The Universe’s Tour Guide

A number companies are deploying satellites this year to create space-based internet services. Credit: AMNH.

The hazy, white horizon lifts away slowly, giving way to the blue and green, cloud-swept marble we call home. I take in a deep breath, astonished by the Earth’s staggering beauty in stark contrast to the sprinkled backdrop.

People are still shuffling into the 429-seat Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, their shadows projected onto the arched ceiling. A voice resonates in the dome’s spacious cavity. Brian Abbott, the planetarium’s assistant director, is welcoming everyone to the show. It’s a “highlights tour,” he says, covering most of the known universe in one fell swoop.

As we leave Earth further behind, the satellites appear, swarming above our planet like bees around a hive. Soon the curved orbits of other planets become visible and we fly toward Mars.

In minutes we are hovering above Valles Marineris, a canyon so massive it would stretch from Manhattan to Los Angeles. The projectors display six-meter resolution data from the Mars Global Surveyor. We see the canyon ridges in such incredible, 3D detail it seems we could reach out and touch the tallest peaks with our fingers.

Abbott’s voice is slow and soothing. He speaks with authority, mindful of every inflection he makes and every word he uses. He carefully constructs his sentences, but also takes the time to crack a few jokes along the way. It’s just another day at the office, and yet it sounds like he’s having the time of his life.

Abbott in his office at AMNH. Credit: Shannon Hall
Abbott in his office at AMNH. Credit: Shannon Hall

Abbott never dreamed of becoming an astronomer. In high school he was on a very different path, headed toward a career in art. Then, in 1985, Halley’s comet was scheduled to appear in the night sky. “For some reason I needed to find it,” he said. So, from his backyard outside Philadelphia, he learned how to pinpoint the constellations and spot distant objects, like galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. When the comet finally came, he was able to spot it, a tiny target in the vast sky. It was a revelation that pumped him full of adrenalin on that long, dark night.

Yet while Abbott left art as a career choice behind, he has been able to integrate art with astronomy, as his planetarium show demonstrates. “I admire the niche he has created for himself in the intersection between art, visualization and science,” said colleague Jana Grcevich, a postdoctoral researcher at AMNH.

Just before starting work at the museum in 1999, however, Abbott was an unhappy graduate student in the astronomy department at the University of Toledo. “Who can explain what gets you out of bed in the morning,” he said. “It just wasn’t what moved me.” Frustrated with his lot in life, he had plans to drive his car across the country, Jack Kerouac style. But first, he attended one last meeting: the American Astronomical Society’s annual conference in Chicago.

There, among all the job listings, he saw only one that wasn’t a research or a faculty position. The AMNH needed someone to create the world’s first interactive atlas of the Universe. So Abbott started sniffing around and coincidentally ran into the planetarium’s famed director, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in the hallway of their hotel. Yet “Neil wasn’t Neil back then,” Abbott recalled. “He was somewhat known but he wasn’t mobbed with people.”

The duo started talking, and in two weeks Abbott found himself living in New York City with a new job. But he doesn’t regret it for a second. “I feel like I’m almost divorced from the night sky living here. I’m not able to just go out in my backyard and set up a telescope and see stuff. But we have this great dome. And I can go in there and see the entire Universe far better than I can see in the night sky.”

Now, Abbott spends his days visualizing large data sets. For the past 14 years, he has been creating a three-dimensional map of the Universe. He’s constantly updating the atlas with recent data hot off the world’s biggest telescopes and best satellites. And in the planetarium, he turns this abstract data into the planets, stars and galaxies that visitors flock to see. “What we want to do is focus on the scientific story of the universe,” said Abbott. “And we want that reflected in our dome.”

As the Hayden Planetarium’s popularity suggests, there’s a surprising public appetite for such strict scientific cartography. “There’s always at least one time in the show when the air comes out of the room,” said Abbott, referring to the moment when the audience takes a collective breath, in awe of the universe above them.

I can recall easily when that moment came for me. We had just left the Milky Way galaxy. Looking back on our home galaxy, the bright yellow core was surrounded by gorgeous blue spiral arms and sweeping dust lanes. Swarms of smaller galaxies began to appear. In minutes, we saw the Tully Catalogue, which covers an astonishing 30,000 galaxies in total.

The audience gasped in awe at the sheer number of galaxies in our local neighborhood. It’s impossible not to feel small at a moment like that.

But we were nowhere near the farthest reaches of the Universe yet. In moments, we saw the total number of galaxies ever recorded in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. A chill ran down my spine. There were over one million galaxies projected onto the dome. Each one has over 100 billion stars. And each one of those likely has 5 or even ten planets. There are so many opportunities for life in our vast Universe.

