Dark Skies – Good For Fireflies And People Alike

Bioluminescent stars flash across the night landscape these July nights. Fireflies or lightning bugs provide a source of wonder for many of us living in the eastern half U.S. and Canada. Did you know dark skies may be as important to them as they are to you and I?

To stoke their yellow-green fires, the bugs – they’re really beetles – cook up light through a series of chemical reactions within their abdomens.

Adult Photurus firefly.  Fireflies produce a cool light by combining oxygen in the air with the chemical luciferin. Credit: Bruce Marlin
Adult Photurus firefly. Fireflies produce a cool light by combining oxygen in the air with the chemical luciferin. Credit: Bruce Marlin

Oxygen from the air combines with a chemical fittingly named luciferin. Luciferin next hooks up with the energy molecule ATP to form another molecule that when combined with oxygen yields a flash of green, yellow or amber light, depending upon the firefly species.

Fireflies June 30 2013 C
Fireflies compete with the stars from a dark location near Duluth, Minn. two nights ago. Each species has its own specific flash pattern. Credit: Bob King

The males perform the flash-dance moves, wiggling and zigging about to attract the females, who typically remain on the ground hidden among blades of grass. Each species has its own flashing pattern. When a female finds a male’s flashes suitably alluring, she winks a flash back. Back and forth communications soon bring the two together to make more fireflies.

Firefly light emits no heat, making it one of the most efficient light sources known. A standard incandescent light bulb converts electricity into 10% light and the rest as heat; fireflies transform 100% of their chemical energy into light. These insects do not waste photons.

One of my favorite memories from childhood was running around on summer nights collecting fireflies in a glass jar.  Credit: Bob King
One of my favorite memories from childhood was running around on summer nights collecting fireflies in a glass jar. Credit: Bob King

Every night I’m out under the July stars at least one firefly manages to land within the telescope tube and create a surprise supernova. If I inadvertently switch my LED flashlight on and off at the right rate, more than a few of them will land right on top of the device in a futile attempt to mate.

Urban sprawl and accompanying light pollution is an issue for both astronomers and fireflies. This view shows the light dome from the city of Duluth, Minn. 20 miles north of town. Credit: Bob King
Urban sprawl and accompanying light pollution is an issue for both astronomers and fireflies. This view shows the light dome from the city of Duluth, Minn. 20 miles north of town. Credit: Bob King

One thing fireflies and skywatchers have in common is love of the night. To appreciate the twinkling heavens, we either escape to the countryside or do our best to contend with the lights in town. Firefly numbers are declining across the U.S. and the world, and though no one’s certain yet why, there’s both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggesting that loss of habitat and light pollution are to blame.

Example showing poorly shielded light fixtures. With nothing to contain or direct the light, it shines where it's not needed - straight up! Credit: Bob King
Example showing poorly shielded light fixtures. With nothing to contain or direct the light, it shines where it’s not needed – straight up! Credit: Bob King

Urban sprawl has comprised the habitats of many wild creatures not just fireflies. Sprawl also brings increased lighting, much of it poorly shielded and on all night. Fireflies avoid heavily lit areas for obvious reasons – light pollution interferes with their ability to see each others’ flashes. Even car headlights can throw them off rhythm. According to a 2008 story in the Boston Globe, controlled experiments have shown that brighter lighting levels cause fireflies to mate less often.

Full cutoff lighting fixtures like these put light where it's needed - on the road - and not out to the sides or up in the sky.  Credit: Bob King
Full cutoff lighting fixtures like these put light where it’s needed – on the road – and not out to the sides or up in the sky. Credit: Bob King

We all can help ensure our favorite bioluminescent buddies remain around for a long time. Turning off your own yard light not only helps you to see more stars but makes it easier for fireflies to find their mates. If you absolutely need illumination, consider one of these efficient shielded light fixtures that puts light where you want it while eliminating the glare that frustrates fireflies and stargazers alike. To learn more about good lighting and keeping the sky dark, check out the International Dark Sky Association.

 

Dark Matter Filaments Bind Galaxies Together

A slim bridge of dark matter – just a hint of a larger cosmic skeleton – has been found binding a pair of distant galaxies together.

According to a press release from the journal Nature, scientists have traced a thread-like structure resembling a cosmic web for decades but this is the first time observations confirming that structure has been seen. Current theory suggests that stars and galaxies trace a cosmic web across the Universe which was originally laid out by dark matter – a mysterious, invisible substance thought to account for more than 80 percent of the matter in the Universe. Dark matter can only be sensed through its gravitational tug and only glimpsed when it warps the light of distant galaxies.

Astronomers led by Jörg Dietrich, a physics research fellow in the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts, took advantage of this effect by studying the gravitational lensing of galactic clusters Abell 222 and 223. By studying the light of tens of thousands of galaxies beyond the supercluster; located about 2.2 billion light-years from Earth, the scientists were able to plot the distortion caused by the Abell cluster. The scientists admit it is extremely difficult to observe gravitational lensing by dark matter in the filaments because they contain little mass. Their workaround was to study a particularly massive filament that stretched across 18 megaparsecs (nearly 59 million light-years) of space. The alignment of the string enhanced the lensing effect.

The team’s results were published in the July 4, 2012 issue of Nature.

