Digital Full Dome Planetarium Theater
The Bishop Planetarium is the region’s premier astronomy education facility, as well as a multimedia theater for films, lectures, live music and digital art performances. The Planetarium is a foundational component of the South Florida Museum’s Mission: To engage and inspire learners of all ages; we protect, interpret and communicate scientific and cultural knowledge of Florida, the world, and our universe. The new Planetarium system – the Digistar 5 dual Projection System installed in October 2013 – improves the viewer experience of the Museum’s expanding full-dome show library with projectors that are more than three times as bright and twelve times crisper (higher contrast) than the previous projectors. The system allows for exploration of Earth through the use of 200 continually updated satellite datasets of our planet’s land, ocean, atmosphere and climate and live Bing and OnTerra views of the entire planet.
“We waited for the new Digistar system to be released, and I'm happy to say that I'm glad we did,” says Bishop Planetarium Director Jeff Rodgers. “The projection is bright, crisp and beautiful. And the new astronomy software is simply amazing. The stars in the night sky look fantastic, but there's so much more. We have a digital, three-dimensional map of the entire universe. We can lift off from Earth and fly out of our solar system, out of our galaxy, and out to the very edge of the universe. Or we can orbit Earth, using satellite data to observe and understand our planet in a whole new way. It's hard to imagine a more powerful set of tools for exploring our universe and our place in it.”
Incorporating unidirectional stadium style seating and a digital 25,000 watt Dolby 5.1 surround sound system, the Bishop Planetarium Theater is capable of accommodating a wide range of programs, from lectures to film series to live performances. But first and foremost, the planetarium is a remarkable astronomy education resource, allowing visitors to explore their universe through traditional live star talks and immersive virtual journeys to the far reaches of the cosmos.
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Bishop Planetarium — the Gulf Coast's premier astronomy education facility. Just for fun, we pulled together a few lesser-known space-related facts that we thought you would enjoy (cocktail party fodder, perhaps?) Be sure to check back every week for the new fun fact.
Week 50: After spending the last 50 weeks exploring the stars, our solar system and those who have helped unlock some of its mysteries, we've come to one definite conclusion: Gene Roddenberry was right: Space is the final frontier. And though we're mixing our science fiction favorites in this post, we'd also be remiss if we didn't say, in honor of Carrie Fisher, may the force be with you!
Week 49: A group of astronomers has discovered the ultimate space Pac Man — a star similar to our own sun that appears to have eaten some of its nearby planets. What is this giant death star, you ask? Hint: Darth Vader had nothing to
HIP68468, a twin star to our sun, (also known as a solar twin) about 300 light-years away, may have swallowed one or more of its planets, based on lithium and refractory elements recently discovered near its surface. Illustration by Gabi Perez / Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias.
do with it. Instead, it’s a star named HIP68468, which is located some 300 light years away from us. The star has exoplanets — planets beyond our own solar system that orbit stars other than our own sun — including the two exoplanets most recently discovered around the HIPstar: a super Neptune and a super Earth. Super because while those exoplanets are similar to Neptune and Earth, they are much more massive. These exoplanets are also super close to their host star… the super Earth, for instance, only takes three days to go around its sun. (With an orbit that short, gift givers would have to shop for Christmas presents about every 1.38 hours!)
But how do the astronomers know the star really did eat some of its planets? According to an article by Greg Borzo from the University of Chicago news office: HIP68468’s composition points to a history of ingesting planets. It contains four times more lithium than would be expected for a star that is 6 billion years old, as well as a surplus of refractory elements—metals resistant to heat and that are abundant in rocky planets.
Debra Fischer, a professor of astronomy at Yale University who was not involved in this research but asked to comment on it anyway, gave one of our favorite astronomer quotes ever: “It's as if we saw a cat sitting next to a bird cage. If there are yellow feathers sticking out of the cat’s mouth, it’s a good bet that the cat swallowed a canary.”
Puddy tats aside, did the star really eat the planets? Not so much; instead, what really happened was that the push-pull of the gravitational forces that keep planets orbiting their stars was eventually overwhelmed by the pull of the sun’s gravitational forces and the planets were pulled into their sun — something that computer simulations predict will happen to our own planet Mercury.
The research team, which is monitoring another 60 solar twins in its continuing search for more exoplanets, included members from University of Chicago, Universidade de Sao Paulo, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, University of Texas Austin, Australian National University, University of Göttingen, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
You can read their study, “The Solar Twin Planet Search. V. Close-in, low-mass planet candidates and evidence of planet accretion in the solar twin HIP68468,” in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal.
And if you want to know more about exoplanets in general, visit exoplanets.org.
Week 48: “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”
The reference above, of course, is to the Star of Bethlehem, which has fascinated astronomers for thousands of years and has become a popular topic of planetarium shows that take us back in time to explore the night sky as it would have been.
The South Florida Museum’s Bishop Planetarium also explores the mystery of this star and its connection to the biblical story of Jesus’ birth through its annual Star of Bethlehem Planetarium presentation. (Shows are scheduled this year at 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Dec. 21 and Dec. 23. $8 for Members and $10 for nonmembers.)
Was the star a comet, a supernova or something else entirely?
According to Armagh Planetarium’s blog: One popular explanation is that instead of being a single object, the star was actually a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred in 7 B.C. in the constellation of Pisces. This speculation goes back at least as long ago as the 13th century, but it was Johannes Kepler who was the first to argue this in depth in a tract published in 1606. The conjunction of 7 B.C. was a rare “triple conjunction” when there were three separate close encounters of the two planets seen from Earth.
“Those explanations are a bit more fluff and don't really present a compelling connection to the events of the time,” says Bishop Planetarium Staff Astronomer Howard Hochhalter, who leads the Star of Bethlehem shows. “Instead, with our system in the Bishop Planetarium, I can take our guests back in time to show them what was really happening in the skies above Babylon and Palestine between 7-1 B.C.
“Jupiter was believed to be the king of the ‘wandering stars’ — which we know today as planets. And another wandering star, Venus, symbolized fertility and motherhood. The motion of these wandering stars had enormous meaning and potential consequence to the Magi watching the skies 2,000 years ago.”
So what was the Star of Bethlehem? Join Hochhalter to find out!
Week 47: You’ve probably heard of the American Meteorological Society — which was founded in 1919 and is dedicated to promoting and disseminating information about the atmospheric, oceanic and hydrologic sciences (i.e. weather), but did you know about the American Meteor Society? It’s been around even longer, since 1911, and is focused on meteoric astronomy, including tracking reports on meteors, meteoric fireballs, meteoric trains and related meteoric phenomena.
Among the offerings on their website, the American Meteor Society offers an online reporting form for fireballs, which are basically meteors on steroids (generally brighter than magnitude -4, which is about the same magnitude of the planet Venus as seen in the morning or evening sky).
According to their website, several thousand fireballs are in our atmosphere every day — though there aren’t necessarily any people around to see them. Many occur over our oceans or during the day when they’re masked by light. Or, of course, they come roaring through the sky at night when most of us are sleeping. But still, people do report them.
So far this year, the AMS has received 23,515 fireball reports from all over the world (18,786 from the U.S.). According to logs on the AMS website, the reports range from sightings by one person (numbering in the hundreds) to one super-bright sighting that was reported by 956 people in the U.S. and Canada.
That event occurred just before midnight on Jan. 30 and was seen by people in VA, DC, PA, MD, NC, NY, NJ, DE, MA, Ontario, OH, CT, WV, KY, MI, VT, TN, SC, NH and GA. A couple of them even uploaded some neat video of the event — one taken from a GoPro mounted on an airplane and the second taken from what appears to be a surveillance camera. [LINK http://www.amsmeteors.org/members/imo_view/event/2016/340
Of course, there have also been fireballs reported over Florida — 1,174 so far this year, including one in November that was reported by 218 people, mostly on the state’s west coast. The AMS received police dashcam video from North Port (because who else is up at that time of night?) and other surveillance footage and compiled them into a short video that shows a spectacular flaming ball flashing in the night — to which we could only say “Great Ball of Fire!” (C’mon… you had to see that one coming!)
Report a fireball, but don’t forget to follow these don’ts:
- Don't report a sighting that lasted more than 30 seconds: the vast majority of fireballs are only visible for few seconds.
- Don't report recurring events: seeing a fireball is extremely rare and often a once-in- a-lifetime event.
- Don't report slow blinking objects or lights crossing the sky going by 2 or 3: a fireball looks like a big shooting star.
Week 46: We’re coming up on one of the most spectacular nighttime shows of the year — the annual Geminid Meteor Shower, which takes place Dec. 7-14. The Geminids, which produce up to 120 meteors per hour, are one of the most prolific meteor showers around and usually start early enough in the evening that even the youngest nighttime viewers can get a glimpse before they have to go off to bed.
A Geminid meteor. Credit: Jimmy Westlake
But there’s a kink this year — namely the Dec. 14 supermoon, which coincides with the Geminids peak dates of Dec. 13 & 14.
You’ll recall from our post on week 41 of our 50 for 50 that a supermoon is what’s scientifically known as a perigee syzygy: a new moon or full moon that occurs when the moon is at perigee, its closest approach to Earth during the month. And because a full supermoon is closer to Earth than a full non-supermoon, it appears bigger and brighter. A full supermoon can appear as much as 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than an apogee full moon.
And therein lies the rub.
The one essential you need to get the most out of a meteor shower is a dark sky — though there is, ahem, a bright side with the Geminids. Because they’re typically so bright and prolific that even with the supermoon making the sky super bright, you should still be able see them flying across the sky (and since they only go about 22 mph, even if you blink, you shouldn’t miss them).
One more fun fact: Unlike most meteor showers that originate in comets, the Geminids are believed to originate from a rocky object named 3200 Phaethon, which wasn’t discovered until 1983. 3200 Phaethon is a mysterious thing and experts aren’t sure why or how it produces such a bright meteor shower for us every year. For a great explainer about the origin of the Geminids, check out this 2010 story from NASA.
Week 45: We have a soft spot for one-hit wonders, those rock bands who record a song that shoots to the top of the charts and then are never heard from again (e.g., Norman Greenbaum with “Spirit in the Sky,” Iron Butterfly with “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and The Knack with “My Sharona”).
Well, Donn Eisele could be considered one of NASA’s one-hit wonders: He flew in space only once, as
During a live television broadcast from Apollo 7, command
module pilot Donn Eisele looks on as mission commander
Wally Shirra holds a sign urging the TV audience to
“keep those cards and letters coming in.” Credit: NASA
command module pilot of Apollo 7, which launched Oct. 11, 1968, and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 11 days later after orbiting the Earth 163 times.
Then Eisele dropped out of the news, but spaceflight fans can learn all about him and Apollo 7 in Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele — author Francis French discovered the manuscript of the memoir in a closet at the home of Eisele’s widow (Eisele died from a heart attack at the age of 57 in 1987) and edited it into book form; the hardcover is scheduled to hit bookstores Jan. 1, 2017.
So, why did Eisele only make one spaceflight, and why did crewmates Wally Shirra and Walt Cunningham never fly in space after Apollo 7?
In part, because Shirra came down with a cold early in the flight and passed it to Eisele and Cunningham, and the sick crew got a little snippy with ground control: Shirra repeatedly questioned orders from Houston and criticized “the genius” who had designed a particular piece of equipment; after performing a test that he considered pointless, Eisele said he’d like to “talk to the man, or whoever it was, that thought up that little gem” (the little gem had been thought up by flight director Glynn Lunney); and the crew refused to wear their helmets during re-entry because their ears and sinuses were plugged due to their colds, and the helmets’ fixed visors would prevent them from pinching their noses and blowing to equalize the pressure in their heads as pressure changed as the spacecraft blasted through Earth’s atmosphere (in his own memoir, NASA official Chris Kraft wrote about the helmet: “It was insubordinate. ... This crew shouldn't fly again”).
As the first manned spaceflight after Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a fire during a launch rehearsal for Apollo 1, Apollo 7’s goals were to prove that the Apollo command and service module (CSM) could function long enough in space to get a crew to the moon and back and to demonstrate the CSM’s rendezvous capability. Despite the crew’s insubordination and snippiness, Apollo 7 was a tremendous success. On top of that, the crew made the first live television broadcast from a manned American spacecraft.
The flight also produced one of the great spaceflight quotes of all time, right up there with “One giant leap for mankind” and “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” As part of the Apollo 7 flight plan, the astronauts were to test-fire the CSM’s engine eight times; the first blast was louder and more violent than the astronauts expected, and Shirra did a Fred Flintstone by shouting, “Yabba-dabba-do!”
So, Donn Eisele might have been a one-hit space wonder, but it was a heck of a hit.
Week 44: For those who were around back then, 1966 (i.e. 50 years ago) was a heady time, and we’re not talking about the fact that the Baltimore Orioles whipped the highly favored Los Angeles Dodgers 4-0 in the World Series.
No, we’re talking about space travel.
That year, the United States completed four successful manned space missions, the final four missions of Project Gemini, NASA’s second manned space program. Gemini might not be much remembered 50 years later, but it was the bridge between Project Mercury, which proved the United States could put men in space and bring them home, and Project Apollo, which would put men on the moon.
Among Gemini’s goals were to determine the effects of lengthy space missions on humans, how to operate outside the spacecraft during Extravehicular Activities (EVAs), and how to dock one spacecraft with another.
Gemini XII, the project’s final mission (Nov. 11 to Nov. 15, 1966), was manned by two astronauts who would become famous during Project Apollo: Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and Jim Lovell, who, as every movie buff knows, was played by Tom Hanks in the great 1995 movie Apollo 13.
One of the headiest things about 1966 was contemplating how far humans had come since the Wright brothers. Think about it: In 1903, Orville Wright made the first powered flight (120 feet in 12 seconds at a speed of 6.8 mph) at Kitty Hawk, N.C.; 11 years later, aircraft were being used in combat; 24 years after Kitty Hawk, Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean; 44 years after Kitty Hawk, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier; 58 years after Kitty Hawk, cosmonaut Yuri Gagaran became the first man in space; 63 years after Kitty Hawk, Aldrin and Lovell made the final Gemini flight, and at that time, we knew we’d be on the moon in a few years.
But, while we’ve had continued success in manned space travel with the shuttle program and the International Space Station, Aldrin is disappointed that we haven’t continued the rapid advancement we saw between the Wright brothers and the moon landings.
“Three decades after the event, people still feel compelled to tell me exactly where they were at the moment I walked on the moon,” Aldrin said in 2001. “Yet history will remember the inhabitants of the last century as the people who went from Kitty Hawk to the moon in 66 years, only to languish for the next 30 in low-Earth orbit.”
Week 43: This year marks the 30th anniversary of Katherine Johnson’s retirement.
To which you might respond, “Huh? What? Who the heck is Katherine Johnson?”
Exactly our point.
OK, try this: This year also marks the 55th anniversary of Alan Shepherd’s
Katherine Johnson and her Silver Snoopy award.
space flight (in case you’ve forgotten, Shepherd was the first American in space), and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is the person who calculated the mission’s trajectory. Note that this was before NASA used computers, and Johnson did her calculations the old-fashioned way.
As she said later: “Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down in a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’”
A math whiz who graduated Summa cum Laude from West Virginia State College with a double major in mathematics and French at the age of 18, Johnson got her start in the space program in 1953 with a team of other female math whizzes at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. The women were known as “computers”; Johnson called them “computers in skirts,” and some people called them “colored computers” — oh, yeah, forgot to mention that Johnson and her colleagues were African-Americans.
NASA’s first use of electronic computers was to calculate the trajectory of John Glenn’s 1962 orbital flight, but before he would climb aboard Friendship 7, Glenn insisted that Johnson verify the computers’ math. “So I checked it,” Johnson said, “and it was correct.”
Johnson worked through the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, and is still going strong at the age of 98. Since her 1986 retirement, she has received many honors, including, in 2015, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian honor) and earlier this year, NASA’s Silver Snoopy award, which is given to those who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success.
Among Johnson’s many career highlights:
- She verified computer calculations for the Apollo 11 mission that put the first two human beings on the moon.
- She did the math for backup procedures and charts that helped get the Apollo 13 crew back to Earth.
Interestingly, in Ron Howard’s great 1995 movie Apollo 13, all the people working so feverishly to bring the crew home were white men.
Week 42: We hate to wax Forrest Gumpish, but the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.
Think about it: If we ever make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials, what will they be like? Malevolent bugs, like the guys in Independence Day (both versions)? Big-eyed benevolent humanoids, like the fake-looking grays in Close Encounters of the First Kind? The funky beings in Contact? Or something we’ve never seen in a movie?
Whatever species are out there, Earthlings want to find them, and on Oct. 26, the Breakthrough Listen Initiative (funded by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation), which kicked off its 10-year, $100-million hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence in January, pointed the 330-foot-wide Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia at KIC 8462852, a star 1,500 light years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.
Why that star? Well, observations by NASA's Kepler space telescope showed that light from KIC 8462852 (aka Tabby’s Star, named for astronomer Tabetha Boyajian) decreased dramatically several times over the past few years, at one point by 22 percent.
So what? Well, when an object passes between a star and the Earth, it blocks a small amount of the star’s light, and the greater the decrease in light, the larger the object. When Jupiter, for example, passes between the Earth and sun (this is called a transit, by the way), the sun’s light decreases by 1 percent. An object blocking out 22 percent of the light from Tabby’s Star is, therefore, huge. In fact, that object is 1,000 times the size of Earth.
But what’s blocking the light from Tabby’s Star? A planet? Nope: The object is too big. A swarm of comets orbiting the star? Nope: You’d need thousands or tens of thousands of comets to block that much light.
OK, how about this? An alien megastructure: Astronomers have proposed that intelligent creatures living on a planet orbiting Tabby’s Star have built a colossal structure around their sun, possibly to capture the star’s energy for use on their planet, “like ginormous solar panels,” Boyajian said in a TED Talk.
This is, of course, speculation, and, as Boyajian said, “Alien hypotheses should always be a last resort.”
Still, the alien hypothesis here is intriguing, and the astronomy community has come up with all kinds of cool ideas.
“… [O]ne of my personal favorites,” Boyajian said, “is that we’ve just witnessed an interplanetary space battle and the catastrophic destruction of a planet.”
But at this point, we just don’t know what’s going on around Tabby’s star.
“We’re in a situation that could unfold as a natural phenomenon we don’t understand,” Boyajian said, “or an alien technology we don’t understand.”
Yep, you never know what you’re gonna get.
Week 41: We wonder what the werewolf community will be doing Nov. 14.
As anybody knows who’s seen any of the long list of werewolf movies, from The Werewolf of London (1935), starring Henry Hull as the werewolf, to An American Werewolf in London (1981), with David Naughton as the wolf guy, to The Wolf Man
|Henry Hull in The Werewolf of London
(1941), with Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular critter, to The Wolfman (2010), with Benicio del Toro in the hirsute role: People afflicted with lycanthropy become wolves during a full moon.
