The 2016 Nobel Prize In Physics: It’s Complicated

This year's Nobel Prize in physics highlights the complications of awarding breakthrough achievements. Credit:

The Nobel Prize in physics is a coveted award. Every year, the prize is bestowed upon the individual who is deemed to have made the greatest contribution to the field of physics during the preceding year. And this year, the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves is anticipated to be the main focus.

This discovery, which was announced on February 11th, 2016, was made possible thanks to the development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). As such, it is expected that the three scientists that are most responsible for the invention of the technology will receive the Nobel Prize for their work. However, there are those in the scientific community who feel that another scientist – Barry Barish – should also be recognized.

But first, some background is needed to help put all this into perspective. For starers, gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime that are generated by certain gravitational interactions and whic propagate at the speed of light. The existence of such waves has been postulated since the late 19th century.

However, it was not until the late 20th century, thanks in large part to Einstein and his theory of General Relativity, that gravitational-wave research began to emerge as a branch of astronomy. Since the 1960s, various gravitational-wave detectors have been built, which includes the LIGO observatory.

Founded as a Caltech/MIT project, LIGO was officially approved by the National Science Board (NSF) in 1984. A decade later, construction began on facility’s two locations – in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. By 2002, it began to obtain data, and work began on improving its original detectors in 2008 (known as the Advanced LIGO Project).

The credit for the creation of LIGO goes to three scientists, which includes Rainer Weiss, a professor of physics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Ronald Drever, an experimental physics who was professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology and a professor at Glasgow University; and Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech.

In 1967 and 68, Weiss and Thorne initiated efforts to construct prototype detectors, and produced theoretical work to prove that gravitational waves could be successfully analyzed. By the 1970s, using different methods, Weiss and Denver both succeeded in building detectors. In the coming years, all three men remained pivotal and influential, helping to make gravitational astronomy a legitimate field of research.

However, it has been argued that without Barish – a particle physicist at Caltech – the discovery would never have been made. Having become the Principal Investigator of LIGO in 1994, he inherited the project at a very crucial time. It had begun funding a decade prior, but coordinating the work of Wiess, Thorne and Drever (from MIT, Caltech and the University of Glasgow, respectively) proved difficult.

As such, it was decided that a single director was needed. Between 1987 and 1994, Rochus Vogt – a professor emeritus of Physics at Caltech – was appointed by the NSF to fill this role. While Vogt brought the initial team together and helped to get the construction of the project approved, he proved difficult when it came to dealing with bureaucracy and documenting his researchers progress.

As such, between 1989 through 1994, LIGO failed to progress technically and organizationally, and had trouble acquiring funding as well. By 1994, Caltech eased Vogt out of his position and appointed Barish to the position of director. Barish got to work quickly, making significant changes to the way LIGO was administered, expanding the research team, and developing a detailed work plan for the NSF.

Barish was also responsible for expanding LIGO beyond its Caltech and MIT constraints. This he did through the creation of the independent LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), which gave access to outside researchers and institutions. This was instrumental in creating crucial partnerships, which included the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Max Planck Society of Germany, and the Australian Research Council.

By 1999, construction had wrapped up on the LIGO observatories, and by 2002, they began taking their first bits of data. By 2004, the funding and groundwork was laid for the next phase of LIGO development, which involved a multi-year shut-down while the detectors were replaced with improved “Advanced LIGO” versions.

All of this was made possible by Barish, who retired in 2005 to head up other projects. Thanks to his sweeping reforms, LIGO got to work after an abortive start, began to produce data, procured funding, crucial partnerships, and now has more than 1000 collaborators worldwide, thanks to LSC program he established.

Little wonder then why some scientists think the Nobel Prize should be split four-ways, awarding the three scientists who conceived of LIGO and the one scientist who made it happen. And as Barish himself was quoted as saying by Science:

“I think there’s a bit of truth that LIGO wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do it, so I don’t think I’m undeserving. If they wait a year and give it to these three guys, at least I’ll feel that they thought about it,” he says. “If they decide [to give it to them] this October, I’ll have more bad feelings because they won’t have done their homework.”

However, there is good reason to believe that the award will ultimately be split three ways, leaving Barish out. For instance, Weiss, Drever, and Thorne have been honored three times already this year for their work on LIGO. This has included the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, and Kavli Prize in Astrophysics.

