The entire universe in blog form

July 22 2014 8:24 AM

Plunging Deep into Colliding Galaxies

Roughly 50 million light years from Earth is the most spectacular example of galactic collision in the sky: the famed Antenna Galaxies, two huge spiral galaxies in the middle of a cosmic train wreck. Playing out over hundreds of millions of years, the gravity of the two galaxies has distorted their shapes, flung out streamers of stars a million light years long, and triggered a burst of star formation so intense that billions of new stars are being born in the galaxy’s hearts.

As mighty as this event is, 50 million light years is a long, long way. The details of this collision used to be discernible only using giant observatories like the Very Large Telescope or Hubble.

But not anymore! Behold Rolf Wahl Olsen’s newly-released picture of the Antennae and prepare to scrape your jaw off the floor:

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July 21 2014 11:03 AM

Go Forth and Science

Thank you.

In April 2014, Slate announced its new paid membership program called Slate Plus. The Hive Overmind at Slate asked us writers to promote it and even had a contest: Whoever got the most people to sign up would get a $500 bonus.

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Seeing that I have a pretty big audience here and that I was asking that audience to pay for something, it didn’t feel right to keep that money if I won. So I announced that if I did win I’d give it all to Donors Choose, a non-profit group that organizes donations to classroom teachers around the U.S. (think of it as a Kickstarter for learning).

Well, guess what? A lot of you folks signed up for Slate Plus. Enough so that I won the contest.

Yay!

donorschoose_completed
Seeing this felt really, really nice.

Photo by Donors Choose

So I just had a delightful time going through the various science teachers’ pages at Donors Choose, looking for projects that needed funding. I found quite a lot, so I narrowed my criteria: Projects that were near full funding but just shy of the goal, coupled with good science, coupled with classrooms that needed the money, coupled with teachers who seemed to have that special quality, that spark, that got me so excited about science when I was a kid.

I found four that (literally) fit the bill: Learning in Motion (Mr. Estrada), Bringing Space to Our Room! (Mrs. Gibson), Mad Scientists Explore (Ms. Sunnucks), and Bring Vital Learning Technology to My Classroom (Ms. Carr). All four of these projects are now fully funded, and these educators can go forth and teach their kids science.

To all of you who helped out, thank you. You got more than just a subscription to Slate Plus; you helped hundreds of children across the country get a chance to explore the Universe around them.

You should feel really good about that. I know I do.

And if you like, there are plenty more worthy projects still needing funding at Donors Choose. Go.

July 21 2014 7:30 AM

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Still Fighting the Wrong Fight

Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I’m not a big fan of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. This is almost entirely due to his grossly erroneous belief that a preservative in some flu vaccines causes autism. This preservative, thimerosal, has been tested thoroughly by many different groups and has never been found to have any connection with autism.

Got it? Vaccines don’t cause autism. It’s really that simple.

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Despite this, RFK Jr. continues to beat this drum. In a recent Washington Post article, journalist Keith Kloor wrote about RFK Jr.’s attempts to talk to two senators about his crusade against thimerosal and about a new book he’s published about this topic. In the past, Kloor has been pretty matter-of-fact about RFK Jr.’s bizarre claims, so I expected this would be a pretty tough profile.

It wasn’t. Now, I don’t mean that Kloor treats RFK Jr. with kid gloves; the article actually shows his claims to be dead wrong and portrays him as an outcast from the mainstream. That’s all fine. I just don’t think Kloor really showed RFK Jr.’s true nature; something we here at Slate have seen for ourselves.

In 2013 I wrote an article giving great details on just how over-the-top anti-vax RFK Jr. is, including his giving a talk at a rabidly anti-vax conference. After it posted, Slate got a call from RFK Jr. himself, requesting a chance to rebut over the phone. I declined; having read his writings and listened to his radio shows, I knew better than to let him rail away at me.

I was right. My editor, Laura Helmuth, decided to accept the call, and was subjected to RFK Jr.’s, um, opinions, for nearly an hour. She wrote an excellent article about it, describing his conspiracy theories and how he misrepresented what scientists told him. It’s an eye-opener.

