Martian Global Aurora

Martian Global Aurora
On October 6 NASA’s daily space news website apod.nasa.gov contained pictures of a Martian global aurora. Because Mars has virtually no magnetic field, the radiation level goes sky high during solar storms. In the latest storm, radiation levels doubled–which would have been dangerous to life on Mars.

Earth’s magnetic field is very strong, and deflects radiation coming from the Sun. The radiation is deflected toward the poles, which is why we see the auroras near the poles. By deflecting the radiation, the magnetic field protects life on the Earth from dangerous levels. The more we learn about the cosmos, the more we see factors that make life possible on Earth. Our magnetic field is one more example of the design of our planet.

Looking for life in space is not just about whether there is water on a planet. There are a huge number of other factors that must be present. A strong magnetic field to shield from radiation is just one of those factors. Of course, an atmosphere suitable for life is also a requirement. NASA has a space probe called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiting Mars. The purpose is to find out if Mars lost its atmosphere due to not having a strong magnetic field.

The Martian global aurora is just one more reminder of the blessing of life on planet Earth. It also indicates that life on this planet is no accident.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

More Viewers than the Super Bowl

More Viewers than the Super Bowl
The “Great American Eclipse” of 2017 had more viewers than the Super Bowl. According to Nielson ratings, the 2017 Super Bowl had 111 million viewers on TV. About 215 million adults, or 88 percent of the United States adult population, watched the eclipse. That total includes those who watched it live, plus TV and internet viewers. Of course, many children watched it too.

The University of Michigan and NASA compiled the viewing statistics with a joint survey. Sixty-one million adults in the United States watched the eclipse on TV, computers, tablets, or phones. Unlike the Super Bowl the vast majority, about 154 million, watched it directly with the aid of viewing glasses or pinhole cameras. About 20 million traveled to locations where they could see the totality. I can testify that the roads in southern Illinois were crowded with travelers. After the eclipse, it took 3 hours to drive 40 miles. You can watch a speeded-up view of the eclipse on this video. Be sure to turn the sound up so that you can hear the reaction of the people around me during the eclipse.

In addition to a large viewership, the satisfaction rate was high. Seven out of ten said they were not disappointed. (Probably about half of the Super Bowl crowd was disappointed because their team lost.) If you listen to the video that I edited, you can tell that the crowd on the bluff overlooking the Ohio River was not disappointed.

We are pleased that there was this much interest in a science-related event. God’s creation can draw more viewers than the Super Bowl.

–Roland Earnst © 2017

Titan Studies Verify Earth’s Uniqueness

Titan Studies Verify Earth's Uniqueness
Yesterday we wrote about the end of the Cassini mission. We mentioned that an early highlight of that mission was landing the Huygens probe on Titan in January of 2005. Titan is a moon of Saturn and the largest moon in our solar system. Scientists were very interested in studying Titan thinking they might find evidence of life. Instead, the Titan studies verify Earth’s uniqueness.

It took seven years for the Huygens lander to make the 2.2-billion-mile (3.5 billion km) journey to Saturn on board the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini arrived at Saturn in June 2004, but it was not until Christmas Day that the Titan probe separated from the Cassini spaceship. On January 14, the probe entered the upper atmosphere of Titan at 12,400 miles (almost 20,000 km) per hour. After opening three parachutes, Huygens eventually completed a 150-minute descent to land on the surface of Titan.

As Huygens descended to the surface, it made measurements of all kinds and turned on a spotlight to photograph its soft landing. It then sent pictures and data from the surface of Titan to the Cassini spacecraft for about an hour-and-a-half. The Cassini spacecraft relayed the data and pictures to Earth. This expedition was an incredible success and told us much about conditions in another area of the solar system.

Some experts predicted that they would find life, or at least the precursors of life, on Titan. Spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere had shown a huge amount of nitrogen and some methane (natural gas) in the atmosphere. The presence of methane was of special interest to scientists because methane, with a carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, is the building block of more complicated organic molecules. Some biochemists predicted massive numbers of complex organic molecules in oceans of hydrocarbons on Titan–perhaps even some basic life-forms.

As the Huygens probe sent back pictures from Titan, scientists were amazed to see carved river channels, old shorelines, and clouds. With a temperature of minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit (-184 C) these obviously could not be water-carved channels. As Huygens landed, it broke through a crusty surface and sank several inches into the ground. The chemical studies of the spongy surface showed that it was not rock, but frozen gaseous material. Titan’s atmosphere could not sustain life. The clouds turned out to be methane, and scientists could find no oxygen or oxygen compounds on Titan. Titan has a spongy surface saturated with organic compounds. The density of Titan tells us that deep down under all of this organic ice there must be very dense rock.

