Archive for April, 2009

Herschel/Planck New Launch Date Scheduled

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009 by Bellatrix

The largest mirror ever to be launched into space now has a set launch date.  The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory and Planck Satellite are set to launch into space May 6th. . Together these two pieces of equipment should be bringing in lots of new and exciting information about our own solar system and distant galaxies.

Sir Frederick William Herschel was a German born British astronomer from the 18th and 19th century. He was most famous for discovering the planet Uranus and discovering infrared radiation.  The Herschel Space Observatory will be the first to cover the full far infrared and sub-millimeter telescope.  The large mirror measures in at 3.5 meters; it’s a novel and advanced concept using 12 silicon carbide petals brazed together into a single piece. It is one of the major technological highlights of the mission.  Herschel will be investigating a large array of astronomical objects including: galaxy formation in the early universe and galaxy evolution, star formation and its interaction with the interstellar medium, chemical composition of atmospheres and surfaces of solar system bodies, and molecular chemistry across the universe.  Sounds like it has it work cut out.

The Planck Satellite will be going up with Herschel Observatory.  The satellite is named after the famous German physicist Max Planck who is considered the founder of quantum theory.  The satellite was designed to observe the anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB, over the entire sky using high angular resolution.  The mission is meant to improve upon the data collected from the well-known WMAP mission and will be used to test theories of the early universe and the origin of cosmic structure. 

Herschel and Planck will start their journey in space on board an Ariane 5 departing from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Final preparations for the launch are now being made such as fueling the two satellites and filling Herschel’s cryostat (a vessel used to maintain cryogenic temperatures) with helium.  Once launched the two satellites will separate and be put into separate orbits around the second lagrangian point of the earth-sun system, a distance of about 1.5 million km’s from Earth.  Both satellites are part of the European Space Agency’s Horizons 2000 Scientific Programme, which consisted of about 15 satellite or telescope projects over the last 20 years including such other projects as Cluster, Huygens, XMM-Newton, and others.

The launch of these two satellites/observatories is exciting. They are new and advanced pieces of technology aimed at answering some large questions in astronomy today.  And are a fine example of astronomy goals and projects outside of the US.  So for now we just have to keep our fingers crossed and hold our breath for a successful launch and problem free start up. 

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Exciting New Development in Observational Techniques

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 by admin

Observational astronomers, engineers, and telescope experts are always working hard to better their observational equipment.  Even with all of our advanced technology when looking at things at such great astronomical distances we are still limited. However, recently astronomers in Germany made a break through with a new technique for improving resolution power of telescopes, allowing us to see previously unseen objects or resolve new details of known objects.

A team of astronomers, led by Stefan Kraus and Gerd Weigelt from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany, used European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) to obtain the sharpest image of the young double star Theta 1 Orionis C in the Orion Trapezium Cluster.  The Theta 1 system is a massive binary system of young stars in the Orion star-forming region. In previous images of the system, even with the Hubble Space Telescope, the telescopes were not able to resolve the two separate stars in the system, which are only separated by a distance of about 20 milliarcseconds.  The team was also able to derive the properties of the system including the masses of the two stars, about 38 and 9 solar masses, and also an accurate measure of the distance to the system, about 1350 light years.

The increase in resolution power came from using the technique of interferometry.  This method allows one to combine light collected from several telescopes, making what is like a “virtual” telescope with a resolving power equal to that of a ground based telescope with a 200 meter mirror or a space based telescope with a 130 meter mirror.  The Very Large Telescope now allows European astronomers to reconstruct images from the interferometric infrared data with the use of its near infrared beam combination instrument AMBER.  This gives the astronomers a resolving power of about 2 milliarcseconds.

Early imaging interferometry was almost exclusively done with long wavelength radio telescopes because the longer the wavelength of incoming radiation the easier it is to measure the phase information of data. Examples of radio interferometers are the Very Large Array, or VLA, and The Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network, or MERLIN. As the speeds of correlators and associated technologies have improved, the minimum radiation wavelength observable by interferometry has decreased. Now this is the first time astronomers have been able to use this technique with the shorter wavelength of infrared.

So far this technique with the VLIT has only been used to study Theta 1 in the Orion region.  The results obtained will be important for studying the Orion region and for theoretical models of massive star formation, as Theta 1 is a particularly massive and young star in an active star forming region.  Beyond the Orion data this method for observing promises to yield new discoveries and information about many different objects and topics. It is quite exciting innovation bringing us closer to new information without the need for necessarily spending much more time and money on new equipment. 

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