Comet Elenin: Just Passing By


It starts out innocently enough: a small speck against a field of background stars, barely noticeable in the image data. But… it’s a speck that wasn’t there before. Subsequent images confirm its existence – there’s something out there. Something bright, something large, and it’s moving through our solar system very quickly. The faint blur indicates that it’s a comet, an icy visitor from the outermost reaches of the solar system. And it’s headed straight toward Earth.

Exhaustive calculations are run and re-run. Computer simulations are executed. All possibilities are taken into consideration, and yet there’s no alternative to be found; our world will face a close encounter with a comet in mere months’ time. Phone calls are made, a flurry of electronic messages fly between computer terminals across the world, consultations are held with top experts in the field. We are unprepared… what can we do? What does this mean for civilization as we know it? What will this speeding icy bullet from outer space do to our planet?

The answer? Nothing.

Nothing at all. In fact, it probably won’t even be very interesting to look at – if you can even find it when it passes by.

(Sorry for the let-down.)

There’s been a lot of buzz in the past several months regarding Comet Elenin, a.k.a. C/2010 X1,  which was discovered by Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin on December 10, 2010. Elenin spotted the comet using a telescope in New Mexico remotely from his location in Lyubertsy, Russia. At that time it was about 647 million kilometers (401 million miles) from Earth… in the time since it has closed the distance considerably, and is now around 270 million km away. Elenin is a long-period comet, which means it has a rather large orbit around the Sun… it comes in from a vast distance, swings around the Sun and heads back out to the depths of the solar system – a round trip lasting over 10,000 years. During its current trip it will pass by Earth on October 16, coming as close as 35 million km (22 million miles).

Elenin's orbit via the JPL Small-Body Database Browser

Yes, 22 million miles.

That’s pretty far.

Way too far for us to be affected by anything a comet has to offer. Especially a not-particularly-large comet like Elenin.

Some of the doomy-gloomy internet sites have been mentioning the size of Elenin as being 80,000 km across. This is a scary, exaggerated number that may be referring to the size of Elenin’s coma – a hazy cloud of icy particles that surrounds a much, much smaller nucleus. The coma can be extensive but is insubstantial; it’s akin to icy cigarette smoke. Less than that, in fact… a comet’s coma and tail are even more of a vacuum than can be reproduced in a lab on Earth! In reality most comets have a nucleus smaller than 10km…that’s less than a billionth the mass of Earth (and a far cry from 80,000 km.) We have no reason to think that Elenin is any larger than this – it’s most likely smaller.

Ok, but how about the gravitational and/or magnetic effect of a comet passing by Earth? That’s surely got to do something, right? To Earth’s crust, or the tides? For the answer to that, I will refer to Don Yeomans, a researcher at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL:

“Comet Elenin will not only be far away, it is also on the small side for comets. And comets are not the most densely-packed objects out there. They usually have the density of something akin to loosely packed icy dirt,” said Yeomans. “So you’ve got a modest-sized icy dirtball that is getting no closer than 35 million kilometers. It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean’s tides than comet Elenin ever will.”

“It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean’s tides than comet Elenin ever will.”

– Don Yeomans, NASA / JPL

And as far as the effect from Elenin’s magnetic field goes… well, there is no effect. Elenin, like all comets, doesn’t have a magnetic field. Not much else to say there.

But the claims surrounding Elenin have gone much further toward the absurd. That it’s going to encounter another object and change course to one that will cause it to impact Earth, or that it’s not a comet at all but actually a planet – Nibiru, perhaps? – and is on a collision course with our own. Or (and I particularly like this one) that alien spaceships are trailing Elenin in such a way as to remain undetected until it’s too late and then they’ll take over Earth, stealing our water and natural resources and turning us all into slaves and/or space munchies… or however the stories go. (Of course the government and NASA and Al Gore and Al Gore’s hamster are all in cahoots and are withholding this information from the rest of us. That’s a given.) These stories are all just that – stories – and have not a shred of science to them, other than a heaping dose of science fiction.

“We live in nervous times, and conspiracy theories and predictions of disaster are more popular than ever. I like to use the word cosmophobia for this growing fear of astronomical objects and phenomena, which periodically runs amuck on the Internet. Ironically, in pre-scientific times, comets were often thought to be harbingers of disaster, mostly because they seemed to arrive unpredictably – unlike the movements of the planets and stars, which could be tracked on a daily and yearly basis.”

