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After posts about giant hornets which can dissolve flesh with their stings,  a huge asteroid passing by Earth, and a mass cemetery in New York City, it is hard to know what to write about next… Thankfully, astronomers are way ahead of me!  This week featured the announcement that scientists have discovered a black hole “right in our backyard.”

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Fortunately, what counts as our backyard to astronomers is not really our backyard by any quotidian definition.  Located in the southern constellation Telescopium, the newfound black hole is 1,000 light-years away: although it is the closest black hole to Earth discovered thus far, it is still 9.5 quadrillion kilometers away (5.88 quadrillion miles).  We probably won’t blunder into it by accident when we sneak downstairs for a midnight snack.

Black holes, as you know, are deformed patches of spacetime where gravity is so strong that all proximate matter and electronic radiation (like light) are pulled into the gravity well.  Black holes form when exceedingly massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle:  they become more massive as additional matter accretes into them.   For example the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is believed to have the mass of 431 million suns!

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The black hole’s orbit in the star system is marked in red

The newly discovered Telescopium black hole is nothing like that though.  Scientists estimate its mass to be mere 4 to 5 times that of the sun.  Astronomers were able to discover the object only because the other two stars in its solar system (which they were studying in order to better understand binary stars) were not orbiting each other in a comprehensible fashion.  Some massive third party was implicated…yet nothing was visible. Ergo, a black hole.  There are believed to be hundreds of millions or even billions of these invisible horrifying objects in our galaxy alone, but they are nearly impossible to find unless there are nearby objects for them to interact with (yet which have not been slurped down into the ravenous maw).

I wonder where the actual closest black hole to Earth is located? Maybe we don’t really want to find out…

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52768 (1998 OR2)

On Wednesday morning at 5:56 a.m. (New York Time), the world will receive a reminder that things could always be a lot worse when a 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) asteroid zips by Earth at 31319 kilometers per hour (19,461 miles per hour).  The great boulder goes by the not-very-lovely name 52768 (1998 OR2).  It was discovered in 1998 by NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, a program established to protect the denizens of Earth from possible space collisions (although our current terrestrial troubles suggest we may need to get our act together a bit better if we ever hope to, you know, actually do anything if one of these things comes straight towards us).

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“But I voted to make dinosaurs great again!”

Fortunately during this pass-by, the asteroid will be a comfortable 6.3 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) away.  That sounds disturbingly close, but it is really 16 times farther than the moon. Astronomers are carefully measuring the fly-by though, in order to learn what they can about asteroids, and because 52768 (1998 OR2) will be back…and next time it will be much closer.  In 2079 it will probably be 3.5 times closer than it is this time, so mark your calendars for that: it might be a bit more exciting than this time around.

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It is Earth Day again.This year the Earth actually is recovering (slightly) from humankind’s rapacious quest for unending resources and eternal growth…but only because we are all bottled up inside our domiciles angrily stewing.  Who knows what mischief we will get up to when we are allowed outside again?

I still think the natural habitat for humans is not the gentle mother planet, but the harsh depths of outer space–an environment more suited to our dark cunning, violent factionalism, and infinite appetite.  Admittedly, space is an inhospitable place of terrifying extremes…but it is rich in natural resources (and seemingly undeveloped).  To be succinct, it is exactly the sort of place that allows for infinite economic growth.  Unlike Earth, space would be unharmed by any status displays that weird billionaires want to indulge in.  By international/interplanetary treaty, Earth could be a sort of nature preserve where natural humans could dwell under extremely constrained terms for 4 score years. After that, they would have to either return fully to the Earth to lie forever beneath the hill, or go off-world, quaff immortality potions, mine asteroids, sleep for millennia in hypersleep, jump through wormholes, and what-have-you.

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Admittedly we don’t quite have the technology for this yet (though I feel that current engineering, aerospace, and ecological knowledge would actually allow for more spacefaring and spacesteading than we admit to ourselves).  But really think about how much more appealing it would be to live as a colonist/adventurer in the heavens than it is to be an indentured servant in some moronic cubicle farm here on Earth.

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We’re killing the planet for THIS?

Of course, right now I suspect there are readers who are shaking their heads and tutting and saying Earth Day is not about wild flights of imagination…it is about living sustainably!  But we have had fifty Earth Days,  A half century’s worth of ecological scolding and corporate greenwashing has not accomplished very much in terms of changing the way we live or the political/economic calculus which goes into our true global-level decision making.

This Earth Day affords us a real opportunity to truly think about where we are going at a species-wide level.  As soon as we are allowed outside we will go right back to running over baby skunks with SUVs and tossing PVC jugs into the ocean.  Primates are not my favorite life form, but I really do love humankind just the way we are: curious, insatiable, aggressive, and free.  I also truly, truly love our unique planet of dazzling, beautiful, irreplaceable webs of life.  We can not have both things if we keep going like we are now going. The point of no-return is no longer hundreds or thousands of years from now. It is now.

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So break out your biggest craziest concepts about how we can reconcile our huge coarse ambitions with our tiny fragile habitat. Write them down below and we will argue about them.  Send them to your senator and to the New York Times.  Let’s really have the conversations we have been tip-toeing around for five decades.  Otherwise in five more decades we won’t be arguing about how to float farms above Venus or seal the cracks in our domed city on Titan. Without better science, better politics and better IMAGINATION, we will be a bunch of shriveled mummies in a used-up necropolis planet of garbage, plastic, and dust.

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Well it could always be worse…If you are a little worn out by our planet and its problems, take a moment to consider the tidally locked gas giant planet WASP-76b which lies 640 light years from Earth in the constellation Pisces.  WASP-76b is a bizarre world.  At twice the diameter of Jupiter, the planet is so close to its blazing host star that a “year” lasts only 43 of our Earth hours.  The temperature on the bright side of the planet is 2,400 degrees Celsius–hotter than the surface of some stars.  This enormous temperature combines with the rivers of blistering exotic radiation from the star to shred molecules apart into their constituent atoms.  The super-heated atoms are caught in convection cycles and eventually flow to the planet’s eternal darkside, where they rain down as iron precipitation. How metal is that?

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The WASP system is named for the “Wide Angle Search for Planets,” a British program to discover strange new exoplanets by means of a ground based array of telescopes.  Once they discovered the giant WASP-76b (which is virtually inside the corona of its sun), the team utilized the new “Espresso” spectrographic instrument at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to study the giant world’s chemical makeup.  The Espresso instrument assays the spectrum of light visible in the infinitesimally small dot of light visible to the Very Large Telescope (I don’t know what Espresso stands, presumably it is some convoluted acronym, but it is the world’s most sensitive spectrometer–not a coffee machine).

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Science of this precision always leaves me agog.  Remember back when I was writing about the new generation of giant super telescopes being built in the Atacama Desert of Chile?  These efforts are now yielding extraordinary discoveries–such as the almost-star WASP-76b.

It will be astonishing to find out even more about such nigh-incomprehensible worlds when the NEXT generation of superscopes are completed…assuming they ever are. The launch of the James Webb space telescope has been pushed back to 2021 because of cost overruns and because it is unclear whether NASA has any launch system they trust sufficiently for the enormously expensive scope (sigh).  Additionally, America’s own massive ground based telescope–the proposed 30 meter scope at Mauna Kea-has become trapped in limbo by the criminal actions of a group of terrorists, hooligans, dolts, and recidivists who despise humankind and hate all knowledge. But we will write more about them later.

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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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