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‘X-ray specs’: Canadian scientists starry-eyed over James Webb space telescope



It’s as if they were using a telescope not just to peer into space, but also into time.

Canadian scientists are already using spectacular data and images from the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope to look backward into some of the oldest stars ever studied and forward into how new stars and planets are born.

“One of the holy grails of astronomy is to find stars that are the first stars to have formed after the Big Bang,” said Ghassan Sarrouh of York University, a co-author of a study on star clusters that’s already been published using James Webb data. “That’s what we think these are — the earliest stars.”

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On the other end of time, Western University’s Els Peeters is looking into the future by studying hot young stars in the constellation Orion and their influence on the interstellar material around them.

“In that material is where the next generation of stars will be born,” she said.

Don’t forget the planets. A group at University of Montreal is looking at exoplanets — especially Earth-sized ones with water and other essential elements in their atmosphere that just might host life.

“We’ve already had a first result,” said Nathalie Oullette. “About a month ago was the first detection of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet.”

The James Webb is the result of $13 billion and more than two decades of work. The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb orbits much deeper in space and is anywhere from a hundred to a million times more sensitive.

Two of its major components — one machine that aims the telescope with stunning precision and another that analyzes light far beyond the visible spectrum — were designed and built in Canada. That has given Canadian researchers the right to claim five per cent of the telescope’s observation time.

Scientists are almost giddy over the quality of what they’re getting back.

“Astounding,” said Erik Rosolowsky of the University of Alberta, who’s using Webb’s infrared capabilities to study how black holes create voids in interstellar dust, the spawning grounds for new stars. “It’s like someone’s given us a set of X-ray specs.”

Oullette said before Webb, astronomers could spend days going through murky data, separating signal from noise.

“It is quite remarkable how clean (Webb’s) data is.” she said. “With Webb, there’s no having to dig through the data to find the signal.”

Sarrouh puts Webb images side-by-side with those from Hubble.

“You can just see one set of images is really blurred and fuzzy. The other is full of all these really sharp points that just sparkle.”

The results are pouring in. Rosolowsky and his team already have 21 papers in the works.

And already, scientists are feeling their mental star maps shift.

It looks, for example, that things may have started up much sooner after the Big Bang than previously thought, said Oullette.

“Maybe structure started earlier than we had thought and galaxies started forming earlier than we thought.”

Rosolowsky has confirmed the existence of black holes so large they leave great holes in the centre of galaxies where stars would normally be created.

“We can see straight through and say this black hole is ripping apart all these proto-stars before they get going.”

Peeters calls it a new era in astronomy.

“It’s only operational for three months and already we’ve learned so much.”

Sarrouh said it’s a good time to be a Canadian astronomer.

“It will allow us to see into a time we’ve never seen into before. You can almost think of the James Webb as a time machine.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 10, 2022.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

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What Are Fast Radio Bursts? –



The universe is full of mystery. No matter how much becomes known about the cosmos, there always seems to be more that is unknown. Any time a question is answered, more questions seem to arise, and so the process of scientific discovery becomes never ending. There are many examples of what is unknown about the cosmos, yet one perfect example is a phenomenon known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRB). As the name suggests, an FRB is a burst of radio waves that originate from the depths of interstellar space. They usually only last up to three seconds long, yet whatever releases them emits more energy in one second than our sun does every day. This suggests that FRBs are created by high energy processes, yet exactly what causes them remains unknown. 

Where Do FRBs Come From?

Most FRBs orignate in distant galaxies. Image credit: NASA/ESA

Most FRBs detected originate beyond the Milky Way Galaxy, yet some have been detected within our galaxy. To date, astronomers have detected around 500 FRBs, yet there remains no consensus on what actually creates them. That isn’t to say there aren’t any possible explanations, however. Some popular theories claim that FRBs originate from stellar remnants such as neutron stars or black holes. Other theories posit that they may originate from collisions between black holes or neutron stars. Another interesting theory is that FRBs come from a type of stellar remnant called a magnetar. A magnetar is a type of neutron star that has an exceptionally strong magnetic field and emits high amounts of x-rays and gamma rays, and some FRBs have been traced back to regions around magnetars. It’s quite possible that FRBs form from multiple different events, with no single phenomenon able to explain the origin of every FRB. 

Alien Origin

Galaxy Hubble
Hubble image of a distant galaxy. Image credit: NASA/ESA

Whenever astronomers detect signals of unknown origin, there is always the question of whether or not the signal originated from another civilization. Ever since humans began using technology to transmit signals around the world, some of the signals leak into space and travel at the speed of light. Any civilization that happens to be pointing a radio telescope in the right direction at the right time would detect our signals. Assuming other intelligent civilizations develop radio technology, they too would emit signals out into space that could be detected by us. Thus, some astronomers have wondered if some FRBs are in fact the radio signals from another civilization. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time this has happened. When astronomers discovered the first pulsars, they thought they had come across an alien signal, yet it later turned out to be a rapidly rotating neutron star. In the case of FRBs, it is unlikely they originate from another intelligent species. This is mainly due to the fact that they do not appear to come directly from other solar systems, and the bursts themselves contain so much energy that it seems unlikely a civilization would be creating them. Rather, a natural explanation is more likely, yet it still remains unknown exactly where FRBs come from.

