Universe Today

  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
  • warning: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected the timezone 'UTC' for now, but please set date.timezone to select your timezone. in /home1/kuehlebo/public_html/ruimtekolonisatie/modules/aggregator/aggregator.pages.inc on line 259.
Syndicate content Universe Today
Space and astronomy news
Updated: 1 year 16 weeks ago

New Visualization Of Waves In Saturn’s Rings Puts You In The Keeler Gap

Fri, 08/19/2016 - 22:29

Fans of astronomy are no doubt familiar with the work of Kevin Gill. In the past, he has brought us visualizations of what the Earth would look like if it had a system of rings, what a "Living Mars" would look like - i.e. if it was covered in oceans and lush vegetation - and an artistic rendition of the places we've been in our Solar System. In his latest work, which once again merges the artistic and astronomical, Gill has created a series of images that show Saturn's moon of Daphnis, and the effect it has on Saturn's Keeler Gap. Through these images - titled "Daphnis in the Keeler Gap" and "Daphnis and Waves Along the Keeler Gap" - we get to see an artistic rendition of how one of Saturn's moons interacts with its beautiful ring system. As one of Saturn's smallest moons - measuring just 8 km (~5 mi) in diameter - the existence of Daphnis had been previously inferred by astronomers based on the gravitational ripples that were observed on the outer edge of the Keeler Gap. This 42 km (26 mi) wide gap, which lies in Saturn's A Ring and is approximately 250 km from the its outer edge, is kept clear by Daphnis' orbit around the planet. In 2005, the Cassini space probe finally confirmed the existence of this tiny moon. After analyzing images provided by the probe, the Cassini Imaging Science Team concluded that Daphnis' path and orbit induce a wavy pattern in the edge of the gap. These waves reach a distance of 1.5 km (0.93 mi) above the ring, due to Daphnis being slightly inclined to the ring's plane. However, all the images taken by Cassini showed this effect from a great distance. In order to help people appreciate what it must look like close-up, Gill decided to create the visuals you see here. From his images, the passage of Daphnis is shown to give the A Ring a rippled, wavy appearance. In addition, one can see how Daphnis is inclined slightly above the plane of the A Ring, causing the waves to reach upward. As Kevin Gill told Universe Today via email, these images were the largely inspired by the most recent images of Saturn's rings that were provided by Cassini space probe, which returned to an equatorial orbit a few months ago after spending two years in high-inclination orbits: "These are inspired by a general interest in the moon-ring interactions and some recent Cassini views of Daphnis on the 15th (shown below). This is one of the many aspects of the Saturn system that I imagine would be absolutely breathtaking if you could see it in person and ended up being rather simple to model in Maya." [caption id="attachment_130366" align="aligncenter" width="580"]

The post New Visualization Of Waves In Saturn’s Rings Puts You In The Keeler Gap appeared first on Universe Today.

Europa Clipper Team Braces For Bad News

Fri, 08/19/2016 - 21:58

Jupiter's moon Europa is a juicy target for exploration. Beneath its surface of ice there's a warm salty, ocean. Or potentially, at least. And if Earth is our guide, wherever you find a warm, salty, ocean, you find life. But finding it requires a dedicated, and unique, mission. If each of the bodies in our Solar System weren't so different from each other, we could just have one or two types of missions. Things would be much easier, but also much more boring. But Europa isn't boring, and it won't be easy to explore. Exploring it will require a complex, custom mission. That means expensive. NASA's proposed mission to Europa is called the Europa Clipper. It's been in the works for a few years now. But as the mission takes shape, and as the science gets worked out, a parallel process of budget wrangling is also ongoing. And as reported by SpaceNews.com there could be bad news incoming for the first-ever mission to Europa. At issue is next year's funding for the Europa Clipper. Officials with NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group are looking for ways to economize and cut costs for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, while still staying on track for a mission launch in 2022. According to Bob Pappalardo, Europa Clipper's project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, funding will be squeezed in 2017. “There is this squeeze in FY17 that we have,” said Pappalardo. “We’re asking the instrument teams and various other aspects of the project, given that squeeze, what will it take in the out years to maintain that ’22 launch." As for the actual dollar amounts, there are different numbers floating around, and they don't all jive with each other. In 2016, the Europa Mission received $175 million from Congress, but in the administration's budget proposal for 2017, they only requested $49.6 million. There's clearly some uncertainty in these numbers, and that uncertainty is reflected in Congress, too. An FY 2017 House bill earmarks $260 million for the Europa mission. And the Senate has crafted a bill in support of the mission, but doesn't allocate any funding for it. Neither the Senate nor the Congress has passed their bills. This is not the first time that a mis-alignment has appeared between NASA and the different levels of government when it comes to funding. It's pretty common. It's also pretty common for the higher level of funding to prevail. But it's odd that NASA's requested amount is so low. NASA's own low figure of $49.6 million is fuelling the perception that they themselves are losing interest in the Europa Clipper. But SpaceNews.com is reporting that that is not the case. According to Curt Niebur, NASA's program scientist for the Europa mission, “Everyone is aware of how supportive and generous Congress has been of this mission, and I’m happy to say that that support and encouragement is now shared by the administration, and by NASA as well. Everybody is on board the Europa Clipper and getting this mission to the launch pad as soon as our technical challenges and our budget will allow.” [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEuCdnxP_V8[/embed] What all this seems to mean is that the initial science and instrumentation for the mission will be maintained, but no additional capacity will be added. NASA is no longer considering things like free-flying probes to measure the plumes of water ice coming off the moon. According to Niebur, “The additional science value provided by these additions was not commensurate with the associated impact to resources, to accommodation, to cost. There just wasn’t enough science there to balance that out.” The Europa Clipper will be a direct shot to Europa, without any gravity assist on the way. It will likely be powered by the Space Launch System. The main goal of the mission is to learn more about the icy moon's potential habitability. There are tantalizing clues that it has an ocean about 100 km thick, kept warm by the gravity-tidal interactions with Jupiter, and possibly by radioactive decay in the rocky mantle. There's also some evidence that the composition of the sub-surface ocean is similar to Earth's. Mars is a fascinating target, no doubt about it. But as far as harbouring life, Europa might be a better bet. Europa's warm, salty ocean versus Mar's dry, cold surface? A lot of resources have been spent studying Mars, and the Europa mission represents a shift in resources in that regard. It's unfortunate that a few tens of million dollars here or there can hamper our search for life beyond Earth. But the USA is a democracy, so that's the way it is. These discrepancies and possible disputes between NASA and the different levels of government may seem disconcerting, but that's the way these things get done. At least we hope it is. Sources: SpaceNews.com Europa on Universe Today: SpaceNews.com

The post Europa Clipper Team Braces For Bad News appeared first on Universe Today.

Venus-like Exoplanet 39 Light Years Distant Is Probably Baked & Sterile

Fri, 08/19/2016 - 20:47

Last year, astronomers discovered a terrestrial exoplanet orbiting GJ 1132, a red dwarf star located just 12 parsecs (39 light years) away from Earth. Though too close to its parent star to be anything other than extremely hot, astronomers were intrigued to note that it appeared to still be cool enough to have an atmosphere. This was quite exciting, as it represented numerous opportunities for research. In essence, the planet appeared to be "Venus-like" - i.e. very hot, but still in possession of an atmosphere. What's more, it was close enough to our Solar System that its atmosphere could be studied in detail. However, a debate began over whether its atmosphere would be hot and wet, or thin and tenuous. And after a year of study, a team of astronomers from the CfA believe they have unlocked that mystery.

In addition to being relatively close to our own Solar System in astronomical terms, the Venus-like exoplanet GJ 1132b also has a relatively small orbital period around its star. This means that opportunities to spot it as it passes in front of its star (i.e. the Transit Method), occur quite often.

This makes it an excellent target for detailed observation and study, which in turn will help astronomers to learn more about terrestrial exoplanets that orbit close to red dwarf stars. But as noted already, astronomers were divided on the issue of GJ 1132b's atmosphere. Thanks to the research efforts of Laura Schaefer and her colleagues from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), it now appears that the case for a thin atmosphere is the far more likely. Interestingly enough, this was confirmed by determining just how much oxygen the planet has in its atmosphere. For the sake of their study, which was outlined in a paper that approved for publication in The Astrophysical Journal - titled "Predictions of the atmospheric composition of GJ 1132b" - they explain how they used a "magma ocean-atmosphere" model to determine what would happen to GJ 1132b over time if it began with a water-rich atmosphere. They began with the knowledge that a planet like GJ 1132b - which orbits its star at a distance of 2.25 million km (1.4 million mi) - would be subjected to intense amounts of ultraviolet light. This would result in any water vapor in the atmosphere being broken down into hydrogen and oxygen (a process known as photolysis), with the hydrogen escaping into space and the oxygen being retained. At the same time, they determined that the planet's atmosphere and proximity to its star would lead to a severe greenhouse effect that would leave the surface molten for a long time. This "magma ocean" would likely interact with the atmosphere by absorbing some of the oxygen. How much would be absorbed and how much would be retained was the big question. They concluded that the planet's magma ocean would absorb about one-tenth of the oxygen in the atmosphere. The majority of the remaining 90 percent, according to their model, would be lost to space while a small margin would linger around the planet. This proved to be very much consistent with measurements made of the planet thus far. As Dr. Laura Schaefer explained to Universe Today via email: "We determined that the planet would likely have a thin atmosphere by doing a suite of models looking at atmospheric loss and interaction with a surface magma ocean. For the allowable composition range (esp. the abundance of water) based on the current mass measurement, nearly all of the allowed compositions resulted in thin atmospheres, except at the very extreme upper end of the range." This magma ocean-atmosphere model could not only help scientists to study terrestrial exoplanets that orbit close to their parent stars, but also to understand how our own planet Venus came to be. For some time, scientists have theorized that Venus began with significant amounts of water on its surface, but that it then underwent a significant change. This ocean is believed to have evaporated due to Venus' closer proximity to the Sun, with the ensuing water vapor triggering a runaway greenhouse effect. Over time, ultraviolet radiation from the Sun broke apart the water molecules, resulting in the hot, virtually waterless atmosphere we see today. However, what happened to all the oxygen has remained a mystery. "We also have plans to use this model in the future to study Venus, which may have once had about the same amount of water as the Earth but is now very dry," said Schaefer. "There is very little O2 left in Venus' atmosphere, so this model would help us understand what happened to that oxygen (whether it was lost to space or absorbed by the planet's mantle)." Schaefer predicts that their model will also assist researchers with the study of other, similar exoplanets. One example is the TRAPPIST-1 system, which contains three planets that may lie with the star's the habitable zone. But as Schaefer put it, the real value lies in the fact that we are more likely to find "Venus-like" worlds down the road: "Most of the rocky planets that we know of and will discover in the near future will likely be hotter than the Earth or even Venus, just because it is easier to detect hotter planets. So there are a lot of planets out there similar to GJ 1132b just waiting to be studied!" Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. It's scientists are dedicated to studying the origin, evolution and future of the universe. And be sure to check out this video, courtesy of MIT news: https://youtu.be/2nbNnU2bcII Further Reading: CfA, arXiv

The post Venus-like Exoplanet 39 Light Years Distant Is Probably Baked & Sterile appeared first on Universe Today.

Cooking Up Life in the Cosmic Kitchen

Thu, 08/18/2016 - 18:29

Kitchens are where we create. From crumb cake to corn on the cob, it happens here. If you're like me, you've occasionally left a turkey too long in the oven or charred the grilled chicken. When meat gets burned, among the smells informing your nose of the bad news are flat molecules consisting of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern called PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs make up about 10% of the carbon in the universe and are not only found in your kitchen but also in outer space, where they were discovered in 1998. Even comets and meteorites contain PAHs. From the illustration, you can see they're made up of several to many interconnected rings of carbon atoms arranged in different ways to make different compounds. The more rings, the more complex the molecule, but the underlying pattern is the same for all. All life on Earth is based on carbon. A quick look at the human body reveals that 18.5% of it is made of that element alone. Why is carbon so crucial? Because it's able to bond to itself and a host of other atoms in a variety of ways to create a lots of complex molecules that allow living organisms to perform many functions. Carbon-rich PAHs may even have been involved in the evolution of life since they come in many forms with potentially many functions. One of those may have been to encourage the formation of RNA (partner to the "life molecule" DNA). In the continuing quest to learn how simple carbon molecules evolve into more complex ones and what role those compounds might play in the origin of life, an international team of researchers have focused NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and other observatories on PAHs found within the colorful Iris Nebula in the northern constellation Cepheus the King. Bavo Croiset of Leiden University in the Netherlands and team determined that when PAHs in the nebula are hit by ultraviolet radiation from its central star, they evolve into larger, more complex molecules. Scientists hypothesize that the growth of complex organic molecules like PAHs is one of the steps leading to the emergence of life. Strong UV light from a newborn massive star like the one that sets the Iris Nebula aglow would tend to break down large organic molecules into smaller ones, rather than build them up, according to the current view. To test this idea, researchers wanted to estimate the size of the molecules at various locations relative to the central star. Croiset’s team used SOFIA to get above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere so he could observe the nebula in infrared light, a form of light invisible to our eyes that we detect as heat. SOFIA’s instruments are sensitive to two infrared wavelengths that are produced by these particular molecules, which can be used to estimate their size. The team analyzed the SOFIA images in combination with data previously obtained by the Spitzer infrared space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii. The analysis indicates that the size of the PAH molecules in this nebula vary by location in a clear pattern. The average size of the molecules in the nebula’s central cavity surrounding the young star is larger than on the surface of the cloud at the outer edge of the cavity. They also got a surprise: radiation from the star resulted in net growth in the number of complex PAHs rather than their destruction into smaller pieces. In a paper published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, the team concluded that this molecular size variation is due both to some of the smallest molecules being destroyed by the harsh ultraviolet radiation field of the star, and to medium-sized molecules being irradiated so they combine into larger molecules. So much starts with stars. Not only do they create the carbon atoms at the foundation of biology, but it would appear they shepherd them into more complex forms, too. Truly, we can thank our lucky stars!

