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10 Weird Planetary Phenomena Discovered by Amateur Astronomers

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Professional astronomers are responsible for 13 billion years' worth of discoveries about our universe, but the cosmos is a big place, and at-home stargazers have been staring at the sky with a keen eye for a long time, too. These examples of weird and wonderful planetary phenomena—with an asteroid and comet in there too for good measure—were all first spotted by amateur astronomers, and prove that you don't have to be a pro to make some stellar discoveries.

1. A PLUME ON MARS

When amateur astronomers discovered a plume-like cloud on Mars, scientists were at a loss for an explanation. Mars has clouds, of course, but to form at such a height was unheard of on Mars or Earth. Scientists later correlated the phenomenon with a coronal mass ejection from the Sun. Studies continue, but the plume and its solar cause might help unlock the mystery of the vanished Martian atmosphere.

2. A PLANET WITH FOUR SUNS

Tatooine has nothing on planet PH1, which has four suns (of sorts). The planet, discovered by amateurs, orbits two stars. Eighty billion miles away, those two stars are, in turn, orbited by two more stars.

3. A GEOMETRIC STORM ON NEPTUNE

While processing Voyager 2 images of Neptune, amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen discovered what appears to be a hexagon-shaped storm. More work needs to be done to confirm the phenomenon (perhaps in conjunction with some future mission there), but such a storm would not be without precedent: Jet streams near Saturn's north pole form a hexagon as well.

4. AMMONIA BLIZZARDS ON SATURN

In 2010, amateur scientists worked with the Cassini spacecraft team to go storm chasing on Saturn. As the spacecraft's Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument picked up evidence of possible storms, the information would be relayed to amateur astronomers, who would study Saturn for visual evidence. Discoveries would then be relayed back to the Cassini team for possible imaging and further study. (Yes, the ammonia-ice blizzards of Saturn could be seen by home stargazers here on Earth.)

5. THE FASTEST SUPER-FAST ROTATOR IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM

In 2008, Richard Miles, a British amateur astronomer, discovered the then-fastest-spinning object in the solar system. Asteroid 2008HJ completes one rotation every 42.7 seconds, and falls under a class of celestial objects called "super-fast rotators," for obvious reasons. Dwarf planet Haumea is now considered the solar system's fastest spinner.

6. A VANISHING STRIPE ON JUPITER

Photos of Jupiter taken by amateur astronomers in 2010 revealed the disappearance of one of its famous red stripes. Jupiter's mystifying weather means that its bands sometimes fade and its great red spot changes in size.

7. WHITE SPOTS ON SATURN

In 1933, actor and amateur astronomer Will Hay discovered a "white spot" on Saturn. It wasn't the first instance of such a spot being observed, but Hay's study was perhaps the most famous. The spots were once thought to be signs of collisions by foreign bodies, but are now thought to be related to the planet's turbulent weather (see #4).

8. ICE VOLCANOES ON A COMET

Cryovolcanoes are just what they sound like: volcanoes that erupt ice as opposed to lava. They are well-known features of such moons as Enceladus (one of Saturn's satellites), and in 2015, were spotted by amateurs on Comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann.

9. SPACE WEATHERING ON THE MOON

In 1953, an amateur astronomer named Leon Stuart witnessed what appeared to be an explosion on the Moon. He took a picture of it, and in the process became "the first and only human in history to witness and document the impact of an asteroid-sized body impacting the Moon's scarred exterior," according to NASA. Fifty years later, planetary scientists proved Stuart's discovery to be a legitimate instance of space weathering.

10. A MYSTERIOUS COMET CIRCLING THE SUN

In 1779, amateur astronomer William Herschel, using a telescope of his own design, discovered what he first thought was an oddly behaving star and later thought was a comet. As it turned out, Herschel had inadvertently built one of the most powerful telescopes in the world, and his comet was, in fact, the first new planet to be discovered since antiquity: Uranus.

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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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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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