Exoplanet Extravaganza

Artist's concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets' diameters, masses and distances from the host star. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Exoplanet news has been all the buzz since the announcement of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star 39 light-years away from Earth - that's 229 trillion miles or 369 trillion kilometers. Three of those worlds orbit within that star's habitable zone, increasing their likelihood of supporting life.

Two hours after the announcement, I discussed with students in the Endeavour Space Academy, what exoplanets are, exoplanet detection methods, and the thousands of exoplanets found to date. The questions I got mirror those I've seen asked online:

Can we go there? Well, there are a lots of gotchas to that question. At our current level of technology, and using the fastest object humans have crated as a baseline, it would take well over 100,000 years to reach this star system; Remember: "Space is big. Really big!" Speaking of "we," what will modern-day humans have evolved into after 100,000 years?

Could life exist there? It's certainly possible. With the discovery of extremophiles living in hostile environments on Earth, we've had to redefine the limits of life on Earth, and by extension, where life might be found on other worlds. Several bodies in our solar system have be found to have subsurface oceans, and may have hydrothermal vents - like those on Earth that support rich ecosystems. As Br. Guy likes to point out: "If it has happened, it can happen!"

The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute has been monitoring the TRAPPIST-1 system for radio emissions using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) since the announcement in May of 2016 that there were three Earth/Venus-sized worlds orbiting that star; now that we know there are seven, that makes this system an even more interesting target.

The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in October of 2018, will study the atmospheres of exoplanets; I eagerly await the day when NASA announces the discovery of oxygen in the atmosphere of an Earth-like world orbiting another star.

Hypothetical Earth-like exoplanet with a moon orbiting a binary star. Credit: Universe Sandbox ² / Bob Trembley

JPL Press Release 2017-047:

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water -- key to life as we know it -- under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

"This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Answering the question 'are we alone' is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal."

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

TRAPPIST-1 System showing habitable zone. Credit: NASA Eyes on Exoplanets / Bob Trembley

The new results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Using Spitzer data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated.

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated -- scientists believe it could be an icy, "snowball-like" world, but further observations are needed.

"The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star," said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium. "It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds."

The TRAPPIST-1 System would easily fit within the orbit of Mercury. Credit: NASA Eyes on Exoplanets / Bob Trembley

In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star -- classified as an ultra-cool dwarf -- is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets also are very close to each other. If a person were standing on one of the planet's surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth's sky.

Sol compared to TRAPPIST-1 and Jupiter. Credit: Universe Sandbox ² / Bob Trembley

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing -- transits -- of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system. Engineers optimized Spitzer's ability to observe transiting planets during Spitzer's "warm mission," which began after the spacecraft's coolant ran out as planned after the first five years of operations.

"This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations," said Sean Carey, manager of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. "Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets."

Following up on the Spitzer discovery, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has initiated the screening of four of the planets, including the three inside the habitable zone. These observations aim at assessing the presence of puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres, typical for gaseous worlds like Neptune, around these planets.

In May 2016, the Hubble team observed the two innermost planets, and found no evidence for such puffy atmospheres. This strengthened the case that the planets closest to the star are rocky in nature.

"The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets," said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also is studying the TRAPPIST-1 system, making measurements of the star's minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft's observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system. The K2 observations conclude in early March and will be made available on the public archive.

Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet's atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets' temperatures and surface pressures -- key factors in assessing their habitability.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center, at Caltech, Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at Caltech/IPAC. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Spitzer, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer
For more information on the TRAPPIST-1 system, visit: https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/trappist1
For more information on exoplanets, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/exoplanets 

Simulated view from the surface of TRAPPIST-1f. Credit: Universe Sandbox ² / Bob Trembley

News Media Contacts:
Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Felicia Chou / Sean Potter
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1536
felicia.chou@nasa.gov / sean.potter@nasa.gov

Related Links
TRAPPIST-1 info hub
Video file for media
Video: Seven Wonders of TRAPPIST-1
Visions of the Future
Archived news conference

Educational materials:
› NASA Eyes on Exoplanets (app): https://eyes.nasa.gov/eyes-on-exoplanets.html
› NASA Wavelength - Exoplanets: http://nasawavelength.org/resource-search?educationalLevel=&qq=Exoplanets
› NASA Space Place - All About Exoplanets: https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/all-about-exoplanets/en/
› NASA's Universe of Learning: http://universe-of-learning.org/

Exoplanet Detection Methods. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

TRAPPIST-1 System showing habitable zone. Credit: Universe Sandbox ² / Bob Trembley

Turn Right At The Cow: Stargazing In Wisconsin With My Mother.

