When they embarked on an epic adventure, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft launched humanity on a bold new era of exploration.
National Geographic’s story detailing the Voyager missions is fantastic. Give it a read … and a listen … and a look.
Tiny skeleton from Indonesia’s Flores island is unique ancient species, insist researchers
I guess we’re learning to take any disputed news about the Homo floresiensis with a grain of salt. It seems that the many explanations offered over the years for it NOT being a new species originate with Kenneth Hsu, a geologist with no evolutionary training who happens to be a well known, oft-cited creationist, and an adovocate for non-anthropogenic climate change. He’s the author of The Great Dying, which ties the death of dinosaurs in with a refutation of survival of the fittest in blatantly unscientific ways. So of course someone like that would want to deny that a species distantly related to humans (possibly a branching off of Homo erectus) would want to work to disprove it as another species.
Ever wondered what the surface of a comet looks like? Here’s one thanks to Rosetta.
Webster Cash’s Aragoscope would allow astronomers glimpses of faraway stars and galaxies in unprecedented resolution.
This is a really cool project. The number of stars we’ve resolved is small. If all goes according to plan with this (and it gets built) we could resolve stars and event horizons of black holes. That’s pretty great.
An article I’ve been working on for months has gone live. Ready up and find out on the dangers of letting old video tapes and software just sit around collecting dust.
Who’s ready to send some subs to Titan (sometime around 2040, at least)?
Stop. Just stop. There were specific reasons the IAU reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet as opposed to a planet. This article, which keeps getting punted around the Internet as some grand new revelation: 1) fails to cite any concrete study, 2) lists reasons not exactly in line with the demarcating line between planet / dwarf planet, and 3) misrepresents some of the findings.
Let’s take apart this “article” that’s more “thought exercise” than “journalism.” Which is not to say it SHOULDN’T be written or said, but rather that it shouldn’t be misrepresented on the Internet as any formation of new facts. Which, as I’ve seen, it has been.
Poor little Pluto. In 2006 astronomers ganged up on it and voted to strip it of its planethood—but other astronomers signed a petition saying they’d ignore that vote.
Ganged up means “found at least four other objects that, while somewhat smaller, held similar characteristics to Pluto.”
Now Pluto itself seems to be fighting back. Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve learned that Pluto has at least five moons—pretty impressive for something that’s supposedly not a planet.
It’s fantastically fascinating that Pluto has five planets. It’s a record, so far as we know, for terrestrial worlds. Earth and Mars have moons. Venus and Mercury do not. But Pluto has five moons! That’s neat.
But the size of those moons is quite quant. The largest, Charon, has an estimated diameter of 1,205 km. The next largest, Hydra, drops to a diameter of 114 km. The smallest, Styx, has an estimated diameter of just 10 to 25 km. It’s slightly smaller than either Martian satellite, the probable captured asteroids Deimos and Phobos.
Now, another thing to keep in mind: the center of mass for the orbits is outside of Pluto. Charon is about half the size of Pluto, while the Moon is roughly a quarter the size of Earth. The center of mass for our system is within the mantle of the Earth. For Pluto and Charon, the center of mass is outside the either planet, rotating at a common point in the space between. The other satellites similarly orbit at the center of mass rather than AROUND Pluto. You could possibly, with some New Horizons data, make a case for a Pluto-Charon system wherein two dwarf planets rotate around each other, and the other satellites revolve around the system. A sort of icy Tatooine.
But it’s not the only dwarf planet system to have moons! Haumea, an egg shaped oddity in the distant Kuiper Belt, has two known moons.
Also, if having a moon or moons makes a dwarf or minor planet a candidate for full planetary status, consider 243 Ida. Its radius is a paltry 15 km, but it has a 1.4 km moon, Dactyl. It wouldn’t make it as a dwarf planet - it’s far too small and doesn’t achieve hydrostatic equilibrium. But it has a moon! Other small asteroids have objects in orbit around them. It’s how gravity works.
And new research suggests Pluto is just what we were taught long ago: the largest world orbiting the sun beyond Neptune.
In 2005 astronomers discovered Pluto’s greatest rival, Eris. It’s three times farther from the sun than Pluto. And Eris was thought to be bigger than Pluto, too. But that initial estimate may have been wrong.
Other astronomers have now analyzed methane in Pluto’s air. Yup, Pluto has an atmosphere—again, pretty impressive for something that’s supposedly not a planet—and the methane suggests Pluto is about 1,471 miles across, versus just 1,445 miles across for Eris. The new study appears in the journal Icarus. [Emmanuel Lellouch et al, Exploring the spatial, temporal, and vertical distribution of methane in Pluto’s atmosphere]
Largest known trans-Neptunian object, not the largest. We’ve only recently begun to accumulate evidence of trans-Neptunian objects, and have a small fraction of the likely-total catalog. While a WISE survey found no planetary mass bodies larger than Neptune in the Kuiper Belt, the possibility remains open for Mars sized bodies there, or Earth-to-Neptune sized bodies in the Oort Cloud, especially after the announcement of the dwarf planet candidate VP113, a.k.a. Biden. The dwarf planet candidate is small, just 465 km in diameter, but it hints at a possible Neptune sized body far, far out into the solar system. Possibly.
Also, the atmosphere of Pluto is a wisp of an atmosphere essentially made up of methane and water vapor. This isn’t, again, to discount the fascination with Pluto having an atmosphere, but Titan, a moon beyond debate, has a much thicker methane atmosphere.
We’ll find out its exact diameter in July 2015, when NASA’s first spacecraft to Pluto zips by. It’ll take lots of pictures, probably find more moons and hopefully tell us whether Pluto is indeed the king of the underworld—I mean, of the solar system beyond Neptune.
The exact calculations of its diameter likely wouldn’t thrust it back into planetary terrain. Pluto is still smaller than all the Galilean moons, our own moon, Titan and Neptune’s moon Triton. Triton, with a similar composition to Pluto, is likely a captured Kuiper Belt Object, much like Pluto.
New Horizons is sure to make some fascinating discoveries, giving us our first glimpses of the mysterious outer member of our solar system. It may discover an extensive mix of water and methane ice, more moons and features we couldn’t have predicted. But what it won’t discover is a world ready to be termed a “planet” again. That is in the realm of fantasists unwilling to accept the 2006 demotion.
Let Pluto be what it is: a fascinating dwarf planet that we have the opportunity to see up close in the next year, shedding light on a vast region beyond Neptune little understood.
My partner was on the radio yesterday discussing space junk, and sounding quite thoughtful and knowledgable while doing so. Give it a listen. She did quite a fantastic job.