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Two years ago, the world astronomy community first directly detected gravitational waves when two black holes collided.  The ability to “listen” to gravitational wave noises has now come in extremely handy as the international astronomy community witnessed (or “detected”?) a new category of astronomical event—the “kilonova”! This August (2017) astronomers around the world observed two neutron stars in a nearby galaxy collide in a high energy event which distorted spacetime and was detected via both the media of electromagnetic radiation and gravitational waves.

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Neutron stars have 10 to 20% more mass than the sun—but all packed into a ball with 15 kilometers of diameter—about the size of a city.  It has been postulated that two of these super dense monstrosities can spin into each other in a bizarre high energy event, but such a thing was never properly detected and observed…until August 17.  You can listen to it here!

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These events actually happened 130 million years ago during the early Cretaceous, but it took the gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation 130 million years to cross from the nearby galaxy where they were observed (this galaxy is located in the southern constellation of Hydra).

The idea that most (or all?) of the universe’s extremely dense metals such as gold and platinum came from neutron stars is a fairly recent concept.  It was largely theoretical and seemed a trifle…preposterous (since neutron stars are not exactly everywhere to fall into each other) yet the recent kilonova has proven the concept and has provided a bonanza of information for astronomers.  Of course it has provided a literal bonanza too—the universe now has the equivalent of several earths worth of newly created gold and platinum. Admittedly that vast treasure trove is 130 million light years away in the southern sky—yet that still seems closer than the Federal Reserve Depository or some Swiss vault.

216 Kleopatra

216 Kleopatra

It’s time for Ferrebeekeeper to get back out to space.  This grotesque gray hambone-looking thing is a metallic asteroid approximately the size of New Jersey known as 216 Kleopatra.  The asteroid was discovered in 1880 by Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa when he was director of the Austrian naval observatory at the great Austrian naval port of Pula (!). The asteroid is 217 kilometers long by 94 kilometers deep by 81 kilometers long (135 miles by 58 miles by 50 miles).  It is composed of slurry of metal, dust, and…nothing: between 30 to 50% of the asteroid’s volume is empty space (which makes it sound a lot like the consumer goods for sale in American stores).

216 Kleopatra has been the subject of a fair amount of human scrutiny.  In 2008, a team of astronomers working from Hawaii’s Keck observatory (at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii discovered two tiny moons orbiting the asteroid.  These moons have diameters of about 5 km and 3 km respectively and they are named Alexhelios and Cleoselene for Cleopatra’s children.

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An obvious question is what knocked this doughty asteroid into a strangely shaped cloud of weird slurry and little moons.  The most obvious answer is an oblique impact, which astronomers estimate occurred about a hundred million years ago.  I wonder what other secrets this giant rubble pile in space is hiding.

Also...it rotates, as seen in this stunning animation.

Also…it rotates, as seen in this stunning animation.

A strangely horrifying illustration of the supermassive black hole located in the middle of the very dense miniature galaxy M60-UCD1

A strangely horrifying illustration of the supermassive black hole located in the middle of the very dense miniature galaxy M60-UCD1

Fifty million light years away from Earth is the dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1. This tiny globular galaxy is 300 light years across–whereas our own beloved spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, is 120,000 light years in diameter! Yet within that 300 million light year sphere, M60-UCD1 is a crazy place. Despite its (comparatively) tiny area, the dwarf galaxy is teaming with stars: astronomers estimate it contains 140 million star systems. If Earth were located in M60-UCDI, the night sky would positively glow with millions of visible tars (as opposed to the measly 4000 which are visible to the naked eye in our present location). This is all quite odd, yet only recently did astronomers discover the strangest thing about M60-UCDI. At the center of the tiny galaxy is a supermassive black hole which weighs more than twenty million suns. To quote the European Space Agency’s website, “The supermassive black hole at the centre of M60-UCD1 makes up a huge 15 percent of the galaxy’s total mass, and weighs five times that of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.”

Messier 60 with M60-UCDI (Composite image from NASA's Hubble & Chandra space telescopes)

Messier 60 with M60-UCDI (Composite image from NASA’s Hubble & Chandra space telescopes)

Astronomers speculate that something went terribly wrong to form this oddball of a galaxy. A prime culprit is Messier 60, a large scary galaxy which lurks near the little dwarf galaxy. The black hole at the center of Messier 60 is 4.5 billion times the size of our Sun! Perhaps once upon a time M60-UCDI was a normal galaxy with billions of stars…till it wandered too close to Messier 60. The larger galaxy tore off the majority of the stars which made up M60-UCDI and added them to itself (while Messier 60’s black hole swallowed up its fair share of star systems). It is a horrifying image of galactic bullying! Why can’t we all get along?

