Another Look at the Solar System

Every solar system model you’ve seen is wrong

So these filmmakers mapped out the true scale of the planets’ orbits in the sand.

What do you get when you combine science-inspired wonder and seven miles of desert? An incredible video.

Filmmakers Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh, along with a few helpful friends, set out to make a scale model of the solar system. To do that, they traveled 600 miles to Black Rock Desert (home of the Burning Man Festival) in Nevada. Using various technology, vehicles, a drone, math and perseverance, they created “To Scale: The Solar System,” a seven-minute video that shows the orbits of the eight planets in our solar system. (Sorry, Pluto!)

The video is educational, beautiful and awe-inspiring. It shows off our planet’s place in the solar system, and it offers perspective on just how small Earth is in the grand scheme of things. The entire film is captivating, but perhaps the most poignant moment is at sunrise, when the real sun matches the model’s sun, showing that the representation is accurate.

As the video points out, most depictions of the solar system are inaccurate because to create a true scale rendering, the planets would need to be “microscopic.” Overstreet and Gorosh came up with a solution: build a “simulated model” in the middle of a dry lakebed where there’s plenty of space to show off a model of, well, space.

So, why did these filmmakers decide to take on this complex endeavor? Gorosh, a director with high-end commercials and documentaries to his credit, explains the inspiration for the project in a behind the scenes video: “As for why we made the model? Because it’s never been done before, and we felt like it.” Overstreet, a filmmaker with interests in science and nature, also notes, “There is literally not an image that adequately shows you what it [the solar system] actually looks like from out there. The only way to see a scale model of the solar system is to build one.” So they did. They spent 36 hours in what appears to be a rather cold desert to build the model and to capture the footage required.

The technology needed for this undertaking from conception to final cut ranges from sophisticated cameras to analogue tech, like a good old-fashioned compass. They even created a DIY harrow, a piece of equipment typically used to to break up soil but is apparently also excellent for drawing the orbits of planets in desert sand!

According to Overstreet’s website, he’s working on another “To Scale” video about deep time. If the first “To Scale” video is any indication of what’s possible, we can’t wait.


The Birth of a Planet

Scientists photograph the moment a new planet is born using the most powerful telescope ever built

  • The image was taken by the VLT, which is found in the Atacama desert, Chile
  • The black circle at the centre of the image is created by a filter
  • It allows astronomers to filter out the light from the star and see only the planet
  • Known as PDS70, the planet is several times heavier than Jupiter
  • It has a surface temperature of more than 1,000°C and is 370 light years away

Scientists have used the most powerful telescope ever built for peering into the depths of the universe to witness a planet being born for the first time.

The newborn world was snapped using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile’s Atacama desert and is thought to be 370 light years from Earth.

It was the telescope’s Sphere instrument, which allows experts to measure the brightness of the planet, that initially made the discovery.

Researchers were alerted to the birth of the new world by analysing different wavelengths of light to measures the properties of its atmosphere.

The discovery is a significant step forward in space exploration and provides new insight into how planets form.

This spectacular image from the Sphere instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the centre of the image

This spectacular image from the Sphere instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the centre of the image

The discovery was led by a team at the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy as part of the European Southern Observatory project.

Dubbed PDS 70b, the new planet is seen emerging from the shadow of its young star as the solar system forms.

Previous attempts to watch planet formation have been obscured by a cloud of dust from the new world.

However, this latest image from the VLT bypassed the dust by analysing the light around the newly-formed planet.

The dark region at the centre of the image produced is due to a filter which blocks the blinding light of the star and allows astronomers to detect the planet.

The planet itself is the bright orb of light to the right of the black disk.

The coronograph is a key part of the discovery, as without it, the sheer brightness of the light produced by its host star PDS 70 would overwhelm any light coming from the planet, making it indistinguishable.


The European Southern observatory (ESO) built the most powerful telescope ever made and called it the Very Large Telescope (VLT).

The telescope is widely regarded as one of the most advanced optical instruments ever made and consists of four Telescopes.

The main mirrors measures 8.2 metres (27 feet) in diameter and there are also four movable 1.8 metre (six feet) diameter auxiliary telescopes.

The large telescopes are called Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun.

The first of the Unit Telescopes, ‘Antu’, went into routine scientific operations on 1 April 1999.

The telescopes can work together to form a giant ‘interferometer’.

This interferometer allows images to be filtered for any unnecessary obscuring objects and, as a result, astronomers can see details up to 25 times finer than with the individual telescopes.

It has been involved in spotting the first image of an extrasolar planet, tracking individual stars moving around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way and observing the afterglow of the furthest known Gamma ray burst.

‘These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them,’ explains Miriam Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70’s still-forming planet.

‘The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.’

It is believed that the planet is roughly 1.8 billion miles (three billion kilometres) from the central star, about the same as the distance between Uranus and the Sun.

For scale, that is almost as far as travelling around Earth’s equator almost 75,000 times.

Despite being this far from its star, the gas giant has a mass a few times heavier than Jupiter and its surface temperature exceeds 1,000°C (1832°F).

The newborn world was snapped using the ESO's Very Large Telescope (pictured) in Chile's Atacama desert and is thought to be 370 light years from Earth. It filtered out the signals of other celestial bodies to make the discovery possible

The newborn world was snapped using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (pictured) in Chile’s Atacama desert and is thought to be 370 light years from Earth. It filtered out the signals of other celestial bodies to make the discovery possible

Sphere had to use specially designed observing strategies and data processing techniques to filter out the signal of the faint planetary companions around the bright young star to make this discovery possible.

Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and leader of the teams, summarises the scientific adventure: ‘After more than a decade of enormous efforts to build this high-tech machine, now Sphere enables us to reap the harvest with the discovery of baby planets!’

The Kepler telescope has been used to capture pictures of planets in their formative years, but not at this level of detail.

Dr Keppler says that the methods employed by the Kepler telescope, which is in orbit, are not perfect.

Kepler looks for drops in brightness as a planet passes in front of the star.

‘In this case we now have a direct image [of the planet] in its ‘birthplace’, which is the circumstellar disc,’ Dr Keppler told The Guardian.

‘This is especially important because people have been wondering [for a long time], how these planets actually form and how the dust and the material in this disc forms [into] a planet, and now we can directly observe this.’

The full findings will be published in two upcoming papers in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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Pictures of Pluto

INCREDIBLE NEW PHOTOS OF PLUTO: NASA is still downloading images from the Pluto flyby two months ago. Some of the new arrivals, like this one received on Sept. 13th, are causing researchers to question what they thought they knew about the distant dwarf planet:

New Horizons snapped the picture looking back at Pluto about 15 minutes after its closest approach on July 14th. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s rugged, icy mountains tower over a vast frozen plain extending to the horizon. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere.

The new pictures provide evidence for a remarkably Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than water ice. There are signs of hazes, evaporation, precipitation, and flowing glaciers similar to the frozen streams on the margins of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.

“We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system,” says Alan Howard, a member of the mission’s science team from the University of Virginia. “Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow.”

“Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard,” adds Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, “and no one predicted it.”


Planetary Doodles

SCINTILLATION SQUIGGLES: Everyone knows that stars twinkle but planets do not. The reason has to do with angular size. Stars are distant pinpricks smaller than the thermal irregularities in Earth’s atmosphere that refract their light. Each packet of air that passes in front of a star produces a well-defined change in color or brightness. Planets, on the other hand, are relatively nearby and wide; they span many atmospheric irregularities, which tends to smooth out the prismatic action.

Photographer Monika Landy-Gyebnar of Veszprem, Hungary, has found a kinetic way to demonstrate the effect. “When photographing a star or planet, kick the tripod during the exposure.” She’s applied this technique to many stars and planets, and the resulting collection of squiggles reveals the character of their twinkles:

“If we take a photo of a star with a shaking camera, the result is a wavy line with many colors,” she points out. “If we photograph a planet, however, there is no change; the color and width of the squiggle are nearly constant.”

The scintillation effect is greatest for stars near the horizon, which must shine through a greater distance of turbulent atmosphere. Angles noted in the image above are altitudes. The lowest-hanging stars display the strongest and most colorful twinkling.

“Demonstrating this is a ‘must-do’ thing when you give a lecture or show on astronomical observations for novices,” she concludes. Observing tips and more of Landy-Gyebnar’s “scintillation squiggles” may be found here.


Invisible Planet Found

Kepler Spacecraft Discovers ‘Invisible Planet’


NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has spotted a planet that alternately runs late and early in its orbit because a second, “invisible” world is tugging on it. This is the first definite detection of a previously unknown planet using this method. No other technique could have found the unseen companion.

“It’s like having someone play a prank on you by ringing your doorbell and running away. You know someone was there, even if you don’t see them when you get outside,” she added.

Both the seen and unseen worlds orbit the Sun-like star Kepler-19, which is located 650 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. The 12th-magnitude star is well placed for viewing by backyard telescopes on September evenings.

Kepler locates planets by looking for a star that dims slightly as a planet transits the star, passing across the star’s face from our point of view. Transits give one crucial piece of information – the planet’s physical size. The greater the dip in light, the larger the planet relative to its star. However, the planet and star must line up exactly for us to see a transit.

The first planet, Kepler-19b, transits its star every 9 days and 7 hours. It orbits the star at a distance of 8.4 million miles, where it is heated to a temperature of about 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Kepler-19b has a diameter of 18,000 miles, making it slightly more than twice the size of Earth. It may resemble a “mini-Neptune,”  (image of Neptune above) however its mass and composition remain unknown.

If Kepler-19b were alone, each transit would follow the next like clockwork. Instead, the transits come up to five minutes early or five minutes late. Such transit timing variations show that another world’s gravity is pulling on Kepler-19b, alternately speeding it up or slowing it down.

Historically, the planet Neptune was discovered similarly. Astronomers tracking Uranus noticed that its orbit didn’t match predictions. They realized that a more distant planet might be nudging Uranus and calculated the expected location of the unseen world. Telescopes soon observed Neptune near its predicted position.

“This method holds great promise for finding planets that can’t be found otherwise,” stated Harvard astronomer and co-author David Charbonneau.

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What a Rock!

Surprise! Alien Planet Made of Diamond Discovered

by Nola Taylor Redd, Contributor
Date: 25 August 2011 Time: 02:01 PM ET
This illustration shows the alien planet PSR J1719-1438, where ultra-high pressures caused carbon to crystallize in the remnant of a dead star, forming the extrasolar world. .
This illustration shows the alien planet around pulsar PSR J1719-1438, where ultra-high pressures caused carbon to crystallize in the remnant of a dead star. The planet is made of diamond and orbits a dense pulsing star with a radius smaller than that of our sun.
CREDIT: Swinburne Astronomy Productions

A newly discovered alien planet that formed from a dead star is a real diamond in the rough.

The super-high pressure of the planet, which orbits a rapidly pulsing neutron star, has likely caused the carbon within it to crystallize into an actual diamond, a new study suggests.

The composition of the planet, which is about five times the size of Earth, is not its only outstanding feature.

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