Asteroids are pounding a pulsar

SCIENTISTS USING CSIRO’s Parkes telescope and another telescope in South Africa have found evidence that a tiny star called PSR J0738-4042 is being pounded by asteroids – large lumps of rock in space.

“One of these rocks seems to have had a mass of about a billion tons,” CSIRO astronomer and member of the research team Dr Ryan Shannon said.

PSR J0738-4042 lies 37,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Puppis. The environment around the star is especially harsh, full of radiation and violent winds of particles.

“If a large rocky object can form here, planets could form around any star. That’s exciting,” Dr Shannon said.

The star is a special one, a ‘pulsar’ that emits a beam of radio waves. As it spins, its radio beam flashes over Earth again and again with the regularity of a clock.

An artist's impression of an asteroid breaking up

An artist’s impression of an asteroid breaking up. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Formed from shattered remains

In 2008 Dr Shannon and a colleague predicted how an infalling asteroid would affect a pulsar. It would, they said, alter the slowing of the pulsar’s spin rate and the shape of the radio pulse that we see on Earth.

“That is exactly what we see in this case,” Dr Shannon said. “We think the pulsar’s radio beam zaps the asteroid, vaporising it. But the vaporised particles are electrically charged and they slightly alter the process that creates the pulsar’s beam.”

Asteroids circling a pulsar could have been formed by the remains of the exploding star that produced the pulsar itself, the scientists say. The material blasted out from the explosion could fall back towards the pulsar, developing into a swirling cloud of dusty debris that circles it. Astronomers call it a ‘disc’.

Not the only one

Astronomers have found a dust disc around another pulsar called J0146+61.

Parkes radio telescope

The CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope. Photo courtesy Shaun Amy.

“This sort of dust disc could provide the ‘seeds’ that grow into larger asteroids,” said Paul Brook, a PhD student co-supervised by the University of Oxford and CSIRO who led the study of PSR J0738-4042.

In 1992 two planet-sized objects were found around a pulsar called PSR 1257+12. But these were probably formed by a different mechanism, the astronomers say.

The new study has been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, a leading journal of astronomical research.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO.

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Deep freeze telescope reveals galactic carbon trail

USING A TELESCOPE INSTALLED at the driest place on earth – Ridge A in Antarctica – a UNSW-led team of researchers has identified a giant gas cloud that appears to be in an early stage of formation. Giant clouds of molecular gas – the most massive bodies in our galaxy – are the birthplaces of stars.

“This newly discovered gas cloud is shaped like a very long filament, about 200 light years in extent and ten light years across, with a mass about 50,000 times that of our Sun,” says team leader, Professor Michael Burton, an astronomer at UNSW Australia. “The evidence suggests it is in the early stages of formation, before any stars have turned on.”

Stunning new way of doing science

The team is using the High Elevation Antarctic Terahertz telescope, or HEAT, at Ridge A, along with the Mopra telescope at Coonabarabran in NSW, to map the location of gas clouds in our galaxy from the carbon they contain.

At 4,000 metres elevation, Ridge A is one of the coldest places on the planet, and the driest. The lack of water vapour in the atmosphere there allows terahertz radiation from space to reach the ground and be detected.

PLATO-R in Antarctica

The PLATO-R observatory at Ridge A. The HEAT telescope is the black object on stilts at left, the instrument module is the yellow box and the solar panel array is on the right. Image Credit: Geoff Sims.

The PLATO-R robotic observatory with the HEAT telescope was installed in 2012 by a team led by UNSW physicist, Professor Michael Ashley, and Dr Craig Kulesa of the University of Arizona.

“We now have an autonomous telescope observing our galaxy from the middle of Antarctica and getting data, which is a stunning new way of doing science. Ridge A is more than 900 kilometres from the nearest people, who are at the South Pole, and is completely unattended for most of the year,” says Professor Burton.

Following the galactic carbon trail

The HEAT telescope detects atomic carbon and the Mopra telescope detects carbon monoxide. “I call it following the galactic carbon trail,” says Professor Burton.

