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Friday, October 24 2014 @ 01:00 PM CDT

Brought to you by the Arkansas/Oklahoma Astronomical Society.

NASA created the Space Place program to give the public the opportunity to explore the space program's technological advancements and delve into its discoveries. A component of that outreach, the Space Place column is offered to select venues like astronomy associations. The column includes varied topics from all of the areas within NASA -- planetary exploration, of course, but also observing earth from space, and even spinoffs from space.

In addition, The NASA Space Place program has two Web sites aimed at children but equally as fun and educational for adults. We invite you to explore these web sites at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov, or the Spanish version at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/espanol.

In addition, there are fun new projects for kids uploaded every month to our Downloads section. Check them out by clicking here!
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A Glorious Gravitational Lens

NASA Space Place

  
  
Abel 2218. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and Johan Richard (Caltech). Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin & James Long (ESA/Hubble).
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As we look at the universe on larger and larger scales, from stars to galaxies to groups to the largest galaxy clusters, we become able to perceive objects that are significantly farther away. But as we consider these larger classes of objects, they don't merely emit increased amounts of light, but they also contain increased amounts of mass. Under the best of circumstances, these gravitational clumps can open up a window to the distant universe well beyond what any astronomer could hope to see otherwise.

The oldest style of telescope is the refractor, where light from an arbitrarily distant source is passed through a converging lens. The incoming light rays—initially spread over a large area—are brought together at a point on the opposite side of the lens, with light rays from significantly closer sources bent in characteristic ways as well. While the universe doesn't consist of large optical lenses, mass itself is capable of bending light in accord with Einstein's theory of General Relativity, and acts as a gravitational lens!

The first prediction that real-life galaxy clusters would behave as such lenses came from Fritz Zwicky in 1937. These foreground masses would lead to multiple images and distorted arcs of the same lensed background object, all of which would be magnified as well. It wasn't until 1979, however, that this process was confirmed with the observation of the Twin Quasar: QSO 0957+561. Gravitational lensing requires a serendipitous alignment of a massive foreground galaxy cluster with a background galaxy (or cluster) in the right location to be seen by an observer at our location, but the universe is kind enough to provide us with many such examples of this good fortune, including one accessible to astrophotographers with 11" scopes and larger: Abell 2218.

Located in the Constellation of Draco at position (J2000): R.A. 16h 35m 54s, Dec. +66° 13' 00" (about 2° North of the star 18 Draconis), Abell 2218 is an extremely massive cluster of about 10,000 galaxies located 2 billion light years away, but it's also located quite close to the zenith for northern hemisphere observers, making it a great target for deep-sky astrophotography. Multiple images and sweeping arcs abound between magnitudes 17 and 20, and include galaxies at a variety of redshifts ranging from z=0.7 all the way up to z=2.5, with farther ones at even fainter magnitudes unveiled by Hubble. For those looking for an astronomical challenge this summer, take a shot at Abell 2218, a cluster responsible for perhaps the most glorious gravitational lens visible from Earth!

Learn about current efforts to study gravitational lensing using NASA facilities: http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/january/nasas-fermi-makes-first-gamma-ray-study-of-a-gravitational-lens/

Kids can learn about gravity at NASA’s Space Place: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/what-is-gravity/
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The Hottest Planet in the Solar System

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Image credit: NASA's Pioneer Venus Orbiter image of Venus's upper-atmosphere clouds as seen in the ultraviolet, 1979.
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When you think about the four rocky planets in our Solar System — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars — you probably think about them in that exact order: sorted by their distance from the Sun. It wouldn't surprise you all that much to learn that the surface of Mercury reaches daytime temperatures of up to 800 °F (430 °C), while the surface of Mars never gets hotter than 70 °F (20 °C) during summer at the equator. On both of these worlds, however, temperatures plummet rapidly during the night; Mercury reaches lows of -280 °F (-173 °C) while Mars, despite having a day comparable to Earth's in length, will have a summer's night at the equator freeze to temperatures of -100 °F (-73 °C).

Those temperature extremes from day-to-night don't happen so severely here on Earth, thanks to our atmosphere that's some 140 times thicker than that of Mars. Our average surface temperature is 57 °F (14 °C), and day-to-night temperature swings are only tens of degrees. But if our world were completely airless, like Mercury, we'd have day-to-night temperature swings that were hundreds of degrees. Additionally, our average surface temperature would be significantly colder, at around 0 °F (-18 °C), as our atmosphere functions like a blanket: trapping a portion of the heat radiated by our planet and making the entire atmosphere more uniform in temperature.

