To light up your days and nights, the Luna Lantern

Thursday, 1 October, 2015

From Acorn Studios, a Luna Lantern. Ships in seven different sizes as well. Awesome. So, what are chances that we’ll see someone bring forth such a lamp based on Pluto then?

Via The Awesomer.

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Had to happen eventually… the Pluto conspiracy theories

Thursday, 23 July, 2015

There’s always someone trying to spoil everyone else’s fun, and only days after the New Horizons flyby of Pluto. Yes, the conspiracy theorists have started crawling out of the woodwork already.

One line of their… thinking on the matter says that the images returned to Earth last week were (somehow) faked, while another claims that an alien spaceship base was spotted on the distant member of the solar system, but was hushed up, and presumably, Photoshoped off, the images that NASA released.

A variant of the conspiracy theory exists that suggests that the NASA New Horizon mission happened and that it reached Pluto. However, the theory posits, the space agency is covering up the discovery of an alien, UFO base on the former ninth planet. Clearly a bone chilling orb at the edge of the Solar System would be prime real estate for such a facility, the better for the UFOs to make the occasional foray to Earth to abduct humans and perform disgusting experiments on them.

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All those great photos of Pluto, thanks to an aluminum camera

Thursday, 23 July, 2015

To date, the photos of Pluto, its moons, and their surroundings, taken by the New Horizons space probe, have been breathtaking. But the story of the camera, named Ralph, responsible for all these images, is also incredible.

Obviously no ordinary camera could be used for the job, and the team constructing Ralph had to, among many other factors, consider the freezing conditions in which it would be operating.

And because the various materials that make up a normal camera would respond, or shrink, at different rates, due to the ultra low temperatures – we’re talking well below minus two hundred degrees Celsius here – it was decided to build Ralph almost entirely from aluminum.

With the exception of the lens, being glass, the aluminum construction meant that the camera’s components would all shrink at the same rate.

“Going out that far, there are some fluctuations,” Hardaway says. “It can get quite cold, and materials will shrink as they get colder. But different materials shrink at different rates.” The answer, then, was to build almost the entire camera out of just one type of material. “We actually built the mirrors and the chassis out of aluminum so that as they shrink, they would shrink together, to maintain the same focal length. We could do a reasonable test on Earth and still expect the same quality image,” she says.

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Travelling light years to hear the music of decades past

Tuesday, 21 July, 2015 interface

The crew, if there were actually a human crew, aboard NASA’s New Horizons space probe will need something to help keep them entertained until they reach their next port of call, a KBO, or Kuiper Belt Object, some one billion kilometres beyond Pluto, that it is expected to encounter in early 2019.

From there, the deep space probe will probably hurtle through the galaxy until some random red dwarf star – since they’re all through interstellar space – drags New Horizons into its solar system. Still, what for this… crew to do until that happens?

They could tune into radio broadcasts from Earth, and since radio signals move at the speed of light, the would-be crew crew could listen, or should that be re-listen, to old radio shows. The further away from Earth you get, the older the music you hear will be (well, maybe). Assuming you travel far enough away that is. then will give you an idea of what to expect this in is regard. Select a timeframe, say twenty years, and you’ll be transported, by way of your web browser, to a point twenty light years from Earth, where you’ll be able to hear the songs that were being broadcast in 1995.

I thought the journey was more interesting than the music, but try it out, and see what I mean.

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Pluto, the solar system’s other red “planet”?

Tuesday, 14 July, 2015

Pluto and Charon, image by NASA

NASA’s New Horizons space probe will probably be skimming, mere thousands of kilometres, over the top of Pluto around about now, so the images it returns in the next few days will doubtless be far sharper than the above photo of Pluto and Charon, taken from a distance of twenty million, give or take, kilometres.

While it’s been known for a while that Pluto is reddish-brown in colour, I didn’t realise it was referred to as the solar system’s “other red planet”, with Mars being, I guess, “the” red planet. While both have reddish hues, their colouring comes about in quite different ways however:

What color is Pluto? The answer, revealed in the first maps made from New Horizons data, turns out to be shades of reddish brown. Although this is reminiscent of Mars, the cause is almost certainly very different. On Mars the coloring agent is iron oxide, commonly known as rust. On the dwarf planet Pluto, the reddish color is likely caused by hydrocarbon molecules that are formed when cosmic rays and solar ultraviolet light interact with methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and on its surface.

Also, isn’t referring to Pluto as “other red planet”, key word being planet, likely to start all sorts of arguments?

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Giving names to the features we’re about to discover on Pluto

Monday, 30 March, 2015

Pluto and Charon, artist's impression

In mid July, NASA space probe New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto. If past experience is anything to go, the encounter, which will offer astronomers and scientists access to data hitherto only dreamed of, is likely to re-write much of what we know, or thought we knew, of this distant member of the solar system.

To say nothing of the photos we should soon be seeing. Instead of the current blurred, pixelated, images of the (dwarf) planet, we will possess high definition pictures of an actual, real world, plus its largest moon, Charon, ready to have its featured named as we see fit.

Needless to say, this will be no small task, and NASA, together with the International Astronomical Union, are interested in hearing your suggestions for such names. Get going though, submissions close on 7 April.

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There’s no planet, or moon, by the name of Vulcan in this system

Wednesday, 10 July, 2013

A while back, two more moons were discovered orbiting dwarf planet Pluto (how a planetary body with several decent size satellites can be considered “dwarf” is beyond me, but I digress), giving the far flung member of the solar system a total, so far, of five moons.

Recently a poll was held to name these newly found companions, but the most popular choice, Vulcan, was rejected in favour of the second and third alternatives, Cerberus and Styx. As a name, Vulcan is apparently lacking in underworld connotations, or so we are told.

Fans of the “Star Trek” sci-fi TV and film series however will know Vulcan is the name of the planet Mr Spock hails from, so it seems to me the title is better left reserved for a Vulcan-like exoplanet, provided its host system is uninhabited that is, that we may one day find, rather than being applied to a moon.

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Can a dwarf planet with many moons still be called a dwarf planet?

Wednesday, 27 July, 2011

Dwarf planet Pluto continues to make certain of the solar system’s “proper” planets appear lacking following the discovery of a fourth moon orbiting the former planet.

Pluto’s rising moon count is also concerning mission controllers of the New Horizons space probe, who fear the vessel could collide with hitherto unknown satellites as it approaches the far flung body in 2015.

On the subject of Pluto, National Geographic has put together a great primer on what was once considered the solar system’s outer most planet.

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Pluto was murdered by the professor in the Kuiper belt

Monday, 13 December, 2010

Mike Brown, who in January 2005 discovered what was at first hailed as the solar system’s tenth planet – initially dubbed Xena but later named Eris – writes how the discovery of the now dwarf planet led to Pluto, long regarded as the ninth planet, likewise being downgraded in stature, in his new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming.

I hobbled back from the rocky beach up to the house. I woke Diane and told her that when the press called tomorrow I was going to have to tell them why the new proposed definition of planet was no good and why, in the end, it made sense all along for there to be just eight planets. I told her that I was going to have to kill Pluto and that Xena would go down as necessary and important collateral damage. All along, Diane had been more practical than I was. “Just let it be a planet,” she would say. “Try not to worry about it so much,” she had told me all year. “Relax” was her usual advice.

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Will not so small after all Pluto now be reclassified as a planet?

Thursday, 18 November, 2010

Following recent observations, doubt has been cast over the size of Eris, a dwarf planet orbiting the Sun at a (massive) distance of up to 14,510,993,390 kilometres, and previously thought to be bigger than Pluto, a finding that eventually resulted in Pluto being classed as a dwarf planet in 2006, after being regarded as a planet since its discovery in 1930.

Occultation measurements are by their nature very accurate, and although more precision is needed before we get a definitive answer, Eris is certainly a lot smaller than it was thought to be. “Almost certainly Eris has a radius smaller than 1,170 km [727 miles],” Bruno Sicardy, of the Paris Observatory, said in an email to Sky and Telescope Magazine. Pluto has a radius of approximately 1,172 kilometers (728 miles). Pluto therefore has an average density of 2.03 grams/cm3 and Eris has an average density of 2.5 grams/cm3.

While the new figures don’t show a great deal of variance in the size of either object, they could re-open the discussion over whether Pluto should continue to be regarded as a dwarf planet.

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