Observations made with the Hubble Space Telescope in just the past two weeks have revealed yet another moon in the Pluto system: S/2012 P 1, aka “P5” (circled, above). This wayward chunk of ice and rock may be no more than about 15 miles in diameter, the size of a small city, and irregularly shaped. Why should anyone care how many moons this “former” planet has? Because a spacecraft from Earth is on its way to give us our first close-up view of this distant moon — the New Horizons mission, arriving in 2015. We’ll be in largely uncharted waters, and the discovery of more Plutonian moons means that even smaller ones may exist that we can’t see from Earth. That makes for a potentially dangerous flyby, although we will be as prepared as we can to visit this totally unfamiliar place. There are new discoveries to be made right here, in our own Solar System, still. -JCB
On Sunday, June 10, a potentially hazardous asteroid thought to have been 500 meters (0.31 miles) wide was discovered by Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. Fortunately for us, asteroid 2012 LZ1 drifted safely by, coming within 14 lunar distances from Earth on Thursday, June 14. Phew.
But as it turns out, this particular space rock was a civilization-killing asteroid in disguise.
For the second day in a row, an active region on the sun has erupted with a coronal mass ejection, blasting the beautifully dynamic magnetic bubble of energetic plasma in the direction of Earth.
(From spaceweather.com: “The fast-moving (1360 km/s) cloud isexpected to hit our planet’s magnetic field on June 16th at 14:00 UT, possibly sparking a geomagnetic storm. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras.” That time is about 10AM EDT on Saturday, but there is always some uncertainty in the delay between the arrival of a coronal mass ejection on Earth and the onset of aurorae. -JCB)
Before the doomsayers hijacked “Planet X” and used it as a phantom (a.k.a. “Nibiru”) to scare people into believing the 2012 doomsday hype, the hunt for Planet X was an exciting astronomical quest to find a hypothetical world in the outermost reaches of the solar system in the early 20th century.
Although dwarf planet Pluto was discovered during the search for Planet X in 1930, apparently ending the quest, there is enduring evidence for the existence of a substantial planet gravitationally shaping the population of minor bodies in the Kuiper belt and beyond. The only problem is, we can’t see it.
Scientists are planning to use NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to observe next month’s historic transit of Venus across the sun’s face.
But there’s a twist. Researchers can’t point Hubble anywhere near the sun, because our star’s bright light could damage the telescope’s super-sensitive instruments. So Hubble will watch the June 5-6 Venus transit by using the moon as a mirror.
The goal is to see if Hubble can determine the makeup of Venus’ atmosphere by studying sunlight that has poured through it. Astronomers already know a great deal about Venus’ air, so next month’s observations are a test run to see if the technique could be used to determine the atmospheric composition of faraway alien planets, researchers said.
Scientists hope the method can help them find an “alien Earth,” a habitable planet much like our own, orbiting a distant star. Venus is an excellent proxy for this search because it’s nearly the same size and mass as Earth, researchers said.