The Cosmic Distance Ladder, part 2…

Let’s continue our explanation of how astronomers are able to gauge the distances to celestial objects. In my first post on this topic, we talked about how radar ranging and stellar parallax are used to determine distances in the solar system. Now we’ll continue working our way up the Cosmic Distance Ladder.

Beyond our solar system

As we leave our local planetary neighborhood, our solar system, we can still use stellar parallax up to a point. In fact, I received an email from Scott in Placentia, CA, asking “What maximum distance an object can be reliably determined by parallax measurement using the latest  technology?” As I explained to Scott in my response, it’s hard to answer that question with a single number. Ideally, stellar parallax should always work, because the stars close to us will always move at least a little bit with respect to the background stars. Unfortunately as we look at stars farther and farther away, the angle that the near-ground star moves gets smaller and smaller. As you can imagine there is going to be a point where that slight angular movement is almost imperceptible. However, technology is always improving. In 1989, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Hipparcos mission which was specifically designed for astrometry- determining the position and location of stars. The Hipparcos mission found the positions of nearly 100,000 stars as far away as 1,600 lightyears. Expanding on that mission’s success with new technology, another mission named Gaia is slated to launch this summer and claims to have the ability to find distances to stars tens of thousands of lightyears using stellar parallax. Some sources claim that stellar or trigonometric parallax is limited by current technology to around 1,000 parsecs or roughly 3,260 lightyears.

Examining other Suns

Once we reach that upper limit for the use of stellar parallax, where we can no longer accurately measure the angular shift of the star with reference to the background stars, we have to turn other methods for determining distances. The next technique we need to rely on is called spectroscopic parallax. Now, confusingly this new type of parallax is totally different from and unrelated from actual (stellar) parallax, it just uses the word “parallax” because it’s a technique used to find distances, like parallax. (That’s not confusing at all…) Okay, so how does this spectroscopic parallax work? Well you might remember in The Cosmic Distance Ladder, part 1… I talked about an important instrument used by astronomers called a spectrometer (a.k.a. “spectrograph” or “spectroscope”). These extremely useful devices break white light up into all the colors of the rainbow- this resultant array of colored light is called a spectrum. You’ve probably seen this phenomenon before. Well spectroscopic parallax, as the name implies, is all based on being able to take a good spectrum of a star. This is what sets the upper limit on the maximum distance of objects that we can determine using this technique; with current technology, spectroscopic parallax is limited to roughly 10,000 parsecs (1 parsec = 3.26 lightyears = 19.2 trillion miles). For distances where both spectroscopic and stellar (trigonometric) parallax can work, we generally use stellar parallax because it’s more precise- you’ll see why in a bit.

A prism is an example of a very simple spectrometer. Also known as “spectrographs” or “spectroscopes”, these instruments break down white light into its component colors and are integral to astronomers. Credit: Montana Space Grant Consortium

You might also remember in my recent post about stellar classification, that I explained how each stellar class has a spectrum that is unique to that class.So that means that if you look at a nearby B-type star and a far away B-type star, they should have the spectra that are nearly identical. The difference between the two measured spectra will be their intensity, which correlates to the brightness or luminosity of a star. But now we have to be careful because there are two types of brightness: apparent magnitude and absolute magnitude. Absolute magnitude is how bright an object actually, intrinsically is, while apparent magnitude is how bright it appears to be at Earth if you ignore the atmosphere. So basically absolute magnitude is how bright an object would be if you were at it and apparent magnitude takes into account how far away you might be from the object. Think about a lightbulb: absolute magnitude would be the physical amount of light that the bulb puts out and apparent magnitude is the amount of light you measure from the bulb when you stand on the opposite side of the room. As you can imagine, the bulb will appear less bright the farther away from it you are. Same with stars.

Now, once you’ve measured the apparent magnitude (using some sort of light collecting device) to see how bright the star appears to be, you have to figure out the absolute magnitude. This can be a little tricky and involve some guesswork, but the main tool we use is the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

A Hertzsprung-Russell diagram like this makes it easy to determine the absolute magnitude range of each stellar class. Credit: Swinburne University

As you can see, when you plot the H-R diagram, you can easily determine a range of absolute magnitudes that apply to each spectral class. Unfortunately that means there isn’t one right answer, so you can’t get an exact distance for the star…but you can get a pretty good range. Once you determine an appropriate value of absolute magnitude (M), you need to use some math and a mathematical formula known as the distance modulus.

