News From Space: Center of the Universe Closing!

center_universeYeah, that title might be a bit misleading. Technically, the news comes from Earth, but has everything to do with our study of the heavens. And this story comes to you from my own neck of the woods where – just a few kilometers from my house – the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is about to shut down due to budget cuts.

Typically, it goes by the name of Center of the Universe, a national historic site and a hub for astronomy education in Victoria. And at the end of the summer, in what I can only say its a tragedy, it will be closed to the public for good. The National Research Council (NRC) put the official closing date at the end of August, right after the last of the student summer camps ends.

center_universe2In addition, the facility houses historical artifacts like the original 1.8 metre mirror from the Plaskett Telescope and runs historical tours, multimedia shows, and youth programs. Unfortunately, this all costs about $32,000 to operate and $245,000 in employee wages, and brings in only about $47,000 per year in revenue. This gives the NRC a deficit of about $230,000 a year for this facility alone.

Naturally, Charles Drouin, spokesman for the NRC in Ottawa, said that the decision did not come easy, but was necessary. He confirmed that the active astronomy facility and national historic site will have no public outreach come late August or early September, and locals and visitors will no longer be able to tour the Plastkett Telescope, in operation since May 6, 1918.

center_universe3On the bright side, the historical artifacts and displays in the Centre of the Universe building will remain in place after the facility is closed. The NRC will also be working with local community groups to find volunteers to use the space, so it will remain in operation, though in a limited capacity. This much is good news, since the loss of the site in its entirety would be an immeasurable loss for this community.

Interestingly enough, Drouin also claimed that the decision to close the facility was unrelated to the federal governments announcement in May to reorganize the NRC as an “industry-focused research and technology organization.” In short, the budget-driven decision is not being blamed on funding cuts or the desire to privatize. I wonder…

center_universe1Personally, I am sad and ashamed to hear this news. The wife and I have been saying for ages that we need to go to this place and take a tour. Granted, that is not the easiest thing in the world to arrange, what with all the booked tours and the way the place seems to have an odd schedule. But you’d think we could have arranged something by now. It’s a national observatory, and right in my backyard for God sakes! To think we might have missed our chance is just plain sad…

However, there is still time, and I strongly recommend that anybody in the Saanich, Victoria, or Vancouver and Island region get their butts out and do what they can to see the place in operation before it shuts down. No telling what kind of hours and limited services it will be offering once its got only volunteers manning it. We need to take a gander at this star-gazing facility now before we lose the opportunity!

And be sure to check out their website too!


Asteroid 1998 QE2 Flies Past Earth

1998_QE2Today, at approximately 20:59 GMT, a rock so big that it has its own moon safely flew past Earth. It’s name is 1998 QE2, an asteroid that is roughly 500,000 times larger than the one which made that near-Earth flyby back in February. But of course, scientists had been letting the public know well in advance that this one would miss us to, and by a much wider margin.

In fact, whereas the last rock missed us by a mere 27,700km (17,200mi), this one passed at a much safer distance of about 5,800,000 km (3,600,000 miles). Good news for anyone who’s been caught up in all the asteroid/meteoroid frenzy of late. And while it might seem that a lot more stellar objects have been hurling towards us lately, a simple review of our Solar Systems turbulent history will confirm that this is pretty much business-as-usual.

1998_QE2_caltechWhat’s more, this most recent flyby provided scientists and astronomers with yet another opportunity to study an asteroid as it passed close to Earth. Using radar telescopes, they were due to record a series of high-resolution images, the purpose of which was to study what the asteroid was made of and where exactly in the Solar System it came from.

Prof Alan Fitzsimmons, an astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast, said:

It’s a big one. And there are very few of these objects known – there are probably only about 600 or so of this size or larger in near-Earth space… We already know from the radar measurements, coupled with its brightness, that it appears to be a relatively dark asteroid – that it’s come from the outer part of the asteroid belt.

What’s more, the curious nature of the asteroid – in that it has its own moon – is something which makes it a scientific curiosity. Approximately 15% of asteroids have the mass that they are capable of supporting their own satellite, but rarely does one fly this close to Earth. Early observations of this “moon” indicated that it is roughly 600m in diameter, and would have been visible during the flyby to amateur astronomers with a sufficient enough telescope.

