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Before we resume our normally scheduled program, let’s pause for a bittersweet farewell to the Spitzer Infrared Space telescope, one of the most remarkable scientific tools ever put into operation.  In 2003 the telescope was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta II rocket.  It was sent into a heliocentric orbit rather than a geocentric orbit–following Earth rather than orbiting around it in order to minimize heat interference from our home planet.  When the telescope ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 most of its instruments and modules became unusable (since the main mirrors required a frosty -459 degrees Fahrenheit temperature to operate).  However, some of its most important discoveries came during the “warm phase” of operation between 2009 and January 30, 2020 (when mission scientists turned off the telescope).  For example it found and observed the seven world Trappist1 system which Ferrebeekeeper was so very enamored of back in 2017.

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Spitzer has provided enormous treasure troves of data concerning the formation of planets and galaxies (particularly back during the peak star-formation era ten billion years ago).  It has also afforded humankind an in-depth look at non-luminous objects like comets, asteroids, and vast clouds of dust and gas between the stars.

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Although astronomers are sad to see the mission end, they are excited by the prospects of Spitzer’s replacement.  Spitzer had a main mirror which was a bit smaller than a meter (33 inches).  The upcoming Webb telescope will have a 6.5 meter (21-foot) mirror (if we ever manage to launch it).  Goodbye to the little telescope that could…but prepare for great things in the near future!

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I have lived in my neighborhood for a while now, but it is a place with a lot going on and so I am still constantly surprised to find that I live right next to railroads, department stores, cemeteries, or universities which I didn’t know existed for all of these years.  This sort of thing doesn’t just happen in Brooklyn: it is true for the whole solar system.  Astronomers just discovered the largest mega-structure in the Milky Way Galaxy, a swooping ribbon of hot gas and baby stars now known as “the Radcliffe Wave.”  The wave begins 500 light-years below the Milky Way’s disk at a spot in the night sky around Orion, and runs through the constellations Taurus and Perseus to wind up near the constellation Cepheus (and 500 light years above the galactic plane).

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The Radcliffe Wave is about 9,000 light-years in length–roughly a tenth the diameter of the galaxy–and is though to contain about 800 million stars (as a quick refresher, our own sun has a mass about 333,000 times that of Earth).  Scientists have noticed pieces of the wave before, since it is a hot zone filled with tumultuous stellar nurseries where bright young stars emerge from vast clouds of gas, yet they did not realize it was a continuous ribbon.

The ribbon is relatively close to Earth, too.  To quote João Alves, the co-author of the Nature article about the Radcliffe Wave, “The sun lies only 500 light-years from the wave at its closest point. It’s been right in front of our eyes all the time, but we couldn’t see it until now.” Five hundred light years is not exactly a drive to the strip mall (it is a distance of 4,730,000,000,000,000 kilometers!), but we have been through the Radcliffe Wave 13 million years ago and the solar system is projected to pass into it in again in another 13 million years.

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Astronomers are interested in the wave, but they are even more interested in why is exists to begin with.  Alves speculates that it was created in the same manner that ripples are made in the water of a pond when something exceedingly massive lands in it.  What would be massive enough to make ripples in a galaxy?  Another galaxy? Some sort of black hole biz? A giant hunk of dark matter?  Who knows? (although this older post about giant voids in space might be somewhat instructive in talking about space’s busy neighborhoods too). We only just discovered the Radcliffe Wave and we will have to start working to figure out where it originated and what it means.  After all, we will be there surfing it in a mere 13 million years. Kowabunga, space dudes!

