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kottke.org posts about astronomy

The Northern Lights Photographer of the Year for 2020

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2020

The best photos taken of the northern & southern lights in 2020

The best photos taken of the northern & southern lights in 2020

Capture the Atlas has collected some of the best aurora borealis and aurora australis photos taken this year in their 2020 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year competition. I’ve highlighted two photos from the competition above, by Ben Maze & Nico Rinaldi respectively. Maze’s photo, of the aurora australis in Tasmania, is stunning — one of the best astronomy photos I have ever seen. Here’s how he captured it:

Captured in this image is a trifecta of astronomical phenomena that made for some of the best astrophotography conditions one can witness in Australia, namely, the setting Milky Way galactic core, zodiacal light, and of course, the elusive Aurora Australis. On top of this, a sparkling display of oceanic bioluminescence adorned the crashing waves, adding the cherry on top to what was already a breathtaking experience.

Having been out of reception and civilization for over a day, fellow photographer Luke Tscharke and I had no idea the aurora would strike on this night. We’d just heard rumors of a potential solar storm. We could barely contain our excitement when the lights first showed up on our camera’s screens. We later realized we were in the best place on the entire continent to witness the rare show, with Lion Rock being on the southernmost cape of Tasmania and much more cloud-free than the rest of the state at the time.

The colors that our cameras picked up were incredible, too. Rather than the classic green, the display ranged from yellow and orange to pink and purple. When I’d captured enough frames that I was happy with, I simply stood by my camera with my head tilted towards the sky, occasionally swirling my hand around in the sparkling water by my feet. I’m forever grateful for moments in nature like this that show us the true wonders of our planet.

The aurora, the Milky Way, zodiacal light, and bioluminescence all in one image — what a magical conjunction. You can check out the rest of the winners here.

What If the Earth Got Knocked Out of the Solar System?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2020

The Milky Way galaxy may be home to billions or even trillions of rogue planets (planets that don’t orbit stars). In this video, Kurzgesagt considers how the Earth could go rogue (by following a nearby massive star away from the Sun) and what would happen to our oceans, atmosphere, and lives if it happened.

The first part of the video is pretty bleak — “as the days turn dark, the final winter of humanity would begin” — while the second part is hopeful: we’ll be able to predict our ejection thousands of years before it happens and may be able to prepare. In light of the world’s response to the pandemic and climate change, it would certainly be interesting to see if human civilization could get it together to save itself from a cold death in outer space. I have no doubt that scientist could accurately diagnose the problem and supply solutions, but the politics would be a total mess.

Here’s What 10 Million Stars Look Like

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2020

10 Million Stars

Using the Dark Energy Camera at the Cerro Tololo observatory in Chile, astronomers took an image of the stars clustered around the center of our Milky Way galaxy that shows about 10 million stars. Check out the zoomable version for the full experience.

Looking at an image like this is always a bit of a brain-bender because a) 10 million is a huge number and b) the stars are so tightly packed into that image and yet c) that image shows just one tiny bit of our galactic center, d) our entire galaxy contains so many more stars than this (100-400 billion), and e) the Universe perhaps contains as many as 2 trillion galaxies. And if I’m remembering my college math correctly, 400 billion × 2 trillion = a metric crapload of stars. (via bad astronomy)

A 2.5 Gigapixel Image of the Orion Constellation

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2020

Orion Constellation Gigapixel

Amateur astronomer Matt Harbison has been working for the past five years on capturing a detailed image of the Orion constellation. He recently completed the project and the result is this 2.5 gigapixel photo mosaic composed of 12,816 individual photos. From PetaPixel, which has a good writeup of the project, a taste of the challenges involved with constructing this image:

Even after all the images were shot and each panel completed, the finished image did not come together smoothly. “I began in 2015 on a Mac Pro with 2 Xeon Processors and 64GB of RAM. This machine was easily one of the fastest computers of the day, and it carried me all the way up to panel 47 where I believe I hit the RAM limit of the computer.”

It would take five years from that point for technology to catch up to Harbison’s needs as he wouldn’t have a computer powerful enough to complete the task until August of 2020. “The new computer is an AMD Threadripper with 24 cores and 256GB of memory,” Harbison said. “It took a total of 23 hours to provide an astrometric solution for all 200 panels and then an additional 19 hours to merge into the gradient merge mosaic tool.”

What an amazing thing to be able to make from your backyard.

Winners of the 2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year Contest

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2020

2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year

2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year

2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year

2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year

2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year

The winning entries from the Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2020 competition are here and they are spectacular. As longtime readers can attest, I will never get tired of looking at photos of the sky and space.

Above from top to bottom: Nicolas Lefaudeux’s tilt-shift shot of the Andromeda Galaxy, Alain Paillou’s ultra-contrasty photo of the Moon, Kristina Makeeva’s aurora shot, Evan McKay’s self-portrait under the Milky Way, and Olga Suchanova’s 3-month exposure of the Sun’s path through the sky using a beer can pinhole camera. You can read a little bit about how Suchanova got that shot on 35mmc:

If exposure times on the order of minutes seem long, try months. Olga Suchanova (London, UK) used a pinhole camera made from a beercan — and not just any beercan, but a Peter Saville design for the Tate Modern — to record the solargraph below.

She used Ilford paper, exposed for 3 or 4 months at an art residency in Almeria, Spain. The long exposure traces the sun’s path across the sky over multiple days — sunny days make brighter lines, and as spring turns to summer, the sun rises higher in the sky. The fantastic colours — another consequence of the long exposure — are created spontaneously on black and white paper, without the need for development or any other chemical processing.

Scientists Detect Signs of Possible Life on Venus

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 14, 2020

The planet Venus

A group of astronomers have announced that they’ve discovered evidence that there may be life in the atmosphere of Venus.

The astronomers, who reported the finding on Monday in a pair of papers, have not collected specimens of Venusian microbes, nor have they snapped any pictures of them. But with powerful telescopes, they have detected a chemical — phosphine — in the thick Venus atmosphere. After much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation for the chemical’s source.

Some researchers question this hypothesis, and they suggest instead that the gas could result from unexplained atmospheric or geologic processes on a planet that remains mysterious. But the finding will also encourage some planetary scientists to ask whether humanity has overlooked a planet that may have once been more Earthlike than any other world in our solar system.

“This is an astonishing and ‘out of the blue’ finding,” said Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an author of the papers (one published in Nature Astronomy and another submitted to the journal Astrobiology). “It will definitely fuel more research into the possibilities for life in Venus’s atmosphere.”

New Solar Telescope Finds “Campfires” on the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2020

Sun Campfires

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter is not even at its closest distance to the Sun and its telescope has already captured some images that reveal new information about our star, including features called “campfires” that are too small to have been captured by previous instruments. From the description of the video embedded above:

This animation shows a series of close-up views captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) at wavelengths of 17 nanometers, showing the upper atmosphere of the Sun, or corona, with a temperature of around 1 million degrees.

These images reveal a multitude of small flaring loops, erupting bright spots and dark, moving fibrils. A ubiquitous feature of the solar surface, uncovered for the first time by these images, have been called ‘campfires’. They are omnipresent miniature eruptions that could be contributing to the high temperatures of the solar corona and the origin of the solar wind.

The Solar Orbiter can also peek around the back side of the Sun for the first time:

“Right now, we are in the part of the 11-year solar cycle when the Sun is very quiet,” says Sami Solanki, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, and PHI Principal Investigator. “But because Solar Orbiter is at a different angle to the Sun than Earth, we could actually see one active region that wasn’t observable from Earth. That is a first. We have never been able to measure the magnetic field at the back of the Sun.”

As revealing as these first images are, at its closest approach later in the mission the Solar Orbiter’s resolving power will roughly double. Can’t wait to see what else it turns up.

Gorgeous 4K Video of Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 21, 2020

To create this ultra HD footage of the surface of Mars, high-definition panoramas created from hundreds of still photos taken by the Mars rovers are panned over using the Ken Burns effect. The end product is pretty compelling — it’s not video, but it’s not not video either.

A question often asked is: ‘Why don’t we actually have live video from Mars?’

Although the cameras are high quality, the rate at which the rovers can send data back to earth is the biggest challenge. Curiosity can only send data directly back to earth at 32 kilo-bits per second.

Instead, when the rover can connect to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, we get more favourable speeds of 2 Megabytes per second.

However, this link is only available for about 8 minutes each Sol, or Martian day.

As you would expect, sending HD video at these speeds would take a long long time. As nothing really moves on Mars, it makes more sense to take and send back images.

(thx, paul)

The Best Photos of Comet Neowise

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2020

Sometimes I forget what a big space dork I am and then a comet comes along and I’m texting everyone I know to get their asses outside to see the amazing sky thing. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that this is a Comet Neowise fan blog now. After seeing it last night in my backyard,1 I went looking for some of the best photos of it.

My favorite so far is from Thierry Legault (website) of the comet over Mont-Saint-Michel in France.

Comet Neowise

In Focus’s Alan Taylor shared a selection of photographs from around the world, including this one from Mika Laureque.

Comet Neowise

Colossal featured this shot by Lester Tsai of Neowise directly over Mt. Hood. Dang.

Comet Neowise

More Comet Neowise photography can be see at USA Today, NASA, Sky & Telescope, and Astronomy Picture of the Day (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

  1. After seeing it briefly two nights ago before some haze settled in (and only then with the aid of binoculars), I stepped out on my deck last night just after 10pm and bam, it was right there, totally visible with the naked eye. I grabbed the binoculars and got a pretty good view and then got out the telescope. Whoa, papa. Totally mind-blowing.

How to Find Comet NEOWISE in the Night Sky This Month

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2020

If you live in the US and Canada, you might have the opportunity to check out Comet NEOWISE over the next few weeks with a good pair of binoculars or even with the naked eye. EarthSky has the skinny.

By mid-July (around July 12-15), the comet will also become visible at dusk (just after sunset), low in the northwest horizon, for observers in the mid- and northern U.S. How can it be visible in both dawn and dusk? The answer is that the comet is now very far to the north on the sky’s dome. For those at latitudes like those in the southern U.S. (say, around 30 degrees north latitude), the comet is very nearly but not quite circumpolar, that is, it’s nearly in the sky continually, but it isn’t quite … that’s why we at southerly latitudes will have a harder time spotting it in the evening.

Comet NEOWISE

It appears this comet is holding up better than Comet ATLAS did earlier in the year. Here’s a beautiful time lapse of NEOWISE rising over the Adriatic Sea in the early dawn:

And a time lapse of the comet from the International Space Station (it starts rising around the 3-minute mark):

A Decade of Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2020

For the past 10 years now, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has been capturing an image of the Sun every 0.75 seconds. To celebrate, NASA created this 61-minute time lapse video of all ten years, with each second representing one day in the Sun’s life. They have helpfully highlighted some noteworthy events in the video, including solar flares and planetary transits.

12:24, June 5, 2012 — The transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. Won’t happen again until 2117.

13:50, Aug. 31, 2012 — The most iconic eruption of this solar cycle bursts from the lower left of the Sun.

43:20, July 5, 2017 — A large sunspot group spends two weeks crossing the face of the Sun.

See also Gorgeous Time Lapse of the Sun.

Colorful New Geological Map of the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2020

Moon Geological Map

Moon Geological Map

In collaboration with NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the USGS has released the first complete geological map of the Moon’s surface.

This new work represents a seamless, globally consistent, 1:5,000,000-scale geologic map derived from the six digitally renovated geologic maps (see Source Online Linkage below). The goal of this project was to create a digital resource for science research and analysis, future geologic mapping efforts, be it local-, regional-, or global-scale products, and as a resource for the educators and the public interested in lunar geology.

Strange Maps has more information on how the map came to be and what it shows.

The map was created by the U.S. Geological Service’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. In collaboration with NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute, it combined six ‘regional’ maps of the Moon made during the Apollo era (1961-1975) with input from more recent unmanned lunar missions.

