JPL News: Investigating the Mystery of Migrating '"Hot Jupiters"

The last decade has seen a bonanza of exoplanet discoveries. Nearly 2,000 exoplanets -- planets outside our solar system -- have been confirmed so far, and more than 5,000 candidate exoplanets have been identified. Many of these exotic worlds belong to a class known as "hot Jupiters." These are gas giants like Jupiter but much hotter, with orbits that take them feverishly close to their stars.

At first, hot Jupiters were considered oddballs, since we don't have anything like them in our own solar system. But as more were found, in addition to many other smaller planets that orbit very closely to their stars, our solar system started to seem like the real misfit.

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How do some gas giant planets end up so feverishly close to their stars? NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope finds new clues.
Monday, March 28, 2016 to Friday, April 15, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Spring TA Training -- 2016

JPL News: Astronomers Discover Colossal "Super Spiral" Galaxies

A strange new kind of galactic beast has been spotted in the cosmic wilderness. Dubbed "super spirals," these unprecedented galaxies dwarf our own spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, and compete in size and brightness with the largest galaxies in the universe.

Super spirals have long hidden in plain sight by mimicking the appearance of typical spiral galaxies. A new study using archived NASA data reveals these seemingly nearby objects are in fact distant, behemoth versions of everyday spirals. Rare, super spiral galaxies present researchers with the major mystery of how such giants could have arisen.

"We have found a previously unrecognized class of spiral galaxies that are as luminous and massive as the biggest, brightest galaxies we know of," says Patrick Ogle, an astrophysicist at Caltech's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) and the lead author of a new paper on the findings published in The Astrophysical Journal. "It's as if we have just discovered a new land animal stomping around that is the size of an elephant but had shockingly gone unnoticed by zoologists."

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Discovered: Colossal "Super Spiral" Galaxies
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Dubbed "super spirals," these unprecedented galaxies compete in size and brightness with the largest galaxies in the universe.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Noyes 147 (J. Holmes Sturdivant Lecture Hall) – Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics

CPET Spring Seminar with Professor Laura Tucker

Thursday, April 7, 2016
Athenaeum – The Athenaeum

Memorial Service for Charlie Barnes

Quintessentially Caltech

How best to recognize Caltech's own Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, and director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology, who has served on Caltech's faculty for 40 years? President Thomas F. Rosenbaum had the answer: what he would later call a "quintessentially Caltech conference."

And so, on Friday, February 26, more than 1,000 people gathered to hear exceptional researchers, including 5 Nobel Laureates, from across disciplines consider our future as part of the full-day "Science and Society" conference that honored the career of Zewail, whom Rosenbaum called "a wizard of scientific innovation."

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More than 1,000 people gathered to hear exceptional researchers consider our future at a conference honoring Ahmed Zewail.

Quintessentially Caltech

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Caltech: A Personal Perspective

Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Laureate
Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics, Caltech

Zewail provided an overview of his journey from a young child in Egypt to Caltech Nobel laureate. On the day he won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics, he recalled, Caltech president David Baltimore came to Zewail's house, but he refused to open the door. "We thought he was paparazzi," Zewail admitted.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The End of Disease?

Roger Kornberg, Nobel Laureate
Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor in Medicine, Stanford, School of Medicine

As advanced as we think we are, Kornberg said, scientists today understand less than 1 percent of human biology. Attracting more young people to the field of medical research is therefore critical. "Young scientists are the most likely to discover something," he said. "And numbers matter."

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Medicine

David Baltimore, Nobel Laureate
Caltech President Emeritus
Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, Caltech

The human body can survive a maximum of roughly 120 years, according to Baltimore. He predicted a future in which scientists work to push that envelope, using gene editing "to liberate us from the process of aging" and "to perfect the human body, whatever that means."

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Quantum Physics

H. Jeff Kimble, Member, National Academy of Sciences
William L. Valentine Professor and Professor of Physics, Caltech

Kimble's lecture about the future of quantum physics included predictions about quantum computing, quantum simulation, and quantum metrology. "Science helps hold us together and appreciate our sameness rather than our differences," he said.

