The universe is a weird place. Here’s a look at some of the strangest things in the cosmos.
Like Superman’s alter-ego, Bizzaro, the particles making up normal matter also have opposite versions of themselves. An electron has a negative charge, for example, but its antimatter equivalent, the positron, is positive. Matter and antimatter annihilate each other when they collide and their mass is converted into pure energy by Einstein’s equation E=mc2. Some futuristic spacecraft designs incorporate anti-matter engines.
If a radical new “braneworld” theory of gravity is correct, then scattered throughout our solar system are thousands of tiny black holes, each about the size of an atomic nucleus. Unlike their larger brethren, these mini-black holes are primordial leftovers from the Big Bang and affect space-time differently because of their close association with a fifth dimension.
Cosmic Microwave Background
Also known as the CMB, this radiation is a primordial leftover from the Big Bang that birthed the universe. It was first detected during the 1960s as a radio noise that seemed to emanate from everywhere in space. The CMB is regarded as one of the best pieces of evidence for the theoretical Big Bang. Recent precise measurements by the WMAP project place the CMB temperature at -455 degrees Fahrenheit (-270 Celsius).
Scientists think it makes up the bulk of matter in the universe, but it can neither be seen nor detected directly using current technologies. Candidates range from light-weight neutrinos to invisible black holes. Some scientists question whether dark matter is even real, and suggest that the mysteries it was conjured to solve could be explained by a better understanding of gravity.
Until about the early 1990s, the only known planets in the universe were the familiar ones in our solar system. Astronomers have since identified more than 500 extrasolar planets (as of November 2010). They range from gargantuan gas worlds whose masses are just shy of being stars to small, rocky ones orbiting dim, red dwarfs. Searches for a second Earth, however, are still ongoing. Astronomers generally believe that better technology is likely to eventually reveal worlds similar to our own.
Gravity waves are distortions in the fabric of space-time predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, but they are so weak that scientists expect to detect only those created during colossal cosmic events, such as black hole mergers like the one shown above. LIGO and LISA are two detectors designed to spot the elusive waves.
Like life on Earth, galaxies can “eat” each other and evolve over time. The Milky Way’s neighbor, Andromeda, is currently dining on one of its satellites. More than a dozen star clusters are scattered throughout Andromeda, the cosmic remains of past meals. The image above is from a simulation of Andromeda and our galaxy colliding, an event that will take place in about 3 billion years.
Neutrinos are electrically neutral, virtually mass-less elementary particles that can pass through miles of lead unhindered. Some are passing through your body as you read this. These “phantom” particles are produced in the inner fires of burning, healthy stars as well as in the supernova explosions of dying stars. Detectors are being embedded underground, beneath the sea, or into a large chunk of ice as part of IceCube, a neutrino-detecting project.
These bright beacons shine to us from the edges of the visible universe and are reminders to scientists of our universe’s chaotic infancy. Quasars release more energy than hundreds of galaxies combined. The general consensus is that they aremonstrous black holes in the hearts of distant galaxies. This image is of quasar 3C 273, photographed in 1979.
Quantum physics tells us that contrary to appearances, empty space is a bubbling brew of “virtual” subatomic particles that are constantly being created and destroyed. The fleeting particles endow every cubic centimeter of space with a certain energy that, according to general relativity, produces an anti-gravitational force that pushes space apart. Nobody knows what’s really causing the accelerated expansion of the universe, however.
The Giant Magellan Telescope - GMT
WIth the James Webb telescope launch set for 2015, the GMT, and a lot more telescopes being built, the questions of our universe almost seem to be closer and closer waiting to be solved. I wrote about the GMT almost a year ago and it quickly became one of my favorite telescopes. It will be operational in 10 years the engineers say. I don’t know if that’s too short or too long. Either way let me tell you a little about this amazing telescope.
The Namesake - Magellan
Ferdinand Magellan, everybody knows the famous explorer, he led an expedition in 1522 which was the first to circumnavigate the earth, an ambitious feat for exploration. Astronomy was the primary tool of navigation of that time and Magellan was a certainly a student of astronomy. The expedition saw in the southern hemisphere obscure clouds in the night sky, later named the Magellanic Clouds. These clouds turned out to be island universes, filled with millions of stars orbiting another island universe, our Milky Way.
