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Cosmically speaking, we are over the hill

This entire universe is nearing the point where it's time to throw it a party full of black balloons and cheap Grim Reaper decorations, according to recent research by an international team of astronomers. They studied the rate at which stars are born and found that that rate is declining. In fact, most of the stars that will ever exist already do. We're only likely to increase the total by about 5% between now and the end of everything. So, you know. Have a great rest of your day.

November Eclipse

November Eclipse, a false color image of the moon shared in the Boing Boing Flickr Pool by BB reader Jason Brown in New Zealand.

Apparently, planets don't always orbit stars

Because sometimes nature just likes to mess with you, here's CFBDSIR2149. It's an object in space — a relatively nearby object in space, as evidenced by the fact that this is an actual picture of it — and scientists are pretty sure that it's a planet. If they're right, then CFBDSIR2149 is also a "rogue planet", so called because it doesn't actually orbit a star. Seriously. It's just hanging out in space, doing its own thing.

Also, it's not the first time a rogue planet has been identified.

In fact, these things are probably not even particularly rare. A 2011 study published in the journal Nature estimated that rogue planets might even outnumber normal stars by 2-to-1 in the Milky Way Galaxy.

It's worth noting that rogue planets do not seem to be Earth-like. For instance, CFBDSIR2149 is roughly the size of Jupiter and, with an estimated surface temperature of 850 degrees Fahrenheit, it is not exactly a pleasant place for people. As for rogue planets come from: That's a mystery. One of the things that makes CFBDSIR2149 special, according to Phil Plait, is that it's actually close enough to us that we can collect some good data on the thing.

Read Phil Plait's description of CFBDSIR2149 at the Bad Astronomy Blog

Read the research paper announcing the discovery of CFBDSIR2149

Read about rogue planets in a Science News story from last year

Image: CFHT/P. Delorme

The binary stars of Alpha Centauri, as seen from Saturn

Earlier this week, we learned that there is (most likely) at least one planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B. If you want to get really in-depth on this discovery, how it was made, and what it means, you should be reading Paul Gilster's Centauri Dreams blog.

I wanted to highlight this image, specifically, in order to quote some particularly evocative writing that Gilster posted yesterday. Cue the stirring music:

When planet-hunter Greg Laughlin (UC-Santa Cruz) took his turn at the recent press conference announcing the Alpha Centauri B findings, he used the occasion to make a unique visual comparison. One image showed the planet Saturn over the limb of the Moon. Think of this as the Galilean baseline, for when Galileo went to work on the heavens with his first telescope, the Moon was visually close at hand and Saturn a mysterious, blurry object with apparent side-lobes.

Laughlin contrasted that with [this image], showing the Alpha Centauri stars as viewed from Saturn, a spectacular vista including the planet and the tantalizing stellar neighbors beyond. Four hundred years after Galileo, we thus define what we can do — a probe of Saturn — and we have the image of a much more distant destination we’d like to know a lot more about. The findings of the Geneva team take us a giant step in that direction, revealing a small world of roughly Earth mass in a tight three-day orbit around a star a little smaller and a little more orange than the Sun. What comes next is truly interesting, both for what is implied and for what we are capable of doing.

Read the rest of this post, which explains what happens next with the research and why astronomers will be focusing their planet-hunting efforts on Alpha Centauri B.

Meet NASA's apocalypse expert

OK, I know that I promised to never post anything ever again about a certain hypothetical disaster that rhymes with Schmapocalypse MiffyMelve, but hear me out. This really isn't about that. Instead, I want to highlight an excellent profile of a scientist whose work and interactions with the public have been affected by that unnamed bit of urban mythology.

David Morrison is a 72-year-old senior scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. He runs NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" column, and considers it his way of following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan. In this story, written by Dan Duray at The Awl, we learn about Morrison's deep commitment to communicating science to the public ... a commitment that has led him to spend the last eight years answering a increasingly heavy flood of letters about the end of the world. It's an interesting look at the effects pop culture has on real people.

The questions that Dr. Morrison receives circle around a surprisingly cohesive set of theories, each grounded in some kind of real science that then veers off in a wild direction ... It's possible that many of the people who write to Dr. Morrison are trolls, or have Kindle books to sell, or want to garner enough YouTube views to merit an ad before their videos (some of the "Nibiru exposed" videos now feature a pre-roll for the conspiracy movie Branded). But his younger questioners certainly aren't faking it. He read me some of the more serious emails over the phone:

"I know that everyone has been asking you the same question but how do I know the world is not going to end by a planet or a flood or something? I'm scared because I'm in 10th grade and I have a full life ahead of me so PLEASE I WOULD REALLY LIKE AN ANSWER TO MY QUESTION."

