Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

Cosmic radio bursts tracked to home galaxy for first time

5 January 2017 - 9:21am

One repeating example of a fast radio burst has finally been pinned down to a tiny and distant dwarf galaxy, narrowing down its precise origin

Metal asteroid and Trojans selected for next NASA missions

5 January 2017 - 9:20am

The US space agency will send probes to metallic asteroid Psyche and the mysterious Trojans that flank Jupiter in the 2020s

NASA Selects Two Missions to Explore the Early Solar System

5 January 2017 - 9:19am
NASA has selected two missions that have the potential to open new windows on one of the earliest eras in the history of our solar system – a time less than 10 million years after the birth of our sun. The missions, known as Lucy and Psyche, were chosen from five finalists and will proceed to mission formulation.

Hidden Secrets of Orion’s Clouds

5 January 2017 - 9:18am
This spectacular new image is one of the largest near-infrared high-resolution mosaics of the Orion A molecular cloud, the nearest known massive star factory, lying about 1350 light-years from Earth. It was taken using the VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in northern Chile and reveals many young stars and other objects normally buried deep inside the dusty clouds.

Mystery cosmic radio bursts pinpointed

5 January 2017 - 9:17am

Astronomers have pinpointed the source of mysterious radio bursts from space.

NASA Selects Mission to Study Black Holes, Cosmic X-ray Mysteries

4 January 2017 - 9:11am
Portal origin URL: NASA Selects Mission to Study Black Holes, Cosmic X-ray Mysteries Portal origin nid: 395700Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2017 - 16:54Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: NASA has selected a science mission that will allow astronomers to explore, for the first time, the hidden details of some of the most extreme and exotic astronomical objects, such as stellar and supermassive black holes, neutron stars and pulsars. Objects such as black holes can heat surrounding gases to more than a million degrees. The high-energy X-ray radiation from this gas can be polarized – vibrating in a particular direction. The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission will fly three space telescopes with cameras capable of measuring the polarization of these cosmic X-rays, allowing scientists to answer fundamental questions about these turbulent and extreme environments where gravitational, electric and magnetic fields are at their limits.  “We cannot directly image what’s going on near objects like black holes and neutron stars, but studying the polarization of X-rays emitted from their surrounding environments reveals the physics of these enigmatic objects,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. IXPE will open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through. Today, we can only guess what we will find.” NASA's Astrophysics Explorers Program requested proposals for new missions in September 2014. Fourteen proposals were submitted, and three mission concepts were selected for additional review by a panel of agency and external scientists. NASA determined the IXPE proposal provided the best science potential and most feasible development plan. The mission, slated for launch in 2020, will cost $188 million. This figure includes the cost of the launch vehicle and post-launch operations and data analysis. Principal Investigator Martin Weisskopf of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, will lead the mission. Ball Aerospace in Broomfield, Colorado, will provide the spacecraft and mission integration. The Italian Space Agency will contribute the polarization sensitive X-ray detectors, which were developed in Italy. NASA's Explorers Program provides frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the agency’s astrophysics and heliophysics programs. The program has launched more than 90 missions, including Explorer 1 in 1958, which discovered the Van Allen radiation belts around the Earth, and the Cosmic Background Explorer mission, which led to a Nobel Prize. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the Explorers Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. For more information about the Explorers program, visit: For information about NASA, visit: -end-Portal image: NASA Selects Mission to Study Black Holes, Cosmic X-ray Mysteries Science Categories: Universe

NASA Selects Mission to Study Black Holes, Cosmic X-ray Mysteries

4 January 2017 - 9:10am
NASA has selected a science mission that will allow astronomers to explore, for the first time, the hidden details of some of the most extreme and exotic astronomical objects, such as stellar and supermassive black holes, neutron stars and pulsars.

NASA's Hubble Observations Suggest Underground Ocean on Jupiter's Largest Moon

4 January 2017 - 9:09am

Nearly 500 million miles from the Sun lies a moon orbiting Jupiter that is slightly larger than the planet Mercury and may contain more water than all of Earth's oceans. Temperatures are so cold, though, that water on the surface freezes as hard as rock and the ocean lies roughly 100 miles below the crust. Nevertheless, where there is water there could be life as we know it. Identifying liquid water on other worlds — big or small — is crucial in the search for habitable planets beyond Earth. Though the presence of an ocean on Ganymede has been long predicted based on theoretical models, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope found the best evidence for it. Hubble was used to watch aurorae glowing above the moon's icy surface. The aurorae are tied to the moon's magnetic field, which descends right down to the core of Ganymede. A saline ocean would influence the dynamics of the magnetic field as it interacts with Jupiter's own immense magnetic field, which engulfs Ganymede. Because telescopes can't look inside planets or moons, tracing the magnetic field through aurorae is a unique way to probe the interior of another world.

