Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

Cyclones of Color at Jupiter’s North Pole

7 hours 13 min ago
Eyebrow: Citizen Science NewsBody: 

Citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt made this composite image using data obtained by the JunoCam instrument during four of the Juno spacecraft’s close passes by Jupiter, which took place between Feb. 17, 2020, and July 25, 2020. The greatly exaggerated color is partially a result of combining many individual images to create this view.

Link: Read More

The first-ever image of a black hole is now a movie

24 September 2020 - 9:10am

Nature, Published online: 23 September 2020; doi:10.1038/d41586-020-02717-3

Pictures created from old observations show the void’s stormy evolution over the past decade.

History-making black hole seen to do a shimmy

24 September 2020 - 9:05am

Scientists trace a wobble in the brightness around M87* - the first black hole ever to be imaged.

NASA to Provide Update on Agency’s First Asteroid Sample Collection Attempt

23 September 2020 - 9:23am
Portal origin URL: NASA to Provide Update on Agency’s First Asteroid Sample Collection AttemptPortal origin nid: 464692Published: Tuesday, September 22, 2020 - 10:39Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: NASA is hosting a media teleconference at 3 p.m. EDT Thursday, Sept. 24, to provide an update on the agency’s first attempt to contact the surface of asteroid Bennu and collect a sample next month.Portal image: OSIRIS-REx Around Bennu

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy

23 September 2020 - 9:20am
Shorthand Story: 0RDcd0VMUuShorthand Story Head:  The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy Shorthand Story Body:  TwitterFacebook The Zoologist’s Guide
to the Galaxy

Words and layout by Jacqueline Garget

The Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

What do alien lifeforms look like? How do they get around? Can they communicate? In his new book, University of Cambridge researcher Dr Arik Kershenbaum draws on his knowledge of life on Earth to argue that aliens probably aren’t as weird as we might expect.

It was Kershenbaum’s research in animal communication that led him to wonder how aliens might communicate. He studies wolves and dolphins: two species that make very similar sounds to communicate. He describes these sounds as whistles - noises that go up and down in pitch across a narrow band of frequencies.

Dolphin. Credit: mikakaptur on Pixabay

Dolphin. Credit: mikakaptur on Pixabay

“It’s the best way to transmit information over long distances,” he says. “I realised that if animals need to communicate over long distances on other planets, they’ll also need to use a method that travels well.”

On Earth there are many examples of animals having evolved different solutions to the same problem, communication being a case in point. Birds use sound to raise the alarm, fireflies use light to attract a mate, and fish use electrical pulses to indicate social status, for example.  

Kershenbaum’s book, subtitled What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves, is really a book about life on Earth, because, as he puts it: “that’s all we have to look at.”

“There aren’t really that many different ways to communicate. So by looking at the ways animals communicate on Earth, we pretty much cover the range of what’s going to be happening on other planets too.”

When it comes to form, the evolution of different animals on Earth has led to the same structures many times over. Wings, for example, have evolved in many different species because they are so useful as a means of getting around. Legs are also fantastically useful (Kershenbaum talks a lot about legs in the book). But that doesn’t mean wings are inevitable, or that number of legs is predictable.

“I think animals will have legs on other planets,” he says, “but I certainly can’t say how many they’ll have – that’s down to chance, although it’ll almost certainly be an even number.”

Centipede. Credit: Budan on Flickr

Centipede. Credit: Budan on Flickr

The evolution of life on Earth has been very dependent on chance events, like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. “If that hadn't happened,” says Kershenbaum, “evolution would have played out very differently. So making concrete predictions about life on other planets is exceptionally difficult.”

Nevertheless, insights from zoology give a range of possibilities for what aliens might be like. And this extends to the ways they might interact with each other – another facet of animal behaviour that is much studied on Earth.

“We understand why some animals - meerkats, for example - cooperate and live in groups: it gives them more protection from predators and helps them raise their young,” he says. “At its roots, this is the same reason you cooperate with your family: it’s a way of making sure your genes are passed on to subsequent generations. And that’s going to apply on other worlds, because evolution works on how successful your offspring are. We have some really good theoretical models of how cooperative behaviour evolves, which I think are applicable across the Universe.”

