Tag Archives: astronomy

Data suggests Earth-sized exoplanet has no atmosphere and resembles Mercury

Using archive data from the Spitze Space Telescope astronomers believe that an Earth-sized exoplanet about 49 light years away probably has no atmosphere and is likely similar to Mercury.

Discovered in 2018 by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Survey (TESS) mission, planet LHS 3844b is located 48.6 light-years from Earth and has a radius 1.3 times that of Earth. It orbits a small, cool type of star called an M dwarf – especially noteworthy because, as the most common and long-lived type of star in the Milky Way galaxy, M dwarfs may host a high percentage of the total number of planets in the galaxy.

…The Spitzer observations rule out an atmosphere with more than 10 times the pressure of Earth’s. (Measured in units called bars, Earth’s atmospheric pressure at sea level is about 1 bar.) An atmosphere between 1 and 10 bars on LHS 3844b has been almost entirely ruled out as well, although the authors note there’s a slim chance it could exist if the stellar and planetary properties were to meet some very specific and unlikely criteria. They also argue that with the planet so close to a star, a thin atmosphere would be stripped away by the star’s intense radiation and outflow of material (often called stellar winds).

For a planet to be in the habitable zone of a M dwarf it must orbit very close to the star. This research suggests that conditions that close to the star might still preclude the possibility of life.

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Second gas giant found orbiting Beta Pictoris

Astronomers today announced that they have detected another exoplanet orbiting the young star Beta Pictoris 63 light years away.

This time, the team had to analyse more than 10 years of high-resolution data, obtained with the HARPS instrument at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, in order to indirectly detect the presence of β Pictoris c. This second giant planet, which has a mass nine times that of Jupiter, completes its orbit in roughly 1,200 days, and is relatively close to its star (approximately the distance between the Sun and the asteroid belt, whereas β Pictoris b is 3.3 times more distant).

Because Beta Pictoris has a very large disk of material, astronomers have expected to find exoplanets there for decades. Only in the last two decades have their instruments improved enough to allow the detections. Moreover, because the star is young, astronomers believe it gives them a glimpse into what our solar system looked like during its early formation period.

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Arecibo gets $12.3 million NSF grant

The National Science Foundation has awarded the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rica a $12.3 million grant to pay for needed repairs and upgrades following the hurricane damage from 2017.

The money will pay for the following work:

  • Repairing one of the suspension cables holding the primary telescope platform, ensuring long-term structural integrity of one of the main structural elements of the telescope.
  • Recalibrating the primary reflector, which will restore the observatory’s sensitivity at higher frequencies.
  • Aligning the Gregorian Reflector, improving current calibration and pointing.
  • Installing a new control system for S band radar, which is part of the microwave band of the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • Replacing the modulator on the 430 MHz transmitter, increasing consistency of power output and data quality.
  • Improving the telescope’s pointing controls and data tracking systems.

Most of this looks to be very basic maintenance, which suggests the telescope is still very starved for funds.

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Protesters allow research to resume, within limits, at other Mauna Kea telescopes

How special of them! The protesters blocking construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) have now agreed to allow limited access to Mauna Kea for the researchers and technicians for the other telescopes there.

The Maunakea Access Road remains blockaded. However, activists agreed, after the Emergency Proclamation was withdrawn, to allow all existing observatory employees, including astronomers, to access Maunakea using the Old Saddle Road and a section of unpaved lava. This route is unimproved and lined with tents, cars and people. However, pursuant to this agreement, on Wednesday, August 7, 2019 the state laid cinder and cones in an attempt to address safety concerns. The people blocking the road also agreed to allow larger vehicles to access Maunakea by going around the tent blockade. This means the vehicles will travel on the road’s shoulder.

The current process of gaining access to Maunakea requires the observatories to provide pre-arranged notification of all vehicles seeking access. To accomplish this, the people blocking the road will be provided a list of which vehicles are going up and when. This requires the observatories to contact the Office of Maunakea Management, which then contacts law enforcement, who then provides the list to the activists. The observatories are also aware that activists have been keeping a log of who goes up and down. [emphasis mine]

Essentially the protesters now run Mauna Kea, and have the right to ban anyone they don’t like from going there. This is essentially mob rule, since the law does not give them that right, and in fact has always given access rights to everyone.

The highlighted words indicate the possibility of increased risk by this mob rule. I’ve been on that road. It is gravel but well-graded. Its shoulders are not gigantic, however, and often border steep slopes and cliffs.

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IAU approves 2nd set of Pluto names chosen by New Horizons team

My heart be still! The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has now officially given its glorious stamp of approval to a second set of fourteen names given by the New Horizons’ team to features on Pluto.

Several people and missions who paved the way for the historic exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt – the farthest worlds ever explored – are honored in the second set of official Pluto feature names approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the international authority for naming celestial bodies and their surface features.

