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If It Weren’t For This, the Stars Wouldn’t Have Their Names!

We’ve all heard the stories of the North Star guiding sailors through the mighty oceans to their destinations. We’ve got songs and poems based on stars – remember chanting “like a diamond in the sky” every time you were asked to recite a nursery rhyme?

Star Cluster
A Star Cluster

Stars have been around for centuries and have been the point of fascination for as long as we humans have existed.

But were you aware of the fact that every star that you see shining in the sky on a clear night actually has a name?

Stars were given names since the ancient times. It gave astronomers the opportunity to study select stars in a precise manner.

Why else do you think the North Star is called so?

While some stars get proper names, others are named using a catalog number as and when they are observed by someone. However, the interesting question remains:

How do stars get their names?

Let’s find that out.

In ancient times the constellations were seen as patterns that resembled objects, animals, or people – some constellations like “Orion” even became a representation of the Greek myth of Orion the Hunter. This is one of the major reasons why most stars have been named in a mix of Latin and Greek languages. There is Bellatrix and Cappella (Latin), Canopus and Alcyone (Greek), and Alnair and Caph (Arabic), among various other stars.

Can you name a few popular stars? Let us give you a start; there’s the Sirius and Rigel – how many more can you think of?

But giving fancy names to the stars has diminished to a mere act of the past. In today’s world, Stars are mostly assigned a numerical descriptor. The descriptor is reflective of the star’s position in the sky at night. These numbers are generally associated to a catalog. The star catalogs are used to group stars with similar properties or on the basis of the instrument that discovered their radiation initially.

Modern day astronomers often make use of constellations to name the stars. There are 88 officially recognized constellations in the universe. It’s the International Astronomical Union that keeps record and track of the naming of celestial objects. The stars within a constellation are named using Greek alphabets: alpha, beta, gamma, and so on followed by the name of their constellation for scientific recognition. The brightest star called is the “alpha” and the rest follow. Once all Greek letters are used, the remaining stars are assigned numerical designations.

There are a number of stars that have been named since the ancient times, like the Betelgeuse. In Arabic it translates to “the hand of the giant”. Since the Betelgeuse is the brightest star of the Orion constellation, it gets the scientific name Alpha Orionis.

Did you know that the North Star’s actual name is Polaris? It is also sometimes referred to as the Pole Star.

As displeasing to the ears as the modern day names of the stars may sound, thy prove extremely useful in helping astronomers search, study, and learn more about a particular star in the night sky.  These names are internationally agreed upon and used worldwide to avoid confusions.


Five Weird Astronomy Theories That Will Make Your Heart Beat Faster

The ancient race of humans used to believe that the earth was flat. So, when various Greek philosophers, Muslim astronomers and other legendary scientists claimed it to be spherical, people were quite shocked. Imagine spending your whole life thinking that the end of the waterfall marks the end of the earth and one can topple right over the edge and into the hands of the monsters if they were not careful. Then, all their beliefs were declared to be baseless. People were surprised, shocked and stunned. However, you will still not be as creeped out by the theory as you are going to be after reading about the following crazy astronomical theories that might or might not be true:

The Theory of Velikovsky

According to Velikovsky – who was not a scientist but still had many theories – all the disastrous happenings mentioned in the bible actually did take place. To drive his point home, he claimed that it was Venus and Mars that were responsible for it. According to his theory, anytime a planet passes too closely to another planet, it brings chaos. He also stated that Venus could actually move backwards to cause destruction and disasters. Though his theory was rejected by scientists, it is still scary to think that any time Venus and Mars get a little too close for comfort, we’re done for.

The Theory about What Lies Beyond the Hubble Volume:

After some findings and researches, many astronomers claim that there are many other universes just like ours and that the solar system is infinite. But this is not the weird part; the weird part about this theory is the belief that each universe contains an earth just like the one we live in and moreover, each earth houses someone who is just like us, talks like us, walks like us and even looks like us. However, for all we know, the “other “us could be a global rock star in one of the other earths, a beggar in the other one or maybe a hard-core criminal in the third one.

The Sun Theory:

While there are many theories that involve the sun, this one is the most frightening of all. You know how we say “the sun is hot” on a scorching summer day? Well, that is nothing compared to how hot the sun will get according to this theory. Scientists believe that the Sun is just young now and stars are known to get hotter as they get older. So, according to this theory, in the next couple of billion years, the sun will be so hot that it might actually boil our homes to nothingness. Perhaps it’s a good thing we won’t be alive to see that day.

Mass Extinction:

The earth might look huge to us from where we stand but some scientists believe that it too has a maximum capacity and range and there will come a time when people will end up overflowing it. The fact wasn’t supported by the fact that by 1800, the human population reached 1 billion in number for the first time. As of 2016, the earth managed to contain 7.2 billion people inside it, practically nullifying this theory.

Now these theories may or may not be true but it sure is terrifying to imagine that a time will come when this earth might boil and get destroyed due to overpopulation or maybe a little hug from Venus might cause chaos on the earth.

All about Comets!

“Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars, I could really use a wish right now, wish right now, wish right now”

No, that’s not a quote. It’s actually the lyrics of the song “Airplanes” by rap artist B.o.B ft. Hayley Williams. You’re probably wondering why we would quote this here – well, don’t you EVER look for a shooting star in the night sky?

You bet we all do! And “shooting star” is just a fancy name we’ve come up with for the celestial comets. Now we’re not sure how far the “wishing upon a star” theory is true, but these facts about the comets are definitely legit!

To begin with, comets are composed dominantly of ice particles that are combined with elements of dust, gas, and rock. This is why they are also called dirty snowballs and are often referred to as cosmic snowballs too – it’s all about the ice!  

But where did these comets come from?

There are two basic theories that the astronomers suggest for the origin of these comets. Astronomers believe that comets either come from the Kuiper Belt present in outer space beyond the orbit of Neptune containing countless dormant comets; or the Oort Cloud – an extensive shell of objects formed of ice particles that exists in the furthermost reaches of our solar system. The Oort cloud is believed to be the home of dormant comets.

Which one of them sounds more believable to you?

Just like all the planets, comets orbit in elliptical paths around the sun; but their path is more oblique than that of the planets. These comets even have a halo! It’s called the coma. The coma is formed when the gas and ice in the comet vaporize due to solar radiation forming a halo around the comet as it moves towards the sun.

Coming to the composition of a comet; all comets are made of four basic components. They have a coma, a nucleus, an ion tail, and a dust tail. It is the nucleus that forms the core of the comet and also contains the most of its combined mass. As for the tails, the ion tail of the comet forms due to the solar winds that direct the gas particles in a direction opposite to the sun. The dust tail is composed of rocks and dust that the comet leaves behind as it orbits the sun.

Let’s talk about the celebrity comets. There have been three popular ones to be precise. The Halley’s Comet tops the chart; it is estimated that the comet was first observed in 240 B.C. and it can be seen from Earth’s surface after every 76 years. The comet takes it name after Edmond Halley – the British astronomer.

The other two well-known comets include Comet Hyakutake that was discovered back in 1996, and the Comet Hale-Bopp, which was first observed in the year 1995.

Did you know that currently there are more than three thousand comets that scientists actually know about?

Mighty Tornadoes and What Makes Them So Twisted!

Tornado in California
Twister moving in California

Natural disasters are a grave reminder of how helpless man is against the forces of nature. Tornadoes are just one of the many destructive forces of nature that can uproot you within seconds and throw you around like cardboard chips. Hence, it is important to know and learn about them as much as we can to make sure we are at least better equipped mentally to face the deadly aftermath of this catastrophe.

So what exactly is a tornado?

According to the National Weather Service, a tornado is

“A violently rotating column of air pendant from a thunderstorm cloud and touching the ground”

It is basically a moving column of violent air that is connected with the ground and a cumulonimbus cloud (in most cases) as the same time. In the United States, there are around a 100,000 thunderstorms that form within a year’s’ time; and there are 600 to 1,000 thunderstorms each year that bring tornadoes with them.

Tornadoes can form in almost any state; but the states that are most affected include Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama.

So how much do you know about tornadoes? Let’s find out!

These destructive machines of nature are a weather-related event. Normally, a tornado’s path of expected to be around four hundred yards wide and four miles long. But don’t be fooled! Some tornadoes may surprise you with a hundred-mile long path and about a mile wide! They can reach a height of about 60,000 feet – you think the Giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” would have been that tall or is it just us?

A tornado can move at an average speed of between twenty five and forty miles per hour, but there are some that can chase you at an astounding seventy mile per hour speed. And that’s just the tornado; the winds inside it have a speed of their own – let’s say they can swirl around at almost three hundred miles per hour. There is no way you can beat that!

