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Home | Tag Archives: Amy’s Everyday Astronomy

Tag Archives: Amy’s Everyday Astronomy

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: The Salty Seas of Europa

“All these worlds are yours, except Europa. Attempt no landing there.”

Most of us are familiar with this famous final message sent from Hal-9000 to all humanity. The movie 2010, based on the writings of Arthur C. Clarke, tantalized us with the possibility of what could be hiding under the icy crust of Europa. But our curiosity didn’t stop with mere images on a screen.

Last September, I told you all about a new mission in the works at NASA/JPL, called the Europa Clipper. Though the mission isn’t set to launch until sometime around 2022-2025, this hasn’t slowed the science being conducted in order to learn more about the frozen Jovian satellite.

The fourth largest moon of Jupiter was found to have liquid water under its icy surface back in the 1990s by the Galileo probe. These findings were confirmed when the Hubble Space Telescope spotted plumes of water shooting out into space in 2014.

On June 12th of this year, however, findings of something even more interesting were published in Science Advances.

If you’ve ever looked at pictures of Europa, you’ll have noticed that the surface is marked by deep lines and dark yellow (almost rust colored) features. And indeed, using visible-light spectral analysis, planetary scientists at Caltech and NASA’s JPL have discovered that the yellow color that is visible on the surface is composed of sodium chloride. This is the compound known on Earth as table salt and is the principal component of sea salt.

This is exciting because it suggests that the salty subsurface of the Europa ocean may be more like those of oceans here on Earth than scientists previously thought.

Back when the Galileo probe was in the area, it carried an infrared spectrometer to examine the composition of the moon’s surface. This spectrometer found water ice and a substance that appeared to be magnesium sulfate salts (like Epsom salts). But no one thought to look at the visible light spectrum for analysis.

“People have traditionally assumed that all of the interesting spectroscopy is in the infrared on the planetary surfaces, because that’s where most of the molecules that scientists are looking for have their fundamental features,” said Mike Brown, Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech and co-author of the Science Advances paper.

“No one has taken visible-wavelength spectra of Europa before that had this sort of spatial and spectral resolution. The Galileo spacecraft didn’t have a visible spectrometer. It just had a near-infrared spectrometer, and in the near-infrared, chlorides are featureless,” said Caltech graduate student, Samantha Trumbo, lead author of the paper.

So how did scientists go from magnesium sulfate to sodium chloride?

Higher spectral resolution data from the Keck Observatory on Maunakea suggested that scientists weren’t actually seeing magnesium sulfates on Europa because the spectra of regions expected to reflect the internal composition lacked any of the characteristic sulfate absorptions. Most sulfate salts possess distinct absorptions, and these serve as fingerprints for compounds that should have been visible in the higher-quality Keck data.

“We thought that we might be seeing sodium chlorides, but they are essentially featureless in an infrared spectrum,” Brown said.

To test this idea, JPL scientist Kevin Hand used sample ocean salts, bombarded by radiation to simulate Europa-like conditions. What he found was that several new and distinct features arose in the sodium chloride after the irradiation.

In fact, they changed colors to the point that they could be identified with an analysis of the visible spectrum, and sodium chloride turned a shade of yellow similar to what is visible in the geologically young area of Europa known as Tara Regio.

“Sodium chloride is a bit like invisible ink on Europa’s surface. Before irradiation you can’t tell it’s there, but after irradiation the color jumps right out at you,” said Hand.

Taking a closer look with the Hubble Telescope, the team was able to identify distinct absorption in the visible spectrum that matched the irradiated salt precisely. This confirmed that the yellow color of Tara Regio reflected the presence of irradiated sodium chloride on the surface.

This finding doesn’t guarantee that sodium chloride is derived from the subsurface ocean, but the study’s authors propose that it does warrant a reevaluation of the geochemistry of Europa.

“Magnesium sulfate would simply have leached into the ocean from rocks on the ocean floor, but sodium chloride may indicate the ocean floor is hydrothermally active,” Trumbo said. “That would mean Europa is a more geologically interesting planetary body than previously believed.”

In the end, a familiar ingredient seems to have been hiding in plain sight on the surface of Europa for a long while now. Knowing about its existence makes studying this fascinating natural satellite of Jupiter even more compelling than it was already.

“We’ve had the capacity to do this analysis with the Hubble Space Telescope for the past 20 years,” Brown said. “It’s just that nobody thought to look.”


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Pagecheck out her webpage; to read previous articles, click here.

Podcast – Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: The UFO Phenomenon

UFO sightings have been a topic of debate for decades. And it’s no secret that attempts to report such sightings to official channels have often been met with ridicule.

However, that seems about to change, as I detailed in an article back in April called: UFOs and Project New Book. 

Since then, other media outlets around the country have exploded with news of recently released Navy pilot videos and theories about what the footage truly shows.

The real question, I think, is WHY is this so prevalent? Why is everyone, including government and military officials, having such an open discussion about a topic that was once so taboo that official investigations took place behind the closed doors of secret government agencies that were the subject of rumor and conspiracy theories?

Listen to my new show above as I share my own theories about this.

If have theories of your own, or a strange experience you want to share, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to comment below or send me an email:


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Pagecheck out her webpage; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Quantum Physics and Time Travel

If you’ve ever seen a Back to the Future movie, you’ve probably been tantalized by the idea of going back in time to change things for the better. And if you’re an avid Star Trek fan, you probably understand a great deal about the fundamentals of temporal mechanics. Yet, here in the real world, time travel is all but impossible, depending on who you ask.

