“Ain’t like Dusting Crops!” How We’ll Actually Navigate Interstellar Space

Simulated Hyperspace Travel

May the 4th be With You!

Blasting out of Mos Eisley Space Port, the Millennium Falcon carries our adventurers off Tatooine bringing Luke Skywalker across the threshold into space. With Imperial Star Destroyers closing, Luke bemoans Han Solo’s delay in jumping to Hyperspace. It takes time to make these calculations through the Falcon’s “Navicomputer.” Han explains that otherwise they could “fly right through a star” or “bounce too close to a supernova.” (probably the same effect of each – also are supernovas bouncy?)

Celestial calculations are needed to figure out where you’re going. In Star Wars these are done by ship computers, or later by trusty astromech droids like R2-D2. But, for the first time, simulations have been conducted of an uncrewed ship’s ability to autonavigate through interstellar space. While not at Hyperspace speeds, the simulations do account for velocities at up to half the speed of light. Created by Coryn A.L. Bailer-Jones of the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy, these simulations may be our first step to creating our own “Navicomputers” (or R2-D2s if they have a personality).

The most distant object we’ve ever sent into space, Voyager1, was launched in 1977 (same year as the release of Star Wars). It took 4 decades to leave the solar system. The next generation of interstellar craft may be far faster but also need their own way to navigate
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New All-Sky Map of the Milky Way’s Galactic Halo

The outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy are a different place.  Stars are much harder to come by, with most of this “galactic halo” being made up of empty space.  But scientists theorize that there is an abundance of one particular thing in this desolate area – dark matter.  Now, a team from Harvard and the University of Arizona (UA) spent some time studying and modeling one of the galaxy’s nearest neighbors to try to tease out more information about that dark matter, and as a result came up with an all new way to look at the halo itself.

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Our Part of the Galaxy is Packed with Binary Stars

Binary star systems are everywhere. They make up a huge percentage of all known solar systems: from what we can tell, about half of all Sun-like stars have a binary partner. But we haven’t really had a chance to study them in detail yet. That’s about to change. Using data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, a research team has just compiled a gigantic new catalog of nearby binary star systems, and it shows that at least 1.3 million of them exist within 3000 light-years of Earth.

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The Solar System Might Not Exist if There Wasn’t a Huge Galactic Collision with the Milky Way Billions of Years Ago

The Milky Way has a number of satellite galaxies; nearly 60 of them, depedending on how we define them. One of them, called the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy (Sgr d Sph), may have played a huge role when it comes to humans, our world and our little civilization. A collision between the Milky Way and the Sgr d Sph may have created the Solar System itself.

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Tatooines everywhere? Many of the Exoplanets Already Discovered are in Multi-Star Systems

Right now, we know of about 4,000 confirmed exoplanets, mostly thanks to the Kepler mission. TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will likely raise that 4000 by a lot. But what about the stars that all of these planets orbit?

A new study from the Astrophysical Institute and University Observatory of the University of Jena identified over 200 exoplanets that exist in multiple star systems. The study is part of the effort to understand how host stars shape the formation and evolution of planets.

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This Star has been Kicked Out of the Milky Way. It Knows What It Did.

Researchers from the University of Michigan confirm that a runaway star was ejected from the Milky Way's disk rather than the galactic core. Image Credit: Kohei Hattori

Every once in a while, the Milky Way ejects a star. The evicted star is typically ejected from the chaotic area at the center of the galaxy, where our Super Massive Black Hole (SMBH) lives. But at least one of them was ejected from the comparatively calm galactic disk, a discovery that has astronomers rethinking this whole star ejection phenomenon.

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Thanks to Gaia, We Now Know Exactly When We’ll be Colliding with Andromeda

The trajectories of the Milky Way, Andromeda, and the Triangulam galaxies. Image Credit: E. Patel, G. Besla (University of Arizona), R. van der Marel (STScI)

Astronomers have known for some time that the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies will collide on some future date. The best guess for that rendezvous has been about 3.75 billion years from now. But now a new study based on Data Release 2 from the ESA’s Gaia mission is bringing some clarity to this future collision.

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Gaia Spots an Enormous Ghost Galaxy Right Next Door that’s Being Dismantled by the Milky Way

From left to right: Large Magellanic Cloud, the Milky Way, and Antlia 2, our next door neighbor and so-called ghost galaxy. Credit: V. Belokurov based on the images by Marcus and Gail Davies and Robert Gendler

Astronomers combing through data from the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft have discovered what they’re calling a ghost galaxy. The galaxy, named Antlia 2 (Ant 2) is an extremely low-density dwarf galaxy that was formed in the early days of the universe. And it is being stripped of its mass by the tidal forces of the Milky Way.
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The Milky Way is Still Rippling from a Galactic Collision Millions of Years Ago

The ESA's Gaia mission has discovered evidence of a primordial galactic collision between our Milky Way galaxy and the nearby Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Image: ESA/Gaia

Between 300 million and 900 million years ago, our Milky Way galaxy nearly collided with the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Data from the ESA’s Gaia mission shows the ongoing effect of this event, with stars moving like ripples on the surface of a pond. The galactic collision is part of an ongoing cannibalization of the dwarf galaxy by the much-larger Milky Way.

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How Fast is the Universe Expanding? Hubble and Gaia Team Up to Conduct the Most Accurate Measurements to Date

In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble made the groundbreaking discovery that the Universe was in a state of expansion. Originally predicted as a consequence of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, measurements of this expansion came to be known as Hubble’s Constant. Today, and with the help of next-generation telescopes – like the aptly-named Hubble Space Telescope (HST) – astronomers have remeasured and revised this law many times.

These measurements confirmed that the rate of expansion has increased over time, though scientists are still unsure why. The latest measurements were conducted by an international team using Hubble, who then compared their results with data obtained by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia observatory. This has led to the most precise measurements of the Hubble Constant to date, though questions about cosmic acceleration remain.

The study which describes their findings appeared in the July 12th issue of the Astrophysical Journal, titled “Milky Way Cepheid Standards for Measuring Cosmic Distances and Application to Gaia DR2: Implications for the Hubble Constant.” The team behind the study included members from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the Johns Hopkins University, the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), UC Berkeley, Texas A&M University, and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

This illustration shows three steps astronomers used to measure the universe’s expansion rate (Hubble constant) to an unprecedented accuracy. Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Feild (STScI), and A. Riess (STScI/JHU)

Since 2005, Adam Riess – a Nobel Laureate Professor with the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Johns Hopkins University – has been working to refine the Hubble Constant value by streamlining and strengthening the “cosmic distance ladder”. Along with his team, known as Supernova H0 for the Equation of State (SH0ES), they have successfully reduced the uncertainty associated with the rate of cosmic expansion to just 2.2%

To break it down, astronomers have traditionally used the “cosmic distance ladder” to measure distances in the Universe. This consists of relying on distance markers like Cepheid variables in distant galaxies – pulsating stars whose distances can be inferred by comparing their intrinsic brightness with their apparent brightness. These measurements are then compared to the way light from distant galaxies is redshifted to determine how fast the space between galaxies is expanding.

From this, the Hubble Constant is derived. Another method that is used is to observe the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) to trace the expansion of the cosmos during the early Universe – circa. 378,000 years after the Big Bang – and then using physics to extrapolate that to the present expansion rate. Together, the measurements should provide an end-to-end measurement of how the Universe has expanded over time.

However, astronomers have known for some time that the two measurements don’t match up. In a previous study, Riess and his team conducted measurements using Hubble to obtain a Hubble Constant value of 73 km/s (45.36 mps) per megaparsec (3.3 million light-years). Meanwhile, results based on the ESA’ Planck observatory (which observed the CMB between 2009 and 2013) predicted that the Hubble constant value should now be 67 km/s (41.63 mps) per megaparsec and no higher than 69 km/s (42.87 mps) – which represents a discrepancy of 9%.

A multi-color all-sky image of the microwave sky. Credit: ESA, HFI and LFI consortia

As Riess indicated in a recent NASA press release:

“The tension seems to have grown into a full-blown incompatibility between our views of the early and late time universe. At this point, clearly it’s not simply some gross error in any one measurement. It’s as though you predicted how tall a child would become from a growth chart and then found the adult he or she became greatly exceeded the prediction. We are very perplexed.”

In this case, Riess and his colleagues used Hubble to gauge the brightness of distant Cepheid variables while Gaia provided the parallax information – the apparent change in an objects position based on different points of view – needed to determine the distance. Gaia also added to the study by measuring the distance to 50 Cepheid variables in the Milky Way, which were combined with brightness measurements from Hubble.

This allowed the astronomers to more accurately calibrate the Cepheids and then use those seen outside the Milky Way as milepost markers. Using both the Hubble measurements and newly released data from Gaia, Riess and his colleagues were able to refine their measurements on the present rate of expansion to 73.5 kilometers (45.6 miles) per second per megaparsec.

ESA’s Gaia is currently on a five-year mission to map the stars of the Milky Way. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier.

As Stefano Casertano, of the Space Telescope Science Institute and a member of the SHOES team, added:

“Hubble is really amazing as a general-purpose observatory, but Gaia is the new gold standard for calibrating distance. It is purpose-built for measuring parallax—this is what it was designed to do. Gaia brings a new ability to recalibrate all past distance measures, and it seems to confirm our previous work. We get the same answer for the Hubble constant if we replace all previous calibrations of the distance ladder with just the Gaia parallaxes. It’s a crosscheck between two very powerful and precise observatories.”

Looking to the future, Riess and his team hope to continue to work with Gaia so they can reduce the uncertainty associated with the value of the Hubble Constant to just 1% by the early 2020s. In the meantime, the discrepancy between modern rates of expansion and those based on the CMB will continue to be a puzzle to astronomers.

In the end, this may be an indication that other physics are at work in our Universe, that dark matter interacts with normal matter in a way that is different than what scientists suspect, or that dark energy could be even more exotic than previously thought. Whatever the cause, it is clear the Universe still has some surprises in store for us!

Further Reading: NASA