February 11, 2017

Ten reasons why NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will kick some cosmic butt

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Extraterrestrial Life, Gadgets, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 3:05 pm

Here are ten amazing facts about the JWST that you might not have known.

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope

1. It’s as big as a tennis court

With a sunshield 22 metres (72 feet) in length, the size of a tennis court, and a mirror 6.5 metres (21 feet) wide the JWST, which is due to launch in October 2018, is over twice the size of the Hubble Space Telescope, making it the largest space telescope ever launched.
2. The mirrors are coated in a golf ball’s worth of gold
The JWST’s mirrors are covered in gold to optimise them for infrared light, with the gold further protected by a thin layer of glass. The thickness of this gold coating is 0.00001 centimetres across the 25 square-metre mirror’s surface, and in total the gold weighs 48.25 grams, roughly equivalent to the weight of a golf ball.
3. It’ll be about four times further from Earth than the Moon

The JWST will take about a month to reach a position 1.5 million kilometres (930,000 miles) from Earth known as Lagrange point 2, or L2. Here the telescope’s observations will be unhindered by Earth and the Moon although, if it malfunctions (as happened with Hubble), we currently have no way to go and fix it.


4. It could see a penny 24 miles away

The angular resolution of the JWST, which is the sharpness of the images, is incredibly precise. It can see at a resolution of 0.1 arc-seconds, which means that it could resolve a penny 24 miles (40 kilometres) away or a football 340 miles (550 kilometres) away.

5. It could find water on exoplanets

One of the JWST’s most notable abilities is that it will be able to detect planets around nearby stars by measuring infrared radiation, and it will even be able to measure the atmospheres of exoplanets by studying the starlight that passes through. By doing this it will be able to determine if an exoplanet has liquid water on its surface.

6. It’s seven times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope

The giant mirror of the JWST is made of 18 individual hexagonal segments composed of lightweight beryllium. It is almost three times the size of Hubble’s mirror, boasting a light-collecting area seven times greater, but both mirrors weigh almost the same owing to the lighter materials used on the JWST’s mirror.

7. It’ll see the first light of the universe

One of the goals of the JWST is to observe the first stars and galaxies that formed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, an era of the universe that is not fully understood. The telescope will be sensitive to infrared light, which will enable it to do this.

8. It will unfold to its massive size in space

Many features of the JWST, including its giant mirrors and sunshield, are designed to be launched on a rocket in a smaller payload. The telescope will launch in a compact outfit and will unfold in its full configuration once it reaches space.

9. One side is hotter than Death Valley, the other is colder than Antarctica

The side of the JWST that will always face the Sun, the bottom of the sunshield, will reach temperatures of 85°C (185 °F). The other side, which houses the mirrors and science instruments, will operate at a much nippier -233°C (-388 °F).

10. It could keep working for a decade

The official mission lifespan for the JWST is between five and ten years. The telescope is limited by the amount of fuel it has on board used to maintain its position, which will be enough for a ten-year lifetime. Of course, other factors like budget cuts or malfunctions could end the mission earlier.

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August 24, 2016

‘Second Earth’ exoplanet found right under our noses – just four light years away

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Life, Outer Solar System — bferrari @ 2:29 pm

Proxima b is a likely target for Starshot project


Artist's impression of Proxima b and Proxima Centauri [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser]

Artist’s impression of Proxima b and Proxima Centauri [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser]

Rumours that a terrestrial planet orbiting Proxima Centauri – the Sun’s closest neighbour – may be Earth-like have been confirmed today in a paper published in Nature.

The possibility that extraterrestrial life may exist next door was first reported last week in Der Spiegel, a German weekly news magazine.

Excitement bubbled over and the European Southern Observatory refused to confirm or deny the rumours, as it wanted to keep the research under wraps. But it eventually gave in, and announced that all details would be revealed at the end of August.

Tantalising evidence shows the candidate planet, known as Proxima b, may be small and rocky and lies in the habitable zone around its star – just like Earth.

Proxima b’s equilibrium temperature is within the range where water may be in liquid form on its surface, the researchers believe.

It orbits around Proxima Centauri, a red-dwarf located only 4.25 light years away in the closest star system, Alpha Centauri. It’s much closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun at 0.05 astronomical units away, so a year only lasts 11.2 days.

How Earth-like is Proxima b?

Although the signs are promising, it’s completely hypothetical that Proxima b is Earth-like, the researchers said.

Infographic compares the orbit of Proxima b around Proxima Centauri with the same region of the Solar System [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman]

Infographic compares the orbit of Proxima b around Proxima Centauri with the same region of the Solar System [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman]

Professor Hugh Jones, who was part of the large team analysing data from Proxima b and a physics lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, told The Register: “Saying it’s more Earth-like than just its mass is speculative. It’s exciting because it’s the first time anybody has found a planet around the closest stars. We have been looking for ages.”

Sixteen years ago, researchers first spotted a signal that Proxima Centauri could be harbouring a planet. It took a while for confirmation because of the faint signal, Jones said.

Proxima Centauri is a faint star with a luminosity much lower than the Sun. Its surface temperature is 3,050 kelvin, as compared to the Sun’s 5,777 kelvin. Researchers used Doppler spectroscopy to measure changes in the velocity of the star caused by a gravitationally bound body that was orbiting around it.

The Doppler method is an effective way of detecting exoplanets, but it doesn’t give much information about the planet itself. Many properties, including Proxima b’s radius, are currently unknown.

Journey to Alpha Centauri

That doesn’t dampen the spirits of scientists and engineers working on the Breakthrough Starshot project, however.

Starshot was launched in April 2016 by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking. The project aims to send tiny “nanocrafts” to the Alpha Centauri system, about 25 trillion miles away, at 15 to 20 per cent of the speed of light.

Speaking about the research, Professor Avi Loeb, Chairman of the Breakthrough Starshot advisory committee and researcher at Harvard University, told The Register: “We will celebrate this important discovery within the Starshot team.”

“The discovery of the habitable planet around the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is strategically important for motivating the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, since it provides an obvious target for a flyby mission.

“A spacecraft equipped with a camera and various filters could take color images of the planet and infer whether it is green (harboring life as we know it), blue (with water oceans on its surface) or just brown (dry rock),” Loeb said.

The bright star is Alpha Centauri AB and Proxima Centauri is the fainter red dwarf star  [Photo credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2, Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani]

The bright star is Alpha Centauri AB and Proxima Centauri is the fainter red dwarf star [Photo credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2, Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani]

Proxima b has another property that increases its chances of harbouring life, Loeb, who was uninvolved in the research, said.

“Low-mass stars burn nuclear fuel at a slower rate, so they are more likely to live longer. Proxima Centauri is smaller than our Sun and will live about a thousand times longer. This means that any life on the planet has a longer time to develop and survive,” Loeb told The Register.

“Hence, a habitable rocky planet around Proxima would be the most natural location to where our civilization could aspire to move after the Sun will die, five billion years from now.”

The prospect of nanobots venturing to Proxima b to take photos is still very far away, and with current technology it’s still difficult to resolve Proxima b from its star. But with better telescopes and sensitive instruments being built in the next decade, the close proximity of Proxima b gives researchers their best fighting chance yet of looking out for extraterrestrial life.



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May 1, 2016

Newly Discovered Star Has an Almost Pure Oxygen Atmosphere

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Wierd — bferrari @ 5:25 pm
An artist's depiction of white dwarf stars Sirius A and B.

An artist’s depiction of white dwarf stars Sirius A and B.

A newly discovered star is unlike any ever found. With an outermost layer of 99.9 percent pure oxygen, its atmosphere is the most oxygen-rich in the known universe. Heck, it makes Earth’s meager 21 percent look downright suffocating.

