How Do We Study The Sun?

A quick think about optical astronomy would have you imagine that most of it takes place at night. Isn’t that when the stars and galaxies come out to play? Well, that assumption makes at least one glaring error: Earth happens to be close to a star that is worthy of study. It’s called the Sun, and it only appears during the day.

We love being close to the Sun because it gives energy that gives us light. But that same energy can also be damaging to eyes and to instruments. Below are how amateurs and professionals alike safely observe our closest stellar neighbor.

Amateur astronomy

The safest way to observe the Sun is by projecting it on to a surface. By doing this, you’ll be able to see huge sunspots and you can also watch as the star marches through a solar eclipse — if you’re lucky enough to be in the area.

This is how Sky & Telescope suggests you get it done: “Poke a small hole in an index card with a pencil point, face it toward the Sun, and hold a second card three or four feet behind it in its shadow. The hole will project a small image of the Sun’s disk onto the lower card.”

The partial solar eclipse on Nov. 2, 2013 at its peak over Israel. Credit and copyright: Gadi Eidelheit.
The partial solar eclipse on Nov. 2, 2013 at its peak over Israel. Credit and copyright: Gadi Eidelheit.

If you prefer to look at the Sun directly, you must protect your eyes and your equipment (binoculars/telescope/camera) from looking at it unexposed. We’ll refer you again to the Sky & Telescope article for the best expertise, but in general, understand that you will need special equipment to do it safely.

Professional astronomy

There are numerous larger telescopes that are used on the ground, which typically have special filters to block out the damaging parts of the Sun’s light. We have a few examples below, but we’re sure you’ll come up with more examples from your own neighborhoods!

Of note, professional astronomers use multiple tools to look at the Sun. They can examine the Sun in different wavelengths of light to see its surface and corona. They can use spectroscopy to see the elements produced in different parts of the Sun. They can study its radiation using radar, or its interior using techniques such as acoustic interferometry.

  • U.S. National Solar Observatory: The observatory has two major optical facilities, called the Dunn Solar Telescope (Sacramento Peak) and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope (Kitt Peak). Luckily for the public, both are open to visitors. The observatory also is part of the Global Oscillation Network Group, which looks at acoustic waves inside the Sun using six stations spaced around the world.
  • Big Bear Solar Observatory‘s New Solar Telescope can view features on the Sun that are as small as 50 miles (80 kilometers) across. It saw “first light” in 2010 and for now, is the largest aperture solar telescope at 1.6 meters across.
  • For future-casting, look at the 4.24 meter Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope and four-meter European Solar Telescope.

But that’s not all we’ve got. Here are a few examples of space telescopes in orbit:

The Sun as viewed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (NASA/SOHO)
The Sun as viewed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (NASA/SOHO)

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO): Launched in 1995, this NASA and European Space Agency is supposed to study the Sun’s interior, figure out more about the superheated solar corona or envelope that surrounds the Sun, and understand how the solar wind is created. It’s also a famous comet catcher and observer.

STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory): Launched in 2006, these twin spacecraft are in different parts of the Earth’s orbit: one ahead, and one behind. Their goal is to produce three-dimensional images of the Sun to improve space weather forecasting (specifically, when large eruptions on the Sun could disrupt Earth communications). As of early 2015, STEREO-B is not communicating with Earth.

Solar Dynamics Observatory: Launched in 2010, it aims to understand why the Sun has an 11-year solar cycle and to learn more about the Sun’s magnetic field and energy. The ultimate goal, again, is to improve space weather predictions.

We have written many articles about solar observatories, both ground and space-based, here on Universe Today. Here’s an article about the STEREO spacecraft seeing a tsunami on the Sun. We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast just about the Sun called The Sun, Spots and All.

What Is A Wolf-Rayet Star?

Wolf-Rayet stars represent a final burst of activity before a huge star begins to die. These stars, which are at least 20 times more massive than the Sun, “live fast and die hard”, according to NASA.

Their endstate is more famous; it’s when they explode as supernova and seed the universe with cosmic elements that they get the most attention. But looking at how the star gets to that explosive stage is also important.

When you look at a star like the Sun, what you are seeing is a delicate equilibrium of the star’s gravity pulling stuff in, and nuclear fusion inside pushing pressure out. When the forces are about equal, you get a stable mass of fusing elements. For planets like ours lucky enough to live near a stable star, this period can go on for billions upon billions of years.

Being near a massive star is like playing with fire, however. They grow up quickly and thus die earlier in their lives than the Sun. And in the case of a Wolf-Rayet star, it’s run out of lighter elements to fuse inside its core. The Sun is happily churning hydrogen into helium, but Wolf-Rayets are ploughing through elements such as oxygen to try to keep equilibrium.

