Posted on Sunday, April 06, 2014
By Kadri Tinn |

Stardust, Supernovae and the Molecules of Life by Richard N. Boyd

Rating: 7/10

What connection do we as humans and living beings have to supernovae, besides being excited about noticing a bright "new star" in the night sky?

The molecules that our cells are made of consist of atoms, some of which began their existence in the Big Bang nucleosynthesis, such as Carbon and Oxygen, others, like elements up to iron were forged inside the stars, but there are some that only exist on Earth and the cosmos because of supernovae – huge explosions that some stars end their lives with, some of the rarest and radioactive elements are formed there. How exactly do the elements form, can be read in this book.

Boyd’s book shows the reader first the beginning of atoms and molecules, and how they formed, and then continues with the intriguing question of chirality in molecules, and in amino acids in particular.

Chirality means handedness – you have a left hand and a right one, they’re similar, but mirror-images of each other and there’s no way to make them look exactly the same. There are molecules that also have the same characteristic, and are used for making up the organic compounds.

Life on Earth seems to be using a lot of left-handed molecules, and not right-handed ones, despite the fact that in laboratory conditions both left- and right-handed molecules are formed at the same rate.

In case of some medicines we know that only one kind of chiral molecule helps us fight a disease, while the other might do nothing, or cause unwanted side-effects.

Why is it then that life tends to prefer one kind?

In this book we go on an expedition in search for locations and events that might produce only one kind of chiral molecule, and we find out whether there might be a connection with these locations and life on Earth.

There are several hypothetical models for how chiral molecules can form – circularly polarized light being one example. It has been thought that circularly polarized light from the Sun has an effect on some of the chiral molecules and not others, hence making one sort of chiral molecule more abundant than the other.

Also chiral molecules might form near other stars in interstellar space, and it might be a more efficient way of producing them as the photons are more energetic if they don’t have to pass through an atmosphere. But there are also several other models that one can read about as well.

In addition to the chirality of molecules and how chemical elements form one can also read about supernovae, which have an important part in this book. What happens to amino acids when they happen to be near a supernova explosion?
In this book you’ll be reading about biology, chemistry and astrophysics, all of which are presented in an easily understandable way with several schematics and images to explain some of the concepts.

Boyd’s Stardust, Supernovae and the Molecules of Life presents an interesting topic, that is certainly exciting and informative for the general reader, showing connections between various fields of research, and different astronomical objects and life on Earth.

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Posted on Sunday, April 06, 2014
By Kadri Tinn |
There's still some time until the next meteor shower - the Lyrids, which are active from around April 16th to April 25th, with the peak occurring on April 22.
The radiant is located near the star Vega in Lyra.
You can expect to see around 10 meteors per hour in a dark location with clear skies.

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Posted on Thursday, April 03, 2014
By Kadri Tinn |
Scientists announced on March 27th in Nature the discovery of an object named 2012 VP113 that is estimated to be 450km wide and with a perihelion of 80 astronomical units, and is likely a dwarf planet.

The object is thought to belong together with Sedna to a new category of objects in the solar system, that belongs to the inner Oort cloud.

The discovery of 2012 VP113  seems to also suggest the presence of another big planet! Scientists plotted the movements of Sedna, and other Kuiper belt objects, and their movement suggests that there might be something bigger lurking there, a possible super-Earth at around the distance of 250 astronomical units.  The astronomers noted that an object like that would be too dim to have been seen with the all-sky surveys performed this far.

Whether or not there is such an object is yet unknown.

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Posted on Thursday, April 03, 2014
By Kadri Tinn |

Scientists with Seth Jacobson from the Observatory of Cote d'Azur ran simulations to see how Earth, Venus, Mercury and Mars formed. The simulations showed a connection between the timing of  Earth's collision with a large planet-sized object, and the amount of extra mass Earth got from the collision.

The research shows that Moon formed around 95 million years (plus-minus 32 million years) after the formation of the Solar System. Making it around 4.4 billion years old.

The moon's age has been measured before using the lunar rock samples that Apollo missions brought back. They were dated using the radioactive method. Some of the ages agree with this research, other do not.

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Posted on Wednesday, April 02, 2014
By Kadri Tinn |
Japanese observers Koichi Nishiyama and Fujio Kabashima have discovered a possible new nova in the constellation Cygnus.

