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The Universe

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Galactic Getaways.

“‘It feels like we’re living in the future, or science fiction is coming to life. We thought it would be really cool to explore the characteristics of each planet through the context of travel.'” As Kepler finds its 1,000th exoplanet, NASA celebrates by commissioning nifty vintage travel posters for faraway worlds. Either of the above might be good for a swing-through while folding space to Arrakis.

An Infant System.

“[T]he most breathtaking aspects of the image are the rings and gaps in the disk, never imaged before in this much detail. The largest gaps likely contain protoplanets, which form by collecting gas, dust, and small meteoroid fragments, gradually clearing their orbit of that debris. The combination of those gaps and the young age of HL Tauri suggest planets may form more quickly than astronomers think.”

Also in space news, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) captures our best look yet at potential planetary formation around a newborn star, 450 light years away. “The disk surrounding HL Tauri is much bigger than Neptune’s orbit, so any planet in the gaps would at least begin at a larger orbit than the major planets in the Solar System. Additionally, other gaps could be ‘resonances’: orbits where the combined gravity of the star and protoplanets drive matter out, concentrating it in the rings.”

Immeasurable Heaven.

“Discounting cosmic expansion, their map shows flow lines down which galaxies creep under the effect of gravity in their local region…Based on this, the team defines the edge of a supercluster as the boundary at which these flow lines diverge. On one side of the line, galaxies flow towards one gravitational centre; beyond it, they flow towards another. ‘It’s like water dividing at a watershed, where it flows either to the left or right of a height of land,’ says Tully.”

Using an algorithm based on the velocity of redshifting galaxies, a team of University of Hawaii astronomers identify our galaxy’s place in the newly-identified Laniakea supercluster. (Laniakea being Hawaiian for “Immeasurable Heaven.”) Adds Slate‘s Phil Plait: “Laniakea is about 500 million light years across, a staggering size, and contains the mass of 100 quadrillion Suns — 100 million billion times the mass of our star.”

Great Eyes, Lidless.

“The biggest building boom in the history of astronomy is upon us. In Chile and Hawaii and in space, astronomers are getting powerful telescopes that dwarf the current state-of-the-art instruments. When the mountain blasting and the mirror polishing are all done, we will have the clearest and most detailed views of outer space ever.”

By way of Follow Me Here, Gizmodo looks at five massive telescopes that will change the game, including the James Webb Space Telescope, a.k.a. Hubble 2.0. “Since blowing past its initial budget and launch data, NASA promises the ambitious project is on-track for 2018. And it better, because astronomers are eagerly awaiting its data.”

Neptune’s Nebula.

“This jaw-dropping image by Mark Hanson shows the nebula NGC 6888, the result of fierce winds of subatomic particles blown off by the star WR 136, a massive blue monster a quarter million times more luminous than our Sun. The nebula is the result of a previously ejected wind of material being slammed by faster matter ejected more recently.”

From attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion to c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate, Slate’s Phil Plait shows off the winners of this year’s Astronomy Photographs of the Year. All 2500 submissions can be viewed here.

68 km/sec.

“Font-Ribera and his team…pioneered a method of measuring BAOs by using quasars, which are galaxies that are far brighter than normal due to the activity of a supermassive black hole at their center. As matter falls into the black hole, it grows extremely hot, radiating light at far brighter wavelengths and over farther distances than conventional galaxies. This allowed the scientists to measure the mass distribution of the universe out to 12 billion years.”

By incorporating quasars into the field of study, physicists determine the expansion rate of the universe to within 2.2 accuracy. That rate: 68 kilometers per second (which, for the Douglas Adams aficionados out there, translates into 42 miles per second.) “The uncertainty is plus or minus only a kilometer and a half per second.”

Flat Circle? Try Quantum Entanglement.

“‘In classical physics, we were struggling,’ said Sandu Popescu, a professor of physics at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom…”The tendency of coffee — and everything else — to reach equilibrium is ‘very intuitive,’ said Nicolas Brunner, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva. ‘But when it comes to explaining why it happens, this is the first time it has been derived on firm grounds by considering a microscopic theory.'”

Once dismissed as a crank 30 years ago — this apparently happens to theorists of time often — an MIT professor finds his quantum theory of time gaining adherents. “Energy disperses and objects equilibrate…because of the way elementary particles become intertwined when they interact — a strange effect called ‘quantum entanglement.’…’What’s really going on is things are becoming more correlated with each other,’ Lloyd recalls realizing. ‘The arrow of time is an arrow of increasing correlations.'”

Our Distant Cousin.

“‘We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth,’ said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute…’Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.'”

New planets have been discovered at a pretty decent clip of late. But, in a milestone, NASA’s Kepler Telescope finds in Kepler 186f, 500 light years away, the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the ‘habitable zone’ — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet.” (“Earth-size” being the key word here — Kepler has previously found larger planets in the habitable zone.) To put it all down and start again, from the top to the bottom and then

Update: Interesting speculation: Does Kepler 186f bode ill for our future? “This apparent absence of thriving extraterrestrial civilizations suggests that at least one of the steps from humble planet to interstellar civilization is exceedingly unlikely. The absence could be caused because either intelligent life is extremely rare or intelligent life has a tendency to go extinct.”

Stretch Marks from the Dawn of Time.

“Primordial gravitational waves remain one of the outstanding untested hypotheses of inflation, the most popular model that explains the incredible uniformity of the CMB. According to inflationary theory, the Universe expanded very rapidly in the first fraction of a second, filling the cosmos with gravitational ripples. While inflation so far seems to explain a lot about the Universe, we have no direct evidence for it.”

Until now? With help from the South Pole’s BICEP2 observatory, astrophysicists announce they have detected the first possible direct evidence of cosmic inflation after the Big Bang, in the form of “distortions in the cosmic microwave background light…Those distortions take the form of twisting of the light’s polarization created by gravitational disturbances from inflation.” “‘This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,’ said co-leader Clem Pryke.”

Update: 5 Sigma, R of 0.2. WHAT? Also another good explanation here: “Punchline: other than finding life on other planets or directly detecting dark matter, I can’t think of any other plausible near-term astrophysical discovery more important than this one for improving our understanding of the universe.”

Update 2: “The problem: the signal predicted by inflation is something called polarization, a sort of twisting of electromagnetic radiation. And while it can come from inflation-triggered gravity waves, microwaves from the early universe are altered en route to earthly telescopes, and if you don’t allow for the alteration, you can mistake local dust for a signal from billions of years ago.” Wait a tic: Princeton scientists cast doubt on the discovery.

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