A recent article in the New York Times talks about how quantum physicists are trying to tackle the possibility of time travel, at least on a quantum level.

Quantum physics can be a real head-spinner for most people. After all, dealing with the subatomic world can be difficult to comprehend when you’re talking about things that are so small, they cannot be seen and only barely measured. Especially when you must consider Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” and the Schrödinger equation.

Here’s how these work:

Einstein supposed that two particles could become linked by the strange quantum property of entanglement. These two particles become entangled when they are created at the same place and time in space.

Over time, these particles are separated. However far apart they get from one another makes no difference. According to mathematics, whatever happens to one of the particles affects the other despite the distance between the two. And that is known as spooky action at a distance.

The Schrödinger equation is a differential math equation that is used to describe quantum mechanical behavior. Sometimes referred to as the Schrödinger wave equation, it is used to measure how the wavefunction of a physical system evolves over time.

Basically, this will tell you the probability of finding a particle at a given point (position). Keep in mind that Schrödinger also postulated that if you put a cat in a box with something that could kill it (a radioactive element, for example) and sealed the box, you would not know the true fate of the cat until you opened the box and observed it.

So, until you did that, the cat would exist as simultaneously both alive and dead.
So, how does this tie into the work done by the quantum physicists? Using computers, of course.

A regular computer, much like one you are likely using to read this, processes a series of ones and zeros (bits), known as binary code. As it does this, each bit can only be a one or a zero at a given time. But in a quantum computer, these bits become qubits. This means that the processing code can be a one AND a zero at the same time.

This allows it to perform thousands of calculations simultaneously, as long as no one tries to look at the answer until the end (like Schrödinger’s cat). Using a quantum computer, the quantum physicists attempted to make a wavefunction go backward.

Google’s top of the line quantum computer has 72 qubits. For the experiment, the physicists used an IBM that only had 5, utilizing only 2-3 of these at a time. They put the qubits into an entangled state while mimicking a virtual (artificial) atom.

In this way, using the spooky action at a distance ideal, they were able to tap one of the qubits with a series of microwave pulses, which directly affected its counterpart. After a millionth of a second, they applied another microwave pulse to put a halt on the “evolution” program in hopes of reversing their phase so the qubits could devolve to their more youthful states.

In layman’s terms, they tapped a qubit, causing it and its spooky counterpart to vibrate. Then they tapped them again to stop the vibration and hoped that the qubits would show no signs of ever having been tapped in the first place.

And this actually worked 85% of the time when using only two qubits. But when the scientists used three qubits, they only achieved their goal 50% of the time.

“It remains to be seen whether the irreversibility of time is a fundamental law of nature or whether, on the contrary, it might be circumvented,” the team wrote in their February paper posted online.

In the end, it will take computers with hundreds of qubits in order to achieve the lofty ambitions of quantum mathematicians. At which time, the team’s time-reversal algorithm could be used to test them. Until then, reversing the aging process of a single particle will remain too complicated for even nature, herself.


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Pagecheck out her webpage; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Curiosity Rover to continue investigation of Mt. Sharp

The dream of having humans explore the surface of Mars is one on which NASA is hard at work. But until that time comes, we still have some very awesome science being conducted by our rover counterpart, Curiosity.

Since 2014, NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been climbing Mount Sharp. Rising 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the base of Gale Crater, this area has proven to be an excellent place for investigation.

This is largely because there are several regions that are especially intriguing since they each represent a different period in the history of Mount Sharp.

As highlighted in the video, the chief among these interesting areas is a clay-bearing unit where Curiosity just started analyzing rock samples. Clay is especially exciting because it typically only forms where water was once (or is still) present.

Other intriguing targets along the rover’s proposed path include the rocky cliffs of the sulfate-bearing unit, where the sulfate minerals might be an indication of drying in ancient Martian times.

Because sulfates are salts that form when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical, this could be a good indication that this area was once very wet. In fact, cutting a path through the sulfate unit is an area known as Gediz Vallis.

This area is believed to be a dried riverbed, and Curiosity will be studying this, too, as it continues its ascending journey of Mount Sharp.

Visiting these places is the key for scientists to learn more about the history of water on the mountain which will unlock better understanding as to how climate changes occurred and why water disappeared from Mars billions of years ago.


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Pagecheck out her webpage; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: A (Lunar) Raisin in the Sun

Last week, I told you all about InSight detecting its first likely Marsquake. In the article, I mentioned how scientists have been studying quakes on the moon since the Apollo missions.

Recently, Nature Geoscience published a new paper where they took another look at these shallow moonquakes to establish possible connections to some very young surface features, known as lobate thrust fault scarps.

Our moon has these basins called “mare” where it is thought that the last geologic activity occurred long before the dinosaurs roamed Earth. These mare, thought to be tectonically dead, were surveyed using over 12,000 images taken by the Luna Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC).

It was revealed that at least one of the lunar mare has been cracking and shifting as much as other parts of the Moon. In fact, it’s possible that this is still happening.

“Wrinkle ridges” are curved hills and shallow trenches that are thought to be created by a lunar surface that is contracting as the Moon loses heat and shrinks. These features were revealed in the images taken by LROC and the findings were published in Icarus on March 7, 2019.

While previous research had found similar features in the Moon’s highlands, these wrinkle ridges have never been seen in the basins, until now.

Nathan Williams, a post-doctoral researcher at JPL, led the study that was published in Icarus. He and his co-authors focused on a region known as Mare Frigoris (Cold Sea) that is near the Moon’s north pole.

