Pluto’s Moon Hydra

In 1930, Pluto was observed for the first time. For many decades, astronomers thought that the “ninth planet of the Solar System” was a solitary object. But by 1978, astronomers discovered that it also had a moon roughly half its size. This moon would come to be known as Charon, and it would be the first of many discoveries made within the Pluto’s system.

In fact, within the last decade, four additional satellites have been discovered in orbit of Pluto. Of these, the outermost to be observed is the moon now known as Hydra.

Hydra was first discovered in June 2005 by the Hubble Space Telescope‘s “Pluto Companion Search Team”, using images that were taken on May 15th and 18th of that year. At the time, the team was preparing for the launch of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, seeking to gain as much information as they could about any addition Plutonian moons.

By June, Hydra was again discovered. This time, it was independently observed by two members of the team, along with Nix –  another small Plutonian moon. The discoveries were announced on October 31st, 2005, and were provisionally given the designations of S/2005 P 1 and S/2005 P 2 (for Hydra and Nix, respectively).

This illustration shows the scale and comparative brightness of Pluto’s small satellites. The surface craters are for illustration only and are not real. Credits: NASA/ESA/A. Feild (STScI)
Artist’s illustration comparing the scale and comparative brightness of Pluto’s small satellites.
Credits: NASA/ESA/A. Feild (STScI)

By June 21st, 2006, the name Hydra was assigned by the IAU (along with the formal designation Pluto III). The name Hydra, which is derived from the nine-headed serpent of Greek mythology, was selected for two reasons. The letter H refers to the Hubble Telescope, which was used to make the discovery, while the nine-headed serpent referred to Pluto’s tenure as the ninth planet of the Solar System.

Size, Mass and Orbit:
Although its size has not been directly measured, calculations based on its brightness have indicated that Hydra’s diameter is between 40 and 160 kilometers (38 and 104 mi). Similar measurements estimate its mass to be in the vicinity of 4.2 x 1017 kg. Because of the uncertainty in these measurements, Hydra is either comparable in size to either the main moons of Saturn and Neptune, or the inner and irregular moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus.

Hydra orbits Pluto at a distance of about 65,000 km with a very low eccentricity (0.0059) and an orbital inclination of about 0.24°. It orbits in the same plane as Charon and Nix and has an orbital period of 38.2 days.

Little is known about Hydra’s composition, and its density and albedo are both currently unknown. However, it is believed that if its diameter is towards the lower end of its estimated range (40 km), then it must have a geometric albedo similar to Charons (35%).

Labeled image of Hydra released upon IAU name approval. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble
Labeled image of Hydra released upon IAU name approval. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

However, assuming it is at the higher end of that range, it would likely have a reflectivity of about 4%, like the darkest Kuiper belt objects. Like all outer bodies in the outer Solar System, and its host planet Pluto, it is possible that Hydra’s composition is differentiated into a rocky core and an icy mantle that contains nitrogen and methane in ice form.

At the time of its discovery, Hydra appeared to be brighter than Nix. Observations made with the Hubble Telescope in 2005–06, which specifically targeting the two moons, once again confirmed that Hydra is the brighter of the two. Hydra appears to be spectrally neutral like Charon and Nix (i.e. greyish), whereas Pluto is reddish.

Interesting Facts:
Hydra, not being massive enough to form a spheroid under its own gravity, is believed to be oblong in shape – the same holds true for Pluto’s moon of Nix. As with the rest of the Pluto system, Hydra was imaged by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in February of 2015. When New Horizons conducts its flyby at 7:49:57 a.m. EDT, July 14, 2015, it will provide the most detailed images of Hydra and the Pluto system to date.

We have several interesting articles on Pluto’s moon of Hydra. Here’s one on the First New Images of Pluto from New Horizons, and New Horizons Now Close Enough to See Pluto’s Smaller Moons.

For more information on the constellation of Hydra, click here. For more information on New Horizons mission to Hydra, click here.

Is There Life on Pluto?

First discovered in 1930, Pluto was considered to be the ninth planet in our Solar System for many decades. And though its status has since been downgraded to that of a dwarf planet, thanks to the discovery of Eris in 2004, Pluto continues to fascinate and intrigue astronomers.

And with the New Horizons mission fast approaching the planet, astronomers are eagerly anticipating the return of photographs and data that will help them answer some burning questions they have about this celestial body – not the least of which is whether or not it supports life!

Surface Conditions:
To be fair, there is virtually no chance that Pluto has life living on its surface. For starters, it orbits our Sun at extreme distances, ranging from 29.657 AU (4,437,000,000 km) at perihelion to 48.871 AU (7,311,000,000 km) at aphelion. At this distance, surface temperatures can reach as low as 33 K (-240 °C or -400 °F).

Not only does water freeze solid at these temperatures, but other liquids and gases that are present on Pluto’s surface – such as methane (CH4), nitrogen gas (N²), and carbon monoxide (CO) – also freeze solid. These compounds have much lower freezing points than water, and so the chance of life surviving under these conditions is slim to nil.

An artist’s concept of frosty Pluto. Credit: ESO/ L. Calçada
An artist’s concept of frosty Pluto. Credit: ESO/ L. Calçada

And while Pluto has a thin atmosphere, it consists mainly of nitrogen gas, methane and carbon monoxide, which exist in equilibrium with their ices on the surface. At the same time, the surface pressure ranges from s from 6.5 to 24 ?bar (0.65 to 2.4 Pa), which is roughly one million to 100,000 times less than Earth’s atmospheric pressure.

This atmosphere also undergoes transitions as Pluto gets closer and farther away from the Sun. Basically, when Pluto is at perihelion, the atmosphere freezes solid; when it is at aphelion, the surface temperature increases, causing the ices to sublimate.

As such, there is simply no way life could survive on the surface of Pluto. Between the extreme cold, low atmospheric pressure, and constant changes in the atmosphere, no known organism could survive. However, that does not rule out the possibility of life being found inside the planet.

Like many moons and smaller planetoids in the Outer Solar System, scientists believe that Pluto’s internal structure is differentiated, with rocky material having settled into a dense core surrounded by a mantle of ice. The diameter of the core is believed to be approximately 1700 km (accounting for 70% of Pluto’s diameter), whereas the ice layer is estimated to be 100 to 180 km thick at the core-mantle boundary.

The Theoretical structure of Pluto, consisting of 1. Frozen nitrogen 2. Water ice 3. Rock. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings
The Theoretical structure of Pluto, consisting of 1. Frozen nitrogen 2. Water ice 3. Rock. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

Because the decay of radioactive elements would eventually heat the ices enough for the rock to separate from them, it is possible Pluto has a liquid water ocean beneath its mantle. In 2011, planetary scientists Guillaume Robuchon and Francis Nimmo of the University of California at Santa Cruz modeled the thermal evolution of Pluto and studied the behavior of the shell to see how the surface would be affected by the presence of an ocean below.

What they determined was that the surface of Pluto would be covered by surface fractures that span the globe, owning to changes in the temperature, tensional stresses and compressional stresses of the liquid ocean below. Though no visual data exists to support the existence of such surface features, the New Horizons mission is scheduled to be providing photographic evidence of the surface shortly.

Future Possibilities:
Another possibility is that in time, conditions will change that might allow for life to exist on Pluto. While Pluto sits well beyond our Sun’s habitable zone, both the size of our Sun, and the reach of that zone, will be subject to change. In the distant future – roughly 5.4 billion years from now – our Sun will expand into a red giant, increasing the amount of energy it gives off for a period of several million of years.

Once the core hydrogen is exhausted in 5.4 billion years, the Sun will expand into a subgiant phase and slowly double in size over about half a billion years. As it expands in size, it will consume the inner planets (including the Earth), and the habitable zone will move to the outer Solar System. Even before it becomes a red giant, the luminosity of the Sun will have nearly doubled, and Earth will be hotter than Venus is today.

This is an artist's concept of a craggy piece of solar system debris that belongs to a class of bodies called trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). Credit: NASA
This is an artist’s concept of a craggy piece of solar system debris that belongs to a class of bodies called trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). Credit: NASA

It will then expand more rapidly over about half a billion years until it is over two hundred times larger than it is today, and a couple of thousand times more luminous. This then starts the red-giant-branch (RGB) phase which will last around a billion years, during which time the the Sun will lose around a third of its mass.

