Blackholes and Revelations

On Sunday night I went to see the English rock band Muse perform here in Philadelphia. The concert was to support their latest album, but of course they played Starlight, a song which gave us its respective album’s title: Blackholes and Revelations.

Then on Wednesday, scientists announced that for the very first time, we have actually been able to take a photograph of a blackhole. This one is a supermassive black hole at the heart of the M87 galaxy, some 500 million trillion kilometres distant.

Hopes and expectations?
Hopes and expectations?

The bright light, or ring of fire, is the heated gas before falling beneath the event horizon, which here is the black disk. Beyond that point, the gravitational force is so strong that not even light can escape. And of course without light escaping to be seen, a black hole cannot be directly imaged. Instead, we have to look for its accretion disc.

It’s just cool.

Credit for the piece goes to the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration.

Opportunity Lost

Last summer NASA’s Martian exploration rover Opportunity went dark as its solar panels, needed to power the golf-cart sized explorer, were covered in dust from a planet-wide dust storm. Everyone hoped that over the following months the light Martian winds and dust devils would wipe clean the dust from the solar panels and the rover could recharge its batteries, turn on its heaters, and resume contact with Earth. It hasn’t. Consequently, on Wednesday NASA called Opportunity’s mission complete. And thanks to xkcd we have a proper little farewell.

So much science
So much science

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Walnut Pancakes in Space

One of the really neat things about space exploration has been the New Horizons probe that raced past Pluto, giving us the image of the now famous heart shape on the dwarf planet. But as it raced past a Kuiper Belt object named Ultima Thule on New Year’s, we received some tantalising first images of a snowman in space. Basically, two spheroid bodies fused together like a snowman or a peanut.

Except it’s not.

It probably doesn't taste like a walnut pancake, though…
It probably doesn’t taste like a walnut pancake, though…

This is a fascinating graphic produced by the science research teams that show how the latest downloaded photographs from New Horizons—it will take many more months for the full set—show Ultima Thule is not very snowman-like in its shape. Instead, it is far flatter and more, in their words, shaped like a dented walnut and a pancake.

The article has some additional material that show how that spin axis changes the view. They are short videos, but if you are interested in space things, it is neat to see. We are accustomed to seeing spherical objects in orbit around the sun. Not pancakes.

Credit for the piece goes to NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Southwest Research Institute.

Asteroids on the Moon

I hope everybody enjoyed their holiday. But, before we dive back into the meatier topics of the news, I wanted to share this serpentine graphic from the Guardian I discovered last week. Functionally it is a timeline charting the size of 96 known large asteroid impact craters on the Moon, between 80ºS and 80ºN.

Impacts on the Moon
Impacts on the Moon

The biggest question I have is whether the wrapping layout is necessary. I would prefer a more simplistic and straightforward, well, straight timeline, but I can imagine space constraints forcing the graphic into this box—either for the digital version and/or the likely print version.

The transparencies help to give a sense of density to the strikes, especially in the later years. And the orange ones highlight important or well-known craters like Tycho.

I do wonder, however, if the designer could have added a line at the 290 million years point. Since the graphic’s title calls that year out in particular, it might help the audience more quickly grasp the graphic’s…impact. In theory, the reader can more or less figure it out from the highlighting of the Ohm impact crater that is listed as 291 million years old. But a small grey line like those for the 250 million year increments could have been a nice little touch.

Overall, however, it’s nice to see a compact and helpful space graphic.

Credit for the piece goes to the Guardian graphics team.

Longest Lunar Eclipse of the Year

For those of my readers in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America, you are in for a treat tonight as you get to experience the longest lunar eclipse of the year. For those of us in North America, i.e. Canada, the United States, and Mexico, we get nothing.

So for a reminder, we turn to this nice piece from Vox that explains a lunar eclipse and why they are not as common as one might expect.

It's all about the nodes
It’s all about the nodes

The piece uses illustrations like these from Vox and supplements them with graphics from NASA. The whole piece is worth a read, especially if you enjoy space things.

Enjoy your Friday, and if you live anywhere but North America, enjoy your lunar eclipse tonight.

Credit for the piece goes to Joss Fong.

Jupiter’s New Moons

Yesterday, space nerds were alerted to the news that 12 new moons have been discovered in orbit of Jupiter. These are much smaller than Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is the largest moon in the Solar System and is larger than even Mercury. The point is that there are almost certainly no Ganymede-esque moons orbiting Jupiter that remain undiscovered.

But despite their small size, these moons do have some interesting features, as the article I read in the Guardian pointed out. The most interesting is the orbit of the moons. In general, Jovian moons orbit either prograde, i.e. with the orbit of Jupiter, or retrograde, i.e. against the orbit of Jupiter. The two inner moons discovered are prograde and nine of the other 12 are in an outer orbit of retrograde moons. But Valetudo, the 12th, which orbits in the retrograde group, actually orbits in a prograde fashion. The graphic below from the Carnegie Science Institute does a pretty good job of showing this.

