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Category Archives: Hubble Telescope

The Camera That Will Transform Our Understanding of the Universe – Atlas Obscura

Posted: August 22, 2017 at 11:41 pm

The LSST is getting close to completion. LSST Project/NSF/AURA

Theres a mystery at the heart of physics. Two decades ago, in 1998, cosmologists discovered that the universe is not just expandinga discovery of the early 20th centurybut that the rate at which its expanding is getting faster.

Thats not what they expected to find, but it made a kind of sense. If the expansion of the universe is accelerating, there needs to be a cause; not knowing exactly what that was, physicists called it dark energy. In theory, dark energy interacts through gravity, is spread out homogeneously through the universe, and is not particularly dense. If you total up all of the forces that make up the universe, it would account for 68.3 percent of matter and energy.

Account for dark energy, and certain theories of physics start to click. It helps explain the rate that galaxies rotate and reveals a more sensible age of the universewithout dark energy, scientists were finding that some stars were supposedly older than the universe as a whole. But almost 20 years after this discovery, physicists still know only a little bit about it. In order to learn more, scientists from dozens of institutions in 23 countries have been working together to create the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a giant, digital camera that has the power to capture the light of several billion faint galaxies, millions of light years away.

All the existing telescopes with cameras were built before the discovery of dark energy, said Paul OConnor, a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. We expect the LSST to map the entire sky and find out where all that dark matter has been hiding. OConnor has been working on the projects camera sensors for more than ten years, and at Atlas Obscuras Total Eclipse festival on Sunday, he explained how the telescope, when it goes into operation on a mountain in Chile, could transform our fundamental understanding of the universe.

For millennia, scientists and scholars have been looking at the night sky and recording their impressions with the best technology available. Starting in the 18th century, with the advent of photography, astronomers started taking pictures of the stars and other celestial phenomena; in 1851, a daguerreotypist, Johann Julius Berkowski, took the first photo of a solar eclipse. In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble used what was then the worlds largest telescope to established that spiral nebulae were whole other galaxies, millions of light years distant from our own. The human understanding of space changed; we saw for the first time the extent of empty space, punctuated by these disc-shaped assemblies of stars, hundreds of billions of stars, which are the galaxies, as OConnor puts it.

In the 1970s, scientists at Bell Labs created a technology that used a charge-coupled device to capture lights as digital images. In 1981, the astrophotographer Jim Gunn used a CCD camera to create a 500 by 500 pixel image of a faint star cluster. He called that camera a nearly perfect device. This same technology, refined, is what kicked off the revolution in consumer-grade cameras and has given us the astounding images of the universe captured by the Hubble Telescope and other instruments. Today, there are dozens of huge telescopes, with top-notch CCD cameras. The question for the team building the LSST, OConnor says, is: Why are we going to the trouble of building another one? What will the LSST do that existing cameras will not?

If you looked up at the sky on a dark night, you might see 2,500 stars with your human eyes. The LSST would see a billion stars, OConnor said this weekend, and those stars would be outnumbered by distant galaxies, three to one. The cameras field of view is ten square degreesabout the size of a dime, held up to the sky. Every photograph we take of that size of the sky gets us another million galaxies, OConnor said.

One of the jobs of the LSST is to survey as many of these galaxies, over as wide a region of sky, as possible.

When the LSST goes into operation, which is scheduled for 2020, it will spend a decade scanning the sky, again and again. Over about 3,000 nights, the instrument will scan and capture each patch of sky one thousand times. Were really going to be making a movie of the universe, OConnor said. The LSST was specially designed to make this possibleit has a relatively wide field of view, it can scan each tiny section of the sky quickly, and it can look deep into the depths of the universe, to capture the faintest, most faraway galaxies.

