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Because black holes are impossible to see, one of scientists’ best hopes to study them is to look for the ripples in space-time, called gravitational waves, that they are thought to create.

Gravitational waves would be distortions propagating through space and time caused by violent events such as the collision of two black holes. They were first predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity; however, scientists have yet to find one.

That could change when the latest version of a gravitational wave-hunting facility gets up and running. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually a pair of observatories, in Louisiana and Washington state, that began operating in 2002. Newly sensitized detectors are being added to both.

“The advanced LIGO detectors that are now being installed will see out through a substantial part of the universe,” said California Institute of Technology emeritus professor of physics Kip Thorne, a leading proponent of LIGO. “We expect to see black holes colliding at a rate of perhaps somewhere between once an hour and once a year.”

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The largest ever three dimensional map of galaxies and black holes was released by astronomers today.  It will help explain the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that they know makes up 96 percent of the universe.

The map is the creation of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III) an international project mapping the Milky Way in which a team from the University of Portsmouth is the only UK institution.  Early last year, the SDSS-III released the largest-ever image of the sky and astronomers have used new data to expand this image into a full three-dimensional map.

Data Release 9 (DR9) includes images of 200 million galaxies and spectra of 1.35 million galaxies, including 540,000 spectra of new galaxies from when the universe was half its present age. Spectra show how much light a galaxy gives off at different wavelengths. Because this light is shifted to longer redder wavelengths as the Universe expands, spectra allow scientists to work out how much the Universe has expanded since the light left each galaxy.

It will allow better estimates of how much of the universe is made up of dark matter – matter that can’t be seen directly see because it doesn’t emit or absorb light – and dark energy, the even more mysterious force that drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

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Dear NASA, any chance you can send another Curiosity rover to the U.S. Congress to check if there’s intelligent life in there? Thanks a lot!

Curiosity's Surroundings - Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If you’ve always wanted to live on a distant world, Dutch company Mars One wants to give you your chance to settle on the red planet. There’s only one catch: You’ll never be able to return to Earth.

Next year, Mars One will hold a worldwide lottery to select 40 people to train to be civilian astronauts. That group will be sent to live in a desert simulation for three months, after which the initial pool will be whittled down to 10. By 2023, this group will be sent to Mars to form the first permanent human settlement.

According to Bas Lansdorp, founder of Mars One, “We will send humans to Mars in 2023. They will live there the rest of their lives. There will be a habitat waiting for them, and we’ll start sending four people every two years.”

Once the new settlement has begun to thrive, the possibility for a return visit to Earth may open up. Still, that’s not guaranteed. Says Lansdorp, “our astronauts will be offered a one-way trip. We have no idea when it will be possible to offer return tickets.”

Joining up with Mars One is probably the most cost-effective way you’ll ever set foot on Mars. After all, buying a round-trip ticket to Mars from space tourism company Space X will cost you $500,000

Source: Yahoo

On board the International Space Station, ESA astronaut André Kuipers just put up picture of himself playing with water in space:

Amazing visualization of what it takes to land NASA’s next rover, Curiosity, on the surface of Mars. Curiosity lands on August 5th.

What Space Smells Like

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When astronauts return from space walks and remove their helmets, they are welcomed back with a peculiar smell. An odor that is distinct and weird: something, astronauts have described it, like “seared steak.” And also: “hot metal.” And also: “welding fumes.”

Our extraterrestrial explorers are remarkably consistent in describing Space Scent in meaty-metallic terms. “Space,” astronaut Tony Antonelli has said, “definitely has a smell that’s different than anything else.” Space, three-time spacewalker Thomas Jones has put it, “carries a distinct odor of ozone, a faint acrid smell.”

Space, Jones elaborated, smells a little like gunpowder. It is “sulfurous.”

Add to all those anecdotal assessments the recent discovery, in a vast dust cloud at the center of our galaxy, of ethyl formate — and the fact that the ester is, among other things, the chemical responsible for the flavor of raspberries. Add to that the fact that ethyl formate itself smells like rum. Put all that together, and one thing becomes clear: The final frontier sort of stinks.

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In case you want to set the mood to see these amazing pictures, push play and listen to Saturn. Enjoy!

