Posts Tagged 'Uranus'

Keep Looking Up

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

The week holds a plethora of sky gazing opportunities.

First off, Saturday, September 18th will debut the very first International Observe the Moon Night. The evening is an offshoot of many programs that exist to explore and study Earth’s closest neighbor, including the very successful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which has been sending back detailed images of the lunar surface. The moon will be in its waxing gibbous phase on Saturday, moving from a quarter to a full moon by Thursday, the 23rd of September.

As the moon moves through its phases, there will be a few objects competing for your attention in the night sky. Monday evening, September 20th and Tuesday morning, September 21st, will see Jupiter at its closest proximity to Earth in over 40 years. This will make Jupiter the second brightest object in the night sky after the moon. Jupiter will be visible throughout the evening, appearing almost directly overhead at midnight. As you’re looking for Jupiter you may also be able to see Uranus just above the giant planet. Unlike Jupiter, which is visible to the unaided eye, you’ll need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope to make out the tiny blue green Uranus.

If staying up until midnight isn’t your cup of tea, there’s also the chance for some early morning observations over the next few days with Mercury appearing low in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise. The best days for viewing Mercury will be September 18, 19, & 20th. While Mercury will look like a pinkish colored light to the naked eye, a telescope may allow you to see the planet pass through a quick change of phases similar to those of our much slower moving moon.

Don’t worry if you don’t have your own telescope, because on Friday, September 24th, The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, along with the Astronomy Department of Front Range Community College, will host the Star Nights program at the Stargazer Observatory. The event runs from 8:00 to 10:00 PM on Friday evening and will include the StarLab Planetarium program, access to the telescope at the Stargazer Observatory, and other hands-on activities. The program is offered free to the public, although registration is required due to limited availability. To make a reservation, please contact Toby Swaford at 970-416-2705, extension 2.

Liquid assets

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Diamonds, courtesy Creative Commons

Pressure makes diamonds.  Well, to be honest, it has to be the just the right mixture of pressure and heat to create a diamond.  Formed from carbon, diamond is the hardest naturally occurring substance known to man.  Under more extreme conditions that same carbon could become graphite.  So soft it can be used as a lubricant, and perhaps most familiar as the stuff inside of a pencil, graphite takes its names from the Greek phrase meaning “to write.”

Although we often think of it as rare, diamond is actually a relatively common material on our planet; it’s just not always easy to get to.   Diamonds have even been found along the Front Range. The Kelsey Lake Mine, located north of Fort Collins, produced specimens between 14 and 26 carats.  In spite of their impressive finds the mining company eventually went bankrupt; in the end it simply cost too much to excavate and remove the diamonds for the company to turn a profit.  Similarly, there are millions of dollars in gold floating about our oceans, yet it would take many times what that gold is worth for it to be successfully extracted.

All of this raises a question; if the oceans on Earth are teaming with mineral resources, what about those on other planets?  According to a recent article in the scientific journal Nature Physics, Uranus and Neptune could have oceans made not of water, but of liquid diamond.   However, before you start planning a trip to the Neptunian seaside, remember that this idea is still theoretical. The information behind the research hasn’t come from the latest fly-by of a space probe, but instead from a lab right here on Earth.

Neptune, courtesy


Research looking at the melting point of diamond has determined that, under the right circumstances, it acts a lot like water both when melting and freezing.  Solid chunks of diamond will even float in the liquid much like ice floats in water.  Of course, finding the exact temperature that will melt diamond is almost impossible.  This is because it’s not simply a question of adding heat, but adding pressure as well.  How much pressure?  In the most recent experiments, a team of scientists applied pressure along with the intense heat of lasers to a diamond (a tenth of a carat in weight and half a millimeter thick). They reached the diamond melting point at 40 million times the pressure we would experience at sea level here on Earth.  The liquid diamond didn’t begin to return to its solid form until the pressure was reduced to a level roughly measuring11 million times that of sea level.

According to Tom Duffy, a scientist at Princeton University, the idea of liquid diamond oceans on Uranus and Neptune is not a new one, and the current research helps support the idea. The findings may also explain another phenomenon of those distant plants: the strange placement of their magnetic poles. Both Uranus and Neptune have magnetic poles that are roughly 40 to 60 degrees off their geographical north – south axis.  To give you an idea of how far off the mark that is, it would be like finding the Earth’s magnetic North Pole in the middle of Texas.  Scientists think that oceans of liquid diamond may help explain the pole discrepancy and other anomalies that have been observed with both Neptune and Uranus.

Before any kind of conclusion can be drawn there will need to be much more research conducted, including sending more advanced probes to various planets of our solar system.  In the meantime, we can continue to study some of the same types of phenomena right here on Planet Earth.  Isn’t it nice to know that we can reach so far and learn so much without ever having to leave home?

