The following Q&A with Richard Monda, a part-time faculty member in the Biology, Chemistry and Physics Department, appeared in The Sunday Gazette on Oct. 4, 2015.
‘Star Talk’ celebrates 30th year at The Gazette
by Jeff Wilkin
Schenectady resident Richard Monda, an astronomy instructor who has written The Daily Gazette’s “Star Talk” column for 30 years, stands next to the Carragan telescope, a reflecting telescope owned by the Albany Area Amateur Astronomers.
Sunny days are OK — but Richard Monda prefers starry nights.
“It’s just the beauty of the night sky, the beauty of natural phenomenon and the fact we don’t need any specialized equipment to see the night sky,” said Monda, who has been writing The Daily Gazette’s astronomy column “Star Talk” for 30 years now. “We just need to go outside and look up and become familiar with it. Astronomy is accessible to everyone.”
Halley’s Comet was preparing for its return to earth in 1986 when Monda proposed a column devoted to stars, planets, constellations and other celestial issues. Newspaper editors bought the idea, and the first “Star Talk” was published on Saturday, Oct. 5, 1985. The feature appears in the Life & Arts section of the newspaper on the last Sunday of the month.
Monda, 58, who lives in Schenectady and is a physics and astronomy instructor at Hudson Valley Community College, celebrated the anniversary by talking about the sun, comets, mind-bending numbers and the possibility of other life in the universe during a cosmic question-and-answer session.
Q: What have been your topics over the last 30 years?
A: It’s a gamut of things, from space program topics to what’s in the current sky, the planets. I try to write about what’s current, what would interest people. I also try to write about space program events that happen. In the popular press, you don’t hear any more about it, so I try to do follow-ups on those kinds of things. Current events, I’ve written about the results of the Pluto fly-by, the lunar eclipse. I’m thinking about for my next one: On July 14, when the New Horizons probe flew by Pluto, it was 50 years to the day that Mariner 4 flew by the planet Mars, the first successful NASA mission to Mars, so NASA’s been at Mars for 50 years this year.
Q: It seems like people are not as interested in the space program, not like they were during the Gemini and Apollo programs of the 1960s. Have we, as a nation, become jaded over space events?
A: Those were manned missions, and there is always a bigger interest in manned missions, people going out into space. We had a great impetus in the ’60s to reach the moon, and it was really politically driven. Some will claim it was really the very last mission to the moon, Apollo 17, which was really the true scientific mission to the moon.
Q: What things can be easily seen in the night sky?
A: Of course, the planets. They appear to our eyes as bright, star-like objects, but through a small amateur telescope, they’ll take on shape and you can see some of the obvious details of the planets. The moon is a good object to observe with binoculars. Visually, we can’t see any craters, but with binoculars, you can. With binoculars, you can even see the moons of Jupiter if you hold them steady enough.
Q: People know you’re an astronomy guy. What do they ask you about?
A: They ask me what’s going on in the sky and about some of the misunderstandings they have. One popular topic with the New Horizons fly-by of Pluto is about the Pluto planet controversy. Some professional astronomers think it should be considered a planet. It’s been re-defined as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union, so there’s adamant feelings about that even at the professional level. They ask me about eclipses, comets, planets.
Q: What are your favorite topics?
A: I’m a stellar astronomer, so I like observing what are called deep sky objects. When I was in graduate school, my research area was star-forming regions in the galaxy, so that’s where my primary interest is. I teach general overview astronomy courses, which are about basic physical principles, the planets, the motions in the night sky and stellar evolution.
Q: What’s the neatest thing you’ve ever seen through a telescope?
A: One of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was something that wasn’t through a telescope, and that was the auroral display, the Northern Lights display of March 13, 1989, because that was a very intense, very colorful Northern Lights display. Even from the city, you could see the intensity of the colors.
Q: How many unknowns are there in the universe?
A: How many unknowns … is unknown. Some of the modern-day topics in astrophysics are what’s called dark matter and dark energy. We don’t know what it is, they’re just names we give to what we see the evidence for. In the case for dark matter, how galaxies rotate, suggests there’s something out beyond the galaxies that we don’t know what it is. The name for it is dark matter. Hubble, in the early 1990s, found that the expansion of the universe over time is accelerating and nobody knows what that is. It’s gone by a number of names, but the accepted name is dark energy. Some call it negative pressure; there have been different names for it. These are the real hot topics in modern-day astrophysical research.
Q: Occasionally, we’ll read about comets or asteroids passing close to the planet. How come some giant object hasn’t knocked out Earth yet?
A: It may have happened in the past, we’ve been fortunate. The cratering rate of the solar system has decreased since the solar system has formed . . . but there is something out there marked for Earth delivery, and given enough time, it isn’t a question of if it will happen, it’s a question of when.
Q: We’ve seen this scenario in science fiction movies. What would happen on Earth if something was on a collision course?
A: It all depends on how far out we detect it and the size of the object. Hopefully, we’ll have the technology by then to just nudge its path so it will miss the Earth.
Q: The sheer high numbers in astronomy, like the sun’s age, must knock you out.
A: The accepted age for the sun in the solar system is 41⁄2 billion years. We say the average lifetime of the sun is 10 billion years, but the sun is slowly getting hotter as the eons go by. So it will be long before 5 billion years that this planet won’t be habitable. It will be global warming on steroids.
Q: What will happen when the sun cashes out for good?
A: There are already discussions of moving out into the solar system. People look to the moon of Jupiter called Europa because there’s been speculations and now just recently there’s been some real strong evidence that it does have an underground ocean and of course, the eventual colonization of Mars.
Right now, for the first humans to go to Mars, NASA’s talking about the 2030s. There are some substantial problems to be overcome, like radiation in space, long-term zero gravity conditions and what that does to muscles or bones.
Q: How about some other mind-numbing numerical facts?
A: We say an average galaxy has 100 billion stars and it’s estimated there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe. So that means there’s 100 billion times 100 billion stars in the universe. Something much closer, the nearest star to us is 4.3 light years away. A light year is 6 trillion miles, so that’s 4.3 times 6 trillion miles away, which is roughly 25 trillion miles away and that’s the nearest star.
Q: People wonder if we’re alone. What do you think?
A: We’ve discovered, since the ’90s, objects around other stars have been found, most of them indirectly, but a few are what people believe are images of objects around other stars. We know about exo planets now, planets around other stars. There are at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, we’re including planets just around the stars in our relative vicinity of the Milky Way. Statistically, it would seem there’s life elsewhere. The feeling in the astronomical community is that primitive life forms are probably prevalent. Intelligent life is rare.