Friday, May 18, 2012

Dragon takes flight tomorrow! 05.18.12

SpaceX, a commercial spacecraft company, will make history tomorrow if all goes as planned. It will become the first private company to launch a commercially designed and built spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. Dragon (a wonderful name with an even better logo, we think), should launch tomorrow, May 19, at 4:55 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission is primarily a safety test. NASA and SpaceX will both offer live coverage of the launch.

Read more from SpaceX.
Read the official Dragon press kit.
Read the original story from

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Super Discovery, 05.11.12

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has made another monumental discovery: a “super-Earth.”
Twice as big as Earth, the super-Earth is, for now, called 55 Cancri e, and is situated in the constellation Cancer, about 41 light years away. For the first time, scientists were able to actually measure the light emanating (reflected) from the planet itself, instead of measuring how much light it blocks as it transits in front of its star. Because of the low measure­ments that were taken, scientists guess that the planet is probably very dark most of the time. It appears to be tidally locked, though (one side is stuck facing its star), and that side appears to have temperatures in excess of 3,000 Fahrenheit. Just so we’re clear on how hot that is, most kinds of metal will be liquid at that temperature.
Based on their observations, scientists are saying the planet most likely has a rocky core and is covered with water. Be­cause of the extreme heat on the sunny side, however, the water is probably in a “supercritical” state, where it exists as both liquid and gas. NASA claims the atmosphere is covered with steam. Regardless, the atmosphere appears to be very thin, as it is doing such a poor job of blocking its sun’s heat.
Based on all observations made at this point, the planet cannot support life.
Read more from NASA.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hungry, Hungry Black Holes 05.05.12

A black hole has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. Researchers with the space-based Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) have discovered a black hole actually in the act of consuming a nearby star.
CREDIT: NASA, S. Gezari (The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.), A. Rest (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.), and R. Chornock (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astro­physics, Cambridge, Ma.)

It all started out in such a normal way— no one ever suspected the black hole was capable of doing such a heinous thing, and then blam! All that remained was crumbs.
No, that’s not really how it started. In a way, the star itself is almost to blame for its demise. The victim is a star that ap­pears to be going through a major life change, of a sort. The star appears to have been going through its red star phase, and was in the process of swelling to 100 times its original radius. The star only made it a third of the way out, however, before the nearby black hole’s tremendous gravity began stripping off some of the gasses from the edge of the star. Based on the spectrum of the gases, researchers say the star was mostly composed of helium. The researchers with GALEX have made this nifty little computer simulated representation to let us know sort of what it would look like: http://
So, why is this important? Well, for once, researchers can watch a black hole in the act of “eating” something substan­tial. Black holes are completely invisible to us— we have no technology that is capable of seeing them— all we can see is the carnage they leave behind. By watching some poor star get sucked into one, though, we will have a much better under­standing of how black holes function and “look.”
Read more from

Friday, April 27, 2012

Help wanted: Moon Mappers

Have you ever wanted to make a contribution to astronomy, but felt helpless because you did not have any good equipment for deep space observation? Not to fear! Moon Mappers needs your help.
An initiative by Cosmo Quest, the project is to attempt to map out at least 1,000,000 craters on the surface of the moon before May 5th.
Credit: Moon Mappers
Now, it may sound kind of silly to think of going about counting holes in the ground (even if it is on another world), but believe it or not, craters yield a lot of information when studied closely. More and more, scientists are discovering that craters are often sheltering harbors for ice and other frozen chemicals, which would otherwise melt and be evaporated if they were not hidden in shadow. Chemical samples from inside the craters also provide clues as to what sort of things have bombarded the moon in the past.
What’s more, Cosmo Quest has made it easy. They have managed to partner with NASA and obtain some high-resolution photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LROC), so all you have to do it properly mark out craters that appear to be about 1 meter in diameter on the photos. Sound simple? “There are literally millions of craters at that size,” says Dr. Pamela Gray, who is leading the Cosmo Quest project. This is so much more than a preschool counting exercise.
So, who’s up for adding some “lunar cartography” volunteer experience to their résumé?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Discovery headed to the Smithsonian, 04.20.12

Space Shuttle Discovery is on its way to the public eye at the Smithsonian. Earlier this week, the space shuttle was spotted hitching a ride to its new home on the back of a specialized 747 aircraft (pictured below).
Image Credit: NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Harold Dorwin
Yesterday, April 19th, the Discovery "attended" a ceremony (pictured below) where it traded places with space shuttle Endeavour at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. According to NASA, Discovery will soon be on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Air & Space Museum.
Image Credit: NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Carolyn Russo

Friday, April 13, 2012

Good visibility for Lyrids 2012, 04.13.12

Did you ever sit at your window as a child and marvel at “shooting stars” as they streaked across the night sky? Those were actually meteors passing across Earth’s atmosphere. Sometimes, Earth passes through fields of debris in space that cause regular, predicted “showers” of meteors. In April, we have one such shower: the Lyrids.
(NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser)

Named after the constellation Lyra, the harp (the meteors’ apparent radiant point, or origin), the meteor shower is caused by detritus left in the wake of Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. Comets have a nasty habit of leaving trails of dust and ice be­hind them as they course through the sky. When Earth passes through the trails, the debris scrapes across the top of our atmosphere, glowing with the energy from the friction that is generated.
This year, the Lyrids meteor shower will take place next Satur­day evening, on the night of April 21-22. You can expect to see meteors from about 11:00pm until 5:00am. The Lyrids are al­ways very predictable, averaging about 15 meteors per hour. Peak hours could generate as many as 10-100 meteors per hour, though, according to NASA.
The moon will also be cooperating with us this year to offer the best show possible. Luna will be in her new phase around the 21st of April, so the skies will be much darker, making it easier to spot the tiny, brief streaks of light.
Do not be worried about where in the world you are at the time, either. As long as you are not surrounded by bright city lights and light pollution, you should be able to see the shower from anywhere in the world.
Read more at NASA.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Seeing the Invisible, 04.05.12

If you have ever paid a visit to the Wetherbee Planetarium here at Thronateeska Heritage Center, chances are you have heard a good deal about our film, “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity.” In the film, all manner of evidence is put forward about the existence of a black hole in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The film describes research done at the Keck Telescope in Hawai’i, where several stars have been recorded orbiting in a very strange manner the center of the Milky Way., today (04.05.12), published more information detailing re­cent studies on this supposed supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Telescopes have yet to reveal it. With the technology we have now, we simply cannot see anything there. Plans are in the works for bigger and better detection methods, but for now, the area known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A-Star) seems to be a great big empty space of nothingness that somehow manages to make some stars orbit around it at mind-blowing speeds of over 3,000 miles a second.
CREDIT: Alain R. | Wikimedia Commons 
Astronomers know that something has to be there. Analysis shows that something packing more than 4 million times the mass of our own sun is there, yet it still cannot be seen. It does emit some radio waves, but aside from that, there is not much else to go on. Much research remains to be done to know for sure about this monster at the center of the Milky Way. One thing is certain: whatever it is, it is proving to be one great big mathematical migraine.
Read more from

Friday, March 30, 2012

Snowing Microbes

Of all the places in our solar system (besides Earth) that are most likely to harbor life, none is better than Enceladus, Sat­urn’s sixth largest moon. Although extremely cold, it has been recording spouting geyser-like plumes of liquid water high into the air. Enceladus is one of only a few other places in our solar system with recorded geologic activity.
Although it is so very cold on Enceladus, that does not have researchers worried, because we have life here in our arctic oceans on Earth.
The lucky thing about the water being sprayed into the air also means that the probes that have been sent to Enceladus do not even need to land! All they have to do is fly through the spray to gather their samples and analyze the liquid. With the envi­ronment being so cold, however, all of the spray is probably being frozen into snow in the atmosphere. 
There are also concerns that perhaps the oceans are far too acidic to support life, but again, it may be possible for mi­crobes to survive in such conditions.
Microbes, are, in fact, what the researchers are looking for; millions of microscopic bacteria and other organisms that live just about everywhere here on Earth. As the water is likely being spurted from the oceans beneath the frozen surface of the planet, any life held within them would be blown up into the atmosphere in the geysers.
Read more from