It is becoming apparent that the other planets in our solar system have very little in common with Earth. Titan studies verify Earth’s uniqueness once again. Jonathon Lunine, a planetary scientist who worked on this project, described the findings in this way, “This is a planetary scene like no other, vaguely disturbing and nightmarish to me and certainly not Mars or Venus.”

Our point is that all the discoveries science has made about the solar system have shown how special and unique the Earth is. It is wonderful that humans can build a machine to probe such strange and exotic places. As we learn more about the universe, we see the truthfulness of the Psalmist’s words, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalms 19:1-2, NIV).
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Cassini Exceeded Expectations

Cassini Exceeded Expectations
On the morning of September 15, 2017, Cassini ended its life in fiery destruction. Cassini was a space probe orbiting and studying Saturn, and by all measures, Cassini exceeded expectations.

NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency worked together on the Cassini-Huygens space exploration project. The mission was to study Saturn along with its moons and rings. NASA launched the spacecraft in 1997, and it arrived near Saturn and went into orbit around that planet in 2004.

The Huygens (pronounced hoy-guns) lander module, provided by the ESA, separated from the Cassini probe and landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in 2005. The parachute landing was successful, and the probe sent out data for about 90 minutes. In that brief time, scientists learned much about the surface of that distant moon. Viewed from Titan’s surface, the Sun appeared about the size and brightness of a car headlight 150 meters away. The Huygens probe took pictures and told us that Titan’s surface is dotted with rivers, lakes, and oceans made of methane and ethane. It also has dunes up to 300 feet (91 meters) tall.

Meanwhile, the Cassini probe continued to orbit Saturn and send back amazing and beautiful pictures of its rings and moons for 13 years. Cassini helped us to learn more about the moons of Saturn. The planet has at least 53 moons and possibly eight more. We learned that the moon Enceladus is covered with a liquid water ocean with a surface layer of ice 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 km) thick. Geysers of water erupt from cracks in the ice. The rings of Saturn are a constantly changing collection of ice particles and small rocks. Saturn has hurricane-like storms at both poles and a hexagon-shaped jet stream at the north pole. How long is a day on Saturn? That’s hard to determine because it is a gas planet and not all parts of it move at the same speed. Scientists estimate a little more than 10 hours.

Cassini exceeded expectations by surviving seven years of travel to Saturn plus 13 years orbiting the planet. As it ran out of fuel, scientists sent it hurtling into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up so it could not contaminate any of Saturn’s moons by crashing into them.

We are fascinated by the Cassini photos and scientists will continue to study them for years. The picture we posted shows a Cassini view of Saturn and its rings with a bright spot visible below the rings. That spot is the planet where we live. As we look at the hostile environment of space and the other planets, we realize how incredible Earth is. God has given us a place with everything we need for life. You might say that compared to any other place in the universe, Earth exceeds expectations.
–Roland Earnst © 2017

Great American Eclipse “Engineered”

The Great American Eclipse
One month ago today a total solar eclipse crossed the United States. The so-called Great American Eclipse had many interesting things associated with it.

We have pointed out in previous discussions that people have attached all kinds of erroneous connections to eclipses. Some people have suggested that the eclipse predicts the doom of kings and in recent weeks the demise of Donald Trump. We have seen religious prognostications of all kinds attached to the eclipse including the second coming of Christ. There are those who have denigrated biblical events such as the darkness at the time Christ died, saying it was just an eclipse. (No eclipse can last for three hours.) None of these claims and predictions have any value.

One message that should stand out from the eclipse is the precision that God has built into the creation of the cosmos. How can astronomers predict when eclipses will occur including the exact time for a given location? This is quite simple if you understand the design of the creation. Astronomers have a grid in the sky that is an extension of the latitude/longitude system on the surface of the Earth. All objects in space, including the Sun and the Moon, can be plotted on this grid system. This allows scientists to plot the movement of the Moon and the shadow the Moon casts on Earth. (Remember that a solar eclipse is the Moon’s shadow on the Earth.)

Many of us earth science teachers use the Earth Science Curriculum Project. It has a lab where students plot an eclipse and predict what kind of eclipse will occur. They can predict when it will start, how much of the Sun will be covered, and when it will end. One of my students commenting after doing the lab, “Wow, what engineer thought up this system?” Another student responded “No engineer did it. God did it!” The first student responded, “Well God is a pretty cool engineer!”

We have pointed out that one of the problems people have with faith is that they attempt to explain everything as mysticism and magic. When it becomes obvious that planning and design are part of the system, that understanding erodes their faith in God. A good magician can mystify us, but still, he is using methods we can understand if we learn how he did it.

The Great American Eclipse spoke well about how precisely and carefully God has designed the planetary system in which we live. The eclipse is one more witness to the statement that, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalms 19:1).
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Space Dimensions and Lunar Motion

Space Dimensions and Lunar Motion
We have had several questions and comments precipitated by the eclipse on August 21. Most of them centered around the fact that the Moon’s motion across the Sun was so slow. In reality, the lunar motion is very fast. The speed is a function of the Earth’s rotation as well as the Moon’s revolution around the Earth. However, when compared to space dimensions, lunar motion can seem slow.

The Moon moves with an orbital speed of 2,288 miles (3,683 km) per hour, taking about 28 days to complete its journey around the Earth. Although that sounds fast, it is quite slow in relation to the size of the cosmos. Other moons going around other planets travel at higher speeds. Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, whizzes completely around the planet in less than two days. While our Moon travels at the speed of a rifle bullet, it is 80 times slower than the speed of meteors. Saturn travels ten times faster than the Moon.

The reason we are not aware of the speeds involved is because of the incredible size of the creation. We see meteors moving fast because they are close to us. Meteors are pieces of space junk whizzing through our atmosphere so quickly that they burn up from friction with the air. The moon is over 239,000 miles (384,633 km) away, so its motion appears to be much slower.

When we look out into the night sky, we are looking far into the past. By the time we see the light from stars like Albireo, that light has traveled 430 light-years. That star is actually two stars spinning around each other. Even though they are orbiting each other and astronomers have been watching them since the seventeenth century, we have not seen them change position.

Space dimensions are beyond our comprehension, and the size of the cosmos affects what we see and how we see it. Understanding that should give a whole new significance to the words of the song How Great Thou Art. It should also expand our understanding of, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalms 19:1).

Data from Astronomy magazine, July 2017, page 10.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Next Total Solar Eclipse 2024

The Next Total Solar Eclipse
The total solar eclipse of 2017 is now history. If you were in the United States, you probably saw at least a partial eclipse. If you missed the totality, you will have another chance in about seven years. The next total solar eclipse visible in North America will be on April 8, 2024.

The eclipse of 2024 will travel from south to north. After traveling across Mexico, it will cross the US border in Texas. It will travel northeast to follow the length of Lake Erie. Then it will skirt southern Canada and northern New England. It will leave the United States when it crosses Maine before crossing New Brunswick and Newfoundland and disappearing in the North Atlantic. Major US cities within the band of totality will include Dallas/Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Although the 2017 eclipse was total for only about 2.5 minutes, the 2024 eclipse will last about 4 minutes in totality. You can get more details about it here.

However, the eclipse of 2024 will not be the next total solar eclipse in the world. Before 2024 there will be other total solar eclipses and partial eclipses in other parts of the world. You can find information about upcoming solar eclipses here and here. You will see the dates and times for solar eclipses up to the year 3000!

How can we predict solar eclipses with such precision, even hundreds of years in advance? The reason is that God has designed a solar system with stability and precision. Those factors also make possible the abundant life on this planet. Design, not chance is evident in the wisdom of creation.
–Roland Earnst ©

Eclipses Are Not Omens

Eclipses Are Not Omens
By now everyone should know that there will be a total solar eclipse across the United States tomorrow. We have been writing about it in our posts for the past week. Please go back to any of them for more information. We hope that everyone knows that eclipses are not omens of some mysterious event. They are a natural phenomenon of the solar system that God designed.

The first written record of a total solar eclipse was in China in the year 2134 B.C. Apparently, that eclipse took everyone by surprise because two royal astrologers who failed to predict it, were beheaded for their crime. Since that time, people have often interpreted eclipses as omens or signs from God (or the gods) of some impending disaster. Human history has many instances of people interpreting an eclipse as a sign that something, usually bad, was about to happen. That is superstition and is not supported by the facts.

In recent years some Christians have declared eclipses, comets, or celestial alignments to be a sign that Christ is about to return or that God was about to send judgment on a nation. There have already been such claims about the total solar eclipse of 2017. That is both untrue and counterproductive for the Christian faith.

If you hear anyone saying that this eclipse is a sign of God’s judgment or Christ’s return, don’t believe it. Jesus made it clear that nobody knows when He will return. (Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32) We should always be prepared for Christ’s return because we can’t predict when it will be. It may be today, or it may not be in our lifetimes. Just remember that eclipses are not omens and neither are any other natural events.

