July 25, 2011

Universe’s Largest Water Reservoir Discovered in Black Hole

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gamma Ray Bursts, Supernova, Wierd — bferrari @ 3:26 pm
Supermassive Black Hole (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Supermassive Black Hole (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Lurking in a distant supermassive black hole there exists a reservoir of water as big as 140 trillion oceans, the largest repository of water in the universe and 4,000 times more than exists in the Milky Way. Two teams of astronomers discovered this mass of water 12 billion light years away, where it manifests as vapor spread across hundreds of light years.

The reservoir was found spread around the gaseous region of a quasar, a luminous compact region at the center of a galaxy and fueled by a black hole. This discovery shows that water can be found throughout the universe, even early on. While that is not necessarily news to scientists, water has never been found this far away before. The light from the quasar (the APM 08279+5255 quasar in the constellation Lynx, to be exact) took 12 billion years to get to Earth, meaning that this mass of water existed when the universe was only 1.6 billion years old.

Beginning observations in 2008, one group used a tool called Z-Spec at Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii and the other used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps. These instruments observe millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths which allow for the discovery of trace gases (or huge reservoirs of water vapor) in the early universe. The detection of several spectral signatures of water in the quasar gave researchers the information needed to determine the enormous size of the reservoir.



Believers in Mysterious Planet Nibiru, Comet Elenin Await Earth’s End

Artist's conception of the rogue planet Nibiru, or Planet X.

Artist's conception of the rogue planet Nibiru, or Planet X.

Renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan once described a “baloney detection kit” — a set of tools that skeptical thinkers use to investigate any new concept. A few of the key tools include a healthy distrust of information that isn’t independently verified, critically assessing an idea rather than becoming irrationally attached to it simply because it’s intriguing, and a preference for simple explanations over wildly speculative ones.

The waxing obsession with the planet Nibiru , which conspiracy theorists say is a planet swinging in from the outskirts of our solar system that is going to crash into Earth and wipe out humanity in 2012 — or, in some opinions, 2011 — shows that an astonishing number of people “are watching YouTube videos and visiting slick websites with nothing in their skeptical toolkit,” in the words of David Morrison, a planetary astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center and senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Morrison estimates that there are 2 million websites discussing the impending Nibiru-Earth collision. He receives, on average, five email inquiries about Nibiru every day.

“At least a once a week I get a message from a young person — as young as 11 — who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday,” Morrison told Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to

What’s the origin of this mass panic about Nibiru, which astronomers say doesn’t exist?

A suspect origin

The idea that doomsday will result from a planetary collision was first proposed in 1995 by Nancy Lieder, a self-described “contactee.” Lieder claims she has the ability to receive messages through an implant in her brain from aliens in the Zeta Reticuli star system. On her website, ZetaTalk, she stated that she was chosen to warn mankind of an impending planetary collision which would wipe out humanity in May 2003. (When no such cataclysmic event occurred, Lieder’s followers chose 2012 as the new date for the Nibiru collision, which coincides neatly with other doomsday prophecies focused on the ending of the Mayan calendar.) [Doomsday Facts (or Fictions)]

Lieder originally called the bringer of doom “Planet X,” and later connected it to a planet that was hypothesized to exist by a writer named Zecharia Sitchin in his book “The 12th Planet” (Harper 1976). According to Sitchin (1920-2010), the ancient Sumerians wrote about a giant planet called Nibiru — the “twelfth planet” in the solar system, after the other planets (including Pluto), the sun and moon — which has an oblong orbit that swings near Earth every 3,600 years. Humans actually evolved on Nibiru, he said, and colonized this planet during a previous flyby.

Historians and language scholars say that Stitchin grossly mistranslated ancient texts. The Sumerians did indeed believe in a cosmology involving planets; however they thought there were five planets, not 12, and they did not believe that humans hopped to Earth from a place called Nibiru. Furthermore, astronomers have pointed out that a planetary orbit like the one Sitchin proposed for Nibiru is impossible: No celestial body could maintain a stable orbit that swings it through the inner solar system every 3,600 years and keeps it beyond Pluto the rest of the time. The body would quickly get sucked in or pushed out.

