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Naming the new ISS module: a suggestion

March 26, 2009 on 2:20 pm | In Solar System | 202 Comments

As many of you have heard, NASA has had a public vote to help name the new node of the International Space Station — node 3 — shown here in its full glory:

Although the name Serenity for the new node got 70% of the vote on the NASA site, that’s totally misleading. Because someone started a write-in campaign to get the module named after himself:

And the name Colbert beat Serenity by over 40,000 votes! Before you shout, “curse you, Colbert” (I already did), I bring up the sad fact that NASA has said the results are not binding, and that this dubiously-qualified megalomaniac may not get his name on the module due to a technicality.

But if NASA had a sense of humor (or any sense of increasing positive publicity), they would listen to my advice:

Name the node COLBERT.

But pronounce it KOHL-burt.

Trust me, he’ll hate it. Loathe it. Perhaps even have someone on his show to throw one of his patented tirades at. Because it won’t be his name, but it completely follows the expressed will of the public. And that, my friends, is the way to make democracy work.

Book Review: The Hunt for Planet X

March 13, 2009 on 12:49 pm | In Solar System | 14 Comments

Pluto, try as some people may to belittle it, is too beloved to simply go away. Even anti-Plutonians are fascinated by it. So to celebrate the state of Illinois’ very first Pluto Day, since Pluto was discovered exactly 79 years ago today, I present to you a review of Govert Schilling’s newly released book, The Hunt for Planet X: New Worlds and the Fate of Pluto.

This is one of the most detailed books about the Solar System, its history, and the neighborhood at and around our Sun. Schilling starts in the 18th Century, when the Solar System was “well known” with its six planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. He tells fascinating versions of the discovery of Uranus, including its naming and its impact on those interested in Astronomy, a great version of the discovery of Neptune, a personal favorite historical story of mine, and spares no detail in telling about the important people and personalities involved.

There’s also a very intricate history given of the asteroid belt, including of a time when the asteroids Ceres, Pallas, and Vesta were all called planets. But the star of this book is no star at all, but the small, icy, distant world, Pluto.

The book talks about Clyde Tombaugh and the discovery of Pluto, omitting practically no detail, and continues to go on about the discovery of its major moon, Charon (and later the theory of its formation), and its two far smaller moons, Nix and Hydra. Throughout this, the reader gets a genuine feeling of the good fortune that goes into such a discovery, as well as the myriad of hours and patience that being a good observational astronomer requires. Amateur astronomers, especially, will find much to identify with in this book, including a kinship with many who share their passion for the heavens.

The last great thing that I really enjoyed about this book was its discussion of the Kuiper Belt and the many objects that have been discovered there so far. It really keeps in perspective that the first Kuiper Belt object other than Pluto and Charon was only discovered in 1992, and yet already, we know that there are many other icy worlds just as important to our Solar System as Pluto:

The book is very well illustrated throughout, with some wonderful pictures in both color and black and white, of the astronomical objects themselves, the astronomers who discovered them, and on special occasions, the actual astronomical data that were used in their discovery.

There are some negatives to this book, and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you what they are. There is a sense of despair when he discusses theories that didn’t pan out, such as the Nemesis theory (that the Sun has a super-long-period binary companion), the search for a fifth very massive giant planet, and the idea of Vulcan (a planet closer to the Sun than Mercury). This is also not a quick, easy read. Because the book is so dense with details, it often takes quite some time to digest all the information that’s being related. This book could have also used an editor, as every story in the book is given the same weight, whereas many are clearly both more important to the book overall and also are simply more interesting. And this is a personal distaste, but the sheer amount of time and space devoted to the naming of Solar System objects is way out of proportion to their actual importance. Finally, there’s hardly any mention at all of planets around other stars, which would certainly not be out of place in this book.

But to anyone really interested in Pluto and in understanding our Solar System in general, this book contains all the latest, up-to-date scientific information, including on Neptune’s Moon, Triton, and on things as esoteric as what you can learn from an occultation. This book will probably be obsolete when the New Horizons mission gets to Pluto in 2015, but until then, you won’t find a better, more comprehensive source of information that’s accessible to a non-scientist about the Solar System. Overall, to anyone interested in learning about some of the lesser-known worlds in our Solar System and the stories of their discovery, The Hunt For Planet X is for you.

