Category Archives: Astronomy

Dandelin Spheres

In 1609, Johannes Kepler first described how planets orbit the sun in ellipses. Kepler understood an ellipse as both the locus of points whose distances from two foci sum to a constant and as the intersection of a cone and a plane. But how … Continue reading

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Free-Fall Spinning Tunnels

Jump into an evacuated hole drilled straight through a uniform, static Earth-like sphere. Accelerate to 7.9 km/s (or 18 000 m.p.h.) at the center, then decelerate back to zero at the antipodes 42 minutes later! Step out of the hole upside down — … Continue reading

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Mars Sky Crane

At the NASA press conference today, chief engineer Adam Steltzner presented three iconic images of the space age: Armstrong’s photo of Aldrin on the lunar surface, Voyager 1’s photo of Saturn and its rings from above the ecliptic, the Hubble … Continue reading

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Nightfall

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered a sextuply-eclipsing sextuple star system. I think of “Nightfall”. The six stars of TCY 7037-89-I orbit each other in three binary pairs, as in the schematic. The primaries are slightly larger and … Continue reading

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Losing Betelgeuse

At my computer Tuesday evening, I receive a message from a university physics chat that is both thrilling and chilling: LIGO + Virgo report a “burst” gravitational wave event, possibly due to a core-collapse supernova (or a binary collision where … Continue reading

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Black Hole Radii

I set the alarm for 8:55 AM. Brutal, but I wanted to watch live the National Science Foundation Event Horizon Telescope news conference. I was expecting the first image of a black hole, and the EHT team did not disappoint. … Continue reading

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The Longest Day

The December solstice is the longest day of the year, despite being the northern hemisphere’s shortest daylight. Earth’s sidereal day is the time to rotate 360° with respect to distant stars, about 23 hours and 56 minutes, and its solar day … Continue reading

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Luna’s Convex Orbit

Luna orbits Earth and Earth orbits Sol (where Luna is Earth’s moon and Sol is Earth’s star, the sun). As a kid, I thought Luna’s solar orbit formed a loopy spirograph pattern. Instead, Luna’s orbit is convex! Neglecting the eccentricity … Continue reading

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Saturnday

Ancient cultures everywhere observed seven “wanderers” move against the apparently fixed stars of the night sky: our star the sun, our natural satellite the moon, and the brightest planets Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. In many languages, these wanderers … Continue reading

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