(With Ash Wednesday coming up, my time has been consumed with parish work. Therefore, I will be taking a week off from the summaries of the Waterborne Symposia. If you have been following these posts, we will get back into "Christian Ecology" next week.)

A little over a week ago, I had a rare opportunity to run back to the family farm for dinner. I had just come off of a long stretch of funerals at the parish and felt the need to get away, even if it just be for a night. As soon as I got home, my father told me how beautiful the night skies had been. It has been an unusually warm February in Wisconsin, providing crystal clear skies and weather warm enough for some stargazing with no winter gear necessary.

The railing of our backyard deck where I do my star gazing when on my parent's farm.

After nightfall, my parents asked me if I brought my telescope home? Unfortunately, I had not since I was just looking to rest for the evening and enjoy some literal home cooking. My mother, however, insisted, "Take the field glasses and do some stargazing - you need to enjoy these skies." My mother was right. As soon as I got outside, I didn't even need to let my eyes dark adapt to be stunned by how clear and crisp the night sky appeared. The clarity of the heavens instantly took me back to my childhood as the night revealed, once again, the beauty of a rural central Wisconsin sky, free of light pollution (mostly).

After a quick peak at some of my favorite objects, I called to my mother to come out and enjoy the stars. In the past, my mother would look through my telescope to see what her son was observing. This time, I wanted her to be the one to find things in the night sky.

"Mom, come out here and look through the field glasses!" When she came outside, I informed her that she was going to be the one in charge of find things tonight. My mother quickly accepted the challenge as long as I was willing to help out a little bit.

"What's the really bright star on the horizon?"

"That's Venus, Mom. Take a peak."

Success! My mother quickly and easily found Venus. I asked her if she could see the phase of Venus. "Oh yeah..." Her affirmation gave me a quick sense of accomplishment. We were off and running!

"Now, is that Mars over there by Venus?"

Two for two! My mother didn't even need my help on that one. I could tell that looking at these simple objects was giving my mother confidence and eagerness to find more wonders in the night sky.

"Mom, how would you like to look for some things that are a little more challenging?"


Time-laps photo of the Orion Nebula. Naked eyed, we couldn't see the color.

"Let's start with the Orion Nebula."

After outlining the constellation of Orion, I explained how to find the Orion Nebula in the sword hanging from Orion's belt. I told my mother to look for three small stars that make a triangle that look like they are surrounded by a white, hazy cloud.

"Oh, yeah... I got it!"

I explained to my mother how the Orion Nebula is a place of star birth. Once my mother learned it was a "star nursery," the field glasses went up again.

"That's amazing!"

I can't put into words the pride I felt, seeing my mother have so much success on her first night of stargazing where see was choosing the targets.

"Where is the Big Dipper? Where is the Little Dipper? Where is the North Star?"

After some pointing and creative imagining, we connected the front two stars of the "bowl" of the Big Dipper to draw our line in the sky to Polaris and the Little Dipper.

"Now, what is that really bright star over there?"

"That's Sirius Mom."

The excitement in my mother continued to grow, giving me the confidence to throw a fun stargazing challenge at her.

"Mom, how would you like to see a galaxy that's about the size of ours?"

"I'd love to!"

Before my mother had come out, I was looking at the Andromeda Galaxy. Since I currently live in the city, I rarely get a chance to see this object naked eyed. Tonight, however, there it was! Through the field glasses it looked spectacular, making me wish I had brought my telescope home.

In typical astronomy fashion, I first tried to show my mother where the Andromeda Galaxy was with neighboring stars. I could tell that trying to use Cassiopeia as a "pointer arrow" wasn't working well for my mother. Then I had an idea - stop thinking like a hobby astronomer. As soon as this happened, I knew exactly how to help my mother find Andromeda.

Andromeda Galaxy

In rural Wisconsin, we often say that directions are never given by proper street names, but by visual cues on the terrain. A typical joke for a Wisconsinite is that the most common directions we give are to "take this road for about five miles and then turn right at the cow." Though it might be a bit overstated, I must admit that this technique is used quite frequently (minus the cow - usually a big red barn, yellow house, or lake).

