Tag Archives: astronomy

New sky survey uncovers hundreds of thousands of previously unknown galaxies

Galaxies without end: A new radio telescope sky survey has discovered hundreds of thousands of previously unknown galaxies.

This discovery is part of a major release of papers outlining a number of discoveries made by this new sky survey.

I could of course also subheaded this post “The uncertainty of science.” Wanna bet that even with this discovery we have only seen the tip of the iceberg of the number of galaxies out there?

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A very old white dwarf star with rings?

The uncertainty of science: A citizen scientist has discovered a very old white dwarf star that apparently has one or more dust rings it should not have.

The star, LSPM J0207+3331 or J0207 for short, is forcing researchers to reconsider models of planetary systems and could help us learn about the distant future of our solar system. “This white dwarf is so old that whatever process is feeding material into its rings must operate on billion-year timescales,” said John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “Most of the models scientists have created to explain rings around white dwarfs only work well up to around 100 million years, so this star is really challenging our assumptions of how planetary systems evolve.”

In other words, we don’t really yet understand the processes that form solar systems or even stars. This isn’t because we can’t figure this out, but because we don’t yet have enough information on hand. What we do know tells us that stars and solar systems both form from accretion disks. The information also gives us a general idea of the pattern of formation, but not much more.

For example, one question I have asked a number of astronomers is: Why are some stars gigantic monsters and others dwarfs? Based on present theories of stellar evolution, it seems to me that all stars should be the same size, as accretion is thought to end when the star reaches a heavy enough mass to ignite its nuclear engine. Yet this is not what we find. Why? I’ve never gotten a good answer.

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IAU approves China’s proposed names for Chang’e-4 landing site

That was fast! The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has approved all of the proposed names that China submitted for the features at or near Chang’e-4 landing site.

The IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature has approved the name Statio Tianhe for the landing site where the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e-4 touched down on 3 January this year, in the first-ever landing on the far side of the Moon. The name Tianhe originates from the ancient Chinese name for the Milky Way, which was the sky river that separated Niulang and Zhinyu in the folk tale “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”.

Four other names for features near the landing site have also been approved. In keeping with the theme of the above-mentioned folk tale, three small craters that form a triangle around the landing site have been named Zhinyu, Hegu, and Tianjin, which correspond to characters in the tale. They are also names of ancient Chinese constellations from the time of the Han dynasty. The fifth approved name is Mons Tai, assigned to the central peak of the crater Von Kármán, in which the landing occurred. Mons Tai is named for Mount Tai, a mountain in Shandong, China, and is about 46 km to the northwest of the Chang’e-4 landing site.

Compare this fast action with the IAU’s approval process for the names the New Horizons team picked for both Pluto and Ultima Thule. It took the IAU more than two years to approve the Pluto names, and almost three years to approve the Charon names. It is now almost two months after New Horizons’ fly-by of Ultima Thule, and the IAU has not yet approved the team’s picks for that body.

Yet it is able to get China’s picks approved in less than a month? Though it is obviously possible that there is a simple and innocent explanation for the differences here, I think this illustrates well the biases of the IAU. Its membership does not like the United States, and works to stymie our achievements if it can. This factor played a part in the Pluto/planet fiasco. It played a part in its decision to rename Hubble’s Law. And according to my sources, it was part of the background negotiations in the naming of some lunar craters last year to honor the Apollo 8 astronauts.

The bottom line remains: The IAU has continually tried to expand its naming authority, when all it was originally asked to do was to coordinate the naming of distant astronomical objects. Now it claims it has the right to approve the naming of every boulder and rock anywhere in the universe. At some point the actual explorers are going to have to tell this organization to go jump in a lake.

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Asteroid to eclipse Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, on February 18

On February 18, 2019 a four-mile wide asteroid is going to pass in front of Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, and block its light for just under two seconds.

Can a 7-kilometer-wide asteroid make Sirius disappear? You bet it can. That just might happen on Monday night, February 18th. That evening around 10:30 p.m. MST (5:30 UT February 19th), there’s a good probability that the 17th-magnitude 4388 Jürgenstock will occult the sky’s brightest star for up to 1.8 seconds. Visibility stretches along a narrow path from the southern tip of Baja California to the Las Cruces–El Paso region, up through the Great Plains, and north to the Winnipeg area. While only a limited number of people may see this event, anytime Sirius disappears, however briefly, it’s news!

In the U.S. the narrow path cuts through New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. If you live in or near this path, this is definitely worth watching, especially since it will be happening at a convenient hour in the evening.

