Look Up! The Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower Is Here

Rocky Raybell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Rocky Raybell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Set your alarm for the predawn hours of Saturday May 6, go outside, and catch the Eta Aquarid meteor shower—one of two annual showers caused by the collision of the Earth and the debris field of Halley’s comet. It’s not the most spectacular shower of the year, but as it peaks tomorrow morning, you can count on it to deliver a ghostly streak of light every few minutes.

The shower is named for its seeming point of origin—the constellation Aquarius—but don’t confine your view to that one spot in the sky. The streaks of light will seem to be everywhere. If your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, the skies are clear, and the area is sufficiently dark, there’s an excellent chance you’ll see something special—no telescope or binoculars required.

HALLEY’S PHANTASM

Going back millennia, every 75 to 76 years the comet Halley has appeared in the sky, dazzling and mystifying the creatures of Earth. As of 1986—its last appearance over Earth—it was visible with the naked eye despite light pollution caused by poorly designed streetlights, ill-conceived fixtures, and the over and upward illumination of buildings in areas rural and urban alike. Most of us have never seen the night sky, but rather, some poor, washed out approximation of it. You look up, think you see space, and wonder why we’re spending so much money to visit so little. A proper night sky is a kaleidoscope of greens, blues, teals, and violets. There are more stars out there than grains of sand on the Earth. The first time you see the Milky Way in all its splendor, you may wonder why we do anything other than explore the cosmos.

milky way galaxy

Lukas Schlagenhauf via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

All of this bears note because for most of Halley’s history, there were no electric lights to outshine the universe. There were no planes or space stations to make illuminated objects coursing across the sky humdrum affairs filtered from thought. When something moved in the night sky back then, it was stark, obvious, and unnerving. Today we see a meteor shower and wonder how long the faint show might last. Centuries ago, people saw meteor showers and wondered if the world were about to end. The first recorded showing of Halley was possibly in 476 BCE. Aeschylus hadn’t yet written Agamemnon. The Roman Republic was in its infancy. Its recurrence has been associated with the birth of Jesus (its appearance may have coincided with the Star of Bethlehem), has been seen as a harbinger of death for royalty, and was a guiding light for Genghis Khan. Astronomy has always been as much about humanity as it is about the cosmos.

HOW TO MAKE A METEOR

The same dark skies unobscured by light pollution would have made the Aquarids—and every meteor shower to some extent—must-see viewing. Its first recorded observance was in 401 CE (the Roman Empire still stood then), and it was officially discovered in 1870. Six years later, it was calculated that the parent of the meteor shower was none other than the famed comet Halley, and people really started taking notice. As a comet travels along its orbit, it leaves a fine debris field in its wake. The Earth, happy and oblivious along its orbit, eventually crosses into the field of dust and sand-sized particles that were once part of Halley, and the result is a meteor shower: specks of dust slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. As they are vaporized, energy is released, producing those famed streaks of light in the night sky. (Later in Earth’s orbit, it will encounter Halley’s debris field again: the Orionids in October.)

So how can you see the phantom trail of Halley’s comet? The most exciting way is to wake a couple of hours before dawn, lay out a blanket in some dark area, and look up. Once your eyes adjust, you should be able to catch about 10 meteors per hour. If that’s too much work for you—it’s hot out there, and mosquitoes, you know?—Slooh will be broadcasting the meteor shower live, with running commentary by astronomers.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

Astronomers Want Your Help Naming the Largest Unnamed Dwarf Planet in the Universe

iStock.com/jgroup
iStock.com/jgroup

Part of the fun of becoming involved in science is naming things. Entomologists are notorious for branding new species of insects with fanciful names, like the Star Wars fans who labeled apoid wasps Polemistus chewbacca and Polemistus yoda. Sometimes scientists invite the public’s opinion, as in the 2016 petition by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council to have internet users name a polar research ship. They dubbed it Boaty McBoatFace. (That choice was overruled, and the ship is now known as the RRS Sir David Attenborough.)

Now, astronomers are looking to outsource the name of a dwarf planet. But the catch is that there’s no write-in ballot.

The planet, currently known as (225088) 2007 OR10, was discovered in 2007 in the Kuiper Belt orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune and may have a rocky, icy surface with a reddish tint due to methane present in the ice. It's bigger than two other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt—Haumea and Makemake—but smaller than Pluto and Eris.

The three astronomers involved in its identification—Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown, and David Rabinowitz of Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California—are set to submit possible names for the dwarf planet to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). They’ve narrowed the choices down to the following: Gongong, Holle, and Vili.

Gonggong, a Mandarin word, references a Chinese water god who is reputed to have visited floods upon the Earth. Holle is a German fairy tale character with Yuletide connotations, and Vili is a Nordic deity who defeated a frost giant.

The team is accepting votes on the planet’s website through 2:59 EDT on May 11. The winning name will be passed on to the IAU for final consideration.

[h/t Geek.com]

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