How Gaia Is Already Shaping Our Interstellar Adventures

The space telescope has refined the stellar flybys of the Voyager and Pioneer probes—how might it help us chart our way to the stars in the future?

The Gaia space telescope [ESA]

When looking up on a starry night, it can be difficult to comprehend that those stars are not fixed in the sky. Sure, on timescales of a human lifetime, or even the entirety of human history, the stars don’t appear to move too much. But look over longer timescales—tens of thousands, to millions of years—and it becomes clear that the stars in the sky are in motion. This means the constellations we see today will be misshapen (or even non-existent!) in a few hundred thousand years’ time.

This poses an interesting question: If humanity were to send a spacecraft on an interstellar mission—an endeavor that could take thousands of years, depending on how ambitious the target—aiming it directly at a distant star would be a mistake. Depending on how far away that star is, by the time the spacecraft reaches its target, the star could have moved a few light-years away. This is why precision astrometry—the astronomical measurement of a star’s position, speed and direction of motion—will be needed to predict where a target star will be, and not where it currently is, when our future interstellar mission gets there.

To test this, we don’t need to wait until humanity has the means to build a starship, however. We have a bunch of interstellar probes that have already started their epic sojourns into the galaxy.

Interstellar Interlopers

Earlier this year, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft departed the Sun’s sphere of influence and became humanity’s second interstellar mission, six years after its twin, Voyager 1, made history to become the first human-made object to drift into the space between the stars. Both Voyagers are still transmitting telemetry to this day, over 40 years since their launch. Another two spacecraft, the older Pioneer 10 and 11 missions, are also on their way to interstellar space, but they stopped transmitting decades ago. A newcomer, NASA’s New Horizons mission, will also become an interstellar mission in the future, but it has yet to finish its Kuiper belt explorations and still has fuel to make course corrections, so predictions of its stellar encounters will remain unknown for some time.

Both Voyager 1 and 2 have left the Sun’s heliosphere to become humanity’s first interstellar missions [NASA]

Having explored the outer planets in the 1970’s and 80’s, the Voyagers and Pioneers barreled on, revealing stunning science from the outer solar system. In the case of Voyager 1 and 2, when each breached the heliopause (the invisible boundary that demarks the limit of the Sun’s magnetic bubble, between the heliosphere and interstellar medium), they gave us a profound opportunity to experience this distant alien environment, using their dwindling number of instruments to measure particle counts and magnetic orientation.

But where are our intrepid interstellar interlopers going now? With the help of precision astrometry of local stars observed by the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, two researchers have taken a peek into the future, seeing which star systems the spacecraft will drift past in the next few hundred thousand to millions of years.

Previously, astronomers have been able to combine the spacecrafts’ trajectory with stellar data to see which stars they will fly past, but in the wake of the Gaia Data Release 2 (GDR2) last year, an unprecedented trove of information has been made available for millions of stars in the local galaxy, providing the most precise “road map” yet of those stars the Voyagers and Pioneers will encounter.

“[Gaia has measured] the positions and space velocities of nearby stars more precisely than before and so has more precisely characterized the encounters with stars we already knew about,” says astronomer Coryn Bailer-Jones, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

[NASA]

Close Encounters of the Voyager Kind

Bailer-Jones and colleague Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., published their study in Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, adding another layer of understanding about where our spacecraft, and the stars they’ll encounter, are going. Although their work confirms previous estimates of some stellar close encounters, Bailer-Jones tells Astroengine.com that there have been some surprises in their calculations—including encounters that have not been identified before.

For example, the star Gliese 445 (in the constellation of Camelopardalis, close to Polaris) is often quoted as being the closest encounter for Voyager 1, in approximately 40,000 years. But with the help of Gaia, which is giving an extra layer of precision for stars further afield, the researchers found that the spacecraft will come much closer to another star, called TYC 3135-52-1, in 302,700 years.

“Voyager 1 will pass just 0.30 parsecs [nearly one light-year] from that star and thus may penetrate its Oort cloud, if it has one,” he says.

This is interesting. Keep in mind that the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft include the famous Golden Records and plaques (respectively), revealing the location, form, and culture of a civilization living on a planet called “Earth.” For an alien intelligence to stumble across one of our long-dead spacecraft in the distant future, the closer the stellar encounter the better (after all, the likelihood of stumbling across a tiny spacecraft in the vast interstellar expanse would be infinitesimally small). Passing within one light-year of TYC 3135-52-1 is still quite distant (for instance, we currently have no way of detecting something as dinky as a Voyager-size probe zooming through the solar system’s Oort Cloud), but who knows what the hypothetical aliens in TYC 3135-52-1 are capable of detecting from their home world?

The Pioneer plaque is attached to the spacecrafts’ antenna support struts, behind Pioneer 10 and 11’s dish antennae, shielding the plaques from erosion by interstellar dust [NASA]

Another interesting thought is that these Gaia observations can help astronomers find stars that are currently very far away, but now we know their speed and direction of travel, some of those stars will be in our cosmic backyard in the distant future.

“What our study also found, for the first time, is some stars that are currently quite distant from the Sun will nonetheless come very close to one of the spacecraft within the next few million years,” says Bailer-Jones. “For example, the star Gaia DR2 2091429484365218432 is currently 159.5 parsecs [520 light-years] from the Sun (and thus from Voyager 1), but Voyager 1 will pass within 0.39 parsecs [1.3 light-years] of it in 3.4 million years from now.”

In some cases, given unlimited time, you may not have to go to a star, the star will come to you!

Our Interstellar Future?

While pinpointing the various stellar encounters for our first interstellar probes is interesting, the observations being made by Gaia will be important for when humanity develops the technology to make a dedicated effort to travel to the stars.

“It will be essential to have extremely precise astrometry of any target star,” explains Bailer-Jones. “We must also measure its velocity and its acceleration precisely, because these affect where the star will be when the spacecraft arrives.”

Although this scenario may seem a long way off, any precision astrometry we do now will build our knowledge of the local stellar population and boost the “legacy value” of Gaia’s observations, he adds.