The core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements "burning" through the fusion process to create the heat to stay the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart. Credit: Wikimedia
The core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements “burning” through the fusion process to create the heat to stay the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart. Credit: Wikimedia

Because these elements have more atoms per unit, this creates more energy — specifically, heat and radiation, NASA says. The star begins to blow out winds reaching 2.2 million to 5.4 million miles per hour (3.6 million to 9 million kilometers per hour). Over time, the winds strip away the outer layers of the Wolf-Rayet. This eliminates much of its mass, while at the same time freeing its elements to be used elsewhere in the Universe.

Eventually, the star runs out of elements to fuse (the process can go no further than iron). When the fusion stops, the pressure inside the star ceases and there’s nothing to stop gravity from pushing in. Big stars explode as supernova. Bigger ones see their gravity warped so much that not even light can escape, creating a black hole.

We still have a lot to learn about stellar evolution, but a few studies over the years have provided insights. In 2004, for example, NASA issued reassuring news saying these stars don’t “die alone.” Most of them have a stellar companion, according to Hubble Space Telescope observations.

A composite image with Chandra data (purple) showing a "point-like source" beside the remains of a supernova, suggesting a companion star may have survived the explosion. Hydrogen is shown in optical light (yellow and cyan) from the Magellanic Cloud Emission Line Survey and there is also optical data available from the Digitized Sky Survey (white). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al; Optical: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS
A composite image with Chandra data (purple) showing a “point-like source” beside the remains of a supernova, suggesting a companion star may have survived the explosion. Hydrogen is shown in optical light (yellow and cyan) from the Magellanic Cloud Emission Line Survey and there is also optical data available from the Digitized Sky Survey (white). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al; Optical: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS

While at first glance this appears as just a simple observation, cosmologists said that it could help us figure out how these stars get so big and bright. For example: Maybe the bigger star (the one that turns into a Wolf-Rayet) feeds off its companion over time, gathering mass until it becomes stupendously big. With more fuel, the big stars burn out faster. Other things the smaller star could influence could be the bigger star’s rotation or orbit.

Here’s a few other facts about Wolf-Rayets, courtesy of astronomer David Darling:

  • Their names come from two French astronomers, Charles Wolf and Georges Rayet, who discovered the first known star of this kind in 1867.
  • Wolf-Rayets come in two flavours: WN (emission lines of helium and nitrogen) and WC (carbon, oxygen and hydrogen).
  • Stars like our Sun evolve into more massive red giants as they run out of hydrogen to burn in the core. When these stars begin to shed their outer layers, they behave somewhat similarly to Wolf-Rayets. So they’re called “Wolf-Rayet type stars”, although they’re not exactly the same thing.

We have written many articles about stars here on Universe Today. Here’s an article about a binary pair of Wolf-Rayet stars, and the good news that WR 104 won’t kill us all. We have recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Here are two that you might find helpful: Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From, and Episode 13: Where Do Stars Go When they Die?

What Is The World’s Widest River?

The Amazon River is a heck of a big tributary. Besides being one of the LONGEST rivers in the world, it also happens to be the WIDEST. While its estimated length of 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) puts it under the Nile River, that statistic could be amended as some believe it’s even longer than that.

Nevertheless, its width puts it at a big river that carries more volume than the Nile. We have a few more facts about the Amazon below.

According to Extreme Science, even during the dry season it is about 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) wide, which is still a respectable width. When things get rainy, however, that’s when stuff really begins to open up. It more than doubles its width to 24.8 miles (40 kilometers).

If that’s enough for you, consider the amount of land it covers. Dry season, Extreme Science says, sees it at 42,471 square miles (110,000 square kilometers), or roughly the land area of Cuba. That astonishing statistic triples during the wet season, when it reaches 135,135 square miles (350,000 square kilometers) — about approximate to Germany’s size.

Mouth of the Amazon River as seen from STS-58
Mouth of the Amazon River as seen from STS-58. Credit: NASA

All of this makes the South American river the largest drainage system in the world, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Its recorded source is in the Andes Mountains and it flows down to its Atlantic Ocean mouth off the coast of Brazil. But as we’ve noted before, there’s controversy both to its source and to its actual length.

The Amazon basin (the areas that are affected by the river) cover a good portion of South America, the encyclopedia adds: Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. But it’s Brazil that has most of the basin and two-thirds of the stream.

Aboriginals in the region have explored the river for centuries, but its name comes from European exploration of the river, the encyclopedia says. “Amazon” is a reference from Europe’s first reported explorer, Spanish soldier Francisco de Orellana, who said the fierce female warriors in battle in the area reminded him of Amazons in Greek mythology.

Mouth of Amazon River, Brazil as seen from the Gemini 9-A spacecraft
Mouth of Amazon River, Brazil as seen from the Gemini 9-A spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Many of these statistics could change if the source of the Amazon River is also changed. National Geographic says there at least six possible origin points, based on methods ranging from satellite observation to GPS to “ground truth” examinations. You can see more details about the ongoing quest in this article.

Universe Today has articles on the longest river  and Europe’s longest river. Astronomy Cast has an episode on Earth you should watch.

What Was The Impact That Killed The Dinosaurs?

