Category Archives: Astronomy

Ongoing Chance of Northern (or Southern) Lights

As forecast, the cloud of particles from Friday’s solar flare (the “coronal mass emission”, or “CME”) arrived at our planet a few hours after my last post, early in the morning New York time. If you’d like to know how I knew that it had reached Earth, and how I know what’s going on now, scroll down to the end of this post and I’ll show you the data I was following, which is publicly available at all times.

So far the resulting auroras have stayed fairly far north, and so I haven’t seen any — though they were apparently seen last night in Washington and Wyoming, and presumably easily seen in Canada and Alaska. [Caution: sometimes when people say they’ve been “seen”, they don’t quite mean that; I often see lovely photos of aurora that were only visible to a medium-exposure camera shot, not to the naked eye.]  Or rather, I should say that the auroras have stayed fairly close to the Earth’s poles; they were also seen in New Zealand.

Russia and Europe have a good opportunity this evening. As for the U.S.? The storm in the Earth’s magnetic field is still going on, so tonight is still a definite possibility for northern states. Keep an eye out! Look for what is usually a white or green-hued glow, often in swathes or in stripes pointing up from the northern horizon, or even overhead if you’re lucky.  The stripes can move around quite rapidly.

Now, here’s how I knew all this.  I’m no expert on auroras; that’s not my scientific field at all.   But the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which needs to monitor conditions in space in case they should threaten civilian and military satellites or even installations on the ground, provides a wonderful website with lots of relevant data.

The first image on the site provides the space weather overview; a screenshot from the present is shown below, with my annotations.  The upper graph indicates a blast of x-rays (a form of light not visible to the human eye) which is generated when the solar flare, the magnetically-driven explosion on the sun, first occurs.  Then the slower cloud of particles (protons, electrons, and other atomic nuclei, all of which have mass and therefore can’t travel at light’s speed) takes a couple of days to reach Earth.  It’s arrival is shown by the sudden jump in the middle graph.  Finally, the lower graph measures how active the Earth’s magnetic field is.  The only problem with that plot is it tends to be three hours out of date, so beware of that! A “Kp index” of 5 shows significant activity; 6 means that auroras are likely to be moving away from the poles, and 7 or 8 mean that the chances in a place like the north half of the United States are pretty good.  So far, 6 has been the maximum generated by the current flare, but things can fluctuate a little, so 6 or 7 might occur tonight.  Keep an eye on that lower plot; if it drops back down to 4, forget it, but it it’s up at 7, take a look for sure!


Also on the site is data from the ACE satellite.  This satellite sits 950 thousand miles [1.5 million kilometers] from Earth, between Earth and the Sun, which is 93 million miles [150 million kilometers] away.  At that vantage point, it gives us (and our other satellites) a little early warning, of up to an hour, before the cloud of slow particles from a solar flare arrives.  That provides enough lead-time to turn off critical equipment that might otherwise be damaged.  And you can see, in the plot below, how at a certain time in the last twenty-four hours the readings from the satellite, which had been tepid before, suddenly started fluctuating wildly.  That was the signal that the flare had struck the satellite, and would arrive shortly at our location.


It’s a wonderful feature of the information revolution that you can get all this scientific data yourself, and not wait around hoping for a reporter or blogger to process it for you.  None of this was available when I was a child, and I missed many a sky show.  A big thank you to NOAA, and to the U.S. taxpayers who make their work possible.



LIGO detects a second merger of black holes

There’s additional news from LIGO (the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Observatory) about gravitational waves today. What was a giant discovery just a few months ago will soon become almost routine… but for now it is still very exciting…

LIGO got a Christmas (US) present: Dec 25th/26th 2015, two more black holes were detected coalescing 1.4 billion light years away — changing the length of LIGO’s arms by 300 parts in a trillion trillion, even less than the first merger observed in September. The black holes had 14 solar masses and 8 solar masses, and merged into a black hole with 21 solar masses, emitting 1 solar mass of energy in gravitational waves. In contrast to the September event, which was short and showed just a few orbits before the merger, in this event nearly 30 orbits over a full second are observed, making more information available to scientists about the black holes, the merger, and general relativity.  (Apparently one of the incoming black holes was spinning with at least 20% of the maximum possible rotation rate for a black hole.)

The signal is not so “bright” as the first one, so it cannot be seen by eye if you just look at the data; to find it, some clever mathematical techniques are needed. But the signal, after signal processing, is very clear. (Signal-to-noise ratio is 13; it was 24 for the September detection.) For such a clear signal to occur due to random noise is 5 standard deviations — officially a detection. The corresponding “chirp” is nowhere near so obvious, but there is a faint trace.

