How It All Began: “To Infinity and Beyond”

Orion Nebula

From Nebulae to Stars to Galaxies and Beyond!


Mysteries galaxies cover,

Restlessness stars show,

Beauty planets exhibit,

In the infinity and beyond!

From minuscule neutrinos to the expanding Universe, astronomy rules the Fabric of the Cosmos. But in my birthplace, the sky is hidden by a mask of light pollution and fossil fuel wastes. I often pondered what lay above those hazy clouds. After emigrating from Shenyang, I saw for the first time a sky clearer than water and stars brighter than Zeus’ bolt. Thus began my fascination with astronomy. And like the constellations of the zodiac that appear in certain months, I had occasional close encounters with astronomy. There was a lesson in a 6th grade outdoor education class and a telescope viewing session in Pasadena. I even took an astronomy course at the community college. All of these transient, astronomical sparks ultimately culminated in my unforgettable COSMOS experience. My high school barely covers astronomy, so I rely on my home telescope, where all I can see is the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. But in a university setting, I discovered and utilized the infinite, incredible resources for research and learning.

As the sun sank beneath the golden horizon, I waited patiently for the TAs to finish calibrating the 24-inch telescope inside the UCI observatory dome. After Dr. Smecker-Hane explained how to use a sky map, I mastered the technique and shouted out constellations: “Orion! Big Dipper!” Inside the observatory dome, I ascended the creaky steel ladder and gazed into the telescope’s eyepiece, seeing one area concentrated with stars, the open cluster M11. Though light years away, M11 seemed so impossibly close that I could reach up and snatch its stars out of the sky, as though I was a scientist observing stars on an ebony Petri dish through a microscope. On the 8-inch telescope, Mars shone like ancient blood-stained battlefields, while Saturn’s ice rings revolved as magnificently as clockwork.

The professors enlightened me with intriguing astronomy stories, such as the irony of Einstein’s obstinacy. Though he rejected Friedmann’s theory of an expanding universe, Einstein’s cosmological constant, when reversed, actually supports the theory of Universe acceleration. The program’s CLEA1 exercises prepared me for group projects as I learned some of the math behind astronomy― calculating the mass of Jupiter using its moons’ orbits and “blinking” to determine asteroids’ velocities. In one CLEA simulation, I found not galaxies, but portraits of scientists floating in space instead! For my group research project, “Stellar Spectra,” we observed the night sky, recorded images of Arcturus and Vega, reduced them with Linux software, and designed a poster board decorated with colored dots depicting the stars of the H-R Diagram. We presented our “findings” to parents, students, and professors at a science fair convention. During this research process, I imagined myself as the modern Galileo voyaging through territory few had traversed.

COSMOS was the launch pad in expanding my astronomy blog, coincidentally named “The Cosmos.”I blog actively, and have discovered kindred spirits with minds eager to learn, inquire, and comment. Originating globally across six continents in countries like Germany and India, the feedback I receive increases my fascination. COSMOS confirmed my desire to study astronomy, conduct research, and become a part of the scientific community. Astronomy is the oldest science, yet each discovery raises more questions. In every astronomical encounter I travel on an unforgettable journey invoked by imagination.

1 CLEA is an acronym for Contemporary Lab Experiences in Astronomy.

~ Tianjia Liu, 2012 ~


In Remembrance: Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Neil Armstrong, First Man to Walk the Moon

This year, we remember great contributors to the astronomy community. First Sally Ride, first woman in space. Now Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the surface of the Moon. On August 25, 2012, astronaut Neil Armstrong suffered a coronary artery blockage and passed away at the age of 82. Armstrong shall forever be remembered by his spectacular Apollo 11 success and memorable quote: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Indeed true, space exploration has blossomed in the past decades, with NASA’s space probes, rovers, ISS, and precision telescopes (Hubble telescope). Space innovations has translated into commercial improvement. Whatever scientists invent for space missions eventually finds itself modified for commercial use (e.g. laser, GPS, radar). Indeed, Armstrong was not only an astronaut but also a test pilot, aerospace engineer, university professor, and U.S. Naval Aviator. His first spaceflight was as a command pilot for NASA’s Gemini 8 mission in 1966. His second and last spaceflight, of course, was as the commander of the Apollo 11 mission in July of 1969. For this feat with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, Armstrong received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and Congressional Gold Medal. He may have left this Earth, but his legacy remains with us.