The new names were proposed by NASA’s New Horizons team, which carried out the first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons with the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. Along with a short list of official names the IAU had already approved, the mission science team had been using these and other place names informally to describe the many regions, mountain ranges, plains, valleys and craters discovered during the first close-up look at Pluto’s surface. [emphasis mine]

In case you don’t get it, I am being very sarcastic above. I consider the IAU to be incredibly arrogant in its claim that it, and it alone, can approve the names given to surface features on other worlds. Initially the IAU was given the task by the astronomical community of organizing the naming of celestial bodies seen in telescopes, to reduce confusion. Somehow the IAU has expanded that responsibility to include the naming of every rock and pebble on every world in the universe.

To this I say bunk. I also know that future spacefarers in space will say the same thing, and tell the IAU to go jump in a lake. In a sense, the New Horizons team did exactly that when they made their name choices very public from the beginning, essentially telling the IAU that the New Horizons’ team is picking the names, not the IAU.

In related news, the IAU has now approved the naming convention the OSIRIS-REx team intends to use to name features on Bennu. However, in this case the IAU is doing its real job, helping to organize the naming conventions to reduce confusion.

The named features on Bennu will include several terrain classification types that the IAU also approved for asteroid (162173) Ryugu’s surface features (currently being explored by the Japanese Space Agency’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft). These include craters, dorsa (peaks or ridges), fossae (grooves or trenches) and saxa (rocks and boulders). The last of these types – saxum – is a new feature classification that the IAU introduced earlier this year for small, rocky asteroids like Ryugu and Bennu. These surface features on Bennu will be named after mythological birds and bird-like creatures, complementing the mission’s existing naming theme, which is rooted in Egyptian mythology.

The actual names the OSIRIS-REx team will chose for each unique feature will however be their choice, not the IAU’s. Though the IAU will eventually announce it has “approved” those choices, it will never really have the right to have a say in those decisions.

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New Hubble image of Jupiter

Jupiter as seen by Hubble in 2019
Click for full image.

The Hubble science team today released a new global image the telescope took of Jupiter on June 27, 2019. The photograph on the right is that image, reduced and cropped to post here. As noted by the press release about the Great Red Spot,

The Great Red Spot is a towering structure shaped like a wedding cake, whose upper haze layer extends more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) higher than clouds in other areas. The gigantic structure, with a diameter slightly larger than Earth’s, is a high-pressure wind system called an anticyclone that has been slowly downsizing since the 1800s. The reason for this change in size is still unknown.

A worm-shaped feature located below the Great Red Spot is a cyclone, a vortex around a low-pressure area with winds spinning in the opposite direction from the Red Spot. Researchers have observed cyclones with a wide variety of different appearances across the planet. The two white oval-shaped features are anticyclones, like small versions of the Great Red Spot.

Another interesting detail is the color of the wide band at the equator. The bright orange color may be a sign that deeper clouds are starting to clear out, emphasizing red particles in the overlying haze.

In many ways Hubble’s images of Jupiter are comparable to those taken by Juno, except that Hubble can’t zoom in as close.

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TMT consortium applies for Canary Islands building permit

The coming dark age: The consortium that wants to build the Thirty Meter Telescope has applied for a building permit to build the telescope in the Canary Islands, Spain, thus preparing to abandon their years-long effort to put the telescope in Hawaii.

Thirty Meter Telescope Executive Director Ed Stone said in a statement Monday that the group still wants to break ground on Mauna Kea, but they need to have a backup plan. “We continue to follow the process to allow for TMT to be constructed at the ‘plan B’ site in (Spain) should it not be possible to build in Hawaii,” Stone said. “Mauna Kea remains the preferred site.”

But Native Hawaiian activists say they will not budge until the project moves elsewhere. Protest leaders, who say they are not against science or astronomy, told The Associated Press that the Spain permit is a positive development, but it’s not enough for them to end their blockade of Mauna Kea’s access road, where more than 2,000 people have gathered at times. “There’s lots of good science to be done from the Canary Islands,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, who has helped organize the protest on Mauna Kea. It would “be a win for everyone.” [emphasis mine]

Do not expect the protests to end when TMT officially abandons Mauna Kea. I fully expect the protesters to increase their demands, calling for the closing of more telescopes on the mountain.

It appears that the United States is no longer ruled by law. The TMT consortium spent years following the law, negotiating deals with everyone, including local native Hawaiian religious groups, and finally obtained their permits, twice. This wasn’t good enough for the protesters and their leaders, who wish to rule by fiat and mob power. Those protesters have likely won, mostly because the Democratic Party that runs Hawaii is on their side.

It also appears that the United States is becoming a nation that no longer gives priority to obtaining new knowledge about the universe. If TMT moves to Spain, its loss will be somewhat equivalent to the Catholic Church’s attack on Galileo in Italy. That action in the 1600s essentially killed the Italian Renaissance, with the growth of the scientific method and new knowledge shifting to Great Britain and France, the wealth and prosperity that new knowledge brought going with that shift.

Posted from the airport on the way to Denver.

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The Milky Way is warped?

Warped Milky Way

Astronomers mapping the locations of one kind of variable star in the Milky Way have found that, based on that data, our galaxy appears to be warped.