What’s more, in the past, the Nobel Prize in physics has tended to be awarded to those responsible for the intellectual contributions leading to a major breakthrough, rather than to those who did the leg work. Out of the last six Prizes issued (between 2010 and 2015), five have been awarded for the development of experimental methods, observational studies, and theoretical discoveries.

Only one award was given for a technical development. This was the case in 2014 where the award was given jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”.

Basically, the Nobel Prize is a complicated matter. Every year, it is awarded to those who made a considerable contribution to science, or were responsible for a major breakthrough. But contributions and breakthroughs are perhaps a bit relative. Whom we choose to honor, and for what, can also be seen as an indication of what is valued most in the scientific community.

In the end, this year’s award may serve to highlight how significant contributions do not just entail the development of new ideas and methods, but also in bringing them to fruition.

Further Reading: Science, LIGO,

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Bloostar: Launching Satellites via Balloon


Is there a better way to get to space? Current traditional methods using expendable rockets launching from the surface of the Earth are terribly inefficient. About 90% of the bulk and mass of what you see on the launch pad is expended in the first few minutes of the mission, just getting the tiny payload above the murk of Earth’s atmosphere and out of the planet’s gravity well.

One idea that’s been out there for a while is to loft a launch platform into the upper atmosphere, and simply start from there. One Spanish-based company named Zero2infinity plans to do just that.

Recently, on May 20th, 2016, Zero2infinity lofted Aistech’s first satellite into the upper atmosphere, aboard its Sub-Orbital Platform in Near Space balloon system. Zero2infinity uses these Near Space balloons to carry client payloads up above 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere. This is a cheap and effective way to get payloads into a very space-like environment.

These near Space Balloon platforms typically reach an altitude of 28 kilometres (17 miles) above the surface of the Earth. For reference, the Armstrong Line (where the boiling point of water equals human body temperature) starts 18 kilometers up, and the Kármán line — the internationally recognized boundary where space begins — starts at an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62 miles up.

Most satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) go around the Earth 300 to 600 kilometers up, and the International Space Station resides in a 400 by 400 kilometer standard orbit.

The mission of Aistechsat-1 is to “provide thermal images of the Earth and also help with maritime and aeronautical tracking,” Zero2infinity representative Iris Silverio told Universe Today via email. Zero2infinity plans on conducting another balloon test with Aistechsat-1 later this month at on an as yet to be announced date. The final decision all hinges on the weather and the wind speeds aloft.

Aistech envisions a constellation of 25 such nanosatellites encircling the planet.

Zero2infinity also has a grander vision: eventually launching satellites into Low Earth Orbit via balloon. Known as Bloostar, this system would loft a three stage rocket with the company’s existing and proven Near Space balloon technology. The ‘launch’ would occur high in the upper atmosphere, as the engines take over to get the payload into orbit.

The idea is certainly attractive. Dubbed a ‘shortcut to space,’ the three engine booster rings depicted are a fraction of the size of typical rocket stages. The toroid ring-shaped stages are simply nestled one in side the other, like Russian dolls. Zero2infinity also envisions scaling its ‘Bloon’ platform for micro and nano payloads… and I’ll bet that a Bloostar atmospheric launch will be an interesting spectacle to watch with binoculars from the ground, especially around dawn or dusk.

Another possible advantage includes a much more spacious payload nose cone, meaning no more folding of satellites for launch and unfolding them in orbit. More than a few payloads have suffered setbacks because of this, including the Galileo mission to Jupiter, whose main antenna failed to unfurl completely in 1990.

According to an email discussion with Zero2infinity representative Silverio, the first commercial Bloostar launch is set for 2019, with possible orbital trials starting as early as 2018. Bloostar deployments will occur off the coast of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. The initial Bloostar launcher will deploy payloads up to 75 kilograms in a 600 kilometer orbit around the Earth.

Rise of the Rockoons

The idea of conducting launches via balloon, known as a ‘rockoon,’ has been around for a while. Thus far, only sub-orbital launches have been conducted in this manner.

The first balloon-based launch of a rocket occurred on August 9th, 1953, when a Deacon rockoon successfully carried out a sub-orbital launch high over the Atlantic Ocean. Though several companies have kicked around the idea of launching an orbital satellite via balloon-based platform, Zero2infinity might just be the first to actually accomplish it. The United States Department of Defense has considered the idea of launching satellites (and satellite-killing missiles) via the U.S. Air Force’s high flying F-15 Eagle aircraft. Orbital Sciences does currently use its Pegasus-XL rocket carried aloft by a L1011 aircraft to place satellites in orbit. That’s how NASA’s NuSTAR X-ray telescope got into space in 2012.

