It’s been almost 19 years since I founded Universe Today, back in March, 1999.
Back when I started, it was a primarily an email-based newsletter with an archive version on the web where people could read it if they wanted to.
The technology was pretty rudimentary at the time, so I had to do everything by hand, sending out a BCC email to thousands of people every day, eventually finding other email mailing list providers. At some point, I shifted from commentary and summaries to full on reporting on space news. And at that time, automated tools arrived that would take all the stories you wrote in a day, bundled them up and sent them out via email to a list of subscribers.
That was great and convenient for me, but it didn’t make for the best experience. It lost its soul.
A couple of months ago, I decided to return to my roots and continue maintaining a weekly email newsletter that summarizes some of the top stories that happened this week. And not just stories from here on Universe Today, but stories from across the Universe of space journalists and websites, including Space.com, Ars Technica, Ethan Siegel, Brian Koberlein, TheVerge and many more. I see more amazing things out there than we could ever report on. I figured I might as well share it.
Each edition of the weekly newsletter comes out on Friday, and is hand-written personally by me, and includes a few dozen summaries and links to stories on Universe Today and beyond, as well as cool pictures, videos, and astrophotography.
It’s time to do a little shameless self promotion for our tireless staff writer Matt Williams. In addition to pumping out an astonishing amount of space news here on Universe Today, Matt is also a science fiction author, having written 10! books. But in the last week, he’s reached a bit of a special milestone: he’s a published science fiction author, thanks to Castrum Press.
Matt’s new book is called The Cronian Incident, and it’s part 1 of a new series called the Formist Series.
Here’s the blurb:
Just another convict?
A disgraced investigator who once worked the Martian beat, Jeremiah Ward now serves his sentence in a mining colony on Mercury.
His golden opportunity arises when a member of a powerful faction on Titan vanishes and Ward is promised, in exchange for investigating this man’s disappearance, a clean slate and a second chance.
Unwittingly, Ward becomes embroiled in a conspiracy centuries in the making and begins to realise his one shot at redemption may cost him his life.
From terraforming to colonisation, to the Technological Singularity and the future of space exploration; The Cronian Incident is a must read for fans of mystery science fiction.
I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list. But I just wanted to give a huge congratulations to Matt. Setting aside the time to write an entire novel is an enormous achievement. To do it while you’re already working a full time job where you write all day? That’s hurculean.
And I know that much of Matt’s work here on Universe Today informed the science he’s using in his stories, especially some of the ideas about terraforming, exotic forms of propulsion, and the future of humanity in space.
If you’re like a lot of people, you don’t own a telescope but still have a passionate curiosity for what’s going on over your head. Good news! There’s lots to see up there without any equipment at all. This is the premise of my new book titled Night Sky with the Naked Eye, a guide to the wonders of the night sky that anyone can enjoy and understand whether you live in an apartment in the city or cabin 50 miles from nowhere.
I’ve always been amazed at how accessible the universe is. To make that personal connection to the cosmos we only need acquire the habit looking up. Total eclipses, monster auroras and rich meteor showers get a lot of coverage and rightly so, but there’s a lot of other stuff up there. Little things that stoke our sense of wonder happen all the time: Earth’s rising shadow at sunset, nightly satellite flyovers, the beauty of an earth-lit crescent moon or seeing your shadow by the light of Venus.
Skywatching not only informs and delights, it has the power to expand our perspective and sense of place in the scheme of things. Gazing up at the Milky Way on a dark summer night, we feel both humbled and fortunate to be alive. The night sky’s elixir of beauty, timelessness and possibility feeds an inner quietude that can be our strength in stressful times.
While the book touches on the contemplative aspects of skywatching, the bulk of it is activity-oriented, intended to inspire you to get outside. I’ve got tips on weather-watching and making the most of online resources like Clear Dark Sky and satellite imagery to help you find clear skies for that must-see special event. And if light pollution is a problem where you live, we explore ways to make a difference in reducing it as well as using online atlases to find a dark observing site.
