Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

Stellar Corpse Reveals Origin of Radioactive Molecules

31 July 2018 - 9:07am
Astronomers using ALMA and NOEMA have made the first definitive detection of a radioactive molecule in interstellar space. The radioactive part of the molecule is an isotope of aluminium. The observations reveal that the isotope was dispersed into space after the collision of two stars, that left behind a remnant known as CK Vulpeculae. This is the first time that a direct observation has been made of this element from a known source. Previous identifications of this isotope have come from the detection of gamma rays, but their precise origin had been unknown.

Big Bang telescope finale marks end of an era in cosmology

30 July 2018 - 12:25pm

Big Bang telescope finale marks end of an era in cosmology

Big Bang telescope finale marks end of an era in cosmology, Published online: 20 July 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05788-5

With the end of Europe’s major Planck mission, researchers are moving to smaller projects studying different aspects of the cosmic microwave background.

There’s water on Mars! Signs of buried lake tantalize scientists

30 July 2018 - 12:24pm

There’s water on Mars! Signs of buried lake tantalize scientists

There’s water on Mars! Signs of buried lake tantalize scientists, Published online: 25 July 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05795-6

The lake would be the first body of liquid water ever detected on the red planet, if observations by a European spacecraft are confirmed.

The formation of solar-neighbourhood stars in two generations separated by 5 billion years

30 July 2018 - 12:24pm

The formation of solar-neighbourhood stars in two generations separated by 5 billion years

The formation of solar-neighbourhood stars in two generations separated by 5 billion years, Published online: 25 July 2018; doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0329-2

The two episodes of star formation predicted by the ‘cold flow’ theory of galactic gas accretion also explain the observed bimodality in the chemical-abundance distribution of solar-neighbourhood stars.

Milky Way’s black hole provides long-sought test of Einstein’s general relativity

30 July 2018 - 12:23pm

Milky Way’s black hole provides long-sought test of Einstein’s general relativity

Milky Way’s black hole provides long-sought test of Einstein’s general relativity, Published online: 26 July 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05825-3

An observation decades in the making confirms predictions about how light behaves in an immense gravitational field.

Mars Express detects liquid water hidden under planet’s south pole

30 July 2018 - 10:55am

Radar data collected by ESA's Mars Express point to a pond of liquid water buried under layers of ice and dust in the south polar region of Mars.

New family photos of Mars and Saturn from Hubble [heic1814]

30 July 2018 - 10:55am

In summer 2018 the planets Mars and Saturn are, one after the other, in opposition to Earth. During this event the planets are relatively close to Earth, allowing astronomers to observe them in greater detail. Hubble took advantage of this preferred configuration and imaged both planets to continue its long-standing observation of the outer planets in the Solar System.

First Successful Test of Einstein’s General Relativity Near Supermassive Black Hole

30 July 2018 - 10:55am
Observations made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time revealed the effects predicted by Einstein’s general relativity on the motion of a star passing through the extreme gravitational field near the supermassive black hole in the centre of the Milky Way. This long-sought result represents the climax of a 26-year-long observation campaign using ESO’s telescopes in Chile.

Martian atmosphere behaves as one

19 July 2018 - 9:05am

New research using a decade of data from ESA’s Mars Express has found clear signs of the complex martian atmosphere acting as a single, interconnected system, with processes occurring at low and mid levels significantly affecting those seen higher up.

Supersharp Images from New VLT Adaptive Optics

19 July 2018 - 9:04am
ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has achieved first light with a new adaptive optics mode called laser tomography — and has captured remarkably sharp test images of the planet Neptune, star clusters and other objects. The pioneering MUSE instrument in Narrow-Field Mode, working with the GALACSI adaptive optics module, can now use this new technique to correct for turbulence at different altitudes in the atmosphere. It is now possible to capture images from the ground at visible wavelengths that are sharper than those from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The combination of exquisite image sharpness and the spectroscopic capabilities of MUSE will enable astronomers to study the properties of astronomical objects in much greater detail than was possible before.

The UK's history in space

18 July 2018 - 9:14am

The UK is set to get its first space port in Sutherland, Scotland. But it already has a long history in space.

From an almost perfect Universe to the best of both worlds

18 July 2018 - 9:11am

The Planck consortium has made their final data release, including new processing of the cosmic microwave background temperature and polarisation data. This legacy dataset confirms the model of an 'almost perfect Universe', with some remaining oddities giving researchers some intriguing details to puzzle over.

Jupiter has 10 more moons we didn't know about — and they're weird

18 July 2018 - 9:10am

Jupiter has 10 more moons we didn't know about — and they're weird

Jupiter has 10 more moons we didn't know about — and they're weird, Published online: 17 July 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05725-6

The planet now has 79 known moons, including a tiny oddball on a collision course with its neighbours.

The forbidding terrain on Pluto’s biggest moon

17 July 2018 - 9:00am

The forbidding terrain on Pluto’s biggest moon

The forbidding terrain on Pluto’s biggest moon, Published online: 16 July 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05732-7

Huge ridges and troughs on Charon hint at icy body's chilly past.

Record-Setting Displacement Measurements to Enable the Search for Distant Life

17 July 2018 - 8:59am

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

Technology Development

A team of NASA optics experts has built a picometer spatial metrology system that may enable a major Agency initiative—to locate and image Earth-like planets beyond the solar system and scrutinize their atmospheres for signs of life. Researchers at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in conjunction with collaborators at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, have demonstrated for the first time the ability to dynamically detect subatomic-sized distortions—changes that are far smaller than an atom—across a five-foot segmented telescope mirror and its support structure.

Development of an ultra-stable observatory to detect and study exoplanets such as the one in the artists rendition shown above requires the capability to measure subatomic-sized distortions. (Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

To detect life on a distant planet, an observatory would have to gather and focus enough light to distinguish the planet’s light from that of its much brighter parent star and then be able to dissect that light to discern different atmospheric chemical signatures, such as oxygen and methane. These tasks would require a super-stable, spaceborne observatory whose optical components move or distort no more than 12 picometers—which is about one-tenth the diameter of a hydrogen atom. NASA has not yet built an observatory that meets these demanding stability requirements, and design and implementation of such a stable telescope will require the capability to detect and measure extremely small displacements and movements.

In 2017, the GSFC team used the High-Speed Interferometer (HSI)—an instrument developed by Arizona-based 4D Technology—to measure nanometer-sized dynamic changes in a spare, five-foot mirror segment built for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The test segment included 18 mirror segments, mounts, and supporting structure and the team measured displacements that occurred during thermal, vibration, and other types of environmental testing. Although HSI was designed to measure nanometer- or molecule-sized distortions (the design standard for JWST) the team developed special algorithms that enabled HSI to successfully detect dynamic movement as small as 25 picometers—about half of the desired 12-picometer accuracy.

The optical elements in the HSI test setup, including the test mirror segment (hexagonal mirror on the far left). Impact

The ability to measure such small-scale displacements may enable a future mission (e.g., the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor, or LUVOIR) that will use a large-aperture, segmented, spaceborne telescope not only to conduct general ultraviolet-optical infrared astrophysics, but to search for life on Earth-like planets.

Future Plans

NASA continues to advance the capability to detect subatomic displacement; the GSFC team and 4D Technology have designed a new high-speed instrument, called a speckle interferometer, that allows measurements of both reflective and diffuse surfaces at picometer accuracies. Researchers at GSFC have begun initial characterization of the instrument’s performance in a thermal-vacuum test chamber to determine if they can achieve the 12-picometer target accuracy. The team is also evaluating other technologies to relax the requirements so that mission designers do not have to accommodate picometer-level constraints.

Sponsoring Organization

The SMD Astrophysics Division is providing funding for this technology development to Principal Investigator (PI) Babak Saif at NASA GSFC via the SAT program.

Read more Technology Stories

Master Image: 

South Africa celebrates completion of gigantic, super-sensitive telescope

16 July 2018 - 9:30am

South Africa celebrates completion of gigantic, super-sensitive telescope

South Africa celebrates completion of gigantic, super-sensitive telescope, Published online: 13 July 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05730-9

MeerKAT has drawn astronomers, engineers and data scientists from around the world.

Source of cosmic 'ghost' particle revealed

13 July 2018 - 9:57am

Researchers believe a galactic "monster" is a source of cosmic neutrinos detected on Earth.

INTEGRAL joins multi-messenger campaign to study high-energy neutrino source

13 July 2018 - 9:56am

An international team of scientists has found first evidence of a source of high-energy neutrinos: a flaring active galaxy, or blazar, 4 billion light years from Earth. Following a detection by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory on 22 September 2017, ESA's INTEGRAL satellite joined a collaboration of observatories in space and on the ground that kept an eye on the neutrino source, heralding the thrilling future of multi-messenger astronomy.

NASA’s Fermi Traces Source of Cosmic Neutrino to Monster Black Hole

13 July 2018 - 9:55am
For the first time ever, scientists using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have found the source of a high-energy neutrino from outside our galaxy.

Single subatomic particle illuminates mysterious origins of cosmic rays

13 July 2018 - 9:55am

Single subatomic particle illuminates mysterious origins of cosmic rays

Single subatomic particle illuminates mysterious origins of cosmic rays, Published online: 12 July 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05703-y

When a subatomic particle from space streaked through Antarctica last September, astrophysicists raced to find the source.