Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

Wrinkled Mercury's shrinking history

16 March 2014 - 7:36pm
The planet Mercury is about 7km smaller today than when its rocky crust first solidified over four billion years ago - a greater degree of shrinkage than previously recognised.

Astrophile: Wrinkles reveal Mercury's rapid slimming

16 March 2014 - 7:00pm
The tiny world went on a serious diet in its youth, shedding about 11 kilometres of its original width as it cooled

VLT Spots Largest Yellow Hypergiant Star

12 March 2014 - 12:00pm
ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer has revealed the largest yellow star — and one of the ten largest stars found so far. This hypergiant has been found to measure more than 1300 times the diameter of the Sun, and to be part of a double star system, with the second component so close that it is in contact with the main star. Observations spanning over sixty years, some from amateur observers, also indicate that this rare and remarkable object is changing very rapidly and has been caught during a very brief phase of its life.

First alien rainbow image holds clues to Venus mystery

11 March 2014 - 7:14pm
This rare type of rainbow has previously only been glimpsed on Earth – and could help solve a decades-old mystery about Venus's atmosphere

Invisible Saturn-sized planet given away by comet army

11 March 2014 - 3:49pm
A strange cloud of carbon monoxide, probably from icy objects crashing together, may owe its existence to an invisible exoplanet

The RAS welcomes UK support for Square Kilometre Array and PLATO. £113m in new...

11 March 2014 - 3:22pm
The RAS welcomes UK support for Square Kilometre Array and PLATO.

£113m in new funding was announced today by David Willetts.

RAS welcomes UK support for SKA and PLATO
The UK Science Minister, David Willetts MP, today announced a total of £113 million of new funding to support UK involvement in the world's most powerful radio telescope and a new space mission that will search for Earth-like planets around other stars.

Be an Asteroid Hunter in NASA's First Asteroid Grand Challenge Contest Series

10 March 2014 - 3:00pm
NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter contest series will offer $35,000 in awards over the next six months to citizen scientists who develop improved algorithms that can be used to identify asteroids.

'I'd give new Kepler mission a 150 per cent chance'

10 March 2014 - 10:00am
NASA astrophysicist Steve Howell is confident that a new method of aiming the crippled Kepler space telescope will convince the space agency to keep it alive

'I'd give new Kepler mission a 150 per cent chance'

10 March 2014 - 10:00am
NASA astrophysicist Steve Howell is confident that a new method of aiming the crippled Kepler space telescope will convince the space agency to keep it alive

The sounds of the universe

8 March 2014 - 1:05am
What are the strangest sounds in the universe?

Most Mars meteorites may be from same giant crater

7 March 2014 - 7:00pm
Fresh evidence hints that most Martian rocks found on Earth could be from the same ancient terrain, but the claim has set off a firestorm among meteorite experts

NASA's WISE Survey Finds Thousands of New Stars, But No 'Planet X'

7 March 2014 - 5:00pm
After searching hundreds of millions of objects across our sky, NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has turned up no evidence of the hypothesized celestial body in our solar system commonly dubbed "Planet X."

A Telescope Bigger than a Galaxy

7 March 2014 - 3:33pm
Astronomers have figured out how to use the gravity of distant galaxies to bend light and magnify images, forming gigantic telescopes that see deeper into the cosmos than ever before.

Hubble catches first disintegrating asteroid on camera

7 March 2014 - 3:33pm
The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a space rock as it breaks apart – the first one ever caught in the act. What's to blame?

Hubble Witnesses Asteroid's Mysterious … sintegration

7 March 2014 - 4:13am
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has recorded the never-before-seen break-up of an asteroid into as many as 10 smaller pieces.

Galactic gas caused by colliding comets suggests mystery ‘shepherd’ exoplanet

6 March 2014 - 8:05pm

Astronomers exploring the disk of debris around the young star Beta Pictoris have discovered a compact cloud of carbon monoxide located about 8 billion miles (13 billion kilometers) from the star. This concentration of poisonous gas – usually destroyed by starlight – is being constantly replenished by ongoing rapid-fire collisions among a swarm of icy, comet-like bodies.

In fact, to offset the destruction of carbon monoxide (CO) molecules around the star, a large comet must be getting completely destroyed every five minutes, say researchers.

They suggest the comet swarm is most likely frozen debris trapped and concentrated by the gravity of an as-yet-unseen exoplanet.

This mystery ‘shepherd’ exoplanet – so-called for its capacity to corral the swarms of comets through its gravitational pull, like Jupiter in our own solar system – is likely to be about the size of Saturn.    

"Detailed dynamical studies are now under way, but at the moment we think this shepherding planet would be around Saturn's mass and positioned near the inner edge of the CO belt," said Mark Wyatt, from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who proposed the shepherd model – currently the favoured hypothesis because it explains so many puzzling features of the Beta Pictoris disk.

"We think the Beta Pictoris comet swarms formed when the hypothetical planet migrated outward, sweeping icy bodies into resonant orbits."

Paradoxically, the presence of carbon monoxide – so harmful to humans on Earth – could indicate that the Beta Pictoris planetary system may eventually be a good habitat for life. If there is CO in the comets, then there is likely also water ice – meaning that the cometary bombardment this system’s planets are probably undergoing could also be providing them with life-giving water.

The findings are published today in the journal Science Express.

The clump was discovered when an international team of astronomers, led by ALMA-based ESO astronomer Bill Dent, along with Wyatt, used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to map the millimeter-wavelength light from dust and carbon monoxide molecules in the disk surrounding Beta Pictoris, a star located about 63 light-years away and only 20 million years old.

Beta Pictoris is considered one of the best examples of a typical young solar system, and hosts one of the closest and brightest debris disks known – making it an ideal laboratory for studying the early development of planetary systems. The latest findings that reveal a vast belt of carbon monoxide at the fringes of this system could help us understand what conditions were like during the formation of our own solar system.

Much of the carbon monoxide is concentrated in a single clump located about 8 billion miles (13 billion kilometers) from the star, or nearly three times the distance between the planet Neptune and the sun. The total amount of the gas observed exceeds 200 million billion tons – equivalent to about one-sixth the mass of Earth’s oceans, say researchers.

The presence of all this gas is a clue that something interesting is going on because ultraviolet starlight breaks up CO molecules in about 100 years, much faster than the main cloud can complete a single orbit around the star. “So unless we are observing Beta Pictoris at a very unusual time, then the carbon monoxide we observed must be continuously replenished,” said Bill Dent, ESO astronomer based at ALMA and lead author on the paper.

The researchers calculate that a large comet must be completely destroyed every five minutes, and only an unusually massive and compact swarm of comets could support such an astonishingly high collision rate.

"Although toxic to us, carbon monoxide is one of many gases found in comets and other icy bodies," said team member Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "In the rough-and-tumble environment around a young star, these objects frequently collide and generate fragments that release dust, icy grains and stored gases."

Because we view the disk nearly edge-on, the ALMA data cannot determine whether the carbon monoxide belt has a single concentration of gas or two on opposite sides of the star. Further studies of the gas cloud's orbital motion will clarify the situation, but current evidence favors a two-clump scenario, which in turn points to a shepherding planet.

In our own solar system, Jupiter's gravity has trapped thousands of asteroids in two groups, one leading and one following it as it travels around the sun. A giant planet located in the outer reaches of the Beta Pictoris system likewise could corral comets into a pair of tight, massive swarms.

Astronomers have already directly imaged one giant exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, with a mass several times greater than Jupiter, orbiting much closer to the star. While it would be unusual for a giant planet to form up to 10 times farther away, as required to shepherd the massive comet clouds, the hypothetical planet could have formed near the star and migrated outward as the young disk underwent changes. Indeed, this outward motion is needed to corral the comets.

If, however, the gas actually turns out to form a single clump, Wyatt’s recently graduated Cambridge PhD student Alan Jackson, also a co-author on the paper, suggested an even more violent alternative scenario. A crash between two Mars-sized icy planets about half a million years ago would account for the comet swarm, with frequent ongoing collisions among the fragments gradually releasing carbon monoxide gas.

Either way, Beta Pictoris clearly has a fascinating story to tell, say the scientists, one that could provide insight into the early development of our own solar system.

Latest research has uncovered a massive clump of carbon monoxide in a young solar system. The gas is the result of near constant collisions of icy comets – suggesting vast swarms of tightly packed comets in thrall to the gravitational pull of an as-yet-unseen exoplanet.

We think the Beta Pictoris comet swarms formed when the hypothetical planet migrated outwardMark WyattNASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/F.ReddyAt the outer fringes of the system, the gravitational influence of a hypothetical giant planet (bottom left) captures comets into a dense, massive swarm (right) where frequent collisions occur.

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YesNews type: News

Crashing Comets Explain Surprise Gas Clump Around Young Star

6 March 2014 - 8:00pm
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in northern Chile have today announced the discovery of an unexpected clump of carbon monoxide gas in the dusty disc around the star Beta Pictoris. This is a surprise, as such gas is expected to be rapidly destroyed by starlight. Something — probably frequent collisions between small, icy objects such as comets — must be causing the gas to be continuously replenished. The new results are published today in the journal Science.

Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs? Maybe…

6 March 2014 - 7:32pm
The link between the most mysterious stuff in the universe and fatal comet strikes on Earth is tenuous – but it would elegantly connect two open questions

NASA's Hubble Telescope Witnesses Asteroid's Mysterious Disintegration

6 March 2014 - 5:00pm
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has recorded the never-before-seen break-up of an asteroid into as many as 10 smaller pieces.

Hubble Witnesses an Asteroid Mysteriously Disintegrating

6 March 2014 - 4:00pm

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Though fragile comet nuclei have been seen falling apart as they near the Sun, nothing like the slow breakup of an asteroid has ever before been observed in the asteroid belt. A series of Hubble Space Telescope images shows that the fragments are drifting away from each other at a leisurely one mile per hour. This makes it unlikely that the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision with another asteroid. A plausible explanation is that the asteroid is crumbling due to a subtle effect of sunlight. This causes the rotation rate to slowly increase until centrifugal force pulls the asteroid apart. The asteroid's remnant debris, weighing in at 200,000 tons, will in the future provide a rich source of meteoroids.