This included data on the polar regions from NASA’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) and close-ups of the equatorial zone from the Japanese Space Agency’s recent SELENE mission.

The two images above show the entire map and a detailed view of a single area (which includes the landing sites of 3 Apollo missions) while the video shows a rotating globe version of the map.

Hubble Telescope Watches the Rare Disintegration of a Comet

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2020

Last month, I told you about Comet ATLAS, which at that time looked capable of putting on a real show in the night sky.

Except, since its discovery, the comet has been brightening at an almost unprecedented speed. As of March 17, ATLAS was already magnitude +8.5, over 600 times brighter than forecast. As a result, great expectations are buzzing for this icy lump of cosmic detritus, with hopes it could become a stupendously bright object by the end of May.

It turns out the increase in brightness was fleeting — and possibly due to the comet breaking apart. In the past week, the Hubble Space Telescope has gotten two good looks at the disintegrating comet, identifying that the main mass has broken into about 30 fragments.

Comet Atlas Hubble

Comet Atlas Hubble

“This is really exciting — both because such events are super cool to watch and because they do not happen very often. Most comets that fragment are too dim to see. Events at such scale only happen once or twice a decade,” said the leader of a second Hubble observing team, Quanzhi Ye, of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The results are evidence that comet fragmentation is actually fairly common, say researchers. It might even be the dominant mechanism by which the solid, icy nuclei of comets die. Because this happens quickly and unpredictably, astronomers remain largely uncertain about the cause of fragmentation. Hubble’s crisp images may yield new clues to the breakup. Hubble distinguishes pieces as small as the size of a house. Before the breakup, the entire nucleus may have been no more than the length of two football fields.

Recently Discovered Comet Might Put On a Show

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2020

Back in late December, a new comet called Comet ATLAS (or C/2019 Y4) was discovered by a robotic astronomical survey on the lookout for objects that may strike the Earth. Don’t worry, Comet ATLAS isn’t going to hit us, but it has a chance to put on quite a show.1 It didn’t seem like much at first, but since its discovery Comet ATLAS has gotten brighter much faster than scientists have expected.

When astronomers first spotted Comet ATLAS in December, it was in Ursa Major and was an exceedingly faint object, close to 20th magnitude. That’s about 398,000 times dimmer than stars that are on the threshold of naked-eye visibility. At the time, it was 273 million miles (439 million kilometers) from the sun.

But comets typically brighten as they approach the sun, and at its closest, on May 31, Comet ATLAS will be just 23.5 million miles (37.8 million km) from the sun. Such a prodigious change in solar distance would typically cause a comet to increase in luminosity by almost 11 magnitudes, enough to make ATLAS easily visible in a small telescope or a pair of good binoculars, although quite frankly nothing really to write home about.

Except, since its discovery, the comet has been brightening at an almost unprecedented speed. As of March 17, ATLAS was already magnitude +8.5, over 600 times brighter than forecast. As a result, great expectations are buzzing for this icy lump of cosmic detritus, with hopes it could become a stupendously bright object by the end of May.

But the brightening could also be a sign that the comet is ejecting a lot of material because it’s burning itself out, so grain of salt. But if keeps brightening at a good pace, it could be visible during the day in the northern hemisphere.

If Atlas manages to remain intact, some in the field have suggested it could grow from magnitude +1 to possibly -5. At the brightest extreme, it could be visible even during the day.

The location of the comet is also notable-unlike more recent comets, it will be best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere.

Chuck Ayoub recently captured the comet arcing across the night sky with his backyard astrophotography rig:

Oh I hope Comet ATLAS can keep it together. I vividly remember going outside in rural Wisconsin darkness to see the tail of Comet Hyakutake stretch halfway across the sky. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

Update: It looks as though Comet ATLAS will not be dazzling naked-eye observers later this spring — the comet seems to have broken into 3 or 4 pieces as it nears the Sun.

Comet Atlas Broken

  1. Although I guess Comet ATLAS is good news if you’re looking for signs of the apocalypse too. Pandemic: check. Bright new light in the sky: check.

