Star Struck

Dwarf Planets and New Planets, Oh My!

Just about the time that one NASA spacecraft is closing in on Ceres (formerly known as an asteroid, now semi-officially designated as a dwarf planet) and another nears its encounter with Pluto, a group of astronomers has suggested that there may be two or more planets at the outer reaches of our solar system. Didn’t we settle this when we kicked Pluto out of the family of planets?

To keep it short: planet is a word with no universally agreed-upon scientific definition. A very good summary of the subject is here for those who want to dig deeper. But let’s talk about Ceres and the possible “extra” planets.

Ceres and Dawn

dawn approaching Ceres

The Dawn spacecraft is amazing for a number of reasons:
• It uses an ion propulsion engine to navigate its way around the inner solar system.
• It was the first spacecraft to orbit Vesta, the second-largest asteroid and the fourth discovered.

• It will be (in March 2015) the first spacecraft to orbit Ceres, and therefore the first spacecraft to orbit two different asteroids. Here is the latest (January 13th) series of images from Dawn as it approaches Ceres. These will rapidly improve as Ceres draws nearer!

I hesitate to predict what we will find once we are there. Such predictions nearly always turn out to be wrong! Stay tuned.

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Posted in Planets, Spacecraft

First Steps to Deep Space

Tomorrow (December 4th) morning at 7:05 am EST, the first uncrewed test flight of NASA’s new human spacecraft will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

For those of us who remember the Apollo moon flights of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Orion capsule is very familiar.

It is indeed a return to basics for America’s crewed space missions. The space shuttle was a remarkable machine, but it brought to mind the classic comment about a camel being a horse that was designed by a committee. Space flight is of course inherently dangerous. The position of the shuttle orbiter, strapped to the side of an enormous fuel tank and solid rocket boosters rather than at the top of the rocket with an escape system—well, we’ve all seen how this contributed to the loss of two shuttles and their crews.
So what is different about the Orion capsule? For starters, it is bigger. The Apollo command module squeezed three astronauts into a volume of 218 cubic feet (imagine a cube of 6 x 6 x 6 feet). Orion will accommodate four crew members in a roomier cabin of 316 cubic feet. Its attached service module is also designed for longer-duration missions, and for excursions into deep space—beyond the moon’s orbit. On such missions to an asteroid or to Mars, crew members would spend their time in an attached habitat, using the Orion to get to space and back to Earth.
Like the Apollo spacecraft however, Orion has to withstand the stresses of atmospheric re-entry at speeds far above those of a vehicle re-entering from low Earth orbit. A Soyuz returning from the International Space Station hits the atmosphere at roughly 17,000 miles per hour. Coming back from a lunar or a deep space mission means velocities up to 25,000 miles per hour at the top of Earth’s atmosphere. A craft designed to return from such missions has to be sturdy.
And of course the flight controls and computers on board are fifty years more advanced than on Apollo. The computer that landed men on the moon was far less capable than the phone you carry in your pocket.
This test flight is designed mostly to test how well Orion withstands that fiery re-entry. A Delta IV Heavy booster will take the capsule to an altitude of 3600 miles; re-entry speed should be around 20,000 mph. This high-altitude flight will also take it through the inner Van Allen radiation belt, testing the radiation shielding for the craft’s electronics (and ultimately for its human crew.)

NASA is a government agency, subject to the shifting political winds blowing out of Washington. So I will refrain from making any predictions about future missions and limit myself to this: it’s about time, and I will be watching! You can do the same here.

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Posted in human spaceflight, Spacecraft

October 8 2014 Lunar Eclipse

Just a quick post to show you this great eclipse photo from my friend Mike Overacker, shot with a Canon 6D and a 600 mm lens at f/5.6.  The small dot to the left and slightly above the Moon is the planet Uranus.  Thanks for sharing, Mike!


Posted in Uncategorized

A Month For Eclipses

October brings both a lunar and a solar eclipse to viewers in North America. The lunar eclipse will be in the early morning hours of Wednesday, October 8th when the moon is in its full phase.  Two weeks later when the moon is new, we can see a partial solar eclipse in the late afternoon of October 23rd.

Lunar Eclipse

Eclipses, both lunar and solar, occur when the Earth, the sun, and the moon all fall on the same straight line. In a lunar eclipse, the Earth lies between the sun and the moon, and its shadow falls on the moon.   DIAGRAM IS NOT TO SCALE!

