Incredible First Discoveries From NASA’s New Exoplanet-Hunting Spacecraft: TESS
“The ultimate goal of TESS is to find possible Earth-like worlds, and star systems which may house rocky, potentially habitable worlds. Because TESS is optimized to scour the stars nearest to us, it’s greatest finds will be among the first targets for future, more powerful observatories that can not only detect these worlds, but measure their atmospheric contents. If we get lucky, some of those worlds might house molecules like water, methane, carbon dioxide, or even oxygen in their atmospheres.
It won’t be a slam-dunk that these worlds are inhabited, but TESS takes us one step closer towards finding the nearest worlds that might be humanity’s greatest hope for finding life outside of our own Solar System. The worlds we’ve found so far are absolutely fascinating, and just a few months into its primary mission, TESS is easily meeting even the loftiest expectations for it. By time the James Webb Space Telescope launches, TESS should provide us with many worlds that just might be the best place to look to take our next great leap towards our ultimate goal: finding an inhabited world.”
NASA’s exoplanet-hunting satellite, TESS, was launched in April of 2018, began taking data in July, and released their first data to the world last month. That data contains around 300 candidate exoplanets, and the first eight of them have already been confirmed. From worlds so hot that they might have liquid rock on their surface to a solar system so strange we’ve never found anything like it, these are the first highlights.
Someday, TESS might lead us to our first world with signs of life on it. Here’s where we are so far.
A Billion Years In Interstellar Space: What We Know Today About ‘Oumuamua
“The incredible conclusion isn’t just that ‘Oumuamua came from outside
of our Solar System, but that this was both rare and common. For an
individual object, like ‘Oumuamua, it will likely never come this close
to another Solar System again. Only once every 100 trillion years — some
10,000 times the current age of the Universe — will it pass so close to
a star. As scientist Gregory Laughlin put it, “this was the time of
But for our Solar System, because of the sheer
number of objects like this flying through the galaxy, we probably
experience a close encounter like this around a few times per year. 2017
marked the first time we saw such an object, but we’ve likely gotten
billions of them over the course of our Solar System’s lifetime. Some of
them, if nature was kind, may have even collided with Earth.
There may be as many as ~1025
of objects like this flying through our galaxy, and every so often,
we’ll get lucky enough to encounter one of them. For the first time,
we’ve actually seen one of them for ourselves.”
In 2017, our Solar System received a visit like never before: from an object originating from interstellar space. Likely ejected more than a billion years ago from a foreign solar system, it happened to pass within even the orbit of Mercury, only becoming visible to our telescopes when it came within 60 lunar distances of the Earth.
But we found it, observed it, and learned everything we could about it. What do we know, today? Spoiler: it’s not from aliens.
Supermoon Lunar Eclipse To Become The First Pan-American Total Eclipse In 19 Years
“But what makes this eclipse so special is when it occurs relative to the Earth’s rotation. When the first stage of the eclipse begins, Europe and Africa will be nearing sunrise, but all of North and South America (as well as parts of Russia) will be full-on into the start of night.
As the Earth continues to turn and the Moon moves through the Earth’s shadow, the eclipse will go from penumbral to partial to total, with totality lasting for over an hour, before becoming a partial and then penumbral eclipse again.
Small portions of northern Europe and northern Asia will experience the entirety of the eclipse, but all of North and South America will get to view the entire thing. This marks the first Pan-American eclipse of the 21st century!”
On January 20/21, 2019, the Moon will slip into the Earth’s umbral shadow, creating the spectacular sight of a total lunar eclipse. The Moon will be at perigee during this event, meaning that this event will be a Supermoon eclipse, and will occur everywhere on Earth that’s experiencing night at this time. While Iceland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and parts of Norway, Portugal, and Russia will get to see the whole thing, so will the entirety of North and South America, marking the first Pan-American eclipse of the 21st century, and the last one we’ll get until 2058!
Come get the full story of this amazing upcoming event visible to half of the Earth later this month!
This Erupting Volcano’s Lava Appears Blue, And Science Knows Why
“Molten rock, known as magma, erupts through fissures in Earth’s crust, becoming lava. If that lava rises above 525 ˚C (977 ˚F), it glows red, with hotter lavas becoming orange or even yellow. But one volcano, Indonesia’s Kawah Ijen, displays a spectacular blue color.”
Under normal circumstances, volcanoes erupt when magma seeps out from underneath Earth’s surface and break through. This hot material, now called lava, will flow down the gradient of Earth’s surface until it cools and hardens, glowing whatever color is defined by its temperature. But one volcano, Kawah Ijen in eastern Indonesia, doesn’t display the reds we commonly associate with lava. In fact, if you view it at night, the blue color is unmistakable. A few years ago, many outlets reported that this was due to blue lava, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, it’s chemistry, acidity, and the unique environment of the Ijen volcano complex that’s behind this unique display.
