Flying through the universe

In 1946 Sputnik escaped the Earth’s atmosphere, turned its camera back on “home” and took the first photo of our planet from space. It was a milestone in space technology.

Photos are great. Indeed a single photo is worth a thousand words. But what about video? This week the largest sky survey, SDSS, released the largest three-dimensional video of the universe, yet.

See how galaxies are stringed together in massive galaxy clusters as you fly through space. It’s a truly remarkable experience.

Universe dims the lights

The annual rate of star births throughout our universe has been steadily declining for billions of years. Exactly how long or when the universe was at peak production, churning out stars like they were hot dogs at a baseball game was unknown until recently. A team of international scientists calculated that our universe has been dimming the lights for nearly 11 billion years – about 80 percent of its lifetime.

This has left us with a night-sky that is thirty times less bright than it was at peak brightness. What’s more is that the astronomers predict that the universe will only continue to get dimmer. In fact, if our universe’s brightness continues to decrease at its current rate, then it might reach a point where all stellar production halts.

In their paper, published on arXiv.org, the scientists suggest that our universe has already produced 95 percent of its’ maximum stellar mass population. Once we reach 100 percent, no more star production.

Although, I’ll never live to see the age of no new stars, this is a slightly depressing thought. It reminds me of the film Children of Men where mankind has lost the ability to procreate. Whatever the reason was in the movie, the universe is getting old. Past a certain point as galaxies age, they produce less stars.

Even after stellar production stops, our universe will still shine with starlight for billions of years as the current stars continue to burn fuel. I wonder what will happen when the lights go out.

It’s new, it’s hot, and it’s very wet

Still making discoveries after more than 20 years in orbit, Hubble caught site of a pretty interesting planet. Not only is this planet shrouded in haze, but scientists believe it contains more water than Earth.

This new discovery led by Zachory Berta of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has resulted in a new class of exoplanets. Mainly, exoplanets with volumes upon volumes of water make the cut.

This particular exoplanet orbits a red dwarf star at an estimated distance of 2 million kilometers. That’s 23 times closer than Mercury is to our Sun. Incidentally, this planet clocks in at a sizzling 230 degrees Celsius.

One may wonder how water could sustain its liquid form in such a steamy environment. Well, in addition to the high heat, the exoplanet also has high pressures. Scientists say this will lead to exotic phenomena like “hot ice” or “superfluid water”.

Unlike any planet observed before, this watery exoplanet is believed to have formed far from its host star. Accumulating large amounts of ice in the cold outer reaches of its solar system, the planet slowly made its way toward its star.

As it traveled closer toward the red dwarf, it undoubtedly passed through what scientists call the “habitable” or “goldilocks” zone. This is where the planet is not too hot or too cold, but just right to sustain life. However, scientists are unsure how long this extraterrestrial water world remained at the perfect distance. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not the planet had life.

For more information you may read the press release.

How Waves on Jupiter May Advance Planet Formation Theories

In recent research concerning our Solar System’s most massive planet, Jupiter, astronomer’s have managed to detect modes that will help them to measure the deep internal structure of the planet. Detection was done using the SYMPA Fourier spectro-imager which works similar to a seismograph here on Earth.

Seismology, the study of seismic waves, is most known for its use in the study of earthquakes. However, scientists have been using seismology to better understand both our Sun and fellow planets for over three decades, now.

Unlike the rocky structure of the Solar System’s four innermost planets, Jupiter is primarily composed of gas. It’s thick gaseous layers prevent scientists from seeing deep into the planet to deduce any information about the structure of the core. But, the advantage of Jupiter’s gaseous atmosphere is that it has a similar behavior to water when waves travel through it. For example, when a pebble is thrown into a pond the waves that are formed propagate out from where the stone fell. This action can also be seen in a large concentration of gas, such as that found on Jupiter.

An exaggerated version of traveling waves across a gaseous sphere.

When a wave starts at one end of Jupiter, it can travel across the entire planet finishing on the other side. The speed with which this wave travels gives scientists some idea of what the deep, unseen interior structure of Jupiter is like.

Depending on the size and composition of Jupiter’s core, the planet may have formed from gravitational collapse or from some form of accretion. These two types of formation are very different and suggest different ways that the planets in our Solar System formed.

Since the discovery of exoplanets, astronomer’s theory of how planetary systems form has been completely and utterly shaken. This is due to the fact that the majority of other planetary systems discovered look nothing like our own Solar System. There are planets 2 to 5 times more massive than Jupiter that orbit more closely to their host star than Mercury. When this was found, astronomer’s were forced to wrack their brains on how such a massive gaseous planet could form so close to its star because current planet formation theory did not support such an unexpected discovery.

