An astrophotographer in California has captured images of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on its journey around our Sun. In the early morning of February 9th, Rogelio Bernal Andreo captured images of the Roadster as it appeared just above the horizon. To get the images, Andreo made use of an impressive arsenal of technological tools.
Andreo knew that photographing the Roadster would be a challenge, since it was over a million miles away at the time. But he has the experience and equipment to pull it off. The first task was to determine where the Tesla would be in the sky. Luckily, NASA’s JPL creates lists of coordinates for objects in the sky, called ephemerides. Andreo found the ephemeris for Starman and the Roadster, and it showed that the pair would be in the Hydra constellation, and that they would be only about 20 degrees above the horizon. That’s a challenge, because it means photographing through more atmospheric density.
The Tesla Roadster and its pilot “Starman” leaving Earth behind. Image: SpaceX
However, the Roadster and its driver would be bright enough to do it. As Andreo says in his blog, “The ephemeris from the JPL also indicated that the Roadster’s brightness would be at magnitude 17.5, and I knew that’s perfectly achievable.” So he gathered his gear, hopped in his vehicle, and went for it.
Andreo’s destination was the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, a controlled-access area for which he has a night-time use permit. This area is kind of close to the San Francisco Bay Area, so the sky is a little bright for astrophotography, but since the Roadster has a magnitude of 17.5, he thought it was doable. Plus, it’s a short drive from his home.
Once he arrived there, he set up his impressive array of gear: dual telescopes and cameras, along with a tracking telescope and computers running specialized software. Andreo explains it best:
“Let me give you a brief description of my gear – also the one I use for most of my deep-sky images. I have a dual telescope system: two identical telescopes and cameras in parallel, shooting simultaneously at the very same area of the sky – same FOV, save a few pixels. The telescopes are Takahashi FSQ106EDX. Their aperture is 106mm (about 4″) and they give you a native 530mm focal length at f/5. The cameras are SBIG STL11k monochrome CCD cameras, one of the most legendary full-frame CCD cameras for astronomy (not the best one today, mind you, but still pretty decent). All this gear sits on a Takahashi EM-400 mount, the beast that will move it at hair-thin precision during the long exposures. I brought the temperature of the CCD sensors to -20C degrees (-4F) using the CCD’s internal cooling system.”
CCD’s with internal cooling systems. Very impressive!
The Takahashi FSQ106. Two of these beasts are at the heart of Andreo’s astrophotography system. Image: Takahashi Telescopes
Andreo uses a specialized focusing system to get his images. He uses focusers from Robofocus and precision focusing software called FocusMax. He also uses a third, smaller telescope called an autoguider. It focuses on a single star in the Field of View and follows it religiously. When that star moves, the whole rig moves. As Andreo says on his blog, “Autoguiding provides a much better mount movement than tracking, which is leaving up to the mount to blindly “follow” the sky. By actually “following” a star, we can make sure there’ll be no trails whether our exposures are 2 or 30 minutes long.”
Once he was all set up, there was time pressure. The Roadster would only be above the horizon for a short time and the Moon was coming up and threatening to wash out the sky. Andreo got going, but his first shots showed nothing.
Where the Roadster should be, Andreo’s photos showed nothing. But he wasn’t deterred. Image: Rogelio Bernal Andreo, (DeepSkyColor.com) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Andreo felt that once he got home and could process the images properly, the Tesla Roadster and its driver would be somewhere in his images. He kept taking pictures until about 5 AM. Cold and tired, he finally packed up his gear and went home.
“…no matter what I did, I could not find the Roadster.” Astrophotographer Rogelio Bernal Andreo
After some sleep, he began working with his images. “After a few hours of sleep, I started playing with the data and no matter what I did, I could not find the Roadster. I kept checking the coordinates, nothing made sense. So I decided to try again. The only difference would be that this time the Moon would rise around 3:30am, so I could try star imaging at 2:30am and get one hour of Moon-free skies, maybe that would help.”
Rogelio Bernal Andreo is a very accomplished astrophotographer. His images have been chosen as NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day over 50 times. This close-up of the Orion Nebula was chosen as APOD on June 4, 2017. The three bright stars are Orion’s belt. Image: Rogelio Bernal Andreo (DeepSkyColors.com) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
So Andreo set out to capture the Roadster again. The next night, at the same location, he set up his gear again. But this time, some clouds rolled in, and Andreo got discouraged. He stayed to wait for the sky to improve, but it didn’t. By about 4 AM he packed up and headed home.
After a nap, he went over his photos, but still couldn’t find the Roadster. It was a puzzle, because he knew the Roadster’s coordinates. Andreo is no rookie, his photos have been published many times in Astronomy Magazine, Sky and Telescope, National Geographic, and other places. His work has also been chosen as NASA’s APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) more than 50 times. So when he can’t find something in his images that should be there, it’s puzzling.
Then he had an A-HA! moment:
“Then it hit me!! When I created the ephemeris from the JPL’s website, I did not enter my coordinates!! I went with the default, whatever that might be! Since the Roadster is still fairly close to us, parallax is significant, meaning, different locations on Earth will see Starman at slightly different coordinates. I quickly recalculate, get the new coordinates, go to my images and thanks to the wide field captured by my telescopes… boom!! There it was!! Impossible to miss!! It had been right there all along, I just never noticed!”
Starman cruising through space - YouTube
Andreo is clearly a dedicated astrophotographer, and this is a neat victory for him. He deserves a tip of the hat from space fans. Why not check out his website—his gallery is amazing!—and share a comment with him.
Since that time, multiple investigations have been conducted to determine ‘Oumuamua’s structure, composition, and just how common such visitors are. At the same time, a considerable amount of attention has been dedicated to determining the asteroid’s origins. According to a new study by a team of international researchers, this asteroid had a chaotic past that causes it to tumble around chaotically.
Animation of artist's concept of `Oumuamua - YouTube
As they indicate, the discovery of ‘Oumuamua has provided scientists with the first opportunity to study a planetesimal born in another planetary system. In much the same way that research into Near-Earth Asteroids, Main Belt Asteroids, or Jupiter’s Trojans can teach astronomers about the history and evolution of our Solar System, the study of a ‘Oumuamua would provide hints as to what was going on when and where it formed.
For the sake of their study, Dr. Fraser and his international team of colleagues have been measuring ‘Oumuamua brightness since it was first discovered. What they found was that ‘Oumuamua wasn’t spinning periodically (like most small asteroids and planetesimals in our Solar System), but chaotically. What this means is that the asteroid has likely been tumbling through space for billions of years, an indication of a violent past.
While it is unclear why this is, Dr. Fraser and his colleagues suspect that it might be due to an impact. In other words, when ‘Oumuamua was thrown from its own system and into interstellar space, it is possible it collided violently with another rock. As Dr. Fraser explained in a Queen’s University Belfast press release:
“Our modelling of this body suggests the tumbling will last for many billions of years to hundreds of billions of years before internal stresses cause it to rotate normally again. While we don’t know the cause of the tumbling, we predict that it was most likely sent tumbling by an impact with another planetesimal in its system, before it was ejected into interstellar space.”
Animation of `Oumuamua passing through the Solar System (annotated) [ESO] - YouTube
These latest findings mirror what other studies have been able to determine about ‘Oumuamua based on its object changes in its brightness. For example, brightness measurements conducted by the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii – and using data from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) – confirmed that the asteroid was indeed interstellar in origin, and that its shape is highly elongated (i.e. very long and thin).
However, measurements of its color have produced little up until now other than confusion. This was due to the fact that the color appeared to vary between measurements. When the long face of the object is facing telescopes on Earth, it appears largely red, while the rest of the body has appeared neutral in color (like dirty snow). Based on their analysis, Dr. Fraser and his team resolved this mystery by indicating that the surface is “spotty”.
In essence, most of the surface reflects neutrally, but one of its long faces has a large red region – indicating the presence of tholins on its long surface. A common feature of bodies in the outer Solar System, tholins are organic compounds (i.e. methane and ethane) that have turned a deep shade of reddish-brown thanks to their exposure to ultra-violet radiation.
What this indicates, according to Dr. Fraser, is broad compositional variations on ‘Oumuamua, which is unusual for such a small body:
“We now know that beyond its unusual elongated shape, this space cucumber had origins around another star, has had a violent past, and tumbles chaotically because of it. Our results are really helping to paint a more complete picture of this strange interstellar interloper. It is quite unusual compared to most asteroids and comets we see in our own solar system,” comments Dr Fraser.
Oumuamua as it appeared using the William Herschel Telescope on the night of October 29. Queen’s University Belfast/William Herschel Telescope
To break it down succinctly, ‘Oumuamua may have originated closer to its parent star (hence its rocky composition) and was booted out by strong resonances. In the course of leaving its system, it collided with another asteroid, which sent it tumbling towards interstellar space. It’s current chaotic spin and its unusual color are both testaments to this turbulent past, and indicate that its home system and the Solar System have a few things in common.
Since its arrival in our system, ‘Oumuamua has set off a flurry of scientific research. All over the world, astronomers are hoping to get a glimpse of it before it leaves our Solar System, and there are even those who hope to mount a robotic mission to rendezvous with it before its beyond our reach (Project Lyra). In any event, we can expect that this interstellar visitor will be the basis of scientific revelations for years to come!
This study is the third to be published by their team, which has been monitoring ‘Oumuamua since it was first observed in October. All studies were conducted with support provided by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
On February 6th, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into orbit. This was a momentous occasion for the private aerospace company and represented a major breakthrough for spaceflight. Not only is the Falcon Heavy the most powerful rocket currently in service, it is also the first heavy launch vehicle that relies on reusable boosters (two of which were successfully retrieved after the launch).
Equally interesting was the rocket’s cargo, which consisted of Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat. According to Musk, this vehicle and its “pilot” (Starman), will eventually achieve a Hohmann Transfer Orbit with Mars and remain there for up to a billion years. However, according to a new study, there’s a small chance that the Roadster will collide with Venus or Earth instead in a few eons.
Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster being loaded aboard the Falcon Heavy’s payload capsule. Credit: SpaceX
As we indicated in a previous post, Musk’s original flight plan has the potential to place the Roadster into a stable orbit around Mars… after a fashion. According to Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer from Colorado and a space camp alumni, the Roadster will get close enough to Mars to establish an orbit by October of 2018. However, this orbit would not rule out close encounters with Earth over the course of the next few million years.
For the sake of their study, Rein and his colleagues considered how such close encounters might alter the Roadster’s orbit in that time. Using data from NASA’s HORIZONS interface to determine the initial positions of all Solar planets and the Roadster, the team calculated the likelihood of future close encounters between the vehicle and the terrestrial planets, and how likely a resulting collision would be.
As they indicated, the Roadster bears some similarities to Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and ejecta from the Earth-Moon system. In short, NEAs permeate the inner Solar System, regularly crossing the orbits of terrestrial planets and experiencing close encounters with them (resulting in the occasional collision). In addition, ejecta from the Earth and Moon also experience close encounters with the terrestrial planets and collide with them.
