The 2016 Nobel Prize In Physics: It’s Complicated

Update: This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to David J. Thouless (University of Washington), F. Duncan M. Haldane (Princeton University), and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”. One half of the prize was awarded to Thouless while the other half was jointly awarded to Haldane and Kosterlitz.

The Nobel Prize in physics is a coveted award. Every year, the prize is bestowed upon the individual who is deemed to have made the greatest contribution to the field of physics during the preceding year. And this year, the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves is anticipated to be the main focus.

This discovery, which was announced on February 11th, 2016, was made possible thanks to the development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). As such, it is expected that the three scientists that are most responsible for the invention of the technology will receive the Nobel Prize for their work. However, there are those in the scientific community who feel that another scientist – Barry Barish – should also be recognized.

But first, some background is needed to help put all this into perspective. For starers, gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime that are generated by certain gravitational interactions and which propagate at the speed of light. The existence of such waves has been postulated since the late 19th century.

LIGO's two facilities, located in . Credit: ligo.caltech.edu
LIGO’s two observatories, the located in Livingston, Louisiana; and Hanford, Washington. Credit: ligo.caltech.edu

However, it was not until the late 20th century, thanks in large part to Einstein and his theory of General Relativity, that gravitational-wave research began to emerge as a branch of astronomy. Since the 1960s, various gravitational-wave detectors have been built, which includes the LIGO observatory.

Founded as a Caltech/MIT project, LIGO was officially approved by the National Science Board (NSF) in 1984. A decade later, construction began on the facility’s two locations – in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. By 2002, it began to obtain data, and work began on improving its original detectors in 2008 (known as the Advanced LIGO Project).

The credit for the creation of LIGO goes to three scientists, which includes Rainer Weiss, a professor of physics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Ronald Drever, an experimental physics who was professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology and a professor at Glasgow University; and Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech.

In 1967 and 68, Weiss and Thorne initiated efforts to construct prototype detectors, and produced theoretical work to prove that gravitational waves could be successfully analyzed. By the 1970s, using different methods, Weiss and Denver both succeeded in building detectors. In the coming years, all three men remained pivotal and influential, helping to make gravitational astronomy a legitimate field of research.

 A bird's eye view of LIGO Hanford's laser and vacuum equipment area (LVEA). The LVEA houses the pre-stabilized laser, beam splitter, input test masses, and other equipment. Credit: ligo.caltech.edu
LIGO Hanford’s laser and vacuum equipment area (LVEA), which houses the pre-stabilized laser, beam splitter, input test masses, and other equipment. Credit: ligo.caltech.edu

However, it has been argued that without Barish – a particle physicist at Caltech – the discovery would never have been made. Having become the Principal Investigator of LIGO in 1994, he inherited the project at a very crucial time. It had begun funding a decade prior, but coordinating the work of Wiess, Thorne and Drever (from MIT, Caltech and the University of Glasgow, respectively) proved difficult.

As such, it was decided that a single director was needed. Between 1987 and 1994, Rochus Vogt – a professor emeritus of Physics at Caltech – was appointed by the NSF to fill this role. While Vogt brought the initial team together and helped to get the construction of the project approved, he proved difficult when it came to dealing with bureaucracy and documenting his researchers progress.

As such, between 1989 through 1994, LIGO failed to progress technically and organizationally, and had trouble acquiring funding as well. By 1994, Caltech eased Vogt out of his position and appointed Barish to the position of director. Barish got to work quickly, making significant changes to the way LIGO was administered, expanding the research team, and developing a detailed work plan for the NSF.

Barish was also responsible for expanding LIGO beyond its Caltech and MIT constraints. This he did through the creation of the independent LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), which gave access to outside researchers and institutions. This was instrumental in creating crucial partnerships, which included the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Max Planck Society of Germany, and the Australian Research Council.

Artist's impression of how massive bodies (like our Sun) distort space time. Credit: T. Pyle/Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab
Artist’s impression of how massive bodies (like our Sun) distort space time. Such bodies also create gravity waves when they accelerate through space and time. Credit: T. Pyle/Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

By 1999, construction had wrapped up on the LIGO observatories, and by 2002, they began taking their first bits of data. By 2004, the funding and groundwork was laid for the next phase of LIGO development, which involved a multi-year shut-down while the detectors were replaced with improved “Advanced LIGO” versions.

All of this was made possible by Barish, who retired in 2005 to head up other projects. Thanks to his sweeping reforms, LIGO got to work after an abortive start, began to produce data, procured funding, crucial partnerships, and now has more than 1000 collaborators worldwide, thanks to the LSC program he established.

Little wonder then why some scientists think the Nobel Prize should be split four-ways, awarding the three scientists who conceived of LIGO and the one scientist who made it happen. And as Barish himself was quoted as saying by Science:

“I think there’s a bit of truth that LIGO wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do it, so I don’t think I’m undeserving. If they wait a year and give it to these three guys, at least I’ll feel that they thought about it,” he says. “If they decide [to give it to them] this October, I’ll have more bad feelings because they won’t have done their homework.”

The approximate locations of the two gravitational-wave events detected so far by LIGO are shown on this sky map of the southern hemisphere. . Credit: LIGO/Axel Mellinger
The approximate locations of the two gravitational-wave events detected so far by LIGO are shown on this sky map of the southern hemisphere. . Credit: LIGO/Axel Mellinger

However, there is good reason to believe that the award will ultimately be split three ways, leaving Barish out. For instance, Weiss, Drever, and Thorne have been honored three times already this year for their work on LIGO. This has included the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, and Kavli Prize in Astrophysics.

What’s more, in the past, the Nobel Prize in physics has tended to be awarded to those responsible for the intellectual contributions leading to a major breakthrough, rather than to those who did the leg work. Out of the last six Prizes issued (between 2010 and 2015), five have been awarded for the development of experimental methods, observational studies, and theoretical discoveries.

Only one award was given for a technical development. This was the case in 2014 where the award was given jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”.

Basically, the Nobel Prize is a complicated matter. Every year, it is awarded to those who made a considerable contribution to science, or were responsible for a major breakthrough. But contributions and breakthroughs are perhaps a bit relative. Whom we choose to honor, and for what, can also be seen as an indication of what is valued most in the scientific community.

In the end, this year’s award may serve to highlight how significant contributions do not just entail the development of new ideas and methods, but also in bringing them to fruition.

Further Reading: Science, LIGO, Nobelprize.org

Kuiper Belt Objects Point The Way To Planet 9

Artist's impression of Planet Nine, blocking out the Milky Way. The Sun is in the distance, with the orbit of Neptune shown as a ring. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

On January 20th, 2016, researchers Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown of Caltech announced that they had found evidence that hinted at the existence of a massive planet at the edge of the Solar System. Based on mathematical modeling and computer simulations, they predicted that this planet would be a super-Earth, two to four times Earth’s size and 10 times as massive. They also estimated that, given its distance and highly elliptical orbit, it would take 10,000 – 20,000 years to orbit the Sun.

Since that time, many researchers have responded with their own studies about the possible existence of this mysterious “Planet 9”. One of the latest comes from the University of Arizona, where a research team from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory have indicated that the extreme eccentricity of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) might indicate that they crossed paths with a massive planet in the past.

For some time now, it has been understood that there are a few known KBOs who’s dynamics are different than those of other belt objects. Whereas most are significantly controlled by the gravity of the gas giants planets in their current orbits (particularly Neptune), certain members of the scattered disk population of the Kuiper Belt have unusually closely-spaced orbits.

The six most distant known objects in the solar system with orbits exclusively beyond Neptune (magenta), including Sedna (dark magenta), all mysteriously line up in a single direction. Also, when viewed in three dimensions, they tilt nearly identically away from the plane of the solar system. Another population of Kuiper belt objects (cyan) are forced into orbits that are perpendicular to the plane of the solar system and clustered in orientation. Batygin and Brown show that a planet with 10 times the mass of the earth in a distant eccentric orbit (orange) anti-aligned with the magenta orbits and perpendicular to the cyan orbits is required to maintain this configuration. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
The orbits of Neptune (magenta), Sedna (dark magenta), a series of Kuiper belt objects (cyan), and the hypothetical Planet 9 (orange). Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

When Batygin and Brown first announced their findings back in January, they indicated that these objects instead appeared to be highly clustered with respect to their perihelion positions and orbital planes. What’s more, their calculation showed that the odds of this being a chance occurrence were extremely low (they calculated a probability of 0.007%).

Instead, they theorized that it was a distant eccentric planet that was responsible for maintaining the orbits of these KBOs. In order to do this, the planet in question would have to be over ten times as massive as Earth, and have an orbit that lay roughly on the same plane (but with a perihelion oriented 180° away from those of the KBOs).

Such a planet not only offered an explanation for the presence of high-perihelion Sedna-like objects – i.e. planetoids that have extremely eccentric orbits around the Sun. It would also help to explain where distant and highly inclined objects in the outer Solar System come from, since their origins have been unclear up until this point.

In a paper titled “Coralling a distant planet with extreme resonant Kuiper belt objects“, the University of Arizona research team – which included Professor Renu Malhotra, Dr. Kathryn Volk, and Xianyu Wang – looked at things from another angle. If in fact Planet 9 were crossing paths with certain high-eccentricity KBOs, they reasoned, it was a good bet that its orbit was in resonance with these objects.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

To break it down, small bodies are ejected  from the Solar System all the time due to encounters with larger objects that perturb their orbits. In order to avoid being ejected, smaller bodies need to be protected by orbital resonances. While the smaller and larger objects may pass within each others’ orbital path, they are never close enough that they would able to exert a significant influence on each other.

This is how Pluto has remained a part of the Solar System, despite having an eccentric orbit that periodically cross Neptune’s path. Though Neptune and Pluto cross each others orbit, they are never close enough to each other that Neptune’s influence would force Pluto out of our Solar System. Using this same reasoning, they hypothesized that the KBOs examined by Batygin and Brown might be in an orbital resonance with the Planet 9.

As Dr.  Malhotra, Volk and Wang told Universe Today via email:

“The extreme Kuiper belt objects we investigate in our paper are distinct from the others because they all have very distant, very elliptical orbits, but their closest approach to the Sun isn’t really close enough for them to meaningfully interact with Neptune. So we have these six observed objects whose orbits are currently fairly unaffected by the known planets in our Solar System. But if there’s another, as yet unobserved planet located a few hundred AU from the Sun, these six objects would be affected by that planet.”

After examining the orbital periods of these six KBOs – Sedna, 2010 GB174, 2004 VN112, 2012 VP113, and 2013 GP136 – they concluded that a hypothetical planet with an orbital period of about 17,117 years (or a semimajor axis of about 665 AU), would have the necessary period ratios with these four objects. This would fall within the parameters estimated by Batygin and Brown for the planet’s orbital period (10,000 – 20,000 years).

Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign
Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign

Their analysis also offered suggestions as to what kind of resonance the planet has with the KBOs in question. Whereas Sedna’s orbital period would have a 3:2 resonance with the planet, 2010 GB174 would be in a 5:2 resonance, 2994 VN112 in a 3:1, 2004 VP113 in 4:1, and 2013 GP136 in 9:1. These sort of resonances are simply not likely without the presence of a larger planet.

“For a resonance to be dynamically meaningful in the outer Solar System, you need one of the objects to have enough mass to have a reasonably strong gravitational effect on the other,” said the research team. “The extreme Kuiper belt objects aren’t really massive enough to be in resonances with each other, but the fact that their orbital periods fall along simple ratios might mean that they each are in resonance with a massive, unseen object.”

But what is perhaps most exciting is that their findings could help to narrow the range of Planet 9’s possible location. Since each orbital resonance provides a geometric relationship between the bodies involved, the resonant configurations of these KBOs can help point astronomers to the right spot in our Solar System to find it.

But of course, Malhotra and her colleagues freely admit that several unknowns remain, and further observation and study is necessary before Planet 9 can be confirmed:

“There are a lot of uncertainties here. The orbits of these extreme Kuiper belt objects are not very well known because they move very slowly on the sky and we’ve only observed very small portions of their orbital motion. So their orbital periods might differ from the current estimates, which could make some of them not resonant with the hypothetical planet. It could also just be chance that the orbital periods of the objects are related; we haven’t observed very many of these types of objects, so we have a limited set of data to work with.”