With the information collected, cosmologists hope to start to better understand dark energy, the force that is causing those distant galaxies to speed away from us at an ever-increasing pace. This line of inquiry has the potential to transform the field of physics. The acceleration of the universe is, along with dark matter, the observed phenomenon that most directly demonstrates that our theories of fundamental particles and gravity are either incomplete or incorrect, the Dark Energy Task Force wrote in 2006. By looking at these faraway galaxies and understanding more about how they move, scientists may unlock fundamental truths about the nature of time, space, matter, and the forces that hold our world together, that have so far escaped our understanding.

Thats the reason theyre building the LSST. One of the reasons, at least.

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Heinrich pays a visit to the MRO – El Defensor Chieftain

Posted: August 18, 2017 at 4:57 am

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich calls the Magdalena Ridge Observatory a facility with enormous promise.

Heinrich toured the observatory Friday after announcing congressional funding for the observatorys interferometer project.

Were excited to be able to secure some federal funding to keep this moving down the road, Heinrich said. I think that the science of being able to track objects in space is only becoming more important over time, both from a scientific point of view and a defense point of view.

Heinrich said that was the reason $5 million in funding was secured from the Fiscal 2017 budget to help build the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer. Heinrich saw the first of the telescopes that will become the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer (MROI). When complete, the telescopes of MROI will be arrayed in a Y-shape and will be able to achieve a resolution 100 times greater than the Hubble Telescope.

Were working on the 2018 bill, Heinrich said. No promises, but were hopeful. A lot of people see the value of this project.

We deeply value the support we receive through Congress and the Air Force (who is working with New Mexico Tech on the project) for this really innovative research that we have here, New Mexico Tech President Stephen Wells added.

The funding will go toward the first telescope on the ridge, which is being moved into place, and the second telescope, which is under construction. The project is expected to cost $25 million when complete.

We dont have the money yet to complete the second telescope, New Mexico Tech Vice President for Research and Economic Development Van Romero said. When we receive that telescope will depend on when we receive the money and how its appropriated.

Romero said another $5 million is needed to get the second telescope on site. The appropriation from the Fiscal 2017 budget is the second round of funding. Another $15 million will be needed to complete the project.

We look forward to receiving the full amount of the appropriation so we can complete the project in a timely way and produce the science that weve promised Congress and our colleagues in the U.K., Wells added.

Cambridge University is working with New Mexico Tech on the project.

It really helps build on the scientific mission of New Mexico Tech broadly, Heinrich said. I have to say, I am amazed at the people I come in contact with who are familiar with the science that New Mexico Tech does, whether thats optics and telescopes, or explosives obviously or the engineering department. The reputation is quite deserved and very impressive.

Heinrich said he ran into people involved with the television show MythBusters last year and they couldnt stop raving about EMRTC and New Mexico Tech and the work they do there.

They were at the White House Science Night and they ended up talking about New Mexico Tech for quite a while, Heinrich said.

Heinrich said he had been to the ridge before, but this was the first time he actually toured the facility.

Its very impressive, Heinrich said. Im looking forward to the day when there are three operational telescopes. Thats when well be able to prove its value and concept nationally, and for that matter, internationally.

The telescopes will be able to track satellites and deep space objects, Romero said.

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Eclipse forum planned at MVTHS – Mt. Vernon Register-News

Posted: at 4:57 am

MT. VERNON Mt. Vernon Township High School will host a special education forum on the solar eclipse Sunday night.

The free event will feature hands-on activities for kids, a scientific lecture, and stargazing outside the school, said MVTHS Dramatics Director Mary Beth Mezo, one of the forum’s organizers.

What’s great about this presentation is it’s good for all ages, Mezo said, later adding, Hopefully, some of our out-of-town guests will take advantage of it.

Rend Lake College Associate Professor Greg Hollmann and NASA Specialist Dr. Kenneth Sembach will be featured guests at the forum, which kicks off at 7 p.m. in the MVTHS Schweinfurth Theater. The forum is the final event of the Totality Fest leading up to Monday’s solar eclipse.

Hollmann will speak about the significance of the eclipse and offer hands-on activities for kids to teach them about astronomy.

Then Dr. Sembach will take the stage to talk about his work with the Hubble Telescope. Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, has worked with the Hubble Telescope for about 16 years and has a leadership role in the new James Webb Space Telescope project.

The stargazing begins at around 9 p.m. as the audience will be invited outside to look at the night sky. Hollmann will provide guidance during the session, pointing out stars and other celestial bodies.

To enhance the experience, all the lights at MVTHS will be shut off, Mezo said. This, plus the high school’s isolated location, should give people a clearer view of the sky, Mezo said.

You don’t have all the city lights interfering with the night sky, Mezo said.

Mezo said she hopes those in attendance will learn more about the eclipse while enjoying a fun family activity.

She added the new theater is an ideal setting for the forum and it’s nice to host an event there for the whole community.

It’s something at the theater other than a high school production or a concert, Mezo said. This is the kind of thing that the theater needs to be doing for the community.

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Photogram Artist Creates Galaxies Inspired by Hubble Telescope Images in UP TIL NOW – Long Beach Post

Posted: August 11, 2017 at 5:57 pm

Image of Color Bang #50 courtesy of Made by Millworks.

Long Beach native Ross Sonnenberg will show large-scale original photograms, pictures produced with light-sensitive photographic paper without using an actual camera, at MADE by Millworks starting this Tuesday, August 15.

Many of Sonnenbergs photograms are incredibly celestial, with forms resembling planets, solar eclipses, galaxies and stars. While his vision is inspired by actual photos taken by NASAs Hubble Space Telescope, his work on the ground seems to consider his prior abstract painting process, with gestures that seem as emotive as they are spontaneous.

Several of the artists photograms that were created using fireworks have been featured in Harpers Magazine, WIRED and The Creators Project. Using a surprising variety of media, such as sand, colored gels and colored plastic lunch plates, to name a few items, Sonnenbergs photograms contain worlds of their own.

Image taken from @ross.sonnenberg1138.

How did Sonnenberg arrive at the making of photograms? A distinct hardship.

Twenty-four years ago Sonnenberg was getting ready to start film school, with the ultimate goal of embarking on a career within the film industry. When he became ill with a debilitating disease, that dream was quickly extinguished.

It took over eight months for the doctors to figure out what I had, Sonnenberg said in a statement. It turned out to be Systemic Lupus. I had to undergo chemotherapy to stop my immune system from killing me, and I had to say goodbye to my dream of film-making.

After several years of attempting to gain control of the disease and finally finding some balance, Sonnenberg had to find a creative outlet for the myriad ideas trapped in his head. He started painting abstract forms as expressions of his pain and loss, as well as love.

Lupus turned my life into chaos, changing the direction forever, he stated. My art has allowed me to give expression to that chaos. Im pleased to be able to show the many series of art I have created over the past 30 years for the first time.”

The opening reception will take place on Saturday, September 2 from 7:00PM to 10:00PM. Ross Sonnenberg: Up Til Now will be on view starting Tuesday, August 15 through Saturday, September 30.

For more information, check out the Facebook event page here.

MADE by Millworks is located at 240 Pine Avenue.

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Hubble Telescope sees merging ‘David and Goliath’ galaxy pair – Fox News

Posted: August 10, 2017 at 5:53 am

The Hubble Space Telescope has taken a close look at the fascinating gravitational effects caused by a diminutive dwarf galaxy as it orbits its massive neighbor. The galactic pair will eventually merge, with the dwarf being eaten but it’s not going down without a fight.

NGC 1512 is a colossal barred spiral galaxy containing billions of stars, plus active regions of star formation. Hubble, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency, can easily detect star formation in the galaxy’s outer ring. That region is dotted with many blueish HII-emission regions, meaning that blasts of powerful radiation coming from nearby young stars are ionizing the clouds of hydrogen gas. In this observation of NGC 1512, however, the bright blue inner hub of star formation takes center-stage.

