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Posts tagged ‘astronomy’

Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory, Cerro Tololo, Region de Coquimbo, Chile,

Fotoeins Friday: Andes in winter, a June day in Chile

23 June 2007.

A few days past the June winter solstice, the view to the Andes is illuminated by the afternoon sun to the northwest. It’s almost one year since I’ve moved to Chile to work at the Gemini South astronomical observatory, and part of my job includes shifts observing at the telescope for a duration between two and six nights at a stretch. For the time being, we’re sleeping in the dormitories at the neighbouring Cerro Tololo Observatory, and driving to and from Cerro Pachón where Gemini South resides. With less oxygen at altitude between 2500 and 2800 metres, it can be a little rough to sleep and work, but the views are always worth the temporary discomfort.

More about my past life

•   What it was like to be “up top”
•   What it meant to leave, both astronomy and Chile
•   My past research

I made the above photo 10 years ago today on 23 June 2007. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at as

Pluto with data from LORRI, RALPH instruments, Pluto, NASA New Horizons,

Ultimate in “travel photography”: New Horizons at Pluto

(27 July 2015)

Photographs have the power to answer long-standing questions.

Pluto is one of the last objects in our Solar System to be explored. Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 provided photographs, science, and insights about the gas giants: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. New Horizons is the latest spacecraft to encounter and fly past the outer reaches of the Solar System, and eventually wander into deep interstellar space.

  • Long arduous travel and journey? Check.
  • To a place where human technology will reach for the very first time? Check.
  • Learn new things about a previously unexplored corner of our “backyard” known as the Solar System? Check.

New Horizons made its close-approach flyby at 1148h UTC on 14 July 2015 (0748h EDT in North America), passing within 12500 kilometres of Pluto’s surface and 28800 kilometres from Pluto’s primary moon Charon.

A few basics

  • Distance between Earth & Sun about 150 million kilometres; known also as 1 “Astronomical Unit”, or 1 AU.
  • One-way light travel-time, Sun to Earth: 8.3 minutes
  • Distance to Earth when New Horizons flew past Pluto: 32 AU, shade under 5 billion kilometres
  • One-way light travel-time, New Horizons to Earth: 4.5 hours

Over the years we’ve had limited insights to Pluto, even though its status was switched from “planet” to “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union. Images immediately before the flyby encounter hinted tantalizingly of ice and terrestrial-like surface features.

Does Pluto have more than one moon or satellite?

Pre-encounter imaging showed the existence of four additional satellites, bringing thus far a total of five moons for Pluto: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra.

How does Charon look like?

Pluto’s primary moon, Charon, is 1200 km across, or about one-half the size of Pluto. This satellite-to-primary size-ratio is one of the largest in the Solar System. By comparison, the Moon-to-Earth size-ratio is between one-quarter and one-third (0.27).

Is there evidence of (recent) geological processes on Pluto?

The presence of frozen hydrocarbon ice-plains, nitrogen ice-flow patterns, and high mountains suggest ongoing dynamic processes on the planet’s surface, despite the very low temperatures.

Is there an atmosphere on Pluto?

What happens when a spacecraft flies past a (dwarf) planet and looks back into the backlit shadow? What the following shows is an answer to that question: Pluto has an atmosphere with two hydrocarbon layers between the surface and a height of 80 kilometres. If there was no atmosphere, there would be no ring of scattered light around the disk.

Pluto's hydrocarbon haze atmosphere, Pluto, NASA New Horizons,

Pluto’s hydrocarbon haze atmosphere

Imagine a picture of your region, your city from a geostationary satellite from a height of over 35 thousand kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Reduce the distance by a factor of about 30 to a height of 1000 kilometres. Reduce the distance by a factor of 1000 to a height of 1 kilometre. Reduce the distance by another factor of 1000 to a height of 1 metre. You’re not going to see the roses in your garden from the geostationary satellite, but from 1 metre, not only will you see the roses, you’ll also see the bees. And that’s a reduction of distance by a factor of 35 million (i.e., 35 thousand kilometres divided by 0.001 kilometre).

So, it’s remarkable how distance to an object changes the amount of detail you see on the object and the way you view that very same object. To Pluto a spacecraft was sent, specifically to “check in” and have a look at the planet and its surroundings. From a distance of 5 billion kilometres to a flyby closeup encounter of 13 thousand kilometres above the planet’s surface, Pluto’s appearance goes from a faint fuzzy blob to being able to discern surface features for the first time, with a reduction of distance by a factor of almost 400 thousand.

