Cumberland Times-News

February 22, 2014

Here’s an up-to-date guide to the universe

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— There has been a surge in beginner’s books about the universe. The number of probable exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) grows by several dozen each month.

The number of giant telescopes (both radio and optical) is also steadily growing each year.

I have found a charming space guide with striking diagrams that convey our latest knowledge about the universe.

The title is “Everything You Need to Know About Everything You Need to Know About the Universe” by Chris Cooper from Thunder Bay Press, 2011, ISBN 13: 978-1-60710-359 -2 (pbk).

I’ll review some interesting insights not likely found in other introductory books.

The first section is “The Sky Above Us.” How high is space? A contest to award money to the first privately manned rocket to reach space twice in two weeks defined space as starting 62 miles or 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.

Our present calendar is accurate to one day in 3,226 years. By dropping leap years divisible by 4,000, a revised calendar would be accurate to 1 day in 16,667 years

The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses I in the 13th century B.C. had a temple built at Abu Simbel. The sun would shine through openings in the tomb on only two days of the year — Oct. 21, the Pharaoh’s birthday, and Feb. 21, the date of Ramses’ coronation.

The second section on astronomical detectors describes the 1-square-kilometer array, a collection of thousands of radio telescopes with a combined surface area of 1 million square meters.

Processing data from this future instrument will require computer power equivalent to 100 million laptops.

The most ambitious space telescope will consist of three laser telescopes occupying the tips of a triangle whose sides are 3 million miles long. These telescopes will look for tiny disturbances in the laser beams caused by gravity waves.

This triangular observatory will be positioned along the Earth’s orbit 3 million miles away from the Earth. Its sensitivity will allow it to detect disturbances the width of an atom, one thousandth of a millionth of a meter.

In the sections on the solar system, Cooper states that the sun has 99.9 per cent of the mass of the solar system.

Of the remaining 0.1 per cent, 90 per cent are in the planets Jupiter and Saturn.

Mars has the highest mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons, with a height of 72,160 feet above its surroundings.

If all the material in Saturn’s rings were gathered, it would be about the size of Saturn’s small moon, Mimas about 250 miles across.

On Miranda, a moon of Uranus, there are ice cliffs 12 miles high.

Clyde Tombaugh, the only American to discover a planet (Pluto) died in 1996. An ounce of Clyde’s ashes were loaded onto the New Horizon space craft due to fly by Pluto in July 2016.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: The waning (shrinking) moon is in the morning sky.

On Feb. 19 at dawn, the crescent moon will appear near the brilliant planet Venus. The bright planet Jupiter shines in the middle of Gemini, appearing high in the western evening sky. Mars is bright in the east in the early morning hours.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.