Worlds In the Darkness

July 30, 2004 at 14:07 pm | Leave a Comment

Somewhere out there in space, at this very moment, worlds are forming. This isn’t a science fiction story—it’s fact. We’ve found some of them— the number found by the California and Carnegie Planet Search Project is more than 110, with new ones being spotted by scientists who survey stars looking for the telltale signatures of planets.

The problem with seeking out planets is that they’re incredibly hard to see in the glare of the stars they circle. You can’t just poke Hubble Space Telescope in the direction of some likely looking star and program it to look for little points of light. Long before HST could even see such tiny things, the light from the star would have saturated the detectors!<

So, how do astronomers find other worlds? There are several ways to do it, with the two best-known being the Doppler detection method and transit ph0tometry. In Doppler methods, astronomers use instruments on telescopes to measure the change in the wavelength (its color) of light coming from a star overa period of time. The Doppler shift of the light is measured in the changing wavelength of the light, which itself happens when a star orbits a common center of mass with a planet. For example, Jupiter’s gravitational pull causes the Sun to wobble around in a circle with a velocity of 12 meters per second. A distant observer would see a shift in the wavelengths of light coming from the Sun and would be able to figure out that a planet was causing the wobble and the shift.

Photometry measures the light from a star, including how often it dims and brightens up. Some stars vary in their brightness (which is why they’re called variables). These periodic changes can be charted quite regularly. However, sometimes a star’s light is dimmed regardless of whether it’s a variable or not. This periodic dimming of the star is likely caused when a planet passes in front of it along the line of sight from an observer. During the time a planet transits (passes in front of) a star from our viewpoint, we can measure the amount of light lost by comparing it to the normal brightness of the star. This helps astronomers figure out the size and orbit of a planet in orbit around that star.

As you can imagine, the search for planets around other stars is time-consuming. It’s not easy. There ARE plans to put satellites into orbit to help the search for other worlds, as well as ideas to better use ground-based telescopes in the effort. For more information about these efforts, point your browser here. And, to see what some of these planets might look like (through the eyes of a talented space artist), visit with Lynnette Cook.

What’s Happening Here?

July 20, 2004 at 15:01 pm | Leave a Comment
Long filaments of ionized hydrogen gas extending 110,000 light years above the disk of the NGC 4388. Image courtesy Subaru Telescope, Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Long filaments of ionized hydrogen gas (pink) extending 110,000 light years above the disk of the NGC 4388. Image courtesy Subaru Telescope, Mauna Kea, Hawaii. (NOTE: the long gray straight lines are actually detector artefacts.)

Stare into space long enough, with strong enough eyes at many wavelengths, and eventually you find things that look like the events happening in this image. This is an action shot, capturing a scene from the evolution of a galaxy. A supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy is devouring material. This accretion produces vast amounts of energy that outshine the light from all the stars in the galaxy. The surrounding gases are “excited” by the action, resulting in ionization. Light at a specific wavelength is emitted, allowing astronomers to see it.

When we say it’s an exciting universe, we aren’t just talking about cool stuff happening. The processes that heat gases and cause light to shine out across the parsecs so we can see it belie some of the most interesting and energetic events in the cosmos. Astronomy seeks to understand those processes and events. And that’s why snapshots like this one are so important. Build up enough of them and you start to get a feel for what’s happening in the cosmos–and why.

How Do They Do That?

July 14, 2004 at 11:04 am | Leave a Comment

Ever wonder how scientists get those gorgeous images from HST and other observatories? The information comes as a series of ones and zeros down a data pipeline, is “massaged” to calibrate the data, and then put through some imaging processing to make the pictures look “pretty.”

Recently the Space Telescope Science Institute made available a software plug-in for Adobe® Photoshop that lets you take their raw images and craft astronomical artwork for your own computer. Here’s the press release and links:

Anyone with a desktop computer running Adobe® Photoshop® or Adobe Photoshop Elements software can try their hand at crafting astronomical images as beautiful as Hubble Space Telescope’s. A free software plug-in being released today for Photoshop makes the treasure of archival astronomical images and spectra from Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-Ray Observatory and many other famous telescopes accessible to home astronomy enthusiasts.

Imaging scientists at NASA, The European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory developed the free software, called the Photoshop FITS Liberator. The term FITS stands for File Image Transfer Software. This single file format archives nearly all images of stars, nebulae and galaxies produced by major telescopes around the world. Until now this file format has been accessible to very few people other than the scientists themselves using highly specialized image processing tools. The ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator will be released today and is freely available for download from: here.

Courtesy STScI

Courtesy STScI

This is an example created using the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator. The image of a portion of the ring galaxy AM0644-741 was made using Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Top: original black and white images obtained through filters isolating red, green and blue light. Middle: the separate images reassigned the primary colors red, green and blue. Bottom: the combined full color image.
Electronic images and additional information are available at:

Back From Spain

July 12, 2004 at 10:46 am | Leave a Comment

The past 10 days we’ve been away, attending a meeting of planetarium and space theater folk, held in Valencia, Spain. It was a 24/7 experience for nearly everybody. We showed a planetarium show during the event, as did several other colleagues, and of course attended paper sessions and demonstrations throughout the week. It was a very jam-packed meeting and now that we’re back and getting over jet lag, we’re mulling over the many new things and fine points we learned while there.

Ciudad de lasa ciencias (night view) (from Wikipedia)

Ciudad de lasa ciencias (night view) (from Wikipedia)

The venue was the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias in Valencia, a huge science center complex that is still partially under construction. It’s an amazing place and pictures just do not do justice to the immense size and space it takes up.

I found it gratifying to see such a wonderful area put to use as a science center, and to see so many people visiting it each day. As best I understand it, interest in science has undergone a renaissance in Spain in the decades since Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. Science centers like this one, and those in Sevilla, La Coruña, and other Spanish cities are one result of this increased interest in the sciences.
More than 350 planetarium professionals and their families from 57 countries attended the meeting, setting the stage for some wonderful international discussions about science outreach and presentations. It’s amazing to me that we all speak so many languages yet all have a common interest in science, especially astronomy and space science, to unite us. It made the luncheons and dinners and coffee breaks into some great experiences.

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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

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