#AAS231 Superbowl of Astronomy Roundup: DES Data; JWST Update; Distant Galaxy Found; Citizen Science

This video series was started in January 2011 during the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Well this week finished the one for 2018 and here is a roundup of stories we found most interesting.

3075 Views | Published on 13th Jan, 2018

Hello Space Fans and welcome to another edition of Space Fan News. As many of you know who’ve been following SFN for a while know that this video series was started in January 2011 during the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Well this week finished the one for 2018 and here is a roundup of stories I found most interesting.

The people with the American Astronomical Society call their winter meeting the Superbowl of Astronomy and while that may be a bit hyperbolic, it is an exciting time for astronomers. They get to announce some of their most exciting work during this meeting and while I have been to several, lately I’ve had to watch them from afar. But I do hope to start live streaming from them again one day.

So in the spirit of SFN, I’m going to give you a brief roundup of some of the latest research that came out this week from the world of professional astronomers from around the world. There was so much released this week that there is no way I can cover all of it in a 10 minute or so video, so I’m keeping it to those things I found most interesting.

First up, the Dark Energy Survey (DES) has released the first three years of data to the public. The DES using that largest astronomical camera in the world - at 500 megapixels - mounted on the 4-meter Blanco Telescope at the Cerro-Tolollo Observatory in Chile to look at 5,000 square degrees of sky over 525 nights.

The data released this week includes over 40,000 exposures of DECAM corresponding to hundreds of terrabytes of data. In those images, are hundreds of millions of galaxies and stars.

The idea is to look at this region of the sky over a long period in an attempt to understand the large-scale structure of galaxies with the hope that we can learn a little more about the effects of dark energy on the universe.

But whenever you look at large portions of the sky for a long time, you can also do a lot of other, really interesting science. For example, one of the biggest discoveries to come out of this dataset was the detection of 11 new streams of stars around our Milky Way.

I’ve reported on streams of stars around our galaxy before, they are stars pulled from smaller, nearby galaxies by the dark matter halo surrounding the Milky Way. And before this, astronomers knew of only about two dozen stellar streams, with most of them discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

So here’s the way it works: our home galaxy is surrounded by a massive halo of dark matter, which exerts a powerful gravitational pull on smaller, nearby galaxies. The Milky Way grows by pulling in, ripping apart and absorbing these smaller systems. As stars are torn away, they form streams across the sky that can be detected using the Dark Energy Camera.

The thing is, these stellar streams are extremely difficult to find since they are composed of relatively few stars spread out over a large area of sky.

These streams are important because they teach astronomers about the formation and structure of the Milky Way and its dark matter halo. Stellar streams give them a snapshot of a larger galaxy being built out of smaller ones and these discoveries are possible because DES is the widest, deepest and best-calibrated survey out there.

So far that is. Wait till LSST.

Next, there’s usually some big update to the JWST mission to come out of this meeting and this year, everyone was talking about the fact that the telescope has successfully completed it’s testing at the Johnson Space Flight Center and is now going to Northrop Grumman Aeropace In Redondo Beach California to get finished up.

Getting finished up means integrating and testing the gigantic sun shield that will protect and cool the telescope. And anyone who has seen that deployment animation has to be nervous because there’s only about 8,734 different ways that thing can get hung up during deployment.

Still, as one would expect, everyone on the mission is confident that the roughly six week deployment of the telescope will happen without any problems. They are testing every nut, bolt, hinge and roller to ensure everything happens without a glitch.

The bad news, if you haven’t heard yet, is that the mission launch is delayed yet again to be no earlier than March, 2019. I had to laugh when I read one of you Space Fans comment when I first reported this to you back in SFN 214 who called JWST the Just Wait Space Telescope.

I don’t care who you are, that’s funny right there.

Just so you know, I’ve been planning a new video series called Countdown to JWST that will start about a year prior to launch and will be posted on off-SFN Fridays, starting - so far - the March but may get moved back if the launch does.

OK, the next cool thing that came out of the AAS Meeting this week was this outstanding visualization of the Orion Nebula from the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescope missions. It was released yesterday and was so stoked about it that by late afternoon I wrote a script about it and finished and posted the video late last night.

I won’t go into to it too much here, watch the video to learn more, but this was a visualization using actual data from Hubble and Spitzer. This wasn’t some computer simulation using a model, this was created using actual data and hats off to Frank Summers, Greg Bacon and other from STScI as well as Robert Hurt from CalTech and the guys running Spitzer.

Moving on, also from CalTech, but this time from the Kepler or K2 guys: Citizen Scientists, that’s people like you and me and not professional astronomers, have discovered a star with four planets in orbit around it.

Keep in mind, this was a new discovery, not a confirmation, and was a first for regular people looking at astronomy data. This discovery was part of the Exoplanet Explorer project and if you don’t know about it, you owe it to yourself to find out. It’s run by the well-known Zooniverse guys who by now are pros as setting up citizen scientist projects using all kinds of real-world scientific data.

According to the press release, in early April, just two weeks after the initial prototype of Exoplanet Explorers was set up on Zooniverse, it was featured in a three-day event on the ABC Australia television series Stargazing Live. In the first 48 hours after the project was introduced, Exoplanet Explorers received over 2 million classifications from more than 10,000 users. Included in that search was a brand-new dataset from the K2 mission—which is the reboot of the primary Kepler mission, ended three years ago. K2 has a whole new field of view and crop of stars around which to search for planets. No professional astronomer had yet looked through this dataset, called C12.

On the second night of the show, the researchers discussed the demographics of the planet candidates found so far—44 Jupiter-sized planets, 72 Neptune-sized, 44 Earth-sized, and 53 so-called Super Earth's, which are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune.

They wanted to find a new classification that would be exciting on the final night of the show, like maybe finding an Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone, something like that. But those take a while to confirm so they decided instead to try and find a multi-planet system.

Those are good because it’s hard to get a false signal of several planets and they could be reasonably sure they had something by the end of the show.

So, the press release goes, NASA Astronomer Geert Barentsen, the guys overseeing these results, left to get a cup of tea. When he came back, Jessie Christiansen (from CalTech and working in California) had sorted the crowdsourced data to find a star with multiple transits and discovered a star with four planets orbiting it. Three of the four planets had 100 percent "yes" votes from over 10 people, and the remaining one had 92 percent "yes" votes. This is the first multi-planet system of exoplanets discovered entirely by crowdsourcing.

After the show was over they continued to study and characterize the system, Called K2-138 and statistically validated the set of planet signals as being “extremely likely”.

Now what I love about this story most isn’t that a bunch of ordinary people using scientific data found something amazingly cool - that is stupendously awesome. But I love the fact that a show like Stargazing Live exists! Oh how I wish we had something like that in America. Say what you will about the BBC, but they are unparalleled when it comes to some of their documentaries: Brian Cox and David Attenborogh are rock stars in my house.

OK, let me close out this roundup with another story about Hubble, Spitzer and Orion. Seems like Hubble and Spitzer have been working together a lot lately.

In another in the ‘most farthest galaxy ever’ category, Hubble and Spitzer have found a galaxy called SPT0615-JD that existed when the universe was just 500 million years old.

While admittedly this doesn’t look like much, most of the other galaxies imaged by Hubble during this people have all looked like little red dots. Just watch my video on the Hubble Deep Field in 3D to see what I mean.

That’s to be expected though since the first galaxies in the universe are very small and incredibly far away.

Hubble and Spitzer were able to get such a good look at this galaxy though with the help of a much larger galaxy that was between Hubble, Spitzer and the distant galaxy and gravitationally lensed the light from the faint SPT0615-JD, essentially boosting the power of both space telescopes.

Using that boost, this image was taken of the distant galaxy, the most distant imaged so far.

This image allowed astronomers to estimate that the diminutive galaxy weighs in at no more than 3 billion solar masses (roughly 1/100th the mass of our fully grown Milky Way galaxy). It is less than 2,500 light-years across, half the size of the Small Magellanic Cloud.

This galaxy is considered prototypical of young galaxies that emerged during the epoch shortly after the big bang. Hubble’s clarity, combined with Spitzer’s infrared sensitivity to light reddened by the expanding universe, allowed for the object’s vast distance to be calculated.

Alright that’s it for this episode Space Fans, please look for Your Sky Tonight episodes to start back up next week. Space Fan News is made possible by Deep Astronomy Patreon Patrons, especially these guys, but every contribution helps, so thank you.

Thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!

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