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Before we resume our normally scheduled program, let’s pause for a bittersweet farewell to the Spitzer Infrared Space telescope, one of the most remarkable scientific tools ever put into operation.  In 2003 the telescope was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta II rocket.  It was sent into a heliocentric orbit rather than a geocentric orbit–following Earth rather than orbiting around it in order to minimize heat interference from our home planet.  When the telescope ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 most of its instruments and modules became unusable (since the main mirrors required a frosty -459 degrees Fahrenheit temperature to operate).  However, some of its most important discoveries came during the “warm phase” of operation between 2009 and January 30, 2020 (when mission scientists turned off the telescope).  For example it found and observed the seven world Trappist1 system which Ferrebeekeeper was so very enamored of back in 2017.

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Spitzer has provided enormous treasure troves of data concerning the formation of planets and galaxies (particularly back during the peak star-formation era ten billion years ago).  It has also afforded humankind an in-depth look at non-luminous objects like comets, asteroids, and vast clouds of dust and gas between the stars.

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Although astronomers are sad to see the mission end, they are excited by the prospects of Spitzer’s replacement.  Spitzer had a main mirror which was a bit smaller than a meter (33 inches).  The upcoming Webb telescope will have a 6.5 meter (21-foot) mirror (if we ever manage to launch it).  Goodbye to the little telescope that could…but prepare for great things in the near future!

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OK, yesterday I promised we would get to the space news.  Clearly the real story is the earthlike planet right in our backyard (erm, relatively speaking). However it isn’t going anywhere right now so I am going to blog about it later when we have all had a moment to think about the real implications.  The space story I am looking at today is closer to home, but still takes place out there in the black: back in October of 2014, NASA lost communication with Stereo B one of two paired spacecraft which orbited the sun from the distance of Earth.

The solar observatory spacecraft allow stereoscopic viewing of the sun.  One spacecraft Stereo A was ahead of Earth on its orbit, whereas Stereo B trailed behind us.  The two observatories allow us to study coronal mass ejections and other stellar phenomena.  In 2011, the craft were 180 degrees apart from each other—allowing humankind to view the entire sun at once for the very first time (a truly remarkable milestone, when you think about it, which I heard nothing about at the time).

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Sadly, however, in 2014, as part of an automation and attitude test, Stereo B began to spin.  Mission controllers then lost contact with the craft which (because of the nature of its work) was on the other side of the sun!  NASA has patiently waited till the orbital path of Stereo B carried it further towards Earth and has used the Deep Space Network, a networked array of radio telescopes to find the errant craft.

We are still working on figuring out what sort of shape the poor guy is in (and maybe rehabilitating the spinning observatory), however I feel the story is worth telling as a sort of reminder of the fleet of crafts we have up there, which we don’t think about very often.

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During the excitement of Ming Week, we missed NASA’s announcement about new discoveries from the orbital telescope Kepler.  Ever since the reaction wheels used to point Kepler started failing, the plucky space observatory has been in real trouble.  Kepler’s mission has been steeply downgraded and it is not the mighty force of discovery it once was…but…a huge amount of data which had been collected prior to these malfunctions had not yet been analyzed.  On May 10th, NASA announced that they had gone through this information and discovered another 1284 planets, a handful of which are somewhat Earthlike.

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This is more than 30% more planets than we previously knew about, all dumped on the public in one day.  It is a phenomenal number: more than a thousand new planets to think about.  It is surprising to me that none of these planets have the (approximate) same mass and orbital distance from their respective stars as Earth.  Maybe our solar system really is unusual.  There sure do seem to be a lot of weird hot Neptunes and giant fast rocky planets and other strange & unanticipated worlds.  What’s going on, planetary physicists? Could you start explaining some of this stuff?

However Kepler’s mission to find Earthlike planets was not a wash. There are indeed other planet in the habitable zone.  Some of them could have liquid water and clement atmospheres.

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The real excitement of this data is that astronomers will already know where to point the next generation of exponentially more powerful telescopes as they come online in the next decade.  I can hardly wait for astronomers to point the Webb Space Telescope and the Large Magellan Space Telescope at some of these newly discovered worlds!

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I was going to write about problems with the Kepler space telescope, a NASA space observatory 75 million kilometers from Earth which monitors the stars to discover Earthlike exoplanets.  This weekend something went wonky and the craft slipped into emergency mode.  It was feared to be damaged to the point of inoperability….but then the NASA engineers dedicated a whole array of radio signals on the so Deep Space Network (spacecraft telecommunications system) to awaking the spacecraft and getting it back in operating condition.  So I don’t have a blog post…which turns out to be good news.  Hooray for Kepler—let’s find some exoplanets!

Swift's X-Ray Telescope took this 0.1-second exposure of GRB 130427A at 3:50 a.m. EDT on April 27 (Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler)

Swift’s X-Ray Telescope took this 0.1-second exposure of GRB 130427A at 3:50 a.m. EDT on April 27 (Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler)

Gamma rays have the most energy of any wave in the electromagnetic spectrum (which includes more familiar radiation such as x-rays, radio, and visible light).  The wavelength of gamma rays (10 picometers and smaller–which is a subatomic scale) is less than that of any other sort of EM radiation.  Such radiation is created in the event horizons of massive black holes and during the destruction of gigantically massive stars. Comic book enthusiasts know gamma rays as the mysterious super force which created and empowers the incredible hulk, although actual cell biologists recognize gamma rays as ionizing radiation–supremely hazardous to living entities.

Artist's conception of a gamma-ray burst. (Credit: NASA.)

Artist’s conception of a gamma-ray burst. (Credit: NASA.)

On Saturday, April 27, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope (a NASA satellite which orbits around Earth) detected a sudden brilliant surge of gamma radiation from the collapse of a super massive star in a galaxy 3.6 billion light-years away.  Gamma ray burst travel in vastly powerful beams which are very narrow–an effect which is a result of the shape of supernovae, as illustrated in the picture above.  Our old friend Eta Carinae has probably exploded and produced such a burst by now. A gamma ray bust from a nearby Wolf–Rayet star (any star with more than 20 solar masses) would most likely fry away life on our planet if it were aimed directly at Earth, but such explosions are increasingly rare as the universe ages.  Scientists can monitor gamma bursts from the edge of the universe (i.e. the distant past) but such a powerful event has never been monitored by our modern satellites and observatories from a middle range until now.

Antarctica’s IceCube Neutrino Observatory (Photo by Sven Lidstrom)

Antarctica’s IceCube Neutrino Observatory (Photo by Sven Lidstrom)

As the gamma ray burst fades (and the astronomy community begins to assess the initial data) other observatories will be on the lookout for the next wave of phenomena associated with the supernova.  Most of the energy of a supernova explosion is believed to be dissipated as neutrinos (esoteric subatomic particles which react very little with physical matter in this universe).  Fortunately humankind now possesses a sophisticated neutrino observatory on the South Pole where thousands of sensors are imbedded within a vast amount of Antarctic ice.  In the rare cases where neutrinos interact with matter, they produce a cascade of charged particles which can emit Cherenkov radiation (familiar as the spooky blue glow in a nuclear reactor).  Understanding the neutrino signature of such an event would potentially further our understanding of the physical parameters of existence.

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Also, a luminous flash of less energetic radiation (x-rays, radio waves, light, and so forth) should be following the gamma ray burst.  We understand these parts of supernovae better (since they are visible from many angles unlike the linear gamma ray bursts), but it should still be pretty–and round out our understanding of the full astronomical event.

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