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The universe is expanding - But what came before the Big Bang?

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Clavius. Image Credit: Paul F. Campbell.

I'm still living in boxes, but getting back to some semblance of a routine. But the astrosphere won't wait.

Today's photo is the lunar crater Clavius, taken by the incredible Paul f. Campbell. If you want me to feature one of your photographs, post it to the forum, and I'll probably scoop it up.

And here are the stories for today.

Astroblog has posted a cool picture of the Moon, Saturn and Venus over the course of 4 days. It's was a difficult shot to make because the sky is a sphere.

Does everything seem familiar? According to Seed Magazine, the universe may repeat itself every trillion years.

If you've listened to Astronomy Cast, you know all good things come from the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.

Bad Astronomy reports on the possibility that Spitzer has seen the first stars ever.

Before the Big Bang?

Illustration of an oscillating and then inflating universe in phase space. Source: (Nature 436 (2005) 920-921).
July 2nd, 2007: Illustration of an oscillating and then inflating universe in phase space. Source: (Nature 436 (2005) 920-921).

The scientific consensus is that the universe is expanding, having gotten its start in a single point 13.7 billion years ago. There are several lines of evidence to support this theory: the movement of galaxies away from us, the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the quantities of Hydrogen and helium in the Universe.

But what came before the Big Bang? Since all matter and energy was tangled up into a single point of infinite volume and density, it's hard to imagine how you could look to a time before that.

Cosmologist Martin Bojowald and others from Penn State University thinks it's possible. His ideas are published in a new paper as part of the July 1st edition of the journal nature Physics.

According to Bojowald, a mathematical technique called Loop Quantum Gravity, which combines relativity and quantum mechanics, gives a different view of the early universe. Instead of being infinitely small and dense, it was compacted down into a ball of some volume and density.

The researchers believes that a previous universe collapsed down to a tiny ball, and then had a Big Bounce to expand again. The previous universe was very similar to the space-time geometry we have in our current Universe.

I'd try and explain this better, but Phil beat me to the punch and did a great article about it.

Genesis II Launches, Deploys Solar Panels

July 2nd, 2007: title="Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis II.

Along with your jetpack, flying car, and moving sidewalks, a hotel in space is one of the great, undelivered promises of the future. Well, Bigelow Aerospace took another step towards fulfilling that promise last week with the launch of Genesis II, its prototype of an inflatable space hotel.

Genesis II was lofted into space atop Dnepr rocket on Thursday from the SC Kosmotras Yasny Cosmodrome in Russia. Shortly after launch, ground controllers confirmed a strong signal with the vehicle, confirming that it reached orbit.

On Friday, the habitat unfurled its solar panels, and inflated itself to its full width of 2.4 metres (8 feet).

Like it predecessor, Genesis 1, this spacecraft is a 1/3rd scale prototype of a future space hotel, designed to demonstrate various technologies and techniques needed for space tourism. The eventual plan is to put a manned habitat up by 2015, and then connect additional modules together to build up a space station.

Genesis II has 22 cameras, and many new systems that weren't aboard Genesis I.

Astrosphere for July 2, 2007

Venus Occultation.
July 2nd, 2007: Venus Occultation.

Welcome back to the astrosphere. Sorry for the disruption on Friday and over the weekend. As threatened, my family and I moved back to Vancouver, Canada. My wife is going to be attending nursing school here in the big city. We're still living in boxes, and I'm laptoping the website from atop my actual lap until our tables and desks arrive. But, I've got the Internet going, and that's all that matters. Oh, and happy Canada Day.

Today's astrophoto is an occultation of Venus behind the Moon. It comes from Shahriar.D in the forum.

First up, Daily Galaxy has a strange story about the possibility that
early microbial life co-existed with alien life.

Centauri Dreams is reporting on cool exoplanet announcements in Santorini.

Sky and Telescope announced that they're going to be starting up a blog network on their website. It's going to be great to see their writers connecting with the community. Welcome.

Atlantis is Carried Back Home

NASA's modified 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with Atlantis on top.
July 2nd, 2007: NASA's modified 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with Atlantis on top.

The latest Space Shuttle mission landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, no thanks to the bad weather at its normal landing site in Florida. Since the shuttle launches from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, it needs to be carried back to the launch facility on board a specially strengthened Boeing 747.

On Monday, the shuttle began that journey home.

Atlantis flew out of California today on board the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, and then landed for refueling at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Because of poor weather in Florida, NASA decided the shuttle should remain there for tonight. They'll try and complete the journey o n Tuesday.

Back in Florida, NASA is processing the next shuttle mission, STS-118. This will deliver the S5 truss segment to the International Space Station, and it's targeted for an August 7th launch.

Opportunity is Ready Descend Into Victoria Crater

Opportunity's path around Victoria Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
June 28th, 2007: Opportunity's path around Victoria Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

NASA's Opportunity rover has been tentatively checking out the rim of Victoria Crater, gathering as much science as it can before going down inside. Mission controllers announced today that they've got all the data they need, and they're ready to push the rover over the edge, and send it on a potentially one-way journey down into the crater.

A meteor impact created Victoria Crater millions of years ago, blasting though layers of rock, and gouging out a hole on Mars 800 metres across (.5 miles). As Opportunity crawls down the steep slope, it'll be travelling back in time, observing older and older layers of rock on the exposed walls of the crater. As before, it's looking for evidence of ancient, wet environments.