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How Old Is The Sun? –



The sun formed around 4.6-billion years ago, and all the planets formed within the next 100-million years. The age of the sun and the planets is one of the most widely accepted facts about our solar system, and the reason for this is that every line of evidence points to the same age. How is the age of the sun determined?

Finding The Oldest Thing In The Solar System

One way to determine the approximate age of the sun is to find the oldest object in the solar system. Fortunately, there are countless objects that formed along with the sun, such as asteroids, meteors, and planetesimals. These forms of planetary debris remain virtually unchanged for billions of years, and by using radiometric dating methods, scientists can determine their age, in turn directly telling us how old the sun is. Radiometric dating uses precise chemicals to determine the age of rocks, and it works by using something called a half-life. For example, carbon-14 dating is a reliable method for dating things like fossils, as carbon-14 is only present in organic matter. Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, meaning that after 5,730 years, half of the carbon-14 will decay into another chemical, in this case, nitrogen-14. Every 5,730 years, another half will decay and so on. By determining the amount of carbon-14 present relative to the amount of nitrogen-14, scientists can determine the age of whatever it is that is being analyzed. While carbon-14 is a reliable method for determining the age of organic matter, it will not work for determining things that are billions of years old. 

To find out when the sun first began to form, astronomers look for iron-60, a rare isotope of iron that is only produced during a supernova explosion. A supernova likely preceded the formation of our solar system, and the energy released from the explosion likely ignited the formation of the sun billions of years ago. Iron-60 has a half-life of 2.26-million years, wherein it decays into nickel-60. Like with carbon-14 and nitrogen-14, astronomers analyze rocks from asteroids and meteors to determine the ratio between iron-60 and nickel-60, which produces an age of around 4.6-billion years. Furthermore, other dating methods used on Earth and the moon have produced ages of around 4.5-billion years, offering further evidence that the sun is at least that old.

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Lifespan Of The Sun

The Sun

The sun is 4.6-billion years old, and astronomers believe that it is only about halfway through its life. We obviously cannot see into the future, and so how do scientists estimate the amount of time the sun will exist for? The process is actually rather simple, and it involves knowing how much fuel the sun has and rate at which it consumes that fuel. Like every other star in the universe, the sun is powered by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei in its core. When hydrogen is fused together, it produces helium and vast amounts of energy that power the star. So long as nuclear fusion is maintained within the core, the sun will remain a main sequence star. However, that fuel will eventually run out, and when it does, the sun will enter into the final stages of life. By knowing the amount of fuel the sun has and the rate at which it uses that fuel, astronomers estimate that the sun will continue fusing hydrogen in its core for at least another 4 to 5-billion years. When the sun does begin to run out of usable hydrogen, it will evolve into a red giant, eventually blowing off its outer layers. Those outer layers will form a shell of stellar material called a planetary nebula. Meanwhile, the core of the sun will collapse and become a white dwarf. 

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UBC Okanagan study to investigate where Eurasian watermilfoil occurs in lakes – Vernon Morning Star



A UBC Okanagan pilot project is seeking to better pinpoint and map where the beginnings of Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) infestation occurs in the large lakes within the Okanagan Valley watershed.

If this pilot project proves successful, it could become a blueprint for other jurisdictions to follow in their own battles with this aquatic plant or other invasive aquatic species, says UBCO assistant professor Mathieu Bourbonnais.

Bourbonnais, with the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, is overseeing the project with the assistance of masters graduate student Mackenzie Clarke.

The data modelling prototype is using the technology of topobathymetric lidar, the science of simultaneously measuring and recording three distinct surfaces – land, water and submerged land up to 20 metres below the water surface – using airborne laser-based infrared imagery sensors.

Bourbonnais says being able to better identify potential or small milfoil patches will give better control management tools for the Okanagan Basin Water Board’s Euroasian watermilfoil harvest program, which currently is about an $800,000 a year initiative to try and control the growth and limit the damage of the invasive water plant.

It could also potentially target specific watermilfoil growth sites before they grow out of control near valley lake areas deemed sensitive by Environment Canada for the preservation of the Rocky Mountain Ridge Mussels.

He said EWM has been a formidable invasive aquatic plant species to control since it was introduced into the Okanagan Valley lake system some 40 years ago.

It has also illustrated to the water board the need to be stringent when trying to avoid the Zebra and Quagga mussels from being introduced into the lake system.

Like watermilfoil, there is no solution for removing the mussels once they are introduced into a lake system. It is a rooted submerged plant inhabiting the shallows waters of lakes across North America.

EWM originated from Asia, Europe and Northern Africa and has spread rapidly, introduced in North America from the ballast water of ships or aquarium activities.

Bourbonnais said a lake choked with watermilfoil growth impacts the biodiversity and food webs reliant on the lake habitat, alter the water temperature and impacts its recreational use for swimmers and boaters.

“The impact of invasive species on our lake aquatic systems costs billions of dollars to deal with across the country. It definitely has an impact both ecologically and economically,” he said.

The pilot project fieldwork will be done by early spring, he said, with the hope it provides data upon which to target areas for harvesting leading up to the permit application process next year.

“The goal is the Okanagan Basin Water Board can take the data generated from this research model and liaise with the province and federal government on how to go forward,” he said.

“We hope it can help the management strategy of where to send the lake rototillers to pull up the plants.”

READ MORE: Milfoil infestation continues to plague Okanagan watershed


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