All this appeals to my inner physicist/astronomer who’s been fascinated with the planets from a young age, and to my traveler/photographer for the pictures coming from a place at the outer reaches of the Solar System. Given bandwidth limitations imposed by onboard hardware and the amount of data recorded by New Horizons, there are months of downloads for NASA scientists and undoubtedly more surprises to come.

A lot more …

•   Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University
•   NASA New Horizons
•   Why Pluto joins Ceres and Eris in a new family of “dwarf planets”

All images are from New Horizons; click here for the spacecraft’s present location. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at at

Southern Atacama desert, between Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachon, Region de Coquimbo, Chile,

Standing on the tall shoulders of the Chilean Andes

It’s a long road to a latitude of 30 degrees South to stand at an elevation of 9000 feet up on the mountainous spine of South America.

Over a period of 11 years, I visited telescopes in Chile to collect research data, before I moved to Chile to live and work there for 5 years. This is a brief look at the journey an astronomer makes to telescopes in Chile.

( Click here for images and more )

Interview with astros: Aisha Mahmoud-Perez

The Traveling Astronomer

Once, I was an astronomer, spending time thinking about and working on the formation and evolution of dwarf galaxies.

Astronomers lead busy lives, including teaching and mentoring, research-specific small- and large-scale data programming, and the near endless cycle of paperwork including research plans, funding proposals, budget reports, and paper manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals. Much of the time also involves travel – conferences, workshops, and collaboration meetings around the world, as well as visits to telescopes at observatories in remote locations around the world to collect data for projects.

I liked the travel part more than I enjoyed astronomy. When I’d said farewell to astronomy, I’d accumulated over one million miles with American Airlines, and countless more with Air Canada, the old Canadian Pacific, Lufthansa, the old Northwest (now Delta), and United Airlines. Weary feet and tired wings aren’t surprising outcomes; I know there are still many journeys and destinations left to come.

The best of Palestine and Puerto Rico

In September 2006, I moved to La Serena, Chile to work at the Gemini Observatory. The following January a number of undergraduate students from Chile, U.S., and Puerto Rico arrived at the neighbouring astronomical observatory to spend the Chilean summer on research experience. After meeting these students over the years, I’m happy to remain in contact with a number of them.

I’m pleased to introduce Aisha Mahmoud-Perez. She is one of the most unique people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and calling friend. With a Puerto Rican mother and Palestinian father, she successfully blends into her life the influences of two vibrant colourful cultures and two fiery independent dispositions. She loves meeting new people, learning new languages (she’s presently at five), and she loves food, travel, and knitting. She completed her M.Sc. in astronomy and astrophysics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and she is now presently back in northwest Arkansas.

I remember the hectic schedules as a former and recovering astronomer. How do you strike a balance between the professional “necessity” of traveling for research with the personal “necessity” of traveling for your own satisfaction?

AM: “As an astronomer in the making, I find it hard to reach that perfect balance between doing research and research related activities and simply taking a week off to travel, but it is certainly not impossible. In mid-June this year (2014), I traveled to Chile for a collaboration trip lasting almost 3 weeks. Most of that time was spent working, but I’d take afternoons off to walk around town and weekends off to wander around the country. I found I was more productive at work after I’d taken some time to discover places on my own.”

With your Palestinian and Puerto Rican heritage, and a large fraction of your time in America, you’ve been exposed to and influenced by a rich cross-section of different cultures. How do these influences inform your travels? What have you learned about the differences and similarities among people?

AM: “I feel very lucky to have been raised under two very different cultures. There was never a dull moment in my house. Every day I discovered how beautifully different my parents were from each other – the saga still continues today – and how much they learned from those differences. Those differences helped me to be more open and to embrace different cultures with passion and enthusiasm. I also learned that those differences I talk about are superficial – one prefers tea over coffee, prefers to dress in a specific way, or prefers Abdel Halim Hafez over Marc Anthony – and that deep down we really love and feel the same way, regardless of where we’re born.”

What and where in the Middle East would you recommend people see and experience for something that’s uniquely Middle East? What and where in Puerto Rico would you recommend people see and experience for something uniquely Puerto Rican?

