Researchers Discover Four New Galaxy Clusters

Caption: Perseus galaxy cluster. [D. W. Hogg/M. Blanton/SDSS Collaboration].

Caption: Perseus galaxy cluster. [D. W. Hogg/M. Blanton/SDSS Collaboration].

Four unknown galaxy clusters each potentially containing thousands of individual galaxies have been discovered some 10 billion light years from Earth.

An international team of astronomers, led by Imperial College London, used a new way of combining data from the two European Space Agency satellites, Planck and Herschel, to identify more distant galaxy clusters than has previously been possible. The researchers believe up to 2000 further clusters could be identified using this technique, helping to build a more detailed timeline of how clusters are formed. Read More →

What White Dwarfs Can Tell Us About the Universe

Birth of a white dwarf (bright spot at the center) in the Dumbbell Nebula./ Credit: Telescopio Joan Oro - Observatori Astronomic del Montsec

Birth of a white dwarf (bright spot at the center) in the Dumbbell Nebula./ Credit: Telescopio Joan Oro – Observatori Astronomic del Montsec

Researchers from Europe and the U.S. have ruled out a multitude of possible parameters for dark photons – a type of dark matter and energy – with the help of white dwarfs. In some aspects, the shining of these dying stars gives more information on dark forces than is provided by earth-based laboratories. The journal ‘Physical Review D’ has published the study [citation below]. Read More →

How the Largest Known Star is Tearing Itself Apart

The new VST image of the star cluster Westerlund 1. The stars in the cluster appear red due to foreground dust blocking out their blue light. The blue stars are foreground objects and are not related to the cluster. The star W26 is in the upper left of the cluster and is surrounded by a green glow. Credit: ESO/VPHAS+ Survey/N. Wright.

The new VST image of the star cluster Westerlund 1. The stars in the cluster appear red due to foreground dust blocking out their blue light. The blue stars are foreground objects and are not related to the cluster. The star W26 is in the upper left of the cluster and is surrounded by a green glow. Credit: ESO/VPHAS+ Survey/N. Wright.

An international team of astronomers has observed part of the final death throes of the largest known star in the Universe as it throws off its outer layers. The discovery, by a collaboration of scientists from the UK, Chile, Germany and the USA, is a vital step in understanding how massive stars return enriched material to the interstellar medium – the space between stars – which is necessary for forming planetary systems. The researchers publish their results in the Oxford University Press journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (citation below). Read More →

NASA Hubble Finds New Neptune Moon

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting Neptune. The black and white image was taken in 2009 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 in visible light. Hubble took the color inset of Neptune on August 2009. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter/SETI Institute

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting Neptune. The black and white image was taken in 2009 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 in visible light. Hubble took the color inset of Neptune on August 2009.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter/SETI Institute

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a new moon orbiting the distant blue-green planet Neptune, the 14th known to be circling the giant planet.

The moon, designated S/2004 N 1, is estimated to be no more than 12 miles across, making it the smallest known moon in the Neptunian system. It is so small and dim that it is roughly 100 million times fainter than the faintest star that can be seen with the naked eye. It even escaped detection by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, which flew past Neptune in 1989 and surveyed the planet’s system of moons and rings.

Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., found the moon July 1, while studying the faint arcs, or segments of rings, around Neptune. “The moons and arcs orbit very quickly, so we had to devise a way to follow their motion in order to bring out the details of the system,” he said. “It’s the same reason a sports photographer tracks a running athlete — the athlete stays in focus, but the background blurs.”

The method involved tracking the movement of a white dot that appears over and over again in more than 150 archival Neptune photographs taken by Hubble from 2004 to 2009.

On a whim, Showalter looked far beyond the ring segments and noticed the white dot about 65,400 miles from Neptune, located between the orbits of the Neptunian moons Larissa and Proteus. The dot is S/2004 N 1. Showalter plotted a circular orbit for the moon, which completes one revolution around Neptune every 23 hours.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a cooperative project 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.

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Meteorites May Reveal Mars’ Secrets of Life


In an effort to determine if conditions were ever right on Mars to sustain life, a team of scientists, including a Michigan State University professor, has examined a meteorite that formed on the red planet more than a billion years ago.

And although this team’s work is not specifically solving the mystery, it is laying the groundwork for future researchers to answer this age-old question.

