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Astronomy News

James Webb telescope makes 'JuMBO' discovery of planet-like objects in Orion

3 October 2023 - 12:43pm

The new space observatory sees pairs of Jupiter-sized objects floating free between the stars.

Hubble Views A Vibrant Virgo Cluster Galaxy

3 October 2023 - 12:42pm

2 min read

Hubble Views A Vibrant Virgo Cluster Galaxy NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, ESA, and J. Lee (Space Telescope Science Institute); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

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It’s easy to get swept up in the swirling starry arms of this intermediate spiral galaxy, NGC 4654, in the constellation Virgo. The galaxy has a bright center and is labeled “intermediate” because it has characteristics of both unbarred and barred spirals. NGC 4654 is just north of the celestial equator, making it visible from the northern hemisphere and most of the southern hemisphere. The galaxy is around 55 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 4654 is one of many Virgo Cluster galaxies that have an asymmetric distribution of stars and of neutral hydrogen gas. Astronomers reason that NGC 4654 may be experiencing a process called “ram pressure stripping,” where the gravitational pull of the Virgo galaxy cluster puts pressure on NGC 4654 as it moves through a superheated plasma made largely of hydrogen called the “intracluster medium.” This pressure feels like a gust of wind – think of a biker feeling wind even on a still day – that strips NGC 4654 of its gas. This process produced a long, thin tail of hydrogen gas on the galaxy’s southeastern side. Most galaxies that experienced ram pressure stripping hold very little cold gas, halting the galaxy’s ability to form new stars, since stars generate from dense gas. However, NGC 4654 has star formation rates consistent with other galaxies of its size.

NGC 4654 also had an interaction with the companion galaxy NGC 4639 about 500 million years ago. The gravity of NGC 4639 stripped NGC 4654’s gas along its edge, limiting star formation in that region and causing the asymmetrical distribution of the galaxy’s stars.

Scientists study galaxies like NGC 4654 to examine the connection between young stars and the cold gas from which they form. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took this image in visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light.

Media Contact:

Claire Andreoli
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight CenterGreenbelt, MD

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Our Solar System

Clues to Psyche Asteroid’s Metallic Nature Found in SOFIA Data

3 October 2023 - 12:42pm

When the asteroid Psyche has its first close-up with a NASA spacecraft, scientists hypothesize they will find a metal-rich asteroid. It could be part or all of the iron-rich interior of a planetesimal, an early planetary building block, that was stripped of its outer rocky shell as it repeatedly collided with other large bodies during the early formation of the solar system.

New research from scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley suggests that is exactly what the agency’s Psyche mission will find.

An artist’s concept depicting the metal-rich asteroid Psyche, which is located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Led by Anicia Arredondo, the paper’s first author and a postdoctoral researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and Maggie McAdam, Ames research scientist and principal investigator, the team observed Psyche in Feb. 2022 using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The now-retired observatory was a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a reflecting telescope. As a flying telescope, SOFIA collected data that was not affected by Earth’s lower atmosphere and made observations from all over the world, including over the oceans.

For the first time, SOFIA was able to gather data from every part of Psyche’s surface. It also allowed the team to collect data about the materials that make up Psyche’s surface – information that could not be gathered from ground-based telescopes.

The Ames team studied the way different wavelengths of light bounce off Psyche. Researchers used a mid-infrared camera, which detects wavelengths in the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum, to observe the asteroid. They measured its emissivity(the amount of energy it radiates) and porosity (how many tiny holes or spaces an object has). Both characteristics can provide clues about the materials that make up an object.

The team observed that Psyche’s emissivity data was mostly flat, meaning there were no spikes or other notable features in its spectra – that is, a chart or a graph that shows the intensity of light the asteroid emits over a range of energies. Similarly flat spectra have been found in laboratory settings when mid-infrared instruments are used on metal objects. This led the researchers to conclude that Psyche is likely a metallic body.

Notably, the team did not observe a spectral feature called the 10-micron plateau, which typically indicates a “fluffy” surface, like lunar regolith. Previous studies of Psyche had observed this feature, which suggests there may be differences between the surface at Psyche’s north pole, which was facing the Earth at the time of the Ames team’s study, and the surface at its south pole, which was the focus of previous studies. The team also proposed that the south pole regolith observed by other researchers could have been ejected from a collision elsewhere on Psyche’s surface. This idea is supported by past observations of Psyche, which found evidence of huge depressions and impact craters across the asteroid.

“With this analysis and the previous studies of Psyche, we have reached the limit of what astronomical observations can teach us about this fascinating asteroid,” said McAdam. “Now we need to physically visit Psyche to study it up close and learn more about what appears to be a very unique planetary body.” NASA’s mission to Psyche will provide that opportunity. The spacecraft is set to launch on Oct. 12, 2023. It will arrive at the asteroid in 2029 and orbit it for at least 26 months.

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is shown in a clean room on June 26, 2023, at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.NASA/Frank Michaux

Psyche’s potential to answer many questions about planet formation is a key reason why it was selected for close observation by a spacecraft. Scientists believe that planets like Earth, Mars, and Mercury have metallic cores, but they are buried too far below the planets’ mantles and crusts to see or measure directly. If Psyche is confirmed to be a planetary core, it can help scientists understand what is inside the Earth and other large planetary bodies.

Psyche’s size is also important for advancing scientific understanding of Earth-like planets. It is the largest M-type (metallic) asteroid in our solar system and is long enough to cover the distance from New York City to Baltimore, Maryland. This means Psyche is more likely to show differentiation, which is when the materials inside a planet separate from one another, with the heaviest materials sinking to the middle and forming cores.

“Every time a new study of Psyche is published, it raises more questions,” said Arredondo, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Ames on the SOFIA mission when the Psyche observations were collected. “Our findings suggest the asteroid is very complex and likely holds many other surprises. The possibility of the unexpected is one of the most exciting parts of a mission to study an unexplored body, and we look forward to gaining a more detailed understanding of Psyche’s origins.”

More about the Psyche and SOFIA missions:

Arizona State University leads the Psyche mission. A division of Caltech in Pasadena, JPL is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.

Psyche is the 14th mission selected as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy, is managing the launch service.

SOFIA was a joint project of NASA and the German Space Agency at DLR. DLR provided the telescope, scheduled aircraft maintenance, and other support for the mission. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley managed the SOFIA program, science, and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association, headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft was maintained and operated by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Building 703, in Palmdale, California. SOFIA achieved full operational capability in 2014 and concluded its final science flight on Sept. 29, 2022.

For news media: 

Members of the news media interested in covering this topic should reach out to the Ames newsroom

Huge new satellite outshines nearly every star in the sky

3 October 2023 - 12:41pm

Nature, Published online: 02 October 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-03054-x

At times, the enormous telecommunications spacecraft is brighter than some of the most iconic stars visible from Earth.

The high optical brightness of the BlueWalker 3 satellite

3 October 2023 - 12:41pm

Nature, Published online: 02 October 2023; doi:10.1038/s41586-023-06672-7

The high optical brightness of the BlueWalker 3 satellite

Interstellar shocks unveil the material around new stars

3 October 2023 - 12:41pm

Nature, Published online: 02 October 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-02982-y

Astronomers have obtained spectacular images of an interstellar jet launched from a newly forming star. Careful comparison with archival data offers a fresh take on the chemistry of the environment that surrounds it.

Astronomers alarmed by satellite that outshines all but seven stars

3 October 2023 - 12:40pm

Observations collected from telescopes around the world confirm that the communications satellite BlueWalker 3 outshines all but seven stars, posing huge problems for astronomy

Water may be forming on the moon thanks to Earth’s magnetic field

3 October 2023 - 12:40pm

For a few days each month, as the full moon sweeps through the stretched-out tail of Earth’s magnetic field, high-energy electrons seem to be helping form water molecules on the lunar surface

Why finding alien life in Universe is now 'only a matter of time'

30 September 2023 - 3:38pm

Experts are optimistic of detecting life signs on a faraway world within our lifetimes - possibly in the next few years.

Discovery Alert: The Planet that Shouldn’t Be There

30 September 2023 - 3:37pm

3 min read

Discovery Alert: The Planet that Shouldn’t Be There Artist’s rendering of planet 8 Ursae Minoris b – also known as “Halla” – amid the field of debris after a violent merger of two stars. The planet might have survived the merger, but also might be an entirely new planet formed from the debris. W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

By Pat Brennan

NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program

The discovery: A large planet is somehow orbiting a star that should have destroyed it.

Key facts: Planet 8 Ursae Minoris b orbits a star some 530 light-years away that is in its death throes. A swollen red giant, the star would have been expected to expand beyond the planet’s orbit before receding to its present (still giant) size. In other words, the star would have engulfed and ripped apart any planets orbiting closely around it. Yet the planet remains in a stable, nearly circular orbit. The discovery of this seemingly impossible situation, relying on precise measurements using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), shows that planet formation – and destruction – are likely far more intricate and unpredictable than many scientists might have thought.

