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Archive for May, 2011

Swift Detects Most Distant Object In The Universe! AGAIN!

May 25, 2011 2 comments

Now where have we heard THAT news before? For aficionados of NASA’s Swift satellite, or even space science and astronomy in general, this headline probably rings a few bells. Like this one for example, announced on April 28, 2009:

New Gamma-Ray Burst Smashes Cosmic Distance Record

But what many of you may not be aware of is that, within 24 hours of the April 28 headline, Swift detected yet another gamma-ray burst (the death-throes of a massive star), which was even more distant. Why didn’t you know? Well, because we didn’t either!

image of GRB 090429b
A Gemini Observatory color image of the afterglow of GRB 090429B, a candidate for the most distant object in the universe. This “izH” image has been constructed from three images taken at the Gemini Observatory North telescope through different optical and infrared filters. The red color results from the absence of all optical light, which has been absorbed by hydrogen gas in the distant universe. Without that absorption, the afterglow color would be bluer than any of the galaxies and stars seen here. (Credit: Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NASA/ Levan, Tanvir, Cucchiara, Fox)

The explosion, termed GRB 090429B, was detected on April 29, 2009, by Swift. Nino Cucchiara and his then-PhD supervisor Derek Fox, along with collaborators including Nial Tanvir and Andrew Levan from the UK, observed the GRB with the 8-meter Gemini telescope in Hawai’i, and found that it was red. Very red.

Now this can mean two things: either it’s a really long way away, or it went off in a really dusty galaxy. So Nino and collaborators asked the Gemini operators to take a spectrum of the source, which would provide a measurement of the object’s distance.

Unfortunately, even on Hawai’i, astronomers are at the mercy of the weather. And just as Gemini prepared to take the spectrum, the weather turned and observing was impossible. By the next observing opportunity, the GRB was too faint to take a usable spectrum.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story, but it made the job much harder. Now, after two years of hard graft, and observations with Gemini and with the Hubble Space Telescope, Nino and collaborators have released their findings. And the cosmic record holder has fallen!

Well, probably. Their result shows, based on analysis of the images, that there is a 99.3 percent likelihood that this object was more distant that GRB 090423 — the object being trumpeted just before this star exploded. The precise distance is not known because of the lack of spectrum, but there is a 98.9 percent chance that is lies further away than a galaxy discovered in 2010 — 13.07 billion light years away — which surpassed April 2009’s GRB 090423 as the most distant known object. Whether it is the farthest object ever seen is not entirely clear: a galaxy detected in 2011 may lie a little further away…. or may actually not be a distant object at all.

Either way, this new result is another triumph for GRB science, for Swift and the optical and infrared facilities like Gemini, and above all for the hard-working determination of the scientists studying these enigmatic phenomena.

Follow Phil Evans on twitter: @swift_phil

Has-been: In 2008, GRB 080319b had it's 15 minutes of fame as the farthest known object in the universe.

A gamma-ray burst is a tremendous release of energy triggered by the collapse of a massive star.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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The Biggest Computer Monitor You'll Ever See in Your Life

photo of visualization scientist horace mitchell in front of nasa hyperwallExplore@NASA Goddard Day this past Sunday was a huge success, with an estimated 15,000 people coming to Goddard Space Flight Center to meet astronauts, tour the facilities we use to build and test spacecraft, and — on my end of the campus — see the biggest computer monitor you can imagine.

They call it the hyperwall. It’s a bank of HD monitors banked together to create a huge viewing surface to observe and discuss scientific data and visualizations. It consists of fifteen 46-inch high-definition LCD screens — five across, three high — to create a combined 17-by-6 foot surface. The visualization wall displays both high-definition movies of computer simulation results and interactive data visualizations.

The wall can display a single visualization across all 15 screens or up to 15 or more different visualizations at once for comparison. (No, we don’t sneak in after hours to watch Star Wars or play video games.)

Like hundreds of my colleagues, I was pitching in to Explore@NASA Goddard Day. Mission: meet, greet, and guide people to the hyperwall. Below are a few photos I snapped between helping visitors.


nasa goddard hyperwall
Phil Webster (above left), chief of the NASA Center for Climate Simulation, explains how NCCS research and technology helps scientists and meteorologists. (NCCS built and operates the hyperwall.)


nasa goddard sciewntist horace mitchell gives public talk in front of nasa hyperwall
Horace Mitchell (above right) is the Director of the crack team of scientists, animators, and artists in Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio. They make stunning images and movies from actual data collected by NASA spacecraft of Earth and the wider universe.


nasa goddard hyperwall shows polar orbiting satellites
Polar-orbiting satellites swoop over a glowing HD Earth on the hyperwall during the presentations for Explore@NASA Goddard Day.
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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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NASA Earth Video Contest: ‪One Earth, by Fiona Conn‬

Here is a touching and thoughtfully written submission to the NASA Home Frontier video contest that needs no introduction. I could listen to Fiona Conn talk all day.



