While astronomers have located more than 1,000 verified exoplanets and several thousand other potential candidates, they have yet to find a confirmed exomoon, but now, a new study posted to thearXiv prepublication server could provide evidence of the first such discovery.
According to Engadgetand BBC News, Dr. David Kipping, an assistant professor of astronomy at Columbia University, and his colleagues used data from the Kepler Space Telescope to detect signs of what appears to be a Neptune-sized moon located about 4,000 light years from Earth.
Said exomoon was found orbiting a planet about the same size and approximately 10 times more massive than Jupiter in the Kepler-1625 system, and the authors detected its existence when they noticed a decrease in brightness before and/or after the planet passed in front of its host star.
The Kepler Space Telescope, BBC News explained, hunts for planets by looking for changes in brightness that occur when a planet passes in front of its star. In this study, Dr. Kipping’s group looked for dips in starlight that happened before and/or after the planet passed in front of its sun. Such a signal was detected during three of the planet’s transits, the researchers reported.
Ideally, the researchers told the UK news outlet that they would have liked to have detected more signals, as that would have increased the level of confidence that they had indeed located the first ever verified exomoon. “We would merely describe it at this point as something consistent with a moon,” Dr. Kipping said. “But, who knows, it could be something else.”
Follow-up observations needed to confirm the discovery
The researchers plan to further investigate the potential moon with the Hubble Space Telescope in October, and while the object is – in Engadget’s words – “one of the strongest candidates for an exomoon to date,” those follow-up observations will confirm or dismiss the discovery.
Dr. Kipping and his co-authors have assigned a confidence level of four sigma to their signal, which according to BBC News describes how unlikely that it is that an experimental result is due to pure luck. In this case, it’s like flipping a coin and getting 15 straight heads, they explained.
However, the researcher said that this was not the ideal way to evaluate the potential detection. He said that he and his colleagues were “excited about it… statistically, formally, it’s a very high probability. But do we really trust the statistics? That’s something unquantifiable. Until we get the measurements from Hubble, it may as well be 50-50 in my mind.”
So while there is a fairly good chance that this is indeed an exomoon, the researchers are unable to completely rule out that the object is something else completely – at least, not until manage to take a second look at it with Hubble later on this year. Hubble, Phys.org explained, is capable of collecting better data than Kepler, and if the discovery is confirmed, it would make this not only the first ever confirmed exomoon, but also the largest moon ever observed, they noted.
“I’d say it’s the best [candidate] we’ve had. Almost every time we hit a candidate, and it passes our tests, we invent more tests until it finally dies – until it fails one of the tests,” Dr. Kipping told BBC News. “In this case, we’ve applied everything we’ve ever done and it’s passed all of those tests.”
Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered a most unusual exoplanet that absorbs 94% of the visible light given off by its host star, making it seem as if it is pitch-black in color, according to research published last week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
This unusual world, officially known as WASP-12b, is a “hot Jupiter” – a giant gas planet which orbits very closely to its sun and which is heated to extreme temperatures – NASA explained in a statement. In this case, its day side reaches temperatures of up to 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
The reason that WASP-12b can reach such extreme temperatures, Popular Science explained, is because it is just two million miles from its host star, meaning that it can complete a trip around its sun in 1.1 Earth days. Conditions are so hot on the exoplanet that reflective clouds are unable to form, meaning that incoming light penetrates deep into the planet’s atmosphere.
That incoming light is absorbed by hydrogen atoms and converted to heat energy, NASA stated, and this steady conversion of light-to-heat makes the planet appear to be pitch-black to onlookers, the researchers found. To the human eye, the exoplanet appears to be as black as fresh asphalt.
“We did not expect to find such a dark exoplanet. Most hot Jupiters reflect about 40 percent of starlight,” said lead investigator Taylor Bell of McGill University and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets in Montreal. He added that the discovery “further demonstrates the vast diversity among the strange population of hot Jupiters,” some of which can be thousands of degrees cooler than WASP-12b.
