September 29, 2007

A New DAWN for Asteroid Explorers

NASA's premier asteroid explorer, DAWN, or has successfuly launched as of 9/27/2007.

DAWN's mission is simple: to examine asteroids Vesta and Ceres. DAWN will able to tell us what the element and mineral composition, shape, topography, and tectonic history. It will also measure gravity fields and mass of the objects. It also has methods for the detection of water.

DAWN's mission is very historic. For one thing, it will be the first mission to travel to two different locations. But NASA seems to have a flare for the dramatic... the two locations are nearly three billion miles apart!

DAWN's mission is simple: to examine asteroids Vesta and Ceres. DAWN will able to tell us what the element and mineral composition, shape, topography, and tectonic history. It will also measure gravity fields and mass of the objects. It also has methods for the detection of water.

You see DAWN is quite different than all other probes. It has the granddaddy of fuel efficient engines: the ion propulsion engine. Imagine a piece of paper on your hand; the gravity of the earth pulls it down, but the weight is nearly non-existent. The full throttle setting on the ion propulsion engine is the same as a piece of paper weighing down your hand. With no gravity and no atmosphere, the probe will slowly accelerate and travel over 20,000 miles per hour by the end of its journey, expected to last five years or more.

DAWN will provide us with information from the asteroids that can potentially rewrite the science books on how the solar system was formed. The asteroids have been silent watchers of the creation of the solar system and the information they will provide has been long awaited by researchers.


P.S. By the way, I've signed up for a Technorati Profile so click the link if you want to see!

September 28, 2007

The Notorious Mars Email

"Mars is coming! Mars is coming!"

That's a familiar subject for email that clogs Exchange servers about every two years about how Mars will be as large as a full moon. This, of course, is totally false. The picture above is often pictured in the email. Stop the email people! We all fell for it once (and don't say you didn't look!) but we know its not that big!

However, there is a bit of truth. Mars will be in the best viewing position for years and it will blaze with a magnitude of -1.6 by December 9th; brighter even than Sirius. You can find Mars between Taurus and Gemini.

Every 26 months, the orbits of Earth and Mars come closest. This makes Mars' magnitude greater and astronomers get their best every-other-year look at the Red Planet.

September 27, 2007

Magnetar Shimmer

This is an artist's depiction of an extremely rare magnetar, a neutron star spinning at incredible speeds and emitting incredible amounts of x-rays. The star is so dense, the entire mass of sun is fit into an object with a mere 9 mile radius. A spoonful of material from this magnetar would literally weigh many tons.

This star, located 1500 light years away in the constellation Sagittarius, has the strongest magnetic field of anything in known universe: 600 trillion times stronger than Earth's magnetic field.

I have making super small posts, but I found this great site,

If you are a fellow blogger, I strongly encourage you try this out. Humans transmit many programs into space with the hopes someday that intelligent life will pick it up and respond. Much in the same way SETI and SETI@home users monitor radio waves for other intelligent life communcations. Either way, DeepSkyBlog is now being transmitted into the furthest depths of the universe!

If you're out there intelligent life, let us know how right (or rather how wrong) this blog is!

The Hunt for Exoplanets

The universe is an ever changing place; or least it is to astronomers. Most of us when we were in school remember that there were only nine planets in the entire universe. Now there are eight planets in our solar system, several named Pluto-sized objects near the Kuiper Belt, and more than 200 discovered planets in faraway solar systems.

The consistent, repeated discovery of exoplanets is very exciting to the astronomical field. The process of discovering exoplanets is very intriguing indeed. There are actually two primary methods for exoplanet discovery: the transit method and the wobble method.

In the wobble method, a large planet, like Jupiter, orbitting a star causes a slight wobble in the star and it moves slightly off of its center of gravity, like in the illustration. By making measurements of the star's "wobble" we can determine many characteristics of the planet. Nearly all exoplanets have been discovered using this method, but the method is severely limited: it can detect Jupiter-sized objects, but not Earth-sized objects. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what the composition of the planet is.

In the transit method, we can get much more information. The planet passes directly in front of the star. We can get mass, size, and even atmospheric information from this method, because light from the star pass through the upper atmosphere of the planet, which even allows for temperature and cloud formation measurements. The transit method unfortunately can provide many false detections and also many undiscovered planets will not pass perfectly in alignment with observations.

Other methods include:

  1. Gravitational Microlensing

  2. Circumstellar Disks

  3. Pulsar Timing
  4. Astrometry

  5. Direct Imaging

The vast majority however are discovered by the two afforementioned methods. Direct imaging is great though, because even though discoveries made with this method are rare, they do exist and for the first time give us a peek into neighboring star systems, like this picture of GQ Lupi and its planetary companion GQ Lupi b.