In the spirit of "rural directions," I noticed that the Andromeda Galaxy was lined up perfectly with our silo that was jetting over the trees.

"Mom, take the field glasses and look at the very top of the silo. Center the very top of the silo in the field glasses and slowly go strait up to see Andromeda."

"Oh my gosh, there it is!"

My mother's first night of stargazing on her own and she was able to find the Andromeda Galaxy. Amid the excitement, I was reminded that it took me about a year to find this galaxy when I was a kid. That being said, I was trying to find it on my own with little experience in astronomy. I didn't have someone who knows the sky to help guide me. Nevertheless, it was a very good night for me and my mother.

After "oo-ing" and "ah-ing" at the Pleiades, my mother said, "That's strange. It looks like the sky is getting hazy."

"No, Mom, that's not haze. That's our Milky Way Galaxy." Putting the field glasses to her eyes in disbelief, she understood that what she always thought was a hazy cloud was not haze at all, but a lot of stars.

"James, you're right. The night sky is God's canvas!"

Milky Way Galaxy. Image Credit: Astronomy Magazine

When my mother made this statement, something was touched in me. Many times people will ask, "Why do you like astronomy so much?" No matter how hard I try, I never feel like I can give an answer that sufficiently gives voice to the numerous times I have experienced God's presence, love, joy, and peace while looking at the stars. To hear my mother embrace a vision of the night sky as God's canvas made me feel like she now was able to understand and share in the spiritual aspect of stargazing that I experience. Needless to say, I'm really glad I went home for dinner!

Sadly, given the increase of light pollution, these types of moments are getting harder and harder to share with people. Could there be a day when people look up to the night sky and see nothing but a milky haze that it not our galaxy? If you are blessed with dark, clear skies where you live, get out and enjoy them! If you live in the city like I do, drive out to the countryside and find a place like our family farm that provides beautiful dark nights for you to behold the wonder of God's creation. The night sky is God's canvas. Let's spend some time this week enjoying the Artwork of God!

Smile Black Hole – You’re on Camera!

Black holes are notoriously difficult to catch on camera. They are completely dark objects that consume unsuspecting objects that get too close..

Just before stars and gas fall into black holes they spiral around and around as if caught in a whirlpool. They emit a great deal of light as a sort of "last hurrah" as they are torn apart en route within the black hole surface, or event horizon. This light is evidence that a star was recently there. It also means that when black holes are consuming stars they are not entirely black. The dark center is surrounded by a ring of light.

That is how the story goes, anyway. We are quite (but not completely) sure that black holes exist. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to support this mathematical solution first proposed by Karl Schwarzschild in the early 20th century. One detail missing is that we have never actually seen one. We need verification. If yes, then we will be able to study space and time under the most challenging physical conditions imaginable. If no, then we will need to make modifications to our understanding of gravity.

The first studio subject is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. This object is small, packing a mass of about 4 million times the mass of the Sun into a body that is one-tenth the average distance from the Earth to Mars. It is also interesting, as it is the cloest one to home.

To have the great hope to see the ring of light surrounding the black hole that would be one of its tell-tale signatures requires extremely high quality imaging. The technology demands cameras attuned to such fine detail that they will be able to see grapefruit on the Moon as seen from Earth.

Next week we will explore the technology behind this powerful new camera requiring collaboration of astronomers from eight different telescopes worldwide.

The Beer and the Telescope

During a bout of insomnia Thursday morning, around 2 am, my phone buzzed with an incoming email from the editor of L'Osservatore Romano asking if I could get them an article about the TRAPPIST-1 planets. By noon. Italian time. So I stayed up another hour -- I wasn't getting any sleep anyway -- and shipped one off to them by 3 am Tucson time. It ran in the Feb 23 edition... click here for a link. Of course, they translated it into Italian. Here is the original English text that I sent them... they edited it slightly.

I didn't get a chance to copy the Italian version before it went offline, but thankfully my Twitter friend @fabriziolab did!

Last year, a team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium announced the discovery of three planets around a star observed by one of their telescopes, TRAPPIST South. This week they have published new results in the scientific journal Nature that expands the number of planets in this system to seven. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory, reflects on the significance of this discovery.

