Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Across The Universe - The dinosaur-murdering asteroid maybe also triggered an underwater volcano meltdown

The dinosaur-murdering asteroid maybe also triggered an underwater volcano meltdown:

The cataclysmic asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs might have also triggered massive volcanic eruptions deep beneath the ocean, new research says. It’s yet another way the extraterrestrial impact could have killed off more than 70 percent of life on Earth — that is, if the timing isn’t just a coincidence.

Roughly 66 million years ago, a 6-mile-wide asteroid crashed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula — causing a massive, worldwide earthquake. That Earth-shaking impact might have made underwater volcanoes spit up magma even more ferociously than usual, according to a study published today in the journal Science Advances. These events might have added to the asteroid’s apocalyptic aftershocks — which include wildfires, global cooling, and...

Continue reading…

Across The Universe - Jupiter’s Swirling South Pole

Jupiter’s Swirling South Pole: This image of Jupiter’s swirling south polar region was captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it neared completion of its tenth close flyby of the gas giant planet.

Original enclosures:

Across The Universe - An Elephant's Trunk in Cepheus

An Elephant's Trunk in Cepheus:

Discover the cosmos!
Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is
featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2018 January 16

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An Elephant's Trunk in Cepheus

Image Credit &

Processing -
Robert Gendler,

Data -
Subaru Telescope (NAOJ),
Robert Gendler,
Adam Block


image data
from telescopes large and small,
this close-up features the dusty Elephant's Trunk Nebula.

It winds through the emission nebula and young star cluster
complex IC 1396, in the
high and far off
constellation of

Also known as vdB 142, the cosmic elephant's trunk is over
20 light-years long.

The colorful view highlights bright, swept-back
ridges that outline the region's pockets of cool
interstellar dust and gas.

Such embedded, dark,
tendril-shaped clouds contain
the raw material for star formation and hide
protostars within.

Nearly 3,000 light-years distant, the relatively faint IC 1396 complex
covers a large region on the sky, spanning over 5 degrees.

This dramatic scene spans a 1 degree wide field,
about the size of 2 Full Moons.

Tomorrow's picture: orion away

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Across The Universe - Venus and the Triply Ultraviolet Sun

Venus and the Triply Ultraviolet Sun:

Discover the cosmos!
Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is
featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2018 February 4

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Venus and the Triply Ultraviolet Sun

Image Credit:
& the AIA, EVE, and HMI teams;
Digital Composition:
Peter L. Dove

An unusual type of solar eclipse occurred in 2012.

Usually it is the
Earth's Moon that
eclipses the Sun.

That year, most unusually, the planet
Venus took a turn.

Like a solar eclipse by the Moon, the phase of Venus became a continually thinner
crescent as Venus became increasingly
better aligned with the Sun.

Eventually the alignment became perfect and the
phase of Venus dropped to zero.

The dark spot of Venus crossed our parent star.

The situation could technically be labeled a Venusian
annular eclipse with an extraordinarily large
ring of fire.

Pictured here during the occultation, the Sun was imaged in three colors of ultraviolet light by the Earth-orbiting
Solar Dynamics Observatory,
with the dark region toward the right corresponding to a
coronal hole.

Hours later, as Venus continued in its orbit, a
slight crescent phase appeared again.

The next Venusian transit across the Sun will occur in

Tomorrow's picture: bubble versus cloud

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Across The Universe - Galaxy NGC 474: Shells and Star Streams

Galaxy NGC 474: Shells and Star Streams:

Discover the cosmos!
Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is
featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2018 February 6

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What's happening to galaxy NGC 474?

The multiple layers of emission appear strangely complex and unexpected given the relatively featureless appearance of the
elliptical galaxy in less deep images.

The cause of the shells is currently unknown, but possibly
tidal tails related to debris left over from absorbing numerous small galaxies in the past billion years.

Alternatively the shells
may be like ripples in a pond,
where the ongoing collision with the spiral galaxy just above
NGC 474
is causing density
to ripple through the galactic giant.

Regardless of the actual cause, the
featured image
dramatically highlights the increasing consensus that at least some elliptical
have formed in the recent past, and that the outer halos of most
large galaxies are not really smooth
but have complexities induced by frequent
interactions with --
and accretions of --
smaller nearby galaxies.

The halo of our own
Milky Way Galaxy
one example of such
unexpected complexity.

NGC 474 spans about 250,000
light years and lies about 100 million light years distant toward the constellation of the Fish

Across The Universe - Total Solar Lunar Eclipse

Total Solar Lunar Eclipse:

Discover the cosmos!
Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is
featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2018 February 9

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This digitally processed and composited picture
creatively compares two famous eclipses in one;
the total lunar eclipse (left)
of January 31,
and the total solar eclipse
of August 21,

The Moon appears near mid-totality in both the back-to-back total eclipses.

the lunar eclipse
, its surface remains faintly illuminated in Earth's
dark reddened shadow.

But in the solar eclipse the Moon is in silhouette
against the Sun's bright disk, where
the otherwise dark lunar surface is just visible due to

Also seen in the lunar-aligned image pair
are faint stars in the night sky surrounding the eclipsed Moon.

Stunning details of prominences and coronal streamers surround
the eclipsed Sun.

The total phase of the Great American Eclipse of August 21 lasted
about 2 minutes
or less for locations along the Moon's shadow path.

From planet Earth's night side, totality for the Super Blue Blood Moon
of January 31 lasted
well over an hour.

Across The Universe - Roadster, Starman, Planet Earth

Roadster, Starman, Planet Earth:

Discover the cosmos!
Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is
featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2018 February 10

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Don't panic.

It's just a spacesuited mannequin
named Starman.