1998_QE2_trajAfter this, asteroid 1998 QE2 will hurtle back out into deep space where it will stay for some time. In fact, Friday’s visit was the closest it has been to Earth for at least two centuries. And not surprisingly, researchers are becoming increasingly interested in potential hazards in space. So far they have counted more than 9,000 near-Earth asteroids, and they spot another 800 new space rocks on average each year.

And given the potential for harm if one made contact with Earth, as they have been known to do in the past, the information gleamed from observation and study is sure to come in handy as far as planetary defense is concerned. As Fitzsimmons himself pointed out about this particular asteroid:

…if something this size did hit us one day in the future, it is extremely likely it would cause global environmental devastation, so it is important to try and understand these objects.


Pluto’s New Moon to be Named Vulcan

pluto1For roughly a month now, the SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has been holding an online poll – appropriately named Pluto Rocks! – to help them name Pluto’s smallest moons, officially designated P4 and P5. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 respectively, an online poll ran up until the end of February, at which point researcher and co-discoverer Mark Showalter took the names before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to finalization.

Although there were several choices for for Pluto’s fourth and fifth moon, it was P4 that became the focus of a great deal of attention. Of all the names for this space rock, two top contenders came out on top: Vulcan and Cerberus. Out of a whopping 450,324 people who took part in the poll overall, 174,062 voted for Vulcan, effectively putting it in the top spot. This was perhaps due to a little Twitter intervention by Mr. William Shatner.

Pluto_moon_orbitsWhen the contest began back, it seemed that two camps emerged as the forerunners for naming the rock. On the one hand, there were the Trekkies who seemed determined to name P4 after famed-character Spock’s homeworld. On the other, there those who belong to IAU camp, who favored the classical Greek name of the beast that guarded the entrance to the underworld.

After just a few days in, William Shatner, Mr. James T. Kirk himself, proposed the name Vulcan, and not just because of the connection to his show. In Roman mythology, Pluto (aka Hades in the Greek pantheon) was the God of the underworld and Vulcan was one of his sons. Cerberus might have been more appropriate since this beast was Pluto’s/Hades companion, but the connection still works, and provides a nice little tie-in to one of the most popular science fiction shows of all time.

Pluto-and-VulcanFans and Trekkies worldwide rallied, and as of Feb. 25th, Vulcan had a comfortable lead over Cerberus and Styx, which were vying for the 2nd place position. SETI has now advised that people be patient, as it will take another months or two for the names of the two moons to be finalized and selected. However, barring any major objections or upheavals, I think it’s fair to say that P4 and P5 will henceforth be named Vulcan and Kerberos.

And I have to say, this is fascinating news in more ways than just one. Not only does it demonstrate that our collective knowledge of the outer Solar System is growing. It also demonstrates how henceforth, astronomical studies and cataloging may become a much more democratic affair. Once considered the province of academics and scholars, space exploration may truly be an open field in the future, subject to mass participation.

Oh, and congrats to Mr. Shatner for his enduring influence, to Mr. Nimoy for the shout-out, and to Trekkies the world over for showing what a committed fandom made up of millions of geeks can do! And may all the people who bullied you for your interests and keen intellectual skills consider what a force you’ve become and cower in fear!

Origins of Russian Meteor Found!

meteorJust over a week after a meteor exploded across the sky above the Chelyabinsk region of Russia, a group of astronomers published a paper that reconstructs where the rock came from. The men in question were Jorge Zuluaga and Ignacio Ferrin at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia. And the method they used was quite unconventional, and is perhaps a testament to the age we live in.

Basically, Zuluaga and Ferrin used the many sources of dashboard and security cameras that captured the event on film. Using the trajectories shown in the videos posted on YouTube, the researchers were able to calculate the trajectory of the meteorite as it fell to Earth and use it to reconstruct the orbit of the meteoroid before its fell to Earth and cause the shockwave that damaged buildings and shattered windows.

