Astronomy Goes Old School – REALLY Old School

[Left: Medieval scholars learn how to use a cardboard astrolabe at the 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI; Right: CCSU Students in a Cultural Astronomy class learn how to use astrolabes]

Astronomy has rightly been called the oldest science. From using the phases of the moon to record the passage of time and make calendars to monitoring the position of the sun at sunrise to determine the summer solstice, humans have been studying the heavens throughout recorded history. Technology such as the telescope and sensitive cameras (not to mention space probes!) has greatly enhanced our ability to understand the universe around us. But one particular type of astronomical technology is decidedly old school – really old school! The origins of the astrolabe are lost to history, but probably date back to around the 6th century CE. Part calculator, part star map, part surveying and navigational tool, and part work of art, the astrolabe has been used for centuries to calculate the time from the position of the sun or stars, estimate one’s latitude, and measure the heights of buildings and trees, among other uses. Although they were largely replaced by more “modern” technologies by the 18th century, they are still an excellent tool that can be used to teach basic astronomical concepts, as well as demonstrate the close connections between astronomy, history, art, and religion (as they were used to calculate prayer times by both Christians and Muslims in medieval times).

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[So-called Chaucer Astrolabe in the British Museum]

I have greatly enjoyed teaching students how to use simple cardboard astrolabes, both in a Cultural Astronomy course as well as as a guest lecturer in a Medieval History class, as well as giving lectures and workshops at other universities and numerous conferences. If you ever get the chance, peruse the astrolabe collections at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the Oxford University Museum of the History of Science. I have been fortunate to have seen both these collections in person and they are quite simply out of this world!

— Kris Larsen

Kudos to Kepler for a Job Well Done!

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[The Kepler Space Telescope Main Mission’s 4000+ exoplanet haul!]

NASA recently announced the final planet-finding tally for the main mission of the Kepler Space Telescope: a whopping 2335 verified planets outside our solar system and another 1699 candidate planets yet to be verified. Among these 4000+ potential planets are 49 potentially habitable bodies – rocky planets about the size of earth that inhabit the so-called Goldilocks Zone of their star (you know, not too hot, not too cold, just right!)

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[Exoplanet discoveries by year (does not include recent Kepler announcement)]

Take a minute and consider what this means. When I started teaching at CCSU back in 1989 there were NO planets known orbiting sun-like stars outside our solar system. None. Nada. Zippo. By the time I became tenured we finally knew of a single planet around a sun-like star. By the time I became a full professor we had discovered a handful. In fact, until Kepler started staring at over 100,000 stars in one area of the sky (near Cygnus) in 2010 the number of known planets outside of our solar system was only a few 100.

And then everything changed. Not only did we discover that planets were relatively common, but that there are more types of planets than astronomers ever imagined! Superearths, mini Neptunes, hot Jupiters, lava planets…. Suddenly our original sample size of 1 known solar system wasn’t so representative of the universe as a whole.

While the main Kepler mission has ended (thanks to failing systems that point the telescope), the extended K2 mission is still making discoveries, including new exoplanets. The TESS satellite will likely reveal another slew of exoplanets after its launch next March. But Kepler will always have a place in my heart as the telescope that COULD and DID change the way we think about the universe and our own pale blue dot of a world.

— Kris Larsen

Upcoming free public talks on the Great American Eclipse!

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[Partial phase of the 2006 solar eclipse viewed from Egypt]

BB the eclipse chasing rabbit and his minder, Dr. Kristine Larsen, continue their tour of Connecticut libraries and other public venues bringing information on how to safely view the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse. All events are free and open to the public, and you might even score a free pair of eclipse viewing glasses!

Meriden Public Library: 7 PM, Tuesday June 27.

Rocky Hill Public Library: 6:30 PM, Tuesday July 18

Dates in Southington and Bristol TBA!

Summer is the perfect time to catch a FREE planetarium show!

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[Nick, the planetarium projector, putting his best face forward in a selfie]

The Copernican Planetarium and Observatory is open year-round! Our next FREE public planetarium shows are Saturdays June 17 and July 1 at 8 PM. Afterwards, if the skies are clear you are invited to view the real night sky through a variety of instruments. Consult our webpage for more information.

When Teaching Children about the Eclipse, This Bunny Hops to it!

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[BB the Eclipse Chasing Bunny in Australia]

The August 21, 2017 Great American Eclipse is an opportunity that should not be missed! However, many more people will be viewing a partial rather than a total eclipse, including here in Connecticut. How do we teach people to safely view the partial phases? One way that I have been getting the message out to young people is through my trusted companion on all four of my solar eclipse trips, BB the Eclipse Chasing Bunny! On May 23, he and I visited the entire 5th grade class at the Webster Hill Elementary School in West Hartford. While the children enjoyed hearing about BB’s adventures in Egypt, China, Australia, and the Faroe Islands, they also got the message that you can safely observe a partial solar eclipse, and learned how to do it! The children will all be receiving solar viewing glasses (like BB’s) to take home to their parent, along with an information sheet about simple eclipse projection techniques, at the end of the school year. BB and I look forward to speaking to more children about the eclipse between now and mid-August.

— K. Larsen (and BB!)

Take Your Child to Space Day!

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[Attendees of the CCSU Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day examine real space rocks!]

Children and grandchildren of CCSU employees explored space from the comfort of the Geological Sciences Department on April 27. In addition to handling meteorites, children made UV-bead bracelets, examined spectra via diffraction glasses, and made star finders to bring home.

Seeing Spots Safely

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[Sunspot observation by Kris Larsen. Groups of sunspots are labeled]

It might surprise you to learn that the sun is actually variable star – it varies (albeit very slightly) in the amount of light that it sends earthward. The complex and ever-changing magnetic field of the sun creates both brighter than average (faculae) and dimmer than average (sunspots) regions on its visible “surface” (called the photosphere) that are continually changing in size and number. While a given sunspot group or faculae region may last for as little as a day or as long as two months, over a roughly 11-year period the numbers of these active regions waxes and wanes, creating the so-called sunspot cycle. Since the time of Galileo, observers have been monitoring sunspot activity. While this is a fun and scientifically useful activity, it must be done safely, as the sun is the only variable star that poses a danger to your eyesight if you aren’t careful. You should never look directly at the sun with your eyes or any optical equipment unless you are properly using an approved solar filter.

To this end, the Solar Section of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (which I am currently fortunate to serve as president) has recently released a Solar Observing Guide. Written by long-time AAVSO solar observer Frank Dempsey (with additional content by fellow Solar Section members and solar safety experts), this guide is a must for anyone contemplating solar observing. Anyone interesting in taking up this task should also seek the aid of a seasoned mentor to help them get started.

The sun changes every day, and safely observing these changes is an experience that will have you coming back again and again. But “safety first” is a must!

– Kris Larsen