The Closest Supernova Since 1604 Is Hissing At Us

Thirty years ago, a star that went by the designation of SN 1987A collapsed spectacularly, creating a supernova that was visible from Earth. This was the largest supernova to be visible to the naked eye since Kepler’s Supernova in 1604. Today, this supernova remnant (which is located approximately 168,000 light-years away) is being used by astronomers in the Australian Outback to help refine our understanding of stellar explosions.

Led by a student from the University of Sydney, this international research team is observing the remnant at the lowest-ever radio frequencies. Previously, astronomers knew much about the star’s immediate past by studying the effect the star’s collapse had on the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud. But by detecting the star’s faintest hisses of radio static, the team was able to observe a great deal more of its history.

The team’s findings, which were published yesterday in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, detail how the astronomers were able to look millions of years farther back in time. Prior to this, astronomers could only observe a tiny fraction of the star’s life cycle before it exploded – 20,000 years (or 0.1%) of its multi-million year life span.

Artist’s impression of the star in its multi-million year long and previously unobservable phase as a large, red supergiant. Credit: CAASTRO / Mats Björklund (Magipics)
Artist’s impression of the star in its multi-million year long and previously unobservable phase as a large, red supergiant. Credit: CAASTRO / Mats Björklund (Magipics)

As such, they were only able to see the star when it was in its final, blue supergiant phase. But with the help of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) – a low-frequency radio telescope located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in the West Australian desert – the radio astronomers were able to see all the way back to when the star was still in its long-lasting red supergiant phase.

In so doing, they were able to observe some interesting things about how this star behaved leading up to the final phase in its life. For instance, they found that SN 1987A lost its matter at a slower rate during its red supergiant phase than was previously assumed. They also observed that it generated slower than expected winds during this period, which pushed into its surrounding environment.

Joseph Callingham, a PhD candidate with the University of Sydney and the ARC Center of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), is the leader of this research effort. As he stated in a recent RAS press release:

“Just like excavating and studying ancient ruins that teach us about the life of a past civilization, my colleagues and I have used low-frequency radio observations as a window into the star’s life. Our new data improves our knowledge of the composition of space in the region of SN 1987A; we can now go back to our simulations and tweak them, to better reconstruct the physics of supernova explosions.”

Aerial photograph of the core region of the MWA telescope. Credit: mwatelescope.org
Aerial photograph of the core region of the MWA telescope. Credit: mwatelescope.org

The key to finding this new information was the quiet and (some would say) temperamental conditions that the MWA requires to do its thing. Like all radio telescopes, the MWA is located in a remote area to avoid interference from local radio sources, not to mention a dry and elevated area to avoid interference from atmospheric water vapor.

As Professor Gaensler – the former CAASTRO Director and the supervisor of the project – explained, such methods allow for impressive new views of the Universe. “Nobody knew what was happening at low radio frequencies,” he said, “because the signals from our own earthbound FM radio drown out the faint signals from space. Now, by studying the strength of the radio signal, astronomers for the first time can calculate how dense the surrounding gas is, and thus understand the environment of the star before it died.”

These findings will likely help astronomers to understand the life cycle of stars better, which will come in handy when trying to determine what our Sun has in store for us down the road. Further applications will include the hunt for extra-terrestrial life, with astronomers being able to make more accurate estimates on how stellar evolution could effect the odds of life forming in different star systems.

In addition to being home to the MWA, the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) is also the planned site of the future Square Kilometer Array (SKA). The MWA is one of three telescopes – along with the South African MeerKAT array and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) array – that are designated as a Precursor for the SKA.

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

The Dutch Are Going To The Moon With The Chinese

One of the defining characteristics of the New Space era is partnerships. Whether it is between the private and public sector, different space agencies, or different institutions across the world, collaboration has become the cornerstone to success. Consider the recent agreement between the Netherlands Space Office (NSO) and the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) that was announced earlier this week.

In an agreement made possible by the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2015 between the Netherlands and China, a Dutch-built radio antenna will travel to the Moon aboard the Chinese Chang’e 4 satellite, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. Once the lunar exploration mission reaches the Moon, it will deposit the radio antenna on the far side, where it will begin to provide scientists with fascinating new views of the Universe.

The radio antenna itself is also the result of collaboration, between scientists from Radboud University, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and the small satellite company Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS). After years of research and development, these three organizations have produced an instrument which they hope will usher in a new era of radio astronomy.

The satellite rotates around a fixed point behind the moon – the second Lagrange, or L2, point in the Earth-moon system. This point is located 65,000 kilometres from the moon.. Credit: ru.nl
Diagram showing how the Chang’e 4 satellite will rotate around a fixed point behind the moon – the second Lagrange, or L2, point in the Earth-moon system. Credit: ru.nl

Essentially, radio astronomy involves the study of celestial objects – ranging from stars and galaxies to pulsars, quasars, masers and the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – at radio frequencies. Using radio antennas, radio telescopes, and radio interferometers, this method allows for the study of objects that might otherwise be invisible or hidden in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

One drawback of radio astronomy is the potential for interference. Since only certain wavelengths can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, and local radio wave sources can throw off readings, radio antennas are usually located in remote areas of the world. A good example of this is the Very-Long Baseline Array (VLBA) located across the US, and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) under construction in Australia and South Africa.

One other solution is to place radio antennas in space, where they will not be subject to interference or local radio sources. The antenna being produced by Radbound, ASTRON and ISIS is being delivered to the far side of the Moon for just this reason. As the latest space-based radio antenna to be deployed, it will be able to search the cosmos in ways Earth-based arrays cannot, looking for vital clues to the origins of the universe.

As Heino Falke – a professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at Radboud – explained in a University press release, the deployment of this radio antenna on the far side of the Moon will be an historic achievement:

“Radio astronomers study the universe using radio waves, light coming from stars and planets, for example, which is not visible with the naked eye. We can receive almost all celestial radio wave frequencies here on Earth. We cannot detect radio waves below 30 MHz, however, as these are blocked by our atmosphere. It is these frequencies in particular that contain information about the early universe, which is why we want to measure them.”

The planned Square Kilometer Array will be the world's largest radio telescope when it begins operations in 2018  Swinburne Astronomy Productions for SKA Project Development Office
The planned Square Kilometer Array will be the world’s largest radio telescope when it begins operations in 2018. Credit: SKA Project Development Office/SAP

As it stands, very little is known about this part of the electromagnetic spectrum. As a result, the Dutch radio antenna could be the first to provide information on the development of the earliest structures in the Universe. It is also the first instrument to be sent into space as part of a Chinese space mission.

Alongside Heino Falcke, Marc Klein Wolt – the director of the Radboud Radio Lab – is one of the scientific advisors for the project. For years, he and Falcke have been working towards the deployment of this radio antenna, and have high hopes for the project. As Professor Wolt said about the scientific package he is helping to create:

“The instrument we are developing will be a precursor to a future radio telescope in space. We will ultimately need such a facility to map the early universe and to provide information on the development of the earliest structures in it, like stars and galaxies.”

Together with engineers from ASTRON and ISIS, the Dutch team has accumulated a great deal of expertise from their years working on other radio astronomy projects, which includes experience working on the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) and the development of the Square Kilometre Array, all of which is being put to work on this new project.

A radio antenna on the far side of the Moon will enable deep space surveys that were never before possible. Credit: NASA Goddard
A radio antenna on the far side of the Moon will enable deep space surveys that were never before possible. Credit: NASA Goddard

Other tasks that this antenna will perform include monitoring space for solar storms, which are known to have a significant impact on telecommunications here on Earth. With a radio antenna on the far side of the Moon, astronomers will be able to better predict such events and prepare for them in advance.

Another benefit will be the ability to measure strong radio pulses from gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, which will help us to learn more about their rotational speed. Combined with the recent ESO efforts to map Jupiter at IR frequencies, and the data that is already arriving from the Juno mission, this data is likely to lead to some major breakthroughs in our understanding of this mysterious planet.

Last, but certainly not least, the Dutch team wants to create the first map of the early Universe using low-frequency radio data. This map is expected to take shape after two years, once the Moon has completed a few full rotations around the Earth and computer analysis can be completed.

It is also expected that such a map will provide scientists with additional evidence that confirms the Standard Model of Big Bang cosmology (aka. the Lambda CDM model). As with other projects currently in the works, the results are likely to be exciting and groundbreaking!

Further Reading: Radbound University

Missing Matter Found! Fast Radio Bursts Confirm Cosmological Model

In July of 2012, researchers at the CERN laboratory made history when they announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Though its existence had been hypothesized for over half a century, confirming its existence was a major boon for scientists. In discovering this one particle, the researchers were also able to confirm the Standard Model of particle physics. Much the same is true of our current cosmological model.

For decades, scientists been going by the theory that the Universe consists of about 70% dark energy, 25% dark matter and 5% “luminous matter” – i.e. the matter we can see. But even when all the visible matter is added up, there is a discrepancy where much of it is still considered “missing”. But thanks to the efforts of a team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), scientists now know that we have it right.

