Sciency Words: FarFarOut

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at new and interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:

FARFAROUT

You know, I recently spent a couple days trapped at home due to a snow storm. Don’t worry, I don’t live in Texas—I wasn’t trapped in that snow storm.  Anyway, after reading a little about Dr. Scott Sheppard, I feel as though I seriously misused those snowed-in days.

Dr. Sheppard is one of the key players in the ongoing search for Planet X, also known as Planet Nine or (as I like to call it) New Pluto.  Together with fellow astronomer Chad Trejillo, Sheppard has discovered more than sixty objects of various sizes out beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto.

Among those sixty-plus objects Sheppard and Trejillo discovered is a possible dwarf planet nicknamed “FarOut” (official designation 2018 VG18).  FarOut is—or rather was, very briefly—the most distant natural object known to exist in our Solar System.  Hence the nickname.

But in early 2019, Sheppard was reviewing his data and happened to notice another object even farther out than FarOut.  As Scientific American tells the story, this happened while Sheppard was “snowed in during a blizzard.”  (I spent my recent snowed-in days watching cartoons on my phone.)  The new object Sheppard found in his data has the official designation 2018 AG37, but Sheppard nicknamed it “FarFarOut,” for obvious reasons.

According to this article from Carnegie Science, FarFarOut has a highly eccentric (non-circular) orbit, with an orbital period of approximately one thousand years!  Seriously, a thousand years!!!  A portion of that highly eccentric orbit is actually not that far away at all; at its closest approach to the Sun, FarFarOut’s orbital path actually crosses within the orbit of Neptune.

I do have to take issue with some of the news articles and social media posts I’ve seen about FarFarOut.  Strictly speaking, FarFarOut is not the most distant known object in the Solar System.  We should probably call it the most distant natural object, or the most distant non-articifical object, that we currently know about, because there is one known object that’s even fartherer out than FarFarOut.

What Color are All the Planets?

Hello, friends!

So as you know, Earth is “the Blue Planet” and Mars is “the Red Planet.”  By my math, that leaves us with six other planets in our Solar System that don’t have color-related nicknames.  Today, I’d like to try and fix that.

Jupiter was the toughest.  He’s actually lots of different colors: red, grey, white, orange… and then the Juno mission recently showed us that Jupiter’s polar regions are blue!  Of course Jupiter is most famous for being red in that one specific spot, but even the Great Red Spot changes colors from time to time, fading from red to pink to white before turning red again.

Anyway, those are my picks for the color-related nicknames for all the planets.  Do you agree with my picks?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments below!

Sciency Words: Syzygy

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about the word:

SYZYGY

We’ve all seen pictures like this, with all eight planets lined up in a row:

And sometimes, on extra special occasions, the planets really do line up like that, or at least they come very close to it.  When this happens, we call it a grand syzygy.

The word syzygy traces back to ancient Greek.  It originally meant “yoked together,” as in: “The farmer yoked together his oxen before plowing the field.”  According to my trusty dictionary of classical Greek, the word could also mean “pair” or “union.”

Some closely related words in Greek referred to balance, teamwork, sexy times, etc.  And our modern English words synergy and synchronized have similar etymologies.  Basically, what all these words have in common is a sense of people or things coming together, in one manner or another.

For modern astronomers, syzygy means three or more celestial bodies coming together to form a straight line.  The most commonly cited example of this is the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon that occurs during either a new moon or full moon, as observed here on Earth.

But an alignment doesn’t have to be perfectly straight to be called a syzygy, especially when we’re dealing with more than three objects.  According to this article from The New York Times, a syzygy of the Sun, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn occured between March 25 and April 7, 1981.  The Sun and five planets came “within 2 degree of arc from a perfect straight line.”  Apparently that’s close enough.

But while that 1981 syzygy was pretty grand, it was not the grandest of grand syzygies.  The planets Mercury, Uranus, and Neptune were left out.  According to another article from The News York Times, a truly grand syzygy will happen on May 19, 2161, “[…] when eight planets (excluding Pluto) will be found within 69 degrees of each other […].”

So mark your calendars, friends!  You don’t want to miss the grand syzygy of 2161!

P.S.: And if you’re a Star Trek fan, you may recall that 2161 will be an auspicious year for another reason.  That’s the year when the United Federation of Planets will be founded—a political syzygy, one might say, occurring at the same time as an astronomical syzygy.

Orbiting the Blogosphere: Aliens, NASA Missions, and Flat Earthers

Hello, friends!

Today, I thought we’d take a quick look around the blogosphere and see what other space/science enthusiasts have been writing about.

First up, why is science fiction so obsessed with alien life?  Steven Lyle Jordan explores that question in an article for Medium.  Click here to check out that article, or click here to visit Steven’s blog.

