Gaze into the night sky during the winter months, and you’ll spot a blur in the well-known constellation of Orion. It may look like a smudge in the sky, but this dynamic, turbulent cloud of gas and dust—known as the Orion Nebula—gives birth to stars more than eight times the mass of the sun.
Features of the Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula, also called Messier 42 or M42, is a busy star-forming region only 1,500 light-years away from Earth. To locate the nebula, look beneath the three bright stars that form Orion’s belt. It is a hazy patch midway down Orion’s sword.
This enormous cloud of gas and dust is about 25 lights years wide. It consists primarily of hydrogen, with some helium, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Star formation begins as gravity pulls together bits of dust and gas, creating a clump. As the clump grows, its gravity gets stronger. Eventually, the mass collapses at the center. If enough thermal energy is created, nuclear fusion results and the earliest stage of star formation begins the protostar.
There are about 1,000 stars in the Orion Nebula. Most are younger than 1 million years old, with some as young as 30,000 years. About 700 stars are in different stages of formation.
The nebula gives off a greenish hue, with red and blue-violet regions. Its glow comes from a cluster of its four brightest stars. Forming a trapezoid shape, this star cluster is the heart of the nebula and is called the Trapezium.
Discovery of the Orion Nebula
The nebula was discovered in 1610 by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, who made notes of the nebula in his personal records. The first published observations of the Orion Nebula were made by Swiss astronomer Johann Baptist Cysatus in 1618. Charles Messier added the nebula to his catalog of astronomical objects in 1769.
The Orion Nebula’s proximity to Earth makes it the subject of many studies. Here are some recent findings:
Young Stars May Stop Other Stars from Forming
The stars at the heart of the Orion Nebula create stellar winds that interact with surrounding clouds and create shockwaves. A new discovery suggests that these winds may affect star formation by blowing away the materials needed to produce new stars.
The Nebula Has More Than Stars
The Hubble Space Telescope has discovered protoplanetary disks in the nebula—signs of the earliest stages of solar system formation. Three large planets were also found.
It also identified the largest known population of brown dwarfs mixed in with new stars. Brown dwarfs are intermediate-sized celestial objects, between a star and a planet in size. Unable to generate enough heat to ignite nuclear fusion, they eventually fade away.
A Possible Black Hole
Astronomers often wondered why stars in the Orion Nebula move at a rapid speed. A team of astrophysicists suggests there may be a black hole in the middle of the Trapezium. They created a model showing that as the star cluster drives gas outwards, it propels some stars out of the cluster. Others were driven into the center of the cluster, colliding with a massive star. The star imploded into a black hole with a mass about 200 times larger than the sun.
Thanks to the Orion Nebula’s proximity to Earth, this dynamic and ever-changing stellar nursery provides us with continual discoveries about the star and planetary formation. Here are additional stories of interest:
If you’ve ever taken a close look at the Taurus constellation with a telescope, you might have seen a bright, crab-like mass in the constellation, looking much bigger than the typical star. If so, you’ve taken a glance at the Crab Nebula, which astronomers have known about for centuries but have only recently begun to learn about. The Crab Nebula is neither the largest nor the closest nebula that astronomers have spotted, but it is only one of four supernovae that have occurred in the Milky Way over the past millennium, making it an important part of the galaxy.
Who Discovered the Crab Nebula and How Was it Named?
The Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, recreated the nebula in 1840 after looking through a telescope and noting that his observation of the nebula resembled that of a crab. However, Parsons was not the first to discover the nebula. That honor went to John Bevis, an amateur astronomer who found the object in the sky in 1731 and thought it resembled a cloudy blob.
In truth, both of them were likely right with their observation of the nebula. Because the Crab Nebula sits 6,523 light-years away from the earth, the Nebula that we see is actually how the Nebula looked centuries ago. In fact, the Nebula dates all the way back to the year 1054 A.D., when Chinese astronomers noticed a supernova in the Taurus constellation.
Why Can We See the Crab Nebula?
Despite the long distance away from our planet, the Crab Nebula is visible with a telescope because of how massive the nebula is and how bright it shines. From end to end, the nebula is roughly 11 light-years wide, substantially larger than the sun. In turn, the nebula is roughly 75,000 times brighter than the sun, making it possible to see it with a telescope or binoculars, despite it being almost 25,000 times as far away from the earth as Neptune.
How Was the Nebula Connected to the Supernova?
Although the star that created the Crab Nebula exploded in 1054, astronomers were able to figure out the nebula was expanding over time in the 1900s. Through their observations, they were able to track moving particles and noticed that the nebula had grown and changed shape since the first observations of the event. Based on this, scientists were able to trace the nebula’s origins back to the observation of the Chinese based on continued observations of the nebula, further increasing their understanding of the event.
What Sits at the Center of the Nebula?
When a star goes supernova, one of two outcomes can happen. The Crab Nebula took the path of becoming a neutron star, otherwise known as a pulsar. The pulsar is a densely packed object that contains most of the neutrons that formed from the supernova, sucked in to the center of the nebula by its immense gravity. The radiation from the pulsar is what gives the Crab Nebula its brilliant appearance and allows us to see it through a telescope.
Will We Ever See It Up Close?
