Observatory Nights are held at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) on the third Thursday of every month during the academic year. These astronomy talks cover a variety of timely topics, from the solar system and exoplanets to the distant reaches of the universe.
Planet Formation as Told by Kepler
HD1080p/30fps Host: Karin Öberg and Jane Huang Abstract: One of the key results from the Kepler mission is that super-Earths and sub-Neptunes abound in the universe, outnumbering their larger counterparts. Their radii (~1--4 Rearth) and masses (~2--20 Mearth) are consistent with the bulk solid-to-gas mass ratio of 100:1. Basic astrophysical considerations of gas dynamical friction, gravitational scattering, collisional mergers, and gas accretion by cooling inform us that these planets likely emerged in situ, in the late stages of disk evolution. The orbital architecture of the planets closest to the star is shaped by the magnetospheric truncation of the disk at stellar co-rotation, and the tidal interaction between the star and the planet. We will show how the theory of star-disk-planet interaction can describe the observed planet occurrence rate as it varies across orbital periods, planet radii, and stellar metallicities.
Fred Whipple’s Empire: The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, 1955-1973
HD 1080p/30fps David DeVorkin Host: Owen Gingerich Abstract: In 1955, the Astrophysical Observatory of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., on the south lawn of the Smithsonian Castle, closed and moved as a budget line to the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Donald Menzel, working in concert with Smithsonian secretary Leonard Carmichael and Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy, encouraged Fred Lawrence Whipple to assume the directorship of the new unit. Initially, Whipple wanted to create an academia-based institutional model for conducting space science in the United States, making his newly minted Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory a central organizing unit. Instead, after the U.S. government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to do just that, Whipple deftly adjusted, building highly competitive programs in astrophysics, space astronomy, geophysics, geodesy, and ground-based optical and radio astronomy. Here I present an overview of how Whipple constructed his empire, first through the expansive era preparing for the International Geophysical Year and then through the early NASA years, creating an astronomical enterprise unlike any the world had seen. I follow his continued ambitions through the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, aided and abetted by a new Smithsonian secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, to examine how his continued efforts resulted in both congressional scrutiny of the Smithsonian and a re-evaluation of the relationship of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to Harvard and, ultimately, to science in America.
Gaia - The Stereoscopic Survey of the Galaxy
HD 1080p/30fps Gerry Gilmore Host: Charlie Conroy Abstract: Astrometry from space has unique advantages over ground-based observations: the all-sky coverage, relatively stable and temperature- and gravity-invariant operating environment delivers precision, accuracy and sample volume several orders of magnitude greater than ground-based results. Even more importantly, absolute astrometry is possible. The European Space Agency Cornerstone mission Gaia is delivering that promise. Gaia provides 5-D phase space measurements, 3 spatial coordinates and two space motions in the plane of the sky, for a representative sample of the Milky Way’s stellar populations (over 1 billion stars, being ~1% of the stars over 50% of the volume). Full 6-D phase space data is delivered from line-of-sight (radial) velocities for the 300million brightest stars. These data make substantial contributions to astrophysics and fundamental physics on scales from the Solar System to cosmology. Deriving full value requires reliable supplementary information, especially on stellar chemical abundances. The Gaia-ESO Public Spectroscopic Survey is an example of such complementary projects, with VLT spectra for 100,000 stars. Gaia-ESO uses very many abundance analysis methods to determine both random and systematic uncertainties in stellar abundances. An overview of Gaia-ESO and some of the challenges in what one can believe will be given.
Extreme Spacecrafting: NASA's Parker Solar Probe
Tony Case, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Solar Probe Cup Instrument Scientist, and Kelly Korreck, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Science Operations Lead for SWEAP Instrument Suite aboard Parker Solar Probe In July 2018, NASA will launch a satellite 60 years in the making. The hottest mission under the Sun will visit - the Sun! It is an extreme mission - the fastest human-made object that will travel closest to the Sun at the hottest operating temperatures in history. Learn what went into building this satellite with Dr. Kelly Korreck, who will describe the strange Sun behavior that this mission aims to explain, and Dr. Tony Case, who will discuss the bravest instrument on board that peeks around the spacecraft's protective sun shade: the Solar Probe Cup. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
A Ripple, a Flash and a Bang: The Story of Two Neutron Stars
HD 1080p Peter Blanchard and Ashley Villar, PhD Candidates, Astrophysics, Harvard University Recently, astronomers and physicists around the world turned their eyes and "ears" towards an incredible event in the night sky. For the first time, we detected the collision of two neutron stars using both traditional telescopes and a gravitational wave detector called LIGO/Virgo. This event triggered a so-called "kilonova" - an event so powerful that it forged gold weighing half as much as Jupiter. Peter Blanchard and Ashley Villar will help unravel the mystery behind gravity waves, neutron stars, and this exciting event. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
How to Hold a Dead Star in Your Hand
Kimberly Arcand, CfA, Visualization Lead for NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory; Tom Sgouros, Manager of the Brown University Virtual Reality Lab Objects in space are rather far away. The Moon is our closest celestial neighbor at nearly a quarter million miles from Earth, and the nearest star, our Sun, is 93 million miles away. These extreme distances mean that it’s usually impossible to touch real objects in space (meteorites that fall to the ground notwithstanding). But now, thanks to data from some of our favorite observatories, anyone can hold a dead star in their hand. Here’s how. Arcand, of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, will talk about the process of creating the first data-based 3D model and print of an exploded star. At the end of Arcand's talk, she will be joined by Tom Sgouros, a researcher with and on virtual reality at the Brown University Center for Computation and Visualization. Arcand and Sgouros have worked together to develop software, using Occulus Rift technology, allowing observers virtual first-hand experience of a supernova remnant like never before. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Space Junk: A Traffic Crisis in Outer Space?
