Tag Archives: astronomy

Globular clusters not as old as universe?

The uncertainty of science: A new computer model, based on binary star systems found in globular clusters, now estimates that those clusters are far younger than previously believed.

Comprised of hundreds of thousands of stars densely packed into a tight ball, globular clusters had been thought to be almost as old as the Universe itself – but thanks to newly developed research models it has been shown that they could be as young as 9 billion years old rather than 13 billion. The discovery brings into question current theories on how galaxies, including the Milky Way, were formed – with between 150-180 clusters thought to exist in the Milky Way alone – as globular clusters had previously been thought to be almost as old as the Universe itself.

Designed to reconsider the evolution of stars, the new Binary Population and Spectral Synthesis (BPASS) models take the details of binary star evolution within the globular cluster into account and are used to explore the colours of light from old binary star populations – as well as the traces of chemical elements seen in their spectra. The evolutionary process sees two stars interacting in a binary system, where one star expands into a giant whilst the gravitational force of the smaller star strips away the atmosphere, comprising hydrogen and helium amongst other elements, of the giant. These stars are thought to be formed as the same time as the globular cluster itself.

Through using the BPASS models and calculating the age of the binary star systems the researchers were able to demonstrate that the globular cluster of which they are part was not as ancient as other models had suggested.

All this study really does is demonstrate again that we really don’t know enough to make a very accurate estimate of the ages of globular clusters. They are very old, but determining precisely how old will require a lot more knowledge.


Boulder-sized asteroid discovered just before it hit Earth

The Catalina Sky Survey, designed to find asteroid with the potential of hitting the Earth, discovered a boulder-sized such asteroid this past weekend just hours before it burned up in the atmosphere.

Although there was not enough tracking data to make precise predictions ahead of time, a swath of possible locations was calculated stretching from Southern Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and onto New Guinea. Reports of a bright fireball above Botswana, Africa, early Saturday evening match up with the predicted trajectory for the asteroid. The asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere at the high speed of 10 miles per second (38,000 mph, or 17 kilometers per second) at about 16:44 UTC (9:44 a.m. PDT, 12:44 p.m. EDT,6:44 p.m. local Botswana time) and disintegrated several miles above the surface, creating a bright fireball that lit up the evening sky. The event was witnessed by a number of observers and was caught on webcam video.

When it was first detected, the asteroid was nearly as far away as the Moon’s orbit, although that was not initially known. The asteroid appeared as a streak in the series of time-exposure images taken by the Catalina telescope . As is the case for all asteroid-hunting projects, the data were quickly sent to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which calculated a preliminary trajectory indicating the possibility of an Earth impact. The data were in turn sent to the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where the automated Scout system also found a high probability that the asteroid was on an impact trajectory. Automated alerts were sent out to the community of asteroid observers to obtain further observations, and to the Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington. However, since the asteroid was determined to be so small and therefore harmless, no further impact alerts were issued by NASA.

The video at the link makes it appear that the asteroid has hit the ground, but that is not what happened.


Radio telescope in Greenland sees first “light”

Astronomers have successfully initiated operations of a new radio telescope dish, the first ever located in Greenland.

The Greenland Telescope is a 12-meter radio antenna that was originally built as a prototype for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) North America. Once ALMA was operational in Chile, the telescope was repurposed to Greenland to take advantage of the near-ideal conditions of the Arctic to study the Universe at specific radio frequencies, collaborating with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and MIT Haystack Observatory.

ASIAA led the effort to refurbish and rebuild the antenna to prepare it for the cold climate of Greenland’s ice sheet. In 2016, the telescope was shipped to the Thule Air Base in Greenland, 1,200 km inside the Arctic Circle, where it was reassembled at this coastal site. ASIAA also built receivers for the antenna. “It is extremely challenging to quickly and successfully set up a new telescope in such a cold environment, where temperatures fall below -30 degrees Celsius,” said Ming-Tang Chen from ASIAA and the Greenland Telescope project manager. “This is now one of the closest radio telescopes to the North Pole.”

They have also linked this radio telescope to others across the globe, helping to increase the resolution of any data these radio telescopes gather as a unit.


Canada exits WFIRST project

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship: The Canadian government has decided not to fund that country’s contribution to NASA’s WFIRST space telescope project, presently expected to cost $3.2 billion total (already over-budget in the design phase) and set to launch sometime in the 2020s (don’t bet on it).

