Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

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

First test of rival to Einstein’s gravity kills off dark matter

16 December 2016 - 8:58am

A radical new model of gravity seems to account for bending of light by distant galaxies without invoking extra unseen mass whose identity remains mysterious

Rosetta's last words: science descending to a comet

16 December 2016 - 8:56am

On 30 September 2016, at 11:19:37 UTC in ESA's mission control, Rosetta's signal flat-lined, confirming that the spacecraft had completed its incredible mission on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko some 40 minutes earlier and 720 million km from Earth. Rosetta was working up to the very end, collecting reams of science data as it descended towards a region of pits in the Ma'at region on the comet's 'head'.

Resolved images of a protostellar outflow driven by an extended disk wind

15 December 2016 - 9:13am

Resolved images of a protostellar outflow driven by an extended disk wind

Nature 540, 7633 (2016). doi:10.1038/nature20600

Authors: Per Bjerkeli, Matthijs H. D. van der Wiel, Daniel Harsono, Jon P. Ramsey & Jes K. Jørgensen

Young stars are associated with prominent outflows of molecular gas. The ejection of gas is believed to remove angular momentum from the protostellar system, permitting young stars to grow by the accretion of material from the protostellar disk. The underlying mechanism for outflow ejection is not yet understood, but is believed to be closely linked to the protostellar disk. Various models have been proposed to explain the outflows, differing mainly in the region where acceleration of material takes place: close to the protostar itself (‘X-wind’, or stellar wind), in a larger region throughout the protostellar disk (disk wind), or at the interface between the two. Outflow launching regions have so far been probed only by indirect extrapolation because of observational limits. Here we report resolved images of carbon monoxide towards the outflow associated with the TMC1A protostellar system. These data show that gas is ejected from a region extending up to a radial distance of 25 astronomical units from the central protostar, and that angular momentum is removed from an extended region of the disk. This demonstrates that the outflowing gas is launched by an extended disk wind from a Keplerian disk.

Astronomy: Gaia charts one billion stars

15 December 2016 - 9:12am

Astronomy: Gaia charts one billion stars

Nature 540, 7633 (2016). doi:10.1038/540319c

The positions of more than one billion stars in our Galaxy have been mapped with unprecedented precision by the European Space Agency's Gaia satellite (artist's impression pictured).The craft launched in 2013 with the aim of making the most detailed ever 3D map of

Astrophysics: Dark matter may not be so clumpy

15 December 2016 - 9:11am

Astrophysics: Dark matter may not be so clumpy

Nature 540, 7633 (2016). doi:10.1038/540318c

An analysis of almost 15 million distant galaxies reveals that dark matter may be slightly less dense and more evenly distributed throughout space than was thought.Dark matter makes up one-quarter of the Universe's mass, but is invisible and its presence can only be inferred

More giant Earth-like exoplanets will be found next year

15 December 2016 - 9:04am
Prepare for more exotic super-Earths as the hunt for exoplanets ramps up in 2017, says Stephen Baxter. They've already been imagined by science fiction

Black hole 'swallowed star', say Queen's astronomers

14 December 2016 - 9:23am

A star was 'swallowed' after it passed too close to a black hole, say Queen's University astronomers.

First exoplanet weather report shows clouds of ruby and sapphire

13 December 2016 - 9:06am

Observations of a planet called HAT-P-7b over four years reveal windy conditions that push hot clouds of vapourised minerals swirling around the far-off world

Spinning Black Hole Swallowing Star Explains Superluminous Event

13 December 2016 - 9:05am
An extraordinarily brilliant point of light seen in a distant galaxy, and dubbed ASASSN-15lh, was thought to be the brightest supernova ever seen. But new observations from several observatories, including ESO, have now cast doubt on this classification. Instead, a group of astronomers propose that the source was an even more extreme and very rare event — a rapidly spinning black hole ripping apart a passing star that came too close.

Spinning black hole swallowing star explains superluminous event [heic1622]

13 December 2016 - 9:04am

An extraordinarily brilliant point of light seen in a distant galaxy, and dubbed ASASSN-15lh, was thought to be the brightest supernova ever seen. But new observations from several observatories, including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, have now cast doubt on this classification. Instead, a group of astronomers propose that the source was an even more extreme and rare event – a rapidly spinning black hole ripping apart a passing star that came too close.

Fresh look at old data shows the sun is surprisingly sluggish

12 December 2016 - 9:26am

The standard scale for stars' magnetic activity is all tied to a single telescope – and we couldn't observe the sun with it. Now we have a workaround

Xavier Barcons Appointed as Next ESO Director General

12 December 2016 - 9:25am
The ESO Council has appointed Xavier Barcons, 57, as the next Director General of ESO. He will take up his position on 1 September 2017, when Tim de Zeeuw, the current Director General, completes his mandate.

Astrophysics: Elemental abundances across cosmic time

9 December 2016 - 10:05am

Astrophysics: Elemental abundances across cosmic time

Nature 540, 7632 (2016). doi:10.1038/540205a

Authors: Chiaki Kobayashi

The chemical composition of a massive galaxy in the early Universe reveals an extremely short period of star formation. This result could challenge our ideas about the evolution of galaxies and of the Universe itself. See Letter p.248

Galaxy’s rapid growth spurt may have spawned 3000 suns per year

9 December 2016 - 9:37am

A distant, ancient galaxy far more massive than our own formed all its stars in less than half a billion years

Dark matter that talks to itself could explain galaxy mystery

9 December 2016 - 9:36am

A team of astronomers think a new explanation for dark matter can best explain its mysterious effects on the speed of stars within galaxies

Cassini Beams Back First Images from New Orbit

9 December 2016 - 9:35am

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has sent to Earth its first views of Saturn’s atmosphere since beginning the latest phase of its mission.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 11:01