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.




The Summer Solstice Beckons

Daylight lasts 14 hours and 52 minutes now, and the rate at which we’re gaining daylight is slowing dramatically. The rate at which we gain daylight slows about 3 seconds per day so by the 21st, we’re at zero gain. The mechanics? We’re slowly coming to a point in our solar orbit where the North pole of Earth has its greatest degree of tilt toward the sun. This gives Northern hemisphere-dwellers our ‘longest’ day because the sun’s path travels its longest arc across the sky. On that day,...



An especially carnivorous supermassive black hole sitting at the center of a galaxy is gobbling galactic gases at an astonishing rate – one solar mass every two days. The radiation released is so intense that if this object sat at the center of our galaxy, 65,000 light years away, the x-rays it generates would sterilize our planet, making life impossible. According to Australian National University astronomer Christian Wolf, this object shines thousands of times more brightly than an...


Earth’s Volcanic Activity Makes It Unique

Is the current volcanic activity in Hawaii possible elsewhere in the solar system? Mercury, Venus, and Mars no longer have volcanic activity. However, the moons Io (Jupiter), Triton (Neptune), and Enceladus (Saturn), all have active volcanoes. Earth appears to be the only planet in the solar system with such activity. China’s space plans include providing commercial satellite launch services for clients worldwide, as well as opening the door for private spacefarers. Evening Planets...


The Color Purple

Newly discovered? A purple planet! Actually, the color suggestion is just speculation based on the planet’s expected chemical composition. The planet, called WASP-104b, orbits 4 million km from its yellow dwarf parent star every 1.75 days. 104b most likely has a potassium and atomic sodium atmosphere which gives its most compelling characteristic – it’s DARK. One study suggests that it’s darker than charcoal. Measurements show 95 to 99% absorption of light from its parent star. Studies...


On the Prowl for Solar Siblings

Our sun, like so many others, was born as part of a cluster of stars. Sibling stars have the same chemical composition and can be discovered by analysis of each star’s stellar spectrum. The problem? Dynamics of galactic motion have pulled the sibling stars all throughout the galaxy, far from their original positions. A new survey has looked at 340,000 stars to better understand the evolution of our galaxy’s stars. The Galactic Archaeology Survey uses a spectrograph on a telescope in...


Shedding Light on Dark Matter

Scientists at the University of Washington have developed the tech to ‘see’ what could be a low-mass particle responsible for dark matter – the axion. They believe that incoming axions passing through a strong magnetic field could convert into radio waves. They are looking for particles with masses less than a billionth that of an electron. This years’ Franklin Awards Physics laureate, Helen Quinn, first suggested the idea of this new particle in 1977 with her colleague Roberto...


Does Dark Matter Matter?

Astronomers have detected a galaxy that seems to be devoid of dark matter. That possibility has theorists re-evaluating gravity’s role in keeping a galaxy intact. A Columbia University-led team of astrophysicists has completed a study suggesting the presence of as many as 10,000 very small, low-energy black holes near the core of our galaxy. The mini-black holes have never been detected before because instrumentation has always been tuned to see the more energetic variety of black...



Move over Stonehenge – Philadelphia will feature its own version on Friday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m., when the sunset will align with Market Street. This phenomenon happens a few times a year. A planet 75% the size of Jupiter has been discovered, orbiting a brown dwarf star 46 times the mass of our planet Jupiter. This is of interest because brown dwarfs are the most numerous type of stars: low fusion temperatures render them not very luminous and they are often overlooked as ‘stars.’ For...


How Big is Big?

An acceptable range for the estimated number of galaxies in the universe is between 100 and 200 billion, according to astronomer Mario Livio. The Hubble Space Telescope’s successor has suffered another 5-8 month delay. The Webb Space telescope has entered the final phases of testing, but delays caused by integration difficulties have pushed back the launch date. The complicated folding of the sunshield is the culprit, and there’s 8 billion dollars on the line.


Serious Signs of Water on Ceres

The Dwarf planet Ceres is showing signs of cryoactivity and…water(ice)! Sodium carbonate, a mineral seen by the Dawn spacecraft in orbit around Ceres since 2015, shows up on Ceres as a hydrated variety, indicating that water is bound to the mineral. Images show the presence of slushy cryo-volcanic eruptions. Data suggests that ice is frozen into the soils on Ceres and there could be briny water layers just beneath the surface. The water can’t last long on the surface – there’s no...


