Meaning of Life in the Universe

Meaning of Life in the Universe[1]

What is the meaning of life? It is perhaps the oldest philosophical question; At the end of a hysterical movie, the Monty Python gang told us it’s, “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

Of course, a lot goes into anyone’s personal answer to the question. But in a universe where we know that at least 100 billion or so stars occupy the Milky Way Galaxy alone, then we might say the visible universe contains something like 10,000 billion billion (1022) stars. We know that many of the stars near us host planetary systems. Could we be the only place in the cosmos with life? It doesn’t seem likely. What would an alien sentience consider the meaning of life?

Thus far, Earth is the only place we have evidence for life. Maybe microbes inhabit Europa, Enceladus, Titan, Triton, or even Mars. Perhaps SETI will detect a signal from a civilization elsewhere in the galaxy in the coming years. And yet with all our yearning to find life elsewhere, the cosmic distance scale is unbelievably huge: Contact, if and when it happens, is likely to be a remote exchange rather than shaking hands with aliens when they set down in Central Park.

Still, the question of life, its cosmic prevalence, and its meaning tug at us. From the universe’s point of view, life doesn’t have to have any meaning. The atoms in our bodies, arranged neatly by RNA and DNA, simply reflect their origins in the bellies of massive stars. There is no reason such order couldn’t have arisen in millions of places across the galaxy.

And yet to be a thinking creature, made form stuff in the universe and able to look back out at the stars and reflect on our origins, is the greatest gift of all. Do we–or any species—really need any more meaning than that?

[1] David J. Eicher, Astronomy (44, 10, October, 2016, p. ).

Cosmic Magnifying-Glass Effect Captures Universe’s Brightest Galaxies

Cosmic Magnifying-Glass Effect Captures Universe’s Brightest Galaxies[1]

The six Hubble Space Telescope images[2] above reveal a jumble of misshapen-looking galaxies punctuated by exotic patterns such as arcs, streaks, and smeared rings. These unusual features are the stretched shapes of the universe’s brightest infrared galaxies that are boosted by natural cosmic magnifying lenses. Some of the oddball shapes also may have been produced by spectacular collisions between distant, massive galaxies. The faraway galaxies are as much as 10,000 times more luminous than our Milky Way. The galaxies existed between 8 billion and 11.5 billion years ago.

Boosted by natural magnifying lenses in space, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured unique close-up views of the universe’s brightest infrared galaxies, which are as much as 10,000 times more luminous than our Milky Way.

The galaxy images, magnified through a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, reveal a tangled web of misshapen objects punctuated by exotic patterns such as rings and arcs. The odd shapes are due largely to the foreground lensing galaxies’ powerful gravity distorting the images of the background galaxies. The unusual forms also may have been produced by spectacular collisions between distant, massive galaxies in a sort of cosmic demolition derby.

“We have hit the jackpot of gravitational lenses,” said lead researcher James Lowenthal of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. “These ultra-luminous, massive, starburst galaxies are very rare. Gravitational lensing magnifies them so that you can see small details that otherwise are unimaginable. We can see features as small as about 100 light-years or less across. We want to understand what’s powering these monsters, and gravitational lensing allows us to study them in greater detail.”

The galaxies are ablaze with runaway star formation, pumping out more than 10,000 new stars a year. This unusually rapid star birth is occurring at the peak of the universe’s star-making boom more than 8 billion years ago. The star-birth frenzy creates lots of dust, which enshrouds the galaxies, making them too faint to detect in visible light. But they glow fiercely in infrared light, shining with the brilliance of 10 trillion to 100 trillion suns.

Gravitational lenses occur when the intense gravity of a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies magnifies the light of fainter, more distant background sources. Previous observations of the galaxies, discovered in far-infrared light by ground- and space-based observatories, had hinted of gravitational lensing. But Hubble’s keen vision confirmed the researchers’ suspicion.

