Category Archives: Astromony

James Webb Telescope – What is it?

Carina Nebula
NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula Star-forming region from James Webb. Photo: NASA Public Domain

A Giant Feat for Mankind

By far, the most extraordinary images from outer space that have ever been received have come from the James Webb telescope. As the successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb is the most powerful space observatory ever built, with far more potential than anything that has come before it.

Launched on Christmas Day, 2021 on the Ariane 5 rocket, this giant observatory, the size of a tennis court, is currently in L2 Orbit, located 1.5 million miles from Earth, sending extraordinary images of objects from as back into time as when the big bang started -13.7 years ago. 

To understand why this matters so much to humanity, we first have to understand what the JWST is not. It is not a souped-up version of the Hubble; nor is it an alternative to Hubble — something different but still essentially the same.

Instead, the JWST represents a completely new paradigm in design and function for a space-based optical telescope. In other words: It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

How Does the JWST Differ from Hubble?

James Webb Telescope
JWST in space near Earth. James Webb telescope far galaxies and planets explore. Photo: iStock

The two telescopes, while both space-based observatories are very different in two significant categories.

    • Mirror size
    • Light spectrum

Size Does Matter!

There is a major difference between the JWST mirrors and the Hubble’s mirrors in size. As discussed further in the article, the bigger the mirror, the further back into space we can see.

James Webb Telescope mirrors compared to Hubble's mirrors
James Webb Telescope mirrors compared to Hubble’s mirrors. Photo: Nasa.gov

As a result, this amazing observatory is also about 10 times more powerful than Hubble, with a much wider field of view — and, therefore, able to observe more objects.

Electromatic (Light) Spectrum

The JWST is designed to observe light in infrared wavelengths. Being able to see objects not usually visible by humans, whereas Hubble primarily observes visible and ultraviolet light. 

This is significant because only a very small percentage of the universe’s atoms emit visible light, while almost all atoms emit infrared light. As such, the JWST — in conjunction with other telescopes that are observed in other wavelengths allows us to view a much bigger chunk of the universe than Hubble ever could.

In addition to infrared, the JWST also has a small segment that observes a type of ultraviolet light that is inaccessible to Hubble.

Why is the JWST Important?

The JWST is a completely different kind of telescope that exploits a different approach to astronomy and will, therefore, produce many different results.

With its ability to detect light from the first stars that ever formed in the universe and the first galaxies that ever formed after the Big Bang, it will, for the first time, give us a comprehensive picture of the evolution of the cosmos. 

The JWST will also allow us to look for the earliest signs of life beyond our planet and, as such, represents a major step on humanity’s path toward enlightenment, as well as a greater understanding of who, what, and where we are.

The Telescope Assembly

The observatory is primarily composed of three components:

    •  Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM)
    • The Spacecraft Element
    • The Optical Telescope Element (OTE)

Integrated Science Instrument Module

This is where the infrared components are. It contains the infrared camera and the spectrograph (device which separates incoming light by its wavelength (frequency).

 

James Webb Infrared Component
James Webb Infrared System. Photo: NASA

The Fine Guidance Sensor/ Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph is used to pinpoint the locations that the JWSP will look at.

The Optical Telescope Element (OTE)

This is where the mirrors are contained. The mirrors are the most significant part of the telescope. Simply put, the larger the mirror, the further back in space we can see and with greater detail,  More specifically, the size of the mirror is directly proportional to the sensitivity (detail) that the telescope can display. The larger it is, the more detail is will show.

This amazing high-tech instrument consists of hexagonal-shaped mirror segments that measure over 4.2 feet across and weighs approximately 88 pounds. It has 18 primary segments that work in symmetry together to produce one large 21.3-foot mirror.

The mirrors are made of ultra-lightweight beryllium, which was chosen due to their thermal and mechanical properties at cryogenic (low) temperatures, as well as beryllium’s weight which made it a lot easier to lift it into space.

James Webb mirror assembly
James Webb mirror assembly. Each segment has a thin gold coating chosen for its ability to reflect infrared light. The largest feature is the five-layer 80 feet long and 30 feet wide sun shield that dissipates heat from the sun more than a million times. Photo: NASA

“The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier astronomical observatory of the next decade,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This first-mirror installation milestone symbolizes all the new and specialized technology that was developed to enable the observatory to study the first stars and galaxies, examine the formation of stellar systems and planetary formation, provide answers to the evolution of our own solar system, and make the next big steps in the search for life beyond Earth on exoplanets.

Amazingly, the mirrors will fold in order to fit into the spacecraft and then unfold when ejected into outer space.

After a tremendous amount of work by an incredibly dedicated team across the country, it is very exciting to start the primary mirror segment installation process,” said Lee Feinberg, James Webb Space Telescope optical telescope element manager at Goddard. “This starts the final assembly phase of the telescope.”

Bill Ochs, James Webb Space Telescope project manager said “There have many significant achievements for Webb over the past year, but the installation of the first flight mirror is special. This installation not only represents another step towards the magnificent discoveries to come from Webb but also the culmination of many years of effort by an outstanding dedicated team of engineers and scientists.”

The Spacecraft Element

Something must power this system and the spacecraft element is what does it. Is supplies the rocket thrusters, propulsion system, communications and all the electrical power needed to make this run as a well oiled machine.

Where are We Now?

SMACS 0723A galaxy cluster. Furthers image recorded from James Webb telescope
Deepest Infrared Image of the Universe Ever Taken. Photo: NASA Public Domain 

We will leave you with this. Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, which contains thousands of galaxies is 4.6 billion light years away.

That means that we are looking at it the way it looked 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists have a lot of work ahead of them and who knows what they’ll find?

