A weekly discussion of what’s new and interesting in astronomy with Dr. Derrick Pitts


Water, Water Everywhere

Dec 2, 2019 5:32


There are lots of hints regarding the possibility of the existence of liquid water around the solar, system, the galaxy, and the universe, but confirmation at only a very few places: Mars and the moon for example. Astronomers using Keck telescopes at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii now confirm the existence of liquid water at Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Under Europa’s ice crust, there could be a subsurface ocean containing as much as twice the amount of water as Earth’s oceans. These newest observations directly detected water vapor (5200 lbs or 650 gallons) issuing from fissures in Europa’s ice-crusted surface. Researchers have been speculating about water on Europa since 1993.

The galaxy NGC 6240 is shown to contain three supermassive black holes at its core. This indicates a triple collision of galaxies back in the dark past of the universe. Each black hole appears to measure 90 million solar masses, in a space 3,000 light years wide. Wolfram Kolatschny at the University of Göttingen says this observation indicates the possibility that the largest galaxies with supermassive black holes could evolve much faster than originally proposed. Data was collected from the triple-collision galaxy (some 300 million light years away), and indicates the galaxies are still merging, possibly 14 billion years later. This is the first time a triple galactic collision has been identified.

Japanese astronomers Wada and Kokoba suggest that planets might also form in vast dense dust rings around supermassive black holes at galactic cores. Their calculations show that thousands of planets might form at a distance of 10 light years from the black holes where forces are stable enough for the typical planet formation processes to function. Think about it: in a proto-planetary circumstellar disk, planets form from dense clouds of material rotating around the disk’s central mass component. There’s no way to detect such planets yet, if they exist, but it does suggest new regions to target in the search for extra-terrestrial planets.

The sun sets at 4:35pm through December 10th. We have to wait until early January for the latest sunrise.

You’re Outta Here!

Nov 23, 2019 5:14


Our Milky Way’s SgrA Black Hole in the center of our galaxy has ejected a star from the galaxy at a brisk 3.7 million miles per hour. The star originally was part of a binary system, but when the pair got too close to SgrA, the companion was swallowed, and this one was thrown out some five million years ago. This star (S5-HVS1) is unique because of its high velocity and close passage to us; a mere 29,000 light years. The star is currently seen in the southern constellation Grus and is moving 10 times faster than most Milky Way stars.

Remember the excitement when increased methane levels in the Martian atmosphere triggered speculation about burping cows on Mars? Now researchers are seeing increased levels of oxygen. Curiosity Rover’s atmospheric analysis device has been collecting data on the composition of the Martian atmosphere since it arrived three years ago. One thing it found is that the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere varies seasonally, with swings in the overall amount (measured at Gale Crater) by 60%! Oxygen comprises less than 2/10ths of 1% of the overall composition of Mars’ atmosphere. By contrast, Earth’s atmosphere is a whopping 21% oxygen. The minimum needed for human survival is 19.5%. Levels under 10% are fatal in ten minutes; at under 6%, less than a minute.

Turning to night sky highlights: On Saturday and Sunday, Venus and Jupiter are together in the west 30 minutes after sunset.
Mercury climbs higher in the eastern pre-dawn sky. The moon passes Mercury Sunday morning.

What’s in a Name?

Nov 16, 2019


Following its Pluto encounter in 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was pushing on into the Kuiper Belt, aiming toward an object known originally as 2014 MU69, when space scientists and the public decided it needed a new name. Shortly before the New Horizons encounter on January 1, 2019, they chose the name Ultima Thule. Then a reporter at Newsweek pointed out that the Nazi party had used the phrase Ultima Thule to refer to the mythical homeland of the Aryan people. The term apparently remains in use by modern so-called alt-right groups. Now the object has a new name yet again. The name is now Arrokoth, which means sky in the Powhatan and Algonquian languages. The name was chosen based on the local Native American culture in Maryland, where the New Horizons mission control center is based.
Arrokoth is roughly 19 miles long, or about 1/60th the diameter of Pluto. A wealth of data from New Horizons’ encounter with Arrokoth is still being sent back from the spacecraft to Earth for analysis. Scientists used New Horizons’ cameras to glimpse its strange, double-lobed shape, indicating a possible gentle collision of two objects long ago. Arrokoth also appears to be covered in methane or nitrogen ice, giving it a red tinge.

Tuesday this week is the 50th anniversary of the second crewed lunar landing, Apollo 12. There were a number of unplanned events that occurred during the mission – like lightning strikes during launch – but one of the least spoken of is the tiny art gallery left on the moon called Moon Museum.
A tiny ceramic wafer, .75x.5 inches, was etched with six artworks and attached to one of the legs of the lunar lander by a Northrup Grumman engineer who worked on that lander.
The six artworks by Robert Rauchenberg(a line), David Novros(black square), John Chamberlain(circuitry template), Claes Oldenberg(geometric Mickey Mouse), Andy Warhol(initials) and Forrest Myers(CG intersecting pattern), were etched onto either 16 or 20 chips by an engineer at Bell labs. The project was coordinated by Myers who wanted to bring send the tiny piece to the moon with NASA’s approval. Myers tried repeatedly to get NASA’s approval. They never said ‘No’, but never said yes either. Turned out the Bell Labs engineer knew a NG employee working on the lander who was willing to affix the chip inside an access panel on one of the lander legs. Two days before launch, the still unnamed engineer sent a telegram to Myers confirming the chip was placed. The other 15 etched chips were given to people involved in this clandestine project.

Fresh off its recent transit of the sun, Mercury is now visible in the Eastern pre-dawn sky from 5 – 6 a.m. along with the brighter Mars; Mercury is below, to the left. The moon drops through passing them Friday and Saturday. Venus now joins Jupiter and Saturn in the west 30 minutes after sunset. Watch Venus and Jupiter Sidle up to each other this week a little closer every day.

Happy Birthday, Carl!

Nov 9, 2019 7:02


November 9th marks the anniversary of legendary astronomer Carl Sagan’s birth. Sagan was known for his wonderfully poetic way of explaining and transporting listeners into the history and complexities of the universe. He explored the mysteries of outer space in his landmark PBS program, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.”

Monday is Mercury Transit Day: The planet Mercury will cross between Earth and the Sun. The transit starts at 7:36 am EST and ends at 1:04 pm. Those hoping to witness the transit must ensure they have proper eye protection. Alternatively, head to the Franklin Institute to watch through their telescopes.
It happens about 13 times per century – and the next opportunity comes in the year 2032. It can’t happen on every orbit because Mercury’s orbit is tilted slightly from Earth’s. That means our orbits align only twice a year, so only during those times can Venus and Mercury be seen crossing the sun’s disk in transit.

Sizing Up Dwarf Planets:
Hygeia, which is only 270 miles (Philadelphia to Virginia Beach) in diameter, is now designated as the smallest dwarf planet discovered so far! Hygeia qualifies even though it’s so small because it apparently has enough mass to pull itself into a spherical shape.

Special Delivery

Nov 2, 2019


An International Space Station Resupply Mission is scheduled to launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). It will transport 8,200 lbs of research, crew supplies, and hardware to the six-person crew on the ISS. The craft arrives at ISS at 4:30 am on Monday.

We bid adieu to Daylight Saving Time when we shift our clocks back one hour at 2:00 am on Sunday, November 3rd. Next – we mark the earliest sunset in early December.

Take advantage of the earlier nightfall: Jupiter and Saturn are still available to be seen in the southwest after sunset, Venus rising out of the west as well. Mars has the pre-dawn sky now.

Matter Barely Matters

Oct 26, 2019


This Thursday is Halloween…and Dark Matter Day! Dark matter-themed events are being organized by labs and institutions around the world doing this research. They range from live webcasts with researchers to dark matter scavenger hunts to a Reddit AMA. Find a sortable list at

Scientists believe that dark matter, which we have so far only detected through its gravity-based effects in space, makes up about a quarter (26.8 percent) of the total mass and energy of the universe, and something that is driving the universe’s accelerating expansion, which scientists call dark energy, accounts for another 68.3 percent.
The ordinary matter, like stars and planets and galaxies, makes up just 4.9 percent of the total mass and energy of the universe.

So there’s a BIG part of the universe that we don’t know much about. We’re not sure if dark matter is made up of undiscovered particles, or if it can be explained by tweaking the known laws of physics. Its makeup could teach us much about the history and structure of our universe.

Could dark matter play a role in the composition of newly detected spiral galaxies that dwarf our Milky Way? Recently discovered Super Spiral Galaxies are 180,000 to 440,000 light years across! Our Milky Way is a pretty big galaxy as galaxies go, but it’s a mere 100,000 light years across. These super spirals have so much mass that they spin up to three times faster than galaxies the size of our Milky Way. The spin seems to be much faster than the visible mass should allow. No worries, researchers have pinned the blame on, you guessed it, Dark Matter!
Astronomer Vera Rubin postulated that galaxies had large amounts of unseen mass that affected their gravitational component: What we now know as dark matter. The extraordinary rotational speeds could be accounted for if there’s a halo of dark matter surrounding the enormous galaxy. The largest of the observed galaxies seems to have 40 trillion solar masses worth of dark matter; that’s 40 trillion suns worth, more than 100 times the amount of stars in Milky Way type galaxies! 100 of these galaxies have been identified so far.

Dinner on Mars?

Oct 19, 2019


A group of researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands have successfully grown edible food crops in soils that simulate the soil composition of the Moon and Mars. Garden cress, radish, spinach, quinoa, tomato, rye, chives, leek and peas were all harvested in this most recent study. Crops did better in the Martian soil than the lunar soil and spinach didn’t like either soil simulant. An earth soil ‘control’ was used.
The most intriguing finding from the study is that common crops can grow in Moon/mars soils simulants augmented with a compost-like supplement.

October 21st is the 96th anniversary of the first-ever planetarium show at the Deutches Museum in Munich, Germany.
Fels Planetarium was the second planetarium to open in the United States in January 1934.

October 22nd is the 4,155th anniversary of the first record of a solar eclipse. In China where prediction of eclipses for the legitimacy of the Emperor, according to legend, two court astronomers were beheaded because they failed to predict an eclipse in 2136 BCE. Today mathematicians have calculated every eclipse from 1990 BCE to 3000! The next solar eclipse in the US is April 8, 2024. However, there won’t be another solar eclipse visible in Philadelphia until 2079. The last total eclipse in Philadelphia took place in 1478.

The Orionid meteor shower peak arrives Tuesday morning. They’re very fast not so bright but leave persistent trails for several seconds. 10-20/hour and there are occasional bight ones that break up into fragments. Jupiter and Saturn are still holding court in the evening, with Venus just poking up from the west after sunset. In the pre-dawn sky, Mars weakly shows in the East around 6:30am.

Keeping Score

Oct 12, 2019


Saturn pulls ahead of Jupiter in the number of moons detected – current score: 82 to 79

Researchers recently announced the discovery of 20 new moons orbiting Saturn by using big telescopes at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea observatory equipped with very sensitive detectors. 17 of them orbit backwards, opposite the planet’s direction of rotation, and most of the new ones are about three miles in size.

The current idea about their origin is that they are the detritus left over from the breakup of a moon not long after Saturn’s formation billions of years ago.

When we think about all the energetic activity happening out there in the universe – supermassive black holes, millisecond pulsars, colliding neutron stars, exploding supernovae – it’s nice to know that in our little corner of the universe not much is happening, right?

Hold your horses, because maybe we’re just in between happenings.

Astronomers announced earlier this week that evidence has been detected that an enormous flare of ionizing radiation suddenly and explosively erupted from a source near the center of our galaxy. It was so powerful and extensive that evidence was found in gas stream 200,000 light years out in space!

Just as surprising as this discovery is, the researchers determined that it took place just 3.5 million years ago! The Chixulub impact that triggered the great dinosaur die-off occurred 62 million years earlier! Our ancestors were just going walk-about on the African continent when this explosion occurred.

So perhaps we’ve evolved in a relatively quiet period in the life of our galaxy. Remember, the evolution of the planet, solar system, galaxy and universe occurs over millions and billions of years and our studies only allow us to look at snapshots – instants in time which we try to assemble into a rational process that will allow us to reasonably predict what will happen in the future. BUT, we have a small number of ‘snapshots’ we’re trying to work with.

There are merely three days left to enter your idea for an exoplanet name
International Astronomical Union U.S. has an exoplanet and the IUA naming committee is asking the American public to submit their suggestions. You can do it all online and it’s a great short project for a school to jump on!

We’re running out of time to see Jupiter and Saturn in the evening sky.
The Franklin Institute’s Night Skies at the Observatory program this Tuesday night Oct. 15, will show Saturn telescopically for the last time this season.

Rocket Man

Oct 5, 2019


Saturday, October 5th is the 132nd birth anniversary of rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard. His was the first liquid-fueled rocket to prove the concept that allowed for the exploration of space as we know it today. He launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in March 1926. The maximum altitude he achieved was 1.7 miles. His technology eventually was adopted in America soon after his death in 1945.

October 5th is also the 61st anniversary of the founding of NASA. It was originally established as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and had 8000 employees and three laboratories. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in August 1958 in response to the launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957. Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on October 1st, 1958.

Along with our seasonal weather change comes the now obvious changes in sun time. We’re down to 11 hours 36 minutes of sun above the horizon vs 15 hours on June 21. We’ll still lose another 2 hours and 15 minutes between now and December 21 with Halloween as the halfway point to Winter Solstice. This is a great time for stargazers because they can start early enough and be warm enough to see three seasons of constellations from sunset to sunrise. Jupiter and Saturn are still the showpiece items of the evening sky.
On Sunday night at 8 p.m., 60 degrees up in the NorthEast, the International Space Station will be visible.

Looking for Goldilocks

Sep 28, 2019


Weeks ago, an announcement about the discovery on an exoplanet where it appeared possible for an atmosphere with precipitation to exist led it to be described as an “earthlike planet,” and suggestions were made about its potential habitability.

Very little was said about its structure being far more like Jupiter mostly gas with a tiny rocky core very far below the cloud tops. That’s an important component of the composition in a description mentioning ‘habitability’ and ‘earthlike’.

Mass determines if the object produces a gravity field capable of holding an atmosphere for some length of time. Venus and Earth are massive enough, Mars was only able to hold a thick atmosphere for a comparatively short period early in its history. Position relative to their host star: the ‘Goldilocks (habitable) Zone’ ideally looking for a distance where water can exist as a liquid. Density of exoplanet candidate ‘Hot Jupiters’ have been identified as Jupiter-sized objects (big size, low density) with short orbital periods orbit close to their host star. What type of star is hosting the exoplanet(s)? Cool, mid-temp or hot(Lo mass vs hi mass)?

This has implications for the composition of the planet and the dynamics of planetary formation in that star system. We are as yet unable to gather enough data to clearly identify something as TRULY earthlike. We can use only inference to determine mass, density, size and transmission spectroscopy to get any kind of handle on atmospheric composition.

Turning to night sky highlights this week:
Jupiter and Saturn still hold court in the South/Southwest evening sky. The moon is at its new phase today so look for a thin crescent emerging from the west just after sunset tomorrow, Sunday, and Monday evenings.

What’s in a name?

Sep 14, 2019 4:49


The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is putting out the call on its 100th anniversary to name an exoplanet and its star.

Star Trekkin’

Sep 7, 2019 5:09


The TV series ‘Star Trek’ premiered 53 years ago. The original series only lasted three seasons on prime time, but really hit its stride in syndication, where its popularity exploded. It also fueled fantasies for many other TV programs and films, and maybe even real life space exploration. The last day for filming was 1/8/69, six months before Apollo 11 left for the moon.

September means a shorter number of minutes of sunlight; Sunrise now at 6:34am and sunset at 7:23pm.
Taking advantage of the growing opportunities for night sky viewing; A waxing crescent moon sneaks up on Saturn tonight and zips past during the day tomorrow.
Saturn is just above the top star of the teapot shape of Sagittarius and Jupiter is not far above the red giant star Antares of Scorpius.
The two planets straddle the southern Milky Way galaxy, a fine target for binocular observing.

India Targets South Pole (of the Moon)

Aug 31, 2019 5:19


After a four-week journey from earth, the Indian Space Research Organization announced its Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit. Next up in about a week is a landing attempt, then a rover deployment. The chosen landing location is the moon’s South Pole region. The orbiter is expected to operate for about a year and the lander and rover will perform surface studies. The rover is about 60 pounds and solar powered. The lander and rover are expected to last at least one lunar day (two weeks) but as lunar night comes flight controllers will try to awaken the rover and lander after the two-week sleep. India hopes to complete its first crewed mission by 2022.

The Big Dipper is visible in the northwest just after dark and the main summer constellations Cygnus, Lyra, and Altair are overhead by 9:00pm. Catch three seasons of constellations in one overnight: Summer Triangle overhead at 9:30pm, Pegasus and Andromeda (w/ M31) in the east at 10:30pm, and Orion in the east at 5:00am-5:30am. The moon is next to Jupiter on the evening of the 5th and slides towards Saturn the next night.

Nano-Sized Needle in a Huge Haystack

Aug 17, 2019 6:10


Nuclear Physicist Gunther Korschinek and his team of researchers from Technical University of Munich sifted through half-a-ton of snow from Antarctica to find 10 atoms(!) of Iron-60 an isotope (radioactive 60 protons, 60 neutrons in the nucleus) only produced in supernova explosions.
Their study of the deposit indicates the 60Fe only recently arrived (likely in the past few decades).
60Fe has been detected before in ocean sediments, on the moon and in meteorites but those deposits are a few millions years old.
Shock waves from stellar explosions must carry the 60Fe through space and we happened to be in the path of the traveling shock waves.

A diminishing amount of sunlight by mid-August triggers trees to start closing down – triggering a hormone that releases a chemical message to each leaf that it is time to prepare for winter. Over the next few weeks, abscission cells form a bumpy line at the place where the leaf stem meets the branch. And slowly, but surely, the leaf is “pushed” from the tree branch. This winterization process ensures trees’ survival. In spring and summer, leaves convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis.
During that process, the trees lose so much water that when winter arrives, the trees are no longer able to get enough water to replace it.

Laying in Wait

Aug 10, 2019 6:03


Tardigrades, also called water bears because of their microscopic teddy or panda bear-like appearance have been known to exist in a dormant state for a decade or more. Some have even survived hitchhiked rides on rockets to orbit and survived the deadly environment of space. The Israeli lunar mission was carrying several thousand of the microscopic critters when in crash-landed on the moon in April. They have the enviable ability to put themselves into a sort of state of suspended animation called cryptobiosis. In other words, when living conditions become less than ideal, they can curl themselves up, dry themselves out and become relatively impervious to the outside world until conditions improve. Given their ability to hibernate for decades, it’s remotely possible that some of them could be collected and re-animated (rehydrated) by future lunar explorers!

Although the Perseid Meteor Shower is the year’s best shower, it will be compromised this year due to an almost full moon that will make viewing a challenge.

Muddy Run Observatory Sky and Star Festival takes place today- A great family event, from noon to 11 p.m. at Muddy Run Park in Holtwood, PA. I’ll be presenting tonight in between telescopic observing at the region’s newest observatory under very dark skies.

Viewing highlights at the Franklin Institute Night Skies at the Observatory on Tuesday include the moon, Jupiter and Saturn.

Newly Discovered Exoplanets of Note

Aug 3, 2019 6:04


GJ 357d is one of three planets found orbiting a tiny (300,000 miles diameter) M-type star 31 light years away.
This so-called “Super-earth” is about 19 million miles out from the star, orbiting every 55 days, and is massive enough to have a thick atmosphere. It could be similar to Earth and potentially inhabitable.
Further out (260 light years away) another planet has been detected that is 4.6 times Earth’s size and 29 times Earth’s mass (making it close in size to Neptune). It is 1.5 million miles from its star and orbits every 19 hours, about as close as a planet can get without being swallowed by its star. Its temperature checks in at 3,100 degrees Fahrenheit!
Most other planets so close to their stars are either Earth-sized or Jupiter-sized, so this one is right in the middle of that range.
It probably formed farther out, then migrated inward towards the star losing atmosphere as it heated or as the star drew the atmosphere off.

The universe is primarily comprised of so-called “dark matter.” We can’t see it, but we know it exists because we can see its gravitational effect. Some physicists think dark matter is made up of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), but they have yet to be detected.
Here’s another possibility; a very special quark-like particle that can travel unimpeded through the universe at hypersonic speeds.
One group of scientists suggest that such a particle would bore a cylinder right through you but cauterize that path as it went because at those speeds, a one square micrometer (1,000 times smaller than a millimeter!) particle would generate about 18 million degrees of heat!

Sunrise now at 6:01am and sunset at 8:12pm, we’ve already lost 49 minutes of daylight.
Jupiter and Saturn are night sky highlights, and a beautiful waxing crescent moon is visible after sunset now.

Halfway to Autumn

Jul 27, 2019 5:59


Upcoming cross-quarter day on August 1 is known as LoafMass: A celebration of the first loaves of bread from the first harvests of wheat in Northern Europe. The Celts called the day Lughnasadh, recognizing the fruits of the marriage of the Sun god Lugh and the Earth goddess. Other, better-known cross-quarter days are Beltane/May Day on May 1, Samhain/Halloween on October 31, and Candlemas/Groundhog Day on February 2.
All cross quarter designations were useful divisions of the calendar, making it easier to keep track of planting and harvest cycles.

We’re gathering new evidence about galactic sized mergers, including one in our Milky Way. Stars in our galaxy have been calculated to be 10 to 13 billion years old – as old as the oldest stars in the universe! They also indicate that the infant Milky Way was once impacted by a smaller galaxy that today is revealed by a distinct population of blue star scattered throughout the Milky Way.
These are older, redder stars formed during the universe’s first billion years. Scattered throughout the Milky Way, the smaller galaxy’s stars have a distinctive signature that shows it formed in a different part of space where the supply materials are different. This work has to be coordinated with other studies that show the Milky Way currently merging with other galaxies.

Jupiter and Saturn dominate the cross-quarter evening sky now, straddling the Milky Way.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today

Jul 20, 2019 5:12


Today, July 20th, marks the 50th anniversary of mankind’s giant leap.
At 4:17 p.m. (EDT) The Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Astronaut Neil Armstrong immediately radioed to Mission Control in Houston, Texas; “The Eagle has landed.” At 10:39 p.m., Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module, and 17 minutes later, stepped off the ladder and planted his foot on the lunar surface.
Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin joined him on the moon’s surface 19 minutes later, and together they photographed the terrain, planted a U.S. flag, conducted scientific tests and spoke with President Richard Nixon via Houston.
They also left a plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon—July 1969 A.D.—We came in peace for all mankind.” By 1:11 a.m. on July 21, both astronauts were back in the lunar module and the hatch was closed.
The entire nine day trip was probably the most significant voyage ever for humans.

New moons have been spotted forming for the first time! PDS 70b and PDS 70c have been spotted in the disc of dust surrounding their giant planet around the star PDS 70. Combined optical, infrared, and radio data results show not only a protoplanetary disc around the star but also circumplanetary disc around its two largest planet – indicating the formation of moons around those Jupiter-like sized planets.

Planet + Renegade Moon = Ploonet

Jul 13, 2019 6:19


A new study suggests that moons of some exoplanets might be pulled away from their planet parents to become independent star orbiters – not planets . . . but ploonets.

50 years ago Tuesday, Apollo 11 astronauts left earth bound to become the first humans to step onto another celestial body. Neil Armstrong writes a check to pay personal debts before he leaves for the moon!

The Franklin Institute’s “Summer of the Moon” program cranks up next week with Night Sky Observatory programs on Tuesday and Thursday, with a full day of programming next Saturday, July 20.

Turning to the night sky – The moon slides past Jupiter tonight, then Saturn on Sunday evening. Full moon is Tuesday night.

Happy Independence Day…& Aphelion

Jun 29, 2019 13:16


There will be a total Solar Eclipse Tuesday July 2nd in Chile and Argentina. The Exploratorium in San Francisco will cover the eclipse live from Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile at The next total eclipse in North America will take place in April, 2024.

Aphelion: Earth will reach its greatest distance from the sun this year on Independence Day July 4 at 4pm. 94,507,880 miles vs 91,403,180 miles on January 3 this year.

Last week, data from atmospheric sampling on Curiosity indicated a methane outgassing of biblical proportions on Mars, the largest ever detected; 21 parts per billion…three times larger than the last seen burp.
While it’s exciting to find extraterrestrial organic compounds, and tempting to jump to a biochemical process of origin, Mars is covered with the right rocks, trace water and heat for a non-organic geochemical accounting for this observation.
Whereas there is no evidence whatsoever of the current existence or past existence of life on Mars that could be responsible for a metabolic biochemical process of methane production.

50 Years On

Jun 8, 2019 5:39


“The Apollo Chronicles” by regional producer Rotfeld Productions premieres at The Franklin Institute next week at Night Skies Observatory (Tuesday, June 11).
All four episodes, which reveal a new understanding of just how NASA’s Apollo program came to be, will be featured at the Franklin Institute this month and next month leading up to the anniversary day itself (launched 7/16/69 – landed on the surface of the moon 7/20/69 – returned to Earth 7/24/69.
On Tuesday the producers will share their journey of creation telling us their stories of how they acquired the unbelievable footage and interviews with flight engineers, flight controllers, politicians, and the astronauts themselves.

In anticipation of a return to the moon; three commercial services begin providing lunar lander services to NASA through The Commercial Lunar Services Program.
They will ferry up to 23 NASA provided payloads to three different locations where they’ll conduct science investigations and demonstrate advances technologies in preparation for our return to the moon now proposed for 2024.
In this case, NASA is a customer receiving service from a commercial provider.
Missions are currently scheduled to begin dropping on the moon as early as September 2020 and all are expected to be completed by 2021.

This Thursday makes the 16th year since solar system spacecraft Pioneer 10 left the solar system.
Launched in 1972, it was the first spacecraft to reach the planet Jupiter.
Last heard from in 2003, it’s currently 11 billion miles out and headed toward Taurus, where in 90,000 years, it’ll pass closer to a star (just under a light year) than any of the other four interstellar spacecraft will fly in the next few million

New Constellation On the Block

Jun 1, 2019 7:04


There is a new Constellation to see – and this one is artificial!
The first set of satellites dedicated to eventually providing extremely low-cost internet access all over the world were launched into orbit last week. The first 60 of a proposed 12,000 member ‘constellation’ were launched aboard a SpaceX rocket and successfully placed in orbit. Each satellite is just 500 lbs. and has one solar panel but the coverage will be worldwide.
While it might be seen as a boon providing everyone with internet access, it is adding 12,000 new satellites to the vast number of operating and defunct satellites now in orbit.
How will they look? Heavens-Above dot com gives instructions for how to see what’s being called a satellite train; the 60 sats are in a slowly dispersing line that can be seen from dark sky locations with the unaided eye. Currently the sats are at 277 miles altitude and orbit earth every 93 minutes.

The first spacewalks were conducted 54 years ago: First by Soviet cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, (who celebrated his 85th birth anniversary this week) on March 18, 1965 and then three months later by American astronaut Ed White on June 3, 1965. Leonov’s birthday was celebrated with a commemorative spacewalk by two cosmonauts, Oleg Kononenko and Alexi Ovchinin, aboard ISS just three days ago.
Their six-hour spacewalk included the installation of hand rails on the Russian segment of ISS, retrieval of experiments from the Poisk module’s hull and completion of other exterior maintenance. Leonov’s groundbreaking effort lasted just 12 minutes.

Can a dead star be reborn? Astronomers working at the University of Bonn in Germany have discovered an extremely rare find a very active star that seems to be the result of the collision of two white dwarf stars. Normally white dwarf stars just cool to darkness and obscurity. But these two seem to have had enough mass that their merger has generated enough heat and pressure to cause nuclear fusion to re-start in the combined core. Its fate? Only to eventually explode as a supernova when it finally runs out of energy – again.


May 25, 2019 6:34


The moon has two distinct faces; gravity readings of the moon’s surface by a lunar orbiting satellite suggest that not long after formation of the original surface, another dwarf-planet-like object smacked into it causing the impacted side to be thrown upward and back to fold itself onto the back side of the moon.
The best fit of some 360 simulations run by Meng Hua Zhu at the Space Science Institute of Macau University of Science and technology suggest an object about 480 miles in diameter and traveling at 22,500 mph, hit with enough force to re-surface the back side of the moon with up to six miles of layers from the front side.
While the back or far side is commonly referred to as the “dark side,” the moon receives equal amount of sunlight on each side, during the lunar day.
Only one side of the Moon is visible from Earth because the Moon rotates on its axis at the same rate that the Moon orbits the Earth – a situation known as synchronous rotation, or tidal locking.

Information from the European Space Agency Gaia satellite (providing precise distance and motion measurements for more than one billion stars) allows us to determine that at one time, our galaxy was making dozens of stars per year and that rate of production lasted for 5 billion years. Star production ebbed and flowed over the ensuing billions years bringing us to where we are now in production: just one solar-mass worth of stars per year. Yes, production will eventually end but not for billions of years.

This is the final week to see Mars in the evening – it will be gone into the glare of sunset next week.
Jupiter and Saturn are now pushing into the evening sky – Jupiter rising by 10:00 pm and Saturn by midnight.
They’re both visible in the pre-dawn sky straddling the southern Milky Way, bright Jupiter ahead of dimmer Saturn.

Celebrate Snoopy and the Gang

May 17, 2019 7:06


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing dress rehearsal flight Apollo 10.
Astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan took their lunar module nicknamed ‘Snoopy’ (the command module was nicknamed ‘Charlie Brown’)down to within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface, testing every aspect of performance of the craft especially the descent engine and rendezvous capability. The actual landing came just two months later with Apollo 11.
Flight management provided only enough fuel in the Lunar Module to fly down to 50,000 ft and back to the command module. Why? They felt that Cernan and Young – both military test pilots – would probably try to reach the surface if they’d had enough fuel !
Young and Cernan flew on subsequent missions to the moon; Stafford flew on Apollo Soyuz.

Blue Moon’ is the latest entry into the lunar race. It’s a 7,000-lb., 14ft tall landing vehicle designed by engineers at Blue origin space group.
Currently, such a lander doesn’t exist but Blue Origin believes it’s already solved most of the challenges involved in assembling a workable lunar lander system.
NASA names new missions to the moon after Apollo’s twin sister Artemis (Greek mythology’s goddess of the moon and the hunt. Orion was her hunting buddy). Cites the new diversity in the program and indicates that the 2024 return to the moon will include women.
But we’d better go soon because the moon is shrinking! Not quickly by any means and not so as to change in any major observable way. Scientists looking at seismic data from sensors placed on the moon by Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 have determined that the moon is still shrinking as its interior cools from its creation 4.4 billion years ago. A re-analysis of data collected from the seismometers from 1968- 1977 combined with images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a lunar orbiting satellite that’s been imaging the surface of the moon for more than 5 years, shows co-location between moonquake epicenters and thrust scarps on the lunar surface. As the interior cools and shrinks, the brittle outer crust squeezes, then throws one section over another section, creating stair-shaped cliffs.

Mars is still hanging in the west sky at 9:00pm almost an hour after sunset. Jupiter rises now around midnight and Tuesday morning the moon and Jupiter rise together. Between 4:42am and 4:47am, International Space Station flies past the moon AND Jupiter. If the sky is clear, it will be a very cool sight! Stay up a few more minutes and see Saturn to the left of Jupiter.

Extraterrestrials On Earth?

May 11, 2019 6:21


Two researchers suggest a small amount of Earth’s heaviest elements were created in the collision of two neutron stars 4.6 billion years ago. We probably have some of this in our bodies right now! Gold, platinum, uranium, even iodine might’ve come from such a collision, 100 million years before the formation of Earth and about 100 light years away from the gas clouds that formed our solar system.

Speaking of colliding neutron stars, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory and the European VIRGO detector have identified two new neutron star collisions 500 million light years away and 1.2 billion light years away. In total, since making history with the first-ever direct detection of gravitational waves in 2015, the network has spotted evidence for two neutron star mergers, 13 black hole mergers, and one possible black hole-neutron star merger.

The first Planetarium opened in Chicago in 1930 on May 12th; The Fels Planetarium in Philadelphia was the second, opening in 1934.

Turning to highlights in the night sky this week: Mars can still be spotted in the evening, Jupiter rising around midnight.


May 4, 2019 7:01


The InSight Lander Seismometer Detects a likely Mars Quake – recorded early last month a 40-second long low rumble was detected by seismic sensors placed on the surface to determine if and to what degree Mars is seismically active. The duration wasn’t long enough to determine much about Martian tectonic activity, but still offered evidence that the interior of the red planet contimues to cool.

A giant asteroid smashed into Earth 66 million years ago off the coast of what’s now Mexico. Set off by the impact, an immense earthquake equivalent to a magnitude 10 or even 11.5 sent seismic waves pulsing through Earth’s crust, according to researchers reporting online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.At least 75 percent of species, including all nonbird dinosaurs, died out. Tiny traces of the Chixulub Meteor Impact Event appear to be preserved in a meter-thick layer of rock in southwestern North Dakota.

The site, found in the Hell Creek Formation and dubbed Tanis, represents a unique snapshot of what happened on land in the immediate aftermath of the impact, says paleontologist Robert DePalma of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. But it’s not the only plausible sequence of events that could have happened,” Whiteside says. And there may be no way to know for sure if the scenario is the right one, or exact timing of the seismic waves’ arrival, because there are so many unknowns about the lay of the land 66 million years ago.

The 2019 Philadelphia Science Festival comes to a conclusion today with a celebration along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway featuring more than 100 hands-on activities and demonstrations.

Turning to dark sky highlights: Mars is still visible in the west after sunset, Jupiter well up in the east by midnight; Venus, Saturn AND Jupiter can be seen in the pre-dawn sky between 5:00am and 5:45am.

Philadelphia Science Festival

Apr 27, 2019 4:43


The Philadelphia Science Festival encompasses nine days of more than 80 extraordinary, mostly free science events all around the city from the star party to the Carnival on May 4th on the Parkway. Sample informal and diverse science hands-on activities, lectures, debates and workshops. More information at

Saturn’s moon Titan is more like Earth than previously thought. It’s small, it’s cold and it’s far, far away, but it has lakes of liquid methane and ethane(hydrocarbons) cold enough to be liquids rather than gases as they are here on Earth. Observations indicate some were so shallow that they evaporated during the transition from winter to spring on Titan and some may be 100 meters deep.

It looks like the moon’s subsoil has water-ice crystals bound into it, below the top eight inches.
Meteor impacts kick up water molecules that can be detected by lunar orbiting satellites.
It’s not a lot of water, but scientists have been aware of some amount of water in the soil for some time.

Turning to night sky highlights this week:
The moon is visible in the pre-dawn sky with Jupiter, Saturn in the south and the last views of Venus low in the east.
The next lunar cycle starts with New Moon next Saturday, May 4th.

Double Duty

Apr 20, 2019 4:53


NASA Astronaut Christina Koch’s maiden voyage in space will extend for almost double the scheduled duration. She is now set to stay on International Space Station for a total of 328 days.
This is the next step in the study of the effects of spaceflight on the human body and mind, and it’s likely a result of the declaration of Vice President Mike Pence to return to the Moon by 2024.

The Kepler-47 Twin Star-Twin Planet Solar System now shows another planet; Kepler 4d is 7 times larger than Earth with a 187-day year. The two stars orbit their common center of gravity every 7.5 days.
The discovery drives two take-home messages: there’s a tremendous diversity of planetary system configurations and our solar system is far from typical – most star systems in our Milky Way are binary star systems.

Turning to the night sky highlights this week: Mars is visible in the west after sunset; the moon meets Jupiter Tuesday morning and Saturn Thursday morning one hour before sunrise. Venus and Mercury are low in the east at the same time.

Explorer of the Year

Apr 15, 2019 4:59


Next week, (Wednesday evening at the Union League in Philadelphia) the Geographical Society of Philadelphia will bestow its 128th Explorer of the Year honor – citing Derrick Pitts, Chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute and  NASA Solar System Ambassador. Previous Society recipients including; Theodore Roosevelt, John Glenn, Diana Nyad, and last year’s honoree, (photojournalist) Steve McCurry. The first ever image of a Black Hole confirms Einstein’s suggestion that the event horizon should be visible. Subsequent images will provide more information; this was just the first! Think of it like viewing the first Hubble Space Telescope images ever and what the Hubble images look like now. Google Lunar Xprize Contender and Israel’s first attempted lunar lander Beresheet crashed on the moon. SpaceIL is committed to try again. Turning to the night sky;  Mars is still holding on in the west after sunset; Jupiter and Saturn are now due South at 4:30am, with Venus and mercury low in the east. They will look beautiful in the brightening morning twilight as sunrise now comes at around 6:30am.

Imaging The Unimaginable

Apr 6, 2019 6:40


The Event Horizon Telescope team may reveal an image of a black hole event horizon on Wednesday. An array of eight radio telescopes around the world will synthesize their observations of the accretion disk and the edge of the event horizon of Sag A – a massive black hole at the core of the Milky Way, as well as the black hole at the core of M87. This would be the first time an event horizon has actually been seen. Would allow study of the general relativity of the strong field regime, accretion and outflows near the edge of the black hole, and studies of event horizons in general. The plan is to use radio data to silhouette the black hole against the background of radio illumination of the accretion disk.

Israel’s first Lunar Mission SpaceIL Beresheet, now in orbit around the moon, is due to land next Thursday on the near side in the Sea of Serenity. If successful, it’ll be the first privately funded spacecraft to reach the moon. Beresheet launched to the moon on Feb 21 at a cost of a mere $100 million.

The Franklin Institute Science Awards Program takes place next week, honoring seven science and one business achievement.

With clear dark skies, Mars and the moon are visible Monday evening in the west. Jupiter is now rising at midnight in the east, up with Saturn at 4:30 am.

Jupiter Ch-Ch-Changes

Mar 30, 2019 3:56


Jupiter has seen quite a dramatic change since formation 4.5 billion years ago. Now the largest planet in the solar system, with a mass greater than that of all the other planets combined, computer models suggest Jupiter started out four times farther away than it is today and much smaller, more Earth-like in size, then grew in size and moved to its current position closer to the sun.

This new understanding was arrived at while researchers tried to figure our why Jupiter’s forward batch of asteroid ‘kling-ons’ (the Trojan asteroids) is so much larger than its aft batch of ‘kling-ons’.

Brilliant Jupiter is available to be seen in the pre-dawn sky around 5:00 a.m., along with Saturn and the moon. Venus is visable for just a few more days as it’s now dipping into the pre-dawn glare of the sun. Mars still lords it over the evening sky but it too is slipping in dominance. Leo the Lion takes over as the main constellation of the spring sky.

Step by Step

Mar 23, 2019 7:24


Next Friday, March 29th an historic spacewalk will take place; Anne McClain and Christina Koch will step outside International Space Station to replace a set of batteries on the solar panel array. It will be the first time in history a spacewalk is conducted entirely by women. For McClain, it will be her second spacewalk, but the first for Koch. The first woman to ever complete a spacewalk was Svetlana Savitskaya in July 1984, followed by American astronaut Kathryn Sullivan three months later.

107 years ago on this date, rocket engineer and Nazi Werner Von Braun was born in Virsisk, Poland.
He developed rocket technology for Nazi Germany during WWII then was brought to the United States where he eventually developed the Saturn V rocket that boosted astronauts to the moon from 1968-1972. It is still the most powerful rocket ever built.

Easter will arrive on April 21 rather than tomorrow; even though tomorrow is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the equinox. The challenge comes from trying to reconcile the Gregorian calendar which, when adopted in 1582, fixed the Vernal Equinox on March 21. The actual date of the vernal equinox wanders a bit because the Earth’s rotational period isn’t precisely 365 days. A proposal to fix the date of Easter has been widely discussed and the 1963 Second Vatican Council agreed to the second Sunday in April. The Vatican has never taken action on the proposal.

“One Small Step” Redux?

Mar 16, 2019 6:43


NASA’s 2020 budget request for $21 billion includes significant funding to build systems and infrastructure to return to the moon by 2028. Pending Congressional approval, this will allow NASA to support commercial development of a large lunar lander to carry cargo, and then astronauts to the moon, develop and build the ‘Gateway’ lunar orbital facility mini space station at the moon, and start dropping equipment on the lunar surface for astronauts to begin stays of two weeks. Since the last Apollo sojourn to the moon in 1972, it has been determined that ice exists at the lunar poles.

The Vernal Equinox Wednesday at 5:58 pm signals the official start of Spring! A full moon tonight is among the dark sky highlights – we’re starting to lose sight of Venus in the pre-dawn sky – in part because sunrises are coming earlier. You can catch sight of this and more as The Delaware Valley Amateur Astronomers host their first star party of the season at Valley Forge National Historical Park Model Airplane Field – more info at

Some Like it Dry

Mar 8, 2019 5:42


The Atacama desert in Chile is one of the most arid places on the planet – averaging less than one inch of rainfall per year! High altitude, almost constant clear sky, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference due to its remote location make it a premier place to observe the heavens above. Additionally, the subsurface soil is somewhat similar to conditions on Mars. Robotic rovers deployed in the Atacama have found subsurface microbes that are highly resistant to salt. Using a rover-mounted robotic drill and sampling device, soil samples recovered from 80 cm(31 inches) contained unusual and highly specialized microbes that were distributed in patches, which researchers linked to the limited water availability, scarce nutrients and chemistry of the soil.
The Atacama desert is the most Mars-like region on Earth.

NASA’s InSight Lander Mars temperature probe was to be hammered 16 feet into the Martian soil to check internal heat flow as a way to characterize the Martian interior structure, but it jammed last week when the probe encountered unanticipated rock.

Signs of Spring: The Vernal equinox is now less than two weeks away, and we spring ahead from Eastern Standard to Daylight Saving Time Sunday.

5:30am marks the start of the pre-dawn ‘golden hour’ for viewing Venus, Saturn and Jupiter in a line.
In the evening: a waxing crescent moon slides higher in the 7 p.m. sky each day
On Monday the moon is left of rosey Mars.

Worth the Wait for Weightlessness?

Mar 4, 2019 6:37


Beth Moses, Astronaut Trainer for Virgin Galactic, flew aboard its latest test flight as its first passenger. The VSS Unity flew into space last week piloted by David MacKay and Mike Masucci. Last week’s flight was the first to carry another person besides pilot and co-pilot and its principle objective was to test how the craft would handle during descent with its twin tails rotated upward relative to the fuselage. The altitude achieved, 55.8 miles, is high enough to earn all three crew members commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration.
There are more test flights to come this year, but Virgin Galactic’s founder Richard Branson would love to make his first flight on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, with regular flights possibly beginning late this year.

The first woman to fly in space, Valentina Tereshkova, celebrates a birth anniversary this week on Wednesday. She was born in 1937. It was her expertise in skydiving that led to her selection. The then-26-year-old was selected from among a group of five women to fly on 16 June 1963. She completed 48 earth orbits over almost three days. Now honored as a hero in Russia, Tereshkova is the only woman to have flown in space on a solo mission.

Volunteers Needed for Stellar Sleuthing

Feb 25, 2019 5:38


Wanna get your hands dirty in astronomy? Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a newly revised version of a Zooniverse Citizen Scientist data-mining project for finding nearby failed stars and exoplanets created through a collaboration of a number of research agencies including NASA, NOAO, AMNH, STSci, ASU, UCSD, and others. The project, done by human searches through a new double-size data set, depends on the acuity of the human eye to discern differences between data and noise in digital images. There are enormous mountains of data to go through, far more data than can be examined by individual astronomers in any reasonable amount of time and significant discoveries can be made by amateur researchers.

So-called stellar streams are associations of stars; typically a globular cluster or a dwarf galaxy orbiting a galaxy that has been stretched out along its orbit and torn apart by tidal forces. There are 18 known streams in our Milky Way galaxy, one of which is a mere 330 light years from Earth.
Since it’s close enough for astronomers to measure its stellar members precisely, we can get better estimate of our galaxy’s true mass because we can use the stream’s motion to measure the gravitational pull of our galaxy on it.

LOFAR Survey reveals hundreds of thousands of previously unmapped galaxies Low frequency radio telescope array is spread across northern Netherlands and nearby countries have surveyed 25% of the sky and the first 10% of data is now available for study, revealing the existence of 100,000 galaxies that were previously unseen.
This detection system is different from a visible light survey which only shows the visible light component of an object in space.
Observing in other frequencies, like radio, reveals additional processes and details otherwise unknown, resulting in an incomplete picture of the universe’s operation.

Night Sky highlights this week: Wednesday thru Saturday morning around 5:45 , a waning crescent moon slides past Jupiter, Saturn, then Venus in that order. Mars is quite high in the west, southwest and still stunningly bright!

A Conversation With Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi

Feb 16, 2019 12:12


Earlier this week, the Franklin Institute Night Sky Observatory program featured special guest Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, astrophysicist, inventor, and co-host of the Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science to focus on some of the most perplexing paradoxes of the universe, the possibility of life on other planets, and why he believes his unlikely personal path can inspire the next generation of scientists.
He stopped by WHYY studios to join the conversation with WHYY’s Dave Heller and Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer at the Franklin Institue.

Oluseyi was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. After his parents divorced when he was four years old, he and his mother lived in some of the country’s toughest neighborhoods including the 9th Ward of New Orleans; Watts, Los Angeles, California; Inglewood, California; South Park, Houston, Texas; and Third Ward, Houston, Texas before settling in rural Mississippi a month before Oluseyi turned 13 years old.
He completed middle school and high school in the East Jasper School District graduating as his high school’s valedictorian in 1985.
Oluseyi served in the U.S. Navy from 1984 to 1986, and then enrolled in Tougaloo College where he earned Bachelor of Science degrees in physics and mathematics.
He earned MS and Ph.D. degrees in physics from Stanford University.

His best known scientific contributions are research on the transfer of mass and energy through the Sun’s atmosphere, the development of space-borne observatories for studying astrophysical plasmas and dark energy, and the development of transformative technologies in ultraviolet optics, detectors, computer chips, and ion propulsion.
However, he values inspiring others to strive over his personal accomplishments, as evidenced by his tweet;
“Positively impacting lives and communities through education gives me greater satisfaction than any scientific discovery or invention I’ve ever made”

Oluseyi appears as a commentator and scientific authority on Science Channel television shows including How the Universe Works, Outrageous Acts of Science, and Strip the Cosmos.
His TED Talks include the topics “Infinity explained in three minutes” and “How we know; the big bang.”

With favorable viewing conditions;
Saturn will appear just below Venus tomorrow morning.
On Monday, they will be next to each other, then they switch places and Saturn will be above Venus with Venus heading down toward the sun.
Mars still dominates the evening sky but Uranus is lurking right next door below towards the horizon.

What’s in a Shape?

Feb 11, 2019 7:22


Astronomers at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have detected that our Milky Way galaxy, while shaped like a big disk that rotates, is actually warped at the outer edges.
The warping causes our galaxy to have a turned up lip at one end and a turned down lip at the opposite edge – like a ‘bit of a twisted ‘S’ shape’. It’s theorized that warping seems to be caused by torque induced by the rotation of the inner disk of the galaxy.
Still great planet viewing in the pre-dawn sky. Winter constellation Orion is surrounded by the Winter Circle: Auriga, Gemini, Canis Minor, Canis Major and Taurus.

