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#005: Exploring the Universe with NASA’s X-ray Telescope

Kim Arcand, the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, joins Todd Stewart and Bob Calise to discuss the mysteries of the universe, what happens when massive galaxies collide, what really happens in black holes, and what space research means for life on earth. Kim explains how she went from creating data visualizations as an undergraduate at URI to working at NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Kim Arcand’s Quick-Hit Career Timeline


Kim did her undergraduate work in biology

At the University of Rhode Island, Kim did her undergraduate work in biology, mostly in pre-med, parasitology, and molecular biology. She went into computer science toward the end of her time at URI and realized that she really loved using computers to tell stories about science.

Then, Kim got a grant through the computer science department

The grant was to work with some professors in parasitology to create data visualizations to tell stories about the ways you can prevent getting ticks on you and how to remove them. Working on the project was very meaningful and turned out to be quite appealing to NASA.

Kim applied on Monster.com

Kim came across a job on Monster.com for a Web Programmer at the Smithsonian Astronomical Observatory.  At the time, it wasn’t clear that it was a NASA mission. The person that was hiring for the job, saw Kim’s portfolio and loved her unique set of skills – allowing her to fly through the interview process. The NASA hiring manager thought that her data visualization would be useful for Chandra’s mission and therefore quickly hired Kim.

Kim’s Thoughts About Space

Is it likely for other life in the universe to exist?

There are so many factors that come into play for if a planet is habitable. There are billions of stars and billions of galaxies, so the probability exponent gets out of control really quickly. Since those numbers are so high, it seems like there is an awesome opportunity for life to exist. However, there is something called the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox means that there are a lot of constraints on if there is life or not.

For example – time.

By the time we find a planet that is suitable for life, a civilization could have come and gone and we may never know. There may be aliens who have figured out time travel, but they visited earth well before us humans even existed.

What is the most recent thing you’ve seen in space?

The most recent image is from an area near a black hole. Kim is personally very fascinated with black holes. First off, black holes don’t vacuum things up – that’s just a popular mass media persona – things actually fall into them because they lose gravity.

Black holes can be giant cosmic recycling centers. There are massive jets that come out of black holes that spew material out into the universe to help form new generations of stuff.  Black holes can also be cosmic destroyers. There is one galaxy (3C321) nicknamed the “Death Star Galaxy,” which has a massive jet coming out of it from a black hole that is sending out a large beam of material, hitting a smaller neighboring galaxy – disrupting it big time.

Did you know black holes can sing? Massive black holes can have large outbursts that create a deep sound that humans can’t hear. The reason we can’t hear it is because we need particles between these ripples to be able to hear it and since there isn’t anything out in space, we can’t hear it with our own ears.

What is Kim’s favorite space object? Easy, Casiopea A!

This is Kim’s favorite because it was the first official light collected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory in 1999.  Cassiopeia A is a supernova remnant that is 11,000 light years away.  It was a star, 10-15 times the size of our sun, that ran out of fuel, collapsed into itself, and spewed its guts out into the universe. It’s very interesting to Kim because the Calcium in our bones, the Iron in our blood…the materials that make us, literally come from previous generations of stars.

Will our sun ever explode?

No. It’s too small. However, it will change in about 5 billion years.  It essentially will expand and turn into a bigger version of itself and engulf the earth.

Will we inhabit another planet?

There was a study that came out recently that showed we do not have the current capabilities to create a colony and populate Mars or our moon…or any other planet.  However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop creating technologies to get off earth. In 5 billion years, we certainly need to get off earth.

In the rest of this episode, we discuss how space research affects life on earth, the most common myth about space that people believe, how Chandra sees dark matter, and what the future of space technology will be.

 

Cas A 3D

This visualization is a three-dimensional model constructed using data from Chandra, Spitzer, and ground-based optical telescopes. Scientists determined the positions of the different telescopes, represented by the various colors represent, using the Doppler effect. That information was then put into a medical imaging program adapted for astronomical use before commercial software was used to create the final visualization. This is the first time such a multiwavelength three-dimensional model of a supernova remnant has been created.

 

Cas A First Light

Cas A is the remnant of a star that exploded about 300 years ago. The X-ray image shows an expanding shell of hot gas produced by the explosion. This gaseous shell is about 10 light years in diameter, and has a temperature of about 50 million degrees.

 

Cas A 2017

This image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the location of different elements in the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant including silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green) and iron (purple). Each of these elements produces X-rays within narrow energy ranges, allowing maps of their location to be created. The blast wave from the explosion is seen as the blue outer ring. Astronomers study supernova remnants to better understand how stars produce and then disseminate many of the elements on Earth and in the cosmos at large.

 

Connect with Kim and say hi!

Check out Kim’s Books:

Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide To Exploring the Cosmos

Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond

Coloring the Universe: An Insider’s Guide to Making Spectacular Images of Space,

Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe

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