‘Crasher Asteroids’ Photobomb Hubble’s Deep Gaze Into the Universe

NASA, ESA, and B. Sunnquist and J. Mack (STScI)

Like the infamous “Crasher Squirrel” that launched one of the most prolific memes in online history, “crasher asteroids” have photobombed the Hubble Space Telescope’s otherwise uninterrupted view of the ancient universe.

While carrying out its Frontier Fields survey of a random postage stamp-sized part of the sky in the direction of the galaxy cluster Abell 370, Hubble imaged many galaxies located at different distances over different epochs in time.

Visible in the observation are elliptical galaxies and spiral galaxies. Many are bright and bluish, but the vast majority are dim and reddish. The reddest blobs are the most distant galaxies in our observable universe; their light has been stretched (red-shifted) after traveling for billions of years through an expanding cosmos. These galaxies are the most ancient galaxies that formed within a billion years after the Big Bang.

But mixed in with this Hubble view of ancient light are bright arcs and dashes — tracks carved out by the rocky junk in our own solar system that is drifting in Hubble’s field of view, located a mere 160 million miles from Earth (on average). It’s sobering to think that the light from the reddest galaxies is nearly three times older than these asteroids.*

Abel 370 is located along the solar system’s ecliptic plane, around which the planets orbit the sun and the majority of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter are located. So, like looking through a swarm of bees, Hubble has captured the trails of asteroids in the foreground.

The trails themselves are created not by the motion of the asteroids, however, but by the motion of Hubble. While fixing its gaze on distant galaxies for hours at a time as it orbits Earth, Hubble’s position changes and, through an observational effect known as parallax, the positions of those asteroids appear to trace an arc when compared with the stationary background of galaxies billions of light-years distant.

As Hubble scanned its field of view, it revealed 20 asteroid trails, seven of which are unique objects (some of the asteroid trails were repeated observations of the same object, just captured at different times in Hubble’s orbit). Only two of these asteroids were previously discovered, the other five are newly discovered objects that were too faint for other observatories to detect.

So it goes to show that photobombing asteroids are useful for science and, though Hubble was observing the most distant objects in the cosmos, it was able to see a few of the rocks in our cosmic backyard.

*NOTE: Asteroids formed around the time our solar system first started creating planets, some 4.6 billion years ago. The most ancient galaxies are located over 13 billion light-years away, meaning the ancient light from those galaxies was produced 13 billion years ago.

Friday Flashback: Banff Ground Squirrel Witnessed Apollo 11 Landing (2009)

Buzz Aldrin poses for Armstrong's camera in 1969. Little did the astronauts realize... they were being watched... (NASA/NatGeo/Ian O'Neill)
Buzz Aldrin poses for Armstrong’s camera in 1969. Little did the astronauts realize… they were being watched… (NASA/NatGeo/Ian O’Neill)

Some Galaxies Die Young… Others Recycle

Some galaxies undergo a rapid star formation phase, losing stellar gases to intergalactic space, others choose to recycle, thereby extending their star forming lifespans.
Some galaxies undergo a rapid star formation phase, losing stellar gases to intergalactic space, others choose to recycle, thereby extending their star forming lifespans (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI))

It sounds like an over-hyped public service announcement: If you don’t recycle, you’ll die a premature death.

But in the case of galaxies, according to three new Science papers based on Hubble Space Telescope data, this is a reality. Should a galaxy “go green,” reusing waste stellar gas contained within huge halos situated outside their visible disks, they will fuel future star-birth cycles, prolonging their lifespans.

Sadly for “starburst” galaxies — galaxies that undergo rapid star generation over very short time periods — they care little for recycling, resulting in an untimely death.

Using data from Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), three teams studied 40 galaxies (including the Milky Way) and discovered vast halos of waste stellar gases. Contained within these spherical reservoirs — extending up to 450,000 light-years from their bright disks of stars — light elements such as hydrogen and helium were found to be laced with heavier elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and neon. There’s only one place these heavy elements could have come from: fusion processes in the cores of stars and supernovae.

Interestingly, the quantity of heavy elements contained within the newly-discovered halos is similar to what is contained in the interstellar gases within the galaxies themselves.

“There’s as much heavy elements out in the halos of the galaxies as there is in their interstellar medium, that is what shocked us.” said Jason Tumlinson, an astronomer for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., in an interview for my Discovery News article “Galaxies That Don’t Recycle Live Hard, Die Young.”

