Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Selling Stellar Seismology

After the successful launch of the French COROT satellite from Kazakhstan, news reports from around the world described the new space telescope as a "planet-seeker" designed to "search for new Earths". These headlines may have surprised some of the European scientists who plan to use observations from COROT to study the interiors of distant stars -- a technique known as asteroseismology. Beyond the headlines, only about 1 in 10 articles even mentioned that COROT would also "probe the mysteries of stellar interiors".

The COROT website features both scientific objectives prominently. In fact, the name COROT is an acronym for "COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits". If you think using only the T from "planetary Transits" is a bit of a cheat, you're right. The mission was originally given its name when it was only designed to do asteroseismology (studying COnvection and ROTation in stars similar to our Sun). Mission scientists added the planet-hunting capability later, since it exploited the same type of observations and attracted political support from a broader cross-section of the scientific community.

The fact that planet-hunting garners more support than asteroseismology is a reflection of its greater appeal among the general public. It also helps explain why the media chose to focus on the search for distant worlds rather than the more abstract goal of probing stellar interiors. About 2 years from now, NASA will launch a slightly larger telescope called Kepler, which is also designed to do both asteroseismology and planet-hunting. Unless stellar seismologists become a bit more media savvy in the meantime, you can count on more headlines about the search for distant Earths.

Monday, December 18, 2006

"Google Sky" coming soon?

This week, NASA announced a strategic partnership with Google to make the agency's massive archive of data more accessible to the public. In the initial phases of the project, the Internet search giant will integrate 3D maps of the moon and Mars into an interface similar to its popular "Google Earth" software, allowing anyone "to experience a virtual flight over the surface of the moon or through the canyons of Mars".

As a simple demonstration of how Google can collaborate fruitfully with space scientists, take a look at the "Google Mars" project, on the web since last March. Working with a group of NASA researchers at Arizona State University, Google adapted their intuitive Maps interface to display optical, infrared and radar data of the red planet. In place of local businesses, the Mars maps include information bubbles marking the locations of major craters, mountains, and the landing sites of robotic spacecraft.

NASA has numerous archives of astronomical data that are already available to the general public, but even some astronomers have a difficult time finding and navigating these websites. For example the Multi-mission Archive, hosted by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, allows anyone to download images and other data from the Hubble Space Telescope and many other NASA missions dating back to the 1970's. While the concept is useful (it beats trying to get the data from each mission website individually), the search interface is needlessly complicated and the query results are almost inscrutable. It's not hard to see how Google could make a significant contribution to making these data more accessible.

My own model for a search-friendly archive of astronomical data would be called "Google Sky". Imagine the Google Maps interface populated with the high resolution color images generated by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (supplemented by the old Palomar Sky Survey to include the entire southern sky). Now imagine that when you search for a specific star or galaxy, the map would zoom into that location and allow you to switch to an infrared or ultraviolet view, just as you can turn on satellite imagery with Google Maps. Finally, the "Find Businesses" feature in the Maps interface would be replaced with "Find Data" -- allowing seamless access to complete archives of ground-based and satellite data that are ready to download and use. It may sound like a dream, but with Google and NASA on the same team, it could soon be a reality.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Misguided Moon Base

Last week NASA announced plans to establish a permanent base on the Moon by the year 2024. You might think astronomers would be among the biggest cheerleaders of such an idea. I can't pretend to speak for all astronomers, but a little history might help you understand the lack of enthusiasm among at least some of my colleagues.

The whole idea of NASA going to the moon again is part of a new vision for space exploration outlined in a speech given by George W. Bush on January 14, 2004. This vision called for a return to the Moon as part of a longer-term plan to prepare for human exploration of Mars. At the time, the scientific community was stunned -- in part because the announcement seemed to come out of nowhere. It certainly wasn't the result of a grassroots effort by the astronomy community. In fact, astronomers had completed their own scientific vision of the future just a few years earlier, and it made no mention of a Moon base.

So where did the President get the idea? The consensus seems to be that, since NASA was planning to decommission the Space Shuttle and end its support of the International Space Station by the end of the decade, aerospace contractors began to wonder where that generous slice of NASA's $15-billion budget would end up. The new vision provided a definite answer, and NASA began to implement it almost immediately.

In its 2005 budget plan, NASA earmarked $12-billion in funding over five years to support the new vision for space exploration, but $11-billion of this total was "reallocated" from existing programs. To astronomers, this means a likely budget cut for research funding (the Office of Space Science, NASA's main source of basic research funding for astronomers, had a $4-billion budget in 2005).

Of course, now that NASA intends to build a base on the Moon there are many scientists with ideas for how to exploit it scientifically. But this is not a good recipe for getting the most science from the taxpayer's dollar -- it is a bunch of astronomers scrambling to recover from the new source of funding what they have lost from the old one.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Welcome to the New Media

Several years ago, a friend of mine from graduate school started a website called, which was designed to bring astronomy news directly from astronomers to interested journalists and members of the general public. The name was motivated by a famous quote from astronomer Carl Sagan on the popular PBS television series, "Cosmos". He said, "we are, all of us, made of star-stuff". This unfiltered news website was a great idea, and I contributed several articles to it. But, for a variety of reasons, it eventually shut down.

It is in the spirit of that I am starting this new blog. I will try to make new posts about once a week, giving an astronomer's perspective on current news from the world of astronomy and about science in general.

My thanks go out to Sara "Star" Johnson of Bloomington, Indiana for letting me take over this blog name. Her blog is now hosted at