Consider this your collision warning
Consider this your collision warning

Ultimately this means that at some point in the future, Valetudo will slam head-on collision style with another Jovian moon. And reportedly that will be so intense we will be able to see it from Earth. Bangin’. Catch is that it will not likely happen anytime soon.

As for the graphic above, I am of two minds. I generally like the use of colour. The bright green contrasts starkly against the red—though it should be pointed out it would fail a red-green colour blindness test. And then the interesting, but admittedly less interesting prograde and previously discovered Galilean moons are in more muted blues and purples, which puts them further into the background. It works nicely as a complete package.

But should it be on a deep blue background? Lots of space visualisations use black backgrounds, including my work and the work of others. But sometimes work that uses a white or otherwise light background could more clearly show things like orbits. It is difficult to say with certainty because of the lack of a light background for comparison’s sake.

The other thing that gets to me is the viewing angle of the orbits. Clearly we are looking neither dead-on nor from high above. And that makes it a bit more difficult to compare orbits. Of course these might not all be on the same plane because orbits are in three-dimensional space. But if the orbits were all shown from above, it would certainly aid with problems of foreshortening.

All in all, though, I shan’t complain because we have more moons in the Solar System. And who knows how many more smaller moons both Jupiter and Saturn have.

Credit for the piece goes to Roberto Molar Candanosa.

The James Webb Telescope: Delayed Again

A few weeks ago it was announced that NASA’s James Webb space telescope would see its launch delayed again. The successor to the Hubble telescope was originally supposed to launch several years ago, but now it won’t fly until at least 2021. Thankfully xkcd covered this slipping launch date.

Sad trombone
Sad trombone

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

The Brightest Night Lites

Today is Friday. We all made it through yet another week. So let us look up into the evening sky tonight and see the Hertzsprung–Russel diagram in action. Or, we can take xkcd’s expanded version and just enjoy ourselves.

Alas, I too am in the lower right corner…
Alas, I too am in the lower right corner…

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Lunar Observations

Monday night I was doing some work outside and when I turned around to head inside I was struck by the brilliance of an object in the night sky. I had seen the Moon rise earlier in the evening, but this was far to the east. It was identifiable as a dot, not just a speck in the night sky. As I was now intrigued I went to grab my binoculars to see if I could see Venus.

Turns out I was wrong and it was Jupiter. But then I turned my binocular-aided eyes to the west and examined the Moon. That was then I decided to try and sketch my observations, as I had done with the Eclipse.

Unfortunately, it turns out it is far more difficult to sketch in the dark then under a still semi-sunny sky. But these are my attempts to digitise those observations. And as I sat and watched, I began to notice that some faint twinkling specks near Jupiter had also moved. After I came inside, I discovered that the movement and positions hewed close to the orbits of Jupiter’s moons Ganymede and Calisto. The moving speck near the Moon I had also observed was actually the bright star Regulus. (And to be fair, it had not really moved, the Moon had moved, but I was not redrawing the Moon.)

The Moon and Regulus. The cool part is the thin ring of one of the seas that could be spotted beyond the line separating lunar day from night.

Capturing the exact shapes of the lunar "seas" was difficult in the darkness.
Capturing the exact shapes of the lunar “seas” was difficult in the darkness.

Jupiter and two of its moons. The cool thing about Jupiter is just being able to see it as a round ball in space and not a distant twinkling speck.

Jupiter and two of its moons, as they orbit the distant planet
Jupiter and two of its moons, as they orbit the distant planet

Credit for these is mine.

Onwards and Upwards

Yesterday SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket on its maiden voyage, and then recaptured several, though not all, of its reusable rockets. The Falcon Heavy represents the most powerful rocket available to mankind today, though NASA’s Saturn V of the Apollo programme era was considerably more powerful. That was all the stuff you could read in the news yesterday and today.

But how much more powerful? Thankfully we have the Economist who put together a nice graphic detailing not just the standard size comparisons of the Falcon series to the Saturn V and other famous rocket systems, e.g. the Space Shuttle and its boosters. The Economist graphic also adds information about the payload capabilities and timeframes for either historical operation or expected service dates.

It's big and powerful, but SpaceX still has a long way to go…
It’s big and powerful, but SpaceX still has a long way to go…

From the illustrative side, there were three really nice touches. First, the faint Statue of Liberty to give the rocket height context to famous landmark buildings. Two, the little human figure on the left-hand side to give context to ourselves, these things are big. Three, the ridiculousness of the Saturn V is captured by having its peak break the top frame of the chrome or graphic device, i.e. the red bar, standard on Economist graphics.

Overall a solid piece. (Yes, I know these are liquid fueled.)

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist’s graphics team.