However, the Tesla Roadster is unique in two key respects: For one, it originated from Earth rather than being pulled from the Asteroid Belt into the inner Solar System by strong resonances. Second, it had a higher ejection velocity when it left Earth, which tends to result in fewer impacts. “Given the peculiar initial conditions and even stranger object, it therefore remains an interesting question to probe its dynamics and eventual fate,” they claim.
The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX
Another challenge was how the probability of an impact will change drastically over time. While the chance of a collision can be ruled out in the short run (i.e. the next few years), the Roadster’s chaotic orbit is difficult to predict over the course of subsequent close encounters. As such, the team performed a statistical calculation to see how the orbit and velocity of the Roadster would change over time. As they state in their study:
“Given that the Tesla was launched from Earth, the two objects have intersecting orbits and repeatedly undergo close encounters. The bodies reach the same orbital longitude on their synodic timescale of ~2.8 yrs.”
They began by considering how the Roadster’s orbit would evolve over the course of its next 48 orbits, which would encompass the next 1000 years. They then expanded the analysis to consider long-term evolution, which encompassed 240 orbits over the course of the next 3.5 million years. What they found was that on a million-year timescale, the orbit of the Roadster remains in a region dominated by close encounters with Earth.
However, over time, their simulations show that the Roadster will experience changes in eccentricity due to resonant and secular effects. This will result in interactions more frequent interactions between the Roadster and Venus over time, and close encounters with Mars becoming possible. Over long enough timescales, the team even anticipates that interactions with Mercury’s orbit will be possible (though unlikely).
Don’t Panic StarMan, Don’t Panic. Credit: SpaceX
In the end, their simulations revealed that over the course of a million years and beyond, the probability of a collision with a terrestrial planet is unlikely, but not impossible. And while the odds are slim, they favor an eventual collision with Earth. Or as they put it:
“Although there were several close encounters with Mars in our simulations, none of them resulted in a physical collision. We find that there is a ~6% chance that the Tesla will collide with Earth and a ~2.5% chance that it will collide with Venus within the next 1 Myr. The collision rate goes down slightly with time. After 3 Myr the probability of a collision with Earth is ~11%. We observed only one collision with the Sun within 3 Myr.”
Given the Musk hoped that his Roadster would remain in orbit of Mars for one billion years, and that aliens might eventually find it, the prospect of it colliding with Earth or Venus is a bit of a letdown. Why bother sending such a unique payload into space if it’s just going to come back? Still, the odds that it will be drifting through space for millions of years remains a distinct possibility.
And if there are any worries that the Roadster will pose a threat to future missions or Earth itself, consider the message Starman was looking at during his ascent into space – Don’t Panic! Assuming humanity is even alive eons from now, the far greater danger will be that such an antique will burn up in our atmosphere. After millions of years, Starman is sure to be a big celebrity!
It’s been 20 years since the first of the four Unit Telescopes that comprise the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) saw first light. Since the year 2000 all four of them have been in operation. One of the original goals of the VLT was to have all four of the ‘scopes work in combination, and that has now been achieved.
The instrument that combines the light from all four of the VLT ‘scopes is called ESPRESSO, which stands for Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations. ESPRESSO captures the light from each of the 8.2 meter mirrors in the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT. That combination makes ESPRESSO, in effect, the largest optical telescope in the world.
The huge diffraction grating is at the heart of the ultra-precise ESPRESSO spectrograph. In this image, the diffraction grating is undergoing testing in the cleanroom at ESO Headquarters in Garching bei München, Germany. Image: ESO/M. Zamani
Combining the power of the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT is a huge milestone for the ESO. As ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO, Gaspare Lo Curto, says, “ESO has realised a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s: bringing the light from all four Unit Telescopes on Cerro Paranal together at an incoherent focus to feed a single instrument!” The excitement is real, because along with its other science goals, ESPRESSO will be an extremely powerful planet-hunting telescope.
“ESO has realised a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s.” – Gaspare Lo Curto, ESPRESSO instrument scientist.
ESPRESSO uses a system of mirrors, lenses, and prisms to transmit the light from each of the four VLT ‘scopes to the spectrograph. This is accomplished with a network of tunnels that was incorporated into the VLT when it was built. ESPRESSO has the flexibility to combine the light from all four, or from any one of the telescopes. This observational flexibility was also an original design goal for ESPRESSO.
The four Unit Telescopes often operate together as the VLT Interferometer, but that’s much different than ESPRESSO. The VLT Interferometer allows astronomers to study extreme detail in bright objects, but it doesn’t combine the light from the four Unit Telescopes into one instrument. ESPRESSO collects the light from all four ‘scopes and splits it into its component colors. This allows detailed analysis of the composition of distant objects.
ESPRESSO team members gather in the control room during ESPRESSO’s first light. Image: ESO/D. Megevand
ESPRESSO is a very complex instrument, which explains why it’s taken until now to be implemented. It works with a principle called “incoherent focus.” In this sense, “incoherent” means that the light from all four telescopes is added together, but the phase information isn’t included as it is with the VLT Interferometer. What this boils down to is that while both the VLT Interferometer and ESPRESSO both use the light of all four VLT telescopes, ESPRESSO only has the spatial resolution of a single 8.2 mirror. ESPRESSO, as its name implies, is all about detailed spectrographic analysis. And in that, it will excel.
“ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes gives us an enticing foretaste of what the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, will offer in a few years.” – ESO’s Director General, Xavier Barcons
ESPRESSO is the successor to HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, which up until now has been our best exoplanet hunter. HARPS is a 3.6 meter telescope operated by the ESO, and also based on an echelle spectrograph. But the power of ESPRESSO will dwarf that of HARPS.
There are three main science goals for ESPRESSO:
Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants
Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies
ESPRESSO will take highly precise measurements of the radial velocities of solar type stars in other solar systems. As an exoplanet orbits its star, it takes part in a dance or tug-of-war with the star, the same way planets in our Solar System do with our Sun. ESPRESSO will be able to measure very small “dances”, which means it will be able to detect very small planets. Right now, our planet-hunting instruments aren’t as sensitive as ESPRESSO, which means our exoplanet search results are biased to larger planets. ESPRESSO should detect more smaller, Earth-size planets.
The four Unit Telescopes that make up the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, at the Paranal Observatory> Image: By ESO/H.H.Heyer [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants
This is where the light-combining power of ESPRESSO will be most useful. ESPRESSO will be used to observe extremely distant and faint quasars, to try and measure the variation of the fundamental physical constants in our Universe. (If there are any variations, that is.) It’s not only the instrument’s light-combining capability that allows this, but also the instrument’s extreme stability.
Specifically, the ESPRESSO will try to take our most accurate measurements yet of the fine structure constant, and the proton to electron mass ratio. Astronomers want to know if these have changed over time. They will use ESPRESSO to examine the ancient light from these distant quasars to measure any change.
Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies
ESPRESSO will open up new possibilities in the measurement of stars in nearby galaxies. It’s high efficiency and high resolution will allow astronomers to study stars outside of the Milky Way in unprecedented detail. A better understanding of stars in other galaxies is always a priority item in astronomy.
We’ll let Project Scientist Paolo Molaro have the last word, for now. “This impressive milestone is the culmination of work by a large team of scientists and engineers over many years. It is wonderful to see ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes and I look forward to the exciting science results to come.”
In July of 2020, the Mars 2020 rover – the latest from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program – will begin its long journey to the Red Planet. Hot on the heels of the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, the Mars 2020 rover will attempt to answer some of the most pressing questions we have about Mars. Foremost among these is whether or not the planet had habitable conditions in the past, and whether or not microbial life existed there.
To this end, the Mars 2020 rover will obtain drill samples of Martian rock and set them aside in a cache. Future crewed missions may retrieve these samples and bring them back to Earth for analysis. However, in a recent announcement, NASA indicated that a piece of a Martian meteor will accompany the Mars 2020 rover back to Mars, which will be used to calibrate the rover’s high-precious laser scanner.
Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, SHERLOC uses spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life. Credit: NASA
Ordinarily, these calibration targets involve pieces of rock, metal or glass, samples that are the result of a complex geological history. However, when addressing the SHERLOC’s calibration needs, JPL scientists came up with a rather innovative idea. For billions of years, Mars has experienced impacts that have sent pieces of its surface into orbit. In some cases, those pieces came to Earth in the form of meteorites, some of which have been identified.
While these meteorites are rare and not identical to the geologically diverse samples the Mars 2020 rover will collect, they are well-suited for target practice. As Luther Beegle of JPL, the principle investigator for SHERLOC, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim. By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”
In this respect, the Mars 2020 rover is in good company. For example, Curiosity’s used its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCham) instrument – which relies on laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) – to determine the elemental compositions of rock and soil samples it has obtained. Similarly, the Opportunity rover’s Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) allowed this rover to detect the composition of rocks from a distance.
Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
However, SHERLOC is unique in that it will be the first instrument deployed to Mars that uses Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy. Raman spectroscopy consists of subjecting materials to light in the visible, near infrared, or near ultraviolet range and measuring how the photons respond. Based on how their energy levels shift up or down, scientists are able to determine the presence of certain elements.
Fluorescence spectroscopy relies on ultraviolet lasers to excite the electrons in carbon-based compounds, which causes chemicals that are known to form in the presence of life (i.e. biosignatures) to glow. SHERLOC will also photograph the rocks it studies, which will allow the science team to map the chemical signatures it finds across the surface of Mars.
For their purposes, the SHERLOC team needed a sample that would be solid enough to withstand the intense vibrations caused by launch and landing. They also needed one that contained the right chemicals to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity to biosignatures. With the help of the Johnson Space Center and the Natural History Museum in London, they ultimately decided on a sample from the Sayh al Uhaymir 008 meteorite (aka. SaU008).
This meteorite, which was found in Oman in 1999, was more rugged that other samples and could be sliced without the rest of the meteorite flaking. As a result, SaU008 will be the first Martian meteorite sample that helps scientists look for past signs of life on Mars. It will also be the first Martian meteorite to have a piece of itself returned to the surface of Mars – though technically not the first to be sent back.
A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars placed inside an oxygen plasma cleaner, which removes organics from the outside of surfaces. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
That honor goes to Zagami, a meteorite retrieved in Nigeria in 1962, which had a piece of itself sent back to Mars aboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) in 1999. That mission ended in 2007, so this chunk has been floating around in orbit of Mars ever since. In addition, the team behind Mars 2020‘s SuperCam instrument will also be adding a Martian meteorite for their own calibration tests.
Along with bits of SaU008, the Mars 2020 payload will include samples of advanced materials. Aside from also being used to calibrate SHERLOC, these materials will be tested to see how they hold up to Martian weather and radiation. If they prove to be tough enough to survive on the Martian surface, these materials could be used in the manufacture of space suits, gloves and helmets for future astronauts.
As Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, put it:
“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface. It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”
With every robotic mission sent to Mars, NASA and other space agencies are working towards the day when astronauts’ boots will finally touch down on the Red Planet. When the first crewed mission to Mars are conducted (currenty scheduled for the 2030s), they will be following in the tracks of some truly intrepid robotic explorers!
Engineering for Mars: Building the Mars 2020 Mission (360 video) - YouTube
Since that time, New Horizons has carried on to the Kuiper Belt for the sake of conducting more historic encounters. In preparation for these, the probe also established new records when it used its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to take a series of long-distance pictures. These images, which have since been released to the public, have set the new record for the most distant images ever taken.
At present, the New Horizons probe is at a distance of 6.12 billion km (3.79 billion mi) from Earth. This means that images taken at this point are at a distance of 40.9 Astronomical Units (AUs), or the equivalent of about 41 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. This it slightly farther than the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth, which was snapped by the Voyager 1 mission when it was at a distance of 6.06 billion km (3.75 billion mi; 40.5 AU) from Earth.
Image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, taken Dec. 5, 2017, which temporarily broke the 27-year record set by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This historic picture was taken on February 14th, 1990 (Valentine’s Day) at the behest of famed astronomer Carl Sagan. At the time, Sagan was a member of the Voyager imaging team, and he recommended that Voyager 1 take the opportunity to look back at Earth one more time before making its way to the very edge of the Solar System. For more than 27 years, this long-distance record remained unchallenged.
However, in December of 2017, the New Horizons team began conducting a routine calibration test of the LORRI instrument. This consisted of snapping pictures of the “Wishing Well” cluster (aka. the “Football Cluster” or NGC 3532), an open galactic star cluster that is located about 1321 light years from Earth in the direction of the southern constellation of Carina.
This image (shown above) was rather significant, given that this star cluster was the first target ever observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (on May 20th, 1990). While this image broke the long-distance record established by Voyager 1, the probe then turned its LORRI instrument towards objects in its flight path. As part of the probes mission to rendezvous with a KBO, the team was searching for forward-scattering rings or dust.
As a result, just two hours after it had taken the record-breaking image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, the probe snapped pictures of the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) known as 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 (seen below, left and right). These images once again broke the record for being the most distant images taken from Earth (again), but also set a new record for the closest-ever images ever taken of KBOs.
False-color images of KBOs 2012 HZ84 (left) and 2012 HE85, taken by LORRI, are the farthest from Earth ever captured by a spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts — first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched. And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”
As one of only five spacecraft to travel beyond the Outer Planets, New Horizons has set a number of other distance records as well. These include the most-distant course-correction maneuver, which took place on Dec. 9th, 2017, and guided the spacecraft towards its planned flyby with the KBO 2014 MU69. This event, which will happen on Jan. 1st, 2019, will be the farthest planetary encounter in history.
In the course of its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, the New Horizons team seeks to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and “Centaurs” – i.e. former KBOs that have unstable orbits that cause them to cross the orbit of the gas giants. At present, the New Horizons spacecraft is in hibernation and will be brought back online on June 4th, – when it will begin a series of checks to make sure it is ready for its planned encounter with MU69.
The spacecraft is also conducting nearly continuous measurements of the Kuiper Belt itself to learn more about its plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment. These efforts could reveal much about the formation and evolution of the Solar System, and are setting records that are not likely to be broken for many more decades!
ScienceCasts: New Horizons Discoveries Keep Coming - YouTube
And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to all the past Carnivals of Space. If you’ve got a space-related blog, you should really join the carnival. Just email an entry to firstname.lastname@example.org, and the next host will link to it. It will help get awareness out there about your writing, help you meet others in the space community – and community is what blogging is all about. And if you really want to help out, sign up to be a host. Send an email to the above address.
Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the intermediate spiral galaxy known as Messier 65.
In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.
One of these objects is the intermediate elliptical galaxy known as Messier 66 (NGC 3627). Located about 36 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Leo constellation, this galaxy measures 95,000 light-years in diameter. It is also the brightest and largest member of the Leo Triplet of galaxies and is well-known for its bright star clusters, dust lanes, and associated supernovae.
Enjoying life some 35 million light years from the Milky Way, the group known as the “Leo Trio” is home to bright galaxy Messier 66 – the easternmost of the two M objects. In the telescope or binoculars, you’ll find this barred spiral galaxy far more visible and much easier to see details within its knotted arms and bulging core.
Hubble image of the intermediate spiral galaxy Messier 66. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration/Davide De Martin/Robert Gendler
Because of interaction with its neighboring galaxies, M66 shows signs of a extremely high central mass concentration as well as a resolved noncorotating clump of H I material apparently removed from one of the spiral arms. Even one of its spiral arms got it noted in Halton Arp’s collection of Peculiar Galaxies! So exactly what did it collide with?As Xiaolei Zhang (et al) indicated in a 1993 study:
“The combined CO and H I data provide new information, both on the history of the past encounter of NGC 3627 with its companion galaxy NGC 3628 and on the subsequent dynamical evolution of NGC 3627 as a result of this tidal interaction. In particular, the morphological and kinematic information indicates that the gravitational torque experienced by NGC 3627 during the close encounter triggered a sequence of dynamical processes, including the formation of prominent spiral structures, the central concentration of both the stellar and gas mass, the formation of two widely separated and outwardly located inner Lindblad resonances, and the formation of a gaseous bar inside the inner resonance. These processes in coordination allow the continuous and efficient radial mass accretion across the entire galactic disk. The observational result in the current work provides a detailed picture of a nearby interacting galaxy which is very likely in the process of evolving into a nuclear active galaxy. It also suggests one of the possible mechanisms for the formation of successive instabilities in postinteraction galaxies, which could very efficiently channel the interstellar medium into the center of the galaxy to fuel nuclear starburst and Seyfert activities.”
