“She is an astronomer”

Today marks the 100th anniversary of women being allowed membership into the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in the UK. While this is most certainly a thing to celebrate, one thing about this still gives me pause. It’s only been 100 years.

100 years is not a very long time in one of the world’s oldest fields of study, in which we routinely talk about billions of years as if that were nothing at all. I find this to be another reminder that some of the people who I consider to be personal heroes would not have been able to join the RAS when they were making their discoveries. Back then, women were indeed rejected from membership purely because of their gender. The fact that they persevered should be a source of great admiration. The optimist in me wonders if the work which these scientists tenaciously undertook may have been one of the deciding factors, while the pessimist in me wonders how much further we could be if societies like these hadn’t closed out half the human population for so long.

A very close friend of mine recently said something which feels relevant here. She told me that she sometimes felt like she wasn’t proud of her achievements for their own sake, but because she made them while being a woman. The idea of this upset her, and she’s definitely not the only one. The sad thing is that often, certain people are noted for their achievements not because of their inherent merit, but because they made those achievements while not being white middle-class men.

Quicquid Nitet Notandum

The RAS is one of the world’s highest profile astronomical societies, and the driving force behind one of the largest scientific journals in astronomy – the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (or MNRAS for short). Before it was a journal, it was actually the society’s newsletter. It’s no longer monthly, no longer contains notices, and is now open to researchers from anywhere in the world, but I guess they thought the title was quaint. Originally founded as the Astronomical Society of London in 1820. Of course in those rather more misogynistic times, astronomy was a pursuit considered purely for “gentlemen,” despite the many contributions of women. Needless to say, astronomy wasn’t the only field in which this was true.

Mind you, it’s quite interesting to realise that the RAS allowed women membership in 1916, when you consider that women in the UK weren’t even allowed to vote at the time. Women over the age of 30 who met “certain property qualifications” were given the right to vote two years later in 1918 – a right which wouldn’t be extended to all women over 21 for another 10 years.

In light of this week’s latest sexual harrassment turmoils in astronomy, this seems to be a poigniant reminder. For over half of its existence, the RAS was a boys club. This is thankfully no longer true, but the fact remains that very often women are treated as second class in science (and elsewhere). To some extent, this may still be a hangover from the misogynistic origins of modern science. This needs to be fixed. We should be better than that by now. I was angry about this before and I’m still angry now. We’re improving, but we have a long way to go.

I don’t wish to dampen this celebration, by any means. The fact that our society now is less bigoted and segregated is definitely a thing to be celebrated. But be careful to which message you listen. The @RAS_Outreach twitter feed has been celebrating women in astronomy all day. It’s inspiring. But remember to give them respect as scientists in their own right, and not just as “women who are scientists.” And consider what good role models they’ll be for all those little girls out there who aspire to work in STEM fields when they grow up. Find out more about them, and tell your daughter/niece/little sister/cousin all about it.

Stars in science

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Comic by Hannah Blumenreich. Happy Caturday!

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An item on my wish list: See a sunrise from orbit.

Sunrise from Orbit

Earth’s atmosphere scatters out the blue from sunlight. The scattered light makes the atmosphere look blue, but the sunlight has all of its blue photons scattered out from it, giving it that distinctive sunset orange colour. It’s somehow even more apparent when seen from space like this. Billions of molecules scattering trillions of photons lighting up Earth’s atmosphere like a jewel in the night as you pass out from behind the planet’s shadow.


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Winter Wonderland

A few days ago, the Cassini spacecraft, 1.61 billion kilometres away in orbit around Saturn, made its closest ever pass of Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus. It flew by around 49 km above Enceladus’ south pole – perilously close by astronomical standards. For comparison, Felix Baumgartner‘s record breaking skydive was from 39 km above Earth’s surface.

The objective of Cassini’s daredevil stunt was to take a close look at the watery plumes being ejected by the tiny moon to try and work out what drives them. And to gain some insight on the extent of Enceladus’ expected subsurface ocean.

While it was passing by though, Cassini also snapped this closeup image of the little planet’s surface…

Actually, the surface gravity on Enceladus is only 0.113 m/s² (compared with Earth's 9.807 m/s²). So you could probably jump over those bumps and ridges a bit like Super Mario...

What you’re seeing here (after image correction to fix the blurring – that craft was going extremely fast) is the wrinkled surface of the icy little world. The white scale bar is 1 km on this scale. Which means that all of those ridges are about the same size as streets and roads we may be more familiar with. To be honest, this part of Enceladus looks like a terrible place to go hiking.

While this may be the closest image of the surface we’ve ever seen, it’s by no means the only one. In case you’re curious about what it might be like to visit this tiny iceworld, here are a few others…

Give it a couple of hundred years, and I’d be very surprised if no one’s opened a skiing resort on Enceladus…

All images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

I have to agree with @TychoGirl – The Khumbu icefall looks comparatively inviting!

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Painted leaves

Sunset on Mars

Ladies and gentlemen and variations thereupon, I’d like to introduce you to Chrissy Sparks, – who creates some really quite marvellous space art, which she sells in her store on Etsy. You can also get a slightly more behind-the-scenes look via her instagram feed. Her necklaces are gorgeous, but I’m really a huge fan of the painted leaves she makes. When I eventually get an office of my own, this is the kind of thing which I’ll probably use to decorate my walls…


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This is a completely gratutous Saturn system appreciation post. Because Saturn.

Images found courtesy of wanderingspace.net

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Postcards from Pluto

New Horizons passed Pluto some time ago, but it’s still slowly dripping data back to us. The tiny craft wasn’t optimised for data transfer, so its hard drives are still packed to the gills with exciting discoveries which we’ll all be hearing more about as the months go by. Also, it gives it something to do now that the excitement is over.

One of the most exciting things I’ve seen lately is this huge juicy mosaic made by the LORRI instrument. It’s false colour to emphasise certain surface features and it’s just big enough to get slightly lost in. Emily Lakdawalla can tell you more details about it, but I just want to feast my eyes on how gorgeous this little world is…

False colour portrait

Pluto is watching you!

I sort of feel like Pluto might be a nice place to go hiking...

From the craters, the surface looks older here...

Marbled swirls on the shores of Pluto's heart...

It's not just me, right? It really does looks snowy, doesn't it...

Pluto has such odd landforms. Odd and really pretty!

Oh you beautiful little frostball. I can still barely believe we’ve finally visited you!

The original NASA release is here.

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Words matter

This gifset has been going around Tumblr awhile now (1,408,824 notes while I’m writing this!), and I think it’s a very important message.









Gender is irrelevant really. Kids all like science. I know I did, and I think the same is true of everyone I know who ended up in science, no matter what their gender may be. The unfortunate thing is that we tell kids that science is for boys, while discouraging girls. Science toys are marketed at boys because it’s ok for boys to play with chemistry sets or catch bugs or break rocks in two to look for fossils. The idea that girls shouldn’t do these things is ridiculously old fashioned.

Conversely, I wish people would stop having “brilliant” ideas of making science appeal to girls by making it girly. What’s so bad about just, you know, encouraging girls to like something as it is? After a conversation I had with @girlandkat a few weeks ago, I find myself thinking along the same lines more and more. Gender is only an issue because we make it an issue. We should stop making things for children which are so needlessly gender defined, and stop pushing children down such narrow gender-based avenues. I’m quite certain the increased diversity will benefit everyone.

In the meantime, for anyone reading this with children or younger family members, I’d ask you to please keep one thing in mind. Push interests not gender roles. If a kid is interested in something, you should encourage them. Not tell them to stop it because outdated values claim that it’s not appropriate for someone with their anatomy.

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Twilight on Pluto

It turns out, Pluto has blue skies. And water ice on its surface. Which, at a cursory glance might make it seem a little bit like home. But only a little bit.

Some notable experts were a little puzzled to find that at first, Pluto appeared to have no haze. One of the most knowledgeable people to listen to about hazes on small worlds is Sarah Hörst, an expert on Titan, who seemed rather puzzled at the idea that Pluto may be haze-free. From its night side though, Pluto reveals its hazy goodness.

Die himmel ist blau...

This image is about as close to true colour as you can get. The glow comes from a deep layer of haze which swathes all of Pluto, and yes, it’s a lovely indigo blue colour. It looks strikingly like the haze in the upper atmosphere of Titan, and is quite probably made the same way. Hazes form when nitrogen molecules and small hydrocarbons are bombarded by ultraviolet in a planet’s upper atmosphere. They form into carbonaceous particles made of tarry material called tholin which then proceeds to fall back down to the planet’s surface. Here on Earth, the same thing happens over cities to form smog.

Look closely at the images of Pluto’s atmosphere and you’ll even see striations in the haze, showing different atmospheric layers. It’s really rather fascinating!

