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Lightest black hole merger detected

Scientists searching for gravitational waves have confirmed yet another detection from their fruitful observation run earlier this year. The latest discovery, dubbed GW170608, was produced by the merger of two very light black holes. One of the black holes had a mass of just 7 times the mass of our sun, where the other had a mass of 12 times that of our sun.

The collision (or merger) happened at a distance of about a thousand million light-years from Earth.

The merger left behind a final black hole 18 times the mass of the sun, meaning that energy equivalent to about 1 solar mass was emitted as gravitational waves during the collision.

Dr John Veitch, who is co-chair of LIGO’s Compact Binary Coalescence Search Group and Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy said:

“GW170608 is the lightest pair of black holes that we have detected so far, which provides us with new opportunities to explore the crossover between gravitational wave astronomy and more conventional forms of astronomy.”

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The James Webb Space Telescope – why do we need it?

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and is due to be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket in Spring 2019. The JWST will be the premier space observatory of the next decade, supporting thousands of astronomers worldwide.

The telescope will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.

JWST is a large infrared telescope with a huge primary mirror that has a diameter of 6.5 meters (see image below). The sunshade, which is the largest structure of JWST – the size of a tennis court, will act as a shield to the deployed primary mirror.


The Successor to Hubble
JWST is designed not as a replacement, but as a successor that will expand on the scientific success of the Hubble Space Telescope. JWST is designed to operate at very low temperatures (around -230° C) and will primarily look at the Universe in the infrared, looking deeper into space to see the earliest stars and galaxies that formed in the Universe and to look deep into nearby dust clouds to study the formation of stars and planets. It is planned that the mission will last around 10 years, where the mission lifetime will depend on the amount of fuel that is used for maintaining the orbit of the spacecraft and instruments.

Following Launch
Thirty minutes after launch JWST will deploy from the Ariane 5 Rocket and will immediately deploy the solar array. In the following days and weeks after launch there will be several trajectory correction manoeuvres followed by the commencement of the major deployment, firstly the sunshield pallets and then the telescope.

During the first couple of months of the mission the four instruments will be turned on with the final instrument MIRI becoming operational. At the end of the third month the first science-quality images will be taken and JWST will complete its initial orbit around L2 (see image below), its home for the next decade.

(The five Lagrangian points for the Sun-Earth system are shown here. An object placed at any one of these 5 points will stay in place relative to the other two. The L2 point, where the JWST will be is 1.5 million km from Earth. Credit: NASA)

JWST has four mission science goals:

1) To search for the first galaxies and stars that formed after the Big Bang, and to learn how they evolved throughout the history of the universe.

2) Determine how galaxies evolved from their formation until the present day looking inside stellar nurseries and at planets forming in dusty disks around young stars.

3) Observe the formation of stars from the first stages to the formation of planetary systems.

4) Measure the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems and investigate the potential for life in those systems.

UK Involvement
The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) was developed in a collaborative effort between scientists and engineers from ten European countries, led by the UK and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), with the support of ESA and NASA. The UK team is made up of a partnership between the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), University of Leicester and Airbus Defence and Space with funding from the UK Space Agency.

In addition to MIRI, University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory is contributing NIRSpec’s on board calibration system and ground support equipment.

Want to know more about the James Webb Space Telescope? Click here

Interesting images: Gaia detects proton storm

The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission has been in orbit since December 2013. Its purpose is to observe more than a thousand million stars in our Galaxy, monitoring each target star about 70 times over a five-year period and precisely charting their positions, distances, movements and brightness.

Although Gaia is not equipped with a dedicated radiation monitor, it can provide information about space weather (and the solar particles and radiation) that it encounters at its unique orbital position, 1.5 million km from Earth towards the Sun.

In September, Gaia unexpectedly detected a large quantity of subatomic particles, called protons, that make up each and every one of us, emitted by a solar flare.


(In this image, captured by Gaia’s Wave Front Sensor – a sort of ‘camera within a camera’ in its main star-sensing instrument – the streaks of ‘snow’ are trails of individual protons. During normal space weather conditions, the image would only include one or two proton trails. The long trail running horizontally across the image indicates a particularly energetic proton. Image Credit: ESA / E. Serpell)

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ESA Space news: The colour sphere of the Sun

This colourful image, released earlier today as ESA’s Space Science Image of the Week is a chromosphere flash spectrum captured during the total solar eclipse that could be seen across the United States on 21 August 2017.

