Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Space http://www.exploreutahscience.org Tue, 23 Jan 2018 08:58:46 -0700 en-gb 70% of Our Universe is A Mystery http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/space/item/111-70-of-our-universe-is-a-mystery http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/space/item/111-70-of-our-universe-is-a-mystery 70% of Our Universe is A Mystery

Astronomy week starts today and the surprise is how little we know about our universe.

Astronomy week starts today and the surprise is how little we know about our universe.

When you look up into the sky at night, most of what you see is black space that appears to be nothing. Astronomers and physicists, however, know this "nothing" is actually something—composed of energy they cannot see, but know is there. It is one of the great mysteries in the universe.

Everything we can see on earth and in space including, planets, asteroids, comets, supernovae, and nebulae are all made of matter—atoms composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, but that is only about 4% of the universe.

Between 20-25% is dark matter, which is thought to be made of invisible particles with some properties similar to matter, but don't appear to emit light or other electromagnetic radiation that can be detected with telescopes. Scientists are still trying to identify and characterize dark matter particles, and recent experiments on the International Space Station may have found the first signatures of dark matter in the universe.

Remarkably, even less is known about the remaining 70% of the universe, which is made up of something called dark energy. "That is something that we don't understand very well at all," remarks Kyle Dawson, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Utah. However, adds Dawson "We know it [dark energy] drives everything right now in terms of how the universe is changing over time."

Dawson says that for centuries "everybody mistakenly believed that the universe is static. They thought the universe was, is, always will be, in exactly the form that we see today."

That was the prevailing thought until Albert Einstein came up with his Theory of General Relativity (or Theory of Gravity) in the early 1900s. "His theory predicted that was impossible. The universe has to be moving with time, it has to be expanding or contracting with time. There is no such thing as a stable universe in his theory," says Dawson.

In 1998, two groups of scientists measured properties of distant Supernovae – exploding (or dying) stars – to determine how the universe is changing over time. Dawson says they found that not only is the universe expanding, but that the expansion is accelerating. These findings were the first real evidence for the existence of dark energy. "They both independently proved that the universe is expanding and accelerating exactly as would have to be if there was a lot of dark energy out there." he says.

Now researchers are trying to better define what dark energy is. "It's not possible to observe it directly," says Dawson. "What we have to do instead is to keep making more and more precise measurements of how it affects the global system that we call our universe."

Along with two hundred other scientists, Dawson participates in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which in eight years has created three-dimensional maps of over 930,000 galaxies. "What we do with our project right now, is try to measure dark energy with other techniques by making a map of the universe in as much detail as possible," explains Dawson. "What we try to record is the velocity and position of basically every galaxy we can measure."

Dawson and his collaborators are using this information to look at the effects of dark energy on other celestial objects, in addition to the Supernovae that originally confirmed it's existence.

"Imagine that you're looking at it through Supernova, you're looking at it through a very small window at one angle," says Dawson. He adds, to get a more comprehensive understanding of dark energy requires seeing it from different perspectives. "If I'm looking at it from the door of my room I want to go run across to the other side of the room to ... see what it looks like on the backside. I want to look at it from the side, and from up above. But, each perspective requires a different type of measurement."

Dawson says that for the most part new techniques and instruments to look at dark energy have already been invented. Now they just have to be utilized. He expects that the next decade will yield many interesting discoveries.

Kyle Dawson will present a public lecture explaining dark energy and how it is measured on Wednesday April 17 at 4:30pm at the Marriot Library, RM 1130 on the University of Utah campus.

April 15-20 is Astronomy Week. Check our Events page for listings.

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exploreutahscience@gmail.com (Explore Utah Science) Space Mon, 15 Apr 2013 06:17:22 -0600
Crowdsourcing Andromeda--KCPW CityViews http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/space/item/66-kcpw-cityviews-crowdsourcing-andromeda http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/space/item/66-kcpw-cityviews-crowdsourcing-andromeda Crowdsourcing Andromeda--KCPW CityViews

The newly launched Andromeda Project uses crowdsourcing to find star clusters that will help understand how galaxies form and evolve.

KCPW Cityviews

Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way and scientists need volunteers to help study its star clusters through detailed images captured by the Hubble Telescope. University of Utah astrophysicist Anil Seth, Ph.D., will explain more about the Andromeda Project and how crowdsourcing can discover more about hundreds of billions of stars in Andromeda.

Listen to the full story by Jennifer Napier-Pearce, KCPW CityViews

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jnpearce@kcpw.org (Jennifer Napier-Pearce) Space Thu, 06 Dec 2012 00:00:00 -0700
Small Satellites Aim to Protect Us From Solar Storms http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/space/item/49-small-satellites-aim-to-protect-us-from-the-sun http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/space/item/49-small-satellites-aim-to-protect-us-from-the-sun Small Satellites Aim to Protect Us From Solar Storms

From top secret military missions to tracking natural disasters and studying space weather, small satellites are making big changes in the aerospace industry.