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Recent Cuba meteorite estimated to have weighed about 360 tons

Using its imaged track from several sources, scientists have now estimated the size and weight of the recent spectacular fireball over Cuba as being several meters across and weighing about 360 tons.

After reconstructing the trajectory in the atmosphere, the Colombian astronomers “played back” the impact and found that the culprit, a rock with an estimated size of several meters and a weight of about 360 tons, came from an eccentric orbit around the Sun with an average distance to our star of 1.3 astronomical units (1 astronomical-unit = 150 million km). Before impacting the Earth, the rock completed a turn around the Sun every 1.32 years. All that came to an end on February 1, 2019 when both, the rock and the Earth, found themselves at the same point in space, at the same time. The worse part was for the rock!

The article spends most of its time selling a computer model the scientists have developed that they claim can predict the approach trajectory of meteorites, something I find quite unconvincing. However, the result above is important for different reasons. Routinely astronomers today discover new small asteroids just days before they zoom harmlessly past the Earth. Each time one of these new near Earth asteroids is found, the press automatically goes into “Chicken Little mode,” suggesting that should this object have hit the Earth it would have caused massive damage.

Most of these newly discovered asteroids are about the same size as the Cuba meteorite, if not smaller. Thus, this meteorite gives us a clear idea of how completely harmless these other near Earth asteroids are. In fact, this impact suggests to me that in most cases an asteroid would have to be about ten times larger to pose a significant threat.

Keep this number — 360 tons — in mind the next time another near Earth asteroid is discovered.

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Rare asteroid orbiting near Venus discovered

The Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), a new sky survey telescope whose main goal is to find Near Earth asteroids, has discovered a rare asteroid orbiting near Venus.

A state-of-the-art sky-surveying camera, the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, detected the asteroid on January 4, 2019. Designated 2019 AQ3, the object has the shortest “year” of any recorded asteroid, with an orbital period of just 165 days. It also appears to be an unusually big asteroidal specimen. “We have found an extraordinary object whose orbit barely strays beyond Venus’ orbit—that’s a big deal,” said Quanzhi Ye, a postdoctoral scholar at IPAC, a data and science center for astronomy at Caltech. Ye called 2019 AQ3 a “very rare species,” further noting that “there might be many more undiscovered asteroids out there like it.”

…The orbit, as it turns out, is angled vertically, taking 2019 AQ3 above and below the plane where the planets run their laps around the sun. Over its short year, 2019 AQ3 plunges inside of Mercury, then swings back up just outside of Venus’ orbit.

The telescope, in operation since March 2018, and so far found

nearly 60 new near-Earth asteroids. Two of these were spotted in July 2018 mere hours before they gave Earth quite a close shave. Designated 2018 NW and 2018 NX, the duo of bus-sized asteroids whipped past at a distance of about 70,000 miles, or only a third of the way to the moon. Fortunately, the newfound 2019 AQ3 poses no threat; the closest it ever comes to Earth is about 22 million miles.

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New Hubble images of Uranus and Neptune

Uranus (top) and Neptune

The Hubble Space Telescope’s new annual images of Uranus (top) and Neptune (bottom) has revealed new atmospheric features for both, a giant north pole cloud cap on Uranus and a new dark storm developing on Neptune.

For Neptune:

The new Hubble view of Neptune shows the dark storm, seen at top center. Appearing during the planet’s southern summer, the feature is the fourth and latest mysterious dark vortex captured by Hubble since 1993. Two other dark storms were discovered by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989 as it flew by the remote planet. Since then, only Hubble has had the sensitivity in blue light to track these elusive features, which have appeared and faded quickly. A study led by University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate student Andrew Hsu estimated that the dark spots appear every four to six years at different latitudes and disappear after about two years.

Hubble uncovered the latest storm in September 2018 in Neptune’s northern hemisphere. The feature is roughly 6,800 miles across.

For Uranus:

The snapshot of Uranus, like the image of Neptune, reveals a dominant feature: a vast bright cloud cap across the north pole.

Scientists believe this feature is a result of Uranus’ unique rotation. Unlike every other planet in the solar system, Uranus is tipped over almost onto its side. Because of this extreme tilt, during the planet’s summer the Sun shines almost directly onto the north pole and never sets. Uranus is now approaching the middle of its summer season, and the polar-cap region is becoming more prominent. This polar hood may have formed by seasonal changes in atmospheric flow.

The images are part of an annual program that monitors both planets with images every year when the Earth is best placed to view them. This allows scientists to track atmospheric changes over time.

