Thursday, June 21, 2012

Digital Universe Atlas, radio sphere and ET planets

As a reader of this blog can quickly notice this is a very personal voyage to the world of modern astronomy and a cosmology. This is the story of a student having great fun and many amazing learning experiences rather than an attempt to teach others. For I am not qualified to teach with so many black holes in my knowledge and understanding. Also, there is no need for yet another teaching resource for facts as the Internet space is so full of brilliant stars bringing accurate and expert light on space sciences. See, for example, Caltech's Cool Cosmos with Infra red hide and seek game for kids, young and old!

I am a tour guide to the gardens of God who is all the time learning himself new things, as well. But I suspect with the words of John Lennon that "I am not the only one".

For the tsunami of knowledge coming to us from every direction about the Universe quickly becomes overwhelming  - a scientific fact from yesteryear is now history of science and a totally new horizon has been opened by this or that survey or theory or discovery or research instrument, including the most expensive scientific tools every built by humanity! This is all very exciting but also quite confusing if the foundations of understanding the science news are as shaky as in my case.

Orientation and data sets
In just few days Brian Abbott and his friends who contributed to the Hayden Planetarium Digital Universe Atlas have revolutionized my understanding of the proportions, structures and distances of stars, clusters, nebulas, radiations and other things in the Milky Way Galaxy and also given a new glimpse to updated information about the Local Group of galaxies. The unique 3D model created in Partiviview software has been highly effective for me as Brian's expert text has such unusual clarity and levels of teaching from overview to details. I am eternally grateful for this free gift from Hayden Planetarium and NASA that has supported the project!

Critical view of scientific data
The Guide offers a critical attitude towards the data sets that have been made available in the various Atlases. I do not claim to know all the teaching resources but personally I have never met another source of information on space sciences that describes the data itself  in such an exemplary way.

For the Digital Universe Atlas not only describes in few sentences the essence of the project that has gathered the information, for example the 2MASS all-sky survey, and its main results. Many books and articles do that. But it also shows the scope and limitations of the data. By focusing attention also on what is missing, what has not been yet seen, what is still hidden behind thick space clouds, what is too far for accurate distance measurements, Brian gives an example of what really good science is. The examination of the limitations of the data also gives fundamental understanding of what is involved in the research project. 

Digital Universe Atlas and ET
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is of greatest interest to humanity and a deeply significant subject in Astrotheology, as well. Who has not wondered is there anyone out there, a person similar to us in ability to think, talk and pray?

The Milky Way Atlas includes a particularly educational data set that visualizes a point I had never realized before. It is based on the fact that humanity began serious messing with radio transmissions during the Second World War as radio transmission technology began to develop. We also blew up some bombs that sent notable radiation to the space. First this was just making radio noise for our own purposes. Only relatively recently humans have purposely beamed a signal "Hello, we are here, can you hear us" to outer space.

The Atlas gives a wonderful perspective showing the physical reach of the radio noise and beamed signals from planet Earth. This is done by drawing a radio sphere from the initial point of interest in the model, our Sun. In this way we can see on the computer screen how deep to the Universe all our radio signals and nuclear bomb radiation travelling at the speed of light has reached since 1940.

How else could we really grasp this important piece of information in such a concrete and easy to understand way as by looking with our own eyes? Just reading that the diameter of the sphere is 2x 72 ly is nice but so what? The distance of a light year is extremely difficult to grasp as it is not a measure humans are used to. The enormous distance to the Sun is only eight light minutes or so. Actually seeing that tiny red sphere lost in the Milky Way Galaxy as you fly a bit further away from Sun is a truly unforgettable learning experience!

Extraterrestrial planets
Seeing the radio sphere in the Milky Way Atlas changed for me a misconception. I had somehow fixed the realm of searching for extraterrestrial intelligent life to other galaxies. The distances makes ridiculous the idea of talking with someone in Andromeda galaxy using current technologies. Just a lucky ping from Earth and its return would take more time then the 5 million years existence of human species on this planet counting from Lucy and her most distant ancestors in East-Africa.

But! The radio sphere around Earth is really tiny in the perspective of Milky Way galaxy. Digital Universe Atlas has another data set that includes the results from quickly expanding surveys for extraterrestrial planets. Brian explains how scientists have from the 1990'ies on identified the presence of planetary systems around stars with the WYSIWYG principle - greatly improved observation techniques and instruments.

By activating both the radio sphere and the ET planet data set delivered to me an important message. There actually are planetary systems within the reach of radio signals from Earth. In other words, I realized that it is not Andromeda Little Green Men who we are talking to but possible quite near neighbours who in theory can hear our signals and for us even to catch the reply within the time span of one or two generations.

So where is the screen shot?
As I said, not text or two dimensional computer image can deliver the punch that the 3D model of Digital Universe Atlas gives when you follow the Guide.

So in order to really grasp the reach of human radio noise in space, download, install and start navigating the Milky Way Atlas - I guarantee that you will not be disappointed!

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