It’s highly improbable. The Crab Nebula’s position of over 6,000 lightyears away means that humans would be millennia away from even beginning to approach the nebula and observing it up close. Science might find a way to observe it in a closer manner tens of thousands of years from now, but current generations will have to be satisfied with long-distance images from the Hubble Telescope.
Named for the Roman God of the sea, Neptune is a bright blue, ice giant planet. It is the eighth planet from the sun, and it sometimes switches places with Pluto, making it even farther away. Although it’s the third most massive planet in our solar system, Neptune is the smallest of the ice giants, and its size and distance from Earth make it impossible to see without a telescope.
Galileo first spotted Neptune in 1613, but he dismissed it as a mere star. The planet’s existence was later predicted after the discovery of Uranus, making it the first planet hypothesized by mathematicians; the prediction was made because Uranus’ orbit contradicted Newtonian law, thus suggesting that another planet must be nearby.
In 1846, Neptune was finally designated a planet after being observed by astronomers Johan Galle and Heinrich Louis d’Arrest. Galle wanted to call the planet Janus. However, Urbain Le Verrier, who had previously predicted Neptune’s location and existence, was responsible for the official name.
Composition and Chaotic Winds
Neptune’s thick atmosphere is made up of helium, hydrogen, and methane. Its winds easily reach speeds of 1,200 to 1,500 miles per hour, making them the fastest winds in the solar system. While the outmost layer is particularly cold, Neptune’s pressure and temperature increases near its core. Currently, scientists don’t believe Neptune’s environment is conducive to Earth-based life.
Neptune is encircled by several dark, thin rings named Adams, Arago, Lassell, Le Verrier, and Galle. A small white cloud called the Scooter (believed to be plumes from the lower atmosphere) also circles Neptune every 16 hours. Like Earth, Neptune likely experiences seasons. However, it takes 165 Earth years to orbit the Sun, meaning that each of its seasons lasts four decades.
Voyager 2 and Great Dark Spots
The Hubble Space Telescope has observed Neptune for several years, but only one space probe has ventured to the planet: Voyager 2. Voyager 2 took photos of Neptune in 1989, and its thanks to these photos that we learned more about Neptune’s moon, Triton; Triton was first discovered in 1846 by William Lassell, about two weeks after Neptune itself was discovered. Thirteen other moons, all named after lesser sea nymphs and gods, also surround Neptune. However, with its nitrogen ice, Triton is by far the most famous. Triton is also known for its retrograde orbit, meaning that its rotation is opposite Neptune’s.
Neptune is famous for its “Great Dark Spot,” which was also first seen in Voyager 2 photos. This spot was giant, and the entire Earth could easily fit inside. But in 1994, to the surprise of scientists, the Dark Spot suddenly disappeared. Even more surprising, a scattering of new dark spots have shown up since. Scientists believe that the constantly disappearing and newly appearing dark spots are due to Neptune’s rapidly changing atmosphere.
Neptune has been referenced in various works of fiction, including Futurama and the Cthulu Mythos. In western astrology, Neptune is associated with Pisces, spiritualism, and creativity. While we still have a lot to learn about Neptune, it’s already established itself as an important part of our culture and science.
As one of the five planets that can be seen with the naked eye, Jupiter’s existence has been well-known since ancient times. However, the largest planet in the solar system provided perhaps the most important discovery in astronomical history in 1610 A.D., when Galileo Galilei first discovered four of the moons that orbit Jupiter. These marked the first discovery of any celestial bodies orbiting another celestial body, as up to that point, it was believed that the earth was at the center of the universe in accordance with Ptolemy’s theory.
However, Galileo’s discovery gave credence to the idea that Nicolas Copernicus’ theory that the sun was actually at the center of the universe, as Jupiter’s four moons (later named Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) did not appear to orbit the earth in any way, shape or form — and, as Galileo reasoned, if those moons didn’t orbit the earth, the planet itself likely didn’t orbit the earth either. Without Galileo’s work in relation to Jupiter, it’s likely that the geocentric model of the universe would have lasted for decades longer, as opposed to gradually fading into the background with new research.
Facts About Jupiter
Jupiter takes its name from the Roman king of the gods, most likely because Jupiter is by far the largest planet in the solar system. Jupiter’s size is truly immense as far as celestial bodies go, as the planet is 11 times the size of the earth and 2.5 times bigger than the other seven true planets in the solar system. In terms of volume, the size difference is even more pronounced, as it would take well over 1,000 earths to match the volume of Jupiter.
Because of its size, Jupiter is the fourth-brightest object in the sky, trailing only the sun, the moon and the planet Venus, which is over 200 million miles closer to the earth than Jupiter when it’s at its closest point and Venus is at its furthest point. By contrast, Mars can be as close as 10 times as close to the earth as Jupiter, but the size difference means that Mars cannot match Jupiter in terms of visibility and brightness.
Discoveries Related to Jupiter
Jupiter has been the subject of several important discoveries since Galileo first discovered the Galilean moons in the 17th century. One of the most important was Robert Hooke’s initial discovery of the Great Red Spot, an anti-cyclonic high pressure system on the planet’s surface. Hooke made his discovery in 1665, and the spot has been monitored consistently since 1830. Astronomers haven’t yet figured out how the spot has sustained itself for so many years, and they might not get a chance to discover the answer. The spot has been shrinking for several years now, and activities on the planet suggest that the spot could be in danger of breaking apart in the not-too-distant future.
