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M42 from Sydney

Image of M 42 (The Orion Nebula) from my backyard, 15 km North from Sydney’s city center, on 10th Mar 2020.

Equipment: Skywatcher Black Diamond 80 (F=600mm, f/7.5), Skywatcher AZ-EQ6 (mount), ZWO ASI178MC (main camera), ZWO ASI120MM + Orion 50mm guidescope (guiding), 2″ UHD Optolong filter, and ASIair controlling everythin (using my son’s iPad).

This image combines 60 x 20s light frames, and 21 x 20s dark frames. Aligned and stacked with SiriL, stretching, colour contrast, saturation, levels, and luminosity with Photoshop.

Full resolution image in my Flickr.

Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO-MQ).

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Test of M8 from Sydney

Test image of M 8 (The Lagoon Nebula) from my backyard, 15 km North from Sydney’s city center, on 21st Aug 2019.

That was my first attempt to get the new equipment working. I was testing the Skywatcher AZ-EQ6 mount and the ZWO ASI120MM (guiding) and ZWO ASI178MC (main camera) with the ASIair. But I had plenty of problems to get the guiding working as the mount was not properly aligned to the South Celestial Pole (over Sydney, very difficult to see the faint stars using the polar scope of the mount). I had to use the drift method. After that, getting the ASIair properly guiding was hard as I couldn’t find any easy manual and never used PHD for guiding before.

This image combines 25 (of a series of 60) good 180s frames using the ZWO 183MC and my Skywatcher Black Diamond 80 (F=600mm, f/7.5. No darks, flats, biases or light pollution filter was used for this.

Later it was also tricky for me to play with the raw data: I have never used a color camera producing .FITS files before! It took me some time to get a good free(*) software for it and I found Siril. But the “bayer” decomposition didn’t work well with the ZWO cameras and my images had very weird colours.

In March 2020 I learnt a couple of extra things, including changing the bayer matrix from RGGB to GBRG for ZWO cameras and… bingo! So here it is the test image I got that night more than half a year ago! And still testing the equipment!

Ah, yes, stretching, colour contrast, saturation, levels, and luminosity with Photoshop.

Full resolution image in my Flickr.

Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO-MQ).

(*) Don’t get me wrong… I’ll get PixInsight eventually, when I get everything working well.

Amateur Astrophotography from Siding Spring Observatory in March 2020

OK, I’m trying something different here today.

Instead of just providing the link to the Twitter thread, I’m compiling all the tweets I sent about my amateur astronomy session at Siding Spring Observatory last night, 1st March 2020, while finally testing my new equipment (mount and cameras) from a dark place.

The Twitter thread starts here.

Preparing my telescopes for playing tonight 😉

ESOz2020 Conference

Between 17 and 21 February 2020 I participated in the international conference “2ND AUSTRALIA-ESO JOINT CONFERENCE: The build-up of galaxies through multiple tracers and facilities” ESOz2020, hosted by ICRAR at University of Western Australia in Perth.

 

As usual I got my notes using tweets. Well, here you have the links to the compilation of those tweets for each of the days.

 

 

My talk was on Tuesday afternoon, in case you’re interested.

 

From here I want to congratulate the LOC of this conference as it was very well organised and they did a great job. I particularly want to thank Claudia Lagos (ICRAR-UWA) for her hard work on this as chair of both the SOC and the LOC.

 

The Betelgeuse hype

Although we are “enjoying” the Christmas break, today I’ve been contacted (thanks to Rami Mandow @CosmicRami) by Kelsie Iorio, an ABC News Digital journalist who was preparing an article about the situation of the red supergiant Betelgeuse.

The article published in ABC News, entitled “Is Betelgeuse, the red giant star in the constellation Orion, going to explode?“, can be found in this link. It includes comments from Rami Mandow, Associate Professor Michael Brown from Monash University’s School of Physics and Astronomy and myself, with some other tweets from several astrophysicists who are talking about the “mysterious dimming of Betelgeuse“.

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse in Orion was the very first star after the Sun we got a direct image of its surface. That is because it is a huge star: if it were where the Sun is its outer layers will reach the orbit of Jupiter! This image was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. More info in the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) on April 19th, 1998. Credit: A. Dupree (CfA), R. Gilliland (STScI), FOC, HST, NASA.

But I want to share with you my full interview here, and keep it for my records, so here it goes.

The Betelgeuse hype

Interviewer: Kelsie Iorio  (ABC News Digital )

Interviewee: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO-MQ)

Q: For those who don’t know, what is Betelgeuse and what is it doing at the moment that’s out of the ordinary?

