Andrea Ghez Gazes Into Our Galaxy’s Black Hole

Decades ago, Einstein predicted the existence of something he didn’t believe in — black holes. Ever since then, people have been trying to get a glimpse of these collapsed stars that represent the limits of our understanding of physics.

For the last 25 years, Andrea Ghez has had her sights set on the black hole at the center of our galaxy known as Sagittarius A*, trying to conclusively prove it exists. In the early days, her proposal was dismissed entirely. Then she started getting lauded for it. Andrea earned a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008. In 2012, she was the first woman to receive the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Image via SciTech Daily

Now Andrea has become the fourth woman ever to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics for her discovery. She shares the prize with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel for discoveries relating to black holes. UCLA posted her gracious reaction to becoming a Nobel Laureate.

A Star is Born

Andrea Mia Ghez was born June 16th, 1965 in New York City, but grew up in the Hyde Park area of Chicago. Her love of astronomy was launched right along with Apollo program. Once she saw the moon landing, she told her parents that she wanted to be the first female astronaut. They bought her a telescope, and she’s had her eye on the stars ever since. Now Andrea visits the Keck telescopes — the world’s largest — six times a year.

Andrea was always interested in math and science growing up, and could usually be found asking big questions about the universe. She earned a BS from MIT in 1987 and a PhD from Caltech in 1992. While she was still in graduate school, she made a major discovery concerning star formation — that most stars are born with companion star. After graduating from Caltech, Andrea became a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA so she could get access to the Keck telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

The Keck telescopes and the Milky Way. Image via Flickr

The Center of the Galaxy

Since 1995, Andrea has pointed the Keck telescopes toward the center of our galaxy, some 25,000 light years away. There’s a lot of gas and dust clouding the view, so she and her team had to get creative with something called adaptive optics. This method works by deforming the telescope’s mirror in real time in order to overcome fluctuations in the atmosphere.

Thanks to adaptive optics, Andrea and her team were able to capture images that were 10-30 times clearer than what was previously possible. By studying the orbits of stars that hang out near the center, she was able to determine that a supermassive black hole with four millions times the mass of the sun must lie there. Thanks to this telescope hack, Andrea and other scientists will be able to study the effects of black holes on gravity and galaxies right here at home. You can watch her explain her work briefly in the video after the break. Congratulations, Dr. Ghez, and here’s to another 25 years of fruitful research.

DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, February 12 at noon Pacific for the DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat with James Aguirre!

For most of history, astronomers were privy to the goings-on in the universe only in a very narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. We had no idea that a vibrant and wondrous picture was being painted up and down the wavelengths, a portrait in radio waves of everything from nearly the moment of creation to the movement of galaxies. And all it took to listen in was an antenna and a radio receiver.

Over the years, radio telescopes have gotten more and more sophisticated and sensitive, and consequently bigger and bigger. We’re even to the point where one radio telescope often won’t cut it, and astronomers build arrays of telescopes spread over miles and miles, some with antennas that move around on rails. In the search for signals, radio astronomy has become the very definition of “Big Science.”

But radio astronomy doesn’t have to be big to be useful. James Aguirre, an astronomer at the University of Pennsylvania, spends his days (and nights) studying the radio universe with those big instruments. But he’s also passionate about down-scaling things and teaching everyone that small radio telescopes can be built on the cheap. His Mini Radio Telescope project uses a cast-off satellite TV dish and a couple of hundred bucks worth of readily available gear to scan the skies for all sorts of interesting phenomena.

Dr. Aguirre will join us on the Hack Chat to discuss all things radio astronomy, and how you can get in on the radio action on the cheap. Chances are good your junk pile — or your neighbor’s roof — has everything you need, and you might be surprised how approachable and engaging DIY radio astronomy can be.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 12 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about. Continue reading “DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat”

The Galaxy Fold, Or Why Flexible OLED May Not Yet Be Ready For Prime Time

Samsung’s fancy new high-end smartphone with a flexible, foldable OLED display has been failing in worrying numbers for the first reviewers who got their hands on one. Now iFixit has looked into the issue using their considerable amount of smartphone tear-down experience to give their two cents. They base many of their opinions on the photos and findings by the Verge review, who were one of the (un)lucky ones to have their unit die on them.

The Galaxy Fold was supposed to be this regular smartphone sized phone which one can open up fully to reveal a tablet-sized display inside. The use of a flexible OLED display was supposed to create a seamless display without the annoying center line that having two individual displays would produce. Unfortunately it’s this folding feature which produces issues.

As iFixit notes, OLEDs are rather fragile, with their own tear-downs of regular OLED-equipped devices already often resulting in the damaging of the display edges, which spells doom for the internals of them as oxygen and other contaminants can freely enter. This means that maintaining this barrier is essential to keep the display functioning.

This is probably the reason why Samsung chose to install a screen protector on the display, which unfortunately was mistaken for a protective foil as found on many devices. The subsequent removal of this protector by some reviewers and the mechanical stress this caused destroyed some screens. Others had debris trapped in the fold between both halves of the display, which caused visible bumps in the display when opened.

The relatively massive spacing between the hinge and the display seems almost purposefully engineered to allow for the ingress of debris. This combines with the lack of any guiding crease in the center of the display and the semi-random way in which humans open and close the Fold compared to the perfectly repeating motion of the folding robots Samsung used to test the display. It seems that Samsung and others still have some work to do before they can call folding OLED displays ready for production.

Finally, have a look at this video of Lewis from UnboxTherapy pulling a folding robot with opening and closing a Fold one-thousand times:


Kepler Closes Eyes After A Decade Of Discovery

Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has provided us with an incredible amount of data about exoplanets within our galaxy, proving these worlds are more varied and numerous than we could ever have imagined. Before its launch we simply didn’t know how common planets such as ours were, but today we know the Milky Way contains billions of them. Some of these worlds are so hot they have seas of molten rock, others experience two sunsets a day as they orbit a pair of stars. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of the planets found by Kepler are much like our own: potentially playing host to life as we know it.

Kepler lived a fruitful life by any metric, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Too far into deep space for us to repair it as we did Hubble, hardware failures aboard the observatory nearly brought the program to a halt in 2013. When NASA announced the spacecraft was beyond hope of repair, most assumed the mission would end. Even by that point, Kepler was an unqualified success and had provided us with enough data to keep astronomers busy for years. But an ingenious fix was devised, allowing it to continue collecting data even in its reduced capacity.

Leaning into the solar wind, Kepler was able to use the pressure of sunlight striking its solar panels to steady itself. Kepler’s “eyesight” was never quite the same after the failure of its reaction wheels, and it consumed more propellant than originally intended to maintain this careful balancing act, but the science continued. The mission that had already answered many of our questions about our place in the galaxy would push ahead in spite of a failure which should have left it dead in space.

As Kepler rapidly burned through its supply of propellant, it became clear the mission was on borrowed time. It was a necessary evil, as the alternative was leaving the craft tumbling through space, but mission planners understood that the fix they implemented had put an expiration date on Kepler. Revised calculations could provide an estimate as to when the vehicle would finally run its tanks dry and lose attitude control, but not a definitive date.

For the last several months NASA has known the day was approaching, but they decided to keep collecting data until the vehicle’s thrusters sputtered and failed. So today’s announcement that Kepler has at long last lost the ability to orient itself came as no surprise. Kepler has observed its last alien sunset, but the search for planets, and indeed life, in our corner of the galaxy doesn’t end today.

Continue reading “Kepler Closes Eyes After A Decade Of Discovery”

Beatrice Tinsley And The Evolution Of Galaxies

It seems almost absurd now, but cosmologists once assumed that galaxies of a given type were all the same and didn’t change. Because of this assumption, galaxies were used as a redshift or light-based yardstick to measure distances in the universe. But what if some galaxies were intrinsically redder than others? Little to no thought was given to their origins, compositions, or evolution until Beatrice Tinsley came along.

Beatrice saw galaxies as changing bodies of stars. She believed that they grew, evolved, and died because they’re made of stars, and that’s what their star populations did. To lump all galaxies together and use them as a standard candle was an oversimplification. Beatrice created the first computer model of a galaxy to prove her point and in doing so, she founded the field of galaxy evolution.

If you’ve never heard of Beatrice, don’t feel bad. Just as her career was really beginning to take off, she developed cancer and died shortly after her 40th birthday. Though her life was short, her influence on cosmology is long-reaching. Continue reading “Beatrice Tinsley And The Evolution Of Galaxies”

3D Universe Theater

If you are an astronomy buff, there are plenty of star maps you can find in print or online (or even on your Smartphone). But if you are a science fiction fan (or writer), you probably find those maps frustrating because they are flat. Two stars next to each other on the map might be light years apart in the axis coming out of the page. A star 3.2 light years from Sol (our sun) looks the same on the map as a star 100 light years away.

The Gaia satellite (an ESA project) orbits beyond the moon and is carefully mapping the 3D position of every point of light it sees. [Charlie Hoey] took the data for about 2 million stars and used WebGL to give you a 3D view of the data in your web browser.

Continue reading “3D Universe Theater”

Interesting Switch Autopsy

We put a lot of trust into some amazingly cheap components, sometimes that trust is very undeserved. Long gone are the days when every electronic component was a beautifully constructed precision lab instrument.  As [Rupert Hirst] shows, this can be a hard lesson to learn for even the biggest companies.

[Rupert]’s Nexus 5 was suffering from a well known reboot issue. He traced it to the phone’s power switch. It was always shorting to ground, even though it clicked like it was supposed to.

He desoldered the switch and pried the delicate sheet metal casing apart. Inside were four components. A soft membrane with a hard nub on the bottom, presumably engineered to give the switch that quality feeling. Next were two metal buckles that produced the click and made contact with the circuit board, which is the final component.

He noticed something odd and  busted out his USB microscope. The company had placed a blob of solder on the bottom buckle. We think this is because steel on copper contact would lead to premature failure of the substrate, especially with the high impact involved during each switching event.

The fault lay in the imprecise placement of the solder blob. If it had been perfectly in the middle, and likely many phones that never showed the issue had it there, the issue would have never shown up. Since it was off-center, the impact of each switching event slowly deposited thin layers of solder onto the copper and fiberglass. Finally it built up enough to completely short the switch.

Interestingly, this exact problem shows up across different phone manufacturers, somewhere there’s a switch company with a killer sales team out there.