Ah, yes! Star forming regions… And what better way to look deeper than through the eyes of the Spitzer Space Telescope? As R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona) and the SINGS Team observed:
“M66’s blue core and bar-like structure illustrates a concentration of older stars. While the bar seems devoid of star formation, the bar ends are bright red and actively forming stars. A barred spiral offers an exquisite laboratory for star formation because it contains many different environments with varying levels of star-formation activity, e.g., nucleus, rings, bar, the bar ends and spiral arms. The SINGS image is a four-channel false-color composite, where blue indicates emission at 3.6 microns, green corresponds to 4.5 microns, and red to 5.8 and 8.0 microns. The contribution from starlight (measured at 3.6 microns) in this picture has been subtracted from the 5.8 and 8 micron images to enhance the visibility of the dust features.”
Colour composite image of the spiral galaxy M66 (or NGC 3627) obtained with the FORS1 and FORS2 multi-mode instruments (at VLT MELIPAL and YEPUN, respectively). Credit: ESO
Messier 66 has also been deeply studied for evidence of forming super star clusters, too. As David Meier indicated:
“Super star clusters are thought to be precursors of globular clusters and are some of the most extreme star formation regions in the universe. They tend to occur in actively starbursting galaxies or near the cores of less active galaxies. Radio super star clusters cannot be seen in optical light because of extreme extinction, but they shine brightly in infrared and radio observations. We can be certain that there are many massive O stars in these regions because massive stars are required to provide the UV radiation that ionizes the gas and creates a thermally bright HII regions. Not many natal SSCs are currently known, so detection is an important science goal in its own right. In particular, very few SSCs are known in galactic disks. We need more detections to be able to make statistical statements about SSCs and fill in the mass range of forming star clusters. With more detections, we will be able to investigate the effects of other environments (e.g. bars, bubbles, and galactic interaction) on SSCs, which could potentially be followed up in the far future with the Square Kilometer Array to discover their effects on individual forming massive stars.”
But there’s still more. Try magnetic properties in M66’s spiral patterns. As M. Soida (et al) indicated in their 2001 study:
“By observing the interacting galaxy NGC 3627 in radio polarization we try to answer the question; to which degree does the magnetic field follow the galactic gas flow. We obtained total power and polarized intensity maps at 8.46 GHz and 4.85 GHz using the VLA in its compact D-configuration. In order to overcome the zero-spacing problems, the interferometric data were combined with single-dish measurements obtained with the Effelsberg 100-m radio telescope. The observed magnetic field structure in NGC 3627 suggests that two field components are superposed. One component smoothly fills the interarm space and shows up also in the outermost disk regions, the other component follows a symmetric S-shaped structure. In the western disk the latter component is well aligned with an optical dust lane, following a bend which is possibly caused by external interactions. However, in the SE disk the magnetic field crosses a heavy dust lane segment, apparently being insensitive to strong density-wave effects. We suggest that the magnetic field is decoupled from the gas by high turbulent diffusion, in agreement with the large Hi line width in this region. We discuss in detail the possible influence of compression effects and non-axisymmetric gas flows on the general magnetic field asymmetries in NGC 3627. On the basis of the Faraday rotation distribution we also suggest the existence of a large ionized halo around this galaxy.”
A Spectacular View Of M66 (Leo Triplet) - YouTube
History of Observation:
Both M65 and M66 were discovered on the same night – March 1, 1780 – by Charles Messier, who described M66 as, “Nebula discovered in Leo; its light is very faint and it is very close to the preceding: They both appear in the same field in the refractor. The comet of 1773 and 1774 has passed between these two nebulae on November 1 to 2, 1773. M. Messier didn’t see them at that time, no doubt, because of the light of the comet.”
Both galaxies would be observed and cataloged by the Herschel family and further expounded upon by Admiral Smyth:
“A large elongated nebula, with a bright nucleus, on the Lion’s haunch, trending np [north preceding, NW] and sf [south following, SE]; this beautiful specimen of perspective lies just 3deg south-east of Theta Leonis. It is preceded at about 73s by another of a similar shape, which is Messier’s No. 65, and both are in the field at the same time, under a moderate power, together with several stars. They were pointed out by Mechain to Messier in 1780, and they appeared faint and hazy to him. The above is their appearance in my instrument.