The Canadian instrument would have been focused on studying dark energy, the mysterious force that is theorized to cause the universe’s expansion rate to accelerate over vast distances.

I can understand the skepticism of the Canadian government. Why commit anything to a project that is already over-budget and has unreliable support in the U.S. (Trump tried to ax it, Congress restored it, for now)? The project is also so far in the future it makes more sense to spend this money on astronomy projects that could be built and used now.


Astronomers identify 25 stars that have or will come within 3 light years of Sun

Using the second data release from Gaia, astronomers have identified 25 stars that have or will come within 3 light years of Sun sometime within fifteen million years.

But the authors are confident that the 25 stars represent only a sliver of the actual encounters that have occurred over this time period. “They’re still just scratching the surface,” Mamajek agrees. That’s because the Gaia satellite eliminates low-mass stars (which are simply too faint to see at the moment) and high-mass stars (which are often so bright they saturate the satellite’s detectors) — thus limiting the data to stars that range between 0.5 and 1.3 times the mass of the Sun.

As such, the team suspects that they have only spotted 15% of all the encounters that likely pummel our solar system. “It’s a good first step, but one should not look at this as the final word,” Mamajek adds.

In reading their paper (available here), they identify three stars come come within a light year, therefore disturbing the theorized Oort Cloud of comets thought to exist at this distance from the Sun. One, Gliese 710, will do so in 1.3 million years..


New tests prove EM drive doesn’t work

Two different alternative concepts that proposed methods for creating thrust in space but defied known physics have both been found wanting in new stringent experiments.

The EM drive especially came off badly. Apparently the tiny residual force that remains after building the experiment rigorously and with care is caused not by the EM drive but by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Readers of Behind the Black know that I am a strong skeptic when it comes to flashy new discoveries, whether they are made by famous and well known cosmologists or some guys in their garage. To me, what matters is the data, and its reliability and robustness. The EM drive never passed the smell test. Good science experimentation has now proven this.


Two giant U.S. telescope projects team up

The two consortiums building the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) have teamed up in order to coordinate their research as well as encourage increased government funding for both.

The partnership, approved by the GMT board this month and by the TMT board last month, commits the two projects to developing a joint plan that would allow astronomers from any institution to use the telescopes; under previous plans observing time was available only to researchers from nations or institutions that had provided funding. The projects are discussing awarding at least 25% of each telescope’s time to nonpartners through a competitive process to be administered by the National Center for Optical-Infrared Astronomy—an umbrella organization that will replace the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), based in Tucson, Arizona, sometime in fiscal year 2019. Telescope backers hope the public access plan will help persuade the federal government to pay for at least 25% of the total cost of the two facilities, which could total $1 billion. (Cost estimates for the GMT and the TMT are $1 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively, but astronomers expect both numbers to grow.) “There are many science projects that are $1 billion class projects,” says David Silva, NOAO’s director. “The investment that we would want is of a similar size.”

…In making their case, the teams will argue the benefits of having telescopes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. “When you are covering the whole sky, you have greater scientific reach,” says Wendy Freedman, an astronomer at The University of Chicago in Illinois who was the founding leader of the GMT. The teams will also argue that the telescopes have complementary strengths. The design of the GMT, for instance, makes it ideal for a high-resolution spectrograph designed to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets. The TMT, which has more light-gathering power, could host a multiobject spectrograph to quickly gather demographic statistics on the universe’s first galaxies. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentences explain everything. First, government funding for both projects has been weak, partly because the National Science Foundation (the funding agency) has not been able to make up it mind which of these two U.S. projects to back. By teaming up as one project building two telescopes, the builders hope they will grease the wheels of the federal funding machine.

Second, by selling these two telescopes as covering both the north and south hemispheres, they indicate that the TMT is now almost certainly going to abandon its Hawaii location and move to the Canary Islands. GMT will be built at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, located at 29 degrees south latitude. By placing TMT in the northern hemisphere at 29 degrees north latitude in the Canary Islands, rather than Mauna Kea’s 19 degrees north latitude, they better compliment GMT in the southern hemisphere.

In other words, this partnership strengthens the case for TMT to abandon Hawaii. Not only will construction begin sooner (as the Hawaiian government has shown no interest in approving the project), the higher latitude as part of this partnership better justifies funding.

And the odds of getting that funding have apparently increased, as the chair of the House appropriations panel that funds the National Science Foundation has just shown himself to be very willing to give telescope projects a lot of money, more in fact than they even request.


