Starting at around 11 p.m. Eastern time tonight, the Camelopardalid Meteor Shower will be peaking in the night sky. The meteors are the debris left behind by the comet P/209 LINEAR almost two centuries ago.
On May 23/24, Earth will be passing through this trail of debris, which is why the meteors will be visible to us here on Earth tonight for the first time ever. The comets will appear to be coming from the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper).
Astronomers are predicting that the shower could be pretty spectacular, with some estimating as many as 200 meteor sightings per hour. The shower will peak between 2 and 4 a.m. Eastern time tomorrow morning.
If visibility in your area is limited, not to worry. Slooh will be live-streaming the whole event- you can check it out below:
A neutron star is what’s left behind when a massive star (typically 8-30 times the size of our Sun) explodes into a supernova. These supergiant stars get so large that they are no longer able to remain stable under their own intense gravity, collapsing in on themselves.
The gravity is so massive that it exceeds the strength of the atomic forces within particles, causing them to eject protons and electrons. The ball of neutrons they leave behind is so dense that a teaspoonful of the material would weigh as much as Mount Everest!
Neutrons stars have a “mass threshold”- if they take on too much mass, even the neutrons themselves will collapse. When two of these extremely dense neutron stars collide, the extra mass they add to one another causes their massive gravitational forces to tear each other apart.
They go into a blindingly-fast death spin, ejecting massive amount of material while merging into a doughnut like structure with a black hole at its center. The entire process takes just 20 milliseconds (that is 1/50th of a second, if you’re wondering).
Check out a simulation of the amazing phenomenon courtesy of NASA:
Once a year, Earth experiences the Lyrid meteor shower as it passes through a region of cosmic debris left behind by a comet known as Comet Thatcher, which orbits the sun once every 415 years leaving behind fresh debris each time.
This year, that’ll be happening tonight. The shower is expected to be at its peak in the early morning hours of Tuesday (4/22/14). If you’re in an area where the weather inhibits sky visibility, Space.com will be providing two webcasts of the event via NASA and slooh.com.
No word yet on whether or not you can wish on a shooting star you see via live stream…
Here’s some pictures of last year’s Lyrid meteor shower (click an image to enlarge):
In a few short weeks, engineers in the Chilean Coastal Ranges of the Andes Mountains in South America will be blowing off the top of Cerro Armazones. Standing at 10,000 feet, it’s one of the tallest peaks in the region. Here’s Gird Hudepohl, the head engineer for the project:
“We will take about 80ft off the top of the mountain to create a plateau – and when we have done that, we will build the world’s biggest telescope there.”
The Coastal Ranges region is extremely arid, which increases visibility since water vapor in the air obscures a telescope’s vision (this is also why telescopes at high elevations have much better vision than those closer to sea level).
This isn’t Hudepohl’s first rodeo. He works for the European Southern Observatory and was in charge of the demolition of another nearby peak (Cerro Paranal) which is now home to one of the world’s most advanced observatories.
The observatory at Cerro Paranal is equipped with four VLTs (Very Large Telescopes), each the size of “a block of flats” and each equipped with an 8m wide primary mirror (thats more than 24 feet).
Here’s some pictures of the European Southern Observatory (click an image to enlarge):
The new telescope, however, will be bigger than all four of those VLTs combined. The E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope- they’re not very creative with the names obviously) will be equipped with a massive 39m (128ft) primary mirror made up 800 segments, each 1.4 meters in diameter but only a few centimeters thick. Each segment must be calibrated with microscopic precision for the telescope to function correctly.
When it’s finished (projected completion is 2025), the telescope will be housed in a 74m (~243ft) dome and weigh in at almost 3,000 tons. The project has a price tag of $1.34 billion.
The telescope is obviously extremely expensive, but the potential benefits it will provide are well worth it. Here’s Cambridge University astronomer Professor Gerry Gilmore explaining why the E-ELT will be such a major breakthrough:
“[Right now] we can see exoplanets but we cannot study them in detail because – from our distant perspective – they appear so close to their parent stars. However, the magnification which the E-ELT will provide will mean we will be able to look at them directly and clearly. In 15 years, we should have a picture of a planet around another star and that picture could show its surface changing colour just as Earth does as the seasons change – indicating that vegetation exists on that world. We will then have found alien life.”
You may have heard people talking about the “blood moon” that happened last night. If you missed it, not to worry! Here’s the entire event (which took just under two and a half hours) in just 9 seconds:
At exactly 8:58 p.m. CST (central time) tonight, the moon will move into Earth’s shadow. The total lunar eclipse, where the moon is completely shaded by the Earth, will start a little more than an hour later at 10:07 p.m. CST, and will last until approximately 11:25 p.m. CST.
You may have heard the term “blood moon” before. Whenever the moon passes into Earth’s shadow, it takes on a reddish color- it can be anywhere from a bright copper to a darker hue, like the color of dried blood. But what causes this?
Well, even when the Earth is between the sun and the moon, some of the light from all of the sunsets and sunrises happening around the rim of the Earth makes it to the moon’s surface. Here’s Alan MacRobert of Sky and Telescope magazine:
“If you were standing on the moon during a total lunar eclipse you would see the Earth as a black disk with a brilliant orange ring around it. And this brilliant ring would be bright enough to dimly light up the lunar landscape.”
It’s this ring of light which gives the moon its blood red color.
Tonight’s eclipse will be the first total lunar eclipse since December of 2011. It will be visible in its entirety across almost the entire continental United States, as well as in parts of Canada and Central America.
You can use the map below to figure out how much of the eclipse will be visible from where you are. Read more from the L.A. Times here.
Back in 1859, Richard Carrington, one of England’s leading astronomers at the time, witnessed one of the most intense solar flares to hit Earth in recent history. Here’s the story from NASA Science:
At 11:18 AM on the cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington—widely acknowledged to be one of England’s foremost solar astronomers—was in his well-appointed private observatory. Just as usual on every sunny day, his telescope was projecting an 11-inch-wide image of the sun on a screen, and Carrington skillfully drew the sunspots he saw.
Right: Sunspots sketched by Richard Carrington on Sept. 1, 1859. Copyright: Royal Astronomical Society: more.
On that morning, he was capturing the likeness of an enormous group of sunspots. Suddenly, before his eyes, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped. Realizing that he was witnessing something unprecedented and “being somewhat flurried by the surprise,” Carrington later wrote, “I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me. On returning within 60 seconds, I was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled.” He and his witness watched the white spots contract to mere pinpoints and disappear.
It was 11:23 AM. Only five minutes had passed.
Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.
Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.
“What Carrington saw was a white-light solar flare—a magnetic explosion on the sun,” explains David Hathaway, solar physics team lead at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Now we know that solar flares happen frequently, especially during solar sunspot maximum. Most betray their existence by releasing X-rays (recorded by X-ray telescopes in space) and radio noise (recorded by radio telescopes in space and on Earth). In Carrington’s day, however, there were no X-ray satellites or radio telescopes. No one knew flares existed until that September morning when one super-flare produced enough light to rival the brightness of the sun itself.
“It’s rare that one can actually see the brightening of the solar surface,” says Hathaway. “It takes a lot of energy to heat up the surface of the sun!”
The feature photo is a solar flare from August 31, 2012. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO