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  • richardmitnick 3:25 pm on May 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Here’s How We Can Detect Plants on Extrasolar Planets, Polarized Light from Atmospheres of Nearby Extra-Terrestrial Planets (PLANETS) telescope, , Universe Today   

    From UniverseToday: “Here’s How We Can Detect Plants on Extrasolar Planets” 

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    Universe Today

    23 May , 2017
    Matt Williams

    The past year has been an exciting time for those engaged in the hunt for extra-solar planets and potentially habitable worlds. In August of 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of the closest exoplanet to Earth (Proxima b) yet discovered. This was followed a few months later (February of 2017) with the announcement of a seven-planet system around TRAPPIST-1.

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    The TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultracool dwarf, is orbited by seven Earth-size planets (NASA).

    … at this year’s Breakthrough Discuss conference…Dr. Svetlana Berdyugina…indicated during the course of the presentation, the same instruments and methods used to study and characterize distant stars could be used to confirm the presence of continents and vegetation on the surface of distant exoplanets. The key here – as as been demonstrated by decades of Earth observation – is to observe the reflected light (or “light curve”) coming from their surfaces.

    Measurements of a star’s light curve are used to to determine what type of class a star is and what processes are at work within it. Light curves are also routinely used to discern the presence of planets around stars – aka. the Transit Method, where a planet transiting in front of a star causes a measurable dip in its brightness – as well as determining the size and orbital period of the planet.

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    Diagram illustrating how the absorption of light can be used to determine the presence of vegetation on an extra-solar planet. Credit: S. Berdyugina.

    …illustrated by the diagram above, green vegetation absorbs almost all the red, green and blue (RGB) parts of the spectrum, but reflects infrared light. This sort of process has been used for decades by Earth observation satellites to track meteorological phenomena, measure the extent of forests and vegetation, track the expansion of population centers, and monitor the growth of deserts.

    In addition, the presence of biopigments caused by chlorophyll means that the reflected RGB light would be highly-polarized while UR light would be weakly polarized. This will allow astronomers to tell the difference between vegetation and something that is simply green in color. To gather this information, she stated, will require the work of off-axis telescopes that are both large and high-contrast.

    These are expected to include the Colossus Telescope, a project for a massive telescope that is being spearheaded by the Planets Foundation – and for which Dr. Berdyugina is the project lead.

    Colossus telescope, as yet there are no notes about location

    Once completed, Colossus will be the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world, not to mention the largest telescope optimized for detecting extrasolar life and extraterrestrial civilizations.

    And then there’s the Polarized Light from Atmospheres of Nearby Extra-Terrestrial Planets (PLANETS) telescope, which is currently being constructed in Haleakala, Hawaii (expected to be completed by January 2018).

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    Here too, this telescope is a technology demonstrator for what will eventually go into making Colossus a reality.

    See the full article here .
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  • richardmitnick 7:47 am on May 21, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    From Universe Today: “Are There Dark Matter Galaxies? ft. Sarah Pearson from Space with Sarah” 

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    Universe Today

    20 May , 2017
    Fraser Cain

    One of the things I love about astronomy is how it’s rapidly changing and evolving over time. Every day there are new discoveries, and advancements in theories that take us incrementally forward in our understanding of the Universe.

    One of the best examples of this is dark matter; mysterious and invisible but a significant part of the Universe and accounting for the vast majority of mass out there.

    It was first theorized almost 100 years ago when astronomers surveyed the total mass of distant galaxy clusters and found that the visible mass we can see must be just a fraction of the total material in the clusters. When you add up the stars and gas, galaxies move and rotate in ways that indicate there’s a huge halo of invisible matter surrounding it.

    Some of the best evidence came from Vera Rubin and Kent Ford in the 60s and 70s, when they measured the rotational velocity of edge-on spiral galaxies. They estimated that there must be about 6 times as much dark matter as regular matter.


    Sarah Pearson from Space with Sarah

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    This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the distribution of dark matter in the center of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 1689

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:19 am on May 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , New Explanation for Dark Energy? Tiny Fluctuations of Time and Space, Universe Today   

    From Universe Today: “New Explanation for Dark Energy? Tiny Fluctuations of Time and Space” 

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    Universe Today

    16 May , 2017
    Matt Williams

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    A new study from researchers from the University of British Columbia offers a new explanation of Dark Energy. Credit: NASA

    Since the late 1920s, astronomers have been aware of the fact that the Universe is in a state of expansion. Initially predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, this realization has gone on to inform the most widely-accepted cosmological model – the Big Bang Theory. However, things became somewhat confusing during the 1990s, when improved observations showed that the Universe’s rate of expansion has been accelerating for billions of years.

    This led to the theory of Dark Energy, a mysterious invisible force that is driving the expansion of the cosmos. Much like Dark Matter which explained the “missing mass”, it then became necessary to find this illusive energy, or at least provide a coherent theoretical framework for it. A new study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) seeks to do just that by postulating the the Universe is expanding due to fluctuations in space and time.

