Happy Chinese New Year!

Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! Lets ring in the Year of the Horse.


Chinese New Year is one of those floating holidays that seems to fall on a different day each year, why is this?

Throughout history, civilizations around the world have used celestial objects to track the passage of time. People used the movements of the Sun, Moon, or stars to define a calendar for their society to live by. Today the majority of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, or the Solar Year. Lunar calendars use the duration of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, or the Lunar Month. Lunisolar calendars use a combination of both. Although most countries around the world use the standard Gregorian calendar for official government purposes, citizens of these countries often use a Lunar or Lunisolar calendar to mark important social and religious festivals.

The modern Chinese calendar is known as the Han calendar, it is Lunisolar. Like other Lunisolar calendars, the Han calendar takes into account a Solar Year as well as a Lunar month. The Han calendar uses the tropical solar year, which uses the seasons (the solstices) as the reference for the passage of a year. The Chinese calendar references the Winter Solstice specifically.

The New Year is observed on the day of the second new moon after the Winter Solstice, and occasionally on the third new moon. For the majority of us who use the Gregorian calendar this often translates to the first new moon of the new year.

redenvelopesFollowing several days of preparation, at midnight last night the festivities for Chinese New Year kicked off. It is a time of renewal, wishes of good fortune, and paying respect to friends and family. The observation of the new year actually lasts for 15 additional days, each having their own symbolic rituals and customs. One of the most well known traditions is the gift of red envelopes to friends and family. These envelopes often contain money, in amounts that correspond to lucky numbers. They are usually presented to younger people, and sometimes they are ornately decorated.

So, why Year of the Horse? The Chinese Zodiac, like the western zodiac, is separated into twelve signs. Unlike the Western Zodiac that associates each sign with a segment of the Solar Year, the Chinese Zodiac associates each sign with a single year in a twelve year cycle. Follow the link above to learn more, it gets even more complex than that! Last year according to the Han calendar was the year of the Snake, before that the year of the Dragon. Once we reach the Gregorian year 2020 the year of the Rat, the cycle will begin again.

So go forth, wish you friends and neighbors peace and happiness, and ask your family members for red envelopes filled with money! The Year of the Horse has begun.

Send your name to an asteroid!

NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be etched on a microchip aboard a spacecraft headed to the asteroid Bennu in 2016. The “Messages to Bennu!” microchip will travel to the asteroid aboard NASA’s Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft. The robotic mission will spend more than two years at the 1,760-foot (500-meter)-wide asteroid. The spacecraft will collect a sample of Bennu’s surface and return it to Earth in a sample return capsule.

NASA is proposing this project as a great opportunity for people to get engaged with the mission. Those wishing to participate in “Messages to Bennu!” should submit their name online no later than 30 September, 2014 at: http://planetary.org/bennu

After a person submits their name, they will be able to download and print a certificate documenting their participation in the OSIRIS-REx mission. So, be part of humankind’s exploration of the solar system –How cool is that?

Participants who “follow” or “like” the mission on Facebook will receive updates on the location of their name in space from launch time until the asteroid samples return to Earth in 2023. Facebook fans also will be kept apprised of mission progress and late-breaking news through regular status updates.

The OSIRIS-REx mission goal is to address basic questions about the composition of the very early solar system, the source of organic materials and water that made life possible on Earth, and to better predict the orbits of asteroids that represent collision threats to the Earth. It will collect a minimum of 2 ounces (60 grams) of surface material. Once the sample return capsule deploys, the spacecraft will be placed into a long-term solar orbit around the sun, along with the microchip and every name on it.

For more information about the OSIRIS-REx mission, visit:


Remembering the Challenger Crew

This photo of the Challenger crew was taken on Jan. 9, 1986, just 19 days before the Challenger disaster. Left to right: 1st Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronaut Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Michael J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist.

Image credit: NASA

On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts tragically died when Challenger exploded just after liftoff. It was NASA’s first in-flight disaster and it occurred not only as thousands of spectators watched from Kennedy Space Center but millions of teachers and students were also watching on live T.V. from their classrooms to see Christa McAuliffe, a civilian high school teacher from New Hampshire become NASA’s 1st teacher in space. Christa was scheduled to broadcast two live lessons from space to the nation’s school children just a few days later.
The loss of Challenger was later attributed to a failed seal on one of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. It was determined that cold weather prevented a rubber O-ring from working properly. This allowed hot gas to leak and damage the shuttle’s external fuel tank and the hardware attaching the booster to the shuttle. The right solid rocket booster then separated. The fuel tank broke apart causing the orbiter to be torn apart also. The launch had been postponed two days preceding the disaster due to expected storms preceding the cold front which brought unusually cold temperatures to central Florida.