This began on April 18th, 2015, when the CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory in Australia detected a fast radio burst (FRB) coming from space. An international alert was immediately issued, and within a few hours, telescopes all around the world were looking for the signal. The CSIRO team began tracking it as well with the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) located at the Paul Wild Observatory (north of Parkes).

image shows the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope on the left. On the right are successive zoom-ins in on the area where the signal came from (cyan circular region).. Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).
Image showing the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope (left) and zoom-ins on the area where the signal came from (left). Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).

With the help of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s (NAOJ) Subaru telescope in Hawaii, they were able to pinpoint where the signal was coming from. As the CSIRO team described in a paper submitted to Nature, they identified the source, which was an elliptical galaxy located 6 billion light years from Earth.

This was an historic accomplishment, since pinpointing the source of FRBs have never before been possible. Not only do the signals last mere milliseconds, but they are also subject to dispersion – i.e. a delay caused by how much material they pass through. And while FRBs have been detected in the past, the teams tracking them have only been able to obtain measurements of the dispersion, but never the signal’s redshift.

Redshift occurs as a result of an object moving away at relativistic speeds (a portion of the speed of light). For decades, scientists have been using it to determine how fast other galaxies are moving away from our own, and hence the rate of expansion of the Universe. Relying on optical data obtained by the Subaru telescope, the CSIRO team was able to obtain both the dispersion and the redshift data from this signal.

As stated in their paper, this information yielded a “direct measurement of the cosmic density of ionized baryons in the intergalactic medium”. Or, as Dr. Simon Johnston – of the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division and the co-author of the study – explains, the team was not only to locate the source of the signal, but also obtain measurements which confirmed the distribution of matter in the Universe.

“Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had,” he said. “By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the Universe. Essentially this lets us weigh the Universe, or at least the normal matter it contains.”

Dr. Evan Keane of the SKA Organization, and lead author on the paper, was similarly enthused about the team’s discovery. “[W]e have found the missing matter,” he said. “It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement.”

As already noted, FRB signals are quite rare, and only 16 have been detected in the past. Most of these were found by sifting through data months or years after the signal was detected, by which time it would be impossible for any follow-up observations. To address this, Dr. Keane and his team developed a system to detect FRBs and immediately alert other telescopes, so that the source could be pinpointed.

artists rendition of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org
Artists impression of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org

It is known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort led by the SKA Organization to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Combining extreme sensitivity, resolution and a wide field of view, the SKA is expected to trace many FRBs to their host galaxies. In so doing, it is hoped the array will provide more measurements confirming the distribution of matter in the Universe, as well as more information on dark energy.

In the end, these and other discoveries by the SKA could have far-reaching consequences. Knowing the distribution of matter in the universe, and improving our understanding of dark matter (and perhaps even dark energy) could go a long way towards developing a Theory Of Everything (TOE). And knowing how all the fundamental forces of our universe interact will go a long way to finally knowing with certainty how it came to be.

These are exciting time indeed. With every step, we are peeling back the layers of our universe!

Further Reading: CSIRO, SKA Organization, Nature.

Communicating Across the Cosmos, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars?

Since it was founded in 1984, the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, has been a principal American venue for scientific efforts to discover evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. In mid-November, the institute sponsored a conference, “Communicating across the Cosmos”, on the problems of devising and understanding messages from other worlds. The conference drew 17 speakers from numerous disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, archeology, mathematics, cognitive science, philosophy, radio astronomy, and art.

This is the second of four installments of a report on the conference. Today, we’ll look at the SETI Institute’s current efforts to find an extraterrestrial message, and some of their future plans. If they find something, just how much information can we expect to receive? How much can we send?

The idea of using radio to listen for messages from extraterrestrials is as old as radio itself. Radio pioneers Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi both listened for signals from the planet Mars early in the 20th century. The first to listen for messages from the stars was radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1960. Until recently though, SETI projects have been limited and sporadic. That began to change in 2007 when the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) started observations.

Consisting of 42 small dishes, the ATA is the first radio telescope in the world designed specifically for SETI. The SETI search is currently managed by Jon Richards, an engineer who is an expert on both the system’s hardware and software. He spoke at the conference about the project. The ATA is currently used for SETI research twelve hours out of each day, from 7 pm to 7 am. During the day, the site is operated by Stanford Research International to perform more conventional astronomical studies. When used for such observations, the dishes can function together as an interferometer, generating images of celestial radio sources. To minimize radio interference from human activities, the telescope is sited a six hour drive north of the SETI Institute at the remote Hat Creek Observatory in the Cascade Mountains of Northern California.

