Category Archives: Space Porn

The NASA JPL NuStar telescope is a black hole hunter

How many black holes are in the observable universe? How fast do they spin?

These are just a few of the questions the @NASAJPL NuStar space telescope is set to answer soon. The NuStar space telescope is an x-ray telescope, which gives it the ability, just like medical telescopes, to peer beyond the things we cannot see with conventional light. And in addition to the free-floating black holes that exist, science now knows that the heart of every galaxy including the Milky Way is a black hole. So, getting past all the star-dust, suns and planets is key to understanding these ubiquitous mysteries of the universe.

For example, understanding how fast black holes spin is a key task for NuStar. As matter orbits any object in space, it generally falls in a circular pattern around the object. This is called an orbit. And orbits generally are not static: they either decay, eventually leaving the satellite to fall into its gravitational focus, or else the satellite may have too much mass or speed, in which case, it may fly free of its gravitational focus.

But with black holes, things work a little differently. As matter gets closer to a black hole, the black hole warps space and time, accelerating the matter. This in turn allows much more matter to orbit the black hole without actually falling in. If that sounds counterintuitive for black holes, which we think of as space dustbusters, it is. Yet more mystery.

[quicktime]http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/videos/nustar/20120507/nustar20120507-1280.m4v[/quicktime]

VIDEO: Rochester will get to see a partial solar annular eclipse this month

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab released a video today summarizing the month’s events in what is a regular series, anachronistically entitled “What’s Up?”

This month, an annular solar eclipse will create a ring-like effect on the sun, as the moon will only cover up about 94% of the sun’s visible area. Rochester will be one of the few places on the Eastern Seaboard that will get to view at least part of this phenomenon and for you telescope enthusiasts, this is a great time to get out there and photograph some sun spots!

Also some great star-gazing tips at the end, showing the relative position of stars that will be visible in the night sky:

[quicktime]http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/videos/whatsup/20120501/whatsup20120501-1280.m4v[/quicktime]

Gemini Dream: researchers piece together missing images from the Gemini space missions

As Smithsonian’s Air and Space website declares it – probably correctly – Gemini was the “middle child” of the 60’s space race. It’s the one most people are less clear about. But many of the advances in technology that led to the eventual moon mission happened on the Gemini missions.

Now researchers at Arizona State University have teamed up with @NASA to give us all a glimpse of what life on those missions was really like, by digitizing and cleaning up some of the lost photos. The images are as beautiful for their naked imperfections as they are for the moments in history they bring us closer to:

Ghosts of Gemini | Photos | Air & Space Magazine.

[VIDEO] New analysis by Cassini scientists reveals amazing dynamism in Saturn’s F-ring

There seems no limit to the things Cassini reveals about our mysterious outer neighbors in the Solar System…

After analyzing the paths of Saturn’s moons, scientists discovered the origins of some of the strange trails they’d previously noticed perforating the rings, specifically the F-ring. It turns out that the moon itself passes through this ring and in so doing, picks up the ice and dust particles that make the ring what it is and carries them along in its wake. Presto! Instant “mini-jet,” as science has known them for some time.

And it turns out that these trails are not just created by moons like Prometheus. Some objects as small as a kilometer wide do the same thing. Check out the last image, which removes Saturn from the shot and emphasizes the F-ring mini-jets. Amazing stuff!

Unfortunately, I cannot embed the video. But I can send you along to the link, so off you go.

@NASA finds its first Goldilocks. Is there life out there?

The Goldilocks Zone: like its namesake, this term defines a place which is neither too hot nor too cold. In this case, it is an orbital distance from a star which is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. And science is looking for planets in the Goldilocks Zone because they represent the best chance we have of discovering life on other planets as we understand it.

NASA has announced today that they have discovered the first genuine candidate for Goldilocks honors, in addition to doubling the list of planets we’ve discovered in the universe. They also say there are ten more candidates for the Goldilocks crown.

Are planets in the Goldilocks zone the only ones with potential for life to exist? Perhaps not. Science’s definition of life and its habitats changes all the time. But science works best under controlled circumstances, and with over 1000 planets having been discovered, simply picking one out of a crowd to start searching is no way to go about things. Discovering other planets that share as much as possible in common with our own – the only planet we can say definitively has life on it – increases our odds of success.

In this case, the planet is named – after the sexy fashion of @NASA – Kepler 22-b. This planet is 600 light-years away, is 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbits in a 290-day route. Its sun is in the same G-class of stars as our own, though it is slightly smaller and cooler. But the major common trait is that its in the right orbit to sustain liquid water.

Will there be life on this Kepler 22-b? How would we even go about proving that, one way or another, at such a distance? Only time will tell if our first Goldilocks lives up to its potential, or even exceeds expectations.

For more information on the discovery and announcement, have a look at the press release from NASA below:

NASA – NASAs Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone of Sun-Like Star.

We are stardust: #RIT boffins discover evidence of organic compounds in interstellar space

There are stars and comets and asteroids and matter formed into all manner of shape and size in the universe; there are black holes and red dwarves; there are nebulae and clusters. Galaxies are made up of these things, plus clouds of dust and ice. Our little planet exists on the lonely edge of one of these, the Milky Way. But beyond our galaxy and in between all that stuff, it is generally understood, are unknowably vast stretches of nothing. A vacuum, perforated by radiation from stars, that is otherwise empty.

But perhaps not.

Professor Donald Figer and a team of scientists at RIT have discovered evidence that maybe that interstellar space isn’t quite as empty as we thought. They have picked up on data suggesting that floating within that nothingness may be the very same organic chemicals that formed life on Earth. Dr. Figer wasn’t looking for anything of the sort. In fact, he was readying research for a soon-to-be-published paper on his field of study, super-massive stars, when he happened upon an irritating irregularity in his data that turned out to be this rather amazing discovery.

A spectrum band of white light.

The story of this discovery is all about a research method known as spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is the process of bending light through a prismatic system to get the classic rainbow effect you see when viewing light through any prism. Scientists measure the intensity and width of the bands to determine the chemical makeup of the star whose light they are studying.

Spectrum showing absorption lines

However, between the star and our own planet, there may be matter that absorbs some of the star’s light. When this happens, black bands appear in the spectroscopy where a specific element has absorbed a specific frequency of light. These are known as Absorption Lines. The process of identifying which element is causing which absorption line to appear is based on some of your old Chemistry class math: the amount of energy required to make an electron of a given atom jump to various excited states.

The crazy thing is: while science has positively identified hundreds of elements in absorption lines, many lines are unaccounted for. To further complicate the picture, molecules (which may have multiple elements) appear as what you might call “tone clouds” of several absorption lines, close together.

Back to Professor Figer’s research, in studying super massive stars, the assumption was that they would not be getting any absorption lines at all, since they didn’t anticipate any matter between the stars and the sensors. Again: interstellar space should be empty. And since the light from super massive stars tends to be reliably balanced white light, they expected to find perfectly even spectra. As you no doubt have guessed by now, that was not the case.

Instead, team member Tom Geballe found those tightly-packed absorption lines, 500 in all, occluding not one but every single observation of every star they looked at. Consistency is evidence in science, and this particular evidence pointed to one conclusion: whatever was causing the absorption lines must be present in interstellar space, not simply around one or two stars.

And based on the above-mentioned math, Professor Figer and his team have determined that the “whatever” in question is likely to be organic material, once thought to be fairly rare in the universe and definitely central to our understanding of life.

Is this organic material RNA? Is it the seed from which the Panspermia theory says we all evolved? Well, that’s a lot of “maybe’s” that Professor Figer isn’t speculating on. But certainly, his discovery points to organic compounds being even more ubiquitous in the universe than first thought. Rather than simply appearing as specks of simple amino acids and peptides on meteor fragments, this evidence points to a universe shot through with the stuff of life. A cloud of potential, from which any number of colonies of life might suddenly be formed in almost any corner of the universe.

Ed Note: This article was checked for accuracy by Professor Figer and some small changes made to reflect that accuracy.

[VIDEO] Huge sun spot three times the size of Earth causes solar flare

News from @NASA that the largest sun spot seen in years, dubbed AR1339 by scientists there, is actually three times larger than the Earth itself. And last night, that same sun spot caused two different solar events: a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection (CME). The solar flare actually winged the planet Earth and disrupted radio transmissions starting around 4:45PM EST. The CME headed in the direction of Venus.

You can see the brief video of the CME here.

Scientists will continue to monitor the sun spot and more radio or other communications disruptions are possible. Basically, the thing spins and wherever its pointed when the flare goes off is where it goes.

via NASA – A 360 Degree View of an X-class Flare and A CME.

[SPACE PORN] In one image, four of Saturn’s moons and its rings are visible

Cassini just keeps sending back the most amazing photography. In this one shot, you can clearly see the giant of the bunch, Titan, lurking behind Dione. Pandora swings into view just at the edge of Saturn’s outer rings, and deep within them hides Lilliputian moon Pan.

For a closer look at the photograph above, visit the Jet Propulsion Lab’s photojournal here.

Mercury: the “boring” planet starts to get some respect.

… and then there’s Mercury. For years, the study of astronomy among school-aged children has settled on the fact that Mercury is just the rock near the middle of our Solar System. Real hot on one side, real cold on the other. That’s it. But @NASA launched orbiter Messenger to see what else there was to see on the diminutive first planet and the results are surprising scientists.

Lava flows seven times the size of Texas cover six percent of the surface, which is evidence that large-scale volcanic activity formed the planet at one time. Volcanic activity is typically associated with more dynamic, living planets. Also, the chemical makeup of the planet is not quite like any other planet in the solar system, which scientists believe is a result of being so close to the Sun.

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