The Moon

photo taken by me

Last night I got to go observing for the first time! We used telescopes to look at three different astronomical objects, but my favorite thing to look at was the Moon. It was in the waxing gibbous phase, but it was so close to being full that it looked like a perfect circle (see the picture above). It was so cool to see it up close, that I just had to write a blog post about it!

How did the Moon come to be? Astronomers think that our moon is the result of a giant impact. A large, Mars-sized planetesimal likely collided with a molten Earth, sending the outer layers flying into space. These pieces then clumped together into orbit around Earth, creating the Moon! The composition of the Moon is very similar to that of Earth’s outer layers, supporting this formation theory.  

What is the surface of the Moon like? The Moon is a rocky, heavily cratered place. Most of the impact craters are a result of heavy bombardment, which occurred during the first few hundred million years of our solar system’s history. There are two distinct areas on the Moon’s surface. The lunar highlands have so many craters that they are almost on top of each other. The younger lunar maria consist of few craters (this is the darker surface on the Moon). The relatively smooth surface is a result of past volcanic activity that covered up many of the impact craters. The Moon is now a geologically dead place, and it has been since the maria formed. Its small size means it has lost all of the internal heat it gained from accretion and differentiation, so no geological activity is able to occur. The only ongoing change to its surface is sandblasting, in which sand-sized particles from space create the powdery lunar soil on the surface. This means that footprints left by astronauts will remain on the surface of the Moon for millions of years!

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The Drake Equation

Are we alone in the universe? Revisiting the Drake equation

Are we alone in the universe? This is the question that has driven years of space exploration and innovation. Humans have always wondered if there are other advanced civilizations similar to our own. Unfortunately, we lack technology that is advanced enough to know for certain. But in 1961, astronomer Frank Drake wrote an equation that led us closer to answering this question. The Drake equation combines multiple factors in order to calculate the number of advanced civilizations capable of interstellar communication. The formula for the Drake equation is as follows:

N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

N is the number of advanced civilizations capable of interstellar communication

R* is the rate of star formation

fp is the fraction of stars that have planets

ne is the number of habitable planets per star

fl is the fraction of habitable planets that actually develop life

fi is the fraction of planets with life in which the life is intelligent

fc is the fraction of intelligent civilizations that have the ability to communicate

L is the average amount of time that these civilizations can communicate for

As you can see, the Drake equation is complex. While having an equation may make it seem like it would be easy to calculate the number of advanced civilizations, that’s not quite the case. We can’t know for sure what many of the values in the Drake equation are, so we have to make educated guesses. Really, this equation is an estimation tool. Maybe one day, our technology will become advanced enough to actually find these potential civilizations. Until then, it’s all a hypothetical. 

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Blog 8: 51 Pegasi

In this blog post, I’m going to be discussing more of what we learned from Unit 4, specifically about the Doppler method. As we all now know, the Doppler method is a critical tool for detecting extrasolar planets. It searches for a star’s orbital movement around a center of mass by looking for changing Doppler shifts in its spectrum. Alternating blueshifts and redshifts indicate orbital motion around the center of mass. Doppler data allows us to determine a planet’s approximate max because a more massive planet has a greater gravitational effect on the star and then causes the star to move at higher speeds around the center of mass. Typically, once a potential exoplanet is detected using the Doppler method, it requires confirmation using other techniques, such as the transit method (detecting the dimming of a star as a planet passes in front of it) or direct imaging (capturing the light from the planet itself).

Now that we’ve refreshed on the principles of the Doppler method, let’s look at some examples of how it’s been used in the past to discover extrasolar planets. In the early 1990s, scientists started used the Doppler method to search for extrasolar planets when technology started advancing to detect the subtle changes in stars’ spectra caused by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets. They studied 51 Pegasi, a Sun-like star about 50 light years away from Earth, which is in the constellation Pegasus. It was fairly convenient since it is relatively close and bright. Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, two Swiss astronomers, used the Elodie spectrograph in France to observe 51 Pegasi. After studying it for several months, they detected the alternating blue and red shifts, which indicated that the star was moving towards and away from earth due to the gravitational influence of an orbiting planet. By analyzing the magnitude of the Doppler shifts, they could conclude that it was a planet orbiting the star. However, it surprised them that the planet was half the mass of Jupiter but orbited so close to the star, with an orbit of roughly four days. 

Image source

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Life on Mars?