The book covers the basics of celestial and planetary motions, how to find the brighter constellations and naked-eye deep sky objects along with suggested night sky viewing activities to share with friends and family. There are 1o chapters in all:
Chapter 1: Wave “Hi!” to the Astronauts
Chapter 2: Anticipating the Night
Chapter 3: Rockin’ N’ Rollin’ Earth
Chapter 4: Dive Into the Dippers
Chapter 5: Four Seasons of Starlight
Chapter 6: Meet the Rabbit in the Moon
Chapter 7: Face to Face with the Planets
Chapter 8: Wish Upon a Shooting Star
Chapter 9: Awed by Aurora
Chapter 10: Curiosities of the Night
Not everything is a billion miles away. We also take time to examine and appreciate closer-to-home phenomena that are part of the nighttime experience like lunar halos, light pillars and the aurora borealis. No observers’ guide would be complete without challenges. How about seeing craters on the moon with no optical aid or spotting the gegenschein? It’s all here.
Because the Internet has become an integral part of our lives, the book includes numerous online resources as well as useful mobile phone apps related to constellation finding and aurora tracking and tips on night sky photography.
Whether for yourself or to give as a holiday gift for a budding skywatcher, I hope you check out my book, which will be featured in a special promotion here at Universe Today. It would be my privilege to serve as your night sky guide.
Northern lights over Iceland filmed by Icelandic photographer Oli Haukur using a drone. Don’t forget to expand the screen.
I knew the era of real-time northern lights video was upon us. I just didn’t think drones would get into the act this soon. What was I thinking? They’re perfect for the job! If watching the aurora ever made you feel like you could fly, well now you can in Oli Haukur’s moving, real-time footage of an amazing aurora display filmed by drone.
Haukur hooked up a Sony a7S II digital camera and ultra-wide Sigma 20mm f/1.4 lens onto his DJI Matrice 600 hexacopter. The light from the gibbous moon illuminates the rugged shoreline and crashing waves of the Reykjanes Peninsula (The Steamy Peninsula) as while green curtains of aurora flicker above.
When the camera ascends over a sea stack, you can see gulls take off below, surprised by the mechanical bird buzzing just above their heads. Breathtaking. You might notice at the same time a flash of light — this is from the lighthouse beacon seen earlier in the video.
To capture his the footage, Haukur used a “fast” lens (one that needs only a small amount of light to make a picture) and an ISO of 25,600. The camera is capable of ISO 400,000, but the lower ISO provided greater resolution and color quality.
Moonlight provided all the light needed to bring out the landscape.
Remember when ISO 1600 or 3200 was as far you dared to go before the image turned to a grainy mush? Last year Canon released a camera that can literally see in the dark with a top ISO over 4,000,000! There’s no question we’ll be seeing more live aurora and drone aurora video in the coming months. Haukur plans additional shoots this winter and early next spring. Living in Iceland, which lies almost directly beneath the permanent auroral oval, you can schedule these sort of things!
Am I allowed one tiny criticism? I want more — a minute and a half is barely enough! Haukur shot plenty but released only a taste to social media to prove it could be done and share the joy. Let’s hope he compiles the rest and makes it available for us to lose our selves in soon.
Outer space touches us in so many ways. Meteors from ancient asteroid collisions and dust spalled from comets slam into our atmosphere every day, most of it unseen. Cosmic rays ionize the atoms in our upper air, while the solar wind finds crafty ways to invade the planetary magnetosphere and set the sky afire with aurora. We can’t even walk outside on a sunny summer day without concern for the Sun’s ultraviolet light burning out skin.
So perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised that over the course of Earth’s history, our planet has also been affected by one of the most cataclysmic events the universe has to offer: the explosion of a supergiant star in a Type II supernova event. After the collapse of the star’s core, the outgoing shock wave blows the star to pieces, both releasing and creating a host of elements. One of those is iron-60. While most of the iron in the universe is iron-56, a stable atom made up of 26 protons and 30 neutrons, iron-60 has four additional neutrons that make it an unstable radioactive isotope.
If a supernova occurs sufficiently close to our Solar System, it’s possible for some of the ejecta to make its way all the way to Earth. How might we detect these stellar shards? One way would be to look for traces of unique isotopes that could only have been produced by the explosion. A team of German scientists did just that. In a paper published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report the detection of iron-60 in biologically produced nanocrystals of magnetite in two sediment cores drilled from the Pacific Ocean.
