Institute of Astronomy

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Asteroids keep their rings safe from gas giants’ clutches

Astronomy News - 22 June 2016 - 8:46am

If an asteroid acquires rings, it’s likely to hang on to them – so more space rocks may have rings than we thought. If only we knew how they got there

Venus has potential – but not for water

Astronomy News - 21 June 2016 - 9:26am

ESA's Venus Express may have helped to explain the puzzling lack of water on Venus. The planet has a surprisingly strong electric field – the first time this has been measured at any planet – that is sufficient to deplete its upper atmosphere of oxygen, one of the components of water.

The alien world that’s being vaporised by a death ray

Astronomy News - 21 June 2016 - 9:25am

A Mercury-sized exoplanet is being blown apart like a dandelion – and magnetic hotspots on its star could make things worse

Mars crater named after Nepal quake village Langtang

Astronomy News - 20 June 2016 - 9:30am

A crater on Mars is named Langtang, in tribute to one of the worst-hit villages during the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

Nearly naked black hole lost its ‘clothes’ to a gravity rip tide

Astronomy News - 20 June 2016 - 9:29am

Supermassive black holes are meant to be swaddled inside the starry cloak of a galaxy, but astronomers have just seen one that's almost bare

ALMA Observes Most Distant Oxygen Ever

Astronomy News - 17 June 2016 - 11:31am
A team of astronomers has used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to detect glowing oxygen in a distant galaxy seen just 700 million years after the Big Bang. This is the most distant galaxy in which oxygen has ever been unambiguously detected, and it is most likely being ionised by powerful radiation from young giant stars. This galaxy could be an example of one type of source responsible for cosmic reionisation in the early history of the Universe.

Unexpected Excess of Giant Planets in Star Cluster

Astronomy News - 17 June 2016 - 11:30am
An international team of astronomers have found that there are far more planets of the hot Jupiter type than expected in a cluster of stars called Messier 67. This surprising result was obtained using a number of telescopes and instruments, among them the HARPS spectrograph at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The denser environment in a cluster will cause more frequent interactions between planets and nearby stars, which may explain the excess of hot Jupiters.

Is NASA doing enough to look for alien life?

Astronomy News - 17 June 2016 - 11:29am

A new study says Hubble's successor could spot alien life on three new exoplanets. Should NASA be doing more? Or is it right to focus on other priorities?

LIGO discovers new gravitational wave – and new era of astronomy

Astronomy News - 17 June 2016 - 11:29am

The detector's latest discovery means we are now firmly in a new era of astronomy – it matches up convingingly with what we already know about black holes

Fission and reconfiguration of bilobate comets as revealed by 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

Astronomy News - 17 June 2016 - 11:26am

Fission and reconfiguration of bilobate comets as revealed by 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

Nature 534, 7607 (2016). doi:10.1038/nature17670

Authors: Masatoshi Hirabayashi, Daniel J. Scheeres, Steven R. Chesley, Simone Marchi, Jay W. McMahon, Jordan Steckloff, Stefano Mottola, Shantanu P. Naidu & Timothy Bowling

The solid, central part of a comet—its nucleus—is subject to destructive processes, which cause nuclei to split at a rate of about 0.01 per year per comet. These destructive events are due to a range of possible thermophysical effects; however, the geophysical expressions of these effects are unknown. Separately, over two-thirds of comet nuclei that have been imaged at high resolution show bilobate shapes, including the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P), visited by the Rosetta spacecraft. Analysis of the Rosetta observations suggests that 67P’s components were brought together at low speed after their separate formation. Here, we study the structure and dynamics of 67P’s nucleus. We find that sublimation torques have caused the nucleus to spin up in the past to form the large cracks observed on its neck. However, the chaotic evolution of its spin state has so far forestalled its splitting, although it should eventually reach a rapid enough spin rate to do so. Once this occurs, the separated components will be unable to escape each other; they will orbit each other for a time, ultimately undergoing a low-speed merger that will result in a new bilobate configuration. The components of four other imaged bilobate nuclei have volume ratios that are consistent with a similar reconfiguration cycle, pointing to such cycles as a fundamental process in the evolution of short-period comet nuclei. It has been shown that comets were not strong contributors to the so-called late heavy bombardment about 4 billion years ago. The reconfiguration process suggested here would preferentially decimate comet nuclei during migration to the inner solar system, perhaps explaining this lack of a substantial cometary flux.

France launches massive meteor-spotting network

Astronomy News - 17 June 2016 - 11:25am

France launches massive meteor-spotting network

Nature 534, 7607 (2016). http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/nature.2016.20070

Author: Traci Watson

Tracking space rocks that reach Earth will give insight into the early Solar System.

Unique meteorite from asteroid smash-up

Astronomy News - 16 June 2016 - 9:29am

Scientists identify a completely new type of meteorite that likely originated in a huge asteroid collision some 470 million years ago.

First Detection of Methyl Alcohol in a Planet-forming Disc

Astronomy News - 16 June 2016 - 9:26am
The organic molecule methyl alcohol (methanol) has been found by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in the TW Hydrae protoplanetary disc. This is the first such detection of the compound in a young planet-forming disc. Methanol is the only complex organic molecule as yet detected in discs that unambiguously derives from an icy form. Its detection helps astronomers understand the chemical processes that occur during the formation of planetary systems and that ultimately lead to the creation of the ingredients for life.

We have the technology to look for ET right now – why don’t we?

Astronomy News - 16 June 2016 - 9:24am

A new study says Hubble's successor could spot alien life on 3 new exoplanets. Should NASA be doing more? Or is it right to focus on other priorities?

Gluttonous Star May Hold Clues to Planet Formation

Astronomy News - 15 June 2016 - 10:26am

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In 1936, astronomers observed signs that the young star FU Orionis had begun gobbling material from its surrounding disk of gas and dust with a sudden voraciousness. During a three-month binge, as matter turned into energy, the star became 100 times brighter, heating the disk around it to temperatures of up to 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The brightening is the most extreme event of its kind that has been confirmed around a star the size of the sun, and may have implications for how stars and planets form. The intense baking of the star's surrounding disk likely changed its chemistry, permanently altering material that could one day turn into planets. FU Orionis is still devouring gas to this day, although not as quickly.

First mirror-image molecule found in interstellar space

Astronomy News - 15 June 2016 - 10:24am

A team of scientists has detected the first chiral molecule out in space – a key step toward understanding life's origins

Ocean worlds could host life under layers of high-pressure ice

Astronomy News - 15 June 2016 - 10:16am

Models of ice formation at high pressure suggest there could be habitable liquid water at the bottom of incredibly deep alien oceans

Black hole pairs spat out of mosh pits make gravitational waves

Astronomy News - 14 June 2016 - 9:08am

The pair of black holes responsible for the first ever detected gravitational wave may have been spat out of a mosh pit at the centre of a globular star cluster

Massive exoplanet’s close dance is making its star spin faster

Astronomy News - 13 June 2016 - 9:02am

Astronomers have discovered a massive planet on an orbit close enough to speed up the rotation of its star

Supernovae 2 million years ago may have changed human behaviour

Astronomy News - 10 June 2016 - 9:04am

Two nearby supernovae explosions may have increased cancer rates and changed the behaviour of early humans - but that's a pretty big may