Despite its success at explaining the Universe, the Standard Model of Particle Physics does have limits. Results from Fermilab, Brookhaven, and CERN over the years have shown evidence that our best theoretical model of the subatomic world may be incomplete. According to the Standard Model, all ordinary matter, including every atom in the periodic table of elements, consists of only three types of matter particles: up and down quarks (which make up the protons and neutrons in the nucleus) and leptons (which include the electrons that surround the nucleus). The model also explains how force carrying particles, which belong to a broader group of bosons, influence the quarks and leptons. The Standard Model also explains three of the four fundamental forces that govern the Universe: electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. The fourth fundamental force, gravity, regrettably, is not adequately explained by the Standard Model. That’s basically it. Recently, a series of more precise measurements of these already known standard particles and processes have produced results that threatening to shake up physics… And with the Large Hadron Collider getting ready to run at a higher energy and intensity level than ever before, it is time to start discussing the implications, which may result in some new physics.
Welcome to the night sky report for May 2022 -- 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 and search for Coma Berenices to identify many more. Coma Berenices is a great target for binoculars. Look for galaxies like M104 (Sombrero Galaxy), M87 (Virgo A Galaxy), and M64 (Black Eye Galaxy). May also provides for some great planet spotting, including a close conjunction of Jupiter and Mars. At mid-month, a total eclipse of the Moon should delight skywatchers across the Americas, Europe, and Africa. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard and follow the advice of James Marshall Hendrix (aka. Jimi Hendrix -- apparently a fellow admirer of the heavens): "Excuse me while I kiss the sky."
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has captured dramatic footage of Phobos, Mars’ potato-shaped moon, crossing the face of the Sun. These observations can help scientists better understand the moon’s orbit and how its gravity pulls on the Martian surface. Captured with Perseverance’s next-generation Mastcam-Z camera, the eclipse lasted a little over 40 seconds – much shorter than a typical solar eclipse involving Earth’s Moon. The images are the latest in a long history of NASA spacecraft capturing solar eclipses on Mars. Back in 2004, the twin NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity took the first time-lapse photos of Phobos during a solar eclipse. Curiosity then continued the trend with videos shot by its Mastcam camera system. But Perseverance, which landed in February 2021, has provided the most zoomed-in video of a Phobos solar eclipse yet – and at the highest-frame rate ever.
Einstein labored hard to create the theory of General Relativity, but it is less well known that he also helped to launch Quantum Mechanics, which he didn’t much care for. These two views of the world are the very foundation stones of modern physics. Without them we would not have things such as space travel, medical imaging, GPS systems, or nuclear energy. Uniting the two into a consistent “Theory of Everything” is the single biggest challenge in physics today… and progress is slow.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is successor to the Hubble telescope and the next great space science observatory, designed to answer questions about the Universe and to make breakthrough discoveries in all fields of astronomy. It is the most powerful space telescope ever built and a complex piece of mechanical, optical, and electronic machinery that has pushed the limits of human engineering. On December 25, 2021, after years of delays, the telescope was launched into space to usher in the next era of astronomy. The James Webb Space Telescope is an international partnership between NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).
Welcome to the night sky report for April 2022 -- 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. Near the Big Dipper, you will find several interesting binary stars. You can also spot galaxies like the Pinwheel Galaxy (NGC 5457, M101), the Cigar Galaxy (NGC 3034, M82), and M96 (NGC 3368) -- the last of which is an asymmetric galaxy that may have been gravitationally disrupted by encounters with its neighbors. The gathering of planets in the morning sky increases from three to four, as Jupiter joins the party. Two close conjunctions – between Mars and Saturn, and Venus and Jupiter – provide highlights at the beginning and end of the month. And the Big Dipper hosts a surprise: a double star you just might be able to "split" with your own eyes.
An 1859 solar storm known as the "Carrington Event" caused a great deal of the havoc around the world. The solar flare electrified transmission cables, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire. Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii, with auroras over the Rocky Mountains so bright, that the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. A repetition of the Carrington Event today would cause extensive social and economic disruptions. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions. Telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm -- radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. But other problems would be lasting. A burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, could take weeks or months to repair.
Is dark energy just an illusion? The truth is that no one really knows -- More is unknown about dark energy than is known. Many researchers claim to “know” how much dark energy there is due to its apparent affect on the expansion of the Universe. But other than that, it is a complete mystery. If it exists at all, then roughly 68 percent of the Universe should be composed of this mysterious dark energy, with the equally mysterious dark matter making up about 27 percent. The rest -- everything on Earth, everything ever observed in the Universe with all of our instruments, all normal matter -- would add up to less than 5 percent of the Universe. The thing that is needed to decide between dark energy possibilities – be it a property of space, a new dynamic fluid, or a new theory of gravity -- is more and better data. Researchers at the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy, have been working on this problem and now have the first simulation of neutron star mergers that reproduce a dark energy-like behavior on cosmological scales. So far, their findings that dark energy is just an illusion are consistent with data acquired by the LIGO and Virgo interferometers during recently captured binary neutron star collisions and may be further tested and supported by next-generation gravitational interferometers, such as the Einstein telescope in Europe and Cosmic Explorer in USA.
Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth’s neighborhood. Composed mostly of water ice with embedded dust particles, comets originally formed in the cold outer planetary system while most of the rocky asteroids formed in the warmer inner solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. To date, nearly 28,000 Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) have been found by survey telescopes that continually scan the night sky, adding new discoveries at a rate of about 3000 per year. But as larger and more advanced survey telescopes turbo-charge the search over the next few years, a rapid uptick in discoveries is expected. In anticipation of this increase, NASA astronomers have developed a next-generation impact monitoring algorithm called Sentry-II to better evaluate NEA impact probabilities.
Welcome to the night sky report for March 2022 -- 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 star clusters M35, the Beehive Cluster (M44), and NGC 3923, an oblong elliptical galaxy with an interesting ripple pattern. Find the Y-shaped constellation Taurus, the bull, high in the southwest. The Hyades star cluster forms the bull's face. Look for Saturn to join Venus and Mars in the morning sky around mid-month.
Sixty years ago today, on February 20, 1962, astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth. While Glenn's flight on Friendship 7 was a glorious national triumph, problems arose during the mission that could have spelled disaster. The most nervous moments of the flight came before and during reentry, when a signal received on the ground (erroneously, as it turned out) indicated that the capsule's heat shield had come loose. At one point during reentry, Glenn thought his shield was burning up and breaking away. But everything worked out well and he splashed down safely 40 miles short of his target. Glenn returned to Earth a national hero.
Rogue planets are elusive cosmic objects that have masses comparable to those of the planets in our Solar System but do not orbit a star, instead roaming freely on their own. Possible examples of rogue planets have been found before, but without knowing their ages, it was not possible for astronomers to know whether they were really planets or brown dwarfs - failed stars that lack the bulk to trigger the reactions that make stars shine. These objects started to become known in the 1990s when astronomers found that the point at which a brown dwarf crosses over into the planetary mass range was difficult to determine. Not many were known until now, but the astronomers at the University of Bordeaux in France have just discovered between 70 and 170 new rogue planets in the Milky Way. This is the largest collection of rogue planets ever discovered at one time and if extrapolated, could indicate that there are several billion of these giant rogue planets roaming freely in the Milky Way without a host star.
Welcome to the night sky report for February 2022 -- 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, as well as awe-inspiring views of the Orion Nebula, sculpted by the stellar winds of central bright stars. Jupiter is the lone planet lingering in twilight skies after sunset in February. It exits the evening sky this month leaving no bright planets there until August (save for a brief appearance from Mercury in April). Also Venus is at peak brightness for the year in the mornings, and it's a great time to view the Orion Nebula.
On Jan. 27, 1967, with the planned launch of the first Apollo mission to carry a crew just 25 days away, Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee were conducting a key test with their spacecraft on the launch pad. The test involved a mock countdown with the astronauts wearing spacesuits inside their capsule, sealed and pressurized with oxygen. At the time of simulated liftoff, the plan called for the spacecraft to switch to its own internal power source. The crew also planned an emergency escape drill from the spacecraft at the test’s conclusion. During the test, a flash fire swept through their spacecraft so quickly they had no time to open the hatches. The astronauts perished from toxic gases in the craft’s environmental control system. Each January NASA pauses to honor members of the NASA family who lost their lives while furthering the cause of exploration and discovery, including the crews of Apollo 1 and space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. In 2022, the Day of Remembrance is observed on Jan. 27. This year’s NASA Day of Remembrance also marks 55 years since the Apollo 1 tragedy.
A white dwarf that completes a full rotation once every 25 seconds has been confirmed to be the fastest spinning white dwarf ever observed, according to a team of astronomers at the University of Warwick in the UK. A white dwarf is a star that has burnt up all of its fuel, has shed its outer layers, and is now undergoing a process of shrinking and cooling. The team established the spin period of the star and determined that it is as an extremely rare example of a magnetic propeller binary system, where the white dwarf pulls gaseous plasma from a nearby companion star and flings it into space at around 3000 kilometers per second. This fast-spinning star is about the size of the Earth but is thought to be at least 200,000 times more massive. It is only the second magnetic propeller white dwarf that has been identified in over seventy years of searching.
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