September 17, 2016

1 000 000 000 000 Stars in Andromeda Galaxy

Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy, also known as Messier 31, M31, or NGC 224, is a spiral galaxy approximately 780 kiloparsecs (2.5 million light-years) from Earth. It is the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way. It received its name from the area of the sky in which it appears, the constellation of Andromeda, which was named after the mythological princess Andromeda.

Being approximately 220,000 light years across, Andromeda is the largest galaxy of the Local Group, which also contains the Milky Way, the Triangulum Galaxy, and about 44 other smaller galaxies. Despite earlier findings that suggested that the Milky Way contains more dark matter and could be the largest in the grouping, the 2006 observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope revealed that Andromeda contains one trillion stars - at least twice the number of stars in the Milky Way, which is estimated to be 200–400 billion.

The Milky Way and Andromeda are expected to collide in 3.75 billion years, eventually merging to form a giant elliptical galaxy or perhaps a large disc galaxy. The apparent magnitude of the Andromeda Galaxy, at 3.4, is among the brightest of the Messier objects, making it visible to the naked eye on moonless nights, even when viewed from areas with moderate light pollution.

Image Credit: Adam Evans via
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Artist's Impression of the Supermassive Black Hole

Artist's Impression of the Supermassive Black Hole

Supermassive black holes, with their immense gravitational pull, are notoriously good at clearing out their immediate surroundings by eating nearby objects. When a star passes within a certain distance of a black hole, the stellar material gets stretched and compressed -- or "spaghettified" -- as the black hole swallows it.

A black hole destroying a star, an event astronomers call "stellar tidal disruption," releases an enormous amount of energy, brightening the surroundings in an event called a flare. In recent years, a few dozen such flares have been discovered, but they are not well understood.

Astronomers now have new insights into tidal disruption flares, thanks to data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Two new studies characterize tidal disruption flares by studying how surrounding dust absorbs and re-emits their light, like echoes. This approach allowed scientists to measure the energy of flares from stellar tidal disruption events more precisely than ever before.

"This is the first time we have clearly seen the infrared light echoes from multiple tidal disruption events," said Sjoert van Velzen, postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and lead author of a study finding three such events, to be published in the Astrophysical Journal. A fourth potential light echo based on WISE data has been reported by an independent study led by Ning Jiang, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Science and Technology of China.

Flares from black holes eating stars contain high-energy radiation, including ultraviolet and X-ray light. Such flares destroy any dust that hangs out around a black hole. But at a certain distance from a black hole, dust can survive because the flare's radiation that reaches it is not as intense.

After the surviving dust is heated by a flare, it gives off infrared radiation. WISE measures this infrared emission from the dust near a black hole, which gives clues about tidal disruption flares and the nature of the dust itself. Infrared wavelengths of light are longer than visible light and cannot be seen with the naked eye. The WISE spacecraft, which maps the entire sky every six months, allowed the variation in infrared emission from the dust to be measured.

Astronomers used a technique called "photo-reverberation" or "light echoes" to characterize the dust. This method relies on measuring the delay between the original optical light flare and the subsequent infrared light variation, when the flare reaches the dust surrounding the black hole. This time delay is then used to determine the distance between the black hole and the dust.

Van Velzen's study looked at five possible tidal disruption events, and saw the light echo effect in three of them. Jiang's group saw it in an additional event called ASASSN-14li.

Measuring the infrared glow of dust heated by these flares allows astronomers to make estimates of the location of dust that encircles the black hole at the center of a galaxy.

"Our study confirms that the dust is there, and that we can use it to determine how much energy was generated in the destruction of the star," said Varoujan Gorjian, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and co-author of the paper led by van Velzen.

Researchers found that the infrared emission from dust heated by a flare causes an infrared signal that can be detected for up to a year after the flare is at its most luminous. The results are consistent with the black hole having a patchy, spherical web of dust located a few trillion miles (half a light-year) from the black hole itself.

"The black hole has destroyed everything between itself and this dust shell," van Velzen said. "It's as though the black hole has cleaned its room by throwing flames."

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Supernova Remnant SNR 0509

Supernova Remnant SNR 0509

This delicate shell, photographed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, appears to float serenely in the depths of space, but this apparent calm hides an inner turmoil. The gaseous envelope formed as the expanding blast wave and ejected material from a supernova tore through the nearby interstellar medium. Called SNR B0509-67.5 (or SNR 0509 for short), the bubble is the visible remnant of a powerful stellar explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small galaxy about 160 000 light-years from Earth. Ripples in the shell’s surface may be caused either by subtle variations in the density of the ambient interstellar gas, or possibly be driven from the interior by fragments from the initial explosion. The bubble-shaped shroud of gas is 23 light-years across and is expanding at more than 18 million km/h.

Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys observed the supernova remnant on 28 October 2006 with a filter that isolates light from the glowing hydrogen seen in the expanding shell. These observations were then combined with visible-light images of the surrounding star field that were imaged with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on 4 November 2010, and archival X-ray observations taken by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and CXC/SAO/J. Hughes
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September 16, 2016

Earth, 4 billion years ago

Early Earth, 4 billion years agoEarly Earth, 4 billion years ago

New research shows that more than four billion years ago the surface of Earth was heavily reprocessed – or melted, mixed, and buried – as a result of giant asteroid impacts. A new terrestrial bombardment model, calibrated using existing lunar and terrestrial data, sheds light on the role asteroid collisions played in the evolution of the uppermost layers of the early Earth during the geologic eon called the "Hadean" (approximately 4 to 4.5 billion years ago).

"A large asteroid impact could have buried a substantial amount of Earth's crust with impact-generated melt," said Yvonne Pendleton, SSERVI Director at Ames. "This new model helps explain how repeated asteroid impacts may have buried Earth's earliest and oldest rocks."

Terrestrial planet formation models indicate Earth went through a sequence of major growth phases: initially accretion of planetesimals – planetary embryos – over many tens of millions of years, then a giant impact by a large proto-planet that led to the formation of our Moon, followed by the late bombardment when giant asteroids several tens to hundreds of miles in size periodically hit ancient Earth, dwarfing the one that killed the dinosaurs (estimated to be six miles in size) only 65 million years ago.

Researchers estimate accretion during the late bombardment contributed less than one percent of Earth's present-day mass, but the giant asteroid impacts still had a profound effect on the geological evolution of early Earth. Prior to four billion years ago Earth was resurfaced over and over by voluminous impact-generated melt. Furthermore, large collisions as late as about four billion years ago may have repeatedly boiled away existing oceans into steamy atmospheres. Despite the heavy bombardment, the findings are compatible with the claim of liquid water on Earth's surface as early as about 4.3 billion years ago based on geochemical data.

The new research reveals that asteroidal collisions not only severely altered the geology of the Hadean eon Earth, but likely also played a major role in the subsequent evolution of life on Earth as well.

"Prior to approximately four billion years ago, no large region of Earth's surface could have survived untouched by impacts and their effects," said Simone Marchi, SSERVI senior researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and the paper's lead author. "The new picture of the Hadean Earth emerging from this work has important implications for its habitability."

Large impacts had particularly severe effects on existing ecosystems. Researchers found that on average, Hadean Earth more than four billion years ago could have been hit by one to four impactors that were more than 600 miles wide and capable of global sterilization, and by three to seven impactors more than 300 miles wide and capable of global ocean vaporization.

"During that time, the lag between major collisions was long enough to allow intervals of more clement conditions, at least on a local scale," said Marchi. "Any life emerging during the Hadean eon likely needed to be resistant to high temperatures, and could have survived such a violent period in Earth’s history by thriving in niches deep underground or in the ocean’s crust.”

Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab/Simone Marchi
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Astronomers observe star reborn in a flash

Stingray Nebula
This image of the Stingray nebula, a planetary nebula 2700 light-years from Earth, was taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) in 1998. In the centre of the nebula the fast evolving star SAO 244567 is located. Observations made within the last 45 years showed that the surface temperature of the star increased by almost 40 000 degree Celsius. Now new observations of the spectra of the star have revealed that SAO 244567 has started to cool again.
SAO 244567
This artist’s impression shows a still from the video showing the evolution of SAO 244567’s rapid evolution.

An international team of astronomers using Hubble have been able to study stellar evolution in real time. Over a period of 30 years dramatic increases in the temperature of the star SAO 244567 have been observed. Now the star is cooling again, having been reborn into an earlier phase of stellar evolution. This makes it the first reborn star to have been observed during both the heating and cooling stages of rebirth.

Even though the Universe is constantly changing, most processes are too slow to be observed within a human lifespan. But now an international team of astronomers have observed an exception to this rule. “SAO 244567 is one of the rare examples of a star that allows us to witness stellar evolution in real time”, explains Nicole Reindl from the University of Leicester, UK, lead author of the study. “Over only twenty years the star has doubled its temperature and it was possible to watch the star ionising its previously ejected envelope, which is now known as the Stingray Nebula.”

SAO 244567, 2700 light-years from Earth, is the central star of the Stingray Nebula and has been visibly evolving between observations made over the last 45 years. Between 1971 and 2002 the surface temperature of the star skyrocketed by almost 40 000 degrees Celsius. Now new observations made with the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that SAO 244567 has started to cool and expand.