From their calculations, they were able to determine the height, speed and position of the meteorite as it fell to Earth. According to the team’s paper:

“…the Chelyabinski meteor started to brighten up when it was between 32 and 47 km up in the atmosphere. The velocity of the body predicted by our analysis was between 13 and 19 km/s (relative to the Earth) which encloses the preferred figure of 18 km/s assumed by other researchers.”

They then used software developed by the US Naval Observatory (called NOVAS) and the Naval Observatory Vector Astrometry to calculate the likely orbit. From all this, they came to the preliminary conclusion that the meteorite came from the Apollo class of asteroids, a well-known class of rocks that cross Earth’s orbit.

This conclusion has some worried, since the Apollo group, which orbits the Sun in the vicinity of Venus and Earth, contains over 2000 asteroids that are larger than 1 km in diameter. And considering that this one meteor, which measured between 17 and 20 meters, caused 1491 injuries and damage to over 4000 buildings in the area.

Lucky for us, NASA and every other space agency on the planet has some defensive strategies in mind. And of course, early warning is always the most important aspect of disaster preparedness. In the near future, we can expect some of the proposed observation satellites that will be going up to ensure there will be a better degree of early warning.


Happy Birthday Copernicus!

heliocentricAs I learned not long ago, today is the 540th birthday of the late great man who definitely proved that the Earth revolved around the sun. And so I thought I’d take some time out of my busy (not so much today!) schedule to honor this great man and the massive contribution he made to astronomy, science and our understanding of the universe.

Given the importance of these contributions, I shall do my best to be pay homage to him while at the same time being as brief and succinct as I possibly can. Ready? Here goes…

copernicusBorn in Toruń (Thorn), Poland on 19 February 1473, Mikolaj Kopernik was the youngest of four children to be born into his wealthy merchant family. Given his background, Copernicus’ family was able to provide an extensive education for their son, which took him from Thorn to Włocławek to Krakow, where he attended university. In this time, he learned to speak many languages – including Polish, Greek, Italian, German and Latin (the language of academia in his day) – and also showed himself to be adept at mathematics and science.

During this time, he also received a great deal of exposure to astronomy, since it was during his years in Krakow (1491-1495) that the Krakow astronomical-mathematical school was experiencing its heyday. He was also exposed to the writings of Aristotle and Averroes, and became very self-guided in his learning, collecting numerous books on the subject of astronomy for his personal library.

Leaving Krakow without taking a degree, Copernicus moved to Warmia (northern Poland) where he turned to the study of canon law, perhaps in part because of his family’s strong Roman Catholic background. However, his love for the humanities and astronomy never left him, and he seemed to devote himself to these subjects even as he worked to obtain his doctorate in law. It was also during his time in Warmia that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

geocentricUnder Ferrara, Copernicus traveled to Bologna, Italy and began critiquing the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – that would eventually lead him to doubt both models. In the early 1500’s, while studying medicine at the University of Padua in Italy, he used the opportunity to pour over the libraries many ancient Greek and Latin texts to find historic information about ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems.

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. It was here that all of his observations about the movement of the planets, and the contradictions in the current astronomic models, would crystallize into his model for the heliocentric universe. However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to official sanction from the church, he withheld his research until a year before he died.

It was only in 1542, after he had been seized with apoplexy and paralysis, that he sent his treaties, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) to Nuremberg to be published. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book.

Impact and Legacy:
The immediate reaction of the church to the publication of Copernicus’ theories was quite limited. In time, Dominican scholars would seek to refute based on logical arguments and Aquinism, ranging from the positions of planets in the sky to very idea that Earth could be in motion. However, in attempting to disprove Copernicus’ theory, his detractors merely fostered a debate which would provide the impetus for reevaluating the field of physics and proving the heliocentric model correct.

galileo_telescopeAnd in time, with the help of such astronomers and mathematicians as Galileo, the debate would come to a head. Using the telescope, a technology he helped pioneer, he was able to demonstrate that the size of the planets during various times in the year did indeed conform to the heliocentric model, and that it was only through distortions caused by observing with the naked eye that made them seem larger (hence, closer to Earth) than they really were.