We continued to zoom out, until we reached the edges of the 46.6 billion-light-year-wide observable Universe. In just over an hour, the tour had grossly violated the speed of light. “So that’s the Universe,” Abbott said. “Any questions?”

Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson Host ‘Selling Space’ Panel Tonight

Neil de Grasse Tyson

Hot off of the popularity of the Cosmos reboot, host Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to host a panel at 7:30 p.m. EDT (11:30 p.m. UTC) tonight about “selling space.” Check it out in the livestream above. Here is the description from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which is hosting the event:

From serving NASA’s cargo needs to sending tourists on space vacations to mining asteroids for profit, aerospace engineers could transform space into our backyard. The sold-out 2014 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History will explore the idea of “selling space” with a panel of six entrepreneurs and space historians. 

Besides Tyson (who is director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium), here is who else is participating:

  • Wanda M. Austin, President and CEO, The Aerospace Corportation
  • Michael Gold, Director of DC Operations and Business Growth, Bigelow Aerospace
  • John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus, Space Policy and International Affairs, George Washington University
  • Elliot Pulham, Chief Executive Officer, Space Foundation
  • Tom Shelley, President, Space Adventures, Ltd.
  • Robert Walker, Executive Chairman, Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates

There are no tickets left for the event, but you can watch it in the livestream above and interact with the hashtag #AsimovDebate.

For more information on Tyson, visit his website. The 13-part Cosmos series is airing every Sunday or Monday in many jurisdictions; check your local listings for more information.

What If Earth Was Threatened by An Asteroid Strike? Astronaut Panel Brings Up Ideas To Search, Deflect These Threats

Computer generated simulation of an asteroid strike on the Earth. Credit: Don Davis/AFP/Getty Images

“If we get hit 20 years from now, that’s not bad luck. That’s stupidity.”

That’s what former NASA astronaut Ed Lu has to say about asteroids and our efforts to search for them. He delivered those comments at a panel discussion today at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. He and several other astronauts spoke on behalf of the Association of Space Explorers (which, as the name implies, consists of astronauts, cosmonauts and the like.)

We guess that as astute readers of our publication, you know that a planetary threat from asteroids (and comets) exists. And there’s certainly more we can do; when that 17-meter asteroid blasted Russia earlier this year, Lu said most space agencies learned about it from social media!

So what’s being done about these threats? Here’s a roundup of the panel discussion’s information and some related information.

Asteroid searching and deflection:
  • Since Lu is the CEO of the B612 Foundation, there was a heavy emphasis on the agency’s proposed Sentinel telescope. Intended to launch in 2018, it would survey the solar system in infrared and seek out potential hazards.
  • To date, NASA’s NEO Observations Program has found 95 per cent of near-Earth objects larger than one kilometer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Amy Mainzer told Universe Today in a separate conversation today.
  • Mainzer also brought us up to speed on the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) proposal, which she’s been working on since 2005. Her group received technology development funding in 2010 to improve their infrared detectors, which succeeded in passing recent tests. Their group will seek more funding for NASA in the next opportunity.
  • The WISE spacecraft’s NEOWISE mission, meanwhile, is going to restart early next year, Mainzer added. “While NEOWISE is not nearly as capable as NEOCam will be, it will improve our knowledge of the diameters and albedos of  about 2,000 NEOs and tens of thousands of main belt asteroids,” Mainzer wrote. “With the NEOWISE prime mission, we discovered more than 34,000 new asteroids and observed >158,000 in total. We have used our data from NEOWISE to set constraints on the number of NEOs and potentially hazardous asteroids.”
Former NASA astronaut Tom Jones shared this slide concerning ideas for asteroid defense. Credit: Tom Jones/Association for Space Explorers/AMNH/Ustream (screenshot)

Getting the United Nations involved:


  • This week, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space adopted several steps related to asteroids. It’s planning an International Asteroid Warning Group (to share detections and warn of potential impacts), an Impact Disaster Planning Advisory Group, and a Space Missions Planning and Advisory Group (which would look at deflection missions, options, costs, etc.)
  • Why go with the United Nations? In the panel, NASA Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart explained it this way: deciding how to deflect an asteroid posts risks. You might be moving the impact path past a country that would not have been at risk before the deflection. It’s best to make such moves internationally, rather than having (say) the United States make a decision that could increase Russia’s risk to an asteroid.
  • The problem? Working by committee is slow, says former Romanian astronaut Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu: “You would think with the United Nations that we started to think about asteroids only in 2007, 8 or 9, but the first input was done by 1999 at the Unispace conference, the United Nations International Conference in Space.” People have been working hard, to be sure, but making a good, inclusive plan just takes time. An action team was formed in 2001, a working group was in place by 2007, and the adoptions by UNCOPUOS (as we stated earlier) took place this week.
An artist's conception of a space exploration vehicle approaching an asteroid. Credit: NASA
An artist’s conception of a space exploration vehicle approaching an asteroid. Credit: NASA
 Cost of all of this:
  • Schweickart: “Money is hardly an issue in this. This is a very inexpensive thing to do. It’s organizational setting the actual criteria, thresholds whatever.” It would only cost 1% of the NASA budget for the next 10 years, and less than 0.5% after that. (The NASA budget request for 2014 was $17.7 billion, so 1% of that is $177 million.)
  • The panel members emphasized that it’s best to start the search early and find the threatening asteroids before things become an emergency. If a moderate-sized asteroid was discovered only a few months out, it might be better just to evacuate the affected area rather than try to pull together a last-minute mission to stop the asteroid.

Sifting Starlight, Finding New Worlds

These two images show HD 157728, a nearby star 1.5 times larger than the sun. The star is centered in both images, and its light has been mostly removed by an adaptive optics system and coronagraph belonging to Project 1640, which uses new technology on the Palomar Observatory’s 200-inch Hale telescope near San Diego, Calif., to spot planets. Credit: Project 1640

Looking directly at stars is a bad way to find planets orbiting faraway suns but using a new technique, scientists can now sift the starlight to find new exoplanets millions of times dimmer than their parent stars.

“We are blinded by this starlight,” says Ben R. Oppenheimer, a curator in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics and principal investigator for Project 1640. “Once we can actually see these exoplanets, we can determine the colors they emit, the chemical compositions of their atmospheres, and even the physical characteristics of their surfaces. Ultimately, direct measurements, when conducted from space, can be used to better understand the origin of Earth and to look for signs of life in other worlds.”

Using indirect detection methods, astronomers have found hundreds of planets orbiting other stars. The light stars emit, however, is tens of millions to billions of times brighter than the light reflected by planets.

Project 1640 is an advanced telescope imaging system, made up of the world’s most advanced adaptive optics system, instruments and software. The project operates at the 200-inch Hale Telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory. Engineers at the American Museum of Natural History, California Institute of Technology, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked more than six years developing the new system.

Earth’s atmosphere wreaks havoc with starlight. The heating and cooling of the atmosphere produces turbulence that creates a twinkling effect on the point-like light from a star. Optics within a telescope also warp light. The instruments that make up Project 1640 manipulate starlight by deforming a mirror more than 7 million times a second to counteract the twinkling. This produces a crystal clear infrared image of the star with a precision smaller than one nanometer; about 100 times smaller than a typical bacteria.

“Imaging planets directly is supremely challenging,” said Charles Beichman, executive director of the NASA ExoPlanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology. “Imagine trying to see a firefly whirling around a searchlight more than a thousand miles away.”

A coronagraph, built by the American Museum of Natural History, optically dims the star leaving other celestial objects in the field of view. Other instruments help create an “artificial eclipse” inside Project 1640. Only about half a percent of the original light remains in the form of a speckled background. These speckles can still be hundreds of times brighter than the dim planets. The instruments control the light from the speckles to further dim their brightness. What the instrument creates is a dark hole where the star had been while leaving the light reflected from any planets. Coordination of the system is extremely important, say the researchers. Even the smallest light leak would drown out the incredibly faint light from planets orbiting a star.

For now Project 1640, the world’s most advanced and highest contrast imaging system, is focusing on bright stars relatively close to Earth; about 200 light-years away. Their three-year survey includes plans to image hundreds of young stars. The planets they may find are likely to be very large, Jupiter-sized bodies.

“The more we learn about them, the more we realize how vastly different planetary systems can be from our own,” said Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Gautam Vasisht. “All indications point to a tremendous diversity of planetary systems, far beyond what was imagined just 10 years ago. We are on the verge of an incredibly rich new field.”

Read more about Project 1640:

Image Caption: Two images of HD 157728, a nearby star 1.5 times larger than the Sun. The star is centered in both images, and its light has been mostly removed by the adaptive optics system and coronagraph. The remaining starlight leaves a speckled background against which fainter objects cannot be seen. On the left, the image was made without the ultra-precise starlight control that Project 1640 is capable of. On the right, the wavefront sensor was active, and a darker square hole formed in the residual starlight, allowing objects up to 10 million times fainter than the star to be seen. Images were taken on June 14, 2012 with Project 1640 on the Palomar Observatory’s 200-inch Hale telescope. (Courtesy of Project 1640)