Astrophysics: Mystery survivor of a supermassive black hole
Nature 524, 7565 (2015). doi:10.1038/524301a
Authors: John Bally
The G2 cloud in our Galaxy's core has survived an encounter with the central black hole and failed to trigger a major flare-up in the black hole's activity. A promising theory endeavours to explain the cloud's nature.
Growing the gas-giant planets by the gradual accumulation of pebbles
Nature 524, 7565 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14675
Authors: Harold F. Levison, Katherine A. Kretke & Martin J. Duncan
It is widely held that the first step in forming gas-giant planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, was the production of solid ‘cores’ each with a mass roughly ten times that of the Earth. Getting the cores to form before the solar nebula dissipates (in about one to ten million years; ref. 3) has been a major challenge for planet formation models. Recently models have emerged in which ‘pebbles’ (centimetre-to-metre-sized objects) are first concentrated by aerodynamic drag and then gravitationally collapse to form objects 100 to 1,000 kilometres in size. These ‘planetesimals’ can then efficiently accrete left-over pebbles and directly form the cores of giant planets. This model is known as ‘pebble accretion’; theoretically, it can produce cores of ten Earth masses in only a few thousand years. Unfortunately, full simulations of this process show that, rather than creating a few such cores, it produces a population of hundreds of Earth-mass objects that are inconsistent with the structure of the Solar System. Here we report that this difficulty can be overcome if pebbles form slowly enough to allow the planetesimals to gravitationally interact with one another. In this situation, the largest planetesimals have time to scatter their smaller siblings out of the disk of pebbles, thereby stifling their growth. Our models show that, for a large and physically reasonable region of parameter space, this typically leads to the formation of one to four gas giants between 5 and 15 astronomical units from the Sun, in agreement with the observed structure of the Solar System.
Astronomy: Direct look at a small exoplanet
Nature 524, 7565 (2015). doi:10.1038/524268c
Astronomers have snapped a picture of a planet like those in the Solar System but orbiting another star — the lowest-mass exoplanet ever directly imaged.Bruce Macintosh of Stanford University in California and his team used the Gemini Planet Imager at the Gemini South Telescope
What happens when you find something in the wrong place at the wrong time? That's a question astronomers have been trying to answer after finding several exploding stars outside the cozy confines of galaxies, where most stars reside. These wayward supernovae also have puzzled astronomers because they exploded billions of years before their predicted detonations. Astronomers using archived observations from several telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, have developed a theory for where these doomed stars come from and how they arrived at their current homes.
A team of astronomers, including half a dozen from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, have used the Gemini Observatory's new Gemini Planet Imager to find the most solar system-like planet ever directly imaged around another star. The planet, known as 51 Eridani b, is about two times the mass of Jupiter and orbits its host star at about 13 times the Earth-sun distance (equivalent to being between Saturn and Uranus in our solar system). The planet is located about 100 light-years away from Earth. The Gemini data provide scientists with the strongest-ever spectroscopic detection of methane in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet, adding to its similarities to giant planets in our solar system. "This planet looks like a younger, slightly bigger version of Jupiter," said Dr. Laurent Pueyo of STScI, one of the astronomers who carefully measured the planet's light against the background glare of starlight. "That we can see so clearly the presence of methane for a planet a million times fainter than its star, even through the atmosphere, bodes very well for the future characterization of even fainter planets from space using the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope."