Category: Space/Cosmos

Brief Encounter With Pluto

Brief Encounter With Pluto

A brief encounter with Pluto.  On July 14 2015,  the New Horizons Spacecraft flew past our most distant planet, Pluto.  A truly historic moment in space travel.

Pluto is an a staggering 4.67 million miles (7.5 billion kilometres) from our home planet  earth.

Light & the signals from  New Horizons speeding to us  at  186,000(approx 3000 kms) per second  take over four hours to reach earth!

Here are some of the amazing photos…

pluto-charonPluto and it’s major moon Charon

pluto-mountain-range Close up of Pluto’s ice plain & mountainsPluto-REX-v3 near fly by of Pluto

 

Pluto was regarded as the most distant planet in our solar system after its discovery in 1930 at the Percival Lowell observatory. Urbain Le Verrier in the 1840s, using celestial  mechanics produced by Isaac Newton,   predicted the position of the then-undiscovered planet Neptune  after he had  analysed perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. Further observations of Neptune in the late 19th century made  astronomers speculate that Uranus’ orbit was being disturbed by another planet besides Neptune. In 1906,  a wealthy Bostonian Percival Lowell who had  founded the Lowell  Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona later becoming famous for early detailed observations of Mars. From the observatory  Lowell began an extensive project in search of what was causing the perturbation, a possible ninth planet, which he termed ” Planet X“.

A young astronomer/researcher at the observatory,  Clyde Tombaugh  had the task  to systematically image the night sky in pairs of photographs taken two weeks apart, then examine each pair and determine whether any objects had shifted position. He  used a blink comparator,  a viewing apparatus used by astronomers to find differences between two wide field  photographs  of the night sky taken through optical telescopes. The blink comparator permitted rapidly switching from viewing one photograph to viewing the other, “blinking” back and forth between the two taken of the same area of the sky at different times. This allowed the user to easily spot objects in the night sky that had changed position.  On 23 January 1930, using the comparator on two photo plates, Clyde discovered the illusive planet X. As discoverer  the Lowell observatory could name this new planet  but as the discovery was world-wide news , suggested names were submitted.

A 11 year old English schoolgirl Venetia Burney from Oxford proposed the  name Pluto. She  was interested in classical mythology as well as astronomy and thought that the god of the underworld was an appropriate name for such a remote, dark and cold world.  This name was submitted to  Lowell. The object was officially named on March 24, 1930 Each member of the Lowell Observatory was allowed to vote on a short-list of three: Minerva (which was already the name for an asteroid), Cronus  and Pluto. Pluto received every vote.  The name was announced on May 1, 1930.Upon the announcement, Venetia received  five pounds (£5) (£234 as of 2012), as a reward. The choice of name was partly inspired by the fact that the first two letters of Pluto are the initials of Percival Lowell, and Pluto’s astronomical symbol (♇) is a monogram constructed from the letters ‘PL’.

Science history books have been recently amended with Pluto being ( I think unfairly) downgraded  to a minor planet and  just one member of the Kuiper Belt objects, a  field containing  primordial  debris  that are remnants from the creation of the solar system. The Kuiper Belt circles the outer solar system. This debris varies in size and  as telescope power improved,  objects as large as Pluto have been discovered within the belt and the  question of Pluto being classed as proper planet has been raised by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) .  This meant instead of the 9 planets in our solar system, we have now only the 8 ones being Mercury, Venus Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and Saturn.

In 2002, the KBO 5000 Quaor was discovered, with a diameter then thought to be roughly 1280 kilometres, about half that of Pluto. In 2004, the discoverers of 90377 Sedna placed an upper limit of 1800 km on its diameter, nearer to Pluto’s diameter of 2320 km,  although Sedna’s diameter was revised downward to less than 1600 km by 2007. , it was argued, Pluto should be reclassified as one of the Kuiper belt objects. On July 29, 2005, the discovery of a new trans-Neptunian object named Eris was found  be approximately the same size as Pluto. This was the largest object discovered in the Solar System since Neptune’s giant moon Triton in 1846. Its discoverers and the press initially called it the tenth planet , although there was no official consensus at the time on whether to call it a planet.  Others in the astronomical community considered the discovery the strongest argument for reclassifying Pluto as a minor planet. The debate on Pluto’s came to a head in 2006 with an IAU resolution that created an official definition for the term “planet”. According to this resolution, there are three main conditions for an object to be considered a ‘planet’:

  1. The object must be in orbit around the Sun.
  2. The object must be massive enough to be a sphere by its own gravitational force. More specifically, its own gravity should pull it into a shape of hydrostatic equilibrium (the condition in fluid mechanics where a volume of a fluid is at rest or at constant velocity. This occurs when compression due to gravity y is balanced by a pressure gradient force] e.g.  the pressure gradient force prevents gravity from collapsing the Earth;s atmosphere into a thin, dense shell, while gravity prevents the pressure gradient force from diffusing the atmosphere into space).
  3. It must have cleared the neighbourhood  around its orbit, that there are no comparable objects within the planet’s orbit.

