Solar System

"How vast those Orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the Theatre upon which all our mighty Designs, all our Navigations, and all our Wars are transacted, is when compared to them." -Christiaan Huygens With a field-of-view encompassing 150,000 stars, NASA’s Kepler mission delivered an overwhelming prize when it came to hunting worlds beyond our own Solar System: thousands of new exoplanets. The majority of them, however, were different from what we have at home. They were larger, more massive, closer to their parent stars, and orbiting more quickly than what we find in our own…
"The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return." -Carl Sagan Here on Earth, we hear every so often about a conspiracy of how the world will come to an end. The end of the Mayan calendar; Y2K; an encounter with Nibiru; or a biblical prophesy come true are only a small selection of what people “predict” will bring a demise to our world, and soon. Yet even most of the…
"Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink." -Samuel Taylor Coleridge Here on Earth, water can easily exist in all three phases of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. The reason for this is simple: Earth has the right range of temperatures and pressures to experience not just the common solid and gas phases, but the liquid water phase, too. In the outer Solar System, worlds like Europa, Enceladus, and Pluto are too far…
"Being a scientist and staring immensity and eternity in the face every day is as grand and inspiring as it gets." -Carolyn Porco Launched back in October of 1997, Cassini will take its final plunge into the ringed world it’s been orbiting for over a decade on Friday, September 15th. Before it does, however, it’s worth a look back at the tremendous science that’s come about from the first dedicated mission to venture out to Saturn, including a series of surprises that we had no idea we’d find when we were planning and preparing this mission. A diagram of the Cassini spacecraft, including the…
"All that is now All that is gone All that's to come and everything under the sun is in tune but the sun is eclipsed by the moon." -Pink Floyd No matter how well-prepared you were for your first total solar eclipse, no amount of reading or photograph-searching could do the experience justice. There were so many things to feel, see, and be overwhelmed by that you literally needed to be there to relate to. Yet it was remarkable how many things there were that surprised scientists and skywatchers alike. There is no special filter necessary to bring out the pink coronal loops near the very edge…
"We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing." -R. D. Laing This coming Monday, tens of millions of people will gather to watch the total solar eclipse that will go coast-to-coast across the continental United States. Total solar eclipses like this happen, on average, about once every 18 months, due to the frequency of alignment as well as the Moon’s apparent angular size. At present, about 40% of all solar eclipses are total eclipses, with annular eclipses making up 50% and hybrid eclipses the other 10%.…
"Even though the reason for taking the photographs was science, the result shows the enormous beauty of nature." -Miloslav Druckmuller, eclipse photographer During those moments of totality, the Sun is eclipsed by a new Moon, with the latter’s shadow falling onto Earth. From within that shadow, the Sun’s disk is blocked entirely, revealing a slew of fainter objects: stars, planets, and the Sun’s corona, all of which cannot normally be seen during the day. Yet one object even brighter than all the stars -- the new Moon -- will remain invisible throughout the eclipse. The Sun's atmosphere is…
"Yes, I am well aware that nature -- or what we call nature: that totality of objects and processes that surrounds us and that alternately creates us and devours us -- is neither our accomplice nor our confidant." -Octavio Paz For most of us heading to the path of totality, we're in for an incredible experience. If we get clear skies, it will take roughly an hour for the Moon to pass in front of the Sun's disk completely, and after that we'll get just over two minutes of totality: an experience like no other. Yet if you're not careful -- or if you get too excited about one particular thing…
“Honestly, if you’re given the choice between Armageddon or tea, you don’t say ‘what kind of tea?” -Neil Gaiman Enjoying the Perseid meteor shower this year, as perhaps you do every August? As you look up, the great cosmic show might have a lot more to offer than mere streaks of light, due to cometary debris brightly burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. This year, Jupiter has slightly disturbed the debris stream, resulting in an increase in the number of meteors-per-hour, as the stream passes quite centrally through Earth’s location. The comet that gives rise to the Perseid meteor shower,…
"To be on my very first spacewalk, to be outside, and to have contamination in my suit to the point that I couldn't see in either eye - that, I think, would cause some people to lose control." -Chris Hadfield Sure, you probably laughed about it when you first heard that NASA had a Planetary Protection Officer, as though Earth actually needed protection from non-existent alien invasions. Perhaps, you thought, this might have been relevant back in the 1960s, before we realized how barren the Moon was, or how woefully insufficient the Solar System is for harboring some type of doomsday,…
"My dad took me out to see a meteor shower when I was a little kid, and it was scary for me because he woke me up in the middle of the night. My heart was beating; I didn't know what he wanted to do. He wouldn't tell me, and he put me in the car and we went off, and I saw all these people lying on blankets, looking up at the sky." -Steven Spielberg The full or almost-full Moon might be one of the most familiar sights in the night sky to those of us here on Earth, but it’s also the largest natural source of light pollution we have to contend with. The peak of this year’s Perseid meteor shower…
"...and the Sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist hovers over all." -Homer's Odyssey The great american eclipse is coming, and you're in luck! This astronomical sight is unlike anything else that occurs on Earth (or any rocky planet in the Solar System), and there are three incredible stories that it teaches us about the world. First, there's the incredible story about the Moon, Earth, and Sun in orbit, teaching us about our solar system, alignments, and even the curvature of the Earth. An illustration of the Sun-Moon-Earth configuration setting up a total solar eclipse. The Earth…
“If I had to describe myself to an alien I’d say I was bigger than the average human, enjoy a drink or two with a good meal and have a bigger head than most. I’d also say I’m really handsome — especially if they were a female alien.” -Dwayne Johnson The Earth, to the best of our knowledge, is the only inhabited world we have. The ingredients for life may be everywhere, from asteroids to nebulae to exoplanets and more, but so far, only Earth is confirmed to have life. While Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars at the right distance for liquid water on their surface might seem like the best…
"We really expect the mission to be transformational. This is the capstone of the original visits to the planets. It takes us 4 billion miles away and 4 billion years back in time." -Alan Stern When the Hubble Space Telescope discovered additional moons of Pluto, beyond Charon, it was speculated that New Horizons might find more. After all, objects more than ten times as far away as Hydra, Pluto’s outermost moon, would still be in stable orbits. Yet, with five inner moons and nothing beyond, not even diffuse rings, the spacecraft came up empty. This image, taken by NASA's Hubble Space…
“Having totality means being capable of following 'what is,' because 'what is' is constantly moving and constantly changing. If one is anchored to a particular view, one will not be able to follow the swift movement of 'what is.'” -Bruce Lee If you’ve never seen a total solar eclipse before, you’ve likely heard about many of the features to look for, like the sky darkening during the day, the Sun disappearing, and the solar corona and, occasionally, stars becoming visible during the day. But if you take an enhanced view, either with binoculars, a telescope, or photography, so much more…
“Jupiter instead cooled down below the threshold for fusion, but it maintained enough heat and mass and pressure to cram atoms very close together, to the point they stop behaving like the atoms we recognize on earth. Inside Jupiter, they enter a limbo of possibility between chemical and nuclear reactions, where planet-sized diamonds and oily hydrogen metal seem plausible.” -Sam Kean On Monday, July 10th, the Juno spacecraft reached Perijove, or its closest approach to Jupiter, for the seventh time. Reaching a minimum elevation of only 3,500 km (2,200 miles), it found its images distorted…
"Juno will peer hundreds of miles downward into the atmosphere with its microwave radiometer, which passively senses heat coming from within the planet. This capability will enable Juno to reveal the deep structure of the Great Red Spot, along with other prominent Jovian features, such as the colorful cloud bands." -Tricia Talbert Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is one of the enduring mysteries and wonders of our Solar System. The spot was first identified back in 1665, was unseen for over 100 years between 1713 and 1830, and has been continuously observed ever since. The hurricane-like winds exceed…
"Eddington had needed to make significant corrections to some of the measurements, for various technical reasons, and in the end decided to leave some of the Sobral data out of the calculation entirely. Many scientists were suspicious that he had cooked the books. Although the suspicion lingered for years in some quarters, in the end the results were confirmed at eclipse after eclipse with higher and higher precision." -Peter Coles If ever you attempt to come out with a new scientific theory, there are three criteria you must fulfill: You must reproduce all the successes of the old theory,…
"I would argue that in any habitable zone that doesn't boil or freeze, intelligent life is going to emerge because intelligence is convergent." -Simon Conway Morris Someday, in the far distant future, the evolution of the Sun will cause it to heat up and emit so much energy that the Earth’s surface will reach a terrible threshold: 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). When this happens, the oceans will boil away, rendering the surface completely uninhabitable and inhospitable to even the most extreme known forms of life. If we do nothing to prevent it, then at some point over the…
"Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul." -Victor Hugo On August 21, 2017, the Moon will pass between the Earth and the Sun, casting its shadow onto the Earth’s surface and causing a total solar eclipse. For the first time since 1979, a portion of that eclipse will cross the continental United States, with the path of totality running coast-to-coast and crossing through 14 states. It’s poised…