Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

James Webb telescope: Hubble successor set for yet more tests

3 April 2017 - 9:06am

The spectacular James Webb Space Telescope is bound next for the giant Apollo testing chamber.

Most of Mars' air was 'lost to space'

3 April 2017 - 9:06am

The gas argon tells scientists that the atmosphere at Mars was once as thick as it is on Earth today.

Planetary science: Reckless orbiting in the Solar System

30 March 2017 - 8:59am

Planetary science: Reckless orbiting in the Solar System

Nature 543, 7647 (2017). doi:10.1038/543635a

Authors: Helena Morais & Fathi Namouni

Planets and most asteroids revolve around the Sun in the same direction. But an asteroid that shares Jupiter's orbit has been revolving in the opposite direction for about a million years. See Letter p.687

A retrograde co-orbital asteroid of Jupiter

30 March 2017 - 8:58am

A retrograde co-orbital asteroid of Jupiter

Nature 543, 7647 (2017). doi:10.1038/nature22029

Authors: Paul Wiegert, Martin Connors & Christian Veillet

Recent theoretical work in celestial mechanics has revealed that an asteroid may orbit stably in the same region as a planet, despite revolving around the Sun in the sense opposite to that of the planet itself. Asteroid 2015 BZ509 was discovered in 2015, but with too much uncertainty in its measured orbit to establish whether it was such a retrograde co-orbital body. Here we report observations and analysis that demonstrates that asteroid 2015 BZ509 is indeed a retrograde co-orbital asteroid of the planet Jupiter. We find that 2015 BZ509 has long-term stability, having been in its current, resonant state for around a million years. This is long enough to preclude precise calculation of the time or mechanism of its injection to its present state, but it may be a Halley-family comet that entered the resonance through an interaction with Saturn. Retrograde co-orbital asteroids of Jupiter and other planets may be more common than previously expected.

Astronomy: Landslides cause comet eruptions

30 March 2017 - 8:57am

Astronomy: Landslides cause comet eruptions

Nature 543, 7647 (2017). doi:10.1038/543593c

The collapse of cliffs on comets can create plumes of gas and dust, which contribute to comets' characteristic tails.Such outbursts are frequent, but their cause has been unclear. Maurizio Pajola at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and his colleagues analysed

Planetary science: Titan's electrified dunes

30 March 2017 - 8:57am

Planetary science: Titan's electrified dunes

Nature 543, 7647 (2017). doi:10.1038/543592b

The dunes of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, may be held together by static electricity.Grains of sand acquire electrostatic charge as they rub against each other, but on Earth this effect is generally negligible because gravity and a high density of heavy silicate particles minimize

The coldest place in the universe marks a double stellar grave

30 March 2017 - 8:55am

New observations finally reveal why an odd planetary nebula is so chilly: two stars met their end in close quarters

Backwards asteroid shares an orbit with Jupiter without crashing

30 March 2017 - 8:54am

A rare retrograde asteroid has been spotted in Jupiter's orbital zone - and nudges from the giant planet may have kept it stable there for a million years

NASA to Preview ‘Grand Finale’ of Cassini Saturn Mission

30 March 2017 - 8:53am
Portal origin URL: NASA to Preview ‘Grand Finale’ of Cassini Saturn Mission Portal origin nid: 399048Published: Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - 12:57Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: NASA will hold a news conference at 3 p.m. EDT Tuesday, April 4, at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, to preview the beginning of Cassini's final mission segment, known as the Grand Finale, which begins in late April. The briefing will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.Portal image: NASA's Cassini spacecraft will make 22 orbits of Saturn during its Grand Finale, exploring a totally new regionScience Categories: Solar System

ExoMars: Rover scientists to study Mawrth Vallis option

29 March 2017 - 8:58am

Europe is going to investigate a second site on Mars - called Mawrth Vallis - as a possible destination to send its 2021 rover.

Electrified sand could explain Titan’s odd backward-facing dunes

28 March 2017 - 9:26am

Saturn’s largest moon is similar to Earth in many ways – but its dunes face the wrong direction. It could be because static electricity has greater clout there

Stars Born in Winds from Supermassive Black Holes

28 March 2017 - 9:24am
Observations using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have revealed stars forming within powerful outflows of material blasted out from supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies. These are the first confirmed observations of stars forming in this kind of extreme environment. The discovery has many consequences for understanding galaxy properties and evolution. The results are published in the journal Nature.

Planet Nine: Astronomers want help from amateur stargazers

28 March 2017 - 9:24am

An Australian university has asked amateur stargazers to help find a possible ninth planet.

