Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

The mysterious bright spots on Ceres may have a common origin

3 October 2017 - 9:26am

The dwarf planet Ceres is dappled with mysterious bright splotches. Their make-up varies with location, but they may all come from the same process

Biomarker found in space complicates search for life on exoplanets

3 October 2017 - 9:24am

A molecule once thought to be a useful marker for life as we know it has been discovered around a young star and at a comet for the first time, suggesting these ingredients are inherited during the planet-forming phase.

ALMA and Rosetta Detect Freon-40 in Space

2 October 2017 - 4:40pm
Observations made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and ESA’s Rosetta mission, have revealed the presence of the organohalogen Freon-40 in gas around both an infant star and a comet. Organohalogens are formed by organic processes on Earth, but this is the first ever detection of them in interstellar space. This discovery suggests that organohalogens may not be as good markers of life as had been hoped, but that they may be significant components of the material from which planets form. This result, which appears in the journal Nature Astronomy, underscores the challenge of finding molecules that could indicate the presence of life beyond Earth.

The Strange Structures of the Saturn Nebula

2 October 2017 - 3:21pm
The spectacular planetary nebula NGC 7009, or the Saturn Nebula, emerges from the darkness like a series of oddly-shaped bubbles, lit up in glorious pinks and blues. This colourful image was captured by the powerful MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), as part of a study which mapped the dust inside a planetary nebula for the first time. The map — which reveals a wealth of intricate structures in the dust, including shells, a halo and a curious wave-like feature — will help astronomers understand how planetary nebulae develop their strange shapes and symmetries.

Bursting with Starbirth [heic 1716]

2 October 2017 - 3:21pm

This oddly-shaped galactic spectacle is bursting with brand new stars. The pink fireworks in this image taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope are regions of intense star formation, triggered by a cosmic-scale collision. The huge galaxy in this image, NGC 4490, has a smaller galaxy in its gravitational grip and is feeling the strain.

Cassini crashes into Saturn — but could still deliver big discoveries

21 September 2017 - 9:55am

Cassini crashes into Saturn — but could still deliver big discoveries

Nature 549, 7672 (2017). http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/nature.2017.22619

Author: Alexandra Witze

Data from spacecraft could help determine the age of Saturn's rings and the persistence of its magnetic field.

A binary main-belt comet

21 September 2017 - 9:49am

A binary main-belt comet

Nature 549, 7672 (2017). doi:10.1038/nature23892

Authors: Jessica Agarwal, David Jewitt, Max Mutchler, Harold Weaver & Stephen Larson

Asteroids are primitive Solar System bodies that evolve both collisionally and through disruptions arising from rapid rotation. These processes can lead to the formation of binary asteroids and to the release of dust, both directly and, in some cases, through uncovering frozen volatiles. In a subset of the asteroids called main-belt comets, the sublimation of excavated volatiles causes transient comet-like activity. Torques exerted by sublimation measurably influence the spin rates of active comets and might lead to the splitting of bilobate comet nuclei. The kilometre-sized main-belt asteroid 288P (300163) showed activity for several months around its perihelion 2011 (ref. 11), suspected to be sustained by the sublimation of water ice and supported by rapid rotation, while at least one component rotates slowly with a period of 16 hours (ref. 14). The object 288P is part of a young family of at least 11 asteroids that formed from a precursor about 10 kilometres in diameter during a shattering collision 7.5 million years ago. Here we report that 288P is a binary main-belt comet. It is different from the known asteroid binaries in its combination of wide separation, near-equal component size, high eccentricity and comet-like activity. The observations also provide strong support for sublimation as the driver of activity in 288P and show that sublimation torques may play an important part in binary orbit evolution.

Gravity may be created by strange flashes in the quantum realm

21 September 2017 - 9:48am

A model of how wave forms of quantum systems collapse reveals a way they could create gravitational fields, and perhaps even reconcile two pillars of physics

Our closest star system may be home to a stolen star and planet

21 September 2017 - 9:47am

Proxima b, the nearest exoplanet to Earth, may have been captured along with its star instead of born in the dangerous three-star system where it now lives

Infamous three-body problem has over a thousand new solutions

21 September 2017 - 9:47am

A long-standing maths puzzle has 1223 new solutions, more than doubling the number of possible paths three objects can take as they orbit one another

Ageing Star Blows Off Smoky Bubble

21 September 2017 - 9:44am
Astronomers have used ALMA to capture a strikingly beautiful view of a delicate bubble of expelled material around the exotic red star U Antliae. These observations will help astronomers to better understand how stars evolve during the later stages of their life-cycles.

Herschel's chronicles of galaxy evolution

21 September 2017 - 9:42am

Delving deep into the history of our cosmos, the Herschel Space Observatory scrutinised hundreds of thousands of star-forming galaxies, peering back in time to when the Universe was less than one billion years old. These observations probed the peak epoch of stellar production, about ten billion years ago, when galaxies were forming stars roughly ten times faster than their present counterparts.

Hubble discovers a unique type of object in the Solar System [heic1715]

21 September 2017 - 9:41am

With the help of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, a German-led group of astronomers have observed the intriguing characteristics of an unusual type of object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter: two asteroids orbiting each other and exhibiting comet-like features, including a bright coma and a long tail. This is the first known binary asteroid also classified as a comet. The research is presented in a paper published in the journal Nature this week.

The cosmic water trail uncovered by Herschel

20 September 2017 - 8:58am

During almost four years of observing the cosmos, the Herschel Space Observatory traced out the presence of water. With its unprecedented sensitivity and spectral resolution at key wavelengths, Herschel revealed this crucial molecule in star-forming molecular clouds, detected it for the first time in the seeds of future stars and planets, and identified the delivery of water from interplanetary debris to planets in our Solar System.

Mysterious flashing star seems destined for an explosive end

19 September 2017 - 9:53am

A detective story that began in the 1950s when a star seemed to go supernova but survived ended this month when someone figured out what was going on

How Herschel unlocked the secrets of star formation

19 September 2017 - 9:42am

Surveying the sky for almost four years to observe the glow of cold cosmic dust embedded in interstellar clouds of gas, the Herschel Space Observatory has provided astronomers with an unprecedented glimpse into the stellar cradles of our Galaxy. As a result, giant strides have been taken in our understanding of the physical processes that lead to the birth of stars and their planetary systems.

Brown dwarfs have strong magnetic fields just like real stars

18 September 2017 - 9:26am

Failed stars called brown dwarfs straddle the line between big planets and small stars. An observation of a magnetic field puts another tick in the star column

NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Ends Its Historic Exploration of Saturn

18 September 2017 - 9:25am
A thrilling epoch in the exploration of our solar system came to a close today, as NASA's Cassini spacecraft made a fateful plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, ending its 13-year tour of the ringed planet.

Cassini concludes pioneering mission at Saturn

18 September 2017 - 9:25am

The international Cassini mission has concluded its remarkable exploration of the Saturnian system in spectacular style, by plunging into the gas planet's atmosphere.

Venus' mysterious night side revealed

15 September 2017 - 9:26am

Scientists have used ESA's Venus Express to characterise the wind and upper cloud patterns on the night side of Venus for the first time–with surprising results.