Jun 272018
 

A while back, I wrote about the uncanny resemblance between the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua and the fictitious doomsday weapon Iilah in A. E. van Vogt’s 1948 short story Dormant.

And now I am reading that Iilah’s, I mean, ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory changed due to non-gravitational forces. The suspect is comet-like outgassing, but observations revealed no gas clouds, so it is a bit of a mystery.

Even if this is purely a natural phenomenon (and I firmly believe that it is, just in case it needs to be said) it is nonetheless mind-blowingly fascinating.

 Posted by at 11:59 pm
May 292018
 

There is an excellent diagram accompanying an answer on StackExchange, and I’ve been meaning to copy it here, because I keep losing the address.

The diagram summarizes many measures of cosmic expansion in a nice, compact, but not necessarily easy-to-understand form:

So let me explain how to read this diagram. First of all, time is going from bottom to top. The thick horizontal black line represents the moment of now. Imagine this line moving upwards as time progresses.

The thick vertical black line is here. So the intersection of the two thick black lines in the middle is the here-and-now.

Distances are measured in terms of the comoving distance, which is basically telling you how far a distant object would be now, if you had a long measuring tape to measure its present-day location.

The area shaded red (marked “past light cone”) is all the events that happened in the universe that we could see, up to the moment of now. The boundary of this area is everything in this universe from which light is reaching us right now.

So just for fun, let us pick an object at a comoving distance of 40 gigalightyears (Gly). Look at the dotted vertical line above the 40 mark (either side, doesn’t matter.) It intersects the boundary of the past light cone when the universe was roughly 0.05 times its present age, i.e., less than 700 million years old. Good, there were already young galaxies back then. If we were observing such a galaxy today, we’d be seeing it as it appeared when it was 700 million years old. Its light would have spent 13.1 billion years traveling before reaching our instruments.

Again look at the dotted vertical line about the 40 mark and extend it all the way to the “now” line. What does this tell you about this object? You can read the object’s redshift (z) off the diagram: its light is shifted down in frequency by a factor of 50.

You can also read the object’s recession velocity, which is just a little less than three times the vacuum speed of light. Yes… faster than light. This recession velocity is based on the rate of change of the scale factor, essentially the Hubble parameter times the comoving distance. The Doppler velocity that one would deduce from the object’s redshift yields a value less than the vacuum speed of light. (Curved spacetime is tricky; distances and speeds can be defined in various ways.)

Another thing about this diagram is that in addition to the past, it also sketches the future, taking into account the apparent accelerating expansion of the universe. Notice the light red shaded area marked “event horizon”. This area contains everything that we will be able to see at our present location, throughout the entire history of the universe, all the way to the infinite future. Things (events) outside this area will never be seen by us, will never influence us.

Note how the dotted line above the 40 mark intersects this boundary when the universe is less than 2 billion years old. Yes, this means that we will only ever see the first less than 2 billion years of existence of a galaxy at a comoving distance of 40 Gly. Over time, light from this galaxy will be redshifted ever more, until it eventually appears to “freeze” and disappears from sight, never appearing to become older than 2 billion years.

Notice also how the dashed curves marking constant values of redshift bend inward, closer and closer to the “here” location as we approach the infinite future. This is a direct result of accelerating expansion: Things nearer and nearer to us will be caught up in the expansion, accelerating away from our location. Eventually this will stop, of course; cosmic acceleration will not rip apart structures that are gravitationally bound. But we will end up living in a true “island universe” in which nothing is seen at all beyond the largest gravitationally bound structure, the local group of galaxies. Fortunately that won’t happen anytime soon; we have many tens of billions of years until then.

Lastly, the particle horizon (blue lines) essentially marks the size of the visible part of the universe at any given time. Notice how the width of the interval marked by the intersection of the now line and the blue lines is identical to the width of the past light cone at the bottom of this diagram. Notice also how the blue lines correspond to infinite redshift.

As I said, this diagram is not an easy read but it is well worth studying.

 Posted by at 8:35 pm
Mar 102018
 

There is a very interesting concept in the works at NASA, to which I had a chance to contribute a bit: the Solar Gravitational Telescope.

The idea, explained in this brand new NASA video, is to use the bending of light by the Sun to form an image of distant objects.

