Saturday, October 8, 2011


Totally lied about coming back. Well, I've actually been kinda busy. But I took a video of the Sun, for anyone left following, enjoy it!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I am back, but I am considering how to get back into blogging. Please, accept this as my return. I got a job working overnight flow at Target. Not glorious, but it will do temporarily. Future plans include pursuing my Master of Arts in Teacher (MAT) with a science education focus and moving in with my GF. But for the next few months, I feel I will be stable enough to blog fairly regularly.

There have been a fairly large amount of new astronomy stories my last update. There is no possible way to cover them all. I only hope you have been following the news for the past month and a half or so since I have been away.  But I hope to be getting back into providing quality astronomy news and educational articles soon. Plus, hopefully, some more of my own images and videos of the night sky.

I enjoy being able to put my thoughts down and I am grateful to the readers of this blog for being patient in my return. In fact, I do not think I even lost any followers while I was gone. I see this as a real plus in the shifting world of blogging, a supportive motion of my readers to not lose faith. And I haven't lost it in them.

If you haven't been able to tell yet, I am real passionate about science education, with a focus on space science. These topics spur the imagination and fuel the future. The future of mankind is amongst the stars. Sharing and encouraging the pursuit of such knowledge then drives an economic engine towards accomplishing those goals. It creates jobs, it improves education, it solves problems, it is the future.

Right now we are lucky enough to live in what has often been called the golden age astronomy. The first time we are able to study our Universe in such stark detail, by putting telescopes in orbit above the Earth's atmosphere, reducing distortion to see so much more clearly. But even beyond that, we have the Voyager probes pushing through the edge of the solar system, our first true interstellar craft. Happening only about 110 years after the first successful airplane on Earth.

Again, so much more can be said. We are living in a truly revolutionary age in the modern world. At the same time it saddens me to know there are those who don't even know a man landed on the Moon. I don't want this turn to much into a wandering lecture. So I think I'll wrap it up. But know that we have a very bright future, and I intend to keep tabs on it and voice my opinion on it when necessary.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On Hold

I'm putting this blog on the back burner as I need to focus on getting my life organized. I'll hopefully be back whenever I find a stable form of income. It may not be daily when I get back, but I would like to try to update every other day, there's still so much to write about, literally a whole Universe.

I do enjoy it though, sharing a bit of the Universe with readers. I already do astronomy outreach in my community, and I always felt this was a nice way to reach a larger audience. But, there's only so much someone can do without gainful compensation. I would hope that even if I don't come back, I would hope that my readers continue following our expanding understanding of the cosmos. A good list of informative sites are in the sidebar to the right, under 'Useful Astronomy Links'.

I do plan to come back to this though, maybe in a month or so. Maybe I will be refreshed and holding a legitimate job and ready to blog again. Until then, there's still lots out there to be amazed at. Today I was blown away by the rather legitimate idea that the Earth might have had two moons at one point. Then there have been other stories: LEGO figurines on the NASA spacecraft Juno, which is launching for Jupiter on Friday; Oxygen particles detected in deep space; The ESO has discovered 96 new open star clusters in the Milky Way that were hidden by dust; and my favorite asteroid, Vesta, is being revealed in amazing detail, and a short video of its rotation.

I suggest spending this weekend looking to see if you have a local Vesta Fiesta (my astronomy club is hosting one during our normal open house.) And if not, you should definitely go out and look for shooting stars, the Delta Aquariids and Perseids meteor showers are overlapping this weekend. Since the height of the Perseids will have a full moon, this weekend might be a great chance to go out and take a look.

I'll see you all when I get back.

Monday, August 1, 2011

August 2011 Highlights

August is here and we are moving into late summer in the northern hemisphere. July wasn't a very ambitious month for me because I spent so much time enjoying my summer, we'll see about a new month. The dominant astronomical event for August is the Perseids meteor shower. Although a Full Moon at it's peak will dampen the experience, the rest of the month should still be full of a few bright traces through the night sky. The weather is still warm, and many great constellations are high in the sky. So if you get the chance, go out and look up:

August 5: Juno Launch: Juno is an ambitious mission to understand the origin and evolution of planet Jupiter. You can read more about it on NASA Juno mission page.

August 8: First Quarter Moon: The Moon is halfway through the waxing phase, a great time for observing as the shadows provide wonderful contrast.

August 12-13: Perseids Meteor Shower: (active July 22-August 22) Usually one of the best meteors shower of the year, but this year it will be marred by a Full Moon during its peak. However, up to 60 meteors per hour may be possible in dark locations. The meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus.

August 13: Full Moon: The Moon will be directly opposite the Earth from the Sun and will be fully illuminated as seen from Earth. This moon, in the Native American tradition of naming the full moons throughout the year, is known as the Full Sturgeon Moon. It gets its name from the large sturgeon fish of the Great Lakes and other major lakes were more easily caught at this time of year.

August 16: Venus at Superior Conjunction: Venus swings around the opposite side of the Sun and passes into the evening sky. (It will briefly be directly opposite of the Sun from us, therefore not visible.)

August 21: Last Quarter Moon: Halfway through the Moon's waning phase.

August 22: Neptune at Opposition: The planet will be on its closest approach to Earth and fully illuminated by the Sun. This is the best time to observe Neptune, but even the most powerful telescopes reveal little more than a tiny pale blue dot.

August 29: New Moon: The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Earth's First Asteroid Companion Discovered

This is an amazing discovery. Up until now, companion asteroids that more or less share an orbit with Earth have been theoretical. This class of asteroids is known as Trojans; Jupiter has them, and so do Mars and Neptune. Now Earth joins the club with 2010 TK7, an asteroid approximately 300 meters (1000 feet) across and 80 million km (50 million miles) from Earth.
Asteroid 2010 TK7 is circled in green, in this single frame taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) managed to notice the small asteroid. WISE sees in the infrared, where warmer objects are easier to spot. 2010 TK7 is probably about the freezing point of water, which is pretty warm to astronomers. It also orbits such that it is mostly in the sky during daylight hours from Earth, so your typical amateur astronomer isn't going to be able to go out and spot this.

WISE was an asteroid hunting satellite that stopped operating back in February. Astronomers discovered 2010 TK7 by looking through the vast amount of data collected by WISE and confirmed it with Earth-based telescopes. This gives hope that other Earth Trojans might be buried in the data waiting to be found. Where there is one, there may be many.

What makes a Trojan, a companion asteroid, special, is that they orbit what is called a Lagrangian point. Five special spots between two astronomical bodies where gravity is essentially neutral. The points remain stable relative to where the one body is along its orbit around the other. The graph above maps out the locations of where these points would be.