Undoubtedly, planet formation theory has been revived as a subject of intense research. However, if we are to learn more about how exoplanets form we must first get a solid understanding of how our own planetary system was formed. Which is where using seismology to study the interior structure of our gaseous planets becomes so important.

If we can make a firm, unwavering conclusion about how the eight planets in our Solar System formed, then we will have a greater chance of solving the mysteries behind other bizarre planetary systems.

More About Dark Energy than You Probably Know

Computer Model of what scientsits think our universe looks like today.

Although this site is pretty old, I just came across it this evening and felt the urge to discuss it.

If you have ever seen the beginning of a Desperate Housewives episode, the short introduction to this site should take you back. With a woman’s voice speaking about the mysterious unknown that is dark energy and the sound of eery music in the background, you can’t help but be coaxed into checking out the next slide.

Unlike other sites about dark energy you might encounter that contain complex equations and confusing terminology, this site is extremely novice friendly. Therefore, if you have no idea what a Type Ia Supernova is, or you have never really understood why gravity becomes weaker as objects are separated further and further, there are no worries! This introduction to what dark energy is, why it is still widely misunderstand, and how astronomers came to discover it in the first place are all explained in a concise and coherent way that will not bore or confuse you.

The tutorial consists of 11 slides that take you through the process of discovering dark energy and why it is thought to exist. It took me about ten minutes to get through and I was far more entertained by the end than if I had simply read about dark energy in a dictionary or a text book. The interactive aspect of the tutorial really helped to maintain my interest and keep me involved.

The site I found this tutorial on is known as HubbleSite, and it is a wonderful place to explore astronomy research if you’re not a professional astronomer and are just looking for some basics to expand your knowledge bank of black holes, dark matter, dark energy, pulsars, quasars, spiral galaxies, elliptical galaxies, and just about any other cool astronomy object(s) you can think of.

In addition to informative, interactive tutorials this site allows you to sign up for e-mails about Hubble’s most recent discoveries. Seeing as it is arguably one of the greatest technological achievements man has ever created, I would highly recommend visiting this site and learning a little more about how we got here and possibly gain some philosophical insight as to our purpose in life. (Personally, I believe our purpose is to continue expanding our knowledge because in science, there are no limits to what we can do.)

Help To Discover ET

Due to the recent explosion of potential planetary systems released by Kepler earlier this year, scientists dedicated to the search for ET now have a better idea of where to look. With more than one thousand planets to choose from it may seem like a daunting task, but the most popular planets are the ones with properties similar to that of earth. Temperatures from around 0-100 degrees Celsius have caught the eyes of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists.

Since SETI’s Allen Telescope Array was (temporarily) shut down for financial reasons this past April, scientists are using different technology to continue in the pursuit for advanced life on another world. Earlier this month the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world, started to look at stars with potential planets around them. Once the scientists at UC Berkley have obtained a substantial amount of data, they will begin processing the information. And here is where you come in.

In 1999 SETI decided to take advantage of the growing technological universe by establishing an online download that anyone with a computer can access. This download actually allows SETI to use some of your computer’s power to conduct data analysis. It’s called SETI@home and with more than 3 million users it is considered one of the largest distributed computing efforts of today. This approach has successfully replaced the work of the supercomputer that SETI used before implementing SETI@home.

So, with all of the new Kepler data coming in, and SETI’s newly directed efforts the discovery of ET might be closer than ever. Becoming a SETI@home user, you could aid in earth’s first out-of-this-world experience with another life intelligent life form. I am not a current SETI@home user, but after I’m finished with this post I will definitely be looking into it.

For a more detailed article on SETI’s new mission using Kepler data see this article.

First Squid in Space

Bobtail Squid

Now that humans have had their fun, it’s time that our fellow cephalopods get a taste of space. Inky, as I have chosen to call him, is the first squid to ever be launched into space. He is a Bobtail squid and will be the main star in a rather interesting study. Strictly for scientific research, Inky will give scientists insight into how microbes within its body respond to space. In the past, microbes such as Salmonella were three times more destructive to their host mouse after being in space for a certain period of time.

My main curiosity is how they will keep the squid alive. Since water does that awesome globular trick in microgravity, how will the tank/box/bag the squid is in contain non-floating water? I suppose the solution will be to ensure the case has minimal air so the water has very little space to float. The squid won’t have to worry about this problem for too long (if it actually is a problem), since it will be getting the knife soon after it reaches space. Perhaps the astronauts will have some calamari for dinner in the next few days.

A nice way for the Endeavor to spend it’s last trip, giving new species a chance to view the Earth from afar. Although, I’m not sure how much Inky will appreciate the view.