Giant Radio Telescope: South Africa Wins Bid To Host The Square Kilometer Array

South Africa have won the bid for hosting the Square Kilometer Array, beating rival bidders Australia by a narrow margin. The bid was settled today by a scientific panel. However, the exact location of the telescope, especially the central square, has not been decided.

An artist's impression of the Square Kilometer Array

The Giant

The SKA is a mammoth project, having 3,000 dishes, each having a diameter of 15 meters. It will cover a very large frequency range. Owing to its huge area – the name square kilometer refers merely to the total added area of the dishes, not of the area coverage on the ground – the collecting area will be very large. This will enable it to be extremely sensitive to any radio sources in the Universe. The downside of this extreme ability is that it will also pick up a lot of Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from ground based radio sources. This means that the location of the telescope will have to be in a very arid place, nearly devoid of any human settlement, and definitely devoid of any strong usage of radio technology.

We reported about SKA and the location problem here:

The construction of the SKA is due to start in 2016 and it is expected to be completed in 2019. The telescope should see first light some time in 2020.

Not yet over

Even though the scientific committee has voted for South Africa, the win is so narrow and the contention so strong, that other countries like China, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom might vote either way and swing it.

A final decision is awaited on 4th April, during a board meeting in Amsterdam.

Discovered: Solid Buckyballs In Space!

They were popularized by being compared to nanoscale footballs, made up of a large number of carbon atoms. However, no one thought that they were as ubiquitous as the latest Spitzer results suggest them to be. They are called Buckminsterfullerene, or more commonly, buckyballs, after the architect, Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic designs resemble these natural structures.

A C-60 buckminsterfullerene

Spitzer discovers buckyballs

Enter Spitzer, the premier infrared satellite in the world right now. It roams around in space in an orbit around the Earth, since the atmosphere would block most of the infrared radiation. It has recently caught buckyballs around the double star system XX Ophiuchi. What’s more, the buckyballs are in solid form, and this can be easily figured out since the diffuse gaseous form gives a different absorptions spectrum compared to the solid one.

This is the first detection of solid buckyballs in space. Incidentally, the relatively wide presence of buckyballs in space was established by Spitzer itself in 2010.

Buckyballs are quite useful here on earth. They are extremely resistant to heat, pressure and chemical action. They have been thought to be shrink wraps, with the buckyballs acting as ‘cages’. Furthermore, their high tensile strength can be utilized in things like armour.

Buckyballs in space. An artist's impression (Courtesy: JPL/NASA)

More carbon, better it is!

Buckyballs being found in outer space means that there is much more carbon in space than previously thought. Scientist think that this allotrope of carbon might indicate that more common allotropes like graphite might be present.

Mike Werner, NASA’s Spitzer telescope project scientist currently at JPL, Pasadena, California, says:

This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed. They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos.

The story appears in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Just before you leave us to do more mundane terrestrial stuff here’s a nice video, courtesy

Giant Radio Telescope Update: Square Kilometer Array Faces Location Quandary

The giant has no place to go, as of now! Or maybe, just one place too many. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the biggest array of ground based radio telescopes, is now hanging in the balance searching for a site. The two contenders are Australia and South Africa.

An artist's impression of the SKA. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

About the SKA

The SKA costs a whopping 1.5 billion euros. The mammoth array is set have a collecting are of 1 square kilometer and be sensitive over a very wide range of frequencies. The radius of the array will be at least 3000 km from the central core (a few telescopes clustered at the center) and the total data uplink-downlink will dwarf even the total global Internet data transfer, when it will actively observe! This means that the computers handling the data will have to be state-of-the-art as well as the means to transfer data. It will look into the Universe, as it was about 300,000 years after the Big Bang till the time when it became transparent, i.e. the reionization era.

The core array of the SKA. It is set to have three different sub-arrays having antenna probing different frequency regimes within the radio. (Courtesy: Wikimedia)

Construction of the array is set to begin in 2016 and end in 2019. It will see first light sometime in 2020.

The two rivals

The Australian side is promising the core of the array in the west of the continent and the outer arms and outstations stretching across the sea to New Zealand. The South African contingency plans its core in the Karoo region, North Cape, in the northern part of the country, and the outer arms are going to stretch to eight neighbouring countries!

The requirements for selecting a site for a radio telescope include arid conditions, radio-quiet regions and low human activity.