The ATA can detect signals over the range from 1 to 10 GHz. The researchers use several strategies to tell potential ETI signals apart from naturally occurring radio sources in space, and human-made terrestrial interference. Radio emissions from natural sources are smeared over a broad range of frequencies. Artificial signals designed for communication typically pack all of their energy into a very narrow frequency band. To detect such signals, the ATA can resolve frequency differences down to just 1 Hz.

When a radio source is moving with respect to the receiver, it appears to change in frequency. This phenomenon is called the Doppler effect. Because an alien planet and the Earth would be moving in relation to one another, a genuine ETI signal would exhibit the Doppler effect. A source of terrestrial interference that’s fixed to the Earth wouldn’t. If the beam of the telescope is shifted away from the target, a genuine alien signal emanating from a distant point in space would disappear, reappearing when the beam was shifted back. A signal due to local interference wouldn’t.

This illustration of the Doppler effect shows the change of wavelength caused by the motion of the source. Credit: ARM.
This illustration of the Doppler effect shows the change of wavelength caused by the motion of the source. Credit: ARM.

The ATA is designed to perform these tests automatically whenever it detects a potential candidate signal. To make sure, it repeats the second test five times. If a signal passes the tests, the operator is automatically sent an e-mail, and the candidate signal is entered into a database. Periodically, as a test, the telescope is programed to point in the direction of one of the two Voyager spacecraft. Because these spacecraft are hurtling through deep space beyond the orbit of Neptune, their signals mimic the properties expected from an alien transmission. So far, all the e-mails received have been generated by such tests, and by false alarms. The fateful e-mail announcing the successful detection of an extraterrestrial signal has not yet been sent.

Richards explained that the ATA’s most recent project has been to listen to more than one hundred Earth-like planets discovered by the Kepler space telescope between 2009 and 2012. Next year the ATA’s antenna feeds will get an upgrade that will increase their upper frequency limit to 15 GHz and greatly increase their sensitivity. Both ground-based and Kepler studies have identified numerous Earth-like planets at habitable distances from small dim red dwarf stars. A systematic search of these stars is planned next. If the SETI Institute can find the funding they hope eventually to expand the ATA to 350 dishes.

According to astronomer Jill Tartar, the retired director of the SETI Institute’s Center for SETI Research, the institute is hoping to become involved in a much larger international project; the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). When it begins operations in 2020, the SKA is planned to be the world’s largest radio telescope. It will consist of several thousand dishes and other receivers giving it a radio signal collecting area of one square kilometer. The advantage of having more collecting area is that the telescope is sensitive to fainter signals. If funding allows it to be built in the way currently planned, it will be capable of training multiple simultaneous beams at the sky, some of which Tartar said might be used to mount a continuously ongoing SETI search.

The planned Square Kilometer Array will be the world's largest radio telescope when it begins operations in 2018  Swinburne Astronomy Productions for SKA Project Development Office
The planned Square Kilometer Array will be the world’s largest radio telescope when it begins operations in 2018 Swinburne Astronomy Productions for SKA Project Development Office

Suppose we did find something. What sort of reply could we send? How much do we have the technological capability to send, if we wanted to? Back in 1974, in the first demonstration of the capacity for interstellar messaging, the Arecibo radio telescope transmitted a mere 210 bytes, and took 3 minutes to do it. The message consisted of a human stick figure and a few other crude symbols and diagrams. Because this primitive effort is still the most well-known example of interstellar radio messaging, prepare yourself for a stunning surprise. According to SETI Institute radio astronomer Seth Shostak, using broadband microwave radio, we could send them the Library of Congress (consisting of 17 million books) in 3 days, and the contents of the World Wide Web (as of 2008) in a comparable time.

Using the shorter optical wavelengths of a laser beam and optical broadband, we could send either one in 20 minutes. Since the extraterrestrials might tune in at any time, we would need to send the transmission over and over again many times. Although our transmissions could be sent in only days or minutes, they would, of course, still take decades or centuries to traverse the light years. This transmission capability presents a stunning opportunity. We can send anything. We can send everything. Could it really be that someday, beings from Tau Ceti will peruse your Facebook page?