“These inconceivably vast creations are followed, exactly on the same parallel, ar Delta AR=174s, by another elliptical nebula of even a more stupendous character as to apparent dimensions. It was discovered by H. [John Herschel], in sweeping, and is No. 875 in his Catalogue of 1830 [actually, probably an erroneous position for re-observed M66]. The two preceding of these singular objects were examined by Sir William Herschel, and his son [JH] also; and the latter says, “The general form of elongated nebulae is elliptic, and their condensation towards the centre is almost invariably such as would arise from the superposition of luminous elliptic strata, increasing in density towards the centre. In many cases the increase of density is obviously attended with a diminution of ellipticity, or a nearer approach to the globular form in the central than in the exterior strata.” He then supposes the general constitution of those nebulae to be that of oblate spheroidal masses of every degree of flatness from the sphere to the disk, and of every variety in respect of the law of their density, and ellipticity towards the centre. This must appear startling and paradoxical to those who imagine that the forms of these systems are maintained by forces identical with those which determine the form of a fluid mass in rotation; because, if the nebulae be only clusters of discrete stars, as in the greater number of cases there is every reason to believe them to be, no pressure can propagate through them. Consequently, since no general rotation of such a system as one mass can be supposed, Sir John suggests a scheme which he shows is not, under certain conditions, inconsistent with the law of gravitation. “It must rather be conceived,” he tells us, ” as a quiescent form, comprising within its limits an indefinite magnitude of individual constituents, which, for aught we can tell, may be moving one among the other, each animated by its own inherent projectile force, and deflected into an orbit more or less complicated, by the influence of that law of internal gravitation which may result from the compounded attractions of all its parts.”
Messier 66 location. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
Locating Messier 66:
Even though you might think by its apparent visual magnitude that M66 wouldn’t be visible in small binoculars, you’d be wrong. Surprisingly enough, thanks to its large size and high surface brightness, this particular galaxy is very easy to spot directly between Iota and Theta Leonis. In even 5X30 binoculars under good conditions you’ll easy see both it and M65 as two distinct gray ovals.
A small telescope will begin to bring out structure in both of these bright and wonderful galaxies, but to get a hint at the “Trio” you’ll need at least 6″ in aperture and a good dark night. If you don’t spot them right away in binoculars, don’t be disappointed – this means you probably don’t have good sky conditions and try again on a more transparent night. The pair is well suited to modestly moonlit nights with larger telescopes.
May you equally be attracted to this galactic pair!
And here are the quick facts on M66 to help you get started:
Object Name: Messier 66 Alternative Designations: M66, NGC 3627, (a member of the) Leo Trio, Leo Triplet Object Type: Type Sb Spiral Galaxy Constellation: Leo Right Ascension: 11 : 20.2 (h:m) Declination: +12 : 59 (deg:m) Distance: 35000 (kly) Visual Brightness: 8.9 (mag) Apparent Dimension: 8×2.5 (arc min)
Roughly half a century ago, Cornell astronomer Frank Drake conducted Project Ozma, the first systematic SETI survey at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Since that time, scientists have conducted multiple surveys in the hopes of find indications of “technosignatures” – i.e. evidence of technologically-advanced life (such as radio communications).
To put it plainly, if humanity were to receive a message from an extra-terrestrial civilization right now, it would be the single-greatest event in the history of civilization. But according to a new study, such a message could also pose a serious risk to humanity. Drawing on multiple possibilities that have been explored in detail, they consider how humanity could shield itself from malicious spam and viruses.
Frank Drake writing his famous equation on a white board. Credit: SETI.org
To be fair, the notion that an extra-terrestrial civilization could pose a threat to humanity is not just a well-worn science fiction trope. For decades, scientists have treated it as a distinct possibility and considered whether or not the risks outweigh the possible benefits. As a result, some theorists have suggested that humans should not engage in SETI at all, or that we should take measures to hide our planet.
As Professor Learned told Universe Today via email, there has never been a consensus among SETI researchers about whether or not ETI would be benevolent:
“There is no compelling reason at all to assume benevolence (for example that ETI are wise and kind due to their ancient civilization’s experience). I find much more compelling the analogy to what we know from our history… Is there any society anywhere which has had a good experience after meeting up with a technologically advanced invader? Of course it would go either way, but I think often of the movie Alien… a credible notion it seems to me.”
In addition, assuming that an alien message could pose a threat to humanity makes practical sense. Given the sheer size of the Universe and the limitations imposed by Special Relativity (i.e. no known means of FTL), it would always be cheaper and easier to send a malicious message to eradicate a civilization compared to an invasion fleet. As a result, Hippke and Learned advise that SETI signals be vetted and/or “decontaminated” beforehand.
The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages. Credit: US NSF
In terms of how a SETI signal could constitute a threat, the researchers outline a number of possibilities. Beyond the likelihood that a message could convey misinformation designed to cause a panic or self-destructive behavior, there is also the possibility that it could contain viruses or other embedded technical issues (i.e. the format could cause our computers to crash).
Article 6 of this declaration states the following:
“The discovery should be confirmed and monitored and any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available for further analysis and interpretation. These recordings should be made available to the international institutions listed above and to members of the scientific community for further objective analysis and interpretation.”
Voyager included a golden record with images and sounds of Earthly life recorded on it… just in case. Credit: NASA
As such, a message that is confirmed to have originated from an ETI would most likely be made available to the entire scientific community before it could be deemed to be threatening in nature. Even if there was only one recipient, and they attempted to keep the message under strict lock and key, it’s a safe bet that other parties would find a way to access it before long.
The question naturally arises then, what can be done? One possibility that Hippke and Learned suggest is to take a analog approach to interpreting these messages, which they illustrate using the 2017 SETI Decrypt Challenge as an example. This challenge, which was issued by René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, consisted of a sequence of about two million binary digits and related information being posted to social media.
In addition to being a fascinating exercise that gave the public a taste of what SETI research means, the challenge also sough to address some central questions when it came to communicating with an ETI. Foremost among these was whether or not humanity would be bale to understand a message from an alien civilization, and how we might be able to make a message comprehensible (if we sent one first). As they state:
“As an example, the message from the “SETI Decrypt Challenge” (Heller 2017) was a stream of 1,902,341 bits, which is the product of prime numbers. Like the Arecibo message (Staff At The National Astronomy Ionosphere Center 1975) and Evpatoria’s “Cosmic Calls” (Shuch 2011), the bits represent the X/Y black/white pixel map of an image. When this is understood, further analysis could be done off-line by printing on paper. Any harm would then come from the meaning of the message, and not from embedded viruses or other technical issues.”
