Astronomy: The Week Ahead – Sun 2 Aug to Sat 8 Aug 2015

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Sunday August 2

The Moon attains perigee at 03:11 today, its closest point to Earth during this lunar month. In a waning gibbous phase it is nearly 18 days old with 89% illumination. You can watch it rise just before 10 p.m. in Aquarius over the eastern horizon.

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Monday August 3

The eastern morning sky an hour before sunrise features many familiar winter constellations. And today the planet Mars wanders in among them, shining red low on the horizon. Can you find it before dawn washes it out? If you do, compare its color to the giant red stars Aldebaran in Taurus, and Betelgeuse in Orion.

Mars is in Gemini, shining at a bright magnitude 1.70, around 239 million miles from us.

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Tuesday August 4

Get your binoculars out and look due south above the stinger of Scorpius tonight, to find Messier 6 (M6), The Butterfly Cluster. This open cluster is visible without optical aid from even reasonably dark locations, at a bright magnitude 4.2. It is 33 arcminutes in size, comparable to the angular size of the full Moon. At 1,600 light years distance, imagine how brilliant these young stars would be were they the distance of some of our brightest neighbors in the sky! Although their discovery is officially attributed to Giovanni Battista Hodierna in 1654, it is very reasonable to believe Ptolemy saw it, and its neighbor M7 (The Ptolemy Cluster) in the First century.

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Wednesday August 5

After Pisces has risen, look for the waning gibbous Moon, then, with binoculars, less than two degrees away you’ll find the green-toned planet Uranus at magnitude 5.8 very nearby the magnitude 5.1 star Zeta Piscium. The Moon is 384,399 km distant, Uranus 1.8 billion miles from us, and Zeta 148 light years away. Zeta is an optical double star (not a binary), with its components 23 arcseconds apart.

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Thursday August 6

Tonight is last quarter Moon, rising after midnight at 00:26. It is a good weekday night for deep-sky observing, and if not for the Moon we’d be looking for the Southern Iota Aquariid Meteor Shower. If you still want to try for some meteors, here is the radiant, where this shower will appear to emanate from. Expect 7-8 meteors an hour, averaging magnitude 3.

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Friday August 7

The constellation name Lacerta is Latin for Lizard. This is a small and faint constellation created by Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1687. You’ll find it along the Milky Way between the W of Cassiopeia and Cygnus (the northern cross). Its brightest star, Alpha Lacertae, is a dim magnitude 3.76, so this constellation is a challenge to discern. See if you make out its zigzag shape.

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Saturday August 8

Located between Cor Caroli in Canes Venatici, and Arcturus in Bootes, M3 is a bright and easy globular cluster to see in binoculars and any telescope. Arcturus is found by taking the handle of the Big Dipper and making an “arc to Arcturus”. Similarly, you can use the dipper’s handle to make a right angle to Cor Caroli. The cluster will be visible easily in binoculars or a finderscope, slightly closer to Arcturus than the halfway point to Cor Caroli. M3 is 16 arcminutes in size, large for the northern hemisphere, and shines at magnitude 6.19 at a distance of 33,000 light years. This is an impressive cluster of over 500,000 stars!

Happy viewing!

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Astronomy: How A Comet Interacts with Solar Wind

uly 30, 2015: Rosetta is making good progress in one of its key investigations, which concerns the interaction between the comet and the solar wind.  Credit: European Space Agency (ESA)

July 30, 2015: Rosetta is making good progress in one of its key investigations, which concerns the interaction between the comet and the solar wind.
Screenshot from a simulation of plasma interactions between Comet 67P/C-G and the solar wind around perihelion. Image Credit: Modelling and simulation: Technische Universität Braunschweig and Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; Visualisation: Zuse-Institut Berlin, European Space Agency (ESA)

The solar wind is the constant stream of electrically charged particles that flows from the Sun, carrying its magnetic field out into the Solar System. Like all comets, 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko must navigate this flow in its orbit around the Sun.

It is the constant battle fought between the comet and the solar wind that helps to sculpt the comet’s ion tail. Rosetta’s instruments are monitoring the fine detail of this process.

Using the Rosetta Plasma Consortium Ion Composition Analyzer, Hans Nilsson from the Swedish Institute of Space Physics and his colleagues have been studying the gradual evolution of the comet’s ion environment. They have seen that the number of water ions— molecules of water that have been stripped of one electron— accelerated away from the comet increased hugely as 67P/C-G moved between 3.6AU (about 538 million km) and 2.0AU (about 300 million km) from the Sun. Although the day-to-day acceleration is highly variable, the average 24-hour rate has increased by a factor of 10,000 during the study, which covered the period August 2014 to March 2015.

The water ions themselves originate in the coma, the atmosphere of the comet. They are placed there originally by heat from the Sun liberating the molecules from the surface ice. Once in gaseous form, the collision of extreme ultraviolet light displaces electrons from the molecules, turning them into ions. Colliding particles from the solar wind can do this as well. Once stripped of some of their electrons, the water ions can then be accelerated by the electrical properties of the solar wind.

Not all of the ions are accelerated outwards, some will happen to strike the comet’s surface. Solar wind particles will also find their way through the coma to hit home. When this happens, they cause a process called sputtering, in which they displace atoms from material on the surface—these are then ‘liberated’ into space.

Peter Wurz from the University of Bern, Switzerland, and colleagues have studied these sputtered atoms with Rosetta’s Double Focussing Mass Spectrometer (DFMS), which is part of the ROSINA experiment.

They have so far discovered sodium, potassium, silicon and calcium, which are all present in a rare form of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites. There are differences in the amounts of these atoms at the comet and in these meteorites, however. While the abundance of sodium appears the same, 67P/C-G shows an excess of potassium and a depletion of calcium.

Most of the sputtered atoms come from the winter side of the comet. Although this is the hemisphere that is mostly facing away from the Sun at present, solar wind particles can end up striking the surface because they are deflected during interactions with ions in the comet’s coma. This can be a significant process so long as the density of the coma ions is not too large. But at some point the comet’s atmosphere becomes dense enough to be a major defence, protecting the icy surface.

As the comet gets closer to the Sun, the sputtering will eventually stop because the comet will release more gas and the coma will become impenetrable. When this happens, the solar wind ions will always collide with atoms in this atmosphere or be deflected away before striking the surface.

The first evidence that this deflection is taking place at 67P/C-G has been measured with the Rosetta Plasma Consortium Ion and Electron Sensor, by Thomas Broiles of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas, and colleagues.

Their observations began on August 6, 2014 when Rosetta arrived at the comet, and have been almost continuous since. The instrument has been measuring the flow of the solar wind as Rosetta orbits 67P/C-G, showing that the solar wind can be deflected by up to 45° away from the anti-solar direction.

The deflection is largest for the lighter ions, such as protons, and not so much for the heavier ions derived from helium atoms. For all ions the deflection is set to increase as the comet gets closer to the Sun and the coma becomes ever denser.

As all this happens, Rosetta will be there to continue monitoring and measuring the changes. This was the raison d’être for the rendezvous with this comet. Previous missions have taken snapshots during all too brief fly-bys but Rosetta is showing us truly how a comet behaves as it approaches the Sun.

This blog post is based on the papers “Evolution of the ion environment of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: Observations between 3.6 and 2.0 AU ” by H. Nilsson et al.; “Rosetta observations of solar wind interaction with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” by T.W. Broiles et al.; and “Solar Wind Sputtering of Dust on the Surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko ” by Peter Wurz et al., which have all been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics, and “Dynamical features and spatial structures of the plasma interaction region of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and the solar wind” by C. Koenders et al, which is published in Planetary and Space Science.

