Sky Watch

At Symposium, a Star Search Comes to Life

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 6, 2003; Page B02

Chris Impey is looking for life on all the right planets. He's confident that within 10 years, life in the universe can be found.

"With 100 billion billion stars in the universe, it's a numbers game at some level," he says. "The odds are that an Earthlike place has happened elsewhere. We shouldn't be surprised to find life."

To examine the cosmos from different perspectives, Impey, a University of Arizona astronomer, will join other prominent scientists in a free public symposium, "The Universe From the Ground Up," sponsored by the National Science Foundation. It will be held tomorrow and Wednesday at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert St. NW.

In his talk, Impey will explain how cosmic microbial life may possibly be found on faraway planets by examining the spectrum of light reflecting off them. Perhaps an astronomer using the Large Binocular Telescope, still under construction in Safford, Ariz., will make that discovery, he says. Using ground-based spectroscopy, astronomers will look for ozone, oxygen and chlorophyll-edge evidence, which are key ingredients to spawning life.

Harvard astronomer Robert Kirshner will begin the symposium with a talk, "Unusual Views of Familiar Objects," tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in the Shoreham's Palladian Room.

On Wednesday, two local scientists, Sara Seager and Alan Boss, both of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, will participate in a panel discussion on "Life: The Quest for Other Worlds." Both Boss and Seager search for evidence of extra-solar planets. Boss models star and planetary system formation, while Seager examines the atmospheres of planets deep in the cosmos. Impey's talk follows Boss and Seager.

Other topics will include solar astronomy, ground-based gravitational wave astronomy, and neutrino and dark matter research.

For symposium information, a complete agenda, and free online registration, go to the NSF Web site: Ground-based Astronomy in the 21st Century (archived presentations).

Meanwhile, Mars still stands bright at dusk in the southeastern sky this month. Our reddish neighbor, very bright for the past few months, dims throughout October. It starts the month at negative second magnitude (very bright) and ends at negative first magnitude (bright). The planet begins its nightly trek in the southeast and travels across the southern sky during prime evening hours.

The gaseous ringed planet Saturn is a late-night object, rising before midnight in the eastern heavens. This zero-magnitude planet is bright enough to see from light-polluted urban areas.

Early risers can catch Jupiter in the hour before sunrise. The large ball of gas can be seen high in the eastern sky, at negative first magnitude (bright), before dawn washes it away. It will rise earlier and climb higher for the rest of the year, making it a prime object to view in the post-midnight hours.

As promised, Venus makes a return to the evening heavens late in October. Find this lovely planet in the west-southwestern sky after dusk.

Venus, at negative third magnitude, appears to move away from the sun and is visible to us longer in November and December.

Down-to-Earth Events:

Oct. 5 -- Astronomer Stef McLaughlin will talk on "Extrasolar Planets" at the University of Maryland's observatory on Metzerott Road, College Park. 9 p.m. Information, 301-405-6555;

Oct. 16 -- Howard Astronomical League meets at the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, 7120 Oakland Mills Rd., Columbia. 7:30 p.m. Information, 410-531-3899;

Oct. 18 -- View the heavens with astronomer Sean O'Brien of the National Air and Space Museum at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va. Dusk to 11 p.m. Information and directions, 540-592-3556; Sky Meadows.

Oct. 18 -- Tour the night sky at the Howard Astronomical League's public star party at Alpha Ridge Park in Marriottsville. Dusk-11 p.m., weather permitting. Information and directions, 410-531-3899;

Oct. 18 -- Does anybody really know what time it is? Maybe, if they use a polarization sundial, which will be explained at the Montgomery College Planetarium in Takoma Park. Parking available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. Information, 301-650-1463; Montgomery College Planetarium.

Oct. 18 -- Gaze at Mars and other sky objects at the "Exploring the Sky" event presented by the National Capital Astronomers and the National Park Service. At Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 7:30 p.m. 202-895-6070;

Oct. 20 -- Astronomer Ed Schmahl discusses "High Energy Events on the Sun" at the University of Maryland's observatory College Park. 9 p.m. Information, 301-405-6555;

Oct. 22 -- Geologist Ross Irwin discusses "Chemistry of the Martian Surface." Meet at the museum seal in the lobby of the National Air and Space Museum. Noon. 202-357-2700;

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