Come get the science behind why the Kawah Ijen volcano appears to erupt blue, and enjoy the spectacular show for yourself!
Ask Ethan: Why Can’t Our Telescopes Find Planet X?
“If scientists can use telescopes to hunt planets, galaxies, exoplanets, etc., then why can’t we scan our solar system for the elusive Planet X or other celestial bodies within our home system?”
If you want to find every object in the Universe, all you have to do is survey the entire sky for the faintest possible astronomical entities. If you have enough resolution, enough light-gathering power, and enough sky coverage, you truly could see it all.
But the telescope technology we have is limited, of course. Telescopes come in finite sizes and can only observe a finite portion of the sky for a finite amount of time. Even with the telescopes we have that can see objects tens of billions of light-years away, we still can’t find everything that’s out there.
Oddly enough, this even includes potentially large worlds within our Solar System! Why is that? Find out on this edition of Ask Ethan!
The Five Ways The Universe Might End
“4.) Dark energy could transition into another form of energy, rejuvenating the Universe. If dark energy doesn’t decay, but instead remains constant or even strengthens, there’s another possibility that arises. This energy, inherent to the fabric of space today, may not remain in that form forever. Instead, it could get converted into matter-and-radiation, similar to what occurred when cosmic inflation ended and the hot Big Bang began.
If dark energy remains constant until that point, it will create a very, very cold and diffuse version of the hot Big Bang, where only neutrinos and photons can self-create. But if dark energy increases in strength, it could lead to an inflation-like state followed by a new, truly hot Big Bang once again. This is the most straightforward way to rejuvenate the Universe, and create a cyclic-like set of parameters, where the Universe gets another chance to behave like ours did.”
Based on the best knowledge and data that we have today, it’s clear that the Universe isn’t just expansion, but the expansion is accelerating. Does this determine the fate of our Universe unambiguously? If we extrapolate what the data indicates about dark energy into the future, we fully expect that structures (like our local group) that are gravitationally bound today will remain so into the future, but that larger-scale structures which are unbound (like our supercluster, Laniakea) will eventually dissociate. But extrapolation is tricky, and assumes that dark energy doesn’t change over time.
If we allow the possibility of change, though, many more possibilities arise. Here are the five most likely, and how we’ll distinguish between them!
I saw your post about how the Earth is slowly drifting farther away from the Sun and found it very interesting! Would that technically mean that Earth’s years are getting slightly longer? And if so, is it possible that leap day will stop being a thing in the distant future?
Earth’s years are getting very slightly longer due to an outward spiral, but we are talking about microseconds per year; the effect on the length of the day or the number of days in a year is negligible.
But there is another effect that will change the length of the day more quickly: the tidal friction from the Moon on our Earth. The Moon spirals away from us, and that slows the rotation of the Earth. In about 4 million years, there will be no more leap days owing to this effect.
You can read more about this here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2016/02/26/the-physics-of-leap-day/
Earth Is Drifting Away From The Sun, And So Are All The Planets
“The Sun’s mass loss, by burning its nuclear fuel, ensures that every mass orbiting in our Solar System is slowly spiraling outward as time goes on. Some 4.5 billion years ago, our planet was around 50,000 kilometers closer to the Sun than it is today, and will grow more distant more rapidly as the Sun continues to evolve.
With each and every orbit that passes, the planets become progressively less tightly-bound to our Sun. The rate at which the Sun burns through its fuel is increasing, accelerating the rate at which all the planets spiral outwards. While this should never unbind any of the planets we have today, the slow, steady, outward migration of every world is inevitable.
We’re closer to the Sun, this year, than we’ll ever be again. This is true for every planet around every established star in the Universe, too, giving us one more reason to appreciate all that we have today.”
January 3rd, 2019, marks Earth’s perihelion: our point of closest approach to the Sun. Every planet, asteroid, Kuiper belt objects and more has one. But one fact about our perihelion is that, with every year that goes by, our point of closest approach moves out farther and farther from the center of our Solar System. Every year, for Earth, marks another 1.5 centimeters of distance that’s placed between ourselves and the Sun.
How does this happen? Why does this occur? And how come we spiral outwards, instead of inwards? Come learn the science behind perihelion today!
You're blog is lovely. About how long does it take to make a single post because it looks like you put a lot of effort in?
Behind-the-scenes, it usually takes me about 4 hours on average to put a piece together, assuming I already know the information that’s going to go into it. (I.e., if it’s about physics or astronomy in an area where I am well-studied and up-to-date.)
If it’s not, it can take up to a full day for me to get there.
Of course, this is for the main articles, rather than the excerpts and synopses that I link to here on Tumblr. Thanks for following and asking!