kottke.org posts about astronomy

CosmigraphicsOct 17 2014

Cosmigraphics

From Michael Benson comes Cosmigraphics, a survey of many ways in which humans have represented the Universe, from antiquity on up to the present day.

Selecting artful and profound illustrations and maps, many hidden away in the world's great science libraries and virtually unknown today, he chronicles more than 1,000 years of humanity's ever-expanding understanding of the size and shape of space itself. He shows how the invention of the telescope inspired visions of unimaginably distant places and explains why today we turn to supercomputer simulations to reveal deeper truths about space-time.

The NY Times has an adaptation of the introduction to the book.

Among the narrative threads woven into the book are the 18th-century visual meditations on the possible design of the Milky Way - including the astonishing work of the undeservedly obscure English astronomer Thomas Wright, who in 1750 reasoned his way to (and illustrated) the flattened-disk form of our galaxy. In a book stuffed with exquisite mezzotint plates, Wright also conceived of another revolutionary concept: a multigalaxy cosmos. All of this a quarter-century before the American Revolution, at a time when the Milky Way was thought to constitute the entirety of the universe.

Aurora borealisSep 23 2014

This looks like a time lapse, but it's not. It's just a straight-up gorgeous video of the aurora borealis filmed in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.

It is real time motion! NOT time-lapse. Brighter the Aurora, faster the movement.

(via the kid should see this)

The Sweden Solar SystemAug 27 2014

Sweden Solar System

Spanning from comets in the south to the termination shock zone in the northern part of the country, The Sweden Solar System is a scale model of the solar system that spans the entire country of Sweden, the largest such model in the world.

The Sun is represented by the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, the largest hemispherical building in the world. The inner planets can also be found in Stockholm but the outer planets are situated northward in other cities along the Baltic Sea.

The 2017 total solar eclipse awarded to the United StatesAug 21 2014

2017 Eclipse

I do not officially have a bucket list1 but if I did have one, watching a total solar eclipse would be on it. Was just talking about it the other day in fact. Well. I am pretty damn excited for the Great American Eclipse of 2017!

In August 21, 2017, millions of people across the United States will see nature's most wondrous spectacle -- a total eclipse of the Sun. It is a scene of unimaginable beauty; the Moon completely blocks the Sun, daytime becomes a deep twilight, and the Sun's corona shimmers in the darkened sky. This is your guide to understand, prepare for, and view this rare celestial event.

It goes right through the middle of the country too...almost everyone in the lower 48 is within a day's drive of seeing it. Cities in the path of the totality include Salem, OR, Jackson, WY, Lincoln, NE, St. Louis, MO (nearly), Nashville, TN, and Charleston, SC.

Weather will definitely play a factor in actually seeing the eclipse, so I will be keeping an eye on Eclipser ("Climatology and Maps for the Eclipse Chaser") as the event draws near. Early analysis indicates Oregon as the best chance for clear skies. Matt, I am hereby laying claim to your guest room in three years time. So excited!!

  1. Also on this hypothetical bucket list: dunking a basketball, going to outer space, learning to surf, and two chicks at the same time.

The largest black hole in the UniverseJun 16 2014

The black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy is estimated to have a mass of 4 million Suns. The largest black hole astronomers have found so far has a mass of 18 billion solar masses, or more than 4000 times as massive as the Milky Way's.

Around 3.5 billion light-years away, this galaxy is estimated to contain the largest black hole presently known, at 18 billion solar masses. (Although, the error bars for this one and NGC 1277's overlap substantially.) But the most spectacular part of this galaxy -- and why we're able to learn so much about it's central region -- is because there's a 100 million Solar mass black hole (that's 25 times larger than the one at the Milky Way's core) that's orbiting the even larger one!

Also, the largest know galaxy in the Universe is IC 1101, with a mass of 100 trillion solar masses.

Building the ultimate solar systemMay 28 2014

There are a couple of different ways you can construct a stable solar system with a maximum number of habitable worlds. One includes 36 habitable worlds in a single solar system.

Ultimate Solar System

We can fit the orbits of four gas giants in the habitable zone (in 3:2 resonances). Each of those can have up to five potentially habitable moons. Plus, the orbit of each gas giant can also fit an Earth-sized planet both 60 degrees in front and 60 degrees behind the giant planet's orbit (on Trojan orbits). Or each could be a binary Earth! What is nice about this setup is that the worlds can have any size in our chosen range. It doesn't matter for the stability.

Let's add it up. One gas giant per orbit. Five large moons per gas giant. Plus, two binary Earths per orbit. That makes 9 habitable worlds per orbit. We have four orbits in the habitable zone. That makes 36 habitable worlds in this system!

The Moon, closerMay 19 2014

If the Moon orbited the Earth at the same distance as the International Space Station, it might look a little something like this:

At that distance, the Moon would cover half the sky and take about five minutes to cross the sky. Of course, as Phil Plait notes, if the Moon were that close, tidal forces would result in complete chaos for everyone involved.

There would be global floods as a tidal wave kilometers high sweeps around the world every 90 minutes (due to the Moon's closer, faster orbit), scouring clean everything in its path. The Earth itself would also be stretched up and down, so there would be apocalyptic earthquakes, not to mention huge internal heating of the Earth and subsequent volcanism. I'd think that the oceans might even boil away due to the enormous heat released from the Earth's interior, so at least that spares you the flood... but replaces water with lava. Yay?

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is shrinkingMay 15 2014

Jupiter Spot Shrinking

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is becoming more of a Medium Red Spot. The gas giant's signature beauty mark was recently measured by the Hubble as spanning 10,250 miles across its widest point, down from a high of 25,500 miles across.

Historic observations as far back as the late 1800s [2] gauged this turbulent spot to span about 41 000 kilometres at its widest point -- wide enough to fit three Earths comfortably side by side. In 1979 and 1980 the NASA Voyager fly-bys measured the spot at a shrunken 23 335 kilometres across. Now, Hubble has spied this feature to be smaller than ever before.

"Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations confirm that the spot is now just under 16 500 kilometres across, the smallest diameter we've ever measured," said Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA.

Amateur observations starting in 2012 revealed a noticeable increase in the spot's shrinkage rate. The spot's "waistline" is getting smaller by just under 1000 kilometres per year. The cause of this shrinkage is not yet known.

The truth of science with your own eyesMay 14 2014

Clive Thompson recently saw the moons of Jupiter with his own eyes and has a moment.

I saw one huge, bright dot, with three other tiny pinpoints of light nearby, all lined up in a row (just like the image at the top of this story). Holy moses, I realized; that's no star. That's Jupiter! And those are the moons of Jupiter!

I'm a science journalist and a space buff, and I grew up oohing and aahing over the pictures of Jupiter sent back by various NASA space probes. But I'd never owned a telescope, and never done much stargazing other than looking up in the night unaided. In my 45 years I'd never directly observed Jupiter and its moons myself.

So I freaked out. In a good way! It was a curiously intense existential moment.

For my birthday when I was seven or eight, my dad bought me a telescope. (It was a Jason telescope; didn't everyone have a telescope named after them?) We lived in the country in the middle of nowhere where it was nice and dark, so over the next few years, we looked at all sorts of celestial objects through that telescope. Craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, Mars, and even sunspots on the Sun with the aid of some filters. But the thing that really got me, that provided me with my own version of Thompson's "curiously intense existential moment", was seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.

We had heard from PBS's Jack Horkheimer, the Star Hustler, that Saturn and its rings would be visible and he showed pictures of what it would look like, something like this:

Saturn through a telescope

But seeing that with your own eyes through a telescope was a different thing entirely. Those tiny blurry rings, visible from millions of miles away. What a thrill! It's one of my favorite memories.

