Archive for the ‘astronomy’ tag
Slate’s Phil Plait reflects on this stunning photo and the importance of taking the time to notice the soaring majesty that’s all around us:
This photo was taken by Kevin Ford, an astronaut on board the International Space Station. On Dec. 21, looking out a window, he took this picture of an approaching Russian Soyuz capsule containing three more astronauts: the crew of Expedition 35, which will take over command of the ISS for the next few months.
You can see the capsule almost swallowed by the canvas of black around it. Below, seemingly close in the picture but still hundreds of kilometers away, is the gentle blue curve of our planet’s horizon. And above, more distant by far, the half-lit face of the Moon. In this short exposure no stars can be seen; it’s just our planet, its one natural satellite, and one of many human-created satellites. The Moon above has no one on it; just artifacts left by a short visit decades ago and an uncrewed handful since. The Earth below is teeming with people, all living under that narrow blue arc of air. And in between, three more humans guided by the hand of Newton’s laws, headed for an outpost in space.
If there’s a better metaphor for the end of a year and the beginning of another, I’m not sure I know it. Humans are explorers. We’re a curious bunch, and we love to stick our heads into places unknown, moving from one thing to the next, learning about everything around us.
There’s a lot of everything to know. And we cannot possibly understand it with our eyes closed, our minds narrowed, our heads tilted down.
So look up! Because when we do, even for a moment, our view increases from here to infinity.
If you do one thing this upcoming year, just look up.
Via the Daily Mail in the U.K.:
A huge ‘bridge’ of invisible ‘dark matter’ has been detected holding two galaxy clusters, Abell 223 and Abell 222, together.
The filaments are thought to be a ‘glue’ that holds huge galaxy clusters together, but dark matter is extremely difficult to detect, as it does not emit any radiation.
Instead, the ‘bridge’ was detected by the gravitational ripples it caused in space, distorting the light from nearby stars as it arrived on Earth.
‘Dark matter’ is a theoretical – and controversial – substance which is undetectable by telescopes on earth, but thought by some scientists to account for up to 98% of the mass of the whole universe.
Dark matter is believed to act as a glue that binds galaxies together. Without it, the universe would not exist in its present form.
‘This is the first time a dark matter filament has been convincingly detected from its gravitational lensing effect,’ said astronomer Jörg Dietrich of the University Observatory Munich, in Germany in an interview with Space.com.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2169163/Cosmic-web-mysterious-dark-matter-detected-holding-galaxy-clusters-together.html#ixzz20B8vwNNv
[Photo caption: The filament is made of dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to make up up to 98% of the universe, but which is extremely difficult to detect.]
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2169163/Cosmic-web-mysterious-dark-matter-detected-holding-galaxy-clusters-together.html#ixzz20BB4YObU]
Amazing shot from the International Space Station:
Photographed by the Expedition 28 crew aboard the International Space Station, this image shows the moon, the Earth’s only natural satellite, at center with the limb of Earth near the bottom transitioning into the orange-colored troposphere, the lowest and most dense portion of the Earth’s atmosphere. The troposphere ends abruptly at the tropopause, which appears in the image as the sharp boundary between the orange- and blue-colored atmosphere. The silvery-blue noctilucent clouds extend far above the Earth’s troposphere.
[Photo credit: NASA, aboard the International Space Station]
New evidence suggests that the universe, previously thought to have been both symmetrical and born as a symmetric shape, like a ball, may have begun in rotation and without isotropic properties.
The researchers found evidence that galaxies tend to rotate in a preferred direction. They uncovered an excess of left-handed, or counter-clockwise rotating, spirals in the part of the sky toward the north pole of the Milky Way. The effect extended beyond 600 million light years away.
“The excess is small, about 7 percent, but the chance that it could be a cosmic accident is something like one in a million,” Longo said. “These results are extremely important because they appear to contradict the almost universally accepted notion that on sufficiently large scales the universe is isotropic, with no special direction.”
The work provides new insights about the shape of the Big Bang. A symmetric and isotropic universe would have begun with a spherically symmetric explosion shaped like a basketball. If the universe was born rotating, like a spinning basketball, Longo said, it would have a preferred axis, and galaxies would have retained that initial motion.
Of course, commentators on the above-linked article make a good point: we are witnessing this supposed “spinning” from own insignificant and rather random place within the universe. As a person named Raygunner noted:
We are measuring this from Earth’s point of view. Unless we are in the center of the Universe looking outwards I agree with david534, it makes no sense. It’s likely we are on the outer parts looking around but we have no idea where the center is. So we could see a handedness favoring one galaxy rotation direction or another depending on a) our location, b) expansion rates in our neighborhood, c) universal rotation and rotation direction, and d) the possibility that we are looking THROUGH the Universal center of rotation to the far side without knowing this.