Space Shuttle Columbia History

Rocket Garden Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida – March 2, 2010: The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center. Eight milestone launch vehicles from KSC’s history are displayed. Photo: iStock

With the advent of NASA’s new planned trips to the moon and Mars and Elon Musk jumping in with his successful Space-X program, we’d thought it would be a good time to look back at how we got to this point and what better way to begin but with the Space Shuttle program. (Yes, we can go back further to the Saturn V and the manned moon trips but we will in a separate article because such a major achievement deserves its own space (put intended 😃)

Space Shuttle Overview

Space Shuttle Columbia from its 16th flight landing at Kennedy Space Center
Space Shuttle Columbia from its 16th flight landing at Kennedy Space Center Photo: Wikimedia Public Domain

The space shuttle Columbia was the first of the shuttle crafts to be launched and ultimately became a feat of engineering excellence. It was the most complex machine ever built to bring humans to and from space, and which has successfully expanded the era of space exploration. It lead to two decades of an unsurpassed legacy of achievement.

The difference between the shuttle program and previous rockets that went into space was that these aircraft were designed to be used over and over again. Columbia completed 28 missions over a 22-year span.

In the Beginning

The Columbia Space Shuttle was named after a sailing vessel that operated out of Boston in 1792 and explored the mouth of the Columbia River. One 975 in Palmdale, California, was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in 1979.

There were many problems with this orbiter initially and this ultimately resulted in a delay in its first launch, but finally, on April 12, 1981, the shuttle took off and completed its Orbital Flight Test Program missions, which was the 20th anniversary of the first spaceflight and first manned human spaceflight in history known as Vostok 1.

Columbia orbited the Earth 36 times, commanded by John Young, a Gemini and Apollo program veteran, before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. 

The Mission

Columbia was used for research with Spacelab and it was the only flight of Spacehab‘s Research Double Module. It was also used to deploy the Chandra observatory, a space telescope.

Columbia’s last successful mission was to service the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 2002 and was its 27th flight. Its next mission, STS-107, saw a loss of the orbiter when it disintegrated during reentry into the atmosphere and killed all seven of its crew.

February 1, 2003

NASA Columbia Crew
The STS-107 crew includes, from the left, Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA photo. via Wikipedia)

After a successful mission in space, the seven members of the Columbia began their return for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, but something was about to go terribly wrong.

On this date, February 1, 2003, a small section of insulating foam broke off the shuttle. At first thought, one would think that this would not be a major problem, but when it comes to space flight and all the engineering complexities that come with it, one small defect can lead to disaster, and sadly, that is exactly what happened.

After months of investigation, it was determined that the reason for the foam breaking away from the Shuttle was due to a failure of a pressure seal located on the right side of the rocket booster.

This was the second disaster where we lost astronauts during space shuttle flights. The first was during a Challenger mission on January 28, 1986. This author distinctly remembers watching the take-off of the Challenger and then hearing a large expulsion. Everyone knew at that moment in time, that something was wrong.

The Result

The benefits that humankind has gained from these shuttle flights were enormous. There were missions directly involved in launching and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, docking with the Russian space station Mir, as well as performing scientific experiments that have ultimately benefited all of us.

In 2011, President Bush retired the Shuttle orbiter fleet and the 30-year Space Shuttle program in favor of the new Constellation program, but there were many costs and delays with this program and subsequently, it was canceled by President Obama in favor of using private companies to service the International Space Station. From then on, U.S. crews accessed the ISS via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft until a U.S. crew vehicle was ready

Today, we are experiencing achievements never before considered a reality within our lifetime. From the amazing photos from the James Well telescope to our planned missions to the moon and Mars, we have to credit those who came before these missions who deserve all the credit, lest we forget the ones who ultimately gave it all for the benefit of humankind!

 

 

The Hoax of the The Moon Landing Hoax

Illustration of the accusation that the moon landing was a hoax
Cartoon illustration of the 1969 moon landing, with a depiction that is nothing more than a Hollywood stunt. IStock

The CIA was involved in the JFK assassination, the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks, there are space aliens among us, and so many more, including one that is particularly disturbing and which was initiated by conspiracy theorist host talk show Alex Jones who said that the tragedy at Sandy Hook Connecticut never happened.

Fortunately, in this case, Alex Jones got his due and maybe next time, if he still has a job, he will think twice before purporting such preposterous statements.

So much for our shock and awe introduction, but let’s tone it down a bit and concentrate on one particular conspiracy theory.  For this one which they call the moon landing hoax, we are going to take this accusation and rip it apart, one by one. Not because we have to, but by showing how ridiculous these theories are, hopefully, it will have a domino effect on those that continue to fall prey to these preposterous speculations.

“I Am Telling You! The Moon Landing Was a Hoax”

So they say that Neil Armstrong never set foot on the moon and that it was all staged in an unknown location on Earth, with cameras, and props located somewhere in the United States. They go as far as saying that Disney staged it in Hollywood.

Time to Debunk!

The Waving Flag

Astronaut on the Moon with flag
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It is said that when the US flag was put on the moon, the photographs and videos show that it appears to be moving. The moon has no air or wind, so some say that the landing must be on a Hollywood set and is completely fake.

There are currently six flags on the moon, from each successful moon landing. The flags are made out of nylon and are held up by four interlocking aluminum poles. These poles were designed by many engineers which resulted in a kit named The Lunar Flag Assembly

Different soil and other aspects such as radiation from the sun needed to be researched in order to send up a functioning flag and flagpole. The original flag appears to be moving, because the top horizontal pole that holds up the top of the flag out, was not extended all the way by the astronauts. This is why the flag looks rippled in photos and gives the illusion of movement in the NASA video. The flag only moves when it is acted upon and touched by the astronauts (inertia) or when a rocket blast blows by it. 

Needless to say, if this was on a Hollywood set, it would be inside, so where is the wind? In addition, if this was such an elaborate hoax, does anyone think they would be that stupid to overlook such an obvious ‘fault’?

Two Shadows

In some photographs, there appears to be two shadows from the astronauts or the Lunar Module. This is easily explained. 