And now, with this WaPo profile, Helmuth decided it was time to reiterate this point, so she has written another takedown of RFK Jr. I highly recommend reading it; it starts with this:

Most paranoid, grandiose, relentless conspiracy theorists can’t call a meeting with a U.S. senator. Then there’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

… and it keeps going from there.

RFK Jr. has a lot of clout, quite a bit of which comes from his family name. But to me he is in the same heap as people like Jenny McCarthy—those who make baseless, unwarranted claims about vaccines, sowing doubt and fear about one of the greatest medical triumphs in human history. In fact, the similarity between the two is striking, since RFK Jr. claims—despite his own actions—that he is not “anti-vax”, a claim McCarthy recently made as well.

As the entire U.S. sees a huge spike in measles outbreaks, largely caused by unvaccinated people, and we’re also seeing a resurgence of other preventable diseases like whooping cough and polio (polio, for Pete’s sake!), making these outrageous claims about vaccines as RFK Jr. and McCarthy do is more than just irresponsible. It’s dangerous.*

I’ve been vaccinated my whole life, and I make sure to get my boosters as needed, too. I walk the talk. Don’t listen to people just because they have famous names. Talk to a board-certified doctor and get the facts.

* To be fair, RFK Jr.’s claims relate to vaccines that contain thimerosal, which are a tiny minority. But to be completely fair a) he’s still wrong, and b) it’s all grist for the mill for the overall anti-vax movement. Wrong is wrong, and RFK Jr.’s claims are wrong.

July 20 2014 7:00 AM

From the Earth to the Moon to the Earth

Forty-five years ago today—and for the first time in human history—human beings set foot upon another world.

It was one of the proudest moments in America’s history, arguably the proudest. Despite being initially motivated by small-minded territoriality, it ironically brought our planet together, with people all over the world watching breathlessly as Neil Armstrong placed his boot on the desolate surface of the Moon.

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Every year on this anniversary I reflect a bit on what happened then, how it affected me, and what it means today.

Some people fret over whether it was all worth it, taking this one small step. I have no such doubts; we are better as a species for having ventured into space. The evidence for this is overwhelming, from learning about our planet (and the dangers to it), to the very nature of humanity’s need to explore that is so fundamental to our psychology.

Venturing into space is not just something we can do. It’s something we must do.

And yet here we are. It’s been 45 years since we put men on the Moon and 42 years since the last men left it. We’ve not gone back since, at least, not with humans. Sure, we’ve made a lot of progress about living and working in space: We’ve launched several space stations, put more than 500 people into space, and built countless satellites and space probes. I’m fully aware of the awe-inspiring achievements we’ve made, and how much they mean.

But still, there is a hole in that picture. All of those people we’ve launched into orbit haven’t gone more than a few hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The yawning chasm between the Earth and Moon hasn’t seen a human in it for over four decades.

Now, there's a lot to be said for low Earth orbit. It is a fantastic resource for science, and I strongly think we should be exploiting it even more. But it's not the goal. It's like walking halfway up a staircase, standing on your tiptoes, and admiring the view of the top landing.

When I look back over the time that’s elapsed since 1969, I wonder what we’re doing. I remember the dreams of NASA, and they were too the dreams of a nation: Huge space stations, mighty rockets plying the solar system, bases and colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. Those weren’t just the fantasies of science fiction. We could’ve done them. Right now, today, those dreams could have been reality.                                                                 

Instead, we let those small-minded human traits flourish. We’ve let politics, greed, bureaucracy, and short-sightedness rule our actions, and we’ve let them trap us here on the surface of our planet.

It needn’t have been this way, and it still needn’t be this way. There are those who still dream, who understand the call to space, and who are devoting their lives to make it reality. We’ve faced adversity before, and have not let it stop us.

I think we can overcome our own petty blindness. Sometimes we humans look up, not down, and see not just the Universe stretching out before us, but also our place in it.

We’ve done it before and we can—we must, and we will—do it again.

Per somnia et ardua ad astra.

July 19 2014 7:30 AM

Cruisin’ Over the Bahamas

I just got back from travel, and now I'm deep into planning my panels for San Diego Comic-Con next week, so at the moment I'm enjoying a slow, broiling panic.

But I couldn't pass up the chance to post this breathtaking picture of the ocean around the Bahamas taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station as it sailed over on July 15, 2014:*

Bahamas
The Bahamas and environs, froooooom spaaaaaaace. Click to archipelagenate.

Photo by NASA

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Yegads. You very much want to embiggen that.

The bright lights to the upper left outline Florida (the long glow is from Miami), and you can trace cities up the East Coast of the U.S. Cuba dominates the lower left (cut off a bit by an ISS solar panel), but the teal and turquoise waters are what draw the eye. The islands right in the middle are the Bahamas, and the bright glow smack dab in the middle of the picture, is (I believe) Nassau—remind me not to go stargazing there! The lights must wash out the sky. But that's probably not why people go to Nassau in the first place.

Speaking of the sky, note the green arc of light over the Earth's limb. This is called airglow, and it due to the slow release of energy from sunlight the upper atmosphere stores during the day. It's actually a fascinating physical process that I've described before. In that link I also talk about the brownish-yellow glow beneath it: That's from glowing sodium in the air, and the source of that sodium may be meteors that have previously burned up in our atmosphere!

Amazing. There's no such thing as just a pretty picture taken from space—there is always a lot more going on than you might think. And just like any artwork, knowing the story behind the beauty makes it that much more wonderful.

*Correction, July 19, 2014: I had originally identified the area photographed as the Caribbean Sea (taking my cue from the original NASA page about the photo), but the Caribbean is actually south of Cuba; what's pictured is the Atlantic Ocean.

July 18 2014 5:30 AM

Cosmic Duckie, You’re the One ...

(With apologies to Ernie.)

Right now, in deep space 400 million kilometers from Earth, the European Space Agency probe Rosetta is easing its way toward the comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (which, for obvious reasons, I’ll just call ChuGer). On July 14 it was a mere 12,000 km (7400 miles) from the comet—less than the diameter of the Earth! It took a series of images of the frozen ice ball, and it’s becoming very clear that this comet is really, really weird:

Rosetta comet
... you make space exploration so much fun. The original image is on the left, and a smoothed version on the right.

Photo by ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

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It’s not an ice ball … it’s an ice rubber duckie! And a big one, about 4 kilometers across.

As you can see, it appears to have two distinct components; a large, flattish piece and a smaller, rounder one attached off-center. You can see this a lot more clearly in an animation composed of 36 images taken about 20 minutes apart:

What the what? Note that the comet is only a couple of dozen pixels across as seen by Rosetta; the images in the animation (and on the right in the still image above) have been smoothed to give you an idea of what it looks like. Don’t take small details too literally, but the overall shape is apparently real.

It’s not clear why it has this shape, but there are several possible explanations of how it may have been molded this way.

Comets are big lumps of frozen water with dust and rocks mixed in. In fact, we sometimes call them “dirty snowballs.” It’s possible that two comets suffered a very low speed collision and stuck together, forming the weird shape.

However, that strikes me as very unlikely. Why? Space is big. That’s why we call it “space.” The odds of two comets coming that close together at just the right speed and angle to do this seem very low to me.

It’s more likely, in my mind, that ChuGer got whacked by a much smaller object, say a chunk of asteroid. Some comets aren’t solid, like rocks, but more like loosely bound rubble piles held together by the ice. Over the eons, small impacts would shatter it, creating deep cracks inside the comet. A slightly bigger collision could actually dislodge large chunks. If the impact speed were right, the big chunks might separate a bit and then slowly re-accrete over time due to their feeble gravity. What you’d get is a weirdly shaped object, like if you took a small snowball and stuck it on the side of a bigger one.

Which is just what we see with ChuGer. I’m totally guessing here, but I have a sneaky suspicion that’s what we’re seeing.

Another way it could have gotten this shape is that it used to be rounder and smoother, but over time eroded away. Comets have lots of ice, and as they approach the Sun that ice turns directly into a gas (which is called sublimation) and streams away. Anything less volatile (like rocks inside) will remain. If the comet has big lumps of rock inside it, or just big pockets of ice distributed through it, it could erode asymmetrically, leaving huge lumps like ChuGer’s.