Happy Pluto Day!

Why is Venus the Brightest?

March 11, 2009 on 9:59 am | In Astronomy, Solar System | 31 Comments

Sometimes, when you look up in either the early, pre-dawn morning or early, post-sunset evening sky, there’s one point of light that outshines all the others. It’s usually relatively close to where the Sun was, and unlike most points of light you see in the night sky, this one doesn’t twinkle. I’m talking, of course, about the planet Venus:

Yes, it isn’t nearly as bright as the Moon, but it’s certainly much brighter than everything else you can see. Well, it was only a matter of time before someone wrote in and asked why. Reader Dan asks:

Can you explain why Venus is so bright in the sky right now? I don’t think I have ever seen it so bright in my life.

Venus, as we’ve talked about before, is covered in a very thick layer of greenhouse gases. This makes its surface extremely reflective, so that about 70% of the sunlight that comes in to Venus gets reflected as visible light.

But Venus is also extremely close to Earth. In fact, Venus gets within about 40 million km of Earth, which is less than 1/3 of the distance to the Sun. At its farthest, Venus is about 250 million km from Earth. Why? Because Venus and Earth both orbit the Sun; sometimes they’re on the same side as one another, and sometimes they’re on opposite sides. When they’re both on the same side, Venus has its closest approach to Earth:

But I’m going to force you to think about the geometry of this a little bit. One side of Venus faces the Sun, and gets illuminated; the other one is dark. Imagine that the Earth is far away from Venus. What will the planet Venus then look like from Earth? It will be mostly “full”, and the closer to being in direct opposition to Earth, the more “full” Venus will appear. But the more “full” it appears, the further away it is, and so it should also look smaller. Take a look at these shots of Venus, through the same telescope, when it’s far away from Earth:

When it’s more full, it’s also smaller. But when less of it is illuminated, it’s closer to us. Take a look at what Venus looks like when it’s closest to us:

So when Venus is close to us, it looks like a crescent, but it looks like a very large crescent, and when it’s far from us, it looks like a disc, but a much smaller disc. Which of these two things is more important for the brightness of Venus?

Well, we can find out. You see, Dan is right; Venus is nearly at its brightest right now. Have a pair of binoculars? Well, about 11 days ago, somebody did, and photographed Venus and the Moon together in the sky. Here’s what they saw:

Venus is at its brightest when it’s a crescent! It turns out that being closer to us means everything. Astronomers use magnitudes to measure brightness, and the smaller your number is, the brighter you are. This is useful for stars, where very bright stars are typically 0 or 1 (the very brightest, Sirius, is -1.5), and the dimmest ones visible with the naked eye are 5 or 6.

What about things that aren’t stars, though? Not surprisingly, the Sun is the brightest, at -26.7, and the Full Moon is second, at -12.6. But Venus is third! When Venus is a crescent, it’s -4.6, and when it’s full (but far away), it’s -3.8, which is interesting! Why? Because when it’s full, you can’t see it during the day, even under optimal conditions. But right now, when it’s a crescent, you can! Check out this photograph by John Harper of Venus during the day:

It’s a crescent, just like we said it should be! So that is why Venus is the brightest thing in the sky, and that’s why it’s brighter now than it usually is. Get out your binoculars and have a look! And if you do it tonight, look on the other side of you too, because the Moon is full and it rises at 8:30 PM! Enjoy!

Pluto is a Planet — in Illinois!

March 6, 2009 on 5:32 pm | In Politics, Solar System | 56 Comments

I was going to write about something else today, but when I saw this story, I simply couldn’t resist. Apparently, the Illinois state legislature not only declared that Pluto is a planet like the other eight:

They also declared that March 13, 2009 is going to be the very first Pluto Day, in honor of the discovery of Pluto on March 13, 1930, by Illinois-born Astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh:

People talk about how small, insignificant, and far away Pluto is, and they’re right. But what they’re missing is just how lucky Tombaugh was to find it. Sure, there are many, many Kuiper Belt objects out there, and we know of lots of them at this point:

But after the discovery of Pluto, people searched, in earnest, for the 10th planet. It took a loooong time for the next Kuiper Belt object to be found. And when it was found, you know what it was?

