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...

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...

Everlasting Light

Light is beautiful.  It illuminates a world of beauty for us to appreciate while giving us a tool to decipher the riddles of the universe.  In astronomy, it’s always about more photons! Because more photons = more data = better results.  But in an increasingly technological world, more photons can be a bad thing.  Especially when the artificial photons overpower the natural. I was lucky to spend most of my youth living away from the bright lights of the city, but with the sprawling metropolis of Toronto to the South, I could always see the orange glow that blocked out...

Reproducible Results and Baby Planets

When I report science news, discuss new discoveries, and get excited about new results, it can be difficult to hear that little voice in the back of my mind that says ‘reproducible results.’  It’s the voice of the pure scientist that reminds me to be critical of the things I read, and be open to critical review for the things I write and say. Any result isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on unless it can be independently reproduced.  This is a key to scientific advancement.  If the result can’t be reproduced, then something is wrong.  It may be an error with...

How Life on Earth Began

One of the most important questions our species has tackled is the origin of life on Earth.  If we can figure out the conditions and catalyst for the beginning of life, we can look elsewhere in the universe for those same conditions, and zero in on the potential for finding extraterrestrial life.  We know the universe is old enough for the painstakingly slow evolutionary process, but what started it? In the famous 1952 Miller-Urey experiment, a flask containing the basic natural elements water (H20), methane (CH4), Ammonia (NH4), and Hydrogen (H2), all present on the early Earth, was subjected to...

Mars in the Spotlight

On May 22nd, Mars will be at opposition.  It’s the astronomical term for when Mars and the Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth.  This makes the face of Mars fully illuminated from Earth, and also brings the Earth to it’s closest approach of Mars, at 75 Million Km.  Hubble images the red planet to celebrate the occasion. So get your telescopes out and be ready to take some pictures, because Mars is smiling! Mars will rise in the East at sunset, since they are on opposite sides of the Earth.  It will appear bright with a rusty hue, and...

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...

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...

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...