Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

Light-speed camera snaps light’s “sonic boom” for the first time

25 January 2017 - 9:42am

A camera system that mimics a beam of light breaking its own speed limit could find uses in everything from medical imaging to astronomy

Gaia turns its eyes to asteroid hunting

25 January 2017 - 9:39am

Whilst best known for its surveys of the stars and mapping the Milky Way in three dimensions, ESA's Gaia has many more strings to its bow. Among them, its contribution to our understanding of the asteroids that litter the Solar System. Now, for the first time, Gaia is not only providing information crucial to understanding known asteroids, it has also started to look for new ones, previously unknown to astronomers.

Exotic black holes caught turning into a superfluid

24 January 2017 - 9:20am

A model of a higher-dimensional black hole matches what happens when liquid helium loses all its stickiness, a coincidence that could help study both oddities

Tracing the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

24 January 2017 - 9:19am

When depicting an eclipse path, data visualizers have usually chosen to represent the moon's shadow as an oval. By bringing in a variety of NASA data sets, visualizer Ernie Wright has created a new and more accurate representation of the eclipse.  For the first time, we are able to see that the moon's shadow is better represented as a polygon. This more complicated shape is based NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's view of the mountains and valleys that form the moon's jagged edge. By combining moon's terrain, heights of land forms on Earth, and the angle of the sun, Wright is able to show the eclipse path with the greatest accuracy to date.
To learn more about the eclipse, visit   

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 13:42

Intergalactic collision birthed a sparkling ring of young stars

23 January 2017 - 9:38am

The Large Magellanic Cloud is encircled by bright young stars that are likely to have formed after another galaxy powered past, compressing gas

Solar storms could cost USA tens of billions of dollars

20 January 2017 - 9:34am

Previous studies have focused on direct economic costs within the blackout zone, failing to take account of indirect domestic and international supply chain loss from extreme space weather.

According to the study, published in the journal Space Weather, on average the direct economic cost incurred from disruption to electricity represents just under a half of the total potential macroeconomic cost.

The paper was co-authored by researchers from the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies at University of Cambridge Judge Business School, British Antarctic Survey, the British Geological Survey and the University of Cape Town.

Under the study’s most extreme blackout scenario, affecting two-thirds of the US population, the daily domestic economic loss could total $41.5 billion plus an additional $7 billion loss through the international supply chain.

Electrical engineering experts are divided on the possible severity of blackouts caused by “Coronal Mass Ejections,” or magnetic solar fields ejected during solar flares and other eruptions. Some believe that outages would last only hours or a few days because electrical collapse of the transmission system would protect electricity generating facilities, while others fear blackouts could last weeks or months because those transmission networks could in fact be knocked out and need replacement.

Extreme space weather events occur often, but only sometimes affecting Earth. The best-known geomagnetic storm affected Quebec in 1989, sparking the electrical collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power grid and causing a widespread blackout for about nine hours.

There was a very severe solar storm in 1859 known as the “Carrington event” (after the name of a British astronomer). A widely cited 2012 study by Pete Riley of Predictive Sciences Inc. said that the probability of another Carrington event occurring within the next decade is around 12 per cent; a 2013 report by insurer Lloyd’s, produced in collaboration with Atmospheric and Environmental Research, said that while the probability of an extreme solar storm is “relatively low at any given time, it is almost inevitable that one will occur eventually.”

“We felt it was important to look at how extreme space weather may affect domestic US production in various economic sectors, including manufacturing, government and finance, as well as the potential economic loss in other nations owing to supply chain linkages,” says study co-author Dr Edward Oughton of the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies.

“It was surprising that there had been a lack of transparent research into these direct and indirect costs, given the uncertainty surrounding the vulnerability of electrical infrastructure to solar incidents.”

The study looks at three geographical scenarios for blackouts caused by extreme space weather, depending on the latitudes affected by different types of incidents.

If only extreme northern states are affected, with 8 per cent of the US population, the economic loss per day could reach $6.2 billion supplemented by an international supply chain loss of $0.8 billion. A scenario affecting 23 per cent of the population could have a daily cost of $16.5 billion plus $2.2 billion internationally, while a scenario affecting 44 per cent of the population could have a daily cost of $37.7 billion in the US plus $4.8 billion globally.

Manufacturing is the US economic sector most affected by those solar-induced blackouts, followed by government, finance and insurance, and property. Outside of the US, China would be most affected by the indirect cost of such US blackouts, followed by Canada and Mexico as these countries provide a greater proportion of raw materials, and intermediate goods and services, used in production by US firms.

