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Researchers Find That Earth’s “Plasmaspheric Hiss” Protects Against A Harmful Radiation Belt

February 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Courtesy of the reasearchers/Haystack Observatory

Courtesy of the reasearchers/Haystack Observatory

High above Earth’s atmosphere, electrons whiz past at close to the speed of light. Such ultrarelativistic electrons, which make up the outer band of the Van Allen radiation belt, can streak around the planet in a mere five minutes, bombarding anything in their path. Exposure to such high-energy radiation can wreak havoc on satellite electronics, and pose serious health risks to astronauts.

Now researchers at MIT, the University of Colorado, and elsewhere have found there’s a hard limit to how close ultrarelativistic electrons can get to the Earth. The team found that no matter where these electrons are circling around the planet’s equator, they can get no further than about 11,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface — despite their intense energy.

What’s keeping this high-energy radiation at bay seems to be neither the Earth’s magnetic field nor long-range radio waves, but rather a phenomenon termed “plasmaspheric hiss” — very low-frequency electromagnetic waves in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that, when played through a speaker, resemble static, or white noise.

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Close Pairing Of Venus And Mars On February 20-21

February 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Credit: Sky & Telescope Diagrame.

Credit: Sky & Telescope Diagrame.

Look west in twilight this Friday and Saturday (February 20th and 21st), and an unusual astronomical sight will await you.

Brilliant Venus and faint Mars will be paired remarkably close in the sky. And on Friday evening, the crescent Moon joins them in a tight bunch, a beautiful sight. On Saturday Venus and Mars appear even closer together, with the crescent Moon now looking down on them from above.

When it comes to “eyeball astronomy,” nothing is more satisfying than to see a pair of celestial objects appear close together in the sky, what astronomers call a conjunction. And 2015, notes Sky & Telescope’s longtime contributing editor Fred Schaaf, truly deserves to be called the “Year of the Conjunctions.” In January we watched Venus and Mercury come together in the evening twilight, and now comes a similarly close pairing of Venus and Mars. On Saturday they’ll appear 1/2° apart for viewers in North America. That’s about the width of a pencil held at arm’s length.

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Astronomers Identify The Closest Known Flyby Of A Star To Our Solar System: A Dim Star That Passed Through The Oort Cloud 70,000 Years Ago

February 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.

Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.

A group of astronomers from the US, Europe, Chile and South Africa have determined that 70,000 years ago a recently discovered dim star is likely to have passed through the solar system’s distant cloud of comets, the Oort Cloud. No other star is known to have ever approached our solar system this close – five times closer than the current closest star, Proxima Centauri.

In a paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, lead author Eric Mamajek from the University of Rochester and his collaborators analyzed the velocity and trajectory of a low-mass star system nicknamed “Scholz’s star.”

The star’s trajectory suggests that 70,000 years ago it passed roughly 52,000 astronomical units away (or about 0.8 light years, which equals 8 trillion kilometers, or 5 trillion miles). This is astronomically close; our closest neighbor star Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light years distant. In fact, the astronomers explain in the paper that they are 98% certain that it went through what is known as the “outer Oort Cloud” – a region at the edge of the solar system filled with trillions of comets a mile or more across that are thought to give rise to long-period comets orbiting the Sun after their orbits are perturbed.

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