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Today (November 11, 2019) is the last time you will be able to watch Mercury transit across the face of the sun until 2032.  From sunrise EST until about 1:04 PM EST, people who are equipped with special super shades and giant weird specialty telescopes will be able to watch the tiny black dot of Mercury move across the face of the sun.  Mercury is slightly larger than Earth’s moon (although it much more dense) but it is also much farther away from Earth.  As the innermost planet moves between the sun and Earth, viewers here at home can watch…provided they have lots of weird specialty equipment (whatever you do, don’t stare directly at the sun or point any unfiltered lenses at it).  If you are like me, you certainly don’t have these sorts of optical tools lying around. But never fear: NASA is there for you, and you can watch the show with their fancy equipment via their site (or you can check out pictures after the event, in case you didn’t look at this post until it was too late). Enjoy this transit!  We can talk about the larger implications and about future plans for Mercury during the next transit in 2032…

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Ghostly Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink on paper

I meant to post a weird evil clown flounder picture which I had (a “clownder”?), but, infuriatingly, I could not find it among my boxes of drawings.  I suspect it will show up next year, during election season when we have forgotten all about evil clowns (rolls eyes).  Anyway, for Halloween, I will just put up the drawing I was working on for All Soles Day, the biggest holiday in the flounderist’s calendar (?).  It is a picture of a ghostly sole, on the bottom of the ocean surrounded by apparitions playing musical instruments and ethereal sea creatures and monsters.  There are some other things in there as well.  Hopefully it is becoming evident that my flatfish series of artworks represent an elegy for the dying oceans.  Shed a pearlescent tear!  But also remember: the oceans are in deep trouble, but they are not dead yet.  Filled with plastic and floating Chinese fish factories and bleached coral and acidified warm water they still team with life.  We could safe them and live together on a beautiful planet, but we will have to be better versions of ourselves.  It is a chilling message for All Sole’s Day (and an unhumerous end to Halloween season) but it is the most important advice you will find on the internet, despite the fact that it is abstract and open-ended.  Just look at the picture though, you wouldn’t want to live in a world with dead oceans would you…I mean even if you could.

Boy, this has been an intense week for astronomy news. First there was the largest neutron star ever discovered (it would take an eighth grader nearly an hour to bicycle a distance equivalent to its diameter!), then there was the story about Tabby’s Star gulping down exoplanets and pulverizing a moon (Ferrebeekeeper didn’t post that one, but you can read about it here) and now, today brings reports of another extra-solar mystery object akin to the mysterious Oumuamua which caused such a sensation back in 2017.

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C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) in the middle of the image: Note the faint tail!

Back in August 30, 2019, Gennady Borisov, an amateur astronomer from Ukraine, spotted an unknown comet which has been dubbed “C/2019 Q4 (Borisov)”.  Not only is the comet traveling at the blazing speed of  150,000 kilometers per hour (93,000 mph), it also has a hyperbolic orbit (meaning the object is not bound to the solar system) and it is approaching from a strange angle which in skew to the planar disk of the solar system.

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At present the comet is far away from Earth and yet approaching on a path which puts the sun between us and the object (astronomers don’t like pointing their telescopes into the sun for some reason), however the mysterious object should approach as close as Mars at which point we will be able to learn more about it.  Right now all we know is that C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) has a diameter between 2.4 and 15 kilometers (1.5 to 10 miles) and doesn’t seem to be from around here.  Whereas Oumuamua zipped through before we could get a good handle on it, we should have a chance to properly study this comet. Since comets (unlike strange asteroid shards) are volatile, we should be able to get a sense of its composition by studying the makeup of the tail.  Stay tuned for more news about this peculiar object!

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Ferrebeekeeper is baffled and alarmed by neutron stars (here is a post about them from back in the day).  A factoid from that post summarizes what makes these super-dense stellar remnants so disconcerting: a 1.27 square centimeter cube of neutron star material has approximately the same mass as all of Earth’s 7.7 billion human inhabitants (although the tiny cube of pure neutrons presumably lacks the same lively personality).  It is almost impossible to conceive of such a material…which is why we are reporting today’s space news! Astronomers at the Greenbank Radio telescope in West Virginia (pictured above) have discovered the largest known neutron star 4600 light years from Earth.  The star is known by the unlovely name J0740+6620 and it has 2.14 times the mass of the sun packed into a sphere with a diameter of 25 kilometers (to contextualize in instantly familiar terms, 25 km is the distance from Hell’s Kitchen to JFK airport).  This particular star is a rotating neutron star—a pulsar–which emits two radio beams from its poles as it rotates at hundreds of revolutions per second.  lies at the upper theoretical limit of how large a neutron star can be without collapsing into a black hole.