Super Planet CrashApr 21 2014

Super Planet CrashSuper Planet Crash is half game, half planetary simulator in which you try to cram as much orbital mass into your solar system without making any of your planets zing off beyond the Kuiper belt. You get bonus points for crowding planets together and locating planets in the star's habitability zone. Warning: I got lost in this for at least an hour the other day.

If the Moon was only 1 pixelMar 05 2014

Moon 1 pixelNice visualization of the solar system; the Moon is one pixel across and everything else is scaled to that, including the distances between planets. Get ready to scroll. A lot.

It would be neat to do this with a plutonium atom or something. Related: typographically speaking, what's the point size of the Moon?

More than 700 new planets discovered todayFeb 26 2014

NASA announced the discovery of 719 new planets today. That brings the tally of known planets in our universe to almost 1800. 20 years ago, that number was not more than 15 (including the nine planets orbiting the Sun). Here's a rough timeline of the dramatically increasing pace of planetary discovery:

4.54 billion BCE-1700: 6
1700-1799: 1
1800-1899: 1
1900-1950: 1
1951-1990: 1
1991-2000: 49
2001-2005: 131
2006-2010: 355
2006: -1 [for Pluto :( ]
2011-2014: 1243

Last year, Jonathan Corum made an infographic of the sizes and orbits of the 190 confirmed planets discovered at that point by the Kepler mission. I hope the Times updates it with this recent batch.

A young Neil deGrasse Tyson's letter to Carl SaganJan 30 2014

In 1976, legendary cosmologist and astronomer Carl Sagan tried to recruit a 17-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson to Cornell University. In April of that year, Tyson wrote Sagan a letter informing him of his intention to enroll at Harvard instead:

Letter Sagan Tyson

The Viking Missions referred to in the letter were the two probes sent to Mars in the mid-1970s.

Tyson occupies a role in today's society similar to Sagan's in the 1980s as an unofficial public spokesman of the wonderous world of science. Tyson is even hosting an updated version of Sagan's seminal Cosmos series for Fox, which debuts on March 9th. Here's a trailer:

Letter courtesy of The Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive at the Library of Congress, which is chock full of great Sagan stuff. And yeah, that's Seth Macfarlane, creator of Family Guy and much-maligned host of the Oscars. Macfarlane was a big fan of the original Cosmos series and was instrumental in getting the new series made. (via @john_overholt)

An ode to the supernovaJan 29 2014

In a thread about the newly visible supernova in the M82 galaxy, MetaFilter user Ivan Fyodorovich offered up this plain-English explanation of what happens when a star dies and goes supernova. It's a great read.

It will take it just 6 months to burn up its oxygen. Again, when there's not enough oxygen being fused to generate energy to balance the pressure of gravitational contraction, the star begins to shrink, almost doubling the temperature, tripling the density, and causing the silicon (which was produced by the oxygen fusion) to begin fusing, in its own complicated sequence involving the alpha process, with the end result of nickel-56 (which radioactively decays into cobalt-56 and iron-56). This, as before, balances against the gravitational pressure and returns the star to equilibrium.

And now it will take merely 1 day to burn up its silicon. Finally, when there's not enough silicon being fused to generate energy to balance the pressure of gravitational contraction, the star begins to shrink.

This time, however, the core of the star is mostly nickel and iron, and they cannot ordinarily be fused into heavier elements, so as the star shrinks and the temperature and density increase, there is no nuclear fusion ignition of the nickel and iron to counteract the contraction. Here the limit of pressure and density is the electron degeneracy pressure, which is the resistance of electrons being forced to occupy the same energy states, which they can't.

(via @mathowie)

There's a new supernova in townJan 23 2014

A supernova erupted recently1 in galaxy M82, a mere 11.4 million light years away from Earth, which means that it was close enough to be discovered by someone using an ordinary telescope in London and may be visible with binoculars sometime in the next two weeks.

M82's proximity means that there are many existing images of it, pre-explosion, including some from the Hubble Space Telescope. Cao and others will comb through those images, looking for what lay in the region before. It will not be easy: M82 is filled with dust. But the light the supernova shines on the dust could teach astronomers something about the host galaxy, too. One team is already looking for radioactive elements, such as nickel, that theories predict form in such supernova, says Shri Kulkarni, an astronomer at California Institute of Technology. "Dust has its own charms."

  1. Ok, it didn't erupt recently. M82 is 11.4 million light years away, so the supernova happened 11.4 million years ago and the light is just now reaching us here on Earth.

The first video of the Moon orbiting the EarthDec 11 2013

In a fly-by of Earth on its way to Jupiter, NASA's Juno probe took a short movie of the Moon orbiting the Earth. It's the first time the Moon's orbit has been captured on film.

(via @DavidGrann)

A canyon of fire on the SunOct 25 2013

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is getting some really amazing shots of the Sun, including this 200,000 mile-long solar eruption that left a huge canyon on the surface of the Sun:

Different wavelengths help capture different aspect of events in the corona. The red images shown in the movie help highlight plasma at temperatures of 90,000° F and are good for observing filaments as they form and erupt. The yellow images, showing temperatures at 1,000,000° F, are useful for observing material coursing along the sun's magnetic field lines, seen in the movie as an arcade of loops across the area of the eruption. The browner images at the beginning of the movie show material at temperatures of 1,800,000° F, and it is here where the canyon of fire imagery is most obvious.

The level of detail shown is incredible. (via @DavidGrann)

The new hotness: using gravity waves to map the universeSep 30 2013

Light (aka electromagnetic radiation) is responsible for most of what we know about the universe. By measuring photons of various frequencies in different ways -- "the careful collection of ancient light" -- we've painted a picture of our endless living space. But light isn't perfect. It can bend, scatter, and be blocked. Changes in gravity are more difficult to detect, but new instruments may allow scientists to construct a different map of the universe and its beginnings.

LIGO works by shooting laser beams down two perpendicular arms and measuring the difference in length between them-a strategy known as laser interferometry. If a sufficiently large gravitational wave comes by, it will change the relative length of the arms, pushing and pulling them back and forth. In essence, LIGO is a celestial earpiece, a giant microphone that listens for the faint symphony of the hidden cosmos.

Like many exotic physical phenomena, gravitational waves originated as theoretical concepts, the products of equations, not sensory experience. Albert Einstein was the first to realize that his general theory of relativity predicted the existence of gravitational waves. He understood that some objects are so massive and so fast moving that they wrench the fabric of spacetime itself, sending tiny swells across it.

How tiny? So tiny that Einstein thought they would never be observed. But in 1974 two astronomers, Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, inferred their existence with an ingenious experiment, a close study of an astronomical object called a binary pulsar [see "Gravitational Waves from an Orbiting Pulsar," by J. M. Weisberg et al.; Scientific American, October 1981]. Pulsars are the spinning, flashing cores of long-exploded stars. They spin and flash with astonishing regularity, a quality that endears them to astronomers, who use them as cosmic clocks. In a binary pulsar system, a pulsar and another object (in this case, an ultradense neutron star) orbit each other. Hulse and Taylor realized that if Einstein had relativity right, the spiraling pair would produce gravitational waves that would drain orbital energy from the system, tightening the orbit and speeding it up. The two astronomers plotted out the pulsar's probable path and then watched it for years to see if the tightening orbit showed up in the data. The tightening not only showed up, it matched Hulse and Taylor's predictions perfectly, falling so cleanly on the graph and vindicating Einstein so utterly that in 1993 the two were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The moon rocket asteroidSep 26 2013

An amateur astronomer discovered asteroid J002E3 orbiting the Earth in 2002. By observing how the object was moving and measuring its spectrum, it was determined that the asteroid was man-made and probably the third stage of Apollo 12's Saturn V rocket.