To make the map, astronomers looked to its bright, pulsing stars called cepheids. These stars burn up to 10,000 times more brightly than the sun so they are visible from across the galaxy and through interstellar clouds of gas and dust. Crucially, cepheids are “standard candles”: Their light waxes and wanes at a rate that corresponds to their inherent brightness. Astronomers can combine their true brightness with their apparent brightness, measured from Earth, to calculate how far away they are. Using a 1.3-meter telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, astronomers monitored the steady pulses from more than 2400 stars and pinpointed their location on a 3D model of the galaxy.

…From above, the Milky Way can be seen as a spiral-shaped galaxy, but this spiral disk doesn’t sit flat on the galactic plane. The cepheid stars cluster along an S-shaped curve, showing that the Milky Way’s disk is more warped than previously thought.

The image above shows this warp, with the star indicating where the Sun is located. The green dots represent cepheid variable stars.

Top view of galaxy

This science is good, but there are uncertainties. For example, a top view of the galaxy, showing the location in yellow of all the cepheids mapped, is to the right. Notice the strong bias to one side of the galaxy, where the Sun is located. Their information for the rest of the galaxy is very spotty.

The available data might show this warp, but I think it is premature to assume it accurately maps the entire shape of the Milky Way.

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A heavy metal exoplanet, a star with no iron

Two strangely related astronomy stories to start the day:

The first describes a weird planet so hot that metals are gas in the atmosphere:

A scorching planet, WASP-121b orbits precariously close to a star that is even hotter than our Sun. The intense radiation heats the planet’s upper atmosphere to a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Apparently, the lower atmosphere is still so hot that iron and magnesium remain in gaseous form and stream to the upper atmosphere, where they escape into space on the coattails of hydrogen and helium gas.

The sizzling planet is also so close to its star that it is on the cusp of being ripped apart by the star’s intense pull. This hugging distance means that the planet is stretched into a football shape due to gravitational tidal forces.

The presence of so much heavy elements suggests this planet and star formed relatively recently in the history of the universe, after many generations of star formation made possible the creation of those elements.

The second describes a star so devoid of iron that it hints of the first stars that ever formed.

The very first stars in the Universe are thought to have consisted of only hydrogen and helium, along with traces of lithium. These elements were created in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, while all heavier elements have emerged from the heat and pressure of cataclysmic supernovae – titanic explosions of stars. Stars like the Sun that are rich in heavy element therefore contain material from many generations of stars exploding as supernovae.

As none of the first stars have yet been found, their properties remain hypothetical. They were long expected to have been incredibly massive, perhaps hundreds of times more massive than the Sun, and to have exploded in incredibly energetic supernovae known as hypernovae.

The confirmation of the anaemic SMSS J160540.18–144323.1, although itself not one of the first stars, adds a powerful bit of evidence.

Dr Nordlander and colleagues suggest that the star was formed after one of the first stars exploded. That exploding star is found to have been rather unimpressive, just ten times more massive than the Sun, and to have exploded only feebly (by astronomical scales) so that most of the heavy elements created in the supernova fell back into the remnant neutron star left behind.

Only a small amount of newly forged iron escaped the remnant’s gravitational pull and went on, in concert with far larger amounts of lighter elements, to form a new star – one of the very first second generation stars, that has now been discovered.

All the the science and data with both stories is highly uncertain. Both however point to the complex and hardly understood process that made us possible.

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More exoplanets found by TESS

Worlds without end: In confirming a candidate exoplanet previously discovered by TESS, astronomers have detected two more exoplanets orbiting the same star.

The transits TESS observed belong to GJ 357 b, a planet about 22% larger than Earth. It orbits 11 times closer to its star than Mercury does our Sun. This gives it an equilibrium temperature — calculated without accounting for the additional warming effects of a possible atmosphere — of around 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius). “We describe GJ 357 b as a ‘hot Earth,’” explains co-author Enric Pallé, an astrophysicist at the IAC and Luque’s doctoral supervisor. “Although it cannot host life, it is noteworthy as the third-nearest transiting exoplanet known to date and one of the best rocky planets we have for measuring the composition of any atmosphere it may possess.”

But while researchers were looking at ground-based data to confirm the existence of the hot Earth, they uncovered two additional worlds. The farthest-known planet, named GJ 357 d, is especially intriguing. “GJ 357 d is located within the outer edge of its star’s habitable zone, where it receives about the same amount of stellar energy from its star as Mars does from the Sun,” said co-author Diana Kossakowski at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “If the planet has a dense atmosphere, which will take future studies to determine, it could trap enough heat to warm the planet and allow liquid water on its surface.”

Without an atmosphere, it has an equilibrium temperature of -64 F (-53 C), which would make the planet seem more glacial than habitable. The planet weighs at least 6.1 times Earth’s mass, and orbits the star every 55.7 days at a range about 20% of Earth’s distance from the Sun. The planet’s size and composition are unknown, but a rocky world with this mass would range from about one to two times Earth’s size.

