Just a little astronomical item:
The European Space Agency (ESA) has begun to release the findings from the Huygens probe, which landed two and a half years ago on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons.
Huygens recorded two and a half hours worth of data during its descent to the moon’s surface, and then sent transmissions for another seventy minutes after landing, before it moved out of range of the Cassini spacecraft (from which it was launched). Much attention has been placed on the readings from the descent, although Titan’s atmosphere turned out to be hazier than scientists had expected, do to the large quantity of dust particles, or “aerosols.”
The possible presence of extremely low frequency (ELF) radio waves might also suggest underground oceans on Titan, something already theorized about by scientists.
Even after two years of study, researchers say the few hours of data still holds massive potential. I fully expect the existence of Titanian mer-people to be announced within the year. But I’ve been wrong about this sort of thing before.
Check out the Science On a Sphere exhibit at the museum for some cool images of Titan.
Scientists have observed what is thought to be the most powerful supernova explosion ever recorded.
"Of all exploding stars ever observed, this was the king," said Alex Filippenko, one of the astronomers observing the event.
The object, dubbed SN 2006gy, is thought to have been a star at least 150 times larger than our own sun. It was first discovered last autumn, and its subsequent death throes were so explosive, astronomers think the star may have been obliterated, blasting all its material (metals and heavier elements) into the surrounding region of space. Animation of a star going supernova.
But have no fear, it should have no effect on any of us here on Earth. Astronomers estimate the star was 240 million light-years away from our solar system.
However, a star in our own galaxy named Eta Carinae, appears to be expelling large amounts of material just like SN 2006gy did before it went supernova. It could mean Eta Carinae is facing a similar explosive fate. And if that happens, its demise would not go unnoticed here on Earth, because Eta Carinae is only 7500 light-years away.
"We don't know for sure if Eta Carinae will explode soon, but we had better keep a close eye on it just in case," said Mario Livio, of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The last supernova observed in the Milky Way took place more than 400 years ago.
"Eta Carinae's explosion could be the best star-show in the history of modern civilization," Livio said.
"It would be so bright that you would see it during the day, and you could even read a book by its light at night", added Dave Pooley, at the University of California at Berkley.
Despite the celestial light show, and its relative closeness, if Eta Carinae did go supernova, it would still be a safe distance away from Earth.
LINKS AND INFO
The Aquarid meteor shower is due to reach its peak this weekend. Clear skies and warm spring temperatures in many parts of the country will make this the first good meteor viewing of the year. The shower is due to peak at 7 am Eastern time on the 5th with meteors falling at a rate of about one per minute. But you can go out any night this weekend after midnight and look low in the eastern sky – you may catch a few falling stars to put in your pocket and save for a rainy day.
Hey! National Astronomy Day is April 21, but we're celebrating it a day early this year on Kellogg Plaza! Come look through a telescope at the sun, the moon, Saturn, and the Orion nebula. Help us grind the mirror and assemble a six inch telescope. And come talk to some very committed amateur astonomers from the Minnesota Astronomical Society.
What: National Astronomy Day at the Science Museum
When: Friday, April 20, 10:30 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Where: Kellogg Plaza
Now here’s something I’d really like to do sometime, but I guess if anyone should do it before I do it should be gravity’s biggest scholar, Stephen Hawking.
Hawking, the world-famous British theoretical physicist, explainer of black holes and author of the best-selling book, A Brief History of Time, plans to take a ride up into the great Blue Yonder and spend a few brief moments of freedom from gravity’s pull.
Stricken most his adult life with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and wheelchair-bound for decades, Hawking will be aided by a medical team when he takes to the sky this coming spring. Zero Gravity, a Florida-based space tourism and entertainment company will supply the ride up and back from a Cape Canaveral landing strip.
Using a modified Boeing 727 equipped with a special padded area, Hawking and his entourage will fly upward at a steep angle to 32,000 feet then arc over into an equally steep descent of about 8000 feet. During the upward portion of the trajectory, he’ll experience an increased sense of weight (almost twice the normal pull of gravity) but on the downward side of the arc he’ll experience about 25 glorious seconds of weightlessness.
“As someone who has studied gravity and black holes all of my life, I am excited to experience firsthand weightlessness and a zero-gravity environment, “Hawking said, recently.
Astronauts have long trained this way, and some of the scenes in the movie “Apollo Thirteen” were shot on the same kind of flight to give the film an added sense of realism.
About 15 trajectories are experienced in each Zero Gravity ride, which typically lasts about 2 hours from take-off to landing. And don’t let the ride’s nickname (the vomit comet) scare you, only 1-2% of Zero Gravity’s customers are reported to have gotten space sick, The cost of such an adventure runs about $3500 per person (what’s 3 or 4 missed mortgage payments?), but Hawking will get his ride for free, one of the benefits of his celebrity. The company also plans to have two seats on the flight available by charity auction.
