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On Aug. 30, 1992, astronomers Jane Luu and David Jewitt discovered an object in the outer solar system that had been predicted since the 1930s, which became the first Kuiper Belt object and which was given the name 1992 QB1.  After the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh, astronomer Frederick Leonard proposed the existence of a trans-Neptunian poplulation, wondering whether it was “not likely that in Pluto there has come to light the first of a series of ultra-Neptunian bodies, the remaining members of which still await discovery but which are destined eventually to be detected”.  In 1987 David Jewitt (then at MIT) directed then graduate student Jane Luu to begin looking for objects outside of Pluto’s orbit as Leonard and others had proposed.  The work was slow and painstaking, using technology developed decades earlier, but breakthroughs came when they began using  CCD (charge-coupled devices).  Since the first Kuiper Belt Object was discovered, over 100,000 KBOs over 100km in diameter have been discovered.  They were named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who discovered the moon Miranda orbiting Uranus and Nereid orbiting Neptune, as well as pioneering the use of infra-red observation.  Kuiper also worked with the Apollo program to identify landing sites on the moon.  

On Aug. 30, 1992, astronomers Jane Luu and David Jewitt discovered an object in the outer solar system that had been predicted since the 1930s, which became the first Kuiper Belt object and which was given the name 1992 QB1.  After the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh, astronomer Frederick Leonard proposed the existence of a trans-Neptunian poplulation, wondering whether it was “not likely that in Pluto there has come to light the first of a series of ultra-Neptunian bodies, the remaining members of which still await discovery but which are destined eventually to be detected”.  In 1987 David Jewitt (then at MIT) directed then graduate student Jane Luu to begin looking for objects outside of Pluto’s orbit as Leonard and others had proposed.  The work was slow and painstaking, using technology developed decades earlier, but breakthroughs came when they began using  CCD (charge-coupled devices).  Since the first Kuiper Belt Object was discovered, over 100,000 KBOs over 100km in diameter have been discovered.  They were named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who discovered the moon Miranda orbiting Uranus and Nereid orbiting Neptune, as well as pioneering the use of infra-red observation.  Kuiper also worked with the Apollo program to identify landing sites on the moon.  

Monday, August 4, 2014
833 years ago, on August 4, 1181, astronomers in what is now China and Japan noted a supernova, one of several celestial phenomena to be noted by the East but ignored by the West.  Now known as SN 1181 or 3C58, the remains of this massive explosion can still be seen. While plenty of modern scientific words can be dated accurately, the older a word is (in general) the harder it is to pin down a date.  The word supernova however, defies this logic entering the European awarness in the 16th century.  Late October 1604 (and some sources give the date 6 November 1604) a new and bright object appeared in the sky.  German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (born 27 December 1571-15 November 1630) noticed the ‘new' object and unsure what exactly it was, simply named it stella nova, from the Latin words for new star.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that astronomers Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky started using the term super-nova and by 1938 the hyphen was dropped and the word became supernova.  The first reliably recorded supernova was noted by Pliny in AD 185.  Notable supernovae (note the plural maintains the Latin form and does not take the -s that English mostly uses) occurred in 1054, noted mainly by Chinese and Arabic astronomers, and the supernova of 1572 noted extensively by Tycho Brahe.  The definition of supernova: the explosion of a star, possibly caused by gravitational collapse, during which the star’s luminosity increases by as much as 20 magnitudes and most of the star’s mass is blown away at very high velocity.
This image of Supernova 1181 comes from NASA’s Chandra program with this caption:  3C58 is the remnant of a supernova observed in the year 1181 AD by Chinese and Japanese astronomers. This new Chandra image shows the center of 3C58, which contains a rapidly spinning neutron star surrounded by a thick ring, or torus, of X-ray emission. The pulsar also has produced jets of X-rays blasting away from it to both the left and right, and extending trillions of miles. These jets are responsible for creating the elaborate web of loops and swirls revealed in the X-ray data. These features, similar to those found in the Crab, are evidence that 3C58 and others like it are capable of generating both swarms of high-energy particles and powerful magnetic fields. In this image, low, medium, and high-energy X-rays detected by Chandra are red, green, and blue respectively.
 

833 years ago, on August 4, 1181, astronomers in what is now China and Japan noted a supernova, one of several celestial phenomena to be noted by the East but ignored by the West.  Now known as SN 1181 or 3C58, the remains of this massive explosion can still be seen. While plenty of modern scientific words can be dated accurately, the older a word is (in general) the harder it is to pin down a date.  The word supernova however, defies this logic entering the European awarness in the 16th century.  Late October 1604 (and some sources give the date 6 November 1604) a new and bright object appeared in the sky.  German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (born 27 December 1571-15 November 1630) noticed the ‘new' object and unsure what exactly it was, simply named it stella nova, from the Latin words for new star.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that astronomers Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky started using the term super-nova and by 1938 the hyphen was dropped and the word became supernova.  The first reliably recorded supernova was noted by Pliny in AD 185.  Notable supernovae (note the plural maintains the Latin form and does not take the -s that English mostly uses) occurred in 1054, noted mainly by Chinese and Arabic astronomers, and the supernova of 1572 noted extensively by Tycho Brahe.  The definition of supernovathe explosion of a star, possibly caused by gravitational collapse, during which the star’s luminosity increases by as much as 20 magnitudes and most of the star’s mass is blown away at very high velocity.

This image of Supernova 1181 comes from NASA’s Chandra program with this caption:  3C58 is the remnant of a supernova observed in the year 1181 AD by Chinese and Japanese astronomers. This new Chandra image shows the center of 3C58, which contains a rapidly spinning neutron star surrounded by a thick ring, or torus, of X-ray emission. The pulsar also has produced jets of X-rays blasting away from it to both the left and right, and extending trillions of miles. These jets are responsible for creating the elaborate web of loops and swirls revealed in the X-ray data. These features, similar to those found in the Crab, are evidence that 3C58 and others like it are capable of generating both swarms of high-energy particles and powerful magnetic fields. In this image, low, medium, and high-energy X-rays detected by Chandra are red, green, and blue respectively.

 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew blasted off and four days later opened the door of the lunar module and Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the lunar surface.  Armstrong’s radio back to Earth that his was ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ became instantly one of the most quoted and known phrases uttered in the name of science.  The Apollo program was started less than a decade earlier with success following success.  Named by then NASA Director Abe Silverstein (who later said it was like naming his baby) after the Ancient Greek god known for knowledge and who was represented as a flaming chariot shooting across the sky.  Hats off today to Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins.  All born in 1930 and still healthy and looking to the skies.  

Thanks also to the flight crew:

SUPPORT CREW

  • Charlie Duke, Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM)
  • Ronald Evans (CAPCOM)
  • Owen K. Garriott (CAPCOM)
  • Don L. Lind (CAPCOM)
  • Ken Mattingly (CAPCOM)
  • Bruce McCandless II (CAPCOM)
  • Harrison Schmitt (CAPCOM)
  • Bill Pogue
  • Jack Swigert

FLIGHT DIRECTORS

  • Cliff Charlesworth (Green Team), launch andEVA
  • Gene Kranz(White Team), lunar landing
  • Glynn Lunney(Black Team), lunar ascent

All images courtesy NASA, used with permission and in the public domain.  Please copy and share!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Today is the birthday of William Lassell, born on June 18, 1799 in Bolton, near Manchester, Lassell made his fortune brewing beer which allowed him to pursue his real passion in astronomy.  Lassell made many contributions to the science of astronomy, including an equatorial mount for his home-made telescopes that allowed him track objects more accurately.  In 1846 Neptune was discovered by German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle after a protracted search for outer planets.  It was English astronomer John Herschel who suggested to Lassell that he attempt to discover whether or not Neptune had any satellites.  A mere 17 days after accepting the task on October 10, 1846, Lassell was able to confirm the existence of Neptune’s largest satellite, which he proposed to name Triton (Τριτων).  Just a bit smaller than our own moon, Triton is the largest satellite in our solar system with retrograde motion. The name of Triton was first proposed decades later by Camille Flammarion from the Ancient Greek sea god Triton, the son of Poseidon-the Roman equivalent of Neptune.  

Lassell continued in his duel role as a brewer of beer and astronomer until his death on October 5, 1880 leaving behind a massive fortune estimated at the equivalent of almost $10 million dollars in today’s currency.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Enceladus and the Rings of Saturn

On March 9, 2006, the Cassini Space probe took an astounding photograph that confirmed the theory that the moon Enceladus was contributing to the ring system of Saturn.  The photo here was taken by NASA after engineers used Saturn itself to obscure the Sun but illuminate the rings and satellite, here clearly shown with a cryovolcano erupting water and gas into the E-ring.  