Even through TESS monitored the star for about a month, Luque’s team predicts any transit would have occurred outside the TESS observing window.

I think the results from TESS are soon going to overwhelm the general press. I myself had to check and make sure this story was about different exoplanets than the previous exoplanet discovery story from two days ago.

What is most interesting about these new exoplanets is their mass and size. TESS appears so far to be finding a lot of superEarths, something that Kepler did not do.

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TMT protests continue, block all astronomy research to Mauna Kea

The Hawaiian government continues to allow protesters against the Thirty Meter Telescope to block all access to Mauna Kea, thus also blocking researchers and maintenance crews from working on the thirteen operating telescopes already there.

Protests against construction of a giant telescope have halted work at existing observatories on the Big Island, a report said. Workers at other facilities on the dormant Mauna Kea volcano have been denied access by demonstrators opposed to the Thirty Meter Telescope, Hawaii News Now reported Sunday.

The Mauna Kea Observatories house 13 telescopes that have led to astronomical breakthroughs for more than 40 years, including the first photo of a black hole and the discovery of the first interstellar object in space.

“All we’re looking to do is to go up the road and resume what we’ve been doing for 50 years,” said scientist Doug Simons from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. The two-week closure of the access road leading to the summit has resulted in the potential loss of a year’s worth of discoveries, said Simons.

The demonstrations have also affected the scientists’ interactions with family and community members. “They have these great bonds within their family and their friends, and now there’s a big rift there,” said Jessica Dempsey from the East Asian Observatory and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. [emphasis mine]

If my memory is correct, previous protests did not block access to the other telescopes. That they are now doing it suggests that the protesters feel empowered and are now going for their real goal, a complete shutdown of all astronomy on Mauna Kea. The highlighted text implies this. Native workers for the other telescopes appear have suddenly discovered that these protesters want to also destroy their jobs.

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TESS finds the first two mini-Neptune exoplanets

In discovering three candidate exoplanets orbiting a nearby red dwarf star, the space telescope TESS has found the first two that are sized somewhere between the rocky Earth-sized planets and the larger Neptune-sized gas giants.

The innermost planet, TOI 270 b, is likely a rocky world about 25% larger than Earth. It orbits the star every 3.4 days at a distance about 13 times closer than Mercury orbits the Sun. Based on statistical studies of known exoplanets of similar size, the science team estimates TOI 270 b has a mass around 1.9 times greater than Earth’s. Due to its proximity to the star, planet b is an oven-hot world. Its equilibrium temperature — that is, the temperature based only on energy it receives from the star, which ignores additional warming effects from a possible atmosphere — is around 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius).

The other two planets, TOI 270 c and d, are, respectively, 2.4 and 2.1 times larger than Earth and orbit the star every 5.7 and 11.4 days. Although only about half its size, both may be similar to Neptune in our solar system, with compositions dominated by gases rather than rock, and they likely weigh around 7 and 5 times Earth’s mass, respectively.

All of the planets are expected to be tidally locked to the star, which means they only rotate once every orbit and keep the same side facing the star at all times, just as the Moon does in its orbit around Earth.

Planet c and d might best be described as mini-Neptunes, a type of planet not seen in our own solar system. The researchers hope further exploration of TOI 270 may help explain how two of these mini-Neptunes formed alongside a nearly Earth-size world.

The star is only 73 light years away.

Need I say that our level of knowledge about solar system formation is tiny at this point, and that any models any theorist creates should merely be seen as scratchpad first approximations, useful only in guiding future research and not to be taken too seriously.

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TESS completes survey of southern hemisphere

The space telescope TESS has completed its first year in orbit, surveying the entire southern hemisphere for transient events.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered 21 planets outside our solar system and captured data on other interesting events occurring in the southern sky during its first year of science. TESS has now turned its attention to the Northern Hemisphere to complete the most comprehensive planet-hunting expedition ever undertaken.

TESS began hunting for exoplanets (or worlds orbiting distant stars) in the southern sky in July of 2018, while also collecting data on supernovae, black holes and other phenomena in its line of sight. Along with the planets TESS has discovered, the mission has identified over 850 candidate exoplanets that are waiting for confirmation by ground-based telescopes.

It is important to emphasize that these are candidate exoplanets. They still need to be confirmed by other observations.

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Possibility of meteorites from bright fireball in Ontario

Astronomers were successfully able to track and photograph a bright fireball over Canada early today, and think it is strongly possible that pieces of it might have hit the ground.

Preliminary results indicate that the fireball first became visible just south of Oshawa over Lake Ontario at an altitude of 93 km. It traveled over Clarington and passed just west of Peterborough before extinguishing just west of Bancroft. The fireball rivaled the full moon in brightness and had a number of bright flares near the end of its flight. The meteoroid was roughly the size of a small beachball (approx. 30cm in diameter) and likely dropped a small number of meteorite fragments in the tens to hundreds of grams size-range on the ground.

Brown and his collaborators at Western and the Royal Ontario Museum are interested in connecting with people from the area of the potential fall, who may have heard anything unusual, or who may have found possible meteorites.

