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10/09/09

- Hubble's new awakening!

Almost four months after its last ever servicing mission, the Hubble Space Telescope is at its peak, in other words Hubble is the most powerful it has ever been!

After months of extensive and careful testing and calibration of its vast suite of instruments, the time has finally come to unleash the new power of the Hubble Space Telescope! Glorious new images have been released that show the capabilities of the new recently installed WFC3 camera, the example on the left is a extremely detailed image of a planetary nebula known as the Bug Nebula.

Many more stunning images have been released that demonstrate the sheer power of the other new instruments as well as the repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.

A series of images of a starforming pillar in the Eta Carinae Nebula demonstrates the wide array of wavelengths that can be detected by the new Wide Field Camera 3. As well as visible light, it can observe the universe in the ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. Observations of a single object in all three wavelengths can provide a much more detailed and comprehensive view that can help astronomers fully understand the object.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been in operation for almost two decades and has provided the answers to many questions. Since the universe is of such enormity and diversity, many more questions remain unanswered. An unsolved mystery is the enigmatic force known as dark energy and astronomers hope to gain some information towards answering this controversial question with the rejuvenated HST. Another exciting field that has risen in prominence is the discovery and study of extrasolar planets. The 'holy grail' in the field of exoplanet studies is to find a world similar to Earth. Some of the new instruments aboard Hubble will be able to analyse the chemical composition of the atmospheres around extrasolar planets. The newly refurbished space telescope will also be used to look back to just 500 million years after the Big Bang and observe some of the earliest galaxies.

The newly released images have sent astronomers into a frenzy of excitement and have stunned the entire world! The Hubble Space Telescope is now operational until 2014, which is when the next generation space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope will be launched. Until then, the new found power of the HST will aid in unravelling some of the mysteries of the cosmos and will provide many more epic views of the universe.
The new Hubble images can be seen here.

     
17/08/09

- Another Magellanic surprise

The Magellanic Clouds, the two main satellites of the Milky Way, are home to many types of exotic objects not found in our galaxy. Some of these objects include super star clusters, supershells and ultra luminous supergiants.

A new of class of objects has been found in the Magellanic Clouds by a team of international astronomers, "super planetary nebulae". These are the remains of stars that have 8 times the mass of the sun and also happen to be 3 times more luminous than the 'regular' variety. Planetary nebulae that formed from stars with 2 to 8 times the mass of the sun were theorised but no evidence of them had been found until now.

The team observed the Magellanic Clouds with radio telescopes and noticed that some of the bright radio sources that were detected matched optically visible planetary nebulae.

The image shows the radio contours of JD 04, the brightest of the 15 super planetary nebulae and it was taken by the Australian Telescope Compact Array radio telescope. The optical image taken with the Curtis Schmidt Telescope shows the area where it is situated.

     
30/07/09

- Betelgeuse is definitely a no-go!

In the dark winter months, one of the most enduring icons of astronomy, the constellation of Orion the Hunter is easily visible. Many of its stars are extremely bright but none more so than Betelgeuse, the red supergiant that is 100 000 times more luminous than our Sun!

The sharpest images of Betelgeuse were recently taken by the 8 meter Very Large Telescope in Chile. Using the latest revolutionary methods, an adaptive optics system coupled with the ingenious idea of "lucky imaging" was able to achieve outstanding resolution.

The new images show a huge plume of gas extending from the surface of Betelgeuse. This is one of the many episodes of mass loss taking place. Unbelievably, it sheds such a large amount of gas, that the amount equivalent to one solar mass is ejected in the astronomically short period of time of 10 000 years!

So far, astronomers are mystified at how such a large amount of gas can be ejected at such a prodigious rate but various theories have been proposed. One theory suggests that the poles of the star release gas while it rotates. Another idea is that the plumes are produced by the motions of the surface gas.

The future generation of astronomical observatories will hopefully shed more light on the mysteries surrounding Betelgeuse.

