October 23, 2017

24.04.10-Our Existence: Justified.

(Credit: NASA/JPL).

(Credit: NASA/JPL).

 Earth: Safe & Sound?

   The formation of the Earth poses a key dilemma to planetary accretionary theory; namely, why are we here at all? Standard models would say that the Earth and other planets coalesced out of the proto-solar nebula to form. However, spiral density waves within the same nebula should have drawn down orbital energy to shorten the planets orbit, slowly drawing it in. Looking at other “hot Jupiter” systems, that’s just what we see; large gas giant worlds that formed further out, only to migrate inward into tight orbits… just how did we end up in our nice, neat orbit?

Now, computational astrophysicist Mordecai-Mark Mac Loc at the American Museum of Natural History may have the answer. Accounting for temperature and spin variability, resonance key holes can occur; planets like Earth may simply spiral inward and get hung up in these safe zones between dragging pressure waves. Of course, a majority of proto-planets don’t make the cut and simply spiral inward to a fiery end, but they’re not around for us to see today. One discovery that would perhaps give observational weight to this theory would be the discovery of exo-Earths also parked in nice neat orbits… the Kepler space telescope may pave the way for this discovery as it stares off into Cygnus. For now, thank computational mathematics that you’re here reading this, just as it says you should be!

14.04.10: Milankovitch Cycles…On Titan?


(Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona).

(Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona).

An amazing sight; sunlight reflected off the Kraken Mare caught by Cassini! 

   NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed an elusive mystery on the surface of Titan; namely, why does the northern hemisphere of the large moon contain numerous lake basins, while in the south they’re relatively scarce? Now, scientists at Caltech working with JPL think they may have an answer. These lakes show up as bright (empty) and dark (filled) patches as the Cassini spacecraft pings them with its Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Of course, on Titan, the hydrologic chemical of choice is liquid ethane and methane, and it is thought that some transport mechanism results in a net flow imbalance between the two hemispheres. Seasons on Titan last roughly 15 years as it dances around Saturn in its 29.5 year orbit about the Sun. But simple seasonal drainage of about a meter per year couldn’t empty the 100 meter-plus deep basins in a single season. This also doesn’t account for the overall disparity in number of basins seen, both filled and unfilled. Instead, scientists point towards the eccentricity of Saturn’s orbit as the possible cause. Saturn’s eccentricity is 0.055, or a little over 5% deviation from a perfect circle. This would make for periodic inequalities in the seasons, much like what occurs on Earth. For example, the perihelion of Earth actually occurs in northern hemisphere winter, somewhat ameliorating the severity of the seasons. But the variation of eccentricity coupled with the obliquity of the planetary spin axis and the precession of the equinoxes can vary over geologic time scales, causing variations in the climate. This is known as the Milankovitch cycle, and is thought to be a major contributing factor to the onset of Ice Ages. On Titan, a similar process is thought to occur, resulting in a net imbalance over thousands of years in the methane flow cycles between the two hemispheres. We may now simply be observing Titan during an epoch when seasonal methane pooling favors the northern hemisphere. Whatever the case, Titan is proving to be a fascinating and changing world deserving of further scrutiny.

Astro-Challenge: Spotting Two-Faced Iapetus.


 The wacky orbit of Iapetus. (Created in Starry Night & Paint).

As the majestic planet Saturn approaches opposition on March 21st, I’d like to turn your telescopic attention to one of the most bizarre moons in the solar system; Iapetus. It was way back when in the 17th century that Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini noted that he could only see Iapetus when it was to the west of the ringed planet, but never to the east. He correctly deduced that Iapetus must not only be tidally locked, that is, holding one face towards Saturn, but must be correspondingly dark on one hemisphere and brighter on the other. In fact, Iapetus is known to vary from magnitude +10 to magnitude +12 over its 79 day orbit, a variation of 6 times in terms of brightness. the Cassini space probe has confirmed the duality of Iapetus, showing us a dark leading hemisphere with an albedo of 5% (think fresh asphalt) and a trailing hemisphere with an albedo of about 50% (think dirty snow). The third largest of the Saturnian moons, Iapetus is a “walnut shaped” world, with a large ridge running the equator of this twisted moon. Discovered by Cassini on New Year’s Eve 2004, no satisfactory explanation for the ridge is known, but the little world must have had a tumultuous history. [Read more...]