And this brings us back to Nov. 14, when we’ll have not only a full moon but also a supermoon. Scientifically known as a perigee syzygy, a supermoon is a new moon or full moon that occurs when the moon is at perigee, its closest approach to Earth during the month. And because a full supermoon is closer to Earth than a full non-supermoon, it appears bigger and brighter – a full supermoon can appear as much as 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than an apogee full moon (that’s a full moon that that occurs at its farthest distance from Earth during the month).
So, we’re guessing that bigger, brighter moons might have bigger and badder effects on werewolves (we know for sure that supermoons cause higher and lower tides), like, maybe supermoons make werewolves hairier or more bloodthirsty (remember what Warren Zevon says in his 1978 Top 40 hit “Werewolves of London”: “Better stay away from him,/ He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim”).
And the Nov. 14 supermoon might have an even greater effect on tides and werewolves than other supermoons because the moon will be at its closest approach to Earth since Jan. 26, 1948, a mere 221,524 miles away (we’re unofficially calling this moon a super-duper-supermoon).
So on Nov. 14, boaters check your tide tables and everybody everywhere, please keep your silver bullets handy.
P.S. Check out this supercool NASA video that has nothing to do with ridiculous werewolf stories and everything to do with supermoons.
Week 40: Everyone remembers Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps on the moon, but did you know that a couple of obscure computer codes almost led mission control to abort the mission? Just minutes after control gave the Apollo 11 Lunar Module the “go” to land, Armstrong was piloting the lander with Buzz Aldrin calling out altitude, speed and other critical data
|Jack Garman, right, receives a NASA award. Photo credit: NASA
|| Jack Garman's Apollo 11 cheat sheet.
readings. Then, all of a sudden, a 1202 alarm code appeared on the computer. There were so many codes NASA had them indexed in manuals, but of course, Aldrin and Armstrong were so busy keeping the lander on track that they didn’t have time to look them up. As Armstrong was asking mission control what the alarm code was all about, a second code — this one a 1201 — popped up. Before Guidance Officer Steve Bales could even ask his team what the codes meant and make a decision on whether to abort the landing, a 24-year-old Jack Garman, group leader of the program support group in the Apollo Guidance Software Section, called out that it was still OK to land.
Turns out, the codes meant that there was so much data coming in during the landing that the computer was overwhelmed trying to keep up. The codes meant that it was going to stop doing some things — but none of them critical for landing.
How did Garman know that so fast? Garman recounts what happened in a 2009 story in Popular Mechanics by Jennifer Bogo (which is a fascinating account of the landing, all the things that went wrong and includes all the participants in the landing):
“There was a team of flight controllers whose duty it was to come up with simulation profiles that train the flight controllers and astronauts together to survive and fix things. At one point, they had asked me to come up with a failure that was totally software-related. I did that months earlier, and they stuck that in during one of the simulations.”
During the simulation, the code caused an abort when it was unnecessary.
So, recounts Garman, “(Flight Director) Gene Kranz sat us all down and said, ‘I want you to figure out every possible alarm code that can happen in flight so that we're prepared.’ In those days, there was no such thing as desktop computers. So I wrote down all the alarm codes on a sheet of grid paper, with crib notes on what they meant and what our response should be. And I stuck it under the plexiglass of the console I was to sit at. And, lo and behold, one of them — well, a couple of them —popped up during the actual landing.”
Thanks in part to Garman’s preparations, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon.
Garman went on to have a distinguished career with NASA — including receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his part in bringing home the astronauts on the fateful Apollo 13 mission. He retired in 2000.
When Garman died Sept 20, 2016, at age 72, NASA called him a hero. We agree.
Week 39: Last month, the world was in a tizzy about the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, but here’s another important astronomical anniversary: Oct. 14 is the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, in which French forces led by William of Normandy defeated Anglo-Saxon forces led by King Harold II and changed the history of Western Civilization.
So, what does that have to do with astronomy?
This portion of the Bayeaux Tapestry shows people watching a strange star, which we now know to have been Halley’s Comet, in the spring of 1066. The Latin inscription states: “They marvel at the star.”
Well, in the spring of 1066, Halley’s Comet made an appearance (or apparition, as astronomers say) that was noted by a monk named William of Jumienges: “At that time a star appeared in the northwest … and it was portended, as many said, a change in some kingdom.” On top of that, a portion of the Bayeaux Tapestry, which depicts events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings, shows the comet and six guys who seem pretty spooked by it (a later scene on the tapestry shows Harold trying to pull a Norman arrow out of his right eye).
You see, back in the good old days (before people knew much about the mechanics of the universe), comets were considered signs from God (or the gods) that something bad was going to happen.
But we know better now: Comets are nothing more than chunks of rock, dust, water ice and frozen gases that orbit the sun and appear from time to time to put on a cool light show.
When a comet does swing into our neck of the solar system, we can figure out its orbit and predict when, if ever, it will return. Take Halley’s Comet, for example. Chinese astronomers described it in 240 B.C., but they didn’t have a clue that it would return in 164 B.C. and 87 B.C. and 12 B.C., in fact, every 75 to 76 years, including 1066 and its next apparition, 2061. Then, in 1705, English astronomer Edmond Halley concluded that comets observed in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were the same comet and that it would appear again in 1758 – when the comet showed up that year, the scientific community named it after Halley.
So, there’s nothing ominous or prophetic about Halley's or any other comet, though the Anglo-Saxons might have thought differently since, as William of Jumienges said, there was, indeed, “a change in some kingdom” after Halley’s 1066 apparition.
Mark Twain also saw great significance in Halley’s Comet. In 1909, he wrote that he had been born during Halley’s 1835 apparition, and he expected to die during its 1910 apparition: “The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
Twain died April 21, 1910, with Halley’s Comet shining bright in the night sky.
Week 38: Did you know Oct. 8 is International Observe the Moon Night? This celebration of the Earth’s only natural satellite is sponsored by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) and the Lunar and Planetary Institute. In honor of this special occasion, we’d thought we’d throw out a few facts that you can use to wow your friends this weekend as you’re moongazing:
- This heavenly body is 238,855 miles away from Earth. Which got us to wondering… How long would it take to drive there, if we were so inclined? Fortunately, the nice folks at Science Focus answered this question for us: It would take about an hour to get to space, but it would take just under six months to get all the way to the moon — about as long as it would take you to drive around the Earth’s circumference 10 times. (Hmmm… maybe Ralph Kramden could drive us there in his bus?)
- How did our moon get there? Current theory holds that a giant rock the size of Mars smashed into the Earth. The debris that was broken off on impact — from both the Earth and the giant rock — then formed the moon some 4.5 billion years ago. The moon was in a molten state for about 100 million years before becoming the solid, iron-rich body we know today.
- In 1609, a guy named Thomas Harriot was the first person to use a telescope aimed skyward to study the moon and make a drawing of it. Interestingly, Harriot was hired by Sir Walter Raleigh (who you probably know was instrumental in colonizing North America) to be his math tutor. Harriot was actually vital to the success of Raleigh’s 1585-86 expedition to the New World because he was the only Englishman who bothered to learn the Algonquin language before they arrived in Roanoke Island, off North Carolina. During the trip, Harriot even devised the most efficient way to stack cannonballs.
- In all, 12 astronauts have walked on the moon’s surface and six of them have driven lunar rovers there. Yet, to this day, there are apparently still plenty of people who believe the moon landings were all an elaborate NASA hoax. In fact, if you Google “moon landing conspiracy theories” you’ll come up with more than 500,000 hits; Wikipedia even has a page dedicated to these theories. Perhaps our favorite depiction of the hoax theory was when Sean Connery, as Agent 007, showed up on a fake moon set as fake astronauts were faking a moon landing in the 1971 movie Diamonds are Forever… speaking of movies and fake moon landings: one popular theory on the internet has it that Stanley Kubrick — the great filmmaker who directed one of the greatest moon movies of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey — helped NASA with its fake moon footage. This idea, of course, was vehemently denied by his daughter, Vivian, in a July 2016 Tweet in which she said believers of this theory were “malicious cranks” and called the very idea “a grotesque lie.”
We, of course, think the idea of faked moon landings is ridiculous, but a suit-and-tie wearing Sean Connery running around with astronauts is still fun to watch. Check it out.
Week 37: Anybody who’s spent much time around scientists knows that some of them would rather baffle people with scientific jargon than explain their work in laymen’s terms.
This is why we’ve got to hand it to the plain-talking folks of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta
| Image of Comet 67P taken by Rosetta July, 2015. Source: European Space Agency.
project to Comet 67P, which came to a crashing end Sept. 30.
Rosetta was launched March 2, 2004, and reached Comet 67P on Aug. 6, 2014.
Three months later, Rosetta sent its lander, called Philae, to the surface of the 2½-mile-long comet, which looks kind of like a rubber duck; over the next three days, Philae beamed data back to Earth.
The Rosetta orbiter spent the next two years using 11 instruments to map Comet 67P’s surface features, analyze its coma (the glowing cloud of gas that surrounds a comet’s nucleus as it gets close to the sun), and determine the composition of water in the comet’s icy crust.
Among the instruments was the Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS), which captured 68,000 high-resolution images of the comet’s nucleus and coma over the course of 924 days.
Rosetta and Comet 67P raced toward the sun together, reached perihelion (the closest approach to the sun) together on Aug. 13, 2015, and headed back out to space together. Because Rosetta was solar powered, it would soon be too far from the sun to be able to keep up, and scientists decided to let it crash into the comet, which it did on Sept. 30, 317 million miles from Earth.