During that time, many objects in the Kuiper Belt will warm up significantly, which will include Pluto, Eris, and countless other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs).

However, given the composition of these bodies, and the relatively short window in which they will be warmer and wetter, it is not likely that life will evolve from scratch. Instead, we would probably have to transport it there from Earth, assuming humanity is still living, and seed Pluto and other surviving bodies with vegetation and terrestrial organisms.

In short, the best answer to the question – is there life on Pluto? – is a resounding maybe. Another possible answer is maybe not, with the caveat that there may indeed be life there someday (i.e. us, if we’re still around). In the meantime, all we can do is wait for data to begin coming in from New Horizons, and scan it for the telltale signs that life is indeed there right now!

We have many interesting articles about Pluto here at Universe Today. For example, here are some Interesting Facts About Pluto, How Big is Pluto, and How Long Does it Take to Get to Pluto, and Why Pluto is No Longer Considered a Planet.

To learn more, go to NASA’s New Horizons mission home page. And be sure to check out these latest images of Pluto.

What is the Pacific “Ring of Fire”?

What if someone were to tell you that there’s a region in the world where roughly 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur. What if they were to tell you that this region is also home to over 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes, and all but 3 of the world’s 25 largest eruptions in the last 11,700 years took place here.

Chances are, you’d think twice about buying real-estate there. But strangely enough, hundreds of millions of people live in this area, and some of the most densely-packed cities in the world have been built atop its shaky faults. We are talking about the Pacific Ring of Fire, a geologically and volcanically active region that stretches from one side of the Pacific to the other.


Also known as the circum-Pacific belt, the “Ring of Fire” is a 40,000 km (25,000 mile) horseshoe-shaped basin that is associated with a nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs, and volcanic belts and/or plate movements. This ring accounts for 452 volcanoes (active and dormant), stretching from the southern tip of South America, up along the coast of North America, across the Bering Strait, down through Japan, and into New Zealand – with several active and dormant volcanoes in Antarctica closing the ring.

Tectonic Activity:

The Ring of Fire is the direct result of plate tectonics and the movement and collisions of lithospheric plates. These plates, which constitute the outer layer of the planet, are constantly in motion atop the mantle. Sometimes they collide, pull apart, or slide alongside each other; resulting in convergent boundaries, divergent boundaries, and transform boundaries.

The Pacific Ring of Fire, a string of volcanic regions extending from the South Pacific to South America. Credit: Public Domain
The Pacific Ring of Fire, a string of volcanic regions extending from the South Pacific to South America. Credit: Public Domain

In the case of the former, subduction zones are often the result, where the heavier plate slips under the lighter plate – forming a deep trench. This subduction changes the dense mantle into buoyant magma, which rises through the crust to the Earth’s surface. Over millions of years, this rising magma creates a series of active volcanoes known as a volcanic arc.

These ocean trenches and volcanic arcs run parallel to one another. For instance, the Aleutian Islands in the U.S. state of Alaska run parallel to the Aleutian Trench. Both geographic features continue to form as the Pacific Plate subducts beneath the North American Plate. Meanwhile, the Andes Mountains of South America run parallel to the Peru-Chile Trench, created as the Nazca Plate subducts beneath the South American Plate.

In the case of divergent boundaries, these are formed when tectonic plates pull apart, forming rift valleys on the seafloor. When this happens, magma wells up in the rift as the old crust pulls itself in opposite directions, where it is cooled by seawater to form new crust. This upward movement and eventual cooling of this magma has created high ridges on the ocean floor over millions of years.

The East Pacific Rise is a site of major seafloor spreading in the Ring of Fire, located on the divergent boundary of the Pacific Plate and the Cocos Plate (west of Central America), the Nazca Plate (west of South America), and the Antarctic Plate. The largest known group of volcanoes on Earth is found underwater along the portion of the East Pacific Rise between the coasts of northern Chile and southern Peru.

Transform Plate Boundary
The different type of tectonic plate boundaries. Credit:

A transform boundary is formed when tectonic plates slide horizontally and parts get stuck at points of contact. Stress builds in these areas as the rest of the plates continue to move, which causes the rock to break or slip, suddenly lurching the plates forward and causing earthquakes. These areas of breakage or slippage are called faults, and the majority of Earth’s faults can be found along transform boundaries in the Ring of Fire.

The San Andreas Fault, stretching along the central west coast of North America, is one of the most active faults on the Ring of Fire. It lies on the transform boundary between the North American Plate, which is moving south, and the Pacific Plate, which is moving north. Measuring about 1,287 kilometers (800 miles) long and 16 kilometers (10 miles) deep, the fault cuts through the western part of the U.S. state of California.

Plate Boundaries:

The eastern section of the Ring of Fire is the result of the Nazca Plate and the Cocos Plate being subducted beneath the westward moving South American Plate. Meanwhile, the Cocos Plate is being subducted beneath the Caribbean Plate, in Central America. A portion of the Pacific Plate along with the small Juan de Fuca Plate are being subducted beneath the North American Plate.

Along the northern portion, the northwestward-moving Pacific plate is being subducted beneath the Aleutian Islands arc. Farther west, the Pacific plate is being subducted along the Kamchatka Peninsula arcs on south past Japan.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit:
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit:

The southern portion is more complex, with a number of smaller tectonic plates in collision with the Pacific plate from the Mariana Islands, the Philippines, Bougainville, Tonga, and New Zealand. This portion excludes Australia, since it lies in the center of its tectonic plate.

Indonesia lies between the Ring of Fire along the northeastern islands adjacent to and including New Guinea and the Alpide belt along the south and west from Sumatra, Java, Bali, Flores, and Timor. The famous and very active San Andreas Fault zone of California is a transform fault which offsets a portion of the East Pacific Rise under southwestern United States and Mexico.

Volcanic Activity:

Most of the active volcanoes on The Ring of Fire are found on its western edge, from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, through the islands of Japan and Southeast Asia, to New Zealand. Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand is one of the more active volcanoes in the Ring of Fire, with yearly minor eruptions, and major eruptions occurring about every 50 years.

Krakatau, perhaps better known as Krakatoa, is an island volcano in Indonesia. Krakatoa erupts less often than Mount Ruapehu, but much more spectacularly. Beneath Krakatoa, the denser Australian Plate is being subducted beneath the Eurasian Plate. An infamous eruption in 1883 destroyed the entire island, sending volcanic gas, volcanic ash, and rocks as high as 80 kilometers (50 miles) in the air. A new island volcano, Anak Krakatau, has been forming with minor eruptions ever since.

Mount Fuji, Japan
Mount Fuji, Japan, as seen from the ISS. Credit: NASA

Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest and most famous mountain, is an active volcano in the Ring of Fire. Mount Fuji last erupted in 1707, but recent earthquake activity in eastern Japan may have put the volcano in a “critical state.” Mount Fuji sits at a “triple junction,” where three tectonic plates (the Amur Plate, Okhotsk Plate, and Philippine Plate) interact.

The Ring of Fire’s eastern half also has a number of active volcanic areas, including the Aleutian Islands, the Cascade Mountains in the western U.S., the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, and the Andes Mountains. Mount St. Helens, in the U.S. state of Washington, is an active volcano in the Cascade Mountains.

Below Mount St. Helens, both the Juan de Fuca and Pacific plates are being subducted beneath the North American Plate. Its historic 1980 eruption lasted 9 hours and covered 11 U.S. states with tons of volcanic ash. The eruption caused the deaths of 57 people, over a billion dollars in property damage, and reduced hundreds of square miles to wasteland.

Popocatépetl is one of the most active and dangerous volcanoes in the Ring of Fire, with 15 recorded eruptions since 1519.  The volcano lies on the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which is the result of the small Cocos Plate subducting beneath the North American Plate. Located close to the urban areas of Mexico City and Puebla, Popocatépetl poses a risk to the more than 20 million people that live close enough to be threatened by a destructive eruption.

Map of the Earth showing fault lines (blue) and zones of volcanic activity (red). Credit:
Map of the Earth showing the relation between fault lines (blue) and zones of volcanic activity (red). Credit:


Scientists have known for some time that the majority of the seismic activity occurs along plate boundaries. Hence why roughly 90% of the world’s earthquakes – which is estimated to be around 500,000 a year, one-fifth of which are detectable – occur around the Pacific Rim, where multiple plate boundaries exist.