They're not planning on a one-way journey. Even though the rover has lasted 12 times longer than mission planners were expecting (90 days), and its capabilities are reduced, it should be able to crawl back out. The slope shouldn't get any steeper than 15-20 degrees, and it's on exposed bedrock for good traction.

Here's a quote from the principal investigator, Steve Squyres:

"We don't want this to be a one-way trip. We still have some excellent science targets out on the plains that we would like to visit after Victoria. But if Opportunity becomes trapped there, it will be worth the knowledge gained."

Good luck Opportunity, and hang on tight. It's going to be a wild ride.

Flashes on the moon Caused by Gas

Image of TLP taken in 1953. Credit:Columbia's Department of Astronomy.
June 28th, 2007: Image of TLP taken in 1953. Credit:Columbia's Department of Astronomy.

There's a strange phenomenon on the Moon that has puzzled Astronomers for hundreds of years. They're called transient lunar phenomena (TLPs), and they look like a brief flashes, changes in colour, or blurring on the surface of the Moon.

Astronomers have argued about what's really going on for years. Some possible explanations include turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere, physiological effects in the human eye, smearing of light, and even psychological causes. But according to new research by Columbia University astronomy professor Arlin Crotts, radon gas leaking out from the Moon is probably the best explanation.

Cotts correlated TLPs with known gas outbursts on the lunar surface as seen by several spacecraft, including NASA's Apollo 15 mission. He found a surprising correlation between the outbursts detected by the spacecraft, and reports from observers of TLP sites.

The researchers are now building a robotic camera on the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile. It will scan the Moon every few seconds, and produce an unbiased map of TLPs.

Perhaps this will settle the mystery, once and for all.

Explaining the moon Illusion

Moonrise Over Seattle. Image credit: Shay Stephens.
June 28th, 2007: Moonrise Over Seattle. Image credit: Shay Stephens.

Have you ever marveled at how large the full Moon looks when it's just peeking up over the horizon? It looks so much larger than when it's high in the sky. It's not changing in size, your brain is tricking you.

This is called the Moon Illusion, and people have noticed it for thousands of years. If you take a camera and capture images of the Moon all the way from the horizon until it's at its highest point, the size stays exactly the same. But from your perception, it's huge on the horizon and much smaller when it gets higher.

You can even confirm this without a camera. Hold your hand out at arm's length, and the full Moon is about the size of the tip of your pinky finger. Do this when the Moon is down near the horizon, and then do it again when it's much higher and you'll see, it's exactly the same size.

So, why is this happening? Researchers think that the shape of the sky could be the cause. The Moon moves in a circular shape around us, but the sky and clouds are in a bowl shape above us. This difference causes our brain to perceive the Moon larger when it's down at the horizon.

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait recently explained this for Wil Wheaton on his blog:

The illusion is a combination of two things. the first is the Ponzo illusion, where your brain interprets things as being bigger if it thinks they are farther away.

Second, the sky is not exactly hemisphere-shaped to our brains, it actually looks like an inverted bowl. Think of it this way: clouds overhead are maybe two miles up, but clouds near the horizon are a hundred miles away. So the sky looks bowl-shaped.

So when the Moon is on the horizon, your brain thinks it's farther away than when it's overhead. The Ponzo illusion kicks in, and your brain gets fooled into thinking the Moon is HUGE. As it gets higher, the illusion vanishes. If you actually observe the Moon with binoculars or with a 'scope, you can see it is no bigger on the horizon. In fact, it should look smaller because it's a few thousand miles farther away than when it's overhead.

So when your friends are admiring the huge moon, hanging low in the sky, feel free to let them in on the secret.

It's all an illusion.

Neutron Stars Have Jets Too

et of relativistic particles blasting out of Circinus X-1.Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heintz et al.
June 28th, 2007: et of relativistic particles blasting out of Circinus X-1.Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heintz et al.

One time, Astronomers thought that only black holes had jets of material pouring out of them. Something to do with the event horizon, and a lack of a solid surface. Well, step aside black holes, neutron stars seem to have them too.

This is according to new images captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which imaged a system called Circinus X-1. This is actually a binary system, consisting of a massive star with several times the mass of our Sun, and a Neutron star. The neutron star is feeding on material from the star, and has gathered together an accretion disk around itself. It's consuming so much material from the star that it backs up into this disk, which glows hot in the X-ray spectrum.

And just like with a black hole, the centre of the accretion disk acts like an engine, firing material out into space along these jets. But the power from this engine comes from the Neutron star.

In the Chandra image in the upper left, you can see what looks like cones on the two sides of the Neutron star. This neutron star could be wobbling like a top, with the jets tracking out these larger arcs.

Strange Features on Mars at Aeolis Mensae

Aeolis Mensae on Mars. Image credit: ESA.
June 28th, 2007: Aeolis Mensae on Mars. Image credit: ESA.

This is a cool photograph taken by ESA's Mars Express spacecraft. It shows the Aeolis Mensae region on Mars, an area known to be on a tectonic transition zone. This might be an explanation for the long linear features and carved valleys.

The area is nearby the volcanic region of Elysium, which separates the southern highlands and the northern lowlands. Aeolis Mensae is right at the transition zone between these two regions, and there's a 3 km (1.8 mile) elevation difference between the two regions. Why there's such a steep drop is still a matter of discussion between planetary scientists.

The three-dimensional view was created on computer based on Mars Express' stereo view, which was captured on March 26th and 29th, 2007.

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