Other discoveries of Jupiter include the planet’s ring system, which was discovered by complete accident when the Voyager 1 spacecraft flew by the planet in 1979 and noticed a faint set of rings around Jupiter that nobody had ever seen before. The rings are so faint that they are impossible to see with the naked eye and can only be seen when the sun reflects light off of them, making them very difficult to see with a telescope. Jupiter’s rings were the third planet’s rings to be discovered, after Saturn’s very visible rings and Uranus’ faint rings. Jupiter’s rings are composed of dust coming off of its moons, and the rings can only sustain themselves through more dust coming off of the planet’s many moons.
One of the more recent discoveries concerning Jupiter has been the sheer number of celestial bodies orbiting the planet. For years, astronomers had thought that Jupiter’s moons totaled 16, which would still be the most of any planet in the solar system. However, discoveries from more recent probes of the planet have shown that Jupiter boasts 63 moons, and more could still be discovered.
Jupiter added 11 moons in 2002 alone, and the next seven years saw an additional 22 moons added to its total. Its four most famous moons remain the four original moons that Galileo discovered, and the Galilean moons have made their way into pop culture, with one example being in the Harry Potter universe, where Harry’s astronomy class required him to identify which of Jupiter’s moons was covered in ice, with the answer being Europa.
Probes of Jupiter
As one of the four outer planets and one of the two gas giants along with Saturn, Jupiter does not have a surface that allows for a spacecraft to land there. Because of that, all exploration of the planet must be done either via telescopes or by sending a probe to either conduct a fly-by or to orbit the planet. As of 2019, seven spacecrafts have flown past Jupiter, and the Galileo and Juno shuttles have gone into orbit around the planet. The Juno shuttle entered Jupiter’s orbit in 2016, and is scheduled to orbit the planet until 2021, with two other probes of Jupiter’s moons scheduled to launch in 2022 and beyond.
Of these probes, arguably the most successful was the Galileo probe, which built on the efforts of Voyager 1’s fly-by by examining the rings around the planet, determining that Europa’s ice-covered surface actually has more water than the entire surface of the earth and taking images of the volcanoes on Io. Galileo was also the first successful probe of the atmosphere of Jupiter, giving us some of the first semblances of concrete information about what the surface of the planet is really like.
It’s too early to tell what the Juno probe will discover, but with three more years planned on its mission, it’s likely that scientists will soon have plenty of secrets to examine about Jupiter that will lead to the questions of the future.
It is the seventh planet from the sun in our solar system and has the third-largest diameter. It’s windy and very cold. Uranus is surrounded by 27 small moons and 13 faint rings. It rotates at a unique angle of nearly 90-degrees, making it look like its spinning on its side while orbiting, unlike other planets.
Who Discovered Uranus?
The planet Uranus was discovered on March 13th, 1781 by British astronomer William Herchel, even though he initially he thought he had seen a comet or a star. It was two years later that the object was universally accepted as a new planet especially after astronomer Johann Elert Bode personally observed it. The discovery of the planet ‘Uranus’ was accidental, as Herchel was carrying out a survey of all of the magnitude 8 stars using his telescope when he noticed a faint object as it moved across the fixed stars.
Ironically, Uranus was discovered on several previous occasions, but it was often mistaken as a star. In 1690, Jon Flamsteed had observed Uranus and cataloged it as 34 Tauri. Flamsteed went on to observe Uranus six more times. Between 1750 and 1771, French astronomer, Pierre Lemonnier observed Uranus 12 times total, including four sequential nights.
The Name ‘Uranus’
Herchel initially tried unsuccessfully to name the new planet Georgium Sidus after King George III of England. However, it was Johann Bode’s choice of the name ‘Uranus’ that was ultimately chosen. Uranus is a Greek name for the god of the sky and in Greek mythology, one of the earliest gods was sometimes known as “Father Sky’ and considered to be the son and husband of Mother Earth or Gaia.
In 1977, astronomers discovered rings around Uranus but not as sophisticated ones as those surrounding Saturn. They were using NASA Voyager 2 when they discovered Uranus was the second ringed planet.
We got our closest look at Uranus with the Voyager 2 space probe. It was within 50,600 miles (or 81,500 km) of the Uranus’s cloud tops on January 24, 1986. Thousands of scientific records and images of the moons, atmosphere, interior, rings, and magnetic environment around Uranus were radioed by Voyager 2 on its way to Neptune.
Physical Characteristics of Uranus
Uranus is over four times larger than Earth, and it’s primarily composed of various ices and gases. The atmosphere consists of 83% hydrogen, 15% helium, 2% methane, and traces of acetylene. The interior of Uranus is richer with heavy elements, and it’s highly likely there is the presence of compounds like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon in addition to rocky materials. Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus is not covered mostly by hydrogen. It’s similar to these two planets, but it lacks their hydrogen fluid metallic envelope. Uranus has 27 moons that are known, which are named after the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.
Culture Associated With Uranus
In astrology, Uranus is referred to as the ruling planet of Aquarius. The electric blue color that’s associated with the sign is due to Uranus being a cyan hue. It’s also associated with electricity. An interesting fact is that the chemical uranium was named by the German chemist Martin Klaproth, who was inspired by the discovery of the planet Uranus.
