Sunday, February 12, 2012

Putting a Mind Into An Exoskeleton And Sexual Nerve Ending Connection Issues

The other day, I was discussing with an acquaintance overseas the challenges of uploading a brain into an exoskeleton for long-term spaceflight. This may be necessary because human flesh and bones will not do too well with space radiation omnipresent. The human eyes will not be able to handle it, and there will be bone density loss, and eventually things just won't work out, we should expect their life expectancy, that is for long-term space travelers, to be severely limited if we use the current human form for our space travelers and explorers. Okay so let's talk about this controversial subject for second shall we?

My acquaintance mentioned the challenges of taking a human brain putting it into some sort of an enclosure, and hooking up the nerve endings to various robotic parts. If the brain was kept supplied with nutrients and oxygen, it could perhaps outlive the average human body, as everything would be regulated in exactly the appropriate amounts for longevity. However, he also noted that there is an issue with phantom pains, and we know this from amputees, as when they are missing a limb, they feel pain even though that limb isn't there.

Now then, imagine the challenges with all the nerve endings in the sexual organs of the human body. There are more nerve endings there than anywhere else, and this could torment the brain which is now out of the body, and therefore perhaps there needs to be some sort of connection to those nerve endings to provide a pleasurable response for the brain. The chemicals released from sexual stimulation are significant in the brain, and a human that has lived most of their life within a human body, now transferred into an exoskeleton will have challenges adapting for this reason.

Further, a human that has lived their entire life in human body has probably come to enjoy the pleasures of sex, and certainly wouldn't want to give up those activities. Therefore there needs to be a way to stimulate that part of the brain stimulating the chemical release involved in sexual activity via those nerve endings. It is my belief, after interviewing a few people on this issue, that there will be fewer volunteers for long-term spaceflight who'd be willing to surrender their human body until we solve this issue.

Although this is not a typical research topic for long-term spaceflight at NASA, it is something that we will eventually need to consider for obvious reasons. Indeed I hope you will please consider all this and think on it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Can We Control The Earth's Heat and Pole Ice Melt Using Magnetic Solar Portals?

Carl Sagan had some interesting concepts about intelligent civilizations such as what we deem humans to be doing. He had intelligent civilizations categorized as a class I, class II, and class III and suggested that if we met a more intelligent species, one that had been intelligent for thousands and thousands of years, they would have gotten to the point where they could've controlled energy from their own sun, and therefore the temperature, atmosphere, and everything else on their planet.

In that case they would have abundant and free energy and they could use that energy to travel through the solar system, through their galaxy, and manipulate space-time. This may seem very much into the science fiction realm, but he's making perfectly good sense as he explains this. You can also watch his on YouTube on this topic, if you are wondering what I'm talking.

Is it possible to control our Sun? If we can control our Sun, we wouldn't have to worry about climate change, as we would be in control. Not long ago, there was an interesting feature discussing this. Science at NASA Online Newsletter posted an interesting story on June 28, 2012 and you can view the online video version on YouTube by searching; "ScienceCasts: Hidden Magnetic Portals Around Earth," which stated that;

"A NASA-sponsored researcher at the University of Iowa has developed a way for spacecraft to hunt down hidden magnetic portals in the vicinity of Earth. These portals link the magnetic field of our planet to that of the sun."

Now then, perhaps we can use this someday to control the Sun, or adjust our Earth's atmospheric heat. Sounds like Science Fiction - well, there have been some Science Fiction stories about such things such as;

1. Sunstroke - Arthur C. Clarke
2. The Naked Sun - Isaac Asimov

We ought to use these portals to generate energy, and to adjust our ice melt at the poles and solar radiation to cool the planet as we humans feel necessary. Eventually, we can use these portals to send instructions to control our Sun. If we could send information, energy, and directed beams through these portals, we should be able to control what is coming back, and therefore control the intensity of the Sun's radiation as it hits our atmosphere.

If we could do this, we would go from a class I civilization to a class II as per Carl Sagan theory. Okay so, enough science fiction for today, and futurists projections. Indeed I hope you will please consider all this and think on it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

How to Buy Amateur Telescopes for Kids and Beginners

If you are buying a telescope for a kid or a beginner, you need to consider some different factors from those who already know scopes. It is especially different in buying telescopes for kids, who you just want to teach how to appreciate the beauty of stargazing.

Buying for Kids

The main goal in buying a scope for children is for them to be more engrossed in stargazing. However, you need to be prepared in looking through several factors first and take note of the following tips:

• If you are buying for very young kids, find a simple scope. It will be used mainly for their education, but make sure that it will not remain as their toy, which is usually the case when parents just buy plastic telescopes that were poorly made. It would even be better if you go to a specialty store selling scopes designed for kids. You would not find a decent tool in a toy store.

• Talk to a sales associate and ask for suggestions about your kids' scope. A basic model would be a good first telescope for a young kid. This would allow him to learn about the basic functions of the tool. But if your child is more than 10 years old, find a scope with higher magnification. If your child grows older, then you can give him a more advanced model with more focus and magnification features.

• Reflector telescopes are the more popular choice of parents for kids. They are simpler as entry level telescopes. They also tend to be more affordable than refractors. However, they are larger and heavier to carry around.

• Buy only from reputable companies. Find a brand that has been known to make kids' telescopes for years. Make sure that they also have good customer service, such as toll-free phone support or live chat.

• Find a good mount to secure the scope. The best mount is one that can be secured to the table top. You cannot trust your kids' small and shaky hands because they would likely produce shaky images.

• Look for a portable telescope. It would be easy for kids to carry around.

Buying Telescope for Beginners

For beginners, you need to consider the following factors:

• Aperture. This determines how much light the scope will collect to offer clarity at the objects. The magnification feature has to match aperture.

• Magnification. If the formula says that the telescope is 100x5, the 100 means that the scope can be magnified 100 times. However, the more magnified an object is, the less light you are going to need.

• Focal length. This measures the length the light needs to travel within the scope to reflect and see the image. The higher its measurement, the higher you magnify the scope, the larger the object's image, and the smaller the field of view.

• Resolution. This determines just how detailed the image will be. But the higher the scope's resolution is, the sharper the image becomes. However, you also need larger aperture for better resolution.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Solar Russian Roulette - Playing Games With Our Sun

As the coordinator for a think tank which happens to operate online, we do discuss geo-engineering. In other words ways, to change our climate, slowdown disastrous type storms, and create the average annual rainfall in the various regions on our planet which need it to survive. Of course, the ultimate goal would be to control the temperature of the oven that is to control the spherical flickering flame. Mankind will not be stuck in a cave looking at shadows on the wall forever, eventually his science will allow him outside the cage to discover and unlock the secrets of the universe.

If you've been following CERN lately, you can see we are about to do that with the foundations of particle physics with the Higgs Boson, or God particle; a good step in the right direction if mankind is grown-up enough to use this information to his advantage for the proper purposes. I assume that mankind is now responsible enough to keep these scientific facts outside the realm of maladapted humans, two-bit dictators, and scientifically endowed international terrorists.

