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Space

Distant Supernova Is the Most Powerful Ever Detected (osu.edu) 75

schwit1 writes: Newly published research into a supernova under observation since June has found it to be the most powerful known to modern science. "This one, called ASASSN-15lh, is about 3.8 billion light years away, 200 times more powerful than most supernovas, and twice as bright as the previous record holder. It shines 20 times brighter than the combined output of the Milky Way's 100 billion stars, and in the last six months, it has spewed as much energy as the sun would in 10 lifetimes, says Krzysztof Stanek of the Ohio State University, co-principal investigator of the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN) network that spotted the explosion." The explosion doesn't fit well with current theories of supernova energy release, so astronomers are working to figure out its unusual mechanics.
Space

What Spotlighting Harassment In Astronomy Means 432

StartsWithABang writes: Geoff Marcy. Tim Slater. Christian Ott. And a great many more who are just waiting to be publicly exposed for what they've done (and in many cases, are still doing). Does it mean that astronomy has a harassment problem? Of course it does, but that's not the real story. The real story is that, for the first time, an entire academic field is recognizing a widespread problem, taking steps to change its policies, and is beginning to support the victims, rather than the senior, more famous, more prestigious perpetrators. Astronomy is the just start; hopefully physics, computer science, engineering, philosophy and economics are next.
Space

The Mystery of the Naked Black Hole (sciencemag.org) 81

sciencehabit writes: Most, if not all, galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers surrounded by dense clouds of stars. Now, researchers have found one that seems to have lost almost its entire entourage. The team, which reported its find at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, says it doesn't know what stripped the stars away. But it has put forward a tantalizing possibility: The object could be an extremely rare medium-sized black hole, which theorists have predicted but observers have never seen.
Space

Alpha Centauri Turns Out Not To Have a Planet After All. At Least, Not Yet (forbes.com) 91

StartsWithABang writes: In 2012, astronomers announced that the nearest star system to us, the Alpha Centauri system, possessed at least one exoplanet around it. A periodic signal that recurred just every 3.24 days was consistent with an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting and gravitationally tugging on the second largest member of the star system: Alpha Centauri B. That planet, named Alpha Centauri Bb, turns out not to actually be there. A reanalysis of the data shows that a combination of stellar properties and the times at which the observations were made conspired to produce this spurious signal: a signal that goes away if the data is handled correctly. Accounting for everything correctly reveals something else of interest, a periodic 20-day signal, which may turn out — with better observations — to be Alpha Centauri's first exoplanet after all.
Space

Planetary Exploration In 2016 (planetary.org) 27

An anonymous reader writes: Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society blog has put together a post about all of the space missions set to return data from planets, moons, and other bodies in the solar system this year. She's also assembled some cool visualizations of when the missions are active at their locations of interest. In summary: "Akatsuki is at Venus, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and two Chang'e missions at the Moon, two rovers and five orbiters are active at Mars, Dawn is at Ceres, Rosetta is at 67P, Cassini is at Saturn, and although New Horizons is far past Pluto, it'll be sending back new Pluto science data for most of the year, so I'm counting that as still doing science. Another two missions (Hayabusa2 and Juno) are in their cruise phase; Juno arrives at Jupiter in August. Two (ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and OSIRIS-Rex) or three (if you count the Schiaparelli lander separately) will launch this year, with their science starting after 2016."
Space

Physicists Find New Evidence For Helium 'Rain' On Saturn (sciencemag.org) 27

sciencehabit writes: Using one of the world's most powerful lasers, physicists have found experimental evidence for Saturn's helium 'rain,' a phenomenon in which a mixture of liquid hydrogen and helium separates like oil and water, sending droplets of helium deep in the planet's atmosphere. The results show the range of blistering temperatures and crushing pressures at which this takes place. But they also suggest that a helium rain could also fall on Jupiter, where such behavior was almost completely unexpected.
Space

Clouds May Hide Water On Alien Worlds (sciencemag.org) 27

sciencehabit writes: Astronomers have discovered about 2000 planets around other stars, but they have few hard facts about what they are like, such as the contents of their atmospheres. Now, a team of astronomers using the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have gathered enough data (abstract) to compare 10 large exoplanets, finding a range of atmosphere types, and to propose a solution to an early mystery of exoplanet atmospheres: why some don't seem to have enough water. Study lead David Sing said, "I’m really excited to finally 'see' this wide group of planets together, as this is the first time we’ve had sufficient wavelength coverage to compare multiple features from one planet to another. We found the planetary atmospheres to be much more diverse than we expected, and this significantly progresses our understanding of what makes up these planets and how they were created."
Space

Huge, Jupiter-Like Storm Rages On Cool 'Failed Star' (nasa.gov) 38

astroengine writes: Jupiter's Big Red Spot is the largest example of a long-lived storm in the solar system, but now it has some pretty stiff competition in another star system. However, this "exo-storm" hasn't been spied on another gas giant, it's been spotted in the uppermost layers of a cool, small "failed star," or brown dwarf. Using three NASA space telescopes, new research published in The Astrophysical Journal has found that this spot isn't a starspot, but a bona fide storm that has more in common with Jupiter's famous cyclone. So is this really a failed star? Or is is an "overachieving planet"?
Space