The resolving power of such a telescope would be phenomenal. In principle, it is possible to use it to form a megapixel-resolution image of an exoplanet as far as 100 light years from the Earth.

The technical difficulties are, however, challenging. For starters, a probe would need to be placed at least 550 astronomical units (about four times the distance to Voyager 1) from the Sun, precisely located to be on the opposite side of the Sun relative to the exoplanet. The probe would then have to mimic the combined motion of our Sun (dragged about by the gravitational pull of planets in the solar system) and the exoplanet (orbiting its own sun). Light from the Sun will need to be carefully blocked to ensure that we capture light from the exoplanet with as little noise as possible. And each time the probe takes a picture of the ring of light (the Einstein ring) around the Sun, it will be the combined light of many adjacent pixels on the exoplanet. The probe will have traverse a region that is roughly a kilometer across, taking pictures one pixel at a time, which will need to be deconvoluted. The fact that the exoplanet itself is not constant in appearance (it will go through phases of illumination, it may have changing cloud cover, perhaps even changes in vegetation) further complicates matters. Still… it can be done, and it can be accomplished using technology we already have.

By its very nature, it would be a very long duration mission. If such a probe was launched today, it would take 25-30 years for it to reach the place where light rays passing on both sides of the Sun first meet and thus the focal line begins. It will probably take another few years to collect enough data for successful deconvolution and image reconstruction. Where will I be 30-35 years from now? An old man (or a dead man). And of course no probe will be launched today; even under optimal circumstances, I’d say we’re at least a decade away from launch. In other words, I have no chance of seeing that high-resolution exoplanet image unless I live to see (at least) my 100th birthday.

Still, it is fun to dream, and fun to participate in such things. Though now I better pay attention to other things as well, including things that, well, help my bank account, because this sure as heck doesn’t.

 Posted by at 12:59 pm
Dec 152017
 

The Internet (or at least, certain corners of the Internet where conspiracy theories thrive) is abuzz with speculation that the extrasolar asteroid ‘Oumuamua, best known, apart from its hyperbolic trajectory, for its oddly elongated shape, may be of artificial, extraterrestrial origin.

Some mention the similarity between ‘Oumuamua and Arthur C. Clarke’s extraterrestrial generational ship Rama, forgetting that Rama was a ship 50 kilometers in length, an obviously engineered cylinder, not a rock.

But then… I suddenly remembered that there was another artificial object of extrasolar origin in the science-fiction literature. It is Iilah, from A. E. van Vogt’s 1948 short story Dormant. Iilah is not discovered in orbit; rather, it lays dormant on the ocean floor for millions of years until it is awakened by the feeble radioactivity of isotopes that appear in the ocean as a result of the use and testing of nuclear weapons.

Iilah climbs out of the sea and is thus discovered. It becomes an object of study by a paranoid military, which ultimately decides to destroy it using a nuclear weapon.

Unfortunately, the energy of the explosion achieves the exact opposite: instead of destroying Iilah, it fully awakens it, making it finally remember its original purpose. Iilah then sets itself up for a tremendous explosion that knocks the Earth out of orbit, ultimately causing it to fall into the Sun, turning the Sun into a nova. Why? Because Iilah was programmed to do this. Because “robot atom bombs do not make up their own minds.”

Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua

So here is the thing… the Iilah of van Vogt’s story had almost the exact same dimensions (it was about 400 feet in length) and appearance (a rock, like rough granite, with streaks of pink) as ‘Oumuamua.

Go figure.

 Posted by at 10:15 pm
Oct 162017
 

Today, a “multi-messenger” observation of a gravitational wave event was announced.

This is a big freaking deal. This is a Really Big Freaking Deal. For the very first time, ever, we observed an event, the merger of two neutron stars, simultaneously using both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves, the latter including light, radio waves, UV, X-rays, gamma rays.

From http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/aa91c9

The significance of this observation must not be underestimated. For the first time, we have direct validation of a LIGO gravitational wave observation. It demonstrates that our interpretation of LIGO data is actually correct, as is our understanding of neutron star mergers; one of the most important astrophysical processes, as it is one of the sources of isotopes heavier than iron in the universe.

