Astronomers working with the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array have found a pulsar that is much younger than previously thought. The team tracked the movement of a pulsar, located 8,000 light years from Earth, against the remains of the supernova that created it. By calculating the distance it had moved, they were able to calculate the point at which they were at the same place – 64,000 years ago. Using a different method of calculating age, astronomers had previously pegged the pulsar as 107,000 years old. (source: NSF)
The weather in Florida is looking good for Tuesday morning’s landing of the space shuttle Columbia. Assuming everything goes as planned (there’s slight chance of rain, but nothing that would delay the landing), Columbia will land at the Kennedy Space Center at 0932 GMT (4:32am EST). The mission got off to a rocky start when one of the shuttle’s coolant lines was blocked, but controllers say that it won’t pose a risk when the shuttle heats up as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. (source: Reuters)
The space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts landed safely Tuesday morning after completing their mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle landed precisely on schedule, at 0932 GMT (4:32am EST) at the Kennedy Space Center, and the crew performed the customary post-flight inspection of the shuttle. The next shuttle mission is schedule for three weeks from now, when Atlantis will dock with the International Space Station. (source: AP)
Image credit: NASA
Locating the faint evidence of planets circling distant stars used to require high performance optics, like those on the Hubble Space Telescope, but two scientists are putting together a system for NASA that should do the trick with off-the-shelf components for less than $100,000. The system will watch a 5-degree square of sky continuously (about 100x the area of the full moon in the sky), searching for stars which “wink” regularly when a planet obscures it. (source: NASA/JPL)
It could fit on your desk, and it’s made mostly from parts bought at a camera shop, but two scientists believe their new instrument will help them find a slew of large planets orbiting stars in our Milky Way galaxy.
“An amateur astronomer could do this, except maybe for the debugging of the software, which requires several people working 10 hours a day,” said Dr. David Charbonneau of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “But it’s easy to understand what’s going on and cheap to build the equipment. That’s why everyone thinks it’s an ideal project, if it works.”
The assembly of the new instrument is a cooperative effort between Charbonneau and Dr. John Trauger of NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which is managed by Caltech. “David’s approach promises to locate new planets orbiting distant stars. The instrument is simple and straightforward, taking advantage of spare parts and computer code we already have on hand at JPL, and we hope to have it up and running in a few months,” Trauger said.
Charbonneau and his colleagues will soon use their gizmo to begin a three-year survey for extra-solar planets at Palomar Observatory in San Diego County. The instrument is based on a standard telephoto lens for a 35-millimeter camera. It will sweep the skies, looking for “hot Jupiters,” or large, gaseous planets, as their fast orbits take them in front of other stars, into the line of sight between a star and Earth. Astronomers will watch for the “wink” from the star as an orbiting planet partially blocks its light.
Charbonneau, a recent import to the Caltech astronomy staff from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass., is a leading authority on the search for such “transiting planets.”
The new instrument uses a standard 300-millimeter Leica camera lens, with a charge-coupled device, or CCD. The CCD, which costs $22,000, will be mounted in a specially constructed camera housing to fit at the back of the lens. The entire device will be fitted onto an inexpensive equatorial mount, available at many stores carrying amateur astronomical equipment.
“Basically, the philosophy of this project is that, if we can buy the stuff we need off the shelf, we’ll buy it,” Charbonneau said. The project costs $100,000, a fraction of the cost of most large Earth and space-based telescopes.
The Palomar staff will provide a small dome for the instrument, and the system will be automated so it can be operated remotely. The new telescope will be linked with an existing weather system, which will monitor atmospheric conditions and determine whether the dome should be opened.
Charbonneau will be able to photograph a single square of sky about five degrees by five degrees. About 100 full moons or an entire constellation could fit in that field of view. With special software Charbonneau helped develop at Harvard-Smithsonian and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, he will compare many pictures of the same patch of sky to see if any of the thousands of stars in each field has “winked.”
If the software reveals a star has dimmed slightly, it could mean a planet passed in front of the star between exposures. Repeated measurements will allow Charbonneau to measure the orbital period and size of each planet. Further work with the 10-meter (33-foot) telescopes at Keck Observatory at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, will provide spectrographic data, and thus, will infer more detailed information about the planet.