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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Categories: Contests, video

Are you smarter than a National Air and Space Museum curator?

Apparently I am. I just took a short space trivia quiz sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum and scored a perfect “5.” This means I will receive a sticker in the mail certifying how space-smart I am. Give it a try — it’s fun. Here are the details:

Take this brief quiz to see how much you know about the work that curators like Roger Launius do to gather collections, conduct research, preserve our shared history and prepare exhibitions at the National Air and Space Museum. You’ll also help raise a bit of money for the Smithsonian — for every question you get right, 10 cents will be donated to the National Air and Space Museum. And when you take the quiz, you’ll also receive a FREE “Are You Smarter than a Curator?” sticker from the Smithsonian Institution.* Ready to get started?

screen shot of are you smarter than a curator contest graphic

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Categories: Contests Tags: , , , , ,

Jacques-Yves Cousteau: the NASA of the sea?

sea turtle_600
Have you heard about the NASA Earth science video contest?

We’re asking you to share with us your inspiring vision about what NASA’s exploration of Earth means to you by producing a short video. The contest runs through May 27.

When I heard about the contest, I wondered what kind of video I would make (were I not an employee of said contest sponsor). Nothing much came to mind.

Then the other night a weird association flashed into my head: Jacques-Yves Cousteau, NASA of the sea, exploring, documenting, and studying the “inner space” beneath the waves the way our nation’s aerospace agency explores, documents, and studies Earth from outer space.

I know, it sounds crazy, but stick with it for a minute.

First of all, for anyone reading this who has no clue who I am talking about when I say “Jacques-Yves Cousteau” and wonders if he is yet another combative F-bomb slinging TV chef, check out this lighthearted and trivia-packed video biography of the French film maker and adventurer on RocketBoom.com.

Now, back to the contest:

The NASA earth video contest asks the following: Produce a short video that captures what you find inspiring and important about the unique view of Earth and understanding about how our planet works that NASA science provides.

Jacques-Yves_Cousteau_200

Jacques-Yves Cousteau


First, what is inspiring? I learned about that on TV.

My father was a documentary junkie, so my brothers and I grew up watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” which ran for eight seasons starting in 1968. None other than Rod Serling, the “Twightlight Zone” man, narrated most of the specials.

Cousteau had won early fame in film, most notably with “The Silent World,” co-directed with Louis Malle and winner of a 1956 Academy Award and the Palme d’Or award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

If you watch “The Undersea World” now, it feels dated, unfamiliar. It could occasionally slip into pomposity, with wordy and somewhat high-falutin’ rhetorical flourishes in Cousteau’s distinctive French accent like “the rapture of the deep that puts to sleep the instinct of conservation.” Huh?

And there was the pretend-danger-drama stuff written into the narrative: For example, check out the scene in Cousteau’s Antarctica programs in which deck hands in motorized dinghies desperately pole-push chunks of floating ice away from the Calypso’s massive steel hull. (The thing was a converted mine sweeper!)

Of course, Jacques often breaks in to remind us we are about to see something “never before filmed in its natural environment.” Be still my 9-year-old heart!

But it was magic. Cousteau showed us the secret places still hidden under the sea, the places we had never been, and could never go. He took us along with him to visit places that remain, to most of us, utterly inaccessible. In this sense, Cousteau was the NASA of the sea — at least on TV! — revealing the wonders of the home planet and the wider universe.

NASA’s satellite fleet does most of the heavy lifting of data collection on the home planet these days, although numerous field expeditions also make important contributions. The satellites see the Planet, on the scale of oceans of water and air, pulsing with life and energy.

It is a perspective on the planet that does not quite trigger the same emotions as swimming with whales, cavorting with penguins, or stalking ravenous predatory fishes in the Amazon River.

But Cousteau and NASA have both frequently delivered the same sense of wonder about the beauty and complexity of the planet, and showed us how all its wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels of life, air, soil, and water have to turn together to keep it all functioning properly.

So make a video about Earth and NASA, and make sure to listen to your inner Cousteau. Better yet, go to YouTube and watch some of his work for inspiration. It may put you in the right frame of mind for a sense of wonder.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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