Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) were discovered by American surveillance satellites in the late 1960s. These satellites were looking for gamma rays coming from possible clandestine Soviet nuclear tests. Instead these satellites found brief but intense flashes of gamma rays coming from random directions in space. To this day GRBs remain one of the greatest mysteries of modern astronomy. Despite lasting only a few milliseconds to several minutes, they are the most energetic phenomena known. An individual GRB can release in a matter of seconds the same amount of energy that our Sun will radiate over its 10 billion year lifetime. These beams blast out of imploding stars at over 99 percent the speed of light. They carry most of their energy in the form of gamma rays -- a lethal form of radiation that can penetrate bone and tear apart living cells. If our planet got caught in a nearby Gamma Ray Burst, the atmosphere would be largely stripped away. The current record for a super powerful GRB has just occurred, and it goes to a January 2019 outburst. The eruption came from a galaxy located so far away that the explosion actually happened 5 billion years ago. When the radiation finally arrived at Earth, it was seen by our satellite sentries that monitor the sky for such fireworks, including NASA’s Swift and Fermi telescopes, in addition to the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) telescopes on the Canary Islands. Hubble can't detect gamma rays, but its sharp vision was used to see where the burst came from. Hubble found that the host galaxy of the GRB is actually one of a pair of colliding galaxies.
Largely unnoticed in the corners of countless classrooms around the world hangs the singular achievement of a Siberian-born scientist and the founding document of modern chemistry -- the periodic table of the elements, which turns 150 this year. While writing his textbook, Principles of Chemistry, Dmitri Mendeleev sought a logical way to organize all of the elements known to science at the time. Like many before him, Mendeleev noticed that certain elements resembled one another in their chemical properties. By ordering the elements by increasing atomic weight, he spotted a periodic repetition in these common properties and he published his periodic law and table-like list of elements in 1869. The periodic law allowed Mendeleev to predict the existence and properties of undiscovered elements that would ultimately fill the gaps in his table. Eventually, the discovery of protons and electrons changed the table in a subtle but important way. Mendeleev originally ordered his table by atomic weight, but the periodic table is now ordered by atomic number, which refers to the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. The protons, in turn, define the number of electrons, located outside the nucleus, which control the properties that so regularly repeat within each column in the table.
Welcome to the night sky report for November 2019 -- 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 find several galaxies, including the spiral galaxy M74 and M33 (the Triangulum Galaxy). On November 11 we're in for a rare treat, as the innermost planet, Mercury, passes directly in front of the Sun for a few hours. The event will last about five and a half hours, during which Mercury's path will take it right across the middle of the Sun's disk. The next Mercury transit that will be visible from North America isn't until 2049. (Warning: You should never look directly at the Sun without proper protection, as it can permanently damage your eyes). The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Venus may have had a stable climate for billions of years. Now, a new study is uncovering the possibility that a global resurfacing event, probably linked to volcanic activity, may have transformed the planet from an Earth-like climate to the 462 degree hot-house that we see today. Earth and Venus seem completely different. Earth is a lush, clement world teeming with life, while Venus is hellish, with its surface roasting at temperatures higher than those of a kitchen oven. But underneath it all the two planets share a number of striking similarities. They are nearly identical in size. The basic composition of Venus and Earth is very similar. One difference stands out, however -- Venus has very little water. Were the contents of Earth's oceans to be spread evenly across our world, they would create a layer 3 km deep. If you were to condense the water vapor in Venus' atmosphere onto its surface, it would create a global puddle just 3 cm deep. Something catastrophic happened on Venus and what caused this is still a mystery.
Thirty years ago, on August 25, 1989, NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft made a close flyby of Neptune, giving humanity its first close-up look at our Solar System's eighth planet and marking the end of the Voyager mission's Grand Tour of the Solar System's four giant planets - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. But that historic first was also a last -- No other spacecraft has visited Neptune since. Voyager 2 launched on August 20, 1977, about two weeks before its twin spacecraft, Voyager 1. The two spacecraft are today the most distant human-made objects, having recently passed through the Heliosphere – a giant bubble that surrounds the Solar System. The original goal of the two Voyager spacecraft was to just explore Jupiter and Saturn. However, as part of a mission extension, Voyager 2 also flew by Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989, taking advantage of a once in a 176 year alignment of the planets that enabled it to take a grand tour of the outer planets. Today, Voyager 2 is about 18.2 billion kilometers, or 11.3 billion miles, from Earth. Voyager 1 is about 22.0 billion kilometers (13.7 billion miles) away from Earth. Judging by their unmatched track record, it seems likely that Voyager 2 and its twin, Voyager 1, will continue to be humanity's eyes and ears into the realm of the stars for years to come. As the Space Age hits the 62-year mark, there is little doubt -- The Voyagers are going the distance.
The demise of the dinosaurs is the world's ultimate who-dunit. Was it an asteroid impact? Volcanic eruptions? Climate change? Too many pesky mammals running around eating dino eggs? All of the above? None of the above? Two main camps exist in paleontology today, each having a different view of what killed the dinosaurs and other organisms at the time of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) boundary: A large asteroid impact in the Yucatan Peninsula or volcanic eruptions worldwide, but predominantly in the Deccan Traps of India. Controversy has surrounded the topic for the last four decades and it has become difficult for the general public (and the scientific community at large) to understand the issue due to the tangled assemblage of data which seems to point in many different directions. Luckily, the controversy has not harmed the study of mass extinction causation, but rather has made it a more dynamic and interesting area of study. There has been no settlement to the issue so far, and no clear one is foreseeable. In general, it seems that many paleontologists lean towards the volcanic eruptions side, while many astronomers and physicists favor the asteroid impact side. Geologists are probably evenly split between the two. But recent evidence suggests that the answer may be a combination of the two theories, with the ultimate killer being global climate change triggered by the two events in tandem. It looks like the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs probably rang the Earth like a bell, triggering super-volcanic eruptions around the globe that may have contributed to the devastation – A one-two punch that ultimately killed-off 75 percent of life on the planet.
Welcome to the night sky report for October 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Crisp, clear October nights are full of celestial showpieces. Find Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek myth, to pinpoint dense globular star clusters and galaxies, including our neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31, NGC224). Watch for views of M15 (NGC7078) and NGC7331. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. In all, twenty four courageous astronauts risked their lives while traveling from the Earth to the Moon and back between 1968 and 1972. Twelve of these astronauts actually set foot on the Moon. Yet it is hard to believe that out of this elite group of twelve, only four of the Moon walkers are still alive today. As we prepare for the next wave of Moon walkers in the coming decades, these first twenty four voyagers should forever be remembered for their contributions to the exploration of space as part of the ambitious Apollo Program – an undertaking so bold and difficult, that it has achieved an iconic stature in the history of mankind.
Welcome to the night sky report for September 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In September, Pegasus becomes increasingly prominent in the southeastern sky, allowing stargazers to locate globular star clusters and a double star, Alpha Capricorni. Look for lovely crescent Moons at the start and end of the month. The September equinox brings the beginning of fall in the Northern Hemisphere. And Mars is at solar conjunction, meaning it has disappeared from night skies. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
On the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo landing on the moon, American adults cite the 1969 lunar landing as NASA’s most important achievement in its 60 year history. In a national survey conducted by the University of Michigan, 35% of American adults (age 18 or older) mention the first lunar landings as one of the two most important achievements of NASA when asked in an open-ended format. “This level of public recall and recognition reflects the deep-seated impact of the first moon landing in American culture,” said Jon Miller, director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. It is important to recognize that only 45% of today’s adults were alive at the time of the first lunar landing on July 20, 1969.
At the center of active galaxies are supermassive black holes of such tremendous brightness that they can outshine the rest of their galaxy by a factor of ten thousand -- that’s four orders of magnitude. Radiation ejected from these objects comes from an accretion disk of hot gas swirling around the black hole like water swirls around a drain. The gas becomes hotter and hotter as it swirls inward, so most of the emitted light comes from the inner parts of the accretion disk. Our understanding of these Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past several decades. Recently, debate has centered on the similarities and differences between some of these objects. Quasars, Blazars, Seyfert Galaxies, and Radio Galaxies are all examples of active galaxies. Active galaxies contain an accretion disk around a central black hole with two perpendicular jets. An active galaxy's appearance to an observer on Earth depends on the orientation of the accretion disk to the observer. Now, a team of researchers at UC - Santa Barbara has settled some important questions and exposed exciting new findings about one class of these cosmic monsters – The Seyfert Galaxies.
Welcome to the night sky report for August 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In August, look for the constellation Lyra, which points to Epsilon Lyrae and the Ring Nebula. You can also spot three bright summer stars: Vega, Deneb, and Altair, which form the Summer Triangle. This month, the main focus for meteor watchers is the Perseid meteor shower, but you will have to contend with a bright Moon on the peak nights. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Our local Friday Harbor, WA High School's Aerospace Design Team, also known as Island Orbital Technologies (IOTech), became World Champions, at the 2019 International Space Settlement Design Competition World Finals.
More than 100 years after Albert Einstein published his iconic General Theory of Relativity, it is beginning to fray at the edges, said Andrea Ghez, UCLA Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Now, in the most comprehensive test of general relativity near the monstrous black hole at the center of our galaxy, Ghez and her research team report that Einstein’s theory still holds up… At least for now.
It’s July 16, 1969 -- Just a little over eight years have passed since the flights of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Astronaut Alan Shepard in 1961, followed in 1962 by President Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It’s only two and a half years since the horrific Apollo 1 fire during pre-launch testing in 1967 at Cape Kennedy that took the lives of Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee. And it’s only seven months since NASA made the bold decision to send the Apollo 8 Astronauts -- Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders -- all the way to the moon, achieving orbit on Christmas Eve 1968 on the first manned flight of the massive Saturn V rocket. Now, on the morning of July 16th, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins sit atop another Saturn V rocket that will use its 7.5 million pounds of thrust to propel them into space and into history. It was 50 years ago that Neil Armstrong took the first small step onto the surface of the moon that changed the course of history. We now stand now on a new horizon, poised to take the next giant leap deeper into the solar system, extending a path to Mars and beyond. It gives us pause to consider that the first woman or man to set foot on Mars is already walking the Earth today.