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Solar Flares, 03.08.12

It seems like everyone is buzzing about solar flares. We even had a bit of a scare this morning with our power cutting out a few times. Are the flares really to blame, though? Let us take a look.
Credit: NASA/SDO.
Solar flares are a sort of burp created by a star when energy concentrates and bubbles in one place, eventually erupting out in a CME, or Coronal Mass Ejection. CMEs send out massive amounts of magnetic, radio, and radiation emissions. In ex­treme cases, solar flares have caused interruptions in commu­nications and blackouts. Just last year, solar storms made communications for some airplanes and ships difficult over some parts of Alaska and the Pacific. With genuine CME-caused damage, though, the effects are usually very widespread, and last longer than just a power outage of a few minutes.
Do not get us wrong, there is an honest to goodness major so­lar storm going on right now. has some excellent photos and footage of it. Sunspot AR1429 has been spewing some major emissions, and scientists have been ex­pecting this. The spot has been tracked ever since last month when it was on the far side of the sun, even then creating spikes in energy readings.
Scientists have known for a long time these flares were com­ing, and in fact, some have even been let down. Some are say­ing the flare is actually weaker then they had expected.
So, what does this all mean for us? For one, the classic line “do not panic.” We are all still here, and we are not likely to be plunged back into the dark ages. For another, it is not likely that the power outages experienced around town today can be blamed on this flare. Solar flares are the rock stars of outer space. They do major, widespread damage when they come to town, and we just are not seeing that with this flare. Most likely the power outages were caused by overheating and burn­out in our local power grid. Lastly, auroras: there is a very slim chance you could see some sort of aurora activity in the night sky. We make no guarantees, though. Most likely, those people further north would be able to see it better. If you want to give it a shot, though, travel out into the country tonight and look towards the northern sky. You may be able to see the greenish opalescence of the auroras, commonly known as the “northern lights.” If you do, send us a picture! We will be keeping our eyes peeled, too.
Read more from
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Friday, March 2, 2012

Life on Europa: a soda ocean? 03.02.12

Of all of the other places in our solar system, one of the most promising locations for extraterrestrial life has been Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Completely covered with ice on the surface, researchers believe Europa harbors an ocean of liquid water at least 100 miles deep, which leads down to a rocky interior and a solid core of some type, most likely metal. Surface studies on the moon have yet to be conducted, however, so the re­searchers have no idea how thick the icy crust on the outside of the planet may be.
Credit: NASA.
While the possibility of an ocean of liquid water is more than enough to be excited about, some researchers are beginning to doubt whether or not life as we know it would be able to thrive on the chilling planet. What research has been done on the planet is beginning to lead the scientists to believe that whatever water is there would be highly contaminated by extremely acidic chemicals. There is some speculation that it is possible the acidity could be balanced out by more basal minerals at the ocean floor, but again, it is all speculation.
There are a few places on Earth where some microbes and other life forms thrive in highly acidic environments, but those areas are few and far between. So, the likelihood of life sur­viving on an entire planet like that? Very slim.
Without the bases and minerals at the ocean floor to balance out the pH, though, the researchers say the ocean would have moderately corrosive characteristics, “about the same as your average soft drink,” except it would be more along the lines of hydrogen peroxide than a cola. Swim time, anyone?
Information credit:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Calling All Thrill Seekers: Microgravity Experience? 02.24.12

For those that enjoy riding roller coasters, it is a very big deal to find the biggest, fastest, and most exciting ride possible. What if you had the opportunity, even for just a few seconds, to ride a roller coaster that would give the same sensation as floating in outer space’s microgravity? We have to wonder if even those with sensitive stomachs would pass up an opportunity like that.
The idea comes from BRC Imagination Arts, a design firm in Southern California. They are putting together plans for one of the most sophisticated roller coasters in the world. The term “roller coaster” is a gross understatement for this monster, however. Because of the extremely precise calculations needed to give the maximum sensation, the ride will be meticulous enough to weigh and recalibrate the controls for every single flight of its passengers, even as the ride is in progress.
The ride is expected to give its passengers the feeling of one-g, zero-g, and then double Earth’s gravity through the duration of the trip. The microgravity sensation would be for about 8 seconds at the top, which, BRC claims, will feel like an eternity in the enclosed space of the ride.
What is more, the ride has researchers excited because it could offer a much cheaper alternative for testing experiments in zero gravity. NASA’s current “Vomit Comet,” the KC-135A aircraft used to simulate zero gravity for astronauts in training, is a very costly trip to take. When the zero gravity contraption is built, though, even grade school students can run experiments while they ride the coaster. Who says science cannot be fun, too?
Information credit:

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Shot in the Dark, 01.18.12

How do you look for something if you do not know what to look for? This is a challenge being laughed in the face by scientists at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics in Chicago. The team there will be spending the next five years trying to answer some of the biggest questions about the three main problems in astronomy: dark energy, dark matter, and cosmic inflation.
Why try to find out about these things, you ask? Well, based on a dizzying amount of calculations done by astronomers and other scientists through the decades, it was determined that there is a lot more “stuff” in outer space than what can be seen. What is more, some of those scientists have a sneaking suspicion that the sleuths they are looking for do “not consist of quarks, neutrons, or protons.” A little review here: neutrons and protons are both parts of atoms, and quarks are the things that make up the parts of atoms. Basically, the scientists were looking for things so small that they could not be seen with the naked eye, but now they are beginning to think that their best guesses were not on track anyway.
Astronomers also know the Big Bang Theory leaves something to be desired as it has no answer for cosmic inflation. So, hopefully getting some more answers could even change what astronomers think about the Big Bang Theory itself.
So, when someone does find the answer, rest assured it will be something never before seen in history.
Information credit: The University of Chicago.
Read more about quarks: The Particle Adventure.
Want to talk with us about discoveries like this? Be sure to come to our MARCH 20th Astronomy Series show in the Wetherbee Planetarium.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hungry, Hungry Black Holes 02.10.12