…Meteorites can be recognized by their dark, often scalloped exterior. Usually they will be denser than a ‘normal’ rock and will often be attracted to a magnet due to their metal content. Meteorites are not dangerous, but if recovered, it is best to place them in a clean plastic bag or wrap them in aluminum foil. They should also be handled as little as possible to help preserve their scientific value. In Canada, meteorites belong to the owner of the land upon which they are found. If individuals plan to search, they should always obtain permission of the land-owner before venturing onto private land.

If you live up in that neck of the woods, take a look around. You might find something.

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Hawaii’s governor expresses support for TMT protesters

In the ongoing protests that have blocked construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) as well as shutdown all thirteen other telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Democrat governor David Ige visited with the protesters yesterday, expressing sympathy for their positions.

Ige indicated last week that he was willing to talk to protesters. But his visit and statement Tuesday were the first public steps he’s taken toward that end. “We will be working together to determine next steps that are in the best interests of all the people of Hawaii,” Ige said in his statement.

In a nod to activist preferences, his statement referred to them as “protectors” of Mauna Kea instead of protesters.

Protest leader Kealoha Pisciotta said officials must consider not building the telescope on Mauna Kea. She said she met previously with the mayor and governor without making any progress. “We’ve done all of that. But it’s window dressing trying to get our buy-in,” Pisciotta said. “We really need people to honestly consider our positions this time.”

TMT will not be built on Mauna Kea. Bet on it. Ige always favored the protesters. Following standard Democratic Party strategy, he made believe he would enforce the law, but set things up so that the protests would have a chance to swell and block construction. He is now using this situation as a ploy to give the protesters what they want, while making believe he has no choice.

Moreover, Ige’s actions likely mean that the other thirteen telescopes are in serious danger as well. It is very likely that this power grab will allow the protesters, a small minority in Hawaii that does not have the support of the majority of the population, to force their shut down.

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Protests continue at Mauna Kea

Even as the number of protesters dropped (due to the demand that alcohol-drinking and pot-smoking cease), the protests against construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) continue, aided by emotional support given by Hawaii’s lieutenant governor during a visit to the protest site.

Last week, law enforcement officials saw some protesters — who call themselves “protectors” — drinking beer and they could also smell marijuana, Dennison said. Other protesters said they would patrol the area and ask the beer drinkers and marijuana smokers to leave, Dennison said.

Law enforcement officers no longer report beer drinking or the odor of marijuana, he said.

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green visited Mauna Kea this morning to offer his ear, advice and services as a doctor to people on the mountain blocking construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Green, who is from Hawaii island, also said Gov. David Ige should meet with the kupuna, or Hawaiian elders, serving as decision-makers in the group, and he apologized for some of the things said earlier that have offended demonstrators. “I am here to listen,” he told a group kupuna under a canopy during a misty morning. “And I want to say I’m sorry for some of the things that have been said in the past days and weeks.” [emphasis mine]

I have been saying for two years that Governor David Ige and his Democratic Party government in Hawaii will do nothing to stop the protests. They want to play it both ways. They mouth support for the telescope in an effort to satisfy the majority of the population (which wants it built), while doing everything they can to make sure the protests succeed in stopping construction.

This is exactly what is happening now. As long as the Democratic Party controls the government in Hawaii, TMT will never be built there.

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Protesters continue to block telescope construction in Hawaii

The number of protesters daily blocking access to Mauna Kea in Hawaii and thus prevent the start of construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) grew to more than 2,000 yesterday.

The police arrested 33 people, but did nothing else to clear the road. Meanwhile, Democratic governor David Ige finally took some action, albeit mild.

After a day of growing crowds and arrests of elderly demonstrators, Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed an emergency proclamation giving law enforcement more options to end the blockade. The state hadn’t decided whether to remove protesters from the mountain, but the proclamation makes that an option, Ige said. “We are certainly committed to ensuring the project has access to the construction site,” Ige said. “We’ve been patient in trying to allow the protesters to express their feelings about the project.”

If Ige had moved firmly at the beginning of the week, the situation would likely not have escalated, as it has. Removing the protesters now will be far more difficult.

As is usual for modern reporting, the article spends most of its time promoting the perspective of the protesters. However, it does get one quote from a native Hawaiian who supports the telescope’s construction, and that quote reveals how little this protest has to do with religion:

Some Native Hawaiians say they don’t believe the project will desecrate Mauna Kea. Most of the cultural practices on the mountain take place away from the summit, said Annette Reyes, a Native Hawaiian from the Big Island. “It’s going to be out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

During the legal battle the court took testimony from many native Hawaiians who confirmed this position. Moreover, the public negotiations that produced the agreement to build the telescope (while removing five other telescopes on the mountaintop) included the most important religious leaders among the native population.

This is a power game being played here by the protest leaders. They are vying for power and influence both within their community as well as across Hawaii. Moreover, they want a level of power that will make them immune from any legal or democratic process. If they win they will have obtained the dictatorial right to unilaterally rule, on any issue.