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The star was discovered by luck as astronomers researched gravitational waves (which are vast invisible ripples in space time).  Because the neutron star has a white dwarf companion, astronomers were able to precisely calculate the star’s mass with some fancy math.   The mass of the white dwarf distorts spacetime around the neutron star to a degree which causes the pulsar’s radio beacons to be delayed by tenths of millionths of a second.  Astronomers measured these delays (the phenomenon is known as “Shapiro Delay”) and calculated the mass of the neutron star accordingly.

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It is the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing!  It is a glorious anniversary: the moon landing was surely one of humankind’s proudest moments to date! Human beings left the Earth and walked upon the surface of a different world and returned to tell the tale! Yet it is a bittersweet anniversary too.  Today we are too politically paralyzed, too indebted, and too subservient to world-bestriding monopolies to accomplish anything similarly stirring.  It is unlikely we could even repeat the same feat! The president talks of returning to the moon by 2024, but anybody following the affairs of NASA recognizes that this is not going to happen (even assuming the current administration remains in place to push these particular space priorities).

In 1967, the Apollo program, by itself, was taking 4 percent of total government spending.  That was an era when the USA’s GDP represented 38% of the total world economic output (it is around 24% today).  There are lots of cranks and bumpkins who grouse about such outlays, but that money was spent here on Earth and it yielded rewards far beyond the moon landing itself.  The communications, materials, and technology innovations which have changed so many aspects of life largely flowed out of the space program (and its shadowy military sibling programs).

Perhaps you are wondering why this is not a nostalgic & triumphalist post about an epochal human accomplishment.  Maybe you are also perplexed about why I am writing about budgets and GDP instead of, you know, about landing human beings on the moon (although there has not been a human on the moon during my lifetime).

This is not just an anniversary post, it is also a polemical post about current policy failures. We are not investing any such vast outlays in long-term, open-ended research today.  It is going to come back to haunt us in a future of reduced prospects and lackluster breakthroughs Fifty years hence, are we going to look back on 2019 and enthuse about an Instagram filter, or slight improvements in immunotherapy, or blockchain technology?

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Wikipedia blandly notes ” blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.” The real genius of the moon-landing was that the end result was so spectacular and stupendous that it upended this conventional wisdom.  U.S. politicians of the sixties had the genius to perceive that the Apollo program could bring us together, boost our national prestige, bankrupt the Russians, and yield enormous technological and scientific rewards all at the same time.

In 1969, it must have seemed like the beginning of a golden age of space exploration.  After our heroic moon conquest we would build nuclear reactors on the moon and then create space cities in domed craters.  There would be giant lunar rail guns, torus space stations, spaceplanes, and Mars missions (and my floating Venutian city).  Instead we have the moldering hulk which is the International Space Station and some worn out space planes in museums.  Our vision and our willpower faded as our greed grew greater.

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But it is never too late! Space is still out there, bigger than ever. The moon landing showed that the impossible is possible if we work together.  That’s still true too and it is something we should all think hard about as we look up at the night sky and make plans for what to do next.

Sorry about the scarcity of posts last week.  Ferrebeekeeper opted to enjoy an extended Fourth of July by trying not to look at the internet (which paints a less-than-rosy picture of these (dis)United States of America).  I was out experiencing summer fun in the real world.  But that doesn’t mean we have forgotten about fireworks of the past.   We have just moved our perspective farther afield.

Above is the highest resolution image of Eta Carinae taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.  Between 1838 and 1844 Eta Carinae nearly went supernova and briefly became the fourth brightest star in the heavens (well really the explosion/ejection event occurred 7500 years earlier and the photons only reached Earth in the mid-nineteenth century).  Astronomers are still arguing about what exactly transpired then in this messed up stellar system: one particularly dramatic theory is that the unstable blue super giant η Car A devoured a now unknown third star in the system!

In the actual universe Eta Carinae is almost certainly gone and a vast tsunami of strange electromagnetic radiation is rushing towards Earth…but nobody knows if this is true or when the supernova afterwash will get here.  Astronomers recently pointed Hubble at the Homunculus Nebula, the hourglass shaped cloud of matter which expands approximately one light year from the binary Eta Carinae system and took the color enhanced ultraviolet photo above. It is beautiful but ominous…let’s keep it in the back of our minds as we go about our little lives. This universe is a strange & savage place.

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Hey, did anybody notice there is a massive spooky ghost galaxy right next door to us?  Well, actually the answer turns out to be “no: not really…not until November of last year.”  It was only in November of 2018 that astronomers discovered Antlia 2, a galaxy which is a mere 130,000 light-years away from the Milky Way–which really is right next door in terms of cosmic distances (to contextualize this number, the diameter of the Milky Way itself is between 150,000 and 200,000 light years).

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Ant2, as it is affectionately (?) called, is closer than the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy with 30 billion stars which is 163,000 light years away and is generally regarded as our closest galactic neighbor. How did we miss this thing?  And why are we calling it a ghost galaxy (aside from the fact that that sounds impossibly cool)?

Antlia 2 is a weird sort of celestial object.  It has the lowest “surface brightness” of any known galaxy and is approximately 100 times more diffuse than any known ultra diffuse galaxy.  Gee! that is really extremely diffuse.  Antlia 2 is also a dark matter galaxy: the exiguous stars of which it consists are insufficient to hold it together without a great deal of unknown mystery mass.  The ghost galaxy may be more than 99 percent dark matter.  Additionally, Ant2 (insomuch as it exists) is hidden by the occlusion cloud above the spiral of the Milky Way.  Only with the advanced astrometry readings of the European Space Agency’s satellite observatory Gaia were astronomers finally able to pinpoint this dark shadow in the sky above the southern constellation Antlia (which itself is named after an 18th century air pump).

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What the jazz? This post is making less sense than usual, but I am not making any of it up…

I worry that this post is too abstruse for comfort.  It concerns an all-but-invisible phantom galaxy made of unknown dark matter. The only reason we even found it to begin with is that astronomers were on the lookout for a hidden galaxy.  Some unknown mass must have caused the stylish ruffles in the spiral arms of our own bright & lively Milky Way.  Thus the fashion sensibility of space topologists helped us to find Antlia 2.  Remind me about this thing in October.  I want to draw some ghost galaxies to celebrate Halloween this year!

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I am fascinated by Jupiter!  Even though I have no plans for it (unlike, say Venus), Jupiter is so dazzling, beautiful, and huge that it is impossible not to be impressed.  Also it is so colossally enormous that it is quite difficult to even conceive of it: Jupiter has a mass one-thousandth that of the Sun!  Indeed Jupiter is a sort of miniature solar system in itself with several rings, a magnetosphere, and 79 known moons.   Ferrebeekeeper has touched on Jupiter’s moons, its poles, its great spot, and on our robot missions out to the planet.

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However today is something more mundane, yet also more accessible: tonight Jupiter is in opposition to Earth.  This means that On June 10, 2019, Earth is directly between the sun and planet Jupiter.  You should run out into the night and look at it!  Tonight you can see the largest moons of Jupiter with a small scope (or, if you are very lucky and have eagle vision, with your bare eyes).

Of course it won’t have all the details you see on pictures back from our probes, but it has something else which is special–it won’t be on some glowing screen.  It is real and you can see it for yourself with your own eyes.  So, go out and enjoy the June night and the sight of our biggest planetary neighbor.  There is a lot to talk about and do, but maybe it is worth taking a little astronomy break right now.  And if it is raining or you don’t see this post until tomorrow, don’t worry! There will be a few days when Jupiter dominates the heavens (although you can always check out Fourmilab, if you are having trouble locating it).

 

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