The Solar System Just Had an Interstellar Visitor. Now It’s Gone

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Hello, goodbye interstellar comet. The hyperbolic orbit of Comet C/2017 C1 as plotted by JPL’s Small-Body Database Browser (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Update: At original time of writing, C/2017 U1 was assumed to be a comet. But Followup observations by the Very Large Telescope in Chile on Oct. 25 found no trace of cometary activity. The object’s name has now been officially changed to A/2017 U1 as it is more likely an interstellar asteroid, not a comet.

Astronomers using the PanSTARRS 1 telescope in Maui may have discovered an alien comet.

Comets and asteroids usually originate from the outermost reaches of the solar system — they’re the ancient rocky, icy debris left over from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago.

However, astronomers have long speculated that comets and asteroids originating from other stars might escape their stars, traverse interstellar distances and occasionally pay our solar system a visit. And looking at C/2017 U1’s extreme hyperbolic trajectory, it looks very likely it’s not from around these parts.

“If further observations confirm the unusual nature of this orbit this object may be the first clear case of an interstellar comet,” said Gareth Williams, associate director of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC). A preliminary study of C/2017 U1 was published earlier today. (Since this statement, followup observations have indicated that the object might be an asteroid and not a comet.)

According to Sky & Telescope, the object entered the solar system at the extreme speed of 16 miles (26 kilometers) per second, meaning that it is capable of traveling a distance of 850 light-years over 10 million years, a comparatively short period in cosmic timescales.

Spotted on Oct. 18 as a very dim 20th magnitude object, astronomers calculated its trajectory and realized that it was departing the solar system after surviving a close encounter with the sun on Sept. 9, coming within 23.4 million miles (0.25 AU). Comets would vaporize at that distance from the sun, but as C/2017 U1’s speed is so extreme, it didn’t have time to heat up.

“It went past the sun really fast and may not have had time to heat up enough to break apart,” said dynamicist Bill Gray. Gray estimates that the comet is approximately 160 meters wide with a surface reflectivity of 10 percent.

But probably the coolest factor about this discovery is the possible origin of C/2017 U1. After calculating the direction at which the comet entered the solar system, it appears to have come from the constellation of Lyra and not so far from the star Vega. For science fiction fans this holds special meaning — that’s the star system where the SETI transmission originated in the Jodie Foster movie Contact.

For more on this neat discovery, check out the Sky & Telescope article.

Spinning Comet Slams its Brakes as It Makes Earth Flyby

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Images of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak’s jets as observed by the Discovery Channel Telescope on March 19, 2017 (Schleicher/Lowell Observatory)

Although comets are static lumps of ancient ice for most of their lives, their personalities can rapidly change with a little heat from the sun. Now, astronomers have witnessed just how dynamic comets can be, seeing one dramatically slow its rate of rotation to the point where it may even reverse its spin.

Comets are the leftover detritus of planetary formation that were sprinkled around our sun 4.6 billion years ago. These primordial icy remains collected in the outermost reaches of the solar system and that’s where they stay until they get knocked off their gravitational perches to begin an interplanetary roller coaster ride. Some are unlucky and end up diving straight to a fiery, solar death. But others set up in stable orbits, making regular passes through the inner solar system, dazzling observers with their beautiful tails formed through heating by the sun.

One mile-wide short-period comet is called 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak and it’s a slippery celestial object. First discovered in 1858 by U.S. astronomer Horace Parnell Tuttle, it disappeared soon after. But in 1907, French astronomer Michael Giacobini “rediscovered” the comet, only for it to disappear once again. Then, in 1951, Slovak astronomer Ľubor Kresák made the final “discovery” and now astronomers know exactly where to find it and when it will turn up in our night skies.

Its name, Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, reflects the wonderful 100-year discovery and rediscovery history of astronomy’s quest to keep tabs on the comet’s whereabouts.

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Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak as observed on March 22, 2017 (Kees Scherer/Knight Observatory, Tomar)

Now, 41P is the focus of an interesting cometary discovery. Taking 5.4 years to complete an orbit around the sun, 41P came within 13-million miles to Earth earlier this year, the closest it has come to our planet since it was first discovered by Tuttle. So, astronomers at Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff, Ariz., used the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope near Happy Jack, the 1.1-meter Hall telescope and the 0.9-meter Robotic telescope on Anderson Mesa, to zoom-in on the interplanetary vagabond to measure its rotational speed.

