One Planet Hunter to Another

It wasn’t long after the discovery of exo-solar planets that scientists sent up spacecraft to look for them.  The Kepler Space Telescope (KST) was NASA’s first planet finder, which has been exceeding expectations since 2009.  It likely won’t get to continue on that road, as it is nearing the end of it’s life.  At the same time, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is just starting to open it’s eyes.  Today we say goodbye to one great planet hunter and hello to another.   KST is part of NASA’s early 2000s spacecraft approvals that saw relatively inexpensive missions pushed forward...

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,...

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 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...

Looking Closer and Testing Theories

Last week, while looking at some of the best images from the Cassini spacecraft, I commented on the fact that the smooth rings of Saturn are small, varied chunks of ice and rock when you get down to the smaller scales.  Reflecting on that this morning, I was thinking about how observing objects in our universe at smaller scales gives new insight into the variety and complexity of natural phenomena.  Not long after, I came across a story of a new interesting object in our own Solar System. A new binary asteroid was discovered.  This in itself isn’t too different...

Water in the Lunar Desert

The environment on the moon is pretty boring.  Rocks, dust, and craters as far as the eye can see in all directions.  Untouched for billions of years, save for meteors and a few recent visits by a blue neighbour.  In 2009, the cold, dry surface of the moon was found to harbour trace amounts of water.  Now, less than a decade later, the first map of lunar water has been produced. The map was produced with data taken by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, which flew aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, the craft that discovered the water in 2009, along with a similar...