Friday, December 30, 2011

Top 11 in 2011, 12.30.11

2011 has been a tremendous year for astronomy. It has been a marvelous year for discoveries, yet we look forward to the future as the space program evolves to continue without the space shuttles. Here at the Wetherbee Planetarium, we would like to take a moment to reflect on some of our favorite stories we covered this past year.

11. Diamonds in the Sky, originally published 08.29.11. A diamond planet companion was found orbiting J1719-1438. How is that for twinkle?

10. De Blob, it glows!, originally published 08.19.11. Lyman-alpha blob 1 (LAB-1), a giant, intergalactic green blob, was discovered. No one knows what it is, but it is big, it glows, and it is green. We think that is pretty awesome.

9. The sky is falling!, originally published 09.14.11. The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) took a spiraling descent back to Earth over late September-early October, mostly breaking apart and burning in the atmosphere.

8. A Geriatric Non-Planet, Non-Asteroid…Thing…, originally published 04.04.11. The gargantuan asteroid Vesta was visited by NASA’s Dawn mission in July of this year for a photoshoot rendezvous.

7. “Spinstars” May Have Helped Seed the Universe, originally published 05.02.11. Astronomers working with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) theorized the existence of “spinstars,” possibly the fastest rotating objects in the universe.

6. Gamma Ray Flares in Binary Star are a Mystery, originally published 07.07.11. A binary star system in January and February of this year was found emitting gamma ray flares as a companion pulsar grazed through the Be-class star’s gaseous disc.

5. “It’s Alive!” Zombie Satellite Galaxy 15 Springs Back to Life, originally published 01.04.11. Rebellious satellite-gone-rogue Galaxy 15 came to its senses and rebooted after months of failing to respond to commands and joyriding.

4. Life-Friendly Zones in the Galaxy?, originally published 09.30.11. Astronomers theorized the possibility of a “life zone” or area in galaxies that is most likely to support life as we know it.

3. Hubble Celebrates Millionth Observation, originally published 07.12.11. The Hubble Space Telescope made its historic millionth observation of outer space, a spectroscopic observation of planet HAT-P-7b.

2. The Star of Bethlehem, originally published 12.20.10, reprinted 12.20.11. The staff at the Wetherbee Planetarium delved into possible explanations for one of the most iconic symbols of the Christmas season.

1. Launch Week: Last Flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour Scheduled Friday, originally published 04.25.11. NASA set the launch date for the last flight of space shuttle Endeavour, one of the final missions for the shuttle program.

So, what do we expect for 2012? NASA’s Dawn mission will wrap up its study of Vesta, the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission will make its descent back to Earth after its failed launch, Kepler is confident about the odds of finding an Earth-like planet in the life zone, and the biggest non-event: the supposed “alignment with the core of the galaxy” on December 21. Here’s to 2012!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Star of Bethlehem, 12.20.11

Originally published December 20, 2010

Throughout time, one object in astronomy has continually puzzled astronomers. Only one source in all of history has recorded it, yet it has fascinated the faithful and obsessed the scientific. Like history, astronomy is not repeatable, and the truth of the matter can only be postulated from the evidence that remains. The evidence left for scientists to mull over, in this case, is everywhere but on Earth, and the mystery is a “star” that is no more. We are, of course, speaking of the Star of Bethlehem, mentioned in manuscripts included in the Christian Bible, and supposedly occurred over 2,000 years ago in what we now refer to as the Middle East, west of the Mesopotamian region.

Let us establish the context first. As we mentioned before, the Christian Bible contains the only written records of the Star. While there are multiple allusions to a star throughout the Scriptures, there is one section in particular that directly mentions the Star in question: Matthew, chapter 2.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is e that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him”. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, “in Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, For out of thee shall come a Governor; that shall rule my people Israel.” Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. And when they heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. –Matthew 2:1-10
The wise men, or magi, were elite scholars of their day who practically knew the night sky and the movements of the objects in our solar system (that they could see) like the backs of their hands. Most likely from ancient Babylon, the magi used the skies to help them establish a calendar, know when to plant and harvest crops, how to plot navigation courses using them as guides, and more pertinent to this case, how to make predications or divinations about their current events.

Why would an elite group of astrologers (astronomy, the scientific study of space, had its roots in and was still closely entwined in astrology—the belief that our lives on earth are affected by the movements of objects in space—at this point, and would not emerge as a respected science for several hundreds of years) care about the birth of a poor Jewish boy several hundreds of miles away? The answer can be inferred from the Biblical book of Daniel. Hundreds of years prior, the astrologers were still busy reading the heavens and, more importantly, attempting to make predications based on the movements of what they saw. Whether he was attempting to test the wise men or merely gain a clear answer is not certain, but the Babylonian king at the time, Nebuchadnezzar, demanded of the wise men that they interpret his dream. Realizing their inability to do so using on astrology, they had to admit to the king that all they had been telling the king before was a bunch of lies. In a rage, the king commanded they all be put to death. Daniel,
a young Jewish noble who had been brought captive to Babylon intervened and asked the king to give him time. According to the Bible, Daniel prayed to God for an answer, he pleased the king when he provided an interpretation of the dream, and the king made Daniel the ruler of the wise men. It is more than plausible that Daniel would have shared the Jewish prophecies with the wise men about a Messiah, which is probably why they were able to quote the prophecy recorded in the book of Isaiah to king Herod when they arrived near Bethlehem hundreds of years later seeking the Christ child.

