Mars, Oh Inconstant World

Mars, Oh Inconstant World

I’ve decided Mars is the taunting red planet. She hangs up there, red and provocative, reveling here poles and captivating us with her canyons. She plays a careful game of peek-a-boo with her here-today, gone-tomorrow sand storms. She spikes our curiosity with gullies that seem to have been made with water, and black streaks that could be made by water. With scientific whispers, she hits at the possible of present day liquid water and maybe even present day life. And then… And then she takes it all away. A trio of new articles in the journal Science indicate Mars may be just another dry, lave covered world. (see HiRISE for information) In the first article, they take a new look at the gullies formed inside craters. Some of these gullies have appeared...

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Fun with Mnemonics

Fun with Mnemonics

The Solar SystemIn Astronomy we have two terrible patterns of words to try and remember. One is the order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune (image left, credit: NASA). The other is the spectral types of stars: O, B, A, F, G, K, M. For both these patterns we have unsatisfying mnemonics. This week I am assigning my students to please come up with a new one for spectral types (and they can submit them in the comments here as well as in their HW if they want to share).

As well as getting their ideas, I thought I’d ask what you, my often silent non-student readers, think are useful ways to remember the planets and stars. So, in the comments, give me a sentence to remember you and the stars and planets by!

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Flying Metal Bits

Flying Metal Bits

corot.jpgA quick fly through the nearby universe will show you, well, a whole lot of nothing. But, embedded in the nearest bits of that nothing are 8 spectacular planets, dozens of moons, and hundreds of random bits of rock and ice that, depending on where they orbit, fall into such categories as asteroids, Kuiper belt objects, and comets. Somewhat randomly distributed around (and sometimes on) these celestial objects are little bits of flying metal.

Locally, COROT (vaguely rhymes with Inspector Perot), obtained first light today (image above, credit CNES 2006 – D. Ducros). This orbital observatory will dedicate it self to the search for rocky worlds around other stars. A product of the European Space Agency, COROT will study nearby stars with its 30cm telescope, looking for slight changes in brightness indicative of planetary transits. The images it takes will also be useful for asteroseismology, the study of how stars bump and wiggle in reaction to chemical and thermal processes deep beneath their surfaces. Pre-launch calculations predict that every 150 days (the time COROT will spend studying one area of the sky), COROT could discover 10-40 rocky planets and tens of gas giants. Since the first published discoveries of an extrasolar planet around a pulsar in 1992, and around a normal star in 1995, astronomers have only discovered 209 extrasolar worlds. With COROT, that number could double in as little as 1 year.

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