Archive for the ‘Planets’ Category

Otherworldly Saturn   Leave a comment

Few places capture our imagination like Saturn. With its myriad of rings and moons, it shines above us in the night sky as it travels along the ecliptic.  It’s always been inspiration for sci-fi fans too. Anyone who’s ever glanced at pulp sci-fi fiction covers might have noticed ringed planets hovering in the background as a elongated oval-shaped finned spaceship rocketed past.

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“Tommy Tomorrow,” created by Jack Schiff, George Kashdan, Bernie Breslauer, Virgil Finlay, and Howard Sherman, DC Comics

Take, for example, our friend Tommy Tomorrow. Created in 1947, he roamed the heavens in his futuristic 1988 space jet, zipping past a rather featureless Saturn-like planet, as illustrated above, while another Saturn-ish red planet with gold rings spins in the distance.

Systema Saturn

Early drawings of Saturn. From the Systema Saturnium (Fig. 67)

Early astronomers struggled to draw what they’d seen through primitive telescopes. While they seemed to understand that its appearance changed in relation to its orbit around the sun and the earth, they couldn’t always account for its rings. A quick glance tells the viewer that something’s going on with Saturn, but just exactly what, they couldn’t be sure.

As telescopes grew more sophisticated, astronomers were able to recreate more accurate  images of Saturn.

Antique Saturn

19th century Illustration of Saturn

 

And photographers capabilities grew, so did their ability to capture Saturn.

1879 Jupiter and 1885 Saturn

A composite photo of  Jupiter (1879) and Saturn (1885)

In 1973, NASA launched Pioneer 11. Its mission included photographing Saturn. While previous photos of this planet taken from the Earth resulted in blurry, yellowish images, Pioneer 11’s photos revealed tantalizing clues about its nature, as well as its moons.

Saturn Pioneer 11

NASA image, Saturn and Titan as seen by Pioneer 11

None, though, can compare to the 20-year mission of Cassini. Launched in 1997, the Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative partnership between NASA and ESA to conduct an exhaustive exploration of the ringed jewel of the solar system. The images sent back are like none other.

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NASA, Cassini-Huygens mission image of Saturn

On September 15, 2017, the Cassini mission will come to a fiery end, as it crashes into the atmosphere of Saturn, ending a glorious 13-year run. It’s been an amazing journey, and without a doubt, its legacy will continue to fascinate astronomers and ordinary folk like me. You’ve done well, Cassini!

 

 

Otherworldly   Leave a comment

trappist-7Trappist-1 System – NASA

By now, everyone’s heard the news – there’s seven new planets to consider in the universe. We’ve all read the headlines. Seven lovely orbs holding potential for life, only a mere 40 light years away! Why, that’s practically next door! And some of them hold the potential for life? Incredible.

While it’s nice to consider that we have an escape plan  to another world, it’s kind of unreasonable to expect to get to any one of these places anytime soon. Sure, we’re all expecting to hop on a space ship in the next couple of dozen years and arrive at planet du jour within a Einstein’s calculated period. And Lord knows that the folks behind Prometheus  practically guarantee travel to new Edens (although not without some pesky grey, hissing creatures with a penchant for sucking people’s innards and faces).

Are there wormholes to get us to these places quicker? Could be. Interstellar makes an excellent argument for that. If those wormholes do exist, the common folk won’t hear about them, at least not yet. Existing in theory and written about aplenty, I’ve no doubt these gateways to universal superhighways are around somewhere.

How then, is it possible to construct a vehicle to travel within the confines of a wormhole? Sure, we can throw a ship together – that’s the easy part. I’m wondering how a ship might be able to withstand whatever that wormhole throws at it – pressure gradients, temperature, forces binding the wormhole together. Or suppose the wormhole is a perpetual vortex that leads to nothingness? Once trapped inside, the travelers can’t break free and are subjected to extremes not even imagined?

Could there be different categories of wormholes? There must be. Just as there’s different types of highways, roads and streets, wormholes have characteristics. Some may be dead ends, short jaunts or long, winding roads. There could be ones that have celestial potholes, breaks, connect at junctions or turn back on themselves.

Suppose we do discover a wormhole in the neighborhood of Jupiter, as mentioned in Interstellar. Do we send our best and brightest through it just to see what happens? Do we travel to the unknown hoping to reap the benefits of what other places and methods of navigation can teach us? How do we steer our crafts, once caught in a wormhole if we don’t fully understand what they are in the first place? What is speculation and reality? Or will time trick us to believe there is a light at the end of the wormhole, only to find out we’re no longer able to function because of the forces of the universe bearing down on us? If we’re not able to return to Earth, what good is the journey to begin with?