Mysterious Sources of Light Pollution

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2020

If you look at online light pollution maps, most light pollution comes from cities, but Alex Altair noticed that there are some unexpected sources of light out there as well. For instance, this sprawling site in North Dakota is one of the brightest places in the country despite what Altair calls “an intense lack of urbanization”.

Light pollution in North Dakota

The light in that area is from oil drilling & extraction in the area.

The light pollution comes from the associated gas flares. These flares are deliberate, continuously burning fires, and they convert methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into CO2, a much less potent greenhouse gas.

Intense heat also accounts for an odd light source in Hawaii — you can probably guess, but you’ll have to click through to confirm.

See also Lost in Light: How Light Pollution Obscures Our View of the Night Sky.

The Curiosity Rover Captures a 1.8 Gigapixel Panorama of Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2020

Mars Curiosity Pano

Late last year, NASA’s Curiosity rover took over a thousand photos of the Martian landscape while exploring a mountainside. NASA stitched the photos together and recently released this 1.8 gigapixel panorama of Mars (along with a mere 650 megapixel panorama, pictured above). Here’s a version you can pan and zoom:

And a narrated video of the panorama:

Both panoramas showcase “Glen Torridon,” a region on the side of Mount Sharp that Curiosity is exploring. They were taken between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, when the mission team was out for the Thanksgiving holiday. Sitting still with few tasks to do while awaiting the team to return and provide its next commands, the rover had a rare chance to image its surroundings from the same vantage point several days in a row.

I like how NASA is casually suggesting that the rover is just kinda taking some vacation snaps while waiting on friends.

Linguistic Constellations

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2020

Linguistic Constellations

Linguistic Constellations

Illustrator Jerry M. Wilson has drawn a series of constellations that explore the etymology of the constellations’ names and related words in several languages. So for example, “Taurus” is Latin for “bull”, which is “toro” in Spanish & Italian and “tyr” in Danish. And then you also have associated words like “toreador” (“bullfighter” in Spanish) and “teurastamo” (Finnish for “slaughterhouse”)…a constellation of words related to “Taurus”.

Universe Sandbox

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2020

Universe Sandbox is a interactive space & gravity simulator that you can use to play God of your own universe.

You can create star systems: “Start with a star then add planets. Spruce it up with moons, rings, comets, or even a black hole.” You can collide planets and stars or simulate gravity: “N-body simulation at almost any speed using Newtonian mechanics.” You can model the Earth’s climate, make a star go supernova, or ride along on space missions or see historical events.

I found Universe Sandbox after watching this video about what would happen if the Earth got hit by a grain of sand going 99.9% the speed of light (spoiler: not much). This game/simulator/educational tool is only $30 but I fear that if I bought it, I would never ever leave the house again.

New Solar Telescope Shows the Sun’s Surface in Unprecendented High Resolution Images & Video

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2020

Sun's Surface

Sun's Surface

The National Science Foundation has just released the very first images of the Sun taken with the new Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii. They are the highest resolution images ever taken of the Sun’s surface, showing three times more detail than was possible using previous imaging techniques. Those cells you see in the image…they’re each about the size of Texas.

Building a telescope like this is not an easy task — there’s a lot of heat to deal with:

To achieve the proposed science, this telescope required important new approaches to its construction and engineering. Built by NSF’s National Solar Observatory and managed by AURA, the Inouye Solar Telescope combines a 13-foot (4-meter) mirror — the world’s largest for a solar telescope — with unparalleled viewing conditions at the 10,000-foot Haleakala summit.

Focusing 13 kilowatts of solar power generates enormous amounts of heat — heat that must be contained or removed. A specialized cooling system provides crucial heat protection for the telescope and its optics. More than seven miles of piping distribute coolant throughout the observatory, partially chilled by ice created on site during the night.