Strange exoplanet is tidally locked, has extremely low albedo
Originally discovered in 2008, WASP-12b is an egg-shaped exoplanet that is about twice as big as Jupiter, and because of its close proximity to its sun, it is tidally locked– which, as Space.com explained, means that the same side of the planet (the day side) is always faces its host star.
Despite knowing of the planet’s existence for nearly a decade, though, scientists did not know just how dark WASP-12b was before observing it with the Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph instrument last October. Those observations revealed that it had a reflectance (or albedo) of no more than 0.064 – much lower than that of Earth (0.37) or the moon (0.12).
That’s one way to put it. (Credit: NASA)
The low reflectance means that the planet essentially consumes 94% of the light that it receives from its host star, converting it into heat and allowing it to maintain its scorching temperatures, NASA explained. For the sake of comparison, Bell noted that most hot Jupiters reflect about 40% of the sunlight they receive, making this distant gas giant (located around 1,400 light years from Earth) an oddity – even if it is not the only dark exoplanet of its kind to be discovered.
“There are other hot Jupiters that have been found to be remarkably black, but they are much cooler than WASP-12b,” Bell said, according to Space.com. “For those planets, it is suggested that things like clouds and alkali metals are the reason for the absorption of light, but those don’t work for WASP-12b because it is so incredibly hot.”
“Past observations of hot Jupiters indicate that the temperature difference between the day and night sides of the planet increases with hotter day sides,” he added. “This previous research suggests that more heat is being pumped into the day side of the planet, but the processes, such as winds, that carry the heat to the night side of the planet don’t keep up the pace.”
A pair of solar flares, including the most powerful one in more than a decade, were detected by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory sun-monitoring probe early Wednesday morning, experts at the US space agency confirmed in an announcement released later on in the day.
The first of the two flares was classified as an X2.2 flare and peaked at 5:10 am EDT, while the second was a larger X9.3 flare that peaked at 8:02 am EDT, NASA reported. X-class flares, they noted, are the most intense, while the number reveals more information about their strength.
“An X2 is twice as intense as an X1, an X3 is three times as intense, etc,” the agency explained. The X9.3 flare was the strongest observed since an X9.0 in December 2006 and the eighth most powerful since at least June 1996, according to Smithsonian.com and SpaceWeatherLive.com.
Both of the flares erupted from AR 2673, an active region on the sun which was also responsible for producing a mid-level solar flare on Monday, NASA said. They added that the X9.3 flare was the largest produced thus far during the current solar cycle, an 11 year period of the sun’s waxing and waning activity that began back in December 2008.
Sun Erupts With Monster X9 and X2 Flares - YouTube
Event caused radio blackouts, but should not affect hurricane monitoring
Space.com and the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) reported that the second, more powerful of the flares resulted in high-frequency radio blackouts over a “wide area,” and that those blackouts caused “loss of contact for up to an hour” over the planet’s sunlit side. Low frequency communication, including that used for navigation, was also affected.
Unfortunately, the solar flares come at a bit of an inopportune time for those of us on Earth (and especially in the US), as many are relying on weather satellites to continue monitoring Hurricane Irma and other Atlantic-based storms. Fortunately, experts do not foresee any disruptions.
“The satellites are designed very specifically to take into account these kinds of events,” SWPC physicist Terry Onsager told LiveScience. While some older satellites could be hampered when hit with charged particles and strong magnetic fields from the sun, the probe which is providing images of Irma – GOES-16 – is new, having just been launched last November, he noted.
The size of the second flare is somewhat usual, according to Smithsonian.com, since the sun is currently at solar minimum, or the period of lowest activity during its 11-year cycle. However, as Onsager told LiveScience, this status is based more on the frequency of flares, not their potential intensity. “We can have large space weather events at any time during the solar cycle,” he said.
For the record, the largest flare ever recorded – at least, dating back to June 1996 – was an X28.0 that occurred on November 4, 2003, according to SpaceWeatherLive.com. It was one of only two flares known to have been categorized at least X20.0, with the other coming in April 2001.\
A nearly three-mile-wide asteroid originally discovered in 1981 has just made a record-breaking fly-by of Earth, passing within just 4.4 million miles (7.0 million kilometers) of our home planet on September 1, various online media outlets reported over the Labor Day weekend.
