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James Webb Space Telescope unveils the universe as you’ve never seen or heard it before

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It’s the universe as we’ve never experienced it before. The James Webb Space Telescope is sending back incredible images of deep space so advanced scientists believe it’s going to “change astronomy forever.”

It’s not only that we can see into space and time billions of years ago. The magic is that we can see anything at all.

Although its predecessor the Hubble Space Telescope offered up some incredible sights, Webb, which was developed in partnership with NASA and the Canadian and European space agencies, is able to look even further back in time and show us more detail about what lies beyond planet Earth.

Take the recent release of the Pillars of Creation which was first captured in 1995 by Hubble. In the original image from the area, which is considered to be a star-making part of the galaxy, pillars of gaseous clouds that look like long fingers are reaching up to the sky.

What we couldn’t see before, and what is now revealed by the Webb telescope, are all the stars hidden behind the gas.

That’s because Webb sees infrared light, which is ordinarily invisible to humans.


Pillars of Creation. Taken by the Hubble Telescope (L) and James Webb Telescope (R).


Courtesy/NASA

By picking up infrared light, Webb can see objects that are so far away, the light they emit takes over 13.5 billion years to reach Earth. That means Webb is also like a time machine in that it can see what the universe looked like back when the earth and sun were formed.

However, what Webb is sending back is invisible to humans because we aren’t able to see infrared light.

So it’s the job of Joe DePasquale and Alyssa Pagan, science visuals developers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, to translate the information from Webb into something visible.


Joey Ruffini/Global News

Joe DePasquale, senior science visuals developer, creates images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

“We can’t see in the infrared. So there has to be some level of translation here. But we use physical meaning like true physical science in order to represent the colour,” Pagan told Global’s The New Reality.

With the help of NASA scientists, Pagan and DePasquale break down the images into wavelengths. “We apply colour according to those wavelengths. And so the shortest wavelength filters that we have, we use blue for those. And as we move into longer and longer wavelengths, we go to greens and then reds,” DePasquale says.


Science visuals developer Alyssa Pagan translates infrared images from Webb into colours we can see.


Joey Ruffini/Global News

The end result is eyepopping images like the mountainous-looking cosmic cliffs of the Carina Nebula captured by Webb.

“What we’re seeing when we look at these images is the raw material for life,” DePasquale says.

“We’re understanding the universe. We’re understanding ourselves. It’s so intriguing to get this new perspective, this bigger picture. A lot of people can be like, ‘Oh, it makes me feel small,’ but I think for a lot of people it actually makes you feel unified, connected, part of something that’s so grand and so beautiful. So you are a part of something that’s awesome.”


An image of the Carina Nebula taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.


NASA

In their own right, these images are showstoppers, yet a Canadian scientist is now adding another level of emotion to it all.

Matt Russo, a University of Toronto physicist and a sonificiation specialist, is working with musician and friend Andrew Santaguida to add sound to the universe.

“The whole process felt really natural because we’re combining things that we’re passionate about: music, astronomy, math, computer programming, science, communication — all of these things wrapped up into one bundle,” Russo says.


Brent Rose/Global News

Matt Russo, a University of Toronto physicist and sonification specialist, creates sounds for the Webb images.

Their first effort at sonifying an image was with the Trappist-1 solar system, first captured by NASA’S Spitzer Space Telescope in 2017.

“[It] is an amazing solar system with seven earth-sized planets. But they also happened to be locked in a musical pattern called an orbital resonance. And so that made it really natural to convert their motions into musical rhythms and pitches,” Russo says.

They did the sonification of Trappist for pure enjoyment — then NASA took notice.

“We kind of just on our own, (started) sonifying different things (NASA) had released and we would send to them and they would just start posting it on their own. And then eventually that led to us working for them professionally.”


Andrew Santaguida, musician, working with Russo to sonify Webb images.


Brent Rose/Global News

Some of the sonifications have been met with skepticism from the public, like when they did the sound for a black hole.

“There’s a real soundwave detected in space in a galaxy cluster. And we were able to see the waves in the image, which means we can extract them and re-synthesize a sound,” Russo says.

“Some outlets would say it’s an actual recorded sound of a black hole, as if you had a microphone in space, which we know would not work for several reasons. So it’s important when we do sonification to present it for exactly what it is: that it’s data converged into sound.”

Now Russo and Santaguida are working on the latest imagery from the James Webb telescope.

They’re taking the spectacular images DePasquale and Pagan have created and putting them through a software system that Russo designed.

According to Russo sometimes the sound from the data can be a pleasant surprise.  Other times they need to get a bit more creative to figure out how best to represent something in the image. Russo says they always try to be as scientifically accurate as possible.

“Where we have a little more musical input, we have to decide, for instance, which musical instrument is going to be triggered by stars,” he adds. “People seem to have an intuition that stars would make kind of a bell or chime sound.”

Their sonifications of the Webb images are now allowing people to see — and hear — the universe.

The sonifications are providing those living with visual impairments the chance to experience new insights into what’s out there.

“The whole goal is to communicate those interesting features in the image, through sound,” Russo says.

Christine Malec, a member of the visually impaired community in Toronto and an arts and culture consultant, says the sonifications by Russo and Santaguida allow her to conceptualize the images from the telescope, even though she is not able to see them.

“I had never imagined experiencing astronomy in that way,” she tells The New Reality.


Brent Rose/Global News

Christine Malec, is a member of the visually impaired community, helping NASA make Webb images more accessible.

“When I experienced the sonification for the first time, I felt it in a way that was not intellectual; it was sensory and visceral. So I sometimes wonder if it’s what sighted people experience looking up at the night sky,” Malec says.

She now works regularly with Russo, Santaguida and NASA to help best translate the images from Webb for the benefit of people living with visual impairments.

Malec is excited about the future of space exploration and is hopeful for the future of accessible content in the science field.

“I wonder if I was a child now and came across things like sonification and image descriptions and astronomical stuff, would a career in STEM make more sense? Would it be more appealing? And I think the answer to that is yes. So I think that reason is a really good one for blind and low vision kids today to grow up with this as normal, I think it’s incredibly valuable.”

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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky

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Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride

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The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.

 

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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park

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Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”

 

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