In early September 2002, spectral and photometric observations of J002E3 were made at IRTF and Mt. Biglow in an effort to determine whether the object was an asteroid or a human-made. Early observations yielded a possible spin-rate and orientation. Additional spectral observations were completed in May 2003 at the Air Force Maui Optical Supercomputing (AMOS) site. Through the modeling of common spacecraft materials, the observations of J002E3 show a strong correlation of absorption features to a combination of human-made materials including white paint, black paint, and aluminum. Absorption features in the near IR show a strong correlation with paint containing a titanium-oxide semiconductor. Using the material model and the orbital information, it was concluded that J002E3 is a human-made object from an Apollo rocket upperstage, most likely Apollo 12.

Here's a cool animation showing how the Earth's gravity temporarily captured J002E3.

The night lightSep 11 2013

Paul Bogard recently published a book on darkness called The End of Night. Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh interviewed Bogard about the book, the night sky, astronomy, security, cities, and prisons, among other things. The interview is interesting throughout but one of my favorite things is this illustration of the Bortle scale.

Bortle Scale

Twilley: It's astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There's a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That's not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I've been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can't have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it's bright. That's the great thing-the darker it gets, if it's clear, the brighter the night is. That's something we never see either, because it's so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

I can also recommend reading David Owen's 2007 NYer piece on light pollution.

The Sun telescopeJul 02 2013

Turning the Sun into a giant radio telescope through gravitational lensing will take some work, but it is possible.

An Italian space scientist, Claudio Maccone, believes that gravitational lensing could be used for something even more extraordinary: searching for radio signals from alien civilizations. Maccone wants to use the sun as a gravitational lens to make an extraordinarily sensitive radio telescope. He did not invent the idea, which he calls FOCAL, but he has studied it more deeply than anyone else. A radio telescope at a gravitational focal point of the sun would be incredibly sensitive. (Unlike an optical lens, a gravitational lens actually has many focal points that lie along a straight line, called a focal line; imagine a line running through an observer, the center of the lens, and the target.) For one particular frequency that has been proposed as a channel for interstellar communication, a telescope would amplify the signal by a factor of 1.3 quadrillion.

Hollywood Star ChartsJun 20 2013

New prints in the Dorothy shop: these really cool Hollywood Star Charts, available in Golden Age and Modern Day editions.

Hollywood Star Chart

The Modern Day version of our Hollywood Star Chart features constellations named after some of the most culturally significant films to have appeared on the silver screen since 1960 - present day. The stars that make up the clusters are the Hollywood stars that appeared in them.

The chart is based on the night sky over New York on June 16th 1960 -- the date of the first showing of Hitchcock's 'Psycho' at the DeMille Theater. With its new approach to storytelling, characterisation and violence it is seen as a key movie in the start of the post-classical era of Hollywood.

The 108 films featured include those chosen for preservation in the US National Film Registry due to their cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance; Academy Award winners; and a few personal favourites. Films include Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, The Exorcist, The Godfather, Chinatown, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction and Avatar.

You may remember Dorothy from their movie name maps.

Watch the skiesJun 20 2013

Coudal Partners travelled to rural Nevada to capture this 6 hour and 21 minute real time film of the night sky.

Click through to YouTube to watch it in the original 4K resolution, which is much better than even 1080p. They produced the video in conjunction with the Night Sky edition of their Field Notes notebooks.

Meme star chartMay 16 2013

From XKCD, a chart of the memes that various star systems are just hearing from the Earth's light-speed communications.

Pop Culture Star Chart

This is the meme version of Contact's opening credits scene, which is one of my favorites:

It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's a bolide!May 09 2013

Since 861 AD, almost 35,000 meteorites were recorded hitting the Earth but only 1,045 were actually seen falling. This animated infographic is a good way to visualize the data. Bolides is the perfect domain name. (via @DavidGrann)

Video portrait of the SunApr 26 2013

In complete defiance of its parents, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has stared directly at the Sun for the past three years. Here's a video of those three years made from still images taken by the SDO.

During the course of the video, the sun subtly increases and decreases in apparent size. This is because the distance between the SDO spacecraft and the sun varies over time. The image is, however, remarkably consistent and stable despite the fact that SDO orbits the Earth at 6,876 miles per hour and the Earth orbits the sun at 67,062 miles per hour.

The video notes say the animation uses two images per day...it would be nice to see the same animation with a higher frame rate. (via ★interesting)

Trippin' to MarsApr 16 2013

Great article by Burkhard Bilger about NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars.

The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it's sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.

Perfect read if you've been curious about what Curiosity is up to on Mars but needed something a bit more narrative than the mission home page or Wikipedia page to guide you. Also features the phrase "a self-eating watermelon of despair", so there's that. Oh, and here's the Seven Minutes of Terror video referred to in the story.

How well did Galileo observe Jupiter's moons?Mar 13 2013

In the pages of Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo described the four large moons of Jupiter in a series of 64 sketches which looked a lot like ASCII art in the text:

Sidereus Nuncius

Using an online tool for computing the positions of Jupiter's moons, Ernie Wright compared Galileo's sketches to the moons' actual motions.

Galileo moons

Click through for an animated GIF of all the comparisons. Not bad for the telescopic state of the art in 1610. For a taste of how celestial objects actually appeared when viewed through Galileo's telescope, check out this video starting around 7:30. (thx, john)

Earth-sized planet found only 4.3 light years awayOct 16 2012

A European team of exoplanet hunters has discovered a planet about the size of Earth orbiting Alpha Centauri B, which is in a group of stars closest to the solar system, a mere 4.3 light years away. Lee Billings explains the significance.

At a distance of just over 4.3 light years, the stars of Alpha Centauri are only a cosmic stone's throw away. To reach Alpha Centauri B b, as this new world is called, would require a journey of some 25 trillion miles. For comparison, the next-nearest known exoplanet is a gas giant orbiting the orange star Epsilon Eridani, more than twice as far away. But don't pack your bags quite yet. With a probable surface temperature well above a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, Alpha Centauri B b is no Goldilocks world. Still, its presence is promising: Planets tend to come in packs, and some theorists had believed no planets at all could form in multi-star systems like Alpha Centauri, which are more common than singleton suns throughout our galaxy. It seems increasingly likely that small planets exist around most if not all stars, near and far alike, and that Alpha Centauri B may possess additional worlds further out in clement, habitable orbits, tantalizingly within reach.

The boomerang meteorOct 03 2012

While driving a couple weeks ago, I happened to catch a meteor shooting across the sky:

Saw one of the coolest things ever tonight: a meteor burning up in the lower atmosphere. Super bright, exploded at the end like a firework.

It turned out that "one of the coolest things ever" wasn't hyperbole. You see, earlier that day over the UK, a meteor streaked across the sky for about 50 seconds:

And then the one I saw happened about two-and-a-half hours later. Spurred by this unlikely coincidence, mathematician Esko Lyytinen of the colorfully named Finnish Fireball Working Group of the Ursa Astronomical Association did some calculations and determined that the two events were actually the same meteor.

He believes a large body grazed the upper atmosphere, dipping to an altitude of 33 miles (53 km) over Ireland before escaping back to space. Because it arrived moving at only about 8 miles (13 km) per second, barely above Earth's escape velocity, it lingered for more than a minute as it crossed the sky. (This explains why some witnesses mistook it for reentering spacecraft debris.)

Lyytinen says the brief atmospheric passage took its toll. As the meteoroid broke apart, its velocity dropped to just 5.7 miles (9.2 km) per second, too slow to make an escape back to space. Instead, it became a temporary satellite of Earth, looping completely around the globe before reentering the atmosphere -- this time for good. "It looks now that the fireball witnessed 155 minutes later in U.S. and Canada, may have been one fragment of the British fireball, most probably the biggest one," Lyytinen explains.

