The Great KENTUCKY Eclipse of August 21, 2017: Will the Weather Hold?
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For the past week you have been seeing lots of posts about tomorrow’s eclipse and about Hopkinsville, Kentucky, the town at the point of greatest eclipse (or, to be precise, near that point): Click here for Monday’s post on the eclipse. Click here for Wednesday’s. Click here for Friday’s. Click here for Saturday’s. Hopkinsville is also the place that Vatican Observatory Director Br. Guy Consolmagno is visiting for the eclipse. Of course, not everyone can make it to south-western Kentucky to see this eclipse. If you are unable to make it into the path of totality, you might be able to see totality “virtually”, because Hopkinsville has a live camera mounted up high to give a continuous view of the area. Check it out below: Of course, there will not be much to see of this eclipse if the weather is not good. As can be seen from the Monday-Saturday posts, the forecast for the eclipse has gone this way and … Continue reading

The Great KENTUCKY Eclipse of August 21, 2017: Reading the Signs
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Two days from the eclipse and I am in Hopkinsville. Anyone passing through, even if they did not know that there was an eclipse here, would know that a Big Event is taking place. The signs are everywhere. Some of those signs are the busy-ness of landowners along Kentucky State Highway 91 into town. The path traced by the moon’s shadow will move toward the South-East into Hopkinsville, roughly following KY-91. While driving KY-91 into town earlier today, my wife and I saw lots of farms preparing for the influx of people—some setting up to welcome visitors (“Eclipse parking $50” near the point of greatest eclipse), some seeking to keep visitors from tromping all over their crops (“POSTED: No Trespassing. Private Property.”) Another clear sign of a Big Event are all the streets that are closed off, and the many tents and vendors set up, right in central Hopkinsville. There are also a lot of actual signs pertaining to the … Continue reading

The Great KENTUCKY Eclipse of August 21, 2017: Hopkinsville as the Perfect Point
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The Catholic Astronomer’s Blogger-in-Chief, Br. Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory, is in Hopkinsville, Kentucky for the big 2017 eclipse.  That, and the fact that I am from Kentucky, is why I am calling this the great KENTUCKY eclipse (check out Monday’s eclipse post, and Wednesday’s, too).  So what is the big deal about Hopkinsville? An eclipse occurs when the moon’s shadow sweeps across the surface of the Earth.  The general path of the shadow in this eclipse is as shown by the arrow in the figure below. But, “it’s complicated,” because the Earth is rotating while the shadow is moving, and because the Earth is a sphere.  Points on Earth’s surface are moving from West to East, as is the shadow, but the axis of Earth’s rotation is not quite perpendicular to the direction of motion of the shadow, and furthermore, the Earth is a sphere.  The result is much more complex than just a round shadow moving … Continue reading

Perseid Meteor Shower 2017: Aug. 11-12
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The Perseid meteor shower is a very popular annual event, with Perseid parties being held around the globe each year. Best seen from the northern hemisphere, the meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus – between the “W” of the constellation Cassiopeia, and the bright star Capella (see image above). Every year I see posts about this year’s shower being the “shower of the century” or it will be the “brightest shower in the recorded human history!” I’m not so sure about that this year… although the Perseids typically puts on a pretty good show at about 100 per hour, the waning gibbous Moon will be bright, and just to the east of the radiant; this will obscure many of the dimmer meteors. Peak: August 11-12 Active from: July 13th to August 26th Radiant: 03:12 +57.6° (see image above) Hourly Rate: 100 Velocity: 37 miles/sec (swift – 60km/sec) Parent Object: 109P/Swift-Tuttle Source: American Meteor Society … Continue reading

Southern Delta Aquariids Meteor Shower 2017
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The Southern Delta Aquariids is a strong shower best seen from the southern tropics. North of the equator, the radiant is located low in the southern sky – rates will be less than if seen from further south. This shower produces good rates for about a week centered on the night of maximum. These meteors are usually faint and lack persistent trains; few fireballs can be expected. Peak: July 29-30 Active from: July 21st to August 23rd Radiant: 22:40 -16.4° (see image above) Hourly Rate: 16 Velocity: 26 miles/sec (medium – 42km/sec) Parent Object: P/2008 Y12 The moon will be a waxing crescent, rising shortly after midnight. Source: American Meteor Society … Continue reading

