This week I recommend to follow @LRO_NASA for interesting tweets from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently in orbit about 50 km above the Moon. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy
NASA’s Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets
Astronomers using data from NASA’s Kepler mission have discovered the three smallest planets yet detected orbiting a star beyond our sun. The planets orbit a single star, called KOI-961, and are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars. All three planets are thought to be rocky like Earth, but orbit close to their star. That makes them too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water could exist. Of the more than 700 planets confirmed to orbit other stars only a handful are known to be rocky.
Reporting Kepler 20e and 20f
How well do major American and British newspapers report space science news? The answer matters because it is print rather than broadcast news that continues to do the heavy lifting in communicating complex information. Even when the general audience is reading online about events involving space the source is typically a newspaper. Comparing the coverage in major American and British newspapers of the discovery of extrasolar planets Kepler 20e and 20f on December 21 offers interesting insights.
Billions of habitable planets in Milky Way
Most of the stars in the Milky Way have Earthlike planets meaning there are billions of potentially habitable worlds in our galaxy, a new study claims. By scouring millions of stars in the night sky over six years, researchers found that the majority of the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way have planets similar to Earth or Mercury, Venus or Mars, the other similar planets in our solar system. They estimated that in our galaxy there are about 10 billion stars with planets in the “habitable zone” — the distance from the star where solid planets can be found — many of which could in theory be capable of supporting life.
Saturn-Like Ring System Eclipses Sun-Like Star
A team of astrophysicists from the University of Rochester and Europe has discovered a ring system in the constellation Centaurus that invites comparisons to Saturn. The scientists, led by Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Eric Mamajek of Rochester and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, used data from the international SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) and All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS) project to study the light curves of young Sun-like stars in the Scorpius-Centaurus association — the nearest region of recent massive star formation to the Sun.
Clearest Picture Yet of Dark Matter Points the Way to Better Understanding of Dark Energy
Two teams of physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have independently made the largest direct measurements of the invisible scaffolding of the universe, building maps of dark matter using new methods that, in turn, will remove key hurdles for understanding dark energy with ground-based telescopes. The teams’ measurements look for tiny distortions in the images of distant galaxies, called “cosmic shear,” caused by the gravitational influence of massive, invisible dark matter structures in the foreground.
Russian Space Failures May Be Result of Foul Play, Official Says
Foul play may be responsible for the failure of Russia’s Mars probe Phobos-Grunt, as well as a string of other embarrassing setbacks that plagued the country’s space agency last year, the agency’s chief suggested. The 14.5-ton Phobos-Grunt spacecraft got stuck in Earth orbit shortly after its Nov. 8 launch, and Russian officials predict it will crash back into the atmosphere this Sunday (Jan. 15). Shadowy unnamed actors may have brought the probe down and caused four other Russian space failures in 2011, hinted Vladimir Popovkin, chief of Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos).
El Gordo: A ‘Fat’ Distant Galaxy Cluster
An extremely hot, massive young galaxy cluster — the largest ever seen in the distant Universe — has been studied by an international team using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the Atacama Desert in Chile along with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Atacama Cosmology Telescope. The new results are being announced on 10 January 2012 at the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas. The newly discovered galaxy cluster has been nicknamed El Gordo — the “big” or “fat one” in Spanish.
For many astronomers who study extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, the ultimate goal — at least in their professional lifetimes — is to obtain images of those planets, particularly Earth-sized worlds orbiting other stars. To do this would require a large space-based telescope, likely equipped with a mechanism such as a coronagraph or starshade to block the star’s light so that the much dimmer planets can be seen. Such a mission faces many technical obstacles, but arguably even greater fiscal ones: with NASA’s science budgets likely to be constrained for the foreseeable future, there will be limited funding available for so-called “flagship” missions.
Before They Were Stars: New Image Shows Space Nursery
The stars we see today weren’t always as serene as they appear, floating alone in the dark of night. Most stars, likely including our sun, grew up in cosmic turmoil — as illustrated in a new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The image shows one of the most active and turbulent regions of star birth in our galaxy, a region called Cygnus X. The choppy cloud of gas and dust lies 4,500 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Cygnus X was named by radio astronomers, since it is one of the brightest radio regions in the Milky Way.
Farthest Developing Galaxy Cluster Ever Found
In a random sky survey made in near-infrared light, Hubble found five tiny galaxies clustered together 13.1 billion light-years away. They are among the brightest galaxies at that epoch and very young — existing just 600 million years after the big bang. Galaxy clusters are the largest structures in the universe, comprising hundreds to thousands of galaxies bound together by gravity. The developing cluster, or protocluster, is seen as it looked 13 billion years ago. Presumably, it has grown into one of today’s massive galactic cities, comparable to the nearby Virgo cluster of more than 2,000 galaxies.
Far Out! New Deep Space Mission Ideas Draw NASA’s Eye
NASA is taking a close look at new concepts to send crews on deep space expeditions near the moon, as a promising next major “stepping stone” for human spaceflight. The goal of the appraisal is to focus on what can be accomplished affordably in the near future, to showcase NASA’s ability to venture beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO). The space agency’s last manned foray beyond LEO was 39 years ago — the Apollo 17 trek to the moon in 1972. It was the sixth and last moon landing mission by astronauts.
Rare Ultra-Blue Stars Found in Neighboring Galaxy’s Hub
Peering deep inside the hub of the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered a large, rare population of hot, bright stars. Blue is typically an indicator of hot, young stars. In this case, however, the stellar oddities are aging, Sun-like stars that have prematurely cast off their outer layers of material, exposing their extremely blue-hot cores. Astronomers were surprised when they spotted these stars because physical models show that only an unusual type of old star can be as hot and as bright in ultraviolet light.
Mystery of Source of Supernova in Nearby Galaxy Solved
Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have solved a longstanding mystery of the type of star, or so-called progenitor, which caused a supernova seen in a nearby galaxy. The finding yields new observational data for pinpointing one of several scenarios that trigger such outbursts. Based on previous observations from ground-based telescopes, astronomers knew that a kind of supernova called a Type Ia supernova created a remnant named SNR 0509-67.5, which lies 170,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy.
A new paradigm for arbitrating disputes in outer space
The topic of outer space law instinctively brings to mind the founding international treaties that comprise the international body of space law. These foundational treaties provide the core of principles for states performing outer space activities. Aside from international space law, individual countries promulgate domestic space law. These laws, the most recent of which was passed by the Austrian Parliament on December 6, 2011, stipulate among other things the conditions where citizens under its jurisdiction may perform space activities.
Astronomers Pinpoint Launch of ‘Bullets’ in a Black Hole’s Jet
Using observations from NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope, an international team of astronomers has identified the moment when a black hole in our galaxy launched super-fast knots of gas into space. Racing outward at about one-quarter the speed of light, these “bullets” of ionized gas are thought to arise from a region located just outside the black hole’s event horizon, the point beyond which nothing can escape.
Planets With Double Suns Are Common
Astronomers using NASA’s Kepler mission have discovered two new circumbinary planet systems — planets that orbit two stars, like Tatooine in the movie Star Wars. Their find, which brings the number of known circumbinary planets to three, shows that planets with two suns must be common, with many millions existing in our Galaxy. “Once again, we’re seeing science fact catching up with science fiction,” said co-author Josh Carter of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
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