This is unusual, though not unheard-of, and the rapid heating could easily be explained if one assumed that SAO 244567 had an initial mass of 3 to 4 times the mass of the Sun. However, the data show that SAO 244567 must have had an original mass similar to that of our Sun. Such low-mass stars usually evolve on much longer timescales, so the rapid heating has been a mystery for decades.

Back in 2014 Reindl and her team proposed a theory that resolved the issue of both SAO 244567’s rapid increase in temperature as well as the low mass of the star. They suggested that the heating was due to what is known as a helium-shell flash event: a brief ignition of helium outside the stellar core.

This theory has very clear implications for SAO 244567’s future: if it has indeed experienced such a flash, then this would force the central star to begin to expand and cool again — it would return back to the previous phase of its evolution. This is exactly what the new observations confirmed. As Reindl explains: “The release of nuclear energy by the flash forces the already very compact star to expand back to giant dimensions — the born-again scenario.”

It is not the only example of such a star, but it is the first time ever that a star has been observed during both the heating and cooling stages of such a transformation.

Yet no current stellar evolutionary models can fully explain SAO 244567’s behaviour. As Reindl elaborates: “We need refined calculations to explain some still mysterious details in the behaviour of SAO 244567. These could not only help us to better understand the star itself but could also provide a deeper insight in the evolution of central stars of planetary nebulae.”

Until astronomers develop more refined models for the life cycles of stars, aspects of SAO 244567’s evolution will remain a mystery.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
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Starving Black Hole Returns Brilliant Galaxy to the Shadows

Gaaxy Markarian 1018
This image from the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope shows the active galaxy Markarian 1018, which has a supermassive black hole at its core. The faint loops of light around the galaxy are a result of its interaction and merger with another galaxy in the recent past.
Gaaxy Markarian 1018
This wide-field image shows the sky around the faint active galaxy Markarian 1018. The picture was assembled from images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The galaxy itself is at the centre of the picture and faint evidence of its recent merger can be seen in the form of tails and loops.

The mystery of a rare change in the behaviour of a supermassive black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy has been solved by an international team of astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope along with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. It seems that the black hole has fallen on hard times and is no longer being fed enough fuel to make its surroundings shine.

Many galaxies are found to have an extremely bright core powered by a supermassive black hole. These cores make “active galaxies” some of the brightest objects in the Universe. They are thought to shine so brightly because hot material is glowing fiercely as it falls into the black hole, a process known as accretion. This brilliant light can vary hugely between different active galaxies, so astronomers classify them into several types based on the properties of the light they emit.

Some of these galaxies have been observed to change dramatically over the course of only 10 years; a blink of an eye in astronomical terms. However, the active galaxy in this new study, Markarian 1018 stands out by having changed type a second time, reverting back to its initial classification within the last five years. A handful of galaxies have been observed to make this full-cycle change, but never before has one been studied in such detail.

The discovery of Markarian 1018’s fickle nature was a chance by-product of the Close AGN Reference Survey (CARS), a collaborative project between ESO and other organisations to gather information on 40 nearby galaxies with active cores. Routine observations of Markarian 1018 with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope revealed the surprising change in the light output of the galaxy.

“We were stunned to see such a rare and dramatic change in Markarian 1018”, said Rebecca McElroy, lead author of the discovery paper and a PhD student at the University of Sydney and the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

The chance observation of the galaxy so soon after it began to fade was an unexpected opportunity to learn what makes these galaxies tick, as Bernd Husemann, CARS project leader and lead author of one of two papers associated with the discovery, explained: “We were lucky that we detected the event just 3-4 years after the decline started so we could begin monitoring campaigns to study details of the accretion physics of active galaxies that cannot be studied otherwise.”

The research team made the most of this opportunity, making it their first priority to pinpoint the process causing Markarian 1018’s brightness to change so wildly. This could have been caused by any one of a number of astrophysical events, but they could rule out the black hole pulling in and consuming a single star and cast doubt on the possibility of obscuration by intervening gas. But the true mechanism responsible for Markarian 1018’s surprising variation remained a mystery after the first round of observations.

However, the team were able to gather extra data after they were awarded observing time to use the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. With the new data from this suite of instruments they were able to solve the mystery — the black hole was slowly fading because it was being starved of accretion material.

“It’s possible that this starvation is because the inflow of fuel is being disrupted”, said Rebecca McElroy. “An intriguing possibility is that this could be due to interactions with a second supermassive black hole”. Such a black hole binary system is a distinct possibility in Markarian 1018, as the galaxy is the product of a major merger of two galaxies — each of which likely contained a supermassive black hole in its centre.

Research continues into the mechanisms at work in active galaxies such as Markarian 1018 that change their appearance.“The team had to work fast to determine what was causing Markarian 1018’s return to the shadows,” comments Bernd Husemann. “Ongoing monitoring campaigns with ESO telescopes and other facilities will allow us to explore the exciting world of starving black holes and changing active galaxies in more detail.”