2010 TK7 orbits Earth's L4 point, rather than remaining stable at the point or orbiting the Earth itself. It also has a kind of funky orbit that takes it closer and further away from the Earth, but it is still roughly 60 degrees in front of us and of no danger to the Earth. It just won't ever get close enough.
This artist's concept (not to scale) illustrates the first known Earth Trojan asteroid, discovered by WISE. The asteroid is gray and its extreme orbit is shown in green. Image credit: Paul Wiegert, University of Western Ontario, Canada

It is a tantalizing discovery because it opens the door to several new questions. We know little about this asteroid. It may be a candidate for future exploration, but because of it's odd orbit (it goes well above and below the orbital plane), it would be difficult to reach. But you can bet astronomers are going race to find more Earth Trojans. They have been looking for them for some time already, so it was only a matter of time.

And being an object of some importance, it will also need to be named. Coeus or Crius, the Titan sons of Gaia have been mentioned, but there are other sons of hers. Personally I wouldn't my the cyclopes sons of Gaia; Brontes ("thunderer"), Steropes ("lightning") and the "bright" Arges. But I guess we'll have to see.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Largest, Most Distant Water Reservoir Found

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Image credit: NASA/ESA 
More than 12 billion light years away sits a massive body of water surrounding a large, feeding black hole. The amount of water is equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water on Earth. It also shows an early abundance of water in the Universe, being 12 billion light years away means that the light from this event is 12 billion years old. Early for a 13.75 billion year old Universe.

Black holes that are active like this one are known as quasars. Known as APM 08279+5255, the black hole at the center is some 20 billion times more massive than our Sun. It also produces the energy of a thousand trillion suns, and early powerhouse in the Universe.

The water exists in the form of water vapor, a gas, around the black hole and its distribution can reveal details about the nature of the quasar. They can determine how the radiation from the quasar is heating the surrounding gas, which, by astronomical standards, is unusually warm and dense. At several hundred light years across, it is one order of magnitude or two denser and about 5 times hotter than water vapor found in a typical galaxy. It is still far from the comfort of Earth's atmosphere though, at a freezing -63 degrees Fahrenheit (-53 Celsius) and 300 trillion times less dense than the Earth's atmosphere.

[How can water that cold be a gas? That is entirely because of the density, since the particles of water are so far spread apart, they do not condense as the would into a solid under higher pressures (like the Earth's atmosphere).]

There is enough gas in this cloud for the black hole to grow about six times its current size. However, it is unclear if it would reach that far, some gas may be ejected from the quasar or form into stars.

The research is partially funded by NASA and the astronomer teams will be having their paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters later this year. You can read a little bit more about it in the NASA release.

Friday, July 22, 2011

I Guess I Should Stop Being Lazy

I have been back home from my vacation since Monday, but haven't felt much like writing a post. First it was because I was a bit sad leaving the beach and my girlfriend. And then when trying to come up with something in the past few days, there has just been an overwhelming amount of astronomy news that it was hard to pick where to dig into.

Anyways, I am back. You can expect normal posting to resume Monday. I'll probably be checking out the blogs that I follow this weekend. I dunno how much I will get back into it though, I am still working on that job hunt.

But for some weekend reading, here are some of the big astronomy stories that I haven't taken the time to tackle:

The next Mars Rover, Curiosity, had its landing site chosen, Gale crater.

The Dawn probe entered orbit around asteroid Vesta on the 15th, our first close glimpse is amazing.

A fourth moon has been discovered around Pluto. Right now it seems like they are leaning towards naming it Cerberus, the 3-headed dog that guards the gates of The Underworld.

The House has proposed cancelling the James Webb Telescope, described as the Hubble successor (it doesn't really do the same thing, but it's still amazing). The telescope is over 50% done, probably closer to 75-80% and would be in orbit by 2015. Along with a 9% total cut to NASA's budget, with the shuttles winding down, this is like a sucker punch to NASA, an insult. Hopefully the Senate and President alter this course.

Yes, we are officially living in a post-space shuttle world right now. Atlantis landed safely at 5:56 AM EST on the morning of the 21st. Hopefully the post-space shuttle world is temporary and a replacement unveiled soon.

With the space shuttles grounded, the private space race has been heating up. This provides some optimism for the future. NASA can focus on pushing the boundaries that they have done so well while leaving the trucking to someone else.

Also, July 18th was former astronaut John Glenn's 90th birthday. The 20th was the 42nd anniversary of the Moon landing.

There might have been a few other interesting things I missed over, but the major focus has been on the winding down of the shuttle mission. I hope you all have a good weekend!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Happy Birthday Neptune!

Today marks the first orbit Neptune has made around the Sun since it was discovered September 23, 1846. In other words, one Neptunian year, that lasts approximately 165 Earth years. NASA has commemorated this anniversary by releasing new Hubble images of Neptune taken on June 25-26. You can read more about the picture (seen above) on NASA's Hubble Telescope page. Or you can just enjoy Neptune in its pale blue glory.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Final Space Shuttle Launch

Atlantis is set to launch in roughly 2 hours from this posting, at 11:26 AM EST. I am going to the beach to hope to catch a glimpse of it as it soars on its final mission into space. If you want to watch it live online, I suggest going here:

This is hoping that the weather clears up. It stands at a 30% chance of a 'go', 70% that it will get delayed. The good thing is that they have back up launch dates Saturday and Sunday, so it will go up this weekend. If anything, good luck to the brave astronauts on this momentous occasion.

I have been thoroughly enjoying my time in the Outer Banks, sorry for the lack of updates... OK, no I am not, it's my vacation. Anyways, I will be back home next Friday. There are plenty of updates to share, and lots of missed astronomy news. I can say that seeing the Milky Way in the middle of the night on Okracoke Island was one of the most awesome moments of my life. It was the most vivid I have ever seen it, and I shared that moment with someone I love. Good times.

Friday, July 1, 2011

July 2011 Highlights

Well, we are heading into another month. Prime time to be enjoying cookouts and beaches and all that great stuff. Or at least that's the case for the northern hemisphere. I am off on vacation, so this is a scheduled post this time around. But, at least with these it is pretty easy to schedule. There are plenty of sites to see this month, and it will be plenty warm, so no excuse to not go out and enjoy the night sky! You all know you like a cool summer's night, so let's see what we got:

July 1: New Moon: The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth.
            Partial Solar Eclipse: This one will only be visible off the coast of Antarctica. It you see it, I salute your bravery.

July 4: Earth at Aphelion: The furthest distance of the Earth from the Sun, occurs at 15h UT with the distance between the Earth and the Sun being about 152.1 million km, or 1.01674 astronomical units (AU).

