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