Lowenthal presented his results June 6, 2017 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

According to the research team, only a few dozen of these bright infrared galaxies exist in the universe, scattered across the sky. They reside in unusually dense regions of space that somehow triggered rapid star formation in the early universe.

The galaxies may hold clues to how galaxies formed billions of years ago. “There are so many unknowns about star and galaxy formation,” Lowenthal explained. “We need to understand the extreme cases, such as these galaxies, as well as the average cases, like our Milky Way, in order to have a complete story about how galaxy and star formation happen.”

In studying these strange galaxies, astronomers first must detangle the foreground lensing galaxies from the background ultra-bright galaxies. Seeing this effect is like looking at objects at the bottom of a swimming pool. The water distorts your view, just as the lensing galaxies’ gravity stretches the shapes of the distant galaxies. “We need to understand the nature and scale of those lensing effects to interpret properly what we’re seeing in the distant, early universe,” Lowenthal said. “This applies not only to these brightest infrared galaxies, but probably to most or maybe even all distant galaxies.”

Lowenthal’s team is halfway through its Hubble survey of 22 galaxies. An international team of astronomers first discovered the galaxies in far-infrared light using survey data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck space observatory, and some clever sleuthing. The team then compared those sources to galaxies found in ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory’s catalog of far-infrared objects and to ground-based radio data taken by the Very Large Array in New Mexico. The researchers next used the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in Mexico to measure their exact distances from Earth. The LMT’s far-infrared images also revealed multiple objects, hinting that the galaxies were being gravitationally lensed.

These bright objects existed between 8 billion and 11.5 billion years ago, when the universe was making stars more vigorously than it is today. The galaxies’ star-birth production is 5,000 to 10,000 times higher than that of our Milky Way. However, the ultra-bright galaxies are pumping out stars using only the same amount of gas contained in the Milky Way.

So, the nagging question is, what is powering the prodigious star birth? “We’ve known for two decades that some of the most luminous galaxies in the universe are very dusty and massive, and they’re undergoing bursts of star formation,” Lowenthal said. “But they’ve been very hard to study because the dust makes them practically impossible to observe in visible light. They’re also very rare: they don’t appear in any of Hubble’s deep-field surveys. They are in random parts of the sky that nobody’s looked at before in detail. That’s why finding that they are gravitationally lensed is so important.”

These galaxies may be the brighter, more distant cousins of the ultra-luminous infrared galaxies (ULIRGS), hefty, dust-cocooned, starburst galaxies, seen in the nearby universe. The ULIRGS’ star-making output is stoked by the merger of two spiral galaxies, which is one possibility for the stellar baby boom in their more-distant relatives. However, Lowenthal said that computer simulations of the birth and growth of galaxies show that major mergers occur at a later epoch than the one in which these galaxies are seen.

Another idea for the star-making surge is that lots of gas, the material that makes stars, is flooding into the faraway galaxies. “The early universe was denser, so maybe gas is raining down on the galaxies, or they are fed by some sort of channel or conduit, which we have not figured out yet,” Lowenthal said. “This is what theoreticians struggle with: How do you get all the gas into a galaxy fast enough to make it happen?”

The research team plans to use Hubble and the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii to try to distinguish between the foreground and background galaxies so they can begin to analyze the details of the brilliant monster galaxies.

Future telescopes, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared observatory scheduled to launch in 2018, will measure the speed of the galaxies’ stars so that astronomers can calculate the mass of these ultra-luminous objects.

“The sky is covered with all kinds of galaxies, including those that shine in far-infrared light,” Lowenthal said. “What we’re seeing here is the tip of the iceberg: the very brightest of all.”

