On Jan. 30th, 2020, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was retired after sixteen years of faithful service. As one of the four NASA Great Observatories – alongside Hubble, Chandra, and Compton space telescopes – Spitzer was dedicated to studying the Universe in infrared light. In so doing, it provided new insights into our Universe and enabled the study of objects and phenomena that would otherwise be impossible.
For instance, Spitzer was the first telescope to see light from an exoplanet and made important discoveries about comets, stars, and distant galaxies. It is therefore fitting that mission scientists decided to spend the last five days before the telescope was to be decommissioned capturing breathtaking images of the California Nebula, which were stitched into a mosaic and recently released to the public.
Located about 1,000 light-years from Earth, the California Nebula is so-named because of the way its shape – long, narrow, and bend to the right near the bottom – resembles that of the Golden State. As with all nebulas, only so much can be seen in visible light, which is the result of the nebula gas being heated by stars in the interior – in this case, the extremely massive Xi Persei (aka. Menkib).
This is where Spitzer‘s capabilities come into play. Between 2009 and 2020, the space telescope studied the Universe in a non-visible part spectrum, thus giving astronomers the ability to discern objects and matter that would otherwise be invisible to them. Spitzer did this using two detectors that simultaneously imaged adjacent areas of the sky in different wavelengths of infrared light – 3.6 and 4.5 micrometers.
When looking at the California Nebula, Spitzer revealed features that were otherwise invisible. Of particular interest was the fine dust that is mixed with the nebula’s gas, which absorbs visible and ultraviolet light from nearby stars and re-emits it as infrared light. As always, Spitzer took multiple pictures of this region of the sky in a grid-like pattern to ensure that both detectors were able to image it simultaneously.
By combining those images into a mosaic, it was possible to see what a given region looked like in multiple wavelengths. These wavelengths were then color-coded to indicate what part of the IR wavelength they reside in – cyan for 3.6 and red for 4.5 micrometers – and shown in relation to what could be seen in visible light.
NASA selected the California Nebula during Spitzer’s final week of operations from a list of potential targets that would be within the telescope’s field of view. The California Nebula was selected because, a) Spitzer had not yet studied it, and b) the likelihood that it would contain prominent infrared features and provide a significant scientific return.
As Sean Carey, the manager of the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech who helped select the nebula for observation, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“Sometime in the future, some scientist will be able to use that data to do a really interesting analysis. The entire Spitzer data archive is available to the scientific community to use. This is another piece of the sky that we’re putting out there for everyone to study.”
The Spitzer team made additional science observations until the last day before the mission ended (Jan. 29th), but none were as visually stunning as the California Nebula. These included the light caused by zodiacal dust, which is material scattered throughout our Solar System from comets sublimating and collisions between asteroids.
Because comets and asteroids are material leftover from the formation of the Solar System, observations of this dust can provide astronomers with a look back in time. Spitzer’s orbit, which takes the observatory up to 256 million km (158 million mi) from Earth (or 600 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon), also provided it with a unique vantage point to study zodiacal dust.
The mission team also used this time to close the shutter on Spitzer’s camera, which is something that had never been done before. This allowed the team to produce more accurate images of distant objects by subtracting the subtle effects that Spitzer’s instruments might have on their light measurements.
Despite being retired, scientists continue to analyze Spitzer data, which can be accessed by researchers and citizen scientists alike through the Spitzer data archive. This archive is located at the Infrared Science Archive (IRSA), which is housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech (where Spitzer science operations were conducted).
Next year, the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be deployed to space. Using its advanced suite of IR instruments, which will allow for longer wavelength coverage and greater sensitivity, it will build upon the legacy of Spitzer and Hubble by examining the most distant and unseens parts of our Universe.
To learn more about Spitzer and its biggest discoveries, NASA has created a free VR application for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, which is available at the Spitzer website. The Spitzer YouTube page also has two non-interactive VR experiences that can be viewed as immersive 360 videos. Be sure to check them out!
Further Reading: NASA/JPL
Astronomers Detect a Suspiciously Shaped Galaxy Lurking in The Very Early Universe
Around 13.8 billion years ago, somehow the Universe popped into existence. But it didn’t come fully equipped. At some point, the first stars formed, and the first galaxies. How and when this happened is still a mystery astronomers are trying to solve… but one galaxy could have a vitally important key.
It’s called DLA0817g – nicknamed the Wolfe Disk – a cool, rotating, gas-rich disc galaxy with a mass of about 72 billion times that of our Sun. And the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array has snapped it a massive 12.5 billion light-years away – when the Universe was just 10 percent of its current age.
It’s the earliest rotating disc galaxy astronomers have found yet, and its very existence changes our understanding of galaxy formation in the early Universe.
Most of the galaxies in the early Universe are a hot mess, literally. They’re all blobby, with stars flying every which way, and rather high temperatures. Astronomers have interpreted this to mean that they grew large by colliding and merging with other galaxies – a hot, messy process.
“Most galaxies that we find early in the Universe look like train wrecks because they underwent consistent and often ‘violent’ merging,” explained astronomer Marcel Neeleman of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.
“These hot mergers make it difficult to form well-ordered, cold rotating disks like we observe in our present Universe.”
Under this scenario, it takes a long time for the galaxies to cool down and smooth out into the more orderly rotating disc galaxies like the Milky Way. We don’t generally start seeing them until about 4 to 6 billion years after the Big Bang.
This is the “hot” mode of galaxy formation. But astronomers had also predicted and simulated another way – the “cold” mode.
First, you need to start with the primordial soup, an ionised quark-gluon plasma that filled the Universe before the formation of matter. To go from this homogeneous plasma to a Universe filled with stuff, astrophysicists have run simulations that suggest dark matter is responsible.
We don’t know what dark matter is. We can’t detect it directly, but it interacts gravitationally with normal matter. It helps to hold galaxies together, and we believe that it could be crucial to galaxy formation, clumps of it pulling together gas and stars into galaxies.
Supercomputer simulations have shown that a massive network of dark matter in the early Universe could have facilitated the formation of cool galaxies. If the gas was cool to start with, it could have been fed along filaments of the network into the dark matter clumps, accreting into large, cool, orderly disc galaxies.
But the only way to confirm this model is through observational evidence, so the researchers went looking, using the light of even more distant galaxies, called quasars, to illuminate the way.
Distant galaxies are very hard to see, but quasars are among the most luminous objects in the Universe – galaxies lit by an active supermassive black hole, the space around it blasting out radiation as it feeds. The team turned ALMA’s powerful capabilities to these distant quasars, looking for signatures in their light that showed that it had passed through a gas-filled galaxy on the way.
They found it. The light from one of the quasars they imaged had passed through a region rich with hydrogen – the signature of the Wolfe Disk.
And there was something else. The light on one side of the disc was compressed, or blueshifted. We see this when something is moving towards us. And the light from the other side was stretched, or redshifted – moving away from us. The object was rotating.
Those Doppler shifts, as they are known, then allowed the researchers to calculate the velocity of the galaxy’s rotation: around 272 kilometres per second.
What’s even more wild is that the team believes the Wolfe Disk isn’t one of a kind.
“The fact that we found the Wolfe Disk using this method, tells us that it belongs to the normal population of galaxies present at early times,” Neeleman said.
“When our newest observations with ALMA surprisingly showed that it is rotating, we realised that early rotating disk galaxies are not as rare as we thought and that there should be a lot more of them out there.”
The team will continue their search for these galaxies to find out just how common cold accretion was in the early Universe.
The research has been published in Nature.
NASA’s head of human spaceflight abruptly resigns, citing ‘mistake’ – CNN
His departure was effective on Monday.
When reached by phone Tuesday evening, Loverro declined to comment on the reason for his departure.
Loverro began serving in his role as the head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs in December, replacing William Gerstenmaier, who served in the role for more than a decade. In his nearly 700-word note, Loverro told NASA workers only that leaders are “called on to take risks” and added that, “I took such a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission.”
“Now, over the balance of time, it is clear that I made a mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences,” Loverro wrote. “And therefore, it is with a very, very heavy heart that I write to you today to let you know that I have resigned from NASA effective May 18th, 2020.”
Ken Bowersox, NASA’s acting deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, will become NASA’s interim head of human spaceflight.
Loverro’s exit immediately raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill.
Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas who chairs the House space and science committee, said in a statement that she was “shocked” by the news.
“I trust that NASA Administrator Bridenstine will ensure that the right decision is made as to whether or not to delay the launch attempt,” Johnson said. “Beyond that, Mr. Loverro’s resignation is another troubling indication that the Artemis Moon-Mars initiative is still not on stable footing. I look forward to clarification from NASA as to the reasons for this latest personnel action.”
The timing of Loverro’s departure was related to when Jurczyk, the associate administrator, made a recommendation to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the source said. It was unrelated to next week’s Crew Dragon launch, the source added.
Jurczyk was the source selection officer for the Artemis lunar lander contract awards, according to public documents.
An agency-wide email sent on Tuesday said Loverro “hit the ground running” after his appointment in 2019 and had made “significant progress in his time at NASA.”
“His leadership of [NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations] has moved us closer to our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024,” the email said. It said his resignation was effective immediately, though it did not provide details on the reason for his exit.
A NASA spokesperson declined to comment.
Loverro told CNN Business he is “100% confident” that leadership will be able to carry out the SpaceX mission. He added that he believes NASA’s ambitious human spaceflight goals are “doable.” “But,” he added, “it will take risk takers to get us there, and I hope folks who step in my shoes will continue to take risks.”
Next week’s SpaceX launch will mark the space agency’s highest-profile mission since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX, which has a multibillion-dollar contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has worked for the better part of a decade to ready its Dragon spacecraft for crewed flights to the International Space Station. Since the Shuttle retired, NASA has had to rely on Russia for rides to the ISS.
In an orange swirl, astronomers say humanity has its first look at the birth of a planet
An image of a mesmerizing cosmic spiral, twisting and swirling around a galactic maw, may be the first direct evidence of the birth of a planet ever captured by humanity.
The European Southern Observatory released a picture Wednesday of what astronomers believe shows the process of cosmic matter at a gravitational tipping point, collapsing into a new world around a nearby star.
Astronomers said the dramatic scene offers a rare glimpse into the formation of a baby planet, which could help scientists better understand how planets come to exist around stars.
“Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” the lead author of a study detailing the discovery, Anthony Boccaletti, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris in France, said in a statement.
Planets are thought to form out of the massive discs of gas and dust that surround young stars. As tiny specks of dust circle a star and collide with one another, some material starts to fuse, much like how rolling a snowball through more snow will eventually yield a bigger snowball. After billions of years, the clumps of material become large enough that the force of gravity shapes them into planets.
The new image peers into the disc of material around a young star known as AB Aurigae, which is 520 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Auriga. Amid the hypnotic spiral arms is a “twist,” visible in the photo as a bright yellow region in the center, that is thought to be a sign of a planet being born, said Emmanuel Di Folco, a researcher at the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux in France, who participated in the study.
When a planet forms, the clumps of material create wavelike perturbations in the gas- and dust-filled disc around a star, “somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake,” Di Folco said.
The bright region at the center of the new image is thought to be evidence of such a disturbance, which had been predicted in models of planetary birth.
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“The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” said Anne Dutrey, an astronomer at the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux and co-author of the study, published Wednesday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. “It corresponds to the connection of two spirals — one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards — which join at the planet location.”
The new observations of the baby planet were made in 2019 and early 2020 by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The research team, made up of astronomers from France, Taiwan, the U.S. and Belgium, said the images are the deepest observations of the AB Aurigae system made to date.
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