Our Increasingly Cluttered Skies

A digital illustration of a network of satellites around the Earth. Visual: Andriy Onufriyenko/Moment via Getty Images

Our thanks to Undark for this:

Earth’s Orbit Is About to Get More Crowded

The military is launching a fleet of small, interconnected satellites to collect data, track missiles, and aim weapons.

SOMETIME THIS COMING March, a network of 10 small satellites winged with solar panels is scheduled to launch into Earth’s low orbit. Continue reading

Sometimes, The Sky Really Is Falling

The meteorite that crashed into Ruth Hamilton’s bedroom in Golden, British Columbia. Ruth Hamilton

Natural wonders have been a mainstay of our work on this platform since we started. We have tried diligently to mix those wonders with appropriate warnings about how nature’s wonders can also be transformed into danger, without being too Henny Penny about it. But when we read stories like this one, we can mix our wonder at the universe with our concern about what the sky might do next:

Meteorite Crashes Through Ceiling and Lands on Woman’s Bed

After a fireball streaked through the Canadian sky, Ruth Hamilton, of British Columbia, found a 2.8-pound rock the size of a large man’s fist near her pillow.

The meteorite in Ms. Hamilton’s bed and the hole in the ceiling caused by it. Ruth Hamilton

Ruth Hamilton was fast asleep in her home in British Columbia when she awoke to the sound of her dog barking, followed by “an explosion.” She jumped up and turned on the light, only to see a hole in the ceiling. Her clock said 11:35 p.m.

At first, Ms. Hamilton, 66, thought that a tree had fallen on her house. But, no, all the trees were there. She called 911 and, while on the phone with an operator, noticed a large charcoal gray object between her two floral pillows.

“Oh, my gosh,” she recalled telling the operator, “there’s a rock in my bed.”

A meteorite, she later learned. Continue reading

Heavenly Particles Made Visible

9780760352649This is among the more unusual book reviews in a while, thanks to the Science section of the New York Times, and William J. Broad. We appreciate a radically new perspective every now and then:


Varieties of space dust, barely the width of a human hair. These photomicrographs were made with a special camera setup that magnifies the dust grains nearly 3,000 times. CreditJan Braly Kihle/Jon Larsen

After decades of failures and misunderstandings, scientists have solved a cosmic riddle — what happens to the tons of dust particles that hit the Earth every day but seldom if ever get discovered in the places that humans know best, like buildings and parking lots, sidewalks and park benches.

The answer? Nothing. Look harder. The tiny flecks are everywhere.

An international team found that rooftops and other cityscapes readily collect the extraterrestrial dust in ways that can ease its identification, contrary to science authorities who long pooh-poohed the idea as little more than an urban myth Continue reading

Watch the Perseids this Week

Photographer Ruslan Merzlyakov captured this spectacular photograph of the Perseid meteor shower filling the Danish sky in the early morning of Aug. 13, 2015. Photo via space.com

Sometimes you should just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show, especially when it’s broadcast by nature itself. This week, between August 11th and 12th, try to find time to stay awake once the moon has set, and a place you can be as far from light pollution as possible, and watch the sky for what promises to be a particularly active meteor shower from the Swift-Tuttle Comet, near the Perseus constellation:

According to NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke, the Perseids are perhaps the most popular meteor shower of the year. They will be in “outburst” in 2016, which means they’ll appear at double the usual rates. Learn more about the 2016 Perseid meteor shower in this video.

“This year, instead of seeing about 80 Perseids per hour, the rate could top 150 and even approach 200 meteors per hour,” Cooke said. It’s the first such outburst since 2009.

Continue reading

Leaving an Ugly Mark in Space

It’s not just here on earth that litter is a problem. In the last 40 years, there have been more than 5,000 launches into space, and they’ve ended up leaving a mark, and now scientists are worried about the litter they’ve left behind. ‘Space junk‘ are the small objects that we’ve left behind in space.They include things like old satellites, gloves, and toolkits accidentally dropped by astronauts. In 2014, the International Space Station had to move three times to avoid lethal chunks of space debris. The problem also threatens crucial and costly satellites in orbit. So what is the scale of the space junk problem, and what can we do about it?

Continue reading

Intra-Galactic Weather Forecasting

A NASA artist’s illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in near-Earth space.

Click the image above to go to the 5-minuted podcasted explanation of a project you have likely never heard of.  But it sounds important (perhaps to explain why sometimes your mobile phone gets inexplicably scrambled) and as with the story here it may inspire the career aspirations of a few young clever dreamers:

“When one of these big storms comes in, it can actually change and flex the magnetic field around the Earth,” Stratton says. “So we’ll measure that and then we’ll see how all of that energy that’s coming out of the sun deposits into the Earth’s magnetic field, into the radiation belts.”

Ordinary satellites wouldn’t survive so much radiation. So Stratton and a large team at the Applied Physics Lab have spent years designing and building two very tough spacecraft.

Each of the spacecraft is an octagon about 4 feet tall. But once they are in space, they will deploy booms that extend about the length of a football field.

As Seen From Space

In retrospect, it seems that everyone I’ve met wanted to be an astronaut at some point in their life. And then we found out about the mind-blowing mental requirements, and hastily adjusted our horizons to firemen or veterinarians, or for the ambitious, treasure hunter. But today’s astronauts aren’t the chiseled-from-fossilized-textbook astronauts of the past (at least, that’s how I’ve imagined them) – besides academic brilliance, creative thunderstorms seem to be commonplace in those launched into space.  Continue reading