Fun Facts Cluster 1: 16 Extreme Space Facts (NASA)

NASA: Extreme Facts

“16 eXtreme space facts!”

By: NASA (

-The following is from NASA’s informational guide (shown above) on astronomy facts.

  1. Better stick with a rubber ducky: Saturn is the only planet in our solar system that is less dense than water. It could float in a bathtub if anybody could build a bathtub large enough.
  2. Fastest: True to its namesake (the speedy messenger of the Roman gods), Mercury is the fastest planet in our solar system. It zips around our Sun at an average of 172,000 kilometers per hour (107,000 miles per hour) — about 65,000 kph (40,000 mph) faster than Earth. A year on Mercury is equal to 88 Earth days.
  3. Biggest and smallest: Ceres if the largest, most massive body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, totaling about a third of the total mass of the entire belt. But Ceres is the smallest of the dwarf planets, which include Pluto and Eris, and the only dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt.
  4. Forget the socks, bring a hat: If you could stand at the Martian equator, the temperature at your feet would be like a warm spring, but at your head it would be freezing cold!
  5. It’s a small world after all: More than 1,300 Earths would fit into Jupiter’s vast sphere.
  6. Chill out!: Craters at the Moon’s south pole may be the frostiest locale in the entire solar system. In the permanently shadowed crater floors, “daytime” temperatures may never rise above minus 238 degrees Celsius (minus 397 degrees Fahrenheit).
  7. Windiest: Neptune’s winds are the fastest in the solar system, reaching 2,575 kilometers per hour (1,600 miles per hour)! Neptune’s giant, spinning storms could swallow the whole Earth.
  8. Tiny, very tiny: The radio signal that some spacecraft use to contact Earth has no more power than a refrigerator, light bulb. And by the time the signal has traveled across space, the signal may be only one-billionth of one-billionth of one watt!
  9. Big, way big: To detect those tiny signals from space, the Deep Space Network uses dish antennas with diameters of up to 70 meters (230 feet). That’s almost as big as a football field.
  10. Not much!: If you could lump together all the thousands of known asteroids in our solar system, their total mass wouldn’t even equal 10 percent of the mass of Earth’s moon.
  11. Easy does it: A Venus day is approximately 243 Earth days long. The bad news is we would have to wait up to three Earth years for a weekend. That’s because a day on Venus is longer than its year!
  12. Pizza?: Jupiter’s moon Io if the most volcanically active body in our solar system. The moon’s bizarre, blotted yellowish surface looks like a pepperoni pizza!
  13. Air Martian: The gravity on Mars is approximately one-third that on Earth. Yes, chances are you’d be able to dunk the basketball on a Martian court.
  14. Skating, anyone?: If you ice skate, how about Europa? Europa is one of the four largest moons of Jupiter. It’s a little smaller than Earth’s Moon. Europa is covered in ice, including some smooth ice! A 3-foot (about 1 meter) Axel jump on this moon would take you 22 feet (more than 6 meters) high, with the same landing speed as on Earth.
  15. Grandest Canyon: The largest canyon system in the solar system is Valles Marineris on Mars. It’s more than 4,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) long — enough to stretch from California to New York. It is nine times as long and four times as deep as Earth’s Grand Canyon!
  16. Sizzling Venus: The average temperature on Venus is more than 480 degrees Celsius (about 900 degrees Fahrenheit) — hotter than a self-cleaning oven.