Was a Super Moon Responsible for the Sinking of the Titanic?

It has been almost 100 years since the fated RMS Titanic struck an especially large iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland and sank to a depth of 12,500 feet—taking 1,517 passengers and crew along with it.  Since its rediscovery in 1985, the Titanic has been the focus of countless books, shows, and movies, further propelling its fame into the future.  As fans of the 1997 Leonardo Dicaprio / Kate Winslet movie get geared up for the rerelease of the ultimate blockbuster, a hypothesis emerges that puts a new spin on the theories of what brought that unsinkable ship to its knees.

Donald Olson, an astronomer and physics faculty member at Texas State University, in San Marcos, believes he may have a good idea of what set off a chain of events that would eventually lead one giant ship and one superior iceberg to the same point at the same time. For Olson, the answer lies with the moon, and more specifically, the astronomical phenomenon that is a super moon

Following in the footsteps of Fergus J. Wood, the oceanographer who first surmised that the proximity of the moon to Earth around the time of the crash played a role in the disaster, Olson and his collaborator Russell Doescher decided to take a deeper look at the astronomical events occurring around the crash of the Titanic.  According to Wood, January 4, 1912 (just three months before the April 14 accident) experienced an exceptionally close full moon—closer than it had been for 1,400 years.  That, combined with the effect of a “spring tide,” another phenomenon that causes higher than usual high tides and lower than usual low tides, would dish out a heavy heaping of astronomical sway.

So what does this all have to do with the Titanic? A lot, according to the researchers.  All this tug and pull on the earth’s currents have been known to dislodge ice bergs from their origins and carry them across ocean currents. But to reach the Titanic’s path, that would take some time. So much time that others are not so easily persuaded that the January 4 moon had anything to do with anything.  Astronomer Geza Gyuk is skeptical about this theory, believing that even if the moon had anything do with the ice berg’s movement, the rise in tide would not be enough to yank the block of ice from its Greenlandic fjord. 

But as Olson explains, it would only take a small rise in tide to dislodge a giant ice berg that had stranded itself in shallow water closer to the point of impact.  “Suppose you pull a rowboat to a beach,” Olson clarifies.  “It doesn’t have to be much of a higher tide to refloat the rowboat.”  Supposed is the story of the Titanic’s iceberg.  Even a slight rise in tide levels could be enough to set the ice berg in motion and carry it into a much stronger current. And there is plenty of evidence that suggests that the early months of 1912 saw a heavy helping of ice bergs in the North Atlantic shipping lane. It is approximated that 300 ice bergs shared the same path as boats like the Titanic in that same month—an amount unmatched since 50 years before.

“Normally, ice bergs remain in place and cannot resume moving southward until they’ve melted enough to refloat or a high enough tide frees them,” Olson and his research team said in a statement to the press.  “A single iceberg can become stuck multiple times on its journey southward, a process that can take several years.”  Perhaps the journey of the ice berg began long before anyone has previously thought, inching its way down around the coast of Greenland and Baffin Island, moving with the Labrador current and just grazing the top of Newfoundland before setting itself firmly in the path of Titanic, waiting for collision.  A trek so long awaited and with such devastating consequences, it would make for a great movie.


Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:.titanic..jpeg

Astronomers Discover New Planet That Could Be Inhabitable

Astronomers have announced the discovery of a new planet just outside our solar system that they believe could potentially be inhabitable. The planet, which is being referred to by scientists as HD85512b for the time being, was discovered along with approximately 50 other planets.

The discovery was announced on Monday at a conference in Moran, Wyoming. Unlike the other planets that were discovered around the same time, HD85512b is unique because scientists believe it is just barely in a habitable zone known as the “Goldilocks zone”- not too hot and not too cold for the presence of liquid water. Scientists have indicated that the presence of liquid water is a crucial element of supporting Earth-like life.

The recently discovered group of planets, including HD85512b, were discovered by the European Southern Observatory. The observatory employs an instrument specifically designed to look for new planets called HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher), which is located at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. HARPS uses a radial velocity technique to study celestial bodies and has discovered more than 150 planets in the last eight years.

The potentially habitable planet was observed more than 1,000 times over the course of two hundred nights of tracking using HARPS in Chile. Michel Mayor, the leader of the HARPS team, said that “the harvest of discoveries from HARPS has exceeded all expectations and includes an exceptionally rich population of super-Earths and Neptune-type planets hosted by stars very similar to our Sun.”

