Archive for October, 2013

Tonight is International Observe the Moon Night

October 12, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s always fun to look up at Earth’s closest neighbor and indulge some curiosity about the Moon, but tonight’s a special night to do it: it’s International Observe the Moon Night.

The celebration, sponsored by an array of scientific and educational organizations along with some dedicated Moon enthusiasts, has prompted a wide variety of events all over the world. You can find one near your home if you visit this webpage.

If you’re looking for your own activities, obviously a good place to start is by going outside and observing Luna. You don’t even need a telescope. If the night sky is clear, the naked eye will allow you a good view of lunar maria, or “seas,” and the Moon’s highlands.

If you use binoculars, attach them to a stand or tripod if you have one.

The Moon is at first quarter phase tonight, so it is not likely that an observer will be able to see the phenomenon known as Earthshine, in which the night side of the moon is visible when sunlight reflects off the surface of Earth. Earthshine is visible only when the Moon is at or near new moon phase.

After you’ve looked at the Moon, it might be fun to try your hand at this Mission Moon activity. Participants work in teams to figure out the best place on Luna for a base. The activity is suitable for kids from about third grade and up. You can also try the Moon Mappers activity.

Before going outside to have a look at our closest celestial neighbor, you might enjoy watching this NASA video about how the Moon formed and its history.

Labeled moon map - courtesy WikimediaLabeled Moon map courtesy Wikimedia.

Note: This story also appears at

Water discovered in asteroid remnants

October 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Scientists have found, for the first time, evidence of water on a rocky celestial body outside of our solar system.

The study focused on dust and debris found orbiting a white dwarf star about 170 million light years away.

“This planetary graveyard swirling around the embers of its parent star is a rich source of information about its former life,” Boris Gaensicke, a professor of physics at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, said. “In these remnants lie chemical clues which point towards a previous existence as a water-rich terrestrial body.”

“Those two ingredients — a rocky surface and water — are key in the hunt for habitable planets outside our solar system so it’s very exciting to find them together for the first time outside our solar system.”

The debris probably came from a planet with a diameter of at least 90 kilometers. The planet may have been much bigger than that, but scientists are limited in their ability to estimate its size by the amount of debris that can now be detected.

Oxygen signatures in the debris indicates that the planet would have been, as a proportion of its mass, about 26 percent water.

Water accounts for about 0.023 percent of Earth’s mass.

Scientists had earlier found evidence of water outside our solar system in gas giants. This discovery is significant because it is the first indication that water may be found on rocky exoplanets.

A possible parallel in our solar system is the dwarf planet Ceres, which has ice buried under its crust.

The star around which the debris is accumulated, GD 61, once hosted a planetary system. It became a white dwarf about 200 million years ago.

The discovery of the GD 61 system planetary remnants is the twelfth known example of planetary fragments circling a white dwarf elsewhere in our galaxy.

Researchers used the Hubble Space Telescope and the large Keck Telescope in Hawaii to make the observations in the study.

The paper can be found here.

This artist's conception shows an asteroid fragment around the distant white dwarf GD 61.

This artist’s conception shows an asteroid fragment around the distant white dwarf GD 61.

Artist’s conception (c) Mark A. Garlick, courtesy University of Warwick and University of Cambridge.

Note: A version of this story has also been published at

Uranus is visible in night sky

October 9, 2013 Leave a comment

The solar system’s seventh planet, Uranus, recently was at opposition from Earth and is currently visible with binoculars if you know where to look in the night sky.

You’ll want to look near the border of the constellations Pisces and Cetus. This Universe Today report should help.

The best time to observe is around midnight local time.

Uranus - courtesy Wikimedia

This image of Uranus was obtained by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986.  The blue-green color is the result of the presence of methane in the planet’s atmosphere.  Courtesy Wikimedia.

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Nobel prize for physics goes to Higgs boson scientists

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

The Nobel prize in physics has been awarded to the scientists who predicted the existence of the  Higgs boson nearly 40 years ago.

Francois Englert and Peter Higgs were granted the coveted award this morning by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

They separately proposed, way back in 1964, that a particle we now know as the Higgs boson allows matter to acquire mass. The existence of that particle was confirmed in 2012 by scientists working at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland.


Draconid meteor shower continues tonight

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

The Draconid meteor shower will again be visible tonight in the northern hemisphere.

The meteor shower occurs when dust from Comet Giacobini-Zinner enters Earth’s atmosphere and ionizes, creating a “shooting star” look.

The meteors appear to come out of the constellation Draco (the dragon) and the flurry of them will appear highest in the sky shortly after sunset. As night advances the spectacle drops below the horizon.

The Draconids can be unpredictable in their intensity. Astronomers have not predicted a noteworthy display from the Draconids this year, but in some years the number of meteors is impressive. In 2011 more than 600 per hour were visible.

The reason for 2011’s display was that Comet Giacobini-Zimmer was at the perihelion of its orbit around the sun.

Earth’s moon is not likely to be much of an impediment to viewing the meteors, as it is in waxing crescent phase now.

Observers will have the best opportunity to see meteors if they choose a viewing location far from city lights.

Graphic courtesy

Astronomers map clouds of distant planet

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Scientists have, for the first time, mapped the cloud cover of a planet beyond our solar system.

The distant world, known as Kepler-7b, has high altitude cloud cover in its western hemisphere and generally clear skies in its eastern hemisphere.

“Kepler-7b reflects much more light than most giant planets we’ve found, which we attribute to clouds in the upper atmosphere,” Thomas Barclay, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who has been involved in the research, said. “Unlike those on Earth, the cloud patterns on this planet do not seem to change much over time — it has a remarkably stable climate.”

Kepler-7b’s clouds were discerned by using the Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes. For three years astronomers used Kepler to gather data on the light reflected by the planet. Meanwhile, Spitzer’s capability of observing infrared radiation from a celestial object allowed the researchers to pinpoint a temperature range for the planet.

It is not cool on Kepler-7b. Data indicates that the planet has a temperature of between 1,500 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Considering that Kepler-7b is quite close to its sun – only about 0.06 astronomical units (Earth is one AU from our sun) – it is actually surprising that the planet is not hotter than it is.

That temperature range is too low to be the source of the light detected by Kepler. Astronomers therefore concluded that high-altitude clouds must be reflecting radiation from the system’s star into space.

Kepler-7b is a gas giant and has a radius about one and one-half times that of Jupiter. It is the largest of the six known planets in its system.

The Kepler Space Telescope’s mission ended earlier this year when a wheel integral to its operations failed.

Researchers at NASA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, and other universities will publish a technical paper about the discovery in Astrophysical Journal Letters.


Graphic comparing Kepler-7b to Jupiter courtesy NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory-California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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