First Friday Astronomy

Artist’s conception of a hot Jupiter shedding mass.

Though worlds in our Solar System have been rocked by geological upheavals, mountain-shattering impacts, and climatic disasters throughout their histories, we think they have remained essentially intact. The planets we see today have been here since they first coalesced 4.5 billion years ago. But that long-lived stability may be the exception and not the rule. Indeed, astronomers now know many planets face destruction through what’s called tidal disruption, and recent searches have revealed direct evidence of the final moments for these doomed worlds.

Continue Reading

For Boise State Physics’ First Friday Astronomy event in January, we will host Leif Edmondson, president of the Boise Astronomical Society. Edmondson will talk about ancient Babylonian astronomy, so for this month’s blog post, rather than steal his thunder, I decided to talk about an astronomical tradition disconnected from Babylon: ancient Korean astronomy.

Korean astronomy goes back thousands of years and, aside from China, Korea has the longest history of astronomy in the world. Korea also hosts the oldest known astronomical observatory in east Asia, built by one of the earliest queens of the ancient world. And even today, Korean astronomers continue to innovate and discover, building on this deep past.

Continue Reading

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was discovered by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1655, the same year courts in Virginia first ruled slavery was legal in the American colonies. It took another 350 years before humans visited Titan upclose, leaving this, the largest moon in the Solar System, an object of wonder and speculation. But even after many years of intimate study, Titan remains enshrouded, both figuratively and literally. Its secrets may persist until NASA’s Dragonfly mission visits the world again in 2034, and if history is any guide, probably long after too.

Continue Reading
Although the Cold Dark Matter Theory predicts the merger of dwarf galaxies, this image captures the first example to be studied in detail. From cosmotography.com/images/dwarf_galaxy_dark_matter.html.

Boise State Physics will host Prof. Yao-Yuan Mao of University of Utah on Friday, Oct 6 for our First Friday Astronomy lecture. Prof. Mao will talk about his work on low-mass galaxies and dark matter, and if the weather permits, we’ll stargaze on Boise State’s Quad after the lecture. In the meantime, let’s explore some of the most common questions people have about dark matter.

Continue Reading
Artist’s depiction of the annular solar eclipse.

On the morning of Saturday, Oct 14, the Sun will transform into the eye of Sauron, a dark circle wreathed in otherworldly flame. Sauron’s gaze will cross the surface of the Earth from the Pacific Ocean, through the Pacific-Northwest and Southwest, and down the spine of Central America, before fizzling out of the east coast of Brazil. Though not as dramatic as total eclipses, annular eclipses like this one are more rare, owing to the eccentricities of orbital mechanics. And the same celestial forces have also woven a tapestry of occultations connecting the Oct 14 eclipse back to the founding of the Cologne Cathedral, a turning point in modern science, and the dawn of a new age.

Continue Reading
This is a reprint of a blog post originally run Jun 2022.
Gravitational lensing of distant galaxies observed by Hubble. From https://www.nasa.gov/content/discoveries-highlights-shining-a-light-on-dark-matter.

Although our current understanding of gravity, the theory of general relativity, arose only one hundred years ago, scientists were speculating about exotic gravitational effects going back to before the word “scientist” even existed. Today, astronomers employ gravity in a variety of ways to study the cosmos, to look for planets outside our solar system and even to weigh some of the largest celestial bodies in existence. These measurements have shed light on some of the darkest of astronomical mysteries.

Continue Reading

From https://webbtelescope.org/resource-gallery/articles. (This is a slightly updated reprint of an article originally run Nov 2021.)

An artist’s concept of the Webb Space Telescope. From https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/james-webb-space-telescope/in-depth/.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch on December 18, will primarily use its spectrographs – specialized instruments that capture and spread out light like a rainbow – to study exoplanets. By analyzing this data, known as spectra, researchers will be able to measure exoplanets’ compositions and chemistries. Spectra will help refine what we know about any exoplanet Webb observes, including massive gas giants, mid-sized ice giants, and smaller rocky exoplanets (some of which could be similar to Earth). In a few cases, JWST will deliver images of exoplanets to reveal more about them.

Continue Reading