Happy New Year!

As you can probably tell from the dramatic decline in posting frequency (besides the weekly picture) 2009 turned out to be a pretty busy year for me. I'm not really making any resolutions this year but it is certainly a goal of mine to be able to blog more (here and at other sites I run).

It's kind of hard to believe 2010 is here. I felt the same way 2001, and in both cases I'm disappointed that we're not at the technological level that Arthur C. Clarke imagined for us. Although we did at least crash the Galileo spacecraft into Jupiter to prevent it from ever possibly crashing into Europa. You know, just in case - "All these world are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there." :)

Here's to a happy and productive 2010!

Picture of the Week #72

Crescent moon and Venus. August 2005.

Picture of the Week #70

Large group of sunspots as imaged by the SOHO spacecraft

I seriously hope this means that 2010 will see an increase in sunspot activity. I'm really getting tired of showing a blank white circle to field trip groups coming to see our solar telescope!

Picture of the Week #66

Part of the Andromeda Galaxy, taken with the Prime Focus Camera on the 30-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory in 1997 (AASTRA participants took the images and then I combined them into the final color image you see here.)

Picture of the Week #63

Jupiter and the shadow of Callisto from the 16-in reflector at Robert Lee Moore Hall. October 14, 2009.

Picture of the Week #60

Jupiter photographed with my Canon point-and-shoot held to the eyepiece of the 16-inch reflector that I run public viewing nights on. Septemeber 30, 2009 at 9:45 p.m. CDT

Picture of the Week #59

Mercury as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft during its fly-by yesterday.

More information on this image

I was following the fly-by on Twitter yesterday, but I missed some of the drama of the spacecraft going into safe mode until I got home from work. It turns out that some of the data was lost, but the ultimate goal of the fly-by was a gravity assist, which worked fine. The spacecraft will actually go in to orbit in March 2011, but during the three Messenger fly-bys we've already seen parts of Mercury that have never been imaged up-close before. Only about 40% of Mercury was imaged by the Mariner 10 spacecraft in 1974 and 75, so there is still a lot to learn about this little planet!


The second and third watermelons chucked off the roof of my building today:

How things have changed

I was looking for a photo the other day and came across this one of my desk in my office at UT from around 1996:

And here is the same desk now:

There is actually a large CPU under the desk, which is what the monitor is attached to (it's not connected to my laptop). A BIG change from that old Mac II Plus!

Picture of the Week #58

The Very Large Array in New Mexico. Photo March 1993.

The astronomy undergrad group I was part of as a student stopped at the VLA as part of a spring break tour of the southwest we did in 1993. We got a nice tour of the control room, including going up the very same stairwell Jodie Foster runs up after the detection of the message signal in Contact!

So long summer!

... and don't let the door hit you on the way out! We didn't hit the record for most 100F+ days (fell one short), but the average temp was the highest on record for Austin - 89.1. The scary thing is that is an average of the high and low!

Although it will definitely still be warm from time to time for the remainder of the year, the worst is finally over. Right on cue for the first day of fall, we had a nice cold front come through central Texas and drop the afternoon (yes AFTERNOON) temperature in to the mid-60s. I've always loved fall, in part because the summers in Texas can be so brutal and the relief from that first cool-down is almost indescribable. Unfortunately we don't get a huge amount of fall color here because of the dominant types of trees - one of these days I'm going to treat myself to a "leaf peeper" trip to New England in the fall - but it is still a nice season in Texas.

Maybe now I'll get that little extra spark of energy that usually comes with the cooler temperatures and get some more blogging done! I've got some material saved for a new "occasional series" now that the entertaining spam subject headings have dried up. :)

Picture of the Week #56

Skeleton of Buettneria at the American Museum of Natural History in New York

From the information plaque:

One of the large temnospondyls that lived in the Triassic of North America was Buettneria. This animal, with its large toothed skull and small limbs, may have been a lurking aquatic predator, similar to modern crocodiles. Buettneria must have been successful, because its fossils and those of its close relatives are found throughout North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. This skeleton is a composite (made up of more than one individual), and is one of the few actual skeletons of Buettneria mounted for display.