Next, NASA has announced the finalists for the next Discovery-class mission, and one of those finalists involves a return to Neptune (frickin’ finally, am I right?).  Specifically, this would be a mission to explore Triton, Neptune’s largest moon.  Jay Cole from Digestible Space can tell you more.  Click here!

Meanwhile, NASA’s InSight mission has been gathering a surprising amount of data about earthquakes on Mars (a.k.a. marsquakes).  Maybe Mars isn’t as geologically dead as we thought?  Blaine Henry from Gimme Space can tell you more.  Click here for that!

And lastly, but not leastly, Fran from My Hubble Abode pays tribute to a prominent Flat Earther who recently passed away.  Fran has done many great posts debunking Flat Earth nonsense and other conspiracy theories.  But still, everyone deserves some compassion and respect.  Fran has set a wonderful example of how to disagree with someone without being disrespectful.  Click here.

That’s all for now.  If you read and enjoyed any of these posts, please be sure to let the author know with a comment.  It’s important that we all keep sharing and spreading our love for space and for science!

Next time on Planet Pailly: this might sound like an odd question, but which way is time going?

Sciency Words: Barycenter

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those big, complicated words scientists use.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

BARYCENTER

Excuse me, but I’m going to do that “um, actually” thing that people who think they’re really smart like to do.  Now you may think the Earth orbits around the Sun.  Um, actually… the Earth and Sun both orbit something called the barycenter.

The word barycenter comes from two Greek words meaning “heavy” and “center,” and it refers to the common center of mass for two or more celestial bodies.  Based on sources I found via Google Ngrams, the term started appearing frequently in astronomical journals during the early 20th Century, and it may have been in use as early as the 1880’s.

Let’s say you have two celestial bodies.  One is really massive, the other is much less massive.  In that case, the barycenter will probably be located somewhere inside the more massive object.  This is the case for the Earth and her Moon.  Based on numbers I got from Wikipedia, the Earth-Moon barycenter is about 1000 miles (1700 km) beneath Earth’s surface.  Or to measure that a different way, the barycenter is about 3000 miles (4600 km) away from the center of the Earth.

Now let’s say you have two celestial bodies of roughly equal mass.  In that case, the barycenter will be located somewhere between them.  Something like this has happened with Pluto and his giant moon, Charon.  Once more using numbers from Wikipedia, it looks like the Pluto-Charon barycenter is about 500 miles (960 km) ABOVE the surface of Pluto.

As for the Earth-Sun barycenter, it’s located deep inside the Sun.  So if you say Earth orbits the Sun, you’re not too far from the truth.  But of course Earth is not the only planet in the Solar System, and when you consider the Solar System as a whole, you’ll find the Sun wibbles and wobbles about in weird, loopy patterns.  As you can see in the highly technical diagram below, the Sun wibbles and wobbles so much it can wobble into a totally new position in just a few years.

Click here for an actual diagram of the Sun’s movement relative to the Solar System’s barycenter.

As explained in this paper, this is mainly due to the gravitational influences of Jupiter and Saturn. Over longer time scales (centuries rather than decades), the subtler influences of Uranus and Neptune also have a noticeable effect.

So the next time someone tells you the Earth orbits the Sun, you can do the “um, actually” thing and explain what a barycenter is.  Trust me, it’s a great way to sound smart and make lots of new friends!

Next time on Planet Pailly, what did people in 1962 think we’d find on other planets?

Sciency Words: Love Numbers

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

LOVE NUMBERS

My friends, I was recently doing research about the planet Neptune.  Astronomers have a new model for the Neptune system, a model that seems to do a better job predicting the orbits of all those unruly and rambunctious Neptunian moons.  While reading about this new model, I came across the following statement: “We also investigated sensitivity of the fit to Neptune’s Love number […].”  And that gave me a delightful mental picture:

“Love numbers” are named after English mathematician Augustus Edward Hough Love.  They’re also sometimes referred to as “Love and Shida numbers” to recognize the contribution of Japanese scientist T. Shida.

In the early 20th Century, Love introduced two ratios—traditionally represented by the variables h and kh has to do with the elasticity (stretchiness) of a planetary body, and k is related to the redistribution of mass within a planetary body as it stretches.  Shortly thereafter, Shida introduced a third ratio—represented by the variable l—involving the horizontal displacement of a planetary crust.

Taken together, h, k, and l tell you how much a planet, moon, or other celestial body can flex due to tidal forces.  As explained in this paper on Earth’s Love numbers:

If the Earth would be a completely rigid body, [its Love numbers] would be equal to zero, and there would be no tidal deformation of the surface.

But of course Earth is not a completely rigid body.  Tidal forces caused by the Sun and Moon cause Earth to flex “up to tens of centimeters,” according to that same paper.  Tens of centimeters doesn’t sound like much, but as we all know, it’s enough to keep the ocean tides going!