HD85512b is not the first potentially habitable planet to be discovered. In 2010, a planet called Gliese 581g was named as an “earth-like planet.” The credibility of Gliese 581g has been disputed, however, with some critics referring to the planet’s existence as a data glitch.

HD85512b is approximately 3.6 times the mass of Earth. Temperatures on the newly discovered planet range between 85 to 120 degrees with a very humid climate. Researchers have been quick to point out that describing the planet as potentially habitable indicates that it could support life, but not necessarily human life. Instead, the planet would most likely be able to support life forms that were shorter and squatter than humans, given the planet’s gravity, which is about 1.4 times greater than Earth’s.

Lisa Kaltenegger, an expert on exoplanets, has noted that “this is the lowest-mass confirmed planet discovered by the radial velocity method that potentially lies in the habitable zone of its star, and the second low-mass planet discovered by HARPS inside the habitable zone.”

In order for HD85512b to be considered habitable, it would have to be approximately 50% covered by clouds. Earth has around 60% cloud cover, so scientists have deemed 50% reasonable for the new planet. The presence of cloud cover is an important factor in the presence of liquid water on an planet.

The planet exists in the constellation Vela and circles an orange dwarf star about 36 light-years from Earth. A year on HD85512b is only 60 days. The planet’s sun is about 1,800 degrees cooler than our sun, indicating that the planet might not be too hot to support life. Other factors that indicate the potential habitability of the planet are its orbit, which is almost completely circular, providing a stable climate. In addition, the planet’s parent star is older and less active than the Earth’s sun, which decreases the chances of electromagnetic storms that could damage the planet’s atmosphere.

The discovery of HD85512b “demonstrates the possibility of discovering other super-Earths in the habitable zones around stars similar to the Sun,” said Mayor. He also noted that with the increasing amount of newly discovered celestial bodies “we should have the first list of potentially habitable planets in the Sun’s neighborhood” within the next ten to twenty years. To continue studying new planets, scientists have plans to build new instruments, including a replica of HARPS, which will be installed in the Canary Islands to observe the northern sky. In addition, another planet-hunter, known as ESPRESSO, will be installed in 2016 on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

Photo Credit: ornl.gov/info/library/ornlnews/images/new-hot-yoga-goldilocks-exoplanet-found_39499_600x450.jpg

New Diamond Planet Discovered

If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, I wonder how Miss Monroe would feel about an entire gem planet.

Scientists believe they have found just that approximately 4,000 light years away from Earth, located in the Serpens constellation of our galaxy.  This new planet is believed to be a lasting piece of a large star that at one point lost its outermost layers to the pulsar star that it circles.

Pulsar stars are uncommon “tiny dead neutron star[s] that spins around hundreds of times a second and emits beams of radiation.”   These tracks of radiation are then studied and measured by tools on the ground. When scientists using the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, studied this particular pulsar, J1719-1438, they spotted a noticeable irregularity in its orbit.  This suggested that perhaps there was another object orbiting this now dead star.  

As it turns out, there was.

The planet, referred to as PSR J1719-1438, orbits this pulsar about every two hours and 10 minutes.  This is a very condensed track—one that would be tight enough to fit inside our sun.  Its make up, however, is what everyone is talking about. “The planet is likely to be largely carbon and oxygen,” explains Michael Keith of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, “because a star made of lighter elements like hydrogen and helium would be too big to fit the measured orbiting times.”

It is estimated that the diamond planet has a larger mass than Jupiter but is 20 times denser.  Matthew Bailes of the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne: “The evolutionary history and amazing density of the planet all suggest that it is comprised of carbon—i.e. a massive diamond orbiting a neutron star.”

Submit all that carbon to huge amounts of pressure, and you get one fat diamond.  And “big” would be a great understatement.  Measuring up to 60,000 km all the way across, it is estimated to have a diameter five times the length of Earth’s and is 300 times heavier.  

But even outside of the spectacle that this brings, scientists all over the world wonder whether it is possible to have multiple diamond planets spread across our own Milky Way galaxy. The answer is still up in the air. “Maybe,” Bailes responded, “This is the only one like it so far.”

As it turns out, this is a very rare event—out of the 1,800 pulsars known and studied only two were known to have objects orbiting around them.  And out of these two, this diamond planet is the first.  It reminds us that even after studying a multitude of one thing, there can still be that diamond in the rough (obvious, I know–but I had to take it).

The next step would be to try and catch a glimpse of this planet.  Ben Stappers at the University of Manchester muses, “In terms of what it would look like, I don’t know I could even speculate.  I don’t imagine that a picture of a very shiny object is what we’re looking at here.”