Stunning: These beautiful pictures of Saturn's rings were taken by a space probe orbiting the second largest planet in the solar system

Satellites: As well as rings, the Cassini spacecraft has taken amazing pictures of Saturn's moons
Artistic: But the beautiful images were actually created in the name of science
Harmonious: But although Saturn may look peaceful, its rings are in fact constantly fluctuating

No-one is really sure exactly how many there are. Many millions probably. One thing that might be useful in answering this is a 2 year survey (the 2dF Galaxy Survey) which has just finished.

So far they have surveyed 100, 000 galaxies to make a 3-D map of the universe, but their goal is 250,000! And that’s certainly not all of them that are out there. Look at the 2dF website for more on this. There are 4 million names in the NASA Extragalactic database! (NED) Although this is probably not everything either.

It is estimated that there are as many as 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe, but we aren’t able to see all of them yet as our telescopes are not big enough. This number is interesting because it is similar in magnitude to the number of stars estimated to be in our Galaxy.

Of all the things to lose track of, a stretch of space dust measuring hundreds of millions of miles across is surely one of the biggest. Scientists are at a loss as to how an enormous ring of space dust – which could make up planets like ours – has disappeared from view around a star 450 light years (six trillion miles) away from Earth. Astronomers have monitored the star, with the decidedly un-catchy name of TYC 8241 2652, for 25 years before the glowing dust started to fade away over a period of two-and-a-half years.

An artist's impression of the dust circling the star shows how it could have looked before the dust disappeared

Now, telescopic images have confirmed the almost total disappearance of the dust cloud, reported in the scientific journal Nature. ‘So much dust orbiting so close to a young star implies that rocky planets similar to the terrestrial planets of our own solar system were in the process of forming around this star,’ lead researcher Ben Zuckerman of the University of California said. ‘We don’t really know where the dust came from in detail, and we certainly don’t know what caused it to disappear so quickly,’ The scientists believe that the views could paint a picture of how our solar system formed, with the dust creating rock planets like Earth.

An impression of how the star appears to scientists now, with the dust gone and asteroids and planets remaining

The star is just 10 million years old, compared to our sun’s 4.6 billion years. Carl Melis, a co-author of the study and leader of the discovery team, said there are at least two ways the disk might have vanished. The dust particles might have been dragged into the star by its gravity field or floated out into space.

A NASA-sponsored researcher at the University of Iowa has developed a way for spacecraft to hunt down hidden magnetic portals in the vicinity of Earth. These portals link the magnetic field of our planet to that of the sun.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a large spiral galaxy surrounded by dozens of smaller satellite galaxies. Scientists have long theorized that occasionally these satellites will pass through the disk of the Milky Way, perturbing both the satellite and the disk. A team of astronomers from Canada and the United States have discovered what may well be the smoking gun of such an encounter, one that occurred close to our position in the galaxy and relatively recently, at least in the cosmological sense.

“We have found evidence that our Milky Way had an encounter with a small galaxy or massive dark matter structure perhaps as recently as 100 million years ago,” said Larry Widrow, professor at Queen’s University in Canada. “We clearly observe unexpected differences in the Milky Way’s stellar distribution above and below the Galaxy’s midplane that have the appearance of a vertical wave — something that nobody has seen before.”

The discovery is based on observations of some 300,000 nearby Milky Way stars by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Stars in the disk of the Milky Way move up and down at a speed of about 20-30 kilometers per second while orbiting the center of the galaxy at a brisk 220 kilometers per second. Widrow and his four collaborators from the University of Kentucky, the University of Chicago and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory have found that the positions and motions of these nearby stars weren’t quite as regular as previously thought.

“Our part of the Milky Way is ringing like a bell,” said Brian Yanny, of the Department of Energy’s Fermilab. “But we have not been able to identify the celestial object that passed through the Milky Way. It could have been one of the small satellite galaxies that move around the center of our galaxy, or an invisible structure such as a dark matter halo.”