    The study – which was recently published in the journal Physical Review D – was led by Qingdi Wang, a PhD student with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC. Under the supervisions of UBC Professor William Unruh (the man who proposed the Unruh Effect) and with assistance from Zhen Zhu (another PhD student at UBC), they provide a new take on Dark Energy.

    Lambda-Cold Dark Matter, Accelerated Expansion of the Universe, Big Bang-Inflation (timeline of the universe) Credit: Alex Mittelmann

    Inflationary Universe. NASA/WMAP

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 7:56 am on May 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    From Universe Today: “Mysterious Flashes Coming From Earth That Puzzled Carl Sagan Finally Have An Explanation” 

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    Universe Today

    16 May , 2017
    Evan Gough

    Back in 1993, Carl Sagan encountered a puzzle. The Galileo spacecraft spotted flashes coming from Earth, and nobody could figure out what they were. They called them ‘specular reflections’ and they appeared over ocean areas but not over land.

    ESA/Galileo Spacecraft

    The images were taken by the Galileo space probe during one of its gravitational-assist flybys of Earth. Galileo was on its way to Jupiter, and its cameras were turned back to look at Earth from a distance of about 2 million km. This was all part of an experiment aimed at finding life on other worlds. What would a living world look like from a distance? Why not use Earth as an example?

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:22 pm on May 11, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) aka Hubble 2.0, , Universe Today   

    From Universe Today: “Rise of the Super Telescopes: The Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) aka Hubble 2.0” 

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    Universe Today

    11 May , 2017
    Evan Gough

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    We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.

    In this series we’ll look at the world’s upcoming Super Telescopes:

    The Giant Magellan Telescope
    The Overwhelmingly Large Telescope
    The 30 Meter Telescope
    The European Extremely Large Telescope
    The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
    The James Webb Space Telescope
    The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope
    The Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR)

    There’s a whole generation of people who grew up with images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

    NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

    Not just in magazines, but on the internet, and on YouTube. But within another generation or two, the Hubble itself will seem quaint, and watershed events of our times, like the Moon Landing, will be just black and white relics of an impossibly distant time. The next generations will be fed a steady diet of images and discoveries stemming from the Super Telescopes. And the LUVOIR will be front and centre among those ‘scopes.

    If you haven’t yet heard of LUVOIR, it’s understandable; LUVOIR is in the early stages of being defined and designed. But LUVOIR represents the next generation of space telescopes, and its power will dwarf that of its predecessor, the Hubble.

    LUVOIR (its temporary name) will be a space telescope, and it will do its work at the LaGrange 2 point, the same place that JWST will be.

    LaGrange Points map. NASA

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    L2 is a natural location for space telescopes. At the heart of LUVOIR will be a 15m segmented primary mirror, much larger than the Hubble’s mirror, which is a mere 2.4m in diameter. In fact, LUVOIR will be so large that the Hubble could drive right through the hole in the center of it.

    While the James Webb Space Telescope will be in operation much sooner than LUVOIR, and will also do amazing work, it will observe primarily in the infrared. LUVOIR, as its name makes clear, will have a wider range of observation more like Hubble’s. It will see in the Ultra-Violet spectrum, the Optical spectrum, and the Infrared spectrum.

    Recently, Brad Peterson spoke with Fraser Cain on a weekly Space Hangout, where he outlined the plans for the LUVOIR. Brad is a recently retired Professor of Astronomy at the Ohio State University, where served as chair of the Astronomy Department for 9 years. He is currently the chair of the Science Committee at NASA’s Advisory Council. Peterson is also a Distinguished Visiting Astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the chair of the astronomy section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


    Just so you know, this video is over one hour long.

    Different designs for LUVOIR have been discussed, but as Peterson points out in the interview above, the plan seems to have settled on a 15m segmented mirror. A 15m mirror is larger than any optical light telescope we have on Earth, though the Thirty Meter Telescope and others will soon be larger.

    “Segmented telescopes are the technology of today when it comes to ground-based telescopes. The JWST has taken that technology into space, and the LUVOIR will take segmented design one step further,” Peterson said. But the segmented design of LUVOIR differs from the JWST in several ways.

    “…the LUVOIR will take segmented design one step further.” – Brad Peterson

    JWST’s mirrors are made of beryllium and coated with gold. LUVOIR doesn’t require the same exotic design. But it has other requirements that will push the envelope of segmented telescope design. LUVOIR will have a huge array of CCD sensors that will require an enormous amount of electrical power to operate.

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    The Hubble Space Telescope on the left has a 2.4 meter mirror and the James Webb Space Telescope has a 6.5 meter mirror. LUVOIR, not shown, will dwarf them both with a massive 15 meter mirror. Image: NASA

    LUVOIR will not be cryogenically cooled like the JWST is, because it’s not primarily an Infrared observatory. LUVOIR will also be designed to be serviceable. In fact, the US Congress now requires all space telescopes to be serviceable.