The sharpness of both images matches that of previous Hubble images, so these photographs do not show any decline in the telescope’s image capability. However, when they lose that next gyroscope and shift to one gyroscope mode, I believe it will be very difficult to get images even this sharp of the outer planets. In fact, I suspect this monitoring program will likely have to end, or will be badly crippled.

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The Milky Way is warped?

The uncertainty of science: Distance data of more than 1,300 Cepheid variable stars gathered by the Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE) space telescope now suggests to astronomers that the disk of the Milky Way galaxy is warped.

Trying to determine the real shape of our galaxy is like standing in a Sydney garden and trying to determine the shape of Australia. But, for the past 50 years there have been indications that the hydrogen clouds in the Milky Way are warped. The new map shows that the warped Milky Way disc also contains young stars. It confirms that the warped spiral pattern is caused by torque from the spinning of the Milky Way’s massive inner disc of stars.

This research is good and helpful in getting us closer to a real picture of our Milky Way galaxy. However, need I say that this result carries with it a great deal of uncertainty? Or should I let my kind readers outline for me the many aspects of this research that leave me with doubts?

I think I want to do the latter. Where do you think the uncertainties are in this research? What assumptions are they making? Where is their data sparse or weak? Feel free to list them in the comments.

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China’s unsupervised radio antenna in Argentina

A Chinese invasion? A Chinese radio antenna in Argentina, initially proposed as a communications facility for use with China’s space program, operates without any supervision by the Argentinian government and appears to have military links.

Though U.S. government officials are pushing the idea that this facility is being used by China to eavesdrop on foreign satellites, and though China’s space program is without doubt a major arm of its military, I doubt the radio antenna is being put to military use. As the story notes

Tony Beasley, director of the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, said the station could, in theory, “listen” to other governments’ satellites, potentially picking up sensitive data. But that kind of listening could be done with far less sophisticated equipment. “Anyone can do that. I can do that with a dish in my back yard, basically,” Beasley said. “I don’t know that there’s anything particularly sinister or troubling about any part of China’s space radio network in Argentina.”

It was installed to support China’s effort to send spacecraft to the Moon and Mars, and that is likely its main purpose. China does not wish to be dependent on the U.S.’s Deep Space Network for such interplanetary communications. This facility helps make that independence possible.

At the same time, the fact that China has been allowed to establish a remote facility in another country and operate it with no oversight is definitely an issue of concern. Essentially, China has obtained control over a piece of Argentinian territory, and unless the Argentine government takes action, China can do whatever it wants there. While the antenna itself might not be an issue, the facility itself is.

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The unfinished search for the Hubble constant

The uncertainty of science: Scientists continue to struggle in their still unfinished search for determining the precise expansion rate for the universe, dubbed the Hubble constant in honor of Edwin Hubble, who discovered that expansion.

The problem is, the values obtained from [two different] methods do not agree—a discrepancy cosmologists call “tension.” Calculations from redshift place the figure at about 73 (in units of kilometers per second per megaparsec); the CMB estimates are closer to 68. Most researchers first thought this divergence could be due to errors in measurements (known among astrophysicists as “systematics”). But despite years of investigation, scientists can find no source of error large enough to explain the gap.

I am especially amused by these numbers. Back in 1995 NASA had a big touted press conference to announce that new data from the Hubble Space Telescope had finally determined the exact number for the Hubble constant, 80 (using the standard above). The press went hog wild over this now “certain” conclusion, even though other astronomers disputed it, and offered lower numbers ranging from 30 to 65. Astronomer Allan Sandage of the Carnegie Observatories was especially critical of NASA’s certainty, and was dully ignored by most of the press.

In writing my own article about this result, I was especially struck during my phone interview with Wendy Friedman, the lead scientist for Hubble’s results, by her own certainty. When I noted that her data was very slim, the measurements of only a few stars from one galaxy, she poo-pooed this point. Her result had settled the question!

I didn’t buy her certainty then, and in my article, for The Sciences and entitled most appropriately “The Hubble Inconstant”, made it a point to note Sandage’s doubts. In the end it turns out that Sandage’s proposed number then of between 53 and 65 was a better prediction.

Still, the science for the final number remains unsettled, with two methods coming up with numbers that are a little less than a ten percent different, and no clear explanation for that difference. Isn’t science wonderful?

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Moon hit by small meteorite during eclipse

During the lunar eclipse two days ago on January 20, 2018 amateur astronomers were able to record the impact of a small meteorite.

The MIDAS survey is a Moon-watching that scours video of its surface in the hopes of detecting the tiny flashes associated with meteorite impacts. In this case, MIDAS scored a home run, and it was the first time the system was able to spot an impact during a total lunar eclipse.