Betelgeuse is a bright star in the famous constellation of Orion the Hunter. It is a red supergiant star, meaning that it is star that is much more massive than our Sun (10 – 15 times) and that is already in the latest stages of its live. The star will eventually explode as a (type II) supernova. We astrophysicists know this will happen “soon”, but “soon” in Astronomy means 100 thousands years or perhaps even more.

During the last month observers worldwide have measured a dimming in the brightness of Betelgeuse.

This is actually completely ordinary, as it is well known and documented that Betelgeuse is a variable star (that means that it’s periodically changing its brightness).

Social media has again played a role here with the “hype” of the brightness of Betelgeuse: it is a normal situation that is happening at the moment and we can explain the dimming of Betelgeuse in many ways (a small shrinking of its huge size, solar spots, magnetic activity, a combination of factors) without the need of thinking that is going to explode now.

But people have been talking about that and many of them would love to see Betelgeuse explode! (I do not).

 

Q: Why is the astronomy world so excited about what’s happening?

If Betelgeuse really explodes as a supernova this would be a great opportunity for use to study how massive stars explode and get a better understanding of stellar evolution and stellar interiors. It will create a point-like object as bright as the Moon that would be visible even during the day, that will be fading during months till disappear.

However I must insist: the dimming of the brightness is the typical behaviour of the star. It is periodically changing its brightness and it has had this “low” brightness in the past. Even Aboriginal Australian knew this star changed brightness!

 

Q: Can we see Betelgeuse from Australia? For people who haven’t seen it or don’t know how to look for it, what does it look like from earth?

Of course! This is a star located very close to the celestial equator, meaning it can be seen essentially from everywhere (just not from the very same South Pole and around). Right now it is clearly visible to the North-East at the beginning of the night. The constellation of Orion is one of the most famous constellations of the sky and can be very easily recognised even by non-experts. Just use a stellar map (there are plenty free in internet, I recommend http://skymaps.com, and also plenty of apps) and you’ll see it. Despite it has noticeable dimmed in the last month, Betelgeuse still is one of the brightests stars in the night sky.

As any other star Betelgeuse is just a point of light, even when using a powerful telescope: stars are very, very, very far away from us to see them like a little disk. Betelgeuse is at a distance of around 700 light years.

 

Q: What do you think will happen to Betelgeuse next? Is it likely to explode?

No, it is very unlikely we see it exploding. The latest astrophysical research conducted about Betelgeuse clearly shows that it should still have a life of around 100 thousand years. Again, that is almost NOTHING in the cosmic scale, but a lot for us.

As it has done plenty of times in the past, Betelgeuse will eventually gain brightness again and all will be back to usual, continuing being sometimes a bit brighter sometimes a bit dimmer during the rest of all our own lifetimes.

 

Q: Is what’s happening with Betelgeuse a rare event?

No, it is not a rare event.

There are PLENTY of variable stars in the sky. A nice example is the star Mira in the constellation of Cetus (the Whale). This star sometimes can be easily seen with the naked eye and sometimes it is imposible to see, needing binoculars or telescopes to detect it. And it is not going to explode as supernova!

 

Q: Do you believe it’s important for the wider public to have a basic knowledge of astronomy and understand what’s happening in situations like this? Why?

I think it is important because everyone loves Astronomy but nowadays it is very easy to be confused because of the mixed bag of content found in social media and the internet.

I could tell the story about why supermoon are NOT a thing, but that is for another time (or read it here: https://angelrls.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/supermoons/)

 

Article in ABC News: “Is Betelgeuse, the red giant star in the constellation Orion, going to explode?“, Kelsie Iorio, 28th December 2020.

The only Earth

This is the English adaptation of the article I published in Diario Córdoba newsletter last Sunday, 15th December 2019, which I have also compiled in my personal blog in the Naukas science communication network. It has some references to the situation of the light pollution in Spain but unfortunately this also applies to the majority of the countries of the developed world.

A couple of weeks ago my six-year-old son had to make his first speech in front of his classmates. It is a very common practice in Australia and in other English countries: from a very young age students are encouraged to briefly and concisely discuss their thoughts regarding a particular topic in public. My son chose the topic “how can we care about the environment?”, that we developed together (obviously, you can’t ask to a six-year-old child to do something like this on his own the very first time). He rehearsed during days. In his speech my son wanted to emphasize “the 3 Rs“: “reduce, reuse and recycle.” It was evident that at some point during the course they had talked about it in class, and certainly sometimes during this year he had returned from school asking for “containers and cartons to reuse them in toys or ornaments”. Ecological and environmental awareness does exist in our society, and it is indeed encouraging to see young people very committed to that. But is it enough?

