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...

New Kepler Planets Confirmed!

In a major announcement this week, researchers with the Kepler Space Telescope science team have confirmed the existence of 1,284 new planets that had originally been found by Kepler.  This is a huge leap in the number of confirmed planets, bringing the total to over 2,300. The previous science data collection done by Kepler was completed in 2013, so why is this new news? Well the exciting part is that these are confirmed planets.  Usually when Kepler detects a signal indicating a potential planet, it needs to be verified by using some of the larger ground-based telescopes.  Kepler is not immune...

A Lonely Universe?

Life in the universe is a fascinating topic.  The simplest question: Are we alone? It breeds so many deeper and more profound scientific questions, like “How many habitable planets are there?” “How likely is life to develop on any given planet?” and “How long can a civilization survive?” We can’t answer them definitively, but we can narrow it down. The Drake equation, shown above, was first developed by Frank Drake, the head of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), in 1961.  He took the question of are we alone and made it quantifiable, in a probabilistic way.  It lets us...

Standing on Mars

One of my first books on Astronomy was about the planets.  It had a collection of pictures from the first missions to each of the worlds in our solar system.   Seeing those photos, the planets felt so alien, so different, and the perspective was like something out a 1950s science fiction comic.  But now, with modern advancements in imaging technology and rocketry, we can send heavier instruments to distant worlds, and see them in high definition.  It changes the perspective and makes the world seem more familiar than alien, more livable and real.  Take a look at the first picture...

Lunar and Martian Farming

Can we grow crops on the Moon? How about Mars? If you saw the movie “The Martian,” it seems you could grow potatoes on Mars with a supply of water, oxygen, and some fertilizer, but without these necessities (soil nutrients, water, oxygen) they just wouldn’t last. If we eventually want to colonize places like the Moon and Mars, finding a way to live off the land is a must. The sunshine will help, but can we really grow crops on alien soil? As it turns out, Earth scientists have been working on this problem, by simulating the soils of the...

Best Place for an Alien Civilization

This story popped up yesterday, and I can imagine it will go far, since it talks about life in the universe.  I get it, it’s what people are interested in, and at least this story is focused on the science of why this is the best place to look for intelligent civilizations, instead of “Oh hey there’s a strange ring of material around a star, must be an alien superstructure.”  But I digress. So where is the best place to look for life in the universe? The answer is in a Globular Cluster. A globular cluster is one of the...

Doing Exoplanet Chemistry From Earth

Exoplanets are light years away, hidden by their parent stars, and barely detectable.  Yet even though most have never been directly imaged, we can study the light from the parent star as the planet passes in front of it, and use this information to learn about the planet’s size and composition, especially if it has an atmosphere.  Once you know a little bit about how big and dense a planet is, and the major elements that form it’s crust and atmosphere, you can do a lot of Chemistry to figure out what it should be made of and how these...

Called it! No Aliens!

Sometimes I love to say ‘I told you so,’ though in the world of science it’s more like ‘I gave you a high probability of this plausible scenario.’  A little while back a story broke about a star called KIC 8462852, with a strange ring of material surrounding it.  One potential explanation was that an extraterrestrial civilization has constructed a giant ring to harvest it’s home star’s energy.  Though this was one of a dozen possible explanations, it of course gathered the most steam among the general populace. In a statement today, officials from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) confirmed that...

NASA Discovery! Flowing Water on Mars!

After an epic weekend of eclipse talk, NASA came out with a press conference that overshadowed much more than just the Moon.  The announcement, as many had speculated, revealed that conclusive evidence shows there is flowing water on Mars.  Like seasons on Earth, warmer conditions cause water to flow down steep hills and into valleys. The speculation came due to the invitation of Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology to the NASA panel.  Ojha noticed strange features on Mars as an undergraduate student in 2010, while looking at images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)’s High Resolution Imaging Science...

The Close-Up View of Ceres’ Mystery Bright Spot

The mysteries of the Occator crater on Ceres have continued to puzzle astronomers and the public, even as we have seen increasing resolution in recent photos.  The latest photos show a resolution of 140 meters per pixel and reveal striking details, though the jury is still out on what exactly the bright material is and where it came from. It seems incredibly likely that the bright spots are ices of some sort, maybe even water ice, since Ceres is a water-rich body, and may have more water than Earth!  One hypothesis is that Ceres has a subsurface layer of water,...