It probably is a good thing that humans cannot control the Sun currently, because they might turn it down to prevent global warming, based on erroneous data and perhaps slipping us into an Ice Age. Since everything in our universe affects everything else, the only question is to what degree, we have to be cognizant of the fact that when we start screwing around with such a very complex system, we had better know what we're doing, otherwise we will be playing Russian Roulette as we play games with our Sun, the Earth's atmosphere, and work to exploit all of our geo-engineering technology and abilities.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Planet, Non Planet, or A Small Constellation of Large Space Rocks - Pluto Discussed

Call it Pluto's revenge if you want, but apparently it seems to be teaching us a thing or two about our solar system, and causing us to re-consider our definitions. If you will recall a few years back Pluto got itself demoted as a planet, which messed up a few astronomy text books to say the least. Well, we haven't heard the last of this space rock, not by a long shot. Okay so, let's talk shall we?

There was an intriguing article in the New York Times titled; "Another Moon on Pluto Has Astronomers Aglow," by Kenneth Chang which stated; "It's like, since being kicked out of the planet gang, it's decided to form a rival solar system," said Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and stand-up comic in Britain. "Good one Pluto, I say." Yes, that is funny isn't it, well they say "paybacks are a witch." Maybe, if we look really close Pluto is trying to tell us something, maybe it's just a large version of a particle physics constellation in tight formation? Hey, crazier things have happened in science.

So, if Pluto is not a planet, but it has moons, or orbiting space rocks, what is it then? Is Pluto part of its own system? Was it once a planet, but broke apart while the pieces stay tightly intertwined by gravity rotating around one-another? Would that make it more like a small constellation? Almost like a set of particles spinning around each other, can we use this model to estimate other similar systems in nature, both big and small?

If this constellation like system wasn't once a planet, is it in a long slow process of becoming one, perhaps waiting to fuse together in half a billion years? Would it take longer to do that, way out there on the edge of a solar system, or could it happen faster? Questions, lots of them, and we don't seem to know. In fact, we don't seem to know much about anything, including our own meandering definitions of what a planet or non-planet is these days.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Snow White and The Dwarf Planets

Beyond the realm of the beautiful blue giant planet Neptune--the furthest major planet from the Sun--there exists a mysterious and strange region that we are only now beginning to explore. In this remote, dark, and frigid region, far from the light and warmth of the Sun, dwells a multitude of enchanting and mystifying objects. From this distant region, the Sun appears to be only a large star in the dark sky; not the enormous and luminous golden ball that greets our Earth each morning.

Once, not very long ago, schoolchildren were taught that Pluto was the furthest planet from the Sun--not Neptune. However, this beloved little world--that had a cartoon dog named in its honor--has recently been evicted from major planet status, and is now classified as a "dwarf planet". Why did this happen? Alas, poor Pluto!

The demoted little world that is Pluto was discovered the same year that Mickey Mouse's dog "Pluto" was created--and the pup was named for what was then considered to be a major planet. The American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, and the small, icy object, swathed in perpetual darkness, was appropriately named for the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto's largest moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978 by James Christy, and it is sometimes thought to be a chunk of Pluto itself, that may have broken off in a smash-up between Pluto and some other large object. When Pluto was still being classified as a planet, the Pluto/Charon system was considered to be a "double planet" by many astronomers. This is because Charon is roughly half the size of Pluto, making it larger in proportion to its "planet" than any other moon in our Solar System. The second runner-up is our own Earth/Moon system. Earth's Moon is about 27% the size of Earth. All of the other moons that circle the planets of our Solar System are considerably smaller than their host planet.

On August 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) struck Pluto from the pantheon of full-fledged planets, reclassifying it as a member of the newly created category of small worlds called "dwarf planets". When Pluto was first discovered in 1930, astronomers thought it was much bigger than it is, and also very much alone where it whirls in the frigid darkness beyond the realm of the giant planets. Now, astronomers know that Pluto is much smaller than originally supposed, and far from alone where it dwells in the outer limits of our Solar System.

The demotion of poor Pluto by the IAU came as the result of the discovery of a vast population of assorted, mostly icy objects that circled the Sun from an even greater distance than the very remote Pluto--particularly a world named "Eris", which appeared to be bigger than Pluto at the time of its discovery, but now is thought to be roughly the same size. In fact, Pluto and Eris are now considered to be "twin" worlds, whirling around our Sun in a remote region called the "Kuiper Belt".

Astronomers divide our Solar System into segments according to their distance from the Sun, as measured in Astronomical Units (AU). One AU is equal to Earth's mean distance from the Sun, which is 150 million kilometers, or 93 million miles. The innermost segment of the Solar System is our home, the area hosting the terrestrial (rocky) planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, and it extends out roughly to 2 AU. The Asteroid Belt is next (2 to 4 AU), and it is situated beyond Mars, but nearer to the Sun than the largest planet in our Solar System, the gas-giant Jupiter. After the Asteroid Belt, the outer giant planets reign supreme in our Sun's family all the way out to the orbit of Neptune (Jupiter and Saturn are gas giants; Uranus and Neptune are smaller, but still gigantic, ice giants with thick gaseous atmospheres). The realm of the giant planets extends from 5 to 30 AU.

Next lurks the mysterious outer limits of our Solar System; its twilight zone veiled in bewitching, everlasting darkness, where Pluto, Charon, Eris and their enchanting icy-kind circle mysteriously in a vast kingdom far from the dazzling light and life-loving golden warmth of their parent Star. In this remote region, astronomers find it nearly impossible to spot dim, elusive worldlets. The brightness of an object plummets as the square of its distance. Hence, the same object observed at twice the distance from our planet will appear to be four times dimmer. This remote, dark, and frozen kingdom can be subdivided into the "trans-Neptunian" region of our Solar System, the "Kuiper Belt" (35-47 AU), and the "scattered disk" (35 to more than 100 AU). Beyond this may lurk the "Oort Cloud", a hypothetical shell of icy proto-comets loosely circling the Sun, extending halfway to the nearest star.

For three-quarters of a century, astronomers thought that Pluto was alone where it dwelled in the remote shadowy outskirts of our Solar System beyond Neptune. However, all this changed in 1992, with the discovery of the first Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), and later with the discovery of a multitude of larger objects in this region, especially Eris.

The IAU was forced to come up with a new definition of "planet". The new definition stated that a "planet" is an object that orbits the Sun without being some other object's moon, is large enough to be rendered spherical by its own gravity (but not so massive that it is capable of nuclear fusion, like a star), and has "cleared its neighborhood" of most other orbiting objects.

Because it was finally realized that Pluto is not a solitary object where it whirls, but instead actually shares orbital space with a multitude of other worldlets in the Kuiper Belt--the region of icy objects beyond Neptune--it was ousted from major-planethood by the IAU.

Pluto possesses an elliptical orbit that is not in the same plane as the eight major planets of our Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). On average, this remote dwarf planet twirls around our Star at a distance of 5.87 billion kilometers (3.65 billion miles). It requires 248 Earth-years to complete a single orbit.

Because Pluto is so remote from the light and heat of our Sun, it is one of the most frigid worlds in the Solar System, with surface temperatures of roughly minus 375 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 225 degrees Celsius).

