Distant Galaxies, Exoplanets Star At Space Meeting Astronauts outfitted the Hubble Space Telescope with a powerful new camera last year. Now it has spotted the most distant galaxies known to science. Science News writer Ron Cowen chats about this and other news presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting this week.
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Distant Galaxies, Exoplanets Star At Space Meeting

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Distant Galaxies, Exoplanets Star At Space Meeting

Distant Galaxies, Exoplanets Star At Space Meeting

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122362764/122362607" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Last year at this time, the Hubble Space Telescope was in serious need of a little bit of TLC. It had a couple of dead cameras, a broken spectrograph, aging batteries, a flakey gyroscope, and on top of all that, a major piece of hardware blew out, and a scheduled repair mission was put off for months, leaving us to wonder if Hubble might be left there twisting in the solar wind, so to speak.

But the final repair mission went off without a hitch last May, updating the old parts, outfitting Hubble with a sharp new camera, the Wide Field Camera 3. And astronomers have already discovered amazing star stuff with that new camera, detecting what could be the most-distant galaxies known to science, formed not too long after the birth of the universe.

That's just one of the bits of news coming out of the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Washington, D.C., and my guest has been hanging out there this week.

Ron Cowen is the astronomy writer for Science News in Washington. He joins us from our studios at NPR. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. RON COWEN (Astronomy Writer, Science News): Thanks a lot, Ira, hi.

FLATOW: And if you want to know more about Ron's work, you can read it at sciencenews.org.

Sounds like interesting stuff coming out of there. What is this old galaxy?

Mr. COWEN: Well, there's - actually, it's three of the oldest galaxies in the universe, they think. The finding is tentative, but these are galaxies that they believe lie 13.2 billion years - light years - from Earth, and we're seeing them very close to what's called cosmic dawn, the era when the first galaxies and stars turned on, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

A few hundred million years may sound like a long time, but that's actually pretty darn close to the birth of the universe, and so it's just very, very exciting they can do this with the Hubble.

FLATOW: Wow. There were another set of discovery, this time exoplanets from Kepler. Tell us what Kepler was and what this discovery is.

Mr. COWEN: Yes. So the Kepler Telescope, it's actually - was launched into space last March, and its main mission is to look for planets beyond the solar system that are in the so-called habitable zone that could support life, and in fact, Earth-like planets.

But what's exciting here is that just after its first six weeks of data, Kepler has already found five alien planets, extra-solar planets. None of them yet are Earth-like. One is a Neptune - body similar mass to Neptune; the other four similar in mass to Jupiter.

They're very close to their parent stars. They're hot enough that the temperature would be enough to melt lava on the surface. They're not habitable, but it's very exciting that in just six weeks, it bodes - Kepler did this. It bodes well for finding Earth-like planets during the next three and a half years of its mission.

FLATOW: And how does it work? How does this probe work?

Mr. COWEN: Right. Well, what it does is it looks for planets that pass across the face of their parent star, and each time a planet does that, it creates a little mini-eclipse. It eclipses, like, one percent or less of the starlight, and Kepler is that sensitive that it can look for this tiny, little wink-out of light, and of course, it happens periodically each time the planet passes in front of its parent star.

And so these are called transits. Kepler finds those. Then they contact someone on the ground with a telescope that can look for the tug, back and forth - the tiny tug that the planet exerts on its parent star, and then you find the mass that way. So you can find the size of the planet from Kepler, the mass from ground-based telescopes.

FLATOW: Interesting, talking with Ron Cowen of Science News, a writer there. He also - you can read more about his stuff at sciencenews.org.

Let's talk about - you mentioned the earliest galaxies we've ever seen, but there was also something at the meeting about the earliest supernovas -supernovae?

Mr. COWEN: Yes, or supernovae, right. Well, there was - now, the most distant supernova we think exists, these are just - these are exploding stars. You can't - they're not as bright as - so you can't see them quite as far back in time. But there's another type of explosion called the gamma ray burst, and gamma ray bursts are this incredible outpouring of gamma ray light that we think signifies the birth of a black hole.

You can see those very, very far away, and the light from this gamma ray burst pierced its home galaxy, and the dust on its way, that it pierced, seems to be dust from a supernova. So we've deduced some of the earliest stardust - or they call it smoke - from a supernova that we've ever seen in the universe before. It's indirect, but we - they believe that they found it.

FLATOW: Is that where they think these gamma ray bursts all come from?

Mr. COWEN: Well, a gamma ray burst in fact comes from a particular type of supernova, but these supernovae would be just a whole string of supernovae in the galaxy that would be separate from the one the gamma ray burst was given birth to.

FLATOW: There, the new NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, spoke at the conference. Give us some take-home points.

Mr. COWEN: Right. Well, he was certainly very folksy, and he - one of the things he said was that back in 1980, when he was training as an astronaut, he said to the audience that if someone had told him then that we would not have returned to the moon with a manned mission yet, that he would have told those people they would have been smoking dope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COWEN: So that got a big laugh from everybody, but...

FLATOW: That was the old Arthur C. - he stole Arthur C. Clarke's line, you know.

Mr. COWEN: Oh, okay. I didn't...

FLATOW: Arthur C. Clarke said, many years ago...

Mr. COWEN: Is that right?

FLATOW: Yeah. Arthur C. Clarke said, many years ago, on, I think, maybe, let's say the 25th anniversary of the moon walk. He said: What's the most exciting -amazing thing about going to the moon? And he said that we could go there and not go back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COWEN: But I think Bolden was, you know, giving some signals that, well, you know, we will go on to Mars, but it might be more gradual. We're going to -you know, we can't pay for big, expensive missions. We're going to need international cooperation. I think he was giving hints that we may not go back to the moon and Mars quite so fast, at least in my opinion, and we'll have to wait for what Obama says, I guess, in his State of the Union Address.

But I think Bolden was giving hints like that, but I think the audience loved him, and you know, he was very natural.

FLATOW: He was, but was he focusing on international space missions, or did he just mention that in passing?

Mr. COWEN: I think he just mentioned that in passing but saying that, you know, for big missions in the future, we're really going to have to find other ways to pay for them, and we're going to have to go with other countries to do that.

FLATOW: Anything on upcoming, you know, on the Webb Telescope? Any mention of that, when Hubble is gone?

Mr. COWEN: Yes, in the sense of the fact that these candidate distant galaxies that they think they found from so far back in time and so distant, we are not really going to be able to examine them closely and confirm for sure that they really are as distant, until the James Webb Space Telescope gets launched in 2014.

Hubble found these distant galaxies, or these candidate distant galaxies, looking at them at just one infrared wavelength. And James Webb is a much bigger telescope, and it's going to look at several infrared wavelengths at these same objects and really confirm not just that they exist, but how massive are they? Do they have a black hole at their center? All kinds of things which we really are dying to know because this is just the earliest moments of galaxy formation in the universe. But it's also remarkable what we've done already.

FLATOW: Well, it sounds like a good time was had by all at this meeting.

Mr. COWEN: Oh, yeah, it was great. It was a lot of fun.

FLATOW: All right, Ron, thanks for taking time to be with us.

Mr. COWEN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Ron Cowen is the astronomy writer for Science News in Washington, and you can get more on the meeting by going to their Web site at sciencenews.org.

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