“Once a target star has been selected, we would want to make a dedicated campaign to measure its position and velocity even more precisely, but to determine the accelerations we need data measured at many time points over long periods (at least tens of years), so Gaia data will continue to be invaluable in the future,” Bailer-Jones concludes.

“Even now, astrometry from the previous Hipparcos mission—or even from surveys from decades ago or photometric plates 100 years ago!—are important for this.”

An artist’s impression of the Icarus Interstellar probe, a concept for a fusion-powered, un-crewed starship that may be used to travel to the stars [Icarus Interstellar/Adrian Mann]

Update (May 23): One of the reasons why I focused on the Voyager missions and not the Pioneers is because the latter stopped transmitting a long time ago. Another reason is because we already know Pioneer 10 doesn’t make it very far into interstellar space:

For more on how Gaia observations are being used, see my previous interview with Coryn on how these data were used to find the possible origins of ‘Oumuamua, the interstellar comet.

Unmasking a Monster: A ‘Stunning Confirmation’ of Black Hole Theory

The Event Horizon Telescope’s image of M87* is so good that theorists thought it was too good to be true.

This feature was originally published on April 10 by the University of Waterloo as a part of their public release about Professor Avery Broderick’s theoretical work that led to the first ever image of a black hole. Written by Ian O’Neill, edited by media relations manager Chris Wilson-Smith.

When Avery Broderick initially saw the first image from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), he thought it was too good to be true. After playing a critical role in the project since its inception in 2005, Broderick was staring at his ultimate quarry: a picture-perfect observation of a supermassive black hole in another galaxy. Not only was this first image sweet reward for the dedicated global effort to make the impossible possible, it was a beautiful confirmation of Broderick’s predictions and the 100-year-old theories of gravity they are based upon.

“It turns out our predictions were stunningly close; we were spot-on,” said Broderick. “I think this is a stunning confirmation that we are at least on the right track of understanding how these objects work.”

For Broderick, a professor at University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and a key member of the international Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, this wasn’t just an image that proved his theoretical models correct, it was the beginning of a historic journey into the unknown, with potentially revolutionary consequences that will reverberate through science and society as a whole.

Making the Impossible Possible

On April 10, the global collaboration showcased the first image of the supermassive black hole in the core of the massive elliptical galaxy M87. The image shows a ghostly bright crescent surrounding a dark disk, a feature that surrounds the most gravitationally extreme region known: a black hole’s event horizon. This first image isn’t only proof that humanity now has the ability to probe right up to the edge of an event horizon, it’s a promise that future observations will help us better understand how supermassive black holes work, how they drive the evolution of their galactic hosts and, possibly, reveal new physics by finally unmasking the true nature of gravity itself.

To Broderick, who has always been fascinated by the undiscovered, it’s mysteries like these that give him the passion to understand how the universe works – an adventure that is an important part of the human story.

“Black holes are the most extreme environments in the universe, so naturally I was hooked for as long as I can remember,” he said. “Nowhere in the universe is there a more perfect laboratory for pushing back the boundaries of our knowledge of gravity’s nature. That makes black holes irresistible.”

Few scientists would debate the reality of black holes, but the first image of M87’s supermassive black hole is definitive proof that these monsters, and their associated event horizons, exist. “These things are real, along with all the consequences for physics,” he said.

In the years preceding this announcement, Broderick and his EHT colleagues developed simulations that modeled what the Earth-spanning virtual telescope might see. And, on comparing his models with the first EHT image, Broderick was amazed.

“That first image was so good that I thought it was a test – it had to be a trial run,” said Broderick, “It’s a beautiful ring shape that’s exactly the right size. In fact, it looks very similar to the images (of theoretical models) we included in proposals for the EHT.”

The ring shape Broderick describes is the bright emissions from the hot gasses immediately surrounding the colossal maw of a supermassive black hole’s event horizon. Located inside the massive elliptical galaxy M87 in the constellation of Virgo, this gargantuan object has a mass of six-and-a-half-billion Suns and measures nearly half a light-day across. This may sound big, but because it’s located 55-million light-years away, it’s far too distant for any single telescope to photograph.

The EHT, however, is a network of many radio telescopes around the world, from the Atacama Desert to the South Pole. By working together – via a method known as very long-baseline interferometry – they create a virtual observatory as wide as our planet and, after two decades of development, the international collaboration has accomplished the impossible by resolving the event horizon around M87’s supermassive black hole.

“This is a project that has a wide breadth of collaboration, geographically – you can’t build an Earth-sized telescope without an Earth-sized collaboration! – but also in expertise, from the engineers who build these advanced telescopes, to the astronomers who work on the day-to-day and the theorists who inspire their observations,” said Broderick.

A Stunning Confirmation

The event horizon is a region surrounding a black hole where the known physics of our universe ends abruptly. Nothing, not even light, can escape a black hole’s incredible gravity, with the event horizon being the ultimate point of no return. What lies beyond the event horizon is open to debate, but one thing is for certain: if you fall inside, you’re not getting out.

Over a century ago, Albert Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity, a theoretical framework that underpins how our universe works, including how event horizons should look. Black holes are the embodiment of general relativity at its most extreme, and event horizons are a manifestation of where space-time itself caves in on itself.

“Event horizons are the end of the safe space of the universe,” said Broderick, “they should have ‘mind the gap’ or ‘mind the horizon’ signs around them!”

Physics has some key unresolved problems that may be answered by the EHT, one of which is the nature of gravity itself, added Broderick. Simply put, gravity doesn’t jibe with our current understanding of other fundamental forces and particles that underpin all matter in the universe. By stress-testing Einstein’s theories right at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon, the EHT will provide physicists with the ultimate laboratory in which to better understand gravity, the force that drives the formation of stars, planets, and the evolution of our universe.

Once we truly understand this fundamental force, the impact could be revolutionary, said Broderick. “Gravity is the key scientific problem facing physics today, and no one fully understands the ramifications of what understanding gravity fully are going to be.”

On an astronomical level, supermassive black holes are intrinsically linked with the evolution of the galaxies they inhabit, but how they form and evolve together is another outstanding mystery.

Supermassive black holes are also the purveyors of creation and doom – they have the power to kick-start star formation as well as preventing stars from forming at all – a dichotomy that astronomers hope to use the EHT to understand.