“It looks like there’s a bridge that shows that there is additional mass beyond what the clusters contain,” Dietrich said in a press release. “The clusters alone cannot explain this additional mass.”

By examining X-rays emanating from plasma in the filament, observed from the XMM-Newton satellite, the team calculated that no more than nine percent of the filament’s mass could be made up of the hot gas. Computer simulations further suggested that just 10 percent of the mass was due to visible stars and galaxies. Only dark matter, says Dietrich, could make up the remaining mass.

“What’s exciting,” says Mark Bautz, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is that in this unusual system we can map both dark matter and visible matter together and try to figure out how they connect and evolve along the filament.”

Refining the technique could help physicists understand the structure of the Universe and pin down the identity of dark matter (whether it’s a cold slow-moving mass or a warm, fast-moving one. Different types would clump differently along the filament, say scientists.

Image caption: Dark-matter filaments, such as the one bridging the galaxy clusters Abell 222 and Abell 223, are predicted to contain more than half of all matter in the Universe. (credit: Jörg Dietrich, University of Michigan/University Observatory Munich)

What’s the Moon Made Of? Earth, Most Likely.

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Recent research on lunar samples has shown that the Moon may be made of more Earth than green cheese — if by “green cheese” you mean the protoplanet impactor that was instrumental in its creation.

It’s an accepted hypothesis that Earth’s moon was created during an ancient, violet collision between our infant planet and a Mars-sized world called Theia, an event that destroyed Theia and sent part of Earth’s crust and upper mantle into orbit as a brief-lived ring of molten material. This material eventually coalesced to form the Moon, and over the next 4.5 billion years it cooled, became tidally locked with Earth, accumulated countless craters and gradually drifted out to the respectable distance at which we see it today.

Theia’s remains were once assumed to have been a major contributor to the material that eventually formed the Moon.   Lunar samples, however, showed that the ratio of oxygen isotopes on the Moon compared to Earth were too similar to account for such a formation. Now, further research by a team led by scientists from The University of Chicago shows that titanium isotopes — an element much more refractive than oxygen — are surprisingly similar between the Moon and Earth, further indicating a common origin.

“After correcting for secondary effects associated with cosmic-ray exposure at the lunar surface using samarium and gadolinium isotope systematics, we find that the 50Ti/47Ti ratio of the Moon is identical to that of the Earth within about four parts per million, which is only 1/150 of the isotopic range documented in meteorites,” wrote University of Chicago geophysicist Junjun Zhang, lead author of the paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience on March 25.

If the Moon is more Earth than Theia, then what happened to the original impacting body? Perhaps it was made of heavier stuff that sunk deeper into the Moon, or was assimilated into Earth’s mantle, or got lost to space… only more research will tell.

But for now, you can be fairly sure that when you’re looking up at the Moon you’re seeing a piece of Earth, the cratered remnants of a collision that took place billions of years ago.

See the team’s paper here.

Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Message in a Wobble: Black Holes Send Memos in Light

Where is the Nearest Black Hole

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Imagine a spinning black hole so colossal and so powerful that it kicks photons, the basic units of light, and sends them careening thousands of light years through space. Some of the photons make it to Earth. Scientists are announcing in the journal Nature Physics today that those well-traveled photons still carry the signature of that colossal jolt, as a distortion in the way they move. The disruption is like a long-distance missive from the black hole itself, containing information about its size and the speed of its spin.

The researchers say the jostled photons are key to unraveling the theory that predicts black holes in the first place.

“It is rare in general-relativity research that a new phenomenon is discovered that allows us to test the theory further,” says Martin Bojowald, a Penn State physics professor and author of a News & Views article that accompanies the study.

Black holes are so gravitationally powerful that they distort nearby matter and even space and time. Called framedragging, the phenomenon can be detected by sensitive gyroscopes on satellites, Bojowald notes.

Lead study author Fabrizio Tamburini, an astronomer at the University of Padova (Padua) in Italy, and his colleagues have calculated that rotating spacetime can impart to light an intrinsic form of orbital angular momentum distinct from its spin. The authors suggest visualizing this as non-planar wavefronts of this twisted light like a cylindrical spiral staircase, centered around the light beam.

“The intensity pattern of twisted light transverse to the beam shows a dark spot in the middle — where no one would walk on the staircase — surrounded by concentric circles,” they write. “The twisting of a pure [orbital angular momentum] mode can be seen in interference patterns.” They say researchers need between 10,000 and 100,000 photons to piece a black hole’s story together.

And telescopes need some kind of 3D (or holographic) vision in order to see the corkscrews in the light waves they receive, Bojowald said: “If a telescope can zoom in sufficiently closely, one can be sure that all 10,000-100,000 photons come from the accretion disk rather than from other stars farther away. So the magnification of the telescope will be a crucial factor.”

He believes, based on a rough calculation, that “a star like the sun as far away as the center of the Milky Way would have to be observed for less than a year. So it is not going to be a direct image, but one would not have to wait very long.”

Study co-author Bo Thidé, a professor and program director at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, said a year may be conservative, even in the case of a small rotation and a need for up to 100,000 photons.

“But who knows,” he said. “We will know more after we have made further detailed modelling – and observations, of course.  At this time we emphasize the discovery of a
new general relativity phenomenon that allows us to make observations, leaving precise quantitative predictions aside.”

Links: Nature Physics