User Name:
print-friendly version

Mercury Magazine Summer 2018

Mercury Magazine

Contents and Select Excerpts
Vol. 47 No. 3
Summer 2018

The Summer 2018 issue of Mercury is LIVE!

Featured in this issue:

  • Mars rover Opportunity has gone silent while an unprecedented dust storm blankets the planet in darkness — what’s next for the robot and what are NASA’s options?
  • Also, billions of black holes are thought to be lurking in our galaxy — we investigate how astronomers are closing in on these gravitational behemoths.
  • Back on Earth: Although the Great American Solar Eclipse was last year, results from an airborne mission to investigate the eclipse and the Sun’s corona are finally coming out — find out how a group of pilots carried out their mission.

We also have our regular columnists covering everything from the weirdness of pulsar nulling, the chances for life at Alpha Centauri, a little astronomical history, stories from the ASP’s educators and research insights, plus stunning space imagery, news and opinion.

This page contains the table of contents and select excerpts only and is not a complete reproduction of this issue. Complete content for online Mercury is available to ASP members and institutional subscribers. Already a member? You can retrieve the latest issue of Mercury by logging into the ASP membership portal.

Table of Contents

[7] Astronomy in the News, Ian O’Neill
A rundown of some of the most exciting developments in space and time.

[31] Opportunity Sleeps, Tracy Staedter
As an unprecedented dust storm blankets the Martian atmosphere in darkness, the 14-year-old rover goes silent.

[35] Billions of Black Holes, Matthew R. Francis
Many undiscovered black holes likely lurk throughout the Milky Way – this is how we might find some of them.

[35] Chasing Shadows, Steve Murray
Two teams of scientists studied the 2017 solar eclipse from high-flying aircraft. A year later, results are starting to come out.


[3] Perspectives, Ian O’Neill
Another Painful Silence

[4] First Word, Linda Shore
An Astronomer in Paris

[6] ASP News
Girl Scout Badges

[12] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
A Brief History of Pondering Cosmic Origins

[14] Research Focus, M. Katy Rodriguez Wimberly
How Gaia Reaches Beyond Our Galaxy

[16] Research Focus, Adrianna Brown
The Curious Case of Dusty Star-Forming Galaxies

[20] Astronomer’s Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
When Pulsars Skip a Beat

[22] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
X-ray Factor: Is Alpha Centarui a Winner for Life?

[24] Education Matters, Brian Kruse
The Mars Hoax: A Teaching Opportunity

[26] A Little Learning, C. Renee James
Live and Learn

[29] Cosmic Views, Jason Major
A Brief Burst of Solar Activity, and The Illusion of Ina

Astronomy in the News

By Ian O’Neill

Steven Hawking Tribute

Professor Steven Hawking
Credit: Vangelis/Hawking Foundation

A Black Hole Tribute for Stephen Hawking

On June 15, Professor Stephen Hawking’s ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, London, at a service that featured moving tributes by family, friends and colleagues, including physics heavyweight Prof. Kip Thorne and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Hawking in the 2004 BBC film about the physicist’s early years as a PhD student at Cambridge University.

[back to the top]

Opportunity Sleeps

By Tracy Staedter

Opportunity at Perseverance Valley

This is the view from Opportunity’s front Hazard Avoidance Camera of the terrain at Perseverance Valley in January 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is either an obituary or a story of survival. As of July 2018, NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity is parked halfway down the slope of the aptly-named Perseverance Valley, a channel that cuts into the equatorial crater, Endeavour. The rover sleeps, its instrument-tipped robotic arm still deployed on the rock, La Joya, where it had been the last Wednesday of May. That’s when a small dust storm bloomed about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north of “Oppy.” The storm grew quickly and has since engulfed the entire planet in an opaque haze, blotting out the Sun—the rover’s primary source of power. There is only darkness now. And time. How long it will take the storm to subside and for the diminishing dust to reveal sunlight again is anyone’s guess. It could be weeks. It could be months.

[back to the top]

Billions of Black Holes

By Matthew R. Francis

Gravitational Lensing

This artist’s impression shows a black hole drifting through space, distorting the light of background stars — a gravitational effect called lensing.
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

By their nature, black holes are difficult to detect. They don’t emit any light, and all light falling directly on them gets absorbed. They’re also very small in comparison to other objects with the same mass—even a black hole billions of times the mass of the Sun will only present a tiny profile for our telescopes to

Because black holes are invisible, astronomers think the Milky Way is probably hiding many more than we have discovered to date. In fact, based on simulations of the galaxy, that number could be anywhere from ten million to a few billion hidden black holes.

[back to the top]

Chasing Shadows

By Steve Murray

Sun's Magnetic Corona

This observation of a total solar eclipse shows the Sun’s magnetic corona, a feature that can only be seen when the glare of the Sun’s disk is blocked — in this case by the Moon. Credit: NASA

While millions of people observed the Great American Eclipse of 2017 from places all around the country, two
science teams observed the event from high above it. Researchers flew instrument-packed aircraft above 90 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere in an effort to gain new insights into the mechanisms that drive the temperature and structure of the Sun’s corona. One year later, scientists are showing what they’ve learned so far from their data, and discussing what they still expect to find.

[back to the top]