July 8: Space Shuttle Atlantis: Scheduled as the final space shuttle launch, Atlantis STS-135 is targeted for 11:26 a.m. EDT. If you are on the east coast of the U.S., you should be able to get a decent glance as it climbs into space, Western Europe should also be able to get a glance too. Being the final launch, I encourage anyone that is able to to go out and watch. It really is something to see a shuttle streak across a stark blue sky.
           First Quarter Moon: The Moon is halfway through the waxing phase, a great time for observing as the shadows provide wonderful contrast.

July 12: Neptune: Completes it's first orbit since discovery in 1846.

July 15: Full Moon: The Moon will be directly opposite the Earth from the Sun and will be fully illuminated as seen from Earth. This moon, in the Native American tradition of naming the full moons throughout the year, is known as the Full Thunder Moon. It gets its name from the prevalence of thunderstorms at this time of year.

July 21: Moon at apogee: The furthest distance of the Moon from the Earth occurs at 23h UT, at a distance of 404,355 km.

July 23: Last Quarter Moon: Halfway through the Moon's waning phase, The next New Moon will be July 1st.

July 28-29: Southern Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower: (active July 18-August 18) Usually an average meteor shower, expect around 20 meteors per hour during it's peak. The meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Aquarius. A thin crescent moon should make for excellent observing. Best observing is to the east after midnight in a dark location.

July 30: New Moon: The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth. This is the second new moon of the month, an interesting occasion that occurs just as frequently as the full moon's blue moon. A supposed name for this event is the Black Moon, but there is nothing official.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

'Gone' on Vacation.

I am going to be spending a week or two down in North Carolina at the Outer Banks with my girlfriend. I will have my laptop and telescope and stuff with me, so I will make occasional updates on whatever catches my fancy. I will try to cover the final space shuttle launch, which is hopefully on the 8th, if it doesn't get delayed. I might even get to watch it travel up the eastern seaboard if we time it right.

Needless to say, I am excited to spend some time with my girlfriend, but the Outer Banks has another draw. See, it gets dark there, really really dark. To give you an idea of this, and maybe inspire some jealousy, I want you to watch the video below. It circulated on a couple astronomy blogs around June 15th. It is made by Daniel Lowe, and he wrote an article on how the video was made.

You are gonna want to set it to HD and turn full screen on.

Night Motion Timelapse: Outer Banks from Daniel Dragon Films on Vimeo.
(Yes that's a fire across the water in some of the footage. There has been a wildfire on the mainland that has been going on for some months now.)

Beautiful and majestic, I cannot wait to get out under the stars and snuggle up with my girl.

The video is on Vimeo, so I'm not sure how well that works internationally,
but maybe there is a Youtube version out there.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Preparing for Final Flight

The last space shuttle mission is about a week and a half away. The Space Shuttle Atlantis is gearing up for launch on July 8th. The 'Final Four' astronauts are on site and conducting practice runs while Atlantis is being a thorough examination in preparation for launch.

But Atlantis sure does look amazing in the morning light. NASA recently released the above photo of the Sun rising behind Space Shuttle Atlantis, taken on June 23rd.

Meanwhile, the crew of STS-135 (the designation of this final mission) have been hard at work. The 'Grande Finale' of NASA's shuttle program is approaching fast. This is one time where we do not want 'bombs bursting in air.' The end of the Shuttle Era is less than a month away.

STS-135 crew at a Q&A session with journalists at base of Launch Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center. From left; Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus; Pilot Doug Hurley and Commander Chris Ferguson. Credit: Ken Kremer

It is an uncertain time in human space exploration and no one is going to be expected to preform higher or undergo more scrutiny than these four brave people. The STS-135 team consists of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus.

In a bittersweet moment, Commander Ferguson has this to say to journalists greeting the astronauts; "We are incredibly proud to represent this, the final flight. I speak on behalf of the crew, everyone in the astronaut office, and I’m sure everybody here at KSC in saying that we are just trying to savor the moment. As our children and our children’s children ask us, we want to be able to say, 'We remember when there was a space shuttle.'"

After three decades of missions, it will be sad to see the shuttles retired. But, we can hope it is not a permanent set back. We have barely tested the vast ocean of space, merely gotten our feet wet. Plans are being made for much needed replacements. The shuttles have provided a wonderful amount of workforce, but they are not without fault, as the multiple delays have shown. It is even likely that Atlantis will be delayed. Hopefully replacements come swiftly and effectively. The plans for new capsules right now seems to be working, they are expected to be 300% safer than the shuttles. It is hoped to be a safe and effective means of transporting man to the next frontier.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Close Call With an Asteroid

Earlier today, (Monday, June 27 2011) at 17:01 UTC (1:01 PM Eastern US time) a small rock, roughly 10 meters in size, and named Asteroid 2011 MD, flew right past the Earth. In fact, if flew really really close to Earth, at about 12,400 km (7430 mi) from Earth’s surface. That distance is less than the diameter of the Earth itself! Or about 1/32 the distance to the Moon. But astronomers were dead on in determining that it would miss us.

Trajectory of near-Earth asteroid 2011 MD passing Earth on June 27, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL Near-Earth Object Program Office.

It is actually fairly easy to determine where things are heading in space, or at least in the vicinity of our Solar System. The advent of Kepler's laws of planetary motion, along with Newtonian physics and some other neat tricks of the trade, and super computers for crunching the numbers, and really all that is needed is a velocity and a direction. So astronomers generally have a high degree of accuracy on object motion, there are perturbations every once in awhile, but this is usually because of some unseen gravitation interaction.

The biggest threat when it comes with asteroids of this size is the lack of warning. 2011 MD was discovered a mere 5 days before our encounter with it. Now, some people have been claiming that if an asteroid like this were to impact the Earth, it would send a tsunami across the planet twice. Which really just is not true. This was a loose, stony asteroid, like most asteroids, and would have broken up harmlessly in the atmosphere with no ground damage. If anything, it would be a hell of an early fireworks show. The worrisome ones are made up of iron, but aren't very common.

2011 MD on Monday, June 27, 2011 at 09:30 UTC. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Giovanni Sostero at the Faulkes Telescope South

Of course, it was also a great chance for amateur and professional astronomers to study an asteroid up close. Lately, it's been up to us to send probes and robots to check out asteroids, so it's nice for them to stop by for a visit once in awhile. There have been some great photos posted in this Universe Today article, and has a couple of images and movies up. Researchers have also used radio telescopes to study this piece of Solar System history.