Brainstorming session compiling key topics to prepare my child’s speech “What can we do to take care of the environment?”

The environmental issues are widely complex and touch on social, economic, political, scientific and even religious aspects. The World Climate Summit that has been held in Madrid these weeks demonstrates the complicated interrelationship of interests that exist when we try to really take care of our planet. Many people think that they are doing something useful but at the end of the day these are just patches to clear their conscience about their lack of actions to attack the real problem. Now, during Christmas, we all live another example of these contradictions.

Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year. As a child I waited excitedly for the gifts of the Three Wise Kings on January 6th (that is the real moment kids get their Christmas presents in Spain, as the tradition is that they are brought by the Three Wise Kings, we imported Papá Noel – Santa Clauss just recently). This day was always a great party in our house, with lots of papers and boxes to be unwrapped. Despite living now in another continent, with a slightly different culture, I try to maintain this tradition and the illusion of Christmas for my son, like so many people sure does around the world. But this year the confluence of many factors (the World Climate Summit, the rise of climate change deniers, the disastrous fires that are plaguing Australia and making Sydney the most polluted city in the world on Tuesday Dec 10th, my outrage at others environmental factors that are not taken seriously, and my son’s speech) have made me rethink everything. How much garbage do we generate in a few days? Where is this consumer society taking us?

As I couldn’t travel to Spain in 2019 I bought online several books and notebooks in Spanish for Christmas. I placed the entire order together but each book or notebook (the three packages at the bottom are thin homework notebooks in Spanish for my son, all of the same course) has come in an individual cardboard box and with a lot of extra, unwanted advertising and papers inside ? How much extra crap are we generating? By the way, 3 more packages that had not yet arrived are missing in the photo.

Indeed, Christmas has become a time of waste. You have to buy more and more things, frantically decorating houses and cities, attending large banquets (business, family, friends) in a few days. What used to be a short period of one or two weeks has now extended over two months. The shopping centers are decorated before Halloween. And the “Black Friday” is now a common practice worldwide, with people buying plenty of things online that they don’t need (and that will delivered to their homes by workers who usually are in precarious working conditions, in a cardboard box that includes plenty of unwanted publicity and other papers). Here it is the first “R” my son pointed out: we must reduce the huge amount of waste that we create.

Of course, for years now many scientists including me have been pointing out that there is an increasing huge waste of resources (of money) in Christmas lighting. Light pollution is growing  and, sponsored by the rise of LEDs, more and more Christmas lights are installed every year in our cities. I am the first one to enjoy a beautiful holiday lighting and I know that it attracts people to the streets for Christmas shopping, but aren’t they too much now? 

During the last months we have seen some politicians of Spanish major cities boasting about “my Christmas lighting is the best”. The facilities began to be installed in September, with millions of LEDs everywhere. It has been estimated that about 10% of the annual electricity bill of a large city in Spain is going into Christmas lighting. Apart from the most correct use that money could be given, this means a great contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And it is more: the scientific studies are demonstrating that LEDs (which are replacing the low-pressure sodium lights, the most energy efficient and the least polluting of lights) are substantially impacting the fauna, flora and ourselves. An increasing of cancers are being detected in places with excessive lighting. Blue light (the dominant one in most LEDs that are being installed in cities around the world) inhibits the creation of melatonin, which is the hormone that controls our sleep and circadian rhythm. Light pollution is another major environmental problem, perhaps not publicly known as other types of pollution, but that must be taken into account and mitigated with appropriate laws and regulations. On this point it is interesting to note that the Spanish Network of Studies of Light Pollution has requested this month the total paralysis and reconstruction of the Royal Decree in which the Regulation of energy efficiency of outdoor lighting installations is approved, as it contains fundamental errors and the complete absence of scientific criteria in its elaboration.

Protesters in Madrid during the UN Climate Summit COP 25, on Friday, December 6, 2019, with the contrast of the exaggerated lighting of Madrid’s buildings, even more for Christmas. I have not found the credit of the image, a thousand apologies to the author, although I asked on Twitter and tried.