 

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

Time, Einstein, and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe

William Phillips, Nobel Laureate
Physicist, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland

In a hands-on demonstration, Phillips put on a pair of lab goggles and dunked a variety of items—a rose, a racquetball, several inflated balloons—into a vat of liquid nitrogen to help demonstrate his overall point: that we can create super-accurate atomic clocks by cooling down atoms to astoundingly low temperatures.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

Inequality and World Economics

A. Michael Spence, Nobel Laureate
Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean, Emeritus
Stanford University Graduate School of Business

Spence discussed a number of global economic trends—including the decline in middle-class jobs and the rise of job-eliminating technologies—in a lecture that considered the disparities between rich and poor. "I'm a little worried about what's going on in the global economy right now and I tend to be an optimist," he said.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Space Exploration

Charles Elachi, NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal Recipient
Caltech Vice President
Director, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Elachi said he believes we will establish a space station on Mars and that humans will begin visiting the planet by 2030. But, he noted, "It's important that we take care of our own planet. It's the only thing we have, at least for now."

 

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How best to recognize Caltech's own Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, and director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology, who has served on Caltech's faculty for 40 years? President Thomas F. Rosenbaum had the answer: what he would later call a "quintessentially Caltech conference."

And so, on Friday, February 26, more than 1,000 people gathered to hear exceptional researchers, including 5 Nobel Laureates, from across disciplines consider our future as part of the full-day "Science and Society" conference that honored the career of Zewail, whom Rosenbaum called "a wizard of scientific innovation."

The speakers lectured on a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from space travel to global economic inequality to what happens when five inflated balloons are stuffed into a vat of liquid nitrogen. Their talks were moderated by Nathan Gardels, editor in chief of The WorldPost, and Peter Dervan, the Bren Professor of Chemistry, who noted while introducing Zewail that they have been close friends ever since their early days starting as assistant professors together at Caltech.

"What an extraordinary day," Rosenbaum said at the conclusion of the event, held in Beckman Auditorium. "It's unusual to find a series of talks at this incredibly high level of excellence—intellectually deep and pedagogically engaging."

As many of the speakers pointed out, Zewail's list of accomplishments is staggering. He has authored some 600 articles and 16 books and was sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in femtochemistry. In the post-Nobel era, he developed a new field dubbed four-dimensional electron microscopy. He has been active in global affairs, serving as the first U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East and helping establish the Zewail City of Science and Technology in Cairo, which he hopes to turn into "the Caltech of Egypt."

"Ahmed is a very special kind of scientist," said Fiona Harrison, chair of Caltech's Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, during the conference's introductory remarks. She noted the "incredible breadth of his research" and cited a colleague's observation that "Ahmed is someone who never has average goals."

Jackie Barton, chair of Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, praised Caltech for taking a chance on Zewail four decades ago, when he was a young scientist. "He had this vision," she said. "The vision was to watch the dynamics of chemical reactions, to watch reactions happening on a faster and faster time scale, indeed to watch the making and breaking of chemical bonds."

She added: "He has this intuitive sense of the dynamical motions of atoms and molecules, their coherence, or lack thereof, as the case may be. And then he has this extraordinary attention to every detail, so that he's able to meld together theory and experiment and understand that dance, that choreography of atoms and molecules as they carry out a reaction."

To further honor Zewail, Caltech presented him with a rare book of Benjamin Franklin's speeches and scientific research—on lightning rods and the aurora borealis, among other phenomena—that is signed by Rosenbaum and all of Caltech's former presidents. Caltech Provost Ed Stolper noted that it is the only book authored by Franklin that was published during his lifetime.

As Stolper noted in his introductory remarks, the gift is a fitting one for Zewail, who has come to embody the ideal of Caltech, a place "where scientists and engineers are limited only by their imagination." He added Ahmed is one of the few scientists that, like Benjamin Franklin and Linus Pauling, not only excelled in science but has made a broader impact on society through his writings and actions.

Written by Alex Roth

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Students and Postdocs Helped Make Sure LIGO Was Listening

In the months leading up to the first detection of gravitational waves by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory), announced on February 11, Caltech postdoctoral scholar Sheila Dwyer and graduate student Evan Hall spent most of their waking hours in the control room at the LIGO Hanford Observatory in the remote plains of southern Washington. The observatory is one in a pair of giant interferometers built and operated by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration with funding from the National Science Foundation to search for the waves—ripples in the fabric of space-time.

Looking something like NASA's mission control rooms, where space missions are monitored, the LIGO control room has no windows. Instead, there are many monitors displaying camera feeds and plots that provide information about how the interferometer is working. To the uninitiated, the data feeds might be unintelligible. But, Dwyer says, "If you are used to spending time in the control room, you can instantly get an idea of how the interferometer is doing the moment you step into the room."

"Hours and hours go by where they're sitting at their computer consoles, not saying a word," says Rana Adhikari, Caltech professor of physics and Dwyer and Hall's advisor. " If you don't know what's going on, you might think that nothing is happening. But what they're doing is adjusting slightly the control algorithms which make the whole thing run. "

Indeed, Dwyer and Hall are part of a relatively small team whose job it is to make sure that the interferometer in Hanford is up and running at its best. There is a similar team in place at the second LIGO observatory in Livingston, Louisiana. A number of Caltech graduate students and postdocs have played pivotal roles in getting the two interferometers operating with enough sensitivity to detect the tiny signal of gravitational waves that came through at 5:51 a.m. EDT on Monday, September 14, 2015.

"It might be hard for people to understand because LIGO is such a big project, but everything actually depends on the grad students and postdocs, their attitudes, and what's going on with them," says Adhikari. "If they're really excited and interested, and they're really good, it's surprising how quickly the whole project moves."

Why? Because the students live and breathe the project, and they become experts on the instrument. "They are there day and night, during the week and on weekends," says Adhikari. "After several months of living like that, they get to a level of expertise that can't be matched." (He should know. He himself was once a graduate student working on LIGO.)

And the project requires that degree of dedication and expertise. Consider what LIGO does: It tries to detect the tiny effect that gravitational waves, often produced trillions upon trillions of miles away, have on the earth as they race by at the speed of light. In the case of LIGO's first detection, the ripples were produced 1.3 billion years ago by a type of event that is among the universe's most energetic—the merger of two black holes. Still, those waves squeezed and stretched space and time only ever so slightly as they passed through the earth. In fact, in order to detect the gravitational waves, LIGO had to be able to detect a change in distance of about one-thousandth the diameter of a proton (10-18 meter).  

The twin LIGO interferometers are based on a fairly simple concept: laser light fired down two identical 4-kilometer lengths (situated in an "L" shape) toward identical mirrors should bounce back to their point of origin at the same time; a difference in the two arrival times could be caused by gravitational waves compressing space-time a tiny bit along one length while stretching it a similar amount along the other.

Those mirrors, and the entire apparatus within which they are contained, sit on the ever-moving earth. For the LIGO detectors to be able to pick out the motion associated with incoming gravitational waves, the interferometer must first be isolated from all other possible sources of movement—noise which could otherwise overwhelm the signal. Everything from seismic activity and wind, to trucks on the road and the hum of lights, to the minuscule quantum vibrations present in all objects can potentially jiggle the mirrors.

The current generation of LIGO detectors, installed in what is known as Advanced LIGO, marks a technical upgrade to Initial LIGO, which completed its observations in 2007, and a modified intermediate called Enhanced LIGO, which ran until 2010.  Advanced LIGO is about four times more sensitive to gravitational waves signals than Enhanced LIGO and has a sophisticated system in place to silence extraneous noise. In addition to operating in an elaborate vacuum (as LIGO always has) the system incorporates layer upon layer of noise-canceling technology based on the same underlying concept behind noise-canceling headphones. Measurements from vibration sensors on a hanging platform are fed to a computer that then tells an actuator how much to compensate, or push, in order to cancel out the noise. Another platform with slightly better sensors is suspended from the first and performs essentially the same trick. This is repeated three times, with each platform removing from 90 to 99 percent of the remaining noise so that in the end, the system currently removes all but 0.1 percent.  In addition, the mirrors are held steady by a multiple pendulum system that also helps reflect movement.

"It's a huge, huge engineering effort to make that work," says Adhikari. "Each component is a crazy system of wires and cables, and each platform has to be isolated from as much movement as possible. You need multiple, multiple sensors on each one doing feedback."

At the Livingston observatory, Denis Martynov (PhD '15), a former graduate student from Adhikari's group, spent two years tweaking the system—stabilizing the laser, aligning the mirrors precisely relative to each other, and helping to identify and then eliminate different types of noise in the instrument (something he calls "noise hunting"). For example, he and his colleagues discovered that electrostatic charge builds up on the surfaces of the interferometer's mirrors, allowing the electric field present in the instrument to push the mirrors slightly. He also worked on many of the noise-canceling techniques to improve the instrument's sensitivity.

Hall transferred many of those techniques to the Hanford facility. Although everything about the two interferometers—from their mirrors, to their suspensions, to their placement within the vacuum system—was designed to be identical, there were minor differences between the two instruments. "In some cases, the mirror position might differ by a few millimeters, or the curvature of a mirror may be slightly different," explains Hall. "Little things like that are enough to make the two detectors behave very differently." Hall and his colleagues had to figure out clever engineering tricks to make the two instruments behave like true twins.

Thanks to efforts like these, Advanced LIGO is a trillion times quieter than the motion of the earth. But its complexity also means that there are more things that can break, get out of alignment, or not work together properly.

"There are a lot of tweaks and tune-ups that have to be carried out in order to achieve good noise performance," says Hall. "However, it's not always obvious what these tweaks are. Often they can be things like a faulty piece of electronics, or a mirror that's not properly secured to an optical table. Those sorts of things take a lot of time to find, even if the fix is simple."

At 1:18 a.m. on Sunday, September 14—just a day before both LIGO facilities made their first detection—seismic waves from a series of earthquakes in Mexico affected the Hanford site. Though well over 1,000 miles away, the quakes left Dwyer and her colleagues with quite a bit of work to do. To protect the equipment, the isolation systems turn off during large seismic events, but the delicate instruments can still be disturbed. After the ground motion settled, the team began isolating all the seismic isolation platforms again, but had difficulty with one platform. While trying to recover from the earthquake and realign the optics, Dwyer and the team also found a glitch in the software that runs the system; it had been causing one of the optics to move when it was not supposed to. In all, it took the team in Hanford about 18 hours to get the instrument back up and running.

Dwyer came in that Sunday hoping to work on a pet project she hoped to finish before the start of the official observing run. "But because of the earthquake, we spent the day fixing more mundane problems, just trying to get the interferometer functional," she says.

 It is a good thing they did because the following night, both LIGO facilities were ready to hear their first gravitational waves.

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The Importance of Young LIGO Researchers
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Caltech graduate students and postdocs were crucial in getting the LIGO interferometers operating with enough sensitivity to detect gravitational waves.

The Thunder of Gravity in the Cosmos

Watson Lecture Preview

In 1916, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—vibrations in spacetime that travel at the speed of light and are produced by the most cataclysmic events in the universe, such as the collision of black holes. Over the past 45 years, scientists have been developing ever-more-sensitive detectors, which are now capable of measuring these distortions from hundreds of millions of light years away. On September 14th, two of those detectors—as part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO—picked up the gravitational vibrations of a pair of massive black holes from a billion years ago.

On Wednesday, March 9, at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium, Caltech professor of physics Rana Adhikari will describe how our understanding of the quantum physics of the very, very small has allowed us to explore the gravitational physics of the very, very large. Admission is free.

What do you do?

I am an experimental physicist. My overarching obsession is to use experiments to reveal the true nature of the universe.

We have been learning about the universe through precision experiments in the laboratory and by pushing the limits of astronomical instruments for many years. The recent discovery of gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger allows us to observe the warping of spacetime. This is a chance for us to use quantum physics to extend our knowledge of Einsteinian gravity.

Why is this important?

Our knowledge of how the universe really works comes to us when we as a people make a bold step by measuring something about nature much better than ever before. The upgraded LIGO detectors have radically expanded our view of the universe. For the first time, humanity is able to receive signals from across the universe made entirely by gravity. The dark side of the universe is being revealed for the first time.

How did you get into this line of work?

I've had great teachers and mentors! Doing laboratory work in physics and chemistry has always been the most fun thing to do and I was amazed that it is possible to do that for a living. Where else is 'unlocking the secrets of the universe' part of the job description?

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How our understanding of the quantum physics of the very, very small has allowed us to explore the gravitational physics of the very, very large.

JPL News: Versatile Instrument to Scout for Kuiper Belt Objects

At the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, astronomers are busy tinkering with a high-tech instrument that could discover a variety of objects both far from Earth and closer to home.

The Caltech HIgh-speed Multi-color camERA (CHIMERA) system is looking for objects in the Kuiper Belt, the band of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune that includes Pluto. It can also detect near-Earth asteroids and exotic forms of stars. Scientists at Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are collaborating on this instrument.

"The Kuiper Belt is a pristine remnant of the formation of our solar system," said Gregg Hallinan, CHIMERA principal investigator at Caltech. "By studying it, we can learn a large amount about how our solar system formed and how it's continuing to evolve."

"Each of CHIMERA's cameras will be taking 40 frames per second, allowing us to measure the distinct diffraction pattern in the wavelengths of light to which they are sensitive," said Leon Harding, CHIMERA instrument scientist at JPL. "This high-speed imaging technique will enable us to find new Kuiper Belt objects far less massive in size than any other ground-based survey to date."

Hallinan's CHIMERA team at Caltech and JPL published a paper led by Harding describing the instrument this week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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The CHIMERA system is looking for objects in the Kuiper Belt, the band of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune that includes Pluto.

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