Formation-Flying Spacecraft Could Probe the Solar System for New Physics

A solar flare erupts on the Sun. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

It’s an exciting time for the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. Thanks to cutting-edge observatories, instruments, and new techniques, scientists are getting closer to experimentally verifying theories that remain largely untested. These theories address some of the most pressing questions scientists have about the Universe and the physical laws governing it – like the nature of gravity, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy. For decades, scientists have postulated that either there is additional physics at work or that our predominant cosmological model needs to be revised.

While the investigation into the existence and nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy is ongoing, there are also attempts to resolve these mysteries with the possible existence of new physics. In a recent paper, a team of NASA researchers proposed how spacecraft could search for evidence of additional physical within our Solar Systems. This search, they argue, would be assisted by the spacecraft flying in a tetrahedral formation and using interferometers. Such a mission could help resolve a cosmological mystery that has eluded scientists for over half a century.

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The World's Largest Digital Camera is Complete. It Will Go Into the Vera Rubin Observatory

Researchers examine the LSST Camera. The camera will soon be shipped to Chile, where it will be the heart of Vera C. Rubin Observatory (right). Credit: Vera C. Rubin Observatory/DOE/SLAC

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), was formally proposed in 2001 to create an astronomical facility that could conduct deep-sky surveys using the latest technology. This includes a wide-field reflecting telescope with an 8.4-meter (~27.5-foot) primary mirror that relies on a novel three-mirror design (the Simonyi Survey Telescope) and a 3.2-megapixel Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) imaging camera (the LSST Camera). Once complete, Rubin will perform a 10-year survey of the southern sky known as the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST).

While construction on the observatory itself did not begin until 2015, work began on the telescope’s digital cameras and primary mirror much sooner (in 2004 and 2007, respectively). After two decades of work, scientists and engineers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and their collaborators announced the completion of the LSST Camera – the largest digital camera ever constructed. Once mounted on the Simonyi Survey Telescope, this camera will help researchers observe our Universe in unprecedented detail.

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Dwarf Galaxies Banished the Darkness and Lit Up the Early Universe

The JWST used gravitational lensing to search for the sources of light that triggered the Epoch of Reionization and brought darkness to an end. The white hazy blobs are galaxies in Pandora's Cluster, which acts as the gravitational lens. The red objects are the distant and ancient objects magnified by the lens, some of them warped into arcs. Many of them are early dwarf galaxies, some of them responsible for the Epoch of Reionization. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA JWST

During the Universe’s Dark Ages, dense primordial gas absorbed and scattered light, prohibiting it from travelling. Only when the first stars and galaxies began to shine in energetic UV light did the Epoch of Reionization begin. The powerful UV light shone through the Universe and punched holes in the gas, allowing light to travel freely.

New observations with the James Webb Space Telescope reveal how it happened. The telescope shows that faint dwarf galaxies brought an end to the darkness.

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JWST Sees a Milky Way-Like Galaxy Coming Together in the Early Universe

The ancient Firefly Sparkle galaxy is precursor to galaxies like the Milky Way. The JWST found ten separate clusters in the galaxy that show how the galaxy is growing through mergers. Image Credit: Mowla et al. 2024.

The gigantic galaxies we see in the Universe today, including our own Milky Way galaxy, started out far smaller. Mergers throughout the Universe’s 13.7 billion years gradually assembled today’s massive galaxies. But they may have begun as mere star clusters.

In an effort to understand the earliest galaxies, the JWST has examined their ancient light for clues as to how they became so massive.

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Webb Sees a Supernova Go Off in a Gravitationally Lensed Galaxy – for the Second Time

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has spotted a multiply-imaged supernova in a distant galaxy designated MRG-M0138. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Justin Pierel (STScI) and Andrew Newman (Carnegie Institution for Science).

Nature, in its infinite inventiveness, provides natural astronomical lenses that allow us to see objects beyond the normal reach of our telescopes. They’re called gravitational lenses, and a few years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of one of them to spot a supernova explosion in a distant galaxy.

Now, the JWST has taken advantage of the same lens and found another supernova in the same galaxy.

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Can Webb Find the First Stars in the Universe?

The Universe’s very first stars had an important job. They formed from the primordial elements created by the Big Bang, so they contained no metals. It was up to them to synthesize the first metals and spread them out into the nearby Universe.

The JWST has made some progress in finding the Universe’s earliest galaxies. Can it have the same success when searching for the first stars?

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An Epic Collaboration Between Hubble and JWST

This panchromatic view of galaxy cluster MACS0416 was created by combining infrared observations from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope with visible-light data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

In 2012, as part of the MAssive Cluster Survey (MACS), the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) discovered a pair of colliding galaxy clusters (MACS0416) that will eventually combine to form an even bigger cluster. Located about 4.3 billion light-years from Earth, the MACS0416 cluster contains multiple gravitational lenses that allow astronomers to look back in time and view galaxies as they appeared when the Universe was young. In a new collaboration that symbolizes the passing of the torch, the venerable Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) teamed up to conduct an extremely detailed study of MACS0416.

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Civilizations Could Use Gravitational Lenses to Transmit Power From Star to Star

A new study shows how Solar Gravitational Lenses (SGLs) could be used to beam power from one system to another.. Credit: NASA/ESA

In 1916, famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity, a geometric theory for how gravity alters the curvature of spacetime. The revolutionary theory remains foundational to our models of how the Universe formed and evolved. One of the many things GR predicted was what is known as gravitational lenses, where objects with massive gravitational fields will distort and magnify light coming from more distant objects. Astronomers have used lenses to conduct deep-field observations and see farther into space.

In recent years, scientists like Claudio Maccone and Slava Turyshev have explored how using our Sun as a Solar Gravity Lens (SGL) could have tremendous applications for astronomy and the Search for Extratterstiral Intelligence (SETI). Two notable examples include studying exoplanets in extreme detail or creating an interstellar communication network (a “galactic internet”). In a recent paper, Turyshev proposes how advanced civilizations could use stellar gravitational lenses to transmit power from star to star – a possibility that could have significant implications in our search for technosignatures.

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The Most Distant Galactic Field Lines Ever Seen

Mapping of the magnetic field in the distant 9io9 galaxy. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/J. Geach et al.

The galaxies in our local Universe all have magnetic fields. Galactic magnetic fields can be generated by ionized gas within a galaxy, and these same magnetic fields affect the evolution of galaxies. But while modern galaxies have magnetic fields, did early ones? Astronomers are still trying to understand how galactic magnetic fields arise in young galaxies, but this can be a challenge without observational data. Now a team using data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has observed the magnetic field of a galaxy when the Universe was just 2.5 billion years old. The galaxy is known as 9io9. It takes 11 billion years for its light to reach us, making it the most distant galaxy for which we have observed a magnetic field.

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A New Way to Measure the Expansion Rate of the Universe: Redshift Drift

Cosmological redshift depends upon a galaxy's distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (Caltech-IPAC)

In 1929 Edwin Hubble published the first solid evidence that the universe is expanding. Drawing upon data from Vesto Slipher and Henrietta Leavitt, Hubble demonstrated a correlation between galactic distance and redshift. The more distant a galaxy was, the more its light appeared shifted to the red end of the spectrum. We now know this is due to cosmic expansion. Space itself is expanding, which makes distant galaxies appear to recede away from us. The rate of this expansion is known as the Hubble parameter, and while we have a good idea of its value, there is still a bit of tension between different results.

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