Friday, August 25, 2017

A Sliver of Golden Light

Oftentimes astronomy can seem like a distant field. We do not study specimen in petri dishes or mix chemicals in a lab. Instead we turn our telescopes to the remote heavens and rely primarily on the light we receive from the universe. Yet sometimes the distant has a profound local impact. This is distinctly seen during a solar eclipse. As one of my friends remarked, it is only at times like this that you really think about how fast the Earth rotates.

On August 21st, 2017, the shadow of the moon swept across the continental United States and inspired millions of people to look up and contemplate the motions of celestial bodies. Here in Bloomington, Indiana, a CelestFest was held on campus. Despite the pesky clouds, questionable music, and shortage of solar glasses, the sight was still impressive.
ISS transit across the sun while eclipsed by the moon
The shadow of the International Space Station passing across the sun while partially eclipsed by the moon.
Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
It was a hot day, in the low 30s Celsius, with a steady breeze that didn’t really cool us off. Even when the clouds rolled in, we were sweating; only when the moon was covering most of the sun were we not melting. Although we did not experience totality, the temperature drop was noticeable.
In addition to the temperature, the sky darkened around us. The saturation of the world decreased and the contrast slider similarly modified on a cosmic photoshop. The color shift was subtle; I would not have noticed if I did not know to look for it, but the differential was enough to cause the automatic street lamps around campus to turn on.
The sun partially eclipsed by the moon, but also obscured 
partly by clouds. Image credit: Jennifer Sieben
Looking through the solar glasses, it was possible to see a thin sliver of golden light unobscured by the passage of the moon. The crescent slowly shifted from the left side, up around the top and then to the right. I did not have great luck recording with my video camera, a combination of poor focus and a haphazard filter left an oversaturated image that only had a well defined crescent when dimmed by passing clouds.
However, we were able to make different pinhole cameras, even using just our hands to produce a crescent of light on the table. My favourite was seeing the many crescents from my sunhat dotted across my leg. This worked the same as a pinhole camera, showing a small version of what light is passing through the tiny hole. Since the sun is the dominant light source, that is what we see through the hole.
Through the holes in my sunhat 
I was able to see thin crescents of light from the partially 
eclipsed sun against my leg. Image credit: Jennifer Sieben
For added science, our table set up a solar panel to track the energy output of the sun. A large arrow rotated to show the decrease in energy. As of this writing I have not seen the data yet, but it dropped by at least 50%. Cloud cover dropping it to zero made it hard to judge by eye.
Unfortunately since I could not see totality, I was not able to see the corona. The corona is analogous to the outer atmosphere of earth–a gaseous envelope of highly charged particles. Telescopes such as SOHO regularly study the corona and look for coronal mass ejections such as those seen in the image below. Not every ejection is on this scale.

Masking the majority of the sun allows instruments such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) to study the corona of the sun. This image shows a large coronal mass ejection (CME) from 6 November 1997. Image credit: SOHO (ESA & NASA)
During the eclipse, the one opportunity for humble earthlings to see the corona for themselves, there was a modest sized prominence at about two o’ clock. Prominences are caused by disturbances in the magnetic field deeper down in the star. This stirs up material and sometimes it escapes from the surface of the sun to arc into space.
A thin glow of light in a ring around the shadow of the moon. Part of the arc on the right is illuminated pink with a few bumps of flame.
At nearly complete totality only a sliver of light is still seen of the photosphere on the right edge of the sun. Solar prominences are seen bursting forth from the surface of the sun as a result of turbulent magnetic fields. Image credit: Robert Stephens
Despite not seeing totality, I was nonetheless thankful that the clouds parted to allow for a view of the distant incandescent crescent. I do plan to chase down totality in seven years, but I will still have good memories of my first solar eclipse.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Seven Dwarfs, err, Planets

Summary: In a brand new press release from NASA, the agency has announced a discovery of seven Earth-sized planets, in the habitable-zone, around a single star. This is the largest star system with such properties and I am excited. The discovery was made by the Spitzer Space Telescope and follow up with ground based observatories.

To be fair, only three of these planets are definitely in the habitable zone, but with the right atmospheric conditions, all seven are likely to have liquid water. This exoplanet system has been called TRAPPIST-1 and the densities show that all planets are likely to be rocky planets like the inner planets of our own solar system. Unlike our sun, this star is an ultra-cool dwarf star that allows all of these planets to be closer to their star than Mercury is to our star. With all of these planets being so close, it is possible that an individual standing on the surface of one planet may be able to look up at the sky and see geological features on the neighboring planet without the aid of binoculars. We can barely do this with our own moon despite how close it is.

If you wanted to visit this system, it is relatively close to us, at only 40 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius. But until we invent better spacecraft we can only take advantage of the nearness by turning more telescopes to the system. Hubble and Kepler are doing follow-up observations and, when it launches, the James Webb Space Telescope will collect further data.

NASA press release
360 VR of exoplanet surface

Artist's conception of the system based on known diameters, masses, and orbital distances, NASA JPL, Caltech

Friday, January 13, 2017

One More Shot

Summary: The Cassini spacecraft is on the last phase of its mission. It has begun a series of extremely elliptical orbits around Saturn before it will ultimately plunge into the planet and self-destruct. But while it is still working, there is data to collect. Already we have seen new images of the hexagonal clouds at the North pole of the planet and we are getting new images of the rings. But there is one object in particular that some astronomers have their sights set on.

First noticed in 2013 as a long, bright smudge along Saturn's A-ring, the mysterious object, known as Peggy, is one of the new image goals of the mission. There is no clear image of this smudge yet, and it would be a long time before another mission had a chance to photograph this mystery. The team only has until September to get the image, but thankfully Cassini will be flying close to this A-ring and the mysterious object has now been made into one of the last objectives for the mission.