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait wrote an excellent article and suggested that this is the kind of object that future space missions will be looking to explore. It would be relatively easy, easier than getting to the Moon, to put a man on an asteroid like this. Again, the biggest short fall being the lack of warning. But now that we know about this object, and know it will be about another 13 years before it comes this close again, maybe we can have a mission put together by then. Here's hoping to that great future.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

'Magnetic Ropes' on the Sun Cause Solar Storms

I always enjoy hearing about new discoveries in space science. I especially enjoy it when we learn more about our Sun. AND I really really enjoy it when it's a discovery made by researchers from my old University and have met in the past.

On the left, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the magnetic rope as the thick looped structure extending above the edge of the sun. On the right, SDO observes as the surrounding cool magnetic field lines are pushed away by the intruding magnetic rope seen on the left. Both images are taken almost simultaneously (within three seconds of each other). [Credit: NASA and GMU]

George Mason University professor Jie Zhang and his graduate student Xin Cheng proved the existence of 'magnetic ropes' that cause solar storms. They used images from NASA Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) to solve this blank in the understanding of heliophysics (the physics of the Sun). They presented their findings

Here are press articles from GMU and that describe a bit about the discovery. Essentially, there is now an understanding of what causes solar storms, a twisting tangle of magnetic fields that can create an immense eruption. Though it was already believed that these ropes could lead to eruptions, this research confirms it.

With this now known, astronomers are a step closer to understanding and predicting solar storms. This will be of a great benefit to just about anyone who relies on electricity. Solar storms have the potential to knock out power grids for extended periods (perhaps years) and cause catastrophic damage.

This sort of solar research is essential for protecting infrastructure and communication around the globe. So, I am thankful for the intelligent work of these researchers and hopefully much more will come. The results of the study were reported at the American Astronomical Society Solar Physics Division Meeting, which is being held from June 12 to 16 at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

[You may have noticed I haven't been as active lately. I've been a bit busy planning my 4th of July break, of which I'll likely be gone for a week. I'm looking at leaving for North Carolina's Outer Banks on the 30th. I'll probably make a couple scheduled posts. I have also been filling out job apps like it's my job. Seriously, there has to be a better way than filling in all the same info over and over again on every different website's application form. Oh well, it has gotta get done. Also, I am going to a friends wedding this weekend, so see you all on Monday. Hope you get to enjoy some sun and pleasant weather.]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Becoming An Ice Hunter

Just last week, I was praising and encouraging people to participate with the ambitious citizen scientist project, the Zooniverse. Now, if looking for exoplanets, identifying galaxies, examining the surface of the Moon, watching for solar storms, and studying the structure of our Milky Way Galaxy all sound boring to you (and really it shouldn't), then be prepared for their latest project: Ice Hunters.

Ice Hunters will have members of the public contribute in modern space exploration unlike any other way before. You can examine images from the giant Magellan and Subaru telescopes looking for Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs. These Pluto-like objects are lumps of ice, frozen chunks that exist on the fringes of our Solar System and may take millennia to circle the Sun once. Astronomers have already identified over a thousand KBOs, and there are likely tens of thousands left to be discovered.

Now, if discovering new objects in our own Solar System wasn't cool enough, you will help choose the next destination or two for a spacecraft to visit. The New Horizons probe is set to buzz past Pluto in July 2015, giving us an unprecedented view of the ice dwarf. Astronomers and researchers are on the edge of their seats for this encounter and are expecting to be amazed. But after New Horizons sails past Pluto, it is going to keep heading deeper into the outer solar system, deep into the Kuiper Belt, the territory of KBOs.

New Horizons has been given the capability to explore further objects than Pluto, and will be visiting one or two of them. With Ice Hunters, the KBOs found by the public will be considered as possible targets. KBOs have never been seen up close before, so your discovery may be one of the first of these objects ever studied up close and personal. Your discovery could lead to a bunch of new understanding about how our Solar System works, and maybe even an indication of how water was brought to the Earth.

It's an exciting prospect, especially for members of the general public. The site makes it just as easy as the other Zooniverse projects. Humans turn out to be really good at identifying these objects, were as computers tend to get confused by false positives in the data. You can read more about how it works here. That is why they need you. They need your eyes and your intelligence, there is far more data available than their are researchers.

Check out Ice Hunters and New Horizons maybe visiting your discovery soon!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Astro-Lesson: Summer Solstice

The Sun as it appeared just a few minutes before today's solstice occurred. (Credit: NASA/SDO)

As of 17:16 UTC (1:16 p.m. Eastern US time) today, June 21, 2001, the Sun will reach the furthest north of its travel across the sky. This event is known as the summer solstice in the north, and consequently has the most daylight of the year. In the southern hemisphere, it would be the winter solstice and the shortest day.

The summer solstice is generally used to either mark the beginning of summer or the midpoint, neither is really right or wrong. Seasons are kind of an abstract notion as it is. But from this point on, the remaining days of the year will get slightly shorter until we reach the winter solstice on December 22.  But, that doesn't necessarily mean cooler days, as anyone who has experienced the month of August knows. (And again, for all of those in the southern hemisphere, just the opposite is true.)

Solstice and Equinox. (Credit: NASA)

What causes this change in seasons has everything to do with the tilt of the Earth. The distance of the Earth from the Sun has nothing to do with it, though I know many people who have been incorrectly taught so or envision it this way because the Earth's orbit is slightly oval. In fact, for the northern hemisphere, summer occurs when the Earth is furthest away from the Sun. And if distance were the cause, then both hemispheres would have the seasons at the same time.

What really happens is that the Earth appears to "wobble" around the Sun on its tilted axis. And because one hemisphere is pointed tilted more towards the Sun due to this wobble, it gets more direct sunlight and longer days. This happens until the Sun reaches a certain number of degrees (currently 23° 26′ 16″) north or south of the equator, and then the Sun appears to travel back across the sky to the next point. These lines at north and south are known as the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, respectfully. And tracing the Sun's path between these two points, every day at the same time, leads to the formation of a figure-8 pattern called an analemma.
Solar Analemma over Athens, Greece. The lowest point is on the winter solstice, the highest is the summer, the crossings are the spring and fall equinoxes. (Source)

Anyways, I hope you have enjoyed the longest day of the year hear in the northern hemisphere. It tends to be a well celebrated day all around the world, and has been since ancient times. Sites like Stonehenge and the ruins of ancient cultures, like the Greeks and Mayans and Egyptians, all have indications of marking the importance of the summer solstice. It's an astronomical event!

Monday, June 20, 2011

So Much Science, So Little Time

I hope everyone enjoyed their Father's Day weekend, I know I had some good times with my family. There has been some great astronomy stuff happening (as always) so I figured I'll dump some links.