What suddenly made the dinosaurs disappear 65 million or 66 million years ago? Whatever it was, all indications show that it was a massive extinction event. The fossil record not only shows dinosaurs disappearing, but also numerous other species of the era. Whatever it was, there was a sudden change in the environment that changed evolution forever.

The leading theory for this change is a small body (likely an asteroid or a comet) that slammed into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The impact’s force generated enough debris to block the Sun worldwide, killing any survivors of starvation.

The crater

There have been numerous theories proposed for the dinosaurs’ death, but in 1980 more evidence arose for a huge impact on the Earth. This happened when a father-son University of California, Berkeley research team — Luis Alvarez and Walter Alvarez — discovered a link with a 110-mile (177-kilometer) wide impact crater near the Yucatan coast of Mexico. It’s now known as Chicxulub.

Chicxulub crater in Mexico. Credit: Wikipedia/NASA
Chicxulub crater in Mexico. Credit: Wikipedia/NASA

It sounds surprising that such a huge crater wasn’t found until that late, especially given satellites had been doing Earth observation for the better part of 20 years at that point. But as NASA explains, “Chicxulub … eluded detection for decades because it was hidden (and at the same time preserved) beneath a kilometer of younger rocks and sediments.”

The data came from a Mexican company that was seeking oil in the region. The geologists saw the structure and guessed, from its circular shape, that it was an impact crater. Further observations were done using magnetic and gravity data, NASA said, as well as space observations (including at least one shuttle mission).

The layer

The asteroid’s impact on Earth was quite catastrophic. Estimated at six miles (9.7 kilometers) wide, it carved out a substantial amount of debris that spread quickly around the Earth, aided by winds in the atmosphere.

What Killed The Dinosaurs
K-T Boundary. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

If you look in the fossil record all over the world, you will see a layer that is known as the “K-T Boundary”, referring to the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods in geologic history. This layer, says the University of California, Berkeley, is made up of “glassy spheres or tektites, shocked quartz and a layer of iridium-enriched dust.”

Of note, iridium is a rare element on the surface of the Earth, but it’s fairly common in meteorites. (Some argue that the iridium could have come from volcanic eruptions churning it up from inside the Earth; for more information, see this Universe Today story.)

Was it simply ‘the last straw’?

While an asteroid (or comet) striking the Earth could certainly cause all the catastrophic events listed above, some scientists believe the dinosaurs were already on their last legs (so to speak) before the impact took place. Berkeley points to “dramatic climate variation” in the million years preceding the event, such as very cold periods in the tropical environment that the dinosaurs were used to.

Impactors strike during the reign of the dinosaurs (image credit: MasPix/devianart)
Impactors strike during the reign of the dinosaurs (image credit: MasPix/devianart)

What might have caused this were several volcanic eruptions in India around the same time. Some scientists believe it was the volcanic eruptions themselves that caused the extinction and that the impact was not principally to blame, since the eruptions could also have produced the iridium layer. But Berkeley’s Paul Renne said the eruptions were more a catalyst for weakening the dinosaurs.

“These precursory phenomena made the global ecosystem much more sensitive to even relatively small triggers, so that what otherwise might have been a fairly minor effect shifted the ecosystem into a new state,” Renne stated in 2013. “The impact was the coup de grace.”

Here on Universe Today there are several articles on the asteroids and the Chicxulub Crater. Astronomy Cast has an episode on asteroids as bad neighbors.

Asteroids: 10 Interesting Facts About These Space Rocks

At first glance, looking at a bunch of space rocks doesn’t sound that exciting. Like, aren’t they just a bunch of rubble? What use can they be in understanding the Solar System compared to looking at planets or moons?

Turns out that asteroids are key to figuring out how the Solar System came to be, and that they’re more interesting than they appear at first glance. Below, we have 10 facts about asteroids that will make you reconsider that biased first impression.

Asteroids are leftovers of the early Solar System.

The leading theory about how our neighborhood came to be is this: the Sun coalesced from a compressed grouping of gas that eventually began fusing atoms and creating a protostar. Meanwhile, the dust and debris nearby the Sun began to coalesce. Small grains became small rocks, which crashed into each other to form bigger ones. The survivors of this chaotic period are the planets and the moons that we see today … as well as a few smaller bodies. By studying asteroids, for example, we get a sense of what the Solar System used to look like billions of years ago.

This image shows the Themis Main Belt which sits between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroid 24 Themis, one of the largest Main Belt asteroids, was examined by University of Tennessee scientist, Josh Emery, who found water ice and organic material on the asteroid's surface. His findings were published in the April 2010 issue of Nature.  Credit: Josh Emery/University of Tennessee, Knoxville
This image shows the Themis Main Belt which sits between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroid 24 Themis, one of the largest Main Belt asteroids, was examined by University of Tennessee scientist, Josh Emery, who found water ice and organic material on the asteroid’s surface. His findings were published in the April 2010 issue of Nature. Credit: Josh Emery/University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Most asteroids are in a “belt”.

