1,500 New Type 1A Supernova Found as Part of the Dark Energy Survey

An example of a supernova discovered by the Dark Energy Survey within the field covered by one of the individual detectors in the Dark Energy Camera. The supernova exploded in a spiral galaxy with redshift = 0.04528, which corresponds to a light-travel time of about 0.6 billion years. In comparison, the quasar at the right has a redshift of 3.979 and a light-travel time of 11.5 billion years. Image Credit: DES Collaboration/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/M. Zamani

Supernova explosions are fascinating because they’re so cataclysmic, powerful, and awe-inspiring. They’re Nature’s summer blockbusters. Humans have recorded their existence in ancient astronomical records and stone carvings, and in our age, with telescopes.

Now, the Dark Energy Survey (DES) has uncovered the largest number of Type 1A supernovae ever found with a single telescope.

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New Detailed Images of the Sun from the World’s Most Powerful Ground-Based Solar Telescope

A collage of new solar images captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope, which is a small amount of solar data obtained during the Inouye’s first year of operations throughout its commissioning phase. Images include sunspots and quiet regions of the Sun, known as convection cells. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)

Our Sun continues to demonstrate its awesome power in a breathtaking collection of recent images taken by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Daniel Inouye Solar Telescope, aka Inouye Solar Telescope, which is the world’s largest and most powerful ground-based solar telescope. These images, taken by one of Inouye’s first-generation instruments, the Visible-Broadband Imager (VBI), show our Sun in incredible, up-close detail.

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New Study Shows How Breaching “Carbon Threshold” Could Trigger Mass Extinction in Earth’s Oceans

This view of Earth’s horizon was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station, using a wide-angle lens while the Station was over the Pacific Ocean. A new study suggests that Earth's water didn't all come from comets, but likely also came from water-rich planetesimals. Credit: NASA
This view of Earth’s horizon was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station, using a wide-angle lens while the Station was over the Pacific Ocean. A new study suggests that Earth's water didn't all come from comets, but likely also came from water-rich planetesimals. Credit: NASA

Between the scientific community, governments, humanitarian organizations, and even military planners, climate change is considered to be the single greatest threat facing humanity today. Between the increases in famine, disease, flooding, displacement, extreme weather, and chaos that result, it is clear that the way we are causing our planet to get warmer is having dire consequences.

But there a number of scenarios where the harm being done now could result in a runaway effect leading to mass extinctions. This possibility was illustrated in a recent study conducted by MIT professor Daniel Rothman with the support of NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). According to Rothman, we are in danger of breaching a “carbon threshold” that could lead to a runaway effect with Earth’s oceans.

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Dr. Avi Loeb Thinks the Government Should set its Sights on Big Ideas in Space Exploration

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
The iconic photo of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon for Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

On July 20th, 2019, exactly 50 years will have passed since human beings first set foot on the Moon. To mark this anniversary, NASA will be hosting a number of events and exhibits and people from all around the world will be united in celebration and remembrance. Given that crewed lunar missions are scheduled to take place again soon, this anniversary also serves as a time to reflect on the lessons learned from the last “Moonshot”.

For one, the Moon Landing was the result of years of government-directed research and development that led to what is arguably the greatest achievement in human history. This achievement and the lessons it taught were underscored in a recent essay by two Harvard astrophysicists. In it, they recommend that the federal government continue to provide active leadership in the field of space research and exploration.

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Pulsar Seen Speeding Away From the Supernova That Created it

Observations using the Very Large Array (orange) reveal the needle-like trail of pulsar J0002+6216 outside the shell of its supernova remnant, shown in image from the Canadian Galactic Plane Survey. The pulsar escaped the remnant some 5,000 years after the supernova explosion. Credit: NRAO

When a star exhausts its nuclear fuel towards the end of its lifespan, it undergoes gravitational collapse and sheds its outer layers. This results in a magnificent explosion known as a supernova, which can lead to the creation of a black hole, a pulsar or a white dwarf. And despite decades of observation and research, there is still much scientists don’t know about this phenomena.

Luckily, ongoing observations and improved instruments are leading to all kinds of discoveries that offer chances for new insights. For instance, a team of astronomers with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and NASA recently observed a “cannonball” pulsar speeding away from the supernova that is believed to have created it. This find is already providing insights into how pulsars can pick up speed from a supernova.

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NSF Report Biased, Expert Says: Americans Don’t Think Astrology is Scientific

Americans ...

Every Thanksgiving when I was home from college, at least one family member would turn to me and ask me how that astrology degree was going, or tell me about a new astrology article they read. It wasn’t that my family members really thought I was studying astrology or even believed astrology was scientific, it was just that they mixed up “astronomy” with “astrology.” In all fairness, for those who don’t follow either astrology or astronomy very closely, it might be considered an honest mistake.

So when a report from the National Science Foundation claimed a majority of young Americans believed astrology was scientific I had my doubts. But so did psychologist, Richard Landers from Old Dominion University who performed a small second study and found the report to be biased.

Since 1979, NSF surveys have asked Americans whether they view astrology — the study of how the movement of celestial bodies affects the here and now — as being scientific.

Their most recent survey showed that nearly half of all Americans (42 percent) believe astrology to be scientific. But what’s more alarming, according to the NSF, is that American understandings of science are moving in the wrong direction. It seems our golden year was in 2004, when 66 percent of Americans said astrology was not at all scientific. That number has been dropping ever since.

It should come as no surprise that those with a higher education are more willing to demote astrology entirely. In 2012, 72 percent of those with graduate degrees indicated that astrology is not scientific, compared with only 34 percent of those who didn’t graduate high school.

Shockingly, age was also related to perceptions of astrology. Younger respondents (ages 18-24) seemed to give astrology a high vote of confidence,with only 42 percent claiming that it isn’t scientific. So roughly six in every 10 young adults believe astrology is absolutely scientific.

But such dramatic conclusions are being drawn from a single question: “Is astrology scientific?” It’s based on the crucial assumption that people are correctly interpreting the word “astrology.”

Landers guessed that the survey respondents might be mixing up the term “astrology” with “astronomy.” So he performed a quick survey himself, using Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) — a crowdsourcing internet marketplace. He collected 100 responses to a survey that asked three questions:

— Please define astrology in 25 words or less.
— Do you believe astrology to be scientific?
— What is your highest level of education completed?

His initial assessment — without taking into account how the respondent defined astrology — showed results very similar to the original survey provided by the NSF — approximately 30 percent found astrology to be scientific. While this percentage is less than what the NSF report found, Landers believes this is due to a user bias (MTurk users tend to be more educated and older than the average American).

But once Landers included the answer to the first question into his results, he saw a very clear trend: those who defined astrology correctly did not believe it to be scientific, while those who confused astrology with astronomy did believe it to be scientific.

Data collected from 100 participants using MTurk.
Data collected from 100 participants using MTurk. Image Credit: R. Landers

Among those that correctly identified astrology, only 13.5 percent found it to be “pretty scientific.” And only one person found it to be “very scientific.” Among those that confused astrology with astronomy, the discipline was overwhelmingly seen as scientific.

“My little quick study doesn’t ‘overturn’ the NSF results” Landers told Universe Today. “It only suggests that the NSF results are probably biased to some degree.”

With such small number statistics Landers certainly didn’t prove the NSF results wrong, but he does call the study into question. Landers also noted an additional study from the European Commission which corroborated his findings.

I for one would love to see the NSF conduct a more detailed study. Including a definition of astrology in the next round of surveys would certainly bring clarification and shed light on the root of the problem.

Update: After posting this article, a reader informed me of a critique of Richard landers’ assessment, posted by The Washington Post’s Jim Lindgren. He conducted another follow-up study to explore the issue. In his own sample, Lindgren found that probably only one respondent out of 108 confused “astrology” with “astronomy.” He claims it’s unlikely the NSF report was biased at all.

However, the back and forth banter between experts suggests these words and their corresponding definitions do need to be clarified. Science journalists have their work cut out for them.

