Stories tagged astronomy

Jul
11
2008

Spiral galaxy M81: The black hole in the center of this galaxy is 70 million times as massive as the Sun, but it behaves exactly the same as much, much smaller black holes.
Spiral galaxy M81: The black hole in the center of this galaxy is 70 million times as massive as the Sun, but it behaves exactly the same as much, much smaller black holes.Courtesy X-ray: NASA/CXC/Wisconsin/D.Pooley & CfA/A.Zezas; Optical: NASA/ESA/CfA/A.Zezas; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J.Huchra et al.; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA

This may fall under the heading of small comfort, but a new study has shown that all black holes, big or small, suck in matter in the same way. Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory, astronomers studied the different types of light (X-ray, radio and visible) emanating from the region around a massive black hole in the center of galaxy M81. They found that this light was the same as light coming from smaller black holes, even though this one is some 10 million times bigger, and is sucking in matter from a different source. This confirms a part of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which predicted that black holes would be fairly simple objects, not subject to a lot of variation. Which doesn’t really help much if you find yourself getting sucked in, but at least you know it’s nothing personal.

You can learn more about Chandra and X-ray astronomy in our Be an Astronomer! web exhibit. And you can ask questions of Megan Donahue, a scientist who work with the Chandra observatory.

Jul
01
2008

Good lookin', bad soundin': Radiowaves that get caught up in the Northern Lights are creating some annoying noises that zap out into space.
Good lookin', bad soundin': Radiowaves that get caught up in the Northern Lights are creating some annoying noises that zap out into space.Courtesy NASA
No wonder aliens want to attack the Earth with such regularity in the movies. From out in space, we sound pretty annoying, like that renter in the apartment above you who insists on playing Yoko Ono records at 2:30 in the morning.

You laugh, but new recordings from space show that Earth, our home, makes an array of nasty sounds that ring out across the universe.

Scientists have actually known about this phenomenon since the 1970s. But today we have some audio evidence of this annoying noise. So what’s happening?

There’s a bunch of radiation created high above our planet. Solar winds blow it into Earth’s magnetic field and then things start to get loud. Basically, this radiation gets sucked into the same conditions that cause the Northern Lights. While they look great, they sound horrible – sorta like Brittney Spears.

Earth’s ionosphere keeps the radio waves created in this action from coming down toward us, which is a good thing. That’s because they’re about 10,000 times stronger than any radio signals we have on our planet.

Satellites from the European Space Agency's Cluster mission, however, have now detected strong beams of these annoying radio waves out in space.

Click here to hear a sample of what this space noise sounds like. Personally, I think I’ve experienced this sound, much quieter, after eating a bad burrito.

Two NASA scientists propose building giant telescopes on the Moon, using Moon dust as raw material. If successful, the telescopes would be larger than anything on Earth. And with no atmosphere to distort images, the pictures would be sharper, too.

Jun
10
2008

Soaring to space: The dual-hulled WhiteKnightTwo will soar through the atmosphere to an altitude of 50,000 feet where it will then launch SpaceShipTwo, cradled in the middle, off to space. WhiteKnightTwo should be ready for initial testing next month.
Soaring to space: The dual-hulled WhiteKnightTwo will soar through the atmosphere to an altitude of 50,000 feet where it will then launch SpaceShipTwo, cradled in the middle, off to space. WhiteKnightTwo should be ready for initial testing next month.Courtesy Virgin Galactic
While we’ve been getting cranked up here at SMM about this week’s opening of the Star Wars exhibit, where people will be able to get the virtual feel of what it’s like to be in one of the popular sci-fi movies, the folks at Virgin Galactic are frying up some bigger space fish.

Next month in the anticipated date for the roll-out of WhiteKnightTwo, a mother-ship aircraft that will be fly high into the sky to launch smaller crafts into space. The first big application of this technology, space tourism flights, are targeted to start in 2009. You can plunk down a down payment of $20,000 for a $200,000 ticket on a flight by clicking here to get to the Virgin Galactic website.

A shuttle for tourists: This diagram shows how SpaceShipTwo will work once it gets into space and also how it prepares for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
A shuttle for tourists: This diagram shows how SpaceShipTwo will work once it gets into space and also how it prepares for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.Courtesy Virgin Galactic
Here’s how it works. After taking off from a conventional airstrip, WhiteKnightTwo will climb to about 50,000 feet carrying the craft SpaceShipTwo in the space between its twin bodies.

SpaceShipTwo then fires its rockets and releases from WhiteKnightTwo roaring into a suborbital path 68 miles above the earth. In space, it can reach a speed of more than three times the speed of sound.

After giving its six passengers a unique view of space scenery and the experience of weightlessness, SpaceShipTwo turns back to Earth. Moving into the atmosphere, it extends its wings and aerodynamically flies back to the airstrip as a conventional plane landing.

Reservations have already been made by 254 people to take part in the flights. Virgin Galactic is shooting at booking 500 to 600 passengers before beginning flights. And the company’s business model shows that with that kind of participation, the endeavor will be profitable.

In the meantime, Virgin Galactic will be doing testing on the WhiteKnightTwo, with 130 to 150 test flights on the docket before commercial operations. Preliminary tests on SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne were done in 2004.

Operations are currently being based at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, but an official terminal for the “spaceline” is currently under construction in New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo will be brought out to the public sometime early next year.

Along with carrying passengers in SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic foresees WhiteKnightTwo being able to carry other payloads up toward space, including microsatellites. Also, WhiteKnightTwo could be used to carry huge water tanks for flyovers of forest fires.

Would this make you less likely to want to join a space exploration crew on the International Space Station? On its next mission, space shuttle Endeavor will be delivering equipment that NASA has developed that will recycle astronauts' eliminations -- more specifically urine -- into drinking water. With crews of the space station growing from three to six people in the near future, the technology is needed to keep up with the water demands for a larger crew. You can get all the details here from USA Today.

We come in peace!: Parts of this "actual photo" come from NASA.
We come in peace!: Parts of this "actual photo" come from NASA.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Wow...this news item surprises me on a couple fronts. I didn't know the Vatican had an astronomer and he says it's okay to believe in aliens and UFOs if you'd like.

Here is the illustrated answer to that tricky question. Follow these links to a story and image of the formation of a new planet in a nearby galaxy.

Mar
26
2008

On March 19, there was a tremendous explosion in outer space. The massive gamma-ray burst was faintly visible to the naked eye, despite being 7.5 billion light years away. That’s half the distance across the Universe, and 1,000 times further than the previous record for most distant visible object. Gamma-ray bursts occur when giant stars run out of fuel and collapse, releasing huge amounts of energy.

Google Sky now works in a web browser (without a download). From within a web browser one can navigate the sky in a way similar to using Google Maps. Zoom or drag your way through a universe of stitched together images from telescopes and satellites. Try it out. It is lots of fun.