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Did you see in the news that Canadian astronomers have revealed some details about mysterious signals emanating from a distant galaxy. They don’t really know the exact nature and the origin of the radio waves. But don’t they pick up these signals all of time?

Actually, they don’t get these kinds of signals. This has only been reported once before.The 13 FRBs (fast radio bursts) had a very unusual repeating signal. They were all coming the same source about 1.5 billion light years away. Let’s repeat that – 1.5 billion light years away.

These cosmic puzzles were picked up by the CHIME observatory, located in British Columbia. It has four 100-metre-long, semi-cylindrical antennas, which scan the entire northern sky each day. The telescope only went into operation last year and almost immediately detected the radio bursts.

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At least a quarter of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy have a planet with surface conditions very similar to Earth and the chemistry of life as we know it could develop. With tens of billions of stars in the Milky Way, it is quite likely we are not alone.

Are the aliens trying to contact us? Contact? They may already be visiting.

The solidly unscientific The New Yorker asks “Have Aliens Found Us?” in an interview with a Harvard astronomer about a mysterious interstellar object.

This story starts back in October 2017 when astronomers at the University of Hawaii spotted something strange out there in our solar system. They named it ‘Oumuamua which is the Hawaiian word for a scout or messenger. They described it as “a red and extremely elongated asteroid.”

Big deal. I write about asteroids all the time. Ah, but this was the first interstellar object to be detected within our solar system.

The interview was with Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, who was co-author on a paper about ‘Oumuamua’s “peculiar acceleration.” That is, it wasn’t moving like most asteroids.

Loeb suggested that the object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth’s vicinity by an alien civilization.” Whoa.

Headline #2: He later said that we might communicate with the civilization that sent the probe, and “If these beings are peaceful, we could learn a lot from them.”

I’m a bit suspicious of those scientists who detected ‘Oumuamua said that they saw it “too late” in its journey to photograph it.

There is no photo of the object, but based on how it spins and how its brightness changes, it is assumed to look like a cigar. Or a pancake.

It was the deviation from the expected orbit that interested Loeb and some others.  Where is it getting the extra push in acceleration? Maybe it is the light from the sun. That would happen with a solar sail. But that would mean it would have to be less than a millimeter thick in order for that to work. And that would be mean that someone had made it.  A scout from a technological civilization?

Loeb admits that if some other distant civilization sent out ‘Oumuamua, they might not exist any more. We have sent out lots of stuff from the Voyager spacecrafts to episodes of I Love Lucy and by the time those aliens outside our solar system discover our stuff and figure out how to play that Voyager record and why Lucy always wanted to be in Ricky’s shows, we may not exist.

I hope one of us makes contact before it’s all over.

Sources
cbsnews.com/news/fast-radio-burst…
newyorker.com/news/…oumuamua

Ultima Thule sounds like a superhero or a metal rock band.  It is heroic, in a way, and it is rock.

To welcome in 2019, just after the Earthly celebrations, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Ultima Thule. Formerly known by the very un-superhero names Kuiper Belt Object an 2014 MU69, Ultima Thule is the farthest object that any craft has ever visited. It is a tiny fragment of the early solar system.

An artistic rendering of New Horizons when it flew by Pluto Image: NASA/APL

New Horizons successfully “phoned home” at 10:28 a.m. EST, letting NASA scientists know all of its systems survived the flyby of Ultima Thule. The first real images will now slowly trickle in over the coming hours and days.

I view this as wonderful an awesome is the true wonder and awe senses of those words.

Maybe even more amazing is that New Horizons will send information back to Earth. I don’t even get a good WiFi signal when I bring my laptop upstairs to the bedroom. The New Horizons exploratory spacecraft is about four billion miles (6.6 billion km) from us. Wow.  It takes about a bit more than six hours for the signals to reach NASA’s Deep Space Network.

On New Year’s Day morning, New Horizons signaled that it had made the flyby unharmed.

