New Video Showing Construction Of The World's Largest Telescope - eso elt telescope rndering

New Video Showing Construction Of The World’s Largest Telescope

Construction is underway at Cerro Armazones – the future home of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). When construction is done the ELT will be the largest optical telescope​ ever built — a dome the size of a cathedral.

The ESOcast Light is a series of short videos bringing you the wonders of the Universe in bite-sized pieces. The ESOcast Light episodes will not be replacing the standard, longer ESOcasts, but complement them with current astronomy news and images in ESO press releases.

Present and future observatories compared to a marvel from the past. The E-ELT dome will be 100 metres in diameter, about the size of the Colosseum in Rome, but atop a 3000-metre mountaintop. For comparison, each of the four VLT unit telescopes are 25 metres high, about the size of an eight-storey building. This picture is based on a preliminary design for the E-ELT.


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FBI Mysteriously Shuts Down And Evacuates Observatory In New Mexico

Sunspot Solar Observatory Re-Opened, And Here’s Why It Closed

Last week a solar observatory was shut down by the FBI without notice, and we’re just learning about the facts today.

According to a press release from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the closure was related to a security issue in the area.

Below, you can find the release from AURA:


On September 6th, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) made the decision to temporarily vacate the Sunspot Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico as a precautionary measure while addressing a security issue. The facility closed down in an orderly fashion and is now re-opening. The residents that vacated their homes will be returning to the site, and all employees will return to work this week. 

AURA has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak. During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents. For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location. 

The decision to vacate was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat. AURA determined that moving the small number of on-site staff and residents off the mountain was the most prudent and effective action to ensure their safety. 


In light of recent developments in the investigation, we have determined there is no risk to staff, and Sunspot Solar Observatory is transitioning back to regular operations as of September 17th. Given the significant amount of publicity the temporary closure has generated, and the consequent expectation of an unusual number of visitors to the site, we are temporarily engaging a security service while the facility returns to a normal working environment. 

We recognize that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some. However, our desire to provide additional information had to be balanced against the risk that, if spread at the time, the news would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement investigation. That was a risk we could not take.

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Here’s The Blueprint For A Global Fireball Observatory – And Why We Need One

Luke Daly, University of Glasgow; Gareth Collins, Imperial College London, and Martin Suttle, Imperial College London

Bright shooting stars are one of nature’s great wonders. Like the one in the main image, which was visible from Devon in the south-west of England in June, these fireballs are caused by space rocks hitting Earth’s atmosphere. The friction forces them to slow down, producing a tremendous amount of heat at the same time. If the rock is big enough, a fragment will survive this fiery transition and fall to Earth as a meteorite.

Planetary scientists study these rocks to extract clues as to how our solar system formed. But this work is complicated by the fact that we don’t know where in the solar system most of Earth’s 50,000 or so meteorites came from.

To improve this situation, you have to determine a new fireball’s orbit once it breaches Earth’s atmosphere. This means observing it from multiple angles. You then ideally want to recover the meteorite before the weather changes the chemistry of the sample – usually in the first shower of rain. A new network of cameras is being set up in the UK to help in this endeavour, phase two of a global network that started five years ago in Australia.

Fireball hunting

Meteorites are arriving from outer space all the time. About 50 tonnes of extraterrestrial material enters Earth’s atmosphere each year. Most are sand-sized particles known as cosmic dust, including the majority of the Perseid meteor shower that took place earlier in August.

But even over a relatively small space like the UK, about 20 meteorites of a searchable size land each year – of which the Devon fireball was a good example. Most are barely 10g, about the size of a six-sided dice. Two or three will be bigger; usually up to a kilogram in mass or the size of a tennis ball.

This is but a remnant of the 6,000 to 20,000 meteorites in the same size range that we see each year in the land mass of the world as a whole. Yet observing and finding these is still no mean feat. To date, only around 30 meteorites have been recovered after their fireball was observed. This has mostly been through remote camera networks including in Canada, France, the Czech Republic, Finland and Australia.

Such networks are continuously imaging the night sky over a huge area, which is ideal for tracking orbits back to space and reaching the landing site fast. I used to work as a researcher for the Desert Fireball Network in Australia. Since it was set up five years ago, its 52 cameras have found four meteorites.

One of the cameras in the Nullarbor Desert in southern Australia.

The project to extend the Desert Fireball Network has already seen three high-resolution cameras installed in different parts of England in recent months, along with sophisticated image-processing software. A further seven will be in place by next summer, in a collaboration between Imperial College London, University of Glasgow, the Open University, the Natural History Museum and Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

The new network will track any fast-moving object flying across the skies above the UK, including things like satellites. It will complement an existing network of 30 video cameras called the UK Meteor Observation Network, which is already run by citizen scientists to spot fireballs and smaller meteors. UKMON focuses on capturing images rather than meteorite recovery. The two operations will share data, enhancing one another’s abilities. There are also plans to extend the new network to the US, South America, New Zealand and Saharan Africa in the next few years.

The challenges facing the UK operation are quite different to those in Australia. Where the Australian network needs to be able to survive unattended in the brutal desert heat, the UK cameras will work in a distinctly colder, wetter climate.

They will have to contend with light pollution, unpredictable weather and significant cloud cover, reducing the number of nights they will be able to take images. But most problematic of all is the ground itself. The Australian outback is ideal for meteorite hunting: uniformly red and with very little vegetation, meaning you can spot a little black rock from several hundred metres. By contrast, the UK’s lush vegetation and woodland can easily camouflage meteorites.

Yet the UK network also has advantages. Most cameras will be within a day’s drive and connected to the internet to provide instant warnings when a camera needs some tender loving care – the Australian cameras tend to be on rougher terrain that takes longer to reach and many are not internet-connected. At the same time, the UK population density is such that quite a lot of people are likely to spot a large fireball and take pictures on their smartphones.

Apps upside your head

Unlocking the assistance of these 65m independent autonomous observatories in the UK is part of the project. The Australian fireball team has developed an app in conjunction with US software consultancy ThoughtWorks. Known as Fireballs in the Sky and free for Apple and Android phones alike, it allows anyone to become a citizen scientist. Users can report any fireball, as well as getting details of the next big meteor shower and where in the sky to look for it – and here’s a grab of what it looks like.

The app.

The app is already up and running. In fact, the latest recovered meteorite in Australia, called Dingle Dell, was initially observed by a citizen scientist using it.

This made it possible to find the pristine meteorite before delicate minerals inside it were irreparably altered or washed away by rain, revealing extraterrestrial salts formed early in the solar system that usually quickly disappear on the surface of Earth. These could potentially tell us things about the origins of life and water on our planet.

The ConversationThese kinds of exciting discoveries give a taste of why it will be a race against time to recover the first meteorite tracked by the UK network. So do we have any volunteers?

Luke Daly, Research Associate, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow; Gareth Collins, Reader in Planetary Science, Imperial College London, and Martin Suttle, Researcher in Meteoritics and Planetary Science, Imperial College London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Telescope Captures Most Detailed Image Of Any Star Beyond The Sun

Telescope Captures Most Detailed Image Of Any Star Beyond The Sun

Antares is a star that lies 550 light-years from planet Earth. Recently, the VLT (Very Large Telescope) captured the most detailed image ever produced of a star other than our sun. Findings from the image research have been published in the journal Nature.

Antares is approximately 700 times larger than the sun and makes it’s home in the constellation of Scorpius. As a red super-giant, the star is in its later phases of lifecycle and is currently losing stellar material into outer space. The star will go supernova eventually. Red supergiants can be up to 10 times more massive than our sun and are the largest types of stars in our known universe.

The image was produced by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Researchers there mapped the star’s surface and it’s motions.

Lead author of the paper, Keiichi Ohnaka, tells CBC that “Antares is losing material not in a smooth or ordered way. But the velocity maps show that it’s very clumpy and turbulent and random. We don’t know what the mechanism is behind this turbulent motion.”

Below you can see the image map Ohnaka speaks of.

This map shows the motions of materials across Antares’ surface. (ESO/K. Ohnaka)


The mapping shows where clumps of solar energy are leaving the star, but it does not give us the causality; “We still don’t know what is really pushing the material, but at least we know how it’s losing it,” Ohnaka said.

Telescope Captures Antares- Most Detailed Image Of Any Star Beyond The Sun

Artist impression of red super-giant Antares. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Being able to image stars beyond our sun expands the horizons of telescopic imagery. The team already has it’s next targets.

In the future researchers will look at R Doradus which is a star located in the constellation of Dorado (southern hemisphere). R Doradus is similar to our sun.

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The Tiny Moon Phobos Is Photographed During Its Quick Trip Around Mars

Hubble Spots Phobos In Picture Of Mars

When the Hubble Space Telescope observed Mars near opposition in May, 2016, a sneaky companion photobombed the picture. Phobos, the Greek personification of fear, is one of two tiny moons orbiting Mars. In 13 exposures over 22 minutes, Hubble captured a timelapse of Phobos moving through its 7-hour 39-minute orbit.

Phobos GIF’d. (NASA/JPL)

Phobos may be a pile of rubble that is held together by a thin crust. It may have formed as dust and rocks encircling Mars were drawn together by gravity. Or, it may have experienced a more violent birth, where a large body smashing into Mars flung pieces skyward, and those pieces were brought together by gravity. Perhaps an existing moon was destroyed, reduced to the rubble that would become Phobos.

