The Great American Eclipse of 2017

For three years I’ve been talking about this eclipse.  August 21st, 2017 is a date that feels etched into my skull.  With solar eclipses being few and far between, and usually occuring far from my home in Canada, I’m excited that the great american eclipse of 2017 will be within my budget for travel.  Though like many people, I’m ready to pay a bit extra to get to the right spot. The eclipse is expected to draw over 100 million people to the many towns and cities along the path of totality. Though most of the population of North America...

Moon Size

I hate the term ‘supermoon’. In fact that is the only time I’m going to use that term during this entire post.  The Moon does appear a tiny bit larger in the sky, but it’s not an uncommon thing.  Here’s why this one was particularly good at driving headlines. The technical term for the full Moon we saw this past week is a ‘perigee syzygy,’ which I think sounds way cooler.  Perigee is the term for the Moon’s closest point to the Earth in it’s orbit, and syzygy is the term for an alignment of bodies in space, in this...

Rosetta’s Final Mission

Tomorrow, one way or another, the ESA’s Rosetta mission is coming to an end.  In a final maneuver, the craft will attempt to land on the surface of the comet, following in the footsteps of the Philae lander, though hopefully with more success. The video shows the final orbit plan, and really highlights how amazing mission scientists are to be able to plan a landing site when the comet is rotating so quickly, relative to the craft’s motion. You can follow the link to watch the live broadcast of the event here.  The mission will end around 7:20am EST tomorrow,...

The Space X Martian Trailer

In the past year or so it’s been interesting to see space agencies and companies produce movie-type trailers for scientific expeditions.  The technology is there, and it is a proven way to inspire the general public.  It also creates an opportunity to create some of the amazing science being done, even if it’s just a small taste. Space X has been candid about wanting to colonize Mars, and yesterday they released a trailer to give some inspiration to all of us. It shows a system that utilizes their nearly-established system of landing and reusing rockets, as well as refueling in...

Why We All Use the Same Units

Here is a map of the nations of the world that use the two systems of measurement.  Metric shown in blue and imperial shown in red. While it’s not always good to go with the crowd, there is a reason why more nations use the metric system. An often-cited passage from the book Wild Thing by Josh Bazell: “In metric, one milliliter of water occupies one cubic centimeter, weighs one gram, and requires one calorie of energy to heat up by one degree centigrade—which is 1 percent of the difference between its freezing point and its boiling point. An amount...

Astrophotography: Sagittarius and the Galaxy

The challenge of learning astrophotography, and photography in general, is two-fold.  There’s the work you do at the eyepiece, requiring you to choose the right settings for the right shot.  Then there’s the work you do at the computer screen, the post-processing and adjustments.  Ultimately the more important one is the camera work.  If you take a bad photograph, no amount of post-processing will help you, even if you are an expert at it.  It’s like the image is the cake, and the processing is the icing.  No matter how much icing you cover it with, a bad cake is...

Measuring Dark Energy Like a BOSS

When you start to think about the most massive and extreme ‘stuff’ in the universe, you inevitably go to Dark Matter and Dark Energy.  They exist as opposites, one with incredible gravity holding the universe together, and the other a mysterious vacuum energy tearing it apart.  Studying this cosmic tug of war gives astronomers a chance to determine the past and future of the entire universe. To study the immense scale of these two quantities, the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) program of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III (SDSS) constructed a 3D map of the sky, amounting to a volume...

The Galilean Moons

In the year 1610, it was commonly believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, that all bodies rotated around the perfect planet, placed by god with the heavens around it.  Galileo Galilei dealt a major blow to this idea, by using an early telescope to improve his vision and look up at some surprising dots. These dots formed a line that went straight through the bright planet Jupiter.  As Galileo looked again and again, night after night, he noticed that they not only persisted, they moved.  Their motion was predictable, and Galileo realized that they were orbiting Jupiter, just...

My Three Suns

Not just the title of an excellent Futurama episode, but now a real place.  A planet has been found orbiting in a triple star system, a surprising find that may be more common than once thought. Astronomers from the University of Arizona used the European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile to directly image the new planet as it orbits the brightest star in a triple system 320 light years away, in the constellation Centaurus. Orbits like this are thought to be extremely unstable due to the varying gravitational field in the system. “HD 131399Ab is one of the few exoplanets that...

A Direct Black Hole

How did supermassive black holes form in the early epochs of the universe? More importantly, how did they have enough time to grow as large as they did? The answer requires a very different universe.  And back then, conditions were much different than they are now.  There was a lot of gas, little dust, no stars, and a plethora of dark matter. Astronomers have spent decades observing early quasars, massive active galaxies powered by huge black holes feeding on surrounding gas.  But these galaxies are seen so early in the universe’s history, one starts to wonder how a black hole finds sufficient...