Yay math!

Now that we have the apparent magnitude (m), which we measured, and the absolute magnitude (M), which we inferred from the H-R diagram because we know the star’s spectral type, we can now use both to get the distance modulus: m – M. You might ask, “How does that help?” Well if you think about it, the difference between the absolute brightness and apparent brightness of a star is determined by distance; naturally then there is a mathematical relation that proves that.

Distance Modulus formulaWoah, that probably seems like a lot of math…but it’s not so bad. The lefthand-side of the equation is our distance modulus (m – M), that gives us a dimensionless number (since neither m or M has a unit of measurement like feet or grams) that’s the difference between the absolute and apparent magnitudes. Since the lefthand-side has no units, then that means the righthand-side can’t have them either, that works out as long as we say that the 10 in the denominator is in the unit of parsecs, hence the “pc“. Then our distance (d) will be in units of parsecs and everything is balanced out correctly. So rearranging this equation to solve for the distance, we get:

Distance formulaAnd calculating that gives us the distance to the star, d. Now granted, we might need to do that for a high and low value of M, based on how we read the H-R diagram, meaning we’d get a range of distances and not a single answer, but it still gives us a much better idea than we had about these far away stars. This is why we’d choose trigonometric parallax over spectroscopic parallax for distances where both can work, but for distances beyond the reach of stellar parallax, then spectroscopic parallax is better than nothing! Somewhere “between A and B lightyears away” is much better than “really far”!


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Each in a class of their own…

Ever wonder what makes stars different from one another? Lots of factors can come into play: size, composition, temperature, and age to name a few. Thankfully many stars are similar and can be grouped together by similarities. So here let’s talk about the history and science of stellar classification.

Shedding some light on spectra

In the middle of the 19th century, a German physicist by the name of Gustav Kirchhoff was doing a lot of research into the field of spectroscopy; collaborating closely with Robert Bunsen, inventor of the best piece of scientific equipment high schoolers are allowed to use. Kirchhoff in his research, came to the conclusion that spectroscopy was governed by three basic laws. These are known today as “Kirchhoff’s laws of spectroscopy” (not to be confused his circuit lawslaw of thermochemistry, or law of thermal radiation– basically this guy made more laws than Congress). Kirchhoff’s laws of spectroscopy dictate that:

  1. A solid (or liquid or gas under high pressure) will give off a continuous spectrum.
  2. A gas under low pressure (i.e. most gases we know of) will produce bright, discrete lines known as an emission spectrum.
  3. If you look at a source of a continuous spectrum from behind a source of an emission spectrum, you will see what looks like a continuous spectrum with black lines missing from it; think of if you took the emission spectrum and subtracted it from the continuous spectrum. This is called an absorption spectrum.

An example of Kirchhoff’s laws of spectroscopy. On the left you see an example of a continuous spectrum (Law 1) and an emission spectrum (Law 2) on the right. In the middle is an example of an absorption spectrum (Law 3), basically the removal of the emission line from the continuous spectrum. Credit: Penn State

Kirchhoff asserted that the wavelength or location of these emission or absorption lines was determined by what atoms or molecules were present in the source. This is true because each element or molecule has a unique atomic spectrum or signature. At the time that Kirchhoff came up with these laws scientists had yet to crack the secret of the internal structure of the atom. Meaning Kirchhoff made these laws based on purely on experimentation. It took another half a century for Niels Bohr to come up with a correct model of the atom that concluded the existence of discrete energy levels that successfully explained Kirchhoff’s emission and absorption lines (and later led to the formulation of quantum mechanics).