Image Credit: ESO/CARS survey, Digitized Sky Survey 2, Davide De Martin
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Saturn's Northern Hemisphere

Saturn's Northern Hemisphere

Since NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in mid-2004, the planet's appearance has changed greatly. The shifting angle of sunlight as the seasons march forward has illuminated the giant hexagon-shaped jet stream around the north polar region, and the subtle bluish hues seen earlier in the mission have continued to fade.

This view shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Saturn's year is nearly 30 Earth years long, and during its long time there, Cassini has observed winter and spring in the north, and summer and fall in the south. The spacecraft will complete its mission just after northern summer solstice, having observed long-term changes in the planet's winds, temperatures, clouds and chemistry.

Cassini scanned across the planet and its rings on April 25, 2016, capturing three sets of red, green and blue images to cover this entire scene showing the planet and the main rings. The images were obtained using Cassini's wide-angle camera at a distance of approximately 1.9 million miles (3 million kilometers) from Saturn and at an elevation of about 30 degrees above the ring plane. The view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from a sun-Saturn-spacecraft angle, or phase angle, of 55 degrees. Image scale on Saturn is about 111 miles (178 kilometers) per pixel.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
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September 15, 2016

Earth, 66 million years ago

dinosaur extinctiondinosaur extinctiondinosaur extinctiondinosaur extinctiondinosaur extinctiondinosaur extinctiondinosaur extinctiondinosaur extinction

The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event, also known as the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) extinction, was a mass extinction of some three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth—including all non-avian dinosaurs—that occurred over a geologically short period of time approximately 66 million years ago. With the exception of some ectothermic species in aquatic ecosystems like the leatherback sea turtle and crocodiles, no tetrapods weighing more than 55 pounds (25 kilos) survived. It marked the end of the Cretaceous period and with it, the entire Mesozoic Era, opening the Cenozoic Era that continues today.

In the geologic record, the K–Pg event is marked by a thin layer of sediment called the K–Pg boundary, which can be found throughout the world in marine and terrestrial rocks. The boundary clay shows high levels of the metal iridium, which is rare in the Earth's crust but abundant in asteroids.

As originally proposed in 1980 by a team of scientists led by Luis Alvarez, it is now generally thought that the K–Pg extinction was triggered by a massive comet or asteroid impact 66 million years ago and its catastrophic effects on the global environment, including a lingering impact winter that made it impossible for plants and plankton to carry out photosynthesis. The impact hypothesis, also known as the Alvarez hypothesis, was bolstered by the discovery of the 180-kilometre-wide (112 mi) Chicxulub crater in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1990s, which provided conclusive evidence that the K–Pg boundary clay represented debris from an asteroid impact. The fact that the extinctions occurred at the same time as the impact provides strong situational evidence that the K–Pg extinction was caused by the asteroid. It was possibly accelerated by the creation of the Deccan Traps. However, some scientists maintain the extinction was caused or exacerbated by other factors, such as volcanic eruptions, climate change, or sea level change, separately or together.

A wide range of species perished in the K–Pg extinction. The most well-known victims are the non-avian dinosaurs. However, the extinction also destroyed a plethora of other terrestrial organisms, including certain mammals, pterosaurs, birds, lizards, insects, and plants. In the oceans, the K–Pg extinction killed off plesiosaurs and the giant marine lizards (Mosasauridae) and devastated fish, sharks, mollusks (especially ammonites, which became extinct) and many species of plankton. It is estimated that 75% or more of all species on Earth vanished. Yet the devastation caused by the extinction also provided evolutionary opportunities. In the wake of the extinction, many groups underwent remarkable adaptive radiations—a sudden and prolific divergence into new forms and species within the disrupted and emptied ecological niches resulting from the event. Mammals in particular diversified in the Paleogene, producing new forms such as horses, whales, bats, and primates. Birds, fish and perhaps lizards also radiated.

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Lightning Strikes over Sakurajima Volcano

Sakurajima Volcano Eruption

Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan
July 26, 2016

Image Credit: Asahi Shimbun

The Carina Nebula

Carina Nebula

This image shows a giant star-forming region in the southern sky known as the Carina Nebula and combines the light from three different filters, which traces emission from oxygen (blue), hydrogen (green), and sulfur (red). The colour is also representative of the temperature in the ionized gas: blue is relatively hot and red is cooler. The picture is a composite of several exposures made in February 2000 with the Curtis Schmidt telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile.

Image Credit: NOAO, AURA, NSF, and N. Smith (University of Arizona)
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Rocks near Mount Sharp, Mars

Rocks near Mount Sharp

A view from the "Kimberley" formation on Mars taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed.