If we observe the average stay of a tornado on the ground, it is hardly ever more than an interval of about five minutes, but the tornado keeps returning to the ground, and the touchdown could be several times in a row!   

So which direction do these tornadoes move in? Allow us to enlighten you.

These tornadoes really have a strong sense of direction – we mean, how else would the tornadoes rotate clockwise in the southern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere? Also most tornadoes are founding moving to the northeast from the southwest.

Another interesting fact about tornadoes is that a majority of them occur in the time span between 3PM and 7PM. Although these tornadoes occur across the globe in many different countries, United States gets the largest share of them, and they’re also the most destructive ones to occur. On an average, the United States faces almost eight hundred tornadoes each year.

Do you know how many people are killed by tornadoes each year? The figure comes around ONE HUNDRED!


Is There Anything Scarier than a Tsunami?

What on earth scares you? (Pun intended).

Many would answer war, hunger, terrorism, poverty, and even death. Things like these make the havoc wrecked by natural disasters quite puny. Every once in awhile we hear about a cyclone killing hundreds, a volcanic eruption that destroys villages, a severe earthquake that brings mass destruction and deaths, or a tsunami that just sweeps away entire towns with it.

Natural disasters are a reminder that we are only human. That even the best defenses cannot save us from the forces of nature. And the tsunami happens to be one of the most fascinating natural disasters to study.

Ever wondered what causes a tsunami?

A tsunami is a sequence of oceanic waves forming due to an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or a landslide that occurs under the surface of the sea. The underwater world is a mysterious one and yes they do have mountains down there too! There are times, although rare when these waves are the result of the impact of a giant meteor that falls into the ocean.

The waves of a tsunami can reach a height of or more than One Hundred Feet!

Tsunami is a Japanese word. It translates to “harbor wave” (tsu=harbor + name=wave). The Pacific Ocean has the “Ring of Fire” which is the most tsunami prone region in the entire world, with around 80% tsunamis occurring there – a reason why Japan has a long history of tsunamis.

However, the worst tsunami in the history occurred in the Indian Ocean back in 2004. It was caused by an earthquake that resulted from the energy radiation of twenty three thousand atomic bombs. The waves originating from the core of this tsunami wrecked havoc on the coastal areas of 11 different countries that included India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Maldives, South Africa, Kenya, and Somalia. The death toll reached a tragic count of 283,000 lives.   

It is observed that the first wave of the tsunami is usually not the most powerful one; the ones that follow gain strength, height, and destructive momentum. The average speed of a tsunami has been recorded around five hundred miles per hour – at that speed it can almost compete a jet plane!

In the United States, the states that are most exposed to the risk of tsunami include Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, California, and Alaska. Out of these states, it is Hawaii that is most prone to the tsunami. On an average, the state gets at least one tsunami each year and there is a severe one that hits them in every seven years. The worst tsunami to ever hit Hawaii was one that occurred back in 1946. It hit the Hilo Island at a speed of five hundred miles per hour with waves as much as thirty feet high!

Tsunamis don’t lose their energy as they travel. They could cross entire oceans without losing their momentum. Unlike other natural disasters, it is possible to predict the estimated time for the tsunami to hit. Scientists can derive that based on calculation related to water depth, distances, and the timing of the cause.

If you’re ever caught in a tsunami, don’t swim! Rather try and get hold of a floating object that can help you be carried away by the waves, hopefully to a safer place.

What Do You Know about Saturn’s Rings?

Saturn's Rings
The attenuation of 0.94-, 3.6-, and 13-centimeter signals sent by Cassini through the rings to Earth shows abundance of particles in the rings of Saturn

Our universe is full of surprises and it’s an absolutely divine work of art. There’s a lot we, the petty humans have already discovered about this grand realm – and one out of that overflowing trove of information is the fact that Saturn has rings surrounding its circumference.

Now how is that fair? Earth gets water and Saturn gets RINGS!

Not that we’re not grateful for the water, but if Earth wanted rings too just what could it do to get those?

Here’s all you need to know about the Saturn Rings:

It was Galileo Galilei, the famous Italian astronomer who first discovered the Saturn Rings back in 1610 – he thought they resembled arms or handles! Unfortunately, Galilei’s telescope wasn’t powerful enough to figure out what they were exactly. Enter comes Christiaan Huygens – the Dutch astronomer who declared that they were actually a flat, thin ring.