Hubble took the images of Phobos orbiting the Red Planet on May 12, 2016, when Mars was 50 million miles from Earth. This was just a few days before the planet passed closer to Earth in its orbit than it had in the past 11 years.

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Kepler Telescope Finds 10 More Possible Life-Friendly Planets

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Astronomers on Monday added 219 candidates to the growing list of planets beyond the solar system, 10 of which may be about the same size and temperature as Earth, boosting the chances for life.

Scientists found the planet candidates in a final batch of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope observations of 200,000 sample stars in the constellation Cygnus.

The candidates include 10 newly discovered rocky worlds that are properly distanced from their parent stars for water, if it exists, to pool on their surfaces. Scientists believe liquid water is a key ingredient for life.

“An important question for us is, ‘Are we alone?'” Kepler program scientist Mario Perez said in a conference call with reporters. “Maybe Kepler today is telling us indirectly … that we are not alone.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched the Kepler telescope in 2009 to learn if Earth-like planets are common or rare. With the final analysis of Kepler data in hand, scientists said they will now work on answering that question, a key step in assessing the chance that life exists beyond Earth.

During a four-year mission, Kepler found 2,335 confirmed planets and another 1,699 candidates, bringing its tally to 4,034. That number includes about 50 worlds that may be about the same size and temperature as Earth.

FILE PHOTO: An artist’s composite of the Kepler telescope is seen in this undated NASA handout image. REUTERS/NASA/Handout/File Photo via Reuters


Including other telescope surveys, scientists have confirmed the existence of nearly 3,500 planets beyond the solar system.

Kepler’s data also provided a new way to assess whether a planet has a solid surface, like Earth, or is made mostly of gas, like Neptune. The distinction will help scientists home in on potential Earth-like planets and better the odds for finding life.

The Kepler team found that planets which are about 1.75 times the size of Earth and smaller tend to be rocky, while those two- to 3.5 times the size of Earth become gas-shrouded worlds like Neptune.

“It’s like finding what we thought was a single species of animal is really two different things,” said Benjamin Fulton, a graduate student in astronomy who analyzed the Kepler data.


So far, these planets, which scientists refer to as “super-Earths” and “mini-Neptunes,” have not been found in Earth’s solar system, though scientists are on the hunt for a potential ninth planet far beyond Pluto.

“It is interesting that we don’t have what appears to be the most common type of planet in the galaxy,” Fulton said.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)

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ASKAP Telescope SpeedsUp The Hunt For New Fast Radio Bursts

ASKAP Telescope Speeds Up The Hunt For New Fast Radio Bursts

Keith Bannister, CSIRO and Jean-Pierre Macquart, Curtin University

They’re mysterious bursts of radio waves from space that are over in a fraction of a second. Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are thought to occur many thousands of times a day, but since their first detection by the Parkes radio telescope a decade ago only 30 have been observed.

But once the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) joined the hunt we had our first new FRB after just three and half days of observing. This was soon followed by a further two FRBs. And the telescope is not even fully operational yet.

The first FRB that ASKAP found. Bottom panel shows a grey scale image of what the FRB looks like. It’s less than 1 millisecond long and we detect it over a range of frequencies from 1,100 MHz to 1,400 MHz. The top panel shows what the FRB looks like when you add up all the frequency channels.
Ryan Shannon (CSIRO/Curtin University), Author provided

The fact that ASKAP detects FRBs so readily means it is now poised to tackle the big questions.

One of these is what causes an FRB in the first place. They are variously attributed by hard-nosed and self-respecting physicists to everything from microwave ovens, to the accidental transmissions of extraterrestrials making their first baby steps in interstellar exploration.

The astounding properties of these FRBs have so enthralled astronomers that, in the decade since their discovery, there are more theories than observed bursts.


A distant flash

FRBs are remarkable because they are outrageously bright in the radio spectrum yet appear extremely distant. As far as astronomers can tell, they come from a long way away – halfway across the observable universe or more. Because of that, whatever makes FRBs must be pretty special, unlike anything astronomers have ever seen.

What has astronomers really excited is the fossil record imprinted on each burst by the matter it encounters during its multibillion-year crossing of the universe.

Matter in space exerts a tiny amount drag on the radio waves as they hurtle across the universe, like the air drags on a fast-moving plane. But here’s the handy bit: the longer the radio waves, the more the drag.

By the time the radio waves arrive at our telescopes, the shorter waves arrive just before the longer ones. By measuring the time delay between the short waves and the longer ones, astronomers can work out how much matter a given burst has travelled through on its journey from whatever made it, to our telescope.

If we can find enough bursts, we can work out how much ordinary matter – the stuff you and I and all visible matter is made of – exists in the universe, and tally up its mass.

The best guess so far is that we are missing roughly half of all the normal matter, with the rest lying in the vast voids between the galaxies — the very regions so readily probed by FRBs.

Are FRBs the weigh stations of the cosmos?

Difficult to find and harder to pinpoint

There are a few reasons why we still have so many questions about FRBs. First, they are tricky to find. It takes the Parkes telescope around two weeks of constant watching to find a burst.

Worse, even when you’ve found one, many radio telescopes like Parkes can only pinpoint its location in the sky to a region about the size of the full Moon. If you want to work out which galaxy an FRB came from, you have hundreds to choose from within that area.

The ideal FRB detector needs both a large field of view and the ability to pinpoint events to a region one thousandth the area of the Moon. Until recently, no such radio telescope existed.

A jewel in the desert

Now it does in ASKAP, a radio telescope being built by the CSIRO in Murchison Shire, 370km northeast of Geraldton in Western Australia. It’s actually a network of 36 antennas, each 12 metres in diameter.

ASKAP antennas during fly’s-eye observing. All the antennas point in different directions.
Kim Steele (Curtin University), Author provided

ASKAP is a very special machine, because each antenna is equipped with an innovative CSIRO-designed receiver called a phased-array feed. While most radio telescopes see just one patch of sky at time, ASKAP’s phased-array feeds see 36 different patches of sky simultaneously. This is great for finding FRBs because the more sky you can see, the better chance you have of finding them.

To find lots of FRBs we need to cast an even wider net. Normally, ASKAP dishes all point in the same direction. This is great if you’re making images or want to find faint FRBs.

Thanks to recent evidence from Parkes, we realised there might be some super-bright FRBs too.

So we took a hint from nature. In the same way that the segments of a fly’s eye allow it to see all around it, we pointed all our antennas in lots of different directions. This fly’s-eye observing mode enabled us to see a total patch of sky about the size of 1,000 full Moons.

That’s how we discovered this new FRB within days of starting, and using just eight of ASKAP’s total of 36 antennas.

Radio image of the sky where ASKAP found its first FRB. The blue circles are the 36 patches of the sky that ASKAP antenna number 5 (named Gagurla in the local Wadjarri language) was watching at the time the FRB was detected. The red smudge marks where the FRB came from. The black dots are galaxies, far, far, away. The full Moon is shown to scale, in the bottom corner.
Ian Heywood (CSIRO), Author provided


When fully operational

So far, in fly’s-eye mode we have made no attempt to combine the signals from all the antennas. ASKAP’s real party piece will be to point all the telescopes in the same direction and combine the signals from all the antennas.

This will give us a precise position for every single burst, enabling us to identify the host galaxy of each FRB and measure its exact distance.

The ConversationArmed with this information, we will be able to activate our network of cosmic weigh stations. At this point we will be able to investigate a fundamental question that has been plaguing astronomers for more than 20 years: where is the missing matter in the universe?

File 20170519 12231 tzggyf
ASKAP at night.
Alex Cherney/, Author provided

Keith Bannister, Astronomer, CSIRO and Jean-Pierre Macquart, Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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New Horizons Captured This Image Of A Huge Lava Lake On Jupiter's Moon Io

New Horizons Finds A Massive Lava Lake On Jupiter’s Moon Io

A paper recently published in Nature details the research of a massive ‘lava lake’ on the surface of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.

The lava lake, known as Loki Patera, is the largest on the surface at 200 kilometers (125 miles) across. It’s so big, that it dwarves lava lakes seen here on Earth, where our largest known lava lake is a mere 200 meters (600 feet) in width.


Using a process known as occultation, a team from the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) was able to indirectly observe the motion of the waves across Loki Patera to infer the size of the lake. Using this process, they were able to infer that the lake was shifting in temperature from 270 Kelvin to 330 Kelvin which suggests an “overturn” in the volcanic process – that can lead to the formation of a crust, or land.

An occultation is an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer.

New Horizons Captured This Image Of A Huge Lava Lake On Jupiter's Moon Io

A new horizons view of Io.


As the team watched Europa cross Io’s path using the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory in Arizona, they were able to get a full look at Loki Patera. The occultation process blocked out all of the external light and allowed for the team to focus only on the heat emitted from the Lake, an impressive feat considering there is over 400 active volcanoes on the surface of Io.


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World's Largest X-Ray Laser Set To Reveal The Atomic Universe

World’s Largest X-Ray Laser Set To Reveal The Atomic Universe

Like the quantum realm in Antman, the atomic universe is teeny-tiny and super cool. European XFEL, the world’s largest X-Ray Laser is nearing completion. When it’s completed the laser will be used to capture images of elements on the atomic scale, a feat that was ‘impossible’ up until today.

