Radio Astronomy

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Ever seen one of these before?

Yeah, it’s a bit bigger than your average radio antenna.

That’s because its job isn’t to direct radio signals to your house. It’s a radio telescope, and its job is to collect as many radio signals as it possibly can—from outer space, not from a radio station.

Radio astronomy is a tricky business. It has its advantages over visible astronomy—it certainly works better for interferometers—but radio signals are so weak, they’re hard to detect and study. Which is why you’ll never see a small radio telescope.

So, how do astronomers manage to collect and study radio emissions from the cosmos? Continue reading

Telescope Imaging Systems

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Have you ever seen an image like this?

Okay, maybe you have…online. What with the spread of the internet these days, I’m guessing that at one point you have seen something like this on a page of image search results.

That’s the thing, though. You’ve seen this incredible phenomenon on a computer screen. But have you ever seen it through a telescope?

Don’t worry—if you haven’t had an opportunity to look through a telescope, you’re not missing out. You’re not going to see the Sombrero Galaxy above in all its photographed glory just from looking through the eyepiece of a telescope.

So…how do we get an image like this, then? Continue reading

Interferometry

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Imagine you have an image like this. This object is faint and faraway, so you can’t make out much more detail. You know that other stars like it—closer, brighter stars—have looked like this and turned out to be two stars, nestled very close together.

How do you figure out what you’re looking at? How do you increase the resolving power on your telescope so that you can make out more detail?

A telescope’s resolving power is limited by its size. Bigger telescopes can make out more detail on faraway objects—that’s because they can gather more light. But now, we can make telescopes that are so big their size doesn’t limit their resolving power anymore.

The atmosphere does.

We obviously can’t change the atmosphere. So how do we get around this particular predicament? Continue reading

Telescope Powers

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Have you seen one of these guys before?

You probably have, even if you don’t recognize this brand-new innovation. This is the European Extremely Large Telescope, or the E-ELT. I know, imaginative name, huh? Anyway, it’s not all that different from one of those white observatory domes you’re used to seeing.

Astronomers keep building new observatories. They keep putting new telescopes into space—Hubble, Spitzer, and James Webb, to name a few. But the common goal of all the telescopes they build is to make telescopes that are as big as possibly possible.

Why? I mean, are astronomers just huge braggarts that like to impress us all with their big toys?

Well…I’ll admit that we astronomers have a lot of fun with our toys. But we need huge telescopes for a much better reason than bragging. Continue reading

Refracting & Reflecting Telescopes

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Right next to light, the telescope is an astronomer’s most valuable tool. There are so many different varieties of telescopes, it can be hard to keep them all straight. But they can all be sorted into a few basic types, and that makes choosing one a lot simpler.

Two very common types are reflectors and refractors, and each one in the image above is one of these. You can tell a reflector by its cylindrical design. They all look like cylinders, you say? Well…refractors are a little bit different.

Take the two telescopes on either end of this lineup, for instance. These two—the far left and the far right—are refractors. And you may notice that, unlike most of the rest, they’re not perfect cylinders.

Look closely. You’ll see that, not only is the end pointing up a bit wider than the rest of the telescope, but there’s a little tiny piece tacked onto the end. That same little tiny piece is tacked onto the side for the reflectors.

Every reflector and every refractor can be recognized by these basic qualities. But what they do with light is more important. Continue reading

The Spectrum of Light

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Does this look familiar?

People think of rainbows as a symbol of happiness and fortune. There are even myths that leprechauns hide gold at the end of a rainbow. That’s more of a tease than good fortune, if you ask me, because it’s impossible to reach the end of a rainbow.

That’s right. Impossible.

Some people wonder if rainbows look the same from the back. The answer’s no. They don’t. You wouldn’t see a rainbow if you were standing behind it.

Whoa…why would that be? Continue reading

Einstein: Space-Time Curvature

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When you hear about “space-time,” it’s just a way to say that space is related to time. And the curvature of space-time, as Albert Einstein predicted, is the way space and time alike literally bend around a mass such as the Earth or the sun.

That’s what’s diagramed above. This is a three-dimensional concept diagram of the way space sort of “clings” to an object. Notice the way it sort of tightens up when you get close to Earth? And because time is part of this whole equation…time sort of tightens up, too.

I assume that explains the “twin paradox,” as it’s called. That’s where the space-traveling twin returns home to Earth younger than their Earth bound twin.

Why? Seems to me it’s because time was tighter and passed faster on Earth, while it spread out and passed a bit slower for the traveler. (Don’t quote me on that, I just guessed that from this diagram.)

Einstein figured all this out. But scientists need evidence. Trusting Einstein’s genius wasn’t enough for them. How did they accept relativity as fact? Continue reading

Einstein: General Relativity

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Albert Einstein may have been the genius among physicists, but like all others before his time, he stood on the shoulders of giants.

Einstein did not propose that the sun was the center of the solar system; that idea was already widely accepted when he came around. He didn’t discover elliptical orbits; that distinction belongs with Johannes Kepler.

But Kepler never could figure out why planets orbit the sun in ellipses instead of circles. Even Isaac Newton, who at last identified gravity as the reason we stick to Earth’s surface, couldn’t explain what gravity was—only how it worked.

Einstein provided that explanation with his general theory of relativity. Continue reading

Einstein: Special Relativity

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Albert Einstein’s name literally sends shivers down my spine.

This is the man who discovered physics as we know it. This is the man who filled in the gaps where even Newton’s laws of motion went wrong and expanded our understanding of the universe.

This man was a genius in every right—even if his social skills were somewhat lacking.

By the way…I can’t help but notice this is my first post with actual photographs of the scientist in question, instead of portraits. We’re moving along, people…

So. To the point. Einstein is famous for taking revolutionary and widely accepted laws of physics—those that Newton figured out—and showing where there were some holes in the math. But Einstein wasn’t just an annoying critic.

He took it all a step further…and showed us how physics really works.

He came up with the idea of relativity. Continue reading

Moving with the Tides

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Have you ever been to the beach?

If you’re from California like me, then I’m betting you have. If you’re from a place that’s not near an ocean and you’ve never been near the water all your life, then I’ll tell you a little bit about the tides.

They happen every day, twice a day. If you find yourself a nice comfortable spot overlooking the beach, you can see the waves come into the shore and then gently roll out again. If you stay for hours on end, you’ll see the water level eventually rise a bit.

And if you stay even longer, you’ll see the water level lower back down. When it’s high, it’s called high tide, and when it’s low, it’s called low tide.

The tides are partially responsible for the myth that the moon’s gravity affects you in some kind of metaphysical way. But this isn’t true at all.

So why do the tides happen? Continue reading