June 29, 2017

January 2014-Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: Bizarro Astronomy

Our (Familiar?) Moon…

Photo by author

Weirdness is where you look for it. This was drove home to me while observing the Transit of Venus back in June 2012. While we strugged to grab a few brief views of the event through the pervasive cloud cover, we noted that life around us was going on pretty much as usual.

What else would we expect? Cars honked, dogs barked, kids played, all while a dim celestial event transpired just overhead, if you only knew where to look for it.

We love the fact that bizarre occurrences swirl all around our otherwise predictable and manicured suburban lives. Sunspots churn over the surface of our nearest star.† Gamma-ray bursts pop across our universe daily, some even briefly reaching naked eye invisibility. Asteroids occult stars and sometimes even planets, as happened just this past weekend, when +19th magnitude asteroid 3185 Clintford transited the disk of Saturn as seen from North America in the daytime.

Of course, some of these events are unobservable, while others are just now coming within the grasp of backyard astronomers. Prior to 1980s, less than a dozen asteroid occultations of bright stars had been observed, ever. Now, precise knowledge of stellar positions, coupled with massive amounts of computing power, enable hundreds of stellar occultations to be predicted worldwide each year.

And of course, the world of the tiny and invisible exists all around us as well. Thoreau once marveled at colonies of ants waging war right on his doorstep. High energy cosmic rays flash through the atmosphere, and may even be responsible for seeding and triggering lightning during an afternoon thunderstorm. And an untold number of neutrinos are whizzing though each in every one of us every second, passing through the entire planet as if itís but a ghost in the wind. And theorists believe that the dark matter that makes up a majority of the mass budget of the universe exists all around us as well…

To me, this doesnít diminish the wonder in the universe. Far from it, Iím amazed that we clever apes can construct detectors to find such elusive beasties.† The weirdness of the universe carries on, and weíre both part of it while managing to keep ourselves separate from it. We love to assign order to things, to draw borders both political and celestial. But the universe simply is, and often defies our attempts at pigeonholing it in a brief tidy paradigm. Lovers of Pluto take heart: weíll no doubt hear the controversy of its planethood once again as New Horizons nears its reconnaissance of the distant world in July of next year.

What weird and wonderful things are waiting to be known, or at least witnessed from your backyard? On any given month, there are occultations,† and meteor showers both identified and non-, and much more, all going on right overhead. Thereís nothing quite like that feeling of discovery, of †being like Howard Carter when he got that first glimpse into King Tutís Tomb almost a century ago.

What lies waiting to be discovered, just overhead or underfoot? Step outside tonight and see!

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