Researchers from the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Germany are currently preparing the laser for use. They just reached a significant milestone in the creation of the device by successfully firing electrons through a particle accelerator 2.1 kilometers ( or 1.3 miles) in length.

The successful firing of electrons is one of the final tests in the XFEL’s R&D. When it’s fully operational, the European XFEL will produce 27,000 X-ray laser flashes in just one second. These flashes are so rapid, that they will produce never before seen images at the atomic level.

“The first experiments are within reach, and I am quite excited about the discoveries ahead of us.”
– Helmut Dosch, Chairman of the DESY Board of Director


Findings at the atomic level have profound significance on our understanding of the macro-level world. One such example is our understanding of common diseases and virus’; details at the atomic level will help medical practitioners treat and cure diseases based on visibility at the molecular scale.

As we deepen our understanding of our world at the atomic level, we increase our knowledge of our overall selves and environments.


Antman’s Quantum Realm

The European XFEL


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Hubble Spots Auroras On Uranus

Don’t laugh, this is serious.

NASA has spotted unique, never before seen Auroras on Uranus, and this is not the butt end of some foolish joke.

Above is a composite image of Uranus by Voyager 2 and two different observations made by Hubble — one for the ring and one for the auroras.

Ever since Voyager 2 beamed home spectacular images of the planets in the 1980s, planet-lovers have been hooked on auroras on other planets. Auroras are caused by streams of charged particles like electrons that come from various origins such as solar winds, the planetary ionosphere, and moon volcanism. They become caught in powerful magnetic fields and are channeled into the upper atmosphere, where their interactions with gas particles, such as oxygen or nitrogen, set off spectacular bursts of light.


The auroras on Jupiter and Saturn are well-studied, but not much is known about the auroras of the giant ice planet Uranus. In 2011, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope became the first Earth-based telescope to snap an image of the auroras on Uranus. In 2012 and 2014 a team led by an astronomer from Paris Observatory took a second look at the auroras using the ultraviolet capabilities of the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) installed on Hubble.

They tracked the interplanetary shocks caused by two powerful bursts of solar wind traveling from the sun to Uranus, then used Hubble to capture their effect on Uranus’ auroras — and found themselves observing the most intense auroras ever seen on the planet. By watching the auroras over time, they collected the first direct evidence that these powerful shimmering regions rotate with the planet. They also re-discovered Uranus’ long-lost magnetic poles, which were lost shortly after their discovery by Voyager 2 in 1986 due to uncertainties in measurements and the featureless planet surface.


Originally published at NASA

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Hubble Discovers Runaway Star, Indicates Breakup Of Multiple-Star System

As British royal families fought the War of the Roses in the 1400s for control of England’s throne, a grouping of stars was waging its own contentious skirmish — a star war far away in the Orion Nebula.

The stars were battling each other in a gravitational tussle, which ended with the system breaking apart and at least three stars being ejected in different directions. The speedy, wayward stars went unnoticed for hundreds of years until, over the past few decades, two of them were spotted in infrared and radio observations, which could penetrate the thick dust in the Orion Nebula.

Three-panel hubble image shows star motion
This three-frame illustration shows how a grouping of stars can break apart, flinging the members into space. Panel 1: members of a multiple-star system orbiting each other. Panel 2: two of the stars move closer together in their orbits. Panel 3: the closely orbiting stars eventually either merge or form a tight binary. This event releases enough gravitational energy to propel all of the stars in the system outward, as shown in the third panel.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI)

The observations showed that the two stars were traveling at high speeds in opposite directions from each other. The stars’ origin, however, was a mystery. Astronomers traced both stars back 540 years to the same location and suggested they were part of a now-defunct multiple-star system. But the duo’s combined energy, which is propelling them outward, didn’t add up. The researchers reasoned there must be at least one other culprit that robbed energy from the stellar toss-up.

Now NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has helped astronomers find the final piece of the puzzle by nabbing a third runaway star. The astronomers followed the path of the newly found star back to the same location where the two previously known stars were located 540 years ago. The trio reside in a small region of young stars called the Kleinmann-Low Nebula, near the center of the vast Orion Nebula complex, located 1,300 light-years away.

“The new Hubble observations provide very strong evidence that the three stars were ejected from a multiple-star system,” said lead researcher Kevin Luhman of Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. “Astronomers had previously found a few other examples of fast-moving stars that trace back to multiple-star systems, and therefore were likely ejected. But these three stars are the youngest examples of such ejected stars. They’re probably only a few hundred thousand years old. In fact, based on infrared images, the stars are still young enough to have disks of material leftover from their formation.”

All three stars are moving extremely fast on their way out of the Kleinmann-Low Nebula, up to almost 30 times the speed of most of the nebula’s stellar inhabitants. Based on computer simulations, astronomers predicted that these gravitational tugs-of-war should occur in young clusters, where newborn stars are crowded together. “But we haven’t observed many examples, especially in very young clusters,” Luhman said. “The Orion Nebula could be surrounded by additional fledging stars that were ejected from it in the past and are now streaming away into space.”

The team’s results will appear in the March 20, 2017 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Luhman stumbled across the third speedy star, called “source x,” while he was hunting for free-floating planets in the Orion Nebula as a member of an international team led by Massimo Robberto of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The team used the near-infrared vision of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to conduct the survey. During the analysis, Luhman was comparing the new infrared images taken in 2015 with infrared observations taken in 1998 by the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). He noticed that source x had changed its position considerably, relative to nearby stars over the 17 years between Hubble images, indicating the star was moving fast, about 130,000 miles per hour.

hubble nebula image with annotations and insets
The image by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a grouping of young stars, called the Trapezium Cluster (center). The box just above the Trapezium Cluster outlines the location of the three stars. A close-up of the stars is top right. The birthplace of the multi-star system is marked “initial position.” Two of the stars — labeled BN, and “I,” for source I — were discovered decades ago. Source I is embedded in thick dust and cannot be seen. The third star, “x,” for source x, was recently discovered to have moved noticeably between 1998 and 2015, as shown in the inset image at bottom right.
Credits: NASA, ESA, K. Luhman (Penn State University), and M. Robberto (STScI)

The astronomer then looked at the star’s previous locations, projecting its path back in time. He realized that in the 1470s source x had been near the same initial location in the Kleinmann-Low Nebula as two other runaway stars, Becklin-Neugebauer (BN) and “source I.”

BN was discovered in infrared images in 1967, but its rapid motion wasn’t detected until 1995, when radio observations measured the star’s speed at 60,000 miles per hour. Source I is traveling roughly 22,000 miles per hour. The star had only been detected in radio observations; because it is so heavily enshrouded in dust, its visible and infrared light is largely blocked.

The three stars were most likely kicked out of their home when they engaged in a game of gravitational billiards, Luhman said. What often happens when a multiple system falls apart is that two of the member stars move close enough to each other that they merge or form a very tight binary. In either case, the event releases enough gravitational energy to propel all of the stars in the system outward. The energetic episode also produces a massive outflow of material, which is seen in the NICMOS images as fingers of matter streaming away from the location of the embedded source I star.

Future telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to observe a large swath of the Orion Nebula. By comparing images of the nebula taken by the Webb telescope with those made by Hubble years earlier, astronomers hope to identify more runaway stars from other multiple-star systems that broke apart.

Originally published at NASA

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NASA Releases New Kepler Data On The TRAPPIST-1 System

A batch of raw data from the TRAPPIST-1 find has been released by NASA’s Kepler. You can find this data in whole below, and on the Kepler website.

The use of this data will enable astronomers on the ground to study the star system in great detail, including the understanding of TRAPPIST-1h, the 7th planet in the system whose properties are not yet fully uncovered.

The raw, uncalibrated data files for K2 Campaign 12 are now available for download from the data archive at MAST.

The raw files are made public straight away to aid astronomers in preparing proposals due this month to use ground-based telescopes to further investigate TRAPPIST-1. These are not the project’s true data products: by late May, the routine pipeline processing of the K2 data will be completed and vetted, and the fully calibrated data made available.

While we recommend that scientists only use the pipeline-processed data products in journal papers, we do encourage our community to share their understanding of the raw data with the public by blogging or tweeting tutorials and analyses. This public TRAPPIST-1 data set offers a unique opportunity to let a wider audience witness the process scientific discovery.

The remainder of this blog post summarizes the caveats associated with the raw data, describes the availability of preliminary Target Pixel Files, and offers a quick-look at the TRAPPIST-1 light curve.

Raw data caveats

The use of the raw, uncalibrated data files requires an intimate understanding of their format and caveats. In particular:

  • the raw data are not flat-fielded, bias-subtracted, or smear-corrected;
  • cadences of poor quality, e.g. due to thruster firings, are not flagged;
  • the data are formatted in a non-standard way and require reformatting.

Moreover, during Campaign 12, a cosmic ray event reset the spacecraft’s onboard software causing a five-day break in science data collection from Feb 1st through Feb 6th. The benign event is the fourth occurrence of a cosmic ray susceptibility since launch in March 2009 and the spacecraft remains healthy and operating nominally otherwise.

