Online Tools for Interactive Astronomy

astronomy | community | science | technology

I marked several articles in past issues of Science News Magazine that have to do with free, interactive, online tools that any amateur or professional astronomer can use. Below are three online sites that provide interesting looks at the moon and the universe, and one that can even allow you to be the next person to discover a planet!

Hunting For Planet 9 with Backyard Worlds

backyard worlds planet-hunting interface
Backyard Worlds allows citizen scientist to take part in helping to find Planet 9.

Join in on the search for a proposed planet dubbed Planet 9! With an existence hinted from its gravitational influence on our other planets, Planet 9 may have already been photographed and is waiting for someone to point it out. The Backyard Worlds project lets space lovers flip through images taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer satellite (WISE). The images are from a small area of interest where predictions point.

Backyard Worlds uses the millions of images taken several times in the same area of the sky over time. The goal is to click through four images at a time of the same area of sky. When an “area of interest” appears to have changed positions over two or three of the images, the area is marked and submitted to the team of volunteer astronomers who then take a closer look. When an object is one that was not previously marked and warrants further study, telescope time is arranged to take a closer look.

For more information, visit Backyard Worlds, or read the June 10, 2017 Science News article about the project.

Gleamoscope Shows Universe That Human Eyes Can’t See

gleamoscope view of the universe
Views of the universe as Gamma Rays, Visible and Radio Waves using Gleamoscope.

Many of the most spectacular phenomena in the universe occurs in ways that are barely perceptible in the visible light that our eyes can see. The Gleamoscope app, available both online and via an Android app, provides a way for us to view the universe in a range of frequencies to see the familiar night sky in new ways. The site’s smooth slider has settings for visible, Gamma Ray, X-ray, Far Infrared, and Microwave views of the universe.

Celestial objects radiate energy of various wavelengths. Only a tiny band of wavelengths are visible light that our eyes can perceive – the bulk of the wavelengths are at frequencies that can be picked up by special radio or infrared telescopes. The Gleamoscope interactive map of the universe uses images from many observatories and radio antennas and provides a fun way to “see” the universe in a new way.

Learn more at the Gleamoscope site and in the November 26, 2016 Science News article.

High-Res Lunar Map Takes Us To the Moon

NASA interactive lunar map
Zoom in on the moon’s surface using photos from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC).

Fly to the moon from the comfort of your couch using NASA’s interactive lunar atlas. Thousands of high-resolution black and white images of the moon’s poles were snapped by the NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). The robotic spacecraft orbits the moon at an orbit of 50-200 kilometers (31 to 124 miles) to provide images with a resolution down to 2 meters.

The lunar atlas has familiar zoom and pan functionality for easy navigation of the moon’s surface. When you see something interesting, zoom in and in and in to get an up-close look with stunning clarity – no spacesuit necessary! Learn about LROC and check out the lunar map online at (Science News article from May 3, 2014)

Meatballs, Swiss Cheese and Cosmic Connectivity

astronomy | science | technology

It’s about two hours before sunset and I’m on my front porch, facing west, reading a fascinating book in anticipation of an exciting astrophysics conference I’m attending in a week. The book is called The Cosmic Web, authored by J. Richard Gott, a professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. The upcoming conference is called Quantifying and Understanding The Galaxy-Halo Connection. The conference will be held at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics on the University of California at Santa Barbara campus.

The Astrummary (Astronomy/Summary)

Please keep in mind that I’m only a third of the way into the book, even though I’ve had it over a year. (Reading for pleasure has been a seldom-known luxury, with the exception of Science News magazine which I read voraciously every chance I get.) Please also remember that I am not an astrophysicist, but merely a student. My intent is to distill the scientific information in a way that is easy to swallow by non-scientists, so forgive me for oversimplifying some of these concepts.

The universe-as-we-know-it has been studied and observed using various modern telescopes. The studies include stars and galaxies and how they are interrelated. Mathematicians and Physicists have proposed models of the way galaxies interact on a cosmic scale. Modern supercomputers use mathematical formulas to generate these models as three-dimensional areas of space with tens of thousands of particles interacting inside a giant, virtual cube, with “giant” meaning over 700 million light-years per side. (One light-year is the distance light travels in one year, based on light travelling over 186,000 miles per second.)

The particles inside the cube are the matter in the universe – stars and planets and dust and anything else with mass. (Research shows that observable matter makes up only 5% of the universe; the other 95% is “dark” matter, something we have not as-yet identified.) The computer simulations show different scenarios for how the galaxies in our universe may interact with the dark matter, with gravity, and with each other. The simulations vary depending on certain inputs such as how fast the universe is expanding and whether it will expand indefinitely or end up collapsing in on itself at a certain point.

How Are Galaxies Connected?

When we look up in the night sky, we can see with our naked eye the stars and constellations that are in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The star we are most aware of is the Sun, which our planet, Earth, rotates around in a one-year cycle. Our star is rotating with billions of others around the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Our galaxy is rotating among other neighboring galaxies to form groups of galaxies, and those groups of galaxies cluster together to form superclusters. The superclusters are linked together through long filaments, sort of a web-like structure, which the title of the book I’m reading alludes to (The Cosmic Web).

One mathematical model of this clustering shows our universe is made up of galaxy superclusters resembling meatballs floating in space. The meatballs contain matter made up of clusters of clusters of galaxies and are surrounded by vast regions of  space with no observable matter and only a few thin galaxy strands connecting them.

Another model shows that the universe is like a reverse meatball space resembling a block of Swiss cheese with empty gaps within it. Instead of a chunk of cheese, picture a two-car garage packed with empty refrigerator boxes neatly stacked. The galaxy clusters would live on the walls of the cardboard boxes and the corners where several walls meet would contain galaxy superclusters. The emptiness in the boxes is the space with little to no galaxies.

So which universe are we a part of – the one made up of meatballs, or the one that looks like Swiss cheese? I’ll have to read more of the Cosmic Web book to know what the leading theory is, and I’ll share my thoughts when I learn more.

Uniting Mathematical Theory With Observable Data

The upcoming Galaxy-Halo conference will cover topics regarding galaxy clustering and how recent observations are helping to reinforce certain mathematical models. There are scientists working on theoretical models of galaxy clusters based on what we already know, and mathematicians who expand those theories to a cosmic scale by creating 3D models using modern supercomputers. Then there are the scientists who are using cutting-edge telescopes to record and observe the placement and movements of more and more galaxy clusters. The conference at the Kavli Institute will allow these theoretical, numerical and observational researchers to interact and discuss their combined research.

I am as excited as a galaxy supercluster to get to be part of such a fascinating conversation and I look forward to sharing my own observational insights after the conference.

Art of the James Webb Space Telescope

astronomy | science

The Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is hosting a free art exhibit through April 16, 2017, featuring work inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope. The 8-billion dollar telescope is being built at the center.

james webb space telescope art sculpture
“Exploration”, by Ashley Zelinskie. 3D printed gold-plated nylon. Photo from

For those of us who can’t make it to Maryland to see the show in person, there are photos of the art online at The exhibits include sculpture, paintings, lithographs and even poetry. The science-inspired exhibit, curated by Maggie Masetti, involved artists visiting the telescope in-person for inspiration. The exhibit is a result of their creations.

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to be launched in 2018. To learn more about the state-of-the-art telescope, visit