Again, I’m guessing. We’ve only visited a handful of comets by spacecraft, and to be honest they’re all weird. Halley is a lumpy potato. Hartley 2 looks like a bowling pin or a dumbbell, with lobes made of carbon dioxide and a waist of frozen water. Other comets have been found to be similarly lobed, lumpy, and basically asymmetric.

The whole point here is that we’re exploring—we don’t know what we’ll find. If we did, it wouldn’t be exploring.

And we’ll find more, much more. Rosetta is still approaching ChuGer, and in early August will be a mere 100 km (60 miles) from the comet. It will enter orbit, examining the nucleus (the solid part of the comet) in excruciating detail. Then, in November, it will send out a lander named Philae to physically touch down on the comet’s surface! It will examine the comet and send the data back to Earth via Rosetta. Its planned mission will last about a week, and should be a huge bounty for astronomers and planetary scientists.

Over the next weeks I’ll be writing more about this amazing mission and the strange comet it’s studying. ESA doesn’t have the same policy of freely releasing images that NASA does, but hopefully when something new and spectacular is available, you’ll be able to read all about it here.

In the meantime, you can take a look at some of the amazing highlights from the Rosetta mission so far, including some jaw-dropping images of Earth, Mars, an asteroid named Lutetia (with a fantastic gallery), another lumpy diamond-shaped asteroid named Steins, and a lovely shot of the Moon rising over the limb of the Earth. These images show the promise of what we’ll see very, very soon once Rosetta is in orbit around 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

July 17 2014 7:30 AM

The Chaotic Glory of Starbirth

Robert Gendler is the gift that keeps on giving. He’s an accomplished astrophotographer (why, I would never make such a claim without ample evidence) who takes observations from professional observatories and adds to them images he’s taken himself and with other people. The result is substantial beauty … and here’s another bit of proof for you in the form of the ridiculously chaotic star-forming nebula NGC 1333:

NGC 1333
Turbulence, eruptive stars, gassy discharge, and sheer beauty: NGC 1333 has it all.

Photo by NAOJ/DSS/NOAO/Robert Gendler & Roberto Colombari

This cloud is a sprawling stellar nursery, a dense cloud that’s still collapsing, fragmenting, and creating stars hither and yon. One feature of many young stars is that they rotate rapidly, and are still surrounded by the thick disk of gas and dust from which they formed. Their still-intense magnetic fields get wound up like a corkscrew, and this can launch twin beams of matter out from the poles of the star.

HH object
Detail from the image above; a Herbig-Haro object in NGC 1333.
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These are called Herbig-Haro stars, and NGC 1333 is littered with them. I found several perusing Gendler’s image, and inset one here. The cloud is choked with thick, opaque dust, which hides a lot of the details. Infrared light can pierce that veil, though, so images from observatories like the Spitzer Space Telescope can reveal far more details. In fact, in that linked article I have an in-depth discussion about both of this nebula and the HH objects in it (and a close-up of one that actually has curved beams, which are lovely). I suggest giving it a read to truly grasp the awe-inspiring nature of this object.

Gendler’s image is comprised of observations from the 8.2 meter Subaru telescope, the Digitized Sky Survey, telescopes with the NOAO, and his own data in collaboration with Roberto Colombari. These are magnificent telescopes, one of the reasons the final image is so spectacular. Another is that NGC 1333 is only about 1,000 light years away, relatively nearby on a galactic scale (the Milky Way is 100,000 light years across). This makes it one of the closer massive star-forming regions in the galaxy, so we get a little more detail than we otherwise might.

It always amazes me that so much science can be found in objects so beautiful. I wonder what this tells us about our minds, our perceptions, and how we evolved to appreciate beauty ... and how useful an ability like that can be?

July 16 2014 7:30 AM

Jovian Armageddon +20

Twenty years ago on this day—July 16, 1994—Jupiter got slammed, hard, by a comet.

It was the first time we had ever witnessed such a collision on a planetary body other than the Earth. I’ll note I’m very glad it wasn’t Earth; we wouldn’t be here talking about it if the comet had had us in its crosshairs instead of Jupiter.

