Here’s my feature story in the March 29 Science on decade of the monster—new ways of studying the supermassive black hole that lurks at the center of our galaxy. Contains a scoop–first reporter to note that the collision between the gas cloud rushing headlong toward the black hole and the gravitational monster may not happen March 2014. Plus, here’s an interview with me about the story.
A pair of just-released statistical studies of the universe suggest numerous habitable planets exist in our Galaxy, with one study suggesting a life-friendly planet within 20 light years of our Solar System. From my Nature article, Small stars host droves of life-friendly worlds, that broke news of this latter study, which used data from NASA’s Kepler telescope
For more than a century, the star HD 140283 has been studied, but only now has its age been estimated: within hundreds of millions of years of the age of the Universe. Delivering a scoop, my Nature article, Nearby star is almost as old as the Universe, details this important new conclusion:
The team then exploited the fact that HD 140283 is in a phase of its life cycle in which it is exhausting the hydrogen at its core. In this phase, the star’s slowly dimming luminosity is a highly sensitive indicator of its age, says Bond. His team calculates that the star is 13.9 billion years old, give or take 700 million years. Taking into account that experimental error, the age does not conflict with the age of the Universe, 13.77 billion years.
The very first generation of stars coalesced from primordial gas, which did not contain appreciable amounts of elements heavier than helium, he notes. That means that as old as HD 140283 is, its chemical composition — which includes a low but non-zero abundance of heavy elements — shows that the star must have formed after the first stellar generation.
Conditions for making the second generation of stars, then, “must have been in place very early”, says Bromm. The very first stars are usually thought to have coalesced a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, he notes. Massive and short lived, they died after only a few million years — exploding in supernovae that heated surrounding gas and seeded it with heavier elements.
The Nature article contains more information about the research and characteristics of early stars.
NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, launched in 2008, is an important telescope due to its gamma-ray collection ability. However, firmware problems have limited its ability to collect the data. A recent software upgrade, though, is expected to change that. In my recent Nature article, Space telescope to get software fix, the mission, problems, and hoped-for fixes are discussed:
Long-standing but little-publicized software problems, and insufficient memory in one of the detectors, have clouded the vision of the world’s leading gamma-ray telescope to the highest-energy gamma-rays. The flaws do not seriously threaten the satellite’s observations at low energies. But they have hampered studies at energies greater than 10 billion electronvolts (GeV), which could yield clues to dark matter and the powerful stellar explosions known as gamma-ray bursts, says particle physicist Bill Atwood at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a member of the Fermi team who helped to design the craft’s instruments.
Now the team is closing the net. A workaround for the memory deficiency was uploaded to the spacecraft two weeks ago, and new software is being tested, the team reported last week at the Fourth International Fermi Symposium in Monterey, California. Expected to be in routine use by the end of 2013, the software, called Pass 8, will boost the amount of usable data at energies greater than 10 GeV by some 60%. The result, says Atwood, “will be a complete renaissance in the science this instrument will do”.
Read the entire article at Nature.
November 13 Update: My scoop is featured on Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which tracks important and interesting science articles!
Several sites highlighted my breaking news story on what may be the most distant galaxy known in the Universe:
- Knight Science Journalism Tracker, one of the most respected trackers of science stories, highlights the article:
[NatureNews’] ace scoop-hungry reporter Ron Cowen late last week filed on a report, at the preprint server for physics-related news arXiv, that a large international team has gotten an image of a galaxy as it was when the universe was a mere 490 million years old.
Cowen writes the story well, and includes the enticing angle that if NASA’s Webb Telescope survives its budgetary excesses and goes into operation, its large IR mirror should offer a much better look at this galaxy – dubbed MACS1149-JD1.
- American Scientist republished part of the article as part of its Science in the News section, which is a roundup of the most important and exciting science news pieces.
The article was mentioned here, on my Tumblr site, shortly after publication.
Update: The National Science Foundation’s Science360 also highlights the scoop.
Infant galaxy offers tantalizing peek at early Universe
Astronomers are claiming a new benchmark in the quest to see the Universe’s first galaxies. By taking advantage of a rare cosmic zoom lens — where the gravity of a large mass magnifies light from objects in the distant background — a team of US and European researcher has spotted a galaxy so remote its light was emitted just 490 million years after the Big Bang, when the Universe was a mere 3.6% of its current age.
Read my entire article, which includes how existing and upcoming telescope capabilities could be used to investigate this galaxy further and what the find means for our understanding of the Universe’s number of galaxies.