PostHeaderIcon Solstice Park, West Seattle

The solstice is on its way! Although there may be celebrations and fun all over Seattle, there is at least one place where you can actually measure the astronomical significance of the longest day of the year: Solstice Park in West Seattle.

Solstice Park Overlook Credit: Jason Gift Enevoldsen

Solstice Park Overlook Credit: Jason Gift Enevoldsen

You’ve never heard of Solstice Park?

It’s been there since July 2005 – across the street from Lincoln Park, but I have to admit, I only just visited for the first time on Thursday. I loved it. At the top of the hill are stonework and earthworks aligned for sunset on the winter solstice, the summer solstice, and the equinoxes.

Sunset on June 11, 2009 Credit: Jason Gift Enevoldsen

Sunset on June 11, 2009 Credit: Jason Gift Enevoldsen

Credit: Jason Gift Enevoldsen
Sunset on June 11, 2009

As you can see, during this sunset the Sun isn’t setting quite perfectly above the summer solstice marker, and that’s because the photo was taken ten days before the solstice.

How to get there

Solstice Park is at 7400 Fauntleroy Way SW in Seattle. It used to be called “Lincoln Park Annex” and it still has six tennis courts right beside Fauntleroy, so that should help you find it. There are about 13 parking spaces on the south side of the park, and one handicapped spot at the end of a dead-end street near the top of the park.

Map of Solstice Park

Map of Solstice Park

Once you’re in the park there are trails that lead up to the overlook: you’ll walk past the tennis courts, through the P-Patch and continue on up the hill. When the trail ends go five more feet to enter the stonework circle and get the best views of sunset.

The trail up to the overlook, through the P-Patch

The trail up to the overlook, through the P-Patch


As of June 2009, the park is open from 4am to 11:30pm, giving you plenty of time for stargazing, unlike many city parks. If you’re looking for dark skies within the Seattle city limits, this is one of the better public places I’ve been to. The trails are unlit, and as long as you stay behind the middle of the overlook, the tennis court lights are shielded from view.
You have an almost perfect western horizon from south southwest to north northwest. The eastern horizon is blocked to about 35 degrees, but that helps cut out the light pollution from Seattle proper.

Want More?

Stop by Pacific Science Center and take a look at our sundial.

Where’d I Get My Info?

Solstice Park Official Website

A review by Nerd’s Eye View

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Animal Astronomy

by Guest Writer Sophie Arlow

Many people assume that astronomy is solely a human endeavor. After all, we have named constellations, created telescopes, and even landed on the Moon. However, humans are not the only species to use astronomy – from the Moon and stars to magnetic fields, animals also use information from the earth and skies.

The Mystery of Magnetite

What do salmon, dolphins, sea turtles, and whales have in common? These animals share much more than an underwater habitat – all are believed to use a mineral called magnetite to assist in navigation and migration. Magnetite is a special type of iron oxide which, as you might have guessed, is magnetic! Early humans used naturally-occurring deposits of magnetite, called lodestones, as primitive compasses.

Some specialized types of aquatic bacteria contain magnetite, which scientists hypothesize allows them to tell up from down. When exposed to a strong magnetic field, these bacteria all align perfectly, like miniature compass needles. On a larger scale, whales, dolphins, and salmon use magnetite to navigate deep below the water’s surface, where landmarks and visual cues like the sun and stars are not visible.

Expert Nautical Navigators

A serious contender for the title of most skilled animal navigator is the loggerhead sea turtle. Loggerhead hatchlings, only two inches long, emerge from their eggs, dig themselves out of the ground, and, with no help from their parents or other turtles, enter the ocean to begin their spectacular journey. Over a period of several years, loggerhead turtles travel more than 9,000 miles, spanning entire oceans before returning home to coastal regions in North America.