Mopra telescope

The Mopra telescope, near Coonabarabran in NSW.

The discovery of the new galactic cloud, which is about 15,000 light years from earth, will help determine how these mysterious objects develop in the interstellar medium.

One idea is that they are formed from the gravitational collapse of an ensemble of small clouds into a larger one. Another involves the random collision of small clouds that then agglomerate. Or it may be that the molecular gas filament is condensing out of a very large, surrounding cloud of atomic gas.

About one star per year, on average, is formed in the Milky Way. Stars that explode and die then replenish the gas clouds as well as moving the gas about and mixing it up.

The team includes researchers from Australia, Germany and the US. The results have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Adapted from information issued by UNSW. Image Credit: Geoff Sims.

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Oldest known star found by Australian astronomers

A TEAM LED BY ASTRONOMERS at The Australian National University has discovered the oldest known star in the Universe, which formed shortly after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

The discovery has allowed astronomers for the first time to study the chemistry of the first stars, giving scientists a clearer idea of what the Universe was like in its infancy.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to unambiguously say that we’ve found the chemical fingerprint of a first star,” said lead researcher, Dr Stefan Keller of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“This is one of the first steps in understanding what those first stars were like. What this star has enabled us to do is record the fingerprint of those first stars.”

The star was discovered using the ANU SkyMapper telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, which is searching for ancient stars as it conducts a five-year project to produce the first digital map the southern sky.

Star SMSS J031300.36-670839.3

Astronomers have determined that star SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 is the oldest yet found.

A different star recipe

The ancient star is around 6,000 light years from Earth, relatively close in astronomical terms. It is one of the 60 million stars photographed by SkyMapper in its first year.

“The stars we are finding number one in a million,” says team member Professor Mike Bessell, who worked with Keller on the research.

“Finding such needles in a haystack is possible thanks to the ANU SkyMapper telescope that is unique in its ability to find stars with low iron from their colour.”

Dr Keller and Professor Bessell confirmed the discovery using the Magellan telescope in Chile.

The composition of the newly discovered star – known only as SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 – shows it formed in the wake of a primordial star, which had a mass 60 times that of our Sun.

“To make a star like our Sun, you take the basic ingredients of hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang and add an enormous amount of iron – the equivalent of about 1,000 times the Earth’s mass,” Dr Keller says.

Dr Stefan Keller with the SkyMapper telescope

Dr Stefan Keller with the SkyMapper telescope

“To make this ancient star, you need no more than an Australia-sized asteroid of iron and lots of carbon. It’s a very different recipe that tells us a lot about the nature of the first stars and how they died.”

No sign of iron

Dr Keller says it was previously thought that primordial stars died in extremely violent explosions that blasted their iron into huge volumes of space. But the ancient star shows signs of pollution with lighter elements such as carbon and magnesium, and no sign of pollution with iron.

“This indicates the primordial star’s supernova explosion was of surprisingly low energy. Although sufficient to disintegrate the primordial star, almost all of the heavy elements such as iron, were consumed by a black hole that formed at the heart of the explosion,” he says.

The result may resolve a long-standing discrepancy between observations and predictions of the Big Bang.

The discovery was published in the latest edition of the journal Nature.

Adapted from information issued by ANU.

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SpaceInfo gallery for 10 February 2014

1. Saturn’s turbulent clouds

This colour-enhanced view of Saturn’s clouds, made with data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, shows the progress of a huge, long-lived storm that began way back in December 2010. White areas signify the highest cloud tops. The storm ended up becoming so large that it covered an area the size of Europe. Saturn itself is 9.5 times wider than the Earth. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / Hampton University.

Storms in Saturn's atmosphere

Storm clouds in Saturn’s atmosphere.

