Blast from the Past (A Where Are They Now? Mystery)


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Gilliland and Mark Phillips of the Carnegie Institution of Washington wanted to capitalize on the Hubble Deep Field by initiating another Hubble study of the same region. The Hubble Deep Field was the orbiting observatory's ten-day view of a tiny region of the heavens. During those ten days in , Hubble's visible-light camera - the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 - stared deeper into space than ever before, revealing a zoo of galaxies, some of which existed more than 10 billion years ago. Two years after that landmark observation, Gilliland went hunting in the deep field for supernovas.

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When Gilliland first proposed in to use Hubble's visible-light camera to search for these far-flung stellar detonations, astronomers knew very little about them. Studying supernovas meant astronomers had to catch them popping off. Supernovas are "cosmic flashbulbs": Their brief, intense explosions are visible across the universe, but only for about six months.

Theorists predicted that Gilliland would be extremely lucky to find one exploding star, although some astronomers believed that the universe long ago was booming with star birth. He found two!

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But it took nearly a year of work to find the supernovas because they're not visible in the image. Although supernovas are among the brightest beacons in the cosmos, many of the distant ones are hidden in the glow of their home galaxies. So, Gilliland employed a special technique to pinpoint them. Using computer software, he compared two pictures of the myriad of galaxies in the deep field taken two years apart.


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One image was of the original Hubble Deep Field; the other, Gilliland's follow-up deep-field image. The computer then measured the light from the galaxies in both pictures.

Noting any changes in light output between the two photos, the computer identified two blobs of light in Gilliland's image that weren't in the original deep-field study. The Institute astronomer identified the blobs as supernovas. Gilliland may have found the exploding stars, but he couldn't collect enough information to calculate a solid estimate of their distances from Earth. He did determine, however, that one of them was farther than the other. In one of many ironic twists to this tale, a scheduling change enabled Gilliland to nab this far-flung supernova.

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His observation was originally scheduled for November , when the light hadn't reached Earth. Fortuitously, Gilliland's study was bumped to December Gilliland's discovery may have only remained the subject of a scientific paper in an astronomy journal had it not been for Adam Riess.

The astronomer found Gilliland's discovery intriguing, yet frustrating. But once you find them, you need to observe them over the course of a month, to watch them brighten and fade, using them as tools to understand the history of the expanding universe. I was frustrated because once the supernovas were found they weren't followed.

But Riess soon hit the astronomical jackpot last year when he learned that coincidentally the Hubble telescope had taken more pictures of the deep field around the same time as Gilliland's study. The most extensive observation was conducted by Rodger Thompson of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Just a month after Gilliland's observation, Thompson trained Hubble's "infrared eye" - the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer - on the deepest view of the universe to study galaxy evolution. But the telescope only viewed about 15 percent of the original deep field.

And, by chance, Gilliland's most distant supernova - called ff - just happened to dwell in that area. Thompson didn't realize it at the time because the supernova was buried in the host galaxy's light. The telescope snapped pictures of that region for a month, building up a stockpile of information for Hubble's archive. Flipping through Thompson's bounty of images, Riess viewed the changes in the supernova over 30 days, especially how it was fading in brightness and how its colors changed over time.

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This information provided important clues about the nature of this dying star. Then Riess heard that Institute astronomer Mark Dickinson conducted another Hubble observation of the deep field taken six months after Thompson's. Like Thompson, Dickinson used the infrared camera to study galaxy evolution in a region that, by chance, included the supernova's host galaxy. His analysis confirmed that the host galaxy was a massive elliptical. The supernova already had faded by the time Dickinson observed the area. Riess employed the same technique as Gilliland, comparing Dickinson's picture of the galaxies in the deep field with Thompson's image to pinpoint the dying star.


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  8. Riess then called on a few colleagues to help analyze the supernova evidence. For Nugent, studying this supernova was like reuniting with an old friend. The California astronomer helped Gilliland analyze the information collected from the stellar blast after its initial discovery. Riess and his collaborators calculated the distance to the supernova, which turned out to be near the limit of Hubble's vision.

    They then compared it with Dickinson's estimated distance to the host galaxy. The two matched. The team then turned its attention to studying the universe's behavior 10 billion years ago and compared their results with what the universe is doing today. Because luck was involved, I couldn't rely on any other telescope to reproduce this.

    We may not get this chance again for a very long time. Gravity's most familiar characteristic is that it pulls, not pushes. Einstein's theory of gravity introduced some remarkable ideas: black holes, curved space, and repulsive gravity. Even in Einstein's theory, matter always pulls; the repulsive aspect of gravity — a force that pushes matter apart — only arises in extraordinary circumstances.

    Einstein happened upon this new feature of his theory — the repulsive force — when he introduced the "cosmological constant" - a sort of "fudge factor. He discarded the cosmological constant when Hubble discovered that the universe is not static at all, but is expanding. The discovery in that the expansion of the universe is speeding up and not slowing down revived interest in repulsive gravity, in a guise Einstein might not have fully accepted. According to Heisenberg's quantum uncertainty principle, the vacuum is not empty; rather, it is simmering with particles living on borrowed time and borrowed energy.

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    The thriller of all thrillers. Five strangers walk into detention and only four walk out. A school-based murder mystery where the narrators are the ones under suspicion.

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