On Jan. 30th, 2020, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was retired after sixteen years of faithful service. As one of the four NASA Great Observatories – alongside Hubble, Chandra, and Compton space telescopes – Spitzer was dedicated to studying the Universe in infrared light. In so doing, it provided new insights into our Universe and enabled the study of objects and phenomena that would otherwise be impossible.
For instance, Spitzer was the first telescope to see light from an exoplanet and made important discoveries about comets, stars, and distant galaxies. It is therefore fitting that mission scientists decided to spend the last five days before the telescope was to be decommissioned capturing breathtaking images of the California Nebula, which were stitched into a mosaic and recently released to the public.
Located about 1,000 light-years from Earth, the California Nebula is so-named because of the way its shape – long, narrow, and bend to the right near the bottom – resembles that of the Golden State. As with all nebulas, only so much can be seen in visible light, which is the result of the nebula gas being heated by stars in the interior – in this case, the extremely massive Xi Persei (aka. Menkib).
This is where Spitzer‘s capabilities come into play. Between 2009 and 2020, the space telescope studied the Universe in a non-visible part spectrum, thus giving astronomers the ability to discern objects and matter that would otherwise be invisible to them. Spitzer did this using two detectors that simultaneously imaged adjacent areas of the sky in different wavelengths of infrared light – 3.6 and 4.5 micrometers.
When looking at the California Nebula, Spitzer revealed features that were otherwise invisible. Of particular interest was the fine dust that is mixed with the nebula’s gas, which absorbs visible and ultraviolet light from nearby stars and re-emits it as infrared light. As always, Spitzer took multiple pictures of this region of the sky in a grid-like pattern to ensure that both detectors were able to image it simultaneously.
By combining those images into a mosaic, it was possible to see what a given region looked like in multiple wavelengths. These wavelengths were then color-coded to indicate what part of the IR wavelength they reside in – cyan for 3.6 and red for 4.5 micrometers – and shown in relation to what could be seen in visible light.
NASA selected the California Nebula during Spitzer’s final week of operations from a list of potential targets that would be within the telescope’s field of view. The California Nebula was selected because, a) Spitzer had not yet studied it, and b) the likelihood that it would contain prominent infrared features and provide a significant scientific return.
As Sean Carey, the manager of the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech who helped select the nebula for observation, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“Sometime in the future, some scientist will be able to use that data to do a really interesting analysis. The entire Spitzer data archive is available to the scientific community to use. This is another piece of the sky that we’re putting out there for everyone to study.”
The Spitzer team made additional science observations until the last day before the mission ended (Jan. 29th), but none were as visually stunning as the California Nebula. These included the light caused by zodiacal dust, which is material scattered throughout our Solar System from comets sublimating and collisions between asteroids.
Because comets and asteroids are material leftover from the formation of the Solar System, observations of this dust can provide astronomers with a look back in time. Spitzer’s orbit, which takes the observatory up to 256 million km (158 million mi) from Earth (or 600 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon), also provided it with a unique vantage point to study zodiacal dust.
The mission team also used this time to close the shutter on Spitzer’s camera, which is something that had never been done before. This allowed the team to produce more accurate images of distant objects by subtracting the subtle effects that Spitzer’s instruments might have on their light measurements.
Despite being retired, scientists continue to analyze Spitzer data, which can be accessed by researchers and citizen scientists alike through the Spitzer data archive. This archive is located at the Infrared Science Archive (IRSA), which is housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech (where Spitzer science operations were conducted).
Next year, the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be deployed to space. Using its advanced suite of IR instruments, which will allow for longer wavelength coverage and greater sensitivity, it will build upon the legacy of Spitzer and Hubble by examining the most distant and unseens parts of our Universe.
To learn more about Spitzer and its biggest discoveries, NASA has created a free VR application for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, which is available at the Spitzer website. The Spitzer YouTube page also has two non-interactive VR experiences that can be viewed as immersive 360 videos. Be sure to check them out!
Further Reading: NASA/JPL
Musk's SpaceX set for debut astronaut mission, renewing NASA's crewed launch program – Cape Breton Post
By Joey Roulette
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch two American astronauts to the International Space Station on Wednesday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ending the U.S. space agency’s nine-year hiatus in human spaceflight.
California-based SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken and its Falcon 9 rocket is due to lift off at 4:33 p.m. EDT (2033 GMT) on Wednesday from the same launch pad used by NASA’s last space shuttle mission in 2011.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will view the launch in person, a White House spokesman said.