Imagine a spacecraft as light as your laptop and small enough to fit in your hand. Small satellites, ranging in size from a smart phone to a loaf of bread, are making access to space cheaper and faster. They typically cost 100 times less than traditional satellites that are as large as a school bus. Small satellites are being built for a plethora of practical uses including the ability to quickly zoom in on potential catastrophic weather systems like hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. And for studying solar storms that can disrupt everything from communications to airline navigation and GPS systems. According to Pat Patterson, director of the Space Dynamics Laboratory Military Space Division at Utah State University, small satellites are also making a difference on the ground-in the classroom.

“Probably the biggest assistance that small satellites have provided has really been as a training tool to university students because they can do hands-on work on these small space craft, says Patterson. “Two or three years in school they can start with design, the build-up of the thing, the testing all the way to the launch vehicle.” He adds, “These bigger spacecraft takes many, many years and the student can't get through that whole cycle in the time that they’re at a university.”

“It’s been awesome to learn something in space and to be able to physically apply it and put a satellite together. I started doing the mechanical design, helped hand wind tort coils, program management and writing software for our ground stations.”

That is Eric Stromberg, one of a dozen undergraduate and graduate students at Utah State University, who worked on the project called DICE, which stands for Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment. Dice is orbiting the earth's upper atmosphere. It consists of two identical spinning satellites that are taking measurements of the density and magnetic strength at a particular point in space to ultimately create a three-dimensional map of the space environment. The goal is to learn more about magnetic storms caused by solar flares from the sun. Chad Fish is the space environment manager at the space dynamics lab.

“The earth has this magnetic field around it and it’s actually a protective barrier around from what comes out of the sun,” says Fish. “These spacecraft can be affected, they can be charged up or they can have trouble communicating with the ground so our mission is to help understand what is going and to help predict what can go on in the future.”

The sun is made up of plasma-hot ionized gas- interlaced with a maze of magnetic fields. The core of this fiery star is 27 million degrees. This massive furnace makes a lot of noise. It pulsates to set rhythms, ranging from an 11 year solar flare cycle to other ones that span centuries.

“The sun starts throwing out these coronal mass ejections,” says satellite pioneer Gil Moore. Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are balloon-shaped bursts of solar wind rising above the sun's outer atmosphere. “Now we've only had a couple of them so far in this solar cycle. This is a pretty quiet cycle. This solar max is not really very exciting. I was hoping, big laugh…there would be a lot more stuff going on. Next along about next March or April you might see CMEs every week,” says Moore.

Solar winds stream off the sun at speeds hovering around 1 million miles per hour and solar flares - a sudden burst of brightness on the sun's surface, pack the same amount of energy as millions of hydrogen bombs exploding at the same time. Moore is working on a project similar to DICE referred to as POPACS (polar orbiting passive atmospheric calibration sphere). The goal is to measure the effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections on the earth's upper atmosphere. The eventual hope is to use this information to decrease satellite collisions and improve the safety of orbiting crew and spacecraft.

“Electronic devices get smaller and smaller and so they can be damaged by cosmic rays and high energy protons and stuff coming in from solar storms more than the satellites did way back when, back in the beginning of the space age,” says Moore. “Now from the debris up there, everything is susceptible. Something the size of your thumbnail can take out a satellite because it is whistling along at 7.5 miles a second.”

Even though the sun is 93 million miles away, the radiation it emits hits the earth everyday. Severe solar storms are what cause the concern.

The weakening solar storm warning satellite called ACE has been in orbit one million miles from earth since 1997.

“And it says, ‘Hey guys here comes a biggie, lookout!,’” says Moore

There is a whole range of potential effects. The most feared one is failure of the power grid. A solar storm in 1989 caused a blackout in the northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada.

“Now, if you don't know about it, it can pop all the breakers in your big distribution network,” says Moore. “We are in a particular one here called the Bonneville network. It can shut down Salt Lake City, because it pops the breakers, and it can burn up lines. I mean, it’s just a huge surge of power.”

Electroctromagnetic pulses racing into earth from violent space weather cause the damage. They can also disable global positioning system satellites that we rely so heavily on for communication, surveillance and navigation on earth and in space.

“The more we know about solar terrestrial physics, the better off the people on the surface of the earth are,” says Moore.

Projects like DICE and POPACS that take measurements in space essentially create a 3D map of it, which is helping engineers build stronger satellites and better predict storms that will impact earth.

DICE was funded by a 1.2 million dollar grant from the national science foundation and was launched in October 2011. It is sending data back to earth five days a week.