– David Morrison, planetary astronomer and senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center

The bottom line is this: Comet C/2010 X1 Elenin is coming, and it will pass by Earth at an extremely safe distance – 100 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. It will not be changing direction between now and then, it will not exert any gravitational effect on Earth, its magnetic field is nonexistent and there are no Star Destroyers cruising in its wake. The biggest effect it will have on Earth is what we are able to learn about it as it passes – after all, it is a visitor from the far reaches of our solar system and we won’t be seeing it again for a very, very long time.

I’m sure we’ll have found something else to be worried about long before then.

“This intrepid little traveler will offer astronomers a chance to study a relatively young comet that came here from well beyond our solar system’s planetary region. After a short while, it will be headed back out again, and we will not see or hear from Elenin for thousands of years. That’s pretty cool.”

– Don Yeomans

For more information about Elenin, check out this JPL news release featuring Don Yeomans, and there’s a special public issue of Astronomy Beat, a newsletter from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, that features David Morrison of NASA’s Ames Research Center discussing many of the misconceptions about Elenin.

An updated chart of Elenin’s orbit and statistics can be viewed here.

Top image © Jason Major

Helmholtz Coil

[/caption]A magnetic field is a pretty awesome thing. As a fundamental force of the universe, they are something without which, planetary orbits, moving electrical charges, or even elementary particles could not exist. It is therefore intrinsic to scientific research that we be able to generate magnetic fields ourselves for the purpose of studying electromagnetism and its fundamental characteristics. One way to do this is with a device known as the Helmholtz Coil, an instrument that is named in honor of German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), a scientist and philosopher who made fundamental contributions to the fields of physiology, optics, mathematics, and meteorology in addition to electrodynamics.

A Helmholtz coil is a device for producing a region of nearly uniform magnetic field. It consists of two identical circular magnetic coils that are placed symmetrically, one on each side of the experimental area along a common axis, and separated by a distance (h) equal to the radius (R) of the coil. Each coil carries an equal electrical current flowing in the same direction. A number of variations exist, including use of rectangular coils, and numbers of coils other than two. However, a two-coil Helmholtz pair is the standard model, with coils that are circular and in shape and flat on the sides. In such a device, electric current is passed through the coil for the purpose of creating a very uniform magnetic field.

Helmholtz coils are used for a variety of purposes. In one instance, they were used in an argon tube experiment to measure the charge to mass ratio (e:m)of electrons. In addition, they are often used to measure the strength and fields of permanent magnets. In order to do this, the coil pair is connected to a fluxmeter, a device which contains measuring coils and electronics that evaluate the change of voltage in the measuring coils to calculate the overall magnetic flux.In some applications, a Helmholtz coil is used to cancel out Earth’s magnetic field, producing a region with a magnetic field intensity much closer to zero. This can be used to see how electrical charges and magnetic fields operate when not acted on by the gravitational pull of the Earth or other celestial bodies.

In a Helmholtz girl, the magnetic flux density of a field generated (represented by B) can be expressed mathematically by the equation:

Where R is the radius of the coils, n is the number of turns in each coil, I is the current flowing through the coils, and ?0 is the permeability of free space (1.26 x 10-6 T • m/A).

We have written many articles about the Helmholtz Coil for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the right hand rule magnetic field, and here’s an article about magnetic field.

If you’d like more info on the Helmholtz Coil, check out an article from Hyperphysics. Also, here’s another article about the Helmholtz Coil.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Magnetism. Listen here, Episode 42: Magnetism Everywhere.


Magnetic Fields on O-Class Stars


The primary method by which astronomers can measure magnetic field strength on stars is the Zeeman effect. This effect is the splitting of spectral lines into two due to the magnetic field’s effect on the quantum structure of the orbitals. For massive O-class stars, their spectra are largely featureless in the visual portion of the spectra due to an insufficient number of atoms with electrons in the necessary orbitals to undergo transitions which can produce visual spectral lines. Thus, determining whether or not these stars have magnetic fields has been a unique challenge. A new paper from researchers at the University of Amsterdam, led by Roald Schnerr, looks for evidence of these fields in the form of synchrotron radiation.

Synchrotron radiation is a form of light produced when relativistic, charged particles move through a magnetic field. The light emitted can be generated in any portion of the spectra from radio to gamma rays, depending on the strength of the field. Astronomically, this was first detected in 1956 by Geoffrey Burbidge in the jets of M87 and has since been used to explain emission in planetary magnetospheres, supernovae, near black holes, and around pulsars.