It is also important to note, concerning the magi, that it was the significance they attributed to the sign that they sought, not so much the object itself that fascinated them. Most ancient cultures had their own sect of sky watchers (even the general population, on average, had a working familiarity with the night sky). That they had their own, unique significance for whatever it was they had seen is evident in the surprise and dismay that Matthew recorded the king Herod and his scribes having. Had they missed something important? Had they seen the sign and not even recognized it? One can only imagine the hurried conversation that took place between the Jewish scholars and their king before these foreign magi regarding a sign in their own, native skies.

So we know at least that the magi were expecting some sort of sign to herald the coming of the Messiah. Finding Him, though, was another story entirely. The journey from Babylon, where they most likely began, to Jerusalem, where they met with king Herod, as the crow flies, is a journey of a little over 400 miles. That, of course, would take the wise men straight across the middle of a barren wasteland. More than likely, they would have taken a more northerly course following along the Euphrates and then descending through Judaea, stopping from town to town along their way to Jerusalem. This would have been an even longer course. Granted, it is plausible that they could have gone straight through the desert if they had wished—there is no way to know for sure which route they took, whether just a really long route, or a much longer, really long route. The point of this is that it would have taken them several weeks, even if riding, to make it to Jerusalem. That is a very long amount of time to be “following” an object in the night sky.

So what was the star that sent wise men across the desert to bring gifts and worship the Christ child? Let us examine the candidates from an astronomical point of view. From supernovas to UFO’s, comets, a shooting star, supernovas, and a planetary conjunction, none of these fit exactly.

We can dismiss “shooting stars” without a chance. “Shooting stars” are meteors that burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as they fly past our planet. They only last the briefest of moments, and they fall at regular times throughout the year.There would have been nothing remarkable or noteworthy to the magi about just another meteor, or even another meteor shower. Small and only a few seconds in duration each, they were just another sparkly, streaking speck in the sky.

Supernovas can probably be disqualified as well. Supernovas are stars that, for all intents and purposes, explode and end their lives in violent chaos, creating a black hole and emitting a burst of light hundreds of times their normal brightness. While the light from a supernova would have lasted 3-5 weeks at best, the wise men would have had to have made record time to make it to Jerusalem before the light faded. Supernovas also leave behind trace dust clouds that can be seen today with special astronomy equipment, and also many of them have been recorded in history. No mention was made in history of a supernova occurring at this time. The Chinese called them guess stars, and astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572 made the first scientific records of supernova behavior. The supernova of 1054 AD was recorded by ancient peoples around the world, and is now known as the Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus the bull. No supernovas are recorded in the time frame surrounding the period during which Jesus was born (somewhere between 8 BC and 4 AD), but then again it is very likely that not all novas and supernovas are recorded. Astronomers have recently discovered that a supernova occurred about 400 years ago that would have been visible in Earth’s southern hemisphere, yet it somehow went without being recorded by a single historian (that they know of). In a period so plentiful with scholars and with such a wide network of communication provided by the Roman Empire at the time, it is curious that no written record of a supernova remains. The absolute lack of such a record makes us more likely to lean towards no such observation having been made in the first place.

As for a comet, that theory is laughable. In this day and age, comets are regarded as something unique and special, especially since some comets only pass by earth once and are never to be seen again. Just a few hundred years ago, however, comets were regarded as something to be feared. How much more so for people thousands of years ago who lacked equipment for their closer observation? Comets were often considered heralds of doom and destruction. Even our own Nelson Tift, one of the founders of Albany, GA, had the opportunity to observe a comet in 1835 and recorded some of the reactions of people around the town in his personal diary. He writes:
I saw the comet this evening about 7 o’clock, I think about west 45 degrees above the horizon…it was asserted by some that it would some so near the earth as to set it on fire! & by others that they would come in contact!
If people not even 200 years ago were terrified at the sight of a comet, how much more might have been the people thousands of years ago. Least of all, comets have tails. The wise men referred to the object they saw as a star, and stars simply do not have tails.

Now for the most plausible theory, but by no means a sure bet: a planetary conjunction. A planetary conjunction including Jupiter and Saturn, next to the star Regulus in the constellation Leo the lion would have been highly steeped in symbolism for the magi. The three of them also would have made a great show, but a conjunction is extremely predictable and the wise men, being very familiar with the course of the planets, would have known it was coming for months. Granted, Jupiter is considered a kingly planet and Regulus, the star, is also associated with kings, but it is a far stretch of interpretation to bring the Greek word used in Matthew chapter 2 for the star, astare’, to mean planet. Several months later the planet Venus and the star Regulus overlap, but that is still just a conjunction. In fact, just to have a better understanding of just what the Matthew meant when he recorded his Gospel 2,000 years ago, let us examine the word he used for “star.” When the book was first written, it was recorded in an ancient Greek dialect. Could something have been lost in translation?

The word he used was άστήρ, which pronunciation we mentioned before is astare’. According to the New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, a long respected resource by Bible scholars, the Greek word can either literally or figuratively mean a star. According to E.W. Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon of the English and Greek New Testment, there is a very slim chance the word could also mean planet or even meteor, but more digging into the roots of the word itself back in Strong’s lends more insight. According to Strong’s, astare’ comes from the roots of another Greek word, strōnnumi, which relates the idea of “strewing” or spreading something out in a space, which certainly brings up images of the stars laid out across the heavens. That word, in turn, is connected to another word, stĕrĕŏs, which have more connotations of something that is “stedfast, strong,” or “sure.” So, now we know that whatever the star was, we can rest assured it was not some fleeting or flickering object. It was solidly there.

Stĕrĕŏs, Strong’s claims, is connected to another word, histēmi, and its primary word staō, which can be used “in various applications” either literally or figuratively, to mean bide or appoint, among other things.

The last stop is tithēmi, a word tied to histēmi, from the primary word thĕō, with the widest application as an “upright and active position” of placing something. A curious ending, indeed. It would seem that the etymological trail of the word used for “star” in the book of Matthew, at its deepest roots, means that the “star” really was some object that was deliberately placed, as a solid, enduring object, for a particular appointment. This is what the etymology of that particular word for “star” tells us. Science may lead us to believe otherwise.

Despite all of the theories and conjecture, there really is no way to know for sure. Anything is possible, though, whether you favor a scientific theory or just choose to believe in a miracle. One fact
does remain, though: the star has stood for over 2,000 years as a symbol of the coming of the Messiah to people worldwide. That the imagery of stars to Christmas and the subsequent importance that is placed on stars as shining beacons of hope and light in a dark world is undeniable. Perhaps the star is meant to remain a mystery, symbolic in its very nature of the paradox that was the Christ child Jesus, a person fully God yet fully man, ruler of the world born to a poor teenage girl and a carpenter in a stable among the filth and stench of pack animals. A beacon of hope that defies all reason, it is only fitting that it ushered in the single most controversial figure in history.

Information credit: The Bible, E.W. Bullinger (1999), the New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (2003).

Friday, December 16, 2011

Phobos-Grunt a failure, 12.16.11

Russian aerospace company NPO Lavochkin is expected to make the announcement soon that Phobos-Grunt, an unmanned probe mission to Mars, has failed. The probe launched early last month and its last booster rocket failed to go off, leaving the probe stuck in Earth orbit with a full tank of fuel.

Image credit:
The probe’s intended destination was the red planet’s moon Phobos. Its mission was to collect rock and soil samples.

The probe launched early on November 8 of this year. All seemed to be well as it reached Earth orbit, but the last booster rocket failed to fire, which would have propelled the probe out of orbit and on track towards Phobos. Repeated contact attempts have been made to make the last booster rocket fire, but it failed to respond. In its current state, the probe is too dangerous to approach with another vessel to repair it, so the mission is a bust.

Russian officials claim the probe should not pose a threat to humans when it descends to Earth, and say most of it should burn up as it falls.

Information credit:

Friday, December 9, 2011

Deep space planet confirmed in "life zone," 12.09.11

A planet roughly 2.4 times the size of Earth has been discovered orbiting its star in the “life zone” or “habitable zone.” Found by NASA’s Kepler mission, the planet is in a solar system approximately 600 light-years away.

Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
The “life zone” is the sort of “sweet spot” around a star that is neither too hot nor too cold for water to exist in its liquid form, and consequently, for life as we know it to thrive on any planets that may be in that region. The star in the system is G-class star, like our own, but a little bit smaller, so the life zone around it is about the same region as the distance between the orbits of Venus through Mars, as illustrated in this diagram here.

The planet, thus far only referred to as Kepler 22b, is almost 2 1/5 times the size of Earth, and orbits its star a bit closer than Earth does, but having passed this first investigatory hurdle, astronomers will be studying it even more closely to try to determine what manner of planet it may be. As of yet, they do not know whether it is terrestrial (made of rock and soil like Mercury through Mars), covered in liquid (like Uranus and Neptune), or composed of gaseous clouds (like Jupiter and Saturn).

Credit: NASA.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Amateur astronomer captures photo of young solar system, 12.02.11

An amateur astronomer in New Zealand has managed to take and clean up a photograph of a new solar system in the works. The stunning part? He was doing it with his own, homemade, 10-inch telescope. That’s some pretty good aim!

The system is Beta Pictoris, 63 light-years away in the southern hemisphere. The system had been photographed a number of years ago by professional astronomers, but the fact that Rolf Olsen managed to first of all find the system, then photograph it and do such a good job that the “circumstellar disc” was visible, is astounding.

The circumstellar disc is the cloud of dust and debris orbiting around the star. Eventually, it should turn into planets and various other satellites. Olsen was able to expose it using a very long, detailed set of instructions that had been published in a study on the system. That he was able to achieve such good results shows again that anyone can make a contribution to astronomy if they wish.

“There certainly could be a lot of interesting things that professional astronomers have missed, that amateur astronomers could clue us in on,” wrote Bryce Croll, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an email to about Olsen’s achievement. So, hang in there, sky watchers! You just might be the next one to have a breakthrough.

Credit: Image credit: Rolf Wahl Olsen.

Friday, November 25, 2011

For now, neutrino calculations holding, 11.25.11

Scientists at Cern have validated some of their calculations regarding neutrinos, tiny particles that they think can travel faster than light. We say that with some uncertainty, though, because as soon as the Opera (Oscillation Project with Emulsion [T]racking Apparatus) collaboration published their findings regarding the particles, physicists started desperately trying to find as many flaws in the experiment as possible.
Why is that? Well, physics, and all the disciplines that rely on it, have many of their baseline calculations and formulas based on the idea that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This is especially important to astronomers, because calculating how long light has to travel before we are able to see it from Earth is one of the main ways they figure out approximately how old stars are and how far away they are in space. If all of those calculations are suddenly proved fundamentally flawed, well…everything would have to change. If the findings at Cern are eventually proven true, most of the scientific community will have to undergo a complete overhaul in the way they think and conduct their calculations.
As soon as the earliest results were published in September (with some trepidation—the scientists conducting the experiments are practically begging other facilities around the world to do what they can to try to test the experiments to see what sort of results they get), a laundry list of possible flaws with the experiment has started to form. One of the largest problems has just been tested, and the original results have held.
The idea was that the bunches of neutrinos that are tested would have produced different results based on their string size, or the number of neutrinos that are used at one time during the experiment. To test this, the scientists at Cern ran their experiments at least 20 more times with smaller test sizes, and the original results have still held true. There are still many, many more experiments that need to be conducted to be able to say once and for all that there are some things that can travel faster than light, but for now, one more step has been made in that direction.
 Credit: BBC News Science & Environment.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Scientists re-thinking theories for life on Mars, 11.04.11

New interpretations of data from NASA and European orbiters are beginning to come together, suggesting that the possibility for life on Mars is not so strong on the surface, but much more promising for the subsurface directly underground.

This interpretation comes after researchers have discovered clay and certain types of minerals in the Martian subsurface. Clay can only be formed through the interaction of liquid water with rock, so finding clay under the surface suggests a much more consistent liquid presence than it does for the surface, which usually only has frozen ice in its craters and at its poles.

Image credit:
One of the minerals that they have discovered that supports their new theories is a rather icky-colored stone called prehnite. Prehnite can only form in areas where the temperature is over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, so the presence of prehnite and the abundant clay in the subsurface suggests the likelihood for strong hydrothermal (hot water) activity beneath the Martian surface.

That being the case, it is not so strange to think about the likelihood of finding life on Mars. Based on earth’s own geothermal and hydrothermal activity, scientists know it is possible for various kinds of life (usually bacteria and all manner of simple microbes) to live in their own environments, underground, away from the light of the sun.

So, is it time to chuck the rovers and reach for a shovel instead? Not necessarily. More research still needs to be done. There is also more than enough evidence left on the surface of Mars for astronomers to know there was liquid water there at times, and there is still plenty of ice left in some places, so the possibility for life is still there. The idea of finding bacteria on a planet puts the phrase “finding a needle in a haystack” to shame, though. Knowing where to look that is the hard part.

Credit: NASA.

Telescope solves ancient historical mystery, 10.28.11

Astronomers recently used NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to unravel a 2,000 year old mystery. In 185 A.D., Chinese sky watchers made note of something they noticed in the sky. They called it a “guest star” at the time, and continued to make notation of its visibility for about the next 8 months. Astronomers had had ideas about what the object could have been, but now using the power of science, they can peer into the depths of space in the area the Chinese had noted and see what may be left over from this mysterious “guest star.” Their findings? A supernova.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.
This particular supernova is a Type 1a supernova. Supernovae happen when a star dies, either by imploding in on itself as its core collapses, creating a black hole, or bursting outward, as was the case with this supernova. However, scientists who had observed it before had been puzzled because the debris left over is far larger and more spread out than a supernova of that age should be.

With more observation they discovered the star actually exploded inside of some sort of shell of open space. This allowed the material that was ejected from the star as it exploded to travel unimpeded for great distances, much further than it would have traveled before. At any rate, it is an impressive sight. We can only wonder what the Chinese would have said about their “guest star” all those years ago if they could have seen it up close.

Credit: NASA.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The sky is falling...again, 10.21.11

Not only is another meteor shower coming this way, but yet another gargantuan satellite is making its way back to Earth this weekend.

The Orionids meteor shower began about three or four days ago, and will continue to build until its climax on the morning of October 22nd, just before sunrise. Called the “Orionids” because the meteors seem to be falling out of the constellation Orion the hunter, the bright streaks and fireballs are actually created by detritus from Halley’s comet, burning up in our atmosphere.

Like a trail of fairy dust behind the Pigpen of fairies, the comet leaves a long, filthy (but sparkly—it is mostly ice) trail behind it. When Earth passes through the trail of dirt, dust, and ice, the resulting friction created by the pieces scrubbing against our atmosphere causes them to burn up.

Do not expect the meteor shower to blow you away, though. The Orionids is only expected to produce about 20-25 meteors per hour. In the past, the Orionids have also been very dim, so do not expect to see any if you are in an urban area with lights on at night. The best place to observe a meteor shower (or anything in astronomy, really), is to find a safe, dark, wide-open field in a rural area. The less light from nearby cities and towns you see on the horizon, the better. The Orionids are perfect for a nice calm, quiet evening of sky watching.

