Falcon Flight to the Galaxy

In the APOD photo from May 14th, it is easy to imagine the rocket launching far away into the galactic disk.  Sadly the rocket can’t traverse the thousands of light years to reach the distant stars, and is restricted to orbiting the Earth. Another beautiful part of this image is the technique involved in producing it.  It required combining two exposures. The first, with low sensitivity to capture the orange rocket trail of the Falcon 9.  The second with high sensitivity and a longer exposure time to capture the faint light of the Milky Way galaxy beyond.  The result is...

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...

Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss it

Have you ever seen a picture of a comet or asteroid in the sky against a background of stars? Here let me show you. Can you spot the asteroid? Okay I confess there is no asteroid in the image above, but if there was you’d believe me because an asteroid in this image would be indistinguishable from the stars.  They are all points of light, so how can you tell them apart? There’s something that separates asteroids, comets, planets, and all other solar system objects from background stars in an image. When you’re driving in a car and you look to the...

Three Nearby Earths

As the search for planets in the galaxy continues, there are two places to focus on: Distant stars with potential large planets, and nearby stars with potential small planets. If we are able to find Earth-like planets orbiting nearby stars, they will be prime targets for future generations to explore. Astronomers have just announced the discovery of three new planets orbiting a star only 40 light years from Earth.  The star is a very small red dwarf, only slightly larger than Jupiter, and even though it’s close to Earth, it can’t be seen with the naked eye or even with a large...

Moon Outshines the Sun

When could the Moon possibly be brighter than the Sun? The Sun is much bigger, produces energy, and gives all the energy needed for life on Earth.  But if you look at the sky in gamma rays, the highest energy photons on the electromagnetic spectrum, you’ll see the Moon more easily than the Sun.  Why? The Moon is the brightest gamma ray source in the sky, because it has no atmosphere or magnetic field.  Essentially it has no protection from the dangerous cosmic rays that are constantly zipping through space.  When they hit the Earth’s atmosphere they create a cosmic...

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...

Dark Matter is Complicated

The fact that we have found gravitational waves tells us that we have come a long way in terms of science and technology.  We detected a perturbation in the fabric of space-time that was one one-thousandth the diameter of a proton.  It’s insane to think about that level of precision.  And yet we still can’t find Dark Matter, the stuff that is literally everywhere in the universe.  Is it our problem? Or is dark matter just on a whole different level? By now, we know that dark matter isn’t some clump of stuff sitting out there in space.  But that...

A Ring of Fire

A direct consequence of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and an observational way to prove it, is gravitational lensing.  It requires a powerful gravitational source to work, such as a galaxy or cluster of galaxies.  It works in a similar way to a lens of glass, where rays of light are bent toward a single source, increasing the brightness.  In this case, instead of glass, the bending of the rays is due to the curvature of space. Light rays coming from the source would otherwise miss Earth, but instead are bent toward us when there is a massive object in front of it.  It’s...

Motivation Monday: Seasonal Downside

I am still here.  It’s been more than a week since I’ve written a word on the digital page, meaning there is a lot to catch up on for a guy who is trying to write a blog post every day.  But it happens, sometimes there are vacations, busy weeks at work, and crises to manage.  Life happens, yet still I continue.   Today’s motivation post will talk about part of the reason for my shift, and how I may be the only person who sees a changing season as a frustration, even if it is the long-awaited Spring. If you...

Building the Supermassive

Black holes form when a massive star runs out of fuel.  Gravity causes the core to collapse down to an object so dense that light itself can not escape.  In the Milky Way galaxy, there are expected to be over 100 Million black holes, though of course we can’t see them.  The one we can see is the supermassive black hole Sag A*, lying deep within the core of the galaxy.  But how did Sag A* form? Was it from the merger of many smaller black holes?  Or is there some other process forming the most enigmatic objects in the...