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Massive Space Telescope Will Look for ‘Another Earth’

Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman

It’s taken 1000 people and 20 years, but the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is nearing completion. Once it’s done, NASA will attach the $8 billion project to a rocket and shoot it into space, where the telescope will begin its search for Earth-like exoplanets. This weekend, the Discovery Channel will premiere TELESCOPE, a behind-the-scenes documentary on the project.

Matt Mountain is president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. As a manager, he’s acutely aware of the risks. There is a chance, after all, that the telescope could fail to deploy, or that it will be damaged in the launch. Mountain tells mental_floss that if the JWST fails, “it will be a disaster.”

But he remains optimistic. “In all science, there’s always risk,” Mountain says. “We’re doing something nobody has ever done before. We’re building the largest space telescope anybody’s ever built. We’re going to send it out a million miles and we’re going to deploy it. We just hope that we’ve done enough testing and checking here back on Earth that that won’t happen.”

The JWST has a number of scientific objectives. Astronomers know that the universe began with the so-called Big Bang, and that an explosion eventually became millions of galaxies. What happened in between—what astronomers call the Dark Ages—remains unseen. The JWST will use its powerful imaging capabilities to search for evidence of this missing period of cosmic history.

Just as amazing, Mountain says, is the JWST’s potential to discover Earth-like exoplanets—planets that are not too big or too small, too hot or too cold: “Now, we’ve got to be very lucky, because we don’t know where all these planets are yet, but if it’s about the size of the Earth, and it’s in the goldilocks zone, it can hold liquid water. And liquid water is the prerequisite for life. And then we’ll know where to look for life in another planetary zone. That would be damn cool.”

Speaking in the documentary, astronomer and planetary scientist Sara Seagar agreed: “Another Earth is undoubtedly out there.”

As a telescope expert and enthusiast, Mountain is also excited about the documentary. “The telescope has been one of the most transformative instruments in human history,” he says. “Before telescopes, the Earth was thought to be the center of our universe. Then we discovered that, no, it was the Sun, because of Galileo. And then with telescopes we discovered that those funny things we saw in the sky were not just nebulae—they were other galaxies. Every time people had theories, whether it be from Plato and Aristotle, Ptolemy, or even Einstein, telescopes have revealed a universe that people hadn’t expected.”

Like the Hubble, observations made by the James Webb Space Telescope will be accessible to everyone via images uploaded to the Internet. “That’s why telescopes have been so powerful,” Mountain says. “Everybody can come on this journey.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018. TELESCOPE will air Saturday at 9 p.m. EST on the Discovery Channel and Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on the Science Channel.

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How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain
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From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

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Space
Neutron Star Collision Sheds Light on the Strange Matter That Weighs a Billion Tons Per Teaspoon
Two neutron stars collide.
Two neutron stars collide.

Neutron stars are among the many mysteries of the universe scientists are working to unravel. The celestial bodies are incredibly dense, and their dramatic deaths are one of the main sources of the universe’s gold. But beyond that, not much is known about neutron stars, not even their size or what they’re made of. A new stellar collision reported earlier this year may shed light on the physics of these unusual objects.

As Science News reports, the collision of two neutron stars—the remaining cores of massive stars that have collapsed—were observed via light from gravitational waves. When the two small stars crossed paths, they merged to create one large object. The new star collapsed shortly after it formed, but exactly how long it took to perish reveals keys details of its size and makeup.

One thing scientists know about neutron stars is that they’re really, really dense. When stars become too big to support their own mass, they collapse, compressing their electrons and protons together into neutrons. The resulting neutron star fits all that matter into a tight space—scientists estimate that one teaspoon of the stuff inside a neutron star would weigh a billion tons.

This type of matter is impossible to recreate and study on Earth, but scientists have come up with a few theories as to its specific properties. One is that neutron stars are soft and yielding like stellar Play-Doh. Another school of thought posits that the stars are rigid and equipped to stand up to extreme pressure.

According to simulations, a soft neutron star would take less time to collapse than a hard star because they’re smaller. During the recently recorded event, astronomers observed a brief flash of light between the neutron stars’ collision and collapse. This indicates that a new spinning star, held together by the speed of its rotation, existed for a few milliseconds rather than collapsing immediately and vanishing into a black hole. This supports the hard neutron star theory.

Armed with a clearer idea of the star’s composition, scientists can now put constraints on their size range. One group of researchers pegged the smallest possible size for a neutron star with 60 percent more mass than our sun at 13.3 miles across. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists are determining that the biggest neutron stars become smaller rather than larger. In the collision, a larger star would have survived hours or potentially days, supported by its own heft, before collapsing. Its short existence suggests it wasn’t so huge.

Astronomers now know more about neutron stars than ever before, but their mysterious nature is still far from being fully understood. The matter at their core, whether free-floating quarks or subatomic particles made from heavier quarks, could change all of the equations that have been written up to this point. Astronomers will continue to search the skies for clues that demystify the strange objects.

[h/t Science News]

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