In conclusion, I guess you might say that what’s true for planets is also true for people.  Being completely rigid produces Love numbers equal to zero.  So be flexible.  Allow yourself to stretch a little, and your Love numbers will go up.

P.S.: Being flexible is healthy in any relationship, but at the same time don’t let others tug on you too hard.  Know your limits—your Roche limit, I mean—because you don’t want to end up like this:

Moons Gone Wild: Naiad and Thalassa

Naiad is one of the more rambunctious and troublesome moons in our Solar System.  She was first discovered in 1989 when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Neptune.  Naiad then spent more than a decade playing hide and seek with us, to the annoyance of many professional astronomers, I’m sure.

In 2004, the Hubble Space Telescope happened to catch Naiad in a few images of Neptune, but no one noticed she was there.  It wasn’t until 2013, thanks to new and improved image processing techniques, that astronomers found Naiad in those pictures.

Articles from the time (like this one or this one) described Naiad’s orbit as “wibbly wobbly” or said Naiad had somehow “drifted off course.”  That’s why we’d had such a hard time finding her.

But new research published this month in the journal Icarus gives us a clearer sense of what Naiad’s been up to all this time.  Naiad’s orbit is just… I don’t know how to describe it.  Just look at this orbit!  It’s bizarre!

According to that paper in Icarus, Naiad is caught in an orbital resonance with the neighboring moon of Thalassa.  That orbital resonance, combined with a high inclination (orbital tilt), causes Naiad to travel in a “sinusoidal pattern,” as the authors of that paper call it.

Naiad and Thalassa orbit dangerously close to each other.  Naiad zips past Thalassa every seven hours, approximately.  But because of that weird sinusoidal thing Naiad’s doing, Naiad always passes safely over Thalassa’s north pole or safely under Thalassa’s south pole.  The two moons are in no danger of getting into any sort of accident with each other, at least not in the near future.

But there are still a lot of uncertainties baked into our models of Neptune and his family of moons.  Even our newest, most up-to-date model—the model that revealed Naiad’s orbital resonance with Thalassa—still depends heavily on data collected by Voyager 2.  And as the authors of that Icarus paper note: “The orbital uncertainties show that the positions of the satellites are known within several hundred kilometers until at least 2030.”

But beyond 2030?  I guess we can’t accurately predict where Naiad, Thalassa, or any of Neptune’s other moons might end up.  If only somebody would send another space probe out to Neptune!  I’m really glad we have Voyager 2’s data, of course, but that data is from 1989.  A follow up mission is long overdue!

Sciency Words: Ice

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

ICE

I have a friend who teases me whenever I use the word ice. This is because, depending on what we’re talking about, I can’t just say “ice.”  As soon as the conversation turns to space stuff (as it often does when I’m around, for some reason), I feel the need to say “water ice.” I feel the need—no, the compulsion to specify that I mean the frozen form of water, as opposed to the frozen form of something else.

In more normal, down-to-earth sorts of conversation, I don’t feel that same compulsion.  Water ice is the only kind of ice we’re likely to encounter here on Earth. On rare occasions, if you’re at a science fair, or maybe a Halloween party, you might encounter carbon dioxide ice (a.k.a. dry ice).  But that’s a very rare special case.

However, as soon as we start talking about other planets and moons, or comets and asteroids, the word ice takes on a much broader meaning. In these more cosmic conversations, you really do need to be specific about which ice you’re talking about. To quote from a recent issue of The Planetary Report:

In the strictest definition, ice is the solid form of water.  However, planetary astronomers often use “ice” to refer to the solid form of any condensable molecule.

Beyond Earth, and especially in the outer Solar System, we find all sorts of crazy ices, like ammonia ice, methane ice, or nitrogen ice.  Along with the water ice and CO2 ice we Earthlings are more familiar with, these ices make up the hard crusts of many planetary bodies, like Titan or Pluto.

We also find ice crystals (of various types) forming in the clouds of planets like Uranus and Neptune.  In fact, Uranus and Neptune are often called “ice giants” in large part because of all those weird ices found in their atmospheres.

Starting next week, I’m planning to take a much closer look at those ice giant planets.  I expect my research to turn up plenty of questions, but very few answers.  Uranus and Neptune are, at this point, the least well explored planets in the Solar System.

So stay tuned!

P.S.: I want to start referring to all forms of igneous rock as “magma ice.”  After all, what is igneous rock but frozen magma?  I can’t think of any good reason why the term “magma ice” shouldn’t apply.

Which Planet Has the Weirdest Magnetic Field?

When I did my yearlong Mission to the Solar System series back in 2015, the planet Neptune stood out as having the weirdest and wackiest magnetic field.  Here’s a totally legit photograph from 1989 taken by the Voyager 2 space probe.  As you can see, Neptune is really confused about how magnetic fields are supposed to work.