Astronomers detect oxygen only 250 million years after Big Bang

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have detected oxygen in a galaxy formed only 250 million years after Big Bang, suggesting that star formation started much sooner than expected.

As we look deeper and deeper, the onset of stellar formation keeps getting pushed back closer and closer to the Big Bang, and always sooner than the theories and computer models predicted.


Europa water plume detected in old Galileo data

Using old Galileo data and new techniques of analysis scientists have uncovered a water plume on Europa that the spacecraft flew through in 1997.

Over the course of 5 minutes, spikes the spacecraft recorded with its magnetic and plasma sensors reflected the alterations that a veil of ejected water, from one or many vents, could cause in a region matching the telescope observations, they report today in Nature Astronomy. This indicates that a region of the moon potentially 1000 kilometers long could host such activity, though it is impossible to say whether this is a single plume or many, like the complex system of fractures and vents seen on Enceladus. Indeed, on its own, this evidence was too weak to tie to erupting water in a 2001 study describing it, the authors add, but it fits well with the Hubble and modeled evidence.

As indicated by the quote above, the result has a lot of uncertainty.


Asteroid that formed in the inner solar system discovered in Kuiper Belt

Astronomers have discovered a carbonaceous asteroid in the distant Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, even though it likely formed in the inner solar system.

The asteroid’s existence serves to confirm models of the solar system’s formation that say that the orbits of gas giants migrate inward and outward during the formation process, and as they do so they can fling material out of the inner solar system. This asteroid is the first evidence of this process.

At the same time, the data here is quite slim. They have only found one such asteroid. It could be that it was flung into the Kuiper Belt by other processes. If the formation model is correct, many more such Kuiper Belt asteroids will be eventually be found.


Astronomers find evidence for thousands of black holes near galaxy center

The uncertainty of science: Using data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, astronomers have found evidence suggesting that thousands of stellar-mass black holes might exist circling Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Essentially, they found a dozen likely black hole candidates in what they think are X-ray binaries system. From this they extrapolate the number of potential stellar-massed black holes at the center of the galaxy. However,

While the authors strongly favor the black hole explanation, they cannot rule out the possibility that up to about half of the observed dozen sources are from a population of millisecond pulsars, i.e., very rapidly rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields.

In other words, this conclusion is very uncertain. Nonetheless, even if half of their candidates are not stellar-mass black holes, the results do suggest that there are a very large number of black holes circling Sagittarius A*. Using this information astronomers will be able to better refine their theories on the formation process for such super-massive black holes.


Pluto is a planet

In an op-ed today, the principal investigator for the New Horizons’ mission as well as his co-author for the history of that mission explained in detail why the definition for planet as imposed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is flawed and unworkable.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced an attempted redefinition of the word “planet” that excluded many objects, including Pluto. We think that decision was flawed, and that a logical and useful definition of planet will include many more worlds.

We find ourselves using the word planet to describe the largest “moons” in the solar system. Moon refers to the fact that they orbit around other worlds which themselves orbit our star, but when we discuss a world like Saturn’s Titan, which is larger than the planet Mercury, and has mountains, dunes and canyons, rivers, lakes and clouds, you will find us — in the literature and at our conferences — calling it a planet. This usage is not a mistake or a throwback. It is increasingly common in our profession and it is accurate.

Most essentially, planetary worlds (including planetary moons) are those large enough to have pulled themselves into a ball by the strength of their own gravity. Below a certain size, the strength of ice and rock is enough to resist rounding by gravity, and so the smallest worlds are lumpy. This is how, even before New Horizons arrives, we know that Ultima Thule is not a planet. Among the few facts we’ve been able to ascertain about this body is that it is tiny (just 17 miles across) and distinctly nonspherical. This gives us a natural, physical criterion to separate planets from all the small bodies orbiting in space — boulders, icy comets or rocky and metallic asteroids, all of which are small and lumpy because their gravity is too weak for self-rounding.

They go on to explain the flawed history of the IAU definition, and how it has simply not been accepted by astronomers and planetary scientists alike. The definition makes no sense, and excludes the thousands of exoplanets discovered orbiting other stars. They also point to a proposed new definition that is simple and admits to reality.

A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters.

Whether or not the stuffed shirts at IAU ever officially endorse this definition, it is the one that human beings are using now, and it will be the one they use into the never-ending future.


The aging data relay spacecraft orbiting Mars

By the 2020s, NASA and other space agencies sending landers and rovers to Mars will be faced with a data-relay crisis, as the orbiters they presently use to provide communications with the Martian surface are aging, and no replacements are presently planned.

