Why Iceland and Norway are on my Bucket List

As someone who is a hobbyist astrophotographer, I’ve got a laundry list of astronomical events to photograph.  Nebulas, Galaxies, star clusters, eclipses, and of course, aurorae!  Where do the best aurorae happen? Near the north and south poles, so naturally it makes sense to visit those places where there is a bit of civilization, far north or south, with clear skies.  The two places that are on my top list, outside of northern regions in my home country of Canada, are Iceland and Norway.  Here are some reasons why:




The aurora borealis are legendary in these parts of the world.  But why? wouldn’t it make more sense for me to go to the north pole? Well aside from the lack of accessibility and difficulty of surviving up there, the poles are not the best place to see aurorae.  This is because the ionization of the solar wind that creates this gorgeous glow occurs around the poles, not above them.  The middle picture above shows a ring structure around the pole.  The stronger the influx of solar wind particles, the further away from the poles we see the light show.


The best spots to observe moderate auroral activity tends to be just above the arctic circle, right where Iceland and northern Norway reside.  This is why they are the best places to see auroral activity overhead and across the entire sky.

I also love foreign culture and geographic landscapes, so in addition to the aurora, Iceland and Norway top my list for amazing features like fjords, volcanoes, and fault lines.  I’m going to go book that vacation now, I just can’t wait any longer!



Motivation Monday: Learning to Learn

There is no question that student debt is increasing.  Since 2000, student debt in North America has grown by over 500%.  Tuition goes up, cost of living goes up, and students end up with more debt.  This wouldn’t be a huge problem if wages and salaries increased proportionately, but they don’t.  There are also less jobs available for students when they graduate.  So basically the cost of everything is going up, and when you finish school you have little hope of getting a good job in your field, and even if you do, you certainly won’t be paid an appropriate amount for the debt you’ve incurred.

So why bother going to College or University at all? Why spend so much money when most of the knowledge you gain won’t be retained after a few years, especially if you don’t have a job in your field? But there is another purpose for post-secondary school.  It certainly doesn’t warrant the ridiculous tuition or the staggering debt, I’ll make that clear, but this other purpose is important, and can certainly set you up to be successful in your future career.

Post-secondary school forces you to learn how to learn.

Credit: languagehub.co.nz

When you take the leap into post-secondary studies, chances are you will live away from home, or at least spend a significant amount of time away.  You will get your first taste of true independence.  Nobody is there to tell you when you have to do anything, and if they do, they won’t force you.  It’s your first shot at being an adult.  But it comes with a lot of responsibility.

You have to feed yourself ideally healthy food, you have to manage your schedule for classes, sleep, and leisure time.  You need to take care of your living space, ensure your work is done on time, and be prepared to learn a lot of material in a very short semester.

If you don’t adapt and learn to manage these challenges, you won’t make it through, at least not very easily.  But with all these responsibilities for the first time, being able to handle them won’t mean a thing if you don’t learn to learn efficiently and independently.

In high school, teachers and parents worked to keep you doing your assignments on time, you had to attend class, and believe it or not, you were being set up for success.  But in the post-secondary world, the professors don’t check up on individual students, lectures and tutorials generally aren’t mandatory, and all the time you put in to learning the material is your own.  Professors are always willing to help those who ask and give their time to be better, but that is a very small minority of students.  I was successful in school, and I certainly didn’t ask professors for extra help, even though it would have benefited me greatly.

So if you don’t know how to teach yourself, be driven, work hard, and remember the new material on your own time, you  can’t succeed.  Being successful in college means learning the best methods for you to retain information.  It means being socially active and finding friends and other students who you can work with to learn more efficiently.  It means managing time and learning to be an independent adult.

If you successfully gain these skills, then your post-secondary career will have been worth it, because real learning doesn’t end when your four years are up.  Real learning begins when you hit the real world.  And you had better know how to do it efficiently, because you’ll only gain more responsibility and more challenges when the working world comes knocking.

And don’t forget to have fun, you only get this level of freedom once!

Planetary Nebulae

Some of the most gorgeous, ghostly, and variable objects in the universe are planetary nebulae.  They are all formed in a similar process, as a low-mass star (like our Sun) sheds it’s outer layers of gas and dust, heating them to a glow as they disperse over hundreds of millions of years.  A few Billion years from now, the Sun will undergo the same major state change.  When this happens, perhaps other species in the far future will gaze upon it and marvel at its beauty.