Scientists have released a pair of mesmerizing time lapse videos as well, showing ten minutes of the roiling surface of the Sun (wide angle followed by a close-up view) in just a few seconds:

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has produced the highest resolution observations of the Sun’s surface ever taken. In this movie, taken at a wavelength of 705nm over a period of 10 minutes, we can see features as small as 30km (18 miles) in size for the first time ever. The movie shows the turbulent, “boiling” gas that covers the entire sun. The cell-like structures — each about the size of Texas — are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from the inside of the sun to its surface. Hot solar material (plasma) rises in the bright centers of “cells,” cools off and then sinks below the surface in dark lanes in a process known as convection. In these dark lanes we can also see the tiny, bright markers of magnetic fields. Never before seen to this clarity, these bright specks are thought to channel energy up into the outer layers of the solar atmosphere called the corona. These bright spots may be at the core of why the solar corona is more than a million degrees!

Man, I hope we get some longer versions of these time lapses — I would watch the hell out of one that ran for 10 minutes. (via moss & fog)

An Astronomer Explains Black Holes in 5 Levels of Increasing Complexity

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 21, 2020

In this video from Wired’s 5 Levels series, NASA astronomer Varoujan Gorjian explains the concept of black holes to five different people, ranging from a five-year-old to a college student to a Caltech astrophysicist.

A research astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Grojian specializes in — and I’d just like to pause here to emphasize that this is the official title of his research group at JPL — the structure of the universe. Which means the guy not only knows about event horizons and gravitational lensing but stuff like tidal forces (what!), x-ray binaries (hey now!), and active galactic nuclei (oh my god!). Seriously, the guy’s knowledge of black holes is encyclopedic.

Gorjian lost me somewhere in the middle of his conversation with the grad student.

This Striking Image of the Moon Is a Combination of 100,000 Photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 15, 2020

Backyard astronomer Andrew McCarthy has created some arresting images of various objects in the sky, including galaxies, planets, the Sun, and nebulas. Perhaps his favorite subject is the Moon and for one of his first images of 2020, he combined 100,000 photos to make this image of the first quarter Moon.

Andrew McCarthy Moon

Some detail:

Andrew McCarthy Moon

*low whistle* McCarthy uses some digital darkroom techniques to bump up the dynamic range, which he explained in the comments of a similar image.

The natural colors of the moon were brought out here with minor saturation adjustments, but those colors are completely real and what you could see if your eyes were more sensitive. I find the color really helps tell the story of how some of these features formed billions of years ago.

In one of his Instagram Stories, he shows how he photographs the Moon, including dealing with temperature changes over the course of the session — “when it’s cold, the telescope shrinks, and the focus changes”.

McCarthy sells digital copies of his images (as wallpaper or to print out) as well as prints. (via moss & fog)

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, a Giant of Physics

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2019

Prompted by this Facebook post, I have been reading about astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who should be more widely known than she is. From a piece last year in Cosmos:

Cecilia Payne, born on May 10, 1900, in Wendover, England, began her scientific career in 1919 with a scholarship to Cambridge University, where she studied physics. But in 1923 she received a fellowship to move to the United States and study astronomy at Harvard. Her 1925 thesis, Stellar Atmospheres, was described at the time by renowned Russian-American astronomer Otto Struve as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.

In the January, 2015, Richard Williams of the American Physical Society, wrote: “By calculating the abundance of chemical elements from stellar spectra, her work began a revolution in astrophysics.”

Even though she completed her studies at Cambridge, she was not awarded a degree because the university did not give degrees to women. That’s when she decided to move to the US, where Harvard offered greater educational opportunities and a “collection of several hundred thousand glass photographs of the night sky” that Payne-Gaposchkin was uniquely qualified to analyze.

Miss Payne applied the new theories of atomic structure and quantum physics to her analysis of stellar spectra. No one at the Harvard Observatory had yet attempted such an investigation, as no one there possessed the necessary background. She, in contrast, had learned the complex architecture of the “Bohr atom” directly from Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in physics. She had also followed the work of Indian physicist Meg Nad Saha of Calcutta, the first person to link the atom to the stars. Saha maintained that the line patterns in stellar spectra differed according to the temperatures of the stars. The hotter the star, the more readily the electrons of its atoms leaped to higher orbits. With sufficient heat, the outermost electrons broke free, leaving behind positively charged ions with altered spectral signatures.