Dark matter’s impact on Andromeda’s size

Textbooks typically describe the nearby Andromeda galaxy as being three to four times larger than our galaxy, the Milky Way. However, newer measurements indicate that the two are actually on par. The discrepancy? Andromeda has fewer stars than originally estimated but more “dark matter.” Astronomers actually now believe that what we see of Andromeda is only 10% of its actual mass. Astronomer Vera Rubin realized the existence of dark matter in the 1970s when she tried to figure out why...


Spring Ahead

Remember to advance your timepieces one hour before retiring Saturday night; Daylight Savings Time starts Sunday morning at 2:00 am. Dr. Pitts has returned from a visit to Mt. Wilson and Carnegie offices in Pasadena, California. In the 1920s, Edmund Hubble collected spectroscopic data on galaxies there, showing that they were moving away from the Milky Way. As the distances to galaxies increased, the faster they seemed to be moving. Since then, we’ve come to understand that the...


International Space Station Grounded?

The Trump administration’s NASA budget proposal for 2019 recommends $19.9 billion dollars, which is $370 million above last year. However, the plan cuts out funding for International Space Station by 2025, as well as for the Office of Education. Dave and Dr. Pitts discuss the implications. There is a panoply of planets in the pre-dawn sky; Saturn, Mars, Jupiter. In the evening: Venus is very bright but low in the West-Southwest.


Planets, Planets A-Plenty

Planets have been observed for the first time orbiting stars in a distant galaxy 3.8 billion light years away. Einstein suggested that this form of detection might be possible. At The Franklin Institute, the monthly Night Sky Observatory program featured author Richard Paul, who with Steven Moss wrote the book, “We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program,” a nuanced description of the early history of NASA and the deep involvement of people of color. NASA was one...


Countdown to the Super Bowl, and the Super Moon!

On Wednesday, January 31st, don’t miss the Super Blue Blood Total Lunar Eclipse Moon! This lunar event means that the second full moon in a calendar month coincides with a lunar eclipse, and that the full moon appears slightly larger than usual. A moon like this one has not appeared in the sky since 1982. Superbowl Sunday is also the 112th birth anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto.


Forecast Calls for Dust

Continue your lunation observations: The first quarter moon is on Wednesday Jan. 24. Here’s what to look for: a. The line that separates the illuminated half from the not-so illuminated half is called the “terminator.” b. Craters- the record of early solar system bombardment. The Moon absorbed a lot of what could’ve rained down on Earth. Space material still rains down even on Earth – 100 tons of space dust every day, 36,500 tons per year. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, not so much…...


Happy Birthday, Buzz!

Of the remaining cohort of Earthlings privileged to set foot on the moon, let’s extend 88th birthday greetings this week to Buzz Aldrin. As the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 11, he was one of the first two humans to land on the Moon, and the second person to walk on it, in July of 1969. On January 15th, 1973, the Soviet Union launched their second lander and rover to the moon, just a month after the final Apollo lunar mission returned. Lunokhod 2 spent 3 months traversing, testing, and...


What’s in a Name?

Eighty-six new star names have been approved by the International Astronomical Union, an association of professional astronomers. The names are drawn from ancient mythologies and historical star names from indigenous cultures around the world, including China, Australia, and Southern Africa.


New Year’s Revolutions

Dr. Pitts and Dave Heller recap their top astronomy stories of 2017: Astronomers were elated this year when the three operational gravitational wave observatories around the world all reported detecting gravitational waves from the collision of neutron stars and interactions between super-lightweight black holes in the outer reaches of the universe, adding yet another layer to our understanding of how the universe was created and has evolved. This year, the continental United States...


The Winter Solstice is At Hand

Monday, December 18 is the new moon of the year’s last lunar cycle. The moon will be in the 1st quarter by Christmas Eve. If you’re up late wrapping presents on Christmas Eve, or up early to open gifts on Christmas morning, in the East there will be lots of stars visible, as well as Mars, Jupiter and Mercury. President Donald Trump signed a space policy directive last week formally directing NASA to return humans to the moon, then to use that experience to attempt a visit to Mars. This...