As a result, earthquakes are a regular occurrence in places like Japan, Indonesia and New Zealand in Asia and the South Pacific; Alaska, British Columbia, California and Mexico in North America; and El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru and Chile in Central and South America. Where fault lines run beneath the ocean, larger earthquakes in these regions also trigger tsunamis.

The most well-known tsumanis to take place in the Ring of Fire include the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This was the most devastating tsunami of its kind in modern times, killing around 230,000 people and laying waste to communities throughout Indonesia, Thailand, and Southern Asia.

In 2010, an earthquake triggered a tsunami which caused 4334 confirmed deaths and devastating several coastal towns in south-central Chile, including the port at Talcahuano. The earthquake also generated a blackout that affected 93 percent of the Chilean population.

In 2011, an earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku led to a tsunami that struck Japan and led to 5,891 deaths, 6,152 injuries, and 2,584 people to be declared missing across twenty prefectures. The tsunami also caused meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex.

The Ring of Fire is a crucial region for many reasons. It serves as one of the main boundary regions for the tectonic plates of over half of the globe. It also affects the lives of millions if not billions of people who live in these regions. For many of the people who live in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the reality of a volcanic eruption or earthquake is commonplace and a challenge they have come to deal with over time.

At the same time, the volcanic activity has also provided many valuable resources, such as rich farmland and the possibility of tapping geothermal activity for heating and electricity. As always, nature gives with one hand and takes with the other!

If you have enjoyed this article there are several others on Universe Today that you will find interesting. Here is one called 10 Interesting Facts About Volcanoes. There is also a great article about plate tectonics.

You can also find some good resources online. There is a companion site for the PBS program Savage Earth that talks about the Ring of Fire. You can also check out the USGS site to see a detailed map of the Pacific Ring of Fire and more detailed information about plate tectonics.

You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 141 talks about volcanoes.

Why Can’t We See the Center of the Milky Way?

For millennia, human beings have stared up at the night sky and stood in awe of the Milky Way. Today, stargazers and amateur astronomers continue in this tradition, knowing that what they are witnessing is in fact a collection of hundreds of millions of stars and dust clouds, not to mention billions of other worlds.

But one has to wonder, if we can see the glowing band of the Milky Way, why can’t we see what lies towards the center of our galaxy? Assuming we are looking in the right direction, shouldn’t we able to see that big, bright bulge of stars with the naked eye? You know the one I mean, it’s in all the pictures!

Unfortunately, in answering this question, a number of reality checks have to be made. When it is dark enough, and conditions are clear, the dusty ring of the Milky Way can certainly be discerned in the night sky. However, we can still only see about 6,000 light years into the disk with the naked eye, and relying on the visible spectrum. Here’s a rundown on why that is.

Size and Structure:

First of all, the sheer size of our galaxy is enough to boggle the mind. NASA estimates that the Milky Way is between 100,000 – 120,000 light-years in diameter – though some information suggests it may be as much as 150,000 – 180,000 light-years across. Since one light year is about 9.5 x 1012km, this makes the diameter of the Milky Way galaxy approximately 9.5 x 1017 – 1.14 x 1018 km in diameter.

To put that in layman’s terms, that 950 quadrillion (590 quadrillion miles) to 1.14 quintillion km (7oo septendecillion miles). The Milky Way is also estimated to contain 100–400 billion stars, (although that could be as high as one trillion), and may have as many as 100 billion planets.

At the center, measuring approx. 10,000 light-years in diameter, is the tightly-packed group of stars known as the “bulge”. At the very center of this bulge is an intense radio source, named Sagittarius A*, which is likely to be a supermassive black hole that contains 4.1 million times the mass of our Sun.

We, in our humble Solar System, are roughly 28,000 light years away from it. In short, this region is simply too far for us to see with the naked eye. However, there is more to it than just that…

Radio image of the night sky. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, generated by Glyn Haslam.

Low Surface Brightness:

In addition to being a spiral barred galaxy, the Milky Way is what is known as a Low Surface Brightness (LSB) galaxy –  a classification that refers to galaxies where their surface brightness is, when viewed from Earth, at least one magnitude lower than the ambient night sky. Essentially, this means that the sky needs to be darker than about 20.2 magnitude per square arcsecond in order for the Milky Way to be seen.

This makes the Milky Way difficult to see from any location on Earth where light pollution is common – such as urban or suburban locations – or when stray light from the Moon is a factor. But even when conditions are optimal, there still only so much we can see with the naked eye, for reasons that have much to do with everything that lies between us and the galactic core.

Dust and Gas:

Though it may not look like it to the casual observer, the Milky Way is full of dust and gas. This matter is known as as the interstellar medium, a disc that makes up a whopping 10-15% of the luminous/visible matter in our galaxy and fills the long spaces in between the stars. The thickness of the dust deflects visible light (as is explained here), leaving only infrared light to pass through the dust.

"This dazzling infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This dazzling infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope showing hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This makes infrared telescopes like the Spitzer Space Telescope extremely valuable tools in mapping and studying the galaxy, since it can peer through the dust and haze to give us extraordinarily clear views of what is going on at the heart of the galaxy and in star-forming regions. However, when looking in the visual spectrum, light from Earth, and the interference effect of dust and gas limit how far we can see.

Limited Instrumentation:

Astronomers have been staring up at the stars for thousands of years. However, it was only in comparatively recent times that they even knew what they were looking at. For instance, in his book Meteorologica, Aristotle (384–322 BC) wrote that the Greek philosophers Anaxagoras (ca. 500–428 BCE) and Democritus (460–370 BCE) had proposed that the Milky Way might consist of distant stars.

However, Aristotle himself believed the Milky Way was be caused by “the ignition of the fiery exhalation of some stars which were large, numerous and close together” and that these ignitions takes place in the upper part of the atmosphere. Like many of Aristotle’s theories, this would remain canon for western scholars until the 16th and 17th centuries, at which time, modern astronomy would begin to take root.

Meanwhile, in the Islamic world, many medieval scholars took a different view. For example, Persian astronomer Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1048) proposed that the Milky Way is “a collection of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars”. Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya (1292–1350) of Damascus similarly proposed that the Milky Way is “a myriad of tiny stars packed together in the sphere of the fixed stars” and that these stars are larger than planets.

Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) also claimed in his book Tadhkira that: “The Milky Way, i.e. the Galaxy, is made up of a very large number of small, tightly clustered stars, which, on account of their concentration and smallness, seem to be cloudy patches. Because of this, it was likened to milk in color.”

Despite these theoretical breakthroughs, it was not until 1610, when Galileo Galilei turned his telescope towards the heavens, that proof existed to back up these claims. With the help of telescopes, astronomers realized for the first time that there were many, many more stars in the sky than the ones we can see, and that all of the ones that we can see are a part of the Milky Way.

Over a century later, William Herschel created the first theoretical diagram of what the Milky Way (1785) looked like. In it, he described the shape of the Milky Way as a large, cloud-like collection of stars, and claimed the Solar System was close to the center. Though erroneous, this was the first attempt at hypothesizing what our cosmic backyard looked like.

It was not until the 20th century that astronomers were able to get an accurate picture of what our Galaxy actually looks like. This began with astronomer Harlow Shapely measuring the distributions and locations of globular star clusters. From this, he determined that the center of the Milky Way was 28,000 light years from Earth, and that the center was a bulge, rather than a flat area.

This annotated artist's conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA
This annotated artist’s conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA

In 1923, astronomer Edwin Hubble used the largest telescope of his day at the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, Calif., to observe galaxies beyond our own. By observing what spiral galaxies look like throughout the universe, astronomers and scientists were able to get an idea of what our own looks like.

Since that time, the ability to observe our galaxy through multiple wavelengths (i.e. radio waves, infrared, x-rays, gamma-rays) and not just the visible spectrum has helped us to get an even better picture. In addition, the development of space telescopes – such as Hubble, Spitzer, WISE, and Kepler – have been instrumental in allowing us to make observations that are not subject to interference from our atmosphere or meteorological conditions.