The venerable Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft were the first to employ data relay capabilities in the modern era of Mars exploration. They operated as relays for the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions until the arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006.

MGS entered into a safe mode in November 2006 and NASA later declared the mission over in January 2007 after the space agency failed to reestablish contact with the aging orbiter. The 12-year-old MRO and 17-year-old Odyssey have served as the primary data relays for Mars surface missions since.

More important, funding for a dedicated communications satellite called NEMO, planned for launch in 2022, has disappeared.

However, funding for NeMO has been largely phased out in favor of directing limited funds towards the development of the Mars Sample Return mission. Mars Sample Return has the primary objective of fetching samples that scientists plan to collect and cache using the Mars 2020 rover currently under development. The current Planetary Science Decadal Survey has listed the flagship sample return mission as the primary objective for NASA’s Mars program in the 2020s, along with requisite funding. The existing fleet of orbiting spacecraft at Mars, while aging, are in generally good health meaning the postponement of a new orbiter will require careful management of existing orbital assets into the next decade.

One of the reasons there is no funding for NEMO is that NASA has had to steal money from its planetary program to fund the cost overruns on the James Webb Telescope. Though this was never admitted publicly, the cuts that the Obama administration imposed on the planetary program were partly to pay for Webb. Thus, not only has that telescope killed almost all of NASA’s entire astrophysics program, it has damaged the planetary program as well.


Hubble detects helium in exoplanet atmosphere

Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have for the first time detected helium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet.

The team made the detection by analysing the infrared spectrum of the atmosphere of WASP-107b [1]. Previous detections of extended exoplanet atmospheres have been made by studying the spectrum at ultraviolet and optical wavelengths; this detection therefore demonstrates that exoplanet atmospheres can also be studied at longer wavelengths.

…WASP-107b is one of the lowest density planets known: While the planet is about the same size as Jupiter, it has only 12% of Jupiter’s mass. The exoplanet is about 200 light-years from Earth and takes less than six days to orbit its host star.

The amount of helium detected in the atmosphere of WASP-107b is so large that its upper atmosphere must extend tens of thousands of kilometres out into space. This also makes it the first time that an extended atmosphere has been discovered at infrared wavelengths. Since its atmosphere is so extended, the planet is losing a significant amount of its atmospheric gases into space — between ~0.1-4% of its atmosphere’s total mass every billion years

The important aspect of this detection is the use of infrared, which gives astronomers another tool to study exoplanets.


Gaia releases 3D map of galaxy

The science team for the space telescope Gaia, designed to map the positions of billions of stars, have released the probe’s second catalog, producing a 3D map of 1.7 billion stars in the Milky Way

The new data release, which covers the period between 25 July 2014 and 23 May 2016, pins down the positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars, and with a much greater precision. For some of the brightest stars in the survey, the level of precision equates to Earth-bound observers being able to spot a Euro coin lying on the surface of the Moon.

With these accurate measurements it is possible to separate the parallax of stars – an apparent shift on the sky caused by Earth’s yearly orbit around the Sun – from their true movements through the Galaxy. The new catalogue lists the parallax and velocity across the sky, or proper motion, for more than 1.3 billion stars. From the most accurate parallax measurements, about ten per cent of the total, astronomers can directly estimate distances to individual stars.

The catalog provides much more information than this. For example:

As well as positions, the data include brightness information of all surveyed stars and colour measurements of nearly all, plus information on how the brightness and colour of half a million variable stars change over time. It also contains the velocities along the line of sight of a subset of seven million stars, the surface temperatures of about a hundred million and the effect of interstellar dust on 87 million.

Gaia also observes objects in our Solar System: the second data release comprises the positions of more than 14 000 known asteroids, which allows precise determination of their orbits. A much larger asteroid sample will be compiled in Gaia’s future releases.

Further afield, Gaia closed in on the positions of half a million distant quasars, bright galaxies powered by the activity of the supermassive black holes at their cores. These sources are used to define a reference frame for the celestial coordinates of all objects in the Gaia catalogue, something that is routinely done in radio waves but now for the first time is also available at optical wavelengths.

I guarantee that many theories about specific strange stars, such as the plethora of different types of variable stars, are going to change drastically with this new and precise information. At the article they describe just one example relating to white dwarf stars.


