The Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is pleased to announce the 2012 prize winners.
Full Story: http://dps.aas.org/prizes
FORT DAVIS, Texas — Astronomers from The University of Texas at Austin and Wesleyan University have used the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at UT Austin’s McDonald Observatory to confirm that a Jupiter-size planet in a nearby solar system is dissolving, albeit excruciatingly slowly, because of interactions with its parent star. Their findings could help astronomers better understand star-planet interactions in other star systems that might involve life.
The work will be published in the June 1 edition of The Astrophysical Journal in a paper led by Wesleyan University postdoctoral researcher Adam Jensen. The team includes University of Texas astronomers Michael Endl and Bill Cochran, as well as Wesleyan professor Seth Redfield.
In the grand scheme of the solar system, Venus and Earth are almost the same distance from the sun. Yet the planets differ dramatically: Venus is some 100 times hotter than Earth and its days more than 200 times longer. The atmosphere on Venus is so thick that the longest any spacecraft has survived on its surface before being crushed is a little over two hours. There’s another difference, too. Earth has a magnetic field and Venus does not – a crucial distinction when assessing the effects of the sun on each planet.
As the solar wind rushes outward from the sun at nearly a million miles per hour, it is stopped about 44,000 miles away from Earth when it collides with the giant magnetic envelope that surrounds the planet called the magnetosphere. Most of the solar wind flows around the magnetosphere, but in certain circumstances it can enter the magnetosphere to create a variety of dynamic space weather effects on Earth. Venus has no such protective shield, but it is still an immovable rock surrounded by an atmosphere that disrupts and interacts with the solar wind, causing interesting space weather effects.
NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered 11 new planetary systems hosting 26 confirmed planets. These discoveries nearly double the number of verified Kepler planets and triple the number of stars known to have more than one planet that transits, or passes in front of, its host star. Such systems will help astronomers better understand how planets form.
The planets orbit close to their host stars and range in size from 1.5 times the radius of Earth to larger than Jupiter. Fifteen of them are between Earth and Neptune in size, and further observations will be required to determine which are rocky like Earth and which have thick gaseous atmospheres like Neptune. The planets orbit their host star once every six to 143 days. All are closer to their host star than Venus is to our sun.
“Prior to the Kepler mission, we knew of perhaps 500 exoplanets across the whole sky,” said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Now, in just two years staring at a patch of sky not much bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets and more than 2,300 planet candidates. This tells us that our galaxy is positively loaded with planets of all sizes and orbits.”
The SEEDS (Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru Telescope/HiCIAO) project, a five-year international collaboration launched in 2009 and led by Motohide Tamura of NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) has yielded another impressive image that contributes to our understanding of the link between disks and planet formation. Researchers used Subaru’s planet-finder camera, HiCIAO (High Contrast Instrument for the Subaru Next Generation Adaptive Optics), to take a crisp high-contrast image of the dust ring around HR 4796 A, a young (8-10 million years old) nearby star, only 240 light years away from Earth. The ring consists of dust grains in a wide orbit, roughly twice the size of Pluto’s orbit, around the central star. The resolution of the image of the inner edge of the ring is so precise that an offset between its center and the star’s position can be measured. Although data from the Hubble Space Telescope led another research group to suspect such an offset, the Subaru data not only confirm its presence but also reveal it to be larger than previously assumed.
What caused the wheel of dust around HR 4796 A to run off its axis? The most plausible explanation is that the gravitational force of one or more planets orbiting in the gap within the ring must be tugging at the dust, thus unbalancing their course around the star in predictable ways. Computer simulations have already shown that such gravitational tides can shape a dust ring into eccentricity, and findings from another the eccentric dust ring around the star Formalhaut may be observational evidence for the process. Since no planet candidates have been spotted near HR 4796 A yet, the planets causing the dust ring to wobble are probably simply too faint to detect with current instruments. Nevertheless, the Subaru image allows scientists to infer their presence from their influence on the circumstellar dust.
Astronomers using NASA’s Kepler mission have detected two Earth-sized planets orbiting a distant star. This discovery marks a milestone in the hunt for alien worlds, since it brings scientists one step closer to their ultimate goal of finding a twin Earth.
“The goal of Kepler is to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone. Proving the existence of Earth-sized exoplanets is a major step toward achieving that goal,” said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
The paper describing the finding will be published in the journal Nature.
The two planets, dubbed Kepler-20e and 20f, are the smallest planets found to date. They have diameters of 6,900 miles and 8,200 miles – equivalent to 0.87 times Earth (slightly smaller than Venus) and 1.03 times Earth. These worlds are expected to have rocky compositions, so their masses should be less than 1.7 and 3 times Earth’s.
The new and highly sensitive Cosmic Origins Spectrograph aboard the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on Pluto’s surface, providing new evidence that points to the possibility of complex hydrocarbon and/or nitrile molecules lying on the surface, according to a paper recently published in the Astronomical Journal by researchers from Southwest Research Institute and Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Such chemical species can be produced by the interaction of sunlight or cosmic rays with Pluto’s known surface ices, including methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen.
The project, led by SwRI’s Dr. Alan Stern, also included SwRI researchers Dr. John Spencer and Adam Shinn, and Nebraska Wesleyan University researchers Dr. Nathaniel Cunningham and student Mitch Hain.
Discoveries of new planets just keep coming and coming. Take, for instance, the 18 recently found by a team of astronomers led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
“It’s the largest single announcement of planets in orbit around stars more massive than the sun, aside from the discoveries made by the Kepler mission,” says John Johnson, assistant professor of astronomy at Caltech and the first author on the team’s paper, which was published in the December issue of The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. The Kepler mission is a space telescope that has so far identified more than 1,200 possible planets, though the majority of those have not yet been confirmed.
Full Story: http://news.caltech.edu/press_releases/13476
Fat doughnut-shaped dust shrouds that obscure about half of supermassive black holes could be the result of high speed crashes between planets and asteroids, according to a new theory from an international team of astronomers. The scientists, led by Dr. Sergei Nayakshin of the University of Leicester, publish their results in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Supermassive black holes reside in the central parts of most galaxies. Observations indicate that about 50% of them are hidden from view by mysterious clouds of dust, the origin of which is not completely understood. The new theory is inspired by our own Solar System, where the so-called zodiacal dust is known to originate from collisions between solid bodies such as asteroids and comets. The scientists propose that the central regions of galaxies contain not only black holes and stars but also planets and asteroids.
In a painstaking re-analysis of Hubble Space Telescope images from 1998, astronomers have found visual evidence for two extrasolar planets that went undetected back then.
Finding these hidden gems in the Hubble archive gives astronomers an invaluable time machine for comparing much earlier planet orbital motion data to more recent observations. It also demonstrates a novel approach for planet hunting in archival Hubble data.
Four giant planets are known to orbit the young, massive star HR 8799, which is 130 light-years away. In 2007 and 2008 the first three planets were discovered in near-infrared ground-based images taken with the W.M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini North telescope by Christian Marois of the National Research Council in Canada and his team. Marois and his colleagues then uncovered the fourth and innermost planet in 2010. This is the only multiple-exoplanet system for which astronomers have obtained direct snapshots.
In 2009 David Lafreniere of the University of Montreal recovered hidden exoplanet data in Hubble images of HR 8799 taken in 1998 with the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). He identified the position of the outermost planet known to orbit the star. This first demonstrated the power of a new data-processing technique for retrieving faint planets buried in the glow of the central star.