“Do you believe in life elsewhere in the Universe?” It’s a question that astronomers are asked all the time. It is the right question: life in the universe is, so far, a question of belief. We have no data that says such life exists. But our faith that life is there is strong enough that we’re willing to make the effort to search for it.

With the announcement yesterday of the discovery of seven planets comparable to Earth orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1,our faith in such searches has gotten just a little bit stronger. At least three of them might be at the right temperature to support liquid water and thus the possibility of life as we know it.

Their ongoing search for planets around small, relatively cool stars in our nearby galactic neighborhood uses a pair of robotic telescopes called “TRAPPIST”; the acronym stand for the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope. TRAPPIST South, which made the observations reported here, is located in the Chilean desert at an observatory in La Silla run by the European Southern Observatory; its counterpart, TRAPPIST North, is located outside of Marrakesh, Morocco. The star TRAPPIST-1 bears the name of the telescope that made it famous.

While most of the excitement in the popular press has centered on the possibility that life could exist on these planets, I see a wider significance to the discovery.

It’s important to note that no one has actually seen these planets. They are too small and too faint to be visible in our current generation of telescopes. But even though we can’t see them, we believe they exist because of the effects we can see that they have on their star. This planetary system happens to be aligned so that as each planet orbits this star, it passes between the star and us; thus the starlight is slightly dimmed as the planet passes. Such an effect, though subtle, can be detected even with a small telescope. The TRAPPIST telescopes use very modest 0.6 meter-wide mirrors to capture the flickering starlight.

Since plenty of other things could cause a star to dim, one has to keep looking to see if the effect repeats itself on a regular basis, each time the planet completes an orbit. That’s one reason why the team decided to concentrate their search on dim, red stars. A planet would have to orbit rather close to such a star in order to be warm enough to support life. Close planets orbit more quickly; thus we have many more chances to see them dim the starlight, and each time we see that dimming we are more confident that the planet (or planets, in this case) is really there. What is more, with seven planets it takes a lot of observations to sort out the rhythm of dimmings into seven regular periods. This discovery did not come in one moment of revelation, but only after years of patient observing.

To further increase our faith that these are really planets, the scientists looked for other effects that such planets would have on the star, such as a subtle shifting of its spectral colors. The small flickers seen in a small telescope led to an international effort involving some of the biggest and most sophisticated instruments at our disposal. Besides the TRAPPIST South telescope, the astronomers relied on data from the NASA’s Spitzer space telescope (which observes in the infrared light that this star mostly radiates) and the European Southern Observatory’s VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Paranal, Chile, whose mirror is more than eight meters wide.

No one astronomer could have made all the observations needed to confirm the result. Science is done by a community of people working together toward a common goal. The European Southern Observatory is itself a consortium of astronomers supported by fifteen European nations, plus Brazil.

Astronomy is not stars or planets, but the activity of the people who look at those stars and planets. It is human curiosity, the desire to feed the human soul, that motivates this work. Human longings to know how we fit into this universe, and whether there are other places or even other beings like ourselves, excites our imaginations and keeps us looking patiently, night after night. That passion fuels the faith of the astronomers, giving them the hope they need that their long nights of observing will bear fruit.

Of course, along with passion and faith, scientists are also moved by other appetites… and a sense of humor. The Belgian astronomers who built the TRAPPIST telescopes admit that they chose the name to honor the famous beers made by Belgian Trappists!

From The Tablet: Precisely Strange

This article first ran in The Tablet in February, 2016

At the museum of the history of science in Florence, honoring its famous local son Galileo, one can find a marvelous display of a 17th century high technology peculiar to Italy: fine glasswork. Consider the bubble-free glass that Galileo needed for his telescope lenses, the “Florentine flasks” beloved of chemists, the elaborate thermometers of the “Accademia del Cimento.” Italian glass technology made Italy the birthplace of the scientific revolution.  But a century later, as displayed in another room in this museum, mechanical devices produced in Britain and Germany allowed measurements of our universe to a much higher precision. With such instruments, those nations overtook Italy in the world of modern science.

The February 2016 announcement of the observation of gravitational waves demonstrates again how our knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe is advanced by our ability to measure nature ever more precisely. To detect the tiniest ripple in the space-time continuum, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) experiments in Louisiana and Washington State had to compare the space between two 4 kilometer paths, set at right angles to each other, with a precision of better than one thousandth the radius of a proton.

