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

Nibiru, Kepler, and some basics on orbits
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Let’s take another look at Johannes Kepler and at Nibiru, the supposed planet that supposedly will wreak havoc on Earth in October.  This is my second Nibiru post on this blog, the first being a couple of months ago.  As I mentioned then, some people find this Nibiru business to be a lark, or just an example of the worst sort of internet misinformation.  Others take it seriously—or don’t know how they are supposed to be able to know what to believe.  But here at The Catholic Astronomer, Nibiru is a great opportunity to talk about how the solar system works, and about Johannes Kepler, the first astronomer to really figure out how the solar system works. The Washington Post asked “Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October?”  They answered “No”, but no one need take their word for it, or anyone else’s.  A person can reason this out for himself or herself, with a little help … Continue reading

In the Sky This Week – July 4, 2017
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Venus is the bright morning star in the eastern sky, attended by the Pleiades star cluster, and the bright star Capella to the northeast. The southern sky is adorned with several jewels this week: the Moon appears high in the southern sky before sunset as a waxing gibbous – a few days past first quarter. Jupiter and Saturn are both visible, as are the bright stars Antares and Spica. The full Moon will be on July 9th. The bright star Altair (featured in the classic SF film Forbidden Planet) rises in the east followed by the constellation Sagittarius to the southeast. Sagittarius is recognizable by “The Teapot” asterism low on the horizon. Sagittarius has several interesting deep sky objects to observe using telescopes; something cool you can do with the public during nighttime observing sessions is point to the Teapot’s spout and say “that’s where center of our Milky Way galaxy is!” Before dawn, the constellation Hercules sets in the west, and “The … Continue reading

Might As Well Be Walkin’ On The Sun
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With my follow-up on Solar Eclipses and the Bible a week away from being done, I wish to invite you into some vacation planning I am doing. A good friend of mine and I have decided to plan a vacation for next summer that will be somewhat of a “bucket list” vacation. In short, we are making a list of all the things we would like to see and do in life, but have never had a chance to see or do. Right after going to a baseball game at Fenway Park, our second goal is to see the launch of a space mission in person. Our hope is to not only see a giant rocket speed into space, but to choose a mission we can follow in the years ahead. We have yet to finalize our decision, but one mission that stuck out to us was NASA’s July 31, 2018 launch of The Parker Solar Probe. Equipped with a 4.5 inch thick solar shield … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Hows of Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July, 2012 We met this month [July 2012] in a small pensione in Loreto, next the cathedral built around the famous “flying house” (reputed to be the home of the Blessed Virgin, transported from Palestine to Italy – some say by angels – in the 13th century) to plan the next steps for our Vatican Observatory. What’s the future for our telescope in Arizona, and the fundraising that supports it? What about converting our old telescope domes in Castel Gandolfo into a visitor center? But a big topic for the group was welcoming seven young astronomers to our group. They come from many countries – three from the US, plus an Italian, a Czech, a Congolese, and an Indian. They’ve studied a variety of scientific topics, from theorizing on subatomic strings to observing meteor showers, at traditional PhD programs in universities around the world. And their immediate challenge now is trying to fit the style … Continue reading

The Bay of Rainbows and a bag of carrots
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The Bay of Rainbows in the Ocean of Storms ( Sinus Iridum in Oceanus Procellarum). What an atmospheric description of a dry colourless area on our moon. Sometimes when I am speaking about the moon to children I often say that the Bay of Rainbows is one of my favourite observing areas . The title of the feature brings up visions of a safe and happy place in a vast ocean of grey rock . The Bay of Rainbows is on the edge of The Ocean of Storms, a safe heaven is conjured up despite the fact that the moon has no seas or storms. The Sinus or Bay is the remains of a large impact crater which was subsequently flooded by basaltic lava, far from a safe place during its formation. The general surface of the bay is relatively flat but has a number of Dorsa aka wrinkle ridges. The ridges form when cooling magma shrinks and following magma … Continue reading