Pluto fails to meet the third condition, since its mass is only 0.07 times that of the mass of the other objects in its orbit (Earth’s mass, by contrast, is 1.7 million times the remaining mass in its own orbit Controversy still rages at Pluto’s demotion to minor planet and reclassified in the new dwarf planet  Plutoid category of trans-Neptunian objects. In 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft to visit Pluto, it is now past  halfway between Earth and Pluto, on approach for a dramatic flight past the icy planet and its moons in July 2015. Fittingly,  the spacecraft contains ashes from the cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh who passed away in 1997.

Photo plates used in the blink comparator  showing an object  shown
with a pointer (Planet X) that moved over six nights against the  background of more fixed stars  and confirmed as a new planet later named Pluto.


Pluto and its moons: Hubble Space Telescope.

NewHorizonsspacecraftenroutetoPlutowithsevenonboardinstruments-

Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.

 

Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).

 

REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.

 

LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s far side and provides high resolution geologic data.

 

SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.

 

PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.

 

SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.

New Horizons is powered a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which transforms the heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium dioxide into electricity. The compact, rugged General Purpose Heat Source  developed and provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, carries approximately 11 kilograms (24 pounds) of plutonium dioxide fuel. It provides about 200 watts of power.

Assembly of New Horizons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

I am really chuffed about this.  Although it is only my name that is apparently bound for Mars, I find that deliriously exciting. LOL

I think they are actually putting up a mission, a one way ticket, sadly, to go up to Mars.  Some people have already shown interest.

I don’t think I would for so many reasons, which are (not in order) I have such a terrible travel sickness.  I don’t think I could make it in one piece, alive to Mars.  I would also miss my family and friends.  The thought of never seeing them again is just too much to bear.  Even the adventure of a lifetime is not enough incentive to leave the family.

 

The Case For Multiverses

The Case for Multiverses

The  case for multiverses co-existing with our own is gathering more belief, indeed recently  The presenter, author and physicist Brian Cox says he supports the idea that many universes can exist at the same time.

The idea may sound far-fetched but the “many worlds” concept is the subject of serious debate among physicists.

It is a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics – which describes the often counter-intuitive behaviour of energy and matter at small scales.

In a famous thought experiment devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, a cat sealed inside a box can be both alive and dead at the same time. Or any combination of different probabilities of being both dead and alive.

This is at odds with most common perceptions of the way the world is. And Schrodinger’s experiment was designed to illustrate the problems presented by one version of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation.

This proposes that when we observe a system, we force it to make a choice. So, for example, when you open the box with Schrodinger’s cat inside, it emerges dead or alive, not both.

But Prof Cox says the many worlds idea offers a sensible alternative.

“That there’s an infinite number of universes sounds more complicated than there being one,” Prof Cox told the programme.

“But actually, it’s a simpler version of quantum mechanics. It’s quantum mechanics without wave function collapse… the idea that by observing something you force a system to make a choice.”

Accepting the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics means also having to accept that things can exist in several states a the same time.

But this leads to a another question: Why do we perceive only one world, not many?

Schrodinger's cat - illustrationSchrodinger’s thought experiment was designed to illustrate problems with one interpretation of quantum physics

A single digital photograph can be made from many different images superimposed on one another. Perhaps the single reality that we perceive is also multi-layered.

The laws of quantum mechanics describe what happens inside the nucleus of every atom, right down at the level of elementary particles such as quarks, gluons. leptons, charm, muon et al with the now discovered Higgs Boson holding them all.

The weird and wonderful world of quantum mechanics reveals that nature is at heart probabilistic. Nothing can be predicted with any certainty.

“Everybody agrees about that” says Prof Cox. But where physicists don’t agree is about how these facts should be interpreted.

For decades, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which allows for only one universe, dominated particle physics.

But Brian Cox supports the many worlds interpretation and, he believes, more and more physicists are now subscribing to this view.

Gravity Power

 

newtonThe genius of Isaac Newton, who in the 17th  century defined gravity and produced a universal law of gravitation laid down the foundations for scientists, theoretical physicists such as Einstein.

Gravity Power

Gravity is pervasive, it affects and influences us all on our planet, in our solar system  and in our universe.

einstein1Astronomy is a hobby/interest of mine I like to learn all about what happens in the cosmos and how our space probes/telescopes are unlocking secrets preciously hidden to us.   Below Ben Gilliland excellently explains how gravity helps  push back the frontiers of space

WE ARE USED TO THINKING OF SPACE FLIGHT as a struggle against gravity. After all, it takes vast, towering rockets filled with hundreds of tonnes of explosive liquids and gases just to give a light-aircraft-sized vehicle enough thrust to break free of the bonds of Earth’s gravity.

Even if you are lucky enough make it into space, there are still endless gravitational hurdles to overcome. Contrary to what Sir Isaac Newton believed, gravity isn’t caused by two massive objects pulling on one-another. Instead, gravity is a by-product of the dents and distortions made by massive objects in the fabric of the Universe. A truly massive object, like a planet, makes a pretty big dent and, when a less massive object, like a spacecraft, strays too close it finds itself ‘falling’ into that dent – it might look as if the spacecraft is being ‘pulled’ towards the planet, but really it is ‘falling’ towards it.

The Solar System is littered with these gravitational pitfalls – a satellite falls towards the Earth, the Earth falls towards the Sun and, in turn, the Sun falls towards the centre of the Milky Way. The only way to stop this fall from becoming a direct plunge is to move through space fast enough to ensure your momentum keeps you aloft.

You can think of the Sun’s gravity as being a little like a wine glass. If you drop an olive into the glass, it will fall straight to the bottom, but, if you spin the glass, you can give the olive enough momentum to roll around the sides without falling in (like a planet orbiting the Sun). Decrease the momentum and its orbit will fall closer; increase it and its orbit moves further away. If you continue to increase the speed, eventually the olive will move so fast that it will achieve ‘escape velocity’ and fly from the glass.

A spacecraft leaving Earth has been given enough momentum to escape Earth’s gravity wine glass, but, if it wants to travel into deep space, it has to find enough momentum to escape the Sun’s gravitational dent. Using rockets isn’t practical because they’d need so much heavy fuel it would be prohibitively expensive to just leave the Earth –so scientists came up with a clever trick called a ‘gravity assist’ manoeuvre,

Also known as the ‘slingshot’ manoeuvre, the technique was first used successfully 40 years ago this week, by Nasa’s Mariner 10 Mercury probe. Instead of struggling against the gravitational pull of the planets, during a gravity assist, a spacecraft uses a planet’s gravity (or a series of planets) to give it a speed boost. By falling towards a planet that is falling towards the Sun, a spacecraft can ‘steal’ enough momentum to travel against the Sun’s gravitational pull.

So you could say that spaceflight isn’t flying at all: it’s just falling, with style.

 

 

A spacecraft leaving Earth has been given enough momentum to escape Earth’s gravity wine glass, but, if it wants to travel into deep space, it has to find enough momentum to escape the Sun’s gravitational dent. Using rockets isn’t practical because they’d need so much heavy fuel it would be prohibitively expensive to just leave the Earth –so scientists came up with a clever trick called a ‘gravity assist’ manoeuvre,

Also known as the ‘slingshot’ manoeuvre, the technique was first used successfully 40 years ago this week, by Nasa’s Mariner 10 Mercury probe. Instead of struggling against the gravitational pull of the planets, during a gravity assist, a spacecraft uses a planet’s gravity (or a series of planets) to give it a speed boost. By falling towards a planet that is falling towards the Sun, a spacecraft can ‘steal’ enough momentum to travel against the Sun’s gravitational pull.

So you could say that spaceflight isn’t flying at all: it’s just falling, with style.

Planet-hunter Plato the choice

With the exciting prospect of many new planets out side of our own home solar system  being found, we need more probes to zero in extra solar  planets (exoplanets) that orbit their parent sun in the habitable zone (also known as the Goldilocks Zone-not too hot, not too cold) where liquid water may exists  and being the main precursor  to life.

The BBC science news reports:

A telescope to find thousands of planets beyond our Solar System is the hot favourite for selection as Europe’s next medium-class science mission.

Known as Plato, the concept was chosen by an expert panel as the standout candidate in a competition run by the European Space Agency (Esa).

Impression of Plato concept by Thales Alenia Space

  • Design calls for a suite of 34 telescopes to be mounted on one satellite
  • Mission should confirm and characterise hundreds of rocky worlds
  • Would have the sensitivity also to detect the planets’ moons and rings
  • Intricate measurements of the host stars would yield key information
  • To launch from French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket in 2023/2024
  • Plato would be stationed 1.5m km from Earth on its “nightside”

 

The Paris-based organisation’s Science Policy Committee will now have the final say at its meeting in February.

If given the go-ahead, Plato would probably not launch until 2024.

The name of the mission is an acronym that stands for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars.

It is not really one telescope but rather a suite of 34 telescopes mounted on a single satellite.

The intention is for Plato to sweep about half the sky, to investigate some of its brightest and nearest stars.

It would monitor these stars for the tell-tale tiny dips in light that occur when planets move across their faces.

Critically, Plato would be tuned to seek out rocky worlds orbiting in the “habitable zone” – the region around a star where water can keep a liquid state.

A fundamental part of its quest would be to perform an intricate study of the host stars themselves, using their pulsations to probe their structure and properties.

Such observations, referred to as astroseismology, would provide key, complementary information for the proper characterisation of the rocky worlds.

Although, other missions have pursued this kind of science before, Plato is described as a major leap forward in capability.

The hope is that it could find really promising targets for follow-up by the big ground-based telescopes due to come online in the next decade.

These facilities, which will have primary mirrors measuring tens of metres in diameter, should be able to examine the atmospheres of distant worlds for possible life signatures.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, due for launch at the end of this decade, would likely still be working in 2024/2025 and could also pursue Plato’s discoveries.

Artist's impression of an exoplanetThe goal is to find planets like the Earth, not just in terms of their size but in their potential for habitability

Plato has spent the past two years in an assessment process that has pitted it against four other concepts.

All were vying for the third medium-class launch opportunity to be offered under Esa’s so-called Cosmic Vision programme, which defines the organisation’s space science priorities.

“Medium class” means a cost to the agency of no more than about 600m euros (£490m; $820m), although following the practice of previous missions this does not include the budget for instruments.

These are usually provided directly by Esa’s national member agencies and mean the final price tag can approach one billion euros.

All the competitors were invited to make a final presentation to representatives of the scientific community, industry, and national member agencies on 21 January. This was followed by closed-session discussions by two working groups, which rated the quality of the missions.

Exoplanets

Artist's impression of an exoplanet
  • Planets beyond our Solar System are often given the term ‘exoplanet’
  • More than 1,000 have been detected to date using several techniques
  • But many of these worlds are large planets believed to resemble Jupiter or Neptune
  • Many gas giants have been found to be orbiting very close to their stars
  • It has prompted new ideas to describe the formation and evolution of solar systems

Their recommendations were then passed to Esa’s top space science advisory committee (SSAC) to make an evaluation.

It proposed that Plato be carried forward as the mission of choice, and this preference has now been sent on by Esa’s executive to the SPC. The committee has the prerogative of “selection” at its 19 February gathering, and could still reject Plato – but this would be a major surprise.

The final green light is known as “adoption” in Esa-speak. This is unlikely to happen until 2015, after member states have made firm commitments on their participation and an industrial team to build the satellite has been identified.

One big industrial contribution from the UK seems assured. This would be the camera detector at the base of the telescope suite.

Supplied by e2v in Chelmsford, the array of more than 130 charge-coupled devices would be 0.9 square metres in area.

This would make it the largest camera system ever flown in space, and twice the size of the array e2v produced for Esa’s recently launched Gaia telescope.

The first two medium-class missions to be selected under Esa’s Cosmic Vision programme in 2011 were Solar Orbiter, a space telescope to study the Sun, to launch in 2017; and Euclid, a telescope to investigate “dark energy”, to fly in 2020.

The American space agency (Nasa) plans a similar mission to Plato calledTess (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) in 2017, but the specifications mean that its rocky worlds will probably be in closer orbits around lower-mass stars than the discoveries made by the European project. In other words, the Plato planets are more likely to be in the habitable zones of more Sun-like stars.

Supernovae Near & Far

A Supernova is the result of a massive star more than 10 times as massive as our sun reaching the end of it’s multi million year life and as it is so massive gravity makes the sun collapse in on itself. The implosion leads to an explosion so incredibly and unimaginably powerful that only the universe creating Big Bang is larger!

These enormous stars typically have a life of tens of millions of years, as opposed to our longer living smaller sedate sun that is middle aged at roughly five billion years old!

The super giant stars burn brightly living their lives in the fast lane. They consume massive amounts of hydrogen and helium gas at their cores. Other elements are formed near the core as the star tries to maintain nuclear fusion. Finally when iron is created at the core, fusion can no longer take place and gravity wins pulling the star’s incredible mass in on itself. The resulting titanic explosion creates most of the elements we know which are thrown deep into space forming vast clouds that will one day form other stars, planets and even life. Our sun, solar system of planets and us owe our existence to a long past supernova that created the elements, atoms etc., which created life billions of years ago.

Below are two articles about two stars that have gone supernova.
The nearest supernova for decades was discovered at an observatory about 3 miles (5 kms)from where we live!

UCL Observatory

Jean and I pass by this observatory regularly.

Supernova The supernova may be visible to stargazers through binoculars – and could grow brighter in coming weeks

An exploding star has been spotted in the night sky – the closest supernova to Earth that has been seen in decades.

The dramatic event happened 12 million light years away in Messier 82 – known as the cigar galaxy for its shape.

It was discovered by undergraduates during a telescope class at the University of London Observatory.

“One minute we’re eating pizza then five minutes later we’ve helped to discover a supernova. I couldn’t believe it,” said student Tom Wright.

“It reminds me why I got interested in astronomy in the first place.”

Supernova before and afterBefore and after: The supernova appears like a ‘new star’ in the lower image

The students from University College London were taking part in a 10-minute lesson with astronomer Dr Steve Fossey when they noticed what appeared to be a “new star”.

“We pointed the telescope at Messier 82 – it’s quite a bright galaxy, quite photogenic. But as soon as it came up on screen, it didn’t look right to me,” Dr Fossey told BBC News.

“We fired up another telescope, we got another frame – and that was when we knew it was a supernova.”

The “fluke” discovery led to a global scramble to acquire confirming images and spectra from the dazzling object.

It now been confirmed by the International Astronomical Union as a supernova – a violent blast of energy and light that is hurled out as a star dies.

It has taken 12 million years for the light to reach us. But though this may seem like a long way away, scientists say this is the closest supernova to be spotted since the late 1980s.

Scientists says it could grow even brighter over the coming weeks, before fading away.

If this happens, astronomers in the northern hemisphere may be able to spot it with binoculars, by looking between the Great Bear and the Little Bear.

Supernova ‘Mingus’ could shed light on dark energy

By Jason PalmerScience and technology reporter, BBC News, Long Beach, California

Supernova, artist's conceptionSupernovas are traditionally named after composers

Astronomers have spotted the most distant supernova ever seen.

Nicknamed “Mingus”, it was described at the  221st American Astronomical Society meeting in the US.

These lightshows of dying stars have been seen since ancient times, but modern astronomers use details of their light to probe the Universe’s secrets.

Ten billion light-years distant, Mingus will help shed light on so-called dark energy, the force that appears to be speeding up cosmic expansion.

Formally called SN SCP-0401, the supernova was something of a chance find in a survey carried out in part by the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP) using the Hubble Space Telescope, first undertaken in 2004.

But the data were simply not good enough to pin down what was seen. As David Rubin of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author on the study, told the AAS meeting, “for a sense of brightness, this supernova is about as bright as a firefly viewed from 3,000 miles away”.

Further news had to wait until astronauts installed the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble telescope in 2009 and again trained it on the candidate, which had – in an SCP tradition of naming supernovae after composers – already been named after jazz musician Charles Mingus.

“Unfortunately, it took the development of Wide Field Camera 3 to bring home what the [2004] measurements meant,” Mr Rubin told BBC News.

“The sensitivity is a few times better, which makes a huge difference, and we have a much cleaner image.”

Wide Field Camera 3 installationThe Wide Field Camera 3 enabled scientists to focus in on Mingus

The team went on to confirm that the supernova was in fact a Type 1a – a particular class of exploded star whose light occurs in such a regular way that it is known as a “standard candle”.

‘Bit of history’

What interests astronomers trying to find ever more distant Type 1a supernovae – distant both in space and in time – is the chance to compare them to better-known, more local supernovae.

“We were able to watch these changes in brightness and spectral features for an event that lasted just a few weeks almost 10 billion years ago,” said Saul Perlmutter, who leads the Supernova Cosmology Project.

Prof Perlmutter shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for work with Type 1a supernovae that proved our Universe is speeding up in its expansion.

Elucidating the mysterious force, “dark energy”, which has been invoked as the cause of the expansion, will require careful study of supernovae all the way back to the epoch of the earliest stars.

“We’re seeing two-thirds of the way back to the beginning of the Universe, and we’re getting a little bit of history where the physics of what makes a supernova explode have to all work out the same way there as they do near here,” he told the meeting.

Dark Ambitions

Supernova SN SCP-0401Supernova SN SCP-0401 fits into a wider story, Prof Frieman says

The meeting also heard from Joshua Frieman, director of the Dark Energy Survey – a five-year mission using the most powerful camera ever trained on the skies to get to the bottom of the dark matter mystery.

The phone-booth-sized Dark Energy Camera took it’s first cosmic  photos in Sept 2012 and will begin its formal mission in September this year, looking not only at supernovae but also at three other dark-energy signatures in the cosmos.

Prof Frieman told BBC News that the distant supernova result fits neatly into a story that he hoped the Dark Energy Survey would explore in great detail.

“What they’re doing is using the Hubble telescope to go really deep – we’re going to use the Dark Energy Survey to go very broad,” he explained to BBC News.

“They’re finding tens of supernovae at these high [distances], and we’re going to find thousands of supernovae not quite as deep. You really need both of those together to really make progress in trying to figure out why the Universe is speeding up.”

 

Science & Space Highlights 2013

Space isn’t remote at all. It’s only an hour’s drive away if your car could go straight upwards.
– Sir Fred Hoyle

Science & Space Highlights 2013

My favourite daily newspaper (excellent as it is free too 🙂 ) is The Metro which I read on weekdays on my early morning commute to work.  Ben Gilliland produces an interesting , humorous & easy to understand updates and topics in the science world. Here are the highlights of 2013.

