Ask An Astronaut: Mike Fossum

[/caption]Following up on our successful “Ask Dr. Alan Stern” interview, we’re continuing our “Ask” series. This time, Universe Today readers will be able to Ask an Astronaut!

Here’s how it works: Readers can submit questions they would like Universe Today to ask the guest responder. Simply post your question in the comments section of this article. We’ll take the top five (or so) questions, as ranked by “likes” on the discussion posts. If you see a question you think is good, click the “like” button to give it a vote.

Keep in mind that final question acceptance is based on the discretion of Universe Today and in some cases, the responder and/or their employer.

This installment features International Space Station Expedition 29 commander, Mike Fossum.

Self-portrait of astronaut Mike Fossum taken on July 8, 2006. Image Credit: NASA / Mike Fossum
Fossum served as an Air Force test pilot until 1992, when he joined NASA. Officially selected for the Astronaut Corps in 1998, His first space flight was on July 4, 2006 as an STS-121 mission specialist.

According to NASA, Fossum completed 167 days in space as a member of the Expedition 28 and 29 crews during his third space flight. Altogether, Fossum has spent 194 days in space and performed seven spacewalks. He ranks seventh on the all-time list for cumulative spacewalking time.

Fossum and his crewmates, Expedition 29 Flight Engineers Sergei Volkov of the Russian Space Agency and Satoshi Furukawa of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, returned to Earth in their Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft at 8:26 p.m. on Nov. 21, 2011. Fossum was aboard the station during the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, which delivered supplies and equipment to the outpost. During most of his time aboard the ISS, Fossum performed science experiments and routine maintenance.

Before submitting your question, take a minute and read a bit more about Fossum at:

You can also read Fossum’s “Living The Dream” NASA blog at: Mike Fossum’s Blog

We’ll take questions until 6:00PM (MST) Monday, January 9th and provide a follow up article soon after with Fossum’s responses to your questions.

NASA Channels “The Force” With Smart SPHERES

[/caption]In an interesting case of science fiction becoming a reality, NASA has been testing their SPHERES project over the past few years. The SPHERES project (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) involves spherical satellites about the size of a bowling ball. Used inside the International Space Station, the satellites are used to test autonomous rendezvous and docking maneuvers. Each individual satellite features its own power, propulsion, computers and navigational support systems.

The SPHERES project is the brainchild of David Miller (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Miller was inspired by the floating remote “droid” that Luke Skywalker used to help hone his lightsaber skills in Star Wars. Since 2006, a set of five SPHERES satellites, built by Miller and his students have been onboard the International Space Station.

Since lightsabers are most likely prohibited onboard the ISS, what practical use have these “droids” been to space station crews?

The first SPHERES satellite was tested during Expedition 8 and Expedition 13, with a second unit delivered to the ISS by STS-121, and a third delivered by STS-116. The crew of ISS Expedition 14 tested a configuration using three of the SPHERES satellites. Since their arrival, over 25 experiments have been performed using SPHERES. Until recently, the tests used pre-programmed algorithms to perform specific functions.

“The space station is just the first step to using remotely controlled robots to support human exploration,” said Chris Moore, program executive in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Building on our experience in controlling robots on station, one day we’ll be able to apply what we’ve learned and have humans and robots working together everywhere from Earth orbit, to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars.”

International Space Station researcher Mike Fossum, commander of Expedition 29, puts one of the Smart SPHERES through its paces. Image Credit: NASA
In November, the SPHERES satellites were upgraded with “off-the-shelf” smartphones by using an “expansion port” Miller’s team designed into each satellite.

“Because the SPHERES were originally designed for a different purpose, they need some upgrades to become remotely operated robots,” said DW Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames.

Wheeler added, “By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent. With the smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control.”

In order to make the smartphones safer to use onboard the station, the cellular communications chips were removed, and the lithium-ion battery was replaced with AA alkaline batteries.

By testing the SPHERES satellites, NASA can demonstrate how the smart SPHERES can operate as remotely operated assistants for astronauts in space. NASA plans additional tests in which the compact assistants will perform interior station surveys and inspections, along with capturing images and video using the smartphone camera. Additional goals for the mission include the simulation of free-flight excursions, and possibly other, more challenging tasks.

