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02/11/2016 03:12 PM
Massive Planet Gone Rogue Discovered

In this artist's conception, a rogue planet drifts through space. Credit: Christine Pulliam (CfA)

A massive rogue planet has been discovered in the Beta Pictoris moving group. The planet, called PSO J318.5338-22.8603 (Sorry, I didn't name it), is over eight times as massive as Jupiter. Because it's one of the few directly-imaged exoplanets we know of, and is accessible for study by spectroscopy, this massive planet will be extremely important when piecing together the details of planetary formation and evolution.

Most planets outside our solar system are not directly observable. They are discovered when they transit in front of their host star. That's how the Kepler mission finds exoplanets. After that, their properties are inferred by their gravitational interactions with their star and with any other planets in their system. We can infer a lot, and get quite detailed, but studying planets with spectroscopy is a whole other ball game.

The team of researchers, led by K. Allers of Bucknell University, used the Gemini North telescope, and its Near-Infrared Spectrograph, to find PSO's  radial and rotational velocities. As reported in a draft study on January 20th, PSO J318.5338-22.8603 (PSO from now on...) was confirmed as a member of the Beta Pictoris moving group, a group of young stars with a known age.

The Beta Pictoris moving group is a group of stars moving through space together. Since they are together, they are understood to be formed at the same time, and to have the same age. Confirming that PSO is a member of this group also confirmed PSO's age.

Once the age of PSO was known, its identity as a planet was confirmed. Without knowing the age, it's impossible to rule it out as a brown dwarf, a "failed star" that lacked the mass to ignite fusion.

This new rogue planet is 8.3 + or - 0.5 times the mass of Jupiter, and its temperature is about 1130 K. Spectra from the Gemini scope show that PSO rotates at between 5 to 10.2 hours, and that its radial velocity is within the envelope of values for this group. According to the researchers, determining these properties accurately means that PSO J318.5338-22.8603 is "an important benchmark for studies of young, directly imaged planets."

PSO is in an intermediate position in terms of other planets in the Beta Pictoris moving group. 51 Eridani-b is another directly imaged planet, only slightly larger than Jupiter, discovered in 2014. The third planet in the group is Beta Pictoris b, which is thought to be almost 11 times as massive as Jupiter.

Rogue, or "free-floating" planets like PSO J318.5338-22.8603 are important because they are not near a star. Light from a star dominates the star's  surroundings, and makes it difficult to discern much detail in the planets that orbit the star. Now that PSO is confirmed as a planet, rather than a brown dwarf, studying it will add to our knowledge of planetary formation.

The post Massive Planet Gone Rogue Discovered appeared first on Universe Today.

02/11/2016 01:24 PM
Gravitational Waves Discovered: A New Window on the Universe

An illustration of Markarian 231, a binary black hole 1.3 billion light years from Earth. Their collision generated the first gravitational waves we've ever detected. Image: NASA

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves. We did it."

With those words, Dave Reitze, executive director of the U.S.-based Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), has opened a new window into the universe, and ushered in a new era in space science.

Predicted over 100 years ago by Albert Einstein, gravitational waves are ripples in space-time. They travel in waves, like light does, but they aren't radiation. They are actual perturbations in the fabric of space-time itself. The ones detected by LIGO, after over ten years of "listening", came from a binary system of black holes over 1.3 billion light years away, called Markarian 231.


The two black holes, each 30 times as massive as the Sun, orbited each other, then spiralled together, ultimately colliding and merging together. The collision sent gravitational waves rippling through space time.

LIGO, which is actually two separate facilities separated by over 3,000 km, is a finely tuned system of lasers and sensors that can detect these tiny ripples in space-time. LIGO is so sensitive that it can detect ripples 10,000 times smaller than a proton, in laser beams 4 kilometres long.

Light is—or has been up until now—the only way to study objects in the universe. This includes everything from the Moon, all the way out to the most distant objects ever observed.  Astronomers and astrophysicists use observatories that can see in not only visible light, but in all other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, to study objects in the universe. And we've learned an awful lot. But things will change with this announcement.

"I think we're opening a window on the universe," Dave Reitze said.

Another member of the team that made this discovery, astrophysicist Szabolcs Marka from Columbia University, said, "Until this moment we had our eyes on the sky and we couldn't hear the music."


Gravitational waves are a new way to study notoriously difficult things to observe like black holes and neutron stars. Black holes emit no light at all, and their characteristics and properties are inferred from cause and effect relationships with objects near them. But the detection of gravitational waves holds the promise of answering questions about black holes, neutron stars, and even the early days of our universe, including the Big Bang.

It's almost impossible to overstate the magnitude of this discovery. Once we understand how to better detect and observe gravitational waves, we may come to a whole new understanding of the universe, and we may look back on this day as truly ground-breaking and revolutionary.

And it all started 100 years ago with Albert Einstein's prediction.

For a better understanding of Gravitational Waves, their sources, and their detection, check out Markus Possel's excellent series of articles:

Gravitational Waves and How They Distort Space

Gravitational Wave Detectors and How They Work

Sources of Gravitational Waves: The Most Violent Events in the Universe



The post Gravitational Waves Discovered: A New Window on the Universe appeared first on Universe Today.

