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Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures

Space-time Symphony: Gravitational Waves from Merging Black Holes


November 2, 2016

Dr. Lynn Cominsky (Sonoma State University)

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Gravitational waves are predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. They travel at the speed of light, but are much harder to detect than light waves. On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) received the first direct gravitational wave signals. The event that produced them was the merger of two distant and massive black holes that were in mutual orbit. Prof. Cominsky presents an introduction to LIGO, to gravitational waves and how they were detected, and to the kinds of black holes that “make waves.”


The Science and Non-science of Star Wars

Dr. Seth Shostak

October 12, 2016

Dr. Seth Shostak (SETI Institute)

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In this wide-ranging, humorous talk, Seth Shostak takes a look at Star Wars and other science fiction films from the point of view of a skeptical scientist, tells stories about the movies he has been asked to advise, and muses about aliens from space and how we might make contact with them.


Finding a New Earth: Exoplanets and the Habitable Zone

Dr. Stephen Kane

May 11, 2016

Dr. Stephen Kane (San Francisco State University)

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Over 1500 new planetary systems have now been discovered, many of which include planets quite different from those in our own Solar System. A key step towards finding “Earth 2.0” will be to identify rocky planets that occupy the “Habitable Zone” of their stars. Dr. Kane describes what the idea of a Habitable Zone means and shows examples of planets that lie in their star’s Habitable Zone (even if the star is not like our Sun.)


How Things in the Universe Came About and How They Ended Up Within Us

Dr. Tom Abel

April 6, 2016

Dr. Tom Abel (Stanford University)

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Dr. Abel takes us on an illustrated journey through the early stages of the universe, using the latest computer animations of how the first (massive) stars formed and died, and how stars built up the first galaxies. He also discusses how the early stars seeded the cosmos with the chemical elements necessary for life.


Einstein’s Blunder Undone: The Runaway Universe

Dr. Robert KirshnerNovember 11, 2015

Dr. Robert Kirshner (Harvard University)

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In the past 20 years, astronomers have shown that the universe is not only expanding, but speeding up. In this talk, Dr. Kirshner, who was in many ways the “godfather” of these investigations, discusses the methods used to discover cosmic acceleration and presents the evidence that we live in a Universe that is only 4% matter like the atoms of the periodic table.


In the Land of Enchantment: The Epic Story of the Cassini Mission to Saturn

Carolyn PorcoOctober 7, 2015

Dr. Carolyn Porco (Imaging Team Leader for Cassini)

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Since 2004, Cassini has been exploring the giant planet Saturn, its magnificent ring system, and its intriguing moons. Dr. Porco shows us many of the magnificent mission images and explains the findings from both the main orbiter and the probe that landed on Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon. She also discusses the geysers on the moon Enceladus and what we have learned about the plumes that erupt.


100 Years of Einstein’s Relativity (And How it Underlies Our Modern Understanding of the Universe)

Jeffrey BennettMay 6, 2015

Dr. Jeffrey Bennett (University of Colorado)

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2015 marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s completion of his General Theory of Relativity, the comprehensive theory of space, time, and gravity. Dr. Bennett explains the basic ideas of Einstein’s work (both the special and general theories) in everyday language and shows how Einstein’s remarkable ideas are being confirmed today by astronomical observations. He concludes with four reasons why relativity should matter to everyone.


Now Appearing at a Dwarf Planet Near You: NASA’s Dawn Mission to the Asteroid Belt

Dr. Marc RaymanApril 8, 2015

Dr. Marc Rayman (Jet Propulsion Labs)

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Dr. Rayman, the Mission Director for the Dawn exploration of Vesta and Ceres, explains the unusual mission (the first to orbit two different bodies in the solar system), what it found at Vesta, and what it is going to do as it gets to Ceres, the largest asteroid and the first dwarf planet discovered. He also gives a behind-the-scenes tour of the Dawn launch and the ion propulsion that allows it to visit multiple targets.


The Sentinel Mission: Finding the Asteroid Headed for Earth

Ed LuMarch 4, 2015

Dr. Ed Lu (Former NASA Astronaut; CEO of the Sentinel Mission)

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Asteroids, which hit our planet at least twice each year, are the only natural disaster for which we have a technological solution. We are all living with the threat of a 3-minute experience that could transform our lives and our planet forever. Scientists have found 10,000 Near-Earth Objects, yet there are an estimated one million in our inner solar system, and the vast majority of the threatening ones are still undiscovered. In this non-technical talk, Ed Lu describe the threat, and discusses the Sentinel Mission, an orbiting telescope to detect and track asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit.


Pluto on the Horizon: Anticipating our First Encounter with the Double Planet

Mark ShowalterJanuary 28, 2015

Dr. Mark Showalter (SETI Institute)

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The more we learn about Pluto, the more interesting it becomes. In the last decade, four tiny moons have been discovered orbiting the central “binary planet,” which consists of Pluto and its large moon Charon. Pluto itself has a thin atmosphere and shows signs of seasonal changes. On July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly past Pluto and provide our first close-up look at these distant worlds. Dr. Showalter, a co-investigator on the mission, describes how he discovered two of the moons of Pluto, explains what we currently know about the Pluto system, and sets the scene for the exploration that is in store.