Boomerang Meteor

These earth-grazers are not common but they do happen from time to time. But a visible Earth grazing meteor that enters the atmosphere twice? Unprecedented. So cool! (thx, alex)

The view from Earth of different planets replacing the MoonAug 01 2012

What if Mars orbited the Earth at the same distance as the Moon...what would that look like? How about Neptune? Or Jupiter? Like this:

See also what the Earth would look like with Saturn's rings. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Landing on Mars next week: the Curiosity roverJul 31 2012

The rest of you can have your Olympics, but the early August event I'm most looking forward to is the arrival on Mars of the Curiosity rover. But NASA has had some problems in the past delivering payloads to Mars, so this is going to be somewhat of a nail-biter. If you haven't seen it, Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror is well worth watching to see the logistical challenge of getting the rover down to the surface.

Curiosity will hopefully land on the surface on Aug 6 at about 1:30 am ET.

How to measure the size of the UniverseJun 13 2012

From The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, a short video explanation of how scientists measure the size of the Universe.

This is science for the layperson done right...PBS or the Discovery Channel would have inflated this into a 30-minute show. (via ★interesting)

Time lapse video of the transit of VenusJun 06 2012

Venus passed in front of the Sun yesterday for the last time until 2117. The transit took almost seven hours but this NASA video shows it in under a minute.

The coolest video of yesterday's annular solar eclipseMay 21 2012

Cory Poole made this video of the annular solar ecplise yesterday using 700 photographs from a telescope with "a very narrow bandpass allowing you to see the chromosphere and not the much brighter photosphere below it."

Cory says: "The filter only allows light that is created when hydrogen atoms go from the 2nd excited state to the 1st excited state." Very cool.

Let's destroy Mercury and build a Dyson sphereApr 09 2012

George Dvorsky argues that if we wanted to, humanity could get a Dyson sphere up and running in a few decades.

The Dyson sphere, also referred to as a Dyson shell, is the brainchild of the physicist and astronomer Freeman Dyson. In 1959 he put out a two page paper titled, "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation" in which he described a way for an advanced civilization to utilize all of the energy radiated by their sun. This hypothetical megastructure, as envisaged by Dyson, would be the size of a planetary orbit and consist of a shell of solar collectors (or habitats) around the star. With this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of the energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. He speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization.

Needless to say, the amount of energy that could be extracted in this way is mind-boggling. According to Anders Sandberg, an expert on exploratory engineering, a Dyson sphere in our solar system with a radius of one AU would have a surface area of at least 2.72x1017 km2, which is around 600 million times the surface area of the Earth. The sun has an energy output of around 4x1026 W, of which most would be available to do useful work.

The downside: we'd have to part with Mercury to do it.

And yes, you read that right: we're going to have to mine materials from Mercury. Actually, we'll likely have to take the whole planet apart. The Dyson sphere will require a horrendous amount of material-so much so, in fact, that, should we want to completely envelope the sun, we are going to have to disassemble not just Mercury, but Venus, some of the outer planets, and any nearby asteroids as well.

At Forbes, Alex Knapp explains why Dvorsky's scheme and timeline might not work.

I emailed Astronomer Phil Plait about this project, who told me in no uncertain terms that the project doesn't make sense.

"Dismantling Mercury, just to start, will take 2 x 10^30 Joules, or an amount of energy 100 billion times the US annual energy consumption," he said. "[Dvorsky] kinda glosses over that point. And how long until his solar collectors gather that much energy back, and we're in the black?"

My God, it's full of galaxiesMar 26 2012

The VISTA telescope in Chile recently took a photo of the sky that contains over 200,000 galaxies. For reference, the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image shows only about 10,000 galaxies (but sees further back in time, I think).

I've spent years studying all this, and it still sometimes gets to me: just how flipping BIG the Universe is! And this picture is still just a tiny piece of it: it's 1.2 x 1.5 degrees in size, which means it's only 0.004% of the sky! And it's not even complete: more observations of this region are planned, allowing astronomers to see even deeper yet.

Here's a full view of the image that looks sorta unimpressive:

Vista Deep Field

You can download the original 17,000 x 11,000 pixel image here (250 Mb, yo) for the full effect. As a preview, this is several levels of zoom in...just a tiny part of the full image.

Vista Deep Field 2

Comet time lapseDec 29 2011

A short time lapse of Comet Lovejoy appearing in the pre-dawn sky over the Andes. Wait for the last sequence...it's the best one.

Lovejoy was only discovered in Nov 2011 by an amateur astronomer. (via ★interesting)

Solar eclipse...by SaturnSep 12 2011

The Cassini spacecraft caught this remarkable photo of Saturn eclipsing the Sun in 2006.

Saturn eclipse

Click through for the big image and the massive image. If you look close can see the Earth in the image, for reals!

Moon cave!Mar 08 2011

Indian lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 has discovered a large cave on the Moon. Aside from the hey, cool, there's a cave on the Moon factor, the other big feature of the cave is its constant and temperate temperature.

Temperatures on the moon swing wildly, from a maximum of 262 degrees Fahrenheit to a minimum of -292. The cave holds steady at a (relatively) comfortable -4, since the moon's weather can't penetrate its 40-foot-thick wall. It could also protect astronauts from "hazardous radiations, micro-meteoritic impacts," and dust storms, according to paper published by the journal Current Science.

(via @juliandibbell)

How much is a planet worth?Feb 04 2011

Over at Boing Boing, Lee Billings has an interview with Greg Laughlin, an astrophysicist who recently came up with an equation for estimating the value of planets, a sort of Drake equation for cosmic economics.

This equation's initial purpose, he wrote, was to put meaningful prices on the terrestrial exoplanets that Kepler was bound to discover. But he soon found it could be used equally well to place any planet-even our own-in a context that was simultaneously cosmic and commercial. In essence, you feed Laughlin's equation some key parameters -- a planet's mass, its estimated temperature, and the age, type, and apparent brightness of its star -- and out pops a number that should, Laughlin says, equate to cold, hard cash.

At the time, the exoplanet Gliese 581 c was thought to be the most Earth-like world known beyond our solar system. The equation said it was worth a measly $160. Mars fared better, priced at $14,000. And Earth? Our planet's value emerged as nearly 5 quadrillion dollars. That's about 100 times Earth's yearly GDP, and perhaps, Laughlin thought, not a bad ballpark estimate for the total economic value of our world and the technological civilization it supports.

Auditioning replacements for the MoonFeb 01 2011

This video shows what various planets (Jupiter, Mars, etc.) would look like in the night sky if they orbited the Earth at the same distance as the Moon.

See also Imagining Earth with Saturn's rings and Helvetica! In! Space!

The new ZodiacJan 13 2011

Early this week, I started seeing a little traffic to a post I wrote way back in March of 1999 called The new Zodiac.

An interesting calendrical tidbit: the Zodiac that everyone is familiar with today is actually based upon the movement of the sun through the constellations of 2500 years ago. Today, due to shifts in the earth's rotation and orbit, the sun moves through 13 constellations, not just 12.

The thirteen constellation is called Ophiuchus. As I'm writing, Ophiuchus is the #1 trending topic on Twitter right now and there are dozens of news articles on the topic in outlets like Time, Huffington Post, and The Washington Post. Patient Zero of this most recent round of new Zodiac reporting is this January 9 Minneapolis Star-Tribune article in which the updated Zodiac is listed as:

Capricorn: Jan 20 - Feb 16
Aquarius: Feb 16 - Mar 11
Pisces: Mar 11 - Apr 18
Aries: Apr 18 - May 13
Taurus: May 13 - Jun 21
Gemini: Jun 21 - Jul 20
Cancer: Jul 20 - Aug 10
Leo: Aug 10 - Sept 16
Virgo: Sept 16 - Oct 30
Libra: Oct 30 - Nov 23
Scorpio: Nov 23 - Nov 29
Ophiuchus: Nov 29 - Dec 17
Sagittarius: Dec 17 - Jan 20

Wikipedia has a slightly different calendar for 2011:

Aries: Apr 19 - May 14
Taurus: May 14 - Jun 21
Gemini: Jun 21 - Jul 21
Cancer: Jul 21 - Aug 11
Leo: Aug 11 - Sept 17
Virgo: Sept 17 - Oct 31
Libra: Oct 31 - Nov 21
Scorpio: Nov 21 - Nov 30
Ophiuchus: Nov 30 - Dec 18
Sagittarius: Dec 18 - Jan 21
Capricorn: Jan 21 - Feb 17
Aquarius: Feb 17 - Mar 12
Pisces: Mar 12 - Apr 19

Which calendar to believe? Who knows, but one thing is for sure: astrology remains a steaming pile of horseshit.