Saturn can sometimes be used as a model for exoplanet formation in other star systems. The rings act similarly to how we believe dust gathers around a star until planets are formed. It is hoped that by studying Peggy more closely, we will gain more insight into the earliest stages of planet formation. Specifically it is hoped to be a model for how planets migrate. In the few years since Professor Carl Murray discovered this object, astronomers have been able to track it's motion and observe as it has drifted closer and further away from Saturn by a few kilometers.

Even more interesting, as scientists looked back through archival data with recent data from Cassini, they discovered that Peggy might have recently broken into two objects. Recent data shows another, smaller object following directly behind Peggy and orbital dynamics seem to indicate that they would have met in early 2015. Now there is the possibility that a collision of some sort caused both the fracturing of Peggy and also the new orbital radius.

Along with hoping to take better resolved images of Peggy, Cassini scientists also hope to determine the mass of Saturn's rings. Dr. Linda Spiker, the project scientist, points out that the mass can provide key clues about the age of the rings. This in turn would help with models of how the moons were formed. With lots of exciting science coming from the ringed planet this year, this is shaping up to be a great year for astronomy.

BBC News

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Images from esa Mars mission

Summary: Although the Schiaparelli lander was not as successful as hoped and plummeted into the surface of Mars rather than gently landing, the satellite it was released from is still working and returning new images of the surface of the planet. This Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) is orbiting the planet and using it's impressive cameras to send us back images with a resolution of 2.8 metres per pixel. The camera's principal investigator, Nicolas Thomas, compared it to "flying over Bern at 15,000km/h and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zurich."

Other sensors on board will also be investigating the atmospheric gases and looking for water vapor, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide among other chemical species. The goal is to detect possible signs of microbial life on the surface and detect the presence of hydrated minerals.

Source and images

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Gaia and a new Age of Universe

Summary: The study of astronomy is an old one, but as headlines show, it is a constantly changing field. As our instruments change, we discover that the numbers we thought we knew need some readjustment. In this case, the Gaia space craft from the esa is forcing astronomers to look about the expansion rate of the universe. Again.

This is not the first time there have been some discrepancies in the estimate for the age of the universe. But Gaia is one of the most precise telescopes we have at the moment. Just recently it published precise coordinated for one billion stars. This is leaps ahead of the last survey of this type.

Gaia's estimate of the age of the universe is based upon Cepheid variable stars. These stars pulse with a very specific brightness and rate of pulsation. This makes it easier to tell how far away they are from us and to determine the age of the stars nearby. Gaia has precisely found 212 of these Cepheid stars and with these data, Professor Reiss's team calculates a Hubble constant of 73km/Mpc. This is about the same as they calculated with Hubble data. But it is not the same number found in most textbooks as the accepted value. And it is not due to outdated textbooks. It is because of the methods used to solve for the Hubble constant. The Planck mission gives a much lower value of 66.9km/Mpc.

Why is there such a discrepancy? We aren't entirely sure, but we can probably place a lot of the blame on dark matter. Hopefully as Gaia continues forward on it's mission, we will be able to narrow down the range of possible Hubble constants, and thus the age of the universe and no longer have a few hundred million year gap. Maybe we will even be able to place stricter bounds on what dark matter actually is and what effect it has on our universe.


Also, the Ig Nobel prizes were awarded this week and they are, as always, amazing.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Juno update

Summary: After 5 years and 1.8 billion miles, the Juno spacecraft has made its first flyby of Jupiter. At only 2,500 miles above the cloud tops, this is the closest any spacecraft has come to the gas giant of our solar system.

One of the things that makes Juno exciting is the panoramic colour camera which allows for stunning images to be sent back in addition to data from its other instruments. 

Juno will make 35 further flybys in order to measure Jupiter's water content, magnetic fields, and to look for the possibility of a solid core. Will all of this new data, it is hoped that scientists will have a better idea of how the planets formed in the early solar system.

BBC News

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Gravitational Wave Astronomy is here!

Summary: For those of you not glued to your computer for the past couple hours, you may have missed the new announcement from the LIGO experiment. They have officially announced the discovery of a second gravitational wave detection. That's right, it is no longer a single event in the dark. We have two confirmed black hole mergers that created gravitational waves and another "trigger" event that may prove to be an additional gravitational wave source after a few more tests are performed. There's only an 85% chance of the signal being astrophysically significant right now and that is not good enough for the team at LIGO.

I for one am ecstatic about this announcement. Not only does it herald in a new field of astronomy, but the presentation of data so far has been very easy to understand. Great graphics and explanations.

To give a brief outline of how they conduct their science, it starts with an interferometer. Light travels down two paths of equal length before recombining at a photodetector that measures how much light is hitting the sensor. If the paths are truly equal in length, the light from the different paths will cancel each other out and it will be dark. Any little alteration in the length will cause light to be detected. The gravitational waves actually move space itself like a ripple in a still pond so as the wave flies through Earth, the different paths the light travels at will briefly be different.

The first signal in September was unexpectedly loud so it was able to be seen with human eyes, but this new one from December (Christmas in the US!) was harder to spot. They needed the computer to match the signal to a template in order to see it. It works like a child taking a circular puzzle piece and trying all of the different shaped slots until they finally are able to fit it into the corresponding circular depression on the board.

We can only imagine how much great work will still be coming out of this observatory in the future. This is not yet running at full potential and when the second run starts this autumn it will be more sensitive still. I'll be sure to keep you updated.

Video of event

Also, if you are interested in helping LIGO look for more gravitational waves, check out