Pic of the day

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This might look like a double-bladed lightsaber, but these two cosmic jets actually beam outward from a newborn star in a galaxy near you. Constructed from Hubble Space Telescope image data, the stunning scene spans about half a light-year across Herbig-Haro 24 (HH 24), some 1,300 light-years or 400 parsecs away in the stellar nurseries of the Orion B molecular cloud complex.

Hidden from direct view, HH 24’s central protostar is surrounded by cold dust and gas flattened into a rotating accretion disk. As material from the disk falls toward the young stellar object it heats up. Opposing jets are blasted out along the system’s rotation axis. Cutting through the region’s interstellar matter, the narrow, energetic jets produce a series of glowing shock fronts

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Hubble captures Jovian triple-moon conjunction

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Firing off a string of snapshots like a sports photographer at a NASCAR race, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured a rare look at three of Jupiter’s largest moons parading across the banded face of the gas-giant planet: Europa, Callisto, and Io.

These so-called Galilean satellites (named after the 17th century scientist Galileo Galilei, who discovered them with a telescope) complete orbits around Jupiter ranging from 2 days to 17 days in duration. They can commonly be seen transiting the face of Jupiter and casting shadows onto its cloud tops. However, seeing three moons transiting the face of Jupiter at the same time is rare, occurring only once or twice a decade…

Missing from the sequence is the moon Ganymede, which was outside Hubble’s field of view and too far from Jupiter in angular separation to be considered part of the conjunction.

Way cool.

Space telescope capable of images 1,000 times sharper than Hubble

Aragoscope – artist’s conception

The Hubble space telescope has given us decades of incredible images, but it’s reaching the end of its service life and the question is, what will come after? One possibility is the Aragoscope from the University of Colorado Boulder, which uses a gigantic orbital disk instead of a mirror to produce images 1,000 times sharper than the Hubble’s best efforts.

The Aragoscope is named after French scientist Francois Arago who first noticed how a disk diffracted light waves. The principle is based on using a large disk as a diffraction lens, which bends light from distant objects around the edge of the disk and focuses it like a conventional refraction lens. The phenomenon isn’t very pronounced on the small scale, but if the telescope is extremely large, it not only becomes practical, but also extremely powerful.

When deployed the Aragoscope will consist of an opaque disk a half mile in diameter parked in geostationary orbit behind which is an orbiting telescope keeping station some tens to hundreds of miles behind that collects the light at the focal point and rectifies it into a high-resolution image…

The new orbital telescope was selected last June by NASA as one of 12 proposals for its NASA Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program – each of which received US$100,000 to fund nine-months of research for projects ranging from capturing asteroids to sending submarines to the lakes of Titan. The Aragoscope is now up for being one of six projects that will receive an additional US$500,000 in April.

The team sees the Aragoscope as a way to penetrate farther into the universe to observe phenomena like black hole event horizons, or turned on the Earth to pick out objects the size of a rabbit. The next phase of the project involves testing the concept. This will involve laboratory work using a one-meter disk set several meters from a telescope. If this is successful, a more dramatic demonstration will use a disk set on a mountain top while a telescope mounted on a helicopter tries to focus on the star Alpha Centauri.

“Pick out objects the size of a rabbit”, eh? I recall a scientist cautioning me BITD when the US and USSR were involved in a race to develop spy satellites with the finest resolution. He told me if I was going to have sex outdoors – make sure it was under a tree.

I hope someone offers an app which automatically notifies everyone whenever our government turns the Aragoscope around to face Earth instead of deep space.

Auroras lighting-up on Uranus photographed for the first time

For the first time, astronomers have snapped photos of auroras lighting up Uranus’s icy atmosphere.

Two fleeting, Earth-size auroral storms were imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope as they flared up on the dayside of the gas giant in November 2011.

“The last time we had any definite signals of auroral activity on Uranus was when NASA’s Voyager 2 probe swung by in 1986,” said study leader Laurent Lamy, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris in Meudon, France.

“But this is the first time we can actually see these emissions light up with an Earth-based telescope.”