Eventually, some intrepid group of astronauts will go forth to see what’s out there. We may never hear from them again. But they might find another system such as Trappist-1, and create a world that no citizen of Earth may ever be so fortunate to imagine.

June’s Nighttime Sky   Leave a comment

2016-june-2-mars-saturn-antares-scorpius

Credit: earth sky.org

Look up, folks!

This month proves to be a bonanza for Mars and Saturn fans! Take a look in the southeast and you’ll notice the giant fishhook that is Scorpio. You can’t miss it and if you glance at the top three stars, they form a crooked line. Here’s a better example of the constellation:

scorpio

Credit: H.A. Rey, “The Stars”

Mars slips across the southern sky, so incredibly bright, you can’t miss it. If you’ve been keeping your eye on it, you’ll notice every night it’s in a different spot, competing with Scorpio’s Antares (magnitude: 1.22). Mars is a fair distance ahead of Antares, so you can’t get them confused.

Saturn isn’t in as much of a hurry as Mars, but still commands attention. During June, the ringed planet is its closest to the Earth, and, as an added bonus, has its rings nicely tipped at a 26 degree angle, showing them off nicely for you. It, too, is in Scorpio, just above it.

Scorpio also happens to be one of my favorite constellations, glimmering all summer long. When I see it rise, in earnest, in May, I know summer isn’t far behind. It glimmers and shimmers. It never rises that high, but you can’t miss it when it’s here.

In the early morning sky, you can also see Comet Pan-STARRS near the constellation Capricorn low in the souther sky. It comes into view around 4:00 am.

If you happen to have a telescope, all of these are worth seeking out. Even a strong pair of binoculars make a difference, especially with the comet.

Here’s a brief video from NASA JPL with more details regarding Mars, Saturn and Comet Pan-STARRS. Take a moment this weekend and look south – nature will reward you with its charming beauty!

 

 

Babylon Connection   Leave a comment

Babylon Jupiter Tablet

Credit: Trustees of the British Museum/Mathieu Ossendrijver; NASA (both as shown in the New York Times)

Today I read in the New York Times an article about ancient Babylonians tracking the movement of Jupiter. It’s a remarkable discovery because the tablets dating from 350 BC to 50 BC (above is an example) revealed sophisticated mathematical equations comparing the motion of Jupiter across the sky. Cuneiform pressed into clay tablets detailed a graph which calculated the velocity of Jupiter’s travels in a given time. It was originally thought that this sort of calculus was first used in the Middle Ages.

Marduk

Babylonians called Jupiter Marduk, the god of water, vegetation, judgement and magic. If you think about it, all four of those things might have been intensely important to a city-state. The fortunes of any population depend upon its ability to feed itself, and during dry times Marduk’s powers might have been called upon ensure the Tigris and the Euphrates kept flowing. Otherwise, without growing crops, it might have taken a bit of magic to keep the peace, and judgement must have come swiftly if Babylon’s citizens acted in a way not befitting of its patron god.

Marduk, I’ll have you know, didn’t come by his godship easily. It’s a bit obscure how he came into being as a mythological entity and it seems he went by 50 other names. During a civil war between the gods, Marduk, as a young god, offered his services to the Anunnaki gods, telling them he’d defeat the other warring gods and bring order. In return, they’d make Marduk the head god. Arming himself with all the elements and forces of nature, Marduk emerged victorious and took his rightful place as the one all others showed deference.

Somewhere in here’s a great story waiting to be written. No, not the trope where the ancient tablet is picked up by some unsuspecting archeologist or museum security guard and all hell (literally) breaks loose. Here’s my idea:

These hunks of clay talk to people via an ancient language known only to a few. An elderly professor, trying to prove he’s still relevant, goes into a collection and uncovers a cuneiform tablet no larger than a slice of stale bread. He’s seen it thousands of times, but realizes it’s been misinterpreted. A chip off of a corner, missing for years, turns up and changes the entire meaning of the message. It’s a message from Marduk himself, who foresees a wonderful vision that will only arise under exact circumstances. The elderly professor tries to show his revelation to the department dean, who dismisses him and accuses him of dementia-related hallucinations. Another professor, also getting along in years, is the only person who believes him. Trouble is, this person is on the other side of the globe and speaks another language. The two can only communicate, it turns out, in cuneiform symbol script. Both have age-related illnesses and it’s only a matter of time the two of them work together to solve the problem and bring the prophecy to life.