02/11/2016 11:05 AM
NASA Says Indian Event Was Not Meteorite.

Pentax K-1000, 50mm lens, Kodak Ektar 100 Exposure ~ 8 seconds at Dusk, Capturing a Bright Fireball, breaking up with debri, Yellow Springs, Ohio

Last Saturday, Feb. 6th, a meteorite reportedly struck a bus driver on the campus of the Bharathidasan Engineering College in southern India. Three students were also injured and several windows were shattered in some kind of explosion. Online videos and stills show a small crater left by the impact. If true, this would be the first time in recorded history a person was struck and killed by a meteorite.
Meteorite or ...?

Call me skeptical. Since the purported meteorite weighed about 50 grams — just under two ounces — it would be far too small to cause an explosion or significant impact crater five feet deep and two feet wide as depicted in both video and still photos. There were also no reports of rumbles, sonic booms or sightings of a fireball streaking across the sky, sights and sounds associated with material substantial enough to penetrate the atmosphere and plunge to the ground. Shattered windows would indicate an explosion similar to the one that occurred over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013. The blast wave spawned when the Russian meteorite fractured into thousands of pieces miles overhead pulverized thousands of windows with flying glass caused numerous injuries.
Another report of the "meteorite" fall out of India

According to a story that ran in The News Minute, a team led by the Indian Space Research Organization (IRSO) recovered an object 2 cm (3/4 inch) in width that weighed 50 grams and looked like a meteorite with "air bubbles on its rigid surface". There's also been chatter about meteor showers dropping meteorites to Earth, with various stories reporting that there no active meteor showers at the time of the driver's death. For the record, not a single meteorite ever found has been linked to a shower. Dust and tiny bits of comets produce most shower meteors, which vaporize to fine soot in the atmosphere.

Now even NASA says that based on images posted online, the explosion is "land based" rather than a rock from space.

There have been close calls in the past most notably in Sylacauga, Alabama  On November 30, 1954 at 2:46 p.m. an 8.5 lb rock crashed through the roof of a home not far from that town, hit a radio console, bounced off the floor and struck the hand and hip of 31-year-old Ann Hodges who was asleep on the couch at the time. She awoke in surprise and pain thinking that a space heater had blown up. But when she noticed the hole in the roof and a rock on the floor, Hodges figured the neighborhood kids had been up to no good.

Fortunately her injuries weren’t serious. Ann became a sudden celebrity; her photo even appeared on the cover of Life magazine with a story titled “A Big Bruiser From The Sky”. In 1956 she donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa, where you can still see it to this day. A second meteorite from the fall weighing 3.7 lbs. was picked up the following day by Julius K. McKinney in the middle of a dirt road. McKinney sold his fragment to the Smithsonian and used the money to purchase a small farm and used car.

Claims of people getting hit by meteorites have been on the increase in the past few years with the growth of the social media. Some stories have been deliberately made up and none have been verified. This would appear to be another tall tale if only based upon the improbabilities. In the meantime I've dug around and discovered another story that's more probable and may indeed be the truth, though I have no way as of yet to independently verify it.

Police at the college say that two of the school's gardeners were burning materials from the garden when the fire inadvertently set off sticks of dynamite that had been abandoned "amid the rocks" when the college was first built. The driver, by the name of Kamaraj and another driver, Sultan, were drinking water nearby when they were hit by the shrapnel and flying glass. Kamaraj began bleeding and was rushed to a hospital but died on the way. More HERE.

In the meantime, we only hope officials get to the bottom of the tragic death.

The post NASA Says Indian Event Was Not Meteorite. appeared first on Universe Today.

02/11/2016 10:26 AM
Why Do Planets Have Rings?

Planet come in a wide variety of sizes, compositions, and colors – and they can sometimes have rings. Where do these rings come from? My favorite object to see through a telescope is Saturn. Seriously, if you’ve never had a chance to see it with your own eyes, find a friend who owns a telescope […]

The post Why Do Planets Have Rings? appeared first on Universe Today.

02/10/2016 03:52 PM
Sources of Gravitational Waves: The Most Violent Events in the Universe

One of the most promising gravitational wave sources: Bodies orbiting each other under their own gravity

Soon, very soon, Thursday, February 11, at 10:30 Eastern time, we are likely to learn at any one of several press conferences – at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in Hannover, Germany, near Pisa in Italy and elswhere – that gravitational waves have been measured directly, for the first time. This would mean the first direct detection of minute distortions of spacetime, travelling at the speed of light, first postulated by Albert Einstein almost exactly 100 years ago.

Time to brush up on your gravitational wave basics: In Gravitational waves and how they distort space, we had a look at what gravitational waves do. In Gravitational wave detectors: How they work we saw how you can measure gravitational waves. Third and final step: What are typical gravitational wave sources? How are these waves produced?