"I am really scared about the end of the world on 21 December. I'm headed into 7th grade and I am very scared. I hear you work for the government and I don't know what to do. Can someone help me? I can't sleep, I am crying every day, I can't eat, I stay in my room, I go to a councilor, it helps, but not with this problem. Can someone help me?"

It's not all serious business, though. In one of the funnier moments, a 72-year-old man tries to figure out how to deal with YouTube commenters accusing him of being a secret Lizard Person.

Read the full profile at The Awl

Image: Apocalypse, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from torek's photostream

Searching the universe for habitable planets (video)

Filmmaker Matt Checkowski sends word of two cool new documentary shorts he produced for the University of California video series "Onward California." These episodes focus on the work of a UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist who has discovered two potentially human-inhabitable planets.

Most of the universe is incredibly hostile, it's a vacuum, it's freezing-cold space or you're burning hot near a star. The first habitable planet found outside our solar system is in a habitable-zone orbit; it's a place of refuge from the unbelievable harshness of the universe. This episode of Onward California follows Steve Vogt, a UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy and astrophysics, into the Lick Observatory, where he has devoted years of research to find earth-like planets.

Watch: An Incredibly Hostile Universe and How To Discover Habitable Planets.

"Images" from the edge of a black hole

EDIT: This post originally went up with the wrong images. Sorry about that.

This is not a photograph.

But it's still amazing.

An important thing to remember about science is that some of the stuff we talk about in the general public as "fact" — like, say, black holes — haven't actually been seen by anybody. Instead, black holes exist on paper, as part of theoretical astrophysics. They also exist in indirect evidence — we can look for things in the universe that should exist in a certain way, in a certain place, if our theoretical astrophysics is correct. So far, that lines up, too.

And then there's this thing. Like I say, it's not a photo. It's more like a model. Telescopes — the kind we point at deep space — don't collect images, they collect information. This is a digital rendering made based on information collected when researchers pointed four different telescopes at a galaxy called (poetically) galaxy M87. What you're looking at is a series of simulations, over time, showing massive ribbons of gas undulating and spinning around the something at the galaxy's center. If the theoretical astrophysics is right, this is the closest we've ever gotten to seeing a black hole.

Read the rest

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012

NewImage

This is M51, the "Whirlpool Galaxy." The image is by Martin Pugh who won the Royal Observatory Greenwich's Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012.

New Cassini eye candy: the changing seasons of Saturn

Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader and director of CICLOPS in Boulder, CO, writes:

For no other reason than that they are gorgeous, the Cassini imaging team is releasing today a set of fabulous images of Saturn and Titan...in living color...for your day-dreaming enjoyment. Note that our presence at Saturn for the last 8 years has made possible the sighting of subtle changes with time, and one such change is obvious here. As the seasons have advanced, and spring has come to the north and autumn to the south throughout the Saturn system, the azure blue in the northern winter Saturnian hemisphere that greeted Cassini upon its arrival in 2004 is now fading; and it is now the southern hemisphere, in its approach to winter, that is taking on a bluish hue.

[B]ack here on Earth, the Cassini mission was recently given rave reviews by a panel of planetary scientists and NASA program managers for its contributions to our understanding of the solar system, a circumstance that bodes well for a well-funded continuing mission over the next 5 years. Despite the fact that we can't know exactly what the next five years will bring us, we can be certain that whatever it is will be wondrous.

Photo above: "A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA's Cassini spacecraft."

More beautiful images from Cassini here.

Hellooooo, new desktop.

To do this weekend: watch the Perseid meteor shower

The brightest planets of the solar system are lining up right in the middle of this year's Perseid meteor shower display. The action peaks on the night of August 12. Meteor rates of up to 100 per hour are expected. More details on how to watch them here.

* Note: NBC plans to delay them by 4 hours.

"We are on the fucking moon" (video)

[Video Link] Yesterday was the anniversary of Apollo 11's landing on the moon in 1969, the first time humans ever set foot on another world. Today, we discover this long-lost footage and audio from that historic moment. (thanks, inkfumes!)

Google unveils Street View imagery from Antarctica, including South Pole Telescope, Shackleton sites

Photo: Cape Royds Adélie Penguin Rookery. (Google Street View)

Today, Google is launching access to a new collection of hi-res imagery from the Antarctic. In this post are some examples of those stunning vistas, shared with Boing Boing courtesy of Google. Alex Starns, Technical Program Manager for the Street View team, writes:

Back in September 2010, we launched the first Street View imagery of the Antarctic, enabling people from more habitable lands to see penguins in Antarctica for the first time. Today we’re bringing you additional panoramic imagery of historic Antarctic locations that you can view from the comfort of your homes. We’ll be posting this special collection to our World Wonders site, where you can learn more about the history of South Pole exploration.

