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Astronomers Identify The Closest Known Flyby Of A Star To Our Solar System: A Dim Star That Passed Through The Oort Cloud 70,000 Years Ago

February 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.

Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.

A group of astronomers from the US, Europe, Chile and South Africa have determined that 70,000 years ago a recently discovered dim star is likely to have passed through the solar system’s distant cloud of comets, the Oort Cloud. No other star is known to have ever approached our solar system this close – five times closer than the current closest star, Proxima Centauri.

In a paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, lead author Eric Mamajek from the University of Rochester and his collaborators analyzed the velocity and trajectory of a low-mass star system nicknamed “Scholz’s star.”

The star’s trajectory suggests that 70,000 years ago it passed roughly 52,000 astronomical units away (or about 0.8 light years, which equals 8 trillion kilometers, or 5 trillion miles). This is astronomically close; our closest neighbor star Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light years distant. In fact, the astronomers explain in the paper that they are 98% certain that it went through what is known as the “outer Oort Cloud” – a region at the edge of the solar system filled with trillions of comets a mile or more across that are thought to give rise to long-period comets orbiting the Sun after their orbits are perturbed.

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NASA’s Airborne Observatory Begins 2015 Science Campaign

January 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Credit: NASA/USRA/Greg Perryman

Credit: NASA/USRA/Greg Perryman

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, Program began its third season of science flights on Jan. 13, 2015. SOFIA is NASA’s next generation flying observatory and is fitted with a 2.5-meter (100-inch) diameter telescope that studies the universe at infrared wavelengths.

“Last night’s flight used the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) spectrometer to study the chemical composition and motions of gas in a star-forming region, a young star, and a supernova remnant,” said Pamela Marcum, NASA’s SOFIA project scientist. “Observing at infrared wavelengths enables us to see through interstellar dust to record the spectral signatures of molecules in these regions. From this we can study the abundances of molecules and their formation process.”

Water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared radiation, preventing a large section of the infrared spectrum from reaching ground-based observatories. SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747 Special Performance jetliner that flies at altitudes between 39,000 to 45,000 feet (12 to 14 km), above more than 99 percent of Earth’s atmospheric water vapor giving astronomers the ability to study celestial objects at wavelengths that cannot be seen from ground-based observatories.

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The Gemini Planet Imager Produces Stunning Observations In Its First Year

January 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Image credit: Christian Marois (NRC Canada), Patrick Ingraham (Stanford University) and the GPI Team

Image credit: Christian Marois (NRC Canada), Patrick Ingraham (Stanford University) and the GPI Team

Stunning exoplanet images and spectra from the first year of science operations with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) were featured today in a press conference at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle, Washington. The Gemini Planet Imager GPI is an advanced instrument designed to observe the environments close to bright stars to detect and study Jupiter-like exoplanets (planets around other stars) and see protostellar material (disk, rings) that might be lurking next to the star.

Marshall Perrin (Space Telescope Science Institute), one of the instrument’s team leaders, presented a pair of recent and promising results at the press conference. He revealed some of the most detailed images and spectra ever of the multiple planet system HR 8799. His presentation also included never-seen details in the dusty ring of the young star HR 4796A. “GPI’s advanced imaging capabilities have delivered exquisite images and data,” said Perrin. “These improved views are helping us piece together what’s going on around these stars, yet also posing many new questions.”

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A New, Public View Of The Sky

January 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Photo: Adam Block and Vic Eden/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/UA

Photo: Adam Block and Vic Eden/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/UA

For the first time, scientists and the public are beginning to see the large-scale structure of the universe, thanks to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. UA scientists provide scientific expertise and crucial technology to the largest project ever undertaken to map the cosmos.

On Jan. 6, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey issued its latest public data release, the final release of the third epoch of the survey. Weighing in at more than 100 Terabytes, “Data Release 12” (DR12) contains measurements of the properties of nearly half a billion stars and galaxies, making it one of the largest and richest databases in the history of astronomy.

“The most astonishing feature of the SDSS is the breadth of ground-breaking research it enables,” said Daniel Eisenstein of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the director of SDSS-III. Eisenstein started the survey during his tenure as a professor at the UA’s Steward Observatory, one of the survey’s partner institutions.

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NASA Observatories Take An Unprecedented Look Into Superstar Eta Carinae

January 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Image Credit:  NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Image Credit:
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Eta Carinae, the most luminous and massive stellar system within 10,000 light-years of Earth, is known for its surprising behavior, erupting twice in the 19th century for reasons scientists still don’t understand. A long-term study led by astronomers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, used NASA satellites, ground-based telescopes and theoretical modeling to produce the most comprehensive picture of Eta Carinae to date. New findings include Hubble Space Telescope images that show decade-old shells of ionized gas racing away from the largest star at a million miles an hour, and new 3-D models that reveal never-before-seen features of the stars’ interactions.

“We are coming to understand the present state and complex environment of this remarkable object, but we have a long way to go to explain Eta Carinae’s past eruptions or to predict its future behavior,” said Goddard astrophysicist Ted Gull, who coordinates a research group that has monitored the star for more than a decade.

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‘Perfect Storm’ Quenching Star Formation Around A Supermassive Black Hole

December 17, 2014 Leave a comment

A combined Hubble Space Telescope / ALMA image of NGC 1266. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

A combined Hubble Space Telescope / ALMA image of NGC 1266. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

High-energy jets powered by supermassive black holes can blast away a galaxy’s star-forming fuel, resulting in so-called “red and dead” galaxies: those brimming with ancient red stars yet containing little or no hydrogen gas to create new ones.

Now astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered that black holes don’t have to be nearly so powerful to shut down star formation. By observing the dust and gas at the center of NGC 1266, a nearby lenticular galaxy with a relatively modest central black hole, the astronomers have detected a “perfect storm” of turbulence that is squelching star formation in a region that would otherwise be an ideal star factory.

This turbulence is stirred up by jets from the galaxy’s central black hole slamming into an incredibly dense envelope of gas. This dense region, which may be the result of a recent merger with another smaller galaxy, blocks nearly 98 percent of material propelled by the jets from escaping the galactic center.

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Surprising Theorists, Stars Within Middle-Aged Clusters Are Of Similar Age

December 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Image: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope/Fabian RRRR

Image: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope/Fabian RRRR

A close look at the night sky reveals that stars don’t like to be alone; instead, they congregate in clusters, in some cases containing as many as several million stars. Until recently, the oldest of these populous star clusters were considered well understood, with the stars in a single group having formed at different times, over periods of more than 300 million years. Yet new research published online today in the journal Nature suggests that the star formation in these clusters is more complex.

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, a team of researchers at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA) at Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Science’s National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing have found that, in large middle-aged clusters at least, all stars appear to be of about the same age.

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Stretched-Out Solid Exoplanets

December 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Artist’s impression. Credit: Shivam Sikroria

Artist’s impression. Credit: Shivam Sikroria

Astronomers could soon be able to find rocky planets stretched out by the gravity of the stars they orbit, according to a group of researchers in the United States. The team, led by Prabal Saxena of George Mason University, describe how to detect these exotic worlds in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Since the first discovery in 1993, more than 1800 planets have been found in orbit around stars other than our Sun. These ‘exoplanets’ are incredibly diverse, with some gaseous like Jupiter and some mostly rocky like the Earth. The worlds also orbit their stars at very different distances, from less than a million km to nearly 100 billion km away.

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UCLA Astronomers Solve Puzzle About Bizarre Object At The Center Of Our Galaxy

November 3, 2014 Leave a comment

For years, astronomers have been puzzled by a bizarre object in the center of the Milky Way that was believed to be a hydrogen gas cloud headed toward our galaxy’s enormous black hole.

Having studied it during its closest approach to the black hole this summer, UCLA astronomers believe that they have solved the riddle of the object widely known as G2.

A team led by Andrea Ghez, professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College, determined that G2 is most likely a pair of binary stars that had been orbiting the black hole in tandem and merged together into an extremely large star, cloaked in gas and dust — its movements choreographed by the black hole’s powerful gravitational field. The research is published today in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Cosmic Forecast: Dark Clouds Will Give Way To Sunshine

September 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Credit: ESO

Credit: ESO

Lupus 4, a spider-shaped blob of gas and dust, blots out background stars like a dark cloud on a moonless night in this intriguing new image. Although gloomy for now, dense pockets of material within clouds such as Lupus 4 are where new stars form and where they will later burst into radiant life. The Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile captured this new picture.

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