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Astronomers Find A ‘Fossil Cloud’ Uncontaminated Since the Big Bang

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Simulation of galaxies and gas in the universe. Within the gas in the (blue) filaments connecting the (orange) galaxies lurk rare pockets of pristine gas – vestiges of the Big Bang that have somehow been orphaned from the explosive, polluting deaths of stars, seen here as circular shock waves around some orange points. CREDIT: TNG COLLABORATION

A simulation of galaxies (orange) and gas (blue) in the universe. There are rare pockets of gas left over from the Big Bang that has remained unpolluted by material from exploding stars. (Credit: TNG COLLABORATION)

A Big Bang Fossil

Astronomers have discovered an ancient remnant of the Big Bang with some of the world’s most powerful telescopes. This scrap of pure material from the universe’s beginning could help researchers to better understand how and why different types of stars and galaxies formed in the early universe.

A group of astronomers, led by Fred Robert and Michael Murphy of the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia used telescopes at the W. M. Keck Obervatory in Hawaii to find a cloud of gas left over from the Big Bang lurking far out in the universe. The telescope also found a quasar — an ultra-bright active galactic nucleus emitting lots of energy — lurking behind the cloud.

This cloud is a remarkable find because has changed remarkably little since its creation. “Everywhere we look, the gas in the universe is polluted by waste heavy elements from exploding stars. But this particular cloud seems pristine, unpolluted by stars even 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang,” Robert said in a statement. “If it has any heavy elements at all, it must be less than 1/10,000th of the proportion we see in our Sun. This is extremely low; the most compelling explanation is that it’s a true relic of the Big Bang,” he added.

Illuminating History

Because the quasar behind the ancient cloud is so bright, it illuminates the material in it. This illumination allowed the researchers to see the spectral shadows of the hydrogen in the gas cloud, and because it hasn’t been contaminated, it’s a look at what the cloud looked like billions of years ago.

This is not the first cloud remnant from the Big Bang ever discovered. In 2011, researchers discovered two other “fossil clouds.”

“The first two were serendipitous discoveries, and we thought they were the tip of the iceberg. But no one has discovered anything similar – they are clearly very rare and difficult to see. It’s fantastic to finally discover one systematically,” astronomer John O’Meara, who discovered the first two fossil clouds along with colleagues, added in the statement.

“It’s now possible to survey for these fossil relics of the Big Bang,” Murphy said in the statement. Studying these ancient clouds gives scientists a better idea of what the universe was like at the time of the Big Bang — potentially explaining how and why some gases in the early universe became certain stars and galaxies and others didn’t.

This work is set to be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. An electronic preprint of the work is available on the preprint server arXiv.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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