Pseudo Target Pixel Files

TRAPPIST-1 was observed using a 11×11 short-cadence mask with EPIC ID 200164267 from Dec 15th, 2016, through Mar 4th, 2017. To help the community explore this target, the Guest Observer Office reformatted the raw data into a pseudo Target Pixel Files using the Kadenza tool.

The files are available for download from Zenodo (DOI 10.5281/zenodo.375796):

Compared to traditional Target Pixel Files, the FLUX values in these files are not corrected for smear or bias, and not all header keywords are populated.

Quick look at TRAPPIST-1

A quick-look lightcurve of the long cadence data for TRAPPIST-1 reveals sinusoidal patterns due to star spots, and at least 6 planets:

The pseudo Target Pixel Files above can also be converted into movies using the k2flix tool, which shows TRAPPIST-1 to be at the center of the target mask:

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Kepler Provides Another Peek At TRAPPIST-1

On Feb. 22, astronomers announced that the ultra-cool dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1, hosts a total of seven Earth-size planets that are likely rocky, a discovery made by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in combination with ground-based telescopes. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also has been observing this star since December 2016. Today these additional data about TRAPPIST-1 from Kepler are available to the scientific community.

During the period of Dec. 15, 2016 to March 4, the Kepler spacecraft, operating as the K2 mission, collected data on the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. These additional observations are expected to allow astronomers to refine the previous measurements of six planets, pin down the orbital period and mass of the seventh and farthest planet, TRAPPIST-1h, and learn more about the magnetic activity of the host star.

“Scientists and enthusiasts around the world are invested in learning everything they can about these Earth-size worlds,” said Geert Barentsen, K2 research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “Providing the K2 raw data as quickly as possible was a priority to give investigators an early look so they could best define their follow-up research plans. We’re thrilled that this will also allow the public to witness the process of discovery.”

The release of the raw, uncalibrated data collected will aid astronomers in preparing proposals due this month to use telescopes on Earth next winter to further investigate TRAPPIST-1. By late May, the routine processing of the data will be completed and the fully calibrated data will be made available at the public archive.

The observation period, known as K2 Campaign 12, provides 74 days of monitoring. This is the longest, nearly continuous set of observations of TRAPPIST-1 yet, and provides researchers with an opportunity to further study the gravitational interaction between the seven planets, and search for planets that may remain undiscovered in the system.

TRAPPIST-1 wasn’t always on the radar to study. In fact, the initial coordinates for the patch of sky defined as Campaign 12 were set in Oct. 2015. That was before the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 were known to exist, so Kepler would have just missed the region of space that is home to this newfound star system of interest.

But in May 2016, when the discovery of three of TRAPPIST-1’s planets was first announced, the teams at NASA and Ball Aerospace quickly reworked the calculations and rewrote and tested the commands that would be programmed into the spacecraft’s operating system to make a slight pointing adjustment for Campaign 12. By Oct. 2016, Kepler was ready and waiting to begin the study of our intriguing neighbor in the constellation Aquarius.

“We were lucky that the K2 mission was able to observe TRAPPIST-1. The observing field for Campaign 12 was set when the discovery of the first planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 was announced, and the science community had already submitted proposals for specific targets of interest in that field,” said Michael Haas, science office director for the Kepler and K2 missions at Ames. “The unexpected opportunity to further study the TRAPPIST-1 system was quickly recognized and the agility of the K2 team and science community prevailed once again.”

The added refinements to the previous measurements of the known planets and any additional planets that may be discovered in the K2 data will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies of the neighboring TRAPPIST-1 worlds using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

During Campaign 12, a cosmic ray event reset the spacecraft’s onboard software causing a five-day break in science data collection. The benign event is the fourth occurrence of cosmic ray susceptibility since launch in March 2009. The spacecraft remains healthy and is operating nominally.

Originally published at NASA

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NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

The new results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Using Spitzer data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated.

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated – scientists believe it could be an icy, “snowball-like” world, but further observations are needed.

“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium. “It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”

This artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View full image and caption

In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star – classified as an ultra-cool dwarf – is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets also are very close to each other. If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing – transits – of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system. Engineers optimized Spitzer’s ability to observe transiting planets during Spitzer’s “warm mission,” which began after the spacecraft’s coolant ran out as planned after the first five years of operations.

“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Following up on the Spitzer discovery, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has initiated the screening of four of the planets, including the three inside the habitable zone. These observations aim at assessing the presence of puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres, typical for gaseous worlds like Neptune, around these planets.

In May 2016, the Hubble team observed the two innermost planets, and found no evidence for such puffy atmospheres. This strengthened the case that the planets closest to the star are rocky in nature.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also is studying the TRAPPIST-1 system, making measurements of the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft’s observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system. The K2 observations conclude in early March and will be made available on the public archive.

Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center, at Caltech, in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at Caltech/IPAC. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

The TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultra-cool dwarf, has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. This artist’s concept appeared on the cover of the journal Nature on Feb. 23, 2017.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Event Horizon Telescope Will Begin The Most Detailed Observation Of A Blackhole In April

Event Horizon Telescope Will Begin The Most Detailed Observation Of A Blackhole In April

The Event Horizon Telescope is set to begin operations in April with the goal of producing the most detailed look of a black hole to date.

Sagittarius A, known as the A-Star, will be the subject of the study. It’s a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The feat will link the power of nine radio telescopes to act as a single planet sized telescope. The A-Star weighs in at 4 million suns, is 44 million kilometers in diameter, and is 26,000 light years from Earth.

“There’s great excitement. We’ve been fashioning our virtual telescope for almost two decades now, and in April we’re going to make the observations that we think have the first real chance of bringing a black hole’s event horizon into focus.”

– Sheperd Doeleman, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, BBC News

The observation will take place during the dates of April 5th, and April 14th which should provide a direct view of the edge of a black hole, the event horizon. It’s wholly unclear what this will look like, as black holes can’t be seen directly. Instead, scientists will be looking at the event horizon the visible region that separates  the black hole from the cosmos.

Simulations of what the event horizon should look like. (From the EHT Team)

The telescopes in the study will act together as one and link up to produce one single high-resolution image. The telescopes are located across the globe in the US, Spain, Chile, and the South Pole.

“Now, it could be that we will see something different. As I’ve said before, it’s never a good idea to bet against Einstein, but if we did see something that was very different from what we expect we would have to reassess the theory of gravity. I don’t expect that is going to happen, but anything could happen and that’s the beauty of it.”

– Sheperd Doeleman, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, BBC News

The general consensus (based on physical models) is that we should see light fringing around the event horizon, but the reality remains wholly uncertain until these images have been produced.


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Hubble Detects Giant 'Cannonball' Shooting From Star

Hubble Detects Giant ‘Cannonball’ Shooting From Star

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has detected superhot blobs of gas, each twice as massive as the planet Mars, being ejected near a dying star. The plasma balls are zooming so fast through space it would take only 30 minutes for them to travel from Earth to the moon. This stellar “cannon fire” has continued once every 8.5 years for at least the past 400 years, astronomers estimate.

The fireballs present a puzzle to astronomers, because the ejected material could not have been shot out by the host star, called V Hydrae. The star is a bloated red giant, residing 1,200 light-years away, which has probably shed at least half of its mass into space during its death throes. Red giants are dying stars in the late stages of life that are exhausting their nuclear fuel that makes them shine. They have expanded in size and are shedding their outer layers into space.

This four-panel graphic illustrates how the binary-star system V Hydrae is launching balls of plasma into space. Panel 1 shows the two stars orbiting each other. One of the stars is nearing the end of its life and has swelled in size, becoming a red giant. In panel 2, the smaller star’s orbit carries the star into the red giant’s expanded atmosphere. As the star moves through the atmosphere, it gobbles up material from the red giant, which settles into a disk around the star. The buildup of material reaches a tipping point and is eventually ejected as blobs of hot plasma along the star’s spin axis, shown in panel 3. This ejection process is repeated every eight years, the time it takes for the orbiting star to make another pass through the bloated red giant’s envelope, shown in panel 4.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

The current best explanation suggests the plasma balls were launched by an unseen companion star. According to this theory, the companion would have to be in an elliptical orbit that carries it close to the red giant’s puffed-up atmosphere every 8.5 years. As the companion enters the bloated star’s outer atmosphere, it gobbles up material. This material then settles into a disk around the companion, and serves as the launching pad for blobs of plasma, which travel at roughly a half-million miles per hour.

This star system could be the archetype to explain a dazzling variety of glowing shapes uncovered by Hubble that are seen around dying stars, called planetary nebulae, researchers say. A planetary nebula is an expanding shell of glowing gas expelled by a star late in its life.

“We knew this object had a high-speed outflow from previous data, but this is the first time we are seeing this process in action,” said Raghvendra Sahai of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, lead author of the study. “We suggest that these gaseous blobs produced during this late phase of a star’s life help make the structures seen in planetary nebulae.”

Hubble observations over the past two decades have revealed an enormous complexity and diversity of structure in planetary nebulae. The telescope’s high resolution captured knots of material in the glowing gas clouds surrounding the dying stars. Astronomers speculated that these knots were actually jets ejected by disks of material around companion stars that were not visible in the Hubble images. Most stars in our Milky Way galaxy are members of binary systems. But the details of how these jets were produced remained a mystery.