[1] NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. “Jackpot! Cosmic magnifying-glass effect captures universe’s brightest galaxies.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 June 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170606155722.htm>. Materials provided by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

[2] Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lowenthal (Smith College)

Measuring Mass of a White Dwarf

Century-Old Relativity Experiment Used to Measure A White Dwarf’s Mass[1]

This illustration reveals how the gravity of a white dwarf star warps space and bends the light of a distant star behind it. White dwarfs are the burned-out remnants of normal stars. The Hubble Space Telescope captured images of the dead star, called Stein 2051 B, as it passed in front of a background star. During the close alignment, Stein 2051 B deflected the starlight, which appeared offset by about 2 milliarcseconds from its actual position. This deviation is so small that it is equivalent to observing an ant crawl across the surface of a quarter from 1,500 miles away. From this measurement, astronomers calculated that the white dwarf’s mass is roughly 68 percent of the Sun’s mass. Stein 2051 B resides 17 light-years from Earth. The background star is about 5,000 light-years away. The white dwarf is named for its discoverer, Dutch Roman Catholic priest and astronomer Johan Stein.

Astronomers have used the sharp vision of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to repeat a century-old test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The Hubble team measured the mass of a white dwarf, the burned-out remnant of a normal star, by seeing how much it deflects the light from a background star.

This observation represents the first time Hubble has witnessed this type of effect created by a star. The data provide a solid estimate of the white dwarf’s mass and yield insights into theories of the structure and composition of the burned-out star.

First proposed in 1915, Einstein’s general relativity theory describes how massive objects warp space, which we feel as gravity. The theory was experimentally verified four years later when a team led by British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington measured how much the Sun’s gravity deflected the image of a background star as its light grazed the sun during a solar eclipse, an effect called gravitational microlensing.

Astronomers can use this effect to see magnified images of distant galaxies or, at closer range, to measure tiny shifts in a star’s apparent position on the sky. Researchers had to wait a century, however, to build telescopes powerful enough to detect this gravitational warping phenomenon caused by a star outside our Solar System. The amount of deflection is so small only the sharpness of Hubble could measure it.

Hubble observed the nearby white dwarf star Stein 2051 B as it passed in front of a background star. During the close alignment, the white dwarf’s gravity bent the light from the distant star, making it appear offset by about 2 milliarcseconds from its actual position. This deviation is so small that it is equivalent to observing an ant crawl across the surface of a quarter from 1,500 miles away.

Using the deflection measurement, the Hubble astronomers calculated that the white dwarf’s mass is roughly 68 percent of the Sun’s mass. This result matches theoretical predictions.

The technique opens a window on a new method to determine a star’s mass. Normally, if a star has a companion, astronomers can determine its mass by measuring the double-star system’s orbital motion. Although Stein 2051 B has a companion, a bright red dwarf, astronomers cannot accurately measure its mass because the stars are too far apart. The stars are at least 5 billion miles apart—almost twice Pluto’s present distance from the Sun.

“This microlensing method is a very independent and direct way to determine the mass of a star,” explained lead researcher Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. “It’s like placing the star on a scale: the deflection is analogous to the movement of the needle on the scale.”

Sahu will present his team’s findings on June 7, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

The Hubble analysis also helped the astronomers to independently verify the theory of how a white dwarf’s radius is determined by its mass, an idea first proposed in 1935 by Indian American astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. “Our measurement is a nice confirmation of white dwarf theory, and it even tells us the internal composition of a white dwarf,” said team member Howard Bond of Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Sahu’s team identified Stein 2051 B and its background star after combing through data of more than 5,000 stars in a catalog of nearby stars that appear to move quickly across the sky. Stars with a higher apparent motion across the sky have a greater chance of passing in front of a distant background star, where the deflection of light can be measured.

After identifying Stein 2051 B and mapping the background star field, the researchers used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to observe the white dwarf seven different times over a two-year period as it moved past the selected background star.

The Hubble observations were challenging and time-consuming. The research team had to analyze the white dwarf’s velocity and the direction it was moving in order to predict when it would arrive at a position to bend the starlight so the astronomers could observe the phenomenon with Hubble.

