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SkyTalk is a weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with Dr. Derrick Pitts and WHYY FM's Dave Heller

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A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with Dr. Derrick Pitts
🇬🇧 English
last modified
2019-03-16 14:47
last episode published
2019-03-16 10:05
publication frequency
6.31 days
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Science & Medicine Natural Sciences



Date Thumb Title & Description Contributors

“One Small Step” Redux?

NASA’s 2020 budget request for $21 billion includes significant funding to build systems and infrastructure to return to the moon by 2028. Pending Congressional approval, this will allow NASA to support commercial development of a large lunar lander to...
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Some Like it Dry

The Atacama desert in Chile is one of the most arid places on the planet – averaging less than one inch of rainfall per year! High altitude, almost constant clear sky, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference due to its remote locati...
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Worth the Wait for Weightlessness?

Beth Moses, Astronaut Trainer for Virgin Galactic, flew aboard its latest test flight as its first passenger. The VSS Unity flew into space last week piloted by David MacKay and Mike Masucci. Last week’s flight was the first to carry another person bes...
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Volunteers Needed for Stellar Sleuthing

Wanna get your hands dirty in astronomy? Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a newly revised version of a Zooniverse Citizen Scientist data-mining project for finding nearby failed stars and exoplanets created through a collaboration of a number of research a...
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A Conversation With Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi

Earlier this week, the Franklin Institute Night Sky Observatory program featured special guest Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, astrophysicist, inventor, and co-host of the Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science to focus on some of the most perplexing paradox...
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What’s in a Shape?

Astronomers at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have detected that our Milky Way galaxy, while shaped like a big disk that rotates, is actually warped at the outer edges. The warping causes our galaxy to have a...
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Strolling Our Galactic Neighborhood

Our Milky Way is one of some forty galaxies that comprise what is known as our “local group.” Two of our nearest galactic co-occupants are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (visible in the Southern Hemisphere). At a mere 170,000 light years away, t...
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Lunar Eclipse Beckons

Despite the forecasted blast of arctic air heading our way Sunday – bundle up and brave the cold because the next opportunity to take in a spectacular full lunar eclipse won’t come until May 2022 ! Spanning late Sunday into early Monday – this will be ...
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Speed Kills

The more scientists learn about black holes, the more the findings confirm the warning: Speed kills. The black hole ASASSN-14li lies at the heart of a galaxy 290 million light-years away from Earth and harbors between 1 million and 10 million times the...
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Ultima Thule

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues its sojourn through the outer reaches of our solar system. For the next 20 months, it will transmit data back to earth gathered from its passby of the planetessimal Ultima Thule, a snowman-shaped object around 2...
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Going, Going, Gone

Enjoy them while you can, because according to a new analysis of data from the Keck 10 meter telescope at Mauna Kea, Saturn’s rings are eroding away. Data gathered 10 years ago by Voyager space probes indicated that the water ice particles that make up...
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Adieu to Voyager 2

41 years since it left Earth in the rear view mirror, NASA’s Voyager 2 bids adieu to our solar system. Earlier this week, engineers monitoring transmissions detected a significant drop-off in solar wind buffeting the spacecraft and a dramatic increase ...
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Shedding Light on the Dark Side of the Moon

China’s next lunar visitor Chang’e 4 is due to touch down on the far side of the moon on December 31st. If it succeeds in that endeavor, it will be the world’s first lunar probe to make a soft landing on the side of the moon that always faces away fro...
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Early Sunsets in Early December

Starting on Monday, December 3rd, we’ll embark on a ten-day period when sunset arrives around 4:35 in the afternoon, marking the earliest sunsets of the year. Sunsets will commence a little later by Friday, December 21st – Winter Solstice – the day dis...
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NASA Touchdown On Mars

NASA’s InSight Lander is scheduled to set down on the surface of Mars on Monday, November 26th. As a fixed station, InSight will drill a probe 5 meters down into the rock to both temperature profile that part of the rock column and to listen very caref...
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Hidden In Plain Sight

Our Milky Way has two very well known galactic companions: The Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds, irregular-shaped galaxies both about 170,00 light years from Earth. Both are visible to the naked eye in the southern sky. The European Space Agency’s...
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Going in Circles

This week, astronomers are studying a pair of stars that rotate around their common point once every 3 hours. The stars are buried in a planetary nebula 14,000 light years from Earth in Canis Major. Researchers think material from the bigger star of th...
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Fall Back

Enjoy an earlier sunrise starting Sunday morning, when our area reverts to Eastern Standard Time. The earlier sunsets affords opportunities to view the glories of the night sky. Saturn and Mars are easy targets; Saturn in the southwest and Mars in the ...
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Sun Day

Our sun, some 865,000 miles in diameter, rotates once every 30-35 days or so; fairly normal for a star like ours. Contrast that with an example of a neutron star (aka pulsar) – a mere 12.5 miles in diameter – that rotates once every 1.4 milliseconds, o...
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International Observe the Moon Night

The naked eye is just fine – but if the night sky is clear this evening, the best way to view the moon is with a pair of binoculars, revealing craters, seas, bays and more. In addition, Saturn and Mars are still hanging in the early evening sky. The co...
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Shooting Stars

Buried in the data from European Space Agency’s Gaia Survey satellite, astronomers from Leiden University in the Netherlands discovered 13 new stars whose hyper-velocities suggest they’ve interlopers from EXTRA-galactic sources (outside our Milky Way)....
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The Goblin

Scientists who confirmed the existence of 2015 TG387 out beyond the Kuiper Belt believe its orbit offers the best evidence of the existence of the long-speculated Planet X in our solar system. 2015 TG387 (aka “The Goblin”) is a trans-Neptunian object ...
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When Push Comes to Shove

Gaia, a galactic surveyor spacecraft, has caught our galaxy doing “the wave!” Studies of one billion stars show a wave-like motion in the stars of our galaxy’s arms. According to galactic structure theory, this shouldn’t be happening but it is. Why? A ...
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Only Pluto Knows For Sure

A group of researchers, including the Principle Investigator for the New Horizons program, Alan Stern, have found that after a review of 200 years of science literature, in only one instance has the ‘clear its orbit’ requirement ever been used to defin...
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Starstruck by Star Trek

52 years ago, the television show Star Trek premiered! It spawned a whole new approach to space exploration and had an impact on the world’s culture. NBC cancelled Star Trek in February 1969, 5 months before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The successor ...
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Galactic Two-Step

Our Milky Way is thought to have originally formed shortly after the birth of the universe, 13.5 billion years ago. Built from the first stars and star clusters, gas from the galactic halo also contributed to the formation of the galaxy. Multiple galac...
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Listen to “Lune”

NASA Science Visualization Labs’ Ernie Wright has created a beautiful visual compliment to De Bussey’s classic piano composition, ‘Claire De Lune’. Using images from NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting and photographing the moon...
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On the Prowl for Planets

The successor to the highly successful Kepler planet-hunting satellite TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) sent the first data down last week. TESS was launched April 18, and settled into orbit and sent its first data two weeks ago, a photo of...
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Time to Start Spotting Sunspots

The current (approximately 11-year-long) Solar Cycle is about to come to an end. Several years of long stretches of days without sunspots (up to 125 days so far this year – 38 of the past 41 days have been spotless) indicate the imminent beginning of...
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A Plethora of Planets

Mars’ close approach is Tuesday, July 31. A large subglacial lake of (very salty) liquid water has been found on Mars. This conclusion was arrived at by a group of European researchers using a radar analysis method frequently applied on Earth to determ...
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All in the Family

Scientists have discovered 12 more of Jupiter’s moons, bringing the planet’s total count to 79. There are 175 known moons in the solar system overall, including Earth’s, Mars (2), Jupiter (79), Saturn (53), Uranus (27), and Neptune (13).
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Relive Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

Follow a replay of the NASA lunar exploration events from 49 years ago online. replays the actual audio communications between ground control and the astronauts from about 15 minutes before landing. The playback is aug...
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Reaching Ryugu

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft arrives at asteroid Ryugu on Wednesday, beginning a string of encounters including fly-bys, landings (3 rovers and a lander!!), sample acquisition and Earth return. Hayabusa 2 left Earth in 2014 and traveled 180 million mi...
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Celebrating the 3rd, 4th, and 5th of July

