Archive for the ‘astrophysics’ Category

Release The Planet Hunter

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Tomorrow evening, at about 9:50PM CST, NASA is launching (depicted in the animation above), its new planet-hunting space telescope on a mission to find Earth-sized and Earth-like planets that might have liquid water.  This is important, of course, because it means that these planets could be home to life. It is also important as this means these planets might be “habitable”. To understand the significance of this quest, I point you to the recent TED Talks presentation by , which is well worth the time to watch:

At the heart of this mission is the effort to determine just how common planets such as our own are. Some fear we are a unique occurrence in the universe, others believe that earths are possibly quite common. Kepler is departing to bring some resolution to this schism.

The Kepler mission is named after , astronomer and author of .

Death Star

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

supernova remnant Cassiopeia A

It’s a bit blurry, but the image above is no less incredible. It depicts the shock waves and ejected material from a star going supernova. Recently, compositing images from a range of orbiting and terrestrial telescopes, MIT researchers created the reconstruction of what remained of this star after the explosive, cataclysmic supernova. These remains, referred to as a “supernova remnant”, are now called , and they are comprised of a set of intertwined bubble-like shells of debris that were spewed in the midst of the star’s destruction about 330 years ago (the expansion estimated to have begun in 1667).

Shown in the video below is the evolution of Cassiopeia A made using techniques from medical imaging. This animation combines X-ray images from Chandra, NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, and ground-based, visible-light telescopes to create the first three-dimensional animation of a supernova remnant. In this composite, note that:

  • lowest energy X-rays are shown in red
  • intermediate energies in green and the highest X-ray energies in blue
  • that the explosion’s outer blast wave, moving slower than expected at 18 million kph, is also shown in blue


from on .

Looking more closely at the aftermath of this massive event, the animation below depicts Cassiopeia A based on data also from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. As you watch this, note that:

  • green indicates mostly X-ray emissions from iron
  • yellow reveals mostly X-ray, infrared and visible-light emissions from argon and silicon
  • red is the coolest debris, seen in infrared
  • blue depicts X-rays from the outer blast wave


from on .

Magnetic Fields Made Visible

Sunday, October 19th, 2008


from on .

A pretty incredible film shot at NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratories at UC Berkeley that does an excellent job visually describing the magnetic fields of the sun. We’re surrounded by them, as well as a complexity of other magnetic fields, and it is interesting to think that as we move through our environments we are moving through the intricate patterns made by these fields.

Check out for more information on magnetic fields and the making of this film. Also, from the same group that did the film above, there is the video below which has taken the enormous library of images from solar astronomy and pieced them together into gorgeous time-lapse photography that captures some of the stunning activity happening on the surface of the sun. At about four minutes the video below gets really, really interesting and relates strongly to my previous post The Surface of A Star:


from on .

The Surface of a Star

Monday, October 13th, 2008

I have posted about the sun previously (here and here), but the images I came across today at stopped me in my tracks. Simply amazing. We’re seeing the surface of the sun, our sun, the surface of a star. Images like above, which captures a massive solar flare, and images like this:

This shows the magnetic structures of the sun and was taken by the in the back in 2003. Do yourself a favor and go to and see these images in larger scale (or at least click on them here to see them larger). They’re stunning. I mean, check this out:

You are seeing the roiling, molten surface in detail, the bubble shaped objects packed tight are called “granules”. The dark shape in the upper left is an irregularly shaped sunspot. These are all amazing to me, but then there is the as it projects over a billion tons of matter into space at over a million kilometers per hour:

I am wide-eyed. That is all.

The Biggest Computer Grid in The World

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Previously, I posted about the Large Hadron Collider (here and here) and how upon completion it became the most complex machine ever built by mankind. The LHC was successfully tested just a few weeks ago, and despite some minor setbacks recently is set to deliver a treasure trove of information to researchers about the earliest moments of the universe over the next year.

As part of this research, and to enable the analysis of huge, huge amounts of data, a collaborative approach has been taken to create a virtual computer capable of this task. This analysis will be mankind’s biggest data challenge, and on October 3rd the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid came online, becoming the largest computer grid in the world. This grid is comprised of 140 computer centers in 33 countries and will have the capability of processing, analyzing, and managing over 15 million gigabytes of information from the LHC each year.

This collaborative, networked approach not only makes this complex analysis possible, but it allows a diversity of research groups globally to participate and benefit from the information generated by the LHC experiments.

This networked grid of computers would seem to align with my Network is The Computer post from a few weeks ago.

More information at .

Biggest Canyon in The Solar System

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

More incredible imagery from Mars. This time it is a nice detail image of Ius Chasma, an area within Valles Marineris which is believed to be the largest canyon in the solar system. This recently released image by NASA was snapped by the , one of the many robotic explorers working for us on Mars right now, and shows in pretty stunning detail the stratigraphic layers believed to have been created by both wind and water. I am in awe of the detail of this image and with the frequency and quality of images available to us from Mars. Nice work NASA, the ESA, and all of your partners for all of the Mars missions. I’m a fan.

Test Firing of The LHC

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

CERN test fired the , which I wrote about previously this year, earlier this week and, minus a couple minor electrical issues, the test firing was a success. The test this week was just an activation of the particle beam accelerator, testing the firing of the beam in both directions of the 17 mile accelerator, with the first beam collisions not planned for testing until October when researchers at CERN will intersect proton beams. When fully operational the LHC will allow researchers to recreate and closely observe the earliest moments of the universe and record the particle behaviors that occur during these incredibly brief moments.

Putting some numbers (via ) to all of this, when up and fully functional the LHC will accelerate protons in 14,000,000,000,000 electron volt collisions 600,000,000 times a second after traveling 26,659 meters (17 miles) at 11,245 times a second. To do this the LHC will utilize 10,000 tons of liquid nitrogen cooling 9,300 magnets to control these proton collisions occuring at 99.99% the speed of light, all taking place at -271.3°C (-456°F) and 10-13 atmospheres.

There is much misguided fear that the firing of the LHC will potentially end reality as we know it. There is absolutely no science behind these fears. Regardless, it is interesting to contemplate:

Up Close With Enceladus

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

Saturn’s moon , pictured above in a full color image from a flyby in 2005 and written about on schneiderism before, received a close visit from the on August 11th. This flyby allowed Cassini to snap incredible surface detail images. The following are some of the more compelling pictures to come out of this flyby.

Below is an image of “The Mound,” which is the object in the center right of the image which is casting a long shadow to the right. The incredible detail of this photo shows us the complexity of ridges, fissures, and cracks that makes up the surface of Enceladus, looking almost like a close-up image of elephant skin.

One thing that Cassini potentially revealed is evidence of the active venting occurring on Enceladus, venting observed by Cassini on previous missions. The image below appears to show this venting in progress, and in detail. Looking at the center of the image, note the blurred whisps over the whitish fissure feature. Serious speculation suggests that we’re seeing active venting right there:

Cassini was able to get very close to Enceladus, much closer than previous visits, and the images below show the high detail that this made possible. The first was taken by Cassini at a distance of about 1600 miles, the second even closer taken from about 975 miles. Both are incredible.

From 1600 miles:

From 975 miles:

I do not think that we can overstate how incredible it is to be seeing the surface of Enceladus in such rich detail, truly an important and amazing accomplishment. These images are a treasure trove of information for researchers and scientists seeking to learn more about our solar system.

More on Cassini’s August 11th flyby of Enceladus at , and a very informative article on Enceladus can be found at .

Mercury: That’s Going to Leave a Mark

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Catching up on the deluge that is my RSS reader lately, I came across this image from of the (also called Caloris Planitia) on Mercury recently snapped by the Mercury Messenger robotic explorer. It’s huge, and one of the largest impact basins from an asteroid-sized object in our solar system. The basin measures over 1,500 km across. The image above is a image in order to enhance details not visible in a true color image. The yellowish object dominating the image is obviously the impact crater of the Caloris basin, but the orange spots above denote volcanic activity on Mercury, which is new evidence provided by Messenger that the smooth plains of Mercury are actually lava flows.

I had previously written about Mercury and NASA’s Messenger mission here and here.

On The Subject of Io

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Jupiter’s moons Amalthea and Io

The image above is via the Galileo explorer and depicts the volcanic moon Io previously discussed, with its neighboring moon . Amalthea is small, and has been misshapen by the incredible volatility of existing in close proximity to Io and Jupiter. It’s a tough neighborhood. As Io is swept by Jupiter’s electromagnetic field huge amounts of material are scoured off of Io and spiraled towards Jupiter. At times Amalthea orbit takes it directly into the path of this material, and the total intensity of the power generated, and it is thought that this has created its intense reddish color and elongated shape.

via

Tvashtar Catena Caldera on Io

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Moon Io - Tvashtar Catena composite detail image

I came across this composite image last evening and it stopped me in my tracks. Click on it to view larger, it’s worth it. Here is an enormous, active chain of , named Tvashtar Catena, on Jupiter’s moon and we get to see it in amazing detail and color. This is a color intensified composite made up of images taken by Galileo back in 2000 and composited by .

Back in 1999 the Galileo Orbiter snapped some pictures of an active fissure eruption in this caldera. The eruption let loose lava flows that were 30km long and 1.5km high. Here’s a composited image from those pictures:

1999 eruption on Io at Tvashtar Catena via Galileo

Io is the most volcanic body in our solar system with its surface literally covered in lava lakes, giant calderas, and active lava flows. The color of Io is mostly due to the huge amounts of sulfur that blanket its surface from all of this activity, which has remained continuous as long as we have been able to observe this moon. We have measured volcanic eruptions on this moon that have created sulfurous plumes 500km high. Because Io orbits closely to Jupiter it is subject to intense electromagnetic radiation. As Jupiter’s magnetosphere rotates it sweeps Io and strips away nearly 1 ton per second of volcanic gases and other materials. Io actually acts as an enormous electrical generator as it moves through Jupiter’s magnetic field developing 400,000 volts across its diameter and generating 3 million amperes that flow across the magnetic field and into Jupiter’s ionosphere.

Space Travel and Human Survival

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

The Lego Stephen Hawking

Last Monday Stephen Hawking at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of NASA. Hawking has long been a proponent of the value of humans exploring space, and again called for a determined effort by humans to colonize the moon and Mars. He put special emphasis on putting humans into space, and not relying solely on robotic explorers, which is largely driven by the survival of humans, longer term, and is an insurance policy against war, catastrophe, and disaster here on Earth. A great quote from the speech:

“Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

With regards to life on other planets, Hawking offered three possibilities: that life in the universe, of any type, is rare; that simple forms of life may be common, but intelligent forms of life rare; or that intelligent life typically destroys itself. He went on to say:

“Personally, I favor the second possibility – that primitive life is relatively common, but that intelligent life is very rare. Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth.”

Stephen Hawking

The Most Complex Machine Ever Built

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Large Hadron Collider

You’ve no doubt already heard of the (LHC) due to the recent resurgence in mainstream media. This is partly because it is a really big deal, connecting us to the earliest moments of the formation of the universe, and partly because some people are worried that when scientists, physicists, and researchers fire it up that it will end reality… and as a result these people are pretty active. That’s , the world will not be consumed by tiny black holes. Rest easy.

So, what is the LHC for? It has been constructed to recreate the conditions that occurred just after the Big Bang. In recreating these early moments of the universe we may be able to understand how the first particles were conceived, and thus help us better understand how the universe actually works. The LHC will do this in a very controlled environment, and be heavily measured, recorded and monitored. It will allow us to repeat this experiment with frequency, greatly increasing our ability to study and understand. In short, this is an enormous step towards enlightenment, understanding the nature of reality, and will fill in many of the theoretical blanks that physicists and cosmologists have struggled with for a long, long time. In the name of epistemology, this is a very, very good thing.

LHC Facts:

  • It is made up of 2000 super conducting magnets
  • It will utilize the most complex cameras ever made
  • These cameras will be able to capture impossibly small time horizons
  • The LHC is the culmination of over two decades of work
  • Construction involved 7,000 physicists from 80 nations
  • It is located 175 meters underground and is 27+ kilometers in diameter
  • Once operational, protons will be accelerated close to the speed of light
  • Every second there will be 800 million proton collisions
  • Only a fraction of these matter, and will captured by cameras mentioned above
  • Particles created will exist for a thousandth, of a thousandth, of a billionth of a second
  • These collisions will generate heat 1 million times hotter than the core of the sun

To achieve this, the LHC team has had to build an incredibly complex machine of enormous scale. Just one of the superconducting solenoids contains more iron than the Eiffel Tower. There are many of these making up the LHC particle accelerator. The receptors and detectors are housed in giant rooms that are as big as cathedrals. The cost of this project was of such a magnitude (estimates range in the $6 billion and up range) that the United States halted its own Superconducting Super Collider back in 1993.

Excellent video of the LHC and the planned experiments (part 1 of 3):

The Loss of Arthur C. Clarke

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke

Catching up on my feeds just now I was saddened to see that , physicist, author, innovator, futurist, and ardent believer in the potential of humanity, has died. He was 90, so the man had a very decent run. Perhaps his most recognized work was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie for which just celebrated its 40th anniversary. He leaves behind an enormous legacy of invention, creativity, art, and inspiration having written over 100 books. Enormous. Few have been so profoundly influential to so many, and managed to do it with such consistent style, usually sporting a satin Nehru jacket and tanned from the beaches of his home in Sri Lanka. For me, Arthur C. Clarke is the Yin to Philip K. Dick’s Yang. A couple great quotes from Clarke in honor of his passing…

Reflecting on his life:

“Sometimes I am asked how I would like to be remembered. I have had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer and space promoter. Of all these I would like to be remembered as a writer.”

