Nice pic. of the Discovery on approach to the ISS, taken from earth.

This is an image of the Space Shuttle Discovery taken from the ground, no easy feat in itself. But it wasn’t taken by an observatory or a massive scientific instrument. Rob Bullen snapped this image from the UK using an 8.5″ telescope – that he was guiding by hand.

The ISS isn’t so hard to see from the ground–it’s well more than 300 feet long these days–but it is moving really, really quickly – like 17,000 miles per hour quickly.

Amazing 🙂


The largest black hole ever measured

A universal heavyweight champion was crowned this morning at the 217th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle: A giant black hole weighing a staggering 6.6 billion suns accepted the title of the most massive black hole for which a precise mass has been determined.

That’s not to say it’s necessarily the largest black hole in the universe by any means, but we haven’t measured a bigger one. Located at the heart of the galaxy M87 some 50 million light years away in the direction of Virgo, the black hole is so big it could swallow our solar system hole easily. Its event horizon – the boundary at which nothing, not even light, can escape the monster’s gravitational pull – is four times as large as the orbit of Neptune, our sun’s outermost planetary satellite.

Previous estimates of M87’s black hole mass registered at some 3 billion suns, still 1,000 times the size of the Milky Way’s welterweight black hole. The new measurements were acquired using the adaptive optics capabilities on the 26.6-foot Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which can compensate for the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere. This allowed astronomers to gauge just how fast the stars in M87 are orbiting the black hole, and from that they could determine the mass.

If one simply compares the old measurements of M87’s black hole to it’s current massive size, it might beg the question: Is M87 juicing? Indeed, astronomers think the black hole did get some outside help beefing up over the course of its lifetime. Aside from feasting on gas and stars, M87’s champion is likely the result of a series of black hole mergers, the last of which may have happened in the not too distant past.

Whether M87’s black hole achieved its mass fairly or not, it may not hold the heavyweight title for very long anyhow. Over the next decade astronomers plan to hook up telescopes all over the world to create a whole Earth submillimeter array that will vastly increase their ability to locate event horizons and characterize the size of black holes throughout the universe.


Beam me up, Scotty!

Using only light, Australian researchers say they are able to move small particles almost five feet through the air. It’s more than 100 times the distance achieved by existing optical “tweezers,” the researchers say.

Not quite a simple grabby tractor beam, the new system works by shining a hollow laser beam at an object and taking advantage of air-temperature differences to move it around.

Moving objects with powerful light is not new — researchers have long been using optical tweezers to pluck bacteria-sized particles and move them a few millimeters. The U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, won his Nobel Prize for work with optical tweezers. But Andrei Rhode and colleagues at the Australian National University say their new laser device can move glass objects hundreds of times bigger than bacteria, and shove them a meter and a half (5 feet) or more. Rhode says the 1.5-meter limit was only because of the size of the table where he placed his lasers — he thinks he can move objects up to 10 meters, or about 30 feet.

It works by shining a hollow laser beam around small glass particles, as Inside Science explains. The air around the particle heats up, but the hollow center of the beam stays cool. The heated air molecules keep the object balanced in the dark center. But a small amount of light sneaks into the hollow, warming the air on one side of the object and nudging it along the length of the laser beam. Researchers can change the speed and direction of the glass object by changing the lasers’ brightness.

The system needs heated air or gas to work, so in its present incarnation it wouldn’t work in space — sorry, Star Wars fans. But it could be used for a variety of purposes on Earth, like biological research or movement of hazardous materials.

The Titans are coming.

In a simulation, a Titan-like atmosphere produces nearly all of life’s building blocks.

Scientists studying Titan’s atmosphere have learned it can create complex molecules, including amino acids and nucleotide bases, often called the building blocks of life. They are the first researchers to show it’s possible to create these molecules without water, suggesting Titan could harbor huge quantities of life’s precursors floating in its atmosphere. It’s a breakthrough that even has implications for the beginning of life on Earth.

Researchers at the University of Arizona built a simulated Titan atmosphere in a special chamber in Paris and blasted it with microwaves, simulating the effect of solar energy. The reactions produced aerosols, which sank to the bottom of the chamber, where scientists scooped them up for study. What they found was unexpected, to put it mildly: all the nucleotide bases that make up the genetic code of all life on Earth, and more than half of the 22 amino acids that make proteins.

Of course, this doesn’t prove Titan has life — this was a test chamber, not the actual moon’s atmosphere, for one thing — but it’s intriguing, at least.

“Our results show that it is possible to make very complex molecules in the outer parts of an atmosphere,” said Sarah Hörst, a graduate student in the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab, in a UA News story. She led the research effort with her adviser, planetary science professor Roger Yelle.

Titan is one of the most promising places for life elsewhere in the solar system. It has huge methane lakes and scientists recently learned that hydrogen is disappearing faster than it should at the surface, suggesting some sort of chemical reaction is consuming it.

The best data about Titan’s characteristics has come from the spacecraft Cassini, which has tasted some of the moon’s outermost atmosphere in a series of flybys since 2004. But Cassini was not designed to dip below 560 miles above the surface, much too far to really get a sense of what the moon’s atmosphere contains.

To truly test its capabilities, researchers would have to recreate the atmosphere in a lab, mixing the gases found on TItan and subjecting them to radiation. The microwaves caused a gas discharge, the same process that makes neon signs glow, which caused some of the nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide to bond together into solid matter. These aerosols were levitated in a special chamber before they got heavy enough to fall down. The prospect of small floating life forms in the Titanic atmosphere is intriguing enough, but the study also revealed some interesting possibilities about the genesis of life on Earth. Titan’s atmosphere might be chemically similar to that of the early Earth, suggesting that instead of emerging from a primordial soup, the building blocks of life might have rained down from on high.

Hörst said the most interesting aspect of the study was proof that you can make pretty much anything in an atmosphere — a finding with major implications for astrobiology.

“Who knows this kind of chemistry isn’t happening on planets outside our solar system?” she said.

Events of 2010…

January 1:
A suicide bombing occurs at a volleyball game in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 95, and injuring over 100.

January 4:
The tallest man-made structure to date, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is officially opened.

January 8:
The Togo national football team is involved in an attack in Angola, and as a result withdraws from the Africa Cup of Nations.

January 12:
A 7.0-magnitude earthquake occurs in Haiti, devastating the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. With a confirmed death toll over 230,000 it is one of the deadliest on record.

January 15:
The longest annular solar eclipse of the 3rd millennium occurs.

January 25:
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 crashes into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after take-off from Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, killing all 90 people on-board.

February 12–28:
The 2010 Winter Olympics are held in Vancouver and Whistler, Canada.

February 18:
The President of Niger, Tandja Mamadou, is overthrown after a group of soldiers storms the presidential palace and form a ruling junta, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy headed by chef d’escadron Salou Djibo.

February 27:
An 8.8-magnitude earthquake occurs in Chile, triggering a tsunami over the Pacific and killing 497. The earthquake is one of the largest in recorded history.

March 16:
The Kasubi Tombs, Uganda’s only cultural World Heritage Site, are destroyed by fire.

March 23:
The ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean Navy ship carrying 104 personnel, sinks off the country’s west coast, killing 46. In May, an independent investigation blames North Korea, which denies the allegations.

April 10:
The President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, is among 96 killed when their airplane crashes in western Russia.

April 13:
A 6.9-magnitude earthquake occurs in Qinghai, China, killing at least 2,000 and injuring more than 10,000.

April 14:
Volcanic ash from one of several eruptions beneath Eyjafjallajökull (try to say that three times in a row), an ice cap in Iceland, begins to disrupt air traffic across northern and western Europe.

April 20:
The Deepwater Horizon oil platform explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven workers. The resulting oil spill, one of the largest in history, spreads for several months, damaging the waters and the United States coastline, and prompting international debate and doubt about the practice and procedures of offshore drilling.

May 7:
Scientists conducting the Neanderthal genome project announce that they have sequenced enough of the Neanderthal genome to suggest that Neanderthals and humans may have interbred.

May 12:
Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771 crashes at runway at Tripoli International Airport in Libya, killing 103 of the 104 people on board.

May 19:
Protests in Bangkok, Thailand ends with a bloody military crackdown, killing 91 and more than 2,100 injured.

May 20:
Scientists announce that they have created a functional synthetic genome.

May 22:
Air India Express Flight 812 overshoots the runway at Mangalore International Airport in India, killing 158 and leaving 8 survivors.

May 29:
The Eurovision Song Contest 2010 is held at Telenor Arena, Bærum, Norway.

May 31:
Nine activists are killed in a clash with soldiers when Israeli Navy forces raid and capture a flotilla of ships attempting to break the Gaza blockade.

June 11 – July 11:
The 2010 FIFA World Cup is held in South Africa, and is won by Spain.

July 8:
The first 24-hour flight by a solar powered plane is completed by the Solar Impulse.

July 25:
Wikileaks, an online publisher of anonymous, covert, and classified material, leaks to the public over 90,000 internal reports about the United States-led involvement in the War in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.

July 29:
Heavy monsoon rains begin to cause widespread flooding in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Over 1,600 are killed, and more than one million are displaced by the floods.

August 10:
The World Health Organization declares the H1N1 influenza pandemic over, saying worldwide flu activity has returned to typical seasonal patterns.

September 28:
Seven people are reported to have been killed and around 100 are missing after a landslide in Oaxaca, Mexico.

October 10:
The Netherlands Antilles are dissolved, with the islands being split up and given a new constitutional status.

October 13:
Thirty-three miners near Copiapó, Chile, trapped 700 metres underground in a mining accident in San José Mine, are brought back to the surface after surviving for a record 69 days.

October 22:
The International Space Station surpasses the record for the longest continuous human occupation of space, having been continuously inhabited since November 2, 2000 (3641 days).

October 25:
An earthquake and consequent tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, kills over 400 people and leave hundreds missing.

October 26 – ongoing:
Repeated eruptions of Mount Merapi in Central Java, Indonesia, have killed at least 240 people and forced hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate.

November 4:
Aero Caribbean Flight 883 crashes in central Cuba, killing all 68 people on board.

November 13:
Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi is released from her house arrest.

November 17:
Researchers at CERN trap 38 antihydrogen atoms for a sixth of a second, marking the first time in history that humans have trapped antimatter.

November 22:
A stampede during Bon Om Thook (Khmer Water Festival) celebrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, kills 347.

November 23:
North Korea shells Yeonpyeong Island, prompting a military response by South Korea. The incident caused an escalation of tension on the Korean Peninsula and prompted widespread international condemnation. The United Nations declared it to be one of the most serious incidents since the end of the Korean War.

November 28:
WikiLeaks releases a collection of more than 250,000 American diplomatic cables, including 100,000 marked “secret” or “confidential”.

December 2:
NASA announces the discovery of a new arsenic-based life form in California.

December 11:
Two bombs go off in Stockholm, Sweden. The first suicide bombing in Scandinavia. Only the bomber is killed.

December 21:
The first total lunar eclipse to occur on the day of the northern winter solstice/southern summer solstice since 1638, takes place.

December 22:
President Barack Obama signs the repeal of Don´t Ask Don´t Tell into law.

Just one of many?

Just when the search for exoplanets looked like the undisputed fashionable field of study for 2010, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) is stepping to the forefront of astronomy and cosmology. Last month, it was Oxford’s Roger Penrose claiming that he’d found evidence of a cyclical universe in patterns of concentric circles in the CMB, suggesting our universe is just one of many that have come before it (and will come after it). Now, another group of researchers are claiming the CMB contains evidence of other universes that exist concurrently (and outside of) our own.

The new evidence, put forth by a group of researchers at University College London, is based upon the model of “eternal inflation,” which is predicated on the idea that our universe is part of a larger and ever-expanding multiverse. Our universe is contained in a kind of cosmic bubble that exists alongside other universes contained in their own bubbles, and in these universes the rules of physics could be far different than in our own.