You may also want to keep an eye out for ROSAT, the 2.7-ton German X-ray satellite. Remember UARS, which fell to its death in the Pacific Ocean late last month? Well, it seems another one of the mechanical behemoths has bit the dust and is in the process of winding its way down to Earth.

Unlike UARS, which mostly broke up or burned up in our atmosphere, ROSAT is expected to have over 1 ton of its pieces survive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. While the chances for getting hit by it are higher than they were for UARS, they are still only about 1 in 2000. It may look great if you happen to catch a glimpse of it through a nice pair of binoculars, but the odds are far against it doing any real damage.

While it is impossible at this point to predict exactly when or where ROSAT will make its final resting place, scientists do guesstimate this it should make landfall over the weekend, either Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. The best predictions they can manage are about 5 or 6 hours before it hits the ground.


Finding the dark with light, 10.21.11

NASA scientists are using the Hubble Space Telescope to detect dark matter using light. This may sound odd, but the researchers found out it is possible.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScl), and the CLASH Team.
The principle that allows it to work is something called gravitational lensing, an effect predicted by Einstein in the early part of the 20th century. The idea is that when a large object with considerable mass passes in front of a light source, it causes the light to focus temporarily as it is literally pulled a little bit towards the object, thus making the light appear a little brighter for a time.
On the galactic scale, we do not see it quite so much as a flare, but rather we see bends or curves in the light. In this image here, you can clearly see some areas of light that are distorted, seeming to bend around nothing. That “nothing,” the researchers have determined, is dark matter, the as of yet enigmatic stuff that is proving very difficult to study. The vast majority of things that researchers have learned about dark matter can only be gleaned from its seeming effect on everything else. It is something they cannot see and cannot reach yet due to the current limitations of our space travel programs. Hopefully with enough studies they can determine what it is. As dark matter makes up the bulk of the universe’s mass, scientists are very eager to figure it out.
For more information please call 229-432-6955. Credit: 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Life-friendly zones in the galaxy? 09.30.11

With all the changes happening in the sciences lately, it is no small wonder that astronomers are beginning to re-think the “big picture” in their theories. For centuries, humans have wondered about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, and since the advancement of space technology, the hunt has become ever more insistent. Yet, with each little hint of the possibility of life, one or more factors always seem to be missing. Some astronomers are now beginning to reformulate their search plans and not look just for other solar systems elsewhere, but try to determine if there are specific areas throughout our galaxy that are more life-friendly.
In every solar system, depending on the class of the central star(s), there is a certain distance away from the center that is the most temperate area for supporting life as we know it. This zone is usually referred to by astronomers as the life zone, “habitable zone,” or even the “Goldilocks zone,” because it is not too hot or too cold. For instance, in our solar system, Mercury and Venus are much closer to our own sun, and as such experience much higher average temperatures year-round. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are all much, much further away from the sun than Earth, and are all much colder. Astronomers are still very hopeful about the possibility of life on Mars.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/CXC/STScI.
So, if there is a specific life zone in every solar system, does the same rule apply for galaxies? Some astronomers are beginning to believe so, arguing that the centers of galaxies tend to be much more metal-heavy, which is much more conducive to planetary formation, so the odds are in favor of a planet forming with life on it. The flipside of the argument, however, is that the centers of galaxies also tend to be home to more supernovae. While all the constant light would be annoying, any life on planets in the galactic center would have to worry about much more serious problems like ozone depletion and literally having the planet fried by all manner of ray emissions from the multitude of stars. For now, the researchers will continue to scan the center of our own galaxy (pictured here) for more evidence and see how their theories unfold.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Unseating Einstein, 08.24.11

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider research facility in Cern have made a discovery that, if proven true, would literally be the greatest scientific discovery of the last 100 years. The researchers are asking other facilities around the world to take their findings and test them to see if they glean the same results. The shocking discovery? They have made the unsettling observation that a certain type of particle is capable of travelling faster than the speed of light.
The particles in question are neutrinos, electrically neutral, weakly-interacting subatomic particles. They can often be found in the emissions from our own star, the sun. They tend to stream directly through things without making hardly any impact, which, with more study, could be the key to something big.
Ever since Albert Einstein published some of his physics theories in 1905 on the basis that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, physics and astronomy calculations have grown and matured around that idea. For the past three years though, Cern has conducted various experiments with over 16,000 of the neutrino particles, and the stunning part is the it was such a simple time of travel calculation. If the results from Cern are confirmed, though, everything will change. Never have scientists ever been so nervous about asking their peers to check their math.
Big deal, you say, so the things move fast. What does this mean for me? Remember that big thing we mentioned earlier that could come about because the neutrinos pass through material with little to no interaction? Scientists are actually hypothesizing that the particles are able to travel as fast as they are because they are actually travelling in between different dimensions. Yeah, we said it; different dimensions. As in, alternate realities. The kind of stuff you only wonder about and see in science fiction. If these findings are confirmed, not only will scientists finally have something to work with to get us started on a path for lightspeed space travel, but travel to alternate dimensions.
If you remember from grade school, many of the “educated” hundreds of years ago believed that everything in our solar system orbited around Earth. Then, more observations were made and the theory was put forward that maybe we weren’t the center of it all, that maybe we orbit the Sun instead. There was huge uproar, some people were ostracized from society and the scientific community, the church had a tendency to call such theories heresy…you get the picture. Eventually, though, people opened up their minds just a bit and started to look at the situation with that little “what if” bug nibbling at the back of their minds, and eventually people came around and began to see how very silly the other idea that they had followed for centuries had been. While it is not confirmed yet – and even the scientists who made the observations are skeptical about it – IF it is confirmed, this discovery would be on that same scale. It would rock the world. So, sit back and grab onto something while some serious math gets done. We’ll keep you posted for tremors.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The sky is falling! 08.15.11