The strange stellar oddity is a radically new type of white dwarf star, and was discovered by a team of Brazilian astronomers led by Kepler de Souza Oliveira at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. The star is unique in the known pool of 32,000 white dwarf stars, and is the only known star of any kind with an almost pure oxygen atmosphere. The new white dwarf has a mouthful of a name—SDSSJ124043.01+671034.68—but has been nicknamed ‘Dox’ (pronounced Dee-Awks) by Kepler’s team. The discovery was reported today in a paper in the journal Science.


“This white dwarf was incredibly unexpected,” says Kepler, “And because we had no idea anything like it could even exist, that made it all the more difficult to find.”

Missing Gas

Here’s a quick refresher: White dwarfs like Dox are the antiques of the cosmos. They’re the hyper-dense husks left over when stars largely sputter out of hydrogen and helium fuel. All but the largest 3 percent of stars end up as white dwarfs. Although Dox is only slightly bigger than our home planet, it’s 60 percent the mass of our sun.

Boris Gänsicke, an astronomer at the University of Warwick, in the UK, who was not involved in Dox’s discovery, confirms that the “exotic white dwarf… has an almost pure oxygen atmosphere, diluted only by traces of neon, magnesium, and silicon,” he writes in an essay accompanying the Science paper. “This chemical composition is unique among known [white dwarfs] and must arise from an extremely rare process.”

So, what makes Dox’s oxygen rich atmosphere so unexpected? Kepler explains that Dox presents more than a couple mysteries. For one, almost all other white dwarfs in the sky have an atmosphere thick with light elements like hydrogen and helium. These light elements are the final dregs of the star’s elemental fusion fuel that survived the star’s earlier life-cycle. Simply because of their weight, these light elements naturally float to the top of white dwarfs.

“What happened to all these light elements?” asks Kepler “How did they all get stripped away?”

Kepler also explains that although traces of heavier elements like carbon and oxygen can be detected in about one out of every five white dwarfs, it’s never quite like this. A white dwarf’s atmosphere is never purely one element, and is often diluted in a pool of lighter elements. Perhaps most perplexing, when oxygen atoms are found, they’re spied in far heavier white dwarfs. Smaller white dwarfs evolve from smaller stars, which don’t fuse together atoms into oxygen as they collapse. By all calculations, Dox would have had to be roughly double its weight to have even forged oxygen atoms in its earlier life. “You have to wonder where this oxygen even came from,” says Kepler.

In short, by simply being so weird, Dox completely defies our general, scientific understanding of how stars evolve and eventually form into white dwarfs. But Kepler suggests that maybe this shouldn’t be all that surprising. That’s because, he argues, scientists have often ignored the wacky results that can come about when stars grow and evolve while locked in a binary dance with other stars—rather than alone.

“I think the main problem is that we [astronomers] have dedicated the last 50 years to calculate the evolution of stars that are not interacting with each other, when at least 30 percent of stars interact with a binary companion,” he says.

Kepler believes Dox looks so strange because of an unlikely binary origin-story. His rough theory goes like this:

At some point Dox may have been a larger white dwarf, locked in a twirling ballet with another star much like our own Sun. These two stars were about the same distance apart as the Sun and Venus are. As Dox’s dance partner started to sputter out of Hydrogen fuel, it formed what’s called a red giant. It expanded rapidly—becoming so big that it actually engulfed the white dwarf in its outermost layer of gas. Kepler believes Dox would have started siphoning off the red giant’s gas onto itself. At some point during that siphoning process, “when it reached a few million degrees, it exploded. That explosion threw all types of matter out. That’s when [Dox] might have lost all its hydrogen and helium. This type of situation is known to have happened with other stars, although it’s never been seen to leave just oxygen,” he says.

The World’s Most Boring Job

Dox was discovered in a data mountain of 4.5 million individual star observations, collected over the last 15 years by a New Mexico observatory in a project called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It was found by way of a process so grueling that its initial discoverer—one of Kepler’s undergraduate students Gustavo Ourique—deserves a mention.