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Protesters continue to block construction of TMT

For the second day in a row protesters have blocked construction vehicles from accessing Mauna Kea to begin construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

As I expected, the Hawaiian government (entirely Democratically controlled) is reluctant to enforce the law against these protesters. David Ige, the governor, is trying to have it both ways. He mouths support for the law and the telescope, which has the support of the public, but then lets the protesters control the situation and block construction.

Unless something changes, which I doubt, do not expect TMT to ever be built in Hawaii.

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500 protesters block access road on Mauna Kea

About 500 protesters this morning blocked the access road on Mauna Kea that construction vehicles were going to use to begin construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

More than 500 protestors blocked Mauna Kea Access Road and chanted at the sun rose this morning, including seven who chained themselves to a cattle guard near the base of the road.

A convoy of state Department of Transportation vehicles carrying traffic control signage passed the intersection but made no effort to turn onto the access road.

More than a dozen elders with the protest movement sat on folding chairs and were joined by two protestors in wheelchairs at the bottom to the road as the crowd chanted and sang.

Police made no effort to disturb the protest. Gov. David Ige announced last week that the access road would be closed at 7 a.m. today to clear the way for heavy equipment for the controversial $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope.

Based on this report it sounds like the protesters have successfully prevented construction from beginning.

Several points: First, these protesters are breaking the law.

Second, these protesters had their day in court, and lost. In a civilized society, you accept such decisions. No civilization can function if some people think they will always get their way, even if the law and the majority rule against them.

Third, at this moment it appears that David Ige, the Democratic governor, is doing exactly what I expected. He is mouthing platitudes about supporting the law and the construction, while allowing the protesters to block it. Unless he takes action in the next day or so to remove the protesters and clear the road, the protests will grow and become unmanageable. At that point Ige will say that construction must be stopped to avoid bloodshed, and to honor the wishes of what must be a large percentage of the population.

That last part however is a lie. Polls have all indicated that the public wants TMT. And the law is on the public’s side here. It is Ige’s job to support both, not a small minority of unruly spoiled agitators.

Being a modern Democrat however, I expect Ige to favor the lawbreakers.

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TMT construction begins July 15

According to a press announcement today from the governor’s office in Hawaii, construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope will finally begin during the week of July 15 following several years of delays due to protests.

The State Department of Transportation announced that Mauna Kea Access Road will be closed and there could be lane and other road closures associated with large equipment movement beginning July 15. In addition, hunting units A, K, and G in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve area will be temporarily closed to hunting effective July 15. Both measures are being taken to ensure the safety and security of the public and personnel involved in moving equipment for the TMT project up the Mauna Kea Access Road.

Expect more protests. The real question is whether the Democratic governor David Ige can stand up to them, especially because these protesters have been using the kind of identity politics that the Democratic Party relies on. Ige would have to defy that, and I haven’t seen a Democrat do that in decades.

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Astronomers find kilometer-sized asteroid with shortest year

Astronomers have found a kilometer-sized asteroid with a year only 151 days long, the shortest year of any asteroid.

The asteroid has been dubbed 2019 LF6.

In its orbit, the asteroid swings out beyond Venus and, at times, comes closer in than Mercury, which circles the sun every 88 days. 2019 LF6 is one of only 20 known “Atira” asteroids, which are objects whose orbits fall entirely within Earth’s.

Atira asteroids are difficult to find because they are so close to the Sun, which makes observations difficult if not impossible. Expect more such discoveries as the technology to make these observations improves.

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Astronomers map exoplanet atmosphere of super-Earth

Worlds without end: Using both the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, astronomers have characterized the atmosphere of an exoplanet with a mass between that of the Earth and Neptune.

Astronomers enlisted the combined multi-wavelength capabilities NASA’s Hubble snd Spitzer space telescopes to do a first-of-a-kind study of GJ 3470 b’s atmosphere. This was accomplished by measuring the absorption of starlight as the planet passed in front of its star (transit) and the loss of reflected light from the planet as it passed behind the star (eclipse). All totaled, the space telescopes observed 12 transits and 20 eclipses. The science of analyzing chemical fingerprints based on light is called “spectroscopy.”

“For the first time we have a spectroscopic signature of such a world,” said Benneke. But he is at a loss for classification: Should it be called a “super-Earth” or “sub-Neptune?” Or perhaps something else?

Fortuitously, the atmosphere of GJ 3470 b turned out to be mostly clear, with only thin hazes, enabling the scientists to probe deep into the atmosphere. “We expected an atmosphere strongly enriched in heavier elements like oxygen and carbon which are forming abundant water vapor and methane gas, similar to what we see on Neptune”, said Benneke. “Instead, we found an atmosphere that is so poor in heavy elements that its composition resembles the hydrogen/helium rich composition of the Sun.”

To me, our knowledge of exoplanets today is beginning to resemble our knowledge of the planets in the solar system c. 1950. The little data we have gives us a vague idea of what’s there, but there are so many gaps and uncertainties that no one should be confident about drawing any firm conclusions.

