[Maggie's blog] NASA at SXSW 2014

It’s that time of year again – for the South by Southwest music, film, & tech festival in Austin, Texas. As you might recall from last year, we had the giant full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope and a huge tent full of information about the mission.

Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Though we don’t have the full-scale model there this year, we still have a JWST and Hubble booth at the Gaming Expo near the Palmer Center, which is free and open to the public. There are photos, videos, livestreams, schedules, tweets and more at the JWST/Hubble-centric SXSW portal: http://go.nasa.gov/JWSTlive.

JWST and Hubble SXSW 2014 booth
Credit: Tony Darnell

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[Maggie's blog] Happy Valentine’s Day!

Happy Valentine’s Day from NASA Blueshift. We spotted this image go by on social media this morning and Rick Wiggins was kind enough to grant us permission to repost it. This is the Heart Nebula, or IC 1805. It’s about 7500 light years away from Earth, and can be located in the constellation Cassiopeia. The nebula actually sits in the Perseus arm of our galaxy, while the Sun is nearby (astronomically speaking, anyway) in the Orion Arm.

This nebula, made of dusty dark clouds and hot glowing gas, has a cluster of newborn stars near “heart” center, called Melotte 15.

Heart Nebula
Heart Nebula, Credit: Rick Wiggins. Used with permission.

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[Special Guest Blog] Things That Go “Pop” in the Night

We have an extra-special guest blog today! Nick Howes, astronomer at the Kielder Observatory in the UK, collaborator on a range of NASA programs and Pro-Am Programme Manager for the Faulkes Telescope Project, explains the significance of the new supernova detected in nearby galaxy Messier 82.

Stars have a life cycle; they form from vast clouds of dust over millions and millions of years, eventually igniting into the nuclear furnaces that light up our skies at night.

Our own Sun, which formed around 4.5 or so billion years ago, is a good example of an average sized main-sequence star, which, when it runs out of its nuclear fuels in around another 4+ billion years or so, will eventually expand outwards in to a red giant star. It will engulf possibly even the orbit of our Earth, devouring Mercury and Venus before eventually leaving behind a beautiful shell known as a planetary nebula, and the remnants of its former life in the form of a white hot dwarf star. No need to worry though, with this being billions of years ahead, we can continue to enjoy its life giving rays.

But spare a thought for the inhabitants of a star system in the relatively nearby galaxy Messier 82. The 82nd object cataloged by Charles Messier when doing his survey, the “Cigar” Galaxy, as it is known recently (in Earth terms), gave astronomers something to quite literally jump up and down in joy over. Around 11.5 million years ago, a star in this galaxy exploded, in one of the most violent events in the Universe – a supernova.

M82, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Our Sun won’t suffer this fate, due to its size, and no stars have been seen to explode in our own galaxy for hundreds of years. Even this dramatic event is one of the closest in decades, and the closest of its type (Supernova type 1a) in a very long time.

Type 1a supernova are important as they give astronomers a kind of “standard candle” to use to measure cosmic expansion. It was the use of this method which led to the discovery of so-called “Dark Energy,” and the eventual winning of the Nobel Prize for Physics by the team who’d made this monumental find.

The close proximity of this supernova, at under 12 million light years, a mere stone throw away in cosmic scales, has astronomers very excited. This is because it is a type 1a of course, but also because at this distance, so many large telescopes (ranging from optical through the x-ray and even down to radio wavelengths) will be able to study it.

The beauty of this story though is not so much in the science that is to come, but in the discovery itself. Messier 82 is probably one of the most photographed objects in the Northern Hemisphere night sky. Sitting near to the two front pointer stars in the constellation of Ursa Major (the ones which point towards the pole star), M82 and the other nearby galaxy M81 make a wonderful photographic opportunity even in small and modest sized amateur telescopes.

Location of M82
Location of M82 – click to enlarge. Copyright: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay (STScI) and A. Fujii

On the night of January 21st at around 19:20 UT, a group of students and their lecturer, Dr Steve Fossey, at University College London, were imaging the Galaxy. They picked up that something was different, and that something appeared to have eluded everyone else for more than a week.

M82 Supernova
Discovery image. Credit: UCL/University of London Observatory/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy Pollack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wright

Messier 82 has a high surface brightness, so many imagers, who aim to snap the outer “starburst” aspects of the galaxy, can tend to overexpose the core regions, which is where this new star was cunningly hidden. Images taken by Japanese and Chinese astronomers as well as many others in the week previous all, after further inspection, seemed to show the supernova, growing in brightness. But still, nobody reported it until that fateful night in London.

Even an online star party, where dozens of eager amateurs were glued to screens looking at images coming in live of the galaxy failed to spot it, giving Dr Fossey and his group of students their shot at immortality.

Now, with almost every major telescope on Earth and even those in orbit targeting the supernova, which is expected to peak in the next few weeks at around magnitude 10 (visible from good dark skies in larger binoculars), the science will really begin, with spectra, and other science data pouring in for analysis.