 

2. Starburst galaxy

This is galaxy M82, inside which a supernova was recently spotted. Located about 12 million light-years from Earth, and seen nearly side on, M82 is classed as a ‘starburst’ galaxy since it is undergoing a wave of stellar formation. The main image at lower left is a visible-light image made with the Hubble Space Telescope. The inset shows part of the galaxy viewed at radio wavelengths with the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope system – it reveals bright dots that are in some cases star-forming regions, and in other cases the remains of exploded stars. The VLA studies are helping astronomers sort out which is which. Courtesy Josh Marvil (NM Tech/NRAO), Bill Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), NASA.

Views of galaxy M82

Radio wavelength (inset) observations of galaxy M82 reveal regions of both star birth and star death.

 

3. A new camera for space

A technician examines the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) that will form part of the suite of instruments aboard the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), due for launch later this decade. The JWST will be much larger than the Hubble Space Telescope, which it is designed to replace. NIRCam’s ability to detect infrared light will enable it to peer back in time toward the Big Bang, since cosmological redshift has moved visible light wavelengths into the infrared part of the spectrum. Courtesy NASA GSFC.

A technician looks at NIRCam

A technician looks at NIRCam, one of the instruments that will be used by the James Webb Space Telescope.

 

4. Solar flare

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare on 3 February 2014 – the flare is the bright section near the middle of the Sun’s disc. When flares are seen on the edge of the Sun, they stand out as huge tongues of ultra-hot gas reaching into space. In the case of this flare, it was aimed straight upwards towards the camera. Courtesy NASA.

Full view of the Sun with a solar flare

The white region in the middle of this image of the Sun, is a solar flare.

 

5. Deluge after the impact

Flood channels lead away from a 20-kilometre-wide crater on the surface of Mars. When the small asteroid or comet that formed the crater hit, it would have melted the rock, dust and below-ground ice, leading to a runaway flood that flowed downhill across the surface. In this false-colour image produced from data collected by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, green and yellow colouring represent shallow areas; blue and purple show deeper areas down to about four kilometres depth. Courtesy ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

Flood channels on Mars

Ancient flood channels snake away from a crater on Mars.

 

6. A galactic giant

Twelve million light-years from Earth lies the giant galaxy NGC 5128. In its core lies a huge black hole, responsible for accelerating material near it into an intense jet of gas shooting through the galaxy. The jet and its after-effects can be seen at X-ray wavelengths. This image, from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory satellite, shows X-ray emission at several wavelengths, colour-coded in blue, red and green. Courtesy NASA / CXC / U.Birmingham / M.Burke et al.

X-ray view of NGC 5128

The galaxy NGC 5128 viewed at infrared wavelengths. Revealed is a huge jet of material being shot from the vicinity of a black hole in the galaxy’s core.

 

7. Fire drill

Fire inside a spacecraft is the one thing astronauts dread the most, even more than a slow loss of atmosphere. That’s why regular fire drills are so important. Here, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst (in the white shirt) and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman (blue) are practicing a fire drill in NASA’s Space Station mock-up in Houston, USA. Courtesy NASA.

Astronauts conduct a fire drill

Astronauts conduct a fire drill inside an International Space Station mock-up.

 

8. Herbig-Haro object

Hidden deep inside this hourglass-shaped cloud is a newly formed star that is spitting out streams of gas from its poles – standard behaviour for such stellar youngsters. The gas collides with other gas in star’s vicinity, forming a glowing cloud. Such a cloud, or nebula, is called a Herbig-Haro object (named for two astronomers who studied them). This one, known as HH 909A, is located in the Chamaeleon I molecular cloud 500 light-years from Earth. Courtesy ESA / NASA.

Herbig-Haro object HH 909A

This hourglass-shaped cloud is called a Herbig-Haro object. Hidden inside is a newly formed star.

 

9. Heavy lift-off

Flight VA217 launched from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana on 6 February to place two communications satellites (ABS-2 and Athena–Fidus) into orbit. The rocket was an Ariane 5 ECA ‘heavy-class’ rocket belonging to the Arianespace company. This was the 216th launch of an Ariane family rocket. Courtesy ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Optique video du CSG – S. Martin.

