Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. – Stephen Hawking
Space has stirred the curiosity of scientists such as Hawking since the beginning of mankind. Indeed, the Universe is incredible. It’s astounding to consider that the more we learn about space, the more there is to learn. Some scientific discoveries lose that initial spark of intense curiosity as more information is uncovered – the Universes’ origin, function and complexity have not.
Speaking personally, this writer has often reflected on the complexity and sheer magnificence of the Universe. Anyone that has studied space – formally or informally, inside or outside of the classroom – will state that the breadth of knowledge about space and the passionate inquiry it elicits are unmatched. The human brain is probably the only other entity that invites such intense interest.
Fortunately for us, technological advances have made space more identifiable than any other time in history. Telescopes such as the Hubble have led to breakthrough discoveries in the fields of astrophysics, astronomy and cosmology. The Hubble Telescope helped determine the age of the universe (13-14 billion years), discover new galaxies, and gave us – for the first time – detailed visual information from billions of years past.
The Hubble telescope is now over 25 years old and there now exists imaging technology that far exceeds the Hubble’s capabilities. Naturally, this development led to many asking: ‘What next?’
The simplest answer: some pretty amazing stuff.
Some of the knowledge obtained about space was quite unexpected, as one would assume. Then there are discoveries that flat-out stumped some of the most brilliant scientists, researchers and academics in the world.
Here are 10 facts about space that will change your perspective about life:
10. Triangulum II
Researchers at Caltech, one of the most prominent universities in the country, were enthrallingly astounded concerning the speed with which the stars of our ‘galactic neighbor’ moved.
The main reason is that for such a ‘tiny’ galaxy, Triangulum contains a huge amount of hidden mass. Consider this: our galaxy contains at least 100 billion stars, while the Triangulum has only about 1000. This left scientists intrigued on what one this galaxy was composed of, as the size of a galaxy is somewhat proportional to its number of stars.
What scientists found was the highest concentration of dark matter – lightless, non-observable matter – of any galaxy ever discovered.
9. Tanya The Firstborn
Astronomers employed the combined powers of both the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to capture images of the dimmest galaxy ever. ‘Tanya’ is not only the dimmest galaxy ever, it’s one of the earliest (hence, ‘Firstborn’) – forming between approximately 12.6 to 13.4 billion years ago.
Launching in 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope – NASA’s ‘premier observatory of the next decade’ – will allow astronomers to explore some of the earliest galaxies in far more detail.
8. Breast-Feeding Galaxy
Astronomers can tell us a vast amount of information about space. One discovery that has eluded them so far is how galaxies are formed. Currently, there are two predominant hypotheses: (1) hydrogen and various gasses gather with massive clumps of dark matter, or (2) a long filament feeds gas into forming galaxies through a webbed pipeline.
Caltech used their Cosmic Web Imager to spot a baby galaxy 10 billion light-years away that was being ‘breast-fed’ a hydrogen mixture via an expansive filament of gas – a filament that is part of a cosmic web of stellar-forming material. This was the first significant discovery of the 2nd hypothesis.
7. A Cryptic Galactic Ring
Using the juxtaposition of seven observable gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), the most violent collisions in space, astronomers discovered a structure so massive it shouldn’t exist.
This unnamed entity is insanely massive: a formation of galaxies over five-billion light-years in width, stretching across an area over 70 times greater than that of a full Moon.
6. Hercules A
Hercules A is one of the brightest conglomerations in space. At the center of Hercules pinkish-red mixture of magnetic fields, subatomic particles and plasma is a black hole that contains a mass comparable to 2.5 billion suns.
The energy that Hercules emits is astonishing: its central black hole discharges energy with one billion times more power than our Sun.
5. The Large Megellanic Cloud
Photo credit: ESO
One of Earth’s closest neighbors at a distance of 160,000 light-years, the LMC is visible by the naked eye in the night sky of the Northern Hemisphere. One aspect of the LMC that is puzzling to astronomers is the sheer brightness of its stars. Another is that it siphons off these stars from its smaller companion, the Small Magellanic Cloud, making it the first observable entity to do so.
4. The Super Luminous WISE
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The WISE is the brightest galaxy yet discovered, emitting a light source more powerful than 300 trillion Suns. The images captured from the WISE also provide us with a picture of the universe at 1/10th of its age – supplying us with one of the earliest glimpses of the universes’ complex evolution.
3. The Milky Way’s Birthing White Dwarfs
White dwarfs are one of the densest forms of matter in existence, encompassing the mass of the sun in a structure only slightly larger than Earth. Astronomers discovered 70 dwarfs contained within the Milky Way’s “heart,” which are estimated to be near 12-billion years old.
Although these dwarfs are now inactive, it’s now believed that they could have seeded our own galaxy.
2. The M60-UCD1
Photo credit: NASA, ESA, D. Coe, G. Bacon (STScI)
This miniscule galaxy is the size equivalent of about two-tenths of one percent (.02%) of the Milky Way. Yet, its enormous black hole is the mass of approximately 21 million Suns. By comparison, the Milky Way’s black hole is a relatively small 4 million Suns.
This discovery completely whitewashed a long-held hypothesis: that a galaxy’s size is proportional to the size of its black hole. This had led scientists to the newfound belief that black holes are much more common in space than originally thought.
1. The 13.2 Billion-Year Old Galaxy
Photo credit: NASA
Dubbed the ESG8p7 (what’s with these names?), this is the oldest galaxy visible with our technology. In fact, it’s so ancient that scientists shouldn’t have been able to observe it at all. To the astonishment of astronomers everywhere, the cluster became visible through the Keck Observatory’s MOSFIRE spectrometer. This discovery is currently one of the most noteworthy conundrums that experts are trying to rationalize.