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The comet was discovered on March 24, 1993, by the team of Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker and David Levy, who were taking pictures of the sky to look for comets. Right away they knew they had something odd—although comets are generally fuzzy and elongated, that’s usually due to their long, sweeping tails. This one appeared to have a long, fuzzy head. The head is the central part of the comet, the solid nucleus (generally made of ice and rock) surrounded by gas. Heads are usually pretty compact, but this comet had one that was stretched way out, like a thick line (I have a fun post describing all the parts of a comet and how they work).

SL9
The comet as it was seen a few days after discovery. Note the elongated head, and the tail which fans out above and below.

Photo by Spacewatch

Being the ninth comet the team had found, it was dubbed Shoemaker-Levy 9, or, more technically, D/1993 F2. Those in the know just called it SL9.

It was noticed that the comet was near Jupiter in the sky. The team backtracked the orbit in time, and found it had recently passed very close to Jupiter … and in fact, it was in orbit around the planet! At this point, a more complete picture emerged.

The comet had orbited the Sun for billions of years. But in the 1960s or 1970s it made a close pass at Jupiter, and the giant planet captured it. This is a relatively rare scenario and takes a fairly specific set of circumstances to occur. However given enough time and billions of comets, it’s inevitable.

The comet orbited Jupiter on a highly elongated path. On July 7, 1992, it passed so close to Jupiter that the planet’s mighty tides tore the comet apart. The pieces separated along a line, and when it was discovered a year or so later these distributed pieces are what gave the comet its squashed look.

And then astronomers got the big surprise: Calculating the orbit of the comet into the future, they saw it would physically collide with the planet in July of 1994!

SL9
The "string of pearls": The fragments of SL9 all in a row. Each piece? Doomed.

Photo by H. Weaver (JHU), T. Smith (STScI),NASA

I was in graduate school at the time, and boy, howdy, do I remember the excitement. No comet or asteroid had ever been seen hitting a planet besides Earth before. And SL9 was made up of dozens of individual pieces, each on a doomsday path to Jupiter! This was going to be big.

Unfortunately, the pieces were due to hit on the far side of Jupiter, which means we wouldn’t directly see the impacts. But it turns out we still got quite a show.

When the day came, practically every telescope on and above the Earth was watching. The first piece impacted at 20:13 UTC (2:13 p.m. ET) on July 16 … and within minutes pictures started pouring in from telescopes. Although the impact was on the other side of Jupiter, the huge plume from the impact rose so high it could be seen over the limb of the planet. Within a few minutes the impact site rotated into view, and we were all stunned to see photos showing a vast scar from the collision. The first piece (Fragment A) was about 2 kilometers in diameter and moving at 60 kilometers per second when it hit Jupiter—the energy equivalent of over a million one-megaton nuclear bombs exploding at the same time.

So yeah. We saw the impact scar. Here’s an infrared animation of the Fragment A impact made from observations using the 3.5 meter telescope on Calar Alto in Spain:

The bright spot to the upper right is Jupiter’s moon Io, and you can see the Red Spot, too. Then the impact blossoms as Jupiter’s rotation swung it into view. Yikes.

Within minutes, Hubble Space Telescope images were sent down, revealing the impact site: a vast splotch with a crescent-shaped fan of material blown ahead in the direction of the comet’s motion. Fragment A’s collision left a scar on the top of Jupiter’s clouds larger than Earth itself. It was stunning.

SL9 impact site
Fragment A impact site (using a filter that accentuates methane in Jupiter's upper atmosphere).

Photo by Heidi Hammel/MIT/NASA

Over the course of the next week the remaining pieces hit, one after another. Fragment G was the biggest, but several were over a kilometer across. Jupiter’s powerful gravity accelerated them to their doom, and each gave up their individual ghost with a titanic explosion.

In the end, this was one of the most studied events in the history of astronomy. And it was full of surprises. We expected to see a lot of water released by the impacts, since it was thought there was a layer of water vapor in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Some was seen, but not nearly as much as predicted. The impacts generated tremendous waves in the atmosphere of Jupiter that were seen traveling away from the collision for hours. The chemical composition of the atmosphere was temporarily altered as well.

plume
The plume from the explosion of Fragment A as it rose and collapsed over the limb of Jupiter.