Strolling Our Galactic Neighborhood

Jan 29, 2019 6:12


Our Milky Way is one of some forty galaxies that comprise what is known as our “local group.”
Two of our nearest galactic co-occupants are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (visible in the Southern Hemisphere). At a mere 170,000 light years away, they are close enough for astronomers to notice that, contrary to expectation, they are producing stars at an increasing rate, in contrast to our Milky Way where star production has been decreasing for billions of years. It’s thought that the much more massive Milky Way exerts a strong gravitational pull that is the driving force behind the increased star production. Separately, that gravitational tug will ultimately lead to a merger of the three galaxies in some 2.5 billion years. What’s not known is what effect this could have on our sun and its planets. The sun is not expected to begin its evolution toward a red giant stage for another 2.5 billion years after the galaxy merger.

Lunar Eclipse Beckons

Jan 19, 2019 6:43


Despite the forecasted blast of arctic air heading our way Sunday – bundle up and brave the cold because the next opportunity to take in a spectacular full lunar eclipse won’t come until May 2022 !
Spanning late Sunday into early Monday – this will be the first time since 1975 that a total lunar eclipse coincides with a holiday weekend. The period of totality when Earth’s shadow blocks out the moon extends from 11:41pm Sunday until 12:43am Monday. Derrick explains why this eclipse is popularly (but inaccurately) referred to as “the blood moon” and “the super moon.” If cloud cover blocks the spectacle, will webcast the event from Northern California.

Cotton is growing on the Moon . . albeit, inside the Chinese lander Chang’e 4. This marks the first time that seeds have sprouted on another world. Two other plant variety seeds (potato and Arabidopsis) haven’t sprouted yet, but scientists are holding out hope!

In addition to Sunday’s Lunar Eclipse, this week also features a great opportunity to take in Winter Circle of constellations and bright stars.
Also, Venus slides past Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky this week.
Mars can be spotted in the southwest sky every clear evening after sunset.

Speed Kills

Jan 12, 2019 7:49


The more scientists learn about black holes, the more the findings confirm the warning: Speed kills.
The black hole ASASSN-14li lies at the heart of a galaxy 290 million light-years away from Earth and harbors between 1 million and 10 million times the mass of the sun. That makes it about as hefty as the black hole at our Milky Way galaxy’s core, known as Sagittarius A*, which contains about 4 million solar masses.
Focusing on ASASSN-14li, astronomers at MIT just announced a new way to measure the rotation of black holes: Look for the remnants of partially consumed stars as regular pulses of x-rays as the star spins around with the black hole’s spin.
In this case, the ‘pulse’ recurred every 131 seconds for 450 days; and with that, it was determined that the black hole spins at 50% of the speed of light (186,000 miles / second).
More info here.
A new study confirms an earlier claim that the cores of white dwarf stars eventually crystallize as they cool. Crystallization as a diamond comes because the core of many white dwarf stars is composed on oxygen and carbon, the essential ingredients in diamond composition. The thinking is that as the core cools below 18 million degrees, the crystallization begins converting the core into solid oxygen and carbon or diamond. Thinking about staking a claim? Good luck! These stars are very dim, not to mention their distance and the logistics involved in an attempt to mine something like this. But wait, there’s hope: Our sun is predicted to go diamond in about 10 billion years.

Clear dark sky highlights: Venus and Jupiter dominate the pre-dawn sky this coming week. Mars and the moon are next to each other tonight.

Ultima Thule

Jan 5, 2019 7:42


NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues its sojourn through the outer reaches of our solar system. For the next 20 months, it will transmit data back to earth gathered from its passby of the planetessimal Ultima Thule, a snowman-shaped object around 20 miles in length. At a distance of 4.1 billion miles from Earth, it takes more than six hours (traveling at the speed of light) for that information to reach us.
Ultima Thule resides in the center of the vast Kuiper Belt, home to frozen remnants from the birth of the solar system.
NASA launched the nuclear-powered spacecraft 13 years ago, and traveling at 32,000 miles per hour, it will take New Horizons an additional eight or nine years to bid adieu to the Kuiper Belt and enter interstellar space.
At one billion miles beyond Pluto (visited by New Horizons in 2015), this marks the most distant flyby of an object in our solar system.

Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief of astronomy and first leader of the effort to create Hubble Space Telescope died last week at the age of 93. She embarked on her career at NASA in 1948.

Turning to the night sky: A New Moon today means optimal viewing this week if the cloud cover cooperates;
Venus and Jupiter can be seen from 6:00a – 6:30a, Mars is available in the evening sky.
Wednesday morning at 6:11, International Space Station pops into view in the North/Northwest and sails across the Northern sky into the East by 6:16am.
The next morning (Thursday) at 5:21, NE, ISS can first be spied in the North East, and sails out to the east just under the brilliant star VEGA, then on to the South East horizon by 5:25am.

Going, Going, Gone

Dec 26, 2018 8:27


Enjoy them while you can, because according to a new analysis of data from the Keck 10 meter telescope at Mauna Kea, Saturn’s rings are eroding away. Data gathered 10 years ago by Voyager space probes indicated that the water ice particles that make up Saturn’s ring system were being pulled out of the rings and spiraling down magnetic field lines from the inner edge of the rings to the planet. Given how quickly the rings seem to be deteriorating, the rings probably haven’t been around more than 100 million years.
Think of it this way; the dinosaurs only got to see the rings for around the first 35 million of those 100 million years before they died out.

50 years ago astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders left Earth on Apollo 8 for their historic circumnavigation of the moon. With that, they became the first humans to enter the gravitational sphere of influence of another celestial body. Not only was the mission the most important precursor to the first human landing just seven months later, but it was also the mission that gave us on Earth the most riveting view and most thorough definition of our ‘Spaceship Earth’ via the now iconic ‘Earthrise’ image. The crew orbited the Moon ten times over the course of 20 hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis. At the time, the broadcast was the most watched TV program ever.

Given the dearth of daylight during this solstice season, there is plenty to be seen overhead: In the pre-dawn sky, from 6:00a – 6:30a, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury. Then after sunset – Mars can be spotted in the southwest.

Adieu to Voyager 2

Dec 13, 2018 7:33


41 years since it left Earth in the rear view mirror, NASA’s Voyager 2 bids adieu to our solar system. Earlier this week, engineers monitoring transmissions detected a significant drop-off in solar wind buffeting the spacecraft and a dramatic increase in the cosmic ray count – clear indicators that Voyager 2 has stepped off into interstellar space.
It is now traveling at 34,000 mph, and at some 11 billion miles away, it takes sixteen and a half hours to transmit back to earth. Its next destination is 40,000 years away, but as the science instruments are turned off to conserve energy, we’ll lose communications and a fix on the probe’s location by the 2030s. Only the biggest radio receiver dishes in Australia can hear the spacecraft now.

Winter Solstice is next Friday, when, at 5:23pm, Earth’s north rotational axis will have its greatest degree of tilt away from the sun.

Monday is the 115th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight.
On that day there were four flights. The first lasted just 12 seconds flying only 120 feet; the last flight of the day flew 852 feet over 59 seconds.

Shedding Light on the Dark Side of the Moon

Dec 10, 2018 6:42


China’s next lunar visitor Chang’e 4 is due to touch down on the far side of the moon on December 31st. If it succeeds in that endeavor, it will be the world’s first lunar probe to make a soft landing on the side of the moon that always faces away from earth.The lander and rover are equipped with cameras, radar and spectrometers to help identify rocks and dirt in the area. The instruments will probe the structure of the rocks beneath the spacecraft, and assess the effects of the solar wind striking the lunar surface.
Since radio signals from earth are blocked from reaching the side of the moon that never faces us, the Chinese launched a satellite in May that is orbiting the moon, and will relay messages between Earth and Chang’e-4.

Earthlings last walked on the moon 46 years ago this month; NASA’s Apollo 17 landed on the moon on December 11, 1972. Gene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon and Harrison Schmidt, the only scientist to make it to the moon in the Apollo program spent more time on the lunar surface than anyone ever. They participated in three seven-hour-long moon walks – covering 22 miles!

Turning to night sky highlights this week: Venus in the predawn sky looks fabulous. It was right below the moon on Dec. 3rd – you may have seen the pair together. The next opportunity comes on January 1st and 2nd. In the meantime, an easier planet-Moon alignment occurs this Friday – it’ll be Mars and the Moon as the sun sets.
You’re watching the moon as it slides through our sky on its monthly journey around the earth.

Early Sunsets in Early December

Dec 3, 2018 6:42


Starting on Monday, December 3rd, we’ll embark on a ten-day period when sunset arrives around 4:35 in the afternoon, marking the earliest sunsets of the year. Sunsets will commence a little later by Friday, December 21st – Winter Solstice – the day distinguished by the least amount of daylight.
The latest sunrise doesn’t take place until January 10th and then, thoughts and hopes can turn to Spring!
Mars still dominates the Southern sky after sunset, Saturn barely hanging on.
The Moon catches up with bright Venus on Monday morning between 4 a.m. and 6:15 a.m.

November 30th was the 62nd anniversary of the only recorded instance of a human injury caused by a meteor.
It was 1956 when a meteor crashed through the ceiling of a room where Ann Hodges was sitting on a couch in Sylacauga, Alabama. The softball-sized object banged around the room and struck her on her leg, causing a bruise. The biggest related question cosmologists have now is whether it’s possible that microbes beyond earth seeded life here. Panspermia is the idea that there’s life throughout the universe; transpermia is the concept that microbes hitch rides on asteroids and meteoroids traveling throughout the cosmos.

NASA Touchdown On Mars

Nov 26, 2018 9:07


NASA’s InSight Lander is scheduled to set down on the surface of Mars on Monday, November 26th. As a fixed station, InSight will drill a probe 5 meters down into the rock to both temperature profile that part of the rock column and to listen very carefully for seismic activity the lander can use to characterize the interior of the planet. The goal of this project is to learn more about the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets, including Mars, by learning about the physical composition and tectonic activity of the planet.

NASA celebrated the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station this week. It was Nov 20th 1998, when the first component was launched.
The ISS has been continuously occupied since Nov. 2, 2000. Current plans call for its continued operation through 2024.

For the first time, astronomers have detected that a possible gamma ray bath could come from a supernova candidate in our galaxy. This particular star, named Apep after the monstrous serpent deity and mortal enemy of the Egyptian sun god Ra, isn’t the only star ready to blow.
There are approximately 20 other stars within 8,000 light years that are in their final stages of evolution and are large enough to go supernova.

Hidden In Plain Sight

Nov 19, 2018 6:14


Our Milky Way has two very well known galactic companions: The Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds, irregular-shaped galaxies both about 170,00 light years from Earth. Both are visible to the naked eye in the southern sky.
The European Space Agency’s GAIA Space mapping satellite has detected another attendant galaxy hiding behind the Milky Way’s disc: The newly named “Antlia 2” is 1/3rd the size of our Milky Way itself. Determination of its mass indicates it is unusually light for a galaxy of its size.
Researchers are suggesting that it is so because Antlia 2 is being slowly taken apart by galactic tides of our Milky Way Galaxy, even though it doesn’t come much closer than 130,000 light years away. We haven’t seen it before because of where it’s placed and because it’s 10,000 times dimmer than LMC, sort of like a ‘ghost’ galaxy.
That means either it’s far too large for the amount of energy it gives out or far too dim for its size.

The 2nd closest star to Earth Barnard’s Star is just six light years away (about 2 light years farther than Proxima Centauri – our nearest celestial neighbor).
Astronomers have confirmed the existence of a planet three times the mass of Earth, 40 million miles from its low-mass red dwarf sun, with a surface temperature of 275 degrees below zero.
According to NASA, the current number of confirmed exoplanets: 3,838.

Going in Circles

Nov 10, 2018 5:25


This week, astronomers are studying a pair of stars that rotate around their common point once every 3 hours.
The stars are buried in a planetary nebula 14,000 light years from Earth in Canis Major.
Researchers think material from the bigger star of the pair bridges over onto the smaller but more energetic white dwarf star, causing intermittent nuclear bomb-sized explosions.
Typically, these stars start much farther apart, then spin in together. In this case they’re already almost touching and could explode as a nova sometime in a few thousand years.

The annual Leonid Meteor Shower peaks on the 17th this year – although the anticipated 20 meteors/hour is not especially impressive this year.

Fall Back

Nov 2, 2018 6:38


Enjoy an earlier sunrise starting Sunday morning, when our area reverts to Eastern Standard Time.
The earlier sunsets affords opportunities to view the glories of the night sky. Saturn and Mars are easy targets; Saturn in the southwest and Mars in the south at 5:30pm.
In this time when accusations of ‘fake news’ are often invoked, let’s pay tribute to a long-ago radio broadcast that laid the groundwork. It was 80 years ago this week that Orson Welles broadcast his famous radio performance of ‘War of the Worlds,’ a fictional show depicting a Martian invasion at Grover’s Mill near Princeton, NJ.
Thousands of listeners were terrified, even though plenty of disclaimers were included in the broadcast.

The Kepler Planet Hunter is kaput! After nine-and-a-half years and 2,800 confirmed planetary discoveries in our Milky Way, Kepler finally ran out of fuel. It’s been placed in a safe, stable solar orbit. Its biggest contribution: the suggestion that every star has at least one planet. NASA’s Opportunity Rover on Mars might also be kaput, as it hasn’t radioed in since the summer’s dust storm on Mars.

Sun Day

Oct 29, 2018 6:12


Our sun, some 865,000 miles in diameter, rotates once every 30-35 days or so; fairly normal for a star like ours.
Contrast that with an example of a neutron star (aka pulsar) – a mere 12.5 miles in diameter – that rotates once every 1.4 milliseconds, or 42,960 times every minute!
Typically pulsars emit electromagnetic radiation in beams that emanate from their magnetic poles, much like a coastal lighthouse has s weeping rotting beam.
To0 detect a pulsar, its beam has to be pointed in our direction and we have to have equipment capable of detecting what look like incredibly quick pulses of radio waves.
The Milky Way’s YOUNGEST pulsar, Kes 75, is a mere 500 years old, 19,000 light years away and its expanding nebula has wind fronts racing away at 2 million miles/hour.

International Observe the Moon Night

Oct 20, 2018 5:07


The naked eye is just fine – but if the night sky is clear this evening, the best way to view the moon is with a pair of binoculars, revealing craters, seas, bays and more. In addition, Saturn and Mars are still hanging in the early evening sky. The constellations Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Perseus are rising in the east.

Tomorrow marks the 95th year since attendees took in the first planetarium show, at the Deutches Museum in Munich, Germany. Actually, indoor depictions of the night sky go back to 1,500 B.C. in Egyptian tombs. The Adler Planetarium in Chicago was first in the United States in 1930. The Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia opened four years later, as the second planetarium in the US.

Shooting Stars

Oct 16, 2018 4:31


Buried in the data from European Space Agency’s Gaia Survey satellite, astronomers from Leiden University in the Netherlands discovered 13 new stars whose hyper-velocities suggest they’ve interlopers from EXTRA-galactic sources (outside our Milky Way).
Seven others are traveling at several hundreds of millions of miles per hour. They’ll escape our galaxy and head off into intergalactic space. Astronomers have little understanding of how such velocities are generated. By the way; for comparison, the Earth orbits the sun at a relatively snail-like half-million miles per hour!

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, launched on August 20, 1977, is (perhaps) about to leave near-sun space, as evidenced by an uptick in cosmic ray detection. About 40,000 years from now, Voyager 1 (which launched 16 days after Voyager 2) will be closer to a star other than the Sun when it passes within 1.6 light-years of GJ 445, a red dwarf star currently in the constellation Camelopardalis.
Around the same time, Voyager 2 will pass about 1.7 light-years from Ross 248 in the constellation Andromeda.
Ross 248 (aka Gliese 905) is small compared to our sun; it has about 12% of the Sun’s mass and 16% of the Sun’s radius.