But despite our best efforts, we are still limited by a combination of perspective, size, and visibility barriers. So far, all pictures that depict our galaxy are either artist’s renditions or pictures of other spiral galaxies. Until quite recently in our history, it was very difficult for scientists to gauge what the Milky Way looks like, mainly because we’re embedded inside it.

To get an actual view of the Milky Way Galaxy, several things would need to happen. First, we would need a camera that worked in space that had a wide field of view (aka. Hubble, Spitzer, etc). Then we’d need to fly that camera to a spot that’s roughly 100,000 light years above the Milky Way and point it back at Earth. With our current propulsion technology, that would take 2.2 billion years to accomplish.

Milky Way in infrared. Image credit: COBE
Milky Way in infrared. Image credit: COBE

Fortunately, as noted already, astronomers have a few additional wavelengths they can use to see into the galaxy, and these are making much more of the galaxy visible. In addition to seeing more stars and more star clusters, we’re able to see more of the center of our Galaxy as well, which includes the supermassive black hole that has been theorized as existing there.

For some time, astronomers have had name for the region of sky that is obscured by the Milky Way – the “Zone of Avoidance“. Back in the days when astronomers could only make visual observations, the Zone of Avoidance took up about 20% of the night sky. But by observing in other wavelengths, like infrared, x-ray, gamma rays, and especially radio waves, astronomers can see all but about 10% of the sky. What’s on the other side of that 10% is mostly a mystery.

In short, progress is being made. But until such time that we can send a ship beyond our Galaxy that can take snapshots and beam them back to us, all within the space of our own lifetimes, we’ll be dependent on what we can observe from the inside.

We have many interesting articles on the Milky Way here at Universe Today. For example, here’s What is the Milky Way? And here’s an article on why it’s called The Milky Way, how big it is, why it rotates, and what the closest galaxy is to it.

And here are 10 Facts About the Milky Way. And be sure to check out our Guide to Space section on the Milky Way.

And be to sure to check out Universe Today’s interview with Dr. Andrea Ghez, Professor of Astronomy at UCLA, talking about what is at the center of our Galaxy.

What Causes Lightning?

Thunder and lightning. When it comes to the forces of nature, few other things have inspired as much fear, reverence, or fascination – not to mention legends, mythos, and religious representations. As with all things in the natural world, what was originally seen as a act by the Gods (or other supernatural causes) has since come to be recognized as a natural phenomena.

But despite all that human beings have learned over the centuries, a degree of mystery remains when it comes to lightning. Experiments have been conducted since the time of Benjamin Franklin; however, we are still heavily reliant on theories as to how lighting behaves.

By definition, lightning is a sudden electrostatic discharge during an electrical storm. This discharge allows charged regions in the atmosphere to temporarily equalize themselves, when they strike an object on the ground. Although lightning is always accompanied by the sound of thunder, distant lightning may be seen but be too far away for the thunder to be heard.

Lightning can take one of three forms, which are defined by what is at the “end” of the branch channel (i.e. lightning bolt). For example, there is intra-cloud lighting (IC), which takes place between electrically charged regions of a cloud; cloud-to-cloud (CC) lighting, where it occurs between one functional thundercloud and another; and cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning, which primarily originates in the thundercloud and terminates on an Earth surface (but may also occur in the reverse direction).

Multiple paths of cloud-to-cloud lightning, Swifts Creek, Australia.. Credit: fir0002/
Multiple paths of cloud-to-cloud lightning, Swifts Creek, Australia.. Credit: fir0002/

Intra-cloud lightning most commonly occurs between the upper (or “anvil”) portion and lower reaches of a given thunderstorm. In such instances, the observer may see only a flash of light without hearing any thunder. The term “heat-lightning” is often applied here, due to the association between locally experienced warmth and the distant lightning flashes.

In the case of cloud-to-cloud lightning, the charge typically originates from beneath or within the anvil and scrambles through the upper cloud layers of a thunderstorm, normally generating a lightning bolt with multiple branches.

Cloud-to-ground (CG) is the best known type of lightning, though it is the third-most common – accounting for approximately 25% cases worldwide. In this case, the lightning takes the form of a discharge between a thundercloud and the ground, and is usually negative in polarity and initiated by a stepped branch moving down from the cloud.

CG lightning is the best known because, unlike other forms of lightning, it terminates on a physical object (most often the Earth), and therefore lends itself to being measured by instruments. In addition, it poses the greatest threat to life and property, so understanding its behavior is seen as a necessity.

 Frequency of lightning strikes throughout the world, based on data from NASA. Credit: Wikipedia/Citynoise
Frequency of lightning strikes throughout the world, based on data from NASA. Credit: Wikipedia/Citynoise

Lighting originates when wind updrafts and downdrafts take place in the atmosphere, creating a charging mechanism that separates electric charges in clouds – leaving negative charges at the bottom and positive charges at the top. As the charge at the bottom of the cloud keeps growing, the potential difference between cloud and ground, which is positively charged, grows as well.

When a breakdown at the bottom of the cloud creates a pocket of positive charge, an electrostatic discharge channel forms and begins traveling downwards in steps tens of meters in length. In the case of IC or CC lightning, this channel is then drawn to other pockets of positive charges regions. In the case of CG strikes, the stepped leader is attracted to the positively charged ground.

Many factors affect the frequency, distribution, strength and physical properties of a “typical” lightning flash in a particular region of the world. These include ground elevation, latitude, prevailing wind currents, relative humidity, proximity to warm and cold bodies of water, etc. To a certain degree, the ratio between IC, CC and CG lightning may also vary by season in middle latitudes.

About 70% of lightning occurs over land in the tropics where atmospheric convection is the greatest. This occurs from both the mixture of warmer and colder air masses, as well as differences in moisture concentrations, and it generally happens at the boundaries between them. In the tropics, where the freezing level is generally higher in the atmosphere, only 10% of lightning flashes are CG. At the latitude of Norway (around 60° North latitude), where the freezing elevation is lower, 50% of lightning is CG.

Lightning strikes captured from space above Rome in 2012. Credit: ESA/NASA/André Kuipers
A series of lightning strikes imaged by the Nightpod camera aboard the ISS above Rome in 2012. Credit: ESA/NASA/André Kuipers

In general, lightning has three measurable effects on the surrounding environment. First, there is the direct effect of a lightning strike itself, in which structural damage or even physical harm can result. When lighting strikes a tree, it vaporizes sap, which can result in the trunk exploding or a large branches snapping off and falling to the ground.

When lightning strikes sand, soil surrounding the plasma channel may melt, forming tubular structures called fulgurites. Buildings or tall structures hit by lightning may be damaged as the lightning seeks unintended paths to ground. And though roughly 90% of people struck by lightning survive, humans or animals struck by lightning may suffer severe injury due to internal organ and nervous system damage.

Thunder is also a direct result of electrostatic discharge. Because the plasma channel superheats the air in its immediate vicinity, the gaseous molecules undergo a rapid increase in pressure and thus expand outward from the lightning creating an audible shock wave (aka. thunder). Since the sound waves propagate not from a single source, but along the length of the lightning’s path, the origin’s varying distances can generate a rolling or rumbling effect.

High-energy radiation also results from a lightning strike. These include x-rays and gamma rays, which have been confirmed through observations using electric field and X-ray detectors, and space-based telescopes.

A fulgerite formed in sand y Credit:
A fulgerite formed in sandy patch as a result of a lightning strike. Credit:

The first systematic and scientific study of lightning was performed by Benjamin Franklin during the second half of the 18th century. Prior to this, scientists had discerned how electricity could be separated into positive and negative charges and stored. They had also noted a connection between sparks produced in a laboratory and lightning.

Franklin theorized that clouds are electrically charged, from which it followed that lightning itself was electrical. Initially, he proposed testing this theory by placing iron rod next to a grounded wire, which would be held in place nearby by an insulated wax candle. If the clouds were electrically charged as he expected, then sparks would jump between the iron rod and the grounded wire.

In 1750, he published a proposal whereby a kite would be flown in a storm to attract lightning. In 1752, Thomas Francois D’Alibard successfully conducted the experiment in France, but used a 12 meter (40 foot) iron rod instead of a kite to generate sparks. By the summer of 1752, Franklin is believed to have conducted the experiment himself during a large storm that descended on Philadelphia.