For Musk, SpaceX and NASA, a safe flight would mark a milestone in the quest to produce reusable spacecraft that can make space travel more affordable. Musk is the founder and CEO of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla Inc.
“Bob and I have been working on this program for five years, day in and day out,” Hurley, 53, said as he and Behnken, 49, arrived at the Kennedy Space Center from Houston last week. “It’s been a marathon in many ways, and that’s what you’d expect to develop a human-rated space vehicle that can go to and from the International Space Station.”
NASA, hoping to stimulate a commercial space marketplace, awarded $3.1 billion to SpaceX and $4.5 billion to Boeing Co to develop dueling space capsules, experimenting with a contract model that allows the space agency to buy astronaut seats from the two companies.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule is not expected to launch its first crew until 2021.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine declared the mission a “go” last week at Kennedy Space Center after space agency and SpaceX officials convened for final engineering checks.
SpaceX successfully tested Crew Dragon without astronauts last year in its first orbital mission to the space station. That vehicle was destroyed the following month during a ground test when one of the valves for its abort system burst, causing an explosion that triggered a nine-month engineering investigation that ended in January.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Will Dunham)
SpaceX on the verge of sending astronauts into orbit – Financial Times
If Elon Musk’s SpaceX succeeds in sending two astronauts into orbit for the first time this week, it will do more than just boost the bragging rights of one of the world’s best-known billionaires.
As the first human test flight on a commercial rocket to reach the International Space Station, it will also signal a breakthrough for the private space industry as a whole, and an important moment in the opening up of low earth orbit to the commercial sector.
The first manned test for the Crew Dragon capsule, carrying two Nasa astronauts on top of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday morning.
If the flight to the ISS is successful, Nasa is expected to buy four seats on a follow-up flight later this year, the first time its astronauts will have become paying passengers on a commercially owned and operated space vehicle.
This week’s launch marks the moment when the private sector starts to lift humans off the face of the planet “reliably and cheaply”, said Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, the competition which led to the first private manned flight to the edge of space 16 years ago. “It’s the first, fully commercially built, entrepreneurial capability,” he said. “What Elon Musk has done is nothing short of extraordinary, outpacing the US government-backed industries, Russia and China.”
Many of the technologies that SpaceX is relying on were pioneered by government space programmes over the past 60 years, meaning that the company is “standing on the shoulders of giants”, said Greg Autry, a former White House liaison to Nasa and an expert on the private space sector.
He compared the commercialisation of human space flight with the moment when the internet, which was created by the US Defense department, was handed over to the private sector. That makes the test flight a “tipping point we’ve been waiting for in the commercial space industry for a number of years”, he said.
Nasa, which commissioned both SpaceX and Boeing seven years ago to build human launch systems, is counting on commercial incentives and market competition to drive down the price of getting into space. It has estimated that the $400m SpaceX spent to develop its Falcon 9 rocket, which has become the workhorse for lifting cargo to the ISS, was only a tenth what it would have cost Nasa itself to build a similar rocket.
Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 and the US was forced to buy seats on Russian rockets to propel its astronauts to the ISS, the cost of getting into space has risen sharply. Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, paid $20m in 2001 for a ride to the ISS on a Russian rocket. The price of a seat has now ballooned to more than $90m.
A competitive commercial market could quickly push that price back below $50m, said Mr Autry. Boeing’s rival space capsule suffered a setback earlier this year because of software glitches but is expected to make its first manned test launch next year. Other companies, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, a Californian company that has built a space vehicle with wings, also hope to cash in.
As competition increases and the process for mounting human flights becomes more streamlined, the price for a trip into orbit could fall below $10m over the next decade, Mr Autry predicted.
All of this remains theoretical, however, until private companies prove they can launch humans into orbit safely, and return them to earth. The thought of entrusting astronauts to a fully commercial rocket company was jarring for many in the US space programme when it was first proposed in 2011, said Janet Kavandi, a former Nasa astronaut and now an executive at Sierra Nevada.
Nasa worked hard to make sure companies such as SpaceX are ready, she added. That meant doing everything from sharing the data from its Columbia shuttle disaster to teaching them everything it had learnt about crew survivability, down to the way seats are attached to the craft. By opting for a capsule, rather than a winged craft such as the Space Shuttle, SpaceX has also reduced the complexity of its launches.
Many in the private space industry believe demand is pent up to support the new human launch companies in their early years, though few are prepared to guess at the ultimate size of the market.
Countries that have space programmes but don’t have their own launch systems are already waiting to buy seats on private rockets, said Laura Forczyk at Astralytical, a US space consultancy. A boom in space tourism is likely to follow, she added, particularly if prices fall as fast as some expect.