“These incredibly massive things lie at the centers of galaxies and rule their fates,” said Broderick. “Supermassive black holes are the engines behind active galactic nuclei and distant quasars, the most energetic objects known. Now we’re seeing what they look like, up close, for the first time.”

All galaxies are thought to contain a supermassive black hole, including our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), our supermassive black hole is 2,000 times less massive than the one in M87, but it’s 2,000 times closer – at a distance of 25,000 light-years. This means that the EHT can image both Sgr A* and M87 as they appear approximately the same size in the sky, a situation that is an incredible stroke of luck.

“If you had to choose two sources, these two would be it,” said Broderick. Whereas M87’s supermassive black hole is one of the biggest known and a “real mover and shaker,” Sgr A* is much less massive and considered to be an “everyman of black holes,” he said.

“We had to start somewhere. M87 represents the first end-to-end exercise of the entire EHT collaboration – from data taking to data interpretation,” said Broderick. “The next exercise will happen considerably faster. This is only the beginning.”

Voyage of Discovery

As the scientific benefits of observing supermassive black holes are becoming clear, Broderick pointed out that the impact on society could also be seismic.

“I would hope that an image like this will galvanize a sense of exploration; an exploration of the mind and that of the universe,” he said. “If we can excite people, inspire them to embark on a voyage of discovery in this new EHT era of observational black hole physics, I can only imagine that it will have profound consequences for humanity moving forward.

“I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of this story of exploration – the human story of understanding the universe we inhabit and using that understanding to improve our lives.”

Read more: “First image of black hole captured,” Univ. of Waterloo, by Ian O’Neill

This Is the First Image of a Black Hole

The image is the result of a global collaboration and human ingenuity — a discovery that will change our perception of the universe forever

[EHT Collaboration]

Lurking in the massive elliptical galaxy Messier 87 is a monster. It’s a supermassive black hole, 6.5 billion times the mass of our Sun, crammed inside an event horizon measuring half a light-day across. It’s very far away, over 50 million light-years, but, today, astronomers of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) have delivered on a promise that has been two decades in the making: They’ve recorded the first ever image of the bright ring of emissions immediately surrounding M87’s event horizon, the point at which our universe ends and only mystery lies beyond.

The magnitude of this achievement is historic. Not only does this single image prove that black holes actually exist, it is a stunning confirmation of the predictions of general relativity at its most extreme. If this theoretical framework acted somehow differently at the event horizon, the image wouldn’t look as it does. The reality is that general relativity has precisely predicted the size, shape and form of this distant object to an incredible degree of precision.

In the run-up to today’s announcement, I had the incredible fortune to write the University of Waterloo’s press release and feature about the EHT with Avery Broderick, a professor at Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and a key member of the international EHT Collaboration. You can read the releases here:

Unmasking a Monster (feature)
First Image of Black Hole Captured (news)

I especially enjoyed discussing Avery’s personal excitement and passion for this project: “I would hope that an image like this will galvanize a sense of exploration; an exploration of the mind and that of the universe,” he said. “If we can excite people, inspire them to embark on a voyage of discovery in this new EHT era of observational black hole physics, I can only imagine that it will have profound consequences for humanity moving forward.”

Like the discovery of the Higgs boson and the detection of gravitational waves, the first image of a black hole will have as much of an impact on society as it will on science and, like Avery, I hope it inspires the next generation of scientists, driving our passion for exploration and understanding how our universe works.

Wow, what a morning.

Watch the NSF’s recording of today’s live feed here:

Will the EHT’s First Black Hole Image Look Like Interstellar’s “Gargantua”?

Not quite.

The supermassive black hole “Gargantua” from the movie “Interstellar.” [Paramount Pictures]

UPDATE: The EHT’s first image has been released! See: This Is the First Image of a Black Hole

Tomorrow, on April 10, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) will make an international announcement about a “groundbreaking result” from the global collaboration. Further details as to what this result actually is are under wraps, but as the EHT’s mission is to image a supermassive black hole for the first time, the expectation is that it will be a historic day for humanity. We may actually see what a black hole — more precisely, a black hole’s event horizon — really looks like.

But we already know what a black hole looks like, right? There have been countless science fiction imaginings of black holes over the years and, most recently, the Matthew McConaughey movie “Interstellar” depicted what is touted as the most scientifically-accurate sci-fi black hole ever.

Diving into a black hole has never been so much fun [Paramount Pictures]

Interstellar’s black hole, called “Gargantua,” is a sight to behold and many physicists and CGI experts went out of their way to base that thing on the physics that is predicted to drive these monsters. Physics heavyweight Kip Thorne even advised on how this rotating black hole — a supermassive one at that — should look and behave, based on earlier work by Jean-Pierre Luminet (ScienceAlert has a great article about this).

Back to reality, the EHT may well be presenting its own “Gargantua moment” tomorrow when the first results are presented. The EHT is a global network of radio telescopes all dedicated to probing the final frontier of general relativity. Black holes are the most extreme gravitational objects in the universe and the supermassive monsters that lurk in the cores of most galaxies are true behemoths.

The EHT currently has two targets it hopes to image, the supermassive black hole in the core of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and one inside the massive elliptical galaxy, M87. With a mass of four million Suns, our galaxy’s supermassive black hole is called Sagittarius A* (Sgr A* for short) and is located approximately 25,000 light-years away. But M87’s monster dwarfs our comparatively diminutive specimen — it’s a super-heavyweight among supermassive black holes, with a mass of a whopping 6.5 billion Suns.

In a wonderful stroke of cosmic luck, although M87 is 50 million light-years away, some 2,000 times further away than Sgr A*, it’s also approximately 2,000 times more massive. This means that both Sgr A* and M87 will appear approximately the same size in the sky to the EHT. They are also two wonderful targets to study, as both are very different in nature.

Now, back to Gargantua. As this CGI beauty is based on real physics theory, and assuming the first EHT image doesn’t throw the fidelity of general relativity into doubt, both Gargantua and the two EHT targets should, basically, look the same. Sure, there’s going to be differences based on mass, jets of material, size of accretion disks and other details, but will the EHT first image bear any resemblance to the Interstellar rendering?

