Large Binocular Telescope Brings the Universe into Sharper Focus

Crab Nebula by Vincenzo Testa and collaborators from Rome Observatory

Today astronomers from the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) released the first series of scientific results showing its best-in-the-world performance in canceling the blur of the Earth’s atmosphere. Included in these first findings are previously impossible discoveries about extrasolar planets and their environments and new insights into how stars are formed.

The LBT is the first in the new generation of extraordinary large ground-based telescopes that uses advanced adaptive secondary mirrors to see more clearly than ever before. The LBT utilizes two giant 8.4 meter mirrors (27.5 feet) and is located on Mt. Graham in southeastern Arizona.

“With this unrivaled new technology, we can now probe the close-in environments of nearby stars with a clarity that was previously not possible,” said Richard Green, Director of the LBT. “We expect these to be the first of many amazing new discoveries as we are now able to observe in unique detail the formation of stars and their systems of planets.”

  • Exoplanets observed close to their host star: LBT has measured in unprecedented detail the fourth, innermost planet in the HR8799 planetary system, located more than 128 light-years from Earth. These LBT observations significantly revise previous understanding of the atmospheres of the four planets.
  • A better look at star formation: LBT observations of the Trapezium region in Orion were able to determine the positions of young stars in their orbits around each other with seven times greater accuracy than any previous study. These results confirm a long-suspected theory about the nature of star formation.
  • A new view of an intriguing debris disk : The LBT was able for the first time to probe more deeply into the interior of the debris disk surrounding the star HD 15115, revealing a symmetrical structure quite different from previous observations by other telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

More on the LBT: The LBT is an international collaboration among institutions in the United States,Italy and Germany. Partners include:

Source: Large Binocular Telescope Corporation

Image Credit: LBTO

NASA Releases New WISE Mission Catalog Of Entire Infrared Sky

NASA unveiled a new atlas and catalog of the entire infrared sky today showing more than a half billion stars, galaxies and other objects captured by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

“Today, WISE delivers the fruit of 14 years of effort to the astronomical community,” said Edward Wright, WISE principal investigator at UCLA, who first began working on the mission with other team members in 1998.

WISE launched Dec. 14, 2009, and mapped the entire sky in 2010 with vastly better sensitivity than its predecessors. It collected more than 2.7 million images taken at four infrared wavelengths of light, capturing everything from nearby asteroids to distant galaxies. Since then, the team has been processing more than 15 trillion bytes of returned data. A preliminary release of WISE data, covering the first half of the sky surveyed, was made last April.

The WISE catalog of the entire sky meets the mission’s fundamental objective. The individual WISE exposures have been combined into an atlas of more than 18,000 images covering the sky and a catalog listing the infrared properties of more than 560 million individual objects found in the images. Most of the objects are stars and galaxies, with roughly equal numbers of each. Many of them have never been seen before.

WISE observations have led to numerous discoveries, including the elusive, coolest class of stars. Astronomers hunted for these failed stars, called “Y-dwarfs,” for more than a decade. Because they have been cooling since their formation, they don’t shine in visible light and could not be spotted until WISE mapped the sky with its infrared vision.

WISE also took a poll of near-Earth asteroids, finding there are significantly fewer mid-size objects than previously thought. It also determined NASA has found more than 90 percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids.

Other discoveries were unexpected. WISE found the first known “Trojan” asteroid to share the same orbital path around the sun as Earth. One of the images released today shows a surprising view of an “echo” of infrared light surrounding an exploded star. The echo was etched in the clouds of gas and dust when the flash of light from the supernova explosion heated surrounding clouds. At least 100 papers on the results from the WISE survey already have been published. More discoveries are expected now that astronomers have access to the whole sky as seen by the spacecraft.