Later, with the advent of more powerful telescopes it became evident that Saturn wasn’t just surrounded by one thin, flat ring. In fact, there were many. The largest one out of those was estimated to be around two hundred times the size of the planet’s own diameter which is approximately, 116,464 kilometers. 

These rings are alphabetically in the order of their discovery. Most of these rings are generally not more than thirty feet in thickness. There are four core rings that work out from the planet itself. They are named D, C, B, and A. The innermost ring D is the faintest and the outermost is big enough to house a billion Earths! No, we’re not kidding.

Most of the fainter rings were discovered with the improvement in the telescopes with technological advances. It was Voyager 1 – the NASA space probe launched in 1977 that discovered the Ring D back in 1980. After Ring A is the Ring F, followed by ring G and E.

The rings are separated by gaps and structures. While some gaps are justified by the presence of the smaller moons of Saturn, others still have the astronomers confused. These rings are all typically quite close to each other; however the rings B and A are separated by the Cassini Division – a span of 4,700 kilometers.

Did you know that Saturn is not the only planet with rings? Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter also have rings! However, their rings aren’t so much visible because they do not have the moon span of 282,000 kilometers.

So what exactly are these rings made of?

Astronomers and scientists reveal that the rings surrounding Saturn are made up of particles. These particles range in size – some as small as grain and others as big as the size of the mountains. Most of these particles are made of ice – yes water-ice!

It is the rings that draw in particles floating in outer space and at times these particles are rocky meteoroids too.

Still wondering if rings composed of ice particles amount to the presence of water on and/or around the planet. What do you think?


Giant Magellan Telescope

Giant Magellan Telescope

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is a planned telescope that will be the first in a new class of Extremely Large Telescopes. It is expected to be ten times more powerful than the Hubble Telescope, which will allow us to see further into deep space with ultra-sharp clarity. The GMT will be located in the same area as the Magellan Telescope, in Las Campanas Observatory near La Serena, Chile. This area is ideal for space watching because it is one of the least light polluted areas on Earth.

Construction for the GMT was started in November of 2015 and full completion of the telescope is expected to be around 2025. When completed, it will be the largest optical observatory in the world. The GMT will be at an altitude of 8,500 feet and it will consist of seven primary mirrors. Operation for the GMT will begin with just four mirrors in 2022, known as “first light”.

One of the reasons why it will be able to peer deeper into space it due to extra large aperture, which will much bigger than most of the telescopes in existence today.

Comparison of apertures of existing telescope primary mirrors

This powerful telescope will work by using light from the edge of the universe that will first reflect off of the seven primary mirrors, then reflect again off of the seven smaller secondary mirrors, and finally, down through the center primary mirror to the advanced Charge Coupled Device imaging cameras. In the CCD, concentrated light will be measured to determine what objects are made of and how far away they are. The telescope will also explore the origins of chemical elements that make up our planets. The GMT will search distant exoplanets for signs of life around other nearby stars in our Milky Way galaxy. This $1 billion project is US-led in partnership with Australia, Brazil, Korea, and Chile.

Not the Ordinary “All You Need to Know About Meteors”

The word ‘meteor’ is derived from the Greek language and is translated to mean ‘suspended in the air’.  But what exactly are they?

Astronomy defines a meteor as a meteoroid that enters planet Earth’s atmosphere. These meteors can be composed of a combination of rock and various metals. Have you ever chanced upon a shooting star? Yup, that’s a meteor for you right there!

Wait! Now what’s a Meteoroid? It’s a small body of rock wandering in outer space. Now back to the meteors.

Did you know that the Earth’s atmosphere is penetrated by millions of meteors every day?

We bet you didn’t. Just like you might not know the most fascinating facts about meteors that we’re about to list down for you.

When we say small, we mean that a meteor can range in size anywhere between being as small as a grain of sand and as big as a baseball. If they’re less than 2mm in diameter they’re called a micrometeorite. Normally, most meteors range around the size of an average pebble, a baseball is as big as they get. If they grow bigger than 10m in diameter, they’re outcast as an asteroid!

It is believed that the extinction of dinosaurs was caused by an 8-mile meteor that hit the Earth and caused a dust cloud that altered the climate dinosaurs were conditioned for. Well if that’s true, we know who’s to blame for the fact that we don’t have dinosaurs anymore!

Astronomers believe that every year there are around 500 meteorites that manage to reach the surface of the Earth. However, out of these hardly five or six are recovered for the scientists to study. Why? That’s because most meteors drop in the ocean – can’t blame them for the Earth’s surface being composed of 71% water. What happens to the rest of them? They burn up in the atmosphere of our planet!