Nonetheless, Sitchin’s books have been translated into 25 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Lieder’s planetary collision theory has adopted the name of Nibiru for Earth’s planetary nemesis. Many people who believe that doomsday will occur when the Mayan calendar ends in 2012 have adopted Lieder’s Nibiru collision prophecy as the cataclysm that will bring us to that end.

Missing planet

The biggest missing link in the doomsday prophecy is Nibiru itself. Because no giant, rogue planet has been found in the outer solar system to play the role of Nibiru, some conspiracy theorists have decided that a small comet called Elenin ” href=”/cms/articles/11617-comet-elenin-wimpy-solar-system”>comet called Elenin (which will pass nearest Earth in October 2011) is actually Nibiru. Even then, though, scientists say Elenin will come no closer than 100 times farther than the distance from Earth to the moon. [What If Our Solar System Formed Closer to Milky Way’s Edge?]

“The fact is that these folks are constantly changing their story,” Morrison wrote in an email. “For some, Nibiru is no longer the Sumerian god or planet that is supposed to be returning to Earth in late 2012. It has become a catchword for almost any cosmic catastrophe.”

Internet rumors about Elenin began spreading earlier this year. Its approach to Earth was blamed for shifting the Earth’s axis by 3 degrees in February, precipitating the Chile earthquake, then shifting the pole even more to trigger the Japan quake in March. “Ignoring plate tectonics as the cause of earthquakes, they suggest that the comet exerted strong gravitational or electromagnetic effects on our planet,” Morrison wrote.

When scientists pointed out that the comet is a mere 3-mile-wide glob of ice with no magnetic field and that it won’t even pass very near Earth — and that plate tectonics, not comets, cause earthquakes — rumors began to circulate that NASA was withholding information about Elenin.

“Ironically, the inconspicuous nature of this comet plays into some of the conspiracy theories,” Morrison pointed out. “For people who are convinced the comet did cause the earthquakes, this proves that Elenin is not a comet at all, but a much more massive, and dangerous, interloper.” Conspiracy theorists began speculating that the comet is Nibiru in disguise — a planet or even an enormous brown dwarf star.

In fact, Elenin is a textbook comet; it has visible “coma,” or nucleus, and a long tail made of vaporizing ice. [What’s the Difference Between an Asteroid and a Comet?]

If it were a brown dwarf, “it would not have a coma or tail, because the gas cannot escape from an object with substantial gravity. In addition, if it were massive we would be seeing its gravitational influence on the orbits of the planets, especially Mars and Earth, but there is no change in these orbits,” Morrison wrote. “Finally, if it were a brown dwarf it would have been easily detected in various previous astronomical surveys, including the recent WISE infrared mission, even when it was still in the outer solar system,” he wrote.

The fact that the comet isn’t headed our way is overlooked by most conspiracy theorists, while others say its path is going to change. “[Some] websites suggest that the comet is accompanied by a giant UFO, which controls its orbit,” Morrison told us; in effect, who cares if Elenin doesn’t seem to be headed in our direction — it’ll be steered here.

Distinguishing truth from lies

Morrison offered some advice to those who are interested in astronomy or are worried about impending collisions. “If it [a story] is real, it is likely to be in regular news media, not just posted on some website,” he told us. Furthermore, “not everyone who claims on YouTube to be a scientist or an employee of NASA is. But there is no simple way to distinguish truth from lies.”

The Nibiru conspiracies are so nonsensical that Morrison wonders whether even their purveyors believe them. Because many websites sell Nibiru books, tapes and even “survival kits,” Morrison thinks they are purposely taking advantage of people who aren’t able to distinguish credible sources from crackpot ones. “This is especially a problem for young people, which is why I am so angry at those who target children,” he said.


July 20, 2011

Tiny New Moon Found Circling Distant Pluto

Filed under: Cool, Outer Solar System — bferrari @ 3:05 pm
Illustration of the Pluto Satellite System orbits with newly discovered moon P4 highlighted.

Illustration of the Pluto Satellite System orbits with newly discovered moon P4 highlighted.

A tiny new moon has been discovered around Pluto, the fourth and smallest one yet found orbiting the dwarf planet, photos from the Hubble Space Telescope reveal.

The moon, which has been temporarily named P4, was spotted in a Hubble survey searching for rings around Pluto.