This image was taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Curiosity on the 580th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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September 14, 2016

There is at least 2 500 000 000 000 Intelligent Civilisations in the Observable Universe

There is at least 2 500 000 000 000 Intelligent Civilisations in the Observable Universe

Aurora and the Milky Way Galaxy seen over Queenstown

Aurora and the Milky Way Galaxy seen over Queenstown

Queenstown, New Zealand
October 3, 2013

Image Credit & Copyright: Minoru Yoneto

Gale Crater, Mars

Gale CraterGale CraterGale CraterGale CraterGale CraterGale Crater

This early-morning view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover covers a field of view of about 130 degrees of the inner wall of Gale Crater. It was acquired during a period when there was very little dust or haze in the atmosphere, so conditions were optimal for long-distance imaging. The right side of the image fades into the glare of the rising Sun.

Mastcam's right-eye camera, which has a telephoto lens, took the component images on March 16, 2016, during the 1,284th sol, or Martian day, of Curiosity's work on Mars. The rover's location was on the "Naukluft Plateau" of lower Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater. The view spans from west-northwest on the left to northeast on the right. Details of the morphology (shape and pattern of features) on the wall, which include gullies, channels and debris fans help geologists understand the processes that have shaped the crater and transported sediments -- sand, pebbles and larger rocks -- down to the floor of the crater. Some of the foothills show layers morphologically not unlike the layers Curiosity is exploring near the base of Mount Sharp, suggesting that the crater was filled along the north wall with sediments that have in large part now been eroded away, much as happened closer to Mount Sharp.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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Saturn's shadow stretched beyond the edge of its rings for many years after Cassini first arrived at Saturn, casting an ever-lengthening shadow that reached its maximum extent at the planet's 2009 equinox. This image captured the moment in 2015 when the shrinking shadow just barely reached across the entire main ring system. The shadow will continue to shrink until the planet's northern summer solstice, at which point it will once again start lengthening across the rings, reaching across them in 2019.

Like Earth, Saturn is tilted on its axis. And, just as on Earth, as the sun climbs higher in the sky, shadows get shorter. The projection of the planet's shadow onto the rings shrinks and grows over the course of its 29-year-long orbit, as the angle of the sun changes with respect to Saturn's equator.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 11 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Jan. 16, 2015.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is about 90 miles (150 kilometers) per pixel.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
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September 13, 2016

Mount Sharp, Mars

Mount Sharp

This composite image looking toward the higher regions of Mount Sharp was taken on September 9, 2015, by NASA's Curiosity rover. In the foreground -- about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the rover -- is a long ridge teeming with hematite, an iron oxide. Just beyond is an undulating plain rich in clay minerals. And just beyond that are a multitude of rounded buttes, all high in sulfate minerals. The changing mineralogy in these layers of Mount Sharp suggests a changing environment in early Mars, though all involve exposure to water billions of years ago. The Curiosity team hopes to be able to explore these diverse areas in the months and years ahead. Further back in the image are striking, light-toned cliffs in rock that may have formed in drier times and now is heavily eroded by winds.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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Planetary Nebula NGC 3132

Planetary Nebula NGC 3132

NGC 3132 is a striking example of a planetary nebula. This expanding cloud of gas, surrounding a dying star, is known to amateur astronomers in the southern hemisphere as the "Eight-Burst" or the "Southern Ring" Nebula.

The name "planetary nebula" refers only to the round shape that many of these objects show when examined through a small visual telescope. In reality, these nebulae have little or nothing to do with planets, but are instead huge shells of gas ejected by stars as they near the ends of their lifetimes. NGC 3132 is nearly half a light year in diameter, and at a distance of about 2000 light years is one of the nearer known planetary nebulae. The gases are expanding away from the central star at a speed of 9 miles per second.

This image, captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, clearly shows two stars near the center of the nebula, a bright white one, and an adjacent, fainter companion to its upper right. (A third, unrelated star lies near the edge of the nebula.) The faint partner is actually the star that has ejected the nebula. This star is now smaller than our own Sun, but extremely hot. The flood of ultraviolet radiation from its surface makes the surrounding gases glow through fluorescence. The brighter star is in an earlier stage of stellar evolution, but in the future it will probably eject its own planetary nebula.

In the Heritage Team's rendition of the Hubble image, the colors were chosen to represent the temperature of the gases. Blue represents the hottest gas, which is confined to the inner region of the nebula. Red represents the coolest gas, at the outer edge. The Hubble image also reveals a host of filaments, including one long one that resembles a waistband, made out of dust particles which have condensed out of the expanding gases. The dust particles are rich in elements such as carbon. Eons from now, these particles may be incorporated into new stars and planets when they form from interstellar gas and dust. Our own Sun may eject a similar planetary nebula some 6 billion years from now.