Ourique was looking for strange, new types of white dwarfs in a data pile of 300,000 possible observations. These observations are simple graphs about what colors of light came from each pinpoint source (called a spectral graph). Because a computer isn’t easily programmed with such a vague task as “find something weird and cool,” Ourique was challenged with the grunt-work task of physically looking at printed out pages of all 300,000 graphs.

“After a few months he could filter a one or two thousand each day, like reading a book” says Kepler. Yeah, but what a heartbreakingly boring book. That is, at least until it gets thrilling, because after half a year of scanning, and toward the end of the 300,000 graphs, Ourique came across Dox. Because of it’s oxygen atmosphere, Dox’s spectral graph looked truly unique, and he brought it to Kepler.

Ourique, man, you are a hero.


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February 11, 2016

Scientists find evidence of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gamma Ray Bursts — bferrari @ 11:54 am
File image - An image from a simulation showing how matter might be moved around in the extreme environment around a black hole. (Özel/Chan) (Özel/Chan)

File image – An image from a simulation showing how matter might be moved around in the extreme environment around a black hole. (Özel/Chan) (Özel/Chan)

After decades of searching, scientists announced Thursday that they have detected gravitational waves which are ripples in the fabric of space-time that were predicted by Einstein.


An international team of astrophysicist said that they detected the waves from the distant crash of two black holes, using a $1.1 billion instrument. The Ligo Collaboration was behind the discovery and it has been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Related: Meteorite probably didn’t kill man in India, NASA says

“We have detected gravitational waves,” Caltech’s David H. Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, told journalists at a news conference in Washington DC.

The news, according to the Associated Press, is being compared by at least one theorist to Galileo taking up a telescope and looking at the planets and the biggest discovery since the discovery of the Higgs particle. It has stunned the world of physics and astronomy, prompting scientists to say it the beginning of a new era in physics that could lead to scores more astrophysical discoveries and the exploration of the warped side of the universe.

“Our observation of gravitational waves accomplishes an ambitious goal set out over five decades ago to directly detect this elusive phenomenon and better understand the universe, and, fittingly, fulfills Einstein’s legacy on the 100th anniversary of his general theory of relativity,” Reitze said in a statement.

Related: Hundreds of hidden galaxies glimpsed behind Milky Way

The discovery confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. Gravitation waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot be obtained from elsewhere.

Not only have they fascinated by scientist by found their way into pop culture – namely through movies such as “Back To The Future,” where the space-time continuum was used a medium for the DeLorean time machine to go back in time. It also featured in the “Terminator” series.

Their existence was first demonstrated in the 1970s and 1980s by Joseph Taylor, Jr., and colleagues. In 1974, Taylor and Russell Hulse discovered a binary system composed of a pulsar in orbit around a neutron star. Taylor and Joel M. Weisberg in 1982 found that the orbit of the pulsar was slowly shrinking over time because of the release of energy in the form of gravitational waves. For discovering the pulsar and showing that it would make possible this particular gravitational wave measurement, Hulse and Taylor were awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Related: White House proposes $19 billion NASA budget

In the latest breakthrough, the gravitational waves were detected on Sept. 14, 2015 by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington.

Based on the observed signals, LIGO scientists estimate that the black holes for this event were about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, and the event took place 1.3 billion years ago. About three times the mass of the Sun was converted into gravitational waves in a fraction of a second — with a peak power output about 50 times that of the whole visible universe.

By looking at the time of arrival of the signals — the detector in Livingston recorded the event 7 milliseconds before the detector in Hanford — scientists can say that the source was located in the Southern Hemisphere.

Related: New star puts on a show in stunning image

According to general relativity, a pair of black holes orbiting around each other lose energy through the emission of gravitational waves, causing them to gradually approach each other over billions of years, and then much more quickly in the final minutes. In a final fraction of a second, the two black holes collide and form one massive black hole. A portion of their combined mass is converted to energy, according to Einstein’s formula E=mc2, and this energy is emitted as a final strong burst of gravitational waves.

These are the gravitational waves that LIGO observed.