Launch of Ariane flight VA217

An Ariane 5 ECA rocket lifts off from Europe’s launch site in French Guiana.

Story by Jonathan Nally.

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What’s up? Night sky for February 2014

WHEN STARTING OUT IN STARGAZING, most people are particularly keen to spot the planets. The problem is, that, to the novice, planets and stars look pretty much alike. The best way to identify planets is to determine their locations in relation to nearby bright stars or the Moon, and then see how watch as they change their positions slightly as each night passes. The information below will help you spot planets using this method.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. Dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Summer Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer at mid latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere.

7 Feb

It is First Quarter Moon today at 6:22am Sydney time. First Quarter is a good time to look at the Moon through a telescope, as the sunlight angle means the craters and mountains are throwing nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect.

8 Feb

The just-past-half Moon is the north-western sky this evening, and just above it is a group of stars called the Hyades. See if you can spot them – they’re in a triangular formation. The Hyades is an ‘open star cluster’ about 153 light years from Earth, making it the closest such cluster to our Solar System. Although you’ll probably only be able to see a handful of stars with the naked eye (assuming, of course, that you’re not standing under a streetlight), a pair of binoculars will show many more – and long-exposure photographs reveal hundreds.

Just above and to the right of the Moon is a bright orange-coloured star called Aldebaran, although astronomers classify it as a red giant. It is roughly 44 times as big as the Sun and located about 65 light-years from Earth. Think about that – if Aldebaran were at the same distance from us as the Sun, it would appear 44 times as big in the sky. Just as well it’s a long way away!

View showing where the Moon is on the night of 8 February 2014

The Moon (shown bigger than it really is) will be near the star Aldebaran and the star cluster the Hyades on the evening of 8 February. Another star cluster, the Pleiades, is lower in the sky.

11 Feb

By tonight, you’ll see that Moon has moved a fair distance to the right (or east) of the Hyades, as a result of its slow orbit around the Earth. You won’t be able to miss what looks to be a bright star just below the Moon – this is the planet Jupiter. Grab a pair of binoculars and see if you can make out some tiny pinpricks of light on either side of the planet – these are the moons discovered by Galileo; Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto. Try to see all four – you might find there are two on each side of Jupiter, or one and three, or all four on one side – depending on where they are in their orbits around the planet. You might find that one or more are missing – this’ll be because that moon or moons is currently hidden behind Jupiter, or in the glare in front of the planet.

View showing the position of the Moon on 11 Feb

On the evening of 10 February, the Moon (not shown to scale) will be just above the planet Jupiter.

12 Feb

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit around Earth, apogee, at a distance of 406,231 kilometres.

15 Feb

Full Moon occurs today at 10:53am Sydney time. If you’re out stargazing tonight and look just above (or north of) the Moon, you’ll see a bright blue star. This is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. Located about 77.5 light years from Earth, Regulus is not one star but four, grouped into two pairs – with the naked eye we see only the brightest of the four. Multiple star systems are very common throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

20 Feb

Take a look around midnight tonight and you’ll see the Moon just below what appears to be a brightish red star. This is not actually a star but the planet Mars. A small planet, it doesn’t give away much detail even when viewed through a telescope.

Just below the Moon is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Like Regulus, Spica is a member of a multiple star system, in this case a binary (or two) star system. The two stars orbit each other so close together that not even a telescope can show them separated. In fact, so close are they that their mutual gravitational pull distorts each of them from a round shape into an egg shape. The Spica system is about 260 light years from Earth.

View showing the position of the Moon on 20 February

If you’re up after midnight on 20 February, you’ll be greeted by the sight of the Moon with the star Spica above and the planet Mars below.

22 Feb

Tonight it’s Saturn‘s turn, with the ringed planet appearing just below and to the right of the Moon. If you have access to even a small telescope, take a look at Saturn’s amazing rings.

23 Feb

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 4:15am Sydney time. In the early hours of this morning you’ll find the star Antares above and to the right of the Moon. Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Like Mars, it is a red colour too – in fact, the name Antares means ‘rival of Mars’. Because they’re both in the same part of the sky, this is a good time to compare the two.

