The Sky Crew Takes on Gravitational Waves

microphone with nhpr logoHey all! It’s already late October, which means midterms and student advising in my world. Yesterday, I was once again invited to join NHPR‘s radio program The Exchange to discuss astronomy with host Laura Knoy and astronomers John Gianforte and Mal Cameron. We had a lovely time talking about a number of subjects and spent the first 20 minutes covering the recent gravitational wave discovery of colliding neutron stars, though we easily could have devoted the whole hour to it.

Listen below or find it on Apple Podcasts.


Are you ready for the Great American Eclipse?

UPDATE (8/17/17): As the date gets closer, please check out my “Procrastinator’s Guide to the Solar Eclipse” on Skepchick! 

I’m pretty darn excited. I’ve never seen a total solar eclipse, and I’m getting my first chance to do so, along with many, many residents of North America, on August 21st. I’m heading back to the St. Louis area to see my friends from my post-doc days, visit an elementary school with some cool activities, and chase away the clouds (I hope!) and see my first total solar eclipse. If you’re in the North and Central America, and even parts of South America, you’ll be able to see at least part of an eclipse, so get ready!

map of Aug 21, 2017 eclipse path
Credit: NASA

There are lots of LOTS of people who have been working hard to make sure that folks get to see the event safely. No, you should NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN without proper equipment. That said, looking at the Sun during an eclipse is no more dangerous than looking at the Sun any other day. It’s just a concern because so many people want to look up! You don’t need expensive equipment, but solar viewers are highly recommended for looking up. The American Astronomical Society has a good primer on eye safety PLUS a page full of reputable vendors that will actually keep your eyes safe from the infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light from the Sun while you view. Obviously, there has been a rush on these things, but you can call your local library, since many have been stocked with cheap and free glasses just for this.

Don’t have time to get solar viewers? That’s okay! Indirect methods work as well. Science Friday has FIVE DIY ways to view the eclipse with little to no cost.

Going to the path of totality? Great! It’s going to be PACKED. I’m already a little nervous about it, as towns are expecting gridlock as people swarm to be in the path of totality. Take the advice of Angela Speck, astronomer at the University of Missouri who lives right on the path, and pack water, food, and emergency supplies when you head out on the 21st. Also? Make sure to gas up your vehicle the day before.

You all know how I love citizen science, where everyone can take part in data collection an analysis. This eclipse is providing many such opportunities for doing citizen science, including tracking atmospheric conditions, logging animal behavior, and investigating the ionosphere with radio waves.

As for me? I’m just going to watch and enjoy since it’s my first. I’ve been advised by several experienced eclipse watchers to just enjoy the experience. I took that advice to heart when I saw my first space shuttle launch, and I’m so glad that I did. Totality is super quick, just under two minutes depending on your location, so I plan to soak it all in!

If you’re not on the path of totality, you never really get full darkness, and the Moon will take its time to cross the solar disk. So, you can view at your leisure. I really love this visual by Vox where you can put in your zip code and see when the eclipse will take place, and at what percentage, wherever you are. So plan your day around it if you can!

Here are some great online resources for all your eclipse needs:

See you at totality!

Total Solar Eclipse
CC BY-SA 3.0 Luc Viatour/

Elsewhere on the Interwebz for June 2013

I write stuff sometimes. It’s been scattered as of late, but with year one of my post-doc under my belt, I’m starting to get the hang of things. Or, so I tell myself. As I work harder to put more blog-writing and video-making out, I thought it would help, at least my own sanity, to collect it all here in one place once in a while.

So, if you are curious what I’ve been doing, here’s the round-up of my writing and Hangout-ing from the last month…



(In some cases the originals are uploaded to my channel, but the slightly polished versions are uploaded to CosmoQuest’s channel, so I link to those if possible)

Okay, back to writing…


Insider’s Look at a Radio Observatory

At ALMA with Tania Burchell of NRAO

At ALMA with Tania Burchell of NRAO

Cross-posted on CosmoQuest

Well hello, everyone. I am finally just about done with pictures and video from my trip to see ALMA in Chile a few weeks ago. I still have some podcast content to cut together and post on our brand new 365 Days of Astronomy website, but I thought I’d share all the goodness so far.

As mentioned in a previous post, I was invited to join a group of journalists hosted by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) to visit one of the most badass telescopes around on the even of its inauguration. The Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, is a radio interferometer that will greatly improve astronomers’ ability to probe star formation, planet formation, and the formation of galaxies. So, basically, it studies young things! This is a ground-based telescope on a scale we’ve never seen before, and for a fraction of the cost of your typical space-based observatory.

First, we spent a bit of time in Santiago, Chile, where several inauguration events were being held. You can find the pictures of our jaunts on Flickr and my blog post for Discovery about the Metro exhibit and opera performance. I hope I can slip a few seconds of the performance into my podcast, but the whole thing is under copyright, so you had to be there to experience it! How I’d love to see more public displays of love for science here in the US!

Finally, we got up to the Atacama Desert and the observatory itself for the big tour. Even though we only had a few hours at the high site, the actual place where the antennas are located, it was the highlight of the experience. Get a preview of that and some of the operations at the “low site” the day before inauguration in my “home movie” below.

I’ve also posted some quick clips of the antennas “dancing” to George Hrab and the robot arm mucking about. Though you can view all the pictures in one big set, I’d point you specifically to the highlights I collected for Discovery.

The day of the inauguration itself was full of celebration and speeches, but I was specifically interested in the new science results that were announced that day. With just the early science array, some truly impressive starbursts were seen in the early universe. This particular study shows the power of ALMA as a redshift finding machine for star-forming galaxies across a wide swath of the universe’s history.

I’ll admit. I wasn’t always an ALMA fan. The science to be done at that wavelength is fascinating, but after a decade of hearing how AMAZING a telescope that doesn’t exist yet is GOING to be… you get a bit bored. I wanted to see some action view publisher site. Well, thanks to the NRAO, I HAVE seen the promise of the science and the amazingly precise machine itself. I’m a convert. I stopped worrying and love the ALMA!

Oh! I almost forgot. I got to do an impromptu Hangout from the operations site with Mat Kaplan of the Planetary Society where we interviewed a number of scientists and engineers on the ALMA project. I’m so thankful to our guests for sitting in on another one of our crazy Hangout experiments, and I’m glad those of you that did catch it live enjoyed. It’s still quite fun if you want to watch the recording:

I hope I got to bring you along on my journey in some way through these videos and images and blog posts. As a scientist and a fan of science, I can’t truly describe how awe-inspiring it is to see a big project like this actually come to life, to work well, and to anticipate its future. Who knows, maybe we’ll be able to bring some ALMA images into the citizen science fold one day. Would you like to explore the submillimeter sky, too?

So I’ll be in Texas… AND in Chile!

After telling everyone I’d be at the media/music/explosion that is South by SouthWest (SXSW) for several days, I got this phone call today asking if I’d like to be in Chile that week for the inauguration of the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA. So even though my brain was yelling YES, I sadly declined since I had other responsibilities. I was promptly chastised by my boss, Pamela, who then yelled YES along with my brain and said GO TO CHILE.

So, I’m going to Texas. For two days. AND THEN I’m going to Chile. And I am so freaking excited like you have no idea.

It is news to no one that I love radio astronomy and radio telescopes. I love them so so much that one powerful little array in West Virginia and South Africa was the focus of my dissertation work. Ever since my internships as an undergraduate, first at MIT Haystack and then at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, I was fascinated with the completely unintuitive way that radio telescopes can be used to study the universe. Also, to see and visit those monstrous dishes, to walk around in them in some cases, to see the wires and receivers and literal nuts and bolts that make them work… is an amazing experience.

Don't mind us, just chilling in the dish. Socorro Summer Students of 2004!
Don’t mind us, just chilling in the dish. Socorro Summer Students of 2004!

So Pamela was right to yell at me. How could I pass up a chance to visit the mountain vistas of the Atacama Desert and the world’s most advanced millimeter telescope perched high above the world at 16,500 feet? I’ll be one of a dozen or so members of the press along with National Radio Astronomy Observatory staff and various dignitaries from every organization involved. It’ll all be tweeted and Google Plussed as internet is available, blogged for Discovery News Space, and videoed and recorded for your viewing and listening pleasure later through our various CosmoQuest feeds.

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) and C. Padilla
Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) and C. Padilla

So thanks to John Stoke and everyone at NRAO for this amazing opportunity. Everyone else, please join in for the ride, March 10-14th!

Also be sure to say hi to me on March 8th at the big NASA tent at SXSW if you are going to be in Austin. Scott, Pamela, Fraser, and the rest of the NASA extravaganza will be there all weekend! One of us will be sure to blog abut that on CosmoQuest when it gets closer.

On Manatees and Lovely People

I’ve been hesitant to write about this, since it was a rather private affair, but astronomy lost a shining star recently when my friend Heidi lost her battle with cancer. She was Assistant to the Director at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and worked in the Dean’s office at the University of Virginia before that. But more importantly, she was a cheerful, inspiring woman who loved astronomy and was a fervent supporter of everything we did at UVa Astro and the NRAO. In some of my most depressing times in grad school, her enthusiasm and support were like a guiding beacon of awesomeness, reminding me of what I could do and be. When I do outreach, it’s for people like Heidi that just loved and absorbed every bit of the interesting science happening around her.

So why am I mentioning this now? The NRAO released a news item that they are renaming a nebula seen with a radio telescope, W50, the “Manatee Nebula” after a whimsical comment that Heidi made about the image. That comment was picked up on by the ever-awesome Tania Burchell who is a star science communicator for the NRAO and actually used to work with manatees! Tania blogs about her reasons for pushing forward with the name and how they got it approved just in time for Heidi to see the poster while she was in hospice care. It is really worth a read, because it links astronomy and biology in a cool way! So kudos to Tania on getting that through, and have fun at the Manatee Festival today.

Credits: NRAO/AUI/NSF, WISE/NASA; Tracy Colson
Credits: NRAO/AUI/NSF, WISE/NASA; Tracy Colson

I’ll be submitting a blog post to Discovery soon about the cool science in that nebula image, but I wanted to make the personal connection here as well.  I will also point out that those of you that were touched by Heidi’s influence (or her story) can make a donation in her name to support astronomy outreach at UVa, a cause that she supported in life.

Thanks for everything, Heidi. We miss you.