M82 Supernova
Confirmation image of the M82 supernova by Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Martino Nicolini

My own team, using a range of robotic telescopes around the world, are closely monitoring this supernova as it evolves, and we’ve asked many students who have access to the Faulkes Telescopes to image it, which will enable them to create detailed light curves showing the supernova as it evolves, bringing exciting science once more in to the classroom.

Animated gif of M82 supernova
New animation showing a comparison between an image taken on January 23, 2014 and an archive image (dated back to 2013-11-22) both by 2-meter Faulkes Telescope North (operated by LCOGT). Animation by E. Guido, N. Howes & M. Nicolini.

We wanted to note that just as Nick was completing this article, his team also got the confirmation images on another supernova in the Galaxy Messier 99!

[Maggie's blog] The Fermi All-Sky Cake

If the idea of a Fermi cake sounds familiar, it’s because we featured the cake replica of the Fermi satellite for its 5th birthday.

Our science bakers were at it again for a Science as Food competition that was part of a recent science poster event. Judy Racusin along with grad students Sylvia Zhu and David Green created this masterpiece which features the gamma-ray sky, as seen by Fermi, in scientifically accurate cake-format.

Sylvia and David answered some questions for us about how they made the cake and the science that went into it.

Making a Fermi All-Sky Cake
Credit: Judy Racusin

NASA Blueshift: What is your job on the Fermi project?

David: I am a graduate student over at the University of Maryland (UMD). I use the LAT (Large Area Telescope) on Fermi to study cosmic rays and help maintain the calibrations of the ACD (anti-coincidence detector) which is a subsystem on the LAT that detects and filters out cosmic rays from the gamma-ray data.

Sylvia: I’m a UMD physics grad student. I work with Fermi-LAT data to study the high-energy emission from gamma-ray bursts.

NASA Blueshift: What gave you all the idea to do a Fermi cake? What is the significance of the Fermi sky map?

Sylvia: For last year’s Science as Food competition, we made a model of a pulsar that showed where both the radio emission (the more traditional lighthouse model) and the gamma-ray emission come from. Our cake ended up being a little … cartoonish. This year, we decided to create something different, something more subdued and less literal (i.e., not just another model of an astronomical object). And then we forgot about it for a while, and time was running out, and then we realized that the Fermi bubbles would be the perfect subject of our entry: Judy and I had experience making the LAT skymap before, and we had all had experience (with varying amounts of success) creating sugar sculptures, so we wouldn’t need to spend a lot of experimenting and learning new techniques this time. The bubbles were discovered with the launch of Fermi (although there were hints of it in the WMAP data), and are a great example of how there is still so much to discover even in our own galaxy. [Ed. note: Those are the large pink 3D structures you see at the center of the cake. Read more in a past Blueshift blog about Fermi bubbles.]

David: It took a little while to figure out we wanted to focus on the Fermi bubbles. It was a combination of ‘how will this look’ vs ‘can we pull this off?’. We kicked around some other ideas of an accretion disk on to a compact object or a nova of some sort but those proved to be a bit too complicated.

We then kind of all agreed we should do something with the Fermi bubbles because we all just came back AAS and Douglas Finkbeiner, Tracy Slatyer, and Meng Su just won the Rossi Prize for their work on the Fermi bubbles. It was relevant, showed off one of the big discoveries of Fermi, and something that could pull off with a few days work.

We then had to settle on what to do with the Fermi bubbles. Sylvia and Judy had already done a Fermi sky map for the four year anniversary of Fermi back in 2012. Since we familiar with the sky map from before we decided to just do a bigger version, add in the bubbles, and LEDs for bright sources. We also really liked the sky map because it shows off a lot of science in one image. You have both galactic and extra galactic sources, stable and transient sources, diffuse gamma ray emission, and the fact that Fermi is an all sky telescope, we see the entire sky every three hours.

NASA Blueshift: How did you paint the sky? How were the bubbles made and what do they represent astronomically?

David: Sylvia painted the sky so hopefully she can answer that question. As Judy said I made the bubbles. For those I started off with a large foam block a cut and sanded it down to the size and shape we wanted. We decided to go with a slight exaggeration of the bubbles, about 50% larger than how they actually appear on the sky, more for aesthetics.

Making a Fermi All-Sky Cake
David cut the bubbles out of foam and then sands down the foam into the right shape. Credit: Sylvia Zhu/David Green

Making a Fermi All-Sky Cake
They look to see how big the Fermi bubbles will be on the rest of the sky map. Credit: Sylvia Zhu/David Green

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[Maggie's blog] A Close-up of a Space Camera

A co-worker told me that WFPC2 was sitting out, unconvered, over in our Integration & Test facility. It didn’t really register. We have models of Hubble instruments on display elsewhere at Goddard. But no, it’s the real thing. The actual Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, which until a few years ago was on the Hubble Space Telescope taking gorgeous images of the universe.

Wait, the real thing? I scurried over to I&T right away to take a selfie with it.

Hubble's WFPC2
Credit: Maggie Masetti

Ok, here it is without me in it.

