Wednesday, April 11, 2012

New Stuff a' comin'

Lots of changes coming wrt to the current YouTube channel and a new one that I'm starting to help get word out about the Webb Space Telescope, so stay tuned.

Most of this work will begin in a couple of weeks because I'm still laying the groundwork and putting together some content ahead of time so the launch of the channel doesn't sit empty.

Here is me using my words in my outside voice telling you basically the same thing, only it's more interesting cuz it's video...

Friday, December 9, 2011

Space Fan News #43: Kepler-22b; Biggest Black Holes EVER!; Swift Sees a Strange GRB

Hello Space Fans, welcome to another addition of Space Fan News.

So the big news this week came out on Monday with the announcement of the confirmation of Kepler-22b, a roughly Earth-sized planet around the habitable zone of a star a lot like the Sun.

I posted a video about this on Tuesday called "The Promise of Kepler-22b" where I posted all we know about this planet.

All I want to say about it today is emphasize that we really don't know much about Kepler-22b.  All we've learned is what can be gleaned by watching a planet pass in front of a star because that's the kind of observation Kepler does.  So there's not a lot of details we can get from an observation like that, but we can get some things.

Things like:

We know its size: it has a radius roughly 2.4 times that of Earth

We know it's orbit around Kepler-22: it takes 290 days to orbit once around it.

We know the star is like our Sun and I've heard statements that it is 10 billion years old.

We know how far away it is: 600 light years.

That's it.

We don't know what it's made of; we don't know if it is rocky or not; we don't know if it even has an atmosphere.

Those things are usually detected spectroscopically and the Kepler-22 system is so far away and the planet so small that even if we put our best spectrographs on it, we wouldn't be able to measure it.  Just too far away.

Now... the James Webb Space Telescope on the other hand will have instruments onboard uniquely able to look at exoplanets and determine these things.  It has a large enough primary to possibly even resolve many of these systems.

Which is reason number 812 why we need the JWST.

So if you don't know about it or haven't seen it yet, check out my video posted on Tuesday, you can find it easily on my channel page.

Next, astronomers have found the largest black holes ever.


Earlier this week it was announced that astronomers using the Gemini North Telescope in Hawai'i - along with researchers from the universities of Texas, Michigan, the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, Canada, as well as NOAO in Arizona - have found two supermassive black holes, each approaching 10 billion solar masses.

Now here's some persepective:  the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way is only four million solar masses.  The one in the center of the Andromeda galaxy is 140 million solar masses.

These black holes are a in a different league entirely.

The event horizons of each of these black holes is five to ten times bigger than the orbit of Pluto.

These are 10 billion solar mass black holes.  We're talking about black holes two thousand times bigger than the one at the center of our galaxy.


Remember, there are two basic classes of black holes: there are stellar sized black holes that are floating around inside our galaxy.  Then there are supermassive black holes devouring stars in the centers of galaxies and powering quasars.  We're talking about that kind here.

So now, with this discovery,  astronomers are starting to wonder just how big these things can get.

Very large black holes are thought to have been around when the universe was very young, from about one to three billion years after the Big Bang.  The evidence for this comes from quasars.  These are large, energetic sources believed to be the results of black holes devouring it's galaxy.  Quasars are among the most distant objects ever observed.  Since the distance from us is closely linked to how far back in time we're looking: the very, very distant objects we see in telescopes are from a time when the universe was young, so the existence of these quasars tells us there were powerful black holes around back then powering these quasars.

But that was 10 billion years ago, quasars are seen very far away, the quasars in nearby galaxies have gone dark, but the black holes are still there.  

So where are they now?  

Astronomers believe they are lurking at the centers of ancient elliptical galaxies.  Elliptical galaxies are smooth, featureless galaxies containing primarily older, low mass stars.  Very little star formation is happening here, these galaxies are dying.

The black holes at the centers of these galaxies are no longer fed by accreting gas and have become dormant and hidden. We see them only because of their gravitational pull on nearby orbiting stars.