AM: “As far as the Arab Middle East goes… GO NOW, ‘YALLA’! The Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq, is extremely diverse: the colours, the smells, the food, even the local dialect of Arabic is different. But there is one thing I believe unites the Arab World and that’s their hospitality. I’ve met some of the most welcoming and warmest people in these lands. I’d say a truly unique Middle Eastern experience is to “be yourself” and engage with locals. Perhaps what’s a bit closer to me is if you wander around Palestine, make sure to visit the city of Nablus and try their famous ‘knafeh’ – a delicious cake with a gooey cheese filling. No worries, you will find more many who’ll be more than glad to take you to a place to try ‘knafeh’!

Hebron, West Bank, Palestine - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Kunafeh”, in Hebron, West Bank, Palestine (AM)

Puerto Rico, on the other had, is a complex melting pot between North American and Latin American culture. Given our all-year-long summer, Puerto Rico is a constant party. But, perhaps, our biggest spectacle or where one can experience true ‘puerto-rican-ness’ is during Christmas. The streets fill with Christmas music all day long, moms and grandmas cook traditional dishes and you truly feel the happiness and the excitement of the people in the air. Do note however that Puerto Rican Christmas songs are not your typical Christmas song, e.g. “your guests come, eat, pig out, drink, and then they ask you if you have an aspirin” (No hay Cama Pa’ Tanta Gente by El Gran Combo). Also, Christmas starts right after Thanksgiving and ends the second week of January. Happy Island!”

Nablus, West Bank, Palestine - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Family”, in Nablus, West Bank, Palestine (AM)

What place or country has left the most lasting impact with you? What are those impressions?

AM: “For me, that place is Chile. Even if you love traveling, it is always challenging to go abroad either as a tourist or to stay there for a longer period. In Chile, I never had that feeling of being an “outsider”. Chileans welcomed me like one of them right away: very warm and friendly people! Their food is amazing as well!”

Valparaíso, Chile - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Barrios”, in Valparaíso, Chile (AM)

Where is one place or country in the world would you like to live or travel? What are your reasons?

AM: “I can’t pick just one. One of my travel goals is to visit the entire Arab world. Out of all the nations in the Arab world, I’ve visited five; only 17 more countries to go! I was mostly raised in Puerto Rico and was involuntarily away from the Arab World for a long time. I think that that’s why I find the Arab world so enchanting and I still want to visit and be charmed by all of it.”

Follow Aisha

at her website | on Twitter | on Instagram

The photos above were made by and kindly provided by Aisha Mahmoud. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at at

Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory, CTIO, Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile,

Chilean Andes: morning send-off with Atacama minions

Above/featured: Morning fog in the valleys below, facing north-northeast from Cerro Tololo Observatory – 9am CLDT (12pm UTC), 22 Sept 2011.

Late-2011: Cerro Tololo Observatory, Región de Coquimbo, Chile.

The morning creeps gently forward, up and over the desert sky. Sounds? What sounds? What scarce sounds there are, they pierce the silence with soft whistles and drawn-out wails. Alternating light and dark horizontal streamers, known also as “the rays of God,” mark the first light of dawn. Small clumps break loose, as the overnight shroud of valley fog pulls back slowly from view.

The sun climbs higher, the shadows grow shorter, the cotton patch dissolves. It isn’t long until a spectacular sight is revealed. This is what you get from a height of 7500 feet above sea level.

Dry river beds twist and sweep and stretch along canyon floors. Cactus and desert scrub carpets the surrounding hills in faded greens and dusty browns. To the east rise jagged rocky teeth capped with white frosting, fixing the location of the Andes along the Chilean spine.

In this desolate and isolated part of the world, I’ve often wondered about the few brave souls who make this place their home. They’re prospectors, miners, even some farmers, all of whom carry their burden for financial endeavour. People have been digging around in these parts for centuries, whether it’s plant, mineral, or some kind of monetary paydirt.

But there’s another human enterprise with different rewards, a quest that asks questions on a much larger scale.

How do planets take shape?
How do stars form?
How are galaxies assembled?
Is there life elsewhere in the universe?

These issues occupy astronomers from all over the world. Many astronomers go up onto mountains, just like this one, onto the summit of Cerro Tololo, peering into the skies. The telescopes point straight up, reaching out like outstretched hands, wanting more.

( Click here for images and more )

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