On the Web: SIMULATION OF PLASMA INTERACTIONS BETWEEN COMET 67P/C-G AND THE SOLAR WIND AROUND PERIHELION

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Astronomy: Saturn’s Moon Titan Not So Titanic

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Although Titan (3200 miles or 5150 kilometers across) is the second-largest moon in the solar system, Saturn is still much bigger, with a diameter almost 23 times larger than Titan’s. This disparity between planet and moon is the norm in the solar system.

Earth’s diameter is “only” 3.7 times our moon’s diameter, making our natural satellite something of an oddity. (Another exception to the rule: dwarf planet Pluto’s diameter is just under two times that of its moon.) So the question isn’t why is Titan so small (relatively speaking), but why is Earth’s moon so big?

This view looks toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Titan. North on Titan is up. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on April 18, 2015 using a near-infrared spectral filter with a passband centered at 752 nanometers.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Titan. Image scale is 56 miles (90 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

On the Web:

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission 

The Cassini imaging team homepage

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Astronomy: Venus-Mass Planet Orbiting Brown Dwarf

Venus Mass Planet Orbiting Brown Dwarf

An international team of Polish, Korean, American, Israeli, and Italian astronomers have announced the unusual discovery of a Venus mass planet OGLE-2013-BLG-0723LB/Bb, orbiting a cool brown dwarf star.

Both the planet and it’s brown dwarf host, are in a wide orbit around a larger stellar companion OGLE-2013-BLG-0723LA, with perhaps another, (as yet unconfirmed) much larger third stellar companion at a much larger separation distance than the two confirmed binary stellar objects.

The discovery was made using the technique of microlensing which gives astronomers reliable information about the mass of the planet : 0.69 ± 0.06 M⊕ (Earth) and it’s orbital distance : 0.34 ± 0.03 AU or 439993738 km. This distance places the planet in an orbit very similar to that of Mercury (0.38 AU) but our Sun is far hotter than this cool brown dwarf.

The microlensing event OGLE-2013-BLG-0723 was first discovered by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE-IV) in one of the starfields towards the Galactic bulge that OGLE astronomers Udalski et al. observed on May 12th 2013, using the 1.3 meter Warsaw Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

The planetary system is estimated to lie some 0.49 ± 0.04 kilo parsecs towards the Galactic Center, having been identified by it’s lensing effect on a background star that is a further 6.51 kilo parsecs from Earth.

This new planetary find may prove to be very important. OGLE-2013-BLG-0723LBb is a missing link between planets and moons. This is because its brown dwarf host OGLE-2013-BLG-723LB  is intermediate between stars and planets, in both size and hierarchical position.

The scaled mass and host-companion separation of this Venus-mass planet and brown dwarf host are in many ways similar to planets and moons in the solar system. That is, a Venus-mass planet orbiting a brown dwarf, may be viewed either as a scaled down version of a planet and star, or as a scaled up version of a moon and planet, orbiting a star.

So this system is an intermediate between Neptune-Triton or Jupiter-Callisto planet-moon systems, and the Sun-Mercury or the Sun-Venus star-planet systems.

It suggests that in all cases, planets and moons are formed in an accretion disk. Planets form around all types and size of star, and moons are formed in an accretion disk around planets. The process is the same, regardless of the size or scale of the individual objects.

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Astronomy: April 2015 Lyrid Meteor Shower – Where to Watch

The Lyrids Meteor Shower will peak on 22 April.  Photo: NASA

The Lyrids Meteor Shower will peak on 22 April.
Photo: NASA

The night sky will light up with a brilliant display of shooting stars over the next few days, as the annual Lyrid meteor shower makes its appearance for 2015.

Considered the oldest-known meteor shower, the Lyrids will peak on 22 and 23 April, with stargazers able to spot between 10 to 20 meteors per hour.

Typically the first good meteor shower of the year, the Lyrids are visible from most parts of the world, although the timing this year may favor Europe. According to the Slooh Community Observatory, which will host a live stream of the event on Wednesday, 22 April 2015, it is set to be a good year for the Lyrids because the moon will be a slender waxing crescent and will not obscure the view of the meteor shower.