The Goblin

Oct 9, 2018 6:02


Scientists who confirmed the existence of 2015 TG387 out beyond the Kuiper Belt believe its orbit offers the best evidence of the existence of the long-speculated Planet X in our solar system.
2015 TG387 (aka “The Goblin”) is a trans-Neptunian object around 200 miles in diameter.
It was first observed at Mauna Kea Observatories on October 13, 2015, by astronomers David J. Tholen, Scott S. Sheppard, and Chad Trujillo, and publicly announced on October 1, 2018.
2015 TG387 is currently some 80 AU (Astronomical Units) from the Sun (AU is approximately 93 million miles, or roughly the distance from the Sun to Earth).
As such, 2015TG387 is about two-and-a-half times farther out than Pluto’s current location.
By contrast, Planet X is expected to be at a distance of 600AU, and 10 times the mass of Earth.
Also hints at existence of many other bodies yet to be discovered and will contribute heavily to the discussion of what defines a planet.

With clear skies during the week, a beautiful thin crescent moon can be seen in the pre-dawn sky.
Jupiter is very low in the west, Saturn and Mars can be spotted along the south-southwest.

When Push Comes to Shove

Oct 1, 2018 6:26


Gaia, a galactic surveyor spacecraft, has caught our galaxy doing “the wave!” Studies of one billion stars show a wave-like motion in the stars of our galaxy’s arms. According to galactic structure theory, this shouldn’t be happening but it is. Why? A near-collision with the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy 200 million to 1 billion years ago imparted a gravitational shove that started “the wave.” When the galaxies collide again, our Milky Way will consume or incorporate the dwarf, one of the ways our galaxy got to be so big. Astronomers don’t see the arms doing the wave but they can trace the motions of the stars over the past billion years and interpret that it has been happening.

NASA celebrates its 60th anniversary on Monday. The agency was founded in 1958, after the Soviet launch of Sputnik, but was an outgrowth of the National Commission on Aeronautics, which was founded in 1915 when the United States needed to catch up to Europe in the field of aviation.

Only Pluto Knows For Sure

Sep 17, 2018 5:43


A group of researchers, including the Principle Investigator for the New Horizons program, Alan Stern, have found that after a review of 200 years of science literature, in only one instance has the ‘clear its orbit’ requirement ever been used to define an object as a planet. Further, the new team recommends that the definition of an object as a planet be based on the formation of the object itself rather than the ‘subject-to-external-influences’ dynamics of its orbit. As the 2006 IAU definition of a planet currently stands, its not really a definition of the object itself but all about that object’s relation to orbital dynamics that could change given the right circumstances, whereas the original formation of an object is fixed once the formation is complete. The most important factor: Is the object massive enough to pull itself into a spherical shape? If so, then, according to this group, the object is massive enough to initiate active geology – like differentiation, plate tectonics volcanism, etc. That’s not to say subsequent events might alter the make-up of the object, but its process, mechanism, and location of formation would never change. What does this mean practically? Pluto’s still a planet. Why? Because regardless of whether Pluto meets the other criteria of the 2006 IAU ruling on definition, “Pluto’s active geology and dynamism is what allows for it to have an interior ocean, a multilayered atmosphere, organic compounds and evidence of ancient lakes and multiple moons.” Some scientists now suggest that based on data gathered from the new Horizons fly-by mission, that only the Earth more geologically active than Pluto in our solar system. Only Earth is more geologically complex. And many other items in our solar system besides the Big Nine may belong to that class of items also. These items ‘know’ what they are, we are about the business of educating ourselves about them so we learn how to properly address them. While the IAU may have come up with a definition, nature forces us to constantly reconsider until our description is consistent with what the universe shows us.

Want to do a little astro age dating? Here’s an easy one – relative age dating on the moon. Bright white areas on the Moon’s surface are lunar highlands; wide, darker, smooth areas are lunar maria or seas. These are actually lava-filled basins created after meteor or asteroid impact. Lunar highlands are the older parts undisturbed after billions of years; the lava-filled basins are younger – relatively. Lave filled the basins after impact and overflowed.

Sunday, September 23rd marks the first day of Autumn!

Starstruck by Star Trek

Sep 11, 2018 5:13


52 years ago, the television show Star Trek premiered! It spawned a whole new approach to space exploration and had an impact on the world’s culture. NBC cancelled Star Trek in February 1969, 5 months before Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
The successor to the highly successful Kepler planet-hunting satellite TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) sent the first data down last week, with new observations sent down every 13.5 days. TESS was launched on April 18, has settled into orbit and sent its first data two weeks ago, a photo of near-Sun space containing 200,000 stars, many of which could be accompanied by at least one planet. Kepler looked at just one small region of sky, but TESS will survey almost the entire sky, concentrating on about 20,000 stars where it’s expected to turn up as many as 10,000 new planets, many orbiting stars we know well.

Galactic Two-Step

Sep 3, 2018 5:13


Our Milky Way is thought to have originally formed shortly after the birth of the universe, 13.5 billion years ago. Built from the first stars and star clusters, gas from the galactic halo also contributed to the formation of the galaxy. Multiple galactic mergers helped trigger new star formation over and over again.
But a new study of the Milky Way’s composition led by astronomers from the Astronomical Institute at Tohoku University in Tokyo suggests that our galaxy stopped producing stars and went dormant for 2 billion years about 7 billion years ago. The galaxy was essentially dead. Two-stage galaxy formation is not a new idea, but the new study might suggest that the two-stage process, where star formation takes a billion-year hiatus, is not uncommon in Milky Way-sized galaxies but far less likely in smaller galaxies.

Turning to dark sky highlights, Mercury is visible low in the east at 5:45am; four planets in the evening sky for just another two week. Turning to constellations of note; Big Dipper in the North-West, Pegasus in the east, Hercules and the summer triangle right overhead; Libra(Jupiter), Scorpius, and Sagittarius(Saturn and Mars) hold the planets together.

Listen to “Lune”

Aug 27, 2018 6:30


NASA Science Visualization Labs’ Ernie Wright has created a beautiful visual compliment to De Bussey’s classic piano composition, ‘Claire De Lune’. Using images from NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting and photographing the moon in close-up high resolution since 2009, Wright’s video matches stunning images of the moon’s surface in a smooth-flowing visual montage that both reinvigorates the music and shows the moon’s changing appearance over the course of a lunar day.

Just about this time last year, about 154 million Americans went outside to experience a total solar eclipse. Next total across the US: April 8, 2024! Still have solar eclipse glasses? As long as they’re in good condition, you can use them to look at the sun safely anytime. Want to preserve them? Keep them in an envelope somewhere safe, like inside a book.

Here’s a mind-bender for you: one of Stephen Hawking’s best buds, physicist Roger Penrose, suggests that the ‘black hole doom’ from a previous universe would not only leave a dead universe with the ultra-compressed environment that might be found just before a ‘big bang’ event was to jump off, but it would leave traces of those shrinking black holes in our cosmic microwave background, the remnant of our universe’s birth. Sort of like a watermark in fine papers, these cosmologists are suggesting that as the past universe’s black holes evaporated, the massless photons and gravitons that escaped as Hawking radiation (Hawking suggested that black holes lose mass and energy slowly and shrink up), wouldn’t experience time or distance. It would be the Hawking radiation that would survive to create the ‘fossil’ print’ of the previous black hole. Penrose’s 2010 paper claiming to have identified Hawking points has been dismissed by others as random noise errors in their data. What’s next in this grand claim? More tests of course!

On the Prowl for Planets

Aug 20, 2018 5:39


The successor to the highly successful Kepler planet-hunting satellite TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) sent the first data down last week. TESS was launched April 18, and settled into orbit and sent its first data two weeks ago, a photo of near-Sun space containing 200,000 stars, many of which could be accompanied by at least one planet. Kepler looked at just one small region of sky; TESS will survey almost the entire sky, concentrating on about 20,000 stars where it’s expected to turn up as many as 10,000 new planets, many of which orbit stars we already know well.

TESS uses the newest, most accurate map of the Milky Way ever made, the Gaia Project map. The catalog that goes with the map contains the positions, distances, motions, brightness, and colors of more than 1.3 billion stars. Also provides the surface temps of about 100 million stars and the effect of interstellar dust on 87 million stars! TESS will use the map’s accuracy to pinpoint the stars it really wants to concentrate on. A project of the European Space Agency, Gaia was launched in 2013 on a five-year mission to map the Milky Way. It doesn’t orbit Earth but sits at a gravitational balance point of Earth moon and sun a million miles from earth.

The moon is near Saturn tonight and Mars Wednesday night. If you have a chance to see Mars through a telescope anywhere, do it since it looks quite large and good!

Time to Start Spotting Sunspots

Aug 13, 2018 7:40


The current (approximately 11-year-long) Solar Cycle is about to come to an end. Several years of long stretches of days without sunspots (up to 125 days so far this year – 38 of the past 41 days have been spotless) indicate the imminent beginning of a new cycle.

Crews have been selected for the first commercial craft test flights and missions – Seven men, 2 women will crew flights beginning next year, 2019. Most notable is Philadelphia native Chris Ferguson, commander of the last space shuttle flight STS-135. He’ll be part of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner first flight as he’s been the development lead at Boeing since he retired from NASA after the last shuttle flight. The test flights will be followed by operational missions to ISS carrying both America and international astronauts.

Sunrise was 6:10am and sunset today is at 8 p.m. We’ve lost 1 hour 11 minutes of day length since June 21st and we’ll continue to lose 2 minutes/day until mid-November when we slow towards Winter Solstice.

Lastly, weather permitting – there’s an Astronomer Star Party at Strathmere Beach, New Jersey on Friday, Aug. 17th.

A Plethora of Planets

Jul 31, 2018 5:58


Mars’ close approach is Tuesday, July 31. A large subglacial lake of (very salty) liquid water has been found on Mars. This conclusion was arrived at by a group of European researchers using a radar analysis method frequently applied on Earth to determine subglacial features, including the presence of subglacial lakes.

All in the Family

Jul 23, 2018 6:29


Scientists have discovered 12 more of Jupiter’s moons, bringing the planet’s total count to 79. There are 175 known moons in the solar system overall, including Earth’s, Mars (2), Jupiter (79), Saturn (53), Uranus (27), and Neptune (13).

Relive Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

Jul 17, 2018 7:50


Follow a replay of the NASA lunar exploration events from 49 years ago online. replays the actual audio communications between ground control and the astronauts from about 15 minutes before landing.
The playback is augmented with video tapes of what was seen by the astronauts as they descended to land. Three Americans left on this date and landed 4 days later on the 20th; they stayed about 21 hours, walked around for 3.5 hours, then left the next day, returning safely to Earth on July 24th.

New studies based in data collected by the New Horizons spacecraft that flew by Pluto two summers ago suggest one scenario for Pluto’s creation could be the coalescence of a billion comets. Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt – a ring of icy objects orbiting around the sun, beyond Neptune. This idea was prompted by the amount of nitrogen ice observed at the left lobe of the heart-shaped region on Pluto’s surface. Much more work has to be done, but this possibility indicates Pluto’s origin is a much more complex story than originally imagined.

The moon slides through Venus July 15, Jupiter July 20, Saturn July 24, Mars July 27.

Reaching Ryugu

Jul 10, 2018 7:23


Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft arrives at asteroid Ryugu on Wednesday, beginning a string of encounters including fly-bys, landings (3 rovers and a lander!!), sample acquisition and Earth return. Hayabusa 2 left Earth in 2014 and traveled 180 million miles to catch the 3,000 foot wide asteroid.

This object is a member of the carbon-rich C-type asteroid family. Scientists believe these objects contain material that has remained undisturbed since the formation of the solar system. Thus, it’s something scientists would really like to study when it hasn’t been super-heated while falling to Earth.
Hayabusa 2 won’t enter the orbit of Ryugu. After shutting down its ion engines several weeks ago, the craft has used maneuvering thrusters to chart a zig-zag pattern as it closes in on Ryugu. After scanning for debris in the space around the asteroid, Hayabusa 2 has taken up station 12 miles (20 kilometers) above the surface.

JAXA plans to take high-resolution photos and gravitational readings over the coming months. After charting the surface, Hayabusa 2 will attempt as many as three brief landings. The team hopes to collect at least one gram of material from the surface of Ryugu. The first attempt will occur in October of this year, and another could happen as soon as February 2019. Hayabusa 2 also carries a small impactor, which should be able to produce a crater. The team may choose to land a third time inside that crater to collect a sample.

Analysis of stars seen beyond what was thought to be the edge of our Milky Way show a chemical composition strikingly similar to that of stars within the galaxy.
This leads to the suggestion that the Milky Way is actually much larger than previously thought – 200k light years across instead of 100 to 160k.
This is not the first time galactic size has been revised. Measurements of the mass of our visible cousin galaxy Andromeda indicate it’s less massive than previously determined, and seems to be about the same mass as the Milky Way.

Celebrating the 3rd, 4th, and 5th of July

Jul 2, 2018 7:18


Independence Day is sandwiched between the start of the dog days of summer and Aphelion.

The dog days of summer are traditionally the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11 (according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac), which coincide with the morning rise of the Dog Star, Sirius. Ancient Egyptians thought that the “combined heat” of Sirius and the Sun caused summer’s swelter.

Thursday July 5th is Aphelion, when the Earth at its most distant point from the Sun for the year; 94,508,060 miles. Our average distance from the Sun is 92,955,696 million miles.

4th of July Anniversaries:
In 1054 on July 4, the Crab Nebula supernova was first observed and reported by many non-western astronomers. It was so bright that it was visible during the day for three weeks, and finally faded from view two years later.

In 1868 on July 4, Henrietta Leavitt born. Her discovery of the period/luminosity relationship discovery made it possible for Hubble to determine that the universe is expanding.

And for those who are suffering in this summer weather: Be glad you don’t live on Mars, which is currently experiencing a planet-wide dust storm.

Planets available to be seen in the night sky this week; 9:15p, Venus-west, Jupiter-south, Saturn-east, Mars:11:30-East.

Signs of Inflation

Jun 25, 2018 13:05


Dave Heller and Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, discuss efforts to peer all the way back in time and space with:

Renee Hlozek: Professor, University of Toronto, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics Jack Orlowski Scherer: Postdoctoral researcher, University of Pennsylvania Kasey Wagoner: Lecturer, Princeton, Department of Physics

They are in Philadelphia for a meeting at the University of Pennsylvania with the Simons Observatory regarding the Atacama Cosmology Telescope.

The Summer Solstice Beckons

Jun 4, 2018 4:43


Daylight lasts 14 hours and 52 minutes now, and the rate at which we’re gaining daylight is slowing dramatically. The rate at which we gain daylight slows about 3 seconds per day so by the 21st, we’re at zero gain. The mechanics? We’re slowly coming to a point in our solar orbit where the North pole of Earth has its greatest degree of tilt toward the sun. This gives Northern hemisphere-dwellers our ‘longest’ day because the sun’s path travels its longest arc across the sky. On that day, the sun reaches its highest noon point. If you lived near George Town on Exuma in the Bahamas, on June 21, the sun would be directly overhead at noon. A great circle around the globe connects all points where the sun would appear overhead at noon on that day. The next day June 22, we lose 3 seconds of daylight here at our latitude near Philadelphia. We can talk about approaching mid-summer next week as we approach the solstice.

In our solar system, 175 moons orbit 8 planets. Researchers from UC Riverside and the University of Queensland have identified 121 exoplanets that have orbits in their star’s habitable zone that could have large enough moons that might be capable of supporting life.

Venus and Jupiter are visible just after sunset. Mars and Saturn appear just after midnight. Saturn hangs right above Sagittarius.


May 21, 2018 6:00


An especially carnivorous supermassive black hole sitting at the center of a galaxy is gobbling galactic gases at an astonishing rate – one solar mass every two days. The radiation released is so intense that if this object sat at the center of our galaxy, 65,000 light years away, the x-rays it generates would sterilize our planet, making life impossible.
According to Australian National University astronomer Christian Wolf, this object shines thousands of times more brightly than an entire galaxy and would be so bright that from the center of our galaxy it would shine 10 times brighter than the full moon and wash out almost all the brightest stars in our sky.
Here’s the tricky part: At 12 billion light years away, we’re seeing as it appeared 12 billion light years ago.

Let’s talk about mass – the amount of matter in an object;
The most massive planet in our solar system, Jupiter, is 2.5 times more massive than Earth; the biggest exoplanet known is 30 times more massive than Jupiter. Among star, one identified as R136a1 is 300 times heavier than our sun.