26 Feb

If you’re up before dawn, take a look out to the east and you’ll see the thin crescent Moon just above a bright ‘star’ – this is actually the planet Venus, which, aside from the Sun and the Moon, is the brightest object in the sky. Because it is in our morning sky at present, it is called the ‘morning star’. Later in the year it will be visible to west in the evening sky, and will be known as the ‘evening star’.

View showing the position of the Moon on 26 February

This shows the view out to the east less than an hour before sunrise on 26 February. The thin crescent Moon is just above the planet Venus. Very low down on the horizon, and difficult to see, is the planet Mercury. The Moon will be just to the left of Mercury on 28 February.

28 Feb

Today the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit, called perigee, which is the opposite of apogee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 360,438 kilometres. If you’re up and about before dawn, and you have an unobstructed (by buildings, trees, hills etc) view of the eastern horizon, see if you can spot the planet Mercury just to right of the very thin crescent Moon. It won’t be easy to see either Mercury or the Moon, but give it a try.

Here are some more great sources of southern stargazing information:

Melbourne Planetarium

Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, we’d be happy to answer them. Please use the Feedback Form below. Happy stargazing!

Images courtesy IAU.

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Weekly space gallery for January 28, 2014

WELCOME TO OUR WEEKLY COLLECTION of the best astronomy and space exploration images taken by observatories around the world and in space. Each week we’ll bring you a selection of our favourite recent images – if you like them (and we hope you do), please share them with your friends. And don’t forget you can elect to have this and other stories emailed direct to your inbox, just by signing up to our free email service – see the Subscribe box in the column at right.

So, let’s get started on this week’s images.

1. Disruptive black hole

A black hole lives at the heart of the white galaxy in the middle of this image. Extensive clouds of hot gas, detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory satellite and coloured purple, should be the raw material from which countless new stars would be born. But jets of energy emanating from the vicinity of the black hole have disrupted the gas, forming two cavities on either side of the centre and sending out shock waves that prevent the gas from clumping and forming stars. The galaxy in question is called RX J1532+3201, and it is 3.9 billion light years from Earth. Image credit: X-ray: NASA / CXC / Stanford / J.Hlavacek-Larrondo et al, Optical: NASA / ESA / STScI / M.Postman & CLASH team.

Gas surrounding galaxy RX J1532+3201

Hot gas surrounds galaxy RX J1532+3201.

 

2. Titan, top and bottom

This black and white image of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was taken through a special infrared filter to bring out detail in its atmosphere. Visible at the far north (top) is a haze that stands up above the bulk of atmosphere, while near the south pole is the South Polar Vortex – thought to be an uplifted mass of air caused by a change in the seasons. This image was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft from a distance of 2.5 million kilometres. Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute.

Titan

Haze is visible in Titan’s north, while a polar vortex is in the south.

 

3. Brown dwarf revealed

Astronomers have used special techniques to block out the light of a star (leaving a speckled appearance) to reveal a dim brown dwarf that is in orbit around it. Brown dwarfs are bodies at are two big to be planets, but two small to be proper stars. They give off a relatively small amount of heat. The astronomers are particularly interested in studying the brown dwarf’s atmosphere, by analysing the light that reflects from it. “This object is old and cold and will ultimately garner much attention as one of the most well-studied and scrutinised brown dwarfs detected to date,” says Justin R. Crepp of the University of Notre Dame. “With continued follow-up observations, we can use it as a laboratory to test theoretical atmospheric models. Eventually we want to directly image and acquire the spectrum of Earth-like planets. Then, from the spectrum, we should be able to tell what the planet is made out of, what its mass is, radius, age, etc., basically all relevant physical properties.” Courtesy Crepp et al. 2014, ApJ.

Brown dwarf image

By blocking most of the light of its parent star, a faint brown dwarf is revealed.