According to Seeker and Space.com, the approximately 2.7-mile-wide (4.4 kilometer) space rock known as Asteroid 3122 Florence is one of the 10 or so largest objects of its kind, and at 8:06 am EDT on Friday, it passed within just 18 times the distance separating the Earth and the moon.
Discovered by astronomer Schelte “Bobby” Bus at Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory in 1981 and named in honor of Florence Nightingale, Florence was the largest asteroid to fly by the Earth in more than a century, according to New Scientist. Fortunately, Chodas said, there was no risk of the object hitting the planet’s surface, and it poses no threat for at least the next few centuries.
Florence found to be a fast-spinning triple-asteroid system
Asteroid 3122 Florence travels around the sun in an elliptical orbit, taking 2.35 years to complete one trip around our galaxy’s central star, according to Seeker and Space.com. During that voyage it comes to within one astronomical unit (AU), or the distance separating Earth and the sun.
Furthermore, Chodas told Space.com that Florence spins very rapidly, taking less than 2.5 hours to complete a single rotation. “If it were spinning any faster, it would fly apart,” he noted. “What often happens is, asteroids that are spinning this quickly rearrange into the shape of a top, where they have kind of a bulge at the equator.”
The asteroid is also highly reflective, according to New Scientist, meaning that ground telescopes should been able to get a good look at it during its fly-by. Astronomers based in both Puerto Rico and California used radar imaging to study the object, and those observations may enable them to more precisely determine its size and shape, the website noted.
Observations conducted at JPL also revealed something else interesting about Florence: there are two moons in orbit around it, making it just the third “triple system” discovered out of the around 16,400 near-Earth objects detected thus far. Those moons, New Scientist reported, are 100 to 300 meters (328 to 984 feet) in size.
Florence isn’t expected to get this close to the Earth again until at least 2500 – which is definitely a good thing, because if the asteroid were to hit the planet’s surface, it would create a 35 mile (55 kilometer) wide, 0.62 mile (1 kilometer) deep crater that would be catastrophic for biological life and the ecosystem, according to published reports.
Astronomers believe that they have discovered an enormous new black hole thought to be nearly 100,000 more massive than the sun near the center of the Milky Way, and it may be the first ever actual detection of a long-hypothesized-but-never-proven type of space-time phenomena.
Writing in the journal Nature Astronomy, a team of researchers led by Tomoharu Oka of Japan’s Keio University explained that they were analyzing a cloud of molecular gas located close to the center of the galaxy when they noticed that the gases were exhibiting unusual behavior.
According to Time and Newsweek, those gases (which moved at different speeds and included molecules such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide) appeared to be moved by powerful gravitational forces. So, using computer-based simulations, they determined that the most likely cause would be a “gravitational kick” caused by an object similar to a black hole.
Specifically, they found that the molecules were being influenced by an “invisible compact object with a mass of about 105 solar masses,” which would be indicative of an intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH) – a hypothetical class of black hole in the 100 to 1 million solar mass range which would fall in between stellar black holes and their supermassive siblings.
If their discovery can be confirmed, it would be the first ever evidence of an IMBH, which have long been viewed as the “missing link” in the evolution of these massive objects. Their findings could help explain exactly how supermassive black holes actually form, The Guardian noted.
Additional research needed to verify the discovery
The smallest black holes, stellar black holes, form when certain types of stars explode at the end of their life cycles, but scientists are unsure how supermassive black holes form. One theory, The Guardian said, is that smaller black holes eventually merge together to form larger ones.
The problem with that theory is that while astronomers have discovered many, many stellar and supermassive black holes, they had never been able to locate even a lone intermediate-mass one. The newly-detected signal, Time said, may be coming from the core of a one-time dwarf galaxy that was consumed by the Milky Way. If so, that would seem to support the merger-based theory of supermassive black hole formation, but confirmation will require additional analysis.
“That growth should happen in part by mergers with other black holes and in part by accretion of material from the part of the galaxy that surrounds the black hole,” added Simmons, who was not involved in the new study. “Astrophysicists have been collecting observational evidence for both stellar mass black holes and supermassive black holes for decades, but even though we think the largest ones grow from the smallest ones, we’ve never really had clear evidence for a black hole with a mass in between those extremes.”
The same object that in 2015 became the first ever to be observed giving off repeating fast radio bursts has now emitted more than a dozen additional signals, members of a program designed to hunt for extraterrestrial life in other parts of the universe announced earlier this week.
The object, identified as FRB 121102, is located in a dwarf galaxy some three billion light years from Earth and was first detected giving off a fast radio burst back in November 2012, according to New Scientist. Three years later, it was observed giving off a second, CBS News added.
Now, scientists affiliated with Breakthrough Listen, an international astronomical initiative first launched by philanthropist Yuri Milner and cosmologist Stephen Hawking three years ago, have reported the detection of an additional 15 bursts of radio emissions emanating from the object.
Furthermore, New Scientist explained, the signals were detected at a higher frequency than ever before. Using an instrument on the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the researchers were able to collect more than 400 GB worth of data across the entire 4 to 8 GHz frequency band over a five-your observational period. The significance of their discovery is unclear at this time.
“The possible implications are two folds,” lead investigator Dr. Vishal Gajjar from UC Berkeley told CNETvia email. “This detection at such a high frequency helps us scrutinize many (of FRB 121102’s) origin models. The frequency structure we see across our total band of 4 to 8 GHz also allows us to understand the intervening medium between us and the source.”
Findings could make it easier to find additional FRBs
Fast radio bursts are high-energy astrophysical phenomena that manifest themselves as a short-lived (usually only a few millisecond long) radio pulse. While the precise origins are unknown, some experts believe that they originate from black holes or intelligent extraterrestrial life, New Scientist explained.
The new signals, which were detected on August 26, confirm that the source is in a newly active state, the Breakthrough Listen scientists reported in the Astronomer’s Telegram. Furthermore, the high resolution of the data collected will enable them to complete the most precise measurements of FRB properties to date – potentially making it easier to find additional FRBs elsewhere.
“Previously we thought there wasn’t much emission at high or low frequencies, but now it looks like there is. It’s twice as high as the typical frequency,” Harvard University scientist Avi Loeb told New Scientist. The additional frequency range could make it easier to detect repeating FRBs, he said, but it also makes these already unusual phenomenon just a little bit stranger.
As Loeb’s Harvard colleague, Peter Williams, added, “It’s very funky how the individual bursts can pop up anywhere in this wide range of frequencies, even though each individual burst has a relatively narrow frequency coverage. I have yet to see anyone offer up a good explanation for how that might happen.”
In addition to being the only confirmed source to have been detected giving off multiple bursts, FRB 121102 is the only emitted to have had its location positively confirmed in space, according to CBS News. The dwarf galaxy in which it is located is reportedly much smaller than the Milky Way, they said, and contains approximately half as many stars.
Image credit: Jarek Tuszyński
A longstanding theory describing what happens to matter before it is consumed by a black hole is wrong, according to new experiments conducted at the planet’s most powerful X-ray scanner and detailed in research published earlier this month in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Black holes are regions of spacetime that have gravitational fields so powerful that they prevent anything from escaping, including light and radiation. This, as Newsweekexplained, makes them rather difficult to study and forces scientists to rely on laboratory models to collect new data.
During one such experiment, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico created a plasma similar to the charged gas found around black holes at the facility’s Z Machine when they made a startling discovery that contradicts a longstanding but never proven assumption about the X-rays that surround a black hole.
As lead author Guillaume Loisel explained in a statement, emissions from black holes cannot be directly observed. Instead, “we see emission from surrounding matter just before it is consumed by the black hole,” he said. “This surrounding matter is forced into the shape of a disk, called an accretion disk.”
These accretion disks radiates in the X-ray spectrum, and as NASAastrophysicist Tim Kallman told Newsweek, they contain a lot of information. “They can have many shapes,” and they have “bumps and wiggles in different parts of the spectra,” he explained. By interpreting those bumps and wiggles, researchers can determine how much gas the accretion disk contains, how hot it is, how many different elements it contains and more.