The ride could serve as a prelude to Hawking’s dream of someday riding into space. He made an appeal to Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, to achieve that goal. Virgin Galactic is building a sub-orbital spacecraft that it hopes will begin shuttling passengers into space as early as 2009. And Branson says he will personally pick up the tab for Hawking’s $200,000 ticket! (Looks like I’m going to have start coming up with some of my own groundbreaking scientific theories).
Professor Hawking was born 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo, holds twenty honorary degrees and has held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge since 1979, a position once occupied by none other than Isaac Newton formulator of the law of universal gravitation.
I'd really love to experience weightlessness. What about the rest of you? I think it would be a blast. Maybe I can get the Science Museum to pay for my ticket. Liza?
The Earth will pass between the Sun and the Moon today, casting its shadow over the Moon and creating a total lunar eclipse.
The Moon starts to enter the Earth's shadow at 3:18 pm Eastern Time (US). It is fully in shadow from 5:44 pm to 6:57 pm, and then slowly leaves the shadow until it is clear at 9:24 pm.
Eclipse times in other US time zones:
|Time Zone (US)||Partial eclipse begins||Total eclipse begins||Total eclipse ends||Partial eclipse ends|
|Eastern||3:18 pm||5:44 pm||6:57 pm||9:24 pm|
|Central||2:18 pm||4:44 pm||5:57 pm||8:24 pm|
|Mountain||1:18 pm||3:44 pm||4:57 pm||7:24 pm|
|Western||12:18 pm||2:44 pm||3:57 pm||6:24 pm|
In St. Paul, the Moon will rise tonight at 5:59 pm -- just after the total eclipse phase has ended. You can watch the Moon slowly emerge from the Earth's shadow. (Ancient astronomers watching lunar eclipses noticed that the Earth's shadow was always round -- thus proving that the Earth is round, too.)
To find out when the moon rises and sets in your town today, go to this site.
Note: it is perfectly safe to watch a lunar eclipse with your naked eye. All you are seeing is sunlight bouncing off the Moon's surface. It is no more dangerous than staring at a Full Moon. However, you must never look directly at the Sun, as during a solar eclipse. You can seriously damage your eyes.
The last total eclipse was three years ago; the next will be later this year, on August 28.
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are caused when particles streaming from the Sun strike the Earth's atmosphere. Solar activity is very difficult to predict -- you often get only one or two day's notice between the eruption of a solar storm and the aurora.
But Charles Deehr, Professor of Physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has noticed a couple of recent "coronal holes" on the Sun that have been more stable than usual. Assuming these stay active, they could lead to aurora activity on the following dates:
Jan 29-Feb 6
Feb 25-Mar 2
Deehr categorizes these events as "moderately active," meaning they may not be visible from the United States (or only the very northernmost part, above the 45th parallel). But if you're planning a trip to Canada or Alska during these times, look to the sky around midnight and tell us what you see.
Comets, often called “dirty snowballs”, or perhaps more precisely “icy dirtballs”,
are composed of ice, dust, snow and gas, and are believed to originate in the far reaches of our solar system in a hypothesized area of space called the Oort Cloud. They are invisible to us until they orbit near the sun and reveal their glowing tails. Recent space probes have gathered more information about their composition .
“It will remain a spectacular comet for weeks, perhaps months, in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said. “It could emerge as the brightest comet in recorded history.”
Weather permitting, Comet McNaught should be visible just after sunset today (4:54 CST Jan. 12 at Latitude 45° N) in the west-southwestern sky. Once the sun sets, locate the bright planet Venus about 11 degrees above the horizon in the southwest, then look down and to the right for Comet McNaught. You may also spot it just before sunrise (7:49 CST Jan. 13 at Latitude 45° N). About twenty minutes before the sun rises would be a good time to look. The comet should be visible just to the south of due east.
Astronauts, Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang, were able to fix a stuck solar panel on the International Space Station this Tuesday after a super long fourth space walk. I love this story because of the description of their work on a six and a half hour walk in space.
...spacewalkers spent about five hours poking the partly retracted panel with insulated tools and shaking the storage box to free the stuck sections.
Poking and shaking? So technical. I mean this reminds me of trying to remove the alternator from my old car. I just had to hit it with a hammer and shake it a bunch to get it unstuck. Its good to remember how pedestrian an astronauts' task can really be at times. Now, when I'm poking and prodding at my car I am not in a frigid vacuum. But doing work outside in a Minnesota winter can make you feel that way sometimes.
Did anybody see the northern lights this week? I went out Thursday night, and it was awesome!
I headed out about 11:00 pm EST. Temps in the mid-40s -- not bad for mid-Michigan in mid-December! I walked a couple of blocks to a park near my apartment which I knew had a big field surrounded by trees, and no lights. On my way, I could see the sky glowing a pale green, as if the lights of the city were reflecting off a low cloud. Only, there were no clouds last night, and there's nothing but farmland north of Lansing.