This hemispheric view of Venus was created using more than a decade of radar investigations culminating in the 1990-1994 Magellan mission, and is centered on the planet's North Pole. This composite image was processed to improve contrast and to emphasize small features, and was color-coded to represent elevation. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

First up, Life's Little Mysteries is presenting The Greatest Mysteries of the Cosmos every Friday this summer. They are starting with our solar systems and first was The Greatest Mysteries of Venus. It is a great opener to understanding out planetary evil twin.

Dawn captured this view of Vesta on June 14, 2011. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is getting closer and closer to asteroid Vesta by the day. It now has a better resolution than the Hubble Space Telescope. The image above was taken on June 14, 2011 from a distance of about 265,000 kilometers. Each pixel spans roughly 25 kilometers. As The Planetary Society explains it:
There's clearly a deep crater in the northern part of the image. And the outline is definitely lumpier than the outlines of similarly sized bodies in the outer solar system (like Mimas and Enceladus), but we knew that already; the rock that Vesta is made of is able to hold up steeper mountains than the relatively low-strength ices that outer planet moons are made of. Apart from that, it's still hard to tell what's albedo differences and what's topography. But that won't be true for long.

In the skies of Mars, there was recently an amazing alignment. On June 1, Mars' tiny moon Phobos slipped in front of Jupiter from the view point of the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Above is an animation of the event, using photos taken with the Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). In addition to being a cool event, the observation also helps to improve knowledge of the martian moon's orbital position.

Color composite of Helene from June 18, 2011 flyby. There’s a bit of a blur because the moon shifted position in the frames slightly between images. NASA / JPL / SSI / J. Major

And speaking of tiny moons, the Cassini spacecraft out at Saturn performed a flyby of Helene on June 18. The second-closest flyby of the icy little moon helped to map the surface and better understand the history and gully-like features seen on previous flybys. You can read more about it here.

In other news, the Space Shuttle Atlantis had its final payload delivered on Saturday, June 18. The shuttle is on track for the final flight, STS-135, on July 8. The main payload is the Italian- built “Raffaello” logistics module for the International Space Station, which contains 5 tons of "critical space parts, crew supplies and experiments to sustain space station operations once the shuttles are retired". The secondary payload is dubbed the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) – a sort of “gas station in space”.

And finally, tomorrow, June 21, is the longest day of the year for the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice. Hopefully everyone enjoys their long and warm day. Though consequently, it is the shortest day in the southern hemisphere, so keep warm guys.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Firestorm in Centaurus A

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most amazing tools that astronomers have ever had. I don't think to many people would argue that. But in addition to that, it provides the world with some of the most amazing pictures of our Universe. It shows us a beautiful Universe that would be an abstract artist's dream. And just yesterday, another hit was released to the public: (you are gonna want to click to see the larger image.)

This is a nearby galaxy named Centaurus A, or well, a portion of Cen A. The image shows a close up of the dark and murky dust of Cen A lite up by the fires of starbirth happening throughout the galaxy. It is an interesting and dynamic place to read about.

Unfortunately, I don't have the time to tell you all about it, I am literally on my way out the door for the weekend. I'll be checking comments either late Sunday or on Monday. To read more about this image and Cen A, I suggest checking out Bad Astronomy's article, or's, and for really huge and detailed version, check out HubbleSite.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


NASA's MESSENGER probe has been orbiting Mercury for about 3 months now, since it entered orbit on March 18, 2011, being the first spacecraft to do so. In that time, the probe has taken tens of thousands of high resolution images of major features of the planet. It has taken millions of measurements of things like chemical composition, topography, and the magnetic field.

Degas crater imaged as a high-resolution targeted observation (90 m/pixel). Impact melt coats its floor, and as the melt cooled and shrank, it formed the cracks observed across the crater. For context, Mariner 10’s view of Degas is shown at left. Degas is 52 km in diameter. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury been as interesting as researchers expected, including a few surprises. NASA had a conference to today that detailed some of the things they are discovering and learning more about on Mercury. Some of the great things so far have been unprecedented surface detail that is revealing landforms unlike anything else known in the Solar System (an example can be seen in the Degas crater above, a surface composition that differs greatly from the Moon (which was thought to be analogous to Mercury, the comparison graph is below), the mapping of craters that might contain water ice or other ices, and building an understanding of energetic particle bursts in Mercury's magnetosphere (thought to be caused by interactions with the Sun).

Major-element composition of Mercury's surface materials as compared to typical lunar surface materials and terrestrial basalts. Mercury appears as unique as the other planets and the Moon. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

We have learned a lot about the closest planet to the Sun in the past few months. The best part is that this mission still has another three more years! I think it's best to end with the words of the MESSENGER Principal investigator Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington:
"We are assembling a global overview of the nature and workings of Mercury for the first time and many of our earlier ideas are being cast aside as new observations lead to new insights. Our primary mission has another three Mercury years to run, and we can expect more surprises as our solar system's innermost planet reveals its long-held secrets." 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Citizen Scientists

I have mentioned these kinds of things in the past, but I think it's good to reiterate, especially if you are a newer reader. I also like encouraging people to be involved in science and understanding the world around them. So, with the Planet Hunters site turning 6 months old, now is a great time to remind people that they can participate in making real discoveries.

Planet Hunters is part of the Zooniverse. According to their about page, "The Zooniverse is home to the internet's largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects." The projects hosted include Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, the Milky Way Project, of course Planet Hunters, and a couple others. For the most part these are all astronomy projects, and generally presented in a fun and interesting way to public to learn and make discoveries with.

For instance, Planet Hunters has found about 70 candidate systems for exo-planets. Candidates because they still have to confirmed by follow up observations to ensure they are real. But for the most part, these are likely real planets around other stars. This data comes from NASA's Kepler space telescope. There was so much data that researchers couldn't possibly go through it all, so they released it to the public for their aid.

So, now people like you can go online and, with minimal training, start hunting through Kepler data for exo-planets. It's one of those things, that once you start, you kinda get drawn into it. You will tell yourself one more, and 10 minutes later still be sitting there. It is also nice to feel like you are contributing to science. The best part is, if you find a planet, you get credited with its discovery. This is only something a handful of people on the Earth can claim to have done, discover a planet.

The other Zooniverse projects work much the same way. They use data from other great sources like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the STEREO spacecraft (two of them observe the Sun), and other world class telescopes. And again, the reasoning for why they NEED you is because there is such an overwhelming amount of scientific data that researchers just can't go through the piles and piles of it.

