Archives for category: Solar System


For my culminating post, I want to reflect on how my perspective on space and the future of astronomy has changed over the course of Astronomy 201. Firstly, everything I learned in this course, from gravity and planetary formation to stars and habitable zones, has given me a fundamental and scientifically realistic understanding of space and our galaxy. I think we all grow up with some part of us pondering the dark vastness of space, and how it relates to the human condition. This class allowed me to take those essential, soulful curiosities and put them into concrete terms. As much as this concreteness has solidified my understanding of mankind’s astronomical world, I still view the universe as an inescapable enigma.


Thinking about the future of astronomy for this post brings me to an interesting understanding of astronomy’s immediate importance for our civilization. I think that having a sense of the physical processes that shape our universe, and being aware of our surroundings in space (including potential dangers and possible benefits), are absolutely essential knowledge for the continuance and well being of our peoples.  For example, the ability to detect and avoid collisions with interstellar objects in an Armageddon-type scenario is no longer the sole product of Hollywood’s special effects. Although these types of events are rare, I am grateful that astronomy and technology have made us less helpless in the realm of space. More realistic, however, is our potential need for resources on other planets, or even colonization off of Earth. This point leads me to the more biological concept of Malthusian catastrophe and the idea that Earth, despite our best technological efforts, cannot indefinitely support our exponentially growing population. Although there are many ways we could lessen population strain on our planet (our negative environmental impact could arguably be included as strain), it is difficult to argue that such changes can or will be effectively pursued by Earth’s population before catastrophic occurrence. I strongly believe that astronomy is one of the few sciences that might be able to save us from catastrophe, and it may be the most promising.


Scientists have located what they believe to be the first direct observation of a planet forming in its stellar womb of gas and dust. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, Sascha Quanz and an international team of scientists has been studying the young star HD 100546 and its surrounding gas. They were surprised when they spotted a protoplanet, about 10 times further out than the Earth is from the sun, still being formed. The discovery is exciting for several reasons. Firstly, the youthful planet and its star are relatively nearby to earth at 335 light-years away. But even more importantly, “if [the] discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage.” Current understanding of protoplanet formation relies heavily on mathematically based theories and computer models. Scientists note that the results of the study require follow-up observations to confirm the existence of a protoplanet.

Precession: The Great Year

As humans on Earth there are two celestial motions that affect us most obviously. Earths diurnal motion, its rotation on its axis responsible for day and night, and Earth’s revolution around the sun, determining our yearly cycles (winter, spring, blooming, hibernation, migration). A third and less obvious celestial motion is precession. Its time scale hides the immediate impact of precession, as the human being has a life span of one-360th of a roughly 24,000-year precession cycle.

In the book Hamlet’s Mill, Giorgio de Santilla, former professor of the history of science at MIT, and coauthor Dr. Hertha von Dechend, explain how ancient cultures viewed consciousness and history as a cyclical cycle. In contrast to our linear model of time, these cultures believed in a vast cycle of time that consists of the rising and falling of ages, and moves with the precession of the equinox. Santilla and Dechend show that more than thirty ancient cultures believed in this cycle that Plato called The Great Year.

In the hyperlink above, you can read about the thinking behind these precessional cycles and how a moving Solar System might provide a logical reason for The Great Year and alternating ages.