Will they?

 

World’s End   Leave a comment

SOSASTEROID-jumbo

Credit: Don Davis/NASA

Hope you didn’t make any plans to take that much-needed restful vacation to Puerto Rico from September 15-28, 2015.  And while that’s the heart of the hurricane season, this wrath-of-nature event’s going to create giant waves not as the result of intense low pressure, but the crashing of a honking huge space rock.  Yes, folks, this sucker’s got our name on it and it’s that apocalyptic nightmare we’ve been long warned about.  So if any of you were thinking about paying bills or going to college, your time’d be better spent making plans of an otherworldly sort – the kind that involves a sudden belief in religion and hoping that all of those priests, preachers and other sorts are right.

NOT!

Oh geez, here we go again.  Once again, life on Earth is going to end.  Or that’s what they’d like you to believe on the internet.

So much buzz and inquiry flew around in cyberspace that the American authority on such matters, NASA, had to release a statement that categorically denied our home planet’s days were numbered.

As things go, this latest rumor of our planet’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  There is no asteroid, the Earth is still planning to turn and as far as vacations to Puerto Rico are concerned, it’s still hurricane season and you still might want to check the forecast before you leave.

Back in 1982, a rare alignment of all nine planets (back then, Pluto was considered one) occurred.  Our entire solar system lined up within a 95° arc, all on one side of the sun in March of that year.  This amazing event prompted horrific rumors of devastating earthquakes, shifts in gravitational forces and life as we know it’d go the way of Betamax players (also popular at the time).  And no Earth-ending force would be complete without California’s San Andreas fault sliding off the West Coast and offering the residents of Arizona the beachfront property they’d been longing for.  Of course, no one would have even given this planetary lineup a second thought had it not been for the book written by John Gribbin, Ph.D., and Stephen Plagemann, called The Jupiter Effect, published in 1974.    For some reason, nothing really happened except nighttime sky observers had a fantastic view.  Not long after, Gribbin and Plagemann published, The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered, backtracking to say the actual event occurred in 1980 and was responsible for the monumental eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  Finally, in 1999, Gribbin admitted he might have been mistaken about the whole thing.

There seems to be no end of apocalyptic predictions, it seems – humankind thrives on them.  Most of them seem to revolve around Christ coming again and bible predictions, or some deity wreaking havoc, or even a random event magically pull the plug on our planet.  To illustrate, Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive (although by no means complete) list of popular end-of-it-all predictions.  Suffice it to say, we’re all still here.

Why is it seemingly so popular to want life to end on our planet?  Lots of reasons.  Those in power used it as a means to control less sophisticated types, while others, through limited means of scientific understanding, considered such celestial events as comets to be a omen of death.  The same goes for plagues, droughts and other extreme weather events, earthquakes, eclipses and more.  I remember as a kid hearing Pat Robertson of the 700 Club predict the world would end in 1982.  Why?  He was a big fan of the Antichrist and figured that’d be a good time as any for the devil to show up.  That, and this prediction bolstered viewers for his popular TV show.  Hey, wouldn’t you want the latest details of your demise?  Of course, if you were God’s Chosen, you’d be lifted up in The Rapture…and all of his viewers were special, natch.

Alas, as long as humans trod the earth, there will be naysayers for its future.  The Assyrians are famously known for making this oft-quoted prediction, way back in 2800 BC:

“Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”

Oh, if only it’d be true…

 

The Real Event of the Week   Leave a comment

While all eyes were on the nonevent taking place in the Hudson Valley of New York (and elsewhere), there was quite the show taking place above that taunting canopy of clouds.

That’s right, I’m talking about the flyby of Asteroid 2004 BL86.

This little world blasted past our very own Earth and if you were lucky and had the right viewing opportunities, you could see it.  I’d been hoping for a clear sky, as I’d been itching to take the new Celestron out behind the garage and see what I could see.  Alas, it wasn’t to be – clouds with a tiny sprinkling of snow dropping from them – but that hasn’t stopped my fascination with BL86.

Take a look at the NASA/JPL film I’ve enclosed with this blog, as well as this excellent link from the same source.  BL86 is a round asteroid with its own munchkin moon, which I find utterly charming.   That moon isn’t much larger than our back yard, and here it is, making a name for itself while partnering with BL86 as it graces our solar system.  True, it came within 745,000 miles/1.2 million kilometers of the Earth.  That only means it stayed far away enough to mind its own business yet close enough to give us a good flirt and a wink.

