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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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Astrophysicists have long speculated about the creation of the moon.  Since the late twentieth century, the dominant theory has been “the giant impact hypothesis” which posits that a huge object about the size of Mars smashed into the newly coalesced Earth 4.5 billion years ago.  Astronomers name this mysterious proto-planet “Theia” after the titan who was the mother of the moon is ancient Greek mythology.  They speculate that the Earth and Theia melded together and the iron/heavy metal core of Theia sank into the molten Earth.  A great deal of the light material was thrown into orbit around Earth where it coalesced into two moons (the smaller of which was unstable and pancaked into the dark side of the moon a few million years after formation).

These are pretty intense ideas, however they explain many of the features of the moon and Earth (you can look at a comprehensive list on Wikipedia if you like).  Yet astrophysicists have not been completely satisfied by the current model of the giant impact hypothesis.  The composition of the moon is suspiciously identical to that of Earth (whereas, computer models seem to indicate that it should contain more of Theia).

This week, a scientific paper suggests that the collision was somewhat different than envisioned in the giant impact hypothesis.  The paper’s main author is Natsuki Hosono, and he has a revised version of how Theia hit Earth.  According to this new hypothesis, the freshly formed Earth was still piping hot and its surface was covered with a lava ocean.  Theia banged into Earth and careened off into space like a pool ball but the impact knocked the liquid ocean of lava into space, where it coalesced into one or two moons (which then ultimately amalgamated together).  The new hypothesis answers critical questions about lunar composition (and about the ratios of volatile elements on the moon).  Yet it does tend to beg questions such as what happened to Theia and what the nature of the Earth’s lava ocean was.

I guess we’ll keep watching the sky and the news to see how the world astronomy community reacts to the revised hypothesis.  In the mean time I will see what I can dig up concerning Theia (the goddess or the proto-planet).  That seems like the most intriguing part of the story yet details are weirdly exiguous.

Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

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There is an exciting new development in the world of aerospace!  This weekend, the world’s largest plane flew for the first time.  The plane is a colossal megajet with six engines and a 117 meter wingspan longer than a football field (or a soccer pitch).  For years the start-up aerospace firm Stratolaunch has been out in the Mojave Desert working on a giant plane to use as an orbital launch platform.  On Saturday (April 13, 2019), the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft successfully left the ground and cruised up to an altitude of 4500 meters (15000 feet) before returning safely to the ground and back to its immense hangar.

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The plane is designed to serve as a flying launchpad for firing satellites into low Earth orbit.  By carrying the satellites and their rockets to the edge of the atmosphere, the Stratolaunch will eliminate costly and resource-hungry rocket stages.  The company was founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.  It is one of the few examples I have seen of billionaires squandering their money in an appropriate fashion (come to think of it, Bill Gates’ humanitarian foundation is another of those rare examples…maybe those guys did know something).

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When I was growing up, every picture of a newly developed airplane filled me with covetous awe; yet, for the last decade, that feeling has been missing.  Every new plane has looked like a blander (albeit more fuel efficient) version of a previous model.  Even the budget-devouring F35 looks kind of like an uninspired GIJoe toy and lacks the hot lines of an F14 or even an F111 (although, admittedly, the F35 has thoroughly demonstrated its awe-inspiring ability to destroy money more quickly and effectively than any other warplane).  Yet the Stratolaunch changes all of that.  For the first ime in a long time, this plane is weird and exciting.  Just look at the tiny twin cockpits like angry little prairie falcon heads, or cast your eye on the hunched up fuselage and the sequential rows of landing gear.  I would be proud to run through the neighborhood waving a plastic model of this plane over my head and screaming until I tripped on my shoelace.   Additionally, the plane finally shattered an aerospace record which has stood since 1947.  The wings of the Stratolaunch are longer than the wings of the Spruce Goose, the magnificent flying white elephant which Howard Hughes built out of wood (in order to work around a wartime aluminum shortage).

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Congratulations to the Stratolaunch team and to the late Paul Allen.  Ferrebeekeeper will be watching the skies over the Mojave with our fingers crossed to see how the next test missions go.

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Messier 87 (M87) Galaxy

Messier 87 is a strange and extraordinary galaxy.  For one thing it was discovered and named in 1781…even though the nature of galaxies (and the fact that there are more than one such “island universes” was not understood until 1923).  Messier 87 was discovered by the great Charles Messier who was cataloging weird celestial blobs that could confuse comet hunters.   The galaxy lies near the center of the Virgo supercluster of which our own lovely (albeit provincial) galaxy, the Milky Way, is a part. Formed by the merger of multiple galaxies, M87 is huge and contains more than a trillion stars–4 times the number of stars in the Milky Way.  Additionally M87 is surrounded by more than 12,000 globular clusters (the Milky Way has perhaps 200 of these miniature satellite galaxies).  Whereas the spiral Milky Way is “blue and new” with ample quantities of hydrogen to form new stars, the globular Messier 87 is “red and dead”: new star formation has slowed and the great elipsoid mass of stars is slowly dying (insomuch as galaxies can be said to live to begin with).  The stars visible now are mostly middle aged main sequence stars or tiny long-lived red dwarves (tiny for stars…still not something you could pick up and put in your hatchback).

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47 million year old Adapidae fossil from Germany

Messier87 is approximately 53 million light years away.  The light that we can observe from it today originated during the Eocene, when the first little primates evolved on Earth and those photons have been streaking toward us through the great emptiness at 300,000 kilometers per second since when our direct ancestors were anxious lemur-squirrel guys staring pensively up at the stars.

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A artist’s conception of such a black hole

The center of this monstrous astronomical entity is a  supermassive black hole 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun (for reference, the sun is 333,000 times the mass of Earth–so this black hole has the mass of 2,164,500,000,000,000 Earths). A horrifying & beautiful relativistic jet of ionised matter 1.5 kiloparsecs (5000 light years) long is emerging from the black hole.

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Why do I bring this up?  Because we photographed the black hole!  This is the first time we have accomplished such a feat.  You can read about the esoteric details of how astronomers achieved such a thing by clicking on today’s Google Doodle (so I guess today’s blog post will not be a completely original/unique subject),  I suspect you have seen the picture already. Yet even the eye-of-Sauron glory of this image (which was taken by a pan-global network of radio telescopes) does not exactly capture the scale of the black hole.  My imagination is equiped for may things, but is not really much good for processing numbers bigger than a few thousand.  The diameter of this black hole is roughly approximate to the orbit of Uranus and it has the mass of a small galaxy.  So I guess keep that in mind when looking at the little orange eye. Now I am going to go lie down and hold my pet cat.

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