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from Juno
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The Juno spacecraft made its seventh close approach (perijove) to Jupiter on July 10th, flying directly over the Great Red Spot. The raw images from the mission are publicly available, and have been post-processed by several different individuals. The results are as beautiful as they are varied. This stunning image, processed by Seán Doran, was featured on the Astronomy Picture of the Day on July 15, 2017: Here are some more examples of post-processing from the imaging community: This image was processed by Jason Major, who runs the fantastic Lights in the Dark website; the image was used in this post by NASA. This video was created using the NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System app shows the Juno spacecraft coming up on the Great Red Spot; I knew the storm was big, but I’ve never seen it from this perspective… it’s BIG! This video gives you a good idea of how close the Juno spacecraft gets to Jupiter during … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2013 I was in a state of high excitement (or what passes for such when you’re sixty years old): the Pope was coming to lunch with our Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory! Meanwhile, I was also preparing a paper for the annual Meteoritical Society meeting, and I had just noticed a wonderful correlation in my data. These sorts of insights are as rare as Papal visits… if indeed I had really made one. I’ve been studying iron meteorites; and it’s been hard work. For one thing, they are, quite literally, hard – lumps of nickel-iron, too hard to cut up easily to see what’s inside. I’ve seen iron meteorites being cut at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC; their saw sits in a room the size of gymnasium, makes an awful racket, and spews water everywhere. (The water cools the meteorite while a diamond-encrusted wire scrapes through it.) When you do … Continue reading

From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
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This article was first published in The Tablet in July, 2012 “How will the discovery of the Higgs Boson impact the Catholic Scientific Community?” asked one panicked email I received soon after CERN announced its discovery. “How can the new discovery and our belief be reconciled?” So many misconceptions in one email… where to start? Emails like this, not to mention all sorts of press inquiries, came to us at the Vatican Observatory following the announcement by CERN that they had detected a “a new particle in the mass region around 126 GeV… the results are preliminary but dramatic… we know it is a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.” The press, if not the scientists, immediately jumped on the news, calling it the discovery of the Higgs Boson (something that the CERN press release was careful not to do) which they inevitably referred to as “The God Particle.” Right away, the internet was filled with instant pundits giving opinions … Continue reading

Could “Planet Nine” be Considered a Planet?
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I got to wondering: given the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) current definition of a planet, if a hypothesized “Planet Nine” were to be found in the outer reaches of our solar system, could it (or anything in that region) be considered “a planet?” The IAU definition of a planet is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun. (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape. (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. An astronomical units (AU) is a unit of measurement equal to the mean distance from the center of the earth to the center of the sun – 149.6 million kilometers. The Kuiper belt is a disc-shaped region of icy bodies in the solar system – including dwarf planets such as Pluto – and comets beyond the orbit of Neptune. It extends from about 30 to 55 AU. A trans-Neptunian object (TNO) is any … Continue reading

Kepler Team Releases Catalog with 219 new Exoplanet Candidates
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The story of the Kepler space telescope is a saga of discovery, heartbreak, and redemption. Launched in 2009, Kepler’s mission was to search for Earth-size and smaller planets orbiting nearby stars, and to estimate how many stars in the Milky Way have such planets. Within the first few weeks of observations, five previously unknown exoplanets were found orbiting close to their parent star. Over the next few years, thousands of planetary candidates were discovered. In July of 2012, one of the telescope’s four reaction wheels failed; these are a type of flywheel that keep the spacecraft pointed at its target, and the telescope needs three to function properly. In May of 2013 a second reaction wheel failed, ending new data collection for the original mission and putting the continuation of the mission into jeopardy. In November of 2013, a new mission plan dubbed K2 “Second Light” was devised – by balancing “light pressure” from the Sun on spacecraft’s solar panels to act as a … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Ephemeral science
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2016 Over the past thirty years the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo has been hosting a biennial summer school, where we invite young scholars from around the world to spend four weeks with us, exploring in depth some topic in astrophysics. [The 2016] school was centered on water in the solar system and beyond. It’s an area that I’ve worked in since I was a young scholar myself; my master’s thesis, now more than 40 years old, was all about Jupiter and Saturn’s icy moons. All of my work on the topic, of course, is long obsolete. Just four years after I had made my computer models to predict what we’d see at those moons, the Voyager spacecraft actually visited Jupiter and revealed its moons to be worlds far more elaborate than anything I could have proposed. Still, the basic science hasn’t changed; at our school we taught how to use properties like … Continue reading

Asteroid Day 2017
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It’s June, Asteroid Day approaches! Asteroid Day is a global coalition of scientists, astronauts, physicists, artists, musicians and concerned citizens that have come together to focus the world’s attention on the nature of asteroids, and the solutions that could protect all life on Earth from future asteroid impacts, and inspire the next generation. Since the summer of 2015, worldwide Asteroid Day events have been held on June 30th, the date of the historic Tunguska Impact Event of 1908. The founders of Asteroid Day drafted the 100X Declaration. In short: Over the last decade and a half, we’ve discovered a LOT of near-Earth asteroids, and continue to do so. Some of these asteroids can potentially impact the Earth. Some of these asteroids are large enough that an impact would be “a bad thing.” We need to accelerate the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years. We need to get government, private and philanthropic organizations … Continue reading