Nasa, which objected to Mr Tito’s private flight nearly two decades ago, has since become a strong backer of space tourism as a way to share some of its own costs and shift more of its budget to reach the moon and, eventually, Mars. Last year it went as far as to publish a detailed price list for use of its facilities on the ISS, including $11,250 a day for private astronauts to access the station’s life support system and toilet.
The next step in commercialising space will need more accommodation for private astronauts, particularly since the ISS is due to be retired sometime this decade. The first private company to launch a module designed to attach to the ISS, Axiom, hopes to launch in 2024, on the way to a fully freestanding space station. The full potential of low earth orbit also depends on the private sector seizing on the chance to carry out materials research and manufacturing in zero-gravity — an idea that has barely been tested.
For Mr Musk, meanwhile, the first private trip some 250 miles up to the ISS is only a small step to a far more ambitious goal. Turning humanity into an interplanetary species is still his overriding ambition in life, said Mr Diamandis. “It means that we now have an entrepreneurial company that will also get us to the moon, and eventually to Mars,” he said.
Excited Scientists Find ‘Cosmic Ring Of Fire’ Galaxy By Peering 11 Billion Light-Years Back In Time – Forbes
An Australian-led team of astronomers has unearthed a previously unknown type of galaxy just three billion years after the Big Bang. Variously described as both a “cosmic ring of fire” and a “titanic donut,” the finding could change what we know about how the first galaxies formed.
Announced today in the journal Nature Astronomy, this “collisional ring galaxy”—named R5519—is 10. billion light-years distant and the first of its kind found in the early Universe.
“It is a very curious object that we’ve never seen before,” said lead researcher Dr. Tiantian Yuan, from the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D). “It looks strange and familiar at the same time.”
The publishing of Dr. Yuan’s paper, “A giant galaxy in the young Universe with a massive ring” was accompanied by an incredible video put together by Swinburne University’s astro-animator James Josephides.
Where is R5519?
R5519 is 10.8 billion light-years distant. It was imaged as it existed 11 billion years ago. Does that make it like “looking back in time?” Yes—all astronomy is looking back in time because the light that enters your eyes when stargazing/or a telescope has traveled vast distances through space at light-speed to reach us. Even sunlight is 8 minutes 20 seconds old.
The Big Bang took place around 13.8 billion years ago; R5519 was imaged just three billion light years later.
How big is R5519?
Supermassive. The hole in R5519’s “cosmic ring” has a diameter is two billion times that of the Earth-Sun distance, which astronomers call an astronomical unit (au), though the galaxy itself has a similar mass to our Milky Way.
R5519 is also three million times bigger than the diameter of the supermassive black hole in the galaxy M87, which was the first ever to be directly imaged last year.
Why is R5519 such an incredible discovery?
This giant galaxy with a massive hole in the middle is a super-rare type of galaxy—a “collisional ring galaxy”—that could shake-up theories about how the earliest galaxies formed after the Big Bang, and how galaxies evolve. “It is making stars at a rate 50 times greater than the Milky Way,” said Dr. Yuan. “Most of that activity is taking place on its ring—so it truly is a ring of fire.”
How was R5519 discovered?
Working alongside colleagues from Australia, US, Canada, Belgium and Denmark, Dr. Yuan used spectroscopic data gathered by the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and images recorded by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to identify R5519’s unusual structure.
Why is R5519 such an important discovery?
R5519 is the first known “collisional ring galaxy” ever found in the early Universe, and it’s likely the result of a violent encounter with other galaxies. Its discovery has implications for understanding how spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way formed.
That’s because ring galaxies like R5519 are very rare in the local Universe. In fact, they account for a mere 0.01% of galaxies, and are formed by head-on collisions. This paper suggests that massive collisional rings are as rare 11.8 billion years ago as they are today.
“The collisional formation of ring galaxies requires a thin disk to be present in the “victim” galaxy before the collision occurs,” said co-author Professor Kenneth Freeman from the Australian National University. “The thin disk is the defining component of spiral galaxies: before it assembled, the galaxies were in a disorderly state, not yet recognisable as spiral galaxies.”
“In the case of this ring galaxy, we are looking back into the early Universe by 11 billion years, into a time when thin disks were only just assembling,” said Freeman. “This discovery is an indication that disk assembly in spiral galaxies occurred over a more extended period than previously thought.”
For comparison, the thin disk of our Milky Way galaxy began to come together only about nine billion years ago.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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