Underground Telescope Could Give Scientists First Glimpse of the Dawn of the Universe

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Scientists could get their first glimpse of the dawn of the universe from a telescope buried up to half a mile underground.  This new device is designed to detect gravitational waves.  Gravitational waves are an elusive phenomena created by some of the most violent events in the universe such as black holes, neutron stars and the Big Bang.

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Amateur Astronomer Takes Stunning Photo of a Smoke Ring Emitted by the Sun

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This image of the sun with a massive detached prominence hovering just above its surface.

Somewhat alarmingly, it looks like a close-up of a tennis ball blowing a smoke ring.  But this incredible image is actually of the sun with a massive detached prominence hovering just above its surface.  It shows the aftermath of a large solar flare – or prominence – emitted by an erupting sunspot earlier this month. (pics)

 

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Sunspot Activity Eerily Quiet for Past Two Years

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Sunspots come and go, but recently they have mostly gone. For centuries, astronomers have recorded when these dark blemishes on the solar surface emerge, only to fade away after a few days, weeks or months. Thanks to their efforts, we know that sunspot numbers ebb and flow in cycles lasting about 11 years.
But for the past two years, the sunspots have mostly been missing. Their absence, the most prolonged in nearly 100 years, has taken even seasoned sun watchers by surprise. “This is solar behavior we haven’t seen in living memory,” says David Hathaway, a physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The sun is under scrutiny as never before, thanks to an armada of space telescopes. The results they beam back are portraying our nearest star, and its influence on Earth, in a new light. Sunspots and other clues indicate that the sun’s magnetic activity is diminishing and that the sun may even be shrinking. Together, the results hint that something profound is happening inside the sun. The big question is: What?
Groups of sunspots forewarn of gigantic solar storms that can unleash a billion times more energy than an atomic bomb. Fears that these giant eruptions could create havoc on Earth and disputes over the sun’s role in climate change are adding urgency to these studies. When NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory almost 15 years ago, “understanding the solar cycle was not one of its scientific objectives,” says Bernhard Fleck, the mission’s project scientist. “Now it is one of the key questions.”
Sunspots are windows into the sun’s magnetic soul. They form where giant loops of magnetism, generated deep inside the sun, well up and burst through the surface, leading to a localized drop in temperature that we see as a dark patch. Any changes in sunspot numbers reflect changes inside the sun. “During this transition, the sun is giving us a real glimpse into its interior,” says Hathaway.
When sunspot numbers drop at the end of each 11-year cycle, solar storms die down and all becomes much calmer. This “solar minimum” doesn’t last long. Within a year, the spots and storms begin to build toward a new crescendo, the next solar maximum.
What’s special about this latest dip is that the sun is having trouble starting the next solar cycle. The sun began to calm down in late 2007, so no one expected many sunspots in 2008. But computer models predicted that when the spots did return, they would do so in force. Hathaway was reported as thinking the next solar cycle would be a doozy: more sunspots, more solar storms and more energy blasted into space. Others predicted that it would be the most active solar cycle on record.
The trouble was, no one told the sun.
The first sign that the prediction was wrong came when 2008 turned out to be even calmer than expected. That year, the sun was spot-free 73 percent of the time, an extreme dip even for a solar minimum. Only the minimum of 1913 was more pronounced, with 85 percent of that year clear.
As 2009 arrived, solar physicists looked for some action. They didn’t get it. The sun continued to languish until mid-December, when the largest group of sunspots to emerge in several years appeared. Even with the solar cycle finally underway again, the number of sunspots has so far been well below expectations. Something appears to have changed inside the sun, something the models did not predict. But what?
The flood of observations from space- and ground-based telescopes suggests that the answer lies in the behavior of two vast conveyor belts of gas that endlessly cycle material and magnetism through the sun’s interior and out across its surface. On average it takes 40 years for the conveyor belts to complete a circuit.
When Hathaway’s NASA team looked over the observations to find out where their models had gone wrong, they noticed that the conveyor-belt flows of gas across the sun’s surface have been speeding up since 2004.
But the circulation deep within the sun tells a different story. Rachel Howe and Frank Hill of the National Solar Observatory in Tucson have used observations of surface disturbances, caused by the solar equivalent of seismic waves, to infer what conditions are like within the sun. Analyzing data from 2009, they found that while the surface flows had sped up, the internal ones had slowed to a crawl. These contradictory findings have thrown the best computer models of the sun into disarray. “It is certainly challenging our theories,” says Hathaway.
These changes are raising questions not just about the sun itself but also about the extent to which the sun’s activity affects our climate. There are those who believe that the solar variability is the major cause of climate change, an idea that would let humans and their greenhouse gases off the hook. Others are equally convinced that the sun plays only a minuscule role in climate change.
The extended collapse in solar activity these past two years offers the possibility of an experiment to resolve this dispute, allowing scientists to examine what happens when you switch off one potential cause of climate change and leave the other alone. With so few sunspots, the amount of solar radiation bombarding our planet has significantly changed. “As a natural experiment, this is the very best thing to happen,” says Joanna Haigh, a climatologist at Imperial College London. “Now we have to see how the Earth responds.”
Frigid Europe
Michael Lockwood, a professor of space environment physics at the University of Reading in England, may already have identified one response: the unusually frigid European winter of 2009-10. He has studied records back to 1650 and found that severe European winters are much more likely during periods of low solar activity. This fits an idea of solar activity’s giving rise to small changes in the global climate overall but large regional effects.
Another example is the so-called Maunder minimum, the period from 1645 to 1715 during which sunspots virtually disappeared and solar activity plummeted. If a similar spell of solar inactivity were to begin now and continue until 2100, it would mitigate any temperature rise caused by global warming by no more than 0.3 degrees Celsius, according to calculations by Georg Feulner and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
However, something amplified the impact of the Maunder minimum on northern Europe, ushering in a period known as the Little Ice Age, when colder-than-average winters became more prevalent and the average temperature in Europe appeared to drop by between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius.
A corresponding increase in temperatures on Earth appears to be associated with peaks in solar output. In 2008, Judith Lean of the Naval Research Laboratory’s space science division published a study showing that high solar activity has a disproportionate warming influence on northern Europe.
What the sun will do next is beyond our ability to predict. Most astronomers think that the solar cycle will proceed but at significantly depressed levels of activity, similar to those last seen in the 19th century. However, there is also evidence that the sun is inexorably losing its ability to produce sunspots. By 2015, they could be gone altogether, plunging us into a new Maunder minimum — and perhaps a new Little Ice Age.
Of course, solar activity is just one natural source of climate variability. Another is volcanic eruptions, spewing gas and dust into the atmosphere.
Nevertheless, it remains crucial to understand the precise changeability of the sun and the way it influences the various regional patterns of weather on Earth. Climate scientists will then be able to correct for these effects, not just in interpreting modern measurements but also when attempting to reconstruct the climate stretching back centuries. It is only by doing so that we can reach an unassailable consensus about the sun’s true level of influence on the Earth and its climate.
Via Stuart Clark – New Scientist