“We've been able to show that our satellite and our measurements are seeing things that other missions are seeing which is a nice, feel-good feeling that what we’re doing is right,” says Stromberg. “And then from there we are analyze the data to figure out if we have seen anomalies.” Chad Fish adds, “Yeah we’ve seen some very interesting things that are related to interaction of the sun with the earth, things that are not standard that happen because something interesting is going on. We’re going to start presenting them at conferences and in papers. So there is a lot of work to go forward, a lot of science benefit and benefit to the community in general regarding space weather that we expect to come out of this.”

The project well surpassed its six-month mission requirements and the satellites will reenter the atmosphere and disintegrate within 25 years.

POPACS will hitch a ride on Space Exploration's Falcon 9 rocket from the Vanderberg Air Force base in California in spring of 2013.

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sheriquinn@gmail.com (Sheri Quinn) Space Mon, 12 Nov 2012 05:51:45 -0700
Citizen Scientists Can Make Their Own Discoveries in Space http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/space/item/31-citizen-scientists-can-make-their-own-discoveries-in-space http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/space/item/31-citizen-scientists-can-make-their-own-discoveries-in-space Citizen Scientists Can Make Their Own Discoveries in Space

The spacecraft Stardust delivered a package to earth that touched down in Utah's west desert in 2006. This was the start of one of many citizen science projects where regular people can make a difference.

On January 16, 2006 a return capsule from the Stardust spacecraft entered the earth's atmosphere and landed near the Dugway Proving Ground in the Western desert of Utah. The capsule carried particles of interstellar dust and dust from the comet Wild 2, trapped in an exotic substance called Aerogel.

Patrick Wiggins is a NASA ambassador for Utah. He says the problem is that it's difficult to find dust particles in the Aerogel. For this reason NASA took a unique approach, asking citizens to help.

"They haven't come up with a computer program that can realistically, and reliably identify all of these particles," says Wiggins. "So what they have done is gone through and scanned all of these things into computer images and then they're looking for citizen scientists to go on line and use the scans to make the discoveries, and a number of them have been made that way."

Stardust is one example of the many types of projects that use regular people, to collect data, monitor wildlife, and make new discoveries. Citizen science has become more popular in the last few years, but as Wiggins says, astronomy is a science that was literally started by people just looking at the sky. He says this approach is still successful today. "It's one of the sciences where civilians, if you will, really can make their mark, on astronomy."

Dan Cimbora got involved in astronomy when he was ten years old because his parents bought him a telescope. By thirteen he was making the optics for his own telescope. More recently he built a larger one that allows him to see much fainter and more distant structures like nebula and galaxies.

"I mean I really get a kick out of going out to remote observing locations and tracking down really faint things that are tough to see with a given telescope," says Cimbora. "The satisfaction of finding something that is really elusive is pretty intense."

Larry Holmes is a board member with the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. He says people who take up astronomy as a hobby are actually explorers. "A telescope is basically a time machine. The bigger the lens the further back in time you can look. And the large telescopes, that are being built today and in the future, will get back to very close to the time of the big bang."

The reason some astronomers measure distances in light years is because it takes time for light to travel in space. The farther away an object is, the longer it takes for its light to reach us. So what we see in a telescope is actually something that happened in the past. Holmes says they have a telescope in their Stansbury Park Observatory complex that has a 32-inch diameter mirror. He says this telescope, called the Grim Scope after its designer Bruce Grim, can see millions or even billions of years in the past.

"You're looking at light that left the galaxy or nebula or whatever body before dinosaurs walked on the earth," says Holmes.

Or even before the earth was formed... If you are seeking this type of adventure, you don't have to go out and purchase an expensive telescope. Instead anyone can go to the observatory says Wiggins.

"We try to open the observatory to the public two nights a month during the observing season. Now of course, people that join the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, you get a key, once you've had the class. And you can go out and use any nights you want."

The observing season is over for this year, and won't start again until sometime in May. But that doesn't mean you can't do astronomy in the winter. In fact, there are multiple projects you can participate in while at home: from categorizing new galaxies, to letting your computer search for signs of intelligent life when you aren't using it. For more information find the links on our website.

As for Stardust, they have made a number of discoveries. These include the finding that glycine, one of the twenty amino acid required to make all of the proteins in our bodies, was found in the dust of the comet Wild 2. This could be one way such molecules originally came to earth, seeding the planet with the building blocks of life. Phase five of the Stardust@home study began earlier this year, so if you hurry, you might even get the chance to name a dust particle, if you find one.

NOTE: Last week, NASA announced that two amateur astronomers found a planet orbiting two suns, with an additional two suns nearby. This is the first four sun planetary system ever identified. It was a collaborative effort with planetary scientists looking at data from the Kepler spacecraft. Read more here.

Astronomical societies in Utah:
Salt Lake Astronomical Society
Cache Valley Stargazers
Utah Valley Astronomy Association
Ogden Astronomical Society
BYU Astronomical Society

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kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Space Mon, 22 Oct 2012 00:02:00 -0600