Part 2: Self-Activating Intelligence of Dragonfly
and James Webb Telescopes
© 2016 by Linda Moulton Howe
“As soon as a supernova is detected, it sends a signal to a bunch
of telescopes and they will — sometimes within seconds — move to
that position and start taking images without a human ever being in the middle.”
- Pieter van Dokkum, Ph.D., Prof. of Astronomy, Yale University
Dragonfly telescope in Cloudcroft, NM, thinks
for itself while it hunts for dark matter galaxies.
Image by Pieter van Dokkum, Ph.D.,
Return to Part 1:
September 30, 2016 New Haven, Connecticut - One of the most anticipated astronomy breakthroughs since the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes is expected to come from the James Webb Space Telescope now scheduled for launch in October 2018. The JWST will have the Earth's best resolution and sensitivity ranging from long-wavelength visible light (orange-red), through near-infrared to the mid-infrared. It's theme is to “see first light,” meaning as far back in time to the beginning of this universe as possible.
It will have great clarity of vision because it's going to be launched to the second Lagrange point 930,000 miles from Earth (see illustration below) where the combined gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun will allow the James Webb telescope supported by its spacecraft to circle around the Lagrange 2 point in what is called a “halo orbit.” That means the gravitational balance will always keep the JWST near the Lagrange 2 point.
The Earth-Sun system has 5 Lagrange points shown in this diagram. The James Webb
Space Telescope (JWST) at far right will be kept in orbit at L2. Illustration by NASA.
Once in place, the James Webb Space Telescope has four main research goals:
1) to “see” back in time as far as possible to first star and galaxy creation in this universe after the Big Bang.
2) to understand star and planetary system formations and conditions for the origins of life.
3) to study the universe in a wide range of infrared frequencies in contrast to Hubble's seeing in visible or ultraviolet light.
4) to solve the mystery of star KIC 8462852 that has become famous for great variations in dimming light which has provoked the serious question: did an intelligent civilization build an energy production device around that star?
Professor van Dokkum at Yale University would add a fifth category — to look at his catalogue of faint, massive objects such as the dark matter galaxy Dragonfly 44 to see what more can be learned from infrared about the extraordinary 99.99% dark matter galaxy that Prof. van Dokkum calls the “dark twin” of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Dragonfly 44 is the faint greyish-green “smudge” in the bottom of these two images
taken by the Dragonfly Telescope in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. Dragonfly 44 was the
44th faint object discovered in Prof. Pieter van Dokkum's research at Yale University
and turned out to be the first galaxy of its kind ever found: 99.99% dark matter.
10 kpc = 32,600 light-years. Images by van Dokkum/Dragonfly Telescope.
Pieter van Dokkum, Ph.D., Sol Goldman Prof. of Astronomy, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut: “CAN THE NEW WEBB TELESCOPE LOOK AT DRAGONFLY 44 AND SEE IT MORE CLEARLY?
Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope at its Lagrange 2 point between the Sun
Yes. We’re all very excited about the James Webb telescope, which will launch in 2018. It’s a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and it’s going to be an astonishing machine! We are planning to propose to look at Dragonfly 44 and perhaps other galaxies like it because it (James Webb telescope) will provide a much clearer view of this galaxy. It will also be able to measure the amount of dark matter much further away from where we’ve measured it so far, but we can get a much better measurement of how much dark matter there is. And also, of the nature of the stars in this galaxy — when they formed and hopefully learn how these galaxies came to be.
But the James Webb Telescope will change and revolutionize a lot of fields of astronomy and for us, it comes at a great time because we are finding these galaxies that really push our current telescopes to the limit.
Earth Telescopes Becoming A Computer Network
DOES IT MEAN THAT WHEN THE WEBB TELESCOPE LAUNCHES IN 2018 THAT THERE MIGHT EVEN BE A COMPUTER NETWORK BETWEEN THE WEBB, THE DRAGONFLY, KECK, HUBBLE — SO THAT ALL OF THE TELESCOPES COULD TALK TO EACH OTHER?
Yeah, some of that actually already exists because sometimes there is an explosion in the sky — a supernova explosion or a gamma ray burst explosion. And then the key is to very quickly point as many telescopes at that location in the sky as possible. As soon as a supernova is detected, it sends a signal to a bunch of telescopes and they will — sometimes within seconds — move to that position and start taking images without a human ever being in the middle.
Yeah, it is really astonishing what can be done these days.
WHO IS THE TRAFFIC COP AMID THE TELESCOPES? IN OTHER WORDS, HOW DO THE TELESCOPES TALK TO EACH OTHER?