“In total I spent almost two days without sleeping, including the monitoring time during the eclipse,” [Jose] Madiedo explained to Gizmodo. “I was exhausted when the eclipse ended—but when the automatic detection software notified me of a bright flash, I jumped out of my chair. It was a very exciting moment because I knew such a thing had never been recorded before.”

The meteorite itself wasn’t terribly large, and is estimated to have only been around 22 pounds.

I have embedded the video of the impact below the fold. It is very short, and the flash is not very impressive, but it still is quite cool.
» Read more

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Is the pole of the Milky Way’s central black hole pointing directly at us?

The uncertainty of science: New data obtained using a constellation of Earth-based telescopes, working as a unit, strongly suggests that the pole of the Milky Way7s supermassive central black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), is pointing directly at us.

The high quality of the unscattered image has allowed the team to constrain theoretical models for the gas around Sgr A*. The bulk of the radio emission is coming from a mere 300 milllionth of a degree, and the source has a symmetrical morphology. “This may indicate that the radio emission is produced in a disk of infalling gas rather than by a radio jet,” explains Sara Issaoun, graduate student at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, who leads the work and has tested several computer models against the data. “However, that would make Sgr A* an exception compared to other radio emitting black holes. The alternative could be that the radio jet is pointing almost at us”.

The German astronomer Heino Falcke, Professor of Radio Astronomy at Radboud University and PhD supervisor of Issaoun, calls this statement very unusual, but he also no longer rules it out. Last year, Falcke would have considered this a contrived model, but recently the GRAVITY team came to a similar conclusion using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer of optical telescopes and an independent technique. “Maybe this is true after all”, concludes Falcke, “and we are looking at this beast from a very special vantage point.”

If this is true, it might explain why Sgr A* is generally observed to be one of the quietest central supermassive black holes known. Compared to many others, its flux of emissions is far less.

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Democratic House threatens Webb cancellation

The House, now controlled by the Democratic Party, has threatened cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope should that project, already overbudget by $8 billion and 9 years behind schedule, fail to meet its present budget limits.

[The House budget] bill includes the full $304.6 million requested for JWST in 2019, but the report accompanying the bill offered harsh language, and a warning, regarding the space telescope given the cost overruns and schedule delays announced last year.

“There is profound disappointment with both NASA and its contractors regarding mismanagement, complete lack of careful oversight, and overall poor basic workmanship on JWST,” the report states. “NASA and its commercial partners seem to believe that congressional funding for this project and other development efforts is an entitlement, unaffected by failures to stay on schedule or within budget.”

The bill does increase the cost cap for JWST by about $800 million, to a little more than $8.8 billion, to address the latest overruns. “NASA should strictly adhere to this cap or, under this agreement, JWST will have to find cost savings or cancel the mission,” the report states.

I really don’t take this Congressional threat seriously. Our Congress is universally known in Washington as an easy mark for big money. The technique is called a buy-in, where you initially lowball the budget of your project, get it started, and then when it goes overbudget, Congress routinely shovels out the money to continue. Webb is a classic and maybe the worst example of this, but this game has been going on since the 1960s, with no sense that the Congresses of the last half century have had any problem with it.

And I especially don’t take it seriously from the Democrats who, even more than the Republicans, like to shovel money out.

The bankrupt unwillingness of both parties to care for the interest of the country for the past few decades in this matter explains why we have federal debt exceeding $20 trillion.

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Astronomers begin their 2020 decadal survey

The astronomy community has begun work on their 2020 decadal survey, the report they issue at the start of every decade since the early 1960s outlining their space priorities for the upcoming ten years.

While the first four decadal surveys were very successful, leading to the surge in space telescopes in the 1990s, the last two surveys in 2000 and 2010 have been failures, with the former proposing the James Webb Space Telescope and the latter the Wide Field Infared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), both of which have not launched, are behind schedule, and significantly over-budget.

The new survey appears focused on addressing this.

The 2020 decadal survey will develop detailed cost estimates for each project, as well as guidance for what managers can do if money gets tight. “We have to look at the budget reality while also doing things that are visionary,” says Fiona Harrison, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and co-chair of the effort.

Unfortunately, it is also going to focus on leftist identity politics.

Responding to problems of racism and harassment in science, the survey will also assess the state of astronomy as a profession and make recommendations for how it can improve. “We’re going to go there,” says the other co-chair, Robert Kennicutt, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson and Texas A&M University in College Station.

I do not have high hopes for this decadal survey, or for space science in the 2020s. The space astronomy community chose badly in the past twenty years, and it is likely going to take another decade for it to recover. For example, WFIRST appears to be going forward, and it also appears that it will be the same financial black hole that Webb was, eating up the entire space astrophysics budget at NASA for years.