For observers on the east coast of the U.S., the full moon will be setting in the west as the eclipse begins at 5:15 am EDT. This is when you will first notice the Earth’s shadow beginning to take a “bite” out of the fully illuminated moon, which will then be roughly 25° above the horizon in Lynchburg.  When totality begins (the moon is completely within the Earth’s shadow) at 6:25 am EDT, the moon will only be about 10° above the horizon.  The end of totality and the setting of the moon set are at the same time: 7:24 am EDT.  Here is how to estimate angular distance using your outstretched arm:

Does the moon go completely dark during totality? If the Earth were an airless rock, it would.  But the Earth’s atmosphere refracts (bends) light so that some of it falls on the moon’s surface even in a total lunar eclipse.  Red light is the most highly refracted, and the term “blood moon” references this.  The actual color can range from rather bright orange to a deep red and depends both on the exact Earth-moon geometry and on whatever might be in the Earth’s atmosphere during the eclipse.  Volcanic eruptions can make for rather dark moons during totality.

The farther west you are, the higher the moon will be in your sky. Folks on the west coast of the U.S. will need to get up earlier, but they will be able to see the moon much higher in the sky during totality.

Solar Eclipse

Two weeks later the sun, moon, and Earth line up to create a solar eclipse.  Again, the diagram is not to scale.

This will be a partial (not total) solar eclipse, with only part of the sun’s surface blocked out by the moon. And just as the moon was setting for east coast observers two weeks ago, so will the sun be setting for this eclipse.  For Lynchburg, maximum eclipse and sunset are at about the same time: 6:20 pm and 6:30 pm EDT respectively.  Again, folks farther west have a better view.

It cannot be stated often enough: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN! Only filters specifically designed for solar viewing (most definitely NOT ordinary sunglasses) should be used.  Far better is an indirect projection device you can easily make yourself with a gum wrapper and a white sheet of paper.

Let’s hope Lynchburg’s notorious weather is kind to us!

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Posted in Sky Phenomena

How Do They Make Those Telescopes So Big?

Telescopes gather light, and that light conveys information about distant and dim objects.  The more light the instrument gathers, the more information is conveyed.  And the bigger the telescope, the more light you can gather.

If you are of a certain age and have any awareness of astronomy, you probably remember that for most of your lifetime, the largest telescope in the world was the 200-inch (5-meter) reflector at Mount Palomar in California.  The casting, grinding, and polishing of this mirror was an impressive technological feat, unsurpassed until the Soviet installation of a 6-meter scope in 1975.  Today 8-meter mirrors are almost routine, and construction has begun on instruments with apertures of almost 40 meters!  Here is a diagram of the world’s largest telescopes, including some that are not yet actually built.

How do they make them so big?

The Hale telescope on Mount Palomar represents the limit of a particular mirror-creation technology, not of ultimate mirror size.  It was first cast in 1934 at the Corning Glass Works as a giant cylinder of the then new Pyrex glass, and that first casting was unsuccessful.  The cracked disc is on display at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York.

The original cylinder blank was ground to produce a curved surface that would focus the light falling on it, then polished to make the surface as smooth as possible.  A thin coating of reflective aluminum was then vapor-deposited on that curved surface to make a mirror.

This cylinder was thick and had a huge thermal mass.  What that means is that the glass takes a long time to cool off or warm up.  This is not good when you need to eliminate air currents created by the mirror being at a different temperature from the air around it.  While the Hale telescope is able to compensate for this, the Soviet 6-meter instrument has been plagued by poor seeing that is at least partially due to its huge thermal mass.  This visualization of the convection currents created by a candle can give you some idea of the degraded view afforded by a mirror that can’t easily reach thermal equilibrium with its environment.

The mirrors had to be thick to maintain their shape against gravity or wind.  But beginning in the 1980s, thin mirrors were supported on their back sides by actuators that could maintain the proper curvature.  A thinner mirror not only has less thermal mass, it requires a less massive support structure too.  Another innovation that greatly reduces the time needed to create the curved mirror surface is spin casting, as explained in this video.

And finally, the really large mirrors are segmented—they are actually made up of hexagonal pieces whose overall curvature creates a single focal point.

Recently a mountaintop in Chile was leveled to provide a site for the European Extremely Large Telescope.  This image shows the size of the segmented mirror.

And this is an artist’s conception of the final installation scheduled for completion in 2022.