But it's the second planet from the Sun — Venus — that puts the rest of the rocky planets' atmospheres to shame. With an atmosphere 93 times as thick as Earth's, made up almost entirely of carbon dioxide, Venus is the ultimate planetary greenhouse, letting sunlight in but hanging onto that heat with incredible effectiveness. Despite being nearly twice as far away from the Sun as Mercury, and hence only receiving 29% the sunlight-per-unit-area, the surface of Venus is a toasty 864 °F (462 °C), with no difference between day-and-night temperatures! Even though Venus takes hundreds of Earth days to rotate, its winds circumnavigate the entire planet every four days (with speeds of 220 mph / 360 kph), making day-and-night temperature differences irrelevant.

Catch the hottest planet in our Solar System all spring-and-summer long in the pre-dawn skies, as it waxes towards its full phase, moving away from the Earth and towards the opposite side of the Sun, which it will finally slip behind in November. A little atmospheric greenhouse effect seems to be exactly what we need here on Earth, but as much as Venus? No thanks!

Check out these “10 Need-to-Know Things About Venus”!

Kids can learn more about the Crazy Weather on Venus and other places in the Solar System at NASA’s Space Place!
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The Power of the Sun's Engines

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Image credit: composite of 25 images of the sun, showing solar outburst/activity over a 365 day period; NASA / Solar Dynamics Observatory / Atmospheric Imaging Assembly / S. Wiessinger; post-processing by E. Siegel.
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Here on Earth, the sun provides us with the vast majority of our energy, striking the top of the atmosphere with up to 1,000 Watts of power per square meter, albeit highly dependent on the sunlight's angle-of-incidence. But remember that the sun is a whopping 150 million kilometers away, and sends an equal amount of radiation in all directions; the Earth-facing direction is nothing special. Even considering sunspots, solar flares, and long-and-short term variations in solar irradiance, the sun's energy output is always constant to about one-part-in-1,000. All told, our parent star consistently outputs an estimated 4 × 1026 Watts of power; one second of the sun's emissions could power all the world's energy needs for over 700,000 years.

That's a literally astronomical amount of energy, and it comes about thanks to the hugeness of the sun. With a radius of 700,000 kilometers, it would take 109 Earths, lined up from end-to-end, just to go across the diameter of the sun once. Unlike our Earth, however, the sun is made up of around 70% hydrogen by mass, and it's the individual protons — or the nuclei of hydrogen atoms — that fuse together, eventually becoming helium-4 and releasing a tremendous amount of energy. All told, for every four protons that wind up becoming helium-4, a tiny bit of mass — just 0.7% of the original amount — gets converted into energy by E=mc2, and that's where the sun's power originates.

You'd be correct in thinking that fusing ~4 × 1038 protons-per-second gives off a tremendous amount of energy, but remember that nuclear fusion occurs in a huge region of the sun: about the innermost quarter (in radius) is where 99% of it is actively taking place. So there might be 4 × 1026 Watts of power put out, but that's spread out over 2.2 × 1025 cubic meters, meaning the sun's energy output per-unit-volume is just 18 W / m3. Compare this to the average human being, whose basal metabolic rate is equivalent to around 100 Watts, yet takes up just 0.06 cubic meters of space. In other words, you emit 100 times as much energy-per-unit-volume as the sun! It's only because the sun is so large and massive that its power is so great.

It's this slow process, releasing huge amounts of energy per reaction over an incredibly large volume, that has powered life on our world throughout its entire history. It may not appear so impressive if you look at just a tiny region, but — at least for our sun — that huge size really adds up!

Check out these “10 Need-to-Know Things About the Sun”: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Sun.

Kids can learn more about an intriguing solar mystery at NASA’s Space Place: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/sun-corona.
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Old Tool, New Use: GPS and the Terrestrial Reference Frame

NASA Space PlaceBy Alex H. Kasprak

  
  
Artist’s interpretation of the Jason 2 satellite. To do its job properly, satellites like Jason 2 require as accurate a terrestrial reference frame as possible. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
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Flying over 1300 kilometers above Earth, the Jason 2 satellite knows its distance from the ocean down to a matter of centimeters, allowing for the creation of detailed maps of the ocean’s surface. This information is invaluable to oceanographers and climate scientists. By understanding the ocean’s complex topography — its barely perceptible hills and troughs — these scientists can monitor the pace of sea level rise, unravel the intricacies of ocean currents, and project the effects of future climate change.