Oughton, EJ et al. Quantifying the daily economic impact of extreme space weather due to failure in electricity transmission infrastructure. Space Weather; 18 Jan 2017; DOI: 10.1002/2016SW001491

Adapted from a press release by the Cambridge Judge Business School.

The daily economic cost to the USA from solar storm-induced electricity blackouts could be in the tens of billions of dollars, with more than half the loss from indirect costs outside the blackout zone, according to a new study led by University of Cambridge researchers.

NASA Goddard Space Flight CenterMagnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31

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

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Auto-Gopher: Drilling Deep to Explore the Solar System

20 January 2017 - 9:32am

SMD is supporting development of a deep-drill sampler called the Auto-Gopher for potential deployment in future space exploration missions.

An initial version of the drill technology—theAuto-Gopher-1—is pictured here with coresitacquired from drilling a 3-m hole in40MPa gypsum.

Technology Development: The ability to penetrate subsurfaces and collect pristine samples from depths of tens of meters to kilometers is critical for future exploration of bodies in our solar system. SMD is supporting development of a deep-drill sampler called the Auto-Gopher for potential deployment in future space exploration missions. The Auto-Gopher employs a piezoelectric actuated percussive mechanism for breaking formations and an electric motor to rotate the drill bit and capture powdered cuttings. It incorporates a wireline architecture; the drill is suspended at the end of a small diameter tether that provides power, communication, as well as structural support needed for lowering and lifting the drill out of the borehole. Thanks to this unique architecture, the maximum drilling depth is limited only by the length of the tether. The wireline operation used on the Auto-Gopher removes one of the major drawbacks of traditional continuous drill string systems—the need for multiple drill sections that can add significantly to the mass and the complexity of a deep drill. As such, the Auto-Gopher system mass and volume can be kept quite low for shallow or deep holes. While drilling, numerous sensors and embedded instruments can perform in situ analysis of the borehole wall. Upon reaching a preset depth, the drill is retracted from the borehole, the core and/or cuttings are removed for detailed analysis by onboard instruments, and the drill is lowered back into the hole to continue the penetration process.

Illustration of the Auto-Gopher concept as a wireline deep drill.

Impact: The Auto-Gopher is intended to help scientists answer one of the most pressing questions in science: Has life ever existed anywhere else in the universe? Since water is a critical prerequisite for life, as we know it, NASA exploration missions are targeting bodies in the solar system that are known to have or have had flowing liquid water. The latest Planetary Decadal Survey (Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022) recommended that NASA explore three solar system bodies with accessible aqueous regions: Mars; Jupiter’s moon, Europa; and Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Each of these bodies poses different drilling-related challenges. Drilling on Mars requires penetrating dry rock and regolith that have physical properties (i.e., tensile strength, hardness, etc.) that can vary many orders of magnitude though the drill depth. A drill on Enceladus and Europa will need to operate in ice at temperatures below 100 K, while accounting for the low gravity on Enceladus or the high surface radiation on Europa. The Auto-Gopher must be designed to achieve its goals of penetrating the subsurface to great depths, capturing pristine samples, and delivering those samples to onboard instruments for analysis or for potential sample return—all in the harsh conditions encountered in space. Illustration of the Auto-Gopher concept as a wireline deep drill.

Status and Future Plans: The aim of the Auto-Gopher development effort is to demonstrate a scalable technology that makes deep drilling possible using current launch vehicles and power sources. This technology development has been accomplished in several generations including the Ultrasonic/Sonic Driller/Corer, Ultrasonic/Sonic Gopher, and the Auto-Gopher-1. In 2015, PSD awarded a project under its MatISSE program to support the next generation of Auto-Gopher technology development—the Auto-Gopher-2. In 2015, the project produced a core breaker and retaining mechanism and demonstrated their operation. This latest drill is also being designed to house electronics, sensors, and mechanisms needed for autonomous drilling, and the critical subsystems are currently being breadboarded and tested. Future planned activities include field trials to validate drill operation in harsh conditions at a U.S. gypsum quarry (gypsum can change from hard crystalline gypsum, to soft sugar gypsum, to very hard anhydrite with numerous clayrich veins) and inside a vacuum chamber, drilling in ice at approximately -100°C.

Sponsoring Organization: The research, led by PI Kris Zacny of Honeybee Robotics, is funded by the PSD’s MatISSE program, and jointly developed with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)/California Institute of Technology.

