The World’s Largest Radio Telescope

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Credit: NPR/STR/AFP/Getty Images

Pictured above is the  largest radio telescope in the world, which officially opened this past Sunday and is based Pingtang County in southwest China. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is, as the name suggests, 500 meters in diameters, which is 40 percent larger than its predecessor and now runner up, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

FAST will be utilized primarily to observe pulsars, the imploded, highly magnetic cores of old stars that emit intense radiation. Locating and understanding pulsars can yield a lot of important information about the universe. FAST is reportedly sensitive enough to detect radio waves from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away; for a point of reference, a single light-year is 9 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles. So, needless to say, this is an impressive display of technological ingenuity, especially from a country that only relatively recently joined the exclusive (though ever-expanding) club of space exploring nations.

As NPR reports, FAST’s incredible capabilities will be applied to more than just pulsar:

Like radio telescopes in other parts of the world, FAST will study interstellar molecules related to how galaxies evolve. For example, this summer a team using data from the Very Large Array, a collection of radio antennas in the New Mexico desert, picked up what scientists describe as “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper describing their findings, the team writes that the “next generation of radio telescopes,” like FAST, will build on their findings about how gases behave in galaxies.

As for FAST’s final use, studying interstellar communication signals, it could be more simply referred to as searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life. “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian told Chinese state media, according to the science news website Phys.org.

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In an interview with the BBC, the deputy project manager for the new Chinese telescope, Peng Bo, said the project was exciting for Chinese scientists. “For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” he told the BBC.

FAST is only the latest demonstration of China’s scientific prowess in astronomy. In addition to being able to launch its own satellites via domestically designed and build rockets, it is only the third country to send a human into orbit and is also third in independently developing and launching a space station (the second of which was recently and successfully launched). China also has plans for another, more permanent space station by 2020; a manned mission to the Moon, which is to be followed by a permanent lunar base; and  a rover expedition of Mars, to name but a few projects.

China’s contributions towards advancing our understanding of the universe is a welcomed one. As I have noted before, we should set aside nationalist sentiments — however much they are motivating such endeavors — and welcome as many different participants in space exploration as possible, if not for higher ideals of human cooperation than out of a sober acceptance that such efforts require all the resources, capital, and knowledge humanity can pool together.

The Newest and Largest Map of the Milky Way

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Scientific American has announced that the European Space Agency (ESA) just released the largest and most detailed map of our home galaxy (image pictured above).

Catalogued by the agency’s Gaia space observatory, which was launched into Earth orbit in 2013, it pinpoints the position of up to 1.1 billion stars, of which 400 million are newly discovered. Continue reading

Space Law

When it comes to space exploration, law is probably furthest consideration from anyone’s mind. But an article in Foreign Policy examines the importance of developing a more sophisticated, comprehensive legal framework to govern human activities beyond Earth. A rather obscure U.N. agency, joined by similarly lesser known experts and institutions, recently convened a special session on this matter. Continue reading

Our Unimaginably Large Universe

A team of scientists from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey have created a 3D map that plots 1.2 million galaxies. The end result can be seen below.

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Daniel Eisenstein / SDSS-III Collaboration

This image contains 48,741 galaxies, about 3 percent of the total data — so each dot represents one whole galaxy, which in turn contains millions of stars (for point of reference, our Milky Way Galaxy alone has approximately 100 million stars).

Moreover, all this only covers about 1/20th of the sky, or about 650 cubic billion light years, which is just a quarter of the known universe, which in total is 6 billion light-years wide, 4.5 billion light-years high, and 500 million light-years thick. It is an unfathomable scale to comprehend, and very humbling to reflect upon.

Source: The Verge

 

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The 30th Anniversary of the Mir Space Station

Despite my love for all things space and history, it almost eluded me that last Saturday, February 20, was the 30th anniversary of the launching of Mir, humanity’s first continuously inhabited space station, and until recently the longest-lasting. In its heyday — which remarkably persisted for far longer than originally intended — Mir was the epitome of human ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. As Vice’s Motherboard column recounts, the venerable Russian space station was the unlikely watershed for humanity’s exploration of the stars.

This station outlived the Soviet regime that conceived and bore it, and died in the shadow of its successor and beneficiary, the International Space Station. It was home to 104 astronauts during its 15 year lifespan, and completed its projected mission duration three times over. It was a pivotal stepping stone in human spaceflight, a technological and geopolitical bridge between millennia, and an enduring symbol of peace on Earth and off it.

It was also a notorious dump that reeked of mould, mites, and astronaut BO. British astronaut Helen Sharman, who visited the station in 1991, recalled that “the lights kept going out because it had developed so many electrical problems”. British-American astronaut Michael Foale, who lived on Mir during for four months in 1997, said it was “a bit like a frat house, but more organized and better looked after.”

Like some of the most beloved fictional spaceships—the Millennium Falcon, Battlestar Galactica, or Serenity, for instance—Mir was simultaneously regarded as a resilient survivor and a derelict piece of junk.

Some skeptics were even less forgiving in their judgment of Mir’s repeated flirtations with catastrophe, calling the station a “lemon”, a “time bomb”, and even a “death trap”.

Among the numerous incidents mentioned in the article (and well worth reading for yourself) were three collisions, one of which led to the permanent, functional loss of an entire block; a massive fire hot enough to burn through metal, which persisted for fifteen minutes and blanketing the station in smoky debris; and basketball-sized globs of dirty water laden with microbes, which were floating freely around the station.

All this plus a host of other smaller threats, such as computer glitches, power outages, coolant leaks, corrosive mold, and still more.

Needless to say, Mir would hardly have seemed to be such a promising benchmark for human progress in space. Yet the station’s ability to endure all these never-before-faced challenges — due in no small part to the resourcefulness, courage, and tenacity of its cosmonauts — is precisely what makes it such an incredible step for our species.

Indeed, the scruffy nature of Mir has become one of its most defining—and endearing—qualities in retrospect. It is legitimately astonishing that nobody was killed or seriously injured on this accident-prone ragamuffin of a station, when you consider the all the wild cards that were in play. If astronauts had died, of course, we would construct a very different legacy around its tenure in space, tempered by that grim reality.

But because Mir managed to lackadaisically extricate itself out of every scrape it got into like some spacefaring Bugs Bunny, it’s now remembered as a plucky trailblazer that always beat the odds rather than the “death trap” some considered it to be at the time. We love lucky heroes, and Mir hit that archetype out of the park.

To add to that, Mir was a phenomenal success for the global spaceflight community despite all of its problems. Thousands of experiments were conducted during its stint in orbit, revealing valuable insights about the biomedical, technological, and political challenges of operating a long-term base in space.

Unsurprisingly, Mir would prove to be the ultimate testing ground for generations of spacefarers, subsequently producing some of the most experienced and accomplished cosmonauts in the world.

Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov still maintains the record for the longest single spaceflight, having spent 437 consecutive days and 18 hours at the station from 1994 to 1995. While Polyakov did report mood fluctuations when he arrived at Mir and when he returned to Earth, he has not suffered any long term health effects as a consequence of his time in space.

Mir cosmonauts also hold down the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth places on the single spaceflight leaderboard (fun fact: Polyakov comes in at both first and sixth place). To put that into perspective, the ISS One Year Crew, comprised of American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, is expected to arrive home next month after 342 days in orbit. But that achievement will only nudge them into fourth place behind the insane spaceflight records left by Mir cosmonauts.

Given all this, it is little wonder that Mir laid the technological groundwork for its spiritual successor, the International Space Station, for which the Russians have continued to play a leading role, from its construction to the supply of materials and staff.

But in addition to its technical legacy, Mir pioneered the idealism that has always, to some degree, imbued space exploration. It was the crucible in which international collaboration could be achieved, even in the midst of the Cold War.

This intent on behalf of the Soviets—then later, the Russians—to use the space station as a symbol of humanity’s noblest qualities was embedded right into the mission’s name. The Russian space program has always had a particular knack for coming up with concise yet semantically potent names for its programs from Sputnik, meaning “fellow traveler”, to Soyuz, meaning “union”.

Likewise, the word “mir” in Russian can be translated as “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and it apparently has many subtler historical shades as well. NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, who managed the Shuttle-Mir program, laid out some of them in his 1996 essay on Mir, entitled “What’s in a Name?”

This was more than just propaganda: Mir would come to live up to its namesake by hosting several joint missions with the United States and various other nations. Thus the plucky, ramshackle marvel of human ingenuity (if not stubbornness) would prove that the divided nations of the world — for practical reasons as much as idealistic ones — can and would come together to achieve great things in space.

As Mir’s thirtieth birthday passes, here is hoping that its legacy can continue to spur the human race into pooling its resources, technology, and know-how into the next great endeavor of our species’ history. Given recent geopolitical events, it seems like an unlikely prospect; but if it could pulled off during the tense decades of the Cold War, whose to say we cannot transcend current Earthly squabbles once more?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

India Launches Its First Space Telescope

With the successful Astrosat, a cutting-edge space observatory, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has put India among a select group of countries that have an independently designed and operate a space telescope studying celestial objects. As The Hindu reports:

The ability to simultaneously study a wide variety of wavelengths — visible light, ultraviolet and X-ray (both low- and high-energy) bands — has tremendous implications for scientists globally, particularly those in India. Though stars and galaxies emit in multiple wavebands, currently operational satellites have instruments that are capable of observing only a narrow range of wavelength band. Since the Earth’s atmosphere does not allow X-rays and ultraviolet energy from distant cosmic objects to reach ground-based telescopes, space observatories become important to unravel celestial mysteries. With Astrosat, Indian researchers will no longer have to rely on other space agencies for X-ray data, and scientists everywhere need no longer source data from more than one satellite to get a fuller picture of celestial processes. As in the case of Chandrayaan-1 and the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan, the Astrosat telescope will have no immediate commercial or societal implications. But the instruments have been carefully chosen to allow scientists to pursue cutting-edge research. Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan returned invaluable information, although they were launched several years after other countries sent satellites to the Moon and Mars. Given the uniqueness of Astrosat, it will enable Indian researchers to work in the frontier areas of high-energy astrophysics.

Moreover, most of the payloads in the satellite come not from ISRO, but from a range of scientific institutions across India and the world (including Indonesia, Canada, and the United States). Astrostat thus reflects the country’s wide breadth of native talent, as well as its capacity to combine and coordinate these vital skills into one platform that can benefit researcher everywhere.  Continue reading

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.