Magnetite is an iron-rich mineral naturally attracted to a magnet just as a compass needle responds to Earth’s magnetic field. Magnetotactic bacteria, a group of bacteria that orient themselves along Earth’s magnetic field lines, contain specialized structures called magnetosomes, where they store tiny magnetic crystals – primarily as magnetite (or greigite, an iron sulfide) in long chains. It’s thought nature went to all this trouble to help the creatures find water with the optimal oxygen concentration for their survival and reproduction. Even after they’re dead, the bacteria continue to align like microscopic compass needles as they settle to the bottom of the ocean.
After the bacteria die, they decay and dissolve away, but the crystals are sturdy enough to be preserved as chains of magnetofossils that resemble beaded garlands on the family Christmas tree. Using a mass spectrometer, which teases one molecule from another with killer accuracy, the team detected “live” iron-60 atoms in the fossilized chains of magnetite crystals produced by the bacteria. Live meaning still fresh. Since the half-life of iron-60 is only 2.6 million years, any primordial iron-60 that seeded the Earth in its formation has long since disappeared. If you go digging around now and find iron-60, you’re likely looking at at a supernova as the smoking gun.
Co-authors Peter Ludwig and Shawn Bishop, along with the team, found that the supernova material arrived at Earth about 2.7 million years ago near the boundary of the Pleistocene and Pliocene epochs and rained down for all of 800,000 years before coming to an end around 1.7 million years ago. If ever a hard rain fell.
The peak concentration occurred about 2.2 million years ago, the same time our early human ancestors, Homo habilis, were chipping tools from stone. Did they witness the appearance of a spectacularly bright “new star” in the night sky? Assuming the supernova wasn’t obscured by cosmic dust, the sight must have brought our bipedal relations to their knees.
There’s even a possibility that an increase in cosmic rays from the event affected our atmosphere and climate and possibly led to a minor die-off at the time. Africa’s climate dried out and repeated cycles of glaciation became common as global temperatures continued their cooling trend from the Pliocene into the Pleistocene.
Cosmic rays, which are extremely fast-moving, high-energy protons and atomic nucleic, rip up molecules in the atmosphere and can even penetrate down to the surface during a nearby supernova explosion, within about 50 light years of the Sun. The high dose of radiation would put life at risk, while at the same time providing a surge in the number of mutations, one of the creative forces driving the diversity of life over the history of our planet. Life — always a story of taking the good with the bad.
The discovery of iron-60 further cements our connection to the universe at large. Indeed, bacteria munching on supernova ash adds a literal twist to the late Carl Sagan’s famous words: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.” Big or small, we owe our lives to the synthesis of elements within the bellies of stars.
Kitchens are where we create. From crumb cake to corn on the cob, it happens here. If you’re like me, you’ve occasionally left a turkey too long in the oven or charred the grilled chicken. When meat gets burned, among the smells informing your nose of the bad news are flat molecules consisting of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern called PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
PAHs make up about 10% of the carbon in the universe and are not only found in your kitchen but also in outer space, where they were discovered in 1998. Even comets and meteorites contain PAHs. From the illustration, you can see they’re made up of several to many interconnected rings of carbon atoms arranged in different ways to make different compounds. The more rings, the more complex the molecule, but the underlying pattern is the same for all.
All life on Earth is based on carbon. A quick look at the human body reveals that 18.5% of it is made of that element alone. Why is carbon so crucial? Because it’s able to bond to itself and a host of other atoms in a variety of ways to create a lots of complex molecules that allow living organisms to perform many functions. Carbon-rich PAHs may even have been involved in the evolution of life since they come in many forms with potentially many functions. One of those may have been to encourage the formation of RNA (partner to the “life molecule” DNA).
In the continuing quest to learn how simple carbon molecules evolve into more complex ones and what role those compounds might play in the origin of life, an international team of researchers have focused NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and other observatories on PAHs found within the colorful Iris Nebula in the northern constellation Cepheus the King.
Bavo Croiset of Leiden University in the Netherlands and team determined that when PAHs in the nebula are hit by ultraviolet radiation from its central star, they evolve into larger, more complex molecules. Scientists hypothesize that the growth of complex organic molecules like PAHs is one of the steps leading to the emergence of life.
Strong UV light from a newborn massive star like the one that sets the Iris Nebula aglow would tend to break down large organic molecules into smaller ones, rather than build them up, according to the current view. To test this idea, researchers wanted to estimate the size of the molecules at various locations relative to the central star.
Croiset’s team used SOFIA to get above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere so he could observe the nebula in infrared light, a form of light invisible to our eyes that we detect as heat. SOFIA’s instruments are sensitive to two infrared wavelengths that are produced by these particular molecules, which can be used to estimate their size. The team analyzed the SOFIA images in combination with data previously obtained by the Spitzer infrared space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The analysis indicates that the size of the PAH molecules in this nebula vary by location in a clear pattern. The average size of the molecules in the nebula’s central cavity surrounding the young star is larger than on the surface of the cloud at the outer edge of the cavity. They also got a surprise: radiation from the star resulted in net growth in the number of complex PAHs rather than their destruction into smaller pieces.
In a paper published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, the team concluded that this molecular size variation is due both to some of the smallest molecules being destroyed by the harsh ultraviolet radiation field of the star, and to medium-sized molecules being irradiated so they combine into larger molecules.
So much starts with stars. Not only do they create the carbon atoms at the foundation of biology, but it would appear they shepherd them into more complex forms, too. Truly, we can thank our lucky stars!
The Perseid meteor shower must have looked fantastic from 10,000 feet. That’s how high you would have had to go to get past the pervasive fog and overcast skies at my home last night. Tonight looks a little better for weather, so I’ll do what all hopeful amateurs astronomers do. Set the alarm for 2 a.m. and peek out the shade looking for those glimmers of starlight that indicate clear skies.
From observations reported as of mid-afternoon to the International Meteor Observers 2016 Perseids Quick-Look site, it appears the greatest activity or highest meteor counts happened over Europe and points east in two outbursts: a brief but intense display around 23:15 Universal Time (6:15 p.m. CDT in daylight) August 11 when some observers briefly saw up to 15 Perseids a minute (!) with many bright ones, and a second peak starting around 2:00 UT (9 p.m. CDT) and lasting till 5:00 UT (midnight CDT).
90+ Perseid meteors captured on video August 11-12, 2016 by Ohio amateur John Chumack
While Europeans clearly hit the jackpot — some observers calling it the best since the 2002 Leonid storm — U.S. observers varied in their meteor counts. A few thought the shower was a bust, others reported numbers more typical of an “average year” shower. It appears that Earth passed through a dense filament of comet dust while it was night in Europe but late afternoon in the Americas. C’est la vie météore!
We should be past peak by today, but experience shows that tonight should still be a very good time for Perseid watching. Indeed, the next few nights will reward skywatchers with at least a dozen an hour. I’ll be out watching and hopefully not imagining what’s happening 10,000 feet over my head. Good luck to you too!
When it comes to my style of photography, preparation is a key element in getting the shot I want.
On this specific day, we were actually planning on only shooting the low Atlantic clouds coming into the city of Cape Town. This in itself takes a lot of preparation as we had to keep a close eye on the weather forecasts for weeks using Yr.no, and the conditions are still unpredictable at best even with the latest weather forecasting technology.
We set out with cameras and camping gear with the purpose of setting up camp high up on Table Mountain so as to get a clear view over the city. The hike is extremely challenging at night, especially with a 15kg backpack on your back! We reached our campsite at about 11pm, and then started setting up our cameras for the low clouds predicted to move into the city at about 3am the next morning. For the next 2 hours or so we scouted for the best locations and compositions, and then tried to get a few hours of sleep in before the clouds arrived.
At about 3am I was woken up by fellow photographer Brendon Wainwright. I realised that he had been up all night shooting timelapses, and getting pretty impressive astro shots even though we were in the middle of the city. I noticed that the clouds had rolled in a bit earlier than predicted and had created a thick blanket over the city, which was acting as a natural light pollution filter.