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New image of Eta Carina from Hubble

Eta Carina
Click for full image.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have taken a new spectacular image of the Luminous Blue Giant star Eta Carina. The image on the right is that photograph, reduced to post here.

Using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to map the ultraviolet-light glow of magnesium embedded in warm gas (shown in blue), astronomers were surprised to discover the gas in places they had not seen it before.

Scientists have long known that the outer material thrown off in the 1840s eruption has been heated by shock waves after crashing into the doomed star’s previously ejected material. In the new images, the team had expected to find light from magnesium coming from the same complicated array of filaments as seen in the glowing nitrogen (shown in red). Instead, a completely new luminous magnesium structure was found in the space between the dusty bipolar bubbles and the outer shock-heated nitrogen-rich filaments.

Eta Carina had a major eruption in the 1840s, followed by other lesser outbursts, the evidence of which is obvious in this and other earlier Hubble images. In fact, over the past twenty-five years Hubble has actually tracked the expansion of those two lobes of material being flung from the star hidden deep in the material.

Someday in the far future astronomers believe it will die as a supernova, though that is only a hypothesis at this point, based on our presently limited understanding of stellar evolution.

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TESS finds exoplanet smaller than Earth

Worlds without end: TESS has now found an exoplanet somewhere between Mars and the Earth in size, and is part of a solar system with two other Earth-sized planets.

L 98-59b is around 80% Earth’s size and about 10% smaller than the previous record holder discovered by TESS. Its host star, L 98-59, is an M dwarf about one-third the mass of the Sun and lies about 35 light-years away in the southern constellation Volans. While L 98-59b is a record for TESS, even smaller planets have been discovered in data collected by NASA’s Kepler satellite, including Kepler-37b, which is only 20% larger than the Moon.

The two other worlds in the system, L 98-59c and L 98-59d, are respectively around 1.4 and 1.6 times Earth’s size. All three were discovered by TESS using transits, periodic dips in the star’s brightness caused when each planet passes in front of it.

None of these planets is considered in the habitable zone however. Instead, they experience solar energies comparable to Venus.

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Fast radio burst located for the first time

Astronomers have for the first time pinpointed the location of a non-repeating fast radio burst.

In a historic first, an international team of researchers have discovered the source of a non-repeating fast radio burst and traced its origin to a galaxy 4 billion light-years away.

The monumental findings, published in AAAS journal Science on Thursday, detail the discovery and localization of FRB 180924, a powerful, one-off fast radio burst that lasted for just a fraction of a second. Speculation about the cause of the bizarre signals takes in everything from explosive neutron stars to alien spacecraft, and while we’re still not sure what’s causing them, the revelation puts astronomers one step closer to their true nature.

“This is the big breakthrough that the field has been waiting for since astronomers discovered fast radio bursts in 2007,” said Keith Bannister, lead author of the paper and principal research engineer with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Knowing the distance for the burst makes it possible to calculate how powerful it was, which helps theorists come up with an explanation for what might have caused it. Similarly, knowing its location–on the outskirts of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way–helps them further constrain those theories.

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The Whirlpool Galaxy across many wavelengths

The Whirlpool Galaxy
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The sequence of images above, reduced to post here, were taken in multiple wavelengths by the 2.1 meter Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and the Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit.

The Whirlpool galaxy, also known as Messier 51 and NGC 5194/5195, is actually a pair of galaxies that are tugging and distorting each other through their mutual gravitational attraction. Located approximately 23 million light-years away, it resides in the constellation Canes Venatici.

The leftmost panel shows the Whirlpool in visible light, much as our eye might see it through a powerful telescope. In fact, this image comes from the Kitt Peak National Observatory 2.1-meter (6.8-foot) telescope. The spiraling arms are laced with dark threads of dust that radiate little visible light and obscure stars positioned within or behind them.

The second panel from the left includes two visible-light wavelengths (in blue and green) from Kitt Peak but adds Spitzer’s infrared data in red. This emphasizes how the dark dust veins that block our view in visible light begin to light up at these longer, infrared wavelengths.

Spitzer’s full infrared view can be seen in the right two panels, which cover slightly different ranges of infrared light.

The infrared views of the Whirlpool galaxy also show how dramatically different its two component parts are: The smaller companion galaxy at the top of the image has been stripped nearly clean of dust features that stand out so brilliantly in the lower spiral galaxy. The faint bluish haze seen around the upper galaxy is likely the blended light from stars thrown out of the galaxies as these two objects pull at each other during their close approach.

The Spitzer images above are likely among the last we shall see from that telescope, which has been in orbit since 2003 with a planned mission of only 2.5 years. As its cryogenic coolant became depleted in 2009, it has been functioning in a somewhat limited phase since. NASA will officially end the mission on January 30, 2020, more than thirteen years beyond that initial lifespan.

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Battery screw-up delays Russian X-Ray telescope launch

The Russians this morning postponed today’s launch of the Spectr-RG X-Ray space telescope until July when it was discovered that one of the payload’s batteries had been drained prematurely.

