Thursday, November 29, 2012

How do we know what we do?

Do you ever wonder how we are able to know what we do about these objects that are such large distances from us to the point where light takes thousands of years just to travel from these objects to us. Well when visible light can no longer be used to study these objects we use what is called far-infrared which works off the fact that thermal radiation of interstellar dust contained in molecular clouds will begin to glow when infrared light is shined on them. This means that they can be detected long before the visible light ever makes it to the earth from these distant objects and allows us to continue studying objects at the deepest parts of the universe. Just think of how far these distances are. It is truly a remarkable feat.

The Sun

There are billions of stars in the universe, yet there is one that out weighs all the others in importance to us and is studied far more then the others and that one is known to us as the sun. It is pretty obvious why though that one star is responsible for life on this planet and is way closer to us then any other star. This colossal mass is actually considered a pretty average size among stars, but in terms of its importance to us it is larger then all the other stars in the universe. Imagine if this star didn't exist none of us would it's a crazy thing to think about. Isn't it?

Geocentric universe

Have you ever wondered how it was found out that the earth revolves the sun? Well at one time this was unknown until a man named Galileo came along. He was highly criticized for his views especially by the church because they seemed to go against there teachings, but eventually his views were confirmed and now we know how the solar system is arranged and that we are not at the center of the universe and it all started with a man who was willing to challenge the social norm and risk everything in his time.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Zodiac

The Ecliptic
    Ah, the Zodiac.  A prominent part of astrology, the zodiac is a set of 12 equal divisions along the ecliptic, or path the Sun passes along as the months pass (red line in the diagram to the right).  Each division is associated with a different constellation, even though the constellations vary in size. 

    In order, starting at 0°, the signs are:
    Ares ♈, Taurus ♉, Gemini  ♊, Cancer , Leo ♌, Virgo ♍, Libra ♎, Scorpio ♏, Sagittarius ♐, Capricorn ♑, Aquarius ♒ and Pisces ♓.

     Fun fact:  The divisions are set up such that the spring equinox occurs when the sun enters the sign of Ares.  This is great, until you take into account the precession of the equinoxes, which is slowly moving the signs (the sign Ares is now in the constellation Pisces). 

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Planets: Where are they now?

   A few days ago, I mentioned exoplanets.  While it can be fun looking for new worlds, sometimes it's more fun to look at the worlds closer to home.  So, as per the mnemonic: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos, here's where the 8 planets are in the night sky.

    Mercury:  Mercury is currently hidden by the sun, but may be visible in the morning sky later in the week.

    Venus:  Venus is one of the easier planets to spot in the sky, due to being exceptionally bright. It currently rises before the sun, and is visible shortly before dawn.

    Earth:  Look down.

    Mars:  Mars is visible at dusk in the Southwestern sky, but is rather low.

    Jupiter:  Jupiter is high in the sky this month, so look for it in the constellation Taurus.

    Saturn:  Like Venus, rises before the sun, so look for it shortly before dawn.

    Uranus & Neptune:  Due to their distance, these two are difficult to spot without binoculars or a telescope.  That said, they can be found in the constellations Pisces and Aquarius.

Also, when you're out looking:  Saturn and Venus are scheduled to be very close together in the sky soon:  Look for this conjunction on the mornings of November 26th and 27th.

Happy hunting!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Astronomy wants you!

... to go find more exoplanets.

    If you keep tabs on astronomy news today, it feels like every week some headline has to do with the discovery of some new exoplanet.  A few recent finds, in no particular order:
- Possible rogue exoplanet
- Possible habitable planet
- 'Super-Earth' exoplanet

    So, what's an exoplanet and why do we care?  An exoplanet is any planet outside our solar system.  As for why we care?  Exoplanets have the potential for many things, ranging from supporting intelligent extraterrestrial life to being potential mining sites to augment our planet's supply of rare elements.  Somewhere in the middle, of course, are the planets suitable to support human life that we could colonize. 

    While we already know of quite a few exoplanets, very few of them have even a slim chance of being habitable.  By finding more, we increase our odds of finding a habitable planet, and thus finding either extraterrestrial life or a nice new world to colonize.