This gives two detections of black hole mergers over about 48 days of 2015 quality data. There’s also a third “candidate”, not so clear — signal-to-noise of just under 10. If it is really due to gravitational waves, it would be merging black holes again… midway in size between the September and December events… but it is borderline, and might just be a statistical fluke.

It is interesting that we already have two, maybe three, mergers of large black holes… and no mergers of neutron stars with black holes or with each other, which are harder to observe. It seems there really are a lot of big black holes in binary pairs out there in the universe. Incidentally, the question of whether they might form the dark matter of the universe has been raised; it’s still a long-shot idea, since there are arguments against it for black holes of this size, but seeing these merger rates one has to reconsider those arguments carefully and keep an open mind about the evidence.

Let’s remember also that advanced-LIGO is still not running at full capacity. When LIGO starts its next run, six months long starting in September, the improvements over last year’s run will probably give a 50% to 100% increase in the rate for observed mergers.   In the longer run, the possibility of one merger per week is possible.

Meanwhile, VIRGO in Italy will come on line soon too, early in 2017. Japan and India are getting into the game too over the coming years. More detectors will allow scientists to know where on the sky the merger took place, which then can allow normal telescopes to look for flashes of light (or other forms of electromagnetic radiation) that might occur simultaneously with the merger… as is expected for neutron star mergers but not widely expected for black hole mergers.  The era of gravitational wave astronomy is underway.

Giving two free lectures 6/20,27 about gravitational waves

For those of you who live in or around Berkshire County, Massachusetts, or know people who do…

Starting next week I’ll be giving two free lectures about the LIGO experiment’s discovery of gravitational waves.  The lectures will be at 1:30 pm on Mondays June 20 and 27, at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, MA.  The first lecture will focus on why gravitational waves were expected by scientists, and the second will be on how gravitational waves were discovered, indirectly and then directly.  No math or science background will be assumed.  (These lectures will be similar in style to the ones I gave a couple of years ago concerning the Higgs boson discovery.)

Here’s a flyer with the details:

Advance Thoughts on LIGO

Scarcely a hundred years after Einstein revealed the equations for his theory of gravity (“General Relativity”) on November 25th, 1915, the world today awaits an announcement from the LIGO experiment, where the G in LIGO stands for Gravity. (The full acronym stands for “Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory.”) As you’ve surely heard, the widely reported rumors are that at some point in the last few months, LIGO, recently upgraded to its “Advanced” version, finally observed gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space (more accurately, of space-time). These waves, which can make the length of LIGO shorter and longer by an incredibly tiny amount, seem to have come from the violent merger of two black holes, each with a mass [rest-mass!] dozens of times larger than the Sun. Their coalescence occurred long long ago (billions of years) in a galaxy far far away (a good fraction of the distance across the visible part of the universe), but the ripples from the event arrived at Earth just weeks ago. For a brief moment, it is rumored, they shook LIGO hard enough to be convincingly observed.

For today’s purposes, let me assume the rumors are true, and let me assume also that the result to be announced is actually correct. We’ll learn today whether the first assumption is right, but the second assumption may not be certain for some months (remember OPERA’s [NOT] faster-than-light neutrinos  and BICEP2’s [PROBABLY NOT] gravitational waves from inflation). We must always keep in mind that any extraordinary scientific result has to be scrutinized and confirmed by experts before scientists will believe it! Discovery is difficult, and a large fraction of such claims — large — fail the test of time.

What the Big News Isn’t

There will be so much press and so many blog articles about this subject that I’m just going to point out a few things that I suspect most articles will miss, especially those in the press.

Most importantly, if LIGO has indeed directly discovered gravitational waves, that’s exciting of course. But it’s by no means the most important story here.

That’s because gravitational waves were already observed indirectly, quite some time ago, in a system of two neutron stars orbiting each other. This pair of neutron stars, discovered by Joe Taylor and his graduate student Russell Hulse, is interesting because one of the neutron stars is a pulsar, an object whose rotation and strong magnetic field combine to make it a natural lighthouse, or more accurately a radiohouse, sending out pulses of radio waves that can be detected at great distances. The time between pulses shifts very slightly as the pulsar moves toward and away from Earth, so the pulsar’s motion around its companion can be carefully monitored. Its orbital period has slowly changed over the decades, and the changes are perfectly consistent with what one would expect if the system were losing energy, emitting it in the form of unseen gravitational waves at just the rate predicted by Einstein’s theory (as shown in this graph.) For their discovery, Hulse and Taylor received the 1993 Nobel Prize. By now, there are other examples of similar pairs of neutron stars, also showing the same type of energy loss in detailed accord with Einstein’s equations.