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Fix pinpointed for Hubble main camera

Engineers have identified the issue that put the main camera of the Hubble Space Telescope into safe mode last week, and expect to have the camera back in operation in two or three days.

Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) took itself offline last week as a safety precaution, after onboard software noticed anomalous voltage readings within the instrument. But Hubble team members have now determined that voltage levels actually remained within the normal range, ascribing the glitch to a telemetry issue rather than a power-supply problem.

The mission team reset the relevant telemetry circuits, gathered some more engineering data and then brought the WFC3 back to an operational state. “All values were normal. Additional calibration and tests will be run over the next 48 to 72 hours to ensure that the instrument is operating properly,” NASA officials wrote in a Hubble update Tuesday (Jan. 15).

None of this changes the reality that it is almost a decade since the last shuttle repair mission, and Hubble is facing a long slow decline leading to its eventual loss, with no replacement planned by anyone.

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Hubble’s main camera in safe mode

The coming dark age: The Wide Field Camera on the Hubble Space Telescope has experienced “an anomaly” that has forced its shut down.

The announcement is a mere one paragraph long, and provides no further information.

This camera was installed on the space telescope during the last shuttle mission in 2009. It is now almost a decade since that mission, which was expected to extend Hubble’s life for at least five years. It is therefore not surprising that things are beginning to fail. In October they had a serious gyroscope problem when a gyroscope failed and they had problems getting their last back-up gyroscope to work. They got it working, but this has left us with a telescope with no gyroscope backups. With the next failure they will have to shift to one gyroscope mode, meaning sharp images will no longer be possible. Now the main camera has shut down.

Unfortunately, it appears that we are reaching the end of Hubble’s life span. The sad thing is that this shouldn’t be necessary. It can be repaired, but this would require a robot mission, something that would have been very difficult a decade ago but is quite doable at a reasonable cost today. No such mission is being considered however.

Even worse, the bad planning that is routine for our modern intellectual class has left us with no replacement, for the foreseeable future. In the late 1990s the astronomy community chose this path, deciding to replace Hubble with an infrared space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. They and NASA also decided to push the limits of engineering with Webb, resulting in a project that is about a decade behind schedule with a budget that has ballooned from $1 billion to $9 billion. Meanwhile, there has been no money for any other major space telescopes. And the one the astronomy community proposed in 2011, WFIRST, is already over budget and behind schedule, in its design phase.

The astronomy community has also decided in the past two decades that it could replace Hubble with giant ground-based telescopes, a decision that has so far proven to be problematic. Though adaptive optics can eliminate some of the fuzziness caused by the atmosphere, it limits observations to very narrow fields of view, meaning it cannot obtain large mosaics of big objects, such as this Hubble release earlier this week of an image of the nearby Triangulum Galaxy. Moreover, almost all of the giant ground-based telescopes built so far have struggled with many engineering issues.

In terms of astronomy, we are thus about to go blind, returning to the days prior to the space age when our view of the heavens was fuzzy and out of focus.

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TESS spots first exoplanets plus supernovae and more

The Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS) has successful spotted its first exoplanets.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found three confirmed exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, in its first three months of observations.

The mission’s sensitive cameras also captured 100 short-lived changes — most of them likely stellar outbursts — in the same region of the sky. They include six supernova explosions whose brightening light was recorded by TESS even before the outbursts were discovered by ground-based telescopes.

These discoveries confirm that the spacecraft is operating exactly as designed. Now comes the herculean task of analyzing the gigantic amount of data it is pouring down to see what is hidden there.

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First faint image of Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule, first image

In anticipation of receiving data from the fly-by just past midnight last night, the New Horizons team has released the image above, taken 24 hours earlier.

Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima’s shape. The original images have a pixel size of 6 miles (10 kilometers), not much smaller than Ultima’s estimated size of 20 miles (30 kilometers), so Ultima is only about 3 pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). This shape roughly matches the outline of Ultima’s shadow that was seen in observations of the object passing in front of a star made from Argentina in 2017 and Senegal in 2018.

This object is definitely strangely shaped.

New Horizons is traveling fast, which is why we won’t get good images until practically the instant the fly-by happens. And the first downloads from that fly-by are due to arrive within the next two hours. Keep your fingers crossed that the spacecraft operated as programmed and captured Ultima Thule in all its weird glory.

One point about the sad state of journalism these days. Numerous media publications posted stories last night celebrating that fly-by, as if they knew it was a success. This is bunk. We won’t know what happened until this morning. To imply we do is the hallmark of fake news.