Based on a careful study of Saturn's orbit and using mathematical models, French scientists were able to whittle down the search region for Planet Nine to "possible" and "probable" zones. Source: CNRS, Cote d'Azur and Paris observatories. Credit:
Estimates of Planet Nine’s “possible” and “probable” zones. by French scientists based on a careful study of Saturn’s orbit and using mathematical models. Source: CNRS, Cote d’Azur and Paris observatories. Credit: Bob King

Ultimately, astronomers and the rest of us will simply have to wait on further observations and calculations. But in the meantime, I think we can all agree that the possibility of a 9th Planet is certainly an intriguing one! For those who grew up thinking that the Solar System had nine planets, these past few years (where Pluto was demoted and that number fell to eight) have been hard to swallow.

But with the possible confirmation of this Super-Earth at the outer edge of the Solar System, that number could be pushed back up to nine soon enough!

Further Reading: arXiv.org

The Early Universe Was All About Galactic Hook Ups

In about 4 billion years, scientists estimate that the Andromeda and the Milky Way galaxies are expected to collide, based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope. And when they merge, they will give rise to a super-galaxy that some are already calling Milkomeda or Milkdromeda (I know, awful isn’t it?) While this may sound like a cataclysmic event, these sorts of galactic collisions are quite common on a cosmic timescale.

As an international group of researchers from Japan and California have found, galactic “hookups” were quite common during the early universe. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Subaru Telescope at in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, they have discovered that 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang, galactic clumps grew to become large galaxies by merging. As part of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) “Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS)”, this information could tell us a great about the formation of the early universe.

Continue reading “The Early Universe Was All About Galactic Hook Ups”

Newest Planet: Is it Pluto, Eris or Extrasolar?

Eris, the newest planet?

With astronomers discovering new planets and other celestial objects all the time, you may be wondering what the newest planet to be discovered is. Well, that depends on your frame of reference. If we are talking about our Solar System, then the answer used to be Pluto, which was discovered by the American astronomer Clyde William Tombaugh in 1930.

Unfortunately, Pluto lost its status as a planet in 2006 when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Since then, another contender has emerged for the title of “newest planet in the Solar System” – a celestial body that goes by the name of Eris – while beyond our Solar System, thousands of new planets are being discovered.

But then, the newest planet might be the most recently discovered extrasolar planet. And these are being discovered all the time.

Continue reading “Newest Planet: Is it Pluto, Eris or Extrasolar?”

It Looks Like These Are All the Bright Kuiper Belt Objects We’ll Ever Find

The self-professed “Pluto Killer” is at it again. Dr. Michael Brown is now reminiscing about the good old days when one could scour through sky survey data and discover big bright objects in the Kuiper Belt. In his latest research paper, Brown and his team have concluded that those days are over.

Ten years ago, Brown discovered what is now known as the biggest Kuiper Belt object – Eris. Brown’s team found others that rivaled Pluto in size and altogether, these discoveries led to the demotion of Pluto to dwarf planet. Now, using yet another sky survey data set but with new computer software, Brown says that its time to move on.

Instigators of the big heist - David Rabinowitz, Brown and Chad Trujillo, left to right. The researchers discovered dozens of Kuiper Belt objects (KBO) including six of the eight largest KBOs including the largest, Eris.
Instigators of the big heist – Rabinowitz, Brown and Trujillo, left to right. The researchers co-discovered dozens of Kuiper Belt objects (KBO) including nine of the ten largest KBOs including the largest, Eris.

Like the famous Bugs Bunny cartoon, its no longer Rabbit Season or Duck Season and as Bugs exclaims to Elmer Fudd, there is no more bullets. Analyzing seven years worth of data, Brown and his team has concluded we are fresh out of Pluto or Charon-sized objects to be discovered in the Kuiper Belt. But for Dr. Brown, perhaps it now might be Oort Cloud season.

His latest paper, A Serendipitous All Sky Survey For Bright Objects In The Outer Solar System, in pre-print, describes the completion of analysis of two past sky surveys covering the northern and southern hemisphere down to 20 degrees in Galactic latitude. Using revised computer software, his team scoured through the data sets from the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) and the Siding Spring Survey (SSS). The surveys are called “fast cadence surveys” and they primarily search for asteroids near Earth and out to the asteroid belt. Instead Brown’s team used the data to look at image frames spaced days and months apart.

Update: In a Twitter communique, Dr. Brown stated, “I would say we’re out of BRIGHT ones, not big ones. Could be big ones lurking far away!” His latest work involved a southern sky survey (SSS) to about magnitude 19 and the northern survey (CSS) to 21. Low albedo (dark) and more distant KBOs might be lurking beyond the detectability of these surveys that are in the range of Charon to Pluto in size.

Animation showing the movement of Eris on the images used to discover it. Eris is indicated by the arrow. The three frames were taken over a period of three hours. (Credit: Brown, et al.)
Animation showing the movement of Eris on the images used to discover it. Eris is indicated by the arrow. The three frames were taken over a period of three hours. More images over several weeks were necessary to determine its orbit.(Credit: Brown, et al.)

Objects at Kuiper Belt distances move very slowly. For example, Pluto orbits the Sun at about 17,000 km/hr (11,000 mph), taking 250 years to complete one orbit. These are speeds that are insufficient to maintain ven a low-Earth orbit. Comparing two image frames spaced just hours apart will find nearby asteroids moving relative to the star fields but not Kuiper belt objects. So using image frames spaced days, weeks or even months apart, they searched again. Their conclusion is that all the big Kuiper belt objects have been found.

The only possibility of finding another large KBO lies in a search of the galactic plane which is difficult due to the density of Milky Way’s stars in the field of view. The vast number of small bodies in the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud lends itself readily to statistical analysis. Brown states that there is a 32% chance of finding another Pluto-sized object hiding among the stars of the Milky Way.

Artists concept of the view from Eris with Dysnomia  in the background, looking back towards the distant sun. Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC)
Artists concept of the view from Eris with Dysnomia in the background, looking back towards the distant sun. Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC)

Dr. Brown also released a blog story in celebration of the discovery of the largest of the Kuiper Belt objects, Eris, ten years ago last week. Ten years of Eris, reminisces about the great slew of small body discoveries by Dr. Brown, Dr. Chad Trujillo of Gemini Observatory and Dr. David Rabinowitz of Yale Observatory.