Loggerhead turtles travel over 9,000 miles in the Atlantic Ocean, guided by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Loggerhead turtles travel over 9,000 miles in the Atlantic Ocean, guided by the Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: UNC Biology

How do hatchlings, never having seen the ocean before, maintain their headings across a vast expanse of often-featureless ocean? As hatchlings reach the water, they begin swimming directly into ocean waves until they are several miles from shore. At this point, hatchlings must use a new navigation method: orienting themselves using the Earth’s magnetic field. It also seems that they have a built-in magnetic map that guides them throughout their migration and allows them to return to the exact location where they hatched to lay their eggs.

How is this amazing feat possible? Scientists aren’t entirely sure. However, they do know that sea turtles’ brains contain tiny crystals of magnetite, which may allow them to sense the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. This could enable them to find their way across thousands of miles of ocean and return to their birthplace decades later.

Moon Phases Trigger Coral Blooms

The Moon also influences various animals – including those in the sea! Coral reefs (made of huge colonies of coral – a tiny invertebrate animal closely related to a sea anemone) usually spawn once a year. For such a rare event, the coral polyps need to synchronize exactly when they release their gametes.

One trigger that helps them stay in synch is the phase of the Moon. One coral reef in the Caribbean spawns every year on the eighth day after the full Moon in August. That’s pretty specific. Other coral reefs are triggered by different Moon phases, but water temperature, currents, and tides also influence exactly when the coral bloom happens.


Magnetic Bacteria
The Innovations Report

Sea Turtle Navigation
University of North Carolina Sea Turtle Research
National Geographic Today – Animal Migration

Coral Blooms

PostHeaderIcon Mars as Big as the Moon 09 #2

Okay, I couldn’t resist. For all of you out there who have also been trying to educate folks about the Mars Hoax for years, I’ve created a brief respite.

As you know, this year’s version is going around as a PowerPoint. Once you’ve seen the hoax PowerPoint, you might enjoy my … “corrected” version. If you’re squeamish about random .pps files from the internet, I’ve attached still .jpgs here, but they’re not as cool – there aren’t any annoying animations to click through. The effect just isn’t the same. Enjoy!

Fixed PPT Slide 1

Fixed PPT Slide 1 (well, actually, Mars rises around 2 or 3am, but it starts to get light not that long after that so it might as well be nowhere in sight!)

Fixed PPT Slide 2

Fixed PPT Slide 2

Fixed PPT Slide 3

Fixed PPT Slide 3

Fixed PPT Slide 4

Fixed PPT Slide 4

Fixed PPT Slide 5

Fixed PPT Slide 5

Fixed PPT Slide 6

Fixed PPT Slide 6

This really doesn’t follow my rules when it comes to talking to people about the Mars hoax. Mainly it doesn’t let you down easy, and it doesn’t validate the excitement generated by the e-mails. I just made it for fun, and mostly for those who already know.

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Mars as Big as the Moon (2009 edition) – Still Not True

It’s back, and it’s more compelling than ever this year. My best post is last year’s. I have also made a corrected version of the e-mail that’s going around in the next post.

  • First off: Mars will NOT be as big as the Moon this August (or any August).
  • Secondly: Wouldn’t it be cool if it was? Well – it would look cool, but I’d be concerned about the gravitational effects on the Earth.
  • Thirdly: Would you like something cool to look for this August instead? Something real? How about the Perseid Meteor Shower? It peaks on August 12th, after midnight. Look Northeast. You can make as many wishes as you like on all those “shooting stars” – you could even wish for the Mars Hoax to come true, if you like.
  • Lastly: If you’re bent on seeing Mars, wait until December 2009, and you’ll see it rising in the East mid-evening. It will look like a bright-ish slightly-orange star.

Here are some quickie details:

  • Mars is at opposition with Earth (as close as we get) every 26 months.
  • This hoax has been going around every August since 2003.

Curious about how that opposition slips against Earth years? Here’s a short overview courtesy of the Students of Exploration and Development of Space.

  • In 2003 Mars was at opposition in August, and it WAS close, from an astronomical point of view. It wasn’t actually all that exciting for the average viewer.
  • In 2004 Mars was not at opposition.
  • In 2005 Mars was at opposition in early November.
  • In 2006 Mars was not at opposition.
  • In 2007 Mars was at opposition in late December.
  • In 2008 Mars was not at opposition.
  • In 2009 Mars will not be at opposition (this one slips to January 2010).
  • In 2010 Mars will be at opposition in January.

