The “Smoking Gun” Evidence for Cosmic Inflation.

The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background). (Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

Last month, scientists announced the first hard evidence for cosmic inflation, the process by which the infant universe swelled from microscopic to cosmic size in an instant. This almost unimaginably fast expansion was first theorized more than three decades ago, yet only now has “smoking gun” proof emerged.

What is this result and what does it mean for our understanding of the universe? Late last week, two members of the discovery team discussed the finding and its implications with two of the field’s preeminent thought leaders.

A LC-130 aircraft is passing the NSF South Pole station Dark Sector during take off. CMB telescopes visible in the background include (left to right) the South Pole Telescope, the BICEP2 telescope, and the Keck Array telescope. (Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

Walter Ogburn is a postdoctoral researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University, and a member of the discovery team. For him, the exciting thing “is not just confirming that inflation happened— many of us already had a pretty good idea that was likely to be the case—but having a chance to figure out exactly how it happened, what it was that drove it, whether there are new particles and new fields that participated in it, and which of the many models could be correct.”

That’s made possible by the strength of the detected signal. Far from the quiet whisper that many expected, the signal turned out to be a relatively loud drone. That brings with it many implications.

Gravitational waves from inflation generate a faint but distinctive twisting pattern in the polarization of the CMB, known as a "curl" or B-mode pattern. For the density fluctuations that generate most of the polarization of the CMB, this part of the primordial pattern is exactly zero. Shown here is the actual B-mode pattern observed with the BICEP2 telescope, with the line segments showing the polarization from different spots on the sky. The red and blue shading shows the degree of clockwise and anti-clockwise twisting of this B-mode pattern. (BICEP2 Collaboration)

“The theoretical community is abuzz,” says theorist Michael S. Turner, Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics (KICP) and the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Turner, who was not involved in the experiment, continues: “We got the signal we were looking for—that’s good—but we shouldn’t have gotten one according to the highbrow theorists because they said it should be too small. So we also got a surprise. And often in science, that’s the case. We like to the experimenters to find what we predict, but we also like surprises.”

This surprise is still so new that additional implications keep coming to light each week. It’s already clear that the result rules out many theoretical models of inflation—most of them, in fact—because they predict a signal much weaker than the one detected. In addition, the discovery also seems to disprove a theory that says that the universe expands, collapses and expands again in an ongoing cycle.

More than that, the result could very well be what Turner calls a “crack in the cosmic egg,” offering clues that even the most accepted theoretical assumptions contain inaccuracies.

“There have been hints for a while now that maybe something else is going on,” says KICP Deputy Director John Carlstrom, who leads two other experiments that study the universe’s first light. “Maybe we need to… allow some new physics in there. Maybe there are more neutrinos. Maybe they’re more massive than we thought. Or maybe it’s something none of us have thought of yet.”

The bottom part of this illustration shows the scale of the universe versus time. Specific events are shown such as the formation of neutral Hydrogen at 380 000 years after the big bang. Prior to this time, the constant interaction between matter (electrons) and light (photons) made the universe opaque. After this time, the photons we now call the CMB started streaming freely. The fluctuations (differences from place to place) in the matter distribution left their imprint on the CMB photons. The density waves appear as temperature and "E-mode" polarization. The gravitational waves leave a characteristic signature in the CMB polarization: the "B-modes". Both density and gravitational waves come from quantum fluctuations which have been magnified by inflation to be present at the time when the CMB photons were emitted. (BICEP2 Collaboration)

Theorists will carefully consider these ideas and their implications over the coming months and years. Meanwhile, the signal still needs to be experimentally confirmed. Results from other telescopes, including the Planck satellite and the South Pole Telescope, are expected in the coming year. After that, the next step will be to measure more carefully the characteristics of the signal, searching for evidence of how inflation took place and how exactly the universe worked in its high-energy infancy. Those results may shed light on some of our biggest questions about how the universe began and how the forces of nature are unified.

But for now, the community is still buzzing with this first evidence of cosmic inflation.

“It’s a funny thing when you’re on the inside of a discovery like this,” says Abigail Vieregg, an active member the discovery team and a professor at the University of Chicago and KICP. “It’s only when you release the results to the world and watch the reaction of the community that, at least for me, it really hits home how important it is. If this is what we think it is, it’s a very big deal.”

 

Provided by The Kavli Foundation

NASA: Creating the Pathways of the Future.

NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s – goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.

Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us learn more about our own planet’s history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA’s path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory are helping us prove many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars. The space station also advances our understanding of how the body changes in space and how to protect astronaut health.

An Artist concept of an Asteroid capture. Credit: NASA

Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which we’ll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in FY 2018, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.

Artist concept showing the moment of touchdown for the Mars Science Laboratory. Credit: NASA

A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars and is sending back radiation data from the surface. This data will help us plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars. Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, seeking signs of past life, also will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.

Engineers and scientists around the country are working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and safely return home from the next giant leap for humanity. NASA also is a leader in a Global Exploration Roadmap, working with international partners and the U.S. commercial space industry on a coordinated expansion of human presence into the solar system, with human missions to the surface of Mars as the driving goal.

 

Happy Earth Day. Join NASA Today for the Celebration.

NASA invites you — and everyone else on the planet — to take part in a worldwide celebration of Earth Day this year with the agency’s #GlobalSelfie event.

The year 2014 is a big one for NASA Earth science. Five NASA missions designed to gather critical data about our home planet are launching to space this year. NASA is marking this big year for Earth science with a campaign called Earth Right Now, and as part of this campaign the agency is asking for your help this Earth Day, April 22.

While NASA satellites constantly look at Earth from space, on Earth Day we’re asking you to step outside and take a picture of yourself wherever you are on Earth. Then post it to social media using the hashtag #GlobalSelfie.

Here are the details.

What’s a #GlobalSelfie?

NASA astronauts brought home the first ever images of the whole planet from space. Now NASA satellites capture new images of Earth every second. For Earth Day we are trying to create an image of Earth from the ground up while also fostering a collection of portraits of the people of Earth. Once those pictures stream around the world on Earth Day, the individual pictures tagged #GlobalSelfie will be used to create a mosaic image of Earth — a new “Blue Marble” built bit by bit with your photos.

Need an idea of what kind of picture to take? Get outside and show us mountains, parks, the sky, rivers, lakes — wherever you are, there’s your picture. Tell us where you are in a sign, words written in the sand, spelled out with rocks — or by using the printable signs we’ve created that are available at the bottom of this page.

The Earth mosaic image itself and a video using the images will be put together and released in May.

How do I take part?

We’ll be monitoring photos posted to five social media sites: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Google+ and Flickr.

Post your photo to Twitter, Instagram or Google+ using the hashtag #GlobalSelfie, or post it to the #GlobalSelfie event page on Facebook or the #GlobalSelfie group on Flickr.

Why a #GlobalSelfie?

NASA scientists have helped identify thousands of new planets out in the universe in recent years. But the space agency studies no planet more closely than our own. With 17 Earth-observing missions orbiting our home planet right now — and several more launching this year — NASA studies Earth’s atmosphere, land and oceans in all their complexity.

This satellite data helps NASA scientists piece together a clear picture of our planet from a scientific viewpoint. On this Earth Day, we wanted to create a different picture of our planet — a crowd-sourced collection of snapshots of the people of Earth that we could use to create one unique mosaic of the Blue Marble.

So, come April 22, take a second to step outside and join us in celebrating our home planet.

 

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Researchers Find 3-million-year-old Landscape Beneath Greenland Ice Sheet

Living with the Greenland icebergs. Photo Credit: Tourist-Destinations.com

Greenland is a place of great interest to scientists and policymakers because the future stability of its huge ice sheet — the size of Alaska — will have a fundamental influence on how fast and high global sea levels rise from human-caused climate change.

“The ancient soil under the Greenland ice sheet helps to unravel an important mystery surrounding climate change,” said Dylan Rood, a co-author on the new study, from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre and the University of California, Santa Barbara. “How did big ice sheets melt and grow in response to changes in temperature?”

Under the Greenland Ice Sheet, scientists were greatly surprised to discover an ancient tundra landscape. The finding provides strong evidence that the Greenland Ice Sheet has persisted much longer than previously known, enduring through many past periods of global warming. Image Credit: Joshua Brown, University of Vermont

The new discovery indicates that even during the warmest periods since the ice sheet formed, the center of Greenland remained stable. “It’s likely that it did not fully melt at any time,” Bierman said. This allowed a tundra landscape to be locked away, unmodified, under ice through millions of years of global warming and cooling.

“Some ice sheet models project that the Greenland Ice Sheet completely melted during previous interglacial periods. These data suggest that did not happen,” said co-author Tom Neumann, a cryospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We don’t know how much of the ice sheet remained – to estimate it, we’d have to study other ice cores in Greenland that have sediment in the bottom to see if ancient soil is preserved under those sites as well.”

The scientists tested seventeen samples of “dirty ice” – ice with sediment mixed in — from the bottommost 40 feet of the 10,019-foot GISP2 ice core extracted from Summit, Greenland, in 1993. From this sediment, Bierman and a team at the University of Vermont’s Cosmogenic Nuclide Laboratory extracted a rare form of the element beryllium, an isotope called beryllium-10. Formed by cosmic rays, it falls from the sky and sticks to rock and soil. The longer soil is exposed at Earth’s surface, the more beryllium-10 it accumulates. Measuring how much is in soil or a rock gives geologists a kind of exposure clock.

Piece of the GISP2 ice core that the researchers analyzed for the isotope beryllium-10, showing silt and sand embedded in ice. Soon after this picture was taken, the ice was crushed in the University of Vermont clean lab and the sediment was isolated for analysis. Image Credit: Paul Bierman, University of Vermont

The researchers expected to only find soil eroded from glacier-scoured bedrock in the sediment at the bottom of the ice core. But the silt they did find had very high concentrations of beryllium-10 when the team measured it on a particle accelerator at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in Livermore, Calif.

“On a global basis, we only find these sorts of beryllium concentrations in soils that have developed over hundreds of thousands to millions of years,” said co-author Joseph Graly, who analyzed the beryllium data while at the University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt.

The new research, supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, shows that the soil had been stable and exposed at the surface for somewhere between 200,000 and one million years before being covered by ice.

To help interpret these unexpected findings, the team also measured nitrogen and carbon that could have been left by plant material in the core sample. “The fact that measurable amounts of organic material were found in the silty ice indicates that soil must have been present under the ice,” said co-author Andrea Lini at the University of Vermont. The composition of the material suggested that the pre-glacial landscape may have been a partially forested tundra.

“Greenland really was green! However, it was millions of years ago,” said Rood. “Before it was covered by the second largest body of ice on Earth, Greenland looked like the green Alaskan tundra.” To confirm their findings about this ancient landscape, the researchers also measured beryllium levels in a modern permafrost tundra soil on the North Slope of Alaska and found that the values were very similar.

With an eye toward better understanding its future behavior, many geologists are seeking a long-term view of the history of the Greenland Ice Sheet, including how it moves and has shaped the landscape beneath it. Its 656,000 square miles of ice contain enough water, if fully melted, to raise global sea levels twenty-three feet. “Yet, we have very little information about what is happening at the bed with regards to erosion and landscape formation,” said Corbett.

What is clear, however, from an abundance of worldwide indicators, is that global temperatures are on a path to be “far warmer than the warmest interglacials in millions of years,” said Bierman. “There is a 2.7-million-year-old soil sitting under Greenland. The ice sheet on top of it has not disappeared in the time in which humans became a species. But if we keep on our current trajectory, the ice sheet will not survive. And once you clear it off, it’s really hard to put it back on.”

 

Joshua Brown, University of Vermont
Adapted by 
Maria-José Viñas, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

 

M42: Inside The Orion Nebula

M42: Inside the Orion Nebula Image Credit: R. Villaverde, Hubble Legacy Archive, NASA

The Great Nebula in Orion, an immense, nearby starbirth region, is probably the most famous of all astronomical nebulas.

Here, glowing gas surrounds hot young stars at the edge of an immense interstellar molecular cloud only 1500 light-years away.

In the above deep image composite in assigned colors taken by the Hubble Space Telescope wisps and sheets of dust and gas are particularly evident. The Great Nebula in Orion can be found with the unaided eye near the easily identifiable belt of three stars in the popular constellation Orion.

In addition to housing a bright open cluster of stars known as the Trapezium, the Orion Nebula contains many stellar nurseries. These nurseries contain much hydrogen gas, hot young stars, proplyds, and stellar jets spewing material at high speeds.

Also known as M42, the Orion Nebula spans about 40 light years and is located in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun.

 

Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (UMCP)

A service of: ASD at NASA / GSFC & Michigan Tech. U.

 

SpaceX Dragon heads for the ISS.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Image Credit: NASA TV

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Dragon spacecraft loaded with nearly 2.5 tons of supplies and experiment hardware for the International Space Station’s Expedition 39 crew, lifted off at 3:25 p.m. EDT Friday from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Friday’s launch of the third SpaceX commercial resupply services mission sent the Dragon space freighter on a course to rendezvous with the station Sunday morning. Commander Koichi Wakata and Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio will capture Dragon using the Canadarm2 robotic arm at 7:14 a.m. to set it up for its berthing to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module. Live NASA Television coverage of Sunday’s Dragon activities begins at 5:45 a.m. and returns at 9:30 a.m. for coverage of the berthing of Dragon to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.

The scientific payloads on Dragon include investigations that focus on efficient ways to grow plants in space, demonstrating laser optics to communicate with Earth, human immune system function in microgravity and Earth observation. Also being delivered is a set of high-tech legs for Robonaut 2, which can provide the humanoid robot torso already aboard the orbiting laboratory with the mobility it needs to help with regular and repetitive tasks inside the space station.

Dragon separates from Falcon. Image Credit: SpaceX

Dragon also will deliver the second set of investigations sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the portion of the space station designated a U.S. National Laboratory. CASIS investigations on Dragon are part of the organization’s initial suite of supported payloads linked to Advancing Research Knowledge 1, or ARK 1. The investigations include research on protein crystal growth, which may lead to drug development through protein mapping, and plant biology.

Flight Engineers Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson (partially obscured) install a new circuit board inside a spare multiplexer-demultiplexer aboard the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA TV

Meanwhile aboard the International Space Station, the Expedition 39 crew is in the homestretch of preparations for a spacewalk to replace a failed backup computer relay box in the S0 truss.  That 2 ½-hour spacewalk by Mastracchio and Flight Engineer Steve Swanson is slated to begin at 9:20 a.m. Wednesday.

The spacewalk will be the 179th in support of space station assembly and maintenance, the ninth in Mastracchio’s career and the fifth for Swanson. Mastracchio will carry the designation of EV 1, wearing the spacesuit bearing red stripes. Swanson will be EV 2, wearing the spacesuit without stripes.

 

Kepler Discovers First Earth-Size Planet In The ‘Habitable Zone’ of Another Star

The artist's concept depicts Kepler-186f , the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the “habitable zone” — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun.

While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth.

The diagram compares the planets of our inner solar system to Kepler-186, a five-planet star system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The five planets of Kepler-186 orbit an M dwarf, a star that is is half the size and mass of the sun. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

“The discovery of Kepler-186f is a significant step toward finding worlds like our planet Earth,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Future NASA missions, like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope, will discover the nearest rocky exoplanets and determine their composition and atmospheric conditions, continuing humankind’s quest to find truly Earth-like worlds.”

Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass and composition are not. Previous research, however, suggests that a planet the size of Kepler-186f is likely to be rocky.

“We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth,” said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper published today in the journal Science. “Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.”

The Constellation Cygnus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler-186f resides in the Kepler-186 system, about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The system is also home to four companion planets, which orbit a star half the size and mass of our sun. The star is classified as an M dwarf, or red dwarf, a class of stars that makes up 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

“M dwarfs are the most numerous stars,” said Quintana. “The first signs of other life in the galaxy may well come from planets orbiting an M dwarf.”

Kepler-186f orbits its star once every 130-days and receives one-third the energy from its star that Earth gets from the sun, placing it nearer the outer edge of the habitable zone. On the surface of Kepler-186f, the brightness of its star at high noon is only as bright as our sun appears to us about an hour before sunset.

“Being in the habitable zone does not mean we know this planet is habitable. The temperature on the planet is strongly dependent on what kind of atmosphere the planet has,” said Thomas Barclay, research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at Ames, and co-author of the paper. “Kepler-186f can be thought of as an Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin. It has many properties that resemble Earth.”

The four companion planets, Kepler-186b, Kepler-186c, Kepler-186d, and Kepler-186e, whiz around their sun every four, seven, 13, and 22 days, respectively, making them too hot for life as we know it. These four inner planets all measure less than 1.5 times the size of Earth.

The next steps in the search for distant life include looking for true Earth-twins — Earth-size planets orbiting within the habitable zone of a sun-like star — and measuring the their chemical compositions. The Kepler Space Telescope, which simultaneously and continuously measured the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, is NASA’s first mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets around stars like our sun.

Ames is responsible for Kepler’s ground system development, mission operations, and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach.  The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.