A faraway Cosmic ray

Cosmic rays are incredibly powerful invisible particles, and we can’t be sure where they come from. Not much in the way of a comforting thought, but it makes for a cosmic mystery that astronomers have been trying to solve for decades.  And now they have come one step closer. Here’s what we do know.  Cosmic rays are energetic atomic nuclei travelling at near the speed of light.  They hit our atmosphere and rapidly interact with the molecules there to break into billions of smaller, less energetic particles that shower down on the life on Earth, without giving us much notice...

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...

Always an Eclipse Somewhere

As I often do, I pulled up the Astronomy Picture of the Day, and noticed today’s photo was a fond reminder of the eclipse I witnessed a month ago. I began to think about the preparation and timing, planning and organizing, the countless hours of testing gear for a single moment lasting two minutes, where the Moon and Sun aligned.  I was in the right place, at the right time. Solar Eclipses are rare, and it’s mostly because only a narrow band of land on Earth, usually around 100 Km wide, experiences such an event at any one time.  And with...

Sample Size Solves Problems

Science and technology benefit one another.  New scientific theories afford new opportunities to create technology that can harness the laws of nature.  Conversely, new technologies allow for better instrumentation and unprecedented efficiency in scientific progress.  It’s a continual feedback loop, and some of the greatest challenges in science are solved simply by throwing more resources at them, or in other words, gathering more data. A good example of this is a relatively old problem for astronomers – determining how the spin of a galaxy affects it’s shape.  We certainly don’t want for analogies on Earth, spinning pizza, driving on a...

Cassini Science: Ring Propellors

As I was watching the grand finale of Cassini and listening to the mission team talk about the accomplishments of the mission, I learned a little bit about propellors.  Not your typical airplane propellor, but the name used to describe this fascinating feature in Saturn’s rings. Seeing Saturn’s rings from afar, or even relatively close with Cassini, we see the rings as perfect.  How do we end up with strange features and imperfections like this one?  Looking elsewhere in the rings, we can find clues. The first clue is the namesake of the mission itself.  The Cassini spacecraft was named for...

Cassini – A Fond Farewell

I remember vividly my first astronomy class in university.  Winter 2004, only months before the Cassini spacecraft was set to arrive at Saturn after a seven year journey.  On several occasions in that class we talked about what we might see when Cassini reached it’s destination.  The first dedicated mission to the jewel of the solar system, originally conceived right after the voyager flyby in 1982, would give us a chance to study more than just a planet, but an entire system of interaction between a planet and it’s moons.  Beyond that, it included the Huygens probe, to land at...

Astrophoto Bucket List

After the eclipse on August 21st, I took a deep breath.  I spent a year focussed on photographing the eclipse, and with that goal complete, what was next?  I was in the plateau of the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, a couple dozen miles from Yellowstone, and had three days to enjoy with my fiancee.  As luck would have it, those days were absent of any clouds, giving me two perfect evenings in clear, dark, dry skies to do some of the best astrophotography of my life.  Here’s what I shot. The milky way shot for me is a...

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...

Einstein’s Final Riddle

Why does the Universe expand the way it does? Why does it accelerate? Einstein’s equations offer an explanation of gravity that works on the scale we know, but do they work on the grandest scales of space and time? Humanity now has a way to find out. The General Theory of Relativity predicts the behaviour of gravity, and includes a term known as the cosmological constant.  Einstein added this term to make the universe static and unchanging, as he believed it was.  But when the expansion of the universe was discovered by Edwin Hubble, Einstein regarded it as ‘the greatest blunder...