Saturday, July 27, 2013

From Science to Science Fiction and Back Again (Gold Edition)

It's another thrilling installment of (drum roll):

This Saturday in Space Science!

This week has a space theme and we begin with a piece about a very earthly concern -- Gold.

Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.
The collision of two neutron stars can create rare elements like gold. Image released on July 17, 2013. 

Space Bling

So did you know that all the gold in the earth may come from the stars?

Me neither.

But thanks to Time magazine, I, and now you, know that scientists think all the gold in the universe may be
formed by the collision of neutron stars.

Yup, it all comes from space.
It seems that back in the universe's early days, "there was nothing but hydrogen, helium and lithium. Heavier elements, on up to iron, were forged later by the heat and pressure deep inside stars. 'We are all star stuff,' as Carl Sagan loved to say, in his inimitably geeky way," time science writer Michael Lemonick wrote in his July 18 article.

"Even stars can’t make elements as heavy as gold, however. For that, you need some sort of powerful shockwave, and until now it’s been unclear what could set it off. But a team of Harvard astronomers has come up a possible answer. The gold in our fillings and our jewelry and in Fort Knox may have been created during titanic collisions between neutron stars, the unimaginably dense husks left over after a massive star dies," Time reported.

Evidence for this theory materialized last month when NASA’s orbiting Swift telescope initially spotted a burst of high-energy gamma rays that lasted just two-tenths of a second.
Astronomers quickly trained the twin, Chile-based Magellan telescopes on the spot, and caught a glow of visible light, which let them gauge the distance to whatever had exploded at 3.9 billion light-years from Earth. When they aimed the Hubble at that piece of sky a week later, the light
was still there, but it had faded until it shone only in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The light’s characteristics can best be explained, say Berger, by a burst of brand new atoms totaling more than 3,000 times the mass of the Earth. Some are radioactive, which causes the glow. Some are atoms of platinum and lead and other heavy elements. And some, totaling several times the mass of the Moon, are pure gold.
"We estimate that the amount of gold produced and ejected during the merger of the two neutron stars may be as large as 10 moon masses - quite a lot of bling!" lead author Edo Berger, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said in a statement, published by "To paraphrase Carl Sagan, we are all star stuff, and our jewelry is colliding-star stuff."

So next time, you get a golden necklace for Christmas, give proper props to those neutron stars.

A scene from "Europa Report

'Reality' Science Fiction 

The new science fiction movie "Europa Report" is billed by some admirers as one of the most accurate depictions of human spaceflight ever put on film, and that realism is no accident.

Screenwriters, expert consultants, actors and others worked to bring a sense of reality to "Europa Report," paying meticulous attention to the world they were creating in the spaceship and depicting on the surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa.

The movie follows the journey of a crew of astronauts sent on the first manned mission to Europa. It is shot documentary-style and features interviews with various people involved in the harrowing undertaking to seek out alien life in the solar system. You can watch the "Europa Report" trailer here.

The filmmakers also added a few hidden gems for fans of space travel. The rocket launch shown at the beginning of the film was footage from the 2011 launch of NASA's Juno spacecraft, expected to arrive at Jupiter in 2016.

"Europa Report" is currently available in the iTunes store and is set for release in theaters on Aug. 2.

The European Space Agency/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, captured this image of a gigantic coronal hole hovering over the sun’s north pole on July 18, 2013, at 9:06 a.m. EDT.

Solar to the Max 

Blogger's Note: Karen C. Fox wrote the following for the NASA web site:

The European Space Agency/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, captured this image of a gigantic coronal hole hovering over the sun’s north pole on July 18, 2013, at 9:06 a.m. EDT. Coronal holes are dark, low density regions of the sun’s outermost atmosphere, the corona. They contain little solar material, have lower temperatures, and therefore, appear much darker than their surroundings.

Coronal holes are a typical feature on the sun, though they appear at different places and with more frequency at different times of the sun’s activity cycle. The activity cycle is currently ramping up toward what is known as solar maximum, currently predicted for late 2013. During this portion of the cycle, the number of coronal holes decreases. During solar max, the magnetic fields on the sun reverse and new coronal holes appear near the poles with the opposite magnetic alignment. The coronal holes then increase in size and number, extending further from the poles as the sun moves toward solar minimum again. At such times, coronal holes have appeared that are even larger than this one.

The holes are important to our understanding of space weather, as they are the source of a high-speed wind of solar particles that streams off the sun some three times faster than the slower wind elsewhere. While it’s unclear what causes coronal holes, they correlate to areas on the sun where magnetic fields soar up and away, failing to loop back down to the surface, as they do elsewhere.

A Little Perspective (Very Little)

We came across this image recently in NASA's Twitter feed.

It shows how the earth looks from Saturn.

(Hint: The "you are here" arrow shows where we are....)

So next time you're whizzing past Saturn, this might help you find your way home.

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