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Archive for March 6, 2014

A Small Step Toward Discovering Habitable Earths


Image: Jared Males/UA

Image: Jared Males/UA

University of Arizona researchers snapped images of a planet outside our solar system with an Earth-based telescope using essentially the same type of imaging sensor found in digital cameras instead of an infrared detector. Although the technology still has a very long way to go, the accomplishment takes astronomers a small step closer to what will be needed to image earth-like planets around other stars.

“This is an important next step in the search for exoplanets because imaging in visible light instead of infrared is what we likely have to do if we want to detect planets that might be suitable for harboring life,” said Jared Males, a NASA Sagan Fellow in the UA’s Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory and lead author on a report to be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Even though the image was taken at a wavelength that is just shy of being visible to the human eye, the use of a digital camera-type imaging sensor – called a charge-coupled device or CCD – opens up the possibility of imaging planets in visible light, which has not been possible previously with Earth-based telescopes.

“This is exciting to astronomers because it means we now are a small step closer to being able to image planets outside our solar system in visible light,” said Laird Close, a professor in the Department of Astronomy, who co-authored the paper.

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Mystery Of Planet-forming Disks Explained By Magnetism


Artist's conception. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s conception. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers say that magnetic storms in the gas orbiting young stars may explain a mystery that has persisted since before 2006.

Researchers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to study developing stars have had a hard time figuring out why the stars give off more infrared light than expected. The planet-forming disks that circle the young stars are heated by starlight and glow with infrared light, but Spitzer detected additional infrared light coming from an unknown source.

A new theory, based on three-dimensional models of planet-forming disks, suggests the answer: Gas and dust suspended above the disks on gigantic magnetic loops like those seen on the sun absorb the starlight and glow with infrared light.

“If you could somehow stand on one of these planet-forming disks and look at the star in the center through the disk atmosphere, you would see what looks like a sunset,” said Neal Turner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

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Nearby Star’s Icy Debris Suggests ‘Shepherd’ Planet


An international team of astronomers exploring the disk of gas and dust around a nearby star have uncovered a compact cloud of poisonous gas formed by ongoing rapid-fire collisions among a swarm of icy, comet-like bodies. The researchers suggest the comet swarm is either the remnant of a crash between two icy worlds the size of Mars or frozen debris trapped and concentrated by the gravity of an as-yet-unseen planet.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the researchers mapped millimeter-wavelength light from dust and carbon monoxide (CO) molecules in a disk surrounding the bright star Beta Pictoris. Located about 63 light-years away and only 20 million years old, the star hosts one of the closest, brightest and youngest debris disks known, making it an ideal laboratory for studying the early development of planetary systems.

“Although toxic to us, carbon monoxide is one of many gases found in comets and other icy bodies,” said team member Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “In the rough-and-tumble environment around a young star, these objects frequently collide and generate fragments that release dust, icy grains and stored gases.”

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Kepler Marks Five Years In Space


Five years ago today, on March 6, 2009, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope rocketed into the night skies above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to find planets around other stars, called exoplanets, in search of potentially habitable worlds.

Since then, Kepler has unveiled a whole new side of our galaxy — one that is teeming with planets. Because of Kepler we now know that most stars have planets, Earth-sized planets are common, and planets quite unlike those in our solar system exist.

By analyzing Kepler data, scientists have identified more than 3,600 candidates believed to be planets, and verified that 961 of those candidates actually are planets, many as small as Earth. Discoveries made using Kepler now account for more than half of all the known exoplanets.

“During the last five years, Kepler has produced results needed to take the next big step forward in humankind’s search for life in our galaxy— providing information needed for future missions that will ultimately determine the atmospheric composition of Earth-sized exoplanets to discover if they could be habitable,” said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

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