Venus: Future Earth?

In terms of bulk properties, Venus is the most Earthlike planet in the solar system. The diameter of Venus is 95% of Earth’s diameter. The mass of Venus is 82% of Earth’s mass. It has a nearly identical composition.

But…the average surface temperature of Venus is 735 K (863˚ F) and the surface atmospheric pressure is 91 times greater than Earth’s—equivalent to the pressure 3,000 ft. below the ocean’s surface. The present atmosphere of Venus is composed of 96.5% carbon dioxide (CO2) and 3.5% nitrogen (N2), plus a number of trace elements and compounds.

Venus was not always so inhospitable. What happened?

The cratering record suggests that nearly all of Venus has been resurfaced within the last 300 – 800 Myr. Before that, Venus probably was much more hospitable, even habitable, perhaps. The Pioneer Venus large probe and infrared spectral observations from Earth of H2O and HDO (deuterated isotope of water) indicate that the deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio in the Venusian atmosphere is 120 – 157 times higher than in water on Earth, strongly suggesting that Venus was once much wetter than it is today and that it has lost much of the water it once had to space. (Hydrogen is lighter than deuterium and therefore more easily escapes to space.) In addition to deuterium abundance, measuring the isotopic abundance ratios of the noble gases krypton and xenon would help us better understand the water history of Venus. These cannot be measured remotely and requires at-Venus sampling.

Venus receives 1.92 times as much solar radiation as the Earth, and this was undoubtedly a catalyst for the runaway greenhouse effect that transformed the Venusian climate millions of years ago.

We know that CO2 is a potent greenhouse gas, but anything that increases the amount of water vapor (H2O) in the atmosphere leads to global warming as well. As do clouds.

Climate modeling shows us that that the hothouse on the surface of Venus today is due to CO2 (66.6%), the continual cloud cover (22.5%), and what little water vapor remains in the atmosphere (10.9%).

Interestingly, if all the CO2 and N2 in the Earth’s crust were somehow liberated into the atmosphere, our planet would have an atmosphere very similar to Venus.

Venus is the easiest planet to get to from Earth, requiring the least amount of rocket fuel. There is so much we still don’t understand about how Venus transformed into a hellish world, and we would be well-advised to learn more about Venus because it may inform us about Earth’s future as well.

Tessera terrain covers about 7% of the surface of Venus. These highly deformed landforms, perhaps unique in the solar system, may allow us to someday sample the only materials that existed prior to the great resurfacing event.

In this radar image, blue represents the lowest elevations, white the intermediate elevations, and red the highest elevations. Source: Emily Lakdawalla, .

If living organisms ever developed on Venus, the only place they could still survive today is 30 miles or so above the surface where the atmospheric temperature and pressure are similar to the surface of the Earth.

Even four billion years ago, Venus may have been too close to the Sun for life to develop, but if it did, Venus probably remained habitable up to at least 715 Myr ago.

Now for the bad news. All main-sequence stars, including our Sun, slowly brighten as they age, and their habitable zones move outward from their original locations. Our brightening Sun will eventually render the Earth uninhabitable, certainly within the next two billion years, and our water could be lost to the atmosphere and then space within the next 13o million years, leading to a thermal runaway event and an environment similar to that of Venus. Human-induced climate change could make the Earth uninhabitable for humans and many other species long before that.

One indication that water is being lost to space and surface warming is occurring is water vapor in the stratosphere. The more water vapor that is in the stratosphere, the more water is being forever lost to space and the greater the surface warming. Careful and continuous monitoring of water vapor levels in the Earth’s stratosphere is important to our understanding of climate change on Earth.

To conclude, Arney and Kane write:

“Venus teaches us that habitability is not a static state that planets remain in throughout their entire lives. Habitability can be lost, and the runaway greenhouse is the final resting place of once watery worlds.”


Arney, G., & Kane, S. 2018, arXiv e-prints, arXiv: 1804.05889

Bézard, B., & de Bergh, C. 2007, J. Geophys. Res., 112, E04S07, doi: 10.1029/2006JE002794.

