This past two weeks, a trend kept occurring in the US media where reporters were excitedly revealing what they believed to be the absolute latest breaking news from NASA. With all of these breakthroughs, you’d think the folks at NASA were working overtime exceptionally hard to unlock the secrets of the universe (and maybe they do – who’s to judge?). But on further examination, most of this “novel information” had already been released and the details which the news anchors most enthusiastically emphasized weren’t exactly accurate. What really appeared to be happening was that somebody finally explained the science on a level that average people can relate to, and the reporters (still not completely understanding what was going on) “put their own spin” on the stories.
If someone is serious about learning the latest discoveries without getting a load of “hooie” junk science, the best source is “the horse’s mouth” itself (not “Mr. Ed’s” mouth!), meaning NASA’s news website at www.NASA.gov. If one starts here looking for information, they can be directed to other Internet-based sources which are credible.
Before discussing all of the things reported in the past two weeks weren’t exactly new or true, let’s go over the valid information released in the media.
Lunar Lava Tube!
Japan’s Space Agency announced the discovery of a 3.5 billion year inactive lava tube opening onto the moon’s surface (approximately 31 [50 km] long by 330 feet [100 m] wide) that could be used in future lunar exploration efforts as a shelter for astronauts. Currently, space scientists do not know what the walls of the lava tube look like or what these cave-like magma conduits contain. But it is hypothesized that they can be useful to shelter explorers from micrometeorites, intense cosmic radiation encountered on the lunar surface, and extreme temperature swings.
Orionid Meteor Shower and Asteroid 2017 UJ2!
The annual Orionid meteor shower, known to occur and peak October 20 and October 21st every year, made a spectacular, prolific show as usual. Especially for those fans who arose in the early hours just before dawn who were diligent to search the skies around the constellation, Orion, where the meteors appeared to originate. It is thought the meteors involved in this shower originated from Halley’s Comet. Expectedly, these space rocks continue to follow the unique trajectory of Halley’s Comet. But there was a surprise this year as another 2-metre wide space rock, named asteroid 2017 UJ2, came in less than 1/20 of the distance between the center of the Earth and the center of the Moon on October 20th.
It is thought asteroid 2017 UJ2 is from the Apollo group of asteroids and not the Orionid meteors. The thing which frightened some sky observers was that it flew by the Earth on October 20, and then it was only seen and reported October 21, 2017. Oddly, this 2-metre asteroid was reported to be 0 (zero) lunar distances from the Earth (which made it sound like it impacted us, or burned up in the atmosphere before hitting anything). But, the Catalina observatory of the University of Arizona clearly saw this little asteroid buzz away from us, so it firmly exists and will be back again in the future to visit us.
Comet 96P/Machholz Inbound!
A sun-diving comet is heading towards a rendevous with the sun on October 27, 2017 called Comet 96P/Machholz. It orbits the sun once every 5.24 years, and will approach the sun at roughly 0.12 astronomical units (1 AU = the distance between the Earth and the sun which is roughly 93,000,000 miles or 149,597,870 km; therefore 0.12 AU is roughly 11,160,000 mi or 17,856,000 km).
It is an unusual comet in that it has a different composition than other known comets, and it appears to be associated with three different meteor showers – the Daytime Areitids, the Delta Aquarids, and the Quadrantids. It is also associated with two different families of sun-diving comets as well as asteroid 2003 EH1. Apparently, the original comet which was first inbound towards the sun broke up into all these various fragments. This is interesting to astronomers because these remnants help them understand the composition of other solar systems. Astonishingly, this comet is used to taking a high degree of heat from the sun, yet it continues to remain somewhat intact and return periodically every 5.24 years.
CAVEAT – not so unique or valid news:
Okay, hard core astronomy buffs out there – you can probably quit reading this blog right here because you probably already know this stuff! The rest of my readership I ask to continue on a ways longer if you’re interested because this is the information that was misleading in the news lately.
Do We Have a New Moon?
This is old news. In April, 2016, a new object orbiting the Earth was detected – asteroid 2016 HO3. The catch with this heavenly body is that it is probably a temporary little space rock and it has been estimated to have been orbiting the Earth for 100 years (and the Earth’s gravity is likely to keep it orbiting us for several centuries into the future). So, since this is probably a temporary satellite, it has been dubbed a “quasi-satellite”. It has an irregular, egg-shaped orbit around the Earth, taking it past the orbit of the moon at a minimum distance of 38 lunar distances and a maximum distance of 100 lunar distances. The object itself is very small – 100 metres (i.e., 330 feet) wide and rotates every 28 minutes. However, light reflecting off the asteroid gives an indication that it is similar in rock and mineral composition as other nearby asteroids, which are considered leftover fragments from the creation and life of our Solar System.
