Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

How to predict what height meteors explode at

18 February 2015 - 7:05pm

Incoming space rocks break up and burn in the atmosphere, and their danger depends on how low they can go – now we can predict their flame-out height

'The heartbeat of the stars' An RAS public lecture on listening to sound waves i...

18 February 2015 - 5:41pm
'The heartbeat of the stars'
An RAS public lecture on listening to sound waves inside stars, by Yvonne Elsworth

The heartbeat of the stars

Royal Astronomical Society public lecture, 8 April 2014 by Prof. Yvonne Elsworth, University of Birmingham Our knowledge of how stars change and evolve under...

Explosive lithium production in the classical nova V339 Del (Nova Delphini 2013)

18 February 2015 - 2:09pm

Explosive lithium production in the classical nova V339 Del (Nova Delphini 2013)

Nature 518, 7539 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14161

Authors: Akito Tajitsu, Kozo Sadakane, Hiroyuki Naito, Akira Arai & Wako Aoki

The origin of lithium (Li) and its production process have long been uncertain. Li could be produced by Big Bang nucleosynthesis, interactions of energetic cosmic rays with interstellar matter, evolved low-mass stars, novae, and supernova explosions. Chemical evolution models and observed stellar Li abundances suggest that at least half the Li may have been produced in red giants, asymptotic giant branch (AGB) stars, and novae. No direct evidence, however, for the supply of Li from evolved stellar objects to the Galactic medium has hitherto been found. Here we report the detection of highly blue-shifted resonance lines of the singly ionized radioactive isotope of beryllium, 7Be, in the near-ultraviolet spectra of the classical nova V339 Del (Nova Delphini 2013) 38 to 48 days after the explosion. 7Be decays to form 7Li within a short time (half-life of 53.22 days). The 7Be was created during the nova explosion via the alpha-capture reaction 3He(α,γ)7Be (ref. 5). This result supports the theoretical prediction that a significant amount of 7Li is produced in classical nova explosions.

Astrophysics: A lithium-rich stellar explosion

18 February 2015 - 2:09pm

Astrophysics: A lithium-rich stellar explosion

Nature 518, 7539 (2015). doi:10.1038/518307a

Authors: Margarita Hernanz

The contribution of explosions known as novae to the lithium content of the Milky Way is uncertain. Radioactive beryllium, which transforms into lithium, has been detected for the first time in one such explosion. See Letter p.381

Alien star's Solar System invasion

18 February 2015 - 1:16pm

An alien star passed through our Solar System just 70,000 years ago, astronomers have announced.

The Strange Case of the Missing Dwarf

18 February 2015 - 11:01am
The new SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope has been used to search for a brown dwarf expected to be orbiting the unusual double star V471 Tauri. SPHERE has given astronomers the best look so far at the surroundings of this intriguing object and they found — nothing. The surprising absence of this confidently predicted brown dwarf means that the conventional explanation for the odd behaviour of V471 Tauri is wrong. This unexpected result is described in the first science paper based on observations from SPHERE.

Hubble's star refuses to fade

17 February 2015 - 5:46am

Hubble's star refuses to fade away

Mystery Mars plume baffles scientists

16 February 2015 - 6:03pm

Plumes seen reaching high above the surface of Mars are causing a stir among scientists studying the atmosphere on the Red Planet.

Mystery cloud-like blobs over Mars baffle astronomers

16 February 2015 - 5:51pm
In 2012, amateur astronomers spotted at least one unidentified object rising into the Martian sky. Could auroras, volcanoes or aliens be to blame?

Mystery Mars haze baffles scientists

16 February 2015 - 4:08pm
Scientists struggle to explain a vast haze that was spotted high above the Martian surface in 2012 by amateur astronomers.

Contacting aliens - war of the worlds or war over cash?

15 February 2015 - 6:46pm

Should we actively direct signals to aliens? Some say yes, while others worry about dire consequences for humanity and their research funding

Camera seeks dark energy clues

14 February 2015 - 3:40pm

California scientists have given details of a telescope camera they are assembling to study "dark energy".

Orion has a giant dust hula hoop around its waist

13 February 2015 - 8:44pm
Astronomers have uncovered a giant dust ring after mapping the 3D distribution of dust in the well-studied celestial region of Orion

Interstellar's true black hole too confusing

13 February 2015 - 11:31am

The blockbuster film was the first to use real physics to portray a black hole, but they toned down the science for artistic effect

Scientists urged to contact aliens

12 February 2015 - 7:51pm

Scientists at a US conference in say the time has come to try actively to make contact with intelligent life on other worlds.

RAS meetings this Friday 13 Feb: - Ordinary Meeting has talks on Herschel-SPIRE...

