Brightest Galaxy in the Universe Discovered

Of the approximately 100 Million galaxies in the visible universe, we see incredible variation.  We always try to classify them based on their shape, size, and peak radiation, but even then we still find others that stray from the usual patterns.  In recent years, a new class of galaxies named Extremely Luminous Infrared Galaxies (ELIRGs) has been found with data from the Wide Field Infrared Survey (WISE).  Now the king of the ELIRGs has been found, the most luminous galaxy in the universe.

Artist’s concept of WISE J224607.57-052635.0. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The galaxy, designated WISE J224607.57-052635.0, has a luminosity equal to 300 Trillion suns, and may owe its brightness to a supermassive black hole in its core swallowing up gas at an incredible rate, giving it a ‘growth spurt.’  Generally, a central black hole heats up gas to millions of degrees in its accretion disk, releasing high energy visible, ultraviolet, and x-ray light.  But when the galaxy enshrouds that accretion disk in a dusty veil, the dust absorbs the radiation, heating up and re-emitting it as infrared light.  Astronomers believe that this is what is happening in ELIRGs.  This particular galaxy lives in the early universe, its light having travelled 12.5 Billion years to reach us, it is like looking back in time.

WISE had been finding several hundred other strange galaxies in its 2010 infrared survey of the entire sky.  Its unprecedented detail gives a view of objects that have been overlooked by other surveys.  With further study of the central black holes, astronomers will slowly peel away the layers to reveal the intense history of these incredible objects, piecing together the state of the universe where these galaxies are found, in the distant past.


ESO and Medusa

When we have the best telescopes at our disposal, we can take the most detailed data, and ultimately gain the most valuable science.  Being able to take a closer look, to resolve the finer details, to see what lies within, gives us the ability to understand the present, peer into the past, and ultimately, predict the future.  The ESO’s Very Large Telescope continuously brings in fantastic images of objects that we have studied previously, but weren’t quite sure about.  This week we saw another prime example of this.

The Medusa Nebula. Credit: ESO-VLT

The Medusa Nebula is a planetary nebula in the constellation Gemini.  It is 4 light years across and is 1500 light years distant.  Even though it is quite a large planetary nebula, it is very faint and hard to see.  Not when we have VLT.

A planetary nebula is the result of the slow and eventual death of a sun-like star.  As it reaches the final stages of its evolution, it will shed its outer layers into space, producing a beautiful cloud and seeding its heavier elements into the galaxy to become future generations of stars.  This is the eventual fate of the Sun and all the elements on Earth, including all life that remains on Earth. Kind of a somber thought.  If we don’t survive long enough to leave our home planet and journey into the Galaxy, we will most certainly end up as all life, seeding future generations of stars in a cloud not unlike this one.


Tiny Spacecraft are the Future!

For a long time, the scientific community has been hopeful for a mission to some of the most interesting moons of the solar system.  Europa, Enceladus, and Ganymede all have subsurface oceans and will give substantial insights into the formation and evolution of life in the solar system and beyond. The only problem is that it costs an astronomical (literally) amount of money to get there.  A bare bones mission to Europa would cost over 600 Million dollars, and if we are spending that much we had better be sure it will work.

Money aside, the technology to get appropriate science returns from these worlds is lacking.  We would need to develop a specialized drill that could slowly churn through the thick ice to where the liquid water hides within these moons, around 40 Km deep.  We have enough trouble drilling through the 5 Km thick ice of Antarctica on our own planet where humans can have direct involvement. But if we can get to the subsurface oceans of the tidally heated moons, this is where the great scientific rewards will be.  Will we find the right conditions for life? Will we find life similar to Earth bacteria or fish-like creatures? Will we find nothing but water and ice?  Regardless of what we find, it will quickly narrow down our understanding of the formation of life, and let us see how rare (or plentiful) life can be.

The final issue comes down to uncertainty.  We don’t know what the ice will be like, we don’t know exactly what to expect when we reach the ocean; we require more reconnaissance in order to justify the huge sums of money required to probe these alien worlds.  This is where CAPE comes in.

Technologist Jaime Esper and his team are planning to test the stability of a prototype entry vehicle –the Micro-Reentry Capsule — this summer during a high-altitude balloon mission from Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. Credit: NASA/Goddard

If we can send a small, inexpensive satellite with technologies that are continuously becoming smaller to a distant world, it would be able to send back valuable data to help us decide where to send a more expensive probe.  And when we do send the more expensive probe with the fancy instruments, we can do it with the confidence that we have chosen the right target and realistic science goals.

The CubeSat Application for Planetary Entry Missions (CAPE) could become just that.  NASA is advancing the technology of the small loaf-of-bread-sized probe with the hopes of performing two tasks: Travelling to a planetary target with a service module (mother ship), and using a planetary entry probe that could survive a trip through an alien atmosphere, returning valuable science and engineering data.

The entire craft would weigh only 11 pounds and would be no larger than 4 inches on a side.  Having tiny solar panels and a small internal battery, it can power its instruments and travel to another planetary body.  Once there, it would release the entry vehicle to plummet into the alien atmosphere, communicating density, composition, and temperature back to the service ship,  to finally relay the information back to Earth.

A balloon flight this summer will test the re-entry capabilities of the craft, and NASA scientists hope to send it to the International Space Station as early as 2016.  It could usher in a new era of space flight that is cheap, efficient, and effective.  The most important part is that it will tell us where to look to advance our answers to some of the biggest questions about the origins of the solar system.


Mining the Moon

It sounds completely like science fiction, something out of a campy space thriller where the protagonist is a miner taking a daily shuttle to the Moon to mine all the precious metals that the Earth needs to sustain itself.  But in real life, for a long time, it was thought that the Moon was a dead rock, completely useless to humanity except as the gravitational force to provide the amazing tides in the bay of Fundy.  Today we know so much more about the Moon, and its value has (pun intended) skyrocketed.


For one, the low gravity of the Moon makes it an amazing staging area for rocket flights into the outer solar system, as the challenge of rocketry on Earth is escaping the strong gravity and dense atmospheric drag.  It will likely serve as the first stop on a manned mission to Mars.

But the Moon also has important resources like water, which can be synthesized into rocket fuels.  Yes there is a lot of water on Earth, but with so much of it being salty, we need to make use of the fresh water we have for the sustainability of humanity.  The Moon also has Helium 3, a rare element used in Nuclear Fusion, which will become an important energy source in the future.   Although these two resources are important, they pale in comparison to the most important resource on the Moon: Rare Earth Metals.

Rare Earth Metals are used in emerging technologies, everything from smartphones to medical equipment and computers. Currently the vast majority of the Earth’s supply is mined in China, but they may only have a 15-20 year supply.  This is not a lot of time, and unless we improve our recycling efforts, we will have to find more on the Moon.

As we move well into the 21st century, it is becoming abundantly clear that the Earth’s resources are finite and that we have to look for new methods of sustaining what we do have.  Mining the Moon may be a glamorous prospect, but if we can’t solve the issues that face our planet right now, adding lunar material to the mix won’t help.


Motivation Monday: Excuses

Canadians always complain about the weather.  No matter what time of year it is. In winter, we get ‘It’s too cold,’ ‘wow is it ever damp outside,’ and ‘I hate the lack of sunshine.’ Yet when we come around to the exact opposite weather, we get summer complaints of ‘It’s so hot outside, it’s uncomfortable,’ ‘It’s too humid, it feels sticky,’ and ‘There’s too many bugs.’  The only happy medium for us is a 20 degree clear day with a slight breeze and moderate humidity, though I’m sure someone would find fault with it.  Complaining is fine once in awhile, we are all guilty of it on some level, and it serves the purpose of relating with others.  If we both hate winter, we can connect with each other.  There are better ways to do this, but this is better left for another post, so I digress.  It’s when we use our complaints as excuses to not do something that it becomes toxic.

I know people who complain about winter for three months and then continue to stay inside when its warm because of bugs or uncomfortable humidity.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the outdoors, its that I always feel better when I decide to go out into the world, regardless of the weather.

As it turns out, this is a good example of what we do all the time.  We make excuses for why we can’t do something that feels difficult to us, even though we would be really happy and fulfilled if we did it anyway. Sometimes we know that going and doing something would be incredibly beneficial down the road, yet we still make the excuse because not doing it is easier and makes us feel good right now.

We do this because ultimately we don’t know what we really need to make us happy. We are always in the habit of instant gratification.  We have constant bombardment from a world that tells us we would be happy if we just got that shiny new thing, or ate this, or watched that, RIGHT NOW!

So what is the answer? How do we choose the right thing to do?

I know two things for sure: What makes you happy and what makes me happy aren’t going to be exactly the same, but taking a risk, trying something new, trying something different, getting out in the world, and seeking experiences – That’s universal for happiness and fulfilment.

So stop making excuses and go outside!