September 26, 2007

The Harvest Moon

Tonight the reddish orange color of the Harvest Moon will be upon us yet again. The full moon nearest the autumnal equinox makes the moon's light last well into the night, allowing farmers some much needed light to harvest there fall crops.
The atmosphere reduces visible light on celestial objects near the horizon, which is why they are always brighter overhead. The atmosphere scatters blue light in the spectrum causing this. This reduction of blue light allows us to look at the setting sun, yet keeps us from looking into the sun during midday. The orange reddish color in the moon will be prevalent until the moon starts moving directly overhead away from the horizon at which point it will resume its normal white color.
The harvest moon often makes the moon look larger, yet this is an optical illusion. By simply taking pictures of the moon near the horizon and taking pictures of it in the sky and comparing the photos, the illusion will be revealed, assuming you use the same camera settings. There's quite a bit of heated debate as to which hypothesis of why this occurs is true.

Pollux: The Twin's Secret

β Geminorum (more commonly called Pollux) is the head of the twin Pollux in the Gemini constellation. Pollux has a secret he has been hiding for millions of years though.

Pollux is the only star readily visible in the sky that has a confirmed companion (i.e. exoplanet). For thousands of years this has been a significant star and last year it was confirmed for a fact that Pollux has a companion star. So when you look at the head of the twin Pollux, you are looking directly at a confirmed solar system with orbitting planets.

A few interesting facts about Pollux:

  • Even though it has the "Beta" designation, it is actually brighter than α Geminorum, more commonly known as Castor.
  • Castor and Pollux are twins; however, the stars representing them couldn't be more different. Castor is a super hot white sextuple star system; Pollux is a yellow-orange giant.
  • Pollux is the only star readily visible in the night sky with a confirmed star system.


Stellarium is a free, open-source planetarium software. Did I mention it was free?

Stellarium definitely gives the new version of Google Earth a run for its money. The interface is very simple. It can even be run through a projector to create your own real life planetarium.

It runs smoothly on older computers (I have running on a machine with only 256MB of RAM). Better yet even, it lets you select your location (or a nearby location) and is automatically set to the default time. You can see the sky from any day, time, etc. and while you are looking at it you can watch the accurate movement of the stars and planets as the time changes. You can even speed time up or down to watch the stars and planets move as time goes on.

Language packs allow armchair astronomers world-wide the ability to take advantage of all the features of this program.

I like the fact this software is open-source. This means anyone can edit or change the program and submit their changes and they might get incorporated into the latest program. Commercial programs often have stringent deadlines. Open source software is basically run by people with an eye for detail, and any bugs that are reported are often fixed in the next version. Even if you're not a computer programmer or guru, open source software is constantly evolving and changing and Stellarium is no different. Commerical programs tend to patch to fix problems, open source makes patches to add new features and requests in addition to bug fixes.

Stellarium features a realistic, 3-D sky that shows a variety of heavenly objects. Objects included are:

  • default catalogue of over 600,000 stars.

  • extra catalogues with more than 210 million stars

  • asterisms and illustrations of the constellations

  • images of nebulae (full Messier catalogue)

  • realistic Milky Way

  • very realistic atmosphere, sunrise and sunset
    the planets and their satellites

Bottom line: If you like stars and astronomy (and if you're here I assume you do) you need this program. Check it out at the programs website:

September 25, 2007

55 Cancri: Enter the Habitable Zone

Nearly 40 light years away, a cosmic stone throw, there exists an interesting star system. 55 Cancri is a star system much like our own: it has planets in the "habitable" zone.

The binary star is less luminous as our own and evolutionary models place it at approximates 5,500 million years old. It has a magnitude of 5.95, and is visible through binoculars or even through the naked eye under very dark skies. A telescope even reveals its red dwarf companion.

There are currently four confirmed planets in the star system. Three have masses similar to that of Jupiter, and the innermost, "habitable" zone, planet has a mass comparable to Neptune.
Large spaces between confirmed planets b and c indicate that there is a high likelihood of smaller terrestrial planets in between.

The idea of a star system close in form and structure to our own is intriguing. Imagine that the innermost planet has life on it. The temperature should be correct for our definition of what life can tolerate. What would beings on this planet look like? The gravitational pull is much greater on a larger planet; would that make lifeforms larger and denser? If there wasn't an Earth-like environment, would an entirely different set of chemical and metabolic reactions cause life to evolve in a very different way, like breathing helium or drinking sulfuric acid? The possibilities are endless, but one thing is certain (we think): you need planets to have life, and this system bears a striking resemblance to our own.

