Latest Posts

Snowed In

This week was the fourth commissioning run for GPI and I was happy to be back at Gemini to help. When we arrived it was a little cloudy, but just as beautiful as I remembered.

IMG_3003

This week predicted an unfavorable forecast; the first several nights battled cloud cover and high winds, which meant a lot of engineering tests and fewer opportunities to actually look at the sky. Clouds make for some really fantastic sunsets, though.IMG_3126

 

With a the storm rolling in last night with high winds we were unable to open the dome. We stayed over night with the hope of bright eyed astronomers that it would not snow and we would have clear skies for Saturday. In the morning we woke up to a winter wonderland.

IMG_3145

Every so often our own planet reminds us to take a break from work and build a snow..thing.

During the snow storm on the 4th GPI commissioning the team builds a snow sculpture!

 

House Hearings Fail to Tap NASA’s Full Potential

Yesterday the  U.S. House of Representatives  Subcommittee on Space held a hearing entitled “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science“. I was curious about this act and expected the hearing to focus on interesting new ways to motivate private companies to design, launch, and operate space missions, and further the study of our Solar System.

picture_hearing

Five witnesses at the House Hearing on “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science”

(more…)

Martian waves

ESP_037200_1765_0.501xA piece of Mars: The swirly candy stripes in these big dark dunes are layers inside that have been made visible by wind erosion (the scene is 1.5×0.9 km, or 0.93×0.56 mi). It’s rare to see the inside structure of dunes like this, but these are being eroded by wind blowing from the upper right. For similar examples on Earth, check out The Wave. (HiRISE ESP_037200_1765, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Holes around rocks

ESP_037201_2450_0.589xA piece of Mars: This scene (509×382 m, or 1670×1253 ft), aside from showing some lovely rippled dunes, has many car-sized boulders in it. Some are surrounded by ditches in the sand, like little moats. Why? The sand is blown away from the ground as wind impacts the rocks. My colleague Mark Bishop has studied these in more detail (read more here) (HiRISE ESP_037201_2450, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The VLT exoplanet hunter SPHERE is offered to the community

SPHERE, the extreme adaptive optics facility, high contrast imager spectrograph and polarimeter of the Very Large Telescope, is now offered to the community for P95 (April-Sept 2015, please look at the Call for Proposals). It has unique capabilities that make it a fantastic high-resolution, high-contrast disk imager with a field of view up to 11″ (much bigger than most of its main competitors). Material is available online to help you write your proposals.

SPHERE at VLT/UT3

SPHERE at VLT/UT3 © ESO/ J. Girard

SPHERE can lock its AO on fainter stars than GPI, up to R=11 for service mode and up to R~15 in visitor mode (with degraded AO performances of course). This is interesting for low-mass stars! Nevertheless, and unlike for NACO or SINFONI, the AO star must always be on-axis.

SPHERE IRDIS J-band images

SPHERE IRDIS J-band saturated, coronagraphic and processed images with a companion, iota Sgr b, a very low-mass star 4,000 times fainter at 0.24″ from its parent star.

AO preliminary performances of SPHERE SAXO

Simulated and measured (H-band, circles, by T. Fusco) SPHERE-SAXO Strehl ratio as a function of R magnitude. This is preliminary, result of 3 commissioning runs only! Check updates of the User Manual in the future months (just click on the image to get to the ESO SPHERE public pages).

SPHERE can also observe in visible light thanks to its imager/polarimeter ZIMPOL and access resolution of the order of 20 milliarcseconds thanks to its high order (over 1300 actuators deformable mirror) adaptive optics system SAXO.

I'-band observations with SPHERE/ZIMPOL

Left: binary star observed in I’-band centered at 790 nm (red light), the separation is 0.15″. Right: companion detected ~150,000 times (12 magnitudes) fainter than its parent star at only 0.2″. It’s a bit like distinguishing a candle right next to a light house from 500 miles!
(Data reduction: C. Thalmann)

Let’s congratulate the whole SPHERE consortium and ESO staff involved since many years with such a novel, complex but working instrument!

Which wind came first?

ESP_037156_1800_0.178xA piece of Mars: This scene (3.9×2.5 km or 2.4×1.6 mi) shows a surface carved by two different winds: one blowing from the right and one blowing from the bottom right. They’ve formed overlapping sets of streamlined rocks called yardangs. Can you tell which set of yardangs was formed first? It’s a little more complicated than it may first appear. (HiRISE ESP_037156_1800 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

How the wind turns

ESP_037188_1835_0.603xA piece of Mars: The two shadowed hills in the upper part of this frame (497×373 m or 1631×1224 ft across) rest on a flat plain covered in large ripples. On the plain the ripples are aligned north-south, formed perpendicular to a wind blowing from the east (right). But those hills block the wind and turn it, so that the ripples between the hills change direction. This is how windblown landforms can be used as wind vanes in remote places (like on Mars). (HiRISE ESP_037188_1835, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Wind within vs. wind without

ESP_037195_1625_0257xA piece of Mars: Dunes outside the crater are straight but the ones inside the crater look like a spiderweb. Why? This image shows just how much the topography of a crater wall can affect the wind, which produces a much more complex set of dunes inside than out on the plains. (HiRISE ESP_037195_1625 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Kardashev Type III civilizations could be rare

These two papers by J.T. Wright’s group were posted today on astro-ph

The Ĝ Infrared Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. I. Background and Justification

J. T. Wright, B. Mullan, S. Sigurðsson, M. S. Povich

http://arxiv.org/abs/1408.1133

The Ĝ Infrared Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. II. Framework, Strategy, and First Result

J. T. Wright, R. Griffith, S. Sigurðsson, M. S. Povich, B. Mullan

http://arxiv.org/abs/1408.1134

Based on the analysis of WISE and Spitzer data, the authors concluded that “Kardashev Type III civilizations (a civilization that extracts fusion energy, information, and raw-materials from multiple solar systems) are very rare in the local universe”.

A Kardashev Type III civilization imagined.  Art by Jon Lomberg.

A Kardashev Type III civilization imagined. Art by Jon Lomberg.

I remind you that we had a SETI hangout on this topic with this group, including as well Jill Tarter and Freeman Dyson in September 2013.

I look forward to reading about the search for Kardashev Type II civilizations from the same set of data.

Clear Skies,

Franck M.

 

What on Mars?

ESP_037161_1785_1.0xA piece of Mars: What on Mars is this (the scene is 600×450 m, or 0.37×0.28 mi)? It can be hard to tell. The lines are ridges of windblown dunes or ripples, the dark gray stuff is active sand blowing between the dunes, and the underlying bedrock is pale tan. But if your eyes can’t make sense of it all, just sit back and enjoy the pretty patterns of Mars. (HiRISE ESP_037161_1785, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)