The air's full of smoggy haze and there's no liquid water. Sounds a little bit like Southern California...

Haze on Pluto means that the tiny world has a rich, active chemistry going on, which is something I’d very much like to know more about. Hopefully we’ll learn more as New Horizons continues sending back data.

For the record though, the blue colour is due to the fact that tholins tend to be an orangey red colour (which is why Titan’s clouds are that beautiful orange colour). As a result the tholin particles in the atmosphere scatter red/orange light away. It’s the reason for the reddish colour of the little planet’s surface. While Pluto’s atmosphere is too thin to see this normally, when seen in silhouette, the sunlight passing though the atmosphere has very few red photons left in it so you see blue haze. The fact that martian dust does something similar is why sunsets are blue on Mars.

In other words, Pluto may seem to have blue skies, but it doesn’t. And the blue you see in that picture up there shows skies which are not actually blue like Earth. Actually, they’re blue like Mars!

Actually, given how little sunlight makes it out that far, Pluto is permanently a twilight world...

This twilight Pluto image has been colourised by myself. The original was gorgeous but grayscale. There’s another version out there, but I think mine’s slightly more accurate…

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Snowball Moon

Enceladus is, without question, one of the most interesting locations in our solar system, and for a lot of reasons. Quite simply, this tiny Cronian moon is a mystery. We know what we see, but we have utterly no idea what makes it tick!

Oh, and that yellow glow in this picture? That's saturnshine. Sunlight reflected off the yellowy cloudtops of saturn.

What we see, as it happens, is geysers of pure water spraying out of four fissures in Enceladus’ surface. They spray so high and with such force that much of the water escapes the moon’s feeble gravitational pull and actually create one of Saturn’s rings! (The rest eventually falls back down as snow, giving Enceladus a ratheryouthful appearance). The thing is, a diminutive object like Enceladus shouldn’t, by rights, be active at all. It’s so small that it’s likely only just large enough to even be spherical. Smaller objects cool faster, so while a reasonably sized planet like Earth still has a molten core, our planet’s own moon is mostly solid by now.

Small but mighty

Enceladus, however, contains a lot of internal heat and it’s still not entirely clear where it all comes from. Because when I say it’s tiny, I’m really not exaggerating. The image above shows a handful of tiny worlds recently visited by humanity, compared with Earth’s moon. As you can see, Enceladus is so small that it could easily become a moon for an object the size of our moon (which would make it a moon moon, I suppose).

There are hotspots near it’s south side, resulting in a series of fissures nicknamed “tiger stripes”, and it certainly receives tidal heating due to Saturn’s considerable gravity pulling and squeezing it as it orbits. But it’s still difficult to explain why this little moon is so warm. Or why it seems to contain liquid water. Or why it sprays that water so high into Saturn’s orbit the way it does. Studies have suggested that tidal heating alone can account for about 1.1 gigawatts of power being supplied to Enceladus. But the Cassini probe’s observations suggest that there are about 4.7 gigawatts powering Enceladus’ hotspot. There’s a lot of heat which is still going unaccounted for…

While it’s been accepted for some time that there must be a subsurface ocean under Enceladus’ south pole, the latest suggestions are that this ocean may actually be global (just like Europa!). Actually, the evidence is fairly compelling. Essentially, as it orbits, Enceladus shows a slight wobble. It’s not very pronounced, but it appears to be more apparent than it would be if Enceladus was mostly rigid. This suggests that its surface is actually detached from its core, as it would be if its icy crust was floating on a global ocean of liquid. Given that an ocean of water would be a good place to look for signs of extraterrestrial life, many consider Enceladus to be a priority target in space exploration.

So excitingly enough, NASA planetary scientists have schemed something quite fun. Cassini’s taken a few close passes of Enceladus lately, giving us some more detailed views. Following up on this, on October 28th (that’s this Wednesday), they’re going to plough Cassini straight through the plume of icy water being sprayed out of Enceladus. Cassini is, to date, one of the most successful robotic probes ever launched. It’s been orbiting Saturn for over a decade now. As a result, I guess its pilots aren’t afraid to take a few risks (it’s always fun when spacecraft pilots aren’t afraid to be a little gung-ho). After all, there surely can’t be that much more data it can usefully collect. I’m quite excited to see what they might find out…

What secrets are you hiding, little moon...?

And as we all know, 1.1 gigawatts isn’t even enough power to travel into the future

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