Objects in orbit

The simplest situation that produces gravitational waves in the cosmos is almost ubiquitous: two or more objects orbiting around each other under their own gravity. The waves they generate are reminiscent to a very slow mixer in the middle of a pool of water: One of the most promising gravitational wave sources: Objects in orbit around each other. By Sascha Husa, Universitat de les Illes Balears This is not something you would see, of course. The wave that is pictured here represents the strength of the minute changes in distance that would be caused by the gravitational wave, just as we've seen in Gravitational waves and how they distort space. The animation is courtesy of Sascha Husa of the Universitat de les Illes Balears.

Indirect evidence

Gravitational waves emitted by orbiting objects carry away energy. Elementary physics tells you that if you remove energy from an orbiting system, the distance between the orbiting objects will shrink, and they will orbit each other faster than before.

In fact, gravitational waves making a binary system of neutron stars speed up was the first evidence for the existence of gravitational waves. The binary neutron star was discovered by Hulse and Taylor in 1974, and the speed-up caused by gravitational waves published by Taylor and Weisberg in 1984, after a careful analysis of seven years' worth of data. Hulse and Taylor were awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 1993 for their discovery.

Here, in an image from an article by Weisberg 2010, is the match between general relativistic prediction and observation in all its glory (or at least in all its glory up to 2005): weisberg2010As the two neutron stars speed up, they will reach the point of closest approach within their orbit earlier and earlier. How much earlier, in seconds, is plotted on the vertical axis, year of measurement on the horizontal axis.

A matter of frequency

Today's ground-based detectors cannot detect gravitational waves from all kinds of bodies in mutual orbit. The bodies need to be massive, compact and, crucially, orbit each other quickly enough. For bodies orbiting each other less than a few times per second (very quick, if you are talking about astronomical bodies!), the frequency of the resulting gravitational wave will be too low for ground-based detectors to measure reliably. In the low-frequency regime, below 10–100 Hertz, disturbances caused by undulating motions of the Earth's surface ("seismic noise") are dominant, and drown out the minute effects of gravitational waves.

When it comes to gravitational waves from supermassive black holes, or from white dwarfs, we will have to wait for future space-based gravitational wave detectors.

The most promising gravitational wave sources go "chirp"

When an orbiting system emits gravitational waves, orbital motion speeds up. And when orbital motion speeds up, the system emits even more energy in form of gravitational wave. This runaway process ends only when the orbiting objects collide and merge.

The final phase is marked by a quick increase in orbital speed, corresponding to ever higher gravitational wave frequency, and ever higher intensity. Here's what such a signal looks like (image and audio from "Chirping Neutron Stars" on Einstein Online): chirp-enYou can see how the frequency and intensity increase right up to time 0, when the two neutron stars collide and merge.

For stellar black holes (with masses between a few and a few dozen solar masses) and neutron stars, in any combination, the frequencies of these gravitational waves are the same as the frequencies of audible sound waves. One can actually represent these changes in frequency as an audible tone, as in this example of two neutron stars merging (Audio © B. Owen, Penn State University):

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Here is the same kind of audible representation for the merger of a black hole and a neutron star (© AEI/GEO600):

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Sadly, what a gravitational wave detector registers is the combination of this sound plus assorted noise, which sounds like this (© AEI/GEO600):

[audio mp3=""][/audio]

Colleagues at Cardiff University have made this into a nice online game: Black Hole Hunter. Head over there and see if you can hear the signal beneath the noise!

(And you can hear live chirps by various astrophysicists (and others) under the hashtag #chirpForLIGO on Twitter.)

This kind of signal, from merging stellar black holes or neutron stars (in any combination) is the most promising candidate signal for today's detectors – and going by the rumors, that is indeed what LIGO appears to have found.

The final part of the signal is interesting for a particular reason: It doesn't follow from any simple formulae, and can only be modelled with complex computer simulations of such situations known as numerical relativity. If the detectors get a good detection of this very last bit, that will be a good test for current numerical simulations of general relativity!

Other gravitational wave sources

Chirps are comparatively simple, and likely the first signals to be found.

Another kind of signal that could be found is periodic (or nearly so), and would be produced e.g. if rapidly rotating neutron stars are less than perfectly smooth. No such luck as of yet, though.

Next would come the gravitational wave sources that are somewhat less understood, such as the processes in the interior of supernova explosions. And finally, once numerous signals have been detected, showing the scientists that their detectors are indeed working as they should, there might be the detection of completely unexpected signals. Whenever astronomers have opened a new window to the cosmos - the radio window, infrared window, x-ray window - they have found something new and unexpected. Who can tell what opening the Einstein window, the window of gravitational waves, will teach us about the universe?

Update: Gravitational Waves Discovered

The post Sources of Gravitational Waves: The Most Violent Events in the Universe appeared first on Universe Today.

02/10/2016 02:37 PM
Great Attractor Revealed? Galaxies Found Lurking Behind the Milky Way

Milky Way by Matt Dieterich

Hundreds of galaxies hidden from sight by our own Milky Way galaxy have been studied for the first time. Though only 250 million light years away—which isn't that far for galaxies—they have been obscured by the gas and dust of the Milky Way. These galaxies may be a tantalizing clue to the nature of The Great Attractor.

