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There are two amazing pieces of space news today to shock and astonish you.  First, we have found a near-analog to planet Earth orbiting a red dwarf star—and it is “only” 11 light-years from our Solar System.  The exoplanet is named  Ross 128b and it is orbiting a quiet red dwarf star (most red dwarves are subject to solar flares which release life cleansing jolts of exotic radiation, but, like our delightful Sun, Ross 128 seems to be much more sedate (perhaps its placid life has something to do with its bland name which makes it sound like a dullard clone friend on an 90s sitcom).  In this age of exoplanet discovery, it is easy to lose sight of what an astonishing find this is, but I grew up in a world with only nine known planets.  Remember back when Ferrebeekeeper was rhapsodizing about weird icy oddballs like Gliese 581 g?  Ross 128B seems like it roughly the same size and temperature as Earth and it is right in our backyard.  Additionally, it is moving towards us, in a mere 78000 years it will be the closest exoplanet to Earth!


The other “news” is more conditional and vague, but no less exciting to me.  NASA has been floating the concept of a balloon mission to Venus.  I have been hoping for more attention to our nearest neighbor (since I harbor fantasies of living there, in the sweet spot above the merciless clouds) a balloon probe to see what the atmosphere is actually like would let us know whether his fantasy is at all workable.   The Soviet Union actually sent some balloon probes to Venus back in the early days of interplanetary exploration, but they were crude things which were not built to last and they told us little.  Let’s do it right this time and find out everything about our mysterious sister planet!  It is going to be a little while before Ross 128B is in range so let’s explore the immediate neighborhood and get to work on living abroad while there is still time!  


What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets?  Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible.  The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun.  It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy).  Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement.  These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us!  The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky!  It is a pretty compelling picture!  Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.


I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years.  Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).


Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.  It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics).  However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.


Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp).  Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh!  I know where I want to escape to next February!


Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur!  You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?


Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy.  As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world.  However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.


Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China!  In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail!  This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.


The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan).  Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.


If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room.  Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.


As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead.  Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations.  What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?

There is a lot to talk about lately: this dreadful never-ending election, spooky Halloween subjects, the president’s laudable plan to land humans on Mars, the fact that the Olympics have completely moved to East Asia….but, for the moment, let’s ignore all of that to talk about a ghastly dark snowball the size of Iowa.  I am not talking about any old snowball, I am talking about 2014 UZ224, a dwarf planet which was recently discovered by an astronomy team at the University of Michigan.


2014 UZ224 has a diameter of about 530 kilometers (330 miles): it is about half the size of Pluto.  Perhaps it is not even a true dwarf planet—but what else should we call it.  Located deep in the Oort Cloud, the little world is 14 billion kilometers (8.5 billion miles) from the sun (which is something like a thousandth of a light year). It takes 1,100 years to complete a single orbit of our star.  There are many of these Oort Belt objects (Ferrebeekeeper has talked about Sedna, Eris, and Haumea before), but it always special to find a new member of the solar system.  Or maybe not…the news of the world barely seemed to note the little iceball at all. I don’t know whether to be pleased at how mundane such discoveries are becoming, or appalled at how blase and jaded we are.  I bet Herschel would still be excited!

The Mountain on Ceres (Dawn Space Probe, NASA)

The Mountain on Ceres (Dawn Space Probe, NASA)

Now that the Dawn spacecraft has actually reached the dwarf planet Ceres, Ferrebeekeeper has been writing less about it!  Today we will remedy that with a spectacular photo taken from the robot probe.  Remember the strange reflected light from Ceres which the world was so fascinated by?  Well now that Dawn is a mere 1500 kilometers (900 miles) from Ceres, we have discovered that the reflections come from a huge glistening mountain—a strange anomaly on the puckered cratered terrain of the dwarf world.   This mound is likely made of some sort of ice and is about the same size as Mount McKinley—the highest mountain in North America (approximately 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) tall).  Geologists (or I guess I should say astrophysicists) are baffled by why the mountain is there—but I am sure that theories will be forthcoming.


Pundits and media personalities talk about this singular ice mountain as a pyramid (possibly to get hits), but to me it looks like a huge limpet made of ice.  Here is a 360 degree panoramic sweep around of the mountain (which needs a name!).  I wonder what other odd things are hiding in less plain sight on the little world.

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!


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].


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.


News of the cosmos frequently involves inconceivably large numbers or gigantic objects beyond human imagination.  This is particularly true of galaxies–gigantic systems of stars, gas clouds, black holes, and exotic unknown dark matter.  Even the tiniest dwarf galaxies have tens of millions of stars and our lovely home galaxy, the Milky Way, has approximately 300 billion star systems! However the universe is a mysterious place and it frequently refutes conventional wisdom and prior expectations. This week astronomers from Hawaii’s Keck Observatory announced that they had discovered a ridiculously little galaxy with only a thousand stars. The adorable miniature galaxy, which has been dubbed Segue 2 is not a star cluster because it is surrounded by its own halo of dark matter, but it is many orders of magnitude smaller than any known galaxy.  Astronomers are trying to determine whether it is a scrap of a larger galaxy which was ripped apart (!) or whether it is a baby galaxy which never fully coalesced.  Astronomers hope that by learning more about Segue 2 and other hypothesized tiny galaxies they can find out more about the creation of the universe and the formation of elements.