Artist Concept of the Spitzer Space Telescope (NASA)

Space is huge. We all know that, so the more people that take a couple of minutes to lend a hand, the more we learn about the Universe. It also increases the number of people who have knowledge of this science, a better educated world. You can really learn a few things about astronomy from participating in these projects. It really is win-win, so go be a citizen scientist!

The thing with Planet Hunters being 6 months old though is that this week they're giving you the chance to ask just about anything of the project's scientists and developers. You can ask questions via Planet Hunters Talk at or via Twitter using the hashtag #phlivechat. On Thursday they'll be hosting the first ever Zooniverse live chat. Representatives of the Planet Hunters team will be answering your questions live, thanks to Skype Video and UStream.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Vesta Approach Video

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is slowly inching closer to asteroid Vesta. Last month, NASA released Dawn's first glimpse of Vesta, at about 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) away. Today they have released a really short video. In the video, Vesta rotates from left to right, and covers about 30 degrees of rotation.

The view of Vesta has really improved, the craft is now at a distance of about 300,000 miles (483,000 kilometers). This short video is the looping of 20 images taken over about 30 minutes. The images were obtained on June 1st for navigational purposes.

The resolution here is on par with the Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta. Astronomers are busy looking for familiar landmarks and picking out new details. The large crater at the south pole appears to be a real feature, one that astronomers will definitely be getting a much closer look at.

In about a month, July 16, Dawn will be slipping smoothly into orbit around Vesta. This will be our first close encounter with an alien body in the asteroid belt and much is hoped to be learned. After Dawn is finished, it will glide right back out and head onwards to largest body in the asteroid belt, the dwarf planet Ceres.

Video Source (if you can't play the video, try here.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Surf's Up... On the Sun!?

The Sun has been amazing us all week. First there a massive explosion; then we learned it's magnetic field created a froth of magnetic bubbles at the edge of the Solar System; And now it has been discovered that there are "surfer waves" on the Sun. Whoa, dude...

Surfer waves -- initiated in the sun, as they are in the water, by a process called a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability -- have been found in the sun's atmosphere. Credit: NASA/SDO/Astrophysical Journal Letters
I wouldn't suggest trying out your "hang 10" on these waves though. Besides being the surface of the Sun, the waves are about the size of the continental U.S. and moving at some insane speeds. The waves were discovered by the amazing Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which took the video of the explosion earlier this week. This nifty craft, launched in February 2010, has definitely been earning its keep.

The waves were discovered soon after the SDO began taking images in March 2010. The science team has been hard at work learning about these waves and have just published their paper in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. You can find all the nitty gritty physics there if you want. This video is also fairly informative:

The waves are caused by the same effect that creates classic "surfing waves" in water, known as the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. Its effect can also be seen in clouds and on other planets. It is expected that this discovery will explain how energy moves through the atmosphere, or corona, of the Sun and initiates events like Coronal Mass Ejections.

So enjoy your weekends everyone. Maybe you'll catch some Sun and waves down at the beach? Our forcast is calling for thunderstorms all weekend...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Surprising Edge of Our Solar System

A couple of days ago I mentioned that NASA was having a teleconference today (June 9) to discuss conditions at the edge of the Solar System. (You can find it mentioned at the end of this post.) Well, the conference is over, and the press releases are out, along with some new images and a nifty video to explain it all.

I find the video gives the best explanation about what has been learned. It is a bit amazing to know we are still learning so much about our own Solar System, and we recognize that we still have much to learn.

Old and new views of the heliosheath. Red and blue spirals are the gracefully curving magnetic field lines of orthodox models. New data from Voyager add a magnetic froth (inset) to the mix. Credit: NASA

The basic gist of the findings is that a froth of magnetic bubbles make up the barrier between us and interstellar space. This is determined from data gathered by the Voyager probes and computer modelling. These bubbles change the old idea that there was a smooth barrier at the edge of the Solar System.

The froth seems to be generated by twisting in the Sun's magnetic field, causing the bubbles that can be a 100 million miles across. As Merav Opher, an astronomer at Boston University (and formerly George Mason University) puts it:
"The sun's magnetic field extends all the way to the edge of the solar system. Because the sun spins, its magnetic field becomes twisted and wrinkled, a bit like a ballerina's skirt. Far, far away from the sun, where the Voyagers are, the folds of the skirt bunch up."
Another amazing find from the astronomical community. This discovery will also help to build a better understanding about how galactic cosmic rays enter our solar system and help define how the star interacts with the rest of the galaxy. You can read the NASA feature story here.

(I am still working on an Astro-Lesson on Comets, I might just put that off until next week now.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Spectacular Stellar Explosion

I wanted to get something science-y in today, and since this has been all over the place, I figured I would mention it. Yesterday morning (June 7th) there was a massive explosion on the surface of the Sun. The video can be seen below, and is spectacular.

To describe the event, the Solar Dynamics Observatory science team says: “The Sun unleashed an M-2 (medium-sized) solar flare with a substantial coronal mass ejection (CME) on June 7 that is visually spectacular. The large cloud of particles mushroomed up and fell back down looking as if it covered an area of almost half the solar surface.”

“SDO observed the flare’s peak at 1:41 AM EST. SDO recorded these images in extreme ultraviolet light and they show a very large explosion of cool gas. It is somewhat unique because at many places in the eruption there seems to be even cooler material — at temperatures less than 80,000K.”

Storm Warning: NOAA forecasters estimate a greater than 25% chance of geomagnetic storms on June 9th. That's when a CME from the magnificent flare of June 7th is expected to deliver a glancing blow to Earth's magnetic field. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras. You can follow more Sun news on

For A Gay Girl in Damascus

WARNING: This is not my normal sort of post!

Some of you in the blog-o-sphere, or even just avid news consumers, may have heard of this girls blog before: A Gay Girl in Damascus. I first learned about her in late April when the story was making the rounds about this girl and her bravery and her father's heroism, as recorded in this post.

I have felt touched and supportive of this blog. To be an open lesbian in country like Syria cannot be easy. And then in the last month everything has exploded. There is a revolution happening that most news sites seem to put aside as security forces versus protestors. The problems are much deeper than that.

So, really, less than an hour ago, I learned that the writer of this blog, Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari was abducted by armed men on June 6. This struck me as a tragedy. The health and status of Amina is unknown, no one in her family can find her, in fact several of her family members have also been detained. It is supposed that the forces that have her are trying to forcible deport her.

There is no indication that Amina has been killed, if they wanted her dead, they would have done so by now. Her situation is unique. She has gained an international following from her bravery and heart. The people who have her are smart, they know that her death on their hands would be disastrous. I fear for others in her situation who might not enjoy that attention.

