A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with astronomer Derrick Pitts and WHHY FM's Dave Heller.

A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with astronomer Derrick Pitts and WHHY FM's Dave Heller.
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A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with astronomer Derrick Pitts and WHHY FM's Dave Heller.




Step by Step

Next Friday, March 29th an historic spacewalk will take place; Anne McClain and Christina Koch will step outside International Space Station to replace a set of batteries on the solar panel array. It will be the first time in history a spacewalk is conducted entirely by women. For McClain, it will be her second spacewalk, but the first for Koch. The first woman to ever complete a spacewalk was Svetlana Savitskaya in July 1984, followed by American astronaut Kathryn Sullivan three months...


“One Small Step” Redux?

NASA’s 2020 budget request for $21 billion includes significant funding to build systems and infrastructure to return to the moon by 2028. Pending Congressional approval, this will allow NASA to support commercial development of a large lunar lander to carry cargo, and then astronauts to the moon, develop and build the ‘Gateway’ lunar orbital facility mini space station at the moon, and start dropping equipment on the lunar surface for astronauts to begin stays of two weeks. Since the last...


Some Like it Dry

The Atacama desert in Chile is one of the most arid places on the planet – averaging less than one inch of rainfall per year! High altitude, almost constant clear sky, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference due to its remote location make it a premier place to observe the heavens above. Additionally, the subsurface soil is somewhat similar to conditions on Mars. Robotic rovers deployed in the Atacama have found subsurface microbes that are highly resistant to salt. Using...


Worth the Wait for Weightlessness?

Beth Moses, Astronaut Trainer for Virgin Galactic, flew aboard its latest test flight as its first passenger. The VSS Unity flew into space last week piloted by David MacKay and Mike Masucci. Last week’s flight was the first to carry another person besides pilot and co-pilot and its principle objective was to test how the craft would handle during descent with its twin tails rotated upward relative to the fuselage. The altitude achieved, 55.8 miles, is high enough to earn all three crew...


Volunteers Needed for Stellar Sleuthing

Wanna get your hands dirty in astronomy? Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a newly revised version of a Zooniverse Citizen Scientist data-mining project for finding nearby failed stars and exoplanets created through a collaboration of a number of research agencies including NASA, NOAO, AMNH, STSci, ASU, UCSD, and others. The project, done by human searches through a new double-size data set, depends on the acuity of the human eye to discern differences between data and noise in digital images....


A Conversation With Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi

Earlier this week, the Franklin Institute Night Sky Observatory program featured special guest Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, astrophysicist, inventor, and co-host of the Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science to focus on some of the most perplexing paradoxes of the universe, the possibility of life on other planets, and why he believes his unlikely personal path can inspire the next generation of scientists. He stopped by WHYY studios to join the conversation with WHYY’s Dave Heller and Derrick...


What’s in a Shape?

Astronomers at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have detected that our Milky Way galaxy, while shaped like a big disk that rotates, is actually warped at the outer edges. The warping causes our galaxy to have a turned up lip at one end and a turned down lip at the opposite edge – like a ‘bit of a twisted ‘S’ shape’. It’s theorized that warping seems to be caused by torque induced by the rotation of the inner disk of the galaxy. Still great planet...


Strolling Our Galactic Neighborhood

Our Milky Way is one of some forty galaxies that comprise what is known as our “local group.” Two of our nearest galactic co-occupants are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (visible in the Southern Hemisphere). At a mere 170,000 light years away, they are close enough for astronomers to notice that, contrary to expectation, they are producing stars at an increasing rate, in contrast to our Milky Way where star production has been decreasing for billions of years. It’s thought that the...


Lunar Eclipse Beckons

Despite the forecasted blast of arctic air heading our way Sunday – bundle up and brave the cold because the next opportunity to take in a spectacular full lunar eclipse won’t come until May 2022 ! Spanning late Sunday into early Monday – this will be the first time since 1975 that a total lunar eclipse coincides with a holiday weekend. The period of totality when Earth’s shadow blocks out the moon extends from 11:41pm Sunday until 12:43am Monday. Derrick explains why this eclipse is...


Speed Kills

The more scientists learn about black holes, the more the findings confirm the warning: Speed kills. The black hole ASASSN-14li lies at the heart of a galaxy 290 million light-years away from Earth and harbors between 1 million and 10 million times the mass of the sun. That makes it about as hefty as the black hole at our Milky Way galaxy’s core, known as Sagittarius A*, which contains about 4 million solar masses. Focusing on ASASSN-14li, astronomers at MIT just announced a new way to...