22.10.09: Thank Relativity that We’re Here!

The next time you’re studying the Lorentz equation or are forced to account for Relativity on your Buzzard Ramjet trip to Sirius, thank Einstein that we’re here at all! Scientists Jacques Laskar and Mickael Gastineau at the Paris Observatory have been modeling orbital dynamics in our solar system and have come up with some “disturbing” results. It has long been known that Jupiter has a shepherding effect on the inner solar system, smoothing out planetary orbits while ejecting or sweeping up incoming debris. However, if you model the planetary orbits taking into account only classic Newtonian motion, the odds that Mercury goes out of whack in the Sun’s 10 billion year odd life span are about 60%. Throw in Einstein, and the effect shrinks to less than 1%. A careening Mercury would be a bad thing; if it impacted Venus, we would get showered with debris over a million year span, and if it hit us, well, it would just be a bad day. The best thing it could do is harmlessly impact the Sun. Even a near miss with the Earth could drastically alter our orbit, not to mention tinker with our stabilizing Moon. Fortunately, the tiny tweak that the Sun’s gravitational well gives Mercury’s eccentric orbit via General Relativity assures that a resonance keyhole with Jupiter’s orbit probably won’t happen. Keep in mind, we’re talking tiny effects that pile up over billions of years… every time an asteroid whizzes by, we launch a Space Shuttle, or LeBron performs a slam dunk, the Earth gets a tiny push. Over billions of years, tiny forces do add up (ever heard of the Butterfly Effect?) This is why astronomers cannot predict the positions of planets more than a million or so years into the future. Incidentally, the precession of Mercury’s orbit still stands as one of the great observational proofs of Relativity. One also wonders if such a perturbation might have been the fate of Theia, the Mars sized impactor that has been hypothesized to have struck a prehistoric Earth and created our Moon. So the next time you see gravity bend light at relativistic speeds, thank Einstein for protecting our home planet Earth!

30.9.9:Messenger; A 1st Look at the 3rd Pass.

NASA’s Messenger spacecraft skimmed the barren surface of the solar systems’ inner most world Tuesday evening, revealing more of its unmapped surface. Messenger zipped 141 miles above the surface of Mercury and was occulted briefly before resuming telemetry broadcasting back to Earth. The image above was taken with the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) looking over the northern horizon at a distance of 10,100 miles and is just one of the first in what is sure to be a flood of pics released today. Tomorrow, October 1st, principal investigators will release findings of the 3rd flyby at a briefing at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory at 5PM. And don’t forget those wide field searches for any lurking “Mercurial Moons” over the next few days as Messenger recedes…now that would be news!

10.8.9: Will the Perseids Perform?

Set your alarm clocks; one of the best meteor showers of the year is about to gear up this week! The Perseid meteors are one of the most dependable annual showers of the summer season, with a typical zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of up towards 60-100 per hour. This year however, we could be in for a treat; there is evidence that we may intercept a fresh stream shed by progenitor comet Swift-Tuttle in 1610. We have never passed through this particular stream before; predictions are trending towards a brief ZHR of up towards 200! Don’t forget, however, that ZHR is optimal; this assumes the radiant is directly overhead and that there is no light pollution. The shower peaks morning of Wednesday August 12th, although it would be worth it to peek at the sky a few days prior to see what we might be in for. This year, the timing actually favors the North American continent! Now for the bad news; the waning gibbous Moon will be rising just before midnight in the constellation Aries, and be about 63% illuminated. If this is your chief source of light pollution, try to position yourself for observing in a way that blocks the Moon behind a hill, peak of a roof, whatever is handy. The Perseids are a true treat because they occur in the northern hemisphere summer, when its generally pleasant to lay outside. And school’s still out, to boot! Be sure not to miss this one; the only observing equipment you need is your eyes. If you can convince a friend to observe with you in the wee hours, you can collectively cover more sky. The radiant is located in the constellation Perseus (hence the name) which will be high in the north east. And don’t forget the bug spray!

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