The post Cooking Up Life in the Cosmic Kitchen appeared first on Universe Today.

What are the Planets of the Solar System?

Thu, 08/18/2016 - 01:15

At one time, humans believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe; that the Sun, Moon, planets and stars all revolved around us. It was only after centuries of ongoing observations and improved instrumentation that astronomers came to understand that we are in fact part a larger system of planets that revolve around the Sun. And it has only been within the last century that we've come to understand just how big our Solar System is. And even now, we are still learning. In the past few decades, the total number of celestial bodies and moons that are known to orbit the Sun has expanded. We have also come to debate the definition of "planet" (a controversial topic indeed!) and introduced additional classifications - like dwarf planet, minor planet, plutoid, etc. - to account for new finds. So just how many planets are there and what is special about them? Let's run through them one by one, shall we? Mercury: As you travel outward from the Sun, Mercury is the closest planet. It orbits the Sun at an average distance of 58 million km (36 million mi). Mercury is airless, and so without any significant atmosphere to hold in the heat, it has dramatic temperature differences. The side that faces the Sun experiences temperatures as high as 420 °C (788 °F), and then the side in shadow goes down to -173 °C (-279.4 °F). Like Venus, Earth and Mars, Mercury is a terrestrial planet, which means it is composed largely of refractory minerals such as the silicates and metals such as iron and nickel. These elements are also differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust, with Mercury possessing a larger-than-average core. Multiple theories have been proposed to explain this, the most widely accepted being that the impact from a planetesimal in the past blew off much of its mantle material. Mercury is the smallest planet in the Solar System, measuring just 4879 km across at its equator. However, it is second densest planet in the Solar System, with a density of 5.427 g/cm3 - which is the second only to Earth. Because of this, Mercury experiences a gravitational pull that is roughly 38% that of Earth's (0.38 g). Mercury also has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in the Solar System (0.205), which means its distance from the Sun ranges from 46 to 70 million km (29-43 million mi). The planet also takes 87.969 Earth days to complete an orbit. But with an average orbital speed of 47.362 km/s, Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation. Combined with its eccentric orbit, this means that it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (i.e. a solar day) on Mercury, which is twice as long as a single Hermian year. Mercury also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027 degrees - compared to Jupiter’s 3.1 degrees, which is the second smallest. Mercury has only been visited two times by spacecraft, the first being the Mariner 10 probe, which conducted a flyby of the planet back in the mid-1970s. It wasn't until 2008 that another spacecraft from Earth made a close flyby of Mercury (the MESSENGER probe) which took new images of its surface, shed light on its geological history, and confirmed the presence of water ice and organic molecules in its northern polar region. In summary, Mercury is made special by the fact it is small, eccentric, and varies between extremes of hot and cold. It's also very mineral rich, and quite dense! Venus: Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and is Earth's virtual twin in terms of size and mass. With a mass of 4.8676×1024 kg and a mean radius of about 6,052 km, it is approximately 81.5% as massive as Earth and 95% as large. Like Earth (and Mercury and Mars), it is a terrestrial planet, composed of rocks and minerals that are differentiated. But apart from these similarities, Venus is very different from Earth. Its atmosphere is composed primarily of carbon dioxide (96%), along with nitrogen and a few other gases. This dense cloud cloaks the planet, making surface observation very difficult, and helps heat it up to 460 °C (860 °F). The atmospheric pressure is also 92 times that of Earth's atmosphere, and poisonous clouds of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid rain are commonplace. Venus orbits the Sun at an average distance of about 0.72 AU (108 million km; 67 million mi) with almost no eccentricity. In fact, with its farthest orbit (aphelion) of 0.728 AU (108,939,000 km) and closest orbit (perihelion) of 0.718 AU (107,477,000 km), it has the most circular orbit of any planet in the Solar System. The planet completes an orbit around the Sun every 224.65 days, meaning that a year on Venus is 61.5% as long as a year on Earth. When Venus lies between Earth and the Sun, a position known as inferior conjunction, it makes the closest approach to Earth of any planet, at an average distance of 41 million km. This takes place, on average, once every 584 days, and is the reason why Venus is the closest planet to Earth. The planet completes an orbit around the Sun every 224.65 days, meaning that a year on Venus is 61.5% as long as a year on Earth. Unlike most other planets in the Solar System, which rotate on their axes in an counter-clockwise direction, Venus rotates clockwise (called “retrograde” rotation). It also rotates very slowly, taking 243 Earth days to complete a single rotation. This is not only the slowest rotation period of any planet, it also means that a single day on Venus lasts longer than a Venusian year. Venus' atmosphere is also known to experience lightning storms. Since Venus does not experience rainfall (except in the form of sulfuric acid), it has been theorized that the lightning is being caused by volcanic eruptions. Several spacecraft have visited Venus, and a few landers have even made it to the surface to send back images of its hellish landscape. Even though there were made of metal, these landers only survived a few hours at best. https://youtu.be/96C1eCaTtvg Venus is made special by the fact that it is very much like Earth, but also radically different. It's thick atmosphere could crush a living being, its heat could melt lead, and its acid rain could dissolve flesh, bone and metal alike! It also rotates very slowly, and backwards relative to the other plants. Earth: Earth is our home, and the third planet from the Sun. With a mean radius of 6371 km and a mass of 5.97×1024 kg, it is the fifth largest and fifth most-massive planet in the Solar System. And with a mean density of 5.514 g/cm³, it is the densest planet in the Solar System. Like Mercury, Venus and Mars, Earth is a terrestrial planet. But unlike these other planets, Earth's core is differentiated between a solid inner core and liquid outer core. The outer core also spins in the opposite direction as the planet, which is believed to create a dynamo effect that gives Earth its protective magnetosphere. Combined with a atmosphere that is neither too thin nor too thick, Earth is the only planet in the Solar System known to support life. In terms of its orbit, Earth has a very minor eccentricity (approx. 0.0167) and ranges in its distance from the Sun between 147,095,000 km (0.983 AU) at perihelion to 151,930,000 km (1.015 AU) at aphelion. This works out to an average distance (aka. semi-major axis) of 149,598,261 km, which is the basis of a single Astronomical Unit (AU) The Earth has an orbital period of 365.25 days, which is the equivalent of 1.000017 Julian years. This means that every four years (in what is known as a Leap Year), the Earth calendar must include an extra day. Though a single solar day on Earth is considered to be 24 hours long, our planet takes precisely 23h 56m and 4 s to complete a single sidereal rotation (0.997 Earth days). Earth’s axis is also tilted 23.439281° away from the perpendicular of its orbital plane, which is responsible for producing seasonal variations on the planet’s surface with a period of one tropical year (365.24 solar days). In addition to producing variations in terms of temperature, this also results in variations in the amount of sunlight a hemisphere receives during the course of a year. Earth has only a single moon: the Moon. Thanks to examinations of Moon rocks that were brought back to Earth by the Apollo missions, the predominant theory states that the Moon was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago from a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized object (known as Theia). This collision created a massive cloud of debris that began circling our planet, which eventually coalesced to form the Moon we see today. What makes Earth special, you know, aside from the fact that it is our home and where we originated? It is the only planet in the Solar System where liquid, flowing water exists in abundance on its surface, has a viable atmosphere, and a protective magnetosphere. In other words, it is the only planet (or Solar body) that we know of where life can exist on the surface. In addition, no planet in the Solar System has been studied as well as Earth, whether it be from the surface or from space. Thousands of spacecraft have been launched to study the planet, measuring its atmosphere, land masses, vegetation, water, and human impact. Our understanding of what makes our planet unique in our Solar System has helped in the search for Earth-like planets in other systems. Mars: The fourth planet from the Sun is Mars, which is also the second smallest planet in the Solar System. It has a radius of approximately 3,396 km at its equator, and 3,376 km at its polar regions – which is the equivalent of roughly 0.53 Earths. While it is roughly half the size of Earth, it’s mass – 6.4185 x 10²³ kg – is only 0.151 that of Earth’s. It's density is also lower than Earths, which leads to it experiencing about 1/3rd Earth's gravity (0.376 g). It’s axial tilt is very similar to Earth’s, being inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (Earth’s axial tilt is just over 23°), which means Mars also experiences seasons. Mars has almost no atmosphere to help trap heat from the Sun, and so temperatures can plunge to a low of -140 °C (-220 °F) in the Martian winter. However, at the height of summer, temperatures can get up to 20 °C (68 °F) during midday at the equator. https://youtu.be/7koIlNPay-s However, recent data obtained by the Curiosity rover and numerous orbiters have concluded that Mars once had a denser atmosphere. Its loss, according to data obtained by NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), the atmosphere was stripped away by solar wind over the course of a 500 million year period, beginning 4.2 billion years ago. At its greatest distance from the Sun (aphelion), Mars orbits at a distance of 1.666 AUs, or 249.2 million km. At perihelion, when it is closest to the Sun, it orbits at a distance of 1.3814 AUs, or 206.7 million km. At this distance, Mars takes 686.971 Earth days, the equivalent of 1.88 Earth years, to complete a rotation of the Sun. In Martian days (aka. Sols, which are equal to one day and 40 Earth minutes), a Martian year is 668.5991 Sols. Like Mercury, Venus, and Earth, Mars is a terrestrial planet, composed mainly of silicate rock and metals that are differentiated between a core, mantle and crust. The red-orange appearance of the Martian surface is caused by iron oxide, more commonly known as hematite (or rust). The presence of other minerals in the surface dust allow for other common surface colors, including golden, brown, tan, green, and others. Although liquid water cannot exist on Mars’ surface, owing to its thin atmosphere, large concentrations of ice water exist within the polar ice caps – Planum Boreum and Planum Australe. In addition, a permafrost mantle stretches from the pole to latitudes of about 60°, meaning that water exists beneath much of the Martian surface in the form of ice water. Radar data and soil samples have confirmed the presence of shallow subsurface water at the middle latitudes as well. Mars has two tiny asteroid-sized moons: Phobos and Deimos. Because of their size and shape, the predominant theory is that Mars acquired these two moons after they were kicked out of the Asteroid Belt by Jupiter's gravity. Mars has been heavily studied by spacecraft. There are multiple rovers and landers currently on the surface and a small fleet orbiters flying overhead. Recent missions include the Curiosity Rover, which gathered ample evidence on Mars' water past, and the groundbreaking discovery of finding  organic molecules on the surface. Upcoming missions include NASA's InSight lander and the Exomars rover. Hence, Mars' special nature lies in the fact that it also terrestrial and lies within the outer edge of the Sun's habitable zone. And whereas it is a cold, dry place today, it once had an thicker atmosphere and plentiful water on its surface. Jupiter: Mighty Jupiter is the fouth planet for our Sun and the biggest planet in our Solar System. Jupiter’s mass, volume, surface area and mean circumference are 1.8981 x 1027 kg, 1.43128 x 1015 km3, 6.1419 x 1010 km2, and 4.39264 x 105 km respectively. To put that in perspective, Jupiter diameter is roughly 11 times that of Earth, and 2.5 the mass of all the other planets in the Solar System combined. But, being a gas giant, it has a relatively low density – 1.326 g/cm3 – which is less than one quarter of Earth’s. This means that while Jupiter’s volume is equivalent to about 1,321 Earths, it is only 318 times as massive. The low density is one way scientists are able to determine that it is made mostly of gases, though the debate still rages on what exists at its core (see below).

Jupiter orbits the Sun at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 778,299,000 km (5.2 AU), ranging from 740,550,000 km (4.95 AU) at perihelion and 816,040,000 km (5.455 AU) at aphelion. At this distance, Jupiter takes 11.8618 Earth years to complete a single orbit of the Sun. In other words, a single Jovian year lasts the equivalent of 4,332.59 Earth days.