The image was taken by ESA’s expedition team who monitored the eclipse from Casper, Wyoming (Copyright ESA/M. Castillo-Fraile).

During an eclipse, when the Moon temporarily partially blocks the light from the Sun, astronomers can make unique measurements. This includes looking at and analysing the normally invisible red hue of the chromosphere.

What is the Sun’s chromosphere?
The sun is made up of different layers (see image below)

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(Image Credit: NASA)

The chromosphere is a layer in the Sun between about 250 miles (400 km) and 1300 miles (2100 km) above the solar surface. The technical name for the surface of the sun that we can see, where sun spots and solar flares are sometimes visible, is called the photosphere.

The chromosphere sits above the photosphere and emits a reddish glow as super-heated hydrogen burns off. But the red rim can only be seen during a total solar eclipse. At other times, light from the chromosphere is usually too weak to be seen against the brighter photosphere.

Just before and after the eclipse totality, the Sun’s emission can be split into a spectrum of colours, showing the fingerprint of different chemical elements.

(The colour sphere of the Sun. An image of the eclipsed Sun is produced to the left, and the spectrum of each point of the Sun superposed at the right. Credit: ESA/M. Castillo-Fraile)

The strongest emission is due to hydrogen. The bright yellow corresponds to helium, an element only discovered in a flash spectrum captured during the 18 August 1868 total eclipse, although it was then unknown what it was. Nearly three decades later the element was discovered on Earth and helium is now known to be the second most abundant element in the Universe, after hydrogen.

The image was taken by astronomers from the Cesar science educational project based at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre near Madrid in Spain. For more eclipse images and technical information visit the Cesar eclipse website.

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Crashing neutron stars unlock secrets of the Universe – thanks to UK tech

On 17 August 2017 gravitational waves were detected by both LIGO and Virgo collaborations.

The ‘chirp’-like signal, called GW170817, is a great example of multimessenger astronomy, where just 1.7 seconds after the gravitational waves network saw the signal, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and ESA’s INTErnational Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) both detected a short gamma-ray burst from the same area of the sky.

Signals like chirps and gamma-ray bursts are referred to as ‘triggers’ that start this multimessenger astronomy since they alert the astronomical community to the event, who can then focus their instruments to observe the same patch of sky.

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(The advanced LIGO Livingston detector. LIGO is made up of two twin detectors, two pairs of 4km-long perpendicular pipes, one in Hanford, Washington state, the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Photo Credit: LIGO)

Over 70 different observatories, including the Hubble Telescope, were able to detect remnants of the signal in the form of fading light, the counterpart to the gravitational waves signal.

Since operation began at LIGO and its European counterpart Virgo, based in Italy, this is the fifth time gravitational waves have been detected, where the first event was back in September 2015. This first detection of gravitational waves from a black hole merger was an achievement that was recognized with this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

This is the first time that researchers have detected both light and gravitational waves from the same event and provides the strongest evidence yet that short-duration gamma-ray bursts are caused by mergers of neutron-stars.

The neutron-star merger has also started to shed light on one of the big questions in physics: how heavy elements such as gold and platinum are formed.

Find out more here, where details of the UK contribution to the discovery can be found here.

Winning the Nobel Prize for Physics

With recent news surrounding LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves from a neutron star collision it’s wonderful that the Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”.

On 14 September 2015 scientists first detected gravitational waves coming from a black hole merger (where two black holes spiral around each other until they eventually merge together). This resulted in an announcement on 11 February 2016 that the first detection of gravitational waves had been observed.

The result was a milestone in physics and astronomy and confirmed Einstein’s predictions, made over a century ago, marking the beginning of the new and exciting field of gravitational-wave astronomy.


(An artist’s impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars.
Credits: NASA, R. Hurt, Caltech-JPL)

There are currently 11 institutes across the UK involved in developing the latest technologies and research in gravitational waves.

To find out more about gravitational waves in general take a look at STFC’s website, where you can find a number of info-graphics and everything you need to know about gravitational waves.