Known as a “circumnuclear starburst ring,” this intense star-formation region measures 2,400 light-years across. It is fed by a conveyor belt of gas streaming down the two prominent bars from the galaxy’s outer rim to the galactic core (hence the “barred spiral galaxy” designation). Astronomers think that the 400-million-year-old gravitational battle between NGC 1512 and its tiny buddy, NGC 1510 (on the right in the image), is driving the massive galaxy’s gas supply and starburst ring, researchers said in a statement.

Although NGC 1510 seems to be holding its own against its neighboring gravitational bully, the unfortunate dwarf galaxy faces the beginning of the end. Already, the bigger galaxy’s gravity is dragging extended tendrils of gas from the tiny galaxy, and NGC 1510’s stars will eventually assimilate with NGC 1512’s stellar metropolis. Astronomers know this because 2015 observations of the massive galaxy revealed that the outer regions of NGC 1512’s spiral arms once belonged to another galaxy, one that was cannibalized and ingested a grim fate that also awaits NGC 1510. But in the cosmic ecosystem, this is the galactic cycle of life.

Although the doomed dwarf galaxy is small, it has a big impact on its larger companion, the statement said. Observations of these effects will help astronomers learn more about the dramatic consequences galactic mergers have for star formation in massive galaxies, according to the statement.

Note: Space.com senior producer Steve Spaleta contributed to this report.

Follow Ian O’Neill @astroengine . Follow us @Spacedotcom , Facebook or Google+ . Originally published on Space.com .

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Hubble Telescope Sees Merging ‘David and Goliath’ Galaxy Pair (Photos, Video) – Space.com

Posted: August 8, 2017 at 3:54 am

The Hubble Space Telescope has taken a close look at the fascinating gravitational effects caused by a diminutive dwarf galaxy as it orbits its massive neighbor. The galactic pair will eventually merge, with the dwarf being eaten but it’s not going down without a fight.

The barred spiral galaxy NGC 1512 (left) and the dwarf galaxy NGC 1510 (right) are merging with one another. The duo is 30 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 1512 is a colossal barred spiral galaxy containing billions of stars, plus active regions of star formation. Hubble, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency, can easily detect star formation in the galaxy’s outer ring. That region is dotted with many blueish HII-emission regions, meaning that blasts of powerful radiation coming from nearby young stars are ionizing the clouds of hydrogen gas. In this observation of NGC 1512, however, the bright blue inner hub of star formation takes center-stage.

Known as a “circumnuclear starburst ring,” this intense star-formation region measures 2,400 light-years across. It is fed by a conveyor belt of gas streaming down the two prominent bars from the galaxy’s outer rim to the galactic core (hence the “barred spiral galaxy” designation). Astronomers think that the 400-million-year-old gravitational battle between NGC 1512 and its tiny buddy, NGC 1510 (on the right in the image), is driving the massive galaxy’s gas supply and starburst ring, researchers said in a statement.

Although NGC 1510 seems to be holding its own against its neighboring gravitational bully, the unfortunate dwarf galaxy faces the beginning of the end. Already, the bigger galaxy’s gravity is dragging extended tendrils of gas from the tiny galaxy, and NGC 1510’s stars will eventually assimilate with NGC 1512’s stellar metropolis. Astronomers know this because 2015 observations of the massive galaxy revealed that the outer regions of NGC 1512’s spiral arms once belonged to another galaxy, one that was cannibalized and ingested a grim fate that also awaits NGC 1510. But in the cosmic ecosystem, this is the galactic cycle of life.

NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 (at center) as seen from the ground, in the surrounding sky.

Although the doomed dwarf galaxy is small, it has a big impact on its larger companion, the statement said. Observations of these effects will help astronomers learn more about the dramatic consequences galactic mergers have for star formation in massive galaxies, according to the statement.

Note: Space.com senior producer Steve Spaleta contributed to this report.

Follow Ian O’Neill @astroengine. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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Hubble Telescope Sees Merging ‘David and Goliath’ Galaxy Pair (Photos, Video) – Space.com

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James Webb Space Telescope may be delayed again – SpaceFlight Insider

Posted: August 6, 2017 at 2:54 am

Joe Latrell

August 5th, 2017

Artists rendition of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in space. Image Credit: Northrop Grumman

The much delayed and over budget next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has suffered another setback prior to itsjourney to the launch pad: the October 2018 launch may be in conflict with Europes BepiColombo mission to Mercury. Both spacecraft are to be flown on Ariane 5 boosters, but the spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, cannot support two flights in the same month. BepiColombo has priority due to the tight launch window to reach Mercury. This will result in the JWST having its launch date pushed back to 2019 at the earliest.

The JWST is a space-based infrared telescope. To operate properly, it needs to maintain a temperature of 37 kelvins (236 C / 393 F). In order to achieve this when in space, the telescope relies on a large tennis court sized sunshield to protect it from external heat and light sources, such as the Sun as well as the Earth and Moon.

Light gathered from the segmented 6.5-meter (21-foot) diameter mirror is directed to the four science instruments: Fine Guidance Sensor / Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS), Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), Near InfraRed Camera (NIRCam), and Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec). Due to the requirement of the MIRI to operate at an even lower temperature than the other science instruments, it will utilize a cryocoolerto decrease its temperature to less than 7 kelvins (266 C / 447 F).

While smaller than telescopes here on Earth, the JWST is the most powerful space telescope ever constructed and is the science successor to the Hubble telescope.

Originally projected to cost $1.6 billion, the telescopes price tag has ballooned to over $8.8 billion. Several factors, from delays in choosing a launch vehicle to management issues, contributed to the soaring costs. Additionally, the vehicle proved harder to construct than originally envisioned. For example, during vibration testing, the spacecraft experienced several anomalies that required NASA engineers to stop the test. After analysis and modifications, the tests resumed and the JWST was given a clean bill of health.

Despite the technical issues and threats of cancellation, the project continued and the cost estimates grew. A launch delay into 2019 will only add to that dollar figure.

Artists depiction of the BepiColombo mission, with the MPO (left) and MMO (right). Image Credit: NASA

BepiColombo is a mission to explore the planet Mercury that is being conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The mission is actually two spacecraft: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). The objective is a comprehensive study of Mercury, including the planets surface, magnetic field, and interior structure.

The MPO is a solar-powered spacecraft carrying 11 scientific instruments. These instruments include laser altimeters, spectrometers, magnetometers, as well as several cameras. It has a mass of 1,150 kilograms (2,540 pounds) and is capable of producing 1,000 watts of power for onboard instruments.

The MMO has a mass of 285 kilograms (628 pounds) and carries five scientific payloads. Built mostly by Japan, this spacecraft will study plasma particles including high-energy ions and electrons emanating from the planet. A third spacecraft, the Mercury Surface Element (MSE), a small lander craft, was removed due to budgetary issues.

The two Mercury spacecraft are scheduled to arrive at the planet in 2025 after performing numerous flybys: one at Earth, two at Venus, and six at Mercury. The craft must launch sometime between October 5, 2018, and November 28, 2018, to reach the planet as scheduled.

Both missions as slated to fly on the Ariane 5 booster. The 52-meter (171-foot) vehicle is capable of lifting over 10,500 kilograms (23,100 pounds) to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).

Currently, the JWST is undergoing low-temperature checks at NASA Johnson Space Centers Chamber A. The temperature of the chamber is steadily being reduced to approximately 20 kelvins (253 C / 424 F) the same temperature that the JWST will be when operating in space. These tests will validate that the JWST instruments can operate properly at the extremely low temperatures.

Unlike Hubble, the JWST will be positioned at the Earth-Sun Lagrange point (L2) which is 1,500,000 kilometers (930,000 miles) from Earth. That location is currently beyond NASAs manned space capabilities; therefore, precluding the JWST from being serviced on orbit.