Pluto’s moon, Charon! Do you know how long it took, after the discovery of Pluto, to find Charon? Almost 50 years! So yes, we know of many other Kuiper Belt objects now, and some of them are even more impressive than Pluto.

But Pluto holds a very special place as:

  • The first and only planet in our Solar System (even if it was only temporarily a planet) discovered by an American.
  • The very first Kuiper Belt object discovered.
  • The first trans-Neptunian object discovered.
  • And as being the 9th planet for about 70 years.

You know what I think about this? Good for Illinois. Good for them! This raises awareness of Astronomy, gives them something to be proud of and a great historical achievement to celebrate, and helps Pluto from fading into the obscurity that the other Kuiper Belt objects currently have to deal with.

So good for Illinois, good for Pluto, and good for you for not forgetting it. Someday, I would love for Pluto to be given a real, useful designation by the IAU, like “King of the Ice Dwarfs.”

Perhaps we’ll discover some wonderful things about it when New Horizons gets there; April of 2015, folks, and don’t forget to celebrate Pluto day on March 13th!

Hunting The Great Red Spot

February 27, 2009 on 4:47 pm | In Solar System | 25 Comments

I’ve been interested in the planet Jupiter ever since I was told, as a little boy, that it was the place I needed to go. Although, come to think of it, I was lumped in with all boys, and told that we “go to Jupiter to get more stupider,” which isn’t a very good reason, in hindsight. Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the entire night sky, beaten only by the Moon and Venus, and occasionally by Mars.

The above photo is of the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter on a slightly cloudy night. Sure, the Moon and Venus are brighter. But they’re also way closer than Jupiter is. It’s sheer coincidence that it’s named after the ruler of the Roman Pantheon and also happens to be the largest planet in our Solar System. But it is huge; if you wanted to compare Jupiter to Earth, Jupiter doesn’t just have us beat, it makes us look like an insignificant moon in comparison:

And once you get past its giant size, you start noticing other things about Jupiter, such as the different bands of moving air at different latitudes. But what I’ve always been fascinated by is that huge birthmark on its face: the great red spot, bigger than Earth in its own right.

And even though this animation that I’ve placed below is 30 years old, it’s still the best thing I know of to illustrate what Jupiter actually does; take a good look!

Unlike Earth, where the weather is transient, and even the greatest storms only last a few weeks, Jupiter is practically all weather. That great red spot is totally obvious, even without the red. This counterclockwise hurricane is about 2-3 times the size of Earth, and has been a fixture on Jupiter’s surface for as long as we’ve been able to see Jupiter’s surface features: more than 300 years!

So how impressive is this great red spot? Some impressive facts:

  • Width — anywhere from 24,000 km to 40,000 km
  • Height — anywhere from 12,000 km to 14,000 km
  • Time to rotate — 6 Earth days
  • Maximum Wind Speed — 250 miles per hour (400 km / hour)

But what’s the big news? See that big variety in width above? It turns out that Jupiter’s great red spot is shrinking! In fact, the great red spot, right now, is smaller than it’s ever been. We don’t think it’s going to disappear or dissipate, but it’s definitely shrinking right now. It’s possible that this is just a fluctuation, and the system is stable, like this animation of Hurricane Isabel on Earth.

But it’s also possible that if you’d like to see the great red spot, you’re best off doing it sooner rather than later! Remember, Jupiter rotates quickly (in under 10 hours), so you have to get lucky to have the great red spot facing you. You can see great details on Jupiter with just a 10″ telescope, but if you don’t plan ahead, the great red spot will be on the other side of the planet:

My advice? Use this handy calculator. And the great red spot isn’t just for professionals; here are six pictures of Jupiter, with the great red spot visible, taken by the amateurs Damian Peach, Christopher Go, and Anthony Wesley:

Remember, Jupiter has phases (as seen from Earth) too, so try to catch it when Jupiter is “full”! So, hopefully this shrinkage of the great red spot is just temporary, but my advice is to get out and have a look while you still can! Happy hunting!

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