However, Jupiter’s rotation is the fastest of all the Solar System’s planets, completing a rotation on its axis in slightly less than ten hours (9 hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds to be exact). Therefore, a single Jovian year lasts 10,475.8 Jovian solar days. This orbital period is two-fifths that of Saturn, which means that the two largest planets in our Solar System form a 5:2 orbital resonance. Much like Earth, Jupiter experiences auroras near its northern and southern poles. But on Jupiter, the auroral activity is much more intense and rarely ever stops. The intense radiation, Jupiter’s magnetic field, and the abundance of material from Io’s volcanoes that react with Jupiter’s ionosphere create a light show that is truly spectacular. Jupiter also experiences violent weather patterns. Wind speeds of 100 m/s (360 km/h) are common in zonal jets, and can reach as high as 620 kph (385 mph). Storms form within hours and can become thousands of km in diameter overnight. One storm, the Great Red Spot, has been raging since at least the late 1600s. The storm has been shrinking and expanding throughout its history; but in 2012, it was suggested that the Giant Red Spot might eventually disappear. Jupiter is composed primarily of gaseous and liquid matter. It is the largest of the gas giants, and like them, is divided between a gaseous outer atmosphere and an interior that is made up of denser materials. It’s upper atmosphere is composed of about 88–92% hydrogen and 8–12% helium by percent volume of gas molecules, and approx. 75% hydrogen and 24% helium by mass, with the remaining one percent consisting of other elements. The interior contains denser materials, such that the distribution is roughly 71% hydrogen, 24% helium and 5% other elements by mass. It is believed that Jupiter’s core is a dense mix of elements – a surrounding layer of liquid metallic hydrogen with some helium, and an outer layer predominantly of molecular hydrogen. The core has also been described as rocky, but this remains unknown as well. Jupiter has been visited by several spacecraft, including NASA's Pioneer 10 and Voyager spacecraft in the 1973 and 1980, respectively; and by the Cassini and New Horizons spacecraft more recently. Until the recent arrival of Juno, only the Galileo spacecraft has ever gone into orbit around Jupiter, and it was crashed into the planet in 2003 to prevent it from contaminating one of Jupiter's icy moons. In short, Jupiter is massive and has massive storms. But compared to the planets of the inner Solar System, is it significantly less dense. Jupiter also has the most moons in the Solar System, with 67 confirmed and named moons orbiting it. But it is estimated that as many as 200 may natural satellites may exist around the planet. Little wonder why this planet is named after the king of the gods. Saturn: Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System. With a mean radius of 58232±6 km, it is approximately 9.13 times the size of Earth. And at 5.6846×1026 kg, it is roughly 95.15 as massive. However, since it is a gas giant, it has significantly greater volume – 8.2713×1014 km3, which is equivalent to 763.59 Earths. The sixth most distant planet, Saturn orbits the Sun at an average distance of 9 AU (1.4 billion km; 869.9 million miles). Due to its slight eccentricity, the perihelion and aphelion distances are 9.022 (1,353.6 million km; 841.3 million mi) and 10.053 AU (1,513,325,783 km; 940.13 million mi), on average respectively. With an average orbital speed of 9.69 km/s, it takes Saturn 10,759 Earth days to complete a single revolution of the Sun. In other words, a single Cronian year is the equivalent of about 29.5 Earth years. However, as with Jupiter, Saturn’s visible features rotate at different rates depending on latitude, and multiple rotation periods have been assigned to various regions. As a gas giant, Saturn is predominantly composed of hydrogen and helium gas. With a mean density of 0.687 g/cm3, Saturn is the only planet in the Solar System that is less dense than water; which means that it lacks a definite surface, but is believed to have a solid core. This is due to the fact that Saturn’s temperature, pressure, and density all rise steadily toward the core. Standard planetary models suggest that the interior of Saturn is similar to that of Jupiter, having a small rocky core surrounded by hydrogen and helium with trace amounts of various volatiles. This core is similar in composition to the Earth, but more dense due to the presence of metallic hydrogen, which as a result of the extreme pressure. As a gas giant, the outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. Like Jupiter, it also has a banded appearance, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator. On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals that are thousands of km wide, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval). This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice. The persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north pole was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long (which is longer than the diameter of the Earth) and the structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s interior. The south pole vortex, meanwhile, was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These images indicated the presence of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years. In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter. Of course, the most amazing feature of Saturn is its rings. These are made of particles of ice ranging in size from a grains of sand to the size of a car. Some scientists think the rings are only a few hundred million years old, while others think they could be as old as the Solar System itself. Saturn has been visited by spacecraft 4 times: Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2 were just flybys, but Cassini has actually gone into orbit around Saturn and has captured thousands of images of the planet and its moons. And speaking of moons, Saturn has a total of 62 moons discovered (so far), though estimates indicate that it might have as many as 150. So like Jupiter, Saturn is a massive gas giant that experiences some very interesting weather patterns. It also has lots of moons and has very low density. But what really makes Saturn stand out is its impressive ring system. Whereas every gas and ice giant has one, Saturn's is visible to the naked eye and very beautiful to behold! Uranus: Next comes Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun. With a mean radius of approximately 25,360 km and a mass of 8.68 × 1025 kg, Uranus is approximately 4 times the sizes of Earth and 63 times its volume. However, as a gas giant, its density (1.27 g/cm3) is significantly lower; hence, it is only 14.5 as massive as Earth. The variation of Uranus’ distance from the Sun is also greater than that any other planet (not including dwarf planets or plutoids). Essentially, the gas giant’s distance from the Sun varies from 18.28 AU (2,735,118,100 km) at perihelion to 20.09 AU (3,006,224,700 km) at aphelion. At an average distance of 3 billion km from the Sun, it takes Uranus roughly 84 years (or 30,687 days) to complete a single orbit of the Sun. The standard model of Uranus’s structure is that it consists of three layers: a rocky (silicate/iron–nickel) core in the center, an icy mantle in the middle and an outer envelope of gaseous hydrogen and helium. Much like Jupiter and Saturn, hydrogen and helium account for the majority of the atmosphere – approximately 83% and 15% – but only a small portion of the planet’s overall mass (0.5 to 1.5 Earth masses). The third most abundant element is methane ice (CH4), which accounts for 2.3% of its composition and which accounts for the planet’s aquamarine or cyan coloring. Trace amounts of various hydrocarbons are also found in the stratosphere of Uranus, which are thought to be produced from methane and ultraviolent radiation-induced photolysis. They include ethane (C2H6), acetylene (C2H2), methylacetylene (CH3C2H), and diacetylene (C2HC2H). In addition, spectroscopy has uncovered carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in Uranus’ upper atmosphere, as well as the presence icy clouds of water vapor and other volatiles, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Because of this, Uranus and Neptune are considered a distinct class of giant planet – known as “Ice Giants” – since they are composed mainly of heavier volatile substances.

The rotational period of the interior of Uranus is 17 hours, 14 minutes. As with all giant planets, its upper atmosphere experiences strong winds in the direction of rotation. Hence its weather systems are also broken up into bands that rotate around the planet, which are driven by internal heat rising to the upper atmosphere.

As a result, winds on Uranus can reach up to 900 km/h (560 mph), creating massive storms like the one spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. Similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this “Dark Spot” was a giant cloud vortex that measured 1,700 kilometers by 3,000 kilometers (1,100 miles by 1,900 miles).

One unique feature of Uranus is that it rotates on its side. Whereas all of the Solar System’s planets are tilted on their axes to some degree, Uranus has the most extreme axial tilt of 98°. This leads to the radical seasons that the planet experiences, not to mention an unusual day-night cycle at the poles. At the equator, Uranus experiences normal days and nights; but at the poles, each experience 42 Earth years of day followed by 42 years of night.

Uranus was the first planet to be discovered with a telescope; it was first recognized as a planet in 1781 by William Herschel. Beyond Earth-based observations, only one spacecraft (Voyager 2) has ever studied Uranus up close. It passed by the planet in 1986, and captured the first close images. Uranus has 27 known moons. Uranus' special nature comes through in its natural beauty, its intense weather, its ring system and its impressive array of moons. And it's compositions, being an "ice" giant, is what gives its aquamarine color. But perhaps mist interesting is its sideways rotation, which is unique among the Solar planets. Neptune:

Neptune is the 8th and final planet in the Solar System, orbiting the Sun at a distance of 29.81 AU (4.459 x 109 km) at perihelion and 30.33 AU (4.537 x 109 km) at aphelion. With a mean radius of 24,622 ± 19 km, Neptune is the fourth largest planet in the Solar System and four times as large as Earth. But with a mass of 1.0243×1026 kg – which is roughly 17 times that of Earth – it is the third most massive, outranking Uranus.

Neptune takes 16 h 6 min 36 s (0.6713 days) to complete a single sidereal rotation, and 164.8 Earth years to complete a single orbit around the Sun. This means that a single day lasts 67% as long on Neptune, whereas a year is the equivalent of approximately 60,190 Earth days (or 89,666 Neptunian days). Due to its smaller size and higher concentrations of volatiles relative to Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune (much like Uranus) is often referred to as an “ice giant” – a subclass of a giant planet. Also like Uranus, Neptune’s internal structure is differentiated between a rocky core consisting of silicates and metals; a mantle consisting of water, ammonia and methane ices; and an atmosphere consisting of hydrogen, helium and methane gas. The core of Neptune is composed of iron, nickel and silicates, with an interior model giving it a mass about 1.2 times that of Earth. The pressure at the center is estimated to be 7 Mbar (700 GPa), about twice as high as that at the center of Earth, and with temperatures as high as 5,400 K. At a depth of 7000 km, the conditions may be such that methane decomposes into diamond crystals that rain downwards like hailstones. Because Neptune’s axial tilt (28.32°) is similar to that of Earth (~23°) and Mars (~25°), the planet experiences similar seasonal changes. Combined with its long orbital period, this means that the seasons last for forty Earth years. Also owing to its axial tilt being comparable to Earth’s is the fact that the variation in the length of its day over the course of the year is not any more extreme than it on Earth. Just like Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune has bands of storms that circle the planet. Astronomers have clocked winds on Neptune traveling at 2,100 km/hour, which is believed to be due to Neptune's cold temperatures - which may decrease the friction in the system, During its 1989 flyby, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft discovered the Great Dark Spot on Neptune. Similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this is an anti-cyclonic storm measuring 13,000 km x 6,600 km across. A few years later, however, the Hubble Space Telescope failed to see the Great Dark Spot, but it did see different storms. This might mean that storms on Neptune don’t last as long as they do on Jupiter or even Saturn. The more active weather on Neptune might be due, in part, to its higher internal heat. Although Neptune is much more distant than Uranus from the Sun, receiving 40% less sunlight, temperatures on the surface of the two planets are roughly similar. In fact, Neptune radiates 2.61 times as much energy as it receives from the Sun. This is enough heat to help drive the fastest winds in the Solar System. Neptune is the second planet discovered in modern times. It was discovered at the same time by both Urbain Le Verrier and John Couch Adams. Neptune has only ever been visited by one spacecraft, Voyager 2, which made a fly by in August, 1989. Neptune has 13 known moons. Th largest and most famous of these is Triton, which is believed to be a former KBO that was captured by Neptune's gravity. So much like Uranus, Neptune has a ring system, some intense weather patterns, and an impressive array of moons. Also like Uranus, Neptune's composition allows for its aquamarine color; except that in Neptune's case, this color is more intense and vivid. In addition, Neptune experiences some temperature anomalies that are yet to be explained. And let's not forgt the raining diamonds! And those are the planets in the Solar System thank you for joining the tour! Unfortunately, Pluto isn't a planet any more, hence why it was not listed. We know, we know, take it up with the IAU! We have written many interesting articles about the Solar System here at Universe Today. Here's the Solar System GuideWhat is the Solar System?, Interesting Facts About the Solar System, What Was Here Before the Solar System?, How Big is the Solar System?, and Is the Solar System Really a Vortex? If you'd like more information on the Solar System, visit the Nine Planets, and Solar Views. We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast. Sources:

The post What are the Planets of the Solar System? appeared first on Universe Today.

Physicists Maybe, Just Maybe, Confirm the Possible Discovery of 5th Force of Nature

Wed, 08/17/2016 - 21:11

For some time, physicists have understood that all known phenomena in the Universe are governed by four fundamental forces. These include weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity. Whereas the first three forces of are all part of the Standard Model of particle physics, and can be explained through quantum mechanics, our understanding of gravity is dependent upon Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Understanding how these four forces fit together has been the aim of theoretical physics for decades, which in turn has led to the development of multiple theories that attempt to reconcile them (i.e. Super String Theory, Quantum Gravity, Grand Unified Theory, etc). However, their efforts may be complicated (or helped) thanks to new research that suggests there might just be a fifth force at work. In a paper that was recently published in the journal Physical Review Letters, a research team from the University of California, Irvine explain how recent particle physics experiments may have yielded evidence of a new type of boson. This boson apparently does not behave as other bosons do, and may be an indication that there is yet another force of nature out there governing fundamental interactions. As Jonathan Feng, a professor of physics & astronomy at UCI and one of the lead authors on the paper, said: “If true, it’s revolutionary. For decades, we’ve known of four fundamental forces: gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. If confirmed by further experiments, this discovery of a possible fifth force would completely change our understanding of the universe, with consequences for the unification of forces and dark matter.” The efforts that led to this potential discovery began back in 2015, when the UCI team came across a study from a group of experimental nuclear physicists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Institute for Nuclear Research. At the time, these physicists were looking into a radioactive decay anomaly that hinted at the existence of a light particle that was 30 times heavier than an electron. In a paper describing their research, lead researcher Attila Krasznahorka and his colleagues claimed that what they were observing might be the creation of "dark photons". In short, they believed that they might have at last found evidence of Dark Matter, the mysterious, invisible mass that makes up about 85% of the Universe's mass. This report was largely overlooked at the time, but gained widespread attention earlier this year when Prof. Feng and his research team found it and began assessing its conclusions. But after studying the Hungarian teams results and comparing them to previous experiments, they concluded that the experimental evidence did not support the existence of dark photons. Instead, they proposed that the discovery could indicate the possible presence of a fifth fundamental force of nature. These findings were published in arXiv in April, which was followed-up by a paper titled "Particle Physics Models for the 17 MeV Anomaly in Beryllium Nuclear Decays", which was published in PRL this past Friday. Essentially, the UCI team argue that instead of a dark photon, what the Hungarian research team might have witnessed was the creation of a previously undiscovered boson - which they have named the "protophobic X boson". Whereas other bosons interact with electrons and protons, this hypothetical boson interacts with only electrons and neutrons, and only at an extremely limited range. This limited interaction is believed to be the reason why the particle has remained unknown until now, and why the adjectives "photobic" and "X" are added to the name. “There’s no other boson that we’ve observed that has this same characteristic," said Timothy Tait, a professor of physics & astronomy at UCI and the co-author of the paper. "Sometimes we also just call it the ‘X boson,’ where ‘X’ means unknown.” If such a particle does exist, the possibilities for research breakthroughs could be endless. Feng hopes it could be joined with the three other forces governing particle interactions (electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces) as a larger, more fundamental force. Feng also speculated that this possible discovery could point to the existence of a "dark sector" of our universe, which is governed by its own matter and forces. “It’s possible that these two sectors talk to each other and interact with one another through somewhat veiled but fundamental interactions,” he said. “This dark sector force may manifest itself as this protophopic force we’re seeing as a result of the Hungarian experiment. In a broader sense, it fits in with our original research to understand the nature of dark matter.” If this should prove to be the case, then physicists may be closer to figuring out the existence of dark matter (and maybe even dark energy), two of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics. What's more, it could aid researchers in the search for physics beyond the Standard Model - something the researchers at CERN have been preoccupied with since the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012. But as Feng notes, we need to confirm the existence of this particle through further experiments before we get all excited by its implications: "The particle is not very heavy, and laboratories have had the energies required to make it since the ’50s and ’60s. But the reason it’s been hard to find is that its interactions are very feeble. That said, because the new particle is so light, there are many experimental groups working in small labs around the world that can follow up the initial claims, now that they know where to look." As the recent case involving CERN - where LHC teams were forced to announce that they had not discovered two new particles - demonstrates, it is important not to count our chickens before they are roosted. As always, cautious optimism is the best approach to potential new findings. Further Reading: University of California, Irvine

The post Physicists Maybe, Just Maybe, Confirm the Possible Discovery of 5th Force of Nature appeared first on Universe Today.

Stairway to Heaven! – Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm’s ‘Awesome’ Launch Pad Installation

Wed, 08/17/2016 - 20:48

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A new ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which American astronauts will soon stride along as “the last place on Earth” departure point aboard our next generation of human spaceships, was at long last hoisted into place at the ULA Atlas rocket launch pad on Florida’s Space Coast on Monday Aug 15, at an “awesome” media event witnessed by space journalists including Universe Today. "This is awesome," Chris Ferguson, a former shuttle commander who is now Boeing's deputy program manager for the company's Commercial Crew Program told Universe Today in an exclusive interview at the launch pad - after workers finished installing the spanking new Crew Access Arm walkway for astronauts leading to the hatch of Boeing’s Starliner ‘Space Taxi.’ Starliner will ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as 2018. “It’s great to see the arm up there,” Ferguson elaborated to Universe Today. “I know it’s probably a small part of the overall access tower. But it’s the most significant part!” “We used to joke about the 195 foot level on the shuttle pad as being ‘the last place on Earth.” “This will now be the new ‘last place on Earth’! So we are pretty charged up about it!” Ferguson gushed. Under hot sunny skies portending the upcoming restoration of America’s ability to once again launch American astronauts from American soil when American rockets ignite, the newly constructed 50-foot-long, 90,000-pound ‘Crew Access Arm and White Room’ was lifted and mated to the newly built ‘Crew Access Tower’ at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Monday morning, Aug. 15. “We talked about how the skyline is changing here and this is one of the more visible changes.” The Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule stacked atop the venerable United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will launch crews to the massive orbiting science outpost continuously soaring some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. Space workers, enthusiasts and dreamers alike have been waiting years for this momentous day to happen. And I was thrilled to observe all the action firsthand along with the people who made it happen from NASA, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, the contractors - as well as to experience it with my space media colleagues. “All the elements that we talked about the last few years are now reality,” Ferguson told me. Attaching the access arm is vital and visual proof that at long last America means business and that a renaissance in human spaceflight will commence in some 18 months or less when commercially built American crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX take flight to the heavens above - and a new space era of regular, robust and lower cost space flights begins. It took about an hour for workers to delicately hoist the gleaming grey steel and aluminum white ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by crane into place at the top of the tower - at one of the busiest launch pads in the world! It’s about 130 feet above the pad surface since it’s located at the 13th level of the tower. The install work began at about 7:30 a.m. EDT as we watched a work crew lower a giant grappling hook and attach cables. Then they carefully raised the arm off the launch pad surface by crane. The arm had been trucked to the launch pad on Aug. 11. The tower itself is comprised of segmented tiers that were built in segments just south of the pad. They were stacked on the pad over the past few months - in between launches. Altogether they form a nearly 200-foot-tall steel structure. Another crew stationed in the tower about 160 feet above ground waited as the arm was delicately craned into the designated notch. The workers then spent several more hours methodically bolting and welding the arm to the tower to finish the assembly process. Indeed Monday’s installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room at pad 41 basically completes the construction of the first new Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo moon landing era of the 1960s. “It is the first new crew access structure at the Florida spaceport since the space shuttle's Fixed Service Structures were put in place before Columbia's first flight in 1981,” say NASA officials. Overall the steel frame of the massive tower weighs over a million pounds. For perspective, destination ISS now weighs in at about a million pounds in low Earth orbit. Construction of the tower began about 18 months ago. "You think about when we started building this 18 months ago and now it's one of the most visible changes to the Cape's horizon since the 1960s," said Ferguson at Monday’s momentous media event. “It's a fantastic day." The White Room is an enclosed area at the end of the Crew Access Arm. It big enough for astronauts to make final adjustments to their suits and is spacious enough for technicians to assist the astronauts climbing aboard the spacecraft and get tucked into their seats in the final hours before liftoff. "You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, at the event. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.” The Crew Access Arm was built by Saur at NASA’s nearby off site facility at Oak Hill. And when Starliner takes flight it will hearken back to the dawn of the Space Age. "John Glenn was the first to fly on an Atlas, now our next leap into the future will be to have astronauts launch from here on Atlas V," said Barb Egan, program manager for Commercial Crew for ULA. Boeing is manufacturing Starliner in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules - along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon - being developed under a CCP commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS). The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program since its inception in 2010 is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible. Furthermore when the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon become operational the permanent resident ISS crew will grow to 7 - enabling a doubling of science output aboard the science laboratory. This significant growth in research capabilities will invaluably assist NASA in testing technologies and human endurance in its agency wide goal of sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s with the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion deep space capsule concurrently under full scale development by the agency. The next key SLS milestone is a trest firing of the RS-25 main engines at NASA Stennis this Thursday, Aug. 18 - watch for my onsite reports! Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative. Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat. When will Ferguson actually set foot inside the walkway? “I am hoping to get up there and walk through there in a couple of weeks or so when it’s all strapped in and done. I want to see how they are doing and walk around.” How does the White Room fit around Starliner and keep it climate controlled? “The end of the white room has a part that slides up and down and moves over and slides on top of the spacecraft when it’s in place.” “There is an inflatable seal that forms the final seal to the spacecraft so that you have all the appropriate humidity control and the purge without the Florida atmosphere inside the crew module,” Ferguson replied. Boeing and NASA are targeting Feb. 2018 for launch of the first crewed orbital test flight on the Atlas V rocket. The Atlas will be augmented with two solid rocket motors on the first stage and a dual engine Centaur upper stage. How confident is Ferguson about meeting the 2018 launch target? “The first crew flight is scheduled for February 2018. I am confident.” Ferguson responded. “And we have a lot of qualification to get through between now and then. But barring any large unforeseen issues we can make it.” Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news. Ken Kremer

The post Stairway to Heaven! – Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm’s ‘Awesome’ Launch Pad Installation appeared first on Universe Today.

Beyond Neptune, A Chunk Of Ice Is Orbiting The Sun In The Wrong Direction

Tue, 08/16/2016 - 23:33

Beyond the orbit of Neptune, the farthest recognized-planet from our Sun, lies the mysteries population known as the Trans-Neptunian Object (TNOs). For years, astronomers have been discovering bodies and minor planets in this region which are influenced by Neptune's gravity, and orbit our Sun at an average distance of 30 Astronomical Units. In recent years, several new TNOs have been discovered that have caused us to rethink what constitutes a planet, not to mention the history of the Solar System. The most recent of these mystery objects is called "Niku", a small chunk of ice that takes its name for the Chinese word for "rebellious". And while many such objects exist beyond the orbit of Neptune, it is this body's orbital properties that really make it live up to the name! In a paper recently submitted to arXiv, the international team of astronomers that made the discovery explain how they found the TNO using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System 1 Survey (Pan-STARRS 1). Measuring just 200 km (124 miles) in diameter, this object's orbit is tilted 110° to the plane of the Solar system and orbits the Sun backwards.

Ordinarily, when planetary systems form, angular momentum forces everything to spin in the same direction. Hence why, when viewed from the celestial north pole, all the objects in our Solar System appear to be orbiting the Sun in a counter-clockwise direction. So when objects orbit the Sun in the opposite direction, an outside factor must be at play.

What's more, the team compared the orbit of Niku with other high-inclination TNOs and Centaurs, and noticed that they occupy a common orbital plane and experience a clustering effect. As Dr. Matthew J. Holman - a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and one of the researchers on the team - told Universe Today via email:

"The orbit of Niku is unusual in that it is nearly perpendicular to the plane of the Solar System.  More than that, it is orbiting in the opposite direction of most Solar System bodies. Furthermore, there are a few bodies that share the same or orbital plane, with some orbiting prograde and some orbiting retrograde. That was unexpected."

One possibility, which the team has already considered, was that this mysterious orbital pattern might be evidence of the much sought-after Planet Nine. This hypothetical planet, which is believed to exist at the outer edge of our Solar System (20 times further from our Sun than Neptune), if it exists, is also thought to be 10 times the size of the Earth.

"Planet Nine seems to be gravitationally influencing another nearby population of bodies that are also orbiting nearly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system," said Holman, "but those objects have much larger orbits that also come closer to sun at their closest approach. The similarity (perpendicular) nature of Niku's orbit to that of the more distant population hints at a connection."

Establishing such a connection based on the orbits of distant objects is certainly tempting, especially since no direct evidence of Planet Nine has been obtained yet. However, upon further analysis, the team concluded that Niku is too close to the rest of the Solar System for its orbit to be effected by Planet Nine.

In addition, the orbits of the clustered objects that circle the sun backwards along the same 110-degree plane path was seen as a further indication that something else is probably at work. Then again, it may very well be that there is a giant planet out there, and that it's influence is mitigated by other factors we are not yet aware of.

"The population of objects in Niku-like orbits is not long-term stable," said Holman. "We hoped that adding the gravitational influence of an object like Planet Nine might stabilize their orbits, but that turned out not to be the case. We are NOT ruling out Planet Nine, but we are not finding any direct evidence for it, at least with this investigation."

So for the time being, it looks like Planet Nine enthusiasts are going to have to wait for some other form of confirmation. But as Konstantin Batyagin - the Caltech astronomer who announced findings that hinted at Planet Nine earlier this year - was quoted as saying, this discovery is yet another step in the direction of a more complete understanding of the outer Solar System:

“Whenever you have some feature that you can’t explain in the outer solar system, it’s immensely exciting because it’s in some sense foreshadowing a new development. As they say in the paper, what they have right now is a hint. If this hint develops into a complete story that would be fantastic.”

Whatever the cause of Niku's strange orbit (or those TNOs that share its orbital pattern) may be, it is clear that there is more going on in the outer Solar System than we thought. And with every new discovery, and every new object catalogued by astronomers, we are bettering our understanding of the dynamics that are at work out there.

In the meantime, perhaps we'll just need to send some additional missions out that way. We have nothing to lose but our preconceived notions! And be sure to enjoy this video about this latest find, courtesy of New Scientist:

https://youtu.be/7mb4TTWI7Og Further Reading: arXiv

The post Beyond Neptune, A Chunk Of Ice Is Orbiting The Sun In The Wrong Direction appeared first on Universe Today.

