Category: astronomy

This Is Why There Are So Few Black Physicists And Astronomers (And How To Fix It)

“Make an effort to support black students in the classroom. Reach out to them. Invite them to study sessions. Tell them explicitly about opportunities. When you see them at a conference, introduce them to others that you know. Invite them for drinks and to social events. Send the simple message, wherever you can, that “you are welcome here” and “you belong here.”

Many of the black physicists and astronomers today were brought into the field because of positive interactions with professors and students. If we can transform the field to make that the cultural norm — and clearly, this applies to more fields than just physics and astronomy — we can better advance, serve, and promote the physical sciences for the benefit of humanity. Advancing and supporting under-represented minorities is a critical component of that, and one that we can all contribute to simply by sending that one universal message we all yearn to hear: your presence here is genuinely valued.”

Over the past two or three decades, both the number and percentage of Bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black Americans in STEM fields has increased tremendously, with the exception of two fields where gains have been either modest or stagnant: physics and astronomy. In a historic first, the American Institute of Physics conducted a deep scientific study into what the causes of this were and how to fix it, producing a report with two main recommendations: we need to change the culture in these fields to foster a sense of belonging, inclusivity and support, and we need to fund under-represented students and their departments to ease the financial and structural burdens that they face.

While most of us can’t help with the funding situation, we can all play a role in being more inclusive. Here’s what you can do, in physics, astronomy, and beyond.

8 Scientific Facts Everyone Should Know About Leap Day

“We should all appreciate the need for Leap Days; without them, the Earth’s seasons, equinoxes, and solstices would all shift over time, rather than falling on the same date year after year. But, simultaneously, we should also appreciate that the length of a day is not constant, just as the number of days in a year is not constant. As time goes on and the Earth’s rotation continues to slow, we’ll need fewer and fewer days to make up a full calendar year, which will mean we’ll require a constantly changing calendar system.

But for now, particularly on the scale of a human lifetime, the Gregorian calendar — where Leap Days occur every 4 years but not on centuries that aren’t also divisible by 400 year intervals — will do just fine. Enjoy your extra day this year however you see fit, and remember that without these Leap Days, our calendar simply wouldn’t add up.”

Every four years, at least in all of our lifetimes, we add an extra day to our calendar in the form of February 29th: Leap Day. Although Leap Day has some dubious historical origins that overlap with a large number of urban legends, the reason for the existence and occurrence of this day is purely scientific. Without it, we’d be entirely unable to make our seasons and our calendar match up. In fact, in perhaps the most remarkable illustration of this of all, there are a series of 10 days that never existed in October of 1582, as our previous (Julian) calendar failed to account for Leap Days properly.

Come get the full suite of 8 scientific facts that everyone should know about Leap Day, and make sure you take a risk you won’t regret with yours!

Will Alien Life First Be Discovered On Europa, Exoplanets, Or From Extraterrestrials?

“If it exists on a world in our Solar System, like Mars or Europa, we’ll finally be sending space probes with the capability of finding those biosignatures. If life exists and has thrived for a long time on a nearby exoplanets, direct imaging or transit spectroscopy could reveal hints or even surefire evidence of that planetary transformation. And if intelligent aliens are trying to contact us, we’re better positioned to pick up those beacons than ever before.

For as long as humans have existed, we’ve wondered whether life on Earth is all there is and if we’re alone in the Universe, or if other life forms exist on worlds beyond our own planet. As the 2020s dawns, we have better prospects than ever for discovering life on all three possible fronts. With billions of potentially inhabited worlds in our galaxy alone, even if life is relatively rare, we’re still in great position to detect what scant life does exist. Arguably, the biggest question isn’t whether we’re alone or not, but rather how and where we’ll find our first evidence for life beyond Earth.”

It’s the start of the 2020s, and humanity still hasn’t determined whether we’re alone in the Universe or not. We’ve never found a single surefire signature of the existence of extraterrestrial life: not in our solar system, not on planets around other stars, not from intelligent, spacefaring aliens. But if there are alien life forms out there, inhabiting other planets and leaving their biological imprints on them, we have three entirely unique and complementary approaches to uncovering them.

So how will we get there first? Come explore the possibilities and see where the technology will take us this decade!

Should NASA Send New Horizons To A Nearby Star For Its Final Mission?

“Over the next million years, the Voyagers and Pioneers will approach numerous stars, but only at relatively large separations. The closest will be Pioneer 10, encountering HIP 1177795 in ~90,000 years from 0.75 light-years away. But New Horizons, unlike the others, still has significant fuel remaining. After encountering Pluto and Arrokoth, it may yet target another object in the outer Kuiper belt. Subsequently, it will eventually enter interstellar space, but can be boosted to approach future stellar targets.”

In the 1970s, four spacecraft were launched with speeds large enough that they would eventually escape the Solar System: Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2. In the 2000s, New Horizons became the fifth spacecraft that will leave the Solar System and enter interstellar space. But unlike the other four, it still has fuel remaining and could boost itself to alter its trajectory. In the aftermath of the ESA’s Gaia mission, we now can predict where more than a billion stars in the Milky Way will be located up to a million years in the future, raising the possibility that we could alter New Horizon’s trajectory to encounter another solar system in the distant future.

Should we do it? Of course we should! Come learn about this fascinating possibility today.

This Is Why Betelgeuse (Probably) Isn’t About To Explode

“Even though it’s unlikely that Betelgeuse is about to explode, we must keep in mind that this is both a possibility and an inevitability. When that finally does occur, it will become the most widely-viewed astronomical event in human history, visible to everyone on Earth over the course of a year or more at a time where more humans exist on Earth than ever before. It’s going to happen eventually, but probably not for somewhere around 100,000 years.

While you should absolutely go out and enjoy this unprecedentedly dim sight, as Betelgeuse is only ~36% as bright as it was a year ago, you must keep in mind that its current brightness variations are due to processes in its outermost layers alone, and have nothing to do with its core. Betelgeuse might go supernova at any time, but if it does, its correlation with this recent dimming event will be due to pure coincidence. What happens in the core doesn’t make it to the surface fast enough to give us any real, meaningful clues.”

Betelgeuse has gotten fainter and fainter over the past few months, moving from its position as one of the 10 brightest stars in the sky all the way down to the mid-20s, barely a third of its original brightness. At the same time, images of its shape have shown it changing unevenly over the course of merely a year. Betelgeuse has never appeared this faint to anyone alive today, and speculation is running rampant that it might go supernova at any point. But that’s not what we’d responsibly conclude based on astronomy at all. 

It’s extremely unlikely to go supernova, and this dimming event isn’t related to anything happening (or not happening) in Betelgeuse’s core at all. Here’s what’s really going on.

These 22 Pictures Are The Perfect Farewell To NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope

“On January 30, 2020, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was retired after a 17 year mission. Along with Hubble, Compton, and Chandra, Spitzer was the final of NASA’s Great Observatories. Owing to its location above Earth’s atmosphere, its measurement capabilities were unique. Until James Webb launches, Spitzer remains humanity’s greatest mid-infrared observatory. These 22 images highlight its greatest achievements.”

What can you see, from space, with infrared eyes that you cannot see with optical, Hubble-like wavelengths? For the past 17 years, NASA’s Spitzer has answered those questions, revealing spectacular details about star-forming regions, nearby and distant galaxies, supernova remnants and planetary nebulae, and a whole host of other fascinating astrophysical phenomena.

From the deepest, darkest dust lanes in our galaxy to comets in our own Solar System to the ultra-distant Universe, Spitzer truly has been one of the “great” observatories in NASA’s entire history. Come take one last tour today.

Will Humanity Achieve Interstellar Travel And Find Alien Life?

“All of this, together, points to a picture where a spacecraft or even a crewed journey to the stars is technologically within our reach, and where the discovery of our first world beyond the solar system with possible life on it could occur in a decade or two. What was once solely in the realm of science-fiction is quickly becoming possible due to both technical and scientific advances and the thousands of scientists and engineers who work to apply these new technologies in practical ways.

On February 5 at 7 PM ET (4 PM PT), Dr. Bryan Gaensler, director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, will be delivering a public lecture at Perimeter Institute on exactly this topic. Titled Warp Drive and Aliens: The Scientific Perspective, it’s available to watch from anywhere on Earth, and I’ll be following along with a live-blog in real time…”

For as long as we’ve been looking up at the stars, we’ve wondered whether it will ever be possible to travel to one of them, and to perhaps discover another planet where life has taken hold. What’s been a mere sci-fi dream for humanity for most of our history at last, with 21st century technology, has the possibility of becoming a reality. 