Pluto has four other, much smaller known moons, in addition to Charon. Astronomers currently think that Pluto is about 70 percent rock and 30 percent ice--predominantly nitrogen ice. The dwarf planet also sports a very thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide, which reaches out roughly 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) into space. When the dwarf planet twirls closest to our Sun, it is surrounded by an ethereal atmosphere--but when it travels to the more distant, colder region of its orbit, this atmosphere freezes and then falls to its surface as "snow", giving the worldet a sparkling pinkish frosting of mainly nitrogen ice.

Astronomers will learn more about this beloved little world beginning in July 2015, when the New Horizons probe reaches this distant region of our Solar System. This will be the first time a spacecraft has come to explore this very remote, mysterious object, where it dwells with others of its kind in the outer limits.

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) astronomer Dr. Michael Brown led the team that discovered Eris in 2005. Eris is thought to be one of the brightest little worlds in our Solar System, with a diameter of about 1,445 miles--equivalent to the diameter of Pluto which is thought to have a diameter of between 1,429 and 1,491 miles across. Because Eris is smaller than originally thought, its surface is considerably brighter than first thought. This is because the quantity of light astronomers detected emanating from it originated from a tinier than anticipated surface area.

The new study suggesting that Eris is smaller than first estimated was authored by Dr. Bruno Sicardy and colleagues. Dr. Sicardy is a planetary scientist at Pierre and Marie Curie University and Observatory in Paris, France. When Eris fortuitously passed in front of a background star more recently, it provided astronomers with the clearest view of it since it was first spotted by Dr. Brown and his team. The new analysis was released in October 2011 to the British journal Nature. The authors think that Eris's brightness is the result of a millimeter-thick layer of methane-and-nitrogen frost that covers its surface. This frost, they suggest, was probably once an atmosphere about 10,000 times thinner than Pluto's. This very thin atmosphere froze onto the surface, as a result of the extraordinarily cold temperatures Eris experienced as it traveled further and further away from our Sun on its 557-year orbit. Despite its brightness, the scientists think that Eris's surface should have been darkened by a heavy shower of micrometeorites, as well as numerous strikes from cosmic rays.

Even though Eris's size has probably been roughly ascertained, it is still unknown whether it is actually smaller or larger than Pluto. This is because Pluto's size has not been precisely determined.

There are many other enticingly mysterious frozen "oddballs" in this faraway, dark and cold region. For example, Haumea, discovered by Dr. Brown's team in late 2004, is easily one of the most bizarre objects in our Solar System. Haumea is roughly about 1,931 km (1,200 miles) across--rendering it nearly as wide as Pluto. However, Haumea is merely one-third as massive as Pluto because it is not round. Instead, Haumea is shaped like an enormous football. This weird denizen of the Kuiper Belt, that restlessly circles our Star in an orbit that is only slightly more distant than Pluto, is one of the fastest spinning bodies in our Solar System, completing one full rotation in less than four hours. Astronomers discovered that about three-quarters of Haumea's bright, frigid surface is covered with crystalline water ice--much like the familiar ice that we find in our home freezers. However, an energy source is necessary to maintain this homey type of highly organized ice, and some astronomers have suggested that this requisite energy may result from radioactive elements hidden deep within Haumea, enhanced by tidal heating generated by the gravitational attraction that this worldlet and its two moons (Hi'iaka and Namaka) exert on one another.

Makemake is another weird little world twirling around in the outer fringes of our Solar System. Discovered in 2005 by Dr. Brown's team, Makemake's precise size remains undetermined, but the best current estimate makes it about 75% as big as Pluto. This renders it the third-largest currently known dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt after the twin-sized worlds, Pluto and Eris. Makemake completes its long orbital journey around our Star every 310 years, and is only slightly further out than Pluto, at an average distance of 6.85 billion kilometers (4.26 billion miles), and displays a reddish hue in the visible light spectrum. Astronomers think that its surface is coated with a glistening frost of frozen methane. This remote and mysterious world sports no known moons.

Hundreds, perhaps thousand, of remote and as-yet-undiscovered dwarf planets circle our Sun in the frigid outer limits of our Solar System.

Billions of years ago cryovolcanoes disgorged mushy water-ice over 50 percent of the surface of the faraway dwarf planet affectionately dubbed "Snow White"--or less poetically 2007 OR10. In cases of cryovolcanism, or icy volcanism, mushy ice composed of such volatiles as water, methane or ammonia is substituted for the fiery lava that we are familiar with on our own planet. Cryovolcanism also occurs on other bodies in the outer Solar System, such as Enceladus, a small icy moon orbiting the planet Saturn.

Snow White, which was discovered in 2007 as part of the doctoral thesis of Dr. Brown's then-graduate student, Dr. Meg Schwamb, circles our Star in the remote Kuiper Belt, and is about half the size of Pluto. This makes Snow White the fifth largest known dwarf planet in our Solar System. At the time of its discovery, Dr. Brown thought that this icy little world was a large chunk of Haumea that had broken off and gone its separate way. Dr. Brown nicknamed the weird little world "Snow White" in honor of what was then thought to be its white color.

However, follow-up studies of the object showed that Snow White is rose-red. In fact, it is one of the reddest bodies in our Solar System. Some astronomers now suggest that this red-tinged dwarf planet may also be coated with a film of methane-frost, the lingering relic of an ancient atmosphere that is gradually being puffed into interplanetary space.

Snow White is not the only red object in the remote Kuiper Belt. For example, Quaoar, a small dwarf planet twirling around in the Kuiper Belt, is also rosy-red. Quaoar was discovered in February 2007 by Dr. Brown's team.

For a long time astronomers erroneously thought that Snow White, though relatively large, was unremarkable--just another one out of several hundred potential dwarf planets that romp around with hundreds of thousands of kindred worlds in the Kuiper Belt.

Dr. Brown noted to the press in October 2011 that "With all of the dwarf planets that are this big, there's something interesting about them--they always tell us something. This one frustrated us for years because we didn't know what it was telling us."

In 2010, Drs Brown, Adam Burgasser and Wesley Fraser used a new instrument with the 6.5-meter Magellan Baade Telescope in Chile, to get a better view of Snow White. Snow White was quite red, as was expected by this time, but the big surprise was that it was covered in water ice. Dr. Brown continued to explain that "Water ice is not red." Ice is very common in the cold outer reaches of our Solar System, but it is almost always white.

According to Dr. Brown, "That combination--red and water--says to me, 'methane'. We're basically looking at the last gasp of Snow White. For four and a half billion years, Snow White has been sitting out there, slowly losing its atmosphere, and now there's just a little bit left." Over time, exposure to the radiation from space converts methane--which is composed of one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms--into long hydrocarbon chains, which look red. Like a light whisper of snow freezing on the streets on a wintery twilight, the irradiated methane may cling to Snow White's frigid surface, making it look rosy-red.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sedna: Goddess Of The Arctic Sea

The myth of the Inuit goddess, Sedna, has been told for generations throughout the Arctic. According to this myth, Sedna was a beautiful, young Inuit bride, who drowned in the frigid Arctic Sea following a harsh betrayal by her new husband--who is not really a human being, but an evil, gigantic raven disguised as a man. This evil bird reveals the monster that he really is to Sedna after he has contrived to seclude her as a captive in his nest on a remote cliff. Sedna's father attempts to rescue her from this evil avian creature, but the attempt fails, resulting in Sedna's death. After her death, she undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes an immortal ocean goddess. This once beautiful mortal woman undergoes a sea-change to become the sinister goddess of the Inuit underworld, "Adlivun", which she now rules as a darkly witchy immortal; a hideous, one-eyed giantess.

