Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: July 2012

Curiosity: An Augmented Reality Experience

July 26, 2012 by Alberto Conti
NASA's Spacecraft 3D is an augmented reality (AR) application that lets you learn about and interact with a variety of spacecraft that are used to explore our solar system, study Earth, and observe the universe.

NASA's Spacecraft 3D is an augmented reality application that lets you learn about and interact with a variety of spacecraft.

Over the past 30 years, many of us have enjoyed entertaining and challenging video games. Do you remember the classic Pong? Space Invaders? Playing games is an important part of life, after all.

The number of transistors in modern computers has increased over 2 billion times since the late 70s. As a result, computing power has increased by more than six orders of magnitude (2 million times) and has made possible the technological revolution we are living in today.

Today, we can play even very complex video games on our smart phones. However, to me the most remarkable development is how much more photo-realistic computer graphics have become. It will not be long before it will be hard to tell the difference between artificial and real landscapes.

As the barriers of photo-realism rapidly drop, our expectations of possible interactions with machines rise. Old preconceptions about where our reality ends and where a virtual reality starts are rapidly changing. Commercially available 3D televisions are quickly adding a third dimension to our viewing experience, but lately a new trend has emerged: augmented reality. This new technology seems to finally successfully blur the line between what’s real and what’s computer-generated by enhancing what we see, hear, and perhaps soon feel and smell. Augmented reality is basically starting to integrate all available pixels on all your devices into real-world environments.

Augmented reality isn’t the fully immersive, completely computer-generated environment produced by virtual reality; instead it’s an at-times-subtle augmentation of your real world. Augmented reality adds graphics, sounds, and visual feedback to the natural world as seen from your own device’s camera. Google’s Project Glass is an example of what we can expect to see in just a few years.

It comes as no surprise that this augmented reality movement is strongly driven by the game and smart phone markets, which after all control most of the pixels we have access to on a daily basis. The end game is to fundamentally change the way we perceive our world by giving our own senses access to information available only to machines.

On July 11, NASA entered the augmented reality arena for smart phones by releasing an augmented application that brings some of the agency’s robotic spacecraft to life in 3-D on iPhone and iPads. Spacecraft 3D is a simple application that allows anyone with an iPhone or iPad (Android version coming soon) to experience a three-dimensional model of NASA’s spacecrafts in high definition.

In this first iteration, Spacecraft 3D showcases the Mars Science Laboratory rover (also known as Curiosity) which is scheduled to make it’s incredible landing on the surface of Mars on August 5. So, grab the app and get familiar with the rover on a virtual desktop near you.

Not in a Billion Years

July 20, 2012 by Frank Summers
After the Milky Way-Andromeda merger, our Sun will likely be tossed into a looping orbit around the newly formed elliptical galaxy.

After the Milky Way-Andromeda merger, our Sun will likely be tossed into a looping orbit around the newly formed elliptical galaxy.

In the recent Hubble press release about the collision between our Milky Way galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy, we provided some artistic illustrations of what a future night sky might look like. It shows the fantastic sights as Andromeda approaches, smashes through, and eventually merges with our galaxy.

Although it may seem like splitting hairs, I note that we specifically did not say that those illustrations show what Earth’s night sky would look like. There are three reasons for this.

First, those illustrations were motivated by views from a computer simulation. The viewpoint inside the simulation was held fixed in space at the Sun’s current location relative to the center of the galaxy. Though the Sun continually orbits the core of the Milky Way, a fixed location provided a more easily understandable sequence of images.

Second, the Sun’s orbit in the galaxy will probably change greatly during the collision. Our star could get flung far into the outskirts of the Milky Way, drop deep into the core of the galaxy, or do both on a spirograph-like orbit. Almost all scenarios greatly change our night-sky view.

Third, and most important, while Earth should still orbit the Sun in 4 billion years, it probably won’t be habitable. Our Sun is slowly getting hotter as it ages. According to calculations, in about 3 billion years the Sun will be hot enough that Earth’s oceans will evaporate and its atmosphere will escape. Human life on the surface of our planet will not be feasible without planet-scale engineering efforts.