Jonathan McDowell, CfA, Astrophysicist with Chandra X-Ray Observatory It's been 60 years since the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and space is getting busier and busier. There are over 1,500 working satellites up there, but there are also over 17,000 known pieces of orbital debris whizzing around at up to 18,000 miles an hour. McDowell will talk about the demographics of the satellite population: who is putting satellites up there, what are they doing, what the space junk is and why there's so much of it - and what can we do about it? Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe
Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics & PhD in Robotics, and Daniel Whiteson, particle physicist & researcher at CERN There are so many things we don’t know about the Universe. For example, what is most of the Universe made of? What is dark matter? Where does dark energy come from? Why does the universe have a speed limit? What (or who) is attacking earth with tiny, super-fast particles? And for that matter…what is matter? After generations of human research, brilliant scientific minds, and crazy technological advances we can confidently answer all of these questions the same way: we have no idea. In their new book "We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe," Cham and Whiteson investigate why a vast portion of our universe (read: most of it) is still a mystery, and what a lot of smart people are doing to understand it. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
First Probe to the Stars
Zac Manchester and Blakesley Burkhart, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics To quote Douglas Adams, "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is." Until now, traveling to other stars has been considered impossible. But the impossible might become reality. The audacious goal of Breakthrough Starshot is nothing less than sending a fleet of probes to the nearest star at a fraction of the speed of light. The technologies required would also open up the solar system to a new level of exploration. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Mapping the Heavens
"Mapping the Heavens" with Priyamvada Natarajan, Yale University From time immemorial humans have been charting the night sky and trying to make sense of it, and contemplating their place in the cosmos. Natarajan will recount the evolution of celestial map-making and show how maps literally track our ever-evolving cosmic view, tracing our understanding of the universe, its contents and its evolution. She also will talk about recent developments in our understanding of two invisible entities: dark matter and black holes. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The Glass Universe
"The Glass Universe," Dava Sobel's latest masterpiece, tells the story of the women who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. Hired by Edward Pickering because they were meticulous - and cheap labor - these women toiled over hundreds of thousands of glass photographic plates to carefully record the precious data contained therein. In the process, these hidden figures discovered the substance of the stars and the distances to them. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Gravitational Waves Found!
A billion years ago, two black holes collided and merged, sending powerful ripples across the fabric of space-time. In 2015 those gravitational waves reached Earth and tickled the detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). This first-ever detection of gravitational waves confirmed a long-standing prediction of Einstein's general relativity. It also was the culmination of a decades-long effort. Learn about the technical challenges of LIGO and the significance of this momentous event from one of the field's great pioneers, Rainer Weiss. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
January 2017 Observatory Night Intro
Photographing our Galaxy's Black Hole
A black hole is so dense that not even light can escape it. So we can't possibly photograph one, can we? Yes, we can. More accurately, we can observe its silhouette or shadow against the glowing disk of material it’s swallowing. The Event Horizon Telescope will unite facilities around the globe to form an Earth-sized telescope. With it, we will get our first detailed look at the giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way. And we will put Einstein’s theory to the ultimate test. Speaker: Dr. Michael Johnson Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The Care and Feeding of Monster Black Holes
OK, black holes are intimidating. Because of their intense gravity, a black hole will absorb anything, and whatever falls in effectively disappears forever, making the black hole grow bigger. Our Milky Way Galaxy hosts millions of black holes between about 3 and 10 times the mass of our Sun, but also one central super-massive black hole of 4 million solar masses. Black holes in the cores of some other galaxies have grown over cosmic time to become more massive than a billion suns. Dr. Paul Green teaches some amazing facts about black holes, and also debunks a few common misconceptions. Original music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions. Used with permission. Animations used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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