Help Find Planet 9

In January 2016 Caltech astronomers publicly theorized existence of a behemoth ninth planet orbiting the Sun.  Observations of orbital anomalies in the Kuiper Belt (a massive ring of cosmic debris extending beyond Neptune – home to once a planet Pluto and estimated 100,000 neighbors measuring over 100 Km ) hypothesized a yet to be discovered gargantuan mass was responsible for peculiar behavior of Kuiper Belt residents. In theory a planetary mass ten times greater than Earth, completes an elongated orbit a thousand times farther from the Sun once every 15-20 thousand years – astronomers dubbed it Planet 9.

This diagram show the orbits of several Kuiper Belt objects that were used to infer the existence of Planet 9. Image via ASU.

Contrary to conspiracy, alien, biblical and doomsday jibber-jabber, no proof of Planet 9 exists – science has a theory based on seven years of  sky maps courtesy the WISE space telescope (see link below). Launched in 2009, WISE was designed to detect low level infrared light, light emissions consistent with planets. WISE buckled down – over 750 million curious infrared light sources later, science needs our help.

If Planet 9 is out there, chances are WISE has digital proof somewhere within those 750 million and counting infrared hits. Missing are enough eyes to systematically scan images for indications an object moves “apart” from surrounding cosmic pixels. Enter Zooniverse Backyard Worlds –

“We need your help searching for new objects at the edges of our solar system. In this project, we’ll ask you to help us distinguish real celestial objects from image artifacts in data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The real objects are brown dwarfs and low-mass stars, the Sun’s nearest neighbors. You may find an object closer than Proxima Centauri (the closest star to the Sun) or even discover the Sun’s hypothesized ninth planet, which models suggest might appear in these images.

What are the Sun’s nearest neighbors? You may have heard of Proxima Centauri, the star nearest the sun. But most of the Sun’s nearest neighbors are not stars, but brown dwarfs, balls of gas too big to be called planets but too small to be called stars. We’ve learned by extrapolating from recent discoveries that there is likely a hidden population of brown dwarfs floating by the solar system. This population contains the coldest known brown dwarfs, known as “Y dwarfs,” which are very similar to planets that just don’t orbit other stars. Together, we will try to find these rogue worlds to better understand how both stars and planets form.”

Backyard Worlds needs fresh eyes and plenty of them. Science doesn’t care who you are, what you do or if Kuiper Belt sounds like a foreign language – science needs help. Participants whose efforts lead to discovery will be given full credit. What are you waiting for? Join the search for Planet 9.

A previously cataloged brown dwarf named WISE 0855-0714 shows up as a moving orange dot (upper left) in this loop of WISE images spanning 5 years. By viewing movies like this, anyone can help discover more brown dwarfs or even a 9th planet. Image via ASU/ NASA/WISE.

Landing On Pluto

Last week NASA released a video compilation of New Horizons 2015 landing on Pluto.

What would it be like to actually land on Pluto? This movie was made from more than 100 images taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft over six weeks of approach and close flyby in the summer of 2015. The video offers a trip down onto the surface of Pluto — starting with a distant view of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon — and leading up to an eventual ride in for a “landing” on the shoreline of Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planitia.
To create a movie that makes viewers feel as if they’re diving into Pluto, mission scientists had to interpolate some of the panchromatic (black and white) frames based on what they know Pluto looks like to make it as smooth and seamless as possible. Low-resolution color from the Ralph color camera aboard New Horizons was then draped over the frames to give the best available, actual color simulation of what it would look like to descend from high altitude to Pluto’s surface.
After a 9.5-year voyage covering more than three billion miles, New Horizons flew through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015, coming within 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) of Pluto. Carrying powerful telescopic cameras that could spot features smaller than a football field, New Horizons sent back hundreds of images of Pluto and its moons that show how dynamic and fascinating their surfaces are. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The original black-and-white “landing” movie can be viewed at:…

Titan Touchdown

On January 11, 2017 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory ( JPL ) released “Titan Touchdown”, a short video of stoic little probe Huygens landing on Saturn’s moon Titan. A video marking the 12th anniversary of January 14, 2005, the day Huygens bravely marched into history as the furthest ever landing from Earth. The day Huygens met fate in a blaze of glory, making the most of precious minutes until Titan claimed it for eternity.

The Cassini-Huygens mission holds a place in my heart – RIP Huygens, your sacrifice won’t be forgotten.

Draugr, Poltergeist and Phobetor

January 9, 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of Exoplanet discovery. On this day in 1992 the science journal Nature published a paper by astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail detailing first confirmation of planets orbiting a star beyond our solar system. That star was a pulsar, 2300 light years away in the constellation Virgo, known as PSR B127+12. Pulsars are maelstroms of fast spinning highly magnetized solar remnants created when mass at the moment of supernova isn’t enough to make a black hole. Instead the outer layer blasts to oblivion, leaving an inner core of dense material exerting unimaginable gravitational force. Spinning countless times per second, those maintaining angular momentum become pulsars – distinguished by intense beams of radio emissions several times a second, similar to a lighthouse beacon.

At Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico Frail and Wolszczan witnessed regular dimming of the pulsar beacon, split second interruptions caused by orbiting planets. Two planets, PSR1257+12b (orbiting once every 66 days) and PSR1257+12c (one orbit every 98 days) became our first proven exoplanets. In 1994 they discovered PSR1257+12d, a tiny third exoplanet orbiting once every 25 days.

In 2015 the International Astronomical Union sponsored a Name Exoworlds contest, 12b, c and d became Draugr, Poltergeist and Phobetor. In 2009 NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope using the same method of light interruption to detect planetary orbits. To date Kepler has identified 2330 of the over 3500 confirmed exoplanets. Happy exoplanet anniversary,

Rosetta’s Life Ends September 30, 2016

As I write, mission control at ESA (European Space Agency) dutifully prepare Rosetta for her assisted suicide. In less than 6 hours (twenty minutes either side of 7:20 am ET to be precise), Rosetta enters controlled descent into the pits of Deir el-Medina on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

“The target area is home to several active pits measuring over 100 meters across and 60 meters deep [about 100 yards wide and 60 yards deep], from which a number of the comet’s dust jets originate. Some of the pit walls also exhibit intriguing meter-sized lumpy structures called ‘goosebumps’, which could be the signatures of early cometesimals [i.e, the building blocks of comets] that agglomerated to create the comet in the early phases of solar system formation. Rosetta’s final descent may afford detailed close-up views of these features.” – ESA

NASA television (first link below) is airing Rosetta’s descent live.

Another NASA link below, offers additional live viewing options and links to dedicated mission details –

Rosetta will crash into the Ma’at region of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The yellow ellipse marks an approximate outline of the 700- × 500-meter (700- x 500-yard) target area. Image via ESA.

Artist's concept of Rosetta

Artist’s concept of Rosetta shortly before hitting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Sept. 30, 2016. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab
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One Million Miles Away

On February 11, 2015  NOAA launched DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory) at Cape Canaveral, Florida courtesy a Space X Falcon 9 rocket. Never destined for glories of Hubble, Rosetta or the Mars Orbiter,  DSCOVR’s  launch was a victory in itself. Conceived in 1998 by NASA under then Vice President Al Gore, DSCOVR was born Triana for Rodrigo de Triana, first of Columbus’s men to spot land in the Americas.

NASA development of Triana began with Al Gore’s vision of live Earth views available 24/7 via the internet. Pre “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore wanted to raise global awareness of Earth, update Apollo 17’s iconic “Blue Marble” image of our planet, and establish irrefutable scientific markers of global warming. In orbit a million miles away – able to capture a full Earth image every two hours, a sentry to monitor solar wind, coronal mass ejections, changes in ozone levels, concentrations of atmospheric dust and volcanic ash, cloud height and vegetation fluctuations.

Triana never left the launch pad. In 1999 NASA Inspector General (to be clear – NASA Office of Inspector General is a product of the Inspector General Act of 1978 – one of many independent investigative/audit units created to police 63 Federal agencies ) reported that “the basic concept of the Triana mission was not peer reviewed”, and “Triana’s added science may not represent the best expenditure of NASA’s limited science funding. Triana went down in flames with the election of George W. Bush. I suspect he took pleasure in silencing Gore’s pet project. Bush placed it on “hold”, stubbornly unmoved by a Congress funded report from the National Academy of Sciences in 2000 stating the mission was “strong and scientifically vital”. Triana gathered dust until 2008 heralded the end of Bush rule.

Final chapter of the Bush era led to push and shove from Al Gore. NASA renamed the project DSCOVR, and in 2011 Obama pitched funding of the mission as a replacement for antiquated solar observatory Advanced Composition Explorer, launched in 1997. In 2013 NASA was given the green light to proceed toward a launch date in 2015. On June 8, 2015 DSCOVR started broadcasting on the DSCOVR EPIC website, linked below –

Pondering why humanity chooses to stifle exploration of the cosmos hurts my head. War mongering, religious oppression, systematic denial of science, opportunistic corporate meddling – no excuse excuses the absurdity of blind eyes to the universe. Our world is not a product of politics or religion, we owe it to ourselves to understand what makes it tick.