On February 9th, an international team of scientists published a paper detailing the results of their study of these galaxies using the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's (CSIRO) Parkes radio telescope, a 64 meter telescope in Australia. The 'scope is equipped with an innovative new multi-beam receiver, which made it possible to peer through the Milky Way into the galaxies behind it.

The area around the Milky Way that is obscured to us is called the Zone of Avoidance (ZOA). This study focused on the southern portion of the ZOA, since the telescope is in Australia. (The northern portion of the ZOA is currently being studied by the Arecibo radio telescope, also equipped with the new multi-beam receiver.) The significance of their work is not that they found hundreds of new galaxies. There was no reason to suspect that galactic distribution would be any different in the ZOA than anywhere else. What's significant is what it will tell us about The Great Attractor.

The Great Attractor is a feature of the large-scale structure of the Universe. It is drawing our Milky Way galaxy, and hundreds of thousands of other galaxies, towards it with the gravitational force of a million billion suns. The Great Attractor is an anomaly, because it deviates from our understanding of the universal expansion of the universe. “We don’t actually understand what’s causing this gravitational acceleration on the Milky Way or where it’s coming from,” said Professor Lister Staveley-Smith of The University of Western Australia, the lead author of the study.

“We know that in this region there are a few very large collections of galaxies we call clusters or superclusters, and our whole Milky Way is moving towards them at more than two million kilometres per hour.”

Professor Staveley-Smith and his team reported that they found 883 galaxies, of which over one third have never been seen before. “The Milky Way is very beautiful of course and it’s very interesting to study our own galaxy but it completely blocks out the view of the more distant galaxies behind it,” he said.

The team identified new structures in the ZOA that could help explain the movement of The Milky Way, and other galaxies, towards The Great Attractor, at speeds of up to 200 million kilometres per hour. These include three galaxy concentrations, named NW1, NW2, and NW3, and two new clusters, named CW1 and CW2.

University of Cape Town astronomer Professor Renée Kraan-Korteweg, a member of the team who did this work, says “An average galaxy contains 100 billion stars, so finding hundreds of new galaxies hidden behind the Milky Way points to a lot of mass we didn't know about until now.”

How exactly these new galaxies affect The Great Attractor will have to wait for further quantitative analysis in a future study, according to the paper. The data from the Arecibo scope will show us the northern hemisphere of the ZOA, which will also help build our understanding. But for now, just knowing that there are hundreds of new galaxies in our region of space sheds some light on the large-scale structure of our neighbourhood in the universe.


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02/10/2016 12:39 PM
Gravitational Wave Detectors: How They Work

Simplified gravitational wave detectors

It's official: this Thursday, February 11, at 10:30 EST, there will be parallel press conferences at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in Hannover, Germany, and near Pisa in Italy. Not officially confirmed, but highly probable, is that people running the LIGO gravitational wave detectors will announce the first direct detection of a gravitational wave. The first direct detection of minute distortions of spacetime, travelling at the speed of light, first postulated by Albert Einstein almost exactly 100 years ago. Nobel prize time.

Time to brush up on your gravitational wave basics, if you haven't done so! In Gravitational waves and how they distort space, I had a look at what gravitational waves do. Now, on to the next step: How can we measure what they do? How do gravitational wave detectors such as LIGO work?

Recall that this is how a gravitational wave will change the distances between particles, floating freely in a circular formation in empty space: How distances change when a simple gravitational wave passes through a ring of particles. This is what gravitational wave detectors need to measure.The wave is moving at right angles to the screen, towards you. I've greatly exaggerated the distance changes. For a realistic wave, even the giant distance between the Earth and the Sun would only change by a fraction of the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Tiny changes indeed.

How to detect something like this?

The first unsuccessful attempts to detect gravitational waves in the 1960s tried to measure how they make aluminum cylinders ring like a very soft bell. (Tragic story; Joe Weber [1919-2000], the pioneering physicist behind this, was sure he had detected gravitational waves in this way; after thorough analysis and replication attempts, community consensus emerged that he hadn't.)

Afterwards, physicists came up with alternative scheme. Imagine that you are replacing the black point in the center of the previous animation with a detector, and the rightmost red particle with a laser light source. Now you send light pulses (represented here by fast red dots) from the light source to the detector; let's first look at this with the gravitational wave switched off:Simplified gravitational wave detector without gravitational wave

Every time a light pulse reaches the detector, an indicator light flashes yellow. The pulses are sent out regularly, they all travel at the same speed, hence they also reach the detector in regular intervals.

If a gravitational wave passes through this system, again from the back and coming towards you, distances will change. Let us keep our camera trained on the detector, so the detector remains where it is. The changing distance to the light source, and also the changing distances between the light pulses, and some of the changes in distance between light pulses and detector or source, are due to the gravitational wave. Here is what that would look like (again, hugely exaggerated): The same simplified gravitational wave detector, but now with a gravitational wave passing through.

