In 1839, The Moon Looked Like This

The first photograph of the Moon (John W. Draper)

The first photograph of the Moon (John W. Draper)

This is the first ever photograph taken of the Moon. The first. 170 years ago!

I was directed to the image by Twitter friend LouisS and I felt compelled to post it on Much like the 1911 Martian canal post last month, this serves as a reminder about the heritage of modern astronomy that dates back not decades, but centuries.

The 1839 photograph was taken by British ex-pat John William, a chemistry professor in the New York University, using a silver platinum plate.

For more, check out “One Photo, One Story” »

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The Space Station Flares, Again!

I don’t usually post two identical stories within a few days of one another, but when I saw this image on I had to comment on it. On Friday, I was captivated by the astounding astrophotography by Nicolas Biver as he tracked the space station with video camera and telescope, to capture some great detail of the manned outpost as it passed over France. With a bit of luck and a whole world of skill, Biver observed a bright space station flare.

Next up, it’s the turn of Martin Gembec. On May 2nd, he grabbed this superb trail as the station passed through the distinctive edge-on disk of our galaxy over the Czech Republic. What’s more, the station flared as its huge solar arrays reflected sunlight through Gembec’s ‘scope… right at the moment when the station travelled through the hazy starlit disk of the Milky Way.

The ISS flares as it passes through the Milky Way's disk (©Martin Gembec)

The ISS flares as it passes through the Milky Way's disk (©Martin Gembec)

We were watching a bright flyby of the space station when the ISS surprised us with a big flare in the Milky Way,” said Gembec. “At maximum, the ISS reached magnitude -8.”

A magnitude of -8 makes this flare a beast; that’s 25× brighter than Venus and 400× brighter than the star Sirius.

In the photo above, there is a rather ominous piece of kit attached to a boom reaching into the centre of the image. This is a reflection of Gembec’s Canon 30D camera (that took the picture as the ISS passed overhead) in an all-sky mirror. The mirror is in a concave shape to collect the starlight from the sky, bouncing the light into the camera lens. It acts much like a satellite dish; except it doesn’t bounce and focus radio waves into an antenna, the all-sky mirror reflects visible light and focuses it into the open camera shutter. As you can see, the results are visually stunning.

Source: Space Weather

Space Station Flare Captured On Film

I’ve been watching this short video clip over and over. It may only be two seconds long, but it is such a unique view of the space station that I find it mesmerizing. Each time the animated GIF loops, another detail seems to reveal itself.

The ISS flare, as observed by Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France, on April 28th (©Nicolas Biver)

The ISS flare, as observed by Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France, on April 28th (©Nicolas Biver)

It’s also kinda hypnotizing in a rhythmic way; the space station appears to turn and boost away into the black of space, but just before its massive solar arrays capture the sunlight, dazzling the observer with a flash.

Is it me, or are those solar panels reminiscent of the sails hoisted up the masts of canon-touting battleships before the age of iron-hulled vessels and steam-powered engines? These slightly fuzzy images could even be from the turn of the 20th Century, when one of the first movie cameras filmed a ship steering out of port.

Of course, this isn’t a wooden ocean-going ship, it’s the space station, in orbit. And the video was taken with a modern digital camera through a 16-inch Dobsonian telescope by a highly skilled amateur astronomer called Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France. The reason why the station appears to “turn” is because the perspective of the observer changes as the station flies overhead, he did a great job of tracking it.

On April 28th, Biver tracked the space station through his ‘scope. Whether it was intentional or not, he was fortunate to capture an intense flare as the space station’s solar panels reflected sunlight at his location. The resulting flare was much brighter than Venus (after the Moon, the station is the second brightest object in the night sky). Usually when I hear about observations of flares made by stuff in orbit, I usually think of Iridium flares that occur at predictable times and locations, providing a target for observers on the ground to capture a meteor-like streak across the sky. The Iridium satellite network provides a great chance for astronomers to see the reflected light when the angle between them, the satellite’s solar panels and Sun is just right.

My astronomer friend Tavi Greiner (who has just joined the Astrocast.TV team as host of Our Night Sky, be sure to check it out!) is very skilled at observing the Iridium flare-ups, and as can be seen in this image, those things are bright.

However, on the 28th, it was the space station’s turn to reflect some light for Nicolas Biver.

In March, Space Shuttle Discovery completed the construction of the ISS solar arrays during the STS-119 mission. Over a series of space walks, the solar array had its area boosted to 16,000 square feet. With this extra surface area, comes the potential for very bright flaring events.

For the chance to view the ISS and possible flaring, check out’s Simple Satellite Tracker.

Source: Space Weather

In 1911, Martians Were Building Canals

Martians Build Two Immense Canals In Two Years

On August 27th, 1911 the New York Times Sunday magazine ran an article entitled “Martians Build Two Immense Canals In Two Years”. Astronomer Percival Lowell had been studying the Red Planet and sketched what he saw, in this case, a growing complex of apparent canals on the Martian surface. There was even a nice little story that went along with this canal-building alien civilization theory. Lowell said, “The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut,” that the Martian civilization was dying and they were building canals to reach the water ice in the Martian poles.

It turns out he was right about the water ice, but there’s no trace of this canal-building race on Mars… in fact there’s little trace of anything biological on the Red Planet. So apart from a few historic anecdotes, there’s still no life on Mars. The search continues.

Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that … a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years. — Excerpt from the 1911 New York Times article.

Source: The Futility Closet (an awesome site)

Mystery Blob Detected 12.9 Billion Light Years Away

The Himiko object, the most massive object ever discovered in the early universe (M. Ouchi et al.)

Take a good look, this is one of the most mysterious, massive objects ever discovered in the cosmos. We don’t really know what it is, but this thing is huge, spanning 55,000 light years across (the approximate radius of our Milky Way). What makes this all the more intriguing is the fact that this object formed only 800 million years after the Big Bang and it is 10 times more massive than the next biggest object observed in the early Universe. But what is it?
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Are Brown Dwarfs More Common Than We Thought?

A brown dwarf plus aurorae (NRAO)

In 2007, a very rare event was observed from Earth by several observers. An object passed in front of a star located near the centre of the Milky Way, magnifying its light. Gravitational lensing is not uncommon in itself (the phenomenon was predicted by Einstein in 1915), but if we consider what facilitated this rare “microlensing” event, things become rather interesting.
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Listen to Brian Cox on BBC Radio 4: A Tribute to Carl Sagan (Update)

Listen to Brian Cox’s Tribute to Carl Sagan – it is fantastic »

Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander (NASA)

Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander (NASA)

News just in from Gia Milinovich via Twitter:

Physicist and broadcaster Brian Cox presents a tribute to his science hero, the American astronomer Carl Sagan, the man who many people describe as the greatest populariser of science of all time. His landmark television series Cosmos was seen by more than 600 million people worldwide and inspired a generation of young scientists to regard the universe with wonder and awe. — Synopsis about Brian’s show on BBC Radio 4

I’m a huge fan of Brian’s work, he’s a fantastic and entertaining communicator of all things scientific, so this is the perfect tribute to legendary astronomer and presenter, Carl Sagan. I’ll be sure to tune in… with my late-morning coffee. According to Gia, Brian thinks this is the best show he’s done, so if that’s anything to go by, this is one event you cannot miss!

Catch the BBC Radio 4 stream at 8pm GMT (in the US, that’s midday PST or 3pm EST).

We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” –Carl Sagan

WR 104: Not The Killer It Used To Be

WR 104. A killer? Not so much.

WR 104. A killer? Not so much.

It’s interesting how astronomical harbingers of doom have the ability to pop up more than once on the ‘net. However, the doom isn’t quite as terrifying when you’ve sat through a conference presentation by a scientist who has exhaustively given every reason as to why this particular killer won’t hurt you.

Enter WR 104.

To be honest, if it wasn’t a Wolf-Rayet star, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it (as we all know, or you should know, Wolf-Rayets are my favourite stellar objects), but this little fact combined with the fact that I know the Earth is no longer on the WR 104 hit-list, I feel compelled to correct an article that has just popped up on the web referencing out-of-date source material.

So, let’s wind this back the clock to January 2009 when I sat in on a very reassuring this-star-isn’t-actually-going-to-kill-us-after-all astro presentation…
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Listening Out for the Magnetospheres of Habitable Exoplanets

Searching for Earth-like exoplanets (© Mark Garlick)

Searching for Earth-like exoplanets (© Mark Garlick*)

Is there a new way to hunt for habitable Earth-like exoplanets? According to a US Naval Research Laboratory researcher there is an obvious, yet ingenious, way of listening for these worlds. Like most Earth-like exoplanet searches, we are looking for characteristics of our own planet. So what do we need to survive on Earth? Obviously we need water and the correct mix of oxygen with other atmospheric gases, but what about the magnetic bubble we live in? The Earth’s magnetosphere protects us from the worst the Sun can throw at us, preventing the atmosphere from being eroded into space and deflecting life-hindering radiation.

Although we have yet to develop sensitive enough radio telescopes, it may be possible in the future to detect the radio waves generated as charged particles in stellar winds interact with Earth-like exoplanetary magnetospheres. If there’s a magnetosphere, there may be a protected atmosphere. If there’s an atmosphere, perhaps there’s life being nurtured below

*This image is copyright Mark A. Garlick and has been used with permission. Please do not use this image in any way whatsoever without first contacting the artist.
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Here’s One We Didn’t Discover Earlier

The 1998 archive Hubble image of HR 8799 after image analysis - one of the star's exoplanets have been resolved (NASA/HST)

The 1998 archive Hubble image of HR 8799 after image analysis - one of the star's exoplanets have been resolved (D. Lafrenière et al., ApJ Letters)

What’s just as exciting as directly imaging an exoplanet in a new observing campaign? To discover an exoplanet in an old observing campaign.

Like so many significant astronomical discoveries, archival images of the cosmos provide a valuable tool to astronomers. On its most basic level, astronomers can compare new images with images taken by the same (or different) observatory months, years or decades ago. This method can lead to the discovery of planets, asteroids and comets (when comparing two pictures of the night sky, a celestial object appears to move relative to the background stars). However, a new technique to analyse archived Hubble data in the search for exoplanets, has just revealed one of three known exoplanets orbiting the star HR 8699. The image in question was captured in 1998, when astronomers thought HR 8799 was an exoplanet-less star
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