Supermoon Weekend is On

Skywatcher Tim McCord of Entiat, Washington caught this amazing view of the March 19, 2011 full moon – called a supermoon because the moon was at perigee, the closest point to Earth in its orbit – using a camera-equipped telescope.
CREDIT: Tim McCord

I was looking at the skies last night and wondering at the size and brightness of the Moon. Now that I see that this weekend is Supermoon Weekend it all makes sense. It was a truly spectacular moon.

The moon will officially become full Saturday (May 5) at 11:35 p.m. EDT. And because this month’s full moon coincides with the moon’s perigee — its closest approach to Earth — it will also be the year’s biggest.
The moon will swing in 221,802 miles (356,955 kilometers) from our planet, offering skywatchers a spectacular view of an extra-big, extra-bright moon, nicknamed a supermoon.

Learn what makes a big full moon a true 'supermoon' in this infographic.
Source All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

Meteor Shower Packed Earth With Gold

According to a new study published in the Nature Journal by researchers at the University of Bristol, roughly 3.9 billion years ago a gigantic meteor shower of glittering gold and platinum fell on earth. The ancient meteor shower serves as an explanation for why tens of thousands of times more gold exists today on earth’s crust and mantle than was initially thought to have existed.

Prior to this study, however, so many scientists pointed to the meteorite theory, however no substantial evidence was actually there to support the theory; that is, until now.

According to The National Geographic, contemporary scientists have put this hypothesis to the test by analyzing the oldest rocks in the world; those discovered in Greenland in 2008, and afterward comparing them to the makeup of other rocks found elsewhere around the globe.

Matthias Willbold of the University of Bristol study said:

“We hoped that by analyzing these rocks we could get an idea of how the Earth looked before that meteoritic bombardment, so we can estimate how much meteoritic material was added to the Earth…Our work shows that most of the precious metals on which our economies and many key industrial processes are based have been added to our planet by lucky coincidence when the Earth was hit by about 20 billion billion tonnes of asteroidal material…”

So the next time that you put on that charming gold piece of jewelry, just remember to thank your lucky stars. Based on the differing isotopes that were found from those two samples of rocks, researchers finally concluded that an ancient meteor shower had to have occurred.

The study in the journal, Nature:

Many precious, ‘iron-loving’ metals, such as gold, are surprisingly abundant in the accessible parts of the Earth, given the efficiency with which core formation should have removed them to the planet’s deep interior. One explanation of their over-abundance is a ‘late veneer’—a flux of meteorites added to the Earth after core formation as a ‘terminal’ bombardment that culminated in the cratering of the Moon. Some 3.8 billion-year-old rocks from Isua, Greenland, are derived from sources that retain an isotopic memory of events pre-dating this cataclysmic meteorite shower. These Isua samples thus provide a window on the composition of the Earth before such a late veneer and allow a direct test of its importance in modifying the composition of the planet. Using high-precision (less than 6 parts per million, 2 standard deviations) tungsten isotope analyses of these rocks, here we show that they have a isotopic tungsten ratio 182W/184W that is significantly higher (about 13 parts per million) than modern terrestrial samples. This finding is in good agreement with the expected influence of a late veneer. We also show that alternative interpretations, such as partial remixing of a deep-mantle reservoir formed in the Hadean eon (more than four billion years ago) or core–mantle interaction, do not explain the W isotope data well. The decrease in mantle 182W/184W occurs during the Archean eon (about four to three billion years ago), potentially on the same timescale as a notable decrease in 142Nd/144Nd (refs 3 and 6). We speculate that both observations can be explained if late meteorite bombardment triggered the onset of the current style of mantle convection.

Telescope Array Refunded

An assortment of 42 radio telescopes seeking signs of intelligent life in the universe has received enough funding by private donors to keep the effort going.

The array was a joint project between the SETI Institute and the UC Berkeley Astronomy Laboratory, but earlier this year was shut down due to the loss of National Science Foundation grants and state budget cuts.

Senior SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak said, “But people still think this very fundamental question – is there somebody out there as intelligent or more so than us? – is important and worth doing…”
The telescopes will be turned on again come September, they are recalibrated and will operate 24 hours a day for the rest of the year as more funds are sought.