There is one main problem facing balloon-based space launches: weather. Unlike aircraft, balloons are often at the whims of the winds aloft, and sometimes stubbornly refuse to go where you want them to. Often, an orbital launch will need to target a precise azimuth heading, a tricky sort of pointing to do from underneath a balloon. Still, we’ve already seen precedent for overcoming this in the effective pointing of balloon-based telescopes, such as the BLAST telescope.

Bloostar might just provide an innovative and cost-effective way to head into orbit, very soon.

-Check out this 2014 article from Universe Today on Zero2Infinity.

-Zero2Infinity also caught last year’s total solar eclipse over the Arctic from aloft.

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Looking for Canada’s Next Generation of Space Explorers

2007-08-11 - The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Astronaut Dave Williams performs a spacewalk during Shuttle Mission STS-118. Credit: © Canadian Space Agency/NASA

For decades, Canada has made many contributions to the field of space exploration. These include the development of sophisticated robotics, optics, participation in important research, and sending astronauts into space as part of NASA missions. And who can forget Chris Hadfield, Mr. “Space Oddity” himself? In addition to being the first Canadian to command the ISS, he is also known worldwide as the man who made space exploration fun and accessible through social media.

And in recent statement, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has announced that it is looking for new recruits to become the next generation of Canadian astronauts. With two positions available, they are looking for applicants who embody the best qualities of astronauts, which includes a background in science and technology, exceptional physical fitness, and a desire to advance the cause of space exploration.

As already noted, the Canadian Space Agency is known for its advancement of technology in space, particularly in terms of robotics. One of the best-known examples of this comes in the form of the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (aka. “the Canadarm“), a robotic arm that was introduced in 1981 and quickly became a regular part of the Space Shuttle Program.

It’s successor, the Canadarm2, was mounted on the International Space Station in 2001, and has since been augmented with the addition of the Dextre robotic hand – also of Canadian design and manufacture. In terms of optics, the CSA is renowned for the creation of the ISS’s Advanced Space Vision System (SVS). This computer vision system uses regular 2D cameras in the Space Shuttle Bay, on the Canadarm, or on the ISS itself – along with cooperative targets – to calculate the 3D position of an object.

Ordinarily, astronauts rely on cameras aboard the ISS (due to there being few viewing ports) to gauge the distance of objects in close proximity. However, conventional cameras do not allow for for stereoscopic vision (i.e. depth perception), and observation with the naked eye be problematic due to glare. This system was developed to address this issue, offering the ability to resolve depth and deal with illumination issues in space.

But arguably, Canada’s most enduring contribution to space exploration have come in the form of its astronauts. Long before Hadfield was garnering attention with his rousing rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, or performing “Is Someone Singing (ISS)” with The Barenaked Ladies and The Wexford Gleeks choir (via a video connection from the ISS), Canadians were venturing into space as part of several NASA missions.

Consider Marc Garneau, a retired military officer and engineer who became the first Canadian astronaut to go into space, taking part in three flights aboard NASA Space shuttles in 1984, 1996 and 2000. Garneau also served as the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2006 before retiring for active service and beginning a career in politics.

And how about Roberta Bondar? As Canada’s first female astronaut, she had the additional honor of designated as the Payload Specialist for the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission (IML-1) in 1992. Bondar also flew on the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery during Mission STS-42 in 1992, during which she performed experiments in the Spacelab.

And then there’s Robert Thirsk, an engineer and physician who holds the Canadian records for the longest space flight (187 days 20 hours) and the most time spent in space (204 days 18 hours). All three individuals embodied the unique combination of academic proficiency, advanced training, personal achievement, and dedication that make up an astronaut.

And just like Hadfield, Bonard, Garneau and Thirsk have all retired on gone on to have distinguished careers as chancellors of academic institutions, politicians, philanthropists, noted authors and keynote speakers. All told, eight Canadians astronauts have taken part in sixteen space missions and been deeply involved in research and experiments conducted aboard the ISS.

Alas, every generation has to retire sooner or later. And having made their contributions and moved onto other paths, the CSA is looking for two particularly bright, young, highly-motivated and highly-skilled people to step up and take their place.

