What's up (in space!)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that teh interwebs are abuzz with talk of time travel. My friend and former Mathlete Josh Kamensky sent me a couple of links, including one from John August’s Screenwriting blog about the relationship between pre-cognition (a la Minority Report) and time travel. It’s definitely worth reading, as is Sean Carroll’s list of 11 Rules for Time Travelers, although rules 0,6,7, and 10 are a little bit redundant with one another.

I wanted to write at least a quick post about all of the exciting things that have been flung into space lately. Really, there’s a bonanza of new telescope repairs and missions going on right now. To name a few:

  • Kepler – On March 6, the Kepler observatory was launched. It will continuously observe about 100,000 stars. The idea is that if an earth-like planet passed in front of a star, the brightness would dim for a short while. We would, in fact, be able to detect earth using such an instrument. And, in case you’re confused, we’ve never detected anything smaller than 5 times the mass of the earth outside our solar system, and we’ve never detected anything that would be habitable for human life.
  • Planck – On May 14, the Planck mission was launched by the European Space Agency. Planck is a microwave observatory (30-857 GHz) which will (like the WMAP satellite before it) measure the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). You may have seen press images of the “baby pictures of the universe”:WMAP Sky map

    Planck will measure unprecedented resolution in the CMB, allowing us to measure the primordial power spectrum to scales 3 times smaller than those probed by WMAP. The other big goal is to study clusters of galaxies using the multi-waveband capabilities of the instruments. Ideally, we’ll be able to measure the Integrated Sachs-Wolfe and Sunyaev-Z’eldovich effects which will, respectively, give us insights into the Dark Energy in the universe, and the formation of the first clusters of galaxies.

  • Herschel Space Observatory – This is an infrared telescope that was launched on the same mission as Planck. Basically, it’s tuned to be sensitive to molecular chemistry, meaning that it will be able to measure star formation, planetary atmospheres (within our solar system), and the formation of early galaxies.
  • Hubble Upgrade! – In May, the Hubble Space Telescope got its latest (and last) servicing mission. Of particular interest to me is the installation of the “Wide Field Camera 3”. As the name suggests, it’s set up for wide field surveying, with pixels that are diffraction limited (meaning that it would be pointless to make them any smaller). It’s particularly useful because it has filters which allow it to observe in the near IR as well as in the UV.

I know I’m supposed to be a theorist, but it’s hard not to get excited about all of the science that’s going to come out of these.


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