This is Our Planet From a Million Miles Away

This picture of our home planet truly is EPIC – literally! The full-globe image was acquired with NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (aka EPIC; see what they did there) on board NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft, positioned nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) away at L1.

L1 is one of five Lagrange points that exist in space where the gravitational pull between Earth and the Sun are sort of canceled out, allowing spacecraft to be “parked” there. (Learn more about Lagrange points here.) Launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Feb. 11, 2015, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) arrived at L1 on June 8 and, after a series of instrument checks, captured the image of Earth’s western hemisphere above on July 6.

The EPIC instrument has the capability to capture images in ten narrowband channels from infrared to ultraviolet; the true-color picture above was made from images acquired in red, green, and blue visible-light wavelengths.

More than just a pretty picture of our blue marble, this image will be used by the EPIC team to help calibrate the instrument to remove some of the blue atmospheric haze from subsequent images. Once the camera is fully set to begin operations daily images of our planet will be made available on a dedicated web site starting in September.

DSCOVR's location at L1 (NOAA/NASA)
DSCOVR’s location at L1 (NOAA/NASA)

Designed to provide early warnings of potentially-disruptive geomagnetic storms resulting from solar outbursts, DSCOVR also carries Earth-observing instruments that will monitor ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere and measure the amount of energy received, reflected, and emitted by Earth – the planet’s “energy budget.

But also, from its permanent location a million miles away, DSCOVR will be able to get some truly beautiful – er, EPIC – images of our world.

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force. Learn more about DSCOVR here.

Source: NASA

UPDATE: President Obama liked this image so much, he decided to Tweet about it with a message of planetary conservation!

The POTUS' Tweet about the DSCOVR image on July 20, 2015.
The POTUS’ Tweet about the DSCOVR image on July 20, 2015.

UPDATE 7/29/15: Here’s another view from DSCOVR on July 6, showing Europe, Africa, and the Middle East:

DSCOVR image of Earth from July 6, 2015. (NASA/NOAA)
DSCOVR image of Earth from July 6, 2015. (NASA/NOAA)

How Could We Destroy the Moon?

What would it take to destroy our moon, and eliminate the enemy of stellar astronomy for all time?

In the immortal words of Mr. Burns, “ever since the beginning of time, man has wished to destroy the Sun.” Your days are numbered, Sun.

But supervillains, being the practical folks they are, know that a more worthy goal would be to destroy the Moon, or at least deface it horribly. Nothing wrecks a beautiful night sky like that hideous pockmarked spotlight. What would it take to destroy it and eliminate the enemy of stellar astronomy for all time?

Crack out your Acme brand blueprint paper and white pencils, it’s Wile E. Coyote time.

The energy it takes to dismantle a gravitationally held object is known as its binding energy, we talked about it in a Death Star episode and inventive ways to overcome it.

For example, the binding energy of the Earth is 2.2 x 10^32 joules. It’s a lot. The binding energy of a smaller object, like our Moon is a tidy little 1.2 x 10^29 joules. It takes about 1800 times more energy to destroy the Earth than it takes to destroy the Moon.

It’s 1800 times easier. That’s downright doable, isn’t it? That’s almost 2000 times easier. Which, on the scale of easy to less easy, is definitely closer to easy.

Take the event that created the Caloris Basin on Mercury. It’s a crater, 1,500 km across. Astronomers think that a big fat asteroid, a fatsteroid(?) around 100 km in diameter crashed into Mercury billions of years ago. This event released 1.3 x 10^26 joules of energy, carving out this giant pit. It’s a thousandth of the binding energy of the Moon. We’ll need something more.

Our Sun produces 3.8 x 10^26 joules of energy every second, the equivalent of about a billion hydrogen bombs. If you directed the full power of the Sun at the Moon for 15 minutes, it’d tear apart.

That’s quite a superweapon you’ve got there, perhaps you’ll want to mount that on a space station and take it for a cruise through a galaxy far far away?

If that scene took that long, we’d have fallen asleep. It’s as if millions of voices gradually became a little hoarse from crying out for a quarter of an hour. There’s another way you could tear the Moon apart that doesn’t require an astral gate accident: gravity.

Astronomers use the Roche Limit to calculate how close an object – like a moon – can orbit another object – like a planet.

This is the point where the difference between the tidal forces on the “front” and “backside” are large enough that the object is torn apart, and if this sounds familiar you might want to look up “spaghettification”.

Spaghettification. Credit: Streeter
Spaghettification. Credit: Streeter

This is all based on the radius of the planet and the density of the planet and moon. If the Moon got close enough to the Earth, around 18,000 km, it would pull apart and be shredded into a beautiful ring.

And then the objects in the ring would enter the Earth’s atmosphere and rain down beautiful destruction for thousands of years.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending your position in this “Die Moon, Die” discussion, the Moon is drifting away from the Earth. It’ll never be closer than it is right now, at almost 400,000 km, without a little nudge.