Image Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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Meteor and the Milky Way Galaxy seen over Arches National Park

Meteor and the Milky Way Galaxy over Arches National Park

A meteor streaks across the sky above Arches National Park in Utah during the annual Perseid meteor shower. The photographer used an artificial light source to illuminate and emphasise the dramatic rock formations

Image Credit & Copyright: Thomas O'Brien
Explanation by: Royal Observatory Greenwich

September 12, 2016

Mars Rover Views Spectacular Layered Rock Formations

Mars Rock FormationsMars Rock FormationsMars Rock FormationsMars Rock FormationsMars Rock Formations

The layered geologic past of Mars is revealed in stunning detail in new color images returned by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, which is currently exploring the "Murray Buttes" region of lower Mount Sharp. The new images arguably rival photos taken in U.S. National Parks.

Curiosity took the images with its Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Sept. 8. The rover team plans to assemble several large, color mosaics from the multitude of images taken at this location in the near future.

"Curiosity's science team has been just thrilled to go on this road trip through a bit of the American desert Southwest on Mars," said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The Martian buttes and mesas rising above the surface are eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed.

"Studying these buttes up close has given us a better understanding of ancient sand dunes that formed and were buried, chemically changed by groundwater, exhumed and eroded to form the landscape that we see today," Vasavada said.

The new images represent Curiosity's last stop in the Murray Buttes, where the rover has been driving for just over one month. As of this week, Curiosity has exited these buttes toward the south, driving up to the base of the final butte on its way out. In this location, the rover began its latest drilling campaign (on Sept. 9). After this drilling is completed, Curiosity will continue farther south and higher up Mount Sharp, leaving behind these spectacular formations.

Curiosity landed near Mount Sharp in 2012. It reached the base of the mountain in 2014 after successfully finding evidence on the surrounding plains that ancient Martian lakes offered conditions that would have been favorable for microbes if Mars has ever hosted life. Rock layers forming the base of Mount Sharp accumulated as sediment within ancient lakes billions of years ago.

On Mount Sharp, Curiosity is investigating how and when the habitable ancient conditions known from the mission's earlier findings evolved into conditions drier and less favorable for life.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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Star IRAS 19312+1950

Star IRAS 19312+1950

An age-defying star called IRAS 19312+1950 exhibits features characteristic of a very young star and a very old star. The object stands out as extremely bright inside a large, chemically rich cloud of material, as shown in this image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. IRAS 19312+1950 is the bright red star in the center of this image.

A NASA-led team of scientists thinks the star -- which is about 10 times as massive as our sun and emits about 20,000 times as much energy -- is a newly forming protostar. That was a big surprise, because the region had not been known as a stellar nursery before. But the presence of a nearby interstellar bubble, which indicates the presence of a recently formed massive star, also supports this idea.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcano Eruption

Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcano Eruption

Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, Chile
June 5, 2011

Image Credit: Ivan Alvarado

September 11, 2016

Surfaces of 2 Rocky Planets in the Solar System: Earth & Mars

Surfaces of Earth and Mars

Dune 7, Namibia, Earth                  Gale Crater, Mars
Surface of EarthSurface of Mars
Jane Peterson/NASA                                            NASA's Curiosity Mars rover
2016                                                                   March 16, 2016

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jane Peterso

Supernova Remnant RCW 103

Supernova Remnant RCW 103

Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other X-ray observatories, astronomers have found evidence for what is likely one of the most extreme pulsars, or rotating neutron stars, ever detected. The source exhibits properties of a highly magnetized neutron star, or magnetar, yet its deduced spin period is thousands of times longer than any pulsar ever observed.

For decades, astronomers have known there is a dense, compact source at the center of RCW 103, the remains of a supernova explosion located about 9,000 light years from Earth. This composite image shows RCW 103 and its central source, known officially as 1E 161348-5055 (1E 1613, for short), in three bands of X-ray light detected by Chandra. In this image, the lowest energy X-rays from Chandra are red, the medium band is green, and the highest energy X-rays are blue. The bright blue X-ray source in the middle of RCW 103 is 1E 1613. The X-ray data have been combined with an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey.

Observers had previously agreed that 1E 1613 is a neutron star, an extremely dense star created by the supernova that produced RCW 103. However, the regular variation in the X-ray brightness of the source, with a period of about six and a half hours, presented a puzzle. All proposed models had problems explaining this slow periodicity, but the main ideas were of either a spinning neutron star that is rotating extremely slowly because of an unexplained slow-down mechanism, or a faster-spinning neutron star that is in orbit with a normal star in a binary system.