This form of energy distinguishes itself from other forms of light in two main fashions. The first is that it is highly polarized. This property is generated by the electric and magnetic components always being in the same planes and can be studied with filters that only allow light with its fields in appropriate planes to pass. The second is that the radiation created is “non-thermal”. In other words, it doesn’t match the distribution of wavelengths generated by a blackbody.

Models of massive, O-class stars suggest they should contain magnetic fields. Some evidence has seemed to confirm this. Previous studies have also shown that the stellar winds from some of these stars varies with timescales similar to the rotation rates of the stars which could be interpreted as winds being slowed on some faces by the magnetic field as it swept by.

Schnerr’s team attempted to bolster the evidence for magnetic fields by detecting the non-thermal radiation from these stars. The team selected 5 stars which have been shown to have strongly variable winds, some with cyclic variations and used the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope, in the Netherlands to search for non-blackbody signals. The radio range was selected due to the predicted magnetic field strength.

Ultimately, only three of the five selected targets could be observed with the chosen telescope and only one of those, ξ Persei, showed evidence of a non-thermal spectrum. But while this strengthens the case for magnetic fields on the star, it raises another question: From where do the relativistic particles originate? Although O-class stars have strong stellar winds, their speeds are well studied and well below the necessary velocity.

One clue could come from the fact that ξ Persei is a “runaway star”. These stars have velocities and plunge through the interstellar medium at 30-200 km/sec. The team suggests that a bow shock created by this motion could result in sufficiently high velocities. Whether or not ξ Per has such a bow shock is something that could be determined with additional observations.

While this research provides some interesting clues to the nature of these magnetic fields on these stars, it still relies on a small sample. This technique can certainly be expanded to a larger number of stars in the future and may help astronomers better constrain their models of stellar workings.

How Do Magnets Work

How Do Magnets Work

We have all played with magnets from time to time. Every time you do, you have asked yourself ‘how do magnets work?’ Many of us understand that magnets have two different charges and that like charges repel each other, but that still does not explain how a magnet works. Below is an attempt to explain the basics behind the secret inner workings of the mysterious magnet.

A magnet is any material or object that produces a magnetic field. This magnetic field is responsible for the property of a magnet: a force that pulls on other ferromagnetic materials and attracts or repels other magnets. A permanent magnet is an object made from a material that is magnetized and creates its own persistent magnetic field. Materials that can be magnetized, which are strongly attracted to a magnet, are called ferromagnetic. Although ferromagnetic materials are the only ones attracted to a magnet strongly enough to be commonly considered magnetic, all other substances respond weakly to a magnetic field.

Some facts about magnets include:

  • the north pole of the magnet points to the geomagnetic north pole (a south magnetic pole) located in Canada above the Arctic Circle.
  • north poles repel north poles
  • south poles repel south poles
  • north poles attract south poles
  • south poles attract north poles
  • the force of attraction or repulsion varies inversely with the distance squared
  • the strength of a magnet varies at different locations on the magnet
  • magnets are strongest at their poles
  • magnets strongly attract steel, iron, nickel, cobalt, gadolinium
  • magnets slightly attract liquid oxygen and other materials
  • magnets slightly repel water, carbon and boron

The mechanics of how do magnets work really breaks right down to the atomic level. When current flows in a wire a magnetic field is created around the wire. Current is simply a bunch of moving electrons, and moving electrons make a magnetic field. This is how electromagnets are made to work.

Around the nucleus of the atom there are electrons. Scientists used to think that they had circular orbits, but have discovered that things are much more complicated. Actually, the patterns of the electron within one of these orbitals takes into account Schroedinger’s wave equations. Electrons occupy certain shells that surround the nucleus of the atom. These shells have been given letter names K,L,M,N,O,P,Q. They have also been given number names, such as 1,2,3,4,5,6,7(think quantum mechanics). Within the shell, there may exist subshells or orbitals, with letter names such as s,p,d,f. Some of these orbitals look like spheres, some like an hourglass, still others like beads. The K shell contains an s orbital called a 1s orbital. The L shell contains an s and p orbital called a 2s and 2p orbital. The M shell contains an s, p and d orbital called a 3s, 3p and 3d orbital. The N, O, P and Q shells each contain an s, p, d and f orbital called a 4s, 4p, 4d, 4f, 5s, 5p, 5d, 5f, 6s, 6p, 6d, 6f, 7s, 7p, 7d and 7f orbital. These orbitals also have various sub-orbitals. Each can only contain a certain number of electrons. A maximum of 2 electrons can occupy a sub-orbital where one has a spin of up, the other has a spin of down. There can not be two electrons with spin up in the same sub-orbital(the Pauli exclusion principal). Also, when you have a pair of electrons in a sub-orbital, their combined magnetic fields will cancel each other out. If you are confuse, you are not alone. Many people get lost here and just wonder about magnets instead of researching further.

