Archive for the 'Cosmos Research Center' Category

Jul 18 2015

What does Pluto look like from Earth?

When I host star parties, one of the most enjoyable experiences is to introduce people to Saturn for the first time –  “Saturn Virgins” they are called.  People oooh! and ahhh! and walk around to the front of the telescope to see if I’m fooling them.  The can’t believe that the solar system appears with such 3 dimensional depth and reality.

This is inevitably followed up with “let’s look at the other planets.”   Jupiter is pretty cool, and occasionally shows moon shadows moving across it.  Mars and Venus can be very bright, but Neptune and Uranus are just small dots, barely discernable as disks instead of single dots (as stars look).

But Pluto is a different story.  Besides its demotion from planet to minor planet (a topic which generates immense debate, but which I’m firmly an agnostic), it is really far away.  It is only visible with light reflected from the sun.  The light from sun diminishes according to the inverse square law.  If a planet is 10 times as far from the sun as another, then it gets 1/100th the light.  But that is just the light falling on Pluto.  That light has to reflect and come back to Earth, which is another inverse square law relationship, which makes it an “inverse power of 4” law.  Moving a planet twice as far away makes it 1/16th as bright.   Pluto is very far away, as far as solar system metrics go.  It takes light about 4.5 hrs to go from Pluto to earth.  Kuiper Belt objects become very dim, very quickly.

I have a scale model of the solar system in my back yard.  I shrunk the sun to the size of a golf ball. To scale, Earth is then 12 feet away.  Pluto is 330 feet away.  This is seriously Far Away with Not Much In Between.   And the light we see from Pluto is Magnitude -14 – requiring a serious telescope to see.  Pluto is about 1 million times dimmer than Saturn.

Just before the New Horizons encounter with Pluto, I took some time lapse images of Pluto moving across the sky.  It was impossible for me to see the spacecraft, and even detecting Pluto was a challenge.  I set used my backyard observatory, the Cosmos Research Center, to photograph the sky around Pluto.  This is what I saw:



This image is about 1 degree wide, about as wide as your index finger held at arm’s length.  For those of you who can’t see Pluto yet, here is a close up, showing a zoom area around Pluto:


And for those of you who are still missing Pluto, here is a closeup showing the motion of Pluto over 4.5 hours – the same time that it takes for New Horizons to send information back to Earth.  Pluto’s motion is shown as a sequence of dots, making a thin line across the middle of the frame.  This shows were Pluto was when New Horizons sends a message (on the left), and where it is when we receive it (on the right).


And here is an animated image, showing the motion of Pluto over 4.5 hours.  Look in the center for the dot moving across the image.  If New Horizons sent a message while at the left most point in the motion, Earth would see it at the right most point.


And here is an interview I recorded with Dave Jewitt, the astronomer who discovered the first Kuiper Belt Object beyond Pluto.

I would like to thank Bill Warden, Orange County Astronomers,, for his help in processing these images.




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May 03 2012

David Brin talking at Cosmos Research Center Star Party

David Brin is one of my favorite intellectual sparring partners.  Luckily, he lives nearby, so he was able to drop in at a children’s science star party I held in June 2007.

Here is a video of David’s presentation to the kids, (mostly K-8).

and here is a portrait I took of him:
Science Fiction author David Brin

I started the Cosmos Research Center in a shed in my backyard, and then got lab coats, a logo, a website, and named myself Executive Director. I really enjoy motivating kids to dig deeper into science, which has also lead to my becoming a NASA/JPL Solar Systems Ambassador.


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Mar 27 2012

My first photo from the MoonKam

I’ve signed up the Cosmos Research Center to be a participant in the MoonKam project, which allows students to take pictures of the moon from the NASA Grail Satellites, Ebb and Flow, that are orbiting the moon to measure its gravity.   Scientist Abby chose the spot and typed in the coordinates for this image.

It is an image of the south pole, of the Schrodinger Crater.  It is on the far side of the moon, so it is not visible from the earth.  I’m going to try to print this in glow-in-the-dark ink so she can put it on her bedroom ceiling.


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Mar 24 2012

My Adventures with the Scream Machine Booth at the San Diego Science Festival

Published by under Cosmos Research Center

Tom Munnecke, Jun Axup, and Ernesto Ramerez at the Quantified Self Booth at the San DIego Science FestivalI had a great time at the San Diego Science Festival today at Petco Park.  This is my fourth year participating with them.  It is a great opportunity for kids to get out and experience science in a festive environment, and for the San Diego Science community to support the younger generation.

This year, I teamed up with the San Diego Quantified Self Meetup Group.  Our booth featured a Scream Machine… a booth that kids could go in to scream into an iPad, which would measure the volume of their scream.  This is what I call “Drive By Science” – with a steady stream of kids going by, with only a short attention span, how do we give kids a valuable science experience they can remember?  Having adults ask kids to go into a booth to scream is certainly a unique experience for a kid, and having a scientific instrument to measure it and show how science can make observations, I think fills the bill.  We had 750 screamers come through the booth.  I only needed a little Advil to make it through the day 🙂

I’m shown here in my official Lab Coat as Executive Director of the Galactic Headquarters of the Cosmos Research Center, whose headquarters happens to be in my back yard. I’m standing next to Quantified Self Meetup Organizers Jun Axup, and Ernesto Ramirez, two very enthusiastic UCSD grad students.  Cece O’Connor, Dana Fell,  John Amschler, Gabriel Schuyler and Mike Eddy also helped build the booth.  (Mike produces the TEDx Del Mar event, where I spoke a while back).

Jun has a very succesful Kickstarter project to make Biochemies – DNA Plush Dolls, for which I’m anxiously awaiting my shipment.

We’ll be posting our design for the booth shortly, in case anyone else wants to replicate it for their own use.

There is something special about screaming, I think.  Everyone of our screamers, (and the audience watching it), broke out into big smiles after their scream.



And here is a movie showing the operation of the scream machine:



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Apr 03 2010

2010 San Diego Science Festival

Here is a video I made of the San Diego Science Festival at Petco Park March 27, 2010.  It had about 120 exciting hands-on science booths, with about 50,000 people attending. (I am a member of the festival advisory board). Note that you can see the film in HD by clicking on the link that says 360p on the bottom of the image and selecting the 720P option.

And here is my film from the 2009 festival at Balboa Park.


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