Photo from New Space Economy

Does life/did life once exist in areas of the solar system outside of our home planet Earth? In trying to answer this question, we turn to our closest neighbor and most likely candidate, Mars. As of right now, there is no evidence, past or present, that Mars has ever been home to life. That being said, however, the field of astrobiology is still incredibly young, and we have yet to fully unpack all Mars potentially has to show us. While there is no clear evidence of life having existed on Mars, there are reasons to believe it may still be true. For example, there is strong evidence that there was once liquid water on Mars, and that the planet was once much warmer like Earth. There has also been igneous material found on the Red Planet, which we know to have energy-rich substrates that could be conducive to life. While Mars seems to be mostly geologically dead, it has been most unexplored, and humans have of course still never landed on it. As astrobiology advances, perhaps we will uncover new evidence in the coming years of life having existed on Mars. You can find out more about it here. While it is unlikely that “Martians” are roaming around the planet undetected, signs of extraterrestrial life would be monumental in the growing idea that alien life beyond our planet could not only exist, but be highly advanced given ideal circumstances.

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Blog 7: Thermophiles!

In this blog, I’m going to be discussing all things thermophiles!

Thermophiles are organisms that are found in really hot temperatures (60 degrees Celsius – 140 degrees Celsius). Found these organisms aren’t simply found there… they thrive there! Thermophiles typically inhabit a variety of extreme ecological sites, usually hot springs like in Yellowstone National Park or in hydrothermal vents under the deep sea. They can also be found in tectonically active fault lines of the earth, volcanic sites, or decomposition sites like compost piles. One example of a thermophile is a Bacillus stearothermophilus. This type of bacterium is rod-shaped, belongs to the division Firmicutes (which plays a significant role in the relationship between gut bacteria and human health), and causes spoilage in food products. 

Image source

Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of Geobacillus stearothermophilus (formerly known as Bacillus stearothermophilus), Gram-positive, rod, spore-forming prokaryote. G. stearothermophilus is a thermophile and is widely distributed in soil, hot springs, ocean sediment, and is a cause of spoilage in food products. It is commonly used as a challenge organism for sterilization validation studies and periodic checks of sterilization cycles. First described in 1920 as Bacillus stearothermophilus, it was reclassified in 2001 and is now officially a member of the genus Geobacillus. Spores of bacteria allow the bacteria to survive harsh conditions until the time when the bacterium can grow and reproduce. Magnification: x1,865 when shortest axis printed at 25 millimetres.

The reason these organisms can survive under these extreme conditions is due to a variety of factors. For starters, their cell membrane is made of a very fatty material that is highly temperature dependent and exhibits phase transition upon temperature condition. Therefore, the membrane permeability and growth of its body is controlled by the environmental temperature shifts. Additionally, the linkages that form the cell membrane are branded in a structure that enhances thermal stability that helps the bacteria survive in harsh conditions. The bacterium also have higher amounts of charged amino acids in their surface proteins that form intermolecular bridges, which provides further stability. 

There are two types of thermophiles: obligate thermophiles and facultative thermophiles. Obligates need high temperatures to grow and thrive in their environments, while facultative thermophiles can thrive at high temperatures as well as lower ones.

Thermophiles play a role in our environment for a few reasons. They can help in the immobilization of heavy metals in the soil and can also be helpful in the degradation of reactive textiles. They can also help convert biomass to biofuels in various habitats/regions.  

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Are we there yet??🚀

In my entire life, I have never traveled outside of the country. Most people on Earth have never traveled off of Earth. And none of us have ever traveled outside of our Solar System! We know that travel to the Moon is possible, but is it possible to visit worlds in other planetary systems? Is it as easy as they make it seem in movies?

There are so many challenges that make interstellar travel difficult. Since it’s so hard to even get close to the speed of light, space travel will take an incredibly long time to even reach the closest star system. Our Universe has a speed limit of 3×10^8 m/s (aka the speed of light!), and the fastest going engine that humans have been able to invent so far is still tens of thousands of times slower than that. To even get close to the speed of light, we will need to design new engines that have insanely high energy requirements (we would probably need more energy than our Earth uses in one year to make a spacecraft half the speed of light… that’s a lot to ask for).

The craziest thing I learned from our textbook is that when traveling at such high speeds is that time will be much slower there than on Earth due to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Maybe it would only take a few years to travel to another star, but so many more years would pass on Earth during the few years we spend traveling!! It’s almost scary to imagine traveling to space, because even if I only took a quick one-year space trip, when I return to Earth, everyone I know would be way older than me. (but is that really a bad thing?)

