Orion StarMax 127Welcome to our WordPress astronomy page . At Summitlake.com, we’ve picked up old school-days interests in amateur astronomy. From our Astronomy Department page, follow our learning experiences, mistakes, and occasional good photographs. We’ll kick this off with observations on Casseiopaea soon. Enjoy!

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This is the Astronomy page, not the Commentary page. This article deals with a subject dear to the worlds of both science and faith. Our Constitution supports both freedom of religion, and separation of church and state, and I, a “nonbeliever,” support each in this discussion and elsewhere.

The idea of a Genesis, or creation story, seems to have its roots in the predawn of mankind. After that, scholars and archaeologists unearthed written documents going back, in some cases, several thousand years.

Those earliest writings bore little relation to the much later King James Genesis most of us know today, or to the earlier Hebrew Bereishit (Genesis). One uniqueness that distinguishes the “new” creation stories from the really archaic versions is their description of something being created out of nothing.

Physics.org is interested in this too:


The universe may have existed forever, according to a new model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The model may also account for dark matter and dark energy, resolving multiple problems at once.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-02-big-quantum-equation-universe.html#jCp

I got interested in this Genesis angle after examining the proposed new “No Big Bang” model for the birth of the universe. A universe without beginning or end? It’s not proven mathematically or theoretically, and peer review will be merciless.

But it does revive haunting metaphysical questions arising out of Big Bang or Son of Big Bang: Is a “singularity” anything? How can something be created out of nothing? Or can it indeed?

Genesis? How do we justify THAT? For scientifically-oriented people like me, that’s always been just a lovely metaphor, in fact my favorite part of the OT when I read it as a youngster.

I wanted to remember what Genesis actually SAID. I admit to a shock when I went back to read it anew!

Genesis 1 King James Version para 1-4 (the Hebrew text is identical here).

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Let’s refer to the artist’s model depiction of the creation, development and expansion of the universe in its first 13.8 billion years. We can identify, measure and describe each of the four stages depicted in Genesis.

1a. Big Bang: Inflation, Afterglow

2a. Big Bang: Dark Ages

3a. Big Bang: 1st Stars

4a. Big Bang: Development of Galaxies, Planets, Dark Energy, Accelerated Expansion.

We can see that before Inflation, the universe was dark and without form (so far as we can know). We can see the stars divided light from the darkness, and all of what followed that we observe, measure and chart in the night skies.

We might just replace the biblical word “earth” with “universe.” No one can hold it against iron age mankind that they saw a time frame of “The Seventh Day” instead of our billions of years, spectral red-shifts, and Hubble’s billions of light-years.

For those of us who’re not religious, isn’t it striking how close to “getting it right” sequentially the drafters of Genesis actually came? Our twenty-first-century scientific advances, which make it so easy for us to interpret a customized and vetted physical timeline of the universe, were not even know to mankind when I was a youth in 1950. Those early civilizations had nothing but their eyes and minds to infer a logical sequence of events.

It would be cheap to play the Hollywood “cast of thousands of men and animals” card. God did NOT guide Charlton Heston’s hand in manuscripting Genesis, into what some might be tempted to call an astounding, supernaturally inspired coincidence.

Some are compelled by faith to see Genesis as divinely inspired. I see the power of the mind of man to infer and forge measurable order out of the unknown and chaotic.

For those of us who are religious, can we not be filled with a sense of awe that our spiritual forebears saw so clearly a right design in the night sky, nature and the firmament? Would this God create an inexplicable design that defied all other laws of His universe? I would certainly expect that logical consistency would not represent a problem for a Creator, even as it appears so inexplicable to some of his creatures. Let’s leave it to theologians to prove or disprove my postulate that a moody, irascible, helter-skelter Creator would be a logical contradiction solely of mankind’s making.

NASA states: “Supernovas signal the destruction of an entire star and can be so bright that they outshine the whole galaxy where they are found. Supernovas are extremely important for cosmic ecology because they inject huge amounts of energy into the interstellar gas, and are responsible for dispersing elements such as iron, calcium and oxygen into space where they may be incorporated into future generations of stars and planets.”