But these heavy elements are stored in halos outside the galaxies; how the heck did it get there?

According to the researchers, powerful stellar winds jetting into intergalactic space have been observed, transporting the heavy elements with them. But there’s a catch. If the outflow is too strong, waste stellar gases are ejected from the galaxies completely. Unfortunately for one sub-set of galaxies, powerful stellar outflows come naturally.

Starburst galaxies rapidly generate stars, ejecting speedy streams of stellar waste gas. Some of these streams have been clocked traveling at 2 million miles per hour, escaping from the galaxy forever. In the case of a starbust galaxy, a “recycling halo” cannot be re-supplied — future star birth is therefore killed off.

“We found the James Dean or Amy Winehouse of that population, you know, the galaxies that lived fast and died young,” Tumlinson pointed out. “(Todd) Tripp’s team studied that in their paper.”

“That paper used a galaxy that is known as a ‘post-star burst galaxy’ and its spectrum showed that it had a very robust star burst (phase),” he continued. “It was one of those live fast, die young galaxies.”

Although fascinating, one idea struck me the hardest. On asking Tumlinson to speculate on how galactic recycling of stellar material may impact us, he said:

“Your body is 70 percent water and every water molecule has an oxygen atom in it. The theorists say the recycling time (in the Milky Way’s halo) is approximately a billion years, so that means — potentially — that some of the material (oxygen) inside your body has cycled in and out of the galaxy ten times in the history of the galaxy. At least once, maybe up to ten times.”

As Carl Sagan famously said: “We’re made of star stuff;” perhaps this should be rephrased to: “We’re made of recycled star stuff.”


Hubble Conquers Mystic Mountain

Where is that mystical land? (NASA/ESA/HST).
Where is this mystical land? (NASA/ESA/HST).

Sometimes, words are not enough to describe views of the universe when captured through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope. This is one of those moments.

Kicking off its 20th anniversary (yes, that super-sized telescope has been in space that long — I would say that I remember it being launched, but I don’t, because I was nine, playing with my Star Wars toys), Hubble has published some astonishing images of deep inside the Carina Nebula, some 7,500 light-years from Earth. And, quite frankly, I’m floored.

BIG PIC: Have a look deep inside the Carina Nebula with some of my Discovery News coverage of the event.

The pillar of gas and dust looks like a gnarled tree branch, dotted with sparkling lights. The Hubble press release even describes the structure as a “Mystic Mountain,” and it’s not hard to see why. In this age of computer generated everything, this release of images show that the cosmos contains things that defy our tiny imaginations.

We are looking at a star-forming region, deep inside the nebula, where stars are being born inside the bulbous towers of gas and dust, but on the outside, young stars are battering the tower with intense stellar winds and powerful radiation. The pillar is being eroded away. However, this exterior pressure is seeding the birth of new stars inside the nebulous material.

The mindblowing clarity of this Hubble observation even brings out the fine detail in the jets of ionized gas as it is blasted from the point of the tallest finger of material. This is being generated by a young star, gorging itself on gas, forming a superheated accretion disk, blasting the energized gas out from the stellar nursery.

As Hubble’s 20th anniversary celebrations continue, I think we can expect a lot more where this came from. So brace yourself, this gem of a space telescope may be getting old, but it still has a shedload of cosmos to show us.

Now, lets stand back and get a better view of the incredible floating ‘Mystic Mountain’…

The Carina stellar nursary from afar (NASA/ESA/HST)
The Carina stellar nursary from afar (NASA/ESA/HST)

P/2010 A2 Was An Asteroid Collision (Says Hubble)

What you see here is something mankind has never seen before, the aftermath of an asteroid collision. This conclusion comes after the Hubble Space Telescope was commanded to take a closer look at a strange comet-like object pottering around in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

The truth is we’re still struggling to understand what this means,” said David Jewitt, a planetary physicist from UCLA. “It’s most likely the result of a recent collision between two asteroids.”

After P/2010 A2 was discovered in January, Jewitt managed to get observation time on Hubble to get a closer look of what was thought could be a rare asteroid-comet hybrid.

In the image, the object named P/2010 A2 has a very obvious “X” on its surface shaped pattern in its tale, possibly the location where a smaller body slammed into it at high speed. The result of this hyper-velocity impact produced a lot of debris and scientists think the comet-like tail being swept back by the pressure of the solar wind is dust and outgassing volatiles (like subliming water ice).