But these measurements would be useless if there were not some frame of reference to put them in context. A terrestrial reference frame, ratified by an international group of scientists, serves that purpose. “It’s a lot like air,” says JPL scientist Jan Weiss. “It’s all around us and is vitally important, but people don’t really think about it.” Creating such a frame of reference is more of a challenge than you might think, though. No point on the surface of Earth is truly fixed.

To create a terrestrial reference frame, you need to know the distance between as many points as possible. Two methods help achieve that goal. Very-long baseline interferometry uses multiple radio antennas to monitor the signal from something very far away in space, like a quasar. The distance between the antennas can be calculated based on tiny changes in the time it takes the signal to reach them. Satellite laser ranging, the second method, bounces lasers off of satellites and measures the two-way travel time to calculate distance between ground stations.

Weiss and his colleagues would like to add a third method into the mix — GPS. At the moment, GPS measurements are used only to tie together the points created by very long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging together, not to directly calculate a terrestrial reference frame.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of serious effort to include GPS directly,” says Weiss. His goal is to show that GPS can be used to create a terrestrial reference frame on its own. “The thing about GPS that’s different from very-long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging is that you don’t need complex and expensive infrastructure and can deploy many stations all around the world.”

Feeding GPS data directly into the calculation of a terrestrial reference frame could lead to an even more accurate and cost effective way to reference points geospatially. This could be good news for missions like Jason 2. Slight errors in the terrestrial reference frame can create significant errors where precise measurements are required. GPS stations could prove to be a vital and untapped resource in the quest to create the most accurate terrestrial reference frame possible. “The thing about GPS,” says Weiss, “is that you are just so data rich when compared to these other techniques.”

You can learn more about NASA’s efforts to create an accurate terrestrial reference frame here: http://space-geodesy.nasa.gov/.

Kids can learn all about GPS by visiting http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/gps and watching a fun animation about finding pizza here: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/gps-pizza.
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Surprising Young Stars in the Oldest Places in the Universe

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Globular Cluster NGC 6397. Credit: ESA & Francesco Ferraro (Bologna Astronomical Observatory) / NASA, Hubble Space Telescope, WFPC2.
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Littered among the stars in our night sky are the famed deep-sky objects. These range from extended spiral and elliptical galaxies millions or even billions of light years away to the star clusters, nebulae, and stellar remnants strewn throughout our own galaxy. But there's an intermediate class of objects, too: the globular star clusters, self-contained clusters of stars found in spherically-distributed halos around each galaxy.

Back before there were any stars or galaxies in the universe, it was an expanding, cooling sea of matter and radiation containing regions where the matter was slightly more dense in some places than others. While gravity worked to pull more and more matter into these places, the pressure from radiation pushed back, preventing the gravitational collapse of gas clouds below a certain mass. In the young universe, this meant no clouds smaller than around a few hundred thousand times the mass of our Sun could collapse. This coincides with a globular cluster's typical mass, and their stars are some of the oldest in the universe!

These compact, spherical collections of stars are all less than 100 light-years in radius, but typically have around 100,000 stars inside them, making them nearly 100 times denser than our neighborhood of the Milky Way! The vast majority of globular clusters have extremely few heavy elements (heavier than helium), as little as 1% of what we find in our Sun. There's a good reason for this: our Sun is only 4.5 billion years old and has seen many generations of stars live-and-die, while globular clusters (and the stars inside of them) are often over 13 billion years old, or more than 90% the age of the universe! When you look inside one of these cosmic collections, you're looking at some of the oldest stellar swarms in the known universe.

Yet when you look at a high-resolution image of these relics from the early universe, you'll find a sprinkling of hot, massive, apparently young blue stars! Is there a stellar fountain of youth inside? Kind of! These massive stellar swarms are so dense — especially towards the center — that mergers, mass siphoning and collisions between stars are quite common. When two long-lived, low-mass stars interact in these ways, they produce a hotter, bluer star that will be much shorter lived, known as a blue straggler star. First discovered by Allan Sandage in 1953, these young-looking stars arise thanks to stellar cannibalism. So enjoy the brightest and bluest stars in these globular clusters, found right alongside the oldest known stars in the universe!

Learn about a recent globular cluster discovery here: http://www.nasa.gov/press/2013/september/hubble-uncovers-largest-known-group-of-star-clusters-clues-to-dark-matter.

