Massive Terrestrial Impact

A huge asteroid like the one in this image (an artistic rendering from NASA) would likely wipe out all life on Earth. But should we be worrying about this happening in 2012?

As if Mayan “doomsday prophecies,” Sun-damaging planetary alignments, and fatal alignments with the galactic center were not enough, 2012 apocalypse proponents are also stating that on December 21, 2012, Earth will be hit by a huge asteroid that will cause mass extinction and global chaos.

As with the other 2012-doomsday scenarios, the asteroid strike claim has a good deal of scientific evidence against it. Of course, asteroids have hit our planet before – scientists believe a huge one (several miles wide) was probably responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs – and it is virtually guaranteed that Earth will be hit again at some point in the future. But precisely because of that high probability, scientists around the globe are searching the skies for what they call “Near-Earth Objects” (NEOs) that may one day strike Earth.

NASA, in conjunction with several other astronomical organizations around the globe, has been cataloging NEOs since 1998. These organizations search the sky for asteroids and comets that are in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. When one is found, advanced computer programs model the object’s future path, taking into account the object’s size and speed as well as the influences of gravity from the Sun, Earth, and other planets and moons in our solar system. As the object comes closer, we can gather more information about it and further refine this model.

But why are scientists spending so much time searching for NEOs – it’s not like we could stop them from hitting Earth, right? It may sound like something out of a big-budget blockbuster, but astronomers actually do think that we would have a chance of deflecting a comet or asteroid headed for Earth – if we discovered it well enough in advance. Proposed methods for NEO deflection include solar sails, “gravity tractors,” and rockets – but NOT nuclear weapons as seen in Hollywood, which would only break the object apart and send deadly mini-asteroids our way. Russia has recently announced preliminary plans to deflect the asteroid Apophis (which technically has a chance of hitting us in 2036, albeit a very small chance).

So, could an asteroid strike the Earth on December 21, 2012? Sure – but a strike is no more likely on this particular date than on any other. Scientists in the NEO discovery program have not found any large object that is likely to even pass close to Earth on this date, or on any other in the near future. Even if they did, it is likely that we could deflect such an object before it intercepts Earth’s orbit.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. She prefers "Deep Impact" over "Armageddon," if only for the escaping-a-tidal-wave-on-a-moped scene.

“What’s new at Morehead?” That’s a common question that I get from friends and family. Whenever I get the question, I’m always a little dumbstruck. Where to start? There’s always something new in the works. Maybe the first of a new year is a little unusual with people feeling the need to launch new initiatives or the jump-start ones left over from the prior year. But my schedule this week has been full of meetings on interesting projects that are in the works. Don’t take it for granted that all of these projects (or Morehead’s participation) will actually happen. Keep checking back for official announcements. But here’s a taste of what’s been on my calendar this week and what we’re working on for 2010:

  • National Lab Day: The White House is backing an initiative to connect teachers, students, engineers and scientists in hands-on science learning. It’s more than just one day, but National Lab Day activities will take place the first week of May. We’re working on connecting with teachers and students via the DESTINY program and UNC scientists. We’re also discussing working through the timing because the first week of May is leading into end-of-course tests in North Carolina.
  • An example of a steampunk computer keyboard and monitor.

    An example of a steampunk computer keyboard and monitor. Image from Wired.com.

    The Art and Science of Steampunk: We had a meeting this week with a couple of members of the local steampunk scene. One of my colleagues, Amber Vogel, has received a grant to put on a steampunk festival in April. For those of you who might not be familiar with steampunk (I wasn’t), steampunk is a subculture that fuses the Victorian Era, science fiction and new technology. Need a better description? Check out Wired magazine’s description and examples.

  • The USA Science and Engineering Festival: That’s coming up in October. We’re planning on participating in the expo on the National Mall and developing a local counterpart. Denise Young plans on sharing more details in an upcoming blog post.

And of course, we’re working on Our Next Giant Leap. What is Our Next Giant Leap? You’ll have to check back later this month for more details. But I’ll say this: it’s big.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations and is wishing that he had a copy of Will Smith's "Wild, Wild West" on Blu-Ray.

Galactic Center

In the heart of the Milky Way lies a supermassive black hole. This infrared image of the center of our galaxy was taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

So far in our 2012 blog series, we’ve dealt with the Mayan calendar and claims of a planetary alignment. Another claim making the rounds says that on December 21, 2012, Earth, our Sun, and the galactic center will align, and something about this alignment will cause Earth to be annihilated.

This claim is trickier than most, because it turns out that we will experience a rough alignment of these three celestial objects on 12/21/2012. But don’t start investing in survival supplies just yet: it turns out that Earth, our Sun, and the black hole at the center of our galaxy align like this twice each year – and we’re still here!

We all know that Earth orbits the Sun once each year. What you may not know is that our Sun is also orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy. One complete solar orbit takes about 225 million years! As these two orbits are occurring, Earth, the Sun, and the galactic center experience an approximate alignment twice each year. Even this alignment is not perfect, since the Earth and the Sun’s orbits are tilted relative to one another.