Enter the Harem

So back towards the end of the 19th century, a man by the name of Edward Pickering was the director of the Harvard College Observatory. Mr. Pickering decided to take it amongst himself to obtain spectra of as many stars as he could and then index and classify them. So Pickering did what any good scientist would do, he began to collect data. But as you well know, there are a lot of stars in the sky, so before he knew it he was inundated with tons of photographic plates (if you thought film was bad, its predecessor was worse- these plates were usually large heavy pieces of glass mixed with silver salts) containing stellar spectra. Legend has it that Pickering was getting so aggravated by the incompetence of his male research assistants that he exclaimed that his maid could do a better job. So he hired her. Her name was Williamina Fleming and along with Pickering she helped to publish the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra (named in honor of Henry Draper, the first man to take the spectrum of a star on a photographic plate), which had classifications for 10,351 different stars. Once Fleming left Pickering’s service, he hired several other women assistants. Out of this group of women, which became known officially as the “Harvard Computers”, but commonly as “Pickering’s Harem”, came some of the greatest early female astronomers, including Annie Jump CannonHenrietta Swan Leavitt, and Antonia Maury. The initial version of this catalog, published from 1918 to 1924 in 9 volumes, included the positions, magnitudes, and spectral classifications of over 225,000 stars.

Edward Pickering and his “harem” outside a Harvard building in 1913. Annie Jump Cannon stands two to the right of Pickering. Credit: UC- Berkeley

Differentiating the spectral classes

Alright, so how does that help astronomers? Well, in essence a star is a gas under high pressure, meaning it should give off a continuous spectrum according to Kirchhoff’s first law. But the outer layers of a star’s “atmosphere”, called the corona, is a gas under low pressure- meaning we actually see an absorption spectrum (Law 3). (In fact, it was the unexpected discovery of this absorption spectrum that helped us to realize that our Sun had an “atmosphere” or outer layer of hot gas surrounding it.) Since stars of the same size and mass are made up of pretty much the same stuff, they have similar spectra. In fact, this is how astronomers classify stars, by their spectral class. The different stellar spectral classes are O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. Type O stars are the hottest and Type M stars are the coolest. Each spectral class or spectral type has a unique spectrum.

Recreated stellar spectra of each spectral type (from top to bottom): O, B, A, F, G, K, M. Credit: ESA

With a name like that…

Now, like a lot of things in astronomy, this naming scheme is totally absurd and illogical. I wish I had a better explanation for why we have this naming scheme, but basically it’s a historical holdout from back when astronomers started classifying stars without really understanding them. Remember the Harem? Well in the first publication of the catalog in 1890, Williamina Fleming did most of the classification. She used a classification system that had been developed a few decades earlier by the Italian astronomer Angelo Secchi. Since she had so many stars, she took Secchi’s five classes and stretched them out to encompass fourteen classes from A to N. Then she added three more categories (O, P, Q) to encompass stars that would not have fit Secchi’s scheme. A through Q made sense. But then in 1897, Antonia Maury was working on a different set of stars and decided to reclassify what Fleming had done. So she scrapped the letters and made 22 classes from I to XXII…still made sense. Unfortunately, in her rearranging of Fleming’s classes, she wasn’t paying attention to the letters and moved some around, hence O and B moving towards the front.

Finally in 1901, Annie Jump Cannon (probably the most famous and accomplished of the Harem) was cataloging and decided to go back to the letter system and dropped all the letters except O, B, A, F, G, K, and M in that order. Why? I have no idea. For some reason after Ms. Jump Cannon came up with her system they had had enough reclassification and no one suggested, “Hey maybe we should have these make some kind of logical sense.” Astronomers can be infuriating sometimes.  The final crazy product is known today as the Harvard Spectral Classification. So, if you need a way to try to remember Ms. Jump Cannon’s crazy archaic classes, try “OBA Fine Gal (or Guy), Kiss Me!” Of course, the cockamamie lettering system wasn’t enough, Ms. Jump Cannon then needed to add ten subclasses from 0 to 9 for each letter. Meaning not only is a B-type star hotter than a K-type star, but a B1 star is hotter than a B5. Our star, the Sun, is a G2, meaning it’s pretty much right in the middle of the stellar pack.

