Help Name Pluto’s Newly Discovered Moons

Pluto is one of the little mysteries of our solar system. An icy dwarf planet far from Earth, it’s never been studied up close. The best scientists have been able to do is to examine it with the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the coolest scientific instruments ever invented.

In 2011 and 2012, they discovered two new moons around Pluto, bringing the total number of its satellites to five. Right now they’re known by the boring scientific designations S/2011 (134340) 1 and S/2012 (134340) 1. Most astronomers call them by the shorter yet equally boring nicknames P4 and P5. Now an online poll on the website Pluto Rocks!, run by Dr. Mark Showalter of the P4/P5 Discovery Team, is letting YOU help decide what to name them.

All the choices come from Greek and Roman mythology but one has a special significance for science fiction fans – Vulcan. None other than William Shatner has gotten behind the push to name one of the moons after Mr. Spock’s home world. He’s urging fans via his twitter feed to vote for Vulcan. On his own twitter feed, Leonard Nimoy said, “‘Vulcan’ is the logical choice. LLAP.” LLAP stands for “Live long and prosper,” of course.

According to the current tally, Vulcan is way ahead, with Cerberus and Styx neck-and-neck for second place. I decided to release my inner Trekkie and voted for Vulcan. Since there are two moons to be named, you get to go back and vote again. I’ll be voting for Thanatos. It’s way behind but it’s the coolest name on there after Vulcan.

P4 is Pluto’s smallest moon, measuring an estimated 8-21 miles across and orbits Pluto in about 31 days. P5 is 6-16 miles across and orbits Pluto in 20 days. Little is known about their physical makeup although it is thought they are a combination of water ice, other frozen elements and molecules, and small bits of rock.

While astronauts and space tourists won’t be getting to these destinations anytime soon, it’s nice to know that you had a part in naming them. Voting ends at noon EST on Monday, February 25.

[Photo courtesy NASA via the Hubble Space Telescope]

Astronomy Photos Unite Earth And Sky

Whether you’re on the other side of the world or in your own back yard, it’s fun to look up at the night sky and wonder. One of my fondest memories of South America was one night on Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca. Back when I went, there was no electricity on the island and the night sky was brilliant with stars. The fact that I couldn’t recognize the constellations – because they’re different than the ones in the Northern Hemisphere – really made me realize I had traveled a long way.

Some get more serious with their stargazing. Dedicated amateur astronomers travel the world for good observing conditions or to take the best photographs.

The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, and Sky at Night Magazine have just named Astronomy Photographer of the Year for 2012. The top prize went to Australian-based photographer Martin Pugh for a photo of the Whirlpool Galaxy. There were several categories, including a Youth category that attracted some incredible shots. While many photographers focused on distant galaxies or nebulae, others chose to combine terrestrial scenes with heavenly wonders. These images remind us that no matter how far we journey, we’ve barely moved in comparison to the vastness of the universe.

Above is the winner for the Earth and Space category. Masahiro Miyasaka took this shot in Nagano, Japan. It shows Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades as the backdrop to an eerie frozen landscape. Though the stars appear to gleam with a cold, frosty light, bright blue stars like the Pleiades can be as hot as 30,000 degrees Celsius. He titled it “Star Icefall,” showing he’s a poet as well as a photographer.

Check out the gallery for other fine photographs, and jump the break to see my personal favorite.


Titled “Green World,” it was taken by Arild Heitmann. The aurora borealis traces the shifting patterns of the Earth’s magnetic field, creating a spectacular midwinter show in Nordland Fylke, Norway. The green light in this image comes from oxygen atoms high in the atmosphere, which have been energized by subatomic particles from the Solar Wind.

Happy Birthday, Hubble Space Telescope!

The Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit for 22 years today, and to celebrate, NASA has released this awesome image of the Tarantula Nebula, also known by its less romantic scientific name of 30 Doradus.

A nebula is a massive cloud of gas and dust in which some areas are coalescing and igniting into stars. The Tarantula Nebula is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy orbiting our own Milky Way galaxy. The light comes from thousands of stars in its center that illuminate the clouds and filaments around them.

In addition to being one of the most groundbreaking scientific instruments of the late twentieth century, Hubble is a team player. This image is a composite from the Hubble and two other space telescopes: Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared instrument my super-cool astronomer wife uses. NASA says:

“The Hubble data in the composite image, colored green, reveals the light from these massive stars along with different stages of star birth, including embryonic stars a few thousand years old still wrapped in cocoons of dark gas. Infrared emission data from Spitzer, seen in red, shows cooler gas and dust that have giant bubbles carved into them. These bubbles are sculpted by the same searing radiation and strong winds that comes from the massive stars at the center of 30 Doradus.”

Happy Birthday, Hubble!

Photo courtesy NASA. To see the image in its full 3000-pixel glory, click here.

Want a beautiful night sky? Go to the Isle of Sark

Few things are as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the sky on a clear, dark night. The problem is, most of us live in cities or towns and the lights blot out all but the brightest stars and planets.

The Isle of Sark, one of the Channel Islands, has decided to become the place to go for skygazers. Early this year it was named the world’s first Dark Sky Island by the International Dark-Sky Association. The little island, with a population of only about 600, decided to put itself on the map by altering their lighting to reduce what astronomers call “light pollution”. It helped that there are no streetlights, cars, or paved roads on Sark.

The Isle of Sark hopes “astro-tourism” will bring the local economy a big boost, especially during the winter. The island has been promoting tourism for some time. Being a small and somewhat remote member of the Channel Islands, it provides an experience most visitors to Europe miss. It offers some rugged hiking, caves, and a beautiful 17th century mansion. The dark skies, however, are what will really give the Isle of Sark a chance to stand out among the tough competition for tourists.

Of course this isn’t the only remote spot with dark skies. Twelve years ago I visited Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Like the Isle of Sark, there was no public lighting or cars. In fact, there was no electricity at all. At night it was so dark I needed a flashlight to keep from getting lost on my way to the outhouse. The starry sky was the most brilliant I’ve ever seen and I’ve never forgotten it. Has anyone out there been to Isla del Sol more recently? Is it still that dark at night?

Photo courtesy Forest Wander, which has lots of beautiful free nature photography.