And although Galileo would eventually be forced to recant and placed under house arrest for his last few years on this Earth, the Copernican system became the defacto model of astronomy henceforth, and would help to launch the Scientific Revolution whereby several long-established theories would come to be challenged. These included the age of the Earth, the existence of other moons in our Solar System, Universal Gravitation, and the belief in the universe as a giant, rationalized clockwork mechanism.

Final Thoughts:
Naturally, there are those purists who would point out that he was not the first to propose a heliocentric planet system. In fact, the concept of a universe with the sun at the epicenter dates back Ancient Greece. However, Copernicus would be the first astronomer to propose a comprehensive model, which would later be refined by Galileo Galilee.

HeliocentricOther purists would point out that his system, when he developed it, had numerous observation and/or mathematical flaws, and that it was only after Galileo’s observations of the heavens with his telescope that his theories were made to work. But it is precisely because he was able to realize the truth of our corner of the universe, sans a reliable telescope, that makes this accomplishment so meaningful.

In Copernicus’ time, the rigors of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models were still seem by the majority of astronomers to be the correct one, regardless of church doctrine or religious bias. In purely mathematical terms, there was little reason to make an intuitive leap and suppose that the great minds on which Scholastic science was based had got it all wrong.

So when it comes right down to it, Copernicus was an intuitive genius the likes of which is seen only once in a lifetime. What’s more, his discoveries and the publication thereof helped bring humanity out of the Dark Ages – a time where learning and the hearts and minds of men were still under the iron grip of the Church – and helped usher in the modern age of science.

Copernicus_conversation_with_GodAnd if I could get a bit polemic for a second, I would like to say that it is unfortunate then that much of what Copernicus helped to overcome is once prevalent in society today. In recent years, long-established scientific truths like Evolution, Global Warming, and Homosexuality have being challenged by individuals who claim they are lies or merely “theories” that have yet to be proven. In all cases, it is clear what the agenda is, and once again faith and God are being used as a justification.

In fact, despite the monumental growth in learning and the explosion in information sharing that has come with the digital age, it seems that misinformation is being spread like never before. Whereas previous generations could always blame ignorance or lack of education, we few who are privileged enough to live in a modern, secular, democratic and industrialized nation have no such excuses.

And yet, it seems that some decidedly medieval trends are determined to persist. Despite living in a time when the vast and infinite nature of the universe is plain to see, there are still those who would insist on making it smaller just so they can sleep soundly in their beds. As if that’s not enough, they feel the need to villify that which they don’t understand, or openly threaten to kill those who preach it.

Sorry, like I said, polemic! And on this day of days, we can’t help but remember the lessons of history and how so often they are ignored. So if I might offer a suggestion to all people on this day, it would be to choose a subject they feel uninformed about and learn what they can about it. And do not trust just any source, consider the built-in biases and political slants of whatever it is you are reading. And if possible, go out and hug a scientist! Tell them you accept them, do not fear what they have to say, and will not be sending them death threats for doing what they do.

Happy 540th birthday Mikolaj Kopernik!

The Mercury/Mars Conjunction

mercury1This weekend, amateur astronomers and stargazers will be treated to a rare sight: the conjunction of Mercury and Mars in the sky. This has proven to be quite the confusing spectacle in the past, as people have often misinterpreted the conjunction of the two planets as the appearance of Mercury’s moon. Much like the appearance of other “pseudo-moons”, it is a mistake that litters the history of astronomy.

The conjunction will appear tonight, on February 8th, during the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets in 2013. This month offers a chance to see the fleeting Mercury in the sky, and the conjunction with Mars will provide the opportunity to see how Mercury would look in the night sky if it did indeed have a moon.

mercurymarsTo see the conjunction, be sure to find a site with a clear view of the western horizon, grab some binoculars, and begin watching the skies at about 15 minutes after local sunset. According to astronomers, this should coincide with February 8th at 17:00 Universal Time! Look for a reddish dot just above that bright star that hangs low in the sky, and you’ll have your two planets looking very much like they’re in orbit of each other.

