Rise Of The Super Telescopes: The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will capture Hubble-quality images covering swaths of sky 100 times larger than Hubble does, enabling cosmic evolution studies. Its Coronagraph Instrument will directly image exoplanets and study their atmospheres. Credits: NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab

We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.

In this series we’ll look at the world’s upcoming Super Telescopes:

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

It’s easy to forget the impact that the Hubble Space Telescope has had on our state of knowledge about the Universe. In fact, that might be the best measurement of its success: We take the Hubble, and all we’ve learned from it, for granted now. But other space telescopes are being developed, including the WFIRST, which will be much more powerful than the Hubble. How far will these telescopes extend our understanding of the Universe?

“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has.” – John Grunsfeld, NASA Science Mission Directorate

The WFIRST might be the true successor to the Hubble, even though the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is often touted as such. But it may be incorrect to even call WFIRST a telescope; it’s more accurate to call it an astrophysics observatory. That’s because one of its primary science objectives is to study Dark Energy, that rather mysterious force that drives the expansion of the Universe, and Dark Matter, the difficult-to-detect matter that slows that expansion.

WFIRST will have a 2.4 meter mirror, the same size as the Hubble. But, it will have a camera that will expand the power of that mirror. The Wide Field Instrument is a 288-megapixel multi-band near-infrared camera. Once it’s in operation, it will capture images that are every bit as sharp as those from Hubble. But there is one huge difference: The Wide Field Instrument will capture images that cover over 100 times the sky that Hubble does.

Alongside the Wide Field Instrument, WFIRST will have the Coronagraphic Instrument. The Coronagraphic Instrument will advance the study of exoplanets. It’ll use a system of filters and masks to block out the light from other stars, and hone in on planets orbiting those stars. This will allow very detailed study of the atmospheres of exoplanets, one of the main ways of determining habitability.

WFIRST is slated to be launched in 2025, although it’s too soon to have an exact date. But when it launches, the plan is for WFIRST to travel to the Sun-Earth LaGrange Point 2 (L2.) L2 is a gravitationally balanced point in space where WFIRST can do its work without interruption. The mission is set to last about 6 years.

Probing Dark Energy

“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “This mission uniquely combines the ability to discover and characterize planets beyond our own solar system with the sensitivity and optics to look wide and deep into the universe in a quest to unravel the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter.”

In a nutshell, there are two proposals for what Dark Energy can be. The first is the cosmological constant, where Dark Energy is uniform throughout the cosmos. The second is what’s known as scalar fields, where the density of Dark Energy can vary in time and space.

We used to think that the Universe expanded at a steady rate. Then in the 1990s we discovered that the expansion had started accelerating about 5 billion years ago. Dark Energy is the name given to the force driving that expansion. Image: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild
We used to think that the Universe expanded at a steady rate. Then in the 1990s we discovered that the expansion had accelerated. Dark Energy is the name given to the force driving that expansion. Image: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild

Since the 1990s, observations have shown us that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. That acceleration started about 5 billion years ago. We think that Dark Energy is responsible for that accelerated expansion. By providing such large, detailed images of the cosmos, WFIRST will let astronomers map expansion over time and over large areas. WFIRST will also precisely measure the shapes, positions and distances of millions of galaxies to track the distribution and growth of cosmic structures, including galaxy clusters and the Dark Matter accompanying them. The hope is that this will give us a next level of understanding when it comes to Dark Energy.

If that all sounds too complicated, look at it this way: We know the Universe is expanding, and we know that the expansion is accelerating. We want to know why it’s expanding, and how. We’ve given the name ‘Dark Energy’ to the force that’s driving that expansion, and now we want to know more about it.

Probing Exoplanets

Dark Energy and the expansion of the Universe is a huge mystery, and a question that drives cosmologists. (They really want to know how the Universe will end!) But for many of the rest of us, another question is even more compelling: Are we alone in the Universe?

There’ll be no quick answer to that one, but any answer we find begins with studying exoplanets, and that’s something that WFIRST will also excel at.

Artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We're going to keep finding more and more solar systemsl like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST, with starshades, to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We’re going to keep finding more and more solar systems like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“WFIRST is designed to address science areas identified as top priorities by the astronomical community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “The Wide-Field Instrument will give the telescope the ability to capture a single image with the depth and quality of Hubble, but covering 100 times the area. The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.”

“The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.” – Paul Hertz, NASA Astrophysics Division

The difficulty in studying exoplanets is that they are all orbiting stars. Stars are so bright they make it impossible to see their planets in any detail. It’s like staring into a lighthouse miles away and trying to study an insect near the lighthouse.

The Coronagraphic Instrument on board WFIRST will excel at blocking out the light of distant stars. It does that with a system of mirrors and masks. This is what makes studying exoplanets possible. Only when the light from the star is dealt with, can the properties of exoplanets be examined.

This will allow detailed measurements of the chemical composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. By doing this over thousands of planets, we can begin to understand the formation of planets around different types of stars. There are some limitations to the Coronagraphic Instrument, though.

The Coronagraphic Instrument was kind of a late addition to WFIRST. Some of the other instrumentation on WFIRST isn’t optimized to work with it, so there are some restrictions to its operation. It will only be able to study gas giants, and so-called Super-Earths. These larger planets don’t require as much finesse to study, simply because of their size. Earth-like worlds will likely be beyond the power of the Coronagraphic Instrument.

These limitations are no big deal in the long run. The Coronagraph is actually more of a technology demonstration, and it doesn’t represent the end-game for exoplanet study. Whatever is learned from this instrument will help us in the future. There will be an eventual successor to WFIRST some day, perhaps decades from now, and by that time Coronagraph technology will have advanced a great deal. At that future time, direct snapshots of Earth-like exoplanets may well be possible.

But maybe we won’t have to wait that long.

Starshade To The Rescue?

There is a plan to boost the effectiveness of the Coronagraph on WFIRST that would allow it to image Earth-like planets. It’s called the EXO-S Starshade.

The EXO-S Starshade is a 34m diameter deployable shading system that will block starlight from impairing the function of WFIRST. It would actually be a separate craft, launched separately and sent on its way to rendezvous with WFIRST at L2. It would not be tethered, but would orient itself with WFIRST through a system of cameras and guide lights. In fact, part of the power of the Starshade is that it would be about 40,000 to 50,000 km away from WFIRST.

Dark Energy and Exoplanets are priorities for WFIRST, but there are always other discoveries awaiting better telescopes. It’s not possible to predict everything that we’ll learn from WFIRST. With images as detailed as Hubble’s, but 100 times larger, we’re in for some surprises.

“This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.” – Neil Gehrels, WFIRST Project Scientist

“In addition to its exciting capabilities for dark energy and exoplanets, WFIRST will provide a treasure trove of exquisite data for all astronomers,” said Neil Gehrels, WFIRST project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.”

With all of the Super Telescopes coming on line in the next few years, we can expect some amazing discoveries. In 10 to 20 years time, our knowledge will have advanced considerably. What will we learn about Dark Matter and Dark Energy? What will we know about exoplanet populations?

Right now it seems like we’re just groping towards a better understanding of these things, but with WFIRST and the other Super Telescopes, we’re poised for more purposeful study.

Either Stars are Strange, or There Are 234 Aliens Trying to Contact Us

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope stands out against the breaktaking backdrop of the Sacramento Mountains. 234 stars out of the Sloan's catalogue of over 2.5 million stars are producing an unexplained pulsed signal. Image: SDSS, Fermilab Visual Media Services

We all want there to be aliens. Green ones, pink ones, brown ones, Greys. Or maybe Vulcans, Klingons, even a being of pure energy. Any type will do.

That’s why whenever a mysterious signal or energetic fluctuation arrives from somewhere in the cosmos and hits one of our many telescopes, headlines erupt across the media: “Have We Finally Detected An Alien Signal?” or “Have Astronomers Discovered An Alien Megastructure?” But science-minded people know that we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves.

Skepticism still rules the day when it comes to these headlines, and the events that spawn them. That’s the way it should be, because we’ve always found a more prosaic reason for whatever signal from space we’re talking about. But, being skeptical is a balancing act; it doesn’t mean being dismissive.

What we’re talking about here is a new study from E.F. Borra and E. Trottier, two astronomers at Laval University in Canada. Their study, titled “Discovery of peculiar periodic spectral modulations in a small fraction of solar type stars” was just published at arXiv.org. ArXiv.org is a pre-print website, so the paper itself hasn’t been peer reviewed yet. But it is generating interest.

The two astronomers used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and analyzed the spectra of 2.5 million stars. Of all those stars, they found 234 stars that are producing a puzzling signal. That’s only a tiny percentage. And, they say, these signals “have exactly the shape of an ETI signal” that was predicted in a previous study by Borra.

A portion of the 234 stars that are sources of the pulsed ETI-like signal. Note that all the stars are in the narrow spectral range F2 to K1, very similar to our own Sun. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier
A portion of the 234 stars that are sources of the pulsed ETI-like signal. Note that all the stars are in the narrow spectral range F2 to K1, very similar to our own Sun. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier

Prediction is a key part of the scientific method. If you develop a theory, your theory looks better and better the more you can use it to correctly predict some future events based on it. Look how many times Einstein’s predictions based on Relativity have been proven correct.

The 234 stars in Borra and Trottier’s study aren’t random. They’re “overwhelmingly in the F2 to K1 spectral range” according to the abstract. That’s significant because this is a small range centred around the spectrum of our own Sun. And our own Sun is the only one we know of that has an intelligent species living near it. If ours does, maybe others do too?

The authors acknowledge five potential causes of their findings: instrumental and data reduction effects, rotational transitions in molecules, the Fourier transform of spectral lines, rapid pulsations, and finally the ETI signal predicted by Borra (2012). They dismiss molecules or pulsations as causes, and they deem it highly unlikely that the signals are caused by the Fourier analysis itself. This leaves two possible sources for the detected signals. Either they’re a result of the Sloan instrument itself and the data reduction, or they are in fact a signal from extra-terrestrial intelligences.

This graph shows the number of detected signals by Spectral Type of star. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier
This graph shows the number of detected signals by Spectral Type of star. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier

The detected signals are pulses of light separated by a constant time interval. These types of signals were predicted by Borra in his 2012 paper, and they are what he and Trottier set out to find in the Sloan data. It may be a bit of a red flag when scientist’s find the very thing they predicted they would find. But Trottier and Borra are circumspect about their own results.

As the authors say in their paper, “Although unlikely, there is also a possibility that the signals are due to highly peculiar chemical compositions in a small fraction of galactic halo stars.” It may be unlikely, but lots of discoveries seem unlikely at first. Maybe there is a tiny subset of stars with chemical peculiarities that make them act in this way.

To sum it all up, the two astronomers have found a tiny number of stars, very similar to our own Sun, that seem to be the source of pulsed signals. These signals are the same as predicted if a technological society was using powerful lasers to communicate with distant stars.

We all want there to be aliens, and maybe the first sign of them will be pulsed light signals from stars like our own Sun. But it’s all still very preliminary, and as the authors acknowledge, “…at this stage, this hypothesis needs to be confirmed with further work.”

That further work is already being planned by the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, a project that searches for intelligent life in the cosmos. They plan to use the Automated Planet Finder telescope at the Lick Observatory to further observe some of Borra’s 234 stars.

The Breakthrough team don’t seem that excited about Borra’s findings. They’ve already poured cold water on it, trotting out the old axiom that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in a statement on Borra’s paper. They also give Borra’s findings a score of 0 to 1 on the Rio Scale. The Rio Scale is something used by the international SETI community to rank detections of phenomena that could indicate advanced life beyond Earth. A rating of 0 to 1 means its insignificant.

Better reign in the headline writers.

New ‘Einstein Ring’ Discovered By Dark Energy Camera

The "Canarias Einstein Ring." The green-blue ring is the source galaxy, the red one in the middle is the lens galaxy. The lens galaxy has such strong gravity, that it distorts the light from the source galaxy into a ring. Because the two galaxies are aligned, the source galaxy appears almost circular. Image: This composite image is made up from several images taken with the DECam camera on the Blanco 4m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile.

A rare object called an Einstein Ring has been discovered by a team in the Stellar Populations group at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. An Einstein Ring is a specific type of gravitational lensing.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted the phenomena of gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing tells us that instead of travelling in a straight line, light from a source can be bent by a massive object, like a black hole or a galaxy, which itself bends space time.

Einstein’s General Relativity was published in 1915, but a few years before that, in 1912, Einstein predicted the bending of light. Russian physicist Orest Chwolson was the first to mention the ring effect in scientific literature in 1924, which is why the rings are also called Einstein-Chwolson rings.

Gravitational lensing is fairly well-known, and many gravitational lenses have been observed. Einstein rings are rarer, because the observer, source, and lens all have to be aligned. Einstein himself thought that one would never be observed at all. “Of course, there is no hope of observing this phenomenon directly,” Einstein wrote in 1936.

The team behind the recent discovery was led by PhD student Margherita Bettinelli at the University of La Laguna, and Antonio Aparicio and Sebastian Hidalgo of the Stellar Populations group at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. Because of the rarity of these objects, and the strong scientific interest in them, this one was given a name: The Canarias Einstein Ring.

There are three components to an Einstein Ring. The first is the observer, which in this case means telescopes here on Earth. The second is the lens galaxy, a massive galaxy with enormous gravity. This gravity warps space-time so that not only are objects drawn to it, but light itself is forced to travel along a curved path. The lens lies between Earth and the third component, the source galaxy. The light from the source galaxy is bent into a ring form by the power of the lens galaxy.

When all three components are aligned precisely, which is very rare, the light from the source galaxy is formed into a circle with the lens galaxy right in the centre. The circle won’t be perfect; it will have irregularities that reflect irregularities in the gravitational force of the lens galaxy.

Another Einstein Ring. This one is named LRG 3-757. This one was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but this image was captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Image: NASA/Hubble/ESA
Another Einstein Ring. This one is named LRG 3-757. This one was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but this image was captured by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Image: NASA/Hubble/ESA

The objects are more than just pretty artifacts of nature. They can tell scientists things about the nature of the lens galaxy. Antonio Aparicio, one of the IAC astrophysicists involved in the research said, “Studying these phenomena gives us especially relevant information about the composition of the source galaxy, and also about the structure of the gravitational field and of the dark matter in the lens galaxy.”

Looking at these objects is like looking back in time, too. The source galaxy is 10 billion light years from Earth. Expansion of the Universe means that the light has taken 8.5 billion light years to reach us. That’s why the ring is blue; that long ago, the source galaxy was young, full of hot blue stars.

The lens itself is much closer to us, but still very distant. It’s 6 billion light years away. Star formation in that galaxy likely came to a halt, and its stellar population is now old.

The discovery of the Canarias Einstein Ring was a happy accident. Bettinelli was pouring over data from what’s known as the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) of the 4m Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory, in Chile. She was studying the stellar population of the Sculptor dwarf galaxy for her PhD when the Einstein Ring caught her attention. Other members of the Stellar Population Group then used OSIRIS spectrograph on the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC) to observe and analyze it further.

Next Time You’re Late To Work, Blame Dark Energy!

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory

Ever since Lemaitre and Hubble’s first proposed it in the 1920s, scientists and astronomers have been aware that the Universe is expanding. And from these observations, cosmological theories like the Big Bang Theory and the “Arrow of Time” emerged. Whereas the former addresses the origins and evolution of our Universe, the latter argues that the flow of time in one-direction and is linked to the expansion of space.

For many years, scientists have been trying to ascertain why this is. Why does time flow forwards, but not backwards? According to new study produced by a research team from the Yerevan Institute of Physics and Yerevan State University in Armenia, the influence of dark energy may be the reason for the forward-flow of time, which may make one-directional time a permanent feature of our universe.

Today, theories like the Arrow of Time and the expansion of the universe are considered fundamental facts about the Universe. Between measuring time with atomic clocks, observing the red shift of galaxies, and created detailed 3D maps that show the evolution of our Universe over the course of billions of years, one can see how time and the expansion of space are joined at the hip.

Artist's impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com
Artist’s impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com

The question of why this is the case though is one that has continued to frustrate physicists. Certain fundamental forces, like gravity, are not governed by time. In fact, one could argue without difficulty that Newton’s Laws of Motion and quantum mechanics work the same forwards or backwards. But when it comes to things on the grand scale like the behavior of planets, stars, and entire galaxies, everything seems to come down to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

This law, which states that the total chaos (aka. entropy) of an isolated system always increases over time, the direction in which time moves is crucial and non-negotiable, has come to be accepted as the basis for the Arrow of Time. In the past, some have ventured that if the Universe began to contract, time itself would begin to flow backwards. However, since the 1990s and the observation that the Universe has been expanding at an accelerating rate, scientists have come to doubt that this.

If, in fact, the Universe is being driven to greater rates of expansion – the predominant explanation is that “Dark Energy” is what is driving it – then the flow of time will never cease being one way. Taking this logic a step further, two Armenian researchers – Armen E. Allahverdyan of the Center for Cosmology and Astrophysics at the Yerevan Institute of Physics and Vahagn G. Gurzadyan of Yerevan State University – argue that dark energy is the reason why time always moves forward.

In their paper, titled “Time Arrow is Influenced by the Dark Energy“, they argue that dark energy accelerating the expansion of the universe supports the asymmetrical nature of time. Often referred to as the “cosmological constant” – referring to Einstein’s original theory about a force which held back gravity to achieve a static universe – dark energy is now seen as a “positive” constant, pushing the Universe forward, rather than holding it back.

Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation
Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation

To test their theory, Allahverdyan and Gurzadyan used a large scale scenario involving gravity and mass – a planet with increasing mass orbiting a star. What they found was that if dark energy had a value of 0 (which is what physicists thought before the 1990s), or if gravity were responsible for pulling space together, the planet would simply orbit the star without any indication as to whether it was moving forwards or backwards in time.

But assuming that the value of dark energy is a positive (as all the evidence we’ve seen suggests) then the planet would eventually be thrown clear of the star. Running this scenario forward, the planet is expelled because of its increasing mass; whereas when it is run backwards, the planet closes in on the star and is captured by it’s gravity.

In other words, the presence of dark energy in this scenario was the difference between having an “arrow of time” and not having one. Without dark energy, there is no time, and hence no way to tell the difference between past, present and future, or whether things are running in a forward direction or backwards.

But of course, Allahverdyan and Gurzadyan were also sure to note in their study that this is a limited test and doesn’t answer all of the burning questions. “We also note that the mechanism cannot (and should not) explain all occurrences of the thermodynamic arrow,” they said. “However, note that even when the dark energy (cosmological constant) does not dominate the mean density (early universe or today’s laboratory scale), it still exists.”

Limited or not, this research is representative of some exciting new steps that astrophysicists have been taking of late. This involves not only questioning the origins of dark energy and the expansion force it creates, but also questioning its implication in basic physics. In so doing, researchers may finally be able to answer the age-old question about why time exists, and whether or not it can be manipulated (i.e. time travel!)

Further Reading: Physical Review E

James Webb Space Telescope Takes The Gloves Off

Behold, the mighty primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, in all its gleaming glory! Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) isn’t even operational yet, and already its gleaming golden mirror has reached iconic status. It’s segmented mirror is reminiscent of an insect eye, and once that eye is unfolded at its eventual stationary location at L2, the JWST will give humanity its best view of the Universe yet. Now, NASA has unveiled the JWST’s mirrors in a clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, giving us a great look at what the telescope will look like when it’s operational.

Even if you didn’t know anything about the JWST, its capabilities, or its torturous path to finally being built, you would still look at it and be impressed. It’s obviously a highly technological, highly engineered, one of a kind object. In fact, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a piece of modern art. (I’ve seen less appealing modern art, have you?)

The fact that the JWST will outperform its predecessor, the Hubble, is a well-known fact. After all, the Hubble is pretty long in the tooth now. But how exactly it will outperform the Hubble, and what the JWST’s mission objectives are, is less well-known. It’s worth it to take a look at the objectives of the JWST, again, and re-visit the enthusiasm that has surrounded this mission since its inception.

The James Webb Space Telescope in the clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn
The James Webb Space Telescope in the clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA groups JWST’s science objectives into four areas:

  • infrared vision that acts like a time-machine, giving us a look at the first stars and galaxies to form in the Universe, over 13 billion years ago.
  • a comparative study of the stately spiral and elliptical galaxies of our age with the faintest, earliest galaxies to form in the Universe.
  • a probing gaze through clouds of dust, to watch stars and planets being born.
  • a look at extrasolar planets, and their atmospheres, keeping an eye out for biomarkers.

That is an impressive list, even in an age where people take technological and scientific progress for granted. But alongside these noble objectives, there will no doubt be some surprises. Guessing what those surprises might be is a bit of a fool’s errand, but this is the internet, so let’s dare to be foolish.

We have an idea that abiogenesis on Earth happened fairly quickly, but we have nothing to compare it to. Will we learn enough about exoplanets and their atmospheres to shed some light on conditions needed for life to happen? It’s a stretch, but who knows?

We have an understanding of the expansion of the Universe, and it’s backed up by pretty solid evidence. Will we learn something surprising about this? Or something that sheds some light on Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and their role in the early Universe?

Or will there be surprising findings in the area of planetary and stellar formation? The capability to look deeply into dust clouds should certainly reveal things previously unseen, but only guessed at.

Of course, not everything needs to be surprising to be exciting. Evidence that supports and fine tunes current theories is also intriguing. And the James Webb should deliver a boatload of evidence.

There’s no question that the JWST will outdo the Hubble in the science department. But for a generation or two of people, the Hubble will always have a special place. It drew many of us in, with its breathtaking pictures of nebulae and other objects, its famous Deep Field study, and, of course, its science. It was probably the first telescope to gain celebrity status.

The James Webb will probably never gain the social status that the Hubble gained. It’s kind of like the Beatles, there can only be one ‘first of its kind.’ But the JWST will be much more powerful, and will reveal to us a lot that has been hidden.

The JWST will be a grand technological accomplishment, if all goes well and it makes it to L2 and is fully functional. Its ability to look deeply into dust clouds, and to look back in time, to the early days of the Universe, make it a potent scientific tool.

And if engineering can figure out a way to reverse the polarity in the warp core without it going crit, we should be able to fire a beam of tachyon anti-matter neutrinos and de-cloak a Romulan Warbird at a distance of 3 AUs. Not bad for something Congress threatened to cancel!

An Old Glass Plate Hints at a Potential New Exoplanet Discovery

Polluted white dwarf

What’s the value to exoplanet science of sifting through old astronomical observations? Quite a lot, as a recent discovery out of the Carnegie Institution for Science demonstrates. A glass plate spectrum of a nearby solitary white dwarf known as Van Maanen’s Star shows evidence of rocky debris ringing the system, giving rise to a state only recently recognized as a ‘polluted white dwarf.’ Continue reading “An Old Glass Plate Hints at a Potential New Exoplanet Discovery”

The Laws Of Cosmology May Need A Re-Write

A map of the CMB as captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Credit: WMAP team

Something’s up in cosmology that may force us to re-write a few textbooks. It’s all centred around the measurement of the expansion of the Universe, which is, obviously, a pretty key part of our understanding of the cosmos.