    “Congress has mandated that all future large space telescopes must be serviceable if practicable.” – Brad Peterson

    LUVOIR is designed to have a long life. It’s multiple instruments will be replaceable, and the hope is that it will last in space for 50 years. Whether it will be serviced by robots, or by astronauts, has not been determined. It may even be designed so that it could be brought back from L2 for servicing.

    LUVOIR will contribute to the search for life on other worlds. A key requirement for LUVOIR is that it do spectroscopy on the atmospheres of distant planets. If you can do spectroscopy, then you can determine habitability, and, potentially, even if a planet is inhabited. This is the first main technological challenge for LUVOIR. This spectroscopy requires a powerful coronagraph to suppress the light of the stars that exoplanets orbit. LUVOIR’s coronagraph will excel at this, with a ratio of starlight suppression of 10 billion to 1. With this capability, LUVOIR should be able to do spectroscopy on the atmospheres of small, terrestrial exoplanets, rather than just larger gas giants.

    “This telescope is going to be remarkable. The key science that it’s going to do be able to do is spectroscopy of planets in the habitable zone around nearby stars.” – Brad Peterson

    Using spectroscopy to search for signs of life on exoplanets is just one of LUVOIR’s science goals.

    LUVOIR is tasked with other challenges as well, including:

    Mapping the distribution of dark matter in the Universe.
    Isolating the source of gravitational waves.
    Imaging circumstellar disks to see how planets form.
    Identifying the first starlight in the Universe, studying early galaxies and finding the first black holes.
    Studying surface features of worlds in our Solar System.

    To tackle all these challenges, LUVOIR will have to clear other technological hurdles. One of them is the requirement for long exposure times. This puts enormous constraints on the stability of the scope, since its mirror is so large. A system of active supports for the mirror segments will help with stability. This is a trait it shares with other terrestrial Super Telescopes like the Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope. Each of those had hundreds of segments which have to be controlled precisely with computers.

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    A circumstellar disk of debris around a matured stellar system may indicate that Earth-like planets lie within. LUVOIR will be able to see inside the disk to watch planets forming.
    Credit: NASA

    LUVOIR’s construction, and how it will be placed in orbit are also significant considerations.

    According to Peterson, LUVOIR could be launched on either of the heavy lift rockets being developed. The Falcon Heavy is being considered, as is the Space Launch System. The SLS Block 1B could do it, depending on the final size of LUVOIR.

    “I’s going to require a heavy lift vehicle.” – Brad Peterson

    Or, LUVOIR may never be launched into space. It could be assembled in space with pre-built components that are launched one at a time, just like the International Space Station. There are several advantages to that.

    With assembly in space, the telescope doesn’t have to be built to withstand the tremendous force it takes to launch something into orbit. It also allows for testing when completed, before being sent to L2. Once the ‘scope was assembled and tested, a small ion propulsion engine could be used to power it to L2.

    It’s possible that the infrastructure to construct LUVOIR in space will exist in a decade or two. NASA’s Deep Space Gateway in cis-lunar space is planned for the mid-20s. It would act as a staging point for deep-space missions, and for missions to the lunar surface.

    LUVOIR is still in the early stages. The people behind it are designing it to meet as many of the science goals as they can, all within the technological constraints of our time. Planning has to start somewhere, and the plans presented by Brad Peterson represent the current thinking behind LUVOIR. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

    “Typical time scale from selection to launch of a flagship mission is something like 20 years.” – Brad Peterson

    As Peterson explains, LUVOIR will have to be chosen as NASA’s highest priority during the 2020 Decadal Survey. Once that occurs, then a couple more years are required to really flesh out the design of the mission. According to Peterson, “Typical time scale from selection to launch of a flagship mission is something like 20 years.” That gets us to a potential launch in the mid-2030s.

    Along the way, LUVOIR will be given a more suitable name. James Webb, Hubble, Kepler and others have all had important missions named after them. Perhaps its Carl Sagan’s turn.

    “The Carl Sagan Space Telescope” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:40 am on May 7, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Epsilon Eridani system, , Universe Today   

    From Universe Today: “Only 10 Light-Years Away, there’s a Baby Version of the Solar System” 

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    Universe Today

    6 May 2017
    Matt Williams

    1
    System Epsilon Eridani
    Date 27 October 2008
    Source http://jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm
    Author NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Astronomers are understandanly fascinated with the Epsilon Eridani system. For one, this star system is in close proximity to our own, at a distance of about 10.5 light years from the Solar System. Second, it has been known for some time that it contains two asteroid belts and a large debris disk. And third, astronomers have suspected for many years that this star may also have a system of planets.

