Voyager Mission

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You may have heard of the twin Voyager spacecraft as the two longest-flying spacecraft ever and the only mission to travel to all four outer planets. However, the original purpose of the Voyager mission was to only study Jupiter and Saturn. The two spacecraft were launched over forty years ago in late 1977. Their launch date was timed perfectly to occur during a special alignment of the four outer planets that only happens every 175 years. During this time, they conducted a series of flybys where the spacecraft flew close enough to the planets to use gravity assist but without being captured. By utilizing the planets’ gravity, the spacecraft were able to “slingshot” from one planet to the next. In fact, Voyager 2’s flight time to Neptune decreased from 30 years to only 12 years!

Voyager 1

As of now, Voyager 1 has traveled the farthest out of any spacecraft. During its time observing Jupiter, it discovered a thin ring as well as Thebe and Metis, two new Jovian moons. One of the most interesting discoveries they encountered on Jupiter was that Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, has active volcanoes. It also discovered a new ring on Saturn and five new moons.

Voyager 2

Voyager 2 was the first ever spacecraft to make it past Uranus and is the only one to study all four giants at such a close distance. Its other major discoveries include finding a new moon on Jupiter, ten new moons on Uranus, and five new moons on Neptune. It also found two new rings on Uranus and four new rings on Neptune along with a “Great Dark Spot.”

In August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space, which is the part of space where the Sun stops having an effect on its surroundings. Voyager 2 later followed in November of 2018. To this day, the Voyager spacecraft are still collecting and sending back data even from over 23 billion kilometers away.

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Blog 3 Falling into Jupiter

What Would You See If You Fell Into Jupiter

Once I got to know about the names of gaseous giants in the outer part of our solar system, I became extremely curious about what the world would look like under their thick atmosphere. The video I shared in this blog provides a perfect fulfillment to my desire of knowing the biggest planet in our solar system: Jupiter. This video vividly simulates the visual feedback during which a person penetrates the atmosphere of Jupiter. As we can discover, the inner Jupiter contains a devastating environment from the perspective of human beings. However, I have to admit that the inner world of Jupiter is not as fascinating as I expected. Although Jupiter is more than 1300 times larger than Earth, the internal environment is relatively simple. In this vast sphere, we cannot see diverse components. Most we can experience if we fell into Jupiter is just endless clouds, winds, increasing pressure and temperatures. Overall, the world of Jupiter reminds me how special the environment of Earth is in the universe.

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Flying by Worlds

Voyager 1 Aircraft (Source)

So how exactly are we able to know so much about the features, terrains, and even atmosphere of the planets and moons of our solar system? Well, one of the main tools used by scientists to explore planets are flybys. In general, flybys are when a spacecraft travel closely past a world for observation and continue on its path. Unlike lander, probes, rovers, or sample return missions, flybys are generally cheaper to fund not only because they are less expensive to launch but also because they can visit multiple planets rather than just one. For example, the Voyager missions, which are probably two of the most famous flybys, observed various worlds beyond their mission scope before exiting our Solar System. Launched just months apart in the summer of 1977, the Voyager aircrafts were created with the goal of exploring Jupiter, Saturn, their rings, and their moons. Nevertheless, the two flybys would go on to explore all Jovian planets, almost 50 of their moons, as well as the rings and magnetic field of the gas giants. Flybys also carry an assortment of tools such as telescopes, cameras, and spectrographs in order to capture the various features of planets during their short period near it. Through the path of flybys and their instruments, we were able to observe many qualities and characteristics of our solar system that would have been close to impossible to observe from Earth; some of these being the ability to capture the highest resolution images of our worlds and the rings of the outer planets from a different view. Flybys are an integral part of our space exploration and will continue to be for years to come.

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Mercury’s Shrinkage

It’s been long thought that of the Fab (Terrestrial) Five, only Earth remains geologically active. However, recent evidence shows that little Mercury, long thought to be tectonically dead, is actually shrinking!

The evidence comes in the form of small troughs (upper arrows in the picture below) and scarps (lower arrows) astronomers were able to photograph on the rocky world’s surface.

Small graben, or narrow linear troughs, have been found associated with small scarps on Mercury
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Smithsonian Institution

But how do scientists know that these markings make for evidence that Mercury is shrinking? Well, they’ve also found similar geological features on the Moon, who also happens to be a metaphorical “twin” of Mercury’s, that show its own shrinkage.

Why are these worlds shrinking though? As the planet cools (yes, cooling! Even despite Mercury being the closest world to the Sun), its interior is condensing, almost as if the planet is crumpling up on itself. That’s why we see these sharp ridges and mountains emerge.

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What’s in Charge of Earth’s Long-Term Climate Change?

Climate change has been worsening, so much so that when news outlets report on it the term sounds like just another buzzword. Current projections of the United States’ future coastlines don’t look at all forgiving. Where did this catastrophe start? Well, to answer that question we have to examine four key factors: solar brightening, changes in axis tilt, changes in reflectivity, and changes in greenhouse gas abundance. This last one probably sounds the most familiar, as it’s the factor that humans can and have had a direct impact on.