As the sunlit crescent of
planet Earth
in the background,
Starman is comfortably seated at the wheel of a Tesla Roadster
in this final image of the payload launched by a
Falcon Heavy
rocket on February 6

designated 2018-017A,
roadster and Starman are headed for space beyond the orbit of Mars.

The successful Falcon Heavy rocket has now become the most
powerful rocket in operation and the roadster
one of four
electric cars launched from planet Earth.

The other three were launched to the Moon by historically
more powerful (but not reusable)
Saturn V rockets.

Still, Starman's roadster is probably the only one that would be
considered street legal.

Across The Universe - Car Orbiting Earth

Car Orbiting Earth:

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Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is
featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2018 February 13

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Car Orbiting Earth


Last week, a car orbited the Earth.

The car, created by humans and robots on the Earth, was
launched by the
SpaceX Company to demonstrate the ability of its
Falcon Heavy Rocket
to place spacecraft out in the
Solar System.

Purposely fashioned to be
whimsical, the
iconic car
was thought a better demonstration object than concrete blocks.

A mannequin clad in a spacesuit -- dubbed the
Starman --
sits in the driver's seat.

The featured image is a frame from a
taken by one of three cameras mounted on
the car.

These cameras, connected to the car's battery, are now out of power.

The car, attached to a second stage booster,
soon left Earth
orbit and will
orbit the Sun between
Earth and the
asteroid belt
indefinitely -- perhaps until billions of years from now when our
Sun expands into a
Red Giant.

If ever recovered,
what's left of the car may become a unique window into technologies developed on Earth in the
20th and early
21st centuries.

Tomorrow's picture: heart of the heart

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Across The Universe - Astronomers use a Galaxy Cluster as an Extremely Powerful “Natural Telescope” to Peer Even Farther into the Universe

Astronomers use a Galaxy Cluster as an Extremely Powerful “Natural Telescope” to Peer Even Farther into the Universe:

When it comes to studying some of the most distant and oldest galaxies in the Universe, a number of challenges present themselves. In addition to being billions of light years away, these galaxies are often too faint to see clearly. Luckily, astronomers have come to rely on a technique known as Gravitational Lensing, where the gravitational force of a large object (like a galactic cluster) is used to enhance the light of these fainter galaxies.

Using this technique, an international team of astronomers recently discovered a distant and quiet galaxy that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Led by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the team used  the Hubble Space Telescope to conduct the most extreme case of gravitational lensing to date, which allowed them to observe the faint galaxy known as eMACSJ1341-QG-1.

The study that describes their findings recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters under the title “Thirty-fold: Extreme Gravitational Lensing of a Quiescent Galaxy at z = 1.6″. Led by Harald Ebeling, an astronomer from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the team included members from the Niels Bohr Institute, the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The quiescent galaxy eMACSJ1341-QG-1 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The yellow dotted line traces the boundaries of the galaxy’s gravitationally lensed image. The inset on the upper left shows what eMACSJ1341-QG-1 would look like if we observed it directly, without the cluster lens. Credit: Harald Ebeling/UH IfA
For the sake of their study, the team relied on the massive galaxy cluster known as eMACSJ1341.9-2441 to magnify the light coming from eMACSJ1341-QG-1,  a distant and fainter galaxy. In astronomical terms, this galaxy is an example of a “quiescent galaxy”, which are basically older galaxies that have largely depleted their supplies of dust and gas and therefore do not form new stars.

The team began by taking images of the faint galaxy with the Hubble and then conducting follow-up spectroscopic observations using the ESO/X-Shooter spectrograph – which is part of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Based on their estimates, the team determined that they were able to amplify the background galaxy by a factor of 30 for the primary image, and a factor of six for the two remaining images.

This makes eMACSJ1341-QG-1 the most strongly amplified quiescent galaxy discovered to date, and by a rather large margin! As Johan Richard – an assistant astronomer at the University of Lyon who performed the lensing calculations, and a co-author on the study – indicated in a University of Hawaii News release:

“The very high magnification of this image provides us with a rare opportunity to investigate the stellar populations of this distant object and, ultimately, to reconstruct its undistorted shape and properties.”

A spiral galaxy ablaze in the blue light of young stars from ongoing star formation (left) and an elliptical galaxy bathed in the red light of old stars (right). Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey, CC BY-NC.
Although other extreme magnifications have been conducted before, this discovery has set a new record for the magnification of a rare quiescent background galaxy. These older galaxies are not only very difficult to detect because of their lower luminosity; the study of them can reveal some very interesting things about the formation and evolution of galaxies in our Universe.

As Ebeling, an astronomer with the UH’s Institute of Astronomy and the lead author on the study, explained:

“We specialize in finding extremely massive clusters that act as natural telescopes and have already discovered many exciting cases of gravitational lensing. This discovery stands out, though, as the huge magnification provided by eMACSJ1341 allows us to study in detail a very rare type of galaxy.”
Quiescent galaxies are common in the local Universe, representing the end-point of galactic evolution. As such, this record-breaking find could provide some unique opportunities for studying these older galaxies and determining why star-formation ended in them. As Mikkel Stockmann, a team member from the University of Copenhagen and an expert in galaxy evolution, explained:

“[A]s we look at more distant galaxies, we are also looking back in time, so we are seeing objects that are younger and should not yet have used up their gas supply. Understanding why this galaxy has already stopped forming stars may give us critical clues about the processes that govern how galaxies evolve.”

An artist’s impression of the accretion disc around the supermassive black hole that powers an active galaxy. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital
In a similar vein, recent studies have been conducted that suggest that the presence of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) could be what is responsible for galaxies becoming quiescent. As the powerful jets these black holes create begin to drain the core of galaxies of their dust and gas, potential stars find themselves starved of the material they would need to undergo gravitational collapse.