*UPDATE: NASA is now saying that they expect UARS to make impact at some point late tonight or early tomorrow morning. While it is impossible to pinpoint its exact crash site now, they estimate it will be somewhere off the coast of the Philippines. For NASA’s information about the UARS mission, visit:

The sky is falling! Well, not exactly. Something in the sky is falling, though. A 13,000-pound research satellite, to be precise. The word from NASA is to keep an eye out for falling debris.

UARS. Image credit:
UARS, or the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, has said its farewells to space and will be returning to Earth. NASA is slightly nervous about the giant research satellite, though, because it will be a true free-fall back to earth. What is more: they have no idea where the pieces that survive re-entry back into earth’s atmosphere will land.

According to NASA, they estimate about 1,000 pounds of the satellite will crash back into Earth, but will probably break up in the atmosphere and descend in a rain of debris that could cover an area about 500 miles in length.

As of right now, they cannot predict where or even when the remains of the satellite should make it back to Earth, but should be able to begin calculating it’s projected landfall about four days before it lands. They estimate it should be “landing” at the end of this month, or in early October. As it becomes closer and closer to Earth, they will attempt to give proper warning about the projected landing area.

According to NASA, no injuries have ever been reported due to re-entering space program equipment, and only minor property damage has ever been reported.

Just the same, we recommend keeping your eyes and ears open just in case UARS decides to land near you.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Packing power, 09.07.11

NASA is working on a power source that could revolutionize space exploration. A nuclear reactor the size of a regular suitcase, it is strong enough to power eight average US homes, yet portable enough to travel in small, compact space craft. Designed by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, the generator is not actually in production yet, but given that its true value is proven, it could be venturing outside Earth’s atmosphere in a few decades or less.
A concept lunar space station. Image credit:
So, what could such a generator be used for? More dependable that solar power panels, the generators would be smaller, more durable, much easier to repair, and portable. They could be used on the “dark side” of whatever planet they happened to be stationed on (yes, we are dreaming about space stations on the Moon or Mars). They would also generate far more power than a solar cell of comparable size.
Wait a minute, what about nuclear meltdown? In light of disasters light Chernobyl and the recent leaks in earthquake and tsunami-wrecked Japan, would we really want to rely on nuclear reactors? Well, it turns out the suitcase-sized reactors would be much more stable than the monster, factory-sized reactors located throughout our nation and across the world. According to James Werner, the lead researcher on the project, “There would be no danger of meltdown… Because of the low power level…if we did have a situation where the power failed, the reactor itself would just shut down.”
Of course, one also has to take into consideration what sort of waste these things would generate, how often they would have to be refueled, and more. But, in light of the massive boost in exploration power they could provide (pun intended), such details seem to be exactly that: details. For now, researches are bent on thorough testing to see if these power packs are viable options.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Diamonds in the sky, 08.29.11

Apparently stars can turn into diamonds—entire planets of diamond. One such planet has just recently been discovered.
*Not an actual photograph, sorry, just in case the orbital track didn't give it away :)
This is just an artist's concept of the system.
According to Matthew Bailes of the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, in 2009 a millisecond pulsar was detected in the constellations Serpens, but its elusive orbiting neighbor had yet to be spotted until recently.
Let us back up for a moment first. We have talked about pulsars a lot in the past, but what is a millisecond pulsar? Like a regular pulsar, it rotates very quickly. Millisecond pulsars leave normal pulsars in the dust, though. This particular millisecond pulsar, designated J1719-1438, completely rotates over 10,000 times in a minute. It is only 12 miles in diameter, but it is still 1.4 times more massive than our own sun.
The entire system is so compact, that the distance for the pulsar at which the diamond planet orbits is still actually within the measure of our own sun’s diameter! The astronomers studying the system believe that the diamond planet used to be a white dwarf star, and that it went through as much fusion as it could until all that was left at its center was diamond. 
So how big is this galactic diamond? Oh, only 37,300 miles in diameter. Yeah, that is five times the size of Earth, people—a solid diamond five times the size of Earth! We can only imagine what other literal treasures the cosmos holds in store.
Credit: NASA. Image credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dwarf planets' fifth birthday, 08.25.11

