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Time lapse photo of the movement of 2012 VP113 (color digitally added)

Time lapse photo of the movement of 2012 VP113 (color digitally added)

Astronomers today announced the discovery of a new dwarf planet at the edge of the solar system. Until the appropriate nomenclatural bodies settle on a snappier name, the tiny body will be known by the unwieldy moniker of 2012 VP113. The little planetoid is estimated to measure about 450 kilometers in diameter (so it is much smaller than other plutoids like Haumea (which is approximately 2,000 km x 1,500 km x 1,000 km). Speaking of Haumea, which has a mysterious pink spot, the new object (which I’ll call VP113, for short) is also suspected to be light pink because radiation causes the frozen gases to decay to that color.

Even when it is closest to the sun, the little planetoid is still 12 billion kilometers (7.4 billion miles) distant from our home star–but at the farthest extent of its orbit 2012 VP113 is a whopping 70 billion kilometers (44 billion miles) from Sol. That’s almost a thousandth of a light year! The irregular orbit takes 44,000 Earth years to complete—which means one year there is a very long time!

2012vp113_orbit.png.CROP.original-original

You might be wondering why I am taxing your brain with obscure snowballs, but, astronomers are very interested in VP113 because of what it might reveal about the origins of the solar system. In 1951, the Dutch-born astronomer, Gerard Kuiper, predicted the existence of a vast cloud of icy objects at the remote edge of the solar system. The Kuiper belt has indeed been discovered—it is a belt of dust and icy objects approximately between Neptune and Pluto. In 1950, a Dutch astronomer, Jan Hendrik Oort revived an idea from the 1930s (from Estonian Ernst Öpik) that there was a huge spherical cloud of comets, vapor, and icy planetoids at the edge of the solar system—beyond even the orbits of miniature planets Eris, Sedna, and VP113. [I don’t know why all the scientists who theorized about the solar system’s icy edges were northern Europeans].

kuiper_oort.en

The discovery of VP113 proves the existence of the inner Oort cloud and provides astronomers with a source of information about the objects in the Oort cloud. Additionally the extremely strange orbits of VP113 and Sedna begin to suggest that an alien star disturbed the Oort cloud in the past—or that there may still be an Earth sized planet at the true edge of the solar system.

Artist's Interpretation of Sedna (Credit: Gemini artwork by Jon Lomberg)

After the discovery of Pluto in 1930, there was a long hiatus in discovering objects of comparable size. Then in 2003, a team of astronomers led by Mike Brown of Caltech discovered a distant icy sphere which was quickly heralded as “the tenth planet.”  Mike Brown announced the discovery on his website along with his team’s rationale for naming the object.  He wrote “Our newly discovered object is the coldest most distant place known in the Solar System, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid Arctic Ocean.

It turns out that Sedna is only one of many similar snowball-like planetoids beyond Neptune.  In fact, Ferrebeekeeper has already described the dwarf planet Eris (named after the Greek goddess of Strife) which is the largest currently known Kuiper belt object.  Sedna was the first to be discovered since Pluto and it sparked a debate about such objects which ultimately resulted in Pluto’s downgrade to dwarf planet.  Sedna also has some unique features which make it remarkable in its own right.

The orbit of Sedna (red) set against the orbits of Jupiter (orange), Saturn (yellow), Uranus (green), Neptune (blue), and Pluto (purple)

Sedna takes 11,400 years to complete its orbit around the sun and its bizarre highly elliptical orbit has given rise to much conjecture among astronomers.  Although some astronomers believe it was scattered into a skewed orbit by the gravitational influence of Neptune, other astronomers believe it originated in the inner Oort cloud and was never close enough to Neptune to be affected by the giant’s gravity.  Some scientists speculate that its lengthy orbit may have been caused by a passing star (perhaps from the sun’s birth cluster).  A few theorists have gone one step further and conjectured that Sedna is from a different solar system and was captured by our Sun billions of years ago.  A final school contends that Sedna is evidence of an unknown giant planet somewhere in the depths of space (!).

A photo of Sedna taken from a powerful telescope on Earth

We don’t know much about Sedna except that is probably 1,200–1,600 km in diameter and that its surface is extremely red.  After Mars, Sedna is one of the reddest astronomical objects in our solar system.  This color comes from the profusion of tholins covering the methane and nitrogen ice of which the little world is formed.  Tholins are large, complex organic molecules created by the interaction of ultraviolet light on methane and other simple hydrocarbons.  It is believed that early Earth (prior to obtaining an oxidizing atmosphere) was rich in Tholins and they are one of the precursors to the rise of life.

So, it’s been a while since I put up a garden post.  The simple reason for this long omission is that I have moved (well also it was winter).  I had a delightful spring garden planted which I had hoped to showcase here–but the vicissitudes of the world intervened.  I have now moved from Park Slope (where no one who is not an investment banker can afford to dwell) to Ditmas Park, a diverse neighborhood of ramshackle Victorian mansions and elegant row houses. On this exodus, I took with me all of the plants that I could put in pots.  Naturally, spring plants do not like this sort of rough handling so mortality was high.  You should picture one of those cattle drives where, after great hardship and tremendous effort, only a few cattle are alive at the end. Um, except instead of rugged cowboys imagine me, and instead of shaggy longhorns picture tulips and daffodils [ed. Are you sure this metaphor holds up?]

Cherry Blossoms in my new back yard this spring

Anyway, the happy conclusion of all this is that my new garden is much more beautiful than the old one was. The ground is rich and fertile and, best of all, some ingenious landscaper from long ago planted a variety of gorgeous trees. This forethought provides the subject for this post, for the new garden features a Japanese flowering cherry tree, the undisputed emperor of ornamental trees.  The tree is old and huge.  It looms high above the two story house and spreads across three (or maybe four) lawns.

Hanami no en (Kunichika Toyohara, 1862, woodblock print)

Such trees are the central focus of spring festivities in Japan where “Hanami” festivals have involved viewing cherry blossoms and reflecting upon the nature of life (and drinking) since the Heian era.  Initially such flower parties were attended only by the imperial family, but the trend of festivals for sakura viewing was soon picked up by the samurai nobility.  The custom combined with the similar tradition of farmers who annually climbed up nearby mountains in springtime to have lunch under the blooming trees.  Soon Hamami was adopted by all classes in Japan as a time of drinking and feasting under the sakura trees.  Tokugawa Yoshimune, an eighteenth century shogun, arranged for the mass planting of cherry trees to encourage the tradition.

Today, the Hanami festival is the major annual spring festival in Japan.  A “blossom forecast” is carefully watched as people prepare their parties.  Then when the trees are blooming, the Japanese spread mats or tarps on the ground to drink and dine alfresco beneath the falling petals.  Of course many people are more interested in eating (and, more particularly, drinking) then enjoying even the most beautiful flowering trees. They are mocked as being “hana yori dango” (more interested in dumplings then flowers) and their drunken antics and passed out bodies are a major component of hanami time in Japan.

As you can see in the photos, the cherry tree at my new place is not the only tree blossoming in the back yard.  It is joined by a showy crabapple tree with deep pink buds and a flowering dogwood.  All of these beautiful trees mean that I’m back to shade gardening and my roses are living out front by the bustling street.

The Cherry Tree (foreground), the Flowering Crapabble, the Dogwood (pale green on the left) and some little white blossoming tree which belongs to the neighbors (right background)

I was bent on fully celebrating hanami with my friends. In the spirit of “hana yori dango” I had already thought out a menu of sake, dumplings, and grilled meats, but, due to a scheduling mischance, I will be on holiday in Los Angeles next week (which is a good problem to have). I have included photos of the initial blooms from my backyard but my roommate ensures me that the blossoms become even more fulsome as the whole tree morphs into a living pink cloud.  I suppose it is fitting that I am going to miss this peak bloom as sakura blossoms are an ancient and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life’s joys.  Indeed to the stoic Buddhist and Shinto faiths which have taken root in Japan, the blossoms are symbolic of the brevity, beauty, and fragile nature of life itself.

"Under the Cherry Blossoms" (by Kunisada, 1852): This could have been me!

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