The illustrations show what a night sky might look like, but the view seen by a future human civilization is guaranteed to be different. Still if our species survives to see it, it will be awesome to have two galaxies stretched across the sky. Although, as an astronomer, I can’t help but imagine how confusing it might be to detangle the star and galaxy motions.

Only Two Cosmic Disasters Are Certain

July 13, 2012 by Ray Villard
A Sun-like star ends its life by ejecting layers of gas into space.

A Sun-like star ends its life by ejecting layers of gas into space.

The sardonic proverb “nothing is certain but death and taxes,” can now be recast for the cosmos.

The inevitable collision of the Andromeda galaxy with the Milky Way is one of only two astronomical predictions with which we can be absolutely certain. The other is the death of our Sun.

There’s wonderful irony in the presence of Internet soothsayers predicting numerous impossible cosmic disasters this year, simply because the ancient Mayan Calendar “ends” in 2012, when we have real cosmic disasters to concern ourselves with in the future … even though the Milky Way’s “big bang-up” with Andromeda won’t happen for another 4 billion years, and the Sun won’t burn out for another 6 billion years.

In contrast, the eventual galaxy collision is solidly predictable. It will be the result of the inexorable pull of gravity between two heavyweight “island universes,” each weighing over 1 trillion times the mass of our Sun.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s detailed observations show that the Andromeda galaxy is heading straight toward us. Nearly 100 years ago, astronomers knew that Andromeda was coming this way, but they didn’t know if it would be a glancing blow or head-on collision. Hubble astronomers settled the question.

Ever since the nuclear fusion processes taking place deep inside the Sun have been understood, astrophysicists have been able to calculate the Sun’s age and longevity.

We know with absolute certainty that the Sun will burn out 6 billion years from now, leaving Earth a cold, barren cinder. And the Sun’s fate can be extrapolated to every other star in the universe. The very last star burns out 100 trillion years from now.

Hubble shows us the dramatic details of what happens when a Sun-like star burns out. Colorful, hot gases are ejected into space to form bubbles, butterfly shapes, and hourglass shape. We know that the Sun will flame out in a similarly spectacular fireworks display. It will mean the death of Earth, but may simply be another space photo in some extraterrestrial creature’s astronomy textbook 6 billion years from now.

Beyond these two irrevocable events, all other cosmic disasters are simply probabilistic rather than deterministic. You might want to take out homeowners’ insurance against them, but you can still hold out hope you’ll never need to cash in on your policy.

The broad spectrum of cosmic disasters bandied about on the Internet stretches from possible, to improbable, to utterly impossible.

Statistically a planet-killer class asteroid should whack us in less than 100 million years.

A nearby supernova could irradiate Earth within 250 million years.

Chaos theory allows for a small probability that the planets will become unstable in their orbits in a few billion years, and Earth will collide with Mars.

But by then Earth’s oceans will have been evaporated away under the warming sun.

There is an infinitesimally small chance a bypassing star or rogue black hole would run into the Sun. And those odds would slightly increase during the Milky Way collision.

The technological prowess of our civilization should allow humanity to avert many of these disasters. Frankly, we deserve to become extinct if we don’t have the wherewithal to come up with the money and technology to protect Earth from maundering asteroids.

What’s more, straightforward Newtonian physics could be applied to move Earth farther from the aging and warming Sun by setting up an interplanetary pinball game where we rob momentum from asteroids to widen Earth’s orbit.

Though we have evidence for the beginning of the universe, we can only speculate how it will  –or might –end someday.

Dark energy is the wild card here, because if it is unstable over time (which it doesn’t seem to be), it could rip the universe apart or even implode space and time.

Quantum physics allows for a “phase transition” where the universe abruptly ceases to exist into a wave of nothingness that propagates across space at the speed of light.

The Milky Way/Andromeda collision is unique in that it is probably the farthest we can extrapolate into the future with any certainty.

This event needs a name that’s as catchy as the Big Bang. Some ideas from my friends include: The Big Bang-up, The Milky Splay, The Milky Shakeup, and The Big Milky Spill.