2012 doomsayers make a big deal out of the fact that this alignment is occurring on the winter solstice. But the extremely long orbital period of the Sun around the galactic center means that this alignment has occurred on the solstices for years, and will continue to for quite a few more. The bottom line? There is no scientific reason to think that the approximate alignment of Earth, our Sun, and the galactic center will be any different on 12/21/2012 than it was on 12/21/2009.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360, and she wonders how a 50-pound drum of coffee would save anyone if a black hole really DID suck in the Earth.

We just uploaded our latest Science 360 – The Developing Brain – to YouTube. Scientists are learning more every day about the human brain develops, from embryo to fetus to baby. They’re also studying the ways that external factors affect the brain’s development. This Science 360, led by Casey Rawson, Science Content Developer for Science 360, examines some of those scientists’ findings and what else scientists may discover about the developing brain.


Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager and is still mildly obsessed with Radiolab. But I can quit at any time. I swear.

Replace the mosquitos with microscopes, the campfires with chemistry, the tents with technology … and you’ve got Summer Science Camps at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center!

In June, July and August, Morehead offers one-week, half-day camps for children in grades K–8. campEach camp is filled with fun, science-based activities, with themes like “Aquatic Addresses,” “Dinosaur Detectives,” “Test Pilots” and “CSI: Chapel Hill.”

For middle school students, there’s even a full-day option called “SciVentures,” an intensive program that combines on-site activities with field experiences. For 2010, “SciVentures” will focus on emergency medical science, with behind-the-scenes guidance from UNC Health Care and UNC School of Education.

The camps are fun, educational and very popular. Morehead members are eligible for early registration, and they save $15 on the cost of each camp (so if you aren’t already a member, this is a great time to join). Members at the “Lunar Level” even qualify for concierge registration!

So how — and when — can you get all the details about 2010 Summer Science Camps?

If you’re a Morehead member, check your mailbox for the winter issue of Sundial magazine — it’s scheduled to be mailed on Jan. 4. You’ll find the camp registration guide inside Sundial. Within a few weeks, you’ll also receive a letter with registration instructions (the letter will be mailed on Jan. 18).

Not a member? You’ll find all of the information you need about Summer Science Camps posted on Morehead’s Web site, beginning Jan. 11.

Morehead’s online registration system opens for members on Feb. 8 and for the general public on Feb. 15, so you have plenty of time to plan.

Gee, a s'more would taste good right now.

In a celestial tug-of-war between our Sun and the planets, there is one clear winner.

Today is the winter solstice, and those of you paying attention to pop culture might also note that today is exactly three years from December 21, 2012 – the day that Earth will end (if you believe everything you read on the internet). If you saw our first blog post on the 2012 apocalypse claims, you know that modern Mayans are scoffing at the idea that one of their ancient calendars predicts the end of the world. But that hasn’t stopped people from suggesting all kinds of end-of-the-world scenarios for 12/21/2012. One of the most popular is the planetary alignment claim – which says that the planets will align, and the resulting gravitational forces will damage our Sun.

There are two questions here: one, will the planets align on this date? And two, would an alignment damage our Sun, producing fatal effects here on Earth?

The first question is easy to answer. Since planets have such predictable orbits, we can use simple computer programs to track planetary positions for any date – past, present, or future. Try it for yourself at this site – do you see any alignment on December 21, 2012?

The answer to the 12/21/12 alignment question is a simple NO – the planets will not be aligned on that date. But if they were aligned, what would happen?

This question has a simple answer as well, and the answer is: NOTHING. Our Sun is gigantic compared to any of the solar system’s planets. In fact, the Sun makes up 99.8% of the solar system’s total mass. Gravity depends on mass, so the result of any celestial tug-of-war between the Sun and its eight planets is a foregone conclusion: the Sun is going to win, every time.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth behind 2012” when it opens in early February 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360, and she has no plans to start stockpiling toilet paper in preparation for December 2012.

Geminid meteors appear to originate from the constellation Gemini the Twins (Image: Stellarium)

Geminid meteors appear to originate from the constellation Gemini the Twins (Image: Stellarium)

The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight (Sunday night, Dec. 13 – Monday morning, Dec. 14).  Yes, it will be cold.  But there are four reasons why it’s worth bundling up and heading outside to look:

1) You can view the Geminids as early as 9 or 10 tonight, with the most meteor activity expected around 1 or 2 a.m.  Compare this with other major meteor showers, which require going out at an insane hour for the best viewing.

2) This is a strong, reliable shower. From a dark location, you can expect to see an average of one or two meteors (“shooting stars”) streak across the sky each minute.

3) No moonlight will wash out dimmer meteors from view, as they did for last year’s Geminids. This time the Moon is a waning crescent and won’t rise till almost dawn.

4) As I write this, the Clear Sky Charts for most of North Carolina, including the Triangle area, predict clear skies this evening.