An astronomy story has made big news headlines this week.  Usually most people are not unduly interested in the happenings in the heavens (either because such events are difficult to comprehend, or because they are regarded as remote to human interests), however this story does directly involve matters which humans take great interest in. gold-bar Scientists and theorists working for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicists have announced a spectacular new theory concerning the origin of gold (and other heavy elements like platinum and uranium): the cosmologists believe that the heaviest natural elements are created when two neutron stars collide or when a neutron star collides with a black hole (here is an easy summary of neutron stars, extremely tiny supernova remnants with a mass greater than the sun).  Elements as complicated as iron are manufactured by normal stars in the course of their lifetime, however the creation of heavier elements is more mysterious.  Until now, chemists and physicists had imagined that gold, platinum, uranium, and what have you, come from supernovae—however computer models of various types of supernova events did not supporting that conjecture. The scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicists based their hypothesis partly on the massive gamma radiation burst detected on June 3rd, 2013 from 3.9 billion light years away in a galaxy located in the constellation Leo.  Gamma ray bursts tend to be associated with hypernovae/supernovae caused by the collapse of super-giant stars, but the June 3rd burst was different.  In certain rare circumstances, two neutron stars are in a binary system together.  Over time, the orbits decay and the stars come together in a cataclysmic event which releases energy tantamount to that of a supernova.    Based on the unusual exotic energy signatures of the June 3rd gamma ray burst,  it seems that scientists caught a rare peek at such an event.

Neutron Star Collision

Neutron Star Collision

I will confess that I am having trouble imagining two objects the size of small cities (yet each with a mass greater than the sun) slamming into each other at astronomical speeds.  Apparently such events only happen every 100,000 years or so in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.  When the neutron stars come together, a black hole is ripped in the fabric of spacetime.  Huge parts of the neutron stars fall into the black hole and vanish from this universe, but other portions of the neutron stars (which, as the name hints, are made up largely of neutrons) are jettisoned into space.  Edo Berger, one of the astrophysicists who authored the new theory described the process with an earthy metaphor, saying, “several exciting things happen very quickly…. Most of the material collapses to form a black hole. Some of it is spewed into space. That material is rich in neutrons, which drives the formation of heavier and heavier elements, the way mud piles up on an off-road vehicle.” neutcol The gold, platinum, and heavy elements are created in astonishing mass (like many earths made entirely of gold).  The elements are diffused through the cosmos and become part of newly forming star systems. Gold is strange stuff anyway.  The gold present on Earth during its nebular formation is believed to have sunk deep into the center of planet’s molten core where it is inaccessible.  All the gold that rappers and kings wear (and that Ron Paul and draugers hoard) first began falling to Earth 200 million years after the planet’s final formation on asteroids.  The great gold strikes are well named: gold on the surface of Earth is there because of meteor strikes (although billions of years of geology have buried and twisted and hidden these cosmic remnants).

Yeehaw! There's asteroid fragments!

Yeehaw! There’s asteroid fragments!

Pshh ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist's conception)

Pshh…ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist’s conception)

According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out.  The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire.  Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.

Super bitchin' Mayan Calendar

Super bitchin’ Mesoamerican Calendar

All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun.  The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans.  Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job.   Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology.  To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below.  After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces.  The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.

I really love this picture

I really love this picture

This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed.  So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba.  These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):

Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly.  They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.

Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning

Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;

Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.

Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.

Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld.  They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).

The Lords of Xibalba

The Lords of Xibalba

Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision).  I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.

Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque).   I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest.  If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie "The Fountain"

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie “The Fountain”

Happy solstice!

Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, the seventh planet in our solar system is named for the Greek deity Uranus, the original skygod of the Greek cosmology.  In classical myth Uranus was castrated and supplanted by his youngest son Cronus (Saturn) who then fell before Zeus (Jupiter) and indeed, the third largest planet in our solar system (in volume) is often overlooked by astronomers, whose eyes are trained on the dramatic gas-giants Jupiter and Saturn.  Only one mission has flown by Uranus–Voyager II, which captured the following undramatic photo in 1986 as it whipped through on its way to Neptune.

Photograph of Uranus taken by Voyage II in 1986 (not a cue ball!)

All of this is a shame, Uranus is not only the first ice-giant planet but it is unique in the solar system for rotating vertically rather than horizontally (probably thanks to some apocalyptic super collision long ago in the planet’s history). From our perspective, the moons of Uranus orbit around it like a clock’s hands and its sporty red rings sometimes give it the appearance of a target.  Uranus has an incredibly long rotation around the sun.  One Uranus year equals 84 Earth years.  Because it spins vertically rather than horizontally, one pole is cast in a super winter which lasts twenty of our earth years (remember the poles of Uranus are on the equator).  Voyager flew by during the deep freeze of winter to get that boring photo up there, but now the seasons are changing and spring is coming to Uranus’ northern pole while fall is coming to the south (I wish there were a different name for the side poles—this is really confusing to write about).

