interstellar matter


Ask Ethan: What Science Experiments Will Open The Door To The Future?

“Provided that we have some luck, what science experiments that are going to happen withing a couple of decades could open us a way to build some sci-fi movie tech?”

The dream of futuristic technologies and what they might enable us to do – travel back in time, create artificial gravity, traverse the stars, create unlimited energy – are some of the best goals science can aspire to. While a great many of the technologies we’ve envisioned might well prove to be physically impossible, these four could immediately become reality if just one experiment, potentially within the next decade, reveals a surprise it should be able to detect. If dark matter is detected and proves to be its own antiparticle, then all we need to do is figure out how to harness it and unlimited fuel along an interstellar journey is ours for the taking. Antimatter might fall upwards in a gravitational field, having a negative mass, which would create artificial gravity and even, potentially, warp drive. And if the Universe rotates with just the right value, traveling back in time might become a part of science, not just science fiction.

There are experiments ongoing today and ones presently under design that might unlock these mysteries and more. Find out all about them on this week’s Ask Ethan!

NASA’s Message-In-A-Bottle: The Interstellar Constellation

The picture above represents one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever done.

Here’s a short thought experiment and story:

Somewhere one day a person, who may or may not be somewhat like you, might be looking through their telescope.

They might see something strange, approaching the planet.

They contact the authorities.

A mission is conceived to rendezvous with the object.

Astronauts carefully seal the mysterious asteroid in a large container and bring it back to the planet for scientists to study.

The whole world would be tense, waiting for news to break of what this strange thing is.

Its enigmatic shape gives it away as almost certainly not being natural.

Finally a nervous person approaches the media and crowds outside the lab.

With a shaking hand the person wipes sweat from their brow. They look up briefly before speaking, as if half expecting something to be there.

The asteroid… is not from the solar system. It hurtled here at great speeds from a distant star.

It’s old. We’re not sure yet how old, but it’s clearly been a long time since it was home.

Inside the asteroid is a golden disc. We’ve managed to remove the disc. It has markings… and sounds etched into it.”

It was a little longer before the contents of the disc were deciphered. The scientists realized that the strange 14-branches of lines on the disc were binary. Yes or no. The simplest language in the universe, and a mathematical one.

A language that might be used to communicate with cosmic neighbors.

Across countless years and an unimaginable gulf of empty darkness, something was telling us, “Yes, yes, yes, no, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, no, yes, yes, no, yes, yes, no…”

But yes to what? No to what?

The media exploded when an astronomer announced the binary series and the lengths of the branches corresponded exactly to the fingerprint-like beacons of 14 pulsars.

Around the world researchers mapped out where the center of the constellation should be, where the center of the 14 branches from their perspective night sky was.

They knew almost immediately but didn’t want to believe.

The star in the center of the constellation, the place where this message came from…

A news anchor looked into a camera, a somber look on their face:

“Astronomers have triangulated the location of the alien spacecraft. It came from a distant star which you can see in your telescopes. It’s the large red one.

It’s pretty to us but was a very different sort of star when this message was sent to us. Our space telescopes have confirmed that there’s a rocky planet in orbit around the star… there’s no atmosphere on it now as the star’s growth has boiled away any atmosphere there might have been.

Could those aliens still be alive somehow? Did they survive the incineration of their home?

As much as we ask these questions all we’ve got are the recordings they left on a sturdy golden record.

When played we hear strange sounds in an alien tongue. Deciphered, the recording reads,

“Hello, from the children of planet Earth…”

This story, believe it or not has already begun.

A few decades ago, NASA, working with Dr. Carl Sagan compiled a golden record to go aboard the Voyager spacecrafts. 

Voyager 1 launched from Earth in 1977. It left the solar system and entered interstellar space in 2013.

In 1 billion years, that golden record will still be readable and the sounds engraved thereon still readable.

NASA used the unique, lighthouse-like rhythms of specific pulsars to generate a map, a sort of interstellar constellation that, no matter where in the Milky Way you are, will always point to our Sun at the center.

It’s a beautiful message. For a billion years the sounds of children speaking across the universe will survive. For a billion years the sounds of a heartbeat of someone in love will be carried from star to star. 

That heartbeat, that love, will flow across the cosmos for a billion years.

For a billion years our interstellar message-in-a-bottle will drift among the current of starlight, perhaps until one day a person, who may or may not be somewhat like you, might look through their telescope and see a strange asteroid drifting towards their planet…

(Image credit: NASA)

i wish i had friends to passionately talk about spacetime and the composition of interstellar matter with. i wish i had friends. fuck.

The anatomy of a cosmic snake reveals the structure of distant galaxies
An international team including researchers from the universities of Geneva and Zurich has studied the image of a distant galaxy, 6 billion light-years away from us, warped and stretched by strong gravitational lensing into the shape of a cosmic snake

We have a fair understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that regulate star formation in galaxies, from the interstellar matter to the diffuse clouds distributed in space, whose gravitational contraction leads to the birth of stars within large stellar clusters.