     
23/07/09

- The darkness and the light

Yesterday, the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century occurred. It was visible from mainly Asia and many people were treated to quite possibly the most spectacular cosmic light show!

The eclipse began in India and then moved north over China. The magnificent spectacle brought everyday hustle to a standstill as spectators craned their heads skywards to glimpse the incredible sight. It also sent confusion through the birds and animals as they thought it was nighttime. Birds suddenly swooped to their resting places and slept.

Six and a half minutes later, the dark shadow of the moon cleared and normality was resumed and people returned to their regular daily routine. But they had been rewarded with a breathtaking sight they would not forget, a memory that will stay with them forever. Once the light of the sun had returned, the birds and animals also awakened!

A partial solar eclipse was also observed from the Phillipines, Vietnam and parts of South Africa. It will be another 123 years until the next great solar eclipse. For many this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, a sight not to be missed, considering the rarity of such events.

     
22/07/09

- Fifteen years later

History has a strange and inexplicable habit of repeating itself. In July 1994, fragments of the broken comet, Shoemaker Levy 9 slammed into planet Jupiter leaving dark scars for many weeks.

Now fifteen years later, a new impact has been found towards the southern hemisphere of Jupiter. The discovery was made on the 19th of July, professional astronomers didn't play a role in the discovery. In fact, the black impact scar was noticed by the Australian amateur astronomer, Anthony Wesley.

While imaging the planet with his telescope, he noticed a black mark that wasn't previously visible. Thinking it might be a shadow of a Jovian moon, he realised that it couldn't be as the orbits of none of the major satellites crossed that region.

After alerting the international astronomical community, NASA followed up with deep observations with the Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The infrared images proved that the dark spot was definitely an impact scar. They also show that the dark spot is the size of the Pacific Ocean!

At the moment , it remains unknown as to what the exact object was that caused the impact but is likely to have been a comet or asteroid. Astronomers hope to investigate this new feature and shed some light on the mystery around it. This is an exciting time for researchers as they hope to test or prove some of the theories developed in the wake of the Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 impact. Another exciting aspect about this is that it will be investigated using the newest instruments installed on the Hubble Space Telescope!

It is rather fitting that this has occured in the week where the anniversary of the moon landing was celebrated, the anniversary of the Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 impact and the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century! It could be considered to be nothing more than a curious coincidence but the universe seems to work in mysterious ways. Who knows what the future will hold?

     
20/07/09

- Man on the moon

A little more than a century ago, mankind finally attained the long sought after power of aviation. Despite the at the time recent development, the whole notion of actually travelling to the moon was absurd and unthinkable! Thus the dream of breaking free of Earth's gravity was kindled in the minds of science fiction writers. Despite the majority of the public, many great thinkers such as author Jules Verne believed that someday in the future, mankind would walk on the moon.

A few decades later, the pivotal final moments of the second world war were played out and a dark shadow across the globe was lifted. People were in a celebratory mood and optimism wafted through the air. Some of the German scientists surrendered and agreed to work with the Americans.

Then, a new era had begun, the Space Age. With the help of the German scientists including Wernher von Braun, the Americans started experimenting and developing great big rockets that would be fast enough to escape the Earth's atmosphere. Little did they know, they weren't alone in this pursuit. The Russians in 1957 launched the very first satellite, Sputnik.

Like echoes rippling through the currents of time, a new race between rival superpowers had begun. This particular race didn't deal with weapons but with being supreme in the newly opened arena of outer space. A major catalyst for this was the worsening tensions between America and Russia. Both sides were embroiled in a sea of paranoia and suspicion amidst the unseen chaos of the Cold War.

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 alarmed America and as a response, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agency was formed by the American government in 1958. The first American satellite, Explorer I was launched. The next goal was actually sending a man into space.