Earth’s Volcanic Activity Makes It Unique

May 14, 2018 6:32


Is the current volcanic activity in Hawaii possible elsewhere in the solar system?
Mercury, Venus, and Mars no longer have volcanic activity. However, the moons Io (Jupiter), Triton (Neptune), and Enceladus (Saturn), all have active volcanoes. Earth appears to be the only planet in the solar system with such activity.

China’s space plans include providing commercial satellite launch services for clients worldwide, as well as opening the door for private spacefarers.

Evening Planets visible this week: Venus in the west, Jupiter in the east by 8:15p; the two brightest planets visible in the sky. Jupiter is at opposition – earth has passed between the sun and Jupiter, up all night, rising at sunset, setting at sunrise.

Need your telescope fixed? A June 2nd workshop at The Franklin Institute will help you re-learn all you need to know to work your telescope. Learn more here.

The Color Purple

May 1, 2018 6:11


Newly discovered? A purple planet! Actually, the color suggestion is just speculation based on the planet’s expected chemical composition. The planet, called WASP-104b, orbits 4 million km from its yellow dwarf parent star every 1.75 days. 104b most likely has a potassium and atomic sodium atmosphere which gives its most compelling characteristic – it’s DARK.
One study suggests that it’s darker than charcoal. Measurements show 95 to 99% absorption of light from its parent star. Studies suggest that having one side permanently facing the sun makes it too hot for ice crystals to form – the primary atmospheric reflection mechanism in planetary atmospheres. Then the chemistry also absorbs light to a very high degree. Two other exoplanets are known to be this dark or darker, but accurate measurements are tough to get.

May Day is celebrated in many northern hemisphere cultures as the beginning of summer. This makes June 21 mid-summer and so matches the timelines for Shakepeare’s play, ‘A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream’. May 1 is a cross-quarter day between Spring and Summer. Sunrise is 6a and sunset is 7:55p for this latitude.

Saturday is the 57th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight, the first for a US astronaut. In answer to Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight three weeks earlier that same year, 1961.

Venus is the evening star now for sure. Saturn rises just after midnight with mars following an hour later. This places the three across the southern sky at 5a. this week – the moon slides through the group from tomorrow through Sunday morning.

On the Prowl for Solar Siblings

Apr 25, 2018 5:53


Our sun, like so many others, was born as part of a cluster of stars. Sibling stars have the same chemical composition and can be discovered by analysis of each star’s stellar spectrum. The problem? Dynamics of galactic motion have pulled the sibling stars all throughout the galaxy, far from their original positions. A new survey has looked at 340,000 stars to better understand the evolution of our galaxy’s stars. The Galactic Archaeology Survey uses a spectrograph on a telescope in Australia and a specially designed computer code to study the spectra of 340,000 stars in our galaxy.

A new analysis of an asteroid fragment found in the Nubian Desert, Sudan in 2008 reveals inclusions inside tiny diamond crystals. The environment where the inclusions were formed could only be found at the core of either a very large asteroid or a planet somewhere around the size of Mercury or Mars.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Telescope (TESS) was launched last week on a two-year mission to search for planets orbiting nearby stars. Kepler searched more distant regions and turned up more than 3,700 confirmed hits. TESS is expected to double that number. The method of discovery is transit – watching for regular periodic brightness changes in stars that might be attributed to orbiting planets.

Venus beautiful in the evening sky now; Jupiter up by midnight. Saturn and Mars hold down the pre-dawn sky but are losing to encroaching sunrise. Get up earlier to see them!

Shedding Light on Dark Matter

Apr 17, 2018 5:57


Scientists at the University of Washington have developed the tech to ‘see’ what could be a low-mass particle responsible for dark matter – the axion. They believe that incoming axions passing through a strong magnetic field could convert into radio waves. They are looking for particles with masses less than a billionth that of an electron. This years’ Franklin Awards Physics laureate, Helen Quinn, first suggested the idea of this new particle in 1977 with her colleague Roberto Peccei.

The premiere event of the Philadelphia Science Festival takes place this Friday evening.
25 locations around the region, mostly in inner-city neighborhoods, will host amateur astronomers with telescopes to show the wonders of the night sky. Two hundred partner agencies have put together nine days of over 80 events, plus the Science Carnival on the Parkway on 4/28 with over 180 exhibits and demos. Most of the programs are free and family-friendly, including the carnival.

Planets to be seen this week –
Evening – Venus in the west visible not long after sunset, Jupiter in the east by 10 p.m.;
Pre-dawn Saturn and Mars – high in the south at 5a, catching sunlight by 5:30 a.m.

Does Dark Matter Matter?

Apr 9, 2018 6:03


Astronomers have detected a galaxy that seems to be devoid of dark matter. That possibility has theorists re-evaluating gravity’s role in keeping a galaxy intact.
A Columbia University-led team of astrophysicists has completed a study suggesting the presence of as many as 10,000 very small, low-energy black holes near the core of our galaxy. The mini-black holes have never been detected before because instrumentation has always been tuned to see the more energetic variety of black holes.
Dark sky highlights this week:
Planets; Jupiter in the east after 10 p.m., Saturn, Mars in the south, pre-dawn with Jupiter in the west about to set.
Notable stars: Sirius: brightest in our sky, Arcturus: 4th brightest in our sky, and Betelgeuse: 9th brightest star, a red supergiant; if it were centered here, it would extend beyond Earth (and Mars).


Apr 2, 2018 5:39


Move over Stonehenge – Philadelphia will feature its own version on Friday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m., when the sunset will align with Market Street. This phenomenon happens a few times a year.

A planet 75% the size of Jupiter has been discovered, orbiting a brown dwarf star 46 times the mass of our planet Jupiter. This is of interest because brown dwarfs are the most numerous type of stars: low fusion temperatures render them not very luminous and they are often overlooked as ‘stars.’ For them to have planets significantly increases the possible number of planets in a galaxy and provides more context for the stellar/planetary genesis story.

This is a great week to gaze aloft and spot the Spring Constellations – 10p – West: Taurus, Orion, Gemini; South: Leo in the Keystone, Big Dipper above; East: Orange Arcturus, Hercules

How Big is Big?

Mar 26, 2018 7:19


An acceptable range for the estimated number of galaxies in the universe is between 100 and 200 billion, according to astronomer Mario Livio.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s successor has suffered another 5-8 month delay. The Webb Space telescope has entered the final phases of testing, but delays caused by integration difficulties have pushed back the launch date. The complicated folding of the sunshield is the culprit, and there’s 8 billion dollars on the line.

Serious Signs of Water on Ceres

Mar 21, 2018 5:05


The Dwarf planet Ceres is showing signs of cryoactivity and…water(ice)! Sodium carbonate, a mineral seen by the Dawn spacecraft in orbit around Ceres since 2015, shows up on Ceres as a hydrated variety, indicating that water is bound to the mineral. Images show the presence of slushy cryo-volcanic eruptions.
Data suggests that ice is frozen into the soils on Ceres and there could be briny water layers just beneath the surface. The water can’t last long on the surface – there’s no atmosphere and radiation breaks the molecular bonds, so it evaporates quickly. That there is growth of the ice walls and cryo-volcanoes indicates replenishment must come from subterranean sources. Could it be an active water cycle of some sort?

Jupiter’s Iconic ‘Great Red Spot’ is no more. Now it’s the ‘Great Orange Spot.’ Color changes have been noticed since the earliest close flybys of Jupiter in 1979.

Skywatching this week – Evening: Venus and Mercury – 7:30 – 8 p.m. every night Venus rises higher, Mercury sinks lower. Pre-dawn sky from 5:45 to 6:15 a.m., every day Mars creeps closer to Saturn; watch as Earth overtakes the two planets!

Dark matter’s impact on Andromeda’s size

Mar 13, 2018 6:27


Textbooks typically describe the nearby Andromeda galaxy as being three to four times larger than our galaxy, the Milky Way. However, newer measurements indicate that the two are actually on par. The discrepancy? Andromeda has fewer stars than originally estimated but more “dark matter.”
Astronomers actually now believe that what we see of Andromeda is only 10% of its actual mass.
Astronomer Vera Rubin realized the existence of dark matter in the 1970s when she tried to figure out why Andromeda’s motion didn’t match its estimated mass.
Andromeda and the Milky Way are on a collision course, and their relative masses will make a difference in how the collision will affect the stars, planets, and other masses.

The sunset this week comes after 7:00pm and we’re gaining about 2 minutes and 40 seconds of daylight every day through the end of April, when the rate begins to slow. Meanwhile, sunrises are coming earlier.

Birth Anniversaries this week:
Giovanni Schapiarelli, 1835 – canals on Mars;
Albert Einstein, 1879 – general relativity, special relativity;
Astronaut Gene Cernan, 1934, the same year the Franklin Institute opened its doors at its current location.

Spring Ahead

Mar 6, 2018 6:22


Remember to advance your timepieces one hour before retiring Saturday night; Daylight Savings Time starts Sunday morning at 2:00 am.

Dr. Pitts has returned from a visit to Mt. Wilson and Carnegie offices in Pasadena, California. In the 1920s, Edmund Hubble collected spectroscopic data on galaxies there, showing that they were moving away from the Milky Way. As the distances to galaxies increased, the faster they seemed to be moving.
Since then, we’ve come to understand that the increasing recessional velocity of galaxies (as was suggested by Einstein) actually is caused by the expansion of the universe pulling everything apart.

Hubble also figured out a rate of expansion, now called the Hubble Constant, that tells us about the early state of the universe.

Rover Still Rovin’

Feb 26, 2018 5:08


NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned images that clearly show thick layers of water ice just beneath the surface and extending up to 100 meters down in some places. The layers were spotted on exposed cliff faces mostly in the southern hemisphere. Geologists surmise that the ice formed from thin layers of surface frost and snow that later compacted and recrystallized. As the cliff faces are exposed, the water ice sublimates and the dehydrated rocky material crumbles away and falls to the cliff footings, exposing new deposits of previously buried ice. That water is frozen into the Martian soil isn’t news. In 2008, the Phoenix lander scraped the soil surface not far from the Martian north pole and exposed layers of permafrost just centimeters below. Radar scans from orbit also indicate huge glaciers of ice are just 20 m below the surface and cover a third of the Martian surface.

Opportunity Rover has been operating successfully on Mars for 5,000 days – 13.5 years! Originally, the expected mission length was 9 months. It’s covered 28 miles and returned 225,000 pictures. It’s seen it share of dangers; sand traps, steep crater slopes, dust storms, cold, dim Martian winters, equipment failures, and communications issues. Engineers have finessed ways around all of these to send back information extraordinary information and images.

International Space Station Grounded?

Feb 21, 2018 6:24


The Trump administration’s NASA budget proposal for 2019 recommends $19.9 billion dollars, which is $370 million above last year. However, the plan cuts out funding for International Space Station by 2025, as well as for the Office of Education. Dave and Dr. Pitts discuss the implications.

There is a panoply of planets in the pre-dawn sky; Saturn, Mars, Jupiter. In the evening: Venus is very bright but low in the West-Southwest.

Planets, Planets A-Plenty

Feb 15, 2018 6:12


Planets have been observed for the first time orbiting stars in a distant galaxy 3.8 billion light years away. Einstein suggested that this form of detection might be possible.

At The Franklin Institute, the monthly Night Sky Observatory program featured author Richard Paul, who with Steven Moss wrote the book, “We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program,” a nuanced description of the early history of NASA and the deep involvement of people of color. NASA was one of the first government agencies to change its hiring practices in an effort to ensure the success of the American space program.

Countdown to the Super Bowl, and the Super Moon!

Jan 30, 2018 7:07


On Wednesday, January 31st, don’t miss the Super Blue Blood Total Lunar Eclipse Moon! This lunar event means that the second full moon in a calendar month coincides with a lunar eclipse, and that the full moon appears slightly larger than usual. A moon like this one has not appeared in the sky since 1982.

Superbowl Sunday is also the 112th birth anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto.

Forecast Calls for Dust

Jan 23, 2018 6:05


Continue your lunation observations: The first quarter moon is on Wednesday Jan. 24. Here’s what to look for:

a. The line that separates the illuminated half from the not-so illuminated half is called the “terminator.”

b. Craters- the record of early solar system bombardment. The Moon absorbed a lot of what could’ve rained down on Earth.

Space material still rains down even on Earth – 100 tons of space dust every day, 36,500 tons per year. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, not so much… it’s a minuscule amount in relation to the Earth itself.

Happy Birthday, Buzz!

Jan 15, 2018 5:37


Of the remaining cohort of Earthlings privileged to set foot on the moon, let’s extend 88th birthday greetings this week to Buzz Aldrin. As the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 11, he was one of the first two humans to land on the Moon, and the second person to walk on it, in July of 1969.

On January 15th, 1973, the Soviet Union launched their second lander and rover to the moon, just a month after the final Apollo lunar mission returned.
Lunokhod 2 spent 3 months traversing, testing, and photographing. It fell into a crater in May 1973 and the mission was over. Interestingly, Richard Garriott, video game designer, space tourist and son of Skylab and Space Shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott, bought the lander and the rover at a Sotheby’s auction for $68,500 in 1993. He’s currently the only person to own a piece of space hardware on another celestial body.

This is a great week to begin a full lunation (moon phase) observation. New Moon is Tuesday night Every day, watch the moon grow from a very thin crescent up to the first quarter.

What’s in a Name?

Jan 10, 2018 7:36


Eighty-six new star names have been approved by the International Astronomical Union, an association of professional astronomers. The names are drawn from ancient mythologies and historical star names from indigenous cultures around the world, including China, Australia, and Southern Africa.

New Year’s Revolutions

Dec 30, 2017 6:33


Dr. Pitts and Dave Heller recap their top astronomy stories of 2017:
Astronomers were elated this year when the three operational gravitational wave observatories around the world all reported detecting gravitational waves from the collision of neutron stars and interactions between super-lightweight black holes in the outer reaches of the universe, adding yet another layer to our understanding of how the universe was created and has evolved.
This year, the continental United States experienced its first trans-continental total eclipse in nearly 100 years. It was intentionally observed by more people than any other science event in history. The next total solar eclipse visible in the US will occur on April 8, 2024.

In 2018, watch for the scheduled launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Winter Solstice is At Hand

Dec 19, 2017 6:48


Monday, December 18 is the new moon of the year’s last lunar cycle. The moon will be in the 1st quarter by Christmas Eve. If you’re up late wrapping presents on Christmas Eve, or up early to open gifts on Christmas morning, in the East there will be lots of stars visible, as well as Mars, Jupiter and Mercury.
President Donald Trump signed a space policy directive last week formally directing NASA to return humans to the moon, then to use that experience to attempt a visit to Mars. This further refines NASA’s direction for deep solar system exploration in that it clearly leans on a ‘stepping stone’ approach to solar system exploration starting with the moon. But with one hand he giveth and with the other he taketh away; the humans-to-an-asteroid mission is dead.
Trump’s declaration applies only to the national space agency; it has no effect on commercial space companies, several of whom are still pressing forward with plans to get to Mars sooner than NASA. Last week, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket company conducted a successful test flight.

Geminid Meteor Shower

Dec 13, 2017 6:22


The Geminid meteor shower peaks Wednesday and Thursday this week with upwards of 100 meteors per hour.
The moon is a very thin waning crescent and should look really nice under a clear sky.
Orville Wright flew the first powered flight 114 years ago, on December 17th, 1903.

Earliest Sunset

Dec 5, 2017 5:37


Sunset comes at 4:35pm this week, then gradually later and later, though it won’t be until early January before we really start to see gains in hours of daylight.

5 weeks ago, astronomers across the world were surprised to find a sizable interloper zipping through the solar system. It’s not unusual to discover a new comet but it really raises eyebrows – and telescopes – when that object seems to come from an entirely different star system! Oumaumau’s trajectory, velocity, shape and suggested composition brand it as not being a comet, but an asteroid. Its shape, reflectivity and non-reaction to its close fly-by of the sun all point to the rockier options. Observers around the world dropped what they were doing to get the best possible view of this one because it seemed…well, odd.
The interstellar object is ten times as long as it is wide and reflects just 4% of sunlight. It’s traveling at a brisk 98,000 mph, a trajectory that suggests it comes from the constellation Lyra. This could be an interstellar asteroid – the first ever seen.