In this study, they estimated that while some of the ridges may have emerged in the last billion years, while others might be no older than 40 million years. In geologic terms, that’s pretty young, especially given that these basins were thought to have been dead for the last 1.2 billion years.

Because there is no liquid core, or molten movement under the surface of the Moon, there are no tectonic plates. Instead, the tectonic activity happens as the Moon slowly loses heat from when it was formed billions of years ago. And this heat loss is causing the interior to shrink, thus crinkling the surface which creates these distinctive features.

“The Moon is still quaking and shaking from its own internal processes,” Williams said. “It’s been losing heat over billions of years, shrinking and becoming denser.”

So how are scientists able to determine how old these wrinkled ridges are?

Easy – by studying impact craters.

As meteor impacts happen, the surface material is flung up, covering nearby terrain. More impacts mean more debris. This process, known as impact gardening, alters the landscape. Because smaller craters (about the size of a football field) can typically fill to the brim with this type of debris in under a billion years, this gives scientists a basis for time measurement.

Since the images captured by LROC revealed crisp tectonic features, like the wrinkle ridges that cut through the debris, this allowed Williams and his team to deduce that the ridges emerged within the past billion years or so. And these wrinkle ridges are slowly giving the Moon a raisin-like appearance.

Not to worry, though. The lunar shrinkage is indictable to the naked eye. It will still be eons before life on our planet notices measurable changes to the Moon when it’s full. Until then, take yourself outside and look up! The Moon still shines in all her lunar glory, and Jupiter has become visible in the night sky, once again. And you never know what else you’ll see, if you just keep your eyes to the skies!

And if you have a question about the universe, send it to and I’ll feature it in an upcoming article!


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Page, check out her webpage; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Your Questions Answered – Radio Waves in Space

“How is it that things like planets, stars, and other things in space give off radio sounds?”

I love this question. It’s interesting to think that something like a planet or star would give off radio signals that can be recorded and heard. In fact, on YouTube there are several videos of the sounds of different planets and stars. They are eerie to listen to and I recommend doing so with headphones or earbuds.

In order to understand why and how this sound happens, one must first understand magnetic fields, which most planets and stars have.

The magnetic field of planets are usually, as far as scientists know, caused by the liquid of or near a planet’s core. So, for Earth, as an example, the core is solid nickel/iron but is surrounded by molten liquid. The churning of this liquid conducts electricity and has an electric charge.

Every planet’s magnetic field can differ depending on the core. So, in the case of Mars, the magnetic field is not contiguous around the planet’s entirety, likely because its core has solidified and there is no liquid surrounding it. This means that the ancient remnants of its magnetic field are only present in some areas of the planet, itself.

The magnetic field allows a given planet to maintain an atmosphere (and remain habitable if it’s in the goldilocks zone of its parent star).

Without such a field, the highly charged particles emanating from the parent star would blow the atmosphere away and cause other damage to the planet, making it completely uninhabitable. A lack of magnetic field will prevent a planet from producing and maintaining an ozone layer such as Earth’s, which keeps out the other harmful rays of the sun.

For stars, magnetic fields are formed differently.

Stellar magnetic fields are caused by the motion of conductive plasma produced inside a star. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the sun, you’d have noticed large loops of plasma that come out from the surface and go back down again. These regions are caused by the convection happening inside the star as the plasma heats and cools in circular patterns, rising and falling again within the star.

These cause localized areas of electromagnetism. Typically, where the magnetic activity is highest is the areas where we see sunspots.

As charged particles, like those emanating from a stellar body, come into contact with a planet or star’s magnetic field, those particles are accelerated. These speedy particles can give off radio emissions that can sound like whizzes, pops, tones, and even regular static.

Now I bet you’re wondering: “What about rogue planets? If they are not a part of a solar system and are just floating freely in space, do they give off radio signals?”

The answer is: Yes, they do.

Charged particles, like those that we talked about above, continue to travel through space. Remember Newton’s first law of physics: an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. This law applies to charged particles, as well. So, anything that emanated from a stellar body will continue to travel through space until it encounters something. And that includes rogue planets.

While the radio signals given off by this encounter will differ compared to that of any other body nearer to a star, there will still be something that can be recorded and heard.

In the end, any object in the cosmos that has a fluctuating magnetic field can produce radio waves. This means that anything, even asteroids and comets, can emit radio waves that can be detected.

If you’d like to hear some of the sounds recorded by NASA, you can do so by clicking here.

In the meantime, grab your lawn chairs and head outside on any given evening. While you can’t hear the radio signals with your own ears, you never know what you’ll see if you just keep your eyes to the skies.

Have a question about physics, astronomy, or a specific NASA mission? Email them to and be sure to check out my Facebook page and website for all kinds of interesting information about the universe!


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Your astronomy questions answered: What if Jupiter became a star?

Arthur C. Clarke, a man who had his finger on the pulse of the sci fi reading world. If you’ve never read any of his stuff, you’re really missing out on some great fiction writing that is rooted in real science.

One of his series of stories (The Complete Odyssey) is a set of four books (2001, 2010, 2061, and 3001) that follows the idea of aliens who are so much more advanced than humans that they seem god-like. Two of these books have been made into movies. And, in my humble opinion, 2010 is the best of those.

For those have never seen the movie, nor read the book, but plan to…. beware of spoilers ahead.

The story follows Dr. Heywood Floyd, a scientist that sent a team to investigate a large monolith found in orbit of the planet Jupiter back in 2001. The entire team was lost and now, nine years later, he is approached with a proposal to go and find out what really happened to them.