Short answer: no, it should look something like this:

Screen capture from Avery Broderick’s 2015 Convergence presentation on the theoretical efforts behind the EHT. Broderick is a professor at the Perimeter Institute and University of Waterloo, and a member of the EHT collaboration. More on this here.

Long answer: It’s all about wavelength. Over to gravitational wave astrophysicist Dr. Chiara Mingarelli, of the Flatiron Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA), who’s tweet inspired this article:

Gargantua was created with human vision in mind. Our eyes are sensitive to visual wavelengths, from 380 nanometers (violet) to 740 nanometers (red), and movies are very much based on what humans can see (I hear infrared movies are rubbish). But the EHT cares little for nanometer wavelengths — the EHT is all about seeing the universe in millimeter wavelengths, which means it can see things our eyes can’t see. It is a network of radio telescopes all working together as one planet-wide virtual telescope via a clever method known as very long baseline interferometry. By viewing a black hole target at these wavelengths, astronomers have the ability to see straight through the accretion disk, dusty torus (if it has one), jets of material and other nonsense floating around the black hole.

Here’s a few frames from the simulation Dr. Mingarelli is referring to above, wavelength increasing from nanometers to millimeters, left to right:

Frames from the black hole simulation. As the wavelength increases from left to right, features such as the black hole’s accretion disk becomes transparent, allowing the EHT to see emissions from just outside the edge of the event horizon — seen here as a small silhouetted disk (far right). [Credit: Chi-Kwan Chan]

The EHT can see right up to the innermost limit, just before nothing, not even light, can escape the gravitational grasp of the event horizon. Any hot plasma or dust that would otherwise obscure our view of the horizon are transparent at wavelengths more than one millimeter, so we can see the radiation emitted by the hot, turbulent material that is being tortured by the extreme environment right at the horizon.

Gargantua is a glorious rendering of what a supermassive black hole might look like if we could take a trip with Matthew McConaughey and co. (give or take some CGI sparkle for dramatic effect). What the EHT sees is the shadow, or the silhouette, of a black hole’s event horizon — that will likely be either perfectly circular or slightly oblate, if general relativity holds. That’s not to say that Gargantua doesn’t look like Sgr. A* or M87 in visible wavelengths as Hollywood intended, it’s just that the EHT will lack most of Gargantua’s CGI.

So, I’ll be waking up far earlier tomorrow to watch the EHT announcement and keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll finally get to see what an event horizon really looks like.

Primordial Black Holes Probably Don’t Pack a Dark Matter Punch

Waiting for the Andromeda galaxy’s stars to twinkle may have extinguished hope for tiny black holes being a significant dark matter candidate

Should a black hole drift in front of a star, it could trigger a microlensing event, so astronomers set out to estimate the number of primordial black holes in Andromeda [Kavli IPMU]

Using the Andromeda galaxy as a huge detector, astronomers have taken a stab at seeing the unseeable — possibly disproving a hypothesis first put forward by the late Stephen Hawking 45 years ago.

According to Hawking’s work, the universe should be filled with black holes that were formed at the beginning of time, when the universe was a chaotic soup of energy just after the Big Bang. Known as “primordial” black holes, these ancient objects are hypothesized to invisibly occupy modern galaxies, including our own, boosting their dark matter mass.

These black holes aren’t the supermassive monsters that lurk in the centers of most galaxies; they’re not even stellar-mass black holes, formed after massive stars go supernova. Primordial black holes are much smaller than that, having leaked most of their mass via Hawking radiation since their formation 13.8 billion years ago. They should, however, still have powerful gravitational effects on the space surrounding them and, in new research published last week in the journal Nature Astronomy, an international team of researchers have leveraged these hypothetical black holes’ space-time-warping powers to reveal their presence.

Or not, as it turns out.

Central to this study is the effect of microlensing. This astronomical method relies on an object passing between us and a distant star. It has been used to great effect when detecting distant exoplanets, or rogue brown dwarfs wandering through interstellar space. Should one of these objects drift directly in front of a star, its gravitational field can create a magnification effect that briefly brightens the star’s light. The gravitational field creates a natural “lens” out of space-time itself, a prediction that arises from Einstein’s general relativity.

The effect of gravitational microlensing on a star in the Andromeda galaxy should a primordial black hole drift in front [Kavli IPMU]

It stands to reason that even though primordial black holes don’t generate any light themselves, if you stare at at entire galaxy for long enough, you should see a lot of twinkling stars, or microlensing events caused by the hypothetical swarm of primordial black holes the galaxy should contain. Count the number of events, and you can take a statistical stab the total number of primordial black holes in a galaxy like Andromeda, thereby providing an estimate as to how much of the universe’s missing dark matter mass is made up from these objects.

Using the power of the Subaru telescope in Hawaii, the researchers put this to the test, capturing 190 consecutive images of Andromeda over seven hours during one night with the observatory’s Hyper Suprime-Cam digital camera. If Hawking’s theory held, the telescope should have recorded approximately 1,000 microlensing events caused by primordial black holes with a mass of less than our moon drifting in front of Andromeda’s stars. Alas, only one microlensing event was detected that night. From this observation campaign alone, the researchers estimate that primordial black holes make up no more than 0.1 percent of the total dark matter mass in our universe.

Although this elegant study doesn’t necessarily disprove the existence of primordial black holes — one single event is interesting, but not compelling — it does put a wrench in the idea that they dominate the mass holed up in dark matter. So, the quest to understand the nature of dark matter grinds on and, with the help of this study, astronomers have now narrowed down the search by removing primordial black holes from the dark matter equation.

Ten Years Later: The Cosmos Remembers Brian the Bat

Gather ’round the campfire kids, it’s time to tell the sad story of a brave bat named Brian.

On March 15, 2009, we watched in terror as Brian, a Florida free-tailed bat, stubbornly remained attached to Space Shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank moments before launch (left). On Thursday, ten years later, the European Southern Observatory released a stunning photo feature of the Bat Nebula (right). A coincidence? I think not. [NASA/ESO]

On March 15, 2009, Twitter was days away from its third birthday, Ashton Kutcher was one month away from becoming the first tweep to reach one million followers, and a community of space enthusiasts habitually live-tweeted the final space shuttle launches from the comfort of their homes. They were simpler times.

