TIME astronomy

New Picture: The Universe as a Sulky Adolescent

Portrait of the universe as a young man
Portrait of the universe as a young man

An ingenious technique reveals data that's been lost for 11 billion years

Presidential tracking polls are famous for their speed—a gaffe at noon is reflected in the numbers by four. That’s because a poll is not a lengthy conversation with voters, but just a quick-hit piece of data-gathering repeated over and over. The same approach now appears able to give us answers about the universe, too.

Using just four hours of telescope observation time, astronomers have generated a new image of what part of the universe looked like in its adolescence, when it was less than a quarter of its current age. The three-dimensional map, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, measures millions of light years across and reveals regions of high-density matter representing galaxies as they were barely 3 billion years post-Big Bang.

“We’ve pulled this off a decade before anyone else thought it was possible,” said Max Planck postdoctoral researcher Khee-Gan Lee, the paper’s lead author.

Astronomers had previously believed they would need far more observation time and more-powerful telescopes than are currently available to collect sufficient starlight from distant galaxies with which to do a job like this. That’s partly because those light sources appear up to 15 billion times dimmer than the very faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye.

But four hours on the Keck I telescope at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii turned out to be enough. The scientists used a technique similar to a CT scan to create their map. But rather than taking cross-sectional x-rays through a body to generate a 3D image, they used light from background galaxies passing through hydrogen gas in the “cosmic web”—the tangle of macro-filaments in which the universe’s matter arranges itself—to do the same thing.

The reason they didn’t need the most sensitive equipment available to do this work was because they had a powerful algorithm instead, created by graduate student Casey Stark and physics and astronomy professor Martin White, both of the University of California, Berkeley. The data they gathered might have been noisy but the algorithm cleaned it right up. The resulting map, says Ohio State University professor of astronomy David Weinberg, is “fine enough that it’s revealing a lot of the interesting details.”

Adds Harvard astronomy professor Daniel Eisenstein, “For a lot of questions, this is a very useful scale of a map.”

The map’s elongated, plank-like shape reflects one admitted constraint of the study: because of bad weather and the short data collection time, the astronomers could map only a limited volume of space. The next order of business is for Keck I to cover a larger patch of sky, revealing huge swathes of the adolescent universe. From this map astronomers will not just be able to see the appearance of the cosmos a short while after the Big Bang, but also tease out a little bit of information about the clumping of matter that allowed galaxies to form in some regions while leaving others empty.

Next-generation super-telescopes will no doubt be useful for both these questions, able to quadruple the density of the data as well as help scientists figure out how the universe looked even closer to the Big Bang than 11 billion years ago. For now, though, telescopes like Keck I will tell us plenty. “Noisy data doesn’t scare me,” Lee said.

TIME space

Watch a Giant, 4.6 Billion-Year-Old Comet Fly By Mars

Watch highlights of Comet Siding Spring zoom past Mars and get roughly within 87,000 miles of the red planet — the closest any comet has gotten to it in a long, long time.

The livestream from the Slooh Community Observatory was hosted by expert astrobiologist David Grinspoon and featured special guests.

“We’re going to observe an event that happens maybe once every million years,” Jim Green, planetary science division director at NASA, said this month at a press conference. “This is an absolutely spectacular event.”

Siding Spring is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old with a core somewhere between half a mile and 5 miles wide. Looking the comet’s close brush with Mars could teach scientists a lot about the planet’s atmosphere, writes Mike Wall at Space.com. Studying the comet could also provide insight into how planets are formed: Siding Spring is believed to have been created in an area of our solar system between Jupiter and Neptune, but unlike most objects in that part of space at the time, it never was incorporated into a planet.