We might each do well to pause for reflection again that, whether by divine intervention or nucleosynthesis, we are all, quite literally, children of the stars. If by God, it would seem blasphemous to declare that such a deity could not have both created it in the grand fashion our astrophysicists describe and measure, yet still have left us, an inquisitive and bright mankind of His own design, with an audit trail and the faculties to follow it.

Personally, I find comfort in the fact that the mathematics would be the same in either case.


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Dawn of the New Year

Sunrise from ISS
Sunrise from International Space Station, NASA Image of the Day, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011. NASA caption reads, “… astronaut Ron Garan used a high definition camera to film one of the sixteen sunrises astronauts see each day. This image shows the rising sun as the station flew along a path between Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina.” Click image to view or download from NASA original post.

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Exoplanets Are Planets Too!

My first reaction was, “Oh no, not again!” I always maintained Pluto was a “planet,” no matter how the IAU redefined it in 2006. Are we going to revive that old trope again?

In the August 2013 Sky and Telescope, in an article of the same name, veteran writer David Grinspoon does just that, but with a new twist. “Recent discoveries have exposed the absurdity of the IAU’s planet definition.”

Well, of course! How did we miss the obvious? With recent discoveries of huge numbers of planets orbiting other suns, we are calling them “planets.” We can’t call them “dwarf planets” because those will be too small for current detection methods for quite some time to come.

But according to the IAU definition, the very first requirement of a celestial body be that it “(a) is in orbit around the sun.”

What the hell were they thinking?

An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician are shown a pasture with a herd of sheep, and told to put them inside the smallest possible amount of fence. The engineer is first. He herds the sheep into a circle and then puts the fence around them, declaring, “A circle will use the least fence for a given area, so this is the best solution.” The physicist is next. She creates a circular fence of infinite radius around the sheep, and then draws the fence tight around the herd, declaring, “This will give the smallest circular fence around the herd.” The mathematician is last. After giving the problem a little thought, he puts a small fence around himself and then declares, “I define myself to be on the outside!”

Even this WordPress blog post is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you’ll pardon the terrible metaphor. Defining something so that it meets a predetermined selection criteria you need it to match is an ancient malady, and it’s not confined to religion and politics.

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Iron Oxide on Mars

If Mars has all that rust, where did the oxygen come from? We call Mars the “Red Planet” because it has iron oxide – LOTS of it. Where did it come from? Scientists believe both Earth and Mars got most of its surface iron oxides from meteor bombardment about 4 billion years ago. Why does Mars have so much more of it?

BBC has done interesting documentaries on stromatolites, large living bacterial beach “rock” formations we can still see and investigate in Australia. According to this theory, these cyanobacteria use a primitive photosynthesis to generate Earth’s earliest oxygen. This started oxidizing particulate meteorite iron dust suspended in the oceans, converting it to rust, which settled to the ocean bed and was sequestered there. When free iron particles were essentially used up, oxygen could then start accumulating in our atmosphere … paving the way for higher Earth life forms.

Mars seems once to have had copious water. Could it have also had cyanobacteria? Is that how Mars got all its iron oxide?

Well, according to another theory I found on starryskies.com, Martian oceans simply rusted all that meteoric iron away. Of course, if this is the full explanation, we don’t need the stromatolite theory at all to account for iron oxides on either planet.

I found a third theory on BioEd Online. It suggests the answer is not that simple. Researchers have been able to show that Earth’s powerful gravitational field generates enough pressure and heat to melt iron oxide, in effect smelting oxygen out of it, and allowing it to sink into the molten core. Theoretical calculations show smaller Mars could not have generated the required compressional pressures. This would account for Earth’s huge liquid iron core and the powerful dynamo generating our planet’s magnetic field, in turn protecting our atmosphere from the solar radiation that we expect blasted most of the unprotected Martian atmosphere away.

If all goes well, our new robotic explorer Curiosity will safely descend to the Martian surface at 1:31 a.m. Monday Aug. 6 EDT (0531 GMT) – about 10:30PM Sunday night, Pacific time. Facebook has a Curiosity page, and NASA/JPL will have a “live” feed on UStream’s Curiosity Cam. Curiosity will not broadcast photos until it finishes all its own internal checks. The first photos will be black and white, with color plates following on later transmissions.  Remember, there’s currently a 14 minute radio signal delay between Mars and Earth.