But be quick about it, since you’ll only have a 15-30 minute window (depending on latitude) to snare the pairing before they follow the setting Sun below the horizon. Photographing the pair will be tricky, though not impossible, since they present a very low contrast against the bright background twilight sky. And just in case you’re not impressed with the sight itself, consider that with Curiosity and other rovers operating on Mars and the Messenger satellite orbiting Mercury, permanent robotic “eyes” are monitoring both!

Good luck and good gazing! And if you happen to snap a picture of the conjunction, don’t hesitate to send it my way. I’ll be sure to post it with the deets of the amateur professional who made it happen!


New Super-Earth Discovered

It has been an exciting year for the discovery exoplanets! First, there was the news from Gliese 581 g, then the discovery of an Earth-like planet in Alpha Centauri. And now, scientists working in the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS apparatus have announced the discovery of the latest Super-Earth, which they believe to be the greatest candidate for extra-terrestrial life yet.

The planet is located in the HD 40307 system, an orange dwarf star that is just 42 light years from Earth. Although scientists are still not entirely sure that it’s a rocky planet, there are a number of strong indications that point towards and hospital terrestrial environment. For starters, as the sixth and farthest planet in the system, it lies within the sun’s habitable zone.

Second, the planet has a very reasonable 320 day annual cycle, which means that it receives a similar amount of solar energy compared to Earth – about 62% of what we get year round. This is positive news since most Super-Earths are situated too close to their parent stars to boast life. And last, but not least, the planet is unique amongst its near-Earth exoplanet kin in that it is not tidally locked, meaning it has a night and day cycle. Though this is not absolutely crucial to life, it is a bonus seeing as how it means one side of the planet is  not constantly exposed to radiation while the other is constantly in a state of cold, life denying darkness.

Mikko Tuomi of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, and Guillem Anglada-Escude from Germany’s University of Goettingen are chiefly responsible for this discovery. In the coming weeks, months and years, their team will be doing their best to ascertain the planet’s composition, which they hope to be rocky in nature. If this should prove to be the case, it will move to the top of likely candidates for exoplanet colonization, pushing such planets as Gliese 581 g, the most Earth-like exoplanet discovered to date, out of the top spot.

Source: Discovery News

More News From Gliese 581 g

And here we go again with another news story that comes to us from beyond our world, but curiously (no pun!), not from the Red Planet. It seems that the Earth-like exoplanet known as Gliese 581 g, aka. Zarmina (or Yuva to me and my writer’s group!) has been the subject of some interest as of late. In fact, two stories have emerged about this world, which ranks as number one on NASA’s list of Earth-like worlds beyond our system. And I think you’ll agree, these two stories couldn’t be farther apart.

The first sounds like something out of a novel by Carl Sagan: two years ago, while doing research for SETI, an Australian astrophysicist claimed  he picked up a “suspicious signal” from the vicinity of the Gliese 581 system. Since that time, a number have websites have come forward that claim to have traced the signal back to the Earth-like exoplanet itself. The second story comes from the International Astronomical Union, which chaired a meeting this week and raised doubts about the actual existence of Gliese 581 g.

For those who may not recall, the existence of Gliese 581 g has been featured in the news quite a bit of late, and not just on my site 😉 Discovered in 2010 astronomer Steven Vogt and a team of scientists working out of the Keck I facility in Hawaii. After locating the rocky world, they made two determinations based on their findings which set the astronomical community aflame.

On the one hand, the planet was roughly three time the mass of Earth but was believed to possess the same overall gravity. On the other, it was located within the system’s “habitable zone”, meaning it was warm enough to support life but cool enough to maintain water in a liquid state. Combined with its proximity to Earth, 20 light-years, this made Gliese 581 g the most likely candidate for eventual colonization.

To be clear, the astronomical panel did not dismiss the existence of Gliese 581 g out of hand, but did say that its existence cannot be confirmed as a scientific certainty. According to Francesco Pepe, an astronomer who works on HARPS data at the Geneva Observatory, “The reason for that is that, despite the extreme accuracy of the instrument and the many data points, the signal amplitude of this potential fifth planet is very low and basically at the level of the measurement noise.” So basically, the evidence put forth by Vogt and his team may have been nothing more than echoed signals. Bummer!