If the eternal inflation theory is correct, it follows that our universe and other universes have likely collided in the past as they violently bounced around the larger multiverse, and those collisions should be evident in the CMB (the cosmic microwave background is a leftover from the Big Bang, and thus is of interest to astronomers and cosmologists for the long historical record it contains – if researchers know what to look for).

The University College team went looking for “cosmic bruises” in the CMB that indicate places where other universes collided with our own at some point, and it claims to have found them in data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe
(WMAP), which has been measuring temperature differences in the CMB over the past decade. If indeed the spots are found to be “cosmic bruises,” it would lend a lot of credence to the idea that there are other universes out there that at some point collided with our own.

But that’s a big “if.” If the earlier CMB findings by Penrose are any indicator, proving or disproving these sorts of claims rooted in WMAP data is extremely difficult. Fortunately the ongoing Planck mission should soon provide a much better picture of the CMB to astronomers, allowing them to hopefully prove or disprove some of these cosmological theories. Until then, the time is ripe to attribute statistical anomalies in the vast CMB data set to complex cosmological theories.

The number of known stars triple.

In a paper published on the 1st of December in the journal Nature, astronomers from Yale and Harvard universities have found evidence for a bunch of small red dwarf stars in eight nearby galaxies. The result affects astronomers’ pictures of how stars form, how galaxies evolve, and perhaps even how much dark matter is out there.

Red dwarfs are stars like the sun, but smaller, fainter and cooler, with somewhere between one-half and one-tenth the sun’s mass. They may be small, but they are legion – astronomers estimate that red dwarfs outnumber sun-like stars in the Milky Way by a factor of 100.

Until today’s result, astronomers had been forced to assume that the 100-to-1 ratio held in other galaxies, too. But evidence has been mounting recently that elliptical galaxies – which lack the distinctive spiral arms of galaxies like the Milky Way and are usually made of older, redder stars – had more stars relative to their dark matter than spiral galaxies do.

“Within these galaxies, a good chunk of the mass that had been ascribed to dark matter is probably stars,” said Pieter van Dokkum, the lead researcher on the project.

In two papers published earlier this year, Tommaso Treu at the University of California, Santa Barbara used gravitational lensing to carefully measure how mass is distributed in 60 elliptical galaxies. He figured that some mass was missing, but that it wasn’t dark matter. Treu knew the mass was something star-like because it was distributed like the visible stars. It could be low-mass stars, or neutron stars, or even black holes. And van Dokkum set out to find out which it was.

Using a low-resolution spectrograph, which splits a galaxy’s light into its component colors, on the Keck 1 telescope in Hawaii, van Dokkum looked at eight big and bright elliptical galaxies. Seeing red dwarfs was hard – even though they far outnumber brighter stars, their collective light is still very dim. Van Dokkum and his partner, Charlie Conroy at Harvard University, looked at particular wavelengths in the near infrared, just a little longer than what the human eye can see. They were looking for signatures of sodium and iron, signatures that would tell them how many low-mass stars were contributing to the galaxy’s light.

They found that their massive elliptical galaxies probably have ten times as many low-mass stars as the Milky Way. In other words, that 100-to-1 dwarf-to-sun ratio is probably more like 1000-to-1 in big ellipticals. But there’s still plenty of dark matter, too, according to van Dokkum. In fact, the new stars probably won’t change the accounting of dark matter very much.

The next step is to see whether the excess of low-mass stars exists in lower mass galaxies, too. Van Dokkum and Treu both expect the effect to be less pronounced there.

“We could see a trend within our own sample,” said Treu. “More massive systems seem to have more of this ‘unseen’ stellar component than the lower mass objects.”

Van Dokkum will be at Keck this weekend, looking at smaller ellipticals and trying to find out.

If the result holds, it means that astronomers will need to be more careful when they calculate the number of stars in elliptical galaxies.

“It’s mostly a big headache for everybody, this result,” said van Dokkum. “But the universe doesn’t care what we hope, of course.”