaeus' position in itself would have guaranteed him great wealth. But we must understand that the taxing system was open to abuse and extortion was common. Rome required that it get all of its tax, but didn't necessarily mind if its collectors kept extra for themselves in the collection process. We do not know whether Zacchaeus abused the system, but if he had, his position would have given him a greater opportunity to abuse system and gain even more personal wealth.

The people of Jericho heard that Jesus was coming to their town. Like everyone else in Jericho, Zacchaeus wanted to get at least a glimpse of Him. But Zacchaeus had a few things going against him in pursuit of his goal. Firstly, he was short. Secondly he was not well loved by the townspeople. Even so, Zacchaeus persevered. He found a way to see Jesus by climbing a tree near the road. This must have been a humbling and undignified act for Zacchaeus, but doing it suggests that he was motivated by more than just curiosity.

Jesus stopped under the tree and looked up. Since Jesus' disciple Matthew was a tax collector, he may have told Jesus about Zacchaeus. It is also possible that Jesus could have asked someone the name of the person in the tree. Whatever the case, Jesus called Zacchaeus by name and He told Zacchaeus to come down because He was going to stay at Zacchaeus' home that afternoon. Zacchaeus was ecstatic. He came down as fast as he could and gladly welcomed Jesus to his home.

The Bible does not tell us what Jesus and Zacchaeus said and did together, but we can be pretty certain that Jesus communicated love to Zacchaeus. And we can see that Zacchaeus responded to that love. On the spot, Zacchaeus promised to give half of his possessions to the poor. In addition, he would repay out of his remaining half anyone from whom he had stolen. Zacchaeus may have already known that the law required as written in Leviticus 6:5 and Numbers 5:6-7) that anyone who steals must repay and include one-fifth more, or 120 percent. Zacchaeus went way beyond the legal requirement by committing to pay back four times what was stolen, or 400 percent.

Jesus loved Zacchaeus, a man whom others despised. Do you know someone who is difficult to love or like? Ask God to help you show Jesus' love to all that you meet.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Welcome the Orionids

No, I'm not talking about an alien race coming to Earth, though the Orionids are extra terrestrial. This weekend marks the return of the Orionid meteor shower. The Orionids are one of the best annual showers. The others are the Geminids in December and, the king of the annuals, the Perseids in August.
This shower is caused by dust from periodic Comet Halley (1P/Halley), which last came by in 1986. Halley is also responsible for the Eta Aquarid shower in early May. Under very dark skies, meteors from the Orionid shower actually may be visible from the beginning of October through the first week of November. The Orionid shower is very reliable, giving consistent rates each year. Over the duration of the shower the hourly rate gradually rises and then gradually drops off. The maximum lasts from about October 19 through 23, with the peak around the October 21/October 22 (Wednesday night/Thursday morning. At its peak, the shower is projected to produce 25 to 30 meteors per hour. The meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the sky between the constellations Gemini and Orion (RA 06hrs 20min, Dec +15°). This radiating point is called, appropriately enough, the radiant.
This year, the peak falls around a new moon, which sets not long after sunset. This will improve the chances of a good show even in moderately dark skies.
The Orionid shower radiant rises at about 11 p.m. local time and the best viewing should come after local midnight. To best view the Orionid shower, find a reasonably dark location away from city and neighborhood lights. Bring along a lawn chair, deck chair, or even a blanket if you wish. Also bring along a jacket and maybe a warm beverage. You might be amazed how cool it gets when you are sitting or lying still in the darkness for hours at a time. Once you are situated at your observing site, allow enough time for your eyes to adapt to the darkness--about 15 or 20 minutes. This will permit you to see fainter objects. Binoculars are not necessary. Just slowly scan the sky with your own eyes. And enjoy the show!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Astronomy is for Everyone, Part One

Several years back, I wrote for my astronomy club a brochure of sorts on the subject of amateur astronomy and its accessibility to everyone. As time and other events permit, I will revisit that document by installments and bring it up today. I present for you today part one of this journey.