So what can we expect from the aliens? Any message we might receive, Seth Shostak thought, would be of one of two possible sorts. A civilization already aware of our existence, he believed, would send us a huge message, rich in information content. This is because even if technological civilizations are fairly common in the galaxy the nearest one might be tens, hundreds, or thousands of light years away. Radio messages traveling at the speed of light will take that long to cross those distances, and decades or centuries will elapse between query and response. If we are contacted, Shostak really does think that we should send the aliens the entire content of the World Wide Web. Civilizations further away than 70 light years from Earth probably wouldn’t know that we exist, because radio signals from Earth haven’t reached them yet. Shostak didn’t think that civilizations would waste precious transmitting time and energy bombarding planets with petabytes of information if they didn’t already know that there was a technological civilization there. Worlds that weren’t known to harbor a civilization, Shostak speculated, might get put on a long list of potentially habitable planets to which the aliens might periodically send a brief “ping” hoping to get a response.

A petabyte of gibberish contains as much information as a petabyte of our world’s greatest art and literature (or tackiest YouTube videos). A petabyte of our world’s greatest art and literature is gibberish to a being who can’t understand it. We could send the aliens truly stunning amounts of information, but can we find some way to ensure that they will understand its meaning? Could we hope to understand an alien message sent to us, or would all those petabytes be for naught? In the next installment, we’ll learn that we face daunting problems.

Part 1: Shouting Into the Darkness

References and Further Readings:

Communicating Across the Cosmos: How can we make ourselves understood by other civilizations in the galaxy, SETI Institute.

N. Atkinson (2012), SETI: The Search Goes On, Universe Today.

S. J. Dick (1996), The Biological Universe: The Twentieth_Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

S. Hall (2014), Are We Ready for Contact?, Universe Today.

Allen Telescope Array, SETI Institute.

This Is How The World’s Largest Radio Telescope Is Divvying Up Design Work

The world’s largest radio telescope will act very much like a jigsaw; every piece of it must be precisely engineered to “fit” and to work with all the other elements. This week, the organizers of the Square Kilometer Array released which teams will be responsible for the individual “work packages” for this massive telescope, which will be in both South Africa and Australia.

“Each element of the SKA is critical to the overall success of the project, and we certainly look forward to seeing the fruits of each consortium’s hard work shape up over the coming years”, stated John Womersley, chair of the SKA board.

“Now this multi-disciplinary team of experts has three full years to come up with the best technological solutions for the final design of the telescope, so we can start tendering for construction of the first phase in 2017 as planned.”

Key science goals for SKA include the evolution of galaxies, the nature of mysterious dark energy, examining the nature of gravity and magnetism, looking at how black holes and stars are created, and even searching for extraterrestrial signals. We’ll illustrate some of those key science concepts while talking about the teams below.

This illustration shows a messy, chaotic galaxy undergoing bursts of star formation. This star formation is intense; it was known that it affects its host galaxy, but this new research shows it has an even greater effect than first thought. The winds created by these star formation processes stream out of the galaxy, ionising gas at distances of up to 650 000 light-years from the galactic centre. Credit: ESA, NASA, L. Calçada
This illustration shows a messy, chaotic galaxy undergoing bursts of star formation. This star formation is intense; it was known that it affects its host galaxy, but this new research shows it has an even greater effect than first thought. The winds created by these star formation processes stream out of the galaxy, ionising gas at distances of up to 650 000 light-years from the galactic centre. Credit: ESA, NASA, L. Calçada

The numbers themselves on the teams are staggering: more than 350 scientists and engineers, representing 18 countries and almost 100 institutions. There are 10 main work packages that these people are responsible for. Here they are, along with SKA’s descriptions of each element:

Dish: “The “Dish” element includes all activities necessary to prepare for the procurement of the SKA dishes, including local monitoring & control of the individual dish in pointing and other functionality, their feeds, necessary electronics and local infrastructure.” (Led by Mark McKinnon of  Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO.)

– Low Frequency Aperture Array: “The set of antennas, on board amplifiers and local processing required for the Aperture Array telescope of the SKA.” (Led by Jan Geralt Bij de Vaate of ASTRON, or the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy).

– Mid Frequency Aperture Array: “Includes the activities necessary for the development of a set of antennas, on board amplifiers and local processing required for the Aperture Array telescope of the SKA.” (Led by de Vaate.)

Artist’s schematic impression of the distortion of spacetime by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The black hole will swallow dark matter at a rate which depends on its mass and on the amount of dark matter around it. Image: Felipe Esquivel Reed.
Artist’s schematic impression of the distortion of spacetime by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The black hole will swallow dark matter at a rate which depends on its mass and on the amount of dark matter around it. Image: Felipe Esquivel Reed.