In the meantime, follow-up observations of eMACSJ1341-QG1 are being conducted using telescopes at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and the Maunakea Observatories in Hawaii. What these observations reveal is sure to tell us much about what will become of our own Milky Way Galaxy someday, when the last of the dust and gas is depleted and all its stars become red giants and long-lived red dwarfs.

Further Reading: University of Hawa’ii News, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

The post Astronomers use a Galaxy Cluster as an Extremely Powerful “Natural Telescope” to Peer Even Farther into the Universe appeared first on Universe Today.

Across The Universe - ESA’s ExoMars has Completed its Aerobraking Maneuvers to Bring it Into a Circular 400 km Orbit Around Mars

ESA’s ExoMars has Completed its Aerobraking Maneuvers to Bring it Into a Circular 400 km Orbit Around Mars:

In March of 2016, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) mission into space. A joint project between the ESA and Roscosmos, this two-part mission consisted of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, both of which arrived in orbit around Mars in October of 2016. While Schiaparelli crashed while attempting to land, the TGO has gone on to accomplish some impressive feats.

For example, in March of 2017, the orbiter commenced a series of aerobraking maneuvers, where it started to lower its orbit to enter Mars’ thin atmosphere and slow itself down. According to Armelle Hubault, the Spacecraft Operations Engineer on the TGO flight control team, the ExoMars mission has made tremendous progress and is well on its way to establishing its final orbit around the Red Planet.

TGO’s mission has been to study the surface of Mars, characterize the distribution of water and chemicals beneath the surface, study the planet’s geological evolution, identify future landing sites, and to search for possible biosignatures of past Martian life. Once it has established its final orbit around Mars – 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface – the TGO will be ideally positioned to conduct these studies.

Visualization of the ExoMars mission’s Trace Gas Orbiter conducting aerobraking maneuvers to March of 2018. Credit: ESA
The ESA also released a graphic (shown above) demonstrating the successive orbits the TGO has made since it began aerobraking – and will continue to make until March of 2018. Whereas the red dot indicates the orbiter (and the blue line its current orbit), the grey lines show successive reductions in the TGO’s orbital period. The bold lines denote a reduction of 1 hour while the thin lines denote a reduction of 30 minutes.

Essentially, a single aerobraking maneuver consist of the orbiter passing into Mars’ upper atmosphere and relying on its solar arrays to generate tiny amounts of drag. Over time, this process slows the craft down and gradually lowers its orbit around Mars. As Armelle Hubault recently posted on the ESA’s rocket science blog:

“We started on the biggest orbit with an apocentre (the furthest distance from Mars during each orbit) of 33 200 km and an orbit of 24 hr in March 2017, but had to pause last summer due to Mars being in conjunction. We recommenced aerobraking in August 2017, and are on track to finish up in the final science orbit in mid-March 2018. As of today, 30 Jan 2018, we have slowed ExoMars TGO by 781.5 m/s. For comparison, this speed is more than twice as fast as the speed of a typical long-haul jet aircraft.”
Earlier this week, the orbiter passed through the point where it made its closest approach to the surface in its orbit (the pericenter passage, represented by the red line). During this approach, the craft dipped well into Mars’ uppermost atmosphere, which dragged the aircraft and slowed it down further. In its current elliptical orbit, it reaches a maximum distance of 2700 km (1677 mi) from Mars (it’s apocenter).

Visualization of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter aerobraking at Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Despite being a decades-old practice, aerobraking remains a significant technical challenge for mission teams. Every time a spacecraft passes through a planet’s atmosphere, its flight controllers need to make sure that its orientation is just right in order to slow down and ensure that the craft remains stable. If their calculations are off by even a little, the spacecraft could begin to spin out of control and veer off course. As Hubault explained:

“We have to adjust our pericentre height regularly, because on the one hand, the martian atmosphere varies in density (so sometimes we brake more and sometimes we brake less) and on the other hand, martian gravity is not the same everywhere (so sometimes the planet pulls us down and sometimes we drift out a bit). We try to stay at about 110 km altitude for optimum braking effect. To keep the spacecraft on track, we upload a new set of commands every day – so for us, for flight dynamics and for the ground station teams, it’s a very demanding time!”
The next step for the flight control team is to use the spacecraft’s thrusters to maneuver the spacecraft into its final orbit (represented by the green line on the diagram). At this point, the spacecraft will be in its final science and operation data relay orbit, where it will be in a roughly circular orbit about 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface of Mars. As Hubault wrote, the process of bringing the TGO into its final orbit remains a challenging one.

“The main challenge at the moment is that, since we never know in advance how much the spacecraft is going to be slowed during each pericentre passage, we also never know exactly when it is going to reestablish contact with our ground stations after pointing back to Earth,” she said. “We are working with a 20-min ‘window’ for acquisition of signal (AOS), when the ground station first catches TGO’s signal during any given station visibility, whereas normally for interplanetary missions we have a firm AOS time programmed in advance.”

Artist’s impression of the ESA’s Exomars 2020 rover, which is expected to land on the surface of Mars by the Spring of 2o21. Credit:ESA
With the spacecraft’s orbital period now shortened to less than 3 hours, the flight control team has to go through this exercise 8 times a day now. Once the TGO has reached its final orbit (by March of 2018), the orbiter will remain there until 2022, serving as a telecommunications relay satellite for future missions. One of its tasks will be to relay data from the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, which will consist of a European rover and a Russian surface platform being deployed the surface of Mars in the Spring of 2021.

Along with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, this rover/lander pair will be the latest in a long line of robotic missions looking to unlock the secrets of Mars past. In addition, these missions will conduct crucial investigations that will pave the way for eventual sample return missions to Earth, not to mention crewed to the surface!

Further Reading: ESA

The post ESA’s ExoMars has Completed its Aerobraking Maneuvers to Bring it Into a Circular 400 km Orbit Around Mars appeared first on Universe Today.

Across The Universe - Good News For The Search For Life, The Trappist System Might Be Rich In Water

Good News For The Search For Life, The Trappist System Might Be Rich In Water:

When we finally find life somewhere out there beyond Earth, it’ll be at the end of a long search. Life probably won’t announce its presence to us, we’ll have to follow a long chain of clues to find it. Like scientists keep telling us, at the start of that chain of clues is water.

The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system last year generated a lot of excitement. 7 planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, only 40 light years from Earth. At the time, astronomers thought at least some of them were Earth-like. But now a new study shows that some of the planets could hold more water than Earth. About 250 times more.

This new study focuses on the density of the 7 TRAPPIST-1 planets. Trying to determine that density is a challenging task, and it involved some of the powerhouses in the world of telescopes. The Spitzer Space Telescope, the Kepler Space Telescope, and the SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars) facility at ESO’s Paranal Observatory were all used in the study.

This artist’s impression shows several of the planets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. New observations, when combined with very sophisticated analysis, have now yielded good estimates of the densities of all seven of the Earth-sized planets and suggest that they are rich in volatile materials, probably water. Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser
In this study, the observations from the three telescopes were subjected to complex computer modelling to determine the densities of the 7 TRAPPIST planets. As a result, we now know that they are all mostly made of rock, and that some of them could be 5% water by mass. (Earth is only about 0.02% water by mass.)

Finding the densities of these planets was not easy. To do so, scientists had to determine both the mass and the size. The TRAPPIST-1 planets were found using the transit method, where the light of the host star dips as the planets pass between their star and us. The transit method gives us a pretty good idea of the size of the planets, but that’s it.

It’s a lot harder to find the mass, because planets with different masses can have the same orbits and we can’t tell them apart. But in multi-planet systems like TRAPPIST-1, there is a way.

As the planets orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star, more massive planets disturb the orbits of the other planets more than lighter ones. This changes the timing of the transits. These effects are “complicated and very subtle” according to the team, and it took a lot of observation and measurement of the transit timing—and very complex computer modelling—to determine their densities.

Lead author Simon Grimm explains how it was done: “The TRAPPIST-1 planets are so close together that they interfere with each other gravitationally, so the times when they pass in front of the star shift slightly. These shifts depend on the planets’ masses, their distances and other orbital parameters. With a computer model, we simulate the planets’ orbits until the calculated transits agree with the observed values, and hence derive the planetary masses.”

So, what about the water?

First of all, this study didn’t detect water. It detected volatile material which is probably water.

Whether or not they’ve confirmed the presence of water, these are still very important results. We’re getting good at finding exoplanets, and the next step is to determine the properties of any atmospheres that exoplanets have.

Team member Eric Agol comments on the significance: “A goal of exoplanet studies for some time has been to probe the composition of planets that are Earth-like in size and temperature. The discovery of TRAPPIST-1 and the capabilities of ESO’s facilities in Chile and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit have made this possible — giving us our first glimpse of what Earth-sized exoplanets are made of!”

This diagram compares the sizes, masses and estimated temperatures of the TRAPPIST-1 planets with Solar System planets. The colours indicate temperatures and the black line matches the densities and composition of the terrestrial planets in the Solar System. Planets above the line are less dense and planets below are more dense. Image: EXO/S.Grimm et. al.
This study doesn’t tell us if any of the TRAPPIST planets have life on them, or even if they’re habitable. It’s just one more step on the path to hopefully, maybe, one day, finding life somewhere. Study co-author Brice-Olivier Demory, at the University of Bern, said as much: “Densities, while important clues to the planets’ compositions, do not say anything about habitability. However, our study is an important step forward as we continue to explore whether these planets could support life.”

This diagram compares the masses and energy input of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, along with the properties of the four innermost Solar System planets. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This is what the study determined about the different planets in the TRAPPIST system:

  • TRAPPIST 1-b and 1c are the two innermost planets and are likely to have rocky cores and be surrounded by atmospheres much thicker than Earth’s.
  • TRAPPIST-1d is the lightest of the planets at about 30 percent the mass of Earth. We’re uncertain whether it has a large atmosphere, an ocean or an ice layer.
  • TRAPPIST-1e is a bit of a surprise. It’s the only planet in the system slightly denser than Earth. It may have a denser iron core, and it does not necessarily have a thick atmosphere, ocean or ice layer. TRAPPIST-1e is a mystery because it appears to be so much rockier than the rest of the planets. It’s the most similar to Earth, in size, density and the amount of radiation it receives from its star.
  • TRAPPIST-1f, g and h might have frozen surfaces. If they have thin atmospheres, they would be unlikely to contain the heavy molecules that we find on Earth, such as carbon dioxide.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is going to be studied for a very long time. It promises to be one of the first targets for the James Webb Space Telescope (we hope.) It’s a very intriguing system, and whether or not any of the planets are deemed habitable, studying them will teach us a lot about our search for water, habitability, and life.

The post Good News For The Search For Life, The Trappist System Might Be Rich In Water appeared first on Universe Today.

Across The Universe - James Webb Makes The Journey From Houston To Los Angeles; Last Stop Before It Heads To The Launch Facility In 2019

James Webb Makes The Journey From Houston To Los Angeles; Last Stop Before It Heads To The Launch Facility In 2019:

The two halves of the James Webb Space Telescope are now in the same location and ready to take the next step on JWST’s journey. On February 2nd, Webb’s Optical Telescope and Integrated Science instrument module (OTIS) arrived at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California. The integrated spacecraft, consisting of the spacecraft bus and sunshield, were already there, waiting for OTIS so they could join together and become a complete spacecraft.

“The team will begin the final stages of integration of the world’s largest space telescope.” – Scott Willoughby, Northrop Grumman’s Program Manage for the JWST.
“It’s exciting to have both halves of the Webb observatory – OTIS and the integrated spacecraft element – here at our campus,” said Scott Willoughby, vice president and program manager for Webb at Northrop Grumman. “The team will begin the final stages of integration of the world’s largest space telescope.”

The Space Telescope for Air, Road, and Sea (STTARS) is a custom-designed container that holds the James Webb’s Optical Telescope and Integrated Science (OTIS) instrument module. In this image its being unloaded from a U.S. military C-5 Charlie aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Feb. 2, 2018. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn
OTIS arrived from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it had successfully completed its cryogenic testing. To prepare for that journey, OTIS was placed inside a custom shipping container designed to protect the delicate and expensive Webb Telescope from any damage. That specially designed container is called the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS).

STTARS is a massive container, measuring 4.6 meters (15 feet) wide, 5.2 meters (17 feet) tall, and 33.5 meters feet (110) long, and weighing approximately 75,000 kilograms (almost 165,000 pounds). It’s much larger than the James Webb itself, but even then, the primary mirror wings and the secondary mirror tripod must be folded into flight configuration in order to fit.

The Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) NASA’s at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn
The next step for the JWST is to join the spacecraft itself with OTIS. Once that happens, JWST will be complete and fully integrated. Then there’ll be more tests called observatory-level testing. After that, another journey inside STTARS to Kouru, French Guiana, where the JWST will be launched in 2019.

“This is a major milestone.” – Eric Smith, director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program at NASA.
“This is a major milestone,” said Eric Smith, director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program at NASA. “The Webb observatory, which is the work of thousands of scientists and engineers across the globe, will be carefully tested to ensure it is ready to launch and enable scientists to seek the first luminous objects in the universe and search for signs of habitable planets.”

You can’t fault people, either NASA personnel or the rest of us, for getting excited about each development in the James Webb Space Telescope story. Every time the thing twitches or moves, our excitement re-spawns. It seems like everything that happens with the JWST is now a milestone in its long, uncertain journey. It’s easy to see why.

The Space Telescope That Almost Wasn’t

The James Webb ran into a lot of problems during its development. As can be expected for a ground-breaking, technology-pushing project like the Webb, it’s expensive. In 2011, when the project was well underway, it was revealed that the Webb would cost $8.8 billion, much more than the initial budget of $1.6 billion. The House of Representatives cancelled the project, then restored it, though funding was capped at $8 billion.

That was the main hurdle facing the development of the JWST, but there were others, including timeline delays. The most recent timeline change moved the launch date from 2017 to Spring 2019. As of now, the James Webb is on schedule, and on target to meet its revised budget.

The First “Super Telescope”

The JWST is the first of the “Super Telescopes” to be in operation. Once it’s in place at LaGrange Point 2 (L2), about 1.5 million km (930,000 miles) from Earth, it will begin observing, primarily in infrared. It will surpass both the Hubble Telescope and the Spitzer Telescope, and will “look back in time” to some of oldest stars and galaxies in the universe. It will also examine exoplanets and contribute to the search for life.

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Across The Universe - The Solar System Probably has Thousands of Captured Interstellar Asteroids

The Solar System Probably has Thousands of Captured Interstellar Asteroids:

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally thought to be a comet, this interstellar visitor quickly became the focus of follow-up studies that sought to determine its origin, structure, composition, and rule out the possibility that it was an alien spacecraft!

While ‘Oumuamua is the first known example of an interstellar asteroid reaching our Solar System, scientists have long suspected that such visitors are a regular occurrence. Aiming to determine just how common, a team of researchers from Harvard University conducted a study to measure the capture rate of interstellar asteroids and comets, and what role they may play in the spread of life throughout the Universe.

The study, titled “Implications of Captured Interstellar Objects for Panspermia and Extraterrestrial Life“, recently appeared online and is being considered for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. The study was conducted by Manasavi Lingam, a postdoc at the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), and Abraham Loeb, the chairman of the ITC and a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

For the sake of their study, Lingam and Loeb constructed a three-body gravitational model, where the physics of three bodies are used to compute their respective trajectories and interactions with one another. In Lingam and Loeb’s model, Jupiter and the Sun served as the two massive bodies while a far less massive interstellar object served as the third. As Dr. Loeb explained to Universe Today via email:

“The combined gravity of the Sun and Jupiter acts as a ‘fishing net’. We suggest a new approach to searching for life, which is to examine the interstellar objects captured by this fishing net instead of the traditional approach of looking through telescope or traveling with spacecrafts to distant environments to do the same.”
Using this model, the pair then began calculating the rate at which objects comparable in size to ‘Oumuamua would be captured by the Solar System, and how often such objects would collide with the Earth over the course of its entire history. They also considered the Alpha Centauri system as a separate case for the sake of comparison. In this binary system, Alpha Centauri A and B serve as the two massive bodies and an interstellar asteroid as the third.

As Dr. Lingam indicated:

“The frequency of these objects is determined from the number density of such objects, which has been recently updated based on the discovery of ‘Oumuamua. The size distribution of these objects is unknown (and serves as a free parameter in our model), but for the sake of obtaining quantitative results, we assumed that it was similar to that of comets within our Solar System.”

The theory of Lithopanspermia states that life can be shared between planets within a planetary system. Credit: NASA
In the end, they determined that a few thousands captured objects might be found within the Solar system at any time – the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. For the Alpha Centauri system, the results were even more interesting. Based on the likely rate of capture, and the maximum size of a captured object, they determined that even Earth-sized objects could have been captured in the course of the system’s history.

