Tag Archives: Interferometry

NASA Night Sky Notes: Summer Triangle Corner – Altair

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in September, 2020.

By David Prosper

Altair is the final stop on our trip around the Summer Triangle! The last star in the asterism to rise for Northern Hemisphere observers before summer begins, brilliant Altair is high overhead at sunset at the end of the season in September. Altair might be the most unusual of the three stars of the Triangle, due to its great speed: this star spins so rapidly that it appears “squished.”

A very bright star, Altair has its own notable place in the mythologies of cultures around the world. As discussed in our previous edition, Altair represents the cowherd Niulang in the ancient Chinese tale of the “Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.” Altair is the brightest star in the constellation of Aquila the Eagle; while described as part of an eagle by ancient peoples around the Mediterranean, it was also seen as part of an eagle by the Koori people in Australia! They saw the star itself as representing a wedge-tailed eagle, and two nearby stars as his wives, a pair of black swans. More recently one of the first home computers was named after the star: the Altair 8800.

Altair’s rapid spinning was first detected in the 1960s. The close observations that followed tested the limits of technology available to astronomers, eventually resulting in direct images of the star’s shape and surface by using a technique called interferometry, which combines the light from two or more instruments to produce a single image. Predictions about how the surface of a rapidly spinning massive star would appear held true to the observations; models predicted a squashed, almost “pumpkin-like” shape instead of a round sphere, along with a dimming effect along the widened equator, and the observations confirmed this! This equatorial dimming is due to a phenomenon called gravity darkening. Altair is wider at the equator than it is at the poles due to centrifugal force, resulting in the star’s mass bulging outwards at the equator. This results in the denser poles of the star being hotter and brighter, and the less dense equator being cooler and therefore dimmer. This doesn’t mean that the equator of Altair or other rapidly spinning stars are actually dark, but rather that the equator is dark in comparison to the poles; this is similar in a sense to sunspots. If you were to observe a sunspot on its own, it would appear blindingly bright, but it is cooler than the surrounding plasma in the Sun and so appears dark in contrast.

As summer winds down, you can still take a Trip Around the Summer Triangle with this activity from the Night Sky Network. Mark some of the sights in and around the Summer Triangle at: bit.ly/TriangleTrip. You can discover more about NASA’s observations of Altair and other fast and furious stars at nasa.gov.

The image on the right was created using optical interferometry: the light from four telescopes was combined to produce this image of Altair’s surface. Image credit: Ming Zhao. More info: bit.ly/altairvsmodel
Altair is up high in the early evening in September. Note Altair’s two bright “companions” on either side of the star. Can you imagine them as a formation of an eagle and two swans, like the Koori?

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

NASA Space Place – Old Tool, New Use: GPS and the Terrestrial Reference Frame

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in March, 2014.

By Alex H. Kasprak

2013february2_spaceplaceFlying over 1300 kilometers above Earth, the Jason 2 satellite knows its distance from the ocean down to a matter of centimeters, allowing for the creation of detailed maps of the ocean’s surface. This information is invaluable to oceanographers and climate scientists. By understanding the ocean’s complex topography—its barely perceptible hills and troughs—these scientists can monitor the pace of sea level rise, unravel the intricacies of ocean currents, and project the effects of future climate change.

But these measurements would be useless if there were not some frame of reference to put them in context. A terrestrial reference frame, ratified by an international group of scientists, serves that purpose. “It’s a lot like air,” says JPL scientist Jan Weiss. “It’s all around us and is vitally important, but people don’t really think about it.” Creating such a frame of reference is more of a challenge than you might think, though. No point on the surface of Earth is truly fixed.

To create a terrestrial reference frame, you need to know the distance between as many points as possible. Two methods help achieve that goal. Very-long baseline interferometry uses multiple radio antennas to monitor the signal from something very far away in space, like a quasar. The distance between the antennas can be calculated based on tiny changes in the time it takes the signal to reach them. Satellite laser ranging, the second method, bounces lasers off of satellites and measures the two-way travel time to calculate distance between ground stations.

Weiss and his colleagues would like to add a third method into the mix—GPS. At the moment, GPS measurements are used only to tie together the points created by very long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging together, not to directly calculate a terrestrial reference frame.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of serious effort to include GPS directly,” says Weiss. His goal is to show that GPS can be used to create a terrestrial reference frame on its own. “The thing about GPS that’s different from very-long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging is that you don’t need complex and expensive infrastructure and can deploy many stations all around the world.”

Feeding GPS data directly into the calculation of a terrestrial reference frame could lead to an even more accurate and cost effective way to reference points geospatially. This could be good news for missions like Jason 2. Slight errors in the terrestrial reference frame can create significant errors where precise measurements are required. GPS stations could prove to be a vital and untapped resource in the quest to create the most accurate terrestrial reference frame possible. “The thing about GPS,” says Weiss, “is that you are just so data rich when compared to these other techniques.”

You can learn more about NASA’s efforts to create an accurate terrestrial reference frame here: space-geodesy.nasa.gov/.

Kids can learn all about GPS by visiting http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/gps and watching a fun animation about finding pizza here: spaceplace.nasa.gov/gps-pizza.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


Caption: Artist’s interpretation of the Jason 2 satellite. To do its job properly, satellites like Jason 2 require as accurate a terrestrial reference frame as possible. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/