The array costs $2.5 million a year to operate with a staff of 10 people. The SETI Institute has an $18 million budget and 140 employees. The funding comes from donors, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson told supporters it is his objective to raise $5 million so that the radio dishes may be pointed at 1,235 new so-called “exoplanets” which were announced in February by NASA’s Kepler mission.

The telescopes are not only used to search for E.T.s, but also to contribute to the research of black holes, pulsars and magnetic fields in the Milky Way.

Last June the SETI website read:

At the SETI Institute, we’ve made a name for ourselves exploring space. But it’s our community here on Earth — passionate, science-minded and creative — that truly defines us. That’s why we’re launching SETIstars, an initiative to connect us more closely than ever with the constellation of visionaries and supporters that make our work possible.

Priority one is getting the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) back online as soon as possible and once again fixing our gaze on the stars.

The ATA is a powerful field of linked radio telescopes that enable countless avenues of astronomical study, chief among them the search for evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations and insight into the nature of our cosmic origins. In the wake of a recent funding shortfall, however, this invaluable tool lies dormant and our vision of the universe around us has gone dark. With your help, we can change that.

Asteroid Time!

According to NASA a newly discovered asteroid will experience a close encounter with Earth this coming Monday; but worry not – it will not spell disaster.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office contends that the small space rock – called 2011 MD – will pass 7,500 miles over Earth’s surface over the southern Atlantic Ocean.

While it will come close, it is not a distance record holder. Earlier in the year, a tiny asteroid flew by even closer; that is within 3,400 miles of the Blue Planet.

The last asteroid measures 33 feet long and was discovered with New Mexican telescopes. Scientists say that asteroids this size can sail past Earth every six years.

The asteroid will briefly be seen rather brightly; well, that is bright enough such that medium-size telescopes may be able to spot it.

Moon Eclipse To Last Longer Than Usual

This year’s first total eclipse of the moon will last an unusually long time.

That is, unless you live in Canada or the United States. North America will not be privy to Wednesday’s lunar spectacle.

The period when earth’s shadow completely blocks the moon will last 1 hour and 40 minutes. The last time the moon was covered for so long was back in July 2000, when it lasted 7 minutes longer.

Normally, the full moon glows with reflected sunlight. A total lunar eclipse happens when the moon glides through the long shadow cast by the Earth and is blocked from the sunlight illuminating it.

As the moon plunges deeper into the shadow of the earth, the disk appears to gradually change color, turning from silver to red or orange. This is because some indirect sunlight still reaches the moon after passing through the atmosphere, which scatters blue light blue. Only red light hits the moon.

Because the moon will pass close to the center of the earth’s shadow, the total eclipse phase will last longer than usual.

The entire eclipse should last a little over 5 1/2 hours. Observers in Europe will miss the first part of the show because it will happen before the moon rises. Eastern Asia and eastern Australia will not catch the final stages, which will happen after the moon sets. Portions of South America will be able see the moon completely shrouded.

Spirit AWOL

The chances of ever again hearing from the stuck Mars rover, Spirit, is becoming more and more slim now that it has officially failed to respond to calls from Earth, repeatedly.

SpiritHowever, NASA will make one last-ditch attempt to communicate with Spirit. If there continues to be no contact in the next month, the space agency will scale back its listening campaign for Spirit and focus on its healthy companion, Opportunity.

The solar-powered rover got stuck in a sand trap in 2009 during a routine drive. Despite efforts to break free, it remained stuck and could not tilt toward the sun as the Martian winter was ’round the corner. It ultimately went into hibernation, lacking an adequate amount of energy to reach its solar panels.

Engineers had expected Spirit to wake up once there was maximum sunlight where it’s trapped. But that point came and went earlier this month with no response.

Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis said:

“I would be surprised if we re-establish communication — happy but surprised…It’s been so long.”

Ground controllers are attempting to page Spirit over a range of frequencies and at various times during the day in the event its internal clock stopped working and it loses track of time. They also are commanding the rover to turn on its backup radio transmitter in case the central one is dead.

At some point, NASA will have to declare Spirit lost if there’s no word. When that happens, efforts will be reduced to sporadic listening for it through the end of the year, Callas said.

