Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

Earliest galaxies found 'on our cosmic doorstep'

17 August 2018 - 9:11am

Some of the earliest galaxies to form in the Universe are sitting on our cosmic doorstep, a study says.

Teens stumble on a new class of astronomical object

17 August 2018 - 9:10am

Teens stumble on a new class of astronomical object

Teens stumble on a new class of astronomical object, Published online: 16 August 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05959-4

Students sifting through archived data find an X-ray flare too brief to belong to an ordinary star.

Follow the Sun

17 August 2018 - 9:09am
Video Length: 3:41

The TSIS instrument on the International Space Station is continuing NASA's 40-year record of tracking the Sun's radiant energy.

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Video Links: Follow the Sun - mp4YouTubeVimeo

Atomic iron and titanium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet KELT-9b

16 August 2018 - 9:24am

Atomic iron and titanium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet KELT-9b

Atomic iron and titanium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet KELT-9b, Published online: 15 August 2018; doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0401-y

Cross-correlation analysis of high-resolution spectra obtained as the exoplanet KELT-9b transited its host star reveals neutral and singly ionized atomic iron and singly ionized atomic titanium in the exoplanet’s atmosphere.

SOFIA Reveals Never-Before-Seen Magnetic Field Details

16 August 2018 - 9:23am
Portal origin URL: SOFIA Reveals Never-Before-Seen Magnetic Field DetailsPortal origin nid: 430608Published: Wednesday, August 15, 2018 - 17:20Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: Portal image: Images taken at multiple wavelengths showing the dust and the magnetic fields in 30 Dor.Science Categories: Universe

Project that spots city-killing asteroids expands to Southern Hemisphere

15 August 2018 - 9:51am

Project that spots city-killing asteroids expands to Southern Hemisphere

Project that spots city-killing asteroids expands to Southern Hemisphere, Published online: 14 August 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05969-2

Planned observatories will provide astronomers with complete coverage of the night sky.

Dumpling-shaped asteroid comes into focus

14 August 2018 - 9:25am

Dumpling-shaped asteroid comes into focus

Dumpling-shaped asteroid comes into focus, Published online: 13 August 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05964-7

Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission has snapped the closest images yet of its target, a kilometre-wide rock called Ryugu.

Spacecraft sets off to make humanity’s closest approach to the Sun

14 August 2018 - 9:25am

Spacecraft sets off to make humanity’s closest approach to the Sun

Spacecraft sets off to make humanity’s closest approach to the Sun , Published online: 13 August 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05966-5

The Parker Solar Probe is the first NASA mission to be named after a living person.

NASA, ULA Launch Parker Solar Probe on Historic Journey to Touch Sun

14 August 2018 - 9:24am

Hours before the rise of the very star it will study, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched from Florida Sunday to begin its journey to the Sun, where it will undertake a landmark mission. The spacecraft will transmit its first science observations in December, beginning a revolution in our understanding of the star that makes life on Earth possible.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Monday, August 13, 2018 - 09:22

Probing the Birth of the Universe with Large-Format Detector Arrays

14 August 2018 - 9:24am

This blog post originated in the 2017 Science Mission Directorate Technology Highlights Report (33 MB PDF).

Technology Development

Precise polarization measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, an ancient glow from the early universe, may help scientists better understand how the universe rapidly expanded in a burst called “inflation” moments after the Big Bang. NASA is developing ultra-sensitive detector arrays to make highly sensitive polarization measurements in a search for a faint polarization pattern caused by gravitational waves produced during inflation. This technology will result in instruments that not only provide improved polarization measurements, but can be deployed on space-based missions, enabling collection of this data across the entire sky.

High-sensitivity maps of CMB polarization made at three frequencies by the ground-based BICEP-Keck collaboration. The maps show tiny variations in the polarized signal at a level of +/- 1 micro Kelvin, clearly detected at all three frequencies. These maps have a sensitivity of 50 nK in a square degree at 150 GHz, but only cover a small patch of sky. A future NASA space mission called the Inflation Probe can use the new detector technology to make even more sensitive measurements over the entire sky.

The new technology uses superconducting antennas to gather polarized millimeter-wave radiation with high efficiency. The antennas are flat so they can be made into large-format arrays using photolithography methods. The radiation gathered by each antenna is dissipated as heat on a sensitive transition-edge superconducting bolometer, which has been cooled to a few tenths of a degree above absolute zero to minimize thermal noise. Changes in collected radiation produce small heat variations in the bolometer, which are in turn measured withmultiplexed superconducting amplifiers. A key aspect to the technology is the ability to scale the design to operate at a number of wavelengths in modular units, so that researchers can build a large focal-plane array for deployment on future space missions. Multi-frequency measurements are necessary to separate signals from the CMB from sources of emission in our own galaxy.

In 2017, the team extended this technology to larger wafer sizes, roughly doubling the number of detectors that fit in a sub-array. They also developed a new design for operating at lower frequencies, fabricating the first array of this type for observations at 40 GHz. In parallel, the team is developing a modular housing that enables construction of large focal planes made from multiple “sub-array” wafers.


Demonstrations of these detector arrays from high-altitude ground-based sites and sub-orbital balloons will ready the technology for use in future space missions. Recently published, precise measurements of the CMB in three frequency bands (95, 150, and 220 GHz) obtained using these arrays provide the tightest constraints to date on a polarization pattern from inflation. New arrays developed by the team are now operating at 270 GHz for the first time, which promises further improvements.

Future Plans

Further advances are on the way, using a 150-mm wafer to develop larger array formats. The researchers expect ground and sub-orbital observations using the low-frequency 40-GHz arrays to begin in a couple of years to better measure galactic foregrounds. Since the detectors take up more focal-plane real estate at lower frequencies, the team is developing a dual-color design to squeeze two bands and two polarizations into a single antenna.

The first detector antenna-coupled, transition-edge superconducting arrays developed for 40 GHz on 150-mm diameter wafers for larger formats. The array is shown mounted in a test focal-plane assembly. Sponsoring Organization

Development of the antenna-coupled, transition-edge superconducting bolometer array is supported by the Astrophysics Division’s SAT program through a grant to Dr. James Bock at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The detectors are fabricated at JPL’s Micro Devices Laboratory and tested in collaboration with the California Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois.

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Master Image: 

Students digging into data archive spot mysterious X-ray source

13 August 2018 - 9:24am

An enigmatic X-ray source revealed as part of a data-mining project for high-school students shows unexplored avenues hidden in the vast archive of ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory.

NASA, ULA Launch Parker Solar Probe on Historic Journey to Touch Sun

13 August 2018 - 9:24am
Hours before the rise of the very star it will study, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched from Florida Sunday to begin its journey to the Sun, where it will undertake a landmark mission. The spacecraft will transmit its first science observations in December, beginning a revolution in our understanding of the star that makes life on Earth possible.

Parker Solar Probe: How Nasa is trying to 'touch' the Sun

9 August 2018 - 9:21am

Nasa's Parker Solar Probe will get closer to our star than any other in history.

Elliptical Elegance

9 August 2018 - 9:19am
A glittering host of galaxies populate this rich image taken with ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope, a state-of-the-art 2.6-m telescope designed for surveying the sky in visible light. The features of the multitude of galaxies strewn across the image allow astronomers to uncover the most delicate details of galactic structure.

Telescope spots enigmatic fast radio burst

8 August 2018 - 9:28am

Telescope spots enigmatic fast radio burst

Telescope spots enigmatic fast radio burst, Published online: 07 August 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05908-1

A Canadian radio telescope called CHIME is poised to record dozens of fast radio bursts each day.

New image gallery for the Planetary Science Archive

7 August 2018 - 9:11am

Scientists exploring ESA's Planetary Science Archive website can now browse images and other data products via a visual gallery. This newly added feature was developed to facilitate the search process of data collected by the agency's space science missions at planets, moons and other small bodies in the Solar System.

A star that hides its shine draws admiring looks

7 August 2018 - 9:11am

A star that hides its shine draws admiring looks

A star that hides its shine draws admiring looks, Published online: 06 August 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05886-4

Astronomers find a planetary nebula with an unusual structure.

South Africa opens new telescope

2 August 2018 - 9:18am
South Africa has inaugurated a new optical telescope that will scan the southern sky for supernovae and other extreme events.

Correcting Einstein's calculation of Mercury's orbit

2 August 2018 - 9:17am
We have long known that the perihelion of Mercury’s elliptical orbit – the point where the planet is furthest from the Sun – rotates or “advances” every century by around 0.16°. Now, Clifford Will at the University of Florida predicts that Mercury's orbit is further influenced by relativistic "cross-terms".

Scientists identify exoplanets where life could develop as it did on Earth

2 August 2018 - 9:14am

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB), found that the chances for life to develop on the surface of a rocky planet like Earth are connected to the type and strength of light given off by its host star.