 

4. A gallery of galaxies

The Hubble Space Telescope was used to make this long-exposure image of the galaxy cluster Abell 2744, which comprises the bright galaxies in the foreground. Fainter background galaxies appear to have become distorted as their light is bent by Abell 2744’s gravity. Astronomers have counted up to 3,000 of these background galaxies in the full-size version of this image alone. Courtesy NASA / ESA.

Galaxy cluster Abell 2744

A long Hubble exposure of galaxy cluster Abell 2744 also reveals other galaxies in the far background.

 

5. We have lift-off

NASA’s newest Tracking and Data Relay System Satellite (TDRSS) was launched on January 23 from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. There are several TDRSS satellites circling Earth, through which NASA can communicate with spacecraft in Earth orbit. They are not directly involved in communicating with deep space missions. Courtesy NASA / Tony Grey.

Time exposure of TDRSS launch

Lift off of NASA’s latest TDRSS satellite.

 

6. A supernova surprise

A supernova was spotted in galaxy M82 on January 21, causing great excitement amongst astronomers. M82 is only 12 million light years from Earth, making the supernova (called SN 2014J) one of the closest in many years. Many observatories broke into their normal scheduled operations to make observations of the supernova, including NASA’s Swift orbiting observatory. This picture, sensitive to ultraviolet light, shows the supernova standing out brightly against the amorphous background of the rest of M82. Courtesy NASA / Swift / P. Brown, TAMU.

Swift image of galaxy M82 and its supernova

A Swift image of galaxy M82 and its supernova.

Story by Jonathan Nally.

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Weekly space gallery for January 18, 2014

WELCOME TO THE FIRST of our weekly collections of the best astronomy and space exploration images taken by observatories around the world and in space. Each week we’ll bring you a selection of our favourite recent images – if you like them (and we hope you do), please share them with your friends. And don’t forget you can elect to have this and other stories emailed direct to your inbox, just by signing up to our free email service – see the Subscribe box in the column at right.

So, let’s get started on this week’s images.

1. The Orion Nebula

Orion Nebula

An infrared view of the Orion Nebula.

One of the most famous sights in the sky, the Orion Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust about 1,500 light-years from Earth. Astronomers call it a ‘stellar nursery’ because many stars have been born, or are in the process of being born, out of all that gas and dust. See all the tiny red dots? Those are newly born stars. This false-colour image was taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which views the universe at infrared wavelengths. Courtesy NASA.

2. The Coma Cluster

Coma Cluster

The Coma Cluster of galaxies.

Galaxies tend to clump together in groups, or clusters. Some clusters comprise only a handful of galaxies, others have more than a thousand. The Coma Cluster – so-called because it is seen in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices, which means ‘Berenice’s Hair’ (named after an ancient Egyptian queen) – is located about 350 million light years from Earth. Most of its 1,000-plus galaxies are elliptical (one of the two main galaxy shapes, the other being spiral). Pretty much all of the dots and blobs of light you can see in this Hubble Space Telescope image are galaxies; the three main ones are called IC 4041 (left), IC 4042 (middle) and GP 236 (right). The Coma Cluster is itself part of a larger grouping that also contains the Leo Cluster, and is called the Coma Supercluster. Courtesy ESA / Hubble & NASA; D. Carter (LJMU).

3. The Topsy Turvy galaxy

Topsy Turvy galaxy

The Topsy Turvy galaxy, with X-ray emission from regions surrounding two black holes shown in purple.

The Topsy Turvy galaxy (also known by its catalogue number, NGC 1313) is located about 13 million light years from Earth. Hidden within it are two black holes, whose presence is given away – where the purple patches are (false colour) – by energetic X-rays coming from gas being siphoned from companion stars. The X-ray data comes from NASA’s NuSTAR space telescope, while the background image is from the Digitised Sky Survey (made from pictures taken by ground-based telescopes). Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / IRAP.

4. Planets in the dust

Dust ring around the star HD 142527

Dust around the star HD 142527 could be giving birth to planets.

