May 29, 2012
When you drive to your local observatory to witness the Transit of Venus next Tuesday, spare a thought for the men who sought to witness the spectacle in 1761. As Andrea Wulf writes in her new book Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, in 1760, astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle asked his colleagues to participate in an international collaboration to observe the transit of Venus.
Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche, slowly making his way from France to Tobolsk, Siberia,
“endured a cold he ‘had not before experienced.’ Even inside the carriage the temperatures were so low that one day he fumbled out his thermometer with numb fingers and scrawled in his journal ‘eleven degrees below 0.’ He had to wade waist-high through sluggishly floating ice when the carriage crashed through the frozen surface that had transformed the rapid rivers into temporary roads—probably no surprise given that the instruments alone weighed more than half a ton. The hilly roads on land posed other problems as they were covered ‘from top to bottom’ with an icy glaze. Even when they put all ten horses in front of one carriage, they found they couldn’t move it. Much of the way through the mountains they had to walk, slipping and falling, and were soon covered in bruises. Sometimes strong winds blasted clouds of snow high up into the air, whipping the flakes into frozen pellets. The coachman, who was most exposed to the frosty assault, ‘could not stand it’ and ran away.”
Or this poor guy, Anders Planman, traveling from Sweden to Kajana, Finland:
“To reach Finland, he had to cross the frozen Gulf of Bothnia by sledge, but the severe winter had laid an unusually thick blanket of snow over Scandinavia. The whipping waves had congealed into a frosted picture, as if someone had snapped a finger to stop the world. In place of a smooth surface the Gulf of Bothnia was a treacherous icescape of ‘superb stalactites of a blue green colour.’ Though stunningly beautiful, it made for dangerous traveling. Sledges had to follow the hardened lines of the waves, regularly overturning when one side would suddenly be ‘raised perpendicularly in the air.’ Wrapped up in thick pelts, the passengers were often catapulted out of their sledges like furry cannonballs and the horses then galloped off, scared, as another traveler described, ‘at the sight of what they supposed to be a wolf or bear rolling on the ice.’”
Observers in North America will see the transit of Venus the evening of June 5th. You can download a free Transit of Venus phone app here.
Want some musical accompaniment? Listen to a recording of John Philip Sousa’s “Transit of Venus March,” courtesy of the Library of Congress. The piece was composed in 1883 in honor of Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
February 23, 2012
Astronomers announced this week that they’ve confirmed the existence of a new class of planet — a hot, watery, exotic “super-Earth.”
A little over two years ago, astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics discovered an exoplanet that we agreed was worth some extra attention. The planet, designated GJ 1214b, is only 2.7 times the diameter of Earth — one of the smallest exoplanets found — and orbits just over a million miles from its star (compare to Earth’s 92 million miles) in a zippy 38-hour ‘year.’
Given its size and density, astronomers speculated that GJ 1214b may very well be covered in deep oceans. The Harvard-Smithsonian team kept studying it, enlisting the Hubble Space Telescope to get more data about the planet’s atmosphere. “We’re using Hubble to measure the infrared color of sunset on this world,” said astronomer Zachory Berta in this week’s release. The data seem to confirm that GJ 1214b has a very steamy atmosphere, thick with water vapor.
Even more intriguing is that due to the temperature (being so close to its red dwarf star makes it around 450 degrees Fahrenheit) and extreme pressures, all that water gets a bit…exotic. Materials “like ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water’ – substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience” would form, according to Berta. We emailed Berta to ask if he could explain these strange materials further.
Frankly, it’s difficult for me to imagine what these exotic forms of water would be like – we have very little experience with them here on Earth. They’re simply how the molecule H2O acts when it is in high pressure and temperature environments …
Our closest point of comparison is that the outer atmosphere might be something like a hot, steamy oven that you would use to bake bread with nice crust. But as you go deeper into the planet, you would encounter these exotic forms of water. I should add, however, that there’s still an enormous uncertainty about the composition of the planet overall. Yes, the observations point to a planet that is rich in water, but what is it mixed with, and in what proportions? Really visualizing the “surface” of this planet (if there is one!) will require us figuring those things out!
But whatever the case, the temperatures are too high for liquid water as we know it to exist on GJ1214b.
We feel obligated to point out that if you’re going to google “hot ice” like we did, the first hit you get is this video; we asked Berta if that’s what he was talking about. He replied, “Sadly, I don’t think the YouTube video would be a great example. It shows water that’s saturated with sodium acetate, and the sodium acetate is crystalizing into the solid form. I’d really rather you didn’t link to it [ed note -- Sorry!], because that’s not what we think is going on.” OK, we crossed it off our “What Hot Ice Might Be Like” list.
Given the existence of water, we also asked Berta if he would “speculate wildly” on the question of life on GJ 1214b:
There’s probably no liquid water anywhere on this planet, so nope, I won’t speculate wildly about what sort of life could live there. Sorry! I can’t imagine it – the temperature would be too high for the large, complex molecules that make life possible to survive. But I will say this, which I think is an important point along the same lines:
What makes me excited about these observations is really the technique, the idea that we can use a telescope to observe the atmosphere of a very distant planet. GJ1214b is too hot for life, but it’s not too difficult for us to imagine that we could make similar observations of the atmosphere of a planet that was a little cooler in temperature than GJ1214b and could potentially host life. Microbial and plant life on Earth have dramatically altered our atmosphere over its history. If they did the same on another planet orbiting another star, observations like these of that planet’s atmosphere might then be able to tell us whether or not there is life elsewhere in our galaxy.