With the help of the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota and the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, we’ve added 360-imagery of many important spots, inside and out, such as the South Pole Telescope, Shackleton's hut, Scott’s hut, Cape Royds Adélie Penguin Rookery and the Ceremonial South Pole.

More about the project here. And more images below!

Photo: The Ceremonial South Pole. (Google Street View)

Read the rest

Two planets barely a million miles apart

Newly-discovered worlds, 1200 ly from Earth, have the closest orbits between two planets ever confirmed—on closest approach, only five times the distance between the Earth and its moon. [JPL. Artist impression: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics]

This is real life. Not Tron.

This amazing photo was taken by astronaut Don Pettit on board the International Space Stations—of which you can see a chunk at the top of the frame. It's part of a whole series of absolutely stunning photos that you need to go check out as soon as you have a free 20 minutes to spend staring at your monitor and going, "Woah," to yourself over and over.

Here's what Pettit had to say about the process.

“My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, the ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.”

Via Smithsonian, which is where you can find the rest of Don Pettit's photos.

Ray Bradbury at NASA JPL, 1971, reading his poem "If Only We Had Taller Been" (video)

[Video Link] A beautiful video from NASA JPL honoring Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday, June 5 2012 at 91.

Through the years, Ray Bradbury attended several major space mission events at JPL/Caltech. On Nov. 12, 1971, on the eve of Mariner 9 going into orbit at Mars, Bradbury took part in a symposium at Caltech with Arthur C. Clarke, journalist Walter Sullivan, and scientists Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray. In this excerpt, Bradbury reads his poem, "If Only We Had Taller Been."

(Thanks, Stephanie L. Smith)

Space Shuttle Enterprise floats to a new home: New York's Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum (photos)

Photo: C.S. MUNCY

The Space Shuttle Enterprise (OV-101) floated to its "retirement home" today, Wednesday June 6, 2012: the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City. The museum's Space Shuttle Pavillion will open on July 19. The arrival of Enterprise was planned for 24 hours earlier, but weather delayed. During its voyage by water, the barge carrying Enterprise moved too close to the Jamaica Bay Bridge and clipped the Shuttle's wing. Ouch. But, you know: sadly, it's not like they're gonna need that wing for space travel now.

Special thanks to photographer C.S. Muncy, who is pretty intrepid himself—we understand these terrific shots cost him quite a sunburn.

Read the rest

Now, *this* is the way to stare at the sun (photo)

South Korean primary school students wearing masks with solar viewers watch Venus passing between the Sun and the Earth at the Gwacheon National Science Museum in Gwacheon, south of Seoul, June 6, 2012. One of the rarest astronomical events occurred on Wednesday when Venus passed directly between the sun and Earth, a transit that won't occur again until 2117. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

Belly Time lapse transit of Venus

"Last time you'll see that for 105 years."—Sam Cornwell. [Video Link]

Now under way: Transit of Venus across face of the Sun

Q: Can I put 10 pairs of sunglasses together to view the sun? A: Not unless you are currently not blind, but wish to become so.

A better bet: watch the Griffith Observatory webcast (thanks, Andrea James!)

Photo: The transit of Venus from Denver, Colorado, USA, 2012 © by Jerry Knaus

What the transit of Venus looked like to Captain Cook

In 1769, Captain James Cook was part of a massive, coordinated effort to document the transit of Venus from multiple spots around the globe. It was all part of calculating the size of the solar system, and you can read about it in Andrea Wulf's new book, Chasing Venus.

Read more about Chasing Venus at the Brain Pickings blog

How to: Experience Manhattanhenge

Step 1, naturally, is to be in Manhattan.

I'm in New York City today and Scientific American contributing editor Steven Ashley was kind enough to reminded me that my visit is coinciding with Manhattanhenge—a twice-a-year event when the sun lines up with Manhattan's street grid. This year, there will be a Manhattanhenge on May 29/30 and another on July 11/12.

You'll note that Manhattanhenge does not actually occur on the same day as the solstice—when the Sun is at the highest point in the sky and the length of the day begins to get either longer (winter solstice) or shorter (summer solstice). That's because Manhattan's grid is rotated 30 degrees east off of true north, writes Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Hayden Planetarium website. That's enough to make Manhattanhenge less astronomically accurate than Stonehenge. But it's still awfully nifty and is supposed to look really, really cool.

