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.

Got Binoculars? Channel Your Inner Galileo


Have you ever wanted to be Galileo for a day? If you own a pair of binoculars (or a small backyard telescope), now is the time to channel your inner Galileo! Galileo’s 17th century telescopes were very small by today’s standards, with a similar magnification to a pair of common binoculars today. So why not dust off those birdwatching binocs and turn them skyward over the next few weeks?

Our first stop is the planet Venus, now hard to miss in the western sky after sunset. Galileo noticed that Venus shows phases like the moon. The phases won’t be as obvious as shown in the above diagram, so you need to be patient, and hold your binoculars very steady. Use a camera tripod, or try steadying your arms by resting your elbows on a hard surface like a picnic table. Another trick is to hold the binoculars near the far end, where the light enters, rather than putting your hands close to your eyes. This will hold them steadier, because most of the binoculars’ weight is on the far end where the main lenses are.



Our second stop is more towards the south, a “star” that is a little dimmer than Venus, but still rather obvious to the unaided eye. This is Jupiter. Galileo discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter (as shown in a page of his observations reproduced above), which we now collectively call the Galilean moons in his honor. Again, holding the binoculars steady is key here. Watch the moons appear to move relative Jupiter from night to night!

Finally, if the moon is out, don’t forget to train your binoculars in its direction. Galileo studied the craters on the moon, and so can you!

Put on Bohemian Rhapsody, grab your binoculars, and before long you’ll be singing “Galileo, Galileo” as you reproduce the groundbreaking observations of more than 400 years ago. It’s an experience not to be missed!

Space Rock CSI

[Students at East Hartford High School try to sort out meteorites and tektites from “meteor-wrongs’]

Most years at least one member of the public will come to my office with what they believe to be a meteorite they’ve found. In all but one case, they were wrong. Last night, it was my pleasure to help students at East Hartford High School try their hand at identifying meteorites and tektites. About 30 students attended the workshop, sponsored by the Connecticut Science Center Teen Science Café program. After a short introduction to the three main types of meteorites and how tektites form, the students got hands-on experience with actual meteorites and tektites, as well as common rocks that can be confused with meteorites by the general public. The students were then given ten unknowns and they had to pick out the three meteorites and two tektites from the “meteor-wrongs.” Two young ladies successfully picked out 2 of the 3 meteorites and both tektites. I hope they continue to hone their science skills in the future!

— K. Larsen