11 February 2015 - 7:35pm
RAS meetings this Friday 13 Feb:

- Ordinary Meeting has talks on Herschel-SPIRE, meteorites, black holes and Robert Hooke

- 'Surveying the transient Universe: from electromagnetic to gravitational waves'

- 'Meeting the challenges in Upper Atmospheric Science'

Cosmology: The oldest cosmic light

11 February 2015 - 7:19pm

Cosmology: The oldest cosmic light

Nature 518, 7538 (2015). doi:10.1038/518170a

Authors: David Spergel & Brian Keating

The cosmic microwave background is a faint glow of light left over from the Big Bang. It fills the entire sky and records the Universe's early history. Two independent experts outline what we know about this ancient light, both theoretically and observationally.

Star formation: Sibling rivalry begins at birth

11 February 2015 - 7:19pm

Star formation: Sibling rivalry begins at birth

Nature 518, 7538 (2015). doi:10.1038/518173a

Authors: Kaitlin M. Kratter

High-resolution astronomical observations of a nearby molecular gas cloud have revealed a quadruplet of stars in the act of formation. The system is arguably the youngest multiple star system detected so far. See Letter p.213

The formation of a quadruple star system with wide separation

11 February 2015 - 7:19pm

The formation of a quadruple star system with wide separation

Nature 518, 7538 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14166

Authors: Jaime E. Pineda, Stella S. R. Offner, Richard J. Parker, Héctor G. Arce, Alyssa A. Goodman, Paola Caselli, Gary A. Fuller, Tyler L. Bourke & Stuartt A. Corder

The initial multiplicity of stellar systems is highly uncertain. A number of mechanisms have been proposed to explain the origin of binary and multiple star systems, including core fragmentation, disk fragmentation and stellar capture. Observations show that protostellar and pre-main-sequence multiplicity is higher than the multiplicity found in field stars, which suggests that dynamical interactions occur early, splitting up multiple systems and modifying the initial stellar separations. Without direct, high-resolution observations of forming systems, however, it is difficult to determine the true initial multiplicity and the dominant binary formation mechanism. Here we report observations of a wide-separation (greater than 1,000 astronomical units) quadruple system composed of a young protostar and three gravitationally bound dense gas condensations. These condensations are the result of fragmentation of dense gas filaments, and each condensation is expected to form a star on a timescale of 40,000 years. We determine that the closest pair will form a bound binary, while the quadruple stellar system itself is bound but unstable on timescales of 500,000 years (comparable to the lifetime of the embedded protostellar phase). These observations suggest that filament fragmentation on length scales of about 5,000 astronomical units offers a viable pathway to the formation of multiple systems.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko sheds dust coat accumulated over the past four years

11 February 2015 - 7:19pm

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko sheds dust coat accumulated over the past four years

Nature 518, 7538 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14159

Authors: Rita Schulz, Martin Hilchenbach, Yves Langevin, Jochen Kissel, Johan Silen, Christelle Briois, Cecile Engrand, Klaus Hornung, Donia Baklouti, Anaïs Bardyn, Hervé Cottin, Henning Fischer, Nicolas Fray, Marie Godard, Harry Lehto, Léna Le Roy, Sihane Merouane, François-Régis Orthous-Daunay, John Paquette, Jouni Rynö, Sandra Siljeström, Oliver Stenzel, Laurent Thirkell, Kurt Varmuza & Boris Zaprudin

Comets are composed of dust and frozen gases. The ices are mixed with the refractory material either as an icy conglomerate, or as an aggregate of pre-solar grains (grains that existed prior to the formation of the Solar System), mantled by an ice layer. The presence of water-ice grains in periodic comets is now well established. Modelling of infrared spectra obtained about ten kilometres from the nucleus of comet Hartley 2 suggests that larger dust particles are being physically decoupled from fine-grained water-ice particles that may be aggregates, which supports the icy-conglomerate model. It is known that comets build up crusts of dust that are subsequently shed as they approach perihelion. Micrometre-sized interplanetary dust particles collected in the Earth’s stratosphere and certain micrometeorites are assumed to be of cometary origin. Here we report that grains collected from the Jupiter-family comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko come from a dusty crust that quenches the material outflow activity at the comet surface. The larger grains (exceeding 50 micrometres across) are fluffy (with porosity over 50 per cent), and many shattered when collected on the target plate, suggesting that they are agglomerates of entities in the size range of interplanetary dust particles. Their surfaces are generally rich in sodium, which explains the high sodium abundance in cometary meteoroids. The particles collected to date therefore probably represent parent material of interplanetary dust particles. This argues against comet dust being composed of a silicate core mantled by organic refractory material and then by a mixture of water-dominated ices. At its previous recurrence (orbital period 6.5 years), the comet’s dust production doubled when it was between 2.7 and 2.5 astronomical units from the Sun, indicating that this was when the nucleus shed its mantle. Once the mantle is shed, unprocessed material starts to supply the developing coma, radically changing its dust component, which then also contains icy grains, as detected during encounters with other comets closer to the Sun.