The new WebbCam overlay displays the temperatures in Houston and in Chamber A, in degrees Fahrenheit, degrees Celsius, and on the Kelvin scale. Image & Caption Credit: NASA

Tagged: BepiColumbo ESA James Webb Space Telescope Lead Stories NASA

Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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Hubble Telescope Captures Mars Moon Phobos Orbiting Around The Planet – Gears Of Biz

Posted: August 4, 2017 at 12:57 pm

NASAs Hubble Telescope has captured a unique time-lapse movie of Martian moon Phobos as it orbited around the planet. In the sequence, Phobos emerges from behind the Mars and passes in front of the planet. The moon looks so small that it could easily be mistaken with a star.

Phobos is the larger of Mars two moons. It is closer to its host planet than any other moon in the solar system and it takes it just 7 hours and 39 minutes to complete an orbit.

Spotted! Mars tiny moon Phobos is seen during its orbital trek by @NASAHubble telescope. Watch the time-lapse: https://t.co/zpY505XhiF pic.twitter.com/R7TX6Xp9ho NASA (@NASA) July 20, 2017

Mars gravitational pull is drawing Phobos closer and closer. Every 100 years, the moon is approaching Mars by about 2 meters or 6.5 feet. As the moon is getting dangerously close to its planet, it could be shredded into pieces and likely form rings Saturn-like around Mars. Scientists predict that this could happen between 30 and 50 million years.

Thought Phobos is the largest moon of Mars, it is still one of smallest natural satellites in our solar system. The moon is 27 by 22 by 18 km in diameter and could easily fit inside Washington, D.C. Beltway.

The origin of Phobos is not yet fully determined. But researchers suspect that it could be caused by collision between Mars and another body.

Phobos may be a pile of rubble that is held together by a thin crust. It may have formed as dust and rocks encircling Mars were drawn together by gravity. Or, it may have experienced a more violent birth, where a large body smashing into Mars flung pieces skyward, and those pieces were brought together by gravity. Perhaps an existing moon was destroyed, reduced to the rubble that would become Phobos. NASA statement said.

The images of Phobos orbiting the Red Planet were taken on May 12, 2016 days before Mars came closest to the Earth in 11 years.

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NASA decided to take a snap of ‘nothing’ and THIS is what they saw… – Express.co.uk

Posted: August 3, 2017 at 11:57 pm

GETTY

Telescope time is so expensive that astronomers usually know exactly what star or planet they are investigating.

But as an experiment NASA pointed its Hubble Telescope at a void in space which changed and provided one of the most iconic images of the cosmos.

At the time, NASA was struggling with the Hubble Telescope which was deemed a failure as it had only provided blurry images for its first five years due to a flaw in one of the mirrors the mirrors are used to take extremely long distance pictures.

However, astronauts spent three days on the satellite orbiting Earth to rectify the problem, and when they did, NASA had something to prove.

R. Williams (STScI), the HDF-S Team, and NASA/ESA

To test the new equipment, Robert Williams, former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, decided to point the telescope at nothing.

However, what came back was a stunning image which gave the world an unprecedented view into the entire history of the universe.

In an interview with Vox, Mr Williams said: What we were doing was trying to find sort of an indiscriminate area of the sky where no observation had been made before.

AFP/Getty Images

1 of 15

Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7653, which is an emission nebula located 11 000 light-years away

The image is now known as the Hubble Deep Field and is more than 12 billion lightyears deep.

A lightyear is measured by how long it takes for light to travel in a year moving at 186,000 miles per second.

So what the Hubble Deep Field image shows in the distance is how the universe looked 12 billion years ago.

GETTY

In the forefront of the image, minus a few stars which were in view, there are the galaxies which have formed over billions of years.

But in the background are irregularly shaped infant galaxies which are just beginning to take shape, so close to the dawn of time 13.8 billion years ago.

Mr Williams added: “We didnt know what was there, and that was the whole purpose of the observation, basically to get a core sample of the universe.

“You do the same thing if you’re trying to understand the geology of the Earth: Pick some typical spot to drill down to try to understand exactly what the various layers of the Earth are and what they mean in terms of its geologic history.”

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Hubble Telescope Detects Stratosphere on Huge Alien Planet – Space.com

Posted: at 9:59 am

This artist’s illustration shows the “hot Jupiter” exoplanet WASP-121b, which presents the best evidence yet of a stratosphere on an exoplanet.

A huge, superhot alien planet has a stratrosphere, like Earth does, a new study suggests.

“This result is exciting because it shows that a common trait of most of the atmospheres in our solar system a warm stratosphere also can be found in exoplanet atmospheres,” study co-author Mark Marley, of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, said in a statement.

“We can now compare processes in exoplanet atmospheres with the same processes that happen under different sets of conditions in our own solar system,” Marley added. [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets]

The research team, led by Thomas Evans of the University of Exeter in England, detected spectral signatures of water molecules in the atmosphere of WASP-121b, a gas giant that lies about 880 light-years from Earth. These signatures indicate that the temperature of the upper layer of the planet’s atmosphere increases with the distance from the planet’s surface. In the bottom layer of the atmosphere, the troposphere, the temperature decreases with altitude, study team members said.

WASP-121b lies incredibly close to its host star, completing one orbit every 1.3 days. The planet is a “hot Jupiter”; temperatures at the top of its atmosphere reach a sizzling 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit (2,500 degrees Celsius), researchers said.

“The question [of] whether stratospheres do or do not form inhot Jupitershas been one of the major outstanding questions in exoplanet research since at least the early 2000s,” Evans told Space.com. “Currently, our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres is pretty basic and limited. Every new piece of information that we are able to get represents a significant step forward.”

The top of WASP-121b’s atmosphere is heated to a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,500 Celsius), hot enough to boil some metals.

The discovery is also significant because it shows that atmospheres of distant exoplanets can be analyzed in detail, said Kevin Heng of the University of Bern in Switzerland, who is not a member of the study team.

“This is an important technical milestone on the road to a final goal that we all agree on, and the goal is that, in the future, we can apply the very same techniques to study atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets,” Heng told Space.com. “We would like to measure transits of Earth-like planets. We would like to figure out what type of molecules are in the atmospheres, and after we do that, we would like to take the final very big step, which is to see whether these molecular signatures could indicate the presence of life.”

Available technology does not yet allow such work with small, rocky exoplanets, researchers said.

“We are focusing on these big gas giants that are heated to very high temperatures due to the close proximity of their stars simply because they are the easiest to study with the current technology,” Evans said. “We are just trying to understand as much about their fundamental properties as possible and refine our knowledge, and, hopefully in the decades to come, we can start pushing towards smaller and cooler planets.”

WASP-121b is nearly twice the size of Jupiter. The exoplanet transits, or crosses the face of, its host star from Earth’s perspective. Evans and his team were able to observe those transits using an infrared spectrograph aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“By looking at the difference in the brightness of the system for when the planet was not behind the star and when it was behind the star, we were able to work out the brightness and the spectrum of the planet itself,” Evans said. “We measured the spectrum of the planet using this method at a wavelength range which is very sensitive to the spectral signature of water molecules.”

The team observed signatures of glowing water molecules, which indicated that WASP-121b’s atmospheric temperatures increase with altitude, Evans said. If the temperature decreased with altitude, infrared radiation would at some point pass through a region of cooler water-gas, which would absorb the part of the spectrum responsible for the glowing effect, he explained.

There have been hints of stratospheres detected on other hot Jupiters, but the new results are the most convincing such evidence to date, Evans said.

“It’s the first time that it has been done clearly for an exoplanet atmosphere, and that’s why it’s the strongest evidence to date for an exoplanet stratosphere,” he said.

He added that researchers might be able to move closer to studying more Earth-like planets with the arrival of next-generation observatories such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and big ground-based observatories such as the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). JWST is scheduled to launch late next year, and GMT, E-ELT and TMT are expected to come online in the early to mid-2020s.

The new study was published online Wednesday (Aug. 2) in the journal Nature.

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Hubble Telescope Detects Stratosphere on Huge Alien Planet – Space.com

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