“With the release of the all-sky catalog and atlas, WISE joins the pantheon of great sky surveys that have led to many remarkable discoveries about the universe,” said Roc Cutri, who leads the WISE data processing and archiving effort at the Infrared and Processing Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “It will be exciting and rewarding to see the innovative ways the science and educational communities will use WISE in their studies now that they have the data at their fingertips.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., manages and operates WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The mission was competitively selected under NASA’s Explorers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., in Boulder, Colo. Science operations, data processing and archiving take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Source: NASA/JPL

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

Dawn Spacecraft Returns Amazing Results from Astroid Vesta

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dawn Mission Discussion (Click to Listen to Audio)

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is quickly approaching the end of its 10 week mission to study the asteroid Vesta.The spacecraft has been using a framed camera to return the closest photos of an asteroid ever seen. Vesta lies in the doughnut-like ring between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta is the second heaviest object in the asteroid belt. The images have shown many small craters some measuring 10 miles in diameter and up to 6 miles deep, small grooves and lineaments. Scientists hope that when the images have been further examined they will better understand the origins of the universe. Scientists have been most amazed at the discovery of a mountain three times taller than Mount Everest. Scientists have found that over half of the surface of Vesta is so cold and receives so little sunshine that ice could have survived there for billions of years (see image below).

Early examination of the information collected by Dawn including gravity mapping, gamma rays and neutron analysis along with the photos have led scientist to believe that the asteroid was formed by a large impact. Scientists feel that ice could be present beneath the surface at either pole. However, these poles see more sunlight than the equator. Temperatures at the pole are believed to hover near minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists are using the mission to explore the role water played in early planet and asteroid formation.

Reference:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/news/dawn20120125.html
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/multimedia/gallery-index.html
http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/

Image Credit: Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

A Closer Look at Galaxy Cluster Abell 520

Data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory show the hot gas in the colliding clusters colored in green. The gas provides evidence that a collision took place. Optical data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) in Hawaii are shown in red, green, and blue. Starlight from galaxies within the clusters, derived from observations by the CFHT and smoothed to show the location of most of the galaxies, is colored orange.

The blue-colored areas pinpoint the location of most of the mass in the cluster, which is dominated by dark matter. Dark matter is an invisible substance that makes up most of the universe’s mass. The dark-matter map was derived from the Hubble observations, by detecting how light from distant objects is distorted by the cluster galaxies, an effect called gravitational lensing. The blend of blue and green in the center of the image reveals that a clump of dark matter (which can be seen by mousing over the image) resides near most of the hot gas, where very few galaxies are found.

This finding confirms previous observations of a dark-matter core in the cluster announced in 2007. The result could present a challenge to basic theories of dark matter, which predict that galaxies should be anchored to dark matter, even during the shock of a powerful collision.

Source: NASA

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee (University of California, Davis), and A. Mahdavi (San Francisco State University)

GRAIL Spacecraft Begins Collecting Lunar Science Data

NASA’s Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft orbiting the moon officially have begun their science collection phase. During the next 84 days, scientists will obtain a high-resolution map of the lunar gravitational field to learn about the moon’s internal structure and composition in unprecedented detail. The data also will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and evolved.

“The initiation of science data collection is a time when the team lets out a collective sigh of relief because we are finally doing what we came to do,” said Maria Zuber, principal investigator for the GRAIL mission at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “But it is also a time where we have to put the coffee pot on, roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

The GRAIL mission’s twin, washing-machine-sized spacecraft, named Ebb and Flow, entered lunar orbit on New Year’s Eve and New Years Day. GRAIL’s science phase began yesterday at 8:15 p.m. EST (5:15 p.m. PST). During this mission phase, the spacecraft will transmit radio signals precisely defining the distance between them. As they fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by visible features such as mountains, craters and masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, the distance between the two spacecraft will change slightly. Science activities are expected to conclude on May 29, after GRAIL maps the gravity field of the moon three times.

“We are in a near-polar, near-circular orbit with an average altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers) right now,” said David Lehman, GRAIL project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “During the science phase, our spacecraft will orbit the moon as high as 31 miles (51 kilometers) and as low as 10 miles (16 kilometers). They will get as close to each other as 40 miles (65 kilometers) and as far apart as 140 miles (225 kilometers).”

Previously named GRAIL A and B, the names Ebb and Flow were the result of a nation-wide student contest to choose new names for the spacecraft. The winning entry was submitted by fourth graders from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont. Nearly 900 classrooms with more than 11,000 students from 45 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, participated in the contest.

JPL manages the GRAIL mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The GRAIL mission is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center inHuntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft.

For more information about GRAIL, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/grail

Source: NASA

Autonomous Space Capture Challenge

TopCoder®, Inc., the world’s largest competitive Community of digital creators and MIT, today announced registration has opened for the Autonomous Space Capture Challenge, an algorithm competition from Zero Robotics which seeks computationally efficient code solutions for a hypothetical mission scenario which models autonomous docking or satellite servicing procedures. The online challenge is open to all eligible participants but especially teams from high schools and colleges. Four winning submissions will be tested aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in the recently established SPHERES national laboratory by astronauts. Successful teams will be invited to watch the event live onsite at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or via webcast feed remotely. Register at http://www.zerorobotics.org.

Competitors in the Autonomous Space Capture Challenge will be tasked with programming an active satellite or “Tender” to synchronize its motion with and capture a tumbling, passive space object or “POD”. The tournament will have four week-long rounds, during which teams will test their solutions and submit them for scoring and publication on the leader board. At the end of each week the best submission will be published on the Zero Robotics website for public reference and use in the next round. The winner from each week will be included in a demonstration aboard the ISS in late May with the best performing finalist being awarded an additional commendation.

Competition Dates

  • March 28 – competition begins
  • April 4 – submission 1 closes
  • April 11 – submission 2 closes
  • April 18 – submission 3 closes
  • April 25 – submission 4 closes

How to register

“Robots are not just very cool, they represent a rapidly growing and increasingly critical field of education and business,” said Rob Hughes, president and COO of TopCoder, Inc. “From defense to manufacturing, agriculture to pharmaceutical as well as ongoing space exploration, the study and application of robotics has a very bright future.”

Sponsored by DARPA and NASA, and run by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, TopCoder and Aurora Flight Sciences, Zero Robotics is a programming tournament that opens the SPHERES satellite research platform to the general public. Originally developed to engage U.S. middle and high school students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Zero Robotics includes a web-based development environment to create programs for the SPHERES satellites and run simulations to evaluate resulting performance. For more information visit: http://www.zerorobotics.org.

About TopCoder, Inc.

TopCoder is the world’s largest competitive community of digital creators with nearly 400,000 members representing algorithmists, software developers and creative artists from over 200 countries. The TopCoder Community creates digital assets including analytics, software and creative designs and solutions for a wide-ranging client base through a competitive, rigorous, standards based methodology. Combined with our extremely talented community this groundbreaking methodology results in superior outcomes for our clients. For more information about sponsoring TopCoder events and utilizing TopCoder’s software services and platforms, visit www.topcoder.com.

TopCoder is a registered trademark of TopCoder, Inc. in the United States and other countries. All other product and company names herein may be trademarks of their respective owners.

Source: TopCoder, Inc.

Wanna Check Out the Webb Telescope? Here’s How You Can…

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Visitor Center in Greenbelt, MD will host this month’s Sunday Experiment on Sunday, March 18 from1:00 to 3:00 p.m. EDT. It’s a free afternoon for children of all ages and their families with a look at how NASA’s most powerful space telescope will look at the universe and see further back in time than ever before.

The James Webb Space Telescope will examine every phase of our history including the first galaxies to form after the Big Bang. Through a variety of hands-on activities, visitors will model the life cycle of a star, explore how the Webb telescope will “see” the universe in infrared light, and see how its hardware pieces will fit together.

Children will partake in hands-on activities, and will be able to see what they look like in an infrared camera, similar to the one that will fly on the Webb telescope. By creating special bookmarks with multi-colored beads, children will learn about the difference between stars in the universe.

“The Sunday Experiment is a great way for the general public to meet and interact with some of our scientists and engineers while learning about our latest projects,” said Lynn Chandler, Communications Officer for the Webb Telescope at Goddard. “It is great fun for the entire family.”

As always, the Visitor Center’s Science on a Sphere theater will offer insight to Goddard’s cutting edge science and research.

The Sunday Experiment, held on the third Sunday of each month, spotlights Goddard’s world-renowned science and engineering research and technological developments. Families leave inspired by the activities, wowed by the scientists and engineers, and excited about Goddard’s revolutionary research and technology. In addition to celebrating all things science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the Sunday Experiment celebrates major science missions that are managed by NASA Goddard and set to launch in the near future.

For more information on the Sunday Experiment, visit Goddard’s Visitor Center Web page:

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/visitor/events/index.html

For more information and directions to the NASA Goddard Visitor’s Center, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/visitor/home/faq.html

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/visitor/directions/index.html

Source: NASA

Image: Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telecope.
Credit: ESA

Dark Matter Core Defies Explanation in NASA Hubble Image

Astronomers using data from NASA’s Hubble Telescope have observed what appears to be a clump of dark matter left behind from a wreck between massive clusters of galaxies. The result could challenge current theories about dark matter that predict galaxies should be anchored to the invisible substance even during the shock of a collision.

Abell 520 is a gigantic merger of galaxy clusters located 2.4 billion light-years away. Dark matter is not visible, although its presence and distribution is found indirectly through its effects. Dark matter can act like a magnifying glass, bending and distorting light from galaxies and clusters behind it. Astronomers can use this effect, called gravitational lensing, to infer the presence of dark matter in massive galaxy clusters.

This technique revealed the dark matter in Abell 520 had collected into a “dark core,” containing far fewer galaxies than would be expected if the dark matter and galaxies were anchored together. Most of the galaxies apparently have sailed far away from the collision.

“This result is a puzzle,” said astronomer James Jee of the University of California in Davis, lead author of paper about the results available online in The Astrophysical Journal. “Dark matter is not behaving as predicted, and it’s not obviously clear what is going on. It is difficult to explain this Hubble observation with the current theories of galaxy formation and dark matter.”

Initial detections of dark matter in the cluster, made in 2007, were so unusual that astronomers shrugged them off as unreal, because of poor data. New results from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope confirm that dark matter and galaxies separated in Abell 520.

One way to study the overall properties of dark matter is by analyzing collisions between galaxy clusters, the largest structures in the universe. When galaxy clusters crash, astronomers expect galaxies to tag along with the dark matter, like a dog on a leash. Clouds of hot, X-ray emitting intergalactic gas, however, plow into one another, slow down, and lag behind the impact.

That theory was supported by visible-light and X-ray observations of a colossal collision between two galaxy clusters called the Bullet Cluster. The galactic grouping has become an example of how dark matter should behave.

Studies of Abell 520 showed that dark matter’s behavior may not be so simple. Using the original observations, astronomers found the system’s core was rich in dark matter and hot gas, but contained no luminous galaxies, which normally would be seen in the same location as the dark matter. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory was used to detect the hot gas. Astronomers used the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea to infer the location of dark matter by measuring the gravitationally lensed light from more distant background galaxies.

The astronomers then turned to the Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, which can detect subtle distortions in the images of background galaxies and use this information to map dark matter. To astronomers’ surprise, the Hubble observations helped confirm the 2007 findings.

“We know of maybe six examples of high-speed galaxy cluster collisions where the dark matter has been mapped,” Jee said. “But the Bullet Cluster and Abell 520 are the two that show the clearest evidence of recent mergers, and they are inconsistent with each other. No single theory explains the different behavior of dark matter in those two collisions. We need more examples.”

The team proposed numerous explanations for the findings, but each is unsettling for astronomers. In one scenario, which would have staggering implications, some dark matter may be what astronomers call “sticky.” Like two snowballs smashing together, normal matter slams together during a collision and slows down. However, dark matter blobs are thought to pass through each other during an encounter without slowing down. This scenario proposes that some dark matter interacts with itself and stays behind during an encounter.

Another possible explanation for the discrepancy is that Abell 520 has resulted from a more complicated interaction than the Bullet Cluster encounter. Abell 520 may have formed from a collision between three galaxy clusters, instead of just two colliding systems in the case of the Bullet Cluster.

A third possibility is that the core contained many galaxies, but they were too dim to be seen, even by Hubble. Those galaxies would have to have formed dramatically fewer stars than other normal galaxies. Armed with the Hubble data, the group will try to create a computer simulation to reconstruct the collision and see if it yields some answers to dark matter’s weird behavior.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

For more information about Hubble visit: http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

Image Credit: NASAESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee (University of California, Davis), and A. Mahdavi (San Francisco State University)

Source: NASA

Young Stars Flicker Amidst Clouds of Gas and Dust

Astronomers have spotted young stars in the Orion nebula changing right before their eyes, thanks to the European Space Agency‘s Herschel Space Observatory and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The colorful specks — developing stars strung across the image — are rapidly heating up and cooling down, speaking to the turbulent, rough-and-tumble process of reaching full stellar adulthood.

The rainbow of colors represents different wavelengths of infrared light captured by both Spitzer and Herschel. Spitzer is designed to see shorter infrared wavelengths than Herschel. By combining their observations, astronomers get a more complete picture of star formation. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer mission for NASA, and also plays an important role in the European Space Agency-led Herschel mission.

In the portion of the Orion nebula pictured, the telescopes’ infrared vision reveals a host of embryonic stars hidden in gas and dust clouds. These stars are at the very earliest stages of evolution.

A star forms as a clump of this gas and dust collapses, creating a warm glob of material fed by an encircling disk. In several hundred thousand years, some of the forming stars will accrete enough material to trigger nuclear fusion at their cores, and then blaze into stardom.

Herschel mapped this region of the sky once a week for six weeks in the late winter and spring of 2011. To monitor for activity in protostars, Herschel’s Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer probed long infrared wavelengths of light that trace cold dust particles, while Spitzer gauged the warmer dust emitting shorter infrared wavelengths. In this data, astronomers noticed that several of the young stars varied in their brightness by more than 20 percent over just a few weeks. As this twinkling comes from cool material emitting infrared light, the material must be far from the hot center of the young star, likely in the outer disk or surrounding gas envelope. At that distance, it should take years or centuries for material to spiral closer in to the growing starlet, rather than mere weeks.

A couple of scenarios under investigation could account for this short span. One possibility is that lumpy filaments of gas funnel from the outer to the central regions of the star, temporarily warming the object as the clumps hit its inner disk. Or, it could be that material occasionally piles up at the inner edge of the disk and casts a shadow on the outer disk.

“Herschel’s exquisite sensitivity opens up new possibilities for astronomers to study star formation, and we are very excited to have witnessed short-term variability in Orion protostars,” said Nicolas Billot, an astronomer at the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM) in Grenada, Spain who is preparing a paper on the findings along with his colleagues. “Follow-up observations with Herschel will help us identify the physical processes responsible for the variability.”

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA’s Herschel Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel’s three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information is online at http://www.herschel.caltech.edu , http://www.nasa.gov/herschel andhttp://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Herschel .

Image Credit: JPL
Source: JPL/NASA

SETI Live to Crowdsource Search for Extraterrestrials

As part of the TED Prize Wish made by renowned astronomer Jill Tarter, the TED Prize today launches SETI Live (setilive.org): a site where – for the first time – the public can view data being collected by radio telescopes and collectively help search for intelligent life on other planets. Read More →