While there are asteroids all over the Solar System, there’s a huge collection of them between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Some astronomers think that could have formed into a planet if Jupiter was not nearby. By the way, this “belt” may erroneously create the impression that it is chock full of asteroids and require some fancy Millennium Falcon-style maneuvering, but in reality there are usually hundreds or thousands of miles in between individual asteroids. This shows the Solar System is a big place.

Asteroids are made of different things.

In general, an asteroid’s composition is determined by how close it is to the Sun. Our nearby star’s pressure and heat tends to melt ice that is close by and to blow out elements that are lighter. There are many kinds of asteroids, but these are the three main types, according to NASA:

  • Dark C (carbonaceous) asteroids, which make up most asteroids and are in the outer belt. They’re believed to be close to the Sun’s composition, with little hydrogen or helium or other “volatile” elements.
  • Bright S (silicaceous) asteroids and are in the inner belt. They tend to be metallic iron with some silicates of iron and magnesium.
  • Bright M (metallic) asteroids. They sit in the middle of the asteroid belt and are mostly made up of metallic iron.
Illustration of small asteroids passing near Earth. Credit: ESA / P. Carril
Illustration of small asteroids passing near Earth. Credit: ESA / P. Carril

Asteroids also lurk near planets.

NASA also has classifications for this asteroid type. Trojans stay in the same orbit as a planet, but they “hover” in a special spot known as a Lagrangian point that balances the pull of the planet’s gravity and the pull of the Sun. Trojans near Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have been discovered — as well as at least one near Earth in 2011. We also have near-Earth asteroids, which cross our orbit and could (statistically speaking) one day pose a threat to our planet. That said, no one has yet identified any one asteroid that will one day collide with our planet for sure.

Asteroids have moons.

While we think of moons as something that orbits a planet, asteroids also have smaller bodies that orbit them! The first known one was Dactyl, which was discovered in 1993 to be orbiting a larger asteroid called Ida. More than 150 asteroids are known to have moons, with more being discovered periodically. A more recent example is one discovered orbiting Asteroid 2004 BL86, which passed 750,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Earth in early 2015.

Another set of images of 2004 BL86 and its moon. Credit: NAIC Observatory / Arecibo Observatory
Another set of images of 2004 BL86 and its moon. Credit: NAIC Observatory / Arecibo Observatory

We have flown by, orbited and even landed on asteroids. NASA says there are more than 10 spacecraft that accomplished at least one of these, so we’ll just cover a couple of examples here. NEAR Shoemaker touched down and survived for weeks on 433 Eros in 2001 despite not being designed to do it. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spent months orbiting Vesta — the second-largest member of the asteroid belt — in 2011 and 2012. And in 2010, Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft made an astonishing return to Earth bearing samples of asteroid Itokawa that it nabbed in 2005.

Asteroids are too small to support life as we know it. That’s because they’re too tiny to even hold on to atmospheres. Their gravity is too weak to pull their shape into a circle, so they’re irregularly shaped. To get a sense of just how small they are in aggregate, NASA says the mass of all the asteroids in the Solar System is less than our Moon — which only has a tenuous “exosphere” itself.

Impactors strike during the reign of the dinosaurs (image credit: MasPix/devianart)
Impactors strike during the reign of the dinosaurs (image credit: MasPix/devianart)

Despite their small size, water may flow on asteroid surfaces. Observations of Vesta released in 2015 show gullies that may have been carved by water. The theory is that when a smaller asteroid slams into a bigger one, the small asteroid releases a layer of ice in the bigger asteroid it hit. The force of the impact briefly turned the ice into water, which streaked across the surface. (As for how the ice got there in the first place, it’s possible that comets deposited it in some way — but that’s still being investigated as well.)

An asteroid could have killed the dinosaurs. The fossil record for dinosaurs and other creatures of their era show them rapidly disappearing around 65 million or 66 million years ago. According to National Geographic, there are two hypotheses for this event: an asteroid or comet hitting the Earth, or a huge volcano eruption. The case for an asteroid comes from a layer of iridium (a rare element on Earth, but not in meteorites) that is found all over the world, and a crater called Chicxulub in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that is about 65 million years old. Iridium, however, is also found inside the Earth, which lends credence to some theories that it was volcanoes instead. In either case, the resulting debris blocked the Sun and eventually starved those survivors of the impact.

At least one asteroid has rings. Called Chariklo, scientists made the surprise discovery in 2013 when they watched it pass in front of a star. The asteroid made the background star “blink” a few times, which led to the discovery that two rings are surrounding the asteroid.

How Are Planets Formed?

How did the Solar System’s planets come to be? The leading theory is something known as the “protoplanet hypothesis”, which essentially says that very small objects stuck to each other and grew bigger and bigger — big enough to even form the gas giants, such as Jupiter.

But how the heck did that happen? More details below.