So, back to the subject of plain-talking scientists: Our first great comment comes from OSIRIS chief Holger Sierks, who gets extra marks for having a cool name, talking about the high-res images taken seconds before Rosetta crashed:
“They're super-duper. I've got goosebumps just thinking about all this.”
Certainly, Rosetta scientists could have shut the orbiter down, let it hang out until Comet 67P returns to the inner solar system in six years, and then fire it up to hook up with the comet again.
But there was no guarantee that Rosetta would work after six years, so scientists opted for the crash, about which project scientist Matt Taylor made one of the greatest science comments we’ve ever heard:
“It’s like one of those ’60s rock bands: We don’t want to have a rubbish comeback tour. We’d rather go out now in true rock-’n’-roll style.”
Week 36: Galileo would be totally blown away by the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), the construction of which was completed Sept. 25 in Southwest China.
After all, in 1610, Galileo looked through his homemade telescope, which had an aperture (diameter) of 37 millimeters (1.45 inches), saw four moons orbiting the planet Jupiter and changed our concept of the cosmos. Of course, the bigger a telescope’s aperture, the more information it can gather, and, as the F in its acronym makes clear, FAST has an aperture of 500 meters (1,640 feet), which is 499.23 meters (1,638.55 feet) larger than Galileo’s telescope.
FAST is also the largest single-aperture telescope in the world, 295 meters or 967 feet larger than the previous No. 1 single-aperture telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — FAST will also be able to detect twice as much data as Arecibo.
In case you didn’t notice, the acronym FAST lacks the R for Radio (which would have given us the uncool acronym FASRT), but FAST is a radio telescope and will be collecting radio waves rather than light waves. That means it will look for such distant stuff as faint pulsars, survey neutral hydrogen in distant galaxies, and search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
But there are concerns about FAST’s reliability. The telescope’s surface is made up of 4,500 panels, some of which can be tilted, raised, and lowered by 2,225 actuators (high-tech winches); all these moving parts make FAST a very complicated piece of hardware, and the more complicated something is, the more can go wrong. On top of that, as FAST was nearing completion, officials discovered more than 150 defective actuators.
Even FAST chief scientist Nan Rendong is worried. “It’s terrible, terrible, thinking about reliability,” he told Science.Com. “And it’s not just the actuators. Everything is difficult, everything is risky.”
Another complicated piece of hardware that ended up not being reliable was the Hubble Space Telescope, which went into low-Earth orbit in 1990. Due to a flawed mirror, Hubble sent back fuzzy pictures of deep space objects, prompting Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry to call it the Hubble Orbiting Space Paperweight (Of course Hubble was later fixed and continues to produce dazzling images and provide new findings to this day.)
Let’s hope FAST works; if it doesn’t, some wag will probably call it the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Popcorn Bowl (FASPB).
Week 35: NASA recently showed off new Hubble Telescope pictures showing further evidence that there could be liquid water underneath the icy surface of Europa, the smallest of the planet’s four moons discovered by Galileo in 1610.
Astronomers led by William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, observed what they believe are water vapor plumes as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. The plumes were observed on 10 occurrences over a 15-month period. While Galileo first discovered Europa in 1610, it took some 400 years for us view any details about these moons. Ground-based observations in the 1960s first indicated that the Europa’s surface was made of ice (with a negative 170-degree C surface). Then in 1989, NASA launched the Galileo spacecraft and sent it on a mission to study Jupiter and its moons. The spacecraft showed that Jupiter’s magnetic field was disrupted around Europa, which NASA says implies that a magnetic field is being created within the moon by a deep layer of “some electrically conductive fluid beneath the surface.” The most likely fluid? A global ocean of salty water.
Week 34: As any science-fiction fan worth his dilithium crystals knows, Sept. 8 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Star Trek episode, “The Man Trap,” in which the Enterprise lands on planet M-113, where a shape-shifting salt vampire kills several
Capt. Kirk is attacked by a shape-shifting salt-vampire in "The Man Trap," the first episode of Star Trek, which aired Sept. 8, 1966.
crew members by sucking the sodium chloride out of them. And, as any science-fact fan worth her Periodic Table knows, astronomers recently discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, which, at 4.2 light years, is the closest star to our solar system. The really cool thing about the planet, designated Proxima b, is that its orbit is within the star’s “habitable zone,” where liquid water could exist at the surface.
Considering the relatively short distance to Proxima b and its possible habitability, you’d think scientists would be in a lather to send earthlings out there to check it out, which brings us to a major difference between science fiction and science fact: A speed limit. In short, science fact has one; science fiction doesn’t.Let’s demonstrate by looking at a voyage to Proxima b aboard the Starship Enterprise and the same voyage aboard a real spacecraft.
The Enterprise is propelled by a gravimetric field displacement manifold, which pushes the ship to various degrees above the speed of light, known as warp factors. The equation for warp speed is v=w3c, where v is velocity, w3 is the warp factor cubed, and c is the speed of light. So, warp factor 1 is 13, or 1, times the speed of light, or the speed of light (186,000 miles per second or 669.6 million mph). Warp factor 2 is 23, or 8, times the speed of light (5.35 trillion mph), and so on. At warp factor 1, then, the Enterprise would reach Proxima b in 4.2 years, a long trip, but not bad in interstellar terms. At warp 2, it would take 191 days; warp 5, 12 days; warp 10, 36 hours. But the universe has a speed limit: The speed of light. Sorry, folks, you cannot go faster than 669.6 million mph.
Here’s another problem: We don’t have the technology to go more than a small fraction of the speed of light. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, for example, zipped through the solar system on its way to Pluto at a smokin' 36,000 mph. At that speed, we’d reach Proxima b in 78,290 years, give or take a century.
So, if we want to get to Proxima b in any reasonable amount of time, we need to work on repealing the universal speed limit, and somebody needs to invent a gravimetric field displacement manifold.
Week 33: If you’ve been following the weather at all, then you know that Florida’s Gulf Coast has been watching a couple of tropical systems threatening to turn into storms or hurricanes and dealing with the buckets of rain they’re bringing ashore with them; Hawaii is also warily watching the approach of two storms: Hurricanes Madeline and Lester. This got us to wondering… is there anything like our hurricanes in outer space?
Turns out, in 2013 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft caught images of a hurricane-like event over Saturn’s North Pole. Cassini, you may remember, was launched as a joint mission of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI) in 1997. Cassini is equipped with technology that allows it to "see" in wavelengths the human eye can't and "feel" things about magnetic fields and tiny dust particles that no human hand could detect.
These instruments allowed the spacecraft to send the first close-up, visible-light views of the hurricane — the likes of which we’ve never seen on Earth before. The Saturn hurricane’s eye was about 1,250 miles wide — some 20 times larger than a typical Earth-bound hurricane. It was also moving about 330 miles per hour.
By comparison, when Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall in Louisiana, it had top wind speeds of 125 mph and was moving at only about 15 mph. Katrina is considered the third-largest land-falling hurricane in U.S. history.
The spinning vortex of Saturn's north polar storm resembles a deep red rose of giant proportions surrounded by green foliage in this false-color image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
|This spectacular, vertigo inducing, false-color image from NASA's Cassini mission highlights the storms at Saturn's north pole. The angry eye of a hurricane-like storm appears dark red while the fast-moving hexagonal jet stream framing it is a yellowish green. Low-lying clouds circling inside the hexagonal feature appear as muted orange color. A second, smaller vortex pops out in teal at the lower right of the image. The rings of Saturn appear in vivid blue at the top right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Week 32: The last time the U.S. sent people to the moon was on Apollo 17 in 1972; the trip
marked the final lunar voyage for the Apollo program (though other Apollo spacecraft were used in the Skylab and Apollo–Soyuz programs). There is regularly discussion of man returning to the moon — most recently this past July when House members urged NASA to return to the moon as part of the space agency’s preparations for manned missions to Mars.
The moon has long preoccupied the human mind — one of the first texts envisioning travel between the Earth and its moon is The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th-century Japanese folktale. A trip to the moon is also the subject of the first science fiction movie ever made — a silent film called Le Voyage Dans la Lun (A Trip to the Moon) by Georges Méliès (1902). (Read a summary.) In this film, the astronauts are members of the French astronomical society who get into a rocket that is then shot out of a cannon — square into the moon’s eyeball. After much adventure, the group returns to Earth where they are hailed as heroes.
The film was doing very well in Europe and was expected to be a big hit in America and Méliès was expected to do well financially — that is, until someone pirated the movie and distributed it throughout the U.S. The film pirate? None other than Thomas Edison!
Thanks to the internet, you can see this early foray into science fiction online. There’s the black and white version and there’s also a hand-colored version.
Week 31: Aug. 17 is Margaret Hamilton’s 80th birthday; we’re talking about the NASA scientist, not the actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
|When she played the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, Margaret Hamilton the actress conjured flying monkeys.
||At NASA in the 1960s, scientist Margaret Hamilton conjured the code that got men to the moon on Apollo. She's shown here with listings of the software she and her team developed.
The scientist Margaret Hamilton was director of Apollo Flight Computer Programming; her pioneering work on computer software engineering (she’s been called a “founding mother” of software itself) made the Apollo XI mission possible – in other words, no Margaret, no moon landing.
But she was way cool before joining NASA. In the early 1960s, she worked at MIT on the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) program, a Cold War air defense system.
