Black Holes ARE Dark Matter?

Dark matter could be almost anything.  With little data other than how much total dark matter mass exists, we can’t decode much about what individual chunks of dark matter might be made of.  I’ve talked before about Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs) and Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), but these are just two possibilities.  Other theorists have talked about Modified Newtonian Gravity (MNG), where gravity may work differently on the grand scale than it does on our small Earth scales.  Or perhaps it’s something I haven’t seen before.  Maybe what we call dark matter is just a large population of ancient black holes....

Heavy Metal

Where do the heavy elements on the periodic table come from?  The general answer is from what’s called the r-process of stellar nucleosynthesis.   This translates to ‘rapid neutron capture’ being the method by which most of the elements heavier than Iron are formed on the periodic table.  This process requires immense energy and was originally thought to only occur within core-collapse supernova explosions. “Understanding how heavy, r-process elements are formed is one of hardest problems in nuclear physics,” said Anna Frebel, assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and also a member of...

Review: IMAX: A Beautiful Planet

I recently had the opportunity to watch a brand new IMAX feature, called A Beautiful Planet.  It features incredible views of the Earth from space, captured by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.  Most of the footage was taken during Expedition 42 on the ISS, starting with the arrival of Samantha Cristoforetti, Terry Virts, and Anton Shkaplerov aboard the Soyuz TMA-15M, and ending with their departure. Much of the film was focused on the views of Earth, the scenic diversity of life and land that can only be seen from space.  It was difficult to see the effects of humans during the day time,...

Mercury Transit with Bonus ISS

Mercury crossed the face of the Sun this past Monday, a relatively rare event that occurs only a dozen (give or take) times a century.  Being able to see it in real time was excellent, but seeing the photos taken by professionals and amateurs alike made the event truly memorable. And look! The International Space Station flew by. Compare this to 2012’s transit of Venus and you get a sense of how much closer to Venus the Earth is than Mercury. In both cases, the most beautiful thing is that you get a sense of just how immense and powerful...

A Lonely Universe?

Life in the universe is a fascinating topic.  The simplest question: Are we alone? It breeds so many deeper and more profound scientific questions, like “How many habitable planets are there?” “How likely is life to develop on any given planet?” and “How long can a civilization survive?” We can’t answer them definitively, but we can narrow it down. The Drake equation, shown above, was first developed by Frank Drake, the head of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), in 1961.  He took the question of are we alone and made it quantifiable, in a probabilistic way.  It lets us...

Moon Outshines the Sun

When could the Moon possibly be brighter than the Sun? The Sun is much bigger, produces energy, and gives all the energy needed for life on Earth.  But if you look at the sky in gamma rays, the highest energy photons on the electromagnetic spectrum, you’ll see the Moon more easily than the Sun.  Why? The Moon is the brightest gamma ray source in the sky, because it has no atmosphere or magnetic field.  Essentially it has no protection from the dangerous cosmic rays that are constantly zipping through space.  When they hit the Earth’s atmosphere they create a cosmic...

Titanic Methane Seas

Even after a decade of interloping among the Saturnian system, the Cassini spacecraft is still doing great science.  It helps that there are lots of places to visit, since Saturn has 62 moons and the largest ring system of the gas giants.  Arguably the best science has come from Saturn’s largest moon Titan, second largest moon in the solar system (behind Ganymede) and the only moon known to have an atmosphere. Since Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn and it’s system of moons, it’s been revealed that over 1.6 million square kilometers of Titan’s surface are covered in liquid...

Blast From The Past

A supernova is the death blast of a giant star, far larger than our Sun.  Massive stars go out with a bang, outshining entire galaxies, allowing us to see them across the universe.  A supernova observed in 2013 occurred in a distant galaxy and took over 30 Million years to reach Earth, where the timing was perfect for us to observe and study it.  And now that it’s been studied, the explosion was truly the death of a giant. The supernova, named 2013 ej, was discovered in June 2013 in the galaxy M74 in the constellation Pisces.  It was the closest supernova...

A Ring of Fire

A direct consequence of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and an observational way to prove it, is gravitational lensing.  It requires a powerful gravitational source to work, such as a galaxy or cluster of galaxies.  It works in a similar way to a lens of glass, where rays of light are bent toward a single source, increasing the brightness.  In this case, instead of glass, the bending of the rays is due to the curvature of space. Light rays coming from the source would otherwise miss Earth, but instead are bent toward us when there is a massive object in front of it.  It’s...

The Largest Neutron Star in Existence

Neutron stars are the most extreme objects in the universe that have been proven to exist.  Black holes are very likely, but we’re still not 100% sure about them.  A black hole is like a giant squid in the ocean.  We’re pretty sure they exist, but nobody has caught one.  The neutron star on the other hand is like a blue whale, everybody knows they exist, and they are massive, rare, and beautiful.  Of course, once we know something exists, the next logical step is to figure out how it behaves, to characterize and generalize it, and to identify where it’s...