One of the difficulties in studying a planetary nebula is measuring it’s distance from Earth.  But with a new elegant relation, a team of astronomers from the university of Hong Kong have found an accurate way to measure their distance, and along with it, other interesting properties like their size.

A collage showing 22 individual planetary nebulae artistically arranged in approximate order of physical size. The scale bar represents 4 light years. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, ESO, Ivan Bojicic, David Frew, Quentin Parker

Lead author Dr. David Frew, from the University of Hong Kong, said: “For many decades, measuring distances to Galactic planetary nebulae has been a serious, almost intractable problem because of the extremely diverse nature of the nebulae themselves and their central stars. But finding those distances is crucial if we want to understand their true nature and physical properties.”

The new relation involves taking measurements of only the projected size of the object on the sky, it’s measured brightness, and an estimate of how much dimming it experiences from interstellar dust and gas between the nebula and Earth.  Once they determine how far away the object is, combining it with the apparent size of the object on the sky reveals it’s actual size in light years.  Calculations of the sizes of several planetary nebulae were done by the astronomers and used to produce the above image of the relative sizes of a sample of bright and beautiful objects.

“Our new scale is the first to accurately determine distances for the very faintest planetaries” said Dr Frew. “Since the largest nebulae are the most common, getting their distances right is a crucial step.”



A Full 360 on Pluto and Charon

As the results from Pluto and its system of moons continues to pour in, we are seeing a lot of scientists keeping busy in excitement as they interpret the data and work to understand the complexities of the recently illuminated dwarf planet.  The fascinating images that have returned have also been interpreted and manipulated in ways that show fascinating features and unexpected views.  A recent rendering shows a complete rotation of Pluto and Charon from images taken by New Horizons.

On approach in July 2015, the cameras on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured Pluto rotating over the course of a full “Pluto day.” The best available images of each side of Pluto taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

On approach to the Pluto system in July 2015, the cameras on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured images of the largest of Pluto’s five moons, Charon, rotating over the course of a full day. The best currently available images of each side of Charon taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation of the moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Since it takes Pluto 6 days, 9 hours, and 36 minutes to rotate, New Horizons couldn’t take high resolution images of the entire world during it’s speedy fly-by.  The blurrier parts of the images are from pictures taken by New Horizons up to a week before closest approach.

Still, it gives us a full view of the dwarf planet and its largest moon, allowing us to look at its features as a whole and identify strange or surprising ones.

It’s sad to think that it will be a few decades before we get to see the full splendour of these alien worlds in high definition, but I am hopeful that in my lifetime, we will return to the Plutonian system with a plethora of new knowledge and science goals, and clear objectives to help us determine how our solar system came together.


A Hunter and Lions

I love living in Canada.  We have skies that can be free of light pollution with only a short trip outside the cities, and vast areas of land where you can really get away and enjoy the majesty of the cosmos.  I occasionally peruse the Canadian made Skynews magazine, and one of my favourite parts is the section where they showcase the work of Canadian astrophotographers.  It gives me hope as an amateur astrophotographer myself to eventually get to that level.  One of the local Astronomy clubs I visited recently is the North York Astronomical Association, a group of amateur astronomers who are very interested and skilled when it comes to photographing the night sky.  I was blown away by some of the images.  I was lucky enough to give them a talk about Mars and pick their brains on some of my own challenges with photography.  After all of this a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see today’s APOD, which is a photo by one of their members, Malcolm Park, taken at their private observatory outside the city.

Image Credit & Copyright: Malcolm Park (North York Astronomical Association)

I love this shot because of the multiple parts all coming together.  The pale view of the outer edge of our Milky way just left of center, the nebulas of Orion the hunter, the meteors of the Leonid shower, the observatory dome, and the glow of the cities that line lake Ontario.  I especially love the bright fireball meteor seen close to the horizon, and the reflection of its light on the water.  Amazing how much brighter they can be than the average meteor.

Someday I hope to be skilled enough to take a photo that is chosen for the APOD, but before I get there, you can bet members of the North York Astronomical Association will be represented again.

Happy Friday!