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...

Comet or Asteroid?

What is the difference between a comet and an asteroid? The typical response is that an asteroid is rocky and a comet is icy/gassy.  Further than this, asteroids typically orbit closer to the Sun than Neptune, and comets orbit beyond this loose dividing line.  But as with everything in nature, there are often exceptions to the rule. C/2014 S3 PANSTAARS is classified as a weakly active comet, originating in the Oort cloud with an orbital period of 860 years.  As it approached the Sun, astronomers noticed that it was lacking the characteristic comet tail, resulting from the blast of solar radiation upon approach to the...

Makemake Moon

Hubble just discovered the newest moon in the solar system, a tiny rock orbiting the dwarf planet Makemake, far beyond the orbit of Neptune. The new moon is about 250 Km across, compared to the 1,400 Km wide Makemake.  It orbits in approximately 12 days, and has an edge on orbit, making it difficult to spot. “Our preliminary estimates show that the moon’s orbit seems to be edge-on, and that means that often when you look at the system you are going to miss the moon because it gets lost in the bright glare of Makemake,” said Alex Parker of...

Potential Ninth Planet!

Sadly no, this time we are NOT talking about Pluto. Astronomer Mike Brown from Caltech, heralded as the ‘man who killed planet Pluto’ has done some new work that might replace Pluto with a better fit for a true ninth planet, one that is ten times the mass of Earth.  Now the only problem is finding it. But wait, if we haven’t seen it, how do we know it’s there? Well it certainly showcases the power of science, that an understanding of the true laws of nature can give us incredible predictive power.  It started out as a ‘that’s strange’...

Lonely Planets in Deep Space

What do other planetary systems look like? We have seen some where massive Jupiter-sized worlds orbit closer to their star than Mercury does to the Sun, baking them with radiation.  Others have had multiple rocky planets within the Earth’s orbit distance.  Some have planets similar to Earth in a variety of locations.  But what about far away from the star? We never expected to find gas giants like Uranus and Neptune in the far reaches of our solar system.  Are there planetary systems where planets live even farther away? Maybe there are planets that live in the empty darkness between stars,...

Flying Past Pluto

The high resolution data keeps on coming in from New Horizons, now far beyond the dwarf planet Pluto.  Using some of the images as the craft flew by, mission scientists were able to create a fantastic video that gives you some perspective as if you were flying along yourself.   We can see Charon and other moons during the early and later stages of the fly-by, with the orbits overlaid, giving perspective on how the Plutonian system’s mechanics work.  As the craft approaches Pluto, time slows down to appreciate the closest approach and see the stunning detail revealed in the...

The Future of New Horizons: Beyond Pluto

With the historic fly-by of Pluto last month, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft gave us an up-close look at the former 9th planet, showing that it is a dynamic world with icy plains, tall mountains, and an atmosphere.  But now that New Horizons has passed by Pluto, it has the infinite cosmic horizon in its stead.  So what’s next for the $700 Million spacecraft? Its battery will keep it going for a few more decades, and it will likely pass beyond the edge of the solar system, in the stead of the Voyager crafts.  What else is ahead? The good news is...

Take a Ride on New Horizons as You Fly Past Pluto

The rendering I’ve been waiting for is finally here! A conceptual video of the flyby of Pluto from far away, leading through closest approach and turning back to see the dark side, all together.  This will give you a sense of the motion of New Horizons, and the state of the Pluto system in the Kuiper Belt. The credit goes not just to NASA, but to space enthusiast Björn Jónsson, who created the rendering from the latest Pluto images and data from New Horizons. The strangest part of watching this was the sense of longing I felt as we fly past...

Why Pluto Isn’t a Planet, and Why it Was Before

The true story of why Pluto isn’t a planet goes back further than you would think.  It has a lot to do with our understanding of science at the time, and a lot more to do with surprising luck.  I made this video a couple of days ago for the Khan Academy Talent Search.  I hope you enjoy it. It will be interesting as we move into better telescope technologies that allow us to see further into the depths of the solar system and the universe.  What strange mysteries will we find?

Lots of News but Pluto Always Wins

Today is a busy day in the world of astronomy and space news. The US Air Force has approved SpaceX for military launches, ending a ten year monopoly by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.  A black hole jet moving at nearly the speed of light is having traffic issues, resulting in knots of jet material rear-ending each other. An experiment in Quantum Mechanics has shown that reality simply doesn’t exist until we measure it.  Finally, the Gemini planet imager has found a bright, disk-shaped ring of dust around the star HD 115600, which is being likened to the Kuiper Belt in the...