The Biggest Telescope in The Universe

Vinnie rocks back in his chair.  “These gravitational lenses, Cathleen.  How do you figure their apertures and f-numbers, space being infinite and all?”

She takes a breath to answer, but I cut in.  “Whoa, I never got past a snapshot camera.  How about you explain Vinnie’s question before you answer it?”Bird and lenses

“You’re right, Sy, most people these days just use their cellphone camera and have no clue about what it does inside.  Apertures and f-numbers are all just simple geometry.  Everything scales with the lens’ focal length.”

“That’s how far away something is that you’re taking a picture of?”

“No, it’s a characteristic of the lens itself.  It’s the distance between the midpoint of the lens and its focal plane, which is where you’d want to put the sensor chip or film in a camera.  The aperture is the diameter of the light beam entering the lens.  The optimal aperture, the image size, even the weight of the lens, all scale to the lens focal length.”

“I can see image size thing — the further back the focal plane, the bigger the image by the the time it gets there.  It’s like a lever.”

“Sort of, Vinnie, but you’ve got the idea.”

“The aperture scales to focal length?  I’d think you could make a lens with any diameter you like.”

“Sure you could, Sy, but remember you’d be using a recording medium of some sort and it’s got an optimum input level.  Too much light and you over-expose, too little and you under-expose.  To get the right amount of light when you take the shot the aperture has to be right compared to the focal length.”

“Hey, so that’s the reason for the old ‘Sunny 16‘ rule.  Didn’t matter if I had a 35mm Olympus or a big ol’ Rollei, if it was a sunny day I got good pictures with an f/16 aperture.  ‘Course I had to balance the exposure time with the film’s speed rating but that was easy.”

“Exactly, Vinnie.  If I remember right, the Rollei’s images were about triple the size of the little guy’s.  Tripled focal length meant tripled lens size.  You could use the same speed-rated film in both cameras and use the same range of f-stops.  The rule still works with digital cameras but you need to know your sensor’s ISO rating.”

“Ya got this, Sy?  Can we move on to Cathleen’s gravity lenses?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Well, they’re completely different from … I’ll call them classical lenses. That kind has a focal plane and a focal length and an aperture and only operates along one axis.  Gravitational lenses have none of that, but they have an infinite number of focal lines and rings.”

Gravitational lens and galaxy“Infinite?”

“At least in principle.  Any observation point in the Universe has a focal line running to a massive object’s center of gravity.  At any point along the line, you could look toward an object and potentially see all or part of a ring composed of light from some bright object behind it.  Einstein showed that a completed ring’s  visual angle depends on the deflector’s mass and the three distances between the observer, the deflector and the bright object.”

“The way you said that, there could be a bunch of rings.”

“Sure, one for each bright object shining onto the lens.  For that matter, the deflector itself could be complex — the gravity of a whole cluster of galaxies rather than the single black hole we’ve been assuming as an example.”

“That diagram reminds me of Galileo’s telescope, just a three-foot tube with an objective lens at the far end and an eyepiece lens to look through.  But it was enough to show him the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.”

“Right, Sy.  His objective lens was maybe a couple of inches across.  If its focal point was halfway down the tube, his scope’s light-gathering power would match an f/9 camera lens.  Gravitational lenses don’t have apertures so not an issue.”

“So here we are like Galileo, with a brand new kind of telescope.”

“Poetic, Vinnie, and so right.  It’s already shown us maybe the youngest galaxy, born 13 billion years ago.  We’re just getting started.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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Planetary Pastry, First Course

“Morning, Al.  What’s the scone of the day?”

“No scones today, Sy.  Cathleen and one of her Astronomy students used my oven to do a whole batch of these orange-and-apricot Danishes.  Something to do with Jupiter.  Try one.”Great Apricot Spot 1
Cathleen was standing behind me.  “They’re in honor of NASA’s Juno spacecraft.  She just completed a close-up survey of Jupiter’s famous cloud formation, the Great Red Spot.  Whaddaya think?”

“Not bad.  Nice bright color and a good balance of sweetness from the apricot against tartness from the orange.”

“You noticed that, hey?  We had to do a lot of balancing — flavors, colors, the right amount of liquid.  Too juicy and the pastry part comes out gummy, too dry and you break a tooth.  Notice something else?”

“The structure, right?  Like the Spot’s collar around a mushed-up center.”

“Close, but Juno showed us that center’s anything but mushed-up.  <pulls out her smartphone>  Here’s what she sent back.”

GRS 1 @400

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

“See, it’s swirls within swirls. We tried stirring the filling to look like that but it mostly smoothed out in the baking.”

“Hey, is it true what I heard that the Great Red Spot has been there for 400 years?”

“We think so, Al, but nobody knows for sure.  When Galileo published his telescopic observations of Jupiter in 1610 he didn’t mention a spot.  But that could be because he’d already caught flak from the Church by describing mountains and craters on the supposedly perfect face of the Moon.   Besides, the Jovian moons he saw were much more exciting for the science of the time.  A planet with satellites was a direct contradiction to Aristotle’s Earth-centered Solar System.”

“OK, but what about after Galileo?”

“There are records of a spot between 1665 and 1713 but then no reports of a spot for more than a century.  Maybe it was there and nobody was looking for it, maybe it had disappeared.  But Jupiter’s got one now and it’s been growing and shrinking for the past 185 years.”

“So what is it, what’s it made of and why’s it been there so long?”

“Three questions, one of them easy.”

“Which is easy, Sy?”

“The middle one.  The answer is, no-one knows what it’s made of.  That’s part of Juno‘s mission, to do close-up spectroscopy and help us wheedle what kinds of molecules are in there.  We know that Jupiter’s mostly hydrogen and helium, just like the Sun, but both of those are colorless.  Why some of the planet’s clouds are blue and some are pink — that’s a puzzle, right, Cathleen?”

“Well, we know a little more than that, especially since the Galileo probe dove 100 miles into the clouds in 1995.  The white clouds are colder and made of ammonia ice particles.  The pink clouds are warmer and … ok, we’re still working on that.”

“What about my other two questions, Cathleen?”

“People often call it a hurricane, but that’s a misnomer.  On Earth, a typical hurricane is a broad, complex ring of rainstorms with wind speeds from 75 to 200 mph.  Inside the ring wall people say it’s eerily calm.  The whole thing goes counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern one.”

“So how’s the Great Red Spot different?”

“Size, speed, complexity, even direction.  East-to-west, the Spot is eight times wider than the biggest hurricanes.  Its collar winds run about 350 mph and it rotates counterclockwise even though it’s in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere.  It’s like a hurricane inside-out.”

“It’s not calm inside?”

“Nope, take another look at that Juno image.  There’s at least three very busy bands wrapped around a central structure that looks like it holds three distinct swirls.  That’s the part that’s easiest to understand.” GRS core

“Why so?”

“Geometry.  Adjacent segments of separate swirls have to be moving in the same direction or they’ll cancel each other out.  <scribbles diagram on a paper napkin>  Suppose I’ve got just one inside another one.  If they go in the same direction the faster one speeds up the slower one and they merge.  If they go in opposite directions, one of them disappears.  If there’s more than one inner swirl, there has to be an odd number, see?”

“So if it’s not a hurricane, what is it?”

“Got any donuts, Al?”

~~ Rich Olcott