Meerkats. Credit: Mona El Falaky on Pixabay

Meerkats. Credit: Mona El Falaky on Pixabay

Whatever aspect of animals he considers, Kershenbaum always ends up at the same conclusion: animals are the way they are because it’s advantageous, in evolutionary terms. Everything has evolved to suit its environment.

"It dawned on me that the underlying principles of life apply to every aspect of animal form and function – and that's the bottom line we can use with aliens as well,” he says. “Examples on Earth can tell us a lot about what to expect on other planets, because Darwin’s theory of evolution holds up throughout the Universe."

"Once you realise that life evolves according to fundamental principles, you can make assumptions about aliens based on solid theory.”

Kershenbaum admits that what we see on Earth can’t account for all the possibilities out in space. Earth’s animals tend to have left/right symmetry, due to the evolutionary pressure to wriggle along a sea floor. Other planets could have such different environments that life has evolved other solutions. On planets where creatures have evolved in a soupy tar, for example, they might be lacking any symmetry at all.

“Obviously there are huge gaps and uncertainties,” he says. “It makes a big difference whether a planet is terrestrial like ours, or is a big ball of gas, or has an underground ocean.” But nonetheless, he emphasises that he has tried very hard to avoid speculation in his book.

Of course, no book on extraterrestrials would be complete without asking whether a human level of intelligence might have evolved on other planets. Which leads to the ultimate question: are we alone?

“I think if there are creatures on another planet that are intelligent, and have language and culture and a society like ours, then even if they don’t look like us it would be justifiable to call them human,” says Kershenbaum. Since evolution is happening everywhere, we might not be unique after all.

Dr Arik Kershenbaum is a Lecturer and Tutor at Girton College, and Academic Visitor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens - and Ourselves is published by Viking on 24 September, 2020

TopBuilt with Shorthand Summary: 

In his new book, Dr Arik Kershenbaum draws on his knowledge of life on Earth to argue that aliens probably aren’t as weird as we might expect.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Girton CollegeDepartment of ZoologyPeople (our academics and staff): Arik KershenbaumSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): StoriesSection: ResearchNews type: News

Comet Discovered to Have Its Own Northern Lights

22 September 2020 - 9:16am
Portal origin URL: Comet Discovered to Have Its Own Northern LightsPortal origin nid: 464629Published: Monday, September 21, 2020 - 08:13Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: An atmospheric light show previously relegated to planets and Jupiter moons is found on comet using data from ESA's Rosetta spacecraft.Portal image: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx to Asteroid Bennu: “You’ve got a little Vesta on you…”

22 September 2020 - 9:15am
Portal origin URL: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx to Asteroid Bennu: “You’ve got a little Vesta on you…”Portal origin nid: 463267Published: Monday, September 21, 2020 - 11:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: It appears some pieces of asteroid Vesta ended up on asteroid Bennu, according to observations from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The new result sheds light on the intricate orbital dance of asteroids and on the violent origin of Bennu.Portal image: Image of Vesta meteorites on asteroid Bennu

Astronomers discover the first ‘ultrahot Neptune’: one of nature’s improbable planets

22 September 2020 - 9:13am

The planet orbits so close to its star that its year lasts only 19 hours, and stellar radiation heats the planet to over 1700 degrees Celsius.

At these temperatures, heavy elements like iron can be ionised in the atmosphere and molecules disassociated, providing a unique laboratory to study the chemistry of planets outside the solar system.

Although the planet weighs twice as much as Neptune, it is also slightly larger and has a similar density. Therefore, LTT 9779b should have a huge core of around 28 Earth masses, and an atmosphere that makes up around 9% of the total planetary mass.

The system itself is around two billion years old, and given the intense irradiation, a Neptune-like planet would not be expected to keep its atmosphere for so long, providing a puzzle for astronomers to solve; how such an improbable system came to be. The results are reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.

LTT 9779 is a Sun-like star located at a distance of 260 light years, a stone’s throw in astronomical terms. It is metal-rich, having twice the amount of iron in its atmosphere than the Sun. This could be a key indicator that the planet was originally a much larger gas giant, since these bodies tend to form close to stars with the highest iron abundances.

Initial indications of the existence of the planet were made using the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), as part of its mission to discover small transiting planets orbiting nearby and bright stars across the whole sky. Such transits are found when a planet passes directly in front of its parent star, blocking some of the starlight, and the amount of light blocked reveals the companion’s size. Planets like these, once fully confirmed, can allow astronomers to investigate their atmospheres, providing a deeper understanding of planet formation and evolution processes.