Black Holes have a way of “eating” anything that gets re­motely close to them. In astronomical terms, we are talking about 100 million miles away or less.

It turns out, these pesky over-eating habits seem to be the answer for some questions regarding recent flares from the gigantic black hole at the center of Sgr (Sagittarius) A*. Closer studies seem to reveal that the black hole is surrounded by a cloud of asteroids and other detritus that is continually swept into its path. As it gets close, it gets torn to pieces by the black hole, and this friction makes the pieces heat up and glow, much like a meteor in our atmosphere, NASA says. A flare is produced as an astronomical burp of sorts, and the cycle of destruction continues.
Image credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss.

This is no baby with its first birthday cake, though. Far from it, actually. Needless to say, this monster at the center of our galaxy is getting a lot of attention.

Information credit: NASA

Monday, February 6, 2012

No Doubt: a Super-Earth in a Habitable Zone, 02.03.12

Humans have wondered throughout history if there is life out­side of Earth. Is it possible for it to exist elsewhere? Could there really be planets hundreds and thousands of light years away that have their own life forms on them? It is very difficult to tell.
One of the first criteria astronomers say a planet must meet is to be in the habitable zone (or, life zone) of the star around which it orbits. This is a region that is determined based on the size and temperature of the star, which would render the temperature on the planet at a happy sort of medium. It would not be so hot that everything would dry out and die, and it would not be so cold that it would become a frozen world. Hundreds of planets have been discovered outside of our own solar system, and some of them seem promising, but until now, there has always been a margin of doubt. Most of the planets discovered either missed the mark entirely or were situated just on the fringe of their life zone. A study led by the private nonprofit research organization, the Carnegie Institu­tion for Science, happened to stumble across one particular planet that leaves no doubt about its orbit. Meet GJ 667Cc.
CREDIT: Carnegie Institution for Science
This particular planet has been termed a “super-Earth” be­cause it is about 4.5 times as massive as our own planet. The gravity there would feel greatly multiplied compared to that on Earth, but there is no doubt that this terrestrial planet is smack in the middle of its habitable zone. It is situated rela­tively close by in the constellation Scorpio, about 22 light-years away.
One other interesting fact about the planet that is leaving as­tronomers puzzled is it is in orbit around a triple star system, all of which are lacking heavier elements typical of stars with their own solar systems. GJ 667Cc only orbits one of those stars, but it would still be rather odd to see three in the sky, we think.
Information credit:

Friday, January 13, 2012

160,000,000,000 Milky Way Planets? 01.13.11

Have you ever played the party game where you try to guess how many candies were in a jar? You would look at the size of the candies, the size of the container, and try to visualize how many could fit in the space. Now, put that on a galactic scale.

Astronomers use math, not guessing, when trying to determine the number of the planets in our galaxy. There is not much guessing to this at all, really. There is, however, a great deal of calculations and observations. For years, scientists have been trying to track down planets elsewhere in our galaxy  using the “transit method” and “radial velocity.” The transit method measures light from distant stars. If the readings from the planet show regular dips in light, that indicates an object passing in front of the star at regular intervals, which, to cause such a measurable dip, must mean a planet in orbit. The radial velocity method measures how much stars “wobble” because of the pull of the planets in orbit around them.

A new observation method is being employed that is not so biased towards close-orbiting planets, called gravitational  microlensing. According to, microlensing measures how light is magnified and bent by gravitational fields from distant bodies. Based on the researcher’s calculations, they estimate at least 1.6 planets per star in our galaxy, in orbits from their stars roughly the same orbital range of Venus to Saturn from our own sun.

Based on that estimate—1.6 planets per star—and their estimate of about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, that comes out to quite a few planets. When we here at the    Wetherbee Planetarium start to think about how many galaxies are estimated to be in existence in our Universe—100 trillion—it is mind-boggling to try to comprehend how many planets may be in existence outside our tiny little terrestrial world.
An artist's impression of the prevalence of planets in our galaxy.
CREDIT: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Information credit: