Billions and Billions of….

April 29, 2010 at 16:00 pm | 3 Comments

Stars in Billions and Billions of Galaxies

Take a good look at this picture.  Go ahead, embiggen it. Check it out. I’ll wait.

A view of 12 billion years of cosmic history -- courtesy the Hubble Space Telescope.

What you’re looking at are galaxies. There are 7,500 of them in this image, which covers a very small angular area of space. The most distant galaxies lie more than 13 billion light-years away. That means the light captured in this image of those galaxies was shining a few hundred million years AFTER the Big Bang — the event that resulted in the birth of the universe.  The closest galaxies in this image emitted their light about a billion years ago.

When you look at this image, you’re gazing at a slice of cosmic time, a snapshot of galaxies in nearly every stage of formation and evolution.  If you looked in every direction, across the entire sky, the view would be similar to this — galaxies as far as we can detect. Billions and billions of galaxies, each one comprised of anywhere from a few hundred million stars to hundreds of billions of stars.

Think about that as you gaze at this picture.

That’s a lot of stars.  And, you have to wonder if we really are the only ones out here in this vast cosmos to appreciate that fact.  Are we the only life capable of looking up and wondering if any of those other stars have planets and life? I often think about that concept — as I  wonder what the future of the cosmos will be; and think about the glories of past histories in other galaxies — glories we can only appreciate as a dim glow from a galaxy long, long ago and far, far away.

One New Star Shining in the Sky

April 28, 2010 at 23:10 pm | 4 Comments

In Memory of John H. Collins, Jr.

What do you say about a guy who, as a kid, loved to ride his bike up and down the hilly streets of North Boulder, who played tuba in the junior high band, who sang the “Oscar Meyer Weiner” song in harmony with his sisters, who could whistle up a storm, who could take things apart and put them together again, whose nickname was Hobbit, who loved the Tolkien book of the same name, who listened to Meat Loaf and Led Zeppelin, and read Dune? A guy who lived an eccentric life up to the very end?

On Friday, our family will be saying “Good bye” to that guy.

He is my late brother John.

On Facebook today my youngest brother Joe wrote the following about John:

“So, give someone a hug today, lift up a toast for those who have gone before us, and relax knowing that the afterlife has one more shining, if somewhat eccentric star, shining in it tonight.”

We found out this past Monday that John suffered an accidental death — a slip and fall in the shower — alone in his apartment.  The past two days have been very tough as we wrap our heads around the manner of his passing.

The last time he and I talked was a few days before his death. We chatted about our usual favorites: food and music. He was a jalapeño fan and I told him about some peppers we’d had a few days earlier that had burned our mouths off.  He chuckled and teased me about being a wuss. He mentioned that he’d found a vintage Led Zeppelin album at a local store and we reminisced about our mutual appreciation of Led Zeppelin IV.

John was born a few years after me. Like me, as a kid, he was fascinated with the stars.  I remember once being out on the grass with him when we were kids and, like that famous scene in Huckleberry Finn, we sat there and speculated about what the stars were and whether they had been made or just put there.  I remember he used to be fascinated with an object called the “Coal Sack”, which is in the southern hemisphere sky. I don’t think he ever saw it, but he must have read about it somewhere.

I’d like to think that he’s out there checking out the Coal Sack. And, maybe he’s whistling to himself as he used to do.

So, here’s to the memory of our brother John.

The memorial service is Friday John, and we’re hoping it will be as much a celebration of the good parts of the unusual life you led as it is a marking of your passing. We have pictures and poetry about you, John. And hey — maybe we’ll even manage a stanza of the Oscar Meyer Weiner song in your honor.

But,  it won’t be the same without your voice in the harmony.

Here’s to ya, Lad.

Rest in peace.

The Coal Sack, in the Southern Hemisphere sky. Courtesy Axel Mellinger, taken at Cederberg Observatory, South Africa.