A bit more subtle (so you can skip this paragraph if you want), but also more general, is that some kind of gravitational waves are inevitable… inevitable, after you accept Einstein’s earlier (1905) equations of special relativity, in which he suggested that the speed of light is a sort of universal speed limit on everything, imposed by the structure of space-time.  Sound waves, for instance, exist because the speed of sound is finite; if it were infinite, a vibrating guitar string would make the whole atmosphere wiggle back and forth in sync with the guitar string.  Similarly, since effects of gravity must travel at a finite speed, the gravitational effects of orbiting objects must create waves. The only question is the specific properties those waves might have.

No one, therefore, should be surprised that gravitational waves exist, or that they travel at the universal speed limit, just like electromagnetic waves (including visible light, radio waves, etc.) No one should even be surprised that the waves LIGO is (perhaps) detecting have properties predicted by Einstein’s specific equations for gravity; if they were different in a dramatic way, the Hulse-Taylor neutron stars would have behaved differently than expected.

Furthermore, no one should be surprised if waves from a black hole merger have been observed by the Advanced LIGO experiment. This experiment was designed from the beginning, decades ago, so that it could hardly fail to discover gravitational waves from the coalescence of two black holes, two neutron stars, or one of each. We know these mergers happen, and the experts were very confident that Advanced LIGO could find them. The really serious questions were: (a) would Advanced LIGO work as advertised? (b) if it worked, how soon would it make its first discovery? and (c) would the discovery agree in detail with expectations from Einstein’s equations?

Big News In Scientific Technology

So the first big story is that Advanced LIGO WORKS! This experiment represents one of the greatest technological achievements in human history. Congratulations are due to the designers, builders, and operators of this experiment — and to the National Science Foundation of the United States, which is LIGO’s largest funding source. U.S. taxpayers, who on average each contributed a few cents per year over the past two-plus decades, can be proud. And because of the new engineering and technology that were required to make Advanced LIGO functional, I suspect that, over the long run, taxpayers will get a positive financial return on their investment. That’s in addition of course to a vast scientific return.

Advanced LIGO is not even in its final form; further improvements are in the works. Currently, Advanced LIGO consists of two detectors located 2000 miles (3000 kilometers) apart. Each detector consists of two “arms” a few miles (kilometers) long, oriented at right angles, and the lengths of the arms are continuously compared.  This is done using exceptionally stable lasers reflecting off exceptionally perfect mirrors, and requiring use of sophisticated tricks for mitigating all sorts of normal vibrations and even effects of quantum “jitter” from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. With these tools, Advanced LIGO can detect when passing gravitational waves change the lengths of LIGO’s arms by … incredibly … less than one part in a billion trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). That’s an astoundingly tiny distance: a thousand times smaller than the radius of a proton. (A proton itself is a hundred thousand times smaller, in radius, than an atom. Indeed, LIGO is measuring a distance as small as can be probed by the Large Hadron Collider — albeit with a very very tiny energy, in contrast to the collider.) By any measure, the gravitational experimenters have done something absolutely extraordinary.

Big News In Gravity

The second big story: from the gravitational waves that LIGO has perhaps seen, we would learn that the merger of two black holes occurs, to a large extent, as Einstein’s theory predicts. The success of this prediction for what the pattern of gravitational waves should be is a far more powerful test of Einstein’s equations than the mere existence of the gravitational waves!

Imagine, if you can… Two city-sized black holes, each with a mass [rest-mass!] tens of times greater than the Sun, and separated by a few tens of miles (tens of kilometers), orbit each other. They circle faster and faster, as often, in their last few seconds, as 100 times per second. They move at a speed that approaches the universal speed limit. This extreme motion creates an ever larger and increasingly rapid vibration in space-time, generating large space-time waves that rush outward into space. Finally the two black holes spiral toward each other, meet, and join together to make a single black hole, larger than the first two and spinning at an incredible rate.  It takes a short moment to settle down to its final form, emitting still more gravitational waves.

During this whole process, the total amount of energy emitted in the vibrations of space-time is a few times larger than you’d get if you could take the entire Sun and (magically) extract all of the energy stored in its rest-mass (E=mc²). This is an immense amount of energy, significantly more than emitted in a typical supernova. Indeed, LIGO’s black hole merger may perhaps be the most titanic event ever detected by humans!

This violent dance of darkness involves very strong and complicated warping of space and time. In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 or so that the full calculation of the process, including the actual moment of coalescence, was possible, using highly advanced mathematical techniques and powerful supercomputers!

By contrast, the resulting ripples we get to observe, billions of years later, are much more tame. Traveling far across the cosmos, they have spread out and weakened. Today they create extremely small and rather simple wiggles in space and time. You can learn how to calculate their properties in an advanced university textbook on Einstein’s gravity equations. Not for the faint of heart, but certainly no supercomputers required.

So gravitational waves are the (relatively) easy part. It’s the prediction of the merger’s properties that was the really big challenge, and its success would represent a remarkable achievement by gravitational theorists. And it would provide powerful new tests of whether Einstein’s equations are in any way incomplete in their description of gravity, black holes, space and time.

Big News in Astronomy

The third big story: If today’s rumor is indeed of a real discovery, we are witnessing the birth of an entirely new field of science: gravitational-wave astronomy. This type of astronomy is complementary to the many other methods we have of “looking” at the universe. What’s great about gravitational wave astronomy is that although dramatic events can occur in the universe without leaving a signal visible to the eye, and even without creating any electromagnetic waves at all, nothing violent can happen in the universe without making waves in space-time. Every object creates gravity, through the curvature of space-time, and every object feels gravity too. You can try to hide in the shadows, but there’s no hiding from gravity.

Advanced LIGO may have been rather lucky to observe a two-black-hole merger so early in its life. But we can be optimistic that the early discovery means that black hole mergers will be observed as often as several times a year even with the current version of Advanced LIGO, which will be further improved over the next few years. This in turn would imply that gravitational wave astronomy will soon be a very rich subject, with lots and lots of interesting data to come, even within 2016. We will look back on today as just the beginning.

Although the rumored discovery is of something expected — experts were pretty certain that mergers of black holes of this size happen on a fairly regular basis — gravitational wave astronomy might soon show us something completely unanticipated. Perhaps it will teach us surprising facts about the numbers or properties of black holes, neutron stars, or other massive objects. Perhaps it will help us solve some existing mysteries, such as those of gamma-ray bursts. Or perhaps it will reveal currently unsuspected cataclysmic events that may have occurred somewhere in our universe’s past.

Prizes On Order?

So it’s really not the gravitational waves themselves that we should celebrate, although I suspect that’s what the press will focus on. Scientists already knew that these waves exist, just as they were aware of the existence of atoms, neutrinos, and top quarks long before these objects were directly observed. The historic aspects of today’s announcement would be in the successful operation of Advanced LIGO, in its new way of “seeing” the universe that allows us to observe two black holes becoming one, and in the ability of Einstein’s gravitational equations to predict the complexities of such an astronomical convulsion.

Of course all of this is under the assumptions that the rumors are true, and also that LIGO’s results are confirmed by further observations. Let’s hope that any claims of discovery survive the careful and proper scrutiny to which they will now be subjected. If so, then prizes of the highest level are clearly in store, and will be doled out to quite a few people, experimenters for designing and building LIGO and theorists for predicting what black-hole mergers would look like. As always, though, the only prize that really matters is given by Nature… and the many scientists and engineers who have contributed to Advanced LIGO may have already won.

Enjoy the press conference this morning. I, ironically, will be in the most inaccessible of places: over the Atlantic Ocean.  I was invited to speak at a workshop on Large Hadron Collider physics this week, and I’ll just be flying home. I suppose I can wait 12 hours to find out the news… it’s been 44 years since LIGO was proposed…

Moon Covers Venus Shortly

The Moon will occult (i.e. move in front of and eclipse) the planet Venus today, as visible (yes, in daytime, if you have binoculars or a telescope) across the United States sometime between 11 and 12:45 this morning, depending on where you live.  Earlier out west, later in the east. If you want to see the heavens are really in motion, here’s a chance.  Below is a link to an article that gives the details:

How Evidence for Cosmic Inflation Was Reduced to Dust

Many of you will have read in the last week that unfortunately (though to no one’s surprise after seeing the data from the Planck satellite in the last few months) the BICEP2 experiment’s claim of a discovery of gravitational waves from cosmic inflation has blown away in the interstellar wind. [For my previous posts on BICEP2, including a great deal of background information, click here.] The BICEP2 scientists and the Planck satellite scientists have worked together to come to this conclusion, and written a joint paper on the subject.  Their conclusion is that the potentially exciting effect that BICEP2 observed (“B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background on large scales”; these terms are explained here) was due, completely or in large part, to polarized dust in our galaxy (the Milky Way). The story of how they came to this conclusion is interesting, and my goal today is to explain it to non-experts.  Click here to read more.

