astronomy

As If One Giant Black Hole Weren’t Enough, What’s a Galaxy Doing with Three?

Standard formation models can’t account for this triplet.

Last Thursday, my colleague John Matson described a truly amazing galaxy known, somewhat unromantically, as BX442. It has a majestic spiral pattern while hundreds of its galactic contemporaries were gawky and misshapen—a peculiar and special anomaly which suggests to many astronomers that cosmic pinwheels are ephemeral art forms, like Tibetan sand mandalas. John’s piece spurs […]

Charismatic Megaparticles Might Hint at Dark Matter, and Much Besides

Out in the cosmos, “dark accelerators” slingshot particles to huge speeds and no one knows why.

At a lecture I went to some years ago, astrophysicist Trevor Weekes compared garden-variety elementary particles to mosquitoes. They are plentiful and easy to find—indeed, they find you. But ultra-high-energy gamma rays, he said, are like elephants. They are fairly rare, but among the greatest of creatures. They often roam in spectacular habitats. Their sheer […]

What Would Happen If Earth and Mars Switched Places?

The orbits of the inner planets would go chaotic.

Last Saturday, at a workshop organized by the Foundation Questions Institute, Nobel laureate physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft gave a few informal remarks on the deep nature of reality. Searching for an analogy to the symmetries of basic physics, he asked the attendees to imagine what would happen to our solar system if you suddenly swapped […]

In Praise of Small Things

Runty galaxies are as baffling as their bigger brethren. A second dispatch from the American Astronomical Society meeting.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Most people think of astronomy as the science of big things—”vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big,” as Douglas Adams put it. But judging from last week’s American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., the most interesting things in astronomy these days are the small(ish) ones. Planet-hunters, having racked up hundreds of Jupiter-size worlds, now seek Earth-size […]

A Galaxy of New Worlds

The diversity of planets outside our solar system is really kind of crazy. A dispatch from the American Astronomical Society meeting.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The American Astronomical Society meeting, held here this week, was officially the largest congregation of astronomers (3,400 of them) in history—the most extraordinary collection of cosmic knowledge that has ever gathered together with the possible exception of when Isaac Newton dined alone. The breadth of topics was astounding, but the one that stood out […]

What Do We Really Know About the Kuiper Belt?

Kindly explain to me what Quaoar is. A fifth dispatch from the annual planets meeting.

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico—It smacked of a cunning plan. The organizers of last week’s planets conference put one of the best talks in the very last session of the very last day. Most scientists had either left for the airport or the beach. I almost didn’t make it myself—the room and time got switched at the […]

LCROSS Strikes Earth’s Moon As Other Moons Continue to Puzzle

If planet formation is a mystery, satellite formation is a mystery upon a mystery. A fourth dispatch from the annual planets meeting.

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico—”We could have just stayed in bed” was one comment I overheard this morning from planetary scientists who had woken up early to see NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) crash into the lunar surface. At 7:31 A.M. (Eastern Daylight Time) the spacecraft’s Centaur-class rocket booster slammed (deliberately) into the moon, […]

Planetary Bombardments, Past and Future

Is Mercury the long-lost moon of Venus? What’s our risk for a massive asteroid impact? A third dispatch from the annual planets meeting.

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico—A fascinating idea came up in an informal chat I had yesterday with asteroid expert Erik Asphaug of the University of California, Santa Cruz. The early solar system was a veritable shooting gallery. Our moon is thought to have formed when a Mars-size body hit Earth and threw out a cloud of debris […]

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