"NO!" --image editors

“NO!” –image editors


Exciting news from the heavens!  Today NASA has reported that the Kepler mission has discovered 3 new planets in the habitable zones of two distant stars.  Of the thousands of worlds so far discovered, these three are most likely to be habitable.  Best of all the planets are crazy!

Kepler is a NASA space telescope which was launched on March, 2009.  It makes use of an incredibly sensitive photometer to simultaneously & incessantly monitor the brightness of over 150,000 nearby stars.  The brightness of a star dims slightly whenever an exoplanet transits between it and Kepler.  Thanks to Kepler’s inhuman vigilance and robotic ability to perceive nearly imperceptible light changes, we are now discovering thousands of new planets, although most of them are Jovian sized gas worlds.

Kepler Space Telescope

Kepler Space Telescope

The three worlds reported today lie in the habitable zone—the region around a star where water exists in a liquid form (as it does here on beautiful Earth).  Two of the newly discovered habitable zone planets are in a five planet system orbiting a dwarf star just two-thirds the size of the sun which lies 1,200 light years from Earth.   Here is a diagram of the Kepler 62 system.

Kepler 62 System (Art by NASA)

Kepler 62 System (Art by NASA)

Of these five worlds, two lie in the habitable zone, Kepler 62f and Kepler 62e.  Kepler 62 F is most likely a rocky planet and is only 40 percent larger than Earth.  It has an orbit which last 267 (Earth) days.  So far it is the smallest exoplanet found in the habitable zone.  The star it orbits is 7 billion years old (as opposed to the sun which is four and a half billion years old) so life would have had plenty of time to develop.  The other habitable zone planet in the Kepler 62 system, Kepler 62e is probably about 60% larger than our planet.   It is somewhat closer to the star and astrophysicists speculate it may be a water world of deep oceans.

No! Not that sort of Waterworld!

No! Not that sort of Waterworld!

The other new exoplanet Kepler-69c appears to orbit a star very similar to Earth’s sun.  It orbits at the inward edge of the habitable zone (nearing where Venus is in our solar system) so it may be hot.  The planet is estimated to be about 70% larger than Earth, and is also thought to be a water world with oceans thousands of kilometers deep.  I am finding it impossible not to imagine those vast oceans filled with asbestos shelled sea-turtles the size of dump trucks, huge shoals of thermophile micro-squid, and burning-hot chartreuse uber-penguins, but if any life is actually on Kepler-69c, it is probably extremely different from Earth life.

I understand why they are green and have gills, but why are they inside gelatin capsules? (DC Comics)

I understand why they are green and have gills, but why are they inside gelatin capsules? (DC Comics)

Of course Kepler can only find these planets; it is unable to observe very much about them.  In order to do that, humankind will need some sort of huge amazing super telescope.  Speaking of which, tune in next week when I write about humankind’s plans for building a huge amazing super telescope in the Chilean Andes!


George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

George Ellory Hale was the sickly (and only) child of a wealthy Chicago elevator magnate.  At an early age Hale showed an affinity for science and quickly began thinking of astronomy in much deeper terms than the mere cataloging and plotting of stars (which was the direction of the discipline when he began his career).  In 1889, as he was traveling on a Chicago streetcar, Hale had an epiphany about how to build a machine to photograph and analyze the sun.  He thereafter invented the spectroheliograph, which revolutionized stellar physics, and he operated the first spectroheliograph from his private observatory in his parents’ backyard. Hale was a master of studying light in order to understand the physical characteristics and chemical composition of stars, which made him one of the first (if not the first) people to be officially called an astrophysicist.

Because of his obsession with starlight, Hale was also obsessed with building telescopes.  His dual ties to the world of academic astronomy (he studied at MIT) and the world of business wealth gave him a unique ability to put together observatories and institutions.  Throughout the course of his life, Hale was instrumental in building four of the world’s largest telescopes (each telescope substantially outsizing the previous one).

Yerkes 40 inch Refracting Scope at Williams Bay, Wisconsin

Yerkes 40 inch Refracting Scope at Williams Bay, Wisconsin

Working as a professor and department head for the University of Chicago, he first spearheaded the creation of the Charles T. Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which featured a 40 inch refracting telescope (the largest refractor ever used for scientific discovery). When his plans outgrew the University of Chicago’s budgetary constraints, Hale joined forces with the Carnegie Institute to build a sixty inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory near Pasadena.  In 1908, this telescope, the largest in the world, was operational, but Hale was already building a 100 inch reflecting scope.  This larger scope became world famous when Edwin Hubble used it to demonstrate that the universe is expanding.   Hale was still not done: he laid plans and institutional groundwork for the 200 inch reflector at Mount Palomar.  Although Hale died before the Palomar scope was complete, the final observatory more than fulfilled his vision.  The Palomar telescope was the world’s most important observatory between 1948 and 1992.

