New Blue Planet

pale blue dot

Pale blue dot from Voyager 1

Earth is known as the ‘blue planet’ because of the vast oceans that cover two-thirds of its surface. When seen from space, our world looks like a pale blue dot.  Back in 1990 a photograph of the Earth that was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft when it was 6 billion km away! But now, for the first time ever, astronomers have uncovered the color of a planet orbiting a distant star—and it’s blue, too!

But that’s where the similarities between the two planets end. The new world, or the deep blue dot, is an enormous gas giant, similar in size to Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System. It orbits very close to its star, leading its atmosphere to reach scorching temperatures of over 1000°C. You might wonder how blue oceans can survive in this extreme environment. Well, unlike Earth, it isn’t water that gives this world its lush blue color. Its atmosphere is filled with something similar to glass particles, called ‘silicates’, which sparkle blue.

blue_glass_rain_exoplanet

Artists conception of what this exo planet might look like.

Astronomers believe it rains glass on this planet! And the glassy rain comes down in sideways torrents, blown by howling winds moving at 7000 km per hour! While the words ‘pale blue dot’ make us think of calm, tropical waters and light summer rain, this ‘deep blue dot’ is all sharp, raging storms and boiling heat.

The Constellations of Cancun

Corvus

Hola from Mexico.

Yes, I’m still in Cancun, Mexico on my little rock and roll tour.  The days are filled with practice time and the evenings are filled with doing two shows a night.  This leaves me with some quality late night time to get out on the beach and look up at the constellations of the Cancun sky.
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Laser Programming at LASM

Programming lasers

One of the things people think of when a planetarium is mentioned is the classic rock laser light show.  The Pink Floyd laser show has been synonymous with planetariums for a very long time now.  But other laser light music shows have come and gone as well.  But here at LASM we actually program our own laser light content.
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Earth’s Group Photo

Staff at JPL celebrate Earth’s snapshot.

Last week, people all across the world waved at the skies in a group celebration of Earth’s portrait shot from 898,000,000 miles away. The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for nearly a decade, and in fact most of the dazzling images you’ve seen of Saturn, its rings, and its moons were captured by Cassini. On Friday, July 19, 2013 Cassini’s cameras captured images of Earth, the Moon, and Saturn in the same image frame. This wasn’t the first time Earth’s picture was taken from the outer Solar System, but this time the event was made known to the public in advance of its happening. “Wave at Saturn” images flooded social media sites as waving people took pictures with hula hoops to show their excitement and support.

Artist’s conception of Cassini orbiting Saturn.

Today we saw the first images released of Saturn and Earth. It has taken several days for the images to be ready. Why is this?

Have you ever tried to take a picture in the dark? It’s difficult… You need to keep your camera still, and leave your shutter open for a long time to capture more light. The same idea applies here. Earth was 898 million miles away from Cassini when these pictures were taken, showing up as only a faint blue dot. To add to the challenge, bright and shiny Saturn sits in the foreground of the image. On top of this, Cassini is in motion as it orbits Saturn.  Imagine trying to take a picture of a car with its headlights on and a tiny firefly sitting in a tree behind it, while riding a bicycle past the scene….

Cassini accomplishes this by taking hundreds of images. These images were sent back to humans on Earth for processing. For the past several days, scientists at NASA have been combining these images together with special computer software. To put it simply, the images are layered on top of each other and combined to form a single image.

The finished product of Cassini’s Earth, Moon, and Saturn portrait is not yet complete. The image released today is one of 33 “tiles” of the final mosaic that will show the entire planet Saturn, its rings, and Earth. Creating this picture takes a lot of work. Stay tuned as more of the puzzle is pieced together…

The first image released by NASA of Earth, Moon, and Saturn’s group photo. Earth is marked by an arrow. The moon is barely visible as a faint smudge to the lower right. This image alone was created by combining over 200 individual images captured by Cassini.

Pluto’s New Moons Have Names!

This week the International Astronomical Union (made famous in the eyes of the public for reclassifying Pluto as a Dwarf Planet) gave Pluto’s newly discovered moons their official names. Previously known as “P4″ and “P5″, these tiny moons are now named Kerberos and Styx respectively. The names were the result of an online naming contest where people could suggest and vote on their favorite names. You  may have seen news a few months ago that one of the moons was named Vulcan (after the Roman god of fire, but also the native world of Dr. Spock from Star Trek). Vulcan won the naming contest, but in the end the official decision was up to the IAU. Here at the planetarium we were a little bummed about the decision to cast out the vote for Vulcan as a name..

Anyways…

The IAU wanted to keep with the Pluto/Underworld theme and Vulcan just didn’t fit in with that! Pluto was the Roman god of the Underworld and it’s largest moon was named Charon, after the ferryman who transported souls across the river Styx. In 2005 two more moons were discovered. They were named Nix and Hydra. Nix (originally spelled Nyx) was the mother of Charon, and Hydra was a many-headed serpent that guarded the underworld. Kerberos (spelled this way to distinguish it from the asteroid already named Cerberus) was the three headed dog that guarded the mythical entrance to the underworld. Styx of course is the mythical river that souls must cross in order to enter into the underworld.

The new moons are very small (Styx is barely visible in this Hubble image). These moons aren’t much bigger than downtown Baton Rouge!