Wikipedia recognizes Brian’s sacrifice.

One launch, however, became infamous — nay, historic — not for the fact it was one of the last handful of launches of NASA’s shuttle program, but because there was a tiny stowaway attached to the shuttle’s bulbous orange external fuel tank minutes before ignition.

That stowaway was an ill-fated bat named “Brian.” And “he” became a legend overnight.

A Legend Is Born

During the countdown to the launch of STS-119, as we watched in anticipation of the successful start of Space Shuttle Discovery’s International Space Station (ISS) servicing mission, something seemed amiss at Discovery’s launch pad. At the time, the assumption was that a fruit bat (a common species in Florida) had mistakenly thought the orange external fuel tank of the shuttle was a tree to latch itself onto. Follow-up investigations identified the bat as a free-tailed bat and, though its intentions were unclear, zoologists posited that the unfortunate critter may have broken its wing. This would explain why it didn’t fly away when the shuttle’s boosters ignited, carrying the bat to the heavens — literally and metaphorically.

No one really knows how long the bat held on for, but some creative-thinkers hypothesized that the bat remained attached for the duration, making it into space. I don’t think I have to explain why this didn’t happen — it was more likely booted from the fuel tank in the first seconds of launch enduring a fiery death via rocket booster exhaust — but it was a poetic thought. Regardless of the bat’s fate, it’s ultimate sacrifice made this routine launch special. What was “just another” live-tweeted shuttle launch, became a spectacle that rapidly evolved into an international news story. That bat was special.

And that bat’s name was Brian.

Why “Brian”? A bit of background: For some personal reason that I cannot fathom, I like to name things “Brian.” I’ve always done it. The squirrel that lives in my backyard? Brian. An interesting and unnamed rock on the surface of Mars? Brian. My first car? Brian. That gopher that demolished my newly-planted garden of impatiens in 2011? Brian. A random free-tailed bat hanging off the shuttle’s external fuel tank? Brian. There’s no reason and no logic behind this, Brian just seems to fit. It’s a personal mystery.

So, when lightheartedly tweeting about the bat on March 15, 2009, I called the bat Brian and the name stuck. I had no idea about its gender, and it didn’t have a nametag, but that bat was a Brian alright. Suddenly, other space enthusiasts following the launch called him Brian and, for reasons I have yet to understand ten years later, in those minutes before launch, “Brian the Bat” went viral and suddenly everyone was personally invested in that “routine” space launch. Yes, there were billions of dollars of hardware on that launchpad with seven brave astronauts on board, but everyone was talking about Brian who was shivering on the side of the vehicle, a place that no living creature should have been.

Was Brian confused? Was he frozen to the cold tank? Would he fly away in the nick of time? No one knew, but the clock was ticking and the commentator on the NASA live video stream seemed confident that, as the boosters began their ignition sequence, the bat would be scared by the vibrations and fly to safety.

For reasons known only to Brian, he remained attached. And as the boosters roared to life, he held tight. As the plume of smoke and steam enveloped Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, I sat with the computer screen nearly pressed to my nose, seeking out the dark pixels of Brian in the place where he was last seen. But the resolution was too low and Brian’s fate was unknown. (Days later, NASA analysts reviewed infrared imagery from the launch, revealing two very sad facts. 1) Brian was warm while attached to the fuel tank, so he hadn’t frozen to death and was alive up to launch, and 2) he remained in place when Discovery lifted off.)

As the adrenaline ebbed and Space Shuttle Discovery soared into the atmosphere, solid rocket boosters separating and tumbling back to Earth, the sad reality crept in. Brian was, in all likelihood, toast.

But his legacy would live on.

Assuming that little space-launch chapter was over, I wrote a summary about Brian’s adventures for Universe Today and on Astroengine with the assumption that Brian would be soon lost to the annals of shuttle-era history. Little did I know, however, that Norwegian journalist Geir Barstein was paying close attention…

Brian makes waves in the Norwegian press on March 16, 2009. Read the full article here. [Dagbladet]

Then, a couple of days later, the new spread to the UK tabloid press


Brian landed as a science headline in the Mail Online on March 19, 2009. Read the full article here. [Mail Online]

Brian also made appearances in The Sun newspaper (but the article has since disappeared) and other smaller publications, and I participated in a number of radio shows devoted to that now-famous shuttle launch.

Not only was the whole event a poignant one, it also made me realize something about the power of social media. In all my years covering space stories, particularly when I was a producer at Discovery News (now called “Seeker”), shuttle launches would receive very little attention. Apart from a few outliers, such as the final shuttle launch, the articles I’d publish about one of NASA’s most significant programs would receive very little readership. The routine nature of these launches meant that, unless you were at Cape Canaveral, interest in seeing shuttles launch into space was lukewarm at best. As a space enthusiast, I was frustrated. Every launch in my eyes was special and certainly not “routine.”

Brian, however, made me realize by accident that you have to seek out the unique thing about that one launch that will hook readers to that story. Granted, not all launches have a “Brian the Bat” moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re not special.

Remember the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) launch? Thought not. But do you remember Frank the Frog? Probably:

NASA’s LADEE launch also had a “Brian the Bat” moment in 2013. Read more about it in my Discovery News analysis. [NASA]

Eerie Timing, ESO

Not only is it the TEN YEAR anniversary tomorrow (Friday) of when Brian met his maker, today the European Southern Observatory (ESO) released this stunning observation of the Bat Nebula, a reflection nebula that contains baby stars being birthed in a stellar nursery. Yes, I know, eerie, right?

Text from ESO: “Hidden in one of the darkest corners of the Orion constellation, this Cosmic Bat is spreading its hazy wings through interstellar space two thousand light-years away. It is illuminated by the young stars nestled in its core — despite being shrouded by opaque clouds of dust, their bright rays still illuminate the nebula. Too dim to be discerned by the naked eye, NGC 1788 reveals its soft colors to ESO’s Very Large Telescope in this image — the most detailed to date.” [ESO]

I like to think that the cosmos is doing Brian a solid by commemorating that brave little bat’s ultimate sacrifice.

