Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
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This article was first published in The Tablet in December, 2005. I also ran it a year ago on this blog, before many of you became regular readers… and before I knew how to embed pictures. So I am running it again, with pictures this time. Every December, along with the Christmas rush and the endless round of holiday parties, planetary astronomers have another deadline facing them: the annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference. The meeting is in March; the deadline for submitting papers is early January. [For 2016, it’s January 12.] It’s challenging enough to write up results on deadline; but what is harder, is that really you ought to have some results worth writing up. My last month has been a scramble as I try chasing after the faintest wisp of an idea to see if it has enough substance to talk about in front of a thousand highly critical peers. Lately [this was 2005] we’ve been observing Centaurs, … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
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Pluto continues to make the news… this column dates from November, 2004, in the Tablet. The latest news from out where Pluto orbits has brought to my mind that ‘60s satire of TV science shows, “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Readers of this column may remember how surprised we were last spring [2004] to find an object, since named Sedna, orbiting nearly twice as far from the Sun as any previously discovered solar system body. That far away, it must be pretty big to reflect even the meager bit of sunlight that we see glancing off its surface; perhaps as big as Pluto itself? How big? That depends on how bright its surface is. We know from their motions how far away from the Sun (and us) Sedna and the other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) lie. And we can measure how much light from them reaches our telescopes. For a given brightness, that amount of light could mean they were very … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
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This column was first published in The Tablet in September 2005. Of course, as we all know, the discussions talked about here finally came to their climax in August 2006 with the definition of a “Dwarf Planet” as I described here. During the Council of Nicaea, so the story goes, tempers ran so high over the question of defining Jesus’ human and divine natures that fist fights broke out in the streets. Our councils this past month were much smaller, but no less heated. In Brazil, Norway, and Britain, various subsets of an International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group met in August and September [2005] to finally try to define a planet. Although our working group has been around for more than a year (I wrote about it here in April, 2004) the situation reached a crisis this summer with the announcement of the particulars for a body temporarily designated 2003 UB313. It’s ten billion miles from the Sun, in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The best way to travel
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First published in The Tablet in January, 2007   Dark and dreary, January is a time to take off to new and exotic climes; or at least, to daydream about such trips. My own January voyage was a visit to my old hometown, snow-dusted Detroit, to attend a science fiction convention. But a panel discussion at that meeting, “Travel Destinations of the Solar System,” challenged us to imagine really exotic localities. Where among the planets would we love to go? And what it would be like to be standing there, in person? Panelist Bill Higgins, a radiation physicist at Fermi Lab in Chicago, regularly presents spaceflight results as a Nasa “Solar System Ambassador” at events like this. He described how Pluto and its moon Charon orbit each other while locked in a spin state that keeps each body always facing the other. “What if we could stretch a “beanstalk” across the 17,000 km gap between them?” he asked. “We could … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Hunches
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First published in The Tablet in December, 2005  Every December, along with the Christmas rush and the endless round of holiday parties, planetary astronomers have another deadline facing them: the annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference. The meeting is in March; the deadline for submitting papers is January 10. It’s challenging enough to write up results on deadline; but harder, is that really you ought to have some results worth writing up. My last month has been a scramble as I try chasing after the faintest wisp of an idea to see if it has enough substance to talk about in front of a thousand highly critical peers. Lately we’ve been observing Centaurs, objects so named because they’re half comet, half Kuiper Belt Object. Their orbits look like they originated out beyond Neptune and Pluto, but they are now traveling in eccentric paths that intersect the orbits of the major planets and will some day be deflected into the inner … Continue reading