Keep your eye on the blinking light, and you will see that its blinking is not so regular any more. Sometimes, the light blinks faster, sometimes slower. This is an effect of the gravitational wave. An effect by which we can hope to detect the gravitational wave.

"We" in this case are the radio astronomers working on what are known as Pulsar Timing Arrays. The sender of regular pulses are pulsars, rotating neutron stars sweeping a radio beam across our antennas like a cosmic lighthouse. The detectors are radio telescopes here on Earth. Detection is anything but easy. With a single pulsar, you'd need to track pulse arrival times with an accuracy of a few billionths of a second over half a year, and make sure you are not being fooled by various other sources of timing variations. So far, no gravitational waves have been detected in this way, although the radio astronomers are keeping at it.

To see how gravitational wave detectors like LIGO work, we need to make things a little more complex.

Interferometric gravitational wave detectors: the set-up

Here is the basic set-up: Two mirrors, a receiver (or "light detector"), a light source and what is known as a beamsplitter: Basic setup for an interferometric gravitational wave detector

Light is sent into the detector from the (laser) light source LS to the beamsplitter B which, true to its name, sends half of the light on to the mirror M1 and lets the other half through to the mirror M2. At M1 and M2, respectively, the light is reflected back to the beam splitter. There, the light arriving from M1 (or M2) is split again, with half going towards the light detector LD, the other half back in the direction of the light source LS. We will ignore the latter half and pretend, for the sake of our simplified explanation, that all the light reaching B from M1 or M2 goes on to the light detector LD.

(To avoid confusion, I will always refer to LD as the "light detector" and take the unqualified word "detector" to mean the whole setup.)

This setup, by the way, is called a Michelson Interferometer. We'll see below why it is a good setup for gravitational wave detectors.

In what follows, we will assume that the mirrors and the beam splitter, shown as being suspended, react to the gravitational wave in the same way freely floating particles would react. The key effects are between the mirrors and the beam splitter in what are called the two arms of the detector. Arm length is huge in today's detectors, running to a few kilometers. In comparison, light source and light detector are very close to the beamsplitter; changes of the distances between these three do not signify.

Light pulses in a gravitational wave detector

Next, let us see how light pulses run through this detector. Here is the same setup, seen from above: Simple interferometric gravitational wave detector, seen from aboveLight source LS, the two mirrors M1 and M2, the beamsplitter B and the light detector LD: all present and accounted for.

Next, we let the light source emit light pulses. For greater clarity, I will make two artificial and unrealistic changes. I will send red and green pulses into the detector, representing the light that goes into the horizontal and the vertical arm, respectively. In reality, there is no distinction, just light apportioned at the beamsplitter. Light running towards M1 will be offset a little to the left, light coming back from M1 to the right, for better clarity. Same goes for M2. This, too, is different in a real detector. That said, here come the light pulses: Simplified interferometric gravitational wave detector with light running through both armsLight starts at the light source to the left. Light that has left the source together, travels together (so green and red pulses are side by side) until the beam splitter. The beam splitter then sends the green pulses on their upward journey and lets the red pulses pass on their way towards the mirror on the right. All the particles that arrive back at the beamsplitter after reflection at M1 or M2. At the beamsplitter, they are directed towards the light detector at the bottom.

In this setup, the horizontal arm is slightly longer than the vertical arm. Red particles have to cover some extra distance. That is why they arrive at the detector a bit later, and we get an alternating rhythm: green, red, green, red, with equal distances in between. This will become important later on.

Here is a diagram, a kind of registration strip, which shows the arrival times for red and green pulses at the light detector (time is measured in "animation frames"): Arrival times at the light detector of a simplified gravitational wave detectorThe pattern is clear: red and green pulses arrive evenly spaced, one after the other.

Bring on the gravitational wave!

Next, let's switch on our standard gravitational wave (exaggerated, passing through the screen towards you, and so on). Here is the result: Simple interferometric gravitational wave detector with a gravitational wave passing throughWe have trained our camera on the beamsplitter (so in our image, the beamsplitter doesn't move). We ignore any slight changes in distance between beamsplitter and light source/light detector. Instead, we focus on the mirrors M1 and M2, which change their distance from the beamsplitter just as we would expect from the earlier animations.

Look at the way the pulses arrive at our light detector: sometimes red and green are almost evenly spaced, sometimes they close together. That is caused by the gravitational wave. Without the wave, we had strict regularity.

Here is the corresponding "registration strip" diagram. You can see that at some times, the light pulses of each color are closer together, at others, farther apart: Arrival times for light pulses in a gravitational wave detector

At the time I have marked with a hand-drawn arrow, red and green pulses arrive almost in unison!

The pattern is markedly different from the scenario without a gravitational wave. Detect this change in the pattern, and you have detected the gravitational wave.

Running interference

If you've wondered why detectors like LIGO are called interferometric gravitational wave detectors, we will need to think about waves a bit more. If not, let me just state that detectors like LIGO use the wave properties of light to measure the changes in pulse arrival rate you have seen in the last animation. To skip the details, feel free to jump ahead to the last section, "...and now for something a thousand times more complicated."