When they burn, some meteors burn brighter than the norm – they are called fireballs. Fireballs give off different hues when they burn, depending on their metallic composition. You can consider yourself lucky if you can spot a fireball, because they usually occur during daytime (where the sun blinds their sighting) or over the ocean.

Ever heard about a meteor shower? It’s a short time frame where millions of meteors appear on the sky. Meteor showers occur as an aftermath of a broken comet. There are two that occur every year. The Geminids can be witnessed in December, and the Perseids can be seen in August. Keep a look out for when they might be occurring this year around.

Oh, and before you even think about it, if you ever come across one, it’s absolutely illegal to trade a meteorite in South Africa. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

By the way, did you know that a study conducted in 1985 declared that a human being is bound to be hit by a meteorite once in every 180 years? The first and only known victim of a meteorite hit was Ann Hodges of Alabama. The meteorite hit her in her home back in 1954. Guess we’ll have to wait around till the year 2134 to find out how true the 1985 study was.

But then again, will the world still exist by then? Who knows!

Earth – Third Rock from the Sun

Located nearly 93 million miles, or 1 Astronomical Unit (AU) away from the Sun, the planet Earth is the largest of the terrestrial planets—or the four rocky planets closest to the Sun in our solar system. (The rest are gas giants).

Earth is the only planet in our solar system that is not named after Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. The name Earth is at least 1,000 years old and is an English/German word that simply means ground.

It takes roughly 24 hours for the Earth to complete a full rotation, but that is gradually slowing. This deceleration is almost imperceptible, but has the effect of lengthening our days. It is happening so slowly, though, that it could be 140 million years before the length of a day increases to 25 hours.

The first photo of Earth from space was taken on October 24, 1946, by a V-2 test rocket launched from New Mexico. From there, we turned our attention to the closest body in our solar system: the Moon.

While the Moon, Earth’s only natural satellite, is only the fifth largest in our solar system, in terms of percentage of the size of the body it orbits, the Moon is the largest satellite of any planet in our solar system.

Astronomers hypothesize that the Moon was formed 4.5 billion years ago, not long after Earth, from the debris left over after a giant impact between Earth and a Mars-sized body.

The first unmanned spacecraft to reach the Moon was one from the Soviet Union’s Luna program in 1959, and the first manned lunar landing being Apollo 11 in 1969. The last manned spacecraft was Apollo 17 in 1972, and since then, the Moon has only been visited by unmanned spacecraft.

NASA started to plan to resume manned missions for the construction of a lunar base by 2024, but the program was cancelled in favor of a manned asteroid landing by 2025 and a manned Mars orbit by 2035.

Using Gravitational Waves to Understand the Origins of Supermassive Black Holes

Supermassive Black HoleA computer simulation of the Universe could help identify the origins of supermassive black holes. The research, led by scientists at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology in the United Kingdom, was presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting.

Gravitational Simulations

The researchers ran cosmological simulations to predict the rate at which gravitational waves caused by collisions between supermassive black holes might be detected. The first black holes were formed 13 billion years ago and capturing these gravitational waves could provide clues about what caused these monster black holes and where they formed.

“By combining the detection of gravitational waves with simulations we could ultimately work out when and how the first seeds of supermassive black holes formed,” lead author Jaime Salcido, a PhD student, said in a statement.

Detecting gravitational Signals in Space

The study combined simulations from a project aiming to create a realistic representation of the known Universe inside a computer, with a model to calculate gravitational wave signals. Scientists are working on the Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA) detector, which is expected to detect gravitational waves caused by collisions between supermassive black holes. The instrument will be launched into space in 2034. eLISA could help pinpoint the mechanism that created these massive black holes and when they first formed.

“Black holes are fundamental to galaxy formation and are thought to sit at the center of most galaxies, including our very own Milky Way,” said co-author Professor Richard Bower. “Discovering how they came to be where they are is one of the unsolved problems of cosmology and astronomy.”

There are currently ground-based instruments that work similar to eLISA, but eLISA will be in space and at least 250,000 times larger than ground-based detectors. As such, eLISA should be able to detect lower frequency gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago. They are concentric ripples caused by events in the universe that squeeze and stretch the fabric of space time. Most gravitational waves cannot be detected because they are weak.

“Understanding more about gravitational waves means that we can study the universe in an entirely different way,” Salcido said.