Enigmatic plumes from Saturn’s moon caused by cosmic collision

27 March 2017 - 10:15am

Saturn’s icy moon spews water and heat into space, but only from its south pole. A new model suggests that’s because it suffered a hit-and-run long ago

Stray supermassive black hole flung away by gravitational waves

27 March 2017 - 10:13am

The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a one-billion solar mass black hole fleeing its galaxy, showing supermassive black holes can probably merge

NASA Selects Mission to Study Churning Chaos in our Milky Way and Beyond

27 March 2017 - 10:13am
NASA has selected a science mission that will measure emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material found between stars.

Impact crater linked to Martian tsunamis

27 March 2017 - 10:12am

Scientists locate the source of powerful tsunamis that swept across Mars three billion years ago.

Hubble detects supermassive black hole kicked out of galactic core - Astronomers suspect gravitational waves [heic1706]

24 March 2017 - 10:09am

An international team of astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have uncovered a supermassive black hole that has been propelled out of the centre of the distant galaxy 3C 186. The black hole was most likely ejected by the power of gravitational waves. This is the first time that astronomers found a supermassive black hole at such a large distance from its host galaxy centre.

Oddball star could be home to long-sought superheavy elements

24 March 2017 - 10:08am

One of the most chemically strange stars we know could chart a path to the so-called "island of stability", where massive yet relatively stable atoms exist

NASA Selects CubeSat, SmallSat Mission Concept Studies

24 March 2017 - 10:06am

NASA has selected ten studies under the Planetary Science Deep Space SmallSat Studies (PSDS3) program, to develop mission concepts using small satellites to investigate Venus, Earth’s moon, asteroids, Mars and the outer planets.

For these studies, small satellites are defined as less than 180 kilograms in mass (about 400 pounds). CubeSats are built to standard specifications of 1 unit (U), which is equal to 10x10x10 centimeters (about 4x4x4 inches). They often are launched into orbit as auxiliary payloads, significantly reducing costs.  

“These small but mighty satellites have the potential to enable transformational science,” said Dr. Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “They will provide valuable information to assist in planning future Announcements of Opportunity, and to guide NASA’s development of small spacecraft technologies for deep space science investigation.” 

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is developing a small satellite strategy, with the goal of identifying high-priority science objectives in each discipline that can be addressed with CubeSats and SmallSats, managed for appropriate cost and risk. This multi-disciplinary approach will leverage and partner with the growing commercial sector to collaboratively drive instrument and sensor innovation.

The PSDS3 awardees were recognized Monday at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Society Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. The total value of the awards is $3.6 million.

The recipients are:


Christophe Sotin, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California:  Cupid's Arrow, a 30-kilogram probe to measure noble gases and their isotopes to investigate the geological evolution of Venus and why Venus and Earth have evolved so differently.

Valeria Cottini, University of Maryland, College Park: CubeSat UV Experiment (CUVE), a 12-unit CubeSat orbiter to measure ultraviolet absorption and nightglow emissions to understand Venus’ atmospheric dynamics.


Suzanne Romaine, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, Massachusetts: CubeSat X-ray Telescope (CubeX), a 12-unit CubeSat to map the elemental composition mapping of airless bodies such as the moon, to understand their formation and evolutionary history using X-ray pulsar timing for deep space navigation.

Timothy Stubbs, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland: Bi-sat Observations of the Lunar Atmosphere above Swirls (BOLAS), tethered 12-unit CubeSats to investigate the lunar hydrogen cycle by simultaneously measuring electromagnetic fields near the surface of the moon, and incoming solar winds high above.


Jeffrey Plescia, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland: Asteroid Probe Experiment (APEX), a SmallSat with a deployable seismometer to rendezvous with the asteroid Apophis and directly explore its interior structure, surface properties, and rotational state.

Benton Clark, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado: CubeSat Asteroid Encounters for Science and Reconnaissance (CAESAR), a constellation of 6-unit CubeSats to evaluate the bulk properties of asteroids to assess their physical structure, and to provide constraints on their formation and evolution.


David Minton, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana: Chariot to the Moons of Mars, a 12-unit CubeSat with a deployable drag skirt to produce high-resolution imagery and surface material composition of Phobos and Deimos, to help understand how they were formed.

Anthony Colaprete, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California: Aeolus, a 24-unit CubeSat to directly measure vertically-resolved global winds to help determine the global energy balance at Mars and understand daily climate variability.

Icy Bodies and Outer Planets

Kunio Sayanagi, Hampton University, Virginia: Small Next-generation Atmospheric Probe (SNAP), an atmospheric entry probe to measure vertical cloud structure, stratification, and winds to help understand the chemical and physical processes that shape the atmosphere of Uranus.

Robert Ebert, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas: JUpiter MagnetosPheric boundary ExploreR (JUMPER), a SmallSat to explore Jupiter’s magnetosphere, including characterizing the solar wind upstream of the magnetosphere to provide science context for future missions such as the Europa Clipper.


For more information about NASA's CubeSat activities, visit:

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 15:04