Measuring Dark Energy Like a BOSS

When you start to think about the most massive and extreme ‘stuff’ in the universe, you inevitably go to Dark Matter and Dark Energy.  They exist as opposites, one with incredible gravity holding the universe together, and the other a mysterious vacuum energy tearing it apart.  Studying this cosmic tug of war gives astronomers a chance to determine the past and future of the entire universe. To study the immense scale of these two quantities, the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) program of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III (SDSS) constructed a 3D map of the sky, amounting to a volume...

Seeding The Supermassive

In the early Universe, things were quite different.  The first stars were much more massive than stars today, and contained mostly Hydrogen.  Astronomers have good ideas about how they formed, but other objects from around this time, namely black holes, are much tougher to account for.  Early black holes were huge, with no explanation for how they grew so large.  “Early” means “first Billion years after the Big Bang,” but even in that time, it’s hard to determine how observed black holes could grow as large as 100,000 solar masses. I say 100,000 solar masses, because that is the mass of two ‘seed’ black holes, discovered...

Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss it

Have you ever seen a picture of a comet or asteroid in the sky against a background of stars? Here let me show you. Can you spot the asteroid? Okay I confess there is no asteroid in the image above, but if there was you’d believe me because an asteroid in this image would be indistinguishable from the stars.  They are all points of light, so how can you tell them apart? There’s something that separates asteroids, comets, planets, and all other solar system objects from background stars in an image. When you’re driving in a car and you look to the...

A Lonely Universe?

Life in the universe is a fascinating topic.  The simplest question: Are we alone? It breeds so many deeper and more profound scientific questions, like “How many habitable planets are there?” “How likely is life to develop on any given planet?” and “How long can a civilization survive?” We can’t answer them definitively, but we can narrow it down. The Drake equation, shown above, was first developed by Frank Drake, the head of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), in 1961.  He took the question of are we alone and made it quantifiable, in a probabilistic way.  It lets us...

Blast From The Past

A supernova is the death blast of a giant star, far larger than our Sun.  Massive stars go out with a bang, outshining entire galaxies, allowing us to see them across the universe.  A supernova observed in 2013 occurred in a distant galaxy and took over 30 Million years to reach Earth, where the timing was perfect for us to observe and study it.  And now that it’s been studied, the explosion was truly the death of a giant. The supernova, named 2013 ej, was discovered in June 2013 in the galaxy M74 in the constellation Pisces.  It was the closest supernova...

Nature Outshines CERN

The gravitational center of most objects and clusters in the universe are the place where the most massive and high energy interactions take place.  For the solar system, the Sun’s core is hot and energetic.  For star clusters, central regions host the most massive and brightest stars.  For galaxy clusters, the most massive galaxies in the universe are seen in the center.  And for individual galaxies, the Milky Way included, the core is where the fun happens. In the core of our galaxy, there are many massive and powerful objects, not limited to a supermassive star cluster, pulsars, supernova remnants,...

An Extra Leap Day

I decided to take my own personal leap day on writing about the leap day.  Partly due to being busy at work, and partly due to lack of mental faculties.  All that aside, it’s only another 1,459 days until the next leap day, so we better start preparing. A leap year occurs because the solar system seems to slightly disagree with the way we manage time.  Earth’s trip around the Sun, a year, doesn’t take exactly 365 days each lasting 24 hours.  It takes a bit longer.  A year is actually 8,765 hours, or 525,949 minutes, which is 365 days, 5...

A Ticking Time Bomb

There are many types of objects in space that just can’t be seen with visible light, and many more that have very different features when observed across the electromagnetic spectrum.  A prime example of the former is a molecular cloud.  Cold, incredibly huge, and full of low density Hydrogen, these clouds are the raw material for star forming galaxies.  If stars begin to form within them, they can be seen as gorgeous nebulae, but when alone in the darkness of space we need to look for the dim signature of radio waves they emit. The Smith cloud, named after it’s...

Potential Ninth Planet!

Sadly no, this time we are NOT talking about Pluto. Astronomer Mike Brown from Caltech, heralded as the ‘man who killed planet Pluto’ has done some new work that might replace Pluto with a better fit for a true ninth planet, one that is ten times the mass of Earth.  Now the only problem is finding it. But wait, if we haven’t seen it, how do we know it’s there? Well it certainly showcases the power of science, that an understanding of the true laws of nature can give us incredible predictive power.  It started out as a ‘that’s strange’...

Black Hole Eats and Erupts!

The only reason we can see black holes in the universe is because some of them swallow up gas and dust.  This heats up material that is spinning rapidly around the black hole as it falls in (called an accretion disk), and produces massive jets of material due to conservation of angular momentum that can be seen across the universe.  The energy released in the jets and the energy given off in the accretion disk are proportional to how much gas and dust is being consumed by the black hole.  More matter = more food = more energy released.  But...