If you keep an eye on the night sky you may have noticed two bright “stars” to the south just around midnight. (To be precise: Jupiter is dead south at 11:02 pm; Saturn is dead south at 11:37 pm. By midnight they’ve moved slightly to the west.)
If you’re the type to keep an eye on the night sky, you likely already know those “stars” are Saturn (on the left) and Jupiter (on the right). What you may not know — and certainly can’t see — is that almost right smack dab between them is the former planet Pluto. All three just happen to be lined up nicely right now.
The New Horizons spacecraft is also out there, well beyond Pluto.
What do Pluto (the planet), Queen guitarist Brian May, the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander, tardigrades, comedian Dave Chappelle, and Netflix, all have in common?
Firstly, that they’ve all been very prominent in my news reader (and perhaps yours as well). Secondly, they all deal with socially divisive things (some more than others). Thirdly, they all caught my eye because they have to do with things I feel a bit strongly about (some more than others).
Let me explain…
Congrats to NASA and the New Horizons team! Their brave space robot reached (the planet) Pluto, delivered awesome goods, and went on to explore a much more distant Kuiper belt object: 2014 MU69 (fondly nicknamed Ultima Thule).
It made the journey safely and sped past its destination (at 14 kilometers per second!) on New Year’s Day. We’ve gotten the first close pictures back of the most distant object ever seen by us denizens of the third big rock out.
It looks like a snowman. A red snowman.
Or maybe a fossilized Star Wars robot, MU-69.
In any event, it’s darling and awesome! What a nice little present to start off the new year. It’ll only get better as more data rolls in (over the next two years).
Just consider that this is what we had a day ago:
Shout out to Emily Lakdawalla and her great blog at Planetary Society. In addition to NASA itself, if you’re at all interested in this stuff, she’s one to follow for sure!
To the dismay of physics geeks everywhere, theoretical particle physics struck out at the plate this year. Three swings, three misses. (Well, maybe one wasn’t really a swing. More a taken ball the umpire called a strike.) It was a crushing disappointment for those of us hoping for a rule-change to the game.
On the other hand, cosmology geeks got three recent home runs, so there was victory (with more coming!) for those who peer at the big and distant. On the other other hand, none of those were game-changers either. (They were just, you know, awesome.)
Since I follow both physics and cosmology, win some, lose some.
There comes a time when words fail, and all you can do is stare in amazement. The Friday press conference from the New Horizons team had that effect on many of us. (I’m not the only one who wept with sheer joy.)
From behind the planet, the Sun illuminates Pluto’s 100 mi layer of haze.
They say pictures are worth thousands of words, so I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking (click on any image to go to the source)…
Hot off the press! Check out Pluto’s first close up:
Those mountains are up to 11,000 feet high! And the surface looks to be roughly 100 million years old — extremely young compared to the four-and-a-half billion year age of the solar system (and not a crater in sight!).
Recent careful analysis of the early images from Pluto have turned up results that are astonishing and yet, perhaps, not surprising:
This explains a great deal…
Pluto… like no one has ever seen it before!
(At least no one on Earth!)
Oh, my! I mentioned last time that the Minnesota Twins, after a surprisingly good month of May, cooled down big time in June. Fans held their breath wondering how far the team would fall from the height reached in May. Now, with June behind us and July well under way, we can start breathing normally again.
The Twins lost ground in June, but remained above the .500 mark (by five games!) by month’s end. But July seems to have brought an end to the ice-cold bats. The Twins are 8-4 in July as we begin the All-Star break.
But more importantly: It’s Pluto Day!
I’ve written here before about chaos theory and how it prevents us from calculating certain physical models effectively. It’s not that these models don’t accurately reflect the physics involved; it’s that any attempt to use actual numbers introduces tiny errors into the process. These cause the result to drift more and more as the calculation extends into the future.
This is why tomorrow’s weather prediction is fairly accurate but a prediction for a year from now is entirely guesswork. (We could make a rough guess based on past seasons.) Yet the Earth itself is a computer — an analog computer — that tells us exactly what the weather is a year from now.
The thing is: it runs in real-time and takes a year to give us an answer!