“We want to identify the process that causes these amazing transformations from a puffed-up red giant to a beautiful, glowing planetary nebula,” Sahai said. “These dramatic changes occur over roughly 200 to 1,000 years, which is the blink of an eye in cosmic time.”

Sahai’s team used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to conduct observations of V Hydrae and its surrounding region over an 11-year period, first from 2002 to 2004, and then from 2011 to 2013. Spectroscopy decodes light from an object, revealing information on its velocity, temperature, location, and motion.

The data showed a string of monstrous, super-hot blobs, each with a temperature of more than 17,000 degrees Fahrenheit – almost twice as hot as the surface of the sun.

The researchers compiled a detailed map of the blobs’ location, allowing them to trace the first behemoth clumps back to 1986. “The observations show the blobs moving over time,” Sahai said. “The STIS data show blobs that have just been ejected, blobs that have moved a little farther away, and blobs that are even farther away.” STIS detected the giant structures as far away as 37 billion miles away from V Hydrae, more than eight times farther away than the Kuiper Belt of icy debris at the edge of our solar system is from the sun.

The blobs expand and cool as they move farther away, and are then not detectable in visible light. But observations taken at longer sub-millimeter wavelengths in 2004, by the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, revealed fuzzy, knotty structures that may be blobs launched 400 years ago, the researchers said.

Based on the observations, Sahai and his colleagues Mark Morris of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Samantha Scibelli of the State University of New York at Stony Brook developed a model of a companion star with an accretion disk to explain the ejection process.

“This model provides the most plausible explanation because we know that the engines that produce jets are accretion disks,” Sahai explained. “Red giants don’t have accretion disks, but many most likely have companion stars, which presumably have lower masses because they are evolving more slowly. The model we propose can help explain the presence of bipolar planetary nebulae, the presence of knotty jet-like structures in many of these objects, and even multipolar planetary nebulae. We think this model has very wide applicability.”

A surprise from the STIS observation was that the disk does not fire the monster clumps in exactly the same direction every 8.5 years. The direction flip-flops slightly from side-to-side to back-and-forth due to a possible wobble in the accretion disk. “This discovery was quite surprising, but it is very pleasing as well because it helped explain some other mysterious things that had been observed about this star by others,” Sahai said.

Astronomers have noted that V Hydrae is obscured every 17 years, as if something is blocking its light. Sahai and his colleagues suggest that due to the back-and-forth wobble of the jet direction, the blobs alternate between passing behind and in front of V Hydrae. When a blob passes in front of V Hydrae, it shields the red giant from view.

“This accretion disk engine is very stable because it has been able to launch these structures for hundreds of years without falling apart,” Sahai said. “In many of these systems, the gravitational attraction can cause the companion to actually spiral into the core of the red giant star. Eventually, though, the orbit of V Hydrae’s companion will continue to decay because it is losing energy in this frictional interaction. However, we do not know the ultimate fate of this companion.”

The team hopes to use Hubble to conduct further observations of the V Hydrae system, including the most recent blob ejected in 2011. The astronomers also plan to use the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to study blobs launched over the past few hundred years that are now too cool to be detected with Hubble.

The team’s results appeared in the August 20, 2016, issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Originally published at NASA

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Hubble Spots White Dwarf Tearing Apart Comet For The First Time

Hubble’s Latest Find Could Change The Way We Look At White Dwarves Forever

For the first time, scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have witnessed a massive object with the makeup of a comet being ripped apart and scattered in the atmosphere of a white dwarf, the burned-out remains of a compact star. The object has a chemical composition similar to Halley’s Comet, but it is 100,000 times more massive and has a much higher amount of water. It is also rich in the elements essential for life, including nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and sulfur.

These findings are evidence for a belt of comet-like bodies orbiting the white dwarf, similar to our solar system’s Kuiper Belt. These icy bodies apparently survived the star’s evolution as it became a bloated red giant and then collapsed to a small, dense white dwarf.

As many as 25 to 50 percent of white dwarfs are known to be polluted with infalling debris from rocky, asteroid-like objects, but this is the first time a body made of icy, comet-like material has been seen polluting a white dwarf’s atmosphere.

The results also suggest the presence of unseen, surviving planets which may have perturbed the belt and worked as a “bucket brigade” to draw the icy objects into the white dwarf. The burned-out star also has a companion star, which may disturb the belt, causing objects from the belt to travel toward the burned-out star.

Siyi Xu of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, led the team that made the discovery. According to Xu, this was the first time that nitrogen was detected in the planetary debris that falls onto a white dwarf. “Nitrogen is a very important element for life as we know it,” Xu explained. “This particular object is quite rich in nitrogen, more so than any object observed in our solar system.”

Our own Kuiper Belt, which extends outward from Neptune’s orbit, is home to many dwarf planets, comets, and other small bodies left over from the formation of the solar system. Comets from the Kuiper Belt may have been responsible for delivering water and the basic building blocks of life to Earth billions of years ago.

The new findings are observational evidence supporting the idea that icy bodies are also present in other planetary systems, and have survived throughout the history of the star’s evolution.

To study the white dwarf’s atmosphere, the team used both Hubble and the W. M. Keck Observatory. The measurements of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, iron, nickel, and hydrogen all come from Hubble, while Keck provides the calcium, magnesium, and hydrogen. The ultraviolet vision of Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) allowed the team to make measurements that are very difficult to do from the ground.

This is the first object found outside our solar system that is akin to Halley’s Comet in composition. The team used the famous comet for comparison because it has been so well studied.

The white dwarf is roughly 170 light-years from Earth in the constellation Bootes, the Herdsman. It was first recorded in 1974 and is part of a wide binary system, with a companion star separated by 2,000 times the distance that the Earth is from the sun.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA Goddard manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

Originally published at NASA

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Giant Telescope In Chile To Seek Habitable Planets In Alpha Centauri

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile will be modified in order to allow it to search more effectively for potentially habitable planets in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth.

The ESO said it has signed a deal with Breakthrough Starshot, a venture that aims to deploy thousands of tiny spacecraft to travel to the system and send back pictures.

Starshot, which is backed by internet billionaire Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking, will provide funding to allow equipment on the Very Large Telescope that studies in the mid-infrared to be adapted to better detect faint planets, the ESO said in a statement on Monday.

The adaption will have the effect of reducing bright stellar light that drowns out relatively dim planets, improving the chances of finding them, it said.

Interest in exploring the sun’s nearest neighbor has increased since scientists announced last year that they had discovered evidence of an Earth-sized planet circling Proxima Centauri, a star in the Alpha Centauri system.

Larger telescopes planned for the 2020s – such as the ESO’s own Extremely Large Telescope, current under construction in Chile – should provide researchers with more information on the number and nature of exoplanets.

The ESO is an intergovernmental astronomy organization backed by 16 countries in Europe and South America and hosted in Chile.

(Reporting by Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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Hubble Captures ‘Shadow Play’ Caused by Possible Planet

Hubble Captures ‘Shadow Play’ Caused by Possible Planet

Searching for planets around other stars is a tricky business. They’re so small and faint that it’s hard to spot them. But a possible planet in a nearby stellar system may be betraying its presence in a unique way: by a shadow that is sweeping across the face of a vast pancake-shaped gas-and-dust disk surrounding a young star.

The planet itself is not casting the shadow. But it is doing some heavy lifting by gravitationally pulling on material near the star and warping the inner part of the disk. The twisted, misaligned inner disk is casting its shadow across the surface of the outer disk.

These images, taken a year apart by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, reveal a shadow moving counterclockwise around a gas-and-dust disk encircling the young star TW Hydrae. The two images at the top, taken by the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, show an uneven brightness across the disk. Through enhanced image processing (images at bottom), the darkening becomes even more apparent. These enhanced images allowed astronomers to determine the reason for the changes in brightness. The dimmer areas of the disk, at top left, are caused by a shadow spreading across the outer disk. The dotted lines approximate the shadow’s coverage. The long arrows show how far the shadow has moved in a year (from 2015-2016), which is roughly 20 degrees. Based on Hubble archival data, astronomers determined that the shadow completes a rotation around the central star every 16 years. They know the feature is a shadow because dust and gas in the disk do not orbit the star nearly that quickly. So, the feature must not be part of the physical disk. The shadow may be caused by the gravitational effect of an unseen planet orbiting close to the star. The planet pulls up material from the main disk, creating a warped inner disk. The twisted disk blocks light from the star and casts a shadow onto the disk’s outer region. Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Debes (STScI)

A team of astronomers led by John Debes of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland say this scenario is the most plausible explanation for the shadow they spotted in the stellar system TW Hydrae, located 192 light-years away in the constellation Hydra, also known as the Female Water Snake. The star is roughly 8 million years old and slightly less massive than our sun. Debes’ team uncovered the phenomenon while analyzing 18 years’ worth of archival observations taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“This is the very first disk where we have so many images over such a long period of time, therefore allowing us to see this interesting effect,” Debes said. “That gives us hope that this shadow phenomenon may be fairly common in young stellar systems.”

Debes will present his team’s results Jan. 7 at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas.

Debes’ first clue to the phenomenon was a brightness in the disk that changed with position. Astronomers using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) first noted this brightness asymmetry in 2005. But they had only one set of observations, and could not make a definitive determination about the nature of the mystery feature.