Death spiral and the other top astronomy photos of the yearDec 22 2010

Bad Astronomy lists its top fourteen astronomy photos of the year, including this nearly unbelievable spiral pattern caused by a binary star.

Death Spiral

The object, called AFGL 3068, is a binary star, two stars in an 800-year orbit around one another. One of them is a red giant, a star near the end of its life. It's blowing off massive amounts of dark dust, which is enveloping the pair and hiding them from view. But the system's spin is spraying the material out like a water sprinkler head, causing this giant and delicate spiral pattern on the sky. And by giant, I mean giant: the entire structure is about 3 trillion kilometers (about 2 trillion miles) across.

Big orange ballOct 29 2010

What is this, do you think? Electron microscope photo of pollen? Infrared tennis ball? Mars? The inside of a baseball?

Hydrogen Sun

It's actually a photo of the Sun taken at the H-alpha wavelength by an amateur astronomer.

Gliese 581g, we hardly knew yeOct 13 2010

That habitable exoplanet discovery? Maybe not.

Astronomer Francesco Pepe of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, who spoke Oct. 11 at an International Astronomical Union symposium on planetary systems, reported a new analysis using only HARPS data, but adding an extra 60 data points to the observations published in 2008. He and his colleagues could find no trace of the planet.

Potential Earth-like exoplanet discoveredSep 30 2010

A team of scientists has discovered a potentially habitable planet located about 20 light years from Earth.

The paper reports the discovery of two new planets around the nearby red dwarf star Gliese 581. This brings the total number of known planets around this star to six, the most yet discovered in a planetary system other than our own solar system. Like our solar system, the planets around Gliese 581 have nearly circular orbits.

The most interesting of the two new planets is Gliese 581g, with a mass three to four times that of the Earth and an orbital period of just under 37 days. Its mass indicates that it is probably a rocky planet with a definite surface and that it has enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, according to Vogt.

Gliese 581, located 20 light years away from Earth in the constellation Libra, has a somewhat checkered history of habitable-planet claims. Two previously detected planets in the system lie at the edges of the habitable zone, one on the hot side (planet c) and one on the cold side (planet d). While some astronomers still think planet d may be habitable if it has a thick atmosphere with a strong greenhouse effect to warm it up, others are skeptical. The newly discovered planet g, however, lies right in the middle of the habitable zone.

Sam Arbesman's prediction of May 2011 might have been too conservative. And 20 light years...that means we could send a signal there, and if someone of sufficient technological capability is there and listening, we could hear something back within our lifetime. Contact! (thx, jimray)

Helvetica! In! Space!Sep 09 2010

Back in July, Ben Terrett wrote a post about how many instances of the word "helvetica" set in unkerned 100 pt Helvetica it would take to go from the Earth to the Moon:

The distance to the moon is 385,000,000,000 mm. The size of an unkerned piece of normal cut Helvetica at 100pt is 136.23 mm. Therefore it would take 2,826,206,643.42 helveticas to get to the moon.

But let's say you wanted to stretch one "helvetica" over the same distance...at what point size would you need to set it? The answer is 282.6 billion points. At that size, the "h" would be 44,600 miles tall, roughly 5.6 times as tall as the Earth. Here's what that would look like:

Helvetica, from the Earth to the Moon

The Earth is on the left and that little speck on the right side is the Moon. Here's a close-up of the Earth and the "h":

Helvetica and the Earth

And if you wanted to put it yet another way, the Earth is set in 50.2 billion point type -- Helvetically speaking -- while the Moon is set in 13.7 billion point type. (thx, @brainpicker)

Total solar eclipse videoJul 19 2010

It's not so much a video of a total solar eclipse (the recent one, as seen from Argentina on July 11) as a video of people watching a total solar eclipse.

The sound is key...the reaction is very much The Rapture/End Times/high on ecstasy. If I had a bucket list, seeing a total solar eclipse would be on it. (via bobulate)

Star on planet violence on the riseMay 20 2010

A new Hubble discovery was announced today and it's not for the faint of heart. At least, that is, if you care deeply about mysterious exoplanets 600 light years away.

WASP-12b is orbiting a sun-like yellow dwarf star 600 light-years away and it has such a tight orbit (of only 1.1 days) that it is being roasted to nearly 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. This superheated state has caused the doomed exoplanet to puff up to nearly twice the size of Jupiter.

WASP-12b is in trouble and there's no Willis/Affleck/Bay mission planned to save it. That said, it's going to take about another 10 million years for WASP-12b to be totally eaten, so it has time to cross a few things off its bucket list.

Star on the runMay 18 2010

Today's wild space story is brought to us by Bad Astronomy:

We have a stellar cluster with thousands of times the Sun's mass embedded in a nebula furiously cranking out newborn stars. A lot of them are near the physical upper limit of how big a star can get. The whole thing is only a couple of million years old, a fraction of the galaxy's lifespan. One beefy star with 90 times the Sun's mass got too close to some other stars, which summarily flung it out of the cluster at high speed, fast enough to cross the distance from the Earth to the Moon in an hour (it took Apollo three days). The star is barreling through the flotsam in that galaxy, its violent stellar wind carving out a bubble of gas that points right back to the scene of the crime, nearly 4 quadrillion kilometers and a million years behind it.

Click through to see the pictures and read a more thorough write up.
PS: 70% of the reason I linked to this is because of the title, "Rampaging cannonball star is rampaging."

Pluto-related hate mail from childrenApr 14 2010

The Natural History Museum got a lot of hate mail from children when they demoted Pluto from planet to a resident of the Kuiper Belt, including this one from a fellow named Will:

Pluto hate mail

Planet StyrofoamJan 05 2010

The Kepler space telescope has found a planet with the density of Styrofoam.

Top 10 astronomy photos of 2009Dec 17 2009

One of the better lists out there: the top astronomy photos of the year. From the list, this is a more detailed view of the Martian landscape than we're used to seeing:

Martian landscape

My personal favorite, the photos taken by the LRO of Apollo 11's landing site, made the list as well.

Hubble goes deepDec 09 2009

In 2004, the Hubble Space Telescope took an image called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field; basically astronomers pointed the Hubble toward an "empty" part of space and took a long-exposure shot in the visible spectrum. What they found were thousands of far away galaxies from early in the development of the universe. Now the Hubble has peered even deeper into the universe in near-infrared and captured this image:

Hubble IR Deep Field

Each one of those little specks is an entire galaxy, some only 600 million years old. Here's a zoomed-in section:

Hubble IR Deep Field

Milky Way chromoscopeDec 08 2009

Chromoscope provides views of the Milky Way galaxy in x-ray, visible, microwave, and several other EM wavelengths. This is the view in far infrared:

Milky Way in far IR

Water on the MoonNov 13 2009

NASA announced that it has found pretty hard evidence of significant amounts of water on the Moon.

"We are ecstatic," said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Multiple lines of evidence show water was present in both the high angle vapor plume and the ejecta curtain created by the LCROSS Centaur impact. The concentration and distribution of water and other substances requires further analysis, but it is safe to say Cabeus holds water."

I don't have to tell you about the implications here. Just think of how much you could sell authentic Moon bottled water for.

