Category Archives: Cool Stuff

Parker Solar Probe

I happened to think about the Parker Solar Probe scheduled to be launched between 31 July and 19 August 2018.  This launch also uses the Delta IV the same family of lift vehicles as the NROL – 47 launch today uses although the Parker Solar Probe will use the Delta IV heavy.

Actually the Delta IV is rather versatile, coming in different lift strengths, the NROL-47 uses a Delta IV Medium (5,2) version that can put 10,220 kg / 22,500 lbs into Low Earth Orbit, where as the Delta IV Heavy can put 25,980 kg / 57,300 lbs into that same LEO.

There will be more about Parker Solar Probe coming in time and what a mission this will be.  The probe will come within 5.95 million km / 3.7 million miles from the surface of the Sun at closest approach.  Yes it will get HOT, the sun shade will reach an estimated 1,377 deg C / 2,500 deg F.  The spacecraft will also be moving VERY fast at that point whizzing by at an astounding 700,000 kmh / 438,000 mph!!

Moon Phases in 2018

A very interesting look at what the the moon phases in 2018 will look like in the northern hemisphere.

MORE IMPORTANTLY!!!! I want EVERYONE to be around to see every one of these moon phases. So, enjoy the celebrations to ring in the new year but PLEASE be safe out there!

The Surface of π1 Gruis

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) just released this image of the surface of a red giant star. Take a look at our future. Excellent work! Image: ESO

ESO — Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), π1 Gruis is a cool red giant.

It has about the same mass as our Sun, but is 700 times larger and several thousand times as bright [1]. Our Sun will swell to become a similar red giant star in about five billion years.

An international team of astronomers led by Claudia Paladini (ESO) used the PIONIER instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to observe π1 Gruis in greater detail than ever before. They found that the surface of this red giant has just a few convective cells, or granules, that are each about 120 million kilometres across — about a quarter of the star’s diameter [2]. Just one of these granules would extend from the Sun to beyond Venus. The surfaces — known as photospheres — of many giant stars are obscured by dust, which hinders observations. However, in the case of π1 Gruis, although dust is present far from the star, it does not have a significant effect on the new infrared observations [3].

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Now Those are Nozzles!

Just look at the size of those nozzles! Well they have to be big, they will be at the base of the world’s most powerful rocket:

NASA — Space Launch System (SLS) solid rocket booster prime contractor Orbital ATK recently completed work at its Utah facilities on the booster nozzles for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), the first flight of SLS and the Orion spacecraft. SLS, the world’s most powerful rocket, and Orion will take humans on deep space missions, and the boosters provide most of the power to get the spacecraft off the ground. The powerhouse SLS five-segment solid rocket boosters are the largest ever built for flight and will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust during the first two minutes of spaceflight. Here, technicians are putting the finishing touches on the exit cones’ paint, including photogrammetric markings that will help engineers assess clearances between the boosters and ground structures during the initial moments after liftoff. At Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the integration phase of the program, the exit cones will be mated with the rest of the nozzle assemblies, which are also complete. During spaceflight, the booster nozzles direct the expanding gases from the burning solid propellant downward, helping the heavy-lift vehicle escape Earth’s gravity and send Orion to lunar orbit.

Image credit: Orbital ATK

What About Arecibo?

Just the other day I was wondering what was going on at Arecibo. You may recall Arecibo and the rest of Puerto Rico was pretty much turned into a disaster zone by Hurricane Maria. The rebuilding progress for Puerto Rico has been slow.

Arecibo on the other hand is apparently up and running just fine and it even got a look at asteroid Phaethon. Very pleased to hear of the return of this great observatory!

Original caption from NASA:
These radar images of near-Earth asteroid 3200 Phaethon were generated by astronomers at the National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory on Dec. 17, 2017. Observations of Phaethon were conducted at Arecibo from Dec.15 through 19, 2017. At time of closest approach on Dec. 16 at 3 p.m. PST (6 p.m. EST, 11 p.m. UTC) the asteroid was about 6.4 million miles (10.3 million kilometers) away, or about 27 times the distance from Earth to the moon. The encounter is the closest the object will come to Earth until 2093.

The Arecibo Planetary Radar Program is funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program through a grant to Universities Space Research Association (USRA), from the Near-Earth Object Observations program. The Arecibo Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation operated under cooperative agreement by SRI International, USRA, and Universidad Metropolitana.

The Kepler 90 System

The busy week of launches wasn’t the only thing going on of course, NASA announced the discovery of an eighth planet around a star called Kepler-90. The discovery was made using AI and the system is as large as our own.

Big news indeed.

From NASA: Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. This artist’s concept depicts the Kepler-90 system compared with our own solar system.

