Category Archives: Astronomy

Astrononomy Photographer of the Year



The winning images from the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012 were announced today and as you might expect, they’re absolutely stunning. Organised by the Royal Observatory in conjunction with the Sky at Night magazine and Flickr, every single one of the pictures is fantastic.

Nearly 700 pictures were submitted to Flickr for 2012 and you can see them all in the Flickr Group Pool for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year. There’s an endless supply of background images when you include the previous year’s entrants.

Milky Way Reflected in Tioga Lake
Photograph by Rick Whiteacre. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The BBC is showing off some of the photographs from the competition in a narrated presentation that’s well worth a watch as well.

The photographs are on show at the Royal Observatory through to 17 February 2013.


Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012



I won’t try to write a eulogy or a tribute.  I will leave that up to people who know more than me, but I did want to take a moment to post a tribute of some sort to the man who inspired a whole new generation of explorers.  Without Neil Armstrong so many things we take for granted now may never have happened.  He had the courage to take that “first step”, in more ways than just the obvious one.


Stars “Scream” When Devoured by Black Hole



“In space… no one can hear you scream….” Or, maybe they can. Scientists from the University of Michigan have been able to detect an oscillating signal that occurs as a star is devoured by a previously dormant supermassive black hole.

The event was documented with the Suzaku and XMM-Newton orbiting X-ray telescopes. They picked up semi-regular “blips” in the light from a galaxy located 3.9 billion light years away from the constellation known as Draco the dragon. The proper name for the “blips” is “quasiperiodic oscillations”. The scientists noted that the quasiperiodic oscillations were happening every 200 seconds, and occasionally would disappear.

The cause of the “blips” was due to a black hole eating a star that has had its gravity broken apart. In short, the star forms an accretion disk that surrounds the black hole. The scientists looked at x-rays that allowed them to see emissions coming from the disk extremely close to the black hole. This is what produces a quasiperiodic wobble. The researchers compare it to the sound of an ultra-low D-sharp note.

John Miller is an astronomy professor at the University of Michigan, and a co-author of the paper about the quasiperiodic oscillations that was recently published in Science Express. He said:

“You can think of it as hearing the star scream as it gets devoured, if you like”.

Personally, that isn’t something I want to think about. There is something inherently creepy about the concept of a star “screaming” as it is being devoured by a black hole. Imagine the sound of that ultra-low D-sharp as you watch this NASA animation of a black hole devouring a star.


Astronomers Spot Oldest Galaxy, Has Crazy Fast Star Birth



More than a decade ago the Hubble Space Telescope snapped an image that has since been referred to as “the most important picture ever taken”.  It’s real name is the Hubble Deep Field (you may want to watch this video before reading on).  While the image may seem old in this fast moving world of technology, it’s not even an eye-blink when compared to it’s subject matter – the farthest astronomers have seen in the universe, and into the past.

The folks at the Max Planck Institute have been studying the image almost since it was taken in 1995.  Mostly they have been focusing on the brightest galaxy in the picture, known by the catchy name of HDF850.1.  That galaxy represents the furthest object, and consequently the oldest, ever seen.  The fact is, HDF850.1 is 12.6 billion light years away, meaning that in the Hubble image we see the galaxy as it was 12.6 billion years ago, which is a mere 1.1 billion years after the universe began.

The galaxy, known as a starburst galaxy, is (or was) producing stars at the staggering rate of about a thousand suns per year.  The Register points out that the Planck institute, “had to use IRAM interferometer, and the Jansky Very Large Array, a giant compound radio telescope in New Mexico, USA” to verify their findings.  The official announcement of the discovery will be published in the next issues of Nature.

Source: Space.com

Photo Credit: M16 Eagle Nebula from Big Stock Photo


Evidence of Massive Cosmic Blast 1,200 Years Ago – Cause Unknown



Mysterious and Massive Radiation Event 1200 1200 Years Ago

Japanese physicists have identified a mysterious blast of high-energy radiation that struck Planet Earth more than 1,200 years ago – some 20 times larger than normal variations. The cosmic origins of this ancient and massive radiation event, however, are still unknown.

Cosmic-ray physicists from Japan’s Nagoya University, led by Fusa Miyake, discovered the radioactive event – said to have occurred between 774 and 773 AD – based on carbon dating performed on ancient trees.

Their investigation of tree rings from that era show a 20% increase in levels of the 14C isotope over the course of a year. Those isotopes, according Nature.com, are formed “when highly energetic radiation from outer space hits atoms in the upper atmosphere, producing neutrons. These collide with nitrogen-14, which then decays to 14C.”

What happened is clear, but why it happened seems anything but. The usual suspects for this radioactive spike are supernova explosions or solar flares. According to Miyake and his team, both are unlikely culprits considering no other recorded evidence exists of such massive events.

The search for the cause behind this massive cosmic event will likely send scientists to pore through historical data to find any correlative events that might clear things up. Either way – the trees don’t lie (they can’t). Something huge happened 1,200 years ago.

Photo: Solar Flare from Big Stock Photo


Meteor Explodes Over California



While news reports have been scant, there was a major cosmic event over California and Nevada this past Sunday.  A meteor weighing approximately 70 tons rocketed across the sky at a stunning 33,500 mph and exploded in the atmosphere.  The meteor sighting was reported by residents of both states and those in California also reported the explosion, which rattled house windows across a large area of the state and also set off building and car alarms.

The meteor, which was roughly the size of a minivan, although much heavier due to the density, and traveling at such a high velocity, was estimated by the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office to have exploded with the force of roughly3.8 kilotons of TNT.

While NASA is busy mapping earth-threatening asteroids, one of this size is difficult to spot in advance.  Thankfully most asteroids in this range are likely to burn up upon entry into earth’s atmosphere, as this one did.  Some experts think that it could have possibly scattered tiny pieces of debris across the Sierra Nevada mountains, but no fragments were likely large enough to do any damage.  You can check out the video below.


Fireball Seen in Skies Over New Zealand



Eyewitness reports have been pouring in about sightings of a meteor in the skies above New Zealand.  The fireball passed over large population areas like Wellington and Christchurch giving the opportunity for anyone with a camera handy to grab shots.  The pictures have been piling up at the WeatherWatch site for the kiwi nation.  One eyewitness reported seeing an “object the size of a helicopter on fire.”  Others across the island nation have submitted reports about seeing the object, which seems to have been visible across a large portion of the country.

The meteor was likely a lone incident as the earth is not currently passing through any showers right now, although the Lyrids is coming up in about three weeks.  The meteor probably burned up in earth’s atmosphere as there are no reports of an impact.  If more information comes in I will add an update to this post.  I have also sent a message to the “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait to see if he has additional insight.

Picture Credit: Channel 3 News via Web Pro News