IT IS the start of a new year; 2013 is behind us and all eyes are looking towards the year ahead. It is a time to cast out the old and welcome in the new. But before we push 2013 into our collective wheelie bins to fester with turkey bones, congealed gravy and unrealised dreams, let us take one final look at the year on whose shoulders 2014 will stand. Like one of those chocolate selection boxes that are ubiquitous to the festive season, 2013 was a year packed with tasty morsels of sciencey goodness. We have reviewed the pictorial insert and (avoiding the whisky liqueur centres) selected a few of our favourites… [*The decision to run with a 2013 retrospective was in no way influenced by the author’s desire for two weeks off during the Christmas period. The fact that this piece could be prepared in advance is entirely coincidental]

  Thanks to Nasa’s Kepler space observatory, 2013 was a bumper year for exoplanets. On January 2, a study by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) revealed that the Milky Way contains at least one planet for every star – meaning that our galaxy is home to at least 100-400 billion exoplanets (although there is likely to be many more). Just five days later, another report, from astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, estimated that there are ‘at least 17 billion’ Earth-sized exoplanets in the Milky Way. On November 4, a study from the University of California (also based on Kepler data) reported that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting within the ‘habitable zone’ of their host stars (the region around a star where conditions make the existence of liquid water possible). Of that number, the report estimated that as many as 11billion may be orbiting Sun-like stars – with the nearest such planet located just 12 light-years away.

Launched in 2009 along with the Herschel space telescope, the European Space Agency’s Planck cosmology probe was designed to map the Universe’s first light – the radiation after-glow of the Big Bang. On March 21, the mission’s all-sky map of this a Space was released. The exquisitely-detailed map revealed the tiny temperature variations that were present when the Universe was just 380,000 years old. Although they vary by less than a hundred millionth of a degree, these fluctuations in the density and temperature of the young Universe would form the seeds of the stars and galaxies that inhabit the cosmos today. Planck’s results confirmed many aspects of ‘Big Bang’ theory – including so-called ‘cosmic inflation’ (a period of exponential expansion thought to have occurred in the first fraction of a second of the Universe’s existence). It revealed the Universe to be slightly older than previously though (by about 80million years) and that it contains a little less of the mysterious dark energy (68.3%) thought to be driving the expansion of the cosmos and a little more of the ninja-like dark matter (26.8%) that interacts with the cosmos through gravity alone and a little more of the ordinary matter (4.9%) that makes up you, me and the stars and planets.
Farewell Planck

On October 3, after more than four years of sky mapping, the last of Planck’s instruments ran out the helium coolant they needed to operate. Six days later, the craft was moved out its operating position and placed into a ‘graveyard orbit’ around the Sun. Finally, on October 21, Planck was given the command to power down for good.

On April 29, another iconic ESA spacecraft, the Herschel Space Observatory, exhausted the last of its 2,300-litre supply of liquid helium coolant – marking the end of more than three years of stunning observations. Designed to see the Universe in the dust-piercing far-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, Herschel gave us stunning images of the intricate networks of gas and dust from which stars are born. It identified star-forming regions in the most distant galaxies – revealing that, even in the early Universe, stars were formed at prodigious rates. In all, Herschel made over 35,000 scientific observations and collected more that 25,000 hours-worth of science data.


If you’ve been following the progress of Nasa’s veteran space probe, Voyager 1, you may have noticed that it seems to have ‘left the Solar System’ more than once. In September, Nasa announced that, on August 25, the craft had at last (for certain this time) become the first man-made object to leave the Solar System behind and pass into interstellar space. Launched in 1977 for a ‘grand tour’ of the planets, Voyager 1 covered an astonishing 19 billion km (about 121 Astronomical Units, or AU) of space before it passed beyond the reach of the solar wind and departed the Solar System. Of course, another definition would put the edge of the Solar System at the point where the Sun’s gravitational influence ends – a distance of about 63,200 AU – meaning Voyager won’t truly leave for another 17,000 years or so. If mankind is ever going to colonise Mars, we’ll need a steady supply of water.

On September 26, Nasa announced that their Curiosity rover had detected ‘abundant, easily accessible’ water in the Martian soil. The robotic explorer had found that the red surface of Mars contains about two per cent water by weight – meaning that future colonists could (in theory) extract about a litre of water from every cubic foot of Martian dirt. Then, in December, a study of images taken by Nasa‘s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was released that hinted that there might still be liquid water flowing near the Red Planet’s equator. The images showed dark lines, called ‘recurring slope lineae’, which might be formed when water ice at high altitudes melted during the Martian summer and flowed down hill.

The Sun powers our existence here on Earth through the energy released by nuclear fusion in its core and it has long been a dream that we will one day recreate this process here on Earth. On October 7, scientists at the National Ignition Facility in California announced that they had taken a significant step towards that dream. Using a technique called ‘Inertial Confinement Fusion’, they zapped a tiny pellet of hydrogen fuel with the combined might of 192 laser beams – heating it 100 million degrees and initiating fusion. Significantly, for the first time, the reaction liberated more energy than was needed to initiate it. The amount of energy was tiny, but it showed that cheap, clean, fusion energy might one day be a reality.

Neutrinos are virtually massless particles that flood the cosmos, but have no electric charge so pass through the Universe (and through stars, planet and you) oblivious to, and unaffected by their surroundings. On November 22, scientists at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an ice-entombed telescope in Antarctica, said they had detected high-energy neutrinos from beyond the Solar System for the first time. The neutrino’s ability to pass through space unsullied by their surroundings means that, unlike the electromagnetic radiation most telescopes look for, none of the information they carry is lost or corrupted. The discovery has been hailed by astronomers as opening up a ‘new era of astronomy’.

A mission that could revolutionise our knowledge about our home galaxy was launched on December 19. One of the most ambitious space-charting missions ever conceived, ESA’s Gaia space craft will map the precise location, composition, brightness and age of a billion stars. It’s near-billion pixel camera (the most powerful ever flown into space) will create an ultra-precise 3D map of our corner of the Milky Way. By pinpointing the position and motions of the stars, the map can be used to chart how the Milky Way is evolving (by fast-forwarding their motions) and how it first evolved (by rewinding them).

Stuff and Dust of Us – Supernova Creation

 

Tremendous amounts of dust (red) were detected in the centre of the supernova, within the outer shockwave (blue)

Tremendous amounts of dust (red) were detected in the centre of the supernova, within                     the outer shockwave (blue)

Stuff and Dust of Us – Supernova Creation

Striking images of a young supernova abundant with fresh dust at the centre, have been captured by a telescope in the Chilean desert.

Supernova dust2

It is the first time astronomers have witnessed the genesis of the grains which formed galaxies in the early universe.

The pictures were captured by the Alma (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) radio telescope.

Alma (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) telescope

Alma (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) telescope

They were revealed at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

They will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

It is generally known now that our star the sun, our solar system, planets like our home earth and ultimately us originate  from dust grains forged in the crucible of a massive dying star called a supernova. A supernova is the biggest known explosion in nature after the Big Bang which created our universe. Such is the tremendous heat and power produced all the known elements  that make us up are created.

Space & the  universe is full of tiny solid particles we can call space dust. We can see so called dark dust lanes  in our  Milky Way  galaxy  along with  beautiful clouds in  pictures from the Hubble  and other telescopes

Dust from dead stars more so supernovae  form  dust clouds particles of dust clumps/coalesces  together  driven by static electricity attraction then gravity as  mass of these clumps increases after attracting more and more smaller clumps.   At the centre of the the clump a proto-star forms under immense pressure until nuclear fusion is triggered. Spinning and orbiting this new star  star further clumps of dust coalesce in to the planets, moons and, asteroids  debris that makes up our solar system.  Although we know this dust exists throughout the universe and galaxies, there was no firm evidence of where it actually originated from.

In today’s universe, it largely forms around dying stars as they burn out. But these fading giants were not around at the dawn of the universe.

“It’s the same problem as we have in my house – there’s a lot of dust and we don’t know where it comes from. Space is quite a messy place,” quipped Remy Indebetouw, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

“So we took one of the most technologically advanced telescopes ever – Alma – and tried to find out how dust formed in the early universe.”

“Supernovas have long been thought to be the creators – the bright factories that burst out building blocks for galaxies. But catching one in the act is far from easy.

“And even when we do spot a supernova cloaked in a dusty plume, there’s the old chicken-egg problem: how do we know that the cloud wasn’t there first?”

‘Not a nuisance’
To settle the argument, a team of astronomers from the UK and US used Alma to observe the glowing remains of 1987A, the closest recently observed supernova, 168,000 light-years from Earth.

They predicted that, as the gas cooled after the explosion, solid molecules would form in the centre from atoms of oxygen, carbon, and silicon bonded together.

Earlier observations of 1987A with the infrared telescope Herschel had only detected a small amount of hot dust.

But thanks to the power of the Alma radio telescope array, which stretches out over the Atacama desert, it took only 20 minutes to capture the evidence on camera.

“And all of that matter – the red area you see at the centre of the picture – was there in the core of the star before it exploded.That’s the exciting thing.

“People think of dust as a nuisance – something that gets in your way. But it turns out it’s pretty important and essential in creation.”

While supernovae signal the destruction of stars, they are also the source of new material and energy, says Dr Jacco van Loon of Keele University, a co-author on the study.

“Our lives would be very different without the chemical elements that were synthesised in supernovae throughout history,” he said.

“Grains are incredibly difficult to make in the vast emptiness of space. And if supernovae indeed make lots of them, this has very important and positive consequences for the eventual formation of the Sun and the Earth.”

 

 

 

Kepler Space Telescope finds ‘most Earth-like’ worlds to date

As astronomy is a keen interest of mine,  I found this interesting article from BBC Science news. With the vastness  of our Milky Way Galaxy containing approx a thousand billion stars, other planets exist around many stars, the search for possible earth-like planes gathers pace and more candidates are beinbg found. Whether these planets hold life or even intelligent life awaits future discovery.

 

Artist's impression of Kepler-62 systemArtist’s impression: The outermost pair are the smallest exoplanets yet found in a host star’s habitable zone
By Jonathan AmosScience correspondent, BBC News
The search for a far-off twin of Earth has turned up two of the most intriguing candidates yet.

Scientists say these new worlds are the right size and distance from their parent star, so that you might expect to find liquid water on their surface.

It is impossible to know for sure. Being 1,200 light-years away, they are beyond detailed inspection by current telescope technology.

But researchers tell Science magazine, they are an exciting discovery.

“They are the best candidates found to date for habitable planets,” stated Bill Borucki, who leads the team working on the US space agency Nasa’s orbiting Kepler telescope.

The prolific observatory has so far confirmed the existence of more than 100 new worlds beyond our Solar System since its launch in 2009.

The two now being highlighted were actually found in a group of five planets circling a star that is slightly smaller, cooler and older than our own Sun. Called Kepler-62, this star is located in the Constellation Lyra.

 The two planets go by the names Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f

Its two outermost worlds go by the names Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f.

They are what one might term “super-Earths” because their dimensions are somewhat larger than our home planet – about one-and-a-half-times the Earth’s diameter.

Nonetheless, their size, the researchers say, still suggests that they are either rocky, like Earth, or composed mostly of ice. Certainly, they would appear to be too small to be gaseous worlds, like a Neptune or a Jupiter.

Many assumptions

Planets 62e and 62f also happen to sit a sufficient distance from their host star that they receive a very tolerable amount of energy. They are neither too hot, nor too cold; a region of space around a star sometimes referred to as the “Goldilocks Zone”.

Kepler Mission

An illustration of Kepler
  • Launched in 2009, the Kepler space telescope is on a mission to find Earth-like worlds orbiting distant stars
  • It works by detecting periodic variations in the brightness of stars caused by orbiting exoplanets passing in front of them
  • In January 2013, astronomers used Kepler’s data to estimate that there are at least 17 billion Earth-sized exoplanets in the Milky Way Galaxy

Given the right kind of atmosphere, it is therefore reasonable to speculate, says the team, that they might be able to sustain water in a liquid state – a generally accepted precondition for life.

“Statements about a planet’s habitability always depend on assumptions,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, an expert on the likely atmospheres of “exoplanets” and a member of the discovery group.

“Let us assume that the planets Kepler-62e and -62f are indeed rocky, as their radius would indicate. Let us further assume that they have water and their atmospheric composition is similar to that of Earth, dominated by nitrogen, and containing water and carbon dioxide,” the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg researcher went on.

“In that case, both planets could have liquid water on their surface: Kepler-62f gets less radiation energy from its host star than the Earth from the Sun and therefore needs more greenhouse gases, for Instance more carbon dioxide, than Earth to remain unfrozen.

“Kepler-62e is closer to its star, and needs an increased cloud cover – sufficient to reflect some of the star’s radiation – to allow for liquid water on its surface.”

Key signatures

None of this can be confirmed – not with today’s technology. But with future telescopes, scientists say it may be possible to see past the blinding glare of the parent star to pick out just the faint light passing through a small world’s atmosphere or even reflected off its surface.

This would permit the detection of chemical signatures associated with specific atmospheric gases and perhaps even some surface processes. Researchers have spoken in the past of trying to detect a marker for chlorophyll, the pigment in plants that plays a critical role in photosynthesis.

Dr Suzanne Aigrain is a lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

She said ground-based experiments and space missions planned in the next few years would give more detailed information on distant planets like those announced by the Kepler team.

Astronomers would like to pin down the masses of the planets (information difficult to acquire with Kepler), as well as getting that data on atmospheric composition.

Dr Aigrain told BBC News: “What we do next is we try to find more systems like these; we try to measure the frequency of these systems; and we try to characterise individual systems and individual planets in more detail.

“That involves measuring their masses and their radii, and if possible getting an idea of what’s in their atmospheres. But this is a very challenging task.”

Kepler meanwhile will just keep counting planets beyond our Solar System.

It is equipped with the largest camera ever launched into space. It senses the presence of planets by looking for a tiny “shadowing” effect when one of them passes in front of its parent star.

Planets graphic
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