Light is a wave, with crests and troughs corresponding to maxima and minima of the electric and of the magnetic field. While the animations I have shown you track the propagation of light pulses, they can also be used to understand what happens to a light wave in the interferometer. Just assume that each of the moving red and green dots in the detector marks the position of a wave crest.

Particles just add up. Take 2 particle and add 2 particles, and you will end up with 4 particles. But if you add up (combine, superimpose) waves, it depends. Sometimes, one wave plus another wave is indeed a bigger wave. Sometimes, it's a smaller wave, or no wave at all. And sometimes it's complicated.

When two waves are in perfect sync, the crests of the one aligning with the crests of the other, and the troughs aligning, too, you indeed get a bigger wave. The following diagram shows at which times the different parts of two light waves arrive at the light detector, and how they add up. (I've placed a dot on top of each crest; that is what the dots where meant to signify, after all.) Constructive interference of light wavesOn top, the green wave, perfectly aligned with the red wave (which, for clarity, is shown directly below the green wave). Add the two waves up, and you will get the (markedly stronger) blue wave in the bottom panel.

Not so if the two waves are maximally misaligned, the crests of each aligned with the troughs of the other. A crest and a trough cancel each other out. The sum of a wave and a maximally misaligned wave of equal strength is: no wave at all. Here is the corresponding diagram: Destructive interference of light wavesRecall that this was exactly the setup for our gravitational wave detector in the absence of gravitational waves: Red and green pulses with equal spacing; troughs of the one wave perfectly aligned with the crests of the other. The result: No light at the light detector. (For realistic gravitational wave detectors, that is almost true.)

When a gravitational wave passes through the detector, the situation changes. Here is the corresponding pattern of pulse/wave crest arrival times for the animation above: Interference pattern for a gravitational wave passing through the simplified gravitational wave detectorThe blue pattern, which is the sum of the red and the green, is complex. But it is not a flat line. There is light at the light detector where there was no light before, and the cause of the change is the gravitational wave passing through.

All in all, this makes a (highly simplified) version of how gravitational wave detectors such as LIGO work. Whatever the scientists will report this Thursday, it is based on light signals at the exit of such an interferometric detector.

And now for something a thousand times more complicated

Real gravitational wave detectors are, of course, much more complicated than that. I haven't even started talking about the many disturbances scientists need to take into account – and to suppress as far as possible. How do you suspend the mirrors so that (at least for certain gravitational waves) they will indeed be influenced as if they were freely floating particles? How do you prevent seismic noise, cars or trains in the wider neighborhood and so on from moving your mirrors a tiny little bit (either by vibrations or by their own gravity)? What about fluctuations of the laser light?

Gravitational wave hunting is largely a hunt for noise, and for ways of suppressing that noise. The LIGO gravitational wave detectors and their kin are highly complex machines, with hundreds of control circuits, highly elaborate mirror suspensions, the most stable lasers known to physics (and some of the most high-powered). The technology has been contributed by numerous group from all over the world.

But all this is taking us too far, and I refer you to the pages of the detectors and collaborations for additional information:

LIGO pages at Caltech

Pages of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration

GEO 600 pages

VIRGO / EGO pages

You can find some further information about gravitational waves on the Einstein Online website:

Einstein Online: Spotlights on gravitational waves

Update: Gravitational Waves Discovered

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02/10/2016 11:25 AM
Largest Rocky World Found

An illustration of a large, rocky planet similar to the recently discovered BD+20594b. Image: JPL-Caltech/NASA

We thought we understood how big rocky planets can get. But most of our understanding of planetary formation and solar system development has come from direct observation of our own Solar System. We simply couldn't see any others, and we had no way of knowing how typical—or how strange—our own Solar System might be.

But thanks to the Kepler Spacecraft, and it's ability to observe and collect data from other, distant, solar systems, we've found a rocky planet that's bigger than we thought one could be. The planet, called BD+20594b, is half the diameter of Neptune, and composed entirely of rock.

The planet, whose existence was reported on January 28 at by astrophysicist Nestor Espinoza and his colleagues at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, is over 500 light years away, in the constellation Aries.

BD+20594b is about 16 times as massive as Earth and half the diameter of Neptune. Its density is about 8 grams per cubic centimeter. It was first discovered in 2015 as it passed in between Kepler and its host star. Like a lot of discoveries, a little luck was involved. BD+20594b's host star is exceptionally bright, which allowed more detailed observations than most exoplanets.

The discovery of BD+20594b is important for a couple of reasons: First, it shows us that there's more going on in planetary formation than we thought. There's more variety in planetary composition than we could've known from looking at our own Solar System. Second, comparing BD+20594b to other similar planets, like Kepler 10c—a previous candidate for largest rocky planet—gives astrophysicists an excellent laboratory for testing out our planet formation theories.

It also highlights the continuing importance of the Kepler mission, which started off just confirming the existence of exoplanets, and showing us how common they are. But with discoveries like this, Kepler is flexing its muscle, and starting to show us how our understanding of planetary formation is not as complete as we may have thought.

The post Largest Rocky World Found appeared first on Universe Today.