Auroras are light displays often seen at the highest latitudes of Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn—all of which all have magnetospheres that act as shields against incoming solar storms…

The team timed their Hubble observations specifically to coincide with the solar storm, and about six weeks later, Hubble spotted the auroras flaring up in Uranus’s upper atmosphere…

The auroras’ unusual appearance might have something to do with the planet’s oddball orientation.

Unlike the other seven planets, Uranus’s magnetic axis is 60 degrees off from its spin axis. In addition, spin axis itself has a bizarre 98-degree tilt relative to the solar system’s orbital plane. In other words, the planet seems to roll around on its side as it orbits the sun.

Uranus’s auroras are very short-lived, and Lamy speculates that’s because of the difference between the orientation of the incoming solar particles and the planet’s unusual magnetic field.

Delightful stuff. We’re fortunate that [so far] the rising tide of anti-scientific drivel that consumes nutballs — and politicians seeking the nutball vote — hasn’t affected astronomy.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some Tea Party hack ask that the Hubble conduct a search for angels.

Hubble/NASA’s new image of spiral galaxy NGC 4911

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A long-exposure Hubble Space Telescope image shows a majestic face-on spiral galaxy located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, which lies 320 million light-years away in the northern constellation Coma Berenices. The galaxy, known as NGC 4911, contains rich lanes of dust and gas near its center. These are silhouetted against glowing newborn star clusters and iridescent pink clouds of hydrogen, the existence of which indicates ongoing star formation. Hubble has also captured the outer spiral arms of NGC 4911, along with thousands of other galaxies of varying sizes. The high resolution of Hubble’s cameras, paired with considerably long exposures, made it possible to observe these faint details.

This natural-color Hubble image, which combines data obtained in 2006, 2007, and 2009 from the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, required 28 hours of exposure time.


Celebrate Hubble’s 20th with space image – Mystic Mountain

This new gem rivals what may be Hubble’s most famous image, a shot of the Pillars of Creation taken in 1995. The shot above is of a star-forming region in the Carina Nebula. The enormous pillar of gas and dust is 3 light-years tall. The seam in the middle is the result of new stars forming and emitting powerful gas jets that are ripping the pillar apart.

Hubble’s capabilities are all the more impressive considering the rocky start the telescope suffered through when a defect was discovered in its primary mirror after it had been launched and began returning images that weren’t in focus. Scientists and engineers were able to fix the problem, and today Hubble is more capable than ever with its new Wide Field Camera 3, installed last year.

Check out this interactive timeline of Hubble’s history and RTFA for links to more beautiful images.

NASA’s composite image of the Crab Nebula

A star’s spectacular death in the constellation Taurus was observed on Earth as the supernova of 1054 A.D. Now, almost a thousand years later, a super dense object — called a neutron star — left behind by the explosion is seen spewing out a blizzard of high-energy particles into the expanding debris field known as the Crab Nebula. X-ray data from Chandra provide significant clues to the workings of this mighty cosmic “generator,” which is producing energy at the rate of 100,000 suns.

This composite image uses data from three of NASA’s Great Observatories. The Chandra X-ray image is shown in blue, the Hubble Space Telescope optical image is in red and yellow, and the Spitzer Space Telescope’s infrared image is in purple. The X-ray image is smaller than the others because extremely energetic electrons emitting X-rays radiate away their energy more quickly than the lower-energy electrons emitting optical and infrared light. Along with many other telescopes, Chandra has repeatedly observed the Crab Nebula over the course of the mission’s lifetime. The Crab Nebula is one of the most studied objects in the sky, truly making it a cosmic icon.

Back in 1054 – this scared the Beejeebus out of your everyday superstitious supplicant. Couldn’t happen today – right?

Superb vistas from reborn Hubble

Carina Nebula
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

Astronomers are celebrating the release of remarkable new images from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

They prove the mission carried out by astronauts in May to service the observatory was an outstanding success…

Nasa says the orbiting telescope, regarded as one of the most important scientific tools ever built, should keep working until at least 2014.

The US space agency and its international partners plan now to concentrate their efforts on preparing a bigger and more capable observatory known as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The British astronomer Dr Paul Murdin, from the University of Cambridge, said the new images were breathtaking.

My first reaction is ‘my god, it all worked, it’s fantastic’,” he told BBC News.

“Refurbishment missions are always a little bit iffy because things can go wrong; astronauts can muck it up, maybe we didn’t think about this or that when we redesigned the equipment, reinstalled it and refurbished it.

“But these images definitely show that Hubble is in good shape for what will be – unfortunately – its last few years.

“It’s going to go out with a real bang.”

Ain’t a bad way to go…

Even in space, an old-fashioned fix can involve brute force

Daylife/Reuters Pictures

Just give it a whack. Sometimes, it seems, even in the highest of high-tech circles, there is no substitute for good old brute force.

The question aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on Sunday was whether Michael J. Massimino would rock a handrail on the Hubble Space Telescope back and forth to fatigue a stripped bolt that was stubbornly holding it, or just give the rail a big yank to break it and the bolt off.

Beyond the rail were 111 screws. Beyond the screws were the internal electronics of the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, the intended object of “brain surgery” on the fourth of five days of spacewalks meant to repair and upgrade the telescope…For the last three years, engineers and astronauts had been preparing a procedure to break into the instrument, capture all the screws and fix the power supply.

But first the spacewalkers, Dr. Massimino and Col. Michael T. Good of the Air Force, had to get the handrail off.

It was the third of four spacewalks in this mission, the last to the 19-year-old telescope, to be stymied by low-tech problems like bad bolts. Meanwhile, trickier jobs, like the repair on Saturday of the Advanced Camera for Surveys, have gone smoothly…

Adam Riess, a heavy Hubble user at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University who was watching on NASA TV, wrote in an e-mail message: “We always joke that they wait until they are out of TV view to use the hammers and crowbars.” He added, “I guess they really do!”

Every little bit helps. I go all the way back to kin who helped produce this critter – and tried to get officialdom to comprehend the essential problems that were built-in by mistake. So, the history of “repairs” and corrections are always of special interest.

We’re already well past any original projected lifespan – so, we’re all winners.

Hubble has a new camera courtesy of NASA and a couple of astronauts

The Hubble Space Telescope has new eyes and a new nervous system. It took all of the astronaut Andrew J. Feustel’s experience as a mechanic and an old Jaguar restorer, however, to accomplish the eyeball part.

The first task on a five-day set of repair and maintenance spacewalks from the space shuttle Atlantis was to install a new camera, the Wide-Field Camera 3, on the Hubble. But to get it in, astronauts first had to remove the old camera by unscrewing a seven-foot bolt known as the “A” latch, which was last moved in 1993 when astronauts on the first Hubble servicing mission installed the camera.

At first, the latch did not want to move. For about an hour, Dr. Feustel, working on the end of the robot arm, tried a variety of computer-controlled wrenches and settings, while John M. Grunsfeld, mission specialist, floated about fetching tools.

Finally, mission controllers gave Dr. Feustel permission to apply as much muscle as he wanted, even if the balky bolt broke. If that happened, the old camera, which has performed flawlessly for almost 16 years, would have to stay in the telescope and the new $126 million camera would have to go home — not a great start to the servicing mission.

But the bolt finally budged and then turned freely. “Woo hoo, it’s moving out,” Dr. Feustel said.

“That’s been there for 16 years,” Dr. Grunsfeld said.

Dr. Feustel replied, “And it didn’t want to come out.”

An hour later, as the Atlantis was sailing over the southwest Pacific, Dr. Feustel was sliding the new camera into the telescope and latching it down. Controllers from the ground reported that the camera had passed electrical tests and was “alive.”

Good news for science, good news for expanding our knowledge of the universe.

Seeing further back towards the beginning of the current incarnation of the known universe is likely to provoke as many questions as answers – but, that’s what sound science very often accomplishes. Then, we move forward from there.

Good scientists don’t worry about everything being “known” at some point in time. They just understand that everything is knowable.