Ultima Thule

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues its sojourn through the outer reaches of our solar system. For the next 20 months, it will transmit data back to earth gathered from its passby of the planetessimal Ultima Thule, a snowman-shaped object around 20 miles in length. At a distance of 4.1 billion miles from Earth, it takes more than six hours (traveling at the speed of light) for that information to reach us. Ultima Thule resides in the center of the vast Kuiper Belt, home to frozen...


Going, Going, Gone

Enjoy them while you can, because according to a new analysis of data from the Keck 10 meter telescope at Mauna Kea, Saturn’s rings are eroding away. Data gathered 10 years ago by Voyager space probes indicated that the water ice particles that make up Saturn’s ring system were being pulled out of the rings and spiraling down magnetic field lines from the inner edge of the rings to the planet. Given how quickly the rings seem to be deteriorating, the rings probably haven’t been around more...


Adieu to Voyager 2

41 years since it left Earth in the rear view mirror, NASA’s Voyager 2 bids adieu to our solar system. Earlier this week, engineers monitoring transmissions detected a significant drop-off in solar wind buffeting the spacecraft and a dramatic increase in the cosmic ray count – clear indicators that Voyager 2 has stepped off into interstellar space. It is now traveling at 34,000 mph, and at some 11 billion miles away, it takes sixteen and a half hours to transmit back to earth. Its next...


Shedding Light on the Dark Side of the Moon

China’s next lunar visitor Chang’e 4 is due to touch down on the far side of the moon on December 31st. If it succeeds in that endeavor, it will be the world’s first lunar probe to make a soft landing on the side of the moon that always faces away from earth.The lander and rover are equipped with cameras, radar and spectrometers to help identify rocks and dirt in the area. The instruments will probe the structure of the rocks beneath the spacecraft, and assess the effects of the solar wind...


Early Sunsets in Early December

Starting on Monday, December 3rd, we’ll embark on a ten-day period when sunset arrives around 4:35 in the afternoon, marking the earliest sunsets of the year. Sunsets will commence a little later by Friday, December 21st – Winter Solstice – the day distinguished by the least amount of daylight. The latest sunrise doesn’t take place until January 10th and then, thoughts and hopes can turn to Spring! Mars still dominates the Southern sky after sunset, Saturn barely hanging on. The Moon...


NASA Touchdown On Mars

NASA’s InSight Lander is scheduled to set down on the surface of Mars on Monday, November 26th. As a fixed station, InSight will drill a probe 5 meters down into the rock to both temperature profile that part of the rock column and to listen very carefully for seismic activity the lander can use to characterize the interior of the planet. The goal of this project is to learn more about the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets, including Mars, by learning about the physical...


Hidden In Plain Sight

Our Milky Way has two very well known galactic companions: The Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds, irregular-shaped galaxies both about 170,00 light years from Earth. Both are visible to the naked eye in the southern sky. The European Space Agency’s GAIA Space mapping satellite has detected another attendant galaxy hiding behind the Milky Way’s disc: The newly named “Antlia 2” is 1/3rd the size of our Milky Way itself. Determination of its mass indicates it is unusually light for a...


Going in Circles

This week, astronomers are studying a pair of stars that rotate around their common point once every 3 hours. The stars are buried in a planetary nebula 14,000 light years from Earth in Canis Major. Researchers think material from the bigger star of the pair bridges over onto the smaller but more energetic white dwarf star, causing intermittent nuclear bomb-sized explosions. Typically, these stars start much farther apart, then spin in together. In this case they’re already almost...


Fall Back

Enjoy an earlier sunrise starting Sunday morning, when our area reverts to Eastern Standard Time. The earlier sunsets affords opportunities to view the glories of the night sky. Saturn and Mars are easy targets; Saturn in the southwest and Mars in the south at 5:30pm. In this time when accusations of ‘fake news’ are often invoked, let’s pay tribute to a long-ago radio broadcast that laid the groundwork. It was 80 years ago this week that Orson Welles broadcast his famous radio performance...


Sun Day

Our sun, some 865,000 miles in diameter, rotates once every 30-35 days or so; fairly normal for a star like ours. Contrast that with an example of a neutron star (aka pulsar) – a mere 12.5 miles in diameter – that rotates once every 1.4 milliseconds, or 42,960 times every minute! Typically pulsars emit electromagnetic radiation in beams that emanate from their magnetic poles, much like a coastal lighthouse has s weeping rotting beam. To0 detect a pulsar, its beam has to be pointed in our...