Digging even deeper

But somehow the crazy letter and number combination still wasn’t quite exact enough. In 1943, three astronomers from the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin came up with another classification system that focused not only on the surface temperature of a star (which the Harvard Classification does), but also on the luminosity (or brightness). Basically, you can have a really big red giant star and a teeny tiny white dwarf star that are the same temperature and therefore have similar emission lines. However, you can look at how sharp those emission lines are and determine the surface gravity or pressure that that star must have. When introducing this new factor into the equation, the Yerkes astronomers came up with seven (I-VII) new classes that basically help to dictate what stage of life a star is in.

To try to help this make some visual sense, astronomers have developed a graph called the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram that correlates how bright a star is, how hot it is, and what spectral class it’s in. This pretty ingenious and very common graph helps to simplify a vast amount of knowledge. It’s really pretty obvious how the groups appear when looking at a filled out H-R diagram. Most stars, like our Sun (which is a G2V), are in class V, meaning they are still on the “Main Sequence” and are still fusing hydrogen into helium. As stars live and evolve, they move off of the main sequence and into other branches of the H-R diagram. Can you pick out where the Sun would be on this H-R diagram below?

A Hertzsprung-Russell diagram showing the major classes of stars. The temperature (and spectral classes) run from hottest to coldest, left to right. Generally size decreases from top to bottom. The “Main Sequence” is the diagonal line running through the middle, with the other evolutionary branches around it. Credit: Wikipedia

The Cosmic Distance Ladder, part 1…

For the past few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my position as Manager of the UNH Observatory, in helping to prepare for the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival. The event, lovingly known as NEFAF, is a family-friendly astronomy-related event that will be hosted by the UNH Physics Department in partnership with the New Hampshire Astronomical Society. As you can imagine, this is quite an undertaking, but in an incredibly exciting turn of events, we just found out that Dr. Alex Filippenko, noted astronomer from UC-Berkeley and member of the research team that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, will be giving the keynote talk at NEFAF 2012! In addition to being a highly acclaimed professor, Filippenko is also the co-author of an extremely popular astronomy textbook and a frequent contributor to the documentary series The Universe on The History Channel.

Dr. Alex Filippenko, the newly announced keynote speaker for the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival to be held at the UNH Observatory.

That extremely exciting news has inspired me to do a couple of posts about the expansion of the universe, the area of research that Dr. Filippenko works on. But before we can really get into talking about that, we need to cover a very basic aspect of astronomy, but something that most non-astronomers don’t really know about. I was at a public session at the Observatory this weekend when a guest who had never studied astronomy before asked me what she thought might be an “ignorant” question: she wanted to know how exactly astronomers knew the distances to objects in space. This is by no means an ignorant question, in fact it’s a very fundamental and very involved question that really gets at the very nature of astronomy.

Astronomy by definition is an observational science. Unlike many other scientific disciplines, astronomers can’t really do experiments in a laboratory (although some do). But the stereotypical astronomer can’t throw his subject (a star or galaxy) on a lab bench and dissect it or set up an experiment to test it, so astronomers need to observe and record data. Okay, so we observe light, that tells us what something looks like, where it is, and how bright it is. Big deal, is that really that helpful scientifically. Well, not really. So we have to come up with ways to get more information from observing the light. The main way we do that is by breaking the light up in a spectrometer, an instrument that breaks light down into a spectrum of colors. This breakdown of light can reveal an abundance of new information including what the object is made up of, how hot it is, how fast and in what direction it’s moving, how old it is, and more.

The question of how astronomers calculate the distance to an astronomical object varies depending on how far away the object is. Because most of these techniques only work up to a certain distance, there is actually a progression of different approaches that astronomers use to measure distance to celestial objects. This list of methods of measuring astronomical distances is known as the Cosmic Distance Ladder (or less poetically, the extragalactic distance scale).