On June 22, 2016, an instrument aboard NASA’s Swift telescope captured the release of a short burst of X-rays from 1E 1613. The Swift detection caught astronomers’ attention because the source exhibited intense, extremely rapid fluctuations on a time scale of milliseconds, similar to other known magnetars. These exotic objects possess the most powerful magnetic fields in the Universe –trillions of times that observed on the Sun – and can erupt with enormous amounts of energy.

Seeking to investigate further, a team of astronomers led by Nanda Rea of the University of Amsterdam quickly asked two other orbiting telescopes – NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR – to follow up with observations.

New data from this trio of high-energy telescopes, and archival data from Chandra, Swift and ESA’s XMM-Newton confirmed that 1E 1613 has the properties of a magnetar, making it only the 30th known. These properties include the relative amounts of X-rays produced at different energies and the way the neutron star cooled after the 2016 burst and another burst seen in 1999. The binary explanation is considered unlikely because the new data show that the strength of the periodic variation in X-rays changes dramatically both with the energy of the X-rays and with time. However, this behavior is typical for magnetars.

But the mystery of the slow spin remained. The source is rotating once every 24,000 seconds (6.67 hours), much slower than the slowest magnetars known until now, which spin around once every 10 seconds. This would make it the slowest spinning neutron star ever detected.

Astronomers expect that a single neutron star will be spinning quickly after its birth in the supernova explosion and will then slow down over time as it loses energy. However, the researchers estimate that the magnetar within RCW 103 is about 2,000 years old, which is not enough time for the pulsar to slow down to a period of 24,000 seconds by conventional means.

While it is still unclear why 1E 1613 is spinning so slowly, scientists do have some ideas. One leading scenario is that debris from the exploded star has fallen back onto magnetic field lines around the spinning neutron star, causing it to spin more slowly with time. Searches are currently being made for other very slowly spinning magnetars to study this idea in more detail.

Another group, led by Antonino D'Aì at the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) in Palermo, Italy, monitored 1E 1613 in X-rays using Swift and in the near-infrared and visible light using the 2.2-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory at La Silla, Chile, to search for any low-energy counterpart to the X-ray burst. They also conclude that 1E 1613 is a magnetar with a very slow spin period.

Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/University of Amsterdam/N.Rea et al; Optical: DSS
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At least 1 Billion Jupiter-like Planets in the Milky Way Galaxy

At least 1 Billion Jupiter-like Planets in the Milky Way Galaxy

Our galaxy is home to a bewildering variety of Jupiter-like worlds: hot ones, cold ones, giant versions of our own giant, pint-sized pretenders only half as big around.

Astronomers say that in our galaxy alone, a billion or more such Jupiter-like worlds could be orbiting stars other than our sun. And we can use them to gain a better understanding of our solar system and our galactic environment, including the prospects for finding life.

It turns out the inverse is also true -- we can turn our instruments and probes to our own backyard, and view Jupiter as if it were an exoplanet to learn more about those far-off worlds. The best-ever chance to do this is now, with Juno, a NASA probe the size of a basketball court, which arrived at Jupiter in July to begin a series of long, looping orbits around our solar system's largest planet. Juno is expected to capture the most detailed images of the gas giant ever seen. And with a suite of science instruments, Juno will plumb the secrets beneath Jupiter's roiling atmosphere.

It will be a very long time, if ever, before scientists who study exoplanets -- planets orbiting other stars -- get the chance to watch an interstellar probe coast into orbit around an exo-Jupiter, dozens or hundreds of light-years away. But if they ever do, it's a safe bet the scene will summon echoes of Juno.

"The only way we're going to ever be able to understand what we see in those extrasolar planets is by actually understanding our system, our Jupiter itself," said David Ciardi, an astronomer with NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute (NExSci) at Caltech.

Not all Jupiters are formed equal

Juno's detailed examination of Jupiter could provide insights into the history, and future, of our solar system. The tally of confirmed exoplanets so far includes hundreds in Jupiter's size-range, and many more that are larger or smaller.

The so-called hot Jupiters acquired their name for a reason: They are in tight orbits around their stars that make them sizzling-hot, completing a full revolution -- the planet's entire year -- in what would be a few days on Earth. And they're charbroiled along the way.

But why does our solar system lack a "hot Jupiter?" Or is this, perhaps, the fate awaiting our own Jupiter billions of years from now -- could it gradually spiral toward the sun, or might the swollen future sun expand to engulf it?

Not likely, Ciardi says; such planetary migrations probably occur early in the life of a solar system.

"In order for migration to occur, there needs to be dusty material within the system," he said. "Enough to produce drag. That phase of migration is long since over for our solar system."

Jupiter itself might already have migrated from farther out in the solar system, although no one really knows, he said.

Looking back in time

If Juno's measurements can help settle the question, they could take us a long way toward understanding Jupiter's influence on the formation of Earth -- and, by extension, the formation of other "Earths" that might be scattered among the stars.