How to blow up a star

Link here. The story details the new supercomputer simulation work attempting to model the internal processes inside a dying star that cause it to explode as a supernova.

For more than half a century, physicists have suspected that the heat produced by elusive particles called neutrinos, created in the core of a star, could generate a blast that radiates more energy in a single second than the Sun will in its lifetime. But they have had trouble proving that hypothesis. The detonation process is so complex — incorporating general relativity, fluid dynamics, nuclear and other physics — that computers have struggled to mimic the mechanism in silico. And that poses a problem. “If you can’t reproduce it,” Janka says, “that means you don’t understand it.”

Now, improvements in raw computing power, along with efforts to capture the stellar physics in acute detail, have enabled substantial progress. Janka’s simulation marked the first time that physicists had been able to get a realistic 3D model of the most common type of supernova to explode. Just months later, a competing group based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee repeated the feat with a heavier, more complex star. The field is now buzzing, with more than half a dozen teams currently working on exploding stars in 3D.

They have apparently solved one problem, figuring out how the neutrino blast wave gets enough energy to blast free from the star’s core. A close read of the article indicates that, while progress has been made, they still have many gaps of their understanding.


Diamonds from space!

Researchers have discovered nano-sized diamonds inside a recovered meteorite that suggest a formation process deep within a planet at least the size of Mercury.

The researchers used transmission electron microscopes to determine their composition and morphology, and found that the diamonds contained inclusions (impurities) made of chromite, phosphate and iron-nickel sulfides.

These inclusions are common in diamonds formed underground here on Earth, but this marks the first time they’ve been found in alien rocks. That’s interesting enough on its own, but it has much bigger implications – the team calculated that these diamonds could only have formed under pressure of more than 20 gigapascals. That means they must have been born inside a planet at least as big as Mercury, and possibly up to the size of Mars.

But there’s still more to the story. The fact these diamonds made it to Earth implies that their home planet, whatever it may have been, is no longer with us, since it would take quite a cataclysm to wrench them out of their birthplace deep underground and fling them into space. Instead, the team believes the diamonds came from a planetary embryo.

Not so fast. Though the researchers themselves, in the released paper, assume that the diamonds could only have formed from inside a now destroyed large planet, this leaves out the possibility that the diamonds formed inside one of the existing terrestrial planets, were moved upward toward the surface by later geological process (as happens to diamonds are here on Earth), and then were thrown from the planet by a later nearby impact. This scenario is just as likely.

Nonetheless, this discovery is fascinating. More than anything, it illustrates the inconceivable amount of time that has passed in creating our solar system. Any of these scenarios requires time, time in quantities that no human can really understand or conceptualize.


More delays threaten the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii

The coming dark age: The delaying tactics of the opponents to building the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii has caused the consortium to announce that it now seriously considering moving the telescope to Spain’s Canary Islands.

These have been the most recent delaying tactics:

On Thursday, the Hawaii Senate approved a bill to ban new construction atop Mauna Kea, and included a series of audits and other requirements before the ban could be lifted. But House leaders said they don’t have plans to advance the bill. Democratic House Speaker Scott Saiki told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the “bill is dead on arrival in the House.”

There are also two appeals before the Hawaii Supreme Court. One challenges the sublease and land use permit issued by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources. The other has been brought by a Native Hawaiian man who says use of the land interferes with his right to exercise cultural practices and is thus entitled to a case hearing.

When the telescope gets moved, expect these barbarians in Hawaii to celebrate loudly, claiming their victory as a victory for “native rights.” What they will really be telling us is two things. First, they are against gaining new knowledge and new technology in a manner that does no one any harm. And two, they put racial rights above all, making them the worst sort of bigots.


The search for exoplanets at Alpha Centauri

The search for new exoplanets orbiting the three stars of the Alpha Centauri star system is intensifying, despite significant viewing challenges and solar activity that precludes life around one star.

The system’s two sunlike stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, orbit each other closely while Proxima Centauri, a tempestuous red dwarf, hangs onto the system tenuously in a much more distant orbit. In 2016, astronomers discovered an Earth-mass planet around Proxima Centauri, but the planet, blasted by radiation and fierce stellar winds, seems unlikely to be habitable. Astrobiologists think the other two stars are more likely to host temperate, Earth-like planets.