Although this kind of event has never been observed before, over the lifetime of the evolving solar system, events like this occur on a regular basis, in fact asteroid collisions have shaped the asteroid belt. Interestingly, it is thought this impact was caused by a collision of a “Flora family” asteroid, a type of object that may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. (Don’t worry, this collision won’t affect Earth in any way, the dinosaur thing is simply an interesting connection!)

What an incredible discovery, it’s fortunate that we have Hubble’s excellent eyesight to peer deep into the asteroid belt…

Sources: Reuters, Discovery News

The Sadness of Hubble’s Repair Job

The cargo bay of the shuttle, a valuable in-orbit repair station (NASA)
The cargo bay of the shuttle, a valuable in-orbit repair station (NASA)

On the flight back from Washington D.C. last night, United Airlines had the wonderful sense to play the fourth episode of the documentary When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions. It couldn’t have come at a better time, having just watched Mall Cop, The Office, Big Bang Theory and then How I Met Your Mother, I was in dire need for a good documentary.

I was actually returning from a visit to the Discovery Channel HQ after meeting my amazing Discovery.com team for the first time, so I was in the mood to watch something about space. The best thing about When We Left Earth is that when watching it you can’t help but feel inspired and moved (coincidentally, it was produced by the Discovery Channel). In part 4, the Apollo missions (from 12-17) and Skylab are documented, and I must admit, I was a little vague on a lot of the facts that were presented.

Probably the best bit for me was watching the converted Saturn V, resembling a high caliber bullet, blast into the sky in May 1973, taking Skylab into orbit. However, the story that ensued came as a surprise to me, I’d forgotten just how revolutionary Skylab really was. During launch, the space station sustained serious damage, causing loss of the sunshield and damage to the solar panels. If astronauts weren’t launched to repair Skylab, the mission would be lost, cooked from the inside-out, and losing energy fast.

The first crew of Skylab became a space station rescue mission. A small Saturn IB rocket carried Charles Conrad, Jr, Paul J. Weitz and Joseph P. Kerwin to rendezvous with Skylab. In space, the trio overcame all the odds and carried out a risky in-orbit repair on the crippled station, ultimately saving it and allowing two more Skylab missions to be carried out (SL-3 and SL-4) until February 1974.

Skylab launches atop a converted Saturn V in May 1973 (NASA)
Skylab launches atop a converted Saturn V in May 1973 (NASA)

It was a story of space adventure and discovery to the highest degree; Skylab changed our understanding of the Sun and gave us an incredible opportunity to study the human physiology for long periods in space.

Then I started to think about what we are capable of today. We can routinely send a team of seven astronauts, to a 19 year old space telescope, to carry out a servicing mission to prolong the observatory’s life for another five years. If I think about that too hard, I start to feel a little dizzy. From sending three heroic individuals on one of the first emergency in-orbit repairs to save a space station in 1973 to sending a sophisticated space shuttle (with a space workshop in its cargo bay) to carry out a carefully choreographed engineering task in microgravity, our technology has come a long way, but one thing has remained the same. The heroism of our men and women in space has not changed; space travel may seem to be routine, but being an astronaut is still a highly dangerous profession.

So when I read Irene Klotz’s Discovery News article Need Satellite Repairs? Don’t Call NASA, I feel sad. Although the Space Shuttle has its faults and its endless supply of critics, it has enabled us to do unprecedented science and engineering tasks in space. When the shuttle is retired, NASA will no longer have the capability of capturing or docking with a satellite to carry out complex repairs and then send it on its way. Even when the Constellation Program launches, we wont have this facility. For me, that feels like one huge step backwards for our ability as a space-faring race; NASA will be prevented from carrying out complicated repairs in orbit.

That’s just a shame to abandon one of the most impressive, refined, sophisticated capabilities that this agency as a whole, human side and robotics side, has achieved. I’m not talking about re-servicing Hubble, I’m talking about the hard-won loss of capability — and costly capability.” —David Leckrone, Hubble senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

This wasn’t only the final Hubble servicing mission, it was also the final NASA satellite repair mission. That is a huge shame.

Hubble and Atlantis Transit the Sun (Photo)

The Hubble Space Telescope and Shuttle Atlantis pass in front of the blank Sun. Can't see their silhouettes? Click on the image for the large version and look in the bottom-left-hand corner. That's no sunspot pair... (©Thierry Legault)
The Hubble Space Telescope and Shuttle Atlantis pass in front of the blank Sun. Can't see their silhouettes? Click on the image for the large version and look in the bottom-left-hand corner. That's no sunspot pair... (©Thierry Legault)

Thierry Legault is one highly skilled astrophotographer. The transit of the Hubble Space Telescope and Space Shuttle Atlantis took only 0.8 seconds to clear the disk of the Sun, so Legault rapidly took four pictures per second, starting his series of pictures two seconds before the pair were predicted to pass in front of the Sun.

STS-125 Atlantis and Hubble Solar Transit. The image was captured from Florida at 12:17pm EST on May 13th as the Shuttle approached the orbiting telescope at 600km from Earth (©Thierry Legault)
STS-125 Atlantis and Hubble Solar Transit. The image was captured from Florida at 12:17pm EST on May 13th as the Shuttle approached the orbiting telescope at 600km from Earth (©Thierry Legault)

In the image above, the 35 meter-long Atlantis is easily identifiable, but the tiny speck of the 13 meter-long Hubble isn’t so easy to define, but the result is superb. According to Legault’s website, this is the only picture of the STS-125 and the observatory, orbiting at an altitude of 600 km.

Back in July 2008, Astroengine reported on the transit of the International Space Station across the disk of the Sun. Fortunately, in both cases, the Sun’s face was blank, and no sunspots are prominent enough to ruin the view.


Sources: NASA on Flickr, Astrosurf

Watch Space Shuttle Atlantis Launch in HD


Today’s launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis went according to plan and the crew of seven astronauts are now chasing the Hubble Space Telescope for its final servicing mission.

As I’m a little behind the curve on reporting this story, I thought I’d assemble some links to other sites who covered the launch far more expertly that I can at this late stage. However, not to be outdone, I wanted to share this incredible high definition video of the launch. If you want to watch the embedded HD version, look below, but if you want the full, i’m-on-the-edge-of-the-launchpad-oh-my-god-i-can-feel-the-heat wide-screen version, check out the awesome, fully-loaded YouTube HD video.


Mystery Blob Detected 12.9 Billion Light Years Away

The Himiko object, the most massive object ever discovered in the early universe (M. Ouchi et al.)

Take a good look, this is one of the most mysterious, massive objects ever discovered in the cosmos. We don’t really know what it is, but this thing is huge, spanning 55,000 light years across (the approximate radius of our Milky Way). What makes this all the more intriguing is the fact that this object formed only 800 million years after the Big Bang and it is 10 times more massive than the next biggest object observed in the early Universe. But what is it?
Continue reading “Mystery Blob Detected 12.9 Billion Light Years Away”

Here’s One We Didn’t Discover Earlier

The 1998 archive Hubble image of HR 8799 after image analysis - one of the star's exoplanets have been resolved (NASA/HST)
The 1998 archive Hubble image of HR 8799 after image analysis - one of the star's exoplanets have been resolved (D. Lafrenière et al., ApJ Letters)

What’s just as exciting as directly imaging an exoplanet in a new observing campaign? To discover an exoplanet in an old observing campaign.

Like so many significant astronomical discoveries, archival images of the cosmos provide a valuable tool to astronomers. On its most basic level, astronomers can compare new images with images taken by the same (or different) observatory months, years or decades ago. This method can lead to the discovery of planets, asteroids and comets (when comparing two pictures of the night sky, a celestial object appears to move relative to the background stars). However, a new technique to analyse archived Hubble data in the search for exoplanets, has just revealed one of three known exoplanets orbiting the star HR 8699. The image in question was captured in 1998, when astronomers thought HR 8799 was an exoplanet-less star
Continue reading “Here’s One We Didn’t Discover Earlier”

Another Exoplanet Candidate Identified by ESO

It would appear that yet another extrasolar planet has been directly observed!

Only last week, the Hubble Space Telescope released news that it had spotted an exoplanet orbiting the star Fomalhaut. This is the first ever direct observation of an exoplanet in optical wavelengths. On the same day, joint observations by the ground-based (adaptive optics-powered) Keck II and Gemini infrared telescopes discovered a collection of three large alien worlds orbiting a star catalogued as HR 8799.

Today, a completely different observatory appears to have discovered yet another exoplanet orbiting the hot star Beta Pictoris (in the constellation of Pictor). European Southern Observatory (ESO) astronomers have directly imaged β Pictoris b, an alien planet orbiting 8 AU from its host star.

A phenomenal achievement considering β Pictoris is over 63 light years away…
Continue reading “Another Exoplanet Candidate Identified by ESO”