Sunday, September 30, 2012

Extremely Deep and Hubble-y Close

Remember the '90s? When we had such amazing picture taking technologies as Polaroid cameras? When cameras used to look like this:
Polaroid technology at it's finest!
Yes well that was also when we sent the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. That bad boy is a 7.9 foot aperture telescope that can see near ultraviolet rays, near infrared rays (like predator), and visible light rays. Us humans can only see the visible light rays (hence the name visible light). It's the only telescope that's designed to be serviced by astronauts in space while orbiting and it orbits the earth 14 to 15 times per day. It has taken some seriously sweet pictures that opened our eyes to new images and sparked our imaginations as to what's actually out in the depths of space.
A picture from the Hubble
So what does this picture and the Hubble have to do with deep space? Well, over the past 10 years the Hubble has been taking pictures for NASA and all of those pictures were patched together and created the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) photo. This photo is the deepest that we have ever been able to see into space:
This image is the deepest we've ever seen into space XDF
 That image has 5,500 galaxies in it. The Hubble detected all of those galaxies and some of them were one ten-billionth the brightness that the human eye can sense. That raises the question for me what more are we missing even on our own planet?

Direct imaging of planets: Harder than it sounds

In the deeps of space there are millions of unknown stars and planets, billions of secrets, and an untold wealth of knowledge waiting for us; the only hard part is discovering them. Recently several new planets have been discovered using a less-common technique of imaging stars and planets: direct imaging.  Now to the lay-person, direct imaging seems like the most reasonable way to discover things. Just take a picture of it right? Wrong. It's extremely hard to pinpoint an area to study, because space is HUGE. It's nigh on impossible to sift through everything with a fine-tooth comb, so other methods like infrared telescopy are used, because the heat released by stars and very large planets shows up clearly in the IR spectrum.
3 massive planets found via direct imaging link
The problem with IR telescopes is that small things like planets don't show up because they don't emit enough heat to show up on the telescope. Huge planets and more recently formed planets may emit a discernible amount of IR radiation, but most smaller or older planets don't emit IR waves at a level that can be picked up by current technology. This means that other planets are found through indirect data, and it only works for planets closer than 5 astronomical units (AU) to their parent stars.

Cue direct imaging.  Direct imaging is used when the planets are outside of the bounds of IR telescopy. The most common way of using a telescope for direct imaging is by employing a coronagraph. Coronagraphs filter out the light from a star, letting a telescope detect everything around the star without being obscured by the glare from the star. Simple ones can be made from a disc cut from a piece of cardboard and held in front of the sun to block it. For purposes of finding planets, there are much more sophisticated methods of blocking light, but the same general logic applies.

Coronagraph of the sun link
Using direct imaging, scientists in 2010 were able to accurately record 3 planets orbiting around star HR 8799. This is great news, because it offers definitive proof that many other stars have planetary systems, and it proves that vortex coronagraphy is a useful tool to be used on other systems. Using direct imaging, we may be able to find closer planets or planets that more closely resemble Earth. Direct imaging is a powerful tool and using it will hopefully allow scientists to find planets all throughout the universe. If we keep our fingers crossed, maybe one of those planets will support life.

Expected motion of 3 planets compared to Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune & Pluto link

Here's a link to the research article from the team that found these planets.
Vol. 322 no. 5906 pp. 1348-1352

- Colin Downs

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Remember the Voyager Mission? Research Papers Do!

So the objective of my blog this week is to take a research paper from a known source, in my case Science, and try to make that research more available to the public. The two reasons for this are increasing the knowledge on research through the blog as well as increase the audience of not only research topics on space exploration, but of scientific journals in general. Reading articles like these might make you want to pull your hair out, but the results from them are necessary to continue scientific discovery.

Don't get mad, read a science blog!

The following article is titled "Voyager Measurements of Hydrogen Lyman-a Diffuse Emission from
the Milky Way" by Rosine Lallement, Eric Quémerais, Jean-Loup Bertaux, Bill R. Sandel, and Vlad Izmodenov. Now I know this sounds like a mouthful, but when you boil it down, there are some interesting facts that have been discovered. The paper covers some of the data from the Voyager missions. If you are unfamiliar with it, you can read about it on their website here.

Interstellar Mission
The two Voyager satellites are beyond Pluto after 34 years

Hydrogen Lyman-a emissions, hydrogen ionized by ultraviolet radiation, are currently used to study other stars. Now that the Voyager satellites are beyond our solar system's heliosphere, so the authors want to see if these emissions can be studied for our solar system for the first time. Basically, they want to prove for our sun, what has been observed from other stars. The authors believe that the data recovered and analyzed can help improve the way scientists study other stars and low density areas of the galaxy. 

This is a very intense article, and it is not in my area of study. I found the article through my library's database, so I cannot post a link for you. If you would like to read more about Hydrogen Lyman-a emissions compared to other hydrogen emissions, then you are more than welcome to follow the link.

