Secrets in the Sky


A little over 400 years ago, Galil(null)eo decided to take his telescope — currently all the rage among Northern Europe’s merchants, eager to identify ships before they came into harbor — and train it on the night sky. Within days, he made four astounding discoveries: that Saturn has rings (“horns” as he described them), that nebulas have structure, that the Moon has mountains, and that Jupiter has four moons. For the first time, these secrets — all shining down on humanity from long before we began staring up at them — had been revealed.

In recent years, astronomy headlines have been dominated by discoveries outside of our solar system, sometimes at the very limits of the observable universe. As exciting and wonderful as these are, I’ve always been more fascinated by our continuing discoveries closer to home. Though school room posters and easy acronyms often make our solar system seem familiar and easily understood — so much so that Pluto’s demotion from planet status by one scientific body caused international headlines — we’re still discovering amazing things in our star’s backyard.

Consider this recent finding that a red dwarf star and its brown dwarf companion likely trespassed through our sun’s stellar property about 70,000 years ago, coming to within, it is suspected, a little under a lightyear away. That’s close enough to come under the Sun’s gravitational influence (barely), and within the cloud of comets that are believed to make up our solar system’s fuzzy edges. Amazingly, neither of them would have been visible to the naked eye under normal conditions, the brighter of the two having about 1/10,000th the luminosity of the Sun, though it probably would have been able to be seen during occasional flare-ups.

And that was the second indication in just the past few months of hitherto unknown neighbors. Back in January, a paper was published that argued there may be additional planets the the size of Uranus and Neptune with extremely long orbits that have so far evaded notice. If that turns out to be correct, that would be an amazing discovery: putting aside Pluto and similar bodies that are smaller than our Moon, the last time we found something so large so close to home was when Urbain le Verrier discovered Neptune. Only 70 years before that, William Hershel discovered Uranus, the first “new” planet found since pre-history.

How are new discoveries still being made? However insignificant in the grand scale of things, our Solar System is still unimaginably vast (and poorly lit). To get a sense of this, watch (or fast-forward) through the video below, or consider that the only reason Mike Brown discovered Sedna was because it happened to be at its closest approach to the Sun in its 10,000-year-long orbit when we started looking.

Often times we think that we need to travel to far-away countries to make new discoveries. To be sure, the further away you go, the more likely you are to find new things far outside your former experience. But, whether in travel or astronomy, sometimes the most exciting finds are those closest to home.

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  1. jetstream Inactive

    Tom, here’s an answer, what is the question .. 4,000 to 40,000 years.

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  2. Misthiocracy Member


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  3. user_5186 Inactive

    Thanks, Tom. Nice writeup.

    Have you read anything about the Electric Universe? I have been enjoying looking at things in a new way. Take a look at this recent thing about Comet 67P.

    Look at the predictions of the standard model (dirty snowball) at 2:00 time point and see how their predictions compare to the EU version. Also, here’s a longer documentary about comets in general:

    What I find most interesting about the comet issue is the notion that it’s warm out at the orbit of Saturn — warm enough to cause a bunch of ice to sublimate off the comet (and yet not for the ice that is in the particles that make up the rings). Then the suggestion that what we are seeing instead is plasma in glow mode — that’s appealing as an alternative explanation. But hard to prove.
    But, the clincher is the business about the density of the comet. It sure looks like rock to me and it should not be 28% the density of water. If it’s rock as the EU guys are saying then this would explain why their anchors couldn’t go in. It’s not like cork or foam board — it’s a piece of a planet.

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