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Ask a NASA astronomer! What’s it like to work at NASA?

With over 100 active science missions, from the Hubble Space Telescope to studying ice shifts on Earth, working at NASA can be a dream come true for any astronomer or astrophysicist.

MICHELLE THALLER: Hey Eleya, thank you for asking me about my day. What do I do at NASA. One of the things that I love about being a scientist is that I don’t really have a typical day; I do lots of different things.

So for example, one of my duties at NASA is thinking about the communications, thinking about all of our websites and our Twitter accounts and our Instagram feeds all of the ways that we get our information out to the public.

Right now at NASA we have over 100 active science missions, everything from rovers on Mars to the Hubble Space Telescope, to missions to Jupiter, to earth science missions that are tracking, for example, how the ice is melting in Greenland. And every single one of those 100 missions is putting out wonderful information and making discoveries. And I want people to know about them. I want people to meet the scientists that are doing this wonderful work.

So I actually try to manage all of the different information that’s coming in from all these missions find a good way to get it out to the public. And then I track and see how many people are liking us on Facebook, and “Was that press release particularly successful?”

So I’m a scientist that has specialized in communications. Sometimes I go on trips, I’ll be doing talks, for example, at a conference somewhere in Europe. I actually love coming to the United Kingdom.

Sometimes rarely for me, but I still do some scientific research, so I’ve been to telescopes all over the world.

When I was getting my doctorate I mainly used telescopes that were in Australia and South America and also in Arizona at Kitt Peak, and I used things like the Hubble Space Telescope. So sometimes you’re actually traveling somewhere to make your own discoveries and then going back to your office with your data and working on all of the different measurements you took and trying to make discoveries out of that.

It’s also very important for scientist to share their discoveries. If you make a wonderful discovery at a telescope but nobody ever hears about it, then that was basically a waste of time and money for you to do that. So we write about our discoveries in scientific journals, other scientists read them, and then we can collaborate and science moves forward, because we always work together as a group. And nothing in science happens individually, you’re always working with people.

So you’re going to meetings, you’re talking about strategy: “How are we going to fund a new spacecraft?” We’ve just been on a wonderful observing campaign where we observed a new kind of star, “What happens next? Who is going to make follow up discoveries?”

One of the things I love about being a scientist is working with really passionate, wonderful, friendly people and planning how we’re going to continue the science that we started.

So I love not having a typical day. My husband, for example, is an engineer and he actually builds and tests spacecraft.

So normally in his day he’s wearing something called a clean suit and that is a white plastic suit that covers all of you, your hair, your face and everything, so that as you work on spacecraft the spacecraft keep entirely clean. And he always texts me on his iPhone a little bunny symbol when he’s putting on his bunny suit. We call that a bunny suit, your clean suit. So he’s always building and testing spacecraft.

I do you have friends who are astronauts, and the astronauts will spend their day often training for a mission. And this is wonderful to watch. I’ve had a chance to watch some of this.

One of the best ways you can train for working in zero gravity—actually floating around in space—is you train in water because water allows astronauts to float as if they were weightless. And so in Houston we have an entire full-sized mock up of the space station in a giant pool of water. And the astronauts go down in spacesuits to practice how they’re going to fix the space station or how they’re going to install a new instrument on the outside.

And so you can actually watch them going underwater with a team of divers to help them and make sure that they’re safe and practicing what they’re going to do in space.

So there's a wonderful range of things to do. I mean I joke and it really is true that I bet 80 percent of my job is the same as practically any other job. There are meetings, there are budgets, there are weekly reports to do, there's answering email, there's all kinds of stuff that isn’t very dramatic.

But what has never escaped me, as far as being a scientist, is that sometimes it’s absolutely brilliant. You walk into a room and there are scientists talking about the latest discovery and it blows your mind. Or you watch astronauts training for their mission or you get a chance to go to a telescope all by yourself and make a discovery nobody else has ever made.

So maybe my job is 80 percent mundane, the same as everybody else, but there’s 20 percent of creativity and brilliance and working with the best people I know. And that’s the real reason I love being a scientist.

With over 100 active science missions, from the Hubble Space Telescope to studying ice shifts on Earth, working at NASA can be a dream come true for any astronomer or astrophysicist. Assistant director for Science Communication at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Michelle Thaller explains what it's like to work at the world's most famous space and aeronautics organization.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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