Details: As stars like our Sun approach the ends of their lives, they begin to exhaust their nuclear fuel. They become red giants, expanding to their maximum size. If that happened in this case, the star would have grown outward from its center to 0.7 astronomical units – that is, about three-quarters the distance from Earth to the Sun. It would have swallowed and destroyed any nearby orbiting planets in the process. But planet b, a large gaseous world, sits at about 0.5 astronomical units, or AU. Because the planet could not have survived engulfment, Marc Hon, the lead author of a recent paper on the discovery, instead proposes two other possibilities: The planet is really the survivor of a merger between two stars, or it’s a new planet – formed out of the debris left behind by that merger.

The first scenario begins with two stars about the size of our Sun in close orbit around each other, the planet orbiting both. One of the stars “evolves” a bit faster than the other, going through its red giant phase, casting off its outer layers and turning into a white dwarf – the tiny but high-mass remnant of a star. The other just reaches the red giant stage before the two collide; what remains is the red giant we see today. This merger, however, stops the red giant from expanding further, sparing the orbiting planet from destruction. In the second scenario, the violent merger of the two stars ejects an abundance of dust and gas, which forms a disk around the remaining red giant. This “protoplanetary” disk provides the raw material for a new planet to coalesce. It’s a kind of late-stage second life for a planetary system – though the star still is nearing its end.

Fun facts: How can astronomers infer such a chaotic series of events from present-day observations? It all comes down to well understood stellar physics. Planet-hunting TESS also can be used to observe the jitters and quakes on distant stars, and these follow known patterns during the red-giant phase. (Tracking such oscillations in stars is known as “asteroseismology.”) The pattern of oscillations on 8 Ursae Minoris, the discovery team found, match those of red giants at a late, helium-burning stage – not one that is still expanding as it burns hydrogen. So it isn’t that the star is still growing and hasn’t yet reached the planet. The crisis has come and gone, but the planet somehow continues to exist.

The discoverers: The paper describing the TESS result, “A close-in giant planet escapes engulfment by its star,” was published in the journal Nature in June 2023 by an international science team led by astronomer Marc Hon of the University of Hawaii.

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These are the next comets that will be visible in 2023

30 September 2023 - 3:34pm

Three comets named Hartley, Encke and Tsuchinshan will pass by the sun in the next few months and be visible from Earth. Here’s how you can spot them

Countdown to Psyche: Marshall Aids Preparations for Asteroid Mission, Key Technology Payload

29 September 2023 - 10:16am

5 min read

Countdown to Psyche: Marshall Aids Preparations for Asteroid Mission, Key Technology Payload

By Rick Smith

When the Psyche spacecraft lifts off Oct. 5 to rendezvous with a distant, metal-rich asteroid – and test an innovative new communications system on the way – management teams at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will be watching keenly.

Psyche is the 14th planetary exploration mission in NASA’s Discovery program, which is managed for the agency by Marshall – as is the TDM (Technology Demonstration Missions) program, which funds the DSOC (Deep Space Optical Communications) project.

Brad Zavodsky, left, Psyche mission manager in Marshall’s Planetary Missions Program Office, and Joel Robinson, Deep Space Optical Communications mission manager at Marshall, ponder a scale model of the Psyche spacecraft, which will be launched Oct. 5 on a mission to study a metal-rich asteroid deep in our solar system and will test innovative laser-based communications during the spacecraft’s transit around the Sun.Credits: NASA/Mick Speer

“We ensure the project teams have all the resources they need to execute the project, monitor costs and schedules to keep the project on track and on time, and work closely with the payload and launch teams throughout the flight mission,” said Brad Zavodsky, Psyche mission manager in Marshall’s Planetary Missions Program Office.

Joel Robinson, DSOC mission manager at Marshall, concurs. He and Zavodsky serve as “conduits,” he said, between directorate-level technology and science leadership at NASA Headquarters and the Psyche and DSOC project leadership – both of which, serendipitously, are managed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The program office teams at Marshall include program planning and control personnel, independent technical authorities, and procurement and acquisition specialists. These technical experts provide the Psyche and DSOC missions with all necessary guidance and direction throughout their respective development and programmatic life cycles.

“That means a number of presentations, weekly telecons, and periodic reviews,” Robinson said, “but it’s all worth it as we count down to launch. All that oversight helps facilitate delivery of a robust payload – one that’s ready for launch and ready to extend humanity’s reach into the solar system.”