Parker Solar Probe is the fastest spacecraft so far, traveling around 200km/hr!! (image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

We’ve launched five spaceships into space so far, but unfortunately due to all these barriers, they will not be returning anytime soon. Space travel is incredibly difficult, but astronomers are constantly working towards making better spacecraft designs and figuring out other ways we can learn about our vast Universe. 🚀

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Blog 6 – Artemis II

NASA announced the Artemis II mission, which will launch no earlier than September 2025. This mission will take 4 astronauts (Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, Jeremy Hansen) to our moon. This mission will be NASA’s first crewed flight test of the Space Launch Rocket System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. The purpose of this mission is to verify our capabilities for further deep space and lunar exploration. They will orbit the moon for 10 days.

This mission builds upon the success of Artemis I, and will pave the way so, hopefully, the first woman will be able to land on the moon for Artemis III! This mission is vital in NASA’s continuation of space and lunar exploration. These missions without the intention of discovery are just as vital: without them, deep space discoveries could not be made.

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How do we discover Exoplanets?

Depiction of Astrometry

For this blog I wanted to look into exoplanets and more specifically how we discover them. I found that there are 4 main methods to discover exoplanets. The first is the radial velocity method. This is how many of the first exoplanets were discovered. This method observes the doppler shift in the light of stars that are caused from a planet rotating around it. The next method is transit photometry. This is the method we have learned about in class, where orbiting planets cause dips in light levels of distant stars. Microlensing is another method that is particularly interesting as it is unrepeatable. Microlensing works when one star crosses behind another and the closer star bends the light. If the closer star has an exoplanet there will be a spike in the levels of the bending light. The last method is astrometry. Astrometry tracks the precise movements of stars themselves and by detecting minuscule wobbles about the center of mass we can detect exoplanets. Even after learning about these methods, detecting planets light years away is still mind blowing. I would like to further research the origins of these clever techniques and learn more about what led scientists to invent these methods.

Sources: NASA, BBC

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Yesterday, (April 08, 2024), a group of friends and I drove up to Vienna, Illinois to observe the solar eclipse in totality. It was one of the best experiences in my life, and I think that getting to see such a beautiful and interesting astronomical phenomena in person is life-changing. Because totality only lasted for a minute or so, I did not feel like trying to take many pictures as the camera does not do it justice!!!! it truly looked like there was a hole in the sky.

is it sunset hour… or is there just an eclipse?? (image credit: me)

It was magical, and especially trippy, that I could see the world get dimmer and feel it getting colder as the Sun got covered up slowly. Observing the Sun slowly get covered with our eclipse glasses was so beautiful. The entire park cheered when the sun got completely engulfed. It looked like sunset hour during totality!!!

HOLE IN THE SKY!!! (image credit: my friend)

I feel so lucky that I got to experience the solar eclipse this year. This might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, unless I get to see the next one in 20 years.

me watching the sun get covered!!! (image credit: my friend)
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Pluto, The Hated One

Blog Post #5 – Pluto, The Hated One

Pluto, our beloved cosmic underdog, has had a rollercoaster of a journey in the astronomical community. Once considered the ninth planet of our solar system, it was demoted in 2006 to “dwarf planet” status, much to the dismay of Pluto enthusiasts worldwide. But don’t let its diminutive classification fool you—Pluto is a fascinating world brimming with mysteries and surprises. With its heart-shaped glacier, named Tombaugh Regio after its discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, and a variety of complex surface features, Pluto continues to capture our imaginations and challenge our understanding of planetary science. It’s like the solar system’s favorite little sibling: small, but full of character and unpredictability.

Exploring Pluto is like delving into a cosmic detective story. Its surface is coated in nitrogen ice, with towering mountains and vast plains that hint at a geologically active past. And then there’s the question of its atmosphere: thin and tenuous, yet it expands and contracts with Pluto’s elliptical orbit around the sun. The New Horizons mission in 2015 gave us our first close-up look at this enigmatic world, revealing a landscape more dynamic and diverse than many had anticipated. Despite being relegated to the outer reaches of our solar system, Pluto remains a key piece in the puzzle of our cosmic neighborhood, proving that even the smallest planets can hold the biggest secrets.

Pluto, The Hated One

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