Like all SAGE newbies, she was given a kind of Kobayashi Maru assignment (i.e., the unsolvable training simulation from Star Trek), which, she wrote, “nobody was able to ever figure out about or get to run. … it was tricky programming, and the person who wrote it took delight in the fact that all of his comments were in Greek and Latin. So I was assigned this program, and I actually got it to work. It even printed out its answers in Latin and Greek.”
Move over Capt. Kirk.
Week 30: Remember Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth says: “Yet here’s a spot”? Well, here’s a spot for you. It’s a very cool spot because it’s a very hot spot: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a gigantic roiling, burbling storm that recently solved a decades old Jovian mystery.
For years, scientists have been stumped by the fact that Jupiter is warmer than it should be. After all, the
This is an artist’s concept of the heating mechanism of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Art by Karen Teramura, University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, with James O’Honoghue and Luke Moore.
Solar System’s largest planet is about 5 million miles from the sun (five times farther than the Earth is from the sun), so it gets only 3.3 percent of the light and heat that the Earth gets. Solar energy, therefore, should heat its upper atmosphere to a less-than-toasty negative-99 degrees, but scientists consistently get upper atmosphere temps of a super-toasty 1,300 degrees.
How can this be? Well, scientists from the United Kingdom and United States were messing around at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and discovered that the Great Red Spot, which is twice as big as the Earth, is emitting temperatures of 2,400 degrees (hotter than the hottest lava on Earth, which is 2,120 degrees). The scientists aren’t sure what’s happening, but they think it’s some kind of acoustic event: Maybe thunder from the Red Spot is sending sound waves directly upward, and those waves “break” in the thin upper atmosphere, releasing stored energy, producing heat, and warming the planet.
But scientists say energy from the Great Red Spot is probably not enough to heat the whole planet’s atmosphere, so part of the mystery remains unsolved.
All of which reminds us of the 1984 movie 2012 (the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey of 1968), in which a mysterious race of space aliens make Jupiter’s Great Red Spot disappear, which always reminded us of Lady Macbeth’s most famous line: “Out, damned spot! Out I say!”
Week 29: Think it's hot this summer? You're right. According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, June marked the 14th consecutive month of record heat for the globe.
We were outside sweating, thinking about hot stuff and we got to thinking about our sun and the fact that its surface is 5,500 degrees Celsius — that’s 9,932 degrees Fahrenheit. For most of our space exploration history, that means the sun has been too hot to handle — our technology just hasn’t allowed us to explore such a hot place. But that’s changing. NASA has been working with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) to develop the Solar Probe Plus. This spacecraft’s mission will be to go where no spacecraft has gone before: inside the Sun's corona (its outer atmosphere). According to NASA, Solar Probe will fly by the Sun at 125 miles per second. It will be equipped with a carbon-composite shield that will have to survive temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The shield will also have to protect the spacecraft from radiation blasts and dust levels never before experienced by any other craft (notwithstanding Ted Striker’s Lunar Shuttle in the movie Airplane 2, of course). Right now, the mission is in Phase B, undergoing review of system requirements and design. Solar Probe Plus is scheduled to launch no later than 2018. But we’re wondering… do you think NASA would let us borrow the heat shield now?
Week 28: If you like to get up very early in the morning or stay up very late at night, the hours between midnight and dawn July 28 and July 29 will give you a chance to do some of the easiest and most exciting astronomy possible: That’s when you can check out the Delta Aquarid meteor shower.
This is exciting because, with a clear, dark sky, the Delta Aquarids produce 10 to 20 meteors an hour, 5 to 10 percent of which leave persistent meteor trains, which are glowing ionized gas trails that last a second or two after the meteor has disappeared. It’s easy because you don’t need anything astronomical; all you have to do is go outside and look toward the constellation Aquarius in the south. If you want to be really serious about it, you can park yourself in a lawn chair with a cup of coffee or other beverage and maybe a snack (and because this is Florida in the summer, bug spray might not be a bad idea).
A meteor shower gets its name from the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate (that point is called the radiant). So, the radiant of the Delta Aquarids is in Aquarius, the water carrier. But the Delta Aquarids should not be confused with the Eta Aquarids, which peak in early May. The difference is that the Delta Aquarids’ radiant is near the star Delta Aquarii, also known as Skat or Scheat, which is on the lower right leg of the water carrier, and the Eta Aquarids’ radiant near the star Eta Aquarii, aka Hydria, which is one of the stars that make up the water jar Aquarius is carrying under his right arm.
If you are of a certain age (or if you just like old hippie music) the song “Aquarius” from the 1967 musical Hair is probably ceaselessly going through your head about now. And you’ll remember that the song tells us that, during the Age of Aquarius, which is an astrological rather than an astronomical designation (remember, astrology is not a science; astronomy is), “peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars”; it will be a time of “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding.” If the song is not going through your head, count yourself lucky, because it’s driving us crazy.
Week 27: NASA recently released a beautiful new composite image from the Hubble Space Telescope showing the Crab Nebula, which spans about 10 light-years and has a pulsar — the crushed core of an exploded star — in its center. This Crab Pulsar rotates about 30 times a second, has the mass of 1.4 Suns but has been crushed into a solid ball of neutrons no larger than the width of a large city.
This supernova explosion was first observed by Chinese astronomers in 1054 (the Chinese called it a “guest star”) — with some evidence that it took place on July 4. Japanese, Korean and Arabic astronomers also noted the supernova, which was six times brighter than Venus, visible during the day for 23 days and visible to the naked eye at night for 653 days. There is even archaeological evidence that Native American sky watchers also saw the supernova.
But was the explosion recorded anywhere in European history? F. Richard Stephenson and David A. Green investigated purported accounts and concluded in a 2003 article in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage that none was viable. Why not? The authors posit that it could have been because astronomical knowledge was limited in Europe during this part of the medieval period. Many Europeans could also have been paying attention to a more religious explosion: the Great Schism of 1054 — the formal breakup of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church, the two main branches of the Christian church.
While the supernova of 1054 was extremely bright, the Crab Nebula is not — it’s apparent magnitude is 8.6, about the same as Saturn’s moon Titan, which means it can’t be seen by the naked eye, which means it wasn’t discovered until 1731, when English physician and amateur astronomer John Bevis observed it through his 24-foot focal length refracting telescope.
The nebula got its name in 1844, when William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, observed it through his 36-inch reflecting telescope and made a drawing that resembled a crab. Looking at the nebula in 1848 through a 72-inch reflector, drew something that looks like a grinning one-eyed dinosaur, but the name Crab Nebula stuck, which is probably a good thing. Image by NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU)
Week 26: A team of astronomers, led by the University of Arizona and using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, had a John Keats moment last week when they discovered a planet 320 million light years from Earth — if you’ll remember your high school English class, Romantic poet Keats wrote a sonnet about the first time he read Renaissance poet George Chapman’s translation of Homer and came up with this metaphor to describe how wowed he was: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken.”
But poetry aside, the coolest thing about the planet, known as HD 131399Ab, is that it has three suns, which is one more than Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine — this is the first of more than 2,000 known exoplanets to have three suns. The triple-star system performs a kind of celestial square dance, with two small stars doing a do-si-do (twirling around each other) while orbiting a larger star, which is 80 percent more massive than our sun; meanwhile, the planet, which is four times as massive as Jupiter, orbits the large star. The average distance from do-si-do stars to the large star is 27.9 billion miles; the average distance from the planet to the large star is 7 billion miles. For reference, the average distance from Pluto to our sun is 3.67 billion miles.
To anybody living on the planet, the three suns would appear close together in the sky for much of the year (which is 550 Earth years), and the planet would experience triple sunrises and triple sunsets. Of course, with the planet’s temperature a toasty 1,076 degrees, sunrise and sunset celebrations by native life forms are unlikely.
Finally, by way of speculation: If Keats had discovered this planet, he probably would have come up with a more poetic name for it than HD 131399Ab. (Illustration by the European Southern Observatory.)
Week 25: On July 4, after a nearly five-year long trip, a NASA spacecraft named Juno successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit. Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 and its mission is to help us gain a better understanding of Jupiter and its origins, map its magnetic field, check out the makeup of its atmosphere and even take a peek at the planet’s auroras.
According to one scientist — Sally Dodson-Robinson, an expert on planet formation in the University of Delaware's Department of Physics and Astronomy — the trip could even help us understand how Earth got our water. “It is likely that Earth formed in a region that was too hot for ice to exist, and there are no liquids in planet-forming disks. Most planetary scientists believe that icy planetesimals from the outer edge of the asteroid belt hit Earth, bringing the water for our oceans and mantle. The question, then, is how the icy planetesimals were kicked inward toward Earth. Jupiter was probably responsible for sending them inward. By understanding Jupiter's composition and formation, we hope to get a better idea of how Earth got its water.”
- Learn more about the mission from Bill Nye the Science Guy
- Astronomers are using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras — stunning light shows in a planet's atmosphere — on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester).
Week 24: Last week, scientists from around the world watched as a Cygnus cargo ship plunged to Earth. The ship was used to deliver food and other supplies to the International Space Station in March and was then loaded with 4,000 pounds of garbage and undocked with the station. It also contained a host of instruments designed to give scientists a real-time look at what happens when space debris falls back to Earth. “There’s very, very little data out there” on how such objects break up on their way here, Fabian Zander of the University of Stuttgart, told USA Today. Of the hundreds of thousands of pieces of trash orbiting the Earth, only the descent of a few have been closely studied.
