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...

Mercurian Monday

If you haven’t already heard, Mercury is going to transit the Sun this coming Monday! It’s like a solar eclipse, except Mercury is covering the Sun instead of the Moon.  And since Mercury is tiny and far away, it’s not so much ‘covering’ the Sun as it is passing across the face of the Sun in a barely perceptible way. The transit takes approximately 7 hours start to finish, and will occur on Monday, May 9th, 2016 from 7:12am to 2:42 pm EDT. If you miss this one, you can catch the next one in 2019.  They happen a dozen times a...

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...

Space Travel HERTS

In the post-Voyager era of deep space flight, spacecraft propulsion designs feel like science fiction.  Instead of using rockets and a thermonuclear generator to produce heat, we have things like solar sails, laser sails, and ion propulsion.  These all take advantage of the vastness of space to create a slow-but-continuous acceleration that can get spacecraft moving at incredible speeds. Of course, even at incredible speeds it will still take decades to reach other stars, but compared to Voyager, it’s a step in the right direction. If you want to get to the outer solar system quickly, try the Heliopause Electrostatic...

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...

Tug-Of-War Magnetism

I feel like I’ve been covering a lot of stories on magnetic fields over the past few months.  Fields around the Earth, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter’s Moons, and exoplanets are just some of the places in the universe where we are looking at magnetic field behaviour.  The intention is to use our understanding of magnetism to figure out what is inside these worlds, and how they interact with their space environment. You would expect us to understand the Earth’s magnetic field and interior very well, after all, we are stuck here.  But it turns out it’s very difficult to study the interior of...

Standing on Mars

One of my first books on Astronomy was about the planets.  It had a collection of pictures from the first missions to each of the worlds in our solar system.   Seeing those photos, the planets felt so alien, so different, and the perspective was like something out a 1950s science fiction comic.  But now, with modern advancements in imaging technology and rocketry, we can send heavier instruments to distant worlds, and see them in high definition.  It changes the perspective and makes the world seem more familiar than alien, more livable and real.  Take a look at the first picture...

The Intense Invisible Aurora

Jupiter has aurora.  It’s not surprising since it has a very powerful magnetic field.  It’s only natural that the two largest structures in the solar system, the Sun’s solar wind influence (called the heliosphere)  and Jupiter’s magnetosphere, should be constantly battling. But don’t expect to see Jupiter’s aurora through a backyard telescope.  The result of this battle is far more energetic, producing an aurora invisible to the human eye, one made of X-rays. The Sun constantly blasts charged particles off into space in all directions, assaulting the planets, moons, and other solar system bodies.  It is this blast of solar wind that gives...

Saturn Double Shot 1/2: Less-Than-Ancient Moons

It’s always funny explaining astronomical time to a non-scientist.  I often get the craziest looks when I mention a million years as being a ‘blip on the radar.’  Perhaps there is some immortal alien race out there who would understand how nothing much happens on the scale of the universe in a million years.  To humanity and our ever-accelerating advancement, a million years is thrice the age of our entire species.  But I guess Einstein was right when he said that ‘it’s all relative.’ This brings us to Saturn, a planet as ancient as the solar system.  Moderately old in...

Ceres and Photoshop

NASA has been zeroing in on certain features of dwarf planet Ceres and looked at them in more detail.  Here are the most surprising as well as what we know so far. There are a few other great videos in this playlist, but the first one gives a great summary of what has been seen so far.  The most surprising and interesting feature of Ceres in my opinion has been the Occator crater.  With the enigmatic bright spots that have been observed since the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres, we are seeing them in finer detail than ever before, and we...