Strange asteroid may have been born in another star system

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Strange Asteroid May Be A Permanent Alien Guest

strange asteroid 2015 BZ509

The strange asteroid 2015 BZ509 (circled), which may have been born orbiting another star before getting kicked out and joining our Solar System. [Credit: C. Veillet/LBTO]

For Forbes:

Last fall, an asteroid we named ʻOumuamua passed through the Solar System. Its visit marked the first time we’ve identified an object inside the Solar System that definitely came from outside. However, a new study argues that we might have a more permanent interstellar guest: a weird asteroid called 2015 BZ509.

Thousands of asteroids swarm around Jupiter’s orbit, but they all orbit the same direction as the giant planet except 2015 BZ509. This weirdo orbits the opposite direction — “retrograde” in technical terms — at a highly tilted angle. Fathi Namouni and Helena Morais performed a computer simulation which demonstrates that 2015 BZ509 could stay in its orbit for billions of years, but it’s unlikely it formed there when the rest of the Solar System was born. Instead, the authors argue, it probably originated outside the Solar System and drifted in, where it was captured by gravity.

[Read the rest at Forbes]

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An astronomical saga of star births, pancakes, and Kylo Ren

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.

The Hidden Depths Of The Dark Cloud Hiding Newborn Stars

For Forbes:

The third dimension is one of the biggest obstacles in astronomy. We see the stars, but we don’t know how far away they are without some additional information, which requires scientific cleverness. And when the object we’re studying is a nebula — a cloud of gas or dust — we only see its profile, not its full three-dimensional shape. But a new paper shows that, in some cases, we might be able to deduce the full shape of a nebula by how it vibrates: a kind of magnetic nebulaquake.

Astrophysicists Aris Tritsis and Konstantinos Tassis compared a sophisticated computer simulation to observational data on an object called the “Musca molecular cloud”, also known as the “Dark Doodad”. (“Musca” is the name of the constellation where it’s found, which means “the fly”. It’s only visible in the Southern Hemisphere.) They found that even though the Doodad looks like a filament, it’s actually more like a pancake that we’re seeing edge-on. Beyond the curiosity aspect (who wouldn’t want to study the Dark Doodad?), this result is important for understanding how stars are born.

[Read the rest at Forbes…]

Testing Einstein’s theory with a new space probe to Mercury

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And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.

New Mercury Space Probe Will Put Einstein’s Gravity To The Test

orbit of Mercury, including effects from general relativity and other planets in the Solar System

The orbit of Mercury, including effects from general relativity and other planets in the Solar System. I’ve exaggerated the effect for easy viewing; in real life, the orbit is very nearly an ellipse. [Credit: Matthew R Francis]

For Forbes:

Despite the discovery of other galaxies, black holes and other marvelous astronomical bodies, we keep returning to the orbits of planets to understand gravity at its most basic. Partly that’s simplicity: We’re inside the Solar System and can make measurements without spending billions of dollars or building virtual observatories the size of the whole planet. But that doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted all the ways to learn about gravity from the dance of the planets.

In a new paper in Physical Review Letters, University of Florida physicist Clifford Will showed that the upcoming BepiColombo space probe may be able to test an aspect of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, that’s been out of reach so far. This effect comes from the gravity of other planets in the Solar System, leading to a tiny shift in Mercury’s orbit. But small doesn’t mean unimportant: If general relativity needs to be modified on this tiny level, the BepiColombo probe may be able to spot that discrepancy.

[Read the rest at Forbes…]

Thinking scientists are smarter than other people hurts us

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I’ve started contributing to the Forbes Science page again! This is my second new contribution; stay tuned for plenty more. (And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.)

No, Scientists Are Not Smarter Than Non-Scientists

For Forbes:

Often when I mention I have a PhD in physics and astronomy, the response I get from people is “oh, you must be so smart” or “you’re smarter than I am”. (If it’s a medical doctor, the response is usually “I hated physics in college!”, but that’s a different story.) In general, people tend to associate science with “braininess”, often in addition to other less desirable traits. You could reasonably ask if I’m so smart, why I’m a freelance journalist who is perpetually short on money. But this isn’t about me in particular: it’s more about the way society (at least in the United States and like-minded nations) sees scientists versus non-scientists.

Science writer Kat Arney delved into this issue in detail in a recent column for the (UK) Royal Society of Chemistry. As she points out, the problems with the “brainy scientist” stereotype are manifold: that science is a meritocracy, and that non-scientists are somehow less valuable.

[Read the rest at Forbes…]

The gravitational waltz of the Milky Way’s satellites

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I’ve started contributing to the Forbes Science page again! This is my first new contribution, relating to the second data release from the Gaia survey telescope. (And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.)

Plotting The Three-Dimensional Dance Of Galaxies

A map of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, globular clusters, and other objects in orbit. [Credit: ESA/Gaia]

For Forbes:

The European Space Agency’s Gaia telescope is designed to map the position and speed of a billion stars in the Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies. In fact, some of those galaxies are satellites, which whirl around our home galaxy in a complicated dance. Part of Gaia’s mission is to help us understand that dance.

Many of these satellite galaxies actually orbit inside the halo of the mysterious, invisible dark matter that makes up most of the Milky Way’s mass. For that reason, the dance of the satellites tells us about the structure of the Milky Way, along with the shared history and evolution of all the galaxies involved. The Gaia space telescope’s second data release from last week allowed astronomers to map out the positions and motion of stars inside eleven satellite galaxies, along with other star clusters. The result: new estimate on the mass of the Milky Way, and a fully three-dimensional map of nearly 90 objects in orbit around our galaxy.

[Read the rest at Forbes]

To know if there are aliens, we need to ask the right questions

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Are We Alone in the Universe?

Panel from “Are we alone?”, a comic written by me with art by Maki Naro. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

How can we know if life exists elsewhere in the cosmos? To answer that question, we have to place Earth — and Earth life — in the context of other worlds in the Solar System and beyond. In my latest comic for The Nib with Maki Naro, we look at the science of planetary chemistry and the conditions of habitability as we know them, with the help of Johns Hopkins astrochemist Sarah Hörst and American Astronomical Society Public Policy Fellow Ashlee Wilkins.

Space Wombats and Penguin Poop: Spying on Animals from Orbit

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Penguin Spotting, and Other Cool Satellite Tricks

You’d be surprised what you can see from 300 miles up

For Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine:

At first glance the picture might be an abstract oil painting or, less artistically, poppy seeds scattered on cream cheese. The “cheese” in this case is a field of ice off the coast of Antarctica, and the black seeds are emperor penguins. The photo was taken from space, and is a good example of how satellite imagery is helping biologists study wildlife populations in new ways. No scientist needed to set foot near the penguin colony or fly an airplane overhead: High-resolution images from an orbiting QuickBird satellite were good enough to monitor the colony’s health over time.

“The advent of remote sensing allows us basically to see some of these areas that you physically cannot get to, no matter how hard you try,” says Michelle LaRue of the University of Minnesota. She and her colleagues use high-resolution images purchased from DigitalGlobe, Inc., one of a few private companies that license satellite imagery to governments and academic researchers. Other scientists use free satellite images from Landsat and other government-run programs. Although those tend to be lower in resolution, they demonstrate how remote sensing is important for the literal big picture: The huge areas of land surveyed by satellite make possible research that couldn’t be done otherwise. That’s true whether the location is (like Antarctica) hard to get to, in a conflict zone, heavily populated, or just too darn big.

[Read the rest at Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine…]