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The Drake Equation is a famous attempt to mathematically estimate the number of technologically advanced civilisations in our galaxy. The equation was formulated in 1961 by Dr. Frank Drake (currently on the Board of SETI), and it identifies specific developmental factors and presents them as variables that narrow down the estimate. The equation looks like this:

N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L

R is the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy, fp is the fraction of stars with planets, ne is the number of Earth-like worlds within one of these star systems, fl is the fraction of those planets where life develops, fi is the fraction where intelligent life develops,fc is the fraction of intelligent life that develops a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space—and finally, L is length of time that these signals are sent.Currently, Drake’s own estimate is that there are 10,000 technologically-advanced civilizations in the Milky Way. Of course, we don’t have definite figures for most of these variables so an accurate answer is nearly impossible, but the calculating itself stimulates intellectual curiosity, helping us realise what a successful product of cosmic evolution we are.


Seeing is believing, except when you don’t believe what you see.

This is according to veteran radio astronomer Gerrit Verschuur, of the University of Memphis, who has an outrageously unorthodox theory that if true, would turn modern cosmology upside down.

He proposes that at least some of the fine structure seen in the all-sky plot of the universe’s cosmic microwave background is really the imprint of our local interstellar neighborhood. It has nothing to do with how the universe looked 380,000 years after the Big Bang, but how nearby clouds of cold hydrogen looked a few hundred years ago.

The idea is so unbelievable that it’s little wonder that cosmologists have largely ignored his work that has been published over the last few years.

“Science is supposed to be about the excitement of making new discoveries. But this discovery terrifies me,” he told reporters at the recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Anchorage, Alaska.

Verschuur’s radio maps of hydrogen surrounding our local stellar neighborhood out to a few hundred light-years appear to have an uncanny match-up to the mottled structure of the cosmic microwave background that is 13.7 billion light-years away.

NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) mapped the CMB in exquisite detail in 2003. The data show the slight temperature fluctuations in the early universe that are believed to be the seeds of galaxy formation. It is a landmark observation that is considered the “blueprint” for the subsequent evolution of the universe.

Verschuur is quick to applaud the WMAP team for a “brilliant experiment” to attempt to resolve the structure of the primeval universe as encoded in ancient microwave radiation. But he suggests that the team failed to subtract all the foreground radio phenomena that may have contaminated the data.

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A renowned scientist says he has spotted evidence that a universe existed before the Big Bang.

Professor Roger Penrose from Oxford University says concentric circles discovered in thebackground microwaves of the universe provides evidence of events that took place before the universe came into being.

The cosmic microwave offers us a ghostly look at the the universe just 300,000 years after the Big Ban’ – a microscopic amount of time compared to the universe’s estimated age of 13.7billion years.

The research by Penrose, who was awarded the 1988 Wolf Prize along with Stephen Hawkings for adding to our cosmic knowledge, adds evidence to the theory that the universe has expanded (‘the Big Bang’) and contracted (‘the Big Crunch’) many times.

A map of the cosmic background radiation (CMB)

The cosmic radiation background (CMB) is believed to have cooled to a temperature of -270C in the near 14 billion years since the birth of the universe.

Stars and galaxies started to form around 300 million years later. Our Sun was born around five billion years ago, and life first appeared on the Earth around 3.7 billion years ago.

The CMB from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotophy Probe shows imprints in the radiation that are older than the Big Bang.

They say they have discovered 12 examples of concentric circles, some of which have five rings – which means the same object has had five massive events in its history.

The rings appear around galaxy clusters in which the variation in the background radiation appears to be strangely low.

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Unfortunately, stars don’t have birth certificates. So, astronomers have a tough time figuring out their ages. Knowing a star’s age is critical for understanding how our Milky Way galaxy built itself up over billions of years from smaller galaxies.

White dwarfs

Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute and The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Astrophysical Sciences, both in Baltimore, Md., has found the next best thing to a star’s birth certificate. Using a new technique, Kalirai probed the burned-out relics of Sun-like stars, called white dwarfs, in the inner region of our Milky Way galaxy’s halo. The halo is a spherical cloud of stars surrounding our galaxy’s disk.

Those stars, his study reveals, are 11.5 billion years old, younger than the first generation of Milky Way stars. They formed more than 2 billion years after the birth of the universe 13.7 billion years ago. Previous age estimates, based on analysing normal stars in the inner halo, ranged from 10 billion to 14 billion years.

Kalirai’s study reinforces the emerging view that our galaxy’s halo is composed of a layer-cake structure that formed in stages over billions of years.

