A weekly discussion of what’s new and interesting in astronomy with Dr. Derrick Pitts


United States




A weekly discussion of what’s new and interesting in astronomy with Dr. Derrick Pitts




Cold Snap Up North

NASA’s InSight Mars lander keeps daily records of weather conditions at the Elysium Planitia landing site on the red planet. Last week saw daytime highs from 8 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit; lows fell to -139 degrees. Seasons are twice as long on Mars as on Earth because the Martian year is 687 days; almost double an Earth year. Mars doesn’t have months like we have months though. Our concept is based on a lunar orbit. Mars’ moons orbit much faster – Phobos every 8 hours, Deimos every 30 hours;...


Older than Dirt

Stardust discovered in a meteorite that landed in Australia more than 50 years ago is up to three billion years older than our solar system. These remnants are left over from ancient stars that populated this region of the galaxy prior to the birth of our sun, some 4.5 billion years ago. These particles got swept up in planet formation and/or hitched a ride to Earth on asteroids that have been in circulation ever since. Dating was determined from an element, Neon-21, which is derivative...


Taking a Telescope to Galileo

Today is Galileo’s 456th birth anniversary. His iconoclastic reputation overshadows his basic raison d’etre at the time – to make a buck. He was a struggling teacher who worked in the ‘gig economy’ of Renaissance Italy. Galileo wasn’t born to a high place in society; he wasn’t a politician, his parents were not rich and his father actually wanted his son to become a physician. He really wanted to be a mathematician. He eventually ditched medical school and became a university math instructor...


Coming Attractions

Astronomers observing white dwarf stars see spectrographic signatures of previously orbiting gas giant planets. Our gas giants (Jupiter and Saturn) will possibly do the same – leave signatures of their existence on our White Dwarf sun long after all the inner planets are gone and the outer planets are transformed. Not to worry – this won’t happen for some eight billion years. Bid adieu to the Spitzer Space Telescope! Named after astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer (in 1965 he first proposed what...


49ers, Chiefs & Punxsutawney Phil

49ers, Chiefs & Punxsutawney Phil This Superbowl Sunday coincides with Groundhog Day – the first cross-quarter day of 2020 (half-way between winter and spring). Punxsutawney Phil may be the most famous groundhog in the U.S., but he isn’t the most accurate. The four-legged creature only has a 39 percent accuracy, according to Stormfax Almanac’s data. Phil sees his shadow about 85 percent of the time (which portends six more weeks of winter) Extreme Global Warming! – Different process...


Our Stellar Neighbor Beckons

The dim red star Proxima Centauri, 4.2 lightyears from Earth, is known to have an EarthPlus-planet in the star’s habitable zone. Now a second planet has been detected, but this one is 5.8 times the mass of our planet and orbits its star only once every five years. Unfortunately, it’s also too far from the cool star to be warm enough for liquid water. So, it’s not habitable – at least for us. Which leads to a proposal to send 1,000 tiny spacecraft – really just a computer chip attached to a...



Supernovae are known as element factories, but astronomers are now discovering that merging neutron stars and fast-spinning supernovae may also be capable of creating variants of the elements heavier than iron. Heavy elements are created through nuclear fusion. Venus shines in the west after sunset. Mars brightens up the east at 6:00am for sunrise, now sliding towards Antares of Scorpius. Good opportunity to compare the two. Could the concept of ‘dark energy’ all be a big mistake? Next...


Imaging the Unimaginable

This year’s highlights in the world of astronomy include: 1) An image of the shadow of a black hole resembles an ‘orange doughnut.’ A supermassive Black Hole was seen in silhouette against the background of its surrounding accretion disk. 2) Liquid water is identified at Saturn’s moon Enceladus. 3) The New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto in 2016, then flew past an even more distant object on New Year’s Day 2019 – a double-lobed Kuiper Belt object now known as Arrokoth. Its shape...


Mark the Moment

We’ve arrived at the point in our solar orbit where the number of hours of sunlight are at a minimum for us in the North, and and conversely at a maximum for those in the Southern hemisphere. Sunset is already three minutes later than its earliest time, but we’re still losing time at sunrise, and the latest sunrise doesn’t come until early January. Hanukkah begins tomorrow at sunset, Christmas Day is Wednesday, and the first day of Kwanzaa is Thursday the 26th. The Moon and Mars can be...


