What Is The Interplanetary Transport Network?

What is the Interplanetary Transport Network?

It was with great fanfare that Elon Musk announced SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars with the Interplanetary Transport System.

I really wish they’d stuck to their original name, the BFR, the Big Fabulous Rocket, or something like that.

The problem is that Interplanetary Transport System is way too close a name to another really cool idea, the Interplanetary Transport Network, which gives you an almost energy free way to travel across the entire Solar System. Assuming you’re not in any kind of rush.

When you imagine rockets blasting off for distant destinations, you probably envision pointing your rocket at your destination, firing the thrusters until you get there. Maybe turning around and slowing down again to land on the alien world. It’s how you might drive your car, or fly a plane to get from here to there.

But if you’ve played any Kerbal Space Program, you know that’s not how it works in space. Instead, it’s all about orbits and velocity. In order to get off planet Earth, you have be travelling about 8 km/s or 28,000 km/h sideways.

Artist's concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

So now, you’re orbiting the Earth, which is orbiting the Sun. If you want to get to Mars, you have raise your orbit so that it matches Mars. The absolute minimum energy needed to make that transfer is known as the Hohmann transfer orbit. To get to Mars, you need to fire your thrusters until you’re going about 11.3 km/s.

Then you escape the pull of Earth, follow a nice curved trajectory, and intercept the trajectory of Mars. Assuming you timed everything right, that means you intercept Mars and go into orbit, or land on its surface, or discover a portal to hell dug into a research station on Phobos.

If you want to expend more energy, go ahead, you’ll get there faster.

But it turns out there’s another way you can travel from planet to planet in the Solar System, using a fraction of the energy you would use with the traditional Hohmann transfer, and that’s using Lagrange points.

We did a whole article on Lagrange points, but here’s a quick refresher. The Lagrange points are places in the Solar System where the gravity between two objects balances out in five places. There are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Sun, and there are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Moon. And there are points between the Sun and Jupiter, etc.

Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA
Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA

Three of these points are unstable. Imagine a boulder at the top of a mountain. It doesn’t take much energy to keep it in place, but it’s easy to knock it out of balance so it comes rolling down.

Now, imagine the whole Solar System with all these Lagrange points for all the objects gravitationally interacting with each other. As planets go around the Sun, these Lagrange points get close to each other and even overlap.

And if you time things right, you can ride along in one gravitationally balanced point, and the roll down the gravity hill into the grasp of a different planet. Hang out there for a little bit and then jump orbits to another planet.

In fact, you can use this technique to traverse the entire Solar System, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond, relying only on the interacting gravity of all these worlds to provide you with the velocity you need to make the journey.

Welcome to the Interplanetary Transport Network, or Interplanetary Superhighway.

Unlike a normal highway, though, the actual shape and direction these pathways take changes all the time, depending on the current configuration of the Solar System.

800px-Interplanetary_Superhighway
A stylized example of one of the many, ever-changing routes along the ITN. Credit: NASA

If you think this sounds like science fiction, you’ll be glad to hear that space agencies have already used a version of this network to get some serious science done.

NASA greatly extended the mission of the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, using these low energy transfers, it was able to perform its primary mission and then investigate a couple of comets.

The Japanese Hiten spacecraft was supposed to travel to the Moon, but its rocket failed to get enough velocity to put it into the right orbit. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated a trajectory that used the Lagrange points to help it move slowly and get to the Moon any way.

NASA’s Genesis Mission used the technique to capture particles from the solar wind and bring them back to the Earth.

There have been other missions to use the technique, and missions have been proposed that might exploit this technique to fully explore all the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, for example. Traveling from moon to moon when the gravity points line up.

It all sounds too good to be true, so here’s the downside. It’s slow. Really, painfully slow.

Like it can take years and even decades to move from world to world.

Imagine in the far future, there are space stations positioned at the major Lagrange points around the planets in the Solar System. Maybe they’re giant rotating space stations, like in 2001, or maybe they’re hollowed out asteroids or comets which have been maneuvered into place.

Exterior view of a Stanford torus. Bottom center is the non-rotating primary solar mirror, which reflects sunlight onto the angled ring of secondary mirrors around the hub. Painting by Donald E. Davis
Exterior view of a Stanford torus. Bottom center is the non-rotating primary solar mirror, which reflects sunlight onto the angled ring of secondary mirrors around the hub. Painting by Donald E. Davis

They hang out at the Lagrange points using minimal fuel for station keeping. If you want to travel from one planet to another, you dock your spacecraft at the space station, refuel, and then wait for one of these low-energy trajectories to open up.

Then you just kick away from the Lagrange point, fall into the gravity well of your destination, and you’re on your way.

In the far future, we could have space stations at all the Lagrange points, and slow ferries that move from world to world along low energy trajectories, bringing cargo from world to world. Or taking passengers who can’t afford the high velocity Hohmann transfer technique.

You could imagine the space stations equipped with powerful lasers that fill your ship’s solar sails with the photons it needs to take you to the next destination. But then, I’m a sailor, so maybe I’m overly romanticizing it.

Here’s another, even more mind-bending concept. Astronomers have observed these networks open up between interacting galaxies. Want to transfer from the Milky Way to Andromeda? Just get your spacecraft to the galactic Lagrange point in a few billion years as they pass through each other. With very little energy, you’ll be able to join the cool kids in Andromeda.

I love this idea that colonizing and traveling across the Solar System doesn’t actually need to take enormous amounts of energy. If you’re patient, you can just ride the gravitational currents from world to world. This might be one of the greatest gifts the Solar System has made available to us.

The Andromeda Constellation

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come. Thanks to the development of modern telescopes and astronomy, this list was amended by the early 20th century to include the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today.

Of these, Andromeda is one of the oldest and most widely recognized. Located north of the celestial equator, this constellation is part of the family of Perseus, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. Like many constellation that have come down to us from classical antiquity, the Andromeda constellation has deep roots, which may go all the way back to ancient Babylonian astronomy.

Continue reading “The Andromeda Constellation”

How Do Galaxies Die?

Everything eventually dies, even galaxies. So how does that happen? Time to come to grips with our galactic mortality. Not as puny flesh beings, or as a speck of rock, or even the relatively unassuming ball of plasma we orbit.

Today we’re going to ponder the lifespan of the galaxy we inhabit, the Milky Way. If we look at a galaxy as a collection of stars, some are like our Sun, and others aren’t.

The Sun consumes fuel, converting hydrogen into helium through fusion. It’s been around for 5 billion years, and will probably last for another 5 before it bloats up as a red giant, sheds its outer layers and compresses down into a white dwarf, cooling down until it’s the background temperature of the Universe.

So if a galaxy like the Milky Way is just a collection of stars, isn’t that it? Doesn’t a galaxy die when its last star dies?

But you already know a galaxy is more than just stars. There’s also vast clouds of gas and dust. Some of it is primordial hydrogen left from the formation of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago.

All stars in the Milky Way formed from this primordial hydrogen. It and other similar sized galaxies produce 7 bouncing baby stars every year. Sadly, ours has used up 90% of its hydrogen, and star formation will slow down until it both figuratively, and literally, runs out of gas.

The Milky Way will die after it’s used all its star-forming gas, when all of the stars we have, and all those stars yet to be born have died. Stars like our Sun can only last for 10 billion years or so, but the smallest, coolest red dwarfs can last for a few trillion years.

The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans
The Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: Adam Evans

That should be the end, all the gas burned up and every star burned out. And that’s how it would be if our Milky Way existed all alone in the cosmos.

Fortunately, we’re surrounded by dozens of dwarf galaxies, which get merged into our Milky Way. Each merger brings in a fresh crop of stars and more hydrogen to stoke the furnaces of star formation.

There are bigger galaxies out there too. Andromeda is bearing down on the Milky Way right now, and will collide with us in the next few billion years.

When that happens, the two will merge. Then there’ll be a whole new era of star formation as the unspent gas in both galaxies mix together and are used up.

Eventually, all galaxies gravitationally bound to each other in this vicinity will merge together into a giant elliptical galaxy.

We see examples of these fossil galaxies when we look out into the Universe. Here’s M49, a supermassive elliptical galaxy. Who knows how many grand spiral galaxies stoked the fires of that gigantic cosmic engine?

Eta Carinae shines brightly in X-rays in this image from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
Eta Carinae shines brightly in X-rays in this image from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Elliptical galaxies are dead galaxies walking. They’ve used up all their reserves of star forming gas, and all that’s left are the longer lasting stars. Eventually, over vast lengths of time, those stars will wink out one after the other, until the whole thing is the background temperature of the Universe.

As long as galaxies have gas for star formation, they’ll keep thriving. Once it’s gonzo, or a dramatic merger uses all the gas in one big party, they’re on their way out.

What could we do to prolong the life of our galaxy? Let’s hear some wild speculation in the comments below.

Weekly Space Hangout – May 15, 2015: Finding, Studying and Visiting Other Worlds!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 15, 2015: Finding, Studying and Visiting Other Worlds!”

How Far Back Are We Looking in Time?

When we look out into space, we’re also looking back into time. Just how far back can we see?

The Universe is a magic time window, allowing us to peer into the past. The further out we look, the further back in time we see. Despite our brains telling us things we see happen at the instant we view them, light moves at a mere 300,000 kilometers per second, which makes for a really weird time delay at great distances.

Let’s say that you’re talking with a friend who’s about a meter away. The light from your friend’s face took about 3.336 nanoseconds to reach you. You’re always seeing your loved ones 3.336 nanoseconds into the past. When you look around you, you’re not seeing the world as it is, you’re seeing the world as it was, a fraction of a second ago. And the further things are, the further back in time you’re looking.

The distance to the Moon is, on average, about 384,000 km. Light takes about 1.28 seconds to get from the Moon to the Earth. If there was a large explosion on the Moon of a secret Nazi base, you wouldn’t see it for just over a second. Even trying to communicate with someone on the Moon would be frustrating as you’d experience a delay each time you talked.

Let’s go with some larger examples. Our Sun is 8 minutes and 20 seconds away at the speed of light. You’re not seeing the Sun as it is, but how it looked more than 8 minutes ago.

On average, Mars is about 14 light minutes away from Earth. When we were watching live coverage of NASA’s Curiosity Rover landing on Mars, it wasn’t live. Curiosity landed minutes earlier, and we had to wait for the radio signals to reach us, since they travel at the speed of light.

When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reaches Pluto next year, it’ll be 4.6 light hours away. If we had a telescope strong enough to watch the close encounter, we’d be looking at events that happened 4.6 hours ago.

A Hubble Space Telescope image of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
A Hubble Space Telescope image of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

The closest star, Proxima Centauri, is more than 4.2 light-years away. This means that the Proxima Centurans don’t know who won the last US Election, or that there are going to be new Star Wars movies. They will, however, as of when this video was produced, be watching Toronto make some questionable life choices regarding its mayoral election.

The Eagle Nebula with the famous Pillars of Creation, is 7,000 light-years away. Astronomers believe that a supernova has already gone off in this region, blasting them away. Take a picture with a telescope and you’ll see them, but mostly likely they’ve been gone for thousands of years.

The core of our own Milky Way galaxy is about 25,000 light-years away. When you look at these beautiful pictures of the core of the Milky Way, you’re seeing light that may well have left before humans first settled in North America.

The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans
The Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: Adam Evans

And don’t get me started on Andromeda. That galaxy is more than 2.5 million light-years away. That light left Andromeda before we had Homo Erectus on Earth. There are galaxies out there, where aliens with powerful enough telescopes could be watching dinosaurs roaming the Earth, right now.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Some of the brightest objects in the sky are quasars, actively feeding supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies. The closest is 2.5 billion light years away, but there are many much further out. Earth formed only 4.5 billion years ago, so we can see quasars shining where the light had left before the Earth even formed.

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the very edge of the observable Universe is about 13.8 billion light-years away. This light left the Universe when it was only a few hundred thousand years old, and only now has finally reached us. What’s even stranger, the place that emitted that radiation is now 46 billion light-years away from us.

So crack out your sonic screwdrivers and enjoy your time machine, Whovians. Your ability to look out into space and peer into the past. Without a finite speed of light, we wouldn’t know as much about the Universe we live in and where we came from. What moment in history do you wish you could watch? Express your answer in the form of a distance in light-years.

Could the Milky Way Become a Quasar?

There’s a supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Could this black hole become a Quasar?

Previously, we answered the question, “What is a Quasar”. If you haven’t watched that one yet, you might want to pause this video and click here. … or you could bravely plow on ahead because you already know or because clicking is hard.

Should you fall in the latter category. I’m here to reward your laziness. A quasar is what you get when a supermassive black hole is actively feeding on material at the core of a galaxy. The region around the black hole gets really hot and blasts out radiation that we can see billions of light-years away.

Our Milky Way is a galaxy, it has a supermassive black hole at the core. Could this black hole feed on material and become a quasar? Quasars are actually very rare events in the life of a galaxy, and they seem to happen early on in a galaxy’s evolution, when it’s young and filled with gas.

Normally material in the galactic disk orbits well away from the the supermassive black hole, and it’s starved for material. The occasional gas cloud or stray star gets too close, is torn apart, and we see a brief flash as it’s consumed. But you don’t get a quasar when a black hole is snacking on stars. You need a tremendous amount of material to pile up, so it’s chokes on all the gas, dust, planets and stars. An accretion disk grows; a swirling maelstrom of material bigger than our Solar System that’s as hot as a star. This disk creates the bright quasar, not the black hole itself.

Quasars might only happen once in the lifetime of a galaxy. And if it does occur, it only lasts for a few million years, while the black hole works through all the backed up material, like water swirling around a drain. Once the black hole has finished its “stuff buffet”, the accretion disk disappears, and the light from the quasar shuts off.

Sounds scary. According to New York University research scientist Gabe Perez-Giz, even though a quasar might be emitting more than 100 trillion times as much energy as the Sun, we’re far enough away from the core of the Milky Way that we would receive very little of it – like, one hundredth of a percent of the intensity we get from the Sun.

This annotated artist's conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA
This annotated artist’s conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA

Since the Milky Way is already a middle aged galaxy, its quasaring days are probably long over. However, there’s an upcoming event that might cause it to flare up again. In about 4 billion years, Andromeda is going to cuddle with the Milky Way, disrupting the cores of both galaxies. During this colossal event, the supermassive black holes in our two galaxies will interact, messing with the orbits of stars, planets, gas and dust.

Some will be thrown out into space, while others will be torn apart and fed to the black holes. And if enough material piles up, maybe our Milky Way will become a quasar after all. Which as I just mentioned, will be totally harmless to us. The galactic collision? Well that’s another story.

It’s likely our Milky Way already was a quasar, billions of years ago. And it might become one again billions of years from now. And that’s interesting enough that I think we should stick around and watch it happen. How do you feel about the prospects for our Milky Way becoming a quasar? Are you a little nervous by an event that won’t happen for another 4 billion years?

Thanks for watching! Never miss an episode by clicking subscribe. Our Patreon community is the reason these shows happen. We’d like to thank Damon Reith and Jay Allbright, and the rest of the members who support us in making great space and astronomy content. Members get advance access to episodes, extras, contests, and other shenanigans with Jay, myself and the rest of the team. Want to get in on the action? Click here.

Why Is Andromeda Coming Towards Us?

I don’t want to freak you out, but you should be aware that there’s a gigantic galaxy with twice our mass headed right for us. Naw, I’m just kidding. I totally want to freak you out. The Andromeda galaxy is going to slam head first into the Milky Way like it doesn’t even have its eyes on the road.

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Transcript

I don’t want to freak you out, but you should be aware that there’s a gigantic galaxy with twice our mass headed right for us. Naw, I’m just kidding. I totally want to freak you out. The Andromeda galaxy is going to slam head first into the Milky Way like it doesn’t even have its eyes on the road.

This collision will tear the structure of our galaxy apart. The two galaxies will coalesce into a new, larger elliptical galaxy, and nothing will ever be the same again, including your insurance premiums. There’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. It’s like those “don’t text and drive commercials” where they stop time and people get out and have a conversation about their babies and make it clear that selfish murderous teenagers are really ruining everything for all of us all the time.

The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans
The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans

And now that we know disaster is inbound, all we can do is ask WHY? Why this is even happening? Isn’t the Universe expanding, with galaxies speeding away from us in all directions? Shouldn’t Andromeda be getting further away, and not closer? What the hay, man!

Here’s the thing, the vast majority of galaxies are travelling away from us at tremendous speed. This was the big discovery by Edwin Hubble in 1929. The further away a galaxy is, the faster it’s moving away from us. The most recent calculation by NASA in 2013 put this amount at 70.4 kilometers per second per megaparsec. At a billion light-years away, the expansion of the Universe is carrying galaxies away from us at 22,000 km/s, or about 7% of the speed of light. At 100 million light-years away, that speed is only 2,200 km/s.

