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Archive for March, 2014

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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NASA’s WISE Survey Finds Thousands Of New Stars, But No ‘Planet X’

March 8, 2014 1 comment

Image credit: DSS/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image credit: DSS/NASA/JPL-Caltech

After searching hundreds of millions of objects across our sky, NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has turned up no evidence of the hypothesized celestial body in our solar system commonly dubbed “Planet X.”

Researchers previously had theorized about the existence of this large, but unseen celestial body, suspected to lie somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto. In addition to “Planet X,” the body had garnered other nicknames, including “Nemesis” and “Tyche.”

This recent study, which involved an examination of WISE data covering the entire sky in infrared light, found no object the size of Saturn or larger exists out to a distance of 10,000 astronomical units (au), and no object larger than Jupiter exists out to 26,000 au. One astronomical unit equals 93 million miles. Earth is 1 au, and Pluto about 40 au, from the sun.

“The outer solar system probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star,” said Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, University Park, Pa., author of a paper in the Astrophysical Journal describing the results.

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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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