Category Archives: AstroPicture

Our galactic neighbourhood is now charted and available for you to explore

Galactic cartographer Kevin Jardine used data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite to make a map of our galaxy. The map can be easily accessed from his website, Galaxy Map, where you can explore our galactic neighbourhood within 6000 parsecs (almost 20,000 light-years).

A closer look in a radius of 650 pc has been released recently. We see dust in yellow/orange, stars in blue/purple, and gas in red.

The Solar neighbourhood within 650 pc. Credits: galaxymap.org, Twitter: @galaxy_map

Just like medical imaging can highlight parts of our bodies and differentiates them from the surrounding based on their physical properties, the same can be done using astronomical data to map the galaxy. Different regions in the sky have density contrasts, with older stars usually located in less dense regions than hotter stars. With this information, you can separate the regions into different clusters (and see if it’s dust, a younger cluster, an older cluster and so on).

There are 1.7 million stars featured on the map above. The center is “us” (meaning the Sun) surrounded by four quadrants. All maps available are in high quality, so you can zoom in or open in full screen, and look for objects you would like to see, like Orion constellation’s stars. Our perspective gives us the impression that those stars are always together, but with the map, you’ll see their real position in the galaxy.

The Solar neighbourhood. Credits: galaxymap.org, Twitter: @galaxy_map. CLICK TO ZOOM IN.

The galactic cartographer plans to overlay the Galactic Quadrants:  Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. He has also worked to make a board game called Guniibuu, based on the 10-parsec neighborhood.

This is just one example of what can be done with the mountain of space data publicly made available by space agencies such as NASA or ESA.

A more detailed map, where you can search for an object of your preference, hide some features, is available at this link. You can also follow the updated versions on Galaxy Map’s Twitter. The project is already starting to build an active community.

You can also read a paper describing the data here.

12-year astrophotography mosaic of the Milky Way

It took 13 years for the Voyager 1 to take the iconic Pale Blue Dot image, which was part of a mosaic of the solar system. The best observation of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, by the Planck Mission, took more than 4 years. The Hubble Space Telescope’s deep fields can take days observing distant galaxies.

That’s astronomy — many observations take a lot of time; months, even years. Many of these ‘big’ space missions take years and included hundreds of members. From project to launching and publishing, a single project can include over 1,000 people.

For astrophotographers, it’s much rarer to spend this much time on a single project, and there’s often a single photographer or a small team working. In an area with low light pollution, with a good camera in 30 seconds you even get the job done. This type of photo, with the galaxy with a city, over a tree, and even Milky Way with Aurora Borealis is becoming increasingly common.

However, a jaw-dropping amount of hard work spent can also be spent on astronomical photography. Such an example recently came from one astrophotographer, J-P Metsavainio, a Finnish artist who provides images for NASA, National Geographic, and other big groups.

He spent 1,250 hours of his life in the city of Oulu in Finland to make a mosaic of the Milky Way. He adapted his gears to shoot the image, which includes, a camera, a telescope, and other sorts of paraphernalia as you can imagine.

Credits: J-P Metsavainio

It took almost twelve years to finalize this mosaic image. The reason for a long time period is naturally the size of the mosaic and the fact, that image is very deep. Another reason is that I have shot most of the mosaic frames as an individual compositions and publish them as independent artworks. That leads to a kind of complex image set witch is partly overlapping with a lots of unimaged areas between and around frames. I have shot the missing data now and then during the years and last year I was able to publish many sub mosaic images as I got them ready first.

Added Metsavainio in his blog.

The result was a giant 1.7-gigapixel mosaic — to get a scale of how big that is, some iPhones have a 12-megapixel camera. Such a gigantic picture can show us part of our galaxy going from the Taurus to the Cygnus constellations. Here’s the photograph superimposed on the night sky. 

Credits: J-P Metsavainio

What’s even more impressive is the amount of detail from objects lying in that region. The most impressive one is the supernova remnant W63. It took 60 exposure hours to observe this object. Other remnants were observed, and also nebulae.

Credits: J-P Metsavainio

This hard work also involved placing each observation on the correct position by consulting a sky map. An incredibly detailed result for a single-person job. Not so different from astronomers from the past, like William Herschel (with help from his sister), who built a telescope themselves to collect data.  Dedication like this requires a lot of patience leaving a difficult challenge for another astrophotographer who plans to overcome Metsavainio.