For his upgraded version of the experiment, Franking attacked a key to the kite, which was connected via a damp string to an insulating silk ribbon wrapped around the knuckles of Franklin’s hand. Franklin’s body, meanwhile, provided the conducting path for the electrical currents to the ground. In addition to showing that thunderstorms contain electricity, Franklin was able to infer that the lower part of the thunderstorm was generally negatively charged as well.

An artistic rendition of Franklin's kite experiment painted by Benjamin West. Credit: Public Domain
An artistic rendition of Franklin’s kite experiment painted by Benjamin West. Credit: Public Domain

Little significant progress was made in understanding the properties of lightning until the late 19th century when photography and spectroscopic tools became available for lightning research. Time-resolved photography was used by many scientists during this period to identify individual lightning strokes that make up a lightning discharge to the ground.

Lightning research in modern times dates from the work of C.T.R. Wilson (1869 – 1959) who was the first to use electric field measurements to estimate the structure of thunderstorm charges involved in lightning discharges. Wilson also won the Nobel Prize for the invention of the Cloud Chamber, a particle detector used to discern the presence of ionized radiation.

By the 1960’s, interest grew thanks to the intense competition brought on by the Space Age. With spacecraft and satellites being sent into orbit, there were fears that lightning could post a threat to aerospace vehicles and the solid state electronics used in their computers and instrumentation. In addition, improved measurement and observational capabilities were made possible thanks to improvements in space-based technologies.

In addition to ground-based lightning detection, several instruments aboard satellites have been constructed to observe lightning distribution. These include the Optical Transient Detector (OTD), aboard the OrbView-1 satellite launched on April 3rd, 1995, and the subsequent Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) aboard TRMM, which was launched on November 28th, 1997.

The Colima Volcano (Volcán de Colima) pictured on March 29, 2015 with lightning. Credit and copyright: César Cantú.
The Colima Volcano (Volcán de Colima) pictured on March 29, 2015 with lightning. Credit and copyright: César Cantú.

Volcanic Lightning:
Volcanic activity can produce lightning-friendly conditions in multiple ways. For instance, the powerful ejection of enormous amounts of material and gases into the atmosphere creates a dense plume of highly charged particles, which establishes the perfect conditions for lightning. In addition, the ash density and constant motion within the plume continually produces electrostatic ionization. This in turn results in frequent and powerful flashes as the plume tries to neutralize itself.

This type of thunderstorm is often referred to as a “dirty thunderstorm” due to the high solid material (ash) content.  There have been several recorded instances of volcanic lightning taking place throughout history. For example, during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, Pliny the Younger noted several powerful and frequent flashes taking place around the volcanic plume.

Extraterrestrial Lightning:
Lightning has been observed within the atmospheres of other planets in our Solar System, such as Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. In the case of Venus, the first indications that lightning may be present in the upper atmosphere were observed by the Soviet Venera and U.S. Pioneer missions in the 1970s and 1980s. Radio pulses recorded by the Venus Express spacecraft (in April 2006) were confirmed as originating from lightning on Venus.

Artist concept of Venus' surface. Credit: NASA)
Artist concept of a lightning stormVenus. Credit: NASA)

Thunderstoms that are similar to those on Earth have been observed on Jupiter. They are believed to be the result of moist convection with Jupiter’s troposphere, where convective plumes bring wet air up from the depths to the upper parts of the atmosphere, where it then condenses into clouds of about 1000 km in size.

The imaging of the night-side hemisphere of Jupiter by the Galileo in the 1990 and by the Cassini spacecraft in December of 2000 revealed that storms are always associated with lightning on Jupiter. While lighting strikes are on average a few times more powerful than those on Earth, they are apparently less frequent. A few flashes have been detected in polar regions, making Jupiter the second known planet after Earth to exhibit polar lightning.

Lighting has also been observed on Saturn. The first instance occurred in 2010 when the Cassini space probe detected flashes on the night-side of the planet, which happened to coincide with the detection of powerful electrostatic discharges. In 2012, images taken by the Cassini probe in 2011 showed how the massive storm that wrapped the northern hemisphere was also generating powerful flashes of lightning.

Once thought to be the “hammer of the Gods”, lightning has since come to be understood as a natural phenomena, and one that exists on other terrestrial worlds and even gas giants. As we come to learn more about how lighting behaves here on Earth, that knowledge could go a long way in helping us to understand weather systems on other worlds as well.

We have written many articles about lightning here at Universe Today. Here’s an article about NASA’s biggest lightning protection system. And here’s an interesting article about the possible connection between solar wind and lightning.

If you’d like more info on lightning, check out the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We also have an episode of Astronomy Cast, titled Episode 51: Earth.

Newest Planet: Is it Pluto, Eris or Extrasolar?

Eris, the newest planet?

With astronomers discovering new planets and other celestial objects all the time, you may be wondering what the newest planet to be discovered is. Well, that depends on your frame of reference. If we are talking about our Solar System, then the answer used to be Pluto, which was discovered by the American astronomer Clyde William Tombaugh in 1930.

Unfortunately, Pluto lost its status as a planet in 2006 when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Since then, another contender has emerged for the title of “newest planet in the Solar System” – a celestial body that goes by the name of Eris – while beyond our Solar System, thousands of new planets are being discovered.

But then, the newest planet might be the most recently discovered extrasolar planet. And these are being discovered all the time.

Continue reading “Newest Planet: Is it Pluto, Eris or Extrasolar?”

What is the Roden Crater?

Imagine a volcano powerful enough to leave a massive crater in the Earth that could be seen from space. Now imagine that to a satellite observing it from above, the crater looked very much like an eyeball. And imagine that this same Wplace was bought by an internationally-renowned artist for the sake of turning it into the largest public art project in history.

This describes the Roden Crater perfectly, the remains of an extinct volcano located near Flagstaff, Arizona, on the edge of the Painted Desert that has since become an art project to James Turell – a man with some pretty unique artistic sensibilities!

The crater is a cinder-type volcanic cone – a hill that formed around a volcanic vent – that measures 3.2 km (2 miles) wide, 183 meters (600 feet) tall, and which is approximately 400,000 years old. Located northeast of the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, the volcano is part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field near the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon.

James Turell’s Project:
In 1979, it was bought by artist James Turrell, who intends to turn it into a massive, open air work of art. James Turrell has long been famous in the art world for his unique take on creating art. Turrell purchased the land surrounding the crater – roughly 4.8 km (3 miles) across – with the intent of creating a naked-eye observatory at the inner core, specifically so guests could view and experience sky-light, solar, and celestial phenomena.

The Roden Crater, viewed from ground level at sunset. Credit:
The Roden Crater, viewed from ground level at sunset. Credit:

Turrell is known within the art community for the way his art plays with light and space. In 1974, he began conceiving of a project that would involve a natural setting, one that extended his explorations of light and space from the studio into the western landscape.

For this reason, he purchased the Roden Crater grounds with the hopes of using the types of visual phenomena that have excited and inspired humanity since the dawn of civilization – i.e. looking up at the stars – and creating a space where it could interplay with his artwork.

As Turrell has stated, he was also inspired by ancient observatories because of the way these places were geared to visual perception: “I admire Borobudur, Angkor Wat, Pagan, Machu Picchu, the Mayan pyramids, the Egyptian pyramids, Herodium, Old Sarum, Newgrange and the Maes Howe,” he said. “These places and structures have certainly influenced my thinking. These thoughts will find concurrence in Roden Crater.”

Eye-Witness Accounts:
This project has been the most massive public art undertaking to date. It has also sparked intense interest due to the fact that the observatory is restricted from the public. No one is allowed into the crater unless invited by the artist himself.

Typically though, those invited have made large contributions to the project or have commissioned other works of art from Turrell. Many well known art dealers and other important figures in the art world have seen the crater, and those who have witnessed it have described it as an incredible sight.

The Alpha Tunnel, one of many features that play into . Credit:
The Alpha Tunnel, one of many features that play into Turrell’s concepts of space and light. Credit:

The desire to see the crater has even led some fans to trespass, which may involve hiking through the desert to get to the very remote location. Some have taken photos of the crater and posted them on the internet, although some of those visitors discourage people from taking the trip. Essentially, the location is potentially dangerous due to extremely isolation and the fact that it is far from any major roads.

