Spooky Space, Part 5: The Goblin


[The orbit of The Goblin]

Although it was first discovered in 2015, the extreme dwarf planet 2015 TG387, nicknamed The Goblin, was recently in the news. Astronomers now have a good sense of its orbit, and it’s really out there (literally)!

At about 200 miles wide, The Goblin is only a seventh the diameter of Pluto, but it makes up for its small size with an extreme orbit. At its perihelion (closest approach to the sun), it’s still 7.4 billion miles from the sun, two and a half times farther than Pluto. At its aphelion (most distant point from the sun), it’s an amazing 70 times more distant than Pluto, or more than 200 billion miles!

Such an extreme orbit is a signal that something has gravitationally interacted with The Goblin, and it’s too far from the sun for that “something” to likely have been the giant planets such as Jupiter. It’s possible (note, possible, not definite) that there is a ninth, still undiscovered, planet at least the size of Earth (if not larger) in the outer solar system. If so, then Planet X is haunting us!


Spooky Space, Part 4: Zombie Stars


In the outskirts of the spiral galaxy NGC 1309 lurks an undead star worthy of The Walking Dead. Called SN 2012Z, this system was the first example of what astronomers call a mini supernova, or, more colorfully, a zombie star.

Middle range stars like our sun die as a white dwarf, a dense, compact corpse made mainly of helium, carbon, and oxygen. If one star in a binary star couple dies as a white dwarf before its mate, it can go through a cannibalistic stage and literally suck the life (the gas) out of its poor companion.


If the white dwarf eats too much, it explodes, causing what astronomers call a Type Ia supernova. No white dwarf had ever been seen to survive such a violent outburst, until the discovery of zombie stars (now technically called Type Iax supernovae).

The record for rebirths might just be held by the supernova iPTF14hls (located in a more distant galaxy). Archived images show that this white dwarf has survived at least six “deaths” since 1954, including 5 explosions between 2014-2016.

Eat your heart out, George Romero. Not literally, of course.


Spooky Space, Part 3: Franken-galaxies


[Three NASA photos of UGC-1382, located about 250 million light years away]

Just as Mary Shelley’s famous creature was constructed of pieces taken from other bodies, Franken-galaxies appear to be amalgams of multiple galactic bodies. One of the most famous is UGC-1382, shown above. The left picture shows what it looks like in regular photo taken by a large telescope. To the eye, it appears like any other elliptical galaxy. However, ultraviolet data (center) and faint visible light (right) show that there is much more to this galaxy that we first suspected, including spiral arms! Not only is the strange galaxy ten times larger than first suspected (and seven times larger than our Milky Way), but it is actually younger on the inside than the outside. Imagine your skin forming and then having your internal organs stuffed inside!

This galaxy is not only inside-out, it is also extremely fragile (in a gravitational sense). The gravity from any nearby galaxies would cause it to fall apart. Luckily for it, UGC-1382 lives in a rather boring cosmic neighborhood.



Spooky Space, Part 2: Ghostly Neutrinos



[The inside of the MiniBooNE neutrino detector, a perfect name for this time of year!]

The introductory narration to the 1964 episode of The Outer Limits “Production and Decay of Strange Particles”  invokes the “strange world of subatomic particles,” including “anti-matter composed of inside-out material, shadow-matter  which can penetrate 10 miles of lead shielding.” Ten miles of lead? What kind of witchery might this be?

Actually this is a vast understatement. These spooky particles called neutrinos can literally pass through walls of solid lead trillions of miles thick. In the classic paper “The ‘Neutrino’” Hans Bethe and Rudolph Peierls noted that a neutrino could pass through the earth “like a bullet through a bank of fog,”  while John Updike’s poem “Cosmic Gall” compares their effortless travels through our planet to that of “dustmaids down a drafty hall.”  While this means that neutrinos are completely safe, it also poses great difficulties to physicists trying to observe and measure them.