Join Hubble astronomers during a live Hubble Hangout discussion about Ganymede at 3pm EDT on Thurs., March 12, to learn even more. Visit .

New Year's Fireworks from a Shattered Comet

3 January 2017 - 9:07am
Video Length: 4:07

Earth will pass through a stream of debris from comet 2003 EH1 on January 3, 2017, producing a shower of meteors known as the Quadrantids.

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Downloadable Link: New Year's Fireworks - mp4YouTubeVimeo

Window to hell: Io’s strongest volcano changes face as we watch

30 December 2016 - 12:05pm

The innermost moon of Jupiter is in an almost constant state of eruption - and its most persistent volcano, Loki Patera, keeps an unsteady rhythm

Vera Rubin, pioneering astronomer, dies at 88

30 December 2016 - 12:03pm

Astronomer Vera Rubin, whose pioneering work led to the theory of dark matter, dies at 88.

Planetary science: Frozen in darkness

22 December 2016 - 9:00am

Planetary science: Frozen in darkness

Nature 540, 7634 (2016). doi:10.1038/nature21108

Author: Luca Maltagliati

In 2014, water vapour was detected around Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt. NASA's Dawn spacecraft, in orbit around Ceres since March 2015, subsequently found water ice on the dwarf planet, in a small, mid-latitude crater named Oxo. Now, writing in Nature Astronomy

Planetary science: Where Ceres hides its water

22 December 2016 - 8:59am

Planetary science: Where Ceres hides its water

Nature 540, 7634 (2016). doi:10.1038/540487e

Frozen water has been lurking beneath the rocky surface of the Solar System's biggest asteroid since its birth billions of years ago.NASA's Dawn spacecraft began orbiting Ceres (pictured), which is also a dwarf planet, in 2015. This allowed a team led by

First Light for Band 5 at ALMA

22 December 2016 - 8:54am
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile has begun observing in a new range of the electromagnetic spectrum. This has been made possible thanks to new receivers installed at the telescope’s antennas, which can detect radio waves with wavelengths from 1.4 to 1.8 millimetres — a range previously untapped by ALMA. This upgrade allows astronomers to detect faint signals of water in the nearby Universe.

LIGO should more than double its gravitational wave haul in 2017

21 December 2016 - 9:44am

The first gravitational waves were spotted by LIGO in 2016 – the floodgates should open now the observatory has had an upgrade

Giant ball of gas is a totally stinky galactic chemistry lab

21 December 2016 - 9:44am

Sagittarius B2 is a molecular cloud about 100 light years wide near the centre of our galaxy – and it would taste absolutely terrible

Festive Nebulas Light Up Milky Way Galaxy Satellite

21 December 2016 - 9:43am

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Two glowing nebulas in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that is a satellite of our Milky Way galaxy, have been observed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Young, brilliant stars at the center of each nebula are heating hydrogen, causing these clouds of gas and dust to glow red. The image is part of a study called Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution (SMIDGE). Astronomers are using Hubble to probe the Milky Way satellite to understand how dust is different in galaxies that have a far lower supply of heavy elements needed to create dust.

Festive nebulae light up Milky Way Galaxy satellite [heic1623]

21 December 2016 - 9:43am

The sheer observing power of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is rarely better illustrated than in an image such as this. This glowing pink nebula, named NGC 248, is located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, just under 200 000 light-years away and yet can still be seen in great detail.

Space Telescope Science Institute to Host Data from World's Largest Digital Sky Survey

20 December 2016 - 9:13am

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Data from the world's largest digital sky survey is being publicly released today by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, in conjunction with the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, Hawaii. Data from the Pan-STARRS1 Surveys will allow anyone to access millions of images and use the database and catalogs containing precision measurements of billions of stars and galaxies. The four years of data comprise 3 billion separate sources, including stars, galaxies, and various other objects. The immense collection contains 2 petabytes of data, which is equivalent to one billion selfies, or one hundred times the total content of Wikipedia.