The recruitment campaign was announced this past Sunday, July 17th, by the Honourable Navdeep Bains. As the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, he is also the Minister  responsible for matters pertaining to the Canadian Space Agency. As part the agency’s fourth astronaut recruiting drive, he had this to say on the occasion:

“Our astronauts have been a source of national pride for our country. If you have aspired to go beyond our planet’s frontier, now is your chance to make this dream a reality. This class of Canadian astronauts will be part of a new generation of explorers to advance critical science and research aboard the International Space Station. Just like the astronauts before them, they will inspire young Canadians to view science and technology as accessible and interesting tools they can use to build their own adventures.”

Those who are selected will be based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will provide support for space missions in progress, and prepare for future missions. Canadian astronauts also periodically return to Canada to participate in various activities and encourage young Canadians to pursue an education in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The recruitment drive will be open from June 17th to August 15th, 2016, and the selected candidates are expected to be announced by next summer. This next class of Canadian astronaut candidates will start their training in August 2017 at the Johnson Space Center. The details can be found at the Canadian Space Agency‘s website, and all potential applicants are advised to read the campaign information kit before applying.

Alongside their efforts to find the next generation of astronauts, the Canadian government’s 2016 annual budget has also provided the CSA with up to $379 million dollars over the next eight years to extend Canada’s participation in the International Space Station on through to 2024. Gotta’ keep reaching for those stars, eh?

Further Reading:

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Viking: Remembering Humanity’s First Successful Mission On Mars Surface

Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. It was taken on July 20, 1976. The primary objectives of the Viking mission, which was composed of two spacecraft, were to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface and search for evidence of life on Mars. Credit: NASA

July 20. Sound like a familiar date? If you guessed that’s when we first set foot on the Moon 47 years ago, way to go! But it’s also the 40th anniversary of Viking 1 lander, the first American probe to successfully land on Mars.

The Russians got there first on December 2, 1971 when their Mars 3 probe touched down in the Mare Sirenum region. But transmissions stopped just 14.5 seconds later, only enough time for the crippled lander to send a partial and garbled photo that unfortunately showed no identifiable features.

Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976 in Chryse Planitia, a smooth, circular plain in Mars’ northern equatorial region and operated for six years, far beyond the original 90 day mission. Its twin, Viking 2, landed about 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away in the vast northern plain called Utopia Planitia several weeks later on September 3. Both were packaged inside orbiters that took pictures of the landing sites before dispatching the probes.

Viking 1 was originally slated to land on July 4th to commemorate the 200th year of the founding of the United States. Some of you may remember the bicentennial celebrations underway at the time. Earlier photos taken by Mariner 9 helped mission controllers pick what they thought was a safe landing site, but when the Viking 1 orbiter arrived and took a closer look, NASA deemed it too bouldery for a safe landing, so they delayed the the probe’s arrival until a safer site could be chosen. Hence the July 20th touchdown date.

My recollection at the time was that that particular date was picked to coincide with the first lunar landing.

I’ll never forget the first photo transmitted from the surface. I had started working at the News Gazette in Champaign, Ill. earlier that year in the photo department. On July 20 I joined the wire editor, a kindly. older gent named Raleigh, at the AP Photofax machine and watched the black and white image creep line-by-line from the machine. Still damp with ink, I lifted the sodden sheet into my hands, totally absorbed. Two things stood out: how incredibly sharp the picture was and ALL THOSE ROCKS!  Mars looked so different from the Moon.

One day later, Viking 1 returned the first color photo from the surface and continued to operate, taking photos and doing science for 2,307 days until November 11, 1982, a record not broken until May 2010 by NASA’s Opportunity rover. It would have continued humming along for who knows how much longer were it not for a faulty command sent by mission control that resulted in a permanent loss of contact.

Viking 2 soldiered on until its batteries failed on April 11, 1980. Both landers characterized the Martian weather and radiation environment, scooped up soil samples and measured their elemental composition and send back lots of photos including the first Martian panoramas.

Each lander carried three instruments designed to look for chemical or biological signs of living or once-living organisms. Soil samples scooped up by the landers’ sample arms were delivered to three experiments in hopes of detecting organic compounds and gases either consumed or released by potential microbes when they were treated with nutrient solutions. The results from both landers were similar: neither suite of experiments found any organic (carbon-containing) compounds nor any definitive signs of Mars bugs.

Not that there wasn’t some excitement. The Labeled Release experiment (LC) actually did give positive results. A nutrient solution was added to a sample of Martian soil. If it contained microbes, they would take in the nutrients and release gases. Great gobs of gas were quickly released! As if the putative Martian microbes only needed a jigger of  NASA’s chicken soup to find their strength. But the complete absence of organics in the soil made scientists doubtful that life was the cause.  Instead it was thought that some inorganic chemical reaction must be behind the release. Negative results from the other two experiments reinforced their pessimism.

Fast forward to 2008 when the Phoenix lander detected strongly oxidizing perchlorates originating from the interaction of strong ultraviolet light from the Sun with soils on the planet’s surface. Since Mars lacks an ozone layer, perchlorates may not only be common but also responsible for destroying much of Mars’ erstwhile organic bounty. Other scientists have reexamined the Viking LC data in recent years and concluded just the opposite, that the gas release points to life.
A fun, “period” movie about the Viking Mission to Mars

Seems to me it’s high time we should send a new suite of experiments designed to find life. Then again, maybe we won’t have to. The Mars 202o Mission will cache Martian rocks for later pickup, so we can bring pieces of Mars back to Earth and perform experiments to our heart’s content.

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Tutankhamun’s Meteorite Blade

The Egyptian Pyramids; instantly recognizable to almost anyone. Image: Armstrong White, CC BY 2.0

The spread of metallurgy in different civilizations is a keen point of interest for historians and archaeologists. It helps chart the rise and fall of different cultures. There are even names for the different ages corresponding to increasingly sophisticated metallurgical technologies: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.

But sometimes, a piece of evidence surfaces that doesn’t fit our understanding of a civilization.


Probably the most iconic ancient civilization in all of history is ancient Egypt. Its pyramids are instantly recognizable to almost anyone. When King Tutankhamun’s almost intact tomb was discovered in 1922, it was a treasure trove of artifacts. And though the tomb, and King Tut, are most well-known for the golden death mask, it’s another, little-known artifact that has perhaps the most intriguing story: King Tut’s iron dagger.

King Tut’s iron-bladed dagger wasn’t discovered until 1925, three years after the tomb was discovered. It was hidden in the wrappings surrounding Tut’s mummy. It’s mere existence was a puzzle, because King Tut reigned in 1332–1323 BC, 600 years before the Egyptians developed iron smelting technology.

It was long thought, but never proven, that the blade may be made of meteorite iron. In the past, tests have produced inconclusive results. But according to a new study led by Daniela Comelli, of the Polytechnic University of Milan, and published in the Journal of Meteoritics and Planetary Science, there is no doubt that a meteorite was the source of iron for the blade.

The team of scientists behind the study used a technique called x-ray fluorescence spectrometry to determine the chemical composition of the blade. This technique aims x-rays at an artifact, then determines its composition by the spectrum of colors given off. Those results were then compared with 11 other meteorites.

In the dagger’s case, the results indicated Fe plus 10.8 wt% Ni and 0.58 wt% Co. This couldn’t be a coincidence, since iron meteorites are mostly made of Fe (Iron) and Ni (Nickel), with minor quantities of Co (Cobalt), P (Phosphorus), S (Sulphur), and C (Carbon). Iron found in the Earth’s crust has almost no Ni content.

Testing of Egyptian artifacts is a tricky business. Egypt is highly protective of their archaeological resources. This study was possible only because of advances in portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, which meant the dagger didn’t have to be taken to a lab and could be tested at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.

Iron objects were rare in Egypt at that time, and were considered more valuable than gold. They were mostly decorative, probably because ancient Egyptians found iron very difficult to work. It requires a very high heat to work with, which was not possible in ancient Egypt.

Even without the ability to heat and work iron, a great deal of craftsmanship went into the blade. The dagger itself had to be hammered into shape, and it features a decorated golden handle and a rounded rock crystal knob. It’s golden sheath is decorated with a jackal’s head and a pattern of feathers and lilies.

Ancient Egyptians probably new what they were working with. They called meteorite iron from the sky in one hieroglyph. Whether they knew with absolute certainty that their iron meteorites came from the sky, and what that might have meant, they did value the iron. As the authors of the study say, “…our study confirms that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects.”

The authors go on to say, “Moreover, the high manufacturing quality of Tutankhamun’s dagger blade, in comparison with other simple-shaped meteoritic iron artifacts, suggests a significant mastery of ironworking in Tutankhamun’s time.”