Since the Earth is much larger than the moon, it casts a much greater reflection of light from the Sun. In doing so, another shadow appears, which is a direct result of Earth Light (with respect to moonlight, but that light is much dimmer). The angle of the shadows is directly related to the time of day, the same as they would appear here on Earth; hence, two shadows appear.

Moon Dust 

The way the dust flies from the Apollo 16 footage from NASA shows how the rover kicks up the dust. The dust forms a rooster tail, because of the low gravity environment and no atmosphere on the moon.

This tail is a product of the lunar environment. Dust on the Earth cannot fly the way it does on the moon. This was confirmed by a study done by two scientists at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Apollo 16 footage was turned into a mathematical formula that proved that if the dust on Earth was kicked up from a rover it would land very differently. 

Enormous Effort

To discredit them further, one should consider the enormous work that would need to go into this, even if it was just a Hollywood set.  A whole film crew would be required to make this ‘movie’, but this would not just be any movie, it would be a film designed to fool the entire world, including scientists, astronomers, electrical and mechanical engineers to name a few, and if it was run by the government, a certain amount of politicians as well that would probably work its way up the ladder.

This does not include the renting of the studio and all the bureaucracy that would go with it. In all, there would be no less than a few hundred people hired to fake this event. For so much equipment and so many people involved, why has no one come to speak out?

Yes We Were Really There

Besides the hundreds of people who would have been involved in the ‘Hollywood’ planning, the opposite is also true, as 400,000 Nasa employees were hired to accomplish this amazing task some 50 years ago. They even brought back moon rocks!

It is also an insult to the amazing astronauts who have sacrificed their lives for our country, NASA, and the people of the world who live here.

The Apollo 11 crew: Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.
The Apollo 11 crew

There is such indisputable proof that we landed on the moon that it is almost impossible to say it was fake.  

This author had the pleasure of meeting Buzz Aldren to discuss his amazing journey and looking back to 1969 when I was a young boy, I can vividly remember staying up with my father to watch this incredible feat of engineering and determination. It was real to us then and it is real to us now! 

 

What Would Space Aliens Really Look Like?

Illustration of an alien planet
Photo iStock

The Extraterrestrial Delima

Some say that we are the only intelligent life in the universe, but others would tend to differ, and if you include the calculations in our article Life in Outer Space, a Mathematical Approach, there is a good probability that they are correct.

Most probably, we are probably the only planet that has species that look exactly like us humans. The aliens would have to live under the exact same environmental conditions that exist on this planet. If there is just a .001% difference on their planet as there is no Earth, our alien friends could look much different.

That’s because all living things on Earth have physically adapted to this planet’s environment; such as adapting to the atmosphere, which is 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen, as well as adjusting to the planet’s range of temperatures and seasons. The result is that we are a species that consists of two ears, two eyes, two lungs, and a bunch of other organs that keep us alive through these earthly conditions.

So the chances are very high that there isn’t a planet exactly like Earth, but some exoplanets in the habitable zone might come pretty close. Instead of saying we may be the only intelligent life in outer space, it may be more prudent to say we may be the only intelligent life that looks like us in outer space.

An Exoplanet With a Slight Change

Illustration of an extraterrestrial
Photo iStock

Suppose that there is a planet revolving around a star 100 light-years from earth.  We’ll call this planet Exo, but on this body, there is a slight change in its atmosphere, namely, its oxygen level is 90 percent nitrogen and 10 percent oxygen. If we use earthlings as a reference, then the species that would evolve on this planet, Exo, would need larger lungs to compensate for the low oxygen level.

Now suppose that Exo is 20% further from its star than the Earth is from our sun (Earth is 93,000,000 miles away). That would mean that it would be 18.6 million miles further away from its star as compared to Earth’s proximity to the sun. Everything would be darker on Exo and cooler as well.

Our hypothetical species would require larger eyes than us to compensate for the lack of sunlight. Needless to say, their winters will be colder, so those living in a Siberian type of weather on Exo would possibly have thicker skin than their counterparts on the warmer side of the planet (warmer relative to that planet’s environment, not ours).

What About Gravity on Exo?

The amount of gravity would be determined by the size (mass) of the planet, so if Exo is 10% larger than Earth, then the creatures living there would probably have heavier and stronger legs. Their legs may bulge out more or they may be longer than what we humans would look like, or maybe they have three or four legs. Not a far thought since thousands of species on this planet also have four legs.

For a more in-depth look at how aliens may evolve, take a look at this video below.

Time is Everything

We have discussed how the physical characteristics of alien life might look on a habitable planet similar to life here on Earth. But what about their evolution process? Did it take the same amount of time for these aliens to evolve as we did? In other words, humanoid life on Earth has been estimated to start around 200 million years ago, but does that mean that creatures on other planets began their evolution process within the same time period as we did?

What Year is It?

We first have to take into account that a year on Exo would probably be different than our years. If Exo is 10% further away from its sun, then it will take longer for the planet to revolve around it, a 365-day revolution (if days are the same there) won’t work. We will estimate that it takes 400 Exo days for it to complete one of its years.

Are We the Most Intelligent of All Species in the Universe? Watch What You Say!

The above scenario is based upon a similar time period it would take for beings like us to evolve on a different planet. Chances are that this would not be the case.

What if Exo was formed 500 thousand years later than it did on Earth? Well, that would mean that they would have evolved only to what we could equate as neanderthals. Now that type of communication doesn’t look promising.

But what hat if Exo was formed 500 thousand years earlier than here on Earth?  That would mean that Exo’s inhabitants would have hundreds of thousands of years more time to evolve than we humans have on this planet.

If their evolution started that much earlier then we could conclude that they are mentally superior to us. If that is the case and they do (or some believe that they have already) come to Earth, will they be friendly?

We Come in Peace, Maybe.

Scientists are contemplating a new communication with ET via signals to be sent from huge telescopes here on Earth. It will be called the Beacon in the Galaxy and will contain mathematical,  physical, and biological representations of earthlings, as well as our location in the Milky Way galaxy. But if aliens do find this and they equate to the scenario of advancement over us, is this a smart move? Only time will tell!

