Look Up! The Ursid Meteor Shower Is an Early Holiday Present

A screenshot of the Earth (blue orbit) crossing the debris stream (sparkly white path) left by comet 8P/Tuttle during the comet's 14-year orbit around the Sun. Image Credit: Ian Webster

Two days before Hanukkah and three before Christmas, the cosmos will bring you an early holiday gift—no telescope required. The Ursid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of December 22, after midnight through dawn. It's not the most spectacular shower of the year, but it is the last one of 2016, and it'll tide you over until the Quadrantids next month. (And making a big production of going outside to watch the sky is a pretty good way to drop a big hint about that telescope you want for Christmas or Hanukkah.)

Danielle Moser, a meteor scientist with the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, tells mental_floss that you can expect to see a handful of meteors if you're patient. "Not all of the meteors you’ll see while out observing belong to the Ursid meteor shower—some are sporadic background meteors and some belong to other active showers. If you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up near the Little Dipper, there’s a good chance you’ve seen an Ursid."


The Ursids among the constellations. Image Credit: Stellarium

While some meteor showers have been studied for millennia, the Ursids have only been observed for a relatively short time. The shower's parent is comet 8P/Tuttle, discovered in 1790 by Pierre Méchain. Decades later, in 1858, it was rediscovered by Horace Tuttle, and thus earned its name. (Don't feel bad for poor Pierre, though. He discovered so many things in his lifetime that he probably wouldn't remember this meager little comet anyway.)

Around the turn of the century, William Denning, an amateur astronomer and renowned comet hunter from England, recognized the radiant, or the seeming point of origin, of the Ursid meteor shower. The association with the Tuttle comet was immediately suspected, and later observations would confirm it.

It turns out Tuttle is a "contact binary"—a small, solar system object made of two bodies that have gravitated toward each other until they touch, like the rubber-ducky shaped 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. We know now that Tuttle's orbit around the Sun takes just under 14 years. As it goes about its orbit, it leaves behind a trail of particles that, over the centuries, has organized. When the Earth crosses into this debris field, those particles slam into our atmosphere and burn away. That release of energy takes the appearance of "shooting stars." A meteor shower is born.


The shower appears to originate in the Little Dipper, which is how it gets its name. The formal name of the Little Dipper is Ursa Minor, which translates as Little Bear. (Of course, some will argue it looks a lot more like a spoon.)

The shower will appear highest in the sky in the hours before sunrise on December 22, so set your alarm clock accordingly. The shower can produce around 10 meteors per hour, and to see them, all you’ll need is to find a place with no light and look up.

Moser suggests that you keep a thermos of hot chocolate in your hands and your phone in your pocket. "You'll see more meteors if you let your eyes adjust to the dark," she says. "As soon as you look at a bright light source like your phone, you have to start the adjustment process all over again! And hot chocolate will keep you warm and awake while patiently braving the cold December weather."

The Ursids have had some pretty spectacular showings—most notably in 1986, with spikes on the order of 100 meteors per hour. Don't get your hopes up for a wild display in 2016, however. Rather, appreciate the Ursids for what they are: an annual tradition of rare and romantic shooting stars in a beautiful, wintry, night sky. Enjoy the last big meteor shower of the year, and if it convinces someone to gift you a telescope, get ready: There are some astounding celestial wonders waiting for us in the new year.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
7 Giant Machines That Changed the World—And 1 That Might
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

From a 17-mile-long particle accelerator to a football-field–sized space observatory, here are seven massive machines that have made an equally huge impact on how we build, how we observe our universe, and how we lift rockets into space. We've also included a bonus machine: a technological marvel-to-be that may be just as influential once it's completed.


Large Hadron Collider
Carlo Fachini, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator located at CERN outside of Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest machine in the world: It has a circumference of almost 17 miles and took around a decade to build. The tubes of the LHC are a vacuum; superconducting magnets guide and accelerate two high-energy particle beams, which are moving in opposite directions, to near-light-speed. When the beams collide, scientists use the data to find the answers to some of the most basic questions of physics and the laws that govern the universe we live in.

Since the LHC started up in 2008, scientists have made numerous groundbreaking discoveries, including finding the once-theoretical Higgs boson particle—a.k.a. the "God" particle—which helps give other particles mass. Scientists had been chasing the Higgs boson for five decades. The discovery illuminates the early development of the universe, including how particles gained mass after the Big Bang. Scientists are already working on the LHC's successor, which will be three times its size and seven times more powerful.


Built in 1965, NASA's crawler-transporters are two of the largest vehicles ever constructed: They weigh 2400 tons each and burn 150 gallons of diesel per mile. In contrast, the average semi truck gets roughly 6.5 miles per gallon. The vehicles' first job was to move Saturn V rockets—which took us to the moon and measured 35 stories tall when fully constructed—from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest single-room building in the world) to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The 4.2-mile trip was a slow one; the transporters traveled at a rate of 1 mph to ensure the massive rockets didn't topple over. Without a vehicle to move rockets from the spot they were stacked to the launch pad, we never could have gotten off the ground, much less to the moon.

After our moon missions, the crawler-transporters were adapted to service the Space Shuttle program, and moved the shuttles from 1981 to 2003. Since the retirement of the orbiters, these long-serving machines are once again being repurposed to transport NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS), which, at 38 stories tall, will be the biggest rocket ever constructed when it's ready, hopefully in a few years (the timeline is in flux due to budgetary issues).


National Ignition Facility (NIF) target chamber
Lawrence Livermore National Security, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Three football fields could fit inside the National Ignition Facility, which holds the largest, most energetic, and most precise laser in the world (it also has the distinction of being the world's largest optical instrument). NIF—which took about a decade to build and opened in 2009—is located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Its lasers are used to create conditions not unlike those within the cores of stars and giant planets, which helps scientists to gain understanding about these areas of the universe. The NIF is also being used to pursue the goal of nuclear fusion. If we can crack the code for this reaction that powers stars, we'll achieve unlimited clean energy for our planet.


When Seattle decided it needed a giant tunnel to replace an aging highway through the middle of the city, the city contracted with Hitachi Zosen Corporation to build the biggest tunnel boring machine in the world to do the job. The scope of Bertha's work had no precedent in modern-day digging, given the dense, abrasive glacial soil and bedrock it had to chew through.

In 2013, Bertha—named after Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle's first female mayor—was tasked with building a tunnel that would be big enough to carry four lanes of traffic (a two-lane, double-decker road). Bertha needed to carve through 1.7 miles of rock, and just 1000 feet in, the 57-foot, 6559-ton machine ran into a steel pipe casing that damaged it. Many predicted that Bertha was doomed, but after a massive, on-the-spot repair operation by Hitachi Zosen that took a year-and-a-half, the borer was up and running again.

In April 2017, Bertha completed its work, and engineers started the process of dismantling it; its parts will be used in future tunnel boring machines. Bertha set an example for what is possible in future urban tunnel work—but it's unlikely that tunnel boring machines will get much bigger than Bertha because of the sheer weight of the machine and the amount of soil it can move at once. Bertha's tunnel is scheduled to open in 2019.


international space station

The international space station is a highly efficient machine, equipped with instrumentation and life support equipment, that has kept humans alive in the inhospitable environment of low-Earth orbit since November 2, 2000. It's the biggest satellite orbiting the Earth made by humans. The major components were sent into space over a two-year period, but construction has slowly continued over the last decade, with astronauts adding the Columbus science laboratory and Japanese science module. The first module, Zarya, was just 41.2 feet by 13.5 feet; now, the ISS is 356 feet by 240 feet, which is slightly larger than a football field. The station currently has about 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume the crew can move about in. That's about the same area as a Boeing 747 (though much of the ISS's space is taken up by equipment). The U.S.'s solar panels are as large as eight basketball courts.

From the space station, scientists have made such important discoveries as what extended zero-G does to the human body, where cosmic rays come from, and how protein crystals can be used to treat cancer. Though NASA expects the most modern modules of the ISS to be usable well into the 2030s, by 2025 the agency may begin "transitioning" much of its ISS operations—and costs—to the private sector [PDF] with an eye on expanding the commercial potential of space.