Three years later, the Cassini space probe was positioned again to use the light from the sun to illuminate the rings and surface of the giant planet, with a shadow thrown across the ring system.  Mathematical models of the ring system show that they are unstable beyond 10,000 years, meaning that they are constantly replenished from a source such as Enceladus.  

Launched on October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft left Earth for flybys of Earth, Venus and Jupiter, before arriving at Saturn on Christmas Day, 2004 and separating the Huygens probe which reached Titan a few weeks later.  Cassini-Huygens was named for Italo-French Astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini (later known as Jean Dominque Cassini), known  for his discovery of four moons of Saturn, and Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Saturn’s moon Titan.  The Cassini spacecraft is still in service today, currently located at the south Pole of Saturn, taking images of the famous hexagon.  The spacecraft is scheduled to remain in service until September 2017.

Images courtesy NASA/ESA, in the public domain.

Sunday, February 23, 2014
Today is the anniversary of the discovery of the first modern supernova, currently named SN1987A, located in the Tarantala Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud.  It was independently discovered by both  Ian Shelton and Oscar Duhalde of the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile on the night of February 23/24, 1987, and within the same 24 hours independently by Albert Jones in New Zealand. Two weeks later, between March 4–12, 1987 it was observed from space by Astron, a large ultraviolet space telescope. The supernova has yet to receive an official name.  
While plenty of modern scientific words can be dated accurately, the older a word is (in general) the harder it is to pin down a date.  The word supernova however, defies this logic.  Late October 1604 (and some sources give the date 6 November 1604) a new and bright object appeared in the sky.  German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (born 27 December 1571-15 November 1630) noticed the ‘new' object and unsure what exactly it was, simply named it stella nova, from the Latin words for new star.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that astronomers Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky started using the term super-nova and by 1938 the hyphen was dropped and the word became supernova.  The first reliably recorded supernova was noted by Pliny in AD 185.  Notable supernovae (note the plural maintains the Latin form and does not take the -s that English mostly uses) occurred in 1054, noted mainly by Chinese and Arabic astronomers, and the supernova of 1572 noted extensively by Tycho Brahe.
Time-lapse animation of SN1987A from 1994 to 2009, video compilation courtesy Mark Macdonald, via Larsson, J. et al. (2011). “X-ray illumination of the ejecta of supernova 1987A”. Nature 474 (7352): 484–486., used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.  

Today is the anniversary of the discovery of the first modern supernova, currently named SN1987A, located in the Tarantala Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud.  It was independently discovered by both  Ian Shelton and Oscar Duhalde of the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile on the night of February 23/24, 1987, and within the same 24 hours independently by Albert Jones in New Zealand. Two weeks later, between March 4–12, 1987 it was observed from space by Astron, a large ultraviolet space telescope. The supernova has yet to receive an official name.  

While plenty of modern scientific words can be dated accurately, the older a word is (in general) the harder it is to pin down a date.  The word supernova however, defies this logic.  Late October 1604 (and some sources give the date 6 November 1604) a new and bright object appeared in the sky.  German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (born 27 December 1571-15 November 1630) noticed the ‘new' object and unsure what exactly it was, simply named it stella nova, from the Latin words for new star.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that astronomers Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky started using the term super-nova and by 1938 the hyphen was dropped and the word became supernova.  The first reliably recorded supernova was noted by Pliny in AD 185.  Notable supernovae (note the plural maintains the Latin form and does not take the -s that English mostly uses) occurred in 1054, noted mainly by Chinese and Arabic astronomers, and the supernova of 1572 noted extensively by Tycho Brahe.

Time-lapse animation of SN1987A from 1994 to 2009, video compilation courtesy Mark Macdonald, via Larsson, J. et al. (2011). “X-ray illumination of the ejecta of supernova 1987A”. Nature 474 (7352): 484–486., used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014
Happy Birthday, Galileo Galilei, born February 15, 1564.  