The transit signal was confirmed in early November 2018 as originating from a planetary mass body, using observations taken at the ESO la Silla Observatory in northern Chile. HARPS uses the Doppler Wobble method to measure planet masses and orbital characteristics. When objects are found to transit, Doppler measurements can be organized to confirm the planetary nature in an efficient manner. In the case of LTT 9779b, the team were able to confirm the planet’s existence after only one week of observations.

Professor James Jenkins from the Department of Astronomy at the Universidad de Chile, who led the team, said: “The discovery of LTT 9779b so early in the TESS mission was a complete surprise; a gamble that paid off. The majority of transit events with periods less than one day turnout to be false-positives, normally background eclipsing binary stars.”  

The planet was uncovered in only the second of 26 sectors of observations that TESS would be observing across the whole sky. Since no similar types of planets were detected in the TESS precursor missions Kepler and K2, the finding was even more exciting.

“We selected this candidate from a TESS alert due to its very short orbital period. After inspecting the light curve, we found it was a good candidate for an upcoming week-long observation campaign using the HARPS spectrograph in La Silla,” said co-author Matías Díaz, also from the Universidad de Chile. “We planned the observations carefully, to maximize the use of the spectrograph and sample the orbit of the candidate in an optimal way. During the first nights of data we saw the observations matched the predicted period of the candidate. Further analysis of the seven nights of observations in November were consistent with a massive Neptune planet.”

LTT 9779b exists in the ‘Neptunian Desert’, a region devoid of planets when we look at the population of planetary masses and sizes. Although icy giants seem to be a fairly common by-product of the planet formation process, this is not the case very close to their stars. The researchers believe these planets get stripped of their atmospheres over cosmic time, ending up as so-called Ultra Short Period planets.

The Kepler mission found that Ultra Short Period planets, those that orbit their stars in one day or less, come mainly in the form of large gas giants or small rocky planets. Models tell us that planets like LTT 9779b should be stripped of their atmospheres through a process called photoevaporation as they move close to their stars. The large gas giants, on the other hand, have strong gravitational fields that can hold onto their atmospheres, and so we end up with a dearth of planets like Neptune with the shortest orbital periods.

“Planetary structure models tell us that the planet is a giant core dominated world, but crucially, there should exist two to three Earth-masses of atmospheric gas,” said Jenkins. “But if the star is so old, why does any atmosphere exist at all? Well, if LTT 9779b started life as a gas giant, then a process called Roche Lobe Overflow could have transferred significant amounts of the atmospheric gas onto the star.”

Roche Lobe Overflow is a process whereby a planet comes so close to its star that the star’s stronger gravity can capture the outer layers of the planet, causing it to transfer onto the star and so significantly decreasing the mass of the planet. Models predict outcomes similar to that of the LTT 9779 system, but they also require some fine-tuning.

“It could also be that LTT 9779b arrived at its current orbit quite late in the day, and so hasn’t had time to be stripped of the atmosphere. Collisions with other planets in the system could have thrown it inwards towards the star. Indeed, since it is such a unique and rare world, more exotic scenarios may be plausible,” said Jenkins.

Members of the Cambridge Astronomy department are part of the Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS). The NGTS team conducted follow-up observations of LT9779b’s transit to help confirm the planetary nature of the system and better constrain its properties.

“LTT 9779b is an intriguing planet, being the first of its kind discovered,” said co-author Dr Ed Gillen, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. “It is particularly exciting because of its peculiarity: how did this planet come to arrive on such a short period orbit and why does it still possess an atmosphere? Fortunately, the planetary system is located nearby so we can study it in detail, which promises new insights into how such planets come to be and what they are made of.”


James S. Jenkins et al. ‘An ultrahot Neptune in the Neptune desert.’ Nature Astronomy (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-020-1142-z

Adapted from a Universidad de Chile press release.

An international team of astronomers, including researchers from the University of Cambridge, has discovered a new class of planet, an ‘ultrahot Neptune’, orbiting the nearby star LTT 9779.

This planet is particularly exciting because of its peculiarity: how did this planet come to arrive on such a short period orbit and why does it still possess an atmosphere? Ed Gillenicardo Ramirez, Universidad de ChileArtist's impression of LTT 9779b

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.