Searching the archive, Debes’ team put together six images from several different epochs. The observations were made by STIS and by the Hubble’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS).

STIS is equipped with a coronagraph that blocks starlight to within about 1 billion miles from the star, allowing Hubble to look as close to the star as Saturn is to our sun. Over time, the structure appeared to move in counter-clockwise fashion around the disk, until, in 2016, it was in the same position as it was in images taken in 2000.

This 16-year period puzzled Debes. He originally thought the feature was part of the disk, but the short period meant that the feature was moving way too fast to be physically in the disk. Under the laws of gravity, disks rotate at glacial speeds. The outermost parts of the TW Hydrae disk would take centuries to complete one rotation.

“The fact that I saw the same motion over 10 billion miles from the star was pretty significant, and told me that I was seeing something that was imprinted on the outer disk rather than something that was happening directly in the disk itself,” Debes said. “The best explanation is that the feature is a shadow moving across the surface of the disk.”

Debes concluded that whatever was making the shadow must be deep inside the 41-billion-mile-wide disk, so close to the star it cannot be imaged by Hubble or any other present-day telescope.

The most likely way to create a shadow is to have an inner disk that is tilted relative to the outer disk. In fact, submillimeter observations of TW Hydrae by the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile suggested a possible warp in the inner disk.

But what causes disks to warp? “The most plausible scenario is the gravitational influence of an unseen planet, which is pulling material out of the plane of the disk and twisting the inner disk,” Debes explained. “The misaligned disk is inside the planet’s orbit.”

Given the relatively short 16-year period of the clocklike moving shadow, the planet is estimated to be about 100 million miles from the star—about as close as Earth is from the sun. The planet would be roughly the size of Jupiter to have enough gravity to pull the material up out of the plane of the main disk. The planet’s gravitational pull causes the disk to wobble, or precess, around the star, giving the shadow its 16-year rotational period.

Recent observations of TW Hydrae by ALMA in Chile add credence to the presence of a planet. ALMA revealed a gap in the disk roughly 93 million miles from TW Hydrae. A gap is significant, because it could be the signature of an unseen planet clearing away a path in the disk.

This new Hubble study, however, offers a unique way to look for planets hiding in the inner part of the disk and probe what is happening very close to the star, which is not reachable in direct imaging by current telescopes. “What is surprising is that we can learn something about an unseen part of the disk by studying the disk’s outer region and by measuring the motion, location, and behavior of a shadow,” Debes said. “This study shows us that even these large disks, whose inner regions are unobservable, are still dynamic, or changing in detectable ways which we didn’t imagine.”

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published at NASA.

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NuSTAR Finds Black Holes Hiding In Our Cosmic Backyard

NuSTAR Finds Black Holes Hiding In Our Cosmic Backyard

NuSTAR has recently identified two gas-enshrouded massive black holes that are located at the center of nearby galaxies.

NASA’s NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) can detect massive black holes by analyzing high energy X-rays emitted by material in our universe. In a study of galaxy IC 3639 (170 million light-years from Earth). Researches used NuSTAR data compared with Chandra X-Ray Observatory data, and Suzaku satellite data to confirm that IC 3639 had an active nucleus. The active nucleus is a super-massive blackhole.

The study also focused on NGC 1448, a galaxy with a super massive black hole at it’s core discovered in 2009. The research confirmed this is the closest black hole to Earth that we are aware of. NGC 1448 is only 38 million light years away, where one light year is roughly 6 trillion miles.

NGC 1448, a galaxy with an active galactic nucleus hidden by gas and dust, is seen in this image.
Credits: Carnegie-Irvine Galaxy Survey/NASA/JPL-Caltech

“These black holes are relatively close to the Milky Way, but they have remained hidden from us until now,” said Ady Annuar, a graduate student at Durham University in the United Kingdom, who presented the results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Grapevine, Texas. “They’re like monsters hiding under your bed.”

This galaxy, called IC 3639, also contains an example of an obscured supermassive black hole.
Credits: ESO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

NuSTAR is led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. It was developed with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and built by Orbital Sciences Corp.

“It is exciting to use the power of NuSTAR to get important, unique information on these beasts, even in our cosmic backyard where they can be studied in detail,” said Daniel Stern, NuSTAR project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

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Hubble Detects ‘Exocomets’ Plunging Into Young Star

Interstellar forecast for a nearby star: Raining comets! NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has discovered comets plunging onto the star HD 172555, which is a youthful 23 million years old and resides 95 light-years from Earth.

The exocomets — comets outside our solar system — were not directly seen around the star, but their presence was inferred by detecting gas that is likely the vaporized remnants of their icy nuclei.

HD 172555 represents the third extrasolar system where astronomers have detected doomed, wayward comets. All of the systems are young, under 40 million years old.

The presence of these doomed comets provides circumstantial evidence for “gravitational stirring” by an unseen Jupiter-size planet, where comets deflected by its gravity are catapulted into the star. These events also provide new insights into the past and present activity of comets in our solar system. It’s a mechanism where infalling comets could have transported water to Earth and the other inner planets of our solar system.

Astronomers have found similar plunges in our own solar system. Sun-grazing comets routinely fall into our sun.  “Seeing these sun-grazing comets in our solar system and in three extrasolar systems means that this activity may be common in young star systems,” said study leader Carol Grady of Eureka Scientific Inc. in Oakland, California, and NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This activity at its peak represents a star’s active teenage years. Watching these events gives us insight into what probably went on in the early days of our solar system, when comets were pelting the inner solar system bodies, including Earth. In fact, these star-grazing comets may make life possible, because they carry water and other life-forming elements, such as carbon, to terrestrial planets.”

Grady will present her team’s results Jan. 6 at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas.

The star is part of the Beta Pictoris Moving Group, a collection of stars born from the same stellar nursery. It is the second group member found to harbor such comets. Beta Pictoris, the group’s namesake, also is feasting on exocomets travelling too close. A young gas-giant planet has been observed in that star’s vast debris disk.

The stellar group is important to study because it is the closest collection of young stars to Earth. At least 37.5 percent of the more massive stars in the Beta Pictoris Moving Group either have a directly imaged planet, such as 51 Eridani b in the 51 Eridani system, or infalling star-grazing bodies, or, in the case of Beta Pictoris, both types of objects. The grouping is at about the age that it should be building terrestrial planets, Grady said.

A team of French astronomers first discovered exocomets transiting HD 172555 in archival data gathered between 2004 and 2011 by the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) planet-finding spectrograph. A spectrograph divides light into its component colors, allowing astronomers to detect an object’s chemical makeup. The HARPS spectrograph detected the chemical fingerprints of calcium imprinted in the starlight, evidence that comet-like objects were falling into the star.

As a follow-up to that discovery, Grady’s team used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) in 2015 to conduct a spectrographic analysis in ultraviolet light, which allows Hubble to identify the signature of certain elements. Hubble made two observations, separated by six days.

Hubble detected silicon and carbon gas in the starlight. The gas was moving at about 360,000 miles per hour across the face of the star. The most likely explanation for the speedy gas is that Hubble is seeing material from comet-like objects that broke apart after streaking across the face of the star.

The gaseous debris from the disintegrating comets is vastly dispersed in front of the star. “As transiting features go, this vaporized material is easy to see because it contains very large structures,” Grady said. “This is in marked contrast to trying to find a small transiting exoplanet, where you’re looking for tiny dips in the star’s light.”

This illustration shows several comets speeding across a vast protoplanetary disk of gas and dust and heading straight for the youthful, central star. These “kamikaze” comets will eventually plunge into the star and vaporize. The comets are too small to photograph, but their gaseous spectral “fingerprints” on the star’s light were detected by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The gravitational influence of a suspected Jupiter-sized planet in the foreground may have catapulted the comets into the star. This star, called HD 172555, represents the third extrasolar system where astronomers have detected doomed, wayward comets. The star resides 95 light-years from Earth.
Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Feild and G. Bacon (STScI)

Hubble gleaned this information because the HD 172555 debris disk surrounding the star is slightly inclined to Hubble’s line of sight, giving the telescope a clear view of comet activity.

Grady’s team hopes to use STIS again in follow-up observations to look for oxygen and hydrogen, which would confirm the identity of the disintegrating objects as comets.

“Hubble shows that these star-grazers look and move like comets, but until we determine their composition, we cannot confirm they are comets,” Grady said. “We need additional data to establish whether our star-grazers are icy like comets or more rocky like asteroids.”

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA Goddard manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

This article originally appeared on NASA

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Chandra Captures Deepest X-Ray Image Ever Obtained

Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have been uncovering the secrets of our universe. Chandra focuses on objects that emit x-rays into our universe, such as black holes and pulsars.

The following image is the deepest X-Ray image ever obtained, and it has been collected with about 7 million seconds of Chandra observational data (or eleven and half weeks).

Two of it’s latest findings – a supermassive black hole, and the collision of giant galaxy clusters – were presented at the 229th American Astronomical Society meeting in Grapevine, Texas this week. These are two of the most powerful x-ray emitting objects in the universe and when combined, create a cosmic particle accelerator of epic proportions.

When scientists combine data from Chandra, the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India, the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, and other telescopes we have begun to understand what happens when matter is ejected from a black hole and swept up into the merger of two enormous galaxies.

