On November 12, 2014, in one of the great feats in the history of space exploration, the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a tiny robotic spacecraft on the surface of a comet. This achievement ranks with grand achievements of the manned Apollo Moon landings and the Mars Viking lander missions in 1976, as well as the more recent Mars Curiosity lander in 2012. And it once again demonstrates that while manned spaceflight might generate more public interest and secure more funding, robotic space exploration is more audacious and difficult, and has the potential to yield far more discoveries and knowledge of lasting value.
The scientists and engineers at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile have been busy testing and calibrating this magnificent new observatory. Last week, on November 6, 2014, they released a test image which ranks as one of the most astonishing astronomical images ever captured. It shows the formation of a new planetary system out of a disk of gas and dust surrounding a new star. One ALMA scientist said, “This one image alone will revolutionize theories of planet formation”.
The perpetual Newtonian dance of the solar system carries Saturn and Mars out of view this month as they set in the western sky not long after the Sun. They are replaced by Jupiter, which reaches high overhead in the early-morning sky, and by Mercury bright and low in the east before sunrise during the first week of the month. For observers lucky enough to enjoy very dark sky, the zodiacal light thrusts straight above the eastern horizon in the early morning (for northern observers) and early evening (for southern observers). And the famous Leonid meteor shower peaks in the early-morning hours of November 17. Here’s what to see in the night sky this month…
Our universe as we see it now has about 100 billion trillion stars, more stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of Earth. So it seems strange to think there was a time in the early universe, until a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, when there were no stars. Not a single one.
There’s a Jupiter-sized sunspot on the face of the Sun right now, the biggest by far in a long, long time. The image above gives you a view of the sunspot today (October 24, 2014). It will remain visible for a few more days before the Sun’s rotation takes it out of view.
If you have a telescope equipped with a solar filter, or a pair of solar “eclipse glasses” or a piece of #14 welding glass, you can easily see the sunspot without magnifying optics.