Later today, Dr. Bryan Gaensler will be delivering a public lecture at Perimeter Institute that will be webcast in real-time all over the world, and you can follow along with my live-blog of his talk in real-time, too!

This 9-Gigapixel Zoomable Image Is Humanity’s Best All-Time View Of The Galactic Center

“VISTA, the ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, assembled a whopping 9-gigapixel image of our galaxy’s innermost few degrees. Dusty star-forming regions, like the Lagoon Nebula, are only faintly identifiable in the infrared. The great dark cloud known as Barnard 78 appears as barely a wisp. The Trifid Nebula, famously two-toned in visible light, shows a dusty, blue tinge on the actively star-forming side only. Molecular clouds and ionized, shocked regions look wildly unfamiliar in the infrared.”

Have you ever wished you could zoom in on the center of the galaxy, and view the inner workings of our galaxy for yourself? Have you dreamed about doing it not in visible light, where the dust in the galactic plane blocks most of the light and renders the majority of stars invisible, but in the longer-wavelengths of the infrared, where light mostly passes through?

Well, there’s a remarkable 9-Gigapixel, zoomable version available from the ESO right now, and it’s our best view of the galactic center. Come take a tour and get the highlights for yourself!

This Multi-Trillion Dollar Disaster Is Coming, And Solar Astronomy Is Our Prime Defense

“Although the largest solar flares are rare, they do occur with some regularity. Some of them create coronal mass ejections; some coronal mass ejections head directly towards Earth; some of the ones that do head towards Earth have exactly the right properties to create spectacular aurorae and potentially catastrophic geomagnetic storms. Only now, with this new generation of solar astronomy tools, are we finally in position to scientifically prepare for the inevitable disaster.

For decades, we’ve avoided the ruination of our modern infrastructure through sheer luck alone. A Carrington-level event, if it were to strike us unawares, would certainly cause trillions of dollars worth of damage worldwide. With the advent of these new heliophysics-focused observatories, led by the NSF’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, we’ll finally have the opportunity to know when “the big one” is coming.”

In 1859, solar astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the Sun, when a “white light flare” danced around a massive sunspot for around five minutes before disappearing. 18 hours later, the largest geomagnetic storm in recorded history struck Earth. If such an event were to occur today, the induced currents it would create could cause trillions of dollars worth of damage.

But there’s a scientific way to know if one is coming, not just minutes in advance but from the moment the Sun releases a coronal mass ejection: through solar astronomy. In particular, the National Science Foundation’s new Inouye Solar Telescope, whose first light image has delighted the public across the world, will provide our first line of defense against this Sun-driven catastrophe, as well as our first early warning signal.

As spectacular as our first images of the Sun with this new observatory are, there’s a science goal that’s relevant to us all. This is why we study the Sun as we do.

Astronomers’ Concerns Intensify With SpaceX’s Latest Starlink Launch

“Unfortunately for astronomers, Starlink and the other coming mega-constellation networks, of tens of thousands of satellites apiece, really are a problem for astronomy. They present real hardware problems that cannot be fixed with software alone, and the ground-based observatories perform tasks that cannot be replaced with space-based initiatives. Until regulations are put into place and take effect — which astronomers know they cannot wait for, even though some contend that the FCC’s approval of Starlink may have been illegal — the world will have to rely on SpaceX and other companies to voluntarily regulate themselves.

As astronomer Caitlin Casey put it, “The fact that one person, or one company, can take control and completely transform humans’ experience of the night sky, and not just humans, but every organism on Earth … that seems profoundly wrong.” Despite the concerns voiced by astronomers, and the promises made to the community by SpaceX, unfettered launches of maximally offensive satellites appear poised to continue indefinitely. SpaceX is now the largest operator of satellites in the world, and unless they start making major changes extremely soon, the science of astronomy itself will be forever changed for the worse.”

SpaceX has promised, over and over, that they are committed to working with astronomers to make sure that our science isn’t damaged and the character of the night sky doesn’t change. Many astronomers, based on what they’re seeing SpaceX actually do, are having a hard time swallowing the Kool-Aid.

With yesterday’s successful launch, where 60 additional maximally offensive Starlink satellites were put up into space, SpaceX’s actions are speaking otherwise.