Space trash is actually a big deal and the U.S. Space Surveillance Network is tasked with tracking the items — from old satellites and booster rockets to fragmentation debris — that are floating around the Earth at any given time. According to NASA, there are more than 500,000 pieces of space trash the size of a marble or larger in orbit traveling at 17,500 mph — fast enough to damage a satellite or spacecraft. At that speed, even paint flecks can do damage — and have, causing several windows to need replacement on space shuttles. Bits and pieces of this trash constantly fall from the sky. According to space.com, in the last five decades, an average of one piece of debris fell to Earth every day. Fortunately, most of what rains down burns up before it reaches the ground.
Right now, there is no practical way to remove trash from space; space agencies worldwide are instead focused on better designs that lessen the amount of trash left behind. But that doesn’t mean scientists aren’t thinking about garbage removal. Researchers at Raytheon BBN Technologies and the University of Michigan have evaluated the viability of sending focused pulses of atmospheric gases at objects, to help decelerate them so they fall to Earth (burning up on their descent) faster. Now that’s what we call taking out the trash.
Week 23: As all you season watchers should know, the summer solstice occurred at 6:34 p.m. June 20 — marking the official beginning of summer, when the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky before heading south for its six-month journey to the winter solstice, which occurs this year at 5:44 a.m. Dec. 21.
The first day of summer is the longest day of the year, but not all longest days of the year are created equal: The farther north you go on the solstice, the longer the day is. SO, at the South Florida Museum, which is at 27.496842 north latitude, the sun rose at 6:36 a.m. and set at 8:28 p.m., for a day length of 13 hours, 15 minutes; at St. Louis, Mo. (38.619016 north), sunrise was 5:36 a.m., and sunset 8:29 p.m., for a day length of 14 hours, 52 minutes; at Portal, N.D., on the Canadian border (48.998740 north), sunrise and sunset were 5:46 a.m. and 9:58 p.m., giving a 16-hour, 12-minute day; north of the Arctic Circle (66.56083 north), the sun doesn’t set on the summer solstice.
And did you know that in England, the first day of summer is called Midsummer? And that Midsummer is traditionally considered a time of great wackiness? A 1588 pamphlet by an unknown writer who used the pen name Martin Marprelate, for example, questioned the sanity of English Bishop John Bridges by wondering “whether it be midsummer moon with him or no” (the Oxford English Dictionary defines “midsummer moon” as “a time when lunacy is supposed to be prevalent). And, of course, Shakespeare wrote a play called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which all kinds of wackiness takes place. Curiously, the word midsummer never appears in the play, though it does appear in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” when Olivia responds to the whacky goings on in her house by exclaiming: “Why, this is very midsummer madness.” And, while “Twelfth Night” was an important holiday in England, celebrated on Jan. 5 to mark the day before the Epiphany, Shakespeare never mentions Twelfth Night in Twelfth Night. How’s that for wacky?
Week 22: Did you know that we’ve been shooting a laser beam at the moon for the last 47 years? No. We’re not trying to blow it out of orbit; instead, scientists use the laser to measure the distance between Earth and the moon and to help increase our knowledge of the moon’s orbit, about its rotations and even to test theories of gravity, including Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The Lunar Ranging Retroreflector experiment includes a series of cube-shaped mirrors and a support structure used to align those mirrors toward the Earth. From Earth — initially from a telescope at the University of Texas, then from other places around the world — a laser is pointed at the reflector and, because of the reflector’s shape, it returns the incident light back in exactly the direction it came from. We measure the distance between the Earth and the moon by measuring how long it takes for a pulse of light to travel there and back (which is anywhere from 2.34 to 2.71 seconds).
The Retroreflector was developed by principal investigator Dr. Carroll Alley, of the University of Maryland, College Park, who died this past February. It was deployed by NASA’s Apollo 11 in July 1969 and it’s been operating since Aug. 1, 1969.
The experiment is the only one deployed by the Apollo 11 crew that’s still in operation today.
In the photo, astronaut and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin moves toward a position to deploy two components of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP) on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. The Passive Seismic Experiments Package (PSEP) is in his left hand; and in his right hand is the Laser Ranging Retro-Reflector (LR3). Mission commander Neil Armstrong took this photograph with a 70 mm lunar surface camera.
Week 21: Jim Collins from the Argonne National Laboratory recently reported some new progress in simulating what happens during a supernova explosion. Sean Couch, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University, is using Mira, the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility's 10-petaflops supercomputer, to carry out some of the largest and most detailed 3-D simulations ever performed of core-collapse supernovas.
Knowing what happens when supernovas explode is important because — as Carl Sagan said in his “Cosmos,” series — “we are made of star stuff.” That is, when supernovas explode, leaking elements like carbon, iron and all other natural elements across the universe, those elements in turn form new stars, solar systems and even provide the elements for life on Earth as we know it.
Supernova explosions happen when Titanic-sized stars run out of nuclear fuel and develop iron cores. Once that happens, they cannot support their own gravitational pull and begin to collapse. For some reason, though, instead of collapsing, the stars explode. “What theorists like me are trying to understand is that in-between step,” Couch told Collins. “How do we go from this collapsing iron core to an explosion?”
Couch is hoping that better and better 3-D models will help explain this transition and help us more fully understand supernova explosions — something humans have been trying to explain since at least 185 A.D., when Chinese astronomers documented a “guest star” that remained in the sky for eight months. This guest is believed to be the first recorded instance of a supernova explosion in human history, though some believe that indigenous cultures “recorded” previous supernova explosions in cave drawings.
This image shows the Chinese report of the guest star they identified in 185 A.D.
In 2011, NASA developed an image using four telescopes of what remains today of RCW 86, an exploded supernova recorded by Chinese astronomers in 185 A.D., located approximately 8,000 light years away. At about 85 light-years in diameter, it occupies a region of the sky in the southern constellation of Circinus that is slightly larger than the full moon. This image was compiled in October 2011. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO & ESA; Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams (NCSU)
This visualization is a volume rendering of a massive star's radial velocity. In comparison to previous 1-D simulations, none of the structure seen here would be present. (Credit: Sean Couch, Michigan State University)
Week 20: The dwarf planet Haumea is a very interesting place, and not just because astronomers recently discovered that it doesn’t have what they expected it to have: The same kind of moons as Pluto.
Pluto and Haumea are considered “cousin planets” because astronomers thought they were both collisional families, meaning they were formed from impact events. But while Pluto has a large moon called Charon and four tiny moons (Nix, Styx, Hydra and Kerberos), Haumea only has two medium-size moons and is the “parent” of a large family of icy objects that used to be part of its surface and now orbit the sun on their own.
Here are some other neat facts about Haumea, which was discovered in December 2004: It spins incredibly fast (a Haumean day is 3.9 hours), which is probably why it’s elongated rather than spherical (it looks kind of like an alligator egg); it has a dark red spot, which might be higher concentrations of minerals and organic compounds than the rest of the icy white surface; it is named for the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth and fertility; its moons are named for two of Haumea’s daughters: the sea goddess Namaka and Hi’iaka, patron goddess of Hawaii, sorcery, medicine and — of course — hula dancers.
Week 19: The astronomy world is absolutely abuzz about NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which was launched March 7, 2009, and has been discovering exoplanets by the truckload (more than 2,000 so far). But have you ever wondered about the guy for whom the spacecraft was named?
That would be German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), whose many accomplishments include his three laws of planetary motion, the first of which states that planets travel in elliptical rather than circular orbits. And did you know that, in addition to a brilliant mathematical mind, Kepler had a very sharp legal mind?
You see, in 1615, a woman named Ursula Reinbold reported to the authorities of Leonberg, Germany, that Katherina Kepler, Kepler’s 68-year-old mother, had given her a potion (“eye of newt and toe of frog”?) that made her sick, and Katherina was arrested and tried as a witch (she was also accused of killing local animals, entering homes through closed doors, and turning herself into a cat). In 1620, Johannes Kepler took over his mother’s defense.
In her book The Astronomer and the Witch, Cambridge University professor Ulinka Rublack called Johannes Kepler’s arguments “a rhetorical masterpiece,” that appealed to “medical knowledge and common sense.” Katherina Kepler was released in the October 1621 and died six months later. Interestingly, in 1611, Jonannes Kepler wrote a sci-fi story called Somnium (The Dream), whose narrator’s mother is a witch who consults a demon to learn how to fly to the moon.
Week 18: Some very interesting space-race stuff happened in 1966, 50 years ago, as the United States and the Soviet Union were charging ahead to see who would be first to land a human on the moon. That year, NASA completed five manned Gemini missions (including Gemini 8, during which Neil Armstrong and David Scott accomplished history’s first docking in space, and Gemini 12, during which Buzz Aldrin set a record for extravehicular activity, totaling five hours, 30 minutes, on three different space walks), while the Soviets didn’t send anybody into space.
But what often goes unnoticed are both countries’ unmanned missions, whose goals were to collect data for future manned missions to the moon:
The Soviets led the year off on Jan. 31 with Luna 9, the first soft landing on the moon and the first transmissions of photographs from the moon’s surface
On March 31, the Soviets launched the lunar orbiter Luna 10, which studied the moon’s gravity and radiation.
NASA countered April 30 by launching Surveyor 1, which made history’s second soft landing on the moon. The spacecraft collected more than 11,000 images and was in operation until Jan. 7, 1967. Surveyor 1 also collected data on the moon’s surface and temperature.
On Aug. 10, the U.S. launched Lunar Orbiter 1, which transmitted 229 images covering 2 million square miles of the moon’s surface.
Soviet lunar orbiter Luna 11 was launched Aug. 24 to study the moon’s gravity and radiation.