In other words, Alpha Centauri may have picked up some rogue planets over time, which would have had drastic impact on the evolution  of the system. In this vein, the authors also explored how objects like ‘Oumuamua could have played a role in the distribution of life throughout the Universe via rocky bodies. This is a variation on the theory of lithopanspermia, where microbial life is shared between planets thanks to asteroids, comets and meteors.

In this scenario, interstellar asteroids, which originate in distant star systems, would be the be carriers of microbial life from one system to another. If such asteroids collided with Earth in the past, they could be responsible for seeding our planet and leading to the emergence of life as we know it. As Lingam explained:

“These interstellar objects could either crash directly into a planet and thus seed it with life, or be captured into the planetary system and undergo further collisions within that system to yield interplanetary panspermia (the second scenario is more likely when the captured object is large, for e.g. a fraction of the Earth’s radius).”

In addition, Lingam and Loeb offered suggestions on how future visitors to our Solar System could be studied. As Lingam summarized, the key would be to look for specific kinds of spectra from objects in our Solar Systems:

“It may be possible to look for interstellar objects (captured/unbound) in our Solar system by looking at their trajectories in detail. Alternatively, since many objects within the Solar system have similar ratios of oxygen isotopes, finding objects with very different isotopic ratios could indicate their interstellar origin. The isotope ratios can be determined through high-resolution spectroscopy if and when interstellar comets approach close to the Sun.”
“The simplest way to single out the objects who originated outside the Solar System, is to examine the abundance ratio of oxygen isotopes in the water vapor that makes their cometary tails,” added Loeb. “This can be done through high resolution spectroscopy. After identifying a trapped interstellar object, we could launch a probe that will search on its surface for signatures of primitive life or artifacts of a technological civilization.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that the discovery of ‘Oumuamua has set off something of a revolution in astronomy. In addition to validating something astronomers have long suspected, it has also provided new opportunities for research and the testing of scientific theories (such as lithopanspermia).

In the future, with any luck, robotic missions will be dispatched to these bodies to conduct direct studies and maybe even sample return missions. What these reveal about our Universe, and maybe even the spread of life throughout, is sure to be very illuminating!

Further Reading: arXiv
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Across The Universe - If We Receive a Message From Aliens, Should We Delete it Without Reading it?

If We Receive a Message From Aliens, Should We Delete it Without Reading it?:

Roughly half a century ago, Cornell astronomer Frank Drake conducted Project Ozma, the first systematic SETI survey at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Since that time, scientists have conducted multiple surveys in the hopes of find indications of “technosignatures” – i.e. evidence of technologically-advanced life (such as radio communications).

To put it plainly, if humanity were to receive a message from an extra-terrestrial civilization right now, it would be the single-greatest event in the history of civilization. But according to a new study, such a message could also pose a serious risk to humanity. Drawing on multiple possibilities that have been explored in detail, they consider how humanity could shield itself from malicious spam and viruses.

The study, titled “Interstellar communication. IX. Message decontamination is impossible“, recently appeared online. The study was conducted by Michael Hippke, a independent scientist from the Sonneberg Observatory in Germany; and John G. Learned, a professor with the High Energy Physics Group at the University of Hawaii. Together, they examine some of the foregone conclusions about SETI and what is more likely to be the case.

Frank Drake writing his famous equation on a white board. Credit:
To be fair, the notion that an extra-terrestrial civilization could pose a threat to humanity is not just a well-worn science fiction trope. For decades, scientists have treated it as a distinct possibility and considered whether or not the risks outweigh the possible benefits. As a result, some theorists have suggested that humans should not engage in SETI at all, or that we should take measures to hide our planet.

As Professor Learned told Universe Today via email, there has never been a consensus among SETI researchers about whether or not ETI would be benevolent:

“There is no compelling reason at all to assume benevolence (for example that ETI are wise and kind due to their ancient civilization’s experience). I find much more compelling the analogy to what we know from our history… Is there any society anywhere which has had a good experience after meeting up with a technologically advanced invader? Of course it would go either way, but I think often of the movie Alien… a credible notion it seems to me.”
In addition, assuming that an alien message could pose a threat to humanity makes practical sense. Given the sheer size of the Universe and the limitations imposed by Special Relativity (i.e. no known means of FTL), it would always be cheaper and easier to send a malicious message to eradicate a civilization compared to an invasion fleet. As a result, Hippke and Learned advise that SETI signals be vetted and/or “decontaminated” beforehand.

The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages. Credit: US NSF
In terms of how a SETI signal could constitute a threat, the researchers outline a number of possibilities. Beyond the likelihood that a message could convey misinformation designed to cause a panic or self-destructive behavior, there is also the possibility that it could contain viruses or other embedded technical issues (i.e. the format could cause our computers to crash).

They also note that, when it comes to SETI, a major complication arises from the fact that no message is likely to received in only one place (thus making containment possible). This is unlikely because of the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, which was adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1989 (and revised in 2010).

Article 6 of this declaration states the following:

“The discovery should be confirmed and monitored and any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available for further analysis and interpretation. These recordings should be made available to the international institutions listed above and to members of the scientific community for further objective analysis and interpretation.”

Voyager included a golden record with images and sounds of Earthly life recorded on it… just in case. Credit: NASA
As such, a message that is confirmed to have originated from an ETI would most likely be made available to the entire scientific community before it could be deemed to be threatening in nature. Even if there was only one recipient, and they attempted to keep the message under strict lock and key, it’s a safe bet that other parties would find a way to access it before long.

The question naturally arises then, what can be done? One possibility that Hippke and Learned suggest is to take a analog approach to interpreting these messages, which they illustrate using the 2017 SETI Decrypt Challenge as an example. This challenge, which was issued by René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, consisted of a sequence of about two million binary digits and related information being posted to social media.