I looked up at the skies and for the first time in my life I was able to see the core of the Milky Way in the middle of the city! This is when everything changed, the mission immediately became an astrophotography mission, as these kind of conditions are extremely rare in the city.
After shooting the city and clouds for a while, I turned my focus to the Milky Way. I knew I was only going to have this one opportunity to capture an arching Milky Way over a city covered with clouds, so I had to work fast to get the perfect composition before the clouds changed or faded away.
I set my tripod on top of a large rock that gave me a bit of extra height so that I could get as much of the city lights in the shot as possible. The idea I had in my mind was to shoot a panorama from the center of the city to the Twelve Apostles Mountains in the southwest. This was a pretty large area to cover, plus the Milky Way was pretty much straight above us which meant I had to shoot a massive field of view in order to get both the city and the Milky Way.
The final hurdle was to get myself into the shot, which meant that I had to stand on a 200m high sheer cliff edge! Luckily this was only necessary for one frame in the entire panorama.
Gear and settings
I usually shoot with a Canon 70D with an 18mm f/3.5 lens and a Hahnel Triad 40Lite tripod. This particular night I forgot to bring a spare battery for my Canon and by the time I wanted to shoot this photo, my one battery had already died!
I think this photo is a testament to the fact that your gear is not nearly as important as your technique and knowledge of your surroundings and your camera.
I started off by shooting the first horizontal line of photos, in landscape orientation, to form the bottom edge of the final stitched photo. From there I ended up shooting 6 rows of 7 photos each in order to capture the whole view I wanted. This gave me 42 photos in total.
For the most part, my settings were 25 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 2000, with the ISO dropped on a few of the pictures where the city light was too bright. I shot all the photos in raw as to get as much data out of each frame as possible.
Astrophotography is all about the editing techniques.
In this scenario I had to stitch 42 photos into one photo. Normally I would just use the built-in function in Lightroom, but in this case I had to use software called PTGui Pro, which is made for stitching difficult panoramas. This software enables me to choose control points on the overlapping images in order to line up the photos perfectly.
After creating the panorama in PTGui Pro, I exported it as a TIFF file and then imported that file into Lightroom again. Keep in mind that this one file is now 3GB as it is made up of 42 RAW files!
In Lightroom I went through my normal workflow to bring out the detail in the Milky Way by boosting the highlights a bit, adding contrast, a bit of clarity, and bringing out some shadows in the landscape. The most difficult part was to clear up the distortion that was caused by the faint clouds in the sky between individual images. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to blend so many images together perfectly when you have faint clouds in the sky that form and disappear within minutes, but I think I did the best job I could to even out the bad areas.
A special event
After the final touches were made and the photo was complete, I realized that I had captured something really unique. It’s not every day that you see low clouds hanging over the city, and you almost never see the Milky Way so bright above the city, and I managed to capture both in one image!
The response to the image after posting it to my Instagram account was extremely overwhelming. I got people from all over the world wanting to purchase the image and it got shared hundreds of time across all social media.
It just shows you that planning and dedication does pay off!
Way up in the constellation Cancer there’s a 14th magnitude speck of light you can claim in a 10-inch or larger telescope. If you saw it, you might sniff at something so insignificant, yet it represents the final farewell of chewed up stars as their remains whirl down the throat of an 18 billion solar mass black hole, one of the most massive known in the universe.
Astronomers know the object as OJ 287, a quasar that lies 3.5 billion light years from Earth. Quasars or quasi-stellar objects light up the centers of many remote galaxies. If we could pull up for a closer look, we’d see a brilliant, flattened accretion disk composed of heated star-stuff spinning about the central black hole at extreme speeds.
As matter gets sucked down the hole, jets of hot plasma and energetic light shoot out perpendicular to the disk. And if we’re so privileged that one of those jet happens to point directly at us, we call the quasar a “blazar”. Variability of the light streaming from the heart of a blazar is so constant, the object practically flickers.
A recent observational campaign involving more than two dozen optical telescopes and NASA’s space based SWIFT X-ray telescope allowed a team of astronomers to measure very accurately the rotational rate the black hole powering OJ 287 at one third the maximum spin rate — about 56,000 miles per second (90,000 kps) — allowed in General Relativity A careful analysis of these observations show that OJ 287 has produced close-to-periodic optical outbursts at intervals of approximately 12 years dating back to around 1891. A close inspection of newer data sets reveals the presence of double-peaks in these outbursts.
