As you go about your day, especially during the hot summer season, you probably don’t think much about the Sun other than that it makes you want to go for a quick dip in the swimming pool to cool off. After all, the Sun rises and sets every day (for those of us outside the Arctic and Antarctic Circles), and people just take it for granted without much thought.
The Sun is far more dynamic than you might think, although thankfully we don’t usually feel direct effects of its activity from Earth’s surface. The atmosphere and magnetic field of the Earth provide a nice buffer zone that protects us.
Every 11 years, the Sun completes a cycle that is fairly regular. During solar maximum, the number of sunspots is higher than usual, and during solar minimum (which we are just coming out of), it is relatively spot free.
The Sun is still coming out of solar minimum, but activity is slowly returning. At about 8:55 UTC on August 1, a measurable solar flare triggered an event known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). This is where the “atmosphere” of the Sun sends out a burst of energized plasma. In this case, nearly the entire Earth-facing side of the Sun was involved, so effects on the Earth are more likely. Here’s the X-ray signature of the solar flare that triggered the CME:
When we launched Wolfram|Alpha in May 2009, it already contained trillions of pieces of information—the result of nearly five years of sustained data-gathering, on top of more than two decades of formula and algorithm development in Mathematica. Since then, we’ve successfully released a new build of Wolfram|Alpha’s codebase each week, incorporating not only hundreds of minor behind-the-scenes enhancements and bug fixes, but also a steady stream of major new features and datasets.
We’ve highlighted some of these new additions in this blog, but many more have entered the system with little fanfare. As we near the end of 2009, we wanted to look back at seven months of new Wolfram|Alpha features and functionality.
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.