On the nights of January 7/8, 1610, Galileo Galilei noted in his notebooks the discovery of the first 4 Jovian moons, which he named after the powerful Medici family, naming them Medicean I, II and III.  The name Europa (second from right) comes from Greek mythology-Europa was abducted by Zeus (the Greek name for Jupiter) in the form of a bull and bore him many children.  Io (the yellow moon on the left) is also named for a child of Zeus (Jupiter) the daughter of Inachus, who was raped by Jupiter. Jupiter, in an effort to hide his crime from his wife, Juno, transformed Io into a heifer.  Calllisto (on the far right) was named for another seduction of Jupiter.  Callisto was the daughter of Lycaon, who was a follower of Artemis, famous as goddess of the hunt and for her chastity.  To punish Callisto for lying with Jupiter, Artemis banished her.  Without protection, Jupiter was forced to change Callisto and her son into bears to hide them from his wife Hera’s fury.  Eventually, Jupiter placed them both in the sky as the Ursa Major and Minor, the Big and Little Bears (known today as the Big and Little Dippers).  Ganymede (largest moon pictured here, third from right) was the fourth moon discovered by Galileo, named for the shepherd boy known for his incredible beauty and kidnapped by Jupiter.  These names would not become common for several hundred years.  Today, Jupiter has fifty named moons:
1. Io  2. Europa 
3. Ganymede 4. Callisto 5. Amalthea 6. Himalia 7. Elara 8. Pasiphae 9. Sinope 10. Lysithea 11. Carme 12. Ananke 13. Leda 14. Thebe 15. Adrastea 16. Metis 17. Callirrhoe 18. Themisto 19. Megaclite 20. Taygete 21. Chaldene 22. Harpalyke 23. Kalyke 24. Iocaste 25. Erinome 26. Isonoe 27. Praxidike 28. Autonoe 29. Thyone 30. Hermippe 31. Aitne 32. Eurydome 33. Euanthe 34. Euporie 35. Orthosie 36. Sponde 37. Kale 38. Pasithee 39. Hegemone 40. Mneme 41. Aoede 42. Thelxinoe 43. Arche 44. Kallichore 45. Helike 46. Carpo 47. Eukelade 48. Cyllene 49. Kore 50. Herse 
and an additional 16 provisional moons:
1. S/2003 J2 2. S/2003 J3 3. S/2003 J4 4. S/2003 J5 5. S/2003 J9 6. S/2003 J10 7. S/2003 J12 8. S/2003 J15 9. S/2003 J16 10. S/2003 J18 11. S/2003 J19 12. S/2003 J23 13. S/2010 J 1 14. S/2010 J 2 15. S/2011 J1 16. S/2011 J2 



All images courtesy NASA.  Thanks also to NASA for additional historical background

Happy Birthday, Galileo Galilei, born February 15, 1564.  

On the nights of January 7/8, 1610, Galileo Galilei noted in his notebooks the discovery of the first 4 Jovian moons, which he named after the powerful Medici family, naming them Medicean I, II and III.  The name Europa (second from right) comes from Greek mythology-Europa was abducted by Zeus (the Greek name for Jupiter) in the form of a bull and bore him many children.  Io (the yellow moon on the left) is also named for a child of Zeus (Jupiter) the daughter of Inachus, who was raped by Jupiter. Jupiter, in an effort to hide his crime from his wife, Juno, transformed Io into a heifer.  Calllisto (on the far right) was named for another seduction of Jupiter.  Callisto was the daughter of Lycaon, who was a follower of Artemis, famous as goddess of the hunt and for her chastity.  To punish Callisto for lying with Jupiter, Artemis banished her.  Without protection, Jupiter was forced to change Callisto and her son into bears to hide them from his wife Hera’s fury.  Eventually, Jupiter placed them both in the sky as the Ursa Major and Minor, the Big and Little Bears (known today as the Big and Little Dippers).  Ganymede (largest moon pictured here, third from right) was the fourth moon discovered by Galileo, named for the shepherd boy known for his incredible beauty and kidnapped by Jupiter.  These names would not become common for several hundred years.  Today, Jupiter has fifty named moons:

1. Io  2. Europa 

and an additional 16 provisional moons:
All images courtesy NASA.  Thanks also to NASA for additional historical background

Galileo and the heliocentric model

Although scientists as early as Aristarchus of Samos knew the relationship between the sun and earth around 270 BCE, it wasn’t until 1543 that Nicholas Copernicus published his masterwork De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published the same year that he died that the heliocentric model received wide distribution. Perhaps his death and inability to defend his thesis led to the very slow spread and adoption of his idea, so that by the year 1616 a group of cardinals and bishops under the direction of the Vatican met to denounce Galileo Galilei, who was using the results of his observations made with the new technology of the telescope to re-introduce the heliocentric model of the solar system.