Prof. Lubin Wants to Send Our Digital Selves to the Stars

Tue, 08/16/2016 - 19:10

Setting foot on a distant planet... we've all dreamed about it at one time or another. And it has been a staple of science fiction for almost a century. Engage the warp dive, spool up the FLT, open a wormhole, or jump into the cryochamber. Next stop, Alpha Centauri (or some other star)! But when it comes to turning science fiction into science fact, there are certain unfortunate realities we have to contend with. For starters, none of the technology for faster-than-light travel exists! Second, sending crewed mission to even the nearest planets is a very expensive and time consuming endeavor. But thanks to ongoing developments in the fields of miniaturization, electronics and direct-energy, it might be possible to send tiny spacecraft to distant stars in a single lifetime, which could carry something of humanity along with them. Such is the hope of Professor Philip Lubin and Travis Bradshears, the founders of "Voices of Humanity". For people familiar with directed-energy concepts, the name Philip Lubin should definitely ring a bell. A professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), he is also the mind behind the NASA-funded Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploraiton (DEEP-IN) project, and the Directed Energy Interstellar Study. These projects seek to use laser arrays and large sails to achieve relativistic flight for the sake of making interstellar missions a reality. https://youtu.be/WCDuAiA6kX0 Looking beyond propulsion and into the realm of public participation in space exploration, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears (an engineering and physics student from the University of California, Berkeley) came together to launch Voices of Humanity (VoH) in 2015. Inspired by their work with NASA, this Kickstarter campaign aims to create the world's first "Space Time Capsule". Intrinsic to this is the creation of a Humanity Chip, a custom semiconductor memory device that can be attached to the small, wafer-scale spacecraft that are part of DEEP-IN and other directed-energy concepts. This chip will contain volumes of data, including tweets, media files, and even the digital DNA records of all those who want to take part in the mission. As Professor Lubin told Universe Today in a phone interview: “We wanted to put on board some part of humanity. We couldn’t shrink ray people down, so Travis and I brainstormed and thought that the next best thing would be to allow people to become digital astronauts. We wanted to pave the way for interstellar missions where we could send the essence of humanity to the stars - "Emissaries of the Earth", if you will. We wanted to pave the way for that.” This digital archive would be similar to the Golden Record that was placed on the Voyager probes, but would be much more sophisticated. Taking advantage of all the advances made in computing, electronics and data storage in recent decades, it would contain many millions of times the data, but comprise a tiny fraction of the volume. In fact, as Lupin explained, the state of technology today allows us to create a digital archive that would be about the same size a fingernail, and which would require no more than a single gram of mass to be allocated on a silicon wafer-ship. And while such a device is not the same as sending astronauts on interstellar voyages to explore other planets, it does allow humanity to send something of itself. “We now have the technology to put a message from everyone on Earth onto a small piece of a tiny spacecraft," said Lupin. "We want to begin today, and not just for the future, by putting information onto anything that is launched from Earth. We are the point technologically, at this moment, that we could put a small portion of humanity on this spacecraft." In essence, human beings would be able to create the interstellar equivalent of a "Baby on Board" sticker, except for humanity instead. This sticker would be no larger than a postage stamp, and could be mounted on every craft to leave Earth in the near future. In essence, all missions departing from Earth could have "Humanity on Board". The plan is to launch their first chip - Humanity Chip 1.0 - into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in 2017. This will be followed by the creation of Humanity Chip 2.0, which take advantage of the developments that will have occurred by next year. Eventually, they hope that Humanity Chips will be a part of missions that increase in distance from Earth, eventually culminating in a mission to interstellar space. While there are no deep-space missions ready to go just yet, several concepts are on the table for interplanetary missions that will rely on wafer-scale spacecraft (like NASA's DEEP-IN concept). If their Kickstarter campaign succeeds in raising the $30,000 necessary to create a Humanity Chip, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears also hope to create a "Black Hole Chip", where participants will be able to record their "less than happy" thoughts as part of the data, which will then be sent off into space forever. They also have a stretch goal in mind, known as the "Beam Me Up" objective. In the event that their campaign is able to raise $100,000, they will use the funds to create a ground-based laser array that will beam a package of encoded data towards a target destination in space. As of the penning of this article, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears have raised a total of $5,656 towards their goal of $30,000. The campaign kicked off earlier this month and will remain open for another 22 days. So if you're interested in contributing to Humanity Chip 1.0, or becoming an "Emissary of the Earth", there's still plenty of time. In addition to his work with NASA, Prof. Lubin is also responsible for the UCSB's Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and ExploRation (DE-STAR)  project, a proposed system that would use directed energy (i.e. big lasers!) to deflect asteroids, comets, and other near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could pose a risk to planet Earth. And, in a recent article titled "The Search for Directed Intelligence"- which appeared in the March 2016 issue of  REACH – Reviews in Human Space Exploration - Lupin indicated that advances in directed-energy applications might also help in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Essentially, by looking for for sources of directed energy systems, he claims, we might be able to find our way to other civilizations. It is an exciting age, where advances in telecommunications and electronics are allowing us to overcome the vast distances involved in space travel. In the future, astronauts may rely on robotic explorers and fast-as-light communications to explore distant worlds (a process known as telexploration). And with a digital archive on board, we will be able to send personal greetings to any life that may already exist there. For those who would say "sharing personal information with extra-terrestrials is a bad idea", I would remind them that they (probably) don't have access to Twitter or our financial records. All the same, it might be wise not to include your Social Security (or Social Insurance) number in the recordings, or any other personal data you wouldn't share with strangers! And who knows? Someday, we may start colonizing other planets by sending our DNA there direct. The truth is always stranger than fiction, after all! And be sure to check out this video produced by Voices for Humanity: https://ksr-video.imgix.net/projects/2269573/video-685249-h264_high.mp4 Further Reading: Voices of Humanity

The post Prof. Lubin Wants to Send Our Digital Selves to the Stars appeared first on Universe Today.

One Year to the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Tue, 08/16/2016 - 11:49

One. More. Year. Quick; where will you be this time next year on August 21st, 2017? We're now just one year out this weekend from a fine total solar eclipse gracing the United States from coast to coast. If you think one year out is too early to start planning, well, umbraphiles (those who chase the shadow of the Moon worldwide) have been planning to catch this one now for over a decade. Get set for the Great American Eclipse. The last time a total solar eclipse made landfall over a U.S. state was Hawaii on July 11th, 1991, and the path of totality hasn't touched down over the contiguous 'Lower 48' United States since February 26th, 1979. And you have to go all the way back over nearly a century to June 8th, 1918 to find an eclipse that exclusively crossed the United States from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast. Totality for the August 21st, 2017 eclipse crosses over many major cities, including Columbia South Carolina, Nashville, St. Louis and Salem, Oregon. The inner shadow of the Moon touches on 15 states as it races across the U.S. in just over an hour and a half. The length of totality is about 2 minutes in duration as the shadow makes landfall near Lincoln City, Oregon, reaches a maximum duration of 2 minutes, 42 seconds very near Carbondale, Illinois, and shrinks back down to 2 minutes and 35 seconds as the shadow heads back out to sea over Charleston, South Carolina. The eclipse will be a late morning affair in the northwest, occurring at high noon over western Nebraska, and early afternoon to the east. 'Getting your ass to totality,' is a must. “But I've seen a partial solar eclipse,” is a common refrain, “aren't they all the same?” Nope. We witnessed the May 10th, 1994 annular eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie, and can tell you that even less than 1% of the Sun's intensity is still pretty bright, a steely blue luminosity equivalent to a cloudy day. We crisscrossed the United States along the eclipse path back in 2014, chronicling preparations in towns such as Columbia and Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Last minute accommodation is already tough to come by, even one year out. Cabins in the Land Between the Lakes region near Paducah, Kentucky, for example, were booked full as soon as the August 21st date became available. Think Mardi Gras and DragonCon, rolled into one. Hopkinsville also has an annual Roswell-style UFO-fest on the same date, celebrating the 1955 Kelly-Hopkinsville UFO incident. Will it be 'umbraphiles versus aliens?' Out west, enticing locales include the Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the northern edge of the Craters of the Moon National Monument site in Idaho. It's also worth noting that the western United States is a better bet cloud cover-wise, as afternoon summer thundershowers tend to be the norm for the southeast during late August. Millions live within an easy day drive of the eclipse path, and it happens during prime camping season, to boot. The annual Sturgess motorcycle rally held near Rapid City, South Dakota is just one week prior to totality, and bikers returning from the pilgrimage southward could easily stop to greet the Earth's shadow on the road home. 2017 Eclipse Panorama from Michael Zeiler on Vimeo. There's been talk that Cosmoquest may mount an eclipse expedition based out of Nashville, Tennessee (more to come on that). Maintaining mobility is the best bet. Our master plan is to return to the States a week or so prior, rent a camper van from Vegas, and head northward. Like millions of Americans, this will be our first total solar eclipse, and the event promises to spark a whole new generation of umbraphiles. And stick around just seven more years, and totality will again cross the United States on August 8th, 2024 from the southwest to the northeast. The Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky tri-state region sees this eclipse as well. This one is special for us, as it crosses over our hometown of Presque Isle, Maine. I remember looking up the next total solar eclipse over northern Maine as a kid, way back when, and figuring out just how old I would be. The top of Mount Katahdin and selected sites along the Maine Solar System model would all be choice locales to view this one. Check out this great old vid of the aforementioned 1979 eclipse over the U.S.: We also plan on taking the veteran eclipse-chaser's mantra of 'experience your first eclipse; but photograph your second one.' to heart. Lots of fascinating projects are afoot leading up to the 2017 total solar eclipse, including The Eclipse MegaMovie Project to produce a complete video documentary of the eclipse path, plans by a student group to fly and observe the eclipse from balloons during totality, proposals to replicate famous eclipse experiments and more. It's also worth noting that the bright star Regulus will sit just one degree from the Sun during totality... perhaps someone will manage to measure its deflection via General Relativity in a manner similar to Sir Arthur Eddington's famous 1919 observation? Unlike the paths of most eclipses, which seem to have an affinity for wind-swept tundra or remote swaths of desert, this one is sure to draw in the 'astronomy-curious' and may just be the most witnessed total solar eclipse in history. Here's some eclipse tales and facts to ponder leading up to totality. If you caught the August 11th, 1999 eclipse across Europe, then you saw the last eclipse in the same saros series 145. If you caught the eclipse before that in the same series on July 31st, 1981 across northeast Asia, then you'll complete a 54 year long triple-saros period after seeing next summer's eclipse, known as an exeligmos. This cycle also brings the eclipse path very nearly back around to the same longitude. The Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon in diameter, but the Moon is 400 times closer. We've actually heard this fact tossed out as evidence for intelligent design, though it's just a happy celestial circumstance of our present era. In fact, annular eclipses are now slightly more common than totals in our current epoch, and will continue to become more so as the Moon slowly recedes from the Earth. Just under a billion years ago, the very first annular eclipse of the Sun as seen from the Earth occurred, and 1.4 billion years hence, the Earth will witness one last brief total eclipse. But you won't have to wait that long. Don't miss the greatest show in the universe next August! -Check out Michael Zeiler's (@EclipseMaps) 10-foot long strip map of the entire eclipse path. -Eclipses, both lunar and solar have played a role in history as well. -Curious about eclipses in time and space? Read our eclipse-fueled sci-fi tales, Exeligmos, The Syzygy Gambit and Shadowfall, with more to come!

The post One Year to the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse appeared first on Universe Today.

Dark Energy Illuminated By Largest Galactic Map Ten Years In The Making

Sat, 07/16/2016 - 00:41

In 1929, Edwin Hubble forever changed our understanding of the cosmos by showing that the Universe is in a state of expansion. By the 1990s, astronomers determined that the rate at which it is expanding is actually speeding up, which in turn led to the theory of "Dark Energy". Since that time, astronomers and physicists have sought to determine the existence of this force by measuring the influence it has on the cosmos. The latest in these efforts comes from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS III), where an international team of researchers have announced that they have finished creating the most precise measurements of the Universe to date. Known as the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), their measurements have placed new constraints on the properties of Dark Energy. The new measurements were presented by Harvard University astronomer Daniel Eisenstein at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society. As the director of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), he and his team have spent the past ten years measuring the cosmos and the periodic fluctuations in the density of normal matter to see how galaxies are distributed throughout the Universe. And after a decade of research, the BOSS team was able to produce a three-dimensional map of the cosmos that covers more than six billion light-years. And while other recent surveys have looked further afield - up to distances of 9 and 13 billion light years - the BOSS map is unique in that it boasts the highest accuracy of any cosmological map. In fact, the BOSS team was able to measure the distribution of galaxies in the cosmos, and at a distance of 6 billion light-years, to within an unprecedented 1% margin of error. Determining the nature of cosmic objects at great distances is no easy matter, due the effects of relativity. As Dr. Eisenstein told Universe Today via email: "Distances are a long-standing challenge in astronomy. Whereas humans often can judge distance because of our binocular vision, galaxies beyond the Milky Way are much too far away to use that. And because galaxies come in a wide range of intrinsic sizes, it is hard to judge their distance. It's like looking at a far-away mountain; one's judgement of its distance is tied up with one's judgement of its height." In the past, astronomers have made accurate measurements of objects within the local universe (i.e. planets, neighboring stars, star clusters) by relying on everything from radar to redshift - the degree to which the wavelength of light is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. However, the greater the distance of an object, the greater the degree of uncertainty. And until now, only objects that are a few thousand light-years from Earth - i.e. within the Milky Way galaxy - have had their distances measured to within a one-percent margin of error. As the largest of the four projects that make up the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), what sets BOSS apart is the fact that it relies primarily on the measurement of what are called "baryon acoustic oscillations" (BAOs). These are essentially subtle periodic ripples in the distribution of visible baryonic (i.e. normal) matter in the cosmos. As Dr. Daniel Eisenstein explained: "BOSS measures the expansion of the Universe in two primary ways. The first is by using the baryon acoustic oscillations (hence the name of the survey). Sound waves traveling in the first 400,000 years after the Big Bang create a preferred scale for separations of pairs of galaxies. By measuring this preferred separation in a sample of many galaxies, we can infer the distance to the sample.  "The second method is to measure how clustering of galaxies differs between pairs oriented along the line of sight compared to transverse to the line of sight. The expansion of the Universe can cause this clustering to be asymmetric if one uses the wrong expansion history when converting redshifts to distance." With these new, highly-accurate distance measurements, BOSS astronomers will be able to study the influence of Dark Matter with far greater precision. "Different dark energy models vary in how the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe proceeds over time," said Eisenstein. "BOSS is measuring the expansion history, which allows us to infer the acceleration rate. We find results that are highly consistent with the predictions of the cosmological constant model, that is, the model in which dark energy has a constant density over time." In addition to measuring the distribution of normal matter to determine the influence of Dark Energy, the SDSS-III Collaboration is working to map the Milky Way and search for extrasolar planets. The BOSS measurements are detailed in a series of articles that were submitted to journals by the BOSS collaboration last month, all of which are now available online. And BOSS is not the only effort to understand the large-scale structure of our Universe, and how all its mysterious forces have shaped it. Just last month, Professor Stephen Hawking announced that the COSMOS supercomputing center at Cambridge University would be creating the most detailed 3D map of the Universe to date. Relying on data obtained by the CMB data obtained by the ESA’s Planck satellite and information from the Dark Energy Survey, they also hope to measure the influence Dark Energy has had on the distribution of matter in our Universe. Who knows? In a few years time, we may very well come to understand how all the fundamental forces governing the Universe work together. Further Reading: SDSIII

The post Dark Energy Illuminated By Largest Galactic Map Ten Years In The Making appeared first on Universe Today.