Think about it… every time you hold, say, a piece of gold in your hands, you are holding something that was forged in an astrophysical event like this one billions of years ago.

 Posted by at 2:33 pm
Sep 272017
 

So here it is: another gravitational wave event detection by the LIGO observatories. But this time, there is a twist: a third detector, the less sensitive European VIRGO observatory, also saw this event.

This is amazing. Among other things, having three observatories see the same event is sufficient to triangulate the sky position of the event with much greater precision than before. With additional detectors coming online in the future, the era of gravitational wave astronomy has truly arrived.

 Posted by at 2:42 pm
Aug 222017
 

Here is a belated picture of yesterday’s solar eclipse, taken by my friend David in New York City:

His equipment is (semi-)professional but the solar filter that he used wasn’t. Still, it is a heck of a lot better than anything I was able to see (or project with a makeshift pinhole camera). I suggested to him to obtain a quality solar filter by 2024. Who knows, we may meet in Watertown to watch totality.

 Posted by at 10:39 pm
Jul 272017
 

There is a brand new video on YouTube today, explaining the concept of the Solar Gravitational Telescope concept:

It really is very well done. Based in part on our paper with Slava Turyshev, it coherently explains how this concept would work and what the challenges are. Thank you, Jimiticus.

But the biggest challenge… this would be truly a generational effort. I am 54 this year. Assuming the project is greenlighted today and the spacecraft is ready for launch in ten years’ time… the earliest for useful data to be collected would be more than 40 years from now, when, unless I am exceptionally lucky with my health, I am either long dead already, or senile in my mid-90s.

 Posted by at 11:27 pm
Feb 232016
 

Here is a spectacular photograph of the Moon made last night by my good friend David Ada-Winter in light-polluted New Jersey:

David explains: “I took this picture of the Moon using the so-called Sunny 16 rule, the essence of which is the following: On a clear day, with an aperture of 16, the exposition time must be the reciprocal of the ISO value. In the case of this picture, the ISO was 200, so the exposition time was 1/200 with an aperture of 16. In front of my telescopic lens, I also used a doubler that extended the focal length to 800 mm. The picture itself was made with the Canon Rebel t2i camera, which has a crop factor of 1.6, allowing the Moon to appear even larger in the image.”

Apparently, David’s wife disapproves of his pricey hobby. I’m tempted to remind her that other men of David’s age often acquire even pricier hobbies, which usually involve brightly colored sports cars and lightly clad ladies…

 Posted by at 9:46 pm
Dec 162015
 

The reason for my trip to China was to participate in the 3rd workshop on the TianQin mission.

TianQin is a proposed space-borne gravitational wave detector. It is described in our paper, which was recently accepted for publication in Classical and Quantum Gravity. The name, as typical for China, is poetic: it means a zither or harp in space or perhaps (sounds much nicer in English) a celestial harp. A harp that resonates in response to continuous gravitational waves that come from binary pulsars.

Gravitational waves are notoriously hard to detect because they are extremely weak. To date, we only have indirect confirmation of gravitational waves: closely orbiting binary pulsars are known to exhibit orbital decay that is consistent with the predictions of Einstein’s gravity.

Gravitational radiation is quadrupole radiation. It means basically that it simultaneously squeezes spacetime in one direction and stretches it in a perpendicular direction. This leads to the preferred method of detection: two perpendicular laser beams set to interfere with each other. As a gravitational wave passes through, a phase shift occurs as one beam travels a slightly longer, the other a slightly shorter distance. This phase shift manifests itself as an interference pattern, which can be detected.

But detection is much harder in practice than it sounds. Gravitational waves are not only very weak, they are also typically very low in frequency. Strong gravitational waves (relatively speaking) are produced by binaries such as HM Cancri (aka. RX J0806.3+1527) but even such an extreme binary system has an orbital period of several minutes. The corresponding gravitational wave frequency is measured in millihertz, and the wavelength, in tens or hundreds of millions of kilometers.

There is one exception: inspiraling neutron star or black hole binary systems at the very end of their lives. These could produce detectable gravitational waves with frequencies up to even a kilohertz or so, but these are random, transient events. Nonetheless, there are terrestrial detectors such as LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) that are designed to detect such events, and the rumor I heard is that it may have already happened. Or not… let’s wait for the announcement.