Phobos, the largest moon orbiting Mars is slowly approaching the planet, and astronomers think it’ll reach the Roche Limit in the next few million years.

It turns out that if we really want to destroy the Moon, we’ll need to destroy all life on Earth as well.

Now we know your new supervillain project, what’s your supervillain name? Tell us your handle in the comments below.

How Do Astronauts Avoid Debris?

So, just how do we keep our space stations, ships and astronauts from being riddled with holes from all of the space junk in orbit around Earth?

We revel in the terror grab bag of all the magical ways to get snuffed in space. Almost as much as we celebrate the giant brass backbones of the people who travel there.

We’ve already talked about all the scary ways that astronauts can die in space. My personal recurring “Hail Mary full of grace, please don’t let me die in space” nightmare is orbital debris.

We’re talking about a vast collection of spent rockets, dead satellites, flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict. It’s not a short list. NASA figures there are 21,000 bits of junk bigger than 10 cm, 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 cm, and more than 100 million smaller than 1 cm. Sound familiar, humans? This is our high tech, sci fi great Pacific garbage patch.

Sure, a tiny rivet or piece of scrap foil doesn’t sound very dangerous, but consider the fact that astronauts are orbiting the Earth at a velocity of about 28,000 km/h. And the Tang packets, uneaten dehydrated ice cream, and astronaut poops are also traveling at 28,000 km/h. Then think about what happens when they collide. Yikes… or yuck.

Here’s the International Space Station’s solar array. See that tiny hole? Embiggen and clarinosticate! That’s a tiny puncture hole made in the array by a piece of orbital crap.

The whole station is pummeled by tiny pieces of space program junk drawer contents. Back when the Space Shuttle was flying, NASA had to constantly replace their windows because of the damage they were experiencing from the orbital equivalent of Dennis the Menace hurling paint chips, fingernail clippings, and frozen scabs.

That’s just little pieces of paint. What can NASA do to keep Sandra Bullock safe from the larger, more dangerous chunks that could tear the station a new entry hatch?

For starters, NASA and the US Department of Defense are constantly tracking as much of the orbital debris that they can. They know the position of every piece of debris larger than a softball. Which I think, as far as careers go, would be grossly underestimated for its coolness and complexity at a cocktail party.

Artist's impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA

“What do you do for a living?”
“Me, oh, I’m part of the program which tracks orbital debris to keep astronauts safe.”
“So…you track our space garbage?”
“Uh, actually, never mind, I’m an accountant.”

Furthermore, they’re tracking everything in low Earth orbit – where the astronauts fly – down to a size of 5 cm. That’s 21,000 discrete objects.

NASA then compares the movements of all these objects and compares it to the position of the Space Station. If there’s any risk of a collision, NASA takes preventative measures and moves the Space Station to avoid the debris.

The ISS has thrusters of its own, but it can also use the assistance of spacecraft which are docked to it at the time, such as a Russian Soyuz capsule.

NASA is ready to make these maneuvers at a moment’s notice if necessary, but often they’ll have a few days notice, and give the astronauts time to prepare. Plus, who doesn’t love a close call?

For example, in some alerts, the astronauts have gotten into their Soyuz escape craft, ready to abandon the Station if there’s a catastrophic impact. And if they have even less warning, the astronauts have to just hunker down in some of the Station’s more sturdy regions and wait out the debris flyby.

The Iridium constellation - a robust satellite network (Iridium)
The Iridium constellation – a robust satellite network (Iridium)

This isn’t speculation and overcautious nannying on NASA’s part. In 2009 an Iridium communications satellite was smashed by a dead Russian Kosmos-2251 military satellite. The collision destroyed both satellites instantly. As icing on this whirling, screaming metallic orbital-terror-cake, it added 2,000 new chunks of debris to the growing collection.

Most material was in a fairly low orbit, and much of it has already been slowed down by the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.

This wasn’t the first time two star-crossed satellites with a love that could-not-be had a shrapnel fountain suicide pact, and I promise it won’t be the last. Each collision adds to the total amount of debris in orbit, and increases the risk of a run-away cascade of orbital collisions.

We should never underestimate the bravery and commitment of astronauts. They strap themselves to massive explosion tubes and weather the metal squalls of earth orbit in tiny steel life-rafts. So, would you be willing to risk all that debris for a chance to fly in orbit? Tell us in the comments below.

How Low Can You Orbit?

The Earth’s atmosphere is a total drag, especially if you’re trying to orbit our planet. So how low can you go?

The Earth’s atmosphere is a total drag, especially if you’re trying to orbit our planet. It’s a drag. Get it? Atmospheric drag. Drag. Drag.

Hi, my name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and sometimes my team lets me write my own jokes.

I could have started off this episode with a reference to the “Adama Drop” in-atmosphere viper deployment from BSG, but instead I went with a Dad joke. My punishment is drawing attention to it.