Kids can learn more about how stars work by listening to The Space Place’s own Dr. Marc: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/podcasts/en/#stars.
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The most volcanically active place is out-of-this-world!

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Io. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech, via the Galileo spacecraft.
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Volcanoes are some of the most powerful and destructive natural phenomena, yet they're a vital part of shaping the planetary landscape of worlds small and large. Here on Earth, the largest of the rocky bodies in our Solar System, there's a tremendous source of heat coming from our planet's interior, from a mix of gravitational contraction and heavy, radioactive elements decaying. Our planet consistently outputs a tremendous amount of energy from this process, nearly three times the global power production from all sources of fuel. Because the surface-area-to-mass ratio of our planet (like all large rocky worlds) is small, that energy has a hard time escaping, building-up and releasing sporadically in catastrophic events: volcanoes and earthquakes!

Yet volcanoes occur on worlds that you might never expect, like the tiny moon Io, orbiting Jupiter. With just 1.5% the mass of Earth despite being more than one quarter of the Earth's diameter, Io seems like an unlikely candidate for volcanoes, as 4.5 billion years is more than enough time for it to have cooled and become stable. Yet Io is anything but stable, as an abundance of volcanic eruptions were predicted before we ever got a chance to view it up close. When the Voyager 1 spacecraft visited, it found no impact craters on Io, but instead hundreds of volcanic calderas, including actual eruptions with plumes 300 kilometers high! Subsequently, Voyager 2, Galileo, and a myriad of telescope observations found that these eruptions change rapidly on Io's surface.

Where does the energy for all this come from? From the combined tidal forces exerted by Jupiter and the outer Jovian moons. On Earth, the gravity from the Sun and Moon causes the ocean tides to raise-and-lower by one-to-two meters, on average, far too small to cause any heating. Io has no oceans, yet the tidal forces acting on it cause the world itself to stretch and bend by an astonishing 100 meters at a time! This causes not only cracking and fissures, but also heats up the interior of the planet, the same way that rapidly bending a piece of metal back-and-forth causes it to heat up internally. When a path to the surface opens up, that internal heat escapes through quiescent lava flows and catastrophic volcanic eruptions! The hottest spots on Io's surface reach 1,200°C (2,000°F); compared to the average surface temperature of 110 Kelvin (-163°C / -261°F), Io is home to the most extreme temperature differences from location-to-location outside of the Sun.

Just by orbiting where it does, Io gets distorted, heats up, and erupts, making it the most volcanically active world in the entire Solar System! Other moons around gas giants have spectacular eruptions, too (like Enceladus around Saturn), but no world has its surface shaped by volcanic activity quite like Jupiter's innermost moon, Io!

Learn more about Galileo’s mission to Jupiter: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galileo/.

Kids can explore the many volcanoes of our solar system using the Space Place’s Space Volcano Explorer: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/volcanoes.
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How to hunt for your very own supernova!

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
SN 2013ai, via its discoverer, Emmanuel Conseil, taken with the Slooh.com robotic telescope just a few days after its emergence in NGC 2207 (top); NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI) of the same interacting galaxies prior to the supernova (bottom).
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In our day-to-day lives, stars seem like the most fixed and unchanging of all the night sky objects. Shining relentlessly and constantly for billions of years, it's only the long-term motion of these individual nuclear furnaces and our own motion through the cosmos that results in the most minute, barely-perceptible changes.

Unless, that is, you're talking about a star reaching the end of its life. A star like our Sun will burn through all the hydrogen in its core after approximately 10 billion years, after which the core contracts and heats up, and the heavier element helium begins to fuse. About a quarter of all stars are massive enough that they'll reach this giant stage, but the most massive ones — only about 0.1% of all stars — will continue to fuse leaner elements past carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulphur and all the way up to iron, cobalt, and, nickel in their core. For the rare ultra-massive stars that make it this far, their cores become so massive that they're unstable against gravitational collapse. When they run out of fuel, the core implodes.

The inrushing matter approaches the center of the star, then rebounds and bounces outwards, creating a shockwave that eventually causes what we see as a core-collapse supernova, the most common type of supernova in the Universe! These occur only a few times a century in most galaxies, but because it's the most massive, hottest, shortest-lived stars that create these core-collapse supernovae, we can increase our odds of finding one by watching the most actively star-forming galaxies very closely. Want to maximize your chances of finding one for yourself? Here's how.

