Oct. 20, 2010
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
|Associate professor of physics Renee James looks through the antique Alvan Clark & Sons telescope that SHSU has owned since 1884. It is currently located in the planetarium, in Farrington Building Room 102. —Photo by Samuel I. Beard, Jr.|
In Renee James’ introductory astronomy classes, she explains the vastness of space through the analogy of the sun as a baseball.
“If you shrink the universe so that sun is squished down to the size of a baseball—so that this thing that is nearly a million miles across is now four inches across—the entire solar system would fit quite nicely inside Huntsville,” the associate professor of physics said. “I’m talking between here and the courthouse. That’s our solar system.”
But there are other baseballs out there, with other solar systems; planets orbiting other stars, many of which are comparable to our sun.
“A lot of them are bigger; they’re just so far away,” she said. “It makes you feel really small. It’s a big universe out there.
“That’s one of the things that’s mind-boggling to most of the people who walk into my classroom,” she said. “A lot of people think stars are cute little sparkly things that are just hanging out not too far away, but they’re huge.”
Trying to spot an Earth-like planet amongst these “tiny” stars is the purpose of the Kepler spacecraft, which James recently wrote about in an article for Astronomy magazine. The brainchild of Bill Borucki, the spacecraft is designed to watch around 175,000 stars at once, looking for planets as they eclipse their stars in the sky.
“You can’t actually see the planet but what you can see is a tiny eclipse,” James said. “You can see the starlight gets just a little bit dimmer, then it gets a little bit brighter when the planet gets out of the way.”
The Kepler mission was named after German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, who in 1610 developed three laws that set the stage for our modern understanding of the way the solar system works. His laws described the shape of planetary orbits, the effect of a planet’s proximity to the sun on its speed, and the relationship of a planet’s year to its distance from the sun.
“It was not an easy task,” James said. “You have to try to imagine watching people walk around from a merry-go-round, and then use your information from your line of sight to the people to figure out their paths. That’s essentially what Kepler was doing because we’re on this thing (Earth) moving around the sun and yet we’re still trying to figure out the motions of things that are going around the sun. That takes some serious mathematical skills, which he had.”
In her article, which appears on the cover of the November 2010 issue of Astronomy magazine, James explains how the mission launched 391 years to the day after Kepler developed his third law of planetary motion is comparable to Kepler the man.
Both had to overcome a number of obstacles—Borucki’s with funding and team issues and Kepler’s with family losses—before they could persevere.
“Kepler was amazed by the beauty of the universe, so he just kind of patiently endured a lot of things to make the discoveries of how things orbit,” James said. “That’s what the Kepler mission is doing: watching things orbit.”
James’ article, “The Kepler Spacecraft's Search for Other Worlds,” is both a history piece and something that explains the development and goals of the mission.
“For 25 years, an astronomer (Borucki) at NASA had an idea of doing something like this and everybody told him he was crazy,” James said. “For a quarter of a century, he kept pushing the idea, and then he gathered more and more scientists around him to help work on it. Now you can fill a football stadium with the number of people who work on this.
“They finally managed to get the spacecraft up in 2009 and within nine days, it had discovered five new planets,” James said.
While James said the discovery of new planets happens rather often these days, its mission is to find an Earth-like planet, something that has never been done because Earth-like planets are minuscule.
“If you make the sun a baseball, four inches across, Earth is 1/25 of an inch across. You’re basically looking for a flea walking across a luminescent baseball in San Francisco when you’re trying to detect something like Earth going in front of something like the sun,” she said. “It’s easy to find the crazy big Jupiters. We’ve got modest little telescopes at the observatory that can spot Jupiter; it’s finding the little stuff that’s hard. As much as we’d like believe it’s a big planet, Earth is a scrawny little dot.”
With this article, James has now made the cover of an astronomy-related magazine three times. Previous articles included Astronomy magazine’s “The Ugly Side of Gravity,” describing the ways in which gravity pulls things apart, and Sky and Telescope’s “Solar Forecast: Storm Ahead,” which describes the particles and flares spewed off by the sun and its effect on our lives.
She is currently working on a piece on Neptune’s first complete orbit around the sun since its discovery, which will occur next year.
James credits the PBS show “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” by Carl Sagan, for her early fascination with astronomy. She has turned that wonder at the natural world into her first book, “Seven Wonders of the Universe That You Probably Took for Granted,” which is due out in December.
“It’s about night, light, stuff, gravity, time, home and wonder. It’s for people who have absolutely no knowledge of science at all but think it’s kind of interesting. James said. “Every single chapter starts out with a little kid asking things like why it gets dark at night. It goes into the simple answer and then the slightly more complicated answer and ‘I’ll bet you never considered this problem’ answer and then finally to things like why space is dark.
“Someone described it as a cross between Dave Barry and Carl Sagan,” she said. “I actually got my parents to read it, and they liked it, so that was cool.”
“Seven Wonders of the Universe That You Probably Took For Granted” is now available for preorder on Amazon.com.
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