As a scientist I don’t believe in climate change. I don’t believe in it because the verb to believe means “to have something for sure without knowing it directly or without it being proven or proven” (definition of the “Real Academia Española”, the “Royal Spanish Academy”). As a scientist who has read and contrasted the observations and studies that have been done on the effect of the emission of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere by burning fossil fuels in human activities during the past 200 years, I do have the absolute knowledge that climate change is real. Scientists have been warning the society for decades, and we have clearly known that global warming is not due to external factors, such as changing the brightness of the Sun, the Earth’s orbit, or even the movement of the Sun around the Milky Way. Global warming and its consequences, climate change, is undoubtedly the product of human activity.

Comparison of solar irradiance on the Earth (yellow) with the average temperature of the planet (in red) since 1880. The thick lines show the average in periods of 11 years. Variations (maximum 0.15%) of the total irradiance of the Sun on Earth show the small oscillations of 11 years due to the solar cycle. The change in the brightness of the Sun does not explain the increase of around 1 degree Celsius of the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere from the beginning of the 20th Century to the present. Credit: NASA.

Our society is not environmentally sustainable. Crossed interests and our own daily habits make extremely difficult to solve the environmental problems. Maybe first we all have to become aware of them. During the World Climate Summit in Madrid the last weeks some absurd things have been proposed (such as removing the emoji of plastic bottles of non-reusable cups with plastic straws), interesting ideas have been discussed (such as green bus stops, investigations of bacteria that consume carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, or ecological bags) and very contradictory images have been seen (such as the large mass demonstration of young people with banners for a green and sustainable world in a Madrid absolutely overflowed with lights, and not just Christmas lights).

But the only way to really deal with the problem is to change our energy model. We must really invest in renewable energy (especially solar) and also in nuclear energy (which has been scientifically proven safe) and ban coal, gas, petrol and oil. Some politicians and governments (Germany, New Zealand) are taking the problem of climate change seriously and are proposing good measures. Other countries like Spain are there there. And some countries including the United States and Australia try to ignore it.

We are not going to destroy the Earth. Climate change affects us as a global civilization, but not the planet itself. Certainly, we are killing the Earth’s enormous biodiversity, but we, the human beings, will be the most affected because of climate change, with hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people who will have to escape from their homes, becoming refugees elsewhere. Wars will happen, water will be a luxury product, and our descendants will look at us without believing that we had in our hands to stop this madness and we did nothing to stop it. 

There are many important problems in the world, and many others local problems that seem to be important but they may not be. But, with total certainty, the most important challenge that Humanity is currently facing is stopping, and I’m not saying inverting, global warming. Only the combination of the personal effort of every citizen by changing our exaggerated consumption habits and the institutional effort strongly promoting a change in the energy model of our societies can achieve this.

The Earth seen by Apollo 17 in the last crewed mission to the Moon. The photo was taken 5 hours after takeoff, on December 7, 1972. This image is known as “The Blue Marble” (Credit: NASA / Apollo 17).

I conclude with the same reflections that my six-year-old son left at the end of his speech. “No other planet in the Solar System, not even Mars, and none of the more than 4000 planets that astronomers have discovered around other stars are like Earth. We have to take care of our home world. It is the only Earth we will ever know.

Talking with Spanish students in Sydney

Today I’ve done something I would have not expected to do in Australia: I gave a talk in Spanish! In my 12+ years living and working in this country I can only think in 2 occasions I did something like this: in 2009 I gave an informal talk about my research for the staff at the Spanish Embassy in Canberra, and in 2011 I gave an invited science seminar to researchers of the Spanish polar research vessel “BIO Hespérides” when it was docked at Sydney’s Harbour.

Today I’ve been with the very enthusiastic young students of ALCE “Australia Lengua y Cultura Española” as part of the science communication activities that we do at SRAP-IEAP (Spanish Researchers in Australia-Pacific, Investigadores Españoles en Australia-Pacífico). It was in the Willoughby classroom (Sydney), thanks to the invitation of the ALCE Director, Raquel Pardo. I was talking about the Solar System (in perspective, not only the Sun and the planets) plus I answered many of the questions about stars, galaxies, black holes and the universe they had.

1/3 of the ALCE students after my talk at the ALCE Willoughby classroom on 27th Nov 2019. They were so excited about Astronomy we didn’t take a single photo during the event! It was at the very end, when 2/3 of them have already gone and I was starting to pack up, when we realised we didn’t have taken any photo! And, yes, my son is there (it is easy to see who he is). Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez. 

As an extra I had a very special helper: my very own son, who, you know, loves the planets and the moon. It was a great experience for him as he had to say all of it in Spanish in front of other people. Plus, that was awesome, he was actually showing in the slides what I was talking about… I was very happy about it as we didn’t rehearsal anything!