The Eight Planets of Our Solar System

Solar System

Yes. That is correct. Eight planets. Not nine, since Pluto was decommissioned and reduced to a planet dwarf planet in 2006 that is part of the Kuiper Belt. An area at the edge of the solar system that is filled with icy bodies that orbit the sun.

A dwarf planet is an object that revolves around the sun but is not considered a planet because it doesn’t meet the criteria set forth by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an international organization that helps to set the standard for outer space quantifications.

Want to learn more about the dwarf planet, Pluto, check it out here.

The Eight Planets

Mercury

The planet Mercury is mainly composed of the element iron. It is one of the few planets that have no moons and there is a good reason. Being so close to the Sun, the gravitational pull would grab those moons like a magnet, and they consequently would be incinerated.

Planet Mecury
The planet Mercury is seen in silhouette, the lower third of the image, as it transits across the face of the sun Monday, May 9, 2016, as viewed from Boyertown, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Designated as the smallest planet in our solar system, Mercury is the closest planet to the sun. Only 36 million miles or 0.39 AU (astronomical unit. The distance from Earth to the sun has an AU of 1).

It orbits the sun every 88 Earth days. (The closer the planet is to the Sun, the faster it revolves around it) and it passes between Earth and the sun only about 13 times a century. The last pass was in 2006.

Mercury has a thin atmosphere. We humans as well as all air breathing mammals on this planet would not survive in Mercury’s atmosphere without protective equipment, but it is unlikely you would want to go there anyway when the average temperature is 354 degrees F. In 1974, two spacecraft visited Mercury: Mariner 10 and Messenger. Learn More about Mariner.

Venus

Planet Venus
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The second planet from the sun and slightly smaller than Earth, it revolves around the sun every 225 Earth days. Over 40 spacecraft have explored Venus. Notably, Magellan mapped over 98% of the planet’s surface. Venus’ temperatures can go up to 480 degrees. The planet is unusual as it spins backward, resulting in the sun rising in the west and setting in the east.

Earth

NASA Photo of the Earth
Photo by Pexels

Where would we be without it? Our planet is located in the Goldilocks Zone. The name was coined from the Three Bears children’s story. We are situated in the area of the solar system where it is not too hot, not too cold, but just right for life as we know it to exist and strive.

With that said, scientists are currently looking at exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system)  that also are in the Goldilocks Zone. 15% of all stars in our galaxy have planets orbiting around them and if you add them together, it would total over 500 habitable planets that have been discovered so far, so who knows? We may not be alone after all!

Getting back to Earth’s facts, we are the third planet from the sun and 93 million miles away or one AU from the sun.

Mars

Mars planet
Photo: NASA

No doubt the passion of classical sci-fi writers in the middle twentieth century, including the famous War of the Worlds broadcast by Orson Wells, Mars has driven the curiosity of life, if not now, then within this millennium. Some scientists do believe that Mars once sustained life many years ago and MASA is searching the planet with the Mars Voyager program to determine just that. If confirmed, scientists can determine that Earth is not the only planet that can sustain life, which would be probably the biggest scientific breakthrough in history!

Illustration of an extraterrestrial
Photo: iStock. Maybe intelligent life on Mars? Most likely not, but there may be microorganisms. We’re still looking to find out.

The planet is conveniently located between the Earth and Jupiter as the fourth planet from the sun at a distance of 142 million miles or 1.52 AU when it is furthest from Earth. About 39 million miles at its closest. Mars makes a complete orbit around the sun every 687 Earth days.

The two moons orbiting Mars are Phobos and Deimos.

There are plans by NASA to send men or possibly women as well to Mars.  But we better hurry up as China is also planning on manned missions to Mars as well.

Jupiter

Planet Jupiter
Photo by Planet Volumes on Unsplash

Besides being the largest of the eight planets, what also makes Jupiter popular is its giant red dot, which is large enough to encompass the planet Earth. It is gigantic storm of immense proportions that has been happening since we first discovered Jupiter hundreds of years ago. This planet is so large that if it was a soccer ball, Earth would be a pea in comparison.

Jupiter is about 484 million miles, 5.2 AU from the sun.
Jupiter makes a complete orbit around the sun every 12 Earth years. Known as the ‘gas-giant’, it has no solid surface. Imagine landing on Jupiter with no solid surface!

There are 53 moons revolving around this body.

Saturn

Planet Saturn and its changing seasons
Photo: NASA

Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun (886 million miles, 9.5 AU from Earth.) Saturn makes a complete orbit around the sun every 29 Earth years. As with Jupiter, Saturn is also a gas giant with no solid surface. There are 82 moons orbiting Saturn. Fifty-three of these moons have been calculated by scientists and another 29 have been located but are awaiting confirmation.

Some of Saturn’s moons are larger than the planet Mercury like the moon Titan and some are smaller than a football stadium. Saturn is probably the most popular plant with its outer rings circling it. The rings, seven in all are gaseous objects that stay intact due to the planet’s gravitational pull.

Uranus

Planet Uranus
Photo: NASA

Not nearly as much fun to look at as Saturn, the planet Uranus orbits our sun at a distance of about 1.8 billion miles or 19.19 AU.

It takes Uranus to make a complete orbit around the sun in about 84 Earth years. Because of the distance from the sun, Uranus is a cold, icy planet. The planet contains 27 moons revolving around it.