But the continuous waves from close binaries require a detector comparable in size to the wavelength of their gravitational radiation. In short, an interferometer in which the laser beams can travel at least a few hundred thousand kilometers, preferably more. Which means that the interferometer must be in space.

This is the idea behind LISA, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna project. Its current incarnation is eLISA (the “e” stands for “evolved”), a proposed European Space Agency mission, a precursor of which, LISA Pathfinder, was launched just a few days ago. Nonetheless, eLISA’s future remains uncertain.

Enter the Chinese, with TianQin. Whereas eLISA’s configuration of three spacecraft is designed to be in deep space orbiting one of the Earth-Sun Lagrange points with inteferometer arm lengths as long as 1.5 million kilometers, TianQin’s more modest proposal calls for a geocentric configuration, with arm lengths of 150,000 km or so. This means reduced sensitivity, of course, and the geocentric orbit introduces unique challenges. Nonetheless, our colleagues believe that it is fundamentally feasible for TianQin to detect gravitational waves from a known source with sufficient certainty. In other words, the primary mission objective of TianQin is to serve as a gravitational wave detector, confirming the existence of continuous waves emitted by a known binary system, as opposed to being an observatory, usable to find previously unknown sources of gravitational radiation. Detection is always easier: in radio technology, for instance, a lock-in amplifier can be used to detect the presence of a carrier wave even when it is far too weak to carry any useful information.

Theoretical sensitivity curve of the proposed TianQin mission.
Theoretical sensitivity curve of the proposed TianQin mission.

The challenges of TianQin are numerous, but here are a few main ones:

  • First, precisely controlling the orbits of shielded, drag-free test masses such that their acceleration due to nongravitational forces is less than \(10^{-15}~{\rm m}/{\rm s}^2\).
  • Second, precisely controlling the optical path such that no unmodeled effects (e.g., thermal expansion due to solar heating) contribute unmodeled changes more than a picometer in length.
  • Third, implementing time-delay interferometry (TDI), which is necessary in order to be able to compare the phases of laser signals that traveled different lengths, and do so with sufficient timing accuracy to minimize the contributions due to fluctuations in laser frequency.

Indeed, some of the accuracy requirements of TianQin exceed those of eLISA. This is a tall order for any space organization, and China is no exception. Still, as they say, where there is a will…

Unequal-arm Michelson interferometer
Unequal-arm Michelson interferometer.

One thing that complicates matters is that there are legal barriers when it comes to cooperation with China. In the United States there are strong legal restrictions preventing NASA and researchers at NASA from cooperating with Chinese citizens and Chinese enterprises. (Thankfully, Canada is a little more open-minded in this regard.) Then there is the export control regime: Technologies that can be utilized to navigate ballistic missiles, to offer satellite-based navigation on the ground, and to perform remote sensing may be categorized as munitions and fall under export control restrictions in North America, with China specifically listed as a proscribed country.

The know-how (and software) that would be used to navigate the TianQin constellation is arguably subject to such restrictions at least on the first two counts, but possibly even the third: a precision interferometer in orbit can be used for gravitiational remote sensing, as it has been amply demonstrated by GRACE (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment), which was orbiting the Earth, and GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory) in lunar orbit. Then there is the Chinese side of things: precision navigation requires detailed information about the capabilities of tracking stations in China, which may be, for all I know, state secrets.

While these issues make things a little tricky for Western researchers, TianQin nonetheless has a chance of becoming a milestone experiment. I sincerely hope that they succeed. And I certainly feel honored, having been invited to take part in this workshop.

 Posted by at 5:32 pm
Sep 292015
 

In Douglas Adams’s immortal Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, someone builds a device called the Total Perspective Vortex. This device invariably drives people insane by simply showing them exactly how insignificant they are with respect to this humongous universe.

The Total Perspective Vortex may not exist in reality, but here is the next best thing: A model of the solar system, drawn to scale.

moonpixel

The scale of this page is set so that the Moon occupies one screen pixel. As a result, we have an image that is almost a thousand times wider than my HD computer monitor. It takes a while to scroll through it.