So what then are to we make of this news? Either Gliese 581 g does not exist, or it is home to an extra-terrestrial civilization that is sending out signals. In all likelihood, the doubts raised by the IAU are merely a setback, and it will be a few years before we are certain of the exoplanet’s existence. But then again, anything is possible. However unlikely it may be, we might be meeting “Zarminans” in a few generations time. Who knows? Maybe they’ll come find us, flying in tiny saucers and demanding we take them to our leader.

Personally, I hope it happens the way my group and I envisioned it, with colony ships going there within a century’s time and discovering alien life that does not resemble our own by any measure. Any other way is just plain crazy 😉

A Diamond Bigger Than Earth

Some interesting news from space these days, and for once didn’t have to do with Mars. For many years, scientists at NASA and other space agencies have known about 55 Cancri e, an extrasolar planet that orbits the Sun-like star 55 Cancri A that is approximately 41 years from our system. Up until recently, it was believed that this planet was a “Super-Earth”, a planet many times the mass of Earth composed of granite.

Recently, however, scientists have announced that the planet may in fact be composed of carbon. That means, in essence, that the surface is composed of graphite and diamond. These findings come as part of a study that was released by the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie in Toulouse, France. Nikku Madhusudhan, a Yale researcher who was part of the project, estimates that at least a third of the planet’s mass, the equivalent of about three Earth masses, could be diamond.

Imagine that, three entire Earth’s worth of diamonds! The mind reels at the staggering amount of wealth and opulence that this planet could produce, if only human mining teams were able to access it. However, surface conditions might complicate that a little. According to that same report, the planet is incredibly hot, with temperatures on its surface reaching 1,648 Celsius (3,900 degrees Fahrenheit). Not exactly cozy, by Earth standards.

Speaking of which, this is another aspect of the discovery which is proving exciting. According to Madhusudhan, “This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth,” adding that the discovery of the carbon-rich planet meant distant rocky planets could no longer be assumed to have chemical constituents, interiors, atmospheres, or biologies similar to Earth. And he’s not alone is suspecting that discoveries like this are just the tip of the iceberg, as we work our way further out into the universe and discover more examples of strange and exotic exoplanets.

Source: Yahoo

3D GIF of Rotating Nebula

click to see 3D animation

Pretty freakishly cool isn’t it? Personally, I never really got onto this GIF thing. It’s like, if it fits on the page and looks cool, it’s all good. However, this one was too cool to ignore. The brain-child of Finnish astrophotographer J-P Metsävainio, this GIF depicts IC 1396, a nebula where stars are born.

This nebula is a little over 2000 light years away, toward the constellation of Cepheus, and is well over a hundred light years across. Even at its tremendous distance, it’s wider than six full Moons in our sky. For some time, Metsävainio has been making impressive images of this nebula, but that didn’t seem to be enough for the erstwhile stargazer. And so, he began playing with 3D images in the hopes of creating a model of the structure of the nebula, one which showed it from different angles.

Granted, some have gone on record as saying this is more art than astronomy, and not all the features are one-hundred percent accurate. But the animation does give you a good sense of the nebula’s composition, as well as a glimpse of what the heart of a star-birthing nebula looks like. Notice the large blue star in the middle that is the ionizing source – i.e. the hot, young, massive star blasting out ultraviolet light which makes the nebula glow. The dark strands on the outside are filaments of dust which appear that way because absorb the visible light emitted from the center of the nebula.

The color pattern is also quite accurate, with blue on the inside and red without. This color change is due to the presence of oxygen gas within the cloud which glows blue because of its proximity to the central stars. Farther out, the starlight is too weak to make oxygen glow, so all you see is the ruddy glow from hydrogen. And fyi, that star is mu Cephei, a massive red supergiant which happens to be one of the most luminous stars in the Milky Way, possibly over 300,000 times more luminous than the Sun.

Pretty cool huh? Hat’s off to you Metsävainio. I can’t speak for everyone, but you’ve certainly blown my mind! Click on the photo to watch the animation, and if you want to download it, don’t be surprised if it takes a while. The damn thing is 7 megabytes!