02/09/2016 02:17 PM
Messier 2 (M2) – The NGC 7089 Globular Cluster

The compact globular cluster known as Messier Object 2. Credit: NASA/STScI/WikiSky

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects in the night sky. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, with the purpose of making sure that astronomers did not mistake them for comets. However, this list - known as the Messier Catalog - would go on to serve a more important function.

In addition to cataloging some of the most beautiful objects in the night sky, this list would come to be an important milestone in the discovery of Deep Sky Objects. The second object to make the list is known as Messier Object 2 (aka. M2 or NGC 7089), one of the largest globular cluster in the Milky Way, and which is located in the constellation Aquarius.


As one of the largest known globular clusters, Messier 2 is a rich, round concentration of gravitationally bound stars that orbits the galactic core. Located about 33,000 light years (10,000 parsecs) from our Solar System, this cluster measures some 175 light-years in diameter and is believed to contain about 150,000 stellar members - including 21 known variable stars. Its brightest stars are red and yellow giant stars.

Because its members are so tightly packed together, it has a density classification of II - which is reserved for clusters that are particularly rich and compact. And like most globular clusters, M2's central region is highly compressed, measuring just 3.7 light years in diameter. It's tidal influence, on the other hand, has a radius of 233 light years, beyond which members stars would escape due to the influence of the Milky Way's tidal forces.

Positioned well beyond the galactic center, M2 is also noted for its elliptical shape, and is believed to be as much as 13 billion years old.

History of Observation:

M2 was first discovered by Jean-Dominique Maraldi in 1746 while observing a comet with Jacques Cassini. According to Cassini's notes, which detail the discovery, the two believed it to be a "nebulous star" at the time:

"On September 11 I have observed another one [nebulous star] for which the right ascension is 320d 7' 19" [21h 20m 29s], and the declination 1d 55' 38" south, very near to the parallel where the Comet should be. This one is round, well terminated and brighter in the center, about 4' or 5' in extent and not a single star around it to a pretty large distance; none can be seen in the whole field of the telescope. This appears very singular to me, for most of the stars one calls nebulous are surrounded by many stars, making one think that the whiteness found there is an effect of the light of a mass of stars too small to be seen in the largest telescopes. I took, at first, this nebula for the comet."

The object was independently recovered by Charles Messier in 1769, though he too mistook it for something else. In his notes, which were also taken on September 11th (fourteen years later), he described the object as a nebula:

"On September 11, 1760, I discovered in the head of Aquarius a beautiful nebula which doesn't contain any star; I examined it with a good Gregorian telescope of 30 pouces focal length, which magnified hundred four [104] times; the center is brilliant, and the nebulosity which surrounds it is round; it resembles quite well the beautiful nebula which is located between the head and the bow of Sagittarius: It extends 4 minutes of arc in diameter; one can see it quite well in an ordinary telescope [refractor] of 2 feet [focal length]: I compared its passage of the meridian with that of Alpha Aquarii which is situated on the same parallel; its right ascension was derived at 320d 17', and its declination at 1d 47' south. In the night of June 26 and 27, 1764, I reviewed this nebula for a second time; it was the same, with the same appearances. This nebula can be found placed in the chart of the famous Comet of Halley, which I observed at its return in 1759 (b)."

Ultimately, it was William Herschel who finally resolved Messier 2 into the object we recognize today. This took in 1783, where - according to his notes - he was able to resolve individual stars:

"The scattered stars were brought to a good, well determined focus, from which it appears that the central condensed light is owing to a multitude of stars that appeared at various distances behind and near each other. I could actually see and distinguish the stars even in the central mass. The Rev. Mr. Vince, Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, saw it in the same telescope as described."

Locating Messier 2:

Messier 2 is located approximately 5 degrees (about 3 finger widths) north of Beta Aquarii, on the same declination as Alpha Aquarii. M2 is sufficiently bright enough to be seen in urban settings where light pollution is a factor, and can alternately be found by looking about 10 degrees (a fist width) south/southwest of Epsilon Pegasi (Enif).

Using binoculars, it will appear as a large, fuzzy ball with little or no resolution. To amateur astronomers using small telescopes, individual stars will be visible around the outer edges, with resolution improving significantly with aperture size of 6'' or more. Those with large telescopes, and who are looking for a challenge, should look for a dark dust lane which crosses the north-east edge of this globular cluster.

Of course, John Herschel saw it as "It is like a heap of fine sand!" which is perhaps as apt an description as can be rendered. Through a large telescope, the globular cluster does resemble a glittering mass of sparkling granules.

And for your convenience, here are the vital statistics of this globular cluster:

Object Name: Messier 2
Alternative Designations: NGC 7089, GC 4678, Bode 70
Object Type: Class II Globular Cluster
Constellation: Aquarius
Right Ascension: 21 : 33.5 (h:m)
Declination: -00 : 49 (deg:m)
Distance: 33 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.5 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 16.0 (arc min)

Good luck searching for this and other Deep Sky Objects!

We ave written many interesting articles on Messier Objects here at Universe Today.  For instance, here's Tammy Plotner's Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 - The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison's articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog.