Mars Hoax ’09

This year the e-mail is going around as a PowerPoint attachment, complete with all the PowerPoint bells and whistles you could ever wish to avoid.

This is the PowerPoint file if you really want to see it. I’m not sure I’d trust it to be virus-free if I were you, but I did scan it for viruses, and didn’t find anything: MARS.pps. If you’d rather not risk it – screen-shots of the slides without their animated glory follow.

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 1

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 1

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 2

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 2

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 3

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 3

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 4

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 4

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 5

Mars Hoax PowerPoint 2009 Page 5

Anyway, more info on the history of this hoax is here.

And some further links from other people:

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon A Few Good Links

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, is having an astrophotography contest over at his blog. It is sponsored by Discover Magazine and Celestron. It should be fun, and there are good prizes!

also –

Carnival of Space #103 – over at ChandraBlog has lots of good Hubble links.

Carnival of Space #104 – at Mang’s Bat Page with some cool info on planes and rockets, as well as some great photos.


Carnival of Space #105 – hosted by Space Disco also has photos of a number of the featured bloggers! Also, interesting articles and an e-mail with very strange title.

I’m not in any of them, but I will be soon, and check out what others are saying while I’m quiet.

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon AstroInfo is One Year Old!

Well how about that, Alice’s AstroInfo has been live on the internet for a whole year! How exciting!

Time for a brief history lesson, and then we’ll get to the cake.


AstroInfo didn’t begin as a blog. A few years ago, while I was still in school, Steve White wrote several one-page papers for the planetarians of the Pacific Science Center to help them be more on top of some of the cool current goings-on Out There in space. These pages were lovingly referred to as “Fornax Facts.” (or was it “Fornax’s Facts”? I can’t remember). You see, planetarians at Pacific Science Center have code-names that we usually choose for ourselves. I happen to be called Altair, Steve is Fornax, Holly is Amalthea … etc. Well, Steve got an awesome full-time job teaching Calculus (he still stops by now and then to do some shows of his own), and the job of answering staff questions came to me.

Soon thereafter the IAU made their epic decision regarding Pluto. Most people were confused, or they understood it, but were having trouble making the explanation straightforward enough to include in the limited time we have in a planetarium show. So I wrote the first AstroInfo though I hadn’t quite named it that yet (I’m sorry, it looks like the whole article didn’t come through the transfer, I’ll work on fixing that). That article came out on August 25th, 2006.

Well, almost two years later I had amassed quite a few AstroInfos, and in addition to e-mailing them out to staff and other interested parties I decided to put them up on the internet for anyone who might be interested. Phil Plait and Pamela Gay were hosting a workshop at the 2007 Astronomical Society of the Pacific/American Astronomical Society meeting on astronomy education in cyberspace. They convinced me that Facebook was not an evil, privacy-invading organization, that it could indeed be (carefully) used as a tool, and they suggested WordPress as a good place to start a blog.

Well, I’ve come quite a way: AstroInfo is now hosted on its own site, running WordPress, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook.

I promised you cake

You already know that I like recipes, so here’s a good one. The measurements are American and Fahrenheit. I apologize to those of you who live elsewhere. To make up for this, the cake is Milk-, Egg-, Soy- , Peanut-, and Nut-free (M,E,S,P,N in Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network speak).

Ugly Cake

via my friend Corinne Cooley

  • 1 ½ Cup Flour
  • 1/3 Cup Carob or Flour (or cocoa powder)
  • 1 Tsp Baking soda
  • ½ Tsp Salt
  • 1 Cup Sugar
  • 1 ¼ Cup Water
  • ¼ Cup Canola Oil
  • 2 Tsp Vanilla
  • 2 Tbsp Vinegar

Mix dry ingredients in 8in circle pan or 9x9in square pan.
Mix wet ingredients. Stir into dry ingredients.
Bake for 45 minutes at 350°F

Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 45 minutes


This is the world’s easiest and most flexible cake recipe. Double it. Triple it. Make it into muffins. Top it with brown frosting  and as many colors of sprinkles as you can find (this is where the name “Ugly” cake comes from).