So, you have the opportunity to help. Show your solidarity for a brave and loving girl, certainly scared and held against her will. I would first suggest supporting the Facebook group: Follow her blog: A Gay Girl in Damascus. And e-mail your country's Syrian Embassy: (Facebook has instructions and a form letter you can send.) If you are in the United States, it is recommended you e-mail the Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha, Ph.D., at

I have already taken all of these steps. I encourage you to do the same. It is not often that I talk about a political matter on my blog, but this is something I feel really strongly about. The United States of America are not without fault on several issues, as many of us know. But this is a severe issue that I believe immediate action can make a difference in.

As for my own compulsion for taking these actions, they are three-fold. First, Amina is a human being like the rest of us; she does not deserve to have her rights infringed upon, especially her freedoms of speech and her pursuit of happiness. Second, she is a blogger, an assault on allowing the free exchange of expression over the web against anyone is an assault against me and everything I stand for, as it should be for all bloggers. And lastly, I am the older brother of a gay girl (I also have another awesome younger sister).

I love my sisters for everything they are. And as strange as this may sound, I love my sister's partner as another sister. They have been together in a lasting relationship that I have seen more love out of than many straight couples. The idea of being afraid of such a lifestyle makes me sad, my sister has always had the maternal instinct and been the boldest (for being the middle child) of three children. I love her, and I can accept that way of life. And if anyone threatened her, I can imagine what Amina's family is going through.

So again, I urge you to take action. And even if you don't want to e-mail and get into the thick of it, almost everyone has a Facebook, you can at least 'like' that. Show your love for human life. Appreciate a sister, especially one who has placed as much love in you as you can place in her. "Borders mean nothing when you have wings." And I believe every astronaut and cosmonaut has seen this first hand from their vantage point.

(I'll have an Astro-Lesson on comets tomorrow, this obviously takes precedence.)


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Our Changing Solar System

As they keep searching, astronomers learn more and more about how our Solar System formed. There is a good amount of understanding on how things happened, but a lot of the finer details of just why things appear the way they do still have to be answered.

Our Solar System is like a giant cosmic puzzle, and we are constantly finding new clues about the course of its evolution.

This week a few amazing findings that are redefining the way we understand our Solar System, planet formation, and what we might expect to find in other star systems.

An artistic rendition of the impact that created the Moon.

The idea that our Earth-Moon configuration is a rare occurrence has been challenged by simulations. Our Moon is considered to be disproportionally large, at over a quarter of the Earth's diameter. The Moon was formed from a large impact between a young Earth and a Mars-sized planet. The simulations run by researchers from the University of Zurich's Institute of Theoretical Physics in Switzerland and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado show that these kinds of impacts might actually be much more common, perhaps as many as one in 10 rocky planets around a Sun-like star may host a large moon.

What is even better about this news, it is a way to help identify possible habitable planets. The Moon plays a large role in making the Earth a livable place between blocking would-be impactors and stirring the tides. Other planets with large moons could be ripe for life.

In this artist's conception, gas and dust—the raw materials for making planets—swirl around a young star. The planets in our solar system formed from a similar disk of gas and dust captured by our Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The planet-sized object that glanced the Earth might have gotten its gravitational push from Jupiter. In another piece of news, researchers from around the world and NASA have developed a new model about the early motions of planets in our Solar System. The biggest news in this is the roaming of Jupiter, at one point it would have wandered almost as close to the Sun as Mars (before Mars was there), it would have only been stopped by the counter pull of Saturn.

The effects of Jupiter's motions have a profound impact. Over millions of years, Jupiter would have pushed around objects in our neighborhood. The nature of the asteroid belt would owe itself to these gravitational interactions. And probably the biggest impact is that Jupiter prevented Mars from growing to a larger planet. Jupiter either absorbed or scattered most of the material in the region Mars exists in, leaving slim pickings for planet formation.

A previous concept about the edge of our Solar System, which may be changing with new findings. Credit: NASA

And the last story about our amazing Solar System doesn't quite flow with the other two as well, but is still important. NASA is holding a teleconference on June 9 to discuss conditions at the edge of the Solar System. Based on data from the Voyager probes, the view of the edge of our Solar System needs to be changed.

The discussion will be about "a new computer model that shows the edge of our solar system is not smooth, but filled with a turbulent sea of magnetic bubbles." Since this is a poorly understood and previously unexplored region, there is much to be learned. Understanding is important though, this is a region that protects us from galactic cosmic rays.

Another reason why I am interested in this particular conference is because one of the panelists I have met before. Merav Opher used to be an assistant professor at my alma mater, George Mason University. She is wonderfully intelligent and I have found her work with the Voyager probes absolutely fascinating.

Monday, June 6, 2011

30 Kilometers for Opportunity

There's no stopping NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars.

This collage maps the the entire route of the Opportunity Mars Rover. (Click to enlarge) Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer

On June 1, 2011, a short drive of 482 feet (146.8 meters) pushed the rover's odometer past 30 km (18.64 miles). It has taken nearly seven and a half years since the rover landed on Jan 24, 2004. Also keep in mind that this mission only had a 3 month 'warranty', and was expected to travel only a quarter mile.

The rover has managed to rove 50 times the initially planned distance, over 29 times beyond the original design lifetime! An amazing feat that no one involved in the rover missions ever expected.

The rover is still providing an abundance of science and photos of the Martian surface. Opportunity has been crater-hopping tour, and recently imaged the "Skylab" crater, seen below (a 3-D stereo image can be found here).

Opportunity snaps a photo of Skylab Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Informally named after the United States' first space station, the crater is about 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. The craters appearance suggests it is young for a Martian crater, estimated to have occurred by a meteorite impact in the last 100,00 years. Opportunity passed it on its long-term destination, Endeavour crater, which is about 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity is now only about 2 miles away.

Recently, NASA ceased attempting to communicate with Opportunity's twin, Spirit, which has been out of contact since March 2010. More information on the rovers can be found on NASA website.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Cassini Mission: The Movie

CASSINI MISSION from cabbas on Vimeo.

[You'll probably want to watch this with HD and full screen turned on.]

This is footage from the Cassini Imaging Science System by the hard workers at NASA. The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for nearly 7 years now, tracking moons, rings, and the planet. Many thousands of images have been sent back to Earth and have been enjoyed by the public over the past few years.

Videographer Chris Abbas got the idea to string them together into a video. The result was an eerily beautiful look at the sixth planet using raw, unprocessed data. You can see some of the 'defects' that astronomers tend to work around since it gets in the way of the science being done. But in the case of art, the dark donuts created by dust in the camera, cosmic rays hitting the detector, and imperfections in the camera itself; they all add to the beauty of things.