A Dark Region Is Growing Eerily On The Sun’s Surface

Fri, 07/15/2016 - 21:12

NASA has spotted an enormous black blotch growing on the surface of the Sun. It looks eerie, but this dark region is nothing to fear, though it does signal potential disruption to satellite communications. The dark region is called a coronal hole, an area on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than the surrounding areas. The magnetic fields in these holes are open to space, which allows high density plasma to flow out into space. The lack of plasma in these holes is what makes them appear dark. Coronal holes are the origin of high-speed solar winds, which can cause problems for satellite communications. The images were captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on July 11th. Tom Yulsman at Discover's ImaGeo blog created a gif from several of NASA's images. [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMVAIy17XFs[/embed] High-speed solar winds are made up of solar particles which are travelling up to three times faster than the solar wind normally does. Though satellites are protected from the solar wind, extremes like this can still cause problems. Coronal holes may look like a doomsday warning; an enormous black hole on the surface of our otherwise placid looking Sun is strange looking. But these holes are a part of the natural life of the Sun. And anyway, they only appear in extreme ultraviolet and x-ray wavelengths. The holes tend to appear at the poles, due to the structure of the Sun's magnetosphere. But when they appear in more equatorial regions of the Sun, they can cause intermittent problems, as the high-speed solar wind they generate is pointed at the Earth as the Sun rotates. In June 2012, a coronal hole appeared that looked Big Bird from Sesame Street. The Big Bird hole was the precursor to an extremely powerful solar storm, the most powerful one in 150 years. Daniel Baker, of the University of Colorado's Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, said of that storm, "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces." We were fortunate that it missed us, as these enormous storms have the potential to damage power grids on the surface of the Earth. It seems unlikely that any solar wind that reaches Earth as a result of this current coronal hole will cause any disruption to us here on Earth. But it's not out of the question. In 1989 a solar storm struck Earth and knocked out power in the province of Quebec in Canada. It may be that the only result of this coronal hole, and any geomagnetic storms it creates, are more vivid auroras. Those are something everyone can appreciate and marvel at. And you don't need an x-ray satellite to see them.

The post A Dark Region Is Growing Eerily On The Sun’s Surface appeared first on Universe Today.

The Constellation Boötes

Fri, 07/15/2016 - 19:13

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of our dear friend and contributor, Tammy Plotner, we examine the Bootes constellation. Enjoy! In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. Until the development of modern astronomy, his treatise (known as the Almagest) would serve as the authoritative source of astronomy. This list has since come to be expanded to include the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today. The constellation Boötes (pronounced Bu-Oh-Tays) is one of these constellations, and was also among those listed in the Almagest. It is frequently called the "Watcher of the Bear", guarding over the northern constellations of both Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the Greater and Lesser Bears). It is bordered by Canes Venatici, Coma Berenices, Corona Borealis, Draco, Hercules, Serpens Caput, Virgo and Ursa Major. Name and Meaning: According to myth, Boötes is credited for inventing the plough, which prompted the goddess Ceres - a goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly love - to place him in the heavens. There are also versions where Bootes represents a form of Atlas, holding up the weight of the world as it turns on its axis (yet another of Hercules' labors). Most commonly, Boötes is taken to represent Arcas, the son of Zeus and Callisto. In this source, Arcas was brought up by Callisto father, the Arcadian king Lycaon. One day, Lycaon decided to test Zeus by serving him his own son for a meal. Zeus saw through Lycaon’s intentions and transformed the king into a wolf, killed his sons, and brought Arcas back to life. Having heard of her husband’s infidelity, Zeus’ wife Hera transformed Callisto into a bear. For years, she roamed the woods until she met her son, who was now grown up. Arcas didn’t recognize his mother and began to chase her. To avoid a tragic end, Zeus intervened by placing them both in the sky, where Callisto became Ursa Major (aka. The Big Dipper, or "Great Bear") and Arcas became Boötes. In another story, Boötes is taken to represent Icarius, a grape grower who was given the secret of wine-making by Dionysus. Icarius used this to create a wonderful wine that he shared with all his neighbors. After overindulging, they woke up the next day with terrible hangovers and believed Icarius had tried to poison them. They killed him in his sleep, and a saddened Dionysus placed his friend among the stars. Notable Features: Bootes contains the third brightest star in the night sky - Arcturus (aka. alpha Boötis) - whose Greek name "Arktos" also means "bear", and is associated with all things northern (including the aurora). Arcturus is quite important, being a type K1.5 IIIpe red giant star. The letters "pe" stand for "peculiar emission," which indicates the spectrum of the star is unusual and full of emission lines. This is not uncommon in red giants, but Arcturus is particularly strong. Arcturus is about 110 times more luminous than our nearest star, but the total power output is about 180 times that of the Sun (when infrared radiation is considered). Arcturus is also notable for its high proper motion, larger than any first magnitude star in the stellar neighborhood other than Alpha Centauri. It is now almost at its closest and is moving rapidly (122 km/s) relative to the Solar System. Arcturus is also thought to be an old disk star, and appears to be moving with a group of 52 others of its type. Its mass is hard to determine exactly, but it may have the same mass as Sol, or perhaps 1.5 times as much. Arcturus may also be older than the Sun, and much like what the Sun will be in its Red Giant Phase. Arcturus achieved fame when its light was used to open the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. The star was chosen because it was thought that light from the star had started its journey at about the same time of the previous Chicago World's Fair (1893). Technically the star is 36.7 light years away, so the light would have started its journey in 1896. Arcturus' light was still focused onto a cell that powered the switch for the lights that eventually shined so bright that Arcturus was no longer visible. Arcturus, along with its neighboring stars, also form the curious "Colonial Viper" formation, a triangular asterism invented by dedicated SkyWatcher, Ed Murray. It is so-named because it resembles a Colonial Viper being launched from a tube on the TV series Battlestar Galactica. The "Launch Tube" is formed by the intersection of Arcturus, Alphekka (Alpha Corona Borealis) and Gamma Bootis, while Izar (Epsilon Bootes) is the Viper. Other notable stars include Nekkar (Beta Boötis), a yellow G-type giant that is 219 light years from Earth. It is a flare star, which is a type of variable star that shows dramatic increases in luminosity for a few minutes. The name Nekkar derives from the Arabic word for “cattle driver". Then there's Seginus (Gamma Boötis), a Delta-Scuti type variable star that is approximately 85 light years from Earth. It shows variations in its brightness due to both radial and non-radial pulsations on its surface. Izar (Epislon Boötis) is a binary star located approximately 300 light years away which consists of a bright orange giant and a smaller and fainter main sequence star. Epsilon Boötis is also sometimes knows as Pulcherrima, which means “the lovieliest” in Latin. The name Izar comes from the Arabic word for “veil.” The star’s other traditional names are Mirak (“the loins” in Arabic) and Mizar.

Muphrid (Eta Boötis) is a spectroscopic binary star that is 37 light years from Earth and close to Arcturus in the sky. The star’s traditional name is Muphrid, derived from the Arabic phrase for “the single one of the lancer.” It belongs to the spectral class G0 IV and has a significant excess of elements heavier than hydrogen.

Boötes is also home to many Deep Sky Objects. This includes the Boötes void (aka. the Great Void, the Supervoid). This sphere-shaped region of the sky is almost 250 million light years in diameter and contains 60 galaxies. The void was originally discovered by Robert P. Kirshner - a Harvard College Professor of Astronomy - in 1981, as part of a survey of galactic redshifts.

Then there is the Boötes Dwarf Galaxy (Boötes I), a dwarf spheroidal galaxy located approximately 197,000 light years from Earth that measures about 720 light years across. It was only discovered in 2006, owing to the fact that it is one of the faintest galaxies known (with an absolute magnitude of -5.8 and apparent magnitude of 13.1). Boötes I orbits the Milky Way and is believed to be tidally disrupted by its gravity, as evidenced by its shape. And there's also NGC 5466, a globular cluster approximately 51,800 light years from Earth and 52,800 light years from the Galactic center. The cluster was first discovered by the German-born British astronomer William Herschel in 1784. It is believed that this cluster is the source of a star stream called the 45 Degree Tidal Stream, which was discovered in 2006. History of Observation: The earliest recorded mentions of the stars associated with Boötes come from ancient Babylonia, where it was listed as SHU.PA. These stars were apparently depicted as the god Enlil, who was the leader of the Babylonian pantheon and special patron of farmers. It is likely that this is the source of mythological representations of Bootes as "the ploughman" in Greco-Roman astronomy. The name Boötes was first used by Homer in The Odyssey as a celestial reference point for navigation. The name literally means "ox-driver" or "herdsman", and the ancient Greeks saw the asterism now called the "Big Dipper" or "Plough" as a cart with oxen. His dogs, Chara and Asterion, were represented by the constellation of Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs) who drove the oxen on and kept the wheels of the sky turning. In traditional Chinese astronomy, many of the stars in Boötes were associated with different Chinese constellations. Arcturus was one of the most prominent, variously designated as the celestial king's throne (Tian Wang) or the Blue Dragon's horn (Daijiao). Arcturus was also very important in Chinese celestial mythology because it is the brightest star in the northern sky, and marked the beginning of the lunar calendar. Flanking Daijiao were the constellations of Yousheti on the right and Zuosheti on the left, which represented the companions that orchestrated the seasons. Dixi, the Emperor's ceremonial banquet mat, was north of Arcturus. Another northern constellation was Qigong, the Seven Dukes, which was mostly across the Boötes-Hercules border. The other Chinese constellations made up of the stars of Boötes existed in the modern constellation's north. These are all representations of weapons -  Tianqiang, the spear; Genghe, variously representing a lance or shield; Xuange, the halberd; and Zhaoyao, either the sword or the spear. Finding Bootes: Bootes can be found south of Ursa Major, just off the handle of the Big Dipper. Because the Big Dipper is easy for most observers to find, the handle is used to point to other important stars. Bootes' brightest star, Arcturus, is also part of a mnemonic device used to orient people, which goes: "Arc to Arcturus, speed on to Spica." This means you follow the curve in the Dipper's handle away from Ursa Major until you run into Arcturus. The other star - Spica - is part of the neighboring Virgo constellation. For those using binoculars, check out Tau Bootis, a yellow-white dwarf approximately 51 light-years from Earth. It is a binary star system, with the secondary star being a red dwarf. In 1999, an extrasolar planet was confirmed to be orbiting the primary star by a team of astronomers led by Geoff Marcy and R. Paul Butler. Maybe you'd like to look at long term variable star R Boötis? It ranges from 6.2 to 13.1 every 223.4 days. For those using telescopes, there are plenty of excellent binary star systems to be seen. Pi Boötis is located approximately 317 light years from our solar system and the primary component, P¹ Boötis, is a blue-white B-type main sequence dwarf with an apparent magnitude of +4.49. It's companion, P² Boötis, is a white A-type main sequence dwarf with an apparent magnitude of +5.88. Now try looking at Xi Boötis, a binary star system which lies 21.8 light years away. The primary star, Xi Boötis A, is a BY Draconis variable, yellow G-type main sequence dwarf with an apparent magnitude that varies from +4.52 to +4.67. with a period just over 10 days long. Small velocity changes in the orbit of the companion star, Xi Boötis B - an orange K-type main sequence dwarf - indicate the presence of a small companion with less than nine times the mass of Jupiter. The AB binary can be resolved even through smaller telescopes. The primary star (A) has been identified as a candidate for possessing a Kuiper-like belt, based on infrared observations. The estimated minimum mass of this dust disk is 2.4 times the mass of the Earth's Moon. Then there's the triple system, Mu Boötis. The primary component, Mu¹ Boötis, is a yellow-white F-type sub giant with an apparent magnitude of +4.31. Separated from the primary by 108 arc seconds is the binary star Mu² Boötis, which has a combined spectral type of G1V and a combined brightness of +6.51 magnitudes. The components of Mu² Boötis have apparent magnitudes of +7.2 and +7.8 and are separated by 2.2 arc seconds. They complete one orbit about their common center of mass every 260 years. How about colorful yellow and blue Kappa Boötis? Kappa2 Boötis is classified as a Delta Scuti type variable star and its brightness varies from magnitude +4.50 to +4.58 with a period of 1.83 hours. The companion star, Kappa¹ Boötis, has magnitude +6.58 and spectral class F1V. For deep sky observers with large telescopes, try checking out the globular cluster NGC 5466, which is about a fist's width north of Arcturus. This class XII, 9th magnitude globular was discovered in 1784 by Sir William Herschel and presents an nice challenge for experienced stargazers and amateur astronomers. Or try compact spiral galaxy NGC 5248. It's about a fist width south of Arcturus and about a finger width southwest. It's part of the Virgo cluster of galaxies and could be as far as 50 million light years away. It's another great grand design spiral which shows spiral galaxy structure when viewed in long exposure photographs. You can mark it on your list as Caldwell 45. But if you'd just like to have some fun, then why not try picking out the aforementioned "Colonial Viper and Launch Tube" asterism. If you're a longstanding Battlestar Galactica fan, then you'll recognize this ultra-cool spaceship as it sits in its triangular shaped launch tube. To find it, just draw a line between Arcturus, Alphekka (Alpha Corona Borealis) and Gamma Bootis which make up the "Launch Tube", while Izar (Epsilon Bootes) is the Viper. We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates. Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it! For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Aries and Constellation Families.

The post The Constellation Boötes appeared first on Universe Today.

Lightweight Telescopes In CubeSats Using Carbon Nanotube Mirrors

Thu, 07/14/2016 - 23:38

Ever since they were first produced, carbon nanotubes have managed to set off a flurry excitement in the scientific community. With applications ranging from water treatment and electronics, to biomedicine and construction, this should come as no surprise. But a team of NASA engineers from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has pioneered the use of carbon nanotubes for yet another purpose - space-based telescopes. Using carbon nanotubes, the Goddard team - which is led by Dr. Theodor Kostiuk of NASA's Planetary Systems Laboratory and Solar System Exploration Division - have created a revolutionary new type of telescope mirror. These mirrors will be deployed as part of a CubeSat, one which may represent a new breed of low-cost, highly effective space-based telescopes. This latest innovation also takes advantage of another field that has seen a lot of development of late. CubeSats, like other small satellites, have been playing an increasingly important role in recent years. Unlike the larger, bulkier satellites of yesteryear, miniature satellites are a low-cost platform for conducting space missions and scientific research. Beyond federal space agencies like NASA, they also offer private business and research institutions the opportunity to conduct communications, research and observation from space. On top of that, they are also a low-cost way to engage students in all phases of satellite construction, deployment, and space-based research. Granted, missions that rely on miniature satellites are not likely to generate the same amount of interest or scientific research as large-scale operations like the Juno mission or the New Horizons space probe. But they can provide vital information as part of larger missions, or work in groups to gather greater amounts of data. With the help of funding from Goddard’s Internal Research and Development program, the team created a laboratory optical bench made of regular off-the-shelf components to test the telescope’s overall design. This bench consists of a series of miniature spectrometers tuned to the ultraviolet,  visible, and near-infrared wavelengths, which are connected to the focused beam of the nanotube mirrors via an optic cable. Using this bench, the team is testing the optical mirrors, seeing how they stand up to different wavelengths of light. Peter Chen - the president of Lightweight Telescopes a Maryland-based company - is one of the contractors working with the Goddard team to create the CubeSat telescope. As he was quoted as saying by a recent NASA press release: “No one has been able to make a mirror using a carbon-nanotube resin. This is a unique technology currently available only at Goddard. The technology is too new to fly in space, and first must go through the various levels of technological advancement. But this is what my Goddard colleagues (Kostiuk, Tilak Hewagama, and John Kolasinski) are trying to accomplish through the CubeSat program. Unlike other mirrors, the one created by Dr. Kostiuk's team was fabricated out of carbon nanotubes embedded in an epoxy resin. Naturally, carbon nanotubes offer a wide range of advantages, not the least of which are structural strength, unique electrical properties, and efficient conduction of heat. But the Goddard team also chose this material for their lenses because it offers a lightweight, highly stable and easily reproducible option for creating telescope mirrors. What's more, mirrors made of carbon-nanotubes do not require polishing, which is a time-consuming and expensive process when it comes to space-based telescopes. The team hopes that this new method will prove useful in creating a new class of low-cost, CubeSat space telescopes, as well as helping to reduce costs when it comes to larger ground-based and space-based telescopes. Such mirrors would be especially useful in telescopes that use multiple mirror segments (like the Keck Observatory at Mauna Kea and the James Webb Space Telescope). Such mirrors would be a real cost-cutter since they can be easily produced and would eliminate the need for expensive polishing and grinding. Other potential applications include deep-space communications, improved electronics, and structural materials for spacecraft. Currently, the production of carbon nanotubes is quite limited. But as it becomes more widespread, we can expect this miracle material to be making its way into all aspects of space exploration and research. Further Reading: NASA

The post Lightweight Telescopes In CubeSats Using Carbon Nanotube Mirrors appeared first on Universe Today.

Carnival of Space #466

Thu, 07/14/2016 - 05:39

The tent is up! This week’s Carnival of Space is hosted by Pamela Hoffman at the Everyday Spacer blog. Click here to read Carnival of Space #466. And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to all the past Carnivals of Space. If you've got a space-related blog, you should really join the carnival. Just email an entry to carnivalofspace@gmail.com, and the next host will link to it. It will help get awareness out there about your writing, help you meet others in the space community – and community is what blogging is all about. And if you really want to help out, sign up to be a host. Send an email to the above address.

The post Carnival of Space #466 appeared first on Universe Today.

Juno Transmits 1st Orbital Imagery after Swooping Arrival Over Jovian Cloud Tops and Powering Up

Thu, 07/14/2016 - 03:31

NASA’s newly arrived Jovian orbiter Juno has transmitted its first imagery since reaching orbit last week on July 4 after swooping over Jupiter’s cloud tops and powering back up its package of state-of-the-art science instruments for unprecedented research into determining the origin of our solar systems biggest planet. The breathtaking image clearly shows the well known banded cloud tops in Jupiter’s atmosphere as well as the famous Great Red Spot and three of the humongous planet's four largest moons -- Io, Europa and Ganymede. The ‘Galilean’ moons are annotated from left to right in the lead image. Juno’s visible-light camera named JunoCam was turned on six days after Juno fired its main engine to slow down and be captured into orbit around Jupiter - the ‘King of the Planets’ following a nearly five year long interplanetary voyage from Earth. The image was taken when Juno was 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) distant from Jupiter on July 10, at 10:30 a.m. PDT (1:30 p.m. EDT, 5:30 UTC), and traveling on the outbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit. Juno came within only about 3000 miles of the cloud tops and passed through Jupiter’s extremely intense and hazardous radiation belts during orbital arrival over the north pole. The newly released JunoCam image is visible proof that Juno survived the do-or-die orbital fireworks on America’s Independence Day that placed the baskeball-court sized probe into orbit around Jupiter - and is in excellent health to carry out its groundbreaking mission to elucidate Jupiter’s ‘Genesis.’ "This scene from JunoCam indicates it survived its first pass through Jupiter's extreme radiation environment without any degradation and is ready to take on Jupiter," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement. "We can't wait to see the first view of Jupiter's poles." Within two days of the nerve wracking and fully automated 35-minute-long Jupiter Orbital Insertion (JOI) maneuver, the Juno engineering team begun powering up five of the probes science instruments on July 6. All nonessential instruments and systems had been powered down in the final days of Juno’s approach to Jupiter to ensure the maximum chances for success of the critical JOI engine firing. “We had to turn all our beautiful instruments off to help ensure a successful Jupiter orbit insertion on July 4,” said Bolton. “But next time around we will have our eyes and ears open. You can expect us to release some information about our findings around September 1.” Juno resumed high data rate communications with Earth on July 5, the day after achieving orbit. We can expect to see more JunoCam images taken during this first orbital path around the massive planet. But the first high resolution images are still weeks away and will not be available until late August on the inbound leg when the spacecraft returns and swoops barely above the clouds. "JunoCam will continue to take images as we go around in this first orbit," said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator from the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona, in a statement. "The first high-resolution images of the planet will be taken on August 27 when Juno makes its next close pass to Jupiter." All of JunoCams images will be released to the public. During a 20 month long science mission - entailing 37 orbits lasting 14 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers) of the turbulent cloud tops. It will collect unparalleled new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution as it peers “beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.” The solar powered Juno spacecraft approached Jupiter over its north pole, affording an unprecedented perspective on the Jovian system - “which looks like a mini solar system” - as it flew through the giant planets intense radiation belts in ‘autopilot’ mode. Juno is the first solar powered probe to explore Jupiter or any outer planet. In the final weeks of the approach JunoCam captured dramatic views of Jupiter and all four of the Galilean Moons moons -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. At the post JOI briefing on July 5, these were combined into a spectacular JunoCam time-lapse movie releaed by Bolton and NASA. Watch and be mesmerized -“for humanity, our first real glimpse of celestial harmonic motion” says Bolton. https://youtu.be/XpsQimYhNkA Video caption: NASA's Juno spacecraft captured a unique time-lapse movie of the Galilean satellites in motion about Jupiter. The movie begins on June 12th with Juno 10 million miles from Jupiter, and ends on June 29th, 3 million miles distant. The innermost moon is volcanic Io; next in line is the ice-crusted ocean world Europa, followed by massive Ganymede, and finally, heavily cratered Callisto. Galileo observed these moons to change position with respect to Jupiter over the course of a few nights. From this observation he realized that the moons were orbiting mighty Jupiter, a truth that forever changed humanity's understanding of our place in the cosmos. Earth was not the center of the Universe. For the first time in history, we look upon these moons as they orbit Jupiter and share in Galileo’s revelation. This is the motion of nature's harmony. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version just launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24. The Juno spacecraft was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin in Denver. The mission will end in February 2018 with an intentional death dive into the atmosphere to prevent any possibility of a collision with Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that is a potential abode for life. The last NASA spacecraft to orbit Jupiter was Galileo in 1995. It explored the Jovian system until 2003. From Earth’s perspective, Jupiter was in conjunction with Earth’s Moon shortly after JOI during the first week in July. Personally its thrilling to realize that an emissary from Earth is once again orbiting Jupiter after a 13 year long hiatus as seen in the authors image below - coincidentally taken the same day as JunoCam’s first image from orbit. Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news. Ken Kremer …………. Learn more about Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events: July 15-18: “SpaceX launches to ISS on CRS-9, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

The post Juno Transmits 1st Orbital Imagery after Swooping Arrival Over Jovian Cloud Tops and Powering Up appeared first on Universe Today.

What is Galileo’s Telescope?

Wed, 07/13/2016 - 21:00

In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei looked up at the heavens using a telescope of his making. And what he saw would forever revolutionize the field of astronomy, our understanding of the Universe, and our place in it. Centuries later, Galileo's is still held in such high esteem; not only for the groundbreaking research he conducted, but because of his immense ingenuity in developing his own research tools. And at the center of it all is Galileo's famous telescope, which still inspires curiosity centuries later. How exactly did he invent it. How exactly was it an improvement on then-current designs? What exactly did he see with it when he looked up at the night sky? And what has become of it today? Luckily, all of these are questions we are able to answer. Description: Galileo's telescope was the prototype of the modern day refractor telescope. As you can see from this diagram below, which is taken from Galileo's own work - Sidereus Nuncius ("The Starry Messenger") - it was a simple arrangement of lenses that first began with optician's glass fixed to either end of a hollow cylinder. Galileo had no diagrams to work from, and instead relied on his own system of trial and error to achieve the proper placement of the lenses. In Galileo's telescope the objective lens was convex and the eye lens was concave (today's telescopes make use of two convex lenses). Galileo knew that light from an object placed at a distance from a convex lens created an identical image on the opposite side of the lens. He also knew that if he used a concave lens, the object would appear on the same side of the lens where the object was located. If moved at a distance, it appeared larger than the object. It took a lot of work and different arrangements to get the lens the proper sizes and distances apart, but Galileo's telescope remained the most powerful and accurately built for a great many years. History of Galileo's Telescope: Naturally, Galileo's telescope had some historical antecedents. In the late summer of 1608, a new invention was all the rage in Europe - the spyglass. These low power telescopes were likely made by almost all advanced opticians, but the very first was credited to Hans Lippershey of Holland. These primitive telescopes only magnified the view a few times over. Much like our modern times, the manufacturers were quickly trying to corner the market with their invention. But Galileo Galilei's friends convinced his own government to wait - sure that he could improve the design. When Galileo heard of this new optical instrument he set about engineering and making improved versions, with higher magnification. Galileo's telescope was similar to how a pair of opera glasses work - a simple arrangement of glass lenses to magnify objects. His first versions only improved the view to the eighth power, but Galileo's telescope steadily improved. Within a few years, he began grinding his own lenses and changing his arrays. Galileo's telescope was now capable of magnifying normal vision by a factor of 10, but it had a very narrow field of view. However, this limited ability didn't stop Galileo from using his telescope to make some amazing observations of the heavens. And what he saw, and recorded for posterity, was nothing short of game-changing. What Galileo Observed: One fine Fall evening, Galileo pointed his telescope towards the one thing that people thought was perfectly smooth and as polished as a gemstone - the Moon. Imagine his surprise when found that it, in his own words, was "uneven, rough, full of cavities and prominences." Galileo's telescope had its flaws, such as a narrow field of view that could only show about one quarter of the lunar disk without repositioning. Nevertheless, a revolution in astronomy had begun! Months passed, and Galileo's telescope improved. On January 7th, 1610, he turned his new 30 power telescope towards Jupiter, and found three small, bright "stars" near the planet. One was off to the west, the other two were to the east, and all three were in a straight line. The following evening, Galileo once again took a look at Jupiter, and found that all three of the "stars" were now west of the planet - still in a straight line! And there were more discoveries awaiting Galileo's telescope: the appearance of bumps next to the planet Saturn (the edges of Saturn's rings), spots on the Sun's surface (aka. Sunspots), and seeing Venus change from a full disk to a slender crescent. Galileo Galilei published all of these findings in a small book titled Sidereus Nuncius ("The Starry Messenger") in 1610. While Galileo was not the first astronomer to point a telescope towards the heavens, he was the first to do so scientifically and methodically. Not only that, but the comprehensive notes he took on his observations, and the publication of his discoveries, would have a revolutionary impact on astronomy and many other fields of science. Galileo's Telescope Today: Today, over 400 years later, Galileo's Telescope still survives under the constant care of the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (renamed the Museo Galileo in 2010) in Italy. The Museum holds exhibitions on Galileo's telescope and the observations he made with it. The displays consist of these rare and precious instruments - including the objective lens created by the master and the only two existing telescopes built by Galileo himself. Thanks to Galileo's careful record keeping, craftsmen around the world have recreated Galileo's telescope for museums and replicas are now sold for amateurs and collectors as well. Despite the fact that astronomers now have telescopes of immense power at their disposal, many still prefer to go the DIY route, just like Galileo! Few scientists and astronomers have had the same impact Galileo had. Even fewer are regarded as pioneers in the sciences, or revolutionary thinkers who forever changed humanity's perception of the heavens and their place within it. Little wonder then why his most prized instrument is kept so well preserved, and is still the subject of study over four centuries later. We have written many interesting articles on Galileo here at Universe Today. Here's Astronomy Cast also has an interesting episode on telescope making - Episode 327: Telescope Making, Part I For more information, be sure to check out the Museo Galileo's website.