Building on Saha’s base, with insights gained from a couple of her professors in England, Miss Payne selected specific spectral lines to examine. Then she estimated their intensities in hundreds of stellar spectra. Element by element she gauged, plotted, and calculated her way through the plates to take the temperatures of the stars.

Her groundbreaking work on spectra, laid out in her Ph.D thesis published when she was just 25, puts Payne-Gaposchkin in the same league as some other physics heavy hitters.

Her discovery of the true cosmic abundance of the elements profoundly changed what we know about the universe. The giants — Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein — each in his turn, brought a new view of the universe. Payne’s discovery of the cosmic abundance of the elements did no less.

The Relative Rotations of the Planets

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2019

Planetary scientist James O’Donoghue made this cool little visualization of the rotation speeds of the planets of the solar system. You can see Jupiter making one full rotation every ~10 hours, Earth & Mars about every 24 hours, and Venus rotating once every 243 days. He also did a version where all the planets rotate the same way (Venus & Uranus actually rotate the other way).

See also O’Donoghue’s visualizations of the speed of light that I posted back in January.

Every Kind of Thing in Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2019

This 12-minute animated video is a tour of all of the different kinds of things “out there” in the universe (as opposed to matter and structures smaller than, say, a human being).

This video explores all of the things in the Universe from our Earth and local Solar System, out to the Milky Way Galaxy and looks at all of the different kinds of stars from Brown Dwarfs to Red Supergiant Stars. Then to the things they explode into like white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. Then we look at all the other kinds of galaxy in the universe, blazars, quasars and out to the cosmic microwave background and the big bang. It covers most of the different things that we know about in the Universe.

A poster of the final drawing is available here.

How to Watch Tonight’s Rare Unicorn Meteor Storm

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2019

Astronomers are expecting a particularly strong meteor storm tonight visible from parts of Europe, Africa, North America, and South America that could produce meteors at a rate of 400/hour or more. The storm’s radiant will be centered right around the constellation of Monoceros (that’s the unicorn, which makes this a very 2019 event). Just find Orion in the eastern sky and look a bit down and to the left, right where the red patch is:

Meteor Storm 2019

If you’re on the east coast of the US and the sky is clear tonight, you should head outside around 11:15pm EST. And be prompt…the storm’s peak activity will last 15-40 minutes. I’m going to see if Night Mode on my iPhone 11 Pro can capture any of the action…

See also the time I saw a boomerang meteor explode like a firework in the night sky. (thx, megan)

Neutron Stars and Nuclear Pasta. Yummy!

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2019

The latest video from Kurzgesagt is a short primer on neutron stars, the densest large objects in the universe.

The mind-boggling density of neutron stars is their most well-known attribute: the mass of all living humans would fit into a volume the size of a sugar cube at the same density. But I learned about a couple of new things that I’d like to highlight. The first is nuclear pasta, which might be the strongest material in the universe.

Astrophysicists have theorized that as a neutron star settles into its new configuration, densely packed neutrons are pushed and pulled in different ways, resulting in formation of various shapes below the surface. Many of the theorized shapes take on the names of pasta, because of the similarities. Some have been named gnocchi, for example, others spaghetti or lasagna.

Simulations have demonstrated that nuclear pasta might be some 10 billion times stronger than steel.

The second thing deals with neutron star mergers. When two neutron stars merge, they explode in a shower of matter that’s flung across space. Recent research suggests that many of the heavy elements present in the universe could be formed in these mergers.

But how elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, were created has long been uncertain. Previous research suggested a key clue: For atoms to grow to massive sizes, they needed to quickly absorb neutrons. Such rapid neutron capture, known as the “r-process” for short, only happens in nature in extreme environments where atoms are bombarded by large numbers of neutrons.

If this pans out, it means that the Earth’s platinum, uranium, lead, and tin may have originated in exploding neutron stars. Neat!