The event may have been a footnote in humanity’s quest to explore our universe, but I truly believe that the viral social media (and then mainstream media) attention Brian whipped up created a buzz around a launch that may not have otherwise made an impact.

As a science communicator, I’m always on the lookout for interesting hooks to stories that wouldn’t otherwise be of interest, and on March 15, 2009, Brian was that hook — who knows what kind of impact that little free-tailed bat had on viewers who wouldn’t have otherwise been paying attention to one of the biggest endeavors in human exploration history.

So, tomorrow, on March 15, 2019, raise a drink to Brian’s legacy. He will live on in the spirit he inspired when he left our planet attached to the space shuttle’s external fuel tank.

What Might We Name the First Mars Microbes?

I, for one, welcome our new Mars desert-dwelling overlords.

Just some random (terrestrial) microbes doing microbial things [MSU]

It’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time: if we discover microbes eking out an existence on Mars, what might they be called? At first, I presumed it would be a variation on how we designate microbial names on Earth. Something like Staphylococcus aureus but swap out the “aureus” for “ares” (Greek for “Mars”, the god of war) or … something.

As you can see, biology isn’t my strong suit and butchering Latin and Greek is all in a day’s work. So, feeling out of my depth, I decided to leave that thought alone and file the idea under “Interesting, But Needs More Research.” That’s where the topic stayed for a while; I wanted to wait for a related piece of science to appear in a journal that could be a catalyst for my question. And last week, that research surfaced. I saw my opportunity.

Searching for Martians on Earth

The Atacama Desert is an amazing place. Having visited the ESO’s Paranal Observatory and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in 2016 as a lucky member of the #MeetESO team, I have first-hand experience of that extreme and breathtaking region. While driving between sites, we’d often go for hours without seeing any vegetation or life of any kind. Atacama is the driest place on Earth; its salty, parched soil is bombarded by ultraviolet radiation, and the core of the desert doesn’t receive rain for decades. But just because life isn’t obvious in the arid ‘scapes, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The flora and fauna that does call Atacama their home are very specialized in finding ways to thrive. On the smallest life scales, for some microbes that means living underground, which makes them very interesting organisms indeed.

In a new study, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, the results of a mock-Mars-life-hunting rover campaign in the Atacama Desert’s core have been revealed.

The research was driven, in part, to develop techniques for robotic missions to the Red Planet that will seek out alien bacteria that may be holed up in an underground colony. Remember, Mars has the same land area as Earth, so there’s a lot of real estate to search for microscopic lifeforms. Sure, scientists are smart and can narrow down potentially-habitable regions that they can drop a life-seeking robot on, but once landed on that toxic soil, what kind of methodology should they use to look for these hypothetical bacteria? The Atacama Desert makes for a decent analog of Mars; it’s very dry and its soil is laced with toxic perchlorate salts, so if microbes on Mars bear any resemblance to the nature of microbes in the Atacama, scientists can take a stab at predicting their behavior and guide their Mars rovers to the most likely places where they might be hiding.

Researchers already know that bacterial life occupies even the harshest Atacama regions, but according to team leader Stephen Pointing, a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, the microbes we are familiar with are common species that live on the surface, using sunlight for energy. But Pointing isn’t so interested in what’s on the surface; his rover is fitted with a drill and extraction system that can take samples of soil from underground. During the campaign, Pointing’s team made some compelling discoveries.

“We saw that with increasing depth the bacterial community became dominated by bacteria that can thrive in the extremely salty and alkaline soils,” he told me. “They in turn were replaced at depths down to 80 centimeters by a single specific group of bacteria that survive by metabolizing methane.”

Methane. Huh. That’s interesting.

These subsurface microbes are known to science — they have been found in deep mine shafts and other subterranean environments — but they’ve never been found living under the surface of the world’s most arid region. They’ve also fine-tuned their evolution to specifically adapt to this harsh environment. “The communities of bacteria that we discovered were remarkably lacking in complexity, and this likely reflects the extreme stress under which they develop,” said Pointing.

The biggest discovery made during this research was that the subsurface colonies of bacteria were very patchy, said Pointing, a factor that will have ramifications for the search for their Martian cousins. “The patchy nature of the colonization suggest that a rover would be faced with a ‘needle in a haystack’ scenario in the search for Martian bacteria,” he said.

Desert Planet Survivor

This research is a fascinating glimpse into how Earth-based environments are being used to better understand how alien bacteria may evolve in their native environments. But the desert-thriving, methane-munching bacteria of the Atacama may also inspire their name — should they be discovered one day.

Pointing explained: “The way we assign Latin names to bacteria is based on their evolutionary relationship to each other and we measure this using their genetic code. The naming of Martian bacteria would require a completely new set of Latin names at the highest level if Martian bacteria were a completely separate evolutionary lineage — that is they evolved from a different common ancestor to Earth bacteria in a “second genesis” event [and not related to Earth life via panspermia]. If we find truly “native” Martian bacteria I would love to name one, and call it Planeta-desertum superstes, which translates in Latin to ‘survivor on the desert planet.'”

So there we have it, an answer to my question about what our Martian neighbors might be called, if we find them: Planeta-desertum superstes, the desert planet survivor.

Read more about Pointing’s research in my HowStuffWorks article “Hunting for Martians in the Most Extreme Desert on Earth

Humanity Gains Another Foothold in Space

The private spaceflight company SpaceX has done it again, and this latest achievement is an important one.

Crew Dragon berthed with the space station at 2:51 a.m. PT [NASA]

We space writers are very familiar with Elon Musk’s human spaceflight dreams that can be encapsulated in his well-known goal to “make humanity multi-planetary,” starting with a Mars settlement. And today, that goal took another step closer to reality.

I’ve been following Musk’s rocket adventures ever since his early days of exploding single-engine rockets in the South Pacific. Back then, Musk was a “dreamer” and more than a little eccentric. His eccentricities are well documented, but the world’s best known billionaire-entrepreneur is a dreamer no more. The first successful flight of a Falcon 1 happened on Sept. 28, 2008. (You can read my 2008 Space Lifestyle Magazine article on that topic, page 36) A little over a decade later, the Falcon 1 has rapidly evolved into the reusable Falcon 9 workhorse and the Falcon Heavy and, with key partnerships with NASA and companies that need to get stuff into orbit cheaply, SpaceX has developed the human-rated Dragon spacecraft to ultimately get astronauts to the space station, and beyond.

