Astronomy in the News

A New Organic Molecule Has Been Detected in Our Galaxy's Interstellar Space   Science Alert - June 18, 2020

Near the center of the Milky Way, in a vast cloud in the space between the stars, astronomers have identified an organic molecule never before detected in the interstellar medium. It's called propargylimine, and it could play a key role in the formation of the amino acids vital for the emergence of life.

Hoag's Object Is a Galaxy Within a Galaxy Within a Galaxy (and Nobody Knows Why)   Live Science - December 3, 2019

What's going on here, and what tore Hoag's object in two? Astronomers still aren't sure; ring galaxies account for less than 0.1% of all known galaxies, and so they aren't the easiest objects to study. Hoag himself suggested that the galaxy's peculiar ring formation was merely an optical illusion caused by gravitational lensing (an effect that occurs when extremely high-mass objects bend and magnify light). Later studies with better telescopes disproved this idea.

Thermonuclear Explosion in Sagittarius Constellation Is One of the Brightest Ever Recorded   Live Science - November 12, 2019
The explosion lasted 20 seconds and emitted as much energy as the sun does in 10 days. Many millions or billions of years ago, a gargantuan star in the Sagittarius constellation named J1808 ran out of fuel, collapsed under its own weight and exploded. Blasts like this are common in the cosmos; scientists know they're part of a process that transforms mighty suns into shriveled neutron stars - the smallest and densest stars in the universe.

What has astronomers intrigued about J1808 today, however, is the fact that it's still exploding, and apparently showering our galaxy with some of the most intense blasts of light ever detected. On Aug. 20, 2019, a special neutron-star-watching telescope aboard the International Space Station (ISS) recorded a thermonuclear explosion on J1808 that blew all previously detected explosions away. The brief burst of X-ray light flickered for just 20 seconds, but released more energy in that time than Earth's sun releases in 10 days, according to a NASA news release. It was the single brightest flash of energy ever recorded by the telescope, which went online in 2017.

Water found for first time on potentially habitable planet   BBC - September 11, 2019
The finding makes the world - which is called K2-18b - a plausible candidate in the search for alien life.

'Renegade' White Dwarf Survived a Supernova. Now It's Warping the Little Dipper Before Our Eyes.   Live Science - July 11, 2019
There's a rebellious, half-dead star in the Little Dipper that's hellbent on escaping our galaxy - and now, astronomers have an idea why. The star, a small white dwarf that's moving incredibly fast toward the edge of the galaxy, may be one of just a handful of known white dwarfs that exploded in supernovas and lived to tell the tale, according to a study published June 21 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Academic Astronomical Society. This unusual star, named LP 40-365 is a "partly burnt runaway remnant," suggesting that a peculiar, weaker-than-average supernova rendered the star much smaller, faster and toastier than a typical white dwarf. Strange as it appears, this stellar oddity may not be alone.

Mysterious radio signals from deep space detected   BBC - January 9, 2019
Astronomers have revealed details of mysterious signals emanating from a distant galaxy, picked up by a telescope in Canada. The precise nature and origin of the blasts of radio waves is unknown. Among the 13 fast radio bursts, known as FRBs, was a very unusual repeating signal, coming from the same source about 1.5 billion light years away. Such an event has only been reported once before, by a different telescope. Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there. And with more repeaters and more sources available for study, we may be able to understand these cosmic puzzles - where they're from and what causes them. The telescope only got up and running last year, detecting 13 of the radio bursts almost immediately, including the repeater.

Scientists Have Discovered a Mysterious Repeating Radio Signal from Deep Space   Live Science - January 10, 2019

A second mysterious repeating fast radio burst has been detected in space   CNN - January 9, 2019

New Horizons Spacecraft Makes New Year's Day Flyby of Ultima Thule, the Farthest Rendezvous Ever - January 1, 2019

As the world celebrated the start of 2019, scientists with NASA's New Horizons spacecraft partied with them. But the bigger celebration came just over 30 minutes later, when New Horizons made history with the flyby of Ultima Thule, a mysterious object 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth in the Kuiper Belt, home to frozen relics left over from the birth of the solar system. It's the farthest flyby of an object in our solar system; and the second rendezvous for New Horizons, which visited Pluto in July 2015.

Strange 'rogue planet' travels through space alone   CNN - August 7, 2018
A strange 200 million-year-old object with the mass of a planet has been discovered 20 light-years from Earth, outside our solar system. The "rogue," as it's referred to by researchers, is producing an unexplained glowing aurora and travels through space alone, without a parent star. The object, named SIMP J01365663+0933473, has 12.7 times the mass of the gas giant Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. It also has a strong magnetic field that is more than 200 times stronger than Jupiter's. The temperature on its surface is more than 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Although this sounds hot, it's quite cool compared with the sun's surface temperature of about 9,932 degrees Fahrenheit. So what exactly is this rogue object?

Huge rogue 'planet' has magnetic field scientists can't explain

Have astronomers finally found Planet Nine? Four candidates for the mysterious world are located   Daily Mail - April 3, 2017
It has captured the imagination of astronomers and sci-fi fans alike, and could turn out to be a real rogue world. And now researchers believe they may have narrowed down the search for the elusive . Astronomers are investigating four unknown objects that could be candidates for a new planet in our solar system.

Planet Nine is a hypothetical large planet in the far outer Solar System, the gravitational effects of which would explain the improbable orbital configuration of a group of trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) that orbit mostly beyond the Kuiper belt.

Mystery cosmic radio bursts pinpointed   BBC - January 4, 2017
As the name suggests, Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are short-lived - but powerful - pulses of radio waves from the cosmos. Their brevity, combined with the fact that it's difficult to pinpoint their location, have ensured their origins remain enigmatic. Outlining their work at a major conference, astronomers say they have now traced the source of one of these bursts to a different galaxy. It's an important step to finally solving the mystery, which has spawned a variety of different possible explanations, from black holes to extra-terrestrial intelligence. There are more theories for what these could be than there are observed bursts.

'Roundest known space object' identified   BBC - November 18, 2016
Astronomers claim to have discovered the roundest object ever measured in nature. Kepler 11145123 is a distant, slowly rotating star that's more than twice the size of the Sun. Researchers were able to show that the difference between its radius as measured to the equator and the radius measured to the poles was just 3km. "This makes Kepler 11145123 the roundest natural object ever measured," said lead author Prof Laurent Gizon. He added that it was "even more round than the Sun".

  Closest potentially habitable planet to our solar system found   CNN - August 24, 2016
In a discovery that has been years in the making, researchers have confirmed the existence of a rocky planet named Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun, according to a new study. It is the closest exoplanet to us in the universe. Given the fact that Proxima b is within the habitable zone of its star, meaning liquid water could exist on the surface, it may also be the closest possible home for life outside of our solar system, the researchers said. Because of its location, the researchers hope that it provides an opportunity to "attempt further characterization via ongoing searches by direct imaging and high-resolution spectroscopy in the next decades, and possibly robotic exploration in the coming centuries."

Found! Potentially Earth-Like Planet at Proxima Centauri Is Closest Ever   Live Science - August 24, 2016
Astronomers have discovered a roughly Earth-size alien world around Proxima Centauri, which lies just 4.2 light-years from our own solar system. What's even more exciting, study team members said, is that the planet, known as Proxima b, circles in the star's "habitable zone" - the range of distances at which liquid water could be stable on a world's surface.

A new Einstein Ring: Distant galaxy lensed by gravity   Science Daily - June 2, 2016
A multinational team of astronomers has found an Einstein Ring, a rare image of a distant galaxy lensed by gravity. In his seminal general theory of relativity published a century ago, Albert Einstein predicted that gravity would distort the fabric of spacetime, and that light would follow curved paths as a result. Astronomers first observed this effect in 1919, by measuring the position of stars near the Sun during the 1919 total solar eclipse, and noting a slight shift resulting from the gravitational field of our nearest star. On a larger scale, light from distant galaxies is bent by black holes and massive galaxies that lie between them and Earth. The intervening objects act as lenses, creating arcs and 'Einstein rings' of light.

Manchester astronomers detect precious element in space   PhysOrg - May 13, 2016
A team of astronomers have detected a rare gas 4000 light years away from Earth. The discovery could help scientists to understand more about the history of this important element. Helium-3 is a gas that has the potential to be used as a fuel in nuclear fusion power plants in the future, and is crucial for use in cryogenics and medical imaging techniques. There is very little of it available on Earth, so most of it is manufactured in nuclear laboratories at great cost. There are thought to be significant supplies on the Moon, and several governments around the world have signaled their intention to go to there to mine it, which could trigger a new space race.

Most eccentric planet ever known flashes astronomers with reflected light   Science Daily - March 19, 2016
A team of astronomers has spotted an extrasolar planet that boasts the most eccentric orbit ever seen. The planet moves in a flattened ellipse, traveling a long path far from its star and then making a fast slingshot around the star at its closest approach. Researchers detected a 'flash' of starlight bouncing off the planet's atmosphere as it made its closest orbital approach to its star.

Looking to the Stars of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy   Ancient Origins - December 30, 2015
Astronomy played an important role in many ancient societies. Through this natural science, the ancients were able to make calendars, navigate during the night, and even explore the nature of the universe through mythology and philosophy. Some civilizations well-known for their astronomical developments include the Babylonians, the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Greeks. The astronomy of many other cultures, however, has been side-lined, as a result of the prevailing Euro-centric view of astronomy, and civilization, in general. One of these is the astronomy of the Australian Aboriginal people, considered by some to be the oldest in the world.