Does this not depend on your point of view or is it the same result no matter where you are?
Then again, we know that Earth turns counter-clockwise around its axis, and even before rockets, we had some sense of the way Earth rotated, thanks to Leon Foucault and others. We didn’t need to get to space or at the center of Earth to determine this. We are unable to get “outside” of the universe, and it’s almost nonsensical to even talk about such a possibility, unless we leave open the possibility of existence multiverses. Regardless, one would think that if the universe is rotating, like planets or galaxies, it would need something to rotate in reference to, like an axis.
This 3D rendering of the universe (pictured below) appears to place the our Milky Way Galaxy at the apparent center of the universe, but I imagine this was done for simplicity and because the mapped galaxies were obviously mapped in reference to our own. For more information, see here.
As this video shows, every day or two, satellites detect gamma ray bursts (lasting more than 2 seconds) in the cosmos, which mean the death of a massive star and the birth of black holes. As if that’s not amazing enough:
I know this might be a rudimentary or obvious thing to say, but every time I look at the evening sun as it’s cascading down toward the horizon (or more precisely, as my location on Earth is rotating away from its light), I am amazed. This ball of hot plasma is not a mere 1 million miles away. Or 10 million. Or 50 million. It’s 93 million miles away from Earth. To put that into perspective, our planet’s circumference is almost 25,000 miles. To go an equivalent of 1 million miles into space, one would have to travel around Earth 40 times. To go an equivalent of 10 million miles into space, one would have to travel around Earth 400 times. To go an equivalent of 93 million miles, one would have to travel around Earth 3,720 times.
Yet, the sun still has the capacity to hurt my eyes at that distance just by peering into its hot gaze. What if we were just 5 million miles closer? Or 1 million? It’s devastatingly clear how impish we are, and how fragile, in comparison to everything else beyond our Goldilocks region.
I’ve been thinking about starting a series of posts like this for a few days. I will periodically, or daily if possible but probably not likely, feature one of the many breathtaking shots being delivered to us from the Hubble telescope and other telescopes from around the world, or alternately, I’ll feature a story about some new area of space exploration or discovery. I was interested in such a series because I think it can remind us how immensely small we humans are, and nay, how immensely small Earth itself is compared to the sprawling and often hostile world outside of our own cozy atmosphere.
The well-established fact by now is that elements that find their beginnings in the cores of stars and other objects in space are also found right here on Earth (iron for instance), so much so that humans not only share a common bond with, say, monkeys, birds and fish (through the engine of evolution by natural selection), but that we share a common bond with the entire universe! This sort of makes the meager miracles and such in the Bible seem wholly unimpressive when compared with the sheer magnificence and majesty of the cosmos. And it’s that kernel of truth that once made astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson deliver one of the most powerful “sermons” I have ever heard, in or out of church.
Here is the Tyson’s speech, and what follows is my first entry in this series, the Crab Nebula.
Here is the Crab Nebula, the only remnant of a supernova that can be seen with a mid-range telescope:
The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, all that remains of a tremendous stellar explosion. Observers in China and Japan recorded the supernova nearly 1,000 years ago, in 1054.
[Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)]
Here is a video about the Crab Nebula:
I have been stewing on this topic for a couple of days now, so I think I will take a few minutes now to, as it were, “shoot my bolt” on this article by Rabbi Adam Jacobs paradoxically titled, “A reasonable argument for God’s existence.”
The essence of the article rests on the fact that we — scientists and free thinkers — have no idea how the first RNA molecule first appeared on Earth, and that to fill in this gap (Jacobs’ Yahweh is the great God of the Gaps, after all), we must inextricably look to a “conscious super-intelligence” as the “architect of life” to account for this gaping hole in our scientific knowledge. This, Jacobs declares, is the reasonable position when science leaves us without answers.
Not one of them (scientists) has the foggiest notion about how to answer life’s most fundamental question: How did life arise on our planet? The non-believer is thus faced with two choices: to accept as an article of faith that science will eventually arrive at a reasonable, naturalistic conclusion to this intellectual black box or to choose to believe in the vanishingly small odds that the astonishing complexity, intelligence and mystery of life came about as a result of chance, which of course presents its own problems.
He then quotes Dr. Robert Shapiro, professor emeritus at New York University:
Suppose you took scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters containing every language on Earth and you heap them together, and then you took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there and the letters fell into a line which contained the words, ‘to be or not to be that is the question,’ that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule appearing on the Earth.