There is plenty of time to get our checkbooks ready. 

Photo Credit: images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/395/cache/diamond-planet-millisecond-pular_39543_600x450.jpg

Study Suggests Earth May Have Once Had Two Moons

A new study by scientists at the University of California Santa Cruz suggests that the Earth may have had more than one moon over four billion years ago. According to the study, a collision between the moon we know today and a smaller satellite occurred, leaving the far side of the moon a rocky, mountainous region. Researchers used computer simulations to study the “giant-impact” theory that is used to explain the creation of the moon.

The study, co-authored by planetary scientists Erik Asphaug and Martin Jutzi and published in the journal Nature, posits that the rugged and mountainous dark side of the present-day moon was formed by a collision with a smaller moon. Previous theories concerning the moon’s formation and existence have suggested that upon the moon’s creation, it either absorbed other celestial bodies or ejected them into interstellar space. The study states that the second moon would have been formed in the same way the present-day moon was formed- by debris that was ejected after a protoplanet collided with the Earth.

The topographical differences between the near and far sides of the moon have been a mystery to scientists for years. The near side of the moon, which is visible to the earth, is relatively flat, while the far side of the moon is much more mountainous, with a crust fifty kilometers thicker than the near side. The study posits that the existence of a second moon is accountable for the far side of the moon’s geographical landscape.

Using a computer model, scientists have determined that the second moon orbiting the earth would have been approximately 750 miles wide, with a mass one-thirtieth of the moon we know today. The theory is that the smaller moon crashed into the bigger moon, causing the dark side of the moon to have a thicker crust with more mountains.

Scientists believe that the impact between the moons would have been a somewhat slow collision, due to the fact that they were in the same orbit, at approximately 5,000 miles per hour. Such a slow collision would mean that instead of an impact crater, the lunar material from the smaller moon would have covered the dark side of the bigger moon. In the hours after the collision, the smaller moon would have been reduced by gravity to a thin layer on the moon’s existing crust.

Asphaug and Jutzi suggest that tidal forces from Earth could have played a part in orchestrating the collision. The research suggests that the tidal forces would have caused the moons to migrate outwards over the course of tens of millions of years. Once they got to a certain point, the gravity of the sun would begin to influence each moon’s orbit, eventually causing a collision.

To study the details of the collision, scientists used a computer to simulate the impact of both moons. The simulation also allowed the researchers to study the aftermath of the collision, including the remaining lunar material. The researchers have come to the conclusion that the material from the second moon, upon impact, created a new layer of solid crust, which formed a mountainous region on the moon.

Using the same computer model, scientists have been able to further study the variations in the composition of the moon’s crust. The crust on the near side of the moon contains mostly potassium (K), rare-earth elements (ree) and phosphorous (P), which are known together as KREEP. The computer-model research suggests that the elements would have remained concentrated together in lunar magma as it crystallized before the aoon cooled. The researchers suggest that the most likely cause of this is an impact between the moon and another celestial body.

Photo Credit: blogs.nasa.gov/cm/resource/1021598

NASA’s Mission To Jupiter Set To Launch On August 5th

NASA’s mission to Jupiter is set to commence on Friday, August 5th, when the Juno aircraft is set to launch. The mission will last five years total; the spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016, after which it will spend a year studying the planet.

Once the spacecraft arrives at Jupiter, it will orbit the planet 33 times, lasting for approximately one earth year. The Juno spacecraft is the first mission to Jupiter that will use solar panels instead of radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which have been used on previous missions to Jupiter. The spacecraft is outfitted with three solar arrays arranged around the aircraft; two arrays have four panels each, while the third array has three panels. In total, the area of the solar arrays equals 650 square feet. The power produced by the solar arrays will produce 486 watts when the spacecraft arrives at Jupiter. The amount of power produced will eventually decline to 420 watts due to degradation on the cells from radiation.

NASA’s mission to Jupiter will use multiple scientific instruments to study the solar system’s largest planet. The objectives of the mission include determining the ratio of oxygen to hydrogen, which will measure the amount of water on the planet, obtaining more information to form a better estimate of the planet’s core mass, and mapping Jupiter’s gravity to determine the distribution of mass. The mission will also map the planet’s magnetic field, including assessing the structure and origin of the field, explore Jupiter’s polar magnetosphere and its auroras, and map the variation in the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, structure, and temperature. In addition, the spacecraft will also study Jupiter’s winds, which can reach speeds of up to 370 miles per hour.

