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Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Space Globalization for Astronomy Day 2016

Friday, May 13th, 2016

The Globalization of the Solar System Presentation
The Globalization of the Solar System Presentation

Saturday May 14 I will be speaking at an Astronomy Day event being held at Harper College in Palatine IL. The event is sponsored by Northwest Suburban Astronomers and the Harper College Department of Physical Sciences. This astronomy day event will consist of displays, presentations, hands-on activities for kids, and, weather permitting, telescopic observations of the night sky.

My part in the evening’s activities will be to give my presentation The Globalization of the Solar System which addresses the question of whether or not the economics of globalization can take place with human settlements spread across the solar system. I am speaking at Astronomy Day in my role as President of the Chicago Society for Space Studies, a non-profit promoting space exploration and space development via educational outreach. For more about my space exploration presentations, see Chicago Society for Space Studies Speakers Bureau – Jim Plaxco.

And yes, I have given art related presentations at past astronomy day events, at both this venue and others. My most popular such art talk is The Art of Astronomy which is a historical overview of the development of astronomical art. The take-away from this presentation is that astronomical art has relied more on technological advancement than any other traditional art form (clearly new media art, aka digital art, aka computer art, have all been entirely dependent on technological innovation).

In addition to my own presentation, the Harper College – Northwest Suburban Astronomers Astronomy Day event has the following program items:

  • Things that Go Boom in the Night
  • Craft Projects for Children
  • Einstein Destroys Vulcan!
  • Discovering Our Solar System
  • Pluto Revealed
  • Black Holes
  • T Coronae Borealis: A Recurring Nova
  • The Possibility of Life on Mars and Venus
  • Astro Trivia
  • Eclipse Mania: Observing the 2017 Total Solar
  • Cosmic Time

Astronomy Day activities begin at 5:30pm and are held in Building Z on the Harper College college. For complete details, see the Northwest Suburban Astronomers Astronomy Day page.

Astronomy Day 2016, Harper College, Palatine IL
Astronomy Day 2016, Harper College, Palatine IL

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Orion Nebula Sans Stars Astronomical Art

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Orion Nebula Sans Stars Astronomical Art
Orion Nebula Sans Stars Astronomical Art

Orion Nebula Sans Stars is my newest work of generative astronomical art – created using one of the generative art programs I’ve written. This is actually my second version of this artwork. I was working on the first one, had finished it, keyed in the save command and watched as my program went belly up with an out of memory error. Certainly a problem traditional artists don’t have to deal with. That version of my generative painting was 12000 by 7800 pixels. Restarting I went with a scaled down canvas size of 10200 by 6600 pixels. Upon completion, I held my breath as I entered the save command and let out a sigh of relief once the save successfully completed.

As a long time fan of space and astronomy, I’ve always been fascinated by the visual wonders of our universe and the Orion Nebula has always been a favorite of mine. What is most aesthetically appealing to me is the structure and colors of the dust and gases that comprise the nebula. It is for that reason that I created this version of the nebula without any stars. For me, they’re a distraction. Of course without those stars there wouldn’t be an Orion Nebula.

If you are interested in purchasing an unwatermarked, signed, limited edition print of Orion Nebula Sans Stars, please contact me. Alternatively you can purchase an open edition print of Orion Nebula Sans Stars from Note that the open edition print is 85% of the size of the limited edition version.

About the Orion Nebula

Nebula come in several flavors. The Orion Nebula is an emission nebula meaning it is sort of a neon light in the sky. This is because the gases we are seeing have been radiatively excited by ultraviolet radiation emitted by nearby hot young stars. The Orion Nebula is also referred to as a reflection nebula and a diffuse nebula. The Orion Nebula is about 40 light years wide and is just over 1,300 light years away from us. It’s location in our sky makes it a part of the constellation Orion. In the map of the Orion Constellation below, the Orion Nebula is located at the center of the red circle.

Orion Constellation Skychart Map
Orion Constellation Skychart

At magnitude 4, the Orion Nebula is one of the brightest nebulae in our night sky and is even visible to the naked eye (unless you happen to live in a major city). The Orion Nebula was discovered independently by several astronomers in the 1600’s, the most prominent being Christiaan Huygens. It was given the designation M42 by Charles Messier when he added it to his catalog of objects in 1769.

In closing I must say that the Orion Nebula, minus its stars, makes for a wonderful work of abstract art. What do you think?