Which actually doesn’t seem like all that much. Is that like Millenium Falcon fast or starship Enterprise Warp 10 fast? Andromeda is only 2.5 million light-years away. Which means that the expansion of the Universe is carrying it away at only 60 kilometers per second. This is clearly not fast enough for our purposes of not getting our living room stirred into the backyard pool. As the strength of gravity between the Milky Way and Andromeda is strong enough to overcome this expansive force. It’s like there’s an invisible gravity rope connecting the two galaxies together. Dragging us to our doom. Curse you, gravity doom rope!

The Hubble Space Telescope's extreme close-up of M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Picture released in January 2015. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and L.C. Johnson (University of Washington), the PHAT team, and R. Gendler
The Hubble Space Telescope’s extreme close-up of M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Picture released in January 2015. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and L.C. Johnson (University of Washington), the PHAT team, and R. Gendler

Andromeda is speeding towards us at 110 kilometers per second. Without the expansion of the Universe, I’m sure it would be faster and even more horrifying! It’s the same reason why the Solar System doesn’t get torn apart. The expansion rate of the Universe is infinitesimally small at a local level. It’s only when you reach hundreds of millions of light-years does the expansion take over from gravity.

You can imagine some sweet spot, where a galaxy is falling towards us exactly as fast as it’s being carried away by the expansion of the Universe. It would remain at roughly the same distance and then we can just be friends, and they don’t have to get all up in our biz. If Andromeda starts complaining about being friend-zoned, we’ll give them what-for and begin to re-evaluate our friendship with them, because seriously, no one has time for that.

The discovery of dark energy in 1998 has made this even more complicated. Not only is the Universe expanding, but the speed of expansion is accelerating. Eventually distant galaxies will be moving faster away from us than the speed of light. Only the local galaxies, tied together by gravity will remain visible in the sky, eventually all merging together. Everything else will fall over the cosmic horizon and be lost to us forever.

This annotated artist's conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA
This annotated artist’s conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA

All things in the Universe are speeding away from us, it’s just that gravity is a much stronger force at local levels. This is why the Solar System holds together, and why Andromeda is moving towards us and in about 4 billion years or so, the Andromeda galaxy is going to slam into the Milky Way.

So, if by chance you only watched the first part of this video, freaked out, sold your possessions and joined some crazy silver jumpsuit doomsday cult, and are now, years later watching the conclusion… you may feel a bit foolish. However, I hope that you at least made some lifelong friendships and got to keep the jumpsuit.

Really, there’s nothing to worry about. Stars are spread so far apart that individual stars won’t actually collide with each other. Even if humanity is still around in another 4 billion years or so, which is when this will all go down. This definitely isn’t something we’ll be concerned with. It’s just like climate change. Best of luck future generations!

What do you think, will humans still be around in 4 billion years to enjoy watching the spectacle of the Milky Way and Andromeda collide?

Weekly Space Hangout – Jan 9, 2015: Andy Weir of “The Martian”

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Andy Weir , author of “The Martian”
Andy was first hired as a programmer for a national laboratory at age fifteen and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He is also a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. “The Martian” is his first novel.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter)
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Jan 9, 2015: Andy Weir of “The Martian””

New Signal May Be Evidence of Dark Matter, Say Researchers

Dark Matter Halo

Dark matter is the architect of large-scale cosmic structure and the engine behind proper rotation of galaxies. It’s an indispensable part of the physics of our Universe – and yet scientists still don’t know what it’s made of. The latest data from Planck suggest that the mysterious substance comprises 26.2% of the cosmos, making it nearly five and a half times more prevalent than normal, everyday matter. Now, four European researchers have hinted that they may have a discovery on their hands: a signal in x-ray light that has no known cause, and may be evidence of a long sought-after interaction between particles – namely, the annihilation of dark matter.

When astronomers want to study an object in the night sky, such as a star or galaxy, they begin by analyzing its light across all wavelengths. This allows them to visualize narrow dark lines in the object’s spectrum, called absorption lines. Absorption lines occur because a star’s or galaxy’s component elements soak up light at certain wavelengths, preventing most photons with those energies from reaching Earth. Similarly, interacting particles can also leave emission lines in a star’s or galaxy’s spectrum, bright lines that are created when excess photons are emitted via subatomic processes such as excitement and decay. By looking closely at these emission lines, scientists can usually paint a robust picture of the physics going on elsewhere in the cosmos.

