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.
While hydrogen and helium were formed in the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, heavier elements like carbon and oxygen were formed later in the cores of stars through nuclear fusion of hydrogen and helium. But this process can only build elements up to iron. Making the heaviest elements, like gold, platinum, or uranium, requires a special environment in which atoms are repeatedly bombarded by free neutrons. As neutrons stick to the atomic nuclei, elements higher up the periodic table are built. Where and how this process of heavy element production occurs has been one of the longest-standing questions in astrophysics. Recent attention has turned to neutron star mergers, where the collision of the two super-heavy stars ejects clouds of neutron-rich matter into space, where they assemble into the heavy elements. Based on the brightness and color of the light emitted following the merger, which closely match theoretical predictions, astronomers can now say that the gold or platinum in your wedding ring was in all likelihood forged during the brief but violent merger of two merging neutron stars somewhere in the universe. This discovery was made possible by the detection of gravitational waves from the cataclysmic merger of two neutron stars, and the observation of the visible light in the immediate aftermath of that merger.
Welcome to the night sky report for July 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In July, find the constellation Scorpius to identify the reddish supergiant star Antares, which will lead you to the globular star cluster M4 (NGC 6121). M22 (NGC 6656), in the constellation Sagitarius, another globular cluster, is one of the brightest clusters in the sky and is visible with the naked eye. Keep observing around the group of stars commonly known as the Teapot and you’ll see the Lagoon Nebula (M8, NGC 6523), the Omega Nebula (M17, NGC 6618), and the Trifid Nebula (M20, NGC 6514). The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
In our Solar System, Jupiter is the largest planet, being about 318 times as massive as the Earth and lying about five times farther from the Sun than does the Earth. Brown dwarfs are similar in many ways to Jupiter-like gas giants, but range from 13 to 90 times the mass of Jupiter… And while they can be up to a tenth the mass of the Sun, they lack the nuclear fusion in their core to burn as a star, so they lie somewhere between a diminutive star and a super-planet. Based on preliminary results from a new Gemini Observatory survey of 531 stars with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), it appears more and more likely that large planets and brown dwarfs have very different roots. While massive planets form due to the slow accumulation of material surrounding a young star, brown dwarfs come about due to rapid gravitational collapse.
An extraordinary 57 percent of all Americans believe Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) are real. Many of these people are convinced that the US Government (and particularly the CIA) is engaged in a massive conspiracy and cover-up of the issue. According to the CIA, the UFO issue probably will not go away any time soon, no matter what the US Government does or says. The belief that we are not alone in the universe is too emotionally appealing and the distrust of governments around the world is too pervasive to make the issue amenable to traditional scientific studies of rational explanation and evidence. But now, in an ironic twist of fate, UFO sightings have become so commonplace by Navy pilots patrolling coastal waters, that the US Navy has updated its guidelines for reporting these newly dubbed Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAPs). By formalizing the process, the US Navy has reduced the stigma for pilots who witness this unusual activity.
Welcome to the night sky report for June 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Though the nights are shorter in June, they are filled with fine sights. Look for the Hercules constellation, which will lead you to a globular star cluster with hundreds of thousands of densely packed stars. You can also spot Draco the dragon, which will point you to the Cat’s Eye Nebula. Jupiter is at its biggest and brightest this month, rising at dusk and remaining visible all night. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
The Friday Harbor High School Aerospace Design Team has just received results from the qualifying round of the International Space Settlement Design Competition. Based on the judges’ evaluation of our work, Friday Harbor produced one of the top four design proposals in North America and are now invited to the World Finals held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in late July.
Detection of a Type Ia supernova with an unusual chemical signature by a team of astronomers at the Carnegie Institution for Science, may hold the key to solving a longstanding mystery of how these violent explosions get triggered. Type Ia supernovae originate from the thermonuclear explosion of white dwarfs that are part of a binary system. But what exactly triggers the explosion of the white dwarf -- the dead core left after a Sun-like star exhausts its nuclear fuel -- is still a great puzzle. A prevailing idea is that, the white dwarf gains matter from its companion star, causing the explosion. But whether or not this is the correct theory has been hotly debated for decades. Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, it is almost never seen in Type Ia supernova explosions. That is why seeing hydrogen emissions in this specific supernova, called ASASSN-18tb, was so surprising and may provide a key clue to understanding what triggered the explosion.