Photo by NASA/ESA

A few things remain stuck in my memory from those days. One was how dang slow the Internet was; we’d wait forever to download a 100kb image of the impact from the SL9 sites where they were being uploaded. It didn’t help that a million other people were trying at the same time. Back then, the ‘Net was pretty new, and most servers couldn’t handle so many people trying to access them.

Another fun memory was a live press conference the Shoemaker-Levy team was giving. They were discussing the comet on air when my friend and planetary scientist Heidi Hammel ran in (live on TV, remember) with printouts of the Hubble observations showing the impact event. All three of the team members’ faces lit up, the fruition of their work in front of them. Not long after, news shows ran a clip of several joyous astronomers cheering as they stood around a computer monitor watching the images come in (one of them was another friend, Melissa McGrath, with whom I went to grad school, and I always got a kick out of seeing her jumping up and down with excitement). All of this was shown on a National Geographic show, and a clip is on YouTube:

The other vivid memory was from a few days later. I was at the University of Virginia, and we had a huge 24-inch telescope there, built in 1885. I went out to observe Jupiter, but the air was unsteady that night, and all I saw was a blur.

So I went around the observatory to “The Doghouse,” a smaller brick enclosure that housed a vintage 6-inch brass ‘scope. Pointing it at Jupiter, I was stunned to my core to clearly see several black scars punctuating the planet’s cloud tops. The bigger telescope accentuated the blurry air, but the smaller one didn’t have as much magnification, and the unsteady atmosphere of Earth didn’t affect the viewing as much. I remember standing there, slack-jawed, knowing I was witnessing history.

Since those days two decades ago we’ve seen Jupiter hit several times; in July 2009, in June and again in August 2010, and a fourth time in September 2012. We’ve seen Saturn’s rings get hit by debris (actually multiple times), the Moon hit by small asteroids, asteroids themselves collide, and we just missed seeing an asteroid impact on Mars … but a comet will pass so close to Mars later this year that it could rain debris down on the planet. We’ll see.

The lessons of SL9 are many. Impacts still happen across the whole solar system, even after 4.56 billion years. We need to keep watching the planets and look for such rare events. And, of course, the Earth is no exception as a target.

But looking back to those days, what I really remember is the excitement, the wonder, the anticipation, and how the public was just as fired up as we were. Every time I deal with some anti-science nonsense, some attack on what we know to be true, I remember this:

This stuff is real. And the public, when it comes right down to it, loves it as well. On this anniversary of one of the biggest bangs in the solar system, I think we all need to be reminded of that.

July 15 2014 7:30 AM

How Did the Bald Eagle Nebula Hatch?

You’d think that by now—with dozens of telescopes on, above, and below the ground, observing the skies from all latitudes and longitudes, and having centuries of time in which to work—every object in the sky would be cataloged and understood.

But that’s not the case. Not at all. There are still plenty of weird beasties to tease out of the dark, astronomical oddities hiding in plain sight. One of them is G 70.5+1.9, which is way prettier than its catalog-generated name might suggest. Here’s the proof:

Bald Eagle Nebula
The newly named Bald Eagle Nebula. Click to enleucocephalusenate.

Photo by T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage) and H. Schweiker (WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF)/KPNO

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That gorgeous photo is by my pal Travis Rector, who noticed it at the edge of another nebula he was observing. Travis notes it looks like a bald eagle in flight, the bright head to the left, the bluish strands outlining the beak. I have to agree. You can even see a wing above it, the tail behind, the taloned feet below! The prosaic name notwithstanding, I think The Bald Eagle Nebula is a far better moniker for it.

bald eagle
Maybe this will help your pareidolia take flight.

Photo by Holger Grybsch

Right away I figured it for an old supernova remnant. When a star explodes, a lot of gas is expelled into space at a ferocious clip. It slams into the gas surrounding it, creating huge and powerful shock waves. This compresses the gas and makes it glow. As the remnant ages it can look like a loose circle of filaments that interweave like a wicker wreath (some very massive stars can create similar structures on a smaller scale). The Veil Nebula is an excellent example of this, as is the Pencil Nebula.

