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

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

What time is it? – Musings on time from zero to Webb
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The concept of time on this Earth is a fictitious delusional notion to facilitate human beings to operate collectively and individually. We humans live on this Earth as it is moving through space and time at 18.5 miles per second. The imaginary line through Greenwich in London gives us a vertical starting point for longitude at zero. East away from zero adds positives in time and west away from zero produces negatives from time zero. A straight line south of Ireland reveals that vast areas of Africa and Antarctica share the same time zone as we do. The ancient Egyptians were the first to understand and put to use the concept of a year. The Egyptians kept accurate astronomical records on papyrus scrolls circa 4,500 BC. Through careful astronomical observations they realised that Sirius one of the brightest stars in the sky was visible rising next to the sun every 365 days. Exactly the days the earth takes to orbit … Continue reading

New Cassini Module in NASA Eyes App
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The new Cassini Mission module is live in the NASA Eyes on the Solar System app! The module is JAM-PACKED with features, including a cinematic simulation the entire 20-year mission, images of Saturn, its rings and moons, an interactive timeline – where you can follow the spacecraft throughout its mission, and simulations of several Cassini Grand Finale events. NASA Eyes is a free app for the PC/MAC and a GREAT educational tool. With NASA Eyes, you can go to any planet in our solar system, many moons, asteroids, and comets. You can zoom to several different active space missions, and simulate what they are doing in real-time, or fast-forward or backward to any point in their mission; several missions have built-in tours – like Cassini. There’s a module about the 2017 eclipse, and the Eyes on the Earth module has several different visualizations of climate data. The Eyes on Exoplanets module lets you zoom to hundreds of different exoplanet systems, see what … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Expect Surprises
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2014 In a recent [2014!] homily, Pope Francis used a colorful image to describe how the early Church reacted when gentiles approached the apostles and asked to be baptized. Imagine, he suggested, if “a Martian with a big nose and big ears came up and asked for baptism. What would you do?” Naturally, the press decided that the Pope had just endorsed extraterrestrial baptisms. Journalists with access to the internet added a few choice links to similar quotes of mine from years ago. I can’t complain, really. “Would you baptize an extraterrestrial?” is a wonderful starting place to explore the meaning of baptism and redemption. I used the analogy myself in May of 2014, addressing the graduating class of Georgetown University, where my final exhortation was to “be prepared to be surprised.” (Not surprisingly, we have a book with that question as its title, which came out in fall 2014.) But a … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Rocket Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2012 “This isn’t rocket science…” It’s a common reproach, heard when we make a simple task too complex. Of course, making a rocket work is not science; it’s engineering. The difference between the two is like the difference between theology and liturgy. Both are important, and each informs the other, but it’s dangerous (in both directions) to substitute the one for the other. Another flaw in the cliché is that it assumes launching a rocket is the height of complexity. In fact, it’s a well-understood piece of engineering. Today’s rockets are marvelous pieces of machinery, and getting it right can indeed be harder than it looks (see the recent failure of North Korea’s attempt). But the basic principles are nothing new. The rockets that lift supplies to the International Space Station today are Soviet designs dating from the cold war, more than half a century old. The issue, as the North Koreans … Continue reading

Cosmic Lobster Pot
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I have always visualised Cassini’s journey through the Saturnian system as a kind of orchestrated cosmic dance. Cassini moves silently at great speed in its petal shape overlapping orbits. This precisely executed dance brings Cassini frequently through the icy ring plane north to south and then back again on the opposite side of the planet, south to north. This robot ship continues on its unparalleled odyssey of exploration. On board, Cassini is the custodian of twelve science instruments all primed to seek, gather, and process the offerings of this unique planetary system. Collectively they are performing one of the most important scientific probing of Saturn and its many moons in the history of space exploration. One of these science instruments is the Cosmic Dust Analyser. The CDA looks a bit like a golden lobster pot,that is not a bad analogy. This apparatus is trawling the interplanetary ocean for particles of cosmic dust, tiny particles that are the messengers of the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Spotting Ceres
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2015 Ceres was the first body found in the region between Mars and Jupiter now called the Asteroid Belt. In the late 1700s Titius and Bode had noted a pattern in planet positions that suggested there should be a planet in the gap between Mars and Jupiter; on New Year’s Day of 1801, Father Giuseppi Piazzi found Ceres from his observatory in Sicily. They expected a planet, so that’s what they called Ceres – though William Herschel, who had just discovered the gas giant Uranus, sniffed that such a tiny dot of light was neither planet nor star (Latin, “aster”) but a mere “asteroid.” Only fifty years later, when a number of other such small bodies had been found, did Ceres and the other asteroids get “demoted” to the status of “minor planet.” (And later work showed that the Titius-Bode pattern which predicted a planet at Ceres’ position was actually just … Continue reading

Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn
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Also in Exploring the Solar System Exploring the Solar System: The Mass of the Sun Marvellous Mars Drawing Workshop at Dunsink Observatory Dublin Astronomical Sketching – Education in action Stars Wonderful Stars at Wexford Town Library Ireland Get ready the Perseids are coming Space the final Frontier – World Space Week 2016 On the richness of the lunar surface Dark Sky Magic at Ballycroy National Park Mayo Ireland Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn Cosmic Lobster Pot A Slice of Solar Drawing in h-alpha View the entire series … Continue reading

Exoplanet Extravaganza
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Exoplanet news has been all the buzz since the announcement of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star 39 light-years away from Earth – that’s 229 trillion miles or 369 trillion kilometers. Three of those worlds orbit within that star’s habitable zone, increasing their likelihood of supporting life. Two hours after the announcement, I discussed with students in the Endeavour Space Academy, what exoplanets are, exoplanet detection methods, and the thousands of exoplanets found to date. The questions I got mirror those I’ve seen asked online: Can we go there? Well, there are a lots of gotchas to that question. At our current level of technology, and using the fastest object humans have created as a baseline, it would take well over 100,000 years to reach this star system; Remember: “Space is big. Really big!” Speaking of “we,” what will modern-day humans have evolved into after 100,000 years? Could life exist there? It’s certainly possible. With the discovery of … Continue reading

Bringing Mars to Earth – Educational Outreach
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  Mars is an extraordinary planet , its textures and exquisite beauty have been brought to Earth by the images of HiRise on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter . Curiosity gives us a ground eye view as it drove through Gale crater and on to Mount Sharp. From Earth by eye Mars is but a tiny pink dot , in small telescopes it becomes a slightly larger pink dot . It is not easy to see detail on Mars for most people. My best views were in the South refractor at Dunsink Observatory and through a friend’s 16 inch Schmidt Cassegrain.The polar caps stood out in the 16 inch while the 11.75 inch objective at Dunsink showed a hint of dark areas on the predominantly rusty pink planet body. Of course Martian dust storms and the quality of our sky has a lot to do with seeing any detail at all. Pointing out Mars in the sky for public groups and children’s … Continue reading