So how low can you go? And if you go low enough, will Ludacris appear in the mirror?

We all appreciate the Earth’s atmosphere and everything it does for you. With all the breathing, and the staying warm and the not having horrible bruises all over your body from teeny space rocks pummeling us.

I’ve got an alternative view. The Earth’s atmosphere is your gilded pressurized oxygenated cage, and it’s the one thing keeping you from flying in space.And as we all know, this is your destiny.

Without the atmosphere, you could easily orbit the Earth, a few kilometers over its surface. Traveling around and around the planet like a person sized Moon. Wouldn’t that be great?

Well, it’s not going to happen. As you walk through the atmosphere, you bonk into all the air molecules. You don’t feel it when you’re moving at walking speed, but go faster, like an airplane, and it’ll rock you like a hurricane.

Without constant thrust pushing against the atmosphere, you’ll keep slowing down, and when you’re trying to orbit the planet, it’s a killer. Our atmosphere is like someone is constantly pushing the brakes on the fly in space party.


If you’ve played Kerbal Space Program, you know the faster you’re traveling, the higher you orbit. Conversely, the slower you travel, the lower you orbit. Travel slow enough and you’ll eat it, and by it, I meant as much planet as you can co-exist with after a high speed impact.

Being more massive means more momentum to push against the atmospheric drag. But with a large surface area, it acts like a parachute, slowing you down.

Hey, I know something that’s super massive with a huge surface area. The International Space Station orbits the planet at an altitude between 330 km and 435 km.

Why such a big range? The atmosphere is constantly pushing against the ISS as it orbits the planet. This slows down the space station’s speed and lowers its orbit. It wouldn’t last more than a couple of years if it wasn’t able to counteract the atmospheric drag.

The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA

Fortunately, the station has rockets to increase its speed, and a faster speed means a higher orbit. It can even get assistance from docked spacecraft. If the space station were to go any lower, it would require higher and higher amounts of thrust to prevent re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

So what are the limits? Anything below 160 km altitude will essentially re-enter almost immediately, as it’s buffeted by the thicker atmosphere. You really wouldn’t last more than a few hours at that altitude, but above 800 km you could orbit for more than 100 years.

Geosynchronous satellites that orbit the Earth and transmit our television signals are at an altitude of about 42,000 km. Satellites that high are never coming back down. Well, maybe not never.

Want to enjoy your orbital experience? Make sure you get yourself to an altitude of at least 300 km, 400 km just to be safe. You should shoot for more like 800 km if you just don’t want to worry about things for a while.

Knowing these risks, would you be willing to travel to orbit with current technology? Tell us in the comments below.

Scientists in Orbit Over Dawn’s Arrival at Ceres

Dawn’s approach and trajectory as it begins its orbital “dance” with Ceres. As you watch, note the timeline at upper right.

Dawn made it! After a 14-month tour of the asteroid Vesta and 2 1/2 years en route to Ceres, the spacecraft felt the gentle tug of Ceres gravity and slipped into orbit around the dwarf planet at 6:39 a.m. (CST) Friday morning.

“We feel exhilarated,” said lead researcher Chris Russell at the University of California, Los Angeles, after Dawn radioed back the good news. 


Not only is this humankind’s first probe to orbit a dwarf planet, Dawn is the only spacecraft to fly missions to two different planetary bodies. Dawn’s initial orbit places it 38,000 miles (61,000 km) from Ceres with a view of the opposite side of Ceres from the Sun. That’s why we’ll be seeing photos of the dwarf planet as a crescent for the time being. If you watch the video, you’ll notice that Dawn won’t see Ceres’ fully sunlit hemisphere until early-mid April.

Dawn’s spiral descent from survey orbit to the high altitude mapping orbit. The trajectory progresses from blue to red over the course of the six weeks. The red dashed segments are where the spacecraft is not thrusting with its ion propulsion system (as explained in April). Credit: NASA/JPL - See more at:
Dawn’s spiral descent from survey orbit to the high altitude mapping orbit. The trajectory progresses from blue to red over the course of the six weeks. The red dashed segments are where the spacecraft is not thrusting with its ion propulsion system. Credit: NASA/JPL

The spacecraft will spend the next month gradually spiraling down to Ceres to reach its “survey orbit” of 2,730 miles in April. From there it will train its science camera and visible and infrared mapping spectrometer  to gather pictures and data. The leisurely pace of the orbit will allow Dawn to spend more than 37 hours examining Ceres’ dayside per revolution. NASA will continue to lower the spacecraft throughout the year until it reaches its minimum altitude of 235 miles.

As Dawn maneuvers into orbit, its trajectory takes it to the opposite side of Ceres from the sun, providing these crescent views. These additional pictures were taken on March 1 at a distance of 30,000 miles (49,000 km). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
As Dawn maneuvers into orbit, its trajectory takes it to the opposite side of Ceres from the sun, providing these crescent views. These additional pictures were taken on March 1 at a distance of 30,000 miles (49,000 km). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission director at JPL. “Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres, home.”