[T]he Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid reported from Baikonur that the problem had been discovered at least a day earlier, but the entire project team at the launch site was kept in the dark until the launch date, not to interfere with Vladimir Putin’s annual press-conference.

According to the paper, the battery was accidentally activated on the launch pad instead of the planned moment after the separation of the spacecraft from the Block DM-03 upper stage. The error was blamed on the erroneous wiring setup by RKK Energia specialists (Block DM-03 prime contractor) between the upper stage and the spacecraft, which caused a complete drainage of the battery designed to be re-charged from solar panels. After the return of the rocket to the vehicle assembly building, the battery would have to be re-charged and the power-supply system re-wired, Moskovsky Komsomolets said. [emphasis mine]

If this report is true, it appears that the Russian government has done nothing to fix the quality control programs in its aerospace industry, and in fact is helping to contribute to them by playing games with launch procedures for the sake of its own public relations.

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Hawaii fully okays construction of TMT, removes protest structures

The Hawaiian state government today finally gave the go-ahead for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), sending close to 100 police officers to the mountain to remove four structures built by protesters to block construction.

[Democratic government David] Ige said he believes the state now has sufficient legal basis for construction to go more smoothly than it did following the telescope’s 2014 groundbreaking. After significant protests in 2014 and 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that a 2011 permit from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources was invalid after finding the Land Board violated due process rights of project opponents by voting before the first contested case was held.

However, the Supreme Court approved an amended permit late last year, allowing the project to seek a notice to proceed. The conditions of the amended permit state that the TMT will be the last telescope to be built on Maunakea and that five other telescopes at the summit will be decommissioned and removed.

Despite Ige’s confidence in the process, opponents are preparing for further protests. Kanuha said he intends to “try and stop it the same way we did the first time.”

“This is about more than the mountain, this is about how we treat land and natural resources in Hawaii,” Kanuha said. “If we allow this to happen, we can kiss goodbye all we hold precious in Hawaii. It’s just a matter of time.”

Another protester, Lakea Trask, warned of an inevitable conflict. “The state is declaring war on Hawaiians,” said Trask, who was arrested and charged with trespassing during the 2015 protests. “The state is now using TMT to declare war, an all-out war on Hawaiians.”

First, this is the second time the state has approved this project, which followed the law both the first time and now. Second, the protests that stopped construction in 2014 and 2015 were not “significant” but were led by a very small number of people. Third, those same protesters, as quoted above, probably intend to repeat their actions once construction resumes this summer. If so, expect violence. These people know they will not be seriously punished for breaking the law, and will take advantage of this.

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The make-up and temperature of Uranus’s rings

The rings of Uranus

New radio images taken by the ground-based telescopes by the ALMA and VLT telescopes in Chile have allowed scientists to better determine the make-up and temperature of the rings of Uranus.

The image above is from their paper. From the caption:

Images of the Uranian ring system at 3.1 mm (ALMA Band 3; 97.5 GHz), 2.1 mm (ALMA Band 4; 144 GHz), 1.3 mm (ALMA Band 6; 233 GHz), and 18.7 μm (VLT VISIR; 100 THz)…The planet itself is masked since it is very bright compared to the rings.

From the article above:

The new images taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) allowed the team for the first time to measure the temperature of the rings: a cool 77 Kelvin, or 77 degrees above absolute zero — the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen and equivalent to 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The observations also confirm that Uranus’s brightest and densest ring, called the epsilon ring, differs from the other known ring systems within our solar system, in particular the spectacularly beautiful rings of Saturn.

“Saturn’s mainly icy rings are broad, bright and have a range of particle sizes, from micron-sized dust in the innermost D ring, to tens of meters in size in the main rings,” said Imke de Pater, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy. “The small end is missing in the main rings of Uranus; the brightest ring, epsilon, is composed of golf ball-sized and larger rocks.” [emphasis mine]

The mystery is why this ring has no dust, something not seen with any other ring system in the solar system, including the inner rings of Uranus itself..

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Two Earthlike planets possibly found around neaby red dwarf star

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers think they may have detected evidence of two Earth-sized planets orbiting a tiny red dwarf star only twelve light years away.

Ribas and his colleagues are currently searching for planets orbiting 342 small stars, so they aimed the CARMENES instrument, located at Spain’s Calar Alto Observatory, at the mini-star.

CARMENES observed Teegarden’s star over three years, watching for the wiggles and tugs produced by any orbiting planets. In the end, more than 200 measurements suggested that two small worlds are jostling the star, each weighing in at approximately 1.1 times Earth’s mass. The team calculates that one of the planets, called Teegarden’s star b, completed an orbit in a mere 4.9 Earth-days; the other world, Teegarden’s star c, has an orbit of just 11.4 days.

There is great uncertainty in these results, as the article correctly notes. However, if confirmed these planets could be the home of a very ancient civilization, considering that the red dwarf star is already twice as old as our Sun. There also could be no life there at all, as red dwarf stars tend to be very lacking in many of the materials needed for life.

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