Lunar eclipse offers rare treat for some in the wee morning hours

The image above courtesy of Anthony Ayiomamitis gives an idea of the treat in store for star-gazer tonight. In the wee morning hours a beautiful full moon will offer up a rare show in crystal winter skies as it sets gently wrapped in red and gold in the west: the 2011 lunar eclipse. Cosmic Log has a great rundown of times and the best geographic locations in the US: [Read more...]

Aren’t they all God particles?

Thanks to the Higgs rumors I’ve already read enough God Particle articles to last me a lifetime. Besides, technically, given an a priori belief in a cosmic creator/planner, wouldn’t every particle be a “God” particle? But I do understand the Higgs is hard to understand, so its significance to physics is difficult for the layperson to to appreciate. This article just posted by Matt Srassler will bring you up to date on the hard science of detection, for non physicist, non engineers, you’ll find this excellent piece written with you in mind most helpful. Then there’s the LHC rap, and if you can get past the cheesiness factor, it’s actually quite good and even has an MC Hawking intro, below the fold. [Read more...]

Rumors swirling of major announcement on Higgs boson

I don’t know anything beyond that. Other than a physicist just tipped me off a major announcement would be forthcoming in the near future and there’s a lot of press speculation on it. Prepare for endless reviews of the God Particle…

Update: Here’s what I’ve been told “two experiments see a big enhancement in 2-photon production, which fits perfectly with what one expects for a Higgs at 125 GeV.    The total significance is 4.2 sigma, which is just short of the 5 sigma needed for the announcement of an official discovery.”

Kepler bags a twin earth candidate 600 light-years away!

This diagram compares our solar system to Kepler-22, a star system containing the first "habitable zone" planet discovered by the Kepler mission. (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

It may be the first of many, but it will always be the first. It was inevitable, inasmuch as we all thought it would happen sooner or later, but a chill still ran down my spine when I read what the Kepler planet finder discovered. [Read more...]

Grandma got run over by a gamma ray burst

The Hypernova model of a gamma ray burster, click image for more GRB info

On July 2, 1967 two top secret US survelliance satellites, Velas 3 and 4, spied an alarming phenomenon. The Vela sats were designed to detect the telltale radiation of nuclear tests by the USSR. But on that day these two picked up a flash of gamma rays from the other direction, not here on earth, but rather out in space. Soon more flashes were seen, astrophysicists were called in, sworn to secrecy, and allowed to examine the data. They determined these gamma flashes weren’t commie nuke tests in space, the flashes lasted too long and faded too slowly, this was something else, something new. And as the data accumulated scientists realized they were witnessing the brightest, most energetic events since the Big Bang. Gamma Ray Bursts, referred to as GRBsburst onto the cosmic scene like an atomic bomb, pardon the pun, and a new field of astronomy was born. Last year that field found itself looking at one of the most mysterious GRB’s ever seen [Read more...]

The most magical time of the year

Solar noon marked over the course of a year. The figure-eight pattern is called an Analemma

Believe me, if you grew up in Texas, where summer heat tops the century mark for weeks on end and even the morning lows offer little relief, you’d feel December was pretty damn magical. This month dawn and dusk stretch out, as the sun marches steadily to the Winter Solstice. The solstice was  a magical time for our ancient ancestors, too, the sun looked like it was going away and they were afraid it might keep going! So after the shortest day of the year, anywhere from Dec 20 to 23 on our calendar, a returning sun was cause for celebration indeed. You might think the shortest day of the year would have the latest sunrise and earliest sunset. But here in Texas and throughout the temperate section of the northern hemisphere, it actually doesn’t work out that way. [Read more...]

Amateur astronomer wows professionals with photo of exosolar disk

An amateur astronomer using a homemade 25 cm (10 inch) telescope has recorded an exquisite image of a nearby star and surrounding planetary disk. Beta Pictoris is 63 light-years away and resembles a slightly more massive, hotter version of our sun and primeval solar system in the early stages of planetary formation. The New Zealand star-gazer, named Rolf Olsen, posted the image along with a brief explanation of his technique which has rocketed around the science cyber-sphere:

(Link) — For the last couple of years I have been wondering if it was possible for amateurs to capture this special target but have never come across any such images. The main difficulty is the overwhelming glare from Beta Pictoris itself which completely drowns out the dust disc that is circling very close to the star. Images of the disc taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and from big observatories, are usually made by physically blocking out the glare of Beta Pictoris itself within the optical path.

Beta Pictoris looks like a relatively normal, hot young star through most telescopes.

An optical image courtesy of the ESO of Beta Pictoris reveals a relativey normal, young, blue-white star.

Closer examination in the 1980s indicated the star was in the middle of a wide ring of debris. In 2003 Hubble snapped the fascinating images below clearly showing the disk[s] edge on.

Beta Pictoris and debris disk as seen by Hubble. Image credit NASA/JPL, click to embiggen

Other images show what appears to be at least one large planet or brown dwarf forming closer in and possibly clearing debris out of that wide ring in the process.

Beta Pictoris A and the much smaller Beta Pic B. B is thought to be an early stage large planet or a brown dwarf. Image credit ESO

What might the busy system look like to Star Trekkers sailing into it for the first time from the vantage point of say, where Neptune or Pluto might be in our own solar system? Above the vast plain of debris, lit by BetaP’s brilliant light, it would be gorgeous.

A collision between asteroids as they orbit Beta Pictoris. Observations have pinpointed three dusty belts orbiting this star, along with a possible planet. Image credit: ISAS/JAXA

In 2006 NASA found prodigeous amounts of carbon gas in the ring. CO2 gas and ices could perhaps lend the system a golden sheen that would put Saturn to shame.

NASA's Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, or FUSE, detected vast quantities of carbon gas. Image credit NASA/FUSE

Lots of carbon means at least one of the building blocks of life — or perhaps scaffold of life would be more accurate — is present in large quantities in the BetaP system. Some planetary astronomers speculate that diamond planets could form in such a place. A hypothetical diamond world is illustrated below, where the looser carbon dust and soot have been eroded away by small impacts, exposing a layer of diamond bedrock polished by micrometeors swept up from the debris ring, all shining softly under dancing aurora energized by BetaP.

Bed "rock" exposed on a hypothetical diamond world circling a distant, ringed gas giant. Image credit Karen Wehrtsein

Cosmology is the new mythology … really?

The Hubble Deep Field View courtesy of NASA/JPL

As someone who has picked a lousy title on many occasions, I sympathize with the author of this piece at IFPpress. Nevertheless, I can think of a great many differences between the most profound mysteries in cosmology and supernatural cosmogonies the world over. The first mythology-cosmology item given in the article looks somewhat defensible:

String theory, the most promising theory of physics of the past thirty years, since it was meant to explain everything, cannot be tested or proven.

False. String theory, like any scientific theory, makes testable predictions. The primary obstacle is those tests cannot be performed at the energies our current technology cannot produce. The author continues: [Read more...]

The meaning of life and then some

Great topic brought up by Ed Brayton at Dispatches, who writes in part:

The entire span of a person’s existence on earth is not even a blip on the radar in the context of the physical and temporal existence of the universe. But just because our lives have no grand, universal meaning doesn’t mean they don’t have any meaning at all. You do not matter to the universe but you certainly matter to the people around you.

[Read more...]