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Mystery World Baffles Astronomers

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Kepler-78b is a planet that shouldn’t exist. This scorching lava world circles its star every eight and a half hours at a distance of less than one million miles – one of the tightest known orbits. According to current theories of planet formation, it couldn’t have formed so close to its star, nor could it have moved there.

“This planet is a complete mystery,” says astronomer David Latham of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “We don’t know how it formed or how it got to where it is today. What we do know is that it’s not going to last forever.”

“Kepler-78b is going to end up in the star very soon, astronomically speaking,” agrees CfA astronomer Dimitar Sasselov.

Not only is Kepler-78b a mystery world, it is the first known Earth-sized planet with an Earth-like density. Kepler-78b is about 20 percent larger than the Earth, with a diameter of 9,200 miles, and weighs almost twice as much. As a result it has a density similar to Earth’s, which suggests an Earth-like composition of iron and rock.

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A Rare Snapshot Of A Planetary Construction Site

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Credit: Á. Kóspál (ESA) and A. Moór (Konkoly Observatory)

Credit: Á. Kóspál (ESA) and A. Moór (Konkoly Observatory)

When a star similar to our Sun is born, it is surrounded by a disk of dust and gas. Within that disk, the star’s planetary system begins to form: The dust grains stick together to build larger, solid, kilometer-sized bodies known as planetesimals. Those either survive in the form of asteroids and comets, or clump together further to form solid planets like our Earth, or the cores of giant gas planets.

Current models of planet formation predict that, as a star reaches the planetesimal stage, the original gas should quickly be depleted. Some of the gas falls into the star, some is caught up by what will later become giant gas planets like Jupiter, and the rest is dispersed into space, driven by the young star’s intense radiation. After 10 million years or so, all the original gas should be gone.

But now a team of astronomers from the Netherlands, Hungary, Germany, and the US has found what appears to be a rare hybrid disk, which contains plenty of original gas, but also dust produced much later in the collision of planetesimals. As such, it qualifies as a link between an early and a late phase of disk evolution: the primordial disk and a later debris phase.

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ALMA Discovers Large “Hot” Cocoon Around A Small Baby Star

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Artist impression. Credit: NAOJ

Artist impression. Credit: NAOJ

A large hot molecular cloud around a very young star was discovered by ALMA. This hot cloud is about ten times larger than those found around typical solar-mass baby stars, which indicates that the star formation process has more diversity than ever thought. This result was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on September 20th, 2013.

Stars are formed in very cold (-260 degrees Celsius) gas and dust clouds. Infrared Dark Clouds (IRDC) are dense regions of such clouds, and thought that in which clusters of stars are formed. Since most of stars are born as members of star clusters, investigating IRDCs has a crucial role in comprehensive understanding the star formation process.

A baby star is surrounded by the natal gas and dust cloud, and the cloud is warmed up from its center. Temperature of the central part of some, but not all, of such clouds reaches as high as -160 degrees Celsius. Astronomers call those clouds as “hot core” – it may not be hot on the Earth, but is hot enough for a cosmic cloud. Inside hot cores, various molecules, originally trapped in the ice mantle around dust particles, are sublimated. Organic molecules such as methanol (CH3OH), ethyl cyanide (CH3CH2CN), and methyl formate (HCOOCH3) are abundant in hot cores.

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Astronomers Observe Distant Galaxy Powered By Primordial Cosmic Fuel

October 4, 2013 Leave a comment

CREDIT: MPIA (G. STINSON / A. V. MACCIÒ)

CREDIT: MPIA (G. STINSON / A. V. MACCIÒ)

Astronomers have detected cold streams of primordial hydrogen, vestigial matter left over from the Big Bang, fueling a distant star-forming galaxy in the early Universe. Profuse flows of gas onto galaxies are believed to be crucial for explaining an era 10 billion years ago, when galaxies were copiously forming stars. To make this discovery, the astronomers – led by Neil Crighton of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Swinburne University – made use of a cosmic coincidence: a bright, distant quasar acting as a “cosmic lighthouse” illuminates the gas flow from behind. The results were published October 2 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The systematic survey of absorption systems comprises observations with the Large Binocular Telescope and from data taken with the W. M. Keck Observatory’s HIRES echelle spectrograph installed on the 10 meter Keck I telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The foreground galaxy was discovered by Charles Steidel, Gwen Rudie (California Institute of Technology) and collaborators using the Keck Observatory’s LRIS spectrograph on the same telescope.

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New Theory Points To ‘Zombie Vortices’ As Key Step In Star Formation

August 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Artist conception. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist conception. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new theory by fluid dynamics experts at the University of California, Berkeley, shows how “zombie vortices” help lead to the birth of a new star.

Reporting today (Tuesday, Aug. 20) in the journal Physical Review Letters, a team led by computational physicist Philip Marcus shows how variations in gas density lead to instability, which then generates the whirlpool-like vortices needed for stars to form.

Astronomers accept that in the first steps of a new star’s birth, dense clouds of gas collapse into clumps that, with the aid of angular momentum, spin into one or more Frisbee-like disks where a protostar starts to form. But for the protostar to grow bigger, the spinning disk needs to lose some of its angular momentum so that the gas can slow down and spiral inward onto the protostar. Once the protostar gains enough mass, it can kick off nuclear fusion.

Full Story: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2013/08/20/zombie-vortices-key-step-in-star-formation/

ALMA Takes Close Look At Drama Of Starbirth

August 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Credit: ESO / ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO) / H. Arce. Acknowledgements: Bo Reipurth

Credit: ESO / ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO) / H. Arce. Acknowledgements: Bo Reipurth

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have obtained a vivid close-up view of material streaming away from a newborn star. By looking at the glow coming from carbon monoxide molecules in an object called Herbig-Haro 46/47 they have discovered that its jets are even more energetic than previously thought. The very detailed new images have also revealed a previously unknown jet pointing in a totally different direction.