    Happy hunting!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pluto's Multiplying Moons

    Some time ago I was testing my knowledge of trivia on sporkle.  I found a quiz on the moons in the solar system, and I thought "easy", since I was really into that kind of thing when I was younger.  What I hadn't counted on, however, was that new moons had been discovered since the last time I had really paid attention to the layout of the solar system:  Pluto now had three moons instead of one.

    The "new" moon's names are Nix and Hydra, and they were discovered back in 2005.  Their orbits are farther away than Charon's, giving them orbital periods of about 25 and 38 days respectively.  These periods seem slow compared to Charon, which orbits pluto at the stunning speed of an orbit every 6.4 days.  

    So, what does a planet about 1/5th the mass of the moon need 3 moons for?  Hold on, did I say 3?  I meant FIVE.  In the last two years, two more moons have been found orbiting Pluto.  Tenatively called P4 and P5, these two moons are the 2nd and 4th closest moons to Pluto (see orbital diagram).

     Enter New Horizons, an exploratory spacecraft launched in 2006.  New Horizons is scheduled to arrive at Pluto in mid-July, 2015.  There it will study Pluto and its moons before careening off into the Kuiper belt.  But there's a bit of a problem.  When New Horizons was launched, Pluto had only 3 discovered moons.  Now, we know of 5 moons orbiting Pluto, and scientists are concerned that Pluto may have more hazards lurking around it in the form of rings or other dust clouds.  Depending on what New Horizons' cameras reveal, it may get a last-minute course change.  This potential course change won't keep the spacecraft from studying the system, but it will mean that we won't get any up-close shots of the planet or its moons.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Life on Asteroids?

In one of my previous posts I talked about the large amount of interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life out there and in this article I am going to explain one potential source for life in the universe. Asteroid's are many times thought to be dangerous to life due to the fact that if a large enough one were to collide with earth it could kill many people; however, asteroids many times will have certain compounds on them that could be necessary for life and if they impact into a planet with the right conditions it is theoretically possible that life could be made possible. The conditions in which this can occur are pretty rare, but this does give us a possible source for life to occur on other planets. For more information on this exiting new topic check out the link below.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

More meteors

    For anyone that either missed the Orionid meteor shower (or didn't get enough shooting star action), there's two upcoming meteor showers this month.  They are the Taurid and Leonid meteor showers, and as always, are named after the constellations that they appear to originate from.

   The first, the Taurid meteor shower, should peak later this week on the 12th.  Also known as the Halloween Fireballs, the Taurids tend to be larger and brighter than other meteor showers.  The best viewing time will be just after midnight, when Taurus is nearly overhead.

    The second, the Leonid meteor shower, will peak shortly after that, around the 17th.  The leonids are a periodic meteor swarm, putting on a spectacular show every 33 years (the last time it did this was around the turn of the millenium).  With this being an off year, expect about 10 meteors an hour. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Astrochemistry is the study of chemistry that happens in outer space. Spectroscopy is the main technique used to analyze this because of the large distances that are between us  and the objects undergoing chemistry. The majority of outer space consists of hydrogen and helium, so the elements dealt with are not very diverse; however, at the extreme temperatures that occur out in space some amazing chemistry can take place. What do you think these extremely high and low temperatures would cause to happen chemically? Also do you think the fact that the objects are incredibly large out in space can cause changes in the chemistry?,r:9,s:0,i:102&biw=1920&bih=979

Formation of interstellar molecules

William D. Watson wrote a research paper on how interstellar hydrogen molecules reacted to form many of the stars in the universe. He was a physicist who graduated from MIT and worked in theoretical astrophysics. He was led to do research on this topic because he wanted to know if hydrogen ions could react with other hydrogen molecules to create small interstellar molecules. He found that these reactions do indeed make up a good portion of interstellar gases and this was important in helping us understand the make up of the universe. This information could be important to many people who are interested in astronomy because it is an interesting topic that answers some of our questions about what is actually out there.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Pleiades

  As a followup to my last post, I went out the other night to try and see some of the meteors from the Orionid meteor shower.  Sadly, I was unable to see any meteors, probably due to a combination of light pollution and bad luck.  However, while I was looking for meteors, I did notice a small "blob" in the sky with 6 faintly visible stars in it.  The blob is question is actually the Pleiades, also known as the seven sisters.  The sisters are visible in winter in the northern hemisphere, so this is a good time of year to see them.

