This week I recommend to follow @NASA_Astronauts to hear from all NASA’s astronauts on Twitter, plus updates on astronaut activities. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy
How Star-Forming Galaxies Evolve Into ‘Red and Dead’ Elliptical Galaxies
Astronomers using the partially completed ALMA observatory have found compelling evidence for how star-forming galaxies evolve into ‘red and dead’ elliptical galaxies, catching a large group of galaxies right in the middle of this change. For years, astronomers have been developing a picture of galaxy evolution in which mergers between spiral galaxies could explain why nearby large elliptical galaxies have so few young stars. The theoretical picture is chaotic and violent: The merging galaxies knock gas and dust into clumps of rapid star formation, called starbursts, and down into the maws of the supermassive black hole growing in the merger’s core.
Alien Life May Depend on Planetary Tilt
Although winter now grips the Northern Hemisphere, those who dislike the cold weather can rest assured that warmer months shall return. This familiar pattern of spring, summer, fall and winter does more than merely provide variety, however. The fact that life can exist at all on Earth is closely tied to seasonality, which is a sign of global temperature moderation. The driver of our seasons is the slight “lean” Earth has in its rotational axis as it revolves around the sun, known as axial tilt or obliquity. According to René Heller, a postdoctoral research associate at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam, Germany, astrobiologists have not yet paid much attention to this variable in gauging the possibility for alien life to exist on distant planets.
Big science in an era of tight budgets
The James Webb Space Telescope survived its budgetary battle last year, but tight budgets could create problems for it and other astronomy and space science missions in the years to come. Sometimes in science, bigger is better. That’s the case in astronomy, where there’s a continuous push for larger telescopes, or larger arrays of telescopes, to allow astronomers to see dimmer objects and at greater resolutions, pushing the frontiers of astronomy in regimes from the solar system to the origins of the universe.
Milky Way’s Color Is White As a Morning’s Snow
Our galaxy is aptly named the Milky Way — it looks white, the color of fresh spring snow in the early morning, scientists now reveal. Color is a key detail of galaxies, shedding light on its history of star formation. Unfortunately, since we are located well within our galaxy, clouds of gas and dust obscure all but the closest regions of the galaxy from view, keeping us from directly seeing what color our galaxy is as a whole. “We can really only see 1,000 to 2,000 light-years in any direction — the Milky Way is 100,000 light-years across,” said study co-author Jeffrey Newman at the University of Pittsburgh.
Moon-Walk Mineral Discovered in Western Australia
The last mineral thought to have been unique to the Moon has been discovered in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia. It was identified by researchers at The University of Western Australia’s Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis (CMCA). Tranquillityite, named after the Sea of Tranquillity where the Apollo 11 moon-walkers landed in July 1969, was tentatively identified by Professor Birger Rasmussen from Curtin University while studying a polished slice of earthly rock in a scanning electron microscope.
Saturn’s Moon Titan May be More Earth-Like Than Thought
Saturn’s moon Titan may be more similar to an Earth-like world than previously thought, possessing a layered atmosphere just like our planet, researchers said. Titan is Saturn’s largest moon, and is the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere. A better understanding of how its hazy, soupy atmosphere works could shed light on similar ones scientists might find on alien planets and moons. However, conflicting details about how Titan’s atmosphere is structured have emerged over the years.
Helix Nebula in New Colors
ESO’s VISTA telescope, at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, has captured a striking new image of the Helix Nebula. This picture, taken in infrared light, reveals strands of cold nebular gas that are invisible in images taken in visible light, as well as bringing to light a rich background of stars and galaxies. The Helix Nebula is one of the closest and most remarkable examples of a planetary nebula. It lies in the constellation of Aquarius, about 700 light-years away from Earth. This strange object formed when a star like the Sun was in the final stages of its life.
Failed Russian Mars Probe Crashes Into Pacific Ocean: Reports
A failed Russian Mars probe came crashing back to Earth Sunday (Jan. 15) in a death plunge over the Pacific Ocean, according to Russian news reports. After languishing in Earth orbit for more than two months, the 14.5-ton Phobos-Grunt spacecraft fell at around 12:45 p.m. EST (1745 GMT) Sunday, apparently slamming into the atmosphere over a stretch of the southern Pacific off the coast of Chile, Russian officials told the Ria Novosti news agency.
Astronomers Release Unprecedented Data Set On Celestial Objects That Brighten and Dim
Astronomers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the University of Arizona have released the largest data set ever collected that documents the brightening and dimming of stars and other celestial objects — two hundred million in total. The night sky is filled with objects like asteroids that dash across the sky and others — like exploding stars and variable stars-that flash, dim, and brighten. Studying such phenomena can help astronomers better understand the evolution of stars, massive black holes in the centers of galaxies, and the structure of the Milky Way.
Space Bubbles Offer Glimpse at Our Sun’s Evolution
Bubbles full of stars are now shedding light on how our sun and its siblings might have formed, scientists find. Stars like our sun likely formed in clusters associated with massive stars. These huge stars are thought to form in the centers of giant clouds of cold gas maybe a million times the mass of our sun, with the hot winds these massive stars give off carving out bubbles within these clouds. “Almost all the stars in the galaxy formed in hot bubbles where huge stars formed,” said the study’s lead author, Xavier Koenig, at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Dark Side of the Moon Revealed: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s LAMP Reveals Lunar Surface Features
New maps produced by the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal features at the Moon’s northern and southern poles in regions that lie in perpetual darkness. LAMP, developed by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), uses a novel method to peer into these so-called permanently shadowed regions (PSRs), making visible the invisible. LAMP’s principal investigator is Dr. Alan Stern, associate vice president of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division.
NASA’s Newest Telescope Survives Funding Battle, But Challenges Remain
NASA’s ambitious next generation space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, has become known more for running way over budget than for the exciting and potentially groundbreaking discoveries it could make. But, with funding now secured for the 2012 fiscal year, it is time to prove the naysayers wrong, project team members say. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is being billed as the successor to the prolific Hubble Space Telescope, but cost overruns have plagued the project, particularly in recent years.
Hubble Zooms in On Double Nucleus in Andromeda Galaxy
A new Hubble Space Telescope image centers on the 100-million-solar-mass black hole at the hub of the neighboring spiral galaxy M31, or the Andromeda galaxy, the only galaxy outside the Milky Way visible to the naked eye and the only other giant galaxy in the local group. This is the sharpest visible-light image ever made of the nucleus of an external galaxy. The event horizon, the closest region around the black hole where light can still escape, is too small to be seen, but it lies near the middle of a compact cluster of blue stars at the center of the image.
European Probe Finishes Mapping Big Bang’s Echo
A European space observatory that’s surveying the light left over from the birth of the universe has wrapped up a big part of its mission. The High Frequency Instrument (HFI), one of two sensors aboard the European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft, ran out of its vital coolant as planned Saturday (Jan. 14), ESA officials announced. Without the coolant, the instrument can’t detect the faint cosmic microwave background (CMB) — the remnant radiation left over from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.
Most Distant Dwarf Galaxy Detected
Scientists have long struggled to detect the dim dwarf galaxies that orbit our own galaxy. So it came as a surprise on Jan. 18 when a team of astronomers using Keck II telescope’s adaptive optics has announced the discovery of a dwarf galaxy halfway across the universe. The new dwarf galaxy found by MIT’s Dr. Simona Vegetti and colleagues is a satellite of an elliptical galaxy almost 10 billion light-years away from Earth. The team detected it by studying how the massive elliptical galaxy, called JVAS B1938 + 666, serves as a gravitational lens for light from an even more distant galaxy directly behind it.
1st Private Rocket Launch to Space Station Delayed
The first test flight of a privately built robot space capsule to the International Space Station has been delayed to allow more time to prepare the vehicle, the spacecraft’s builder announced today (Jan. 16). The unmanned Dragon space capsule, built by the California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), was scheduled to launch toward the space station on Feb. 7, but the company has decided to postpone the flight to accommodate more engineering tests.
How to See the Moon: Telescope Viewing Tips
Anyone who received a telescope over the holidays may be itching to try it out. The most popular first target for any telescope is our nearest neighbor in space, the moon. Here are some tips to make your first telescopic encounter with the moon more enjoyable: Before looking at the moon with your new telescope, take a good look at it with your naked eyes. The most noticeable thing about the moon is that it is large enough to show some detail without any optical aid. As the moon moves in its orbit around the Earth, the sun’s light strikes it from different angles, sometimes illuminating only a thin crescent from behind, at other times shining full on, making it a full moon.
If you would like to have the chance for your articles to be featured in a future issue of this weekly series follow us on Twitter @TheAstroBlog.