Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission

today I am going to write about proposed mission to investigate Europa.

Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission is a plan consisting of orbiter and a lander directed towards Jupiter‘s moon.

The reason why to choose Europa is quite clear. There is probably liquid water under its surface and if one launches such a thing, it might get public’s attention.[1] (Which might be now more important than ever considering how Trump wants to cut down NASA’s budget especially on the most important thing that they do: Earth’s climate monitoring.)

First of all the orbiter, which would be launched in the next decade, would learn as much as it could about the surface of the moon, Jupiter’s magnetosphere (see later), weird water

Composite image of Europa superimposed on Hubble data

This is two images of course. The original does not have the Europa in middle but only black spot. You can see the plumes on roughly 7 o’clock.

plumes and so on. There are 9 instruments together planned.

Instruments on those orbiters are able to collect data faster than we can receive it. This is because there are more mission that need attention of our receivers. Those are not some small receivers but specialized ones and all missions have some time to send information. For example New Horizons, just from its flyby of Pluto kept sending data for some 6 months.

In case of Jupiter oriented mission this might be a problem because Jupiter has extremely strong magnetosphere which will probably damage the instruments in matter of few weeks. This way it is best to get close to Europa and then get away as soon as possible and send the data later. This can not be done for the lander so it really lasts in matter of days. (Yes, it is still a problem even if you cover your equipment under 150 kilograms of titanium as is planned!)

The lander is thing planned even further into future, around 20 years or so. Much can change and we will see what the priorities are at that point.


[1]People will probably get quite excited by mission promising founding signs of extraterrestrial life.

How do we know that Sun is a star?

today I will shortly explain how is it that we know that Sun is a star and why it is not so trivial.

When you look up on the clear sky in night you see dots and they are said to be basically the same thing as our close Sun. They definitely shine, but not so much, they are not very warm, light up in different time than Sun, for some reason twinkle and are way smaller, even with binoculars they are still dots.

Hell yeah, they are quite small dots! Even if you take our best telescopes you will always have them so tiny! They are “point source of light”, which means that they are simply so small that from our view and practical purposes they are dimensionless.

They are huge though, most a bit smaller then Sun but still big, but so far away that they seem only as points. If even now we can not see the star’s surface as anything else than a dot, how do we know that it is the same thing as Sun?

The thought of Sun being star was there for some time. I found that already guys in ancient Greece thought that, the same idea came to the famous row of astronomers like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and others but they still did not have an access knowledge that would prove it.

In 1838 Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to star for a first time without considering anything about it (I guess he might have used stellar paralax but I am not sure). He found that the distance is huge, as we know today and soon we calculated that these dots are actually about as bright as Sun, also with astronomical spectroscopy scientists found out that what is happening there is also happening here. To make it clear, we do not have a “close up” image of any star, nor do we have image of any exoplanet.. for now that is simply impossible, still we can admire the cool Jupiter that Juno is taking pics of! (it is literally porn for eyes ­čśë )



in the last post about Polaris I mentioned precession as the effect that causes change of North and South stars. I did not really explain what is happening there so I decided to make a short post only on that topic.

There are two other good examples of objects that precess alongside Earth. Take gyroscope for example:

On the left you can see gyroscope. It consists of spinning wheel (orange/yellow) and a pin on which it stands. When you speed the gyroscope up it will be able to stand as you can see on the animation. This is basically what Earth looks like and what it does in matter of 26,000 years.

There is a thing called torque in physics. If you hold a pole on one side and something is hanging on the other side it will be very hard to lift it up. You will have to use both of your hands and one will push down and the other up to counter the torque that the objects has, that is a force causing it to rotate around one of your hands.

If you spin the thing though it will suddenly be easy to lift the thing, why? Because of angular momentum and conservation of angular momentum. If you spin on your chair and stretch your arms and legs you will slow down but if you do the opposite you will speed up. No force is acting on you only conservation of angular momentum takes place. Angular momentum is calculated as the amount of mass spread in distance from axis of rotation. If it is further away it does not need to be so fast as then the mass is closer to the axis.

When you speed the object up the angular momentum will stay conserved so you do not need to provide the torque anymore, in other words it is going to be easy to lift the thing up. If you try to change the angle in which it spins it will feel weird and it wont like it.

Even than gravity is still pushing down. If you add the vectors of the forces together, you will find out that the object will rotate –> precess. The slower it is the bigger the angle in which it precesses. If the force would be applied only on one spot all the time then it would not precess. Take a round sheet of cardboard and rotate it on tip of pencil. If you blow on the spot close to you the thing will tilt left from your point of view. Gravity though will try to tip the thing over always on the side that is lower and thus it will continously change and rotate – precess. If Earth had no tilt there would be no precession.


Polaris won’t be North Star forever

today I will write about precession and what effect it has on our sky.

Polaris is the North Star or Pole Star. This means that it is close to the celestial pole. Celestial pole is a point created by expanding the Earth’s axis of rotation and piercing through the celestial sphere which is imaginary “area” where stars sit. (For Earth based observations you do not really need to take into account that the stars are in completely different distances from us)

Precession is shown by the circle on the top.

But Polaris was not always the North star. For example when the Great Pyramid of Giza was build aobut 4600 years ago, there were two shafts from the tomb added. One points towards some random stop in the sky and the other one to Polaris.. oh wait but 2600 BC it pointed to Orion’s Belt and the star Thuban in the constallation of Draco. Orion was in Egyptian mythology connected to the god of dead Osiris and Thuban used to be the star closest to celestial pole. WHY?

Orange circle shows how the celestial pole’s position will change during the next years


Because of precession. That is an effect on Earth by Moon and Sun. The same way as gyroscope creates a kind of cone shape with it top, Earth also rotates like this but very slowly, it takes about 26000 years to rotate once. This type of precession is also called axial precession.

On the southern hemisphere the South Star is Sigma Octantis. It has very high magnitude so it is barely visible and not very good for naked eye observation. This will of course also change in the next hundreds of years.

Because of precession astronomers have to update every 50 years the positions of stars and objects, right now we are in what is called J2000 epoch and the next one will be J2050.


1st picture: By NASA, Mysid – Vectorized by Mysid in Inkscape after a NASA Earth Observatory image in Milutin Milankovitch Precession., Public Domain,
2nd picture: By Tau╩╗olunga – self, 4 bit GIF, CC BY-SA 2.5,


Orbital period


in today’s short post I will write about orbital period of planets, more accurately synodic and sidereal period.

In the post about year and how difficult it is to determine how long it is, I mentioned that there are some ways you can measure the time it takes for planet to orbit star.

Sidereal period is the time it takes for Earth or other object, orbit once with respect to distant stars.

Now distant stars are great because they tend to be on the same spot most of the time. For example on the Voyager plague there is a map to show the position of distant pulsars, why? Because such things are stable, easy to see and far away. For year we use stars in Milky Way which is still fine, most move by fractions of arcseconds every year which is something you can not notice with eye and has some effects in thousands of years.

Sidereal period of Earth around the Sun is 365.25636 days. (I wonder if you could talk about something like sidereal period of Sun around the center of Galaxy, probably yes)

Synodic period is about two bodies orbiting Sun for example. It is the time that it takes for the two objects to get to same position. So if Mars and Earth are right behind each other (which is called opposition), synodic period is the time it takes for it to happen again. Now of course both planets orbit and the faster one (the one closer to Sun) always has to make at least one revolution. When that happens it just needs to catch up with the slower planet. With this simple thought you can come up with equation that lets you calculate the synodic period:


(lower case p is the sidereal period of the object with longer period)

Thats about it for know, enjoy your winter holiday while/if you still have it!


Sunset elevator

today I will write about one particular physics problem that I was solving during weekend. It was pretty hard, but quite interesting set-up. (It is originally from Czech physics seminar called Fykos)

You and your boyfriend/girlfriend are sitting on a beach watching sunset. Luckily you are prepared to extend the romantic moment with elevator that will drive upwards. How fast does it need to drive for you two to be able to watch sunset continously?

Normally sunset related problems are about plane or car driving and how fast does it need to be for you to watch sunset all the time. That is freakin’ easy because you just need to drive at the speed that the Earth turns in your place. For Prague this is roughly 300m/s which is about the speed of sound.