Abell 3411 and Abell 3412: A pair of colliding galaxies about 2 billion light years away.
Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRT

The latest image from Chandra (seen above) gives researchers great visibility into the growth of black holes over billions of years. This image is the deepest X-Ray image ever obtained, and it has been collected with about 7 million seconds of Chandra observational data.

Using these data, the team found evidence that black holes in the early Universe grow mostly in bursts, rather than via the slow accumulation of matter. The team may have also found hints about the types of seeds that form supermassive black holes. If supermassive black holes are born as “light” seeds weighing about 100 times the Sun’s mass, the growth rate required to reach a mass of about a billion times the Sun in the early Universe may be so high that it challenges current models for such growth. If supermassive black holes are born with more mass, the required growth rate is not as high. The data in the CDF-S suggest that the seeds for supermassive black holes may be “heavy” with masses about 10,000 to 100,000 times that of the Sun.


The location of the image is known as the Chandra Deep Field-South. The center of the image shows the highest concentration of supermassive black holes ever seen. “equivalent to about 5,000 objects that would fit into the area of the full Moon and about a billion over the entire sky.”

Chandra Deep Field-South: The deepest X-ray image, containing objects at a distance of nearly 13 billion light years. Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Penn State/B.Luo et al.

You can read more about the find over at the Chandra press release center.

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NASA's James Webb Telescope To Resume Testing In January

NASA’s James Webb Telescope To Resume Testing In January

During vibration testing of the Webb Telescope, NASA detected unexpected responses from several devices designed to detect motion in the structure. Engineers quickly put the vibration test on hold, and they’re finally ready to resume.

The test which initially took place on December 3rd at NASA Goddard, showed that accelerometers attached to the telescope detected unexpected responses and shut itself down to protect the hardware. “Launches create high levels of vibration in spacecraft and equipment and ground testing is done to simulate that launch induced vibration”.

Vibration tests are done to ensure that telescopes are fit for spaceflight. They’re important tests that are done on all equipment headed into space via shuttle. The Webb vibration anomaly prompted engineers to stop testing and to analyze potential sources of vibration and measure for responses.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sits in a clean tent before vibration testing at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Gunn

“Currently, the team is continuing their analyses with the goal of having a review of their findings, conclusions and plans for resuming vibration testing in January,” said Eric Smith, program director for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“This is why we test — to know how things really are, as opposed to how we think they are,” said Paul Geithner, deputy project manager – technical for the Webb telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The Webb telescope is the most dynamically complex test article ever tested at Goddard. If further testing reveals no additional anomalies, than the JWST should be ready to pass with flying colors. If not, it’s back to the testing room.


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NASA’s $8.7 Billion Telescope Is Finally Complete

NASA’s largest ever telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is finally complete after years of delays and construction. 

Originally scheduled to cost around $1 billion and launch in 2011, JWST is now expected to launch in 2018, and has risen to a cost of $8.7 billion due to manufacturing delays. JWST contains the largest ever primary mirror built. Measuring in at 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) across, this telescope is expected to have 100 times the observing power of Hubble.

The telescope mirrors are made from 18 gold-plated hexagonal structures, this plating is 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.

Launching in October of 2018, JWST will be placed beyond the Moon’s orbit in a zone known as Lagrange point 2, or L2. This is a prime location for unobstructed views of our universe.

While JWST is expected to have a stronger observing power than Hubble, there are still some differences; Hubble observes the universe in visible light, where JWST will observe in infrared. JWST will not make Hubble obsolete. Infrared will allow astronomers a greater ability to see through cosmic dust, a current limit of Hubble.

NASA also completed a sun shield for JWST that’s the size of a competition tennis court:

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The last panel of China's world largest radio telescope named "FAST", is installed in Pingtang county

China Eyes Hunt For Life With Giant Telescope

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Sunday hoisted the final piece into position on what will be the world’s largest radio telescope, which it will use to explore space and help in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, state media said.

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is the size of 30 football fields and has been hewed out of a mountain in the poor southwestern province of Guizhou.

Scientists will now start debugging and trials of the telescope, Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which built the telescope, told the official Xinhua news agency.

“The project has the potential to search for more strange objects to better understand the origin of the universe and boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life,” the report paraphrased Zheng as saying.

The 1.2-billion yuan ($180 million) radio telescope would be a global leader for the next one to two decades, Zheng added.

The telescope, which has taken about five years to build, is expected to begin operations in September.

Advancing China’s space program is a priority for Beijing, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.

China’s ambitions include putting a man on the moon by 2036 and building a space station, work on which has already begun.

China insists its program is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China’s increasing space capabilities, saying it is pursuing activities aimed to prevent adversaries from using space-based assets in a crisis.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Rosetta Finds Key Building Blocks For Life In Comet

Rosetta Finds Key Building Blocks For Life In Comet

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Scientists for the first time have directly detected key organic compounds in a comet, bolstering the notion that these celestial objects delivered such chemical building blocks for life long ago to Earth and throughout the solar system.

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft made several detections of the amino acid glycine, used by living organisms to make proteins, in the cloud of gas and dust surrounding Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, scientists said on Friday.

Glycine previously was indirectly detected in samples returned to Earth in 2006 from another comet, Wild 2. But there were contamination issues with the samples, which landed in the Utah desert, that complicated the scientific analysis.

“Having found glycine in more than one comet shows that neither Wild 2 nor 67P are exceptions,” said Rosetta scientist Kathrin Altwegg of the University of Bern in Switzerland, who led the research published in the journal Science Advances.

The discovery implies that glycine is a common ingredient in regions of the universe where stars and planets have formed, Altwegg said.

“Amino acids are everywhere, and life could possibly also start in many places in the universe,” Altwegg added.

Rosetta, the European Space Agency's cometary probe with NASA contributions, is seen in an undated artist's rendering. REUTERS/ESA/NASA/Handout

Rosetta, the European Space Agency’s cometary probe with NASA contributions, is seen in an undated artist’s rendering. REUTERS/ESA/NASA/Handout

Altwegg and colleagues also found phosphorus, a key element in all living organisms, and other organic molecules in dust surrounding comet 67P. It was the first time phosphorus was found around a comet.Scientists have long debated the circumstances around the origin of life on Earth billions of years ago, including the hypothesis that comets and asteroids carrying organic molecules crashed into the oceans on the Earth early in its history.”Meteorites and now comets prove that Earth has been seeded with many critical biomolecules over its entire history,” said University of Washington astronomer Donald Brownlee, who led NASA’s Stardust comet sample return mission. Scientists plan to use Rosetta to look for other complex organic compounds around the same comet.

“You need more than amino acids to form a living cell,” Altwegg said. “It’s the multitude of molecules which make up the ingredients for life.” Rosetta is due to end its two-year mission at 67P by flying very close to the comet and then crash-land onto its surface this September.

67P is in an elliptical orbit that loops around the sun between the orbits of the planets Jupiter and Earth. The comet is heading back out toward Jupiter after reaching its closest approach to the sun last August.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Will Dunham)

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An artist's concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA's Kepler space telescope

1,284 New Planets Added To List Of Worlds Beyond Solar System

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Astronomers have discovered 1,284 more planets beyond our solar system, with nine possibly in orbits suitable for surface water that could bolster the prospects of supporting life, scientists said on Tuesday.

The announcement brings the total number of confirmed planets outside the solar system to 3,264. Called exoplanets, the bulk were detected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which searched for habitable planets like Earth.

The new planets were identified during Kepler’s four-year primary mission, which ended in 2013, and previously had been considered planet-candidates.

Scientists announcing the largest single finding of planets to date used a new analysis technique that applied statistical models to confirm the batch as planets, while ruling out scenarios that could falsely appear to be orbiting planets.

“We now know there could be more planets than stars,” Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics division director, said in a news release. “This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe.”

Of the new planets, nearly 550 could be rocky like Earth, NASA said. Nine planets are the right distance from a star to support temperatures at which water could pool. The discovery brings to 21 the total number of known planets with such conditions, which could permit life.

Kepler looked for slight changes in the amount of light coming from about 150,000 target stars. Some of the changes were caused by orbiting planets passing across, or transiting, the face of their host stars, relative to Kepler’s line of sight.

The phenomenon is identical to Monday’s transit of Mercury across the sun, as seen from Earth’s perspective.

The analysis technique, developed by Princeton University astronomer Tim Morton and colleagues, analyzed which changes in the amount of light are due to planets transiting and which are due to stars or other objects.

The team verified, with a more than 99 percent accuracy, that 1,284 candidates were indeed orbiting planets, Morton said.

The results suggest that more than 10 billion potentially habitable planets could exist throughout the galaxy, said Kepler lead scientist Natalie Batalha, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The nearest potentially habitable planet is about 11 light years from Earth.

“Astronomically speaking, that’s a very close neighbor,” she said.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Letitia Stein and James Dalgleish)


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Africa’s SALT Telescope Detects First White Dwarf Pulsar

SUTHERLAND, South Africa (Reuters) – South Africa’s SALT telescope has helped detect the first white dwarf pulsar, the latest co-discovery that has astronomers eager to use the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere to unlock the galaxy’s secrets.

Quick reaction times, as well as being significantly cheaper than similar European or American facilities in producing the science are key competitive advantages, said a senior astronomer at the SALT consortium during a media visit.