Let There Be Light (but not too much)

SpaceX will coat one side of a satellite to reduce brightness interference when observing from Earth. They intend to test one unit on the next deployment. There will be thousands of Starlink satellites joining the already tens of thousands of pieces of space junk. We need to develop a plan to clean up and fast! The European Space Agency will test a ‘space grab’ tech to start to clean up space. ‘Clear Space-1’ is designed to reach a dead satellite, grab it, and drag it down into a fiery...


Worth A Look

Thinking about buying a telescope as a gift this holiday season? Consider these three easy guidelines: 1) Start simple; a telescope that is easy to use will get used more often. 2) Don’t buy a telescope based on the supposed magnification. Instead, go for the largest aperture you can afford, while also considering portability. You may want to transport your telescope to an area with darker skies. How big and heavy a telescope are you willing to carry? 3) Consider a refractor versus a...


Water, Water Everywhere

There are lots of hints regarding the possibility of the existence of liquid water around the solar, system, the galaxy, and the universe, but confirmation at only a very few places: Mars and the moon for example. Astronomers using Keck telescopes at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii now confirm the existence of liquid water at Jupiter’s moon Europa. Under Europa’s ice crust, there could be a subsurface ocean containing as much as twice the amount of water as Earth’s oceans. These newest...


You’re Outta Here!

Our Milky Way’s SgrA Black Hole in the center of our galaxy has ejected a star from the galaxy at a brisk 3.7 million miles per hour. The star originally was part of a binary system, but when the pair got too close to SgrA, the companion was swallowed, and this one was thrown out some five million years ago. This star (S5-HVS1) is unique because of its high velocity and close passage to us; a mere 29,000 light years. The star is currently seen in the southern constellation Grus and is moving...


What’s in a Name?

Following its Pluto encounter in 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was pushing on into the Kuiper Belt, aiming toward an object known originally as 2014 MU69, when space scientists and the public decided it needed a new name. Shortly before the New Horizons encounter on January 1, 2019, they chose the name Ultima Thule. Then a reporter at Newsweek pointed out that the Nazi party had used the phrase Ultima Thule to refer to the mythical homeland of the Aryan people. The term apparently...


Happy Birthday, Carl!

November 9th marks the anniversary of legendary astronomer Carl Sagan’s birth. Sagan was known for his wonderfully poetic way of explaining and transporting listeners into the history and complexities of the universe. He explored the mysteries of outer space in his landmark PBS program, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” Monday is Mercury Transit Day: The planet Mercury will cross between Earth and the Sun. The transit starts at 7:36 am EST and ends at 1:04 pm. Those hoping to witness the transit...


Special Delivery

An International Space Station Resupply Mission is scheduled to launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). It will transport 8,200 lbs of research, crew supplies, and hardware to the six-person crew on the ISS. The craft arrives at ISS at 4:30 am on Monday. We bid adieu to Daylight Saving Time when we shift our clocks back one hour at 2:00 am on Sunday, November 3rd. Next – we mark the earliest sunset in early December. Take advantage of the...


Matter Barely Matters

This Thursday is Halloween…and Dark Matter Day! Dark matter-themed events are being organized by labs and institutions around the world doing this research. They range from live webcasts with researchers to dark matter scavenger hunts to a Reddit AMA. Find a sortable list at Scientists believe that dark matter, which we have so far only detected through its gravity-based effects in space, makes up about a quarter (26.8 percent) of the total mass and energy...


Dinner on Mars?

A group of researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands have successfully grown edible food crops in soils that simulate the soil composition of the Moon and Mars. Garden cress, radish, spinach, quinoa, tomato, rye, chives, leek and peas were all harvested in this most recent study. Crops did better in the Martian soil than the lunar soil and spinach didn’t like either soil simulant. An earth soil ‘control’ was used. The most intriguing finding from the study is that common crops...


Keeping Score

Saturn pulls ahead of Jupiter in the number of moons detected – current score: 82 to 79 Researchers recently announced the discovery of 20 new moons orbiting Saturn by using big telescopes at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea observatory equipped with very sensitive detectors. 17 of them orbit backwards, opposite the planet’s direction of rotation, and most of the new ones are about three miles in size. The current idea about their origin is that they are the detritus left over from the breakup of a moon...


Rocket Man

Saturday, October 5th is the 132nd birth anniversary of rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard. His was the first liquid-fueled rocket to prove the concept that allowed for the exploration of space as we know it today. He launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in March 1926. The maximum altitude he achieved was 1.7 miles. His technology eventually was adopted in America soon after his death in 1945. October 5th is also the 61st anniversary of the founding of NASA. It was originally established...