What Can AI Learn About the Universe?

Will AI become indispensable in an age of "big data" astronomy? Credit: DALL-E

Artificial intelligence and machine learning have become ubiquitous, with applications ranging from data analysis, cybersecurity, pharmaceutical development, music composition, and artistic renderings. In recent years, large language models (LLMs) have also emerged, adding human interaction and writing to the long list of applications. This includes ChatGPT, an LLM that has had a profound impact since it was introduced less than two years ago. This application has sparked considerable debate (and controversy) about AI’s potential uses and implications.

Astronomy has also benefitted immensely, where machine learning is used to sort through massive volumes of data to look for signs of planetary transits, correct for atmospheric interference, and find patterns in the noise. According to an international team of astrophysicists, this may just be the beginning of what AI could do for astronomy. In a recent study, the team fine-tuned a Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) model using observations of astronomical objects. In the process, they successfully demonstrated that GPT models can effectively assist with scientific research.

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

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

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

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

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Vera Rubin Will Help Us Find the Weird and Wonderful Things Happening in the Solar System

The Vera Rubin Observatory at twilight on April 2021. It's been a long wait, but the observatory should see first light later this year. Image Credit: Rubin Obs/NSF/AURA

The Vera Rubin Observatory (VRO) is something special among telescopes. It’s not built for better angular resolution and increased resolving power like the European Extremely Large Telescope or the Giant Magellan Telescope. It’s built around a massive digital camera and will repeatedly capture broad, deep views of the entire sky rather than focus on any individual objects.

By repeatedly surveying the sky, the VRO will spot any changes or astronomical transients. Astronomers call this type of observation Time Domain Astronomy.

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Vera Rubin Will Generate a Mind-Boggling Amount of Data

The LSST, or Vera Rubin Survey Telescope, under construction at Cerro Pachon, Chile. Image Credit: LSST

When the Vera C. Rubin Observatory comes online in 2025, it will be one of the most powerful tools available to astronomers, capturing huge portions of the sky every night with its 8.4-meter mirror and 3.2-gigapixel camera. Each image will be analyzed within 60 seconds, alerting astronomers to transient events like supernovae. An incredible five petabytes (5,000 terabytes) of new raw images will be recorded each year and made available for astronomers to study.

Not surprisingly, astronomers can’t wait to get their hands on the high-resolution data. A new paper outlines how the huge amounts of data will be processed, organized, and disseminated. The entire process will require several facilities on three continents over the course of the projected ten-year-long survey.

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Hubble Sees a Mysterious Flash in Between Galaxies

Artist’s concept of one of brightest explosions ever seen in space: a Luminous Fast Blue Optical Transient (LFBOT). Credit: NASA

While the night sky may appear tranquil (and incredibly beautiful), the cosmos is filled with constant stellar explosions and collisions. Among the rarest of these transient events are what is known as Luminous Fast Blue Optical (LFBOTs), which shine intensely bright in blue light and fade after a few days. These transient events are only detectable by telescopes that continually monitor the sky. Using the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, an international team of astronomers recently observed an LFBOT far between two galaxies, the last place they expected to see one.

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Vera Rubin Will Find Many More Interstellar Objects

Illustration of an interstellar object approaching our solar system. Credit: Rubin Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. daSilva

Most of the comets we see in the sky were born in our solar system. They may have formed deep within the Oort cloud, and for some, it is their first visit to the inner solar system, but they are distinctly children of the Sun. We know of only two objects that came from beyond our solar system, Omuamua and Borisov. There are likely other interstellar objects visiting our solar system, we just haven’t found them. But that’s likely to change when Rubin Observatory comes online.

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The Big Spaceflight Stories You Should be Watching in 2022

Credit: (clockwise from upper left) NASA/NASA/SpaceX/ESA/VCRO/Saggitarius A; Wikimedia/

The year 2021 was a big one as far as stories from space are concerned! From start to finish, 2021 witnessed innumerable milestones and groundbreaking missions mounted by space agencies and the commercial space industry. Among them, the long-awaited launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the arrival of the Perseverance mission, the launch of Double-Asteroid Redirect Test (DART), multiple test flights with the Starship, and the inauguration of space tourism. There was something for everyone!

However, looking at what’s planned for the year ahead, one might get the impression that 2021 was the appetizer and 2022 is the main course! That may sound like an idle boast, but not when you consider all of the ambitious missions, programs, and developments that are scheduled and anticipated for the next twelve months! So exactly what’s in store for space in 2022? We’ve provided a helpful list below:

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Rogue Planets Could be Habitable

An artist's illustration of a rogue planet, dark and mysterious. Image Credit: NASA

The search for potentially habitable planets is focused on exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—for good reason. The only planet we know of with life is Earth and sunlight fuels life here. But some estimates say there are many more rogue planets roaming through space, not bound to or warmed by any star.

Could some of them support life?

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Vera Rubin Observatory Should Find 5 Interstellar Objects a Year, Many of Which we Could Chase Down With Spacecraft

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory is under construction at Cerro Pachon, in Chile. This image shows construction progress in late 2019. The VCO should be able to spot interstellar objects like Oumuamua. Image Credit: Wil O'Mullaine/LSST CC BY-SA 4.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62504391

In a year (perhaps two), the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile will become operational and commence its 10-year Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). Using its 8.4-meter (27 foot) mirror and 3.2 gigapixel camera, this observatory is expected to collect 500 petabytes of images and data. It will also address some of the most pressing questions about the structure and evolution of the Universe and everything in it.

One of the highly-anticipated aspects of the LSST is how it will allow astronomers to locate and track interstellar objects (ISOs), which have become of particular interest since `Oumuamua flew through our system in 2017. According to a recent study by a team from the University of Chicago and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Rubin Observatory will detect around 50 objects during its 10-year mission, many of which we will be able to study up-close using rendezvous missions.

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A New Plan to Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts at Earth and Across the Solar System

Swarm of laser-sail spacecraft leaving the solar system. Credit: Adrian Mann

On October 19th, 2017, astronomers made the first-ever detection of an interstellar object (ISO) in our Solar System. This body, named 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua), was spotted shortly after it flew by Earth on its way to the outer Solar System. Years later, astronomers are still hypothesizing what this object could have been (an interstellar “dust bunny,” hydrogen iceberg, nitrogen icebergs), with Harvard Prof. Abraham Loeb going as far as to suggest that it might have been an extraterrestrial solar sail.

Roughly three years later, interest in extraterrestrial visitors has not subsided, in part because of the release of the Pentagon report on the existence of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” This prompted Loeb and several of his fellow scientists to form the Galileo Project, a multi-national, multi-institutional research team dedicated to bringing the search for Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations (ETC) into the mainstream.

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