"Juno is measuring water vapor in the Jovian atmosphere," said Elisa Quintana, a research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "This allows the mission to measure the abundance of oxygen on Jupiter. Oxygen is thought to be correlated with the initial position from which Jupiter originated."

If Jupiter's formation started with large chunks of ice in its present position, then it would have taken a lot of water ice to carry in the heavier elements which we find in Jupiter. But a Jupiter that formed farther out in the solar system, then migrated inward, could have formed from much colder ice, which would carry in the observed heavier elements with a smaller amount of water. If Jupiter formed more directly from the solar nebula, without ice chunks as a starter, then it should contain less water still. Measuring the water is a key step in understanding how and where Jupiter formed.

That's how Juno's microwave radiometer, which will measure water vapor, could reveal Jupiter's ancient history.

"If Juno detects a high abundance of oxygen, it could suggest that the planet formed farther out," Quintana said.

A probe dropped into Jupiter by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1995 found high winds and turbulence, but the expected water seemed to be absent. Scientists think Galileo's one-shot probe just happened to drop into a dry area of the atmosphere, but Juno will survey the entire planet from orbit.

The chaotic early years

Where Jupiter formed, and when, also could answer questions about the solar system's "giant impact phase," a time of crashes and collisions among early planet-forming bodies that eventually led to the solar system we have today.

Our solar system was extremely accident-prone in its early history -- perhaps not quite like billiard balls caroming around, but with plenty of pileups and fender-benders.

"It definitely was a violent time," Quintana said. "There were collisions going on for tens of millions of years. For example, the idea of how the moon formed is that a proto-Earth and another body collided; the disk of debris from this collision formed the moon. And some people think Mercury, because it has such a huge iron core, was hit by something big that stripped off its mantle; it was left with a large core in proportion to its size."

Part of Quintana's research involves computer modeling of the formation of planets and solar systems. Teasing out Jupiter's structure and composition could greatly enhance such models, she said. Quintana already has modeled our solar system's formation, with Jupiter and without, yielding some surprising findings.

"For a long time, people thought Jupiter was essential to habitability because it might have shielded Earth from the constant influx of impacts [during the solar system's early days] which could have been damaging to habitability," she said. "What we've found in our simulations is that it's almost the opposite. When you add Jupiter, the accretion times are faster and the impacts onto Earth are far more energetic. Planets formed within about 100 million years; the solar system was done growing by that point," Quintana said.

"If you take Jupiter out, you still form Earth, but on timescales of billions of years rather than hundreds of millions. Earth still receives giant impacts, but they're less frequent and have lower impact energies," she said.

Getting to the core

Another critical Juno measurement that could shed new light on the dark history of planetary formation is the mission's gravity science experiment. Changes in the frequency of radio transmissions from Juno to NASA's Deep Space Network will help map the giant planet's gravitational field.

Knowing the nature of Jupiter's core could reveal how quickly the planet formed, with implications for how Jupiter might have affected Earth's formation.

And the spacecraft's magnetometers could yield more insight into the deep internal structure of Jupiter by measuring its magnetic field.

"We don't understand a lot about Jupiter's magnetic field," Ciardi said. "We think it's produced by metallic hydrogen in the deep interior. Jupiter has an incredibly strong magnetic field, much stronger than Earth's."

Mapping Jupiter's magnetic field also might help pin down the plausibility of proposed scenarios for alien life beyond our solar system.

Earth's magnetic field is thought to be important to life because it acts like a protective shield, channeling potentially harmful charged particles and cosmic rays away from the surface.

"If a Jupiter-like planet orbits its star at a distance where liquid water could exist, the Jupiter-like planet itself might not have life, but it might have moons which could potentially harbor life," he said.

An exo-Jupiter’s intense magnetic field could protect such life forms, he said. That conjures visions of Pandora, the moon in the movie "Avatar" inhabited by 10-foot-tall humanoids who ride massive, flying predators through an exotic alien ecosystem.

Juno's findings will be important not only to understanding how exo-Jupiters might influence the formation of exo-Earths, or other kinds of habitable planets. They'll also be essential to the next generation of space telescopes that will hunt for alien worlds. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will conduct a survey of nearby bright stars for exoplanets beginning in June 2018, or earlier. The James Webb Space Telescope, expected to launch in 2018, and WFIRST (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope), with launch anticipated in the mid-2020s, will attempt to take direct images of giant planets orbiting other stars.

"We're going to be able to image planets and get spectra," or light profiles from exoplanets that will reveal atmospheric gases, Ciardi said. Juno's revelations about Jupiter will help scientists to make sense of these data from distant worlds.

"Studying our solar system is about studying exoplanets," he said. "And studying exoplanets is about studying our solar system. They go together."

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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