But there is another reason for the neutrino’s dubious reputation; they are produced in large numbers in the supernova explosions of massive stars, serving as celestial harbingers of doom that reach our massive neutrino detectors hours before the actual explosion of the star is visible in our telescopes. In fact, supernovae can be thought of as a “neutrino bombs.” Perhaps this is why in the Star Trek universe, Bajoran wormholes are said to give off elevated numbers of neutrinos whenever something passes through them.

Neutrinos are blamed for all kinds of mischief in popular culture.  In the pilot episode of  Rick and Morty  mad scientist Rick Sanchez takes his grandson Morty Smith on a late-night ride in his space cruiser. Rick has decided to give our planet a clean slate by wiping out the entire human species with a neutrino bomb, with the exception himself, Morty (the new Adam) and Morty’s friend Jessica from math class (Morty’s Eve). In Greg Bear’s novel Foundation and Chaos (based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series), the Three Laws of Robotics (which prevent robots from allowing humans – or themselves – to be harmed) are erased from a robot’s positronic brain after he is exposed to a neutrino storm. Neutrinos also trigger the end of the world in the apocalypse blockbuster 2012. Here an abnormally large storm of mutated neutrinos is unleashed from solar flares. In violation of the known laws of physics, these mutant neutrinos heat up the earth’s core and create the impossibly large tectonic shifts that are featured throughout the film. Finally, in the novel Flashforward the cause of the global blackout is tied to the neutrinos from Supernova 1987a interacting with the LHC. Neutrinos might not interact that often with matter, but science fiction seems to think that when they do, it’s very bad.







Spooky Space, Part 1: The Death Comet


[Asteroid 2015 TB145 aka the Death Comet]

Editor’s note: Each day between now and Halloween we will explore a different example of “spooky space.” Today we feature the so-called Death Comet.

You might have heard something in the news lately about a “Death Comet” that is scheduled to pass by our planet in November. Meet Asteroid 2015 TB145. Yes, that’s right, when this  skull-shaped object was first discovered on October 10, 2015 it was thought to be an asteroid, a hunk of rock about 1300 feet wide. When it passed closest to Earth on Halloween 2015 at about 310,000 miles (a bit farther than our Moon), the above radio telescope image was taken, as well as information on its composition. It was discovered that this trick-or-treating object was actually a trickster – it wasn’t an asteroid at all, but a comet that had spent its supply of what we call volatiles,  frozen materials such as water ice, frozen carbon dioxide (so-called “dry ice”), ammonia and methane, and could no longer create the fuzzy halo (or coma) and tails that are the signature of what most people think of as a comet. Asteroid 2015 TB145  is therefore more correctly a “dead comet.”

Whatever it is, this object will be passing by to say “boo” again this year, approaching 39 million miles away on November 11.

Planet-palooza This Week!

ssw-45-minutes-after-sunsetLooking south after sunset

Four planets are visible in the early evening sky this week. Look for the brightest, Venus, low in the west right after sunset. If you have a small telescope or binoculars, check out the four largest moons of Jupiter and see if you can discern Saturn’s rings. Mars is the hardest to see detail on – look for a slight brightening on the top and bottom due to the polar ice caps.

Outreach on Breezy Hill, Vermont


Sara Poppa and Angelia Colella working the registration gate

On the weekend of August 10-12 CCSU faculty and students brought astronomy down to earth for families attending the annual Stellafane Amateur Telescope Makers Convention on Breezy Hill in Springfield, VT. Geological Sciences majors and astronomy minors Sara Poppa and Angelia Colella took families on a tour of the solar system both days, using a mile long scale model of the solar system to demonstrate the layout of the planets.

Top left: identifying meteorites; Top right: filters; Bottom: simple telescopes

In two children’s workshops on Friday, Dr. Kristine Larsen gave hands-on explanations on how to tell a meteorite from a “meteor-wrong”, and children explored how simple telescopes work and the use of filters in astronomy.

Far left: using glitter to make the nucleus of a comet; middle left: completed comet model; middle right: Saturn model; Far right: Harry Potter starfinders

On Saturday, children made models of comets and Saturn, as well as Harry Potter starfinders.

Outreach is Central to all that we do at CCSU. It was an honor to spark an interest in science in these young people and their families.