I plan to try to stay up to see if the mission is successful. As for our iron oxide questions, it often turns out in science there is not just one “right” contributory answer. It will be interesting to see what mysteries Curiosity can solve.

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Will Earth Perish by Fire, Ice or Black Hole?

On last night’s news, veteran PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill interviewed a prominent astronomer to solicit comment on the recent discovery of two enormous black holes hiding in the bright central bulges of the giant elliptical galaxies NGC 3842 and NGC 4889.

The scientific news itself went “viral,” being picked up on BBC, The New York Times, Huffington and elsewhere that I can recall, as well as in the scientific journals. The Sky & Telescope article is much more oriented toward readers who are already familiar with cosmological objects and distances. It can be picked up at this link.

You can also read the PBS transcript of Ifill’s interview with Chung-Pei Ma. Ma is professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. She appeared visibly constrained by the problem of how to explain these concepts to a general viewing television audience.

But the item here concerns Gwen’s question to Chung-Pei Ma. Presumably Gwen had done her homework and knew the answer, but most viewers might not:

[quote]GWEN IFILL: Nearby, but not a threat? I mean, we’re not — you’re talking about black holes that suck in light and gases and everything in its path, but we’re not in its path?”[/quote]

Ma tried to explain, in lay terms, why not. Breaking this question apart, the salient components of a better answer would be:

  • how far out do the effects of these monster black holes reach?
  • how far away are we now?
  • how long in years could an approach to within their spheres of gravitational influence take?


  • Both galaxies in question are about 300 million light years away.
  • “For NGC 3842’s central monster, the team found a mass between 7 and 13 billion Suns; for NGC 4889 the range is much bigger: 6 to 37 billion solar masses” [Sky & Telescope].
  •  In other words, each black hole’s estimated bulk suggested it had already swallowed the mass equivalent of an entire “ordinary” galaxy.
  • The “event horizon” of each black hole – the boundary inside of which even light cannot escape the black hole’s unimaginable gravitational field – is estimated at around 3 to 5 solar system diameters.
  • Our Solar System has a diameter of about 0.001 light year. To put this into some kind of perspective, our Milky Way galaxy has a diameter of about 100,000 light years.


  • So, our Milky Way (which has a large black hole of its own) is about 3,000 Milky Way diameters away from NGC 3842 and NGC 4889.
  • Looking at the second illustration in the Sky & Telescope article, and the companion text, it appears that only the the motion of stars within 1,000 light years of their black holes NGC 3842 and NGC 4889 are affected by the nearby dark monsters.
  • We are 300,000 times further way than that.

Devil’s Advocate:

But … but … supposing some cataclysmic upheaval were to propel our solar system, or our planet, toward those monster black holes? How long might it take for them to tear us apart? How fast could an “object” like us move in that direction?

Obviously, we’d have to move really fast.

  • Let’s disregard the fact that any catastrophic event powerful enough to do that would also undoubtedly shred Earth to dust, if not elemental gases.
  • A supernova explosion of our Sun might propel an expanding sphere of gases and dust outward at 11 million miles an hour, though it’s a fact our Sun is way too small to go supernova.
  • According to a Stanford article  “THE MYSTERY OF THE FASTEST MOVING STAR STILL PUZZLING,” they mention a candidate speed in this question: “How do you accelerate 2.7 octillion tons (27 followed by 26 zeros) from a standstill to over 1,800 kilometers per second, about one- half of one percent of the speed of light? That could be as fast as 4 million miles per hour.”

So, even at the catastrophic speed of one percent of the speed of light (give or take), hurtling straight toward either of those two monster black holes, it would take us something like 30,000 million years to reach a destination 300 million light years distant. The universe is currently 13.7 billion years old. Cosmologists think it might be good for another 10 or 20 billion years or so before perishing in fire, or ice, or whatever.

In short: since 30,000 million years is 30 billion years, the universe may not even exist by the time a battered Earth arrives at NGC 3842 and NGC 4889 at the improbably high speed of only one percent of the speed of light. Any slower than that, we’d never arrive, nor would there be any destination to arrive to. I don’t think we have to worry about it too much.

