A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with astronomer Derrick Pitts and WHHY FM's Dave Heller.

A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with astronomer Derrick Pitts and WHHY FM's Dave Heller.
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A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with astronomer Derrick Pitts and WHHY FM's Dave Heller.




What’s in a name?

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is putting out the call on its 100th anniversary to name an exoplanet and its star.


Star Trekkin’

The TV series ‘Star Trek’ premiered 53 years ago. The original series only lasted three seasons on prime time, but really hit its stride in syndication, where its popularity exploded. It also fueled fantasies for many other TV programs and films, and maybe even real life space exploration. The last day for filming was 1/8/69, six months before Apollo 11 left for the moon. September means a shorter number of minutes of sunlight; Sunrise now at 6:34am and sunset at 7:23pm. Taking advantage...


India Targets South Pole (of the Moon)

After a four-week journey from earth, the Indian Space Research Organization announced its Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit. Next up in about a week is a landing attempt, then a rover deployment. The chosen landing location is the moon’s South Pole region. The orbiter is expected to operate for about a year and the lander and rover will perform surface studies. The rover is about 60 pounds and solar powered. The lander and rover are expected to last at least one...


Nano-Sized Needle in a Huge Haystack

Nuclear Physicist Gunther Korschinek and his team of researchers from Technical University of Munich sifted through half-a-ton of snow from Antarctica to find 10 atoms(!) of Iron-60 an isotope (radioactive 60 protons, 60 neutrons in the nucleus) only produced in supernova explosions. Their study of the deposit indicates the 60Fe only recently arrived (likely in the past few decades). 60Fe has been detected before in ocean sediments, on the moon and in meteorites but those deposits are a...


Laying in Wait

Tardigrades, also called water bears because of their microscopic teddy or panda bear-like appearance have been known to exist in a dormant state for a decade or more. Some have even survived hitchhiked rides on rockets to orbit and survived the deadly environment of space. The Israeli lunar mission was carrying several thousand of the microscopic critters when in crash-landed on the moon in April. They have the enviable ability to put themselves into a sort of state of suspended animation...


Newly Discovered Exoplanets of Note

GJ 357d is one of three planets found orbiting a tiny (300,000 miles diameter) M-type star 31 light years away. This so-called “Super-earth” is about 19 million miles out from the star, orbiting every 55 days, and is massive enough to have a thick atmosphere. It could be similar to Earth and potentially inhabitable. Further out (260 light years away) another planet has been detected that is 4.6 times Earth’s size and 29 times Earth’s mass (making it close in size to Neptune). It is 1.5...


Halfway to Autumn

Upcoming cross-quarter day on August 1 is known as LoafMass: A celebration of the first loaves of bread from the first harvests of wheat in Northern Europe. The Celts called the day Lughnasadh, recognizing the fruits of the marriage of the Sun god Lugh and the Earth goddess. Other, better-known cross-quarter days are Beltane/May Day on May 1, Samhain/Halloween on October 31, and Candlemas/Groundhog Day on February 2. All cross quarter designations were useful divisions of the calendar,...


It Was 50 Years Ago Today

Today, July 20th, marks the 50th anniversary of mankind’s giant leap. At 4:17 p.m. (EDT) The Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Astronaut Neil Armstrong immediately radioed to Mission Control in Houston, Texas; “The Eagle has landed.” At 10:39 p.m., Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module, and 17 minutes later, stepped off the ladder and planted his foot on the lunar surface. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin joined him on the moon’s...


Planet + Renegade Moon = Ploonet

A new study suggests that moons of some exoplanets might be pulled away from their planet parents to become independent star orbiters – not planets . . . but ploonets. 50 years ago Tuesday, Apollo 11 astronauts left earth bound to become the first humans to step onto another celestial body. Neil Armstrong writes a check to pay personal debts before he leaves for the moon! The Franklin Institute’s “Summer of the Moon” program cranks up next week with Night Sky Observatory programs on...


Happy Independence Day…& Aphelion

There will be a total Solar Eclipse Tuesday July 2nd in Chile and Argentina. The Exploratorium in San Francisco will cover the eclipse live from Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile at The next total eclipse in North America will take place in April, 2024. Aphelion: Earth will reach its greatest distance from the sun this year on Independence Day July 4 at 4pm. 94,507,880 miles vs 91,403,180 miles on January 3 this year. Last week, data from atmospheric sampling on...


50 Years On

“The Apollo Chronicles” by regional producer Rotfeld Productions premieres at The Franklin Institute next week at Night Skies Observatory (Tuesday, June 11). All four episodes, which reveal a new understanding of just how NASA’s Apollo program came to be, will be featured at the Franklin Institute this month and next month leading up to the anniversary day itself (launched 7/16/69 – landed on the surface of the moon 7/20/69 – returned to Earth 7/24/69. On Tuesday the producers will share...


New Constellation On the Block

There is a new Constellation to see – and this one is artificial! The first set of satellites dedicated to eventually providing extremely low-cost internet access all over the world were launched into orbit last week. The first 60 of a proposed 12,000 member ‘constellation’ were launched aboard a SpaceX rocket and successfully placed in orbit. Each satellite is just 500 lbs. and has one solar panel but the coverage will be worldwide. While it might be seen as a boon providing everyone with...



The moon has two distinct faces; gravity readings of the moon’s surface by a lunar orbiting satellite suggest that not long after formation of the original surface, another dwarf-planet-like object smacked into it causing the impacted side to be thrown upward and back to fold itself onto the back side of the moon. The best fit of some 360 simulations run by Meng Hua Zhu at the Space Science Institute of Macau University of Science and technology suggest an object about 480 miles in diameter...


Celebrate Snoopy and the Gang

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing dress rehearsal flight Apollo 10. Astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan took their lunar module nicknamed ‘Snoopy’ (the command module was nicknamed ‘Charlie Brown’)down to within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface, testing every aspect of performance of the craft especially the descent engine and rendezvous capability. The actual landing came just two months later with Apollo 11. Flight management provided only enough fuel...


Extraterrestrials On Earth?

Two researchers suggest a small amount of Earth’s heaviest elements were created in the collision of two neutron stars 4.6 billion years ago. We probably have some of this in our bodies right now! Gold, platinum, uranium, even iodine might’ve come from such a collision, 100 million years before the formation of Earth and about 100 light years away from the gas clouds that formed our solar system. Speaking of colliding neutron stars, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory...



The InSight Lander Seismometer Detects a likely Mars Quake – recorded early last month a 40-second long low rumble was detected by seismic sensors placed on the surface to determine if and to what degree Mars is seismically active. The duration wasn’t long enough to determine much about Martian tectonic activity, but still offered evidence that the interior of the red planet contimues to cool. A giant asteroid smashed into Earth 66 million years ago off the coast of what’s now Mexico. Set...


Philadelphia Science Festival

The Philadelphia Science Festival encompasses nine days of more than 80 extraordinary, mostly free science events all around the city from the star party to the Carnival on May 4th on the Parkway. Sample informal and diverse science hands-on activities, lectures, debates and workshops. More information at Saturn’s moon Titan is more like Earth than previously thought. It’s small, it’s cold and it’s far, far away, but it has lakes of liquid methane and ethane(hydrocarbons) cold...


Double Duty

NASA Astronaut Christina Koch’s maiden voyage in space will extend for almost double the scheduled duration. She is now set to stay on International Space Station for a total of 328 days. This is the next step in the study of the effects of spaceflight on the human body and mind, and it’s likely a result of the declaration of Vice President Mike Pence to return to the Moon by 2024. The Kepler-47 Twin Star-Twin Planet Solar System now shows another planet; Kepler 4d is 7 times larger than...


Explorer of the Year

Next week, (Wednesday evening at the Union League in Philadelphia) the Geographical Society of Philadelphia will bestow its 128th Explorer of the Year honor – citing Derrick Pitts, Chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute and NASA Solar System Ambassador. Previous Society recipients including; Theodore Roosevelt, John Glenn, Diana Nyad, and last year’s honoree, (photojournalist) Steve McCurry. The first ever image of a Black Hole confirms Einstein’s suggestion that the event horizon...


Imaging The Unimaginable

The Event Horizon Telescope team may reveal an image of a black hole event horizon on Wednesday. An array of eight radio telescopes around the world will synthesize their observations of the accretion disk and the edge of the event horizon of Sag A – a massive black hole at the core of the Milky Way, as well as the black hole at the core of M87. This would be the first time an event horizon has actually been seen. Would allow study of the general relativity of the strong field regime,...