September 24, 2007

Astrophotography: My Very First Try

This morning I woke up early with my daughter and decided that I was going to try to take advantage of my digital camera's high zoom and a tripod I found laying around. The following are my very first ever photos of Venus taken. While certainly not "groundbreaking", I at least got close enough to distinctively show that it's a planet.

The planet actually showed up exceptionally well on the LCD, however, the tripod was absolutely necessary or it wouldn't have been stable enough to photograph. The color got completely out of whack when I took the picture, and I think it is because the sun was coming up pretty fast. The pictures came out kind of well, so I'm thinking I might better prepare myself for tomorrow. I didn't realize this, but my camera has like a 40x Mega Zoom. It's a Konica Minolta Dimage Z1. While my pics are no Bob Johnson pics, I think it's a good start into the world of amateur astrophotography. I've currently got Moon and Milky Way on my "pictures without a telescope" list.
I'm an amatuer astronomer (as I like to think of myself) without a telescope, but the digital camera did pretty well.

If you're interested in amateur astrophotography, you should head over to Astropix and take a look at some of the great pics and advice. Great book!

September 22, 2007

New Galaxy Has Comet-Like Tail

A newly discovered galaxy has a dust trail more than 220,000 light years long.

The dust is planting the "seeds" of new stars.
Ming Sun of Michigan State University, who led the study says, " turns out that this is a giant wake of creation, not of destruction." Millions of stars have already been, or are in the process of being, born.

The galaxy, ESO 137-001 , is more than 220 million light years away and is headed towards a cluster of galaxies called Abell 3627.

Mars' Hidden Subsurface Entrances

The Mars orbiter is now fully operational after a software glitch sent it into safe mode on September 14, 2007. It is expected to resume its search for caves like the ones reported back in April that were discovered using Odyssey's thermal imaging system (THERMIS).

Caves are likely hotspots for martian microbial life. They show up as "warm spots" on thermal imaging because they are warmer during cold periods and cooler during hot periods and offer a much more stable temperature to sustain life. Caves are important discoveries on Mars because:

1.) Caves can be used as future shelter for humans.
2.) Microbial life may be located in caves beneath the surface.
3.) If life is absent, the fossil record preserved in the cave wall will tell us if life ever existed, and if so, what happened to it.

For these reasons researchers hope that caves will be more thoroughly investigated by future missions.

A very important discovery was the potential cave system located near Arisa Mons, a massive martian volcano. The caves have been dubbed the Seven Sisters, named Dena, Chloe, Wendy, Annie, Abbey, Nikki and Jeanne, after the loved ones of researchers who located them.

September 21, 2007

Nasa Launching Gamma Ray Telescope

NASA is launching a state-of-the art gamma ray telescope, called GLAST, which will allow researchers to watch first hand some of the most powerful events at work in the universe today.

The telescope is not a typical telescope in several ways. First of all, it can't see light like the Hubble or Spitzer can; it can only see gamma rays. Gamma rays are the most energized photons in the universe. Secondly, it is the first telescope ever to observe the entire sky at once.

I bet NASA is concerned and curious about this gamma ray burst phenomenon. If a gamma ray burst occurred anywhere near earth it would completely obliterate the atmosphere, allowing pure radiation through our ozone and magnetic "shield" that deflect the radiation.

Gamma ray blasts are so powerful that if one occurred 1000 light years away, it would appear as bright as the sun. Thankfully, they have been observed only at great distances.

There is speculation that gamma ray bursts are responsible for one or more extinction level events.

September 20, 2007

Pleiades: Seven Bright Sisters

The Pleiades is an open cluster located in the constellation Taurus. This is a region of hot, young, blue stars formed approximately 100 million years ago.

The dust seen is extrinsic, meaning that the cluster is merely passing through a dusty region of space; the dust from the creation of these stars has long dissipated.

This has always been one of my favorite celestial objects. Very bright, very hot, and visible without a telescope!

Check out this great map of the Seven Sisters from

Cosmic Dust Can Create "Inorganic" Life

Life-like configurations reportedly can form from plasma in dust clouds like the one pictured right.
Plasma is a state of matter that is made up entirely of electrically charged atoms. Under certain conditions, double helix strands resembling DNA can form. The "inorganic" life forms, as they have been coined, can do a wide variety of tasks, such as split and replicate.
Using computer simulations and current physics models, researchers at Russia's General Physics Institute made the startling discovery.
The research is already turning heads, but many peers say that the physics are sound.

September 19, 2007

Neptune's Hotspots Explained

The freezing winds on Neptune might be a bit in warmer around the south polar region a new study shows.