    On top of all that, a new study by a team of astronomers has indicated that Epsilon Eridani may be what our own Solar System was like during its younger days. Relying on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft, the team conducted a detailed analysis of the system that showed how it has an architecture remarkably similar to what astronomer believe the Solar System once looked like.

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    NASA/DLR SOFIA aircraft before a 2015 flight to observe a nearby star. Credit: Massimo Marengo.

    Led by Kate Su – an Associate Astronomer with the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona – the team includes researchers and astronomers from the Department of Physics & Astronomy of Iowa State University, the Astrophysical Institute and University Observatory at the University of Jena (Germany), and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center.

    For the sake of their study – the results of which were published in The Astronomical Journal under the title The Inner 25 AU Debris Distribution in the Epsilon Eri System – the team relied on data obtained by a flight of SOFIA in January 2015. Combined with detailed computer modeling and research that went on for years, they were able to make new determinations about the structure of the debris disk.

    As already noted, previous studies of Epsilon Eridani indicated that the system is surrounded by rings made up of materials that are basically leftovers from the process of planetary formation. Such rings consist of gas and dust, and are believed to contain many small rocky and icy bodies as well – like the Solar System’s own Kuiper Belt, which orbits our Sun beyond Neptune.

    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

    Careful measurements of the disk’s motion has also indicated that a planet with nearly the same mass as Jupiter circles the star at a distance comparable to Jupiter’s distance from the Sun. However, based on prior data obtained by the NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists were unable to determine the position of warm material within the disk – i.e. the dust and gas – which gave rise to two models.

    NASA/Spitzer Telescope

    In one, warm material is concentrated into two narrow rings of debris that orbit the star at distances corresponding respectively to the Main Asteroid Belt and Uranus in our Solar System. According to this model, the largest planet in the system would likely be associated with an adjacent debris belt. In the other, warm material is in a broad disk, is not concentrated into asteroid belt-like rings, and is not associated with any planets in the inner region.

    Using the new SOFIA images, Su and her team were able to determine that the warm material around Epsilon Eridani is arranged like the first model suggests. In essence, it is in at least one narrow belt, rather than in a broad continuous disk. As Su explained in a NASA press release:

    “The high spatial resolution of SOFIA combined with the unique wavelength coverage and impressive dynamic range of the FORCAST camera allowed us to resolve the warm emission around eps Eri, confirming the model that located the warm material near the Jovian planet’s orbit. Furthermore, a planetary mass object is needed to stop the sheet of dust from the outer zone, similar to Neptune’s role in our solar system. It really is impressive how eps Eri, a much younger version of our solar system, is put together like ours.”

    These observations were made possible thanks to SOFIA’s on-board telescopes, which have a greater diameter than Spitzer – 2.5 meters (100 inches) compared to Spitzer’s 0.85 m (33.5 inches). This allowed for far greater resolution, which the team used to discern details within the Epsilon Eridani system that were three times smaller than what had been observed using the Spitzer data.

    In addition, the team made use of SOFIA’s powerful mid-infrared camera – the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST). This instrument allowed the team to study the strongest infrared emissions coming from the warm material around the star which are otherwise undetectable by ground-based observatories – at wavelengths between 25-40 microns.

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    This artist’s conception of the Epsilon Eridani system, the closest star system who’s structure resembles a young Solar System. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

    These observations further indicate that the Epsilon Eridani system is much like our own, albeit in younger form. In addition to having asteroid belts and a debris disk that is similar to our Main Belt and Kuiper Belt, it appears that it likely has more planets waiting to be found within the spaces between. As such, the study of this system could help astronomers to learn things about the history of our own Solar System.

    Massimo Marengo, one of he co-authors of the study, is an Associate Professor with the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Iowa State University. As he explained in a University of Iowa press release:

    “This star hosts a planetary system currently undergoing the same cataclysmic processes that happened to the solar system in its youth, at the time in which the moon gained most of its craters, Earth acquired the water in its oceans, and the conditions favorable for life on our planet were set.”

    At the moment, more studies will need to be conducted on this neighboring stars system in order to learn more about its structure and confirm the existence of more planets. And it is expected that the deployment of next-generation instruments – like the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in October of 2018 – will be extremely helpful in that regard.

    “The prize at the end of this road is to understand the true structure of Epsilon Eridani’s out-of-this-world disk, and its interactions with the cohort of planets likely inhabiting its system,” Marengo wrote in a newsletter about the project. “SOFIA, by its unique ability of capturing infrared light in the dry stratospheric sky, is the closest we have to a time machine, revealing a glimpse of Earth’s ancient past by observing the present of a nearby young sun.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:29 pm on May 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    From Universe Today: “Faster Supercomputer! NASA Announces the High Performance Fast Computing Challenge” 

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    Universe Today

    5 May , 2017
    Matt Williams

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    Looking to the future of space exploration, NASA and TopCoder have launched the “High Performance Fast Computing Challenge” to improve the performance of their Pleiades supercomputer. Credit: NASA/MSFC

    For decades, NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) has been responsible for developing the technologies that put satellites into orbit, astronauts on the Moon, and sent robotic missions to other planets. Unfortunately, after many years of supporting NASA missions, some of their machinery is getting on in years and is in need of an upgrade.