For more images visit Metsavainio’s blog.

Space and Physics Developments to Look Forward to in 2021

Unfortunately, science journalists don’t generally carry crystal balls as part of their arsenal, and if 2020 taught us anything, it’s not always safe to predict what the forthcoming year will bring. With that said, there are some space and physics developments that we can be fairly certain that will come to pass in 2021.

These are ZME Science’s tips for the top space science and physics events scheduled to occur in 2021.

Back to the Beginning with the James Webb Launch

It’s almost impossible to talk about the future of astronomy without mentioning NASA’s forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). To call the launch of Webb ‘much-anticipated’ is a vast understanding.

The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope with its sunshield and unitized pallet structures that will fold up around the telescope for launch (NASA)

The reason astronomers are getting so excited about the JWST is its ability to see further into the Universe, and thus further back in its history than any telescope ever yet devised. This will allow astronomers to observe the violent and tumultuous conditions in the infant Universe. Thus, it stands poised to vastly improve our knowledge of the cosmos and its evolution.

Part of the reason for JWST’s impressive observational power lies in its incredible sensitivity to infrared light–with longer wavelengths than light visible with the human eye.

The ability to observe the early Universe could help settle confusion about what point in its history galaxies began to form. Whilst the current consensus is that galaxies began to form in later epochs, a wealth of recent research has suggested that galaxies could have formed much earlier than previously believed.

“Galaxies, we think, begin building up in the first billion years after the big bang, and sort of reach adolescence at 1 to 2 billion years. We’re trying to investigate those early periods,” explains Daniel Eisenstein, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University and part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES). “We must do this with an infrared-optimized telescope because the expansion of the universe causes light to increase in wavelength as it traverses the vast distance to reach us.”

An artist’s impression of the JWST in place after its 2021 launch (ESA)

The reason infrared is so important to observe the early Universe is that even though the stars are emitting light primarily in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, travelling these incredible distances means light is shifted into the infrared.

“Only Webb can get to the depth and sensitivity that’s needed to study these early galaxies.”

Daniel Eisenstein, Havard University

After years of setbacks and delays and an estimated cost of $8.8 billion the JWST is set to launch from French Guiana, South America, on 31st October 2021.

JET Will Have Star Power

The race is on to achieve fusion power as a practical energy source here on Earth. Nuclear fusion is already the process that powers the stars, but scientists are looking to make it an energy source much closer to home.

Internal view of the JET tokamak superimposed with an image of a plasma ( EFDA-JET)

When it comes to bringing star power down to Earth the Joint European Torus (JET)–the world’s largest tokamak–leads the way, housing plasmas hotter than are found anywhere else in the solar system, barring the Sun.

A tokamak is a device that uses a powerful magnetic field to trap plasma, confining it in a doughnut-like shape. Containing and controlling these plasmas is the key to generating energy through the fusion process. Within the plasma, particles collide with enough energy to fuse together forming new elements and releasing energy.

The process is cleaner and more efficient than fission power, which rips the atoms of elements apart, liberating energy whilst leaving behind radioactive waste.

JET itself isn’t a power station, rather it was designed to conduct experiments with plasma containment and study fusion in conditions that approach that which will be found in working fusion power plants. So, whilst the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)–set to be the world’s largest tokamak–is still under construction and won’t be operational until at least 2025, this year is set to be an important year for the experiment that inspired it.

Following upgrades conducted during 2020, JET is scheduled to begin experiments with a potent mix of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (D-T). This fuel hasn’t been used since 1997 due to the difficulties presented by the handling of tritium– a rare and radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a nucleus of one proton and two neutrons.

The JET team will be looking to attain an output similar to the 16 megawatts of power that was achieved in ’97, but for a more sustained period and with less energy input. The initial test at the end of the 20th century consumed more power than it produced.

Back to the Moon in 2021

2021 will mark the 52nd anniversary of NASA’s historic moon landing and will see the launch of several missions back to Earth’s natural satellite as well as continuing efforts to send humans following in the footsteps of Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11.

Illustration of Orion performing a trans-lunar injection burn (NASA)

As part of NASA’s deep space exploration system, Artemis I is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions designed to enable human exploration of the Moon and beyond.

“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known. It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.” 

Mike Sarafin, the Artemis I mission manager.

