The Bad Astronomer writes: Planets orbiting other stars are usually found indirectly (by blocking their stars' light or inducing a Doppler shift in the light as they orbit, for example), but direct images of exoplanets are extremely rare. However, using the 10-meter Keck telescope in Hawaii, astronomers have taken photographs of three nearby exoplanets, all young, massive, and hot. One may be massive enough to count as a brown dwarf, but the other two are more likely in the planet-mass range. All three are very far from their stars, which means they may have formed differently than the planets in our solar system.
The Bad Astronomer writes: Using data from the Feb. 15, 2013 asteroid impact over Russia, scientists have determined that we may be hit by objects in this size range (10 — 50 meters across) more often than we previously thought, something like once every 20 years. They also found the Chelyabinsk asteroid was likely a single rock about 19 meters (60 feet) across, had a mass of 12,000 tons, and was criss-crossed with internal fractures which aided in its breakup as it rammed through the Earth's atmosphere.
The Bad Astronomer writes: A new study, looking at over 40,000 stars viewed by the Kepler spacecraft, indicates that 22% of stars like the Sun should have Earth-like planets orbiting them — planets that are similar in size to our home world and with a surface temperature hospitable for liquid water. There are some caveats (they don't include atmospheric issues like the greenhouse effect, which may reduce the overall number, or at cooler stars where there may be many more such planets) but their numbers indicate there could be several billion planets similar to Earth in the Milky Way alone.
The Bad Astronomer writes: Last week, astronomers discovered 2013 TV135, a 400-meter wide asteroid that will swing by the Earth in 2032. The odds of an impact at that time are incredibly low — in fact, the chance it will glide safely past us is 99.99998%! But that hasn't stopped some venues from playing up the apocalypse angle. Bottom line: we do not have a good orbit for this rock yet, and as observations get better the chance of an impact will certainly drop. We can breathe easy over this particular asteroid.
The Bad Astronomer writes: On Oct. 10, 2013, the Cassini spacecraft took a series of wide-angle pictures of Saturn from well above the plane of the rings. Croatian software developer and amateur astronomical image processor Gordan Ugarkovic assembled them into a stunning mosaic (mirrored on Flickr), showing the planet from a high angle not usually seen. There's a lot to see in this image, including the rings (and the gaps therein), moons, and the planet itself, including the remnants of a monstrous northern hemisphere storm that kicked off in 2010. It's truly wondrous.
The Bad Astronomer writes: It sounds like a scene from "Gravity": Astronauts aboard the International Space Station Thursday saw a weird, glowing cloud of light in the distance, most likely caused by a fuel dump or leaking fuel from a Russian missile launch. The extended life of a Topol missile was being tested in a ballistic launch to a test target in Kazakhstan, and the astronauts were able to take pictures of both the launch vapor trail and the glowing cloud. This event is similar to the eerie spiral lights seen over Norway in 2009 caused by a Russian missile launch as well.
The Bad Astronomer writes: A video is going viral showing people in a job interview. What they think is a window in the room is actually a new 4K (3840x2160 pixel) TV, and when it shows an asteroid screaming in over the city and impacting nearby, hilarity (more or less) ensues. It may seem unlikely, but it turns out the TV pixels really are small enough that from a short distance away, they can fool people into thinking they're seeing reality and not a video on a TV.
The Bad Astronomer writes: A thousand years ago, the light from the explosion of a massive star reached the Earth. We now call this supernova remnant the Crab Nebula, and a new image of the Crab taken by astronomer Adam Block shows the physical expansion of the debris, made obvious in a short video comparing his 2012 observations with some taken in 1999. The outward motion of filaments and knots in the material can be easily traced even over this relatively short time baseline.
The Bad Astronomer writes: Astronomers announced today that they have taken a direct image of the lowest mass exoplanet ever seen. HD 95086 b has a mass about 4 — 5 times that of Jupiter, and orbits a star 300 light years away that is slightly more massive and hotter than the Sun. The planet is not 100% confirmed, but it appears very likely to be real. If so, it's a hot gas giant, still cooling from its formation less than 20 million years ago. The picture, taken in the infrared, clearly shows the planet, making it one of fewer than a dozen such planets seen in actual telescopic images.
The Bad Astronomer writes: A experiment called IceCube — consisting of sensitive light detectors buried deep in the Antarctic ice — has detected two ultra-high-energy neutrinos, each with over a peta-electronVolt of energy (a quadrillion times the energy of a visible light photon), the highest energy neutrinos ever seen. The two events, nicknamed Bert and Ernie, have a 99% chance of originating outside our galaxy, likely created either by a supermassive black hole or an exploding gamma-ray burst.
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Astronomers have found the third-closest star system to the Earth: called WISE 1049-5319, it's a binary brown dwarf system just 6.5 light years away. Brown dwarfs are faint, low mass objects 13 — 75 times the mass of Jupiter, and are so dim they are very difficult to detect. These newly-found nearby objects were seen in observations from 1978 but went unnoticed at the time, but since that date the large apparent motion of the binary made their proximity obvious. Only two star systems are closer: Alpha Centauri (4.3 light years) and Barnard's star (6 light years)."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "A team of astronomers have announced the discovery of the smallest exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star yet found: Kepler-37b, which has a diameter of only 3865 kilometers — smaller than Mercury, and only a little bigger than our own Moon. It was found using the transit method; as it orbits its star, it periodically blocks a bit of the starlight, revealing its presence. Interestingly, the planet has been known for some time, but only new advances in asteroseismology (studying oscillations in the star itself) have allowed the star's size to be accurately found, which in turn yielded a far better determination of the planet's diminutive size. Also, the asteroseismology research was not funded by NASA, but instead crowd funded by a non-profit, which raised money by letting people adopt Kepler target stars."