The newly-discovered Kepler-90i — a sizzling hot, rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days — was found using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence in which computers “learn.” In this case, computers learned to identify planets by finding in Kepler data instances where the telescope recorded changes in starlight caused by planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets.

NASA Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Image Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Wendy Stenzel

Back in the Day

We are looking at the way things were “back in the day”. This black hole is an astounding 13-billion light-years away.

JPL/Elizabeth Landau — Scientists have uncovered a rare relic from the early universe: the farthest known supermassive black hole. This matter-eating beast is 800 million times the mass of our Sun, which is astonishingly large for its young age. Researchers report the find in the journal Nature.

“This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form,” said study co-author Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Astronomers combined data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) with ground-based surveys to identify potential distant objects to study, then followed up with Carnegie Observatories’ Magellan telescopes in Chile. Carnegie astronomer Eduardo Bañados led the effort to identify candidates out of the hundreds of millions of objects WISE found that would be worthy of follow-up with Magellan.

For black holes to become so large in the early universe, astronomers speculate there must have been special conditions to allow rapid growth — but the underlying reason remains mysterious.

The newly found black hole is voraciously devouring material at the center of a galaxy — a phenomenon called a quasar. This quasar is especially interesting because it comes from a time when the universe was just beginning to emerge from its dark ages. The discovery will provide fundamental information about the universe when it was only 5 percent of its current age.

“Quasars are among the brightest and most distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early universe,” said co-author Bram Venemans of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

The universe began in a hot soup of particles that rapidly spread apart in a period called inflation. About 400,000 years after the Big Bang, these particles cooled and coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas. But the universe stayed dark, without any luminous sources, until gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies. The energy released by these ancient galaxies caused the neutral hydrogen to get excited and ionize, or lose an electron. The gas has remained in that state since that time. Once the universe became reionzed, photons could travel freely throughout space. This is the point at which the universe became transparent to light.

Much of the hydrogen surrounding the newly discovered quasar is neutral. That means the quasar is not only the most distant — it is also the only example we have that can be seen before the universe became reionized.

“It was the universe’s last major transition and one of the current frontiers of astrophysics,” Bañados said.

The quasar’s distance is determined by what’s called its redshift, a measurement of how much the wavelength of its light is stretched by the expansion of the universe before reaching Earth. The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the farther back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object. This newly discovered quasar has a redshift of 7.54, based on the detection of ionized carbon emissions from the galaxy that hosts the massive black hole. That means it took more than 13 billion years for the light from the quasar to reach us.

Scientists predict the sky contains between 20 and 100 quasars as bright and as distant as this quasar. Astronomers look forward to the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission, which has significant NASA participation, and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, to find more such distant objects.

“With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities currently being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years,” Stern said.

Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

A Lunar Transit of the ISS

Hat tip to Joel Kowsky and NASA for this excellent image featuring an ISS transit of the moon. Opportunities to capture these events are uncommon enough and then the whole event is over is about a second or two, very difficult to get right. I know, in the few opportunities I’ve had something has either gone wrong or I’ve been too slow on the shutter. I’m still trying.

Little wonder this was NASA’s Image of the Day yesterday, here’s their caption:

The International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, is seen in silhouette as it transits the Moon at roughly five miles per second, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Manchester Township, York County, Pennsylvania. Onboard are: NASA astronauts Joe Acaba, Mark Vande Hei, and Randy Bresnik; Russian cosmonauts Alexander Misurkin and Sergey Ryanzansky; and ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli.

Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Near Jupiter’s Cloudtops

The Juno spacecraft was only 18,906 km / 11,747 miles above the cloud tops of Jupiter – pretty bold.

Here’s the original caption: See Jovian clouds in striking shades of blue in this new view taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

The Juno spacecraft captured this image when the spacecraft was only 11,747 miles (18,906 kilometers) from the tops of Jupiter’s clouds — that’s roughly as far as the distance between New York City and Perth, Australia. The color-enhanced image, which captures a cloud system in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere, was taken on Oct. 24, 2017 at 10:24 a.m. PDT (1:24 p.m. EDT) when Juno was at a latitude of 57.57 degrees (nearly three-fifths of the way from Jupiter’s equator to its north pole) and performing its ninth close flyby of the gas giant planet.

The spatial scale in this image is 7.75 miles/pixel (12.5 kilometers/pixel).

Because of the Juno-Jupiter-Sun angle when the spacecraft captured this image, the higher-altitude clouds can be seen casting shadows on their surroundings. The behavior is most easily observable in the whitest regions in the image, but also in a few isolated spots in both the bottom and right areas of the image.

Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran processed this image using data from the JunoCam imager.

JunoCam’s raw images are available at for the public to peruse and process into image products.

Great job! Credits: Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran /JUNO