Category Archives: California

As Seen in Astronomy Magazine

I just accomplished an old dream of mine: I went to my local bookstore, found the July 2011 Astronomy magazine on the rack, and purchased a copy that has an article written by me in it.  Just like that.

Ok, well not quite just like that- I sent the query article about a year ago, had to write and then do some changes on the thing, and then paid attention to other things until my parents wrote to me a few weeks ago saying a few issues of Astronomy and a rather nice check had arrived at their house (the issues were unfortunately waterlogged a little en route hence me buying new ones, but I would’ve wanted to go buy one myself anyway for novelty purposes).  But for someone who read the magazine religiously as a young teenager- seriously, they fell apart!- it’s honestly jarring to look at my own words there and how professional they look.  Strange thing to quip, it’s not like I want a hundred thousand people to read something that looked bad, but I suppose this is the advantage of editors who know better than you.

So if you have a moment over the next few days pop over to your own bookstore, library, or Nook and check out the Astronomy July 2011 issue.  My article is on page 50, “Visit Northern California’s Top Astronomy Sites.”  (Yep, an astronomy travel article- gotta write what you know!) I’m rather proud of it, though it makes me wonder which kid reading my words over and over will be the competition a decade from now…

A Visit to JPL

I was in southern California last weekend in what was part vacation and part research which took me to a few amazing astronomy sites in the area.  All were pretty awesome, but none were quite as cutting edge as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in not-so-sunny Pasadena! (Seriously, the day I visited it was raining buckets and 60 degrees- I think the good weather thing is a myth.)

So what goes on at JPL, and why is a visit there so exciting?  Well, in short, if you picture all the stuff NASA does, from human spaceflight to space telescopes and probes, JPL is the part that builds and runs all the unmanned scientific missions such as the Mars rovers.  Virtually every single image of faraway planets that has made you stop and say “wow!” has passed through the control room pictured above, which is the heart of the Deep Space Network that detects signals from all those ambassadors from Earth millions or even billions of miles from home.

By the way, after seeing it the Ham radio dork in me has a huge urge to run away to work on the Deep Space Network. They use giant 70m radio dishes around the world to “hear” our missions and communicate with them!  If NASA wasn’t such a politically volatile place to work I’d seriously consider it…

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Photo: Lick Observatory, CA

I don’t think I mentioned it here, but for those who missed the memo I signed a contract with Astronomy magazine at the beginning of the month for my first-ever article for them!  Anyone who knows me knows how excited I am about this because I was so in love with the magazine when I first got interested in astronomy that my first issues literally fell apart.  I can’t imagine what my younger self would have thought knowing I would be actually writing for them just ten years later!

Anyway, the article’s focus is on visiting astronomical sites in northern California as a member of the public as most sites offer guided tours and such and here’s a picture of one of them- Lick Observatory, located in Silicon Valley just south of San Francisco.  Amazing drive up and neat because you can see the research telescopes professional astronomers use to do research!  But if you want to know more, you’ll have to read the article when it comes out in a few months of course. *wink*

Photo: Allen Telescope Array

Taken June 11, 2008

The Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California is about a four hour drive from San Francisco.  Lassen Peak, the snow-capped peak visible in the background, actually erupted violently in 1915 and was the last volcano on the continental United States to do so until Mt. St. Helens in 1980.  It’s now a national park, sort of a mini-Yellowstone because you still have some thermal activity and acid lakes and such.  Worth a visit if you find yourself in the area!

Anyway, the much more interesting radio telescopes in the foreground!  Paul Allen of Microsoft fame donated money for University of California-Berkeley and the SETI Institute to build a radio telescope array, which when I visited had 42 radio dishes but is supposed to have 350 when completed.  It’s a rather interesting design because you can look at a large field of view (think the size of a galaxy) yet focus on signals from specific stars you think have potential for extraterrestrial intelligence based on a few factors.  Thus the Berkeley people are happy because they can do radio astronomy in a rather unique way and the SETI folk are happy because they actually have a dedicated telescope to look for alien civilizations.

I was at the array two summers ago because I was lucky enough to snag a summer research position at the SETI Institute under Jill Tarter, the person who inspired the Ellie Arroway character in Contact and thus had a picture of her and Jodie Foster in her office I was mildly jealous of.  And no, we did not find aliens else you would’ve heard about it before me telling you now!  The public is actually free to visit the array as well so feel free to stop by during normal working hours if you want a tour, but be sure to turn off your cell phone and other gadgets upon arrival.  Radio telescopes are so sensitive that you can drown out important signals really easily, and that’d be awfully embarrassing if we missed E.T.’s call due to that!