NGC 4594

NGC 4594 or the Sombrero Galaxy is a galaxy in the Virgo cluster around 28 million light years from us. It has around 700 billion stars and has a radius of 60,000 light years. If you look closely, you will realize that most of the other pin pricks of light in the image is yet another galaxy. Just think about these words and try to understand their meaning. “700 billion stars.” “28 million light years.” “60,000 light years.” The universe is too immense for our limited intelligence to comprehend its vastness!

NGC 4594
NGC 4594

Makemake and Eris

Makemake is the god of fertility and creator of humanity in the mythology of the Rapa Nui people of the island of Rapa Nui in Polynesia. Actually, Rapa Nui forms one of the vertex of the triangle that defines Polynesia. Rapa Nui is in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest inhabited island almost 2000 km away with the nearest continental point almost 3500 km away.

The Dutch explorer. Jacob Roggeveen reached the Rapa Nui island on April 5th, 1722, Easter Sunday. It was named Easter Islands, the name with which we know the islands popularly now. The islands are known for its large stone statues called Moai. I bet you have seen images of these statues and wondered what they are.

Makemake
Makemake

Moai

Moai

 

Polynesian triangle with Rapa Nui represented by 3.

Polynesian triangle with Rapa Nui represented by 3.

 Eris is the Greek Goddess of strife and discord. The story goes that due to her nature to cause discord, she was the only Goddess not invited for the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (Parents of Achilles. Remember Achilles as played by Brad Pitt in Troy?). She became angry and decided to crash the party. She brought with her an apple (Why does it always have to be an apple???) with “To the fairest one” written on it. This obviously caused trouble with all the other Goddess claiming they deserved it. The decision to adjudicate was put on Zeus who wisely delegated that to Paris, son of Priam (Paris – Remember Orlondo Bloom from Troy? The coward, useless guy??). Hera offered Paris ownership of all known world, Athena offered him wisdom and the abilities of the greatest warrior while Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. In his infinite stupidity, Paris chose Aphrodite. Aphrodite gives him the love of Helen who is already married to King Menelaus of Sparta thus sowing the roots of destruction of Troy in the Trojan war.

In the month of March of 2005, 31st March to be precise (4 days after Easter Sunday), the team of astronomers at the Palomar Observatory of Caltech led by Michael Brown discovered the object seen in the below image.

Makemake through the eye of Hubble
Makemake through the eye of Hubble

This was code-named Easterbunny and it has a diameter about 2/3 that of Pluto with an orbital period of 310 years. With the astronomical naming convention of naming classical Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO) after mythological names associated with creation, Mike Brown and his team decided to name the object Makemake after the Easter Island God of creation. Its complete name is 136472 Makemake with the number being a sequential number.

In January of the same year, the same team of astronomers from Caltech also discovered what they called Xena or Planet X. The way these objects are discovered is by comparing successive images taken of the same region of space on successive days. Since the star move very slowly, they would appear stationary in these images while planets, dwarf planets and other objects that are closer would appear to move. Now the space is so huge, the objects so dim and the number of objects that are visible so large that this is a very difficult task. Sophisticated computer programs are written that compare these images and identify possible matches. These possible matches also number in thousands due to problem with telescope (eg, dust particle on mirrors), the imaging device (eq, photographic plates not properly handled, problem in digital cameras) etc that these matches would still have to be visually inspected by an astronomer to classify them as possible matches. Below is the image that shows Xena in three successive images.

Movement of Eris
Movement of Eris

 Now the problem with Xena is that it is larger than Pluto (around 12 km in diameter) and 27% more massive than Pluto. When the discovery of Xena was announced along with the discovery of Makemake, it created a huge controversy. Is Xena a planet? It is larger than Pluto and if size is the criteria then it should be classified as a planet and be Planet X or the tenth planet. Can Makemake be also classified as Planet, it is just 2/3 the size of Pluto? Can Ceres, in the asteroid belt, also classified as a Planet? These discoveries led to much “discord and strife” in the international astronomical community finally forcing the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to define planets as

(1) A “planet” is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies”.

This resulted in Pluto relegated from the elite club of Planets to that of dwarf planets along with Xena, Sedna and Makemake. Due to the effect that Xena had, its discoverer Michael Brown appropriately named it Eris (136199 Eris).

Eris with its satellite Dysnomia
Eris with its satellite Dysnomia

 Fun Facts: Makemake has an orbital period of 310 years meaning it takes 310 years to complete one orbit around the Sun. Eris has an orbital period of 560 years (Aphelion around 97 AU) and at its most distance from the Sun, is almost twice as far away as Pluto is and believe me Pluto is far far away (Aphelion around 48 AU). New Horizons space probe, currently travelling at 14.8 km/s was launched in 2006 and will reach Pluto only by 2015. At its current speed, it can fly around earth in less than an hour. That should give you a perspective on how far away these objects are. Now the same Caltech team of Michael Brown also discovered 90377 Sedna. Now if you think Eris is very distant then Sedna is far, far, far, far away. Its aphelion is 937 AU, almost ten times as distant as Eris is and its orbital period is 11400 years! The last time Sedna was in the same position as today, humanity still had more than a thousand year to domesticate sheep and start agriculture (8000 BCE). 

Sedna
Sedna

Orbit of Sedna - Red ellipse is the orbit of Sedna while the purple ellipse is the orbit of Pluto. Note how Pluto's orbit intersect that of Neptune (blue circle) making Pluto nearer to the Sun than Neptune at some points of its orbit.

Orbit of Sedna – Red ellipse is the orbit of Sedna while the purple ellipse is the orbit of Pluto. Note how Pluto’s orbit intersect that of Neptune (blue circle) making Pluto nearer to the Sun than Neptune at some points of its orbit.

 

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan is one of the most awesome individual to have graced this planet. It is a profound regret to me that I never came to know about him while he was still alive. The sub title of this blog is a quote from the man.  Every time I read the quote, it inspires me and fills me with a sense of purpose and makes me believe that there is something more to life than our banal existence. In this post, I am just copying parts of an article that he had written on his death bed for the Parade magazine.

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Four times now I have looked Death in the face. And four times Death has averted his gaze and let me pass. Eventually, of course, Death will claim me–as he does each of us. It’s only a question of when. And how.
I’ve learned much from our confrontations—especially about the beauty and sweet poignancy of life, about the preciousness of friends and family, about the transforming power of love. In fact, almost dying is such a positive, character-building experience that I’d recommend it to everybody—except, of course, for the irreducible and essential element of risk.

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert and afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.

I want to grow really old with my wife, Annie, whom I dearly love. I want to see my younger children grow up and play a role in their character and intellectual development. I want to meet still unconceived grandchildren. There are scientific problems whose outcomes I long to witness—such as the exploration of many of the worlds in our solar system and the search for life elsewhere. I want to learn how major trends in human history, both hopeful and worrisome, work themselves out: the dangers and promise of our technology, say; the emancipation of women; the growing political, economic and technological ascendancy of China; interstellar flight.

If there were life after death, I might, no matter when I die, satisfy most of these deep curiosities and longings. But if death is nothing more than an endless, dreamless sleep, this is a forlorn hope. Maybe this perspective has given me a little extra motivation to stay alive.

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

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Zen Pencils has a wonderful cartoon on the last paragraph of this article. Must read.

 

I am no Superman

I love flying. Even more than I love Lois Lane. There is no pleasure greater than racing the sunrise on a dark, cloudless night. I hate the cities, they are too bright. Jungles, plains and mountains are what I prefer. Lying on the cold sands of Sahara, I watch the stars move. I like to look at the part of the sky where Krypton was and believe that my parents are looking down at me. I believe that they would have been proud of me. The slow moving river of the Milky Way fills me with a sense of calm, a commodity very rare in a world filled with the likes of Lex Luthor and Brainiac.

Sometimes I spy on people. I like to look at families at dinner, couples in love and children at play. I smile at their happiness and feel sad at their sorrows. Does God feel the same for her creations?

Once I saw a little girl in the wilderness of Africa. She was lost. Perhaps she went out to collect wood and could not find her way back. I went to her and she was plainly terrified. Who wouldn’t be if you saw a weird man with multicolored clothes in the middle of the jungle. I tried to soothe her but I dont think she understood what I was trying to say. After a while I managed to calm her and then walked her to her home. The smile she gave me when she ran into her mothers arms was priceless. A good night’s work.

Once in a while, I fly to moon. That ‘Magnificent Desolation’ is beyond words. Knowing that you are the only living thing on an entire world is hugely uplifting. Like a kid I write “Superman was here. :)” on the sands of moon knowing that what I write will still be there a thousands years from now. May be the future visitors will not even understand the script or take a philosophical meaning of “Übermensch” and not take it as a proper noun. What matters is that I was on moon and I gazed down at the blue sphere that is now home.