Stories tagged astrophysics

This is an excellent TED presentation about how astronomers gather lots of information about the far reaches our universe just by studying light.

Our whimpering Sun
Our whimpering SunCourtesy Mark Ryan
A billion years or so from now, our Sun, like all stars in the known universe, will eventually die. But compared to more massive stars that explode into novae or supernovae, our medium-sized yellow star (or G-type main-sequence star) won't go out with much of a bang but more of a poof. During its death throes, as the Sun runs out of hydrogen and begins burning helium, its size will fluctuate until it swells up into a red giant big enough to engulf the inner planets, perhaps even Earth. This means it's going to get a lot hotter around here. If you want to get a better idea of what's in store for us, check out these dramatic and somewhat disturbing illustrations of the Sun's end times.

I really like the cool image showing one of the surviving Maya stone idols being scorched by the bloated Sun. It's Stela A from Copan, Honduras, and if you want to see a really impressive full-sized replica of that monolith, you can see it in the Science Museum of Minnesota's terrific new exhibit, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed.

Story at io9: We Come from the Future

Stephen Hawking in 2008
Stephen Hawking in 2008Courtesy alvherre at Flickr
Acclaimed astrophysicist and author, Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge - a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton - turns 70 years old today. Stricken with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), Hawking has defied doctors by living well-past their predicted "few years" when he was first diagnosed with the disease in 1963. A celebration in Britain took place today but Hawking was ill and couldn't attend the celebration. A recorded speech by Hawking was presented instead. Despite his debilitating disorder, Professor Hawking has managed to raise a family and through the use of computers to write several best-selling books, including A Brief History of Time. Here's an interview with Hawking's biographer, Kitty Ferguson. In Great Britain, ALS is known as motor neuron disease.

BBC report of birthday celebration
ALS Association page
Hawking cracks black hole paradox New Scientist article
A Brief History of Time (downloadable pdf)

Interstellar space graphic
Interstellar space graphicCourtesy NASA
Voyager 1, an unmanned NASA space probe is nearing the outer edge of our solar system and will soon enter the vast, unknown region known as interstellar space. The crossover will remove the spacecraft from the influence of solar winds (from our Sun), into a relatively empty expanse of cold space influenced mostly by countering pressures created by supernovae, collapsed stars that died in immense catastrophic explosions. Voyager 1's primary mission, when it was launched 34 years ago on September 5, 1977, was to visit and photograph the giant gas planets in our solar system. It accomplished that goal and sent back spectacular images of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Right now Voyager 1 is about 11 billion miles from the sun, its cameras switched off, and poised for the next stage of its journey. The edge of the heliosphere is estimated to be somewhere between 10-14 billion miles from the Sun, so the probe could crossover anytime soon. NASA's Voyager program included two probes sent out with data gathering instruments and cultural souvenirs from the inhabitants of planet Earth, just in case they somehow got intercepted by some extraterrestrial lifeforms. Voyager 2, although launched two weeks before , trails some 2 billion miles behind Voyager 1, and will cross the boundary after its twin. You can read (and hear) more about it at the NPR website.


The great-great-grandfather of galaxies: This could be the oldest object in our universe.
The great-great-grandfather of galaxies: This could be the oldest object in our universe.Courtesy NASA/ESA/Garth Illingworth (UCSC)/Rychard Bouwens (UCSC/Leiden University)/HUDF09 Team
The Hubble Space Telescope has captured what astronomers are claiming is the oldest galaxy in the universe. Here's some of what NASA's Hubble website says about the discovery:

The farthest and one of the very earliest galaxies ever seen in the universe appears as a faint red blob in this ultra-deep–field exposure taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. This is the deepest infrared image taken of the universe. Based on the object's color, astronomers believe it is 13.2 billion light-years away.

The dim object is a compact galaxy of blue stars that existed 480 million years after the Big Bang, only four percent of the universe's current age. It is tiny and considered a building block of today's giant galaxies. Over one hundred such mini-galaxies would be needed to make up our Milky Way galaxy.