Iconic Language From Space

April 28, 2010 at 8:45 am | Leave a Comment

We Even Talk Like We’re From Space

Cultural references to astronomy abound in movies, books and particularly in the English language.  Of course, I’m steeped in space and astronomy, so you’d expect ME to use terms like “light-year” and “1/r2” and “cosmological” and things like that. But, it’s everywhere. I bet even YOU have used some astronomy-generated term lately. Just as we came from the ashes of old dead stars, sometimes the words we say also come from the stars.  Take “light-year” for example.  It’s really a term that we use to talk about how far a beam of light travels in a year at a constant speed of 299, 792, 458 meters per second.  The total distance (if you do the math right) turns out to be 9,460,730,472,580 kilometers (or 5,878,630,000,000 miles).  That’s how astronomers use the term, as in “The Andromeda Galaxy lies some 2.5 million light-years away” or “The light from that nebula traveled some 1,500 light-years to get here.”

In everyday language, you often hear the term used like this:  ” He was light-years ahead of his time.”  In this case, it seems like the speaker is using a unit of distance to refer to someone being advanced in some way. Not exactly a proper usage, but people get the idea.

Another word is “cosmic”, which scientists usually use in terms like “cosmic rays”, which are those little high-speed particles moving through space (and matter, including us).  The only way to detect them is by how they affect the matter they collide with. So, if a stray cosmic ray hits some solution in a special detector, it causes a little flash of light, and we can detect that and the cosmic ray’s trail and say “Aha, a cosmic ray just pinged us!”   But, in general use, the term “cosmic” is from an older Greek term kosmikos, which is related to how we refer to the whole universe, the vastness “out there” stretching to the limits of the known universe.  And, nearly every day, you can hear someone say “Wow, cosmic!” or “Thats really cosmic!”  Usually they’re expressing their awe and admiration of something in a very slangy way.  Like, totally cosmic, dude.

“Solar” is another word you hear a lot, usually in terms of “solar heating” or “solar power”. It refers to the Sun, which is also known as Sol, and hence, heat from our star becomes “solar heating” and you can capture it with those panels and eventually you get electricity.  That’s a pretty obvious one.  “Lunar”, which refers to our Moon, which is also known as Luna, gets corrupted to the term “looney” — which can mean “crazy” or “whack” or, if you’re in Canada, is a unit of currency.  For the trifecta, I suppose you could use a looney to buy a ticket to a cartoon by “Looney Tunes” and perhaps the Moon will show up in one of the sequences.

One of my favorite (and incorrect) usages of astronomy terminology is one made famous in Star Wars IV (which was the first Star Wars movie, but is now the fourth one in the series).  The line is “… it’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”

Science-literate folks immediately jumped on that one because parsec is a unit of distance in astronomy.  It’s roughly 3.2 light-years long.  It’s not a unit of speed.  But, apologists for the movie’s obvious mistake in the script have now pointed out that it really just Han Solo bragging that he’d found a short-cut to the planet Kessel — rather than taking the usual route of 18 parsecs, he found a shorter route.  Okay… I suppose that’s a reasonable way to explain an obvious script lapse. And, it did teach a new word to folks who hadn’t studied astronomy before.

Of course, we have many other usages in our languages — the terms “stellar” and “star” point out the good qualities in a person or action, as in “She’s the star of her own show” (she’s the brightest or a luminary), and “his stellar qualities were apparent to all (to describe the good, outstanding qualities of a person).  How many of us have ever used the term “black hole” to describe something, as in “That office is a black hole of information” (meaning a place where no information can escape)?

From space science we get a whole galaxy (if you’ll excuse the expression) of language idioms. One of my favorites is to say “Houston, we have a problem” whenever I encounter an obstacle or a problem in everyday life.  I’ve also heard people (mostly on planes taxing down the runway) say “And, we have liftoff”  at wheels-up time.

You could probably spend days (or at least hours) thinking of other usages, which just goes to show you that space and astronomy are reflected in our language. And I think that’s just cosmic!

Microwave Eyes

April 26, 2010 at 22:36 pm | Leave a Comment

On the Cosmos

When we look at the universe with our Mark I eyeballs through optical instruments, we’re detecting only a portion of the total radiation that is emitted from objects and events in space.  That is, we’re only seeing part of the light that bounces around the cosmos. The rest of it is slithering by us and we aren’t even aware of it.  In a multi-wavelength universe, it’s the equivalent of having blinders on — only the blinders are filtering out (or actually not letting us “see” those other wavelengths).

