Tag Archives: Space

Australia Witnesses a Bright And Slow ‘Meteor'; It’s Just Space Junk

A bright object lit up the Australian night sky earlier today evening. It’s widely believed to be nothing more than space junk, and not an actual meteor.

Cropped frame grab from a YouTube video.
Cropped frame grab from a YouTube video.

At about 10 PM local time, on the 10th of July, there were widespread reports of a bright object streaking across the sky over southeastern Australia. It was initially thought to be a naturally occurring rock which had invaded the Earth’s atmosphere. However, it moved very slowly. Experts later confirmed that the flaming object was a piece of the Soyuz 2-1B rocket which was launched a couple of days back, in order to put a meteorological satellite called, ironically, Meteor M2 in orbit. The witnessed object is just the upper stage of the Soyuz rocket.

It is highly unlikely that anyone would be hit by such space debris, but the sight did cause a massive sensation. There were even occasional fragmentation as one would expect from such an object making reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, the aspect which caught most Australians off-guard was the very slow speed. Here is a video which is being circulated. It was shot using a mobile phone camera:

So, it’s just space debris making a lively reentry.

NASA Detects A Burst Stronger Than Any Seen Before

A recent blast from a dying star has left astronomers, gaping in awe at the sheer magnitude. A distant eruption, classified now as a Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) and named GRB 130427A, has now set the record for the brightest GRB ever. NASA’s Swift satellite and Fermi-LAT, both specialized for the gamma ray part of the spectrum, have recorded this mind-boggling event. Julie McEnery, project scientist for NASA’s Fermi-LAT, said that this was a “shockingly, eye-wateringly bright” burst.

An artist's impression of a GRB. Note the strong jets on either side of the collapsing star. (Courtesy: wikimedia commons)
An artist’s impression of a GRB. Note the strong jets on either side of the collapsing star. (Courtesy: wikimedia commons)

What are GRBs?

Gamma Ray Bursts are the most powerful explosions known to mankind that occur in the Universe, ranked second right after the Big Bang itself. GRBs occur when an extremely massive star collapses into a massive black hole, and the material falling into the black hole heats up so much that it radiates in the gamma ray region of the spectrum. These jets of gamma rays puncture the material envelope of the dying star and can be detected from a long distance. Unlike smaller supernova (which happen for moderately large stars), GRBs are responsible for throwing out a large amount of energy in the surrounding space, often energizing the gas around and making it glow. The duration for such a burst might last from a few milliseconds to minutes or even hours and the burning embers can often be seen for days and months. We generally count the time for which the radiation energy exceeds the GeV (giga-electron volt) threshold, which is about a billion times more energetic than visible light.

Our GRB

For our present GRB, the GeV radiation lasted for hours and it was observed by Fermi-LAT, a space based gamma ray telescope, for a long time. Even ground based telescopes caught more than a glimpse of the GRB. The Swift satellite caught the first glimpse, as it is designated to do, during one of its rounds. Energetic emissions were recorded by Fermi-LAT, with one of the gamma ray lines having an energy of 94 GeV.

This animation is made by stacking a large number of images taken by the Fermi-LAT satellite from 3 minutes before the burst to 14 hours later. You can clearly see the burst and then the radiation flux drops and plateaus off. The burst then rose in flux again and stayed bright (more then GeV energy lines were abundant) over several hours. (Courtesy: NASA/DOE/Fermi-LAT collaboration))
This animation is made by stacking a large number of images taken by the Fermi-LAT satellite from 3 minutes before the burst to 14 hours later. You can clearly see the burst and then the radiation flux drops and plateaus off. The burst then rose in flux again and stayed bright (GeV energy lines were abundant) over several hours. (Courtesy: NASA/DOE/Fermi-LAT collaboration)

Apart from the strong gamma emission lines in the spectrum, there are also lines present in the infrared, visible and radio wavelengths. These were detected by ground-based telescopes. The distance of the burst was estimated to be 3.6 billion light years away, which is actually quite small when it comes to GRBs. This falls within the 5% of the closest GRBs ever recorded.

This is exciting and a lot of backup measurements will follow this initial detection.