– Telescope Manager: “Will be responsible for the monitoring of the entire telescope, the engineering and operational status of its component parts.” (Led by Yashwant Gupta of the NCRA or National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in India.)

– Science Data Processor: “Will focus on the design of the computing hardware platforms, software, and algorithms needed to process science data from the correlator or non-imaging processor into science data products.” (Led by Paul Alexander of the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.)

– Central Signal Processor: “It converts digitised astronomical signals detected by SKA receivers (antennas & dipole (“rabbit-ear”) arrays) into the vital information needed by the Science Data Processor to make detailed images of deep space astronomical phenomena that the SKA is observing.” (David Loop of the NRC, National Research Council of Canada.)

The supernova that produced the Crab Nebula was detected by naked-eye observers around the world in 1054 A.D. This composite image uses data from NASA’s Great Observatories, Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer, to show that a superdense neutron star is energizing the expanding Nebula by spewing out magnetic fields and a blizzard of extremely high-energy particles. The Chandra X-ray image is shown in light blue, the Hubble Space Telescope optical images are in green and dark blue, and the Spitzer Space Telescope’s infrared image is in red. The size of the X-ray image is smaller than the others because ultrahigh-energy X-ray emitting electrons radiate away their energy more quickly than the lower-energy electrons emitting optical and infrared light. The neutron star is the bright white dot in the center of the image.
The supernova that produced the Crab Nebula was detected by naked-eye observers around the world in 1054 A.D. This composite image uses data from NASA’s Great Observatories, Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer, to show that a superdense neutron star is energizing the expanding Nebula by spewing out magnetic fields and a blizzard of extremely high-energy particles. The Chandra X-ray image is shown in light blue, the Hubble Space Telescope optical images are in green and dark blue, and the Spitzer Space Telescope’s infrared image is in red. The size of the X-ray image is smaller than the others because ultrahigh-energy X-ray emitting electrons radiate away their energy more quickly than the lower-energy electrons emitting optical and infrared light. The neutron star is the bright white dot in the center of the image.

 Signal and Data Transport: “The Signal and Data Transport (SADT) consortium is responsible for the design of three data transport networks.” (Led by Richard Schilizzi of the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.)

– Assembly, Integration & Verification: “Includes the planning for all activities at the remote sites that are necessary to incorporate the elements of the SKA into existing infrastructures, whether these be precursors or new components of the SKA.” (Led by Richard Lord of SKA South Africa.)

– Infrastructure: “Requires two consortia, each managing their respective local sites in Australia and Africa … This includes all work undertaken to deploy and be able to operate the SKA in both countries such as roads, buildings, power generation and distribution, reticulation, vehicles, cranes and specialist equipment needed for maintenance which are not included in the supply of the other elements.” (Led by Michelle Storey of CSIRO.)

Wideband Single Pixel Feeds: “Includes the activities necessary to develop a broadband spectrum single pixel feed for the SKA.” (Led by John Conway of Chalmers University, Sweden.)

Stacking Galactic Signals Reveals A Clearer Universe

Very similar to stacking astronomy images to achieve a better picture, researchers from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) are employing new methods which will give us a clearer look at the history of the Universe. Through data taken with the next generation of radio telescopes like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), scientists like Jacinta Delhaize can “stack” galactic signals en masse to study one of their most important properties… how much hydrogen gas is present.

Probing the cosmos with a telescope is virtually using a time machine. Astronomers are able to look back at the Universe as it appeared billions of years ago. By comparing the present with the past, they are able to chart its history. We can see how things have changed over the ages and speculate about the origin and future of the vastness of space and all its many wonders.

“Distant, younger, galaxies look very different to nearby galaxies, which means that they’ve changed, or evolved, over time,” said Delhaize. “The challenge is to try and figure out what physical properties within the galaxy have changed, and how and why this has happened.”

According to Delhaize a vital clue to solving the riddle lay in hydrogen gas. By understanding how much of it that galaxies contained will help us map their history.

“Hydrogen is the building block of the Universe, it’s what stars form from and what keeps a galaxy ‘alive’,” said Delhaize.

“Galaxies in the past formed stars at a much faster rate than galaxies now. We think that past galaxies had more hydrogen, and that might be why their star formation rate is higher.”

