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.)