For more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

The post Messier 2 (M2) – The NGC 7089 Globular Cluster appeared first on Universe Today.

02/09/2016 01:49 PM
NASA Unveils Orion Pressure Vessel at KSC Launching on EM-1 Moon Mission in 2018

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL - NASA officials proudly unveiled the pressure vessel for the agency’s new Orion capsule destined to launch on the EM-1 mission to the Moon in 2018, after the vehicle arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida last week aboard NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft.

This ‘new and improved’ Orion was unloaded from the Super Guppy and moved to a test stand called the ‘birdcage’ in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC where it was showcased to the media including Universe Today.

Orion’s arrival at KSC truly signifies a major turning point in achieving NASA’s agency-wide goal of sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s to carry out the ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative.

“This is an exciting day for NASA with the arrival of Orion,” NASA Orion program manager Scott Wilson told Universe Today.

“This is the first mission where the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large Space Launch System rocket. Orion is the vehicle that’s going to take astronauts to deep space.”

The Orion pressure vessel serves as the structural backbone for the spacecraft.

But before it can launch engineers and technicians from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin will spend the next two years meticulously installing all the systems amounting to over 100,000 components and gear required for flight.

This particular ‘Lunar Orion’ crew module is intended for blastoff to the Moon in 2018 on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) atop the agency’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, simultaneously under development. The pressurized crew module serves as the living quarters for the astronauts comprising up to four crew members.

EM-1 itself is a ‘proving ground’ mission that will fly an unmanned Orion thousands of miles beyond the Moon, further than any human capable vehicle, and back to Earth, over the course of a three-week mission.

NASA is planning the first manned flight in about three years later in 2021, depend on the budget allocation.

“We are targeting the first crewed flight for around 2021 on Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2),” Mark Geyer,, deputy director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, told Universe Today in an interview beside the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel.

“Achieving the 2021 launch date depends on received a sufficient budget to achieve the mission milestones and timelines.”

The olive green colored pressure vessel is the spacecraft’s underlying structure on which all of the spacecraft’s systems and subsystems are built and integrated prior to liftoff for its inaugural flight to the Moon and back.

The pressure vessel was manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where it was welded into shape by NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers using an advanced friction-stir welding process.

The EM-1 pressure vessel weighs about 2700 lbs. It stands 10 feet high and is nearly 5 meters in diameter. After installing the thermal protection system, the finished Orion flight capsule will be about 11 feet high and 16.5 feet wide.

These systems include the heat shield, thermal protection, propulsion, avionics, computers, plumbing, electrical, life support, parachutes and much more.

“We plan to power on this Orion one year from now,” Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion vice president and program manager, told Universe Today in a interview beside the Orion EM-1.

Technicians will then continue adding components and test the vehicle along the way.

Lockheed is achieving the point of power on in a shorter timeframe compared to the prior Orion EFT-1 spacecraft because of the many lessons learned, Hawes told me.

The team “learned how to shed weight, reduce costs and simplify the manufacturing process – all in an effort to improve the production time and cost of future Orions,” said Lockheed officials.

The pressure vessel itself is comprised of seven large aluminum pieces that Michoud technicians began welding together in September 2015 using the highly precise state-of-the-art process called friction-stir welding.

The last of the seven friction-stir welds to assemble the primary structure for NASA’s EM-1 capsule was finished on Jan. 13.

“The structure shown here is 500 pounds lighter than its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) counterpart,” said Hawes. “Once the final structural components such as longerons, bolts and brackets are added, total crew module structural weight savings from EFT-1 to EM-1 will total 700 pounds.”

“Some of the weight saving is due to use of a thinner shell and some to the need of fewer welds,” Hawes told me.

Among the advances since EFT-1 are that engineers have reduced the number of welds from 33 to 7. This vastly reduced welding requirement saved time, money and weight which can be directly converted into up mass to carry out the exploration mission.

Overall this is the third Orion capsule that NASA has built, following the Ground Test Article (GTA), which did not fly, and the EFT-1 capsule which successfully launched just over one year ago on Dec. 5, 2014.

“Our very talented team in Louisiana has manufactured a great product and now they have passed the baton to Florida,” said Hawes. “This is where we assemble, test and launch, and the fun really begins.”

Along with all the vehicle manufacturing at KSC, “the crew module will undergo several tests to ensure the structure is perfectly sound before being integrated with other elements of the spacecraft. First it will undergo proof-pressure testing where the structural welds are stress tested to confirm it can withstand the environments it will experience in space. The team will then use phased array technology to inspect the welds to make sure there are no defects. Additional structural tests will follow including proof-pressure testing of the fluid system welds and subsequent x-ray inspections,” say NASA officials.

“Once the crew module passes those tests it will undergo final assembly, integration and entire vehicle testing in order to prepare for EM-1.”

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted flight dubbed Exploration Mission, or EM-1, counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post NASA Unveils Orion Pressure Vessel at KSC Launching on EM-1 Moon Mission in 2018 appeared first on Universe Today.

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