New Addition to the Exoplanetary Menu: The WASP-12b Sizzler

The hotspot: A very, very hot Jupiter has been discovered (ESA/C Carreau)
The hotspot: A very, very hot Jupiter has been discovered (ESA/C Carreau)

So how hot is the hottest known planet? Usually the temperature of a planet orbiting another star is of little concern to us. At the end of the day, are we really looking for an interstellar getaway? The chance that we’ll be colonizing any extra-solar planets in the near future is pretty low, but that won’t stop us from peering up the the heavens studying “Hot Jupiters” orbiting stars hundreds of light years away. However, astronomers have just discovered a planet I doubt we’ll ever want to visit. Enter WASP-12b, the hottest, and fastest gas giant ever observed…
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Saturn’s Hexagonal North Pole: What is Causing It?

Infrared observations of the north pole of Saturn as taken by the Cassini mission in 2007 and 2008 (NASA)

The mystery of Saturn’s hexagonal shape embedded in its violent north polar cyclone just became more intriguing.

NASA’s Cassini probe has been orbiting the ringed gas giant for four years and has just returned some of the most detailed images of the planet’s stormy atmosphere to date. The south pole has been mapped and the north polar region has been imaged in near-infrared wavelengths. The north pole is currently facing away from the Sun, so by observing the atmosphere in these wavelengths, Cassini scientists can see Saturn’s cloud formations silhouette against the background glow of the gas giant’s internal heat. This provides the perfect opportunity to see the hexagon in unprecedented detail.

So what is generating this mysterious six-sided shape?
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New 2012 Article Published: No Geomagnetic Reversal

The 2012 doomsday scenario: geomagnetic reversal. Not in our lifetime...
The 2012 doomsday scenario: geomagnetic reversal. Not in our lifetime...

Universe Today: 2012: No Geomagnetic Reversal

After a long four-month break, I’ve finally written my next in the “No Doomsday in 2012” series of articles. This time we tackle the prediction that the world will end on December 21st, 2012 after being subject to a massive internal disturbance, effectively weakening the Earth’s magnetic field and flipping the magnetic dipole on its head (i.e. the north magnetic pole will be shifted to the geographical South Pole and vice versa). While this makes for a cool plot for a disaster movie, the doomsayers theory is only half-baked. Yes, geomagnetic reversal has happened in the past, and it will happen again. However, any geomagnetic shift in the future will not happen in four years, it probably won’t happen for a few thousand years. It appears to be a rather chaotic system, and all the (scientific) indications suggest our strong magnetic field wont be doing anything dramatic any time soon…

The series so far:

2012: No Geomagnetic Reversal Now Available in Spanish

With a special thanks, once again, to Manuel Herman, my most recent 2012 article has been translated into Spanish. Thank you Manuel for all your hard work!

Here’s the series (so far) in Spanish:

Nancy Writes for Wired: “Giants of Earth and Space”

Gran Telescopio Canarias located on La Palma, Spain - one of the giant observatories looking at the stars (GTC)
Gran Telescopio Canarias located on La Palma, Spain - one of the giant observatories looking at the stars (GTC)

My Universe Today colleague and superb science writer Nancy Atkinson has written her first article for! This is obviously a huge step as her writing has instantly accessed potentially millions of readers. So, CONGRATULATIONS NANCY!

Nancy was approached by Wired to put together an article about some of the biggest and boldest observatories on Earth. Her writing is accompanied by some stunning photography of these giant structures that include the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) on Mount Fowlkes, Texas (sporting 91 separate one-meter hexagonal mirrors); the W. M. Keck Observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano (with two 10-meter mirrors composed of 36 hexagonal segments); and my personal favourite, the Very Large Telescope Interferometer on the Andes mountaintop of Cerro Paranal, Chile (four 8.2-meter diameter telescopes working in tandem). There is a huge amount of information in Nancy’s excellent article, making it more than worthy of being included in this hugely popular science & technology magazine website.

Be sure to check out “Giants of Earth and Space,” by Nancy Atkinson over at

The Anatomy of a Rocket Launch Anomaly; SpaceX Falcon 1 Failure


SpaceX recently posted the launch video of the ill-fated Falcon 1, flight 3 launch on August 2nd. At the time, I was glued to the screen watching the live video broadcast of the event seeing the launch unfold. The first launch attempt was terminated due some minor parameter fluctuations, but the rocket was re-fuelled and prepped for a second attempt within the hour. However, although Falcon 1 made it to well above 200 km altitude, a very small thrust anomaly during stage separation had huge consequences for the space vehicle and payload…
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Poll: Should Pluto be Re-Instated as a Planet?

Snorg Tees advertisement: "Its okay Pluto, I'm not a planet either"

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided to re-classify what constituted a planet. Firstly the candidate must orbit the Sun. Secondly, it must be spherical (none of those asteroid-potato shapes please). Thirdly, it must clear its orbital path of junk. As soon as these three planetary characteristics were specified by the IAU (who is responsible for planet-naming and astronomy nomenclature), Pluto found itself orbiting without a planetary licence and promptly got demoted to a “dwarf planet.” This decision caused two years of arguing and public outcry until the IAU dubbed any Pluto-like bodies as “Plutoids.” This move by the IAU was seen as an affront to a member of the Solar System’s ninth planet, which had over 70 years of proud history (after all, it was thought to be the mysterious Planet X at one point). So next week, the world’s leading astronomers and planetary scientists are gathering in Maryland for a conference addressing the Pluto issue, voicing their frustration at the IAU’s controvercial decision and calling the “Plutoid” classification the Solar System’s “celestial underclass”…
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Astroengine Goes to Hollywood: “Fly Me to the Moon” Premier

Legendary astronaut and second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin. A really nice chap (© Ian O'Neill &
Legendary astronaut and second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin. A really nice chap (© Ian O'Neill &

In a very fortunate chain of events, I was asked by Fraser to go to the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Blvd. (LA) for the “Fly Me to the Moon” movie premier. I can’t review the film as yet (we have to wait until the film opens on August 15th for that), but I can give a run-down of who was at the premier and what the new animated feature is all about. Personally, I had a great day, fulfilling my dream of meeting legendary ex-astronaut Buzz Aldrin and legendary British actor Tim Curry…
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SpaceX Falcon 1 Suffers “Anomaly” During Ascent, Assumed Lost

Falcon 1 launch in 2007 (SpaceX)
Falcon 1 launch in 2007 (SpaceX)

Sad news. In a surprise announcement today, SpaceX revealed they had opened a window for their Falcon 1 to launch. Unfortunately, 140 seconds into the ascent, Falcon 1 suffered an undisclosed anomaly and the live video feed was cut. According to one comment left on the article I was updating over at the Universe Today to cover this historic event, the rocket suffered a “roll oscillation” (thank you Steve) shortly before contact was lost. Due to a poor video stream in my location, I did not witness this. Immediately after the screen went blank; the SpaceX commentators (Max Vozoff and Emily Shanklin, obviously upset) reported that Falcon 1 had suffered an “anomaly.” Looking at the most recent launch update, the rocket had reached 35 km in altitude and had attained an ascent velocity of 1050 m/s. The video feed was cut soon after T+140 seconds and after the short message by Max, the feed was pulled off-air and the credits rolled. A sad day for SpaceX and commercial spaceflight…
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Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo Sees First Light

Branson and Rutan inspace Eve at the Mojave Air and Space Port (Virgin Galactic)
Branson and Rutan inspect Eve at the Mojave Air and Space Port (Virgin Galactic)

The new addition to the Virgin Galactic family has been rolled out during an early morning ceremony in the middle of the Californian Mojave Desert. Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan proudly showed off “Eve,” the first of two WhiteKnightTwo mother ships that will fly up to four times a day. This is a big moment for Branson and Rutan as it brings their dreams of space tourism to a new reality…
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IBEX, The Energetic Neutral Atom Hunter

The termination shock, the point at which the interstellar medium interacts with the heliosphere (NASA)
The termination shock, the point at which the interstellar medium interacts with the heliosphere (NASA)

The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) is set for launch in October and it will carry out some pretty cool science when in space. Orbiting Earth 200,000 miles away, IBEX will be on the lookout for tiny, but significant particles originating from the edge of our solar system. Why? It turns out these neutral atoms will provide information on the location and characteristics of the point at which the Solar System’s edge mixes with the tenuous gas between the stars. So how are they generated? How do we know they originate from the termination shock?
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