In March 2016 I was shown around the LIGO facility outside Baton Rouge by my friend Keith (not to be confused with Kip!) Thorne, who works there; here he shows a copy of the plot confirming the first gravitational wave detection

The “Laser” in the LIGO name made this possible. Each arm of the detector is kept at a vacuum, and precisely isolated so that no vibrations will mask the tiny signal. Laser beams are sent down each tunnel, reflected back by superbly figured mirrors, and then compared. Much like how a piano tuner listens to the blend of a piano string’s note against a tuning fork, a slight difference in the lengths of the tunnels will cause the combined beam show an “Interference” pattern (the I in LIGO) that can be used to detect tiny differences in path lengths between the two beams.

But why should the beam lengths vary?

In the late 16th century, Isaac Newton had described how gravity controls the orbit of a moon or the fall of an apple, but he famously refused to even try to guess what gravity actually was; when challenged, he replied, “hypotheses non fingo” (I feign no hypotheses). In 1915, however, Einstein took up that challenge and proposed in his General Relativity theory: gravity was the result of matter warping space and time (which he had united as “spacetime” in his earlier Special Theory of Relativity.)

One classic illustration of his idea imagines that spacetime could be represented in two dimensions as a flat sheet of rubber. Any mass (like a star or a planet) warps spacetime the way a weight placed on the rubber bends it out of shape. An ant walking in a straight line across this rubber sheet which got too close to the warped rubber would find its path curved around and around the weight — or bent into the weight itself.

But a violent change in the position of that weight — caused, perhaps, by two such weights spiraling into each other or colliding — could set up ripples in the rubber sheet which might propagate like waves of Gravitational warping (hence the G in LIGO). In our three dimensional universe, such ripples would manifest themselves as the fabric of spacetime itself slightly shrinking and growing in the direction that the waves travel. Of course, such ripples grow weaker and weaker as they fill more and more space, radiating away from their source.

But collisions between such massive objects — say, two black holes in space — don’t happen every day; at least, not close enough to us that we could expect to see one within the lifetime (or grant cycle) of an observer. Not unless, that is, the observer has such a delicate detector that even events in incredibly distant volumes of space can be observed. The first version of LIGO, set up in 1999, failed to see any confirmed gravitational wave events. But in late 2014 an improved version, ten times more sensitive, came online. During an engineering “shake down” run of the new system in September, 2015, the event announced this past month was captured by the detector in Louisiana.

The first step, of course, was to confirm the possible event by seeing if it was recorded by the second detector in Washington. It was. Furthermore, the Washington detector saw its event a few microseconds later, as would be expected for a wave traveling at the speed of light across the three thousand kilometers’ distance between the two sites.

Meanwhile, theorists had been working for years to calculate just what sorts of events might give rise to gravitational waves, and what the signal of each sort of event might look like. Such calculations were essential in designing the detectors, so that the engineers would have an idea of the precision that they’d have to achieve in order to get reasonable results.

Comparing the predictions with the observations allowed the observers to figure out what sort of event they were seeing. The slowly increasing amplitude of the observed signal, followed by its abrupt ending, matched the predictions for two massive black holes spiraling together and then colliding. The time difference between the detectors told us the direction back to where the waves came from. The magnitude of the signal let them calculate how far away the event was (a bit over a billion light-years distant) and how massive the black holes were (roughly 30 times the mass of the sun, one somewhat bigger than the other).

They even concluded that roughly half the mass of the combined system had be converted from mass into energy (thanks to Einstein’s famous E=mc^2 rule) at the instant of collision. The system briefly emitted as much energy as all the stars of the visible universe combined.

With these details, the experiment did more than merely confirm the existence of gravitational waves; it also served as a way to Observe the black holes that caused the wave. Hence the “Observatory” in LIGO.The massive gravity of black holes prevents light from escaping their surfaces; only gravity waves can be transmitted directly from them to us.

While the physicists themselves are understandably delighted with this new tool to observe the universe, there are also some interesting lessons for the rest of us as well. It has been estimated that over the past 20 years this project has helped support and train a hundred thousand scientists and engineers. Additional detectors will soon come online in Europe and Asia, and eventually in space.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this project (as with the Apollo moon landings) was the political will and organizational skill that orchestrated the necessary talents of so many people, for so long, to a cause that produced neither money nor power nor, for most of them, fame. This was science that no lone genius, no matter how bright, could have accomplished. It shows what promise and power we humans can achieve when we join together for a common cause.

It also confirms, in the strongest way yet, the core of Einstein’s insight. The laws describing the universe must be far more surprising and strange than the simple Enlightenment conception of Isaac Newton.

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  12. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  13. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  14. Across the Universe: Recognition
  15. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  16. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  17. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  18. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  19. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  20. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  21. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  22. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  23. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  24. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  25. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  26. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  27. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  28. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  29. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  30. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  31. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  32. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  33. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  34. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  35. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  36. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  37. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  38. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  39. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  40. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  41. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  42. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  43. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  44. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  45. Across the Universe: Errata
  46. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  47. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  48. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  49. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  50. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  51. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  52. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  53. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  54. Across the Universe: Obedience
  55. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  56. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  57. Across the Universe: Europa
  58. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  59. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  60. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  61. Across the Universe: False Economies
  62. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  63. Across the Universe: Japan
  64. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  65. Across the Universe: Oops!
  66. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  67. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  68. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  69. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  70. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  71. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  72. Across the Universe: Awareness
  73. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  74. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  75. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  76. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  77. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  78. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  79. Across the Universe: Changelings
  80. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  81. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  82. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  83. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  84. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  85. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  86. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  87. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  88. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  89. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  90. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  91. Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
  92. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  93. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  94. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  95. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  96. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  97. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  98. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  99. Across the Universe: When reason itself becomes flesh
  100. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  101. Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
  102. Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
  103. Across the Universe: A Piece of the Action
  104. Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
  105. Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
  106. Across the Universe: View from afar
  107. Across the Universe: What good is God?
  108. Across the Universe: Global warning
  109. From The Tablet: Precisely Strange

View the entire series

Vatican Observatory astronomers getting research published

Graph of Heat capacity vs. Temperature for several meteorites, from “Ordinary Chondrite Heat Capacities Below 350K".

Graph of Heat capacity vs. Temperature for several meteorites, from “Ordinary Chondrite Heat Capacities Below 350K".

This is the blog of the Vatican Observatory.* V.O. director Guy Consolmagno is the Blog Boss. Most of the posts here are intended for an audience that is interested in science and has basic scientific literacy; the posts are generally not for conveying to working astronomers the latest research to come out of the V.O. But maybe it would be a good idea from time to time to highlight the latest V.O. research, because the V.O.’s astronomers are publishing stuff in the astronomical journals, and thus contributing to the body of scientific knowledge.

So, here are some recent publications from V.O. astronomers with whom I have some direct connection.  At a later date I will do a post featuring publications by other V.O. astronomers.

Guy Consolmagno, V.O. Director and El Jefe del Blog for The Catholic Astronomer!

“Olivine on Vesta as exogenous contaminants brought by impacts: Constraints from modeling Vesta's collisional history and from impact simulations,” by D. Turrini, V. Svetsov, G. Consolmagno, S. Sirono, and S. Pirani, in Icarus, Volume 280 (2016), p. 328-339.

Abstract: The survival of asteroid Vesta during the violent early history of the Solar System is a pivotal constraint on theories of planetary formation. Particularly important from this perspective is the amount of olivine excavated from the vestan mantle by impacts, as this constrains both the interior structure of Vesta and the number of major impacts the asteroid suffered during its life. The NASA Dawn mission revealed [click here for more]....

“Two Color Populations of Kuiper Belt and Centaur Objects and the Smaller Orbital Inclinations of Red Centaur Objects,” by S. C. Tegler, W. Romanishin, G. J. Consolmagno, in The Astronomical Journal, Volume 152 (2016).

Abstract: We present new optical colors for 28 Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) and 35 Centaur objects measured with the 1.8 m Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope and the 4.3 m Discovery Channel Telescope. By combining these new colors with our previously published colors, we increase the sample size of our survey to 154 objects. Our survey is unique in that [click here for more]....

“Ordinary Chondrite Heat Capacities Below 350K,” by R. J. Macke, C. P. Opeil, G. J. Consolmagno, and D. T. Britt, in 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2016), Abstract #1221.

Abstract: Thermal diffusivity, which determines the thermal evolution of asteroid interiors, and thermal inertia, which at the asteroid surface determines the various Yarkovsky effects, are both dependent on heat capacity (Cp), thermal conductivity (κ), and bulk density (ρ). We have been conducting a study of these thermal properties over the temperature range 5-350K for various types of meteorites using samples from the Vatican [click here for more]....