Mars and Jupiter own the pre-dawn sky this week.

Getting Closer to Finding Another Earth

Nov 21, 2017 7:23


The planet Ross 128 is 11 light-years away and 1.35 times the mass of Earth and orbits its red dwarf star every 9.9 days.
Initial data suggest this is a liquid water planet, inside the star’s habitable zone – a very important requirement for finding life.
The upcoming new generation of giant ground-based telescopes should be able to image Ross 128 and study its atmosphere for methane, oxygen and other telltale signs of either life (as we know it), complex compounds or just the conditions conducive to the development of life. THAT would be a new accomplishment.

Today is the 128th birth anniversary of Edwin Hubble – he determined that the universe has more than one galaxy and that those galaxies are moving outward, some at incredible rates of speed – revealing the previously unrealized expansion of the universe.

Jupiter, Venus, and Mars have the pre-dawn sky this week from 6am to sunrise. The moon and, strictly speaking Saturn and Mercury, hold court weakly and very low in the west at sunset.

Where there’s water…

Nov 15, 2017 5:39


Scientists have discovered a new suggestion of habitability in the ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Early doubts about tidal friction providing adequate heating for water jets is now supplemented by the suggestion that an unconsolidated core would allow penetration of water from the surrounding ocean and frictional heating derived from tidal interaction with Saturn. It’s valid to surmise this mechanism has been been functioning for a billion years and so a (relatively) warm ocean environment could’ve been in place for a billion years or more, maybe long enough to allow the development of life forms. On Earth, it’s estimated that the first microorganisms emerged after just 500 million years, with hydrothermal vents playing a key role in supplying heat and minerals.

A long-lasting supernova has been discovered – While supernovas typically are ‘one and done’, observations of a supernova that just won’t die indicate perhaps a new type of supernova, one that takes several explosions, maybe over decades, to blow off enough material to finally give up the ghost and begin to dim and cool.

Water, Water Everywhere!

Nov 8, 2017 6:10


Studies of asteroids are revealing that they might have a watery history. The DAWN spacecraft orbiting Ceres has provided data that suggests water was a major ingredient in the formation and evolution of the crust and mantle of the dwarf planet. This suggests that water is a much bigger player in the solar system than ever thought before.

A Philadelphia-sized lava tube has been identified on the moon, by the Japanese lunar orbiting satellite Selene. Gravity studies indicated its presence. This is an important discovery because Vice President Pence has indicated that the Trump administration will be far more focused on returning to the moon than with pushing for exploration of Mars. Tubes become important in that they can provide needed shielding of human outposts.

Rogue Comet Comes a-Calling

Oct 31, 2017 5:43


Not merely out-of-this-world, a comet from beyond our solar system came and went earlier this month.
Cross-quarter-day approaches…wait, what’s cross-quarter day?
A NASA program invites subscribers to become ‘Martians’ by sending their name to Mars on the next exploratory mission, Insight. The mission launches in May 2018, lands November 2018. InSight will study the interior of Mars.

Pluto: The non-ringed non-planet

Oct 24, 2017 7:42


We begin with the story of Spitz Laboratories, based in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. In the 1960s, the space race kicked off a nationwide surge of interest in astronomy. Schools began to build planetariums, and in Pennsylvania Spitz Laboratories built so many that in the 60s and 70s Pennsylvania had more in-school planetariums than New York and California combined.

Scientists have declared conclusively that Pluto has no rings. This is good news for their Horizons mission, as it means fewer obstacles for the craft to navigate as it heads towards its next destination, a space rock in the Kuiper belt.

Mars and Venus are visible in the predawn sky. Saturn can be seen in the Southwest after sunset.

Out-of-this-world show

Oct 17, 2017 6:04


This Saturday marks the 94th anniversary of the first public planetarium show given at the German model for The Franklin Institute, the Deutches Museum in Munich.
Our planetarium opened on January 1st, 1934 as the second planetarium in the United States, after the Adler planetarium in Chicago (1930).
An apocryphal story is that Sam Fels traveled to Europe with Max Adler in the late 20’s where he saw the star projection system. He was so taken with the idea that he ordered one for Philadelphia without a place for it. He approached The Franklin Institute, which was in the planning stages for their new building at 20th street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Mars and Venus are now well separated in the pre-dawn eastern sky 6:30 a.m. A very thin waning crescent moon is just to the left of Mars on Tuesday morning and sneaks past Venus during the day.

Elon Musk wants to get off this planet

Oct 10, 2017 6:01


Elon Musk has released a new proposal for becoming a multi-planet species. He is advocating phasing out Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon in favor of SpaceX’s BFR (Big F*****g Rocket-yes, really) project, which can serve as Mars transport, Lunar transport, ISS transport, and satellite delivery as well as SST Earth transport. The rockets will be reusable, bigger and cheaper to operate than any other rocket system ever. Supposedly. Musk says SpaceX can send the first two to Mars by 2022, and send four more to Mars, with explorers, by 2024. He also thinks he has a way to pay for this: Continued satellite launch services and ISS transport services.

The James Webb Space Telescope launch postponed until 2019. It was originally scheduled for launch in 2010/2011, then October 2018. Now due to payload integration schedule challenges, Spring 2019 looks like the next target period for launch. It’s critically important to get everything not just right, but perfect. Unlike many other missions that have allowed software uplinks and upgrades well into the mission after leaving Earth and even on-orbit servicing at 400 miles up as with HST, the JWST will be 930,000 miles up, well out of reach for any kind of servicing.

With sunset coming so much earlier now and the evening temps staying comfortable, you should find a way to get out to see a dark evening sky, especially the Milky Way. We’re viewing it almost on-edge as we look down toward Sagittarius.

Mercury runs hot and cold

Oct 7, 2017 5:30


Today, Dave and Dr. Pitts are stopping by the ice craters of Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun. Temperatures on Mercury typically hover around a balmy 800 degrees Fahrenheit, on the side facing the Sun. Yet there are at least 100 billion tons of ice on the little planet. How is this possible? The answer lies in Mercury’s lack of atmosphere. Without an atmosphere, heat is not conducted to the parts of the planet that aren’t getting direct solar radiation. The side of Mercury that doesn’t face the sun has a temperature of 300 degrees below zero. The abundance of ice can be found in craters at Mercury’s poles. The craters are always in shadow, so they receive no solar radiation.

America’s Most Experienced Astronaut

Sep 12, 2017 5:33


Let’s sing the praises of NASA superstar Peggy Whitson! Now back on Planet Earth after 288 days in space, she’s now the most experienced U.S. astronaut with 665 days on orbit. That’s 131 days more than her nearest competitor, Jeff Williams. Whitson has also logged 60 hours and 21 minutes of cumulative spacewalk time!
She has also been named Commander twice and has the most time on spacewalks for any woman astronaut…the list of superlatives goes on.

NASA’s Cassini is on its final orbit now, heading to destruction on Friday morning. It is expected to fragment under impact stress while still transmitting data about the interior of Saturn as it goes.

Bon Voyager

Sep 6, 2017 7:08


Voyager 1 left Earth 40 years ago, on September 5th, 1977. Voyager 2 left first, on August 20th. Amazingly, both are still functioning. They are getting ever closer to the edge of the solar system.
51 years ago Star Trek premiered in Sept 1966, 3 seasons, 79 episodes. Low Nielsen ratings killed it, but it became a hit in syndication, then a cult classic from which every other space tv program and movie grew.

Following Florence

Aug 30, 2017 6:01


Asteroid Florence will pass Earth on Saturday. At 2.4 miles in diameter, it’s the largest since researchers began keeping close tabs on near-earth asteroids. The asteroid will pass us by at 18 times the distance from Earth to the moon – not close at all!
The last time Florence passed was in 1890, and it won’t again until 2500.
Cassini starts its last three orbits this week. It’s in its final phase of exploring Saturn before it plunges into the planet on Sept. 15th ending its 13 years at Saturn. September 2nd will be its second to last orbit – #292, its closest orbit. Several orbit-height-adjustment maneuvers are planned depending on the density of Saturn’s upper atmosphere during the final orbits. The spacecraft was only supposed to last 4 years but its mission was extended three times
Jupiter hangs very low in the west just after sunset with Saturn still well up in the south. Venus dominates the pre-dawn sky – Mercury and Mars are there but too close to the sun to be visible. Cool astro targets for binoculars in late summer – Cluster in Hercules, galaxy in Andromeda.

Diminished Daylight in the Dog Days

Aug 15, 2017 6:44


We’ve now lost 25 minutes off sunsets and 30 minutes off sunrises – that’s an hour daylight change already from the solstice.
Jupiter and Saturn still dominate the evening sky; Jupiter is losing to sunset though. Venus has the pre-dawn covered, rising around 3:30 a.m.
Cassino is making its final orbits around Saturn, before plunging into the planet next month.
This is the 40th anniversary of Voyager’s launch – now approaching the outer limits of our solar system.
Opportunity has been roving on Mars for 13 years, 28 miles. What’s next? Now on the edge of Endeavor Crater, the craft will try to gather evidence to understand how the gullies were created – by water or by some other mechanism.
Last week of prep before the total solar eclipse across the United States.

Total Tune-Up

Aug 8, 2017 4:41


Monday’s lunar eclipse is the precursor to the August 21 total solar eclipse that will traverse the United States. Dr. Pitts and Dave Heller discuss celestial mechanics and proper eclipse-viewing safety. Saturday is the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower, making this a great week for astronomy!

Follow the Sun

Aug 1, 2017 6:28


We are now just three weeks out from a total solar eclipse traversing the United States. Those lucky enough to be in the direct path will experience totality for some 2-and-a-half minutes. NASA will stretch that totality to over eight minutes by flying a retired bomber aircraft to chase the solar eclipse Monday 8/21. Their intent is to study the corona in Hi-Res Infra Red and Visible light to try to understand why, if the corona is so hot (millions of degrees), it is so uniform and organized. NASA will also will look for asteroids near the sun and Mercury.

Brown University scientists have identified additional water signatures on the moon. Indication from analysis of surface lava flows suggests that the mantle of the moon contains larger amounts of water than previously expected. There are potential implications for use of the moon as a forward base of exploration of the solar system.

Shine on, you crazy Earth

Jul 25, 2017 6:23


This is a great week to watch the development of lunar phases. Start watching on Monday night, with a barely visible 1.5-day old thin crescent that sets about an hour after the sun; you should see it near the western horizon at 8:30 P.M. On Monday and Tuesday night, you’ll have a great display of “Earthshine.”

New Horizons is on a billion-mile cruise to MU69, a Kuiper Belt Object that’s been selected as the next object the satellite will fly by in 2019. The spacecraft left Earth in January 2006 at 36,000 mph – that’s 100 times faster than a jetliner.
Mark your calendars! We are now just one month out from the Great American Eclipse.
Apollo 11 returned to Earth on July 24th, 1969. Apollo 15 Left for the moon on July 25th 1971, and arrived 4 days later. It was the fourth lunar landing mission and the first to use a rover.

Shining Star (but just barely)

Jul 18, 2017 5:36


The smallest star ever just found, called ELBM-J0555-57Ab, is just about the size of Saturn but 300 times as massive. That makes it just 8% of the sun’s mass, yet it’s just big enough to actually BE a star according to thermonuclear fusion principles.

48 years ago this week, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. They spent 21 hours on the moon and were outside just 2.5 hours.

The Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter flew over the Great Red Spot last week. Just 2,200 miles above the cloudtops, the photos released last Friday show amazing detail. Scientists hopefully will learn more about the great storm and Jupiter’s inner atmosphere.

A thin crescent moon joins Venus in the pre-dawn sky on Thursday. From 4:40 a.m. to 4:50 a.m. you’ll also see ISS fly from NNW to E and it goes right under Venus and the moon!

It was 20 years ago today…

Jul 11, 2017 4:54


On this date in July 1997, NASA placed the first rover on Mars. Sojourner was followed by Spirit and Opportunity, then Curiosity. It was preceded by Vikings I and II. All lasted far longer than expected.
Today 55 years ago, Telstar, the first TV communications satellite, launched.
And 48 years ago Sunday, Apollo 11 left for the moon. It landed 4 days later.

Let’s Get Elliptical

Jul 3, 2017


This week, Dave Heller and Dr. Derrick Pitts discuss Earth’s elliptical orbit, and how it can still feel hot on Earth when we are at our farthest distance from the sun.

You Must Remember This – An Eclipse Is Not Just an Eclipse

Jun 27, 2017 7:13


Kepler scientists this week announced the 219 newest additions to the exoplanet count – 10 of which are identified as “terrestrial” – a far better word to use than “earthlike.” Terrestrial meaning rocky, comparable to earth in size, and in their star’s habitable zone. The total number of planet candidates now? 4,034. Confirmed? 2335 verified as planets. Kepler first looked in the Cygnus constellation region for these discoveries and this latest addition represents the end of its work in Cygnus. One conclusion – Half the planets in our galaxy are either rocky and larger than Earth or are like Neptune, smaller giant gas planets.

Next Monday is Aphelion: the follow-up to the summer solstice. Even now, we’re sitting right at 15 hours of sunlight per day, with long evenings.

The August 21st Solar Eclipse is less than 2 months away. Locally, it’ll be just partial. For totality, your closest vantage point is South Carolina, just a 12-hour drive from here. More information at

Twice Upon a Time…

Jun 20, 2017 6:34


Sun’s Original Twin: What happened to it? UC Berkeley astronomer Steven Stahler and Sarah Sadevoy of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, have been studying how single stars form. Data collected in different surveys of the Perseus stellar nursery supports a model in which single stars seem to form first as binaries, then, depending on the distance between the stellar nuclei, they either stick together as binaries or break apart becoming single stars. The new study suggests this is how all single, low mass stars – sunlike stars – originally develop. So what happened to our star’s sibling? Because of the extreme distance between the two – 17x the distance between our star and the planet Neptune- the two nascent stars separated. One became our star while the other moved off to become one of the many other stars in this region of the Milky Way.
Once the sun formed, which planet came first? According to astronomer Thomas Kruijer of University of Munster Germany and Lawrence Livermore Labs in California, it’s …Jupiter!
The Summer Solstice arrives on Wednesday at 12:24 am. The Solsitce occurs when Earth reaches a point in its solar orbit where the rotational axis is at its maximum northern tilt towards the sun. The tilt allows apparent path of the sun across the sky to have a larger arc of travel, providing more hours of daylight. We’re up to 15 hours and 42 seconds of daylight, which is 5 hours and 40 minutes more than Winter Solstice.
Sunset dwells at 8:33 until July 4th, then starts to drop back.
By 10 p.m., Saturn is now well up in the southeast with Jupiter in the southwest.
On Wednesday morning at 4:45 a.m., the thin waning crescent moon and Venus are together just before sunrise.

Some Like it Hot

Jun 13, 2017 4:39


If you’re sweating from our current heat wave, be glad you don’t live on planet KELT-9, orbiting a blue A-type star 620 light years from Earth.
KELT9b is the hottest gas giant planet ever found, with a surface temperature of 7,800 degrees Fahrenheit; hotter than most stars!
KELT-9 is tidally locked so that one side is literally boiling – the UV radiation is so intense that heavier molecules like water, CO2, or methane can’t form. The star itself is twice as large and twice as hot as our sun – over 20,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The blast from the sun is so intense, the gas of the gas giant is probably being blown away – evaporated or vaporized! At 300 million years old, the star is quite young, EXCEPT it is a Blue type A – it won’t last long at all.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a planet at TRAPPIST-1, h, is far enough away from its too-cool star (6 million miles) that its surface temperature is -148 degrees Fahrenheit.

Saturn’s got the swing shift! Jupiter, then Saturn by 10p, by 4:30 a, Saturn in the west and Venus in the east – Saturn’s the planetary pivot of the sky! Anybody notice last week’s mini-moon? Didn’t think so… the difference in size was too small to notice!


