Astronomical Concepts – Week 2

The main topics this week were the solar system, gravity and the tidal effect. I have previously written on my blog about the solar system so for this entry I will just write about gravity and the tidal effect.

The two main theories of gravity come from Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, both are used today, both are brilliant and vastly different. Gravity is one of the 4 main forces of nature, it works on grand scales, the great sculpture of the universe. Our Milky Way galaxy is locked in a gravitational embrace with Andromeda and in a few billion years the two galaxies will collide, just one example of the power of gravity. It holds galaxies together over billions of kilometres.

Gravity is the weakest of the four forces, yet it is so influential. The four fundamental forces of nature are gravity, weak, strong and electromagnetic. Well gravity is by far the weakest, certainly it is very weak here on Earth, but out there in the universe it is quite different. Stand on a planet more massive than ours and you would quickly notice the immense power of gravity. Stand on a neutron star and you would be ripped apart very quickly.

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Newton realised that when objects fall to the Earth their must be a force acting on the object, reaching up and pulling it down. He stated that the force of gravity is always attractive, and affects everything with mass. Newton was also able to show that objects with different masses fall at the same rate because an object’s acceleration due to the force of gravity depends only on the mass of the object pulling it, such as a planet.

Newton’s cannon was a thought experiment that demonstrated his theory further. He imagined firing a cannon ball from the top of a mountain. Without the force of gravity acting on the cannon ball it would simply travel in a straight line. If gravity is present then the cannon ball’s path will depend on its speed. If it is slow moving it will fall down to the surface, if it is travelling fast enough it will go into orbit around the planet and if it reaches the escape velocity it will leave the orbit all togehter.

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Einstein has a different approach. Einstein says that gravity is not a force but rather a property of space-time geometry. Objects in space, such as planets around a star are all attempting to travel in a straight line through space but that the curvature of the fabric of space means objects are constantly falling towards the mass exerting gravity. Einstein says when you are falling around an object you have cancelled out gravity. Astronauts on the International Space Station are weightless because they are continuously falling to Earth. There is gravity where they are, they are travelling at a speed to stay in orbit around the Earth. The astronauts are continually falling to the Earth but they never reach it, that is why they’re weightless. Being weightless means you are in free fall. When you are in free fall you cancel out gravity. Einstein’s elevator thought experiment explains his theory in more detail, read about it here.

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Tidal forces are significant across our solar system. Here on Earth we experience tidal effects thanks to the moon. The Earth experiences two high tides, one on the side of the Earth closest to the moon as the moon pulls the water towards it and on the opposite side as the moon pulls the Earth away from it.

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An extreme case of tidal forces in the solar system is the heating of the moon Io around Jupiter. Jupiter is very massive so the effects on Io are huge,  Jupiter pulls Io inwards and the other moons away from Io pull it the other way, causing Io to distort in shape. This constant change results in lots of friction which in turn drives strong volcanic activity on the surface of Io. Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system and its surface is constantly changing with large dark spots on the surface caused by collapsed volcanoes.

Our moon is also tidally locked, meaning we see the same side of the moon all the time. It spins once on its axis as long as it takes it to orbit the Earth once, so we always see the same face. The constant tugging from the Earth on the moon has caused this locking to happen.

So what is gravity?

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Can’t wait for week 3 – the outer planets.

Exploring the Heavens – Final Week

For the final class the topic was Telescopes. We covered the history of telescopes and the different types. We were meant to go outside and use some telescopes, but due to the heavy Sydney rain this was not possible tonight. The advantage being we got to stay inside out of the cold and were able to ask Dr Payne more questions and learn more about astronomy, including about Edwin Hubble and the Hubble telescope, below:

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Telescopes come in many different forms including optical, radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray. Telescopes are all about extending the capability of the first astronomical detector: the naked eye. The light we capture from telescopes is vital for us to explore and understand the universe.

The telescope was developed in the 17th century and was a Flemish invention. One of the first people to turn the telescope towards the stars was Galileo and in his life he built many telescopes. He made many discoveries, including:

  • The features of the moon such as valleys and craters
  • Jupiter’s moons which meant not everything circled the Earth
  • Many stars
  • Phases of Venus
  • Sunspots

The Galilean moons of Jupiter are: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

His most powerful telescope magnified by 33x, meaning everything he saw through it appeared 33x larger. The telescope also captured lots of light so objects through the telescope appeared brighter. He was able to see 10x as many stars than were visible to the naked eye. Brightness is the most important feature of a telescope, not the magnifying power but the brightness.

Galileo built a refractor style of telescope which used lenses, but the problem with this style is that objects appear fuzzy. This problem is called chromatic aberration. This problem was solved by Isaac Newton. Instead of a lens he used a curved mirror and this corrected the fuzziness caused by the lens. This style of telescope is called a Newtonian. All large contemporary telescopes have mirrors as the main optical component. Newton’s original mirror was 2.5 cm in diameter, today they reach 10 m in diameter.

Refractor telescope

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This type of telescope is better if it is longer, objects appear closer and with more detail. The function of the objective lens is to form an image close to the opposite end of the tube. The distance from the objective lens to the image is called the focal length. The longer the focal length the larger the image produced. The function of the eyepiece is to enable the eye of the observer to have a closer look at the image. It is like a small magnifying glass. The more powerful, the more the telescope will magnify. The magnification of a telescope is equal to the focal length of the objective divided by the focal length of the eyepiece. For amateurs 40 to 150 is standard.

Reflector telescope

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A curved mirror replaces the objective lens. The primary mirror produces an image at its focal length and an eyepiece is used to examine that image. The observer looks into the side of the tube, thanks to the small secondary mirror. Most amateurs use reflecting telescopes. The larger the primary mirror the more light the telescope captured and the brighter the image through the eyepiece. Double the size of a telescope and the light collecting power increases by 4.

The diameter of a telescope matters more than magnification. About 15 cm is a good size to start with. A Newtonian is preferred as you can buy a larger telescope for the same price as a small refractor style telescope. A Newtonian will reveal nebulae that will not appear in the refractor for the same price.

Another type of reflecting telescope is the cassegrain, and they give a superior image to the Newtonian. They have a longer focal length and a completely enclosed tube.

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A good mount for your telescope is vital. A good mount is needed to help focus the lens and keep the telescope still. The example below is a Newtonian telescope on an equatorial mount.

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The mount has 2 axes of rotation and can be fitted with an automatic tracking device.

What can you see?

We are limited by the type of telescope we have and the atmosphere of the Earth. Light pollution is also a problem for city and town dwellers. It is best to take your telescope into the country to view many stars, Jupiter and Saturn. Depending on the size of the telescope, 20cm will ensure you can see the great red spot of Jupiter and the separation of the rings of Saturn. A 20cm reflector will also let you see Uranus, Neptune, but to see Pluto a 40cm instrument at least is required. With a 10cm reflector bright nebulae will be visible, but as wispy blue clouds.

The biggest radio telescope is currently being built in China at 500m in diameter. The next largest is the Aricebo in Puerto Rico and is 305m across.

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A radio telescope is like a giant ear listening for radio waves from space. Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation similar to light. These signals are very weak, so the larger the telescope the more chance you have of picking up signals.

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This telescope will search for ancient signals of hydrogen, one of the building blocks of the early universe. It will also hunt for new stars, and in particular pulsars, rapidly rotating stars.

The dish is made from 4,500 triangular panels that have been carefully lowered into place. Each panel can be adjusted so the telescope can be moved to view different parts of the sky.

Read more about this amazing telescope here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-0192822d-14f1-432b-bd25-92eab6466362

The universe began with the big bang and astronomers are building more advanced machines to look further and further back into the past to see what the conditions were like when this happened. One of the main questions to answer is “What is the mean density of the universe?” This will determine how much gravity there is and the eventual fate of the universe. Will the universe keep expanding or will it eventually collapse?

Astronomers are slaves to light and we know that we can only observe about 10% of light from the universe. Or, actually that the universe only gives us 10% of its light. We can’t see dare energy and arm matter. It is thought that 68% of the universe is made from dark energy and 27% is dark matter. We know something is there because of the gravitational influence it has over nearby objects. Everything we know about the universe makes up about 5% of it.

More about dark energy and dark matter in another blog.

This was the final class and the whole course was amazing! Huge thanks go to Dr Paul Payne for his amazing lessons, 3D presentations and humour. Huge thanks also to everyone at Sydney Observatory for putting the course on. I will be back for more astronomy later in the year.

Here is a link to sign up for the next instalment of this course: https://maas.museum/event/astronomy-course-exploring-the-heavens/

Here is a link to Paul’s website: http://relativity.net.au/courses/

Astronomy at Questacon in Canberra

Questacon in Canberra has a pretty cool section on space and astronomy. Check out the pictures I took in the gallery below.

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A few of the highlights from this exhibition.

NASA WMAP

  • WMAP is the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe
  • It launched on June 30, 2001
  • Has mapped fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation (the oldest light in the universe) and has produced a full map view of the microwave sky
  • Has determined the universe to be 13.77 billion years old
  • Determined the curvature of space to within 0.4% of flat Euclidean
  • Found that the universe is 24% dark matter
  • Found that dark energy makes 71.4% of the universe, causing the expansion rate of the universe to speed up

Morgan Keenan System (MKK)

  • Classification of stars based on temperature
  • Categories divided into Roman numerals, with sub-categories and classes
  • To completely describe a star the MK luminosity class is appended to the original Harvard classification for the star
  • The Harvard Spectral Classification assigns each star a spectral type with is further divided into 10 sub-classes depending on the absorption features present in the spectrum. E,g, our Sun has a temperature of 5,700 Kelvin and is classified as a G2 star
  • Our Sun is a main sequence star G2 and the full classification is G2V

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Types of orbit

  • The Moon does not orbit the Earth, the Moon and Earth orbit each other around their common centre of mass. The common centre of mass is inside the Earth
  • Kepler showed the orbits of the planets were ellipses with the Sun at one foci
  • Newton showed there were other types of orbit
  • Elliptical and circular orbits are both bound orbits
  • Parabolic and hyperbolic are unbound orbits
  • Comets and asteroids typically have hyperbolic or parabolic orbits, they zip around the Sun once and they go off never to be seen again because they do not have gravitationally bound orbits
  • Look at the circular cone above, how you slice the cone determines what kind of geometric cross-section you get – horizontal makes a circle, an angle creates an ellipse, increase the angle and get to the bottom of the cone you get a parabolic and cut the cone vertically you get a hyperbola
  • So 4 different types of orbits

Additional…

  • Newton’s laws of gravity showed that Kepler’s first 2 laws, ellipses and equal area in equal time are a consequence of the conservation of angular momentum (Mass x speed x distance = constant)
  • At perihelion the distance to the Sun is smaller so to keep the mass times the speed times the distance the same the conservation of angular momentum the plane must move faster
  • At aphelion, further away from the Sun, conversely the speed must decrease
  • P squared is a cubed (P^2 = a^3)
  • P is the period the time it takes to go around and the semi-major axis of a of the ellipse, a is the average orbital distance

Thank you F.X. Times at Arizona State University for some of the information included.