Well, that’s a very good question. It is tricky to figure those things out., particularly when a telescope might be doing something for Researcher A. Then all of a sudden, there is this supernova goes off and Researcher B says, ‘Stop what you are doing, telescope, and move to my supernova.’
And so that’s where these committees come in — time allocation committees, who try to make judgment calls on what things should get priority. So, you try to anticipate what might happen. And then there are rules about who gets priority if something happens that requires one of these interrupts. It’s tricky because there are often competing teams that want to do the same thing.
In our case, we don’t have to worry about that because it’s our telescope and we have 100% the time on it.
ARE THE COMMITTEES AROUND THE WORLD IN BOTH HEMISPHERES? OR ONLY IN THE UNITED STATES? OR HOW DOES THAT WORK?
Well, telescopes have their own committees, like the Keck telescopes have a committee. European telescopes have their committee. And it is usually who owns and operates the telescope gets to decide. The U. S. operates a bunch of telescopes. The U. S. committee decides on these things.
But some international telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, it’s an international committee and it meets in Baltimore in the United States every year. But there are a lot of people from Europe and from South America, China, Japan, who fly into Baltimore and participate in these meetings to decide what should be observed.
Aim All Telescopes At Cosmic Threat?
Incoming Large Asteroid.
SO, IF SOMETHING WERE COMING INTO OUR SOLAR SYSTEM — LET’S SAY SOME LARGE ROGUE ASTEROID THAT WE HADN’T KNOWN BEFORE AND MAYBE IT’S 6 MILES IN DIAMETER — AN EXTINCTION EVENT. IS THAT THE KIND OF THING WHERE THE TELESCOPE NETWORK WOULD SEND OUT AN URGENT REQUEST FOR ALL TELESCOPES TO LOOK AT IT?
Yeah, although in that particular case, I think we would all be hiding under our desks and hoping for the best. (laughs)
But generally if something truly exciting happens, ultimately the directors of these telescopes have authority to stop whatever the telescope is doing and change the program.
Gamma Ray Burst
IS IT TRUE THAT IF A STAR EXPLODES WITH A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF GAMMA RAY ENERGY THAT IT COULD WIPE OUT ALL SURFACE LIFE ON EARTH DEPENDING UPON THE DISTANCE?
Well, I don’t want to alarm your listeners, but yes. (laughs) It could do that. There is this class of explosions called gamma ray bursts and they are extremely energetic. Some people even have linked past extinction events on Earth to gamma ray burst events.
If the gamma ray burst went off close to the Earth, it would not be a good day.
WHAT WOULD DETERMINE WHETHER A STAR EXPLODED WITH A TREMENDOUS GAMMA RAY BURST OR NOT?
Oh, it’s not well known. But we do know the star has to be very massive before it can produce the gamma ray burst. It has to explode in what is called a supernova. What we did not know is that some of these supernova are accompanied by this enormous burst of gamma rays — incredibly energetic particles that on Earth are nuclear explosions with extremely harmful rays that can obliterate life. It’s not that well understood why some stars do this and some stars don’t.
WHAT IS THE CLOSEST STAR THAT MIGHT BURST THAT’S LARGE AND COULD EMIT A LOT OF GAMMA RAYS?
That’s an interesting question. The first thing that comes to mind is Eta Carinae, which is one of the most massive stars in our galaxy and it’s also nearing the end of its life.
Eta Carinae is at least two stars with a combined luminosity over 5 million times our Sun,
located about 7,500 light-years from Earth. Nothing else like this has yet been found
in the Milky Way galaxy and its future is not certain. Fermi Lab in Chicago has detected low
energy gamma-rays that show little variability. At its relatively close cosmic distance to our
solar system, a gamma-ray burst from it could do serious damage on Earth. But there is debate about whether Eta Carinae will produce an eventual supernova with gamma-ray burst. Image by Hubble.
Galaxies Eat Each Other
Examples of galaxies eating each other in mergers. Images by NASA/ESA/Hubble/STScI/Caltech.
IN ADDITION TO DRAGONFLY 44, IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE THAT YOU HAVE DISCOVERED THAT YOU ARE EXCITED ABOUT AS ANOTHER HUGE MYSTERY?
Well, one thing is that galaxies continuously grow by eating other galaxies. They have quite an appetite and any galaxy in the universe has either recently eaten a small other galaxy; or it will do so soon. So, galaxies are cannibals. They eat each other. And the question is: how much do they eat? What did they eat recently? What will they eat in the future? And how much will they grow through this process?