A Solar Eclipse from the Edge of Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2019

For a BBC series called Earth from Space, the team at Sent Into Space attached a VR camera to a balloon and sent it up to an altitude of about 20 miles — high enough to see the blackness of space and Earth’s curvature — to take a 360° video of the total solar eclipse that occurred in August 2017. The video above is a hyperlapse of the event while this one from the BBC is slower, annotated, and in full 360° VR.

See also Patrick Cullis’ epic adventure in trying to snap a photo of the total solar eclipse from the edge of space. (via @alexkorn)

The Milky Way Reflected in the World’s Largest Mirror

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2019

Jheison Huerta

I love this photograph by Peruvian photographer Jheison Huerta. It’s a shot of the Milky Way above the Salar de Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia. After it rains, the thin layer of water transforms the flat into the world’s largest mirror, some 80 miles across. Beautiful.

See also The Entire Plane of the Milky Way Captured in a Single Photo. (via astronomy picture of the day)

Behold Our Dazzling Night Sky When the Milky Way Collides with Andromeda in 4 Billion Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2019

This is what our night sky is going to look like in 3.9 billion years:

Milkdromeda

Wow! So what’s going on here? Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers at NASA have predicted that our own Milky Way galaxy and the nearby Andromeda galaxy (M31) will collide about 4 billion years from now. As part of the announcement from 2012, they produced a video of what the collision would look like and a series of illustrations of what our sky will look like during the collision process.1

In 2 billion years, Andromeda will be noticeably closer in the sky:

Milkdromeda

By 3.75 billion years, it will fill a significant chunk of the sky. And the Milky Way will begin to bend due to the pull of gravity from Andromeda:

Milkdromeda

In about 3.85 billion years, the first close approach will trigger the formation of new stars, “which is evident in a plethora of emission nebulae and open young star clusters”:

Milkdromeda

Star formation continues 3.9 billion years from now. Could you imagine actually going outside at night and seeing this? It’s like a nightly fireworks display:

Milkdromeda

After the galaxies pass by each other in 4 billion years, they are stretched and warped by gravity:

Milkdromeda

In 5.1 billion years, Andromeda and the Milky Way will come around for a second close pass, their galactic cores blazing bright in the night sky:

Milkdromeda

And finally, in 7 billion years, the two galaxies will have merged into a single elliptical galaxy nicknamed Milkdromeda:

Milkdromeda

Interestingly, despite the galactic collision and the dazzling view from Earth, it’s extremely unlikely that any individual stars will collide because of the sheer amount of empty space in galaxies.

  1. I mean, assuming there will still be someone or something standing on the Earth 4 billion years from now to witness it. Presumably whoever’s around will have solved light pollution by then? The bigger worry is that according to the timeline of the far future, Earth will be uninhabitable long before an collision occurs (average surface temp of 296 °F in 2.8 billion years). Toasty!

The First Photograph of the Far Side of the Moon from 1959

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2019

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Soviet Union kicked off the Space Race and for the first several years (arguable up until the Moon landing in ‘69), they dominated the United States. One of their “firsts” in the early years was taking the first photo of the far side of the Moon 60 years ago this month.

Dark side of the Moon 1959

Astronomer Kevin Hainline wrote a fascinating account of how the Soviet’s Luna 3 spacecraft took the photo and then transmitted it back to Earth.

First off, Luna 3, the first three-axis stabilized spacecraft, had to reach the Moon to take the pictures, and it had to use a little photocell to orient towards the Moon so that now, while stabilized, it could take the pictures. Which it did. On PHOTOGRAPHIC FILM.

And it gets WILDER because these photos were then moved to a little CHEMICAL PLANT to DEVELOP AND DRY THEM. That’s right, Luna 3 had a little 1 Hour Photo inside. Now you’re thinking, well, how do you get those actual photos back to the Earth?

How indeed? The spacecraft faxed the photos to Earth. A few years later, when the Soviets’ Luna 9 took the first photo on the Moon’s surface and went to transmit it back to Earth, a group in the UK was able to read the signal with a fax machine and the resulting image was published the next day on the front page of the Daily Express.