The site will be finalized by the end of this year and only then will the SKA construction start off!

Chandra, Spitzer and VLT Find Large Galaxy Cluster From Very Early Universe

A composite image reveals a thing of utter beauty! The Chandra X-Ray Telescope, the Spitzer and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) have stitched together an image of a large Galaxy cluster that dates back right to the Early Universe, when galaxy formation was just starting to happen. The composite image is given below.

Image 1: The El Gordo Galaxy - the composite image. Blue represents the X-Rays, while the red and orange represent infrared and optical. (Courtesy: NASA/CXC/JPL/ESO)

Enter the Fat Man

Named El Gordo, Spanish for ‘fat man’, this structure appears bloated in X-Ray and infrared images. The most interesting structure is the core, which is extremely bright in X-Rays. Chandra has mapped the central part and has come up with two distinct tail-like structures, indicating that two previously large structures have merged to form the El Gordo.

The object is located in the constellation Pheonix, but this is a very difficult constellation to spot, being both very faint and extremely southerly. El Gordo is located 7.17 billion light years from Earth, which is way further than the well-known Bullet Cluster that lies about 4 billion light years away.

Stitching together to form an image

The following two images are the ones obtained by Spitzer and VLT (Image 2) and by Chandra (Image 3).

Image 2: The El Gordo in Optical and Infrared frequencies. The data has been obtained from Spitzer (IR) and VLT (Optical). (Courtesy: Optical - ESO/VLT; IR - NASA/JPL)
Image 3: The El Gordo in X-Ray. Data obtained by the Chandra X-Ray Telescope. Notice the two distinct tails and the very X-Ray hot core. (Courtesy: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/J.Hughes et al)

The composite image (Image 1) is made by combining data from the Chandra X-Ray Telescope, which gives the X-Ray data, the Spitzer telescope, which provides the infra-red (i.e. thermal) data and the Very Large Telescope (VLT), which maps the optical frequencies. The infrared and X-Rays are false coloured, with the X-Rays being represented by blue and the infrared by orange and red. The El Gordo’s central region is blue in the X-Ray, indicating that some violent X-Ray generating processes are afoot.

Dark Matter ripping out hot gases

El Gordo also shows signatures of gas which have been dispersed by dark matter, not unlike the Bullet cluster. Dark matter has not been stopped by collision, due to feeble interactions with the mass outside, but the hot gas has been. Dark matter has then ripped apart the hot gas and this forms the halo, which is incandescent in both Optical and X-ray frequencies, and presumably even in Radio. In fact, the X-Ray emitting hot gas, forming the halo-like structure around El Gordo, account for more than 90% of the visible mass of the galaxy cluster as compared to just about 1-3% contribution from actual stars. The number of stars is, however, massive – there are about 4 quadrillion (a million billion) of them!

Most Complex, Most Expensive Ground Telescope Captures A Stunning Photo Of Colliding Galaxies

The world’s most complex ground telescope is finally in operation and it just snapped a stunner! The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (or ALMA) finally opened on the 30th of September and the following is the first photo that it showed the world.

The ALMA returned this image of the Antenna Galaxies. (Courtesy: ESO, NAOJ, NRAO)

The photo is that of the Antenna Galaxies, two galaxies which are colliding with each other. They are known by their catalog names as NGC 4038 and 4039. The photo has been combined with the photo of the same galaxies in the optical range obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope to give the following photo.

The Antenna Galaxies as seen when millimeter and visible light information is combined into a single photo. (Courtesy: ESO, NAOJ, NRAO, NASA/JPL)

The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA)

The millimeter and submillimeter capabilities of ALMA mean that it can look at cold objects in space that don’t radiate in the visible or infrared range. It can also pick up radiowave radiation filtering out of dust clouds that block the optical radiation.

The ALMA telescopes, when it was in its test phase. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
The Logo

The ALMA is an array of 12 meter radio telescopes that sit on the fringe of the Atacama desert at an elevation of 5000 meters (16,500 feet) in Chajnantor plateau in Norther Chile. What is it good for? It offers a window to the very early Universe. Precious little is known about that epoch and ALMA hopes to expand that immensely. It can catch radiation from sources which are about a thousand times colder than the Sun.

Right now, the ALMA has 19 telescopes in the array. In another year or two (hopefully by the end of 2013), this number will be increased to 66. ALMA is currently booked for the next nine months at least. There have been huge excitement in the astronomy community and as soon as it opened, there have been as many as 900 applications for using it. In the next nine months, ALMA can fit in only about a hundred.

ALMA is funded by European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Europe, National Institutes of Natural Sciences in Japan and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in North America. Funding has also come from National Research Council in Canada and National Science Council in Taiwan. The total cost of the array at the moment is over US$ 1 billion. This is the most expensive ground based telescope array ever. It is also the most complex.

The beginning has been great! The image is stunning and it is getting everyone’s attention. The next one year should yield lots of scientific riches.

Discovered: A Planet Orbiting Two Suns – A Real-Life Tatooine

It’ a great planet to get a tan on, except for the minor detail that you may not make it back. A real-life Tatooine planet, orbiting two stars, has been discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This strange world is 200 light years away.

Tatooine is the name of the fictional planet of the Star Wars saga, where much of the story is based.

An artist's conception of the two-star planet - a real life Tatooine. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A Real-Life Tatooine

The discovery is stunning, since this is the first time such an object is being discovered. The planet is a giant one, slightly larger than Saturn, but made up of heavy elements. It orbits a binary star system. This marvellous system is named the Kepler-16 system, according to the Kepler Telescope’s cataloguing scheme.

This settles once and for all the question as to whether planets can really orbit binary star systems. The planet, Kepler 16b, is absolute proof that such a thing can happen.

The Star Wars team is thrilled. Visual effects supervisor at the Industrial Light and Magic firm, the company behind the Star Wars effects, John Knoll, says:

It’s possible that there’s a real Tatooine out there. Kepler 16b is unambiguous and dramatic proof that planets really do form around binaries.

How it was discovered

The planet was discovered by the so-called Transit Method. The exoplanet was discovered by noting the dimming of the stars light as the planet went in front of it. One of the stars is dimmer than the other and this too causes dimming of the brighter star’s light. Using these two effects and also knowing the radial velocity of the stars, the mass of the stars and the planet can be calculated. It is found that Kepler-16b is denser than Saturn, containing many heavy elements. It completes one orbit in 229 days. The masses of the stars, Kepler-16A and Kepler-16B, are 69% and 20% the solar mass, respectively. They orbit each other in 41 days. The three objects lie on the same plane, suggesting that they were created from the same cloud of gas and that Kepler-16b is not a captured planet.

The report came out in the journal Science’ today.

Hubble Successor: U.S. Senate Decision Pulls The James Webb Telescope Out of Deep Trouble

Some great news is coming in from Washington! The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may just have got a new lease of life.

The mirror of the James Webb Telescope

Money and relief

We reported that the JWST was cancelled (here) due to fund cuts by the US Senate Appropriations Sub-Committee. Yesterday (14th September), the US Senate Appropriations Committee met to discuss the details of the FY2012 (Financial Year 2012) bill and, surprise and glee, the JWST was sanctioned $530 million in 2012. This is a big improvement over the $374 million it was sanctioned in the last year.

This will be music to many ears, both intimately associated with the JWST project and other space enthusiasts. Hubble has been as much a darling for the public as for professional astronomers, and it would just be a shame if it had no successor. Losing the joy of watching deep space in high resolution, never knowing what one will find is a joy unparalleled! No one wants that to end.

Save JWST Page:
The US Cuts Science Funds Due to War Cost: JWST suffers –

The continuing construction of a wonder

Recently the James Webb Space Telescope completed a crucial phase in the construction of its mirrors. It has 21 mirrors, made up of 18 segments, forming one giant 21 foot mirror. The mirrors are the best in the world. They are made up of beryllium, so that they can withstand the near absolute zero temperature of space. They are also coated with a thin film of gold so that they are good reflectors of infra-red radiation. All of this goes into making JWST at least a 100x better than Hubble ever was.

The 21 foot mirror!

Please note that JWST is not out of the woods yet! This is merely the money granted for 2012. The project will last till 2018 and there are still many hurdles ahead, especially for a project of this magnitude where the costs tend to swell up abruptly.

Apart from this grant to the JWST, NASA got a grant of $17.9 billion for the coming year. Although this is a $500 million reduction from the promised grant, it is still a hefty amount.

The champagnes must be flowing in the JWST camps.

Discovered ‘Super-Earth’ Could Harbor Life: Is This Our Cosmic Neighbor?

