Gamma ray bursts, galaxies, exoplanets, and beer

Back in 1979 when I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington I took an introductory course in astronomy to fulfill some science credit requirements. The two Voyager spacecraft had just visited Jupiter and the faculty in the astronomy department seemed practically giddy about all of the new data received and textbook re-writing to come. These days, given the number of exciting missions returning information from the near and far reaches of the solar system, it seems we’re learning something new about the cosmos almost every day.

Case in point: earlier this week a trio of UW astronomy graduate students put on the first Astronomy on Tap event in Seattle, each giving a mini-lecture about their current research. Two of them had news fresh out of the headlines.

Zapped by gamma rays

Kristen Garofali was first up with a talk titled “To GRB or Not to GRB.” The GRB in this case stands for gamma ray burst.

Astronomy on Tap

There was a full house Wednesday at Bad Jimmy’s in Ballard for the first Seattle Astronomy on Tap event. Photo by @AoTSeattle.

“Gamma ray bursts are cosmic lighthouses,” directional beams that Garofali explained result from the formation of a black hole. “When the black hole forms there are two jets of energy emitted that are really high-energy.”

Last week, for the second time in less than a year, scientists thought they had detected a GRB from our closest galactic neighbor, M31, the Andromeda galaxy. This would have been a first; we’ve never detected a GRB so nearby before. The nearest have been billions of light years distant, while M31 is a mere 2.5 million light years away from Earth.

Both the event last May and the one last week turned out not to be GRBs. Garofali noted that there are other objects out there that emit gamma rays, but these don’t look at all like whatever was detected coming from the neighborhood of M31 last week.

“It’s too bright to be a transient or an ultraluminous x-ray source,” she said. “It’s too faint, however, to be a gamma ray burst.” Even so, Garofali finds the discovery and the mystery exciting. “It could open our eyes to some new process that we haven’t thought about before,” she said.

Garofali said the reason we should care about this is that gamma rays are nasty things. At the very least, one would foul up your cell phone reception, and a strong burst could cause mass extinction on Earth. In fact, there is some scientific speculation that a GRB may well be responsible for at least one of the mass extinctions that have hit our planet. However, to do that the GRB would have to come from relatively close by and be aimed right at us. The odds of that happening are extremely long, but not zero.

Astronomy porn

Talk number two by Nell Byler was titled “Andromeda, So Fly, So PHAT.” She wasn’t using dated slang, but rather was talking about the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury, a key tool for her work studying stellar populations. PHAT has taken up a lot of the Hubble Space Telescope’s time; the treasury was created from some 7,400 Hubble images involving 936 exposure hours. The collected data has resolved more than 117 million stars in our neighboring galaxy. The UW’s Julianne Dalcanton is the principal investigator for PHAT.

PHAT M31

This PHAT portrait of M31 is a mosaic of more than 7,000 Hubble Space Telescope images. Photo: NASA; ESA; J. DALCANTON, B.F. WILLIAMS, AND L.C. JOHNSON/UNIV. OF WASHINGTON; THE PHAT TEAM; R. GENDLER.

Byler showed a great deal of “astronomy porn”—stunning Hubble images from the project. They’re more than just pretty pictures; Byler said PHAT has the potential to reveal much about star formation, stellar evolution, and a host of other questions about how galaxies work.

“Even though we’re looking at stars within another galaxy it provides a lot of insight for galaxies that we can’t resolve and for our own galaxy, which we think is pretty similar to Andromeda itself,” Byler said. “And there’s lots more science to be done.”

Little green men

Brett Morris closed the evening with a talk titled “Dear Grandpa.” Morris is an astrobiologist, which his grandfather thinks is a pretty fishy undertaking involving the cover-up of the existence of extraterrestrials. Morris is hoping to find ETs, though, and on the very day of Astronomy on Tap the news wires were abuzz with new information about subsurface oceans on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, both of which could be havens for life. Kenneth Chang’s article in the New York Times provides excellent coverage.

Enceladus geysers

Water vapor geysers erupt from the south pole area of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Photo: NASA/JPL.

“Enceladus has what we call cryovolcanoes; they’re volcanos that shoot out water,” Morris said.

“I personally think that this is the best chance to look for life elsewhere in our solar system because we can send a spacecraft that just orbits this moon and picks up the water as it shoots out of the moon,” he said. “Could it get more convenient? We don’t need to dig at all!”

Morris explained how the Kepler Space Telescope hunted for planets around other stars, though he bristled a little at the fact that when one is discovered similar in size to our home world it is invariably called “Earthlike.”

“Those have very broad, flimsy definitions,” he said, noting that Venus, which is practically our twin in size and mass, could be called Earthlike, but it would not be a nice place to visit. Morris is excited for scientific advances that will help us get a better idea of what exoplanets are truly like, and to identify which ones might harbor life like us.

The Astronomy on Tap event was well attended, with more than 60 people jamming into Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard (which pours a lovely IPA, by the way). The talks were well received and games were enjoyed, even though our team, nicknamed “Hubble Trouble,” did not win any cupcakes donated by Trophy Cupcakes. The organizers plan to be back with more events. Follow them on Twitter at @AOTSeattle. Also watch Facebook, where they hope to set up a page soon.

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