A team of top researchers say one thing needs to be cleared up -- “What exactly is a planet?” In a recent study, the researchers hope to set the record straight with a look at how a planet’s definition has changed since the time of Galileo to the controversial decision the International Astronomical Union (IAU) made in 2006 to create a new definition, one that made Pluto no longer a planet. The researchers say the IAU’s current definition is rooted in folklore, including astrology, and that the organization should rescind it. So, what is a planet? For generations the answer was easy -- A big ball of rock or gas that orbited the Sun. And there were nine of them in our Solar System. But then astronomers started finding more Pluto-sized objects orbiting beyond Neptune. Then they found Jupiter-sized objects circling distant stars -- First by the handful and then by the hundreds. Suddenly the answer wasn't so easy. Were all these newly found things planets? The IAU, who is in charge of naming newly discovered worlds, tackled the question at their 2006 meeting. They tried to come up with a definition of a planet that everyone could agree on. But the astronomers couldn't agree, so they voted and picked a definition that they thought would work. The results have been mixed. In the end, the IAU did accomplish one thing -- They figured out a way to turn something simple into something complex.
Happy New Year and welcome to the night sky report for January 2022 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. The winter sky is filled with brilliant stars and this year, stargazing is at its best on the nights around the new moon at the beginning of the month. In January, the northern hemisphere features beautiful views of Capella - a pair of giant yellow stars, Aldebaran - a red giant star, two star clusters - the Hyades (Caldwell 41) and the Pleiades (M45), and the Crab Nebula (M1, NGC 1952). In the first week of January you can catch the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower. Then look for the Moon with Jupiter on January 5 and with Mars and Venus on January 29.
For the first time in history, a spacecraft has touched the Sun. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has now flown through the Sun’s upper atmosphere – the corona – and sampled particles and magnetic fields there. At its closest approach toward the end of its seven-year mission, Parker Solar Probe will swoop within 3.83 million miles of the solar surface. That will place Parker well within the Sun's corona, a dynamic part of its atmosphere that scientists think holds the keys to understanding much of the Sun's activity. The current record-holder was a spacecraft called Helios 2, which came within 27 million miles. To put this in perspective, Mercury orbits at about 36 million miles from the Sun. Parker Solar Probe will also break the record for the fastest spacecraft in history. During its final orbits, closest to the Sun, the spacecraft will reach speeds up to 430,000 mph. That's fast enough to travel from New York to Tokyo in less than a minute.
NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission launched this morning on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A joint effort with the Italian Space Agency, the IXPE observatory is NASA’s first mission dedicated to measuring the polarization of X-rays from the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe – supernova remnants, supermassive black holes, magnetars, and dozens of other high-energy objects. The new mission builds on and complements the scientific discoveries of other telescopes, including the Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA’s flagship X-ray telescope. First light operations are scheduled to begin in January 2022.
Welcome to the night sky report for December 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Step outside on a cold December night when the stars shine bright to find the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. They will help you locate a binary star system (Eta Cassiopeiae), a fan-shaped open star cluster (M103 or NGC 581), and a variable star (Mu Cephei). See three planets after sunset, and then say goodbye to Venus as the "Evening Star" at the end of the month. Hunt for newly discovered Comet Leonard in the early morning through mid-month. Finally, get up early on December 14th to watch for Geminid meteors after local moonset, around 2:00 AM. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Exoplanets are defined as planets outside of our Solar System. Until now, astronomers have found all other known exoplanets and exoplanet candidates in the Milky Way galaxy -- Almost all of them less than about 3000 light-years from Earth. Now, signs of a planet transiting a star outside of the Milky Way galaxy may have been detected for the first time. The possible exoplanet candidate is located in the spiral galaxy Messier 51 (M51), also called NGC 5194 or the Whirlpool Galaxy because of its distinctive profile. This intriguing and unprecedented result, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, opens up a new window to search for exoplanets at greater distances than ever before.
The newest known example of a rare type of object in the Solar System – a comet hidden among the main-belt asteroids – has been found and studied by Planetary Science Institute (PSI) Senior Scientist Henry Hsieh. Discovered to be active on July 7, 2021, this asteroid (248370) 2005 QN137 is just the eighth main-belt asteroid, out of more than half a million known main-belt asteroids, confirmed to not only be active, but to have been active on more than one occasion. This behavior strongly indicates that its activity is due to the sublimation of icy material. As such, it is considered a so-called main-belt comet, and is one of just about 20 objects that have currently been confirmed or are suspected to be main-belt comets.
Welcome to the night sky report for November 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In November, hunt for the fainter constellations of fall, including Pisces, Aries, and Triangulum. They will guide you to several galaxies and a pair of white stars. Look for spiral galaxy M74 and the Triangulum Galaxy. Enjoy the Moon and planets after sunset all month, plus a lunar eclipse. A partial lunar eclipse will be visible to much of the world on Nov. 18th and 19th.The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Earth is like a wobbling top spinning in space and the angular momentum keeps it pointing with the same orientation relative to its orbital plane over time. This spinning, however, is affected by numerous forces, including the gravitational tugs of the Moon and the Sun… and the distribution of the continents on the surface of the planet. Geologists have now found new evidence that the solid outer shell of the Earth may have shifted relative to its spin axis about 84 million years ago, causing the planet to wobble back and forth like a top. The new research suggests that the Earth tipped over significantly during the late Cretaceous period due to the distribution of mass on its surface and this could have implications for the evolution of life on Earth.
Astronomers have discovered unusual signals coming from the direction of the Milky Way’s center. The radio waves fit no currently understood pattern of variable radio source and could suggest a new class of stellar object. The strangest property of this new signal is that it is has a very high polarization. This means its light oscillates in only one direction (but for this object, that direction rotates over time). The brightness of the object also varies dramatically, by a factor of 100, and the signal switches on and off apparently at random. Astronomers have no any idea as to what the source is.
Welcome to the night sky report for October 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. The crisp, clear October nights are full of celestial showpieces for the backyard sky gazer. Find Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek myth, to pinpoint dense globular star clusters and galaxies. Look for M15, NGC 7331, and M31 - the Andromeda Galaxy. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
When the core of a massive star undergoes gravitational collapse at the end of its life, protons and electrons are literally scrunched together, leaving behind one of nature's most wondrous creations: a neutron star. Neutron stars cram roughly 1.3 to 2.5 solar masses into a city-sized sphere perhaps 20 kilometers (12 miles) across. Matter is packed so tightly that a sugar cube sized amount of material would weigh more than 1 billion tons -- about the same as Mount Everest. This squashes every feature on the surface to miniscule dimensions and means that the stellar remnant is an almost perfect sphere. (Think of a neutron star as giant ball bearing in space, but much, much denser). So, if a mountain could form on the surface of a massive neutron star, how tall could it be? That’s the question University of Southampton researchers in the UK have tried to answer… And their answer may surprise you. New models of neutron stars show that their tallest mountains may be only fractions of a millimeter high, due to the huge gravity on these ultra-dense objects.
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