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Why the Drake equation is overrated

The uncertainty of science: An astrophysicist explains why the Drake equation is useless for predicting the number of alien species in the universe.

While the Drake equation may have spurred the early scientific discussion of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, it doesn’t have much value beyond that. We can’t use to it further our understanding, and we can’t use it to properly guide our thinking. The huge uncertainties in the parameters, the unknown ways those uncertainties mix, and the absolute lack of any guidance in even choosing those parameters robs it of any predictive power. Prediction is at the heart of science. Prediction is what makes an idea useful. And if an idea isn’t useful, why keep it around?

I just wish this same logic was applied to all climate models. They are as useless. Their own huge uncertainties have made them utterly unable to predict anything, for decades. Yet, despite this ongoing failure, vast amounts of research money continues to be poured into the cottage industry that produces them. Worse, too many people in both the intellectual and journalist communities take them far too seriously.

It is a tragedy that is hurting science badly.

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Nancy Roman passes away at 93

R.I.P. Nancy Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer, died on Christmas at the age of 93.

Her name is largely forgotten, but her support for building the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1960s and the 1970s was critical in getting it done. As important, her support for all in-space astronomy in these early years eventually made it possible. During her term NASA built and launched the first space telescopes. Some were duds. Some were incredible successes. Regardless, her leadership proved that astronomy in space made sense, leading to the achievements that have followed in the half century that has followed.

God speed, Nancy Roman.

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New asteroid radar images

near-Earth asteroid 2003 SD220

Cool radar images! The set of radar images above of near-Earth asteroid 2003 SD220 were created by combining radar data from three different radar telescopes on Earth, Arecibo in Puerto Rico, Green Bank in West Virginia, and Goldstone in California. As the press release notes:

The asteroid will fly safely past Earth on Saturday, Dec. 22, at a distance of about 1.8 million miles (2.9 million kilometers). This will be the asteroid’s closest approach in more than 400 years and the closest until 2070, when the asteroid will safely approach Earth slightly closer.

The radar images reveal an asteroid with a length of at least one mile (1.6 kilometers) and a shape similar to that of the exposed portion of a hippopotamus wading in a river.

The images have a resolution of 12 feet per pixel, so a close look should be able to reveal any large boulders, should they exist. Instead, I see a soft surface that to me resembles the surface of a sand dune, floating unattached to anything in space.

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Saturn’s rings are dying

Using new ground-based observations, scientists now predict that Saturn’s rings are dying at the fastest predicted rate, and will disappear within 300 million years, at the most.

Dr Tom Stallard, Associate Professor in Planetary Astronomy at the University of Leicester and Dr James O’Donoghue, who studied for his PhD at the University of Leicester, have found that Saturn’s rings are dying at the maximum rate estimated from Voyager 1 and 2 observations made decades ago.

The rings of ice are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as particles of ice under the influence of Saturn’s magnetic field. Dr O’Donoghue, who now works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland said: “We estimate that this ‘ring rain’ drains the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn’s rings in half an hour. The entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years.”

Dr O’Donoghue believes that the rings could even disappear quicker than this. “Add to this the Cassini-spacecraft detected ring-material falling into Saturn’s equator, and the rings have less than 100 million years to live.”

Over the decades I have read numerous papers by scientists saying that rings this bright and large must be a relatively short-lived event, and that we are lucky to have seen them. This research only reinforces this conclusion.

At the same time, we do not yet know the frequency or the cause of the events that give rise such bright rings. It could be that such rings are short-lived, but happen frequently enough that it is still not rare to see them in any solar system. And we won’t know this until we get a more complete census of many solar systems, seen up-close.

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Astronomers discover most distant solar system object so far

Worlds without end: Astronomers have discovered a dwarf planet about 300 miles in diameter orbiting the Sun at a distance of 120 astronomical units, making it the most distant solar system object discovered so far.

“2018 VG18 is much more distant and slower moving than any other observed Solar System object, so it will take a few years to fully determine its orbit,” said Sheppard. “But it was found in a similar location on the sky to the other known extreme Solar System objects, suggesting it might have the same type of orbit that most of them do. The orbital similarities shown by many of the known small, distant Solar System bodies was the catalyst for our original assertion that there is a distant, massive planet at several hundred AU shepherding these smaller objects.”

“All that we currently know about 2018 VG18 is its extreme distance from the Sun, its approximate diameter, and its color,” added Tholen “Because 2018 VG18 is so distant, it orbits very slowly, likely taking more than 1,000 years to take one trip around the Sun.”

I guarantee there are more of these discoveries to come. Many more.

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R.I.P. Riccardo Giacconi

The astronomy community is mourning the passing of Riccardo Giacconi, a pioneer in space X-ray astronomy as well as the first director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble.

What made him an especially interesting man is that he initially strongly opposed Hubble, preferring the money be spent on X-ray space telescopes. When, during the writing of The Universe in a Mirror, I asked him what prompted his change of opinion that made him head of Hubble, he explained that he felt he “wasn’t being used.” The money for X-ray astronomy just wasn’t there, and rather than chase rainbows he decided to hitch his wagon to something that was certain to produce new science.

The irony is that it was Hubble’s success that probably helped generate the funding for later X-ray space telescopes, such as Chandra.,

Giacconi was a unique and brilliant man. His early X-ray instruments were built by a private commercial company he ran, not a university or NASA. In a sense he was following the classic and older American model here that was abandoned in the 1970s, and is only now beginning to see a resurgence.

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The cameras that saved Hubble

Link here. It is the 25th anniversary this week of the space shuttle mission that installed the two cameras that fixed the mirror issue on the Hubble Space Telescope, and the press release at the link provides a nice short overview of that mission, and what was involved to make it happen.

Of course, for a much more detailed look at this story, you could also buy and read A Universe in a Mirror. There are a lot of very fascinating stories that no single press release can possibly mention that I described with glee in writing this book.

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Four more gravitational wave detections

The uncertainty of science: The scientists running the LIGO gravitational wave detector have announced the detection of four more gravitational waves, bringing to eleven the total number so far observed.

During the first observing run O1, from September 12, 2015 to January 19, 2016, gravitational waves from three BBH mergers were detected. The second observing run, which lasted from November 30, 2016, to August 25, 2017, yielded a binary neutron star merger and seven additional binary black hole mergers, including the four new gravitational wave events being reported now. The new events are known as GW170729, GW170809, GW170818 and GW170823 based on the dates on which they were detected. With the detection of four additional BBH mergers the scientists learn more about the population of these binary systems in the universe and about the event rate for these types of coalescences.

The observed BBHs span a wide range of component masses, from 7.6 to 50.6 solar masses. The new event GW170729 is the most massive and distant gravitational-wave source ever observed. In this coalescence, which happened roughly 5 billion years ago, an equivalent energy of almost five solar masses was converted into gravitational radiation.

In two BBHs (GW151226 and GW170729) it is very likely that at least one of the merging black holes is spinning. One of the new events, GW170818, detected by the LIGO and Virgo observatories, was very precisely pinpointed in the sky. It is the best localized BBH to date: its position has been identified with a precision of 39 square degrees (195 times the apparent size of the full moon) in the northern celestial hemisphere. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted quote above illustrates the amount of uncertainty here. Though these appear to be gravitational waves, and have been confirmed in multiple ways, the data is very coarse, providing only a limited amount of basic information about each event. This limited information is still very valuable, and certainly advances our understanding of black holes and their formation, but it is important to recognize the limitations of that data.

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Astronomers get best and earliest view of supernovae ever

Using ground-based telescopes as well as the space telescope Kepler astronomers have obtained their best and earliest view of a Type Ia supernova.

The supernova, named SN 2018oh, was brighter than expected over the first few days. The increased brightness is an indication that it slammed into a nearby companion star. This adds to the growing body of evidence that some, but not all, of these thermonuclear supernovae have a large companion star that triggers the explosion.

Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO), based in Goleta, California, is a global network of 21 robotic telescopes that obtained some of the best data characterizing the supernova in support of the NASA mission. Wenxiong Li, the lead author of one of three papers published today on the finding, was based at LCO when much of the research was underway. Five other LCO astronomers, who are affiliated with the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), also contributed to two of the papers.

Understanding the origins of Type Ia supernovae is critical because they are used as standard candles to map out distances in cosmology. They were used to discover Dark Energy, the mysterious force causing the universe to accelerate in its expansion. Astronomers have long known that a supernova is the explosion of a dense white dwarf star (A white dwarf has the mass of the sun, but only the radius of the Earth; one teaspoon of a white dwarf would weigh roughly 23000 pounds) What triggers the explosion is less well understood. One theory holds that the explosions are the merger of two white dwarf stars. Another is that the second star is not a white dwarf at all, but a normal-sized or even giant star that loses only some of its matter to the white dwarf to initiate the explosion. In this theory, the explosion then smashes into the surviving second star, causing the supernova to be exceedingly bright in its early hours.

Finding that Type Ia supernovae can be brighter than previously believed throws a wrench into the results that discovered dark energy, since those results made assumptions about the brightness and thus the distance of those supernovae. If the brightness of these supernovae are not as reliable as expected, they are also less of a standard candle for estimating distance.

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Quasars that shut off

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have discovered a class of quasars that suddenly turn off, something that no theory had predicted possible.

LaMassa, an astronomer now at the Space Telescope Science Institute, was mystified. Until that moment in 2014, she, like so many others, had expected quasars to be relatively stagnant. “Then you see these drastic changes within a human lifetime, and it’s pretty cool,” she said.

Confusion turned into excitement, and a hunt began to find more of these oddities. Although less luminous examples had already been seen, astronomers wanted to know if changes as dramatic as the one LaMassa discovered were common. It was no straightforward task, given that surveys tend not to go back and look at objects they have previously observed. But astronomers searched through archived data and discovered 50 to 100 more of what became known as “changing-look quasars.” Some of these have dimmed substantially more than LaMassa’s first example. Others have transitioned in the space of a month or two. And others, after disappearing, have reappeared again.

“It’s clear that the reason we weren’t finding these objects before is that we weren’t looking for them,” said Eric Morganson, an astronomer at the University of Illinois.

The article does a fine job of explaining the whole problem, including outlining the theories now being posited to explain these events. Bottom line: the universe is always more complicated that expected by initial observations.

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Another star found that dims strangely like Tabby’s Star

Astronomers have found a second star that dims in an inexplicable manner, like Tabby’s Star.

Known as VVV-WIT-07, the star appears to be much older and redder than our sun, although the amount of interstellar dust between our solar system and the star’s home closer to the galactic center makes exact classification and distance measurements very difficult. What is certain is that in the summer of 2012, the object’s brightness faded slightly for 11 days, then plummeted over the following 48 days, suggesting that something blocked more than three quarters of the star’s light streaming toward Earth. But what could that “something” be?

According to Eric Mamajek, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester unaffiliated with the VVV survey, such a profound degree of dimming suggests that a staggeringly large object or group of objects is blocking the light. “It’s got to be over a million kilometers wide, and very dense to be able to block that much starlight,” he says. Mamajek should know: He led the team that discovered J1407, another strange star periodically eclipsed by a planet-sized object thought to boast a massive ring system some 200 times broader than that of Saturn. In this latest case, he says, the strange signals from VVV-WIT-07 could arise from clumps or clouds of material passing between Earth and the star, though he cautioned that the data were preliminary and more observations are required.

Tabetha Boyajian agrees. Boyajian, an astronomer at Louisiana State University, was the lead author for the 2015 paper announcing the strange dimming of KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby’s Star, an unusual object first spotted by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. VVV-WIT-07 would have to harbor “a very peculiar kind of dust cloud to make these kinds of dips,” Boyajian says. Boyajian’s study helped spark a surge of public interest in Tabby’s Star because the star’s unusual dimming could be seen as evidence of an alien civilization building an artificial structure that soaked up the star’s light. More conventional explanations include a swarm of comets or fragments from a shattered planet, both of which would create significant clouds of dust and debris that could also occlude the star’s light. But, so far, no simple single explanation fits the complexities of the dimming seen around the star; researchers remain stymied in their attempts to understand the true nature of the strange dimming of Tabby’s Star.

As is usually the case in these cases, the explanation will not be aliens. That it could be, however, is what makes it so intriguing.

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New Wolf-Rayet star discovered 8,000 light years away

Astronomers have discovered a Wolf-Rayet star — the kind of star thought to eventually cause major explosions — 8,000 light years away.

The binary star system, containing a pair of massive ‘Wolf-Rayet’ stars, has been discovered by an international team of researchers, including Professor Paul Crowther from the University of Sheffield, and published in Nature Astronomy.

Wolf-Rayet stars are amongst the hottest stars in the Universe, blast out powerful winds of hot gas, and represent the last stage in the evolution of the most massive stars prior to exploding as a supernova.

Located around 8,000 light years away – half a billion times further away than our Sun – the binary system is surrounded by a gigantic dust cloud. The collision between the winds of the two stars can form dust, which takes on elegant spiral pinwheel shapes as the stars orbit each other.

Expect to see a number of news articles hinting at how this system is a deadly threat to Earth. It is not. For one thing, it is too far away for any supernovae or gamma ray burst to cause serious harm here. Second, it will be a long time before any of that is going to happen.

Wolf-Rayet stars however are rare, and being able to study them helps astronomers better understand the life and death of stars. Having another so relatively close is a boon to astronomers.

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