“Astronomy is for the amateur as well as the professional. The amateur can see for himself the sights that stirred Galileo, the Herschels, and other great astronomers. A high-school boy may be the first to see a comet, a rug salesman my discover a nova, and a homemaker can observe and map meteor showers.. An amateur's faithful observations of a variable star may be just the data an observatory needs."
--Adapted from "The Sky Observer's Guide", published by Golden Press, New York.

Anyone can be an amateur astronomer. If you like to gaze at the night sky, you are qualified. The great thing about amateur astronomy is that it's such a portable hobby. The only basic requirements are you and a moderately dark sky. You may increase your enjoyment by learning more about the sky with the help of books and magazines. Binoculars and telescopes allow you to gaze even more deeply in to the wonders of the heavens. Photography is another way that some amateurs enrich their observing experience.

Here is some information on the tools available to you. Please use it to answer your questions, direct your attention, and enhance your enjoyment.

Getting Started

A Basic Guide: The beginning observer should have a book on general astronomy. Even a little knowledge greatly increases the pleasure of observing, and it prepares the observer to undertake real astronomical projects. Golden Press puts out some very good pocket-size books that are ready companions for the beginner and the experienced amateur. The are entitled “The Sky Observer's Guide,” “Stars” and “Planets.” Peterson Field Guides and the National Audubon Society both publish excellent astronomy field guides.

A Planisphere: A planisphere, or star-finding wheel, is part of the kit of every astronomer, from the child to the old pro. They consist of a wheel illustrated with night time objects, attached at the center to a second piece, and covered with a third piece that allows a portion of the wheel to be seen through a circular or oval window. They are usually made of thick paper or cardboard. By turning the wheel to indicate your time and date, the window allows you to see which constellations are in your sky at that moment and where they are located.

Internet Star Charts: The Internet includes many free Web sites that have very good sky chart software applications. If you do not have personal access to the Internet, go to your local library to access these sites. Here are just a few of the many available online. I note these because of my greater experience with them.

Chartes du Ciel / Sky Charts

Heavens Above, hosted by GSOC

Sky and’s Interactive Sky Chart

End of Part One. Look for Part Two in the coming days.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Barnard’s Little Galaxy

On Wednesday, The European Southern Observatory (ESO) released a new image of NGC 6822, also known as Barnard’s Galaxy. It is classified as an irregular dwarf galaxy because of its unusual shape and relatively small size--if a galaxy can be classified in any way as small. NGC 6822 is located about 1.63 million light-years away, in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Because of its relative closeness, NGC 6822 is classified as a member of the Local Group of galaxies—our galactic neighborhood. The galaxy was discovered in 1881 by American amateur-turned-professional astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard (1857 – 1932) using a six-inch refractor telescope. Studying strange galaxies like NGC 6822 help astronomers understand how galaxies interact, evolve and occasionally gobble up each other, leaving behind these galactic crumbs.

NGC 6822, Barnard’s Galaxy, as recorded by the Wide Field Imager attached to the 2.2-meter MPG/ESO telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. Image Credit: ESO

An irregular dwarf galaxy is a dwarf galaxy that lacks any apparent structure or a uniform shape. In recent times astronomers have gradually placed higher and higher importance in the study of irregular dwarf galaxies as a method of understanding the evolution of galaxies in general, because there are so many examples near to our own galaxy. Their study can help us understand important issues such as the occurrence of galactic winds, the chemical enrichment of the interstellar and intergalactic media, and the photometric—brightness—evolution of galaxies. In addition, their low level of evolution, as implied by their low amounts of metals and their high amounts of gases, makes them the most similar to early galaxies and, therefore, the most useful for research into what primordial galaxies may have been like. Some have also suggested that these nearby irregular dwarf galaxies are similar to the many faint blue galaxies seen in deep galaxy counts. To learn more about the ESO’s latest image release, and to learn more about the ESO, check out these links:

NGC 6822, Barnard’s Galaxy, as recorded by the Wide Field Imager attached to the 2.2-meter MPG/ESO telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. Image Credit: ESO

European Southern Observatory