But observations of distant galaxies have questioned this picture, the size and mass of these distant stellar nurseries largely exceeding that of their local counterparts. An international team of astrophysicists led by the Universities of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, for the observations and Zurich (UZH) for the simulations has tackled this inconsistency, which seems to question our knowledge of star formation when we study the early Universe, far away in time and space. They have found the first answers thanks to the observation of the Cosmic Snake. Their study is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The study of star formation relies on the coordinated work of several international teams that perform observations on different scales. The Hubble Space Telescope, when pointed toward high-redshift galaxies, studies in detail very distant objects when the Universe was much younger than its present age, far away from us both in time and space.

These observations have triggered an unexpected debate amongst astronomers: in the distant past, was star formation governed by different laws or physical conditions? This is what data from the Hubble Space Telescope was apparently suggesting when observations of distant galaxies revealed the presence of giant star forming regions, clumps of gas and stars attaining sizes as large as 3000 light-years, a thousand times larger than those observed in the nearby Universe. And these giant clumps, intriguingly, appeared to be ubiquitous in high-redshift galaxies.

The need for a gravitational telescope

The distance that separates us from these objects prevents their detailed observation, but the astronomers have overcome this difficulty exploiting gravitational lensing, a powerful “instrument” that is offered by the Universe itself, and the laws that govern it.

The telescope is pointed in direction of an extremely massive object able to deviate with its gravitational field the path of the light coming from a more distant galaxy located behind it.

The light is deflected by the massive object, creating thus multiple and amplified images of the galaxy. In our case, the astronomers have pointed Hubble at a huge gravitational lens, which generates several stretched, warped and almost overlapping images of the galaxy, featuring a true Cosmic Snake in the sky.

The amplified image is more precise, luminous, and allows us to observe details up to 100 times smaller», explains Antonio Cava, lead author of the study and Research and Teaching fellow in the Department of Astronomy at the UNIGE.

The fact that the image of the source galaxy is repeated five times at different spatial resolutions allows, for the first time, to perform a direct comparison and to establish the intrinsic structure - and size - of the observed giant clumps.

Far from concluding that different laws hold in the young and distant Universe, the international team of astronomers led by UNIGE, and including researchers from the CNRS, the Universities of Zurich and Lyon, and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, have discovered that the giants clumps are in reality not so large and massive as suggested by previous Hubble observations, but that they are intrinsically smaller or composed by multiple and unresolved small components, something that was not possible to directly prove so far. The researchers are thus supporting the simulations developed by Valentina Tamburello from the Institute of Computational Science at UZH. Co-author of the study, she stresses that «thanks to the incredibly high resolution of the cosmic snake, we were able to compare our calculations with the UNIGE observations and confirm their match. This was an incredible luck for us.“

This is an important step towards the understanding of the fundamental mechanisms driving star formation in distant galaxies, even if it does not completely explain some of the observed differences with respect to local galaxies. «We have reduced the differences between what we observe in the nearby Universe and in distant galaxies from a factor 1000 to a factor 10», stresses Daniel Schaerer, professor at the Geneva Observatory. He also points out the compelling convergence of ground-breaking observations and sophisticated state-of-the-art simulations, such as those developed by the UZH collaborators, which suggest that the remaining differences can be explained by the turbulent nature of the distant galaxies.

What Is Dark Matter?

There is as yet no answer to this question, but it is becoming increasingly clear what it is not. Detailed observations of the cosmic microwave background with the WMAP satellite show that the dark matter cannot be in the form of normal, baryonic matter, that is, protons and neutrons that compose stars, planets, and interstellar matter. That rules out hot gas, cold gas, brown dwarfs, red dwarfs, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes.

Black holes would seem to be the ideal dark matter candidate, and they are indeed very dark. However stellar mass black holes are produced by the collapse of massive stars which are much scarcer than normal stars, which contain at most one-fifth of the mass of dark matter. Also, the processes that would produce enough black holes to explain the dark matter would release a lot of energy and heavy elements; there is no evidence of such a release.

The non-baryonic candidates can be grouped into three broad categories: hot, warm and cold. Hot dark matter refers to particles, such as the known types of neutrinos, which are moving at near the speed of light when the clumps that would form galaxies and clusters of galaxies first began to grow. Cold dark matter refers to particles that were moving slowly when the pre-galactic clumps began to form, and warm dark matter refers to particles with speeds intermediate between hot and cold dark matter.

This classification has observational consequences for the size of clumps that can collapse in the expanding universe. Hot dark matter particles are moving so rapidly that clumps with the mass of a galaxy will quickly disperse. Only clouds with the mass of thousands of galaxies, that is, the size of galaxy clusters, can form. Individual galaxies would form later as the large cluster-sized clouds fragmented, in a top-down process.