To view the Geminids, wear really, really warm clothes, a hat, and gloves, and wrap yourself in a sleeping bag or blankets. Find a safe location without too many trees or unshielded outdoor lights nearby to hurt your view.

Allow your eyes about 15 minutes to adjust to the dark, and watch the sky from your sleeping bag or reclining lawn chair. The Geminids are named for the constellation they appear to radiate from, but you do not need to know how to find Gemini to spot the meteors.

Check the Web sites for Sky and Telescope and the American Meteor Society for details about the peak, duration, and origin of the Geminid meteors.

If you want to learn to identify those Gemini twins as well as what else is up in the night sky over the next few months, you can register for Starry Winter Nights. This adult class happens Wednesday evening, Dec. 16. And if you missed the 2009 Geminids, we can re-create them in the star theater with the push of a button.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. She looks forward to teaching Starry Winter Nights in Morehead's climate-controlled star theater.

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Check out the new commercial we’re going to be playing before planetarium shows this Fall. Just a reminder that there’s more at Morehead besides what’s beneath the dome. The video stars a number of our current Afterschool program students.

By the way, when you’re watching one of our YouTube videos, hit the subscribe button. That way we can let you know when a new Morehead video gets uploaded. It’s not bad spam, it’s good spam. Like on a Hawaiian pizza.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. And he does like Hawaiian pizza.

Astronomers estimate that our own Sun is about 4.6 billion years old, give or take a few million years.

And then there’s “Star of Bethlehem” (celebrating its 60th birthday this year), which claims a place among the longest-running planetarium shows in the world. “Star” examines the legendary star from a scholarly perspective, exploring the astronomical events that could have caused such a phenomenon.

Star of Bethlehem“Star” was among the original Morehead productions during the planetarium’s first year of operation. For years, its arrival was marked with the appearance of a plastic star that glowed at night atop Morehead’s roof. (That tradition ended a few years ago when a November storm damaged the plastic star beyond repair.)

Over the years, “Star” has been updated to reflect new scientific knowledge and to showcase new technology, so today’s version probably doesn’t look anything like the “Star” of 1949. In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll even spot a dinosaur in the current version. (UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp once said that a dinosaur appeared somewhere within every Morehead planetarium show. How many have you spied?)

“Star” is still among Morehead’s most popular planetarium shows and has become a seasonal tradition for many families. This year, “Star” begins Nov. 27 and continues through Jan. 3.

Frisbees, cake mix and the very first credit card all appeared around the same time as Morehead's "Star."

Bella is having a very bad day and is not up for remembering her astronomy.

Bella is having a very bad day and is not up for remembering her astronomy.

Today is the new moon. A different New Moon happens Friday, when the second movie made from Stephenie Meyer’s popular Twilight book series opens in theaters.

Although Twilight fans may not care, our heroine Bella Swan’s knowledge of lunar phases is questionable. In the book’s title-inspiring scene, in which her vampire boyfriend Edward leaves her and she wanders through the woods for hours, Bella thinks, “Tonight the sky was utterly black. Perhaps there was no moon tonight—a lunar eclipse, a new moon.”

Bella correctly equates “new moon” with “no moon.” A new moon is above the horizon only during the day, and the only lit part is the far side that we can’t see.

But Bella’s phrasing suggests a few astronomical impossibilities:

1) In her distress, is Bella thinking a lunar eclipse and new moon are the same? Her thoughts are ambiguous. But a lunar eclipse can happen only when the moon’s phase is full. Never when it’s new. Not even in fictional worlds with vampires.

When the moon is new, it’s between the sun and Earth, as Meyer describes on her Web site. A lunar eclipse, however, requires a different geometric line-up: Sun-Earth-Moon.

Lunar eclipse geometry

Only in this configuration can the Earth’s shadow cover (eclipse) the moon. MrEclipse.com explains why lunar eclipses don’t happen every full moon, and NASA’s lunar eclipse page lists dates of past and future lunar eclipses.

2) Even during a lunar eclipse, Bella wouldn’t have “no moon tonight.” The moon remains visible when eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow. Although the moon darkens, sometimes almost to the point of invisibility, it won’t completely disappear because Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight. An eclipsed moon usually looks reddish (not to be confused with the reddish tint the moon can take on when near the horizon, regardless of its phase).

This total lunar eclipse did not happen at new moon. (Credit: Fred Espenak)

This total lunar eclipse did not happen at new moon. (Credit: Fred Espenak)

3) Even with no moon, the sky wouldn’t look “utterly black” in Forks, Washington, where Bella wanders the woods, unless there was a regional power outage. Because of light pollution, there are no truly dark skies in the entire state. But we can forgive Bella for exaggerating in her distraught condition.

Six months later (warning! spoiler ahead!), things brighten up for Bella when she reunites with Edward in Italy. There they further mangle the solar system by experiencing an impossible sun. That’ll be another blog post.

Do you have an example to share of impossible astronomy in a book?  Please post a comment.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. She doesn't let impossible astronomy get in the way of enjoying a good story.


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