Here’s M74 Like You’ve Never Seen it Before, Thanks to Judy Schmidt and JWST

The JWST recently imaged NGC628, also knows an M74. Well-known astronomy image processor Judy Schmidt reworked the image to show more detail. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STSCI/JUDY SCHMIDT CC BY 2.0

The JWST is grabbing headlines and eyeballs as its mission gains momentum. The telescope recently imaged M74 (NGC 628) with its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI.) Judy Schmidt, a well-known amateur astronomy image processor, has worked on the image to bring out more detail.

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If There are Dyson Spheres Around White Dwarfs, We Should be Able to Detect Them

Searching for Dyson spheres, rings, or swarms remains a preoccupation of many astronomers.  If there are any out there, they will eventually be found, and the person or research team to do so will go down in history for making one of the most momentous discoveries in the history of humanity.  If you’re interested in claiming that accolade for yourself, an excellent place to look may be around white dwarfs.  At least, that’s the theory put forward in a new paper by Benjamin Zuckerman, a now-retired professor of astrophysics at UCLA.  

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NASA has Approved a Space Telescope That Will Scan the Skies for Dangerous Near-Earth Asteroids

An artist's illustration of the NEO Surveyor, a space telescope designed to detect and catalogue NEOs. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

A lot of the threats humanity faces come from ourselves. If we were listing them, we’d include tribalism, greed, and the fact that we’re evolved primates, and our brains have a lot in common with animal brains. Our animalistic brains subject us to many of the same destructive emotions and impulses that animals are subject to. We wage war and become embroiled in intergenerational conflicts. There are genocides, pogroms, doomed boatloads of migrants, and horrible mashups of all three.

Isn’t humanity fun?

But not all of the threats we face are as intractable as our internal ones. Some threats are external, and we can leverage our technologies and our knowledge of nature in the struggle against them. Case in point: asteroids.

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What Telescope Will Be Needed to See the First Stars in the Universe? The Ultimately Large Telescope

New results from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope suggest the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the early Universe took place sooner than previously thought. A European team of astronomers have found no evidence of the first generation of stars, known as Population III stars, when the Universe was less than one billion years old. This artist’s impression presents the early Universe. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser.

The oldest stars in the Universe are cloaked in darkness. Their redshift is so high, we can only wonder about them. The James Webb Space Telescope will be our most effective telescope for observing the very early Universe, and should observe out to z = 15. But even it has limitations.

To observe the Universe’s very first stars, we need a bigger telescope. The Ultimately Large Telescope.

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Good-bye Spitzer. We’ll Miss You But We Won’t Forget You.

An image from each year of Spitzer's operation. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has reached the end of its life. Its mission was to study objects in the infrared, and it excelled at that since it was launched in 2003. But every mission has an end, and on January 30th 2020, Spitzer shut down.

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Titan Looks Cool in Infrared

Infrared images of Saturn's moon Titan, captured by Cassini's the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on September 15th, 2017, when it crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, thus preventing any possible contamination of the system’s moons. Nevertheless, the wealth of data the probe collected during the thirteen years it spent orbiting Saturn (of the gas giant, its rings, and its many moons) continues to be analyzed by scientists – with amazing results!

Case in point, the Cassini team recently released a series of colorful images that show what Titan looks like in infrared. The images were constructing using 13 years of data that was accumulated by the spacecraft’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument. These images represent some of the clearest, most seamless-looking global views of the icy moon’s surface produced so far.

Infrared images provide a unique opportunity when studying Titan, which is difficult to observe in the visible spectrum because of its dense and hazy atmosphere. This is primarily the result of small particles called aerosols in Titan’s upper atmosphere, which strongly scatter visible light. However, where the scattering and absorption of light is much weaker, this allows for infrared “windows” that make it possible to catch glimpses of Titan’s surface.

Comparison between how Titan appears in visible light (center), and in infrared. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona

It is because of this that the VIMS was so valuable, allowing scientists to provide clear images of Titan’s surface. This latest collection of images are especially unique because of the smoothness and clarity they offer. In previous infrared images captured by the Cassini spacecraft of Titan (see below), there were great variations in imaging resolution and lighting conditions, which resulted in obvious seams between different areas of the surface.

This is due to the fact that the VIMS obtained data over many different flybys with different observing geometries and atmospheric conditions. As a result, very prominent seams appear in mosaic images that are quite difficult to remove. But, through laborious and detailed analyses of the data, along with time consuming hand processing of the mosaics, Cassini’s imaging team was able to mostly remove the seams.