On March 31st it was at magnitude +10.9, having brightened compared to it's brightness of +12.4 magnitude on March 30.

The nova should be visible with a telescope that has an aperture of at least 100mm.

Find out more here.

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Posted on Sunday, March 30, 2014
By Kadri Tinn |
Radar view of Venus. Credit: NASA
Venus, the planet with the highest global surface temperature, might still harbor active volcanoes.
Scientists have discovered several hotspots on Venus. These hotspots, if on or near the surface would have a minimum temperature of 525 degrees Centigrade up to 820 degrees Centigrade, making these spots noticeably hotter than the average temperature of 480 degrees Centigrade.

The hotspots were seen on the images taken of the Maat Mons region, using the Venus Monitoring Camera, which works in near-infrared and hence makes it possible to see the surface of Venus despite the thick atmosphere, because it's almost transparent for near-infrared wavelengths.

The images showed bright spots on the edge of Ganiki Chasma, and are thought to have erupted in the end of 2013.

Whether or not there are active volcanoes on Venus has not yet been confirmed. The team who made the discovery is planning to also look through the Magellan spacecraft's radar images to see whether there have been other hot spots in rift areas.

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Posted on Thursday, March 27, 2014
By Kadri Tinn |

Life on Earth and Other Planetary Bodies, edited by Arnold Hanslmeier, Stephan Kempe and Joseph Seckbach

Rating: 10/10

So far we know of one object in the Solar System, that has had the necessary conditions to support life for more than 500 million years, possibly even longer. It has been historically just recently that we have begun looking at life not just for classification purposes, but rather to try and understand the history of our blue-green planet and what was the planet like when life arose.

"Life on Earth and Other Planetary Bodies" is a collection of articles about life, habitability and astrobiology, that should find a place on everyone's reading-list who's interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the quickly evolving field of astrobiology and search for exoplanets and naturally also SETI.

In this book you can get a comprehensive overview of exoplanets, that was written by Eike W. Guenther. The history of searching for exoplanets - when, how and around which kind of objects they were found, what were the methods used and what sort of planets can be found with different methods. With the radial velocity method we might be able to find giant planets orbiting their star in just a few days in a really close orbit, and the planet might not ever transit the star. However if the planet does transit as well, we can gain more information combining the radial velocity method and transit method - for example the density of the planet can be determined.

Although we haven't yet found any planets that scientists would think might harbor the same kind of life that we know on Earth, even if we'd find one, it might be inhabitable through some cosmic catastrophe, that wouldn't let life evolve or would kill it all. From the Earth's history we know of several mass exitinction events, that might give clues to what might happen - a large asteroid impact changing the climate of the planet drastically could easily wipe out life. In Harold Hanselmeier's "Habitability and Cosmic Catastrophes" you can find out what were some of the catastrophic events in the Solar System and what are some that might happen in a different star system. These events lead us on to think about the habitability of a planet in regard to it's location both in the star system and in the galaxy, and the reader can find out more about the habitable zones in galaxies and planetary systems.

These are just some of the more general overviews that this collection has to offer. One can get acquainted with some of the other possible places where life might exist now or might have existed. For example the Saturn system - although the planet doesn't lie in the habitable zone, might life still be possible on one of it's moons that is either heated by tidal energy or inner radiation? Could there be life under the dense atmosphere of Titan? Or on the icy Enceladus?

But we can also look closer to home - look at some of the exceptional lifeforms that can exist in extreme conditions - in really cold icy worlds or near warm lava caves - if life is possible there, why not somewhere else, on a planet where the conditions are nothing like the Earth?

And the SETI enthusiasts aren't left out, there's enough for them to read about as well in Rob Hengeveld's "The Likelihood of Extraterrestrial Intelligence". SETI's been running for about 50 years now, with no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence to show. Maybe it just doesn't exist?

"Life on Earth and Other Planetary Bodies" is a thrilling albeit scientific work that sheds light to all aspects of astrobiology, from analyzing the necessary conditions for life on Earth, to finding other planets and to the more biological part of how organic compounds can be generated on a lifeless world and what kind of conditions were present on Earth when first organic molecules formed.

All in all it's definitely a fascinating book. The best part about the book might be that you get to know some of the objects of the Solar system a lot more from the habitability aspect.

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