More info: www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/shocking-burst.html

Neil Armstrong First Man On the Moon Dies

2012 has been a year of great loss, as the first woman in space, Sally Ride, recently passed and now Neil Armstrong has passed away. His family reports that the 82 year old died from complications of a cardiac procedure.

Neil Armstrong
Portrait of Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing mission in his space suit, with his helmet on the table in front of him. Behind him is a large photograph of the lunar surface. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Neil Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing mission. He successfully landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. It was an event that was watched around the world and his words will forever be etched in the minds of all who heard him say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Everything you can find on Mr. Armstrong seems to point to his humility and attitude of service. In a February 2000 appearance he is quoted saying, “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer”. Not hardly what you might expect from the first man on the moon.

“As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond our own,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Neil Armstrong will be terribly missed by all who are fans of NASA and I am sure that his friends and family will feel the great loss for years to come.

His family has put up a website to keep people informed. I will end this post with what they posted today as I believe it is the most fitting tribute:

“We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.

“Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.

“Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.

“He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits.

“As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life.

“While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

For more information, please visit NASA’s tribute to him at http://www.nasa.gov/topics/people/features/armstrong_obit.html.

Sally Ride, America’s First Female Astronaut in Space, Dies

Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut in space passed away today after a 17 month battle with pancreatic cancer. According to her website, Sally Ride Science:

Sally Ride died peacefully on July 23rd, 2012 after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. 

Sally Ride
Sally Ride (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Ride was a “trailblazer” in so many ways. In 1983 she joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger at the age of 32. At that time she was not only the first woman in space, but also the youngest person to do so. The influence she had on her colleagues is so evident in the many quotes posted on NASA’s website.

Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally’s family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly.

Sally was a personal and professional role model to me and thousands of women around the world,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “Her spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere.

The selection of the 1978 Astronaut Class that included Sally and several other women, had a huge impact on my dream to become an astronaut. The success of those woman, with Sally paving the way, made my dream seem one step closer to becoming a reality,” said Peggy Whitson, Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office.

Ride’s influence on the world did not end with NASA. She went on to join the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. She later founded her own company Sally Ride Science, which encouraged girls and young women to pursue careers in science and math. She lived a very private life, but what she gave of herself was for the good of people and our world. Her dedication to education and teaching is truly exemplary.

As most of us know, pancreatic cancer is a particularly difficult cancer and so much more work needs to be done to beat this horrible disease. Sally Ride Science has set up a fund in honor of Sally Ride, which can be found at https://www.sallyridescience.com/sallyride/memory.

Moon Race Team Recruits Google VIP

Moon Express, a “privately funded lunar transportation and data services company”, announced today that Dr. James (Jimi) Crawford has joined their team as Chief Technology Officer and Software Architect. Crawford had been the Engineering Director for Google Books since 2009.

Moon Express Logo

As CTO, Dr. Crawford will guide Moon Express’ technology to fulfill the company’s long term goals. He will also serve as a software architect, where he will develop software for the company’s space missions including the race to win the Google Lunar X prize. The Lunar X project is giving $30 million dollars to the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon. Moon Express is one of several teams that are competing for the illustrious prize.

In their press release, Moon Express co-Founder and CEO Bob Richards said, “We are thrilled to have Jimi join us as CTO and Software Architect…With Jimi’s combined space mission and software experience, our technical team just took another giant leap forward.” Dr. Crawford’s resume is quite impressive and one could see why the Moon Express team is encouraged to have him on board. This guy is not a newbie when it comes to space technology. He spent three years at NASA’s Ames Research Center as lead for Autonomy and Robotics. His teams “delivered the optimized activity planner used by both the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers, demonstrated next generation rovers with much higher levels of autonomy, and created optimized spacecraft antenna using genetic algorithms.”

For more information about the Google Lunar X competition, see the embedded video below.

[Video Link]

 

Copious Amounts Of Carbon Found In A Galaxy Far Far Away!

Something surprising, but not quite revolutionary. A galaxy far far away is giving strong carbon signature from throughout its surface. Using the recently upgraded IRAM (standing for Institute for Radio Astronomy in Millimeter Range) array of radio telescopes, researchers were able to observe the galaxy and the supermassive blackhole at its center.

Astronomers have named the galaxy J1120+0641 and what they are observing now is the state the galaxy was more than 13 billion years ago, just 740 million years after the Big Bang! That’s how far it is from us. During this time, almost the entire Universe was made up of hydrogen or helium.

J1120+0641: Left - Seen in visual. Right - Seen in the submillimeter radio range using IRAM. (Photo Courtesy: IRAM)

Encoded Messages Tell A Fascinating Tale

The copious signals of carbon, given by the spectrum of carbon, and of UV indicate that the galaxy is undergoing – or rather had undergone – a very active carbon-forming phase. The UV is due to the fact that the photon is heating up the dust in the interstellar medium and causing ionization. The sheer amount of carbon is mind-boggling, telling us that a lot of massive stars are burning their way through.

This leads to one conclusion – a lot of star formation must have been going on in this region since the Big Bang, but then that’s pretty strange. Though it doesn’t contradict any of the stellar formation theories known, this is still pretty surprising that we should be seeing so much activity so soon after the Big Bang.

Bram Venemans, of Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, says:

The presence of so much carbon confirms that massive star formation must have occurred in the short period between the Big Bang and the time we are now observing the galaxy.

The researchers owe a debt to the IRAM facility, which has just upgraded its signal processing capabilities, allowing the observers to observe on more number of channels and thus cut out noise. This makes seeing faraway galaxies possible.

NASA and Samsung Team Up To Promote Angry Birds Space

It is not technically a “teaming up” because it’s mostly Samsung promoting its Galaxy Note device and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the USA providing some kid-friendly zero gravity physics demonstrations. However, the end result is a very odd pairing that can only bring more downloads for Rovio’s seminal casual gaming hit Angry Birds.

Announced after a short intro on trajectory physics aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Angry Birds Space will release on the 22nd of March, 2012 and will have the familiar birds hunting down the greedy green pigs once again in a sci-fi space setting with some gravity twists. Think Blast Off! mixed with Catapults and released on pretty much every casual gaming platform around.

angrybirds

Don Pettit, a flight engineer aboard the ISS, explains how trajectories matter for space travel as well as Angry Birds since the birds are nothing more than projectiles. The ISS, might we remind you, is orbiting the Earth about 391 kilometers above it and can sometimes be seen as a slow-moving “star” from our vantage point in the ground.

I do not know how Rovio managed to pull this one, but it is quite a brilliant publicity campaign for a generally average game that was at the right place at the right time. Will you be playing Angry Birds Space?

Swiss-Made Satellite To Clean Up Space

Space is filling up with junk and the Swiss are not very happy about it. They would like to make space look like the bedroom your mother always wanted you to maintain. To achieve this, they are launching a satellite to clean up space junk. The satellite has been christened CleanSpace One.

An artist's impression of CleanSpace One (Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images)

The Swiss space center at Ecole Polytechnique (EPFL) at Lausanne wants to make this ‘janitor satellite’ to clear space of all the dead rocket bits, the different booster stages and pieces of old satellites. There are more than a million shreds of junk out there, orbiting at 18,000 mph, each posing threats ranging from mild to severe.

The satellite will be launched in another 5 years and is expected to cost SFr 10 million (SFr = Swiss Franc) or $11 million.

A Big Problem!

To give you a sense of how serious the problem of junk is, we need consider the US satellite Iridium-33. It exploded when the obsolete and abandoned Cosmos-2251, a Russian satellite, hit it in Feb, 2009. This in turn created more fragments of junk, which may turn out to be just as disastrous in future.

CleanSpace One will pursue junk pieces and then grab them with a robotic hand. After it has cleaned up most of what it intended, it will just drop down through the atmosphere, burning up much before it reaches Earth, incinerating the junk along with itself.

Just the beginning…

And this is just the first step, says EPFL. Says Volker Gass, director at the space center, on the EPFL website:

We want to offer and sell a whole family of readymade systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites.

Watch out space junk, here come the Swiss!

Discovered: A Dark Matter Galaxy As Far As 10 Billion Light Years Away!