Birthing the Sun

About 4.6 billion years ago, as the theory goes, the location of today’s Solar System was nothing more than a loose collection of gas and dust — what we call a nebula. (Orion’s Nebula is one of the most famous examples you can see in the night sky.)

Astrophoto: The Orion Nebula by Vasco Soeiro
The Orion Nebula. Image Credit: Vasco Soeiro

Then something happened that triggered a pressure change in the center of the cloud, scientists say. Perhaps it was a supernova exploding nearby, or a passing star changing the gravity. Whatever the change, however, the cloud collapsed and created a disc of material, according to NASA.

The center of this disc saw a great increase in pressure that eventually was so powerful that hydrogen atoms loosely floating in the cloud began to come into contact. Eventually, they fused and produced helium, kickstarting the formation of the Sun.

The Sun was a hungry youngster — it ate up 99% of what was swirling around, NASA says — but this still left 1% of the disc available for other things. And this is where planet formation began.

These images are some of the first to be taken during Spitzer's warm mission -- a new phase that began after the telescope, which operated for more than five-and-a-half years, ran out of liquid coolant. They show a star formation region (DR22 in Cygnus),DR22, in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
These images are some of the first to be taken during Spitzer’s warm mission — a new phase that began after the telescope, which operated for more than five-and-a-half years, ran out of liquid coolant. They show a star formation region (DR22 in Cygnus),DR22, in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Time of chaos

The Solar System was a really messy place at this time, with gas and dust and debris floating around. But planet formation appears to have happened relatively rapidly. Small bits of dust and gas began to clump together. The young Sun pushed much of the gas out to the outer Solar System and its heat evaporated any ice that was nearby.

Over time, this left rockier planets closer to the Sun and gas giants that were further away. But about four billion or so years ago, an event called the “late heavy bombardment” resulted in small bodies pelting the bigger members of the Solar System. We almost lost the Earth when a Mars-sized object crashed into it, as the theory goes.

What caused this is still under investigation, but some scientists believe it was because the gas giants were moving around and perturbing smaller bodies at the fringe of the Solar System. At any rate, in simple terms, the clumping together of protoplanets (planets in formation) eventually formed the planets.

Artist's impression of a Mars-sized object crashing into the Earth, starting the process that eventually created our Moon. Credit: Joe Tucciarone
Artist’s impression of a Mars-sized object crashing into the Earth, starting the process that eventually created our Moon. Credit: Joe Tucciarone

We can still see leftovers of this process everywhere in the Solar System. There is an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that perhaps would have coalesced into a planet had Jupiter’s gravity not been so strong. And we also have comets and asteroids that are sometimes considered referred to as “building blocks” of our Solar System.

We’ve described in detail what happened in our own Solar System, but the important takeaway is that many of these processes are at work in other places. So when we speak about exoplanet systems — planets beyond our Solar System — it is believed that a similar sequence of events took place. But how similar is still being learned.

Making the case

One major challenge to this theory, of course, is no one (that we know of!) was recording the early history of the Solar System. That’s because the Earth wasn’t even formed yet, so it was impossible for any life — let alone intelligent life — to keep track of what was happening to the planets around us.

Artist's impression of the Solar Nebula. Image credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the Solar Nebula. Image credit: NASA

There are two major ways astronomers get around this problem. The first is simple observation. Using powerful telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers can actually observe dusty discs around young planets. So we have numerous examples of stars with planets being born around them.

The second is using modelling. To test their observational hypotheses, astronomers run computer modelling to see if (mathematically speaking) the ideas work out. Often they will try to use different conditions during the simulation, such as perhaps a passing star triggering changes in the dust cloud. If the model holds after many runs and under several conditions, it’s more likely to be true.

That said, there still are some complications. We can’t use modelling yet to exactly predict how the planets of the Solar System ended up where they were. Also, in fine detail our Solar System is kind of a messy place, with phenomena such as asteroids with moons.

This animation, created from individual radar images, clearly show the rough outline of 2004 BL86 and its newly-discovered moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This animation, created from individual radar images, clearly show the rough outline of 2004 BL86 and its newly-discovered moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And we need to have a better understanding of external factors that could affect planet formation, such as supernovae (explosions of old, massive stars.) But the protoplanet hypothesis is the best we’ve got — at least for now.

We have written many articles about the protoplanet hypothesis for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how the Solar System was formed, and here’s an article about protoplanets. We’ve also recorded a series of episodes of Astronomy Cast about every planet in the Solar System. Start here, Episode 49: Mercury.

What Are the Stars in Orion’s Belt?

Orion dominates the winter sky in the northern hemisphere. Its large size and  collection of bright stars — such as Betelgeuse at the shoulder, Rigel below the belt, and the three stars in the belt — make it easy to spot, even for beginning stargazers.

So how about those stars in the belt? They’re one of the most famous asterisms in Western culture, but beyond what we see with our eyes, what are their astronomical properties?