Once again, the Russians beat the Americans with the cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin being blasted into the dark cold void in 1961. In the very same year, NASA successfully managed the same feat with Alan Shepherd Jr metaphorically flying the flag for America in space.

Then with the advent of the 1960's, tensions between the rival superpowers heated up. The next aim of both was to put a man on the moon. Shortly after Alan Shepherd was launched into space, president John F. Kennedy made a promise to his fellow Americans (and the rest of the world) to put a man on the moon before the decade was over. Either all or most of the American population shared his unwavering optimism and NASA was given more funding to achieve this vision.

The road towards this momentous achievement wouldn't be easy but the idea of walking on another celestial body for the first time was all the impetus and encouragement that was required. As well as stirring peoples imaginations and fostering impossible dreams in the curious minds of the young, the entire world was gripped in an excited fervor. Many envisioned living on the moon in great big domed cities, this naive yet incredible dream seems quaint in these modern times.

Both the Russians and Americans suffered many setbacks and disasters on their way to achieving the ultimate goal. The Russians had many problems with their rockets and the start of NASA's new Apollo mission was shadowed in terrible disaster. The first attempt, Apollo 1, was engulfed in fire while pre-flight tests were being carried out at the launch pad on January 27th, 1967. The three astronauts on board, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had sacrificed their lives in their pursuit of a noble quest. Similar problems plagued the Russians and the cosmonaut Komarov died when the Soyuz 1 craft crashed into the ground.

Rather than admitting defeat and giving up, both sides were more emboldened and determined than before, the past failures would fuel the future successes.

Then exactly 40 years ago on July 20th 1969, history was made. The Americans beat the Russians and successfully landed men on the moon. The three brave astronauts knew the risks involved and the possibility of death, but they had finally achieved the ultimate goal, 12 years after the commencement of the Space Age.

Strapped to a Saturn V rocket, the Apollo 11 spacecraft carried the astronauts, shielded from the cold vacuum of space. Piloted by Michael Collins, the Command Service Module was detached from the rocket and once it reached the moon, it was placed in an elliptical orbit. The Lunar Module, piloted by Commander Neil Armstrong was undocked from the Command Servce Module and the module began its gentle steady descent to the lunar surface.

The 'Eagle' landed in Mare Tranquillitatis, the 'Sea of Tranquility'. A few hours later the hatch was opened and history was about to be made. Neil Armstrong was the first man to step onto the lunar surface and once his feet touched the ground, he uttered those amazing words:

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Buzz Aldrin followed Neil Armstrong and was awed by the alien landscape that surrounded him and described it as "magnificent desolation".

The rest of the mission concerned less exciting objectives such as collecting moon rocks and samples of the lunar surface for study back on Earth. Once the objectives were completed, the Lunar Module began its liftoff procedure and docked with the orbiting Command Service Module. Once it reached Earth, it landed in the Pacific Ocean and the three brave astronauts were retrieved.

They had come back home safely and were given a heroes welcome by everybody. Following this were numerous interviews and television appearances, the astronauts chronicled their magical voyage to a stunned audience.

Despite being dead, the naysayers, the people that believed spaceflight was impossible, the people that lacked the imagination to even consider the possiblity of man travelling to the moon, had been proven wrong. But they didn't matter, they were long forgotten.

On the other hand, the incredible adventure that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins embarked on would reside in the dreams and imaginations of people for a long time. Their achievement will never be forgotten, along with all the other astronauts that walked on the moon in subsequent Apollo missions.

Along with jetpacks and flying cars, the antiquated dream of cities on the moon that many people were obsessed with in the 1960's never became a reality. Fortunately NASA has overly ambitious plans to return to the moon by 2020 and establish a lunar base by 2030. Hopefully, this will become a reality and the future moon base could be used to stage a flight to planet Mars. Who knows what amazing feats will be carried out by future generations? Maybe people will be skiing on Jupiter's icy moon, Europa in a century's time? As long as humanity has the will and the imagination, no dream is too big or impossible.