Tonight's event should start around 8:17 pm (Eastern time, of course). Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson's advice on getting a good view:

For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible. But ensure that when you look west across the avenues you can still see New Jersey. Clear cross streets include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, and several streets adjacent to them. The Empire State building and the Chrysler building render 34th street and 42nd streets especially striking vistas.

Note that any city crossed by a rectangular grid can identify days where the setting Sun aligns with their streets. But a closer look at such cities around the world shows them to be less than ideal for this purpose. Beyond the grid you need a clear view to the horizon, as Manhattan has across the Hudson River to New Jersey. And tall buildings that line the streets create a vertical channel to frame the setting Sun, creating a striking photographic opportunity.

Read the rest at the Hayden Planetarium website

Check out some reader-submitted photos of Manhattanhenge that Xeni posted last year.

Image: Manhattanhenge 2011 | The Commuter, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 59949757@N06's photostream

Ring of Fire: 2012 annular eclipse video made from 700 individual photo frames

[Video Link]

Boing Boing reader Cory Poole is a 33-year-old math and science teacher at University Preparatory School in Redding, CA. He sends in this beautiful video of yesterday's annular solar eclipse, and says:

This is a 60 second time-lapse video made from 700 individual frames through a Coronado Solar Max 60 Double Stacked Hydrogen Alpha Solar Telescope. The pictures were shot in Redding, CA, which was directly in the annular eclipse path. The filter on the telescope allows you to see the chromosphere which is a layer that contains solar prominences. The filter only allows light that is created when hydrogen atoms go from the 2nd excited state to the 1st excited state.

Annular solar eclipse this weekend: where to see it in the skies, and online

The joint JAXA/NASA Hinode mission captured this image of the January 6, 2011 solar eclipse.


On May 20-21 (this coming Sunday night through this coming Monday morning), sky-watchers in Asia and much of the U.S. will be able to view a “ring of fire” eclipse or a partial eclipse of the Sun, depending on their location. The rest of the world, including our readers along the East Coast of the US, will have to settle for viewing this special celestial event online.

The shadowandsubstance.com astronomy website has a totally awesome animated map showing how the eclipse will look to viewers in each U.S. state. But more importantly, he gives the best eclipse advice you'll get anywhere:

The safest way to view this event is to attend a planetarium, observatory or local astronomy club on May 20th.

Here's an index of astronomy clubs around the world.

For DIYers, a pinhole projector is another option.

Sky and Telescope magazine has a roundup of online viewing spots here, and tips on how to view an eclipse safely for those in the path.

The Slooh Space Camera is likely to be one of your better bets for online viewing—they'll webcast the Solar Annular Eclipse from Japan, starting at 21:30 UTC / 2:30 PM PDT / 5:30 PM EDT.

NASA is, of course, an excellent online source for understanding the eclipse and determining the time of this one at your location.

What, you ask, is a "ring of fire" eclipse? Snipped from NASA:

Read the rest

Astronomical fidget ring made from a meteorite


Jewelrydesignsformen.com's Nine Planets ring is made of gold and meteoric iron, set with gemstones representing all the planets of the solar system, including Pluto*. And it's a fidget ring, which is my favorite kind of ring, because holy crap, can I ever fidget.

The meteorite has been etched with nitric acid to reveal the characteristic patterns, or Widmanstatten figures, of iron meteorites, and set with 9 gemstones representing the planets of our Solar System. Mercury is represented by a rust colored Sapphire, Venus a golden Sapphire, Earth an irradiated blue Diamond, Mars a Ruby, Jupiter an Opal, Saturn a Cats Eye Chrysoberyl with an inlaid 24k gold ring, Uranus a green Sapphire, Neptune a blue Sapphire and Pluto a black Diamond. What really makes this ring special is that the band of meteorite spins independent of the gold ring, so when it is on, the planets rotate around the wearer's finger.

18k gold Nine Planets ring with Meteorite and gemstones (via The Mary Sue)

* Pluto is a planet.

Live nude planets!

Rachel Hobson says: "Who needs to watch a web cam of baby pandas when you can watch Venus live?

Live sunWelcome to the Public Observatory channel, where you can see live video of the Sun, moon, or the planets taken through one of our telescopes. The Public Observatory is located at the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

This month, the Observatory is open to visitors from 1-3 p.m. EDT, Wednesday through Saturday, weather permitting. During these hours we will often stream live video through one of our telescopes so that you can see what we're looking at!


Smithsonian Public Observatory Project

Great moments in pedantry: Winter is coming. But why?