But there’s a monkey in the wrench here. Most old supernovae remnants give off radio waves and X-rays, the result of the shock waves moving through the gas. The Bald Eagle Nebula shows no real signs of either. That’s weird. It’s not totally unprecedented—a handful of other SNRs are also radio and X-ray quiet—but it’s unusual.

One reassuring measurement does fit the bill, though. Different elements in the gas emit different colors of light, allowing us to measure the relative abundances of the elements in the gas—for example, Travis’ picture was taken using filters that isolate light from hydrogen (red) and oxygen (blue). Different types of objects (like gas blown out by young stars, or gas forming new stars) tend to have different element ratios in them, and emit light differently. Astronomers who observed this nebula noted that the light emitted is far more consistent with an exploded star than anything else.

So it does look like this is the last raging scream of a star that died long ago, sending its innards into outer space. As these things go it’s relatively close, likely less than 3,500 light years away. That’s still too far away to have directly affected us here on Earth, but I wonder if anyone, long ago, noticed a bright “new” star appearing in the constellation of Cygnus one summer, and gawked at it over the nights as it outshone Venus, then faded away over the ensuing weeks.

It must have been a total mystery to them … but then, it’s still somewhat of a mystery to us, too. That’s actually pretty cool. If we solve all the mysteries of the Universe, what fun will there be left for us to discover?

Travis is an accomplished professional astronomer as well as an artist when it comes to imaging; you could do a whole lot worse than spending some time perusing his magnificent gallery of astronomical beauties.

July 14 2014 7:30 AM

What’s the Quicker Solar Weight Loss Plan: Solar Wind, or Nuclear Fusion?

I know this may seem obvious, but … the Sun is big.

Really, really big. It’s more than 100 times wider than the Earth, and more than a million Earths would fit inside it. If you could weigh them on a cosmic scale, you’d find the Sun is more than 300,000 times the mass of the Earth!

But that last number is dropping. Slowly, over time, the Sun is losing mass. It’s actually doing this in two ways: directly, via its solar wind, and indirectly, by converting mass into energy and shining brightly.

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This raises an obvious question: Which one is faster? Which method is better at making the Sun shed those kilograms?

The Solar Wind Diet

The solar wind is just that: a vast stream of subatomic particles blowing away from the Sun. It’s composed of various types of particles, including electrons, protons, and even things like helium nuclei. Shaped by the Sun’s powerful and complex magnetic field, these particles are flung into space at high speed, ranging from a few hundred kilometers per second to many thousands.

aurora
When the solar wind impacts Earth, the planet's magnetic field can channel it into our atmosphere to create beautiful aurorae.

Photo by David Cartier

The Sun blows off just as many electrons as protons, but protons are so much more massive we can ignore the electrons (and helium is only about 4 percent of the total, so we can ignore it too). Using satellites we can directly measure how many protons fly past the Earth in the solar wind. If you had a little net in space one centimeter on a side, you’d catch about 300 million protons every second at the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

But that means you’d miss a lot. The Sun is sending them out in all directions (though, to be fair, more along the Sun’s equator than at the poles, which we’ll ignore), and your little net is smaller than a postage stamp. To catch all the protons, you’d need to make a shell around the Sun at the Earth’s orbit. That shell would have an area of a staggering 3 x 1027 square centimeters—that’s 3 octillion little nets!

If one net catches 3 x 108 protons every second, then our big shell would catch 9 x 1035 of them. Each proton has a mass of 1.7 x 10-24 grams, so every second that means the Sun blows off about 1.5 trillion grams, or 1.5 million tons of material!

OK, so that’s Diet Plan 1, which loses the Sun 1.5 million tons per second. So what about Diet Plan 2?

The Nuclear Fusion Diet

fusion
Nuclear fusion in the Sun takes many steps, but in the end four protons fuse to become a single nucleus of helium, and a whole lot of energy is released.

Drawing by Borb via Wikimedia Commons

The Sun gives off energy, and that energy has to come from somewhere. Deep in its core, the Sun is busily converting mass into energy. That energy works its way out of the Sun and flies away into space in the form of light.