Both Opportunity and Spirit parachuted to polar sides of planet Mars in 2004. They worked together, beyond their original, three-month mission during which they discovered geologic evidence of water on the red planet.

While Spirit’s odometer stayed stuck at 4.8 miles, Opportunity ceased to explore the rim of Santa Maria crater on Mars and is currently rolling toward another crater. So far it has racked up 16.6 miles.

Jim Bell, an astronomer from Arizona State University said the loss of communication came at the worst possible time because Spirit was doing valuable science while it was immobile.

Bell said:

“It’s disappointing if we have, in fact, lost the mission…But it’s the best kind of disappointment you can have. We had a phenomenal adventure with that rover.”

Theories about Planets in Orbit

The total number of confirmed planets orbiting stars now more than 500. However, many of the newly discovered star systems defy existing models of how planets form.

As popular theory holds, planets are made from disks of gas and dust left over after star birth.
It has long been held that the large, gassy planets like Saturn and Jupiter first took shape in the far reaches before migrating inward, as gravitational drag from leftover gas and dust eroded their orbits. The migration process ceased when most of the gas and dust had been swept up to make various objects, leaving the planets exactly where we find them today.

According to this theory, other stars with planets should have gotten similar starts.
It is totally possible though some planets are born with eccentric orbits, moving around their stars in elongated ovals. But as a migrating planet spirals closer toward its star, gravitational drag should smooth out its orbit, like an object circling a drain.

The eight planets in our solar system all have circular orbits, and models of planet-forming disks suggest most other star systems are about the same.

In truth, however, about one in three of the known exoplanets has a circular or near-circular orbit.

The eight planets of our solar system orbit in the same direction around what is known as the ecliptic. That is a flat plane almost aligned with the equator. This makes complete sense if planets take shape inside the flat disks of material rotating around newborn stars.

Models are based on the belief that gravitational drag in these disks is the top influence on planets as they migrate. Based on such a theory, planets should stay in the ecliptic and continue to follow stars’ rotations.

However, one in three exoplanets’ orbits are “misaligned.” For instance, some orbit in the opposite directions as their stars’ rotations, and others are tilted out of the ecliptic, like weather satellites crossing over Earth’s Poles rather than the Equator.

Swimming on Pluto? Maybe Someday; Maybe Somebody Today.

New evidence shows Pluto may have an ocean under its many mile-thick shell of ice.

In light of its frigid temperature, the non-planet appears to be warm enough, at least to “easily” have a subsurface ocean.

Beneath a 120-mile layer of ice, this said ocean could be 60 to 105 miles thick.

PlutoIf this is the case, Pluto joins a list of outer solar system bodies, such as Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, which are thought to hold liquid water.

If this were the case, Pluto’s heat would come via decaying radioactive nuclides, particularly potassium-40, inside rocks in the dwarf planet’s interior.

While, chances are Pluto’s surface is probably colder than -380°F, there could still be plenty of liquid-preserving heat beneath the ice cap. For an ocean to exist, Pluto’s rocks would have to be concentrated in a rocky core, with water and ice layered on the surface.

The New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto in 2015. At that point it will be easy enough to test whether Pluto really has such a subsurface ocean.

If, however, there is no ocean, say, Pluto would be comparatively flattened at its poles, and would contain a “fossil” equatorial bulge left over from early in the planet’s history, when the body was spinning more rapidly, say.

And if indeed there is an ocean on the former-ninth planet, the surface would show cracks made as Pluto gradually lost heat and the ice cap thickened over the course of billions of years.

That is because the freezing ice would have expanded, causing the surface to bulge upward, cracking in the process. If, however, there was only ice, and never an ocean, the cooling of the planet should have contracted the ice rather than expanded it. When formed, ice contracts as it cools, see?

The Most Senior Citizen In The Universe

The new ultra-powerful Hubble Space Telescope found yesterday a galaxy whose light traveled more than 13 billion light-years to get to earth, making it the oldest astronomical object ever discovered.

A title previously held by a gamma-ray burst, UDFy-38135539, formed within 600 million years of the universe’s creation, 14 billion years ago.

“I don’t think this is the limit, perhaps not even that close to it,”

Said lead researcher Matthew Lehnert, with France’s Observatoire de Paris,

“UDFy-38135539 was already a challenge and perhaps we won’t be able to do much better than it for a while yet.”