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Pluto New Horizons Program Update

Monday, August 31st, 2015

New Horizons mission to Pluto talk
The New Horizons Mission to Pluto

Last week I gave my Pluto – New Horizons presentation to a joint meeting of the Von Braun Astronomical Society and the Huntsville Alabama L5 chapter of the National Space Society. The event was held at the Von Braun Planetarium in Monte Sano State Park, Huntsville AL. In doing this particular presentation I was wearing my NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador hat. I have served as a Solar System Ambassador for a number of years and in that guise give talks about planetary science and the various NASA JPL robotic missions to the planets. In recent years the focus of my space-related outreach activities has been on the subjects of space commercialization and space development. For example, last November I gave a presentation on newSpace at the Gateway to Space conference in St. Louis while in October I served as a panelist for a space exploration symposium held at the Museum of Science and Industry. The subject of that panel was the economics of deep space exploration and was moderated by former NASA astronaut and ATK Flight Systems Group Vice President Charlie Precourt. And, of course, I speak frequently on the subject of digital art and related topics. You can see a list of these presentations on my art lectures and presentations page.

For the most part my presentations are relatively static due to the nature of their subject matter. The changes I do make are primarily to improve the quality of the content and flow of the presentation. My Pluto talk is quite another matter. The challenge I face going forward is that new data and images are going to be regularly released from now until October 2016. This means that the backstory I tell, which serves as a foundation for the science and spacecraft, is going to be continually cut. In fact I can foresee a time when all discussion of the history of planetary science and details about the New Horizons spacecraft will be removed from my presentation in order to make room for the newest images and science results. For my talk at the Von Braun Planetarium I removed about 15 percent of the backstory slides in order to add slides that addressed the newest images and data returned from the New Horizons encounter with Pluto. And the next time I give this talk – at Maker Faire Milwaukee – I’m going to have to cut more background in order to accommodate the new data being released in September.

In order to add some uniqueness to my presentation’s visuals, I created several custom 3D global views of both Pluto and Charon. As sources I used the global cylindrical projection maps of Pluto and Charon released by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I slightly enhanced the contrast and sharpness of the source images, colorized the images, and smoothed out individual image frame borders. I then did something I haven’t done in years – I fired up Bryce and used it to render my globes of Pluto and Charon. I used Bryce because it was the fastest and easiest way to produce simple 3D screen-sized renders.

3D render of Tombaugh Regio, Pluto
3D render of Tombaugh Regio, Pluto (cropped here)

Using custom views turned out to be particularly useful in, for example, highlighting the differences between the eastern and western lobes of Tombaugh Regio. The western lobe of Tombaugh Regio contains Sputnik Planum, which appears to be a reservoir of ices, principally nitrogen (N2), methane(CH4), and carbon monoxide(CO). Sputnik Planum appears to be the source of the ices that thinly veil the eastern lobe of Tombaugh Regio.

Global Map of Pluto
Global Map of Pluto

I also assembled my own annotated map of Pluto that includes feature names and a latitude/longitude grid. I find such maps quite useful in helping the audience understand where features are not just on Pluto/Charon but also in relationship to one another.

In closing, while our knowledge of Pluto and Charon is a work in progress being continually reshaped by the arrival of new data and images, so too is my Pluto talk a work in progress.

Reference Links

Upcoming Pluto Presentations

For Plutophiles(1), I am scheduled to give my Pluto talk two times in September. First up is an abbreviated version for a Rotary Club meeting. Next I will be giving the full talk at Maker Faire Milwaukee held the weekend of Sept. 25-26. In addition, I will also be teaching my class Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs with Processing.

Note 1: According to Wordspy, a plutophile is "a person who likes the dwarf planet Pluto, particularly one who objects to Pluto‚Äôs status as a dwarf planet". While the first half of this definition applies to me, the second half does not. I am one of those folks who supported the IAU’s (International Astronomical Union) decision to reclassify Pluto.

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The Small Stars of Exoplanets

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Exoplanet Stars Smaller Than Sun
Exoplanet Stars As Large As Or Smaller Than Our Sun (Yellow in center of image)

Last month I decided to do a series of paintings of exoplanets. It’s been a while since I’ve done any astronomical art and little of what I’ve done is actually on my web site. A series on exoplanets appealed to me. The complexity of my exoplanet art project has greatly increased since that initial idea.

First I wanted to only paint actual confirmed exoplanets – which meant doing research on specific exoplanets. Fortunately a treasure trove of data is available online. I next began painting some exoplanets. It then occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to paint a number of these exoplanets with the planet’s central star in the field of view. The downside of this approach is that geometry dictates that much of the planet would be in darkness from the observer’s point of view. Still, I decided to proceed. To do this accurately meant that I’d need even more information. Information on the star’s spectral type is needed to accurately represent the star’s color. Information on the planet’s orbital radius and the star’s radius is needed to accurately size the star in the painting. This is even more crucial for planets in binary star systems.