As the course of the story takes us to those answers, while delving into the politics of the cold war, the part I’m going to focus on is near the end when the monolith begins to multiply and seemingly consume the King of Planets. But rather than being taken out of existence, Jupiter ignites, becoming a star (like our own Sun, but on a much smaller scale).

Recently, on my Facebook page, I was asked “With reported lightning storms in its upper atmosphere, why hasn’t it ignited into a star??”

The truth is, Jupiter is a planet plagued with storms. I mean, everyone is familiar enough with its Great Red Spot. This is a storm (much like a hurricane here on Earth) that has been swirling for hundreds of years. But all the lightning on this giant world could not spontaneously cause the fusion process to begin, though igniting the gas within the atmosphere is possible.

Yet, having a planet that’s on fire is not nearly the same thing as the internal, plasmatic burning associated with fusion.

To put things in a different perspective, imagine having a candle and a lightbulb. You can light the candle, but it will only burn for a very finite time. How long depends greatly on wick construction and how much wax is used. Sure, you have light and some heat, but eventually it will be gone. With a lightbulb, the illumination is internal.

Electricity flows into the bulb where it is conducted into a filament that then glows. That light will shine for as long as there is a power source (given the filament is not burned out in the process). Likewise, for Jupiter to become a star, the power source would be that of fusion.

You can read in more detail about the fusion process in my article about black holes.

So, the easy answer is as I mentioned before: Jupiter simply isn’t big enough (doesn’t have the gravitational force necessary) to start the fusion process. As far as scientists know, nothing can change that fact. Jupiter will simply never ignite.

But what if it did?

The new Jupistar would be a small red dwarf star and would shine in the sky in an orange hue, like Mars but much brighter. And if Jupiter somehow began in the internal fusion process at its current size, the first thing that would happen would be a shock wave. This shock wave, caused by the spontaneous ignition, would spread out in all directions.

This would cause many of the asteroids that lie between Mars and Jupiter to be flung toward the inner part of the solar system. Given the size of some of these asteroids, this would be deadly to life on our planet.

Potentially, the extinction level event would dwarf that which killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
But let’s suppose this didn’t happen. We only get hit by tiny asteroids that cause nothing more than a glorious meteor shower, and life remains as it is now. Okay.

There would be times of the year where we were in perpetual twilight due to Jupistar rising at night. At other times of the year, when Jupistar rises in the day time, we would see our large Sun and a smaller, dimmer Sun gracing our skies.

Would this make for warmer days and nights? Probably not.

Keep in mind that the planet Jupiter is 4.2AU (AU is an Astronomical Unit that measures the distance between the Earth and the Sun) away from the Earth at its closest approach. The temperature changes would be all but undetectable, given this distance and how small Jupistar would be.

In its immediate neighborhood, however, things would change a great deal.

One of the largest moons that orbits Jupiter is Europa. This moon is covered in a thick layer of frozen water ice and it is believed that underneath that icy crust lies a liquid ocean. This moon may find itself within the habitable zone of the new Jupistar where the ice would melt and the water warm enough for detectable life to flourish.

Likewise, for Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Though it may not be within the habitable (goldilocks) zone, the icy crust of this moon (which is not unlike Europa) could warm enough to melt and oceanic life may begin to flourish there, as well. This is provided they both survived the initial shock wave and maintained their current positions.

Still, the thought is intriguing. If Jupistar were real, and stayed its current size, we would have many other worlds to which we could travel and explore.

In fact, the idea of this has fired the imagination of one writer with Futurism who made a simulation of this very scenario back in 2014. You can see that video here.

And if you’d like to run your own “what if” scenarios on our solar system, you can download the software from for just about $10.

Have fun and remember that even though Jupiter will never become a star, you should keep looking up. Because you never know what you’ll see if you just keep your eyes to the skies.


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Planetary Effort to Photograph a Black Hole

Scientists around the world have been abuzz lately about a BIG announcement that’s due to be made live, early tomorrow morning. This announcement concerns the ever elusive, and as-of-yet, unseen, black hole.

In anticipation of what we all hope will be the first ever visual unveiling of that which cannot be seen, El Paso Herald-Post’s own Steven Zimmerman asks, “Why haven’t we seen a black hole before? And, what is a black hole?”

In order to fully explain, I will need to take you all on a journey back to the fundamentals of physics. For this explanation, I will not delve into quantum physics. And don’t worry, I’ll make it as painless as possible.

Everything you see, everything you touch, everything you breathe, is made up of atoms. This is something most people learn in their middle school physical science class. Every atom contains the same things: protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Looking much like microscopic solar systems, the nucleus of an atom houses the protons and neutrons. Zipping around the outside of that nucleus are electrons. The number of electrons that orbit is the same as the number of protons within the nucleus. But between the electrons and nucleus is a vast space of nothing.

In fact, the size of the nucleus of an atom and the size of the electrons are so very, very small that the space between them is huge, by comparison. You could say that everything is mostly made of nothing. Mind blowing, right?

The stars that shine in the sky do so by a process known as fusion. Here’s how that works:

Remember the periodic table of elements? You start off with some hydrogen. This is the lightest element on the periodic table. It has only one proton and one electron. In a star, so huge that the gravity is immense, the hydrogen atoms are smashed together—similar to what happens in the Large Hadron Collider—fusing them into helium atoms: two protons and two electrons.

It is this fusion process that powers the star and creates the light and energy we see every day from our very own Sun.