“With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvelous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe — objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime. Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples,” Caltech’s Kip Thorne said.



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January 24, 2016

Particles could reveal clues to how Egypt pyramid was built

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets, Planets, Wierd — bferrari @ 11:29 am
FILE - This file Aug. 19, 2011 photo shows the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Coralie Carlson, File)

FILE – This file Aug. 19, 2011 photo shows the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Coralie Carlson, File)

CAIRO — An international team of researchers said Sunday they will soon begin analyzing cosmic particles collected inside Egypt’s Bent Pyramid to search for clues as to how it was built and learn more about the 4,600-year-old structure.

Mehdi Tayoubi, president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute, said that plates planted inside the pyramid last month have collected data on radiographic particles known as muons that rain down from the earth’s atmosphere.

The particles pass through empty spaces but can be absorbed or deflected by harder surfaces. By studying particle accumulations, scientists may learn more about the construction of the pyramid, built by the Pharaoh Snefru.

“For the construction of the pyramids, there is no single theory that is 100 percent proven or checked; They are all theories and hypotheses,” said Hany Helal, the institute’s vice president.

“What we are trying to do with the new technology, we would like to either confirm or change or upgrade or modify the hypotheses that we have on how the pyramids were constructed,” he said.

The Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, just outside Cairo, is distinguished by the bent slope of its sides. It is believed to have been ancient Egypt’s first attempt to build a smooth-sided pyramid.

The Scan Pyramids project, which announced in November thermal anomalies in the 4,500 year-old Khufu Pyramid in Giza, is coupling thermal technology with muons analysis to try to unlock secrets to the construction of several ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Tayoubi said the group plans to start preparations for muons testing in a month in Khufu, the largest of the three Giza pyramids, which is known internationally as Cheops.

“Even if we find one square meter void somewhere, it will bring new questions and hypotheses and maybe it will help solve the definitive questions,” said Tayoubi.


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January 16, 2016

Astronomers may have found most powerful supernova

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gamma Ray Bursts, Supernova — bferrari @ 4:51 pm

Enter a caption

An international team of astronomers may have discovered the biggest and brightest supernova ever.

The explosion was 570 billion times brighter than the sun and 20 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy combined, according to a statement from The Ohio State University, which is leading the study. Scientists are straining to define its strength.

“This may be the most powerful supernova ever seen by anybody … it’s really pushing the envelope on what is possible,” study co-author Krzysztof Stanek, an astronomer at Ohio State, was quoted as saying in The Los Angeles Times.

The team of astronomers released their findings this week in the journal Science. The explosion and a gas cloud that resulted are called ASASSN-15lh after the team of astronomers, All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae, that discovered it last June.

A supernova is a rare and often dramatic phenomenon that involves the explosion of most of the material within a star. Supernovas can be very bright for a short time and usually release huge amounts of energy.

Searching for the power source

This blast created a massive ball of hot gas that the astronomers are studying through telescopes around the world, Ohio State said. It cannot be seen with the naked eye because it is 3.8 billion light years from Earth.

There’s an object about 10 miles across in the middle of the ball of gas that astronomers are trying to define.

“The honest answer is at this point that we do not know what could be the power source for ASASSN-15lh,” said Subo Dong, lead author of the Science paper, according to Ohio State. He is a Youth Qianren Research Professor of astronomy at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University.

Todd Thompson, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, said the object in the center may be a rare type of star called a millisecond magnetar. Spawned by a supernova, it’s a rapidly spinning, dense star with a powerful magnetic field.

Could it be a ‘supermassive black hole’?

To achieve the brightness recorded, the magnetar would have to spin 1,000 times a second and “convert all that rotational energy to light with nearly 100% efficiency,” Thompson said, according to the Ohio State press release. “It would be the most extreme example of a magnetar that scientists believe to be physically possible.”

The question of whether a suprnova truly caused the space explosion may be settled later this year with help from the Hubble Space Telescope, which will allow astronomers to see the host galaxy surrounding the object in center of the ball of gas, Ohio State said.