“The tests that we are conducting with Smart SPHERES will help NASA make better use of robots as assistants to and versatile support for human explorers — in Earth orbit or on long missions to other worlds and new destinations,” said Terry Fong, project manager of the Human Exploration Telerobotics project and Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

You can view a video of the SPHERES satellites in action at: (Sorry, no lightsaber action.).

If you’d like to learn more about NASA’s SPHERES program, visit:

Source: NASA Telerobotics News

Dr. Alan Stern Answers Your Questions!

[/caption]Some of you may know, we recently launched a new “Ask” feature here at Universe Today. Our inaugural launch features Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. We collected your questions in our initial post and passed them along to Dr. Stern who graciously took the time to answer them.

Here are the questions picked by you, the readers, and Dr. Stern’s responses. We’d like to thank our readers for making this kick-off a success, as well as Dr. Stern for his participation.

1.) Many sci-fi authors have dreamed of putting some sort of telescope on the surface of Pluto to take advantage of the relative darkness and extreme cold encountered on this distant dwarf planet. How feasible would it be, judging from what we’re learning from the New Horizons expedition, to actually land a spacecraft, or a telescope, on Pluto’s surface? If such a telescope where deployed, how much more effective, if at all, could it be than an instrument like the JWST?

Alan Stern:“Space astronomy has revolutionized the way we look at the universe and is fundamental to modern astrophysics.” There are benefits to getting telescopes out of the atmosphere, and even benefits to getting out of Earth orbit, as in the case of Kepler and someday maybe JWST.

With regard to taking advantage of Pluto’s cold temperature – we’ve gotten really good at cooling down space telescopes. “There would be a benefit to placing a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, but there’s no real practical reasons to place a telescope on Pluto—particularly given the cost of getting there, other than it being cool.”

2.) Kuiper objects differentiate strongly in color suggesting compositional or perhaps formation differences. Interestingly the color distribution correlates with the two different cold and hot Kuiper populations. Assuming the spectral analysis capability of New Horizon works for identifying the follow up Kuiper objects beyond Pluto-Charon, and given the putative possibility of choosing between several such targets, what type of target would the mission aim for? Would it try to cover as much diversity of objects as possible or is there a certain class of objects that could be important to concentrate on?

A.S: “We have to find Kuiper belt objects within our spacecraft’s fuel supply.” Stern elaborated, stating, “Predictions from our computer models tell us to expect to be able to have perhaps six possible candidates, to choose from, but so far we’ve just begun to search for these and though we’re finding KBOs, none we’ve found are yet are within the fuel supply.”

Stern also added, “Keep in mind our search for candidates isn’t easy – these are 27th magnitude objects which are roughly 50,000 times fainter than Pluto. What we’ll use to select between candidates once we have them are color, orbits, moons, rotational speeds – basically what combination of properties give us the most science for our fuel budget. The longer we wait after the Pluto flyby in July 2015 to make a decision, the more fuel will be consumed, so the “sweet spot” would be to have preliminary candidates in early 2015.”
(UT Note: New Horizons will perform its Pluto flyby in mid-2015 ).

3.) Given the limited funds available, Which do you recommend (Europa or Enceladus) as a suitable target for a mission in the 2025 time-frame in terms of value for money, scientific return, and practicality, and what kind of mission do you propose (lander vs. orbiter) ?

A.S: “Every scientist has their own judgment of what would make a good outer system flagship mission, or the best world to perform a series of missions that would equal a flagship mission.” Dr. Stern’s opinion is to explore Titan first, with Enceladus as a secondary target of that mission and Europa last, stating “Titan is the belle of the ball”, citing Titan’s active liquid cycle and thick atmosphere. Stern also added that he believes a mission to Titan would provide the most science per budget dollar.

4.) Four of the craft escaping the Solar System – Pioneers 10 & 11 and Voyagers 1 & 2 – have on board some sort of “message” to any possible extraterrestrials in the unlikely event they find it. Why was not some sort of message like that included on New Horizons, which may be the last (in our lifetimes) craft to also escape the Solar System?

A.S “There are several mementos onboard New Horizons, but no Voyager-like message.” Dr. Stern discussed a promise he made to his team that New Horizons would not be canceled and that he wanted his team focused on the science of the mission. Stern also pointed out that the process of deciding what to place on the Voyager plaques became mired in political correctness, (should the humans have been clothed? What cultures and races should be represented, etc.)

