Tag: Astronomy

My Sooper Sekrit Project: REVEALED!

By Phil Plait | July 23, 2010 11:00 am

Yes, you read that right.

Finally, at last, after many months, I can now officially reveal the project that has kept me so busy over all this time. I think you’re gonna like this… so why not just jump right in to the teaser trailer posted online by a small TV network you may have heard of called THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL!

[evil laugh]

[UPDATE: D’oh! There was a problem with the video, and Discovery is in the process of fixing it. It should be back up soon.]

[UPDATE: We’re back, baby!]

How ’bout that?

I’ve been working with the Discovery Channel on hosting a new TV science show called "Phil Plait’s Bad Universe". It’s a three-part program where I dissect issues in astronomy and science, putting claims to the test. There’s no air date yet, but I’m hoping it’ll be on your TV sets this fall.
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John McCain still really hates science

By Phil Plait | February 27, 2009 6:00 pm

Oh John McCain, I’m so glad you’re gone. But I wish you would actually leave!

Through Cosmic Variance I found out John McCain has a Twitter feed. That’s pretty amazing for a guy who doesn’t understand computers or even use email, but hey, everyone’s capable of change.

Or maybe not all of us. McCain posted a list to Twitter of the "TOP TEN PORKIEST PROJECTS" in the stimulus Omnibus spending bill.

Now c’mon, guess what number 2 was. Guess!

OK, did you guess that it would be some small amount of money that went to science and public education? Good for you! You win… well, nothing, except the chance to bang your head against a wall. Here is the tweet in question:

#2. $2 million “for the promotion of astronomy” in Hawaii – because nothing says new jobs for average Americans like investing in astronomy

Ah, McCain. Maybe you’ve changed enough to learn some new tech, but it’s nice to know some things don’t change, like that you’re an antiscience know-nothing. But then, he helped set that standard with his ridiculous planetarium ravings.

Let’s be clear: astronomy needs to be funded. It’s one of the best public-relations field science has. People love astronomy. And putting that aside, astronomy is important. I don’t think I need go into that here, but you can always read this if you’re fuzzy on the details. Also, it touches the philosophical aspects of our lives, like how we got here and and where we’re headed. Perhaps platitudes about such things satisfy some people, but some of us are pretty well concerned with reality. That’s why we study it.

And then there’s the bottom line: that 2 million dollar investment will keep people employed in a high-tech industry. What is it about Republican leaders that they don’t understand it’s not pork, it’s investment and that equals stimulus. Building a bridge that isn’t needed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars is pork. Putting money towards science is making sure that we stay on the cutting-edge of technological capability in the world. See the difference?

Geez, this isn’t rocket science.

Speaking of which, let me point out the contrast of McCain still actively unwilling to support science and science education to Obama’s wanting to fund NASA and science in next year’s budget and in the stimulus bill. Interesting, isn’t it?

So, Senator McCain, let me make this clear: you, amateur exorcist and creationist Bobby Jindal, and the rest of your backwards-facing antiscience reality-denying brethren may huff and puff and say ridiculous things — and I’m sure you’ll continue to do so — but a lot of people see right through it, and a majority of the American voting population rejected it last November.

But please, feel free to cling to such notions. Those of us in the reality-based community will make sure we wave as we pass you, but don’t expect us to linger on your reflection in our rear-view mirrors. We’re too busy looking ahead.

Given the nature of this post, please avail yourself to both my commenting policy and my stance on politics and religion posts before commenting below. Thank you.

Saturn gets edgy

By Phil Plait | December 25, 2008 11:05 pm

So you got a telescope for Christmas/Hanukkah/Newtonmass/whatever… or you’ve had one for awhile. Either way, you get a treat this week. Or a lack of one. Saturn’s rings are going away.

Hubble image of Saturn in 1996
Hubble caught Saturn with edge-on rings in 1996. Image courtesy Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona Lunar & Planetary Lab) and NASA/ESA.

Well, kinda. Saturn, like the Earth, is tipped a bit compared to the plane of its orbit; we’re canted at a 23.5 degree tilt, and Saturn is off from being vertical by about 26.7 degrees. Saturn’s magnificent rings are aligned with its equator, so that means that roughly twice every Saturn orbit we cross the "ring plane". In other words, from Earth we see them edge-on.

And the rings are thin. Incredibly thin. Despite being over 200,000 km across, the rings are typically at most only a few dozen meters thick. To scale, that’s far thinner than a piece of paper.

So when we pass through the plane of the rings, they practically disappear from sight. I’ve seen it once through a telescope, when we were near (but not quite at) that point, and Saturn looks pretty weird when it goes commando. We’re used to it wearing these big gaudy rings, and there it was, nearly nude. It’s maybe not the best time to show the planet off to friends and family, but it’s still pretty cool.

The Earth actually doesn’t pass through the ring plane until September 2009, but at that time Saturn will be on the other side of the Sun, and pretty much unobservable. You’d think that a month or two before then would be the best time to observe the narrowly thinning rings, but in fact the best time is right now! Due to the vagaries of our mutual orbits, the rings are actually at a minimum right now, the last week of 2008, when they are inclined just 0.8 degrees to our line of sight.

