Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

Meteor bursting into flames caught on camera.

6 September 2017 - 9:23am

A home security camera caught the moment a meteor over Canada burst into flames.

‘Impossible’ star explosions made by gas and solar wind pile-up

5 September 2017 - 10:07am

Stellar explosions often shine brighter than is theoretically possible without blowing up entirely. Debris cloud smash-ups could be amplifying the light

Asteroid Florence buzzes Earth in closest fly-by since 1890

5 September 2017 - 10:07am

A 4.4-kilometre-wide space rock whizzed past Earth on its closest orbit in over a century. This asteroid won’t get this close again until after 2500

Some of Uranus’s small moons are doomed to collide

5 September 2017 - 10:06am

The first measurement of the mass of a small Uranian moon suggests it will be obliterated after smashing into one of its neighbours in the next million years

Voyager 1 at 40: Scientists 'amazed' 1970s space probe still works

5 September 2017 - 10:05am

The Voyager 1 space probe was launched 40 years ago and continues to send back data from interstellar space.

Xavier Barcons Starts as New ESO Director General

4 September 2017 - 9:20am
On 1 September 2017, Xavier Barcons became ESO’s eighth Director General, succeeding Tim de Zeeuw who has served since 2007. Barcons begins his tenure at an exciting time for ESO. Construction of the Extremely Large Telescope is progressing rapidly and it is set to see first light in 2024.

Some TRAPPIST-1 planets may have the right conditions for water

1 September 2017 - 9:15am

Water on the planets nearest the TRAPPIST-1 star would be destroyed by UV radiation but it could survive on the cooler worlds in the habitable zone

Spiralling galaxy arms spread oxygen around for future planets

1 September 2017 - 9:14am

The spiral arms of a galaxy called NGC 1365 contain 60 per cent more oxygen than the space between, the most extreme variation seen in a galaxy like this

Astronomy from 40,000 Feet and 43.5 Degrees South

1 September 2017 - 9:14am
Portal origin URL: Astronomy from 40,000 Feet and 43.5 Degrees SouthPortal origin nid: 408650Published: Thursday, August 31, 2017 - 07:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, completed its fourth set of observations from Christchurch, New Zealand.Portal image: Image of the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy, taken with SOFIA's visible light guide camera.Science Categories: Universe

Close encounters of the stellar kind

1 September 2017 - 9:12am
The movements of more than 300 000 stars surveyed by ESA's Gaia satellite reveal that rare close encounters with our Sun might disturb the cloud of comets at the far reaches of our Solar System, sending some towards Earth in the distant future.

Hubble delivers first hints of possible water content of TRAPPIST-1 planets [heic1713]

1 September 2017 - 9:11am

An international team of astronomers used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to estimate whether there might be water on the seven earth-sized planets orbiting the nearby dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. The results suggest that the outer planets of the system might still harbour substantial amounts of water. This includes the three planets within the habitable zone of the star, lending further weight to the possibility that they may indeed be habitable.

The scientists watching stars being born

1 September 2017 - 9:10am

This is the largest radio telescope on Earth, 5,000m up in the Atacama Desert. It can see stars and planets being born millions of light-years away.

Proper-motion age dating of the progeny of Nova Scorpii AD 1437

31 August 2017 - 9:31am
‘Cataclysmic variables’ are binary star systems in which one star of the pair is a white dwarf, and which often generate bright and energetic stellar outbursts. Classical novae are one type of outburst: when the white dwarf accretes enough matter from its companion, the resulting hydrogen-rich atmospheric envelope can host a runaway thermonuclear reaction that generates a rapid brightening. Achieving peak luminosities of up to one million times that of the Sun, all classical novae are recurrent, on timescales of months to millennia. During the century before and after an eruption, the ‘novalike’ binary systems that give rise to classical novae exhibit high rates of mass transfer to their white dwarfs. Another type of outburst is the dwarf nova: these occur in binaries that have stellar masses and periods indistinguishable from those of novalikes but much lower mass-transfer rates, when accretion-disk instabilities drop matter onto the white dwarfs. The co-existence at the same orbital period of novalike binaries and dwarf novae—which are identical but for their widely varying accretion rates—has been a longstanding puzzle. Here we report the recovery of the binary star underlying the classical nova eruption of 11 March AD 1437 (refs 12, 13), and independently confirm its age by proper-motion dating. We show that, almost 500 years after a classical-nova event, the system exhibited dwarf-nova eruptions. The three other oldest recovered classical novae display nova shells, but lack firm post-eruption ages, and are also dwarf novae at present. We conclude that many old novae become dwarf novae for part of the millennia between successive nova eruptions.

Fast automated analysis of strong gravitational lenses with convolutional neural networks

31 August 2017 - 9:31am
Quantifying image distortions caused by strong gravitational lensing—the formation of multiple images of distant sources due to the deflection of their light by the gravity of intervening structures—and estimating the corresponding matter distribution of these structures (the ‘gravitational lens’) has primarily been performed using maximum likelihood modelling of observations. This procedure is typically time- and resource-consuming, requiring sophisticated lensing codes, several data preparation steps, and finding the maximum likelihood model parameters in a computationally expensive process with downhill optimizers. Accurate analysis of a single gravitational lens can take up to a few weeks and requires expert knowledge of the physical processes and methods involved. Tens of thousands of new lenses are expected to be discovered with the upcoming generation of ground and space surveys. Here we report the use of deep convolutional neural networks to estimate lensing parameters in an extremely fast and automated way, circumventing the difficulties that are faced by maximum likelihood methods. We also show that the removal of lens light can be made fast and automated using independent component analysis of multi-filter imaging data. Our networks can recover the parameters of the ‘singular isothermal ellipsoid’ density profile, which is commonly used to model strong lensing systems, with an accuracy comparable to the uncertainties of sophisticated models but about ten million times faster: 100 systems in approximately one second on a single graphics processing unit. These networks can provide a way for non-experts to obtain estimates of lensing parameters for large samples of data.

Astronomy: Cosmic exhumation

31 August 2017 - 9:31am
Binary star systems known as cataclysmic variables can exhibit violent explosions called novae. Observations of a system hundreds of years after a nova reveal details about the long-term effects of such explosions. See Letter p.558

Cassini’s 13 years of stunning Saturn science — in pictures

31 August 2017 - 9:30am
As the mission speeds towards its conclusion, Nature takes a look at what researchers have learnt about the planet’s moons, rings and tempest-filled skies.

One of Europa’s plumes may not exist, making hunt for life hard

31 August 2017 - 9:28am

Jupiter’s icy moon is a promising place to find alien microbes, but hopes that they could be blasted into space by watery plumes may have diminished

Nobody knows how these baby stars got so close to our black hole

31 August 2017 - 9:28am

A group of stars orbits so close to the Milky Way’s black hole that they could have never formed there. But they’re too young to have been born further away

We’ve just seen 15 new mysterious cosmic radio bursts from space

31 August 2017 - 9:26am

Breakthrough Listen detected more radio pulses from the famous repeating source FRB 121102. They’re higher frequency than previous ones but we still don’t know what causes them

Weird ancient burst of light in the sky turns out to be a nova

31 August 2017 - 9:24am

Six centuries ago, Korean astronomers recorded a bright spot in the night sky. A 25-year hunt for that star has settled a debate about how classical novae behave