Comets can be unpredictable beasts. Composed of rock and icy volatiles, when they are slowly heated by the sun as they approach perihelion (the closest point in their orbit to the sun), these ices sublimate (i.e. turn from ice to vapor without melting into a liquid), blasting gas and dust into space.

Over time, these jets are known to have a gradual effect the comet’s trajectory and rotation, but, over an astonishing observation run, Lowell astronomers saw a dramatic change in this comet’s spin. Over a short six-week period, the comet’s rate of rotation slowed from one rotation every 24 hours to once every 48 hours — its rate of rotation had halved. This is the most dramatic change in comet rotation speed ever recorded — and erupting jets from the comet’s surface are what slammed on the brakes.

This was confirmed by observing cyanogen gas, a common molecule found on comets that is composed of one carbon atom and one nitrogen atom, being ejected into space as the comet was being heated by sunlight.

“While we expected to observe cyanogen jets and be able to determine the rotation period, we did not anticipate detecting a change in the rotation period in such a short time interval,” said Lowell astronomer David Schleicher, who led the project, in a statement. “It turned out to be the largest change in the rotational period ever measured, more than a factor of ten greater than found in any other comet.”

For this rapid slowdown to occur, the researchers think that 41P must have a very elongated shape and be of very low density. In this scenario, if the jets are located near the end of its length, enough torque could be applied to cause the slowdown. If this continues, the researchers predict that the direction of rotation may even reverse.

“If future observations can accurately measure the dimensions of the nucleus, then the observed rotation period change would set limits on the comet’s density and internal strength,” added collaborator Matthew Knight. “Such detailed knowledge of a comet is usually only obtained by a dedicated spacecraft mission like the recently completed Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.”

The Solar Eclipse Is Going to Cost the U.S. $700 Million? Good.

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A photo of the 2012 annular eclipse from Malibu, Calif., using an old digital camera and solar filter (Ian O’Neill)

The U.S. media is currently saturated with hot takes, histories, weird facts, “how to’s” and weather reports around the Great American Eclipse that will glide across the continent on Monday (yes, THIS Monday, it’s finally here). But, today, one news report stood out from the crowd:

Inevitably, Twitter had an opinion about this.

On reading the NBC News report (that was penned by an unknown Reuters writer), it is as tone deaf as the headline.

“American employers will see at least $694 million in missing output for the roughly 20 minutes that outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates workers will take out of their workday on Monday to stretch their legs, head outside the office and gaze at the nearly two-and-a-half minute eclipse,” they write.

“Stretch their legs” for a “two-and-a-half minute eclipse,” — wow, what a waste of time. Worse than that, “[m]any people may take even longer to set up their telescopes or special viewing glasses, or simply take off for the day.” Unbelievable. Those skiving freeloaders.

How dare they take some time to step away from their computer screens to take a little time to gaze in awe at the most beautiful and rare natural celestial event to occur on our planet.

How dare they put pressure on the U.S. economy by bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue from the monstrous multi-trillion dollar consumerist machine.

How dare they be moved to tears as the moon completely blocks the sun, an event that has caused fear, suspicion, omen, wonderment, joy, inspiration, excitement and unadulterated passion throughout the history of our species.

How dare th— oh wait a minute. The lede appears to be buried:

“Compared to the amount of wages being paid to an employee over a course of a year, it is very small,” Challenger said. “It’s not going to show up in any type of macroeconomic data.”

So what you’re staying is, $700 million won’t even show up as a blip in economic analyses? Tell me more.

“It also pales when compared with the myriad other distractions in the modern workplace, such as March Madness, Cyber Monday, and the Monday after the Super Bowl,” they write. Well, whatdoyouknow, the Super Bowl is a distraction too? Those monsters.

So what you’re saying is, this isn’t really news. As a science news producer, I completely understand the pressures to keep up with the news cycle and finding fresh takes on tired stories (and let’s face it, 2017 has seen its fair share of eclipse articles). But for this particular angle, I think I would have most likely relegated the “lost” revenue to a footnote in a more informative and less clickbaity piece.

Monday’s eclipse will do untold good to this nation. The U.S. is going through a tumultuous stage in its young history, to put it mildly. This nation needs perspective to overcome the ineptitude, anti-science rhetoric and messages of segregation coming from its government; it needs an event that will be enjoyed by everyone, not just a fortunate subsection of society or the elite. The eclipse will inspire millions of people to look up (safely!) and ponder why is it that our planet’s only natural satellite can exactly fit into the disk of the sun.