Ostberg, C., & Kane, S. R. 2019, arXiv e-prints,arXiv: 1909.07456

Way, M.J. 2019, EPSC Abstracts, 13, EPSC-DPS2019-1846-1

Way, M. J., Del Genio, A. D., Kiang, N. Y., et al. 2016, Geophys. Res. Lett., 43, 8376

Smaller Portions, Please

Some facts about U.S.:

  • The average adult weighs 15 pounds more than 20 years ago
  • 40% of adults and 20% of children are obese
  • The average adult is eating ~300 calories more per day than in the 1970s
  • Beginning in 2015, more money is spent eating out than eating at home
  • Restaurant portion sizes have quadrupled since the 1950s

It’s true, we’re eating away from home more often, and the portion sizes we’re being served at restaurants are usually larger than they need to be. Have you ever had a totally satisfying meal at a restaurant that doesn’t leave you feeling like a beached whale afterwards? A well-prepared and well-presented meal does not have to be large to be loved.

Large portion sizes at restaurants are particularly a problem for those of us who are conditioned to eat everything on our plate, and who don’t like to take leftovers home.

Restauranteurs, please step up to the plate and fight obesity by making your standard portion sizes smaller. If a customer wants a larger portion, they should have to ask for it.


Briefing: The obesity epidemic. (October 18, 2019). The Week, 19(946), 12.

Keith Bechtol at UW Space Place

We are so very fortunate here in southern Wisconsin to have evening public lectures the 2nd Tuesday every month of the year at the University of Wisconsin Space Place, expertly organized by Jim Lattis. On Tuesday, November 12th, Clif Cavanaugh (retired physics and astronomy professor at the UW in Richland Center) and I made the trek (as we often do) from Spring Green-Dodgeville to the Space Place in Madison. This month, we were treated to an excellent presentation by Keith Bechtol, an Observational Cosmologist in the Physics Department at UW-Madison. His topic was The Big Picture: Science with Astronomical Surveys. Keith is an early career scientist with a bright future. His presentation was outstanding.

I’d like to share with you some of the highlights.

Before the talk, which is mostly about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), currently under construction in Chile and expected to see first light in 2020, I asked Keith about whether LSST would be renamed the Vera Rubin Telescope as was announced at AAS 234 in St. Louis this past summer. As it turns out, Keith has been a vocal advocate for naming LSST after Vera Rubin, though no final decision has yet been made.

Before I get into notes from the talk, I wanted to share with you the definition of the word synoptic in case you are not familiar with that word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word synoptic as “furnishing a general view of some subject; spec. depicting or dealing with weather conditions over a large area at the same point in time.” But rather than the traditional meteorological definition, here we are referring to a wide-field survey of the entire night sky visible from Cerro Pachón in Chile, latitude 30˚ S.

Keith first talked about how astronomical imaging is currently advancing along two fronts. The first is high-resolution imaging, as recently illustrated with first image of the event horizon of a black hole from the Event Horizon Telescope, where an amazing resolution of around 25 microarcseconds was achieved.

In general, the larger the telescope aperture, the smaller the field of view.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field is only 3.1 arcminutes square

A survey telescope, on the other hand, must be designed to cover a much larger area of the sky for each image.

Not only can a survey telescope detect “anything that changes” in the night sky, but it also allows us to probe the large-scale structure of our universe. Three still-mysterious entities that are known to affect this large-scale structure are dark energy, dark matter, and neutrinos. Keith indicates that “these names are placeholders for physics we don’t yet fully understand.”

Dark energy, which is responsible for driving galaxies apart at an accelerating rate, is unusual in that it maintains a constant density as the universe expands. And its density is very low.

Supernovae are a very useful tool to probe the dark-energy-induced accelerating expansion of the universe, but in any particular galaxy they are exceedingly rare, so by monitoring large areas of the sky (ideally, the entire sky), we can discover supernovae frequently.

The mass distribution of our universe subtly affects the alignment and shapes of distant galaxies through a phenomenon known as weak gravitational lensing. Understanding these distortions and correlations requires a statistical approach looking at many galaxies across large swaths of sky.

Closer to home, small galaxies that have come too close our Milky Way galaxy are pulled apart into stellar streams that require a “big picture” approach to discover and map. The dark matter distribution in our Milky Way galaxy plays an important role in shaping these stellar streams—our galaxy contains about ten times as much dark matter as normal matter.

With wide-field surveys, not only do we need to cover large areas of sky, but we also want to be able to see the faintest and most distant objects. That latter property is referred to as “going deeper”.

The LSST will provide a dramatic increase in light gathering power over previous survey instruments. The total number of photons collected by a survey instrument per unit time is known as the étendue, a French word, and it is the field of view (in square degrees) × the effective aperture (in m2) × the quantum efficiency (unitless fraction). The units of étendue are thus m2deg2. Note that the vertical axis in the graph below is logarithmic, so the LSST will have a significantly higher étendue than previous survey instruments.

The largest monolithic mirrors in the world are fabricated at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The largest mirrors that can be produced there are 8.4 meters, and LSST has one of them.

Remember the Yerkes Observatory 40-inch refractor, completed in 1897? It has held the record as the largest lens ever used in an astronomical telescope. Until now. A 61.8-inch lens (L-1) and a 47.2-inch (L-2) have been fabricated for use in the LSST camera.

L-1, the largest lens ever produced, is the front lens of the LSST camera

LSST will utilize a camera that is about the size of a car. It is the largest camera ever built for astronomy.

The LSST camera will produce 3.2 gigapixel images. You would need to cover about half a basketball court with 4K TV screens to display the image at full resolution.

An image will be produced every 15 seconds throughout the night, every clear night, and each patch of sky will be reimaged every three nights. That is a HUGE amount of data! ~10 Tb of data each night. Fiber optical cable will transport the data from Cerro Pachón to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, Illinois, where it will be prepared for immediate use and made publicly available to any interested researcher. The amount of data is so large that no one will be downloading raw data to their local computer. They will instead be logging in to the supercomputer and all processing of the data will be done there, using open source software packages.

There are many data processing challenges with LSST data needing to be solved. Airplane, satellite, and meteor trails will need to be carefully removed. Many images will be so densely packed with overlapping objects that special care will be needed separating the various objects.

One LSST slide that Keith presented showed “Solar System Objects: ~ 6 million” and that piqued my interest, given my ongoing research program of observing stellar occultations by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects for IOTA. Currently, if you endeavor to observe the highest probability occultation events from a fixed observatory location each night, you will be lucky to record one positive event for every ten negative events (no occultation). The reason for this is that our knowledge of the orbital elements of the small bodies of the solar system is not yet precise enough to accurately predict where stellar occultation events will occur. Gaia DR3, scheduled for the latter half of 2021, should significantly improve the precision of small body orbits, and even though LSST does not have nearly the astrometric precision of Gaia, it will provide many valuable astrometric data points over time that can be used to refine orbital elements. Moreover, it is expected that LSST will discover—with its much larger aperture than Gaia—at least 10 times the number of asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects that are currently known.

During the question and answer period after the lecture, I asked Keith what effect the gigantic increase in the number of satellites in Earth orbit will have on LSST operations (global broadband internet services provided by organizations like SpaceX with its Starlink constellation). He stated that this definitely presents a data processing challenge that they are still working on.

An earlier version of Keith’s presentation can be found here. All images in this article except the first (OED) come from Keith’s presentation and have not been altered in any way.


Bechtol, Keith, “The Big Picture: Science with Astronomical Surveys” (lecture, University of Wisconsin Space Place, Madison, November 12, 2019).

Bechtol, Ellen & Keith, “The Big Picture: Science and Public Outreach with Astronomical Surveys” (lecture, Wednesday Night at the Lab, University of Wisconsin, Madison, April 17, 2019; University Place, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS Wisconsin).