Posted in Observatory and Telescopes

Hold the Nobels For Now

Oops. Maybe.

In March, a team of astronomers working with the BICEP2 radio telescope at the South Pole announced an exciting discovery, claiming to have discovered patterns in the cosmic microwave background that would exist if the universe underwent an enormous expansion almost immediately after the Big Bang. This “inflation” is a well-established feature of modern cosmology, and seems to be consistent with all the observational data, but direct evidence for its validity had not yet been seen. If the BICEP2 team’s claims were true, their results provided that direct evidence. But I was relieved to find that in my original post, I had included the obligatory scientist’s word of caution that the claim needed to be confirmed and reviewed. It looks like we’ll need to wait for results from other experiments before we can say that we have that evidence for inflation.

This doesn’t mean that inflation is wrong. It just means that the BICEP2 team’s evidence for it is flawed.

I’m going to leave out an enormous amount of detail and scientific jargon to give the version with which you can impress your friends, neighbors, and casual acquaintances at your next social gathering. The claimed detection was of particular polarization patterns in the cosmic microwave background. (For explanations of these terms, go again to that March Star Struck post.) The problem is that there are other sources of polarization. The BICEP2 team used some preliminary data from another team’s work that hadn’t yet determined how much of the polarization seen came from each of two well-known sources. One of those sources is our own galaxy, whose dust polarizes microwave radiation as well.

The bottom line? We don’t know how much of the polarization announced in March is from the cosmic background radiation (CMB), and how much from our own Milky Way galaxy. The announced CMB polarization may (and may not) be overstated.

There are other teams working in this area, and we may have more definitive results by the end of the year. In the meantime, I hope no one from the BICEP2 team has bought non-refundable tickets to Stockholm.

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Posted in Cosmology

July/August 2014 Sky Watcher’s Guide

This will be an every-two-months guide to what you can see in the night sky, geared to mid-latitude northern hemisphere observers. The original post with more detailed guidance can be found here. What can you expect to see in July and August 2014?

JULY, 2014

Moon Phases: Full on July 12th; new on July 26th. On the 26th, the Moon passes almost five degrees south of the Sun, which is about as far away from the Sun as it can get. It does this because the orbit of the Moon around the Earth does not precisely align with the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. They are actually tilted about five degrees (of course) away from each other. The Earth’s orbit defines the plane of the ecliptic.

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Posted in Sky Phenomena

Dusty Mars–Bad. Windy Mars–Good.

My favorite writer about planetary science is, hands down, Emily Lakdawalla. She writes an occasional article for Sky & Telescope magazine, whose editor informed me on a recent astronomy-themed tour that “Emily is the consummate professional”. Where you can really keep up with her interests, however, is her blog at the Planetary Society website.

Here is a link to a post that gives you some idea of the sorts of things you can find here. The Mars rovers accumulate dust on their surfaces over time. For the Opportunity rover, still rolling after 10 years on Mars, this can be a real problem. It is powered by solar cells, and accumulated dust blocks sunlight and reduces the available power. The Curiosity rover that landed in August 2012 is powered by a radioisotope thermal generator (a slug of radioactive plutonium gives off heat which is converted to electrical energy), so power is not a problem. Mars is dusty, but it is also windy, and if you’re lucky, the wind will blow off the dust. Take a look here. Be sure to use the green slider in both images for before-and-after comparisons.

Ms. Lakdawalla is hard at work on an upcoming book, tentatively titled “Curiosity on Mars”, which will certainly find an eager buyer in this author. One interesting side note: in her extended biography, she states that her two year experience of teaching convinced her that a teacher’s life is very hard!

Posted in Mars, Planets

Planets? Positively! Meteors? Maybe.

This week the sky offers some absolutely “gonna-be-there” viewing, plus a tantalizing possibility for a once every few decades special event. Both of these, of course, depend on there being clear skies at your viewing location.

First, the sure thing. Three naked-eye planets are visible in the early evening sky just after sunset, and will be for another couple of weeks. Two of them will be visible all summer long. Below is the sky at 9 pm EDT on May 21, 2014, looking southwest.


The sun has set, but the sky is not yet completely dark. No matter; these planets will be the brightest things in the sky. Farthest to the west (closest to the already set sun) is Jupiter, by far the brightest thing around. A little east of directly south is Mars, distinguished by its orangey color. And farther east is Saturn, with a yellowish cast. You certainly don’t need a telescope to see them, but even a modest scope will reveal Jupiter’s largest moons, the disc shape of Mars, and Saturn’s glorious rings.

The iffy event holds out the prospect of a spectacular sight that most people have never seen, and the timing couldn’t be better for a pre-dawn adventure: 3 am EDT on Saturday morning, May 24. In short, what we see could range from nothing at the most disappointing end of the scale to a meteor shower with one or two meteors per minute, to a seldom-seen meteor storm with one every three or four seconds. More details can be found in this post from Sky & Telescope. The Lynchburg forecast is for clear skies, and I plan to be up and viewing!

Posted in Planets, Sky Phenomena

Earth 2.0? Not quite yet.

Don’t get me wrong. The discovery of Kepler-186f is a big deal: a near Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of its star, neither too close nor too distant from it for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface. But is it another Earth, Earth 2.0, the long-sought twin of our beautiful blue planet? Not quite. Not yet. But that hasn’t stopped artists from speculating on what this planet might look like close up.

What exactly is it that we are looking for? More precisely, what planetary characteristics are necessary to be considered a twin of Earth? Let’s start with the characteristics of Kepler-186f to see how it almost-but-not-quite qualifies.

The name itself tells you that this is a discovery of the Kepler Space Telescope, dedicated to finding planets around other stars by the dimming of those stars’ light when the planet passes in front of them. Here’s how that works.

Astronomers can deduce a surprising amount of information about a star from a detailed study of its light. We know how big it is and how hot. From an analysis of the planetary transit light curve, we can determine the orbital period of the planet and its size. Put all of this together, and what do we know about Kepler-186f?

It is only slightly larger (10%) than Earth, and just close enough to its host star for surface temperatures to fall in the temperature range allowing water to exist as a liquid (0 to 100 degrees Celsius). The host star itself is much smaller and dimmer than our Sun, so the planet must orbit much closer to its star than does the Earth to find this warmth.

Therein lies a key difference between this planet and our own: the host star is not Sun-like. It is smaller, dimmer, and redder. The close-in orbit leaves this planet more vulnerable to stellar flares, and if the planet were just a little closer, tidal interactions with the star would lock it into an orbit where one side would always be facing the star. A planet with one side in perpetual frozen night and the other always in hot daytime is hardly another Earth.

The search for Earth 2.0 is of course also a search for Earth-like life, or at least for a planet where life as we know it could arise. A small dim star is much more long-lived than our Sun, so life would have a longer time period to emerge, take hold, and evolve. That much is a positive.

Is there liquid water on the surface of Kepler-186f? That would require the planet to have an atmospheric blanket for protection. We don’t know if the planet has such an atmosphere, and it is too far away (500 light years) to be able to determine that. The planet’s size is such that it almost certainly has a rocky surface instead of being a gas giant like Jupiter, so we can’t rule out the possibility of lakes and oceans of water.

The ideal Earth 2.0 would orbit a star like our Sun, hot enough so that its habitable zone is at some distance from the star, putting a planet in that zone at less risk from solar flares, and eliminating the possibility of tidal locking. A star that is hotter will have a larger and more distant habitable zone, but stars that are very much hotter are short-lived and allow little time for life to emerge or evolve to any level of complexity. The planet should be small enough not to retain a huge atmosphere of light gases like hydrogen and helium, but large enough to hold onto some atmosphere and allow liquid water to exist on its presumably rocky surface. In short, it would look pretty much like this.

Kepler returned massive amounts of data before the failure of two reaction wheels used to precisely point the telescope. It takes some time to sort through all this information, and when a star hosts several planets it can take weeks of supercomputer time for a full analysis. Earth 2.0 candidates will orbit far enough from their stars to make transits relatively rare events; if Kepler were to observe the solar system under the most ideal conditions, the Earth would block the Sun’s light for only about half a day every year. Clearly you have to observe for a year see even one transit, and Kepler needs to see at least three to confirm that the star’s dimming was indeed caused by a planetary transit. The first results from Kepler were, as expected, dominated by large planets orbiting quite close to their stars. As more data are accumulated, we are starting to see more and more planets that are closer to being Earth-like. Earth 2.0 is quite likely just waiting to be discovered in a light curve stored on NASA’s computers.


PHOTO CREDITS (all labeled for noncommercial reuse):


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Posted in Exoplanets