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Telescopes, Big Bang Discoveries Top Astronomy Meeting

photo galleryView a gallery of images from the Keck and Gemini telescopes.

New visions of planetary evolution and star formation made news during January's 199th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.

New calculations make beige the color of the universe.
Image: Karl Glazebrook/Ivan Baldry

Update, March 7, 2002:
And the Color of the Universe Is ...

Pale turquoise. Errrr, make that beige.

Earlier this year, astronomers at Johns Hopkins University made a splash at the American Astronomical Society meeting when they announced that the average light from the universe is turquoise.

Ivan Baldry and his collaborators amassed detailed light measurements from more than 200,000 galaxies. They then constructed a "cosmic spectrum," which represents all the energy in the local universe emitted at different optical wavelengths of light. They realized that if they simply summed up those measurements, they might be able to deduce something about the average wavelength, or color, of the light coming from their huge sample of objects. So they applied their idea, and they came up with a color that's just a few shades greener than pale turquoise.

Turns out, they were wrong, and the universe isn't turquoise after all. The astronomers in Baltimore say they found an error in the calculation. They had reached their initial conclusion using a piece of free software they had downloaded off the Web. With that software, the average color ended up appearing turquoise.

But the astronomers didn't realize that the program used an unusual representation for white. They've now recalculated the color using a more standard color of white. So the universe now is, alas, a lot less interesting. Instead of having a turqouise cast, it's actually closer to boring old beige.

listen Listen to Richard Harris' March 7 report.

listen Listen to the original Jan. 10 report for All Things Considered.

Read more about the new results.

A new telescope technology has helped scientists detect an object orbiting a star 58 light years from Earth. The arrow points to a brown dwarf, a space oddity that doesn't qualify as a planet or star.
Photo: W. M. Keck Observatory/University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy/Michael Liu

Stars in Focus

Astronomers say they've discovered a cluster of gas around a star formation some 900 light years from Earth that could be in the process of producing new planets. The discovery may provide a glimpse of the earliest stages of planetary evolution. The evidence, reported at the American Astronomical Society meeting, shows the promise of new technology for seeing into space.

It used to be that astronomers could only see bright stars and galaxies through their telescopes. Dim planets outside Earth's solar system were predicted, but verifying their existence was beyond the reach of science. But recently, astronomers found they could detect these elusive objects, and so was born a whole new field of astronomy: the study of planets around other stars.

The search for planets and other objects orbiting stars has been given an enormous boost by a new technology that helps telescopes overcome the distortion that's caused by air swirling in the Earth's atmosphere. A mirror in the instrument constantly changes shape to compensate for the fun-house effect created by the wavy atmosphere. It's called adaptive optics, and it's now in use with some of the biggest telescopes in the world.

listen Listen to Richard Harris' Jan. 8 report for Morning Edition.

An artist's conception of stars bursting onto the scene in the early days of the universe.
Image by A. Schaller for STScI

Universe a Precocious Baby

New findings suggest that the first stars in the universe appeared in a sudden and dramatic burst early in the history of the cosmos. Results announced at a NASA news conference Tuesday suggest that the universe was filled with stars 14 billion years ago, not long after the "big bang" creation of the universe.

Astronomers trying to understand the earliest years of the universe have been poring over images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around the Earth. These images show thousands of extremely faint galaxies far away and, therefore, far back in time. Astronomers looking at these extremely distant objects had thought that they were dim and placid and, consequently, not the site of violent bursts of star formation.

But a technique developed by Ken Lanzetta, from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, allowed him to figure out how bright those objects actually were by estimating their distance and correcting for the vast journey that the light has made to get to us.

With this new technique, says Lanzetta, "We have found that the distant early universe contains far more light and, hence, far more stars than was previously believed."

Bruce Margon, of the Space Telescope Science Institute that operates Hubble, says the findings suggest that the universe was a precocious baby, with star formation occurring very shortly -- and violently -- after the big bang.

listen Listen to Richard Harris' Jan. 8 report for All Things Considered.

In Depth

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Other Resources

The Cosmic Spectrum and the Color of the Universe

Hubble Space Telescope

W.M. Keck Observatory

Gemini Observatory

American Astronomical Society