US Astronomy Facing Severe Budget Cuts and Facility Closures

The US astronomy budget is facing unprecedented cuts with potential closures of several facilities. A new report by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences says that available funding for ground-based astronomy could undershoot projected budgets by as much as 50%. The report recommends the closure – called “divestment” in the new document — of iconic facilities such as the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and the Green Bank Radio Telescope, as well as shutting down four different telescopes at the Kitt Peak Observatory by 2017.

“Divestment from these highly successful, long-running facilities will be difficult for all of us in the astronomical community,” reads the AST Panel Review, Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges. “We must, however, consider the science tradeoff between divesting existing facilities and the risk of devastating cuts to individual research grants, mid-­scale projects, and new initiatives.”

The National Science Foundation funds the majority of ground-based astronomy facilities and research in the US. Every ten years, the astronomy community puts out a “Decadal Review,” which reviews and identifies the highest priority research activities for astronomy and astrophysics in the next decade, recommending important science goals and facilities.

With the budget trouble the US has encountered since the 2010 decadal survey was released (called “New Worlds, New Horizons, (NWNH),” the money available through the NSF for astronomy is much less than hoped for. Experts say that the Fiscal Year 2012 astronomy budget is already $45 million below the NWNH model, and predictions say the gap may grow to $75 million to $100 million by 2014.

In response to these projections, the US astronomy community convened a new panel to go through NWNH to come up with a set of recommendations of how to live within the means of a smaller budget — basically what to cut and what to keep.

“The federal budget looks nothing like it did when NWNH was underway,” said Dr. Debra Elmegreen from Vassar College in New York, a member of the 2010 Decadal Review Committee, “and I really hope non-defense discretionary spending will not be slashed beyond repair. Congress needs to understand that the nation’s leadership in science is at risk if science funding is not maintained at an adequate level.”

But Elmegreen told Universe Today she was impressed with the new panel’s review.

“The committee faced a very difficult task in trying to allow implementation of the Decadal recommendations while maintaining the strong programs and facilities that NSF has been supporting, in the face of extremely bleak budget projections,” she said, “and I am impressed with their report. The committee seemed to take great care in considering what resources – grant programs, facilities, instrumentation, technological and computation development – would be necessary to achieve progress in each of the very exciting primary science drivers outlined in NWNH.”

The new panel came up with two possible scenarios to deal with the projected budget shortfalls. The more optimistic of the two scenarios, Scenario A, sees funding at the end of the decade at only 65% of what was expected by NWNH. The less optimistic scenario, B, predicts only 50% of projected funding.

Both scenarios recommend closure of “older” facilities: the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter telescope, the WIYN (Wisconsin Indiana Yale NOAO) 3.5 meter telescope, the 2.1 meter Kitt Peak telescope, and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope – all at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, as well as the the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, and the Very Long Baseline Array. “We recommend that AST (NSF’s Astronomy Division) divest from these facilities before FY17” the report says. “We recommend that AST divest in a manner that is responsible to its fellow tenants at observatories and to its long-duration user programs.”

The panel looked to protect small grants for researchers and mid-scale programs, as well as projects already in place to attract and train new astronomers with undergraduate training and post-doc fellowships. But they were forced to keep the budgets of many of these programs relatively flat over the next several years. The panel also recommended no significant new initiatives be started over the next decade.

However, they recommended continued funding of newer and under-construction facilities such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT), and the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT).

“[These] are all powerful new facilities that promise major advances in the field,” the report reads. “However, they are expensive to construct and operate, and implementing them while protecting the very important (and heavily over-subscribed) small-grants and mid-scale programs implies that AST must find significant reductions elsewhere in the portfolio. This is an uncomfortable but necessary step.”

The panel said that with astronomy advancing very rapidly, investment in the latest facilities, technologies, and instruments is crucial or US astronomy would face a decline in their leadership of astronomical efforts worldwide.

“We have to judge the continuation of existing programs and facilities against the opportunities made possible by new investment,” the report reads. “However, we must also recognize that existing facilities offer secure, near-term science opportunities.”

However, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the Associated Universities Inc. (AUI) issued a response to the possible closing of facilities, saying that “optimizing the United States’ astronomy portfolio should involve considerations beyond just the question of what can be cut from a particular funding agency’s budget to make room for something new in that same agency’s budget.”