The following words were left on a handwritten note in the briefcase of Space Shuttle Commander, Dick Scobee. It is from a passage from Vision of the Future by Ben Bova.
We have whole planets to explore. We have new worlds to build. We have a solar system to roam in. And if only a tiny fraction of the human race reaches out toward space, the work they do there will totally change the lives of all the billions of humans who remain on earth, just as the strivings of a handful of colonists in the new world totally changed the lives of everyone in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

That moment 28 years ago today when the seven Challenger astronauts reached out toward space is still ingrained in our memories.


Loki the Volcano

There has been lots of talk in Baton Rouge about ice, snow, and cold. Let’s change focus and talk about something hot: volcanoes! The planetarium is about to debut its latest show “Super Volcanoes” which gives audiences a front row seat to some of Earth’s largest volcanic eruptions. The show features extensive live action footage of geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park, as well as a complex simulation of an eruption of the Solar System’s largest active volcano, Loki.

Loki can be found on Jupiter’s moon Io. Named for the Norse God of Mischief (or comic book villain if you prefer), this volcano is considered to be the hottest and most powerful in the Solar System. Loki is officially called Loki Patera which means “Loki Basin”. Loki is not a tall volcano, it has no cone. It is the opposite, a large depression in Io’s surface that is filled with lava. Loki alone puts out more heat than all of Earth’s volcanoes combined!

lokiplumeVolcanism was discovered on Io by Voyager back in the 1970s. Up until this point people thought Earth was the only place with such active geology. Initially it was surprising to discover this much activity on such a tiny world. Scientists thought that since larger bodies (such as the other rocky planets, and larger moons) appeared to have thoroughly cooled and stopped exhibiting signs of active volcanism, tiny bodies such as Io wouldn’t exhibit it either. Voyager snapped photos of Io’s surface, showing large volcanic scars as well as plumes of ash reaching into the skies. Io had even more volcanic activity than Earth!

So why is this? As we rub our hands together to stay warm in this winter weather we’re having here in Baton Rouge, consider the moon Io. Io orbits closest to Jupiter out of the four largest moons. The combination of tidal forces from Jupiter, tidal forces from the other large moons, as well as the shape of Io’s orbit all play a role. The constant tugging on Io is thought to cause friction and internal heat inside the moon. Kind of like when you rub your hands together but a lot more so!

lokiarealIo has mountains and plains, as well as different types of volcanoes. Loki is thought to be a large lake of lava. Images taken from spacecraft show a large dark depression (almost 130 miles across!) with steep edges. Thermal studies have shown that the surface is extremely hot, likely due to a large pool of lava covered by a thin crust. The crusts of these lava lakes can become disrupted, triggering a wave across the lake. The denser crust sinks below the molten rock beneath causing the lake to resurface itself.  Scientists are still unsure about how Loki-type volcanoes form on Io. They could form from a collapsed volcano (this occurs on Earth and they are known as Caldarae), or they could be created from an impact of a large meteor into the surface.

Images of spacecraft have also shown plumes of volcanic material being ejected from Loki that have reached nearly 150 Km above the surface (that’s higher than the International Space Station orbits above Earth!). In “Super Volcanoes” audiences will travel to Loki and witness what this eruption might look like from the surface!

If you haven’t already, check out the trailer for “Super Volcanoes”, opening February 1 at the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium.

Water Discovered on the Dwarf Planet Ceres

water found on ceres

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory has recently discovered that the dwarf planet Ceres has direct evidence of water.  Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt, was detected spouting out plumes of water vapor from two different regions.  It’s suggested that this water is possibly coming from volcano-like ice geysers.

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An artist’s conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

With the crazy winter weather warnings today in south Louisiana and even school cancellations for tomorrow, I thought it was an interesting time to find out that the dwarf planet Ceres has an icy surface also. With the help of the Herschel space observatory, scientists have detected an icy surface on the only dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt. It was previously suspected that ice existed on Ceres but it had not been conclusively detected until now. Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. This happens in the portion of the dwarf planet’s orbit that takes it closest to the sun. This is a surprise because, while comets are known to have water jets and plumes, objects in the asteroid belt are not. They also believe that if the ice in the interior of Ceres melted, there would be more fresh water than exists on all of Earth!