Master Image: 

First evidence of dwarf galaxy merger boosts two cosmic theories

19 January 2017 - 9:41am

Astronomers have found dwarf galaxies that seem about to merge, backing ideas about how large galaxies form and the scattered nature of dark matter

Contracts Signed for ELT Mirrors and Sensors

19 January 2017 - 9:40am
At a ceremony today at ESO’s Headquarters four contracts were signed for major components of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) that ESO is building. These were for: the casting of the telescope’s giant secondary and tertiary mirrors, awarded to SCHOTT; the supply of mirror cells to support these two mirrors, awarded to the SENER Group; and the supply of the edge sensors that form a vital part of the ELT’s huge segmented primary mirror control system, awarded to the FAMES consortium. The secondary mirror will be largest ever employed on a telescope and the largest convex mirror ever produced.

Curiosity finds Mars rock that may be a meteorite made from iron

18 January 2017 - 9:25am

Last week, NASA’s Curiosity rover took a picture that appears to show a new iron-nickel meteorite on Mars, one of only eight that have been discovered by rovers there so far

ALMA Starts Observing the Sun

18 January 2017 - 9:23am
New images taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile have revealed otherwise invisible details of our Sun, including a new view of the dark, contorted centre of a sunspot that is nearly twice the diameter of the Earth. The images are the first ever made of the Sun with a facility where ESO is a partner. The results are an important expansion of the range of observations that can be used to probe the physics of our nearest star. The ALMA antennas had been carefully designed so they could image the Sun without being damaged by the intense heat of the focussed light.

Binary stars shred up and shove off their newborn planets

17 January 2017 - 9:45am

There are more pairs of stars than solo stars in our galaxy, but fewer pairs host planets. Now we have an idea why: they rip them to shreds

Cold case: The unsolved mystery of what lit Kepler’s supernova

17 January 2017 - 9:44am

In 1604, the last Milky Way supernova recorded by naked-eye observers brightened the night sky. Despite 400 years of study, we still don't know what lit the fuse

Complex life may have had a false start 2.3 billion years ago

17 January 2017 - 9:44am

High levels of oceanic oxygen could have allowed advanced, animal-like life to develop for the first time – only to be wiped out again as oxygen vanished

ESA Planetary Science Archive gets a new look

17 January 2017 - 9:42am

Today, ESA launches a new version of its Planetary Science Archive (PSA) website, the online interface to data from the agency's space science missions that have been exploring planets, moons and other small bodies in the Solar System. With a new design and enhanced search functionalities, the platform now provides a direct and simple access to the scientific data, helping scientists to discover and explore the archive content.

Venus wave may be Solar System's biggest

17 January 2017 - 9:42am

A giant wave in the atmosphere of Venus may be the biggest of its kind in the Solar System.

Penitentes as the origin of the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa on Pluto

12 January 2017 - 1:36pm

Penitentes as the origin of the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa on Pluto

Nature 541, 7636 (2017). doi:10.1038/nature20779

Authors: John E. Moores, Christina L. Smith, Anthony D. Toigo & Scott D. Guzewich

Penitentes are snow and ice features formed by erosion that, on Earth, are characterized by bowl-shaped depressions several tens of centimetres across, whose edges grade into spires up to several metres tall. Penitentes have been suggested as an explanation for anomalous radar data on Europa, but until now no penitentes have been identified conclusively on planetary bodies other than Earth. Regular ridges with spacings of 3,000 to 5,000 metres and depths of about 500 metres with morphologies that resemble penitentes have been observed by the New Horizons spacecraft in the Tartarus Dorsa region of Pluto (220°–250° E, 0°–20° N). Here we report simulations, based upon a recent model representing conditions on Pluto, in which deepening penitentes reproduce both the tri-modal (north–south, east–west and northeast–southwest) orientation and the spacing of the ridges of this bladed terrain. At present, these penitentes deepen by approximately one centimetre per orbital cycle and grow only during periods of relatively high atmospheric pressure, suggesting a formation timescale of several tens of millions of years, consistent with crater ages. This timescale implies that the penitentes formed from initial topographic variations of no more than a few tens of metres, consistent with Pluto’s youngest terrains.

Legendary radio telescope hangs in the balance

12 January 2017 - 1:35pm

Legendary radio telescope hangs in the balance

Nature 541, 7636 (2017).

Author: Alexandra Witze

US National Science Foundation looks to slash funding for Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory.

Planetary science: Many collisions made the Moon

12 January 2017 - 1:34pm

Planetary science: Many collisions made the Moon

Nature 541, 7636 (2017). doi:10.1038/541137e

The Moon may have been formed not from one big cosmic smash, as the leading theory holds, but from multiple smaller collisions.Billions of years ago in the early Solar System, space debris would have collided with the young Earth. Using computer simulations, a team

China plans telescope to hunt for primordial gravitational waves

12 January 2017 - 1:33pm
Located at 5250 metres above sea level in Tibet, Ngari-1 will hunt for gravitational waves that should have been thrown out by the big bang