Brown encourages others to take up this final search right in the galactic plane but apparently his own intentions are to move on. What remains to be seen — that is, to be discovered — are hundreds of large “small” bodies residing in the much larger region of the Oort Cloud. These objects are distributed more uniformly throughout the whole spherical region that the Cloud defines around the Sun.

Furthermore, Dr. Brown maintains that there is a good likelihood that a Mars or Earth-sized object exists in the Oort Cloud.

Small bodies within our Solar System along with exo-planets are perhaps the hottest topics and focuses of study in Planetary Science at the moment. Many graduate students and seasoned researchers alike are gravitating to their study. There are certainly many smaller Kuiper belt objects remaining to be found but more importantly, a better understanding of their makeup and origin are yet to be revealed.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at the protoplanet Ceres Illustration of Dawn's approach phase and RC3 orbit This artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn  spacecraft shows the craft orbiting high above Ceres, where the craft will arrive in early 2015 to begin science investigations. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the Dawn spacecraft at the protoplanet Ceres Illustration of Dawn’s approach phase and RC3 orbit This artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows the craft orbiting high above Ceres, where the craft will arrive in early 2015 to begin science investigations. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Presently, the Dawn spacecraft is making final approach to the dwarf planet Ceres in the Asteroid belt. The first close up images of Ceres are only a few days away as Dawn is now just a couple of 100 thousand miles away approaching at a modest speed. And much farther from our home planet, scientists led by Dr. Alan Stern of SWRI are on final approach to the dwarf planet Pluto with their space probe, New Horizons. The Pluto system is now touted as a binary dwarf planet. Pluto and its moon Charon orbit a common point (barycenter) in space that lies between Pluto and Charon.

So Dr. Brown and team exits stage left. No more dwarf planets – at least not soon and not in the Kuiper belt. Will that upstage what is being called the year of the Dwarf Planet?

But next up for close inspection for the first time are Ceres, Pluto and Charon. It should be a great year.

The relative sizes of the inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Credit: NASA, William Crochot)
The relative sizes of the inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Credit: NASA, William Crochot)

References:

A Serendipitous All Sky Survey For Bright Objects In The Outer Solar System

Ten Years of Eris

2015, NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet, Universe Today

What is the Kuiper Belt?, Universe Today

2015: NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet

Together, the space probes Dawn and New Horizons have been in flight for a collective 17 years. One remained close to home and the other departed to parts of the Solar System of which little is known. They now share a common destination in the same year: dwarf planets.

At the time of these NASA probes’ departures, Ceres had just lost its designation as the largest asteroid in our Solar System. Pluto was the ninth planet. Both probes now stand to deliver measures of new data and insight that could spearhead yet another revision of the definition of planet.

A comparison of the trajectories of New Horizon (left) and the Dawn missions (right). (Credit: NASA/JPL, SWRI, Composite- T.Reyes)
A comparison of the trajectories of New Horizons (left) and the Dawn missions (right). (Credit: NASA/JPL, SWRI, Composite- T.Reyes)

Certainly, NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet is an unofficial designation and NASA representatives would be quick to emphasize another dozen or more missions that are of importance during the year 2015. However, these two missions could determine the fate of billions or more small bodies just within our galaxy, the Milky Way.

If Ceres and Pluto are studied up close – mission success is never a sure thing – then what is observed could lead to a new, more certain and accepted definition of planet, dwarf planet, and possibly other new definitions.

The New Horizons mission became the first mission of NASA’s New Frontiers program, beginning development in 2001. The probe was launched on January 19, 2006, atop an Atlas V 551 (5 solid rocket boosters plus a third stage). Utilizing more compact and lightweight electronics than its predecessors to the outer planets – Pioneer 10 & 11, and Voyager 1 & 2 – the combination of reduced weight, a powerful launch vehicle, plus a gravity assist from Jupiter has lead to a nine year journey. On December 6, 2014, New Horizons was taken out of hibernation for the last time and now remains powered on until the Pluto encounter.

This "movie" of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon b yNASA's New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter -center of mass of the two bodies - resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto's surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This “movie” of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter – the center of mass of the two bodies – resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The arrival date of New Horizon is July 14, 2015. A telescope called the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has permitted the commencement of observations while still over 240 million kilometers (150 million miles) from Pluto. The first stellar-like images were taken while still in the Asteroid belt in 2006.

Pluto was once the ninth planet of the Solar System. From its discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh until 2006, it maintained this status. In that latter year, the International Astronomical Union undertook a debate and then a membership vote that redefined what a planet is. The change occurred 8 months after New Horizons’ launch. There were some upset mission scientists, foremost of which was the principal investigator, Dr. Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. In a sense, the rug had been pulled from under them.

A gentleman’s battle ensued between opposing protagonists Dr. Stern and Dr. Michael Brown from Caltech. In 2001, Dr. Brown’s research team began to discover Kuiper belt objects (Trans-Neptunian objects) that rivaled the size of Pluto. Pluto suddenly appeared to be one of many small bodies that could likely number in the trillions within just one galaxy – ours. According to Dr. Brown, there could be as many as 200 objects in our Solar System similar to Pluto that, under the old definition, could be defined as planets. Dr. Brown’s work was the straw that broke the camel’s back – that is, it led to the redefinition of planet, and the native of Huntsville, Alabama, went on to write a popular book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

Dr. Stern’s story involving Pluto and planetary research is a longer and more circuitous one. Stern was the Executive Director of the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division and then accepted the position of Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in 2007. Clearly, after a nine year journey, Stern is now fully committed to New Horizons’ close encounter. More descriptions of the two protagonists of the Pluto debate will be included in a follow on story.

Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)
Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta, and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

The JPL and Orbital Science Corporation developed Dawn space probe began its journey to the main asteroid belt on September 27, 2007. It has used gravity assists and flew by the planet Mars. Dawn spent 14 months surveying Vesta, the 4th largest asteroid of the main belt (assuming Ceres is still considered the largest). While New Horizons has traveled over 30 Astronomical Units (A.U.) – 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun – Dawn has remained closer and required reaching a little over 2 A.U. to reach Vesta and now 3 A.U. to reach Ceres.

