Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Star Birth at the Edge of the Universe (Picture of the Day: 4/30/13)

HFLS3, a galaxy churning out 3000 solar masses worth of stars every year. Source

It seems like astronomy these days is rife with new and fantastic discoveries. This new discovery, made by the Herschel observatory, gives us a look back into the beginning of the universe.
Light does not travel instantaneously, so it is possible for us to "look back in time" by observing objects that are extremely far away. With this principle in mind, looking at a galaxy that is 13 billion light years away is like looking 13 billion years into the past. The Herschel observatory has done this itself. It has peered through the inky emptiness of space and viewed a galaxy, HFLS3, that lies 13 billion light years from our own solar system, meaning that we are seeing this object when it was only 800-900 million years old (that's really young). The surprising thing about this, however, is that HFLS3 shows an incredible amount of stellar genesis. This galaxy "is" producing stars at a rate of 3000 solar masses per year. That's an incredibly high rate of formation, higher than any of our models predicted. These new deep-field telescopes are allowing us to peer farther and farther into history, and we are coming up with some pretty impressive things. I predict that our entire way of thinking about astronomy will change soon.
For more information, check out this article or this article.

The dots in red are galaxies that have extreme rates of stellar formation.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bug Spacesuit (Picture of the Day: 4/24/13)

Insect larva. Source

In an astounding display of "I wonder what happens when I do this..." scientists have created a nano-spacesuit for insects. These scientists weren't trying to send bugs into space or anything, they were actually trying to find a way to make insect larvae survive long enough to examine them using an electron microscope, a device that requires a vacuum to function. They started by taking Drosophila larvae (fruit fly larvae) and bombarding the sheath of extracellular substances that they create with a stream of electrons. When they did this, that sheath fused together to form an incredibly thin layer of polymers that kept gases and liquids in, even against the harsh environment of a vacuum. These scientists went farther and created a similar nano-suit around other larvae that don't excrete the same extracellular substances using Tween 20, a fairly common substance. Insects that have one of these nano-suits can survive for upwards of an hour in vacuum with no ill effects. I think this is pretty amazing.
For more information, check out this article.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Wringing out Water in Space (Video of the Day: 4/23/13)

I just thought that this was a cool demonstration of a principle that most people don't think about. When people think of something as "sticky", they usually imagine a gluey substance that gets everywhere and is inherently "wet", but that's not the case. "Stickiness" is really just electrostatic force between two objects, meaning that the balloon that you rub against your hair and then stick to a wall is also "sticky", just as is plastic wrap. Water is one of the more "sticky" substances because it is attracted to itself. When this astronaut wrings out the washcloth, the water is sticking to itself and making a tube of water as well as gloves of water. It's hard to see this on Earth because gravity often overcomes this electric-stickiness, but this demonstration was perfect.
For more, check out this article.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Orbital Sciences Antares (Picture of the Day: 4/22/13)

Orbital Sciences Corp's Antares rocket lifts off. Source

Yesterday (Sunday, April 21), at 2 p.m., Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket lifted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. This launch was merely a test of the company's new rocket designed to resupply the International Space Station, but it went off without a flaw. Due to technical problems and launchpad delays, this mission was delayed for over a year, but it was worth it. Orbital Sciences is one of several companies competing to take NASA's place as the rocket designers and builders. One of the current companies that has made two successful flights to the ISS is SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.), one of the most well-known companies involved in the "space race".
It may be a while before we really become a space-faring people, but with successful tests like this, it may one day happen.
For more information, check out this article.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

3 Possibly Habitable Planets (Picture of the Day: 4/18/13)

Artist's conception of Kepler-62e and -f. Source

Just today, NASA announced that their Kepler mission has discovered three new Earth-like exoplanets that are in the right spot to support life. The first two planets both orbit the star Kepler-62, about 1,200 light years away. The first planet, Kepler-62e has an orbit, or "year", of 122 days, and the second, Kepler-62f, has an orbit of 267 days. Both of these planets are about the size of Earth and orbit in the "Goldilocks zone", the distance from a star where the temperatures are "just right". The third planet orbits Kepler-69 and is about 70% larger than Earth. This planet has an orbit of 242 days.
In coming years, missions like TESS will allow us to know more about the composition of these planets, but for now it's exciting to see that these planets exist and to know that there is a very good chance that life exists elsewhere in the universe.
For more information, check out this article.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

RESOLVE (Picture of the Day: 4/16/13)

RESOLVE rover prototype. Source

NASA has come up with another exciting and ambitious mission. It seems like everything space-related is happening after 2015, especially with the announcement of this new mission due to take off in 2017. The Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) mission is NASA's newest project aimed at finding water and other materials on the Moon. This intrepid little rover will scour the Moon's surface for nine days, digging up samples to test for hydrogen, water, and other useful substances to test the viability and usefulness of the lunar resources. This project comes with a tight budget, however, only $250 million, including the rocket trip. Because of these limitations, RESOLVE will be a short-lived rover and will have to survive off of solar power. But I, for one, and excited about the prospects offered by RESOLVE. I'll be sure to keep you posted.
For more information, check out either this article, or this article (or maybe even both).

Monday, April 15, 2013

Artificial Kidney (Picture of the Day: 4/15/13)

Artificially grown kidney. Source

UC scientists have finally grown a functional kidney in the laboratory that can be transplanted into animals. This kidney was created by scrubbing away all of the cells from a real kidney, leaving only the kidney scaffold, and then growing new cells onto the empty scaffold. While this kidney isn't as efficient as a real kidney, it is still a big step forward in regenerative medicine. There is a very good chance that these technologies will be applicable to humans in many of our lifetimes.
For more information, check out this article.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Type Iax, the Mini-Supernova (Picture of the Day: 4/14/13)

Artist's conception of a Type Iax supernova. Source. Credit: Christine Pulliam

Researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have discovered what they believe to be a new class of supernova. The two most common classes of supernovae are Type Ia and Type II supernovae. A Type Ia supernova occurs in binary star systems where a white dwarf star syphons too much matter from its neighbor and explodes from the increased energy and pressure. A Type II supernova occurs when a star much larger than our own burns through too much of its fuel and collapses in on itself, throwing out matter and radiation in a massive explosion as the pressure increases. A Type II supernova is much larger than a Type Ia supernova.
This new supernova, however, is smaller even than a Type Ia. They are so small that we didn't even know they existed until now. It's not entirely clear how they happen, but it is likely that a white dwarf in a binary system siphons off too much hydrogen from its companion, and then begins to suck away helium which then either begins to fuse, or which causes heavier elements to fuse and explode. Whatever the cause, Type Iax supernovae are small enough that the star can actually survive the explosion. 
There is still much more that needs to be known about Type Iax supernovae, but until more research is done, I recommend reading this article, or catching up on supernovae with my previous post.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

TESS and NICER (Picture of the Day: 4/9/13)

Artist's rendering of TESS. Credit: Chet Beals. Source

Artist's rendering of NICER. Source

Exciting news! A few days ago I mentioned a project being reviewed by NASA for launch in 2016. Well, today NASA has made their decision! They chose the NICER project that I mentioned, and they also chose an MIT proposed project dubbed TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). TESS, as its name might suggest, is an orbiting device specially designed to pick out exoplanets, planets beyond our own solar system. So far we've had to deal with the problem of only being able to see relatively large planets orbiting other satellites due to our telescope power and design. TESS is specially designed to see smaller and more earth-like planets, which will give us a much better idea of what is really out there. I have a great deal of hope that we will find a habitable planet within the next decade. I'm excited.
To read more about TESS, check out this article.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Man-Made Earthquakes (Picture of the Day: 4/8/13)

Aftermath of an earthquake in Oklahoma in 2011. Source

A new study has concluded that a 5.6-magnitude earthquake in Oklahoma back in 2011 was actually man-made. The study sites evidence that the center of the quake was in a wastewater disposal location deep underground. For years, people have been pumping oil waste water under ground as a means of disposing of it, and there is evidence that this has caused minor earthquakes in the past. If the findings of this study are correct, the Oklahoma earthquake will be the largest one ever made by human beings. There is controversy, however. Geophysicists from the USGS claim that the earthquake was, in fact, natural. It is unclear exactly what caused this disaster, but I think we should seriously consider the possibility that it could be man-made.
To read more, check out this article.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Most Distant Supernova Yet (Picture of the Day: 4/7/13)

Supernova SN Wilson (UDS10Wil). Source

The Hubble space telescope, that amazing, floating telescope that has been providing us with beautiful images of the universe since 1990, has found something else wonderful and exciting to show us. This picture here is of the type 1a supernova UDS10Wil, nicknamed SN Wilson. SN Wilson is the farthest, and thus oldest, supernova ever seen by mankind. This is exciting to scientists for many reasons, not the least of which is that it will give us insights into the early years of the universe. SN Wilson is more than 10 billion (that's right, billion) years old, making it the nearest supernova to the beginning of the universe yet.
I recommend reading this article, it's very insightful. 

The Road to the HIV Vaccine

I thought that this article from the New York Times was worth mentioning. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the virus that leads to AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is an incurable disease that plagues more than 34 million people worldwide, and so, naturally, researchers everywhere have been doing everything they can to learn more about the virus and hopefully develop a cure for it. The reason that it's so hard to stop HIV is because it mutates so rapidly. Viruses like those that cause the flu might mutate every year, which is the reason that we require yearly flu shots, but HIV can mutate on the order of mere days.
This new research, led by scientists at Duke University with the aid of researchers from Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania, focuses on the "broadly neutralizing antibodies" that appear in some victims of HIV. Some people develop antibodies that are capable of neutralizing a wide range of HIV, up to 55 percent of strains. This research followed the illness of one African man shortly after he was infected with HIV up to two years later. They were able to see how the "broadly neutralizing antibodies" developed for this man and this gave them many insights into how the process works and how it might be possible to apply this to others who don't naturally develop the antibodies.
We are no where near a cure for HIV yet, but the data collected by these researchers brings us one step closer. One day soon, the suffering of the numerous victims of HIV might be ended. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Revealing Undead Stars (Picture of the Day: 4/6/13)

Artist's rendering of the NICER instrument. Source

One of several projects currently being considered by NASA proposes to send a special instrument to the International Space Station to monitor x-ray emissions from pulsars (neutron stars), the super dense remnants of dead stars that are almost, but not quite, black holes. This device is called the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER, for short). Due to their relative darkness and diminutive size, we have been unable to accurately gauge the size of neutron stars, but NICER proposes to change this. The device will measure the light emitted from the poles of these dead stars and scientists will use their knowledge of relativity to measure their actual size. Ultimately, this study would provide us with a knowledge of just how compressible matter really is.
It's all very complicated, but if you want a better explanation of what NICER is and what neutron stars are, check out NASA's article. If NICER is accepted, it will be launched in 2016. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Hints of Dark Matter (Picture of the Day: 4/3/13)

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). Source

Some new evidence has come out of the International Space Station. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS),  a $2 billion piece of equipment, has been detecting cosmic rays for the past 18 months and has seen some pretty interesting things. From 25 billion cosmic rays, the AMS has noticed a "sharp" drop off of positron emissions. Positrons, the antimatter equivalent of electrons, are theoretically created when cosmic rays hit particles of dark matter, but at a certain energy level, cosmic rays would become powerful enough to begin creating more exotic particles when interacting with dark matter, thus creating the sharp drop off in positron emissions. If dark matter didn't exist, there would be a gradual drop off.
While this new information indicates that dark matter may exist, there are still other explanations for these results, such as pulsar emissions. 
For more information, check out this article.