Tag Archives: planets

Some Pre-Holiday International Congratulations

I’m still kind of exhausted from the effort (see yesterday’s post) of completing our survey of some of the many unexpected ways that the newly discovered Higgs particle might decay. But I would be remiss if, before heading off into the holiday break, I didn’t issue some well-deserved congratulations.

The Jade Rabbit rover on the surface of the Moon, 15 December. Credit:Xinhua

Congratulations, first, to China — to the scientists and engineers who’ve managed to put a lander and a rover on the Moon. If you think that’s easy… think again! And they succeeded on their first attempt, a real coup. Now let’s see what science they can do with it, exploring a region of the Moon that apparently may offer answers to important questions about the Moon’s history. Specifically, by accident or by design, the rover is going to be able to explore an area of considerable geological importance, involving one of the Moon’s giant lava flows, a relatively young one (1-2.5 billion years rather than 3 billion or more).

Soyuz VS06, with Gaia, lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport, French Guiana, on 19 December 2013. Copyright: ESA – S. Corvaja, 2013

Congratulations, next, to the scientists and engineers of the European Union, who’ve put a fantastic telescope into space, destined to orbit the sun. The Gaia mission is aimed at doing the extraordinary: mapping, with ultra-high precision, the locations and motions of no less than 1 billion stars within our galaxy — nearly 1% of the total number. The distance to each of these stars will be determined by parallax — looking at how the positions of stars wobble, from the perspective of the spacecraft as it orbits the sun — and the real motions of the stars will be determined by how they drift across the sky, and by the Doppler effect for light.  This wealth of information will help scientists figure out the shape and history of the galaxy to a degree never previously possible.  Meanwhile, Gaia will also be able to do a lot of other science, picking up distant supernovas outside our galaxy, nearby asteroids orbiting our sun, and signs of planets around other stars, as well as brown dwarfs (small failed stars) that may be floating around between the stars. Gaia can even check some aspects of Einstein’s theory of gravity! Read here about all the wonderful things this mission can do.

Congratulations also to the scientists and engineers in Iran, who’ve apparently moved their rocketry program, and its potential application to human space flight, among other things, another step forward. A second monkey has made the trip to the edge of space, a suborbital trip. (Did the first survive? it’s not clear, and admittedly Iran is known for photo-shopping reality into supporting the story it wants to tell. Not that it matters; it took the US several tries, back over 60 years ago, before a monkey survived the trip, and the survival rate continued to be poor for a while. )  Anyway, it puts Iran well on its way toward its goal of a human in space by 2018.

And finally, congratulations to my own country, the United States, for having passed a budget deal. Not out of the woods yet, but at least it was bipartisan, and we’re not yet talking about another damaging government shutdown, or worse, default. Politics isn’t rocket science. We’ll have to hope our politicians can learn something from China: that it’s good to find some common and worthy goals to work toward together, rather than to fight about absolutely everything and bring the nation’s operations to a halt.

Testing, Testing: 12/12/12 12:12:12

This is a modified version of last year’s 11/11/11 article, in case you missed it.

Today is a special day — at least if you are fond of the number 12, and especially so if you’re willing to buy in to one of the oldest human pseudo-scientific pursuits: numerology. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love numbers and I always have. When I was five years old I was mesmerized when my parents’ car reached 99,999.9 miles, and I think 12:34:56 on 7/8/90 is just a cool a time as anybody else does. But I do this with a sense of humor.

Unfortunately it happens that a few influential people attempt serious and consequential numerology involving the calendar — predicting disaster and convincing people to sell their homes and give away their belongings. Now that makes me mad. Outraged, in fact — because it’s often obvious from the way these predictions are generated that those who made them don’t understand much about the calendar, about time, about history and about astronomy or physics… and yet they speak with authority, an authority they haven’t earned and don’t deserve.

So as we celebrate this one-two-of-a-kind moment, let’s also remember, and enjoy, just how absurd it really is. Let us even count the ways. Continue reading

Physics and Curiosity on Mars

The promised follow-up article on the workshop last week in Waterloo, Canada will have to wait til Monday; I had too many scientific activities and chores to take care of today, and I want to make sure the article, which is a bit complicated, is nevertheless clear.   But in the meantime, let’s celebrate Martian Curiosity!

First, a big congratulations to the NASA folks!  Very impressive, and fantastically cool.  I was a huge fan of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, especially of their 3D photography.  Looking at those photos on a big screen, through red/green 3D glasses. brought me to sweeping Martian vistas and deep Martian craters — as vivid and as close as I’ll ever see them.  It was amazing stuff, and I look forward to more from the new rover.

Next: some perspective. Continue reading

Transit Day

I hope you’re all ready for today’s transit of Venus across the face of the Sun.  You certainly can’t have missed that it’s happening, given the media hype.  (Look at the website http://transitofvenus.nl/wp/, their post from yesterday in particular, for all sorts of useful resources, including timing for the event in various locations, and on-line resources for you to watch in case clouds interfere at your location. UPDATE: that website is overwhelmed. In the continental U.S. transit begins just after 6 pm Eastern, 3 pm Pacific, differing by a few minutes from place to place; and sunset will occur before the transit is over. One online location to watch the transit is http://events.slooh.com/)   But — let me be the first to warn you — this is going to be very cool, but it isn’t going to be a spectacular event like a big meteor shower or a total solar eclipse or even a total lunar eclipse.  It’s going to be subtle, slow, and potentially very boring, unless you have the right mindset (or a truly excellent telescope, properly filtered for sun viewing).  So here are some suggestions: Continue reading

Three Crescents and a Ring

Hi all! I said that posts would be sparse for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t realize quite how sparse! But I’m gradually getting back on-line here.

Right now, what’s occupying my attention for the next 48 hours is all in the sky: three crescents, and a ring. I’ll be brief, but if you want more explanation about the geometry involved, you might want to read my very relevant article about geometry and the beauty of the heavens. Continue reading

What to Watch in the Sky This Week: Beauty in Motion

Why does the sight of the Moon draw our gaze and silence our voices? What is it about the planets, those exceptionally bright points of light that wander among the stars, that we instinctively find so beautiful?  Is it perhaps that they make us dream of faraway, unreachable places? Is it that they are beacons in the night, nature’s candle flames, helping keep fear at bay, and offering us hope amid darkness? Or is it perhaps that they seem to float — we do love things that float, whether they be autumn leaves, balloons, clouds or birds — suspended in the sky, in apparent defiance of the force of gravity which keeps us pinned to the Earth?

This last thought offers a certain delicious irony… for in truth the planets and the Moon, in their procession above our heads, obey gravity’s dictates.

The next few days, weather permitting, will give us a chance to contemplate these questions. Our planet’s natural satellite, on its monthly trip around the Earth, will pass three of the brighter planets in the sky, creating one lovely spectacle after another. Of course, the Moon really passes nowhere near the planets, just as your outstretched hand, when it blocks your view of the Moon, is nowhere near the Moon itself. It is all a matter of perspective — of geometry, of cavernous spaces, of the play of light, and of the elegant choreography of the solar system.  But this perspective is not something we sense easily.  Our eyes can perceive no depth for objects so far away, and so our brains form a two-dimensional picture from the three dimensions of the universe, projecting the Moon, the planets and the stars, at extraordinary distances from one another, onto a psychologically flat black screen of the night sky. It takes great mental effort to see things as they are, and not as they appear. This, too, is worthy of contemplation.

First, on the night of February 22nd, just after sunset (don’t be late!), one of the most delicate of nocturnal sights awaits:   Click here to read more