Led by principal investigator Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton at Arizona State University, Psyche is set to be lofted to space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy – the first interplanetary launch of that rocket – from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 9:34 a.m. CDT on Oct. 5.

Powered by solar electric propulsion, Psyche’s flight to the asteroid will take six years; it will reach its destination in 2029 and begin a 26-month period of scheduled scientific observations, gathering images and data to shed new light on the asteroid’s history and composition.

The Psyche asteroid, orbiting the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, measures roughly 173 miles at its widest point. Researchers are keen to determine whether it may have been the core of a planetesimal, part of an early planet.

“We know a good deal about Earth’s core, but we can’t study it directly because of its depth below the crust and mantle,” Zavodsky said. “Investigating Psyche is perhaps the closest we can come. Studying its composition and structure is an exciting opportunity to learn more about such objects in space – and perhaps a little something about our own planet as well.”

Should the Psyche spacecraft encounter challenges during flight, Zavodsky’s team will assist mission managers at JPL and Arizona State University, for whom Marshall oversees the project management and principal investigator contracts.

“We’ll maintain direct engagement with the project team and NASA decision-making authorities,” he said. “Should an issue arise, the project will be prepared to stand up anomaly response teams to understand and resolve those challenges. Our program office will support that effort as needed.”

Meanwhile, the DSOC technology demonstrator is set to pursue its own mission, sending and receiving test data from Earth using a near-invisible infrared laser and sensitive photon-counting camera. It will mark NASA’s farthest-ever test of high-bandwidth optical communications – paving the way for broadband communications when NASA sends astronauts to Mars.

“We’re tackling the twin issues of bandwidth and transmission rate to expand and refine our data-gathering ability from missions beyond the Moon,” Robinson said. “We can’t transmit data faster than the speed of light, but we can do far more with advanced optical systems of the same size and power requirements as traditional radio systems.”

Building on the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration mission flown on the International Space Station in 2013 and the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, launched to geostationary orbit above Earth in 2021, the DSOC effort is the first to experiment with ultra-long-range, laser-based communications.

“It’s exciting to take optical communications capabilities into deep space for the first time,” Robinson said.

DSOC could deliver 10 to 100 times the data current radio systems are capable of transmitting, with far greater precision and clarity.

Joel Robinson

DSOC mission manager at Marshall

DSOC will test its optical transmission capabilities at and beyond a range of 1 astronomical unit, which is about 93 million miles – or the distance from the Sun to Earth. Psyche proves to be the perfect means to that end, requiring a gravity-assisting pass around the Sun in order to accelerate on its journey to the Psyche asteroid.

JPL laser researchers in California will send optical data to the DSOC payload during pre-conjunction – the period before the spacecraft is blocked by the Sun itself – and again during post-conjunction.

Smith, a Manufacturing Technical Solutions employee, supports the Marshall Office of Communications.

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Solar System

Distant galaxies are gobbling up an unexpected amount of gas

29 September 2023 - 10:14am

Astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope have found that the most distant galaxies are being “watered down” with pristine gas from their surroundings far more than nearby ones

NASA delivers bounty of asteroid samples to Earth

29 September 2023 - 10:13am
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Mars Sample Return gets a new price tag. It’s big

29 September 2023 - 10:13am
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China’s powerful new telescope will search for exploding stars

28 September 2023 - 10:04am

Nature, Published online: 26 September 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-03013-6

The Wide Field Survey Telescope is the largest facility of its kind in the Northern Hemisphere.

A new era for Arecibo: legendary observatory begins next phase

28 September 2023 - 10:04am

Nature, Published online: 26 September 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-03021-6

The US National Science Foundation announces plan to use the historic site for biology and computer science education.

Antimatter falls down, not up: CERN experiment confirms theory

28 September 2023 - 10:03am

Nature, Published online: 27 September 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-03043-0

Observing this simple phenomenon had eluded physicists for decades.

Precessing jet nozzle connecting to a spinning black hole in M87

28 September 2023 - 10:02am

Nature, Published online: 27 September 2023; doi:10.1038/s41586-023-06479-6

This study analyses radio observations of the jet in galaxy M87, from which the existence of a spinning black hole that induces Lense–Thirring precession of a misaligned accretion disk is inferred.

Free-falling antihydrogen reveals the effect of gravity on antimatter

28 September 2023 - 10:02am

Nature, Published online: 27 September 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-02930-w

A test performed on antihydrogen atoms has shown that gravity acts on matter and antimatter in a similar way. The experimental feat is the latest in efforts to probe the crossover between theories of relativity and particle physics.