By separating the “icing from the cake”. Stern and his team have been able to concentrate on their main objective—to execute the New Horizons mission for about twenty cents on the dollar, as compared to the Voyager missions. Stern concluded with, “I’m proud that we got this done and that New Horizons is operating perfectly now way out there between Uranus and Neptune and flying almost a million kilometers per day toward the Pluto system.”

5.) Are any present or foreseeable technologies being considered for exploring the depths of our four “gas giant” planets?

A.S “There are no serious proposals to put a probe into one of the giant planets now, or even any call for such in the recent decadal survey for planetary missions. Keep in mind, though, that the Juno mission (now en route to Jupiter ) will use powerful remote sensing techniques to probe Jupiter from orbit around it to greater depths than the Galileo probe (which actually entered Jupiter’s atmosphere).”

6.) Why was it considered “urgent” to get to Pluto before the atmosphere refroze?

A.S “We have three “Group 1″ objectives for New Horizons. Map the surface, map the composition, and assay the atmosphere.” Stern referred to the objectives as a “three legged stool” in that no one objective could be omitted and still justify the mission, adding “so we need to accomplish that.. we need to get there before the atmosphere collapses”. Stern also referred to Pluto’s atmosphere as “very different from any other planet yet studied”, hence its inclusion as one of the three “Group 1” objectives.

7.) The Dawn mission to Vesta has shown us a body that was much less round than expected. Do you think it is possible that New Horizons will surprise us about Pluto, to the same degree? Please compare the expectations of the New Horizons fly by, to the early images of Vesta from Dawn.

A.S “With New Horizons being the first mission to Pluto, we will be surprised—after all, we’re always surprised on first reconnaissance flybys”. Stern added, “With Mariner 10, we discovered Mercury was all core, with Voyager we discovered volcanos and geysers across the outer solar system, and of course we were surprised when craters and river valleys were discovered by early Mars probes.”

Regarding Pluto, Stern stated “Pluto is the first discovered and soon to be reconnoitered of the most plentiful class of planets, while I’m not big on making predictions, I will say that what we will find will certainly be, well, wonderful.”

9.) Can new horizons now take more detailed photos of Pluto than HST? If not, when does it get close enough?

A.S “Great question! We actually thought about that a lot when designing New Horizons. One of our instruments, LORRI (Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager – will provide us with views better than HST around April of 2015, and we expect to have about twenty weeks (10 weeks before, 10 weeks after the Pluto flyby) when we “own” the Pluto system — and I can guarantee the best images we hope to make should be as good as Landsat images of Earth!”

That wraps up our interview with Dr. Alan Stern. Once again, we at Universe Today would like to thank Dr. Stern for his gracious participation. If you’d like to learn more about the New Horizons mission to Pluto and The Kuiper Belt, visit:

Next month, we’ll be having an “Ask an Astronaut” feature with Mike Fossum, Commander of Expedition 29 on the International Space Station. Stay tuned!

A New Look at the Milky Way’s Central Bar

[/caption]You may have heard about the restaurant at the end of the Universe, but have you heard of the bar in the middle of the Milky Way?

Nearly 80 years ago, astronomers determined that our home, the Milky Way Galaxy, is a large spiral galaxy. Despite being stuck inside and not being able to see what the entire the structure looks like — as we can with the Pinwheel Galaxy, or our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy — researchers have suspected our galaxy is actually a “barred” spiral galaxy. Barred spiral galaxies feature an elongated stellar structure , or bar, in the middle which in our case is hidden by dust and gas. There are many galaxies in the Universe that are barred spirals, and yet, there are numerous galaxies which do not feature a central bar.

How do these central bars form, and why are they only present in some, but not all spiral galaxies?

A research team led by Dr. R. Michael Rich (UCLA), dubbed BRAVA (Bulge Radial Velocity Assay), measured the velocity of many old, red stars near the center of our galaxy. By studying the spectra (combined light) of the M class giant stars, the team was able to calculate the velocity of each star along our line of sight. During a four-year time span, the spectra for nearly 10,000 stars was acquired with the CTIO Blanco 4-meter telescope located in Chile’s Atacama desert.

