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JOHN DeMONT: Finding awe and illumination in the infinite skies – Saltwire

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We live in the age of awesome, a term that is now everywhere enough to pepper our conversation in place of old-time phrases like “thank you” and “that is great to hear,” while also able to describe the taste of a bowl of ramen, and the quality of the latest Marvel movie. 

I would argue, though, that the actual feeling of awe, of being truly wonderstruck and humbled by something, is as elusive as it has ever been. 

An article in Psychology Today, meant to explain the reverence people felt towards the feats of the 2012 Olympic games, said two things must happen for an event to inspire awe: it must occur on a vast scale, and the moment must have a profound effect on us, “forcing us to revise how we view the world.”

Events of that magnitude do not roll around often in a person’s life. Nonetheless, we seek them out: in the wild, in the stands at a sporting arena, theatre, or concert hall, seated on a meditation cushion, or a church pew, because those moments transcend the everyday, expand our understanding of life, and, as was said in the same Psychology Today article, forever change our “definition of what it means to be human.”

And I think we can agree, can we not, that the more moments that awe us — that remind us that today’s troubles don’t really mean much in the cosmic scheme of things — the better?

We had one of those what-did-we-just-witness moments last week, when NASA released five of the earliest images from the James Webb Space Telescope. 

The scientific world was mighty excited about what it saw: the images from the $10-billion platform were sharper and of better quality than anyone expected. 

The Webb telescope also picked up evidence of water vapor, haze and some previously unseen clouds around WASP-96b, a planet about the size of Saturn, which could help reveal whether smaller bodies orbiting other stars are habitable.

But did you see the other images? The amoeba-like blue and orange nebula, a dying star, sending out rings of gas and dust. The whorls of Stephan’s Quintet, a tight cluster of five galaxies millions of light years away.

The world surely emitted a collective gasp at the sight of a distant star cluster called SMACS 0723, hailed as one of the deepest images mankind has ever seen of the cosmos. 

I know I did, because my knowledge of the heavens can be boiled down to a single fact: that when you look up in the night sky, you do not see what you think you see. 

What I mean is that it takes so long for those distant images of stars, planets, clusters, and nebulae to reach our human eyes that by then some of the celestial bodies have morphed into something else or may have entirely faded to black. 

Though we believe we are looking at something immediate, like the 6 o’clock news, what is before us is something ancient, like the oldest home movie ever made.

Webb’s infrared capabilities and larger mirrors allow it to penetrate cosmic dust and see faraway light from further back in time than any previous telescope. 

Profound implication

The light from SMACS 0723 was thought to have originated 13.8 billion years ago, a number so unimaginably distant that it makes my head swim.

So does this: when we look at that image, we see light captured just after the Big Bang, the event thought to have created the universe some 14 billion years ago.

The implication of this fact is somewhat profound: when we stare at that huge star cluster, surrounded by the arcs of light from the previously undetectable galaxies lying behind SMACS 0723, we are peering back almost to the beginning of time, bringing us perhaps as close as we will ever be, in the poet’s words, to touching the face of God. 

That notion is too much for me. Then again, so is the most mind-boggling of the first batch of Webb images: the Carina Nebula, which a New York Times writer said “resembled a looming, eroded coastal cliff dotted with hundreds of stars that astronomers had never seen before.”

Looking over that cliff, into the infinite, it is impossible, at least for a minute, to think about earthly things like the soaring cost of filling up a gas tank, and even the evil afoot in Ukraine. 

When I look at it, I feel the same way Tim Doucette, owner of the Deep Sky Eye Observatory in South Quinan, Yarmouth County, did when glimpsing the Webb telescope images this week. 

“Who knows what we are going to discover?” said Doucette, an amateur astronomer who is legally blind but can see objects in the night sky with startling clarity, which, in itself, is awe-inspiring.

“Maybe, some new physics, planets with life on them. We have only had telescopes in space for 50 years. We are just scratching the surface of what we may discover if we don’t blow ourselves up.”

What a notion. What a time to be alive. 

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STEVE appears over Canada during 'surprise' solar storm – Livescience.com

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In the dark of Sunday night and Monday morning (Aug. 7 and 8), a surprise solar storm slammed into Earth, showering our planet in a rapid stream of charged particles from the sun. The resulting clash of solar and terrestrial particles in Earth‘s atmosphere caused stunning auroras to appear at much lower latitudes than usual — and, in southern Canada, triggered a surprise cameo from the mysterious sky phenomenon known as STEVE.

Alan Dyer, an astronomy writer and photographer based in southern Alberta, Canada, caught the wispy ribbons of green and violet light on camera as they shot through the sky.

“STEVE lasted about 40 minutes, appearing as the … aurora to the north subsided,” Dyer wrote on Twitter (opens in new tab) on Aug. 8. “STEVE was ‘discovered’ here so he likes appearing here more than anywhere else!”

Related: Earliest documented aurora found in ancient Chinese text

As Dyer noted, the strange sky glow called STEVE was first described by citizen scientists and aurora hunters in northern Canada in 2017. STEVE is typically composed of an enormous ribbon of purplish light, which can hang in the sky for an hour or more, accompanied by a “picket fence” of green light that usually disappears within a few minutes. 

The glowing river of light may look like an aurora, but it’s actually a unique phenomenon that was considered “completely unknown” to science upon its discovery. Today, scientists have a slightly better idea of what’s going on. 

STEVE (short for “strong thermal velocity enhancement”) is a long, thin line of hot gas that slices through the sky for hundreds of miles. The hot air inside STEVE can blaze at more than 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit (3,000 degrees Celsius) and move roughly 500 times faster than the air on each side of it, satellite observations have shown.

Whereas the northern lights occur when charged solar particles bash into molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere, STEVE appears much lower in the sky, in a region called the subauroral zone. That likely means solar particles aren’t directly responsible for STEVE, Live Science previously reported. However, STEVE almost always appears during solar storms like Sunday’s, showing up after the northern lights have already begun to fade.

One hypothesis suggests that STEVE is the result of a sudden burst of thermal and kinetic energy in the subauroral zone, somehow triggered by the clash of charged particles higher in the atmosphere during aurora-inducing solar storms. However, more research is needed to uncover the true secrets of STEVE. In the meantime, we can simply bask in its otherworldly glow and wave back at its twinkling green fingers.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Perseid meteor shower: when to catch it in Manitoba | CTV News – CTV News Winnipeg

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The peak of a spectacular space light show is expected to happen by the end of the week.

The Perseid meteor shower is expected to be at its best and brightest the night of Aug. 12 going into the morning of Aug. 13.

Scott Young, an astronomer at the Manitoba Museum, said this is an annual event that will produce dozens of shooting stars throughout the night.

“Every meteor is a piece of dust from outer space that is crashing into the earth at tremendous speed and basically vaporizing in a poof and a flash of light, and that it is what we see as a meteor,” he said. “On certain nights of the year, the earth in its orbit around the sun actually goes through a cloud of dust, sort of like an interplanetary dust bunny, essentially, and all that dust hits on the same night … and so we are basically crashing through the dust left behind by a comet.”

The cloud of dust was left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which last passed by the earth in 1992. Since then, the meteor shower has reached its peak between Aug. 11 and 13.

For those who are looking to enjoy the meteor show, Young suggests people get away from city lights, especially this year as the shower also coincides with a full moon.

“The moon can wash out those fainter meteors, and also if you are in the city, city lights will also wash out those fainter meteors. If you want to see the best show, you want to go late Friday after midnight, into the early morning hours of Saturday.”

If people can’t see the shower that night, Young says not to worry as the Perseid meteor shower is already happening right now and will continue to the end of August. As long as people are away from bright lights, Young says they should be able to see some shooting stars.

He recommends going to places like Birds Hill Provincial Park to enjoy the shower, but noted if people can find a place that is away from direct light, whether that be a park within the City of Winnipeg, or even a person’s backyard, he suggests people will be able to see something.

Once the meteor shower is over, however, Young does have a cautionary tale to share.

“We get dozens calls of people seeing an interesting rock on the ground and thinking that they’ve found a meteorite. There are no meteorites that will fall and actually land on the ground from this shower. These are little pieces of dust and they completely vaporize in the atmosphere. You might find meteorites out there, but they are very, very rare and so don’t get all excited about every rock that you find after this. The odds are it’s a meteor-wrong and not a meteorite.”

Young said weather-permitting, the Manitoba Museum will livestream the shower on its social media channels.

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NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured two festive-looking nebulas – Tech Explorist

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The image shows NGC 248, about 60 light-years long and 20 light-years wide. They are two nebulas, situated to appear as one. The nebulas, together, are called NGC 248.

Initially discovered in 1834 by the astronomer Sir John Herschel, NGC 248 resides in the Small Magellanic Cloud, located approximately 200,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Tucana.

Small Magellanic Cloud is a dwarf galaxy that is a satellite of our Milky Way galaxy. The image is part of a study called Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution (SMIDGE).

The dwarf satellite galaxy contains several brilliant hydrogen nebulas, including NGC 248. Intense radiation from the brilliant central stars is heating hydrogen in each nebula, causing them to glow red.

The study’s principal investigator, Dr. Karin Sandstrom of the University of California, San Diego, said“The Small Magellanic Cloud has between a fifth and a tenth of the amount of heavy elements that the Milky Way does. Because it is so close, astronomers can study its dust in great detail and learn about what dust was like earlier in the history of the universe.”

“It is important for understanding the history of our galaxy, too. Most of the star formation happened earlier in the universe, at a time when there was a much lower percentage of heavy elements than there is now. Dust is a critical part of how a galaxy works, how it forms stars.”

The image is part of a study called Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution (SMIDGE). The data used in this image were taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys in September 2015.

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