Date: July 27th, 2012
Title: Monthly News Roundup: Pluto’s New Friend
Podcaster: Morgan Rehnberg
Links: Pluto: http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1212/#1
Solar flares: http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-solar-flare-20120712,0,6885961.story
Higgs boson: http://www.space.com/16434-higgs-boson-discovery-physicists-reactions.html
Description: In this episode of the Monthly News Roundup, Pluto gains a new moon and the Universe gains a new oldest spiral galaxy. We check in on how recent solar activity can affect us here on Earth and examine how the discovery of the fabled Higgs boson could affect research in astronomy.
Bio: Morgan Rehnberg is a graduate student at the University of Colorado – Boulder, where he studies the rings of Saturn under the direction of Dr. Larry Esposito. Morgan received his B.S. in Physics from Beloit College and is the developer of the PhAst software package for the viewing and manipulating of astronomical images.
Today’s Sponsor: This episode of 365 days of Astronomy is sponsored by iTelescope.net – Expanding your horizons in astronomy today. The premier on-demand telescope network, at dark sky sites in Spain, New Mexico and Siding Spring, Australia.
Welcome to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast for July 27th, 2012. I’m Morgan Rehnberg and this is the first ever Monthly News Round-up. This episode was recorded on July 22nd from Boulder, Colorado.
We start today with our plucky friend Pluto. Despite being banished from the ranks of planethood, the future looks bright for the first-ever dwarf planet. The New Horizons mission to study Pluto isn’t due to arrive until 2015, but earlier this month a team of scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered it has a fifth moon. Known provisionally as P5, this new satellite is only a couple dozen kilometers in diameter. Despite the small size of Pluto itself, it hosts a remarkably complex moon system. Only three-quarters the size of Earth’s moon, Pluto’s five moons number more than the sum total of all the terrestrial planets.
Pluto’s orbit places it in close proximity with the Kuiper belt, the large, icy collection of bodies which form the outer part of our solar system. Scientists think that Pluto’s moons could be the result of a collision between Pluto and one of these outer objects. Such an idea does have precedent – catastrophic collision is also the leading theory for how Earth’s moon was formed.
If Pluto hosts any other moons, we’ll know it in three years when New Horizons flies by for our closest-ever look at this icy dwarf planet.
Another big Hubble discovery was announced this month in the scientific journal Nature by a group of astronomers from American universities. They announced the discovery of BX442, the oldest-known spiral galaxy. Seen by Hubble as it looked approximately 10.7 billion years ago, BX442 has a beautiful spiral shape in an era in which spiral galaxies of any kind existed only rarely. Modern galaxies are classified into three broad categories: spiral, elliptical, and lenticular. Our own Milky Way is believed to be a spiral galaxy, although its exact shape is difficult to determine from our location within it.
So what allowed BX442 to evolve its large and complex spiral shape only three billion years after the Big Bang? No one knows for sure, but a dwarf galaxy nearby to BX442 likely figures into the answer. Gravitational interactions between these two galaxies may have helped spare BX442 from the worst of the Universe’s early period of galaxy collision, gas infall, and black hole formation.
Co-author Alice Shapley says that the team next plans to take pictures of the galaxy at different wavelengths of light to better characterize the stars that make up this remarkable galaxy.
July has been a busy month on the Sun. A number of significant solar flares have erupted this month, including a massive eruption on July 12th. These eruptions, known as coronal mass ejections, send jets of electrically charged particles racing towards the Earth at several million kilometers per hour. This gives the Earth only a couple of days to prepare for what can be both a spectacular display of natural beauty and a threat to our technology-dependant world. The Earth’s magnetic field, generated by our planet’s spinning core of metal, protects us from the majority of these particles, in the process producing the beautiful aurora or northern and southern lights. Satellites, spacecraft, and the International Space Station don’t enjoy the same level of protection and major solar flares present logistical challenges. If a flare is large enough, it could even disrupt the fragile power grids which crisscross much of our planet.
Scientists who study the Sun say that the next few years could bring much of the same. The Sun is nearing the peak of its eleven-year solar cycle in which activity on the surface of the Sun ebbs and flows. The processes governing the solar cycle are not well understood, and scientists can only guess that the cycle will begin its downward segment sometime in 2013 or 2014.
Until then, expect more dramatic headlines of solar death-rays, more beautiful lightshows visible to more of the population, and maybe a few spotty cell connections and GPS signals.
Of course, our biggest story this month is the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson by scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. Using the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, the elusive particle was detected with 99.9996 percent certainty. First predicted in 1964 by a team of theoretical physicists led by Peter Higgs, the particle fills an important gap in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. While other aspects of matter, like electric charge, can be derived from existing particles such as quarks, the Higgs boson provides the vital trait of mass. Its interactions with the Higg’s Field provide mass to everything we see around us. If you’re a little heavier than you’d like, I guess you can now say that you’re just a little more interactive!
While vital to our understanding of the basic forces of nature, the Higgs boson also has the potential to contribute to open questions in astronomy. Astronomy’s own problem with gravity is the forebodingly-named Dark Matter. Although Dark Matter has not been directly detected in any experiment, scientists infer its existence through gravitational interactions with normal matter and light. Galaxies seem to have far more mass than we can observe, and light has been found to bend in regions of seemingly-empty space. What specific properties the mass-imbuing Higgs boson has may in turn constrain the properties of the invisible dark matter.
I’d like to thank you for listening to this inaugural episode of the Monthly News Roundup. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments and corrections. I look forward to hearing from you!
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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