Abbas included a quote of Carl Sagan with the video, a quote that inspiring with this video:
"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
(If you have problems getting the embedded Vimeo video to play, you can watch the video here.) 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Other Life on Mars

I felt like I haven't done a good astrobiology article in awhile. And I wanted to do something a bit different then the normal way we tend to think about life in the Universe. This one is about life on Mars, but in a different sense. It also pulls on an idea I talked about in the Life on Ceres article from a couple weeks back.

Lets just go ahead and throw the big-worded-phrase out there: Unintentional Anthropogenic Panspermia. More simply: human activity might have accidentally brought life to another planet. Specifically, Mars in this case.

OK? Yeah, it is kind of a crazy idea, along with lots of questions of hows and whys. But, like the classic idea of panspermia (that life on Earth was formed somewhere else and seeded here through natural [meteor, asteroid, or comet impact] causes), this idea is purely conjecture. It stands as a pretty fun thought in some astrobiologist heads since there is no way to determine anything definitive right now.

Unlike the idea of the Earth being seeded with life, if humans unintentional brought life to Mars, we may be able to prove it... eventually.

Mars: frozen desert or thriving ecology? (Image Credit: Spirit Rover, NASA)

First, lets take a step back and figure out how exactly Earth-based lifeforms would have made it to Mars. It is a bit ironic that the first missions being sent to Mars to search for life, might have been the ones to have brought it there. After it was clear that the United States had one the race to the Moon in 1969, the Soviet Union turned its eyes towards Mars. A red planet for the red army, the space race was still on.

It turns out that getting to Mars, even with just a probe, was more expensive and difficult than putting a man on the Moon. And if getting there was hard, putting a lander on the surface was even harder. There were numerous failed missions, some of which barely got off the launch platform, others missed Mars entirely and sailed of into space, never to be heard from again.

A few of those probes actually made it to Mars, and the Soviet Union had managed to get six landers to Mars before the famous USA Viking mission. They were known as Mars 2-7 (Mars 1 failed during launch). These were actually fairly sophisticated landers for the time, but they involved little more then crashing a probe into the planet and seeing how long it would last. They didn't provide the wealth of information that the highly successful Viking mission did, but they were many properties of Mars that were previous unknown.

Mars 3 Lander model at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Russia. (Source)

Unfortunately, after this point, the USSR was beginning to run into problems with its space program. They had already been cutting corners, which was beginning to show with the multiple launch failures. But all these failures and the faltering politics brought to an end some of the most ambitious Mars missions on the chalkboard, including sample returns. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been only one failed attempt by Russia to return to Mars, but there are currently plans for a lander on Mars' moon Phobos that will return samples.

So that is a little bit of the early Mars exploration history, with a larger context on Soviet activities. There is a specific reason why to highlight those missions, Mars 2-7. With the exception of 4 and 7, they all made it to the Martian surface. And I also mentioned that the Soviets had been cutting corners. See, they didn't have quite the same idea of procedure we have today. These landers were often poorly decontaminated, if at all. They were likely crawling with microorganism.

Before I have mentioned just how extreme and hardy life can be. This could very well be the case, that some amazing extremophile from our Earth survived a 60 million kilometer trip that lasted months to the surface of Mars. It sounds amazing, it sounds fantastic, it sounds plausible! In the crater of some old Soviet probe in the middle of the cold, dusty Martian desert there could be life from our muddy blue marble, so far from home.

Tardigrade, AKA Water Bear, AKA the baddest animal on Earth, and maybe Mars.

How would our distance brothers be doing? That is a point of contention. The probes could have been entirely sterilized from solar and cosmic activity. Or the microorganisms could still be in a frozen hibernation that they have been in since launch, waiting for the right conditions. Or they might have found just the littlest amount of liquid water nearby and have created a thriving community around the landing site, perhaps even seeping deep into the warmer crust.

If our brothers from Earth have flourished underground, they might have found Martian life not to different from themselves. A recent finding of 'worms' deep in the Earth's crust provides hope for life in similar environments on Mars and other locations. There could be a proverbial 'War of the Worlds' going on between tiny Soviet invaders and native Martians. This is also part of the reason why there is a push for decontamination these days, to not destroy any potential life that might exist or ruin alien environments.

Like I said before, this is conjecture, but it is entirely plausible. And it is testable. If we get to Mars and discover life, it would be fairly simple to determine if the similar to modern Earth-based lifeforms. They would likely carry signatures similar to all other life on Earth, unlike something that developed in a totally isolated Martian environment, which would expect to have a markedly different genetic history.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 2011 Highlights

As with previous months, I am delivering another summary of the great astronomical events you can expect this upcoming month. It definitely feels like Summer here, the Sun doesn't set until nearly 8:30 pm, and the heat has been sweltering this past Memorial Day weekend. All the more reason to spend more of the day at the pool and go out in the cooler evenings to take a look at the stars.

June 1: New Moon: The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth.

June 1: Partial Eclipse of the Sun: The partial eclipse will be visible in most parts eastern Asia, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and other high latitude locations in the northern hemisphere. Begins at 19:25, ends at 23:06 UT. (UT stands for Universal Time, equivalent to Greenwich Mean Time)

June 9: First Quarter Moon: The Moon is halfway through the waxing phase, a great time for observing as the shadows provide wonderful contrast.

June 10: Saturn & Moon Conjunction: In the evening sky, you can expect to find Saturn and the Moon near each other.

June 13: Mercury at Superior Conjunction: Mercury swings around the opposite side of the Sun and passes into the evening sky.

June 15: Full Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse: Begins at 19:22 UT and ends at 21:03 UT. Mid-eclipse at 20:13 UT. Partial phases begin at 18:22 UT and end at 22:02 UT. The Moon will appear red-orange in color during totality (the Earth's shadow). Total eclipse visible from eastern South America, Africa, Europe, central Asia, and western Australia. This moon, in the Native American tradition of naming the full moons throughout the year, is known as the Strawberry Moon, because this is the time of year when strawberries are naturally in season.

June 21: June (Summer) Solstice: Summer is definitely here for the northern hemisphere! In the southern hemisphere, it is Winter. The Summer Solstice occurs when the Sun reaches the point farthest north of the equator (the Tropic of Cancer at 23.44 degrees north latitude) marking the start of summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere. It is also the longest day of the year for the north, while the shortest for the south.

June 23: Last Quarter Moon: Halfway through the Moon's waning phase, The next New Moon will be July 1st.

I'm going to be enjoying my long, warm June days. And you guys in the south keep warm, you'll be rubbing it in our faces come December. Have a great month everyone!