TIME space

Researchers Just Discovered The Brightest Dead Star Ever Found

A rare and mighty pulsar (pink) can be seen at the center of the galaxy Messier 82 in this new multi-wavelength portrait, released on Oct. 8, 2014.
A rare and mighty pulsar (pink) can be seen at the center of the galaxy Messier 82 in this new multi-wavelength portrait, released on Oct. 8, 2014. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers using NASA’s NuSTAR telescope array have found something beautiful about 12 million light-years from our planet Earth: The brightest dead star, or pulsar, ever found. It’s only called a dead star because it’s the leftovers from a supernova — this thing is still very much alive, pumping out around 10 million suns’ worth of energy, according to NASA. Scientists originally thought the pulsar, located in the Messier 82 galaxy, was a black hole, but it turns out that isn’t the case at all.

“You might think of this pulsar as the ‘Mighty Mouse’ of stellar remnants,” said Fiona Harrison, the NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, in a NASA release about the pulsar. “It has all the power of a black hole, but with much less mass.”

TIME space

Watch the Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse in One GIF

Blood moon lunar eclipse 2014
Ritchie B. Tongo—EPA (7); Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

For those who were able to see it in person, Wednesday morning’s Blood Moon lunar eclipse didn’t disappoint as skywatchers spotted Earth’s always-orbiting pal turn a deep shade of red.

Why that color? During a Blood Moon lunar eclipse, Earth gets between the Sun and the moon, casting a shadow on the lunar surface. The red color comes as Earth’s atmosphere scatters the sunlight, stripping away blue light and leaving behind the red to reach the moon’s surface.

If you missed Wednesday’s Blood Moon — the second of the year and fourth lunar eclipse — check it out here in a single GIF. Then check out past Blood Moons, too.

TIME space

See the Best Photos of Wednesday Morning’s Blood Moon

The second blood moon - and fourth lunar eclipse - of 2014 did not disappoint

TIME space

See the Most Stunning Moments From ‘Blood Moon’ Lunar Eclipse

Stargazers gazed in awe at a “Blood Moon” total lunar eclipse early Wednesday morning, with viewing opportunities across the Americas.

But if you missed the celestial display, never fear — SLOOH Community Observatory livestreamed the whole thing for everyone’s enjoyment, and TIME has highlights from the 3.5-hour broadcast right here.

Want a primer on the “Blood Moon” before taking a look? Read TIME Science Editor Jeffrey Kluger’s explanation of the phenomenon here.


A Lot of Earth’s Water Is Actually Older Than the Sun

The Crew Of Apollo 17 Took This Photograph Of Earth In December 1972 While The Spacecraf
NASA/Getty Images

That's more than 4.5 billion years old

Up to about half of the water on our planet is older than the sun, according to a paper published on Thursday in the journal Science.

While you next take a sip, ponder this, too: the fact that Earth’s water is so old bodes well for our hunt for wet environments — and, for life — elsewhere in the universe.

Life on Earth owes everything to the presence of liquid water here, but, even so, scientists don’t have definitive answers for how or when the water got here — or, for that matter, when the water itself was formed.

The new research seeks to answer that last question: Was our water made before the sun existed, brewed in the same cloud of dust from which the sun would form? Or did water come later, forming as the Earth also formed?

As the Washington Post explains, during the sun’s birth a band of unused space dust gathered like skirt hems around it. Such material, called the protoplanetary disk, would go on to form the solar system’s planets.

Scientists know that water accompanied the sun’s birth but wondered if it might have been destroyed in the process of the sun’s formation, leaving Earth to go it alone in stirring up its own water.

To find out if the water from that dust cloud made it to Earth, researchers measured the ratio of deuterium, or heavy hydrogen to hydrogen. The findings show that heavy hydrogen levels on Earth are higher than they would have been in the protoplanetary disk. That means that some of our water must predate the sun, when heavy hydrogen was in abundance.

So, if water can survive a star’s birthing process, and if other solar systems in the universe formed much like ours did, that means that water might be a common ingredient in the making of other planets far from our own.

“By identifying the ancient heritage of Earth’s water, we can see that the way in which our solar system was formed will not be unique, and that exoplanets will form in environments with abundant water,” said Tim Harries, a professor at the University of Exeter’s Physics and Astronomy Department, in England, and an author of the paper, in a statement.

“Consequently,” he said, “it raises the possibility that some exoplanets could house the right conditions, and water resources, for life to evolve.”