In addition to being a fascinating exercise that gave the public a taste of what SETI research means, the challenge also sough to address some central questions when it came to communicating with an ETI. Foremost among these was whether or not humanity would be bale to understand a message from an alien civilization, and how we might be able to make a message comprehensible (if we sent one first). As they state:

“As an example, the message from the “SETI Decrypt Challenge” (Heller 2017) was a stream of 1,902,341 bits, which is the product of prime numbers. Like the Arecibo message (Staff At The National Astronomy Ionosphere Center 1975) and Evpatoria’s “Cosmic Calls” (Shuch 2011), the bits represent the X/Y black/white pixel map of an image. When this is understood, further analysis could be done off-line by printing on paper. Any harm would then come from the meaning of the message, and not from embedded viruses or other technical issues.”

The Wow! signal represented as “6EQUJ5”. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory/NAAPO
However, where messages are made up of complex codes or even a self-contained AI, the need for sophisticated computers may be unavoidable. In this case, the authors explore another popular recommendation, which is the use on quarantined machines to conduct the analysis – i.e. a message prison. Unfortunately, they also acknowledge that no prison would be 100% effective and containment could eventually fail.

“This scenario resembles the Oracle-AI, or AI box, of an isolated computer system where a possibly dangerous AI is ‘imprisoned’ with only minimalist communication channels,” they write. “Current research indicates that even well-designed boxes are useless, and a sufficiently intelligent AI will be able to persuade or trick its human keepers into releasing it.”

In the end, it appears that the only real solution is to maintain a vigilant attitude and ensure that any messages we send are as benign as possible. As Hippke summarized: “I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that a message will be positive, but you can not be sure. Would you take a 1% chance of death for a 99% chance of a cure for all diseases? One learning from our paper is how to design own message, in case we decide to send any: Keep it simple, don’t send computer code.”

Basically, when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the rules of internet safety may apply. If we begin to receive messages, we shouldn’t trust those that come with big attachments and send any suspicious looking ones to our spam folder. Oh, and if a sender is promising the cure for all known diseases, or claims to be the deposed monarch of Andromeda in need of some cash, we should just hit delete!

Further Reading: arXiv

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Across The Universe - Messier 66 – the NGC 3627 Intermediate Spiral Galaxy

Messier 66 – the NGC 3627 Intermediate Spiral Galaxy:

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the intermediate spiral galaxy known as Messier 65.

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the intermediate elliptical galaxy known as Messier 66 (NGC 3627). Located about 36 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Leo constellation, this galaxy measures 95,000 light-years in diameter. It is also the brightest and largest member of the Leo Triplet of galaxies and is well-known for its bright star clusters, dust lanes, and associated supernovae.


Enjoying life some 35 million light years from the Milky Way, the group known as the “Leo Trio” is home to bright galaxy Messier 66 – the easternmost of the two M objects. In the telescope or binoculars, you’ll find this barred spiral galaxy far more visible and much easier to see details within its knotted arms and bulging core.

Hubble image of the intermediate spiral galaxy Messier 66. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration/Davide De Martin/Robert Gendler
Because of interaction with its neighboring galaxies, M66 shows signs of a extremely high central mass concentration as well as a resolved noncorotating clump of H I material apparently removed from one of the spiral arms. Even one of its spiral arms got it noted in Halton Arp’s collection of Peculiar Galaxies! So exactly what did it collide with?As   Xiaolei Zhang (et al) indicated in a 1993 study:

“The combined CO and H I data provide new information, both on the history of the past encounter of NGC 3627 with its companion galaxy NGC 3628 and on the subsequent dynamical evolution of NGC 3627 as a result of this tidal interaction. In particular, the morphological and kinematic information indicates that the gravitational torque experienced by NGC 3627 during the close encounter triggered a sequence of dynamical processes, including the formation of prominent spiral structures, the central concentration of both the stellar and gas mass, the formation of two widely separated and outwardly located inner Lindblad resonances, and the formation of a gaseous bar inside the inner resonance. These processes in coordination allow the continuous and efficient radial mass accretion across the entire galactic disk. The observational result in the current work provides a detailed picture of a nearby interacting galaxy which is very likely in the process of evolving into a nuclear active galaxy. It also suggests one of the possible mechanisms for the formation of successive instabilities in postinteraction galaxies, which could very efficiently channel the interstellar medium into the center of the galaxy to fuel nuclear starburst and Seyfert activities.”
Ah, yes! Star forming regions… And what better way to look deeper than through the eyes of the Spitzer Space Telescope? As R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona) and the SINGS Team observed:

“M66’s blue core and bar-like structure illustrates a concentration of older stars. While the bar seems devoid of star formation, the bar ends are bright red and actively forming stars. A barred spiral offers an exquisite laboratory for star formation because it contains many different environments with varying levels of star-formation activity, e.g., nucleus, rings, bar, the bar ends and spiral arms. The SINGS image is a four-channel false-color composite, where blue indicates emission at 3.6 microns, green corresponds to 4.5 microns, and red to 5.8 and 8.0 microns. The contribution from starlight (measured at 3.6 microns) in this picture has been subtracted from the 5.8 and 8 micron images to enhance the visibility of the dust features.”