Neptune

Planet Neptune
Photo: Usplash courtesy of NASA

Update 9/23/22

Neptune as seen from James Webb Telescope
Photo: NASA

On September 21, 2022, the James Webb telescope took the clearest images of Neptune’s rings so far. These images were taken with the Webb’s infrared camera, so it’s bluish color does not display. Instead, we see a glassy looking image mostly due to the methane gas that is so abundant. This gas is so strong that it actually absorbs the infrared light resulting in the planet looking rather dark, but this darkness doesn’t show because of the high-altitude clouds that are present and that is what we see in the images and are shown as bright streaks and spots because it is reflecting the sunlight.
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Neptune, depicted as the god of the sea in Greek and Roman mythology, the planet was first discovered in 1846 and took on this name. It is 2.8 billion miles, 30.07 AU from the sun. Like Uranus, Neptune is also a cold (actually colder) planet than Uranus and is labeled as an ice giant, not a gas giant like Jupiter. Neptune has rings, although not nearly as prominent and noticeable as Saturn’s rings and the planet has 13 moons.

It takes Neptune 165 Earth years to revolve around the sun. And just recently, it was discovered that the temperature of Neptune unexpectedly went down. Scientists are baffled as to why. Guess we’ll just have to go there to find out!

Conclusion

There you have it. The eight planets in our solar system, but we are definitely not alone. At least in solar systems that is. Based on research, there could be over one billion solar system in our Milky Way galaxy alone. Just think what’s out there when we consider the trillions of galaxies in our universe!

What Happens When Stars Die?

A star changes into a number of different phases before its death. Since it is our Sun that brings us life, as well as it being part of the main sequence category of stars, let’s use the sun as our example.

Early On

During the years following the big bang, giant clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms began to form. As the years followed, these elements started to clump together to form balls of hydrogen and helium gas. In other words, they became a mass of balls of gas. When  mass is created, gravity is established and the star cycle begins.

So a star is being formed and as such, our friend gravity keeps getting stronger as the mass of the star keeps getting bigger. When the gravity reaches a certain strength, the star will collapse into itself. But wait! This won’t happen because there is a force that will counter the star’s gravitational pull. So what is this mysterious force?

What Stops Stars from Collapsing?

Enter nuclear fusion! This is where the hydrogen and helium atoms combine. Another way of describing this process is when the protons and neutrons, called nuclei of an atom (in this case hydrogen) fuse with the nuclei of another atom (in this case helium) to produce one heavier helium atom

It is that simple… or is it? For the benefit of our audience, we will keep it simple by stating that each hydrogen atom is one ounce (of course this is not the actual weight) and when four of these atoms are combined into one larger atom, the resultant atoms would weigh four ounces. But no! The weight of the combined atom ends up being less than the combined weight of the four separate atoms. So, the mass that escapes when these nuclei combine is in the form of energy

This is a prime example of Einstein’s formula E=mc2, which states that mass and energy are proportionally connected; that is, as mass decreases, energy increases and vice-versa. In the case of nuclear fusion, some of the mass of the helium nucleus is released and converted to energy. 

Another way of describing this process is when a single nucleus combines to form two lighter nuclei. When this happens, energy is released because it gives off more heat than it needs and the result is energy.

If you’d like to get more insight into the actual process of nuclear fusion, then this fun video is for you. 

So the result is that there is a balancing act where the inward pull of the star’s gravity and the outward push of the nuclear fusion process cancels out each of the forces. And that is why the Sun (and all stars) don’t collapse onto themselves (at least as long as there is hydrogen to fuel the nuclear fusion).

Let There Be Light!

If you follow the bible, God said “let there be light”. Maybe it is just a metaphor that explains what this cycle of energy is, but whether you believe in the bible or not, the fact remains that this energy that is produced is in the form of light. And there you have it! Light is created when hydrogen nuclei fuse with helium.

It’s All About Gravity

The Sun, like all stars, have a limited supply of hydrogen in their cores. When the star’s core runs out of hydrogen fuel, gravity takes hold and subsequently, the star will compress. Then energy in the form of heat is then generated.

This heat caused the outer layers of the Sun to bulge out or expand across the inner part of our solar system to become what astronomers call a red giant. Big enough to engulf the orbits of Mercury and Venus and even reach Earth. Then, after millions of years, these outer layers of gas will dissipate into the darkness of the universe. 

But let’s get back to what’s left of the star. It will collapse within itself to become a white dwarf, thanks again to gravity. As an example, picture a balloon that contains solid rock (it is actually just gas, but for this hyper theoretical explanation, we will use a solid) that is pushed down to the size of a ping-pong ball. 

This is referred to as a change in volume, which means that the same amount of rock in the balloon is condensed to the pong size. In scientific terms, it refers to the volume of the mass that is condensed (to a smaller size) and so, the tiny ball still weighs the same as when it was balloon size. The result is a heavier density of the mass which would be equivalent to that of one teaspoon of the material in the ping-pong ball could weigh up to 100 tones. Over billions of years, the white dwarf cools and becomes invisible.

 What About the Other Stars

Now, let’s take a look at what happens to other stars in the universe. It all depends upon what size the star is during its main life cycle. 

Super large stars will change into supernovae, not like our sun which is considered an average star. Its end life cycle will result in a white dwarf as we discussed.  Regardless of the star’s size. All will follow a seven-cycle process. So without further ado, here are the life (and death) cycles of all stars.

1. Giant Gas Cloud

Nebulas are where stars are born. Similar to a fetus in a womb, the stars grow as the gas molecules work to form them. That is why it is called a gas cloud and we can thank gravity again for bringing these molecules together.

  1. Protostar

When the gas particles run into each other, heat energy is created This result is what scientists call a Protostar -the beginning of a star’s creation. We can view this process via infrared since Protostars show up warmer than the other materials in the cloud. 

  1. T-Tauri Phase

T-Tauri stars are the next phase in the star’s life process, but not strong enough for nuclear fusion to begin yet. This cycle lasts about 100 million years,

  1. Main Sequence

Welcome to the main sequence phase of stars and this is where our Sun is now, fortunately; otherwise, you would not be here to read this article. Scientifically, it is the process where the core temperature has gone high enough to allow nuclear fusion to begin. 

