Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

New Views of the Rosetta Comet

25 July 2014 - 1:44am
As the European Space Agency's Rosetta probe approaches Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for an August rendezvous, the comet's core is coming into sharper focus. Today ESA released a new set of images and a must-see 3D model.

Mystery in the Perseus Cluster

24 July 2014 - 11:14pm
An X-ray signal from the Perseus cluster of galaxies, which researchers say cannot be explained by known physics, could be a key clue to the nature of Dark Matter.

Rosetta's comet seen in close-up

24 July 2014 - 4:11pm
Europe's Rosetta probe has acquired new images of the comet it is chasing through space.

Rosetta:Hints of features

24 July 2014 - 2:36pm
In this week's images, taken on 20 July from a distance of 5500 km, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko's largest features are beginning to stand out in the OSIRIS narrow angle camera view.

Hubble Finds Three Surprisingly Dry Exoplanets

24 July 2014 - 1:14pm
Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have gone looking for water vapor in the atmospheres of three planets orbiting stars similar to the sun -- and have come up nearly dry.

Hubble Finds Three Surprisingly Dry Exoplanets

24 July 2014 - 1:00pm

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Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have gone looking for water vapor in the atmospheres of three planets orbiting stars similar to the Sun and have come up nearly dry. The planets spectroscopically surveyed have only one-tenth to one one-thousandth the amount of water predicted by standard planet-formation theories. The planets are not habitable because they are gaseous and are as big as Jupiter. They lie so much closer to their host star than Jupiter is to our Sun, so their atmospheres are seething between 1,500 and 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, this result suggests that some percentage of Earth-size exoplanets may be more deficient in water than predicted. And, water is a necessary prerequisite for life as we know it. The search for water-bearing terrestrial worlds may be more challenging than thought for future space telescopes. And, scientists may have to revisit their theories of planet formation.

Highest-precision measurement of water in planet outside the solar system

24 July 2014 - 1:00pm

A team of astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have gone looking for water vapour in the atmospheres of three planets orbiting stars similar to the Sun – and have come up nearly dry.

The three planets, HD 189733b, HD 209458b, and WASP-12b, are between 60 and 900 light-years away, and are all gas giants known as ‘hot Jupiters.’ These worlds are so hot, with temperatures between 900 to 2200 degrees Celsius, that they are ideal candidates for detecting water vapour in their atmospheres. 

However, the three planets have only one-tenth to one-thousandth the amount of water predicted by standard planet formation theories. The best water measurement, for the planet HD 209458b, was between 4 and 24 parts per million. The results raise new questions about how exoplanets form and highlight the challenges in searching for water on Earth-like exoplanets in the future. The findings are published today (24 July) in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Our water measurement in one of the planets, HD 209458b, is the highest-precision measurement of any chemical compound in a planet outside the solar system, and we can now say with much greater certainty than ever before that we’ve found water in an exoplanet,” said Dr Nikku Madhusudhan of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, who led the research. “However, the low water abundance we are finding is quite astonishing.”

Dr Madhusudhan and his collaborators used near-infrared spectra of the planetary atmospheres observed with the Hubble Space Telescope as the planets were passing in front of their parent stars as viewed from Earth. Absorption features from water vapour in the planetary atmosphere are superimposed on the small amount of starlight that passes through the planetary atmosphere before reaching the telescope. The planetary spectrum is obtained by determining the variation in the stellar spectrum caused due to the planetary atmosphere and is then used to estimate the amount of water vapour in the planetary atmosphere using sophisticated computer models and statistical techniques.

Madhusudhan said that the findings present a major challenge to exoplanet theory. “It basically opens a whole can of worms in planet formation. We expected these planets to have lots of water in their atmospheres. We have to revisit planet formation and migration models of giant planets, especially hot Jupiters, to investigate how they’re formed.”

The currently accepted theory on how giant planets in our solar system formed is known as core accretion, in which a planet is formed around the young star in a protoplanetary disc made primarily of hydrogen, helium, and particles of ices and dust composed of other chemical elements. The dust particles stick to each other, eventually forming larger and larger grains. The gravitational forces of the disc draw in these grains and larger planetesimals until a solid core forms. This core then leads to runaway accretion of both planetesimals and gas to eventually form a giant planet.

This theory predicts that the proportions of the different elements in the planet are enhanced relative to those in their star, especially oxygen, which is supposed to be the most enhanced. Once a giant planet forms, its atmospheric oxygen is expected to be largely in the form of water. Therefore, the very low levels of water vapour found by this research raise a number of questions about the chemical ingredients that lead to planet formation.

“There are so many things we still don’t understand about exoplanets – this opens up a new chapter in understanding how planets and solar systems form,” said Dr Drake Deming of the University of Maryland, who led one of the precursor studies and is a co-author in the present study. “These findings highlight the need for high-precision spectroscopy – additional observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and the next-generation telescopes currently in development will make this task easier.”

The new discovery also highlights some major challenges in the search for the exoplanet ‘holy grail’ – an exoplanet with a climate similar to Earth, a key characteristic of which is the presence of liquid water.

“These very hot planets with large atmospheres orbit some of our nearest stars, making them the best possible candidates for measuring water levels, and yet the levels we found were much lower than expected,” said Dr Madhusudhan. “These results show just how challenging it could be to detect water on Earth-like exoplanets in our search for potential life elsewhere.” Instruments on future telescopes searching for biosignatures may need to be designed with a higher sensitivity to account for the possibility of planets being significantly drier than predicted.

The researchers also considered the possibility that clouds may be responsible for obscuring parts of the atmospheres, thereby leading to the low observed water levels. However, such an explanation requires heavy cloud particles to be suspended too high in the atmosphere to be physically plausible for all the planets in the study.

Other authors of the paper are Dr Nicolas Crouzet of the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto, and Dr Peter McCullough of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University.

The work was supported by NASA through a grant from the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc.

The discovery of water vapour in the atmospheres of three exoplanets includes the most precise measurement of any chemical in a planet outside the solar system, and has major implications for planet formation and the search for water on Earth-like habitable exoplanets in future.

These results show just how challenging it could be to detect water on Earth-like exoplanets in our search for potential life elsewhereNikku MadhusudhanHaven Giguere, Nikku MadhusudhanIllustration of a 'hot Jupiter' orbiting a sun-like star

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Hubble:New mass map of a distant galaxy cluster is the most precise yet [heic1416]

24 July 2014 - 9:36am
Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have mapped the mass within a galaxy cluster more precisely than ever before. Created using observations from Hubble's Frontier Fields observing programme, the map shows the amount and distribution of mass within MCS J0416.1-2403, a massive galaxy cluster found to be 160 trillion times the mass of the Sun. The detail in this mass map was made possible thanks to the unprecedented depth of data provided by new Hubble observations, and the cosmic phenomenon known as strong gravitational lensing.

Lives and Deaths of Sibling Stars

23 July 2014 - 11:00am
In this striking new image from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile young stars huddle together against a backdrop of clouds of glowing gas and lanes of dust. The star cluster, known as NGC 3293, would have been just a cloud of gas and dust itself about ten million years ago, but as stars began to form it became the bright group of stars we see here. Clusters like this are celestial laboratories that allow astronomers to learn more about how stars evolve.

Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012

23 July 2014 - 2:34am
Two years ago today, a historic solar storm narrowly missed Earth, prompting forecasters to revise the odds of future impacts.

Astrophysics: Radio burst from beyond the Galaxy

23 July 2014 - 1:00am

Astrophysics: Radio burst from beyond the Galaxy

Nature 511, 7510 (2014). doi:10.1038/511387c

A telescope has detected a mysterious millisecond burst of radio waves that seems to be coming from outside the Milky Way.Laura Spitler at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and her colleagues found the burst using the Arecibo radio telescope

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory Celebrates 15th Anniversary

22 July 2014 - 5:00pm
Fifteen years ago, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched into space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Since its deployment on July 23, 1999, Chandra has helped revolutionize our understanding of the universe through its unrivaled X-ray vision.

New alien world has longest year

22 July 2014 - 12:04pm
Astronomers in the US have discovered a distant world with the longest year of any planet outside our Solar System.