Moon's Age Revealed, and a Lunar Mystery May Be Solved   Live Science - April 3, 2014
Scientists have pinned down the birth date of the moon to within 100 million years of the birth of the solar system - the best timeline yet for the evolution of our planet's natural satellite. This new discovery about the origin of the moon may help solve a mystery about why the moon and the Earth appear virtually identical in makeup, investigators added. Scientists have suggested the moon was formed 4.5 billion years ago by a gigantic collision between a Mars-size object named Theiaand Earth, a crash that would have largely melted the Earth. This model suggested that more than 40 percent of the moon was made up of debris from this impacting body. Current theory suggests that Earth experienced several giant impacts during its formation, with the moon-forming impact being the last.


Gravity measurements confirm subsurface ocean on Saturn's moon Enceladus   Science Daily - April 3, 2014
In 2005, NASA's Cassini spacecraft sent pictures back to Earth depicting an icy Saturnian moon spewing water vapor and ice from fractures, known as "tiger stripes," in its frozen surface. It was big news that tiny Enceladus - a mere 500 kilometers in diameter - was such an active place. Since then, scientists have hypothesized that a large reservoir of water lies beneath that icy surface, possibly fueling the plumes. Now, using gravity measurements collected by Cassini, scientists have confirmed that Enceladus does in fact harbor a large subsurface ocean near its south pole, beneath those tiger stripes.


Icy body found orbiting far from Sun   BBC - March 26, 2014
Scientists have identified a new dwarf planet in the distant reaches of our Solar System. It is being called 2012 VP113 for the time being, is about 450km across and is very likely icy in composition. To date, only one other such object has been seen orbiting beyond the major planets in its region of space referred to as the inner Oort Cloud. That previous object, called Sedna, is about 1,000km across, and was found 10 years ago. But researchers believe there are hundreds more such objects awaiting detection.

Dwarf Planet Discovery Hints at Hidden World Orbiting Solar System   National Geographic - March 26, 2014
Discovery of an icy "dwarf" world beyond Pluto hints that a much bigger planet may hide even farther out in the dim reaches of the solar system, astronomers suggested on Wednesday.

New Planets

Icy Chariklo asteroid has ring system   BBC - March 26, 2014
> The asteroid Chariklo has been confirmed as the smallest object in the Solar System to display a ring system. Encircling bands of material are more usually associated with the giant planets, such as Saturn and Uranus. Chariklo may be just 250km wide but observations made when it passed in front of a distant star reveal the presence of two distinct rings.

Asteroids in the News

On Venus, Rainbow-Like 'Glory' Seen for 1st Time (Photos)   Live Science - March 26, 2014
Scientists have captured shimmering rainbow colors above Venus for the first time using a European spacecraft currently orbiting the cloud-covered planet. The new Venus photos mark the first time that a rainbow-like "glory" has been photographed on another world besides the Earth, officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) announced this month. The phenomenon also pointed to a mystery in the hothouse planet's atmosphere, they added. ESA's Venus Express spacecraft captured a 746-mile (1,200 kilometer) glory on Feb. 24, 2011 that happened when the sun shone on sulfuric acid droplets atop the atmosphere. The phenomenon was spotted about 43 miles (70 kilometers) above Venus' surface after researchers took pictures of the clouds with the sun directly behind the spacecraft.


Kepler telescope bags huge haul of planets   BBC - February 27, 2014
The science team sifting data from the US space agency's (Nasa) Kepler telescope says it has identified 715 new planets beyond our Solar System. This is a huge new haul. In the nearly two decades since the first so-called exoplanet was discovered, researchers had claimed the detection of just over 1,000 new worlds. Kepler's latest bounty are all in multi-planet systems; they orbit only 305 stars. The vast majority, 95%, are smaller than our Neptune, which is four times the radius of the Earth. Four of the new planets are less than 2.5 times the radius of Earth, and they orbit their host suns in the "habitable zone" - the region around a star where water can keep a liquid state.


New Planets

Goldilocks Planets

'Biggest observed meteorite impact' hits Moon   BBC - February 24, 2014
> Scientists say they have observed a record-breaking impact on the Moon. Spanish astronomers spotted a meteorite with a mass of about half a tonne crashing into the lunar surface last September. They say the collision would have generated a flash of light so bright that it would have been visible from Earth. "This is the largest, brightest impact we have ever observed on the Moon," said Prof Jose Madiedo, of the University of Huelva in south-western Spain. The explosive strike was spotted by the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (Midas) of telescopes in southern Spain on 11 September at 20:07 GMT.

Earth's Moon


'Oldest star' found from iron fingerprint   PhysOrg - February 10, 2014
A team of astronomers has discovered the oldest known star in the Universe, which formed shortly after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. The discovery has allowed astronomers for the first time to study the chemistry of the first stars, giving scientists a clearer idea of what the Universe was like in its infancy. As the Big Bang's name suggests, the universe burst into formation from an immense explosion, creating a vast soup of particles. Gigantic clouds of primordial soup, made mainly of hydrogen and helium, eventually collapsed to form the first stars - massive, luminous, short-lived objects that exploded as supernovae soon after. In the wake of such explosions, gas clouds gave rise to a second generation of stars that telescopes can still pick out today. Scientists have thought that the first stars in the universe burst with tremendous energy, spewing out the first heavy elements, such as carbon, iron, and oxygen. But according to new research from MIT, not all of these first stars may have been forceful exploders.


No Black Holes Exist, Says Stephen Hawking - At Least Not Like We Think   National Geographic - January 27, 2014
Black holes do not exist - at least, not as we know them, says renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, potentially provoking a rethink of one of space's most mysterious objects. A new study from Hawking also says that black holes may not possess "firewalls," destructive belts of radiation that some researchers have proposed would incinerate anything that passes through them but others scientists deem an impossibility. The conventional view of black holes posits that their gravitational pull is so powerful that nothing can escape from them - not even light, which is why they're called black holes. The boundary past which there is supposedly no return is known as the event horizon. In this conception, all information about anything that ventures past a black hole's event horizon is destroyed. On the other hand, quantum physics, the best description so far of how the universe behaves on a subatomic level, suggests that information cannot ever be destroyed, leading to a fundamental conflict in theory. Now Hawking is suggesting a resolution to the paradox: Black holes do not possess event horizons after all, so they do not destroy information.

Black Holes

Exceptionally close stellar explosion discovered   Science Daily - January 27, 2014
An exceptionally close stellar explosion discovered on Jan. 21 has become the focus of observatories around and above the globe, including several NASA spacecraft. The blast, designated SN 2014J, occurred in the galaxy M82 and lies only about 12 million light-years away. This makes it the nearest optical supernova in two decades and potentially the closest type Ia supernova to occur during the life of currently operating space missions.


Herschel Telescope Detects Water On Dwarf Planet in Asteroid Belt   Science Daily - January 22, 2014
Scientists using the Herschel space observatory have made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest and roundest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres. Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up periodically from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet, a solar system body bigger than an asteroid and smaller than a planet.

Asteroid Belt

Cosmic Lens Caught Bending Bright Gamma-Ray Burst, a Space First   Live Science - January 22, 2014
A telescope in space has captured a rare kind of cosmic alignment for the first time. NASA's Fermi telescope has captured the first gamma-ray measurements of a gravitational lens, a rare natural alignment in which a massive body distorts light from a more distant object. A team of international astronomers used the observatory to study the emission from one galaxy as its energetic emissions passed through another spiral galaxy on their way toward Earth.

Milky Way may have formed 'inside-out': Gaia provides new insight into Galactic evolution   PhysOrg - January 20, 2014
A breakthrough using data from the Gaia-ESO project has provided evidence backing up theoretically predicted divisions in the chemical composition of the stars that make up the Milky Way's disc the vast collection of giant gas clouds and billions of stars that give our Galaxy its 'flying saucer' shape.


Milky Way shaken... and stirred   PhysOrg - January 20, 2014
A team of scientists headed by Ivan Minchev from the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP), has found a way to reconstruct the evolutionary history of our galaxy, the Milky Way, to a new level of detail. The investigation of a data set of stars near the Sun was decisive for the now published results. The astronomers studied how the vertical motions of stars - in the direction perpendicular to the galactic disc - depend on their ages. Because a direct determination of the age of stars is difficult, the astronomers instead analyzed the chemical composition of stars: an increase in the ratio of magnesium to iron ([Mg/Fe]) points to a greater age.

Rock appears mysteriously in front of Mars Opportunity rover   PhysOrg - January 20, 2014
The lead scientist for NASA's Mars rover exploration team (Steve Squyres) has announced that recent images beamed back by the Opportunity rover show a rock sitting in a place nearby where there wasn't one just twelve days prior. The image, he says, has caused quite a commotion with the rover team as possible explanations for the sudden appearance of the rock are bandied about.

Mysterious Mars Rock Looks Like 'Jelly Donut,' Defies Explanation   Live Science - January 22, 2014
A mystery rock on Mars that suddenly appeared in front of NASA's Opportunity rover may look like a tasty donut, but it is like nothing ever seen on the Martian surface before.