The problem, said MSU geological sciences professor Michael Velbel, is that most meteorites that originated on Mars arrived on Earth so long ago that now they have characteristics that tell of their life on Earth, obscuring any clues it might offer about their time on Mars.

“These meteorites contain water-related mineral and chemical signatures that can signify habitable conditions,” he said. “The trouble is by the time most of these meteorites have been lying around on Earth they pick up signatures that look just like habitable environments, because they are. Earth, obviously, is habitable.

“If we could somehow prove the signature on the meteorite was from before it came to Earth, that would be telling us about Mars.”

Specifically, the team found mineral and chemical signatures on the rocks that indicated terrestrial weathering – changes that took place on Earth. The identification of these types of changes will provide valuable clues as scientists continue to examine the meteorites.

“Our contribution is to provide additional depth and a little broader view than some work has done before in sorting out those two kinds of water-related alterations – the ones that happened on Earth and the ones that happened on Mars,” Velbel said.

Image Credit: Michigan State University

Image Credit: Michigan State University

The meteorite that Velbel and his colleagues examined – known as a nakhlite meteorite – was recovered in 2003 in the Miller Range of Antarctica. About the size of a tennis ball and weighing in at one-and-a-half pounds, the meteorite was one of hundreds recovered from that area.

Velbel said past examinations of meteorites that originated on Mars, as well as satellite and Rover data, prove water once existed on Mars, which is the fourth planet from the sun and Earth’s nearest Solar System neighbor.

“However,” he said, “until a Mars mission successfully returns samples from Mars, mineralogical studies of geochemical processes on Mars will continue to depend heavily on data from meteorites.”

Velbel is currently serving as a senior fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

The research is published in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta (citation below), a bi-weekly journal co-sponsored by two professional societies, the Geochemical Society and the Meteoritical Society.

Source: Michigan State University


Stopar, J., Taylor, G., Velbel, M., Norman, M., Vicenzi, E., & Hallis, L. (2013). Element abundances, patterns, and mobility in Nakhlite Miller Range 03346 and implications for aqueous alteration Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 112, 208-225 DOI: 10.1016/j.gca.2013.02.024

Newborn Stars and their Effect on the Universe

Star Cluster

When galaxies form new stars, they sometimes do so in frantic episodes of activity known as starbursts. These events were commonplace in the early Universe, but are rarer in nearby galaxies. Read More →

Reaching E.T. Through Standardized Protocols

Image Credit: SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy

Image Credit: SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy

Choosing a single telecommunications protocol has always been difficult for engineers on Earth, so it’s especially difficult for those who want to communicate with beings from another star system. While it’s nice to imagine that extraterrestrial beings would be able to interface with whatever protocol humans decide to encode a message in, that’s not a realistic way to think. Humanity has developed countless electronic communication technologies since the 19th century. There’s no reason to believe that extraterrestrial beings haven’t done the same thing.

SETI and METI organizations have developed a single protocol for sending messages to potential examples of intelligent life. There’s no way of knowing if another civilization could ever actually interpret these signals but the odds are at least a little better with standardized systems.

Imagine an engineer trying to decode a data transmission that no one had ever encountered before. They’d probably try to compare it to other transmissions sent with the same protocol, and then look for the symbols that appear the most. These symbols are probably encoding the most common glyphs in the written language that the transmission represents.

Now imagine that each transmission that the engineer encounters is in a different code. There’s no way for them to compare different messages, because there aren’t any similarities between the different protocols. By using a single system, Earthlings are giving extraterrestrial cultures a chance to decode messages by comparing them to one another. It wouldn’t have been possible for international communications to be achieved on Earth if everyone decided to use their own technology standards.

In fact, poor choices in the past have hampered many types of technological developments. If standardization had occurred between Earthbound transmission sites years ago, these problems would never have reared their ugly head. For that matter, extraterrestrials might very well have been able to intercept numerous types of incidental transmissions. If signals are as weak as one might expect them to be, every little bit matters when we’re talking about communicating across the universe.