NASA’s IRIS Spots Nanojets: Shining Light On Heating the Solar Corona

21 September 2020 - 4:39pm
Portal origin URL: NASA’s IRIS Spots Nanojets: Shining Light On Heating the Solar CoronaPortal origin nid: 464587Published: Monday, September 21, 2020 - 11:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: In a paper published today in Nature Astronomy, researchers report the first ever clear images of nanojets -- bright thin lights that travel perpendicular to the magnetic structures in the solar atmosphere, called the corona -- in a process that reveals the existence of one of the potential coronal heating candidates: nanoflares.Portal image: A gif of nanojets appearing in a solar magnetic loop

Everyday Effects of the Solar Cycle

19 September 2020 - 8:45pm
Portal origin URL: Everyday Effects of the Solar CyclePortal origin nid: 464564Published: Friday, September 18, 2020 - 11:30Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: Scientists announced that the Sun has entered a new cycle, marked by solar minimum in December 2019. Meet a few people whose everyday lives are affected by the regular ebb and flow of solar activity.Portal image: Aurora chaser Chris Ratzlaff leans against a car in front of an aurora-filled sky

Complex stellar winds from evolved stars

18 September 2020 - 9:23am

Planet discovered transiting a dead star

18 September 2020 - 9:19am

Nature, Published online: 16 September 2020; doi:10.1038/d41586-020-02555-3

Evidence has been found of a planet circling the smouldering remains of a dead star in a tight orbit. The discovery raises the question of how the planet survived the star’s death throes — and whether other planets also orbit the remains.

A giant planet candidate transiting a white dwarf

18 September 2020 - 9:18am

Nature, Published online: 16 September 2020; doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2713-y

A giant planet candidate roughly the size of Jupiter but more than 14 times as massive is observed by TESS and other instruments to be transiting the white dwarf star WD 1856+534.

NASA Missions Spy First Possible ‘Survivor’ Planet Hugging White Dwarf Star

18 September 2020 - 9:15am
Portal origin URL: NASA Missions Spy First Possible ‘Survivor’ Planet Hugging White Dwarf StarPortal origin nid: 464447Published: Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 16:22Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: An international team of astronomers using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and retired Spitzer Space Telescope has reported what may be the first intact planet found closely orbiting a white dwarf, the dense leftover of a Sun-like star, only 40% larger than Earth.Portal image: In this illustration, WD 1856 b, a potential Jupiter-size planet, orbits its dim white dwarf star every day and a half.

What Will Solar Cycle 25 Look Like?

18 September 2020 - 9:15am
Portal origin URL: What Will Solar Cycle 25 Look Like?Portal origin nid: 464524Published: Thursday, September 17, 2020 - 13:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: The Sun is stirring from its latest slumber. As sunspots and flares, signs of a new solar cycle, bubble from the Sun’s surface, scientists wonder what this next cycle will look like.Portal image: Two visible light images of the Sun. Left: spotless sun at solar minimum. Right, a sun with many sunspots at solar maximum.

Solar Cycle 25 Is Here. NASA, NOAA Scientists Explain What That Means

16 September 2020 - 8:51am
Portal origin URL: Solar Cycle 25 Is Here. NASA, NOAA Scientists Explain What That MeansPortal origin nid: 464426Published: Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 11:32Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: Solar Cycle 25 has begun. During a media event on Tuesday, experts from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) discussed their analysis and predictions about the new solar cycle – and how the coming upswing in space weather will impact our lives and technology on Earth, as well as astronauts in space.Portal image: This split image shows the difference between an active Sun during solar maximum and a quiet Sun during solar minimum

How Scientists Around the World Track the Solar Cycle

16 September 2020 - 8:50am
Portal origin URL: How Scientists Around the World Track the Solar CyclePortal origin nid: 464418Published: Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 13:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: NASA scientists study the solar cycle so we can better predict solar activity. Solar Cycle 25 is underway, and scientists are eager for another chance to put their understanding of solar cycle signs to the test.Portal image: Two satellite images of the Sun. Left: solar minimum sun with coronal holes. Right: solar maximum sun with active regions.

Is there life floating in the clouds of Venus?

15 September 2020 - 9:06am

Telescope observations spy a gas high in the atmosphere of Venus that on Earth is made by microbes.