Bad Astronomy Newsletter Issue #1
Issue #1 April 16, 2018
|Phil Plait||Apr 16, 2018|
Bad Astronomy Newsletter Reborn!
Well, hello there!
Welcome to my newsletter!
I have to admit, a newsletter feels warmly retro. I had one before I started my blog, back in 2002 or so (on Yahoo!Newsgroups, which I think used cuneiform), and it’s cool to see them having a renaissance. I’m pretty active on social media, but Twitter isn’t designed to have much depth, Instagram doesn’t allow linking, and Facebook is just a godawful mess (while I can post images and longer thoughts there, it’s impossible to search, the user interface is and has always been a disaster, and then there’s the whole selling all your info and potentially swaying the election for Trump things).
So when Substack.com contacted me about doing a newsletter with them, I had to laugh. I was thinking about starting one anyway!
This won’t replace my blog, Twitter, or the other social media, but it’ll supplement them. There’ll be some overlap, but I’ll also be putting stuff here you won’t find from me elsewhere. Call it exclusive content if you will — that has the added benefit of being true. Photos, thoughts, jokes, political rants, links to cool articles that have caught my eye, product reviews, even contests/giveaways.
This first issue is free and available to everyone. I’ll sometimes put out public newsletters if there’s some event or news I want to make sure everyone hears about, but in general this will be a subscription service. Here, let me be subtle:
If you like it, and think it’s worth it, please tell a friend. If you hate it, tell someone you don’t like. That’ll learn ‘em.
OK, enough intro. Let’s get to some content!
Pic o’ the ‘Letter
A cool or lovely or mind-bending astronomical image with a short description so you can grok it
Even after about 10-12 billion years, our galaxy is still making stars. And when it does, the view can be spectacular!
[Credit: NASA / ESA/ Hubble Space Telescope / Johannes Schedler / Robert Gendler]
That is Westerlund 2, a cluster of about 3,000 stars (and maybe more), surrounded by the gas cloud from which they formed, called Gum 29. Both are about 20,000 light years away in the constellation of Carina (though I’ve seen estimates of it being closer; it can be hard to get exact numbers in these situations).
The brightest stars in the cluster (you can see them clumped up along a line) are massive O stars, most of them pouring out a quarter million times the energy of the Sun! Those are what are lighting up the gas; they flood ultraviolet light into it that energizes the gas and causes it to glow like a neon sign.
The cluster has to be young (less than a few million years) because those O stars burn through their nuclear fuel at a prodigious rate and don’t live long. It turns out that by looking at many stars in the cluster and modeling how they age gives an estimate that the cluster is only about 2 million years old. That is young! Cosmically speaking. Stars are still forming there, in fact.
The mosaic was assembled from Hubble images by Robert Gendler, using data from several different observation proposals with the observatory. That link has a much larger version, and another mosaic by Hubble can be found on Hubblesite.org.
Look up! There’s stuff to see in the sky!
This being nominally an astronomy newsletter, here are some things to look out for soon in the sky:
April 17, 2018: The thin crescent Moon is just 5° from Venus. Look for them low to the west after sunset; if it’s dark enough you’ll see the Pleiades above them, too!
[The view looking west just after sunset on April 17. Map created using SkySafari.]
April 22, 2018 (or so): The Lyrids meteor shower peaks. It’s so-so, with maybe 20 meteors per hour, but a shower is always a good excuse to go out and look at the sky anyway.
May 9, 2018: Jupiter is at opposition, which means it a) rises when the Sun sets, so it’s up all night, and 2) is as close as it gets to Earth for the year, putting it at its brightest and biggest through the telescope. If you don’t have your own ‘scope, binoculars will let you see its four big moons. And look for an observatory, planetarium, or astronomical society near you! They may be holding a star party around then, so take advantage of the opportunity. Jupiter is incredible through a telescope.
Blast from the Past
A quick link to an old post or article because it’s relevant, or came up in conversation, or because it deserves a second wind
A person on Twitter asked me if the star Betelgeuse were going to explode in our lifetime. I replied that it’s doubtful, and linked him to a post I wrote on this very topic after a paper came out looking into Betelgeuse’s lifeclock. The answer: 100,000 years. Plenty of time. But that’s just the answer, and there’s more to it than just that, so check the article out. I think it’ll be relevant for at least a few hundred centuries yet.
[Credit: ESO/L. Calçada]
Where I’ll be doing things you can watch and listen to
April 17, 2018: I know it’s late notice, but I’ll be at Rhodes College in Memphis Tennessee, giving my talk “Strange, New Worlds: Is Earth Special?” at 5:00 p.m. at Blount Auditorium. It’s open to the public, so if you’re in the area come join me!
July 5 – 8, 2018: I’ll be speaking at SpaceFest IX in Tucson, AZ, a wonderful annual convention for space enthusiasts. A lot of astronauts (including from Apollo and the Shuttle era!) will be there, as well as authors, speakers, scientists, and phenomenal space artists. I love going to this, and you should really come!
July 11 – 14, 2018: I’m speaking at ALCON, the Astronomical League Convention, in St. Paul, Minnesota, an event I’ve always wanted to attend. The League is an umbrella organization for amateur astronomy societies across the US, and the conventions are where they share their knowledge of the skies and how to observe it. If you’re a stargazer, this is where you want to be. I’m happy to say my good friend Dr. Pamela Gay will be there as well, and we’re doing a panel together! This’ll be a lot of fun.
Maybe: I’m hoping to go to some science fiction cons this year. More on that as I find out!
A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news that may be too short for the blog, too long for Twitter, but just right (and cool enough to talk about) for here
Kepler nets 95 new worlds
[Credit: NASA/W. Stenzel]
The Kepler spacecraft is the most successful planet hunter of all time. It looks for tiny dips in starlight when an orbiting exoplanet passes directly in front of its host star. To date, it’s found over 2,300 confirmed worlds.
Part of the problem is that word “confirmed”. Lots of issues can make the data look like there’s a planet there when there isn’t. A variable star (one that gets brighter and dimmer over time) in the background near the target star can affect how astronomers read the brightness. Or the star might have starspots, or flares, or or or. Validating the planets is tough work, and there’s a long list of candidate exoplanets that need checking.
A recent paper came out verifying 95 total exoplanets in Kepler data, including 56 which were previously undetected! That’s a great haul. They used a lot of different methods, including spectra, high-resolution images, and more, to nail down the existence of these exoplanets.
Technically these data are part of the K2 mission, a follow-up to the original Kepler mission — it’s the same orbiting observatory, confusingly. Originally, Kepler stared at one spot in space for a long time. But the spacecraft lost two of its four reaction wheels, which are used to point the observatory. Engineers came up with a clever idea — using the pressure of sunlight to help stabilize the spacecraft, allowing it to continue its mission, though with more limited abilities. Instead of gazing at one spot in the sky, it now looks along the ecliptic (the path of the Sun in the sky, which is a reflection of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun), and cannot look as long as it once did. It makes planets harder to find, though. That’s why these new planets are so nice to see: It shows there’s a wealth of data Kepler/K2 can still do!
You can email me at email@example.com (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at about.me. Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or ten, too. Thanks!