The Lyrids

The April Lyrids have been observed for the past 2,600 years. They are the strongest annual shower of meteors from debris of a long-period comet, mainly because as far as other intermediate long-period comets go (between 200 and 10,000 years), this one has a relatively short orbital period of about 415 years.

The source of the shower is particles of dust shed by the long-period comet Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. As the comet sheds debris, the fragments of rock and dust strike the Earth’s upper atmosphere at around 110,000 miles per hour, vaporizing the debris and creating streaks of light. Sometimes, Earth may pass through a thick clump of comet debris, meaning more meteors will be visible.

Lyrid “fireballs” are created when brighter meteors cast shadows for a split second, leaving behind smoky debris. The radiant of the shower is located in the constellation Lyra, near the brightest star of the constellation, Alpha Lyrae, or Vega. The Lyrids can appear anywhere in the sky.

Meteors occur when comet debris enters the earth's atmosphere. Photo: NASA

Meteors occur when comet debris enters the earth’s atmosphere.
Photo: NASA

Shooting stars and their glowing trail

Shooting stars are not actually stars but fast-moving fragments of rock and debris left behind by a comet, and as the Earth moves around the sun, some of these pieces are pulled toward Earth by gravity. Around a quarter of the meteors produced during the shower will leave behind an ionised gas trail that glows for just a few seconds.

When a meteor enters Earth’s atmosphere it is moving so fast that its atoms collide with air molecules and electrons are ‘knocked’ loose – creating free electrons and positively charged ions. As the shooting star passes, the negatively charged free electrons are attracted to the positively charged ions and combine with them. When this happens energy is released in the form of light, creating the glowing trail behind shooting stars.

It is important to find somewhere will as little light pollution as possible and remember to wrap up warmly. You can also watch the event in the comfort of your own home, via the Slooh Community Observatory.

Below are various dark sky reserves and viewing areas popular with UK & US astronomers. You can find others using the Dark Sky Discovery website.

Watch the meteor in the UK:

London: The WaterWorks Nature Reserve, between Clapton and Leyton Midland Road rail station.

Manchester: Heaton Park is the largest municipal park in the city and contains an astronomy club.

Birmingham: Warley Woods is accessible by bus or car from the city. Those driving should take the A456 Hagley Road westbound from the centre.

Newcastle: Northumberland National Park is an internationally designated Dark Sky Park.

Cardiff: Brecon Beacons is a fantastic area for stargazing as it offers some of the darkest skies in the UK.

Belfast: Oxford Island National Nature Reserve is around 25 miles from the city, located on the shores of Lough Neagh.

Edinburgh: The Royal Observatory, in the Hermitage of Braid, is a good place to try and spot a shooting star.

Watch the meteor shower in the US

Pennsylvania: Cherry Springs State Park is a gold-certified International Dark Sky Park, one of only a handful in the US. There is a night sky viewing area, located north of Route 44, which is always open.

New York: The Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side is the home of the Amateur Astronomers Association on Friday evenings.

California: Death Valley National Park is also a gold-certified International Dark Sky Park, with very little artificial light within its 3.4 million acres. Another good location, the Templin Highway in Angeles National Forest, is a 45 minute drive from downtown LA.

Philadelphia: The Tuckahoe State Park is two hours out of the city and is a good place to stargaze.

Arizona: The Kitt Peak National Observatory, near Tucson, is home to the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes. The clear, dark skies of the Sonoran desert are a famous favourite for astronomers.

Utah: Bryce canyon has very little light pollution. Its skies are best seen during new moons, when the Milky Way and over 7,000 stars can be seen with the naked eye.

Illinois: The Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in St Charles is a nature conservatory and a Dark Sky Park.

New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park has more than 4,000 prehistoric archaeological sites and is a great location to try and spot the Lyrids.

Texas: The Big Bend National Park in west Texas has gone to some lengths to keep its International Dark Sky status, including by changing the lighting to shielded LEDs.

Alaska: The Denali National Park and Preserve has minimal light pollution and high altitudes, and also offers incredible views of the Aurora Borealis.

Happy viewing!

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Wednesday Reader: NASA Finds Nitrogen on Mars; Astronomy’s “Big Crunch”

space the final...

The good news: there is nitrogen on Mars.

The bad news: the universe will collapse on itself, according to a new study.

First, the good news…

This (really gigantic) self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager on Feb. 3, 2013 plus three exposures taken May 10, 2013 to show two holes (in lower left quadrant) where Curiosity used its drill on the rock target "John Klein". Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This (really gigantic) self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager on Feb. 3, 2013 plus three exposures taken May 10, 2013 to show two holes (in lower left quadrant) where Curiosity used its drill on the rock target “John Klein”.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Biologically Useful Nitrogen on Mars

A team using the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover has made the first detection of nitrogen on the surface of Mars from release during heating of Martian sediments. The nitrogen was detected in the form of nitric oxide, and could be released from the breakdown of nitrates during heating. Nitrates are a class of molecules that contain nitrogen in a form that can be used by living organisms. The discovery adds to the evidence that ancient Mars was habitable for life.

Nitrogen is essential for all known forms of life, since it is used in the building blocks of larger molecules like DNA and RNA, which encode the genetic instructions for life, and proteins, which are used to build structures like hair and nails, and to speed up or regulate chemical reactions.

However, on Earth and Mars, atmospheric nitrogen is locked up as nitrogen gas (N2) – two atoms of nitrogen bound together so strongly that they do not react easily with other molecules. The nitrogen atoms have to be separated or “fixed” so they can participate in the chemical reactions needed for life. On Earth, certain organisms are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen and this process is critical for metabolic activity. However, smaller amounts of nitrogen are also fixed by energetic events like lightning strikes.

Nitrate (NO3) – a nitrogen atom bound to three oxygen atoms – is a source of fixed nitrogen. A nitrate molecule can join with various other atoms and molecules; this class of molecules is known as nitrates.

There is no evidence to suggest that the fixed nitrogen molecules found by the team were created by life. The surface of Mars is inhospitable for known forms of life. Instead, the team thinks the nitrates are ancient, and likely came from non-biological processes like meteorite impacts and lightning in Mars’ distant past.

Features resembling dry riverbeds and the discovery of minerals that only form in the presence of liquid water suggest that Mars was more hospitable in the remote past. The Curiosity team has found evidence that other ingredients needed for life, such as liquid water and organic matter, were present on Mars at the Curiosity site in Gale Crater billions of years ago.

“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Stern is lead author of a paper on this research published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science March 23.

The team found evidence for nitrates in scooped samples of windblown sand and dust at the “Rocknest” site, and in samples drilled from mudstone at the “John Klein” and “Cumberland” drill sites in Yellowknife Bay. Since the Rocknest sample is a combination of dust blown in from distant regions on Mars and more locally sourced materials, the nitrates are likely to be widespread across Mars, according to Stern. The results support the equivalent of up to 1,100 parts per million nitrates in the Martian soil from the drill sites. The team thinks the mudstone at Yellowknife Bay formed from sediment deposited at the bottom of a lake. Previously the rover team described the evidence for an ancient, habitable environment there: fresh water, key chemical elements required by life, such as carbon, and potential energy sources to drive metabolism in simple organisms.

The samples were first heated to release molecules bound to the Martian soil, then portions of the gases released were diverted to the SAM instruments for analysis. Various nitrogen-bearing compounds were identified with two instruments: a mass spectrometer, which uses electric fields to identify molecules by their signature masses, and a gas chromatograph, which separates molecules based on the time they take to travel through a small glass capillary tube — certain molecules interact with the sides of the tube more readily and thus travel more slowly.