AMNH 2994, collected at Herring Ranch, Potter County, Texas; received in exchange from the Panhandle Plains Museum, 1955.

Buettneria Lived about 225 million years ago

Picture of the Week #55

M8 - The Lagoon Nebula, taken with the Prime Focus Camera on the 30-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory in 1998 (AASTRA participants took the images and then I combined them into the image you see here).

Picture of the Week #54

Amelia Earhart's leather flight coat. Air and Space Museum (downtown), September 2006.

Picture of the Week #52

The dome of the telescope on Painter Hall on the University of Texas campus.

This is the older of the two telescopes on our campus. The telescope dates to the 1930s and the lens is over 100 years old. The green color of the dome is from the patina on copper, like the Statue of Liberty.

Picture of the Week #50

Part of the Peekskill Meteorite. American Museum of Natural History, Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites, August 2006.

This is a fragment of one of the more famous meteorites to fall to earth. It is well-known for two reasons - first, it was caught on video (since it conveniently entered our atmosphere during high school football games!) and second, because it hit a woman's car.

I *knew* this weather was driving me crazy

I had a conversation with a few people a couple of weeks ago and I hypothesized that the endless heat and lack of clouds was causing a form of the seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that usually is associated with cold northern climates in winter. Well... this article came through Twitter from the Austin American Statesman today:

Meltdown! If you think the heat is making you crazy, you're probably right By Helen Anders AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Tuesday, July 28, 2009
A University of Arizona study found that the hotter it is, the more likely you are to honk your car horn at somebody (and, one must assume, the more likely that person is to return a salute of his or her own.)

And a University of Michigan study concluded that the hotter it is, the more Major League Baseball batters get hit by pitches.

We don't need a study to tell us that heat prompts us to make excuses for practically everything. "It's too hot," we say, to work out, cook, walk the dog, join a friend for lunch, shop ... you name it.

What we're suffering from here is cabin fever on the scale of a North Dakotan winter. We hunker down in the air conditioning. We emerge only to get into our cars, turn on the air conditioning, go to our air-conditioned jobs, return home and re-hunker.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness calls the syndrome seasonal affective disorder, whose acronym is the highly apt SAD. Most cases happen in winter, but the alliance says 10 percent happen in the summer. People get depressed, can't sleep, don't want to eat and get all agitated.
Full article

Picture of the Week #48

The Rosetta Stone. British Museum, May 1998.

This week is the 210th anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt. When you visit the British Museum now, the stone is in an upright glass case, which is nice because you can see all of the stone now. But of course, you can't surreptitiously touch it any more. ;)

Picture of the Week #47

Section of a mission control console from the Apollo era at the “To the Moon” exhibition at the LBJ Library. April 2009.

Picture of the Week #46

Mercury Capsule "Big Joe". National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, September 2006.

From the information plaque:

Height: 2.9 m (9 ft. 4 in.)
Weight: 1,159 kg (2,555 lb)

On September 9, 1959, NASA launched this unmanned Mercury spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a suborbital flight that lasted 13 minutes. It was the second Mercury launch and the first using an Atlas booster. The flight helped NASA evaluate the booster, the new ablative heat shield (designed to burn away during reentry to dissipate heat), the capsule's flight dynamics and aerodynamic shape, and spacecraft recovery systems and procedures.

The heavily instrumented "Big Joe" was the most massive American spacecraft launched up to that time. Its internal design was different from the manned version, but its success paved the way for the beginning of manned Mercury launches in 1961.

A room with a view

A few weeks ago I was at an all-day retreat for the Staff Council (I represent Astronomy and McDonald Observatory staff) at the football stadium. We got to use some of the luxury boxes as break-out rooms, so I snapped a photo.