Introduction to Orion

First, a brief word about the constellation itself. In many mythologies, the shape is seen as a human figure — and in Greek mythology, it was named after a hunter, according to a web page from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

There are several “reasons” in mythology for why Orion ended up in the sky. One was because he was too boastful about how many animals he could kill — so he was put there to teach humility, since he and his dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor) chase after animals in the sky but can’t catch them. Some say he died from a scorpion bite, and other legends say he was killed by his lover Artemis accidentally, when her brother Apollo tricked her to shooting an arrow at him.

Wide angle shot of Comet Lovejoy with the constellation Orion, showing rich fields of red nebula, star clouds and dark nebula with the bright green naked eye comet. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.
Wide angle shot of Comet Lovejoy with the constellation Orion, showing rich fields of red nebula, star clouds and dark nebula with the bright green naked eye comet. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.

Because Orion is on the celestial equator, Chandra adds, it is easy to see all over the world: “Ancient Indians saw the figure as a king who had been shot by an arrow (represented by the stars in Orion’s belt). Ancient Egyptians thought the stars in the belt represented the resting place of the soul of the god Osiris. The Arabs saw the constellation as the figure of a giant.”

The Orion’s belt stars

The three stars in the belt are Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. According to an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Ronald Maddlaena, these are the meanings of the three stars: Mintaka (on the west) means “belt”, Alnilam (in center) means “belt of pearls” and Altnitak (right) means “girdle.” The three range between 800 and 1,000 light-years from Earth.

The stars “probably formed at about the same time some ten million years ago from the molecular clouds astronomers have found in Orion,” wrote Maddalena.

In this image, the submillimetre-wavelength glow of the dust clouds is overlaid on a view of the region in the more familiar visible light, from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The large bright cloud in the upper right of the image is the well-known Orion Nebula, also called Messier 42.  Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
In this image, the submillimetre-wavelength glow of the dust clouds is overlaid on a view of the region in the more familiar visible light, from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The large bright cloud in the upper right of the image is the well-known Orion Nebula, also called Messier 42. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

Here are their properties compared to the Sun:

Mintaka: 20 times more massive and 7,000 times brighter. (Surface temperature 60,000 Fahrenheit.)

Alnilam: 20 times more massive and 18,000 times brigher. (Surface temperature 50,000 Fahrenheit.)

Alnitak: 20 times more massive and 10,000 times brighter. (Surface temperature 60,000 Fahrenheit).

To further blow your mind — these stars also have companion stars orbiting with them, so what you see from Earth with the naked eye isn’t necessarily what you always get.

We have written many articles about Orion for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Orion Nebula, and another about the dust grains in the Orion Nebula. We’ve also done many episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars, such as this: Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From?

Is The Moon A Planet?

What makes a planet a planet? The Moon is so big compared to the Earth — roughly one-quarter our planet’s size — that occasionally you will hear our system being referred to as a “double planet”. Is this correct?

And we all remember how quickly the definition of a planet changed in 2006 when more worlds similar to Pluto were discovered. So can the Moon stay the Moon, or is the definition subject to change?

Defining a planet

First, it’s important to understand what the official definition of a “planet” is, at least according to the International Astronomical Union. In its own words, according to a vote in Prague in 2006, the union has this definition:

“A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”

What this means is that a planet must move around the Sun (and not move around something else), that it’s massive enough to have a round shape due to gravity, and that it will swoop up any dust or debris in its orbit as it moves around the Sun.

But let’s be clear on something; the IAU definition of planet is not without controversy. There is still a strong contingent of people who say that Pluto is indeed a planet, including the principal investigator of a spacecraft (New Horizons) to examine the world: Alan Stern.

“It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review,” he told the BBC in 2006. He said that the line between dwarf planets and planets is too artificial, and that the definition of a “cleared neighborhood” is muddy. The Earth alone has many asteroids that follow it — or approach or cross its orbit — not to mention the massive planet Jupiter.

UV observations from Hubble show the size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa's south pole (NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser)
UV observations from Hubble show the size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa’s south pole (NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser)

Definition of a ‘satellite’

The Moon is not a unique phenomenon in our Solar System, in the sense that there are other planets that have satellites around them. Jupiter and Saturn have many dozens! Referring again to the IAU, the union also said in 2006 that it does not consider Charon a dwarf planet despite its large relative size to Pluto.

But Charon’s status as a moon could change in future, the IAU acknowledged. That’s primarily because the center of gravity in the system is not inside of Pluto, but in “free space between Pluto and Charon”. This center is called the “barycenter”, technically — and in Jupiter and Saturn’s cases, for example, all the barycenters of the various moons reside “inside” the huge gas giants.

Another caution, however: the IAU says “there has been no official recognition that the location of the barycenter is involved with the definition of a satellite.” So for now, it doesn’t have any bearing. That said, one question to consider is if the Moon’s barycenter is inside the Earth?