The astronomers also had to measure the tiny amount of deflected starlight. “Stein 2051 B appears 400 times brighter than the distant background star,” said team member Jay Anderson of STScI, who led the analysis to precisely measure the positions of stars in the Hubble images. “So measuring the extremely small deflection is like trying to see a firefly move next to a light bulb. The movement of the insect is very small, and the glow of the light bulb makes it difficult to see the insect moving.” In fact, the slight movement is about 1,000 times smaller than the measurement made by Eddington in his 1919 experiment.

Stein 2051 B is named for its discoverer, Dutch Roman Catholic priest and astronomer Johan Stein. It resides 17 light-years from Earth and is estimated to be about 2.7 billion years old. The background star is about 5,000 light-years away.

The researchers plan to use Hubble to conduct a similar microlensing study with Proxima Centauri, our solar system’s closest stellar neighbor.

[1] Source: Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). “Century-old relativity experiment used to measure a white dwarf’s mass.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170607142604.htm (accessed June 7, 2017).

Bose-Einstein Basics

Bose-Einstein Basics

The Bose-Einstein state of matter was on Earth in1995. Two scientists, Eric A. Cornell of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Carl E. Wieman of the University of Colorado at Boulder, finally managed to produce condensate in the lab. For this achievement, they received the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics.

When you think condensate, think about and the way gas molecules come together and condense and to a liquid. The molecules get denser or packed closer together.

Much earlier, two scientists, Satyendra Bose and Albert Einstein, predicted BCE in the 1920s, but no laboratory had the equipment and facilities to achieve it at that time. Now we do. If plasmas are super hot and super excited atoms, the atoms in a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) are total opposites. They are super unexcited and super cold atoms.

About Condensation

Consider condensation first. Condensation happens when several gas molecules come together and form. It all happens because of a loss of energy. Gases are really excited atoms. When they lose energy, they slow down and begin to collect. They can collect into one drop. Water (H2O) vapor in the form of a liquid condenses on the lid of your pot when you boil water. It cools on the metal and becomes a liquid again. You would then have a condensate.

The BEC happens at super low temperatures. We have talked about temperature scales and Kelvin. At zero Kelvin (0® K– absolute zero) all molecular motion stops. Scientists have been able to achieve a temperature only a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero. When temperatures get that low, you can create a BEC with a few special elements. Cornell and Weiman did it with rubidium (Rb).

Let the Clumping Begin

So, it’s cold. A cold ice cube is still a solid. When you get to a temperature near absolute zero, something special happens. Atoms begin to clump. The whole process happens at temperatures within a few billionths of a degree, so you won’t see this at home. When the temperature becomes that low, the atomic parts can’t move at all. They lose almost all of their energy.

Since there is no more energy to transfer (as in solids or liquids), all of the atoms have exactly the same levels, like twins. The result of this clumping is the BEC. The group of rubidium atoms sits in the same place, creating a “super atom.” There are no longer thousands of separate atoms. They all take on the same qualities and, for our purposes, become one blob.

Bose-Einstein-Condensates form the core of neutron stars. These embers of a dying star are about the same size as Manhattan Island yet more massive than the Sun. A teaspoonful of one would weigh about a billion tons. On the outside, neutron stars are brittle. They are covered by an iron-rich crust. On the inside, they are fluid. Each one harbors a sea of neutrons — the debris from atoms crushed by a supernova explosion. The whole ensemble rotates hundreds of times each second, and so spawns powerful quantum tornadoes within the star.

Above: Neutron stars are formed in supernova explosions. This supernova remnant (known as the Crab Nebula) harbors one that spins 30 times every second.

You probably wouldn’t want a neutron star on your desktop. That is, unless you’re an experimental physicist.

Neutron stars and their cousins, white dwarfs and black holes, are extreme forms of matter that many scientists would love to tinker with– if only they could get one in their lab. But how? Researchers experimenting with the new form of matter, Bose-Einstein condensates, may have found a way.

Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) are matter waves formed when very cold atoms merge to become a single “quantum mechanical blob.” They contain about ten million atoms in a droplet 0.1 mm across. In most ways, BECs and neutron stars are dissimilar. BECs are 100,000 times less dense than air, and they are colder than interstellar space. Neutron stars, on the other hand, weigh about 100 million tons per cubic centimeter, and their insides are 100 times hotter than the core of the Sun. So what do they have in common? Both are superfluids — that is, liquids that flow without friction or viscosity.

Perhaps the best-known example of a superfluid is helium-4 cooled to temperatures less than 2.2⁰ K (-271⁰ C). If you held in your hand a well-insulated cup of such helium and slowly rotated the cup, the slippery helium inside wouldn’t rotate with it.

Yet superfluids can rotate. And when they do, weird things happen. “Superfluids cannot turn as a rigid body — in order to rotate, they must swirl,” explains Ketterle. Among physicists he would say that “the curl of the velocity field must be zero.” This basic physics holds for BECs and neutron stars alike.

In 2001, following similar experiments in 1999 by researchers in Colorado and France, Ketterle and his colleagues at MIT decided to spin a BEC and see what would happen. Ketterle says he didn’t have neutron stars in mind when he did the experiment: “BECs are a new form of matter, and we wanted to learn more about them. By rotating BECs, we force them to reveal their properties.” Simulating the inside of a weird star was to be an unintended spin-off.

Ketterle’s team shined a rotating laser beam on the condensate, which was held in place by magnets. He compares the process to “stroking a ping-pong ball with a feather until it starts spinning.” Suddenly, a regular array of whirlpools appeared.

“It was a breathtaking experience when we saw those vortices,” recalls Ketterle. Researchers had seen such whirlpools before (in liquid helium and in BECs) but never so many at once. The array of quantum tornadoes was just the sort of storm astronomers had long-suspected might swirl within neutron stars.

No one has ever seen superfluid vortices inside a neutron star, but we have good reason to believe they exist: Many neutron stars are pulsars — that is, they emit a beam of radiation as they spin. The effect is much like a light house: we see a flash of light or radio waves each time the beam sweeps by. The pulses arrive at intervals so impressively regular that they rival atomic clocks. In fact, when Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Tony Hewish discovered pulsars in 1967, they wondered if they were receiving intelligent signals from aliens! Sometimes, though, pulsars “glitch” like a cheap wristwatch that suddenly begins to run too fast. The glitches are likely due to superfluid vortices forming or decaying within the star, or perhaps vortices brushing against the star’s crust.

The possibilities don’t end there: “If the condensed atoms [in a BEC were to] attract each other, then the whole condensate can collapse,” Ketterle adds. “People have actually predicated that the physics is the same as that of a collapsing neutron star. So it’s one way, maybe, to realize a tiny neutron star in a small vacuum chamber.”

Small, confined and tame — a pet neutron star? It sounds far-fetched, yet researchers are learning to make BECs collapse in real-life experiments.

BECs are formed with the aid of magnetic traps. Carl Wieman and colleagues at NIST have discovered that atoms inside a BEC can be made to attract or repel one another by “tuning” the magnetic field to which the condensate is exposed. Last They tried both: First, they made a self-repelling BEC. It expanded gently, as expected. Then, they made a mildly self-attracting BEC. It began to shrink — again as expected — but then it did something wholly unexpected.

It exploded!

Many of the atoms in the BEC flew outward, some in spherical shells, others in narrow jets. Some of the ejecta completely disappeared — a lingering mystery. Some remained as a smaller core at the position of the original condensate.

To an astrophysicist, this sounds remarkably like a supernova explosion. Indeed, Wieman et al dubbed it a “Bosenova” (pronounced “bose-a-nova”). In fact, the explosion liberated only enough energy to raise the temperature of the condensate 200 billionths of a degree. A real supernova would have been 1075 times more powerful. But you have to start somewhere.

