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...

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 Eclipse Feeling

It was like someone turned down the Sun with a dimmer switch.  The tempurate dropped quickly, enhanced by the lack of moisture in the dry mountain air.  In a span of an hour, the Sun looked the same, but was very different, as totality approached.  I was taking photos through my telescope with an attached solar filter, so I could see the Moon slowly covering the Sun.  But as the environment changed in Northern Wyoming, I grew more excited for what was to come.  Over a year of preparation for this event, and clear skies greeted me with the confidence...

Juno’s New Jupiter

The Juno spacecraft began its long journey to Jupiter in 2011.  Waking up in 2016 it underwent a successful orbit injection on July 4th. Now after nearly a year of waiting, the public finally gets to see the first fruits of the mission. It has certainly been worth the wait.   A new Jupiter, seen from a distance of 52,000 Km, has a vivid and chaotic southern pole in the above image.  Swirling storms thousands of kilometres across whirl around one another in a sea of gaseous ammonia clouds.  Will the system remain chaotic? Or will it change a year from...

A Surprising Pan

You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now.  Every time I think I’ve seen it all, that I’ve seen every strange phenomenon in space, every unique planet, moon, star, galaxy, every variation, I’m proven wrong.  I expect that the order has been established and everything newly discovered will fall into a category with no more unique variation. But here we are again.  The close up view of Pan. Pan was photographed only a few days ago by the Cassini spacecraft as it carries out the final months of it’s mission to Saturn.  It was revealed to be a...

Geostationary Revolution

For 4.5 billion years, life evolved on planet Earth.  Not once were the inhabitants of this tiny blue mote of dust able to gaze upon their home as one entity.  To them it had always been an endless land without borders and an endless supply of food and resources.  Most of them were blissfully unaware that they could ever venture further, and so they accepted the boundaries of their existence unquestionably.  Once humans started making tools, we were taken down a path of discovery that would let us escape the bounds of our shrinking world. Finally, just over 70 years...

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...

The Galilean Moons

In the year 1610, it was commonly believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, that all bodies rotated around the perfect planet, placed by god with the heavens around it.  Galileo Galilei dealt a major blow to this idea, by using an early telescope to improve his vision and look up at some surprising dots. These dots formed a line that went straight through the bright planet Jupiter.  As Galileo looked again and again, night after night, he noticed that they not only persisted, they moved.  Their motion was predictable, and Galileo realized that they were orbiting Jupiter, just...

My Three Suns

Not just the title of an excellent Futurama episode, but now a real place.  A planet has been found orbiting in a triple star system, a surprising find that may be more common than once thought. Astronomers from the University of Arizona used the European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile to directly image the new planet as it orbits the brightest star in a triple system 320 light years away, in the constellation Centaurus. Orbits like this are thought to be extremely unstable due to the varying gravitational field in the system. “HD 131399Ab is one of the few exoplanets that...