Japanese astronomers have been studying a star called HD 142527, about 450 light years Earth. HD 142527 is a young star, surrounded by a huge, slightly lop-sided ring of gas and dust. The astronomers say that a dense spot in the ring is where planets could be forming. (Due to the wavelength used, the star is not visible in this image.) Courtesy ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NAOJ.

5. The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring galaxy to our Milky Way. This Hubble Space Telescope infrared view shows cloudy whisps and many thousands of sparkling stars. Just to the left of centre is a tight group of stars known as R136. In early photographs, R136 seemed to be a single, giant star, and no one could work out how a star could grow to be so big. But eventually better imaging revealed it to be a cluster of stars – so many and so bright, that the light the emit is the main reason why the Tarantula’s gas and dust is all lit up. Courtesy NASA, ESA, E. Sabbi (STScI).

6. Looking down on Venus

South pole view of Venus.

The view looking down on Venus’ southern polar regions.

This black and white image of Venus was taken by the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since April 2006. The viewpoint is looking down on the south pole from an altitude of 50,000 kilometres. Venus is perpetually covered by thick clouds, but Venus Express’ instruments can pick out bands within those clouds, which are being blown by the prevailing winds from east to west (the opposite to winds here on Earth). The small black blobs are not real; they are artefacts of the imaging equipment. Courtesy ESA / MPS / DLR / IDA.

7. Rima Marius

Rima Marius

Rima Marius stretches 280 kilometres across the Moon.

Rima Marius is a lunar ‘rille’ or channel. Such channels are thought to form when a tunnel through which lava once flowed, collapses in on itself. Rima Marius is 280 kilometres long, winding its way across a flat plain known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms. This image was taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Courtesy NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University.

8. Tracks on Mars

Orbital shot showing tracks left by the Curiosity rover

An orbital shot showing tracks left by the Curiosity rover on Mars.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the martian surface on December 11, 2013. It clearly shows the tracks left by the Curiosity rover as it slowly makes it way across the floor of Gale Crater (the rover itself is out of frame). The rover has six wheels, three on each side; the distance between left and right wheels is about 3 metres. See if you can follow the tracks all the way from top right to bottom left. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.

9. Shadows on Saturn

Saturn

The shadows of Saturn’s rings cast upon the planet’s cloud tops.

Shadows cast by Saturn’s rings make the planet look like it has been painted with Indian ink while spinning on a potter’s wheel. The rings themselves are out of view in this image, taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute.

10. Docking at the Station

Cgynus craft docked at the International Space Station

Cgynus cargo craft docked at the International Space Station

Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus commercial cargo spacecraft is seen docked to the Harmony module of the International Space Station. Attached is the Station’s robot arm, called Canadarm2 (being the second generation of robot arm supplied by Canada). The Cygnus craft was launched aboard an Antares rocket on January 9. Courtesy NASA.

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VIDEO: NASA tests parachutes for Orion spacecraft

NASA IS DEVELOPING A NEW crewed spacecraft called Orion… otherwise known as ‘Apollo on steroids’ because it looks like a bigger version of the spacecraft that took astronauts to the Moon.

Just like the Apollo command module, Orion will carry a heat-shield to protect it during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and huge parachutes to bring it down to a soft landing.

NASA has been conducting a series of tests to make sure the parachute system will work properly.

The first video shows a test that was conducted last year, where an Orion mock-up was dropped from the back of a military cargo aircraft to see how well its parachutes would work. There are several ‘layers’ of parachutes, each designed to slow the craft down in stages and then help to pull out the bigger parachutes. Towards the end of the test, one of the three main chutes was deliberately cut loose to see how well the system would perform on just the remaining two chutes. See what happened…

Complete success!

The second video shows a more recent test of the system that will release a cover that protects the parachutes. We say release, but it’s more like a blast, as the cover is propelled upwards by small rocket thrusters and into a safety net. Take a look…

Orion is due to start taking US astronauts into orbit toward the end of this decade. But a first test flight into space will be conducted later this year, when an uncrewed test craft will be shot into a high orbit, from which it will then re-enter the atmosphere at great speed to test the heat-shield.