This Cassini raw image shows a portion of  Saturn's rings along with several moons.  How many can you find? Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
This Cassini raw image shows a portion of Saturn’s rings along with several moons. How many can you find? Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The answer right now is “yes”. But over time, that barycenter will move outside of Earth. That’s because the Moon is slowly receding from our planet at a rate of about 3.8 centimeters (1.5 inches) a year. It’ll take a long time, but eventually the center of our system’s mass will not be within our planet.

And if you read back to an IAU interview in 2006, you’ll see that at that time, the IAU defined a “double planet” as a system where both bodies meet the definition of a planet, and the barycenter is not inside either one of the objects. So for now, the Earth is a planet and the Moon a satellite — at least under IAU rules.

We have written many articles about the Moon for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how long it takes to get to the Moon, and here are some interesting facts about the Moon. We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Moon. Listen here, Episode 113: The Moon, Part 1.

What Are The Benefits Of Space Exploration?

Why explore space? It’s an expensive arena to play in, between the fuel costs and the technological challenge of operating in a hostile environment. For humans, a small mistake can quickly become fatal — something that we have seen several times in space history. And for NASA’s budget, there are projects that come in late and over budget, drawing the ire of Congress and the public.

These are some of the drawbacks. But for the rest of this article, we will focus on some of the benefits of going where few humans have gone before.

Spinoffs

Perhaps the most direct benefit comes from technologies used on Earth that were first pioneered in space exploration. This is something that all agencies talk about, but we’ll focus on the NASA Spinoff program as an example. (NASA will be used as the prime example for most of this article, but many of these cited benefits are also quoted by other space agencies.)

The program arose from NASA’s desire to showcase spinoffs at congressional budget hearings, according to its website. This began with a “Technology Utilization Program Report” in 1973, which began as a black-and-white circular and progressed to color in 1976 following public interest. Since that year, NASA has published more than 1,800 reports on spinoffs.

The agency has several goals in doing this. “Dispelling the myth of wasted taxpayer dollars” is one NASA cites, along with encouraging the public to follow space exploration and showing how American ingenuity can work in space.

There are many commercialized advances the program says it contributed to, including “memory foam” (first used for airline crash protection), magnetic resonance imaging and smoke detection. In many cases, NASA did not invent the technology itself, but just pushed it along, the agency says.

An MRI image of the lower back. Credit: NASA
An MRI image of the lower back. Credit: NASA

But as counterpoint to NASA’s arguments, some critics argue the technology would have been developed anyway without space exploration, or that the money spent on exploration itself does not justify the spinoff.

Job creation

Another popularly cited benefit of space exploration is “job creation”, or the fact that a space agency and its network of contractors, universities and other entities help people stay employed. From time to time, NASA puts out figures concerning how many associated jobs a particular project generates, or the economic impact.

Here’s an example: in 2012, NASA administrator Charles Bolden published a blog post about the Curiosity Mars rover landing, which was picked up by the White House website. “It’s also important to remember that the $2.5 billion investment made in this project was not spent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states,” he wrote.

Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana”  rock target  on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615).  Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana” rock target on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615). Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

But the benefit can cut in a negative way, too. NASA’s budget is allocated by Congress, which means that the amount of money it has available for employment fluctuates. There are also some programs that are highly dependent on grants, which can make stable jobs challenging in those fields. Finally, as the priorities of Congress/NASA change, jobs can evaporate with it. One example was the space shuttle’s retirement, which prompted a job loss so massive that NASA had a “transition strategy” for its employees and contractors.

It’s also unclear what constitutes a “job” under NASA parlance. Some universities have researchers working on multiple projects — NASA-related or not. Employment can also be full-time, part-time or occasional. So while “job creation” is cited as a benefit, more details about those jobs are needed to make an informed decision about how much good it does.

Education

Teaching has a high priority for NASA, so much so that it has flown astronaut educators in space. (The first one, Christa McAuliffe, died aboard the space shuttle Challenger during launch in 1986. Her backup, Barbara Morgan, was selected as an educator/mission specialist in 1998 and flew aboard STS-118 in 2007.) And to this day, astronauts regularly do in-flight conferences with students from space, ostensibly to inspire them to pursue careers in the field.

Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan practice teaching from space.  Credit: "The Lost Lessons"
Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan practice teaching from space. Credit: “The Lost Lessons”

NASA’s education office has three goals: making the workforce stronger, encouraging students to pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and “engaging Americans in NASA’s mission.” Other space agencies also have education components to assist with requirements in their own countries. It’s also fair to say the public affairs office for NASA and other agencies play roles in education, although they also talk about topics such as missions in progress.

But it’s hard to figure out how well the education efforts translate into inspiring students, according to a National Research Council report on NASA’s primary and secondary education program in 2008. Among other criticisms, the program was cited as unstable (as it needs to change with political priorities) and there was little “rigorous evaluation” of its effectiveness. But NASA’s emphasis on science and discovery was also praised.