Think of that - the light from this object we're seeing now took 13.2 billion years to reach our eyes. That's mind-boggling. We're actually looking back in time. Anyway, the study which appears in the journal Nature, was led by Rychard Bouwens at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, and Garth Illingworth, of the University of California, Santa Cruz. The tiny smudge of light will be further studied and confirmed when the infrared-optimized James Webb Space Telescope is up and running in 2014.

By the way, the Hubble Space Telescope is featured in one of five films at this year's Omnifest playing now through February 17th here at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Take it from me, the images in the film are quite spectacular and worth seeing.

A different Hubble info site
Star Tribune story

Images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope show what NASA scientists claim is the aftermath of a collision of two asteroids. US and European scientists involved in the study say the collision probably took place in early 2009, and that the debris trail stretches out for hundreds of thousands of kilometers behind a 360 foot-wide chunk of remaining rock.

NASA story & additional photos
LA Times story


Planck telescope map of the universe
Planck telescope map of the universeCourtesy ESA HFI and LFI consortia
A new map created from data gathered by the Planck Space Telescope shows new aspects of our universe not before seen. The telescope’s sensors captured in long wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye that show gigantic plumes of dust and matter swirling above and below the plane of our Milky Way galaxy.

"What you see is the structure of our galaxy in gas and dust, which tells us an awful lot about what is going on in the neighborhood of the Sun; and it tells us a lot about the way galaxies form when we compare this to other galaxies."-- Professor Andrew Jaffe, Planck Space Telescope team member

The Planck research team hopes to answer several questions concerning the origins and structures of the universe. It will concentrate on the cosmic microwave background, the remnant radiation from the Big Bang that permeates the entire universe. It will also search out the secrets of other phenomenon such as gravitational waves, and dark energy and matter. A second version of the map is in the process of being created and there are plans for two additional ones.

In May of 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Planck Space Telescope and the Herschel telescope together into space. Both telescopes function from an orbital position called the second Lagrange point located some one million miles away from the dark side of the Earth, and both in the infrared light range. Over the last six months the Planck telescope has been busy scanning and mapping the full sky searching out answers to how galaxy form and the very origins of the universe. The scope’s sensitive instruments were built to function in the extreme conditions of space, some at temperatures just 1/10th of a degree above absolute zero! Since the observatory is viewing the universe in long wavelengths of light it’s not really seeing stars themselves but rather the materials – dust and gas – from which stars are formed.

But if you’re like me, being restricted to a single wavelength just doesn’t do it, so for views of the universe in other wavelengths I suggest you visit, a nifty website that allows you to view the universe in all sorts of wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Videos about the Planck and Herschel projects at
BBC story
USA Today story

Albert Einstein c. 1921: Photo by Ferdinand Schmutzer
Albert Einstein c. 1921: Photo by Ferdinand SchmutzerCourtesy Public domain via Wikimedia
Scientists at Princeton University and elsewhere spent the last couple years testing Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and have come to the conclusion that the theory holds up just as well in the vast and distant regions of the universe as it does in our own solar system. First published in 1915, the landmark theory describes the very fabric of time and space, and gravity, and the way they interact with each other. It was further confirmed with experiments done during a total eclipse of the sun in 1919. The new research findings appear in the recent issue of Nature.

Princeton University story

VY Canis Majoris v. our Sun: No contest.
VY Canis Majoris v. our Sun: No contest.Courtesy Public domain
If you’re like me, you’re fretting about what to buy your significant other this coming holiday season. Let it go. We have bigger problems. There’s a humongous star in the constellation Canis Major that’s in its final death throes and could go supernova at any time. VY Canis Majoris, as it is referenced, is the largest star known to science, and is so huge, if it were placed in the center of our Solar System, it would encompass all the space between our Sun and the orbit of the planet Saturn (see diagram). But don’t worry, the unstable red hypergiant is nearly 5000 light-years away, and is being monitored closely (in far-infrared and submillimeter portions of the light spectrum) by the European Space Agency's new space telescope Herschel. Read more here about what's actually going on.

More about the Herschel space observatory