James Turrell does not take a typical approach to art. After he bought the crater, he started excavating tons of earth – over 86,000 cubic meters (1.3 million cubic yards) to be exact – in order to shape the Crater Bowl and hollow out tunnels and chambers. He tried to make different viewing areas, so the light, astronomical features, and sky could be seen from inside the crater. Essentially, he tried to turn a space itself into art.

Visitors have commented on the bronze staircase leading out of the crater. A musician who visited the grounds also talked about playing the drums in a sound chamber and said that it was an amazing experience. Those who have been to the crater have not said too much about their experiences though, thus ensuring that the public is left to wonder about much of it.

The East Portal staircase. Credit:
The East Portal staircase, made out of bronze, which leads guests out of the crater. Credit:

Originally, the Roden Crater was supposed to be finished in the late 1980’s. However, the date of completion has been pushed back a number of times due to financial issues (among other problems) which caused construction to halt at different times. Recently, Turrell estimated that construction would be completed by 2011; but once again, there have been delays.

According to the Roden Crater website, the South Space – which is the last section waiting to be built – is in the final stages of engineering. A public opening for the project is anticipated in the next few years once this complete, but will be “dependent on fundraising and construction schedules.”

Some speculate that once the Roden Crater is finished it is going to be one of the hottest things in the art world. But don’t expect an invite anytime soon. If there’s one thing hot-ticket items like this are known for, it’s being inaccessible!

Be sure to enjoy this video of the Roden Crater and Turrell’s massive art project:

We have many articles here at Universe Today on the subject of famous volcanoes and extinct volcanoes.

You should also check out secret art and the Roden Crater project.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on volcanoes.


Who Was Nicolaus Copernicus?

When it comes to understanding our place in the universe, few scientists have had more of an impact than Nicolaus Copernicus. The creator of the Copernican Model of the universe (aka. heliocentrism), his discovery that the Earth and other planets revolved the Sun triggered an intellectual revolution that would have far-reaching consequences.

In addition to playing a major part in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, his ideas changed the way people looked at the heavens, the planets, and would have a profound influence over men like Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton and many others. In short, the “Copernican Revolution” helped to usher in the era of modern science.

Copernicus’ Early Life:

Copernicus was born on February 19th, 1473 in the city of Torun (Thorn) in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The youngest of four children to a well-to-do merchant family, Copernicus and his siblings were raised in the Catholic faith and had many strong ties to the Church.

His older brother Andreas would go on to become an Augustinian canon, while his sister, Barbara, became a Benedictine nun and (in her final years) the prioress of a convent. Only his sister Katharina ever married and had children, which Copernicus looked after until the day he died. Copernicus himself never married or had any children of his own.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit:
Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit:

Born in a predominately Germanic city and province, Copernicus acquired fluency in both German and Polish at a young age, and would go on to learn Greek and Italian during the course of his education. Given that it was the language of academia in his time, as well as the Catholic Church and the Polish royal court, Copernicus also became fluent in Latin, which the majority of his surviving works are written in.

Copernicus’ Education:

In 1483, Copernicus’ father (whom he was named after) died, whereupon his maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, began to oversee his education and career. Given the connections he maintained with Poland’s leading intellectual figures, Watzenrode would ensure that Copernicus had  great deal of exposure to some of the intellectual figures of his time.

Although little information on his early childhood is available, Copernicus’ biographers believe that his uncle sent him to St. John’ School in Torun, where he himself had been a master. Later, it is believed that he attended the Cathedral School at Wloclawek (located 60 km south-east Torun on the Vistula River), which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Krakow – Watzenrode’s own Alma mater.

In 1491, Copernicus began his studies in the Department of Arts at the University of Krakow. However, he quickly became fascinated by astronomy, thanks to his exposure to many contemporary philosophers who taught or were associated with the Krakow School of Mathematics and Astrology, which was in its heyday at the time.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit:
A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit:

Copernicus’ studies provided him with a thorough grounding in mathematical-astronomical knowledge, as well as the philosophy and natural-science writings of Aristotle, Euclid, and various humanist writers. It was while at Krakow that Copernicus began collecting a large library on astronomy, and where he began his analysis of the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy.

These models – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – were both geocentric in nature. Consistent with classical astronomy and physics, they espoused that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and that the Sun, the Moon, the other planets, and the stars all revolved around it.

Before earning a degree, Copernicus left Krakow (ca. 1495) to travel to the court of his uncle Watzenrode in Warmia, a province in northern Poland. Having been elevated to the position of Prince-Bishop of Warmia in 1489, his uncle sought to place Copernicus in the Warmia canonry. However, Copernicus’ installation was delayed, which prompted his uncle to send him and his brother to study in Italy to further their ecclesiastic careers.

In 1497, Copernicus arrived in Bologna and began studying at the Bologna University of Jurists’. While there, he studied canon law, but devoted himself primarily to the study of the humanities and astronomy. It was also while at Bologna that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

The Geocentric View of the Solar System
An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568. Credit:

Over time, Copernicus’ began to feel a growing sense of doubt towards the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models of the universe. These included the problematic explanations arising from the inconsistent motion of the planets (i.e. retrograde motion, equants, deferents and epicycles), and the fact that Mars and Jupiter appeared to be larger in the night sky at certain times than at others.

Hoping to resolve this, Copernicus used his time at the university to study Greek and Latin authors (i.e. Pythagoras, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Heraclides and Plato) as well as the fragments of historic information the university had on ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems – which included other (predominantly Greek and Arab) heliocentric theories.

In 1501, Copernicus moved to Padua, ostensibly to study medicine as part of his ecclesiastical career. Just as he had done at Bologna, Copernicus carried out his appointed studies, but remained committed to his own astronomical research. Between 1501 and 1503, he continued to study ancient Greek texts; and it is believed that it was at this time that his ideas for a new system of astronomy – whereby the Earth itself moved – finally crystallized.

The Copernican Model (aka. Heliocentrism):

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. By 1514, he began making his Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”) available for his friends to read. This forty-page manuscript described his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis, which was based on seven general principles.

These seven principles stated that: Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point; the center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth; all the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe; the distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from Earth and Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars; the stars are immovable – their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of Earth; Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun; Earth has more than one motion; and Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.

Heliocentric Model
Andreas Cellarius’s illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1708). Credit: Public Domain

Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed work, and by 1532, he had come close to completing the manuscript of his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up.

However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to condemnation from the church (as well as, perhaps, worries that his theory presented some scientific flaws) he withheld his research until a year before he died. It was only in 1542, when he was near death, that he sent his treatise to Nuremberg to be published.

Copernicus’ Death:

Towards the end of 1542, Copernicus suffered from a brain hemorrhage or stroke which left him paralyzed. On May 24th, 1543, he died at the age of 70 and was reportedly buried in the Frombork Cathedral in Frombork, Poland. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book, which he smiled upon before passing away.

In 2005, an archaeological team conducted a scan of the floor of Frombork Cathedral, declaring that they had found Copernicus’ remains. Afterwards, a forensic expert from the Polish Police Central Forensic Laboratory used the unearthed skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled Copernicus’ features. The expert also determined that the skull belonged to a man who had died around age 70 – Copernicus’ age at the time of his death.

These findings were backed up in 2008 when a comparative DNA analysis was made from both the remains and two hairs found in a book Copernicus was known to have owned (Calendarium Romanum Magnum, by Johannes Stoeffler). The DNA results were a match, proving that Copernicus’ body had indeed been found.

Copernicus' 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as the father of heiocentirsm.Credit:
Copernicus’ 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as a church canon and the father of heliocentricism. Credit: Wikipedia/Holger Weinandt

On May 22nd, 2010, Copernicus was given a second funeral in a Mass led by Józef Kowalczyk, the former papal nuncio to Poland and newly named Primate of Poland. Copernicus’ remains were reburied in the same spot in Frombork Cathedral, and a black granite tombstone (shown above) now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also a church canon. The tombstone bears a representation of Copernicus’ model of the solar system – a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

Copernicus’ Legacy:

Despite his fears about his arguments producing scorn and controversy, the publication of his theories resulted in only mild condemnation from religious authorities. Over time, many religious scholars tried to argue against his model, using a combination of Biblical canon, Aristotelian philosophy, Ptolemaic astronomy, and then-accepted notions of physics to discredit the idea that the Earth itself would be capable of motion.