When galaxies form, they leave a lot of debris strewn around and this might reveal vital clues about the nature of dark matter, think scientists. Galaxies are believed to form by collision of smaller bodies of stars, which then equilibriate due to gravitational interactions. Even the Milky Way is believed to be surrounded by smaller galaxies, called satellites. A group of scientists looking at the Local Group, or a group of a few galaxies, including our Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda, have found that the number of observed satellite galaxies is much smaller than expected from cold dark matter simulations.

The Local Group of Galaxies, with M33 being in the center

These satellite galaxies have unusually low number of stars and can be made up of mostly dark matter. These dark satellites could only be seen by the way they bend light due to their gravitation.

Searching for Dark Satellites

Attempts to find dark satellite galaxies in the Local Group had yielded a candidate at a redshift of z= 0.222, which works out to about 3 billion light years, which is quite close by cosmological standards. However, the number was just not tallying up; out of a predicted number of 10,000 only 30 showed up. Scientists decided that the Local Group case might be an anomaly and looked further out.

Infrared image of the 'dark galaxy'. Photo courtesy: David Lagattuta/ Keck Observatory

In a paper published in Nature, by the team of Vegetti (MIT), Lagattuta (University of California, Davis), McKean (Netherlands Institute of Radio Astronomy), Auger(University of California, Santa Barbara), Fassnacht (University of California, Davis) and Koopmans (University of Groningen, Netherlands) report to have observed a dark satellite galaxy at a redshift of 0.881, which puts its distance at about 10 billion light years.

Using General Relativity to See!

The method is a beautiful consequence of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the modern theory of gravity. It says that mass bends space-time and light rays will follow this bent path as they travel. This allows us to use a technique called gravitational lensing. The technique is quite simple in principle. A dark matter object will act as a lens, bending light as it travels through it. If you have a light-emitting galaxy behind a dark matter galaxy, the light will get distorted and we will be seeing an image of the galaxy at a position where it is not really there. A beautiful demonstration of this is manifested as an Einstein’s Ring.

An Einstein Ring - Note the circular streaks of light.
How an Einstein ring forms.

Using the Keck-II telescope, one of these Einstein Rings was observed and a satellite galaxy was noticed at about 10 billion light years away, which has about the same mass as the Sagittarius galaxy. This is the first gravitational detection of a low-mass dark satellite galaxy at cosmological distances!

Exactly as predicted!!

The most exciting feature about this is that the mass calculations yield just the right mass for the galaxy to be consistent with cold dark matter simulations. It gives more credence to the hierarchical formation of stellar structures like galaxies as described by cold dark matter models.

Says Vegetti:

The existence of this low-mass dark galaxy is just within the bounds we expect if the universe is composed of dark matter that has a cold temperature. However, further dark satellites will need to be found to confirm this conclusion

Ignorance may not always be blissful, but it is certainly exciting most of the time!

Discovered: Two Earth-Sized Planets Around A Sun-Like Star

Scientists report the finding of true two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star very similar to the sun, using the Kepler telescope. The discovery was announced today. Named Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f, these are the smallest planets ever to be discovered.

An artist's impression of Kepler 20e. Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Caltech

The location and details

The stellar system is located 950 light years away from Earth. Both planets are about the size of Earth, with one of them being slightly smaller. This is important, since we now know that we can indeed detect planets the size of Earth in another stellar system. In the future, we might indeed stumble upon a planet, the size of the Earth, with conditions similar to our home.

The planets orbit the star a bit too close for comfort and the surface temperature is too hot to sustain the kind of life we know. It’s not a true twin of the Earth, but this does indeed bring us tantalizingly close to finding one.

+2 for Kepler

This is again a feather in the burgeoning cap of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which was recently lauded for finding a planet, called Kepler 22b, orbiting another star in the Goldilocks region.

Both Kepler 20e and 20f are rocky planets and have an estimated mass of 1.7 times and 3 times the mass of the Earth respectively. While Kepler 20e lies at a distance of 7.5 million km away from the sun, making it 20 times as close to the star as Earth (150 million km), Kepler 20f, does slightly better at 16.5 million km. Kepler 20e takes a mere 6.1 days to complete an orbit around the star, while Kepler 20f takes 19.6 days.

There is no possibility of liquid water, or even an atmosphere on either of the planets. However, astronomers are hoping that, given the plethora of exoplanets being discovered, one will turn out to be just right’ for life.