Weather permitting, Charbonneau will gather up to 300 images a night. With 20 good nights per month, about 6,000 images would be gathered each month for computer analysis. The ideal time will be in the fall and winter, when the Milky Way is in view, and an extremely high number of stars can be squeezed into each photograph.
“It’s estimated that about one in three stars in our field of view will be like the Sun, and one percent of Sun-like stars have a hot Jupiter, or a gas giant that is so close to the star that its orbit is about four or five days,” Charbonneau said. “One-tenth of this 1-percent will be inclined in the right direction so that it will pass in front of the star, so maybe one in 3,000 stars will have a planet we can detect. Or if you want to be conservative, about one in 6,000.”
Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release
After five days of repairs, the newly upgraded Hubble Space Telescope was released from the space shuttle Columbia. Over the past week, spacewalking astronauts outfitted Hubble with new solar panels, power controller, pointing mechanism, and an advanced camera – 10 times more powerful than its previous system. During this mission, the astronauts set a record for time spent spacewalking, spending a total of 35 hours, 55 minutes outside the shuttle. Columbia is due to return to Earth on Tuesday morning.
Image credit: Hubble
Even though the Hubble Space Telescope is out of commission while it’s upgraded, older images are still being released to the public. This image, actually taken back in 1995, reveals how a bow shock has formed around a young, hot star located in the Orion Nebula. The star, LL Ori emits a powerful solar wind that collides with the slower moving gas of the Orion Nebula. This bow shock, similar to that found at the front of a boat, is formed where the two winds collide.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope continues to reveal various stunning and intricate treasures that reside within the nearby, intense star-forming region known as the Great Nebula in Orion. One such jewel is the bow shock around the very young star, 1998 WW31, featured in this Hubble Heritage image.
Named for the crescent-shaped wave made by a ship as it moves through water, a bow shock can be created in space when two streams of gas collide. LL Ori emits a vigorous solar wind, a stream of charged particles moving rapidly outward from the star. Our own Sun has a less energetic version of this wind that is responsible for auroral displays on the Earth.
The material in the fast wind from LL Ori collides with slow-moving gas evaporating away from the center of the Orion Nebula, which is located to the lower right in this Heritage image. The surface where the two winds collide is the crescent-shaped bow shock seen in the image.
Unlike a water wave made by a ship, this interstellar bow shock is a three-dimensional structure. The filamentary emission has a very distinct boundary on the side facing away from LL Ori, but is diffuse on the side closest to the star, a characteristic common to many bow shocks.
A second, fainter bow shock can be seen around a star near the upper right-hand corner of the Heritage image. Astronomers have identified numerous shock fronts in this complex star-forming region and are using this data to understand the many complex phenomena associated with the birth of stars.
This image was taken in February 1995 as part of the Hubble Orion Nebula mosaic. A close visitor in our Milky Way galaxy, the nebula is only 1,500 light-years from Earth. The filters used in this color composite represent oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen emissions.
Original Source: Hubble News Release
Image credit: NASA
NASA and the German Space Agency are getting ready to launch the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) on March 16th on board a Russian rocket. This mission will consist of two satellites orbiting the Earth 16 times a day. As they travel over the oceans, minute variations in gravity will pull at the two satellites differently, allowing them to produce a detailed gravity map of the planet. Scientists hope to use this data to understand the effects of global climate change.
NASA and the German Space Agency are preparing to launch the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace), a scientific pathfinder mission that will test a novel approach to tracking how water is transported and stored within the Earth’s environment.
The mission, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., will precisely measure the planet’s shifting water masses and map their effects on Earth’s gravity field, yielding new information on effects of global climate change.
The twin Grace satellites are set to launch March 16, 2002, from Russia on a five-year mission that will revolutionize understanding of changes in the Earth’s gravity field over time and space. The mission will provide measurements of the gravity field that are far more accurate and sensitive than any that can be obtained by ground-based observations or single remote-sensing spacecraft.
“Grace marks the first launch of NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder program, designed to develop new measurement technologies for studying our Earth system,” said Dr. Ghassem Asrar, associate administrator for NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. “Through NASA’s continuing investment in technology development, we’ve been able to create an innovative mission at a fraction of the cost of missions formulated just a decade ago. Grace will provide us with a new view of our home planet and help us to better understand climate change and its global impacts such as changes in sea level and the availability of water resources,” Asrar said.
A more precise gravity map of Earth is expected to increase the accuracy of many techniques used by scientists who study Earth with space-based instruments. These techniques — ranging from satellite altimetry and radar interferometry to digital terrain models covering large land and ice areas — provide critical input to many scientific models used in oceanography, hydrology, glaciology, geology and related disciplines.
As they race around the globe 16 times a day, the satellites will sense minute variations in the Earth’s surface mass below and corresponding variations in the Earth’s gravitational pull. Regions of slightly stronger gravity will affect the lead satellite first, pulling it slightly away from the trailing satellite. By measuring the constantly changing distance between the two satellites and combining that data with precise positioning measurements from Global Positioning System instruments, scientists will be able to construct a precise Earth gravity map.
Grace is the first Earth-monitoring mission in the history of space flight whose key measurement is not derived from electromagnetic waves bounced off the Earth’s surface. Instead, the mission will use a microwave ranging system to accurately measure changes in the speed and distance between two identical spacecraft flying in a polar orbit about 220 kilometers (137 miles) apart, 500 kilometers (311 miles) above Earth. The ranging system is so sensitive it can detect separation changes as small as 10 microns — about one-tenth the width of a human hair over a distance of 220 kilometers.
An additional instrument aboard the satellites called an atmospheric limb sounder will measure the amount by which the Global Positioning System satellite signals are distorted by Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists will use these data to improve the accuracy of key atmospheric observations, which serve as input for weather forecast models.
Grace is a joint partnership between NASA and the German Center for Air and Space Flight (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Rumfahrt). The U.S. portion of the project is managed for NASA’s Office of Earth Science, Washington D.C., by JPL. Science data processing, distribution, archiving and product verification are managed under a cooperative arrangement between JPL and the University of Texas’ Austin-based Center for Space Research in the United States and Germany’s Earth Research Center (or GeoForschungsZentrum).
Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release
Image credit: NASA
During a seven and a half hour spacewalk today, astronauts James Newman and Michael Massimino installed the Advanced Camera for Surveys onto the Hubble Space Telescope – a camera system ten times more powerful than what Hubble had previously. This is the fourth of five spacewalks carried out by the Columbia crew, who are due to return back to Earth on March 12th. The next spacewalk is due for Friday.
Following today?s successful installation of the new Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists will be able to see farther into our universe and with greater clarity and speed than ever before.
Columbia?s spacewalkers, Jim Newman and Mike Massimino, began the first science instrument upgrade of this servicing mission at 3 a.m. central time. The duo, with Newman on the shuttle?s robotic arm, began by removing the last of Hubble?s original science instruments, the Faint Object Camera to make room for the ACS. Newman and Massimino first opened Hubble?s aft shroud doors, removing the Faint Object Camera and temporarily stowing it at the edge of Columbia?s payload bay. After installing the ACS in the Hubble, Newman and Massimino stowed the old camera in the payload bay for its return to Earth.
Then Massimino, on the shuttle?s robotic arm, installed the Electronic Support Module in the aft shroud, with Newman?s assistance. That module will support a new experimental cooling system to be installed during tomorrow?s fifth and final scheduled spacewalk of the mission. That cooling system is designed to bring the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) back to life.
Finally, Newman and Massimino completed some remaining cleanup tasks from yesterday?s Power Control Unit installation.
During the first half of the spacewalk, mission specialist Nancy Currie operated the shuttle?s robotic arm, providing transportation to and from the various worksites on both the Hubble and in Columbia?s payload bay ? Commander Scott Altman then took over operation of the arm to maneuver Massimino through his tasks.
Fellow spacewalkers John Grunsfeld and Rick Linnehan worked from inside the shuttle to choreograph the spacewalk, as Altman and Pilot Duane Carey continued to provide photo and video documentation of the work.
Initial functional tests on the ACS and the electronics module conducted by the Space Telescope Operations Control Center in Greenbelt, Md. were both good. Functional tests of the telescope’s scientific instruments will not be completed, however, until after the telescope is released from Columbia and its aperture door is opened.
The crew is to begin its sleep period at 2:52 p.m. CST. The next STS-109 mission status report will be issued Thursday evening following crew wake-up, or as events warrant.
Original Source: NASA News Release
Image credit: JHU
Astronomers from John Hopkins University announced several weeks back that if you averaged out the colour of all stars in the universe, the result would be an aquamarine colour. Well, it turns out they had a bug in their software that mixed the colours together incorrectly. Once they squished the bug, and reran their calculations, the average colour of the entire universe became beige.
What is the color of the Universe? This seemingly simple question has never really been answered by astronomers. It is difficult to take an accurate and complete census of all the light in the Universe.
However using the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey – a new survey of more than 200,000 galaxies which measures the light from a large volume of the Universe – we have recently been able to try and answer this question. We have constructed what we call “The Cosmic Spectrum”, which represents all the sum of all the energy in the local volume of the universe emitted at different optical wavelengths of light. This is what the cosmic spectrum looks like:
This is a graph of the energy emitted in the Universe for different wavelengths of light (data here). Ultraviolet and blue light is on the left and red light is on the right. This is constructed by adding together all the individual spectra of the separate galaxies in the 2dF survey. The sum represents the light of all the stars. We believe that because the 2dF survey is so large (reaching out several billion light years) that this spectrum is truly representative. We can also show the cosmic spectrum this way:
Here we have put in the approximate color the eye would see at each wavelength of light (though we cannot really see much light below about 4000 Angstroms, the near ultraviolet; and strictly, monitors cannot accurately display monochromatic colors, the colors of the rainbow).
You can think of this as what the eye would see if we put all the light in the Universe through a prism to produce a rainbow. The intensity of the color is in proportion to it’s intensity in the Universe.
So what is the average color? i.e. the color an observer would see if they had the Universe in a box, and could see all the light at once (and it wasn’t moving, for a real observer on earth, the further away a galaxy from us the more it is redshifted. We have de-redshifted all our light before combining).
To answer this question we must compute the average response of the human eye to these colors. How do we express this color? The most objective way to is quote the CIE x,y values which specify the color’s location in the CIE chromaticity diagram and hence the stimulus the eye would see. Any spectrum with the same x,y must give the same perceived color. These numbers are (0.345,0.345) and they are robust, we have calculated them for different sub-samples of the 2dF survey and they vary insignificantly. We have even computed them for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey spectroscopic survey (which will overtake 2dFGRS as the biggest redshift survey sometime in 2002) and they are essentially the same.
But what is the actual color? Well to do this we have to make some assumptions about human vision and the degree of general illumination. We also need to know what monitor you, the reader, are using! Of course this is impossible, but we can make an average guess. So here are the colors:
What are all these colors? They represent the color of the universe for different white points, which represent the adaptation of the human eye to different kinds of illumination. We will perceive different colors under different circumstances, and the kind of spectrum that appears ‘white’ will vary. A common standard is ‘D65’, which is close to setting daylight (in a slightly overcast sky) as white, and compared to which the universe appears reddish. ‘Illuminant E’ (equal energy white point) is perhaps what you would see for white when dark adapted. ‘Illuminant A’ represents indoor lighting, compared to which the Universe (and daylight) is very blue. We also show the color with and without a gamma correction of 2.2, which is the best thing to do for display on typical monitors. We provide the linear file, so you can apply your own gamma if you wish.
Almost certainly you need to look at the color patches labeled ‘gamma’, but not all displays are the same so your mileage may vary.
So what happened to “turquoise” ?
We found a bug in our code! In our original calculation, which you may have read in the press, we used (in good faith) software with a non-standard white point. Rather it was supposed to use a D65 white point, but did not apply it. The result was an effective white point somewhat redder than Illuminant E (as if some red neon lights were around) at 0.365,0.335. Although the x,y values of the Universe are unchanged from our original calculation the shift in the white point made the universe appear ‘turquoise’. (i.e. x,y, remains the same, but the corresponding effective RGB values shift).
Needless to say since that first calculation we have had a lot of correspondence with color scientists, and have now written our own software to obtain a more accurate color value. We admit the color of the Universe was something of a gimmick, to try and make our story on spectra more accessible. Nevertheless it is an actual calculable thing so we believe it is important to get it right.
We would like to point out that our original intention was merely an amusing footnote in our paper, the original press story blew up beyond our wildest expectations! The mistake took some time to realize and track down. Only a handful of color scientists had the expertise to spot the error. One moral of this story is we should have paid more attention to the ‘color science’ aspect and had that refereed as well.
Enough talk. So what color is the Universe?
Really the answer is so close to white, it is difficult to say. That is why such a small error had such a large effect. The most common choice for white is D65. However if one were to introduce a beam of cosmic spectrum into a room strongly illuminated by light bulbs only (Illuminant A) it would appear very blue, as shown above. Overall, probably Illuminant E is the most correct, for looking at the Universe from afar in dark conditions. So our new best guess is:
Although it’s arguable that it might look more pinkish (like D65 above). Good luck if you can see the difference between this color and white! You should be able to just see it, however if we had made the page background black, it would be very difficult! We have had numerous suggestions for this color emailled to us. We have a top ten, and deem the winner to be “Cosmic Latte” being caffeine biased!
A simulation of the Universe
Because of all these complexities we have decided to see for ourselves. Mark Fairchild at Munsell Color Laboratories in Rochester, NY is working with us to make a simulation of the cosmic spectrum, they can control light sources to give exactly the same red/green/blue eye stimulation as you would see from the cosmic spectrum. We will then be able to view this under a variety of lighting conditions, perhaps simulating deep space, and see for ourselves the true color of the Universe.
The real science story
Of course, our real motive for calculating the cosmic spectrum was really a lot more than producing these pretty color pictures. The color is interesting but in fact the cosmic spectrum is rich in detail and tells us a lot more about the history of star formation in the Universe. You may have noticed above that the cosmic spectrum contains dark lines and bright bands, these correspond to the characteristic emission and absorption of different elements:
These may remind you of Fraunhofer lines in the Solar Spectrum. Exactly the same process of atomic absorption is at work. The strength of the dark lines is determined by the temperatures of the stars contributing to the cosmic spectrum. Older stars have cooler atmospheres and produce a different set of lines to hot young stars. By analyzing the spectrum we can work out the relative proportions of these and try and infer what the star-formation rate was in past ages of the Universe. The gory details of this analysis are given in Baldry, Glazebrook, et al. 2002. A simple picture of our inferred most likely histories of star formation in the Universe is shown here:
All these models give the correct cosmic spectrum in the 2dF survey and all of them say that the majority of stars in the Universe today formed more than 5 billion years ago. This of course implies that the color of the Universe would have been different in the past when there were more hot young blue stars. In fact we can calculate what this would be from our best fitting model. The evolution of the color from 13 billion years ago to 7 billion years in the future looks like this under our various assumptions:
The universe started out young and blue, and grew gradually redder as the population of evolved ‘red’ giant stars built up. The rate of formation of new stars has declined precipitously in the last 6 billion years due to the decline in reserves of interstellar gas for forming new stars. As the star-formation rate continues to decline and more stars become red giants the color of the Universe will become redder and redder. Eventually all stars will disappear and nothing will be left but black holes. These too will eventually evaporate via the Hawking process and nothing will be left except for old light, which will itself redden as the Universe expands forever (in the current cosmological model).
Original Source: JHU News Release
Okay, if you want more information about the current space shuttle mission, I highly recommend that you just go straight to the source and watch it live – directly from NASA. Many people don’t know, but NASA has its own television channel called NASA TV (boring name, I know; I would have called it Space Action Theatre!, but that’s me). I don’t know of any cable companies that support it, but you can usually get the station with a satellite dish.
If you don’t have a satellite dish, or you want to watch the coverage from your computer, then you can watch it on the Internet. The quality of the video stream can be pretty good. Don’t just watch a 10-second clip on CNN, watch the whole spacewalk live and hear the communications between the astronauts and the ground control. The helmet cam is the coolest innovation.
So, where to watch it on the Internet? First check out NASA’s schedule of events here. Then, find a place to watch it on the web. NASA lists some sources on this page, but let me save you the time. Yahoo has the most reliable stream.
Whew, I should probably get job in NASA’s PR department. 😉
Fraser Cain, Publisher
P.S. The Christian Science monitor wrote an article about the Hubble mission, used Universe Today as a source and asked for a link in return. Gladly!