September 21, 2017

Astro-Vid Of the Week: Watch the Full-Length LIGO Documentary

It’s not the Death Star… firing up the laser at LIGO.

Credit: NSF/LIGO, Used with permission.

It has arrived.

The search for gravitational waves is big news right now, and the hunt has heated up thanks to direct evidence for inflation in the early universe from the BICEP 2 project based in Antarctica.

But there’s another unique observatory on the hunt for gravity’s ghost: LIGO, or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. [Read more...]

Astro-Vid Of the Week: A New Look at LIGO

The entrance to LIGO Livingston. (Photo by Author)

An exciting astronomical observatory is finally be getting the recognition it deserves.

We’ve written about the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) before. LIGO consists of a pair of L-shaped arrays, one based in Hanford Washington and one in Livingston Louisiana which we toured in 2010.  LIGO first went online in 2002, and its mission is to detect gravity waves generated by such exotic events as binary pulsar or black hole mergers. [Read more...]

Review: Quantum Man by Lawrence M. Krauss.

On sale now!

Once a generation or so, a mind comes along that not only spans the interdisciplinary chasms, but also propels our insight ahead by generations. Such a mind belonged to physicist Richard Feynman, the subject of this week’s review, Quantum Man by Lawrence M. Krauss out by Norton books as part of their Great Discoveries series. [Read more...]

Review: Gravity’s Ghost by Harry Collins.

Out from Chicago Press!

Think your latest scientific quest is an impossible challenge? Let me introduce you to the team at the twin Laser Interferometry Gravitational wave Observatories (LIGO) and show you what they face. This week’s review installment is Gravity’s Ghost: Scientific Discovery in the Twenty-first Century by Harry Collins and out from Chicago University Press. [Read more...]

28.03.11: Einstein@Home Bags Pulsar #2.

Pulsars in a tight orbit…(Artists conception credit: NASA/Goddard).

Crowd-sourced citizen science bagged another astrophysical biggie this month. Einstein@Home, everyone’s favorite desktop screensaver program, announced the discovery of a new potential pulsar pair earlier this month. Like SETI@Home, this program utilizes idle computing time to analyze avalanches of data looking for signals. In the case of Einstein@Home, the data received comes from LIGO,VIRGO, and more recently, Arecibo. [Read more...]

16.03.11: The LIGO/Virgo Collaboration Passes “The Envelope.”

On the hunt for Gravitational Waves in the heart of Louisiana… (Photo by Author).

Amidst a week of killer-moons and earthquake paranoia, a real science story with potentially big implications was shaping up in Arcadia, California.  On March 14th, the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) and European-based Virgo scientists gathered to “pass the envelop” (their spelling!) On a hoped-for first detection of a gravitational wave. [Read more...]

Review: The Telescope by Geoff Anderson.

Few inventions are as near and dear to our hearts as that of the telescope. Before its invention, astronomy was scarcely better than its pseudo-science companion of astrology in its knowledge of predicting the universe as it truly is. In this week’s review, we’ll look at The Telescope by Geoff Anderson out from Princeton Press as it traces the history of this noble instrument, its origins, the theory of optics, and our present day understandings and the exciting realm of telescopes yet to come.

Out from Princeton University Press!

Out from Princeton University Press!

Think you know everything about telescopes? The Telescope will take you through designs from classical refractors to Coudè focus complexities. This would serve as a good 101 for anyone thinking of building or even purchasing a telescope, as a lot of the optical basics are discussed. You can even skip through chapters, and the author even suggests that you don’t have to struggle through chapters on interferometry (but of course we did!) unless you really want to.

Stately Flandrau Observatories' 14"... (Photo by Author).

The stately Flandrau Observatory 14-inch. (Photo by Author).

The study of how early astronomers actually functioned always personally fascinates me. We all know the discoveries of Galileo, but just how did he make those refractors in a renaissance era work shop? The absurdity of some of the focal lengths used was astounding; this was required to overcome the fringes on chromatic aberration until 2-element crown and flint objectives were perfected. And don’t forget, they had to handcraft eye-pieces, as well. Just how many modern day telescope makers do that?

The 7 1/2" Merz Refractor of Quito Observatory. (Photo by Author).

The 7 1/2″ Merz Refractor of Quito Observatory. (Photo by Author).

The evolution of site selection and observatory construction is also discussed; it’s a generally underappreciated fact that seeing and turbulence makes up about 90% of your ultimate astronomical success. Early telescope users were content to perch their tubes on the ledge of a study window. It’s only been in the last century or so that site selection prior to observatory construction has really matured. In the modern era, the effects of encroaching light pollution also has to be accounted for. Telescopes have gone from backyard curiosities to behemoths of national significance.

One mother of a scope; OWL. (Credit: ESO).

One Mother of a scope… OWL. (Credit: ESO).

