Astronomy Update

By Carl Slaughter: A roundup of astronomy news.

Dry country. Water on Mars  — gone, baby, gone.

“We’ve determined that most of the gas ever present in the Mars atmosphere has been lost to space,” Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator of the MAVEN mission, explains. That lost gas — somewhere in the neighborhood of 65% — greatly depleted the planet’s atmosphere, causing oceans, lakes, and rivers to dry up as the vital elements were swept away into space by intense radiation and solar wind.

The count. Nine planets, 100 planets.  Why stop there  Redefine a sun, redefine a moon, redefine an asteroid.  Go all the way and redefine life.

Most of us grew up learning that there are nine planets in our solar system. Back in 2006 that all changed, when Pluto was demoted from being labeled a proper planet to its new classification as a dwarf planet, leaving just eight true planets in our celestial neighborhood. Now, a group of scientists says Pluto should definitely be added back to the planet list — oh, and that there are over 100 other objects in our solar system that should also be called planets.

Right stuff. A super-earthlike planet.

Do you like Earth? Yeah, it’s pretty neat, huh? Well despite living on a planet as awesome as our own, astronomers are super eager to find more Earths, just for fun. A planet called Gliese 1132 B (GJ 1132b if you feel like making it slightly shorter) is one such planet. It’s called a “Super Earth” because it’s larger than our own planet, but is thought to be made of similar stuff, and researchers just discovered something extremely awesome that makes GJ 1132b the most Earth-like exoplanet humans have ever found: it has an atmosphere.

The new Number 9. Planet 9 – convincing evidence.

Using data from the SkyMapper telescope at the Australian National University, nearly 21,000 citizen volunteers browsed an astounding 100,000 images of the region of the solar system where the mythical Planet Nine is thought to exist. The group labeled over five million objects, and rapidly completed the classifications in just a few days, instead of the years upon years that it would have taken a single astronomer to perform the same task.

Disturbance in the force 11,000 neighboring galaxies fizzle out.

When we think about the survival of the human race we often focus on making sure our planet stays alive and habitable, but out there in the depths of space there are entire galaxies being killed off in a manner that is utterly perplexing scientists. A new paper (PDF) from researchers working at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research addresses the odd and extremely troubling trend and attempts to propose an answer for what exactly is leading literally thousands of galaxies to die premature deaths.

There goes the neighborhood. The Borg, solar flares, crashing meteors, now a traveling black hole.  The universe just isn’t safe any more.

Supermassive black holes are one of the scariest, most destructive and utterly intimidating forces in the universe, but the good news is that they usually don’t do a whole lot of moving around. They often reside at the center of large galaxies, like our own Milky Way, with a gravitational pull keeps us all swirling around it. So what could be more frightening than a stationary black hole? How about one that is flying through space like a colossal vacuum, sucking up whatever it happens upon? Astronomers think they’ve spotted one doing exactly that.

Say cheese. First picture of a black hole.

The closest astronomers have come to directly “seeing” a black hole happened last year, when the LIGO observatory detected the spacetime-warping gravitational waves radiating from a pair of black holes that collided some 1.3 billion years ago.

That’s cool. But for astronomers, it’s not enough. What’s eluded them is a view of the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole from which, when crossed, there is no return. After the event horizon, gravity is so intense that not even light can escape.

We’ve never seen a direct image of a black hole. But if an audacious experiment called the Event Horizon Telescope is successful, we’ll see one for the first time.

More on black holes. “Massive explosion from unknown source billions of light years away baffles astronomers”

At 10:49pm Western Australian time on February 2 this year, cosmic gamma rays hit the Nasa satellite, Swift, orbiting the Earth. Within seconds of the detection, an alert was automatically sent to the University of WA’s Zadko Telescope. It swung into robotic action, taking images of the sky location in the constellation Ophiuchus.

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