Posts Tagged astronomy


Posted by on Thursday, 15 January, 2015


Planetwide Lights Out



Solar storms come and go. Usually they’re not too bad. But a couple of summers ago we near had our heads taken off.  A double “mass ejection” from the sun’s corona smashed past us.

We were on the far side of our orbit, conveniently out of the way.

A few days earlier? It would have been brutal.

The power grid, along with most electronics and computers, would have been made useless. We would have been back to the good old days when streets were lit with oil lamps and the houses were lit with flickering candles.

Except, who’s got oil lamps anymore? Who’s got candles?

In a paper in the journal Nature Communications Dr. Ying D Lieu and Janet G Luhmann estimated how long it would have taken to recover from our “sun spot hangover”. A long time, – years probably- before the lights would be back on everywhere.

The cost? In the trillions of dollars. The effect on our world?

No matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine!

Here’s the thing.

These solar ejections happen pretty often. Once-in-a-while there’s a big one. There was one about this size in 1859 when there weren’t any computers. The worst thing was some problems with the telegraph system; some operators got electric shocks.

If this latest “big one”, the 2012 mass ejection, had caught us dead center, it would have taken out our TVs, computers, phones,  vehicles, and all the rest of our high tech equipment. Even my furnace would have been creamed. My furnace has a computerized controller board which runs the controls; it also talks to me over wifi and sends messages to my phone. A disturbance  92 million miles away on the surface of the sun would have had me burning logs. My whole life would have changed.


There isn’t much we can do to keep the sun from being the sun. Stuff will keep flying off the sun and, someday, a mass ejection will have our number on it. What we can do, is get serious about monitoring for these conditions. With sufficient warning, maybe we can take steps to minimize the damage.

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The drawing is mine.


Posted by on Friday, 1 June, 2012
What Planet Are YOU ON?

What planet are YOU from?


What planet are you from? This is something people ask me all the time. Would they ask it if I didn’t have a propeller on my beanie?

The thing is, the list of planets  is growing.


According to Roger D. Blandford (Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University), there could be as many as 4,000,000,000,000,000 (4 quadrillion) stars in the Milky Way. or about 10,000 planets for each sun.

Isn’t that 9,992 more than anybody’s noticed for our own sun/star? If they’re out there, where, really, could they be that they’ve gone undiscovered all this time?

Dr. Blanford’s referring to a fairly new category of planets called “rogue planets” which, unlike Mars and Venus and Earth and other civilized rocks, don’t orbit a star but, instead, roguishly follow their own independent paths. According to this theory, when galaxies collide, they disrupt the orbits of planets, sending them off hither. And thither. And yon.

No longer orbiting a star, they would have tended to escape the notice of astronomers and planet hunting satellites such as Kepler. But if life had already become established on such planets before they got bumped out of orbit, life would have a good chance of surviving its new sunless condition  (and THAT is according to  Dimitar D. Sasselov of Harvard).

Well. Let’s be careful.

There’s some evidence in this stuff. Which makes for good science. And there’s some speculation in this stuff. Which makes for fun science. Mister ScienceAintSoBad would be remiss if he didn’t dispense a pinch of salt with this study for now.

More to come.


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(The hat is from China Wholesale Town, by the way.)


Stars Give Up Their Planets

Posted by on Thursday, 28 October, 2010



What’s harder to find than an honest politician?

Exactly. A new planet.

The old planets, they’re local. They’re located around our sun. There are now eight of them. Nine for a while but Pluto’s a rock again.

Committee decision.

The first seven weren’t so hard to find. No telescopes needed.

Earth, of course, was easy. Between yer toes.

Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Uranus, and Saturn weren’t too bad either. They “wander” in the sky. Stars don’t do that when yer sober.

Big clue.

Uranus, which wasn’t discovered until the 18th century,  took some finding. And the next one, Neptune, did have to wait for telescopes to be invented. Johann Galle gets the credit along with J. J. Leverrier who told him where to point the thing.

J J didn’t like Uranus’ orbit.

“By King Louis Philippe,” he said, “I’d bet my mustache there’s a planet tugging on it and with a couple a mathematical tricks, I think I can figure out where that planet should be.”

“You bite the big one, J J,” said Galle. “You’re not gonna find a planet with mathematics.”

“Just you point your foolish lenses where I tell you, “J J said”, and we’ll see who bites what around here.”

J J was right and that was planet number eight.


Eight planets.

Our solar system was fully mapped. If you wanted more planets, you had best be looking around the good Lord’s firmament.


If you DID look beyond our solar system, what did you see? Stars are bright. Finding a planet around a star is like figuring out who’s in a car coming at you at night with headlights on.

Worse even.

Glare, glare, glare.

How it is.


You can see the star. But any planets would be hidden by its tremendous luminescence.

For a long time – a long, long time, really – we figured there might not BE any other planets anyway. But people – Carl Sagan was one of the most prominent – felt there should be planets elsewhere. Why would our own star, the one we call “sun”,  be so different?

By 1998, astronomers  figured  out a way to detect planets around other stars (exoplanets). Two ways, actually. One way involved watching the star wobble as the planet pulls on it. The other way involved watching a star dim as a planet passed in front.

Kinda sleuthy but it works  well enough to find great big planets, anyway.

A start.

These methods have gotten better with practice. The list of exoplanets is over 400 and growing fast .


Now what if the stars DIDN’T shine so bright? What if you COULD see the planets orbiting other suns?

Can now.

A team led by E Searbyn (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) invented an “Apodizing Phase Plate” which cancels out much of the glare from a star so you can see its planets. With it, they had a clear look at a star (HR8799) and its planets.

Not perfect. Still needs more refining to see the smaller planets. But an amazing piece of science magic anyway.

They say the next version’ll be better yet.

We believe them.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10


Image credit: Jet Propulsion Labs