But the process doesn’t stop there. Throughout its life-cycle, the internal gravity of the star is such that atoms continuously smash into each other, creating heavier and heavier elements. So, what started out as hydrogen, eventually becomes carbon, gold, nickel, and eventually iron and lead.

As this happens, the star becomes heavier and heavier. Once it becomes too heavy, and most of its hydrogen supply has been exhausted, the star eventually dies.

There are several different ways in which a star will meet its end, but for the purposes of Steven’s question, we’ll just focus on one.

During the life-cycle of a very large star, the heavier elements are pulled to the center of the star. The more elements that are pulled in, the more densely packed they become. This diminishes the space between the electrons and nucleus of the atoms that make up these heavy elements.

Imagine being crammed into a bus or train car so tightly that there is literally no space between the passengers.

As the giant star reaches the end of its life, the heavy elements are pulled closer and closer together, until the star literally collapses under its own weight. When this happens, you almost literally have no space between the electrons and nucleus of the atoms. So, now the core of the dead star is so tightly packed, and so dense that it is very small in comparison to what it was.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

The Earth is 12,742km (7,917 miles) in diameter. If our beautiful planet were to become a black hole, it would have a diameter of only 17.4mm (0.69 inches)—about the size of a dime.

Now, because these heavy elements are so tightly packed together, the gravitational field created by them is so immense that anything that comes near it will be pulled in with no hope of escape.

In fact, the gravity of this singularity, which is what the tightly packed core of the now dead star is called, is so intense that not even light can escape.

Thus, the name: Black Hole. And that is why we can’t see them.

Any photographer knows that you can’t take a picture of a black dog in a pitch black room without a flash. All that will show up will be the color black.

But black holes have an interesting feature: the event horizon.

In the most basic terms, an event horizon is the point at which material drawn toward a black hole’s gravity swirls around the singularity, pretty much forever. There are many things that can happen to this material as it encounters an event horizon, but I won’t get into it all right now, since that would involve explaining Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Suffice it to say, event horizons, theoretically, can be spotted.

Here’s the thing, though: black holes are only theorized to exist. Astrophysicists believe that most (if not all) galaxies contain one (or more) super massive black hole at its center.

The belief is that it is the gravity of these giant singularities that keeps a galaxy together. Since we’ve never seen one, we can’t prove they are real…until now.

The Event Horizon Telescope is an international collaboration that was formed to continue improving upon the Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

Basically, it links radio dishes across the globe to create an Earth sized telescope.

It’s been used to measure the size of the emissions of two super massive black holes: Sagittarius A (at the center of our own Milky Way) and M87 (at the center of the Virgo A galaxy).

And apparently, they’ve found something exciting!

April 10th, the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration will present its first results in a live press conference that will air around the world. It will take place at 13:00UT (6am MST) where they will present their findings up to this point, and hopefully, some of the first actual pictures ever taken of the event horizon of a super massive black hole.

If you are interested in watching this, set your alarms clocks early and tune into the European Commission YouTube Channel, the EHT Facebook, the EHT Twitter, or the National Science Foundation Live Stream.

If you have any questions about their findings, or black holes in general, feel free to ask me. You can message your questions in real time to my Facebook page or send them via email to


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA Declares Opportunity Mission Complete

Wednesday was a bittersweet day for NASA and JPL as they said goodbye to the second of the rover twins exploring the Red Planet.

Launched in 2003, Opportunity landed shortly after its twin counterpart, Spirit, in 2004.

Though the mission is considered a success, it was declared complete this afternoon after NASA/JPL team members failed to receive a response from Opportunity after having sent the final recovery commands.

Initially slated to run for only 90 days, the total mission lasted a surprising 14 ½ years. At the onset, the mission was racked with issues beginning with a massive solar storm that threatened to irreparably damage the rovers. In order to save functionality, JPL ordered Spirit and Opportunity to completely shut down onboard computers in order to save them.

Once safely on the surface of Mars, mission specialists noticed that the heater on Opportunity’s robotic arm was stuck in the ON position.

This meant that precious battery power was being wasted. JPL then sent commands to the rover instructing it to go into deep sleep mode on a nightly basis. With a battery life consisting of 5000 charge/discharge cycles, it would now operate at a continued 80% capacity for the remainder of its mission.

Because this deep sleep mode could not be initiated prior to the historic dust storm that encircled the planet in June 2018, mission specialists believe this is the main reason for its failure to respond to recovery commands: the battery has likely been completely drained.

Another issue Opportunity encountered during the mission was that of the failure of the flash memory. When this stopped working, Opportunity could no longer save data collected in a given day, prior to shut down at night. This meant that the team back on Earth had to work quickly to download all the data collected each day to prevent an irretrievable loss of valuable information.

Despite these issues, Opportunity spent nearly two decades on Mars, producing some important scientific discoveries.

Akin to a forensic scientist, the rover was a robotic field geologist that used it rock sampling ability to determine information about Mars’ past. While today Mars is a cold, dry, and desolate place, it wasn’t always so. The Red Planet used to be quite the opposite: a hot and steamy place with violent meteor impacts and volcanic explosions. This was proven by Opportunity when it found evidence of past hydrothermal activity.

This evidence shows that Mars may once have been an extremely habitable place for hearty microorganisms.

The first mission given to Opportunity lasted for 9 years and hit geologic pay-dirt from the beginning. Starting at Little Eagle Crater, the rover made the journey to Endurance Crater, and then Victoria Crater.

This mission took 4 ½ years to complete. Younger rocks in these areas showed that liquid water had once existed below the surface. Though to say liquid water gives the wrong impression.