February 10, 2012
As we continue to explore our world, our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand exactly how massively big it is…and how tiny we are in comparison. Most of us will never travel to space — much less to far reaches outside our solar system — and get the chance to stick it all inside our visual cortex to put it in perspective.
Our efforts to send people to the moon seemed to cause an existential crisis regarding our place in the universe, and in 1968 two exceptional short films were produced in response. Cosmic Zoom was one of the first valiant tries to make the size of things knowable. Many of you might have seen this Canadian-produced movie in school, watching as it zoomed from a boy rowing his canoe out, out, out to the edges of our (then) knowable universe and back again. The American film Powers of Ten was the other big hit that year, starting in a park on a summer day and stepping back at, well, powers of ten.
Another high-quality visualization, the Interactive Scale of the Universe Tool, was made just a couple years ago. It uses a bar you can drag from yocotometers to yottometers (and if those two words are the coolest thing you learn today, we don’t blame you).
We got to thinking about these scaling attempts when we stumbled upon the most recent version. The Known Universe, produced by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is essentially a 21st-century upgrade to Cosmic Zoom. The graphics are from scientific data pulled from their Digital Universe Atlas, a project they’ve maintained with the Hayden Planetarium for the last decade. The video is part of an exhibit, Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe, that runs at AMNH through May 10.
Update: One of our colleagues reminded us of another interactive visualization by the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies that allows you to compare astronomical objects to relatable every day objects, like basketballs and baseballs, and even overlay distances onto Google Maps.
February 2, 2012
We promise not to post every single one of the videos the astronauts shoot from the International Space Station, but they’ve been capturing some nice scenes lately in High-Definition, including this trip up the East Coast of the United States.
And, of course, this beautiful moonset, which was filmed over the North Atlantic ocean on January 9. The video is sped up: the sequence covers 10 minutes as the station orbited from northeast of the Caribbean to just west of Europe.
Click on the image to watch the video.
January 26, 2012
Despite being the strongest solar storm since 2005, this week’s flareup appears to have caused few disruptions on Earth. (As Space.com reports, the Coronal Mass Ejection “hit Earth at an angle, so the electromagnetic burst was largely shielded by the planet’s magnetic field.”)
But the storm did lead some airlines—including Delta, Qantas, and Air Canada—to alter their transpolar routes to reduce potential disruptions to high-frequency radio communication along the way. At least one Qantas flight, reports AvWeb, carried an extra five tons of fuel in order to fly a less southerly route.
We may have gotten off easy. The remarkable electrical effects of solar storms have been recorded in newspapers since British astronomer Richard Carrington noticed a solar eruption in 1859 while sketching sun spots seen through his telescope. Just days later, the northern lights—seen as far south as Cuba—damaged telegraph systems, even setting offices on fire and melting wires. On August 30, 1859, the New York Times included this observation from the superintendent of the Canadian Telegraph Company:
I never, in my experience of fifteen years in the working of telegraph lines, witnessed anything like the extraordinary effect of the Aurora Borealis, between Quebec and Further Point last night. The line was in most perfect order, and well-skilled operators worked incessantly from 8 o’clock last evening till 1 o’clock this morning, to get over in even a tolerably intelligent form about four hundred words of the steamer Indian‘s report for the Associated Press, and at the latter hour so completely were the wires under the influence of the Aurora Borealis, it was found utterly impossible to communicate between the telegraph stations, and the line was closed for the night.
Another solar storm, nearly as strong as what has come to be known as the Carrington event, occurred in 1921. On May 16, 1921, the Los Angeles Times reported that “electrical influences exerted by the Aurora Borealis…continued today to play havoc with telegraph traffic throughout the United States…. For more than an hour before midnight Saturday nearly every telephone wire leading from New York and Chicago was out of condition.”
The New-York Tribune hoped to calm its readers by noting that the sun would soon “turn [its] spotted face away and end earthly wire troubles,” while the New York Times reported disturbances in France: “The operators at the central transmission stations came to the conclusion that a strange force had got into their instruments, for nothing would go right. Morse instruments, instead of making dots and dashes, recorded one long line. Hughes instruments produced words in what might have been an unknown language, and Baudot, of which French telegraphers are proud because it is very intricate, seemed possessed by evil spirits.”
Newcomb Carlton, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “The magnetic disturbances were much the worst ever experienced. A great many fuses were blown out on our land lines and we had great difficulty with the submarine cables.” The story also reports that the solar storm burned out a telephone station in Sweden, which then contributed to a short circuit in the New York Central signal system, which was followed by a fire in the Fifty-seventh Street signal tower.
In 1989, the Washington Post reported on December 18 that a solar storm—or “titanic temper tantrum”—set off radiation alarms aboard the supersonic Concorde in flight, damaged orbiting satellites, and caused a nine-hour power blackout in most of Canada’s Quebec province.
In comparison, Space.com reports, this week’s solar flare caused “minor disruptions to spacecraft and power grids.”
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