Five years ago yesterday, the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to its “dwarf planet” classification. Here at the Wetherbee Planetarium, that is the single most-heard question we are asked: why? Was something discovered about Pluto that made astronomers second-guess it? Did something happen to it? Not at all. It is the other things around Pluto that made the IAU change their minds about what they classify as a planet, though.
As of August 24, 2006, the definition of a planet by the IAU is: “A body that circles the sun without being some other object’s satellite, is large enough to be rounded by its own gravity (but not so big that it begins to undergo nuclear fusion, like a star) and has “cleared its neighborhood” of most other orbiting bodies.” On the first point, Pluto does orbit the sun. On the second point, as far as we can tell it is relatively round in shape. When NASA’s New Horizons probe cruises by in 2015 we will have close up images of the cold planet for the first time in history and we will know for sure what it is like. On the last point, however, Pluto is not exactly a space hog. It rubs elbows –figuratively speaking—with several other objects in our solar system in a region designated as the Kuiper (pronounced ky-per) Belt, some of which are about the same size as Pluto. 
Pluto is only about 1,455 miles in diameter and only 0.2% as massive as Earth. It is tiny, that much is certain. But, it does have at least four known moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, and the recently discovered P4 (a dismally boring name, we know—NASA presumes will probably be renamed Cerberus in the near future). In orbit around the sun with Pluto are several other objects about the same size as or smaller. Eris is one such object, and was the turning point discovery that led the IAU to re-think their definition of a planet. Another is Haumea, the rapidly spinning dwarf planet that astronomers guess may have radioactive elements in its core. Another is Makemake (pronounced mah-kay mah-kay), a dwarf planet about ¾ the size of Pluto.
Dwarf planets are not just limited to the Kuiper Belt, though. Ceres, another such object, is actually orbiting in our asteroid belt, between the planets Mars and Jupiter.
Each of these objects misses the criteria for a planet in some way, usually in clearing its neighborhood of other objects. They are massive enough to form into relatively spherical shapes and they do orbit the sun, they just usually are not really big enough to push their way through the crowd and clear their own path.
Credit: NASA.

Monday, August 22, 2011

De blob, it glows! 08.19.11

Lyman-alpha blob 1 (LAB-1) is a blob. Not only that, but it is a giant, intergalactic green blob—a giant, intergalactic, green blob that can only be studied with extremely large telescopes, like the (aptly named) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the mountains of Chile. This is what LAB-1 looks like through the VLT:
Very green, isn’t it? Believe it or not, but it is actually glowing green. That is no filter, no infrared exposure, no x-ray…nothing special done to the photograph. The thing is a glowing, green blob. That is only part of what makes it so fascinating, though.
According to the astronomers who have been studying it with the VLT, the LAB-1 is polarized in a very odd way. That polarization indicates something about what is inside of the blob: “We have shown for the first time that the glow of this enigmatic object is scattered light from brilliant galaxies hidden within, rather than the gas throughout the cloud itself shining,” said lead author Matthew Hayes at the University of Toulouse.
So, LAB-1 is full of galaxies. In case you don’t realize just how huge this blob is, astronomers calculate it is at least 300,000 light years across. That is more than 11 times the distance of our solar system from the center of just our own Milky Way galaxy. This blob is a monster… a creepy, glowing, green monster.
Astronomers are also very interested in LAB-1 because it may literally shed some light on how galaxies are formed. “For a long time now, astronomers have watched stars being born in places like the Great Orion Nebula. Now, it looks like we’ll be able to see where galaxies are born, an exciting prospect,” says Jim Friese of Thronateeska Heritage Center.
 Credit and image credit: NASA.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Liquid water on Mars? 08.08.11

New observations by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have produced promising evidence that during certain seasons, Mars may actually have liquid water flowing across its surface.
NASA is all a-twitter due to some new images gathered that show “dark, finger-like features” that “appear and extend down some Martian slopes during late spring through summer, fade in winter, and return during the next spring.” That the features recur every cycle-through of the seasons indicate that they are not merely anomalies, but rather something like the swelling of streamlets and rivers here on Earth from thawed snow and ice.
Any liquid water to be found on Mars would most likely be very salty or “briny,” though, according to NASA. Based on what is known at this point of the surface chemistry of Mars, any water to be found on the surface would have a sodium concentration comparable to our own oceans. This lowers the freezing point of the water, making it possible for it to exist in a liquid form in Mars’ sometimes lower surface temperatures.
There are also markings in the soil and rock that are indicative of flowing water.
NASA astronomers are not 100% certain about the find as of this point, however. Spectroscopy scans made by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) do not reveal any liquid water.  According to Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, “the flows are not dark because of being wet…they are dark for some other reason.” The flows he was referring to were the lines in the soil and rock, and the dark lines seen by the Reconnaissance Orbiter. If the ground is completely dry and does not have little streams of brine in it, then it becomes a new mystery that it would lighten just in those areas during the winter.
According to NASA, this is the closest they have ever come to finding liquid water on Mars, and makes it an even more ideal place to visit by astronauts for study.

