Archive for March 11, 2014

UK Joins The Planet Hunt As Government Pledges £25 Million To Europe’s PLATO Mission

Searching for exoplanetary systems. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

Searching for exoplanetary systems. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

The UK is set to play a leading role in the search for habitable planets orbiting alien stars, following David Willett’s announcement today (11 March 2014) that the UK Space Agency will invest £25 million in ESA’s PLATO mission.

Planned for launch by 2024, the planet hunting mission will see strong involvement from several UK institutes, with Professor Don Pollacco from the University of Warwick providing UK scientific leadership for the European consortium.

With several UK space companies in a strong position to bid for the industrial opportunities that PLATO will produce, the UK’s investment in the mission is also set to secure excellent return, generating economic growth and creating new jobs.

PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) was selected by ESA’s Science Programme Committee for implementation as part of its Cosmic Vision 2015–25 Programme.

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The Glory Of Venus

The glory on Venus cloud tops in false colors. © ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The glory on Venus cloud tops in false colors. © ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA

When travelling above the clouds, airplane passengers sometimes witness a glory: a light phenomenon similar to a ring-shaped rainbow. Droplets in the clouds back-scattering the sunlight are responsible for this appearance. A team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen have now fully imaged a glory on Venus – and thus for the first time on a planet other than Earth. The data was obtained by ESA’s space probe Venus Express. The data imply that the sulfuric acid in Venus’ cloud tops could additionally contain pure sulfur or iron chloride – and may help solve one of the oldest mysteries of Venus research.

The veil of clouds surrounding Venus is as beautiful as it is hostile to life. Sulfuric acid constitutes their main component. Together with the planet’s dense atmosphere composed mainly of carbon dioxide, this cloud cover causes Venus’ extreme greenhouse effect. Temperatures of more than 400 degrees Celsius are common on the planet’s surface. The exact composition of the creamy-yellow clouds is still unclear. Almost 90 years ago, ground-based observations had shown that these clouds “swallow” ultraviolet light of certain wavelengths. Sulfuric acid alone cannot be responsible for this effect.

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Milky Way Amidst A ‘Council Of Giants’

We live in a galaxy known as the Milky Way – a vast conglomeration of 300 billion stars, planets whizzing around them, and clouds of gas and dust floating in between.

Though it has long been known that the Milky Way and its orbiting companion Andromeda are the dominant members of a small group of galaxies, the Local Group, which is about 3 million light years across, much less was known about our immediate neighbourhood in the universe.

Now, a new paper by York University Physics & Astronomy Professor Marshall McCall, published today in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, maps out bright galaxies within 35-million light years of the Earth, offering up an expanded picture of what lies beyond our doorstep.

“All bright galaxies within 20 million light years, including us, are organized in a ‘Local Sheet’ 34-million light years across and only 1.5-million light years thick,” says McCall. “The Milky Way and Andromeda are encircled by twelve large galaxies arranged in a ring about 24-million light years across – this ‘Council of Giants’ stands in gravitational judgment of the Local Group by restricting its range of influence.”

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These Aren’t The Voids You’re Looking For: Astronomers Find Faint Strings Of Galaxies Inside Empty Space

Australian astronomers have shown galaxies in the vast empty regions of the Universe are actually aligned into delicate strings in research published today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A team of astronomers based at The University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) has found short strings of faint galaxies in what were previously thought to be extremely empty parts of space.

The Universe is full of vast collections of galaxies that are arranged into an intricate web of clusters and nodes connected by long strings. This remarkably organized structure is often called the ‘cosmic web’, with busy intersections of galaxies surrounding vast spaces, empty of anything visible to us on Earth.

“The spaces in the cosmic web are thought to be staggeringly empty,” said Dr Mehmet Alpaslan, who led the research. “They might contain just one or two galaxies, as opposed to the hundreds that are found in big clusters.

These huge, empty regions are called voids, and for years, astronomers have been trying to understand the small population of galaxies that inhabit them.

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Rosetta’s Comet Wakes Up

It’s back! After comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko had disappeared behind the Sun and out of the Earth’s view last year in October, the target comet of ESA’s Rosetta mission can now be seen again. In the most recent image obtained by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) with the help of ESO’s Very Large Telescope on February 28th, 2014, the comet presents itself brighter than expected for the nucleus alone. This suggests that frozen ice is already beginning to vaporize and form a very thin atmosphere. In August, the spacecraft Rosetta will rendezvous with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and accompany it on its journey around the Sun until at least the end of 2015.

To obtain a measurable image of the comet from a distance of 740 million kilometers, the scientists superposed several exposures taken at slightly different times. Before, the images were shifted to compensate for the comet’s motion. The stars in the background therefore appear as broadly smudged lines. Subtracting the starry background then revealed the comet: a tiny dot in space.

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‘Death Stars’ In Orion Blast Planets Before They Even Form

Artist's concept. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; B. Saxton

Artist’s concept. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; B. Saxton

The Orion Nebula is home to hundreds of young stars and even younger protostars known as proplyds. Many of these nascent systems will go on to develop planets, while others will have their planet-forming dust and gas blasted away by the fierce ultraviolet radiation emitted by massive O-type stars that lurk nearby.

A team of astronomers from Canada and the United States has used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to study the often deadly relationship between highly luminous O-type stars and nearby protostars in the Orion Nebula. Their data reveal that protostars within 0.1 light-years (about 600 billion miles) of an O-type star are doomed to have their cocoons of dust and gas stripped away in just a few millions years, much faster than planets are able to form.

“O-type stars, which are really monsters compared to our Sun, emit tremendous amounts of ultraviolet radiation and this can play havoc during the development of young planetary systems,” remarked Rita Mann, an astronomer with the National Research Council of Canada in Victoria, and lead author on a paper in the Astrophysical Journal. “Using ALMA, we looked at dozens of embryonic stars with planet-forming potential and, for the first time, found clear indications where protoplanetary disks simply vanished under the intense glow of a neighboring massive star.”

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