The Universe is Dying (Albeit Slowly)

It can be argued that death is pretty much the only constant in the universe: from living organisms to entire galaxies, everything has an expiration date — including the universe itself.

This is the conclusion of the international Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) project, which presented its recent findings at an international astronomical gathering in Hawaii. As NPR reported:

“The universe will decline from here on in, sliding gently into old age,” said Simon Driver, a professor at the University of Western Australia who also leads the GAMA team. “The universe has basically sat down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze,” Simon said in the statement.

Scientists have known for about two decades that the universe is fading. Using ground-based and space telescopes, the GAMA study aims to map and model all energy within a large portion of space to get a better understanding of how this is happening.

The GAMA research is the largest-ever multi-wavelength survey and includes energy output at 21 energy wavelengths, from the ultraviolet to the far infrared, according to the group.

What the researchers found is that the decline is seen across all wavelengths.

As NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce reported for All Things Considered, “that may be because the fuel needed to make stars and keep them going is just running out.”

“Once you’ve burned up all the fuel in the universe, essentially, that’s it,” says Joe Liske of the University of Hamburg, one of the members of the research team. “The stars die, like a fire dies, and then you have embers left over that then glow but eventually cool down. And the fire just goes out,” Liske told NPR.

As this is the most comprehensive study yet conducted on the universe, the finding “pretty much closes the case”, as one physicist and astronomer put it.

But not to worry: the universe still has several billion years ahead of it.

First Produce Grown in Space

Humanity has taken an important step towards deeper space missions with the successful cultivation of edible produce (specifically for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. As The Guardian reports:

The experiment, officially called Veg-01 but nicknamed Veggie by NASA, is meant to study plant growth in a microgravity environment and to improve the methods that could grow produce in orbit.

“Growing food will be critical to future long-duration spaceflight”, NASA’s Tabatha Thompson told the Guardian. “So this is an important experiment not just for life on the space station but also for future deep space missions on our journey to Mars”.

NASA performed an earlier version of the Veggie experiment last year, after which the astronauts brought plants back to Earth for analysis.

Those plants were “as clean if not cleaner” than grocery store fare, said NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz, leading to the current experiment. The astronauts will package up half the plants and freeze them for a return to the planet for testing.

In addition to the obvious benefits for years-long manned missions, this micro-agriculture will provide astronauts with healthier and more satisfying food. There are psychological perks as well: the growing and preparation of food can be therapeutic, and having a variety of fresh foods could be more emotionally comforting (if anyone needs comfort food, it is someone taking the long haul in space).  Continue reading

Where Are The Aliens?

As humanity continues to make heady progress in space exploration, the question of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe is naturally becoming more pertinent. Of course, by life, we generally mean organisms as sentient and advanced as us, if not more so — not that the existence of other lifeforms as simple as bacteria would not still be amazing.

The debate about extraterrestrial lifeforms is hardly a new one, even if it does have great significance now that we are making great inroads in observing an ever-expanding proportion of the universe. Perhaps one of the most famous participants in the discussion is Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who in the 1950s conceived of the Fermi Paradox: If the universe was teeming with intelligent, technological civilizations, where are they?

More to the point, even if we grant that said life has simply not reached Earth yet, why have we not seen evidence of their colonization or arrival elsewhere in the universe? NPR explores the matter further:

The most important thing to understand about Fermi’s paradox is that you don’t need faster-than-light travel, a warp-drive or other exotic technology to take it seriously. Even if a technological civilization built ships that reached only a fraction of light speed, we might still expect all the stars (and the planets) to be “colonized.”

For example, let’s imagine that just one high-tech alien species emerges and starts sending ships out at one-hundredth of the speed of light. With that technology, they’d cross the typical distance between stars in “just” a few centuries to a millennia. If, once they got to a new solar system, they began using its resources to build more ships, then we can imagine how a wave of colonization begins propagating across the galaxy.

But how long does it take this colonization wave to spread?

Remarkably, it would only take a fraction of our galaxy’s lifetime before all the stars are inhabited. Depending on what you assume, the propagating wave of colonization could make it from one end of our Milky Way to the other in just 10 million years. While that might seem very long to you, it’s really just a blink of the eye to the 10-billion-year-old Milky Way (in other words, the colonization wave crosses in 0.001 the age of the galaxy). That means if an alien civilization began at some random moment in the Milky Way’s history, odds are it has had time to colonize the entire galaxy.