Analyzing the velocities of stars in their study, the team was able to confirm that the Milky Way’s central bulge does contain a massive bar, with one end nearly pointed right at our solar system. One other discovery made by the team is that while our galaxy rotates like a wheel, the BRAVA study found that the rotation of the central bar is more like that of a roll of paper towels in a dispenser. The team’s discoveries provide vital clues to help explain the formation of the Milky Way’s central region.

BRAVA data. Image Credit: D. Talent, K. Don, P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF and the BRAVA Project

The spectra data set was compared to a computer simulation created by Dr. Juntai Shen (Shanghai Observatory) showing how the bar formed from a pre-existing disk of stars. The team’s data fits the model quite well, suggesting that before the central bar existed, there was a massive disk of stars. The conclusion reached by the team is in stark contrast to the commonly accepted model of formation of our galaxy’s central region – a model that predicts the Milky Way’s central region formed from an early chaotic merger of gas clouds. The “take-away” point from the team’s conclusions is that gas did play some role in the formation of our galaxy’s central region, which organized into a massive rotating disk, and then turned into a bar due to the gravitational interactions of the stars.

One other benefit to the team’s research is that stellar spectra data will allow the team to analyze the chemical composition of the stars. All stars are composed of mostly hydrogen and helium, but the tiny amounts of other elements (astronomers refer to anything past helium as “metals”) provides insight into the conditions present during a star’s formation.

The BRAVA team found that stars closest to the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy have fewer “metals” than stars further from its galactic plane. The team’s conclusion does confirm standard views of stellar formation, yet the BRAVA data covers a significant area of the galactic bulge that can be chemically analyzed. If researchers map the metal content of stars throughout the Milky Way, a clear picture of stellar formation and evolution emerges, similar to how mapping CO2 concentrations in the Antarctic ice shelf can reveal the past weather patterns here on Earth.

If you’d like to read the full paper, a pre-print version is available at:

Source: National Optical Astronomy Observatory press release

Ask Dr. Alan Stern

We’re testing a new “Ask” article format here at Universe Today and we know you’ve got a question you’d like to ask Alan Stern!

Here’s how it works: Readers can submit questions they would like Universe Today to ask the guest responder. Simply post your question in the comments section of this article. We’ll take the top five (or so) questions, as ranked by “likes” on the discussion posts. If you see a question you think is good, click the “like” button to give it a vote.

Keep in mind that final question acceptance is based on the discretion of Universe Today and in some cases, the responder and/or their employer.

Our inaugural launch (pun intended) will feature Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator for NASA’s “New Horizons” mission to Pluto.

Stern is a planetary scientist and an author who has published more than 175 technical papers and 40 popular articles. His research has focused on studies of our solar system’s Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, comets, satellites of the outer planets, Pluto and the search for evidence of solar systems around other stars. He has worked on spacecraft rendezvous theory, terrestrial polar mesospheric clouds, galactic astrophysics and studies of tenuous satellite atmospheres, including the atmosphere of the Moon.

Stern has a long association with NASA, serving the agency’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate from 2007-2008; he was on the NASA Advisory Council and was the principal investigator on a number of planetary and lunar missions, including his current stint with the New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission. He was the principal investigator of the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System, which flew on two space shuttle missions, STS-85 in 1997 and STS-93 in 1999.

He has been a guest observer on numerous NASA satellite observatories, including the International Ultraviolet Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Infrared Observer and the Extreme Ultraviolet Observer.

Stern holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and planetary atmospheres from the University of Texas, Austin. In 1989, Stern earned a doctorate in astrophysics and planetary science from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Aside from being the Principal Investigator for NASA’s “New Horizons” mission to Pluto, Currently Stern is the Associate Vice President of R&D – Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute and recently was appointed director of the Florida Space Institute at Kennedy Space Center.

For those of you who are fans of Pluto, Dr. Stern went on the record against the IAU’s decision in 2006, stating “It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review..”

Before submitting your question, take a minute and read a bit more about Dr. Stern at: Dr. Alan Stern

We’ll take questions until 4:00PM (MST) Tuesday December 20th and provide a follow up article with Dr. Stern’s responses to your questions.

