Solar System

- The future's bright

Astronomers working at the European Southern Observatory have created one of the largest atlases of the Milky Way. Unlike many other all sky maps, it maps out cold cosmic dust but only the inner regions of the Milky Way have been covered by the survey. The survey was carried out by the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy.

Cold dust blocks optical light but other wavelengths such as infrared can penetrate this dust and be detected by infrared instruments. The survey was taken in submillimeter wavelength light, which lies between the infrared and radio wavelengths.

Although limited in size, this epic undertaking has detected thousands of cold dusty clumps. Each one is a potential star in the making and their dust cocoons are a couple of light years wide with a few thousand times the mass of the Sun.

The skymap covers a miniscule area towards the galactic centre and has an apparent size of four times the width of the full moon.

The image is a composite of the APEX data and other infrared data from the MSX satellite. The orange parts are the regions detected in submillimeter wavelength light and the blue areas emit strongly in infrared. The large orange area to the left is a giant molecular cloud.


- Rising out of the shadows

Astronomers have found a mysterious tranquil object in a dark cloud 23 000 light years away. The dark cloud is situated in the Aquila Rift, an area where many other dark clouds are found.

What is exciting is that the object is on the threshold of transforming into either a single massive star or a cluster of massive stars such as NGC 3603 in Carina.

The processes that are involved in the formation of massive stars are not clearly understood but this discovery is one step towards shedding light on this dark period in star formation.

This discovery also shows that a region or cloud doesn't have to show visible signs of star formation to actually be active, meaning many other dark clouds could be home to low key star formation.

The object is amazingly 120 times more dense than the sun but even more unbelievably, it is smaller than the Solar System! Currently it is theorized that these objects can be formed in only 50 000 years, a tiny pinprick on the infinity of the cosmos!

The picture shows an infrared view of the dark cloud and a young cluster can be seen towards the top.


- Herschel is working fine!

After being launched into the cosmos on the 14th of May, the Herschel infrared space telescope has successfully made its first test observations of the nearby Whirlpool Galaxy, which can be seen in the image to the left. On the 14th of June, the protective cover was removed to initiate the test observations.

Herschel will unravel many mysteries of the universe such as peering into the unseen hearts of starforming regions and attempting to decipher cosmological conundrums by analysing the infrared light of distant galaxies.

Herschel is the largest space observatory with a whopping 3.5 metre diameter mirror, four times larger than the current infrared observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope. The observatory is named after the astronomer William Herschel, who discovered infrared light in the 18th century. Currently, Herschel is scheduled to observe the infrared universe for at least three years. Quite likely, it will provide conclusive support for cosmic theories and undoubtedly it will raise many more questions to be answered.


- Hubble Space Telescope is 'born again'

The final servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope has been completed amidst an explosion of celebration! After the fourth and final servicing mission was launched last Monday 11th May, the HST is now at its most powerful after 5 gruelling and tense spacewalks.

The primary objectives were to install the new WFPC3 camera, repair the Advanced Camera for Surveys, to replace faulty gyroscopes and batteries. The WFPC3 is a much more advanced camera than the one it has replaced, the WFPC2. The $132 million instrument will be capable of peering back 500 million years in visible, infrared and the ultraviolet wavelengths. It isn't a mystery why thousands of astronomers are in a jubilant triumphant mood, the images that can be obtained will hopefully shed light on many conundrums such as dark matter.

The 2nd spacewalk, last Friday, was used to replace the four batteries and six gyroscopes. The 3rd spacewalk was used to install the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph instrument and to repair the ACS camera, which stopped fuctioning exactly 2 years ago. This was an unprecedented feat as the repair of an instrument in orbit had never been attempted before, thankfully it went according to plan. To repair it, astronaut John Grunsfeld had to remove 32 screws to install a new power supply, the chance of failure was minimal as he had trained two whole years for this task!

Right now, the Hubble Space Telescope is the most powerful it has ever been and ever will be. The crucial servicing mission has ensured its continuance of its quest for universal truth for at least several more years.