Along with other nitrogen compounds, the instruments detected nitric oxide (NO — one atom of nitrogen bound to an oxygen atom) in samples from all three sites. Since nitrate is a nitrogen atom bound to three oxygen atoms, the team thinks most of the NO likely came from nitrate which decomposed as the samples were heated for analysis. Certain compounds in the SAM instrument can also release nitrogen as samples are heated; however, the amount of NO found is more than twice what could be produced by SAM in the most extreme and unrealistic scenario, according to Stern. This leads the team to think that nitrates really are present on Mars, and the abundance estimates reported have been adjusted to reflect this potential additional source.

“Scientists have long thought that nitrates would be produced on Mars from the energy released in meteorite impacts, and the amounts we found agree well with estimates from this process,” said Stern.

The SAM instrument suite was built at NASA Goddard with significant elements provided by industry, university, and national and international NASA partners. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a division of Caltech, built the rover and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The NASA Mars Exploration Program and Goddard Space Flight Center provided support for the development and operation of SAM. SAM-Gas Chromatograph was supported by funds from the French Space Agency (CNES). Data from these SAM experiments are archived in the Planetary Data System (pds.nasa.gov).

Okay, now the not-so-good news…

This is the "South Pillar" region of the star-forming region called the Carina Nebula. Like cracking open a watermelon and finding its seeds, the infrared telescope "busted open" this murky cloud to reveal star embryos tucked inside finger-like pillars of thick dust. Credit: NASA NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has captured a new, infrared view of the choppy star-making cloud called M17, also known as the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula.  The cloud, located about 6,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius, is dominated by a central group of massive stars -- the most massive stars in the region. These central stars give off intense flows of expanding gas, which rush like rivers against dense piles of material, carving out the deep pocket at center of the picture. Winds from the region's other massive stars push back against these oncoming rivers, creating bow shocks like those that pile up in front of speeding boats. Three of these bow shocks are nestled in the upper left side of the central cavity, but are difficult to spot in this view. They are composed of compressed gas in addition to dust that glows at infrared wavelengths Spitzer can see. The smiley-shaped bow shocks curve away from the stellar winds of the central massive stars. This picture was taken with Spitzer's infrared array camera. It is a four-color composite, in which light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns is blue; 4.5-micron light is green; 5.8-micron light is orange; and 8-micron light is red. Dust is red, hot gas is green and white is where gas and dust intermingle. Foreground and background stars appear scattered through the image.

This is the “South Pillar” region of the star-forming region called the Carina Nebula. Like cracking open a watermelon and finding its seeds, the infrared telescope “busted open” this murky cloud to reveal star embryos tucked inside finger-like pillars of thick dust. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has captured a new, infrared view of the choppy star-making cloud called M17, also known as the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula.
The cloud, located about 6,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius, is dominated by a central group of massive stars — the most massive stars in the region. These central stars give off intense flows of expanding gas, which rush like rivers against dense piles of material, carving out the deep pocket at center of the picture. Winds from the region’s other massive stars push back against these oncoming rivers, creating bow shocks like those that pile up in front of speeding boats.
Three of these bow shocks are nestled in the upper left side of the central cavity, but are difficult to spot in this view. They are composed of compressed gas in addition to dust that glows at infrared wavelengths Spitzer can see. The smiley-shaped bow shocks curve away from the stellar winds of the central massive stars.
This picture was taken with Spitzer’s infrared array camera. It is a four-color composite, in which light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns is blue; 4.5-micron light is green; 5.8-micron light is orange; and 8-micron light is red. Dust is red, hot gas is green and white is where gas and dust intermingle. Foreground and background stars appear scattered through the image.

The Universe may be on the brink of collapse (but don’t worry – you have about 10 billion years to make other plans)

Physicists have proposed a mechanism for “cosmological collapse” that predicts that the universe will soon stop expanding and collapse in on itself, obliterating all matter as we know it. Their calculations suggest that the collapse is “imminent”—on the order of a few tens of billions of years or so—which may not keep most people up at night, but for the physicists it’s still much too soon.

In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, physicists Nemanja Kaloper at the University of California, Davis; and Antonio Padilla at the University of Nottingham have proposed the cosmological collapse mechanism and analyzed its implications, which include an explanation of dark energy.

“The fact that we are seeing dark energy now could be taken as an indication of impending doom, and we are trying to look at the data to put some figures on the end date,” Padilla said in an email. “Early indications suggest the collapse will kick in in a few tens of billions of years, but we have yet to properly verify this.”

The main point of the paper is not so much when exactly the universe will end, but that the mechanism may help resolve some of the unanswered questions in physics. In particular, why is the universe expanding at an accelerating rate, and what is the dark energy causing this acceleration? These questions are related to the cosmological constant problem, which is that the predicted vacuum energy density of the universe causing the expansion is much larger than what is observed.

“I think we have opened up a brand new approach to what some have described as ‘the mother of all physics problems,’ namely the cosmological constant problem,” Padilla said. “It’s way too early to say if it will stand the test of time, but so far it has stood up to scrutiny, and it does seem to address the issue of vacuum energy contributions from the standard model, and how they gravitate.”

The collapse mechanism builds on the physicists’ previous research on vacuum energy sequestering, which they proposed to address the cosmological constant problem. The dynamics of vacuum energy sequestering predict that the universe will collapse, but don’t provide a specific mechanism for how collapse will occur.

According to the new mechanism, the universe originated under a set of specific initial conditions so that it naturally evolved to its present state of acceleration and will continue on a path toward collapse. In this scenario, once the collapse trigger begins to dominate, it does so in a period of “slow roll” that brings about the accelerated expansion we see today. Eventually the universe will stop expanding and reach a turnaround point at which it begins to shrink, culminating in a “big crunch.”

Currently, we are in the period of accelerated expansion, and we know that the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old. So in order for the new mechanism to work, the period of accelerated expansion must last until at least this time (needless to say, a mechanism that predicts that the universe has already collapsed is obviously flawed). The collapse time can be delayed by choosing an appropriate slope, which in this case, is a slope that has a very tiny positive value—about 10-39 in the scientists’ equation. The very gradual slope means that the universe evolves very slowly.

Importantly, the scientists did not choose a slope just to fit the observed expansion and support their mechanism. Instead, they explain that the slope is “technically natural,” and takes on this value due to a symmetry in the theory.

As the physicists explain, the naturalness of the mechanism makes it one of the first ever models that predicts acceleration without any direct fine-tuning. In the mechanism, the slope alone controls the universe’s evolution, including the scale of the accelerated expansion.

“The ‘technically natural’ size of the slope controls when the collapse trigger begins to dominate, but was it guaranteed to give us slow roll and therefore the accelerated expansion?” Padilla said. “Naively one might have expected to have to fine-tune some initial conditions to guarantee this, but remarkably that is not the case. The dynamics of vacuum energy sequestering guarantee the slow roll.”

The idea is still in its early stages, and the physicists hope to build on it much more in the future.

“There is much to do,” Padilla said. “Right now we are working on a way to describe our theory in a way that is manifestly local, which will make it more conventional, and more obviously in keeping with some of the key principles behind quantum theory (namely, linear superposition). We would also like to devise more tests of the idea, both cosmological and astrophysical.

“Over the longer term, we would like to understand how our theory could emerge from a more fundamental theory, such as string theory. It is also important to ask what happens when we consider vacuum energy corrections from quantum gravity.”

If there was ever a justification that more work is needed, it may be in the paper’s conclusion:

“The present epoch of acceleration may be evidence of impending doom. . . A detailed analysis to better quantify these predictions is certainly warranted.”

As I said, you have plenty of time to make other plans.

Pack well.

Crash