Taxes Done! And Other Stories of Astronomical Importance

Well, I got those pesky taxes done and out of the way with time to spare! (Let’s see, about a hundred hours to spare, I figure.) So I sort of, almost, kept my New Year’s resolution to not fall behind and do my taxes at the last minute this year. We wound up owing a bit, so it’s not like we lost out on getting an early refund.

And having finished that, I’m now back to wrestling with a far more challenging problem: making sense of Chapter 13 in Sunborn. (It didn’t come out so well in the first draft. I think I’m getting there, though.)

Astronomically speaking, I just read a couple of interesting stories. Venus, that greenhouse hothouse of a planet, has a new visitor—the European Space Agency’s probe Venus Express, which entered orbit around the planet just yesterday. Here’s to Venus Express [takes a swig of Winterhook Ale].

Out at the other extreme of the solar system, Hubble scientists have taken a look at Xena, aka 2003 UB313, considered by some to be (maybe) the long-sought 10th planet. The Hubble people put its diameter at 1490 miles, rather than the original estimate of 1860 miles. That would make it almost exactly the same size as Pluto. Says “Since 2003 UB313 is 10 billion miles away not even as wide as the United States, it showed up as just 1.5 pixels in Hubble’s view. But that’s enough to precisely make a size measurement, astronomers said.” If they can really do that, that’s…impressive.

And finally, consider RS Ophiuchi. It’s a binary star system, a white dwarf and a red giant. Like many such pairs, it’s also a source of fireworks, as matter falling from the giant onto the white dwarf periodically causes the smaller star to explode. What’s different about this star is that it blows up inside the atmosphere of its larger buddy. This is something new, never seen before.

And if you periodically worry, as I do, about what’s going to happen to the Earth a billion years from now when our own sun blows up into a red giant (incinerating us), some astrophysicist types named Fred Adams, Gregory Laughlin, and Don Korycansky have an answer: use carefully aimed asteroids to give Earth a gravitational boost and move it to a safer orbit! It’s a sort of long-term project, with each pass of the asteroid (every 6000 years) nudging the Earth a little farther from the sun. (“Captain, our orbit is decaying!” Nope—not anymore!)

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