The Laser Inferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually made up of four different facilities—two laboratories and two detectors located 2000 miles apart, in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors, which took about five years to build and were inaugurated in 1999, are identical L-shaped vacuum chambers that are about 2.5 miles long and operate in unison. The mission of these machines is to detect ripples in the fabric of spacetime known as gravitational waves. Predicted in 1915 by Einstein's theory of general relativity, gravitational waves were entirely theoretical until September 2015, when LIGO detected them for the first time. Not only did this provide further confirmation of general relativity, it opened up entirely new areas of research such as gravitational wave astronomy. The reason the two detectors are so far from each other is to reduce the possibility of false positives; both facilities must detect a potential gravitational wave before it is investigated.


Antonov An-225 in Paramaribo
Andrew J. Muller, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Russians originally had a rival to the U.S. Space Shuttle program: a reusable winged spacecraft of their own called the Buran—and in the 1980s, they developed the AN-225 Mriya in order to transport it. With a wingspan the size of the Statue of Liberty, a 640-ton weight, six engines, and the ability to lift into the air nearly a half-million pounds, it's the longest and heaviest plane ever built. Mriya first flew in 1988, and since the Buran was mothballed in 1990 after just one flight (due to the breakup of the Soviet Union rather than the plane's capabilities), the AN-225 has only been used sparingly.

The monster plane has inspired new ideas. In 2017, Airspace Industry Corporation of China signed an agreement with Antonov, the AN-225's manufacturer, to built a fleet of aircraft based on the AN-225's design that would carry commercial satellites on their backs and launch them into space. Currently, virtually all satellites are launched from rockets. Meanwhile, Stratolaunch, a company overseen by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is building a plane that will be wider (but not longer) than Mriya. The giant plane will carry a launch vehicle headed for low-Earth orbit.


This forward-thinking project, funded by Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, focuses on reminding people about their long-term impact on the world. Instead of a traditional clock measuring hours, minutes, and seconds, the Clock of the Long Now measures times in years and centuries. The clock, which will be built inside a mountain on a plot of land in western Texas owned by Bezos, will tick once per year, with a century hand that advances just once every 100 years. The cuckoo on the clock will emerge just once per millennium. Construction began on the clock in early 2018. When this massive clock is completed—timeline unknown—it will be 500 feet high. What will be the impact of this one? Only the people of the 120th century will be able to answer that question.

NASA's Hubble Telescope Captures the Lagoon Nebula's Explosive Core

Born in 1990, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope could be classified as a millennial. And like many millennials, its mission is to snap envy-inducing photos of its stunning surroundings. (Plus, with 6 million Twitter followers, it doesn't shy away from social media.)

The latest images Hubble captured, released by NASA in celebration of the telescope's 28th anniversary, do not disappoint. In a flyover video, the Lagoon Nebula's phantasmagoric splendor is revealed for all to see. This stellar nursery—an area where gas and dust contract inside a dense nebula, allowing new stars to be formed—is located 4000 light years away from Earth.

The vivid colors captured on camera can be explained by the gases present in those areas. Blue denotes glowing oxygen, yellow is starlight, red is glowing nitrogen, and dark purple is a mixture of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

About 30 seconds into the video, a close-up view of one particularly bright star can be seen. That's Herschel 36, a monster star at the "roiling heart" of the Lagoon Nebula. It's only 1 million years old, making it a whippersnapper by celestial standards. NASA estimates it could live for another 5 million years, based on its mass.

What it lacks in age, it makes up for in size and power. It's 200,000 times brighter than our Sun and nearly nine times its diameter. It also generates "powerful ultraviolet radiation and hurricane-like stellar winds, carving out a fantasy landscape of ridges, cavities, and mountains of gas and dust," according to NASA.

Those "curtain-like sheets" you see in the video are the result of massive amounts of radiation and strong winds pushing the dust away.

See below for another view of the Lagoon Nebula. The image on the left was taken in visible light, and the one on the right was taken in infrared light.


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