The Hubble's improved eyesightSep 10 2009

Before and after photos from the Hubble telescope, which recently underwent spaceLASIK to extend the life and capabilities of the prolific telescope.

Hubble Before After

Astronomy Photographer of the Year winnersSep 10 2009

The Royal Observatory has announced the winners of its Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest.

Planet Trails

I had no idea that images this sharp and detailed could be taken with non-pro ground telescopes...particularly these shots of the Horsehead Nebula and the surface of the Moon. More winners listed here.

Update: Jonathan Crowe notes that the gear used to take these photos isn't cheap.

The winner's photo of the Horsehead Nebula (mpastro2001 also had a second photo in the top five) used a 12 1/2" Ritchey-Chretien telescope ($21,500) and an SBIG STL11000 camera ($7,195 and up) with an AO-L adaptive optics accessory ($1,795) on a Paramount ME mount ($14,500). Total cost for just the equipment mentioned here: $44,990.

The solar superstorm of 1859Sep 04 2009

A massive solar flare on September 1, 1859 "caused the most potent disruption of Earth's ionosphere in recorded history".

Within hours, telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires, while the Northern Lights, solar-induced phenomena more closely associated with regions near Earth's North Pole, were documented as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, with similar effects at the South Pole.

(via the browser)

Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 3-DAug 13 2009

Using redshift data, a 3-D animated view of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field was created.

Our three SunsAug 04 2009

In early July, a photographer took a picture of what appears to be three Suns rising over Gdansk Bay in Poland.

Triple Sunrise

The photographer insists that the effect was not created by the camera and was visible to the naked eye. The early consensus in the forums is that the photo was taken through a double-paned window.

We Choose the MoonJul 13 2009

We Choose the Moon is a site that tracks the activities of the Apollo 11 mission as it happened 40 years ago. Nice work. The transmissions from the spacecraft, CAPCOM, and the lunar lander are cleverly published to and pulled in from Twitter.

With all this 40th anniversary stuff, I'm having trouble getting my mind around that the first Moon landing is as far removed from the present as the low point of The Great Depression was from my birth (i.e. the Moon landing, culturally speaking, is Ollie's Great Depression). See also timeline twins. (via jimray)

Sixty Symbols videosJul 09 2009

From the folks who brought you The Periodic Table of Videos, Sixty Symbols is a series of videos on the symbols used in physics and astronomy. (via snarkmarket)

Apollo 11 mission on TwitterJun 17 2009

The scamps at Nature are updating the ApolloPlus40 Twitter account as the Apollo 11 mission happened 40 years ago. (thx, matt)

More extrasolar planetary newsJun 11 2009

Oliver Morton fills us in on the current happenings in the search for planets outside of our solar system. A friend of his clued him in on a technique that could be used to not only discover planets but to determine if those planets show signs of supporting Earth-like life.

When they are passing in front of their stars, their atmospheres are backlit in a way that can make spectroscopic analysis of the different chemicals in their atmospheres comparatively easy: the wavelengths of light absorbed by the various chemicals will show up, in a tiny way, in the spectrum of the starlight. And this is what makes it possible to imagine looking at them for signs of life.

What scientists would look for are planets with unstable atmospheres, which James Lovelock said was an indication of life.

After the extragalactic planet post this morning, Sam Arbesman sent me a link to systemic, a blog dedicated to the search for extrasolar planets written by Greg Laughlin, one of the scientists involved in the effort. Here are two relevant posts. In Forward, Laughlin says we're very close to finding a nearby Earth-like planet:

Detailed Monte-Carlo simulations indicate that there's a 98% probability that TESS will locate a potentially habitable transiting terrestrial planet orbiting a red dwarf lying closer than 50 parsecs. When this planet is found, JWST (which will launch near the end of TESS's two year mission) can take its spectrum and obtain resolved measurements of molecular absorption in the atmosphere.

In Too cheap to meter, Laughlin presents a formula for the land value of such a discovery that depends on how far away the planet is, the age of the star it orbits, and the star's visual magnitude.

Applying the formula to an exact Earth-analog orbiting Alpha Cen B, the value is boosted to 6.4 billion dollars, which seems to be the right order of magnitude. And applying the formula to Earth (using the Sun's apparent visual magnitude) one arrives at a figure close to 5 quadrillion dollars, which is roughly the economic value of Earth (~100x the Earth's current yearly GDP)...

First extragalactic planet?Jun 11 2009

Scientists may have found the first planet located in another galaxy. The evidence is a little sparse but the search technique they're using is solid.

The idea is to use gravitational microlensing, in which a distant source star is briefly magnified by the gravity of an object passing in front of it. This technique has already found several planets in our galaxy, out to distances of thousands of light years. Extending the method from thousands to millions of light years won't be easy, says Philippe Jetzer of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, but it should be possible.

The Moon in HDJun 05 2009

HD video of the Moon from 13 miles above the surface taken by Japan's KAGUYA probe. The probe's orbit has been decaying since it began circling the Moon and will crash on the surface at 18:30 GMT on June 10.

The search for a nearby second EarthMay 20 2009

Using a Chilean telescope, astronomer Debra Fischer is leading a team searching for Earth-like planets around Alpha Centuri, our sun's nearest stellar neighbor.

RV shifts are how the vast majority of extrasolar worlds have been discovered, but only because these planets, called "hot Jupiters," are extremely massive and in hellishly close orbits around their stars. Their stellar wobbles are measurable in meters per second; seeing the much smaller centimeters-per-second wobble of an Earth twin is orders of magnitude more difficult. For the Alpha Centauri system, the feat is akin to detecting a bacterium orbiting a meter from a sand grain-from a distance of 10 kilometers. But by devoting hundreds of nights of telescope time to collecting hundreds of thousands of individual observations of just these two stars, Fischer believes she can eventually distill the faint RV signal of any Earth-like planets. It's simply a matter of statistics and brute force. The planets wouldn't reveal themselves as images in a telescope, but as steadily strengthening probabilistic peaks.

StargazingMar 30 2009

An excerpt from one of Galileo Galilei's letters to Don Virginio Cesarini:

Long experience has taught me this about the status of mankind with regard to matters requiring thought: the less people know and understand about them, the more positively they attempt to argue concerning them, while on the other hand to know and understand a multitude of things renders men cautious in passing judgment upon anything new.

Want more Galileo? The Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence is loaning out their exhibit, Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy to The Franklin in Philadelphia. It features one of the last two telescopes belonging to the astronomer, as well as his notes, paintings, and other instruments, including the cylindrical sundial and Michelangelo's compass.

Quadruple transit of SaturnMar 18 2009

The Hubble Space Telescope captured four of Saturn's moons crossing its face at the same time. (via cyn-c)

HD video by Hubble telescopeDec 23 2008

This HD video taken by the Hubble telescope of Ganymede going behind Jupiter looks completely computer generated and surreal.

Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2008Dec 17 2008

Bad Astronomy has its list of the top 10 astronomy pictures of 2008 up. It includes this video of the moon orbiting the earth, comprised of a series of photos taken by a reassigned space probe.

There has never been a generation of humans in all of history who could see such an event. If you ever get a little depressed, or lonely, or think like there's nothing going on that's interesting any more, think on that for a moment or two. A thousand generations of people could only imagine such a thing, but we can actually do it.

(thx, amos)

How the universe might kill usNov 07 2008

The universe is trying to kill us, let us count the (ten) ways.

Start worrying in a few million years about a cosmic dust collision, when the sun hits the closest spiral arm of our galaxy. Take your chances with an exploding star. Or manage to escape these threats, and you just get an extra 10^35 years before all matter decays anyway.

Bringing Pluto back to the solar systemSep 10 2008

Meg bought Ollie this ball a couple of weeks ago. It's got all the planets of the solar system on it, plus the Sun. But no Pluto. That's right, it's barely been two years since Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status and the toy manufacturers have already made the adjustment.