Using omens or numerology or personal “revelations” to predict the end of the age and the return of Christ not only makes the false prophet look foolish, but it is a bad reflection on Christianity. It’s both bad science and bad theology. Nobody knows when Christ will return, but when He does, everyone will know it. (Philippians 2:10)
–Roland Earnst © 2017

Opportunity of a Lifetime Experience

Opportunity of a Lifetime
On August 21, there will be an opportunity of a lifetime for many people across the United States. They will get to see a total solar eclipse! This will be the first total eclipse of the Sun visible in the continental United States since 1979 and the first to cross the country since 1918.

The total solar eclipse will begin its travel on land on the west coast of Oregon and move at about 1800 miles per hour to the east coast of South Carolina. Because the Moon moves across the sky from east to west, the shadow will move from west to east crossing the country in about an hour and a half. It will be total for only a little more than two minutes at any location on the path of totality. The path will be about 70 miles wide through the center of the country.

A total eclipse is much different from a partial eclipse. On a clear day with a 90 percent eclipse coverage, the Sun would still be brighter than on most cloudy days. Even a 99 percent eclipse does not have the same impact as a total eclipse. When the Moon completely blocks the Sun, it will be like nighttime. When this eclipse is at totality, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, and Venus will be visible along with bright stars.

The most impressive sight will be one that you can only see during a total eclipse—the Sun’s corona. The corona contains particles of matter ejected from the Sun and traveling thousands of miles out into space. The particles follow the magnetic field of the Sun, and they are constantly changing with that field. The corona is always there, but it’s normally blocked from view by the scattered light in Earth’s atmosphere. Even though the corona is much dimmer than the surface (photosphere) of the Sun, it is many times hotter.

This is also the opportunity of a lifetime to see the darkness of night in the middle of the day. Looking around on the ground during totality, animals and insects may begin their nighttime activities. There will only be a 360-degree sunset-like glow on the horizon from refraction of sunlight outside of the full shadow (umbra) of the Moon.

For the moments of totality (in this case a little more than two minutes), you will be able to look directly at the Sun without special solar filters. Except for the brief time of totality DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN. Of course, if you are not in the area of the TOTAL eclipse, it is NEVER safe to look at the Sun. Many universities, libraries, and science centers have special glasses available to block the visible and UV light which could permanently damage your eyes. DO NOT USE SUNGLASSES! They will not protect your vision.
To see an animated flyover of the path of totality click HERE. To see a NASA animation of the eclipse from space click HERE. There is an interactive app that you can put on your Android or iPhone to monitor the eclipse. Just go to your app store and search for “Eclipse Safari.” NASA will be live-streaming the eclipse from across the country. You can find the live stream through Eclipse Safari or by going to nasa.gov or NASA’s YouTube channel or Facebook page.

We hope you will enjoy this opportunity of a lifetime to observe one of the wonders of God’s creation SAFELY.
–Roland Earnst © 2017

Just Right Moon

Solar Eclipse Thanks to Just Right Moon
In a few days, a total solar eclipse will cross the full width of the United States, and you can give credit for that to the just right moon.

We have looked at the “how” and “why” of total solar eclipses. We have considered what value total solar eclipses have. We have seen that a total eclipse helped to confirm a very important scientific principle. Also, we pointed out that solar eclipses happen only at the time of the new moon when the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun.

A new moon occurs about every 29 days, so why doesn’t an eclipse happen at each new moon? That’s because the plane of the orbit of the Moon around the Earth is about five degrees off from the orbital path of the Earth around the Sun. Because of that difference, a solar eclipse happens only when the Moon crosses the path of Earth’s orbit around the Sun (called the ecliptic). A TOTAL solar eclipse happens only when the Sun and Moon are exactly aligned.

What would happen if the orbit of the Moon were on the same plane as the ecliptic? At every new moon we would have a total solar eclipse, and at every full moon, we would have a total lunar eclipse. So the Sun would go dark in the daytime somewhere on Earth every month, and the full Moon would also go dark monthly. The influence of the Sun’s gravity on the lunar orbit might cause more serious problems.

No other planet has a moon that plays such an important part in creating an environment suitable for life. The Moon is right where it should be to serve life on Earth. Our just right Moon lights the night, creates the tides that clean our estuaries, stabilizes Earth’s rotation, and occasionally provides a total solar eclipse that gives us a glimpse of God’s marvelous design of our solar system.
–Roland Earnst © 2017