A massive star -- 10 times the mass of the Sun -- called V1449 Aquilla, turns out to have oscillations similar to the Sun. The observations were obtained over 150 days with the Convection, Rotation and Planetary Transits (CoRoT) satellite. No other massive star is known to have such oscillations, and the striking similarity to the Sun helps us study the Sun and understand the precursors to supernovae eruptions.
Servicing Mission 4 went off without a hitch in May, a team of astronauts successfully completing what was perhaps the most challenging Hubble mission ever. Since then, Hubble has been slowly coming awake as scientists and engineers carefully restore its many components to full power. It'll be another month before the first official new images from Hubble, but in July an unexpected astronomical event gave us a sneak preview of one of the telescope's new instruments.
Two amazing telescopes were launched together in May 2009 by the European Space Agency (ESA). One telescope, Herschel, measures the light from star formation regions and builds three-dimensional pictures of nebulae. It is the most powerful infrared telescope yet launched into space. It should be ready for regular science operations in November. The second telescope, Planck, measures the minute fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background through two radio detectors. Planck's instruments have reached their chilly operating temperature and the telescope has entered its final orbit.
The red supergiant star Betelgeuse is shrinking, and astronomers aren't sure why. One of the largest stars we know, Betelgeuse could occupy the space from the Sun out to the Planet Jupiter, engulfing the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Since 1993, it's shrunk about 15 percent. Betelgeuse's size determines that it will die as a supernova, lighting up Earth's skies for months after the light from its explosion reaches us.
Astronomers calculate that there's a tiny chance, a billion or more years from now, that Mars or Venus could collide with Earth. The new finding comes from simulations that show how orbits of planets might evolve. There's also a chance that Mercury could strike Venus and merge into larger planet, that Mars might experience a close encounter with Jupiter, or even that Jupiter's gravity could hurl the Red Planet out of the solar system.
The center of our Milky Way galaxy is a chaotic, harsh place, home to shock waves, intense radiation, and a supermassive black hole. You might think all these elements would prohibit new stars from forming or rip apart any object shortly after it was formed. But a few years ago, infrared observations with the Spitzer Space Telescope indicated that clusters of stars could indeed form in this region. Now new observations have detected brand new stars near the galaxy center. The "baby" stars can be distinguished from similar-looking older stars because they are still imbedded in the molecular cloud in which they formed. Might these objects form planetary systems, since they have lots of dusty material around them?
Astronomers are inventing new ways to find planets around other stars. Most of the methods used thus far don't involve actually seeing the planet; its presence is inferred from observations of the parent star. A large, Jupiter sized planet can be detected b y the "wobble" its gravity causes in the parent star's motion. Other planets pass in front of their host stars, making them detectable by the dimming of the stars' light. A new idea is to block out the light from a bright star so that faint planets can be detected. This technique would be used to obtain direct images of the planets that normally cannot be seen right next to the bright star. The device that blocks the starlight is called a starshade and would be placed in orbit far from the main telescope. The starshade is a clever concept, but would be tricky to engineer.
Neutron stars are the remnants of dead stars that have collapsed into small objects with incredible density. Their crusts could be 10 billion times stronger than steel. Forces from within the star crack the crust during "star quakes," events similar to earthquakes, and blast powerful gamma rays into space.
Asteroids ? were they a boon or bane when they struck Earth billions of years ago? One would think the period of bombardment was not a good thing for a planet! But a new study shows that the bombardment may actually have created environments where microbial organisms could have survived if they were already there. The study also suggests that such environments may have existed on other planets, such as Mars.
A former NASA astronaut is searching for signs of hardy life on Mount Everest, which could provide a window into extreme environments that organisms might inhabit on hostile-appearing planets elsewhere in universe. Scott Parazynski's mission makes him the first astronaut to scale Mount Everests.
The Hubble Space Telescope has been restored after the hugely successful servicing mission by the Space Shuttle Atlantis astronauts and the hundreds of personnel who work on Hubble at NASA and elsewhere. Two new instruments are onboard, two instruments were repaired, and the telescope received new batteries, gyroscopes, and a computer for handling the science data.
Astronomers capture an image of a star eight years before its explosive death, casting light on the development of supernovae. A jet of radiation and plasma caused by a black hole is starting to flicker. And recently developed techniques are being used on the Hubble archive to glean new information from old images.
Astronomers may have solved the cosmic chicken-and-egg problem of which formed first in the early universe -? galaxies or the supermassive black holes seen at their cores. Astronomers believe almost all galaxies have massive black holes at their centers, as well as smaller black holes sprinkled throughout. Evidence is piling up that black holes came first.
The solar system might once have had another planet named Theia. Some researchers believe it existed 4.5 billion years ago and possibly collided with Earth to form our Moon. NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft are on their way to look for the debris that would be left over after such a collision.
Astronomers have searched diligently for a planet of the size of Earth. Researchers would love to find such a planet in the zone appropriate for liquid water ? what they call "the habitable zone." New observations from the European Southern Observatory indicate that the star Gliese 581 has a fourth planet in addition to the known 3. The other planets are large "super earths" and one Neptune-sized planet. But the new planet is about twice the mass of Earth, and could be close to the habitable zone as well.
Hubble is celebrating its 19th anniversary by releasing new, beautiful images. One image shows a complex interaction of four galaxies in a group called Arp 194. This group's numerous star clusters formed recently as a result of the galaxies' gravitational interaction. A second image of two clusters of colliding galaxies, called 1E 0657-556, was also released for the birthday. The galaxies passed through one another, leaving large amounts of gas behind, in the center of the collision.
A new NASA lunar satellite planned for a May launch will send back the highest-resolution photos ever taken of the Moon's surface and provide virtual views close to the ones seen by the Apollo astronauts. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), passing 31 miles above the moon, will have cameras with resolution equal to roughly one foot of Moon surface for every pixel.
NASA's Kepler Mission was launched on Marcy 7, 2009 to begin its quest for earth-like planets. As the spacecraft slowly drifts away from Earth, the first order of business is calibration of the detectors and discarding the dust cover that protects the telescope. Kepler will look for the tiny dimming of light that occurs as a planet passes between us and the star it orbits. Kepler will capture this dimming effect as it "stares" at one part of the sky for three and a half years.
Astronomers recently found what looks like two massive black holes orbiting each other in the center of a distant galaxy. It's long been thought that twin black holes might exist, but a new, innovative search was needed to find this rare pair. The discovery may lead to a greater understanding of how massive black holes form and evolve at centers of galaxies.
Saturn has a complex system of moons and rings. Scientists have thought that moons, or smaller bodies called "moonlets," have something to do with the formation of Saturn's rings. Recent images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft turned up a small moonlet in the G-ring of Saturn's system. The G-ring is a diffuse ring, nearly the last ring in the system. It contains a curious arc that is probably due to material crashing into the little moonlet embedded in it.