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Hubble Directly Images Black Hole Accretion Disk

For the full story see the NASA Hubble site: NASA/ESA managed to combine the powerful Hubble Space Telescope with the incredible sling-shot magnification of gravitational lensing to produce what appears to be mankind’s first visible-light image of an accretion disk. .


[quote]An international team of astronomers has used a new technique to study the bright disc of matter surrounding a faraway black hole. Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, combined with the gravitational lensing effect of stars in a distant galaxy [1], the team measured the disc’s size and studied the colours (and hence the temperatures) of different parts of the disc. These observations show a level of precision equivalent to spotting individual grains of sand on the surface of the Moon.[/quote]

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More on Interstellar Time and Distance

Maybe you’re feeling fed up with the economy, being out of work for two years, global warming, a dysfunctional congress, the UK rioting, and the current political campaign lineups. Are you thinking it’s nearly time for mankind to journey to the stars for a fresh start? It doesn’t look like we’re quite ready for prime time.

I updated my time and distance spreadsheet on my November 10, 2010 Astronomy posting “Interstellar Time and Distance.” This came about thanks to a reader question about distances and times from the Orion Nebula (M42). That calculation has enough steps that I fluffed them on my PC calculator. So I redid the spreadsheet, adding Neptune and Orion M42 to the range. For good measure, and comparison of the vast difference between interstellar and intergalactic travel distances, I also added the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).

If Pioneer kept chugging along at 132,000 miles per hour to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, it wouldn’t get there for almost 30,000 years. Scientists think we may attain higher speeds around 0.1% of the speed of light within the next century. This might enable future space travelers to get to the Orion Nebula in only 1.2 million years. Better stick to Alpha Centauri at 3,900 years, which will be do-able, though at enormous energy, construction and human cost.

If a colonization team left now for Alpha Centauri, and another left in year 2111, the second team would probably arrive about 26,000 years before the slower first team!

But you’re thinking, “we’ll have Star Wars technology by then.” Unless we discover real live Wormholes and figure out how to survive that transit and predict the destination, travel at even 10% of the speed of light would get us to Alpha Centauri in about 42 years. That would be nice, but it’s still pure science fiction.

Light from our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda Galaxy, takes 2.5 million years to get here. There’s absolutely no use in even speculating: we’d need at least 25 million years travel time to get there!

Best we just spread more marmalade on the breakfast toast and ponder how we’ll get through the 2012 elections …

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NASA: Bright Are Saturn’s Moons

If you don’t already know about NASA’s Image of the Day program, you can follow the link below to their page and add your email app or social media to their RSS feed through the page’s Connect tab.

You can download stunning images daily in a choice of image sizes.

Below: “The Cassini spacecraft observed three of Saturn’s moons set against the darkened night side of the planet in this image from April 2011.” NASA. Pictured are Rhea, Enceladus and Dione.

link: view here

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Is Reality Digital or Analog?

I stumbled across this question in a Scientific American RSS feed. Does it really ask what it seems to? Unfortunately, that seems to be the case. This is what happens when you let a bunch of physicists loose in a sandbox and ask them to define it.

I have to be careful in framing my criticism of the real question posed here, since I lack any credible qualifications for judging questions of quantum mechanics. What I submit instead is that the “definition” of reality does not fall within the jurisdiction of the laws of quantum mechanics (whatever those turn out to be), any more than the glorious majesty of Half Dome or the Grand Canyon falls within the jurisdiction of the traffic court division of the Superior Court of California, County of Kern.

To my thinking, the question as framed is meaningless. Is the Empire State Building incandescent or fluorescent? How many angels can sit on the head of a pin? Continue reading

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Interstellar Time & Distance

In this Sunday’s comic strip “Beetle Bailey”, the dumbest guy in Camp Swampy asks the smartest questions, and nobody knows the answers. Zero: “Boy! I’d like to visit one of those stars.” Sarge: “It would take you years to travel through space to get to one of them.” Exactly. But how long would that really take?

Beetle Bailey by Mort Walker
Continue reading

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