It was discovered that the liquid was in the form of sulfuric acid when the rover determined that the rocks in the area were composed of sulfate sandstone, which is largely made up of sulfur and evaporated salt water.

Once this part of the mission was complete, JPL set its sights on Endeavor Crater. Because of topographical issues, the route to Endeavor was not a direct one, making the journey take years. Once Opportunity was on the rim of the newest target, it saw evidence of drinkable water.

This was determined by studying rocks that predated the creation of the crater, itself, that were composed of clay minerals that are typically formed near neutral Ph (drinkable) water.

Chief Administrator Jim Bridenstine, joked that he takes full responsibility for the end of the rover mission since the massive dust storm and ensuing radio silence occurred shortly after he took on this new position with NASA.

But NASA promises we will see much more science to come with the launch of the Mars 2020 rover in July of next year. It is the legacy of Spirit and Opportunity that helped with the development of this newest mobile science station.

Mars 2020 will be equipped with better wheels, have the ability to talk to the orbiters, and the ability to do things faster with the help of auto-navigation that will allow the rover to navigate more complex terrain.

Slated to land in Jezero Crater in Columbia Hills, the rover will be looking for evidence of past life. Jezero Crater is known to have once had standing water within it and the team hopes to find out if life ever existed there. Additionally, JPL is hoping to find out why Mars’ climate changed and where all the life (if ever any existed) went.

Another cool mission we can look forward to is that of a sample return mission. This will allow samples collected on the Red Planet to be brought back to Earth for more detailed study about Mars’ past climate and habitability.

In talking of plans to eventually send humans to Mars, Bridenstine stresses the importance of figuring out how to safeguard our men and women against the deadly solar flares that affected Spirit and Opportunity en route, given that these flares are a regular occurrence. He reinforced the importance of working with international partners in order to get to Mars safely to work alongside the robots and rovers that will already be there.

He further stated that the main goal is to discover life on another world, especially given that the Curiosity rover found complex organic compounds on the Red Planet not too long ago. Though, Bridenstine admits these compounds do not guarantee that life ever existed on Mars.

As for the rovers, themselves, there are no plans to ever retrieve them. Mars is their permanent home and they sit where they worked as a testament to human ingenuity and the drive to learn and explore.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Herald Post’s Amy Cooley Named ‘NASA Solar System Ambassador’ for West Texas

The El Paso Herald-Post is proud to announce that our contributor Amy Cooley, known best for her column Amy’s Everyday Astronomy, has been selected to be a NASA Solar System Ambassador for West Texas.

After undergoing a rigorous selection process and attending several classes with NASA, Amy is now able to work in an official capacity with educators and the public, alike, to give insight into NASA missions and programs.

Though many individuals apply for this opportunity, few are selected.

It is because of her education and background in astronomy and science that she was chosen to be among this elite group.

As part of her mission, Amy is looking to help educators make learning fun. Her goal has always been to make science and astronomy accessible to everyone. In an effort to show students the wonders of science and astronomy, Amy wants to come and inspire your students by engaging them in discussions and activities that will fire their imaginations. You can contact her at for more information.

As her first official act as NASA Ambassador, she would like to share with all college professors an exciting opportunity for their science and engineering students.

Professors will be able to connect their students with NASA and other college engineering students through the 2019 NASA Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge (NASA OPSPARC).

This mission (Mission 3) offers unique mentorship opportunities with other college students around the country. It will include building 3D virtual models and developing a marketing plan, which will all take place in a protected 3D virtual world. In order to get started, you can download the packet online.

Deadline for Mission 3 products is February 19, 2019. Selected teams will be notified and introduced to their college mentor by Friday, February 22nd. Mentors will work with their teams in the virtual world between February 22nd thru March 26th. Six finalists will be selected by March 29th.

Finalists will present to NASA and industry researchers April 10th and 11th within the virtual world. Winning teams will be announced by early May and will be invited to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center for behind-the-scenes workshops and an award ceremony June 19th and 20th.

If you have any questions about the NASA OPSPARC Mission, you can contact Sharon Bowers at

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Global Warming and Its Effects on Seasons

As the Midwest prepares for a strong storm system caused by a polar vortex, some are wondering how there can still be talk of global warming when temperatures in the northern United States are due to reach lows not seen in decades, or even centuries.

The science behind these weather patterns and their connections can seem complicated. And though some still deny the human contribution to climate change, the overall scientific evidence of global warming is irrefutable.

As temperatures around the globe increase, polar ice melts, causing ocean and sea levels to rise. This allows for more evaporation to occur while simultaneously shifting the jet stream further south.

When this happens, colder arctic air pushes southward during the winter months. This, coupled with the excess evaporation of water, increases the chances for harsher winters with heavier snow storms and more freezing snaps.

This happens due to a rise in overall greenhouse gas levels. As the levels rise, many plants are unable to absorb as large a percentage of those gases as they could in the past due to the overabundance.

This increases the amount of greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere.

When this happens, the remaining carbon gasses then cause a rise in temperatures during spring and summer months. Hotter temperatures mean shorter growing seasons for various crops and other types of plants.

And the cycle continues.

In fact, a new study by NASA is showing a correlation between warming of tropical oceans and the potential affects it could have on increasing the frequency of extreme rain storms during summer months in the coming century.

NASA’s JPL study team recently combed through 15 years of data that was gathered by their Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument above the tropical oceans in order to determine if there is a correlation between the average sea surface temperature and the onset of severe storms.

What they discovered was that these extreme storms formed when the water’s surface temperature was higher than about 82°F (28°C).