    Consider the Pleiades supercomputer, the distributed-memory machine that is responsible for conducting modeling and simulations for NASA missions. Despite being one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, Pleiades will need to be upgraded in order to stay up to task in the years ahead. Hence why NASA has come together with TopCoder (and with the support of HeroX) to launch the High Performance Fast Computing Challenge (HPFCC).

    With a prize purse of $55,000, NASA and TopCoder are seeking programmers and computer specialists to help them upgrade Pleiades so it can perform computations faster. Specifically, they want to improve its FUN3D software so that flow analysis which previously took months can now be done in days or hours. In short, they want to speed up their supercomputers by a factor of 10 to 1000 while relying on its existing hardware, and without any decreases in accuracy.

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    The addition of Haswell processors in 2015 increased the theoretical peak processing capability of Pleiades from 4.5 petaflops to 5.3 petaflops. Credit: NASA

    Those hoping to enter need to be familiar with FUN3D software, which is used to calculate the nonlinear partial differential equations (aka. Navier-Stokes equations) that are used for steady and unsteady flow computations. These include large eddy simulations in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which are of particular importance when it comes to supersonic aircraft, space flight, and the development launch vehicles and planetary reentry systems.

    NASA has partnered to launch this challenge with TopCoder, the world’s largest online community of designers, developers and data scientists. Since it was founded in 2001, this company has hosted countless online competitions (known as “single round matches”, or SRMs) designed to foster better programming. They also host weekly competitions to stimulate developments in graphic design.

    Overall, the HPFSCC will consist of two challenges – the Ideation Challenge and the Architecture Challenge. For the Ideation Challenge (hosted by NASA), competitors must propose ideas that can help optimize the Pleiades source code. As they state, may include (but is not limited to) “exploiting algorithmic developments in such areas as grid adaptation, higher-order methods and efficient solution techniques for high performance computing hardware.”

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    The computation of fluid dynamics is of particular importance when plotting space launches and reentry. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    The Architecture Challenge (hosted by TopCoder), is focused less on strategy and more on measurable improvements. As such, participants will be tasked with showing how to optimize processing in order to reduce the overall time and increase the efficiency of computing models. Ideally, says TopCoder, this would include “algorithm optimization of the existing code base, inter-node dispatch optimization, or a combination of the two.”

    NASA is providing $20,000 in prizes for the Ideation challenge, with $10,000 awarded for first place, and two runner-up awards of $5000 each. TopCoder, meanwhile, is offering $35,000 for the Architecture challenge – a top prize of $15,000 for first place, $10,000 for second place, with $10,000 set aside for the Qualified Improvement Candidate Prize Pool.

    The competition will remain open to submissions until June 29th, 2017, at which point, the judging will commence. This will wrap up on August 7th, and the winners of both competitions will be announced on August 9th. So if you are a coder, computer engineer, or someone familiar with FUN3D software, be sure to head on over to HeroX and accept the challenge!

    Human space exploration continues to advance, with missions planned for the Moon, Mars, and beyond. With an ever-expanding presence in space and new challenges awaiting us, it is necessary that we have the right tools to make it all happen. By leveraging improvements in computer programming, we can ensure that one of the most important aspects of mission planning remains up to task!

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:03 pm on May 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Small Magellanic Cloud, Universe Today   

    From Universe Today: “Enjoy The Biggest Infrared Image Ever Taken Of The Small Magellanic Cloud Without All That Pesky Dust In The Way” 

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    Universe Today

    4 May 2017
    Evan Gough

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    The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) galaxy. Credit: ESA/VISTA

    ESO/Vista Telescope at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

    The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is one of the Milky Way’s nearest companions (along with the Large Magellanic Cloud.) It’s visible with the naked eye in the southern hemisphere. A new image from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) has peered through the clouds that obscure it and given us our biggest image ever of the dwarf galaxy.

    The SMC contains several hundred million stars, is about 7,000 light years in diameter, and is about 200,000 light years away. It’s one of the most distant objects that we can see with the naked eye, and can only be seen from the southern hemisphere (and the lowest latitudes of the northern hemisphere.)

    The SMC is a great target for studying how stars form because it’s so close to Earth, relatively speaking. But the problem is, its detail is obscured by clouds of interstellar gas and dust. So an optical survey of the Cloud is difficult.

    But the ESO’s VISTA instrument is ideal for the task. VISTA is a near-infrared telescope, and infrared light is not blocked by the dust. VISTA was built at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory, in the Atacama Desert in Chile where it enjoys fantastic observing conditions. VISTA was designed to perform several surveys, including the Vista Magellanic Survey.