Jones, R. L., Jurić, M., & Ivezić, Ž. 2016, in IAU Symposium, Vol. 318, Asteroids: New Observations, New Models, ed. S. R. Chesley, A. Morbidelli, R. Jedicke, & D. Farnocchia, 282–292. .

Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed November 17, 2019, .

Remembering Comet Holmes

Twelve years ago today, Comet Holmes (17P) brightened from magnitude 16.5 to 2.6, forming a right triangle with Mirfak (α Persei) and δ Persei, opposite to Algol. Here is what I wrote in The Sky This Week at that time.

TSTW 10/25/07

Comet Holmes Bursts on the Scene!

Who ever said astronomy isn’t exciting? Sure, much of what we observe in the cosmos seems predictable and unchanging—but then something unexpected happens and we are scrambling to get a front-row seat and our lives are thrown into an exhilarating tizzy for a few hours or days. Whether it be an unexpected auroral display, a meteor fireball, a nova, supernova, or comet, the result is the same: it is exciting to be an astronomer, to be attuned to a universe that existed long before we were born and that will be here long after we are gone. That, to me, is comforting.

Very early Wednesday, October 24, a 16th-magnitude short-period comet presently in Perseus by the name of Holmes brightened about 14 magnitudes from 16.5 to 2.6 in little more than 12 hours: a brightness increase of 363,000 times! While such a cometary outburst was unexpected, it is not unprecedented. From time to time, solar heating (greatest when a comet is near perihelion) must cause pressure to build up inside a comet as subsurface ices volatilize. Eventually, the pressure builds up until it explodes through the surface of the comet, spewing gas and dust into space and exposing fresh material to solar radiation. Sometimes, this process is so violent that the comet breaks into multiple fragments.

Comet Holmes (17P) is one of the so-called “short period” comets, meaning it orbits the Sun in less than 200 years or has been observed at more than one perihelion passage. Comet Holmes orbits the Sun every 6.9 years, ranging from just inside the main part of the asteroid belt (2.1 AU) to the orbit of Jupiter (5.2 AU). No doubt Comet Holmes’ original orbit has been substantially altered by the gravitational influence of Jupiter. Comet Holmes is presently 2.5 AU from the Sun (230 million miles) and 1.6 AU from the Earth (150 million miles), having just passed perihelion on May 4, 2007.

Comet Holmes was discovered during its last outburst, which occurred on November 6, 1892 by English amateur astronomer Edwin Holmes (1839-1919). It was observed again in 1906, but was then lost until being recovered in 1964. It has since been observed near perihelion at every return.

The recent outburst of Comet Holmes may be one for the record books. I am not aware of any other comet outburst being recorded where the comet brightened by as much as 14 magnitudes in less than a day! Fortunately, the first two nights after the outburst the sky was beautifully clear here. The first night, October 24, Comet Holmes looked like a star to the unaided eye. In binoculars, it looked like a tiny yellow or orange planetary nebula, only slightly bigger than a star, and of uniform brightness. The following night, October 25, it still looked like a star to the unaided eye, but in binoculars it was larger than the previous night. The total brightness had not diminished. In the telescope, the comet was truly spectacular, made all the more amazing considering how the comet was only 43° away from the closest full moon of the year! The round coma contained a bright off-center fan-shaped wedge with a brilliant tiny pointlike nucleus. There was definitely evidence of concentric, spiraling shells of material opening outward from the center of the coma to the outermost parts of the coma.

You have just got to get out to see this comet! And as often as possible! Here is an ephemeris for Dodgeville for the coming week.

TSTW 11/1/07

Comet Holmes (17P)

Comet Holmes slowly moves towards Mirfak this week, an impressive binocular and telescopic object in Perseus. It is easily visible to the unaided eye, too, as a small fuzzball on the Capella-side of Perseus.

Sunlight and solar wind particles are hitting the comet on the north-northeast side, and photographs show the comet is sharp edged there. The opposite, south-southwest side is ragged, with ionized gas streamers spreading out in that direction in long-exposure photographs.

Whatever tail the comet has is pretty much hidden behind it, as our viewing angle (known as the phase angle) diminishes from 15° to 13° this week. The phase angle is the Sun – Comet – Earth angle. A phase angle of 0° would mean we are looking directly down the tail (least favorable, maximum foreshortening). A phase angle of 90° would mean we are looking perpendicular to the tail (most favorable, no foreshortening).

Prime time for observing the comet is pretty much all night, with the comet transiting the celestial meridian at 2:05 a.m. CDT at the beginning of the week, and at 12:30 a.m. CST by the end of the week. Look at it every clear night, because surprising changes can and do occur. Don’t miss it! It may be a while until something like this happens again. The last time Comet Holmes went into a major outburst was 115 years ago!

Streetlighting Concerns

I submitted the following letter to the editor to the Dodgeville Chronicle this evening:

Dear Editor:

Have you noticed the gradual transformation of our streetlights in Dodgeville, Mineral Point, and other communities in SW Wisconsin?  The light source in our streetlights is changing.  High Pressure Sodium (HPS), which has been in use for decades and produces a orangish-white light, is being replaced by light emitting diodes (LEDs), producing a whiter light.

What’s not to like?  LED’s many advantages include: efficiency, longevity, instant-on and instant-off, and dimmability, to name a few.  But Alliant Energy is installing new streetlights that produce white light that is too blue, and the illumination levels are about 2.6 times as bright as the high pressure sodium streetlights they are replacing.

Lighting specialists use a term called “correlated color temperature” or CCT (in Kelvin) that allows us to compare the relative “warmness” (redder) or “coolness” (bluer) of  various light sources.   The illumination provided by candlelight has a CCT around 1500 K, HPS around 2000 K, an incandescent light bulb around 2800 K, sunrise/sunset around 3200 K, moonlight around 4700 K, and sunny noon daylight around 5500 K.  The higher the color temperature, the bluer the light.

Higher color temperature illumination is acceptable in workplace environments during the daylight hours, but lower color temperature lighting should be used during the evening and at night.  Blue-rich light at night interferes with our circadian rhythm by suppressing melatonin production, thus reducing sleep quality, and several medical studies have shown that blue light at night increases the risk of developing cancer, most notably breast cancer.  Even low levels of blue-rich light at night can cause harm.  While it is true that something as natural as moonlight is quite blue (4700K), even the light of a full moon provides an illumination level of just 0.01 foot-candle, far dimmer than street lighting, parking lot lighting, and indoor lighting we use at night.

LED streetlights are available in 2700K, 3000K, 4000K, and 5000K.  I believe that Alliant is installing 4000K streetlights in our area—I certainly hope they are not installing any 5000K.  What they should be installing is 2700K or 3000K.  These warmer color temperature lights are no more expensive than their blue-white counterparts, and the slightly higher efficiency of the blue-white LEDs is entirely nullified by over-illumination.

Even considering a modest lowering of light level with age (lumen and dirt depreciation), these new LED streetlights are considerably brighter than the HPS lights they are replacing.  Just take a look around town.  What is the justification for higher light levels in our residential areas, and when was there an opportunity for public input?  In comparison to older streetlights, the new LED streetlights direct more of their light toward the ground and less sideways or directly up into the night sky, and that is a good thing.  But now the illumination level is too high and needs to be reduced a little.

If you share my concerns about blue-rich lighting and illumination levels that are often higher than they need to be, I encourage you to contact me at oesper at mac dot com.  I operated an outdoor lighting sales & consulting business out of my home (Outdoor Lighting Associates, Inc.) from 1994-2005, and wrote the first draft of the Ames, Iowa Outdoor Lighting Code which was unanimously adopted by the city council in 1999, so I am eager to work with others in the Dodgeville area who are also interested in environmentally-friendly outdoor lighting.

David Oesper

Orion’s Throwing Stones!

Monday evening, October 21st, and Tuesday morning, October 22nd, will be the best time to watch the Orionid meteor shower, one of the year’s best meteor showers.

Up to two dozen meteors per hour might be seen between the hours of 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. or so— provided you can keep the 40%-lit waning crescent moon out of your field of view.

When to Watch:

10:16 p.m. Monday, October 21 through 12:19 a.m. Tuesday, October 22 (radiant rise in the ENE to moonrise)*

12:19 a.m. through 5:47 a.m. Tuesday, October 22 (moonlight will interfere; radiant will be highest in the sky at 5:18 a.m., and morning twilight begins at 5:47 a.m.)

Where to Be: In a rural area with no terrestrial lights visible that are brighter than the brightest star. Preferably no light domes (uncivil twilight) of cities or towns should be visible in the direction you will be looking.

What to Do: Dress for a temperature 20° F cooler than the actual air temperature. Bring a lawn chair and a warm sleeping bag or blankets. Try blocking the Moon with a building, hill, or trees— or use a strategically-placed black umbrella.

Where to Look: Generally look towards the radiant which is between Betelgeuse and the “feet” of Gemini.

What You’ll See: Fast meteors, many leaving persistent trains.

Meteor showers occur each year when the Earth in her orbit intersects the debris trail of a comet, and the comet that causes the Orionids is very famous, indeed. Halley’s Comet!

* Times listed are for Dodgeville, Wisconsin

Cell Phone Fiasco

I am one of the holdouts who really has no interest in carrying around a smartphone everywhere I go. I spend most of my day in front of a computer screen, get far too many emails to keep up with, and have even less time for social media. I treasure the precious little time I have to be “unplugged” and do not want my treasured (and increasingly rare) face-to-face interactions to be interrupted by technology—nor do I want to be distracted by it.

To me, a screen is to be viewed, not touched. I much prefer a physical keyboard, and web browsing on a large screen. I hate all the pop-up ads on a smartphone browser, and all the places you go to accidentally while swiping to scroll.

For several years, I have had a great basic cellular phone with a slide-out keyboard, the LG Cosmos 3.

The LG Cosmos 3 – A Basic Phone with Slide-Out Keyboard

I do more texting than phoning, so this phone works great for that, and it is smaller than a smartphone. Recently, the charging port on my LG Cosmos 3 gave out and I could no longer charge the phone.

LG Cosmos 3 Charging Port
USB to Micro USB Charging Cable

There has got to be a better way to charge a phone like this that avoids all the wear and tear plugging and unplugging the micro USB plug into the phone. I first took the phone to a couple of phone repair shops in Madison, but they both said they could not fix or replace the port. I then took the phone to Verizon. Here’s what I found out:

  1. Verizon cannot fix the LG Cosmos 3 charging port.
  2. The LG Cosmos 3 is no longer available.
  3. The LG Cosmos 3 is a 3G device, and Verizon will be shutting that network down on 12/31/19 so even if the phone could be fixed, it won’t work after that date, nor will any other 3G device.
  4. No cell phone is currently available with a slide-out keyboard.

What?! No basic phone with a slide-out keyboard for texting? After spending several hours researching other cellular phone service providers and manufacturers, I discovered that no 4G/LTE phone with a slide-out keyboard exists. My only basic phone option was to go back to a flip phone where texting would require the multi-tap entry system on 12 keys. Slow and tedious, like it was on earlier generations of cell phones. This is progress?

After a second visit to the Verizon store, I decided to purchase the LG Exalt LTE flip phone. My very positive experience using the LG Cosmos 3 gave me a good reason to stick with LG. Though I like the LG Exalt LTE phone, texting is tedious. I really hope that LG will release an LTE version of the Cosmos 3. LG Cosmos 4, perhaps?

If you feel as I do that cell phone manufacturers like LG should once again offer a basic phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard, please sign this petition on

Radio Telescope in a Carpet

The lunar farside would be a splendid place to do radio astronomy. First, the cacophony of the Earth would be silenced by up to 2,160 miles of rock. Second, lacking an atmosphere, a radio telescope located on the lunar surface would be able to detect radio waves at frequencies that are absorbed or reflected back into space by the Earth’s ionosphere.

Radio waves below a frequency of 10 MHz (λ ≥ 30 m) cannot pass through the ionosphere to reach the Earth’s surface. The Earth’s atmosphere is variably opaque to radio waves in the frequency range of 10 MHz to 30 MHz (λ = 10 to 30 m), depending upon conditions. The Earth’s atmosphere is mostly transparent to frequencies between 30 MHz (10 m) and 22 GHz (1.4 cm).

Not surprisingly, electromagnetic radiation of a non-terrestrial origin having wavelengths longer than 10 meters has been little studied. If we look, we might discover new types of objects and phenomena.

The best part is the lunar radio telescope wouldn’t have to be a steerable parabolic dish, but instead could be a series of dipole antennas (simple metal rods or wires) imbedded into a plastic carpet that could easily be rolled out onto the lunar surface. This type of radio telescope is “steered” (pointed) electronically through phasing of the dipole elements.

Even though the ever-increasing number of lunar satellites should be communicating at wavelengths far shorter than 10 meters, care must be taken to minimize their impact (both communication and noise emissions) upon all lunar farside radio astronomy.

There’s a Meteor in My Image!

The night of August 16, 2019 UT, I was hoping to be the first person to record an occultation of a star by the asteroid 10373 MacRobert, named after Sky & Telescope senior editor Alan MacRobert. Alas, it was not to be, but I did receive a celestial consolation prize (or is that a constellation prize?) just as rare: a meteor! Here it is:

Kappa Cygnid recorded on 16 Aug 2019, 3:51:21.540 – 3:51:21.807 UT (0.267s, field size ~ 15′)

In the caption above, you’ll note that I stated this was a Kappa Cygnid meteor. How did I determine that?

The first step is to determine the direction the meteor traveled through the image. Since I have an equatorially-mounted telescope, north is always up and east is to the left, just like in the real sky. Using Bill Gray’s remarkable Guide planetarium software, which I always use when imaging at the telescope, I identified two stars (and their coordinates) very close to the path of the meteor across the field. The meteor flashed through the field so quickly that I am not able to determine whether the meteor was traveling from NNE to SSW or vice versa. But since I was imaging in Sagittarius, south of all the radiants active on that date, it is most likely that the meteor was traveling NNE to SSW. But, of course, it could have been a sporadic meteor coming from any direction, though as you will see, I think I can convincingly rule out that scenario.

The two stars very close to the meteor’s path were:

3UC 148-239423
α = 17h 56m 38.42s, δ = -16° 23′ 27.1″

3UC 147-243087
α = 17h 56m 31.96s, δ = -16° 30′ 40.0″

The right ascensions and declinations above are epoch of date.

Now, if this meteor came from a particular radiant, a great circle from the meteor shower radiant to either of the two stars (or the midpoint along the line connecting them) should be in the same direction as the direction between the two stars crossed by the meteor.

Meteor shower radiants drift from night to night as the Earth passes through the meteor stream due to its orbital motion around the Sun. We must find the radiant position for each meteor shower that was active on August 16, 2019 UT for that date.

Antihelion, South δ Aquariid, α Capricornid, and Piscis Austrinid meteor shower radiant drift
Source: International Meteor Organization,
Perseid meteor shower radiant drift
Source: International Meteor Organization,
Kappa Cygnid meteor shower radiant drift
Source: International Meteor Organization,

Looking at Table 6, Radiant positions during the year in α and δ, on p. 25 of the International Meteor Organization’s 2019 Meteor Shower Calendar, edited by edited Jürgen Rendtel, we find that four major meteor showers were active on August 16: the Antihelion source, which is active throughout the year (ANT), the Kappa Cygnids (KCG), the Perseids (PER), and the South Delta Aquariids (SDA). Though right ascension and declination for these radiants (presumably epoch of date) are not given specifically for August 16, we can interpolate the values given for August 15 and 20. Note that the right ascensions are given in degrees rather than in traditional hours, minutes, and seconds of time.

We are now ready to plug all these numbers into a SAS program I wrote that should help us identify the likely source of the meteor in the image.

The results show us that the Kappa Cygnids are the likely source of the meteor in the image, with a radiant that is located towards the NNE (15.8˚) from the “pointer stars” in our image, at a bearing that is just 3.7˚ different from their orientation.

Space Travel Under Constant 1g Acceleration

The basic principle behind every high-thrust interplanetary space probe is to accelerate briefly and then coast, following an elliptical, parabolic, or mildly hyperbolic solar trajectory to your destination, using gravity assists whenever possible. But this is very slow.

Imagine, for a moment, that we have a spacecraft that is capable of a constant 1g (“one gee” = 9.8 m/s2) acceleration. Your spacecraft accelerates for the first half of the journey, and then decelerates for the second half of the journey to allow an extended visit at your destination. A constant 1g acceleration would afford human occupants the comfort of an earthlike gravitational environment where you would not be weightless except during very brief periods during the mission. Granted such a rocket ship would require a tremendous source of power, far beyond what today’s chemical rockets can deliver, but the day will come—perhaps even in our lifetimes—when probes and people will routinely travel the solar system in just a few days. Journeys to the stars, however, will be much more difficult.

The key to tomorrow’s space propulsion systems will be fusion and, later, matter-antimatter annihilation. The fusion of hydrogen into helium provides energy E = 0.008 mc2. This may not seem like much energy, but when today’s technological hurdles are overcome, fusion reactors will produce far more energy in a manner far safer than today’s fission reactors. Matter-antimatter annihilation, on the other hand, completely converts mass into energy in the amount given by Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2. You cannot get any more energy than this out of any conceivable on-board power or propulsion system. Of course, no system is perfect, so there will be some losses that will reduce the efficiency of even the best fusion or matter-antimatter propulsion system by a few percent.

How long would it take to travel from Earth to the Moon or any of the planets in our solar system under constant 1g acceleration for the first half of the journey and constant 1g deceleration during the second half of the journey? Using the equations below, you can calculate this easily.

Keep in mind that under a constant 1g acceleration, your velocity quickly becomes so great that you can assume a straight-line trajectory from point a to point b anywhere in our solar system.

Maximum velocity is reached at the halfway point (when you stop accelerating and begin decelerating) and is given by

The energy per unit mass needed for the trip (one way) is then given by

How much fuel will you need for the journey?

hydrogen fusion into helium gives: Efusion = 0.008 mfuel c2

matter-antimatter annihilation gives: Eanti = mfuel c2

This assumes 100% of the fuel goes into propelling the spacecraft, but of course there will be energy losses and operational energy requirements which will require a greater amount of fuel than this. Moreover, we are here calculating the amount of fuel you’ll need for each kg of payload. We would need to use calculus to determine how much additional energy will be needed to accelerate the ever changing amount of fuel as well. The journey may well be analogous to the traveler not being able to carry enough water to survive crossing the desert on foot.

Now, let’s use the equations above for a journey to the nearest stars. There are currently 58 known stars within 15 light years. The nearest is the triple star system Alpha Centauri A & B and Proxima Centauri (4.3 ly), and the farthest is LHS 292 (14.9 ly).

I predict that interstellar travel will remain impractical until we figure out a way to harness the vacuum energy of spacetime itself. If we could extract energy from the medium through which we travel, we wouldn’t need to carry fuel onboard the spacecraft.

We already do something analogous to this when we perform a gravity assist maneuver. As the illustration below shows, the spacecraft “borrows” energy by infinitesimally slowing down the much more massive Jupiter in its orbit around the Sun and transferring that energy to the tiny spacecraft so that it speeds up and changes direction. When the spacecraft leaves the gravitational sphere of influence of Jupiter, it is traveling just as fast as it did when it entered it, but now the spacecraft is farther from the Sun and moving faster than it would have otherwise.


Of course, our spacecraft will be “in the middle of nowhere” traveling through interstellar space, but what if space itself has energy we can borrow?