Can you imagine if you were one of the inhabitants of that tiny world?  How your view changes as the days whirr past while zipping through the solar system.  It’s almost as if it’s shouting “wheee!” as it goes on its tilted orbit around the sun, waving hello every now and again.

If you have enough patience to wait until 2027, there might be a second opportunity to see yet another asteroid, 1999 AN10, grace our planet with its near presence.  It, too, is expected to pass rather close…and raising the inevitable alarms that it has the potential to blast us out of existence.

Ah well.

Until then, keep your eyes to the skies, and always continue to be surprised!

 

Posted January 29, 2015 by seleneymoon in Nature, Planets, The Universe

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Analemma Dilemma   Leave a comment

Analemma_fishburn

Afternoon analemma photo taken in 1998-1999 by Jack Fishburn in Murray Hill, NJ.  Bell Laboratories building in foreground

Have you ever noticed in the mornings, from about mid-December to around mid-January that the sun rises the same time every day?  Even though the time of the setting sun changes, the dawn keeps breaking at 7:21 am (or whatever time your sun happens to rise, depending upon where in the world you live).  It’s as if it’s stuck, needing an extra nudge to get it moving.    Once again, from about mid-June to mid-July, the same thing happens with the sun once more.

As illustrated in the photo above, this phenomena is called an analemma.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as, “a plot or graph of the position of the sun in the sky at a certain time of day (as noon) at one locale measured throughout the year that has the shape of a figure 8; also  :  a scale (as on a globe or sundial) based on such a plot that shows the sun’s position for each day of the year or that allows local mean time to be determined.”

So, if one were to take a picture of the sun at the same time every day, from exactly the same position, you’d more or less wind up with a figure 8.  It’s proof that the Earth’s axis is tilted at 23.439°.  However, the angle at which it’s seen changes wherever one is located on Earth.  The above was taken at roughly 40° north.  Here is a picture taken at Veszprem, Hungary, which is latitude 47°:

analemma2010_ladanyi_c

Image Credit & CopyrightTamas Ladanyi – Analemma 2011 – taken at 9:00 am 

So at 47°, the sun’s angle’s a bit sharper.

Here’s an excellent link from the Washington Post that illustrates how the sun moves in the sky through the months.

And who can forget the moon?  Since it rises and sets, it too creates its own analemma.  However, the moon rises 51 minutes later every day, so in order to successfully photograph it, one has to take that into account.  Understanding that means the moon returns to the same position 51 minutes later, in accordance to its rising.  Still, with patience, one can create an excellent example of what the moon can do, although one has to also remember it has phases.  That creates a wonderful variety of shapes.  Here’s an example:

LunarAnalemma_richins_c72

Credit & Copyright: Rich Richins

Earth isn’t the only place where the analemma occurs.  Any planet where the sun shines also shares this perspective, although it’s teardrop shaped on Mars:

MarsAnalemma_Mammana720c

Digital Illustration Credit & Copyright: Dennis Mammana (Skyscapes)

Why the different shape?  Here’s the explanation from NASA:

“On planet Earth, an analemma is the figure-8 loop you get when you mark the position of the Sun at the same time each day throughout the year. But similarly marking the position of the Sun in the Martian sky would produce the simpler, stretched pear shape in this digital illustration, based on the Mars Pathfinder project’s famous Presidential Panorama view from the surface. The simulation shows the late afternoon Sun that would have been seen from the Sagan Memorial Station once every 30 Martian days (sols) beginning on Pathfinder’s Sol 24 (July 29, 1997). Slightly less bright, the simulated Sun is only about two thirds the size as seen from Earth, while the Martian dust, responsible for the reddish sky of Mars, also scatters some blue light around the solar disk.”

Each planet, given its north-south axis tilt and shape of its orbit, has its own analemma shape:

  • Mercury – nearly straight line
  • Venus – ellipse
  • Mars – teardrop (as illustrated above)
  • Jupiter – ellipse
  • Saturn – figure 8, but with tight northern loop
  • Uranus – figure 8
  • Neptune – figure 8

Let me add that you don’t necessarily need a camera to record the sun’s analemma.  Think back to the movie “Cast Away” wherein Tom Hanks marks on stone where the sun travels throughout the year.  You can make note by just looking out the window and the same time each day, seeing where the sun happens to be at the same time each day.  It’s pretty cool.  Try it!

Posted January 14, 2015 by seleneymoon in Moon, Nature, Planets, Sci-Fi, science fiction, The Sun

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