The Real Discovery of Neptune

Have you ever read the story of the discovery of Neptune? It truly is a triumph of science and mathematics, and part of the reason it is my favourite planet (a hard choice to make).  The story goes like this: It all starts with the discovery of Uranus in 1781 by William Herschel.  This was the first ever discovery of a planet, as the Earth and the five visible planets have been known of since the dawn of history. Thanks to Isaac Newton working out the laws of gravitation and the mechanics of the solar system, mathematicians could easily calculate the properties...

Blast From The Past

A supernova is the death blast of a giant star, far larger than our Sun.  Massive stars go out with a bang, outshining entire galaxies, allowing us to see them across the universe.  A supernova observed in 2013 occurred in a distant galaxy and took over 30 Million years to reach Earth, where the timing was perfect for us to observe and study it.  And now that it’s been studied, the explosion was truly the death of a giant. The supernova, named 2013 ej, was discovered in June 2013 in the galaxy M74 in the constellation Pisces.  It was the closest supernova...

A Beacon in the Dark

Until the recent discovery of gravitational waves, the only ‘sense’ that astronomers had was vision.  Granted our ‘vision’ with telescopes is far broader than human eyes, we still need to find ingenious ways to use the precious photons that rain down on Earth. One of the new ways astronomers are using light is to look at what we call a ‘light echo.’  In reality it’s a reflection of starlight.  When a new star is forming, it is accompanied by a protoplanetary disk, which will eventually form all the planets of the system.  Our own solar system went through this stage 4.5...

Pi Written on a Pi Pie on Pi Day

Whether you’re looking for an excuse to eat dessert or just love mathematics, March 14th is a good day for geeks, nerds, and the rest of the world too.  The third month and the fourteenth day, 3.14, is known as Pi day, after the simplest and most ubiquitous constant in nature (no disrespect to c, e, g, or h).  Defined as the ratio of a circle’s circumference and it’s diameter, Pi is an irrational number, meaning there is no end to its digits.  Most people know 3.14159, but some people have memorized hundreds more digits.  Mathematicians armed with supercomputers have calculated Pi to...

Searching for Nine

Planet nine from outer space has yet to be found, but the theory is sound, and the hunt has begun.  Since the announcement by Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown on January 20th, astronomers have been finding ways to search for the theorized planet, using all the available data to zero in on it’s position.  It’s certainly big enough to find, at roughly 10 Earth masses, but with a huge swath of space to search, everything that excludes part of the search area is a step in the right direction. One of the ongoing goals of researchers is to carefully calculate...

More Stuff to Block Galaxies

A few days ago I wrote about a galaxy that was tough to see because of Milky Way field stars.  But our galaxy is far more than just a bunch of stars smattered about.  There is also a huge amount of gas and dust with varying temperatures.  Some of the hotter and more illuminated gas and dust are what make nebulae so lovely in space.  But the cold gas and dark dust that is just out floating in the cold interstellar medium? That stuff gets in the way. A normal image of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 would try to hide the...

Black Hole Eats and Erupts!

The only reason we can see black holes in the universe is because some of them swallow up gas and dust.  This heats up material that is spinning rapidly around the black hole as it falls in (called an accretion disk), and produces massive jets of material due to conservation of angular momentum that can be seen across the universe.  The energy released in the jets and the energy given off in the accretion disk are proportional to how much gas and dust is being consumed by the black hole.  More matter = more food = more energy released.  But...

Planetary Nebulae

Some of the most gorgeous, ghostly, and variable objects in the universe are planetary nebulae.  They are all formed in a similar process, as a low-mass star (like our Sun) sheds it’s outer layers of gas and dust, heating them to a glow as they disperse over hundreds of millions of years.  A few Billion years from now, the Sun will undergo the same major state change.  When this happens, perhaps other species in the far future will gaze upon it and marvel at its beauty. One of the difficulties in studying a planetary nebula is measuring it’s distance from...

Dark Matter Domination

Dark matter is everywhere.  There is way more of it in the universe than the matter we are made of and interact with.  Yet for the sheer amount of it, we have no way of determining what exactly it is.  It’s as if we didn’t know what air was, and even though we could see it and breathe it, we couldn’t measure it.  The most tantalizing part about dark matter is that we can see the gravitational effect it has, and so we can determine how much of it there has to be.  Some places in the universe have more dark matter than...