Astronomers Spot Baby Galaxies Cradled In Dark Matter (phys.org) 73

An anonymous reader writes: Astronomers discovered a nest of monstrous baby galaxies 11.5 billion light-years away using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). The young galaxies seem to reside at the junction of gigantic filaments in a web of dark matter (abstract). These findings are important for understanding how monstrous galaxies like these are formed and how they evolve in to huge elliptical galaxies. The team found that their young monstrous galaxies seemed to be located right at the intersection of the dark matter filaments. This supports the model that monstrous galaxies form in areas where dark matter is concentrated. And since modern large elliptical galaxies are simply monstrous galaxies which have mellowed with age, they too must have originated at nexuses in the large scale structure.
Space

First Images Ever Taken of a Planet Being Formed, 450 Light-Years From Earth (sydney.edu.au) 36

Zothecula writes: Of the many new exoplanets discovered over the past two decades, all have been identified as established, older planets – none have been acknowledged as newly-forming protoplanets. Now scientists working at the Keck observatory have spied just such a planet in the constellation of Taurus, some 450 light-years from Earth (abstract), that is only just beginning its life, collecting matter and spinning into a brand new world.
Space

Astronomers Spot Most Distant Object In the Solar System (sciencemag.org) 85

sciencehabit writes: Astronomers have found the most distant known object in our solar system, three times farther away than Pluto. The dwarf planet, which has been designated v774104, is between 500 and 1000 kilometers across. It will take another year before scientists pin down its orbit, but it could end up joining an emerging class of extreme solar system objects whose strange orbits point to the hypothetical influence of rogue planets or nearby stars. In other planetary science news, UCLA professor Jean-Luc Margot has proposed a new definition of the term "planet" which would allow for the inclusion of exoplanets. His metric is laid out in an academic paper available at the arXiv.
Space

Leading Theory of Solar System's Formation Just Disproven (forbes.com) 143

StartsWithABang writes: In 2005, scientists put forth the Nice Model to explain the configuration of the Solar System's planets. It was thought that the outer planets, Jupiter in particular, migrated through the inner Solar System, and were then pulled back out by the presence of the outer giants, causing the late heavy bombardment of the terrestrial planets as it crossed the asteroid belt. But not only are extra gas giants that have since been ejected required to explain the outer worlds, but the migration would have ejected the inner, terrestrial worlds, indicating that the rocky planets finished forming after the gas giants were already in place. R.I.P., Nice Model: 2005-2015.
Space

Comet Lovejoy Giving Away Alcohol (eurekalert.org) 97

Thorfinn.au writes: Comet Lovejoy lived up to its name by releasing large amounts of alcohol as well as a type of sugar into space, according to new observations by an international team. The discovery marks the first time ethyl alcohol, the same type in alcoholic beverages, has been observed in a comet. The finding adds to the evidence that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules necessary for the emergence of life.

'We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,' said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France, lead author of a paper on the discovery published Oct. 23 in Science Advances. The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.

Comets are frozen remnants from the formation of our solar system. Scientists are interested in them because they are relatively pristine and therefore hold clues to how the solar system was made. Most orbit in frigid zones far from the sun. However, occasionally, a gravitational disturbance sends a comet closer to the sun, where it heats up and releases gases, allowing scientists to determine its composition.

Space

First Planet Known To Orbit a White Dwarf Is Falling Apart (nasa.gov) 67

schwit1 writes: It's virtually certain that some white dwarfs still have planets in orbit despite their violent histories, but seeing those planets has proven difficult... at least, until now. Astronomers using the Kepler space observatory have spotted a planet circling around WD 1145+017, a white dwarf 570 light years away. Not that it's in great shape, mind you. The unusual light signature (PDF) from the dying star hints that the planet is disintegrating under the star's gravitational pressure, leaving behind a giant dust cloud. Researchers suspect it fell into its fatal orbit after the star's rapid change in mass triggered a planetary collision.

You should see more discoveries like this in the future, since the weaker light of a white dwarf is less likely to obscure planets. There's even a chance (however small) that collisions have bumped some planets into habitable zones, giving scientists an unusually clear view of worlds that could support life. Either way, it's evident that planetary systems don't vanish simply because their host stars are running out of time.

Space

New Hubble Release Puts Another Nail In the Coffin of Dark Matter's Competitors (spacetelescope.org) 274

StartsWithABang writes: When it comes to the structure of the Universe — forming the galaxies, clusters, and Universe as we see it — the normal matter we know of simply isn't enough. Given our best-understood laws of physics, including Einstein's general relativity, what we see of galaxies and the Universe in general simply doesn't match up to our predictions. The simplest solution, arguably, is to just add a new ingredient: a new form of matter, a dark matter if you will. But a counterargument is that we've got the laws of gravity wrong, and that no new matter is necessary. There's only one way to settle an argument like this: with data, evidence and the full suite of observations at our disposal. The newest Hubble release, along with four other independent lines of evidence, rule out modifications of gravity and leave dark matter as the only option standing.

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