Some may dismiss all this about a far-out space rock as trivial. How does it help me in my daily life? I can’t speak intelligently on the scientific data obtained and how it will be used, but I see great value in us pushing further and knowing more about what is “out there” and where it all came from. And if that doesn’t fit into your view of science and religion, I guess we’ll just have to disagree.

Updates on New Horizons at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu and NASA’s mission to Pluto
and the Kuiper Belt from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Want to know where the name Ultima Thule comes from? Check out this post on another one of my blogs.

Does the Sun feel any closer to you today? I don’t mean does it feel warmer – though you might assume that to be true if it was any closer. Tonight, January 2, 2019, Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun for this entire year.

The moment of this special point in our orbit is called perihelion, a word we get from the Greek roots peri (near) and helios (sun).  The actual moment of perihelion will be 11:20 p.m. CST tonight.

Don’t expect to feel anything. Like most celestial occurrences, we don’t feel the effects immediately (like the change of seasons) or at all (like perihelion).

How close is close for the Sun? Earth will be 91,403,554 miles (147,099,761 km) from the Sun. Still, pretty far away. But in six months when we are farthest away (aphelion) and is most distant, the distance will be about 3 million miles (5 million km) further away.

Are you surprised that when we are farthest away from the sun in early July, it will be summer for us in the Northern Hemisphere.

The winter solstice has historically been more than just the day that winter officially begins. It has been a religious event throughout history. This was particularly true in places where climates meant there were dramatically different seasons.

I have written here over the years about the solstices and there is only so much I can say about the technical aspects of this celestial event.

Solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) because the Sun did seem to pause on that day and then move another way. The days lengthen after this and, after the longest night, the nights shorten.

The winter solstice occurs between December 21 and 22 each year in the northern hemisphere. (In the southern hemisphere, their winter solstice will be between June 20 and 21.)

This is called the shortest day or the longest night of the year. This is the day when there is no sunlight at the North Pole.

The ancients associated seasons with deities. The ancient Greek god of winter is Boreas. The Norse god of winter is Ullr. In Celtic mythology, there is the god Cailleach and goddess Beira. Since winter could be a brutal and killing season in some places, appeasing the god of winter made sense.

As mythologies gave way to religions with one God, the old gods of winter changed to new personifications of the seasons. These characters, like Old man Winter, were someone to blame for your hardships, and someone to please so that spring would return.

Russia’s Father Frost is very similar to Old Man Winter and In Russian folklore, the character is known as Morozko.

Old Man Winter is a personification of winter that comes from ancient Greek mythology and Old World pagan beliefs that became a modern character in literature and popular culture.

Uncredited illustration of Old Man Winter, used for “Winter” in Child Life: A Collection of Poems, edited by John Greenleaf Whittier,

Ancient mythologies had gods for meteorological forces (thunder, lightning), each direction of the wind, and the seasons.

In the Greek myths, the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, had her daughter Persephone kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld. It so depressed her , she became so despondent that she could not care for the lands, and winter took over. After a deal was struck with Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the Earth for six months of the year at which time the lands thrived, but every six months she would return to the underworld and the seasons would change again.

Each direction of wind was considered a god. Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind and was shown in artwork as an old man who brought winter. In some Celtic traditions, the Oak King is considered a deity of the winter solstice. But he was also seen as a life force. The Oak King battled the Holly King who ruled from the start of summer. The Oak King’s reigned during the darkest time of the year, like the solstice, his coming was hopeful because it marked the gradual lengthening of the days and progression towards spring.

For the Norse mythologies, Ullr was the god of winter and son of a frost giant. When Odin was gone in winter, he ruled Asgard.

There are many holidays that were part of European culture and were able to be preserved within religious beliefs. Father Winter survived as Santa Claus. Evergreen tree worship survives in the Christmas tree tradition. There are still Christmas-time customs that are non-Christian.

Father Winter is an ancient Pagan figure who gave gifts of fruit, plants, and herbs. He wore a cape and delivered his gifts on a white horse.