The post What is Galileo’s Telescope? appeared first on Universe Today.

The Moon Is A Real Attention Junkie

Wed, 07/13/2016 - 20:40

We're accustomed to seeing stunning images of both the Moon and Earth floating in space. It's the age we live in. But seeing them together is rare. Now, NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) has captured images of the Moon passing between itself and the Earth, in effect photo-bombing Earth. The image was captured with the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera on DISCOVR, and is the second time this has been captured. EPIC is a 4 megapixel camera on board DSCOVR, and DSCOVR is in orbit about 160 million km (100 million miles) from Earth, between the Earth and the Sun. "For the second time in the life of DSCOVR, the moon moved between the spacecraft and Earth,” said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7pZAuHwz0E&feature=youtu.be[/embed] Cool pictures of the Moon are a bonus, though, as DSCOVR's primary mission is to monitor the solar wind in real time for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It does so while inhabiting the first LaGrange point between the Earth and the Sun, where the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Earth balance each other. To do so requires a complex orbit called a Lissajous orbit, a non-recurring orbit which takes DSCOVR from an ellipse to a circle and back. DSCOVR has other important work to do. From its vantage point, DSCOVR keeps a constantly illuminated view of the surface of the Earth as it rotates. DSCOVR provides observations of cloud height, vegetation, ozone, and aerosols in the atmosphere. This is important scientific data in monitoring and understanding Earth's climate. DSCOVR is a partnership between NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Air Force. As mentioned above, its primary objective is maintaining the nation’s real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of space weather alerts and forecasts from NOAA. The DSCOVR website also has daily color pictures of the Earth, for all your eye-candy needs. Check it out: http://epic.gsfc.nasa.gov/

The post The Moon Is A Real Attention Junkie appeared first on Universe Today.

Where is Earth in the Milky Way?

Wed, 07/13/2016 - 18:40

For thousand of years, astronomers and astrologers believed that the Earth was at the center of our Universe. This perception was due in part to the fact that Earth-based observations were complicated by the fact that the Earth is embedded in the Solar System. It was only after many centuries of continued observation and calculations that we discovered that the Earth (and all other bodies in the Solar System) actually orbits the Sun. Much the same is true about our Solar System's position within the Milky Way. In truth, we've only been aware of the fact that we are part of a much larger disk of stars that orbits a common center for about a century. And given that we are embedded within it, it has been historically difficult to ascertain our exact position. But thanks to ongoing efforts, astronomers now know where our Sun resides in the galaxy. Size of the Milky Way: For starters, the Milky Way is really, really big! Not only does it measure some 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter and about 1,000 light-years thick, but up to 400 billion stars are located within it (though some estimates think there are even more). Since one light year is about 9.5 x 1012 km (9.5 trillion km) long, the diameter of the Milky Way galaxy is about 9.5 x 1017 to 11.4 x 1017 km, or 9,500 to 11,400 quadrillion km. https://youtu.be/H8iuu543-4M It became its current size and shape by eating up other galaxies, and is still doing so today. In fact, the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way because its stars are currently being added to the Milky Way’s disk. And our galaxy has consumed others in its long history, such as the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. And yet, our galaxy is only a middle-weight when compared to other galaxies in the local Universe. Andromeda, the closest major galaxy to our own, is about twice as large as our own. It measures 220,000 light years in diameter, and has an estimated 400-800 billion stars within it. Structure of the Milky Way: If you could travel outside the galaxy and look down on it from above, you’d see that the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy. For the longest time, the Milky Way was thought to have 4 spiral arms, but newer surveys have determined that it actually seems to just have two spiral arms, called Scutum–Centaurus and Carina–Sagittarius. The spiral arms are formed from density waves that orbit around the Milky Way - i.e. stars and clouds of gas clustered together. As these density waves move through an area, they compress the gas and dust, leading to a period of active star formation for the region. However, the existence of these arms has been determined from observing parts of the Milky Way - as well as other galaxies in our universe. In truth, all the pictures that depict our galaxy are either artist's renditions or pictures of other spiral galaxies, and not the result of direct observation of the whole. Until recently, it was very difficult for scientists to gauge what the Milky Way really looks like, mainly because we’re inside it. It has only been through decades of observation, reconstruction and comparison to other galaxies that they have been to get a clear picture of what the Milky Way looks like from the outside. From ongoing surveys of the night sky with ground-based telescopes, and more recent missions involving space telescopes, astronomers now estimate that there are between 100 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. They also think that each star has at least one planet, which means there are likely to be hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way - billions of which are believed to be the size and mass of the Earth. As noted, much of the Milky Way's arms is made up of dust and gas. This matter makes up a whopping 10-15% of all the "luminous matter" (i.e. that which is visible) in our galaxy, with the remainder being the stars. Our galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across, and we can only see about 6,000 light years into the disk in the visible spectrum. Still, when light pollution is not significant, the dusty ring of the Milky Way can be discerned in the night sky. What's more, infrared astronomy and viewing the Universe in other, non-visible wavelengths has allowed astronomers to be able to see more of it. https://youtu.be/pdFWbEwsOmA The Milky Way, like all galaxies, is also surrounded by a vast halo of dark matter, which accounts for some 90% of its mass. Nobody knows precisely what dark matter is, but its mass has been inferred by observations of how fast the galaxy rotates and other general behaviors. More importantly, it is believed that this mass helps keep the galaxy from tearing itself apart as it rotates. The Solar System: The Solar System (and Earth) is located about 25,000 light-years to the galactic center and 25,000 light-years away from the rim. So basically, if you were to think of the Milky Way as a big record, we would be the spot that's roughly halfway between the center and the edge. Astronomers have agreed that the Milky Way probably has two major spiral arms - Perseus arm and the Scutum-Centaurus arm - with several smaller arms and spurs. The Solar System is located in a region in between the two arms called the Orion-Cygnus arm. This arm measures 3,500 light-years across and is 10,000 light-years in length, where it breaks off from the Sagittarius Arm. The fact that the Milky Way divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicates that the Solar System lies near the galactic plane. The Milky Way has a relatively low surface brightness due to the gases and dust that fills the galactic disk. That prevents us from seeing the bright galactic center or from observing clearly what is on the other side of it. You might be surprised to learn that it takes the Sun 250 million years to complete one rotation around the Milky Way - this is what is known as a "Galactic Year" or "Cosmic Year". The last time the Solar System was in this position in the Milky Way, there were still dinosaurs on Earth. The next time, who knows? Humanity might be extinct, or it might have evolved into something else entirely. As you can see, the Milky Way alone is a very big place. And discerning our location within it has been no simple task. And as our knowledge of the Universe has expanded, we've come to learn two things. Not only is the Universe much larger than we could have ever imagined, but our place within in continues to shrink! Our Solar System, it seems, is both insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but also extremely precious! We have written many articles about the Milky Way for Universe Today. Here's 10 Interesting Facts about the Milky Way, How Big is the Milky Way?, What is the Closest Galaxy to the Milky Way?, and How Many Stars Are There in the Milky Way? If you'd like more info on the Milky Way, check out Hubblesite's News Releases on Galaxies, and here's NASA's Science Page on Galaxies. We've also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Milky Way. Listen here, Episode 99: The Milky Way.

The post Where is Earth in the Milky Way? appeared first on Universe Today.

Astrophotography: Stacking the Moon

Wed, 07/13/2016 - 12:19

Looking for something different to try in the realm of astrophotography? It's amazing what can be done these days with the help of a little free software. DSLR cameras have gone through several generations now, and it's often worth sitting down and exploring a new camera's program menu just to see what intriguing settings are available. Recently, astrophotographer Trevor Mahlmann brought the fascinating method of image stacking to our attention. Stacking allows you to simply place several sequential frames of an object such as the Moon in one image. Trevor's recent June Full Moon rising was even featured on the prestigious Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) website.  As with much of astrophotography, image stacking allows us to see something unique in nature and the universe that would otherwise be invisible. Trevor describes the technique in detail on his website. Key to the method is the use of an intervalometer, which will simply allow you to shoot a series of programmed shots in succession. Some camera have these built-in, while for others, it requires a separate micro/mini USB tethered device. An intervalometer is also handy for taking automated exposures during meteor showers and time-lapses. The motion of the Earth and the Moon becomes readily apparent in long sequence stacks. “Your framing will also depend on what kind of Moon stack you are shooting, moonrise or moonset. At different points during the year, the Moon will rise, pass and set in different locations along the horizon.” Says Trevor. The free program StarStaX is also crucial to the process. Another nifty App that Trevor turned us on to in the course of research is the Photographer's Ephemeris. This shows the rising and setting azimuth for the Sun and Moon for a given location, overlaid on Google Maps. This is extremely handy if you are, say, trying to capture a moonrise shot with a recognizable landmark in the frame. We could have used this for plotting our capture of the partially eclipsed Sun behind the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building back in 2013. Trevor Mahlmann says on his image stacking tutorial: “The whole capture will take about 30 minutes to an hour, possibly longer if you use a shorter focal length, like 50mm or 35mm (cropped). You might check your local hourly weather forecast and take a peak at what might be coming, as it might be dark and you won't see approaching clouds, showers or storms.” As the lunar cycle progresses, Trevor notes that “Your shutter speed and ISO values... will go down as the lunar month progresses towards Full Moon, and go back up as the month progresses towards New Moon again.” The image stacking concept can be extended beyond the Moon as well. How about stacking successive frames of planetary images, especially during an occultation by the Moon? Or stacking successive filtered images of the Sun as it moves through the sky? Stacking is also handy on satellite shots, such as during iridium flares and passes of the International Space Station, especially at twilight and times of high contrast, when a shot demands short exposures. What do you see in these stacked frames? Beyond just pretty pictures, stacking teases out some real effects that would otherwise remain unnoticed. One is the apparent motion of the Moon, due mostly to the rotation of the Earth. The Moon covers its own Full diameter (30' or half a degree) about once every two minutes, and moves one degree eastward due to its own motion around the Earth every two hours. Color change is also apparent, as the Moon rises out of the thick murk of the atmosphere close to the horizon. This effect is also apparent and striking during stacked sequences taken during total lunar eclipses. Another interesting project would be to compare image stacks of the rising Moon near perigee versus apogee. The next favorable occultation of a planet by the Moon for North America under dark skies is Mars on February 18th, 2020. And you'll have a chance to try out this technique during next week's Full Buck Moon coming right up on Tuesday, July 19th. We also asked Trevor what's next and what his thoughts are on pushing this technique a bit further. “I am thinking of trying an all-sky moonrise to moonset photo, not sure how I would do it with the changing moon brightness, but am pondering ideas on how I would do it. I think I could get about 80% of one since even on a Full Moon, the Sun and Moon rise opposite each other and I would want to try and get color of moonrise/set on both sides. I would also need a perfectly clear night from sunset to sunrise.” The Moon's no longer the limit when it comes to astrophotography and image stacking. Check out Trevor Mahlmann's astrophotography blog.

The post Astrophotography: Stacking the Moon appeared first on Universe Today.