The tiny satellite is estimated to be between 8 and 21 miles (13 to 34 kilometers) wide. For comparison, Pluto’s largest moon Charon is 648 miles (1,043 km) across. The dwarf planet’s other moons, Nix and Hydra, range between 20 to 70 miles across (32 to 113 km). [Photo of Pluto’s new moon]

“I find it remarkable that Hubble’s cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than 3 billion miles (5 billion km),” Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. said in a statement. Showalter led this observational survey with Hubble.

Pluto’s new moon is located between the orbits of Nix and Hydra, which Hubble also discovered in 2005. Charon was discovered in 1978 at the U.S. Naval Observatory and was first resolved using Hubble in 1990 as a separate body from Pluto.

The finding is a result of ongoing work to support NASA’s New Horizons mission, which is scheduled to fly through the Pluto system in 2015. The mission is designed to provide new insights about worlds at the edge of our solar system.

Hubble’s photos of Pluto’s surface and the discovery of its satellites have been invaluable for planning for New Horizons’ close encounter, scientists said.

“This is a fantastic discovery,” said New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “Now that we know there’s another moon in the Pluto system, we can plan close-up observations of it during our flyby.”

The dwarf planet’s entire moon system is believed to have formed by a collision between Pluto and another planet-sized body early in the history of the solar system. The galactic smashup flung material that combined into the family of satellites observed around Pluto.

P4 was first seen in a photo taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on June 28. It was confirmed in subsequent Hubble pictures taken on July 3 and July 18. The moon was not seen in earlier Hubble images because the exposure times were shorter.

There is a chance that P4 appeared as a very faint smudge in images from 2006, but was overlooked because it appeared obscured, scientists said.


July 7, 2011

Will This Spaceship Replace the Shuttle?

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Military, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 4:10 pm
An artist's interpretation of the Dream Chaser vehicle after spacecraft separation.l

An artist's interpretation of the Dream Chaser vehicle after spacecraft separation.


The next-generation spaceship chosen to fly American astronauts into orbit and back may look a lot like NASA’s soon-to-be-retired space shuttle — and it even has NASA roots, too.

The Dream Chaser space plane, a private spaceship under development by the firm Sierra Nevada Corp., is in the running to provide orbital taxi services to NASA for trips to the International Space Station.

The Dream Chaser vehicle looks much like a miniature version of the space shuttle, and its design is based largely on the HL-20, a NASA concept vehiclefirst drawn up in the early 1980s.

Sierra Nevada officials celebrated Dream Chaser’s NASA heritage with a June 22 event at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

“I had made a promise that if we ever got to the point where the program was beginning to go to the next level, that we would find a way to come back and thank all of those people who enabled this,” Sierra Nevada chairman Mark Sirangelo told the crowd, according to a NASA statement. [Vote Now! The Best Spaceships of All Time]

Secret Soviet spaceship origins

NASA didn’t dream up the HL-20 all by itself. Rather, the agency was inspired by photos taken in 1982 by an Australian spy plane, which showed a Soviet ship recovering a spacecraft from the Indian Ocean.

“We spent a long time trying to figure out what it was,” said Del Freeman, who was one of the few people at Langley with security clearance to see the photos.

The Soviet craft, it turns out, was a mini-shuttle called the BOR-4. NASA engineers used the photos to build a cherry-wood model of their own, which served as a starting point for the vehicle that would come to be known as the HL-20 (for horizontal lander). [10 Unrealized Military Aircraft Concepts]

“We were reverse-engineering it,” Freeman said of the BOR-4. “Finally, we got enough information to build a model, and we put it into [a wind] tunnel. When we tested it, we really figured out that we had something.”

The HL-20 evolved, then stalled when NASA moved on to other things. Then the idea of a space taxi stalled altogether, NASA officials said. But Sierra Nevada eventually revived the vehicle’s basic idea.

Dream Chaser takes shape

The commercial space company SpaceDev, which was later acquired by Sierra Nevada, publicly announced plans for the Dream Chaser vehicle in 2004. Multiple concepts were initially considered, but ultimately company officials opted to go with the HL-20.

“The HL-20 had the best combination — a lot of history, a lot of testing done on it,” Sirangelo said. “Also, the people who worked on it are still alive and around and engaged, so we had a chance to get that history.”

The spacecraft of two decades ago and today’s Dream Chaser look remarkably alike, officials said.

