Double Post: Mini Stars & Morning Micrometeorites on Mercury

Alliteration is accessible to all! Okay I’m done. Start some science! Really done this time.  Today’s double post covers the smallest of stars, still larger than most planets, and the only weather Mercury will ever have. Humans are naturally interested in the extremes, the biggest, smallest, fastest, hottest, coldest, and every other characteristic outlier.  With stars, being so huge and powerful, we are often more interested in the largest, hottest, and most energetic.  Though on the opposite end of the spectrum, Cambridge University astronomers have discovered the smallest star in the known universe. The star, a red dwarf, has the...

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...

Water in the Lunar Desert

The environment on the moon is pretty boring.  Rocks, dust, and craters as far as the eye can see in all directions.  Untouched for billions of years, save for meteors and a few recent visits by a blue neighbour.  In 2009, the cold, dry surface of the moon was found to harbour trace amounts of water.  Now, less than a decade later, the first map of lunar water has been produced. The map was produced with data taken by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, which flew aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, the craft that discovered the water in 2009, along with a similar...

Reflection in a Dark Universe

Like lighthouse beacons in a dark ocean, stars act as tiny islands in the vast universe.  Producing light at the atomic level from the powerful release of energy through fusion, they are the engines that drive the formation of new elements.  But in the darkness there are plenty of other hidden objects that are cold and give off little to no light.  Yet many of them are easily seen.  Here’s Why! The first thing to think about is infrared light, the radiation given off by warm objects.  Large planets and brown dwarf stars are very bright in infrared, much brighter...

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...

An Ancient Martian Tsunami

A pretty cool result came out of Cornell University this week, showing that Mars was struck by a pair of ancient asteroids that caused massive tsunamis.  Not only is it the first evidence of a tsunami event on another world, but it proves that Mars once had a large ocean. The study looked at ancient shorelines between the lowlands and highlands of Mars, where the ocean-land boundary would have been.  Two massive impacts, a few million years apart, extended the shorelines and caused turmoil with the Martian climate at the time. “About 3.4 billion years ago, a big meteorite impact triggered...

Martian Water is Quick-Boil

At this stage of our understanding of the planet Mars, we have seen salty water flowing (recurring slope lineae), found evidence of ancient riverbeds, and seen seasonal changes in the polar caps.  But an important question is how does water behave on Mars? A bit of science here on Earth gives some insight. Water at sea level on Earth boils at 100 degrees Celsius, which actually defined the Celsius scale.  But as pressure changes, liquids boil at different temperatures.  As the atmosphere gets thinner, the boiling temperature of water decreases.  On Mars, with it’s extremely thin atmosphere, this means that water...

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...

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...