“It is somewhat common sense that severe storms will increase in a warmer environment. Thunderstorms typically occur in the warmest season of the year,” says Hartmut Aumann, leader of the NASA/JPL team that did the study. “But our data provide the first quantitative estimate of how much they are likely to increase, at least for the tropical oceans.”

The currently accepted climate models have projected that the steady increase of carbon gases in the atmosphere will cause tropical ocean surface temperatures to rise by as much as 4.8°F (2.7°C) by the end of this century.

If this were to happen, the study team concludes that the frequency of extreme storms is likely to increase by as much as 60% by that time.

Admittedly, climate models are not perfect. But their results can be used as guidelines for those that are looking to prepare for the potential effects of a changing climate. These studies can also be used to help us determine how we can all work together to change the outcome by changing the way we affect the environment.

“Our results quantify and give a more visual meaning to the consequences of the predicted warming of the oceans,” Aumann said. “More storms mean more flooding, more structure damage, more crop damage, and so on, unless mitigating measures are implemented.”


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA Confirms Voyager 2 Entered Interstellar Space

Back in 1977, Voyager 2 was launched 16 days before Voyager 1. Both spacecraft were designed to last five years in order to conduct up-close and personal studies of Jupiter and Saturn.

As the success and longevity of the missions continued, remote reprogramming was used to give the twins greater capabilities. This allowed the mission parameters to change from a two-planet to a four-planet flyby.

Knowing the spacecraft were never destined to return to Earth, each was loaded with a Golden Record of Earth sounds, pictures, and messages in multiple languages.

The Voyager story has inspired generations of scientists and engineers, as well as music, art, and films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

And while we’ve not found that either has yet been enhanced by alien tech, the spacecraft and their respective Golden Records could last billions of years. While the twins haven’t been out in space for quite that long, their five-year mission has stretched to 41 years, so far. This makes Voyager 2 the longest running mission of NASA.

Even though Voyager 1 was launched second, the twins were sent on different trajectories, allowing Voyager 1 to enter interstellar space back in 2012.

Interstellar space is the area that lies beyond the Heliosphere. For reference: the outflow of plasma from the sun, also known as solar wind, creates a bubble that envelopes all the planets in our solar system. It is this bubble that is known as the Heliosphere.

The space surrounding Voyager 2 was predominately filled with plasma flowing from the Sun, until recently.

Evidence of this comes from Voyager’s Plasma Science Experiment (PLS), an onboard instrument that uses electrical current of the plasma to detect the temperature, density, speed, pressure, and flux of the solar wind. Since November 5th, Voyager 2 has observed a steep decline in the speed of the solar wind particles making it likely that it has exited the Heliosphere.

And, indeed, NASA confirmed today that Voyager 2 has also entered interstellar space.

“Voyager has a very special place for us in our heliophysics fleet,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Our studies start at the Sun and extend out to everything the solar wind touches. To have the Voyagers sending back information about the edge of the Sun’s influence, gives us an unprecedented glimpse of truly uncharted territory.”

Although the twins have left the heliosphere, they have no yet left the solar system. Far beyond the planets is an area known as the Oort Cloud. This is a collection of small objects that are still under the Sun’s gravitational influence. While the actual width of the Oort Cloud in not known, it is estimated to extend from roughly 1000 AU to about 100,000 AU (an astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance from the Earth to the Sun and is the standard measurement used when calculating distances within our solar system).

Given this estimation, it will likely be another 300 years before Voyager 2 reaches the inner edge of the Oort Cloud at its current speed. That means it could take 30,000 years to fly beyond it.

“I think we’re all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s JPL. “This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Now, we’re looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.”


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Astronomers Confirm Presence of Water in Exoplanet Atmosphere

For decades, scientists have been on the hunt for planets outside our solar system. Finding them is key to continuing the search for life outside our planet, as well as learning about how other star systems are formed.

Detecting exoplanets is no easy business, however, since we lack the long-range sensor technology of the Star Trek Universe. But astronomers are ingenious inventors of new ideas, and over the years have come up with different methods for detecting these alien worlds.

The first method that worked was the Radial Velocity Method (aka Doppler Spectroscopy). Relying on the fact that stars are affected by the gravitational tugs from their orbiting planets, Radial Velocity is able to measure changes in the light spectrum of the star being monitored.

This works because when the star is moving closer to the observer, the light appears slightly shifted toward the blue spectrum. If the star is being pulled away, the spectrum shift will be slightly red.

For finding Earth-like planets, Transit Photometry is used. This method measures minute changes in brightness as a planet passes between the observer and the host star. If this change lasts for a fixed amount of time and occurs at regular intervals, that increases the likelihood that a planet is passing in front of the star during its orbital period.

Measuring how much the brightness of the host star changes gives scientists an idea of the actual size of the planet. When using this method in conjunction with the Radial Velocity method, astronomers are able to calculate the planet’s density.

Microlensing is the method used to detect planets that are not in our cosmic neighborhood. This method, based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, is a bit more complicated. Here’s how it works: let’s say you have a far away star, we’ll call him Roger. Roger has a large, overweight neighbor named Big Blue.

When Roger and Big Blue are very close to each other, say talking near the fence line that divides their yards about the latest football game, the lensing affect will cause Roger and Big Blue to appear further apart than they actually are. Now imagine that on another day, Roger is standing in line at a drugstore counter directly behind Big Blue. Roger would now appear to be surrounding Big Blue on all sides.