The process used to reduce the prominence of seams is known as the “band-ratio” technique. This process involves combining three color channels (red, green and blue), using a ratio between the brightness of Titan’s surface at two different wavelengths. The technique also emphasizes subtle spectral variations in the materials on Titan’s surface, as evidenced by the bright patches of brown, blue and purple (which may be evidence of different compositions).

The three mosaics shown here were composed with data from Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) taken during the three flybys of Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In addition to offering the clearest and most-seamless glimpse of Titan yet, these unique images also highlight the moon’s complex geography and composition. They also showcase the power of the VIMS instrument, which has paved the way for future infrared instruments that could capture images of Titan at much higher resolution and reveal features that Cassini was not able to see.

In the coming years, NASA hopes to send additional missions to Titan to explore its surface and methane lakes for signs of biosignatures. An infrared instrument, which can see through Titan’s dense atmosphere, provide high-resolution images of the surface and help determine its composition, will prove very useful in this regard!

Further Reading: NASA

NASA Discovers 72 New Asteroids Near Earth

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

Of the more than 600,000 known asteroids in our Solar System, almost 10 000 are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). These are asteroids or comets whose orbits bring them close to Earth’s, and which could potentially collide with us at some point in the future. As such, monitoring these objects is a vital part of NASA’s ongoing efforts in space. One such mission is NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which has been active since December 2013.

And now, after two years of study, the information gathered by the mission is being released to the public. This included, most recently, NEOWISE’s second year of survey data, which accounted for 72 previously unknown objects that orbit near to our planet. Of these, eight were classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), based on their size and how closely their orbits approach Earth.

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Do Comets Explain Mystery Star’s Bizarre Behavior?

A new study indicates that in about a million years, a star will pass close to our Solar System, sending comets towards Earth and the other planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The story of KIC 8462852 appears far from over. You’ll recall NASA’s Kepler mission had monitored the star for four years, observing two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when its light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways. Models to explain its erratic behavior were so lacking that some considered the possibility that alien megastructures built to capture sunlight around the host star (think Dyson Spheres) might be the cause.

But a search using the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array for two weeks in October detected no significant radio signals or other signs of intelligent life emanating from the star’s vicinity. Something had passed in front of the star and blocked its light, but what?

The Spitzer Space Telescope observatory trails behind Earth as it orbits the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Spitzer Space Telescope observatory trails behind Earth as it orbits the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Shattered comets and asteroids were also suggested as possible explanations — dust and ground-up rock would be at the right temperature to glow in the infrared — but Kepler could only observe in visible light where any debris would be invisible or swamped by the light of the star. So researchers looked through older observations made in 2010 by the  Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope. Unfortunately, WISE observed the star before the strange variations were seen and therefore before any putative dust-busting collisions.

Not to be stymied, astronomers next checked out the data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which like WISE, is optimized for infrared light.  Spitzer just happened to observe KIC 8462852 much more recently in 2015.

“Spitzer has observed all of the hundreds of thousands of stars where Kepler hunted for planets, in the hope of finding infrared emission from circumstellar dust,” said Michael Werner, the Spitzer project scientist and the lead investigator of that particular Spitzer/Kepler observing program.

Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3) as imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope. The images was taken January 10, 2010 when the comet was 2.5AU from the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3)  imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope in January 2010. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

I’d love to report that Spitzer tracked down glowing dust but no, it also came up empty-handed. This makes the idea of an asteroidal smash-up very unlikely, but not one involving comets according to Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University (Ames) who led the new study. Marengo proposes that cold comets are responsible. Picture a family of comets traveling on a very long, eccentric orbit around the star with a very large comet at the head of the pack responsible for the big fading seen by Kepler in 2011. Later, in 2013, the rest of the comet family, a band of various-sized fragments lagging behind, would have passed in front of the star and again blocked its light. By 2015, the comets would have moved even farther away on their long orbital journey, leaving no detectable infrared excess.

“This is a very strange star,” said Marengo. “It reminds me of when we first discovered pulsars. They were emitting odd signals nobody had ever seen before, and the first one discovered was named LGM-1 after ‘Little Green Men.'”

Clearly, more long-term observations are needed. And frankly, I’m still puzzled why cold or less active comets might still not be detected by their glowing dust. But let’s assume for a moment the the comet idea is correct. If so, we should expect to see similar dips in KIC 8462852’s light as the comet swarm swings around again.

Moonlight Is a Many-Splendored Thing

We see the Moon differently depending upon the wavelength in which we view it. Top row from left:

“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” goes the song. But the color and appearance of the Moon depends upon the particular set of eyes we use to see it. Human vision is restricted to a narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum called visible light.

