Category Archives: Astronomy

Calculate Eclipse Path Width

Yesterday, a reader asked me how to compute the totality path width for the eclipse that will cross the US on 21 Aug 2017. I wrote a post on how to perform this calculation years ago. NASA has published a path width value of 114.7 km. This width will actually vary a bit as the shadow moves across the Earth because the distance change slightly between all the bodies involved. Also, the Earth and Moon are not perfectly round, which I assume. NASA has very detailed models that even include the variations due to mountains and valleys on the Moon. Continue reading

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Old-School Selling of the Exploration of Mars

My youngest son has been fascinated with Elon Musk's plans for colonizing Mars. He is not that different from his old man because in my youth Wernher von Braun (Figure 1) had me captivated with his plans for human-crewed missions to Mars. As I described von Braun's plans for exploring Mars to my son, I realized the both Musk and von Braun applied similar state-of-the-art marketing approaches. Continue reading

Posted in Astronomy, History of Science and Technology, Management | 2 Comments

Ion Propulsion Math

NASA has a project known as Dawn that put a space probe in orbit around the asteroids Vesta and then Ceres. CSPAN presented an excellent Dawn mission briefing given by Marc Rayman, the Mission Director and Chief Engineer. One of the most interesting aspects of the Dawn spacecraft is its use of an ion thruster to maneuver it from one destination to another. This post presents some simple math that can be used to determine some of its key performance characteristics. Continue reading

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Interstellar Radio Communication Misfire

There were an interesting series of news articles recently about the detection of a possible radio signal from the star HD164595. The actual detection occurred about a year ago, but it came to the public's attention after an astronomer mentioned it in a recent presentation. Close inspection of the results indicate that the transmission was either from a Russian military satellite or electronic noise sources down on Earth. Continue reading

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View of Jupiter From Satellite Metis

The arrival of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter has motivated me to take a look a closer look at the Jovian system. I was surprised to see that we have cataloged 67 moons, sixteen of which have been discovered since 2003 and are not yet named. One moon that was new to me is called Metis (Figure 2), which is Jupiter's innermost moon. It is very tiny and resides within Jupiter's main ring. Continue reading

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Asteroid Size Estimation

I often see announcements of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) in the scientific press. For asteroids, these announcements are usually accompanied by a size estimate of the asteroid. In this post, I will discuss a commonly used formula for the effective spherical diameter of an asteroid based on its normalized brightness (i.e. absolute magnitude). Continue reading

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Asteroid Impact Damage Estimate

I have seen a number of articles in the popular scientific press about asteroid 1997 XF11 and the close approach it made to Earth back in June. The June approach was not that close – ~27 million kilometers. The closest approach is expected in 2028 and will be 980,000 km or 2.4 times the average Earth-Moon distance. Continue reading

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Planetary Atmosphere Leakage

I have always been interested in the fact that some planets have atmospheres and others do not. At the time of formation, planets have a primary atmosphere that consists largely of light elements (hydrogen and helium) – Earth has a secondary atmosphere formed outgassing from tectonic activity and comet impact residue. For small bodies, these low-molecular weight elements escape into space. I had never looked at how these gases escaped until I recently found a Wikipedia article about how gases escape from planetary atmospheres (e.g. Figure 1), and the math and physics involved were too enticing to pass up. Continue reading

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A Little Analysis of a Visible Exoplanet

I saw an article in the popular science press about a real rarity – an exoplanet that can be seen (Figure 1). I dug around the web and found the journal article on which most of the press articles were based. Given their measurement data, I wanted to see if I could duplicate some of their computed exoplanet characteristics. In this post, I will be using some of the techniques learned about while listening to The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know. Continue reading

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Dynamical Parallax Examples

Years ago, I read the book Parallax (Figure 1) and really enjoyed the tale of how 19th century astronomers measured the distance to the nearest stars. This measurement was critical to providing scientists some idea as to the scale of the universe.

The book Parallax describes how simple trigonometry, along with the introduction of large telescopes coupled to precision measurement gear, could be used to measure the angular parallax of a star as the Earth revolved around the Sun – a method called trigonometric or stellar parallax. During my recent perusing of the Wikipedia, I discovered that there was an alternative form of parallax measurement, called dynamical parallax, that allows one to estimate the distance to stars that are beyond the limits of trigonometric parallax. Continue reading

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