More about Dawn’s incredible accomplishment can be found in the excellent Dawn Journal, written by Dawn chief engineer and mission director Marc Rayman.

What is the Average Surface Temperature of the Planets in our Solar System?

It’s is no secret that Earth is the only inhabited planet in our Solar System. All the planets besides Earth lack a breathable atmosphere for terrestrial beings, but also, many of them are too hot or too cold to sustain life. A “habitable zone” which exists within every system of planets orbiting a star. Those planets that are too close to their sun are molten and toxic, while those that are too far outside it are icy and frozen.

But at the same time, forces other than position relative to our Sun can affect surface temperatures. For example, some planets are tidally locked, which means that they have one of their sides constantly facing towards the Sun. Others are warmed by internal geological forces and achieve some warmth that does not depend on exposure to the Sun’s rays. So just how hot and cold are the worlds in our Solar System? What exactly are the surface temperatures on these rocky worlds and gas giants that make them inhospitable to life as we know it?


Of our eight planets, Mercury is closest to the Sun. As such, one would expect it to experience the hottest temperatures in our Solar System. However, since Mercury also has no atmosphere and it also spins very slowly compared to the other planets, the surface temperature varies quite widely.

What this means is that the side exposed to the Sun remains exposed for some time, allowing surface temperatures to reach up to a molten 465 °C. Meanwhile, on the dark side, temperatures can drop off to a frigid -184°C. Hence, Mercury varies between extreme heat and extreme cold and is not the hottest planet in our Solar System.

Venus imaged by Magellan Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Venus is an incredibly hot and hostile world, due to a combination of its thick atmosphere and proximity to the Sun. Image Credit: NASA/JPL


That honor goes to Venus, the second closest planet to the Sun which also has the highest average surface temperatures – reaching up to 460 °C on a regular basis. This is due in part to Venus’ proximity to the Sun, being just on the inner edge of the habitability zone, but also to Venus’ thick atmosphere, which is composed of heavy clouds of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

These gases create a strong greenhouse effect which traps a significant portion of the Sun’s heat in the atmosphere and turns the planet surface into a barren, molten landscape. The surface is also marked by extensive volcanoes and lava flows, and rained on by clouds of sulfuric acid. Not a hospitable place by any measure!


Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and so far is the only planet that we know of that is capable of supporting life. The average surface temperature here is about 14 °C, but it varies due to a number of factors. For one, our world’s axis is tilted, which means that one hemisphere is slanted towards the Sun during certain times of the year while the other is slanted away.

This not only causes seasonal changes, but ensures that places located closer to the equator are hotter, while those located at the poles are colder. It’s little wonder then why the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in the deserts of Iran (70.7 °C) while the lowest was recorded in Antarctica (-89.2 °C).

Mars' thin atmosphere, visible on the horizon, is too weak to retain heat. Credit: NASA
Mars’ thin atmosphere, visible on the horizon, is too weak to retain heat. Credit: NASA


Mars’ average surface temperature is -55 °C, but the Red Planet also experiences some variability, with temperatures ranging as high as 20 °C at the equator during midday, to as low as -153 °C at the poles. On average though, it is much colder than Earth, being just on the outer edge of the habitable zone, and because of its thin atmosphere – which is not sufficient to retain heat.

In addition, its surface temperature can vary by as much as 20 °C due to Mars’ eccentric orbit around the Sun (meaning that it is closer to the Sun at certain points in its orbit than at others).


Since Jupiter is a gas giant, it has no solid surface, so it has no surface temperature. But measurements taken from the top of Jupiter’s clouds indicate a temperature of approximately -145°C. Closer to the center, the planet’s temperature increases due to atmospheric pressure.

At the point where atmospheric pressure is ten times what it is on Earth, the temperature reaches 21°C, what we Earthlings consider a comfortable “room temperature”. At the core of the planet, the temperature is much higher, reaching as much as 35,700°C – hotter than even the surface of the Sun.

Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Assembled by Gordan Ugarkovic.
Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/Gordan Ugarkovic


Due to its distance from the Sun, Saturn is a rather cold gas giant planet, with an average temperature of -178 °Celsius. But because of Saturn’s tilt, the southern and northern hemispheres are heated differently, causing seasonal temperature variation.

And much like Jupiter, the temperature in the upper atmosphere of Saturn is cold, but increases closer to the center of the planet. At the core of the planet, temperatures are believed to reach as high as 11,700 °C.


Uranus is the coldest planet in our Solar System, with a lowest recorded temperature of -224°C. Despite its distance from the Sun, the largest contributing factor to its frigid nature has to do with its core.