Jun 6, 2017 5:44


Wiltshire, England doesn’t have the monopoly on solar events with summer solstice at Stonehenge. Philadelphia is a suitable site to take in an Equinox spectacle.
With sunrise at 5:32am on Monday and sunset at 8:26pm, the sky isn’t totally dark until almost 9 pm. We have nearly 16 hours of visible light this time of year.
Night Skies at the Observatory will happen two nights per month at the Franklin Institute this summer. Come learn about the night sky and see the two gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. Both are visible from 10pm through 3am on any clear night.

Ring Around the Sun

May 30, 2017 4:28


A cosmic debris ring has been observed around a star where a planet has already been directly observed.
Plus, the observed lunar inventory in our solar system is boosted thanks to a faraway discovery.

Longing for longer days

May 23, 2017 5:59


Sunset now comes at 8:15pm, giving us 14 hours and 36 minutes of daylight here at Philadelphia’s latitude.
We have about four weeks to go and 30 more minutes of daylight to earn on the way to Summer Solstice.

On Wednesday morning Venus, Uranus, Mercury and the Moon can be seen low in the east at 4:45 AM, along with a very bright ISS from Northwest to Southeast!

Astronomical Anniversaries of note;
May 28, 1959: The first primates flew into space – Able the rhesus monkey and Baker the squirrel monkey made suborbital flights.
Two years later on May 25th, JFK gave his now-famous Moon Landing speech. “…before the decade is out…”.
On May 22 1969, Apollo 10 descended to within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface in preparation for Apollo 11’s historic mission just 60 days later – July 20.

Think Big by Going Small

May 17, 2017 5:46


How can we get into outer space faster? Nanocraft! The $100 million Breakthrough Starshot initiative intends to develop, within a generation, the capability to launch tiny laser-propelled space probes to the nearest star. The 1 gram, postage stamp-sized chips would have all the electronics necessary to collect data and transmit information back to us from the nearest star system. Driven by 100-gigawatt laser, the chips would accelerate up to 20% of the speed of light in two minutes and get them to the star in 20 years. Fronted by billionaire Yuri Milner and supported by Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg, the proposed project could cut 29,980 years off a conventionally propelled probe out to Alpha Centauri.

Gemini stands on the western horizon at 9:30 now, the last of the winter constellations. Mars is gone for this season of planet viewing, replaced by Jupiter immediately visible after sunset. By 12:45a Jupiter is well up in the south, with Saturn above the SE horizon stuck in the Milky Way portion of the sky between Sagittarius and the stars of Scorpius. Leo is in the NW, with UMaj – The Big Dipper, higher up in the north.
The moon sits in the day time sky – an unexpected phenomenon.

Summer Sky Season Beckons

May 8, 2017 5:26


With the return of the summer constellations rising around midnight, the Milky Way rises up from ringing the horizon and will arc slowly across the night sky. We look to the west in one direction away from our galactic arms and in the opposite direction to the east as if we’re the hub of the wheel and the tire rolls around us but we’re way out near the far edge of the Milky Way with center being towards Sagittarius, found in our southern sky.
This week’s anniversary: 88 years ago, the Adler planetarium, America’s first planetarium, opened in Chicago.

May Day, May Day!

May 2, 2017 7:17


Now more commonly observed as a celebration of spring, in older times May 1st was considered the first day of summer in some European countries, with February 1 as the first of spring and June 21 marking midsummer.
Anniversaries: On May 5th 56 years ago, Alan Shepard was the first American to enter outer space. 51 years ago Neil Armstrong ejected safely from the ‘Flying Bedstead’ (a nickname for NASA’s Lunar Landing Research Vehicle) while training for his upcoming lunar mission.
Cassini starts its final orbits of Saturn. Last week, the Cassini mission flew its last orbit around Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Now it will spiral around Saturn, one orbit per week, between the innermost D-ring until September 15 when it finally plunges into Saturn. Cassini was launched from Earth in 1997, arrived at Saturn in 2004, and has been exploring there ever since.
Mars is holding on by its fingernails at sunset now (8:30p) along with Orion. Jupiter and Spica of Virgo ride the night sky together. Orange Arcturus is now well up in the east at sunset. The summer constellations and Saturn are above the horizon by midnight, while Saturn and Venus now bookend the 5 a.m. sky.


Apr 24, 2017 7:24


The Blanco reflector telescope at Cerro Tololo in Chile has detected a ‘distant dwarf’ planet observers are calling “DeeDee.”
It was discovered during the “Dark Energy Survey” of 12% of the sky looking for dark energy sources. “DeeDee” was slowly moving through the telescope’s field of view.
Further observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter array, also in Chile, indicate it’s spherical in shape, about 635 kms across, and three times Pluto’s distance from the sun.
Curiosity Stream’s New Program “Miniverse” features Physicist Michio Kaku(City University of New York), Laura Danley (Curator of Griffith Observatory in LA), and Dr. Pitts conducting a mini-tour of the solar system with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.
Another reminder; amateur astronomers are the stars this Friday night as they bring their knowledge and equipment to a neighborhood near you during the City Astronomy Night; one of the signature events of the Philadelphia Science Festival.

The March for Science

Apr 18, 2017 5:26


Science takes center stage Saturday, April 22 in marches planned across the country. Philadelphia will host its own local science march from City Hall to Penn’s Landing.

The Philadelphia Science Festival begins Friday, April 21. The festival brings 80+ free or nearly free activities and programs to locations all over the city. The 10 day long event culminates with the city-wide astronomy night on the 28th and the Science Carnival at Penn’s Landing on the 29th.

Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are all visible in the night sky this week.

Planet Nine, where are you?

Apr 11, 2017 6:21


Ever since Pluto was demoted from the pantheon of planets, efforts have intensified to designate a replacement. Scientists have detected the presence of…something…about 10 times the mass of Earth and 1000 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Australian researchers mounted a campaign to find the big guy using the SkyMapper telescope at Siding Spring Observatory. The search yielded hundreds of thousands of images that were then sifted by tens of thousands of volunteers, and out of that pile have emerged 4 candidate objects that might be the elusive Planet Nine.

Mars after sunset in the west, Jupiter by 9 p.m. in the east and Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus at 5:15 a across the sky.

The Night Sky Observatory at the Franklin Institute this Thursday evening features astrophysics powerhouse and scientific visualization specialist Dr. Frank Summers.

The Need for Speed

Apr 5, 2017 6:15


A star has been discovered that orbits a black hole once every 28 minutes. Not impressed? This star is 2.5 times farther away from the black hole than the moon is from Earth, and the moon orbits the Earth only once every 27 days.

Scientists believe they have discovered a new way that stars are formed. A black hole spits out particles and gases at a blistering 94 million miles per hour. That seems pretty fast, until you realize that’s only 14% of the speed of light. Scientists think that new stars could be formed in those high-speed jets of matter.


Cutting Corners

Mar 28, 2017 5:45


President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget cuts NASA’s funding by 1%. What’s lost? Some Earth Observing missions, the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and the NASA Office of Education.
Stephen Hawking has been offered a free trip to space by Richard Branson aboard the Virgin Galactic space flight system currently under development. Test flights are still being conducted and Hawking’s flight is years away at best.
Venus is gone from the evening for observing until next year. But wait: the next sighting opportunity for the planet is…..just 10 days from now when it shows up in pre-dawn skies!

Tilting toward the summer season

Mar 22, 2017 5:31


Monday was an important day for folks who are sick of winter—the Vernal (or Spring) Equinox! The tilt of Earth’s rotational axis allowed for equal hours of daylight and darkness.

What does this look like at the equator? At the North Pole? How about the South Pole? Little discrepancies distort the true meaning of the word “equinox.” The hours of daylight and darkness are more equal at the equator than at the poles.

Pan,  Saturn’s ‘flying saucer’-shaped moon was photographed by the orbiting Cassini spacecraft. This orbits as a shepherd moon in the 325-mile-wide space known as the Encke Gap.  See images here:

Venus is almost gone from the night sky; it exchanges positions with Mercury while Mars is still hanging. Jupiter well up by 10 PM. Pre-dawn Saturn and Jupiter sit in the south and south-western sky at 5:45 AM.

Hidden Figures

Mar 14, 2017 5:25


This week, Derrick focuses attention on the contributions of minorities and women to the field of astronomy.

There are many birth anniversaries of note this week:
March 13 – Astronomer Percival Lowell, born in 1855;
March 14 – Albert Einstein, born in 1879, Astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, born in 1835, and astronaut Gene Cernan, born in 1934
March 15 – astronaut Alan Bean, born in 1932;
March 17 – astronaut Jim Irwin, born in 1930.

Venus is sinking into the west – don’t miss it !

Time to spring ahead

Mar 7, 2017 5:20


Daylight Saving Time kicks in at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 12.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney honored Chief Astronomer Derrick Pitts with an award for his life achievements in a ceremony on Friday, March 3. The event featured 12 writers of the Boys and Girls Club, who recently penned the new children’s book “Derrick Pitts, Astronomy Superstar.”

Out of the new administration comes a directive that NASA initiate a study to determine if the first test flight of NASA’s new heavy-lift launch vehicle, scheduled for late 2018, can be converted into a manned circumnavigation of the moon in 2019. Meanwhile, SpaceX has announced its plan to send two paying astro-tourists on a one-week flight around the moon next year.

What’s a planet?

Feb 28, 2017 6:12


As more and more planets are being discovered, it’s not a bad idea to come to a consensus on answering the question, “What’s a planet?” A new definition of ‘planet’ was suggested by a nationwide team of astronomers led by graduate student Kirby Runyon at Johns Hopkins University.
The new description allows for the inclusion of moons, asteroids, exoplanets and rogue planets by removing the official definition’s requirement that objects orbit the sun and clear their orbital path of all debris.
The current definition adopted by the International Astronomy Union in 2006 doesn’t cleanly cover exoplanets or all the other objects that shoot around the solar system and fall into orbits around the sun.
This suggested definition would be much more useful for everyone involved in solar system studies.

Just another day in the Universe: Discovery of White Dwarf Pulsars
Rotating neutron stars called pulsars were first identified in the 1960’s. They are stellar core remnants comprised entirely of neutrons.
Conservation of angular momentum makes them spin rapidly. They were the only class of pulsars known until now. This newly discovered one is about the size of earth and 200,000 times more massive (just the core of a sun-like star stripped of all the outer gas envelope) with a magnetic field 100 million times greater than Earth’s.

Exoplanets in the neighborhood

Feb 21, 2017 5:46


The twin 10m Keck telescopes at Mauna Kea in Hawaii have identified 100 more exoplanet candidates. One of them is just 8.3 lightyears away!

What country holds the record for the most satellites launched on a single launch vehicle? India! Last Tuesday, the Indian Space Resource Organization launched 104 nano satellites; 3 from India, 13 from several European countries and 88 E-O sats from a US company, Planet Labs. They are 1000 times lower in weight than legacy communication satellites, and are imaging the entire landmass of Earth every day.

Jupiter is rising in the late evening now. Venus still commands the southwest sky after sunset with Mars standing by.

Believe it or not, Orion and the winter circle are losing their sky dominance to the spring constellations Gemini, Cancer, and Leo. There are only 30 more days until the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.

Mystery on Mars

Feb 14, 2017 5:13


We celebrate two giant birth anniversaries this week: Wednesday is the 453rd anniversary of Galileo and Sunday is the 544th anniversary of Copernicus’ birthday. Galileo proved by observation what Copernicus suggested as the structure of the solar system. Interestingly, 404 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church censored Galileo to keep him from distributing science truth to the general population in an attempt to maintain tight control over church doctrine.

We all agree Mars was warmer and much wetter in its past, but how? We’ve just assumed that Mars was like Earth early on. On Earth our atmosphere’s had enough CO2 as a greenhouse gas to keep the planet warm enough for water to exist on the surface as a liquid. Studies of rocks by Curiosity at Gale Crater and analysis from orbit indicate there isn’t enough carbonate rock to indicate there was enough CO2 in Mars’ atmosphere to keep the surface warm enough for liquid H2O to exist as the rock record shows. So what heating mechanism? There are other greenhouse gases (methane, SO2, NO) but they don’t last very long.


Feb 7, 2017 4:50


February 6th is the 46th anniversary of the first space sport. On this day in 1971, golf enthusiast-turned-astronaut Alan Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon! It’s unknown just how far the ball traveled but the best estimates are between 400 yards and a little over a mile.
Proto-planet imaging continues to improve: a new device called a vortex coronagraph redirects light from young stars by combining and cancelling light waves. It allows otherwise invisible dust rings around young stars to be seen that could be forming Jupiter-sized objects close to the stars.
Night Skies at the Observatory this month features excellent planet observing, great planetarium shows and Dr. David Grinspoon, Senior Scientist at Planetary Science Institute and author of NPR Science Friday’s Best SCIENCE Book of 2016, Earth in Human Hands. He presents a deep-time and deep-space view of the human presence on Earth.

Days of Note

Jan 31, 2017 8:03


Dr. Derrick Pitts and Dave Heller recap some important dates in space exploration this week.
On February 1, 13 years ago, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry. Seven astronauts were lost and the program was grounded for over two years while new safety measures were added. Afterwards all space shuttle missions (except the final Hubble repair mission) were flown to ISS so it could be used as a safe haven in case of other orbiter malfunctions.
Thursday Feb 2 is the first cross-quarter day of the year, Groundhog Day. Day length is now 10h 16m, gaining 15 minutes over last week.
110 years ago this Saturday, Clyde Tombaugh was born. Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Because of the New Horizons mission that flew by Pluto in 2015, we know that Pluto has a dense rocky core surrounded by a mantle of water ice covered by a thin layer of nitrogen ice. It’s only 1500 miles in diameter. The surface is amazingly diverse – from smooth to rocky to mountainous to cratered, it’s vastly different from whatever was expected. Pluto even has a thin atmosphere of photochemical hydrocarbon smog caused by sunlight’s interaction with methane and other molecules.
On Monday night, the moon, Venus and Mars begin their close encounter for the month. The three form a triangle Tuesday night. The International Space Station will also become visible on Tuesday night, 6:34 SW to NW to N, 33 degs max el; and again Wednesday night 5:45 p, passing to the right of the planets max ei. 59 degrees. From 6 – 6:30 a.m., Jupiter’s up in the south, Saturn’s in the east and Mercury is low in the east.

Intergalactic Space not so Spacey?

Jan 24, 2017 5:47


How is it that the Milky Way’s 11 most distant stars are 300,000 light years from Earth, well beyond the spiral arms of the Milky Way? Astronomers now have a better understanding of how streams of stars connect giant galaxies to nearby dwarf galaxies. Researchers at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have created computer models that suggest our Milky Way has pulled the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy apart as it has looped around our galaxy.

Six lunar explorers left after last week’s passing of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. Altogether 24 people have flown beyond Earth, 15 are still with us to tell their stories.

NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity are 13 years old on Mars this week! Landed in January 2004, Opportunity is still chugging along, while Spirit has been silent since 2010 when it got trapped in a sand pit and unable to re-orient its solar panels. Spirit did 4.8 miles, Opportunity has covered 27.1 miles and despite some problems is still working well!

Spin Cycle

Jan 17, 2017 5:41


Larry Molnar, an astronomy professor at Calvin College, announced last week that he and his students are following a one-in-a-million opportunity astronomy event. They predict that a binary star in the constellation Cygnus is showing behaviors that suggest the two will collide and explode, possibly between 2021 and 2023.

They are a contact binary, meaning that the two are so close they share an atmosphere and spin around a common point – now within the contact region – once every 11 hours.  I can get this okay for maybe two small planetary moons but two stars, one of which is about 20 times the size of our sun, it’s harder to imagine! Molnar’s students will use an array of large telescopes to monitor how the binary system changes over the next several years.

There has been some research indicating that our solar system had its share of rogue planet activity in its early history. Some studies suggest that rogue worlds outnumber normal planets but that they ultimately end up more like a ‘rebel without a cause’ and so move on – after causing great havoc.