Findings may invalidate two decades worth of scientific studies
One theory that has stood the test of time, despite never being proven, is known as the Resonant Auger Destruction assumption. This assumption addresses the lack of photons coming from the accretion disk by assuming that a black hole’s powerful gravity and radiation prevents energized iron electrons from returning to lower energy states by emitting photons.
For the last five years, Loisel and his colleagues have used the Z Machine to put this assumption to the test, according to Newsweek. The powerful X-ray scanner allowed them to recreate energy surrounding the black hole and apply said energy to matter. Essentially, Kallman said, they came closer than ever to recreating the conditions found around an actual black hole.
The Sandia researchers applied the X-ray energies found around black holes to tiny silicon pieces to see if they could witness the Auger effect. Even though they precisely recreated the conditions and temperatures found around a black hole, however, they did not find any evidence of photons.
“If Resonant Auger Destruction is a factor, it should have happened in our experiment because we had the same conditions, the same column density, the same temperature. Our results show that if the photons aren’t there, the ions must be not there either,” Loisel told Newsweek. While he added that it is too soon to completely dismissing the Auger effect, he said that their findings “challenge models used to infer how fast black holes swallow matter from their companion star” and could invalidate “many scientific papers published over the last 20 years.”
As you may have heard, there’s a little thing called the Great American Solar Eclipse coming up next week , and while most people are excited because it will be the first total solar eclipse to be visible across the entire contiguous US in nearly a century, NASA plans to seize the opportunity to do a little bit of science using giant hot-air balloons during the event.
Yes, while all of us will be gleefully donning out eclipse glasses to watch this rare phenomenon, the boffins at the American space agency plan to use the occasion to conduct several experiments by launching balloons from multiple locations as part of their Eclipse Ballooning Project.
According to Gizmodo, NASA plans to send up a fleet of around 75 balloons, each of which will launch from different locations along the path of the eclipse. At least 30 of those balloons will be carrying samples of Paenibacillus xerothermodurans, an extremely resilient strain of bacteria, to altitudes of more than 80,000 feet to mimic the conditions on the surface of Mars.
The plan is to observe how the microbe might behave on the Red Planet, just in case the bacteria should accidentally hitch a ride there as part of a future mission, Angela Des Jardins, Director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) and leader of the project, told the website.
“While most of these tiny forms of life that exists in abundance around us won’t survive the trip through space, it’s understood that some resilient types could ‘go dormant’ on the trip and then survive on the surface of the other planet. Therefore, in order to be prepared to keep planets we visit absolutely pristine, it’s important to understand how bacteria might behave there,” she said.
Agency to test microbe survivability while conducting eclipse research
The Eclipse Ballooning Project, which Astrobiology Magazine noted is a citizen science project involving 55 teams, also plans to capture the first ever images and video of an eclipse from near space by attaching camera equipment to the balloons and live-streaming the footage online.
The goal is to send these balloons into the stratosphere, to an altitude of approximately 100,000 feet (30,000 meters), where they will also gather data on how the planet’s atmosphere responds to the solar eclipse and conduct observations of the Sun’s corona, which is normally obscured.
As for the bacteria experiment, it involves equipping the balloons with sensors and a lightweight, thin “coupon” made of aluminum that contains spores of the P. xerothermodurans, NASA said. Once they are lifted into the stratosphere, those samples will be exposed to low-wavelength UV radiation and extremely cold and dry conditions similar to those found on Mars.
“This bacterial strain is harmless to the environment and to humans. Nothing hazardous is going to be hovering over our heads,” assured NASA microbiologist David J. Smith. Once the balloons land, scientists will check to see how many bacteria survived the voyage. Smith, who said that he is “consistently surprised by the resilience of life,” said that he believes that at least some of the microbes will be able to withstand the harsh environment.
We may have to wait a while to find out, however. Although Jardins said that NASA officials “anticipate having high-quality video and images back from the balloons flights within a day or two,” analysis of both the bacteria experiment and the atmospheric response data will take time, meaning that it will likely be “a month or two” before the results are ready.
For decades, astronomers have wondered if the sun’s core spins faster than its surface, and now, thanks to an international team of scientists, they have the answer: the interior makes a complete rotation in one week, which is 3.8 times faster than the middle and outermost layers.
What they did, the researchers explained in a statement, was study surface acoustic waves in the sun’s atmosphere. Some of those waves penetrate to the core and interact with gravity waves that have a “sloshing” motion similar to how water splashes around in a container that is half full.
By detecting these sloshing motions, they were able to measure the acoustic waves and figure out how long it took them to travel from the surface to the core and back again. By applying this new method to 16 years worth of GOLF data, the research team determined that the solar core rotated once per week. Their findings have been reported in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
Data brings a decades-long search to a close
Experts have speculated for more than two decades that the sun’s interior may be spinning faster than the surface, but they had never been able to accurately measure its oscillations before, study co-author Roger Ulrich, a professor emeritus of astronomy at UCLA, said in a statement.
“The most likely explanation is that this core rotation is left over from the period when the sun formed, some 4.6 billion years ago,” Ulrich explained. “It’s a surprise, and exciting to think we might have uncovered a relic of what the sun was like when it first formed.”
The SOHO space observatory has been orbiting the sun for more than 20 years, using its GOLF instrument to conduct solar oscillation measurements once every 10 seconds. Thanks to this data, the authors of the new study were able to definitely conclude that earlier speculation was correct, and that the interior portion of the sun does indeed spin more quickly than the outer parts.
“We’ve been searching for these elusive g-waves [gravity waves] in our Sun for over 40 years, and although earlier attempts have hinted at detections, none were definitive. Finally, we have discovered how to unambiguously extract their signature,” lead author Eric Fossat from the Cote d’Azur Observatory explained in a statement released by the European Space Agency (ESA).
“It is really special to see into the core of our own Sun to get a first indirect measurement of its rotation speed,” he added. “But, even though this decades long search is over, a new window of solar physics now begins.”
Among those who took the time to apply for the position was a nine-year-old New Jersey boy who, according to the Washington Post, sent a hand-written application to the agency laying out his qualifications and explaining why he would be a good fit for the job.
The youngster, whose name is Jack Davis, told NASA that he was the perfect choice to be the new Planetary Protection Officer because his sister said that he was an alien, and that he had seen “almost all the space and alien moves I can,” though he confessed to not yet having seen “Men in Black” – a film which, as the newspaper noted, came out a decade before he was even born.
In addition, Jack bolsters his case by telling the agency that he his great at video games, and that since he is young, he believes that he can “learn to think like an alien.” He finished his letter with his signature, an appended it with the title “Guardian of the Galaxy” and “Fourth Grade.”
NASA responds to the nine-year-old ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’
Naturally, such a painstakingly prepared application merited a response from NASA, who sent a letter back to Jack. “I hear you are a ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’ and that you’re interested in being a NASA Planetary Protection Officer. That’s great!” they said. “Our Planetary Protection Officer position is really cool and is very important work.”
Of course, they also took the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions about the position that young Jack might have, explaining that it’s about “protecting Earth from tiny microbes when we bring back samples” from other worlds and “protecting other planets and moons from our germs as we responsibly explore the Solar System.” Finally, the encouraged him to work hard in school and said that they hoped “to see you here at NASA one of these days!”
The letter was penned by NASA’s Planetary Science Director Dr. James Green, who said in a statement that he and his colleagues “love to teach kids about space and inspire them to be the next generation of explorers.” Jack also received a congratulatory phone call from the agency’s Planetary Research Director Jonathan Rall.
Such efforts are comparable to “a gravity assist – a boost that may positively and forever change a person’s course in life, and our footprint in the universe,” Green said. In an interview with ABC News, Jack said that he thought it would be “really cool” to work with the agency, adding that he felt like he was “the only one who really wants a job at NASA this young.”
Unfortunately for Jack, the Planetary Protection Officer position (which pays between $124,406 and $187,000 per year) requires at least one year of broad engineering experience and a degree in physical science, engineering or mathematics, or some combination of education and experience. So while the youngster probably as a bright future at the agency, those interested in the Planetary Protection Officer position still have a chance – applications are being accepted through August 14.