“SALT is now living up to expectations, producing high-quality science data that probe the far reaches of the universe,” said Ted Williams, a director at the South African Astronomical Observatory managing the site.

Scientists know of neutron stars, large objects about the size of the Sun that have compacted down at the end of their lives to something about 10 km (six miles) across, the last stop before a black hole.

Williams said these incredibly dense objects have been known for decades to produce pulsars, which emit regular pulses of radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation at rates of up to one thousand pulses per second.

“But there is another class of compact objects called white dwarfs, bigger, the size of the earth. So rather than 10 kilometers in size we are looking at 6,000 kilometers and we’ve just discovered the very first white dwarf pulsar,” he said of the previously unknown celestial phenomena.

A man walks past the dome housing the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), located near Sutherland in South Africa's Karoo region, November 9, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

A man walks past the dome housing the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), located near Sutherland in South Africa’s Karoo region, November 9, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Situated atop a hill in the desolate Northern Cape around 350 km north of Cape Town, the $43 million SALT telescope used its powerful spectroscopy light measurement tool to prove the existence of the white dwarf pulsar.

Shared by a consortium of partners from South Africa, India, America and Europe, SALT’s queuing system allows it to interrupt routine observations and within minutes focus its 10-metre optical telescope on new discoveries, said Williams.

In February, SALT was the first major telescope to take a spectrum of a supernova in the nearby Centaurus A galaxy hours after its discovery.

It also helped reveal one of the biggest explosions ever recorded in the universe, 200 times more powerful than a typical supernova and believed to have shone at 570 billion times the brightness of the Sun.

“It is what we wanted for South Africa and for Africa, not to stay at the margins but actually at the center and beginning to do world-class quality work,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s science minister who visited the telescope on Friday.

Together with Australia, South Africa is also co-hosting the world’s biggest and most advanced radio telescope, the $2 billion “Square Kilometre Array” which will study the origins of the universe and help probe for extraterrestrial life.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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Kepler Goes Into Emergency Mode, 75 Million Miles Away From Earth

Kepler Goes Into Emergency Mode, 75 Million Miles Away From Earth

During scheduled contacts on April 7th, mission operators discovered that the Kepler spacecraft was in emergency mode (EM).

Emergency mode is the lowest operational mode for the spacecraft and is fuel intensive. Recovering Kepler from EM is the team’s top priority at the moment,

The mission has declared a “spacecraft emergency” which allows access to the ground-based communications tools at the agency’s Deep Space Network.

At first glance it appears that Kepler entered EM roughly 36 hours ago before orienting to the heart of the milky way for a K2 microlensing observation.

Kepler is nearly 75 million miles from Earth and this makes communicating with the spacecraft difficult. At the speed of light, it takes 13 minutes for a signal to travel from the craft to Earth.

The last regular contact with the spacecraft was on April. 4.  At that time, the spacecraft was in good health and operating as expected.

We will provide updates as soon as new information is available.

Source: NASA

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Kepler Catches Early Flashes Of An Exploding Star

Kepler Catches Early Flashes Of An Exploding Star

A recently released video from NASA’s Ames Research Center shows the “shock breakout” of a star in its supernova phase. 

In this illustrated animation you see a red supergiant star 500 times bigger and 20,000 times brighter than our sun. When the star can no longer sustain the nuclear fusion in its core, it collapses under the forces of gravity.

Kepler Catches Early Flashes Of An Exploding Star

NASA’s conception of the shock breakout. Image: NASA Ames/STScl/G. Bacon

This brings with it a shockwave from the implosion that rushes upward out through the inside of the star’s layers. It breaks through the visible surface of the star in the form of plasma-like jets, and roughly 20 minutes later the star goes full supernova.

The animation is based on the observations made by NASA’s Kepler space telescope closely monitoring the star KSN 2011d with is located 1.2 billion light-years from earth. Kepler caught the early flash, and released this video through Ames to detail the find.

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An artist's impression of the galaxies found in the Zone of Avoidance behind the Milky Way is shown in this undated illustration provided to Reuters by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research

Telescope Used On Armstrong’s Moon Landing Finds New Galaxies

SYDNEY (Reuters) – An Australian telescope used to broadcast live vision of man’s first steps on the moon in 1969 has found hundreds of new galaxies hidden behind the Milky Way by using an innovative receiver that measures radio waves.

Scientists at the Parkes telescope, 355 km (220 miles) west of Sydney, said they had detected 883 galaxies, a third of which had never been seen before. The findings were reported in the latest issue of Astronomical Journal under the title ‘The Parkes HI Zone of Avoidance Survey’.

“Hundreds of new galaxies were discovered, using the same telescope that was used to broadcast the TV pictures from Apollo 11,” said Lister Staveley-Smith, a professor at the University of Western Australia’s International Center for Radio Astronomy Research.

“The electronic technology at the back end is substantially different and that is why we can still keep using these old telescopes,” he said.

The discoveries occurred as the scientists were investigating the region’s close proximity to the Great Attractor, a gravity anomaly in intergalactic space.

The Great Attractor appears to be drawing the Milky Way towards it with a gravitational force equivalent more than two million km per hour (1.24 million mph).

Using radio waves has allowed scientists to see beyond dust and stars in the Milky Way that had previously blocked the view of telescopes, the study showed.

Staveley-Smith, the lead author on the Astronomical Journal, said scientists have been trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious Great Attractor since major deviations from universal expansion were first discovered in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It’s a missing part of the jigsaw puzzle, which is the structure of our local universe,” said Michael Burton, a professor at the University of New South Wales’ Physics School.

“They have managed to pierce through it and complete the picture of what our part of the universe looks like.”

(Editing by Paul Tait)

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China To Relocate Thousands For World's Largest Telescope-fasttelescope

China To Relocate Thousands For World’s Largest Telescope

China is building the largest radio telescope in the world and will have to relocate nearly 10,000 people from its vicinity to ensure effectivity. 

The telescope will be called FAST or the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope. Expected to be completed in September of 2016, the telescope will be 500 meters in diameter which surpasses Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory (305 meters).

This isn’t the fist time that China has moved citizens for construction projects. In 1902 the Three Gorges Dam build relocated 1.2 million people from the project location along the Yangtze river. The rationale behind moving people for FAST is to ensure a five kilometre buffer of radio silence. In this specific relocation citizens affected will receive 12,000 yuan ($1,830 USD) in compensation from the government.

According to Xinhua, a Chinese news agency, people are being moved so that the facility can have “sound electromagnetic wave environment.” It’s not just the people themselves; household and personal devices such as microwaves, remote car starters, mobile phones, and wifi signals can interfere with the telescopic radio operation.


(Credit: Twitter/Chris Hadfield)

FAST is expected to be so sensitive that it will dramatically “help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy,” says Wu Xiangping, the Director General of the Chinese Astronomical Society.

The dish will also be used to study cosmic phenomena that emit radio signals such as supernovae, pulsars, black holes, and galaxies. Studying these signals can help us glean information about their size, and distance from Earth. And since these objects are so far from us, we’ll need huge radio telescopes to be effective.

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Event Horizon Snapshot Due In 2017

Event Horizon Snapshot Due In 2017

Nine radio telescopes have been positioned around the globe. They’re set to take the first ever picture of a black hole’s event horizon in 2017. 

The Event Horizon Telescope is a project that is nearly ready. It has completed all of its technical preparations and all of its extensive calculations. The telescope is ready to focus on Sagittarius A and the black hole at the Milky Way’s center.

This project is believed to be a momentous achievement for telescopic advancement in the field of deep space exploration. This be the first time we have ever seen into a black hole – and the first time new wavelengths have been used to examine stellar objects from our planet.

Seeing Into A Black Hole Is Not Easy

Getting this shot is not easy. At the heart of our Milky Way galaxy lies a supermassive black hole; it’s event horizon is 24 million km across – which is roughly 17 times bigger than our sun. At a distance of 25,000 light years away observing this object becomes quite a challenge – to put this into the perspective of earth viewing, this black hole would take up just as much of the sky as a CD would if it were sitting on the moon.

Not only does the distance pose a challenge, but so to does matter in the surrounding region.  The event horizon is filed with rolling clouds of dust and energy that make it difficult for astronomers to peer into the black hole, to solve this problem scientists had to choose specific wavelengths of light to examine the phenomena.

They had to choose between millions of simulations and ultimately settled on a wavelength of 1.3mm.

The Event Horizon

So what will we actually see?

It’s predicted that the item will appear like  “crescent” due to glowing gas spinning around the black hole. It is believed that the object will not look like a “ring” due to the way matter travels through the event horizon; the matter moving towards earth will look much brighter (Doppler effect) and the matter traveling into the black hole should appear much darker – building the theorized crescent model.

Einstein believed that masses as large as black holes could have the ability to bend space time, this very bend is believed to be one of the many factors producing the crescent shape. The curvature builds a shadow that can be calculated mathematically and that shadow should match what is predicted by general relativity.

Astronomers tend to rely on general relativity quite often, and it has proven successful. But this is the first time the theory will be tested on scale as immense as the event horizon. Here’s looking at you, Einstein. 

Beyond our Milky Way, the EHT team already has plans to advance its studies by looking at the galaxy Messier 87. Its own black hole is believed to be much more massive and it known for blasting an immense jet of plasma into outer space.

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