When you look at the ferromagnetic metals it is hard to see why they are so different form the elements next to them on the periodic table. It is generally accepted that ferromagnetic elements have large magnetic moments because of un-paired electrons in their outer orbitals. The spin of the electron is also thought to create a minute magnetic field. These fields have a compounding effect, so when you get a bunch of these fields together, they add up to bigger fields.

To wrap things up on ‘how do magnets work?’, the atoms of ferromagnetic materials tend to have their own magnetic field created by the electrons that orbit them. Small groups of atoms tend to orient themselves in the same direction. Each of these groups is called a magnetic domain. Each domain has its own north pole and south pole. When a piece of iron is not magnetized the domains will not be pointing in the same direction, but will be pointing in random directions canceling each other out and preventing the iron from having a north or south pole or being a magnet. If you introduce current(magnetic field), the domains will start to line up with the external magnetic field. The more current applied, the higher the number of aligned domains. As the external magnetic field becomes stronger, more and more of the domains will line up with it. There will be a point where all of the domains within the iron are aligned with the external magnetic field(saturation), no matter how much stronger the magnetic field is made. After the external magnetic field is removed, soft magnetic materials will revert to randomly oriented domains; however, hard magnetic materials will keep most of their domains aligned, creating a strong permanent magnet. So, there you have it.

We have written many articles about magnets for Universe Today. Here’s an article about bar magnets, and here’s an article about super magnets.

If you’d like more info on magnets, check out some cool experiments with magnets, and here’s a link to an article about super magnets by Wise Geek.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Magnetism. Listen here, Episode 42: Magnetism Everywhere.

Wise Geek
Wikipedia: Magnet
Wikipedia: Ferromagnetism

Electric Resistance May Make Hot Jupiters Puffy

The Sun’s magnetic field

One of the surprises coming from the discoveries of the class of exoplanets known as “Hot Jupiters” is that they are puffed up beyond what would be expected from their temperature alone. The interpretation of these inflated radii is that extra energy must be being deposited in the regions of the atmosphere with large amounts of circulation. This extra energy would be deposited as heat, causing the atmosphere to expand. But from where was this extra energy coming? New research is suggesting that ionized winds passing through magnetic fields may create this process. Continue reading “Electric Resistance May Make Hot Jupiters Puffy”

What are Magnets Made Of



Magnets are the unsung heroes of the Modern Age. However most people don’t really understand what are magnets made of and how they even work. The issue is that we just know that magnets attract iron and nickel. However, magnets have a very interesting origin and can be seen as a physical manifestation of the electromagnetic force.

All magnets are made of a group of metals called the ferromagnetic metals. These are metals such as nickel and iron. Each of these metals have the special property of being able to be magnetized uniformly. When we ask how a magnet works we are simply asking how the object we call a magnet exerts it’s magnetic field. The answer is actually quite interesting.

In every material there are several small magnetic fields called domains. Most of the times these domains are independent of each other and face different directions. However, a strong magnetic field can arrange the domains of any ferromagnetic metal so that they align to make a larger and stronger magnetic field. This is how most magnets are made.

The major difference among magnets is whether they are permanent or temporary. Temporary magnets lose their larger magnetic field over time as the domains return to their original positions. The most common way that magnets are produced is by heating them to their Curie temperature or beyond. The Curie temperature is the temperature at which a ferromagnetic metals gains magnetic properties. Heating a ferromagnetic material to its given temperature will make it magnetic for a while. While heating it beyond this point can make the magnetism permanent. Ferromagnetic materials can also be categorized into soft and hard metals. Soft metals loses their magnetic field over time after being magnetized while hard metals are likely candidates for becoming permanent magnets.

Not all magnets are manmade. Some magnets occur naturally in nature such as lodestone. This mineral was used in ancient times to make the first compasses. However, magnets have other uses. With the discovery of the relation between magnetism and electricity, magnets are now a major part of every electric motor and turbine in existence. Magnets have also been used in storing computer data. There is now a type of drive called a solid state drive that allows data to still be saved more efficiently on computers.

We have written many articles about magnets for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Earth’s magnetic field, and here’s an article about the bar magnet.

If you’d like more info on Magnets, check out NASA’s Discussion on Magnets, and here’s a link to an article about Magnetic Fields.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Magnetism. Listen here, Episode 42: Magnetism Everywhere.


Magnetic Fields in Spiral Galaxies – Explained at Last?

That spiral galaxies have magnetic fields has been known for well over half a century (and predictions that they should exist preceded discovery by several years), and some galaxies’ magnetic fields have been mapped in great detail.

But how did these magnetic fields come to have the characteristics we observe them to have? And how do they persist?

A recent paper by UK astronomers Stas Shabala, James Mead, and Paul Alexander may contain answers to these questions, with four physical processes playing a key role: infall of cool gas onto the disk, supernova feedback (these two increase the magnetohydrodynamical turbulence), star formation (this removes gas and hence turbulent energy from the cold gas), and differential galactic rotation (this continuously transfers field energy from the incoherent random field into an ordered field). However, at least one other key process is needed, because the astronomers’ models are inconsistent with the observed fields of massive spiral galaxies.

“Radio synchrotron emission of high energy electrons in the interstellar medium (ISM) indicates the presence of magnetic fields in galaxies. Rotation measures (RM) of background polarized sources indicate two varieties of field: a random field, which is not coherent on scales larger than the turbulence of the ISM; and a spiral ordered field which exhibits large-scale coherence,” the authors write. “For a typical galaxy these fields have strengths of a few μG. In a galaxy such as M51, the coherent magnetic field is observed to be associated with the optical spiral arms. Such fields are important in star formation and the physics of cosmic rays, and could also have an effect on galaxy evolution, yet, despite their importance, questions about their origin, evolution and structure remain largely unsolved.”

This field in astrophysics is making rapid progress, with understanding of how the random field is generated having become reasonably well-established only in the last decade or so (it’s generated by turbulence in the ISM, modeled as a single-phase magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) fluid, within which magnetic field lines are frozen). On the other hand, the production of the large-scale field by the winding of the random fields into a spiral, by differential rotation (a dynamo), has been known for much longer.

The details of how the ordered field in spirals formed as those galaxies themselves formed – within a few hundred million years of the decoupling of baryonic matter and radiation (that gave rise to the cosmic microwave background we see today) – are becoming clear, though testing these hypotheses is not yet possible, observationally (very few high-redshift galaxies have been studied in the optical and NIR, period, let alone have had their magnetic fields mapped in detail).

“We present the first (to our knowledge) attempt to include magnetic fields in a self-consistent galaxy formation and evolution model. A number of galaxy properties are predicted, and we compare these with available data,” Shabala, Mead, and Alexander say. They begin with an analytical galaxy formation and evolution model, which “traces gas cooling, star formation, and various feedback processes in a cosmological context. The model simultaneously reproduces the local galaxy properties, star formation history of the Universe, the evolution of the stellar mass function to z ~1.5, and the early build-up of massive galaxies.” Central to the model is the ISM’s turbulent kinetic energy and the random magnetic field energy: the two become equal on timescales that are instantaneous on cosmological timescales.

The drivers are thus the physical processes which inject energy into the ISM, and which remove energy from it.

“One of the most important sources of energy injection into the ISM are supernovae,” the authors write. “Star formation removes turbulent energy,” as you’d expect, and gas “accreting from the dark matter halo deposits its potential energy in turbulence.” In their model there are only four free parameters – three describe the efficiency of the processes which add or remove turbulence from the ISM, and one how fast ordered magnetic fields arise from random ones.

Are Shabala, Mead, and Alexander excited about their results? You be the judge: “Two local samples are used to test the models. The model reproduces magnetic field strengths and radio luminosities well across a wide range of low and intermediate-mass galaxies.”

And what do they think is needed to account for the detailed astronomical observations of high-mass spiral galaxies? “Inclusion of gas ejection by powerful AGNs is necessary in order to quench gas cooling.”

SKA central region with separate core stations for the two aperture arrays for low and mid frequencies and for the dish array. Graphics: Xilostudios and SKA Project Development Office

It goes without saying that the next generation of radio telescopes – EVLA, SKA, and LOFAR – will subject all models of magnetic fields in galaxies (not just spirals) to much more stringent tests (and even enable hypotheses on the formation of those fields, over 10 billion years ago, to be tested).

Source: Magnetic fields in galaxies: I. Radio disks in local late-type galaxies