The expansion of the Universe is regulated by two things: Dark Energy and Dark Matter. They’re like the yin and yang of the cosmos. One drives expansion, while one puts the brakes on expansion. Dark Energy pushes the universe to continually expand, while Dark Matter provides the gravity that retards that expansion. And up until now, Dark Energy has appeared to be a constant force, never wavering.

How is this known? Well, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is one way the expansion is measured. The CMB is like an echo from the early days of the Universe. It’s the evidence left behind from the moment about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the rate of expansion of the Universe stabilized. The CMB is the source for most of what we know of Dark Energy and Dark Matter. (You can hear the CMB for yourself by turning on a household radio, and tuning into static. A small percentage of that static is from the CMB. It’s like listening to the echo of the Big Bang.)

The CMB has been measured and studied pretty thoroughly, most notably by the ESA’s Planck Observatory, and by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). The Planck, in particular, has given us a snapshot of the early Universe that has allowed cosmologists to predict the expansion of the Universe. But our understanding of the expansion of the Universe doesn’t just come from studying the CMB, but also from the Hubble Constant.

The Hubble Constant is named after Edwin Hubble, an American astronomer who observed that the expansion velocity of galaxies can be confirmed by their redshift. Hubble also observed Cepheid variable stars, a type of standard candle that gives us reliable measurements of distances between galaxies. Combining the two observations, the velocity and the distance, yielded a measurement for the expansion of the Universe.

So we’ve had two ways to measure the expansion of the Universe, and they mostly agree with each other. There’ve been discrepancies between the two of a few percentage points, but that has been within the realm of measurement errors.

But now something’s changed.

In a new paper, Dr. Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University, and his team, have reported a more stringent measurement of the expansion of the Universe. Riess and his team used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe 18 standard candles in their host galaxies, and have reduced some of the uncertainty inherent in past studies of standard candles.

The result of this more accurate measurement is that the Hubble constant has been refined. And that, in turn, has increased the difference between the two ways the expansion of the Universe is measured. The gap between what the Hubble constant tells us is the rate of expansion, and what the CMB, as measured by the Planck spacecraft, tells us is the rate of expansion, is now 8%. And 8% is too large a discrepancy to be explained away as measurement error.

The fallout from this is that we may need to revise our standard model of cosmology to account for this, somehow. And right now, we can only guess what might need to be changed. There are at least a couple candidates, though.

It might be centred around Dark Matter, and how it behaves. It’s possible that Dark Matter is affected by a force in the Universe that doesn’t act on anything else. Since so little is known about Dark Matter, and the name itself is little more than a placeholder for something we are almost completely ignorant about, that could be it.

Or, it could be something to do with Dark Energy. Its name, too, is really just a placeholder for something we know almost nothing about. Maybe Dark Energy is not constant, as we have thought, but changes over time to become stronger now than in the past. That could account for the discrepancy.

A third possibility is that standard candles are not the reliable indicators of distance that we thought they were. We’ve refined our measurements of standard candles before, maybe we will again.

Where this all leads is open to speculation at this point. The rate of expansion of the Universe has changed before; about 7.5 billion years ago it accelerated. Maybe it’s changing again, right now in our time. Since Dark Energy occupies so-called empty space, maybe more of it is being created as expansion continues. Maybe we’re reaching another tipping or balancing point.

The only thing certain is that it is a mystery. One that we are driven to understand.

Who was Albert Einstein?

Albert Einstein's Inventions

At the end of the millennium, Physics World magazine conducted a poll where they asked 100 of the world’s leading physicists who they considered to be the top 10 greatest scientist of all time. The number one scientist they identified was Albert Einstein, with Sir Isaac Newton coming in second. Beyond being the most famous scientist who ever lived, Albert Einstein is also a household name, synonymous with genius and endless creativity.