Winter probably seemed to arrive about a month ago if you live in a northern climate like Paradelle. But now it’s official. If you get the winter blues, perhaps you should think of the winter solstice as it was once viewed – as the turning of the Sun, the lengthening of the days, and the first step on the celestial path to spring. Enjoy the journey.

I will be traveling over the weekend and away from my computer, so I’m giving an early post about three upcoming celestial observations

moon.

Saturday, December 22, 2018 is our final full moon of the year and it occurs less than a day after the Winter solstice. That is close enough that to most people it will look like a Full Moon on the solstice.

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice will be the longest winter night, but a big bright Moon will be a celestial nightlight for many of us. This is the third closest and largest of this year’s 13 full moons.

I would guess to the ancients who were attentive to celestial occurrences, they might have seen deeper meanings in these three simultaneous events. A December solstice and Full Moon happening less than a day apart last happened in 2010. The next time will be 2029. 

I missed any good view of the Geminid meteor showers last week due to cloud and rain. This week the annual Ursid meteor shower occurs and they typically peak around the December solstice. They will still be strong on the 22nd and continue until about the 28th.

The Ursids are not as impressive as the Geminids, although if you have never seen a meteor shower of “falling stars” or “fireballs” (get those kids outside!) seeing even a few is pretty impressive. I would recommend that you go out and look to the Big and Little Dippers. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor give their names to the meteor shower and are easy to find late at night high in the north-northeast. The big glare of the first December solstice full moon since 2010 will unfortunately being a celestial nightlight that will wash out some of the darkness.

You never see the Moon rotate as in the video above where it spins in full rotation. This footage is from NASA who explains that we never see this because our Moon is tidally locked in its orbit to the Earth, and so always shows us only one side.

It takes some digital technology to combine many HD images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to make this virtual Moon rotation video. In this time-lapse video, we start with the standard Earth view of the Moon, then an entire lunar month is condensed into 24 seconds.

Early full moons in December were called the Moon Before Yule by the European colonists who also knew it as the Oak Moon (Medieval English), Frost Moon, Freezing Moon, and Snow Moon.

Native Americans had many names for this Full Moon including Long Night Moon, Cold Moon, Small Spirits Moon, When the Wolves Run Together (Cheyenne) Moon of Respect (Hopi) and Moon of Popping Trees.

 

meteors

Geminids in the northern hemisphere by Asim Patel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via commons.wikimedia.org

The Geminid meteor shower is a very reliable annual meteor shower that will visit us again this week.

The next several nights are probably the best nights for watching with the peak morning is likely to be December 14, 2018, but the morning of December 13 might offer a good display, too, and meteor watchers have been catching Geminids for some nights now.

You can watch in the late evening, but the best viewing hours are typically around 2 a.m., no matter where you are on Earth. And this year there will only be a waxing crescent moon, so moonlight won’t wash out the darkness.

The meteors appear to come from (radiate from) the constellation Gemini, which rises around sunset and moves overhead into morning. The best views are usually between midnight and 4am.

The Geminids are slow-moving dust particles when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. “Slow” is relative here – they are only moving at 22 miles per second. The friction with air molecules will burn them up and make a nice glow for us to watch.

These showers are caused by the object 3200 Phaethon, which is an asteroid. That is unusual and this is one of the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet. This asteroid has an orbit that brings it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid. And that is how the asteroid got its name.

Phaeton

Gustave Moreau: Fall of Phaéton (Chute de Phaéton) watercolor study, via Wikimedia

Phaethon is a name from mythology.  Phaethon was the Ancient Greek name for the planet Jupiter, a planet whose motions and cycles were observed by the ancients and often used in poetry and myth.

In mythology, Phaethon’s father was the sun god Helios who granted his son’s wish to drive the sun chariot for a day.  Phaethon was unable to control the horses and to prevent the chariot from hitting and destroying Earth, Zeus knocked it out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Phaethon fell to earth and was killed.

Of course, meteors are not falling stars, and they are not coming from the chariot of the Sun, but it does make for a good story.

 

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