The quest for the elusive gravity wave may have gotten a bit easier this week. The problem with detecting gravity waves is that it takes a cataclysmic events such as a supernova or a collision of black holes to produce waves that will be detectable even to the extremely sensitive 4-kilometer U.S. Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) due to come on-line in a few years. It seems that Nils Andersson of Washington University and Kostas Kokkotas of the Max Planck Society Research Unit in Germany have found that gravity waves may be detected from far more common phenomena. When gravity waves hit a neutron star, they may be amplified by the extreme space-time curvature caused by the incredibly massive neutron star and actually cause the star to oscillate. However, it is still uncertain whether even the strong gravity wave source of a supernova would be enough to cause this phenomenon. It certainly will be interesting to see if LIGO detects any gravity waves at all when it is finally switched on in the coming years.
Well, a lot has happened since I last did the the weekly news. Evidence was found suggesting ancient nanobacterial life on the planet Mars, Galileo continues to send back better and better images of Jupiter and its moons, and we found out that the Earth's core hides some surprising secrets. Since everyone knows about the microscopic Martians, and the last weekly news I did was about Galileo, I decided to tackle the core. In the last few months, we learned that the Earth's core may actually be an enormous solid iron crystal the size of our moon! If this isn't enough to digest, the Earth's core actually rotates a bit faster than the Earth itself! One extra rotation every one hundred years as it turns out. This effectively creates a self-sustaining dynamo and preserves the Earth's magnetic field. This motion was predicted by Gary A. Glatzmaier's MHD (magneto-hydrodynamics) theory which he developed while modeling the magnetic field of the sun.
Well, after a long and disappointing journey, the Galileo spacecraft has taken a few snapshots of Jupiter's planet-sized moon, Ganymede. If you do not already know, the probe is crippled because it's high gain antenna failed to open and Galileo is operating on its much more limited secondary antenna. After a hefty software upgrade, the probe is sending back data at the screaming rate of 36 bits per second. That's one-tenth of the speed of a 300-baud modem to you and me. If you think it takes a long time to view a large picture on the Internet at 28800 baud, try it at 30 baud. Nevertheless, the black and white images that Galileo has managed to teletype back are astonishingly clear due to Galileo's close flyby (less than 5,000 miles) and reveals details that Voyager 2 missed. The folks on the Galileo team should be commended for continuing to make the best of a disappointing situation.
I'll bet you thought quasars were the most distant and mysterious objects in the deep sky? Well, it appears that might not be the case. In studying the magnificent Hubble Deep Field images, astronomers believe that they have found a group of galaxies even more distant than quasars. In fact, it appears that they are so far out that we are observing them as they were when the universe was only 5% of it's present age. It also implies that galaxies started forming a mere few hundred million years after the Big Bang, which is a surprise in itself. If these galaxies are indeed as distant and ancient as they seem to be, they can provide us with unique opportunities to study the early formation of galaxies.
This week news is the apparent discovery of a Sol-like solar system only 8 light years away! That's a hop, skip, and a jump in cosmological terms. The star is Lalande 21185 and it's the fourth closest to the sun. Although they have only found two Jupiter sized planets, their orbits are similar to the orbits of our own gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. This leaves open the possibility that Lalande has some closer, more Earth-like planets. Although there has been a rash of planetary discoveries lately, none have been this close or this similar to our own planetary system.
If Lalande does indeed have planets that can support life (which is rather improbable unfortunately since Lalande is a red dwarf), any intelligent life existing there has received decades of TV and radio signals from Earth. They've seen everything up till about 1988, so they have yet to see George Bush elected, the Berlin wall come down, or the rise of the Psychic Friends Network (enough to make any civilization think twice before dropping by). So if the Lalandians land in your back yard some time, be sure to tell them to prepare Lalandia II for infomercials, Rush Limbaugh, and Thigh-Masters because they are all heading for Lalande 21185 at the speed of light.
Extra Extra!!! (added October 24th, 1996)