The term “Redshift” refers to what happens when light coming from an object is shifted to appear redder. The universe today is redshift 0. Redshift 1 refers to when the universe was half its present age.

“Redshift 8.6 is likely to be about as high as we can reach with the current generation of telescopes,”

Said astrophysicist Michele Trenti of the University of Colorado in Boulder.

“With the Hubble Space Telescope it might be possible to find some galaxies up to redshift 10, but these objects are expected to be very rare and extremely faint.”

Verification of a galaxy within 600 million light-years of the Big Bang is exceptionally interesting to scientists because its during this time that radiation from the first objects in the universe stripped off electrons from hydrogen atoms created during the Big Bang.

“It’s quite amazing to me that humble, small galaxies — the ones that likely existed at this high redshifts, early in the history of the universe — could literally change its overall state,”

Said Lehnert,

“It raises the question what are these other sources and are they like UDFy-38135539 or not? We know from the (Hubble Ultra Deep Field) images that whatever they are, they are not detected in those images. We need more data and much deeper data.”

Hawking’s Religious Skepticism

This time of year as Jewish people are celebrating a New Year and also the anniversary of the Creation of the Universe, British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, professor at the University of Cambridge, science legend, sufferer of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and all-around nice guy, Stephen Hawking has a new book coming out any day now called “The Grand Design”.

In it Hawking holds that the Universe – or Multiverse as it were – created themselves out of nothing, thereby letting the role of a benevolent Creator off the hook.

He is relieved I am sure.

Stephen HawkingIn the book, Hawking wrote that:

“Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states. Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist. Although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, this makes us in a sense the lords of creation.”

He goes on to say:

“The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned. What can we make of these coincidences? Luck in the precise form and nature of fundamental physical law is a different kind of luck from the luck we find in environmental factors. It raises the natural question of why it is that way.”

But to those with faith: don’t be disappointed, this does not disprove the existence of an omnipotent Creator – nor does Hawking’s research delegitimize your belief system.

Philosophy and science have actually always gone hand in hand with religion. Note the unbroken stream of connections between Aristotle’s belief “in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design,” as Hawking alluded to and the Creation story of the Old Testament in which indeed the form of the world is indeed created from a state of nothingness. Certainly the study of which helped to rationalize Judaism by the likes of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides or Rambam), Islam by Abu ‘l-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Christianity by one now Sainted Thomas Aquinas.

Enlightenment thinkers too like Isaac Newton and Sir Francis Bacon, while disproving Aristotle’s system of natural science, and employing the inductive logic and reasoning of the science-age – too were men of God, who, no matter how dry their rational concrete became, never lost their religous faith.

On a related note, legendary science-fiction author Ray Bradbury recently told FOX news:

“… some time in the next 50 years we’ll do it [colonize the moon]. And within 100 years, we’ll have communities on Mars, and within 1,000 years, even more. It’ll keep growing, just as life on the American continent. There was nobody here except a few Indian tribes. That same sort of thing is going to happen with Mars. Mars is empty now. Five hundred years from now, it’ll be full of people…”

This is Bradbury’s solution to the impending dangers to planet Earth by war, giant comets and Global Warming. He continued:

“…It’s too late, isn’t it? We’ve let 30 years go by. It’s stupid. It’s stupid. We should have stayed on the moon. We should have made moon the base, instead of building space stations, which are fragile and which fly apart. The moon is a good, solid base to build a space travel organization in the community. Then we take off from the moon and we go to Mars. But it’s terribly late. We’ve let too much time go by. We’ve been busy with war instead of being busy with peace. And that’s what space travel is all about. It’s all about peace and exploration and wonder and beauty…”

I mention the views of this particular artist because indeed they are reinforced by the rational science of Hawking who once declared to MSNBC:

“Sooner or later disasters such as an asteroid collision or a nuclear war could wipe us all out…But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe…In order to survive, humanity would have to venture off to other hospitable planets orbiting another star, but conventional chemical fuel rockets that took man to the moon on the Apollo mission would take 50,000 years to travel there.”

He continued,

“Science fiction has developed the idea of warp drive, which takes you instantly to your destination…Unfortunately, this would violate the scientific law, which says that nothing can travel faster than light.”