Looking at Astrophysics & Galactic Matter and Why Stars Matter

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Professor Donald Kurtz, who many describes as “an astronomical genius” does open lectures about… space. Join us on a mind-blowing journey through astrophysics and galactic matter of interest.

Over three days, Don provided his audience with jaw-dropping lectures as well as an evening spent outside with a laser pointer where, and I’m certain, every single light in the night sky was pointed out.

Hubble's Panoramic View of a Turbulent Star-making Region.  Image Courtesy of: NASA, ESA, D. Lennon and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI), J. Anderson, S. E. de Mink, R. van der Marel, T. Sohn, and N. Walborn (STScI), N. Bastian (Excellence Cluster, Munich), L. Bedin (INAF, Padua), E. Bressert (ESO), P. Crowther (University of Sheffield), A. de Koter (University of Amsterdam), C. Evans (UKATC/STFC, Edinburgh), A. Herrero (IAC, Tenerife), N. Langer (AifA, Bonn), I. Platais (JHU), and H. Sana (University of Amsterdam)

Hubble’s Panoramic View of a Turbulent Star-making Region. Image Courtesy of: hubblesite.org

Don Kurtz is currently a Professor of Astrophysics at the United Kingdom’s University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) and focuses his research in the fields of asteroseismology and magnetic stars.


Spitzer and Hubble Create Colorful Masterpiece. Image Courtesy of: NASA, ESA, T. Megeath (University of Toledo) and M. Robberto (STScI)

The first lecture was a brief summary of Don’s research in asteroseismology, which included a definition thereof, as well as discussions around planets, exoplanets, habitable zones and the physics of interstellar motion. Don’s explanation of stars made it clear that he most likely knows everything there is to know about a star, and we got a deep understanding of the newly discovered magnetic stars which pulsate with light and sound, enabling very clever astronomers with expensive telescopes to “see into their core”, greatly enhancing star knowledge worldwide.

Don even explained the physics around the changing colours of moving stars by using the example of a common bird family the Starling, and its iridescent plumage shimmer!

The second lecture began with the solar system in which we find ourselves, as well as our accompanying planets. We learned about Venus and the dangers one would experience if hypothetically visiting a planet that close to the Sun. We learned about the giant Jupiter and many of its moons, some of which are Earth-sized and somewhat attractive. And about the constant hurricane on Jupiter’s surface, which is twice the size of Earth and has been blowing for 300 years. And how Mercury and its “one day equals two years” orbit, which uniquely results in a double sunrise from the scorching planet’s surface.

We even learned about Pluto’s extraordinarily massive, slow and oblong orbit, a whopping 248 of our years for a single journey around the Sun! By the way, is Pluto still a planet, or am I in need of a new acronym?

Then, once the incredible size of this solar system was understood, about 12 billion km wide or about 26 light hours across, Don expanded our view to the entire Milky Way Galaxy, a gigantic 110 000 light years across containing about 200 billion (yes, that’s 200 000 000 000) stars! He revealed that all the galaxies, including the Milky Way, are constantly moving through space and then explained how astronomers are able to track them, “quite precisely, much like your trackers” he added.

Most interestingly, Don illustrated many of the ways in which stars come into existence and ways in which they come to extinction. One way in which they are “born” is through starburst, which occurs when two separate galaxies collide on their edges and suspended gases, dust and other particles are thrown together. Captured images of this phenomenon are incredible.

Don’s final lecture explored similar phenomenon as we were treated to an array of real photographs taken by the famous Hubble Telescope. Using thermal imagery, ultra-light sensitivity and massive mirror lenses the Hubble has managed to capture some almost unbelievable shots from far away in space. Most enjoyed were images of nebulae, supernovas and the presence of black holes. If interested, have a look at apod.nasa.gov for NASA’s daily, fascinating photograph accompanied by a fairly simply and concise explanation.

But what really captures our interest, even beyond that of the amazing images, is the realisation that due to the infinitely sized universe and the many millions and billions of miles between us and the stars out there, looking up into the night sky is looking back into time. Hubble’s “Ultra Deep Field” image has since been reprocessed and sharpened and now reveals the farthest-ever view into deep space by allowing us to see galaxies which are confirmed to be billions of light years away. As such, the Hubble Telescope “looks back billions of years into the past”, as Don explained, while the light from those far away galaxies takes so long to reach us.

Magellanic Gemstones in the Southern Sky. Image Courtesy of: European Space Agency & NASA

Magellanic Gemstones in the Southern Sky. Image Courtesy of: European Space Agency & NASA

Although this sounds like science fiction, Hubble does in fact allow us to see into the history of the universe, and beyond, and even larger and more sophisticated telescopes, soon-to-be-built, will look even deeper. And what a beautiful place it is to keep exploring.

Some people find the vast, infinite nature of the universe unsettling. But does anyone else enjoy the fact that, despite the incredible and constantly groundbreaking work done by astronomers worldwide, this could be one of the few fields in which humans may never fully understand, but keep exploring? Whichever your view, one struggles not to ignore pondering the topic.

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