Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Hidden Baby Galaxy in our Cosmic Neighborhood

An international team of astronomers, led by researchers at Japan’s Tohoku University, has just reported finding the faintest satellite galaxy ever seen orbiting our home galaxy, the Milky Way.  All stars are born in great islands or groupings of stars called galaxies.

Big galaxies like the Milky Way are surrounded by smaller “baby galaxies” (or satellite galaxies), some of which collide with it over cosmic times.  About 50 such galaxies are currently known to orbit our Milky Way – with the two “Magellanic Clouds” (discovered by Ferdinand Magellan’s crew) being the most famous of them.

Because many of the smallest galaxies are very faint, they are hard for us to make out.  Remember, we are inside the Milky Way, and so (as we try to look outwards) we always have to observe through the stars and star clusters of our own galaxy.  The faint baby galaxies can be hard to tell apart from clusters or groups of stars in the Milky Way itself. (This is why it’s hard to get a good photo of the Milky Way; we are inside it and so it’s like trying to take a selfie from inside your kidney.  The view is not so clear.)

Still, using the giant Subaru telescope (whose mirror is more than 24 feet wide), the team was able to find the faintest baby galaxy ever found, which is being called Virgo I (since we see it in the constellation of Virgo.)  At an estimated distance of 280,000 lightyears from us, Virgo I was much fainter than earlier surveys for our neighbor galaxies were able to reveal.

The whole Virgo I “dwarf galaxy” is only about 248 lightyears wide.  Compare that to the 100,000 lightyear diameter of the Milky Way! The Magellanic Clouds are estimated to be 7,000 and 14,000 light across.  So you can see that Virgo I really is just a baby. See the tiny smudge it makes on our accompanying image.

But if one such baby galaxy has escaped our notice until now, chances are many others like it may also be out there.  Some of our theories predict that major galaxies like the Milky Way should be surrounded by many more dwarf galaxies that we have seen so far.  Virgo I leads astronomers to think that more may be out there -- just waiting for bigger telescopes and more observations before they are discovered. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Enjoy Sunday and Monday's "Supermoon" But Don't Fall for the Hype!

You may read stories in the media about Sunday evening’s or Monday morning’s full moon being a “supermoon.” And it is true that – by a slight amount – the full moon just before Monday’s sunrise will be the closest, brightest, and largest-looking full moon since 1948.
But the average person won’t notice much difference between this “supermoon” and an ordinary full moon. Clouds, smog, and human lights turn out to have a much greater effect on how bright a full moon looks to us. Still, if you look carefully under dark skies, you might convince yourself that the full Moon Sunday night and Monday before dawn looks a bit bigger and brighter than usual.
“Supermoon” is not an astronomical term. It was suggested by an astrologer and suddenly became popular in the media (who always favor superlatives) in 2011. We astronomers have been stuck with it ever since.
Why are some full moons bigger and brighter than others? It’s because the Moon’s orbit around us is not a perfect circle, but on oval shape called an ellipse. That means sometimes the Moon is a bit closer to us and sometimes it’s a bit further away. If a full moon happens just when the Moon is closer, we get a bigger and brighter looking full moon. The more precisely the closest moon and the full moon coincide, the better the super effect. Nov. 14th, the moon is full at 5:52 am Pacific time, while the moon is closest at 3:23 am. That’s a pretty close coincidence.
Does the “supermoon” have any significant effect on planet Earth. You may read predictions that there will be much greater tides or even earthquakes Monday morning. Don’t believe it! We have slightly stronger tides every time the Sun, Earth and Moon are lined up (which they are at every full moon). But the only time the supermoon will show itself in a significantly stronger effect on the shore is if we happen to be in the middle of a huge storm. And the Sun and Moon have no effect on earthquakes, which happen deep inside the Earth.
So if you happen to glance at the full Moon Sunday evening or Monday morning, enjoy the knowledge that the Moon is a bit closer to you. You may even howl at the Moon if the candidate of your choice didn’t get chosen in our recent elections. But don’t add the “supermoon” to your list of things worth worrying about.

(Photo of the Lick Observatory with the Moon behind it by Rick Baldridge of the Peninsula Astronomical Society.  This was taken with a special lens to enlarge both the observatory and the Moon.)