The orbit of the spacecraft will come within 2,672 miles of the poles, but will also extend beyond Callisto’s orbit (one of Jupiter’s moons). Having such a varied orbit will help Juno avoid Jupiter’s radiation belts, which can harm both the spacecraft and its solar panels.

There are eight scientific instruments aboard the Juno aircraft that will aid in the mission’s objectives of discovering more about the red planet. The instruments are:

-Microwave Radiometer, which will probe the deep atmosphere of Jupiter by measuring the planet’s thermal emissions

-Fluxgate Magnometer, which will map the magnetic field, determine the structure of the polar magnetosphere, and determine the dynamics of the planet’s interior

-Jovian Infrared Auoral Mapper, which will probe the upper atmosphere of Jupiter using an imager and a spectrometer

-Jovian Auroral Distribution Experiment, which will measure the properties of particles in the polar magnetosphere of the planet

-Advanced Stellar Compass, which will aid the spacecraft in mapping by providing accurate pointing information

-Radio and Plasma Wave Sensor, which will measure radio and plasma spectra in the auroral region of Jupiter

-Jovian Energetic Particle Detector Instrument, which will measure the energy of elements in the polar magnetosphere

-Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph, which will record the properties of ultraviolet photons and provide images of the UV auroral emissions of the polar magnetosphere

The Juno aircraft is also outfitted with a JunoCam, an light camera/telescope. The JunoCam will only operate for seven orbits around the planet due to the harmful effects of Jupiter’s magnetic field and radiation.

The Principal Investigator of the mission to Jupiter is Scott Bolton, who works at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas. The mission is being managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The development and construction of the Juno spacecraft was overseen by the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

The Juno mission is set to end in October 2017, when the spacecraft is set to de-orbit before crashing into Jupiter. The mission has been estimated to cost around $1.1 billion.

Photo Credit: jpl.nasa.gov/images/juno/20101027/juno200904-226.jpg

Discovery of Dry Ice on Mars Reveals Clues About the Planet’s Atmosphere

An enormous underground deposit of frozen carbon dioxide was recently discovered at the south pole of Mars, suggesting that the atmosphere of the planet was much dustier and stormier than it is today. The report comes from scientists at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The discovery has prompted a comparison to the climate of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but on an even greater scale.
Scientists were made aware of the presence of carbon dioxide under the surface of the planet due to the appearance of the Martian south pole. Described as “swiss cheese terrain” by scientists, the surface was covered with round depressions, suggesting that underground carbon dioxide deposits had evaporated.
The frozen carbon dioxide reservoir, which has also been referred to as a dry ice lake, is located at the south pole of the planet. The CO2 deposit has a volume of nearly 3,000 cubic miles, roughly the same size as Lake Superior. The frozen material was discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which probed beneath the crust of the planet using shallow radar. Researchers have been aware of the presence of dry ice on the planet for some time, although it was believed to be in much smaller quantities. Scientists speculate that at least some of the frozen carbon dioxide was once a part of the Martian atmosphere, making it much denser than it is today.
In the past, the southern pole of Mars was exposed to sunlight when Mars’ axis tilted. This allowed some of the frozen carbon dioxide to melt, releasing some of it into the atmosphere and making it thicker. The release of the carbon dioxide would also cause more dust to be released into the air, causing severe storms. Other times, though, the carbon dioxide would simply go back into the ground as part of the seasonal cycle. Today, dust storms are less frequent because the carbon dioxide is frozen under the surface. The atmosphere is thinner because there is less CO2 creating air pressure. This decreases the strength of the wind, causing less frequent and less severe dust storms.
Even though Mars was more prone to storms during this time, the thicker atmosphere allowed for the presence of liquid water on some parts of the planet. When the planet was very young, it was much warmer and wetter, and the surface was filled with gullies, canyons, and rivers. Mars today is in stark opposition to this; the planet is extremely dry and frigid. The current atmosphere of Mars is primarily comprised of carbon dioxide and is extremely thin at less than one percent of Earth’s atmosphere. The Martian atmosphere is comprised of roughly 95 percent carbon dioxide, while Earth’s much thicker atmosphere is made up of .04 percent carbon dioxide.
The discovery of the frozen carbon dioxide is 30 times more carbon dioxide than scientists were expecting to find. The presence of the dry ice deposit may be a clue as to why the atmosphere of Mars is so thin. If released, the carbon dioxide has the potential to double the atmosphere of Mars, although it would be unable to considerably raise the planet’s temperatures or allow water to pool.
Jeffrey Plaut, a member of the discovery team, has described the discovery of the frozen carbon dioxide deposit as a “buried treasure.” The mysteries of Mars, particularly its atmosphere, continue to fascinate scientists. NASA has plans to study the upper Martian atmosphere and the phenomenon of how gases are lost in space with a new spacecraft starting in 2013.
Photo credit: sos.noaa.gov/datasets/solar_system/mars.html