  1. Red Giant

When the hydrogen fuel starts to run out, the nuclear fusion process will end its cycle. Now there is nothing to stop the star from condensing into itself because our friend – gravity now has complete control with no force to counter it. As the star contracts inward, the outer layers of the star expand. This expansion is so great that they could reach the orbits of some of its inner planets. Say hello to the red giant! When stars reach this phase, they appear yellowish in color since they are cooler than when stars are in their main-sequence stage.

6. The Fusion of Iron

The Helium molecules start combining with each other at the star’s core, causing the core to shrink. When this happens, carbon is fused in and this process continues until the atoms turn into iron. Now the core will collapse as the iron fusion absorbs energy. This in turn causes this red giant to become a supernova. For medium-sized stars like our Sun, the star will contract and turn into a white dwarf.

7. Supernovae 

Some of the most spectacular events in galaxies are the occurrence of supernovae. In this phase, most of the star’s matter is blasted away into space. Internally, the core will collapse into a neutron star, also known as the black hole. 

8. Stellar Nursery

No doubt you have seen nebulas in photos or maybe through a telescope. These are the stellar nurseries, where its remnants of gas and other materials are floating around only to be gathered together again to form new stars.

Illustration of a star's life cycle
Illustration of a star’s life cycle

 

Andromeda – Our Nearest Spiral Galaxy

Photo of Andromoda Galaxy
Andromeda Galaxy. 220,000 light-years across, containing 10 trillion stars. This image was captured using amateur astrophotography equipment including a Skywatcher 80mm telescope, a QHY269M monochrome camera, and a seven-position filter wheel containing Red, Green, Blue, Hydrogen Alpha, Oxygen III, and Sulphur II filters. Tracking was done using an iOptron CEM70G mount and PHD2 guiding software. It was entirely processed using PixInsight. iStock.

A Galaxy of 1 Trillion Stars!

What was the subject of the popular heated debate between ace astronomers, Heber Curtis and Harlow Shapley? – The Andromeda galaxy!

Back in 1920, Shapley believed that the Pinwheel and the Andromeda galaxies were actually nebulae found in the Milky Way. Curtis believed that this wasn’t the case, based on the argument that the Andromeda galaxy is at a multi-million light-year distance from our Milky Way. It was later established through the work of Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and others that Curtis indeed was right.

It has since been determined that this galaxy has over one trillion stars. With that amount of stars and with scientists’ estimates that up to 50% of the planets that revolve around these stars may be in the Goldilocks Zone, we have an astounding possibility of life somewhere in Andromeda.

Over the years, a lot of astronomers have researched Andromeda with some of the findings listed below.

Once a Nebula?

Long before the actual expanse of the universe was realized, the rim of the Milky Way was considered to be the boundary of outer space. Within those boundaries, the fuzzy blur visible in the sky ( Andromeda) was believed to be a cluster of cosmic dust clouds and forming stars. The galaxy was originally named the Great Andromeda Nebula until the powerful telescopes of the 20th century proved otherwise.

It Can Be Seen From Earth

This mammoth, dazzling galaxy is at least a 2.5 million light-year distance away from us. However, if you find a clear night sky (the pollution levels need to be down too) you can see the galaxy with the naked eye. It would appear as a scattered haze. Grab a pair of good binoculars and you can clearly witness the central region of the galaxy. A large powerful telescope will leave you in awe of the spectacular view of Andromeda.

It is Gigantic

The galaxy has a diameter stretched across almost 220,000 light-years. A colossal structure that seems longer than the full moon at night and is actually 2.5 times longer in length than the entire Milky Way. It is farther than any other star visible from the earth, yet it can still be seen with the naked eye.

It is believed that the Milky Way is the most immense body in the Local Group (a galactic group based on more than 54 galaxies), but Andromeda takes the cake when it comes to being more voluminous. It contains trillions of stars, twice as many as the ones in our galaxy. It was the Spritzer Space Telescope that made this observation.

We’ve Known About It for a Lifetime

The Andromeda galaxy is clearly visible in the night sky has been constantly scrutinized, observed, and studied by astronomers for multiple decades. The galaxy spawned about 10 billion years ago when several smaller protogalaxies merged together. About some 8 billion years ago it collided head on with another galaxy that led to the formation of the giant that is Andromeda today.

Now here’s the fun part.  Andromeda is moving towards our galaxy. And it’s not just moving – it’s actually on a collision course! 

Let that sink in. Andromeda and the Milky Way are both moving towards each other at a speed of 120 kilometers per second. But here’s the catch: at this rate it’ll take around 4 billion years for the galaxies to collide!

 

Three of the Most Popular Constellations

Illustration of the constellations around Earth
Detailed constellation map of the Southern hemisphere with names of stars. Photo: IStock

Sky Patterns

It’s a beautiful clear night and you gaze up at the sky. What do you see? Thousands of stars and perhaps even galaxies. Let’s use our imagination, just as the ancient Greeks had done, and let your creativity loose. Now, what do you see? A cow? A frog? A man with a sword?

If you see patterns, great! But if you don’t, no worries. We’ll let you know what the ancient Greeks discovered millennia ago and are still in use today.

Enter the Constellations

Constellations with figures drawn around the stats
Photo IStock

Constellations are officially defined as clusters of stars that make identifiable patterns for human clarification. There are a total of 88 constellations or to be a bit more creative, stars that make up characters that have been officially documented. The constellation Orion is the most well-known.

The term was coined from the Latin word constellti and was first used in astrology. The earliest records date from the Middle Bronze Dynasties from the Bronz Age which dates back from 2055 to 1650 BC. It is noted in the bible as Job 9:9, 38:31-32 – the “Maker of the Bear“.  In Greek mythology, the Orion Constellation represents a hunter.

Within some of these constellations and sometimes spanning across them are smaller star patterns called asterisms. An asterism is a group of stars that form figures but are not large enough to be called a constellation.

Most Popular Constellations

We won’t discuss all of the 88 constellations, but we will pick a few that are the most well-known.

Let’s Start with Orion

Constellation-OrIon-Showing-the-Hunter.
The ‘Hunter’ in the Orion constellation as imagined by the ancient Greeks’ Photo: IStock

In the Orion constellation, we have the Orion Nebula, which is a group of gas and dust that will form stars, some of which have already been formed.

Designated as Messier 42, we have the star Betelgeuse which is 642.5 light-years from Earth. It is a supergiant star and the second brightest star in Orion. It is located at the top left, near the top of the mythical hunter’s arm. Additionally, we have stars Saiph, Bellatrix, and Rigel to name a few more.

You might be familiar with Rigel, the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise talk about how they love to go there. Of course, it is not the star Rigel that they are visiting, but actually, the fourth planet revolving around it, called Rigel 4, a Goldilocks zone planet or “Class M” as Mr. Spock would say.

As mentioned, the  Constellation Orion represents the mythological Greek hunter Homer. The easiest way is to find the three stars that are aligned with each other. They are Alnilam, Mintaka, and Alnitak, known as Orion’s Belt, which is at the center of Homer’s body.

On a clear night, from the northern hemisphere, just look up north. Of course, you need to be in a low-lit, wide-open location. Even if you live in a city, open areas such as parks can help you locate this popular constellation.

Ursa Major – King of the Greek Gods

Another famous constellation is Ursa Major. Latin for Great She-Bear and more popularly known to be the constellation where The Big Dipper lies, probably the most popular of all asterisms. Also known in the UK as the Plough. 

The Big Dipper is well known mostly because of its navigation capabilities. If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, which is above the 35th parallel, you should be able to see it but to be a bit more realistic, those who are north of  Tennessee’s southern border should be able to find it more easily.

When you look at the Big Dipper, you may not notice it, but this and the Little Dipper rotate around a star called Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, which is one of the brightest stars in Ursa Major.

A child once mentioned that his mother told him whenever he felt sad, he should look up at the North Star and he will know he is being watched over. Parents, whether true or not, you may want to try this! Besides keeping him or her less stressed, they may learn something about the constellations and perhaps astronomy as well! Who knows? Your son or daughter may become a rocket scientist celebrity!

Let’s look back up to see where Polaris is located. It lies at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. Now try drawing an imaginary line around the big dipper to form a Great Bear. Do you see it?

A Point of Navigation

The Big Dipper serves as a pointer to other locations in the sky. “Follow the Arc to Arcturus” is a fairly popular expression in navigation and astronomy. The “arc” can be envisioned as a curved line from the bottom of the Big Dipper and helps you locate two other popular stars called Arcturus and Spica.

So Ursa Major is quite a constellation that contains both the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper. The next time you head out, drop your GPS and compass and see if you can navigate with these stars!

The Zodiac

Not a constellation, but worth mentioning before we continue discussing onward, so let’s talk about the Zodiac. This is a group of stars that cross a number of constellations at the vernal equinox, defined when the Earth’s rotational axis reaches a particular position and occurs in the month of March. At this point, the following occurs:

    • The northern and southern hemispheres receive the sun’s rays equally
    • Night and day are equal in length
    • Spring begins

Aries – The Ram

Aries is a constellation that is not as bright as some of the others; however, it is found in the northern hemisphere, but you may need binoculars or a telescope to find this one since only a few of its stars are visible to the naked eye.

Aries is one of the constellations that lie along the Zodiac and means “the ram” in Latin. The symbol for this constellation is the imaginary set of lines that form a ram’s horns.

Aries has a narrative behind it. It is the story of the Golden Fleece. The mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts is about the search for the Golden Fleece.

Aries contains the stars Hamal and Sheratan and interestingly enough, it also contains the spiral galaxy NGC 772 and the dwarf galaxy NGC 1156.

Orion, Ursa Major, and Aries

These are three of some of the most popular constellations in our night sky. We hope you gained some perspective on how the constellations came to be, their importance in navigation, their relation to astronomy, as well as a bit of Greek mythology, and some of the stars and galaxies that are contained within them. Have we sparked your interest? How about going outside to see if you can spot the Greek hunter, the Great Bear, and the ram’s horns?

What are Solar Flares and What Do They Do to the Earth?

Solar Flares
In this image, you can see an active region on the sun with dark sunspots. Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

Watch out but Don’t look up! A solar flare is coming… Well almost. Solar flares are giant explosions that shoot out from the circumference of the sun, emitting radiation that is beyond human imagination. These emissions of light, heat, and energy can actually spread through the 93,000,000 miles distance from the Sun to the Earth’s atmosphere. But don’t worry. They never make it past that; however, if the flare intensity becomes too strong, there can be disturbances of radio frequency transmissions here on Earth.

Generally speaking, we humans are safe on the ground, at least for now, but in a few billion years, that may not be the case, when the Sun starts turning into a red giant and then a white dwarf.

Solar Flares on the Sun
An image of active regions on the Sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The glowing hot gas traces out the twists and loops of the Sun’s magnetic field lines. Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

 

The Energy of Solar Flares

The amount of energy released is mind-boggling. Up to 1032 ergs. That is the number 1 followed by 32 zeros.  Equivalent to billions of hydrogen bombs simultaneously exploding; however, the flares emit only about 10% of the overall energy of the Sun at any one time. Another way of putting it is that these energy particles can be over a million times greater than the energy that a volcanic eruption can put out.

How Do Solar Flares Develop?

We all know what magnetic fields are and they exist in the sun also, but sometimes these fields get tangled up, like when the wires behind your computer get mixed together. Only on the sun, energy is dispersed when the entanglement gets to be just too much and a burst of fire erupts in order to dissolve this entanglement.

Solar flares can be broken down into three segments.

      • Precursor stage. This is where it begins. Huge amounts of magnetic energy are generated.
      • Impulsive stage. The acceleration of protons and electrons into gigantic energy distributions.
      • Decay stage. The release of the energy, then the flares’ began their decomposition, which can last from about three seconds to 60 seconds.

      These rapid bursts of energy reside on the sun’s outer layer, called the corona and they occur roughly every eleven years. They are difficult to see in a telescope, (of course sun filters are necessary), but with the proper instruments, they can be easily recorded.

Conclusion

Solar flares are one of the natural phenomena that occur in outer space, specifically among stars and our sun is no exception. We need not fear though as these energy bursts do not affect us here on earth with the possible exception of radio transmissions being interrupted. But as the sun matures, it will change to a red giant and then a white dwarf, but that won’t happen for another five billion years or so, so if you are planning a vacation or going to a game, feel free. You’ll be fine. 

 

The Power of the Sun!

Photo of the Sun by NASA
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

How Powerful is the Sun?

Ah, the Sun. We stay warm under it, tan in it and it gives life to every living thing on this planet. But it is 93,000,000 miles away. It is so far that if you were flying there at 550 MPH, it would take you 17 years to get there. If the Space Shuttle, traveling at 27,000 MPH would go there, it would reach the sun in about 156 days.

When you look at the sun, you are actually seeing the way it looked about nine minutes ago. In the photo above, we see a large solar flare extending out from the Sun’s surface, but if you looked at the sun right now, you wouldn’t see the flare. You would have to wait another nine minutes before it would appear.

A more dramatic scenario is that if the Sun blew up right now, we wouldn’t know about it until about nine minutes later. Actually, the sun won’t leave us for another four or five billion years, so you have a little time to prepare.

These examples boil down to the fact that it takes the light from the Sun that long to reach us, but even at that distance, don’t let your curiosity get to you by starring at the sun, or you will go blind.

The fact that an object is 93 million miles away and can still cause this kind of permanent damage to us gives you a good idea of how powerful the gas giant is.

How Big is the Sun When Compared to Other Stars?

For a comparison of the size of our Sun relative to other stars in our galaxy, take a look at this video and get ready for a mind-boggle!

Brief Overview of the Sun’s Lifecycle

In about five billion years, the star will have lost all its hydrogen fuel, which is the element that allows the fusion process to proceed. The result is that it will turn into what astronomers call a red giant.

When a star starts turning into a red giant, it begins to expand to an enormous size. So big that its size could engulf virtually all the inner planets in its solar system. For our solar system, that includes Mercury, Venus, and you got it – Earth. 

As mentioned, we won’t see the Sun’s demise for another 4.5 billion years, so when it begins its red giant cycle, you might want to pack some beers and enjoy watching the Sun blow up while sitting on a beach and having your beer before you say goodbye! 

Energy

The energy of this sun is mind-boggling. It produces energy that is the equivalent of one-trillion megaton bombs per second. Yes, you heard right. That’s 67,000 times as powerful as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and this occurs every second! 

So what is it about this medium-sized star that can be the difference between life and death on Earth? Why is it so powerful? What is it made of? 

Let’s Start with Fusion

Fusion is the process of atoms merging into another atom. In the case of our Sun (and most other stars) four hydrogen atoms fuse into one helium atom, which is the result of gravity that causes these atoms to merge together.  

Not all the mass of the four hydrogen atoms is converted into one helium atom, as the total amount of the mass of the four hydrogen atoms does not equal the total mass of the assimilated helium atom, so something must give. And what gives is energy. A lot of it. About four million times more energy than the burning of coal. 

More precisely, only 71% of the total mass of the four atoms is fused with the hydrogen atom. This is the foundation of Einstein’s formula E=MC2. The more mass that is released, the more energy that is created. So for fusion reactions to occur, Briticana.com sums it up pretty clearly: The total mass of the resultant particles is less than the mass of the initial reactants”. Basically, it is saying that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing, so if the mass of an object gives, the result is energy. 

As we mentioned, these fusion reactions occur every second. No wonder we can go blind if we look at the Sun. 

More about how this entire fusion process works can be found here.

The Sun’s Structure

Illustration of he Sun's components
Wikipedia Creative Commons

Imagine a ball of gas that is 865,370 miles in diameter. That’s our Sun. There are no solid materials in this star (or in any star in the universe). Just hot gasses, very hot. 9,900 degrees Fahrenheit hot! 

With that said, the Sun is divided into four layers: the photosphere, chromosphere, corona, and heliosphere. Let’s take a look.

    • Core – The core is where the fusion process occurs. As the hydrogen atoms merge into the helium atoms, energy in the form of light is generated.
    • Radiative Zone – This zone radiates (transfers light and heat).
    • Tachocline – The atoms are radiated through this thin boundary region and then move to the convective zones.
    • Convective Zone – Convection is the process by which less dense material rises. This part of the Sun is much cooler than its inner layers, but the result of this process is where we see the light and feel the heat of the Sun.

There are much brighter stars than the Sun. Some are called “supergiants” or “hypergiants.” These giants can be over 100 times more luminous than our own ball of gas! Now, just imagine how powerful their fusion reactions are! 

Types of Stars

There are many different types of stars in our galaxy. The types of stars are classified by the following criteria:

    • Temperature – Hot stars are blue or white, while cooler stars are orange or red
    • Mass – Massive stars burn out quickly, while less massive ones can last millions of years
    • Spectral Type – Stars can be identified through their colors and temperatures

Conclusion

The Sun is nothing but a huge hot ball of gas, but show some respect for it, because this great gas ball is what keeps us alive. Amazingly, it supplies life to this planet even though it is 93,000,000 miles away.

The center of the Sun is the core, where the temperatures are millions of degrees. The core’s pressure from gravity causes hydrogen to fuse together to form helium, which is the fusion process. 

The Sun doesn’t have an electrical charge, so it doesn’t produce light on its own. The heat of the core makes the gas around it become extremely hot, and this is what makes it glow.

Our Sun is a type of star called a yellow dwarf. There are many different types of stars that are of different sizes and temperatures. 

So there are many different stars in the universe and our Sun is one of them. They are all so powerful that staring at them for more than a second can make you blind. So accept the fact that this star is powerful, but don’t look up to find out!