The image shows astronaut John Grunsfeld repairing the telescope on the final spacewalk.


- Search for other Earths!

Last night, the Kepler space probe was launched amidst a blazing reception by the entire world! One of the age old questions of whether there is life out there in the universe might finally be resolved!

Kepler's mission is to scan a field of 100 000 stars in Cygnus and Lyra. The reason this area was chosen is the presence of many sun like stars. The hope is to find a planet in the 'Goldilocks' zone of a star, the area where life can thrive.

The search will be a coordinated effort, if Kepler finds a candidate, then NASA can turn the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes at the star for followup observations. The mission will last three and a half years and hopefully we'll be able to answer the question, "Are we alone?".


- A deadly tango

Throughout the universe, many instances of black holes on their own have been found. Now for the first time ever, the unthinkable has been found, a pair of black holes orbiting each other in the centre of a galaxy!

A common occurence in the universe are collisions between two galaxies that merge to become one.
It was theorised that binary black holes should be fairly common but they have escaped detection until now.

When material falls into a black hole, it emits light in a narrow wavelength with specific spectral emission lines. Now dual emission lines of this type have been detected by the astronomers Tod Lauer and Todd Boroson from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona.

One of the black holes has 50 million times the mass of the Sun and the other one about half that. The image shows an artists impression as for obvious reasons black holes can't be seen visually.


- Not as cold as we thought

Everybody knows that Pluto is freezing cold but it has now been found that the atmosphere is actually warmer than the surface!

Astronomers using ESO's Very Large Telescope have detected an abundance of methane in Pluto's atmosphere. Because of this methane, the atmosphere is a massive 40 degrees Celsius hotter than the surface but its still frigid at -180 degrees!

Previously only the upper atmosphere could be analysed but when Pluto blocked the light of a distant star, the whole atmosphere could be scrutinised by scientific instruments, in this case the Cryogenic Infrared Echelle Spectrograph attached to the VLT. The picture shows an artists impression of Pluto's surface with methane patches.


- Smallest exoplanet found!

The number of exoplanets keeps increasing but we are now getting closer to the discovery of an Earth like planet. The Corot satellite has found an extrasolar planet that is about twice the size of Earth and is also a rocky planet as opposed to being a gas giant.

The star it orbits is a brisk 450 light years away but as with many of the other planets found, it is extremely close to the star and it has been hypothesized that the surface might be molten or volcanic.

The technique that found this planet is one of the most effective, detecting changes in the brightness of a star while it is transited by a planet. The Corot spacecraft is capable of detecting these minute variations in the brightnesses of stars and is reponsible for dozens of discoveries.

The illustration shows the light curve of the star projected onto an artists impression of the star. The dip in the curve is the result of the star being blocked by the planet thereby slightly reducing the brightness of the star.


- Happy new year!

2009 is now finally upon us, I wish everybody a happy new year! As many of you probably already know, this year marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo looking through a telescope for the very first time.

Back in 1609, Galileo Galilei was the first person to use a telescope to look at the sky, a year after it was invented by Hans Lippershey. He discovered many astounding things such as the rings around Saturn, craters on the moon and the epic discovery of moons around Jupiter!

It could be said that his most profound discovery was the phases of Venus, this showed that Venus orbited the Sun, therefore adding credence to the unpopular Copernican view of the Sun being at the centre of the universe with Earth orbiting around it. The widely accepted view back then was the Earth being at the centre of the universe and because Galileo refused to believe this, he was put under house arrest by the Church in 1633. His crime was believing the Copernican doctrine.

Because it has been 400 years since Galileo looked skywards with a telescope, the UN General Assembly, UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union have designated 2009 as the 'International Year of Astronomy'. This epic unbridled celebration of astronomy and our love for the night sky is a once in a lifetime event!

The purpose of this unprecedented event is to bring astronomy to all of humanity as the night sky belongs to everybody! Thousands of people from 135 countries are involved in many activities.

One of the main projects is 'From Earth To The Universe', an exhibition of more than 100 astronomical images. The exhibits will be held in dozens of countries that include America, the United Kingdom, Spain, China, Pakistan, Australia and Chile. Rather than been held in conventional expected institutions such as planetariums and museums, they will also be displayed in parks, train stations, art galleries and even airports! The idea behind this is that the universe should be as accessable as other types of media and to stimulate awareness of the universe we live in amongst individuals who are apathetic or uninterested in science. The carefully selected images come from an eclectic array of many observatories and hard working amateur astrophotographers that include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra x-ray observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Canada France Hawaii Telescope, the Cerro Tololo Inter American Observatory, multiple space probes, David Malin, Rob Gendler, R. Jay GaBany, Mischa Schirmer and Johannes Schedler.

In addition to this, many other projects will be taking place, these include building workable replicas of the original telescope used by Galileo. Another one is the 'Cosmic Diary', a collection of the accounts of everyday life for professional astronomers and what they do in their research. The other major one is '100 Hours of Astronomy', a nonstop global marathon of live feeds from many research institutions, observatories and other activities. This is to encourage as many people as possible to look through a telescope for the very first time.

Astronomy has almost always been an international effort, collaborations between people from many countries is fairly common. It is quite saddening to see humanity divided into sides, manmade borders creating divisions between populations. Looking back from the Moon in 1968, the daringly audacious Apollo 8 mission to the moon gave humanity its first ever view of the glittering globe of Earth.
The astronauts James Lovell, William Anders and Frank Borman were privy to the full majestic view of Earth, a fragile vulnerable orb, one borderless world that was home to all of mankind.
Humanity is one people with one sky, we should all take the time to peer upwards, marvel at the simple pleasure of seeing the bright disk of the moon, the blazing jewel that is Venus and the magical blanket of the stars, seemingly wrapped around our world. We are not apart, we are a part of the universe, it's ours to discover and now is the time to revel in the unity of the sky and the lands that we traverse!

Since 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, the sky will put on a blazing show for us, namely the solar eclipse in July! What makes this one extra special is that totality will last for a whopping 6.5 minutes! This makes it the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century and the next longest one will occur in 2132! Other sights of the sky include Saturn's rings being oriented edge on, so anybody looking through a telescope will not be able to see the famous rings of Saturn although it will be a unique experience in seeing Saturn without its rings!

No year is complete without the launch of space probes to unravel the mysteries of the universe. The most prominent one to be launched will be Kepler, a space telescope whose mission is to try and find Earth like exoplanets around other stars. The primary instrument will be a 1.4 metre mirror that will be used to collect the light from 100 000 stars in a small patch of sky between Cygnus and Lyra. It will continuously observe the stars for 3.5 years in order to better detect any transits of the stars, as planets that lie in the habitable zones of stars are vastly more difficult to detect due to their proximity to their parent stars.

The other important mission in 2009 is the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Originally scheduled for October 2008, it was delayed due to the failure of a data handling unit. After the servicing mission in May, the primary Advanced Camera for Surveys will be made operational and the WFPC2 will be superseded by the more powerful WFPC3.

2008 was a phonomenal year for amateur astrophotography with hundreds of awe inspiring images being produced by many talented individuals.

One of these was Rob Gendler, considered by many as the greatest amateur astrophotographer in the entire world! Throughout 2008, he delighted and enthralled the world with his epic snapshots of the universe. Since he acquired a remote observatory in Australia towards the end of 2007, many of his jaw dropping images showcased the many marvels of the southern sky including the Vela Supernova, Omega Centauri, the Jewel Box Cluster and the Large Magellanic Cloud which can be seen at the top of this news entry.

Undoubtedly, he will continue his cosmic voyage and share more glittering jewels of the universe with us.
He will also be releasing his new book in May, "Capturing the Stars: Astrophotography by the Masters". As the title suggests, it is a showcase of 30 professional and amateur astrophotographers. It will include their images and an insight into their philosophies and techniques.