The Starlight We Can’t See

heic0807c.jpg

Find yourself a dark, unpolluted night sky on a clear night free of clouds, and you are very likely to look up into the heavens and see a sight quite like this. It’s what we see of the Milky Way, our galaxy.

When I’m at an astronomy event with a sky like the one above, I find it absolutely incredible. Do you notice how the stars don’t all look the same?

A couple are startlingly bright, there are numerous stars that are somewhat dimmer, and if you look really hard, you notice that even the dark night background is sprinkled with stars so faint they can barely be seen.

But what if I told you that you’re not even seeing the half of it? Continue reading

What Causes the Lunar Phases?

all-phases-of-the-moon-on-a-clear-dark-sky-516059951-59f0f494685fbe0011fc0523.jpg

We see it almost every night of our lives. For thousands of years, the greatest philosophers and astronomers alike have watched its face change and wondered why.

Step outside and observe the moon every day for a month and you will notice something fascinating. Over the course of the entire month, the moon will go through an entire cycle of phases—no more, no less.

But why?

The phases of the moon are something I’ve talked about before, but I wanted to spend some time on a few common misconceptions this time around and show you the truth behind the lunar phases. Continue reading

What is Gravity, Anyway?

Welcome to my second “Science Answers” post! About a month ago, I sent out a post requesting science questions from all of you; you can find it here. This post addresses the second of the questions I was asked. If you have a question, you can ask it in the comments here or on that post, or ask it in an email. Or find me on Facebook!

Q: What is gravity? (asked by Simon)

Wow…great question. This is a question the greatest scientific minds have asked and tried to answer for centuries. It’s a question not even Stephen Hawking, the scientific genius of the century, has fully answered.

There are a few parts to the gravity question, and they have each been addressed one by one over time:

  • How does gravity work?
  • What is gravity?
  • Why does gravity work?

Isaac Newton stood on the shoulders of the giants before him—Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler—and figured out how gravity works. But he was at a loss to explain what exactly this mysterious force was.

Einstein built on Newton’s work and came up with a theory for what gravity is—that is, distortions in space-time.

spacetime

We have yet to understand why gravity works. Why is space-time warped? Why do objects distort it as if it were the material of a trampoline? What exactly is the nature of space?

But, lucky for me, the question above specifically asks what gravity is. And that, I can explain.

The best way to do that is to turn one of gravity’s oldest tricks, one that has perplexed scientists and philosophers for thousands of years: What makes the planets move? Continue reading

The True Brightness of Stars

star-field-3.jpg

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and noticed that while relatively bright stars outline the constellations, there are numerous other stars that are almost too faint to see with the naked eye?

If you ever noticed this, you probably guessed that the brighter stars are literally brighter, and the fainter stars truly are fainter. Or maybe you guessed that they don’t vary in brightness that much, but fainter stars are much farther away.

But that’s not really true…or, at least, it’s not the whole answer.

So what’s the real reason why some stars appear to be brighter than others—and how can we tell how bright they really are? Continue reading

Stars and Proper Motion

uma.gif

Recognize this constellation?

Well, at the time stamp of about 2000 AD (CE), I think you will. It’s one of the most famous constellations in the night sky.

Well, technically, it’s not a constellation at all.

It’s an asterism—a commonly recognized grouping of stars that isn’t actually official as a constellation. There are tons of asterisms that you no doubt recognize…the Summer Triangle, the Great Square of Pegasus, the Big Dipper.

That’s right. That mess of stars up there that keeps changing for some reason…that’s the oft-recognized Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major.

So why the heck are the stars moving? Continue reading

Distances Between Stars

milkyway

When you look up into the sky on a clear night away from the glare of the city, you see trillions upon trillions of stars.

Thousands of years ago, the classical astronomers saw the same thing you do today—except perhaps a little different, due to the ever-changing cosmos. And, like you, they weren’t satisfied with just looking. They wanted to know what was out there.

For hundreds of years, they developed model after model to explain why the stars seemed to orbit the Earth and why certain objects in the sky—which they named planetsseemed to wander backwards from time to time.

Tycho Brahe, an astronomer known mainly for what he got wrong, dismissed the idea of the Earth orbiting the sun because he could detect no parallax between the stars.

If he had been able to measure parallax, he might have realized that the universe was much larger than any of his fellow classical astronomers imagined.

So what is parallax…and how can it help us measure the distances between stars? Continue reading

Solar Weather

Weather-Blog-Image.jpg

When you hear the word “weather,” you probably think of clouds and lightning bolts and rainstorms. Maybe, if you live in particularly high elevation or latitude, you think snowstorms or even blizzards.

We humans are used to these weather patterns. They’re the norm here on Earth. But would you be surprised to hear that the sun has weather of its own?

The sun doesn’t have clouds. Electricity doesn’t crackle through its atmosphere and build up as lightning. Its surface sits comfortably at about 5800 K, which is 9980°F and 5526°C—so it doesn’t even get close to cold enough for rain or snow.

So what kind of weather does the sun have? Continue reading

The Sun’s Magnetic Show

galileo sunspot rotation

Do you recognize the name Galileo Galilei?

Galileo was the classical astronomer who made the drawing above. I have little idea what his writing actually says—it’s in Latin—but it’s clear enough what this early diagram is all about.

It’s a drawing of his observations of the sun.

And it’s proof, discovered way back in Galileo’s time but not accepted until much later, that the sun actually rotates.

How do we know that? Continue reading

Spots on the Sun

sunspot032901.gif

Have you ever looked at the sun, and seen something like this?

Now, before you decide to look at it right now and see what you see, it’s my responsibility as an amateur astronomer to remind you of the safety risks. Focusing your eyes on the sun is dangerous—there’s a reason our eyes automatically flinch away.

How dangerous, you ask? Dangerous enough to burn and even scar your retinas, permanently damaging or even destroying your vision.

Yes, I’m serious.

Now, all this is not to turn you off solar observing entirely. There are safe—and cheap—ways to look at the sun, and see its spots.

But what exactly are sunspots?

Continue reading

The Solar Neutrino

220-neutrino.png

Ever heard of a neutrino?

Well, I guess now you have. But what exactly is a neutrino?

Don’t worry, they’re not harmful. They’re passing through you this very second and you’ll never notice them, not in your whole life. They’ll never hurt you because they just don’t interact with matter—including you—in the way you’d expect.

I’ll bet now you’re wondering where they even come from.

Well, as the diagram illustrates, they come from the sun. They’re kind of a side-effect of the nuclear reaction that powers the sun, and they radiate out from the sun in droves. But that’s not even the coolest bit.

We know how many neutrinos should come from the sun if our theories about its power generation are right. So if we can count them, we can prove those theories correct.

That’s when we encounter a bit of a problem. We can’t actually detect neutrinos.

So how the heck do we count them? Continue reading