The answer is: Quite a lot! And they all look completely different. One has eaten a lot. Another has been on a starvation diet and has not eaten anything in a long time.
One thing we’re trying to understand is what determines the eating habits of a galaxy and how does that change over time?
WHAT IS THE MILKY WAY GALAXY EATING?
The Milky Way has quite an appetite. It is currently eating a galaxy called Saggitarius Dwarf that is in the process of being disrupted and merging with the Milky Way.
December 2, 2011, Penn State SCIENCE.
Finding Other Life in This Universe
THE NEXT LOGICAL STEP IS: WE HAVE TO BE FINDING OTHER LIFE IN THIS UNIVERSE. IT’S PREPOSTEROUS THAT IN A 13.9 BILLION LIGHT-YEAR UNIVERSE THAT EARTH IN THE BACKWATER OF THE MILKY WAY GALAXY WOULD BE THE ONLY PLANET WITIH INTELLIGENT HUMANOIDS?
Yeah, it’s a tough question. I mean, we have of course discovered a lot of planets around other stars and Proxima B, this latest incredible discovery of a potential Earth-like planet in the habitable zone around Earth’s nearest star. So, one big uncertainty in that whole question has been resolved. The question: How rare is it to have planets and particularly planets like Earth. It’s not rare at all. Many many stars have them. There’s a huge diversity of star-like (sun) systems in our galaxy. And so that is an incredibly exciting result because it means there certainly is a lot of potential for life to develop. There are a lot of locations where that could have happened.
Physicist Michio Kaku: 2/3's of This Universe
Is Older Than Earth Solar System,
So Advanced Civilizations Are Possible
LIKE MICHIO KAKU ARGUES THAT WE ARE ON A 4.6 BILLION YEAR OLD EARTH AND SOLAR SYSTEM, SO WE WOULD BE IN THE 1/3RD MOST RECENT PART OF THE UNIVERSE WITH TWO-THIRDS OF THE UNIVERSE OLDER THAN WE ARE.
Yeah! Of course, but what is unknown in that argument is how likely it is for life to develop in the first place. That’s the big question that we don’t have an answer to. I think the empirical scientific approach of looking and trying to find as many planets as we can and then study those planets and look for bio signatures. We want to find how many Earth-like planets there are. How many have an atmosphere that look somewhat like Earth’s — and particularly with oxygen.
And then the next steps are to survey those planets in greater detail and to understand more of their chemistry and see if there is any direct evidence for things that we have on Earth, like plants. And I think it’s a very fruitful approach. They’ll get us closer — perhaps not directly in contact with aliens, but it will answer the next set of questions. And it’s exciting that we have those. If we hadn’t discovered all those planets around other stars, we would be done at this point. There would be nothing else to search for. But there is! And that’s exciting.
Multiverse of Universes With Different Physics?
I TALKED TO AN ASTRONOMER ONCE, WHO HAD A HYPOTHESIS THAT IF WE KNEW THE TRUTH THAT THIS UNIVERSE WAS ONLY ONE OF MAYBE A GROUP — SAY THAT THERE ARE TEN UNIVERSES. AND THAT EACH UNIVERSE HAD SOME SORT OF AN ELECTROMAGNETIC MEMBRANE SEPARATING IT FROM ITS GROUP — WE MIGHT HAVE A TWIN UNIVERSE WHERE EVERYTHING WAS THE OPPOSITE OF THIS UNIVERSE. THE INFLUENCE OF OTHER UNIVERSES THAT WE DO NOT DETECT COULD BE THE EXPLANATION FOR THINGS LIKE MULTIVERSES, OTHER DIMENSIONS, DARK MATTER AND DARK ENERGY.
Yeah, it is fascinating. And that idea, I think, has been put forward mostly to try to explain the existence of dark energy, which is in some sense even more strange than the dark matter because the dark energy, you can see as an anti-gravity that pushes everything apart and speeds up the universe, rather than the dark matter, which at least knows how to behave in terms of its gravity. It has a positive gravity, attractive force. It does not cause the expansion of the universe to speed up.
Yeah, I think most people believe the universe is just one of a huge number of universes. They might interact in some way. The number of dimensions could be different in different universes. The laws of physics could be different. Our universe could be sort of an accidental one where we wonder greatly about why there is this amount of dark matter? One universe over, everything could be slightly different. I think most astronomers would say there are probably many, many universes. Also many different realities within this universe.”
Return to Part 1: Searching for Other Life
and Dark Matter in This Universe