In other words, even if the galaxy, let alone the whole universe, is conceivably too big for even an advanced species to explore or propagate, it is not necessarily so big as to preclude any kind of mark left by an intelligent, space-faring race.

Granted, there is no shortage of explanations and counterarguments to this paradox: that the aliens have not reached space-faring capabilities, that for one reason or another they have chosen not to travel beyond their world, etc. But the article goes on to suggest a more unsettling conclusion worth at least considering: maybe we truly are alone out there, at least within our Milky Way galaxy (anything farther than that would be unfathomably unreachable and visa versa).

On the one hand, it’s possible that no other species has ever reached our state of development. Our galaxy with its 300 billion stars — meaning 300 billion chances for self-consciousness — has never awakened anywhere else. We would be the only ones looking into the night sky and asking questions. How impossibly lonely that would be.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that other species have made it to where we stand today. But no one has made it much farther. Say that like a “great filter,” something like war or environmental collapse keeps anyone, anywhere, from reaching beyond our stage of technological development. If that’s true then we, like all who have come before us, are doomed.

Personally, I still like to hold out hope that intelligent life does exist “out there”, or at the very least once did (there is no reason to believe that such a species did not destroy itself or otherwise go extinct from some sort of natural catastrophe). The probability of some sort of organism existing elsewhere in our galaxy seems high, but whether it (or they) is intelligent is apparently still an open question.

What are your thoughts?

The farthest confirmed galaxy observed to date.

Astronomers Reach New Milestone: Farthest Galaxy Ever Measured

The above photo, courtesy of the New York Times, may not look like much, but it represents an amazing achievement in the field of astronomy and in our understanding of the universe. Here’s more from the Times:

The [pictured] galaxy, more than a few billion light-years on the other side of the northern constellation Boötes, is one of the most massive and brightest in the early universe and goes by the name of EGS-zs8-1. It flowered into stardom only 670 million years after the Big Bang.

The light from that galaxy has taken 13 billion years to reach telescopes on Earth. By now, however, since the universe has continued to expand during that time, the galaxy is about 30 billion light-years away, according to standard cosmological calculations.

The new measurements allow astronomers to see the galaxy in its infancy. Despite its relative youth, however, it is already about one-sixth as massive as the Milky Way, which is 10 billion years old. And it is getting bigger, making stars 80 times faster than the Milky Way is making them today. The discovery was reported in The Astrophysical Journal by Pascal Oesch of Yale University and his colleagues.

Imagine what more awaits once even more powerful tools like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope come into being.

Eleven Images That Capture The Sheer Vastness Of Space

Did you know that you could fit all seven of the other planets in the solar system between Earth and the moon — with room to spare. Note that Saturn and Jupiter, are nine and 11 times as wide as Earth, respectively. It goes to show impressive our landing on the moon was.

Find other facts about how incredibly large and unfathomable space is here.

Hat tip to Vox.com.

If You Thought Hubble Images Were Breathtaking…

…wait until NASA and its international partners launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will be 100 times more power than its venerable 25-year-old predecessor. More from Business Insider:

The space telescope will weigh 6.4 tons. JWST’s main mirror will be 6.5 meters (yards) in diameter, three times as large as Hubble’s.

A joint project of NASA, the European, and Canadian space agencies, JWST will carry four instruments, including cameras and spectrometers that can capture extremely faint signals.

Infra-red capability will help it observe distant celestial bodies, and its camera shutter will be able to remain open for long periods, explained Matt Greenhouse, JWST project scientist for the science instrument payload.

“The Webb will have 70 times the light-gathering capacity of Hubble. So the combination of the large size and the infra-red capabilities will allow us to observe this epic of the universe past,” he said in an interview

An official statement by NASA describes the over $8 billion telescope as a “powerful time machine with infrared vision that will peer back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe.”

Indeed, it is so powerful that may even be able to detect signs of life on distant exoplanets, down to the specific composition of their atmospheres.

Moreover, unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which circles the Earth, the JWST will be 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away, at a place called LaGrange Point. That means it will be colder and thus suffer less interference from radiation and its own infra-red light.

The heavy telescope is scheduled to launch October 2018 atop an Ariane 5 rocket, made by the European Space Agency, from French Guiana.

Given the breathtaking images Hubble has given us over the last quarter-century, to say nothing of how much it has advanced our understanding of the universe, it is exciting to imagine what something 100 times as powerful will offer us.

And if NASA can pull something like this off, albeit with help from its foreign partners, imagine what it could do with more funding and public support…

It is also encouraging to see more international cooperation in space exploration. I have noted numerous times before how the technological and financial challenges of space travel necessitate humanity pooling together all its resources and expertise. The JWST will be a strong testimony to that.

The Launching of a Space Milestone: Mir

On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first continuously inhabited long-term research station to orbit Earth. Assembled during orbit from 1986 to 1996, it had greater mass than any previous spacecraft at the time, and remained the largest satellite in orbit until 2001, when it was succeeded by the International Space Station (ISS).

Mir

The station served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology and spacecraft systems. The goal was to develop technologies that would further permanent human occupation of space.

Mir set the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days, until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It hosted the record for the longest single human spaceflight: Valeri Polyakov spent over 437 days on the station between 1994 and 1995. Mir had the capacity to support a resident crew of three, or larger crews for short term visits.

Polyakov really loves what he does.

Mir was launched as part of an effort to maintain a long-term research outpost in space. While the vast majority its crew was Russian, several international programs made it host to astronauts from the United States, Canada, Japan, and several European nations; the first Syrian and first Afghan in space were Mir visitors. These collaborative efforts were the precursor to the development of the ISS, which evolved from separate U.S., European, and Russian projects.

Following the collapse of the USSR, Mir came under the operation of the new Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Although the station was fairly resilient, as evidenced by its impressive lifespan, its age was showing, and Russia at the time could not afford to update it. The station was subsequently decommissioned and deorbited in 2001.

The first of many successors. 

A Persian Gulf Nation On Mars

If the United Arab Emirates has its way, it may very well beat its better-known contenders (such as the U.S., Russia, and China) in landing on Mars, which has increasingly become the accepted next step in human space exploration.

UAE Flags

Will this be the first flag planted on the moon?

Now I know what many of you are thinking: does the UAE even have a space program, much less the infrastructural and scientific capacity to do something as costly and as technically challenging as a Mars landing?  Of course, this is the country responsible for such audacious achievements as the world’s tallest structure, several immense artificial islands, an indoor skiing mall, and more — so clearly, there is no shortage of pluck and cash to make it happen.

As Jenna Kagel of Mic explains:

The country’s vice president and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, said in a statement on Wednesday, “We chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because epic challenges inspire us and motivate us.”

The UAE has invested $5.4 billion into space technologies, but has yet to send someone into orbit. They have been “expanding activities of Al Yah Satellite Communications satellite data and TV broadcast company, mobile satellite communication company Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications and Earth mapping and observation system Dubai Sat,” reports RT.

The Gulf state has long intended to get involved in the space race, aspiring to replicate successful space agencies like Europe’s ESA or the United States’ NASA programs. The unmanned mission to the Red Planet will concur with the country’s 50th anniversary of their independence from Britain.

To make clear the seriousness of its intentions, the UAE marked the statement with a simulation of what the Mars mission would look like (sorry, translation not available).

I for one welcome this development. In an increasingly globalized world, space exploration is to the inherent benefit of humanity, regardless of who takes the reigns. This is especially true with something as expensive and technically-challenging as a Mars mission. The more countries we have involved, the more resources we can muster and the faster our progress (geopolitical challenges and rivalries notwithstanding).

It is worth pointing out that while the UAE may be the first small nation to express such a bold aim, it is hardly the only one with an interest in space. As the following map shows, plenty of nations maintain active space programs (albeit with varying degrees of funding and ambition):

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The map legend is as follows:

  • Yellow: Manned Extraterrestrial Exploration + Operates Space Station + Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellite
  • Orange: Operates Space Station + Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Red: Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Dark Green: Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Light Green: Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Beige: Operates Satellites

Note that this map doesn’t include the national space agencies that are either in the proposal stage or active only in research — these would include such an eclectic mix of countries as Belarus, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Morocco, South Africa, Bangladesh, and many more. Of course, the growing number of private space exploration companies open up a whole other world of potential (no pun intended).

In any case, it would be interesting to see if the UAE’s ambitious plans come to fruition, and if so, whether that will spur other countries (and institutions) of all sizes to take a crack at space travel. Interesting times await, that’s for sure.

VY Canis Majoris

VY Canis Majoris is the largest known star in the universe, being around one billion times bigger than our sun — which is one million times bigger than Earth — which in turn is already pretty immense. If it were to replace our sun, the star’s surface would reach up to Jupiter or Saturn. Imagine how the individual human matches up? We could scarcely register the scale of it all in our minds, much less physically grasp it with our senses.

The following short video further emphasizes how mindbogglingly vast our universe is — and how infinitesimally small we are by comparison.