Designing space telescopes the size of a dinner plate

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Could Future Telescopes Do Without the Mirror?

Tomorrow’s Hubble might be the size of a dinner plate.

For Air & Space Magazine:

Today’s telescopes can see better and farther than ever, but they have become expensive: NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which discovered planets orbiting far-away stars, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope nearing completion in Chile, for example, each cost about half a billion dollars.

Researchers at Lockheed Martin have a radical proposal: Build the observatory without the telescope—sort of. The idea, called Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-optical Reconnaissance, or SPIDER, begins with large arrays of silicon chips called photonic integrated circuits (PICs). Each chip in SPIDER takes a wide-open image, like a mirror with no focusing point. Then a computer combines the images, gradually eliminating the blurring, in a method called interferometry. By the time thousands of PICs are combined, the image should be as sharp as one produced by a large—and expensive—telescope mirror.

[Read the rest at Air & Space Magazine]

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Looking for the fifth dimension with wrinkles in spacetime

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Are We Closer to Finding a Fifth Dimension?

For The Daily Beast:

In Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, the characters travel from one place to another in space using a hidden fifth dimension, which they use to “wrinkle” the fabric of space and time. In the book and upcoming movie, this travel is more mystical than it is science. However, some scientists think there might be extra dimensions beyond the four (three space plus one time) that we’re familiar with—and those dimensions might affect the way gravity works.

But how can we know for sure? One way to check uses the collision of two neutron stars, as detected by the gravitational wave observatories LIGO and Virgo in 2017.

While they found no sign of a fifth (or sixth or seventh or…) dimension, researchers—who recently posted their work on the website arXiv—were excited.

That’s because looking for extra dimensions is difficult. We only see three dimensions in space (length, width, and depth) and one in time on the scale of the everyday; if a fifth dimension exists, it has to be hiding from us. That pushes any detectable consequence into the realm of the very small—the regime of particle physics and string theory—or the very large, where LIGO and other astronomical measurements come in.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Finding mountains on distant alien worlds

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How Astronomers Could Discover Mountains on Distant Planets

Planets too far away to photograph could yield some clues to whether water—and maybe even life—could exist.

For The Daily Beast:

Earth, Venus, Mars, the moon, and Pluto are very different worlds, but they have something in common: mountains. In fact, mountains occur on so many different bodies in the solar system that astronomers are pretty sure many exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—also have them. And like planets and moons close to home, those mountains can tell us a lot about what’s going on with exoplanets. They might even help us discover how habitable these far-off worlds are.

But first, we have to see exoplanetary mountains. In a new paper to be published in the prestigious journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Columbia University astronomers Moiya A.S. McTier and David M. Kipping figured out what it might take to detect mountains on a world too far away to photograph even with our most powerful telescopes.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

The first known interstellar visitor to the Solar System

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Cosmic Driftwood

What a floating rock can tell us about life in the rest of the universe

Panel from “Cosmic Driftwood”. [Credit: Maki Naro (art) and moi (words)]

Last October, we had the first known interstellar visitor to the Solar System: an asteroid named ʻOumuamua. In our latest comic for The Nib, Maki Naro and I explain how we know the building-sized rock isn’t from around here, what we know about it, and what it might tell us about life elsewhere in the galaxy.

Snakebots, desert plants, and self-assembling space modules: the world of biomimicry

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“Life, uh, finds a way”—Applying lessons from evolution to go to Mars

Biomimicry looks to living organisms to create the future of sustainable engineering.

A robot designed to move like a sidewinder snake, from Henry Astley’s lab at the University of Akron. [Credit: moi]

For Ars Technica:

As philosopher-mathematician Jeff Goldblum once said, “life, uh, finds a way.”

To phrase that more scientifically, evolution has had billions of years of trial and error to produce species that are well adapted chemically and physically. Many human researchers want to imitate that adaptation, turning lessons from the natural world into practice in engineering, technology, and architecture. The entire venture goes under the name “biomimicry.”

“I think biomimicry is really beautiful,” says Ariel Ekblaw, a student at MIT’s Media Lab, who founded and leads the Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative. “It’s both a framework and… a set of tools or learnings from nature that can inform modern engineering and science research projects.”

To see the spectrum of biomimicry research, I attended a three-day workshop called “Nature-Inspired Exploration for Aerospace.” The workshop was cosponsored by NASA’s Glenn Research Center, the Ohio Aerospace Institute, and Great Lakes Biomimicry. Despite the aerospace focus, the program ranged from straight-up biology to philosophical queries about the reasons for doing biomimicry in the first place.

[Read the rest at Ars Technica]

Learning about weird star corpses from the way they shake

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‘Dwarfquakes’ Reveal the Future of Our Universe

Dying stars were an enigma—until an astronomer measured seismic shifts on them, giving us clues about the sun’s future and the expansion rate of the universe.

For The Daily Beast:

White dwarfs—the hot, burned-out remains of ordinary stars—are very common in the universe, and weird. (Our very own sun will become a white dwarf in a few billion years, too.) Imagine something the size of Earth, but 300,000 times more massive, glowing white-hot and bright enough to be seen far away despite its tiny size.

“It’s just a pixel of light,” Noemi Giammichele, an astronomer at the University of Toulouse, told The Daily Beast. “I find it really amazing all the information we can gather just from that one tiny dot.”

Made of pure carbon and oxygen, with only a thin haze of other atoms acting as its atmosphere, white dwarfs certainly aren’t like anything we can make in a lab on Earth. But Giammichele used seismology to measure “dwarfquakes” to not only understand the internal structure of these white dwarfs but also the future expansion rate of our universe.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

It ain’t aliens — but this weird-looking star is still interesting

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We Haven’t Found Alien Megastructures… Yet

The mystery formations and data discrepancies of Tabby’s Star turned out to have explanations. But that’s not what’s important about the mystery star.

For The Daily Beast:

For a second, we thought they were aliens.

In the case of Tabby’s Star—the star more formally known as KIC 8462852—the data (an an accompanying photo of towering figures) was weird enough that a few people surmised it maybe pointed to a sign of an alien civilization. The odds were never good, and a paper published earlier this week shows that aliens almost certainly aren’t involved.

Instead, astronomers think the abnormalities are probably either dust orbiting the star, fragments of comets, or even variations in “weather” on the star’s surface.

These possibilities are a lot more boring than aliens, but that doesn’t mean Tabby’s Star isn’t interesting. The very fact that we still don’t know exactly what’s going on (other than “it ain’t aliens”) is itself interesting.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]