If researchers eventually do craft miniature neutron stars, they might learn to make white dwarfs and black holes as well. Such micro-stars pose no danger to Earthlings. They are simply too small and their gravity too feeble to gobble objects around them. But such pets would no doubt be popular among physicists and astronomers.

Ocean on Ganymede

Hubble Telescope Spots Ocean on Jupiter Moon Ganymede[1]

The biggest moon in the Solar System harbors a salty ocean beneath its frozen surface, according to a study that examined the moon’s flickering auroras to probe its interior.

A number of Solar System objects are thought to have oceans. But this is the first clear-cut data of its kind to suggest that a sea lies hidden under the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is 50% bigger than our own Moon. Scientific models predicted an ocean on Ganymede, and when NASA’s Galileo spacecraft visited Ganymede in the 1990s, it collected data that hinted at an ocean. But new images from the Hubble Space Telescope offer strong confirmation of a liquid body of water inside Ganymede, scientists say.

Galileo’s observations “provide inconclusive evidence for the ocean,” says study co-author Joachim Saur of the University of Cologne. “The Hubble data require an ocean.”

Finding an ocean on a celestial body hundreds of millions of miles from Earth is no easy feat. Saur and his team turned to the space-going Hubble, which trained its keen eyes on Ganymede in 2010 and again in 2011. The Hubble focused on Ganymede’s two auroras, shimmering patterns in the sky similar to the earthly phenomenon known as the Northern Lights. A person standing on Ganymede’s surface and looking up would see a red glow, Saur says.

Ganymede has two auroras, one around its north pole and one around its south pole, both created in part by the moon’s own magnetic field. These auroras don’t stay fixed in place. Instead, they wander slightly across Ganymede’s face. With the help of supercomputers, the scientists calculated how much Ganymede’s auroras would shift if the moon had a salty sea. A layer of salty water could carry electrical current, generating another magnetic field that would affect the auroras.

The researchers found that the aurora shift witnessed by Hubble nicely matched the prediction of what should happen if Ganymede has an ocean. Just as importantly, the Hubble data did not match the prediction for an ocean-less Ganymede, the scientists reported online February, 2015 in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Ganymede’s ocean is sandwiched between two layers of ice. That’s not particularly hospitable to life, says planetary scientist William McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis, who didn’t work on the new study. But Saur says it’s still possible that Ganymede’s waters are habitable.

Other scientists praise the study for revealing important new evidence about Ganymede’s hidden interior.

Previous evidence of an ocean on the gigantic moon was “somewhat ambiguous,” University of California-Santa Cruz planetary scientist Francis Nimmo, who was not part of the study, says via e-mail. “So this study is … nice in that it provides independent confirmation of a subsurface ocean on Ganymede.”

The new findings are “very significant,” McKinnon agrees, though he thinks they’re not “air-tight. … What we need to do is go back to Ganymede and take measurements on site.”

Fortunately for Ganymede partisans, the European Space Agency is planning to launch a spacecraft in 2022 to explore this supermoon and its neighbors. Saur says he welcomes the mission as a chance to confirm his study’s findings, which he calls “solid science” but based on an “indirect method.”

A Solar-System sea is “really only 100% certain,” he says, when “you have a finger in the water.”

[1] Traci Watson, in USA TODAY (March 12, 2015)

Odd Names of Solar System Bodies

Odd Names of Solar System Bodies

We are pretty used to the names of the major objects in our Solar System. Most names are taken from Greek mythology, such as Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Uranus, Pluto, vnd Neptune. There are many more objects named however, and some of them quite odd.