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This Friday: The Moon Meets Mercury in the Dawn Sky

The waxing crescent Moon setting over Cadiz, Spain. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

So, have you been following the path of the waning Moon through the dawn sky this week? The slender Moon visits some interesting environs over the coming weekend, and heralds the start of Ramadan across the Islamic world next week.

First up, the planet Mercury rises an hour before the Sun in the dawn this week. Mercury reaches greatest elongation west of the Sun on Sunday, June 5th at 9:00 Universal Time (UT).

The slender waning crescent Moon passes less than one degree from +1.5 magnitude Mercury (both 24 degrees from the Sun) on the morning of Friday, June 3rd at 10:00 UT. While this is a close shave worldwide, the Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) Mercury for a very few observers fortunate enough to be based on the Falkland Islands in the southern Atlantic.

The Moon is 5.2% illuminated and 41 hours from New during the occultation. Meanwhile, Mercury shines at magnitude +1.5 and displays an 8.6” 33.5% illuminated disk during the event. Also, watch for ashen light or Earthshine faintly lighting up the nighttime side of the Moon. You’re seeing sunlight, bounced off of the land, sea and (mostly) cloud tops of the fat waxing gibbous Earth back on to the lunar surface, one light-second away. The Big Bear Solar Observatory has a project known as Project Earthshine which seeks to measure and understand the changes in albedo (known as global dimming) and its effects on climate change.

The Moon occults Mercury three times in 2016. Occultations of the innermost planet are especially elusive, as they nearly always occur close to the Sun under a daytime sky. This week’s occultation occurs less than 48 hours from greatest elongation; the last time one was closer time-wise was March 5th, 2008, and this won’t be topped until February 18th, 2026, with an occultation of Mercury by the Moon just 18 hours prior to greatest elongation. And speaking of which, can you spy +1.5 magnitude Mercury near the crescent Moon on Friday… during the daytime? Use binocs, note where Mercury was in relation to the Moon before sunrise, but be sure to physically block that blinding Sun behind a building or hill!

Mercury reaches greatest elongation six times in 2016: three in the dusk (western), and three in the dawn (eastern).

The Moon also passes less than five degrees from the planet Venus on June 5th at 2:00 UT, though both are only 2 degrees from the Sun. Fun fact: the bulk of the Sun actually occults Venus for 47 hours as seen from the Earth from June 6th through June 8th.

You can observe the passage of Venus through the 15 degree wide field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera over the next few weeks until July 5th.

Venus reaches superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun 1.74 astronomical units (AU) from the Earth at 21:00 UT on Monday, June 6th.

New Moon occurs at 4:00 UT on Sunday, June 5th, marking the start of lunation 1156.

The Moon and Ramadan

The first sighting of the slim crescent Moon also marks the start of the month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkey) on the Islamic calendar. Unlike the western Gregorian calendar, which is strictly solar-based, and the Jewish calendar, which seeks to reconcile lunar and solar cycles, the Islamic is solely based on the 29.5 synodic period of the Moon. This means that it moves forward on average 11 days per Gregorian year. The hallmark of Ramadan is fasting from dawn to dusk, and Ramadan 2016 is an especially harsh one, falling across the northern hemisphere summer solstice (and the longest day of the year) on June 20th. The earliest sunrise occurs on June 14th, and latest sunset on June 27th for latitude 40 degrees north. Finally, the Earth reaches aphelion or its farthest point from the Sun on July 4th at 1.01675 AU or 157.5 million kilometers distant.

In 2016, the Moon will first likely be spotted from the west coast of South America on Sunday night June 5th, though many locales worldwide may not see the Moon until June 6th. There can be some disparity as to just when Ramadan starts based on the first sighting of the crescent Moon. The Islamic calendar is also unique in that it still relies on direct observation of the waxing crescent Moon. Other calendars often use an estimated approximation in a bid to keep their timekeeping in sync with the heavens. The computus estimation (not a supervillain, though it certainly sounds like one!) used by the Catholic Church to predict the future date of Easter, for example, fixes the vernal equinox on March 21st, though it actually falls on March 20th until 2048, when it actually slips to March 19th.

Ramadan has been observed on occasion in space by Muslim astronauts, and NASA even has guidelines stipulating that observant astros will follow the same protocols as their departure point from the Earth (in the foreseeable future, that’s the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Can you see the open cluster M35, just six degrees north (right) of the thin crescent Moon on the evening of Monday, June 6th?