Fortunately the necessary information is widely and freely available. Not only are there multiple star catalogs, there are also multiple exoplanet catalogs from which all the basic data can be obtained. The next step was to integrate the data from the separate catalogs and produce my own unified star/exoplanet database limited to confirmed exoplanets. This integration is still a work in progress.

You will note that I have emphasized confirmed exoplanets. This is because there is a far larger number of exoplanet candidates – a few thousand in fact. A number of these have been found by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, whose mission is to search our Milky Way galaxy for Earth-sized planets in or near their star’s habitable zone

As part of my piecemeal development approach, I exported some of the star data into a csv file. I then wrote a Processing program that would parse the file, create an array of star objects, and do some basic analysis. To test several of the routines, I had the program output some very basic information about the stars:

  • Record count = 910 (note: I did not remove duplicate entries for this run)
  • The most massive star is HD 13189 with a mass 4.5 times greater than the Sun
  • The hottest star is NY Vir with an effective temperature of 33,000.0 Kelvin
  • The largest star is HD 208527 with a radius 51.1 times greater than the Sun’s
  • The smallest star is 2M 0746+20 with a radius 0.089 times the Sun’s

Out of curiosity, I decided to create a routine that would draw all these stars to the same scale. The first and hardest step was to figure out how to automatically draw them – I certainly wasn’t about to manually place them. I developed a modified circle packing algorithm to place the stars on screen without overlapping. Unfortunately given the number of stars and the range of sizes (0.09 to 51 times Sol’s radius) I knew there was no way that I could create a graphic that would easily fit on a web page. So my first pass was to only draw the stars that were no larger than the Sun. This resulted in a drawing of 239 stars the size of our Sun or smaller. Think about that. Out of the 910 stars (some being duplicates) in the file, only 239 are the size of our Sun or smaller. The graphic of these small exoplanet stars is used to illustrate this post. The yellow star at the center of the graphic is Sol – our Sun. My next step will be to add color information so that star color is accurately represented for all the stars.

Given all the research that I am doing on the subject of exoplanets and their stars, I’ve decided to put together a presentation on exoplanets, their stars, and exoplanet search techniques. I’ve proposed the idea of making this a component of a teachers workshop to a contact at Yerkes Observatory. FYI, earlier this year I had the opportunity to participate in a Yerkes teachers workshop dealing with the exploration of Mars. For details, see A Day at Yerkes Observatory: Mars and Astronomical Art

Exoplanet Under Construction

Exoplanet digital painting under construction
Exoplanet digital painting under construction

Above is an example of one of the exoplanet paintings I am working on. You will note the absence of a background (no stars, no nebulaes, etc.) My creative process for my exoplanet series is to first work out the appearance of the exoplanet. Once the exoplanet is complete, I then begin work on the background elements, which includes moon(s), central star(s), distant stars, and any nebula.

Exoplanet Resources

Following are links to some exoplanet resources if you would like to explore this topic further.

I’ll close with a bit of levity courtesy of Douglas Adams and his The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy wherein master planet builder Slartibartfast informs a thoroughly befuddled Arthur Dent: "Earthman, the planet you lived on was commissioned, paid for, and run by mice."

Until next time, happy planet hunting. Jim.

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NewSpace Frontier and Astronomy Day

Monday, April 15th, 2013

NewSpace Frontier
The NewSpace Frontier

This Saturday is Astronomy Day and once again I will be giving a presentation as a part of the Harper College Astronomy Day activities. The principal sponsor of the event is the Northwest Suburban Astronomers and is cosponsored by the Harper College Department of Physical Sciences. I’m a regular speaker at this event and in recent years have given presentations on The Art of Astronomy, Art and the Exploration of Space, Imaging Mars, and The Universe According to Monty Python.

This year my presentation will be The NewSpace Frontier in which I look at the history of private and commercial space and rocketry activities, the key players today, and the challenges facing this emerging 21st century industry. Of particular concern to me is the possible emergence of an overbearing regulatory environment (ITAR for example). Quoting Patti Grace Smith, former Associate Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation: "Don’t over regulate this industry. If we regulate the industry the way certification would require – all the vehicles to be certified, with all the tests and costs – the industry will never get off the ground.". Also of concern is NASA’s willingness to support rather than stifle this new paradigm of space exploration.

Some of the space businesses I’ll be talking about include Armadillo, Bigelow, Deep Space Industries, Golden Spike, Mojave Air and Space Port, Moon Express, NASTAR, Orbital Sciences, Planetary Resources, Reaction Engines, Scaled Composites, Sierra Nevada, Space Adventures, Spaceport America, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and XCor.

There will of course be space art in my presentation as space art plays a crucial role in helping people visualize the rockets, spacecraft, space stations, and Moon and Mars bases that the various players envision as a part of our future in space.