The Potential for Life
The environment of Uranus is not conducive to organisms and cannot support life as we know it. The materials, temperatures, and pressures on Uranus are too volatile and extreme for living organisms to adapt and survive.
In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus sparked the Scientific Revolution with his proposal that the Sun is the center of our solar system. It took some time for his theory to be accepted, but scientists know now, more than ever, how critical the Sun is to our survival on Earth.
The universe is filled with billions of stars, but the Sun is our energy and life source. It gives us light and warmth, day and night, and changing seasons. It has inspired awe in humans for centuries, and is culturally and spiritually significant to many civilizations and cultures.
How the Sun was Created
More than 4.5 billion years ago, a giant cloud of dust and gas called a nebula collapsed. Gravity drew most of the dust and gas into the center, creating a giant mass that became the Sun. The remaining dust and gas spread out to form the rest of the solar system: planets, dwarf planets, moons, comets and asteroids.
The Sun measures 864,000 miles wide and is 100 times larger than Earth. Its mass accounts for 99.8% of the solar system, and its gravitational pull keeps the planets in orbit.
The yellow dwarf star is made up of hydrogen, helium and plasma. It is structured as follows:
photosphere (the surface)
By mass, hydrogen makes up 71% of the gases in the sun. As nuclear fusion converts hydrogen to helium, energy is generated and carried by photons from the star’s core to the surface. It takes about 170,000 years for a photon to reach the surface, but once it is released from the Sun, it takes about 8 minutes to reach Earth.
This energy creates incredible heat. The Sun is 27 million degrees Farenheit at its core. Its surface temperature is 10,000 degrees Farenheit and the corona is more than 1 million degrees Farenheit.
It’s estimated that the Sun has enough hydrogen to burn for another 5 billion years. It will then turn into a red giant, which is a dying star. It will begin burning helium and expand to more than 100 times its size. At this point, it will likely engulf Mercury and Venus, and possibly Earth.
Studying the Sun
Scientists have much to learn about the Sun and its behavior. Here are four important research missions:
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO): NASA and the European Space Agency launched this observatory in 1995 to study the structure and dynamics of the Sun. Previous solar laboratories orbited Earth, but SOHO orbits the Sun for an uninterrupted sightline. This project captured the first images ever of the Sun’s convection zone, provided precise measurements of the Sun’s temperature structure, and measured the acceleration of the slow and fast solar wind.
Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO): NASA launched this observatory in 2010 to study the solar atmosphere. Its mission is to understand solar variations that affect life on Earth. This includes studying the structure of the Sun’s magnetic field and how this energy is released in the form of solar wind and energetic particles.
Parker Solar Probe: This groundbreaking probe launched in 2018. Its seven-year mission will take it closer to the Sun’s surface than any previous spacecraft. Built to survive temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Farenheit, it will fly into the low solar corona and eventually be as close as 3.8 million miles to the Sun’s surface. By comparison, Helios 2 was 26.55 million miles from the surface of the Sun in 1976.
Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH): NASA is launching a new mission in 2022. PUNCH will consist of four separate spacecraft studying the Sun’s outer layers and their influence on the planets. It is hoped this knowledge will help scientists to predict solar events.
Religious and Cultural Significance of the Sun
For centuries, humans have been awed by the presence of the Sun in the heavens. The ancient Romans and Greeks believed the Sun was a god driving his chariot across the sky. Ancient Egyptians named their Sun god Ra, while the Greeks worshipped Helios.
The Aztecs believed that their Sun god, Huitzilopochtli, needed nourishment to stave off darkness. Warriors who died—or were sacrificed—gave the Sun its energy and were later reincarnated as hummingbirds.
The Sun Dance has traditionally been an important ritual to the Plains Indians of North America. This ceremony was prohibited by governments after colonization, but remains significant to many Indigenous peoples today.
Surya, the Hindu sun deity, is considered the source of eternal life and is honored by temples and shrines throughout India. Surya Namaskar, or “sun salutation,” is a sequence of poses meant to honor the sun. It is widely practiced in yoga.
A number of ancient cultures created stone formations based on the Sun’s movement. One of the most famous is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Dating to about 2500 BC, the stones of this prehistoric structure were carefully arranged so that at the summer solstice, light shines into the center of the ring. Thousands of people journey to Stonehenge each year to take part in solstice celebrations.
Recently, the film Sunshine (2007), directed by Danny Boyle, imagines a world where the Sun is dying and the survival of humankind is at risk. The story is set in 2057 and follows a group of astronauts trying to use a nuclear weapon to ignite the star.
Many musicians have written songs about the sun, particularly the Beatles, who released Here Comes the Sun (1969), Good Day Sunshine (1966) and I’ll Follow the Sun (1964). Other themed songs include Seasons in the Sun (1974) by Terry Jacks, Black Hole Sun (1994) by Soundgarden and Blister in the Sun (1983) by Violent Femmes.
Enchanting, luminous, magical, and mysterious are all words that are often used to describe the Moon. This silvery celestial body has long captured the attention of the human mind. After centuries of staring up at our closest heavenly neighbor, people still know so little about it. From its first discovery to the moment humanity set foot on its strange and distant surface and through the present, the Moon has fascinated us. Keep reading to learn all you will ever need to know about this enigmatic entity.