Interactive map of coastal flooding impacts from sea level rise | American  Geosciences Institute
Coastline projections for the United States. Credit: American Geosciences Institute

What is solar brightening? Over time, the average amount of solar energy reaching Earth has been increasing, because the Sun is getting brighter over time. This, as one might expect, can cause climates to warm over time as well.

What do changes in axis tilt have to do with climate change? As the Earth spins like a metaphorical top, it’s pulled a little bit by other objects in space, like moons, planets, and the Sun itself. This can cause the axis tilt to grow either less or more extreme, which in turn causes the seasons to be less or more extreme.

What do changes in reflectivity refer to? This refers to the amount of light being absorbed or reflected by the atmosphere. The more reflective a planet is, the less heat it’s trapping and insulating itself with, thus leading to planet cooling. The opposite is true for the less reflective a planet is.

Finally, greenhouse gases. They are crucial to the greenhouse effect, which insulates the planet from the frigid temperatures of space. However, too much of anything is still too much, and with an overabundance of greenhouse gases, the planet would warm, causing water to vaporize and add more gases to the atmosphere, and atmospheric pressures would rise.

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All About Neptune!

Neptune has always been my favorite planet. I don’t know if it’s its pretty blue color, its name, or the fact that I did a project on it in elementary school that drew me towards it, but I’ve always loved Neptune.

Neptune is the 8th planet from the Sun in our Solar System and named for the Roman God of the sea. It is the most dense of the Jovian planets but has the smallest diameter out of them. One of the most interesting parts about Neptune is the weather there. It has extremely fast wind – the fastest in the Solar System – reaching up to about 1,500 mph. One feature often present on Neptune is called the “Great Dark Spot,” which is a fast moving storm visible with a darker hue that was big enough to fit Earth! It was moving westward across the planet until it seemed to disappear a few years later. However, observations have shown that multiple different “Great Dark Spots” have shown up and faded over time, indicating Neptune’s susceptibility to windy, fast-moving storms. Neptune is very far away from the Sun (about 30 times as far as Earth) and has a long orbit of around 165 Earth years. One more fun fact about this planet is that, like Saturn, it actually has rings too! Unlike Saturn’s though, they are inconsistent and unstable, disappearing in a relatively short period of time.

I hope these facts have taught you a little bit more about Neptune and why it is my favorite planet!

Neptune picture

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The Carrington Event

When Dr. G first mentioned the Carrington Event in class, I was equally interested and terrified. The idea that a solar coronal mass ejection could happen today and wreak havoc on electrical grids leading to blackouts and an inability to communicate has now been added to my list of fears (much in the same vein as the Supervolcano under Yellowstone). Despite this scary idea, the story of the Carrington Event is intensely interesting.

Back in 1859, a man named Richard Carrington observed dark sun spots with bright, white patches of light inside them. These white patches of light were actually due to a geomagnetic storm that had a solar coronal mass ejection that hit Earth’s magnetosphere. A few hours after his observation, the effects of the gigantic solar flares were felt on Earth. During this time, the telegraph system was hugely important for transmitting news and information, but this geomagnetic storm made this impossible. The currents flowing through the telegraph wires became too powerful and was even described as fire going through the circuits. Leaving people unable to send messages. Another effect of the Carrington Event was the presence of “Northern Lights,” or Auroras, in unusual places including Australia and the southern U.S. Overall, the Carrington Event was the largest solar storm from the last 500 years and had crazy effects that caused confusion (and cost money) all over the world.

Solar flare from 2012

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Blog 4—Plato’s cosmology

In this blog, I would like to introduce the cosmology of the ancient Athenian philosopher Plato. His cosmology was the first systemic and complete cosmology in the history. He and his most famous student Aristotle both hold the geocentric view of the universe, and their perspectives of the universe were influential in the following thousands of years, although many disagreements exist between their theories.

In Plato’s philosophy, the perfect things only exist in the ideal realm, but not in the reality. The material world is only a defective copy of the ideal world. This concept also applies to his view of our universe. He believes that the universe we live in was created by an artificer named Demiurge, a god who is completely “good” and “fair.” He created the world based on his knowledge about the ideal form of the universe. Unlike our modern understanding of atoms, Plato states that the universe is made up of only four pre-existing basic elements: fire, earth, water, and air. He denies the possibility of multiverse, because he considers the god demiurge used up all the basic elements to create the world, so nothing was available out there for another universe.

In Plato’s model of our solar system, Earth is located at the center. The Sun and all other planets orbit Earth in the complete circular motion. In fact, many ancient philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, worship circle. They regard it as a representation of perfectness. However, an important part in Plato’s cosmology is similar to our modern understanding of the universe: humans are not central. Plato thinks that all the celestial bodies created by demiurge are also eternal gods. Human beings were not created by demiurge directly, but by these celestial bodies in the heaven. The soul of humans was diluted in the creation process. As a result, we are not immortal in the beginning. Nevertheless, Plato still believes that humans are connected to divinity. He says that if humans live proper life to conquer their passions and physical pleasures, they are said to be successfully implementing rational thoughts. As a reward, they will ascend to heaven after they die, and their soul will become eternal just as stars and planets in the universe.