The Inuits are naturally familiar with darkness and bitterly cold temperatures. So, too, are remote objects dwelling in the outermost fringes of our Solar System.

The very remote dwarf planet Sedna was named for the Inuit goddess. This small, ice-world was discovered on November 13, 2003 by Drs. Michael Brown (Caltech), Chad Trujillo (Gemini Observatory), and David Rabinowitz (Yale University). The discovery was made on the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory located east of San Diego. In the discovery images, Sedna appears as only a pin-point of light. Astronomers now think that Sedna's diameter is between 1,200 and 1,600 kilometers. It is also one of the reddest objects in the Solar System--almost as red as Mars. Dr. Trujillo and his colleagues suggest that Sedna's dark red color is the result of a surface coating of hydrocarbon goo, or "tholin", formed when simpler organic compounds undergo a metamorphosis resulting from long exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Its surface is homogeneous in color and spectrum. This is probably because Sedna is rarely hit by other bodies--unlike objects nearer the Sun. Such impacts would expose areas of bright, fresh ice. Sedna's surface is thought to be composed of 24% tholins, 26% methanol, 33% methane, 10% nitrogen, and 7% amorphous carbon. When Sedna was first discovered, astronomers erroneously believed it to possess a weirdly long rotational period of 20 to 50 days. It was then speculated that Sedna's long rotational period was caused by the gravitational influence of a large moon. However, a search for this moon by the venerable Hubble Space Telescope came up empty-handed, and later measurements suggested that Sedna actually has a much shorter rotation period of 10 hours. This is typical for an object of its size.

The remote and frigid body was first observed at a distance more than 90 times greater than that from the Earth to the Sun--about three times further out than the very remote dwarf planet Pluto--once considered the ninth major planet from the Sun. Dr. Brown explained on his website that "Our newly discovered object is the coldest most distant place known in the Solar System, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid Arctic Ocean." Dr. Brown further asked the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) Minor Planet Center to name any future similar small worlds discovered in Sedna's remote, dark and frigid orbital vicinity after entities in Arctic mythologies. The IAU's Committee on Small Planet Nomenclature formally accepted the name Sedna in September 2004.

When Sedna was first spotted by Drs. Brown, Trujillo, and Rabinowitz, it was seen to travel by about 4.6 arcseconds over 3.1 hours relative to stars. This suggested to the astronomers that its distance is about 100 Astronomical Units (one Astronomical Unit, or AU, is the mean distance of the Earth to the Sun--150 million kilometers or 93 million miles). Subsequent observations conducted using the SMARTS Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile as well as with the Tenegra IV Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii showed that the tiny, remote world is skittering along in a distant, highly eccentric (out-of-round) orbit. Furthermore, the icy object was later spotted on older pre-discovery images that allowed for a more exact calculation of its elliptical orbit.

With the exception of some comets and a smattering of tiny Solar System objects, Sedna sports the longest orbital period of any known object in our Solar System--calculated to be roughly 11,400 years. Its orbit is extremely eccentric, with an aphelion (the location in its orbit most distant from the Sun) of 937 AU and a perihelion (the location in its orbit closest to the Sun) of about 76 AU.

Sedna is a fascinating and mysterious world for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is thought to dwell in a still-hypothetical region of our Solar System called the Oort Cloud, a place astronomers think hosts a multitude of comets and other icy, bizarre objects. The Oort Cloud is thought to be a shell of icy proto-comets somersaulting in very loose orbits around the Sun, reaching almost halfway to the nearest star. Every so often, passing stars alter the orbit of one of the proto-comets, sending it thrashing into the region of the inner Solar System, where it streaks across the sky, a bright object sporting an enormous incandescent tail. These comets, mysterious visitors from the outer Solar System, have fascinated humanity since time immenorial. The ancients viewed comets as magical omens of great import, and sometimes harbingers of doom. The Oort Cloud is thought to be much further out than the orbit of Sedna. So why do astronomers think that Sedna is a member of the Oort Cloud population? Astronomers now think that the existence of Sedna indicates that the Oort Cloud actually extends much further inwards towards the Sun than once thought.

In fact, Sedna has the distinction of being, perhaps, the very first object in the Oort Cloud to be discovered by astronomers. It is classified as a "dwarf planet", rather than a major planet, because it shares its orbital region with numerous and diverse other objects (not including moons) that are large, small, and mid-sized. For example, the planet Earth has one Moon, and a smattering of very tiny objects sharing its orbital vicinity. In contrast, the asteroid Ceres, the largest asteroid in the Main Asteroid Belt, which is located between the major planets Mars and Jupiter, is classified as a "dwarf planet". This is because Ceres shares its orbital vicinity with a number of other large asteroids, medium-sized asteroids, and small asteroids. Ceres was the first member of the Main Asteroid Belt to be discovered. When astronomers first discovered Ceres, it was classified as a major planet. But when other members of the Main Asteroid Belt were discovered, Ceres was re-classified as an asteroid.

A major planet must also be spherical in shape due to the effects of its own gravity. Ceres is round, but it is surrounded by a multitude of sister objects in the Main Asteroid Belt. A major planet, by definition, must be almost a "loner" in its orbital space.

Dr. Brown noted in the May 2006 issue of Discover Magazine that "Sedna shouldn't be there. There's no way to put Sedna where it is. It never comes close enough to be affected by the Sun, but it never goes far enough away from the Sun to be affected by other stars... Sedna is stuck, frozen in place; there's no way to move it, basically there's no way to put it there--unless it formed there. But it's in a very elliptical orbit like that. It simply can't be there. There's no possible way--except it is. So, how then?"

Dr. Brown continued to explain that "I'm thinking it was placed there in the earliest history of the Solar System. I'm thinking it could have gotten there if there used to be stars a lot closer than they are now and those stars affected Sedna on the outer part of its orbit and then later on moved away. So I call Sedna a fossil record of the earliest Solar System. Eventually, when other fossil records are found, Sedna will help tell us how the Sun formed and the number of stars that were close to the Sun when it formed."

Today our Sun, and its enchanting retinue of planets and other smaller objects, seems to be isolated in space. Our closest stellar neighbors are so distant that they appear to us as tiny sprinkles of light; glitter thrown by a mischievous child into the darkness of a wild cosmic party. The more remote stars do not even appear to us as a shower of glitter--all that we can see of them is a blurred, weak glow that is the relic of their combined light. Space secludes us like an icy sea, far from the madding crowd of the multitude of stars that bedeck our cosmic home. But 4.5 billion years ago, when our Solar System was young, the night sky would have appeared to be ablaze with light. The night sky at the dawn of our Solar System would have been brilliant enough to read by. This is because a thousand or so stars formed within a few light-years of our Sun from the same cold and dark molecular cloud.

About one in 10 stars belong to a cluster, a shower of hundreds to tens of thousands of glittering stars. The cluster usually has a diameter of only a few light years. Scraps of evidence collected from meteorites, as well as from the arrangement of comets, whisper out a haunting secret from the remote past, telling us that our Sun was no exception. Our own Sun's birth cluster could well have contained as many as 1,500 to 3,500 sister stars within a diameter of only 10 light-years. This very large family of sister-stars would have been completely dysfunctional; a violent place where the larger sister stars bullied their smaller siblings, and which naturally broke up--shortly after our Solar System was born--largely due to this familial abuse.

One such explanation for Sedna's bizarre orbit has been provided by Dr. Scott Kenyon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) and Dr. Benjamin Bromley of the University of Utah. According to their calculations, published in the December 2, 2004 issue of the journal Nature, the Sun's gravity may have actually stolen asteroid-sized worldlets away from the family of a passing long-lost stellar sister of the Sun.

"It's possible that some of the objects in our Solar System actually formed around another star," commented Dr. Kenyon in a December 1, 2004 Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) Press Release.

Drs. Kenyon and Bromley came to this fascinating conclusion while studying the enigma that is Sedna. Understanding this weird icy worldlet presents quite a challenge to astronomers because its orbit is so vastly distant from the gravitational grasp of the planets dwelling in our own Solar System. However, the gravity of a passing star would be able to ensnare such a little world, as it floated around the Sun, in a remote region beyond Neptune called the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is a ring of icy small worlds of which the former planet Pluto and its large moon Charon are members. This passing sister star could have pulled Sedna into its present weird orbit. Drs. Kenyon and Bromley performed detailed computer simulations showing how this might have occurred long ago when our Solar System was young, and the Sun's long-lost-sisters were still close enough to wreak havoc with one another.

This close encounter of the stellar kind must have occurred late enough in the history of our Solar System to permit Sedna-type wandering worldlets to have sufficient time to take shape within the remote Kuiper Belt. In addition, the encroaching sister star would have had to stay far enough away so that it did not disturb Neptune's nearly circular orbit. This near-collision had to occur, according to Drs. Kenyon and Bromley's calculations, when our Sun was at least 30 million years old--and probably no more than 200 million years old. A near-collision at a distance of 150-200 AU would be near enough to disturb the outer Kuiper Belt without wreaking havoc with the inner planets: Mercury, Venus, our Earth and Mars.

Where did this encroaching star come from? Since the close encounter occurred more than 4 billion years ago, the stellar wanderer probably was a refugee from the Sun's original birth cluster. The culprit star has long since flown off from the Sun's neighborhood, and there is little hope of finding it today.

Drs. Kenyon and Bromley's simulations suggest that perhaps millions of alien Kuiper Belt Objects were torn from the family of that disruptive sister star, and are now adopted members of the Sun's own family. None of these objects, however, have been positively identified, and it is thought by most astronomers that Sedna is most likely a true daughter of our Sun--and not the alien offspring of a disruptive sister-star.

Nevertheless, the possibility that Sedna is really an adopted alien object, the child of another wandering star, cannot be completely ruled out. Drs. Kenyon and Bromley's simulations indicate that there is a 1 percent chance that Sedna is a body that was captured during an ancient stellar close encounter.

Dr. Bromley told the press that "There may be thousands of objects like Sedna near the edge of our Solar System. So there is an even greater chance that some may be alien worlds captured from another solar system."

The Kuiper Belt cuts off suddenly at 50 AU from the Sun and "there is no evidence that the hard edge of the Kuiper Belt is in any sense natural," Dr. Bromley added.

If the edge of our Solar System had not been disturbed by an ancient stellar close encounter, scientists would predict a gradual diminishing of relic debris at increasing distances from the Sun. Drs. Kenyon and Bromely's computer simulations suggest that a close brush by another sister solar system could well explain why icy, rocky Kuiper Belt Objects suddenly disappear at 50 AU.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Brave New Worlds

In 1584, the Catholic monk Giordano Bruno, who heroically declared that there were "countless suns and countless earths all rotating around their suns," was accused of heresy and burned at the stake.

The greatest scientists often chase after the mysterious, hidden truths of Nature with an obsessive dedication worthy of a star-struck lover--but, in this case, the pursuit of truth is their passion. As Albert Einstein once said, "Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding."

Because of his heretical beliefs, Bruno gained the enmity of the Inquisition in Naples, and he was imprisoned for eight years and interrogated regularly. When, in the end, he heroically stood up for what he believed in and refused to recant, he was burned at the stake.

Giordano Bruno gave his life for what he believed was true, and we now know that he was right. As he once said: "Truth does not change because it is, or is not, believed by the majority of the people."

No bonfire lit by the ignorant and intolerant can ever lay ashes to the truth.

Less than twenty years ago, astronomer Dr. Geoffrey W. Marcy, now at the University of California at Berkeley, stood before an audience at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Marcy stunned his audience with the discovery of two brave new worlds--two extrasolar planets (or exoplanets) twirling around stars beyond our Sun. This proved to be only the tip of the iceberg--a very, very big iceberg. We now know of thousands of planets that circle stars other than our Sun and, based on this, we now suspect that there are billions of planets in our Galaxy alone--and there are billions and billions of galaxies dwelling in that relatively small portion of our Universe that we can observe.

Dr. Marcy and his team of planet-hunters went on to discover 70 of the first 100 exoplanets. The techniques employed by these trail-blazing astronomers eventually were used to find and characterize over 400 planets twirling around stars other than our own.

Planets seem to be as common as flecks of dust floating around in a dark attic. On February 2, 2011, astronomers from NASA's highly successful planet-hunting Kepler Mission shocked the world with the announcement of the existence of 1200 exoplanet "candidates". Mission leader Dr. William Borucki commented to the press that "The fact that we've found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests that there are countless planets orbiting stars like our Sun in the Galaxy. Kepler can find only a small fraction of the planets around the stars it looks at because the orbits aren't aligned properly. If you account for those two factors, our results indicate there must be millions of planets orbiting the stars that surround our Sun." Of those 1,200 exoplanet candidates, Kepler scientists announced that about one-third were discovered frolicking in planetary systems hosting two or more planets--including one planetary system containing at least six planets.

The Kepler spacecraft is a U.S. space-borne observatory that is part of NASA's Kepler Mission. The primary goal of Kepler is to hunt down Earth-like worlds circling stars beyond our own Sun, dwelling in our Galaxy. The spacecraft, launched in March 2009, was named after the great 17th century German astronomer Johannes Kepler. The mission was specially designed to survey a small region of the Milky Way in order to hunt for dozens of Earth-like planets in or near the "habitable zone". Planets dwelling in the habitable zones of their stars enjoy comfortable temperatures that are not too hot, not too cold, but just right for water to exist in its life-friendly liquid state, which is necessary for the evolution of life as we know it. Kepler's goal is to determine how many of the billions and billions of stars in our Galaxy host such "Goldilocks" planets. It sports only one instrument--a photometer that keeps an unblinking eye on a small patch of sky in order to monitor the brightness of more than 145,000 main-sequence (hydrogen-burning) stars in a stationary field of view. This precious data is then dispatched back to Earth-bound astronomers, who then analyze it to detect the periodic dimming of a star's light that hints of an exoplanet transiting in front of the face of its parent star.

The recent discoveries of so many exoplanets has resulted in a revolutionary alteration in our scientific understanding. Our Solar System seemed to be unique in the cosmic scheme of things until 1994, when the discovery of the first exoplanets was announced. Now we know that our own Solar System, composed of our bedazzling golden Sun and its charming retinue of eight major planets, is only one of billions--there are other beautiful parent stars winking with incandescent light, encircled by their own families of planet-children that all possess their own special charms. We now know of planets that orbit binary stars--planets that circle two suns, just like the fictitious "Tatooine" of Star Wars. And we also know that there are planets that have no star at all, but float freely around the Galaxy like orphans bereft of their parent. We know of many weird and wonderful worlds that jitterbug around our Galaxy, dancing around their stars. We know of brave new worlds that were unimaginable less than a generation ago--a planet composed of diamond and a "miniature" planetary system where tiny planets circle a small ruby-red star! And we now know of planets that dwell in such comfortable orbits around their suns that they, like our own Earth, might host living creatures.

Planet-hunters are seeing planets everywhere! The recent avalanche of exoplanetary discoveries clearly shows us that our Universe churns out planets very easily--and that these abundant worlds are very diverse in their charming attributes.

If it is possible for a star to give birth to a planet, it will. Most of the planets that have been spotted by astronomers so far have been giants--similar in mass and size to Jupiter. The original Doppler shift (radial velocity) method, that was used by Dr. Marcy and his colleagues, hunts for the minute wobble induced by an orbiting planet on its star. This method favors the detection of giant planets (like Jupiter), hugging their stars in extremely close orbits--hence their name: "Hot Jupiters".

However, with more recent advances made in the extremely successful, trail-blazing radial velocity method, coupled with the successful launch of the Kepler Space Telescope, which utilizes the transit detection method (the passing of a planet in front of the face of its parent star, as seen from Earth), planetary systems composed of much smaller and lower-mass planetary children are now being spotted for the first time. We are now finding other Earth-sized planets--and some of them might very well be inhabited.

One of the most recent discoveries made by the prolific Kepler telescope shows two rocky, approximately Earth-sized planets twirling in tight orbits around a star very much like our own Sun, dubbed Kepler-20, which resides a mere 950 light-years away.

Both of these small planets huddle far too close to their parent star to have permitted the evolution of delicate living things. But the good news is that the duo represents the very first truly Earth-sized worlds confirmed by the Kepler team. Discovering habitable distant worlds--Earth-like planets dwelling at that precious Goldilocks distance from their stars--is the Holy Grail of the Kepler planet-hunters.

Dr. David Charbonneau, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a coauthor of the study announcing the discovery of the duo, noted to the press in January 2012, that "The hunt is on to find a... true Earth twin." The study was published online December 20, 2011 in the journal Nature.

One of the little planets, dubbed Kepler-20e, is a bit smaller than the planet Venus--0.87 times as wide as Earth--and zips around its parent star in a mere 6.1 Earth-days. The other, Kepler-20f, is 1.03 times as wide as our planet, and is also quite zippy, twirling around its star in a mere 19.6 Earth-days. It is thought that because both planets are so comparatively small, they are probably composed of the same rocky stuff that makes up our planet, as well as the three other terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, and Mars.

The architecture of the Kepler-20 system is bizarre. The planetary system is composed of three large planets (Kepler-20b, c, and d) and the Earth-sized duo. All five planets hug their parent star very tightly. In fact, all five of them are closer to their star than Mercury is to our Sun! Even weirder, the planetary system is not organized at all like our own Solar System. Our Solar System is very neatly divided, with four small rocky terrestrial planets orbiting relatively close to the Sun, and the four giant planets orbiting further away. Of the four large planets, Jupiter and Saturn are gas giants with immense gaseous atmospheres, and possibly no solid surface, while Uranus and Neptune are ice-giants, which have cores of icy-rocky stuff encased by heavy gaseous atmospheres--that are not as heavy as those possessed by the true gas giants. In our Solar System, the terrestrial planets and the giant planets are very neatly separated by the mostly rocky objects inhabiting the asteroid belt.

The Kepler-20 system is a lot messier than our familiar Solar System. Moving out from the star, the five worlds alternate in size, with the little twerps surrounded on either side by their larger sister-planets. Dr. Didier Queloz, an astronomer and planet-hunter at the Observatoire de Geneve in Switzerland, noted in the February 9, 2012 issue of Nature: "In contrast to the Solar System, where small rocky planets lie close to the Sun but the gas giants are far from it, these planets have no obvious hierarchical orbital location."

As Alice, lost in Wonderland said, things just keep getting "curioser and curioser." In about 5 billion years, our friendly, golden Sun will swell to monstrous size and turn blood-red. In this red-giant phase, the Sun's atmosphere will float out beyond Earth's orbit, and our Star will cannibalize most of its inner-planetary children--Mercury, Venus, and our Earth. It is thought that these three planets will be vaporized by the fiery heat of our Sun on steroids.

However, the recent discovery of a bizarre planetary system indicates that our beloved inner planets may not be so doomed. Dr. Stephane Charpinet and colleagues announced the weird discovery of an exoplanetary system that had possibly survived the cruel red fires of its own parent star, dubbed KIC 05807616. The findings, also derived from the Kepler Mission, were presented in the 22/29 December 2011 issue of Nature. Dr. Charpinet, of the Universite de Toulouse in France, and his team, reported what may be two tiny planets circling an elderly star--classified as a hot B subdwarf. Before KIC 05807616 had evolved into this very hot small blue star, it had been a star like our own Sun that had later swelled into a cannibalizing red giant. The two tiny planets twirl in orbits that hug this evolved little star--at distances that amount to less than one percent of the Earth-Sun separation. At these very close distances, both little planets would have been swallowed by their parent star in its red giant phase.

Yet, these little planets are there. How did they survive?

Dr. Charpinet and his colleagues believe that the little planets were born much farther away from their star, and that their orbits were eventually sucked inward during the star's expansion to its red giant phase, which ultimately swallowed the planets. In this scenario, the doomed duo would have originated as massive gas giants, like our Solar System's Jupiter and Saturn. However, their heavy gaseous atmospheres would have evaporated when the planets were swallowed by their parent star. All that now remains of the terrible feast are two barren cores of rock--the pathetic remnants of what once were two gigantic gaseous planets.

The prospect of planets being spotted alive and well in close orbit around an elderly star, long past its red giant phase, is certainly of great interest. Sun-like stars spend billions of years happily fusing hydrogen into helium before experiencing a sudden, violent growth spurt that marks their rite of passage into the red giant stage. The swelling of our Sun into this phase of its evolution will inevitably destroy any life that may still be dwelling on Earth. However, the existence of these little exoplanets circling an evolved star suggests the wonderful possibility that all inner planets are not necessarily devoured by their red-giant parent stars.

In February 2012, researchers, also at CfA, announced the discovery of an entirely new and strange exoplanet, composed not of rock or gas--but of water, very hot water!

The planet is "a waterworld enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere," they said in a statement, after observing the weird world with NASA's venerable Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronomer Dr. Zachary Berta of CfA told the press on February 21, 2012 that "GJ1214b is like no planet we know of. A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water."

It is obvious, at this point, that astronomers are spotting planets here, there, and everywhere!

The discovery of a potentially habitable exoplanet was announced in February 2012. This Goldilocks planet circles a nearby star dubbed GJ667C. The planet, GJ667Cc twirls around in a triple star system a mere 22 light-years from Earth. It weighs at least 4.5 times as much as our planet, which makes it a so-called "super-Earth."

Furthermore, a recent survey using gravitational microlensing, whereby the light of a star is bent by a foreground object, resulting in its magnification, indicates that there are probably more planets than stars in the Milky Way--and that small planets like Earth are more common than gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, and ice-giants like Uranus and Neptune! Gravitational microlensing permits the detection of small planets in wide orbits around their stars, in contrast to the Doppler technique. This finding was announced in January 2012 by Dr. Arnaud Cassan of the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, who led the research team.

The truth does not change whether it is believed or not. About 300,000,000 years ago, humanity's ancestral organisms commenced their momentous Great Crawl out of Earth's primeval waters to evolve into land-dwelling creatures. With the curiosity so characteristic of our adventurous species, we now take to flight, soaring high beyond Earth's clouds and into space--and with a lucky White Rabbit to guide us into our Cosmic Wonderland, we begin a new stage, from land-dwelling creatures to space-farers. And we seek in the wild wilderness of the Universe others who share it with us.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Play Your Part In Extending Our Knowledge Of The Universe!

Not that long ago, astronomical research was undertaken by well-heeled individuals who were amateur astronomers in their free time.

In earlier centuries, the independently well-to-do amateur astronomer could afford to build their own telescopes and instruments, with many developing their own designs. If there were amateur astronomers of more lowly means, they could only envy those with access to expensive optical aids and measuring tools, though the wonder of the night time sky remained there to be witnessed with the naked eye... especially with the dark skies which would have existed before the onset of the Industrial Age.

Come the 20th century... and with the introduction of jobs for "professional astronomers", telescopes and the observatories that housed them became so large that no amateur astronomer could hope to emulate them... and professionals were the sole arbiters of who had the ability to access these comprehensive research facilities.

The results from space-based telescopes, large observatories and spaceprobes were just viewed by a select few academic eyes.

The advent of the internet has changed that paradigm. Over the past couple of decades, a tremendous volume of data has been collected from deep sky surveys, spaceprobes and various space-based telescopes. It would take quite a few more decades for professional astronomers to sort through and look at all that data, and that is just not achievable. For this reason they are currently requesting amateur astronomers and members of the public - anyone with access to a PC - to assist them to look into and review all of that data.

The era of citizen astronomy has returned and you can contribute to it.

You only need access to a PC - which could be in your workplace, an internet cafe or your local library - and internet access.

To help you get moving, the following is a rundown of the Top Five astronomy research initiatives on the internet:

1. Galaxy Zoo Mergers

Members review collisions between galaxies.The main goal of this project is to assess photographs from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and compare simulated galaxy collisions with actual photos of colliding galaxies.Astronomers hope to make use of the consolidated results from all those who help, to discover the process involved in galaxy mergers.

2. SETI At Home

This program harnesses the strength of several thousand home computers across the world to examine the piles of information from the Arecibo Radio Telescope.The objective of this ongoing program is to determine if we can eavesdrop on any extra-terrestrial civilizations.

3. Globe at Night

The Globe at Night's website presents graphs and diagrams that allow people to determine how bright their night skies are.Perhaps you should assess the brightness of your own skies and contribute to the program.The coordinators then gather the reports to produce a chart of the results.

4. Moon Zoo

Moon Zoo depends on people like you identifying and labeling craters along with other interesting objects in high resolution photos from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

5. Global Telescope Network

Participate in the nitty-gritty points of astronomical research by studying CCD images from observatories across the globe.You need an internet-enabled PC in addition to specialist computer software like CCDsoft or Maxim DL, so this may only appeal to astrophotgraphers who almost certainly have already bought such software programs.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Star Light, Star Bright

The idea of wishing on a star is a very ancient superstition. Many wide-eyed children--as well as some unfortunate adults--have wished upon a shooting or falling star in an effort to make magic work for them. But stars are not supernatural dabs of light shimmering like angels in the clear night sky. Stars are really gigantic incandescent balls of hot nuclear-fusing gas. They are unable to hear us, and certainly cannot grant wishes. However, the stars have done much more for us than merely that--they gave us life.

The billions and billions of stars that dwell in our Universe are primarily composed of hydrogen--the lightest element in the Periodic Table--which they transform in their nuclear-fusing cores into heavier things, by way of a process termed "stellar nucleosynthesis". How were the first stars in our Universe born? How big were they? What were they like?

The first stars were not like the stars we know today; they formed directly from the lightest primordial gases--hydrogen and helium--which were born in the hot Big Bang birth of the Universe almost 14 billion years ago. In fact, the only atomic elements formed in the Big Bang inferno were hydrogen, helium, and trace amounts of lithium. The rest of the elements of the Periodic Table were cooked deep in the hearts of stars, their glowing hot interiors progressively fusing the nuclei of atoms to form heavier and heavier elements. Without these heavy elements produced by our Universe's stars, there would be no life. We would not be here. All of the carbon that is the basis for life on Earth, the oxygen we breathe, the elements composing the stones, dirt, and sand beneath our feet, were created deep inside the fiery hearts of ancient stars, billions and billions of years ago. We are made of star-stuff. When very massive stars die, they do not go gently into that good night, but blow themselves up in a magnificent supernova blast. When massive stars go supernova they hurl their newly formed batch of heavy elements out into space. The first stars were enormous, perhaps weighing as much as hundreds of times more than our own Sun. They lived fast and died young. The more massive the star, the shorter its life. When the first stars went supernova, they blasted out the very first newly-formed batch of heavy elements--so necessary for the emergence of life--into the Cosmos.

Hydrogen and helium were drawn together to create gravity-bound knots of gas. The cores of the very first protostars in our Universe ignited within the cold dark hearts of these dense knots of pristine primordial gas. The tight dark knots collapsed under their own gravitational weight, until nuclear-fusing fires started to burn. Many cosmologists think that the first stars grew to be enormous (compared to the stars of today's Universe), because they did not form from the same elements, and did not form in the same way, as stars do now. Members of the first generation of stars are termed "Population III" stars. Our Sun is a member of the most recent population of stars, and is a so-called "Population I" star. In between the first stars, and the most recent generation of stars like our Sun, are the appropriately-named "Population II" stars.

The most ancient generation of stars did not catch fire until about 100 million years after the Big Bang. How did the dramatic transition from darkness to light come about? After decades of observations, simulations, and calculations, researchers have recently made significant progress in their endeavors to answer this question. Using sophisticated computer simulation techniques, cosmologists have constructed ingenious models that reveal how the first generation of stars might have been born. Observations made using large ground-based and space-borne telescopes have also probed into cosmic history back to the remote time when the Universe was less than one-tenth of its present age.

The great scientific detective Albert Einstein once said that "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead: His eyes are closed."

The birth of the first stars is one of the greatest mysteries haunting today's cosmologists. It is currently most widely thought that the ancient Population III stars were not only extremely massive, but also dazzlingly luminous, and their emergence is primarily responsible for changing our Universe from what it was to what it is now. The ordinary atomic matter that was born in the Big Bang and subsequently cooked up in the hearts of stars is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are bound together into atomic nuclei surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Hydrogen is made up of only one proton and one electron. Helium is made up of two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons. Carbon is made up of six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons. Heavier elements, such as iron, lead, and uranium, contain even larger numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

The "metallicity" of a star refers to the percentage of its matter that is composed of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Because stars, which account for most of the visible matter in the Universe, are made up primarily of hydrogen and helium, astronomers and cosmologists use (for convenience) the all-encompassing term "metal" when indicating all of the elements in the Periodic Table that are heavier than hydrogen and helium. Both hydrogen and helium were born in the Big Bang--the heavier elements were formed in the nuclear-fusing hearts of our Universe's stars, or in their explosive demise. Therefore, the term "metal", in astronomical jargon, has a different meaning than the same term has for a chemist. A nebula (cloud) heavily laden with nitrogen, neon, carbon, and oxygen would be termed "metal-rich" by an astronomer, even though those elements are not metals to a chemist. Hence, this term should not be confused with the chemist's definition of "metal"; metallic bonds are impossible in the searing-hot hearts of stars, and the very strongest chemical bonds are only possible in the outer layers of cool "stars", such as brown dwarfs, which are not even stars in the strictest sense of the word because, even though they probably form as true stars form, they are too puny for their nuclear-fusing fires to ignite. The metallicity of a star may tell an astronomer its age. When the Universe first emerged, it's atomic matter was almost entirely hydrogen which, through primordial nucleosynthesis, manufactured a large quantity of helium and trace amounts of lithium and beryllium--and no heavier elements. Therefore, older stars (such as Population II and III stars) have lower metallicities than younger stars (Population I) like our own Sun.

The stellar Populations I, II, and III, show decreasing metal content with increasing age. Therefore, Population I stars, the youngest in the Universe, have the highest metal content. The first stars to catch fire in the universe (Population III) were depleted of metals. Population II stars are very ancient, but not as old as the Population III stars, or as youthful as our bouncy baby of a Sun. Population II stars bear the metals produced by the first generation of stars.

Even though older stars carry fewer heavy elements than younger stars, the fact that all stars thus far observed by astronomers have at least some metals, presents a delectable mystery. The currently favored explanation for this mysterious observation is that Population III stars must have existed in order for these heavier elements to have been produced--even though not one Population III star has ever been observed! According to this line of reasoning, in order for the Population II stars--which have been observed--to carry their relatively scanty amounts of metals, their metals must have been created in the nuclear-fusing hearts of a pre-existing generation of stars. Soon after the Big Bang birth of our Universe, there were no metals. Therefore, it is hypothesized that only stars with masses hundreds of times that of our Sun could have been born in the very ancient Universe. Near the end of their hydrogen-burning (main-sequence) lives, these first stars fused the first 26 elements up to iron in the Periodic Table by way of stellar nucleosynthesis.

Because of their heavy mass, current stellar models indicate that the ancient Population III stars would have rapidly burned their supply of hydrogen fuel and exploded in extremely violent supernovae. Those extremely violent blasts would have completely strewn their material all over the Universe, shooting newly-forged metals throughout the once-pristine Universe to be incorporated into subsequent generations of stars--the stars that we observe, and wish upon, today. No Population III stars have ever been observed because of their hypothesized great mass. Because these stars lived fast and furiously, they died young, and thus blew themselves to smithereens in mighty supernova explosions in the very ancient Universe. Hence, Population III stars can only be observed dwelling in the most remote galaxies inhabiting the early Universe, and finding such stars or establishing their non-existence is extremely difficult.

As subsequent generations of stars were born in the Universe, they became increasingly more heavily metal-enriched, as the gas-laden clouds from which they were born were bestowed with metal-enriched dust cooked up by previous generations of stars in their nuclear-fusing hearts. The youngest stars, like our own Sun, therefore have the greatest metal content in our Universe today. However, this must be kept in its proper perspective. Even metal-rich stars contain only small quantities of any element heavier than hydrogen or helium. In fact, metals (in the astronomical sense of the term) make up only an extremely small percentage of the overall chemical composition of the Universe.

Although it is generally believed that the ancient Population III stars were extremely massive, cosmologists are by no means in complete agreement on this issue. However, because smaller stars live much longer than more massive ones, it would explain why there has never been a metal-free low-mass star observed by astronomers. If Population III stars were small, some of them should still be floating around our Universe today.

There is a beautiful story to be told here, to anyone who wants to understand the plot. Our Universe was born almost 14 billion years ago in the Big Bang, and it grew from a small microscopic crumb into an entity where incandescent stars could be born, dangling like sparkling baubles within billions and billions of galaxies. The elements that made life possible were cooked up slowly in the hearts of very ancient stars, which then flung these newly forged elements out into space when they went supernova. Some of these newly formed heavy elements ultimately merged together and mixed on a small, watery, pale blue Planet, circling an ordinary fiery golden Star, dwelling in a typical spiral Galaxy. About 300,000,000 years ago, humanity's ancestral organisms first commenced their momentous Great Crawl out of Earth's primeaval oceans, eventually to evolve into land-dwelling creatures. The transition from fishes to limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) occurred about 370,000,000 years ago, when "Tiktaalik Roseae", better known as the "fishapod", emerged from the ancient, fertile seas of our Earth. It was a fish, but a fish with fins that flexed and extended like arms and hands. It was a flattened, superficially crocodile-like animal. Hundreds of millions of years later some of its descendants would evolve into us, land-dwelling creatures able to wonder about the Universe, able to observe planets circling distant stars beyond our Sun, where life may also have evolved out of non-living substances. That silly-looking little "fishapod" left the imprints of its momentous journey in the mud near ancient seas. Eventually, over the eons, the record of this journey was frozen in stone. Millions and millions of years later, descendants of that funny little animal would leave imprints of yet another momentous journey in the dust of the Moon.

As physicist Dr. David A. Clarke and his co-authors noted in the article "Astrophysical Jets", a publication of the Canadian Association of Physicists: "Nature has devised numerous mechanisms by which the Universe could become self-aware, and where humanity could spring forth from the ashes of ancient supernovae and gaze back upon the heavens to contemplate its origins."