Just the Basics
While it may still seem mysterious to most, there is a lot that scientists have learned about our Moon over the years. Some of these stats are verifiable fact and others are mere theory, however, they all represent the best information humans have about this celestial enigma.
While it is impossible to know for sure, the majority of scientists agree that the Moon was formed after a Mars-sized object crashed into the Earth in its infancy. The resulting debris from both Earth and the colliding object then melded together as a molten mass to form the Moon. Centuries of cooling turned the magma pools into the Mares that can be seen today.
Size & Distance
The Moon is the fifth largest moon in our solar system. Yet it is still quite small when compared to the Earth. In fact, the Moon has a radius of roughly 1,080 miles (1738 km) which makes it less than one third the size of the Earth. For reference, imagine that the Earth is a basketball, the Moon would be a softball.
Also, although there are nights when it may seem like you could reach up and touch the Moon, it is actually 238,855 miles (384,400 km) from the Earth. That means that you could fit 30 Moon-size bodies between the Earth and it.
Studies have shown that the Moon is slowly moving away from the Earth. In fact, scientists estimate that each year it travels another inch away.
The Moon not only orbits the Earth but also spins on its own axis. This rotation on its axis takes around 27 days, although it appears from here to be 29 days. This is roughly the same amount of time it takes the Moon to orbit Earth. What all of this means is that people on Earth are only able to see one side of the Moon, ever. That side is called the near side and by default makes the other side the far side. Some refer to this far side as the dark side although that is a misnomer as both sides receive the same amount of sunlight.
While it is a commonly held belief that the Moon has no gravity, that is not true. Anything with mass has a gravity of some sort and while the gravity on the Moon is nowhere near that on Earth, it is still present. Since the Moon’s mass is so much less than the Earth’s, its gravity is as well. In fact, the Moon’s gravity is roughly 83.3 percent of Earth’s. That is why humans weight so much less there.
New Moon: appears to be missing from the night sky
Crescent Moon: appears like a small sliver of light
First Quarter: Appears that 25 percent of the Moon is visible
Waxing Gibbous: half the Moon is clearly visible
Full Moon: The entire circle of the Moon can be seen.
Waning Gibbous: Again, only half the Moon is apparent
Last Quarter: The last 25 percent of the Moon is visible
Crescent Moon: same as above on the opposite side
For a large part of human history, these facts were unknown. All people knew of the Moon in early days was what they observed and what they were told. That is until the Moon was truly discovered.
Discovering the Moon
It is hard to imagine that there was a time in human history when the Moon was undiscovered. It has always been there lighting up the night sky and driving imaginations to run wild. In fact, all ancient civilizations incorporated this cosmic curiosity into their traditions, religions, and everyday life. However, humanity eventually pulled itself out of the mire of superstition and myth and into the age of science. That is where the study of the Moon really got interesting.
The Moon as a God
Many ancient peoples saw this giver of light as a deity to be worshipped and appeased. Those who lived near the water likely recognized the correlation between the Moon and the tides. Those people inland likely witnessed the animal behavior that seemed to be triggered by certain phases of the moon. All of them had to be amazed by the fact that while the only other body in the sky, the Sun, disappears completely, the Moon is omnipresent. All of this gave ample “evidence” that this entity was indeed a god.
As time passed, our world grew smaller with the advent of science. Increasingly more of our world was explained each day and the facets of nature that once fascinated and astounded us became old hat. It was in this golden age of discovery that the Moon was finally “discovered” for the satellite that it is. Yet, even this landmark discovery is shrouded in mystery.
The Mystery of Who Saw It First
Ask any science teacher who discovered the Moon and they will likely tell you it was Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer. After all, he not only saw and drew the Moon, but also four of Jupiter’s moons and several planets. However, it is well known that these drawings date to early 1610 and that is where the problem starts.
A recently discovered sketch of the Moon clearly denotes the line between the near side and the dark side as well as the three main Mares (seas) and other prominent features that were also noted by Galileo. The problem is that this newly found sketch is dated 26 July 1609!
That is roughly six months before Galileo’s drawing of the Moon.
So, who is this mysterious artist who may steal Galileo’s thunder? The sketch came from the notes of English Astronomer Thomas Harriot. His sketch, based on observations made through a telescope, is now believed by many to be the first official discovery of the Moon.
So, who discovered the Moon? It depends on who you ask. However, all empirical evidence points to Thomas Harriot.
How the Moon Got Its Name
It may seem odd that our one natural orbiting satellite — the Moon — has no name while those of all the other planets (109 total) bear the names of Greek and Roman heroes, gods, and other entities. (Except Uranus, whose moons are named after Shakespearian characters. However, at the time that the Moon was first seen, it was the only one that anybody knew about. Until Galileo’s 1610 discovery of four of Jupiter’s moons, nobody knew there would be more than one.
Yet, the name Moon stuck even after we learned that it was not alone in the night sky. Why? Many believe it is because this name is universal to every culture without a specific claim to it from one. Others chalk it up to pure laziness. Whatever the reason, the Moon may be one of many, but it is still one of a kind.
Cultural Significance of the Moon
As previously discussed, nearly every culture had some sort of position of honor for the Moon within its traditions and beliefs. The Chinese still celebrate the Moon Festival on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. The Moon impacts several areas of the Hindu religion as well. Representing several deities and a number of other important concepts and values. Even Western Christianity has Moon-centered traditions. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The Moon is also a central figure in many Pagan religions.
To the Moon
The Space Race of the late-1950s through the mid-1970s saw the world’s two great superpowers, the U.S.S.R. (now Russia) and the U.S.A. racing to be the first to the Moon. What this meant exactly, nobody was quite sure, but eventually, it led to human beings walking on the Moon.
It took several failed and successful attempts, on both sides, to make the Moon landing a reality. Take a look back through the years to see how close the U.S.S.R. came to beating the U.S. to the Moon. These successful missions are historically important as they all set the stage for what came after, the first human on the Moon.
September 1959: Soviet Luna 2 was the first space shuttle to crash land on the Moon.
October 1959: Luna 3 captured the first images of the far side of the Moon in a flyby mission.
July 1964: The U.S. launched its first successful impactor mission with the Ranger 7 space shuttle.
March 1965: The U.S. sends Ranger 9 for a third impactor mission to the Moon.
July 1965: The Zond 3 is sent up by Russia to do a flyby.
January 1966: The Russian Luna 9 module is the first successful controlled landing on the Moon.
Six more manned missions followed from November 1969 through December 1972 with all but the Apollo 13 mission in April of 1970 successfully landing people on the surface of the Moon. Soon, other countries joined the exploration of space. Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and India all developed successful space programs. The European Space Agency and a company in Luxembourg also succeeded in launching expeditions to the Moon. Israel has tried, but at the time of this writing, no successful space missions could be found.
The Moon figures prominently in American culture as well as those of others around the world. Movies, television programs, songs, and even automotive manufacturers (think Mitsubishi Eclipse, moon roofs, etc.) tie themselves to the Moon. Even common phrases take the Moon into consideration.
Once in a Blue Moon: A Blue Moon is the second full Moon of the month.
Moonstruck: A phrase meaning dazzled or bewitched.
Lunatic: A word created from the erroneous idea that the Moon could cause insanity.
The Man in the Moon: A trick of the markings on the Moon’s surface that makes it appear to have a face. Many different cultures had myths to explain who this “man” was.
There is Sailor Moon, a Japanese cartoon from the late twentieth century. Moonlighting is a word that means working a second job, usually at night. It was also a popular television show starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shephard in the late 80s. Bad Moon Rising was a popular song by the band Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Truly, the Moon is as big a part of our daily lives as it is the night sky.
Wrapping It Up
While the Moon is something few of us will ever reach, it is not out of the question. Humanity once looked at the Moon as a god, to be feared and worshiped. Today, it continues to capture the imaginations of many and inspire poetry and prose alike.
Here’s What You Need to Know About the Planet Venus
Venus is the second plant in our solar system. Its name comes from the Roman deity ‘Venus’: the goddess of love and beauty. The Romans likely considered her one of the most beautiful goddesses in the pantheon because Venus is the brightest of the five planets that ancient astronomers knew about.
Ancient astronomers thought that Venus was two different stars, Lucifer (morning star) and Vesper (evening star) visible at sunrise and sunset respectively. But further observations of the planet in the space age revealed a hellish environment.Observing the planet up close was extremely difficult, though,because the environment quickly destroys spacecraft.
10 basic facts about Venus
Here are 10 important facts about Venus.1. Venus is about the same size as earth. If Venus and Earth were the size of nickel, the sun would be the size of a standard font door.2. Venus is about 108 million kilometers (67 million miles) away from the sun.3. Venus spins backwards, so the sun rises in the east and sets in the west on Venus and one day on the planet is equal to 243 days on Earth.4. Venus’s landscape is mainly vast plains that feature extensive ridged plateaus and high volcanic mountains.5. Venus has no moons and rings.6. Venus’s surface temperature is about 465 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature high enough to melt lead.7. Venus has been explored by more than 40 spacecraft.8. Venus has been explored by more than 40 spacecraft.9. Venus’s hellish temperatures and acidic clouds make it inhabitable.10. Venus rotates slowly but has hurricane force winds that blows clouds all the way around planet in five days.
Who discovered Venus?
Venus is easy to see with your naked eye. It’s the second most visible celestial non-star object in the sky, the first being the moon. So, as humans, we’ve always been aware of the planet since we looked up at the sky. Besides Venus, you can also see Mercury, mar, Jupiter and Saturn with the naked eye.
However, ancient astronomers had no knowledge of Venus beyond being a shiny object they saw in the morning and evening sky. This was until Copernicus came up with his theory of a heliocentric solar system in which the sun is at the center and planets orbit it. This was when astronomers recognized Earth and Venus as planets.
Venus has featured considerable in human culture; more specifically, in religion and myth. Many writers and poets have also sought inspiration from the planet. In classical Greek mythology, Venus was called Lucifer, fabled son of Cephalusand Aurora and bearer of the morning torch.
Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia associated Venus with the goddess Inanna, later known as Ishtar by the Babylonians and Akkadians. She was the goddess of love and war and presided over birth and death. Ancient Canaanites personified Venus as the god Attar, a masculine variation of Ishtar. The planet often represents the goddess Anahita in Persian mythology. In Islamic tradition, Venus is called Zohrah and is associated with a “beautiful woman.”