A graphical representation of the distance-measuring techniques that make up the Cosmic Distance Ladder. “1 A.U.” is 1 astronomical unit or approximately 93 million miles, the distance from the Earth to the Sun. A “pc” is a parsec, equal to 3.2 lightyears (206,265 A.U.) or about 20 trillion miles. “Mpc” stands for “Megaparsec” or millions of parsecs. Credit: University of Rochester

In our solar system

The first step in our exploration of the universe was to our own celestial neighborhood. The first step was precise measurement of the size scale of the solar system, which started with the determination of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. As I’ve explained before, this measurement was originally calculated via observations of transits of the planet Venus across the disk of the Sun. Early on in the 20th century, observations of asteroids also played an important role in this measurement. But today the distance from the Earth to the Sun, defined as 1 Astronomical Unit or “AU”, is measured with high precision using radar ranging. By bouncing a radar beam off another planet, usually Venus, and measuring the time that beam takes to return to Earth, scientists can very accurately determine the difference in the size of the two planets’ orbits. Using that difference and the ratio of the two orbital sizes, we can very easily calculate the distance the Earth must be from the Sun. We use a similar process even closer to home. During the Apollo missions of the late 1960s-early 1970s, astronauts deployed the lunar laser ranging experiments, arrays of mirrors that allowed scientists to measure the distance to Earth’s only natural satellite with extreme precision using lasers. This radar ranging is how we’ve calculated the distance to most of the objects in our solar system. More recently, we can also use spacecraft in orbit around other planets as a tape measure by measuring the time it takes for a signal to travel from the spacecraft to its controllers on Earth.

Another  way we can get measure the distance to the planets and to nearby stars is a phenomenon known as stellar parallax. This method is less accurate than radar ranging for planets, but is very good for stars in our local stellar neighborhood. Parallax is something you experience almost every day. Hold your thumb up at arm’s length. Close one eye, then open that one and close the other. Notice how your thumb appears to shift with respect to the objects far off in the distance? That’s parallax! Astronomers take measurements of a planet or star a two points in Earth’s orbit (6 months apart) and measure the angular shift of an object with respect to the background stars between those two measurements. Then, because we know the distance the Earth is from the Sun, we can use some basic geometry to calculate the distance to that star or planet in the foreground.

This diagram shows how parallax is used to find the distance to planets in our solar system and nearby stars. Scientists make two observations 6 months apart, measuring the angle that an object (the red dot) makes with regard to the background stars between the two observations. Then using the distance from the Earth to the Sun (1 A.U.) and some simple geometry, the distance to the object (d) can be calculated. Credit: Hyperphysics

It was using parallax, that Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini was able to roughly calculate the distance to Mars in 1672. His calculation was a little bit off though, because instead of taking two measurements 6 months apart, he sent his colleague to Cayenne, French Guiana (on the northern coast of South America) to make observations while he stayed in Paris. Then Cassini could make the same parallax calculation using the known distance between the two observation points (~4400 miles) instead of the distance from the Sun to the Earth. This single direct measurement of the distance to Mars, which is now easily calculated and heavily used by missions such as Curiosity, actually allowed for the calculation of the distances to all the planets. Since geometry and Kepler’s Laws governed the basic ratios the Sun-planet distances, you only needed to measure one Earth-planet distance to be able to easily calculate them all. This major contribution and several others in planetary science (including the discovery of four of Saturn’s moons and joint discovery of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) prompted NASA to name the Saturn-bound spacecraft mission after the him.

Giovanni Domenico Cassini

[To be continued…]


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Can Venus help us find exoplanets?…

This post is in response to loyal reader Jarman Day-Bohn’s question, which he left in a comment on the post “Today is transit day….”. Jarman asked:

How much do you think this [transit of Venus] will contribute to the current research experts are performing toward the study of possible earth-like planets out there? I know they were heavily using a technique measuring how much of a star’s light is blocked out by a planet to judge its size and other factors. Will this in any way help that process?

Great question Jarman, thanks for asking! Let’s look into that a little bit more.

