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Monthly Archives: May 2015

NASA’s MESSENGER orbiter of Mercury ran out of fuel and crashed into Mercury on May 1, 2015, ending a very successful mission. The craft slammed into Mercury’s surface at about 8,750 mph and created a new crater on the planet’s surface.

MESSENGER’s demise went unobserved because the probe hit the side of the planet facing away from Earth, so ground-based telescopes were not able to capture the moment of impact. Space-based telescopes also were unable to view the impact, as Mercury’s proximity to the Sun would damage their optics.

MESSENGER had been in orbit more than four years and completed 4105 orbits around Mercury. Among its many accomplishments, the MESSENGER mission determined Mercury’s surface composition, revealed its geological history, discovered its internal magnetic field is offset from the planet’s center, and verified its polar deposits are dominantly water ice.

The movie below shows a NASA simulation of the spacecraft’s epic voyage.

Links: MESSENGER home, Sky & Telescope’s report, NY Times article, high-resolution image of the crash-site, map of gravity anomoalies measured by deviations of MESSENGER from its predicted orbit.

From a Berkeley Lab press release, April 30, 2015:

For the past several years, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have been planning the construction of and developing technologies for a very special instrument that will create the most extensive three-dimensional map of the universe to date. Called DESI for Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, this project will trace the growth history of the Universe rather like the way you might track a child’s height with pencil marks climbing up a doorframe. But DESI will start from the present and work back into the past.

DESI will make a full 3D map pinpointing galaxies’ locations across the Universe. The map, unprecedented in its size and scope, will allow scientists to test theories of dark energy, the mysterious force that appears to cause the accelerating expansion and stretching of the Universe first discovered in observations of supernovae by groups led by Saul Perlmutter at Berkeley Lab and by Brian Schmidt, now at Australian National University, and Adam Riess, now at Johns Hopkins University.

Read interviews with Michael Levi and David Schlegel, two key physicists who have been involved in DESI from the beginning, here.

From an ESO press release, April 22, 2015:

Astronomers using the HARPS planet-hunting machine at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile have made the first-ever spectroscopic detection of visible light reflected off an exoplanet. These observations also revealed new properties of this famous object, the first exoplanet ever discovered around a normal star: 51 Pegasi b. The result promises an exciting future for this technique, particularly with the advent of next generation instruments and future telescopes, such as the E-ELT.

The exoplanet 51 Pegasi b lies some 50 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus. It was discovered in 1995 and will forever be remembered as the first confirmed exoplanet to be found orbiting an ordinary star like the Sun. It is also regarded as the archetypal ‘hot Jupiter’ — a class of planets now known to be relatively commonplace, similar in size and mass to Jupiter, but which orbit much closer to their parent stars.

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger

Currently, the most widely used method to examine an exoplanet’s atmosphere is to observe the host star’s spectrum as it is filtered through the planet’s atmosphere during transit – a technique known as transmission spectroscopy. An alternative approach is to observe the system when the star passes in front of the planet, which primarily provides information about the exoplanet’s temperature.

The new technique does not depend on finding a planetary transit, and so can potentially be used to study many more exoplanets. It allows the planetary reflected light spectrum to be directly detected in visible light, which means that different characteristics of the planet that are inaccessible to other techniques can be inferred.

The host star’s spectrum is used as a template to guide a search for a similar signature of light that is expected to be reflected off the planet as it describes its orbit. This is an exceedingly difficult task as planets are incredibly dim in comparison to their dazzling parent stars. The signal from the planet is also easily swamped by other tiny effects and sources of noise. In the face of such adversity, the success of the technique when applied to the HARPS data collected on 51 Pegasi b provides an extremely valuable proof of concept.

Link: ESO press release

From a press release of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, April 21, 2015:

Joint observations by the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile and Antarctica’s largest astronomical telescope come closer to making detailed images of the supermassive black hole in the centre of the Milky Way, up to its very edge, the “event horizon”. These successful observations were conducted within the framework of the Event Horizon Telescope – a virtual telescope as big as planet Earth.

Event Horizon Telescope

Credit: © Dan Marrone/University of Arizona

The South Pole Telescope (SPT) and APEX joined together in a ‘Very Long Baseline Interferometry’ experiment for the first time in January 2015. The two telescopes together observed two sources — the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, Sagittarius A*, and the black hole at the centre of the nearby galaxy Centaurus A — and combined their signals to synthesize a telescope 7,000 kilometres across. With this success, the SPT joins the Event Horizon Telescope array, which connects APEX, the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico, the Submillimeter Telescope in Arizona, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California, the Submillimeter Array and James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, and the Institute for Radio Astronomy Millimetrique (IRAM) telescopes in Spain and France.

Even though the Milky Way’s black hole is 4 million times more massive than the Sun, it is tiny to the eyes of astronomers. Smaller than Mercury’s orbit around the Sun, yet almost 26,000 light years away, studying its event horizon in detail is equivalent to standing in New York and reading the date on a cent in Germany.

With its unprecedented resolution, more than 1,000 times better than the Hubble Telescope, the EHT will see swirling gas on its final plunge over the event horizon, never to regain contact with the rest of the universe. If the theory of general relativity is correct, the black hole itself will be invisible because not even light can escape its immense gravity. However, it might still be seen as a silhouette against the background.

Links: MPIfR press release; EHT home.

From a Fremilab press release, April 22, 2015:

The Italian ICARUS neutrino experiment – the world’s largest of its type – will move to Fermilab and become an integral part of the future of neutrino research in the United States (see Section 12.7c, p. 324-325).

Scientists will transport the liquid-argon neutrino detector across the Atlantic Ocean to its new home at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The 760-ton, 65-foot-long detector took data for the ICARUS experiment at the Italian Institute for Nuclear Physics’ (INFN) Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy from 2010 to 2014, using a beam of neutrinos sent through the Earth from CERN. The detector is now being refurbished at CERN, where it is the first beneficiary of a new test facility for neutrino detectors.


Credit: INFN

When it arrives at Fermilab, the detector will become part of an on-site suite of three experiments dedicated to studying neutrinos, ghostly particles that are all around us but have given up few of their secrets. All three detectors will be filled with liquid argon, which enables the use of state-of-the-art time projection technology, drawing charged particles created in neutrino interactions toward planes of fine wires that can capture a 3-D image of the tracks those particles leave. Each detector will contribute different yet complementary results to the hunt for a fourth type of neutrino.

Many theories in particle physics predict the existence of a so-called “sterile” neutrino, which would behave differently from the three known types and, if it exists, could provide a route to understanding the mysterious dark matter that makes up 25 percent of the Universe. Discovering this fourth type of neutrino would revolutionize physics, changing scientists’ picture of the Universe and how it works.

Links: Fermilab press release, CERN press release, ICARUS home.