However, within a few generation’s time, Copernicus’ theory became more widespread and accepted, and gained many influential defenders in the meantime. These included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who’s investigations of the heavens using the telescope allowed him to resolve what were seen at the time as flaws in the heliocentric model.

These included the relative changes in the appearances of Mars and Jupiter when they are in opposition vs. conjunction to the Earth. Whereas they appear larger to the naked eye than Copernicus’ model suggested they should, Galileo proved that this is an illusion caused by the behavior of light at a distance, and can be resolved with a telescope.

1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus' birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George
1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George

Through the use of the telescope, Galileo also discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, Sunspots, and the imperfections on the Moon’s surface, all of which helped to undermine the notion that the planets were perfect orbs, rather than planets similar to Earth. While Galileo’s advocacy of Copernicus’ theories resulted in his house arrest, others soon followed.

German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also helped to refine the heliocentric model with his introduction of elliptical orbits. Prior to this, the heliocentric model still made use of circular orbits, which did not explain why planets orbited the Sun at different speeds at different times. By showing how the planet’s sped up while at certain points in their orbits, and slowed down in others, Kepler resolved this.

In addition, Copernicus’ theory about the Earth being capable of motion would go on to inspire a rethinking of the entire field of physics. Whereas previous ideas of motion depended on an outside force to instigate and maintain it (i.e. wind pushing a sail) Copernicus’ theories helped to inspire the concepts of gravity and inertia. These ideas would be articulated by Sir Isaac Newton, who’s Principia formed the basis of modern physics and astronomy.

Today, Copernicus is honored (along with Johannes Kepler) by the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) with a feast day on May 23rd. In 2009, the discoverers of chemical element 112 (which had previously been named ununbium) proposed that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry rename it copernicum (Cn) – which they did in 2011.

Crater Copernicus on the Moon. Mosaic of photos by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO
Mosaic image of the Copernicus Crater on the Moon, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO

In 1973, on the 500th anniversary of his birthday, the Federal Republic of Germany (aka. West Germany) issued a 5 Mark silver coin (shown above) that bore Copernicus’ name and a representation of the heliocentric universe on one side.

In August of 1972, the Copernicus – an Orbiting Astronomical Observatory created by NASA and the UK’s Science Research Council – was launched to conduct space-based observations. Originally designated OAO-3, the satellite was renamed in 1973 in time for the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Operating until February of 1981, Copernicus proved to be the most successful of the OAO missions, providing extensive X-ray and ultraviolet information on stars and discovering several long-period pulsars.

Two craters, one located on the Moon, the other on Mars, are named in Copernicus’ honor. The European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently conducting the Copernicus Program. Formerly known as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), this program aims at achieving an autonomous, multi-level operational Earth observatory.

On February 19th, 2013, the world celebrated the 540th anniversary of Copernicus’ birthday. Even now, almost five and a half centuries later, he is considered one of the greatest astronomers and scientific minds that ever lived. In addition to revolutionizing the fields of physics, astronomy, and our very concept of the laws of motion, the tradition of modern science itself owes a great debt to this noble scholar who placed the truth above all else.

Universe Today has many interesting articles on ancient astronomy, such as What is the Difference Between the Geocentric and Heliocentric Models of the Solar System.

For more information, you should check out Nicolaus Copernicus, the biography of Nicolaus Copernicus, and Planetary Motion: The History of an Idea That Launched the Scientific Revolution.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Episode 338: Copernicus.


Uranus’ Moon Titania

Thanks to the Voyager missions, which passed through the outer Solar system in the late 1970s and early 1980s, scientists were able to get the first close look at Uranus and its system of moons. Like all of the Solar Systems’ gas giants, Uranus has many fascinating satellites. In fact, astronomers can now account for 27 moons in orbit around the teal-colored giant.

Of these, none are greater in size, mass, or surface area than Titania, which was appropriately named. As one of the first moon’s to be discovered around Uranus, this heavily cratered and scarred moon takes it name from the fictional Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Discovery and Naming:

Titania was discovered by William Herschel on January 11th, 1787, the English astronomer who had discovered Uranus in 1781. The discovery was also made on the same day that he discovered Oberon, Uranus’ second-largest moon. Although Herschel reported observing four other moons at the time, the Royal Astronomical Society would later determine that this claim was spurious.

It would be almost five decades after Titania and Oberon was discovered that an astronomer other than Herschel would observe them. In addition, Titania would be referred to as “the first satellite of Uranus” for many years – or by the designation Uranus I, which was given to it by William Lassell in 1848.

A montage of Uranus's moons. Image credit: NASA
A montage of Uranus’s moons. Image credit: NASA

By 1851, Lassell began to number all four known satellites in order of their distance from the planet by Roman numerals, at which point Titania’s designation became Uranus III. By 1852, Herschel’s son John, and at the behest of Lassell himself, suggested the moon’s name be changed to Titania, the Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was consistent with all of Uranus’ satellites, which were given names from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a diameter of 1,578 kilometers, a surface area of 7,820,000 km² and a mass of 3.527±0.09 × 1021 kg, Titania is the largest of Uranus’ moons and the eighth largest moon in the Solar System. At a distance of about 436,000 km (271,000 mi), Titania is also the second farthest from the planet of the five major moons.

Titania’s moon also has a small eccentricity and is inclined very little relative to the equator of Uranus. It’s orbital period, which is 8.7 days, is also coincident with it’s rotational period. This means that Titania is a synchronous (or tidally-locked) satellite, with one face always pointing towards Uranus at all times.

Because Uranus orbits the Sun on its side, and its moons orbit the planet’s equatorial plane, they are all subject to an extreme seasonal cycle, where the northern and southern poles experience 42 years of either complete darkness or complete sunlight.


Uranus and its five major moons
Uranus and its five major moons, with Titania being the farthest left. Credit:


Scientists believe Titania is composed of equal parts rock (which may include carbonaceous materials and organic compounds) and ice. This is supported by examinations that indicate that Titania has an unusually high-density for a Uranian satellite (1.71 g/cm³). The presence of water ice is supported by infrared spectroscopic observations made in 2001–2005, which have revealed crystalline water ice on the surface of the moon.

It is also believed that Titania is differentiated into a rocky core surrounded by an icy mantle. If true, this would mean that the core’s radius is approx. 520 km (320 mi), which would mean the core accounts for 66% of the radius of the moon, and 58% of its mass.

As with Uranus’ other major moons, the current state of the icy mantle is unknown. However, if the ice contains enough ammonia or other antifreeze, Titania may have a liquid ocean layer at the core-mantle boundary. The thickness of this ocean, if it exists, is up to 50 km (31 mi) and its temperature is around 190 K.

Naturally, it is unlikely that such an ocean could support life. But assuming this ocean supports hydrothermal vents on its floor, it is possible life could exist in small patches close to the core. However, the internal structure of Oberon depends heavily on its thermal history, which is poorly known at present.

Voyager 2:

The only direct observations made of Titania were conducted by the Voyager 2 space probe, which photographed the moon during its flyby of Uranus in January 1986. These images covered about 40% of the surface, but only 24% was photographed with the precision required for geological mapping.

Voyager’s flyby of Titania coincided with the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice, when nearly the entire northern hemisphere was unilluminated. As with the other major moon’s of Uranus, this prevented the surface from being mapped in any detail. No other spacecraft has visited the Uranian system or Titania before or since, and no mission is planned in the foreseeable future.

Interesting Facts:

Titania is intermediate in terms of brightness, occupying a middle spot between the dark moons of Oberon and Umbriel and the bright moons of Ariel and Miranda. It’s surface is generally red in color (less so than Oberon), except where fresh impact have taken place, which have left the surface blue in color. The surface of Titania is less heavily cratered than the surface of either Oberon or Umbriel, suggesting that its surface is much younger.

Like all of Uranus’ major moons, it’s geology is influenced by a combination of impact craters and endogenic resurfacing. Whereas the former acted over the moon’s entire history and influenced all its surfaces, the latter processes were mainly active following the moon’s formation and resulted in a smoothing out of its features – hence the low number of present-day impact craters.

Overall, scientists have recognized three classes of geological feature on Titania. These include craters, faults (or scarps) and what are known as grabens (sometimes called canyons). Titania’s craters range in diameter from a few kilometers to 326 kilometers – in the case of the largest known crater, Gertrude. Titania’s surface is also intersected by a system of enormous faults (scarps); and in some places, two parallel scarps mark depressions in the satellite’s crust, forming grabens (aka. canyons).

Voyager 2 image of Titania’s southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL

The grabens on Titania range in diameter from 20 to 50 kilometers (12–31 mi) and in a relief (i.e. depth) from 2 to 5 km. The most prominent graben on Titania is the Messina Chasma, which runs for about 1,500 kilometers (930 mi) from the equator almost to the south pole. The grabens are probably the youngest geological features on Titania, since they cut through all craters and even the smooth plains.

Like Oberon, the surface features on Titania have been named after characters in works by Shakespeare, with all of the physical features are named after female characters. For instance, the crater Gertrude is named after Hamlet’s mother, while other craters – Ursula, Jessica, and Imogen – are named after characters from Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymebline, respectively.

Interestingly, the presence of carbon dioxide on the surface suggests that Titania may also have a tenuous seasonal atmosphere of CO², much like that of the Jovian moon Callisto. Other gases, like nitrogen or methane, are unlikely to be present, because Titania’s weak gravity could not prevent them from escaping into space.

Like all of Uranus’ moons, much remains to be discovered about this most-massive of her satellites. In the coming years, one can only hope that NASA, the ESA, or other space agencies decide that another Voyager-like mission is need to the outer Solar System. Until such time, Uranus and the many moons that orbit it will continue to keep secrets from us.

We have written many articles on Titania here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?, Uranus’ Moon Oberon and Uranus’ Moon Umbriel.

For more information, check out Nine Planets page on Titania and NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on  Titania.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject. Here’s Episode 172: William Herschel


What is a Terrestrial Planet?

In studying our Solar System over the course of many centuries, astronomers learned a great deal about the types of planets that exist in our universe. This knowledge has since expanded thanks to the discovery of extrasolar planets, many of which are similar to what we have observed here at home.

For example, while hundreds of gas giants of varying size have been detected (which are easier to detect because of their size), numerous planets have also been spotted that are similar to Earth – aka. “Earth-like”. These are what is known as terrestrial planets, a designation which says a lot about a planet how it came to be.


Also known as a telluric or rocky planet, a terrestrial planet is a celestial body that is composed primarily of silicate rocks or metals and has a solid surface. This distinguishes them from gas giants, which are primarily composed of gases like hydrogen and helium, water, and some heavier elements in various states.

The term terrestrial planet is derived from the Latin “Terra” (i.e. Earth). Terrestrial planets are therefore those that are “Earth-like”, meaning they are similar in structure and composition to planet Earth.

Earth-like planets. Image Credit: JPL
Artist’s concept for the range of Earth-like extrasolar planets that have been discovered in recent years. Credit: NASA/JPL

Composition and Characteristics:

All terrestrial planets have approximately the same type of structure: a central metallic core composed of mostly iron, with a surrounding silicate mantle. Such planets have common surface features, which include canyons, craters, mountains, volcanoes, and other similar structures, depending on the presence of water and tectonic activity.

Terrestrial planets also have secondary atmospheres, which are generated through volcanism or comet impacts. This also differentiates them from gas giants, where the planetary atmospheres are primary and were captured directly from the original solar nebula.

Terrestrial planets are also known for having few or no moons. Venus and Mercury have no moons, while Earth has only the one (the Moon). Mars has two satellites, Phobos and Deimos, but these are more akin to large asteroids than actual moons. Unlike the gas giants, terrestrial planets also have no planetary ring systems.

The Earth's layers. Credit:
The Earth’s interior structure, shown here as consisting of multiple “layers”. Credit:

Solar Terrestrial Planets:

All those planets found within the Inner Solar System – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – are examples of terrestrial planets. Each are composed primarily of silicate rock and metal, which is differentiated between a dense, metallic core and a silicate mantle. The Moon is similar, but has a much smaller iron core.

Io and Europa are also satellites that have internal structures similar to that of terrestrial planets. In the case of the former, models of the moon’s composition suggest that the mantle is composed primarily of silicate rock and iron, which surrounds a core of iron and iron sulphide. Europa, on the other hand, is believed to have an iron core that is surrounded by an outer layer of water.

Dwarf planets, like Ceres and Pluto, and other large asteroids are similar to terrestrial planets in the fact that they do have a solid surface. However, they differ in that they are, on average, composed of more icy materials than rock.

Extrasolar Terrestrial Planets:

Most of the planets detected outside of the Solar System have been gas giants, owing to the fact that they are easier to spot. However, since 2005, hundreds of potentially terrestrial extrasolar planets have been found – mainly by the Kepler space mission. Most of these have been what is known as “super-Earths” (i.e. planets with masses between Earth’s and Neptune’s).

Examples of extrasolar terrestrial planets include Gliese 876 d, a planet that has a mass 7 to 9 times that of Earth. This planet orbits the red dwarf Gliese 876, which is located approximately 15 light years from Earth. The existence of three (or possibly four) terrestrial exoplanets was also confirmed between 2007 and 2010 in the Gliese 581 system, another red dwarf roughly 20 light years from Earth.

The smallest of these, Gliese 581 e, is only about 1.9 Earth masses, but orbits very close to the star. Two others, Gliese 581 c and Gliese 581 d, as well as a proposed fourth planet (Gliese 581 g) are more-massive super-Earths orbiting in or close to the habitable zone of the star. If true, this could mean that these worlds are potentially habitable Earth-like planets.

The first confirmed terrestrial exoplanet, Kepler-10b – a planet with between 3 and 4 Earth masses and located some 460 light years from Earth – was found in 2011 by the Kepler space mission. In that same year, the Kepler Space Observatory team released a list of 1235 extrasolar planet candidates, including six that were “Earth-size” or “super-Earth-size” (i.e. less than 2 Earth radii) and which were located within their stars’ habitable zones.

Since then, Kepler has discovered hundreds of planets ranging from Moon-sized to super-Earths, with many more candidates in this size range. As of January, 2013, 2740 planet candidates have been discovered.


Scientists have proposed several categories for classifying terrestrial planets. Silicate planets are the standard type of terrestrial planet seen in the Solar System, which are composed primarily of a silicon-based rocky mantle and a metallic (iron) core.

Iron planets are a theoretical type of terrestrial planet that consists almost entirely of iron and therefore has a greater density and a smaller radius than other terrestrial planets of comparable mass. Planets of this type are believed to form in the high-temperature regions close to a star, and where the protoplanetary disk is rich in iron. Mercury is possible example, which formed close to our Sun and has a metallic core equal to 60–70% of its planetary mass.

Coreless planets are another theoretical type of terrestrial planet, one that consists of silicate rock but has no metallic core. In other words, coreless planets are the opposite of an iron planet. Coreless planets are believed to form farther from the star where volatile oxidizing material is more common. Though the Solar System has no coreless planets, chondrite asteroids and meteorites are common.

And then there are Carbon planets (aka. “diamond planets”), a theoretical class of planets that are composed of a metal core surrounded by primarily carbon-based minerals. Again, the Solar System has no planets that fit this description, but has an abundance of carbonaceous asteroids.

Until recently, everything scientists knew about planets – which included how they form and the different types that exist – came from studying our own Solar System. But with the explosion that has taken place in exoplanet discovery in the past decade, what we know about planets has grown significantly.

For one, we have come to understand that the size and scale of planets is greater than previously thought. What’s more, we’ve seen for the first time that many planets similar to Earth (which could also include being habitable) do in fact exist in other Solar Systems.

Who knows what we will find once we have the option of sending probes and manned missions to other terrestrial planets?

Universe Today has articles on smallest terrestrial exoplanet and gas planets. For the latest information on confirmed extrasolar planets, be sure to check out the Kepler’s Planet Candidates.

For a full list of all confirmed and potential planets, consult the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopaedia.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on the terrestrial planets including Mars, and an interview with Darin Ragozzine, one of the Kepler Space Mission scientists.