“You’d be surprised at how little it’s changed,” Sirangelo told the NASA employees. “The more we got into it, the more we realized how smart you all were.”

The Colorado-based Sierra Nevada kept working on the Dream Chaser, and its efforts have paid off. On April 18, NASA awarded the company $80 million to continue developing the spacecraft after it was judged among four winners of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

Also receiving funding were Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., ($22 million); Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. ($75 million); and Boeing of Houston ($92.3 million).

These four companies all wish to provide vehicles that will carry astronauts to the space station after NASA’s venerable space shuttle program retires. That will happen when Atlantis’ STS-135 flight touches down in July.

Russian Soyuz vehicles will pick up the slack until the private American spaceships are ready to fly.

Big tests coming

Sierra Nevada has built a Dream Chaser test article and plans to drop-test it in the atmosphere next year, NASA officials said.

A suborbital test is scheduled for 2013, with an orbital test coming in 2014, Sierra Nevada officials said. That timing, however, depends partly on how Sierra Nevada progresses through NASA’s selection process; the agency will continue to weed out contenders, trying to find the commercial space taxi that it can support.

If and when the Dream Chaser finally does fly, the event will likely bring a smile to the faces of the NASA engineers who worked on the HL-20 long ago.

“We knew it was a viable concept then, early on,” Freeman said. “It’s got a lot of merit.”


July 6, 2011

Enterprise: The First Space Shuttle

Filed under: Cool, Extraterrestrial Life, Hollywood, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 10:13 pm

The very last launch of NASA’s space shuttle program is scheduled for Friday, when Atlantis will begin mission STS-135. The 135th mission will end the shuttle program after 35 years.

The U.S. space program would have never progressed as fast as it did without the race against the Soviets to the moon. As soon as Apollo 11 delivered astronauts to the lunar surface, NASA was asked to develop a new space program that would be more immediately useful and (most importantly) more cost-efficient. The Apollo program continued through mission 17 in 1972, but meanwhile engineers were developing a reusable spacecraft. It was a totally new concept, a vehicle tough enough to go into space, complete mission after mission, and land on earth with such little damage that it could be sent up again. Many companies worked on the various technologies necessary for such a craft. We didn’t see the first space shuttle until 1976.

There were a total of six space shuttles. Atlantis, the last to fly, will be retired to a museum as will the recently-flown shuttles Endeavour and Discovery. Two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed along with their crews in space tragedies. And the sixth space shuttle? That was the Enterprise.

NASA planned to name the first space shuttle Constitution, to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. But that changed between the announcement of the program in 1972 and the unveiling of the craft in 1976.

Star Trek fan Bjo Trimble already had experience in mobilizing trekkers; she had spearheaded a fan campaign to save the original Star Trek series from cancellation in 1967. That effort stretched the show’s run into a third year. Trimble organized Star Trek fans in a new campaign to name the first space shuttle Enterprise instead of Constitution. The White House received somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 letters urging the name change (although some estimates go as high as 200,000). I wrote one of those letters myself. President Gerald Ford spoke with NASA chief James Fletcher and said, “You know, I’m a little partial to the name Enterprise.” Ford did not mention the letter-writing campaign, but instead referred to the fact that he served on a Navy ship that serviced the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Fletcher resisted the name change, but was overruled by the president. The shuttle would be named Enterprise.

In the “Star Trek” series, all ships were named after famous space shuttles of the past. So, in a paradoxical way, by naming a real-life shuttle after the Star Trek ship, NASA validated its plot line by providing an explanation for where the Enterprise name came from. If that makes perfect sense to you, congratulations, you’re a true Star Trek fan.

“That is a fine looking wessel”

The names of the shuttles are used mainly outside of NASA. The first such vehicle was referred to as OV-101 (orbiter vehicle 101) by the space agency. However, the naming of the first shuttle was a coup for Star Trek fans and a public relations boon for the Star Trek franchise. At the official unveiling of the shuttle on September 17, 1976 at Rockwell’s facility in Palmdale, California, most of the cast from the original Star Trek television series, as well as creator Gene Roddenberry, were honored guests.

The shuttle Enterprise made 13 flights in 1976 and 1977, none of them in orbit. There were eight captive flights with the shuttle on the back of a 747 (three with a crew aboard), and five test flights. Pictured is Commander (and Apollo 13 astronaut) Fred W. Haise Jr. and pilot C. Gordon Fullerton after an approach and landing test.