Astronomy is an accessible gateway to the sciences and the eclipse will inspire, catalyzing many young minds to consider a future in STEM fields of study. This will enrich society in a myriad of ways and the economic gains from events such as Monday’s eclipse will make “$700 million” look like a piss in a swimming pool.

So, you know what? I’m glad this eclipse will “cost” the U.S. $700 million — I see it as an accidental investment in the future of this nation, a healthy nation that will hopefully put the antiscience stance of its current leaders behind it.

Want more eclipse stuff? Here’s a couple of my favorite angles:
How Eclipses Reveal Information About Alien Worlds, Light-Years Away
How a Total Solar Eclipse Helped Prove Einstein Right About Relativity

Also, be sure to view the eclipse safely:
Total Solar Eclipse 2017: When, Where and How to See It (Safely)

Alien vs. Comet: Is the SETI “Wow!” Signal Dead? (Astroengine Video)

There’s a new hypothesis about what happened on August 15, 1977, and, sadly, it doesn’t involve aliens — just a photobombing comet. I was surprised about the controversy surrounding Antonio Paris’ research into the possibility of comets generating radio signals at 1420MHz and mimicking the famous “Wow!” signal nearly 40 years ago, so I decided to record Astroengine’s second YouTube video on the topic. Enjoy! And remember to subscribe and like, there’s a lot more to come!

The Strangely-Named “Worm Moon” of March 12, 2017

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Full moon of March 12, 2017, the so-called “Worm Moon.” Taken with Canon EOS Rebel T5i (©Ian O’Neill)

“Super Moon,” “Harvest Moon,” “Blood Moon,” “Super-Blood Moon” … we have a lot of weird names for the moon’s phases depending on the time of year and today plays host to yet another kind of moon. Ready for it? (drumroll) Introducing the “Worm Moon,” possibly my favorite moon name.

So what is it? Courtesy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac:

March’s Full Moon is traditionally called the Full Worm Moon by the Native Americans who used the Moons to track the seasons; Colonial Americans also used these names, especially those of the local Algonquin tribes who lived between New England and Lake Superior. At the time of this Moon, the ground begins to soften enough for earthworm casts to reappear, inviting the return of robins and migrating birds.

So there you have it, the Worm Moon is the first full moon of March and I was able to get a nice view of it from my backyard late last night. Enjoy!

Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012)

Sir Patrick Moore
Sir Patrick Moore

“I’m only a four-dimensional creature. Haven’t got a clue how to visualise infinity. Even Einstein hadn’t. I know because I asked him.”Sir Patrick Moore

The Sky at Night: Curiosity at Mars (Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott):

Patrick Moore interviews Carl Sagan (h/t @megschwamb):

BBC News: Sir Patrick Moore: Chris Lintott’s tribute
Discovery News: Astronomer Patrick Moore Dies at 89

The Discovery Channel Telescope Is ONLINE!

M104, "The Sombrero Galaxy" as seen through the DCT. Credit: Lowell Observatory/DCT
M104, “The Sombrero Galaxy” as seen through the DCT. Credit: Lowell Observatory/DCT

Since I started working as Space Producer at Discovery News in 2009, there’s always been a major project humming in the background. But on Saturday, that hum evolved into a monster roar when astronaut legend Neil Armstrong spoke at Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff, Ariz., to introduce the $53 million 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope. Seeing photographs of the ‘scope and its “first light” observations gave me goosebumps.

But this is only the beginning. As the fifth largest optical telescope in the continental USA, the DCT has a packed science schedule and I am in a very privileged position to report on the exciting discoveries that will be made by “our” telescope.

Congratulations to everyone at Lowell Observatory on a job well done!

More:
BIG PICS: The DCT First Light Gallery.
PHOTOS: Get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Discovery Channel Telescope.
INTERVIEW: Unlocking dwarf galaxy mysteries with the DCT — Discovery News talks with Lowell Observatory astronomer Deidre Hunter.

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING:
Cosmic Log — Alan Boyle — Telescope opens a brand new window on Discovery
Bad Astronomy — Phil Plait — Discovery Channel telescope sees first light!

When Venus Transited the Sun

The Venus transit taken with my iPhone 3GS through a telescope eyepiece atop Mt. Wilson on June 5, 2012.
The Venus transit taken with my iPhone 3GS through a telescope eyepiece atop Mt. Wilson on June 5, 2012.