But before we get too far into that, let’s think a little more about transits. Whether or not a transit occurs is all based on perspective. From Earth, only Mercury and Venus are interior planets- planets orbiting closer to the Sun- so they’re the only two that can we can see transit the Sun’s disk. If you were on Mars though, you could conceivably see Mercury, Venus, and Earth transits. And if you were on Pluto you could, in theory, see all eight planets transit the Sun. Remember though, as you get further away, even though more planets can be seen transitting the Sun from your perspective, you’re also getting further away, meaning the Sun is going to look smaller and smaller to you, as are the transitting planets. The Sun is only 93 million miles from the Earth (that’s really close astronomically speaking), so the enormous Sun, which is 1 million times larger in volume than the Earth, takes up a relatively large portion of the sky (~0.5 degrees). As you move further away from the Sun, its angular size in the sky will shrink. By the time you got to Pluto, which is 3.67 billion miles from the Sun, but still close astronomically speaking, our local star would look like a bright speck only ~0.01 degrees (50 times smaller than in the sky on Earth); probably something similar to the artist’s depiction below.

This artist’s depiction shows what the Sun might look like from an object, like Pluto, that’s in the solar system’s Kuiper Belt. Notice how the relatively close Sun differs from the background stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

Now as you travel further from the Sun, let’s say to a planet orbiting another star, and look at our Sun, you could still in theory see all eight planets (and Pluto) transit the Sun, but now you’re trillions of miles from the Sun which is now just point of light in the sky, the same way other stars appear to us in the nighttime sky. The really astounding thing about looking at the other stars in our galaxy (Note: every star you see in the nighttime sky is in the Milky Way, we can’t resolve single stars in other galaxies.) is that they are so incredibly far away that no matter how large a telescope we use, we can never see the disk of the star like we can with the Sun, it just won’t have a large enough angular size. Now matter what, even through the Hubble Space Telescope, stars look like pinpricks of light that astronomers call “point sources“. Which makes actually seeing a planet transit a star, like we can see with Venus, impossible. I’ll remind you that in a previous post entitled “Baseballs, not umbrellas…” I explained the continuing search for exoplanets and covered all three of the main techniques which scientists employ to find these elusive celestial bodies around our galaxy. As Jarman indicated, the most successful and commonly used method of detection is the “transit method”. This is the method that NASA’s Kepler mission has already used to find the first Earth-like rocky exoplanet. However, since I just explained that we can’t actually see the exoplanet transitting the distant star, the only way we can detect the transit is by recording the change in light we see as the exoplanet crosses in front of the star. But again, we don’t actually “see” the transit happen, we just observe the dip in the brightness given off by the star. Similarly, if you were on a ship off the shore and someone walked in front of the lighthouse beacon, you wouldn’t be able to see the person, but you might be able to record the drop in brightness as they walked by.

This artist’s idea of NASA’s Kepler mission looking for exoplanets illustrates the main technique that scientists hope to use to find planets orbiting other stars- called the transit method- but no matter the size of the telescope we can’t actually see the exoplanets transitting the disk of the star. Credit:

But now let’s get back to Jarman’s actual question: can a transit in our solar system, like that of Venus, help scientists to find planets transitting other stars? It might. The transit of Venus is a well-documented and well-understood phenomenon, which scientists have been able to accurately predict and observe at least 6 times in the last 400 years. As I explained in “Looking to launch and preparing for transit…“, the transit of Venus helped us to determine the size of our solar system. And since we’ve actually been able to explore our solar system and have a very good grasp of the size of Venus and the Sun and the distances between the Earth and each of them, we can use the transit of Venus as a calibration tool in our search for extrasolar planets. For instance, scientist can say a planet like Venus, which is so big, transitting in front of a star like the Sun, which is so big, would cause a drop in brightness of this much at this distance. Then we can scale that distance out to other stars and we get some idea of what we need to look for in our search for exoplanets.

So Jarman, there’s your answer: while the spectacular crossing of Venus may not lead to groundbreaking new methods to find exoplanets, it does give us a rare opportunity to view a transit (that involves objects we know a lot about) and use that as a reference point as we continue our search!

Thanks again to Jarman for posing this question and if you, like Jarman, have a question that you’d like to have answered, please leave a comment or use the “Contact astroian” tab at the top of the page to send me an email!