Pavel (Paul) Gabor, V.O. Astronomer and blogger for The Catholic Astronomer

“PEPSI-feed: linking PEPSI to the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope using a 450m long fibre,” by D. P. Sablowski, M. Weber, M. Woche, I. Ilyin, A. Järvinen, K. G. Strassmeier, and P. Gabor, in Proc. SPIE 9912, Advances in Optical and Mechanical Technologies for Telescopes and Instrumentation II (2016).

Abstract: Limited observing time at large telescopes equipped with the most powerful spectrographs makes it almost impossible to gain long and well-sampled time-series observations. Ditto, high-time-resolution observations of bright targets with high signal-to-noise are rare. By pulling an optical fibre of 450m length from the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) to the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) to connect the Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectroscopic Instrument (PEPSI) to the VATT, allows for ultra-high resolution [click here for more]....

 Schematics of a supercontinuum heterodyne interferometer. From " Heterodyne Interferometry with a Supercontinuum Local Oscillator."

Schematics of a supercontinuum heterodyne interferometer. From "Heterodyne Interferometry with a Supercontinuum Local Oscillator."

“Heterodyne Interferometry with a Supercontinuum Local Oscillator,” by P. Gabor, in Resolving The Future Of Astronomy With Long-Baseline Interferometry, etc. ASP Conference Series, Volume 487 (2014), page 263.

Abstract: A fundamental limitation of optical heterodyne interferometry is the narrow spectral band of the local oscillator. Studies are under way to overcome this issue, e.g., by using tunable setups. The present paper proposes to inspect the potential of a broadband local oscillator constituted by a supercontinuum [click here for more]....

Richard Boyle, V.O. Astronomer, and guy who helped me when I was getting my first history of astronomy paper published, back in 2008 in the journal Baltic Astronomy.

“Radial velocities of K-M dwarfs and local stellar kinematics,” by J. Sperauskas, S. Bartašiūtė, R. P. Boyle, V. Deveikis, S. Raudeliūnas, and A. R. Upgren, in Astronomy & Astrophysics (2016), Volume 596.

Abstract: Aims. The goal of this paper is to present complete radial-velocity data for the spectroscopically selected McCormick sample of nearby K–M dwarfs and, based on these and supplementary data, to determine the space-velocity distributions of late-type stars in the solar neighborhood. Methods. We analyzed nearly 3300 measurements of radial velocities for 1049 K–M dwarfs, that we obtained during the past decade with a CORAVEL-type instrument, with a primary emphasis on detecting and eliminating from kinematic calculations the spectroscopic binaries and [click here for more]....

*Technically, this is the blog of the V.O. Foundation, the V.O.F. being “the fundraising arm of the Vatican Observatory. The VOF is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization incorporated in 1986 in the state of Arizona to support the scientific and educational endeavors of the Vatican Observatory, including the maintenance and modernization of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT). While funding for Vatican Observatory salaries and administrative expenses comes directly from the Holy See, funding for the telescope and educational initiatives is derived solely from the generous support of the benefactors of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.”


Giant Elliptical Galaxies

Our own Milky Way is huge at 100,000 light years across, yet is dwarfed by the so-called giant elliptical galaxy which can be up to ten times its size.

Giant ellipticals are the biggest galaxy type of them all. Curiously, giant ellipticals are always situated in the denser regions of space. They are framed by up to hundreds of other galaxies. Each one of these other galaxies has its own 10-100 billion stars replete also with star forming gas and a supermassive black hole.

As the giant elliptical is so massive and thus has stronger gravity, these other smaller galaxies fall in toward the giant elliptical.

Like some bad science fiction movie about a "blob," the giant elliptical has a chance to grow by cannibalizing its smaller galaxy neighbors. The giant elliptical tears apart each nearby galaxy, separating out the stars from the gas, the dense nucleus, and the supermassive black hole.

Interestingly, the supermassive black hole is thought to settle quickly in the center of the giant elliptical which just 'ate' it, thereby growing the size of the cannibal's supermassive black hole stomach. As evidence that this cannibalization process actually happens, in some cases the remnants of 'undigested' galaxies can be spotted inside of giant ellipticals against the vast panoply of its constituent stars.