But there’s no sense crying over it …

SKA: The Sound of Data

July 6, 2012 by Alberto Conti
Artist's impression of the SKA dishes. CREDIT: SKA Organisation/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Artist's impression of the SKA dishes. CREDIT: SKA Organisation/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

SKA is coming. No it’s not the Jamaican music genre of the late 50s, even if it might sound like music to radio astronomers’ ears. SKA is the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope currently in development. SKA is set to revolutionize radio astronomy, perhaps in the way the Hubble Space Telescope did for the visible-light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

SKA, as the name implies, will be able to collect radio waves over approximately one square kilometer or a million square meters. The signal from thousands of antennas spread over about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) will work together as one gigantic, virtual instrument capable of extremely high sensitivity and resolution, continuing radio astronomy’s tradition of providing the highest-resolution images in all astronomy. Coupled with its operational frequencies, SKA’s sheer size will make it 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster at surveying the sky than any other radio telescope currently in existence. In addition, thanks to new technological advances, SKA will even enable multiple users to observe different pieces of the sky simultaneously!

This amazing instrument is being designed to address some of the most pressing questions in astrophysics, fundamental physics, cosmology and particle astrophysics:

  • When and how were the first stars formed?
  • What is the nature of dark energy and dark matter?
  • What and where are the conditions for life?
  • Was Einstein correct about General Relativity?
  • Where does cosmic magnetism come from?

The James Webb Space Telescope will also address some of these questions, and astronomers are already thinking about how these two observatories can be used together to provide deeper insight into cosmic objects. With such broad scientific objectives, SKA has the potential of truly transforming the exploration of the universe at radio wavelengths. However, the astronomical community faces huge challenges stemming from its construction and from the sheer volume of data it is expected to produce.

To maximize the potential for new discoveries, SKA needed to find a suitable site. The southern hemisphere of our planet seemed an ideal place given its minimal radio interference, and last month a split decision was announced by the SKA organization members — Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK — to build core receivers in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Australia and New Zealand will host its core site at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia, with the most distant stations located in New Zealand. South Africa will host another core site located about 75 km north-west of Carnarvon, with distant stations in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. Each site in Australia and South Africa will host SKA arrays at increasing distances and decreasing density. The densest region, known as the core, will contain approximately half of the total collecting area of the SKA arrays in a circle of just over 3 miles in diameter (about 5 km). A mid-region extending to about 112 miles (180 km) from the core will host arrays placed randomly at an ever-decreasing density from the center. Finally, an outer region extending to about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) from the core will comprise five spiral arms along which dishes, grouped into stations of 20, will be located. The separation of the stations increases towards the outer ends of the spiral arms in a pattern, borrowed from nature, which maximizes spatial coverage (see how and why in this great talk by Dr. Rick White).

Layout of the SKA antennas on the ground. CREDIT: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Layout of the SKA antennas on the ground. CREDIT: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

The first phase of construction will take place from 2016 to 2019, with the goal of providing about 20 percent of the total collecting area at low and mid frequencies. This will ensure that SKA can start operating well before full construction is complete. The rest of the construction will be finished by 2024.

However, there is another dimension to the challenge that is SKA. Such a large number of arrays (potentially up to 4,000), with the need to sample celestial phenomena at ever increasing spatial and temporal resolution, will require very high performance central computing engines and a capacity that rivals the current global Internet traffic. In fact, once the raw data is processed, SKA will be able to produce in a single year an amount of data comparable to all the traffic of the entire Internet in 2011!

This is entirely new territory. This huge increase in scale requires a revolutionary approach — not only to traditional radio telescope design, but also to data storage and handling technologies, and computational resources.

SKA will require numerous advances in computing technology:

  • Computers capable of 1,000 more computations per second than current supercomputers
  • Software that mimics the behavior of our brain with millions of connections and billions of computations
  • Improvement in power efficiency to allow large number of machines to run at full capacity constantly

SKA’s future therefore hinges on the project’s ability to forges partnerships with both research and industry leaders in high-performance computing. The payoff for industrial partners seems obvious: an ideal test bed for systems that process large volumes of data from geographically dispersed sources with extreme energy requirements. The hope is that SKA’s spinoffs will spur technology development in areas like high-performance computing and large data-storage warehouses, but also renewable energy generation.

Let the music start: SKA!