It saddens me that Ollie has to grow up in a world where Pluto isn't considered a planet, although I take comfort that his textbooks probably won't be updated by the time he's in school. In the meantime, I've Sharpied Pluto onto his ball.

Pluto, back where it belongs

One ball at a time people, that's how we win.

Sunspots in Grand CentralJul 02 2008

Observe sunspots by going to Grand Central Terminal?

The southern wall of the Grand Concourse, facing 42nd Street, has semicircular grills high up, with small curlicued spaces like those in a leafy tree. Many of those spaces act like the aperture of a pinhole camera, reflecting an image of the sun that, when it reaches the floor, will be 8 to 12 inches wide. The smaller grill spaces will produce dimmer but sharper solar images on your paper.

(via 92y blog)

Iconic Hubble photosJun 30 2008

From Harvard Magazine, an appreciation of the work that the Hubble telescope has done since its 1990 launch into orbit.

The "Pillars of Creation" may be the most iconic Hubble photograph ever taken. "Located in the Eagle Nebula, the pillars are clouds of molecular hydrogen, light years in length, where new stars are being born," says Aguilar. "However, recent discoveries indicate these pillars were destroyed by a massive nearby super nova some 6,000 years ago. This is a ghost image of a past cosmic disaster that we won't see here on Earth for another thousand years or so-and a perfect example of the fact that everything we see in the universe is history."

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched intoApr 28 2008

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space 18 years ago and to celebrate, NASA has put up a photo gallery of merging galaxies, galaxies as in love with each other as NASA is with the Hubble. Aww.

A photograph of the newest possible moon,Apr 21 2008

A photograph of the newest possible moon, one that's only about 15 hours old.

Finding the Moon when its slim crescent is still less than about 24 hours past the New Moon phase requires careful timing and planning, a challenging project even for experienced observers. In this sighting, only about 0.8 percent of the Moon's disk appears illuminated.

(via airbag)

The Earth and Moon as seen from Mars.Mar 05 2008

The Earth and Moon as seen from Mars.

psp_005558_9040.jpg

The Hubble telescope recently captured an imageJan 10 2008

The Hubble telescope recently captured an image of a double Einstein Ring.

An Einstein Ring happens when two galaxies are perfectly aligned. The closer galaxy acts as a lens, magnifying and distorting the view of a more distant galaxy. But today astronomers announced that they've discovered a double Einstein Ring: three galaxies are perfectly aligned, creating a double ring around the lensing galaxy.

A list of the top 10 astronomy imagesDec 19 2007

A list of the top 10 astronomy images of 2007, including entwined galaxies and a dying star.

On the origin of the Earth's moonDec 14 2007

On the origin of the Earth's moon and how our planet would be different if we didn't have a moon.

The Moon has been a stabilizing factor for the axis of rotation of the Earth. If you look at Mars, for instance, that planet has wobbled quite dramatically on its axis over time due to the gravitational influence of all the other planets in the solar system. Because of this obliquity change, the ice that is now at the poles on Mars would sometimes drift to the equator. But the Earth's moon has helped stabilize our planet so that its axis of rotation stays in the same direction. For this reason, we had much less climatic change than if the Earth had been alone. And this has changed the way life evolved on Earth, allowing for the emergence of more complex multi-cellular organisms compared to a planet where drastic climatic change would allow only small, robust organisms to survive.

Comet Holmes brightened a millionfold late thisOct 26 2007

Comet Holmes brightened a millionfold late this week and has become visible to the naked eye, even in bright cities. The second chart on this page shows how quickly the comet shot up in brightness.

Using adaptive optics, which corrects for atmosphericSep 17 2007

Using adaptive optics, which corrects for atmospheric distortion, some astronomers have modified a ground telescope to yield sharper images than the Hubble.

Hubble's optics provide greater detail over a wider angle, while the Lucky camera as used at Palomar gives ultra-high resolution only for a tiny slice of the sky at one time.

This New Yorker article on light pollutionSep 14 2007

This New Yorker article on light pollution makes mention of the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, which is a measure of how bright the stars are in a particular part of the sky.

In Galileo's time, nighttime skies all over the world would have merited the darkest Bortle ranking, Class 1. Today, the sky above New York City is Class 9, at the other extreme of the scale, and American suburban skies are typically Class 5, 6, or 7. The very darkest places in the continental United States today are almost never darker than Class 2, and are increasingly threatened. For someone standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on a moonless night, the brightest feature of the sky is not the Milky Way but the glow of Las Vegas, a hundred and seventy-five miles away. To see skies truly comparable to those which Galileo knew, you would have to travel to such places as the Australian outback and the mountains of Peru.

Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest radio telescope,Sep 13 2007

Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest radio telescope, is in danger of being shut down due to budget cuts. Arecibo could run for almost two years for the cost of a single F-16 fighter jet...to say nothing of the small fraction of the cost of the War in Iraq required.

Is the search for aliens such aJun 27 2007

Is the search for aliens such a good idea? If/when we find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, will they welcome us as neighbors, treat us as vermin in their universe or something inbetween? "Jared Diamond, professor of evolutionary biology and Pulitzer Prize winner, says: 'Those astronomers now preparing again to beam radio signals out to hoped-for extraterrestrials are naive, even dangerous.'"

Poor Pluto. First they demoted it fromJun 15 2007

Poor Pluto. First they demoted it from planet status and now it's not even the biggest dwarf planet in the solar system.

Are there many small galaxies, like theJun 06 2007

Are there many small galaxies, like the one just discovered just outside our own, orbiting the larger visible galaxies?

Three trillion years from now, the universeMay 31 2007

Three trillion years from now, the universe will be observably static, the Milky Way alone, and scientists of the day likely won't be able to "infer that the beginning involved a Big Bang".

Closeup videos of the sun. The bottomMay 29 2007

Closeup videos of the sun. The bottom one is especially mesmerizing.

How to survive a black hole. IfMay 23 2007

How to survive a black hole. If you're in a rocket ship about to fall into a black hole, you might live a bit longer if you turn on your engines. "But in general a person falling past the horizon won't have zero velocity to begin with. Then the situation is different -- in fact it's worse. So firing the rocket for a short time can push the astronaut back on to the best-case scenario: the trajectory followed by free fall from rest."

A recently discovered star appears to be 13.2May 14 2007

A recently discovered star appears to be 13.2 billion years old, just 500 million years younger than the Big Bang.

Scientists have found an Earth-like planet orbitingApr 25 2007

Scientists have found an Earth-like planet orbiting one of the closest stars to our solar system. "On the treasure map of the universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X."

For next time around, how to photographMar 05 2007

For next time around, how to photograph a lunar eclipse. Here's a list of upcoming eclipses. (via inmyallstars)

Nice composite photo of the lunar eclipseMar 04 2007

Nice composite photo of the lunar eclipse last night. We missed it because it was a bit cloudy and tall buildingy in NYC last night. (thx, ajit)

Update: Here's another, another, and one more.

On tonight's to-do list: total lunar eclipse.Mar 03 2007

On tonight's to-do list: total lunar eclipse. Totality occurs at 5:44pm ET and will last about an hour. On the east coast of the US, the moon will already be eclipsed when it rises. Best bet for seeing it is Africa, Europe, and the Middle East (see map).

Astronomers are tracking a 250-meter-wide asteroid calledFeb 19 2007

Astronomers are tracking a 250-meter-wide asteroid called Apophis which will come within 30,000 km of earth in 2029. However, it's too soon to tell if that near-miss will pull the asteroid into a collision course with the earth 7 years later. "Lu says the best way to deflect an asteroid is with a 'gravity tractor' -- a spacecraft displacing about 1 metric ton that simply hovers near an asteroid and gently tweaks its orbit."

Chunks of a meteorite that landed inDec 06 2006

Chunks of a meteorite that landed in Canada recently may date from the formation of the solar system, billions of years older than the earth.

