Super-Size That Telescope Order, Please!

The gringa has previously posted about the significance of the Alpha Centauri system in man’s eternal search for the origins of life, the meaning of life and, perhaps, other life. Europe and Chile are partnering together in an effort to focus their astronomy and scientific efforts to search the planets in this star system to discover any planet’s potential for habitability. 

The Breakthrough Starshot civilian scientist program has modified the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) telescope that is in Chile. Scientists and researchers are setting the stage for Starshot’s probe that will be transmitting images from Alpha Centauri. World renowned Stephen Hawking and billionaire Yuri Milner are the captains at the helm of this ambitious private endeavor. 

Dubbed the “Very Large Telescope” (VLT), the specialized instrument will use infra-red technology to observe planets so incredibly distant the telescope counterparts of ESO’s VLT have only produced very faint depictions in their images of the planets of the Alpha Centauri system. The improvements to the VLT will minimize the interference of surrounding bright starlight that diminishes the clarity of imaging of the planets. Scientists hope that these improvements will make VLT better designed to find and study the Earth-sized planet orbiting in a cosmic sweet spot, the Goldilocks zone, around Proxima Centauri in the Alpha Centauri system. 

An even larger telescope is slated for completion by ESO sometime in the next decade. It’s name, “Extremely Large Telescope” (ELT), may lack imagination, but the gringa doesn’t care so long as it does its job and does it well. This telescope will be committed to gathering data on the other exoplanets in Alpha Centauri. 

Although Chile is a hospitable host to this project, there are more than 16 other countries throughout Europe and South America working together toward ultimate success.  But why are so many observatories located in countries of Earth’s southern hemisphere? Countries like Chile, Puerto Rico, and Peru?

Well, just as Proxima Centauri is a sweet spot for an Earth-like exoplanet, the Southern hemisphere is a sweet spot for observing the heavens. There are many reasons why these locales are considered ideal for astronomy:

  • Remote locations with little industrial and urban development.
  • High mountain ranges.
  • Miles of coastal elevations
  • High altitude deserts with clear, dry air practically year round for clear viewing.

And if you would like to take a peek through Chile’s collection of enormous telescopes, take a trip to the Atacama Desert in the northern part of the country. In addition to the opportunity of a lifetime while gazing into the heavens through a 16 inch telescope, you can tour the Cerro Paranal Observatory and the SPACE Observatory in San Pedro. There are local archaeological sites to explore as well as geographical marvels like a high desert mesa filled with geysers. 


But if you can’t afford the money or the time for a Chilean astronomy expedition, no worries. There are so many observatories open to the public, surely you will find one near your own hometown. Wikipedia has a rather extensive list so, find your country of choice and see which observatory is nearest you and is open to the public. And, if you have an enjoyable adventure, drop the gringa a line! I’d love to share your experience! 

Image Credit:  Extreme Tech


Just Say What You Mean, OKAY ALREADY!

One would think that if they heard the words “empty space” that the space mentioned is actually empty. Well, it’s stuff like this that makes science so darn confusing sometimes. You see, empty space is not REALLY empty after all. The gringa really wishes that scientists would just name stuff better, to actually mean what they say. Why couldn’t they just call it “NOT so empty space”?

Research performed by Italian and Polish scientists at the European Southern Observatory has concluded that when light is emitted by a neutron star that is quite dense (kind of like the scientists who create terms like “empty space”) as well as strongly magnetized, strange quantum happenings occur. The light becomes polarized which means that the space around that star is not “empty”. Is it a vacuum? Well, the gringa supposes that’s a misleading term as well because if it really was a vacuum it would be empty, right? Also, if there was nothing there then nothing would be going on. However, there is most CERTAINLY something going on in the not so empty “empty space” surrounding highly magnetized neutron stars. That something is called “vacuum” birefringence.

The gringa’s next question, quite naturally, then, is, “What the heck is vacuum birefringence?” What comes to mind for the gringa’s limited capabilities is the fringe of my rug re-emerging after being sucked up by the vacuum cleaner. Is that what scientists are talking about? Does the neutron star suck up some energy to produce the light then spit it back out into what was once “empty space”? Is vacuum birefringence the “exhaust fumes” of light?

Nope. That’s not at all what happens. Empty space acts more like a prism than a vacuum. The gringa would like to know, then, why the scientists didn’t call this phenomena something like “prismatic filling of otherwise empty space”. Good grief. That would explain everything! Anyway, what actually happens is the not so empty “empty space” surrounding a highly magnetized neutron star actually has all kinds of particles that can appear or disappear as they please. If the neutron star is heavily magnetized, the magnetic effect enhances these particles as the light that passes through them becomes polarized. This means that the light we see coming out of empty space does not look exactly the same as when it was created and emitted by the star.

The gringa’s next question then, quite naturally of course, is, “Is this a big deal? What’s the point? Does this information have any practical purpose for mankind or is it just one of those curious and interesting facts?” Okay, actually the gringa asked 3 questions, but surely, by now, my dear readers will humor my insatiable curiosity and long-windedness.

What it means for the science world is being able to more accurately understand the observations of stars as well as build better long-range telescopes. By understanding neutron stars better, mankind can better understand all laws of nature.

The gringa must then ask another question, “How, specifically, does that help mankind?” Well, mankind’s ancient ancestors often created superstitious or religious explanations for natural laws that they didn’t understand. We can all read historical texts or even current news headlines to realize that superstition and religion can sometimes bring out the worst in mankind. However, as science has exposed certain beliefs to be in error, mankind has been able to advance civilization toward better living conditions and more humane treatment of one another. If studying the not-so-empty space of neutron stars contributes to creating world peace, then the gringas asks one more questions, “Where can I contribute and how much do you need?”


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Stars Are Cool. No, Really, They Are

When the gringa’s dear readers think of a star, what do you think of? The Sun? Polaris? Alpha Centauri?  And what do you think would happen if you reached out to touch the Sun? You’d probably get vaporized, right? Well, depending on the star, not necessarily. In fact, if you touched the right star it might be a sensation more like when you roll over in bed and find the cool spot.

Brown dwarfs are cold stars. There are 14 that NASA believes are cool enough to touch. Cool! They are also the oldest stars in the Universe. I guess stars are kind of like people. Old folks with poor circulation are generally cold all the time. Stars get old and cold, too. Out of all the old, cold, brown dwarf stars in the Universe, it’s the Y-dwarfs that are even cooler than the average human’s body temperature. Y, you may ask. Well, the gringa will tell you why the Y is the way that it is.

Not only are they old but they are failures. Poor Y-dwarfs. They must have very low self-esteem. Perhaps that is why they don’t shine as brightly as other stars. They have grown old and are failures as stars. The gringa feels very sorry for the poor, little things.

Because their cores are not very dense they can’t fuse loads of atoms within. That means they don’t burn as hot and brightly as other stars. The gringa finds it very amusing that the denser a star is the brighter it is. It doesn’t seem to work that way in humans.

If Y-dwarfs are such failures at being stars, the gringa wonders if they should be considered stars at all. Do we have a Pluto prospect in the future? Just as Pluto got demoted from planet to dwarf planet, Y-dwarf stars may very well face the possibility of being re-classified. In the future scientists may decide they don’t meet all the guidelines of being a star. The gringa thinks this is a wonderful possibility for Y-dwarfs. Whereas poor Pluto suffered a demotion, the Y-dwarf could get better news. They could go from being failures as stars to being over-achievers for whatever it is they may become!

However, it may take astronomers quite some time to collect enough data in their studies. Their failure to shine bright like a diamond in the sky means it is difficult to view and study them. It’s practically impossible to study them at all with a telescope dependent on visible light. To take productive peeks at Y-dwarfs NASA had to construct an infrared telescope and mount it to an orbiting satellite. And that is why the Universe is wiser thanks to these cold, little star failures, because of Wide-field Infrared Survey Explore (WISE) that studies them in the heavens.


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Calling The North Star! Come In North Star! Do You Read?

Have you ever wondered if you got stranded on a desert island and launched a desperate plea for help through ye aulde “message in a bottle” method just how long it might take for someone to receive your communique. And if the hands it eventually fell into would even be able to read your language and decipher the message? That’s kind of the case anytime a messaging project is embarked upon launching human messages into outer space. And the latest one has been undertaken by the European Space Agency (ESA).

A Simple Response to an Elemental Message” is sending a radio message to the North Pole star, also known as Polaris. The ESA believes that mankind is living in what they dub “The Critical Decade”. They posit that, as has been historically proven, ecological decisions today will affect future generations, for bad or good depending on what we choose. Do we set our future grandchildren up for failure or success? For mere survival or a flourishing civilization? The world’s response to the UN Climate Change Conference of last year will decide what the next decade will mean for the human species as an entire collective.

The ESA’s “Simple Response” project invites every single human to participate. Ask yourself the question, “How will our present environmental interactions shape the future?” Form your response and contribute your own perspective to the project. Later this fall, all contributions will be transmitted from the ESA’s station at Cebreros, Spain and sent on a journey at light-speed into outer space. The voices of the human race will forever be encoded into a beam of light. Will it be the last hurrah of a race bent on self-annihilation because of an obsession with comfort and consumerism?

As of the gringa’s composition of this post there were 3,139 contributions. By visiting the project’s website and clicking on the “Contribute” tab, Earthlings can fill in the blanks and contribute their own two cents worth on the subject of climate change. The gringa contributed the following under the name: Gringa of the Barrio, Houston, TX:

“If we don’t act now, this message may be the last gasp of a race bent on self annihilation through the obsessions of creature comforts and consumerism. If more intelligent beings are out there, please come help us save us from ourselves.”

After your contribution you may want to check out the mission statement of the program. The gringa, usually a light-hearted person who is perpetually positive, came away quite sobered. The reality of this project is that it may very well be, in the future, an archaeological relic to be discovered by some alien race of the future. It may be a message that inspires these ETs to travel to our home world and try to reconstruct the history of a civilization of fools who destroyed themselves because they arrogantly believed they were simply too great to fail.



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So Where Are All Those ETs?

Fermi’s Paradox is a theory named after Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) who, during lunch with a fellow scientist, posed a question kind of like this, “Where the heck are the aliens if they are supposed to exist?” The premise of his theory goes something like this:

  • Billions of stars similar to our Sun exist with many of them billions of years older than our own planet.
  • It is highly probable that some of these stars would be orbited by Earth-like planets with conditions that could lead to the development of intelligent life.
  • If intelligent life developed on these older “Earths” their respective civilizations might have developed interstellar travel and have already begun investigating Earth.

Combine all these facts and you come up with the conclusion that Earth should have already been visited by ETs. So, like Fermi said, “Where is everybody?” Despite mankind’s best efforts Fermi could not find any credible evidence of alien visitation. The conclusion then must become that the existence of intelligent life is:

  • Extremely rare, or…
  • Alien intelligent civilizations have not contacted Earth.

In 1961 a scientist by the name of Frank Drake took Fermi’s 1950 theory and applied a mathematical formula to the probabilities. It is called the “Drake Equation”. The formula is expressed as:

N = R* · fp  · ne · fl  · fi  · fc · L

The variables are defined as follows:

N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.

R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.

fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.

ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.

fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.

fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.

fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

But what does the formula mean to scientists? Well, that depends on who you talk to. Some scientists translate the results to be wildly optimistic that there is, indeed, intelligent life out there. Others feel quite the opposite. When Frank Drake met with Carl Sagan to speculate on the calculations, they estimated the existence of 1,000 (on the low end) to 100 million (on the high end) possible intelligent civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy. To counter their claims, scientists Frank Tipler and John D. Barrow put forth that the average number of intelligent life civilizations in our galaxy would be much less than one. Seeing as how human civilization exists, that would consequently, then, rule out the possibility of any other intelligent civilization existing at the same time.

The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) sees the Fermi’s paradox and accepts the reality that either interpretation of the possibility of the existence of intelligence life has a chance of being true. Thus, they continue their efforts, erring on the side of optimism. And the gringa likes that. Why not hold out hope? Why not be curious? And why not exercise such curiosity with a healthy dose of skepticism to balance out the equation and prevent a full-scale pre-disposition to crazy alien conspiracy theory by maintaining strict scientific standards?

SETI continues exploration and research as they search for others out there in the galaxy. They believe in the possibility that if a suitable environment was allowed enough time, that it is possible for intelligent life to develop. By using all sorts of science and technology (satellite arrays, chemistry, optical telescopes, and sophisticated radio signaling devices) SETI not only searches for signals from other civilizations but reaches out with messages of our own to anyone who may be listening. And with their Education and Public Outreach program (EPO), humans of all ages and walks of life can be a part of their endeavor. For educators there is nothing more exciting than to introduce to a classroom of elementary and middle school students SETI’s “Life in the Universe” curriculum. So log on and order your first package today and get students engaged with a lesson plan that is certain to pique their curiosity and hopefully inspire them to be the future of our world’s STEM programs, because we need them.


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August Astronomy

Space fans should get their binoculars and telescopes dusted off for August. There will be lots to see with the aid of machine or the trusty naked eye. The gringa will share a cosmic calendar for the month ahead so everyone schedule their dinners and bedtimes accordingly if you want to enjoy some breathtaking galactic events rather than hunker down for digital entertainment indoors.

August 2 – New Moon:  Without the interference of moonlight this is the perfect night to explore other galaxies and nearby star clusters who will be shining in all their glory with no competition from our little satellite.

August 11,12 – Perseids Meteor Shower: At its peak, this little baby (pictured above) has the potential to create up to 60 meteors per hour (gives a whole new meaning to MPH). We can all thank comet Swift-Tuttle for this fantastic light show. Discovered in 1862. it has consistently provided entertainment for Earthlings through July and August. The event will peak on these two days in August. The best time to watch is right after the moon sets around midnight. Or, for those early to bed and early to rise, a pre-dawn show is also prime time for Perseids observation.