Last spring, scientists announced that there could be up to 11 billion exoplanets — planets outside or solar system — that are at just the right distance from their stars to have liquid water, and, perhaps, life as well.

TIME astronomy

Big Bang ‘Proof’ Might Just Be Space Dust, Study Finds

Ripples in space touted as proof of the Big Bang theory might simply be cosmic interference, a new study finds

A major discovery touted as proof of the explosive origins of our universe may simply be interference from space dust, new research suggests.

This past Spring, a research team called Bicep reported that by using a powerful telescope, the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (BICEP2), they could observe ripples in the sky that they believed to be gravitational waves from the cosmic event that we have come to know as the Big Bang.

If true, the findings would be monumental, since it would be close to absolute evidence of the Big Bang and a theory called cosmic inflation, which suggests that the world underwent a rapid expansion, bursting into existence in less than a second.

But a new paper published Monday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics suggests that there was probably a lot of space dust interference in the original findings, and it’s unlikely that the Bicep researchers had a clear enough picture to confirm they indeed saw waves from the origins of the universe.

“We show that even in the faintest dust-emitting regions there are no “clean” windows in the sky,” reads the study. The researchers, who used data from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, determined that the dust could have produced the ripples the scientists saw, but added they could not be certain how much the dust did interfere.

The critique was not unexpected. As TIME reported in May, the research group which is led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had already received feedback from other scientists who speculated the signals were just dust.

The Bicep and the Planck satellite teams will collaborate on both of their findings to come to a more detailed conclusion of what the Bicep team saw. For now, the scientific community will have to wait. The New York Times reports that the joint findings of the two groups are due at the end of the year.

(Casual readers may be more familiar with this specific finding than they realize. In March, a YouTube video went viral showing a member of Bicep knocking on the door of retired researcher Andrei Linde to tell him they discovered the ripples–implying his own theories about the start of the universe were correct.)


TIME astronomy

The MAVEN Spacecraft Has Begun Orbiting Mars on a Yearlong Quest

Mars Maven
In this artist concept provided by NASA, the MAVEN spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere AP

It's on a mission to discover what happened to Mars' atmosphere

Mars explorer MAVEN entered the Red Planet’s orbit late Sunday night, beginning a yearlong journey during which scientists hope to discover what happened to the Martian atmosphere.

Mission managers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., received confirmation of MAVEN’s arrival at about 10:25 p.m. E.T. — about a half-hour after it began slowing down from more than 10,000 m.p.h. to enter Martian orbit.

Narration of the orbital’s entry was broadcast beginning at 9:30 p.m. from Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ mission-operations center in Littleton, Colo. It took about 12 minutes for MAVEN’s signals to travel the 442 million miles to Earth.

MAVEN – standing for Martian Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution – launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 18, 2013, and it will now take six weeks to turn itself on and test its systems.

After that, the $671 million, bus-sized craft will spend one (Earth) year assessing the planet Mars’ atmosphere, in hopes of discovering how the Martian atmosphere is changing now and, in doing so, understand how it has changed over billions of years.

Scientists believe that Mars and Earth were once sister planets, both of them green and wet. But, about 4 billion years ago, their fortunes diverged: as Earth incubated life in its thick, reassuring atmosphere, it’s thought that Mars somehow lost its magnetic field. That left it vulnerable to the spray of solar particles zooming through space, and, over time, scientists say, those particles winnowed the Martian atmosphere. Its land was buffed dry and brittle and its landscape turned freezing.

MAVEN is NASA’s 10th Mars orbiter mission, three of which have failed. Three other spacecraft are in Mars’ orbit, two of which are NASA missions (the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), and one of which is a 2003 European Space Agency mission.

Two rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are still active on Mars’ surface. Spirit, another rover, is still on the planet, but was deactivated in 2010.

“Hello ‪@MarsCuriosity and ‪@MarsRovers! #MAVEN is looking over you. (In ‪#Spirit),” tweeted the MAVEN mission, just after arrival.

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