The astronomers found these black holes in NGC 3842 and NGC 4889: each a giant elliptical galaxy and the brightest member of a galaxy cluster; NGC 3842 lies about 320 million light-years away in the Leo galaxy cluster, and NGC 4889 is the brightest member of the famous Coma galaxy cluster some 336 million light-years away. Both of these galaxies are bright enough to see in amateur telescopes, so look em up space fans.

Since astronomers have no idea what the upper limit on the size of a black hole can be, expect to hear more about larger and larger black hole discoveries in the future.

Finally, the Swift Space Telescope observed a very strange gamma ray burst.  Gamma-ray bursts, or GRBs. are the universe's most luminous explosions, emitting more energy in a few seconds than our sun will during its entire energy-producing lifetime. 

This burst, known as GRB 101225A, was discovered in the constellation Andromeda by Swift's Burst Alert Telescope at 1:38 p.m. EST on Dec. 25, 2010.

So you know what's coming next: yep.  It's being called the Christmas burst.

Oh well.

The gamma-ray emission lasted at least 28 minutes, which is unusually long. Follow-up observations of the burst's afterglow by the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories were unable to determine the object's distance.

This gamma ray burst is so unusual, astronomers think it could have happened in one of two ways.

One scenario says that a solitary neutron star minding its own business gets hit by a passing comet which it quickly devours, causing the gamma ray burst.

Another possibility is that the a neutron star is engulfed by, spirals into and merges with an evolved giant star in a distant galaxy.

Both scenarios involve a neutron star causing mayhem.

The team seems to be leaning toward the second scenario. 

They're proposing the burst occurred in an exotic binary system where a neutron star orbited a normal star that had just entered its red giant phase, enormously expanding its outer atmosphere. This expansion engulfed the neutron star, resulting in both the ejection of the giant's atmosphere and rapid tightening of the neutron star's orbit.

Once the two stars became wrapped in a common envelope of gas, the neutron star may have merged with the giant's core after just five orbits. The end result of the merger was the birth of a black hole and the production of oppositely directed jets of particles moving at nearly the speed of light, followed by a weak supernova.
The particle jets produced gamma rays. Jet interactions with gas ejected before the merger explain many of the burst's signature oddities. Based on this interpretation, the event took place about 5.5 billion light-years away, and the team has detected what may be a faint galaxy at the right location. 

Well, that's it for now Space Fans, as always thank you for watching, and Keep Looking Up.

Further Reading:

Kepler's first confirmed earth-sized planet in a habitable zone (Kepler 22B).

Habitable zone yes, but Kepler 22-b mass and high gravity rules out the possibility of terrestrial life

Comet Falling into Neutron Star

Kepler 21b Confirmed from Kitt Peak:

Strange new species of ultra-red galaxy discovered (might make a better IM):

Two record-breaking black holes found:

E-ELT Gets Funding Approval

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Promise of Kepler 22-b

On December 5th, 2011, the Kepler Science team announced that they had confirmed a planet roughly the size of ours, in orbit around a star very similar to the Sun.

What's more, the distance of this planet from its star was perfect.  It wasn't too close, and it wasn't too far away.

If this planet were the Earth, life could live there.

It's called Kepler-22b.

The parent star, Kepler-22 is very similar to our Sun.  Classified as a sun-like G-type star, it is very dim as seen from Earth and measurements of dips in light as the planet passes in front are very difficult to make.

Nevertheless, the Kepler Space Telescope first noticed this star as having a planet that is possibly like Earth almost immediately.  A mere three days after being declared operationally ready, Kepler took notice that something was interesting in orbit around this small, dim, Sun-like star located 600 light years away.

Followup observations on the ground and from the Spitzer Space Telescope confirmed the planets existence.

Kepler-22b, the first Earth-sized planet found by Kepler in a habitable zone around another star, has been confirmed.  Of the 54 habitable zone planet candidates currently under scrutiny by the Kepler Space Telescope, this is the first to be confirmed.