Bathed in the scarce sunbeams for years, this region is slightly warmer at a balmy -300 degrees Farenheit. This allows an abundance of methane gas to leak into the stratosphere. Researchers were puzzled how there could be a stratospheric abundance of methane when, at the typical temperatures of -328, the methane gas should be frozen.

The methane gas present in the stratosphere is responsible for Neptune's blue tint; it absorbs red light and only reflects back the blue.

Peruvian Meteorite Sickness

An unconfirmed meteorite collided with the desolate Andean plain Saturday morning. Hundreds of nearby people are having headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems.

Local media and the actual health department are claiming that "toxic" fumes emitted by the meteorite are causing the symptoms.

This is, however, very unlikely. The meteorite itself more than likely would not contain any immediately dangerous material, and it is almost impossible for it to release toxic gas from the Earth; most meteorite impacts are very superficial.

Geophysicists from Peru's Geophysics Institute will be on the scene are will be making a full report around Thursday.

September 17, 2007

Alien Planet Dense as Balsa Wood (TrES-4)

This artists depiction represents a newly confirmed gas giant named TrES-4. At more than 70% larger than Jupiter, it contains about 3/4 of Jupiter's mass.
Orbiting its star t a mere 4.5 million miles, the surface temperature on TrES-4 is super-heated to over 2,000 degrees Farenheit.
After doing the math, Manduchev, a Trans-Atlantic Exoplanet Surveyor, says that this makes the density approximately that of balsa wood.
Manduchev says, "At this point the most valuable thing about this study is [that] it presents a challenge to our theoretical models. Most advances in science come from confrontations just like this one."
The solar system certainly is becoming a very strange place. The great thing about the field of astronomy and astrophysics is that we're always proven wrong and we currently are reworking our models.

A Closer Orion Nebula...

The Corona Australis region is an area of young star formation that nearly three times as close as the much better-known Orion Nebula. At its core is the luminous Coronet cluster. At only 420 light years away, it better allows observers to get a glimpse into the world of a newborn star.

Source: NASA
Image: NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/CfA

Lunar X Update: Official Team Announced

The first "official" team to register for the $30 million dollar Lunar X prize sponsored by Google is none other than robotics department at Carnegie Mellon university.

The team will be lead by robotics hotshot Dr. William "Red" Whittaker. An excerpt from the CMU moon rover website sums up his robotic contributions and qualifications best.

Dr. William "Red" Whittaker is the Fredkin Professor of Robotics, Director of
the Field Robotics Center, and founder of the National Robotics Engineering
Consortium, all at Carnegie Mellon University. His focus is on mobile robots
that pick their own path through outdoor terrains, from the Dante robots that
walked into active volcanoes to rovers that have trekked across deserts and
Antarctic ice fields. He led Carnegie Mellon's Grand Challenge teams. Dr.
Whittaker's portfolio includes the development of computer architectures for
controlling mobile robots; modeling and planning for non-repetitive tasks;
complex problems of objective sensing in random and dynamic environments; and
integration of complete field robot systems.

Dr. Whittaker is widely known for his achievements in the robotics community.
A few of his awards include: Engelberger Technology Award; Design News Special
Achievement Award; Hero of Manufacturing Award; Aviation & Space Technology
Award. Dr. Whittaker has advised twenty-three Ph.D. students, has sixteen
patents, and has authored or co-authored over 150 publications.

Still, armchair astronomers and space travel enthusiasts are asking the same question...

Is this the man who will take us back to the moon?

September 15, 2007

Googling the Moon?

Google is sponsoring a $30 million dollar Lunar X prize.

"The Google Lunar X Prize will allow every schoolchild, teacher and person on
the planet to participate in going back to the Moon in a way that government
exploration never could," said Bretton Alexander, executive director of space
prizes for the X Prize Foundation in Washington.

Alexander said the competition "harnesses the power and culture of the Internet to allow each of us to watch the development of the teams, send images and videos of ourselves to the lunar surface, and experience being on the Moon with the rovers."

Wow, now that puts the Ansari X prize to shame. Now that suborbit has been done, it looks like we are turning our sites to the moon. I love how Alexander says that we are harnessing the power of the Internet; finally, we're using it for something other than dirty movies and World of Warcraft!

Looks like we're finally starting to take getting out of the atmosphere seriously. It's about time.

What the heck is Mira doing?

'Shooting stars' have made a comeback! Mira is hurtling at an astonishing 291,000 mph through the universe, seeding debris that will ultimately cause new stars and solar systems.

This stunning picture is actually a mosaic of several photographs. The "tail" of Mira is nearly 13 light years long. That's the amount of space between Earth and Pluto... 20,000 times!!

Check out the full details of this amazing phenomenon at NASA's official website.