Top 100 photos taken by the Hubble SpaceNov 02 2006

Top 100 photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, a singularly talented photographer.

Woo, NASA finally decides to fix theOct 31 2006

Woo, NASA finally decides to fix the Hubble, repairs that will keep it working until at least 2013. "Scientists expect an upgraded Hubble to continue to make groundbreaking discoveries."

They shut all the lights off inOct 02 2006

They shut all the lights off in Reykjavik last Thursday so that residents might see the stars without light pollution. What a lovely idea.

Is "dwarf planet" an ironym? "Pluto isAug 25 2006

Is "dwarf planet" an ironym? "Pluto is a dwarf planet, but we are now faced with the absurdity that a dwarf planet is not a planet." (thx, adriana)

Pluto mnemonic device contest resultsAug 25 2006

After hearing the news that Pluto had been demoted from its full planetary status in the solar system, Meg and I decided to hold a contest to find a new mnemonic device for the planets, replacing the old "My very elegant mother just served us nine pizzas" (among others). The mnemonic could work for either the new 8 planet line-up, the 8 major + 3 dwarf planets, or the old 9 planet arrangement in protest of Pluto's demotion. Thanks to everyone who entered; we received a bunch of great entries and it was hard to choose a winner. But first place goes to Josh Mishell for:

My! Very educated morons just screwed up numerous planetariums.

Josh's protest mnemonic is memorable, topical, and goes beyond a simple description of the shameful proceedings in Prague to real-world consequences. As the winning entrant, Josh will receive a print from HistoryShots...we're suggesting Race to the Moon. Congratulations to Josh.

Now, some runners-up. These came very close to winning:

Many Very Earnest Men Just Snubbed Unfortunate Ninth Planet (Dave Child)

"My vision, erased. Mercy! Just some underachiever now." (Delia, as spoken by Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh)

Most vexing experience, mother just served us nothing! (Bart Baxter)

There were several entries that referenced vegetarianism and veganism; this haiku by Evan Norris was my favorite:

most vegans envy

my jovian silhouette,

not usually

Update: A reader noted that Evan's haiku incorrectly swaps the positions of Neptune and Uranus. Happily, "usually not" works just as well. (thx, peter)

The honorary mention for lack of sophistication goes to Andrea Harner and Jonah Peretti for:

Molesting Very Excitedly, Michael Jackson Sucks Underage Nipples

Best foreign language award goes to Bernardo Carvalho for his Portuguese mnemonic (remember, "Earth" is something like "Terra" in Portuguese so the t fits. And we'll ignore the e too...):

minha velha, traga meu jantar: sopa, uva, nozes e pão (Translated: "Old woman, bring me dinner: soup, grapes, nuts and bread")

And here are some of the best of the rest:

Mollifying voluminous egos means judiciously striking underappreciated named planetoid (Bruce Turner)

Most Virgins Eventually Marry Jocks So Unscrupulously Naughty (Aaron Arcello)

Morons Violate Every Map Just So UFOs Navigate Poorly (Sean Tevis)

My violin emits minimal joy since union nixed Pluto (C.D.)

Maximum velocity earns many joyous shouts, unless not planetary (Scott Tadman)

Thanks again to everyone who entered!

You've got about 4 hours left to enterAug 24 2006

You've got about 4 hours left to enter the Pluto mnemonic device contest. We're getting some great entries, but I know you will come up with something better.

Pluto not a planet anymoreAug 24 2006

Boo, astronomers, boo!!!

Pluto

Astronomers meeting in the Czech capital have voted to strip Pluto of its status as a planet. About 2,500 experts were in Prague for the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) general assembly. Astronomers rejected a proposal that would have retained Pluto as a planet and brought three other objects into the cosmic club. Pluto has been considered a planet since its discovery in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh.

Screw this, what about all of Pluto's mindshare? Now we're going to need a new mnemonic device.

Update: Meg and I came up with a mnew mnemonic device in protest of the Pluto decision:

Man, very erroneous! Moronic jerks shouldn't uninclude neat Pluto.

And you know what that means! Mnemonic device contest! Send in your best mnew mnemonic device for remembering the planets (either for the old 9 planets or the new 8 planets) and you'll be entered to win an as-yet-unspecified prize. All entries must be sent with the subject line "Pluto mnemonic device contest" and must be received by 5pm ET today. I'll publish the winners sometime soon. Contest update: Ok, pencils down, it's 5pm and the contest has concluded. Judging will take place soon and the still-as-yet-unspecified prize will be awarded directly following.

A star is "on the brink" ofJul 24 2006

A star is "on the brink" of going type 1a supernova, something modern scientists have never witnessed. BTW, when you're dealing with stars, "on the brink" could refer to a period of time up to 100,000 years from now. Oh, and if you're the type of person who likes to be a smart ass in the back of the room, you'll note that since the star is nearly 2000 light years away, we may have already missed it. Nerd.

Jupiter is growing another big red spot.Mar 07 2006

Jupiter is growing another big red spot. The gas giant has been told by solar system pals to "keep an eye on it" and "have it checked out" if it gets any bigger.

How do you find extra-solar planets? "IFeb 09 2006

How do you find extra-solar planets? "I think the techniques employed by planet-hunters are pretty cool so the following is a brief primer on how the techniques work and the pros and cons of each."

A relativistic examination of gravity in theOct 11 2005

A relativistic examination of gravity in the galaxy may indicate that the invention of dark matter may not be necessary to solve the not-enough-matter problem. "The motions of stars in galaxies is realized in general relativity's equations without the need to invoke massive halos of exotic 'dark matter' that nobody can explain by current physics."

Update: mjt has doubts about the paper referenced here and notes that there's other evidence for dark matter that is not questioned by the above study.

Scientists want to build an array ofOct 07 2005

Scientists want to build an array of submillimeter telescopes across the whole earth to peer "inside" the massive black hole at the center of the galaxy.

Update: Many people wrote in to correct me in saying that "submillimeter" referred to the size of the telescopes...it of course referred to the EM wavelength. Me brain not working right.

A couple of guys calculated the averageSep 17 2005

A couple of guys calculated the average color of the universe to be turquiose. Then it turned out they had made an error and the actual color of the universe is beige.

Odd story of one astronomer possibly "stealing"Sep 14 2005

Odd story of one astronomer possibly "stealing" another astronomer's discovery of a large trans-Neptunian object. The original discoverer alleges that the usurper looked at a couple of Web sites that detailed the discovery and where the discover's telescopes were pointed...the astronomy equivalent of stealing signs.

Astronomers have determined the precise location andAug 24 2005

Astronomers have determined the precise location and time that Ansel Adams took a famous photograph of the moon in Yosemite National Park and are going to attempt to recreate the shot in September. The same forensic team has previously determined when Van Gogh painted "White House at Night".

Suggestions for the name of our solarAug 10 2005

Suggestions for the name of our solar system's tenth planet from New Scientist readers. Neither Matt Webb's suggestion (Daes) nor this suggestion on LJ (America) are on the list.

"With the aid of a moderate-size telescopeJun 29 2005

"With the aid of a moderate-size telescope and a little imagination, you can revisit the Apollo landing sites" on the moon.

Fun new book from O'Reilly's Hacks series: Astronomy HacksJun 21 2005

Fun new book from O'Reilly's Hacks series: Astronomy Hacks. "This handy field guide covers the basics of observing, and what you need to know about tweaking, tuning, adjusting, and tricking out a 'scope."

Check out the moon illusion for yourselfJun 19 2005

Check out the moon illusion for yourself this week; it's the lowest-hanging full moon in 18 years.

Gaia telescope will map the Milky Way with 1.5 gigapixel cameraJun 13 2005

Gaia telescope will map the Milky Way with 1.5 gigapixel camera.

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