We know how bright the Sun is, that is, how much light it gives off. And we know—thanks to Einstein—how much mass it takes to create energy. So let’s see …

Doing the same sort of math as above, except measuring the light we see from the Sun per square centimeter as measured from the Earth, we find that the total energy emitted by the Sun is 4 x 1033 ergs per second (an erg is a teeny unit of energy).

But we also know that energy = mass x the speed of light squared. Rearranging to solve for the mass, and using the usual constant c for the speed of light (3 x 1010 cm/sec), we get

Mass = energy / c2  

Plugging and chugging: mass = 4 x 1033 / 9 x 1020 = 4.4 x 1012 grams per second, or more than 4 million tons per second.

So there you go. The Sun loses 4 million tons of mass per second due to fusion. Fusion wins over solar wind as a stellar diet plan, by about a factor of two or three.

To be honest, I find it surprising the numbers are that close. Without any prior knowledge, it seems like either one could be thousands or even millions of times the other. Yet they’re about the same.

Run Away!

An interesting thought: The Earth orbits the Sun, held sway by its gravity. But as the mass of the Sun goes down, the Earth is held a bit less strongly. What happens then?

I’ll spare you the math, but it has to do with angular momentum and it being a constant. What happens in the end is that the Earth’s orbital radius increases as the Sun loses mass, and it does so linearly with the mass loss. In other words, if the Sun loses 1 percent of its mass, the Earth’s orbit increases in size by 1 percent.

The Sun is losing about 6 x 1012 grams per second, and has a mass of 2 x 1033 grams. So the fraction of its mass it loses every year is about 10-13. The Earth’s orbit is 150 million kilometers, and if you multiply that by 10-13 you get about 1.5 centimeters. That’s how much bigger the Earth’s orbit gets every year! Less than an inch. It would take 65,000 years for the Earth to move away one kilometer (I can walk that far in a few minutes). Assuming the mass loss is constant, the Earth has only moved out from the Sun 70,000 km in a billion years! That’s only a few times Earth’s own diameter. Even over its lifetime, the Earth’s orbit hasn’t changed much due to the Sun’s mass loss. To be fair, the Sun’s mass loss may have been higher in the past, but even then the Earth hasn’t moved much from this process.

solar storm
A watched Sun never boils. Wait. No. A watched Sun always boils.

Photo by Discovery Communications/Big Wave Productions

A Lifetime of Mass Loss

But wait! How much mass has the Sun lost over its lifetime? It loses about 5 or 6 million tons of material every second, and that sounds like a lot.

The Sun is about 4.5 billion years old, and a year is about 31 million seconds long. Multiplying all that out, the Sun has lost a total of about 1024 tons of material. That’s more than 100 times the mass of the Earth!

But like I said, the Sun is big. That’s still a tiny fraction of its total mass: Over its lifetime, it’s only lost about 0.05 percent of its mass. That’s a pretty poor weight loss plan.

But it means that the Sun is good to go for a long, long time yet. It could merrily fuse matter and blow off a solar wind for trillions of years at this rate.

But it won’t. Long before then, conditions in the Sun’s core will change. It will run out of hydrogen to use for nuclear fuel, swell up into a red giant, consume Mercury and Venus (gaining some mass back), fry the Earth, then blow off a far more intense solar wind. It’ll shed matter at a rate that will completely outstrip a lifetime of dieting, losing half its mass in just a few million years.

After that all that will be left is a white dwarf; a hot, dense, Earth-sized ball of material that will slowly cool over billions of years and fade away.

If there’s a life lesson about living for today, diets, and thinking in very long timescales, you’re free to find it for yourself. As for me, I think I’ll go out on my bike now and enjoy some sunshine. There’s only a few billion years of it left.

I’ve thought about writing this article for a long, long time, but a tweet by mxyzplx made me think about it again. I made a note for myself, and I’m glad I finally wrote this up. The Sun lost more than 100 trillion tons of mass in the meantime. I need to schedule myself better.

Also, if you like thinking about stuff like this, I give a lot more detail about the Sun’s aging in my book, Death From the Skies!

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