As the discoverer of Special and General Relativity, Einstein revolutionized our understanding of time, space, and universe. This discovery, along with the development of quantum mechanics, effectively brought to an end the era of Newtonian Physics and gave rise to the modern age. Whereas the previous two centuries had been characterized by universal gravitation and fixed frames of reference, Einstein helped usher in an age of uncertainty, black holes and “scary action at a distance”.

Continue reading “Who was Albert Einstein?”

What are White Holes?

Black holes are created when stars die catastrophically in a supernova. So what in the universe is a white hole?

It’s imagination day, and we’re going to talk about fantasy creatures. Like unicorns, but even rarer. Like leprechauns, but even more fantastical!

Today, we’re going to talk about white holes. Before we talk about white holes, let’s talk about black holes. And before we talk about Black Holes, what’s is this thing you have with holes exactly?

Black holes are places in the Universe where matter and energy are compacted so densely together that their escape velocity is greater than the speed of light. We’ve done at least a million videos on them, but if you still want more info, you can start here with our Black Hole playlist.

Fully describing a black hole requires a lot of fancy math, but these are real objects in our Universe. They were predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity, and actually discovered over the last few decades.

Black holes are created when stars, much more massive than our Sun, die catastrophically in a supernova.
So then what’s a white hole?

White holes are created when astrophysicists mathematically explore the environment around black holes, but pretend there’s no mass within the event horizon. What happens when you have a black hole singularity with no mass?

White holes are completely theoretical mathematical concepts. In fact, if you do black hole mathematics for a living, I’m told, ignoring the mass of the singularity makes your life so much easier.

They’re not things that actually exist. It’s not like astronomers detected an unusual outburst of radiation and then developed hypothetical white hole models to explain them.

White Hole
White Hole. Image Credit: universe-review.ca

As my good friend and sometimes Guide to Space contributor, Dr. Brian Koberlein says, “If you start with five cupcakes and start giving them away, you eventually run out. At that point you can’t give away any more. In this case you can’t count down past zero. Sure, you can hand out slips of paper with “I O U ONE cupcake.” written on them, but it would be ridiculous to use the existence of negative numbers to claim that “negative cupcakes” exist and can be handed out to people.”

Now if white holes did exist, which they probably don’t, they would behave like reverse black holes – just like the math predicts. Instead of pulling material inward, a white hole would blast material out into space like some kind of white chocolate fountain. So generous, these white holes and their chocolate.

One of the other implications of white hole math, is that they only theoretically exist as long as there isn’t a single speck of matter within the event horizon. As soon as single atom of hydrogen drifted into the region, the whole thing would collapse. Even if white holes were created back at the beginning of the Universe, they would have collapsed long ago, since our Universe is already filled with stray matter.

That said, there are a few physicists out there who think white holes might be more than theoretical. Hal Haggard and Carlo Rovelli of Aix-Marseille University in France are working to explain what happens within black holes using a branch of theoretical physics called loop quantum gravity.

Artistic view of a radiating black hole.  Credit: NASA
Artistic view of a radiating black hole. Credit: NASA

In theory, a black hole singularity would compress down until the smallest possible size predicted by physics. Then it would rebound as a white hole. But because of the severe time dilation effect around a black hole, this event would take billions of years for even the lowest mass ones to finally get around to popping.

If there were microscopic black holes created after the Big Bang, they might get around to decaying and exploding as white holes any day now. Except, according to Stephen Hawking, they would have already evaporated.

Another interesting idea put forth by physicists, is that a white hole might explain the Big Bang, since this is another situation where a tremendous amount of matter and energy spontaneously appeared.

In all likelihood, white holes are just fancy math. And since fancy math rarely survives contact with reality, white holes are probably just imaginary.

What other highly theoretical theories in space and physics would you like us to investigate? Tell us in the comments below.