Pop culture references to Venus
In pop culture, the term Venus evokes thoughts of femininity. Among the most famous examples of this is the iconic relationship guide titled “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” In the context of the solar system, Venus was a popular setting for many science fiction writers in the 20th century. Before we learned about what lay beneath the furtive cloud cover of the planet, these writers imagined it as being a more habitable planet.
The following are stories based on updated ideas after space exploration revealed the nature of the planet’s surface.• Stanisław Lem’s book Astronauci (The Astronauts) (1951)• Felix Thijssen’s Dutch novel “Pion” (1979)• Ben Bova’s novel Venus (2000) from his “Grand Tour” series• Geoffrey A. Landis’s “The Sultan of the Clouds” (2010)• James S. A. Corey’s Caliban’s War (2012)
Classic movies about Venus include• Queen of Outer Space (1958)• 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)• Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)• Stranger from Venus (1954)• Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968)
Venus has served as the backdrop in video games such as Destiny, Battlezone and Transhuman Space.
The Venus Express from the European Space Agency orbited Venus for eight years with numerous equipment and confirmed the presence of lightning on the planet. Japan’s Akatsuki set out for Venus in 2010 but went hurling into space after a pivotal orbit-insertion burn killed the main engine. However, Japan’s next craft successfully entered Venus’ orbit in 2015 and spotted an additional “gravity wave” in the planet’s atmosphere in 2017.
The mysterious and elusive Pluto is such a tiny member of the Solar system, yet it has been making notable headlines for nearly 100 years. First identified in 1930, it was soon named and classified as the ninth planet in the system. But with the passing of time, advanced technology and the discovery of many other objects at the far reaches of the system caused Pluto’s status to be downgraded to a dwarf planet, amidst significant scientific community controversy and public outcry. Recent images and data from spacecraft have opened new avenues of understanding about Pluto, and have revealed many surprising truths about it and its moons.
Just The Facts
Some basic information about Pluto:
Pluto is only about 1,400 miles in diameter. That’s about 2/3 the size of the Earth’s moon, or roughly equivalent to the half the width of the United States. It’s about 1/30th the mass of Mercury, the smallest planet in the Solar system.
Pluto resides in what is called the Kuiper Belt, or the Trans-Neptunian area just outside the orbit of the planet Neptune. Dark and cold, this band contains a number of smaller objects plus several other dwarf planet candidates.
Though small in dimension, Pluto retains five moons of its own. The largest, Charon, is about half the size of Pluto and the two orbit each other much like a double planet. The other moons are much smaller and are named Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx.
The terrain of Pluto includes ice plains, highlands, mountains and craters. There is an atmosphere consisting of nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. Being about 40 times farther from the sun than Earth, temperatures remain nearly 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Originally Pluto was designated as the ninth planet of the Solar system, but after other similar objects were discovered in the same Trans-Neptunian region, it was reduced to dwarf planet status.
History and Discovery
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh. Tombaugh was working at the Lowell Observatory, named after the noted astronomer Percival Lowell. Tombaugh believed, as Lowell also had previously, that there was evidence of a mysterious planet appearing in constellation maps beyond Neptune. In February of 1930, he found his proof and the object was positively identified as a planet.
Venetia Burney, a young girl from Oxford, England, suggested to her grandfather that the new planet be given the name Pluto, a mythological figure. He contacted the observatory with the suggestion, and it was officially accepted.
Little else was known about the planet until the discovery of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in 1978. Charon surprisingly turned out to be about half the size of Pluto, and the two actually orbit each other very similar to a double planet. Technology continued to improve for long-range observations, and the other four moons were eventually discovered beginning in 2005. They were given the names Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx, which are also names of mythological figures.
About this time other bodies were being discovered in the Trans-Neptunian region, and at least one gave indications of being larger than Pluto. This caused increased discussions among the scientific community about how to define a planet, resulting in Pluto being reduced in classification from a planet to the newly termed “dwarf planet” designation.
Only one spacecraft has ever visited the Pluto system. In 2015 the NASA spacecraft New Horizons passed through the system and provided a series of astounding close-up photographs of Pluto and its moons. These images, coupled with other expansive collections of data from the craft, have given the scientific community a wealth of new information to analyze and interpret regarding Pluto and its system. Although tiny and seemingly insignificant, Pluto continues to surprise everyone with its elaborate structure, associated atmosphere and its various orbiting bodies.
Trivia and Oddities
Very Small. Pluto is extremely small. Its diameter is roughly half the width of the United States or about 1/40th of the size of the smallest planet in the Solar system.
Glacier. There is a large glacier on Pluto that is about the size of the states Texas and Oklahoma put together.
Extreme Cold. Pluto exists beyond all eight planets of the Solar system, approximately 40 times farther from the sun than the earth. The temperatures on Pluto remain at nearly -400F.
Blue Skies. In spite of the extreme environmental conditions, Pluto actually has an atmosphere consisting of nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. This combination of gasses gives the skies a blue tint and a hazy appearance.
Disney Character. Pluto was discovered and named early in 1930. Later that year, Disney introduced a new character in their cartoons, Mickey’s dog Pluto. Many have speculated that Disney released the character to ride the wave of public enthusiasm over the new planet, but nothing official was ever established.