As to what hat I’ll be wearing when giving this presentation: while I am a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador, because I’ll be talking about commercial space and some of the associated politics I can not rightly wear that hat. While billed as a former director of National Space Society for the same presentation which I’m giving a week later at the Winnetka Library, I am not speaking as a representative of National Space Society nor do my views necessarily mirror those of NSS. As President and principal spokesperson for the Chicago Society for Space Studies, I can’t claim to represent the views of that organization. So I’ll be speaking simply as a private citizen who is very interested in seeing our new commercial space enterprises prosper and grow.

In case you can’t attend Astronomy Day, I’ll next be giving my The NewSpace Frontier presentation at the Winnetka Library on Sunday April 28. Details of both events follow.

As to why I care about such things, I offer you the following excerpt from the close of the short story The Sentinel written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1948 and upon which the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was based:

Perhaps you understand now why that crystal pyramid was set upon the Moon instead of on the Earth. Its builders were not concerned with races still struggling up from savagery. They would be interested in our civilization only if we proved our fitness to survive – by crossing space and so escaping from the Earth, our cradle. That is the challenge that all intelligent races must meet, sooner or later.

Astronomy Day, Harper College

Saturday, April 20th – 5:30pm to 9:00pm
Harper College, Building Z
1200 W. Algonquin Road
Palatine, IL 60067
NSA Astronomy Day Information

NewSpace Frontier Presentation

The Winnetka-Northfield Library, with the support of the NSS Illinois North Shore, the Chicago Space Frontier L5 Society, and the Chicago Society for Space Studies will host The NewSpace Frontier presentation that explores the exciting world of newspace. The presentation will be given by CSSS President Jim Plaxco.
IMPORTANT:The library is requiring that attendees register for this program as it begins before the library opens that day so please take the time to
Register with the library to attend
Note I have been told that Chicago Society for Space Studies members who show up without having registered will be able to attend.

Sunday, April 28, 2013 from 11:30am to 12:45pm
Winnetka-Northfield Public Library
768 Oak Street
Winnetka, IL 60093
(847) 446-7220
Winnetka-Northfield Library

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Comet Spotting: Pan-STARRS

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Comet Pan-STARRS from Schaumburg IL
Comet Pan-STARRS as viewed from Schaumburg IL, 3/13/13

Last night I headed to an artificial hill constructed by the Schaumburg Park District that is probably the highest ground location relative to the surroundings within a 20 minute drive of my home. From that outdoor perch I had hopes of seeing Comet Pan-STARRS.

I was in place observing at about 20 minutes after sunset – about 7:20pm. Pan-STARRS would be setting at 8:18pm so I had one hour to hunt. I had not brought binoculars with me – only my camera. Almost as annoying as the bright sky was the cold. Standing in an exposed position on the top of a hill in 20 degree weather is not my cup of tea.

I looked to the horizon with some trepidation. The combination of haze and horizon glow made for a very bright sky. And street lights in the foreground didn’t help. The only celestial object I could see on the western horizon was the Moon. Below the Moon, nothing. No stars, no Mars – just glow. With a magnitude of 0.9 (the magnitude of Mars is a slightly dimmer 1.2) I has serious doubts as to whether or not I would see Pan-STARRS.

A couple times I thought I detected it using averted vision but in hindsight I think it was unlikely. Over the course of my observing I would periodically take a slightly overexposed photograph to see if I could find Pan-STARRS with my camera. I saw nothing.

Hands numb, I packed up my camera and tripod at 8:15pm and headed home. Popping my camera’s SD card into the computer I was elated to see Comet Pan-STARRS. Once I had the RAW file opened in Photoshop, I duplicated the background layer and set the duplicate layer’s blend mode to multiply. This darkened the sky significantly while leaving the comet’s brightness unchanged – thus greatly increasing the degree of contrast between the comet and the background sky.

A cropped full resolution section of the processed source photograph is used to illustrate this story. You can view the entire photograph here:
Full resolution processed source photograph of Comet Pan-STARRS
In the photo, taken at 7:58pm, you can see just how close Pan-STARRS was to the horizon. The fact that it was almost directly above a street light certainly made it more difficult for my eyes to see it. In the linked photograph, Pan-STARRS as well as a few of the brighter stars are identified with their name appearing slightly above and to the right of the associated object. Here is a link to the star chart I used for identifying the stars in the photograph:
Star chart showing Pan-STARRS on March 13 from Schaumburg IL

Hopefully there will be clear skies this Saturday at Yerkes Observatory and hopefully I’ll be able to find the time to observe Pan-STARRS from that location. The timing will be difficult as I am slated to give a presentation from 7:15 to 7:45pm – prime time for observing Pan-STARRS. Wish me luck.

Ad Astra, Jim

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