Their study, published in the journal Science Advances, proposes that stars which give off sufficient ultraviolet (UV) light could kick-start life on their orbiting planets in the same way it likely developed on Earth, where the UV light powers a series of chemical reactions that produce the building blocks of life.

The researchers have identified a range of planets where the UV light from their host star is sufficient to allow these chemical reactions to take place, and that lie within the habitable range where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.

“This work allows us to narrow down the best places to search for life,” said Dr Paul Rimmer, a postdoctoral researcher with a joint affiliation at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, and the paper’s first author. “It brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

The new paper is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, bringing together organic chemistry and exoplanet research. It builds on the work of Professor John Sutherland, a co-author on the current paper, who studies the chemical origin of life on Earth.

In a paper published in 2015, Professor Sutherland’s group at the MRC LMB proposed that cyanide, although a deadly poison, was in fact a key ingredient in the primordial soup from which all life on Earth originated.

In this hypothesis, carbon from meteorites that slammed into the young Earth interacted with nitrogen in the atmosphere to form hydrogen cyanide. The hydrogen cyanide rained to the surface, where it interacted with other elements in various ways, powered by the UV light from the sun. The chemicals produced from these interactions generated the building blocks of RNA, the close relative of DNA which most biologists believe was the first molecule of life to carry information.

In the laboratory, Sutherland’s group recreated these chemical reactions under UV lamps, and generated the precursors to lipids, amino acids and nucleotides, all of which are essential components of living cells.

“I came across these earlier experiments, and as an astronomer, my first question is always what kind of light are you using, which as chemists they hadn’t really thought about,” said Rimmer. “I started out measuring the number of photons emitted by their lamps, and then realised that comparing this light to the light of different stars was a straightforward next step.”

The two groups performed a series of laboratory experiments to measure how quickly the building blocks of life can be formed from hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulphite ions in water when exposed to UV light. They then performed the same experiment in the absence of light.

“There is chemistry that happens in the dark: it’s slower than the chemistry that happens in the light, but it’s there,” said senior author Professor Didier Queloz, also from the Cavendish Laboratory. “We wanted to see how much light it would take for the light chemistry to win out over the dark chemistry.”

The same experiment run in the dark with the hydrogen cyanide and the hydrogen sulphite resulted in an inert compound which could not be used to form the building blocks of life, while the experiment performed under the lights did result in the necessary building blocks.

The researchers then compared the light chemistry to the dark chemistry against the UV light of different stars. They plotted the amount of UV light available to planets in orbit around these stars to determine where the chemistry could be activated.

They found that stars around the same temperature as our sun emitted enough light for the building blocks of life to have formed on the surfaces of their planets. Cool stars, on the other hand, do not produce enough light for these building blocks to be formed, except if they have frequent powerful solar flares to jolt the chemistry forward step by step. Planets that both receive enough light to activate the chemistry and could have liquid water on their surfaces reside in what the researchers have called the abiogenesis zone.

Among the known exoplanets which reside in the abiogenesis zone are several planets detected by the Kepler telescope, including Kepler 452b, a planet that has been nicknamed Earth’s ‘cousin’, although it is too far away to probe with current technology. Next-generation telescopes, such as NASA’s TESS and James Webb Telescopes, will hopefully be able to identify and potentially characterise many more planets that lie within the abiogenesis zone.

Of course, it is also possible that if there is life on other planets, that it has or will develop in a totally different way than it did on Earth.

“I’m not sure how contingent life is, but given that we only have one example so far, it makes sense to look for places that are most like us,” said Rimmer. “There’s an important distinction between what is necessary and what is sufficient. The building blocks are necessary, but they may not be sufficient: it’s possible you could mix them for billions of years and nothing happens. But you want to at least look at the places where the necessary things exist.”

According to recent estimates, there are as many as 700 million trillion terrestrial planets in the observable universe. “Getting some idea of what fraction have been, or might be, primed for life fascinates me,” said Sutherland. “Of course, being primed for life is not everything and we still don’t know how likely the origin of life is, even given favourable circumstances - if it’s really unlikely then we might be alone, but if not, we may have company.”

The research was funded by the Kavli Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

Paul B. Rimmer et al. ‘The Origin of RNA Precursors on Exoplanets.’ Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar3302

Inset image: Diagram of confirmed exoplanets within the liquid water habitable zone (as well as Earth). Credit: Paul Rimmer

Scientists have identified a group of planets outside our solar system where the same chemical conditions that may have led to life on Earth exist. 

This work brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe.Paul RimmerNASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. PyleArtist's concept depicting one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b

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