Tag Archives: planets

Watch A Four-Year Timelapse of A Mysterious Cosmic Explosion Captured By the Hubble Telescope (Video)

Back in January of 2002, astronomers witnessed a huge explosion from the star V838 Monocerotis, a red variable star about 20,000 light years away from our Sun.

At first, they thought it was a typical supernova (the explosion of a dying star), but after watching the explosion dim then brighten twice over a period of only a few months (supernovas will usually only dim after the initial bright explosion), astronomers really weren’t sure what they were dealing with.

Check out a time-lapse of the explosion from 2002-2006 below (full screen highly suggested).

So what exactly is going on with this explosion? Well, there are five possibilities that have been proposed so far:

  1. The explosion was a supernova, just a very unique one with a multi-outburst pattern, which would explain the multiple brightening and dimming events. Most scientists agree that the large size and young age of the stars in that region makes this explanation unlikely, however.
  2. The explosion was a thermal pulse. When moderately-sized stars run out of fuel, they explode (in a supernova), leaving behind a dense core of hydrogen and helium. Sometimes this hydrogen and helium core can be re-ignited, illuminating the layers of ejected star material from the supernova explosion. Again, however, the star’s young age makes this possibility unlikely.
  3. Another theory also proposes a helium flash, but one that occurred as a result of thermonuclear processes in a massive supergiant star. Supergiants can be large enough for an outer layer of helium to ignite and start the fusion process without the whole star being destroyed. This theory fits with the star’s age, but it doesn’t seem that V838 Monocerotis had enough mass for this process occur.
  4. Planetary capture: when a star grows to large proportions, it can start consuming nearby planets. The friction generated when a very large planet gets pulled apart by the star’s gravity can produce enough energy to spark deuterium fusion, which releases massive amounts of energy (like what we see in the time-lapse).
  5. The explosion was a result of a mergeburst. Sometimes, in clusters of younger stars (where orbits can be very unstable), two main-sequence stars can collide, creating an explosion similar to the one in the video. The relatively young age of the stars near V838 Monocerotis make this a reasonable possibility, and this hypothesis has also been supported by computer modeling.

It’s awesome to study the stars and find out exactly why they act the way they do, but sometimes explanations can be elusive. So while we search for answers, we should also make sure we take the time to simply enjoy watching this mesmerizing cosmic phenomenon.

(h/t Gizmodo)

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Now You Have No Excuse To Miss the Lyrid Meteor Shower Tonight

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…

How to find the lyrid meteors in the night sky
How to find the lyrid meteors in the night sky

Here’s some pictures of last year’s Lyrid meteor shower (click an image to enlarge):

 

View the full gallery from Space.com here.

 

 

Blowing the Top Off a Mountain to Build a Telescope So Big It Can See Signs of Life On Other Planets

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.”

Cerro Armazones, future site of the world’s largest telescope (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Artist rendering of the completed E-ELT

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.”

Read the full story from The Guardian here.

NASA Discovers Most Earth-Like Planet Yet

In a former Higher Learning Post we discussed how the Kepler missions have successfully identified hundreds of potential Earth-size planets that have a “Goldilocks” distance orbit from their stars.

“Goldilocks” -orbit distance is not too hot/close to star and not too cold/far from star

In a space agency briefing earlier this month, NASA announced that they have identefied the most Earth-like planet yet. The planet is known as Kepler-186-F, and according to Dan Vergano from National Geographic the planet has,

“Red sunshine, seas, and maybe aliens? Scientists analyzing data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope today report the closest thing yet to another Earth, a world in a habitable orbit around a red dwarf star some 493 light-years away.”
Kepler-186-F according to National Geographic is “1.1 times wider than Earth” and “the mass is 1.5 times that of Earth”. Also the planet’s solar system consists of five planets that orbit a red dwarf star.
According to pioneering planet hunter Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley,
“This is an historic discovery—the first Earth-size planet found in the habitable zone around its star. This is the best case for a habitable planet yet found.”
Although the planet has a very simialar size to Earth, the planet’s red dwarf star is about half the size of our Sun. Kepler-186-F makes up for having a smaller star by having a tighter orbit cycle that is only 130 days.
It is not certain what type of atmoshper the planet has, but scientists are optimistic that although the planet may be cooler and dimmer than Earth the planet is still warm enough to prevent seas from freezing.

The Kepler spacecraft is still on the lookout for new discoveries, and scientists continue to analyze data as we continue our search for other habitable planets in our galaxy.

Check out the full post by Dan Vergano from National Geographic Here.

The BBC Might Get the Award for Best April Fool’s Day Prank Ever

On the morning of April 1, 1976, renowned English astronomer Patrick Moore got on the BBC radio station and made an astonishing announcement: Moore said that at exactly 9:47 a.m. that day, the planets of Jupiter and Pluto would align with the Earth.

Moore continued, saying that the combined gravitational pull of the two planets would cause a noticeable reduction in the strength of gravity on Earth. He called it the Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effect.

A more recent picture of Patrick Moore

Sure enough, right after 9:47 a.m., the BBC was flooded with hundreds of calls from people claiming that they had personally experienced the phenomenon. One woman even said that she and her 11 friends were,

 “wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room.”

The BBC revealed the hoax soon afterwards. Read more about the prank here.