Pick a galaxy in the process of a major merger, and get to know it. Learn where the foreground stars are, where the apparent bright spots are, what its distinctive features are. If a supernova occurs, it will appear first as a barely perceptible bright spot that wasn't there before, and it will quickly brighten over a few nights. If you find what appears to be a “new star” in one of these galaxies and it checks out, report it immediately; you just might have discovered a new supernova!

This is one of the few cutting-edge astronomical discoveries well-suited to amateurs; Australian Robert Evans holds the all-time record with 42 (and counting) original supernova discoveries. If you ever find one for yourself, you'll have seen an exploding star whose light traveled millions of light-years across the Universe right to you, and you'll be the very first person who's ever seen it!

Read more about the evolution and ultimate fate of the stars in our universe: http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/how-do-stars-form-and-evolve/.

While you are out looking for supernovas, kids can have a blast finding constellations using the Space Place star finder: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/starfinder/.
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Size Does Matter, But So Does Dark Energy

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Digital mosaic of infrared light (courtesy of Spitzer) and visible light (SDSS) of the Coma Cluster, the largest member of the Coma Supercluster. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Goddard Space Flight Center / Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
Click image for larger view
Here in our own galactic backyard, the Milky Way contains some 200-400 billion stars, and that's not even the biggest galaxy in our own local group. Andromeda (M31) is even bigger and more massive than we are, made up of around a trillion stars! When you throw in the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and the dozens of dwarf galaxies and hundreds of globular clusters gravitationally bound to us and our nearest neighbors, our local group sure does seem impressive.

Yet that's just chicken feed compared to the largest structures in the universe. Giant clusters and superclusters of galaxies, containing thousands of times the mass of our entire local group, can be found omnidirectionally with telescope surveys. Perhaps the two most famous examples are the nearby Virgo Cluster and the somewhat more distant Coma Supercluster, the latter containing more than 3,000 galaxies. There are millions of giant clusters like this in our observable universe, and the gravitational forces at play are absolutely tremendous: there are literally quadrillions of times the mass of our Sun in these systems.

The largest superclusters line up along filaments, forming a great cosmic web of structure with huge intergalactic voids in between the galaxy-rich regions. These galaxy filaments span anywhere from hundreds of millions of light-years all the way up to more than a billion light years in length. The CfA2 Great Wall, the Sloan Great Wall, and most recently, the Huge-LQG (Large Quasar Group) are the largest known ones, with the Huge-LQG -- a group of at least 73 quasars – apparently stretching nearly 4 billion light years in its longest direction: more than 5% of the observable universe! With more mass than a million Milky Way galaxies in there, this structure is a puzzle for cosmology.

You see, with the normal matter, dark matter, and dark energy in our universe, there's an upper limit to the size of gravitationally bound filaments that should form. The Huge-LQG, if real, is more than double the size of that largest predicted structure, and this could cast doubts on the core principle of cosmology: that on the largest scales, the universe is roughly uniform everywhere. But this might not pose a problem at all, thanks to an unlikely culprit: dark energy. Just as the local group is part of the Virgo Supercluster but recedes from it, and the Leo Cluster -- a large member of the Coma Supercluster -- is accelerating away from Coma, it's conceivable that the Huge-LQG isn't a single, bound structure at all, but will eventually be driven apart by dark energy. Either way, we're just a tiny drop in the vast cosmic ocean, on the outskirts of its rich, yet barely fathomable depths.

Learn about the many ways in which NASA strives to uncover the mysteries of the universe: http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/. Kids can make their own clusters of galaxies by checking out The Space Place’s fun galactic mobile activity: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/galactic-mobile/
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Inventing Astrophotography: Capturing Light Over Time

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Great Nebula in Andromeda, the first-ever photograph of another galaxy. Image credit: Isaac Roberts, taken December 29, 1888, published in A Selection of Photographs of Stars, Star-clusters and Nebulae, Volume II, The Universal Press, London, 1899.
We know that it’s a vast Universe out there, with our Milky Way representing just one drop in a cosmic ocean filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies. Yet if you’ve ever looked through a telescope with your own eyes, unless that telescope was many feet in diameter, you’ve probably never seen a galaxy’s spiral structure for yourself. In fact, the very closest large galaxy to us — Andromeda, M31 — wasn’t discovered to be a spiral until 1888, despite being clearly visible to the naked eye! This crucial discovery wasn’t made at one of the world’s great observatories, with a world-class telescope, or even by a professional astronomer; it was made by a humble amateur to whom we all owe a great scientific debt.