August 16 – Mercury:  This is the best time to view Mercury as it reaches it greatest eastern elongation from the Sun. Look for it in the evening sky at the highest point of the horizon or at a low point in the western sky just after sunset.

August 18 – Full Moon:  This is the best time to get a great look at our pockmarked neighbor. Full illumination will occur between 9-10pm  UTC. A bit of full Moon trivia: some Native American tribes call the full Moon a Full Sturgeon Moon because these nights are the best times to catch this type of fish that populates the Great Lakes. Other tribes also called the full Moon the Green Corn Moon or the Grain Moon.

August 27 – Venus & Jupiter:  These two planets are going to join together in close proximity for a spectacular opportunity to see them both. Look for them in the western sky soon after sunset.  They will be shining very brightly and close together.


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Ceres, Dawn, Pyramids & Craters

NASA’s spacecraft Dawn has been on a mission to the planet Ceres which is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Compared to Earth’s diameter of almost 8,000 miles, Ceres seems tiny with a diameter of less than 600 miles. It is so small that despite its official designation as a minor-planet, there are still those who will call it an asteroid or a dwarf planet. To put it in perspective, the entire surface of Ceres is about the same size as India or Argentina. Whatever the moniker, the dear reader gets the point. Still, UFO and ET enthusiasts like to believe that Ceres was once home to an intelligent otherworldly species that liked to build pyramids. The gringa can only say, “Um, not.”

Why is the gringa so sure of herself in raining on their parade? Let’s take a look at some of the geographical and geological characteristics of this teensy-weensy little world:


First of all, just take an up close and personal look at the pitiful pitted little thing. It has more impact craters than an eight-year-old ginger gringa had freckles. It seems pretty obvious to me that with global environmental disasters happening on a regular basis, it is very unlikely that life would flourish in such a place. Not to mention any surviving life having the opportunity to pursue advancements.


Ceres, in many ways, is pretty much a clone of our desolate moon, an enormous rock with a lot of ice. With no evidence or traces of ever having vegetation, any ETs most assuredly would have starved to death. Unless, of course, it was a civilization that could survive on the nourishment of clay seasoned with ammonia and a splash of salt and iron.


It’s highly unlikely that water as we Earthlings know it ever existed on Ceres. Although there is alot of ice, enough even to indicate the possibility of an ocean at one time, it wouldn’t have been a salty brine like we are accustomed to, inhabited with sharks and whales and penguins and such. It most likely would have been a caustic sea of ammonia and sulfuric acid. So, unless those ETs had skin of steel and enjoyed a dip in antifreeze, any recreational activities of a Ceres civilization would have been strictly limited to land-lubbing.

Details, Details, Details

If the gringa has sufficiently convinced you that no one was building pyramids on Ceres way back when, let us move on to the details that are still interesting despite lacking any ET spin.

In the late 1700s Johann Elert Bode suspected a planet existed between Mars and Jupiter. However, the official discovery of Ceres is credited to Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801 who first claimed it was a comet. It was later classified as a planet but then redesignated as an asteroid in the 1850s. It seems scientists still haven’t made up their minds because it can be called any number of names when referred to by different people. The gringa doesn’t so much care. It makes no difference to me. Ceres is just Ceres, a planet named after the Roman goddess of agriculture despite the fact that not a single ear of corn or blade of grass has ever been grown on its surface.

Over thousands of years meteors and comets have slammed into Ceres, creating hundreds of craters. A few of them are distinctly bright, containing either minerals with reflective properties or light reflecting off of ice. It is theorized that underneath the crusty and dusty surface of Ceres is a layer of water and ice that, by volume, is more than the fresh water found on Earth. This has led to scientists entertaining the notion that if living organisms once lived in the sea of Ceres, it is possible that through the many cosmic impacts throughout history some biological material may have been ejected into space and made its way to Earth. So, ETs on Ceres? The gringa thinks not. ETs from Ceres on Earth? It’s possible.


Ceres is too dim to be seen with the naked eye except on extremely dark sky conditions. The best way to peek at Ceres is through a pair of binoculars or a telescope. The best time to see Ceres is fast approaching, from August through April. Observers in mid northern latitudes should look toward the low southern sky after nightfall. It is best to view on a night when the Moon is in waning stages. Look toward the Sagittarius constellation and Ceres will arc slowly westward and approach the border of the Capricorn constellation.

If you have a fancy telescope you can enter coordinates and the telescope will do the hard work of locating and tracking for you. But if you only have binoculars, it is still easy enough to locate and track Ceres so don’t be discouraged.   For some help in finding Ceres, online astronomy clubs are a great resource.  The gringa wishes you the greatest success in taking a peek at Ceres!


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