Jacinta Delhaize with CSIRO's Parkes Radio Telescope during one of her data collecting trips. Credit: Anita Redfern Photography.
Jacinta Delhaize with CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope during one of her data collecting trips. Credit: Anita Redfern Photography.
When it comes to distant galaxies, they don’t give up their information easily. Even so, it was a task that Delhaize and her supervisors were determined to observe. The faint radio signals of hydrogen gas were nearly impossible to detect, but the new stacking method allowed the team to collect enough data for her research. By combining the weak signals of thousands of galaxies, Delhaize then “stacked” them to create a stronger, averaged signal,

“What we are trying to achieve with stacking is sort of like detecting a faint whisper in a room full of people shouting,” said Delhaize. “When you combine together thousands of whispers, you get a shout that you can hear above a noisy room, just like combining the radio light from thousands of galaxies to detect them above the background.”

However, it wasn’t a slow process. The researchers engaged CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope for 87 hours and surveyed a large region of galactic landscape. Their work collected signals from hydrogen over a vast amount of space and stretched back over two billion years in time.

“The Parkes telescope views a big section of the sky at once, so it was quick to survey the large field we chose for our study,” said ICRAR Deputy Director and Jacinta’s supervisor, Professor Lister Staveley-Smith.

Stacking up a clearer picture of the Universe from ICRAR on Vimeo.

As Delhaize explains, observing such a massive volume of space means more accurate calculations of the average amount of hydrogen gas present in particular galaxies at a certain distance from Earth. These readings correspond to a given period in the history of the Universe. With this data, simulations can be created to depict the Universe’s evolution and give us a better understanding of how galaxies formed and evolved with time. What’s even more spectacular is that next generation telescopes like the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) will be able to observe even larger volumes of the Universe with higher resolution.

“That makes them fast, accurate and perfect for studying the distant Universe. We can use the stacking technique to get every last piece of valuable information out of their observations,” said Delhaize. “Bring on ASKAP and the SKA!”.

Original Story Source: International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.

Book Review: African Cosmos

In 1986, Halley’s Comet captivated a teenager living in a small South African town. Curious about what his nation does in astronomy, he scoured books at the local library and asked questions of his teachers.

It was, however, a tough time to learn about it. Under apartheid, African science was seen as “nothing of merit” until the Westerners colonized the continent two centuries ago.

This tale, told in African Cosmos: Stellar Arts, portrays part of the difficulty of reporting on African science. Turn back to  when Egyptians built the pyramids, and you can understand that astronomy goes back thousands of years on the continent. Yet, Africa is under-represented in discussions about popular astronomy. Language, scattered cultures, and distance from the Western world are all barriers.

Creating this volume must have been daunting for Christine Mullen Kreamer and her collaborators, who gathered 20 essays about African astronomy.

But you can see for yourself, as this book is available for free on iPad, and you can download it here.

Africa is a large continent with humans living anywhere from crowded cities to sparse grassland. There are at least 3,000 ethnic groups on that landmass, according to Baylor University, with many of these cultures having separate views in astronomical culture and history.

It’s hard to gather all that information into a single book, but the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art does its best.

The book opens with lengthy explanations of the Egyptian and Babylonian contributions to astronomy. The Babylonians, for example, observed the strange backwards motion of Mars when our planet “catches up” in our smaller orbit to Mars’ larger one. The Egyptians used the sky to develop a 12-month calendar to track important feasts and the time for harvests.

Retrograde motion of Mars. Image credit: NASA
Retrograde motion of Mars. Image credit: NASA

This information is readily accessible elsewhere, but the art makes it stand out. Flip the pages, and you’ll gaze at period art, maps and even astronomical tables that were on display at the museum for a 2012 exhibition.

Perhaps the most fascinating historical chapter is Cosmic Africa, which traces the development of a film of the same title. Anne Rogers and her film team did field research in seven countries to narrow down which tribes to focus on. Eventually, they settled on the Ju/’hoansi in Namibia, the Dogon in Mali and (through archaeology) the area of Nabta Playa in Egypt.

There aren’t many explanations of these peoples in the historical record, so it’s neat to see how their culture is shaped by the stars and nebulas they see. Adding to the interest, the team deliberately visited the Ju/’hoansi during a partial solar eclipse to learn how the tribe reacts to more rare astronomical events.

You’ll see a lot of tribes in this large volume, and will also get hints of the latest art and science surrounding African astronomy. The most current astronomical information is sparse, perhaps out of recognition that the information would go out of date very quickly. It might have been interesting nevertheless to include more information about the Square Kilometer Array, the world’s largest telescope, that is under development in both Africa and Australia.

For more information on the book, check out the online exhibition from the Smithsonian.

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 4, 2012

It was a slow week on Space news except for the massive announcement that an ancient riverbed was discovered on the surface of Mars. We took a look at this as well as the historic 55th anniversary of Sputnik, a precise measurement of the expansion of the Universe, and more!

