February 18, 2020

June 2009 News & Notes.

BLAST takes off! Recently, scientists got a look into some of the earliest moments of the universe. BLAST, the Balloon borne Large Aperture, Sub-millimeter Telescope, is an unlikely looking instrument in an unlikely place. Carried on a long tether and based in the Antarctic, BLAST can stay aloft for weeks at a time, observing the sky at very far infra-red frequencies.

The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) has been mapped; what scientists have yet to see is the energies that have been thought to have originated from the early primordial era, about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. BLAST’s observations jibe well with predictions, another win for cosmologists and the Big Bang theory. Further more refined observations by the Spitzer Space telescope and activities at the South Pole (see below) will backup these exciting results.

STEREO hunts for ancient world: One of the most tantalizing mysteries in astronomy is the origin of Earth’s Moon. One hypothesis, dubbed the Theia hypothesis, states that the Moon coalesced from material ejected from Earth after being struck by a large, Mars-sized impactor. This theory explains the relative low density of the Moon, as it was formed primarily of crustal material. But where did Theia come from? Now scientists and amateurs are using  NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft to scour the leading and trailing lagrangian points for “Theiasteroids”, which should have also collected at the L4 and L5 points. Designed for solar observations, this study is pure bonus science. Check the link and join the hunt!

A Solar Eclipse as seen from lunar orbit: Ever wonder what a solar eclipse would look like from space? Recently, the Japanese Space Agencies’ Kaguya probe did just that. While orbiting Moon, it turned one of its High Definition cameras Earth/Sun-ward during the penumbral (as seen from Earth,) lunar eclipse of February 9th. The results (pictured above) were nothing short of spectacular. Kaguya wasn’t the first to snap such a view; Surveyor 3 and astronaut Alan Bean on Apollo 12 had a similar view. Kaguya’s shot, however, was by far one of the best to date!

A Binary Black Hole?: Astronomers have recently come up with a fascinating find; a binary black hole pair less than a light year apart. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey has uncovered a quasar, dubbed J1536+0441 which spectroscopic analysis suggests may actually consist of two energetic galactic nuclei orbiting each other. Red shift values stand at 0.3727 and 0.3889, respectively, and equate to an orbital velocity of a whooping 3,500 kilometers a second. The pair has a combined mass of over 800 million suns, and is encased in a glowing accretion disk, as well. Gravity waves abound, and objects such as this may make a good case for LISA, the proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

Hidden Planet Found in Old Archives: Remember last years’ first direct image of an exoplanet? Well, scientist David Lafreniere and colleagues of the University of Toronto have found an 11-year old image of the same planet orbiting star HR 8799. 130 light years distant, scientists used a new method to subtract the starlight glow in old Hubble images to reveal the distant world. Of course, this raises the question; are there more unknown worlds in them ‘thar old archives? We’d love to report of some high school kid (or unemployed blogger) discovering a new world before bedtime from their laptop!

In Search of the Beginning: More news in the burgeoning world of Antarctic astronomy; scientists at the South Pole are putting one of the key tenets of the Big Bang theory to the test. Cosmic inflation proposes that a massive fluctuation occurred shortly after the emergence of our universe and planted the seeds in the form of perturbations for the galaxies we see today. First proposed by Alan Guth in 1979, cosmic inflation has already passed its first test in matching predictions in the densities we see today in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation. The CMB is a fossilized record of sorts of that far off event about 13.7 billion years ago. Now, scientists hope to detect a second confirming proof using the South Pole Telescope (SPT); gravity waves. Like the CMB, these waves should be omni-directional, and perhaps powerful enough to be narrowed in on in the infrared to sub-millimeter spectrum that the SPT operates in. If validated, cosmic inflation would likely drive the final (?) nail in the coffin of any competing theory, as none of them predict ancient gravity waves. Of course, that won’t keep the crackpots from trying…cosmic inflation would also predict the existence of an infinite number of universes, a concept which unfortunately is not testable at this time. Perhaps it explains some of the wacky things we observe in this universe, such as the presidency of George W. and Twitter…I wonder if Brittney is president in an alternate dimension?

Chinese… Astronomy?: The Chinese have broken ground on two very ambitious projects; first is LAMOST, the Large Area Multi-Object fiber Spectroscopic Telescope. This 4-meter beast will have a segmented mirror and adaptive optics.  A transit instrument, LAMOST will be able to sweep a 5 degree field of view with high accuracy. The next project is even more ambitious; a 500 meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) similar to Arecibo but 10 times as sensitive. It’s ironic; at the time of this writing, there is talk of closing Arecibo!

Maverick Brown Dwarfs (Jan24): Apparently, some stars do not mingle well. A study conducted by the University of Atlanta surveyed 233 nearby multiple stars out to a distance of 32 light-years and came up with a startling discovery; brown dwarfs rarely exist even around the lowest mass stars. A brown dwarf is a “sub-star” of about 13-80 Jupiter masses (definitions vary) that cannot produce energy via the proton-proton fusion process, but possess fully convective interiors. They can begin low grade deuterium and lithium fusion, and are brightest in the infrared. The survey was carried out by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) and is part of RECONS, the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars. Further studies will confirm (or deny) the proposed  existence of a “brown dwarf desert”…

Launches for June: The big ticket launch of the month is STS-127 out of the KSC on June 13th. Fresh off of standby mode for STS-400 and Atlantis, the shuttle Endeavor will resume service to the International Space Station. Other launches of note: the much belated GOES-O is scheduled to blast off from the Cape on June 26th , and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and impactor on the 17th . Be sure to follow Spaceflight Now for the latest updates.

Vostok 6 video

This month in Astro-History: On June 16th, 1963 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Vostok 6, the last of the Soviet Vostok series of space flights, orbited Earth 48 times and Tereshkova spent three days in space, more accumulated time than all of the US astronauts up to that point. Tereshkova also took photos of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which enabled scientists to identify several aerosol layers. Mrs. Tereshkova has expressed interest in one day going to Mars!

Astro-Blooper of the Month: OK, we had to go see the new Star Trek this summer, and heck, we enjoyed it! But it did prompt a blooper or two; probably the most egregious was the Romulan supernova. Yes, this would spell doom for the Romulan race, but would not, as Spock stated, “threaten the galaxy…” at best, the doom radius of a supernova would be about 25 light years, which is more like the local stellar neighborhood. The Federation certainly spans a larger area than that. And don’t forget, all that energy travels in an expanding bubble at “only” light speed…c’mon Spock, you know better than to give in to emotional hyperbole!

Quote of the Month: “If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems impossible to uproot, and resembles curiosity…”

- Marie Curie