A decade and half passed before Galileo was dangerous enough to draw a trial, which commenced in 1633. Galileo was furious with the philosophers, theologians and scientists who denounced his idea, complaining to his friend and fellow astronomer Johannes Kepler,

My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.

He lost the trial and spent his last eight years under house arrest, working on his theories from his home in Pisa.

The word heliocentric comes from Ancient Greek, a combination of the words ἥλιος (helios) meaning sun and κέντρον (kentron) meaning center. It would take another three centuries for scientists to understand that not only is the Earth not the center of the Universe, neither is the Sun.

Happy Birthday Galileo Galilei, born February 15, 1564.

Painting of Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti, 1857, in the public domain.

Image from Copernicus in the public domain.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

When is a planet not a planet?

When is a planet not a planet?  This question has troubled scientists and students for decades, and the recent demotion of Pluto from planet to plutoid marked a significant change in how scientists classify planets. In 2006 the International Astromical Union identified three key criteria to classify a body as a planet:  

  1. The body is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. The body has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and
  3. The body has “cleared the neighbourhood” around its orbit.

By this definition Pluto was excluded, but the discovery of a transneptunian object on January 5, 2005 added very briefly a planet to the solar system.  

Many teams were racing to map the outer solar system, specifically the belt of asteroids and debris in the scattered disc known as transneptunian objects, and the discovery of Eris and Dysnomia took several years of searching, two years of analysis with both computers and good old fashioned legwork.  The team of Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, and David Rabinowitz had programmed their computers to rule out objects moving too slowly to count and missed seeing Eris when it was first photographed.  Manually pouring over the photos almost a year and a half later, they found the largest (to date) plutoid or dwarf planet.

 Wanting to name more sky objects after women, internally the team referred to the dwarf planet as Xena, after the popular television series.  After a period of several years (and much consensus building) the name Eris was settled on.  Eris was the goddess of strife in Greek mythology, the meddling troublemaker who doomed the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles, which led to the disastrous war that destroyed both Troy and much of the invading Greek armies.  Eris’s own son was named Dysnomia, meaning lawlessness, and when the Hubble Space Telescope discovered that Eris had a moon, well, the name was inevitable.  Since the discovery of Eris and Dysnomia, several more plutoids have been discovered, but none yet as large.  Eris was considered a planet for less than a year, before both Eris and Pluto were reclassified as plutoids.  

Images of Eris and Dysnomia courtesy NASA/Hubble.

Monday, December 30, 2013

On December 30, 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope completed the series of 342 images that were rendered in to the Hubble Deep Field View, perhaps the most astonishing and humbling scientific achievement made by humans in the field of space science. The area for the Deep Field View was chosen as one of the ‘darkest’ spots in the sky:  imagine holding a grain of sand at arms length or a viewing a tennis ball at 100 meters, and looking in the direction of the darkest, least populated portions of the night sky.  The total area is equivalent to  one twenty four millionth of the total night sky.  There were many skeptics when the Deep Field View was first proposed-many assumed that the this portion of ‘dark sky’ would show that in fact there are portions of ‘dark sky’ from our vantage point.  Most of the three thousand or so images in the Deep Field View are in fact entire galaxies and form some of the oldest and farthest structures ever seen, with only 20 or so nearer stars.  Few images hint at the immensity or complexity of our universe as much as this image.

In addition to its day to day duties, Hubble has returned to its deep field views several times, with the Deep Field View South a couple years later, the 2004 Hubble Ultra Deep Field, and the Hubble Extreme Deep Field of 2012.  Named for American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble  (November 20, 1889 – September 28, 1953), the Hubble Space Telescope continues to work in Edwin Hubble’s field of deep cosmological inquiry and extra-galactic astronomy.  Despite early problems including a dramatic in-space repair mission, the Hubble has been sending back pictures and data of every corner of the universe, making it one of the most important scientific tools every created.  

The Hubble Deep Field, the Hubble Space Telescope as seen from Atlantis Space Shuttle, and the rendering of the Hubble making the DFV, all courtesy NASA/Hubble.

 
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