The Ancient Collision That Everyone Saw

The year is 1987, and on February 23rd, three separate neutrino observatories experienced a huge burst in detections. Although initially unsure of their origin, the next day a Supernova was discovered in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way visible in the southern hemisphere.  Known as 1987A, it was the closest supernova observed in centuries, and was observed by astronomers around the world as it brightened and then slowly dimmed.  By combining the visible observations with the neutrino data, scientists learned about how supernovae occur, constrained the mass of the neutrino, and opened a new...

Double Post: Mini Stars & Morning Micrometeorites on Mercury

Alliteration is accessible to all! Okay I’m done. Start some science! Really done this time.  Today’s double post covers the smallest of stars, still larger than most planets, and the only weather Mercury will ever have. Humans are naturally interested in the extremes, the biggest, smallest, fastest, hottest, coldest, and every other characteristic outlier.  With stars, being so huge and powerful, we are often more interested in the largest, hottest, and most energetic.  Though on the opposite end of the spectrum, Cambridge University astronomers have discovered the smallest star in the known universe. The star, a red dwarf, has the...

The Gravity Wave Era

I saw an article last night about gravitational waves, that a black hole merger was detected by not just the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), but by another project altogether, the Virgo collaboration.  This is the first gravitational wave detection confirmed by two separate groups, and it marks the beginning of a new era of experimental science, the first in astronomy in over two decades. Around 1.8 Billion years ago, to black holes merged in a faroff galaxy.  They had masses of 31 and 25 times that of the Sun, though with their incredible density they would each be...

A faraway Cosmic ray

Cosmic rays are incredibly powerful invisible particles, and we can’t be sure where they come from. Not much in the way of a comforting thought, but it makes for a cosmic mystery that astronomers have been trying to solve for decades.  And now they have come one step closer. Here’s what we do know.  Cosmic rays are energetic atomic nuclei travelling at near the speed of light.  They hit our atmosphere and rapidly interact with the molecules there to break into billions of smaller, less energetic particles that shower down on the life on Earth, without giving us much notice...

Sample Size Solves Problems

Science and technology benefit one another.  New scientific theories afford new opportunities to create technology that can harness the laws of nature.  Conversely, new technologies allow for better instrumentation and unprecedented efficiency in scientific progress.  It’s a continual feedback loop, and some of the greatest challenges in science are solved simply by throwing more resources at them, or in other words, gathering more data. A good example of this is a relatively old problem for astronomers – determining how the spin of a galaxy affects it’s shape.  We certainly don’t want for analogies on Earth, spinning pizza, driving on a...

Astrophoto Bucket List

After the eclipse on August 21st, I took a deep breath.  I spent a year focussed on photographing the eclipse, and with that goal complete, what was next?  I was in the plateau of the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, a couple dozen miles from Yellowstone, and had three days to enjoy with my fiancee.  As luck would have it, those days were absent of any clouds, giving me two perfect evenings in clear, dark, dry skies to do some of the best astrophotography of my life.  Here’s what I shot. The milky way shot for me is a...

Astrophotography: Sagittarius and the Galaxy

The challenge of learning astrophotography, and photography in general, is two-fold.  There’s the work you do at the eyepiece, requiring you to choose the right settings for the right shot.  Then there’s the work you do at the computer screen, the post-processing and adjustments.  Ultimately the more important one is the camera work.  If you take a bad photograph, no amount of post-processing will help you, even if you are an expert at it.  It’s like the image is the cake, and the processing is the icing.  No matter how much icing you cover it with, a bad cake is...

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...

A Direct Black Hole

How did supermassive black holes form in the early epochs of the universe? More importantly, how did they have enough time to grow as large as they did? The answer requires a very different universe.  And back then, conditions were much different than they are now.  There was a lot of gas, little dust, no stars, and a plethora of dark matter. Astronomers have spent decades observing early quasars, massive active galaxies powered by huge black holes feeding on surrounding gas.  But these galaxies are seen so early in the universe’s history, one starts to wonder how a black hole finds sufficient...

Everlasting Light

Light is beautiful.  It illuminates a world of beauty for us to appreciate while giving us a tool to decipher the riddles of the universe.  In astronomy, it’s always about more photons! Because more photons = more data = better results.  But in an increasingly technological world, more photons can be a bad thing.  Especially when the artificial photons overpower the natural. I was lucky to spend most of my youth living away from the bright lights of the city, but with the sprawling metropolis of Toronto to the South, I could always see the orange glow that blocked out...