Kepler's Trial: An Opera

16 December 2016 - 9:00am

The trial in which the famous astronomer, Johannes Kepler, defended his mother from accusations of witchcraft has been turned into an opera, following new research into the original 17th-century legal proceedings.

The opera was conceived by Cambridge historian Professor Ulinka Rublack, a fellow of St John’s College. It made its debut in October as part of Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. A film of Kepler’s Trial: An Opera is now available online.

Born in 1571, Johannes Kepler is one of the most admired astronomers who ever lived. He came from an ordinary family but became a major figure in the scientific revolution. He defended Copernicus’s idea that the sun was at the centre of the universe and defined three laws of planetary motion.

In 1615, at the height of his powers, Kepler abandoned his research to defend his elderly mother, Katharina, from charges of witchcraft. Her trial took place at the height of Europe’s infamous ‘witch-craze’. Thousands of people, mostly women, were executed for supposed dealings in the occult, and families were torn apart in a climate of paranoia and distrust.

The new opera tells the remarkable tale of Katharina’s six-year ordeal, and her son’s dogged, and ultimately successful, defence. Rublack’s recent book, The Astronomer and the Witch, is the first to provide a full account of the case.

It is not the first time that aspects of Johannes Kepler’s life have been given the operatic treatment. Philip Glass’s Kepler focused on the astronomer’s life and work, but overlooked the trial completely. In 1957, the German composer, Paul Hindemith, composed Die Harmonie der Welt (Harmony Of The World, also the title of one of Kepler’s most famous works.)

Like many other accounts of Kepler’s story, which either unwittingly swallow the 17th-century prosecution’s character assassination of Katharina, or reproduce it for dramatic effect, these treatments presented Kepler’s mother as crazed and witchlike.

Rublack sees the most recent opera as a response, in particular, to Hindemith’s work. “When I finished the book, I thought, there really has got to be a new opera about the subject now,” she said. “Hindemith depicts Katharina as a crazed, old crone. I wanted to put together a team to develop new perspectives and create a new way to tell the story.”

Kepler's Trial: An Opera draws on Rublack's research with supporting contributions from a group of interdisciplinary scholars and academics. The libretto was written by Tim Watts, a composer who teaches music at St John’s College and lectures in the University’s Faculty of Music.

The performance features video sequences by the artist Aura Satz, who is based at the Royal College of Art. The videos are designed to amplify its presiding themes: darkness and light, sight and illusion, and competing depictions of an ageing and vulnerable woman.

“Around 25,000 people were executed for witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries,” Rublack said. “When Katharina was accused in 1615, she was actually at a point in her life when things were going very well. The accusation came as completely unexpected for her and the family, and turned into something profoundly disturbing.”

Although she was ultimately acquitted thanks to her son’s defence (as well as helpful connections in the upper echelons of the justice system), the trial had devastating consequences. Katharina was disowned by two of her other children and spent 14 months of the trial period living in a prison cell, chained to the floor. She emerged both physically and emotionally exhausted, and died just six months later.

The opera makes use of musical styles from the time, drawing inspiration from the likes of Claudio Monteverdi as well as found materials such as contemporary drinking songs. It is performed using instruments that would have been popular during the period, such as cornets, sackbuts, and harpsichord.

The premiere took place in the atmospheric surroundings of the Chapel of St John’s College. The six violinists playing at the event were all from St John's; they included the College's Musician-in-Residence, Margaret Faultless, as well as five students.

The trial papers are still preserved in regional archives in Stuttgart. The libretto draws on the actual words of both Katharina and Johannes Kepler as they were recorded in court. Fragments of Katharina’s voice come through in prayers and her response to cross-examination, taken from the transcripts.

“It’s been easier to invent a voice for Katharina than it has been to define one for her son,” Watts reflected. “So many of his words exist already and we know a large amount about the kind of man he was, so there’s a lot more to filter.”

“The way that we tell the story offers a huge range for potential identification with characters and elements. There is a sense of worlds and generations colliding; it’s my hope that the piece involves such a range of character and generation that it will appeal to an equally wide range of people.”

An ambitious opera, telling the story of an infamous witch trial, was premiered in October. A film of Kepler's Trial the Opera is now available online. The project was conceived by historian Professor Ulinka Rublack whose recent research shines new light on a 400-year-old scandal.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

YesRelated Links: Kepler's Trial: An OperaBBC Radio 4 In Our Time