A terrific quote on the value of the space program, from 1970:

“The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars… A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space.”

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Enceladus via Cassini

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Cassini flies by Enceladus

Absolutely stunning imagery of the recent fly-by of Saturn’s moon by Cassini presented in a photo animation. You will find little mention of this in the news, and that is mostly because the news does not care. Lost opportunity for the news. We’ve investigated the robotic Cassini probe here before, and it continues to be very, very busy. On March 12th Cassini flew within 30 miles of Enceladus, approaching from above Enceladus’ north pole and thus seeing the moon as a crescent. Some facts on this beautiful moon:

  • Enceladus is very bright, reflecting nearly 100% of the light that strikes it
  • This is because we believe it is almost entirely covered in water ice
  • It’s surface is considered to be geologically young at less than 100 million years old
  • There is evidence indicating that the interior of the moon may still be liquid
  • It is about 500 km wide, or roughly the width of the state of Arizona
  • Enceladus is known as the “geyser moon” because of enormous eruptions
  • These are created by the release of energy caused by frictional geothermal heating

More on Enceladus and Cassini’s observations , , and .

Jupiter: Images Defy Any Narrative

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

Jupiter and moon IO as seen from New Horizons via Travis Rector

Jupiter - Surface motion animation

False color Jupiter image

Jupiter captured by Cassini

These images just blow me away.

Cosmic Scale

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

The universe is inconceivably vast and empty and we are incredibly isolated here on our little blue speck of dust. This cold, hard reality is an abstraction to most of us because as far as we’re concerned, we’ve got it pretty good. This video is along the lines of the one I posted earlier in the week that contrasts Earth against some impossibly large celestial bodies elsewhere in the universe. More fuel for universal irrelevancy.

Video found via , a smart and superbly generalist blog I recently discovered.

Interstellar Perspective

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Cosmological Perspective

Pretty incredible, really, just how seemingly microscopic not only our lovely planet, but our entire solar system is when contrasted against the largest known star in the universe, . This star is a hypergiant located about 5,000 light years from Earth. VY Canis Majoris is so enormous that a human walking on its surface at a normal pace of 3mph for 8 hours per day would take 650,000 years to circumnavigate. It would take 2 years 11 months to complete the same task here on Earth. The volume of VY Canis Majoris is nearly a billion times that of our own Sun.

Animation via via my lovely wife.

Messenger Beams Back First Image From Mercury

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

Mercury as seen from Messenger

I have posted previously about the planet Mercury, so I was excited to learn that the robotic Mercury research spacecraft had sent back it’s first image of the planet, the first since Mariner 10 visited Mercury 30 years ago. Messenger stands for the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemsitry, and Ranging mission. The image above was was taken on January 11 as Messenger approached Mercury (at just over 1 million miles from the planet). Scheduled for Monday is a pass at about 125 miles over Mercury’s surface. The plan is for Messenger to make two more close passes (in October 2008 and September 2009) before settling into orbit in March of 2011 and initiating its mission of mapping the surface of Mercury in detail. And in color.

Mercury is the fastest planet in our solar system, and the maneuvering that Messenger will have to do (see graphic below from the Messenger website) to comfortably settle into an observational orbit is complex. It involves the three flybys mentioned to help the craft build up enough speed to match Mercury as it settles into orbit, called “Mercury Orbit Insertion,” or MOI. Messenger will also use a series of trajectory corrections and deep space maneuvers achieved by the controlled firing of its thrusters.

Messenger trajectory map

The Survival Value of Intelligence

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

Stephen Hawking

Over the course of his life, has made a number of sharp and pointed comments with regards to humanity. One of the most memorable for me would be:

It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value.”

Stephen Hawking

Today he celebrates his 66th birthday. The man is beyond remarkable, and ranks up there with Carl Sagan as an inspiring astrophysicist who has made his life’s work making cosmology understandable and of value to the rest of us. From his limited physical state, the man has tirelessly worked to broaden our understanding of the universe we live in, and the physics of that reality, in ways that are beautiful and poetic while eschewing complex technical descriptions. He also has a terrificly dry sense of humor which he wields at every opportunity. His approach to life is probably as simple as stated in this statement, one we could take the time to consider:

“When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have”

Stephen Hawking

More about my favorite living cosmologist , , and from YouTube, Stephen Hawking lectures on the .