According to a huge announcement by the European Southern Observatory, more than 50 alien planets discovered by its telescope could harbour life. Out of these 50, 16 are so-called super Earths’, or planets that are similar to our own, but bigger.

The Goldilocks Zone

Earth is unique in the sense that it is a rocky planet, contains water in liquid form and is at an optimum distance from the host star. This allows the temperature to be within habitable range, as well as supports diverse weather conditions. These are the signs that astronomers were looking for while scouring the sky with the exo-planet hunting telescope. Sixteen of the potentially habitable 50 were declared to be Earth-like.

An Artist's Impression of the Alien Planet (Courtesy: ESO)

Amongst these 16, one of the planets caught the astronomers’ attention. This Super-Earth, called HD 85512b, orbits its star within the habitable region a narrow region around the star where conditions could be optimal to support known forms of life.

Finding an Alien Planet

The ESO’s instrument of pride is the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) telescope. The HARPS telescope is more a spectroscope than a conventional telescope. It measures changes in the spectral signature of a planet-star system. This simply means that the light intensity and wavelength both change and tracking these gives hints of a planet orbiting a star. Accurate measurements can give the mass of the planet, and sometimes, even the composition.

Planets tug on stars due to gravity and this makes the star wobble slightly. These radial velocity signals’ can be easily picked up by HARPS. The enormous resolution of HARPS ensures that it can even detect the slightest of wobbles.

HD 85512b is located pretty close by too. It is only 35 light-years away and is estimated to be 3.6 times more massive than the Earth. Orbiting in the habitable region’, the super-Earth could possibly support liquid water.

Only further studies will reveal whether this super-Earth is indeed inhabited by beings as complex as those found on Earth. Have we just found the home of our intergalactic neighbour?

[Editorial] How The US Fund Cuts Due to War Affect Science and All Of Us

Lost jobs, growing fuel prices and rising public discontent is the scene in the US as far as the economy is concerned. Funds are short in all aspects of life, whether it concerns fuel prices (government subsidy), the education sector or business. The dollar falling against the Euro, or even the Indian Rupee, mirrors the sorry state of affairs. The worst hit, it seems, is the science sector, which has been left crippled by a spate of fund cuts across almost all disciplines. The reason for this: War.

The “War On Terror”

Yes, the American long drawn War on Terror’ is acting like a very effective pipe draining monetary resources from all other aspects of governance and life. An estimated $4 trillion has been spent on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq (sorry for not using the label War on Terror’). The achievements have been few and too far apart in time. The most significant achievement in the eyes of the public is the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, who, experts believe, wasn’t very active anyway in the terror network and the success was little more than symbolic. Al Qaeda has the same reach and structure as it had just before Bin Laden’s death. If anything, the martyrdom’ of Bin Laden (as it is viewed in many parts of the Islamic world) has helped Al Qaeda gain more recruits without resorting to covert recruitment procedures. Not to mention, the operation has undermined the relations between Pakistan and the US.

Victims No. 1

Science has had to suffer a lot, as this foolish carnage was unfolding. The most notable victim has been the James Webb Space Telescope. Recently, we reported the plans to scrap the successor of Hubble the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and once Hubble completes its lifetime in 2014, there will be no eye in space in the visible range of the spectrum with which we will be able to peer deep into the cosmos.

What Next : Hubble to the left. James Webb on the right. Or is it?

The giant telescope, which would make Hubble look like a pair of binoculars, was set to replace both Hubble and Spitzer in one stroke. Spitzer, which observes in the infra-red frequencies, is still operational and is expected to outlast Hubble. The fund cut by the Appropriations Sub-committee is bound to render astrophysics blind for, at least, the decade.

Victim No. 2

There has been other victims with lower profiles. We had also told you about the ATA (Allen Telescope Array) of SETI put out of operation due to the lack of funds. It is a widespread misconception that SETI’s only job is the search for extra-terrestrials. The ATA was being used for much more than intercepting intelligent radio signals from space, like looking at radio signals originating from very strong radio-sources like Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN’s) and looking at transient radio-sources. This would be extremely useful for studying how quasars truly operate. Further, looking at any active radiation source in many wavelengths is of the utmost essence in observational astronomy.

Victim No. 3

Arguably, the best telescope is The Chandra X-Ray Telescope (no, it’s not the Hubble). Orbiting the Earth, high above the atmosphere, it captures stunning images in the X-Ray band. The X-Ray band of radiation is notoriously difficult to capture on film. The primary reason for this is the extremely high penetrating power of X-Rays; lenses made of glass are useless. The mirrors used to focus a parallel beam of X-Ray radiation need to be at glancing angles (about a degree or so) to the direction of radiation. Further, the mirrors need to be coated with pure gold. Both these factors contribute to increased expenses, the former being responsible for the need of large mirror sheets and the latter being responsible for the obvious reasons. The question is what next? What after Chandra? With the recent spate, there is real worry about the maintenance and succession to the premier X-Ray Telescope.

Victim No. 4

The search for exotic gravitational waves is also expected to take a hit. The existing detector, Laser Interferometer Space Antenna or LISA, is capable of detecting a gravitational wave emanating from a powerful astronomical event in the cosmological vicinity the moment it passes Earth. The problem is the back-up observations. This needs to be followed up by observations in the electromagnetic spectrum, which will be impossible given that Hubble will not have a successor and radio telescopes on land are also in trouble. In other words, a goldmine of observations (say, LISA detects gravitational wave after gravitational wave) will be going to waste given that there is no back-up observation. LISA will be effectively out of operation.

Plan To Cancel Hubble Successor James Webb Space Telescope Sends Ripples Across Scientific Community

With the end of the space shuttle program, NASA wants to erase out its legacy. This seems to be the mood, one of disbelief, desperation and anger, in the astronomy circles, in reaction to the cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program. The JWST, named after the former NASA administrator, is slated to be the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The hue-and-cry follows after the House Appropriations subcommittee decided to slash NASA’s budget for the 2012 fiscal year by nearly 9%, relegating it to its 2008 budget figures. The revised funding of $16.8 billion is a flat $1.6 billion less than the 2011 figure and $2.0 billion less than President Obama’s recommendation to the subcommittee for NASA in 2012.

An artists' impression of the James Webb Telescope

The JWST project, currently billed at $6.5 billion, is $1.5 billion over its proposed budget. The project is beset with problems, typical of any such massive pioneering venture budget overruns, design overhauls and repeated failures to meet set deadlines. Apparently, the subcommittee thought enough was enough.

The Promise

The JWST was set to be the best eye in space, surpassing both the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer in its ability to gaze deeper into space and farther back in time. It is a dedicated Infrared Telescope, enabling it to peer through the cold and thick dust clouds that remain opaque in the visible wavelength regime. At about 100 times the magnification power of the Hubble, it was set to make Hubble look like a pair of binoculars. Debra Elmegreen, president of the American Astronomical Society says,

It has the potential to transform astronomy even more than the Hubble Space Telescope did, and it will serve thousands of astronomers in the decades ahead. We cannot abandon it now.

A graphic describing the JWST (Credit: NASA)

The JWST was slated for a 2014 launch, but was later slotted for a more realistic 2015 launch. Now, no one knows…


Even though scientists are up-in-arms against the cancellation, dissenting voices are emerging. Our own senior editor, Clif Sipe, makes a pertinent point

I think the days of huge government programs are over for several years. The entire European and US economies are in trouble, and might be for some time. When I hear scientists complaining about it, I understand, but I have seen fellow employees at work, being sent to the unemployment lines. That puts things in real perspective for me … most scientists will not lack for work.

However, others are not so sympathetic. Dan Weaver (@DanWeaver_) says on Twitter:

Canceling James Webb space telescope b/c it’s over budget? US politicians should apply that logic to real budget drains: Iraq & Afghanistan

Maybe there is a grain of truth in that. True, jobs and livelihood problems of people are important, but these problems have persisted in American society, and, indeed, of all societies around the world, for centuries. Isn’t it unique that a 20 year expedition by the most successful scientific device ever built the Hubble Space Telescope be followed up by the grandeur of the JWST?

An engineer inspects a part of the mirror that will form part of the JWST

The internet has been buzzing. Here’s a petition, open to only US citizens appealing for the restoration of the JWST project. The Facebook page for saving the James Webb Telescope is here. Twitter is overflowing with tweets about the JWST. Use any of the following tags – #SaveThisTelescope, #JWST or #saveJWST for your tweets or search.

Its indeed sad, but true, that fulfilment of the long standing desire to know the stars doesn’t come cheap.