A work of fiction doesn't have to be scientifically accurate. It just has to make sense. All it has to do is maintain an internal logic and consistency strong enough that you, the reader, aren't inadvertently thrown out of the world. If you're frequently frustrated by detail accuracy in fiction, that's likely your problem, not fiction's. Chill out. Breath deep. Smell the flowers. Experience some imagination and wonder.

I fully endorse all the sentiments outlined above. And yet. And yet. There are some fictional details that drive me crazy. Like the seasonal shifts in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, where winter and summer last for years—sometimes decades—and nobody knows exactly when the seasons will change. It's not that I feel a burning need to prove to Martin that this can't work. Instead, it makes me ravenously curious. I keep wondering whether, given what we know about astronomy, there's any way that this could actually work somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away.

A couple of weeks ago, io9's George Dvorsky put together a little round-up of five possible scientific explanations that would make Westeros' magical reality make more sense. I chatted about Dvorsky's list with Attila Kovacs, an actual astronomer who has a postdoc position at the California Institute of Technology. They've got differing perspectives on how unpredictable and ridiculously long seasons might work. Thanks to both these sources, I feel like I better understand our universe, and can read Martin more comfortably.

Read the rest

Newly-discovered Mayan calendar in Guatemala proves (again) the world won't end in 2012

William Saturno, a Boston University archeologist, excavates a mural in a house in Xultun. Photo: Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic


An archaeological expedition in the northeastern lowlands of Guatemala yields an amazing discovery: the "9th-century workplace of a city scribe, an unusual dwelling adorned with magnificent pictures of the king and other royals and the oldest known Maya calendar."

From Thomas Maugh's report in the Los Angeles Times, on the dig in the ruins of Xultun led by William Saturno of Boston University:

This year has been particularly controversial among some cultists because of the belief that the Maya calendar predicts a major cataclysm — perhaps the end of the world — on Dec. 21, 2012. Archaeologists know that is not true, but the new find, written on the plaster equivalent of a modern scientist's whiteboard, strongly reinforces the idea that the Maya calendar projects thousands of years into the future.

To paraphrase modern-day Maya priests I've spoken with on past travels in rural Guatemala: "Well, duh."

The findings were first reported Thursday in the journal Science. The full text of the report requires paid subscription, but a recent Science podcast covers the news, and is available here (PDF transcript or MP3 for audio).

Read the rest

Vesta, the planet that might have been

This is Vesta, the second largest asteroid in our solar system's main asteroid belt. Specifically, this is a view of Vesta's south pole, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft last September.

As it turns out, Vesta is a great illustration of the power of chance in the universe. Data collected by Dawn is showing that, once upon a time, this asteroid was on its way to planethood. But, for several reasons, it simply never grew large enough. From Science News:

... according to Dawn observations, Vesta did indeed agglomerate enough rocky debris as it grew to heat itself by the decay of the rock's radioactive elements. That heat led to the separation of the primordial body into a rocky crust, an underlying rocky mantle, and a central metallic core, hallmarks of planet Earth and the other rocky planets. Dawn was the first to detect Vesta's now-solid core.

Vesta isn't unique in this, but it does provide an interesting moment to stop and think a little bit about randomness and the process of planetary birth. This news about Vesta is a nice reminder that there's really no reason why our solar system has to have eight planets. It could have had fewer. It could have had more. And some bodies—like Ceres and Pluto—are really only a trick of taxonomy away from being planets.

Read more about Vesta on Science News

Super Moon was, in fact, pretty super (big photo gallery)

REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

The full "super Moon", scientifically known as a "perigee moon", rises over Los Angeles, California May 5, 2012. A "super Moon" lit up Saturday's night sky in a once-a-year cosmic show, overshadowing a meteor shower from remnants of Halley's Comet, the U.S. space agency NASA said. The Moon looked especially big and bright, because it reached its closest spot to Earth at the same time it was in its full phase, NASA said. Below, the full moon rises behind a mosque as birds fly in Amman.

More photos of the "super Moon" as seen around the world this weekend follow, below.

Read the rest

How to photograph International Space Station flyovers

Photographer Shane Murphy has published a helpful step-by-step tutorial on how to best capture ISS flyover shots like the fantastic one he took, above. Snip:

First things first, the most important thing to do is to plan well. Forward planning is vital to any night sky shot, along with a steady tripod and a warm coat. There are quite a few websites and twitter feeds that can help you with your planning. Even though it only takes about an hour and a half for the ISS to complete an orbit of the planet, you could be waiting quite some time under the night skies before the station appears above.