The Wow! signal represented as “6EQUJ5”. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory/NAAPO
However, where messages are made up of complex codes or even a self-contained AI, the need for sophisticated computers may be unavoidable. In this case, the authors explore another popular recommendation, which is the use on quarantined machines to conduct the analysis – i.e. a message prison. Unfortunately, they also acknowledge that no prison would be 100% effective and containment could eventually fail.
“This scenario resembles the Oracle-AI, or AI box, of an isolated computer system where a possibly dangerous AI is ‘imprisoned’ with only minimalist communication channels,” they write. “Current research indicates that even well-designed boxes are useless, and a sufficiently intelligent AI will be able to persuade or trick its human keepers into releasing it.”
In the end, it appears that the only real solution is to maintain a vigilant attitude and ensure that any messages we send are as benign as possible. As Hippke summarized: “I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that a message will be positive, but you can not be sure. Would you take a 1% chance of death for a 99% chance of a cure for all diseases? One learning from our paper is how to design own message, in case we decide to send any: Keep it simple, don’t send computer code.”
Basically, when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the rules of internet safety may apply. If we begin to receive messages, we shouldn’t trust those that come with big attachments and send any suspicious looking ones to our spam folder. Oh, and if a sender is promising the cure for all known diseases, or claims to be the deposed monarch of Andromeda in need of some cash, we should just hit delete!
When it comes to looking for life on extra-solar planets, scientists rely on what is known as the “low-hanging fruit” approach. In lieu of being able to observe these planets directly or up close, they are forced to look for “biosignatures” – substances that indicate that life could exist there. Given that Earth is the only planet (that we know of) that can support life, these include carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and water.
However, while the presence of these elements are a good way of gauging “habitability”, they are not necessarily indications that extra-terrestrial civilizations exist. Hence why scientists engaged in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) also keep their eyes peeled for “technosignatures”. Targeting the Kepler field, a team of scientists recently conducted a study that examined 14 planetary systems for indications of intelligent life.
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope, which is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby’s Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
Together, the team selected 14 systems from the Kepler catalog and examined them for technosignatures. While radio waves are a common occurrence in the cosmos, not all sources can be easily attributed to natural causes. Where and when this is the case, scientists conduct additional studies to try and rule out the possibility that they are a technosignature. As Professor Margot told Universe Today via email:
“In our article, we define a “technosignature” as any measurable property or effect that provides scientific evidence of past or present technology, by analogy with “biosignatures,” which provide evidence of past or present life.”
For the sake of their study, the team conducted an L-band radio survey of these 14 planetary systems. Specifically, they looked for signs of radio waves in the 1.15 to 1.73 gigahertz (GHz) range. At those frequencies, their study is sensitive to Arecibo-class transmitters located within 450 light-years of Earth. So if any of these systems have civilizations capable of building radio observatories comparable to Arecibo, the team was sure to find out!
Spring 2016 UCLA SETI class with Larry Lesyna. Credit: UCLA
“We searched for signals that are narrow (< 10 Hz) in the frequency domain,” said Margot. “Such signals are technosignatures because natural sources do not emit such narrowband signals… We identified approximately 850,000 candidate signals, of which 19 were of particular interest. Ultimately, none of these signals were attributable to an extraterrestrial source.”
What they found was that of the 850,000 candidate signals, about 99% of them were automatically ruled out because they were quickly determined to be the result of human-generated radio-frequency interference (RFI). Of the remaining candidates, another 99% were also flagged as anthropogenic because their frequencies overlapped with other known sources of RFI – such as GPS systems, satellites, etc.
The 19 candidate signals that remained were heavily scrutinized, but none could be attributed to an extraterrestrial
source. This is key when attempting to distinguish potential signs of intelligence from radio signals that come from the only intelligence we know of (i.e. us!) Hence why astronomers have historically been intrigued by strong narrowband signals (like the WOW! Signal, detected in 1977) and the Lorimer Burst detected in 2007.
In these cases, the sources appeared to be coming from the Messier 55 globular cluster and the Large Magellanic Cloud, respectively. The latter was especially fascinating since it was the first time that astronomers had observered what are now known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). Such bursts, especially when they are repeating in nature, are considered to be one of the best candidates in the search for intelligent, technologically-advanced life.
The UCLA SETI Group banner, featuring a photo of the central region of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: Yuri Beletsky/Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory
Unfortunately, these sources are still being investigated and scientists cannot attribute them to unnatural causes just yet. And as Professor Margot indicated, this study (which covered only 14 of the many thousand exoplanets discovered by Kepler) is just the tip of the iceberg:
“Our study encompassed only a small fraction of the search volume. For instance, we covered less than five-millionths of the entire sky. We are eager to scale the effort to sample a larger fraction of the search volume. We are currently seeking funds to expand our search.”
It would therefore be no exaggeration to say that the hunt for ETI is still in its infancy, and our efforts are definitely beginning to pick up speed. There is literally a Universe of possibilities out there and to think that there are no other civilizations that are also looking for us seems downright unfathomable. To quote the late and great Carl Sagan: “The Universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
And be sure to check out this video of the 2017 UCLA SETI Group, courtesy of the UCLA EPSS department: