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Sometimes if you aren’t watching the heavens (or the news) closely enough, you miss a major astronomical discovery.  For example last summer, astronomers discovered a galaxy which formed only one or two billion years after the Big Bang (so I guess it is unclear whethter I missed this story by one year or by 12 billion).  At any rate, the galaxy hunters used the Hubble space telescope to peer through a powerful gravitational lense far away in space.  Gravitational lenses are areas where timespace is warped like a huge lense by high-gravity phenomena, and a viewer can use them like a huge lense to see far-away objects.  By using the Hubble telescope together with the gravitational lense they were able to see back a dozen billion years in time to the edge of the universe…as it once was not long after creation.  What they saw perplexed them.

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There is a fundamental difference between galaxies.  Galaxies where stars are being formed tend to be blue and spiral shaped (like our own beloved Milky Way!).  Galaxies where stars have largely stopped forming are “red and dead” since the remaining stars tend to be long lived red dwarf stars and the bright young (short-lived) blue stars are mostly gone.  These red galaxies are not shaped like spirals, but tend to be elliptical shaped (like an egg or a football, not like one of those evil gym machines).

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The ancient galaxy at the edge of the universe was neither of those colors or shapes. It was a dense yellow disk.  Stars formed in an (enormous) accretion disk but then, for some reason, new star formation stopped.  The blue stars burned out (“the light that shines twice as bright etc, etc..”), but the yellow middle aged stars were still burning.   The galaxy had three times the mass of the Milky Way but scrunched into a pancake of much smaller area.

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So do galaxies always form as disks and then either become self-renewing blue spirals (maybe by colliding with other galaxies or clouds of dust)or dead red footballs?  Or was this early yellow disk galaxy an abberation? Or is our own galaxy truly new (well…newish…being only a few billion years old)?  I do not understand astrophysics well enough to answer these questions or even formulate them properly (although I get the sense some of these questions may not yet be answered by anyone in any comprehensive way), but I would love to hear what people can add to this rudimentary yet compelling story of shapes and colors.

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 Portrait of the Hon. Mrs Ernest Guinness (Frank Dicksee, 1912) oil on canvas

Of all the colors in my paintbox I am most dissatisfied with blue.  There are a lot of strong greens and there are vivid cadmium yellows, oranges, and reds.  There is ivory black which as dark as the depths of the void and dioxazine violet which is a great purple, but blue is a difficult color.  The brightest blues of the sky are from sunlight which has been scattered by the atmosphere.  The blues of bird feathers and butterfly wings are from careful refraction of light from reflective structures in the wings: if you ground peacock feathers fine enough there is no more blue….

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The main blue pigments in the painter’s palette are cobalt blue (which is ancient and robust but a trifle subdued) ultramarine blue (a sulfur-containing sodium-silicate) which inclines toward purple, and cerulean blue a sky blue cobalt stannate which is painfully expensive.  Oh! there is a manganese blue out there in the paint stores, but I never used it until I bought a little tube a month ago,  so we’ll see how it turns out: it is sort of a tropical powder blue.  They are each beautiful but they each have their problems and none is the pure royal blue in the center of the spectrum which is bright, non-toxic, and lightfast (although the poisonous cobalts and…ultramarine too… last through the long ages).  This is why I was excited when my old painter friend Brendan (a raven painting specialist) sent me a link to an article about a new blue pigment.

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YInMn blue

The new blue is called YInMn blue.  Discovered a couple of years ago by Robin Young, the new blue is lightfast, stable, and seemingly nontoxic (although sometimes in the past problems have taken a while to become evident).  The new blue is made of yttrium oxide, indium oxide, and manganese oxide.  It seems to be extremely lasting, and best of all it is very very blue.  Unfortunately, right now it is expensive (and the paint companies are still testing it out), but I have a feeling it might hit the market soon, and whatever its faults it can’t be worse for one’s health than carcinogenic cobalt.

Kudos to Robin Young for the new color.  I can’t wait to get a tube and paint some truly blue flounders…speaking of which, i better head back to the easel.

 

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Hey, remember the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy?  Well, scientists have been thinking about it too, and they concluded that other black holes should sink into the middle of the galaxy near to the central monster.  To find out if this holds true, they utilized the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (an x-ray telescope located on a satellite in orbit around Earth) to observe stars near to the center of the galaxy.  Black holes can’t be detected on their own, but if they interact with nearby stars they produce esoteric x-rays which can be detected (so long as the x-ray telescope is outside of a planetary atmosphere, which absorbs x-rays, thank goodness).  Within the tiny (er, relatively tiny) three light year area which they scrutinized, the astronomers discovered dozens of black holes.  Extrapolating this data leads them to conclude there are more than 10,000 black holes at the center of our galaxy.  I wish I could contextualize this for you, but I just can’t… the concept of 10,000 super-dense gravity wells flattening and tearing all of the spacetime in the center of the galaxy into Swiss cheese is to disturbing for me to deal with (in any other way than blurting it out in a midnight blog).  I’m not sure this universe is safe at all. I am going to go lie down.

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There are two amazing pieces of space news today to shock and astonish you.  First, we have found a near-analog to planet Earth orbiting a red dwarf star—and it is “only” 11 light-years from our Solar System.  The exoplanet is named  Ross 128b and it is orbiting a quiet red dwarf star (most red dwarves are subject to solar flares which release life cleansing jolts of exotic radiation, but, like our delightful Sun, Ross 128 seems to be much more sedate (perhaps its placid life has something to do with its bland name which makes it sound like a dullard clone friend on an 90s sitcom).  In this age of exoplanet discovery, it is easy to lose sight of what an astonishing find this is, but I grew up in a world with only nine known planets.  Remember back when Ferrebeekeeper was rhapsodizing about weird icy oddballs like Gliese 581 g?  Ross 128B seems like it roughly the same size and temperature as Earth and it is right in our backyard.  Additionally, it is moving towards us, in a mere 78000 years it will be the closest exoplanet to Earth!

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The other “news” is more conditional and vague, but no less exciting to me.  NASA has been floating the concept of a balloon mission to Venus.  I have been hoping for more attention to our nearest neighbor (since I harbor fantasies of living there, in the sweet spot above the merciless clouds) a balloon probe to see what the atmosphere is actually like would let us know whether his fantasy is at all workable.   The Soviet Union actually sent some balloon probes to Venus back in the early days of interplanetary exploration, but they were crude things which were not built to last and they told us little.  Let’s do it right this time and find out everything about our mysterious sister planet!  It is going to be a little while before Ross 128B is in range so let’s explore the immediate neighborhood and get to work on living abroad while there is still time!  

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What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets?  Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible.  The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun.  It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy).  Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement.  These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us!  The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky!  It is a pretty compelling picture!  Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.

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I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years.  Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).

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Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.  It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics).  However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.

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Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp).  Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh!  I know where I want to escape to next February!

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Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur!  You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?

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Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy.  As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world.  However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.

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Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China!  In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail!  This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.

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The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan).  Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.

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If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room.  Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.

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As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead.  Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations.  What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?

There is a lot to talk about lately: this dreadful never-ending election, spooky Halloween subjects, the president’s laudable plan to land humans on Mars, the fact that the Olympics have completely moved to East Asia….but, for the moment, let’s ignore all of that to talk about a ghastly dark snowball the size of Iowa.  I am not talking about any old snowball, I am talking about 2014 UZ224, a dwarf planet which was recently discovered by an astronomy team at the University of Michigan.

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2014 UZ224 has a diameter of about 530 kilometers (330 miles): it is about half the size of Pluto.  Perhaps it is not even a true dwarf planet—but what else should we call it.  Located deep in the Oort Cloud, the little world is 14 billion kilometers (8.5 billion miles) from the sun (which is something like a thousandth of a light year). It takes 1,100 years to complete a single orbit of our star.  There are many of these Oort Belt objects (Ferrebeekeeper has talked about Sedna, Eris, and Haumea before), but it always special to find a new member of the solar system.  Or maybe not…the news of the world barely seemed to note the little iceball at all. I don’t know whether to be pleased at how mundane such discoveries are becoming, or appalled at how blase and jaded we are.  I bet Herschel would still be excited!

The Mountain on Ceres (Dawn Space Probe, NASA)

The Mountain on Ceres (Dawn Space Probe, NASA)

Now that the Dawn spacecraft has actually reached the dwarf planet Ceres, Ferrebeekeeper has been writing less about it!  Today we will remedy that with a spectacular photo taken from the robot probe.  Remember the strange reflected light from Ceres which the world was so fascinated by?  Well now that Dawn is a mere 1500 kilometers (900 miles) from Ceres, we have discovered that the reflections come from a huge glistening mountain—a strange anomaly on the puckered cratered terrain of the dwarf world.   This mound is likely made of some sort of ice and is about the same size as Mount McKinley—the highest mountain in North America (approximately 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) tall).  Geologists (or I guess I should say astrophysicists) are baffled by why the mountain is there—but I am sure that theories will be forthcoming.

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Pundits and media personalities talk about this singular ice mountain as a pyramid (possibly to get hits), but to me it looks like a huge limpet made of ice.  Here is a 360 degree panoramic sweep around of the mountain (which needs a name!).  I wonder what other odd things are hiding in less plain sight on the little world.

Time lapse photo of the movement of 2012 VP113 (color digitally added)

Time lapse photo of the movement of 2012 VP113 (color digitally added)

Astronomers today announced the discovery of a new dwarf planet at the edge of the solar system. Until the appropriate nomenclatural bodies settle on a snappier name, the tiny body will be known by the unwieldy moniker of 2012 VP113. The little planetoid is estimated to measure about 450 kilometers in diameter (so it is much smaller than other plutoids like Haumea (which is approximately 2,000 km x 1,500 km x 1,000 km). Speaking of Haumea, which has a mysterious pink spot, the new object (which I’ll call VP113, for short) is also suspected to be light pink because radiation causes the frozen gases to decay to that color.

Even when it is closest to the sun, the little planetoid is still 12 billion kilometers (7.4 billion miles) distant from our home star–but at the farthest extent of its orbit 2012 VP113 is a whopping 70 billion kilometers (44 billion miles) from Sol. That’s almost a thousandth of a light year! The irregular orbit takes 44,000 Earth years to complete—which means one year there is a very long time!

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You might be wondering why I am taxing your brain with obscure snowballs, but, astronomers are very interested in VP113 because of what it might reveal about the origins of the solar system. In 1951, the Dutch-born astronomer, Gerard Kuiper, predicted the existence of a vast cloud of icy objects at the remote edge of the solar system. The Kuiper belt has indeed been discovered—it is a belt of dust and icy objects approximately between Neptune and Pluto. In 1950, a Dutch astronomer, Jan Hendrik Oort revived an idea from the 1930s (from Estonian Ernst Öpik) that there was a huge spherical cloud of comets, vapor, and icy planetoids at the edge of the solar system—beyond even the orbits of miniature planets Eris, Sedna, and VP113. [I don’t know why all the scientists who theorized about the solar system’s icy edges were northern Europeans].

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The discovery of VP113 proves the existence of the inner Oort cloud and provides astronomers with a source of information about the objects in the Oort cloud. Additionally the extremely strange orbits of VP113 and Sedna begin to suggest that an alien star disturbed the Oort cloud in the past—or that there may still be an Earth sized planet at the true edge of the solar system.

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News of the cosmos frequently involves inconceivably large numbers or gigantic objects beyond human imagination.  This is particularly true of galaxies–gigantic systems of stars, gas clouds, black holes, and exotic unknown dark matter.  Even the tiniest dwarf galaxies have tens of millions of stars and our lovely home galaxy, the Milky Way, has approximately 300 billion star systems! However the universe is a mysterious place and it frequently refutes conventional wisdom and prior expectations. This week astronomers from Hawaii’s Keck Observatory announced that they had discovered a ridiculously little galaxy with only a thousand stars. The adorable miniature galaxy, which has been dubbed Segue 2 is not a star cluster because it is surrounded by its own halo of dark matter, but it is many orders of magnitude smaller than any known galaxy.  Astronomers are trying to determine whether it is a scrap of a larger galaxy which was ripped apart (!) or whether it is a baby galaxy which never fully coalesced.  Astronomers hope that by learning more about Segue 2 and other hypothesized tiny galaxies they can find out more about the creation of the universe and the formation of elements.

"NO!" --image editors

“NO!” –image editors

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