Monday, January 19, 2009

Methane found on Mars - most likely geological

A recent paper shows that methane was found in Mars' atmosphere. They also found that the amount of it varies with the seasons. This is a significant advance in the search for microbial life on Mars. Methane normally disappears from Mar's atmosphere over the course of only a few years.

These findings show that something is replenishing methane in Mars' atmosphere. The process that is replenishing Methane could either be biological or geological. Since methane is such a simple molecule to make there are many possible sources, but there is always that chance it could be biological.

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has a great blog post explaining the "Mars methane media mess". I have to disagree with Phil about NASA's headline for the finding: "Methane Discovery Reveals Mars is Not a Dead Planet." NASA uses the term "dead", meaning that there is no change occurring. It has for quite awhile and will continue to use it because it attracts readers to look further into the subject.

One year of writing the What's Up? column for the Journal Pioneer

My last article, about the International Year of Astronomy, marks one year of me writing for the Journal Pioneer. I've compiled a list of my first 12 columns from my first year of writing for the Journal.

Here are the first twelve in chronological order:
  1. There are Sister Storms Brewing on Jupiter : Feb. 2008
  2. Life in the Universe : March 2008
  3. Galactic Collisions - Milky Way and Andromeda : April 2008
  4. Galaxies, Dwarfs, and Hobbits : May 2008
  5. The Telescopes Opens Up the Universe : June 2008
  6. Dwarfs Hiding in the Sky : July 2008
  7. Life - and Death - Among the Stars : August 2008
  8. Eyeing up Stellar Oddballs : September 2008
  9. Hubble Opened a Door to the Stars : October 2008
  10. Space Isn't So Empty After All : November 2008
  11. A New Brightening Source of Pollution : December 2008
  12. The International Year of Astronomy : January 2009

Sunday, January 4, 2009

What's Up? The International Year of Astronomy!

Welcome back to What's Up?

New Year's day was a special one this year. As you counted down the last few seconds until 2009, hopefully you were aware that there was a leap second added at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This leap second was the 24th leap second was added since 1972 to make up for the Earth's slowing rotation. Without leap seconds our clocks would not be adjusted to where the sun is in the sky. Imagine this growing difference when it starts to add up to a few hours!

An interesting start to what is hopefully a great year, because this year is the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009). It marks the 400th anniversary of the first time a telescope was used to look up at the sky. This was done by Galileo Galilei when he heard that Hans Lippershey, a Dutch optician, had created a device that could magnify distant objects. Galileo discovered many things very quickly after looking up, such as Saturn's rings, Jupiter's four biggest moons, the phases of Venus and Mercury, as well as many other discoveries that showed everything in our solar system does not orbit the Earth.

All across the world 135 countries are participating in IYA2009, hosting various events throughout the year to raise awareness about astronomy's contributions to culture, science, our day-to-day lives, and to show just how interesting it really is.

2005 was the International Year of Physics. It went almost unnoticed by the general public. Only a pair of eyes are needed to view the night sky while physics can require a lot of theoretical mathematics and mind-bending concepts. It is hoped that IYA2009 will be the exact opposite and be a great success, since it could inspire hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers across the globe.

A few of the major goals of IYA2009 are to increase scientific awareness and literacy, promote widespread access to new knowledge and observing experiences, provide gender and racial equality among scientists, and provide a modern image of science and scientists (science doesn't have to be stale and boring).

You can find the IYA2009 website at "" or the Canadian IYA2009 site at ""

Throughout the year, make sure to keep your eyes and ears open for any events happening here on the Island hosted by either the Athena Community Astronomy Club or the Charlottetown Astronomy Club. There will most likely be some special meetings and viewings where you can get the opportunity to look through a telescope at the beautiful night sky.

If you do get out to take a look up at the sky, with a telescope or simply your eyes, here is what you can look for in this month's sky.

To start the month off is the Quadrantid meteor shower on Jan. 3. The Quadrantid meteor shower can produce upwards of 100 meteors per hour but are seldom observed because the shower only lasts a few hours. To view them just get comfortable (if that is possible in the cold), lean back, and look up between 2am and sunrise. If you trace back to where the meteors come from you will see that most of them appear to radiate from somewhere near the handle of the Big Dipper.

The full moon occurs on Jan. 10 and will become new again on Jan. 26.

The best time to catch Mercury will be early in the month. Look low in the western horizon about half an hour after sunset. There will be a very bright "star" near the horizon, that's Jupiter. Mercury will be hiding just below Jupiter. This elusive planet will be best visible on Jan. 4 but should be visible a few days before and after that date.

Venus will appear at its highest position this month on Jan. 14 in the southwestern sky after sunset. It will be the second brightest object in the night sky, the brightest being the moon.

Until next month, just look up!

Hey Kids...
Astronomers that study gravity have figured out that they can use PlayStation 3's for their computer simulations. They hooked up sixteen PlayStation 3's together to run their simulations of "gravity waves". Gravity waves are ripples in the space around us and were predicted by Einstein. If these simulations were run on a supercomputer it would cost $5000 just to run it once! Read more about this by searching "black holes PlayStation 3" at PlayStations aren't just great for games, they're great for science too!

Happy belated birthday, Spirit and Opportunity

Opportunity looking back on how far it's gone in its long 12km trek to Endeavor crater (not shown). If all goes well, Opportunity will probably make it to Endeavor in about a year or so.

The Mars rovers Spirit celebrated its fifth year on Mars on Jan. 3/08. Opportunity landed a few weeks later. Although Opportunity has one seized up wheel and has to drive backwards while Spirit constantly struggles with its dust coated solar panels, they both continue to operate and continue to collect scientific data. Their greatest achievement to date is collecting the evidence to confirm that Mars was once coated with large quantities of water in the past. As of Jan. 3/08, Spirit has been on Mars 1333 sols (Martian days) and Opportunity has been on Mars 1313 sols. Keep up to date on what Spirit and Opportunity are doing at the Mars Exploration Rover Mission website.