What Jacobs doesn’t tell readers, however, is that Shapiro has not abandoned a naturalistic explanation of how RNA might have come about. Shapiro simply says that earlier particles might have eventually led to RNA. A link on Shapiro’s Wikipedia page was broken, but here is a snippet from his entry:
opposes the RNA world hypothesis, holding that the spontaneous emergence of a molecule as complicated as RNA is highly unlikely. Instead, he proposes that life arose from some self-sustaining and compartmentalized reaction of simple molecules: “metabolism first” instead of “RNA first”. This reaction would have to be able to reproduce and evolve, eventually leading to RNA. He claims that in this view life is a normal consequence of the laws of nature and potentially quite common in the universe.
And that is really the theory that I think most work from, that RNA and later DNA first came about from earlier and simpler compounds. Now, we revert back again to this question: where did the simpler compounds come from? We can keep reverting back to the regression after regression until we hit the infinite one. But at least the scientific explanation of how something exists rather than nothing finds its basis in quite simple, naturalistic explanations. Jacobs, however, would have the scientific community introduce an immensely complex being such as God to explain how our little dot of a planet in the cosmos came into being, a concession that would beg many more questions than it answers, such as, “Who made God?” and “How can we theorize a scientific explanation for a spiritual realm?” and “How can we possibly qualify or scientifically observe or record a spiritual reality?”
I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
Jacobs’ thesis here is very primitive indeed. First, it’s not chance. Second, let’s go back before Darwin so eloquently explained natural selection. What were believers saying? They were saying that humankind has its origins in the divine, that we are made in the image of God, that a complex being such as humans could not have possibly originated from any thing other than a supreme being. I posit that this is precisely what Jacobs is doing on the origin of the universe. Whether Jacobs might like to admit it or not, Darwin all ready solved the great mystery of how man ascended from his former lower position in the animal kingdom to being the most intelligent species on the planet. Science, not the divine, solved that riddle for us. Today, believers are making the origins of the universe analogous with earlier questions of the origins of man, and God is the ever-present and ever-ready answer.
But that would be the wrong answer. Just as evolution eventually became the accepted means by which humans developed from lower strata, eventually, we will have the answer on the initial origin of life so long as we let science do its grand work. There is no point in throwing up our hands and summoning a god in the meantime. It is this primitive tendency of us humans that gets us into arguments in which we can’t escape, and it’s far from constructive to continue the practice of looking to the heavens for answers to stuff we can’t yet explain, like the ancients.
I vehemently disagree with the final two sentences above: “Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.”
Perhaps every theist agrees that there is an appearance of a design, but when I consider the vast number of failed planets and potential planets in our universe through the eons, the likelihood of a planet like ours eventually arising seems quite high, and in some 12-14 billion years, so high that we should be surprised if such a planet had not eventually formed. We live in that eventuality.
I learned about this a couple weeks ago, but as folks can see from the long tenure John Milton enjoyed at the top of this site, I haven’t devoted as much time to writing as usual as of late. More on that in another post.
But for now, one of the most significant discoveries, at least in my lifetime, was made in late September, when astronomers found the only planet besides Earth that is the right size and in the correct position to support life.
Orbiting around a red dwarf star in what is known as the Goldilocks Zone some 20 light years away, the planet known as Gliese 581g exists in an area of its galaxy that is neither too close or too far away from the star to foster ideal temperatures for life. According to Carnegie Institute astronomer Paul Butler,
This is really the first ‘Goldilocks’ planet, the first planet that is roughly the right size and just at the right distance to have liquid water on the surface. …
Everything we know about life is that it absolutely requires liquid water. The planet has to be the right distance from the star so it’s not too hot, not too cold … and then it has to have surface gravity so that it can hold on to a substantial atmosphere and allow the water to pool.
As we know, Gliese 581g does have water on it, and some scientists think it most probably has liquid water, given the temperate weather conditions. It’s believed that the average temperature range varies between -84 to -49 F with no atmospheric effects added in, while the numbers jump to -35 to 10 F with greenhouse gas effects figured in. That sounds pretty chilly, but half, or more, of the planet’s surface is on the dark side sitting away from its sun, while the bright side could, as I’ve read, approach as high as 160 F.
Either way, it’s a huge leap forward for science and for those interested in the question of whether life exists on other planets. Remember, of course, that when we say “life,” we don’t mean highly developed mammals like humans or apes, but most likely, we are referring to microbes and other simpler forms. With this discovery and others like it that have turned up water sources elsewhere in the cosmos, perhaps the only question that remains is: Not whether some form of life exists elsewhere, but how long will it be until we, in fact, discover it too?