“It’s Like The Universe Was Talkin’ To Me” – Neil Tyson’s First Visit To The Hayden Planetarium

“It’s as though you were locked in a room your whole life and then somebody opens a window.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

11-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson with his first telescope (NOVA)

11-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson with his first telescope (NOVA)

Do you remember your first telescope? Your first trip to a planetarium or observatory? Astrophysicist and Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey host Neil deGrasse Tyson does, and in this installment of NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers he shares his memories of seeing the Universe on the Hayden Planetarium’s big screens for the first time, and then receiving his own first telescope a couple of years later.

Obviously, they made quite the impression on young Neil.

“Saturn has rings! Oh my gosh the Moon has craters! Things you’ve heard about and read about, but to experience them yourself becomes a singular moment in your life. You are there in the Universe.”

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The Details Are In The Dunes

HiRISE image of frosty Martian dunes acquired on Jan. 24, 2014 (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

HiRISE image of frosty Martian dunes acquired on Jan. 24, 2014 (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

And what details! This image, acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Jan. 24, 2014, shows rippled dunes in Mars’ southern hemisphere, coated with a fall dusting of seasonal carbon dioxide frost. With the Sun just five degrees above the horizon, the surface detail captured by HiRISE is simply exquisite.

Be sure to click the image for a high-resolution version.

The original image resolution is just over 50 cm per pixel, so details about 151 cm (5 feet) wide are resolved. See the full image area here, and view the original post on the University of Arizona’s HiRISE site here.

MRO launched on August 12, 2005, and has been in orbit around Mars since March 2006. It is currently in its second Extended Mission exploring the surface of Mars.

Have Waves Finally Been Found on Titan’s Lakes?

Sunrise above a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

Illustration of a sunrise above a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

We’ve known for quite some time now that lakes of liquid methane and ethane exist on the frigid surface of Saturn’s overcast moon Titan. While the sheer presence of large amounts of liquid on another world is fascinating, one thing that’s particularly intrigued scientists about these hydrocarbon lakes is their uncanny stillness — in many radar images they appear to be literally as smooth as glass, with no indication of movement or wave action of any sort. And although liquid methane isn’t water and probably behaves differently, with Titan’s substantial atmosphere it only makes sense that some sort of waves would get kicked up across lakes so vast, even from the most moderate seasonal breezes.

Now, a research team led by Jason Barnes of the University of Idaho has released findings showing what might be wave action — however small — captured by instruments aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during several Titan flybys. And with the summer season approaching, this just might mean it’s “surf’s up” on Titan!

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How Does NASA Change a Spacecraft’s Orbit? Easy as Pi.

Cassini couldn't have orbited Saturn these past ten years without pi!

Cassini couldn’t have orbited Saturn these past ten years without pi!

It’s “Pi Day” (March 14… 3.14… get it?) and, based on how we write the date in the U.S. anyway, all those of a sufficiently geeky nature take a moment to honor the universal usefulness of pi, the glorious Greek letter used to represent the mathematical ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

The basics of pi were known to the Babylonians over 4,000 years ago, and a method to determine pi to any degree of accuracy needed was developed by Archimedes in the third century BCE. Now, the value of pi has been calculated to many trillions of decimal places and its practical uses have extended far beyond the surface of our planet, helping engineers plot the orbits of planetary spacecraft and even measure the sizes of planets outside our solar system!

In fact NASA uses pi all the time in various extraterrestrial applications… read more:

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The Glory of Venus

A rainbow-colored "glory" in Venus' atmosphere seen by ESA's Venus Express

A rainbow-colored “glory” in Venus’ atmosphere seen by ESA’s Venus Express

Oh, glorious Venus! How fragrant are your sulphuric skies! How your rainbow clouds do shimmer!

Actually the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of our neighboring planet would be anything but pleasant for humans, but ESA’s Venus Express orbiter did spot some iridescent hues as it flew over. The picture above, made from images acquired on July 24, 2011, show a circular “rainbow” effect known as a glory. It’s the backscattering of sunlight observed around the shadow point of an object when the Sun is directly behind it from the perspective of the observer (in this case, Venus Express itself.)

Glories are often seen here on Earth from aircraft (but sometimes even from the ground within banks of dense fog) and the mechanics of this one on Venus are pretty much the same — except that the composition of Venus’ clouds is very different, leading to a perfect opportunity for science! Read more…

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Hubble Watches As an Asteroid Crumbles

Hubble images of P/2013 R3 acquired from Oct. 2013 to Jan. 2014 Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA). Animation by J. Major.

Hubble images of P/2013 R3 acquired from Oct. 2013 to Jan. 2014 Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA). Animation by J. Major.

Our solar system is an active place, and that is no better illustrated than with these recent observations by the Hubble Space Telescope of asteroid P/2013 R3 breaking apart — and it’s not even disintegrating in Earth’s or any other planet’s atmosphere, but rather as it travels through space 480 million km away from the Sun!

Seen over the course of four months, the breakup of the 200,000-ton space rock is thought to not be the result of an impact event but rather the slight but unyielding force of solar illumination on an already compromised cluster of rubble, barely held together by its own gravity.

“This is a really bizarre thing to observe — we’ve never seen anything like it before,” says co-author Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany. “The break-up could have many different causes, but the Hubble observations are detailed enough that we can actually pinpoint the process responsible.”

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Four Years of SDO

It’s hard to believe it’s already been four years that NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory has kept a watchful eye on our home star, but here we are: 2014, and the four-year anniversary of the Feb. 11 launch has come and gone. Amazing. But what’s even more amazing are all the incredible observations and discoveries SDO has made of the Sun in that relatively short time!

Check out the video above, a compilation from the talented people over at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, showing some of the best solar sights from SDO over the past four years.

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