Tag: Astronomy


While waiting to be demolished, as it was deemed irreparable, Puerto Rico’s giant Arecibo radio telescope has collapsed.

So not only can the United States not build big things any more, not only can the United States not maintain big things that it cannot build any more, but it cannot even demolish them in a timely manner:

A huge radio telescope in Puerto Rico that has played a key role in astronomical discoveries for more than half a century collapsed on Tuesday, officials said.

The telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform fell onto the reflector dish more than 400 feet below.

The US National Science Foundation had earlier announced that the Arecibo Observatory would be closed. An auxiliary cable snapped in August, causing a 100ft gash on the 1,000ft-wide (305m) reflector dish and damaged the receiver platform that hung above it. Then a main cable broke in early November.


The telescope was built in the 1960s with money from the US defense department amid a push to develop anti-ballistic missile defenses. It had endured hurricanes, tropical humidity and a recent string of earthquakes in its 57 years of operation.

This sucks.

I Need 175,863 Refrigerator Magnets Placed Around Mar-a-Lago

Asteroid 2018VP1, a refrigerator-sized space-rock, is hurtling towards us at more than 40,000 km/hr.

It may buzz-cut Earth on Nov 2, the day before the Presidential Election.

It’s not big enough to cause harm. So if the World ends in 2020, it won’t be the fault of the Universe. pic.twitter.com/eiy9G9w4Ez

— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) October 18, 2020

Definitely Mar a Lago

Prominent astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has just announced a refrigerator-sized asteroid might hit the United States on November 2.

While this would not create widespread damage, given that iron has a density of 7,870 kg/m3, we would be looking at about 15,000 kg hitting the ground at about 10,000 m/s. (I am figuring an iron asteroid of 4 m3 volume, with half of it vaporizing before it hits the earth)

The kinetic energy involved is therefore ½mv2, or about 7.5✕1011 Joules.

This is roughly equivalent to the detonation of about 180 tons of TNT.

So, the blast is much smaller than Hiroshima, but about 15 times bigger than the GBU-43/B MOAB

Definitely enough to depress property values: 

A certain asteroid is currently moving toward Earth, said the world’s most prominent astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson.

It could theoretically strike the planet just before the forthcoming US presidential elections slated on November 2.

The prominent astrophysicist said that if the planet eventually ends in 2020, it would not entirely be the world’s responsibility.

The asteroid identified as 2018VP1 has been on the radar since the moment it was observed by the famed Palomar Observatory in California in November 2018.

This is so 2020.

Interesting Chemisty? Yes. Life? No.

Not Life as We Know It

The fact that the Royal Astronomical Society has announced that the atmosphere of Venus contains significant amounts of phosphine (PH3), a substance that, on earth at least, is only produced through the action of anaerobic life and complex industrial processes, where it is a precursor to a number of organophosphorus compounds.

It could be a sign of life, but with no free liquid water, and atmosphere that is largely CO2, Nitrogen, and Sulfuric Acid, I’m dubious.

On the other hand, it is clear that Venus has been the red-headed stepchild of planetary studies, with Mars getting most of the attention, so if we see a few more probes sent to Venus as a result of this finding, I’ll take it.

Their press release is after the break:

Hints of life on Venus

An international team of astronomers, led by Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University, today announced the discovery of a rare molecule – phosphine – in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially, or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments.

Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes – floating free of the scorching surface, but still needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine molecules, which consist of hydrogen and phosphorus, could point to this extra-terrestrial ‘aerial’ life. The new discovery is described in a paper in Nature Astronomy.

The team first used the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii to detect the phosphine, and were then awarded time to follow up their discovery with 45 telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimetre, much longer than the human eye can see – only telescopes at high altitude can detect this wavelength effectively.

Professor Greaves says, “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity, really – taking advantage of JCMT’s powerful technology, and thinking about future instruments. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock!”

Naturally cautious about the initial findings, Greaves and her team were delighted to get three hours of time with the more sensitive ALMA observatory. Bad weather added a frustrating delay, but after six months of data processing, the discovery was confirmed.

Team member Dr Anita Richards, of the UK ALMA Regional Centre and the University of Manchester, adds: “To our great relief, the conditions were good at ALMA for follow-up observations while Venus was at a suitable angle to Earth. Processing the data was tricky, though, as ALMA isn’t usually looking for very subtle effects in very bright objects like Venus.”

Greaves adds: “In the end, we found that both observatories had seen the same thing – faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below.”

Professor Hideo Sagawa of Kyoto Sangyo University then used his models for the Venusian atmosphere to interpret the data, finding that phosphine is present but scarce – only about twenty molecules in every billion.

The astronomers then ran calculations to see if the phosphine could come from natural processes on Venus. They caution that some information is lacking – in fact, the only other study of phosphorus on Venus came from one lander experiment, carried by the Soviet Vega 2 mission in 1985.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Dr William Bains led the work on assessing natural ways to make phosphine. Some ideas included sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but none of these could make anywhere near enough of it. Natural sources were found to make at most one ten thousandth of the amount of phosphine that the telescopes saw.

To create the observed quantity of phosphine on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10% of their maximum productivity, according to calculations by Dr Paul Rimmer of Cambridge University. Any microbes on Venus will likely be very different to their Earth cousins though, to survive in hyper-acidic conditions.

Earth bacteria can absorb phosphate minerals, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine gas. It costs them energy to do this, so why they do it is not clear. The phosphine could be just a waste product, but other scientists have suggested purposes like warding off rival bacteria.

Another MIT team-member, Dr Clara Sousa Silva, was also thinking about searching for phosphine as a ‘biosignature’ gas of non-oxygen-using life on planets around other stars, because normal chemistry makes so little of it.

She comments: “Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% of acid in their environment – but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.”

Other possible biosignatures in the Solar System may exist, like methane on Mars and water venting from the icy moons Europa and Enceladus. On Venus, it has been suggested that dark streaks where ultraviolet light is absorbed could come from colonies of microbes. The Akatsuki spacecraft, launched by the Japanese space agency JAXA, is currently mapping these dark streaks to understand more about this “unknown ultraviolet absorber”.

The team believes their discovery is significant because they can rule out many alternative ways to make phosphine, but they acknowledge that confirming the presence of “life” needs a lot more work. Although the high clouds of Venus have temperatures up to a pleasant 30 degrees centigrade, they are incredibly acidic – around 90% sulphuric acid – posing major issues for microbes to survive there. Professor Sara Seager and Dr Janusz Petkowski, also both at MIT, are investigating how microbes could shield themselves inside droplets.

The team are now eagerly awaiting more telescope time, for example to establish whether the phosphine is in a relatively temperate part of the clouds, and to look for other gases associated with life. New space missions could also travel to our neighbouring planet, and sample the clouds in situ to further search for signs of life.

Professor Emma Bunce, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, congratulated the team on their work:

“A key question in science is whether life exists beyond Earth, and the discovery by Professor Jane Greaves and her team is a key step forward in that quest. I’m particularly delighted to see UK scientists leading such an important breakthrough – something that makes a strong case for a return space mission to Venus.”

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

“Venus has for decades captured the imagination of scientists and astronomers across the world.”

“This discovery is immensely exciting, helping us increase our understanding of the universe and even whether there could be life on Venus. I am incredibly proud that this fascinating detection was led by some of the UK’s leading scientists and engineers using state of the art facilities built on our own soil.”

The Eye of Sauron?

Separated at Birth

High rez version

Using a sh%$ load of radio telescopes and image processing software, astronomers have released the first images ever of a black hole:

Astronomers announced on Wednesday that at last they had captured an image of the unobservable: a black hole, a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it.

For years, and for all the mounting scientific evidence, black holes have remained marooned in the imaginations of artists and the algorithms of splashy computer models of the kind used in Christopher Nolan’s outer-space epic “Interstellar.” Now they are more real than ever.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Shep Doeleman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and director of the effort to capture the image, during a Wednesday news conference in Washington, D.C.

The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of a galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from Earth, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the implacable power of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.

To capture the image, astronomers reached across intergalactic space to Messier 87, or M87, a giant galaxy in the constellation Virgo. There, a black hole several billion times more massive than the sun is unleashing a violent jet of energy some 5,000 light-years into space.


To see into the shadows, astronomers needed to be able to tune their radio telescope to shorter wavelengths. And they needed a bigger telescope.

Enter the Event Horizon Telescope, the dream child of Dr. Doeleman. By combining data from radio telescopes as far apart as the South Pole, France, Chile and Hawaii, using a technique called very long baseline interferometry, Dr. Doeleman and his colleagues created a telescope as big as Earth itself, with the power to resolve details as small as an orange on the lunar surface.

In April 2017, the network of eight telescopes, including the South Pole Telescope, synchronized by atomic clocks, stared at the two targets off and on for 10 days.

For two years, the Event Horizon team reduced and collated the results. The data were too voluminous to transmit over the internet, so they were placed on hard disks and flown back to M.I.T.’s Haystack Observatory, in Westford, Mass., and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, in Bonn, Germany. 

Get your astronomy geek on.


Some professors at Harvard are suggesting that the ‘Oumuamua interstellar object might be some form of space craft:

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (AKA ‘Oumuamua).

In the months that followed, multiple follow-up observations were conducted that allowed astronomers to get a better idea of its size and shape, while also revealing that it had the characteristics of both a comet and an asteroid.

Interestingly enough, there has also been some speculation that based on its shape, ‘Oumuamua might actually be an interstellar spacecraft (Breakthrough Listen even monitored it for signs of radio signals!).

A new study by a pair of astronomers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has taken it a step further, suggesting that ‘Oumuamua may actually be a light sail of extra-terrestrial origin.

The study – “Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain ‘Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration?”, which recently appeared online – was conducted by Shmuel Bialy and Prof. Abraham Loeb. Whereas Bialy is a postdoctoral researcher at the CfA’s Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), Prof. Loeb is the director of the ITC, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, and the head chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee.

The object has been accelerating away from the sun, which might be caused by out-gassing, but there was no out-gassing on the way in, and the object’s rotation has not changed, which would normally happen with out-gassing.

Unfortunately, we will never know for sure.

Your Astronomy Geeking of the Day

Astronomers have found the first interstellar object in the solar system, named 1I/2017 U1 (`Oumuamua):

A few weeks ago, we reported on a small object visiting from beyond our solar system. Now astronomers have scrutinized data from this object, which has been given the name `Oumuamua, and which must have traveled through space for millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system. The conclusion is that it’s a dark, reddish, highly-elongated rocky or high-metal-content object. And, indeed, it is the first known asteroid from interstellar space. These new results were published today (November 20, 2017) in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

Some astronomers thought the object was a comet when the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawai`i first picked it up on October 19, as a faint point of light moving across the sky. Others thought it looked like a typical fast-moving small asteroid. As they tracked its motion through space, astronomers began to be able to calculate its orbit, showing beyond any doubt that this body did not originate from inside our solar system, like all other asteroids or comets ever observed.

Instead, this object was doubtless from interstellar space.


Bottom line: Astronomers report on the first known interstellar asteroid, which swept nearest our sun in September, then sped away again. Astronomers have named this object `Oumuamua and say it is dark red and very elongated.

For some reason, the Arthur C. Clarke novel Rendezvous with Rama comes to mind.

I Like Frank

I mean of course the Pontiff.

In his latest acknowledgement of reality, he has recognizes that the Big Bang Theory is real and throws a shindig:

The Vatican has invited the world’s leading scientists and cosmologists to try and understand the Big Bang.

Astrophysicists and other experts will attend the Vatican Observatory to discuss black holes, gravitational waves and space-time singularities as it honors the late Jesuit cosmologist considered one of the fathers of the idea that the universe began with a gigantic explosion.

The conference – which runs through the week – is part of an increasing admission by the church that scientific theories were real and not necessarily in contradiction with theological doctrine.

Pope Francis declared in 2014 for instance that God is not “a magician with a magic wand” and that evolution and Big Bang theory are real

Considering that the Vatican Observatory had a significant role in the genesis* of the Big Bang theory, this is very apropos.

*Pun not intended.