This problem is way more unique. I do not know if my solution is correct since the people from seminar did not release solutions yet.

Basically you are standing on top of circle that is rotating at 300 m/s or also 0.00417┬░/s. You are soon leaving place from which you could see the sunset so you need to go up. The problem is that you are not actually going directly upwards to this place but as Earth turns your elevator rises in a line perpendicular to tangent of Earth at your paricular location, check out this desmos graph which helped me a lot to understand it (my creation):

Here is a picture though it is better to go on the original link which is very interactive:

(Check out complete end of post for explanation of picture) What does it mean for you in practice? In one hour you will be going almost 100 m/s. After 6 hours you will certainly be dead because the acceleration will kill you. At this point Earth would still be bigger on the sky though you would already be 500,000 kilometers away. After another three minutes from what I have considered last time you would be almost 3 million kilometers away and Sun and Earth would be the same size, at this point you would also ride in 1/3 of speed of light. But this journey still continues. After another 13 seconds you would go faster than the speed of light with acceleration of 14 km/s. There is not much time left but lets see.. 10 million kilometers would be reached by next 9 seconds. 5 seconds later you would go in freakin 10 million kilometers per second if it would be possible. One second before the journey would end you would reach 0.5 of AU. Soon after you would divide by zero which is dangerous[1]. After exactly 21600 seconds which is 1 quarter of day your elevator is perpendicular to this horizon, which sucks.

I bet your girlfriend/boyfriend would not be so happy about this trip though the first few hours would be amazing.


Explanation: black circle is Earth. Green line is elevator that with you turns left, after 21600 it will go 90 degrees. Red dot is the spot where you need to be in order to see sunset. Blue line is the original horizon.

[1]Do not be discouraged by only 0.5 AU. In the next mili and microseconds you would whizz through whole Milky Way and Observable universe as you would reach infinite speed.

Why do stars twinkle (and planets not)?

I felt so embarassed that I finally had to find it out and now I am writing this short post about it. For few years, roughly, I am studying astronomy yet, I never knew why stars twinkle and planets not. I confess.

Stars twinkle because the light that reaches us goes through atmosphere and atmosphere is not very homogenous – smooth. Air refracts light and there is different temperature once in a while, humidity and so on, I think that lot of factors play the role. This causes the light of star to scatter a bit and creates the twinkling effect.

Planets do not do it. This is great because you can identify them extremely fast on the sky and you do not mistake them for some other bright star. Why? Their light still goes through atmosphere. Because they are not “point sources”. Stars are so far away that even with best telescopes we see them only as points. Planets with simple telescope on backyard already have shape. Some of their light scatters one direction, some the other and it basically cancels out creating nice image. This is also why it is better to go star-gazing in the winter, colder air does not create so much “noise” on the picture.


How long is a year actually?

today I will write about a year. The thing is that as in many other subjects when you look down into the simplest things you might find that they are not as simple as they seem. So how long is year? 365 days? 366 days?

You very well know that every 4 years we have 1 extra day in February. You might also know that this is because year is not 365 days long exactly but roughly 365.25 .. its important to say roughly because it is not perfectly true and it matters how you define one year.

First lets see how we define one day. One would say that it is the time that it takes for Earth to rotate once. Problem is that we need to define some object to compare it to, some ground, some reference point. It might be the Sun, but Sun is too close and since we go around it, this would change the length of the day.

Sidereal day is the day that is defined as a rotation of Earth around its axis compared to very distant stars that are relatively stable. 23.9344699 hours… that is pretty close to 24 that we use, but it is not what we use.

The thing is that we decided to use what is called solar day, which is in fact compared to Sun. As Earth rotates around its axis, it also rotates around Sun, which makes the solar day different length.

This is how the effect looks like. You need to turn Earth n.2 by little bit more since it moved around the Sun too.

Problem is that the length of solar day changes since our orbit is sligthly elliptical and when we are closer to Sun we are faster which means that the solar day is shorter and there is more time needed for the same spot to face Sun again. This effect adds up to almost 365.25 solar days in a year. If it was so simple we could just add one leap day every 4 years to make up this 0.25 difference but it is actually 0.242181 which makes difference over time.


Julian calender ran with 0.25 for a long time but after about 1500 years it was already 10 days behind of the real date and Christians wanted to predict Easter exactly so they changed on Gregorian calendar. This calendar is the same, except that if the year is divisible by 100 it wont be a leap year, though if it is also divisible by 400 it will be a leap year. This almost fixes the problem, though every 3216 years one day is still off from the real time. Yup. Check out this video to see how we can improve this slight mistake:

So thats it. But you can not really capture the length of year or day since it changes all the time (effect of other planets and what happens on Earth). Check out this video which I used mostly as a source, it has got cool animations that will help you understand it:


Rosetta and OSIRIS-REx

today, as promised I will look upon two missions that has to do a lot with small stuff flying around the Solar System.

Now I said stuff because Rosetta is a mission for comet and OSIRIS is mission for asteroid.

Rosetta is a mission that was launched back in 2004 by ESA which is European organization. It went for the comet 67P or also called Churyumov-Gerasimenko which kinda looks like duck:

Comet 67P on 19 September 2014 NavCam mosaic.jpg

Ok, fine, it does not but look here.. from this photo I would say that it is cat with huge tumor on back.

It went with Philae which is a lander module. It took 10 years to get there. It visited two other asteroids and went around Mars.

After some small changes it went to orbit around the comet even though it has escape velocity of 1 m/s.

Then it deployed Philae in 2014 but harpoons that should have eased the landing did not deploy and the site was much harder than it looked like before (the site was chosen because there was supposed to be “soft” regolith). It bounced twice and almost float away completely. It had battery for 2 days which were of course not enough to conduct all experiments and it could not recharge because it was under some cliff. Nobody knew where it was and we could not identify pictures that it took.

Philae found

It puts me in awe to know that this picture is from a comet. (Philae sits in the right middle of the picture in shadow.)

Luckily Rosetta still orbiting the comet finally found it and put them all in context. The mission ends in 30th September and Rosetta will too crush on the surface.

close up of Philae

The picture of Philae

Now that is for some asteroid exploration back in time.

Three days back, 8th September OSIRIS-REx, an asteroid study and sample return mission was launched.OSIRIS-REx Mission Logo December 2013.svg

The last part is pretty huge, yes USA is for the first time going to return samples from an asteroid to Earth (Utah is the landing site).

It launched on the often used Atlas V and the whole mission for asteorid called Bennu will take 7 years. OSIRIS will stay on its surface for whole 505 days! (Look how planned this whole thing is!)

There are lot of instruments on its board which I wont go through all. There are many cameras because OSIRIS will first orbit the asteroid and scan its surface to find a good place to land.

It has special leg that will try to take samples using gas of nitrogen. It can take up to 2 kilograms and enough nitrogen for three tries.


Space NEWS #10 (Very close exoplanet)

today I am bringing news about the closest ever found exoplanet that is also potentially habitable. This planet is orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Sun.

This is great news. Like really, what is the probability of finding one of the best candidates for Earth like planet closest to us that it could get. But to be clear of what is really going on, it is not as that we are going to get a picture of it. Not at all, we do not even know its size (is probably above 1.3 of Earth’s) or anything about its composition. Its just that it is very very likely that the planet is there because of Doppler shifts and other fancy astronomical tools that enable scientists to discover exoplanets.

No, this is not how the planet looks like.. but yay! Random artistic pictures!

Proxima is red dwarf. This means that it is smaller and cooler than Sun. The difference is so huge that the planet may be in habitable zone even though it is probably only 7.3 million kilometers away compared to Earth’s 150 [1]. So if there is water it may be liquid but nothing is very sure. If there are some greenhouse gases it is probably warm enough.

Before leaving, just check out this cool comparison of the angular diameter (size) of Sun and Proxima from Earth and from the new planet (Proxima b):

Sun and Proxima compared

Yes, any life on Proxima b would have much bigger and redder star to look on.


Check out these two pages for more info: 1) 2)

[1]Proxima has surface temperature of 3050K, 0.1 percent of SOlar luminosity, radius 0.14 and 12% of Sun’s mass.