Maksym Lisogorskyi, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, U.K., tried to find them with an instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) 3.6-meter telescope in Chile. He and his colleagues looked for Doppler shifts in the spectral lines of the stars’ light that would be caused if a planet tugged them back and forth. But Lisogorskyi told the meeting that the stars’ surfaces are turbulent, and prone to flares that also jiggle the spectral lines, masking the subtle signals from any Earth-size planets. “The lines do all kinds of things,” he says. Although Alpha Centauri has been a primary target for the planet-finding instrument since it was inaugurated in 2005, it has seen nothing so far.

Also hampering observations are the current positions of the two stars. As viewed from Earth, they are very close together, making them harder to study individually, Lily Zhao of Yale University told the meeting. More precise observations should become possible as their 80-year orbit carries them farther apart. In the meantime, Zhao and her colleagues have succeeded in ruling out the presence of giant planets around either star, based on a decade’s worth of data from three instruments on different telescopes. “There are no Jupiters in the system, but there may be plenty of Earth-sized planets still to discover,” she said.

I am skeptical of the conclusions of the astrobiologists who think there may be habitable Earth-like planets in orbit around the close binary. Binary formation makes planetary formation difficult, and even if they are there the stars’ orbits would make stable orbits unlikely. Nonetheless, the research is good, as the techniques learned will be applicable elsewhere.


Astronomers find a dozen black holes near center of Milky Way

Astronomers have discovered a dozen smaller black holes orbiting near Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”), the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Charles Hailey from Columbia University in New York and colleagues used archival data from Nasa’s Chandra X-ray telescope to come to their conclusions. They report the discovery of a dozen inactive and low-mass “binary systems”, in which a star orbits an unseen companion – the black hole.

The supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), is surrounded by a halo of gas and dust that provides the perfect breeding ground for the birth of massive stars. These stars live, die and could turn into black holes there. In addition, black holes from outside the halo are believed to fall under the influence of Sgr A* as they lose their energy, causing them to be pulled into its vicinity, where they are held captive by its force. Some of these bind – or “mate” – to passing stars, forming binary systems.

They have extrapolated their data to predict the existence of thousands more of these small black holes near the galaxy’s center.


Hubble finds galaxy with no evidence of dark matter

The uncertainty of science: Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have discovered a nearby galaxy that apparently has little or no evidence of dark matter.

The unique galaxy, called NGC 1052-DF2, contains at most 1/400th the amount of dark matter that astronomers had expected. The galaxy is as large as our Milky Way, but it had escaped attention because it contains only 1/200th the number of stars. Given the object’s large size and faint appearance, astronomers classify NGC 1052-DF2 as an ultra-diffuse galaxy. A 2015 survey of the Coma galaxy cluster showed these large, faint objects to be surprisingly common.

But none of the ultra-diffuse galaxies discovered so far have been found to be lacking in dark matter. So even among this unusual class of galaxy, NGC 1052-DF2 is an oddball.

Van Dokkum and his team spotted the galaxy with the Dragonfly Telephoto Array, a custom-built telescope in New Mexico they designed to find these ghostly galaxies. They then used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to measure the motions of 10 giant groupings of stars called globular clusters in the galaxy. Keck revealed that the globular clusters were moving at relatively low speeds, less than 23,000 miles per hour. Stars and clusters in the outskirts of galaxies containing dark matter move at least three times faster. From those measurements, the team calculated the galaxy’s mass. “If there is any dark matter at all, it’s very little,” van Dokkum explained. “The stars in the galaxy can account for all the mass, and there doesn’t seem to be any room for dark matter.”

The galaxy is unusual in many other ways.

The Hubble images also revealed the galaxy’s unusual appearance. “I spent an hour just staring at the Hubble image,” van Dokkum recalled. “It’s so rare, particularly these days after so many years of Hubble, that you get an image of something and you say, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ This thing is astonishing: a gigantic blob that you can look through. It’s so sparse that you see all of the galaxies behind it. It is literally a see-through galaxy.”

The ghostly galaxy doesn’t have a noticeable central region, or even spiral arms and a disk, typical features of a spiral galaxy. But it doesn’t look like an elliptical galaxy, either. The galaxy also shows no evidence that it houses a central black hole. Based on the colors of its globular clusters, the galaxy is about 10 billion years old. Even the globular clusters are oddballs: they are twice as large as typical stellar groupings seen in other galaxies.

The bottom line here is that we have only circumstantial evidence that dark matter exists, based solely on the fact that in all other measured galaxies, the outer stars rotate much faster than they should. That rotation speed however does not guarantee the existence of dark matter, only that something is causing the fast rotation. And the lack thereof in this galaxy puts a big crimp in the theory that dark matter exists, since the theories that posit its existence almost require it to be present in every galaxy.