Frye Fire: VATT Damage Assessment on June 27
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I was happy to report a few days ago that the news about the demise of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) in a fire on Sunday June 18 had been exaggerated. The good people at the site informed me that the VATT appeared unharmed but I was still a little uneasy. I knew that there had been a lot of heat and even more smoke. The heat could have damaged the dome. If the dome’s roundness had been compromised, it would have lost its ability to rotate freely. If the smoke had deposited conductive soot on the electronic circuit boards and corrosive tar on the coated optical surfaces, it would have made us expend considerable resources on cleaning, testing, recoating and recommissioning. I feared that months of diligent work lay before us. The only way to restore my peace of mind was to hasten to the VATT and assess the damage. But how?  I made some preliminary arrangements to … Continue reading

Hopscotching with Aliens?
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There is a new initiative in the area of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Although the SETI program has history of listening for deliberate (or accidental) messages from any potential advanced civilizations dating back more than 50 years now, we knowingly transmit messages less than 1% of that time. Indeed some long wavelength transmissions such as TV programs do manage to leak into space, but they are too faint to decipher across interstellar distances. In all that time we have never received a message from aliens. There is also no evidence at all that aliens have ever visited us. Space appears to be empty. Does this mean other intelligent creatures do not exist at all? The struggle to answer that question has motivated a new initiative called the Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (METI). The aim is to take action to send messages in the direction of known planetary systems. Most people at this point ask, “Is this exciting?, or … Continue reading

Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Telescopic Evidence for Earth’s Immobility through Double Stars
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This is the fourth in a series of posts on the subject of Galileo and proving the Earth’s motion.  This is the year 2017, and 2017 marks the 400th anniversary of the first observation of a double star, made in 1617 by none other than Galileo and his friend the Benedictine Fr. Benedetto Castelli.  Up until our current century, the first observation of a double star had been attributed to the Jesuit Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, but in 2004 Sky & Telescope magazine published an article by Leos Ondra on how Galileo and Castelli were the first to do it (“A New View of Mizar,” July 2004).  Ondra discovered this by going through Galileo’s observing notes.  An extended version of the Sky & Telescope article is available on Ondra’s web page. The double star that Castelli and Galileo observed was Mizar, the star in the bend of the handle of the Big Dipper.  Seen with the naked eye, it appears … Continue reading

In the Sky This Week – June 27, 2017
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Venus remains high in the eastern morning sky, the Pleiades star cluster appears between Venus and the star Capella. The Moon is a waxing crescent, appearing in the west after sunset. Jupiter is high in the southwest, and Saturn is low in the southeast sky after sunset. There will be a conjunction of the Moon, Jupiter and the star Spica on the evenings of June 30th and July 1st. Here is the current positions of the planets in the solar system: Also in In the Sky This Week Weekly post on what you can see in the sky. In the Sky This Week – June 22, 2017 In the Sky This Week – June 27, 2017 In the Sky This Week – July 4, 2017 In the Sky This Week – July 11, 2017 What’s in the Sky July 18, 2017 View the entire series … 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

Across the Universe: Fast changes
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2013 Summer began [in 2013] on Friday morning, 21 June, at 5:14 am GMT…in the northern hemisphere, of course; south of the equator, it’s winter. [The summer solstice 2017 in Northern Hemisphere occurred at 4:24 am GMT on Wednesday, June 21.] This definition is based on the precise orientation of the Earth in its orbit. The Earth is tilted relative to its orbit, and like a gyroscope its spin axis stays pointed in the same direction, year round. In a convenient coincidence for navigators, our north pole is pointed near the star Polaris. Polaris is not directly above the Sun; it’s directly above Earth’s tilted spin axis. In June, the Earth is in the part of its orbit where it’s on one side of the Sun, and Polaris is on the other side. The northern half of the Earth, tilted towards Polaris, is also tilted towards the Sun; that’s why it gets warmer. The … Continue reading