Sunspots come and go, but recently they have mostly gone

For centuries, astronomers have recorded when these dark blemishes on the solar surface emerge, only to fade away after a few days, weeks or months. Thanks to their efforts, we know that sunspot numbers ebb and flow in cycles lasting about 11 years.

But for the past two years, the sunspots have mostly been missing. Their absence, the most prolonged in nearly 100 years, has taken even seasoned sun watchers by surprise. “This is solar behavior we haven’t seen in living memory,” says David Hathaway, a physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Continue reading… “Sunspot Activity Eerily Quiet for Past Two Years”

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Amateur Astronomers Capture Collision on Jupiter

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This image shows an amateur astronomer’s view of Jupiter Thursday June 3, 2010.

The stargazers witnessed the brilliant flash from the cosmic collision from sites in Australia and the Philippines on Friday.  Anthony Wesley, an Australian computer programmer, first noticed the collision in Jupiter’s cloud tops and notified other astronomers. (video)

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Space Telescope Finds Five New Planets

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All five of the new planets are bigger than Neptune, and four are more than twice the size of Jupiter

Nasa’s new planet-hunting telescope has discovered its first five worlds beyond our Solar System.

Numerous planets have been found before by other telescopes, such as Hubble, but the sole mission of the Kepler observatory – launched last year – has been to find potential ‘Earths’ elsewhere in our galaxy.

Unfortunately life is unlikely to survive on the new planets as they are thought to generate hellish heat. Estimated temperatures of the worlds range from 1,200 to 1,650 degrees Celsius, hotter than molten lava.

The planets, termed exoplanets because they are outside out Solar System, range in size from similar to Neptune to more than twice as large as Jupiter, the largest in the Solar System. They have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days.

 

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New Galaxy Cluster Discovered 10.2 Billion Light Years Away

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The galaxy cluster named JKCS041 is some 10.2 billion light years away

The furthest galaxy cluster from Earth has been spotted some 10.2 billion light years away.  The group of galaxies, known as JKCS041 has beaten the previous record holder by around a billion light years.  It appears as it was when the Universe was only a quarter of its age and nearly six billion years before the Earth was formed.

 

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New Images From The Repaired Hubble Space Telescope

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A small region inside the globular cluster Omega Centauri, which has nearly 10 million stars

Astronomers unveiled new pictures and observations from the Hubble Space Telescope. With the exception of a picture last month of the bruise on Jupiter caused by a comet, they were the first data obtained with the telescope since a crew spent 13 days in orbit last May replacing, refurbishing and rebuilding its vital components.  (Pics)

 

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Amateur Astronomer Discovers Earth-Sized Spot On Jupiter

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Earth-sized spot on Jupiter

NASA has confirmed the discovery of a new hole the size of the Earth in Juiter’s atmosphere, apparently showing that the planet was hit by something large in recent days. The impact mark was first spotted on Monday morning by an amateur astronomer in Australia, who then drew the attention of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the dark mark on Jupiter’s south polar region.

 

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