In contrast, cold dark matter can form into clumps of galaxy-sized mass or less. Galaxies would form first, and clusters would form as galaxies merge into groups, and groups into clusters in a bottom-up process.

The observations with Chandra show many examples of clusters being constructed by the merger of groups and sub-clusters of galaxies. This and other lines of evidence that galaxies are older than groups and clusters of galaxies strongly support the cold dark matter alternative. The leading candidates for cold dark matter are particles called WIMPs, for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. WIMPs are not predicted by the so-called Standard Model for elementary particles, but attempts to construct a unified theory of all elementary particles suggest that WIMPs might have been produced in great numbers when the universe was a fraction of a second old.

A typical WIMP is predicted to be at least 100 times as massive as a hydrogen atom. Possible creatures in the zoo of hypothetical WIMPs are neutralinos, gravitinos, and axinos. Other possibilities that have been discussed include sterile neutrinos and Kaluza-Klein excitations related to extra dimensions in the universe.

The Nearest Globular: Messier 4 in Scorpius

Messier 4 is the nearest globular cluster, being 2.2kpc or about 7,175 light years away. It is very prominent with the slightest optical aid, and is located just 1.3 degrees west of Antares in Scorpius.

Messier 4 would be one of the most splendid globulars in the sky if it were not obscured by heavy clouds of dark interstellar matter. Interstellar absorption also reddens the color of the light from the cluster. However it displays an angular diameter of more than that of the Full Moon, which corresponds to a actual diameter of 75 light years.

It is also one of the least concentrated globular clusters. The central core is much less dense than in many other globulars, such as 47 Tucanae.

Credit: Rolf Olsen

We Are Stardust - For billions of years we are nothing but interstellar matter, then for a brief moment in time we are allowed to live before our minds and bodies are once again returned to the universe. Make every day count. This photo was taken at the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery in Grass Valley, Oregon. By far the scariest shoot I have ever been on.


  • Welcome to the Star Wars universe, where hyperspace is a wormhole/strategic cloaking device you can enter and exit at will and interstellar travel times don’t matter!
  • Poe Dameron is still so handsome
  • That little picture of baby!Finn on the display when Phasma’s talking to Hux on the bridge? Yeah, just kill my feelings already
  • Speaking of feelings, lady characters with traumatic childhood flashbacks in which their hairstyle is exactly the same as it is when they’re grown: apparently I am consistently into them
  • I’m super glad the one fat X-wing pilot had a name that wasn’t literally a fat joke this time!
  • “I know every time you look at me, you’re reminded of him”–no, nah, not an issue actually
  • While we’re here, since Han is not Force sensitive, Leia sensed his death via their son. OH I’M SORRY, WERE YOU HAVING A GOOD DAY?
  • It turns out the scene is blurry and hard to hear even when it’s not a bootleg, but Finn’s grin and wheezy laugh when he sees Rey climbing outside the window in Starkiller Base
  • Finn’s grin when she hits the fuses on Han’s other ship, too. He’s so happy! He picked a good friend! A clever and brave friend! 
  • Since Rey had been using the Force for about twenty minutes by the time she closed her eyes and steadied herself in the duel and no ghostly voice showed up to advise her, I’m choosing to think of the “oh yeah, the Force!” turning point as more of a Wizard of Oz “you always had it” thing, which ties in nicely with what Maz tells her too
  • And finally, when you spend an entire movie making callbacks to the original trilogy but in the span of five minutes at the climax you make two visual references to Obi-Wan in the prequels? I see you. I see what you did there, JJ
  • (I’m referring to Rey getting knocked out of the fight before the duel even starts a la AotC, and then her stance after taking Kylo down, which is 1000% Obi-Wan on Mustafar) 
  • Rey
  • Kenobi

The Omega Nebula

The Omega Nebula, also known as the Swan Nebula, Checkmark Nebula, Lobster Nebula, and the Horseshoe Nebula (catalogued as Messier 17 or M17 and as NGC 6618) is an H II region in the constellation Sagittarius. It was discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1745. Charles Messier catalogued it in 1764. It is located in the rich starfields of the Sagittarius area of the Milky Way.

The Omega Nebula is between 5,000 and 6,000 light-years from Earth and it spans some 15 light-years in diameter. The cloud of interstellar matter of which this nebula is a part is roughly 40 light-years in diameter and has a mass of 30,000 solar masses. The total mass of the Omega Nebula is an estimated 800 solar masses.

It is considered one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions of our galaxy. Its local geometry is similar to the Orion Nebula except that it is viewed edge-on rather than face-on.

An open cluster of 35 stars lies embedded in the nebulosity and causes the gases of the nebula to shine due to radiation from these hot, young stars; however the actual number of stars in the nebula is much higher - up to 800, plus >1000 stars in formation on its outer regions.It’s also one of the youngest clusters known, with an age of just 1 million years.