Ceres is smaller than a planet but, considering it’s the largest object in the asteroid belt, is obviously larger than an asteroid. When first discovered, Ceres was thought to be a comet, then a planet and of course at some point an asteroid. In 2006, The International Astronomical Union reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet.



The Jelly Donut of Mars

Jelly Donut on Mars

There is no such place as a Mary Lee or Dunkin Donuts over on Mars.  At least, not yet.  But several days ago the Mars Rover Opportunity caught a mysterious object in its lenses that looked awfully like a jelly doughnut.   The strange thing is that it just happened to plop down in front of the camera.  If you look at the picture above you’ll see that it’s obviously a before-and-after shot.  The picture on the left was taken on December 26 of 2013 and the image on the right was taken 13 days later.  The object wasn’t there before.  So how did it get there?

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Wake up, wake up, Rosetta.


Artist’s impression of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. After an extensive mapping phase by the orbiter in August–September 2014, a landing site will be selected for Philae to conduct in situ measurements in November 2014. The image is not to scale; the Rosetta spacecraft measures 32 m across including the solar arrays, while the comet nucleus is thought to be about 4 km wide. (Photo: ESA)

Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) sounded Rosetta’s internal alarm clock to reboot the mission after two-and-a-half years of deep space slumber. Once its systems warm up, Rosetta is due to beam a signal back to Earth before it begins to home in on a frozen rock known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is due to shoot harpoons into the 2.5-mile dirtball before its Philae lander docks on the surface – a move that has never been attempted before.

An artist's impression of Rosetta on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
An artist’s impression of the Philae lander descending towards the comet

ESA project scientist Matt Taylor likened the mission to that of the action film Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis lands on an asteroid to save the world from destruction. “We’re not just landing on the Moon, we’re dealing with something dynamic, which is kicking off tons of dust and gas every minute,” he told the Sunday Telegraph. Because Rosetta, which has been sleeping to save power, is so far from Earth, it will take 45 minutes for its signal to reach scientists at mission control. They expect to see a blip on computer monitors between 1730 and 1830 GMT, indicating the spacecraft is up and running again.

An artist's impression of the Rosetta spacecraft's Philae lander on the surface of a comet
Rosetta’s Philae lander will carry out several tests on the comet’s surface

Dr. Dan Andrews, a planetary scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, said: “We’re waiting to hear Rosetta is alive and healthy. “This wake-up call kicks off a chain of events, during which the spacecraft heats itself up, points itself towards the Sun and gets itself ready. “Remember, this mission is 10 years old – it’s a bit of a stroppy teenager and it’s going to take a while to wake up.” If all goes to plan, Rosetta will arrive at Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August before descending to the comet several months later.

Rosetta received a boost from Earth's gravity
The Rosetta spacecraft was given a boost by Earth’s gravity
Dr. Andrews described the spacecraft’s lander as an “awesome” piece of engineering and said it is equipped with a range of tools similar to those geologists would use on Earth. The Philae probe and its orbiter will study the plume of gas and water vapour that will boil off and trail behind as the comet nears the Sun. If the chemical signature of hydrogen matches that found in water on Earth, it will strongly suggest comets filled the oceans when they smashed into the planet billions of years ago. Around half of the experiments on board involve British scientists, while the craft itself was designed and built by engineers at Astrium UK. Ralph Cordey, head of science at the company, said: “It’s interesting enough … to actually design, build and launch a spacecraft, but to then see it travel around the solar system for 10 years to get to where it is now is just something else.” (SKY NEWS)_72376235_roosetta_mission_624 (Photo: ESA)

Rosetta’s journey.

Print(Photo: ESA)

Rosetta’s instruments.

Lander_labels_line_circle2 (Photo: ESA)

Philae’s instruments.

Go SpaceShip 2!

Trying to decide where to book your next vacation? How about outer space? Virgin Galactic is still in the test phases, but it is getting closer to realizing its goal of sending tourists into space.

Last Friday Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip 2 took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and made its third successful test flight.  SpaceShip 2 is carried to 46,000 feet aboard a carrier aircraft that takes off on a runway similar to an airplane. When it reaches a specific altitude it drops SpaceShip 2 into a short free fall.  The rocket motor then takes over and propels SpaceShip 2 upward. Pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky flew the unique spacecraft 71,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.

Watch the video footage below to see the flight:

Unlike SpaceX, which has been focusing more on commercial transport of supplies, satellites, and eventually people, Virgin Galactic has its sights on the future Space Tourism industry. Richard Branson hopes to launch the first space tourists into space later this year. Tickets are $250,000 a piece, and people are already signed up!