To explain the blazar’s behavior, Prof. Mauri Valtonen of the University of Turku (Finland) and colleagues developed a model that beautifully explains the data if the quasar OJ 287 harbors not one buy two unequal mass black holes — an 18 billion mass one orbited by a smaller black hole.
OJ 287 is visible due to the streaming of matter present in the accretion disk onto the largest black hole. The smaller black hole passes through the larger’s the accretion disk during its orbit, causing the disk material to briefly heat up to very high temperatures. This heated material flows out from both sides of the accretion disk and radiates strongly for weeks, causing the double peak in brightness.
The orbit of the smaller black hole also precesses similar to how Mercury’s orbit precesses. This changes when and where the smaller black hole passes through the accretion disk. After carefully observing eight outbursts of the black hole, the team was able to determine not only the black holes’ masses but also the precession rate of the orbit. Based on Valtonen’s model, the team predicted a flare in late November 2015, and it happened right on schedule.
The timing of this bright outburst allowed Valtonen and his co-workers to directly measure the rotation rate of the more massive black hole to be nearly 1/3 the speed of light. I’ve checked around and as far as I can tell, this would make it the fastest spinning object we know of in the universe. Getting dizzy yet?
Whenever I go to the post office to pick up stamps I always ask for the most colorful ones. No dead president heads for me. Mailing letters is a rare thing nowadays — might as well choose something colorful and interesting. How sweet then that we’ll soon be able to pick and stick our favorite planets (and dwarf planet!) on the mail and send them flying off to far places.
The U.S. Postal Service sneak-previewed a new series of stamps earlier this year highlighting NASA’s Planetary Science program, including a do-over of a famous Pluto stamp commemorating the New Horizons’ historic 2015 flyby. Also in the works are eight new colorful Forever stamps featuring NASA images of the planets, a Global Forever stamp dedicated to Earth’s moon and a tribute to 50 years of Star Trek.
The New Horizons team, which placed a 29-cent 1991 “Pluto: Not Yet Explored” stamp on board the New Horizons spacecraft, is thrilled at the updated stamp recognizing the mission.
“The New Horizons project is proud to have such an important honor from the U.S. Postal Service,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute. “Since the early 1990s the old, ‘Pluto Not Explored’ stamp served as a rallying cry for many who wanted to mount this historic mission of space exploration. Now that NASA’s New Horizons has accomplished that goal, it’s a wonderful feeling to see these new stamps join others commemorating first explorations of the planets.”
In the upcoming planet series, we’re treated to a color-enhanced Mercury taken by MESSENGER highlighting the planet’s varied terrains. Venus appears in all its naked volcanic glory courtesy of the Magellan probe which mapped the planet using cloud-penetrating radar. Like Mercury, it’s also color-enhanced since it’s impossible to see the surface in visual light even from orbit. Earth and Mars were photographed in natural light with orbiting satellites in tow.
The Hubble Space Telescope photographed Jupiter in infrared light in 2004, capturing a rare triple transit of the moons Ganymede, Io and Callisto. Saturn comes to us from the Cassini probe, still in good health and routinely sending gorgeous images every month of the ringed planet and its moons. Pity the rings had to be trimmed, but it had to be done to keep all the globes close to the same relative size. Hubble took Uranus’ picture in infrared light, while the Neptune close-up was sent by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989.
2016 also marks the 50th anniversary of the television premier of StarTrek, which the post office will commemorate with the new Star Trek Forever stamps. They feature four digital illustrations inspired by the television program: the Starship Enterprise inside the outline of a Starfleet insignia, the silhouette of a crewman in a transporter, the silhouette of the Enterprise from above and the Enterprise inside the outline of the Vulcan salute.
The Global Moon stamp was issued on Feb. 22. You can pre-order the Pluto and planet stamps from USPS.com 30 days before their dedication between May 28 and June 4 at the World Stamp Show in New York. Expect the Star Trek series sometime this summer.