Saturday, December 22, 2012

Some Facts About Space, pt 2: Stars

So here’s part two of my exciting facts-about-space blog! This time I’m going to focus on things a bit further out there: some of the really crazy stuff you may not have known about our neighboring stars.

A Neutron Star the size of a pea would weigh about as much as a small mountain.
There are many different types of stars. Neutron stars—which are actually the “leftovers” of massive stars after they go supernova—have the peculiar trait of being the most dense of all star types. Of course, Neutron Stars don’t come as small as the size of a pea, but that’s just to give you an idea of how heavy they are. Talk about a jawbreaker…

Neutron Stars have an average diameter of only 24 kilometers.
Yep, that’s a radius of only about 15 miles. In other words, the entire star would fit inside of just about any major city you’ve ever been to.

The smallest main-sequence (i.e. “normal”) star we know of is only about 20% larger than Jupiter.
It’s called OGLE-TR-122, and it’s barely big enough to even be considered a star. That poor little runt star—it doesn’t even get a proper name, just a “designation.”

The largest star we know of is bigger than the orbit of Jupiter around our sun.
It’s called NML Cygni, and it’s about 1,650 times larger than our sun. Think about it this way: we haven’t yet been able to send a human as far as Jupiter. If we lived on a planet the size of NML Cygni, it’s quite possible that we still wouldn’t even be able to travel all the way around it (like we can do relatively easily with Earth). And keep in mind: that’s the largest star we know of yet…

The oldest object in space that we know of is about 13.2 billion years old.
It’s a star called HE 1523-0901, and it lives here in our friendly neighborhood Milky Way Galaxy. To put it in perspective, the average lifespan of a star usually reaches only 10 billion years old. Also, considering that our universe is only about 13.75 billions years old, HE 1523-0901 has been around since almost the very beginning of the universe itself. But if this great-grandpa of stars wants to sit you on its lap to tell you war stories, don’t let it—though it’s smaller than our sun, it’s still a burning ball of gas and nuclear reactions, after all.

The nearest star to us is Proxima Centauri…
…but it’s still 4.24 light years from Earth. Then again, in another 26,700 years, it will have moved closer to us, and only be about 3.11 light years away. Who knows?—maybe by then we’ll have figured out a way to travel that far.

Polaris is the North Star now, but it won’t always be.
We refer to Polaris as the “North Star” because it sits almost due north from our celestial north pole. But with the way the heavens are turning, around the year 3000, it will no longer sit in that position. By then, another star named Gamma Cephei will be our new north star. Hopefully this won’t confuse our sailors too much when the time comes…

When the star Betelgeuse “dies”/goes supernova, the explosion will likely be bright enough to see in the middle of the day.
In fact, scientists believe it will be visible by naked eye in the middle of the day for the duration of several months. The unfortunate thing is that this could happen anytime within the next million years—so we probably won’t actually get to see it.

Black Holes aren’t holes.
Calling them “holes” is way off base. What we call “black holes” are actually stars. Yes, stars—like the Sun, like Polaris, like all those little dots in the night sky that we arrange into constellations.

Every star and planet has something called an “escape speed.” This is the speed that an object needs to be traveling in order to shake itself free of that star or planet’s gravity (and, therefore, be able to leave the star or planet). That said, a black hole is a star whose escape speed is faster than the speed of light. That’s why we think of them as vacuums—once something falls into a black hole’s field of gravity, it can never leave again. And that’s why they’re black—even light can’t leave the star, so it would “appear” perfectly dark.

Astronomers believe that there may be such a thing as “white holes” as well.
Though a white hole hasn’t been discovered yet, astrophysical equations imply that these oddities exist somewhere out there. As you might suspect, they act pretty much like the opposite of a black hole: rather than not allowing anything to leave their field of gravity, white holes will constantly be shedding everything from itself, to the point that nothing at all (not even light) would be able to enter the star. Talk about the ultimate extrovert…

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That’s all I’ve got for you this time around (there may or may not be a part 3 to this…). Of course there are thousands of other cool tidbits that I haven’t shared, with many more facts appearing every day. But—hey—I’ve done enough research for you already: maybe it’s time for you to do some investigating of your own. ;)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Some Facts About Space to Make You Feel Better About Doomsday, pt 1

Our Solar System

In light of all this “Doomsday” talk that has been building up to today, I thought it’d be nice to show that space isn’t all bad and scary—there are some pretty fascinating things about it too.

So here you go, just a small collection of random facts about space that are some of my personal favorites. This time around (yes, there will be a “next time around”), I’m going to focus just on things within our own solar system:

Our solar system has 13 planets.
You were probably always taught that we had 9 planets. Then you heard Pluto was downgraded to a “dwarf planet.” Because of this, some people like to say our solar system now has 8 planets (poor Pluto—he’s still a planet, even if just a runt of one). But Pluto is not the only dwarf planet. There are four others aside from it: Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris (in fact, it was the discovery of Eris that prompted astronomers to redefine the term “planet,” ultimately downgrading Pluto). And no, I didn’t make up those names. They really are just that odd.

Ceres is located between Mars and Jupiter.
All of the dwarf planets are located at the far end of our solar system except for Ceres, which exists in the asteroid belt separating the first four planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) from the outer planets (Jupiter and beyond). In fact, Ceres was originally considered an asteroid until the term “dwarf planet” was invented and its status was upgraded. Congratulations, Ceres!

“Earth” isn’t actually the name of our planet.
Well, okay, I guess that depends on how you look at it. Really though, “Earth” is an astronomy term that really just means “planet.” We call our planet “Earth” because—well, let’s face it: who has the right to name a planet that 7 billion people share?

…in fact, the Sun’s “name” works the same way.
“Sun” is just a term for a star that sits in the middle of a solar system (keep in mind some stars don’t have solar systems—so those stars are not suns). That’s why people call it the Sun instead of just Sun (without the in front of it)—because it’s a title, not a name. If you’re ever faced with the Sun though, try to refer to it as respectfully as possible. He’s very big and fiery.

…and the same with the Moon.
A moon is something that orbits a planet, and I guess the early astronomers were just lazy about naming our moon. Many planets have moons (some even have several moons)—most of which have cool names instead of just titles. Our poor little satellite.

400 is an important number for the Sun and the Moon.
You already know that the Sun is much larger than the Moon. But you wouldn’t guess that just by looking at the sky with your naked eye. This is because, though the Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon, the Moon is about 400 times closer to the Earth than is the Sun—making them appear to be the same size. What a happy coincidence.

The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth.
This means that the way the moon’s gravity and the earth’s gravity interact causes the moon to remain stationary in relation to the earth. In other words, every time you look up at the moon, you’re looking at the same side of it—no matter what time of day or night it is, or where in the world you are. This is where the phrase “dark side of the moon” comes from: because we never see the other side of the moon from the Earth. Maybe Pink Floyd was on to something…

Jupiter has 67 moons.
That pretty much sums it up. Just…wow.

One of Jupiter’s moons is likely covered in a giant ocean.
The surface of Europa is covered in a thick layer of water ice. Beneath this icy exterior is an ocean that goes about 62 miles deep (in contrast, the deepest part of Earth’s ocean only goes about 7 miles deep). All that to say, Europa is certainly not a place you’d want to go swimming. Brr…

That big red spot you see on Jupiter is actually a storm.
Think of it like the most insane hurricane you can imagine. In fact, the red storm—which is Jupiter’s most identifiable feature—is so large that you could fit two or three of our home Earths in it. Batten down the hatches.

If the Earth was not tilted on its axis, we would have no seasons.
If the earth was situated straight up and down (with the north pole sitting at the very top and the south pole at the very bottom), the entire face of the earth would likely have a tropical climate all year long. So next time someone tells you that Jesus is the reason for the season, tell them that, actually, the fact that the Earth is tilted about 45 degrees on its axis is the reason for the season.

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So there you have it! Interesting stuff. J Tune in next time for some cool facts about deep space…

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Golden Birthdays

This was the train of thought I experienced while driving to work this morning:

I work with a girl who is 20 years old, and her birthday is August 20. This means that this past birthday was her “golden” birthday (when the age you’re turning matches the date you were born).

I have the latest possible golden birthday: the 31st.

But that’s fine. It doesn’t really matter much to me.

But then I thought about people born on February 29th, and I thought that would be a really cool golden birthday if it happened to actually land on February 29th (as opposed to having to celebrate it on, say, February 28th  or March 1st), because that would be a meaningful golden birthday.

Then I thought, “In fact, that’d be so rare and historic that it would probably be on the news” (or, at the very least, on Yahoo! News, which features articles about everything). I mean, they always talk about when some kid turns 12 years old at 12:12pm on 12/12/2012, and stuff like that. Why not mention someone turning 29 years old on February 29th?

For a moment I thought that maybe it’s just never ever happened before. In that case, the first time would be historic.

And then…

And then, suddenly, I realized the sad, cold truth: It isn’t possible to turn 29 years old on February 29th.

Since February 29th only happens every four years, if you have that birthday, your “birthday” will only occur on years when your age is divisible by four. So your birthday will fall on the day you turn 28 years old, but then not again until you’re 32.

You poor, poor people born on February 29th. You’ll never have a golden birthday. My deepest condolences. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

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