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Universe Today

How to see the bigger picture from the Webb Telescope

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Side-by-side pictures from NASA’s 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope and the brand-new James Webb Space Telescope may draw oohs and ahhs, but they don’t give you a full sense of just how much more astronomers are getting from the new kid on the cosmic block.

Fortunately, new tools for data visualization can get you closer to the sense of wonder those astronomers are feeling.

“The public is just presented with these beautiful pictures, and they think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s great,’” says Harvard astronomer Alyssa Goodman. “But in my opinion, they could learn a lot more from these images.”

Goodman laid out strategies for getting a better appreciation of JWST — and a better appreciation of the technologies that are transforming modern astronomy — this week at the ScienceWriters 2022 conference in Memphis.

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Universe Today

Neptune and its rings glow in Webb Telescope’s portrait

The first picture of Neptune to be taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals the latest, greatest details of the ice giant’s atmosphere, moon and rings in infrared wavelengths.

Some of those details — for example, faint bands of dust that encircle Neptune — haven’t been brought to light since the Voyager 2 probe zoomed past in 1989.

“It has been three decades since we last saw those faint, dusty bands, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” astronomer Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist on the JWST team who specializes in Neptune, said today in a news release. Neptune’s brighter rings stand out even more clearly.

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Universe Today

Webb Telescope sees Jupiter and auroras in a new light

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is designed to probe the farthest frontiers of the universe, but newly released images of Jupiter prove that the observatory can also bring fresh perspectives to more familiar celestial sights.

The infrared images reveal Jupiter’s polar auroras and its faint rings as well as two of its moons — plus galaxies in the far background. The planet’s Great Red Spot is there as well, but because it’s seen through three of JWST’s specialized filters, it looks white rather than red.

JWST’s new perspective should give scientists a better sense of how the complex Jupiter system is put together.

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GeekWire

Feast your eyes on Webb Telescope’s space smorgasbord

A day after NASA showed how far the James Webb Space Telescope could dive into the cosmic frontier, scientists released additional pictures demonstrating the observatory’s scientific breadth.

Today’s data release highlighted the $10 billion telescope’s ability to analyze planetary atmospheres and record scenes of stellar birth and death in unprecedented detail.

The infrared images also demonstrated that the Webb Space Telescope’s 21-foot-wide mirror is ready to provide sharp pictures from the very start. That comes in contrast to the Hubble Space Telescope’s debut in 1990, when the initial images were marred by a flaw in its 7.8-foot-wide mirror.

“This telescope is working fantastically well,” Mark McCaughrean, the European Space Agency’s senior adviser for science and exploration, said today during NASA’s Webb webcast. That raises hopes that the James Webb Space Telescope, also known as JWST, will deliver on its promise to revolutionize the study of phenomena ranging from the origins of the universe to the habitability of alien planets.

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Cosmic Space

See our galaxy’s black hole — and hear what’s next

After years of observation and weeks of rumor-mill rumblings, astronomers today unveiled their first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, Sagittarius A*.

Technically, the picture from the Event Horizon Telescope project doesn’t show light from the black hole itself. After all, a black hole is a gravitational singularity so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its grip. Rather, the picture shows the “shadow” of a black hole, surrounded by the superheated, glowing gas that surrounds it.

And technically, the picture may not match what folks might see with their own eyes up close. Rather, the readings come from eight observatories around the world that combined their observations in radio wavelengths.

Nevertheless, the new view of Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short (pronounced “sadge-ay-star”), serves to confirm in graphic terms what astronomers have long suspected: that our galaxy, like many others, has a supermassive black hole at its heart.

Today’s revelations follow up on the Event Horizon Telescope’s first-ever black hole image, which was released in 2019 and showed the supermassive black hole at the center of M87, an elliptical galaxy about 55 million light-years away.

Sgr A* is much closer — a mere 27,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Sagittarius. But there’s nothing to fear from this black hole: It’s relatively quiescent, in contrast to the galaxy-gobbling behemoths that are standard science-fiction fare.

Our galaxy’s black hole is thought to hold the mass of 4 million suns within an area that’s roughly as big around as Mercury’s orbit. Checking those dimensions against the image data serves as a test of relativity theory. Spoiler alert: Albert Einstein was right … again.

“We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” EHT project scientist Geoffrey Bower said in a news release. “These unprecedented observations have greatly improved our understanding of what happens at the very center of our galaxy and offer new insights on how these giant black holes interact with their surroundings.”

The EHT’s findings about Sgr A* are the subject of a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters — and to whet your appetite for all that reading material, here are three videos that summarize the past, present and future of black hole imaging:

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GeekWire

Astronomers make an Earth Day plea to rein in satellites

Astronomers have issued an Earth Day call for environmentalism to be extended more fully to the final frontier, and for companies such as SpaceX and Amazon to dial back their plans for mega-constellations.

Among the authors of today’s commentary in the journal Nature Astronomy is Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington.

Astronomers have been raising concerns about the impact of having thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit for years, starting with SpaceX’s launch of the first operational satellites for its Starlink broadband constellation in 2019. Rawls and the other authors of today’s commentary stress that they aren’t just worried about interference with their astronomical observations, but are also concerned about the broader impact on appreciation of the night sky.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and UW’s DIRAC Institute, said in a news release.

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Universe Today

Hubble astronomers spot the farthest star ever seen

A star that sounds as if it came from “The Lord of the Rings” now marks one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s farthest frontiers: The fuzzy point of light, known as Earendel, has been dated to a mere 900 million years after the Big Bang and appears to represent the farthest-out individual star seen to date.

Based on its redshift value of 6.2, Earendel’s light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach Earth, astronomers report in this week’s issue of the journal Nature. That distance mark outshines Hubble’s previous record-holder for a single star, which registered a redshift of 1.5 and is thought to have existed when the universe was 4 billion years old.

The newly reported record comes with caveats. First of all, we’re talking here about a single star rather than star clusters or galaxies. Hubble has seen agglomerations of stars that go back farther in time.

“Normally at these distances, entire galaxies look like small smudges, with the light from millions of stars blending together,” lead author Brian Welch, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, said today in a news release. “The galaxy hosting this star has been magnified and distorted by gravitational lensing into a long crescent that we named the Sunrise Arc.”

A close look at the arc turned up several bright spots, but the characteristics of the light coming from Earendel pointed to a high redshift, which translates into extreme distance. The higher the redshift, the faster the source of the light is receding from us in an ever-more-quickly expanding universe.

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GeekWire

Student wins top prize for gravitational wave work

Christine Ye, a senior at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Wash., has won the top award in the nation’s oldest and most prestigious competitions for science students, thanks to her research into the mysteries of black holes and neutron stars.

“I’m totally in shock,” the 17-year-old told me after winning the $250,000 first-place award in the 2022 Regeneron Science Talent Search. “It feels amazing.”

Ye was among 40 finalists honored on March 15 in Washington, D.C., during a live-streamed ceremony that was emceed by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Melissa Villaseñor. More than $1.8 million in all was awarded to the finalists, who were evaluated on the basis of their projects’ scientific rigor and their potential to become scientific leaders.

Ye’s award-winning research is based on an analysis of readings from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, and addresses one of LIGO’s most puzzling observations.

In 2019, researchers at LIGO and at Europe’s Virgo gravitational-wave observatory detected ripples in spacetime that were caused by the collision of a black hole and a mystery object that was 2.6 times as massive as our sun. The object’s size fell into a “mass gap” between the heaviest known neutron star and the lightest known black hole.

The analysis conducted by Ye and her co-author, Northwestern University postdoctoral fellow Maya Fishbach, determined that rapidly spinning neutron stars could get as massive as the mystery object. Their study will be the subject of a presentation next month in New York at a meeting of the American Physical Society.

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GeekWire

Radio astronomy director cuts through the static

There are plenty of astronomers who worry that the thousands of satellites that are being launched into low Earth orbit for global broadband internet access will cast a pall over their scientific observations. But Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, says the future looks bright.

And he means that in a good way.

It’s not just that he’s confident astronomers will deal with the challenges posed by potential interference from all those satellites — including the latest batch of 47 Starlink satellites, which were built at SpaceX’s factory in Redmond, Wash., and sent into orbit today from Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

“We will find a solution,” Beasley told GeekWire. “We’re not going to be the ones that cause all of the concerns here for SpaceX. It could be that our optical [astronomy] friends will do that, but that’s OK.”

Beasley, an Australia native who’s headed the National Science Foundation’s leading center for radio astronomy for the past decade, is also optimistic about the prospects for the NRAO’s next giant leap: the Next Generation Very Large Array.

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GeekWire

Astronomers set up center to save the sky from satellites

The International Astronomical Union is heading up the creation of a new center to deal with the complications created by broadband satellite constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

The IAU Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky From Satellite Constellation Interference will be co-hosted at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab in Arizona and the SKA Observatory’s offices at Jodrell Bank in Britain.

“The new center is an important step towards ensuring that technological advances do not inadvertently impede our study and enjoyment of the sky,” IAU President Debra Elmegreen said today in a news release.

Former IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti, the center’s director, said the memorandum of understanding creating the center was signed just a day earlier, and a website for the project hasn’t yet been established.

But the University of Washington’s Institute for Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology, or DIRAC, is already getting a head start on one of the center’s missions — cataloging astronomical images with satellite streaks so they can be made available for analysis.