They listed goals of having world class training facilities and preserving irreplaceable research facilities but said “None of these goals will be advanced by removing the GBT and VLBA from the portfolio of telescopes funded via the NSF; indeed, they will be hindered.”

The savings from divesting from the aforementioned facilities is projected at $20 million.

Another recommendation is to have yearly reviews of every facility to ensure the limited funds are being spent wisely.

“No matter how rosy budgets are you can’t continue to build new facilities without closing old ones or finding another steward to take them over,” said Michael Turner via email, a cosmologist from the University of Chicago and also a member of the NWNH committee. “NASA has realized this for years and blazed the trail with its regular Senior Reviews which this is modeled after. While the budgets ahead are uncertain at best and are unlikely to be as simple as either scenario considered, AST is now reviewing its portfolio on a regular basis and making the difficult decisions needed for good stewardship of the field. That is the big news.”

How are astronomers in the field responding to the new report? Posts on Twitter included expletives, outrage, disappointment and one response of “I want to cry.”

Katherine Mack, an astronomer who is originally from the US but now working abroad tried to take a comprehensive view.

“There’s just so little funding right now,” she said in an email. “As a cosmologist, I was sad to hear that NASA pulled its funding for LISA, a space-based gravitational-wave detector. But I’m even more surprised that now the NSF wants to pull funding from a number of highly productive ground-based projects, such as the Green Bank Telescope. It’s a sharp contrast to places like Australia and South Africa, where new investment in astronomy facilities seems to be very healthy and even increasing.”

Several astronomers posted on Twitter that perhaps the US astronomy community and the AST review panel needs to “think outside the box” more for solutions to problems that are known among those in the astronomy community, but not widely addressed or acknowledged. For example, in the section on “Career Support and Progression, the panel discussed issues relating to the astronomy career structure.

The report says, “Within astronomy, there are aspects of the postdoctoral situation that are unhealthy and unstable” and “there is a persistent mismatch between the production rate of Ph.D.s and the number of tenure-track faculty or long-term astronomy positions.”

“I think everyone in the astronomy community is aware that these problems exist, and it’s nice to see them spelled out, but there’s not much in the report to suggest solutions,” Mack said. “I would love to see a much bigger effort in this direction, thinking of ways to not just prioritize current funding models in a way that helps early-career researchers, but also ways to fundamentally change the funding models or to discourage the field from filling up with postdocs and soft-money astronomers who will never find permanent jobs.”

Astronomer Nicole Gugliucci wrote on the CosmoQuest blog that closures of facilities will not only mean loss of jobs for astronomers, but others as well. “We will lose these important telescopes AND jobs for scientists, engineers, software developers, education professionals, shop mechanics and more,” she said, adding that researchers at smaller universities that do not own their own telescopes, “will lose access to the sky…. and their associated education centers will be in danger and the brilliant projects done with high school and college students will GO AWAY.”

Elmegreen hopes that some of the facilities under threaten of closure will be able to continue their work through privatization. “There is simply no way that all worthy facilities can be kept operating on federal funds and still have any funds left for new starts,” she said, “and NWNH recognized that there would be tough choices ahead in the event of more pessimistic budgets than we had built our recommendations on. I believe the Portfolio report strives for a prudent balance among small, medium, and large efforts, and between existing and proposed facilities, in a way that can help maximize the realization of our astronomical goals.”

As bleak as the new review looks, Turner said there could be a silver lining in this dark cloud for astronomy.

“The toughness of the decisions and the clarity of the strategic thinking at an extraordinary time of discovery about our universe and our place within it … might give NSF reason to find ways to increase the astronomy budget by tightening the budget elsewhere,” he told Universe Today. “The Committee has certainly given the Division Director(James Ulvestad) powerful arguments for increasing funding for astronomy. Time will tell if he is able to put them to good use. I hope he can. This is a special time in astronomy and our quest to understand our place in the cosmos.”

A graph depicts the basic rundown of the two different funding scenarios recommended by the AST Panel Review:

Read the full report here.

Lead image caption: The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) located in Green Bank, West Virginia. This telescope is under threat of closure under the new recommendations of the AST Panel Review. Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI