Most people never listen, #chirpforLIGO


“I like to listen.

I have learned a great deal from listening carefully.

Most people never listen.”

Ernest Hemingway urged us to listen, and to do so carefully @LIGO

Taking his advice, we can now hear something that is impossible for us to see. Here is the sound of black holes colliding, the sound of Einstein’s General Relativity passing another test, the sound of new science.

That little blip is a Nobel prize and the validation of many peoples’ careers. It’s a validation of the scientific method. It’s a validation of the public funding of science.

Why? Every time we speak we produce sounds waves. By listening to these sounds waves – changes in their volume, rhythm, pitch – we can tell who is talking, what they are saying, and, often, what they really mean. Think of sarcasm, irony, the ‘question uptick’-  none of these can be inferred from words alone. Now transfer this idea of listening to astrophysics, and specifically Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It predicted many weird things that have all turned out to be true. Among these predictions, one stood out as unconfirmed. His theory predicted that if a large enough (i.e., lots of mass) event occurred quick enough, the effect would be a ripple in space-time.  A gravitational wave would be produced that would shake space-time, analogous to the ripples in a pond caused by a falling pebble. But these ripples in space-time would be tiny. Even the largest events we could conceive of –  two black holes colliding – would only alter space-time by 1 part in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. If we could build a listening device that would be sound-proofed from all other distractions, then we should hear this tiny ripple.


By studying the chirp of the sound, we study the Black Holes. By listening carefully, we can hear that which can never see. That is the achievement just completed by LIGO.  By listening, really carefully, Einstein’s theory has passed another test, and we’ve now opened a new window into the Universe.

Keep on listening.








Does your camera phone do this? – 46 billion pixels of Milky Way #amacrojot @profmcateer

One of the hardest parts of science is trying to study some parts of it in detail, while not forgetting that any one topic is just part of a much bigger picture. Sometimes we get so stuck on the details of the trees, that we miss the forest.  A team of scientists from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum have came up with a new tool to help us keep this perspective in astrophysics.

Over a series of nights in the last 5 years,  a campaign was carried out by the scientists in an attempt to create a catalogue of objects with variable brightness (e.g., when exoplanets crosses its stellar disk. They used telescopes based in Chile’s Atacama desert to shoot the same patches of the southern sky repeatedly over several days. Now they have taken all these data and compiled the largest astronomical image, ever. About 268 images have been aligned and captures in one image in order to create a vast 194-gigabyte galactic mosaic.

Even if you spend $10,000 on your 4K resolution, 8 million pixel tv, you’ll still be left disappointed. This stunning vista is comprised of an impressive 46 billion pixels. It so large that the researchers have provided a special online tool in order to allow viewers to take in the cosmic scene. Like google maps for the milky way. The online tool allows viewers to observe and zoom in on stunning aspects of the Milky Way in incredible detail. You can also search for objects such as stars and nebulae via the input box on the lower left of the screen.

A big milky way galaxy, finally captured in all glory, and all its detail.

Big Data for Big Questions

Astronomers with big questions like ‘How did we get here’, ‘What was there at the beginning’ and ‘What is out fate’. So it feels inevitable that answering these should be hard, and we should approach the question with caution. After all, we cannot simply believe in our answers, instead we need to agree with evidence-based conclusions drawn from data. As our questions delve us deeper and deeper into these mysteries, we need more and more data. And therein lies the biggest problem facing us today-  how do we deal with such Big Data.

The Guardian newspaper recently published an article on this.

Astronomical data is and has always been big data. Once that was only true metaphorically, now it is true in all senses. We acquire it far more rapidly than the rate at which we can process, analyse and exploit it. This means we are creating a vast global repository that may already hold answers to some of the fundamental questions of the Universe we are seeking.

Does this mean we should cancel our up-coming missions and telescopes – after all why continue to order food when the table is replete? Of course not. What it means is that, while we continue our inevitable yet budget limited advancement into the future, so we must also simultaneously do justice to the data we have already acquired.

Citizen science is one solution. Sites like Galaxyzoo and other projects on simultaneously engage the public and perform a vital scientific role.

But the near future presents a new set of problems..

Thus far, human ingenuity, and current technology have ensured that data storage capabilities have kept pace with the massive output of the electronic stargazers. The real struggle is now figuring out how to search and synthesize that output.20150420-CompletedTMA

The DKI solar telescope in Hawai will produce 15-20Tbyte of data per day, starting 2017. We need to be able to visualiize that, make it science-ready, and then transport it across the internet. As such we are looking at new ways of data mining, machine learning and database systems to help us understand out nearest and star.

It seems that the original science of data, astronomy, has a lot to learn from the new kid on the block, data science. Think about it. What if, as we strive to acquire and process more photons from across the farther reaches of the universe, from ever more exotic sources with even more complex instrumentation, that somewhere in a dusty server on Earth, the answers are already here, if we would just only pick up that dataset and look at it … possibly for the first time.

Crowd funding with an old Mcd’s #ISEE-3 #CrowdFunding


Can I get fries and a drink with that? An old abandoned McDonalds in California is the latest site of a crowd funding science success. Using public donations, the team have scrambled together equipment to communicate with an another old abandoned facility- ISEE3- a NASA observatory. The observatory still works fine, but was superseded by other instruments. Now, with some ingenuity, it is back online, taking new data and making it all available to the public immediately.

The full story is on

“The story begins back on August 12, 1978. That’s when NASA launched the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, aka the ISEE-3 satellite. The satellite entered orbit at Lagrange Point L1, meaning it orbits the sun and maintains its position from the perspective of those of us on Earth. It later became known as the International Cometary Explorer or ICE after it took a quick dip into the tail of comet Giacobini-Zinner. But by 1997, NASA decided to break up with the satellite. I imagine there was some sort of “It’s not you, it’s us” type of message sent along. NASA checked in a couple of times with ISEE-3 but the satellite remained out of commission. Its batteries died a long time ago, but the satellite also has solar panels and can operate within 98-percent of its original parameters using solar power. In other words, it can still do science if someone were willing to put in the work to communicate with it.

Over at Betabeat, there’s a fantastic rundown of the process the team went through, including their limited contact with NASA (an organization that seems to be looking on with bemused curiosity). The team works out of a vacant McDonald’s and have opened the virtual doors to all the data the satellite gathers. Citizen science can move ahead with no delay (typically, NASA holds back on data gathered during missions for a number of months before releasing it to the public).

I absolutely love this story. It has a bit of everything. There’s the crowdfunding success that shows how people are excited about science. There’s the openness of sharing data — you never know who will find something interesting in all that information. And there’s the fact that the team was able to repurpose technology that otherwise would have remained dormant. It’s fantastic. Head over to Betabeat to read up on the whole adventure!”

Fastest internet ever, from New Mexico to the Moon


NASA has set a new record for data transmission to and from the moon with a 622Mbps transfer carried over laser beams. The space agency used pulsed lasers to transmit data between a ground station in white sands, New Mexico and a spacecraft 239,000 miles away during its recent Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration. The agency was also able to upload error-free data to the LADEE spacecraft — the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer currently orbiting Earth’s moon — at a rate of 20Mbps.

Earlier this year, NASA shot the Mona Lisa into space on a laser beam,

but only managed to achieve a rate of 300 bits per second in the process. The success of the LLCD — a mission outlined in September — is “the first step in our roadmap toward building the next generation of space communication capability,” according to NASA’s Badri Younes. NASA has previously relied on radio frequency communications during its missions, but says that the technology’s limitations are obvious as the demand for more data sent from and to space increases.

Laser communication will eventually allow spacecraft to beam back better images and 3D video from deep space. Although there’s no set date for the technology’s adoption during standard NASA missions, Younes says the agency is “on the right path to introduce this new capability into operational service soon.”

How well do you know your galaxies?


Modern telescopes have presented astronomers with a problem: there are too many images of galaxies for scientists to classify every single one. But crowdsourcing has an answer. Since 2007, some astronomers have enlisted “citizen scientists” to do the heavy lifting through a project known as Galaxy Zoo. The original project was so successful, in fact, that a follow-up — called Galaxy Zoo 2 — started up in 2009 and ran for 14 months. The team behind it all (which comes from multiple universities around the world) has now publicly released the data from Zoo 2. In all, over 300,000 galaxies were organized by nearly 84,000 volunteers completed a total of over 16 million classifications.

How did it work? It’s pretty simple, really. Volunteers with no prior knowledge visited a website and were presented with an image of a galaxy. They then answered a series of questions about the visual form of the galaxy, like whether it had arms or a bulge. Images were analyzed by many volunteers — on average each was classified 44 times — allowing the team to ensure they were receiving acceptably accurate results.

Compiling data on galaxies using the same method employed by Yelp and Foursquare to figure out if restaurants take credit cards may seem amateur, but the researchers say that computers are not yet able to match the human eye in identifying the physical form of galaxies, and the data they’ve received has proven accurate. If you want to get involved, the team is now working through imagery provided by Hubble of some of the most distant galaxies yet.

NASA grand challenge


( Reuters) – NASA called on backyard astronomers and other citizen-scientists on Tuesday to help track asteroids that could create havoc on Earth.

The U.S. space agency has already identified 95 percent of the potentially planet-killing NEOs – near Earth objects – with a diameter of .62 miles or more, a size comparable to the space rock many scientists believe wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

Now NASA wants to work with individuals, government agencies, international partners and academia to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them.” Between 50 and 100 amateur astronomers are doing what is called light-curve analysis on space rocks, making repeated images of the astronomical bodies to help determine their characteristics, said Jason Kessler, program executive for what NASA calls Astroid Grand Challenge.

“We’re certainly going to need more help with that as our detection rate goes up,” Kessler said by telephone. He acknowledged that what NASA aims to do, at least in part, is to crowd-source asteroid detection.

Even smaller space rocks can be dangerous, whether or not they hit the Earth. In February, a meteorite about 19 yards in diameter exploded over central Russia, shattering windows, damaging buildings and injuring 1,200 people.

Earlier this month, an asteroid the size of a small truck zoomed past the Earth four times closer than the moon, crossing within about 65,000 miles over the Southern Ocean south of Tasmania, Australia.

Name that moon


Want to name Pluto’s two tiniest moons? Then you’ll need to dig deep into mythology. Astronomers announced a contest last week to name the two itty-bitty moons of Pluto discovered during the past two years.

Pluto is the Roman equivalent of the Greek Hades, lord of the underworld, and its three bigger moons have related mythological names: Charon, the ferryman of Hades; Nix for the night goddess; and the multiheaded monster Hydra. The two unnamed moons need similarly shady references. Right now, they go by the bland titles of P4 and P5.

Online voting will end Feb. 25. Twelve choices are available at the Web site Among the choices: Hercules, the hero who slew Hydra; Obol, the coin put in the mouths of the dead as payment to Charon; Cerebrus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates of the underworld; Orpheus, the musician and poet who used his talents to get his wife, Eurydice, out of the underworld only to lose her by looking back; and Styx, the river to the underworld. The vote tally is updated hourly.

Select your favorite name, or even better, come up with your own!.

Fingers crossed, could be spectacular


comet ison

A comet blazing toward Earth could outshine the full moon when it passes by at the end of next year – if it survives its close encounter with the sun. Comet ISON’s path is very similar to a comet that passed by Earth in 1680, one which was so bright its tail reportedly could be seen in daylight.
The projected orbit of comet ISON is so similar to the 1680 comet, sketched above, that some scientists are wondering if they are fragments from a common parent body.

The recently discovered object, known as comet ISON, is due to fly within 1.2 million miles (1.9 million km) from the center of the sun on November 28, 2013. As the comet approaches, heat from the sun will vaporize ices in its body, creating what could be a spectacular tail that is visible in Earth’s night sky without telescopes or even binoculars from about October 2013 through January 2014.

If the comet survives, that is.

Comet ISON could break apart as it nears the sun, or it could fail to produce a tail of ice particles visible from Earth. Celestial visitors like Comet ISON hail from the Oort Cloud, a cluster of frozen rocks and ices that circle the sun about 50,000 times farther away than Earth’s orbit. Every so often, one will be gravitationally bumped out from the cloud and begin a long solo orbit around the sun.

On September 21, two amateur astronomers from Russia spotted what appeared to be a comet in images taken by a 16-inch (0.4-meter) telescope that is part of the worldwide International Scientific Optical Network, or ISON, from which the object draws its name. Novichonok and co-discoverer Vitali Nevski followed up the next night with a bigger telescope at the Maidanak Observatory in Uzbekistan. Other astronomers did likewise, confirming the object, located beyond Jupiter’s orbit in the constellation Cancer, was indeed a comet.

Comet ISON…could be the brightest comet seen in many generations – brighter even than the full moon.

M-i-c, k-e-y, M-o-u, s-e


I have two young kids so inevitably I watch a lot of Mickey Mouse. This story from Wired resonates with me.

All that has happened here is that one big asteroid crashed on mercury, and sometime later two smaller asteroid crashed to make the ears. As Mercury has little or no atmosphere or erosion these patterns are bound to occur somewhere. On earth we would have the same patterns but plate tectonics, volcanoes and wind has removed almost all evidence of craters on our planet.

It does however prove show two nice points about science. First, the human brain is great at looking at images like these and making them look like something they recognize. This is a basic instinct installed in all humans from birth. Faces are a natural shape for a brain to draw. Second, you can teach astrophysics to a 2 year old.