The Dawn mission had the clear objective of rendezvous and achieving orbit with two asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn was also sent packing the next generation of Ion Propulsion. It has proven its effectiveness very well, having used ion propulsion for the first time to achieve an orbit. Pretty simple, right? Not so fast.

As Dawn was passing critical design reviews during development, the redefinition of planet lofted its second objective – the asteroid 1 Ceres – to a new status. While Pluto was demoted, Ceres was promoted from its scrappy status of biggest of the asteroids – the debris, the leftovers of our solar system’s development – to dwarf planet. Even 4 Vesta is now designated a proto-planet.

Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So now the stage is set. Dawn will arrive first at a dwarf planet – Ceres – in April. With a small, low gravity body and ion propulsion, the arrival is slow and cautious. If the two missions fair well and achieve their goals, 2015 is likely to become a pivotal year in the debate over the classification of non-stellar objects throughout the universe.

Just days ago, at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco, Dr. Stern and team described the status and more details of the goals of New Horizons. Since arriving, more moons of Pluto have been discovered. There is the potential that faint rings exist and Pluto may even harbor an interior ocean due to the tidal forces from its largest moon, Charon. And Dawn mission scientists have seen the prospects for Ceres’ change. Not just the status, the latest Hubble images of Ceres is showing bright spots which could be water ice deposits and could also harbor an internal ocean.

The Solar System is becoming a more crowded place. This picture shows the sizes of dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake as compared to Earth and Earth's Moon, here called "Luna." None of the distances between objects are to scale. (Credit: NASA)
The Solar System is becoming a more crowded place. This picture shows the sizes of dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake as compared to Earth and Earth’s Moon, here called “Luna.” None of the distances between objects are to scale. (Credit: NASA)

So other NASA missions notwithstanding, this is the year of the dwarf planet. NASA will provide Humanity with its first close encounters with the most numerous of small round – by their self-gravity – bodies in the Universe. They are now called dwarf planets but ask Dr. Stern and company, the public, and many other planetary scientists and you will discover that the jury is still out.

References:

JHU/APL New Horizons Mission Home Page

NASA Dawn Mission Home Page

Related Universe Today articles:

NASA’s New Horizons

NASA’s Dawn Mission

NASA’s RoboSimian And Surrogate Robots

Since they were first announced in 2012, NASA has been a major contender in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). This competition – which involves robots navigating obstacle courses using tools and vehicles – was first conceived by DARPA to see just how capable robots could be at handling disaster response.

The Finals for this challenge will be taking place on June 5th and 6th, 2015, at Fairplex in Pomona, California. And after making it this far with their RoboSimian design, NASA was faced with a difficult question. Should their robotic primate continue to represent them, or should that honor go to their recently unveiled Surrogate robot?

As the saying goes “you dance with the one who brung ya.” In short, NASA has decided to stick with RoboSimian as they advance into the final round of obstacles and tests in their bid to win the DRC and the $2 million prize.

Surrogate’s unveiling took place this past October 24th at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The appearance of this robot on stage, to the them song of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was held on the same day that Thomas Rosenbaum was inaugurated as the new president of the California Institute of Technology.

Robotics researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, stand with robots RoboSimian and Surrogate, both built at JPL. Credit: JPL-Caltech
Robotics researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory stand with robots RoboSimian and Surrogate, both built at JPL. Credit: JPL-Caltech

In honor of the occasion, Surrogate (aka “Surge”) strutted its way across the stage to present a digital tablet to Rosenbaum, which he used to push a button that initiated commands for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. Despite the festive nature of the occasion, this scene was quite calm compared to what the robot was designed for.

“Surge and its predecessor, RoboSimian, were designed to extend humanity’s reach, going into dangerous places such as a nuclear power plant during a disaster scenario such as we saw at Fukushima. They could take simple actions such as turning valves or flipping switches to stabilize the situation or mitigate further damage,” said Brett Kennedy, principal investigator for the robots at JPL.

RoboSimian was originally created for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, and during the trial round last December, the JPL team’s robot won a spot to compete in the finals, which will be held in Pomona, California, in June 2015.

With the support of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance, the Surrogate robot began construction in 2014. Its designers began by incorporating some of RoboSimian’s extra limbs, and then added a wheeled base, twisty spine, an upper torso, and a head for holding sensors.

Surrogate, nicknamed "Surge," is a robot designed and built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: JPL-Caltech
Surrogate, nicknamed “Surge,” is a robot designed and built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: JPL-Caltech

Additional components include a the hat-like appendage on top, which is in fact a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) device. This device spins and shoots out laser beams in a 360-degree field to map the surrounding environment in 3-D.

Choosing between them was a tough call, and took the better part of the last six months. On the one hand, Surrogate was designed to be more like a human. It has an upright spine, two arms and a head, standing about 1.4 meters (4.5 feet) tall and weighing about  91 kilograms (200 pounds). Its major strength is in how it handles objects, and its flexible spine allows for extra manipulation capabilities. But the robot moves on tracks, which doesn’t allow it to move over tall objects, such as flights of stairs, ladders, rocks, and rubble.

RoboSimian, by contrast, is more ape-like, moving around on four limbs. It is better suited to travel over complicated terrain and is an adept climber. In addition, Surrogate has only one set of “eyes” – two cameras that allow for stereo vision – mounted to its head, whereas RoboSimian has up to seven sets of eyes mounted all over its body.

The robots also run on almost identical computer code, and the software that plans their motion is very similar. As in a video game, each robot has an “inventory” of objects with which it can interact. Engineers have to program the robots to recognize these objects and perform pre-set actions on them, such as turning a valve or climbing over blocks.

RoboSimian is an ape-like robot that moves around on four limbs. It was designed and built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: JPL-Caltech
RoboSimian is an ape-like robot that moves around on four limbs. It will be representing the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals in June, 2015. Credit: JPL-Caltech

In the end, they came to a decision. RoboSimian will represent the team in Pomona.

“It comes down to the fact that Surrogate is a better manipulation platform and faster on benign surfaces, but RoboSimian is an all-around solution, and we expect that the all-around solution is going to be more competitive in this case,” Kennedy said.

The RoboSimian team at JPL is collaborating with partners at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Caltech to get the robot to walk more quickly. JPL researchers also plan to put a LiDAR on top of RoboSimian in the future. These efforts seek to improve the robot in the long-run, but are also aimed at getting it ready to face the challenges of the DARPA Robot Challenge Finals.

Specifically, it will be faced with such tasks as driving a vehicle and getting out of it, negotiating debris blocking a doorway, cutting a hole in a wall, opening a valve, and crossing a field with cinderblocks or other debris. There will also be a surprise task.

Although RoboSimian is now the focus of Kennedy’s team, Surrogate won’t be forgotten.

“We’ll continue to use it as an example of how we can take RoboSimian limbs and reconfigure them into other platforms,” Kennedy said.

For details about the DARPA Robotics Challenge, visit: http://www.theroboticschallenge.org/

Further Reading: NASA

Earth May Have Lost Some Primoridial Atmosphere to Meteors

Earth's Hadean Eon is a bit of a mystery to us, because geologic evidence from that time is scarce. Researchers at the Australian National University have used tiny zircon grains to get a better picture of early Earth. Credit: NASA

During the Hadean Eon, some 4.5 billion years ago, the world was a much different place than it is today. As the name Hades would suggest (Greek for “underworld”), it was a hellish period for Earth, marked by intense volcanism and intense meteoric impacts. It was also during this time that outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and water vapor.

Little of this primordial atmosphere remains, and geothermal evidence suggests that the Earth’s atmosphere may have been completely obliterated at least twice since its formation more than 4 billion years ago. Until recently, scientists were uncertain as to what could have caused this loss.

But a new study from MIT, Hebrew Univeristy, and Caltech indicates that the intense bombardment of meteorites in this period may have been responsible.

This meteoric bombardment would have taken place at around the same time that the Moon was formed. The intense bombardment of space rocks would have kicked up clouds of gas with enough force to permanent eject the atmosphere into space. Such impacts may have also blasted other planets, and even peeled away the atmospheres of Venus and Mars.

In fact, the researchers found that small planetesimals may be much more effective than large impactors –  such as Theia, whose collision with Earth is believed to have formed the Moon – in driving atmospheric loss. Based on their calculations, it would take a giant impact to disperse most of the atmosphere; but taken together, many small impacts would have the same effect.

Artist's concept of a collision between proto-Earth and Theia, believed to happened 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a collision between proto-Earth and Theia, believed to happened 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: NASA

Hilke Schlichting, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says understanding the drivers of Earth’s ancient atmosphere may help scientists to identify the early planetary conditions that encouraged life to form.

“[This finding] sets a very different initial condition for what the early Earth’s atmosphere was most likely like,” Schlichting says. “It gives us a new starting point for trying to understand what was the composition of the atmosphere, and what were the conditions for developing life.”

What’s more, the group examined how much atmosphere was retained and lost following impacts with giant, Mars-sized and larger bodies and with smaller impactors measuring 25 kilometers or less.

What they found was that a collision with an impactor as massive as Mars would have the necessary effect of generating a massive a shockwave through the Earth’s interior and potentially ejecting a significant fraction of the planet’s atmosphere.

However, the researchers determined that such an impact was not likely to have occurred, since it would have turned Earth’s interior into a homogenous slurry. Given the appearance of diverse elements observed within the Earth’s interior, such an event does not appear to have happened in the past.

A series of smaller impactors, by contrast, would generate an explosion of sorts, releasing a plume of debris and gas. The largest of these impactors would be forceful enough to eject all gas from the atmosphere immediately above the impact zone. Only a fraction of this atmosphere would be lost following smaller impacts, but the team estimates that tens of thousands of small impactors could have pulled it off.

An artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impact, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. Credit: Simone Marchi
Artist’s concept of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts. Credit: Simone Marchi

Such a scenario did likely occur 4.5 billion years ago during the Hadean Eon. This period was one of galactic chaos, as hundreds of thousands of space rocks whirled around the solar system and many are believed to have collided with Earth.

“For sure, we did have all these smaller impactors back then,” Schlichting says. “One small impact cannot get rid of most of the atmosphere, but collectively, they’re much more efficient than giant impacts, and could easily eject all the Earth’s atmosphere.”

However, Schlichting and her team realized that the sum effect of small impacts may be too efficient at driving atmospheric loss. Other scientists have measured the atmospheric composition of Earth compared with Venus and Mars; and compared to Venus, Earth’s noble gases have been depleted 100-fold. If these planets had been exposed to the same blitz of small impactors in their early history, then Venus would have no atmosphere today.

She and her colleagues went back over the small-impactor scenario to try and account for this difference in planetary atmospheres. Based on further calculations, the team identified an interesting effect: Once half a planet’s atmosphere has been lost, it becomes much easier for small impactors to eject the rest of the gas.

The researchers calculated that Venus’ atmosphere would only have to start out slightly more massive than Earth’s in order for small impactors to erode the first half of the Earth’s atmosphere, while keeping Venus’ intact. From that point, Schlichting describes the phenomenon as a “runaway process — once you manage to get rid of the first half, the second half is even easier.”

This gave rise to another important question: What eventually replaced Earth’s atmosphere? Upon further calculations, Schlichting and her team found the same impactors that ejected gas also may have introduced new gases, or volatiles.

“When an impact happens, it melts the planetesimal, and its volatiles can go into the atmosphere,” Schlichting says. “They not only can deplete, but replenish part of the atmosphere.”

The "impact farm:, an area on Venus marked by impact craters and volcanic activity. Credit: NASA/JPL
The “impact farm:, an area on Venus marked by impact craters and volcanic activity. Credit: NASA/JPL

The group calculated the amount of volatiles that may be released by a rock of a given composition and mass, and found that a significant portion of the atmosphere may have been replenished by the impact of tens of thousands of space rocks.

“Our numbers are realistic, given what we know about the volatile content of the different rocks we have,” Schlichting notes.

Jay Melosh, a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue University, says Schlichting’s conclusion is a surprising one, as most scientists have assumed the Earth’s atmosphere was obliterated by a single, giant impact. Other theories, he says, invoke a strong flux of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, as well as an “unusually active solar wind.”

“How the Earth lost its primordial atmosphere has been a longstanding problem, and this paper goes a long way toward solving this enigma,” says Melosh, who did not contribute to the research. “Life got started on Earth about this time, and so answering the question about how the atmosphere was lost tells us about what might have kicked off the origin of life.”

Going forward, Schlichting hopes to examine more closely the conditions underlying Earth’s early formation, including the interplay between the release of volatiles from small impactors and from Earth’s ancient magma ocean.

“We want to connect these geophysical processes to determine what was the most likely composition of the atmosphere at time zero, when the Earth just formed, and hopefully identify conditions for the evolution of life,” Schlichting says.

Schlichting and her colleagues have published their results in the February edition of the journal Icarus.

Further Reading: MIT News

Old Equations Shed New Light on Quasars

There’s nothing more out of this world than quasi-stellar objects or more simply – quasars. These are the most powerful and among the most distant objects in the Universe. At their center is a black hole with the mass of a million or more Suns. And these powerhouses are fairly compact – about the size of our Solar System. Understanding how they came to be and how — or if — they evolve into the galaxies that surround us today are some of the big questions driving astronomers.

Now, a new paper by Yue Shen and Luis C. Ho – “The diversity of quasars unified by accretion and orientation” in the journal Nature confirms the importance of a mathematical derivation by the famous astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington during the first half of the 20th Century, in understanding not just stars but the properties of quasars, too. Ironically, Eddington did not believe black holes existed, but now his derivation, the Eddington Luminosity, can be used more reliably to determine important properties of quasars across vast stretches of space and time.

A quasar is recognized as an accreting (meaning- matter falling upon) super massive black hole at the center of an “active galaxy”. Most known quasars exist at distances that place them very early in the Universe; the most distant is at 13.9 billion light years, a mere 770 million years after the Big Bang. Somehow, quasars and the nascent galaxies surrounding them evolved into the galaxies present in the Universe today.  At their extreme distances, they are point-like, indistinguishable from a star except that the spectra of their light differ greatly from a star’s. Some would be as bright as our Sun if they were placed 33 light years away meaning that  they are over a trillion times more luminous than our star.

An artists illustration of the central engine of a Quasar. These "Quasi-stellar Objects" QSOs are now recognized as the super massive black holes at the center of emerging galaxies in the early Universe. (Photo Credit: NASA)
An artists illustration of the central engine of a quasar. These “Quasi-stellar Objects” QSOs are now recognized as the super massive black holes at the center of emerging galaxies in the early Universe. (Photo Credit: NASA)

The Eddington luminosity  defines the maximum luminosity that a star can exhibit that is in equilibrium; specifically, hydrostatic equilibrium. Extremely massive stars and black holes can exceed this limit but stars, to remain stable for long periods, are in hydrostatic equilibrium between their inward forces – gravity – and the outward electromagnetic forces. Such is the case of our star, the Sun, otherwise it would collapse or expand which in either case, would not have provided the stable source of light that has nourished life on Earth for billions of years.

Generally, scientific models often start simple, such as Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom, and later observations can reveal intricacies that require more complex theory to explain, such as Quantum Mechanics for the atom. The Eddington luminosity and ratio could be compared to knowing the thermal efficiency and compression ratio of an internal combustion engine; by knowing such values, other properties follow.

Several other factors regarding the Eddington Luminosity are now known which are necessary to define the “modified Eddington luminosity” used today.

The new paper in Nature shows how the Eddington Luminosity helps understand the driving force behind the main sequence of quasars, and Shen and Ho call their work the missing definitive proof that quantifies the correlation of a quasar properties to a quasar’s Eddington ratio.

They used archival observational data to uncover the relationship between the strength of the optical Iron [Fe] and Oxygen[O III] emissions – strongly tied to the physical properties of the quasar’s central engine – a super-massive black hole, and the Eddington ratio. Their work provides the confidence and the correlations needed to move forward in our understanding of quasars and their relationship to the evolution of galaxies in the early Universe and up to our present epoch.

Astronomers have been studying quasars for a little over 50 years. Beginning in 1960, quasar discoveries began to accumulate but only through radio telescope observations. Then, a very accurate radio telescope measurement of Quasar 3C 273 was completed using a Lunar occultation. With this in hand, Dr. Maarten Schmidt of California Institute of Technology was able to identify the object in visible light using the 200 inch Palomar Telescope. Reviewing the strange spectral lines in its light, Schmidt reached the right conclusion that quasar spectra exhibit an extreme redshift and it was due to cosmological effects. The cosmological redshift of quasars meant that they are at a great distance from us in space and time. It also spelled the demise of the Steady-State theory of the Universe and gave further support to an expanding Universe that emanated from a singularity – the Big Bang.

Dr. Maarten Schmidt, Caltech University, with Donald Lynden-Bell, were the first recipients of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, “for their seminal contributions to understanding the nature of quasars”. While in high school, this author had the privilege to meet Dr. Schmidt at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History after his presentation to a group of students. (Photo Credit: Caltech)
Dr. Maarten Schmidt, Caltech, with Donald Lynden-Bell, were the first recipients of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, “for their seminal contributions to understanding the nature of quasars”. While in high school, this author had the privilege to meet Dr. Schmidt at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History after his presentation to a group of students. (Photo Credit: Caltech)

The researchers, Yue Shen and Luis C. Ho are from the Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University working with the Carnegie Observatories, Pasadena, California.

References and further reading:

“The diversity of quasars unified by accretion and orientation”, Yue Shen, Luis C. Ho, Sept 11, 2014, Nature

“What is a Quasar?”, Universe Today, Fraser Cain, August 12, 2013

“Interview with Maarten Schmidt”, Caltech Oral Histories, 1999

“Fifty Years of Quasars, a Symposium in honor of Maarten Schmidt”, Caltech, Sept 9, 2013

Nearby Galaxy Holds First Ultraluminous X-Ray Source that is a Pulsar

A research team led by Caltech astronomers of Pasadena California have discovered an ultraluminous X-ray (ULX) source that is pulsating. Their analysis concluded that the source in a nearby galaxy – M82 – is from a rotating neutron star, a pulsar. This is the first ULX source attributed to a pulsar.

Matteo Bachetti of the Université de Toulouse in France first identified the pulsating source and is the lead author of the paper, “An ultraluminous X-ray source powered by an accreting neutron star” in the journal Nature. Caltech astronomer Dr. Fiona Harrison, the team leader, stated “This compact little stellar remnant is a real powerhouse. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. We all thought an object with that much energy had to be a black hole.”

What is most extraordinary is that this discovery places even more strain on theories already hard pressed to explain the existence of ultraluminous X-Ray sources. The burden falls on the shoulder of the theorists.

The NuStar Space Telescope launched into Earth orbit by a Orbital Science Corp. Pegasus rocket, 2012. The Wolter telescope design images throughout a spectral range from 5 to 80 KeV. (Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL)
The NuStar Space Telescope launched into Earth orbit by a Orbital Science Corp. Pegasus rocket, 2012. The Wolter telescope design images throughout a spectral range from 5 to 80 KeV. (Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL)

The source of the observations is the NuSTAR space telescope, a SMEX class NASA mission. It is a Wolter telescope that uses grazing incidence optics, not glass (refraction) or mirrors (reflection) as in visible light telescopes. The incidence angle of the X-rays must be very shallow and consequently the optics are extended out on a 10 meter (33 feet) truss. NuSTAR records its observations with a time stamp such as taking a video of the sky. The video recording in high speed is not in visible everyday light but what is called hard x-rays. Only gamma rays are more energetic. X-rays emanate from the most powerful sources and events in the Universe. NuStar observes in the energy range of X-Rays from 5 to 80 KeV (electron volt)while the famous Chandra space telescope observes in the .1 to 10 KeV range. Chandra is one NASA’s great space telescope, was launched by the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-93) in 1999. Chandra has altered our view of the Universe as dramatically as the first telescope constructed by Galileo. NuSTAR carries on the study of X-rays to higher energies and with greater acuity.

ULX sources are rare in the Universe but this is the first pulsating ULX. After analysis, they concluded that this is not a black hole but rather its little brother, a spinning neutron star as the source. More specifically, this is an accreting binary pulsar; matter from a companion star is being  gravitationally attracted by and accreting onto the pulsar.

The Crab Nebula Pulsar, M1. Both are sequences of observations that show the expansion of shock waves emanating from the Pulsar interacting with the surrounding nebula. The Crab Pulsar actually pulsates 30 times per second a result of its rotation rate and the relative offset of the magnetic pole. Charndra X-Rays (left), Hubble Visible light (right). (Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech)
The prime example of a pulsar – the Crab Nebula Pulsar, M1. These actual observations show the expansion of shock waves emanating from the Pulsar interacting with the surrounding nebula. The Crab Pulsar actually pulsates 30 times per second, not seen here, a result of its rotation rate and the relative offset of the magnetic pole. Charndra X-Rays (left), Hubble Visible light (right). (Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech)

Take a neutron star and spin it up to anywhere from 700 rotations per second to a mere one  rotation every 10 seconds. Now you have a neutron star called a pulsar. Spinning or not, these are the remnants of supernovae, stellar explosions that can outshine a galaxy of 300 billion stars. Just one teaspoon of neutron star material weighs 10 million tons (9,071,847,400 kg). That is the same weight as 900 Great Pyramids of Giza all condensed to one teaspoon. As incredible a material and star that a neutron star is, they were not thought to be the source of any ultraluminous X-Ray sources. This view has changed with the analysis of observations by this research team utilizing NuSTAR. The telescope name – NuSTAR – stands for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array.

There is nothing run of the mill about black holes. Dr. Stephen Hawking only conceded after 25 years, in 2004 (the Thorne-Hawking Bet)  that Black Holes exist. And still today it is not absolutely certain. Recall the Universe Today weekly – Space Hangout on September 26 – “Do Black Holes exist?” and the article by Jason Major, “There are no such things as Black Holes.

Pulsars stars are nearly as exotic as black holes, and all astronomers accept the existence of these spinning neutron stars. There are three final states of a dying star. Stars like our Sun at the end of their life become very dense White Dwarf stars, about the size of the Earth. Neutron stars are the next “degenerate” state of a dying exhausted star. All the electrons have merged with the protons in the material of the star to become neutrons. A neutron star is a degenerate form of matter effectively made up of all neutron particles. Very dense, these stars are really small, the size of cities, about 16 miles in diameter. The third type of star in its final state is the Black Hole.

The Crab Nebula was first  observed in the 1700s and is catalogued Messier object, M1. The remant explosion of a SuperNova, Chinese astronomers observed in 1054 A.D and holds the second Pular discovered (1968).
The Crab Nebula was first observed in the 1700s and is catalogued Messier object, M1. The remant explosion of a SuperNova that Chinese astronomers observed in 1054 A.D, it holds the second Pulsar discovered (1968).

A spinning neutron star creates a magnetic field, the most powerful of such fields in the Universe. They are like a dipole of a bar magnet and because of how magnetic fields confine the hot gases – plasma – of the neutron star, constant streams of material flow down and light streams out from the magnetic poles.

Recently, the Earth has had incredible northern lights, aurora. These lights are also from hot gases — a plasma — at the top of our atmosphere. Likewise, hot energetic particles from the Sun are funneled down into the magnetic poles of the Earth’s field that creates the northern lights. For spinning neutron stars – pulsars – the extreme light from the magnetic poles are like beacons. Just like our Earth, the magnetic poles and the spin axis poles do not coincide. So the intense beacon of light will rotate around and periodically point at the Earth. The video of the first illustration describes this action.

Messier object - M82, the Cigar Nebula, nicknamed for the shape seen through telescopes of the 1800s. This is the location of the newly discovered Pulsar.
Messier object – M82, the Cigar Nebula, nicknamed for the shape seen through telescopes of the 1800s. This is the location of the newly discovered Pulsar.

The light beacons from pulsars are very bright but theory, until now, has been supported by observations. No ultraluminous X-ray sources should be pulsars. The newly discovered pulsar is outputting 100 times more energy than any other. Discoveries like the one by these astronomers utilizing NuSTAR is proof that there remains more to discover and understand and new telescopes will be conceived to help resolve questions raised by NuSTAR or Chandra.

Further reading: JPL