Given that giant ellipticals are the sites of violent collisions with slow cooling times and are situated in hot environments, such objects are thought to be unlikely places to form new stars. Even so, recently astronomers have found considerable amounts of cold gas typical of the sites of new star forming regions surrounding some giant ellipticals.

The cause is still unknown, with some led to believe that the large and growing supermassive black hole may provide a kind of thermostat which regulates the heating and cooling of the galaxy that surrounds it.

Another blog about the blog

I just finished up giving a three-day astronomy-themed retreat (well, Friday night to Sunday noon) at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos, California. We had about 70 people show up, all of them impressive and enthusiastic and fascinating to meet. I wish I could have spent five hours with each of them. And someone in the group was kind enough to advertise The Catholic Astronomer, so I hope some of you from that retreat have found yourself here. But that also reminded me that I do need to do some occasional advertising. At the moment, the number of people who are signed up to get free emails when a new article is posted is just under 500; it should be at 5000, I would think. Tell your friends and neighbors about this site! (And your classes.) And don’t forget to sign up yourself. And if you have the wherewithal, joining Sacred Space would let us keep funding this site … Continue reading

The Book of Revelation and the Environment: 1995 Waterborne Symposium – Aegean Sea

I had never thought of the Book of Revelation as containing an ecological message until recently. In my childhood, I fell into the trap that most do of seeing the gloom and doom of Revelation in a way that literally scared the “Hell” out of me. In my college years, I revisited the Book of Revelation through the lens of it being a book of hope for the early Christians under the persecution of Nero. In seminary, there was a push to approach Revelation from a liturgical perspective, seeing in its mystic and symbolic language a type of “code” the author used to communicate a mystical experience of celebrating the Eucharist. Recently, I have discovered a new approach to Revelation as being profoundly connected to the environment, arguing that when we are not in right relationship with God the impact is not only personal, but global. This vision of Revelation containing a commentary on our environment was a central theme … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Global warning

  This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2015 My travels started in Boston, hit by a record number of massive snowstorms this winter; yet another blizzard trapped me inside the convention hotel all weekend. During a lull between storms, I was able to catch a flight to California… where the occasional flooding downpour failed to put an end to a five year drought. Climate is not the same as weather, but weather certainly reflects climate. And our climate is in serious trouble. It’s not just the anecdotal bad storm; it’s the sustained change in weather patterns – five years of drought, for example – that is finally getting our attention. One of the most common questions I get asked (just behind baptizing extraterrestrials!) deals with climate change. I give the same answer everywhere; the reaction I get varies wildly with the venue, however. Most of my questioners have already made up their mind that global climate change … Continue reading

Sweltering Heat, Bitter Cold, Torrential Rain, Historic Floods: Why your friends, your family members, your co-workers, members of your church, your elected officials, and perhaps you yourself might be skeptical regarding Climate Change

I study the seventeenth-century debate over the Copernican Theory, especially the scientific arguments of the anti-Copernican side in that debate.  It turns out that the anti-Copernicans, who are often portrayed as a bunch of anti-science numbskulls, had solid scientific reasons for what they thought.  Through my research I have come to a positive view of many of the anti-Copernicans, while of course still holding to my scientific views about the Earth circling the sun. Perhaps because of my familiarity with this story, I began some time ago to think about people who do not accept the scientific consensus regarding climate change.  Why do people not accept what the scientific community is telling them?  As a scientist, I can have a bad attitude toward such people—but then again, for most of my scientific career I had a bad attitude toward anti-Copericans, too.  I did some studying, checked my attitude, and in fact grew a pretty positive view of many climate change … Continue reading

New Named Asteroids – Feb. 12, 2017

The day before the 4th anniversary of the Chelyabinsk meteor strike, the IAU Minor Planet Center released a new circular: this one, however, contains only the citations for newly names minor planets – it is completely devoid of the usual list of asteroid and comet observations. Here are the new named minor planets for Feb. 12, 2017: (6117) Brevardastro = 1985 CZ1 Discovered 1985 Feb. 12 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory. Brevard is a county on the east coast of Florida and is known as the “space coast”. Brevard county is the home of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, where many of the early manned space flights originated. The Brevard Astronomical Society is a very active amateur astronomy community in Brevard county. (6118) Mayubosh = 1986 QX3 Discovered 1986 Aug. 31 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory. There is a Japanese poem whose subject is Mt. Bizan in the Manyosyu, an anthology of the Nara Era. … Continue reading