  1. Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter. The name is from the Greek Ganymēdēs, Latin Ganymedes, or Catamitus, in Greek legend, was the son of Tros (or Laomedon), king of Troy. Because of his unusual beauty, he was carried off either by the gods or by Zeus, disguised as an eagle, or, according to a Cretan account, by Minos, to serve as cupbearer. In compensation, Zeus gave Ganymede’s father a stud of immortal horses (or a golden vine). The earliest forms of the myth have no erotic content, but by the 5th century
    BCE it was believed that Ganymede’s kidnapper had a homosexual passion for him; Ganymede’s kidnapping was a popular topic on 5th-century Attic vases. The English word catamite was derived from the popular Latin form of his name. He was later identified with the constellation Aquarius.
  2. Mister Spock Asteroid. Not what you were thinking here. This has nothing to do with the Star Wars character. In fact, this was named after the pet of discoverer James B. Gibson. The recent sad loss of photographer, director and actor Leonard Nimoy is most keenly felt by the millions of fans who loved the sci-fi character he shall always be most closely associated with—Star Trek‘s coolly logical and pointy-eared Vulcan science officer, Mr. Spock. As befits someone who toured the fictional Galaxy furthering scientific knowledge, astronomers have a tangible reminder of the starship Enterprise‘s first officer in the form of an asteroid that will always bear his name. James B. Gibson discovered 2309 Mr. Spock (1971 QX1) from Yale-Columbia Station at El Leoncito, Argentina on 16th August 1971. It soon became apparent that this was a main-belt asteroid between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, orbiting 3 astronomical units from the Sun every 5.23 years. Subsequent analysis revealed that 2309 Mr. Spock is a 13-mile (21-kilometre)-wide body rotating on its axis every 6.7 hours. zktin-belt asteroid 2309 Mr. Spock (1971 QX1) is a 13-mile-wide body rotating on its axis every 6.7 hours that orbits 3 astronomical units from the Sun every 5.23 years. Currently 17th magnitude in the constellation of Taurus, it’s still a viable astrophotographic target for 10-inch telescopes and larger. This is a two-minute ISO1600 exposure at f/2 with a C11 and DSLR on 10th March at 21:15 UT. Image credit: Ade Ashford. Live long and pros-purr.
  3. James Bond. This is a numbered minor planet, discovered October 5, 1983. It is classified as an inner planet
  4. Tom Hanks. Asteroid 12818 Tomhanks swung within about 151 million miles of Earth on Sept. 12, while 8353 Megryan came about 191 million miles away on Sept. 27. Neither came closer than the distance between the Earth and the sun, and they did not pose any risk to our planet. A lot of scientists have named asteroids after their favorite celebrities, and considering Tom Hanks is somewhat of a favorite (read, Apollo 13) among astronauts, he makes the cut. However, Tom isn’t the only star to have an asteroid named after him. There’s Meg Ryan, Chaplin, and Van Damme among others.
  5. Monty Python. The hilarious British comedy troupe are so famous among the astronauts that each member of the crew also have an asteroid named after them.
  6. Makemake sounds like the most delicious Japanese snack ever. Would make for the perfect dwarf planet wouldn’t it?
  7. Beowulf Asteroid. Asteroid 38086, Beowolf, was discovered on May 5, 1999 by the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search (LONEOS) at the Anderson Mesa Station of Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona. It has a period of 1 years, 253 days. It was named for the great Scandinavian warrior Beowulf, hero of the early medieval British epic poem.
  8. (7470) Jabberwock is a main-asteroid of the main belt, discovered on May 2, 1991 by the Japanese astronomer Takeshi Urata at the Nihondaira Observatory.The asteroid is part of the Vesta family, a large group of asteroids. (7470) Jabberwock was named after the mystical creature Jabberwock, the main theme of the classic nonsense poem Jabberwocky from the story Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.
  9. Petit-Princebelt. This prince is so petite that it’s not even an asteroid. 45 Eugenia has a moon called Petit-Prince, named after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. The children’s book follows the exploits of a boy who lived on an asteroid and explored other asteroids, as well as Earth.
  10. Adam Curry. Discovered Marcy 20, 1998 and named for the infamous Adam Curry
  11. This minor planet was named after Amol Aggarwal, who won the Intel Science Talent search in California in 2011, and got the planet as a prize. This isn’t the only Indian named, however. There’s Bhasin, B\att, Bhattacharya, and Yogeshwar. All these planets have been named by the scientists who discovered them.
  12. Anandapadmanabum. A Solar System small body, 30269 Anandapadmanaban (2000 HS50)

The list goes on to include: Ask, Bam, Babcock, Bacon, Beer, Brest, Hippo, Lust

All these minor objects do exist in real, and aren’t a figment of my imagination. The source is http://minorplanetcenter.net/.

Forming a Black Hole

Forming a Black Hole[1]

On July 2, 1967, a network of satellites designed to detect tests of nuclear weapons recorded a flash of gamma rays coming from the wrong direction—outer space.

And so it was that human astronomers were tipped to the existence of one of the most violent phenomena of nature. Today, they know that about once a day somewhere in the observable universe, an explosion called a gamma-ray burst occurs, releasing more energy in a few seconds than our galaxy does in a year.

These magnificent cosmic conflagrations are as far away as they are rare, which is just as well. If one happened nearby, in our own galaxy, we could be swathed with radiation. The closest gamma-ray burst whose distance has been measured happened some 119 million light-years from us, far outside the so-called Local Group, which contains our own Milky Way galaxy. The farthest so far recorded is now 31 billion light-years away, as calculated by the mathematics of the expanding universe; it happened when the universe was only 500 million years old.

Gamma-ray bursts are thought to be the final step in the series of transformations by which stars shrink and slump from blazing glory to oblivion, winding up as bottomless deadly dimples in the fabric of space-time—that is to say, as black holes.

The hierarchy of dead stars goes like this: Stars like the Sun, when they run out of thermonuclear fuel, shrink to cinders known as white dwarfs, the size of Earth. Stars more massive than the Sun might collapse more drastically and undergo a supernova explosion, blasting newly formed heavy elements into space to enrich future stars, planets and perhaps life, and leaving behind crushed cores known as neutron stars. These weigh slightly more than the sun but are only 12 miles or so in diameter—so dense that a teaspoonful on Earth would weigh as much as Mount Everest.

Such an explosion, bright enough to be seen in daylight, happened in 1054, Earth time, as told by Chinese astronomers and the ancient inhabitants of Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. That supernova left behind the Crab nebula, a tangle of glowing shreds of gas and a pulsar—a magnetized neutron star spinning 30 times a second, whipping the gas with magnetic fields that make it glow.

Neutron stars, theorists say, are the densest stable form of matter, but they are not the end of the story. According to theory, too much mass accumulating on a neutron star can cause its collapse into a black hole, an abyss from which not even light can escape. The signature of such a cataclysm would be a gamma-ray burst, astronomers say.

Supercomputer simulations by astronomers led by Luciano Rezzolla of the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Frankfurt have recently showed this would work.

The simulation, as it unwound over six weeks of supercomputer time at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, started with two neutron stars orbiting each other at a distance of 11 miles. That would not be unusual in the universe; most stars are in fact part of double-star systems and several pairs of pulsars orbiting each other are already known. They will eventually collide because such dense, heavy objects lose energy rapidly and spiral together.

In the case of Dr. Rezzolla’s computation, it took seven milliseconds for tidal forces from the larger star’s gravity to rip apart the smaller star and unwind it into a spiral resembling flaming toothpaste writhing with magnetic fields and begin munching up the gas.

The excess plasma forms a fat disk around the new black hole, and its magnetic fields, a billion times stronger than those in the Sun, align to channel beams of radiation and particles out at the speed of light. The result is a gamma-ray burst visible across the universe, carrying the news of doom—the last astronomers will ever hear of these stars.

For those two stars, the last bang was the best. Oblivion can be such a lovely sight.

[1] Dennis Overbye, “How to Make a Black Hole,” New York Times (October 8, 2014). The graphic is from Astronews in Astronomy (45, 7, July 2017), p 15