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 How and Why of Planet Nine

It hasn’t been found yet – let me make that clear.  But with evidence that it should exist, astronomers are looking more closely at the proposed planet nine and how it might have formed, and how it could have ended up in such a distant orbit. When you start to think about how a planet ten times the mass of Earth could have ended up more than ten times as far from the Sun as Neptune, a few scenarios pop into mind: It was formed in the inner solar system, where interactions with gas giants or another star pulled it out It formed...

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...

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...

History of a Made-Up Planet

There are eight planets in the Solar System.  This statement makes a lot of people angry for several different reasons.  The obvious group to respond with anger is the ‘people for Pluto,’ who have an unwavering dedication to the little planet that could.  It’s scientifically recognized as a dwarf Planet, and is still one step up from a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), so it’s doing well.  Far beyond Pluto, in the outer recesses of our Solar system, you may have heard of a potential Super-Earth-sized Planet recently theorized by Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown.  This is the other reason people would...

Five New Studies of Pluto

It’s been nine months since NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto.  Time sure does fly.  And even though the spacecraft is moving further from Pluto and Earth, it’s still sending back the massive amounts of data it gathered during closest approach.  As this data is received, the huge team of scientists that are part of the mission use it to characterize Pluto so humanity can begin to understand just how strange the distant dwarf Planet is. Five new papers characterize some of the latest science done on the enigmatic world.  Here’s a quick summary of each: The first paper from...

A Cracked Egg Moon

One of the first things you hear when learning about the states of matter is about good old H2O: Steam, Water, Ice.  Naturally you are asked “Why does Ice float?” The answer is a simple matter of density, frozen water is less dense because water expands when it freezes.  You can do a bit of an experiment by filling a balloon with water.  Paint the balloon and put it in the freezer.  When it freezes the water will expand, and so will the rubbery balloon, but the dried paint will crack at weak points. This is exactly the same thing...

Black Hole Merger Confirmed!

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…. Two black holes, with masses 29 and 35 times the mass of the Sun, merged to form an even bigger black hole.  The merger resulted in three entire suns worth of matter converted to pure energy in the form of gravitational waves. The waves travelled a billion light years before a tiny meat-filled species on a pale blue dot in space figured how to see them.  Thanks to the smartest one that species had seen in a century, they knew that black holes might merge, and that they would produce these waves if...

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’...

Cryovolcano on Pluto

Cryovolcano is a cool word, literally and figuratively.  You hear about it a lot when talking about solar system moons like Enceladus, and it’s one of those words that would make a heck of a great Hollywood disaster movie title, like ‘Sharknado’ or ‘Armageddon.’ I do not, however, endorse either of those movies, they were both terrible.  At any rate, a real cryovolcano seems like an interesting thing.  It’s a volcano in the sense that it looks a little like a mountain and spews out material when the pressure builds from beneath the surface, but it’s not your traditional Earth-like volcano...