We think its great to see direct astronomical observation still having a hand in everyday human affairs. This also holds a special significance to us, as we’re currently traveling in Morocco.

Don’t miss the meeting of Mercury and the Moon on Friday morning, and the return of the Moon to the dusk skies next week.

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A May Full ‘Blue Moon’ on Tap For This Weekend?

Blue Moon

Brace yourselves. You are about to hear talk this week of an astronomical non-occurrence of the utmost in obscurity. We’re talking about this weekend’s Blue Moon.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t a ‘Blue Moon’ the second Full Moon of the month? How can a Blue Moon fall on the 21st? Trust me, we’re both correct… in a sense. The term ‘Blue Moon’ has taken on several meanings over the last few decades, with the ‘the second Full Moon in a calendar month containing two Full Moons’ now in vogue across ye old Internet. It seems the masses just can’t get enough of Super, Blood, Honey and Moons Black and Blue. We point to last month’s rumored ‘Green Moon‘ as evidence. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t).

No, we’re talking instead of a Blue Moon in an old-timey sense. You’ll be hard pressed to explain source of this week’s Blue Moon for sure, though it has a fascinating origin story.

The term seems to come down to us from the Maine Farmer’s Almanac, which denoted the ‘third Full Moon in an astronomical season with four as blue.’ The lunar synodic period of 29.5 days — the length of time it takes the Moon to return to a like phase, such as New to New, or Full to Full — means that on most years, there are 12 Full Moons. 29.5 times 12 comes out about 11 days short of a 365.25 day solar year at 354 days, meaning that about every three years, we have a year with 13 Full Moons.

Not a big deal, you say? Well, it assures that lunar based forms of reckoning time, such as the Muslim calendar loses 11 days relative to the Gregorian calendar every year.

Here’s how the 2016 Blue Moon breaks down:

March Equinox- March 20th 4:30 Universal Time (UT)

March Full Moon- March 23rd 12:02 UT

April Full Moon- April 22nd 5:22 UT

May Full Moon- May 21st 21:17 UT (3rd in an astronomical season, ‘blue’)

June Full Moon- June 20th 11:05 UT

June Solstice- June 20th 22:34 UT

The last time we had a season with four Full Moons was August 21st, 2013, and the next Blue Moon under this rule is May 18th, 2019.

Of course, a deeper riddle is just why the Maine Farmer’s Almanac termed this occurrence as Blue, and why they picked the 3rd of a season with 4 specifically… one legend goes that the extra anomalous Full Moon was depicted on the calendar in blue ink to stand out. We’d love to get our hands on a copy of the Old Maine Farmer’s Almanac circa late 19th early 20th century era to see if this was indeed the case. This is on our list of research projects, next time we find ourselves back in our home state of Maine.

Types of Blue Moons

We’ve chronicled the tales of Moons, both Black and Blue. Sky and Telescope also explored the role they had in introducing the modern day Blue Moon into common vernacular. We’ll admit, the ‘2nd in a month with two Full Moons’ is a much easier rule to explain!

Of course, the Moon isn’t scheduled to actually appear blue this week… that’s actually a much rarer occurrence, and the Moon doesn’t need to even be Full for this to happen. In September 23rd, 1950, the residents of the northeastern United States saw the 94% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon rise with a distinctly bluish cast, owing to the high concentration of oily soot particles suspended high in the atmosphere, scattering out red and yellow light but filtering through blue. Reports of similar Blue Moons dot observational lore, though to our knowledge, no one has actually captured an image of such a cerulean apparition of the Moon.

Is the Moon ever really Full? You can make a pretty good argument that the Moon as seen from the Earth is never truly fully illuminated, though it gets really close. Full 100% illumination would occur when the Moon is exactly opposite to the Sun, but when this occurs, the Moon also passes into the dark shadow of the Earth, during a total lunar eclipse.

Fun fact: the next ‘Blue Blood Moon’ lunar eclipse occurs on January 31st, 2018, following the ‘2nd Full Moon in a month with 2′ rule.

The May Full Moon also has the romantic name of the Full Flower, Corn Planting or Milk Moon in Algonquin Indian lore.

In 2016, the Moon continues to follow a shallow path relative to the ecliptic plane, which in turn traces out the Earth’s path around the Sun. 2015 was the bottoming out of the ‘shallow year’ known as a minor lunar standstill, and we’re now headed towards a hilly or steep year of a major lunar standstill in 2025, a time once every 19 years when the Moon rides high in the sky, adding its 5 degree inclination relative to the ecliptic plane.