If standardization is important, the types of signals sent are equally important (if not more so). Most scientists agree that radio waves are the best way to communicate with other planets/stars given our current level of knowledge. This is due to the fact that radio waves are able to traverse the vast distances involved in actually reaching other stars/planets outside the Milky Way galaxy. Even the closest stars are about 6 light-years away (each light-year is roughly 6 trillion miles). This means that any signals we send their way have to cut through enormous amounts of gas and other obstructions found in space. Radio waves are able to do this effectively (as opposed to say, lightwaves) while traveling vast distances at the speed of light. I have read the work of some scientists that believe lasers may be a good way to reach extraterrestrials as well. I personally feel this is a great alternative to microwaves alone.


While standardization and appropriate signal types are invaluable, they’re also practical because they help to reduce costs. While practicality isn’t something that most people like to discuss, it’s actually pretty necessary in the world of SETI/METI. Many of these organizations, such as the SETI Institute (SETI Institute listens for signals vs. transmitting signals), survive on public donations. They need to maximize what they get out of the financial resources that they’re given to work with. Developing a single standard algorithm helps to reduce the amount of money spent on research while maximizing the chances of success (choosing the right type of signal to send) are crucial to long-term survival. It also means that different pieces of equipment will always interface properly. This means that expensive converts/integrations won’t ever be necessary as long as everyone adheres to the existing standard.

From an engineering standpoint, these groups might want to look at their antennas and transmission sites next (in terms of standardization). Once protocols are standardized, they can begin to improve in other areas as well. Each little bit matters when trying to talk to someone that may exist on a planet that is trillions of miles away.


Atri, D., DeMarines, J., & Haqq-Misra, J. (2011). A protocol for messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence Space Policy, 27 (3), 165-169 DOI: 10.1016/j.spacepol.2011.01.001

Edmondson, W. (2010). Targets and SETI: Shared motivations, life signatures and asymmetric SETI Acta Astronautica, 67 (11-12), 1410-1418 DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2010.01.017

Radio Astronomy Equipment

Low noise RF filters have already changed radio astronomy quite a bit. However, they’ve usually been based around regular commercial, multi-stage receiver technology. Radio devices have progressed a great deal, especially considering the fact that the transistor has made them so much smaller. Custom designed components would have a number of benefits as well.

This isn’t to say that countless custom designs aren’t in service already. RF devices have simply developed along a certain path. This has allowed discoveries found in one scientific field to be used in many others. While this sort of system is beneficial, it has also forced many researchers to prefer developing components that could be used for countless applications.

Adventurous experimenters might want to try their hand at radio astronomy. They might feel they have nothing to lose. Taking a few proper safety and legal precautions are a must in the field. Some technology is not supposed to be used without a license, especially if it can transmit a signal. Reception of certain signals also might be unlawful. So be careful!

Nevertheless, home experimenters have pushed the boundaries of science in many ways. Hobbyists don’t have to worry about research grants or political motives. That means they might be the ones discovering quasars in the near future.

Image Credit:

Additional Learning Resources:

Stargazing with Open Source Software

While some of you may already run some version of Celestia on your computer, if you’re not, I encourage you to give it a try. Software download directories are regularly listing Celestia’s newer beta releases as they emerge and this particular program has really improved in recent years. Those of you that are using the software currently are likely checking out these releases already. Regular users should probably stick to the traditional version of Celestia, though you might want to check out Celestia Portable if you’re looking for a bit more flexibility in terms of portability. If Celestia isn’t your thing, you might be interested in some of the other planetarium software available out there as well.

Click HERE for links to Celestia software if you’d like to give it a whirl.

Anyone who uses open source software is used to having to download dependencies. Users such as myself spend a lot of time getting software situated just the way we like it. For instance, you might have some stars or trans-Neptunian objects marked so you can easily visit them again. It would be nice to bring these options anywhere you went, right? Portable software allows you to do this very thing. While you still might get stuck downloading dependencies from time to time, Celestia Portable enables you to carry your installation around with you on a thumb drive which is pretty cool. You don’t even have to reinstall it on other computers.

Fans of either the regular Celestia program or its portable cousin might want to have a look at Bing Maps as well. They’ve recently added some astronomy functions, and these can be entertaining for a period of time.

Lawrence Henderson’s Views Examined

Professor Lawrence J. Henderson (1878-1942)

Professor Lawrence J. Henderson is a fairly well known scholar in some circles. This might have to do with the fact that his lecture on astronomy was included in the Harvard Classics (1909-14). That work has now passed into the public domain, which means that readers might start to explore his work once more. Read More →