Anecdotally, however, many astronauts and people within NASA have spoken about being inspired by watching missions such as Apollo take place. And the same is true of people who are peripherally involved in the field, too. (A personal example: this author first became interested in space in the mid-1990s through the movie Apollo 13, which led to her watching the space shuttle program more closely.)

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth's crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)
New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth’s crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

Intangible benefits

Added to this host of business-like benefits, of course, are the intangibles. What sort of value can you place on better understanding the universe? Think of finding methane on Mars, or discovering an exoplanet, or constructing the International Space Station to do long-term exploration studies. Each has a cost associated with it, but with each also comes a smidgeon of knowledge we can add to the encyclopedia of the human race.

Space can also inspire art, which is something seen heavily in 2014 following the arrival of the European Space Agency Rosetta mission at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It inspired songs, short videos and many other works of art. NASA’s missions, particularly those early space explorers of the 1950s and 1960s, inspired creations from people as famous as Norman Rockwell.

There also are benefits that maybe we cannot anticipate ahead of time. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a network that advocates looking for life around the universe, likely because communicating with beings outside of Earth could bring us some benefit. And perhaps there is another space-related discovery just around the corner that will change our lives drastically.

For more information, here is a Universe Today article about how we really watched television from the moon. We also collected some spin-offs from the Hubble Space Telescope. You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 144 Space Elevators.

What Is The Difference Between the Geocentric and Heliocentric Models of the Solar System?

The Solar System. Image Credit: NASA

What does our Solar System really look like? If we were to somehow fly ourselves above the plane where the Sun and the planets are, what would we see in the center of the Solar System? The answer took a while for astronomers to figure out, leading to a debate between what is known as the geocentric (Earth-centered) model and the heliocentric (Sun-centered model).

The ancients understood that there were certain bright points that would appear to move among the background stars. While who exactly discovered the “naked-eye” planets (the planets you can see without a telescope) is lost in antiquity, we do know that cultures all over the world spotted them.

The ancient Greeks, for example, considered the planets to include Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — as well as the Moon and the Sun. The Earth was in the center of it all (geocentric), with these planets revolving around it. So important did this become in culture that the days of the week were named after the gods, represented by these seven moving points of light.

All the same, not every Greek believed that the Earth was in the middle. Aristarchus of Samos, according to NASA, was the first known person to say that the Sun was in the center of the universe. He proposed this in the third century BCE. The idea never really caught on, and lay dormant (as far as we can tell) for several centuries.

Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. Credit: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. Credit: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Because European scholars relied on Greek sources for their education, for centuries most people followed the teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy, according to the Galileo Project at Rice University. But there were some things that didn’t make sense. For example, Mars occasionally appeared to move backward with respect to the stars before moving forward again. Ptolemy and others explained this using a system called epicycles, which had the planets moving in little circles within their greater orbits.

But by the fifteen and sixteenth centuries, astronomers in Europe were facing other problems, the project added. Eclipse tables were becoming inaccurate, sailors needed to keep track of their position when sailing out of sight of land (which led to a new method to measure longitude, based partly on accurate timepieces), and the calendar dating from the time of Julius Caesar (44 BCE) no longer was accurate in describing the equinox — a problem for officials concerned with the timing of religious holidays, primarily Easter. (The timing problem was later solved by resetting the calendar and instituting more scientifically rigorous leap years.)

While two 15th-century astronomers (Georg Peurbach and Johannes Regiomontanus) had already consulted the Greek texts for scientific errors, the project continued, it was Nicolaus Copernicus who took that understanding and applied it to astronomy. His observations would revolutionize our thinking of the world.

Retrograde motion of Mars. Image credit: NASA
Retrograde motion of Mars. Image credit: NASA

Published in 1543, Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies) outlined the heliocentric universe similar to what we know today. Among his ideas, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, was that the planets’ orbits should be plotted with respect to the “fixed point” Sun, that the Earth itself is a planet that turns on an axis, and that when the axis changes directions with respect to the stars, this causes the North Pole star to change over time (which is now known as the precession of the equinoxes.)

Putting the Sun at the center of our Solar System, other astronomers began to realize, simplified the orbits for the planets. And it helped explain what was so weird about Mars. The reason it backs up in the sky is the Earth has a smaller orbit than Mars. When Earth passes by Mars in its orbit, the planet appears to go backwards. Then when Earth finishes the pass, Mars appears to move forwards again.

Other supports for heliocentrism began to emerge as well. Johannes Kepler’s rules of motions of the planets (based on work from him and Tycho Brahe) are based on the heliocentric model. And in Isaac Newton’s Principia, the scientist described how the motions happen: a force called gravity, which appears to be “inversely proportional to the square of the distance between objects”, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Newton’s gravity theory was later supplanted by that of Albert Einstein, who in the early 20th century proposed that gravity is instead a warping of space-time by massive objects. That said, heliocentric calculations guide spacecraft in their orbits today and the model is the best way to describe how the Sun, planets and other objects move.

Universe Today has articles on both the heliocentric model and the geocentric model, and Astronomy Cast has an episode on the center of the universe.