Many Moons. Even though Pluto is so small, it surprisingly turned out to have five moons in orbit around it. The largest is nearly half its size and creates a unique dual-orbit phenomenon.
Roman God Name. Pluto was named after a Roman god by an 11-year-old girl in 1930. Pluto is the god of the underworld in Roman mythology.
Slow Days. The orbit of Pluto around the sun is much slower than Earth’s. In fact, it takes almost 250 Earth years for one year to pass on Pluto. Each day is slow as well. One day on Pluto takes about 6 days on Earth.
Distant Sun. Pluto is so far from the sun that it takes light about 4 and a half hours to make the journey to reach it. For comparison, light travels from the sun to the Earth in just over eight minutes.
As the closest planet to the sun in the solar system, you might expect that Mercury would be the hottest planet in the solar system. But much like the desert on our earth, Mercury actually doesn’t maintain heat all that well. When the sun shines directly on it, Mercury is indeed a very hot place to be, as the temperature can top 800 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the melting point of several metals. But at night, the temperatures can drop to -279 degrees Fahrenheit, which is almost cold enough to turn oxygen to liquid.
Why doesn’t heat stay in place on Mercury? It’s because it’s the only planet in the solar system that doesn’t have a real atmosphere above its surface. While Venus has a thick, cloudy atmosphere, Mercury offers only the slightest exosphere, which does next to nothing to block the sun’s rays from its surface. This results in Mercury’s surface temperature heating up rapidly during the day, while cooling quickly when the sun’s rays disappear for the day.
History and Facts About Mercury
Like the rest of the five planets that can be seen with the naked eye, Mercury’s existence has been known to astronomers and the general public alike for centuries. The planet received its name in ancient times from Roman mythology, and Mercury’s name comes from the Roman messenger of the gods, who was known for his speed, symbolized by his winged sandals. Other instances in popular culture include books by C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury and the Bill Watterson comic Calvin and Hobbes.
The speed of the Roman god was likely the reason for Mercury’s name, as the planet is by far the fastest of all of the eight planets in its orbit around the sun. One complete revolution for Mercury takes a mere 88 days, and one earth year is the equivalent of just over four years on Mercury.
Ironically, while Mercury spins around the sun very rapidly, it is incredibly slow in spinning on its own axis. One complete rotation on Mercury takes 59 days, meaning that a year is long enough to sustain only a day and a half’s time on the planet. Given how long a day takes and how cold the planet gets at night, it’s hardly a surprise that life has never been found on Mercury.
At its closest point to the sun, Mercury is a mere 36 million miles away from the sun, which makes it impossible for the planet to sustain a moon in its orbit. In fact, nothing but dust orbits Mercury, in part because of its smaller size as well as its distance from the sun. Mercury is only about one-third the size of the earth and is even smaller than the moons that orbit some of the gas giants, making it unable to sustain the gravitational pull that is required for a celestial body to orbit the planet. Even if Mercury was a greater size, the gravitational pull of the sun would make it virtually impossible for anything to orbit Mercury instead of the sun.
Discoveries Related to Mercury
Mercury’s recorded history dates all the way back to 265 B.C., when Timocharis made the first observation of the planet in the night sky. Since that time, little new information has been discovered about the closest planet to our sun. In fact, Mercury took longer to see than planets that were further away because of just how close it is to the sun, as the planet can only be seen in the twilight of the sun.
As one of the four inner planets, it is technically possible for a spaceship to land on Mercury’s solid surface, but none has attempted it to date, likely because the conditions on the planet are too harsh for a spacecraft to survive on the planet’s surface for long. The only real informationwe have about the planet’s surface comes from one fly-by of the planet during the 1970s by Mariner 10 and one orbit of the planet by the Messenger probe, which entered Mercury’s orbit in 2011.
Why Is Mercury Hard to Explore?
The challenges that come from exploring Mercury have to do with the planet’s proximity to our sun. While it does have a surface that makes landing technically possible, unlike that of Jupiter or Saturn, the gravitational pull of the sun makes it very difficult for a probe to reach the speed and structure that it needs to get close to Mercury without being swallowed up by the sun’s gravitational pull. Another major difficulty with exploring Mercury comes from the solar radiation that comes from being so close to the sun’s rays.
Being just 35 million miles from the sun requires the surface of a spacecraft to be strong enough to withstand the solar radiation, which is four times that of the radiation that is present on earth. With little atmosphere available to protect a spacecraft from the sun’s rays, it has proven beyond the abilities of modern science to break through the challenges of exploring Mercury and finally provide a complete picture of what the existence is like on the closest planet to the sun. Only the Messenger probe has made a successful entry into Mercury’s orbit, a process that took six years from launch date.
The Future of Mercury
However, this hasn’t meant that scientists have stopped trying in their efforts to explore the sun’s nearest planet. The BepiColombo mission is scheduled to arrive in the planet’s gravitational pull in 2025, and it aims to build off the work that was first started by Mariner 10 and Messenger to give us a greater picture of Mercury’s surface, movement and other secrets about the planet’s existence.
Whatever the results are of the new mission, it’s likely that scientists will keep trying to build a better spacecraft in accordance with advancing technologies until they’re able to find the answers regarding Mercury’s existence that allow them to ask new questions about the fastest revolving planet in the solar system.