Stories:

Panel: Amy Shira Teitel, Nicole Gugliucci, Nancy Atkinson

Host: Fraser Cain

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Thursday at 10am PDT / 1 pm EDT. You can watch us live on Google+, Cosmoquest, or at the Universe Today YouTube channel, or listen after as part of the Astronomy Cast podcast feed (audio only).

Click here to put the next event right into your calendar.

Weekly Space Hangout for May 31, 2012

In this episode of the Weekly Space Hangout, we’re joined by special guest Robert Nemiroff from Astronomy Picture of the Day. We also talked about the return of the SpaceX Dragon capsule, a manned mission to Venus, nomadic planets and the announcement of the Square Kilometer Array. Our team included: Amy Shira Tietel, Jason Major, Alan Boyle, Nicole Gugliucci and Robert Nemiroff.

We record a new episode of the Weekly Space Hangout every Thursday at 10:00 am PT / 1:00 pm ET. You can watch us live and ask us questions, right on Google+. Circle Fraser on Google+ to see when the recording starts.

SKA, the World’s Largest Telescope Will Be Built at Two Sites

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In an anticipated great compromise, South Africa and Australia will share their sites for the Square Kilometre Array telescope, the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. Both sites were competing to win the $2 billion contract for the SKA, which is hoped shed light on how the Universe began, why it is expanding and whether there is any other life beyond our planet.

“We have decided on a dual site approach,” said SKA board chairman John Womersley, following a meeting of the SKA organisation’s members. “This position was reached after very careful consideration of information gathered from extensive investigations at both candidate sites.”

An SKA press release said the majority of the members were in favor of a dual-site implementation model for SKA. The members noted the report from the SKA Site Advisory Committee that both sites were well suited to hosting the SKA and that the report provided justification for the relative advantages and disadvantages of both locations, but that they identified Southern Africa as the preferred site. The members also received advice from the working group set up to look at dual site options.

Therefore, the majority of SKA dishes in Phase 1 will be built in South Africa, combined with MeerKAT, a seven-dish prototype interferometer array built by South Africa, where 190 dishes will be added. 60 dishes will be added to the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) array in Australia, as well as a large number of omni-directional dipole antennas. This will give the Australian site a wide-field survey capability, whereas South Africa will be able to look deeply into a narrow part of the sky.

Three antenna types, high frequency dishes and mid and low frequency aperture arrays, will be used by the SKA to provide continuous frequency coverage from 70 MHz to 10 GHz. Combining the signals from all the antennas will create a telescope with a collecting area equivalent to a dish with an area of about one square kilometer.

All the dishes and the mid frequency aperture arrays for Phase II of the SKA will be built in Southern Africa while the low frequency aperture array antennas for Phase I and II will be built in Australia.

“It’s a distinct possibility that we’ll discover a new type of astronomical object,” CSIRO SKA Director Brian Boyle told Universe Today in interview earlier this year. “History has shown that every time we’ve gone to a new astronomical wavelength domain, we pick up new objects.” An example of that is the discovery of pulsars in radio

At the lowest frequencies, the SKA will be looking for red-shifted hydrogen, looking at the very earliest events of our Universe. At highest frequencies will look for things like pulsars or even pre-biotic molecules in space. The array will also be very effective in looking for transient events like supernovae or gamma ray bursts.

“The placement of the array will give it a phenomenally wide field of view, between 30 and 100 square degrees,” Boyle said. “It is hoped to provide the first all-sky survey at phenomenal depths at these wavelengths, which can then be compared with other all-sky surveys done at optical wavelengths.”

One downside of splitting the frequencies between the two sites is that some of the science may suffer. One of the original science requirements of the SKA was to look at the same piece of the sky at the same time in different frequencies. Boyle said there is not much common sky between the two locations.

Another is cost for having redundant computing and networking capabilities, not cheap for the remote areas where both sites are located.

But the dual-site approach solves political issues, and the SKA press release says the arrangement “will deliver more science and will maximize on investments already made by both Australia and South Africa.”

Womersley said that in this approach “Science is the winner,” and by building on existing pilot projects in both countries, the SKA will be made even more powerful.

Additionally, technology is sure to get a boost, as the SKA project will drive technology development in antennas, data transport, software and computing, and power.

Additionally, the SKA members say the influence of the SKA project extends beyond radio astronomy.

“The design, construction and operation of the SKA have the potential to impact skills development, employment and economic growth in science, engineering and associated industries, not only in the host countries but in all partner countries,” said their press release.