But sometimes, scientists find an emission line that is more puzzling. Earlier this year, researchers at the Laboratory of Particle Physics and Cosmology (LPPC) in Switzerland and Leiden University in the Netherlands identified an excess bump of energy in x-ray light coming from both the Andromeda galaxy and the Perseus star cluster: an emission line with an energy around 3.5keV. No known process can account for this line; however, it is consistent with models of the theoretical sterile neutrino – a particle that many scientists believe is a prime candidate for dark matter.

The researchers believe that this strange emission line could result from the annihilation, or decay, of these dark matter particles, a process that is thought to release x-ray photons. In fact, the signal appeared to be strongest in the most dense regions of Andromeda and Perseus and increasingly more diffuse away from the center, a distribution that is also characteristic of dark matter. Additionally, the signal was absent from the team’s observations of deep, empty space, implying that it is real and not just instrumental artifact.

In a pre-print of their paper, the researchers are careful to stress that the signal itself is weak by scientific standards. That is, they can only be 99.994% sure that it is a true result and not just a rogue statistical fluctuation, a level of confidence that is known as 4σ. (The gold standard for a discovery in science is 5σ: a result that can be declared “true” with 99.9999% confidence) Other scientists are not so sure that dark matter is such a good explanation after all. According to predictions made based on measurements of the Lyman-alpha forest – that is, the spectral pattern of hydrogen absorption and photon emission within very distant, very old gas clouds – any particle purporting to be dark matter should have an energy above 10keV – more than twice the energy of this most recent signal.

As always, the study of cosmology is fraught with mysteries. Whether this particular emission line turns out to be evidence of a sterile neutrino (and thus of dark matter) or not, it does appear to be a signal of some physical process that scientists do not yet understand. If future observations can increase the certainty of this discovery to the 5σ level, astrophysicists will have yet another phenomena to account for – an exciting prospect, regardless of the final result.

The team’s research has been accepted to Physical Review Letters and will be published in an upcoming issue.

Why Can’t We See the Big Bang?

Since telescopes let us look back in time, shouldn’t we be able to see all the way back to the very beginning of time itself? To the moment of the Big Bang?

You’ve probably heard that looking out into space is like looking back in time. As it takes light 1 second to get from the Moon to us. Whenever we view it, we’re seeing it 1 second in the past. The Sun is 8 light minutes away, and the light we see from it is from 8 minutes into the past.

A better example might be Andromeda, it’s 2.5 million light years away… and you guessed it, we’re seeing it 2.5 million years in the past. Since the Big Bang happened 13.7 billion years ago, using this idea, shouldn’t we be able look all the way back to the beginning of time, even if we’ve misplaced the key to our Tardis?

At the very beginning of the Universe, seconds after the Big Bang, everything was mushed together. Energy and matter were the same thing. Dogs and cats lived together. There was no difference between light and radiation, it was all just one united force.

You couldn’t see it, because light didn’t actually exist. There were no such thing as photons.

However, if you’re still insisting there’s no such thing as photons, you might want to check yourself. After these things started to separate. Photons and particles became actual things. Electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force split off and formed new bands, but could never quite get the momentum of the original lineup.

By the end of the first second, neutrons and protons were around, and they were getting mashed by the intense heat and pressure into the first elements. But you still couldn’t see that because the whole Universe was like the inside of a star. Everything was opaque. It was Scarlett Johansson hot, and too crazy to form stable atoms with electrons as we see today.

Artist's conception of Planck, a space observatory operated by the European Space Agency, and the cosmic microwave background. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration - D. Ducros
Artist’s conception of Planck, a space observatory operated by the European Space Agency, and the cosmic microwave background. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration – D. Ducros

After the Universe was about 380,000 years old, it had cooled down to the point that proper atoms could form. This is the moment when light could finally move, and travel distances across the Universe to you and get caught up in your light buckets. In fact, this light is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation.

So, how come we don’t see all this freed light in all directions with our eyes? It’s because the region of space where it exists is so far away, and travelling away from us so quickly. The light’s wavelengths have been stretched out to the point that light has been turned into microwaves. It’s only with sensitive radio telescopes and space missions that astronomers can even detect it.

Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to see the Big Bang. Even though we’re looking back in time, right to the edge of the observable Universe, it’s just beyond our reach. If you could look at the Universe at any point in time, what would it be? Tell us in the comments below.

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