Next came the year’s only oops-moment: U.S. spacecraft Surveyor 2 was launched Sept. 20 and was supposed to land on the moon, but one of its three thrusters failed to ignite, and it crashed into the moon on Sept. 23.
Luna 12 was launched Oct. 22 and photographed and surveyed the moon’s surface.
The last U.S. moon mission of 1966 was Lunar Orbiter 2, launched Nov. 6. The spacecraft sent back 626 images, including a frame of the Surveyor 1 landing site. It also collected data on micrometeoroids on the moon, radiation en route and near the moon and the moon’s gravitational field.
Closing out 1966, the Soviets launched Luna 13 on Dec. 21. The spacecraft landed on the moon Dec. 24 and transmitted panoramic photos of the lunar landscape.
Manned space missions tend to get the big headlines; after all, brave astronauts and cosmonauts are putting their lives on the line to explore the final frontier. But without unmanned spacecraft, and the ground-based nerds who design and control them, mankind would never have gotten beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity.
Week 17: It’s not too early to start planning for a big, big, big celestial event: The Aug. 21, 2017, total solar eclipse, which will be visible in 12 states: Oregon (beginning at 10:15 a.m.), Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. A total solar eclipse is visible somewhere on Earth about every 18 months, so what’s the big deal? You have to be in the right place at the right time to see one, and sometimes the right place is pretty inconvenient.
Our most recent total solar eclipse (March 9, 2016) was only visible in Indonesia, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, and the next one after Aug. 21, 2017, will take place Feb. 15, 2018, and be visible only in Antarctica and southern South America.
Since 1900, seven total solar eclipses have been visible in the United States; the most recent was July 9, 1945, but totality was only visible in Idaho and Montana. The last time a solar eclipse occurred across the entire United States was June 8, 1918, beginning in Washington State and ending in Florida — among the Florida locations in the path of totality were Panama City Beach, Sopchoppy, Cedar Key, Orlando, and Cocoa Beach.
Unfortunately, the closest place you can see totality Aug. 21, 2017, is in extreme northeast Georgia, in places like Clayton, about 110 miles northeast of Atlanta, (where the eclipse begins at 2:35 p.m.), Toccoa and Black Mountain State Park.
Traditionally, total solar eclipses have been considered spooky events. According to Archdeacon Thomas of Split, Croatia, on June 3, 1239, “a wonderful and terrible eclipse of the Sun occurred. … And such great fear overtook everyone, that just like madmen they ran about to and fro, shrieking, thinking that the end of the world had come”; a Chinese observer wrote of an eclipse on Aug. 20, 1514: “The domestic animals were alarmed, and people were terrified”; even Shakespeare cashed in on the fear of eclipses: “These late eclipses of the sun and moon portent no good to us.”
These days, though, total solar eclipses are considered very cool, and people travel from all over the world to locations in the path of totality. And, with 12 states to choose from and a solar-eclipse invasion of the U.S. looming, now is the time to start planning for Aug. 21, 2017.
And don’t forget your eclipse glasses!
Week 16: Later this month, the U.S. Postal Service will dedicate new stamps highlighting NASA’s Planetary Science program, including a do-over of the famous Pluto stamp that commemorated the NASA New Horizons’ historic 2015 flyby of the former planet. NASA and the New Horizons team originally placed the 29-cent “Pluto: Not Yet Explored” stamp issued in 1991 on board the spacecraft and it was inside the ship on July 14 when New Horizons made its historic flyby.
What else was aboard New Horizons? For one thing, Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes were there.
In 1927, Tombaugh was living in western Kansas when he built his own 9-inch Newtonian reflector telescope using discarded farm and car parts. He used this telescope to make drawings of Mars and Jupiter and in 1928 sent them off to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. The astronomers were so impressed with the pictures, they hired Tombaugh as an assistant and put him to work on the Planet X project, which was focused on searching for the planet predicted to exist by the Observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell. Lowell based his prediction of the object on small irregularities in the motion of Neptune. Tombaugh was 24 when he arrived at the Observatory ready to go to work taking images in and near the constellations — also the zone that the planets travel. By taking identical photos of regions of the sky two weeks apart, Tombaugh was able to compare them to see if any of the objects had changed position. It was using this technique that he was able to find the Planet X predicted by Lowell — he found Pluto.
When Tombaugh died in 1997 — nine years before the New Horizons 2006 launch — he requested that his ashes be sent to space. And they were: a small container with his remains was affixed to the New Horizons probe bearing the inscription: “Interred herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system's 'third zone'”
When Tombaugh died, Pluto was still considered a planet and millions of schoolchildren used this mnemonic device to remember the planet names: My Very Excellent Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets. Now that Pluto is considered a just dwarf planet, perhaps we need another mnemonic. How about: Maybe Visionaries Each Merrily Juggle Unknowns Naturally.
Week 15: If you’re of a certain age, you probably associate the powdered orange drink Tang with space travel and are under the impression that NASA invented it. While Tang was included in the menu for John Glenn’s 1962 Mercury mission where he orbited the Earth and experimented with eating in space, NASA didn’t actually invent Tang; instead, it was invented by chemist (and part-time playwright) William A. Mitchell — who also invented Cool Whip and Pop Rocks — for General Foods in 1957. NASA decided to include Tang in its missions because the water that the life support systems produced had off-flavors that the astronauts disliked. That helped popularize the little-known orange drink for the general public. Glenn was also the first person to ever eat in the near-weightlessness of Earth orbit. His meal? Applesauce from an aluminum squeezy tube. Meal delivery has come a long way since then and today’s astronauts have a variety of foods to eat and no longer have to squeeze them from a tube.
Week 14: Talk about an alignment of the stars (or shooting stars, if you will): The Lyrid meteor shower reaches its peak between midnight and dawn on Saturday, April 23, which happens to be the 500th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Of course, Shakespeare and his Renaissance buds knew about meteors, as evidenced by Richard II (“… meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven”). But they didn’t know that meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a debris trail left by a comet, and bits of debris burn up in the atmosphere; instead, they thought meteors were vapors (exhalations) rising from the Earth and ignited by the sun, as evidenced by Henry IV, Part I (“My Lord, do you see these meteors?/ Do you behold these exhalations?”). And if we could bring Shakespeare back to life and explain meteor mechanics to him, he’d probably quote himself: “Oh, I am ignorance itself in this!” (Henry IV, Part 1). Lyrids, by the way, are debris from the periodic Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher and have been observed for more than
In this 2012 NASA photo (right), astronaut Don Pettit (who was aboard the International Space Station) trained his video camera on Earthbelow.Footage from that night revealed breathtaking images of Earth at night with meteors ablating -- or burning up — in the atmosphere. The image shows a Lyrid in a six-second exposure, taken on April 22, 2012 at 5:34:22 UT. The International Space Station position was over 88.5 W, 19.9 N at an altitude of 392 km. NASA astronomer Bill Cooke mapped the meteor to the star field -- seen in this annotated image — and confirmed that the meteor originated from the Lyrid radiant. The image is rotated so that the north celestial pole (NCP) is roughly in the up direction. The lights of Florida are clearly visible to the right of the meteor. Cuba, the Florida Keys and the eastern Gulf Coast shoreline are also visible. Some brilliant flashes of lightning are also prevalent in the image.
Week 13: If NASA wasn't triskaidekaphobic before the Apollo 13 mission, nobody could blame them if they had become so afterward. Triskaidekaphobia, by the way, is fear of the number 13, as in the 1946 Les Brown song of the same name ("I've got a funny quirk, and I always go berserk when I hear the certain number, 13").
If you were around in 1970 or saw the great Ron Howard movie Apollo 13, then you know that the Apollo 13 mission (shuttle pictured left upon takeoff) was what mission commander Jim Lovell called a "successful failure:" failure in that it didn't do what it was supposed to do (land on the moon), successful in that nobody died. So here are some Apollo 13 thirteens that would make Les Brown and other triskaidekaphobics go berserk:
- Obviously, the mission number - 13; the date of the launch, April 11, 1970, or 4-11-70 (add the individual digits: 4+1+1+7=13);
- Apollo 13's launch time was 1:13 p.m. Houston time, or 13:13 military time in Houston;
- Two days, seven hours, 55 minutes and 20 seconds into the mission, one of Apollo 13's oxygen tanks exploded, prompting command module pilot Jack Swigert to calmly remark, "OK, Houston, we've had a problem here," and prompting Houston to abort the mission (as any good triskaidekaphobic would point out, the date of the explosion was April 13).
After a series of brilliant solutions by Mission Control and the flight crew to a series of difficult problems, Apollo 13's command module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on April 17. Flight director Gene Kranz said later: "I never considered 13 an unlucky mission. I don't think any of my controllers did. The crew certainly didn't. We have to eliminate any element of superstition. We deal in facts." Well, here's a fact from Triskaidekaphobia Central: It's a good thing April 13, 1970 (the day the O2 tank exploded), didn't fall on a Friday, or things might have gone really wrong. And now, back to Les Brown and his Band of Renown: "Triskaidekaphobia, I got triskaidekaphobia, and triskaidekaphobia has got me."
Week 12: Everyone’s probably pretty familiar with Old Mother Hubbard who went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone… but have you ever heard of Mother Hubble? Her real name is Nancy Grace Roman and she’s known as the Mother of Hubble because it was her leadership that led to the building and launching of the Hubble Space Telescope. Roman was the first Chief of Astronomy in NASA's Office of Space Science — and the first woman to hold an executive position at the space agency. Why did astronomers want to put a telescope in space? In Roman’s own words: “Looking through the atmosphere is somewhat like looking through a piece of old, stained glass. The glass has defects in it, so the image is blurred from that.” Hubble Space Telescope was the first astronomical observatory to be placed into orbit around Earth with the ability to record images in wavelengths of light spanning from ultraviolet to near-infrared. Early on in the program, she was asked by a Senator why taxpayers should fund a space telescope. “My answer was that for the price of a night at the movies every taxpayer would receive 15 years of exciting scientific results." Actually, we’ve probably gotten all that and more. According to NASA: Hubble has made more than 1.2 million observations since its mission began in 1990 & astronomers using Hubble data have published more than 12,800 scientific papers, making it one of the most productive scientific instruments ever built. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Hubble is credited with changing the face of astronomy and ushering in a new chapter of humanity’s exploration of the universe.
Week 11: Hard to believe that it's been 50 years since Luna 10 made space news. In case you weren't around back then, on March 31, 1966, the Soviet Union launched Luna 10 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome; four days later, the 59-inch tall, 539-pound spacecraft became the first man-made object to orbit the moon. Luna 10's mission was to study gamma radiation, electric and magnetic fields, micrometeoroids, infrared emissions from the moon and the solar wind. Naturally, because Luna 10 was a Soviet spacecraft, and because 1966 was right in the middle of the Space Race and Cold War, propaganda was an important component of the mission. The plan was to play "Internationale," a popular socialist anthem with lyrics in many languages (the Russian version includes the lines, "You have sucked enough of our blood, you vampires,/ With prison, taxes and poverty!") on April 4 over loudspeakers for the 5,000 delegates of the Communist Party Congress, live from Luna 10 orbiting the moon. It would be an inspirational moment that would make any Soviet stand tall and proud. But, as the world found out 30 years later, mission controllers decided to play a recording of "Internationale" made from an April 3 Luna 10 transmission and pass it off as a live broadcast. For one thing, Soviet officials didn't trust a live broadcast; for another, during a test transmission early April 4, they discovered that a note from the song was missing. Oh, well, what the delegates didn't know didn't hurt them, and they could still stand tall and proud.
Week 10: Did you know March 20 was Extraterrestrial Abductions Day? In "The Abduction Experience: A Critical Evaluation of Theory and Evidence," Journal of UFO Studies, 1995/96, Stuart Appelle states: "The abduction experience continues to be a phenomenon in need of an explanation. For the sake of science - and the sake of the experiencers - a continuing effort to establish an explanation is both necessary and appropriate." Important abduction experiencers include Elaine (see Week 4, Feb. 9), Barry (see Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Russell Casse (see Independence Day). Possible abduction experiencers include Judge Crater, Jimmy Hoffa, and our car keys just about every other day.
Week 9: In honor of St. Patrick's Day (or La Feile Padraig, as they say in Gaelic), when everybody is Irish (Tabhair pog dom, is Eireannach me - Kiss me, I'm Irish), we're going to look at some Irish astronomy, modern and ancient. On the modern side, we have Irish folk such as Edward Cooper and Andrew Graham, who spent eight years during the 1830s at Markree Castle, County Sligo, measuring the positions of 60,000 stars. Then there's William Wilson of County Westmeath, who determined the temperature of the Sun's visible surface, and Agnes Mary Clerke of County Cork, whose 1903 book Problems in Astrophysics was a major influence on astrophysicists (fun fact: The lunar crater Clerke is named for her). Another modern Irish marvel is a 72-inch reflecting telescope (the instrument's mirror was 6-feet in diameter), built between 1842 and 1845 by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, at Birr Castle, Parsonstown, County Offaly, which was the world's largest telescope during the 19th century (fun fact: Locals called it the Leviathan of Parsonstown). The ancient Irish had some cool astronomical stuff, too, including large standing stones and embanked enclosures that marked the solstices and equinoxes. But nothing was cooler than Newgrange in County Meath, which was built about 3,200 B.C., before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. It's a massive earth and stone mound (43,560 square feet, 40 feet high), and at dawn on the winter solstice, sunlight enters a window and lights up a 60-foot corridor that leads to a room containing ancestral bones. So, given Ireland's illustrious astronomical history, all we can say on this St. Patrick's day is Erin go bragh (Ireland forever) and Pionta Guinness, le do thoil (A pint of Guinness, please).
Week 8: Scott Kelly’s recent return from the International Space Station after setting the American record for time in space on a single mission — 340 days — got us wondering about other human space firsts. Our meandering through NASA’s history archives led us to Dr. Mae C. Jemison, a physician and engineer who in 1992 became the first female African American in space. She flew aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor from the Kennedy Space Center, logging 190 hours, 30 minutes and 23 seconds in space. She was the science specialist in a cooperative mission between the U.S. and Japan (she speaks fluent Japanese, among other languages) and was co-investigator on a bone-cell experiment. As if that weren’t impressive enough, she’s got another first that we love: She’s the first former astronaut to appear on a Star Trek episode. As a girl, Jemison watched Star Trek and dreamed of going into space. Since active-duty astronauts are not permitted to participate in private productions, her brief stint in a speaking role as the Enterprise’s Lt. Palmer in Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Second Chances,” season six, episode 24) took place in 1993 after she left NASA. Learn more about Jemison in this great clip from NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers. You can also watch this amazingly accomplished woman (did we mention she was also a Peace Corps physician?) talk about the impact Star Trek had on her life and how much fun she had being on the show in this clip from a 1994 C-Span interview.
Week 7: Walk up to any astronomer or astronomy student and say, “Oh, be a fine girl: Kiss me,” and he or she will not think you are hitting on him or her. Rather, the astronomer or student will know that you are reciting the mnemonic device for the spectral classifications of stars. You see, stars are classified by their spectral characteristics; there are seven classifications, designated O, B, A, F, G, K, M (the hottest stars, 53,000 degrees to 107,000 degrees, are Class O; the coolest stars, 3,100 to 5,800 degrees, are Class M; our sun is Class G, stars ranging from 8,500 to 10,000 degrees). The classifications and the mnemonic device are the brainchild of Annie Jump Cannon, who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from 1896 to 1940. Despite developing the star classification still in use today, despite becoming the first recipient of an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and despite being the first woman elected an officer of the American Astronomical Society, she and other woman at the Harvard observatory (who made 25 cents an hour) were criticized for being “out of their place,” because they were doing science instead of making babies. In fact, The Woman Citizen magazine wrote of Cannon in June 1924: “The traffic policeman on Harvard Square does not recognize her name. The brass and parades are missing. She steps into no polished limousine at the end of the day’s session to be driven by a liveried chauffer to a marble mansion.” But these days, any astronomer or astronomy student worth his or her salt should, from time to time, conjure up the spirit of Annie Jump Cannon and whisper, “Oh, be a fine girl: Kiss me.”
Week 6: Even the smartest people screw up from time to time. Galileo was certainly a smart guy, and he screwed up at least once, big time. As every space fan knows, Galileo’s observations of the sun, moon, Jupiter and Venus helped prove that the sun, and not the Earth, is the center of the solar system. Galileo’s big goof? He thought tides are caused by the Earth’s rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun. But, as every saltwater fisherman knows, tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon. When astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed in 1609 that the moon was, indeed, the cause of the tides, Galileo called the idea “a lamentable piece of mysticism.”
Week 5: In 1930, 11-year-old Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney of Oxford, England, was the first to suggest Pluto as the name the planet discovered earlier that year by Clyde Tombaugh. Young Katharine, daughter of the Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, and granddaughter of Falconer Madan, librarian at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, knew that the Greek god Pluto was the god of the underworld and lived where the sun didn’t reach. Smart kid. And where do the English come up with those great names?
Venetia died in 2009, but not before a movie about Pluto was filmed, which included interviews with her. Watch the trailer or listen to a 2006 NASA interview with Venetia.
Week 4: The end of the world as we know it? In 1989, Elaine, a guest on Peter Venkman’s television program World of the Psychic, said, “According to my sources, the world will end on February 14, in the year 2016. I received this information from an alien. As I told my husband, it was in the Paramus Holiday Inn. I was having a drink at the bar, alone, and this alien approached me. He started talking to me. He bought me a drink, and then I think he must have used some kind of ray or a mind-control device, because he forced me to follow him to his room, and that’s where he told me about the end of the world.” Name that movie… quick, before it all ends!
Week 3: In a few billion years, our sun, which is a yellow, main-sequence star, will become a red giant before collapsing to become a white dwarf and then an expanding series of gas shells called a planetary nebula. Interestingly, the planet Krypton was a red giant on the verge of its own demise when Jor-El sent Kal-El to Earth in Superman. So, as soon as our sun turns red, should we send a bunch of our kids to planets with yellow suns so they can become Supermen (and women)?
Week 2: Sixteenth-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, for whom the Tycho Crater on the moon was named, was the first person to make precise observations of planetary motion and describe what are now known as supernovas. On a less scientific (but more tabloid-worthy) level: 1) In 1566, Tycho lost part of his nose in a sword duel and spent the rest of his life wearing a nose made of silver and gold; 2) in 1601, he refused to leave the table to relieve himself during a banquet because doing so would have been a breach of etiquette. He ended up getting a urinary infection that ultimately killed him. According to his epitaph: "He lived like a sage and died like a fool.”
Week 1: George Lucas wasn’t a stickler about space science. In “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” Han Solo says to Luke and Obi Wan, “You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs." A parsec is used by astronomers to measure distance, not time. One parsec equals 19 trillion miles, so Han is saying the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 228 trillion miles.
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