Credit: NASA.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Playing tag with a "trojan," 08.05.11

Astronomers have recently discovered that Earth is not alone. It seems our planet is being followed, or our Earth is following something else, depending on how you look at it. Earth’s orbit is being shared by an object that astronomers refer to as a “trojan” asteroid.
Thanks to data gathered from the NEOWISE project, astronomers have discovered that there is an asteroid roughly 1,000 feet in diameter that shares almost the exact same orbit as Earth as it travels around the sun. While the asteroid, dubbed 2010 TK7, does at times travel above, below, or slightly to the side of Earth’s orbit, for the most part it seems as if Earth and the asteroid are following in each other’s tracks. 2010 TK7 does travel a little farther away from the sun than Earth does at times, as well.
So, why have astronomers not noticed it until now? It seems that 2010 TK7 is usually difficult to spot because from our vantage point on Earth, it would always appear to be close to the sun. For obvious reasons, this makes it very difficult to observe. The NEOWISE project changed the game though. NEOWISE is an aspect of the WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) mission, a telescope in space far removed from Earth’s atmosphere and the glare of our daylight. The “NEO” part of the name is a side-mission of the probe that searches for Near Earth Objects, bodies that pass within 28 million miles of the sun. By observing 2010 TK7 from outside of our atmosphere, astronomers were able to get a pin point on it and then track it down much easier using other observatories here on Earth, namely the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on mount Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Is Earth in danger from its stony stalker? No. According to NASA, trojans are fairly common in our solar system. Neptune, Mars, Jupiter, and even two of Saturn’s moons all have trojans. 2010 TK7 also seems to have a stable orbit, as well, so it is not likely to interfere with Earth.
“It’s as though Earth is playing follow the leader,” said Amy Mainzer, the principal NEOWISE investigator.
Let us hope there are no sore losers in space.
Credit: NASA.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Pluto's family grows, 07.29.11

The Hubble Telescope has added another great discovery to its repertoire; a fourth moon for Pluto. Temporarily assigned the name P4, it was discovered just this month orbiting around the dwarf planet with Charon, Nix, and Hydra, Pluto’s other moons.
Estimated to only be 8-21 miles wide, the tiny little rock is the smallest one to have been found orbiting Pluto. All the other moons orbiting Pluto are at least twice as large. Charon, the largest, is 648 miles across.
Astronomers anxiously wait for the day when the New Horizons spacecraft reaches the Pluto system in 2015. Launched in 2006, New Horizons is outfitted with a visible and infrared imager/spectrometer, an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer, a radio science experiment to measure atmospheric temperature and composition, a telescopic camera, a solar wind and plasma spectrometer, an energetic particle spectrometer, and a dust counter to measure how much dust New Horizons on its way to Pluto.
Credit: NASA. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter.

Pin the tail on the pulsar, 07.18.11

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory has seen something very interesting in recent months. In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, several astronomers note how they have witnessed a tail of sorts that appears to be spreading out from a pulsar. The pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star, lovingly dubbed PSR J0357+3205.
The blue in this composite image is the Chandra x-ray data, and the yellow is a digitized sky survey. The pulsar is actually at the upper right-hand edge of the “tail,” which is part of the reason why astronomers are left scratching their heads over the situation. If the tail were really originating from the pulsar, the brightest portion should most likely be nearest the star, yet in this case the brightest portion is at the opposite end. This is even more shocking when you do a little math and realize that the tail is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.2 light years long. This would be a record-setting tail for a rotation-powered pulsar.
There are more reasons than one why this tail should not be originating from the star. We have to keep in mind, too, that astronomers are not 100% certain that this really is PSR J0357’s tail. More observations will need to be made to know for certain if this really is the pulsar’s tail and why it is providing such odd data readings.
Image and story credit: NASA.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gamma ray flares in binary star are a mystery, 07.07.11

Image credit: NASA.
Something very odd has happened 8,000 light years away in the southern constellation Crux. A binary star system has emitted strange gamma ray flares as the small pulsar star of the pair approached and passed through its closest point in orbit around the large Be-class star.
The Be-class star, designated LS 2883, is surrounded by a disc of gas. As the small neutron star, the pulsar B1259-63, approaches, it emits some gamma rays as it grazes through either side of the disc every 3.4 years.
On January 20 and February 21 of this year, however, when the pulsar approached the larger star, a strange series of powerful gamma ray flares occurred, which was highly out of character. A thorough barrage of scans and studies revealed no anomalies in the stars; no foreign objects, no strange chemical reactions, nothing that would elicit flares like those.
Since the two stars pass by each other that closely only every 3.4 years, it is going to be a while before scientists get another chance to study it again. it is believed that as the pulsar passes thru the disk of gas and dust, that the pulsars powerful magnetic field is accelerating captured electrons to very high energies causing these weird month-long gamma ray displays. It is truly a case where astronomers are finding more and more strange objects or events that can cause a gamma ray burst.

 Credit: NASA.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

NASA's plans for commercial space travel going forward, 06.30.11

A new dream for space travel that began 20 years ago is being revisited, and could be a reality in less than a decade. The HL-20, a spacecraft created from models made in the early 1980s, is in the process of testing.
Originally designed to serve as a “life raft” for the International Space Station (for which purpose it could still serve), the HL-20 was just recently unveiled by NASA as a commercial enterprise undertaken by their industrial partners.
“We’re only 60 days into CCDev2 (Commercial Crew Development 2), and their progress is right on schedule,” said Phil McAlister, acting director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight development program.        
HL-20. Image credit: NASA.
Credit: NASA.