Thankfully, there is an animation option that not only scrolls through the image automatically, but does so at the fastest speed possible, the speed of light.

Oh, did I mention that it still takes well over five hours to scroll all the way to Pluto?

By the way, the nearest star, our closest stellar neighbor is roughly 2,000 times as far from us as Pluto.

Or, once again in the words of Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

 Posted by at 12:41 pm
Aug 032015
 

Here is one of the most mind-boggling animation sequences that I have ever seen:

This image depicts V838 Monocerotis, a red variable star that underwent a major outburst back in 2002.

Why do I consider this animation mind-boggling? Because despite all appearances, it is not an expanding shell of dust or gas.

Rather, it is echoes of the flash of light, reflected by dust situated behind the star, reaching our eyes several years after the original explosion.

In other words, this image represents direct, visual evidence of the finite speed of light.

The only comparable thing that I can think of is this video, created a few years ago using tricky picosecond photography, of a laser pulse traveling in a bottle. However, unlike that video, the images of V838 Monocerotis required no trickery, only a telescope.

And light echoes are more than mere curiosities: they actually make it possible to study past events. Most notably, a faint light echo of a supernova that was observed nearly half a millennium ago, in 1572, was detected in 2008.

 Posted by at 5:35 pm
Sep 202013
 

Grote_Antenna_WheatonThe world’s first parabolic radio telescope was, astonishingly, built in someone’s back yard.

I am reading about the radio telescope of American amateur radio enthusiast and amateur astronomer Grote Reber.

In 1937, Reber built a 9-meter parabolic reflector in his family’s back yard.

Reber was the first to make a systematic survey of the radio sky, not only confirming Jansky’s earlier, pioneering discovery of radio waves from the Milky Way but also discovering radio sources such as Cygnus X-1 and Cassiopeia A.

grote5

For nearly a decade, Reber was the only person in the world doing radio astronomy.

Reber had a long life. He spent his final years in Tasmania, one of the few places on Earth where occasionally, very low frequency radio waves penetrate the ionosphere and are detectable by a ground-based antenna.

 Posted by at 2:55 pm
Oct 062012
 

Wow. If these plots are to be believed, Voyager 1 may have reached the heliopause at last:

This is, well, not exactly unexpected but still breathtaking.

The discovery of the heliopause was one of the “holy grail” science objectives of the extended “interstellar” mission of the twin Voyager spacecraft. If confirmed, it means that Voyager 1 is the first man-made object to have entered the interstellar medium, traveling through a region in the outer solar system that is no longer dominated by charged particles from the solar wind. (Gravitationally, this is still very much our Sun’s domain; there are comets out there with elliptical orbits that extend to many thousands of astronomical units.)

Not bad for a spacecraft that was launched over 35 years ago and flew by Saturn just a few months into the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Its twin finished its flyby of Neptune when the Berlin Wall was still standing. And they are both still alive and well. Voyager 1 is more than 120 astronomical units from the Sun these days. It takes about 17 hours for its radio signal to reach the Earth. If all goes well, it has sufficient electrical power to operate its on-board instruments for another decade or so.

 Posted by at 12:40 pm
Sep 212012
 

I am reading about a new boson.

No, not the (presumed) Higgs boson with a mass of about 126 GeV.

I am reading about a lightweight boson, with a mass of only about 38 MeV, supposedly found at the onetime pride of Soviet science, the Dubna accelerator.

Now Dubna may not have the raw power of the LHC, but the good folks at Dubna are no fools. So if they announce what appears to be a 5-sigma result, one can’t just not pay attention.

The PHOTON-2 setup. S1 and S2 are scintillation counters. From arXiv:1208.3829.

But a 38 MeV boson? That’s not light, that’s almost featherweight. It’s only about 75 times the mass of the electron, for crying out loud. Less than 4% of the weight of the proton.

The discovery of such a lightweight boson would be truly momentous. It would certainly turn the Standard Model upside down. Whether it is a new elementary particle or some kind of bound state, it is not something that can be fit easily (if at all) within the confines of the Standard Model.

Which is one reason why many are skeptical. This discover is, after all, not unlike that of the presumed Higgs boson, is really just the discovery of a small bump on top of a powerful background of essentially random noise. The statistical significance (or lack thereof) of the bump depends fundamentally on our understanding and accurate modeling of that background.

And it is on the modeling of the background that this recent Dubna announcement has been most severely criticized.

Indeed, in his blog Tommaso Dorigo makes a very strong point of this; he also suggests that the authors’ decision to include far too many decimal digits in error terms is a disturbing sign. Who in his right mind writes 38.4935 ± 1.02639 as opposed to, say, 38.49 ± 1.03?

To this criticism, I would like to offer my own. I am strongly disturbed by the notion of a statistical analysis described by an expression of the type model = data − background. What we should be modeling is not data minus some theoretical background, but the data, period. So the right thing to do is to create a revised model that also includes the background and fit that to the data: model’ = model + background = data. When we do things this way, it is quite possible that the fits are a lot less tight than anticipated, and the apparent statistical significance of a result just vanishes. This is a point I raised a while back in a completely different context: in a paper with John Moffat about the statistical analysis of host vs. satellite galaxies in a large galactic sample.

 Posted by at 7:58 pm
Jun 062012
 

Yesterday, Venus transited the Sun. It won’t happen again for more than a century.

I had paper “welder’s glasses” courtesy of Sky News. Looking through them, I did indeed see a tiny black speck on the disk of the Sun. However, it was nowhere as impressive as the pictures taken through professional telescopes.

These live pictures were streamed to us courtesy of NASA. One planned broadcast from Alice Springs, Australia, was briefly interrupted. At first, it was thought that a road worker cutting an optical cable was the culprit, but later it turned out to be a case of misconfigured hardware. Or could it be that they were trying to fix a problem with an “intellectual property address”, a wording that appeared on several Australian news sites today? (Note to editors: if you don’t understand the text, don’t be over-eager replacing acronyms with what you think they stand for.)

I also tried to take pictures myself, holding my set of paper welder’s glasses in front of my (decidedly non-professional) cameras. Surprisingly, it was with my cell phone that I was able to take the best picture, but it did not even come close in resolution to what would have been required to see Venus.

The lesson? I think I’ll leave astrophotography to the professionals. Or, at least, to expert amateurs. Unfortunately, I am neither.

That said, I remain utterly fascinated by the experience of staring at a sphere of gas, close to a million and a half kilometers wide, containing 2 nonillion (2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) kilograms of mostly hydrogen gas, burning roughly 580 billion kilograms of it every second in the form of nuclear fusion deep in its core, releasing photons amounting to about 4.3 billion kilograms of energy… and most of these photons remain trapped for a very long time, producing extreme pressures (so that the interior of the Sun is dominated by this ultrarelativistic photon gas) that prevent the Sun from collapsing upon itself, which will indeed be its fate when it can no longer sustain hydrogen fusion in its core a few billion years from now. And then, this huge orb is briefly occulted by a tiny black speck, the shadow of a world as big as our own… just a tiny black dot, too small for my handheld cameras to see.

I sometimes try to use a human-scale analogy when trying to explain to friends just how mind-bogglingly big the solar system is. Imagine a beach ball that is a meter wide. Now suppose you stand about a hundred meters away from it, like the length of a large sports field. Okay… now imagine that that beach ball is so bleeping hot, even at this distance its heat is burning your face. That’s how hot the Sun is.

Now hold up a large pea, about a centimeter in size. That’s the Earth. Another pea, roughly halfway between you and the beach ball would be Venus.

A peppercorn, some thirty centimeters or so from your Earth pea… that’s the Moon. Incidentally, if you hold that peppercorn up, at about thirty centimeters from your eye it is just large enough to obscure the beach ball in the distance, producing a solar eclipse.

Now let’s go a little further. Some half a kilometer from the beach ball you see a large-ish orange… Jupiter. Twice as far, you see a smaller orange with a ribbon around it; that’s Saturn. Pluto would be another peppercorn, more than three kilometers away.

But your beach ball’s influence does not end there. There will be specks of dust in orbit around it as far out as several hundred kilometers, maybe more. So where would the next beach ball be, representing the nearest star? Well, here’s the problem… the surface of the Earth is just not large enough, because the next beach ball would be more than 20,000 kilometers away.

To represent other stars, not to mention the whole of the Milky Way, we would once again need astronomical distance scales. If a star like our Sun was a one meter wide beach ball, the Milky Way of beech balls would be larger than the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. And the nearest full-size galaxy, Andromeda, would need to be located in distant parts of the solar system, far beyond the orbits of planets.

The only way we could reduce galaxies and groups of galaxies to a scale that humans can comprehend is by making stars and planets microscopic. So whereas the size of the solar system can perhaps be grasped by my beach ball and pea analogy, it is simply impossible to imagine simultaneously just how large the Milky Way is, not to mention the entire visible universe.

Or, as Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

 Posted by at 10:25 am
May 152012
 

I am really disappointed to learn this morning that the world will not come to an end December this year. According to a new discovery, the Mayan calendar may have had at least 17 baktuns, not 13 as previously believed, so we are good for something like another two millennia.

Just as I was getting ready to sell my house and all my earthly possessions…

 Posted by at 8:11 am
May 102012
 

Astronomy is supposed to be a relatively safe profession. I suppose observational astronomers may occasionally injure themselves when working on a telescope, but it’s probably rare. For them to become murder victims is even more unlikely.

So why would a Japanese astronomer, working in Chile on the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, be murdered on the street just outside his apartment?

 Posted by at 4:39 pm
Feb 222012
 

Why exactly do we believe that stars and more importantly, gas in the outer regions of spiral galaxies move in circular orbits? This assumption lies at the heart of the infamous galaxy rotation curve problem, as the circular orbital velocity for a spiral galaxy (whose visible mass is concentrated in the central bulge) should be proportional to the inverse square root of the distance from the center; instead, observed rotation curves are “flat”, meaning that the velocity remains approximately the same at various distances from the center.

So why do we assume that stars and gas move in circular orbits? Well, it turns out that one key bit of evidence is in a 32-year old paper that was published by two Indian physicists: Radhakrishnan and Sarma (A&A 85, 1980) made observations of hydrogen gas in the direction of the center of the Milky Way, and found that the bulk of gas between the solar system and the central bulge has no appreciable radial velocity.

However, more recent observations may be contradicting this result. Just two years ago, the Radial Velocity Experiment (RAVE) survey (Siebert et al, MNRAS 412, 2010) found, using a sample of several hundred thousand relatively nearby stars, that a significant radial velocity exists, putting into question the simple model that assumes that circular orbits dominate.

 Posted by at 10:03 pm
Feb 162012
 

I always find these numbers astonishing.

The solar constant, the amount of energy received by a 1 square meter surface at 1 astronomical unit (AU) from the Sun is roughly s = 1.37 kW/m2. Given that 1 AU is approximately 150 million kilometers, or r = 1.5 × 1011 m, the surface area of a 1 AU sphere surrounding the Sun would be A = 4πr2 = 2.8 × 1023 m2. Multiplied by the solar constant, we get P = sA = 3.9 × 1026 W, or the energy E = sA = 3.9 × 1026 J every second. Using Einstein’s infamous mass-energy formula E = mc2, where c = 3 × 108 m/s, we can easily calculate how much mass is converted into energy: m = E/c2 = 4.3 × 109 kg. Close to four and a half million tons.

The dominant fusion process in the Sun is the proton-proton chain reaction, in which approximately 0.7% of the total mass of hydrogen is converted into energy. Thus 4.3 million tons of pure energy is equivalent to over 600 millon tons of hydrogen fuel burned every second. (For comparison, the largest ever nuclear device, the Soviet Tsar Bomba, burned no more than a few hundred kilograms of hydrogen to produce a 50 megaton explosion.)

Fortunately, there is plenty where that came from. The total mass of the Sun is 2 × 1030 kg, so if the Sun was made entirely of hydrogen, it could burn for 100 billion years before running out of fuel. Now the Sun is not made entirely of hydrogen, and the fusion reaction slows down and eventually stops long before all the hydrogen is consumed, but we still have a few billion years of useful life left in our middle-aged star. A much bigger (pun intended) problem is that as our Sun ages, it will grow in size; in a mere billion years, the Earth may well become uninhabitable as a result, with the oceans boiling away. I wonder if it’s too early to start worrying about it just yet.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm