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."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "News is going around the web that a scientist in the UK has found life (in the form of microscopic diatoms) in a meteorite, and has even published a paper about it. However, there are a lot of reasons to strongly doubt the claim. While the diatoms appear to be real, they are certainly from Earth. The meteorite itself, on the other hand, does not appear to be real. Many of the basic scientific steps and claims made in the paper are very shaky. Also, the scientist making the claim, N. C. Wickramasinghe, has made many fringe claims like this in the past with little or no evidence (such as the flu and SARS being viruses from space). To top it off, the website that published the paper, the Journal of Cosmology, has an interesting history of publishing fringe claims unsupported by strong evidence. All in all, this claim of life in a space rock is at best highly doubtful, and in reality almost certainly not true."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Using Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have spotted seven galaxies that are all over 13 billion light years away... including one that appears to be a record breaker at a staggering 13.3+ billion light years distant. That one is seen as it was only 380 million years after the Big Bang. This observation reaches into the era of the young cosmos when stars were first forming, and allows astronomers to better understand what the Universe was like back then — a time we know very little about."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "A recent hearing of the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform became a bully pulpit for antivaccination rhetoric when Representatives Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Oh.) made speeches connecting vaccines to autism — a connection that medical experts have shown does not exist. Although there were actual medical researchers there as witnesses, they were mostly berated by the Congressmen on the panel.
Vaccines are one of the most successful medical advancements in human history, having saved hundreds of millions of lives, and after copious studies have been shown to have no connection with autism. Despite this, a vocal antivax lobby exists, including, clearly, members of Congress. In part this is why preventable and potentially fatal diseases like pertussis and measles are once again on the rise."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "While nearly a thousand planets are known to orbit other stars, getting direct pictures of them is extremely difficult due to the glare from their host stars. Fewer than a dozen images of exoplanets exist. However, we can now add one more to the list: Kappa Andromedae b, or Kap And b for short. It's about 170 light years away, and orbits Kappa And, a massive star bright enough to see with the naked eye. One hitch: its mass puts it right at the upper limit for a planet, and it may edge into brown dwarf territory. Further observations are needed to pin its mass down."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Astronomers have announced that the nearest star system in the sky — Alpha Centauri — has an Earth-sized planet orbiting one of its stars. Alpha Cen is technically a three-star system: a binary composed of two stars very much like the Sun, orbited by a third, a red dwarf, much farther out. Using the Doppler technique (looking for very small changes in the velocities of the stars) astronomers detected a planet orbiting the smaller of the two stars in the binary, Alpha Centauri B. The planet has a mass only 1.13 times that of the Earth, making it one of the smallest yet detected.However, it orbits the star only 6 million kilometers out, so it's far too hot to be habitable.
The signal from the planet is extremely weak but solidly detected, giving astronomers even greater hope of being able to find an Earth-like planet orbiting a star in its habitable zone."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "For the first time, a planet has been found in a stellar system composed of four stars. The planet, called PH-1, orbits a binary star made of two sun-like stars in a tight orbit. That binary is itself orbited by another binary pair much farther out. Even more amazing, this planet was found by two "citizen scientists", amateurs who participated in Planet Hunters, a project which puts Kepler Observatory data online for lay people to analyze. At least two confirmed planets have been found by this project, but this is the first — ever — in a quaternary system."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Using the newly-commissioned ALMA radio observatory, astronomers have taken detailed images of one of the most amazing objects in the sky: the red giant R Sculptoris. As the star dies, it undergoes gigantic seizures beneath its surface that blast out waves of gas and dust from the surface. These normally expand into a spherical shell, but the presence of a nearby companion star changes things. The combined orbits of the two stars fling out the material like a garden sprinkler, forming enormous and incredibly beautiful spiral arms. Measuring the size and shape of the spiral shows the last eruption was 1800 years ago, lasted for nearly two centuries, and expelled enough material to make a thousand earths."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "A century ago, astronomers (including Edwin Hubble) discovered the Universe was expanding. Using the same methods — but this time with observations from an orbiting infrared space telescope — a new study confirms this expansion, and nails the rate with higher precision than done before. If you're curious, the expansion rate found was 74.3 +/- 2.1 kilometers per second per megaparsec — almost precisely in line with previous messureents."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Astronomers have unveiled what may be the deepest image of the Universe ever created: the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, a 2 million second exposure that reveals galaxies over 13 billion light years away. The faintest galaxies in the images are at magnitude 31, or one-ten-billionth as bright as the faintest object your naked eye can detect. Some are seen as they were when they were only 500 million years old."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "The White House budget for NASA in 2013 is bleak, with big cuts in many areas. None is worse hit than planetary exploration, which got slammed with a 20% reduction. Several top-notch space scientists have taken matters into their own hands, looking to create a privately-funded alternative for space exploration. Called Uwingu — Swahili for "sky" — they're hoping to get seed money to create a program which can generate millions in donations to explore our solar system. Astronomer Pamela Gay has more info at her blog, Star Stryder."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "50 years ago today, the US detonated a nuclear weapon 240 miles above the Pacific Ocean. Called Starfish Prime, it was supposed to help US scientists and the military understand how the Soviets might try to stop incoming nuclear missiles. What it actually did was blow out hundreds of streetlights in Hawaii 900 miles away, damage a half dozen satellites, and create artificial aurorae and intense radiation zones above the Earth. It taught the world what an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) was, and what the effects might be from a powerful solar flare, a nearby supernova, or a gamma-ray burst."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Scientists at CERN announced today the discovery of a new fundamental subatomic particle that is almost certainly the Higgs boson — a particle that is crucial in giving other particles mass.
The new particle has a mass of about 125 — 126 GeV (roughly 125 times the mass of a proton) which is just what the Higgs mass is predicted to be by the Standard Model of particle physics. A signal was seen in preliminary results from 2011, but observations since then have raised the confidence level hugely: the strength of the signal indicates it is real to the 5 sigma level — that is, with 99.9999% confidence. In physics, that qualifies as a "discovery". This is a monumental step in particle physics, and toward our understanding of one of the most fundamental and mysterious properties of matter in the Universe: mass."