The planets and “The Planets”

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

The beginning of 2010 offers anyone interested in astronomy the opportunity to view several members of our Solar System. At those times when, thanks to snow clouds, the night sky can’t be seen, why not experience the Solar System through the most famous musical depiction of the planets: The Planets, by the English composer with the decidedly non-English name of Gustav Holst.

Your first experience with this music will almost certainly be a memorable one (I’ll never forget the first time I heard it) and, of all of Holst’s works, this is the easiest to find. If your local library has anything by Holst in their “classical” CDs section, they’ll have this.  Also, there are many extracts or full-movement performances available on the internet.

The first-time listener to The Planets will find that much of the music, particularly the first and last movements, sound strangely familiar.  There’s a good reason for this. Many contemporary composers, particularly those who compose music for movies, have borrowed freely and lavishly from The Planets!

The movements as presented in the The Planets - Suite for Large Orchestra, are “Mars, the Bringer of War,” “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” “Mercury, the Messenger,” “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” (or Mirth, as it’s sometimes given), “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” “Uranus, the Magician,” and “Neptune, the Mystic.” The planet (or non-planet) Pluto hadn’t yet been discovered in 1914, when Holst began writing the piece. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, Holst chose not to write an eighth movement for The Planets.

The planets we can see this month won’t follow Holst’s performance order. We’ll start with what can be seen just at or after sunset, since things seen then are the earliest to set and vanish, and then work our way eastward, or to the left.

JUPITER is visible this month, and will be for part of February as well. To see Jupiter, first determine where to see the sunset from your location. Go outside maybe half an hour after the sun’s gone down, and face where the sunset was. If you look halfway up the sky and just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y to the left, you’ll see what looks like a bright, solitary “star.” That “star” is the planet Jupiter, the largest of the planets in our Solar System and the quickest to disappear into the little bit of light still present from the set sun. If you observe Jupiter through a small telescope or binoculars held steadily (using a tripod, or resting your arms on a car roof helps), you might see several tiny star-like points of light lined up on either side of the planet, and if you look again in two or three nights, you’ll see that these lights will have shifted position. The lights are actually several of Jupiter’s moons, named the “Galilean” moons, since the astronomer Galileo was the first to see them and determine what they were.

Holst was inspired by the astrological traditions associated with the various planets as he composed the movements of The Planets. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” brims with good feeling and merriment, an appropriate portrayal of Jupiter, who was depicted astrologically as rousing and roistering. The contrasting slow section in the middle of the movement has a hymn-like quality to it, and indeed later was used as a hymn in England (rather to Holst’s disapproval), with the words “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”

NEPTUNE is, sadly, never visible to the naked eye and you’ll need a fairly large telescope to see it, but it’s just 2 degrees to the lower right of Jupiter, shifting to the lower left as the month progresses. Even through very powerful telescopes Neptune can be hard to spot, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t see it. Instead, I’ll dare any first-time listener of The Planets to listen to “Neptune, the Mystic,” the movement written about the most mysterious and distant planet known in Holst’s time, in a darkened room. That’s all I’ll say about it, except to invite you to let me know, via the comments section of this post, what you thought if you’re brave enough to try!

URANUS, the farthest planet that can be seen without a telescope, can be found just one constellation to the east (or the left) of Jupiter. It’ll be passing in front of the constellation Pisces, the Fishes, by mid-January. You’ll need a star chart (available at the Museum’s front desk, or check online) to find the “Circlet” portion of faint Pisces, but Uranus will be just below that particular group of stars. If you’ve got 7X50 binoculars, you might be able to see the planet look like a blue-green disc, with the color coming from clouds filled with tiny methane crystals.

“Uranus, the Magician” is one of the funnier moments of The Planets, as the magician of Holst’s imagination is rather something of a bumbler. After a bombastic introduction, the music starts off in a galumphing way. The piece sounds similar to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, the music Disney used for Mickey Mouse and the magic brooms in the film Fantasia. Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogene stated that, to her knowledge, her father never had heard the Dukas work at the time he wrote The Planets, and that might indeed be true, but I’d wager that one piece might well remind you of the other.

MARS is easily seen low in the east after sunset. Distinctly reddish-orange, Mars will be passing in front of the constellation Cancer, the Crab, and will be closest to Earth in its orbit (and therefore, its brightest) on January 29th, the same night that a full moon will appear to be passing the planet. By midnight, Mars will be high in the southern sky, and will have dropped to the westward in the hours before sunrise.

The movement “Mars” opens The Planets, and is remarkable in how brutally repetitive and mechanical-sounding the rhythm that underlies the music is. Holst composed “Mars” just months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the act that led to World War I – what the British called “The Great War.” The mechanical nature of the piece seems to anticipate the mechanized warfare that would soon begin. This is powerful, frightening music.

We’ll look at Venus, Saturn and Mercury in the next posting. In the meantime, I hope that, along with getting outside and seeing the planets of January for yourselves, you’ll have the opportunity to hear the music Gustav Holst is most remembered for, even though paradoxically, he didn’t at all consider it his best work.

As always, Good seeing (and good listening)!

February 2015
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