December 12, 2017

Review: How I Killed Pluto & Why it Had it Coming by Mike Brown.

Target: Pluto?

Caltech Astronomer Mike Brown is on the cutting edge of modern day “faint fuzzy” hunting at the fringe of the solar system and has found himself at the epicenter of several scientific battles over the past decade. In How I Killed Pluto & Why it Had it Coming, Dr. Brown takes us behind the scenes of his discoveries and, after a brief history of solar system exploration, takes us on a deeply personal tale of modern discovery and a fascinating look at how modern astronomy in the Internet era gets done. Intertwined with the tale of successive discoveries in the outer solar system is an intimate look at Mike’s personal world, his family, and how a scientist and his family operates… just think, how many of us personally know a true scientist, in our families or on the block? [Read more...]

04.02.10: Pluto Re-imaged.

The most controversial planet (or do you say dwarf planet, or plutoid?) got a new look today. In a press conference, NASA researchers revealed the new “face” of Pluto; a series of images spanning 270 degrees of rotation. To complete these, astronomers scoured 384 images for 4 years using no less than 20 computers. These images were acquired from the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Cameras for Surveys, and span a period from 2002-03. Even under the most favorable conditions, Pluto is a tough target; at around 0.1” arc seconds in size, Pluto only covers only a few pixels even in the best cameras and telescopes. The images are in true color, and present a tan-ish to grey world that is perhaps Mars-like in appearance. This is suggestive of a broad diversity of plutonian topography, and comparisons with the 1994 images show correlations with bright surface features, but also changes that hint at seasonal variations. Specifically, Pluto appears significantly redder and shows a magnitude variation of 0.2 magnitudes, which is surprising over a short 8 year span…Pluto takes 248 years to complete one orbit. Charon, Pluto’s large moon, was a good “color test” as it stayed the same throughout both imaging cycles, lending credence to the idea that the changes throughout were real and not an artifact.

Spectroscopic analysis reveals that Pluto is a dynamic world, covered by frozen methane and fluro-hydrocarbons. In fact, it’s suggested that the world may be a twin to Triton, Neptune’s largest moon. “Certainly, the Kuiper Belt is an amazing place,” such researcher Mike Brown, who laughed at the idea that perhaps Pluto was getting redder in anger at him due to its recent demotion. Hubble’s newly installed WFC3 camera will begin imaging Pluto over a five month period starting April 2010, in anticipation of the New Horizons flyby in 2015. And all this on today, Clyde Tombaugh’s 104th birthday! Expect those astronomy text books to be changing soon…

08.11.09:Does Cometary Mass Extinction Need to be Rewritten?

Comets are cause all mass extinctions in Earth’s history, right? Maybe not, if new research is correct. Simulations run by the scientists at the University of Washington now suggest that the giant planets of Jupiter and Saturn may do a much more through job of cleaning up incoming debris than is generally realized. Short period comets such as Halley’s are generally accepted to be denizens of the Kuiper belt, which extends out to 100 Astronomical Units (A.U.s), while much more numerous populations of long period comets are theorized to come from the Oort cloud, a massive solar system-engulfing sphere at a distance of 1,000 A.U. to up to 3 light years distant. Traditional cometary mass extinction theory states that when a star passes close enough to the shell of the Oort cloud, a rain of comets are pried free and the inner solar system becomes a celestial shooting gallery for a million years or so. Simulations, however, suggest no more than three impacts could have occurred over the last 500 million years or so, fuel for at best maybe a minor extinction event or two. Then there’s the pesky affair of some extinct species shown to exist above the K-T iridium layer… doubtless, the case of mass extinction is a thoroughly messy business. As reported earlier last month in this space, more than one impactor is suspected in the extinction of the dinosaurs. Examination of other inner solar system bodies should pin down the frequency, duration, and average number of killer comets, as the Moon, Mars and even Mercury have relatively little erosion and would be potential targets as well. Any incoming comet stands a 40% chance of having its orbit altered by Jupiter, as happened to Hale-Bopp in the late 90′s. Thanks, Jove!