Artemis I will begin its journey aboard the Orion spacecraft, which at the time of its launch in November will be the most powerful spacecraft ever launched by humanity producing a staggering 8.8 million pounds of thrust during liftoff. After leaving Earth’s orbit with the aid of solar arrays and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) Orion will head out to the moon deploying a number of small satellites, known as CubeSats.

After a three week journey to and from the moon and six weeks in orbit around the satellite, Orion will return home in 2022, thus completing a total journey of approximately 1.3 million miles.

The Chandrayaan 2 launch. The ISRO will be hoping for better luck with Chandrayaan 3 in 2021 (ISRO)

NASA isn’t the only space agency with its sights set on the moon in 2021. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander at some point in 2021. It will mark the third lunar exploration mission by ISRO following the Chandrayaan-2’s failure to make a soft landing on the lunar surface due to a communications snafu.

Chandrayaan-3 will be a repeat of this mission including a lander and rover module, but lacking an orbiter. Instead, it will rely on its predecessor’s orbiter which is still in good working despite its parent module’s unfortunate crash lander. Should Chandrayaan-3 succeed it will make India’s ISRO only the fourth space agency in history to pull off a soft-landing on the lunar surface.

(Robert Lea)

Back with a Blast: The LHC Fires Up Again

The world’s largest, most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) ceased operations in 2018 and this year, after high-luminosity upgrades, it will begin to collide particles again.

During its first run of collisions from 2008 to 2013 physicists successfully uncovered the Higgs Boson, thus completing the standard model of particle physics. With the number of collisions increased significantly, in turn, increasing the chance of spotting new phenomenon, researchers will be looking for clues of physics beyond the standard model.

All quiet at the LHC in 2019, but the world’s largest particle accelerator will fire up again in 2021 (Robert Lea)

The function of the LHC is to accelerate particles and guide them with powerful magnets placed throughout a circular chamber that runs for 17 miles beneath the French-Swiss border. When these particles collide they produce showers of ‘daughter’ particles, some that can only exist at high energy levels.

These daughter particles decay extremely quickly–within fractions of a second– and thus spotting them presents a massive challenge for researchers.

Luminosity when used in terms of particle accelerators refers to the number of particles that the machine can accelerate and thus collide. More collisions mean more daughter particles created, and a better chance of spotting exotic and rare never before seen particles and phenomena. Thus, high luminosity means more particles and more collisions.

To put these upgrades in context, during 2017 the LHC produced around 3 million Higgs Boson particles. When the High-Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) begins operations, researchers at cern estimate it will be producing around 15 million Higgs Bosons per year.

After being shut down for upgrades in 2018, the LHC prepares to fire up again in 2021 (CERN)

Unfortunately, despite firing up for a third run after these high luminosity upgrades, there is still work to be done before the LHC becomes the HL-LHC.

The shutdown that is drawing to completion–referred to by the CERN team as  Long Shutdown 2 (LS2)–was just part of the long operations that are required to boost the LHC’s luminosity. The project began in 2011 and isn’t expected to reach fruition until at least 2027.

That doesn’t mean that the third run of humankind’s most audacious science experiment won’t collect data that reveals stunning facts about the physics that governs that cosmos. And that collection process will begin in 2021.

A Big Blue Marble. A History of Earth from Space

“As the Sun came up I was absolutely blown away by how incredibly beautiful our planet Earth is. Absolutely breathtaking. Like someone took the most brilliant blue paint and painted a mural right in front of my eyes. I knew right then and there that I would never, ever see anything as beautiful as planet Earth again.”

Scott Kelly, Former NASA Astronaut
The Blue Marble. Taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972 at a distance of 29,000 km above the planet. (NASA/Apollo 17 crew)

There is a common experience shared by human beings who visit that edge of space when they turn back and look upon their home planet. In that most fleeting of moments, they see the beauty and delicacy of our homeworld. It’s clearly not a view that many of us will get to experience in person, certainly not for the foreseeable future at least.

Despite that, thanks to some incredible photography and imaging techniques we too can view Earth from space and get a sense of our place in the solar system and the wider universe. 

The term ‘Big Blue Marble’ as it applies to Earth refers to an image captured of our planet by the Apollo 17 astronauts in December 1972. The image — officially designated as AS17–148–22727 by NASA— was taken at 29 thousand kilometres above the Earth by the crew of the spacecraft as it headed to the Moon.

