Tag Archives: astronomer

A Planet Nowhere Near Mars

I can point out several objects and constellations in the night sky:

  • The Big Dipper
  • The Little Dipper
  • Cassiopeia
  • Orion
  • Orion’s Belt
  • Orion’s Pocket Protector
  • The Moon

I’m a bad astronomer – but not as bad as my friend Phil. He’s the best bad astronomer. Actually, he’s really good, really smart, and really entertaining. The other night, we talked about what was happening with a recent discovery:

The European Southern Observatory is reporting that they have found the most Earthlike planet yet orbiting another star. It has about 1.5 times the Earth’s diameter, and five times its mass. This makes it the smallest extrasolar planet yet found (two other planets have already been found orbiting that star, with 15 and 8 times Earth’s mass).

This is amazing enough! But it gets far, far better. The parent star, Gliese 581, is a red dwarf, meaning it’s smaller and cooler than the Sun. The as-yet unnamed planet orbits this star much closer than the Earth does the Sun; it stays about 11 million kilometers (6.7 million miles) from its star, while the Earth is 150 million km (93 million miles) from the Sun.

[Video archives for ustream recordings have been unstable, but I have no other way of extracting the sessions at this time. If you want to know more about what’s happening, we’re always playing live]

My Meteorite Piece

Phil sent me a rock. No, seriously – a space rock! I published the first half of his accompanying letter in tonight’s report, My Mighty Meteorite. This is the second half of his letter to both Ponzi and myself:

My Meteorite What you have here is a piece of shrapnel from this meteorite. Its composition is about 91% iron, 7.1% nickel, 0.46% cobalt, 0.26% phosphorus, and about 1% sulfur. There are trace amounts of gallium, germanium, and iridium (that last was the key element that lead scientists to understand that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a similar but much larger blast).

Most meteorites are stone. They come from asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. When a large body forms in a solar system, all the stuff making it up is at first mixed, like batter. But when it gets big enough, the heavy stuff – the metal – sinks to the center. So you need a big asteroid for that to happen, bigger than the Moon, so that its gravity is strong enough to differentiate it. Then it has to suffer a mighty blow from another huge asteroid, disrupting it, blowing it into billions of pieces.

What you’re holding in your hand is a piece of metal that was once deep within the core of a planetary-sized body that was destroyed by the impact of another planet-sized body, 4 billion years ago. It orbited the Sun, relatively untouched all that time, until that fateful day 30 millennia ago. It’s a piece of outer space brought to Earth in a fiery, violent decent that ended in cataclysm.

And now it’s yours.

[The first half of Phil’s letter has been published elsewhere – and if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m very thankful for his gift. It’s kinda like space copralite?]

Planet Pluto

Pluto is officially a planet – an announcement which is already sparking controversy in the astronosphere (that’s the sexy world of astronomers). Seems that professional stargazers have battles just like bloggers do. The Bad Astronomer, as always, sums it up nicely:

The problem here is simple, really: we’re trying to wrap a scientific definition around a culturally-defined word that has no strict definition. Doing this will only lead to trouble. Why? For one thing, it’s divisive and silly. How does a definition help us at all? And how does it make things less confusing than they already are? Charon is a planet? It’s smaller than our own Moon!

Gawd, this sounds exactly like the whole RSS vs. Atom vs. Feed debate all over again – with a lot more comet dust. I bet our kids will have to study and memorize the names of all the plutons in the solar system soon enough. Coincidentally, the face on Mars just sneezed (five minutes ago, according to Wikipedia).

Apollo UFO

The Science Channel aired “First on the Moon- The Untold Story” this afternoon, and it’s full of holes – according to the Bad Ass astronomer, Phil Plait, and his NASA nerd friend, David Morrison. I really wanted to believe that Apollo 11 astronauts saw a UFO, but according to David at NASA:

I just talked to Buzz Aldrin on the phone, and he notes that the quotations were taken out of context and did not convey the intended meaning. After the Apollo 11 crew verified that the object they were seeing was not the SIVB upper stage, which was about 6000 miles away at that time, they concluded that they were probably seeing one of the panels from the separation of the spacecraft from the upper stage. These panels were not tracked from Earth and were likely much closer to the Apollo spacecraft.

Dr. Phil… er, the good Bad Astronomy guy says there’s more unexplainable to explain:

As another quick example, they also talked about flashes of light that the astronauts saw in their eyes – these turned out to be subatomic particles (really, atomic nuclei) from space interacting with the fluid in their eyes. This is fairly well understood now. The show implies – it even comes right out and says – we don’t understand this phenomenon, which isn’t true.

TV shows need to be more like blogs, ya know? In the sense that real scientists could have swept in and commented on where that program went wrong. Instead, we’ll have people out there believing that many of the “facts” presented in the show were researched and documented appropriately. Where is there a (single) Web site on which viewers could easily fact-check programming like this?!