How Far We Have Come(t)

It wasn’t that long ago, especially by cometary standards, that humans viewed the unpredictable and spectacular arrival of a comet, its tail spread across the sky unlike any star or planet, as an obviously unnatural event. How could an object flying so dramatically and briefly through the heavens be anything other than a message from a divine force? Even a few hundred years ago…

Today a human-engineered spacecraft descended out of the starry blackness and touched one.

We have known for quite some time that our ancestors widely maligned these icy rocks, often thinking them messengers of death and destruction.  Yes, a comet is, at some level, not much more than an icy rock. Yet, heated by the sun, it can create one of our sky’s most bewitching spectacles. Actually two, because not only can a comet itself be a fabulous sight, the dust it leaves behind can give us meteor showers for many years afterward.

But it doesn’t stop there.  For comets, believed to be frozen relics of the ancient past, born in the early days of the Sun and its planets, may have in fact been messengers not of death but of life.   When they pummeled our poor planet in its early years, far more often than they do today, their blows may have delivered the water for the Earth’s oceans and the chemical building blocks for its biology.   They may also hold secrets to understanding the Earth’s history, and perhaps insights into the more general questions of what happens when stars and their planets form.  Indeed, as scientific exploration of these objects moves forward, they may teach us the answers to questions that we have not yet even thought to ask.

Will the Philae lander maintain its perch or lose its grip? Will it function as long as hoped? No matter what, today’s landing was as momentous as the first spacecraft touchdowns on the Moon, Venus, Mars, Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), and a small asteroid — and also, the first descent of a spacecraft into Jupiter’s atmosphere. Congratulations to those who worked so hard and so long to get this far! Now let’s all hope that they, and their spacecraft, can hang on a little longer.

Why did so few people see Auroras on Friday night?

Why did so few people see auroras on Friday night, after all the media hype? You can see one of two reasons in the data. As I explained in my last post, you can read what happened in the data shown in the Satellite Environment Plot from this website (warning — they’re going to make new version of the website soon, so you might have to modify this info a bit.) Here’s what the plot looked like Sunday morning.

What the "Satellite Environment Plot" on looked like on Sunday.  Friday is at left; time shown is "Universal" time; New York time is 4 hours later. There were two storms, shown as the red bars in the Kp index plot; one occurred very early Friday morning and one later on Friday.  You can see the start of the second storm in the "GOES Hp" plot, where the magnetic field goes wild very suddenly.  The storm was subsiding by midnight universal time, so it was mostly over by midnight New York time.

What the “Satellite Environment Plot” on looked like on Sunday. Friday is at left.  Time shown is “Universal” time (UTC); New York time is 4 hours later at this time of year. There were two storms, shown as the red bars in the Kp index chart (fourth line); one occurred very early Friday morning and one later on Friday. You can see the start of the second storm in the “GOES Hp” chart (third line), where the magnetic field goes wild very suddenly. The storm was subsiding by midnight Universal time, so it was mostly over by midnight New York time.

What the figure shows is that after a first geomagnetic storm very early Friday, a strong geomagnetic storm started (as shown by the sharp jump in the GOES Hp chart) later on Friday, a little after noon New York time [“UTC” is currently New York + 4/5 hours], and that it was short — mostly over before midnight. Those of you out west never had a chance; it was all over before the sun set. Only people in far western Europe had good timing. Whatever the media was saying about later Friday night and Saturday night was somewhere between uninformed and out of date.  Your best bet was to be looking at this chart, which would have shown you that (despite predictions, which for auroras are always quite uncertain) there was nothing going on after Friday midnight New York time.

But the second reason is something that the figure doesn’t show. Even though this was a strong geomagnetic storm (the Kp index reached 7, the strongest in quite some time), the auroras didn’t migrate particularly far south. They were seen in the northern skies of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, but not (as far as I know) in Massachusetts. Certainly I didn’t see them. That just goes to show you (AccuWeather, and other media, are you listening?) that predicting the precise timing and extent of auroras is educated guesswork, and will remain so until current knowledge, methods and information are enhanced. One simply can’t know for sure how far south the auroras will extend, even if the impact on the geomagnetic field is strong.

For those who did see the auroras on Friday night, it was quite a sight. And for the rest of us who didn’t see them this time, there’s no reason for us to give up. Solar maximum is not over, and even though this is a rather weak sunspot cycle, the chances for more auroras over the next year or so are still pretty good.

Finally, a lesson for those who went out and stared at the sky for hours after the storm was long over — get your scientific information from the source!  There’s no need, in the modern world, to rely on out-of-date media reports.