The Giant Magellan Telescope will continue the tradition of exploration that was set forth 500 years ago. The telescope is also peering into the unknown, maybe finding new questions to our Universe and searching for new worlds.
The Telescope - A Giant
The GMT will utilize a new and unique design. There will be seven 27ft segmented mirrors surrounding a central segment forming a single optical surface. This precision will give the telescope a resolving power 10x that of the Hubble Telescope. The light will be concentrated into CCD (Charge Coupled Device) image cameras which will measure the distance of objects and what their composition is.
This is Where is Gets More Interesting
The telescopes segmented mirrors are flexible. Under each mirror there are hundreds of ‘actuators’ that constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence. These actuators will turn flickering stars into sharp points of light.
High and Dry
A huge advantage is the location of the GMT. Located in Chile in the Atacama Desert at an altitude of approximately 8,500 ft it is the highest and driest location on Earth.
Image 1 | The Wreath Nebula (Barnard 3) glows green in space in this Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
While a quest for green beer in space would be difficult, we’re happy to report there are other ways you can celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day while looking at the night sky. Just check out the nebulae and aurorae in these pictures!
A word of caution, these pictures are taken by cameras that expose light for a very long time, sometimes using different filters, to bring out the colors. A nebula, for example, seen with our own eyes does not look quite as stunning.
The picture above shows the Wreath Nebula, which apparently is filled with warm dust bitsthat are about the same composition as smog.
Image 2 | RCW 120. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Here’s a picture of a “Green Ring” Nebula; the NASA press release is worth a read for the hilarious Green Lantern references. But besides the science fiction, there is some neat science in action here: “The green color represents infrared light coming from tiny dust grains called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” NASA writes. “These small grains have been destroyed inside the bubble. The red color inside the ring shows slightly larger, hotter dust grains, heated by the massive stars.”
Image 3 | A portion of the Lagoon nebula imaged by the Gemini South telescope with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph. Credit: Julia I. Arias and Rodolfo H. Barbá Departamento de Física, Universidad de La Serena (Chile), and ICATE-CONICET (Argentina).
You can even see hints of green in the Lagoon Nebula picture above. Using a filter that picks up green (sulfur) emission, the astronomers ferreted out a bit of emerald.
Image 4 | An October 2012 picture from Jason Arhns in Alaska, which he calls a “ghost flame.” Credit: Jason Arhns
If you live far enough north or south, you occasionally get to see aurorae dancing across the sky. These events, sometimes known as the Northern Lights or Southern Lights, occur due to interactions between the sun’s particles and the Earth’s upper atmosphere. We had some green stunners in October 2012 after a solar flare pushed a bunch of these particles in Earth’s direction. Most of the light you see in auroras comes from oxygen atoms being “excited” from the interaction with the sun’s particles; green occurs at higher altitudes, and red at lower ones.
Image 5 | Light curve of different stars.
One object that can’t glow green in space, however, is a star. Stellar colors depend on the surface of the star. Blue stars, the hottest ones, are at about 12,000 Kelvin and red stars, the coolest ones, are less than 3,500 Kelvin. (The sun is about in the middle, at 6,800 Kelvin, as it emits white light.)
As Universe Today publisher Fraser Cain pointed out in a past post, the only way a green star could be possible is if the light curve peaks at green. That doesn’t work, however: “If you make the star hotter, it just gets bluer,” he wrote. “And if you make a star cooler, it just becomes orange and then redder. There’s no way to have a light curve that makes a star look green.” Check out more details here.
Science Saved My Soul.
This is a really fantastic video that reminds us how amazing the universe is and helps to show us how lucky we are to be able to experience it and most importantly, understand it. Thank you to mrffahrenheit for pointing out the video to me. I really enjoyed watching it.
The popular film trilogy, The Matrix, presented a cyberuniverse where humans live in a simulated reality created by sentient machines.
Now, a philosopher and team of physicists imagine that we might really be living inside a computer-generated universe that you could call The Lattice. What’s more, we may be able to detect it.
In 2003, British philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper that proposed the universe we live in might in fact really be a numerical computer simulation. To give this a bizarre Twilight Zone twist, he suggested that our far-evolved distant descendants might construct such a program to simulate the past and recreate how their remote ancestors lived.
He felt that such an experiment was inevitable for a supercivilization. If it didn’t happen by now, then in meant that humanity never evolved that far and we’re doomed to a short lifespan as a species, he argued.
To extrapolate further, I’d suggest that artificial intelligent entities descended from us would be curious about looking back in time by simulating the universe of their biological ancestors.
As off-the-wall as this sounds, a team of physicists at the University of Washington (UW) recently announced that there is a potential test to seen if we actually live in The Lattice. Ironically, it would be the first such observation for scientifically hypothesized evidence of intelligent design behind the cosmos.
The UW team too propose that super-intelligent entities, bored with their current universe, do numerical simulations to explore all possibilities in the landscape of the underlying quantum vacuum (from which the big bang percolated) through universe simulations. “This is perhaps the most profound quest that can be undertaken by a sentient being,” write the authors.
Before you dismiss this idea as completely loony, the reality of such a Sim Universe might solve a lot of eerie mysteries about the cosmos. About two-dozen of the universe’s fundamental constants happen to fall within the narrow range thought to be compatible with life. At first glance it seems as unlikely as balancing a pencil on its tip. Jiggle these parameters and life as we know it would have never appeared. Not even stars and galaxies. This is called the Anthropic principle.
The discovery of dark energy over a decade ago further compounds the universe’s strangeness. This sort of “antigravity” pushing space-time apart is the closest thing there is to nothing and still is something. This energy from the vacuum of space is 60 orders of magnitude weaker that what would be predicted by quantum physics.The eminent cosmologist Michael Turner ranks dark energy as “the most profound mystery in all of science.”
We are also living at a very special time in the universe’s history where it switched gears from decelerating to accelerating under the push of dark energy. This begs the question “why me why now?” (A phrase popularly attributed to Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 when she was attacked and crippled by an opponent.)
If dark energy were slightly stronger the universe would have blown apart before stars formed. Any weaker and the universe would have imploded long ago. Its incredibly anemic value has been seen as circumstantial evidence for parallel universes with their own flavor of dark energy that is typically destructive. It’s as if our universe won the lottery and got all the physical parameters just right for us to exist.
Finally, an artificial universe solves the Fermi Paradox (where are all the space aliens?) by implying that we truly are alone in the universe. It was custom made for us by our far-future progeny.
Biblical creationists can no doubt embrace these seeming cosmic coincidences as unequivocal evidence for their “theory” of Intelligent Design (ID). But is our “God” really a computer programmer rather than a bearded old man living in the sky?
Currently, supercomputers using a impressive-sounding technique called lattice quantum chromodynamics, and starting from the fundamental physical laws, can simulate only a very small portion of the universe. The scale is a little larger than the nucleus of an atom, according UW physicist Martin Savage. Mega-computers of the far future could greatly expand the size of the Sim Universe.
If we are living in such a program, there could be telltale evidence for the underlying lattice used in modeling the space-time continuum, say the researchers. This signature could show up as a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays. They would travel diagonally across the model universe and not interact equally in all directions, as they otherwise would be expected to do according to present cosmology.
If such results were measured, physicists would have to rule out any and all other natural explanations for the anomaly before flirting with the idea of intelligent design. (To avoid confusion with the purely faith-based creationist ID, this would not prove the existence of a biblical God, because you’d have to ask the question “why does God need a lattice?”)
If our universe is a simulation, then those entities controlling it could be running other simulations as well to create other universes parallel to our own. No doubt this would call for, ahem, massive parallel processing.
If all of this isn’t mind-blowing enough, Bostrom imagined “stacked” levels of reality, “we would have to suspect that the post-humans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings. Here may be room for a large number of levels of reality, and the number could be increasing over time.”
To compound this even further, Bostrom imagined a hierarchy of deities, “In some ways, the post-humans running a simulation are like gods. However, all the demigods except those at the fundamental level of reality are subject to sanctions by the more powerful gods living at lower levels.”
If the parallel universes are all running on the same computer platform could we communicate with them? If so, I hope the Matrix’s manic Agent Smith doesn’t materialize one day.
To borrow from the title of Isaac Asimov’s novel I Robot, the human condition might be described as I Subroutine.
Black holes come in a variety of sizes, ranging from 10 times the mass of the sun to a billion times as massive. But new research shows that black holes of completely different masses, ages and locations can produce jets of ionized gas that behave similarly.
Image: This illustration shows a black hole emitting jets of fast-moving plasma above and below it, as matter swirls around in an orbiting disk. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
“As scientists, we are always seeking universal principles,” Rodrigo Nemmen, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told SPACE.com.
Nemmen and his colleagues studied a wide variety of black holes in an attempt to compare how efficiently their jets emitted light. “I was very surprised,” Nemmen said of the results.
Discovering similarities between ancient supermassive black holes in the center of distant galaxies and baby black holes born as stars collapse should help scientists gain a firmer understanding of these jets.
Black holes are well known for their ability to pull matter into them. But not all material near a black hole finds itself lost. Some bits of matter just outside the point of no return (called the event horizon) are accelerated away at near-light speeds, creating jets of particles shooting out above and below the black holes.
“I like to call black holes ‘cosmic LHCs,’ or very powerful particle accelerators,” Nemmen said, referring to the Large Hadron Collider, an underground machine in Switzerland that speeds protons to 99.9999991 percent the speed of light.
When matter is spun away from a black hole in the form of a jet, most of its energy goes into its motion, but some of it is changed into light in the form of gamma-rays. Nemmen and his team studied findings on 293 previously observed black holes and calculated how efficiently the jets converted energy to light. They found that the rate scaled across the range of black holes.
“This was one of the surprises of this work, that this efficiency of conversion of the energy into light is essentially the same for black holes with very different masses, very different ages and completely different environments,” Nemmen said.
Black holes are powerful beasts, interesting in and of themselves. But by accelerating ionized gas, they also have the potential to change their environment. Heating up space, they could affect the production of new stars, thereby influencing the galaxy they live in.
“These jets might be powerful agents of creating changes in the host galaxy,” Nemmen said.
Scientists still don’t have a strong understanding of how these violent particle outflows form. But the fact that the energy efficiency of the jets scales across black holes may help theorists better understand how something that pulls in most particles could shoot away others, and how the outflow of energy may affect surrounding space.
The findings were published online today (Dec. 13) in the journal Science.
Located in a relatively vacant region of space about 4200 light-years away and difficult to see using an amateur telescope, the lonesome planetary nebula NGC 7354 is often overlooked.
However, thanks to this image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope we are able to see this brilliant ball of smoky light in spectacular detail.
Just as shooting stars are not actually stars and lava lamps do not actually contain lava, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The name was coined by Sir William Herschel because when he first viewed a planetary nebula through a telescope, he could only identify a hazy smoky sphere, similar to gaseous planets such as Uranus.
The name has stuck even though modern telescopes make it obvious that these objects are not planets at all, but the glowing gassy outer layers thrown off by a hot dying star.
It is believed that winds from the central star play an important role in determining the shape and morphology of planetary nebulae. The structure of NGC 7354 is relatively easy to distinguish. It consists of a circular outer shell, an elliptical inner shell, a collection of bright knots roughly concentrated in the middle and two symmetrical jets shooting out from either side. Research suggests that these features could be due to a companion central star, however the presence of a second star in NGC 7354 is yet to be confirmed.
“A hybrid result involving the central area of the Veil Nebula Complex in Cygnus comprised of 150 minutes of Hydrogen-Alpha, 150 minutes of O-III and 30 minutes each for RGB.
Both the h-alpha and O-III filters do an admirable job in picking up significant signal which otherwise is missed or overlooked, thus yielding a very impressive hybrid result.” — Anthony Ayiomamitis
The Omega nebula, also known as the swan nebula, can be located within the constellation of Sagittarius and sits around 6000 light-years from Earth and is a staggering 15 light-years across, Making it one of the brightest and most massive star forming regions in the galaxy. It is quite similar to the Orion Nebula, except it is viewed edge-on from Earth.