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The greatest show on Earth (maybe)... well not ON Earth

Above: Comet McNaught displays its beautiful plumage to stargazers in 2007 (Image: ESO)

THERE'S NO SHORTAGE OF COMETS scooting about the solar system and most of them are happy to pass by in relative anonymity – their quiet passage through the inky black of night marked only by astronomers and automated robotic telescopes. But, every so often, a comet comes along that is destined for greatness – a comet that shines so bright that it can break through the glare of the Sun and impose its presence on the daytime skies.

We have only been visited by these so-called ‘great comets’ 32 times in the last 1,000 years. Some, like the famous Haley’s Comet, visit once in a lifetime (twice if you live longer than 76 years) while others are even more reclusive and might only stop by once in every hundred millennia. Yet there is a chance that we will be visited two great comets in 2013 (well, maybe one) and one of them could be the brightest in history (but it might not).

'Indestructible' rover still truckin'

NASA’S CURIOSITY ROVER has been hogging the Martian limelight since the one tonne robotic behemoth made its daring descent in August last year, but when it comes to Mars exploration, it is just the new kid on the block.

It’s predecessor, Opportunity rover, might not have the superstar bravado of his shiny new cousin, but it really is remarkable little robot. 

Originally tasked with a 90-day mission in which it was expected to travel 600 metres across the Martian landscape, the plucky little rover has just celebrated the start of its tenth year of operations (in which time it has covered an astonishing 35.4 km).

Opportunity landed on January 25, 2004 three weeks after its twin rover, Spirit. Their mission: to seek out evidence of water in Mars’ ancient past. 

Between them, Spirit and Opportunity revealed that Mars was once a much wetter and warmer world than the planet’s current frigid, rusty wasteland would suggest. Spirit became the first rover to drill into the surface of another world and, in 2007, uncovered an ancient hydrothermal system that in the distant past might have provided the two key ingredients for life – liquid water and a source of energy.

"We are made of star stuff"

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood... were made in the interiors of collapsing stars” Carl Sagan

IN THE BEGINNING there was the void. The Universe was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep. Then there was light and the light was good.

The light was energy and from that energy came matter. But the matter was simple and disparate, which was not good.

Then matter was drawn together and the first stars illuminated the darkness. From within the belly of the inferno, simplicity begat complexity and the first heavy elements were born.

Hydrogen begat helium. Helium begat carbon and oxygen. Carbon begat magnesium and aluminum and these begat silicon and iron.

Heavy with their elemental progeny, the stars burst forth and spread their seed into the darkness. From the star’s seed, came forth the Sun and the Earth.

On the land, hydrogen married oxygen and together they became water. The elements came together and created complex chemicals and these in turn created amino acids and proteins.

From the amino acids and proteins was brought forth life and soon the waters were pregnant with living creatures. The living creatures were fruitful, increased in number and filled the waters of the seas, the lands of the Earth and the vaults of the sky. 

One of these creatures came to be called man and he looked to the heavens and asked “where did I come from?”

A cosmic identity crisis

(It's not a star, it's not a planet) Meet the brown dwarf

[Above: Artist’s impression of a brown dwarf based on data from Nasa’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. Image: Nasa]

IN A UNIVERSE POPULATED by the bizarre and unusual it takes a special talent to be singled out as a space oddity but if there is one celestial object that deserves this moniker it is the lowly brown dwarf.

Stuck in a strange no-man’s land between stars and planets, and accused of being dull, smelly (their atmosphere’s rich with eggy hydrogen sulphide and uriney ammonia), underachieving loners; brown dwarfs are one of the Universe’s most maligned objects – a sort of cosmic hobo if you will. 

Formed from the collapse of clouds of gas and dust, brown dwarfs start their lives full of the promise of stardom. But they never manage to gather enough mass to ignite full-blooded hydrogen fusion in their cores and, instead of becoming blazing stars surrounded by supplicant planets, they resemble enormous Jupiter-like planets – doomed to billions of years of cold obscurity.

2012: A great year of science

Now THAT'S a Moon hoax!

It's been 40 years since the last man set foot on the Moon (Apollo 17 returned to Earth on this day in 1. But there are still some conspiracy nutbags out there who believe the whole thing was a massive conspiracy. 
Now, if I was going to pretend to go the Moon, I'd think of something a little more imaginative than the 'magnificent desolation' observed by the Apollo astronauts. Something like this perhaps...

IT HAS BEEN CALLED THE GREATEST HOAX of all time, but more than 130 years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the Americans truly showed the world how a Moon hoax should be done. 

It started on the pages of the penny newspaper the New York Sun on August 24, 1835, under the scholarly title of ‘Great Astronomical Discoveries’ and ran in four lengthy installments. Impressively, the article was penned by Dr Andrew Grant, an assistant to the great astronomer Sir John Herschel, who, he reported, had made ‘some astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description, by means of an immense telescope’. 

The discoveries were listed as being the discovery of ‘a new theory of cometary phenomena’, new planets within the solar system, and that Herschel had ‘solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy’. Impressive stuff – stuff that became even more impressive when he turned his fantastical new telescope to study the Moon. 

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