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Carnival of Space (#101, #102)

Oops, I have some catching up to do:

Go see Carnival of Space #101 at Robot Explorers


Carnival of Space #102 – at The Spacewriter’s Ramblings

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Sunspots

I’ve gotten several questions about sunspots and the Sun lately, so I’m going to start off with a post about the basics of sunspots. Enjoy, but remember, NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN without proper eye-protection.

What is a sunspot?

Let’s use George Fisher’s words: “A sunspot is a dark part of the sun’s surface that is cooler than the surrounding area. It turns out it is cooler because of a strong magnetic field…”

Why is it darker?

Because the sunspot is cooler than the surrounding plasma of the Sun. It is actually still very hot: ‘round about 4000 Kelvin (that’s like 6750 degrees Fahrenheit).

Why is it cooler?

There is a strong loop of a magnetic field going into each pair of sunspots. This makes it harder for the plasma to flow in that area as it does elsewhere on the Sun, so the area cools down. (There’s less convection bringing hotter plasma from deeper in the Sun to the surface there).

Wait, what magnetic field? What? How is a sunspot formed anyway?

Just like the Earth, the Sun has a magnetic field. Neither the Sun’s nor the Earth’s fields are formed the way a regular magnet’s magnetic field is formed – they’re both formed like the magnetic field of an electromagnet. (There are two ways to create a magnetic field: 1. Have a magnet, or 2. Have moving electrons) In the case of the electromagnet (and the Sun and the Earth) electrons are moving, creating a magnetic field.

The Sun is made up of plasma and is very fluid, so as it spins different parts spin at different rates. (Stir your tea tomorrow morning – the tea at the sides of the cup spins around the edge of the cup a lot faster than the tea in the middle. If you have trouble seeing it add a drop of milk or food coloring as it spins. Now imagine how much more complicated that would get if you had a sphere of tea that was spinning and boiling.) That plasma that spins at different speeds is made of the electrons that are causing the Sun’s magnetic field. There are also many other motions going on within the Sun’s plasma. This makes the Sun’s magnetic field get very tangled and twisted.

Whenever a tangled loop of the Sun’s magnetic field pokes through the Sun’s photosphere we get a pair of sunspots: one at one end of the field, one at the other end of the field. These loops (and the associated spots) usually last a couple of weeks.

Part of the Sun’s magnetic field. The lines are “magnetic field lines”: a way of visualizing a magnetic field. Credit: NASA/SOHO 2002

Part of the Sun’s magnetic field. The lines are “magnetic field lines”: a way of visualizing a magnetic field. Credit: NASA/SOHO 2002

Why don’t we get “Earthspots”?

The Earth isn’t made of plasma. This makes our magnetic field less prone to tangling, and if a loop of our magnetic field DID poke through our surface we’re not hot enough or made of the right stuff for it to affect the temperature. (I’m pretty sure – maybe we should check with a solar physicist on this one).

Where’d I Get My Info?

Berkeley – Good info, well written. More advanced than what I wrote.

Universe Today


~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon May-June Sky


Notable Sky Objects


Saturn is still tilted edge-on to us, making fun telescope viewing. Look for it just below Leo’s tail. Note of interest regarding Saturn observation: Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, was the science consultant for the new Star Trek film – so when you see it keep your eyes peeled for the obvious contributions of an intelligent science consultant. If you want to watch for it, her name is 2/3 of the way through the credits, just AFTER the Klingon/Romulan language consultant.


We’ve got both gas giants this month! Jupiter will be rising late around 2am at the beginning of May and slowly creeping earlier till it rises about 10pm at the end of June. It should be shining bright for your viewing enjoyment.


June 6 – Moon will hide Antares, if you’re watching from the United States.
June 20 – Summer Solstice!