More than a year has passed since the discovery of 1I/2017 U1 Oumuamua, a bizarre interstellar asteroid that burst onto the scene and then disappeared into the distance just as quickly as it arrived. Once detected, astronomers scrambled to observe the intriguing asteroid as it zipped through the Solar System at a steep trajectory from interstellar space – The first confirmed object from another star. Data revealed the interstellar interloper to be a rocky, cigar shaped object with a somewhat reddish hue. The asteroid, about one quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly elongated, is ten times as long as it is wide. While its elongated shape is quite surprising and unlike asteroids seen in our Solar System, it may provide new clues into how other star systems form. New observations and analyses suggest that this unusual object has been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system. But many unsolved questions remain. What are Oumuamua’s structure, composition, and shape? Where did it come from? How was it launched onto its journey to our Solar System? And now a new question – Why is Oumuamua accelerating as it leaves the Solar System?
Welcome to the night sky report for May 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In May, we are looking away from the crowded, dusty plane of our own galaxy, toward a region where the sky is brimming with distant galaxies. Locate Virgo to find a concentration of roughly 2000 galaxies. Then search for Coma Berenices to identify many more. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
What makes up the tenuous gas and dust that pervades our galaxy, filling the space between stars? What kinds of complex molecules form naturally in our universe? Where might these molecules form? And how are they distributed throughout space? Over the vast, empty reaches of interstellar space, countless small molecules tumble quietly though the cold vacuum. Forged in the fusion furnaces of ancient stars and ejected into space when those stars exploded, these lonely molecules account for a significant amount of all the carbon, hydrogen, silicon, and other atoms in the universe. In fact, some 20 percent of all the carbon in the universe is thought to exist as some form of interstellar molecule. Many astronomers hypothesize that these interstellar molecules are responsible for an observed phenomenon on Earth known as "diffuse interstellar bands," spectrographic proof that something out there in the universe is absorbing certain distinct colors of light from stars before it reaches the Earth. But since we don't know the exact chemical composition and atomic arrangements of these mysterious molecules, it remains unproven whether they are, in fact, responsible for the diffuse interstellar bands. Now, from a jumble of confusing clues in Hubble observations, scientists have picked out evidence of a celebrity molecule in interstellar space – the soccer-ball shaped ionized Buckminsterfullerene molecule, or buckyballs.
Magnetars are some of the most extreme objects in the Universe. They are extremely compact objects with masses like our Sun, but with radii of only about 12 miles. One teaspoon of neutron star/magnetar matter weighs as much as Mount Everest. Magnetars generate extremely powerful magnetic fields -- the most intense magnetic fields observed in the Universe. When two neutron stars merge to become a magnetar, the resulting magnetic field is a quadrillion (that is, a million billion) times stronger than the magnetic field that deflects compass needles at the Earth's surface. The field strength is so intense that it heats the surface to 18 million degrees Fahrenheit. Magnetars are born rotating very quickly, which causes their magnetic fields to get amplified. But after a few thousand years, their intense magnetic field slows their spin to a more moderate period of one rotation every few seconds. The magnetic fields both inside and outside the star twist, however, and according to the theory, these intense fields can stress and move the crust much like shearing along the San Andreas Fault in California. The shear moves the crust around along with the magnetic fields tied to the crust, generating twists in the magnetic field that can sometimes break and reconnect in a process that sends trapped positrons and electrons flying out from the star, annihilating each other in a gigantic explosion of X-rays and hard gamma rays. By observing an outburst of these X-ray emission from a galaxy approximately 6.5 billion light years away, researchers found that this was due to the merger of two neutron stars to produce a magnetar. Based on this observation, the researchers were able to calculate that mergers like this happen roughly 20 times per year in each region of a billion light years cubed.
M87 (also known as Virgo A or NGC 4486) is one of the most massive galaxies in the local Universe. To give you an idea of its size, M87 has a large population of globular clusters (about 12,000) compared with the 150 to 200 orbiting our Milky Way galaxy. It also has a jet of energetic plasma traveling at relativistic speed that originates at the core and extends at least 4900 light-years. It is one of the brightest radio sources in the sky and a popular target for both amateur and professional astronomers. As in most, if not all, spiral galaxies, M87 has a supermassive black hole at its center. Black holes are extraordinary cosmic objects with enormous masses but extremely compact sizes. The extreme density of these objects affects their immediate environment in peculiar ways, warping space-time and super-heating any surrounding material. To date, no one has ever imaged a black hole. But that has now changed with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through an international collaboration. The EHT was designed specifically to capture images of a black hole. In coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow. The image shows the black hole at the center of M87.
Welcome to the night sky report for April 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Clear April nights are filled with starry creatures. Look for the Great Bear and Leo the Lion. You can also spot galaxies like M101, M81, and M82. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard… Let’s follow the advice of James Marshall Hendrix (apparently a fellow admirer of the heavens), who famously proclaimed "Excuse me while I kiss the sky."
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