Welcome to the night sky report for March 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In March, the stars of spring lie eastward. Look for the constellations Gemini and Cancer to spot interesting celestial features like the Beehive Cluster. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the “normal” matter in the Universe. New results from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them locate this elusive expanse of missing matter. In the time between the first few minutes and the first billion years or so, much of the normal matter (meaning hydrogen, helium and other elements) made its way into cosmic dust, gas, and objects such as stars and planets that telescopes can see in the present day Universe. The problem is that when astronomers add up the mass of all the normal matter in the present day Universe, about a third of it can't be found. One idea is that the missing mass gathered into gigantic strands or filaments of “Warm” (temperature less than 100,000 Kelvin) and “Hot” (temperature greater than 100,000 Kelvin) gas in intergalactic space. These filaments are known by astronomers as the "Warm-Hot Intergalactic Medium" or WHIM. They are invisible to optical light telescopes, but some of the warm gas in filaments has been detected in ultraviolet light. Using a new technique, researchers have found new and strong evidence for the hot component of the WHIM based on data from Chandra and other telescopes. (Please note that the missing mass described here is distinct from the still mysterious dark matter).
Using data from NASA’s THEMIS mission, scientists have discovered ¬that when the Earth’s magnetopause is struck by a jet of plasma from the Sun, it vibrates like a drum, with waves echoing back and forth along its surface, much like they do on top of a drumhead. The new discovery comes several decades after such behavior was first theorized.
If extraterrestrial intelligence exists somewhere in our galaxy, a new MIT study proposes that laser technology on Earth could, in principle, be fashioned into something of a planetary porch light -- a beacon strong enough to attract attention from as far away as 20,000 light years. The findings suggest that if a high-powered 1 to 2 megawatt laser were focused through a massive 30 to 45 meter telescope and aimed out into space, the combination would produce a beam of infrared radiation strong enough to stand out from the sun’s energy. Such a signal could be detectable by alien astronomers performing a cursory survey of our section of the Milky Way -- especially if those astronomers live in nearby systems, such as around Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to Earth, or TRAPPIST-1, a star about 40 light years away that hosts seven exo-planets, three of which are potentially habitable.
Welcome to the night sky report for February 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In February, the Winter Triangle is your guide to the night sky. The northern hemisphere is treated to views of the stars Procyon, Sirius, and Betelgeuse. Keep watching for the awe-inspiring views of the Orion Nebula, which is sculpted by the stellar winds of central bright stars. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
The strange orbits of some objects in the farthest reaches of our solar system, hypothesized by some astronomers to be perturbed by an unknown planet (Planet 9), can instead be explained by the combined gravitational force of small objects in the Kuiper Belt orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. While the new theory is not the first to propose that the gravitational forces of a massive disc made of small objects could avoid the need for a ninth planet, it is the first such theory which is able to explain the significant features of the observed orbits while accounting for the mass and gravity of the other eight planets in our solar system.
White dwarf stars are some of the oldest stellar objects in the universe. They are incredibly useful to astronomers, as their predictable lifecycle allows them to be used as cosmic clocks to estimate the age of groups of neighboring stars to a high degree of accuracy. White dwarfs are the remaining cores of red giants after these huge stars have died and shed their outer layers. As they cool, they release their stored up heat over the course of billions of years. Now, the first direct evidence of white dwarf stars cooling and solidifying into crystals has been discovered by astronomers at the University of Warwick in the UK… And it turns out that our skies are filled with them – White dwarfs made of solid oxygen and carbon formed through a phase transition process similar to when water turns into ice, but at much higher temperatures and pressures.
Happy New Year and welcome to the night sky report for January 2019 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In January, the northern hemisphere features beautiful views of the binary star 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). The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Following its successful fly-by of Pluto in July 2015, NASA's New Horizons mission has now performed a second fly-by – this time of an entirely new kind of world deep in the Kuiper Belt. NASA scientists released the first detailed images of the most distant object ever explored — the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule. Its remarkable appearance -- two spherical objects touching together in the shape of a snowman, unlike anything we've seen before -- sheds new light on the processes that built our Solar System planets four and a half billion years ago. New Horizon’s images of Ultima Thule unveil the very first stages of our Solar System's history.
Magnetic field lines tangled like spaghetti in a bowl, as found in black holes, might be behind the most powerful particle accelerators in the universe. That’s the result of a new computational study by researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which simulated particle emissions from distant active galaxies. SLAC scientists have found a new way to explain how these black hole plasma jets boost particles to the highest energies observed in the universe. The results could prove useful for fusion and accelerator research on Earth.
Welcome to the night sky report for December 2018 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Saturn’s iconic rings are clearly visible with backyard telescopes in early December. Mercury and Venus appear later in the month. Also look for Eta Cassiopeiae, a double star, with binoculars or a small telescope to discern its gold and blue hues. Finally, don’t miss the mid-December Geminid meteor shower. You could see as many as 60 colorful meteors per hour. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
NASA’s current mission to Mars -- InSight -- is expected to land on the Red Planet on November 26, 2018. Only about 40 percent of the missions ever sent to Mars -- by any space agency -- have been successful. The US is the only nation whose missions have survived a Mars landing. The thin atmosphere -- just 1 percent of Earth’s -- means that there’s little friction to slow down a spacecraft. Despite that, NASA has had a long and successful track record at Mars. Since 1965, it has flown-by, orbited, landed on, and roved across the surface of the Red Planet. InSight, short for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport,” is designed to give Mars its first thorough check-up since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. InSight complements the numerous missions that are orbiting Mars and roving around on the planet's surface. The lander's science instruments will look for tectonic activity and meteorite impacts on Mars, study how much heat is still flowing through the planet, and track the planet's wobble as it orbits the Sun. This will help answer key questions about how the rocky planets of the Solar System formed.
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