After the historic Venus transit and my involvement of the Astronomers Without Borders live webcast of the event from Mt. Wilson, I jetted off to Florida to give a talk at the 7×24 Exchange meeting in Orlando, so I had little time to post my transit photos on Astroengine.com. Now that my feet are (partially) back on the ground, I’ve found some time to upload them.

Interestingly, my favorite photos were taken using my trusty old iPhone 3GS through the eyepieces of random telescopes (pictured top), but here are some more from that awesome day.

For more, read my recent Discovery News articles based on the 2012 Venus transit:

Astrology Shakeup: What’s Your New Sign? (FOX News Interview)

I join FOX News host Megyn Kelly (center) and astrologer Constance Stella (right) on America Live.

Today’s horoscope says: Expect some angry emails.

Early this morning I get the call from Lori, my Director at Discovery News, saying, “You’re appearing on FOX this morning!”

My morning-addled brain started wondering why. Was it because of the tech article I wrote about dousing superconductors in wine? Or was it about the Playboy Playmate picture that flew to the moon in 1969? Or had some massive piece of space news broken while I was asleep? Perhaps FOX News needed a space expert to explain some uber-cool cosmic discovery!

Alas, no.

They wanted me to explain an article I nearly didn’t bother writing: “Your Star Sign Just Got Rumbled.”

I nearly didn’t bother writing about this as I didn’t consider it “news.” I just saw a lot of fuss on Twitter about a change in the Zodiac and did some investigating. I won’t go over this non-news event again (you can read my article for the details), but for some reason the fact that astrology is bunk seemed to surprise people.

“I’m so depressed. How do I tell my wife that I’m now a Taurus?” — too funny.

The FOX News chat was fun, but there wasn’t nearly enough time to go into all the gory details. Have a watch, I thought it was quite entertaining. (I’ve heard that this YouTube video might not be available beyond the U.S. — let me know if you have problems.)

The upshot is that astrology isn’t a science. Astronomy is. So when scientists try to find some astronomical link between how the stars can influence our everyday lives — even shape our personalities — we will ultimately be disappointed. This frustration is evident in my article.

Astrologers acknowledge that there is a zodiacal shift — they’d be silly not to, there’s an obvious precession in the Earth’s rotation, or 26,000 year “wobble” — but this shift is in the “sidereal zodiac.” Astrologers have side-stepped this out-of-sync problem by pointing out that they use the “tropical zodiac” which is based on the seasons and not the positions of the constellations — Constance Stella touches on this in the FOX News interview. Hence why everyone getting worked up about a change in their star sign is erroneous. Sure, this fixes the problem, ensuring they keep 12 signs of the zodiac (avoiding the “extra” 13th constellation, the now famous Ophiuchus), but it begs the question: What’s the point in astrology if astrologers don’t care if there’s a drift between the traditional zodiac (written up by Babylonian astrologers 3000 years ago) and today’s corrected zodiac?

(Also, isn’t there another way of predicting future events through the seasons, split into 12 sections? Oh yes, it’s a… calendar.)

I think all this confusion only adds doubt in people’s minds about the validity of modern horoscopes. They are nothing more than fairy tales.

Before I get flamed in the comment boxes about me “trampling” on people’s beliefs and that astrologers have done nothing wrong, consider this. Astrology will always be here so long as people want to hear positive things about their future, regardless of the fact that it’s complete and utter nonsense. Most will call it “entertainment,” while others will spend a fortune getting “detailed forecasts” of junk from the likes of Jonathan Cainer. Where there’s belief in some supernatural “force” (not a real force by the way), there’s money and plenty of modern astrologers who will be able to make a living.

So there you go. A non-news event that culminated in an appearance on national television. While fun, I think I’ll be getting back to the science now…

The White House Astronomy Night: Change, Delivered

In agreement with Phil Plait, this video made me smile too. A lot.

President Obama (now a Nobel Peace Prize recipient) hosted an astronomical party on the White House lawn on October 7th for an audience of 150 middle school students from the Washington area and some guests of honour (including Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo legend). It looked like a really exciting event for all the school kids involved.

This was my favourite bit:

So, there are a lot of mysteries left, and there are a lot of problems for you students to solve, and I want to be a president who makes sure you have the teachers and the tools that you need to solve them. That’s why we’re working to reinvigorate math and science in your schools and attract new and qualified science teachers in your classrooms, some with lifetimes of experience […] That’s how we’ll move American students to the top of the pack in math and in science over the next decade to guarantee that America will lead the world in discovery in this new century.” –President Barack Obama, Oct. 3rd.

Was there ever an astronomy party on the White House lawn during the previous administration?