Aztecs Used an Extremely Accurate Solar Observatory to Manage Their Farming

Stone causeway atop Mount Tlaloc, Mexico. Credit: Ben Messiner/UCR

Pre-Columbian Mexico (or Mesoamerica) hosted one of the largest civilizations and populations in the world. The most well-known and dominant of these civilizations (prior to the arrival of the Conquistadors) were the Aztecs (or Mexica). Their empire, known as the Triple Alliance, was centered around Lake Texcoco and consisted of the major cities Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. In addition to engineering massive temples, aqueducts, canal systems, and estuaries, the Aztecs are renowned for being accomplished astronomers and agronomists.

At the height of their power, the Aztec Empire supported a population of up to 3 million in the Valley of Mexico, and many of their largest cities had populations exceeding 100,000. This was not easy, given that the region is characterized by arid springs followed by winter monsoons. According to recent research by the University of California Riverside (UCR), the Aztecs used mountain alignments as a solar observatory to create an accurate agricultural calendar. This allowed their farmers to produce enough food to feed one of the most densely-populated regions on Earth.

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NASA Tests a Solar Sail Segment of its Enormous Solar Cruiser Mission

Artist's concept of the Solar Cruiser mission. Credit: NASA

A team led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) was recently selected to develop a solar sail spacecraft that would launch sometime in 2025. Known as the Solar Cruiser, this mission of opportunity measures 1653 m2 (~17790 ft2) in area and is about the same thickness as a human hair. Sponsored by the Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) Heliophysics Division, this technology demonstrator will integrate several new solar sail technologies developed by various organizations to mature solar sail technology for future missions.

In a recent video released by NASA, we see engineers and industry partners at the MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama, unfurling a segment of the prototype solar sail. The video, taken on October 13th, shows how the teams used two 30.5 m (100-foot) lightweight composite booms to unfurl a 400 m2 (4,300 ft2) quadrant of the solar sail prototype for the first time. Once realized, the Solar Cruiser demonstrator will validate technologies that enable future missions to study the Sun, its interaction with Earth, and its extended atmosphere (aka. heliosphere).

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During a Solar Flare, Dark Voids Move Down Towards the Sun. Now We Know Why

Solar flares are complex phenomena. They involve plasma, electromagnetic radiation across all wavelengths, activity in the Sun’s atmosphere layers, and particles travelling at near light speed. Spacecraft like NASA’s Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) and the Parker Solar Probe shed new light on the Sun’s solar flares.

But it was a Japanese-led mission called Yohkoh that spotted an unusual solar flare in 1999. This flare displayed a downward flowing motion toward the Sun along with the normal outward flow. What caused it?

A team of researchers think they’ve figured it out.

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It Turns out, We Have a Very Well-Behaved Star

Our Sun is a Population II star about 5 billion years old. It contains elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron, though only in tiny percentags. Image: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Our Sun is a Population II star about 5 billion years old. It contains elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron, though only in tiny percentags. Image: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Should we thank our well-behaved Sun for our comfy home on Earth?

Some stars behave poorly. They’re unruly and emit powerful stellar flares that can devastate life on any planets within range of those flares. New research into stellar flares on other stars makes our Sun seem downright quiescent.

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Giant Stars and the Ultimate Fate of the Sun

Sizes of giant stars relative to our Sun. Going from the G-type to K-type to M-types, giant stars get progressively redder (cooler) and larger. Late M-type giants are more than 100 times the size of our Sun. Image Credit: Lowell Observatory.

Astronomers have a new tool to help them understand giant stars. It’s a detailed study of the precise temperatures and sizes of 191 giant stars. The authors of the work say that it’ll serve as a standard reference on giant stars for years to come.

It’ll also shed some light on what the Sun will go through late in its life.

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Astronomers Have Found the Star/Exoplanet Combo That’s the Best Twin to the Sun/Earth

An artist's illustration of TOI 700d, an Earth-size exoplanet that TESS found in its star's habitable zone. Image Credit: NASA

At times, it seems like there’s an indundation of announcements featuring discoveries of “Earth-like” planets. And while those announcements are exciting, and scientifically noteworthy, there’s always a little question picking away at them: exactly how Earth-like are they, really?

After all, Earth is defined by its relationship with the Sun.

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Solar Orbiter is Already Starting to Observe the Sun

Artist's impression of ESA's Solar Orbiter spacecraft. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

On February 10th, 2020, the ESA’s Solar Orbiter (SolO) launched and began making its way towards our Sun. This mission will spend the next seven years investigating the Sun’s uncharted polar regions to learn more about how the Sun works. This information is expected to reveal things that will help astronomers better predict changes in solar activity and “space weather”.

Last week (on Thursday, Feb. 13th), after a challenging post-launch period, the first solar measurements obtained by the SolO mission reached its international science teams back on Earth. This receipt of this data confirmed that the orbiter’s instrument boom deployed successfully shortly after launch and that its magnetometer (a crucial instrument for this mission) is in fine working order.

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This is the Highest Resolution Image Ever Taken of the Surface of the Sun

Credit: NSF

The Sun’s activity, known as “space weather”, has a significant effect on Earth and the other planets of the Solar System. Periodic eruptions, also known as solar flares, release considerable amounts of electromagnetic radiation, which can interfere with everything from satellites and air travel to electrical grids. For this reason, astrophysicists are trying to get a better look at the Sun so they can predict its weather patterns.

This is the purpose behind the NSF’s 4-meter (13-ft) Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) – formerly known as the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope – which is located at the Haleakala Observatory on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Recently, this facility released its first images of the Sun’s surface, which reveal an unprecedented level of detail and offer a preview of what this telescope will reveal in the coming years.

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Astronomers Discovered a New Kind of Explosion That the Sun Can Do

Credit: NASA/SDO/Abhishek Srivastava/IIT(BHU)?

In the course of conducting solar astronomy, scientists have noticed that periodically, the Sun’s tangled magnetic field lines will snap and then realign. This process is known as magnetic reconnection, where the magnetic topology of a body is rearranged and magnetic energy is converted into kinetic energy, thermal energy, and particle acceleration.

However, while observing the Sun, a team of Indian astronomers recently witnessed something unprecedented – a magnetic reconnection that was triggered by a nearby eruption. This observation has confirmed a decade-old theory about magnetic reconnections and external drivers, and could also lead to a revolution in our understanding of space weather and controlled fusion and plasma experiments.

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In the far Future our Sun will Turn Into a Solid Crystalline White Dwarf. Here’s How it’ll Happen

Artist's impression of the crystallization in the interior of a white dwarf star. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

About fifty years ago, astronomers predicted what the ultimate fate of our Sun will be. According to the theory, the Sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel billions of years from now and expand to become a Red Giant, followed by it shedding it’s outer layers and becoming a white dwarf. After a few more billion years of cooling, the interior will crystallize and become solid.

Until recently, astronomers had little evidence to back up this theory. But thanks to the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, astronomers are now able to observe hundreds of thousands of white dwarf stars with immense precision – gauging their distance, brightness and color. This in turn has allowed them to study what the future holds for our Sun when it is no longer the warm, yellow star that we know and love today.

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