New Constellations

SCORPIUS – The Scorpion

SCIENCE: Scorpius is in the same direction as the Milky Way – so if you imagine the shape of the constellation as a teapot, the very middle of our galaxy would be the tea pouring out of that teapot. That’s where the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way is – but you’ll never see it, no matter how hard you look.
Antares (alpha scorpii) red supergiant of variable brightness with a close blue-white companion orbiting every 900 years. Means “Rival of Mars” (anti-Ares) or “Like Mars”
MYTH: To the Chinese it was a dragon; in the South Pacific, it was Maui’s fishhook used to pull up islands from the ocean floor.

The Summer Triangle (mostly):

Cygnus(the Swan) and Lyra (the Lyre/Harp) reappear, and the bright star from Aquila (Altair). The summer triangle (as you can tell by the name) will be directly overhead come summer, but now it’s low in the East, a harbinger of brighter days to come.

CYGNUS – The Swan

SCIENCE: Albireo – Cygnus’ head is the prettiest double star in the sky. Look through a telescope and it separates into a glowing gold star, and a tiny blue point. This is a good thing to suggest for people with telescopes at home.

MYTH: Do you like gory details? When his brother Phaethon was killed by Zeus and scattered all over the Earth, Cygnus picked up all the pieces. The gods laughed, calling him a “bobbing duck,” picking up all those pieces. Then they started to realize that maybe he was doing a good deed, so they put him in the sky as a “noble” bobbing duck – a swan.

LYRA – The Lyre

SCIENCE: M57, the Ring Nebula is between the bottom two stars in the constellation. It’s pretty hard to pick out, even with a small telescope, but it is a good target for larger scopes, and Hubble has a beautiful image of it.

DELPHINUS – The Dolphin

This tiny constellation is as cute as a bug’s ear … or a dolphin’s. Probably one of the easiest constellations to spot – Delphinus is isolated in a dark part of the sky near Aquila.
MYTH: The four stars that make Delphinus’ head are also called “Job’s Coffin.” You don’t often think of Christianity as the underdog, but in our sky it is: the sky is dominated by the Greek names and stories.

“Tiny” Guys

Going for the Gold? Here’re this month’s itty-bittys.
LYRA – The Lyre
CORVUS – The Crow
CRATER – The Cup
COMA BERENICES – Berenice’s Hair
LYNX – The Lynx
SEXTANS – The Sextant
HYDRA – The Sea Serpent (Big and dim)
LACERTA – The Lizard
LEO MINOR – The Small Lion (Between the Big Dipper and Leo)
SAGGITA – The Arrow
SCUTUM – The Shield
LIBRA – The Scales

Returning Constellations

BOÖTES – The Herdsman
HERCULES – Hercules
CORONA BOREALIS – The Northern Crown
VIRGO – The Virgin (or “Princess”)
LEO – The Lion
CANCER – The Crab
GEMINI – The Twins
CEPHEUS – King Cepheus
DRACO – The Dragon
URSA MAJOR – The Great Bear
URSA MINOR – The Little Bear

Where’d I Get My Info?

My memory, and Zeta Strickland

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Smithsonian Photography Contest

click! Photography Changes Everything is an online exhibit put on by the Smithsonian, and they’re looking to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy with us!

If you like photography and you like writing you might like to submit a photo and a short story.

This month’s focus: Seeing Other Worlds

Submit a photo showing how photography influences our ability to see ‘unseen’ or unfamiliar worlds to become part of this month’s focus, Seeing Other Worlds.

Some things to consider: How can photography help us see things that would otherwise go unnoticed in our everyday lives? How does micro- and macro- photography (e.g. from microscopic bacteria to galaxies far beyond the earth) change our perception of the world and our place in it? How do new imaging technologies and software (e.g. MRI’s, CAT scans, Google Earth, etc.) change what we’re able or want to see? How does photography shape awareness and shape our perception of other communities, cultures and lifestyles?

I can’t find a deadline, and I’ll bet that’s because the exhibit goes on all year, but with different themes at different times.

It’s an interesting exhibit – take a look around.

~ A l i c e !

P.S. I promise to have an astronomy post for you soon – I’m working on putting together an overview of the new sky.

Star Parties Nearby!