Picture of the Week #45

M20 - The Trifid Nebula taken with the Prime Focus Camera on the 30-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory in 1998 (AASTRA participants took the images and then I combined them into the image you see here).

Picture of the Week #44

Mammatus clouds in Texas

I took this photo after some rough weather a few years back. They weren't as bumpy as classic mammatus clouds anymore at this point, but still pretty cool looking.

More fun with screen captures

As promised, here are the screen caps from another Simpsons take on Tudor history this season. The plot of this one was basically The Simpsons' take on "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" with Selma as Elizabeth I, Homer as Sir Walter Raleigh and Marge as Bess Throckmorton.

Picture of the Week #42

Galaxy M81 in Ursa Major taken with the Prime Focus Camera on the 30-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory in 1998 (AASTRA participants took the images and then I combined them into the image you see here).

Picture of the Week #41

The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. August 2006.

Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo of the ID plaque with this critter, so I'm not sure what species it is. I think (based on what I could get from the museum's website) that this is a juvenile Plioplatecarpus.

Fun with screen captures

First, two shots from "Cosmos" showing how my main interests in life - Astronomy/Science and Tudor History - can sometimes combine in interesting ways.

In this episode, Sagan is in a hall in Cambridge and you can sometimes see the portraits on the wall behind him, including a giant one of Henry VIII (top) and one with Mary I (bottom). The episode would have been filmed sometime in the late 1970s, so I'm not sure if these portraits are in the same place now. The one of Mary I looks like the portrait done by Antonio Mor, which is now in the Prado in Spain, I believe. However, it is possible (or even probable) that this is a copy. The painting of Henry is one of many of that same style, so I'm not sure which particular one it may be.

There also appears to have been a Tudor thing going on at "The Simpsons" lately. They did a great send-up of Henry VIII a few years back, but in a recent episode, Homer decides to help Bart build a matchstick Westminster Abbey and has some weird dreams when he falls asleep trying to finish it. Because it was Westminster Abbey, Henry VII got a mention, even though Homer accidentally carves an effigy of Henry VI (and it really was Henry VI when they briefly showed it - I was impressed!), but I couldn't resist a screen shot of Homer on his tomb (I guess Elizabeth of York didn't make it into Homer's dream):

And Anne of Cleves (the only of Henry VIII's wives to be buried at the Abbey) and Chaucer float along to talk to Homer:

They could have gone with some better known Tudor-era figures - Mary I, Elizabeth I or Mary Queen of Scots, but instead we get mentions of Henry VII, an image of Henry VI and a talking Anne of Cleves. Interesting!

There was also some Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh stuff in another episode this season, so I'll have to grab some screen caps from that as well.

Picture of the Week #39

"Earthrise" painting by astronaut Alan Bean at the “To the Moon” exhibition at the LBJ Library. April 2009.

Picture of the week #38

Jules Verne's "De la Terre a la Lune" ("From the Earth to the Moon") at the "To the Moon" exhibition at the LBJ Library. April 2009.

Pigs in Space!

Originally uploaded by Rhubarble
The original "spam in a can" - a drawing for a pig capsule from the "To The Moon" exhibit currently over at the LBJ Library

Here's my Flickr set from the exhibit (including a few photos from the rest of the library, which I hadn't been to in a long time!)

Picture of the Week #36

Amelia Earhart's flying license, signed by Orville Wright. Photo April 2009.

Yesterday I finally went over and saw the "To The Moon" exhibition at the LBJ library here on campus. There is a nice collection of early astronomical materials, early flight stuff and human space exploration memorabilia. I took a lot of photos (with no flash, so I really love my image stabilization feature right now) and will post them on my Flickr site soon. Some of the astronomical stuff will be on display later this year over at the Harry Ransom Center as part of the International Year of Astronomy. I'm really looking forward to seeing some of the Herschel papers and items that will be on display!