A Dusty Martian Opportunity

Mars is a planet wide desert with underground and polar cap water, but it’s general arid environment and occasional wind give rise to dusty weather events such as tornado-like dust devils and local dust storms.  Every so often, one of these little dust storms expands and becomes a planet wide phenomena, and in early June this is exactly what happened. So what does it mean for our rovers and orbiters? Global dust storms are a recurring phenomenon on Mars, and happen regularly about the planet regardless of season.  Every 3-4 Martian years (6-8 Earth years) one of these smaller storms...

Pluto Planet Problem

I’m going to come right out and ask the burning question: Is Pluto a Planet? No. At least under the current definition.  So the question becomes “Should Pluto be a planet?”  That answer is a bit more complicated.  Let’s look at the history.   Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto was initially considered the ninth planet of our Solar System.  It was part of an intense search that follows back all the way to the discovery of Uranus and the orbital calculations that led to the discovery of Neptune.  Even after Neptune’s discovery, gravitational perturbations pointed to a ninth planet,...

Star Closeup

I really enjoy looking at images of the Sun from one of the several round-the-clock monitoring systems.  It’s fascinating that the public can get access to almost real time images of the Sun and see what’s going on in several wavelengths.  I’ve always hoped to see what other stars look like in the future, and today, that future is one step closer.  Here’s a brand new picture of another star!   This is a real image of distant star π1Gruis, a star 350 times as massive as the Sun, in the southern hemisphere constellation Grus.  The star is 530 light years...

Navigation by Pulsar

On the golden record that accompanies the Voyager spacecraft, there is a map showing the location of Earth.  It’s not a road map that you might pull out when navigating a city, but a 3D map showing the location of a star, the Sun, in a populous galaxy.  But just how would this map work? And more importantly, what are the map markers? If you notice the lines at the bottom left of the golden record image, they all intersect at a common center point.  This is the Sun, and the lines extend out showing relative distances to the nearest...

Kepler Discovers 8-Planet System

Moments ago, NASA announced that the Kepler space telescope, for the first time ever, has discovered a star that has a system of 8 planets, similar to our own solar system. The exceptional part of the discovery is that it was found in existing Kepler data, using google artificial intelligence software that was trained to find positive detections in over 30,000 data sets.  Known as a neural network, the software was trained to look for patterns in the intensity of light from stars.  Normally, humans would need to do this work, but with so much data, there simply wasn’t enough...

The Ancient Collision That Everyone Saw

The year is 1987, and on February 23rd, three separate neutrino observatories experienced a huge burst in detections. Although initially unsure of their origin, the next day a Supernova was discovered in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way visible in the southern hemisphere.  Known as 1987A, it was the closest supernova observed in centuries, and was observed by astronomers around the world as it brightened and then slowly dimmed.  By combining the visible observations with the neutrino data, scientists learned about how supernovae occur, constrained the mass of the neutrino, and opened a new...

The Trials of Solar Eclipse Photography

Although the August 21st eclipse happened about 6 weeks ago, I realized it would take me a long time to edit all the photos I took during my trip.  I had over 2000 individual shots of the eclipse alone, taking a single (1/4000 s) shot every 10 seconds, at ISO 100, with my telescope coming out at around f/6.  I’ve done a lot of time-lapse photography before, so I thought it would be a routine shot, but I was wrong.  Eclipses are much tougher to edit in terms of a time-lapse. But first, the end result of my 10 hours...

Double Post: Mini Stars & Morning Micrometeorites on Mercury

Alliteration is accessible to all! Okay I’m done. Start some science! Really done this time.  Today’s double post covers the smallest of stars, still larger than most planets, and the only weather Mercury will ever have. Humans are naturally interested in the extremes, the biggest, smallest, fastest, hottest, coldest, and every other characteristic outlier.  With stars, being so huge and powerful, we are often more interested in the largest, hottest, and most energetic.  Though on the opposite end of the spectrum, Cambridge University astronomers have discovered the smallest star in the known universe. The star, a red dwarf, has the...

The Gravity Wave Era

I saw an article last night about gravitational waves, that a black hole merger was detected by not just the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), but by another project altogether, the Virgo collaboration.  This is the first gravitational wave detection confirmed by two separate groups, and it marks the beginning of a new era of experimental science, the first in astronomy in over two decades. Around 1.8 Billion years ago, to black holes merged in a faroff galaxy.  They had masses of 31 and 25 times that of the Sun, though with their incredible density they would each be...

A faraway Cosmic ray

Cosmic rays are incredibly powerful invisible particles, and we can’t be sure where they come from. Not much in the way of a comforting thought, but it makes for a cosmic mystery that astronomers have been trying to solve for decades.  And now they have come one step closer. Here’s what we do know.  Cosmic rays are energetic atomic nuclei travelling at near the speed of light.  They hit our atmosphere and rapidly interact with the molecules there to break into billions of smaller, less energetic particles that shower down on the life on Earth, without giving us much notice...