A question for the reader:
    Some time ago I heard that while there are 7 sisters, only 6 are visible to the unaided eye.  The reason cited at the time is that one of the sisters is shy, and can only be seen by those with a keen eye.  So, when you go out to stargaze, how many of the sisters do you see?

Note:  Pictures will be added at a later date, Google is being funny and not allowing me to add images.

Edit (11/07/2012):  Added images.  I don't know why (or how), but one of my firefox plugins wasn't agreeing with Blogger, and was preventing the posting of images. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Orionid Meteor Shower

Ever wanted to see lots of shooting stars?  Tonight's a good night for that, if the weather's clear:  This weekend marks the peak of the Orionid meteor shower.  Every year about mid-October, the Earth's orbit takes it through the trail left behind by Halley's comet.  The debris contained within the trail is much too small to be dangerous, but numerous enough to give us a good show as it enters the Earth's atmosphere.  Depending on viewing conditions in your area, you can expect to see a meteor every few minutes or so. 

Tonight's not the only night for this meteor show, but after tonight the frequency of shooting stars will once again taper off, with the Orionid meteor shower ending around the 7th.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Light Pollution: The Eater of Stars

Quick, when was the last time you saw the Milky Way?  Unless you've been to a rural area recently, odds are good you can't remember the last time you saw the Milky Way. 

Why?  Light pollution.  Street lights do more than keep your street lit, they also light up the sky.  While most people don't care if the sky gets lit up, astronomers do.  The brighter the sky, the harder it is to see the stars. 

A study done by Kurt W. Reigel back in the 70s sheds light on the problem.  According to Dr. Reigel, light pollution is a serious problem, already making several observatories unusable for "competitive research".  Denver's Chamberlin Observatory is a good example of this, as it is now little more than a historic building.

The study proposes that we could do away with much of this pollution.  Outdoor lighting has two main purpose according to Dr. Reigel: Illumination for automobiles and crime deterrent.  The first of these purposes could be removed by designing better automobile headlights.  Dr. Reigel's study suggests that increasing the output of car headlights by a factor of 20 would eliminate the need for streetlights to illluminate roads for cars. 

The second reason for outdoor lighting is crime deterrent.  Dr. Reigel claims that this use of lighting is ineffective.  Worse, he claims that this lighting may have a detrimental effect: crime rates are higher in brightly lit areas.  While lighting may not be the cause of these higher crime rates, the study notes another interesting phenomenon: most residential crime occurs during the day, when residents are away. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Question with an Astronomical Amount of Answers

 When you look up in the sky and glance out into the seemingly infinite amount of stars its likely that meny questions are raised. Astronomy has numerous topics that are discussed within it; however, one tends to stand out due to the interesting possibilities it could entail and that is the question of "Is there other intellectual life in the universe?"

In this post I will talk about an issue in figuring this problem out known as The Fermi Paradox which analyzes the fact that there are billions of stars that are billions of years old and allows us to deduce that there is a very high probability that there should be other intelligent life forms out there and over the long existence of the universe they should be technologically advanced enough to communicate with us, yet as far as we know aliens have never visited or tried to communicate with us.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Lunar Cycles

Today's topic is about the phases of the moon.  If you were paying attention in science class, you probably spent a little while learning this.  If not, here's a nice crash course on how the Moon orbits the Earth.  For most of us, all it means is that the moon looks different on a day to day basis, but looks about the same month to month.

In addition to looking different throughout the month, the moon's phases drive a few more phenomena.  The most readily observable phenomenon is that the moon rises and sets at different times throughout the month.  For example, the new moon rises with the sun, but the full moon rises as the sun is setting.

The moon also drives the tides.  Low tide occurs when the moon is near the horizon.  High tide occurs when the moon is high in the sky or when the moon is on the other side of the earth.  This is also affected by the phase of the moon.  When the moon is full or new, we experience spring tide, which has higher high tides and lower low tides than normal.  When the moon is first or third quarter, we experience neap tides, which has lower high tides and higher low tides.