One of the most common queries on Wolfram|Alpha is a user entering his or her date of birth to see how many years, months, and days old he or she is today.
Since this feature first became popular, we added more birthday-specific features for this query type. By adding “birthday” to your query, you’ll get even more detailed information, such as a birthday countdown, a notable dates pod, and astrological birth information.
For example, submit a query such as “birthday March 29, 1990” to see how many days there are until your next birthday (time to start planning, March 29ers!) and how long it’s been since your last birthday.
Wolfram|Alpha’s coverage of the universe continues to grow. We have now added a large collection of observed supernovae in the universe to our ever-expanding compendium of astronomical knowledge.
What exactly is a supernova? It’s a catastrophic event in the life of a star.
The full details are very complex, but basically supernovae are the visible signs of the deaths of stars more massive than the Sun. As with all other stars, massive stars spend most of their lives fusing hydrogen gas into helium in their cores. This results in a buildup of “ash” (end product of fusion reactions) in the core that eventually chokes off the hydrogen fuel from the hottest area of the core. With no new fuel, there is less energy being produced to counter the gravity trying to squeeze the star’s huge mass more tightly together. The result is that the star’s core begins to collapse as gravity overtakes the outward pressure. This results in heating the core—eventually enough that the ash can begin fusing into heavier molecules, initially carbon and oxygen. The cycle repeats, each time beginning and ending with different products and creating the next fuel source. Eventually, the core contains iron. Iron cannot liberate energy from fusion, so at this point, energy generation in the core suddenly stops, and the full mass of the star comes crashing down and a shock wave rips the star apart. This explosion is called a Type II supernova and results in the formation of a neutron star (or more rarely a black hole). More »
Sitting in your office watching and cursing the rainy outdoors, have you ever wondered what the weather beyond our protective atmosphere is like?
Yes, there is weather even in the empty space above Earth’s atmosphere. Space weather typically refers to phenomena resulting from solar activity. It’s also one of the latest content additions to Wolfram|Alpha. Space weather includes things like sunspots, solar X-rays, and solar wind, as well as their effects on the Earth itself (e.g. aurorae, radio communication blackouts, and in extreme cases power outages).
The Sun has an 11-year cycle. Every 11 years, the number of sunspots rises to a peak and then falls to a minimum. Sunspots result from areas of strong magnetic fields on the Sun that cool the surrounding gas and makes the gas appear darker. When these tangled magnetic fields reconnect, the plasma carried along with it can be flung with huge amounts of energy away from the Sun. If it is directed toward Earth, we may observe a number of effects. Depending on how the magnetic field is oriented, it may bounce off the Earth’s magnetic field with no effect. If oriented the other way, the plasma funnels down the Earth’s magnetic field lines until it encounters the atmosphere, causing it to glow. This glowing is known as the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere.
The sunspot cycle likely plays a role in Earth’s global climate. The exact nature of its effect is still a hot area of active research. More sunspots mean more energy is likely to be absorbed by the Earth from the Sun. Fewer sunspots mean less energy and potentially a cooler climate. Between 1645 and 1715, sunspots on the Sun nearly vanished. During the same period, called the Maunder minimum, Europe experienced colder-than-average temperatures, contributing to what some have called “the little ice age”. Data for sunspots goes back much further than most other space weather data. Most other phenomena could not be measured until the advent of artificial satellites, and many much more recently than that.
In 1859, the first and most powerful solar flare ever observed occurred, known as the Carrington event. Within a couple of days of the flare, the Earth’s magnetic field oscillated wildly from the magnetized plasma thrown toward us. The magnetic field lines of the Earth bounced back and forth across telegraph wires, causing massive failures and even melted wires from the induced currents. An event of that strength today would cause untold havoc, as we are far more dependent on telecommunications via both satellites and land-based wires. More »
Four hundred years ago, on January 7, 1610, Galileo pointed his telescope at the planet Jupiter and discovered that it had its own moons. This discovery changed our perspective on the universe.
Prior to Galileo’s discovery, the Earth-centric Ptolemaic system was the standard view of the cosmos where Earth was the center–heaven was above and Earth was below. Copernicus had proposed a heliocentric model, but it was a mental exercise meant to simplify the complicated Ptolemaic system. Galileo’s discovery was the first one that showed evidence that something was orbiting a body other than Earth. If Jupiter had things in orbit around it, why couldn’t other bodies?
At the time telescopes were cutting-edge, and only a few people had them. What Galileo did was an instructive example on how to combine technology and curiosity.
Among the pods about Jupiter, there is a graphic showing the current configuration of the so-called “Galilean moons”, the ones Galileo saw 400 years ago: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
You can even virtually recreate Galileo’s observations for yourself. Here’s how he depicted what he saw 400 years ago on the night of January 7:
And here is what he saw a few days later:
In Galileo’s diagrams, the circle represents Jupiter, and the asterisks represent the moons he observed. He didn’t know they were moons until the second observation, when they had changed position. More »
Whether you are an astronomy student, an educator, or a hobbyist with an eye to the sky, Wolfram|Alpha is a great resource for exploring astronomy data. A while back we posted an introduction to using Wolfram|Alpha to compute and explore properties and locations for objects and events in our solar system. Since then we’ve added a new set of data we’d like to share: solar system features.
Ever wanted to explore the solar system? If so, you might like to take a look at a new set of data available on Wolfram|Alpha: the complete catalog of over 14,000 officially recognized and named solar system features maintained by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Each feature includes not only its name, but also what type of feature it is, what astronomical body it’s on, and its surface coordinates. For most named features, Wolfram|Alpha also includes a surface map showing where it is located on its parent body. Let’s go exploring!
Wolfram|Alpha contains a wealth of astronomy data on many areas of our universe, such as objects within our solar system and in the deep sky, constellations, and computational astronomy, making it a handy resource for astronomers, students, and hobbyists. Some of the most intriguing space activity takes place right here at home, inside of our own solar system. Wolfram|Alpha makes computations and explores properties and locations for objects and events in our solar system, such as the sun, planets, planetary moons, minor planets, comets, eclipses, meteor showers, sunrise and sunset, and solstices and equinoxes. You can query any one of these objects or phenomena, and learn information such as their position in the sky relative to your location, size, or distance; their next occurrence; and much more.
Wolfram|Alpha automatically assumes your geographic location based on your IP address, which is handy when querying for the time and location of an upcoming sky event. For instance, a quick “lunar eclipse” query in Wolfram|Alpha tells us that, for our location in Champaign, Illinois, the next one will occur on August 5, 2009 at 7:38pm U.S. Central Daylight Time and will be penumbral, which means the moon will enter the Earth’s penumbra (the outer part of its shadow), resulting in an apparent darkening of the moon. A penumbral eclipse is often hard to see because the penumbra isn’t very dark.
There’s new data flowing into Wolfram|Alpha every second. And we’re always working very hard to develop the core code and data for the system. In fact, internally, we have a complete new version of the system that’s built every day. But before we release this version for general use, we do extensive validation and testing.
In addition to real-time data updates, we’ve made a few changes to Wolfram|Alpha since its launch three weeks ago. But today, as one step in our ongoing, long-term development process, we’ve just made live the first broad updates to the core code and data of Wolfram|Alpha. More »