A Psychedelic Guide to Tycho’s Supernova Remnant


By no means are we suggesting that NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope can induce altered states of awareness, but this ‘far-out’ image is akin to 1960’s era psychedelic art. However, the data depicted here provides a new and enlightened way of looking at an object that’s been observed for over 400 years. After years of study, data collected by Fermi has revealed Tycho’s Supernova Remnant shines brightly in high-energy gamma rays.

The discovery provides researchers with additional information on the origin of cosmic rays (subatomic particles that are on speed). The exact process that gives cosmic rays their energy isn’t well understood since charged particles are easily deflected by interstellar magnetic fields. The deflection by interstellar magnetic fields makes it impossible for researchers to track cosmic rays to their original sources.

“Fortunately, high-energy gamma rays are produced when cosmic rays strike interstellar gas and starlight. These gamma rays come to Fermi straight from their sources,” said Francesco Giordano at the University of Bari in Italy.

But here’s some not-so-psychedelic facts about supernova remnants in general and Tycho’s in particular:

When a massive star reaches the end of its lifetime, it can explode, leaving behind a supernova remnant consisting of an expanding shell of hot gas propelled by the blast shockwave. In many cases, a supernova explosion can be visible on Earth – even in broad daylight. In November of 1572, a new “star” was discovered in the constellation Cassiopeia. The discovery is now known to be the most visible supernova in the past 400 years. Often called “Tycho’s supernova”, the remnant shown above is named after Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who spent a great deal of time studying the supernova.

Tycho's map shows the supernova's position (largest symbol, at top) relative to the stars that form Cassiopeia. Image credit: University of Toronto
The 1572 supernova event occurred when the night sky was considered to be a fixed and unchanging part of the universe. Tycho’s account of the discovery gives a sense of just how profound his discovery was. Regarding his discovery, Tycho stated, “When I had satisfied myself that no star of that kind had ever shone forth before, I was led into such perplexity by the unbelievability of the thing that I began to doubt the faith of my own eyes, and so, turning to the servants who were accompanying me, I asked them whether they too could see a certain extremely bright star…. They immediately replied with one voice that they saw it completely and that it was extremely bright”

In 1949, physicist Enrico Fermi (the namesake for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope) theorized that high-energy cosmic rays were accelerated in the magnetic fields of interstellar gas clouds. Following up on Fermi’s work, astronomers learned that supernova remnants might be the best candidate sites for magnetic fields of such magnitude.

One of the main goals of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is to better understand the origins of cosmic rays. Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) can survey the entire sky every three hours, which allows the instrument to build a deeper view of the gamma-ray sky. Since gamma rays are the most energetic form of light, studying gamma ray concentrations can help researchers detect the particle acceleration responsible for cosmic rays.

Co-author Stefan Funk (Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology) adds, “This detection gives us another piece of evidence supporting the notion that supernova remnants can accelerate cosmic rays.”

After scanning the sky for nearly three years, Fermi’s LAT data showed a region of gamma-ray emissions associated with the remnant of Tycho’s supernova. Keith Bechtol, (KIPAC graduate student) commented on the discovery, saying, “We knew that Tycho’s supernova remnant could be an important find for Fermi because this object has been so extensively studied in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. We thought it might be one of our best opportunities to identify a spectral signature indicating the presence of cosmic-ray protons”

The team’s model is based on LAT data, gamma-rays mapped by ground-based observatories and X-ray data. The conclusion the team has come to regarding their model is that a process called pion production is the best explanation for the emissions. The animation below depicts a proton moving at nearly the speed of light and striking a slower-moving proton. The protons survive the collision, but their interaction creates an unstable particle — a pion — with only 14 percent of the proton’s mass. In 10 millionths of a billionth of a second, the pion decays into a pair of gamma-ray photons.

If the team’s interpretation of the data is accurate, then within the remnant, protons are being accelerated to near the speed of light. After being accelerated to such tremendous speeds, the protons interact with slower particles and produce gamma rays. With all the amazing processes at work in the remnant of Tycho’s supernova, one could easily imagine how impressed Brahe would be.

And no tripping necessary.

Learn more about the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope at:

Source: Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope Mission News

Looking at Early Black Holes with a ‘Time Machine’


What fed early black holes enabling their very rapid growth? A new discovery made by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University using a combination of supercomputer simulations and GigaPan Time Machine technology shows that a diet of cosmic “fast food” (thin streams of cold gas) flowed uncontrollably into the center of the first black holes, causing them to be “supersized” and grow faster than anything else in the Universe.

When our Universe was young, less than a billion years after the Big Bang, galaxies were just beginning to form and grow. According to prior theories, black holes at that time should have been equally small. Data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has shown evidence to the contrary – supermassive black holes were in existence as early as 700 million years after the Big Bang.

“The Sloan Digital Sky Survey found supermassive black holes at less than 1 billion years. They were the same size as today’s most massive black holes, which are 13.6 billion years old,” said Tiziana Di Matteo, associate professor of physics (Carnegie Mellon University). “It was a puzzle. Why do some black holes form so early when it takes the whole age of the Universe for others to reach the same mass?”

Supermassive black holes are the largest black holes in existence – weighing in with masses billions of times that of the Sun. Most “normal” black holes are only about 30 times more massive than the Sun. The currently accepted mechanism for the formation of supermassive black holes is through galactic mergers. One problem with this theory and how it applies to early supermassive black holes is that in early Universe, there weren’t many galaxies, and they were too distant from each other to merge.

Rupert Croft, associate professor of physics (Carnegie Mellon University) remarked, “If you write the equations for how galaxies and black holes form, it doesn’t seem possible that these huge masses could form that early, But we look to the sky and there they are.”

In an effort to understand the processes that formed the early supermassive black holes, Di Matteo, Croft and Khandai created MassiveBlack – the largest cosmological simulation to date. The purpose of MassiveBlack is to accurately simulate the first billion years of our universe. Describing MassiveBlack, Di Matteo remarked, “This simulation is truly gigantic. It’s the largest in terms of the level of physics and the actual volume. We did that because we were interested in looking at rare things in the universe, like the first black holes. Because they are so rare, you need to search over a large volume of space”.

Croft and the team started the simulations using known models of cosmology based on theories and laws of modern day physics. “We didn’t put anything crazy in. There’s no magic physics, no extra stuff. It’s the same physics that forms galaxies in simulations of the later universe,” said Croft. “But magically, these early quasars, just as had been observed, appear. We didn’t know they were going to show up. It was amazing to measure their masses and go ‘Wow! These are the exact right size and show up exactly at the right point in time.’ It’s a success story for the modern theory of cosmology.”

The data from MassiveBlack was added to the GigaPan Time Machine project. By combining the MassiveBlack data with the GigaPan Time Machine project, researchers were able to view the simulation as if it was a movie – easily panning across the simulated universe as it formed. When the team noticed events which appeared interesting, they were also able to zoom in to view the events in greater detail than what they could see in our own universe with ground or space-based telescopes.

When the team zoomed in on the creation of the first supermassive black holes, they saw something unexpected. Normal observations show that when cold gas flows toward a black hole it is heated from collisions with other nearby gas molecules, then cools down before entering the black hole. Known as ‘shock heating’, the process should have stopped early black holes from reaching the masses observed. Instead, the team observed thin streams of cold dense gas flowing along ‘filaments’ seen in large-scale surveys that reveal the structure of our universe. The filaments allowed the gas to flow directly into the center of the black holes at incredible speed, providing them with cold, fast food. The steady, but uncontrolled consumption provided a mechanism for the black holes to grow at a much faster rate than their host galaxies.

The findings will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

If you’d like to read more, check out the papers below ( via Physics arXiv ):
Terapixel Imaging of Cosmological Simulations
The Formation of Galaxies Hosting z~6 Quasars
Early Black Holes in Cosmological Simulations
Cold Flows and the First Quasars

Learn more about Gigapan and MassiveBlack at: and

Source: Carnegie Mellon University Press Release

Could Solar Storms ‘Sandblast’ the Moon?

[/caption]According to a new set of NASA computer simulations, solar storms and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) can erode the lunar surface. Researchers speculate that not only can these phenomena erode the lunar surface, but could also be a cause of atmospheric loss for planets without a global magnetic field, such as Mars.

A team led by Rosemary Killen at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has written papers exploring different aspects of these phenomena and will appear in an issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets. The team’s research was also presented earlier this week during the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

What are CME’s? Corona Mass Ejections are intense outbursts of the Sun’s usually normal solar wind which consists of electrically charged particles (plasma). CME’s blow outward from the surface of the Sun at speeds in excess of 1.6 million kilometers per hour into space and can contain over a billion tons of plasma in a cloud larger than Earth.

Our Moon has the faintest traces of an atmosphere, which is technically referred to as an exosphere. The lack of any significant atmosphere, combined with the lack of a magnetic field, makes the lunar surface vulnerable to the effects of CME’s.

William Farrell, DREAM (Dynamic Response of the Environment at the Moon) team lead at NASA Goddard, remarked, “We found that when this massive cloud of plasma strikes the Moon, it acts like a sandblaster and easily removes volatile material from the surface. The model predicts 100 to 200 tons of lunar material – the equivalent of 10 dump truck loads – could be stripped off the lunar surface during the typical 2-day passage of a CME.”

While CME’s have been extensively studied, Farrell’s research is the first of its kind that attempts to predict the effects of a CME on the Moon. “Connecting various models together to mimic conditions during solar storms is a major goal of the DREAM project” added Farrell.

When intense heat or radiation is applied to a gas, the electrons can be removed, turning the atoms into ions. This process is referred to as “ionization”, and creates the fourth form of matter, known as plasma. Our Sun’s intense heat and radiation excites gaseous emissions, thus creating a solar wind plasma of charged particles. When plasma ions eject atoms from a surface, the process is called “sputtering”.

The lead author of the research paper Rosemary Killen described this phenomenon: “Sputtering is among the top five processes that create the Moon’s exosphere under normal solar conditions, but our model predicts that during a CME, it becomes the dominant method by far, with up to 50 times the yield of the other methods.”

Images from computer simulations of the lunar calcium exosphere during a CME (left) and the slow solar wind (right). Red and yellow indicate a relatively high abundance of calcium atoms while blue, purple, and black indicate a low abundance. The CME produces a much denser exosphere than the slow solar wind. Image Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University

In an effort to better test the team’s predictions, studies will be performed using NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere And Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). Scheduled to launch in 2013 and orbit the Moon, the team is confident that the strong sputtering effect will send atoms from the lunar surface to LADEE’s orbital altitude (20 to 50 km).

Farrell also added, “This huge CME sputtering effect will make LADEE almost like a surface mineralogy explorer, not because LADEE is on the surface, but because during solar storms surface atoms are blasted up to LADEE.”

Affecting more than just our Moon, solar storms also affect Earth’s magnetic field and are the root cause of the Northern and Southern lights (aurorae). The effect solar storms have on Mars is a bit more significant, due in part to the Red Planet’s lack of a planet-wide magnetic field. It is widely theorized that this lack of a magnetic field allows the solar wind and CME’s to erode the martian atmosphere. In late 2013, NASA will launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission. The goal of MAVEN is to orbit Mars and help researchers better understand how solar activity, including CMEs, affects the atmosphere of the red planet.

Learn more about the DREAM team at:
If you’d like to know more about NASA’s Lunar efforts, visit:

Source: NASA Solar System News

SETI to Resume Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence; Will Target Kepler Data

After being shut down for over six months due to financial problems, The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is once again searching other planetary systems for radio signals, looking for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Some of the first targets in SETI’s renewed search will be a selection of recently discovered exoplanet candidates by NASA’s Kepler mission.

“This is a superb opportunity for SETI observations,” said Dr. Jill Tarter, the Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. “For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems – including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star. That’s the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters.”

What other studies will SETI be performing with the array, and how were they able to restart the Allen Telescope Array?

This past April, SETI was forced to place the ATA into hibernation mode, due to budget cuts of SETI’s former partner, U.C Berkeley. Since Berkeley operated Hat Creek Observatory where the ATA is located, their withdrawal from the program left SETI without a way to operate the ATA.

SETI has since acquired new funding to operate the ATA and can now resume observations where they left off – examining planetary candidates detected by the Kepler mission. The planetary candidates SETI will examine first will be those that are thought to be in their star’s habitable zone (the range of orbital distance from a planet’s host star which may allow for surface water). Many astrobiologists theorize that liquid water is essential for life to exist on a planet.

“In SETI, as with all research, preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery.” Tarter added. “So, with sufficient future funding from our donors, it’s our intention to examine all of the planetary systems found by Kepler.”

SETI will spend the next two years observing the planetary systems detected by Kepler in the naturally-quiet 1 to 10 GHz terrestrial microwave window. Part of what makes this comprehensive study possible is that the ATA can provide ready access to tens of millions of channels at any one time.

Resuming ATA operations was made possible due to tremendous public support via SETI’s web site. In addition to the funds raised by the public, the United States Air Force has also provided funding to SETI in order to assess the ATA’s capabilities for space situational awareness.

Tarter notes, “Kepler’s success has created an amazing opportunity to focus SETI research. While discovery of new exoplanets via Kepler is backed with government monies, the search for evidence that some of these worlds might be home to intelligence falls to SETI alone. And our SETI exploration depends entirely on private donations, for which we are deeply grateful to our donors.”

“The year-in and year-out fundraising challenge we tackle in order to conduct SETI research is an absolute human and organizational struggle,” said Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute, “yet it is well worth the hard work to help Jill’s team address what is one of humanity’s most profound research questions.”

Dr. Tarter will be presenting during the first Kepler Science Conference (at NASA Ames Research Center) from December 5 to 9, 2011. You can view the agenda for the meeting, along with the abstract for her talk on Earth analogs at:

If you’d like to learn more about SETI, or would like to make a donation to help fund their efforts, visit:

Read more about SETI’s partnership with the United States Air Force at:

Source: SETI Institute press release

Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy – A Beast With Four Tails?


Galactic interactions can have big effects on the shapes of the disks of galaxies. So what happens when a small galaxy intermingles with the outer part of our own larger Milky Way Galaxy? It’s not pretty, as rivers of stars are being sheared off from a neighboring dwarf galaxy, Sagittarius, according to research by a team of astronomers led by Sergey Koposov and Vasily Belokurov (University of Cambridge).

Analyzing data from the latest Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), the team found two streams of stars in the Southern Galactic hemisphere that were torn off Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. This new discovery also connects newly found streams with two previously discovered streams in the Northern Galactic hemisphere.

Describing the phenomenon, Koposov said, “We have long known that when small dwarf galaxies fall into bigger galaxies, elongated streams, or tails, of stars are pulled out of the dwarf by the enormous tidal field.”

Wyn Evans, one of the other team members commented, “Sagittarius is like a beast with four tails.”

At one time, the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy was one of the brightest of our Galaxy’s satellites. Now its remains are on the other side of our Galaxy, and in the process of being broken apart by immense tidal forces. Estimates show that the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy lost half its stars and gas over the past billion years.

Before the SDSS-III data analysis, it was known that Sagittarius had two tails – one in front of and one behind the remnant. This discovery was made by using previous SDSS imaging, specifically a 2006 study which found the Sagittarius tidal tail in the Northern Galactic sky appears to be split in two.

Commenting on the previous discovery, Belokurov added, “That was an amazing discovery, but the remaining piece of the puzzle, the structure in the South, was missing until now.”

Analyzing density maps of over 13 million stars in the SDSS-III data, Koposov and his team found that the Sagittarius stream in the South is also split into two. One stream is thicker and brighter, while the other is thinner and fainter. According to the paper, the fainter stream is simpler and more metal-poor, while the brighter stream is more complex and metal-rich.

The deduction makes sense since each successive generation of stars will create and distribute (via supernovae) more metals into the next generation of star formation.

An artist's impression of the four tails of the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy (the orange clump on the left of the image) orbiting the Milky Way. The bright yellow circle to the right of the galaxy's center is our Sun (not to scale). Image credit: Amanda Smith (University of Cambridge)

While the exact cause of the tidal tail split is unknown, astronomers believe that the Sagittarius dwarf may have been part of a binary galactic system, much like the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, visible in our Southern hemisphere. Despite the nature of the tidal tail split being presently unknown, astronomers have known that over time, many smaller galaxies have been torn apart or absorbed by our Milky Way Galaxy, as well as other galaxies in the Universe.

The movie (below) shows multiple streams produced by the disruption of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy in the Milky Way halo. Our Sun is depicted by the orange sphere. The Sagittarius dwarf galaxy is in the middle of the stream. The area shown in the movie is roughly 200,000 parsecs (about 600,000 light-years.) Movie credit: S. Koposov and the SDSS-III collaboration.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read the full scientific paper at:

Source: SDSS press release, arXiv paper #1111.7042