Young stars are violent objects that eject material at speeds as high as one million kilometres per hour. When this material crashes into the surrounding gas it glows, creating a Herbig-Haro object. A spectacular example is named Herbig-Haro 46/47 and is situated about 1400 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sails). This object was the target of a study using ALMA during the Early Science phase, whilst the telescope was still under construction and well before the array was completed.

The new images reveal fine detail in two jets, one coming towards Earth and one moving away. The receding jet was almost invisible in earlier pictures made in visible light, due to obscuration by the dust clouds surrounding the new-born star. ALMA has not only provided much sharper images than earlier facilities but also allowed astronomers to measure how fast the glowing material is moving through space.

Full Story: http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1336/
Also: http://news.yale.edu/2013/08/20/they-form-stars-shape-their-womb-within

Solar System’s Youth Gives Clues To Planet Search


Disk isotopes modeling results. Image courtesy of Alan Boss

Disk isotopes modeling results. Image courtesy of Alan Boss

Comets and meteorites contain clues to our solar system’s earliest days. But some of the findings are puzzle pieces that don’t seem to fit well together. A new set of theoretical models from Carnegie’s Alan Boss shows how an outburst event in the Sun’s formative years could explain some of this disparate evidence. His work could have implications for the hunt for habitable planets outside of our solar system. It is published by The Astrophysical Journal.

One way to study the solar system’s formative period is to look for samples of small crystalline particles that were formed at high temperatures but now exist in icy comets. Another is to analyze the traces of isotopes—versions of elements with the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons—found in primitive meteorites. These isotopes decay and turn into different, so-called daughter, elements. The initial abundances of these isotopes tell researchers where the isotopes may have come from, and can give clues as to how they traveled around the early solar system.

Stars are surrounded by disks of rotating gas during the early stages of their lives. Observations of young stars that still have these gas disks demonstrate that sun-like stars undergo periodic bursts, lasting about 100 years each, during which mass is transferred from the disk to the young star.

Full Story: https://carnegiescience.edu/news/solar_system%E2%80%99s_youth_gives_clues_planet_search

Two Suns Are Probably Better Than One, Or Not?


An International Collaboration of FACom researchers and Astronomers of the University of Texas (El Paso) and New Mexico State University, have discovered a physical mechanism that could make binary stars more hospitable to habitable planets than single stars. The discovery could imply a modification in the estimations of the number of planets potentially harboring life in the Galaxy and in the future selection of targets for the search of life elsewhere.

Habitability is the term astronomers use for referring to the general condition a planet must fulfill in order to be suitable for life. It has been customary to think that habitability is determined mainly by the amount of light a planet receives from its host star. If the planet receives too much light it is too hot and water will be boiling in its atmosphere (if it has one!). On the other hand, if the planet is too far and light from the star shines weakly, the surface is too cold and water becomes frozen. In the middle between these extremes lies the so called “radiative habitable zone” also nicknamed the “Goldilocks Zone”.

But planets in the Goldilocks Zone need to meet other conditions to be considered actually habitable. One of the most important is having a dense and wet atmosphere where heat could be trapped and water could condensate at the surface. But preseving an atmosphere is a real challenge for a young planet.

Full Story: http://urania.udea.edu.co/sitios/facom/press.php?

Snow Falling around Infant Solar System: Icy Region Gives Planet And Comet Formation A Boost


ALMA image of CO snow line. Credit: Karin Oberg, Harvard/University of Virginia

ALMA image of CO snow line. Credit: Karin Oberg, Harvard/University of Virginia

The sight of a snowfall can thrill children, but the first-ever snow line seen around a distant star gives astronomers an even greater thrill because of what it reveals about the formation of planets and our Solar System’s history.

Astronomers using the new Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope have taken the first-ever image of a snow line in an infant solar system. This frosty landmark is thought to play an essential role in the formation and chemical make-up of planets around a young star.

On Earth, snow lines typically form at high elevations where falling temperatures turn atmospheric moisture to snow. In much the same way, snow lines are thought to form around young stars in the distant, colder reaches of the disks from which solar systems form. Depending on the distance from the star, however, other more exotic molecules can freeze and turn to snow.

“ALMA has given us the first real picture of a snow line around a young star, which is extremely exciting because of what it tells us about the very early period in the history of our own Solar System,” said Chunhua “Charlie” Qi, a researcher with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who led the international research team with Karin Oberg, a researcher with Harvard University and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Full Story:  http://www.nrao.edu/pr/2013/snowline/
Also: http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1333/

Astronomers Witness Birth Of Milky Way’s Most Massive Star


The team used the new ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array) telescope in Chile – the most powerful radio telescope in the world – to view the stellar womb which, at 500 times the mass of the Sun and many times more luminous, is the largest ever seen in our galaxy.

The researchers say their observations – to be published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics – reveal how matter is being dragged into the centre of the huge gaseous cloud by the gravitational pull of the forming star – or stars – along a number of dense threads or filaments.

“The remarkable observations from ALMA allowed us to get the first really in-depth look at what was going on within this cloud,” said lead author Dr Nicolas Peretto, from Cardiff University. “We wanted to see how monster stars form and grow, and we certainly achieved our aim. One of the sources we have found is an absolute giant — the largest protostellar core ever spotted in the Milky Way!

“Even though we already believed that the region was a good candidate for being a massive star-forming cloud, we were not expecting to find such a massive embryonic star at its centre. This cloud is expected to form at least one star 100 times more massive than the Sun and up to a million times brighter. Only about one in 10,000 of all the stars in the Milky Way reach that kind of mass.”

Full Story: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=10369

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