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An Eclipse’s Blinding Beauty

We’ve all been told when we were children to NEVER stare directly into sun. Whether it be our parents, teachers, or someone on tv, right before we were sent out to get our daily exercise, we were made sure to know to avoid making eye contact with that big, bright, bulb in the sky.

But what about when it’s covered? When I first learned about solar eclipses in Mrs. Montano’s 3rd grade science class, being the cunning 10 year old i was, I knew that I had found a loophole that allowed me to stick it to the the adults—you sure can stare directly at the sun! It just has to be during an eclipse. Or so I thought… well technically I wasn’t wrong. Let me explain.

First we must understand that not all solar eclipses are the same. There are 3 main types of solar eclipses: total, annular, and partial. What differentiates the three are the kinds of shadow the moon places on the earth depending on the moon, earth, and sun alignment and distance.

I thought that since the harm from looking directly into the sun was because the powerful sun rays was too strong for your eyes to handle, some “shade” from the moon would cause some sort of buffer that would make it perfectly safe. WRONG… because even though the sun will be blocked, it doesn’t eliminate the solar radiation from the parts that aren’t covered. On top of that, our eyes uses lenses to see, and much like a magnifying glass they are able to focus the remaining rays of light cause damage. What type of damage you ask? Oh just a little something called solar retinopathy. This “eclipse blindness” has no treatment and can lead to blind spots, decrease in vision clarity, and forms of color blindness.

But like I mentioned earlier, solar eclipses are not created equally, and this is where I might have found my loophole. Without a doubt, there is absolutely no time during an annular or partial solar eclipse that you should be looking at the sun without protection. With that being said, during a total eclipses something special happens. For about a 2 minute period during the span of total eclipse at a very specific location on earth, the moon is positioned so that its shadow blocks the entire disk of the sun.

An umbra is the type of shadow that the moon can only produce during a total solar eclipse, and as the picture shows, the umbra only covers a fraction of the earth’s surface area. And for those 2 minutes, those lucky enough to be where that tiny dot will be located, although still risky, will be able to star directly at the sun without protection. But at that point, are you really starring at the sun?

If you’re like me and missed the first time a total eclipse was visible from the United State back on August 21, 2017 since 1979, no worries, we can relive that moment together without having to worry about going blind.

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Reaching Absolute Zero

What Is Absolute Zero in Science?

Our discussion towards the infamous “coldest temperature possible” dates back to the 1700s when French physicist Guillaume Amontons hypothesized that since temperature is the measure of heat in a system, then there must be a lowest possible temperature. But it took 200 years for any significant progress towards reaching that coldest point to begin. After multiple failed attempts and with the help of a high-powered refrigerator type cooling lab, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was successfully able to liquify helium. This research resulted in reaching a temperature only 6 kelvins above absolute zero and won him a Nobel Price in 1913.

Now to better understand the fascination with potential of reaching absolute zero, we must start with origins of the laws of thermodynamics. First proposed by German chemist Walther Nernst, the first law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of conservation of energy, simply put, states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only change form within a closed system. The second law is a little more convoluted. Energy is basically a change in a system or a system’s ability to do what we call work (i.e making things move). With all transfers of energy, “random fluctuations” that we call heat gets created. Because of this randomness when transferring energy referred to as “entropy”, the second law states that all processes increase the overall entropy in the universe. In 1912, Nernst proposed a final law of thermodynamics that built upon the previous two; reaching absolute zero is physically impossible. With the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Plank contesting the validity of the third law, it has been a topic of debate for over a century. Until now.

In 2017, Luis Masanes from University College London decided to put and end to the age old debate telling IFlScience that “We show that you can’t actually cool a system to absolute zero with a finite amount of resources and we went a step further.” So this is what he and his team did. They essential created a relationship between the lowest possible temperature (0 Kelvin) and time resulting in what they call the “speed of cooling.” They believed that they could calculate how long it would take for a system to be cooled to its theoretical limit because of the steps required to remove heat. Think of cooling like “shoveling” out heat to place it in the environment. The amount of “steps” it takes to the cool the system depends on the amount of initial heat and the size of the surrounding “reservoir” the heat can be placed in. Using computational algorithms and mathematical techniques from quantum information theory, they found that absolute zero can only be reached with both infinite steps and an infinite reservoir—two conditions that are not physically possible now or in the foreseeable future.

Just because reaching absolute zero is a lost cause does not mean we can’t get really, really, and I mean really close. Ill leave with a video explaining NASA’s Cold Atom Lab which is capable of hitting temperature a billionth of a degree above absolute zero!

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