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Look Up Tonight! The Constellation Taurus Brings Fireballs to the Skies

Rocky Raybell took this stunning double-whammy of an image—a Taurid fireball blasting across a backdrop of Northern Lights—on November 3, 2015, from a road overlooking the San Poil River and Colville Reservation in Washington state.
Image credit: Rocky Raybell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

 
When you look up at the night sky tonight, November 4, do not panic. You are not seeing a celestial harbinger of the election on Tuesday. (Probably.) Rather, you are witnessing the sustained bombardment of the planet Earth by the remnants of the comet Encke. The remnants vary in size from dust particles to pebbles, but at 65,000 miles per hour, they create a beautiful glow.

Around midnight, the Southern Taurid meteor shower will peak, and sky watchers can expect to see a few meteors per hour. Quantity isn't what the Taurids are known for, however. What you're looking for tonight is quality. The Taurids are all about their breathtaking fireballs: bright, powerful shooting stars slicing across the night sky.

It's not guaranteed to happen―you need the cooperation of the sky, the ground, and cometary debris. The sky needs to be free of clouds. The ground needs to be free of light (as always, get out of the city). The debris field was created over a span of tens of thousands of years, so those cards are already shuffled, and what happens, happens.

Also―and I don't want to worry you too much―there might be an explosion with the force of an atomic bomb that is capable of leveling hundreds of square miles of forest. Definitely be on the lookout for that: if you survive, your pictures will be the toast of Instagram.

THE POSSIBLE TAURID-TUNGUSKA CONNECTION

OK, that's hyperbole. You'll never be able to purloin Taylor Swift's adoring Instagram acolytes. And no, there will almost certainly be no catastrophic explosion. But a little more than a century ago, there was, and it might be related to the source comet of the Taurids.

In 1908, a mysterious blast hit an area in Russia near a stretch of the Stony Tunguska River. Its exact cause is still unknown. It might have been an asteroid. It might have been a small black hole that collided with the Earth. (Really!) It might have been a natural gas explosion. Or it might have been a very large fireball that disintegrated in the air, releasing a tremendous amount of thermal energy. One possible culprit for the fireball is the comet Encke. The explosion even corresponds with the Beta Taurid meteor shower in the summer, whose debris was produced by the same comet as the Taurids tonight.

The good news is that if the skies do unleash an apocalyptic fusillade this evening, it won’t even be the worst thing to happen in 2016.

THE TAURIDS COMPLEX

The Taurids consist of two streams: the Southern Taurids―which are reaching a crescendo this weekend―and the Northern Taurids, which peak on November 11. Collectively, they are called the Taurids Complex. And though they’re not dense with activity like the Geminid meteor shower will be next month, assuming you’ve escaped light pollution on the ground, the light from the sky above is doing its part to help. The Moon is waxing crescent and just a shade over a sliver, meaning its light won’t interfere. 

An hour or so before midnight, find your way to a clownless field somewhere, lay out a blanket, and let your eyes adjust. (Keep your phone off.) The big show starts around midnight and ends at dawn. If you can’t get out to see them, don’t worry―the Taurids will be around for a bit longer, and when one of their bright meteors decides to make an appearance, you’ll definitely notice.

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How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain
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From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

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Space
Neutron Star Collision Sheds Light on the Strange Matter That Weighs a Billion Tons Per Teaspoon
Two neutron stars collide.
Two neutron stars collide.

Neutron stars are among the many mysteries of the universe scientists are working to unravel. The celestial bodies are incredibly dense, and their dramatic deaths are one of the main sources of the universe’s gold. But beyond that, not much is known about neutron stars, not even their size or what they’re made of. A new stellar collision reported earlier this year may shed light on the physics of these unusual objects.

As Science News reports, the collision of two neutron stars—the remaining cores of massive stars that have collapsed—were observed via light from gravitational waves. When the two small stars crossed paths, they merged to create one large object. The new star collapsed shortly after it formed, but exactly how long it took to perish reveals keys details of its size and makeup.

One thing scientists know about neutron stars is that they’re really, really dense. When stars become too big to support their own mass, they collapse, compressing their electrons and protons together into neutrons. The resulting neutron star fits all that matter into a tight space—scientists estimate that one teaspoon of the stuff inside a neutron star would weigh a billion tons.

This type of matter is impossible to recreate and study on Earth, but scientists have come up with a few theories as to its specific properties. One is that neutron stars are soft and yielding like stellar Play-Doh. Another school of thought posits that the stars are rigid and equipped to stand up to extreme pressure.

According to simulations, a soft neutron star would take less time to collapse than a hard star because they’re smaller. During the recently recorded event, astronomers observed a brief flash of light between the neutron stars’ collision and collapse. This indicates that a new spinning star, held together by the speed of its rotation, existed for a few milliseconds rather than collapsing immediately and vanishing into a black hole. This supports the hard neutron star theory.

Armed with a clearer idea of the star’s composition, scientists can now put constraints on their size range. One group of researchers pegged the smallest possible size for a neutron star with 60 percent more mass than our sun at 13.3 miles across. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists are determining that the biggest neutron stars become smaller rather than larger. In the collision, a larger star would have survived hours or potentially days, supported by its own heft, before collapsing. Its short existence suggests it wasn’t so huge.

Astronomers now know more about neutron stars than ever before, but their mysterious nature is still far from being fully understood. The matter at their core, whether free-floating quarks or subatomic particles made from heavier quarks, could change all of the equations that have been written up to this point. Astronomers will continue to search the skies for clues that demystify the strange objects.

[h/t Science News]

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