All posts for the month April, 2008

Comes to a GoogleEarth Program Near You!

The ionosphere — it’s a layer of ionized gases at the top of Earth’s atmosphere, and something we don’t think about too much unless it gets all muddled up by disturbances from the Sun. When that happens, we see auroral displays and also can experience periodic outages in radio communications, GPS reception, and power systems.

Ham radio operators use the ionosphere to “propagate” radio signals around the world, and as it turns out, so do aircraft that fly over the poles (and out of reach of communications satellites). There are a great many scientists around the world who study the ionosphere, including the people I work with at MIT Haystack Observatory.

Now, through the auspices of the Communication Alert and Prediction System folks, you can explore a 4-D model (visualization) of the ionosphere using GoogleEarth.  Today, at the Space Weather Workshop in Boulder, Colo., NASA-funded researchers released to the general public a new “4D” live model of Earth’s ionosphere. Without leaving home, anyone can fly through the dynamic layer of ionized gases that encircles Earth at the edge of space itself. All that’s required is a connection to the Internet. Airline flight controllers, for example, can use this tool to plan long-distance business flights over the poles, saving money and time (and boosting safety) for flyers.

In a kind of cool “blast from the past” I note that an old friend and graduate school officemate of mine, Lika Guhathakurta (a NASA solar physicist) was the one doing the announcing in Boulder. So, go read about the ionosphere at the links above, and then check out the latest ionospheric data and see what’s fascinating Lika and the other astronomers who make it their business to study the ionosphere!

It Turns Out They Do… All Over the Place

Back before astronomers had high-resolution cameras and spectrographs and orbiting spacecraft to look at the distant universe, interacting galaxies were just plain weird. They didn’t fit into the standard scheme of galaxies as set out by the venerable giant of astronomy, Edwin Hubble. Every astronomer worth his (and sometimes a few “her”) salt memorized the Hubble tuning fork diagram and tried to fit every galaxy observed somewhere in this hierarchy.

Trouble is, not all galaxies “played the game.” Some of them looked downright pathological, twisted up, or misshapen or something. But the problem was that until we could look at these galactic weirdos with good optics and high-resolution spectrographs, astronomers couldn’t really tell what was going on with many of them.

That’s why the monumental set of galaxies that Hubble Space Telescope and other high-resolution ground-based observatories have observed over the years is such a great achievement. For the first time, astronomers can see what’s happening. And, they’re finding galaxy interactions (collisions, if you will) all over the place. The fact that we’re seeing them nearly everywhere we point a telescope to tells us that collisions aren’t just oddball occurrences in the universe. They’re part of an evolutionary process that shapes galaxies and triggers star formation in the process.

Our own Milky Way is actually cannibalizing smaller galaxies as you read this. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey is tracing out the streams of stars that are pouring into our galaxy as these smaller galaxies interact with the Milky Way. Here’s what it looks like from our vantage point inside the Milky Way.

Galaxy interaction is a hot topic in astronomy these days as the folks researching these cosmically titanic events dig into the details. Stay tuned!