Much like the other gas giants in our Solar System, the core of Uranus gives off far more heat than is absorbed from the Sun. However, with a core temperature of approximately 4,737 °C, Uranus’ interior gives of only one-fifth the heat that Jupiter’s does and less than half that of Saturn.

Neptune photographed by Voyage. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Neptune photographed by Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL


With temperatures dropping to -218°C in Neptune’s upper atmosphere, the planet is one of the coldest in our Solar System. And like all of the gas giants, Neptune has a much hotter core, which is around 7,000°C.

In short, the Solar System runs the gambit from extreme cold to extreme hot, with plenty of variance and only a few places that are temperate enough to sustain life. And of all of those, it is only planet Earth that seems to strike the careful balance required to sustain it perpetually.

Universe Today has many articles on the temperature of each planet, including the temperature of Mars and the temperature of Earth.

You may also want to check out these articles on facts about the planets and an overview of the planets.

NASA has a great graphic here that compares the temperatures of all the planets in our Solar System.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all planets including Mercury.

Don’t Miss the Geminids this Weekend, Best Meteor Shower of the Year

Wouldn’t it be nice if a meteor shower peaked on a weekend instead of 3 a.m. Monday morning? Maybe even showed good activity in the evening hours, so we could get our fill and still get to bed at a decent hour. Wait a minute – this year’s Geminids will do exactly that!

Before moonrise this Saturday night December 13th, the Geminids should put on a sweet display. The radiant of the shower lies near the bright pair of stars, Castor and Pollux. Source: Stellarium
Before moonrise this Saturday night December 13th, the Geminids should put on a sweet display. The radiant of the shower lies near the bright pair of stars, Castor and Pollux. Source: Stellarium

What’s more, since the return of this rich and reliable annual meteor shower occurs around 6 a.m. (CST) on Sunday December 14th, both Saturday and Sunday nights will be equally good for meteor watching. After the Perseids took a battering from the Moon last August, the Geminids will provide the best meteor display of 2014.  They do anyway! The shower’s been strengthening in recent years and now surpasses every major shower of the year.

The official literature touts a rate of 120 meteors per hour visible from a dark sky site, but I’ve found 60-80 per hour a more realistic expectation. Either way, what’s to complain?

The third quarter Moon rises around midnight Saturday and 1 a.m. on Monday morning. Normally, moonlight would be cause for concern, but unlike many meteor showers the Geminids put on a decent show before midnight. The radiant, the location in the sky from which the meteors will appear to stream, will be well up in the east by 9:30 p.m. local time. That’s a good 2-3 hours of meteor awesomeness before moonrise.

The author tries his best to enjoys this year's moon-drenched Perseids from the "astro recliner". Credit: Bob King
The author takes in this year’s moon-drenched Perseids in comfort.

Shower watching is a total blast because it’s so simple. Your only task is to dress warmly and get comfortable in a reclining chair aware from the unholy glare of unshielded lighting. The rest is looking up. Geminid meteors will flash anywhere in the sky, so picking a direction to watch the shower isn’t critical. I usually face east or southeast for the bonus view of Orion lumbering up from the horizon.

Bring your camera, too. I use a moderately wide angle lens (24-35mm) at f/2.8 (widest setting), set my ISO to  800 or 1600 and make 30-second exposures. The more photos you take, the better chance of capturing a meteor. You can also automate the process by hooking up a relatively inexpensive intervalometer  to your camera and have it take the pictures for you.

As you ease back and let the night pass, you’ll see other meteors unrelated to the shower, too. Called sporadics, they trickle in at the rate of  2-5 an hour. You can always tell a Geminid from an interloper because its path traces back to the radiant. Sporadics drop down from any direction.

A Geminid fireball brighter than Venus streaks across the sky above New Mexico on Dec. 14, 2011. It was captured by an all-sky camera. Before disintegrating in the atmosphere the meteoroid was about 1/2 inch across. Credit: Marshall Space Flight Center, Meteoroid Environments Office, Bill Cooke
Captured by an all-sky camera, a Geminid fireball brighter than Venus streaks across the sky above New Mexico on Dec. 14, 2011. Before disintegrating in the atmosphere the meteoroid was about 1/2 inch across. Credit: Marshall Space Flight Center, Meteoroid Environments Office, Bill Cooke

Geminid meteors immolate in Earth’s atmosphere at a moderate speed compared to some showers – 22 miles per second (35 km/sec) – and often flare brightly. Green, red, blue, white and yellow colors have been recorded, making the shower one of the more colorful. Most interesting, the meteoroid stream appears to be sorted according to size with faint, telescopic meteors maxing out a day before the naked eye peak. Larger particles continue to produce unusually bright meteors up to a few days after maximum.

Most meteor showers are the offspring of comets. Dust liberated from vaporizing ice gets pushed back by the pressure of sunlight to form a tail and fans out over the comet’s orbital path. When Earth’s orbit intersects a ribbon of this debris, sand and gravel-sized bits of rock crash into our atmosphere at high speed and burn up in multiple flashes of meteoric light.

Phaethon sprouts a tail when close to the Sun seen in this image taken by NASA's STEREO Sun-observing spacecraft in 2012. Credit: Credit: Jewitt, Li, Agarwal /NASA/STEREO
Phaethon sprouts a tail (points southeast or to lower left) when close to the Sun in this image taken by NASA’s STEREO Sun-observing spacecraft in 2012. Credit: Credit: Jewitt, Li, Agarwal /NASA/STEREO

But the Geminids are a peculiar lot. Every year in mid-December, Earth crosses not a comet’s path but that of 3200 Phaethon (FAY-eh-thon), a 3.2 mile diameter (5.1 km)  asteroid. Phaethon’s elongated orbit brings it scorchingly close (13 million miles) to the Sun every 1.4 years. Normally a quiet, well-behaved asteroid, Phaethon brightened by a factor of two and was caught spewing jets of dust when nearest the Sun in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Apparently the intense heat solar heating either fractured the surface or heated rocks to the point of desiccation, creating enough dust to form temporary tails like a comet.

While it looks like an asteroid most of the time, Phaethon may really be a comet that’s still occasionally active. Periodic eruptions provide the fuel for the annual December show.

Most of us will head out Saturday or Sunday night and take in the shower for pure enjoyment, but if you’d like to share your observations and contribute a bit of knowledge to our understanding of the Geminids, consider reporting your meteor sightings to the International Meteor Organization. Here’s the link to get started.

And this just in … Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi will webcast the shower starting at 8 p.m. CST December 13th (2 a.m. UT Dec. 14) on his Virtual Telescope Project site.

How Do We Measure Distance in the Universe?

This star is X light-years away, that galaxy is X million light-years away. That beginning the Universe is X billion light-years away. But how do astronomers know?

I’m perpetually in a state where I’m talking about objects which are unimaginably far away. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine how huge some our Universe is. Our brains can comprehend the distances around us, sort of, especially when we’ve got a pile of tools to help. We can measure our height with a tape measure, or the distance along the ground using an odometer. We can get a feel for how far away 100 kilometers is because we can drive it in a pretty short period of time.

But space is really big, and for most of us, our brains can’t comprehend the full awesomeness of the cosmos, let alone measure it. So how do astronomers figure out how far away everything is? How do they know how far away planets, stars, galaxies, and even the edge of the observable Universe is? Assuming it’s all trickery? You’re bang on.

Astronomers have a bag of remarkably clever tricks and techniques to measure distance in the Universe. For them, different distances require a different methodologies. Up close, they use trigonometry, using differences in angles to puzzle out distances. They also use a variety of standard candles, those are bright objects that generate a consistent amount of light, so you can tell how far away they are. At the furthest distances, astronomers use expansion of space itself to detect distances.

Fortunately, each of these methods overlap. So you can use trigonometry to test out the closest standard candles. And you can use the most distant standard candles to verify the biggest tools. Around our Solar System, and in our neighborhood of the galaxy, astronomers use trigonometry to discover the distance to objects.

They measure the location of a star in the sky at one point of the year, and then measure again 6 months later when the Earth is on the opposite side of the Solar System. The star will have moved a tiny amount in the sky, known as parallax. Because we know the distance from one side of the Earth’s orbit to the other, we can calculate the angles, and compute the distance to the star.

I’m sure you can spot the flaw, this method falls apart when the distance is so great that the star doesn’t appear to move at all. Fortunately, astronomers shift to a different method, observing a standard candle known as a Cepheid variable. These Cepheids are special stars that dim and brighten in a known pattern. If you can measure how quickly a Cepheid pulses, you can calculate its true luminosity, and therefore its distance.

Hubble Frontier Fields observing programme, which is using the magnifying power of enormous galaxy clusters to peer deep into the distant Universe.. Credit: NASA.
Hubble Frontier Fields observing programme, which is using the magnifying power of enormous galaxy clusters to peer deep into the distant Universe. Credit: NASA.

Cepheids let you measure distances to nearby galaxies. Out beyond a few dozen megaparsecs, you need another tool: supernovae. In a very special type of binary star system, one star dies and becomes a white dwarf, while the other star lives on. The white dwarf begins to feed material off the partner star until it hits exactly 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. At this point, it detonates as a Type 1A supernova, generating an explosion that can be seen halfway across the Universe. Because these stars always explode with exactly the same amount of material, we can detect how far away they are, and therefore their absolute brightness.

At the greatest scales, astronomers use the Hubble Constant. This is the discovery by Edwin Hubble that the Universe is expanding in all directions. The further you look, the faster galaxies are speeding away from us. By measuring the redshift of light from a galaxy, you can tell how fast it’s moving away from us, and thus its approximate distance. At the very end of this scale is the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the edge of the observable Universe, and the limit of how far we can see.

Astronomers are always looking for new types of standard candles, and have discovered all kinds of clever ways to measure distance. They measure the clustering of galaxies, beams of microwave radiation from stars, and the surface of red giant stars – all in the hopes of verifying the cosmic distance ladder. Measuring distance has been one of the toughest problems for astronomers to crack and their solutions have been absolutely ingenious. Thanks to them, we can have a sense of scale for the cosmos around us.

What concept in astronomy do you have the hardest time holding in your brain? Tell us, in the comments below.

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Is Phobos Doomed?

What fate awaits Phobos, one of the moons of Mars?

“All these worlds are yours except Europa, attempt no landing there.”

As much as I love Arthur C. Clarke and his books, I’ve got to disagree with his judgement on which moons we should be avoiding. Europa is awesome. It’s probably got a vast liquid ocean underneath its icy surface. There might even be life swimming down there, ready to be discovered. Giant freaky Europa whales or some kind of alien sharknado. Oh man, I just had the BEST idea for a movie.

So yea, Europa’s fine. The place we should really be avoiding is the Martian Moon Phobos. Why? What’s wrong with Phobos? Have I become some kind of Phobo…phobe? Is there any good reason to avoid this place?

Well first, its name tells us all we need to know. Phobos is named for the Greek god of Horror, and I don’t mean like the usual gods of horror as in Clive Barker, John Carpenter or Wes Craven, I mean that Phobos is the actual personification of Fear… possibly with a freaky lion’s head. And… there’s also the fact that Phobos is doomed.

Literally doomed. Living on borrowed time. Its days are numbered. It’s been poisoned and there’s no antidote. It’s got metal shards in its heart and the battery on it’s electro-magnet is starting to brown out. More specifically, in a few million years, the asteroid-like rock is going to get torn apart by the Martian gravity and then get smashed onto the planet.

The streaked and stained surface of Phobos. (Image: NASA)
The streaked and stained surface of Phobos. (Image: NASA)

It all comes down to tidal forces. Our Moon takes about 27 days to complete an orbit, and our planet takes around 24 hours to complete one rotation on its axis. Our Moon is pulling unevenly on the Earth and slowing its rotation down.

To compensate, the Moon is slowly drifting away from us. We did a whole episode about this which we’ll link at the end of the episode. On Mars, Phobos only takes 8 hours to complete an orbit around the planet. While the planet takes almost 25 hours to complete one rotation on its axis. So Phobos travels three times around the planet for every Martian day. And this is a problem.

It’s actually speeding up Mars’ rotation. And in exchange, it’s getting closer and closer to Mars with every orbit. The current deadpool gives the best odds on Phobos taking 30 to 50 million years to finally crash into the planet. The orbit will get lower and lower until it reaches a level known as the Roche Limit. This is the point where the tidal forces between the near and far sides of the moon are so different that it gets torn apart. Then Mars will have a bunch of teeny moons from the former Phobos.

Mars with rings of moon dust after the fall of one of its moons, Phobos. (Photo Credit: © Hive Studios)
Mars with rings of moon dust after the fall of one of its moons, Phobos.
(Photo Credit: © Hive Studios)

And then good news! Those adorable moonlets will get further pulverized until Mars has a ring. But then bad news… that ring will crash onto the planet in a cascade of destruction to be described as “the least fun balloon drop of all time”. So, you probably wouldn’t want to live on Mars then either.

Count yourself lucky. What were the chances that we would exist in the Solar System at a time that Phobos was a thing, and not a string of impacts on the surface of Mars.

Enjoy Phobos while you can, but remember that real estate there is temporary. Might I suggest somewhere in the alien sharknado infested waters of Europa instead?

What do you think. Did Arthur C Clarke have it wrong? Should we explore Europa?

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The Orbit of Earth. How Long is a Year on Earth?

Ever since the 16th century when Nicolaus Copernicus demonstrated that the Earth revolved around in the Sun, scientists have worked tirelessly to understand the relationship in mathematical terms. If this bright celestial body – upon which depends the seasons, the diurnal cycle, and all life on Earth – does not revolve around us, then what exactly is the nature of our orbit around it?

For several centuries, astronomers have applied the scientific method to answer this question, and have determined that the Earth’s orbit around the Sun has many fascinating characteristics. And what they have found has helped us to understanding why we measure time the way we do.

Orbital Characteristics:

First of all, the speed of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is 108,000 km/h, which means that our planet travels 940 million km during a single orbit. The Earth completes one orbit every 365.242199 mean solar days, a fact which goes a long way towards explaining why need an extra calendar day every four years (aka. during a leap year).

The planet’s distance from the Sun varies as it orbits. In fact, the Earth is never the same distance from the Sun from day to day. When the Earth is closest to the Sun, it is said to be at perihelion. This occurs around January 3rd each year, when the Earth is at a distance of about 147,098,074 km.

The average distance of the Earth from the Sun is about 149.6 million km, which is also referred to as one astronomical unit (AU). When it is at its farthest distance from the Sun, Earth is said to be at aphelion – which happens around July 4th where the Earth reaches a distance of about 152,097,701 km.

And those of you in the northern hemisphere will notice that “warm” or “cold” weather does not coincide with how close the Earth is to the Sun. That is determined by axial tilt (see below).

Elliptical Orbit:

Next, there is the nature of the Earth’s orbit. Rather than being a perfect circle, the Earth moves around the Sun in an extended circular or oval pattern. This is what is known as an “elliptical” orbit. This orbital pattern was first described by Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer, in his seminal work Astronomia nova (New Astronomy).

An illustration of Kepler's three laws of motion, which show two planets that have elliptical orbits around the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia/Hankwang
An illustration of Kepler’s three laws of motion, which show two planets that have elliptical orbits around the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia/Hankwang

After measuring the orbits of the Earth and Mars, he noticed that at times, the orbits of both planets appeared to be speeding up or slowing down. This coincided directly with the planets’ aphelion and perihelion, meaning that the planets’ distance from the Sun bore a direct relationship to the speed of their orbits. It also meant that both Earth and Mars did not orbit the Sun in perfectly circular patterns.

In describing the nature of elliptical orbits, scientists use a factor known as “eccentricity”, which is expressed in the form of a number between zero and one. If a planet’s eccentricity is close to zero, then the ellipse is nearly a circle. If it is close to one, the ellipse is long and slender.

Earth’s orbit has an eccentricity of less than 0.02, which means that it is very close to being circular. That is why the difference between the Earth’s distance from the Sun at perihelion and aphelion is very little – less than 5 million km.

Seasonal Change:

Third, there is the role Earth’s orbit plays in the seasons, which we referred to above. The four seasons are determined by the fact that the Earth is tilted 23.4° on its vertical axis, which is referred to as “axial tilt.” This quirk in our orbit determines the solstices – the point in the orbit of maximum axial tilt toward or away from the Sun – and the equinoxes, when the direction of the tilt and the direction to the Sun are perpendicular.

Over the course of a year the orientation of the axis remains fixed in space, producing changes in the distribution of solar radiation. These changes in the pattern of radiation reaching earth’s surface cause the succession of the seasons. Credit: NOAA/Thomas G. Andrews
Over the course of a year the orientation of the axis remains fixed in space, producing changes in the distribution of solar radiation. Credit: NOAA/Thomas G. Andrews

In short, when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, it experiences winter while the southern hemisphere experiences summer. Six months later, when the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun, the seasonal order is reversed.

In the northern hemisphere, winter solstice occurs around December 21st, summer solstice is near June 21st, spring equinox is around March 20th and autumnal equinox is about September 23rd. The axial tilt in the southern hemisphere is exactly the opposite of the direction in the northern hemisphere. Thus the seasonal effects in the south are reversed.

While it is true that Earth does have a perihelion, or point at which it is closest to the sun, and an aphelion, its farthest point from the Sun, the difference between these distances is too minimal to have any significant impact on the Earth’s seasons and climate.

Lagrange Points:

Another interesting characteristic of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun has to do with Lagrange Points. These are the five positions in Earth’s orbital configuration around the Sun where where the combined gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun provides precisely the centripetal force required to orbit with them.

Sun Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: Xander89/Wikimedia Commons
Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: Xander89/Wikimedia Commons

The five Lagrange Points between the Earth are labelled (somewhat unimaginatively) L1 to L5. L1, L2, and L3 sit along a straight line that goes through the Earth and Sun. L1 sits between them, L3 is on the opposite side of the Sun from the Earth, and L2 is on the opposite side of the Earth from L1. These three Lagrange points are unstable,  which means that a satellite placed at any one of them will move off course if disturbed in the slightest.

The L4 and L5 points lie at the tips of the two equilateral triangles where the Sun and Earth constitute the two lower points. These points liem along along Earth’s orbit, with L4 60° behind it and L5 60° ahead.  These two Lagrange Points are stable, hence why they are popular destinations for satellites and space telescopes.

The study of Earth’s orbit around the Sun has taught scientists much about other planets as well. Knowing where a planet sits in relation to its parent star, its orbital period, its axial tilt, and a host of other factors are all central to determining whether or not life may exist on one, and whether or not human beings could one day live there.

We have written many interesting articles about the Earth’s orbit here at Universe Today. Here’s 10 Interesting Facts About Earth, How Far is Earth from the Sun?, What is the Rotation of the Earth?, Why are there Seasons?, and What is Earth’s Axial Tilt?

For more information, check out this article on NASA- Window’s to the Universe article on elliptical orbits or check out NASA’s Earth: Overview.

Astronomy Cast also espidoes that are relevant to the subject. Here’s BQuestions Show: Black black holes, Unbalancing the Earth, and Space Pollution.