NASA Messenger Probe Becomes First Spacecraft to Orbit Mercury

March 21, 2011 – Kristen Metz

NASA’s Messenger probe made history on the night of March 17, 2011, when it became the first spacecraft to successfully enter into Mercury’s orbit. Now, for the first time in history, Mercury has an artificial satellite. The spacecraft has been sent to study the closest planet to the sun in the hopes of studying the planet’s composition and magnetic environment. The Messenger will spend one Earth year studying Mercury and is a part of the first mission to study Mercury since the Mariner mission more than thirty years ago.

The Messenger spacecraft, which stands for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, was launched in August 2004 at a cost of $446 million. Here are some facts about the spacecraft currently studying Mercury:

  • Since its launch 6 ½ years ago, the Messenger has traveled approximately 4.9 billion miles and has completed 15 orbits of the sun
  • Messenger’s average speed is 84,500 mph and has broken the record for all-time fastest spacecraft at a pace of 140,000 mph
  • The aircraft weights 2,420 pounds but is only 4.7 feet tall by 6.1 feet wide by 4.2 feet deep. Two solar panel “wings” measuring 5 by 5.5 feet are on either side of the probe.

Mercury has long remained a mystery to scientists. Until the Messenger flew by Mercury for the first time in 2008, only half of the planet had ever been seen. Scientists were finally able to see close-up pictures of the other half of Mercury’s surface. Here are some more facts about the planet Messenger has been sent to study:

  • Mercury is 35,980,000 million miles from the sun
  • Mercury’s year lasts for 88 days
  • The average daytime temperature is 800 degrees Fahrenheit, while the average nighttime temperature is -300 degrees Fahrenheit
  • The planet is named after Mercury, the Roman messenger of the gods

Now that Messenger is safely in orbit, the spacecraft will soon begin observations of the planet’s surface, atmosphere, and magnetic field. Below is a look at the scientific instruments Messenger is outfitted with that will help the spacecraft provide scientists with a never before seen look at the closest planet to the sun.
Studying the Surface

The spacecraft is outfitted with seven scientifically advanced instruments, three of which are specifically for studying the surface. In order to create a map of the planet’s landscape, the Mercury Dual Imaging System will utilize two cameras, one wide-angle and one narrow-angle. Also helping to create maps is the Mercury Laser Altimeter. The MLA uses a laser to reflect off of the surface of Mercury, which then gathers light through a sensor. This enables scientists to track the variation in the distance between Messenger and the surface of Mercury.

Mercury’s Crust

Several instruments have been implemented to study Mercury’s crust. Using a process known as spectroscopy, the instruments will relay information to scientists about the presence of rocks and minerals around Mercury. The X-ray Spectrometer (XRS) will detect X-rays that are emitted from Mercury’s crust via certain elements. Another instrument known as the Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (GRNS) works similarly by detecting gamma rays and neutrons from certain elements. The GRNS will also be helpful in determining if water ice exists in craters at Mercury’s poles.

Understanding Mercury’s Atmosphere and Magnetic Field

Messenger is equipped with the Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS) to study the gases in Mercury’s atmosphere. The MASCS will also be able to help detect minerals on the surface of the planet. The magnetic field of Mercury will also be studied using Messenger’s Energetic Particle and Plasma Spectrometer (EPPS). The EPPS will study Mercury’s magnetosphere by measuring the electrons and ions present in the magnetic field, including their energy, layout, and composition.

Messenger’s Velocity

As Messenger orbits Mercury, it becomes attracted to areas with great mass where gravity pulls harder. This causes the spacecraft to speed up as it approaches and to slow down as it recedes. The Radio Science Experiment will use the Doppler Effect to track Messenger’s velocity. This will help the spacecraft determine how the planet’s mass is distributed, as well as the changes in the thickness of the planet’s crust.

What Comes Next

Now that Messenger has safely entered Mercury’s orbit, scientists from NASA and the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory will check the systems of the spacecraft and start turning on the instruments. Observations of the planet will begin on April 4th. After spending one Earth year observing the atmosphere, surface, and magnetic field of Mercury, Messenger will plummet back to Earth, but not before providing scientists with new information about the mysterious planet Mercury.

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