Will this weekend’s olden times Blue Moon gain traction in today’s fast-paced social media news cycle? Stay tuned!

The post A May Full ‘Blue Moon’ on Tap For This Weekend? appeared first on Universe Today.

An Old Glass Plate Hints at a Potential New Exoplanet Discovery

Polluted white dwarf

What’s the value to exoplanet science of sifting through old astronomical observations? Quite a lot, as a recent discovery out of the Carnegie Institution for Science demonstrates. A glass plate spectrum of a nearby solitary white dwarf known as Van Maanen’s Star shows evidence of rocky debris ringing the system, giving rise to a state only recently recognized as a ‘polluted white dwarf.’

First, let’s set the record straight. This isn’t, as many news outlets have reported, a new exoplanet discovery per se… or even an old pre-discovery of a known world. Astronomers have yet to nab a bona fide exoplanet orbiting Van Maanen’s Star. But obviously, something interesting is going on in the system that merits closer scrutiny.

The discovery: it all started when astronomer Jay Farihi of University College London requested early plate observations of the star from the Carnegie Institute. Dating from 1917, the plate shows the bar code-looking spectrum of the star. Astronomer Walter Adams captured the image from the Mount Wilson observatory, noting on the sleeve that the ‘ordinary’ looking star (Van Maanen’s Star wasn’t identified as a white dwarf until 1923) was perhaps merely a bit hotter than our own Sun.

But to Farihi’s trained eye, something was up with Van Maanen’s star. Specifically, it was the presence of the third set of absorption lines between the standard pair that showed evidence of calcium, magnesium and iron —materials that should have long since sunk down to the dense core of the degenerate star. Somehow, these heavy — remember, to an astronomer, the periodic table consists of hydrogen, helium and ‘metals’ — were being replenished from above.

“The unexpected realization that this 1917 plate from our archive contains the earliest recorded evidence of a polluted white dwarf system is just incredible,” says Carnegie Observatory director John Mulchaey in a recent press release. “And the fact that it was made by such a prominent astronomer in our history as Walter Adams enhances the excitement.”

The very fact that this crucial bit of evidence was sitting on a plate locked away in a vault for a decade is amazing. We now know that rocky rings of debris around white dwarf stars can give rise to what’s known as polluted white dwarfs. And where there’s debris, there are often planets. As newer exoplanet hunters such as TESS, JWST, WFIRST, LSST and the Gemini Planet Imager begin to scour the skies, we wouldn’t be at all surprised if Van Maanen’s Star turned out to have planets.

The Carnegie Institute maintains a collection of 250,000 glass plates taken from the Las Campanas, Mount Wilson and Palomar observatories dating back over century. These stellar spectra were painstakingly all examined by ‘Mk-1 eyeball,’ and enabled early astronomers such as Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt to categorize stars by color and temperature and identify standard distance candles known as Cepheid variables. Both concepts are still used by astronomers today.

Finding Van Maanen’s Star

Located 14 light years distant, the high proper motion of Van Maanen’s star was first noted by Adriaan Van Maanen in 1917, the same year the plate was made. A high proper motion hints that a star is located near our solar neighborhood. Van Maanen’s Star is the third white dwarf discovered (after Sirius B and 40 Eridani B) and the third closest to our Sun (after Sirius B and Procyon B). Van Maanen’s Star also holds the distinction of being the closest solitary white dwarf to our solar system.

Located in the constellation Pisces, Van Maanen’s Star shines at magnitude +12.4. It also made our handy list of white dwarf stars for backyard telescopes.

Many false alarms of claimed exoplanet discoveries dot the history of 20th century astronomy. One of the most notorious were the claims of a planet orbiting Barnard’s Star, betrayed by supposed wobbles detected in its high proper motion. The first true modern exoplanet was actually a trio discovered orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12 in 1994. Ironically, though the exoplanet tally now sits at 2108 and counting, no known worlds have been identified around Barnard’s star.

What other future secrets do those old glass plates hold? “We have a ton of history sitting in our basement,” says Mulchaey in this month’s press release. “Who knows what other finds we might unearth in the future?”

The post An Old Glass Plate Hints at a Potential New Exoplanet Discovery appeared first on Universe Today.