This affect is known as the Einstein Ring, and happens when the ‘lensing star’ (Big Blue) bends the light of the source star (Roger) all around it. Now, picture Roger and Big Blue are at a barbeque and Roger’s young son, Ivan, is standing closer to Big Blue than he is to Roger.

According to Einstein, this would cause there to appear to be a third Roger. When observers from Earth measure this, it appears as a temporary spike in brightness that can last from several hours to several days. When hunting for planets that are very far away, these spikes are telltale signs of a planet. And by measuring the characteristics of the light curve (intensity and length), astronomers can learn a lot about the planet’s mass and orbit.

Directly observing exoplanets is very difficult to do, but not impossible. In 2008, scientists were able, for the first time, to directly image three planets orbiting the star HR8799 thanks to the Keck and Gemini telescopes. In 2010, astronomers were able to image a fourth planet in this system. But this year, the focus has been on one planet in particular, HR8799c. At seven times the mass of Jupiter it’s a rather large target.

Using a combination of the two telescope’s technologies, scientists were able to confirm the presence of water in its atmosphere. Adaptive optics on one telescope were used to counteract the blurring affects of the Earth’s atmosphere. The spectrometer on the Keck 2 called NIRSPEC (Near-Infrared Cryogenic Echelle Spectrograph), is a high-resolution spectrometer that works in the L-Band.

This type of infrared light has a wavelength of 3.5 micrometers which is a region of the spectrum that shows many detailed chemical fingerprints.

“The L-Band has gone largely overlooked before because the sky is brighter at this wavelength,” says Dimitri Mawet, an associate professor of astronomy at Caltech and research scientist at JPL. “If you were an alien with eyes tuned to the L-Band, you’d see an extremely bright sky. It’s hard to see exoplanets through this veil.”

But, when astronomers combined L-Band spectrography with the adaptive optics, they were able to overcome these difficulties. Instead, they were able to precisely measure the chemical signature of the atmosphere of HR8799c, which confirmed not only the presence of water but the absence of methane.

“We are now more certain about the lack of methane in this planet,” said Ji Wang, former postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and Assistant Professor at Ohio State University. “This may be due to mixing in the planet’s atmosphere. The methane, which we would expect to be there on the surface, could be diluted if the process of convection is bringing up deeper layers of the planet that don’t have methane.”

With technologies like adaptive optics and the spectroscopy of NIRSPEC being applied to future telescopes such as KPIC (Keck Planet Imager and Characterizer), direct planet imaging will be able to detect alien worlds that are fainter and closer to their host star than ever before. In the meantime, astronomers are not only learning a great deal about the ways planets in our universe form, but they are finally able to see these worlds with their own eyes.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA to Broadcast Russian Supply Mission to ISS

Back in early October, the Soyuz Spacecraft carrying Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and Astronaut Nick Hague was forced to abort its mission during launch due to separation failure of the first stage boosters.

Luckily for those aboard the ISS, there were still plenty of supplies to get the crew through the next few months of zero-G living.

Recently, NASA announced the Russian cargo vessel, Progress 71, is set to launch this Friday, November 16th from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1:41pm EST.

Loaded with almost three tons of fuel, food, and supplies, the unmanned spacecraft will dock with the Zvezda Service Module on the

Photo courtesy NASA

Russian segment where it will remain for the next four months.

In March, the Progress 71 will depart for deorbit into Earth’s atmosphere.

For those interested in watching the launch live, you can see it on NASA Television Website. For those here in the Borderland, the live stream will begin at 11am local time.

Additionally, if you’d like to watch the live broadcast of the docking, tune in to NASA TV on Sunday, November 18th, at 11:45am MST.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Swedish Research Team Develops New Solar Energy Storage Method

El Paso is known as the Sun City for a good reason. From blistering summers, to mild winters, the desert southwest knows the sun well.

On average, we experience more sunny days than any other kind of weather. And given the amount of energy the sun puts out every hour—enough to power the entire planet Earth for one year—you’d think converting to solar power would be the best option. But with the cost of solar paneling and converting buildings to use these options, it can be very a little expensive to make the change.

Surprisingly, the biggest drawback to solar power conversion may be the batteries. They store only a limited amount of the total energy received by the sun. This means power usage needs to be closely monitored. Gauges and meters must be observed in order to insure you have enough energy to use at night and during cloudy days. We won’t even talk about the recurring cost of replacing the batteries when needed.

But a change could soon be on the horizon.

A research team in Sweden has made a potential breakthrough in the ability to store solar energy. As an alternative to batteries, the team has developed a specialized fluid called Solar Thermal Fuel. Composed of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, the fluid can hold energy from the sun for long periods of time and expel it on demand in the form of heat. When the molecules are hit by sunlight, the bonds between atoms are rearranged. This chemical conversion traps energy within the molecules. The energy stays in the storage container even when the molecules cool down to room temperature.

When energy is needed, the molecules are passed through a catalyst. This process rearranges the chemical bonds back to what they were which releases a lot of heat. The hope is that this can be used in residential heating systems, water heaters, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and much more.

In a recent interview with NBC News, MIT engineer, Jeffrey Grossman explained, “A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand.”

The emissions-free energy system can now store energy for up to 18 years, according to nanomaterials scientist Kasper Moth-Poulsen from Chalmers University. In fact, the researchers claim their fluid are currently capable of holding 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram. According to the NBC interview, that’s double the capacity of Tesla’s Powerwall batteries.

This has the potential to save money and cut down on pollution when it comes to the various heating needs of a home or commercial building. All that’s left is to figure out how to turn this energy into usable electricity for powering all our electronic devices.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

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