That multiwavelength “blindness” is curable however.  We simply use additional means to detect the many other wavelength regimes.  The Planck satellite is our microwave “eye” on the sky these days. This mission, launched and operated by the European Space Agency, is peering into places our eyes can never see. And, it’s seeing some amazing spaces.

sy ESA.

The Planck mission's view of the Orion Nebula in microwave emissions. The first image covers much of the constellation of Orion. The nebula is the bright spot to the lower centre. The bright spot to the right of centre is around the Horsehead Nebula, so called because at high magnifications a pillar of dust resembles a horse’s head. The giant red arc of Barnard’s Loop is thought to be the blast wave from a star that blew up inside the region about two million years ago. The bubble it created is now about 300 light-years across. Courte

Planck’s operators turned its gaze toward the Orion Nebula, a star-forming region about 1,500 light-years away. It’s well-studied in many wavelengths and astronomers have found stars in all stages of formation within the molecular créche.

Star formation is one of those processes that we can’t see much of in the optical. Oh, we can see the newborn stars after they’ve eaten away their birth cocoons, and often enough we can see those glowing clouds of gas and dust. But, we can’t see into the birthplaces to observe the whole process from start to finish. For that, we need to use infrared-sensitive detectors — or,  as ESA is doing — we use Planck’s microwave-sensitive instruments. It can see right past the clouds of gas and dust that would otherwise hide everything from our view.

Planck’s images of Orion show emission given off as high-speed electrons interact with the magnetic fields that thread our galaxy. They also show the emission from gas that has been heated by hot young stars in the nebula. And, Planck can also detect microwave signatures of  the cold dust clouds that are about to complete their collapse and begin the process of hatching new stars.

Keep an eye out for more great results from Planck! Its mission is to map the whole sky in microwave emissions and search out the signals from the earliest events of the universe. As it looks out across the light-years, it will bring us penetrating views of our own galaxy’s many shrouded regions.  I can’t wait to see what else it shows us!

Hooray for Hubble!

April 24, 2010 at 11:51 am | 2 Comments

Hubble Has Gotten Results

Hubble Space Telescope's exquisite view of the planetary nebula NGC 2818. Our Sun may look similar to this as it approaches its old age some 5 billion years from now. Courtesy STScI.

So, twenty years ago today, Hubble Space Telescope went to space. Since then, it has been churning out great results almost continuously — even in spite of its well-publicized early problems.  I say “results” because pictures aren’t the only things Hubble cranks out. It’s a data machine — observing the universe in some wavelengths of ultraviolet light, optical light, and infrared. Naturally, our eyes can’t see much beyond the optical window we evolved to see, so either the ultraviolet and infrared come down as data (spectra or graphs or plots) or they get “visualized” into images that show us what objects and events in space would look like if we COULD see those wavelengths.

Now, if you go to the Hubble Space Telescope web site, you’ll see a lot of pretty pictures. I encourage you to browse through it and see what Hubble has shown us throughout the past two decades.  As you read and browse the images, you’ll see the word “unprecedented” used a lot. It’s not hyperbole. Before Hubble was launched, there was NO way to get the kind of high-resolution images and data it delivers. That’s largely because ground-based telescopes have had to contend with the atmospheric blurring that smears images of dim distant objects. Until recently, ground-based telescopes also didn’t have access to high-resolution instruments. Today, that game has changed and many ground-based observatories use adaptive optics and high-res instruments to get ‘near-Hubble‘ resolution. In some cases, they give Hubble a run for its money!  In that sense of competition and technological advancement, Hubble has also been a game-changer.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what Hubble cranks out next — images OR data.  And, I’m incredibly impressed that we live in a time when we can log in, click on a web site, and see images from our solar system, our galaxy, and the most distant reaches of the universe. It’s a golden age of exploration!  Here’s to the telescope, and the thousands of people right here on Earth who make it work, use it for discovery, and share it that sense of awe and wonder they get from Hubble’s images with the rest of us!

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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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