Interestingly enough, 5 “quasi-satellite” asteroids are also known to be currently orbiting the Earth, but astrophysicists believe this body has the most stable trajectory. That is, it has likely been orbiting us the longest of all of the quasi-satellites, and will likely stay in orbit around the Earth the longest. One article about 2016 HO3 described it as “adorable”! It would be nice to see if it is so cute and “adorable”, but one would probably need at least an 8-inch (20 cm) telescope to accomplish this.
Did a Comet Smash Into the Sun?
No agency or university has officially reported a sun-grazing or sun-diving comet impacting the sun over the past two weeks (that is, up until 5 days ago when the inbound Comet 96P was reported). There’s a couple of “YouTube” videos suggesting one might have hit the sun over 3 weeks ago, but I don’t think these videos are from professional sources. They mean well, but these presenters appear to be self-educated in science (for example, they mispronounce names of things and famous scientists often) and I’ve disagreed with their accuracy in the past.
This idea started circulating after solar flares were detected on the backside of the sun, and it was thought the sun was completely sunspot-free. So, what really caused the flares on the backside of the sun? Sunspots which were thought to be completely gone and electromagnetically stable re-developed, re-emerged, and resumed making solar flares; these were in the region which contained sunspot AR 2673 (which produced four giant X-class solar flares two solar rotations ago) and sunspot AR 2682 (which was active one solar rotation ago). Apparently this is an unusually active and mechanically complex region of the sun and astronomers are studying the phenomenon closely to better understand the solar dynamics that produced recurring spots.
Two Neutron Stars Collided and Made Gravitational Waves, Just like Einstein’s Theory Predicted!
This is true, but the discovery was made and announced shortly after August 16, 2017. Two neutron stars that were located in galaxy NGC 4993, located about 130 million light-years from Earth, collided resulting in enormous releases of energy. This was translated into light, electromagnetic waves of all frequencies, and gravitational waves which affected the space-time fabric of the universe, which Einstein’s theory predicted.
But gravitational waves themselves are so small and subtle that Einstein, himself, doubted that they could be detected. For example, LIGO, the LASER Interferometer Gravitational-wave observatory has been made so sensitive to the point where it can detect movement as fine as 1/10,000 of the width of the charge diameter of a proton when comparing changes on mirror surfaces spaced 4-km apart. Astronomers state that measuring such subtleties as the magnitude of gravitational waves are equivalent to the task of accurately measuring the distance between the Earth and its nearest star (Proxima Centauri) within one hair’s breadth. LIGO has detected previously gravitational waves emanating from the merger of four sets of binary black holes. The neutron star collision of August 16. 2017 was also confirmed by Italy’s equivalent of LIGO called VIRGO.
Neutron stars are the resulting bodies that remain after a small star (like ours) runs out of atoms for fuel and it goes “supernova”. In other words, the star expands to the point to try to find other fuel to use in its fusion reactions after all of the lighter-atomic fuel is spent. Once it is composed of very few atoms and is comprised of mostly neutrons (i.e., no remaining atomic fuel), the star then collapses down into a neutron star, which continues to rotate (thus conserving angular momentum from the original star’s rotation) and it releases beams of electromagnetic radiation which can be pulsatile in nature. (It is sort of like a lighthouse beacon – one moment, the lighthouse flashes its rotating light in your eyes, the next moment, there’s total darkness while your eyes readjust, only to be temporarily blinded again when the light beam points in your direction again!)
Black holes are similarly formed from stars which are more than three times our sun’s mass and can be thought of as the product of further collapse of a neutron star. But unlike neutron stars, absolutely no light/electromagnetic radiation is emitted from black holes due to their intense gravitational fields. People have described this effect as “black holes ‘eat’ visible light”. So detecting them is extremely difficult and requires specially-equipped telescopes.
So, why did this come to the forefront now? I think it is because Duncan Brown, a professor of Physics at Syracuse University, with a slick NASA-produced animation of what a collision between two neutron stars would look like, appeared on CBS news earlier in October and explained this detection very well! The interviewer was very professional and he came off looking like he "was a rock star"! This broadcast segment can be currently found on YouTube (at www.youtube.com/watch?=wjfwGFqUvhg ). I guess some people think that something isn’t news until CBS in New York City broadcasts it (my family kind of felt that way when I was growing up).
Another Planet of the Solar System Discovered?
This is old news which brilliant minds from Cal-Tech University released awhile back. It was based on their research using mathematical computer models showing a large body was affecting the orbits of the outer planets of our Solar System. Nobody this month announced that they looked through a telescope and saw a new planet, nor did anybody announce irrefutable evidence of the planet Niburu.
I’d talk about it more, but this blog is getting too long and I want to post it before any other astronomy news hits the scene and gets mangled! Besides, there only so much ridiculousness anybody can stand (including me). Cheers!