Independence Day is sandwiched between the start of the dog days of summer and Aphelion. The dog days of summer are traditionally the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11 (according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac), which coincide with the morning...
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Signs of Inflation

Dave Heller and Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, discuss efforts to peer all the way back in time and space with: Renee Hlozek: Professor, University of Toronto, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics Jack Orlowski S...
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The Summer Solstice Beckons

Daylight lasts 14 hours and 52 minutes now, and the rate at which we’re gaining daylight is slowing dramatically. The rate at which we gain daylight slows about 3 seconds per day so by the 21st, we’re at zero gain. The mechanics? We’re slowly coming to...
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An especially carnivorous supermassive black hole sitting at the center of a galaxy is gobbling galactic gases at an astonishing rate – one solar mass every two days. The radiation released is so intense that if this object sat at the center of our gal...
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Earth’s Volcanic Activity Makes It Unique

Is the current volcanic activity in Hawaii possible elsewhere in the solar system? Mercury, Venus, and Mars no longer have volcanic activity. However, the moons Io (Jupiter), Triton (Neptune), and Enceladus (Saturn), all have active volcanoes. Earth a...
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The Color Purple

Newly discovered? A purple planet! Actually, the color suggestion is just speculation based on the planet’s expected chemical composition. The planet, called WASP-104b, orbits 4 million km from its yellow dwarf parent star every 1.75 days. 104b most li...
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On the Prowl for Solar Siblings

Our sun, like so many others, was born as part of a cluster of stars. Sibling stars have the same chemical composition and can be discovered by analysis of each star’s stellar spectrum. The problem? Dynamics of galactic motion have pulled the sibling s...
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Shedding Light on Dark Matter

Scientists at the University of Washington have developed the tech to ‘see’ what could be a low-mass particle responsible for dark matter – the axion. They believe that incoming axions passing through a strong magnetic field could convert into radio wa...
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Does Dark Matter Matter?

Astronomers have detected a galaxy that seems to be devoid of dark matter. That possibility has theorists re-evaluating gravity’s role in keeping a galaxy intact. A Columbia University-led team of astrophysicists has completed a study suggesting the pr...
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Move over Stonehenge – Philadelphia will feature its own version on Friday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m., when the sunset will align with Market Street. This phenomenon happens a few times a year. A planet 75% the size of Jupiter has been discovered, orbiting ...
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How Big is Big?

An acceptable range for the estimated number of galaxies in the universe is between 100 and 200 billion, according to astronomer Mario Livio. The Hubble Space Telescope’s successor has suffered another 5-8 month delay. The Webb Space telescope has ent...
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Serious Signs of Water on Ceres

The Dwarf planet Ceres is showing signs of cryoactivity and…water(ice)! Sodium carbonate, a mineral seen by the Dawn spacecraft in orbit around Ceres since 2015, shows up on Ceres as a hydrated variety, indicating that water is bound to the mineral. Im...
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Dark matter’s impact on Andromeda’s size

Textbooks typically describe the nearby Andromeda galaxy as being three to four times larger than our galaxy, the Milky Way. However, newer measurements indicate that the two are actually on par. The discrepancy? Andromeda has fewer stars than original...
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Spring Ahead

Remember to advance your timepieces one hour before retiring Saturday night; Daylight Savings Time starts Sunday morning at 2:00 am. Dr. Pitts has returned from a visit to Mt. Wilson and Carnegie offices in Pasadena, California. In the 1920s, Edmund H...
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Rover Still Rovin’

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned images that clearly show thick layers of water ice just beneath the surface and extending up to 100 meters down in some places. The layers were spotted on exposed cliff faces mostly in the southern hemisp...
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International Space Station Grounded?

The Trump administration’s NASA budget proposal for 2019 recommends $19.9 billion dollars, which is $370 million above last year. However, the plan cuts out funding for International Space Station by 2025, as well as for the Office of Education. Dave a...
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Planets, Planets A-Plenty

Planets have been observed for the first time orbiting stars in a distant galaxy 3.8 billion light years away. Einstein suggested that this form of detection might be possible. At The Franklin Institute, the monthly Night Sky Observatory program featur...
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