Hubble's WFPC2
Credit: Maggie Masetti

Let me tell you a little more about the WFPC2 and why it’s so important and why it was so exciting to stand in front of it. Installed during the 1st Hubble Servicing Mission, it dramatically increased Hubble’s imaging power. Check out the dramatic difference between Wide Field and Planetary Camera and WFPC2. This is the M100 galaxy:

M100 before and after WFPC2
Credit: NASA

The images WFPC2 captured are some of the most famous and iconic Hubble images.

The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula? WFPC2.

Pillars of Creation
Credit: NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University)

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[Maggie's Blog] Galaxy Face-off

I recently stumbled across this gorgeous image of NGC 4921, so I thought perhaps a post showing a selection of gorgeous face-on galaxies would be in order.

First up, the aforementioned barred spiral, NGC 4921. Note its bright nucleus, the bright central bar, and the ring of dark dust. Outside of the dust ring are blue clusters of young stars. View the NASA feature.

Hubble Sees Anemic Spiral NGC 4921
Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA

Next up is NGC 3982, also rich in star birth. The arms of this galaxy are lined with star-forming regions of glowing hydrogen (depicted in pink), along with clusters of newborn stars (in blue). Dust lanes obscure some of the stellar nurseries even as the dust provides new material for future stars to be born. An older population of stars is present in the nucleus. Read more on Hubblesite.

Face-on Spiral Galaxy NGC 3982
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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[Maggie's blog] Twinkle, Twinkle Little Nova

Recently those in the Southern Hemisphere were treated to a new sight in the sky – a nova that was so bright it could be seen with the naked eye. Indeed, Nova Centauri 2013 was one of the brightest in years.

A New Star Down Under
Image credit: NASA/MSFC/ESSSA/Aaron Kingery

What is a nova? It is essentially a nuclear explosion on the surface of a dying star.

Stars have life cycles that vary depending on their mass, with their paths diverging after the red giant phase of their lives. The most massive stars will under go a supernova explosion after this point, eventually becoming a black hole or a neutron star.

Lower mass stars, like our sun, don’t explode – they collapse into small compact white dwarf stars, which will eventually cool into a black dwarfs. White dwarfs often orbit around a companion star, and can pull matter, like hydrogen and helium, off that companion. When enough of this matter (and remember that hydrogen and helium are the perfect fuel for fusion reactions) falls onto the white dwarf, the tremendous gravity of the white dwarf creates enough pressure that spontaneous nuclear fusion results. This explosion of runaway fusion makes the star flare up, dramatically increasing its brightness for a short time. A nova (unlike a supernova) does not destroy the star, though a ring of debris from the explosion may be created.

If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you should still be able to see the nova with binoculars, though it is unfortunately no longer visible with the naked eye.

Nova Centauri 2013
Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

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[Sara's blog] James Webb Space Telescope 101… in one minute!

One of the things that was filmed during Coma Niddy’s visit last week was a special episode of his “SCI CODE” web series. He asked us if there was someone who could tell him the basics about the James Webb Space Telescope (no problem!)… in less than a minute (much harder!). We called upon Dr. Amber Straughn, who wears a lot of hats – Deputy Project Scientist for JWST Science Communications, lead of our Division’s education and public outreach team (a.k.a. our boss), and occasional guest Blueshift contributor, among other things. She nailed this video in just a couple of takes:

For more information about JWST (if you’ve got more than a minute), check out the mission website for tons of background info and multimedia. And stay tuned for more from Coma Niddy!

[Sara's blog] A visit from Coma Niddy and PBS Digital Studios!

Yesterday and today, we’ve been hosting a few special guests who have come to see what’s going on at NASA Goddard and… shoot a music video! We’ve been talking to science educator/rapper Coma Niddy about a collaboration for nearly a year now, and everything finally came together to schedule a visit from him and a team from PBS Digital Studios. After weeks of emailing lyrics back and forth for science fact-checking, and talking locations and storyboards and NASA visualizations, the big day arrived! Here are a few behind-the-scenes photos from the shoot for Coma Niddy’s upcoming music video about black holes (and why they’re not the scary monsters shown in pop culture).

Coma Niddy visits Goddard!
Rapping about black holes in front of a visualization of the Milky Way’s galactic center (which contains a supermassive black hole) on the Science on a Sphere at Goddard’s Visitor Center.

Coma Niddy visits Goddard!
Coma Niddy peers out of a vintage 1960s training model of a Gemini capsule.

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[Maggie's blog] How do you get to Stockholm?

Nobel Laureate, and James Webb Space Telescope project scientist, John Mather gave an interesting talk (to a packed room) at NASA Goddard recently. It focused on where he grew up and how he got to where he is today. Did you know, for example, that a failed thesis project led to his work on the COBE satellite (for which he won his Nobel Prize in physics)? Or that COBE had to be massively retooled after the loss of the Challenger?

All this and more, below in John’s talk, which he described as”How do you get to Stockholm?”:

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