Kepler-22b has a radius 2.4 times that of the Earth, putting this planet in a category commonly called a super-Earth.  It takes 290 days to travel once around around its sun, which is slightly smaller and cooler than ours.

The promise of Kepler-22b, however,  is tempered by what we do not know about it. There is much hidden from us.  The most glaring gap in our knowledge is that we don't know what it's made of.  It could be a rocky planet like Earth, or it could be gaseous and more like Neptune.

It may even be covered entirely of water, an ocean planet with an altogether new set of possibilities for life.

What we do know is that while Kepler-22b is Earth-like, it is hardly our twin.  At 2.4 times the radius of the Earth, if it is rocky and very dense, then life could be very hard here.  We also do not know if it even contains an atmosphere.

And if it does have an atmosphere, how much heat does the atmosphere trap?  If it traps too much, then Kepler-22b could be more like Venus, a planet known to be very inhospitable to life.

If it's a Neptune-like planet, made entirely of gas, then the chances for life, at least as we know it to be, are impossible.  Living here, any life would take on a completely unexpected form.

The chances for finding out the answers to many of these questions about Kepler-22b, while possible, are somewhat remote with our current levels of technology.  For example, using radial velocity measurements, a spectral technique that allows us to find out chemical compositions of stars, planets and their atmospheres, in addition to the planet itself by measuring the wobble of the star as the planet circles it, is not feasible for a star so far away with such a small planet in orbit around it.

Perhaps the biggest promise offered by the confirmation of Kepler-22b isn't the planet itself, but lies in the fact that it was found so soon after we started looking for planets like the Earth.  With Kepler, the number of Earth-sized candidate planets has increased 200 percent, and the number of super-Earth candidates has increased 140 percent since February 2011.  This bodes very well indeed for our future search for life in the galaxy.

The discovery of Kepler-22b as an Earth-like planet in a habitable zone is encouraging, but that by itself offers limited hope in our search for life elsewhere in our galaxy.  So far, all we know is that Kepler-22b is a smallish planet in orbit around a star like our Sun at a distance that is very promising.

It made be rocky, like the Earth, or it may be gaseous, like Neptune, but for us to know the true promise of Kepler-22b, we need to keep looking.  Keep collecting information with as many instruments as we can bring to bear.

Because it's what we DON'T know about Kepler-22b that offers us the most promise.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Space Fan News #40: ESO VLT's GRB Obs; NASA's Orion Launch; Swift Images Asteroid 2005 YU55

Hello Space Fans and welcome to the 11/11/11 edition of Space Fan News.

First, ESO's VLT takes a very surprising GRB OBS.

Now, if you understood everything I just said, then you are hardcore.

For the rest of you, let me translate that series of astronomical grunts into actual words.

The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope takes a very surprising Gamma Ray Burst Observation.

There, that's a little better.

Gamma ray bursts, or GRB's,  are the brightest and most energetic explosions in the universe.  They are usually found by orbiting wide-field telescopes like NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope, which scans the sky looking for sudden explosions in distant galaxies that are very bright in gamma rays.

Once detected in orbit, their positions are immediately relayed to telescopes on the ground where their brightnesses are measured and recorded for a longer period and in more detail.

The VLT observations show something very exciting.   The brilliant light from the gamma-ray burst had passed through its own host galaxy as well as another galaxy right next door. 

The galaxies in this image are being seen as they were about 12 billion years ago. Such distant galaxies are very rarely caught in the glare of a gamma-ray burst.

As light from this GRB passed through the galaxies, the gas in between the stars acted like a filter, and absorbed some of the light from the gamma-ray burst at certain wavelengths. 

Without the GRB these faint galaxies would be invisible, we would never have seen them. 

By carefully analysing the tell-tale fingerprints from different chemical elements the team was able to work out the composition of the cool gas in these very distant galaxies, and in particular how rich they were in heavy elements.

And this is where the surprise comes in.  It turns out that these faint galaxies, looking at them from a time when the universe was relatively young - only a billion years or so old - have more heavier elements in them than our Sun does.

Heavier elements in this case are what astronomers call metals, which are any elements heavier than helium.

It is generally expected that galaxies in the young Universe will be found to contain smaller amounts of heavier elements than galaxies at the present day, such as our Milky Way. The heavier elements are produced during the lives and deaths of generations of stars, gradually enriching the gas in the galaxies.

But that's not the case here.

What may be happening is this newly discovered pair of young galaxies is that they must be forming new stars at a tremendous rate, to enrich the gas in them so strongly and quickly with heavier elements. 

Further, since the two galaxies are close to each other they may be in the process of merging, which would also provoke star formation when the gas clouds collide. The new results also support the idea that gamma-ray bursts may be triggered when lots of stars are vigorously forming.

Astronomers were only able to find this out because they started observing so quickly after the gamma ray burst was initially discovered - while it was still very bright.

Hopefully, ESO's VLT will be able to capture more GRB OBS'es.

Next, NASA proposes the first test flight of the Orion Deep Space Vehicle in early 2014.

Orion is a multi purpose crew vehicle designed for traveling beyond low Earth orbit, which is where we've been ever since we cancelled the Apollo program. 

Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

This animation shows the proposed flight.


This animation illustrates the proposed flight.

The spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral Florida, sometime in early 2014.

This test flight, known as Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), is designed to launch a vehicle into an orbit higher than any spacecraft intended for human use since 1973.

The early stages involve orbiting at lower altitudes before firing rockets to boost it to speeds over 20,000 miles per hour.

This Exploration Flight Test, or EFT-1, will fly two orbits to a high-apogee, with a high-energy re-entry through Earth's atmosphere. Orion will make a water landing and be recovered using operations planned for future human exploration missions. The test mission will be launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to acquire critical re-entry flight performance data and demonstrate early integration capabilities that benefit the Orion, SLS, and 21st Century Ground Systems programs. The agency has posted a synopsis explaining its intention on NASA's procurement website. 

"The entry part of the test will produce data needed to develop a spacecraft capable of surviving speeds greater than 20,000 mph and safely return astronauts from beyond Earth orbit," Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier said. "This test is very important to the detailed design process in terms of the data we expect to receive." 
To get there, 
Orion will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., perform two orbits, reaching an altitude higher than any achieved by a spacecraft intended for human use since 1973, and then will re-enter and land in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the United States.

I would love to see this properly funded and executed, we really need to get back into the human spaceflight and exploration business.

Finally, remember that asteroid that passed overhead last Tuesday?  Well, NASA's SWIFT spacecraft took a movie of it as it passed.

The passage of 2005 YU55 was a great opportunity for astronomers to study asteroids up close and personal.

Although Swift is designed to look for high energy gamma ray bursts like the one we talked about earlier, it can also make valuable observations of passing comets and asteroids as well.

These images were captured in the UV detectors of Swift:

This movie of 2005 YU55 was taken at ultraviolet wavelengths which are unobtainable from ground-based telescopes. For planetary scientists, this movie is a treasure trove of data that will help them better understand how this asteroid is put together, information that may help make predictions of its motion more secure for centuries to come. 

Well, that's it for now space fans.  Thank you for watching and as always Keep Looking Up!

Further Reading:

ALMA starts observtions:

Orion 2014 test flight:

VLT observation of Gamma Ray Burst:

Swift watches YU55 go by:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Do the Orbits of Moons Decay?

Here's another great Space Fan question:
Why don't the orbits of moons decay? How does a moon arrive at the perfect distance for maintaining an orbit indefinitely?
I would argue that the orbits of most moons are NOT stable, most change with time and usually not with quiet results.

There is actually a very narrow range of conditions that must be met for an orbit to be established, all based on the relative masses of the two bodies, the speed of the potential moon and the locale of other massive bodies.

Getting all of this to play nice to the point where an orbit is actually achieved for any length of time is hard.  Most orbits are unstable, with the most common scenarios being objects orbiting for a while then either spinning off into space - or the smaller body spiraling into the larger one.

The orbits we observe with our telescopes are the result of a selection bias.  We see the successful ones. not the ones that failed, which occurred many more times.

The orbits of small things around bigger things is usually the domain of Newtonian dynamics.  These are the principles developed by Isaac Newton to describe the motions of falling bodies, things in motion and all sorts of fun things.

Most of this work was based on people before him: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and Galileo (among others) all of whom contributed to our understand of all the things we see whirling around our heads.

Getting to your question, the orbits of moons do decay all the time.  In fact, our moon's orbit - while it may seem stable - isn't. At least not completely.

Our moon is receding away from us at a rate of about 3.8 centimeters per year, a rate that was determined with the help of reflectors placed on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts.

The fact that the Moon is getting farther away doesn't exactly classify its orbit as unstable, rather it's just not staying the same for all time, which is what I would call a stable orbit.

So why is the Moon receding?  There are lots of influences on the Moon as it travels around the Earth, most notably the tidal forces sloshing the oceans of the Earth up and down.  All of that water going up and down on our planet, makes the Earth want to surge ahead, past the moon.  This results in a little gravitational tug on the Moon, pulling it, like a rubber band.

This has the effect of pushing the Moon away from us.

The frictional effects of the Sun's gravity and solar wind along and other planets in our Solar System all play a role in how stable the Moon's orbit is.

Hopefully you can see by now that the Moon isn't going to maintain its orbit indefinitely. It will gradually fade farther from the Earth until it takes 47 days to orbit the Earth (as opposed to the 28 days it takes now).

As the solar system ages and the Sun gets older, things get even more interesting.  In around five billion years, when the Moon is taking almost twice as long to orbit the Earth as it does now, the Sun will begin to die by expanding into a Red Giant.

When this happens, the drag created by the outer layers of the Sun will slow the Moon down, causing it to fall back to us.  As the region near the Earth starts to boil with the approaching Sun, the Moon will continue to fall until it reaches something caused the Roche Limit.

At the Roche Limit, the tidal forces pulling on the Moon become greater than the gravity holding it together.

And the Moon explodes over our heads, at an altitude of 23,000 miles.  After this explosion, all that will be left of our Moon will be a ring of debris over the Earth's equator.

Of course, by that time, we'll have more to worry about that the Moon blowing up over our heads.

Keep Looking Up!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Space Fan News #39: Hubble Directly Observes a Black Hole Accretion Disk; Asteroid 2005 YU55 Flys By

Hello Space Fans and welcome to another edition of Space Fan News.

First up, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope announced this week that for the first time ever, they have directly imaged an accretion disk surrounding a black hole at the center of an active galaxy, known as a quasar.

Quasars are very distant, and are among the most luminous objects in the universe.  Powered by the accretion disks of black holes, they are one of the most powerful energy sources ever seen. Most consist of a massive galaxy with a very active nucleus surrounding a central black hole.

Ordinarily objects this far away are impossible to see directly, they are too far away and our telescopes are not large enough to fully resolve them.  There are about two hundred thousand known quasars in the universe and only a hand full of them are closer than three billion light years.

So how were they able to image this accretion disk?

Through our old friend, gravitational lensing, which you've heard me talk about many times.

It just so happened, when the Hubble Space Telescope was looking at a quasar known charmingly as HE 1104-1805, a galaxy passed in between us and the quasar.

The gravity from this intervening galaxy bent the light from the quasar and magnified it, just like a telescope, which increased the effective resolution of the Hubble and allowed astronomers to make some measurements.

As the galaxy moved in between the quasar and Hubble, it deflected the light in a very precise manner, deflecting different colored light which exist in different parts of the accretion disk and allowed them to make measurement of both its size and color.