But since 2015, science has learned more about the other three gas giants in our Solar System.  Neptune’s magnetic field is still really weird, but it’s no longer clear that it is the definitive weirdest.

  • Jupiter: Based on data from the Juno mission, it looks like Jupiter has three poles instead of two.  There’s a north pole, right about where you’d expect it to be.  Then the magnetic field lines emanating from the north pole connect to two separate south poles.  The first south pole is about where you’d expect a south pole to be. The other one is near the equator. Click here for more about Jupiter’s “non-dipolar” magnetic field.
  • Saturn: As Sherlock Holmes says in one of his many adventures, “Depend upon it, there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.” According to data collected during the Cassini mission’s Grand Finale, Saturn’s magnetic field is almost perfectly aligned with its rotation.  At first blush, that might seem quite normal.  Commonplace, even. Except no other planet’s magnetic field is so perfectly aligned.  Not even close.  Apparently planetary scientists didn’t think such a thing was even possible.  Click here for more about the “negligible tilt” of Saturn’s magnetic field.
  • Uranus: The planet Uranus is tipped over sideways, and its magnetic field is tipped over further still.  According to recent computer simulations, these two factors combine to cause Uranus’s magnetic field to tumble over itself “like a child cartwheeling down a hill,” as one researcher put it. This leads to a “periodic open-close-open-close scenario” where the solar wind can flow in toward the planet then suddenly be blocked, then suddenly flow in again, and then suddenly be blocked.  If these simulations are correct, the Uranian aurora may flick on and off like a light switch. Click here for more about the “topsy-turvy motion” of Uranus’s magnetic field.
  • Neptune: In 1989, Voyager 2 discovered that Neptune’s magnetic field is lopsided. The magnetic field doesn’t run through the planet’s core. Instead it runs through a seemingly random point about halfway between the core and the “surface” (by which I mean the topmost layer of the atmosphere).  Also, only one of the poles ends up being near the planet’s “surface.”  The other pole is buried somewhere deep in the planet’s interior.  For more about Neptune’s “badly behaved” magnetic field, click here.

If I had to choose, I’d probably still give Neptune the award for weirdest magnetic field.  But the competition is a lot tighter than it used to be.  Maybe the real lesson here is that gas giants in general have wild and crazy magnetic fields.

So if you had to pick, based on all this new info, which planet do you think deserves the award for the weirdest magnetic field?

P.S.: Also, the Cassini mission discovered there’s an electric current flowing between Saturn and its innermost ring.

Sciency Words: Nice Model

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:

NICE MODEL

I recently assembled Lego’s Saturn V rocket set, and I have to say it’s a really nice model.  It even has these little orange pieces to represent the floaty things for when the Apollo capsule returns to Earth and splashes down in the ocean. That, I thought, was a really nice touch!

But as nice as that Lego model is, that’s not the model we’re talking about today.  Nope, today we’re talking about the Nice model, with a capital N.

In May of 2005, three papers were published in the journal Nature which did a nice job explaining some of the big mysteries of our Solar System.

  • First (in order of page number) was a paper on the anomalous orbital eccentricities and inclinations of the four gas giant planets.
  • Next came a paper on the Trojan asteroids which hang out around Jupiter’s Lagrange points, 60º ahead and 60º behind Jupiter in its orbital path.
  • And lastly, there was a paper on the Late Heavy Bombardment, a period of time when the Moon (and also the four inner planets) got pummeled with asteroids.

All three of these papers share a common idea: that the four gas giants of our Solar System must have started out much closer together, with a broad disk of rocky and icy debris beyond them, like a super-sized Kuiper belt.  Then, approximately 700 million years after their initial formation, three of those gas giants (Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) started drifting farther and farther away from the Sun and away from each other.

Jupiter seems to have drifted slightly closer to the Sun, but stopped short of entering and demolishing the inner Solar System thanks to a last minute gravitational interaction with Saturn (thanks, Saturn!).

As the gas giants spread out, they threw that super Kuiper belt into chaos.  Some of that rocky and icy debris was hurled toward the inner planets, causing the Late Heavy Bombardment.  Some of the debris got stuck around Jupiter’s Lagrange points, becoming the Trojan asteroids.  And with so many complicated gravitational interactions happening at once, it’s no wonder the four gas giants ended up with some anomalies in their orbital paths.

This one idea—that the gas giants drifted apart after they formed—does a pretty nice job explaining three of the biggest mysteries about our Solar System.  But sadly, that’s not why it’s called the Nice model.  The name actually isn’t pronounced like the English word “nice” but rather like the French city of Nice (which rhymes with geese or fleece).  That’s because the model was originally formulated at an observatory in Nice, France.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find that out until I’d already sprinkled a bunch of nice puns into this post, and I don’t feel like taking them out.