    The VISTA Magellanic Survey is focused on 3 main objectives:

    The study of stellar populations in the Magellanic Clouds
    The history of star formation in the Magellanic Clouds
    The three-dimensional structure of the Magellanic Clouds

    An international team led by Stefano Rubele of the University of Padova has studied this image, and their work has produced some surprising results. VISTA has shown us that most of the stars in this image are much younger than stars in other neighbouring galaxies. It’s also shown us that the SMC’s morphology is that of a warped disc. These are only early results, and there’s much more work to be done analyzing the VISTA image.

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    VISTA inside its enclosure at Paranal. VISTA has a 4.1 meter mirror, and its job is to survey large sections of the sky at once. In the background is the ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Image: G. Hüdepohl (atacamaphoto.com)/ESO

    The team presented their research in a paper titled “The VMC survey – XIV. First results on the look-back time star formation rate tomography of the Small Magellanic Cloud“, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    As the authors say in their paper, the SMC is a great target for study because of its “rich population of star clusters, associations, stellar pulsators, primary distance indicators, and stars in shortlived evolutionary stages.” In a way, we’re fortunate to have the SMC so close. But studying the SMC was difficult, until the VISTA came online with its infrared capabilities.

    VISTA saw first light on December 11th, 2009. It’s time is devoted to systematic surveys of the sky. In its first five years, it has undertaken large surveys of the entire southern sky, and also studied small patches of the sky to discern extremely faint objects. The leading image in this article is from the Vista Magellanic Survey, a survey covering 184 square degrees of the sky, taking in both the Small Magellanic Cloud and the Large Magellanic Cloud, and their environment.

    Source: VISTA Peeks Through the Small Magellanic Cloud’s Dusty Veil [ On sciencesprings 5/3/17 https://sciencesprings.wordpress.com/2017/05/03/from-eso-vista-peeks-through-the-small-magellanic-clouds-dusty-veil/%5D

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 7:20 am on May 3, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Universe Today   

    From Universe Today: “Rise Of The Super Telescopes: The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope – WFIRST” 

    universe-today

    Universe Today

    2 May , 2017
    Evan Gough

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    NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will capture Hubble-quality images covering swaths of sky 100 times larger than Hubble does. These enormous images will allow astronomers to study the evolution of the cosmos. Its Coronagraph Instrument will directly image exoplanets and study their atmospheres. Credits: NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab

    We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.

    In this series we’ll look at the world’s upcoming Super Telescopes:

    The Giant Magellan Telescope
    The Overwhelmingly Large Telescope
    The 30 Meter Telescope
    The European Extremely Large Telescope
    The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
    The James Webb Space Telescope
    The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

    The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

    It’s easy to forget the impact that the Hubble Space Telescope has had on our state of knowledge about the Universe. In fact, that might be the best measurement of its success: We take the Hubble, and all we’ve learned from it, for granted now. But other space telescopes are being developed, including the WFIRST, which will be much more powerful than the Hubble. How far will these telescopes extend our understanding of the Universe?

    “WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has.” – John Grunsfeld, NASA Science Mission Directorate

    The WFIRST might be the true successor to the Hubble, even though the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is often touted as such.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    But it may be incorrect to even call WFIRST a telescope; it’s more accurate to call it an astrophysics observatory. That’s because one of its primary science objectives is to study Dark Energy, that rather mysterious force that drives the expansion of the Universe, and Dark Matter, the difficult-to-detect matter that slows that expansion.

    WFIRST will have a 2.4 meter mirror, the same size as the Hubble. But, it will have a camera that will expand the power of that mirror. The Wide Field Instrument is a 288-megapixel multi-band near-infrared camera. Once it’s in operation, it will capture images that are every bit as sharp as those from Hubble. But there is one huge difference: The Wide Field Instrument will capture images that cover over 100 times the sky that Hubble does.

    Alongside the Wide Field Instrument, WFIRST will have the Coronagraphic Instrument. The Coronagraphic Instrument will advance the study of exoplanets. It’ll use a system of filters and masks to block out the light from other stars, and hone in on planets orbiting those stars. This will allow very detailed study of the atmospheres of exoplanets, one of the main ways of determining habitability.

    WFIRST is slated to be launched in 2025, although it’s too soon to have an exact date. But when it launches, the plan is for WFIRST to travel to the Sun-Earth LaGrange Point 2 (L2.)

    LaGrange Points map. NASA

    L2 is a gravitationally balanced point in space where WFIRST can do its work without interruption. The mission is set to last about 6 years.

    Probing Dark Energy

    “WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “This mission uniquely combines the ability to discover and characterize planets beyond our own solar system with the sensitivity and optics to look wide and deep into the universe in a quest to unravel the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter.”