 The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, California

The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, California

Because this is a short article I have glossed over the technical, scientific, and administrative hurdles faced by Hale in creating these telescopes, but, suffice to say the challenges were daunting.  Each scope was accompanied by breakthroughs in engineering, architecture, and material science.

The Mt. Wilson 60-inch design is a bent-Cassegrain reflector with a 60-inch diameter primary mirror

The Mt. Wilson 60-inch design is a bent-Cassegrain reflector with a 60-inch diameter primary mirror

Hale was not content to merely create 4 of the world’s largest telescopes.  He was also one of the founding trustees at California Institute of Technology.  Hale’s contacts and savvy were one of the fundamental reasons that Caltech so quickly moved to International prominence (and maintained its status as one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions).

The 200-inch (5.1 m) Hale Telescope (f/3.3)

The 200-inch (5.1 m) Hale Telescope (f/3.3)

Hale was an indefatigable scientist, administrator, and thinker who accomplished a huge amount in his life.  His far-sighted observatories and his pioneering work in astrophysics laid the groundwork for humankind’s most profound discoveries about the actual nature of the universe.  However Hale suffered terribly from neurological and psychological problems.  He was sometimes incapacitated by headaches, insomnia, and a horrible ringing noise. Throughout his adult life he consulted with an elf or demon which appeared to him when the ringing in his head reached an unbearable pitch.  Psychologists and biographers have argued that this visitation was not actually a hallucination but rather a sort of allegorical figure used by Hale to personify his manic-depression.  Hale’s writings (and the accounts of those around him) cast doubt upon this interpretation.  He spent increasing amounts of time in sanitariums and he was fully institutionalized for the last years of his life.  Many biographers add this detail as a sort of embarrassing footnote to an otherwise glorious life of innovation and discovery.  Perhaps it should not be a dismissive footnote—Hale’s madness and his greatness went together.  Lesser men—or saner ones—could probably not have built huge eyes with which humankind stared into the darkness of deep space.


The constellation Sagittarius (from “Urania’s Mirror” a set of constellation cards published in England circa 1825)

My apologies for the blogging break last week.  Usually I try to write a new post every weekday, but last week was a blogging holiday.  To reinvigorate things after the lost week, let’s turn to a big subject—in fact a super-massive subject!  Long ago, Ferrebeekeeper featured a post about Eta Carinae, a blue hypergiant with a hundred times the mass of the sun (which is itself a million times more massive than Earth).  Stars like Eta Carinae are rarely formed and short lived—there are probably less than a dozen in our galaxy.  However compared to the most massive object in the galaxy, Eta Carinae is puny and common.  Twenty six thousand light years away from the solar system there exists a truly monstrous space object!

In 1974, Astronomers discovered an astronomical feature which was emitting exotic radio waves in the Sagittarius constellation. The scientists named the feature “Sagittarius A” and set out to determine what it was.  Part of the feature seems to be the remnants of a star which had gone supernova.  A second part of the feature is a cloud of ionized gas surrounded by an even larger torus of molecular gas.  In the middle of Sagittarius A is something which is emitting most of the high energy electromagnetic radiation visible to radio telescopes.  The cloud of ionized gas seems to be emptying into it and nearby stars orbit it with greater velocity than stars move anywhere else in the galaxy (in fact the object affects the proper motion of thousands of nearby stars).  And yet the space object at the center of Sagittarius A has a diameter of only 44 million kilometers–a bit less than the distance between the middle of the sun and Mercury at its perihelion (when the rocky planet is closest to the sun).  By calculating the proper motion of thousands of nearby stars, scientists determined that the mysterious object at the center of Sagittarius A (which they took to calling Sagitarrius A*) has mass of 4.31 million suns (i.e. solar masses). Whatever lies at the center of Sagittarius A–which I probably should have mentioned, is also the center of the Milky Way Galaxy–is smaller in volume than a large star, but has a mass which exceeds by many orders of magnitude even exotic hypergiants like Eta Carina.

Of course the only kinds of discrete objects which we know (or even hypothesize) to be capable of attaining such mass are black holes.  It is believed that most (indeed probably all) galaxies have super-massive black hole at their centers.  Smaller galaxies have small super massive black holes (forgive the oxymoron) but large galaxies have immense central black holes which can equal billions of solar masses.  Radio astronomers have observed plumes of exotic electromagnetic radiation coming from the center of other galaxies, and they wondered where the Milky Way’s galactic center was located.  It seems that a supernova near the galactic center blew away a great deal of the dust and gas on which the black hole would otherwise “feed” thereby making the galactic center of the Milky Way less energetic than the active center of farther (e.g. older) galaxies.

Artist’s Conception of Galactic Center

The super massive black holes which lie at the center of galaxies may be a result of the accretion of matter around stellar-sized black holes (which could grow quickly in matter-rich galactic cores) but most astrophysicists believe they are instead a primordial feature of the Big Bang around which galaxies themselves coalesced.  The ultimate nature of super massive black holes remains unknown and seems to be tied to the nature and shape of our universe.

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