Beginning in 1845, with the unveiling of Lord Rosse’s 6-foot (1.8 m) aperture telescope, several of the nebulae catalogued by Messier, Herschel and others were discovered to contain an internal spiral structure. The extreme light-gathering power afforded by this new telescope allowed us, for the first time, to see these hitherto undiscovered cosmic constructions. But there was another possible path to such a discovery: rather than collecting vast amounts of light through a giant aperture, you could collect it over time, through the newly developed technology of photography. During the latter half of the 19th Century, the application of photography to astronomy allowed us to better understand the Sun’s corona, the spectra of stars, and to discover stellar and nebulous features too faint to be seen with the human eye.

Working initially with a 7-inch refractor that was later upgraded to a 20-inch reflector, amateur astronomer Isaac Roberts pioneered a number of astrophotography techniques in the early 1880s, including “piggybacking,” where his camera/lens system was attached to a larger, equatorially-mounted guide scope, allowing for longer exposure times than ever before. By mounting photographic plates directly at the reflector’s prime focus, he was able to completely avoid the light-loss inherent with secondary mirrors. His first photographs were displayed in 1886, showing vast extensions to the known reaches of nebulosity in the Pleiades star cluster and the Orion Nebula.

But his greatest achievement was this 1888 photograph of the Great Nebula in Andromeda, which we now know to be the first-ever photograph of another galaxy, and the first spiral ever discovered that was oriented closer to edge-on (as opposed to face-on) with respect to us. Over a century later, Andromeda looks practically identical, a testament to the tremendous scales involved when considering galaxies. If you can photograph it, you’ll see for yourself!

Astrophotography has come a long way, as apparent in the Space Place collection of NASA stars and galaxies posters at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/posters/#stars.
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High-energy Spy

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Martin C. Weisskopf

  
  
Composite image of DEM L50, a so-called superbubble found in the Large Magellanic Cloud. X-ray data from Chandra is pink, while optical data is red, green, and blue. Superbubbles are created by winds from massive stars and the shock waves produced when the stars explode as supernovas.
Click image for larger view
The idea for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory was born only one year after Riccardo Giacconi discovered the first celestial X-ray source other than the Sun. In 1962, he used a sounding rocket to place the experiment above the atmosphere for a few minutes. The sounding rocket was necessary because the atmosphere blocks X-rays. If you want to look at X-ray emissions from objects like stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies, your instrument must get above the atmosphere.

Giacconi’s idea was to launch a large diameter (about 1 meter) telescope to bring X-rays to a focus. He wanted to investigate the hazy glow of X-rays that could be seen from all directions throughout the sounding rocket flight. He wanted to find out whether this glow was, in fact, made up of many point-like objects. That is, was the glow actually from millions of X-ray sources in the Universe. Except for the brightest sources from nearby neighbors, the rocket instrument could not distinguish objects within the glow.

Giacconi’s vision and the promise and importance of X-ray astronomy was borne out by many sounding rocket flights and, later satellite experiments, all of which provided years-, as opposed to minutes-, worth of data.

By 1980, we knew that X-ray sources exist within all classes of astronomical objects. In many cases, this discovery was completely unexpected. For example, that first source turned out to be a very small star in a binary system with a more normal star. The vast amount of energy needed to produce the X-rays was provided by gravity, which, because of the small star’s mass (about equal to the Sun’s) and compactness (about 10 km in diameter) would accelerate particles transferred from the normal star to X-ray emitting energies. In 1962, who knew such compact stars (in this case a neutron star) even existed, much less this energy transfer mechanism?

X-ray astronomy grew in importance to the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. The National Academy of Sciences, as part of its “Decadal Survey” released in 1981, recommended as its number one priority for large missions an X-ray observatory along the lines that Giacconi outlined in 1963. This observatory was eventually realized as the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which launched in 1999.

The Chandra Project is built around a high-resolution X-ray telescope capable of sharply focusing X-rays onto two different X-ray-sensitive cameras. The focusing ability is of the caliber such that one could resolve an X-ray emitting dime at a distance of about 5 kilometers! The building of this major scientific observatory has many stories.

Learn more about Chandra at www.science.nasa.gov/missions/chandra . Take kids on a “Trip to the Land of the Magic Windows” and see the universe in X-rays and other invisible wavelengths of light at spaceplace.nasa.gov/magic-windows.

Dr. Weisskopf is project scientist for NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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