    In a nutshell, there are two proposals for what Dark Energy can be. The first is the cosmological constant, where Dark Energy is uniform throughout the cosmos. The second is what’s known as scalar fields, where the density of Dark Energy can vary in time and space.

    3
    We used to think that the Universe expanded at a steady rate. Then in the 1990s we discovered that the expansion had accelerated. Dark Energy is the name given to the force driving that expansion. Image: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild

    Since the 1990s, observations have shown us that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. That acceleration started about 5 billion years ago. We think that Dark Energy is responsible for that accelerated expansion. By providing such large, detailed images of the cosmos, WFIRST will let astronomers map expansion over time and over large areas. WFIRST will also precisely measure the shapes, positions and distances of millions of galaxies to track the distribution and growth of cosmic structures, including galaxy clusters and the Dark Matter accompanying them. The hope is that this will give us a next level of understanding when it comes to Dark Energy.

    If that all sounds too complicated, look at it this way: We know the Universe is expanding, and we know that the expansion is accelerating. We want to know why it’s expanding, and how. We’ve given the name ‘Dark Energy’ to the force that’s driving that expansion, and now we want to know more about it.

    Probing Exoplanets

    Dark Energy and the expansion of the Universe is a huge mystery, and a question that drives cosmologists. (They really want to know how the Universe will end!) But for many of the rest of us, another question is even more compelling: Are we alone in the Universe?

    There’ll be no quick answer to that one, but any answer we find begins with studying exoplanets, and that’s something that WFIRST will also excel at.

    4
    Artist’s concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We’re going to keep finding more and more solar systems like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    “WFIRST is designed to address science areas identified as top priorities by the astronomical community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “The Wide-Field Instrument will give the telescope the ability to capture a single image with the depth and quality of Hubble, but covering 100 times the area. The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.”

    “The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.” – Paul Hertz, NASA Astrophysics Division

    The difficulty in studying exoplanets is that they are all orbiting stars. Stars are so bright they make it impossible to see their planets in any detail. It’s like staring into a lighthouse miles away and trying to study an insect near the lighthouse.

    The Coronagraphic Instrument on board WFIRST will excel at blocking out the light of distant stars. It does that with a system of mirrors and masks. This is what makes studying exoplanets possible. Only when the light from the star is dealt with, can the properties of exoplanets be examined.

    This will allow detailed measurements of the chemical composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. By doing this over thousands of planets, we can begin to understand the formation of planets around different types of stars. There are some limitations to the Coronagraphic Instrument, though.

    The Coronagraphic Instrument was kind of a late addition to WFIRST. Some of the other instrumentation on WFIRST isn’t optimized to work with it, so there are some restrictions to its operation. It will only be able to study gas giants, and so-called Super-Earths. These larger planets don’t require as much finesse to study, simply because of their size. Earth-like worlds will likely be beyond the power of the Coronagraphic Instrument.

    These limitations are no big deal in the long run. The Coronagraph is actually more of a technology demonstration, and it doesn’t represent the end-game for exoplanet study. Whatever is learned from this instrument will help us in the future. There will be an eventual successor to WFIRST some day, perhaps decades from now, and by that time Coronagraph technology will have advanced a great deal. At that future time, direct snapshots of Earth-like exoplanets may well be possible.

    But maybe we won’t have to wait that long.

    Starshade To The Rescue?

    There is a plan to boost the effectiveness of the Coronagraph on WFIRST that would allow it to image Earth-like planets. It’s called the EXO-S Starshade.

    The EXO-S Starshade is a 34m diameter deployable shading system that will block starlight from impairing the function of WFIRST. It would actually be a separate craft, launched separately and sent on its way to rendezvous with WFIRST at L2. It would not be tethered, but would orient itself with WFIRST through a system of cameras and guide lights. In fact, part of the power of the Starshade is that it would be about 40,000 to 50,000 km away from WFIRST.

    Dark Energy and Exoplanets are priorities for WFIRST, but there are always other discoveries awaiting better telescopes. It’s not possible to predict everything that we’ll learn from WFIRST. With images as detailed as Hubble’s, but 100 times larger, we’re in for some surprises.

    “This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.” – Neil Gehrels, WFIRST Project Scientist

    “In addition to its exciting capabilities for dark energy and exoplanets, WFIRST will provide a treasure trove of exquisite data for all astronomers,” said Neil Gehrels, WFIRST project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.”

    With all of the Super Telescopes coming on line in the next few years, we can expect some amazing discoveries. In 10 to 20 years time, our knowledge will have advanced considerably. What will we learn about Dark Matter and Dark Energy? What will we know about exoplanet populations?

    Right now it seems like we’re just groping towards a better understanding of these things, but with WFIRST and the other Super Telescopes, we’re poised for more purposeful study.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 5:00 pm on May 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: An Aging Pulsar has Captured a new Companion and it’s Spinning back up Again, , , , , , Milliscond pulsar, Sternberg Astronomical Institute at Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU), Ultra-slow pulsar, Universe Today   

    From Universe Today: “An Aging Pulsar has Captured a new Companion, and it’s Spinning back up Again” 

    universe-today

    Universe Today

    1 May , 2017
    Matt Williams

    1
    No image caption. No image credit.

    When massive stars reach the end of their life cycle, they explode in a massive supernova and cast off most of their material. What’s left is a “milliscond pulsar”, a super dense, highly-magnetized neutron star that spins rapidly and emit beams of electromagnetic radiation. Eventually, these stars lose their rotational energy and begin to slow down, but they can speed up again with the help of a companion.

    According to a recent study, an international team of scientists witnessed this rare event when observing an ultra-slow pulsar located in the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy (XB091D). The results of their study indicated that this pulsar has been speeding up for the past one million years, which is likely the result of a captured a companion that has since been restoring its rapid rotational velocity.

    Typically, when a pulsars pairs with an ordinary star, the result is a binary system consisting of a pulsar and a white dwarf. This occurs after the pulsar pulls off the outer layers of a star, turning it into a white dwarf. The material from these outer layer then forms an accretion disk around the pulsar, which creates a “hot spot” that radiates brightly in the X-ray specturum and where temperatures can reach into the millions of degrees.

    The team was led by Ivan Zolotukhin of the Sternberg Astronomical Institute at Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU), and included astronomers from the University of Toulouse, the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The study results were published in The Astrophysical Journal under the title The Slowest Spinning X-Ray Pulsar in an Extragalactic Globular Cluster.

    As they state in their paper, the detection of this pulsar was made possible thanks to data collected by the XMM-Newton space observatory from 2000-2013.

    ESA/XMM Newton

    In this time, XMM-Newton has gathered information on approximately 50 billion X-ray photons, which has been combined by astronomers at Lomosov MSU into an open online database.

    This database has allowed astronomers to take a closer look at many previously-discovered objects. This includes XB091D, a pulsar with a period of seconds (aka. a “second pulsar”) located in one of the oldest globular star clusters in the Andromeda galaxy. However, finding the X-ray photos that would allow them to characterize XB091D was no easy task. As Ivan Zolotukhin explained in a MSU press release:

    “The detectors on XMM-Newton detect only one photon from this pulsar every five seconds. Therefore, the search for pulsars among the extensive XMM-Newton data can be compared to the search for a needle in a haystack. In fact, for this discovery we had to create completely new mathematical tools that allowed us to search and extract the periodic signal. Theoretically, there are many applications for this method, including those outside astronomy.”

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    The slowest spinning X-ray pulsar in a globular star cluster has been discovered in the Andromeda galaxy. Credit: A. Zolotov

    Based on a total of 38 XMM-Newton observations, the team concluded that this pulsar (which was the only known pulsar of its kind beyond our galaxy at the time), is in the earliest stages of “rejuvenation”. In short, their observations indicated that the pulsar began accelerating less than 1 million years ago. This conclusion was based on the fact that XB091D is the slowest rotating globular cluster pulsar discovered to date.

    The neutron star completes one revolution in 1.2 seconds, which is more than 10 times slower than the previous record holder. From the data they observed, they were also able to characterize the environment around XB091D. For example, they found that the pulsar and its binary pair are located in an extremely dense globular cluster (B091D) in the Andromeda Galaxy – about 2.5 million light years away.

    This cluster is estimated to be 12 billion years old and contains millions of old, faint stars. It’s companion, meanwhile, is a 0.8 solar mass star, and the binary system itself has a rotation period of 30.5 hours. And in about 50,000 years, they estimate, the pulsar will accelerate sufficiently to once again have a rotational period measured in the milliseconds – i.e. a millisecond pulsar.

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    A diagram of the ESA XMM-Newton X-Ray Telescope. Delivered to orbit by a Ariane 5 launch vehicle in 1999. Credit: ESA/XMM-Newton

    Interestingly, XB910D’s location within this vast region of super-high density stars is what allowed it to capture a companion about 1 million years ago and commence the process “rejuvenation” in the first place. As Zolotukhin explained:

    “In our galaxy, no such slow X-ray pulsars are observed in 150 known globular clusters, because their cores are not big and dense enough to form close binary stars at a sufficiently high rate. This indicates that the B091D cluster core, with an extremely dense composition of stars in the XB091D, is much larger than that of the usual cluster. So we are dealing with a large and rather rare object—with a dense remnant of a small galaxy that the Andromeda galaxy once devoured. The density of the stars here, in a region that is about 2.5 light years across, is about 10 million times higher than in the vicinity of the Sun.”

    Thanks to this study, and the mathematical tools the team developed to find it, astronomers will likely be able to revisit many previously-discovered objects in the coming years. Within these massive data sets, there could be many examples of rare astronomical events, just waiting to be witnessed and properly characterized.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
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