The modern era of scopes is also traced, from the Hale and Keck telescopes to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is appropriately given its own chapter. The chapter “When Good Telescopes go Bad” is particularly illuminating, as it demonstrates the engineering challenges that seem to plague every great instrument. It’s been said that it’s never truly a great scientific or engineering breakthrough until someone has had a nervous breakdown, and building cutting edge telescopes is certainly a case in point.  The author also addresses the innovative methods the have been developed to squeeze as much information as possible out of every photon of light. Just think, we can know speed, direction, composition and more just from “tasting” starlight. This was first developed by the breakthrough of spectroscopy, and further refinements such as interferometry and adaptive optics have pushed the envelope even further. adaptive optics itself used to be classified, as it was used primarily to peek at Russian payloads in low-Earth orbit. Some of this technology is truly amazing; for example, did you know it’s possible to “record” a conversation in a room just by measuring via laser the vibrations imparted on the windows? To this effect, the Oval Office actually employs “shakers” on its outer panes, probably not much different than the vibrate mode on your cell phone.

An "backyard" scope that would have been the envy of many of the astronomers of yore... (Photo by Author).

A “backyard” scope that many earlier astronomers would have been envious of… (Photo by Author).

A look at the key discoveries of the telescope and some of the more bizarre and unusual telescopes is also given treatment; two of our favorite are the use of liquid metal (mercury in a precisely rotated dish!) telescopes, and of course, the Laser Interferometry Gravitational wave Observatory, a “telescope” used to hunt for gravity waves.

And that’s just the beginning. The future of telescopes will see the James Webb Space Telescope, mega observatories such as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and the 100-meter OverWhelmingly large telescope (OWL) and perhaps even more exotic arrays such as the Terrestrial Planet Finder or a large crater-based instrument on the Lunar far-side.

Do give the Telescope a look if you are thinking of buying, building, or just have a passion for these grand old instruments. Telescopes represent the cutting edge of human technology, and never fail to inspire. And as astronomers, observatories are the closest thing to a cathedral to the stars that we possess!

A modern day wonder! (Photo by Author).

A modern day marvel! (Photo by Author).

15.05.10: A Speedy Binary.


  An artist's concpetion of HM Cancri. (Credit: NASA).


   Think that new Ducati in your garage is fast? Let me introduce you to HM Cancri. An unassuming +21 magnitude binary in the constellation Cancer, HM Cancri is comprised of two white dwarfs locked in a tight embrace. In fact, this binary system has the shortest orbital period known, handily knocking down distant contender V407 Vulpeculae with its “stately” 9.5 minute orbit. The facts are dizzying; the pair weigh in at 0.5 and 0.25 solar masses respectively, are about 24,000 miles apart (think geosynchronous orbit!) and revolve around each other in 5.4 minutes, about the time you hopefully spend glancing over this blog before returning to Facebook.  Get your calculators out; this makes orbital velocity for the pair an impressive 230 miles per second! Discovered in 1999, Observations using the Keck telescope have upheld HM Cancri’s record holding status by analyzing opposing spectral shifts of ionized helium as the two stars whirl about. This rules out other candidates such as a single neutron star.  Such a system must have had a very unique history, perhaps starting as a pair of Sun-like stars that later spiraled in. Will the two merge one day? Conservation of angular momentum cannot fully explain what we see as the system is speeding up; perhaps more accreting matter is present than we currently account for. The pair are approaching each other by about two feet per day, and of course, relativity comes into play in such an extreme system. Clearly, something interesting is occurring in this system. HM Cancri is also a strong x-ray source, and should generate copious amounts of gravity waves, especially in the event of a merger. Said waves may be within the realm of Advanced LIGO, due to come online in 2014, or LISA, ESA’s proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. HM Cancri lies about 16,000 light years distant, and may be the strongest source of gravity waves in our galaxy.

LIGO: A Quest for Gravity Waves.

LIGO, Livingston. (All Photos by Author).
LIGO, Livingston. (All Photos by Author).

We had to go there… last month’s NASA Tweetup at the Johnson Spaceflight Center saw us undertake the great American road trip from Astroguyz HQ north of Tampa, Florida, to Houston on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico and back. Ever the opportunists, we scoured the route for any astronomical pilgrimages of note. Then, like a bolt from the sky, a lone commenter drew our attention to a recent news piece we did on LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory[Read more...]

02.02.10 In Search of Life, Gravity Waves, and Everything.

The LIGO detector at Hanford. (Credit:NSF/LIGO).

The LIGO detector at Hanford. (Credit:NSF/LIGO).

Astronomers have added a key tool to their arsenal in probing the very early universe. LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory, is a pair of “observatories” one in Hanford, Washington, and one in Livingston, Louisiana that monitor the universe for that most exotic of beasts; gravity waves. Each L-shaped detector is comprised of two 2.25 mile long arms and by monitoring the minute changes in length as measured by laser beam, LIGO can detect changes as small as 1/1,000th of the width of an atomic nucleus.   By comparing the measurements from the two observatories and its sister companion, a European detector known as Virgo, directional magnitude of cosmic gravity waves can be measured. LIGO saw first “gravity light” in 2002. Late last year, data was released comprising two years’ worth of observations, and a sort of “all-sky map” in gravity waves is emerging. Unlike microwave energy, which can only probe the universe back to an age of about 380,000 years old, gravity waves were generated just moments after the Big Bang, and promise to paint a picture of that youthful era of our universe. LIGO may also prove to be one of the very few testable platforms for string theory, a theory that is very much in need of observational data. And be sure to keep an eye out in 2014 for Advanced LIGO, a detector to go online with 10x the present accuracy… can’t wait? YOU can join the citizen science brigade in the hunt for gravity waves before bedtime; checkout Einstein@home!