Story by Jonathan Nally. Videos courtesy of NASA.

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GALLERY: Black holes galore

AN ASSORTMENT OF BLACK HOLES lights up a new image from NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR. Although the coloured blobs might not look like much, every one of them is a black hole located inside the hearts of a galaxy.

The different colours represent different energies of X-ray light. The red, yellow and green colours represent black holes seen previously by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (with red denoting the lowest-energy X-ray light). The colour blue shows black holes recently detected by NuSTAR, which is uniquely designed to detect the highest-energy X-ray light.

Image showing X-ray emission from black holes

Every one of the blobs you can see here, represents the location of a black hole. Although black holes cannot be directly seen, the X-ray light given off by hot gas in the vicinity can – and that’s what we see here; X-ray emission detected by the Chandra and NuSTAR space observatories.

The black holes in this picture are between about 3 to 10 billion light-years away.

The X-rays aren’t coming from the black holes themselves, since nothing can escape the gravitational grip of a black hole. Rather, they are coming from hot gas in the vicinity of the black holes.

Why do some black holes produce more high-energy X-ray light than others? Astronomers say this is because the black holes are more actively feeding off surrounding clouds of dust and gas – a process which heats up the gas and makes it emit X-rays.

The image shows an area, called the COSMOS field, that has been studied in great detail by many telescopes (COSMOS stands for Cosmic Evolution Survey). Red and green represent X-ray light seen by Chandra. Blue is for the kind of X-ray light that can only be seen by NuSTAR.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / Yale University.

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Testing the time travellers

IT STARTED OVER A POKER GAME. Astrophysicist Robert Nemiroff and his students were playing cards (for chips) last summer, chatting about Facebook. They wondered: If there were time travellers among us, would they be on social media? How would you find them? Could you Google them?

“We had a whimsical little discussion about this,” said Nemiroff, a professor at Michigan Technological University. The result was a fun-but-serious effort to tease out travellers visiting from the future by sifting through the Internet. Unfortunately, they have not uncovered any DeLorean time machines, but that hasn’t made the search less interesting.

You can’t just put out a cattle call for time travellers and expect good results. So Nemiroff’s team developed a search strategy based on what they call prescient knowledge. If they could find a mention of something or someone on the Internet before people should have known about it, it could indicate that whoever wrote it had travelled from the future.

Screen shot of the Time Traveller twitter screen

Requests for time travellers to make themselves known on Twitter, went unanswered.

They selected search terms relating to two recent phenomena, Pope Francis and Comet ISON, and began looking for references to them before they were known to exist. Their work was exhaustive: they used a variety of search engines, such as Google and Bing, and combed through Facebook and Twitter. In the case of Comet ISON, there were no mentions before it burst on the scene in September 2012. They discovered only one blog post referencing a Pope Francis before Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected head of the Catholic Church on March 16, but it seemed more accidental than prescient.

They also searched for prescient inquiries submitted to search engines and combed through the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, which Nemiroff co-edits. Still no luck.

For their last and perhaps most ingenious effort, the researchers created a post in September 2013 asking readers to email or tweet one of two messages on or before August 2013: “#ICanChangeThePast2” or “#ICannotChangeThePast2.” Alas, their invitation went unanswered. And, they received no insights into the inherent contradictions of time travel.

“In our limited search we turned up nothing,” Nemiroff said. “I didn’t really think we would. But I’m still not aware of anyone undertaking a search like this. The Internet is essentially a vast database, and I thought that if time travellers were here, their existence would have already come out in some other way, maybe by posting winning lottery numbers before they were selected.”

Nemiroff, who normally publishes on more arcane subjects, such as gravitational lensing and gamma-ray bursts, says this recent endeavour is not as big a stretch for him as some might think. “I’m always doing stuff on space and time,” he said, adding, “This has been a lot of fun.”

Adapted from information issued by Michigan Technological University.

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