Colour composite image of the spiral galaxy M66 (or NGC 3627) obtained with the FORS1 and FORS2 multi-mode instruments (at VLT MELIPAL and YEPUN, respectively). Credit: ESO
Messier 66 has also been deeply studied for evidence of forming super star clusters, too. As David Meier indicated:

“Super star clusters are thought to be precursors of globular clusters and are some of the most extreme star formation regions in the universe. They tend to occur in actively starbursting galaxies or near the cores of less active galaxies. Radio super star clusters cannot be seen in optical light because of extreme extinction, but they shine brightly in infrared and radio observations. We can be certain that there are many massive O stars in these regions because massive stars are required to provide the UV radiation that ionizes the gas and creates a thermally bright HII regions. Not many natal SSCs are currently known, so detection is an important science goal in its own right. In particular, very few SSCs are known in galactic disks. We need more detections to be able to make statistical statements about SSCs and fill in the mass range of forming star clusters. With more detections, we will be able to investigate the effects of other environments (e.g. bars, bubbles, and galactic interaction) on SSCs, which could potentially be followed up in the far future with the Square Kilometer Array to discover their effects on individual forming massive stars.”
But there’s still more. Try magnetic properties in M66’s spiral patterns. As M. Soida (et al) indicated in their 2001 study:

“By observing the interacting galaxy NGC 3627 in radio polarization we try to answer the question; to which degree does the magnetic field follow the galactic gas flow. We obtained total power and polarized intensity maps at 8.46 GHz and 4.85 GHz using the VLA in its compact D-configuration. In order to overcome the zero-spacing problems, the interferometric data were combined with single-dish measurements obtained with the Effelsberg 100-m radio telescope. The observed magnetic field structure in NGC 3627 suggests that two field components are superposed. One component smoothly fills the interarm space and shows up also in the outermost disk regions, the other component follows a symmetric S-shaped structure. In the western disk the latter component is well aligned with an optical dust lane, following a bend which is possibly caused by external interactions. However, in the SE disk the magnetic field crosses a heavy dust lane segment, apparently being insensitive to strong density-wave effects. We suggest that the magnetic field is decoupled from the gas by high turbulent diffusion, in agreement with the large Hi line width in this region. We discuss in detail the possible influence of compression effects and non-axisymmetric gas flows on the general magnetic field asymmetries in NGC 3627. On the basis of the Faraday rotation distribution we also suggest the existence of a large ionized halo around this galaxy.”

History of Observation:

Both M65 and M66 were discovered on the same night – March 1, 1780 – by Charles Messier, who described M66 as, “Nebula discovered in Leo; its light is very faint and it is very close to the preceding: They both appear in the same field in the refractor. The comet of 1773 and 1774 has passed between these two nebulae on November 1 to 2, 1773. M. Messier didn’t see them at that time, no doubt, because of the light of the comet.”

Both galaxies would be observed and cataloged by the Herschel family and further expounded upon by Admiral Smyth:

“A large elongated nebula, with a bright nucleus, on the Lion’s haunch, trending np [north preceding, NW] and sf [south following, SE]; this beautiful specimen of perspective lies just 3deg south-east of Theta Leonis. It is preceded at about 73s by another of a similar shape, which is Messier’s No. 65, and both are in the field at the same time, under a moderate power, together with several stars. They were pointed out by Mechain to Messier in 1780, and they appeared faint and hazy to him. The above is their appearance in my instrument.

“These inconceivably vast creations are followed, exactly on the same parallel, ar Delta AR=174s, by another elliptical nebula of even a more stupendous character as to apparent dimensions. It was discovered by H. [John Herschel], in sweeping, and is No. 875 in his Catalogue of 1830 [actually, probably an erroneous position for re-observed M66]. The two preceding of these singular objects were examined by Sir William Herschel, and his son [JH] also; and the latter says, “The general form of elongated nebulae is elliptic, and their condensation towards the centre is almost invariably such as would arise from the superposition of luminous elliptic strata, increasing in density towards the centre. In many cases the increase of density is obviously attended with a diminution of ellipticity, or a nearer approach to the globular form in the central than in the exterior strata.” He then supposes the general constitution of those nebulae to be that of oblate spheroidal masses of every degree of flatness from the sphere to the disk, and of every variety in respect of the law of their density, and ellipticity towards the centre. This must appear startling and paradoxical to those who imagine that the forms of these systems are maintained by forces identical with those which determine the form of a fluid mass in rotation; because, if the nebulae be only clusters of discrete stars, as in the greater number of cases there is every reason to believe them to be, no pressure can propagate through them. Consequently, since no general rotation of such a system as one mass can be supposed, Sir John suggests a scheme which he shows is not, under certain conditions, inconsistent with the law of gravitation. “It must rather be conceived,” he tells us, ” as a quiescent form, comprising within its limits an indefinite magnitude of individual constituents, which, for aught we can tell, may be moving one among the other, each animated by its own inherent projectile force, and deflected into an orbit more or less complicated, by the influence of that law of internal gravitation which may result from the compounded attractions of all its parts.”

Messier 66 location. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 66:

Even though you might think by its apparent visual magnitude that M66 wouldn’t be visible in small binoculars, you’d be wrong. Surprisingly enough, thanks to its large size and high surface brightness, this particular galaxy is very easy to spot directly between Iota and Theta Leonis. In even 5X30 binoculars under good conditions you’ll easy see both it and M65 as two distinct gray ovals.

A small telescope will begin to bring out structure in both of these bright and wonderful galaxies, but to get a hint at the “Trio” you’ll need at least 6″ in aperture and a good dark night. If you don’t spot them right away in binoculars, don’t be disappointed – this means you probably don’t have good sky conditions and try again on a more transparent night. The pair is well suited to modestly moonlit nights with larger telescopes.

May you equally be attracted to this galactic pair!

And here are the quick facts on M66 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 66
Alternative Designations: M66, NGC 3627, (a member of the) Leo Trio, Leo Triplet
Object Type: Type Sb Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Leo
Right Ascension: 11 : 20.2 (h:m)
Declination: +12 : 59 (deg:m)
Distance: 35000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.9 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 8×2.5 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.


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