After proving itself in the cargo-delivery arena, the Dragon has now won its human-spaceflight wings: an (uncrewed) Crew Dragon is now attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module and the outpost’s astronauts have entered the vehicle.

Building a commercially-viable space infrastructure is paramount if humanity is to truly become multi-planetary, and through partnerships between private business and government contracts, today’s achievement is proof that this model can work.

Too often, governments lack the long-term vision for human space exploration, instead plowing money into bloated, politically motivated, and ultimately doomed federally-funded projects. SpaceX may be an exhausting company to work for, but its ultimate mission is crystal clear. It’s not a satellite-launching company, it’s just doing that to build funds to do the Next Big Thing. Dragon’s autonomous berthing with the space station is That Big Thing that will drive more investment into getting stuff beyond Earth orbit.

Musk’s interim target — before getting humans to Mars — is the moon, to create a permanently-crewed lunar base. How that will shape up remains to be seen, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from following his dreams of getting into space on a reusable spaceflight infrastructure, it’s don’t bet against SpaceX and Elon Musk’s “eccentricities.”

Coolest White Dwarf Is a Glimpse of What Happens Long After Our Sun Dies

All good things come to a cold and dusty end.

[NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger]

“So, what do you think happens after you die?”

The question was more of an accusation. The lady asking was sitting across from me at a Christmas dinner a friend of mine was hosting and the previous query was one about my religion. She wasn’t impressed by my response.

Granted, it probably wasn’t the ideal setting to say that I was an atheist, but I wasn’t going to lie either.

“Um, well…” I remember feeling vulnerable when I responded, especially as I’d only just met half the dozen people in the room, including the lady opposite, but I remember thinking: stick with what you know, Ian. So, I continued: “When I’m dead, all the elements from my body will remain on Earth,” — I didn’t want to go into much detail about my real plan of having my remains blended up into a jar and then launched into space (more on that in a future post, possibly) — “and those elements will get cycled through the biosphere through various biological, chemical and physical processes for billions of years. Eventually, however, all good things must come to an end and the sun will run out of fuel, ballooning into a huge red giant star, leaving what is known as a white dwarf in its wake.” (By her glazed look, I could tell she regretted asking, but I continued.) “If, and it’s a big IF, the Earth survives this phase of stellar death, our planet might be hurled out of the solar system. Or, and this is my favorite scenario,” — I’d hit my stride and everyone else seemed to be entertained — “it might careen inward, toward the now tiny white dwarf sun, where Earth will be ripped to sheds under powerful tidal forces, sending all the rocks, dust, and the elements that used to be my body, raining down onto the white dwarf.”

This is an abridged version. I also went into some white dwarf science, why planetary nebulae are cool, and how our sun as a white dwarf would stand as a monument to the once great solar system that will be gone five billion years from now. The recycled elements from my long-gone body could eventually rain down onto the atmosphere of a newborn white dwarf star — pretty cool if you ask me. This might be more of a cautionary tail about inviting an atheist astrophysicist to religious celebrations, but I feel my tabletop TED talk was good value for money. And besides, by turning that inevitable “what religion are you?” question into a scientific one, I hadn’t gotten bogged down with justifying why I’m an atheist — a conversation that, in my experience, never works out well over dinner.

So, why am I remembering that fun evening many years ago? Well, today, there’s some cool white dwarf news. And I love white dwarf news, especially if it’s about dusty white dwarfs. Because dusty white dwarfs are a reminder that nothing lasts forever, not even our beautiful 5-billion-year-old solar system.

One Cool Dwarf

A citizen scientist working on the NASA-led “Backyard Worlds: Planet 9” project has discovered the coldest and oldest white dwarf ever found. The project’s aim is to seek out as-yet-to-be-discovered worlds beyond the orbit of Neptune (re: “Planet Nine” and beyond). Through the analysis of infrared data collected by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE (inspired by data from the European Gaia mission), Melina Thévenot was looking for local brown dwarfs — failed stars that lack the mass to sustain nuclear fusion in their cores, but pump out enough infrared radiation to be detected. In the observations, Thévenot spied what she thought was bad data, but with the help of WISE, she found not a nearby brown dwarf, but a white dwarf that was brighter and further away. After sharing her discovery with the Backyard Worlds team, astronomers at the W. M. Keck Observatory confirmed that not only was that white dwarf lowest temperature specimen yet found, it was also very dusty. In fact, it’s thought that the white dwarf, designated LSPM J0207+3331, has multiple dusty rings. Its discovery, however, is something of a conundrum and the researchers think it may challenge planetary models.

“This white dwarf is so old that whatever process is feeding material into its rings must operate on billion-year timescales,” said astronomer John Debes, at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, in a NASA statement. “Most of the models scientists have created to explain rings around white dwarfs only work well up to around 100 million years, so this star is really challenging our assumptions of how planetary systems evolve.”

Interesting side note: It was Debes who first got me excited about dusty white dwarfs when I met him at the 2009 American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Long Beach, Calif. You can read my enthusiastic Universe Today article I wrote on the topic here.

After deducing the tiny Earth-sized star’s cool temperature — 10,500 degrees Fahrenheit (5,800 degrees Celsius) — the researchers estimate that the white dwarf is approximately 3-billion years old. The infrared signal suggests a copious quantity of dust is present, which is a bit weird. As I alluded to in my tabletop TED talk, after a sun-like star runs out of fuel and puffs up into a red giant, it will leave a shiny white dwarf surrounded by a planetary nebula in its wake. Should any mangled planet, asteroid or comet that survived the red giant phase stray too close to that white dwarf, it’ll get shredded. So, it’s poignant when astronomers find dusty white dwarfs; it means those star systems used to have some kind of planetary system, but the white dwarf is in the process of destroying it. That is the inevitable demise of our solar system in 5 billion years time. But to find a 3-billion-year-old specimen with a ring system doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — the white dwarf had plenty of time to consume all that dusty debris by now, a process, according to Debes, that should only take 100 million years to complete.

Debes, who led the study published in The Astrophysical Journal on Feb. 19, and his team, including discoverer and co-author Thévenot, has some idea as to what might be going on, but more research is needed. One hypothesis is that J0207’s dusty ring is composed of multiple rings with two distinct components, one thin ring just at the edge of where the star is breaking up a belt of asteroids and a wider ring closer to the white dwarf. It’s hoped that follow-up observations by the next generation of space telescopes, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will be able to deduce what those rings are made of, thus helping astronomers understand the evolution of these ancient star systems.

Besides being the ultimate way to gain perspective on our tiny existence (and an excellent topic for an awkward dinner conversation), this research underpins a powerful way in which citizen scientists are shaping space science, particularly projects that require many human brains to process vast datasets.

“That is a really motivating aspect of the search,” said Thévenot, who is one of more than 150,000 volunteers who works on Backyard Worlds. “The researchers will move their telescopes to look at worlds you have discovered. What I especially enjoy, though, is the interaction with the awesome research team. Everyone is very kind, and they are always trying to make the best out of our discoveries.”

Home Is Where the Mars Rover Is

Now that Opportunity’s mission is complete, many wistfully lament about “bringing our robot home.” There’s just one problem: it’s already home.

A rendering of Opportunity on Mars [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

I am fascinated with how we anthropomorphize robots, particularly space robots. We call them “brave,” “pioneers” and even give them genders — usually a “she.” We get emotional when they reach the end of their missions, saying they’ve “died” or, as I like to say, “gone to Silicon Heaven.” But these robots are, for all intents and purposes, tools. Sure, they expand the reach of our senses, allowing us to see strange new worlds and parts of the universe where humans fear to tread, but they’re an assembly of electronics, metal, plastic, sensors, transmitters, wheels and solar panels. They don’t have emotions. They don’t breathe. They don’t philosophize about the incredible feats of exploration they are undertaking. They don’t have genders.

Still, we fall in love. When watching Curiosity land on Mars from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I teared up, full of joy that the six-wheeled hulk of a rover — that I’d met personally in JPL’s clean room a couple of years before — had safely landed on the Red Planet. After watching NASA’s InSight lander touch down on Elysium Planitia, again via JPL’s media room last year, there it was again, I was in love. I’m already anthropomorphizing the heck out of that mission, seeing InSight’s landing as another “heartbeat” on Mars. When the European Rosetta mission found Philae lying on its side like a discarded child’s toy on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, I jumped up from my desk with joy. When Cassini’s mission at Saturn ended in 2017, I was miserable. When the Chinese rover Yutu rolled off its lander in 2014, I realized I was cheering the robot on. When Spirit got stuck in a sand trap in Gusev Crater, I set up a Google alert for any and all news on the recovery efforts.

These emotions aren’t just for the exciting science and engineering strides humanity makes, there’s a certain inspirational character that each robot brings. Undoubtedly, this character naturally emerges from the wonderful scientists and engineers who design and build these amazing machines, and the social media managers who often “speak” for their robots in first person. But if you strip away the science, the technology and the people who build them, we still personalize our beloved robots, giving them their own character and creating a cartoon personality. I believe that’s a beautiful trait in the human condition (except a few flawed cultural and stereotypical missteps) and can be used to great effect to captivate the general public with the science that these robots do.

Opportunity’s landing site inside Eagle crater [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

So there’s no great surprise about the outpouring of emotion for last week’s announcement that NASA called off the communications efforts with Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. This kick-ass robot traveled 28 miles and lasted nearly 15 years, until a global dust storm in early 2018 starved it of sunlight. It landed on Mars way back in 2004, with its twin, Spirit, beginning its Martian reign with a hole-in-one, literally — after bouncing and rolling across the regolith after its entry and descent, encased inside a genius airbag system, it plopped inside the tiny Eagle crater. We’ve collectively lived through Opportunity’s adventures and the groundbreaking science it has done. There’s a huge number of terrific robot obituaries out there, so I won’t duplicate those efforts here. There is, however, a recurring sentiment that is somewhat misplaced, though entirely innocent.

Opportunity — like Spirit and all the Mars rovers and landers that have come and gone — died at home.

This may sound like an odd statement, but there seems to be this fascination with “returning” our space robots to Earth. I’ve seen cartoons of the Dr Who traveling through time to “rescue” Opportunity. People have argued for the case of future Mars astronauts returning these artifacts to terrestrial museums. There’s that touching XKCD cartoon of Spirit being “stranded” on Mars after NASA declared it lost in 2010, that is being resurfaced for Opportunity. We want our dusty Mars rover back!

Dusty rover [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

It’s understandable, that rover has been continuously exploring Mars for a decade and a half, many of its fans, including myself, could check in on Opportunity’s adventures daily, browsing the latest batch of raw images that were uploaded to the NASA servers. We love that thing. In the tradition of military service members who die abroad, we go to great efforts to bring their bodies home so they can repatriated; we want to repatriate our science service member back to Earth.

But Opportunity is a robot that was designed for Mars. Every single design consideration took the Martian environment into account. The Red Planet’s gravity is roughly 1/3rd that of Earth, so the weight on its actuators and chassis are 2/3rds less than what they’d experience on our planet. Its motors are too under powered to reliably drive the robot forward on Earth. On Mars, they’re perfect. Granted, the mass of the Mars Exploration Rovers (approximately 185 kg) are a lot less than their supersized cousin, Curiosity (899 kg), but if Opportunity and Spirit had a 90-day mission exploring the dunes of the Californian Mojave Desert, I’m betting they wouldn’t get very far; they would be under-powered and grind to a halt. They’d also likely overheat as they were designed to withstand the incredibly low temperatures on the Martian surface.

The robots we send to Mars are undeniably Martian. If we’re going to anthropomorphize these beautiful machines, let’s think about what they’d want. I’m guessing they’d want to stay on that dusty terrain and not return to the alien place where they were constructed. And, in doing so, they become the first generation of archaeological sites on the Red Planet that, one day, the first biological Martians will visit.

A Martian’s shadow [NASA/JPL-Caltech]