The original idea was to eventually retrofit the prototype for space flight and send it into orbit after the shuttle Columbia. However, design changes over the years made this idea more expensive than building a new shuttle from scratch. I recall vividly how disappointed I was when I found out the Enterprise would not go into space, and I imagined that everyone who fought to name the vehicle felt the same way. In 1978 and 1979, Enterprise was subjected to ground vibration tests. In the fall of 1979, parts of the Enterprise were removed to be reused on other shuttles. The rest became an exhibit. The vehicle toured Europe in 1983 and the U.S. in 1984. It was showcased at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.

In either a stretch of the imagination or an exercise in wishful thinking, the shuttle Enterprise was featured in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the movie, Commander Will Decker shows Lieutenant Ilia a display on the history of ships named Enterprise, which includes the space shuttle. In the TV series Deep Space 9, the shuttle appears as a model docked to the International Space Station in Caption Sisko’s office.

In either a stretch of the imagination or an exercise in wishful thinking, the shuttle Enterprise was featured in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the movie, Commander Will Decker shows Lieutenant Ilia a display on the history of ships named Enterprise, which includes the space shuttle. In the TV series Deep Space 9, the shuttle appears as a model docked to the International Space Station in Caption Sisko’s office.


July 5, 2011

The Brightest Object in the Early Universe

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gamma Ray Bursts, Supernova — bferrari @ 5:44 pm
This artist's impression shows how ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar powered by a black hole with a mass 2 billion times that of the sun, may have looked. This quasar is the most distant yet found and is also the brightest object yet discovered in the early universe.

This artist's impression shows how ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar powered by a black hole with a mass 2 billion times that of the sun, may have looked. This quasar is the most distant yet found and is also the brightest object yet discovered in the early universe.

Scientists have discovered the most brilliant object yet from the infancy of the cosmos, a super-bright galaxy that challenges notions of how extraordinarily massive black holes evolved.

The brilliant enigma is a quasar, a stage that some galaxies go through when lots of material falls into the supermassive black holes at their cores, giving off light as it does so.

The quasar, assigned the name ULAS J1120+0641, is the most distant one found to date. It is by far the brightest object discovered from the early universe, giving off 60 trillion times as much light as our sun. (A trillion is 1 million millions.)

To discover this quasar, scientists hunted through 20 million objects detected over the course of five years in the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope Deep Sky Survey. [The Strangest Things in Space]

“The search was very long and slow — kind of like panning for gold and seeing lots of shiny things glinting in the pan, only for most of them to be old nails, until finally one candidate turned out to be what we were looking for,” said researcher Daniel Mortlock, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London.

Most distant quasar yet

The distance to the quasar was then determined from observations made with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and the Gemini North Telescope. Based on how greatly the light from the quasar was stretched during its journey by the expansion of the universe, the scientists estimate the quasar existed only 770 million years after the Big Bang.

By analyzing the light from ULAS J1120+0641, researchers estimate the quasar was powered by a black hole 2 billion times the mass of the sun. How black holes became so massive so soon after the Big Bang is difficult to explain.

“While it’s not the most massive quasar black hole known, it is seen so much earlier than the others that it is even harder to form in the time available,” Mortlock told

A number of theories that scientists have brought up to explain this anomaly include: the existence in the early universe of “seed” black holes having up to 1,000 times our sun’s mass; a high rate of black hole mergers; and the growth of black holes unaccompanied by much of the light given off by in-falling material, thus hiding the growth process.

New clue into early universe?

While this quasar adds to the mystery of these early massive black holes, it could help solve another enigma from the earliest times of the universe’s estimated13.7 billion years: a stage known as reionization.

During this era between about 150 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang, the neutrally charged hydrogen pervading the universe was ionized into its constituent protons and electrons. The light from the newly discovered quasar suggests the universe was still filled with significant amounts of neutral hydrogen even 770 million years after the Big Bang, Mortlock said.

The next step is to find quasars as old or even older. “This should be done by surveys which are just starting now, such as the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) and Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) that are already under way,” Mortlock said.

The scientists detailed their findings in the June 30 issue of the journal Nature.


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