Planet Uranus is seen in this composite image by the Keck II Telescope at near-infrared wavelengths. (Lawrence Sromovsky, UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center)

Because of the seasonal change, huge storms (the size of a continent on Earth) are tearing through the Uranian atmosphere with 500 kilometer-per-hour methane winds.  Keep in mind that Uranus has the coldest atmosphere in the solar system, probably because the collision which knocked it on its side dissipated its primordial heat (although nobody really knows). Temperatures there get down to a chilly –224 °C.  Brrr!

A similar bright spot photographed by Hubbel in 2005 just before the vernal equinox

The spring storms are apparently dramatic and fierce enough to be seen from Earth.  Yesterday astronomers reported the appearance of a huge white speck with an albedo ten times that of the planet.  This methane storm probably looks like an immense immense thundercloud spreading above the usually placid blue cloud cover of the ice world.  Saturn has been going through its own cycle of super storms recently (in addition to the great hexagonal storm raging on its north pole).  Its tempting to adapt the folksy mannerisms of country smalltalk and suggest that weather in the solar system has been bad lately–but humankind is probably only just now able to apprehend such phenomena!

Cerise is a vibrant pinkish shade of red. The color is uniquely lovely–particularly as a glowing light against a dark backdrop, and the name has a long history (having been used to describe that particular shade of red since the middle of the 19th century). Unfortunately there isn’t as much to write about cerise as about some other colors.

Cerise means cherry in French and I thought it would be appropriate to write about the color as cherry-picking season arrives. When I was a teenager, my parents dragged me to an orchard to pick cherries around the end of June every year. I was always aggrieved to be rousted from bed first thing on a Saturday morning and I treated the annual event as an ordeal–but now I miss cherry picking and I particularly miss having cherries.  The very beautiful ornamental cherry tree in the back yard of where I live is an ornamental cherry which produces no fruit.  Aside from a few tiny plastic containers of pricey bing cherries, I have to be content with the color.

A National Geographic Painting of the Collision

The name “Cerise” has one other claim to fame.  In 1995, the French military launched a spy satellite of that name from Centre Spatial Guyanais (the ESA spaceport in French Guiana which now includes the infamous former penal colony of Devil’s Island) in order to monitor high frequency radio transmissions.  One year later, Cerise was struck by a fragment of an Ariane rocket.  To quote NASA, “The debris appeared to have impacted the stabilization boom, which extended 6 m from the main body of the spacecraft, at over 14 km/s (31,000 miles/hour).”  It was the first recorded space collision of a space craft with space junk (although not the last). Incredibly, the satellite remained operational however the boom broke off and joined the tens of thousands of other bits of space debris–lethal low hanging fruit whipping through near-Earth orbit.

Mimas (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

Mimas is a moon of Saturn.  Discovered late in the 18th century by the astonishing Sir William Herschel, Mimas is the smallest (known) astronomical body which is spherical from self-gravitation (here is an explanation of what that means).  The moon’s most noteworthy feature is an enormous impact crater named Herschel which is 130 kilometres (81 mi) across–about the same as the distance between New York and Philadelphia. Wikipedia gives some additional dimensions of the crater:

Herschel’s diameter is almost a third of [Mimas’] diameter; its walls are approximately 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) high, parts of its floor measure 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) deep, and its central peak rises 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) above the crater floor.

If you were standing in the crater (which you should not do!) it would be a great broken plain surrounded by cliffs thirteen times taller than the Empire State Building.  In the middle you could see a huge mountain slightly shorter than the tallest mountain in North America.  Jagged craters and valleys as deep as Lake Baikal would lie around you.

Mimas orbits above Saturn. The dark lines are shadows cast by the rings (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

A great series of impact cracks on the opposite side of the moon would seem to indicate that the collision which created Herschel nearly shattered Mimas (which is composed principally of ice).

The moon’s name might be of passing interest to followers of my Deities of the Underworld category. In Greek mythology, Mimas was one of the monstrous sons of Gaia.  He was born with snakes for legs and he was clad in full armor.  In the Aeneid, Virgil tells the story of how Hephaestus imprisoned Mimas under Vesuvius during Gaia’s great rebellion against the Olympian gods.  As the imprisoned giant shakes so to does the area around the Bay of Naples.

Mimas--Yikes! (Also, what happened to his armor?)

As I was researching this article, I was struck by how many moons Saturn has! As a special bonus feature, here is an alphabetic list of Saturn’s named moons (several more remain anonymous): Aegaeon, Aegir, Albiorix, Anthe, Atlas, Bebhionn, Bergelmir, Bestla, Calypso, Daphnis, Dione, Enceladus, Epimetheus, Erriapus, Farbauti, Fenrir, Fornjot, Greip, Hati, Helene, Hyperion, Hyrrokkin, Iapetus, Ijiraq, Janus, Jarnsaxa, Kari, Kiviuq, Loge, Methone, Mimas, Mundilfari, Narvi, Paaliaq, Pallene, Pan, Pandora, Phoebe, Polydeuces, Prometheus, Rhea, Siarnaq, Skadi, Skoll, Surtur, Suttung, Tarqeq, Tarvos, Telesto, Tethys, Thrym, Titan and Ymir.

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