Turning their view back on our planet, the astronomers caught a stunning image of the Mediterranean Sea to Antarctica. The image shows the south hemisphere heavily shrouded by clouds and represents the first time that an Apollo craft had been able to capture the southern polar ice caps.

The original uncropped AS17–148–22727 from which 'the Blue Marble' is taken. (NASA/Apollo 17 crew)
The original uncropped AS17–148–22727 from which ‘the Blue Marble’ is taken. (NASA/Apollo 17 crew)

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about AS17-148-22727 is that it wasn’t supposed to exist. The crew weren’t scheduled to take an image at that point in their journey.

The fact that the photo was snapped very much during a ‘stolen moment’ aboard the craft and during a mission that was tightly scheduled down to the minute, makes the fleeting beauty it presents even more striking, as too does the fact that no human since has travelled far enough away from the surface of the planet to take such an image.

Since being taken ‘the Blue Marble’ has rightfully become one of the most reproduced images in human history. Though the most famous image of Earth from a space-based vantage point and a rare example of the glimpse of a fully illuminated globe, AS17–148–22727 is just one of a cavalcade of stunning images of our planet taken over seven decades.

The very first of these images were captured in perhaps the most unusual and ironic of circumstances. 

The Early days of Earth Photography: Recovering from War

“Consider again that dot [Earth]. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
The first image of Earth taken from space in 1946 (White Sands Missile Range / Applied Physics Laboratory)

During the Second World War German V2s caused untold amounts of damage upon the cities of Europe, raining death from the skies and bringing profound fear and sorrow. It’s somewhat ironic then that the scientific marvel of the first image of Earth from space was delivered by one of these fearsome rockets.

Several V2s– Vergeltungswaffe 2, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missiles–had been reclaimed by the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. The aim, however, was to use their incredible supersonic speed not to escape radar detection, as had been the case during the war, but to escape the confines of the atmosphere.

The rockets had their explosive payloads removed from their nosecones and replaced with scientific equipment.

On 24th October 1946, experiments with the V2s would result in a tangible benefit and a legitimate scientific breakthrough. A rocket launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, USA, would capture an image of the Earth from an altitude of 105km. Up until this point in time, the highest an image of earth that had been taken was 22km by equipment aboard a high-altitude balloon.

The image was captured by a 35mm camera in the device’s nosecone which was set to capture a picture every 1.5 seconds. These images were then dropped back to earth in a steel canister and developed.

(White Sands Missile Range / Applied Physics Laboratory)

The V2 program and the series of experiments that it birthed would help US scientists lay the groundwork for future space exploration and was reflected by similar experiments in the Soviet Union at the time. These programs and the reclamation of German technology and the scientists behind it was responsible for launching the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. And no goal or aspiration would encompass this heated scientific battle more than the desire to put a human on the Moon.

The Earth and the Moon: Picturing a Perfect Partnership

“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”

Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space (12 April 1961)
A view of the Earth from the Moon taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966 (NASA/ LOIRP).

By 1966 when the image above was captured the space race was in full swing. The USSR had launched both Sputnik 1 & 2 into orbit in October and November 1957 respectively, with the first becoming the original Earth-orbiting satellite and the second carrying a dog named Laika into space.

This would quickly be followed by US satellites Explorer 1 carrying experimental equipment that would lead to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt, and the world’s first communications satellite SCORE, both in 1958. In the same year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would be created to replace the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).

Earth rises above the Moon’s horizon as seen by Apollo 11 (NASA/ JSC)


Most significantly, in 1961 the Soviets would put the first human being into orbit. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit around the Earth at a speed of over 27 thousand kilometres per hour during his 108-minute stay in space.

Yet, it wasn’t the Soviets that captured the stunning image above of earth from the vicinity of the Moon’s surface. That honour belongs to the US craft Lunar Orbiter 1 (LU-A). The NASA spacecraft was the first US mission to orbit the Moon, its primary task was to photograph not the Earth but rather potential landing sites on the Moon for the upcoming Apollo missions.

Again, as was the case with Apollo 17’s ‘Blue Marble’, the image of Earth from space taken by Lu-A taken on August 28th 1966 by the onboard Eastman Kodak imaging system was completely unplanned.

In 1969 many of the Apollo missions themselves would capture stunning and evocative images of the Earth rising above the crest of the Moon’s surface–including the above image captured by Apollo 11 and the one below taken by Apollo 8. These ‘Earthrise’ photographs would become a popular expression of Earth’s relative isolation and vulnerability.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) captured a unique view of Earth from the spacecraft’s vantage point in orbit around the moon on October 12, 2015. (NASA/ Goddard/ Arizona State University).

The Earth From the Surface of an Alien World

“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” 

Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 Command Module Pilot, during a live broadcast from the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

It’s no great surprise given our advancing exploration of space that our attention has turned to the view of Earth from other alien worlds. Even though we are still capturing amazing images from that vantage point such as the one above taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission in 2015, our horizons have also broadened to a view of our homeworld from the surface of more distant worlds.

The first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. It was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit (NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M)

The first image of earth taken from another planet (above) was captured by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit on the 63rd Martian day of its mission in 2004. Earth was only visible in the image–comprised from images taken by the now silent robotic rover’s four panoramic cameras–after all the colour filters were removed.

This was followed up in January 2014 by NASA’s Curiosity Rover when it captured its first glimpse of Earth from the surface of Mars.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took this photo of Earth from the surface of Mars on Jan. 31, 2014, 40 minutes after local sunset, using the left-eye camera on its mast. Inset: A zoomed-in view of the Earth and moon in the image. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU)

Whilst Mars Exploration Rover Spirit and the Curiosity Rover images may not be the most visually spectacular in the catalogue built during seven decades of space exploration, it stands as a testament to man’s determination to explore other worlds. a determination that nows carries us beyond the solar system.


This composite image of Earth and its moon, as seen from Mars, combines the best Earth image with the best moon image from four sets of images acquired on Nov. 20, 2016, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

A View on the Future

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch!’ “

Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut and the sixth person to walk on the Moon.
Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)

As we continue to expand our view of the Universe studying cosmic bodies further and further from our own solar system, the history of space photography reminds us that it is vital we keep a view on our own planet, too. It’s a testament to our scientific progress that the hardest element about putting together a brief article about images of Earth from space that it involved sifting through thousands of incredible pictures.

Currently, NASA’s fleet of satellites consists of many craft devoted to the observation of Earth from space. Often this observation from a cosmic vantage point has the benefit of providing perspective on the damage we are doing to our world. Not only this but NASA’s continued observation of our world allows us to better understand weather patterns and mitigate potential disasters.

Humanity has never been in a better position to understand our world and its place within the wider Universe. The view of our planet from space has shown us its fragility, vulnerability, and the lengths we must go to preserve this beautiful blue marble.

“It is crystal clear from up here that everything is finite on this little blue marble in a black space, and there is no planet B.”

Alexander Gerst, European Space Agency astronaut, to world leaders live from the ISS, December 17th 2018.

Europe’s most powerful solar telescope lets us see its surface and spots up close

New images captured by the GREGOR telescope in Tenerife, Spain, are giving us an unique view of the surface of the sun.

Image credits KIS.

These are the highest-resolution images of our host star ever taken by a European telescope, according to the authors. The results definitely support that claim — they give us a stunning look at the shapes and movements of solar plasma and the eerie dark voids of sunspots.

Sunspotting

Although GREGOR has been in operation since 2012, it underwent a major redesign this year and also suffered a temporary pause in activity due to the pandemic. Now it’s up and running again, and its new, improved systems allow it to spot details as small as 50 kilometers in size on the solar surface. It might not sound like much, but this is the highest resolution of any European telescope (and, relative to the sun’s diameter of 1.4 million kilometers, quite good).

“This was a very exciting but also extremely challenging project,” said Lucia Kleint, who led the upgrade efforts on GREGOR. “In only one year we completely redesigned the optics, mechanics, and electronics to achieve the best possible image quality.”

To give you an idea of the telescope’s new abilities, she describes the images it captured as “if one saw a needle on a soccer field perfectly sharp from a distance of one kilometer”.

A sunspot observed in high resolution by the GREGOR telescope at the wavelength 430 nm. Image credits KIS.

The sun isn’t a solid object with a static, solid contour. Rather, its surface is always roiling and churning with super-heated plasma. The new images from GREGOR show the twisting structures created on the star’s surface and the contrasting darkness of sunspots. Sunspots are areas on the solar surface where magnetic fields are extremely strong, generating a spike in local pressure which darkens the area.

Birthplace of giant planets: Monash astrophysicists discover a baby planet sculpting a disc of gas and dust. Credit: ESO/ALMA.

‘Baby’ planet two to three times the size of Jupiter discovered

It may be an infant, but that doesn’t mean it’s small. Researchers have discovered a new ‘baby’ planet, at least twice the size of Jupiter, carving a path through a stellar nursery. 

Astrophysicists from Monash University have used the ALMA telescope in Chile to discover a ‘baby’ planet inside a protoplanetary disc. But despite being a youngster, this infant is still between two to three times the mass of Jupiter — the most massive planet in our solar system. 

Birthplace of giant planets: Monash astrophysicists discover a baby planet sculpting a disc of gas and dust. Credit: ESO/ALMA.

The giant ‘baby’ was found inside in the middle of a gap in the gas and dust that forms the planet-forming disc around the young star HD97048. The study — published in Nature Astronomy — is the first to provide an origin of these gaps in protoplanetary discs — also known as ‘stellar nurseries’ because they act as the birthplaces for planets— which have thus far puzzled astronomers. 

“The origin of these gaps has been the subject of much debate,” says the study’s lead author, Dr Christophe Pinte, an ARC Future Fellow at the Monash School of Physics and Astronomy. “Now we have the first direct evidence that a baby planet is responsible for carving one of these gaps in the disc of dust and gas swirling around the young star.”

The team discovered the new planet by mapping the flow of gas around HD97048 — a young star not yet on the main sequence, which sits in the constellation Chamaeleon located over 600 light-years from Earth. 

Observing the flow in this material, the team hunted for areas in which the flow was disturbed, in a similar way to disturbance a submerged rock would cause in a stream flowing over it. They were able to ascertain the planet’s size by recreating this ‘bump’ or ‘kink’ in the flow using computer models. 

Using the same method of locating ‘bumps’ in gas flow around young stars, the team previously discovered a similar new ‘baby’ planet around another young star roughly a year ago. Those findings were published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

That initial discovery — found in the stellar nursery around HD163296 360 light-years from Earth — was the first of its kind and provided a ‘missing link’ in scientists understanding of planet formation.

These two studies add to what is only a small collection of known ‘baby’ planets. 

“There is a lot of debate about whether baby planets are really responsible for causing these gaps,” says Associate Professor Daniel Price, the study’s co-author and Future Fellow at the school. “Our study establishes for the first time a firm link between baby planets and the gaps seen in discs around young stars.”


Original research: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-019-0852-6

Florence wide lens 2.

Astronaut tweets incredible pictures of Hurricane Florence heading for the US East Coast

From the lens of Alexander Gerst, a German astronaut currently aboard the ISS, comes a dire warning: “Watch out, America!”

Grest (Twitter link), who joined the International Space Station crew back in June, tweeted some awesome and terrifying pictures of Hurricane Florence sprawled over the planet under his feet. “Watch out, America!”, the tween also warned, “this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you”.

Eye of the storm

Hurricane Florence is currently a Category 4 storm making a beeline for the US East coast. The storm’s effects are predicted to make themselves felt throughout South and North Carolina starting Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Undeniably enormous, and frightfully powerful, the storm has captured the imagination of astronauts watching over it from orbit. Grest shot multiple pictures of the storm and posted them online for all the world to see its beauty and fury both.

Florence wide lens.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

Florence wide lens 2.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

The storm is so massive, Gerst explained in his Tweet, that he “could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens”. Hurricane Florence is currently over 500 miles (804 kilometers) in diameter.

Gerst also used a high-power telephoto lens to zoom in on the storm’s eye as the station passed overhead.

Storm eye 1.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

Storm eye 2.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

Storm eye 3.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

“Get prepared on the East Coast,” Gerst warned when Tweeting the photo.

NASA also recorded “stark and sobering” video footage of Florence from the space station on Wednesday:

Hubble captures the death of a star, offering a glimpse of our sun’s final days

A spectacular image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) gives us a glimpse into how the Sun will look at its death.

Launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope is among the most powerful and versatile tools astronomers have at their disposal even to this day. On Monday, the European Space Agency released a photo taken bu Hubble’s WFPC2 of the planetary nebula Kohoutek 4-55 that reminds us that nothing under the sun lasts forever — but the star itself also abides by that saying.

Five billion years from now, this is most likely how the sun will look. By then, the star is anticipated to be on the throes of death.
(Photo : NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Acknowledgment: R. Sahai and J. Trauger (JPL))

This photo is a composite image of three individual shots taken at specific wavelengths, to allow researchers to distinguish light from particular gas atoms. The red wavelength corresponds to nitrogen gas, blue to oxygen and green signifies hydrogen.

At the center of the colorful swirl of gas is a star, about the same size as the sun, on the throes of death. The star is about as massive as the sun. As stars age and consume their fuel, the nuclear reactions that produces their light and warmth start to slow down; The irregular energy patterns of energy production causes aging stars to pulsate irregularly making them eject their outer layers.

As the outer layers of gases are released the star’s core is revealed, giving of massive amounts of UV light. That radiation is responsible for the glow of the gas and the nebula’s beauty.

The sun is anticipated to behave in a similar manner to the Kohoutek 4-55 star,ejecting its outer layers to reveal its core — until it gradually cools down into a white dwarf. The image allows scientists a glimpse the distant future of our sun, expected to die off 5 billion years from now.

“By that time, Earth will be long gone, burnt to a crisp as the Sun dies,” ESA wrote. “But the beauty of our star’s passing will shine across the Universe.”

The entire Universe in one Logarithmic Map

Don’t you just love it when art and science get together? Here, artist Pablo Carlos Budassi managed what seems impossible: representing the entire Universe in one picture.

Using lots and lots of telescope, satellite images and photos snapped from NASA’s rovers, he painstakingly stitched many of the prominent features in the known Universe. He started from our solar system and then moved on in logarithmic progression. Logarithms are useful for understanding large numbers or distances, and here each consecutive map ring represents several orders of magnitude.

A similar, though much less artistically appealing map was created by astronomers atPrinceton back in 2005.

AstroPicture of the Week: Black Hole and Galaxy

A view of the galaxy NGC 5195, home to a supermassive black hole located in the upper right hand corner of the image. The black hole has powerful, active eruptions. Image via NASA.

 

NGC 5195 and the Whirlpool Galaxy comprise one of the most noted interacting galaxy pairs in astronomy. The two galaxies are connected by a dust-rich tidal bridge. The dust in this tidal bridge can be seen silhouetted against the center of NGC 5195. This demonstrates that NGC 5195 appears to lie behind the Whirlpool Galaxy.

AstroPicture of the Day: North Korea highlighted by its own darkness

Can you find the border?

Image via Wikipedia

 

A Nasa Earth Observatory spokesman said at the time the picture was taken:

‘North Korea is almost completely dark compared to neighboring South Korea and China. The darkened land appears as if it were a patch of water joining the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. Its capital city, Pyongyang, appears like a small island, despite a population of 3.26 million (as of 2008). The light emission from Pyongyang is equivalent to the smaller towns in South Korea. Coastlines are often very apparent in night imagery, as shown by South Korea’s eastern shoreline. But the coast of North Korea is difficult to detect.’

AstroPicture of the Day: Geminids of the South

I know, I know, we recently posted another AstroPicture… but I can’t help it if there’s too much space awesomeness! Here, the annual Geminid meteor shower did not disappoint, peaking before dawn on December 14 as the Earth plowed through dust from active asteroid 3200 Phaethon.

 

This image, captured in the southern hemisphere by (Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory, TWAN) and published on the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) includes many different individual frames recording meteor streaks over 5 hours.

“Near Castor and Pollux the twin stars of Gemini, the meteor shower’s radiant is low, close to the horizon. The radiant effect is due to perspective as the parallel meteor tracks appear to converge in the distance. Gemini’s meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere traveling at about 22 kilometers per second,” APOD reads.

The meteors from this shower are slow moving, can be seen in December and usually peak around December 13–14, with the date of highest intensity being the morning of December 14. The shower is thought to be intensifying every year and recent showers have seen 120–160 meteors per hour under optimal conditions

New Horizons images suggest Pluto is geologically active

NASA released a stunningly colorful new image of the dwarf planet Pluto, the latest in a series of images that steadily trickle down from the New Horizons probe since it left the solar system this July. And it’s not only eye candy either; the features this picture reveals has left the smart guys at the agency scratching their heads.

Groovy. Image via NASA

Groovy.
Image via NASA

One of the most interesting features is the large, heart-shaped lobe on the western side of Pluto, named the Sputnik Planum. What’s striking about it is, ironically, what doesn’t seem to be striking it — there are no craters here. Researchers were left scratching their heads at this huge but crater-free plain; a lot of meteors hit the dwarf planet and have been doing so since before humans evolved, so why isn’t there any evidence of impact?

The only explanation is that the surface is new — NASA estimates that the Planum is only about 10 million years old. When compared with the humongous 4.5 billion-years estimated age of the solar system, it suggests that you can find the great heat and pressure needed to reshape rocks on such a huge scale on the dwarf, that Pluto is still geologically active.

“It’s a huge finding that small planets can be active on a massive scale, billions of years after their creation,” said New Horizons lead investigator, Alan Stern.

The photo was presented at the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society meeting in National Harbor, MD on Monday, and the team also presented a number of other findings: information about Pluto’s thin and hazy atmosphere, and the discovery of what they believe to be an ice volcano on the surface.

Still, the lack of craters on Sputnik Planum remains one of the most stunning discoveries about the planet. The surface couldn’t have been exposed to the meteors and asteroids barreling through space for very long, meaning it was “added” quite recently. Other areas of Pluto are much older, some close to the 4 billion years mark.

Stern believes that the dwarf planet has been geologically active for much of it’s life. However, as the planet is so small, any heat it might have retained after its creation would have dissipated into space a long time ago — so the scientists don’t know what could be driving geological processes on Pluto.

But now, at least, they have a good starting point.

 

Meteor strikes Thailand twice in 3 months

 

The first (seen in the first animation) took place on September 7 and the second one on the November 2. People though these were some planes crashing, but were later confirmed to be small meteor showers.


Just so you know, this happens all the time in our atmosphere and there is nothing to be alarmed about. Albeit, legion of these meteors enter the atmosphere, most of them are burned away in the outer strata of our atmosphere. But some produce streaks in the sky that can be visualized. And finally a few do manage to make it to the surface of the Earth, but those are a rarity.

See Explanation. Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

 

PC: NASA, shooting star- youtube, september 7 2015 – youtube.

Astropicture of the Week: Pluto

We’ve seen Pluto in all its splendor recently thanks to the New Horizons mission that flew by the former planet / currently planetoid, but just when you thought it can’t surprise you anymore… something like this comes along. This is Pluto.

pluto

Recently, a paper was published based on the data that New Horizons sent back to Earth, including impressions about Pluto and its moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. This is important not only to understand the Pluto system, but it can provide valuable information about our solar system in itself.

“All of the data about Pluto and its moons (even the little bitty moons) and 67P, and the next Kuiper Belt object we go to with New Horizons in a little over three years – all of this will feed into trying to understand how the Solar System formed,” said Prof Bill McKinnon from Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

Looking at the universe naked – an Ontological Awakening

It was Stephen Hawking who said:

We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That’s what makes us special.

The pictures showcase the universe in its cosmic brilliance. Spanning the entire electromagnetic spectrum, these images have been false- colored to help us perceive the universe that lies beyond our visual cognizance.

Breathtaking isn’t it ?

Courtesy: Chromoscope.

 

 

AstroPicture of the Day: Moonless Meteors and the Milky Way

All APODs are spectacular in their own way – but every once in a while, there’s one that’s just amazing. This is the case with Petr Horálek‘s picture of the Perseids.

“The Perseid meteor shower last occurred near a New Moon in 2013. That’s when the exposures used to construct this image were made, under dark, moonless skies from Hvar Island off the coast of Croatia. The widefield composite includes 67 meteors streaming from the heroic constellation Perseus, the shower’s radiant, captured during 2013 August 8-14 against a background of faint zodiacal light and the Milky Way. The next moonless Perseid meteor shower will be in August 2018,” NASA writes.

AstroPicture of the Day: An Eclipse at the End of the World

A total solar eclipse took place on November 23, 2003; the Moon elegantly set itself in between the Sun and the Earth, but this was only visible from the Antarctic region. But that didn’t stop an enthusiastic group of photographers who went on to take some stunning pictures, including the one you see above.

The image, pictured as an APOD, represents a composite of four separate images digitally combined to realistically simulate how the adaptive human eye saw the eclipse. As the image was taken, both the Moon and the Sun peeked together over an Antarctic ridge. In the sudden darkness, the magnificent corona of the Sun became visible around the Moon. Quite by accident, another photographer was caught in one of the images checking his video camera. Visible to his left are an equipment bag and a collapsible chair.

You can read more about this eclipse and see more pictures on this webpage.