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They just keep going and going…

Hello all, the much anticipated final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour has now officially been delayed a third time and is slated to happen no earlier than May 16. In the meantime, here is something very exciting for NASA to be proud of:

Two of NASA’s earliest deep-space faring spacecraft are continuing their amazing journey to the very edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, both launched towards to the outer planets in 1977, are about to leave the sphere of influence of our Sun and become the first ever manmade objects to enter interstellar space. The thirty-plus year old missions have gone above and beyond what any scientists or NASA officials could ever have dreamed of and are now the farthest manmade objects from Earth. Voyager 1‘s primary mission ended back in November 1980, after visiting Jupiter [1979] and Saturn [1980]. It’s twin sister, Voyager 2, saw the completion of its primary mission, to visit Jupiter [1979], Saturn [1980], Uranus [1986], and Neptune [1989] nearly a decade later in December 1989. The Voyagerspacecraft were the first to get detailed images of the gas giants and their moons. Voyager 1 was able to look back at the solar system and piece together the “Family Portrait” shown below.

This composition of images from Voyager 1 showed all the planets in the solar system for the first time. Credit: NASA/GSFC

This image shows one of the earliest glimpses of Saturn, taken by Voyager 1 on its approach of the ringed giant. Credit: NASA/JPL

 Although both spacecraft finished their original missions well over two decades ago, the contribution and relevance of the Voyager mission did not stop there. For over twenty years the two spacecraft have been hurtling away from the Sun under the propulsion of radioactive sources and just a few years ago crossed into the never-before seen heliosheath. This heliosheath is the boundary layer between our Sun’s magnetic field and the fields of the rest of the stars in our galaxy and has proven to be much different than anything scientists could have ever expected. Scientists project that some time between 2012 and 2015 the spacecraft will pass through the outermost boundary of our solar system (the heliopause) and become the first artificial objects ever to leave the solar system. Beyond the influence of our Sun, they will represent mankind’s first firsthand interaction with other stars and once their fuel supplies run out they’ll silently coast among the stars as Earth’s silent ambassadors. Energizer Bunny, eat your heart out.


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The first of many…

Last week, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft discovered the first terrestrial (rocky) exoplanet orbiting a star about 560 lightyears away from Earth. This marks the first rocky, Earth-like planet found outside of our solar system and brings the total exoplanet count to a whopping 500. If you’re really interested in keeping up to date with the exoplanet count, I suggest checking out the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Planetquest that features an up-to-date exoplanet count  (they even offer a downloadable exoplanet counter widget) and fun interactive exoplanet activities and multimedia.

The new exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-10b, is the tenth exoplanet discovered by the Kepler mission, a mission which is proving capable of fulfilling its primary science objective to “Determine the abundance of terrestrial and larger planets in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars” [1]. Unfortunately for Kepler though, as I reviewed in a previous post, the techniques we currently use to find exoplanets make it much easier to find larger planets (usually gas giants like Jupiter) than smaller rocky ones. Unfortunately, Kepler-10b is not in its star’s “habitable zone” or the correct distance from the star for water ice to exist on the planet; it’s twenty times closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. If a planet is too close to its star then all the water will evaporate and if its too far away it will all freeze. Scientists are assuming that planets with liquid water will have the highest chance of supporting life (like Earth which has a surface 70% covered by water). Kepler-10b’s extreme proximity to its parent star probably means that the surface of the planet is either scorched arid rock or possibly even covered with a layer of molten lava. In any case though, the discovery of this first terrestrial world is a great sign of things to come.

Shifting gears…

January has been a big month for crazy astronomical stories gone awry in the media. After the zodiac controversy that hit last week, this week a new craze has exploded after an interview with Dr. Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, published by In the interview, Dr. Carter talks about the expected supernova of the red giant star Betelgeuse (yes, it’s pronounced Beetlejuice…Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice). The article is riddled with inaccuracies and just downright wrong information. First of all, the writer, Claire Connelly, tries to inaccurately spin the story to appeal to Star Wars fans by making it seem like Earth will have two suns like the fictional world of Tatooine. Connelly says, “[I]t’s not just a figment of George Lucas’s imagination – twin suns are real. And here’s the big news – they could be coming to Earth. Yes, any day now we see a second sun light up the sky, if only for a matter of weeks.” While it is true that “twin suns” are in fact real (we know that roughly half of the stars in are galaxy exist in multiple-star systems), there is no way that the Earth can ever have twin Suns. Binary star systems usually form together, meaning the other Sun would have to have been created at the same time as our Sun (which obviously did not happen). I suppose a very rare case could occur where a star comes in close contact to another star and the effect of gravity causes them to fall into mutual orbit, but the Sun is way too far away from any other stars (the closest is 4.2 lightyears away) and if that ever did happen, the planets in our solar system would probably be flung out of their orbits altogether. While it’s true that when Betelegeuse does supernova (which could be tomorrow or in another million years), we will be able to see the supernova during the daylight hours (much like how we see Venus in the early morning hours before sunrise), it doesn’t mean that we’ll have two suns or that “one day, night will become day for several weeks on Earth.” The supernova will just look like an extremely bright star in the sky that will be visible at night and during the day for a few weeks. The article goes on to make allusions to the Mayan 2012 apocalypse predictions, imply associations between the word “Betelgeuse” and the devil, and to erroneously state that Betelgeuse is the “second biggest star in the universe” (it’s the second largest in its constellation, Orion).

Of course, even though several reputable new sources quickly tried to convince people that the claims in this article were nonsense (see FoxNews and Discovery), others quickly tried to jump on the lead and continued to erroneously echo the story (I’m looking at you, Huffington Post). Just another example of how poor journalism can fuel public paranoia and misinformation.

Betelgeuse is the red giant star that makes up Orion’s left shoulder in the sky.

Anyways, to wrap up this post, I figured I’d give you some fun information about Betelgeuse and its constellation Orion. Betelgeuse is the reddish star seen in the upper left of Orion, commonly seen as his left shoulder (see image above). It’s roughly 10 million years old and large enough that if it replaced our Sun, it would extend all the way out past the orbit of Jupiter. Orion, known as the famous hunter of the Greeks who was killed by Scorpio because he refused to acknowledge the gods, is also known by several other names around the world. In Egyptian lore, he is the god Osiris, who rules over the afterlife and judges the dead. In Arabic mythology, he is known as Al-Jabbar or The Giant and the name Betelgeuse, which comes to us from Arabic like many other star names, is said to loosely translate to “the Giant’s armpit”.


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A big week…

A lot has gone on for NASA in the past week. Here’s a quick recap:

1) After Comet Hartley 2 finished displaying itself in the the Northeastern sky for the past month or so, the comet was visited by NASA’s EPOXI spacecraft which successfully passed within 435 miles of the comet (the closest approach to a comet ever). You might say, 435 miles, why is that so impressive? Well when you’re in space trying to maneuver your spacecraft next to something moving at 27,000 miles per hour while constantly spraying ice-water crystals out, 435 miles is probably close enough. EPOXI, a 4.7 meter telescope normally used for deep-sky observations got several pretty spectacular images of the peanut-shaped comet.

Comets are icy, rocky bodies which orbit around the Sun in highly elliptical orbits. Many comets become visible from Earth with the naked eye as they approach the Sun in their orbit because the Sun causes their ice to melt and the resulting water vapor becomes highly reflective to sunlight. Hartley 2 was discovered in 1984 by astronomer Malcolm Hartley; it orbits the Sun every six years. Learning more about comets like Hartley might lead to more information about the formation of the Sun and our solar system.

2) The much anticipated final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery (see previous post: “Up, up, and away…”) was delayed several times this week and ultimately postponed until November 30 due to several complications that arose. Helium and nitrogen leaks in one of the craft’s engine pods, electrical glitches in a backup computer controller in one of the main engines, and bad weather all combined to prove that NASA’s workhorse won’t go silently into retirement. Hopefully all the issues can be resolved and Discovery will be able to make its final flight and return before the end of the year.

3) Tuesday’s mid-term elections may have a bigger impact on NASA than one might have imagined. The Congressional approval of President Obama’s proposed NASA budget (see previous post: Mo’ money, mo’ problems…”) may hit a road block once Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January. Many Republican candidates ran on platforms that included reduced domestic spending, which means that the proposed $300 million budget increase that was approved for NASA in early October might be in jeopardy. We’ll have to wait to see how this one pans out.


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