The James Webb Telescope: a signpost for identifying fake news sources

The news yesterday that NASA will once again have to delay the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope due to a variety of technical issues and management errors not only exemplified the fundamental failure of the federal government, it also illustrated the routine failures of today’s mainstream press.

First, Webb’s new delay epitomizes the systemic incompetence of Washington. Despite being 13 years behind schedule and costing eight times more than originally planned, NASA and its contractors still couldn’t get things right.

Most of the problems have occurred with the spacecraft half of the project, which was built by Northrop Grumman in California and is undergoing testing there. During the teleconference, NASA officials, including acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, expanded upon technical problems first reported publicly by the agency’s inspector general last month.

These include leaky valves within the spacecraft’s propulsion system and difficulties encountered during deployment tests of the sun shield. Not only did the thin, five-layer sun shield snag during the deployment, but technicians also found seven tears up to 10cm long within the material. NASA and Northrop Grumman have identified fixes for these problems, but their repair has added months of delays to the project, and engineers cannot be sure that more issues will not crop up during further testing.

Such failures, in NASA and in all big federal projects in recent years, are hardly news. Only the willfully blind or those who support wasting tax dollars to distribute pork will deny they exist.

The failures of the federal government however is not the focus of this essay. Instead, the announcement yesterday and the coverage of it by the press provides us a perfect and very obvious signpost for differentiating between the fake news sources that are generally unreliable or too often allow their biases to influence their reporting, and those sources that do a good job.

That signpost is one simple fact: Webb is not a replacement or successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, despite NASA making this false claim for decades. Hubble is an optical telescope. Webb will view the universe in the infrared. These are too entirely different things.

Yet, too many news sources today repeated NASA’s false claim, illustrating how little they know about both telescopes and their design, while revealing their complete inability to do some basic journalistic research. Instead they merely rewrite old press releases, and thus prove clearly by their bad reporting why so many people have so little respect for the modern press.

The worst examples made this false claim right in the headline:
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Webb telescope delayed again to 2020

NASA has announced that it is once again delaying the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, from 2019 to 2020.

The observatory was supposed to fly this year. But last fall, NASA bumped the launch to 2019. NASA announced the latest delay on Tuesday. “We have one shot to get this right before going into space,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator of science. He said some mistakes were made while preparing the telescope, and NASA underestimated the scale of the job. [emphasis mine]

None of this is a surprise. Webb is more pork than science. It was originally budgeted at $1 billion, with a planned launch in 2011. It will now cost more than $9 billion, and be delayed almost a decade. Since the project began in the early 2000s, by the time it launches it will have been in development for almost two decades, which is almost a lifetime career for some people.

And note, the article includes the lie that Webb is “a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.” It is not. Hubble is an optical telescope. Webb will only look in the infrared. These are very different things.


Tabby’s Star dims again

Scientists studying Tabby’s Star have revealed that it suddenly dimmed last week, the most since 2013, and then just as quickly returned almost to normal.

The latest dimming event started with a slow decline and ended with a rapid increase in brightness, Boyajian and her team wrote on their blog. Dust from a backward comet tail and then larger chunks from the broken-up body would explain that uneven pattern.

At this time the evidence clearly points not to alien megastructures but to clouds of fine dust whose structure and origin remain puzzling.


Star’s close approach 70,000 years ago pinned to cometary orbits

Astronomers now think they have pinned the orbits of about 340 comets to another star’s close approach to our solar system 70,000 years ago.

About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids. Astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Cambridge have verified that the movement of some of these objects is still marked by that stellar encounter. At a time when modern humans were beginning to leave Africa and the Neanderthals were living on our planet, Scholz’s star – named after the German astronomer who discovered it – approached less than a light-year from the Sun. Nowadays it is almost 20 light-years away, but 70,000 years ago it entered the Oort cloud, a reservoir of trans-Neptunian objects located at the confines of the solar system.

This discovery was made public in 2015 by a team of astronomers led by Professor Eric Mamajek of the University of Rochester (USA). The details of that stellar flyby, the closest documented so far, were presented in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Now two astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid, the brothers Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, together with the researcher Sverre J. Aarseth of the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), have analyzed for the first time the nearly 340 objects of the solar system with hyperbolic orbits (very open V-shaped, not the typical elliptical), and in doing so they have detected that the trajectory of some of them is influenced by the passage of Scholz´s star.

It is likely that the close approach influenced a lot more objects, many of which might not have yet arrived in the inner solar system. Moreover, their computer models suggest that the star might have come closer to the Sun than 0.6 light years.


Scientists theorize that Oumuamua came from a binary star system

Based on statistics and computer modeling, some scientists believe that the interstellar object Oumuamau likely came from stellar binary system.

For the new study, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Jackson and his co-authors set about testing how efficient binary star systems are at ejecting objects. They also looked at how common these star systems are in the Galaxy. They found that rocky objects like ‘Oumuamua are far more likely to come from binary than single star systems. They were also able to determine that rocky objects are ejected from binary systems in comparable numbers to icy objects.

Their conclusion does make sense, though any good scientist would retain a gigantic sense of skepticism. While it is statistically reasonable to conclude that a majority of interstellar objects should come from binary systems, there is no guarantee that Oumuamua in particular did so. Even if the odds were one in a million, there is always that one, and the universe often seems prone to fooling us.


Kepler to run out of fuel in the coming months

After nine years of success, the Kepler space telescope is running out of fuel, which will force an end to the mission sometime in the next several months.

The Kepler team is planning to collect as much science data as possible in its remaining time and beam it back to Earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters means that we can’t aim the spacecraft for data transfer. We even have plans to take some final calibration data with the last bit of fuel, if the opportunity presents itself.

Without a gas gauge, we have been monitoring the spacecraft for warning signs of low fuel— such as a drop in the fuel tank’s pressure and changes in the performance of the thrusters. But in the end, we only have an estimate – not precise knowledge. Taking these measurements helps us decide how long we can comfortably keep collecting scientific data.

They are doing a dance here. If they run out of fuel while collecting data, that data will be lost. If they stop collecting data too soon, however, to transmit it to Earth, they will not maximize the data obtained.

Meanwhile, the next exoplanet hunter, TESS, is scheduled for launch on April 16 on a Falcon 9 rocket.


Chandra looks back at the Crab Nebula

Link here. It is almost twenty years since the Chandra X-Ray Observatory was launched, and in celebration the science team have released another X-ray image of the Crab Nebula, taken in 2017 in league with an optical image from the Hubble Space Telescope and an infrared image from the Spitzer Space Telescope. They have also provided links to all similar past images, going back to 1999.

Some of the images are actually videos, in 2002 and 2011, showing the Crab’s dynamic nature. You can actually see flares and waves of radiation rippling out from its center.


University of Chicago to cease support of Yerkes in October 2018

The University of Chicago announced today that it will cease all support of the Yerkes Observatory, home of the world’s largest refractive telescope, in October 2018.

The University of Chicago has announced plans to wind down its activities at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., over the next six months and to formally cease on-site operations by Oct. 1, 2018.

The upcoming summer season will therefore be the final season of University activities at Yerkes. The University is announcing the plans well in advance in order to engage with Yerkes staff and nearby communities, including the village of Williams Bay, in considering long-term plans for the property.

The telescope is no longer useful for scientific research, but it is historically important, and as the press release admits, “has continued to make important contributions through its education and outreach programs.” And while I can understand their decision, they sure didn’t leave the staff at Yerkes much time to find new backers. When the National Science Foundation decided it was dropping support for its telescopes at Kitt Peak, it gave them literally several years to round up new support.


Webb faces more delays, cost overruns

A new GAO report released yesterday says that the James Webb Space Telescope faces further delays and cost overruns.

This is par for the course. Webb has become an incredible boondoggle. I hope it eventually gets launched and works, but its gigantic cost, $8 to $9 billion (compared to an original $1 billion budget), and delayed schedule suggests that this was not the right way for NASA or the astronomical community to build its space telescopes. Further, this quote from the story suggests something fundamentally wrong:

The GAO report also noted that, during the sunshield deployment exercises, Northrop discovered several tears in the material which it attributed to “workmanship error.” Those tears can be repaired but may consume more schedule reserve.

Is this thing really going to work? I really hope so, but have been increasingly doubtful as the delays and problems have piled up.

Meanwhile, NASA and the astronomical community is still pushing to get funding for its next “Webb,” the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). This project, similar in scope as Webb, is hardly off the ground and already has budget overrun issues. The Trump administration recommended cancelling in its budget proposal earlier this month, but I would be surprised if that recommendation goes through, considering the pork this new project represents.

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