February 2024 : Blueberries and Peas

Episode Audio

Blueberries and Peas. In February's episode, Fiona interviews Dr Alex Cameron on his work understanding the properties of early galaxies using JWST, and we take a whistle-stop tour around some of Bluedot's stalls from July 2023.

The News

The news in astronomy and space science in the past month has featured two moon landers that have both run into problems. The first of these landers was Peregrine One. This lander was built as part of a partnership between NASA and the private company Astrobotic, which has been a new organizational model for conducting space research in the United States. The mission had many science goals including studying the lunar exosphere, examining lunar rocks and making measurements of the magnetic fields and radiation environment. The lander was launched on 8 January 2024 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, but it soon developed a propellant leak that pushed the spacecraft off course. To the credit of Astrobotic, the company was able to diagnose the problem and regain control of the spacecraft but this used up so much fuel that the spacecraft would not be able to make a soft landing on the lunar surface. Given this, Astrobotic decided to direct the spacecraft into the Earth's atmosphere, and it burned up over the Pacific Ocean on 18 January. Had the lander not failed, it would have landed on the Moon on 23 February, 2024, and it would have been the first American spacecraft to do so since the Apollo missions. Despite this failure, NASA plans to launch a few more lunar public-private missions to the Moon in the next year, and this will include another lander launched by Astrobotic.

The other lunar lander in the news is the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), which was built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). SLIM is primarily designed to test Japan's technical capabilities for landing a spacecraft on another object in the Solar System. In particular, the spacecraft is designed to land in a specific location with a precision of 100 meters. The lander also has two miniature lunar rovers as well, and another goal of the mission is to see how well the mini-rovers operate. SLIM was launches successfully on 6 September 2023 from the Tanegashima Space Center in a rocket that also carried the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM). SLIM took a very long but fuel-efficient route to the Moon, eventually landing successfully on 19 January 2024. However, the solar panels were not angled in such a way that the spacecraft could fully operate, and so controllers on Earth have had difficulty operating the lander. Nonetheless, it looks like Japan will be able to get some limited use out of the lander. The spacecraft did succeed in landing in a very precise location on the Moon and the mini-rovers have deployed as expected.

Anzo Penzias, one of the co-discoverers of the cosmic microwave background radiation (the radiation emitted soon after the Big Bang) passed away on 22 January 2024, at the age of 90. Penzias was born in Munich, Germany, in 1933 but his family fled Germany at the outbreak of World War II and eventually settled in New York in the United States. Penzias studied physics at City College of New York and Columbia University and served in the US Army Signal Corps, which gave him a strong background in microwave instrumentation. After graduating with his PhD in 1962, Penzias took a position working on microwave receivers for radio astronomy at Bell Labs in New Jersey. In 1964, Penzias and Robert Wilson were working with a receiver on a horn-shaped antenna on the Bell Labs campus when the two of them encountered problems with excess microwave background noise that seemed to be coming from all directions. After eliminating the possibility that the emission was not coming from anything on Earth and after consulting with Robert Dicke at the Princeton University, Penzias and Wilson were able to identify that the emission was the cosmic microwave background emission that had been theorized in early models of the Big Bang theory. Penzias and Wilson published their findings in 1965 and won the Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1978. After this discovery, Penzias continued to work at Bell Labs, eventually retiring in 1998 and leaving a major impact on the achievements of the research institute.

Interview with Dr. Alex Cameron

Fiona interviews Dr. Alex Cameron on his work understanding the properties of early galaxies using JWST. Observing at different wavelengths can determine the elemental composition of a galaxy, which can elude the properties and age of a galaxy. However, some nearby galaxies can mimic the earliest galaxies at high redshifts; these galaxies may be useful to investigate less-evolved galaxies and the processes involved during galaxy evolution. They also have a strange resemblance to fruits and vegetables.

Bluedot Stalls

We take a whistle-stop tour around some of Bluedot's stalls from July 2023 covering upcoming astronomy projects, promoting inclusivity across science and exploring the most remote locations on Earth. The stalls include:

  • The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) with Rob Brederode.
  • The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Chris Lovell.
  • The ESA Solar Orbiter Mission.
  • Science Girl with Heather Williams.
  • The British Antarctic Survey with Em Newton.
  • Community Mapping.

Odds and Ends

Astronomers from the University of Manchester and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn have discovered a new object in the Milky Way. This object is heavier than the heaviest known neutron stars, which are incredibly dense remnants of supernova explosions, yet lighter than the lightest known black holes. This mysterious object was found orbiting a millisecond pulsar, which is a highly magnetized rotating neutron star that emits beams of electromagnetic radiation out of its magnetic poles, and it's located 40,000 light years away. The astronomers believe this could be the first discovery of a radio pulsar-black hole binary. A binary system is one where two objects are close enough that their gravitational interaction causes them to orbit around each other. In this case, it's a radio pulsar and a black hole. This pairing could allow new tests of Einstein's general relativity and open doors to the study of black holes. The discovery was made while observing a large cluster of stars known as NGC 1851, located in the southern constellation of Columba, using the MeerKAT radio telescope array in South Africa. This discovery could help scientists finally understand the nature of objects in the so-called “black hole mass gap”, which refers to a range of masses where no observed compact object (neutron star or black hole) exists.

Astronomers have also discovered a new type of elderly giant star nicknamed an "old smoker" that can sit at the heart of our Milky Way quietly for decades before suddenly letting out clouds of smoke. Dr. Zhen Guo explained how they set out to observe protostars while they were undergoing a great outburst that lasts from months to decades. These outbursts “happen in the slowly spinning disc of matter that is forming a new solar system. They help the newborn star in the middle to grow, but make it harder for planets to form."We don't yet understand why the discs become unstable like this," he added.

Show Credits

News : Mélissa Manuela Azombo, George Bendo, and Bijas Najimudeen
Interview : Rob Brederode, Chris Lovell, The ESA Solar Orbiter Bluedot 2023 stand, Heather Williams, Em Newton, the Community Mapping Bluedot 2023 stand, and Fiona Porter
Night Sky : Mélissa Manuela Azombo, George Bendo, and Bijas Najimudeen
Presenters : Mélissa Manuela Azombo, George Bendo, and Bijas Najimudeen
Editors : Lily Correa Magnus, George Bendo, and James Turner
Segment Voice : George Bendo and Louisa Mason
Website : Lily Correa Magnus & George Bendo
Producer : Louisa Mason and George Bendo
Cover Art : The cluster ACO S 295 as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. CREDIT:Adapted from ESA/Hubble & NASA, F. Pacaud, D. Coe by Lev Wilkinson.