This illustration shows the Milky Way galaxy's inner and outer halos. A halo is a spherical cloud of stars surrounding a galaxy. Astronomers have proposed that the Milky Way's halo is composed of two populations of stars. The age of the stars in the inner halo, according to measurements by the Paranal Observatory, is 11.5 billion years old. The measurements suggest the inner-halo stars are younger than the outer-halo population, some of which could be 13.5 billion years old. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

One of the biggest questions in astronomy is, when did the different parts of the Milky Way form?” Kalirai said. “Sun-like stars live for billions of years and are bright, so they are excellent tracers, offering clues to how our galaxy evolved over time. However, the biggest hindrance we have in inferring galactic formation processes in the Milky Way is our inability to measure accurate ages of Sun-like stars. In this study, I chose a different path: I studied stars at the end of their lives to determine their masses and then connected those masses to the ages of their progenitors. Given the nature of these dead stars, their masses are easier to measure than Sun-like stars.”

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Whatta view!

The antennas of the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, also known as ALMA, are set against the splendor of the Milky Way.

It sounds like a science-fiction fantasy, but the company Mars One says it’s for real—and that it will really establish a settlement on the planet Mars by 2023.

The privately financed Dutch company has a plan. All it needs is a lot of cash, equipment and four Mars-bound astronauts who are willing to take a one-way trip to the red planet.

The idea is to first send rovers, which will stake out a good site for a settlement and then build out living units. In 2022, the crew will take a “transit habitat” for the seven-month trip to Mars and settle in to their new home. The intention is that the crew will live on the planet for the rest of their lives. Every two years after that, another group will join the settlement to populate the colony.

Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp has a very modern approach to funding the project: media exposure. “We will finance this mission by creating the biggest media event ever around it.” He said in a company video, adding, “Everybody in the world can see everything that will happen in the preparations and on Mars.”

Think of it as a “Big Brother” for outer space. Lansdorp explained to Yahoo! News, “This would be ‘real’ reality TV — adventure is automatically included, we don’t have to add fake challenges.” He added, “By sending a new crew every two years, Mars will have a real, growing settlement of humans — who would not like to follow that major event in human history?”

Who, indeed? The other-worldly idea has certainly intrigued the Web. The Mars One video has received over 232,000 views on YouTube since it launched less than a week ago.

Beyond entertainment, some scientists certainly seem intrigued by the possibility of interplanetary travel. Theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner Gerard ‘t Hooft, a “mission ambassador” for Mars One, endorses the plan. He says, “This project seems to be the only way to fulfill humanity’s dream to explore outer space. It’s going to be an exciting experiment.”

Next year, according to its website, the company will begin an astronaut selection process. Those who have the right stuff will then undergo a decade of preparation. And, we assume, the Mars travelers will be ready for their out-of-this-world close-up.

Our universe may exist inside a black hole. This may sound strange, but it could actually be the best explanation of how the universe began, and what we observe today. It’s a theory that has been explored over the past few decades by a small group of physicists including myself.

Successful as it is, there are notable unsolved questions with the standard big bang theory, which suggests that the universe began as a seemingly impossible “singularity,” an infinitely small point containing an infinitely high concentration of matter, expanding in size to what we observe today. The theory of inflation, a super-fast expansion of space proposed in recent decades, fills in many important details, such as why slight lumps in the concentration of matter in the early universe coalesced into large celestial bodies such as galaxies and clusters of galaxies.

But these theories leave major questions unresolved. For example: What started the big bang? What caused inflation to end? What is the source of the mysterious dark energy that is apparently causing the universe to speed up its expansion?

The idea that our universe is entirely contained within a black hole provides answers to these problems and many more. It eliminates the notion of physically impossible singularities in our universe. And it draws upon two central theories in physics.

The first is general relativity, the modern theory of gravity. It describes the universe at the largest scales. Any event in the universe occurs as a point in space and time, or spacetime. A massive object such as the Sun distorts or “curves” spacetime, like a bowling ball sitting on a canvas. The Sun’s gravitational dent alters the motion of Earth and the other planets orbiting it. The sun’s pull of the planets appears to us as the force of gravity.

The second is quantum mechanics, which describes the universe at the smallest scales, such as the level of the atom. However, quantum mechanics and general relativity are currently separate theories; physicists have been striving to combine the two successfully into a single theory of “quantum gravity” to adequately describe important phenomena, including the behavior of subatomic particles in black holes.

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