astronomy

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In last week’s episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart, I talked about why the moon orbits the Earth. If you haven’t watched it yet, give it a look. I’ll wait.

There’s some pretty interesting astrophysics keeping the moon orbiting Earth and not getting gobbled up by the sun, eh. But I left one thing out of that video. The moon doesn’t really orbit the Earth. Strictly speaking, the moon and the Earth orbit each other.  

Just like the Earth exerts a gravitational force on the moon, the moon and its mass are “tugging” right back on us. As a result, the two bodies are actually orbiting a point in between, called the barycenter.

If you’ve ever watched pairs figure skating, you’ve seen this in action. When spinning through this move, called a “death spiral”, the two skaters are actually rotating around a barycenter in between their two centers of mass:

This is true of any two orbiting objects, whether it’s a pair of binary stars, a planet and its star, or a planet and its moon(s). You can think of it just like a playground see-saw, with the masses and distance between the two orbiting objects determining where the “balance” point is. 

The Earth/Moon barycenter is about 1,700 km beneath the crust:

Jupiter, despite being more than five times farther from our central star than Earth is, is so massive that its barycenter lies outside of the Sun:

The Earth-Sun barycenter, on the other hand, is effectively in the center of the sun. Our mass is just peanuts compared to that of that huge burning ball of hot gas:

When two orbiting bodies have similar masses and are relatively close to each other, it can be tough to figure out who’s orbiting whom. This is one reason that some astronomers think Pluto and its moon Charon are more of a double-dwarf-planet system:

Scientists use the see-saw physics of barycenters to study planets in distant solar systems, observing these wobbly waltzes to discover planets that we can’t see with telescopes.

The dig deeper into this cool bit of astrophysics, check out this article from my friend Chris Crockett. And cue the Dead or Alive

For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the universe. With the discovery of other planets in our Solar System, the true extent of the Milky Way galaxy, and other galaxies beyond our own, this question has only deepened and become more profound.

And whereas astronomers and scientists have long suspected that other star systems in our galaxy and the universe had orbiting planets of their own, it has only been within the last few decades that any have been observed. Over time, the methods for detecting these “extrasolar planets” have improved, and the list of those whose existence has been confirmed has grown accordingly (to almost 2000!)

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Forty years ago this week (19 May), a satellite ground station in Spain became the first to be assigned to what would become ESA, European Space Agency. Since then, the network – Estrack – has expanded worldwide and today employs cutting-edge technology to link mission controllers with spacecraft orbiting Earth, voyaging deep in our Solar System or anywhere in between. Estrack has evolved with the expanding needs of ESA’s science, Earth and exploration missions. Today, there are 10 stations in seven countries, all centrally managed from ESOC, the European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany.

image: The Ariane 5 V188 launcher with Herschel and Planck space observatories on board rises above ESA’s 15 m-diameter Estrack tracking dish at Kourou, French Guiana, 14 May 2009. credit: ESA/A. Chance

Wanderers: A Short-Film on What a Hypothetical Space Invasion Would Look Like

Wanderes is a short-film directed by Swedish video maker Erik Wernquist, which documents a hypothetical space colonization by humankind. With the aid of authentic photos from space and NASA documents, Wernquist narrates an innovative science-fiction story. Watch the stunning and otherworldly footage of what a space invasion may look like below!

A remote galaxy shining with the light of more than 300 trillion suns has been discovered using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The galaxy is the most luminous galaxy found to date and belongs to a new class of objects recently discovered by WISE – extremely luminous infrared galaxies, or ELIRGs.

“We are looking at a very intense phase of galaxy evolution,” said Chao-Wei Tsai of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of a new report appearing in the May 22 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. “This dazzling light may be from the main growth spurt of the galaxy’s black hole.”

The brilliant galaxy, known as WISE J224607.57-052635.0, may have a behemoth black hole at its belly, gorging itself on gas. Supermassive black holes draw gas and matter into a disk around them, heating the disk to roaring temperatures of millions of degrees and blasting out high-energy, visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray light. The light is blocked by surrounding cocoons of dust. As the dust heats up, it radiates infrared light.

Immense black holes are common at the cores of galaxies, but finding one this big so “far back” in the cosmos is rare. Because light from the galaxy hosting the black hole has traveled 12.5 billion years to reach us, astronomers are seeing the object as it was in the distant past. The black hole was already billions of times the mass of our sun when our universe was only a tenth of its present age of 13.8 billion years.

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