If you have a telescope, get out and take a look! Saturn will be nearly ringless for the next few months, and then the rings will start to open up once again. After that, you’ll have plenty of time to soak in the phenomenal view of the solar system’s best showpiece — the next ring plane crossing isn’t until March of 2025.

Right now, Saturn is in the constellation Leo and shines fairly brightly at about magnitude 1, about the same brightness as the star Regulus which marks the heart of the lion. It rises around midnight local time right now, and is high enough to observe a couple of hours later. You can find sky maps at Your Sky and Heavens Above, and you can read more about the ring plane crossing on the NASA news page, and on Alan Dyer’s astronomy page.

And I have to add: this isn’t merely a curiosity; there is scientific value to this event. Telescopes can focus on the planet and see things otherwise hidden in the glare of the very bright rings. Faint moons, the existence of material above and below the ring plane, features on Saturn itself: all these can be easier to see without the icy, reflective ring particles blasting out light. It’s funny. Saturn is the most beautiful planet in the solar system through a telescope because of those rings, but it may be the most scientifically interesting when we can’t see them at all.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff
MORE ABOUT: Astronomy, rings, Saturn

Weekend spaciness

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2008 9:30 am

1) The new Carnival of Space is up at Lab Lemming’s tent, and it’s a BIG tent.

2) Emily has news that Phobos is a bit lighter than previously thought. What a pile.

3) Emily also has some nifty new MESSENGER images explained. I’ve been too lazy to deal with that.

4) Tom notes that HiRISE spotted Spirit on Mars. Massively embiggenated version is here.

4) This is dumb. So why did it make me smile so much? Oh right: I’m a dork.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Humor, SciFi

Pulsar SMASH!

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2008 12:15 pm
Illustration of a pulsar

It’s a (Bruce) banner moment for NASA’s new Fermi satellite: it’s found a pulsar that emits only gamma rays.

Brief background: when a massive star explode, its core collapses. If it has enough mass, the core shrinks down into a black hole. If it doesn’t have quite that much oomph (if it has about 1 – 2.8 times the mass of the Sun) it forms a weird object called a neutron star. As massive as a star but only a few kilometers across, a neutron star is incredibly dense, rapidly rotating, and has a magnetic field intense enough to give you an MRI from a million kilometers away.

OK, I made that last one up, but in fact it sounds about right. The point: neutron stars are seriously awesome, right on the edge of matter as we understand it.

The supercharged magnetic field channels a tremendously powerful flow of energy away from the star in twin beams like a lighthouse. And, like a lighthouse, as the star rotates these beams sweep around. If they’re aimed at Earth we see a pair of pulses every time the star spins around once. So, duh, we call these special neutron stars pulsars. You can see a way cool animation of this on NASA’s Conceptual Image Lab web page.

Usually, the beams from these pulsars contain light from all (or nearly all) across the electromagnetic spectrum. We seem them in radio waves, visible light, ultraviolet, even X-rays and some in gamma rays. The processes that create these beams are pretty fierce and weird, and the type of light emitted depends on the process. However, in general, if we see high energy light (like X- and gamma rays) from a pulsar, we tend to see it in lower energy light (optical and radio) as well.

But Fermi found an oddball! Located about 4600 light years away in the constellation of Cepheus, CTA-1 is a supernova remnant, the expanding debris from an exploding star. But that expanding junk is only from the outer layers of the detonated star: the core collapsed down into a neutron star, and that’s what Fermi detected. This newly discovered gamma-ray-only pulsar spins three times per second — think on that; an object with the mass of an entire star spinning at that rate! — and is blasting out gamma radiation with 1000 times the Sun’s entire energy output.

And all of it in super-high energy invisible gamma rays. The Hulk has nothing on this pulsar.

Actually, let’s pause for just a sec. Is it sunny outside? Good. Go outside, and hold your hand up. Feel the warmth? That’s just a bit of optical light warming your hand. Now think about how much energy is falling over the entire Earth itself, a gazillion times the size of your hand. Now think about how much energy the Sun is emitting in all directions; the entire Earth only intercepts about one-two billionths of that light. Now think about one thousand times that much energy. Now think of all that energy being only in the form of DNA-shattering gamma rays.

Yeah, now you’re getting it. This object is seriously freaky.

We know of about 1800 pulsars, and all of them emit radio waves. All but this guy. It’s a brand new category of object (well, a sub category, but still), a new character on the cosmic stage. But why does it only emit gamma rays? Hey, good question. I don’t know the answer (and the press release doesn’t say, in fact). I suspect the answer right now is, we don’t know. This object was only discovered a little while ago, and worse, gamma rays are really difficult to study. That’s why we launched Fermi in the first place! Worse even than that, without being able to look at this object in radio, optical, or any other form of light really hobbles our ability to study it.

For now, I think we’ll have to rely on Fermi’s observations and then look at theoretical models. I imagine there will be astronomers all over the world pouncing on this, trying to figure out how the magnetic fields of the star can be so choosy (maybe they’re elitist).

But until then, as usual, I have to wonder: if we only just now found this object, what the heck else is floating around out there just waiting for us to find?

Pulsar image credit: NASA.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

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