With colors ranging from sumptuous violet to blazing red and everything in between, the diversity of the visible spectrum provides enough hues for any crayon color a child might imagine. But as expansive as the visual world’s palette is, it’s not nearly enough to please astronomers’ retinal appetites.

Visible light is a sliver of light's full range of "colors" which span from kilometers-long, low-energy radio waves (left) to short wavelength, energetic gamma rays. It's all light, with each color determined by wavelength. Familiar objects along the bottom reference light wave sizes. Visible light waves are about one-millionth of a meter wide. Credit: NASA
Visible light is a sliver of light’s full range of “colors” which span from kilometers-long, low-energy radio waves (left) to short wavelength, energetic gamma rays. It’s all light, with each color determined by wavelength. Familiar objects along the bottom reference light wave sizes. Visible light waves are about one-millionth of a meter wide. Credit: NASA

Since the discovery of infrared light by William Herschel in 1800 we’ve been unshuttering one electromagnetic window after another. We build telescopes, great parabolic dishes and other specialized instruments to extend the range of human sight.  Not even the atmosphere gets in our way. It allows only visible light, a small amount of infrared and ultraviolet and selective slices of the radio spectrum to pass through to the ground. X-rays, gamma rays and much else is absorbed and completely invisible.

Earth's atmosphere blocks a good portion of light's diversity from reaching the ground, the reason we launch rockets and orbiting telescopes into space. Large professional telescopes are often built on mountain tops above much of the atmosphere allowing astronomers to see at least some infrared light that is otherwise absorbed by air at lower elevations. Credit: NASA
Earth’s atmosphere blocks a good portion of light’s diversity from reaching the ground, the reason we launch rockets and orbiting telescopes into space. Large professional telescopes are often built on mountain tops above much of the denser, lower atmosphere. This expands the viewing “window” into the infrared. Credit: NASA

To peer into these rarified realms, we’ve lofting air balloons and then rockets and telescopes into orbit or simply dreamed up the appropriate instrument to detect them. Karl Jansky’s homebuilt radio telescope cupped the first radio waves from the Milky Way in the early 1930s; by the 1940s  sounding rockets shot to the edge of space detected the high-frequency sizzle of X-rays.  Each color of light, even the invisible “colors”, show us a new face on a familiar astronomical object or reveal things otherwise invisible to our eyes.

So what new things can we learn about the Moon with our contemporary color vision?

Radio Moon
Radio Moon

Radio: Made using NRAO’s 140-ft telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. Blues and greens represent colder areas of the moon and reds are warmer regions. The left half  of Moon was facing the Sun at the time of the observation. The sunlit Moon appear brighter than the shadowed portion because it radiates more heat (infrared light) and radio waves.

Submillimeter Moon
Submillimeter Moon

Submillimeter: Taken using the SCUBA camera on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. Submillimeter radiation lies between far infrared and microwaves. The Moon appears brighter on one side because it’s being heated by Sun in that direction. The glow comes from submillimeter light radiated by the Moon itself. No matter the phase in visual light, both the submillimeter and radio images always appear full because the Moon radiates at least some light at these wavelengths whether the Sun strikes it or not.

Mid-infrared Moon
Mid-infrared Moon

Mid-infrared: This image of the Full Moon was taken by the Spirit-III instrument on the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) at totality during a 1996 lunar eclipse. Once again, we see the Moon emitting light with the brightest areas the warmest and coolest regions darkest. Many craters look like bright dots speckling the lunar disk, but the most prominent is brilliant Tycho near the bottom. Research shows that young, rock-rich surfaces, such as recent impact craters, should heat up and glow more brightly in infrared than older, dust-covered regions and craters. Tycho is one of the Moon’s youngest craters with an age of just 109 million years.

Near-infrared Moon
Near-infrared Moon

Near-infrared: This color-coded picture was snapped just beyond the visible deep red by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft during its 1992 Earth-Moon flyby en route to Jupiter. It shows absorptions due to different minerals in the Moon’s crust. Blue areas indicate areas richer in iron-bearing silicate materials that contain the minerals pyroxene and olivine. Yellow indicates less absorption due to different mineral mixes.

Visible light Moon
Visible light Moon

Visible light: Unlike the other wavelengths we’ve explored so far, we see the Moon not by the light it radiates but by the light it reflects from the Sun.

The iron-rich composition of the lavas that formed the lunar “seas” give them a darker color compared to the ancient lunar highlands, which are composed mostly of a lighter volcanic rock called anorthosite.

UV Moon
UV Moon

Ultraviolet: Similar to the view in visible light but with a lower resolution. The brightest areas probably correspond to regions where the most recent resurfacing due to impacts has occurred. Once again, the bright rayed crater Tycho stands out in this regard. The photo was made with the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope flown aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in March 1995.

X-ray Moon
X-ray Moon

X-ray: The Moon, being a relatively peaceful and inactive celestial body, emits very little x-ray light, a form of radiation normally associated with highly energetic and explosive phenomena like black holes. This image was made by the orbiting ROSAT Observatory on June 29, 1990 and shows a bright hemisphere lit by oxygen, magnesium, aluminum and silicon atoms fluorescing in x-rays emitted by the Sun. The speckled sky records the “noise” of distant background X-ray sources, while the dark half of the Moon has a hint of illumination from Earth’s outermost atmosphere or geocorona that envelops the ROSAT observatory.

Gamma ray Moon
Gamma ray Moon

Gamma rays: Perhaps the most amazing image of all. If you could see the sky in gamma rays the Moon would be far brighter than the Sun as this dazzling image attempts to show. It was taken by the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope (EGRET).  High-energy particles (mostly protons) from deep space called cosmic rays constantly bombard the Moon’s surface, stimulating the atoms in its crust to emit gamma rays. These create a unique high-energy form of “moonglow”.

Astronomy in the 21st century is like having a complete piano keyboard on which to play compared to barely an octave a century ago. The Moon is more fascinating than ever for it.

The Milky Way’s New Neighbor May Tell Us Things About the Universe

This dwarf spheroidal galaxy in the constellation Fornax is a satellite of our Milky Way and is one of 10 used in Fermi's dark matter search. The motions of the galaxy's stars indicate that it is embedded in a massive halo of matter that cannot be seen. Credit: ESO/Digital Sky Survey 2

As part of the Local Group, a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies that measures 10 million light years in diameter, the Milky Way has no shortage of neighbors. However, refinements made in the field of astronomy in recent years are leading to the observation of neighbors that were previously unseen. This, in turn, is changing our view of the local universe to one where things are a lot more crowded.

For instance, scientists working out of the Special Astrophysical Observatory in Karachai-Cherkessia, Russia, recently found a previously undetected dwarf galaxy that exists 7 million light years away. The discovery of this galaxy, named KKs3, and those like it is an exciting prospect for scientists, since they can tell us much about how stars are born in our universe.

The Russian team, led by Prof Igor Karachentsev of the Special Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), used the Hubble Space Telescope Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to locate KKs3 in the southern sky near the constellation of Hydrus. The discovery occurred back in August 2014, when they finalized their observations a series of stars that have only one ten-thousandth the mass of the Milky Way.

Such dwarf galaxies are far more difficult to detect than others due to a number of distinct characteristics. KKs3 is what is known as a dwarf spheroid (or dSph) galaxy, a type that has no spiral arms like the Milky Way and also suffers from an absence of raw materials (like dust and gas). Since they lack the materials to form new stars, they are generally composed of older, fainter stars.

Image of the KKR 25 dwarf spheroid galaxy obtained by the Special Astrophysical Observatory using the HST. Credit: SAO RAS/Hubble
Image of the KKR 25 dwarf spheroid galaxy obtained by the Special Astrophysical Observatory using the HST. Credit: SAO RAS

In addition, these galaxies are typically found in close proximity to much larger galaxies, like Andromeda, which appear to have gobbled up their gas and dust long ago. Being faint in nature, and so close to far more luminous objects, is what makes them so tough to spot by direct observation.

Team member Prof Dimitry Makarov, also of the Special Astrophysical Observatory, described the process: “Finding objects like Kks3 is painstaking work, even with observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope. But with persistence, we’re slowly building up a map of our local neighborhood, which turns out to be less empty than we thought. It may be that are a huge number of dwarf spheroidal galaxies out there, something that would have profound consequences for our ideas about the evolution of the cosmos.”

Painstaking is no exaggeration. Since they are devoid of materials like clouds of gas and dust fields, scientists are forced to spot these galaxies by identifying individual stars. Because of this, only one other isolated dwarf spheroidal has been found in the Local Group: a dSph known as KKR 25, which was also discovered by the Russian research team back in 1999.

But despite the challenges of spotting them, astronomers are eager to find more examples of dSph galaxies. As it stands, it is believed that these isolated spheroids must have been born out of a period of rapid star formation, before the galaxies were stripped of their dust and gas or used them all up.

Studying more of these galaxies can therefore tell us much about the process star formation in our universe. The Russian team expects that the task will become easier in the coming years as the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope begin service.

Much like the Spitzer Space Telescope, these next-generation telescopes are optimized for infrared detection and will therefore prove very useful in picking out faint stars. This, in turn, will also give us a more complete understanding of our universe and all that it holds.

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society