-Taylor Pellerin

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Predator Vision

Believe it or not, there's a lot that can be learned from Sci-Fi movies. Take the movie Predator for instance. The villain, an extra-terrestrial warrior with way too many fun gadgets uses IR (Infra-Red) vision quite frequently to find his prey.
Human "prey" as seen by a Predator
 The scientists at NASA may have watched this movie and thought, "Hey if the Predator can use IR vision to find his prey, we should be able to use it to find cool hidden things in space!" and thus created the Spitzer Space Telescope.
 A "Superbubble" seen in IR vision from the Spitzer Telescope
There happens to be a lot of stray dust and gasses hanging around in space, obscuring galactic cores and creating nice hiding spots for distant stars. The Spitzer, with IR vision, can see through these dust clouds and snap a picture of the heat you cant see with the bare eye. The capabilities of the Spitzer have let scientists find a young star, approximately 16 million years old, with a warm belt of dust sitting right in the "habitable" zone with another ring of icy dust further out. These two belts of dust may be in just the right position to create an earth-like planet.
Artist's concept of the young star and two dust belts.
Fortunately for us, NASA has extended funding for the Spitzer out to 2016, so hopefully we can find more stars out there with the capability to create habitable planets.
 The Predator approves of this post.

-Nolan Goodweiler

The Methane Myth

As researchers search the skies for alien life on distant planets like we've seen in Star Trek, there have recently been some interesting findings that may or may not indicate life.

Artist concept Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith
The photo above is an image of a common meteor that can be found hurling through space. One thing researches look for to indicate life on a new planet is oxygen. Oxygen is too chemically reactive to remain for very long without organisms continually producing it. Another gas they look for is methane; a colorless, odorless gas that is produced by microbes on Earth. The "myth" about the methane researchers have recently discovered on distant planets lies within meteors like the one pictured above. These meteors contain the methane we are finding in the atmospheres of the newly discovered planets. When the meteor crashes into the surface of the planet, the methane contained within them gets released to the atmosphere and makes its way to our telescopes. This is fooling our astronomers into believing they've discovered new alien life! The discovery of this "meteor methane" has brought with it a string of sad astronomers that have been fooled by the methane myth. While there may still be life on these planets, we will have to figure out a different indication than the presence of methane in the atmosphere.

-Shane Giskaas

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cold As Ice

Everyone has at some point seen a picture or a video of Armstrong walking on the moon. The suits that he had to wear seem so bulky, but every piece of it is necessary for his survival in space. Probably one of the most iconic pictures from outer space is of an astronaut floating with the earth in the background.
One of the reasons for the attire is the main discussion of this post, the temperature in outer space. Depending on your location, the temperature can vary drastically. First, we must discuss what space is, or isn't in this case. Outer space, beyond Earth's atmosphere, is a lack of particles which essentially creates a vacuum. There will always be some stray particles, but few enough to where they are irrelevant.
Heat is a form of energy that is transfered through matter. Since space is the absence of matter, there is no way that this energy can travel by conduction. This vacuum works like a large thermos that keeps hot objects hot and cold objects cold. In direct sunlight in outer space, temperatures on the moon can reach 240 degrees Farenheit and can drop to below -290 degrees!
So how cold does space get if there is no source of heat? Well, if a point in space is found where there are no particles floating around and there is no source of heat, the temperature can drop to 2.73 Kelvin! The lowest naturally occuring temperature is 0 Kelvin which is called "Absolute Zero". At these temperatures, no human can survive.
So the suits that the astronauts wear seem to work pretty well maintaining the body's temperature at these extreme conditions. If you would like to know more about what other bodily harm outer space can cause, check out this fun and educational site from NASA. Enjoy!

-Taylor Pellerin

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Europa: Endless possibilities

One of Jupiter's 67 moons, Europa is of special interest to scientists. Europa is about the size of our moon, but the entire surface is covered in ice, and it is hypothesized that there is an incredible ocean of liquid water under the surface of the ice. From gathered data, the ocean is predicted to be anywhere from 25-100 km deep. This volume of water is potentially 2-3 times larger than the entire amount of water on Earth, so this is a great discovery. Several scientists and roboticists have hypothesized on different ways to drill into the ice and study the ocean beneath. One model involves a melting drill to bore a hole to the liquid, and then a submersible device to investigate the seas below. It has been successfully tested, and can also be used to investigate terrestrial ice structures. 

Overall the future of Europa depends on NASA funding. With enough support, we could send a rover or a drilling device to investigate and learn much more about our neighboring planets and moons. Perhaps we could even find life down there, lurking in the deep. 

-Colin Downs

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mars vs. Star Wars

Seeing as how the Mars Rover is becoming such a hot topic we found this image and figured it appropriate for space exploration.This is where we found it. Techblog.
      According to Curiosity landed on Mars in Gale Crater. It's been hanging out there and snapping photos since August 5th, 2012. And it's not just photographing the red planet... it's taking rock samples too! It is roaming around and selecting rocks to shoot x-rays at.
Super Rock x-ray powers don't just belong to the man of steel anymore!

 By shooting the x-rays and exposing the rocks to different particles it can tell scientists exactly what chemicals are in the space rocks that Curiosity is finding. We even do this process for our rocks that we have here on Earth too. By doing this scientists can determine whether or not "the fire star" (aka Mars) was ever or ever will be capable of supporting life. 

~Nate McClain