If it’s not a magnetar, it may be unusual nuclear activity around “a supermassive black hole,” Ohio State said.


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June 19, 2015

Version 0.1 super-stars built the universe – and they lived all the way over there

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology — bferrari @ 3:00 pm
Super-bright galaxy CR7 spotted by 'scopes

Super-bright galaxy CR7 spotted by ‘scopes

Pic Astronomers have recorded the brightest galaxy yet seen in the universe. It was formed 800 million years after the Big Bang, and has evidence of an until-now theoretical type of star.

The galaxy, dubbed Cosmos Redshift 7 aka CR7, is three times brighter than anything astronomers have seen so far, but the distances involved mean that it took the combined efforts of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Earth-bound Keck Observatory, the ESO Very Large Telescope, and Japanese-run Subaru Telescope, to spot it.

But what’s inside CR7 is what’s really excited scientists. Research accepted for publication in The Astrophysics Journal claims the galaxy contains a type of early star that has long been hypothesized but never seen: a Population III star.

“It doesn’t really get any more exciting than this,” said David Sobral from the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences.

“The discovery challenged our expectations from the start as we didn’t expect to find such a bright galaxy. Then, by unveiling the nature of CR7 piece by piece, we understood that not only had we found by far the most luminous distant galaxy, but also started to realize that it had every single characteristic expected of Population III stars.”

Population I stars are all around us, indeed the Sun that powers our planet is one. They contain a significant amount of complex metals and chemicals formed by nucleosynthesis in the hearts of other stars long since gone nova. Population II stars are similar, but contain much less metal.

In the 1970s, scientists predicted the existence of Population III stars, formed in the very earliest stages of the universe. These would be built almost entirely from hydrogen and helium, with maybe trace amounts of lithium and beryllium.

Such stars would be enormous – thousands of times larger than our Sun – and would be much brighter than most other stars, and last a comparatively brief few million years before burning out. CR7 looks to have a cluster of such stars lighting up its core, with spectrometers finding nothing heavier than helium emanating from the galaxy.

“I have always wondered where we come from,” said Jorryt Matthee, second author of the paper.

“Even as a child I wanted to know where the elements come from: the calcium in my bones, the carbon in my muscles, the iron in my blood. I found out that these were first formed at the very beginning of the Universe, by the first generation of stars. With this discovery, remarkably, we are starting to actually see such objects for the first time.”


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May 6, 2015

Astronomers find galaxy 13.1 billion light-years away

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology — bferrari @ 5:41 am
This handout photo provided by NASA and the European Space Agency, taken in 2013 with NASA's Hubble space telescope, shows a galaxy from the farthest distance recorded: 13.1 billion light-years. It is from a time just 670 million years after the Big Bang. (AP)

This handout photo provided by NASA and the European Space Agency, taken in 2013 with NASA’s Hubble space telescope, shows a galaxy from the farthest distance recorded: 13.1 billion light-years. It is from a time just 670 million years after the Big Bang. (AP)

Astronomers have spotted a baby blue galaxy that is farther away in space and time than any other galaxy ever seen. It is among the universe’s first generation of galaxies, from approximately 13.1 billion years ago.

Yale and University of California Santa Cruz scientists used three telescopes to spot and calculate the age of the blurry infant galaxy. By measuring how the light has shifted, they determined the galaxy, named EGS-zs8-1, is from about 670 million years after the Big Bang.

Because when astronomers look farther away from Earth, they are looking back further in time, this is both the most distant galaxy and the furthest back in time. It is 13.1 billion light-years away, in the constellation Bootes. A light-year is 5.8 trillion miles.

This beats the old record by about 30 million years, which isn’t much, but was difficult to achieve, said astronomer Garth Illingworth of the University of California Santa Cruz, who co-authored the paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters announcing the discovery.

The photo they took was from a crucial time in the early universe, after what was called the Dark Ages, when galaxies and stars were just starting to form and the universe was only one five hundredth the mass it is now, Illingworth said.

This galaxy – larger than most of the others from that time, which is why astronomers using the most powerful telescopes can see it – was probably only about 100 million years also, but was quite busy, Illingworth said.

“We’re looking here at an infant that’s growing at a great rate,” he said. The galaxy was giving birth to stars at 80 times the rate our Milky Way does now. “These objects would like nothing like our sun. It would look much, much bluer.”

Yale astronomer Pascal Oesch was looking through Hubble Space Telescope images in 2013 when he saw a bright object. He then used the Spitzer space telescope to see it again. The hardest work was confirming the age and distance using the ground-based Keck Observatory in Hawaii to separate light waves.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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April 28, 2015

Biggest structure ever found is a really cold hole

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology — bferrari @ 8:19 pm
Largest Structure Ever Found is a Really Cold Hole. Image from the Planck telescope shows the Cold Spot, circled.  (ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

Largest Structure Ever Found is a Really Cold Hole. Image from the Planck telescope shows the Cold Spot, circled. (ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

Largest Structure Ever Found is a Really Cold Hole. Image from the Planck telescope shows the Cold Spot, circled. (ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

Researchers using NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer and a telescope in Maui have discovered what they are calling the “largest individual structure ever identified by humanity,” reports the Royal Astronomical Society.

So large, in fact, that the only way to measure its size is in light-years—1.8 billion of them. The so-called supervoid is about 3 billion light-years away, a distance astrophysicists call “close” in the scheme of things.

The researchers were on the hunt for a supervoid in the direction of what’s known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB) Cold Spot, they report in the Society’s Monthly Notices.

First discovered in 2004, the Cold Spot has led some to question our understanding of the Big Bang theory, which doesn’t account for such large, cold spaces.

The latest study suggests that this supervoid—which isn’t empty but rather less dense, essentially “missing” 10,000 galaxies, reports the Guardian—found in the middle of the Cold Spot drains energy from light that travels through it.

Still, the mystery continues, as this drain accounts for only 10% of the Cold Spot’s extreme temperature dip. “It’s like the Everest of voids—there has to be one that’s bigger than the rest,” says one researcher.

“But it doesn’t explain the whole Cold Spot, which we’re still in the dark about.” Experts say “exotic physics” that we’re not familiar with could be at play.

Still, the discovery does provide evidence “for the existence of dark energy,” an outside researcher says. (How close to absolute zero is the “coldest place in the universe”?)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Largest Structure Ever Found Is a Really Cold Hole

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January 11, 2015

NASA stuns with new image of ‘Pillars of Creation’

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Exoplanets, Gadgets — bferrari @ 8:11 pm

New “Pillars of Creation” Hubble photo. (NASA)

(CNN)NASA has come out with a new image that could become one of its most iconic ever.

The Hubble Space Telescope revisited the so-called “Pillars of Creation,” which the space agency describes as “three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16.”

The previous photo of these pillars, taken in 1995, went on to stand out from all the rest of NASA’s space images, the agency said. “The Hubble image is so popular that it has appeared in movies and television shows, on T-shirts and pillows, and even on a postage stamp.”

The old and new images, side by side

 The old and new images, side by side

In celebration of the telescope’s upcoming 25th anniversary in April, Hubble returned to the pillars — and this time with the latest high-definition tools.

The new sharper and wider image was taken “in near-infrared light, as well as visible light,” NASA said. “The infrared view transforms the pillars into eerie, wispy silhouettes seen against a background of myriad stars. That’s because the infrared light penetrates much of the gas and dust, except for the densest regions of the pillars. Newborn stars can be seen hidden away inside the pillars.”

In 1995, the captured image gave insight into star formation. “Nebulous star-forming regions like M16 are the interstellar neon signs that say, ‘We just made a bunch of massive stars here,'” said Paul Scowen of Arizona State University, who helped lead the original observations, in a post on NASA’s website.

The new image “hints” that these columns “are also pillars of destruction,” NASA said.

“The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space,” said Scowen. “We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution.”

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