The accretion disk of HE 1104-1805 is between four and eleven light-days across (approximately 100 to 300 billion kilometres).  They also obtained an accurate colormap of the disk corresponding to the changes in temperature.  Most accretion disks around black holes are hotter nearer the hole than farther out.  With this observation, they have a detailed map if the temperature of the black hole's accretion disk.

So now, using this new gravitational lensing technique, astronomers have a way to resolve things in the sky we had no hope of ever seeing directly.  They were just too far away to make out any detail.

Now we can.

Just like downtown.

Next, let's talk about the asteroid coming around next week and get it out of the way.

I've already blogged about this, but I predict we're going to get an avalanche of posts, blogs, tweets, +1's, likes and all sorts of online social networking pandemonium between now and Tuesday.

In case you don't know and you don't read my blog.... on Tuesday, November 8th, at about 6:30 eastern time in the U.S., an asteroid is going to pass within the orbit of the Moon for the first time since 1976.  It will pass around 325 thousand kilometers overhead and, well, that's it.

NASA's going to watch it as it goes by.

It's going to be too dim to see with the naked eye, you'll need at least a six inch telescope to see it, and well, let's not re-invent the wheel.  Here's what the guys at JPL have to say:

<JPL Video>

2005 YU-55 is going to make a very close approach to the Earth on the night of November 8, 2011. At that
time, its distance from Earth will be just under nine-tenths of the moon's distance away from us. 2005 YU-55
cannot hit Earth at least over the interval that we can compute the motion reliably which extends for several hundred years.
It's going to be moving very rapidly as it traverses the sky near the Earth on November 7, 8, 9 and 10th. In affect it'll be moving straight at us from one direction and then it will go whizzing by and straight away from us in the other direction. So its motion across the sky will be close to
degrees over the course of less than two days. It made a close approach to Earth about eighteen months ago
in April of 2010. Colleagues of ours at Arecibo Observatory where able to observe this asteroid using the
radar facility at Arecibo and they were able to obtain radar images that showed that this object is about 400
meters across. On November 8, 9, 10 we'll be observing it again. 
This time with both the Arecibo telescope and with the Goldstone telescope here in California. This is the closest approach by an asteroid
that large that we've ever known about in advance. The radar telescopes that we use to observe asteroids are
very large radio dishes. The Goldstone telescope is 70 meters, which is 240 feet across so it's truly
enormous, and Arecibo is even larger still. The Goldstone telescope has a new radar imaging capability which
has just become available that will enable us to see much finer detail than has previously been possible.
And depending on how we transmit the signal we can get different types of data. 
It shows us how big it is, it can show us features on the asteroid, it can tell us information about the asteroids rotation period. We
should be able to tell much better with these new observations that we're going to do.

<End JPL Video>

I really, really, really hope people don't start losing their minds over this.  Let's wait and see.

Now that we have that out of the way, I want to use this flyby as an opportunity to point out that NASA operates what I consider one of its most important projects: the Near Earth Object Program.

They keep a catalog of potential hazardous asteroids, or PHA's.  PHA's are currently defined based on parameters that measure an asteroid's potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth. Specifically, all asteroids with an Earth Minimum Orbit Intersection Distance (MOID) of 0.05 AU or less and an absolute magnitude (H) of 22.0 or less are considered PHAs.

There are currently 1263 known PHA's in the solar system.  Just because something is classified as a PHA though, doesn't mean it's going to hit us.

Remember that word POTENTIAL in there.

I, for one, am very grateful that program exists.  Hopefully, we'll see fit to keep it funded.

Well, that's it for now Space Fans, thank you for watching and, as always,

Keep Looking Up.

Want to study astronomy but can't do math? Don't worry!

A few years ago, I wrote an article telling the story of how I overcame my math blocks and it has been the source of some really heart-wrenching emails over the years.

Many people wrote to me lamenting that they really wanted to go into astronomy as a career, but their lack of abilities in math prevented them from going into it as a major in college.

For many years I was one of those people.  Since I was eight, all I ever wanted to do was study space, to become an astronaut, to learn about what made the stars shine and galaxies spin.

But I couldn't do math, so I went into the Army and did a lot of other distracting things until I could do the math.  Read the article to get the long, sordid details.

Finally, after travelling a lot of side roads, I went into college and got a degree in physics (the University of Colorado didn't have an astronomy undergrad degree at the time).

I've been working in astronomy for twenty years now and during that time I've learned a thing or two about the importance of math in astronomy that I'd like to share with you:
  1. Being unable to do math isn't the primary obstacle to getting a degree in astronomy, physics, or any science for that matter.  People who are great at math flunk out just as often, or perhaps even more, than those who struggle with it.  There are other, much more important skills to develop.
  2. To be successful as an astronomer, problem solving and learning to ask the right questions is a WAY more valuable skillset than being able to do problem sets and fancy math.
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.
Even students with SAT math scores of 800 drop out of science majors or don't choose science as a career: they think it is too hard and they can't do it. Their math skills were the least of their worries.

The lesson here is that your inability to do math isn't as important to your success as an astronomer as you may think.

Don't get me wrong, you're going to have to do math, sometimes really hard math.

The thing is, you'll have resources available to help you: colleagues to discuss hard problems with, software that does a lot of the mathematical heavy-lifting, and journal papers to help you understand new concepts and ideas.

In astronomy and physics, math is a tool, a thing which helps us understand and describe the world we observe; to help us visualize the data from our telescopes.  In the end, it is up to the astronomer to ask the right questions of the data, perform the analysis, draw conclusions and write the paper.

And THAT is where your real success in astronomy lies.  If you can't ask the right questions or understand what your data are telling you, then you should run, not walk away from astronomy.

Compared to critical thinking, being able to solve differential equations by hand is almost irrelevant.

In my experience working in astronomy these 20 years, I've noticed a pattern among the most successful astronomers (listed in order of importance):
  1. Knew how to ask the right questions.  This enabled these astronomers to advance past their colleagues; this one skill enabled them to become leaders in their field because they recognized what was important and what was relatively trivial.
  2. Knew how to interpret and analyze their data.  This involves an advanced ability in critical thinking, something that simply isn't taught anywhere.  The main way I've seen people get this is by osmosis working in the field as a grad student or post-doc.  As things are now, astronomers get this organically, by working in teams. Their success in obtaining good critical thinking abilities seems to come from working well with others.  This needs to be emphasized more in our universities at the undergrad level.
  3. They were able to articulate their ideas exceedingly well, both to colleagues in and outside their specialty, as well as to lay people.  if people understood your research, you got more grants, more grad students, more fancy committee assignments, more recognition prizes, and more fame.
  4. They emphasized collaboration among their grad students, which by definition made them great advisors and enhanced the careers of their students.  An advisor like this is worth their weight in gold.
  5. They knew how to leverage their software engineers.  As a software engineer, I have direct experience with this.  By articulating their science problem to someone expert in data handling and software best practices, these astronomers enjoyed the best toys in the form of good software.  They could scoop other astronomers who were stumbling around writing their own bad code that only ran on their machine.  It astonishes me how many astronomers try to write their own code these days instead of focusing on science questions.
There are other qualities I've noticed, but these are the biggies.  I would argue that you should never let your lack of abilities to do math prevent you from pursuing an education and career in astronomy.

I have seen no study relating, nor do I find any correlation between, a person's math skills and their success as an astronomer.

The main lesson I want to leave you with here is not that math isn't important in astronomy, it is important.  I would argue however that those deficiencies can be overcome.  Instead of lamenting that you can't do math, ask yourself if you have any strengths in the five areas listed above.  If not, can you develop them?

Focusing on those abilities would serve you quite well as an astronomer, regardless of how well you do (or don't do) math.

If you persevere and look for ways to compensate for your math shortcomings (without cheating), I believe you can not only lead a rewarding life as an astronomer, but you just may become a leader in your field.

Keep Looking Up!